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The Heart of Christmas

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Two weeks until Christmas and he couldn't wait for it to come and go. Not that he had someplace he had to be or presents he had to buy. Nothing like that. He'd never had a Christmas and he never expected to. Maybe that was it. The whole damn world seemed hyped up for it and it left him feeling kind of bummed out, like he was the only one not "getting ready" for the holiday.

It seemed every place he went from the grocery store to the gas station had decorations out, and every job he showed up at the customer would ask him, "So do you have plans for the holidays?" He'd been plumbing for 10 years now, since he was 18, and he'd finally figured out how to answer that question, "Yeah, goin' to my Mom's place, you know, the usual holiday dinner." He didn't like to lie but in this case it just seemed easier for everyone. The customers didn't want to hear he wasn't celebrating and he damn sure didn't want to explain. A little white lie saved everyone from feeling uncomfortable.

When he was a kid he always wondered what it would be like to have a big Christmas. Trees, presents, Santa coming and a turkey or a ham in the oven, maybe even both. When he got older he put those thoughts aside. Nowadays he usually got on his bike early Christmas morning and went for a long ride, then home for a couple of beers and a steak. Grateful when Christmas day was done.

There was just a week and a half to go and he was feeling restless. It was Friday after work and he decided what the hell, he headed down to a little joint he knew to drink a couple. It was kind of a mellow place, no band or anything like that. They had a good sound system, the beer was cold and there was pool, shuffleboard and darts. Maybe all that bullshit would take his mind off whatever the hell was bumming him out.

He walked in and right away he shook his head, of course, the backbar was all lit up with Christmas lights, a fake tree and a plastic Santa. He stepped up to the bar, ordered a tall cold one and sat his ass on the stool. He was on his second swallow when he felt it, a hand on his back. Not threatening, not intimidating, it was a light touch, a woman's touch. He turned his head and there she was.

She was damn cute with a big smile and pretty blue eyes, eyes that had that slightly glassy look. The look that told him she'd had more than one. She simply said, "Hey you."

He wondered if maybe he knew her and just couldn't place her. No, that couldn't be, he was sure if he'd have met this woman he'd remember her. But he asked just to be sure, "Hey yourself, do I know ya?"

"No but maybe you'd like to. I'm Beth Greene, what's your name?"

His brother had a pain in the ass sense of humor, and if Merle wasn't tucked away in state prison for the next two years he would have been sure he put her up to this. He kept his answer short, "I'm Daryl Dixon."

Just as bold as could be she asked, "Are you here with someone?"

He wasn't sure what the fuck was up and he was no conversationalist. He simply answered, "No, just out ta get my drink on."

She wasn't the kind to give up easily, "Oh good, then let's hang out Daryl. Let me just get another drink."

Suddenly he got a shot of courage, he shrugged and offered, "Lemme get ya one, whaddya drinkin'?"

"How nice, thanks. It's a Fuzzy Navel."

"Ain't that made with peach schnapps?'

"Yes, and it's yummy."

"Pft, once ya try a real drink you'll never go back ta that shit. But if that's what ya been drinkin' ya best not change now."

The drinks came, the music played and rather than sit she stood next to his stool, kind of swaying to the music. She made small talk with him and it was no big deal. The good news was she never asked him what he was doing for Christmas. Mostly they talked about everyday things. What they liked to do and the music they preferred, they even talked about the crazy weather they'd been having. The whole time she just kept dancing around, drinking her Fuzzy Navels, and touching him. It wasn't too suggestive and he didn't really mind. She'd touch his hand or his arm, his back. She was the touchy type. He was okay with it, coming from her.

He asked her about her job and she told him she was an administrative assistant at a law firm, "It's not as big a deal as it sounds like. It's kind of the new name for secretaries."

She asked him what he did and he told her, "I'm a plumber."

"You must be busy all the time, everyone always needs a plumber," and she went on talking it up like he was a brain surgeon. That made him laugh. A lot of what she said made him laugh. It wasn't so much what she said it was how she said it and the smile on her lips and, yeah, she was real cute. He liked her a lot and she'd gotten him out of his blue mood.

What was bothering him was he was pretty sure she had something bothering her. He thought he detected quite a bit of sadness behind that happy smile.

He cut himself off after the first two, he hadn't had dinner and he had a job to go to first thing in the morning. He didn't usually take Saturday calls but it was double time and he wasn't going to turn that down. Beth kept right on drinking though and she was getting pretty out there. He knew it for sure when she looked him right in the eye and said, "Can you give me a ride home?"

He rolled his shoulders and answered, "Yeah sure, ya shouldn't be drivin' anyway." And when they got outside she hung her arms over his shoulders and asked, "What do you wanna do now? Go to your place or mine?"

He couldn't believe it. She didn't seem like the kind to just take some random guy home from the bar. He answered, "Uh yeah, how bout I take ya ta your place. C'mon, I'll help ya in the truck, and hey sorry, it's my work rig." He helped her up and as soon as he got in she scooted right over next to him. Her head was on his shoulder and her hand was on his thigh and he liked both those things.

He asked her where she lived and it was a good thing he knew the neighborhood, he was pretty sure she wasn't really up to telling him how to get there. But oh man, she was getting to him. Her hand was now rubbing his thigh and she whispered, "I like you Daryl. You're nice. Why don't you just stay with me tonight?"

Damn he wanted to. She was sweet and pretty and he'd like to have a shot at a woman like her. But she was also drunk. As much as he'd like to do what him and her both wanted, he knew he couldn't. He'd never feel right about himself and she deserved better. She was drunk and he suspected she'd been lonely and he wasn't going to take advantage of her.

She couldn't get the key in the door, he took it from her and they went in. He flipped on the lights and the place was real cute. It was small and decorated with a lot of girlie type stuff, throw pillows and paintings, flowers and candles and for some reason that made him smile.

He knew it was best he leave, she needed to sleep it off, "Hey Beth, it was real nice meetin' ya tonight, but I need ta get home. I got a job ta be at first thing in the mornin'."

Her arms went around his neck and she was real wobbly. He wrapped his arms around her waist to keep her steady. She felt good and he was so tempted when she asked him again, "But Daryl, I want you to stay."

It took all he had to say, "Yeah I know girl, I wanna stay too. Maybe another night, k?"

She answered, "Okay," and just like that she was out like a light. He was glad he'd been hanging onto her or she would have hit the deck. He picked her up in his arms, smiled down at her and said, "You're the prettiest drunk I know Beth Greene."

In such a small place it was no big deal to find her bedroom. He set her on her feet next to the bed and kept a firm arm around her waist while he pulled the quilt back on her bed. He picked her up again, laid her down and slipped off her shoes. He pulled the quilt up over her, whispered, "G'night Beth Greene," bent down and kissed her forehead.

He'd heard it drop and after looking for a minute he found her cell phone on the floor. He set it on the night table by her bed and a thought occurred to him. He took a business card and pen from his shirt pocket and wrote a little note on the back. "It was real nice meeting you Beth. I'd like it if ya called me sometime." He set the note under her phone and her house keys next to the phone.

He looked at her again, laying there so pretty. She was fun and sweet and funny and he'd like to have something with her, but he damn sure didn't want to be her Friday night mistake. He kissed her on the forehead again and whispered, "I wanted ta stay."

He had some trouble sleeping, he was thinking about her. People make mistakes and she'd made one, but he'd like to think it wasn't a habit of hers. He hoped she'd sleep okay and that she didn't get sick or have a bad a hangover. Finally he slept.

He got to the job at seven, ran a water line to the icemaker of the guy's new refrigerator, changed out his old dishwasher and garbage disposal with new ones and by 9:30 he was done for the day. He stopped on his way home to fuel up the work rig, ran it through the car wash, and picked up a few groceries. He was home by 11. He put the groceries away then had a fast shower. He was ready to take himself on a bike ride, and then his cell phone rang. Caller Unknown.

"Dixon's Plumbing, how can I help ya."

She'd been trying to get up the guts to call him all morning, she was so embarrassed she just wanted to crawl in a hole and die. But she swallowed and she breathed and she said, "Hi Daryl, it's Beth. From last night?"

A smile spread across his face, "Yeah, hey Beth. How ya feelin' today, alright?"

He sounded just as nice as the night before. The words spilled out of her fast, "I've felt better but considering how much I drank I guess I'm doing pretty good. Listen Daryl, I'm really sorry. I know my behavior was…well it wasn't good and I'm sure I was obnoxious, I probably embarrassed you, I know I embarrassed myself, and I'm so sorry. Thank you for being such a gentleman and getting me home safe and for...for...for not doing what I offered."

"Hey, it's alright. Ya had a rough night but it's all good now." He took a breath and took a chance, "Um, hey ya think you're up for a ride? I's just gonna take my motorcycle out for a couple hours. We can stop for sumthin' ta eat too. Whaddya think?"

She wasn't feeling that great, she'd planned to go back to bed, but she wasn't going to mess up with him again. "Thank you Daryl, that sounds like a lot of fun. Can you give me a half hour to get ready?"

"Yeah sure, oh, I don't s'pose ya got a helmet do ya?"

"No."

"K, well I got an old one I can use and you can use my new one. I'll be by soon, k?"

"Great, and thanks again Daryl."

"Nah, thank you Beth."

She heard the roar of the bike and she was both excited to see him again and dreading seeing him again. How could she possibly look him in the eye after the way she'd behaved. She reminded herself he was a good guy. He hadn't taken advantage of her when he so easily could have, and he wasn't coming over for a booty call now. He'd asked her to go for a ride and to grab a bite. It was a real date with a nice guy.

The knock came and she took a breath, whispered "just be yourself this time" and opened the door with a smile. He looked as shy and nervous as she felt when he said, "Hey, hi Beth, um I got the helmets, ya ready?"

"Yes, let me just put my hair up in a ponytail, I think that will work out better. Oh, and come in." She could see it all over him, he was uncomfortable, he probably didn't know what he should say any more than she knew what she should say. But she felt that sudden need to explain herself. "You know what Daryl, before we go for our ride I think maybe we should sit down and talk about last night. Can we?"

He was chewing on the side of his thumb and she saw his Adam's apple quickly moving up and down as he swallowed nervously, "Um, yeah sure if ya want." And he plopped himself down in the small side chair. She wanted to laugh and say, ahhh, he looked so adorable. The rough biker dude in his long sleeved black shirt, black leather vest, jeans and motorcycle boots sitting in her small floral armchair. Perfection.

"Can I get you something to drink or anything?"

"No, um thanks, I'm fine."

She sat across from him and began trying to explain, "The first thing I want to say is thank you so much Daryl. Thank you for getting me safely home and for being a real man and a real gentleman, and not taking advantage of me being such a stupid drunk."

"Hey now girl, don't talk about yourself like that. Everybody screws up some time an last night was your turn. That don't make ya stupid. Besides, I could see sumthin' was goin' on an you were tryin' ta drink it away." He shrugged his shoulders and continued, "As far as whatever else, I wasn't gonna take advantage." Then he suddenly appeared so shy, and he didn't look right at her when he said, "You was hard ta resist though."

He made her forget her own embarrassment for a minute, she laughed and said, "Well thanks for that." Then her face got so sad and serious looking she told him, "Christmas was always my favorite time of the year. I grew up on a farm and my folks were so old-fashioned and that's how we celebrated, the old-fashioned way. We strung popcorn and cranberries to hang from the tree. We made ornaments from dough and gingerbread men. There was hot cocoa and homemade gifts Christmas morning. I didn't even know how good I had it, I do now."

He'd never had any of that stuff but it sounded nice and she looked so melancholy, if that's what she liked then he wished she could have it. But why didn't she? "What happened?"

"Oh so many things have changed. Three years ago my mother and brother caught some strange virus, they fought hard but they didn't make it."

She'd paused, trying not to cry and he said, "I'm real sorry girl, that's awful."

"Yeah, it was hard. Daddy was just never the same. He decided to sell the farm because of the memories and move to town. It was all downhill after that. I lost him earlier this year. I still have my sister but she doesn't live around here anymore. She married a nice guy from Michigan and they live up there. Anyway, I guess it all just hit me, what with Christmas coming and everything."

"Fuck girl, I mean, sorry, that's a lot ta deal with."

"No I'm the one who's sorry, I'm putting a big damper on this day, aren't I? I just wanted to try and explain why you found me in the shape I was in last night. I told myself if I'd just get out and quit thinking about things I'd feel better. That might have been true if I'd gone somewhere else, the bar was a bad choice. Shoot I'd hardly ever even had a drink."

He was glad she got to tell her story, get it off her chest and explain herself, but the mood needed to lighten. He smiled and told her, "Well the good news is ya dance real cute when you're drinkin' and ya still remembered where ya live."

He made her laugh and then she said something that made them both blush, "The best news is I met a real good man and no matter what else ever happens Daryl, I'll always remember there is one true gentleman still left in this crazy world. Now tell me about you, what are your Christmas traditions?"

He didn't like talking about all that shit in his life but she'd been so honest it made him feel like he should be honest too, "It was different for me. I never really had a Christmas. I mean, well these days I got customers and vendors and sometimes they'll give me a card with some cash or buy me a bottle, but when I was a kid, no. My folks weren't…well Mama, it's not a good story but she died young mostly cuz she liked her wine. I's eight. My Dad was mean, hateful and hurtful. Let's just say he left more than one mark on Mama, my brother and me. I still got my brother but he has a fondness for crystal, he's doing a little time in the pen." He laughed but not like he thought it was funny, it was more of a resigned laugh. "We ain't exactly a Christmas-y family."

She was stunned and she felt terrible knowing how his life had been, but something told her to downplay it a little. "I'm sorry Daryl, life seems so unfair sometimes. Thank you for trusting me with your story."

He stood from his chair, reached out a hand to her and said, "Pft, yeah, well thanks. Now how bout ya get that hair in a ponytail and we hit the road."

She laughed as she stood and said, "Yes, please let's get off all this morbid stuff and have some fun." She felt better for telling him, grateful he'd shared with her, and excited to be going for a ride with someone she was liking more and more.

She came out of her room with her hair in a ponytail and wearing a pink puffy jacket and he smiled when he said, "If we're gonna be ridin' together on the regular we're gonna need ta get ya some leathers," and they both blushed again.

"Ya ever been on a bike?"

"Yes, but just on the back of my brother's dirt bike and just on the farm."

"Well that's good, ya know the feel then. We're gonna have a little smoother ridin' today. Here, lemme get this helmet on ya." When he leaned in to tighten the chin strap he did something that surprised them both. He kissed her.

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It was just what she needed, what they called the freedom of the road. He was doing all the work and she was just trying to think about all the things she had to be grateful for, including the man she had her arms wrapped around.

He'd been feeling blue since right before Thanksgiving but now things were so much better and it was Beth that made them better. Maybe it was kind of a good thing that it all started off the way it did. In a way it forced them to be open and to talk about stuff right from the start. He never did that, opened up and talked, but he'd done it with her and it did feel like a weight had been lifted.

He rode to a little place he knew about 40 miles away and when he pulled in next to all the other bikes it dawned on him, shit, this probably wasn't her thing. They got off the bike and he asked, "I didn't think about it, but it's kind of a biker hang out, well not kind of, it is. We can get right back on the bike if ya don't wanna go in."

She took his hand and their fingers wove together and she smiled, "Are you kidding? I've never been anywhere like this and I never would venture in without you. I'm pretty excited to experience it."

He laughed, a real laugh, "Well I don't know what there is to experience 'cept a lotta biker trash drinkin' beer an playin' pool, but they got good food."

The country music was blasting from the jukebox, the pool balls were bangin' into each other and the talk was loud, boisterous and laced with every cuss word known to man. They were sitting at the bar, him with a draft beer and her with a ginger ale, and he looked worried when he leaned in and in a low voice asked, "Ya sure it's alright?"

She answered back in a soft voice, "It's great. Daryl please don't worry, I'm having so much fun with you today."

He smiled, squeezed her hand and told her, "Cool. If you're happy I'm happier."

It was long passed dark when he got her home. On the ride to her place he remembered something, he'd heard about it from the woman who did his bookwork. She and her family had been to this place a couple of Christmases ago and Jacqui couldn't stop going on about how great it was. He thought maybe it might be just the place to cure the blues.

They were in her living room, he had his hands on her hips and they were smiling. It had been a great day and they both had that feeling like something right was happening, "I heard about a place, it's down in Florida, about a three hour drive. Anyway, it's s'posed ta be really cool at Christmastime an I thought, if ya don't have ta work and if ya want, maybe we could go there next Saturday."

She didn't even know what or where he was talking about but looking in those icey blue eyes she didn't really care. She'd trusted him so far and so far it was wonderful, "I think I'd love to go just about anywhere with you Daryl."

He took her face in his hands and he kissed her so warmly and with so much feeling she worried she might tip over, "Damn Beth, I don't know how I got so lucky but I'm sure as hell glad I did."

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He called her the next day and apologized, "Listen, the deal with this place, I didn't even think about it. I guess all the real good stuff, ya know the lights an all, it's at night and well I guess it's best when ya go there ta just go ahead an spend the night an well, shit, I guess I could just get two rooms."

"Daryl, please, there's no reason to apologize or to spend money for two rooms. I'm so excited to go and I'm not worried about a thing. Oh, and something else. I think I owe you a good meal. Why don't you come by about four today, we can watch the game and have some dinner?"

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Monday night he called her, they chatted a while and it was all good, but Tuesday that dark cloud started to form. He convinced himself it wasn't him she liked, she was just lonely. He was just a port in the storm and after Christmas she'd probably tell him to move along. He couldn't deal with that.

He got home from work, showered up and got on the bike. At first he just rode around kind of aimlessly, trying to clear his head, but it wouldn't clear. He found himself pulling up at her place.

When she opened the door he had that look on his face, like he was determined about something. "Hi, I wasn't expecting you but I'm glad you're here. Come in."

She knew something was wrong, he'd probably come to his senses, he probably thought he was making a mistake. After all, the way she'd acted in the bar, how did he know that wasn't the real her? "Can I get you a drink or anything?"

"Nah, I just need ta ask ya sumthin."

"Alright, sure. Do you wanna sit?"

"No, it ain't gonna take long an I gotta go eat some dinner n stuff. It's just, well I'ma be honest with ya Beth." He chewed oh his lower lip, then the side of his thumb, nodded his head a couple of times and finally spoke, "I ain't one ta have girlfriends an such. Truth is I never have had a regular girl, like a steady or sumthin'. I always have thought if someone came along an I fell for her, that was gonna be it, there'd be no goin' back."

He was quiet for a moment; her heart was beating fast and she didn't know what might be coming next. She also had no idea what to say, "Alright."

"I dunno, so I'ma just ask ya. Are ya hangin' out with me just cuz you're lonely? If that's all it is then I gotta cut my losses now."

"Wow, that's to the point. I hadn't thought about it but I can see why you might think that, and no." She thought it was best to be honest, why hold back now, "I'm hanging out with you because I think you're a great guy and I want you in my life."

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He was at her house at noon, he gave her a sweet little kiss and smiled, "Hey you, ya ready?"

"I'm so excited Daryl, are you going to finally tell me what this is all about?"

"Soon as we're in the pickup an on our way."

He helped her in and when he got in she slid right over next to him, "Alright, I've waited all week. Let's hear it."

"The lady who does my bookkeepin' told me about it. It's a place down in Florida called Defuniak Springs. Every year they put on a big deal at Christmas called 'Christmas Reflections.' They got like six million lights reflectin' off the lake an all kinds a other stuff goin' on. I never thought too much about it when she told me, not til I met you Beth, then I thought maybe it would make your Christmas special."

She had tears in her eyes and she slid even closer to him as her hand lightly squeezed his thigh. She tried to explain what it meant, "Daryl, you amaze me. You…well I'm amazed. Thank you."

They didn't really know much about the place or what they should expect so he just found a parking place and they took off walking. It seemed they had the idea at the same time, their hands came together, they locked fingers and smiled at each other.

The lake was beautiful and it, and everything around it was decked out for the holiday. He never would have imagined himself walking around and enjoying such a place, it wasn't exactly the Dixon way, but he was enjoying being there with her. There were all kinds of Christmas displays, and a craft market with Victorian, animal and toy soldier cutouts. Beth got all excited about the full-size Santa's workshop and they stayed to watch as children excitedly told the big man what they wanted for Christmas. Daryl's eyes were on her as she watched the kids and the feeling just came to him, she'd be a good Mama someday.

Someone told them to check out the old church but he was a little reluctant, "I ain't ever been in a church Beth, the place might burn down."

She laughed as she told him, "I doubt they're having services right now, I think we'll be safe. Come on." He was glad they did, it was a sight like no other as the last of the afternoon sun streamed through the large stained-glass window at the front of the old church.

They had dinner and then they did something that was new to both of them. They took a ride in a horse drawn carriage all the way around the lake. His arm was around her shoulder as she nestled into him and as they rode they looked in awe at the six million Christmas lights strung in the trees and foliage. Those six million lights transformed to twelve million as they reflected off the calm water of the beautiful lake.

When their ride was over they visited the bigger than life Nativity Scene, all surrounded by twinkling trees; and what helped make it all so special for him was how much she was enjoying everything.

They went to the pickup and he got their overnight duffles, and they walked to the nearest hotel, the Hotel DeFuniak. They were pleasantly surprised as they entered the lobby, it was so beautifully decorated for the holiday. Even he was impressed by the lavishly decorated trees and they walked slowly around taking it all in. They were what he imagined real trees ought to look like, not made of plastic and not on a backbar.

He requested a room, "Um better give us the one with two queens."

She went in the bathroom and he flipped the TV on low, propped the pillows and crooked an arm behind his head as he laid back on one of the bed. She smiled at him as she came from the bathroom. The other bed wasn't really needed, she snuggled in next to him and laid her head on his shoulder. "This day was so special Daryl. It's the most thoughtful gift I've ever received, thank you for giving it to me."

His arm went around her as he spoke, "I'm the one ta thank you. I'da never done sumthin' like this if not for you. This is my first Christmas Beth, the first time I ain't dreaded the very idea of it. You made it all mean sumthin' ta me, ya made it special."

"I never thought I'd have another happy Christmas, but Daryl, you made it all so wonderful. I hope we can come back again some time."

"Yeah? I think we should come back every year, we'll start our own family tradition."

It must have been Christmas Magic. Two sad and lonely people came together and found happiness and love, and the spirit of Christmas filled their hearts.

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