For Julia Anders, hope had the glint of Christmas lights, the mixed scent of pine, cloves and orange, and the look of Jake’s hand, stretching across the space between them. Then again, so did guilt.
“Dance with me, Julia,” Jake repeated. The normal gruff of his voice had softened, and his invitation washed over her like the light of the sun when it finally breaks through the horizon after a dark night. Every part of her body longed to accept his invitation, except her memory.
She didn’t trust her voice. Not in a moment like this. Yet Jake’s chestnut eyes, flickering with firelight, begged for a response. “I thought you couldn’t dance.”
His laugh broke the tension. He had a great laugh—deep and soothing to her soul that had suffered for too long.
“Oh, I can dance. I just never liked it much. You see, something happened five years ago. I was at a wedding, and this pretty girl told me she wanted to dance. The fool that I was, I hesitated, only to have my best friend ask her instead.”
He stepped forward, and his hand met hers and held it tenderly, grazing past her wedding ring with his thumb. “I had a front row seat to watch him dance with her, fall in love with her, marry her, and even give her a child.”
Julia’s eyes wandered to the spot above the mantel, and rested on the silver-framed picture of her first dance as a bride. In the background, Jake sat in the best man’s seat at the head table, watching with that handsome smile of his. She had perused the picture thousands of times, but this time, she saw something new. Perhaps it was the colored lights from the nearby Christmas tree as they reflected off the glass, but longing deepened his eyes. Or perhaps, surrender.
“As hard as it was to watch your love story, I was honored. David was like a brother to me, and he made you happy. But now, after all we’ve been through this past year, I can’t help but want to get out of my seat and take you for a turn around the dance floor myself.” His arm wrapped around her waist and pulled her close to him. His warmth arrested any logic she had tried to maintain throughout the day, despite his small touches at the family dinner and the glances at Christmas Eve mass. It was all too unbelievable. He couldn’t possibly want her when he had every pretty girl in town pining for him. As for her, darkness as dim as a funeral dirge shrouded any beauty she once had.
“Please, dance with me.” He wiped a tear from her cheek that was equal parts guilt and joy. His forehead pressed against hers. Her heart swelled, forming fingers that threatened to reach through her skin to connect with his.
His breath kissed her mouth, and she pulled away before his lips could follow.
“I need a moment, Jake. I’m sorry.” Her fingertips touched her brow, demanding reason to sound above the sultry Christmas song on the radio.
Safely in her dark bedroom, she closed the door and collapsed onto her bed. She released the sob that had settled in her throat that morning. Christmas without David was difficult enough without the added betrayal . What would he say if he saw them together? His doting wife in the arms of his best friend? What would he think of Jake eulogizing his funeral, and then six months later holding Julia’s hand as she delivered David’s child into a world he had left too soon?
Jake had never been anything but upright when David was alive. She never suspected Jake had feelings beyond friendship for her. Of course, she had always found Jake attractive. He had been the most classically handsome guy in their college peer group. After harboring a crush on him for months, she had wanted to dance with him at that wedding, but he never asked. David, with his utter joy for life, did ask her, and as he twirled her around the dance floor, her heart had changed. David had become the love of her life, and ultimately her husband. When David got sick, Jake was the picture of faithfulness, driving them to appointments, raising money via a crowdfunding account, and praying with them during the big decisions. When David died just over a year ago, Jake had been the friend she needed.
Lord, give me wisdom. These last couple of months, Jake feels like so much more than a friend. The way he looks at me. The way he cares for Davey. I can’t stop myself from falling for him. I need your help, God.
Julia clicked on the light, and her eyes landed on the red box on David’s nightstand, its shine dulled by thirteen months of dust. He had given it to her on his last good day. When he died three weeks before last Christmas, she hadn’t been able to open it. With a sigh, she read the words on the envelope taped to the box: “Open when you feel like dancing again.”
Julia pulled the box into her lap and tugged at the envelope. She removed the folded white paper inside, and her chin trembled, knowing that her David had held this note in his hand. In his signature handwriting, he had written, “To everything, there is a season,” followed by Ecclesiastes 3:4, “a time to mourn and a time to dance.”
Tears blurred her vision, and she wiped them away.
Dear Julia, my bride,
My time with you has been short in years, but long in love. Now, God is calling me home. And although it kills me (pun intended), I must oblige. I am so tired, and everything hurts now. I look forward to freedom from this sick body that can no longer pull you recklessly across the dancefloor. Dancing with you was always my favorite pastime, and I know you loved it, too. I pray that you will find a new dance partner, and soon. Do not mourn me long. I would hate for the world to miss out on your sweet smile.
Speaking of, I hope our child has your smile. For his or her sake, I also hope you will marry again someday. Our child should have a father, and you should have love once again. Like that old country song you always play, Life’s a Dance, so don’t sit out for too long on my account. I’m just a man who was blessed to love you, wholeheartedly, for a couple of twirls.
Love, your David
Julia pressed the note to her chest for a long while. Setting it aside, she unpeeled the taped. Beneath the red, she recognized the designer shoebox lid. She removed it and pulled back the tissue paper to reveal size eight rose gold heels with an ankle strap. She had been eyeing them online last fall, but couldn’t justify the cost. All their money went to medical bills, baby gear, and anticipated funeral costs. She had only survived without debt because of Jake’s fundraising.
He was still waiting in the family room. A moment had become nearly forty minutes. She couldn’t expect him to wait much longer for her.
With shaking hands, she removed the shoes, revealing David’s messy script on the bottom of the box.
If Jake ever asks you to dance, you should say yes.
Julia’s rose gold heels tapped against the oak floors leading to the family room which, just like her heart, had been infiltrated by Jake. She saw the Christmas tree he had helped her cut, the couch where they had watched It’s a Wonderful Life earlier that evening, and the plate of Christmas cookies he had helped her decorate.
Jake, however, was nowhere to be seen. Her stomach twisted, and she gripped at the cross necklace he had just given her that night.
She had waited too long.
Above the melody of “Oh Holy Night,” she heard a babble from Davey’s nursery. She pushed open the door, and the growing sliver of light revealed Jake, holding her seven-month-old against his chest, swaying side to side and hushing the baby boy back to sleep.
“He was crying–must have had a bad dream or something.” Jake rested his chin on the child’s head. “He’s almost back to sleep now. I hope you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind.” Led by hope, Julia joined them, and Jake welcomed her beneath his arm. Mirroring her infant, she rested her cheek against Jake’s chest, feeling his heart tick a quickening beat. Her left hand rested on her baby’s wispy hair. Her ring finger looked bare without the wedding ring, which now sat on David’s bedside table. Had Jake noticed it was gone?
Her child gave her a sleepy smile— her smile, just like David had hoped. When the blue eyes he inherited from his father closed for the night, Jake lay him down in his crib and retreated to the family room, his heavy steps shaking the nightlight.
Out of habit, Julia whispered a quick prayer over the crib then closed the nursery door behind her. Jake’s tall frame was a silhouette in front of the soft glow of the tree. His shoulders hunched forward. Longing consumed her and her new shoes whisked her to his side. Her hand trembled a fraction of an inch away from his shoulder and her bottom lip stung where her teeth dug in.
“I’m not trying to replace David. I couldn’t even if I tried.”
“I’m not asking you to. What I shared with David can’t be replicated. I’ll always love him.”
“Good! I want you to.” Jake faced her, his eyes soft and deep. They had become home to her. A place to reflect her strength, a place to encourage her faith in God, a place to believe that there is still good in the land of the living.
“Jake, what I share with you, though, is beyond anything I’ve ever imagined. Sometime over the past year, you’ve become more than a friend to me. I tried to fight it. I felt like I was betraying David by falling in love with you so soon after he passed.”
A hint of a grin appeared. “You fell in love with me?”
“I did.” She smiled, and her fingertips grazed the shoulder on which she had cried countless tears. “It wasn’t because you were there for me in the midst of the sorrow. It’s more than that. It’s the way you microwave M&Ms, so they are melted inside, the way you throw the football with my little brother, and the way you sing Davey the wrong lyrics to ‘You are my Sunshine.’ ”
His laugh freshened the air between them, and it was as if she could fully breathe for the first time.
“I hope you know, David wanted this for us.” Jake retrieved his wallet from his back pocket and pulled out a folded slip of paper. He handed it to Julia. When she recognized David’s handwriting, she stepped away.
It’s time for you to cut in on our dance, brother. But she won’t say yes if you never ask her.
She placed the note on the coffee table, and caught Jake’s glance.
“I see you have your dancing shoes on.” He strolled across the room, not stopping until his cheek skimmed hers. She surrendered to his arms as they tightened around her waist. She rested one hand on the nape of his neck and the other over his heart.
“I love you, Julia.” Even Nat King Cole’s crooning could not compete with the velvety sound of those words on Jake’s lips. He lowered his face to hers. She drank in his sweet breath until his warm lips brushed hers. “Dance with me?”
“Happily,” she sighed, and with the hope of a lifetime of joy she kissed him once again.
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May God bless you this Christmas season,