The Mistletoe Kisser
December 23, fifteen years ago
Blue Moon Bend, NY
Sammy Ames surveyed the holiday festivities with no clue that the trajectory of her life was about to change. She would never look at hot chocolate, mistletoe, or sheep the same way.
It seemed as though the entire town had turned out for the traditional Winter Solstice and Multicultural Holiday Celebration. As usual. The same old food stands were clustered on either side of the winding path. The same neighbors manning them. The same wild collection of crafts and homemade goods. The same greetings delivered with puffs of breath.
December in upstate New York was cold. Really freaking cold.
But it had never occurred to the residents that perhaps the festivities should be held in warmer weather or—what normal towns did—move them into the homes of residents where each family could choose to mark Christmas, or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or Solstice, or secular family quality time, or nothing at all on their own.
This was Blue Moon. No one did anything on their own. Even if they wanted to.
Instead, they bundled up in parkas and mittens. And stood in line for latkes and lentils and lasagna. There were holidays to celebrate. Cultures to respect. Diversity to appreciate.
At fourteen, Sammy secretly appreciated the fuss. Secretly liked that her hometown’s mission was to include, not exclude.
She was, by her own account, an average-ish girl with average looks and an average personality. The people around her, both peers and family, always seemed more vibrant, more sure of the space they claimed.
But in this tiny corner of the world, even though she wasn’t sure where she fit, Blue Moon still made room for her.
“Ugh. Why do we have to do this every year?” her best friend, Eden Moody, asked, stamping her feet to stay warm. Her black tights—though a trendy, can’t-miss proclamation that the girl in them was a budding rebel—weren’t as warm as Sammy’s practical long underwear and jeans.
Sammy was debating whether to engage in a rebellion of her own. While dressed appropriately for the weather, of course. After all, rebelling against expectations didn’t mean she had to freeze to death.
Where Eden’s parents embraced their teen daughter’s desire to express herself and experience the consequences of those expressions, Sammy’s mother, Dr. Anastasia Ames, seemed determined to micromanage her down the path of acquiescence.
“I’m building this veterinary practice for us, Samantha.”
“I’m counting on you to carry on the legacy I started, Samantha.”
“No, you may not skip college to join the Peace Corps, Samantha.”
It would have been nice to be consulted before having her entire life decided for her. Just because Sammy loved animals didn’t mean she wanted to join her mother’s livestock veterinary practice. Maybe she wanted to work for a horse breeding program or study turtles in the Galapagos.
But her mother seemed more interested in her reputation and what it would mean to that reputation if her daughter joined the roster at her practice.
“You don’t like this at all?” Sammy asked her frozen friend.
Eden’s eyes followed Beckett Pierce’s butt as it—and he—wandered by with his equally cute younger brother Jax. Moon Beam Parker, Eden’s cousin, walked in step with Beckett, making puppy dog eyes at him.
Eden was on an accelerated path toward adulthood. She’d had her first kiss at twelve, Amir Lubarnas at the roller rink during Nancy Finkelstein’s birthday party. The still-first-kissless Sammy sometimes wished she’d had a Moon Beam in her life to influence her out of her comfort zone.
“I’m almost fifteen,” Eden said airily. “I’m exploring my hormonal-induced disdain for life.”
The Blue Moon School District’s health and sex education curricula were embarrassingly comprehensive.
“Textbook puberty,” Layla quipped. Despite being the long-legged, blonde bombshell of the group, Layla was less interested in boys and more interested in protecting her friends from them… and from themselves. Responsible to a fault, she seemed to have skipped the teenage years entirely and jumped straight into adulthood.
Sammy landed squarely between the two. Not too much of a rebel or too much of a Goody Two-shoes. Just a girl waiting to find herself. Waiting for the universe to tell her who she was destined to be. A girl who was getting a little tired of waiting.
“Don’t look now, but there’s a Ryan Phillippe look-alike behind us,” Eden whispered.
This was news. No one in Blue Moon looked like the bored, wealthy boy from Cruel Intentions, which meant fresh meat. Layla peeked first. When she turned back to them, the height of her eyebrows concurred with Eden’s assessment.
Sammy casually peered over her shoulder and found herself being grinned at by a tall, lanky boy in a yellow parka straight out of the L.L.Bean catalog. His blond hair flopped artfully over his forehead. Long lashes edged amused brown eyes. He had braces, and a soft, mossy green scarf tied jauntily around his neck. Definitely a Ryan Phillippe type.
Realizing she’d been staring at him for much longer than acceptable, Sammy flashed him a weak smile and whipped around to face forward.
“Smooth, Sammy,” Layla teased.
Eden let out the barely audible, high-pitched squeal of a teenaged girl delighted for her friend. “He’s totally into you,” she whispered knowledgeably.
“Yeah. I don’t think so,” Sammy hedged. She was used to being the least interesting out of their little group. Layla was the boobed goddess next door who didn’t try too hard. Eden was the spunky rebel too busy dancing to the beat of her own drum to care if anyone thought she was cute.
“Hey,” a voice said behind them. A cute, teenaged, boy voice.
They whirled around as one.
“Hey,” Eden said with enviable chill.
“Hey,” Layla said with distinct distrust.
“Hi,” Sammy squeaked.
The boy grinned again and looked directly at her. “So, how’s the food here?” he asked, gesturing at the fried tofu stand in front of them.
“Great,” Eden said. “Layla and I have to go. We’ll catch up with you later, Sammy.” She hooked her arm through Layla’s even as Sammy started to shake her head. She wasn’t prepared to be abandoned.
“Are you new here?” Layla asked the boy, digging the heels of her sneakers into the ground. It wasn’t personal interest. She was making sure a stranger interested in her friend wasn’t a future criminal in the making.
“Yeah,” the boy said. “I’m in town visiting my great-uncle. Kinda lame,” he said with that flirty smile. This time, he gave a little head toss, dislodging the hair that had fallen over his eye.
Sammy wondered why he didn’t just cut it shorter. His neck probably got sore by the end of the day from all the hair tossing.
“Who’s your uncle?” Layla demanded while Eden tugged on her arm with more determination.
“It doesn’t matter who his uncle is,” Eden hissed.
Sammy pitied Layla’s future children—if she decided to have any—when they tried to bring dates home to meet the parents.
“Uh, my uncle is Carson Shufflebottom,” he said, eyeing her friends as if they were a sideshow at a discount circus. “He lives on a farm outside of town.”
All information reported after “Carson” was unnecessary of course because this was Blue Moon and everyone knew everyone else.
“How old are you?” Layla asked.
“Okay then. We’ll be around,” she said ominously as Eden hooked her by the hood of her jacket and dragged her away.
Sammy waited a beat and then worked up the nerve to face the age-appropriate heartthrob. He was extremely cute up close.
“Your friends are… interesting,” he observed. Then, as if to take the sting out of any undertone of judgment, he flashed her that smile again.
She felt her hormones spiral into a riot. On one hand, he was very good-looking. Like “Jason Priestley on 90210” good-looking. Normally, she was more of a broody Luke Perry girl, but she was willing to make an exception.
“They are,” she agreed. “I’m Sammy, by the way.”
“Yeah, I caught that,” he said, amused. “I’m Ryan.”
A Ryan Phillipe look-alike named Ryan? Yes, please!
“I’m from Des Moines,” he added, saying it as if it made him geographically superior.
“I’m from here,” she said, daring him to object.
Instead, his gaze warmed. “Well, Sammy from here with the beautiful blue eyes. What do you say we forget about fried tofu?”
Beautiful blue eyes. Gulp. Okay, she could be into a Brandon Walsh type if he handed out compliments like that.
“What do you have in mind?” she asked. She might have been crushing hard, but that didn’t mean Dr. Anastasia Ames had raised a fool. If the next words were “Want to check out the back of my older brother’s van?” she was out of there regardless of his cuteness and compliments.
He glanced around. “Hot chocolate? My treat,” he offered with another little hair toss. This time, she found it endearing.
Ryan from Des Moines held out a hand. She looked at it and debated. He either thought she was cute or he thought she was a lost eight-year-old who needed to be reunited with her parents.
“I’m fourteen.” She blurted out the words to his ski glove.
“Really? I thought you were at least sixteen,” he said.
It was official. Sammy was in love. She slipped her mitten into his glove and reveled in the fact that she, Samantha Ames of Science Club and long underwear, was holding hands with a cute stranger who thought she looked as if she had a driver’s license.
Sammy did her best to fall in step with him as they headed in the direction of molten chocolate. His legs were longer, but he walked slower than she did. She was accustomed to propelling only herself forward. Having the bulk of another human in tow took some getting used to.
They finally—and a bit awkwardly—arrived at their destination, a tricked-out Airstream trailer. Lesbian lovers and chocolate aficionados Winona and Bettina spent their retirement years traveling New England and parts of Canada. In the winter, they sold gourmet hot chocolate. In the summer, they switched it up to organic lemonade and iced tea.
She ordered a Butterfinger hot chocolate with whipped cream from Bettina.
Ryan grimaced then ordered the same. “I’m trusting you, blue eyes,” he told her.
Bettina gave her a girl-to-girl wink and Sammy relished the confirmation that she wasn’t imagining the flirtation.
They took their steaming cups of delicious goodness and began a slow wander around the park. With their hands still entwined, she was forced to drink with her left hand. The sacrifice of her dominant hand made her feel grown-up in a way that the boobs that had started to sprout last summer hadn’t.
“Merry Christmas, Sammy,” Mrs. Nordemann called out from her place in line at the wassail and eggnog stand. She was wearing an ankle-length black cloak, elbow-length gloves, and a black knit beret.
“Happy Hanukkah, Mrs. Nordemann,” Sammy said with a lift of her cup.
“Was that a Christmas witch?” Ryan asked incredulously.
“No. She’s Jewish, not Wiccan. She’s on the town council.”
Sammy always found it hard to describe her Mooners to outsiders. No list of facts could ever fully encapsulate them. Besides, the relaying of the facts often said more about the person relaying them than the person being described.
She could have told Ryan that Mrs. Nordemann handed out the best candy at Halloween. But what if fifteen-year-olds in Des Moines didn’t trick or treat anymore? She could have told him that when Sammy’s grandmother died, Mrs. Nordemann showed up with a big bottle of wine for her mom and a box of ice pops for Sammy. But what if he thought it was weird to be sad about a grandmother?
“This place is definitely weird,” he said. Before she could take offense, he added, “But if I knew Uncle Carson had access to girls like you, I wouldn’t have waited so long to visit.”
Sammy committed the compliment to memory so she could rehash it with Eden and Layla later.
“Hey there, Sammy.” John Pierce, handsome and rugged in a flannel coat and muck boots, hailed her from his farm’s petting zoo. Temporary fences contained two woolly sheep, half a dozen fluffy chickens, and a swayback Jersey cow wearing a Moo-rry Christmas bandana around her neck.
John was too old to be the unrequited crush of a teenage girl. But she still adored the man. He was quiet, calm, and just a little grumpy.
“Do you know everyone here?” Ryan asked when Joey Greer, all long legs and dark, straight hair, waved. She and Jax, the youngest Pierce, led pony rides around a makeshift ring.
She shrugged. “Mostly.”
Carter Pierce, the oldest and, in her opinion, handsomest due to the broody factor, worked behind a folding table, exchanging cash for tickets. Beckett—the middle and object of Moon Beam Parker’s current affection—distributed baggies of organic feed to the participants.
“I don’t even know my next-door neighbors,” Ryan told her. She couldn’t tell if he was bragging about that pitiable fact or not.
“What’s Des Moines like?” she asked.
While he described the city, she watched as one of the Bowler twins, troublemaking four-year-olds with distracted parents, upended his biodegradable container of fried tofu on the sidewalk in front of the petting zoo. He tugged on his mom’s sleeve, announcing he’d finished his supper and was ready for dessert. Mrs. Bowler was mid-gossip session with Bruce and Amethyst Oakleigh and absent-mindedly patted the kid in the face.
Ryan had moved on to the merits of his school, which had a good wrestling team and high-speed internet access in the typing lab. She was doing her best to appear enthralled when a group of Mooners meandered by, animatedly discussing the new movie release Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
She recognized Bill “Fitz” Fitzsimmons, a skinny, bespectacled hippie. He was walking backward, performing some sort of martial arts choreography while clutching an ICEE, when the sole of his winter Birkenstock landed squarely on the mound of fried tofu.
It happened in slow motion. His foot slid out from under him. He tried to compensate, but his other shoe landed in the now flattened goop and skated through it. In cartoon fashion, he stepped, slid, and scrambled half a dozen times before gravity finally won. Flailing backward, Fitz toppled over into the petting zoo’s temporary fence. Purple ICEE soared through the air and splattered all over the bigger sheep, who looked startled by the unexpected bath.
The fence and Fitz went down with a clank and an “oof,” respectively.
“Wow,” Ryan said, abandoning his description of his collection of sneakers.
“Uh-oh,” Sammy said, already shoving her hot chocolate into Ryan’s hand.
Pandemonium erupted. Both sheep bolted for the opening. The purple one didn’t exactly vault the prone Fitz. It was more like plowing over him. Fitz squeaked, and the sheep raced down the park’s path baa-ing. The chickens were next, scrambling and clucking frantically over their newfound freedom. The cow trotted forward, slowly gaining speed.
Carter vaulted the table and dove for the cow as she charged for the opening. Beckett made a grab for the closest chicken. John went after the regular-colored sheep that had stopped to nibble at Fitz’s socks.
The ponies in the riding ring eyed the chaos balefully until Fitz, trying to pull himself to standing, accidentally unlatched the gate.
“Hold onto the lead!” Sammy yelled to Jax, who was gaping at the chaos from inside the fence and not paying attention to the dappled gray pony he led or to little Becky Halgren in the saddle. A chicken flapped Beckett right in the face. The little rider gave a high-pitched laugh, startling the pony.
It bolted, with its sticky-fingered novice rider clinging to the saddle, still laughing.
Farmer and fatherly instincts must have alerted John to the potential disaster. He gave up helping Carter drive the cow back into the enclosure and pivoted just in time to pluck Becky from the back of the pony.
“I’ll get the purple sheep,” Sammy called.
“You will? Don’t you want to hear about my Air Jordans?” Ryan asked, but she was already running down the sidewalk. She spotted Eden and Layla sprawled on a park bench, watching the action with popcorn. “Need to borrow this,” Sammy said, snatching the bag of popcorn away from Layla.
“Sheep on the lam,” she yelled over her shoulder. Ha. She was totally funny.
“Where do you need us?” Eden called after her, springing to her feet.
“Cut between the incense stand and the latkes truck. Try to head it off. I’ll come up on the flank, and we’ll herd it back to the Pierces.”
They split up, and Sammy slipped around the side of Velma Flinthorn’s free-range chicken egg stand. The sheep appeared to be enjoying its freedom and was romping in an enthusiastic zig-zag through the grass and snow. Eden and Layla jumped into its path, startling the sheep. It made a 180-degree turn and loped away from them, heading in Sammy’s direction.
Thinking fast, Sammy stepped out and sprinkled popcorn on the ground in front of her.
“Come on, sheep. Come have a snack.” She shook the bag. “Who wants popcorn?”
Thankfully, the purple sheep was feeling peckish. He trotted over and gobbled up the first few kernels.
“Good boy or girl,” she said, unsure of the gender.
“Definitely a boy from this end,” Eden said, eyeing the sheep’s back end.
“Just follow me and the popcorn,” Sammy instructed, sprinkling more kernels onto the ground.
“What do we do now?” Layla asked.
“Walk behind it with your arms out in case he turns around and tries to run,” she told them, shaking the bag and walked backward. “And tell me if I’m going to run into something.
“Watch out for the chicken,” Eden called.
Sammy blinked when the next piece of popcorn was gobbled up by a red hen that elbowed her way into the snack train.
“Is that a Pierce Acres chicken or someone else’s free-range fowl?” Layla wondered.
It took patience and every kernel of popcorn in the bag, but they made it back to the petting zoo with the sheep and the chicken. A grinning Beckett opened the gate, and Sammy dumped the remainder of the popcorn on the ground.
Once everyone was officially corralled, the usually stoic John gave Sammy a hard, one-armed hug. His wife, Phoebe, who had missed the action while sampling mulled wines with her friend Elvira Eustace, gave her a noisy kiss on the forehead.
“What would Blue Moon do without you, Sammy?” Phoebe asked.
Sammy felt her cheeks flush at the praise.
“Nice going, kiddo,” Carter said, ruffling her hair and making her feel even more breathless.
“It was a team effort,” she said modestly to her shoes. The chaos had been quelled, the animals corralled. And the pigtailed Becky Halgren was getting a second, free ride to make up for the first near disaster.
“Thank you, girls, for your heroics. Last time this sheep got out, he wandered halfway to Cleary. Who knew David Bowie was such a huge fan of popcorn?” Phoebe mused.
“Uh. He is?” Sammy asked.
“She named the sheep David Bowie,” John explained, giving the animal a slap on the rump. “You’ve got a hell of a way with animals, Sammy.”
The praise made her feel warm inside.
“You also seem to have a fan,” Phoebe observed, nodding across the park path. There stood cute Ryan still holding two cups of hot chocolate, his hair still in his eye.
“Kid needs a haircut,” John grumbled. Phoebe elbowed him in the gut.
Eden gave Sammy a push in Ryan’s direction. “Go make out with his face.”
Sammy gave the Pierces and her friends a parting glance before crossing to Ryan.
“I saved this for you,” he said, holding up her hot chocolate.
“Thanks,” she said, attempting to wipe the snow and mud off her mittens. She was making more of a mess, so she gave up and stuffed them into her pockets. She accepted the cup and, following Eden’s shooing motions, towed Ryan away from the crowd.
“Are you cold?” he asked.
She shook her head. The sheep chase had actually left her a little sweaty. “I’m fine,” she said.
“Here.” He unwound his scarf and looped it around her neck.
It was so soft and smelled like cologne. She didn’t know what kind of material it was, but it felt expensive. She hoped her sweat wouldn’t ruin it. “Uh. Thanks.”
“You were pretty cool handling those animals,” he told her as they strolled toward the end of the park, leaving the crowd, the smells of lasagna and patchouli incense behind them.
“Thanks. My mom’s a veterinarian,” she explained.
“Cool. My parents own a property management company. They want me to follow in their footsteps and join the family business. But I don’t know.”
Sammy felt a spark of commonality. “I know the feeling,” she said. “Are all parents like that? I mean, is there a rule that says if your kids go to the same college you did or into your profession that means you made the right choices?”
“Whoa, blue eyes. That’s deep,” he teased.
A trickle of sweat worked its way down the back of her neck, and she hoped it wasn’t burning a hole through the scarf. “Uh. So, do you want to go into property management?” she asked, steering the conversation away from any potentially off-putting philosophical questions.
Ryan seemed to be more comfortable when the conversation centered around him. And she felt more comfortable when other people were comfortable.
He shrugged. “It’s okay. But if I do decide to do what they want, I can still do it on my terms, right?”
She stopped abruptly on the path. “Right,” she said, the truth of it hitting her like a bolt of lightning.
As he rambled on about not wanting to work five days a week and shopping allowances, Sammy’s brain turned the idea over.
There was nothing that said she had to go to Ohio State like her mother. Or that she had to use a veterinary career to build a legacy and a reputation. She could do it the way she wanted to. Heck, she didn’t even need to join her mother’s practice. She could practice veterinary medicine anywhere she wanted, and it wouldn’t be because her parents said so.
Maybe, just maybe, she could find a happy medium between rebelling and conforming.
“Oh. Hey. Look at that.”
Sammy followed the direction he pointed. Straight up.
“Mistletoe,” she said, her pulse fluttering. Oh boy. Oh boy. Oh boy. She forgot all about her potential future and focused on the present moment.
She’d caught the eye of the cute guy, saved a sheep, and potentially solved her own “rebel or conform” debate. And then accidentally wandered into Mistletoe Corner.
It was a secluded little section of the park where a tall spruce wore hundreds of colored Christmas lights. In front of the tree, the Decorating Committee always strung a canopy of lights interspersed with mistletoe plants.
Maybe the Solstice magic wasn’t over yet.
She wet her lips nervously, wondering if she should make the first move. Did she know what the first move was? Should she stand on tiptoe? Tilt her head?
Mid-worry about what to do with her hands, Ryan leaned down. That shock of blond hair tumbled across his forehead again. It was the last thing she saw before his lips touched hers.
Her first kiss was utter perfection. Under the mistletoe on a background of Christmas lights. She half-expected it to start snowing in further confirmation of a Solstice miracle.
But instead of fat, falling flakes, she got a shriek of dismay from a tall woman dressed in a puffy, lime green jacket and yellow ski hat.
“Ryan Shufflebottom! You get your fanny over here right now!” The woman stormed into the clearing like a principal about to start doling out detentions.
Sammy jumped back guiltily.
“Uh-oh,” Ryan said.
“Yeah, uh-oh,” the woman agreed. “You’re so grounded. We’re leaving. Now!”
Sammy wished the ground would swallow her up. Was he in trouble because he kissed her? Would he think it was worth the punishment? Or was he already regretting it?
“See you around, blue eyes. Maybe we’ll meet again,” her teenage Lothario said, giving her a little wink and one more hair toss.
She watched as Ryan Shufflebottom from Des Moines was dragged away by his mother, who was reciting the words “military school” like a mantra.
“What the hell just happened?” she wondered out loud.