“Mom, I need to work overtime, so I won’t be home to help with dinner.”
“Again?” her mother moaned into the phone.
“Yes, sorry.” Merry hated leaving her mother with the task of cooking dinner. Robin Knight struggled with mobility issues due to complications with multiple sclerosis. As much as Merry hated the thought of it, her mother would soon be confined to a wheelchair.
“That’s three nights this week.”
Merry didn’t need the reminder. Three nights out of four. Matterson Consulting, the firm where she worked as a temp, was involved in a huge project, its biggest one to date, for the Boeing Company. With the time crunch, everyone on staff was putting in mandatory overtime. Normally, few would object to the extra hours, but this was the holiday season. People were busy, and there were parties to attend and shopping and decorating that needed to be done. Baking. Visiting. All the normal, fun things that were part of this time of year, but for those employed by Matterson, it didn’t matter. Christmas might as well be blocked off the calendar.
“Don’t worry, dear,” Merry’s mother assured her gently. “Patrick will help me with dinner.”
Merry closed her eyes and let her shoulders sag. Patrick was a dear boy, but he tended to dirty every dish in the house when he cooked. Her eighteen-year-old Down syndrome brother was the light of her life, but his help in the kitchen was questionable at best.
“Heat up soup and have Patrick make sandwiches,” Merry suggested.
“We can do that, but you should know Bogie is out of dog food.”
Bogie was Patrick’s golden retriever, who had an appetite that rivaled that of an entire high school football squad. Grocery shopping was a task Merry had taken on as her mother’s illness progressed. However, working the hours she did made it nearly impossible to find the time needed. “Oh Mom, I’m sorry. Poor Bogie. I’ll stop off at the store on my way home and pick some up.” While she was there she’d grab a few other essentials, too, like milk and bread. They were running low on both. And maybe some ice cream for Patrick, who never complained about the need to help his mother.
“Your father can do that on his way home—”
“Don’t ask Dad,” Merry interrupted. Her father was in pharmaceutical sales and traveled extensively around the Pacific Northwest and was often on the road. He carried a heavy enough load as it was. By the time he got home from driving across the state, he’d be exhausted. Merry didn’t want to burden him with any extra chores. Buying the groceries was her responsibility.
Everyone worked together in the Knight family. They were a tight-knit group by necessity and by love. Merry had taken the twelve-month temp job with Matterson Consulting to save tuition money for college. Her educational expenses were more than their family budget could manage. She’d been hired by Matterson Consulting specifically for this Boeing project and had worked extensively on inputting the data. It’d taken months to accumulate all the necessary information. It was all winding down now. December 23 would be her last day on the job.
After working with the company for nearly a year, she’d made friends with the other two women working in data entry. They considered her part of the team and often turned to her with questions, as she had replaced the department head. Although she was only a temporary employee, her skill level was above those currently assigned to the project.
Merry took another bite of the peanut-butter sandwich she’d brought for lunch. She usually ate at her desk and worked through her lunch break. Most everyone else went to a local café around the corner, where the food was fast, cheap, and tasty. All three were necessary if Merry was going to splurge and eat out. She treated herself once a week, but more often than that would play havoc with her budget. Most days she brown-bagged it.
“When was the last time you went out, Merry?” her mother asked.
“I go out every day,” she answered, sidestepping the question.
“On a date.”
“Mom! When do I have time to date?” Merry had a fairly good idea what had prompted the question. Her best friend from high school had recently announced she was pregnant.
“That’s exactly my point. You’re twenty-four years old and you’re living the life of a nun.”
“Patrick dates more than you do.”
Merry had to smile, even though her mother was right. Her younger brother was involved with a special group that held dances and other events that allowed him to socialize with other teens who had Down syndrome. As a high school senior, he was active in drama and part of the football team. He had a girlfriend as well.
“It’s time you stopped worrying about your family and had some fun.”
“I have fun,” Merry countered. She had friends, and while she didn’t see them often, they were in touch via social media, email, and texting. If Merry was busy, which she tended to be, then she communicated with emojis. It was fun to see how much she could say with a simple symbol or two.
“Have you ever thought about joining one of those online matchmaking sites?” her mother asked, sounding thoughtful.
“No,” Merry returned emphatically, rolling her eyes. She hoped the state of her social life would change once she could afford to return to school. It wasn’t like she was a martyr, but at times she struggled with the weight of family obligations. She tried not to think about everything she was missing that her friends enjoyed. It was what it was, and it didn’t do any good to feel sorry for herself. Her family needed her.
“Why don’t you try it? It’d be fun.”
“Mom, have you seen all the forms and questionnaires that need to be filled out for those dating sites? I don’t have time for that.” Especially now, with the demands of my job, she thought to herself.
“I will someday,” she said, hoping that would appease her mother.
“Someday, Merry? Failing to plan is planning to fail.”
“Mom. You sound like Anthony Robbins.” Although she complained, her mother was right. The timing, however, was all wrong.
“I’ll think about it after the first of the year,” she promised.
Her best friend Dakota had met the love of her life online at Mix & Mingle. Inspired by Dakota’s success, Merry had checked out the site, but she became bogged down with the page upon page of questions that needed to be completed. She started filling out the forms but quickly gave up, exasperated by all the busywork.
“You need to get out more, enjoy life,” her mother continued. “There’s more to life than work and more work.”
“I agree. After the holidays. Let me finish this temp job first.”
“It worked for Dakota.”
“Mom, please. I have plenty of time to get out there.” Merry didn’t need the reminder about her friend’s happy ending. After Dakota met Michael on the site, she had sung the website’s praises to Merry like a wolf howling at the moon. She wouldn’t stop bugging Merry about it until she’d promised to give it a try.
“I heard from her mother this morning. Did you know Dakota and Michael are expecting?”
“Yes, Mom, I heard.” Merry reached for her sandwich and was about to take another bite when the vice president of the company, Jayson Bright, walked past her desk. He had to be one of the most serious-minded men Merry had ever met. To the best of her memory she had never seen the man smile. Not once. He looked about as happy as someone scheduled for a root canal.
Jayson Bright paused and stared at Merry. His eyes fell to the nameplate on her desk. mary knight. She’d asked HR to correct the spelling of her first name twice, with no success, and then gave up. Seeing that she was a temp, they hadn’t shown that much interest. Her boss’s gaze landed on the sandwich she had on her desk, and for a moment she toyed with the idea of offering him half, but as she doubted he’d find any humor in it, she restrained herself. He arched his brows before he walked away.
“Merry, did you hear me?” her mother asked.
“Sorry, no, I was distracted.” From Mr. Bright’s look, Merry had to wonder if there was something written in the employee handbook about eating at her desk. She’d been doing it for almost a full year now, and no one had mentioned that it was frowned upon before.
“Mom. I need to get off the phone. I’ll call you before I leave the office.”
“Okay, but think about what I said, all right?”
“I will, Mom.” Merry’s mind filled with visions of meeting her own Prince Charming. Of one thing she was certain: It wouldn’t be someone as dour as Jayson Bright.
Sure enough, just as Merry suspected, at three that same afternoon, a notice was sent around the office.
It is preferred that all staff refrain from eating at their desks. For those who choose to remain in the office for lunch, a designated room is provided. Thank you.
Merry read the email and instinctively knew that this edict was directed at her. She preferred to avoid the lunchroom, and with good reason. The space was often crowded and it was uncomfortable bumbling around, scooting between those at the tables and those waiting in line for a turn at the microwave. Besides, it was more efficient to eat at her desk. Not that Mr. Bright seemed to notice or care.
What a shame—the company vice president was such a curmudgeon. Merry had heard women in the office claim he was hot. She agreed. Jayson Bright was hot, all right. Hotheaded! He was young for his position as vice president. The rumor mill in the office said he was related to the Matterson family; the company president was his uncle. Bright would assume the role when it came time for his uncle to retire. His uncle would continue as chairman of the board.
Merry’s thoughts drifted to Jayson Bright and she mused at how attractive he would be if he smiled. He was about six feet tall, several inches taller than her five-five, with dark brown hair and eyes. He kept his hair cut in a crisp professional style. Wanting to be generous in spirit, Merry supposed he carried a heavy responsibility. Word was that Jayson Bright was the one responsible for obtaining this Boeing contract. A lot weighed in the balance for him with his job. Merry knew that he put in as many hours, or more, than the rest of the staff.
By the time Merry arrived at home, hauling a ten-pound bag of Bogie’s favorite dog food, it was after eight o’clock. As soon as she walked in the door, Patrick rushed to help her with the heavy sack.
His sweet, boyish face was bright with enthusiasm. “Merry’s home,” he shouted, taking the dog food out of her hands and carting it to the kitchen pantry.
“Hi, sweetheart,” her mother called. Her mom leaned heavily on her walker, now exhausted and fatigued, because she grew tired at the end of each day.
“Can I tell her?” Patrick asked excitedly.
“In a minute,” her mother said. Merry noticed that her lips quirked in an effort to hold in a smile.
“Tell me what?”
“We got you an early birthday gift this afternoon and it’s the best one ever.” Patrick rubbed his hands together, unable to disguise his eagerness.
“You did?” Knowing the family budget was tight, Merry wasn’t expecting much. Born on December 26, the day after Christmas, Merry had felt cheated as a child when it came to her birthday gifts. Her parents had done their best to make her birthday special, but it being so soon after Christmas made that difficult. It wasn’t unusual for Merry to get her birthday gifts early because of it.
“And you’re going to be so happy,” Patrick assured her. “I helped Mom with everything.”
“You helped pick it out?” Merry asked. The two of them must have ordered something off the Internet, because her mother was no longer able to drive and Patrick couldn’t. Those with Down syndrome could legally drive in Washington State, but the family couldn’t afford a second car. The family had only the one car, which her father used for work. Merry used public transportation to and from her job.
“Well, this isn’t something we picked out. You need to do the picking.”
“Patrick,” his mother chastised. “You’re going to give it away.”
“You can show me after you feed Bogie,” Merry suggested, as Bogie eyed the pantry door.
“We can’t really give it to you yet,” Patrick told her. “You get to pick for yourself, but I’ll help if you want.” From the way his eyes lit up, Merry knew he’d be terribly disappointed if he didn’t get a say in this.
Okay, now Merry was willing to admit she was intrigued. It was still November, over Thanksgiving weekend. Her brother was barely able to contain himself and rushed to grab Bogie’s food dish. She enjoyed his enthusiasm. Seeing the happy anticipation in him piqued her own. She couldn’t imagine what this special birthday gift could possibly be.
Bogie pranced around in his eagerness for Patrick to fill the dish so he could eat.
“Now, Mom, now?” Patrick asked, jumping up and down after he poured the dog food into the bowl. Between the dog and her brother, the two looked like they were doing a square dance.
“Let me eat dinner first,” Merry said, teasing her brother.
Patrick’s eyes rounded. “Merry, no, please. I’ve been waiting and waiting to tell you. I don’t think I can wait any longer.” Merry and her mother shared a smile.
“Have pity on the boy,” her mother urged.
Holding back a smile would have been impossible. “Okay, Patrick, you can tell me about my birthday gift.”
Her brother’s eyes lit up like Fourth of July sparklers. Whatever this early birthday present was must be special. Merry hugged her brother and, wrapping her arms around his torso, she gave him a gentle squeeze.
Patrick took hold of her hand while their mother opened the laptop and pulled out a chair to sit down. Merry joined her mother.
“You ready?” Robin Knight asked, turning on the computer.
“I can hardly wait,” Merry answered.
Tucking his arm around her elbow, Patrick scooted close to Merry.
She looked at the blank computer screen, getting more curious by the second. They both seemed to be squirming with anticipation. “What did you two order me?”
Copyright © 2017 by Debbie Macomber. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.