The following is a short holiday scene featuring Dominic Valentini and Katelyn Anderson, and is set the Christmas before they get together in Bird Day Battalion. It is G-rated and fluffy.
Originally published in A World of Joy by Grey Mouse Publishing.
All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Knees
by Genevieve Dewey
Dominic Valentini dropped his Steelers bag next to the front door inside his parents’ house. He sucked in a deep breath, coughed a bit at the overwhelming scent of Christmas potpourri, then locked the door behind him. If he was lucky, he’d be able to catch a few hours of sleep on the couch before anyone woke up and wondered what he was doing in Nebraska instead of Pennsylvania.
After all, big shot pro-football players fly their parents over to see them; they don’t slink home with their tail between their legs… even if they were legs with blown-out knees. One season as a fourth round draft pick and he was already on injured reserve. That was demoralizing on its own, but Dom suspected being on reserve was a mere courtesy on his way to ‘released from contract’.
He grimaced, thinking about how he was going to break the news to his parents:
Hey, Mom, Dad, won’t be getting you that fancy mansion I promised. I’m soon-to-be unemployed and I filed for divorce. Merry Christmas!
Dom wrinkled his nose as he stretched out on the couch. He cupped the back of his head and crossed his ankles.
Nah, better to lead with worse news.
The loss of a football career was nothing compared to the fact that Dominic would be the first person in his branch of the Valentini family to ever get a divorce. To a Valentini, the ‘D’ word was way worse than unemployment, back taxes, and a proctology exam combined.
“Yay, go me,” Dom whispered at the ceiling.
He never should have married Isabel. She deserved better than a husband who was still hung up on his childhood crush. Even more ridiculous was the knowledge he and said unrequited love, Katelyn Anderson, had never been more than friends. Who left their wife for a friend and neighbor they had never actually been in a romantic relationship with? Especially one who seemed determinedly oblivious to his feelings?
Tap, tap, tap.
Dom crooked his head to look out the living room window. He could see movement, but the rainbow lights reflecting from the Christmas tree made it hard to distinguish what had made the noise. He looked around the room for a security bat then stopped and chuckled. What would be the point? This was Small Town, America. More than half this town never locked their doors, yet still left the living room drapes open so everyone could see their tree.
He got up from the couch and winced as his knees briefly buckled. He yanked the door open dramatically, expecting to shoo off some bored kids.
Except it was Katelyn Anderson, frozen mid-knock.
“Hey,” she whispered, her breath caressing her face in the frigid air.
She smiled and rubbed her hands together. “Can I come in?”
When he continued to gape at her, she poked him on the chest, and nudged her head towards the house.
“Uh, what are—I mean, yeah,” Dom replied and tugged her inside. “What are you doing here?”
“Saw you pull up and wondered why no one knew you were coming home for the holidays. Or is this a Christmas present for your folks? I mean, of course, it must be, no one in their right mind takes a flight in the middle of the night unless they want to surprise someone or there’s an emergency. Wait,” Katelyn paused.
Her eyebrows contracted and she suddenly grabbed his arms, “There’s not an emergency is there?”
He couldn’t help but grin; he’d missed her tendency to babble.
Her worried frown deepened.
“Naw,” Dom finally said and shrugged. “You were right the first time.”
“Was I?” Kate asked in a concerned tone.
When he didn’t answer, she tilted her head and narrowed her eyes.
He sighed and walked back over to the couch. Knowing someone your entire life had its drawbacks; they tended to know when you were lying.
“Not that I mind visits from pretty women at three in the morning, but I could ask you the same question; what were you doing spying on the neighborhood in the middle of the night at your mother’s house?” Dom deflected.
“You haven’t heard?” Kate asked, her eyes suddenly alight with enthusiasm. “I bought the house from my parents after they retired! I’m moving back.”
“Huh. There’s a lot of that going around,” he mumbled, enjoying the flush that excitement brought to her cheeks.
She raised her eyebrows and pressed her lips together. Then she walked over to the couch, sat next to him, and rested her head against his shoulder.
“Spill,” she coaxed.
Just rip the bandaid off, Valentini, so she can be disappointed in you, too…
“I’m getting a divorce,” he replied, trying to sound cheerful about it.
She took a deep breath then patted his leg.
“I’m sorry…” she said with a long sigh. “I’ve been a terrible friend, so focused on my Thesis and school… I’ve barely kept in touch. I didn’t even know you were having marital problems.”
“We weren’t really,” he answered honestly.
It was the truth. He and Isabel got along great, but it was a hollow sort of rapport. He had never felt so empty in his life than when he was living his perfect life with her. There was no reason for it, except his heart seemed stubbornly addicted to the girl-next-door with wild curly hair and an unnatural fondness for libraries.
“I don’t think you came home just because of that,” Kate prodded. “Does this have to do with the game last month? You looked pretty hurt when they took you off the field. Are your knees starting to feel better? I thought for sure you’d play in the last game but…”
“Nope, that’s the joy of being injured reserve on top of special teams.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means… there’s a very good chance I’ll be released from contract.”
“Oh, Dom… I’m so sorry. To have it end over a stupid torn ACL,” Katelyn replied.
Her tone was certainly more genuine than her expression of sympathy regarding his divorce.
She rubbed his knee.
His brain jammed and his heart clutched. The rest of him tried desperately to remember she had friend-zoned him ages ago.
“I didn’t realize you watched my games, or knew what an ACL is—”
Katelyn pulled away, raised her hand, and smacked him on the forehead.
“Ok, a), I’m an anthropologist; if I don’t know human anatomy, I need a new career. And, b), I watch and record every single game of yours including the pre-season clips and the highlights on ESPN. That’s what people do when they’re proud of their loved ones.”
She looked genuinely astonished and affronted that he could doubt her devotion.
Loved ones? How am I supposed to kill these feelings when she said stuff like that?
“All I want for Christmas is my two front knees,” he sang, in an effort to cover his sudden confusion.
“As opposed to your two back knees?” she countered sarcastically with an eye roll. “It’d be more like your middle knees, anyway. And please don’t try to sing again. You seriously stink at it.”
“Ok, a),” Dom mimicked her, “Why you gotta be such a know it all? And b), you seriously stink at football, yet you insist we play in the back yard every major holiday.”
She scooted on the couch until she was fully facing him.
“That’s for your sake!”
“My sake? You think I enjoy playing with amateurs who sulk when they lose?”
“Maybe if the winner didn’t enjoy rubbing it in…” she said with a glare.
She crossed her arms and pursed her lips, eyes so narrowed her lashes joined at the edges.
He chuckled. It was hard to take Kate seriously when she got upset. She looked like a freshly toweled kitten, more prone to eliciting a desire for kisses than ire.
He loved getting her riled up.
“I guess playing with amateurs is something I’ll have to get used to now,” he conceded with a rueful smile.
Her face cleared. She tilted her head again and clicked her teeth in a sympathetic manner.
“Forget professional football. You have a degree in Physical Education, and a great family, and my huge family by extension. Not to mention, selfishly, I’d be glad if you chose to move back here. I’ve missed you… crazy lots.”
Kate’s voice broke a bit at the end and Dom’s heart started galloping in response. He’d no idea she felt that way, even as just a friend. In truth, it was his fault they’d lost touch in the last few years. She thought it was her myopic tendency for studying, but he had made a concerted effort to create distance out of self-preservation.
“I’ve missed you too, Skate,” he confessed.
“Ugh, that dumb nickname…” she responded.
She pushed her unruly hair behind her ears and rolled her eyes. Then she slapped him on his thigh in an impatient manner.
“Pittsburgh and Isabel didn’t deserve you anyway. If you move back here, you could consider it a public service. You’ll be raising the Good Men per capita of Nebraska. It’s our slogan and all.”
“Huh,” he managed to say around the growing lump in his throat. “And here I thought it was ‘The Good Life’.”
“Same difference,” she said with a cheeky grin and a quick shrug.
He looked down at her hand still resting on his knee. She snatched her hand back with a quick, soft huff, like an unformed laugh. He looked back up. Her cheeks had flooded red but she didn’t drop his gaze.
He deliberately turned his head and studied the Christmas tree; cheerful yet lonely with just a few presents underneath. There was something different in her eyes, and paired with her affectionate words, it gave him the stirrings of hope. Hope was something he hadn’t allowed himself in years. And if he was being honest, he hadn’t made it clear since they were teenagers that he wanted to be more than friends. Now that he thought about it, maybe moving back to Nebraska wouldn’t be about hitting bottom. Maybe it could be about new beginnings.
He looked back at her and grinned, not one of his we’ve-known-each-other-for-years friendly grins, but one of his how-you-doin’ grins. It always made the ones who were interested flustered, and the ones who weren’t, at least snort in good humor. He had never actually tried it on Kate.
Her flush deepened and she sprang up from the couch. She rubbed her hands on her legs and laughed slightly. Then she looked around the room in an absentminded manner.
Huh… how about that, he thought.
“I better get back next door before we get the local tongues wagging,” Kate said breathlessly. “You coming over for Christmas dinner?”
His grin got wider and he nodded.
Her brows contracted briefly. “Why are you smiling at me like that?”
He just shrugged, saying nothing. He was enjoying her discomfort. She looked not just flustered, but confused, and confused was something he could work with.
Yeah, there just might be reason to hope, after all…
He walked her to the door and indulged himself with an extra-long hug. Then he relaxed on the couch again and let his mind mull over Katelyn’s tell-tale flush. Maybe she didn’t think of him as boyfriend material yet, but there was definite potential to change her mind.
“So you’re moving back home, huh?”
Dominic rolled over so quickly he fell off the couch.
“Fmpblllltsh!” The carpet muffled his curse; a good thing since his father didn’t tolerate cursing in his home.
“Haaaah,” Dom finished his moan of pain as he rolled over. “Hey, Dad. What, uh, what makes you say that?”
“Well, that’s what the little Anderson girl was saying.”
“Yeah, Dad, she hasn’t been ‘little’ in quite some time,” Dom countered.
“Ok, youngest of the gaggle. Whatever,” Vincent Valentini waved a dismissive hand. “Guess if there’s gonna be all this yakkin’, might as well start the day.”
He walked towards the kitchen, flipped the light on, and started brewing coffee. Dom limped after him.
“Hey, son, what a nice surprise. Good to see you,” Dom muttered under his breath.
As soon as he sat at the kitchen table, he said a little louder, “I haven’t actually decided to move back. Exactly how much did you hear?”
“Enough to offer my congratulations.”
“I’m glad you finally saw the light. Would have preferred it to be before the wedding, but, hey, better late than never, eh?”
Vincent turned around and popped Dom on the shoulder.
“So… you’re ok with it?” Dom wondered.
“I’m ok wit’ it,” Vincent said gruffly.
He handed Dom a coffee mug.
“I was thinking you and Mom were going to freak out about the divorce…”
“Oh, your nonna’s gonna freak, sure, but me and your mother? Nah. You know what’s disappointin’, son? Watching you let your dreams slip away.”
“What do you mean? I was playing for the Steelers! Most college players don’t even make it to the Draft. I didn’t choose to have a knee injury—”
“Don’t be dense,” Vincent interrupted. “I don’t care about that. I’m talking about that girl who just left. The one you’re never able to keep your eyes off of. I don’t understand why you’re content to moon after her like a martyr instead of just puttin’ a ring on it already.”
“Put a ring…” Dom paused, pinching his nose.
He took a deep breath, reminding himself his father was from a very different generation.
“Dad, Kate and I are friends. Even if I were to—”
“No, here’s what you do,” Vincent interrupted again. “You take this week to start laying the ground work with her and then you get your affairs in order, and move back home. It’s not defeat if it’s something you want anyway.”
“Dad, I don’t even have a job lined up…”
Vincent clapped Dominic on the shoulder and chuckled.
“Son, the world’s full of signs if you’re just open to them. This is a sign it’s time to move back home and go for it with her, I’m telling you.”
Dom opened his mouth, but his reply was cut short by the sound of his mother’s voice.
“Vinnie? Who are you talking to?” Ramona shouted from down the hall. “Turn the oven on, would ya? I have to get started on the casserole I told Bridgette we’d bring for Christmas dinner.”
Vincent and Dominic shared a grimace and got to work. Valentini-Anderson joint holiday dinners were a tradition of chaos, overeating, bickering and insanity—insanity because they all kept doing it year after year despite the first three components. Everyone by this point knew never to stand in the way of Ramona Valentini and Bridgette Anderson’s deeply competitive friendship.
Dom managed to make it through his mother’s fussing and nagging in the morning, and the crazy Christmas dinner next door, all on zero hours of sleep. Feeling punchy and mellow, Dominic ducked the rest of the guests and waited by Kate’s back door for her to try sneaking out as she did every year.
“Going somewhere?” he asked, grinning at her guilty flush.
“Just to my office to take advantage of no one being there and fight through this stupor. I swear our mothers always feed us like they’re going to eat us later.”
“Yeah, nothing says ‘tis the season’ like gluttony,” he agreed.
He grabbed a football from a box in the mud room, tossed it up briefly, then tucked it under his arm. He stepped so close she had to tilt her head up to keep his gaze.
“Wanna help me burn off those calories instead?” he asked with a suggestive tone.
She flushed and blinked. Then her eyes dropped to the football and she laughed.
“Dom, honestly… you’re such a flirt. A girl might accidentally take you seriously,” she replied with a finger waggle.
Dropping her satchel, she snatched the ball out of his arms, and walked out the door.
He shook his head at her back. It was looking like getting out of the friend zone was going to be harder than getting into the end zone.
She stopped abruptly and pivoted back around. “Are you sure? Are your knees up to it?”
“If not, you can always nurse me back to health…” he bantered.
She snorted and rolled her eyes before heading out into the yard.
As soon as he shut the door, his phone buzzed. He fished it out and saw a text from his old high school coach:
Hey Dom, heard from Mrs. D you were back in town. Can you come over later? Have a job opp. next fall here at the school I wanted to float by you. Before you say no, just hear me out, OK? Dave
Dom raised his eyes to look out across the yard at Kate, squinting from the glare of the snow reflecting the sun.
The world’s full of signs… he heard his father’s voice whisper.
It would take him time to sell his place, but if he played it right, he could be here for the start of the school year. Then he could begin his campaign to win the Girl Next Door’s heart.
“Ready for the sweet taste of defeat, Valentini?” Kate asked. She had an adorable and not at all intimidating sneer on her face.
He shook his head with a chuckle. “My first order of business when I move back will be teaching you how to talk smack properly.”
Her face lit up. “So you’re coming back for sure?”
“For sure,” he answered softly.
“Eee!” she squealed, tackling him.
He deliberately let their bodies hit the ground, hugging her tight and enjoying the feel of her pressed against him.
“Best Christmas ever!” Katelyn continued breathlessly.
Snow speckled on her hair like tinsel in the bright sunshine. Her cheeks had a rosy glow against her porcelain skin.
He smiled and tucked her hair behind her ears.
Sweet taste of defeat, indeed.
“Merry Christmas, Skate,” Dominic said. “You realize, of course, even without my two front knees, I’m going to kick your—”
He broke off as her delighted laughter filled the yard.
No, the ‘Best Christmas Ever’ is yet to come, babe. I promise, he thought with a grin.
–Copyright 2013, Genevieve Dewey.