Iris tried to focus on the positive. Jordan and Shannon were kind. They had taken the seed from her dream and planted it. People would see the kindness, and it would grow. But no matter how many times and how many ways she thought about it, she reached the same conclusion. They had done a better job of showing care, and it taunted her.
The constant back and forth between indignation and remorse grew into a headache Iris couldn’t tolerate. She needed to escape the walls that seemed to be closing in on her. Iris stuffed the packages she was going to mail into a white corrugated bin.
“Rose, do you mind watching the store? I’m going to take these packages to the post office.”
Rose held up her blanket that was near completion. “I’m not going anywhere for the next hour.”
Iris bundled in her coat, hat, scarf, and snow boots set about her escape. The snowfall was deep enough to blur the lines between the sidewalk and the dead grass on either side. Iris envied the older women inside. She had shoveled the pavement before the store opening, and she’d have to do it again when she returned from her errands.
On the way to the post office, the familiar sites comforted Iris. Teens who were once children in her craft class waved hello through the window of the coffee house. The owner of the cafe called out a greeting before popping back inside the restaurant. They were two weeks away from Christmas and the town bustled with holiday excitement.
George, the postmaster greeted her jovially. “How is our Jitterbug Princess doing today?”
Wearing his navy blue sweater for warmth and his glasses perched on his nose, George looked like someone out of a television program that featured small towns. Iris froze the image of him with poinsettias at the edge of the counter and stacks of boxes behind him in her mind. Caught up in the joy he enthused, Iris replied, “Happy now that I get to see you.”
“It goes both ways.” George pulled her bin of packages behind the counter. Iris remembered when George first started working at the Paradise Hills post office. It was a little over ten years ago. Quiet almost to the point of brooding, George barely interacted with Iris when she visited for business. At the time, Iris suspected it was because he was a grumpy old man in the making.
He was her most challenging Holiday Kisses recipient. George never had his back turned long enough for her to slip him a note, and he was rarely seen outside of the small yellow brick building. Then one day, she left a plastic container of cookies on the hood of his car with one of her notes. A couple of days afterward, Iris caught a hint of a smile when he weighed a package she was mailing. She knew her gift had hit the mark. Every four to five days after that, Iris left him a half dozen cookies less the note. On the last day, she found a note scribbled within a manila envelope addressed to the Cookie Angel.
“Dear Cookie Angel,
Thank you. I appreciate the gift of cookies. They are delicious and remind me of my mother, who passed away shortly before my move to Paradise Hills. I don’t feel so lonely anymore.”
Iris still had the note tucked away in her desk at the store, but she hadn’t seen it in a while. Christmas bells jingled, and George glanced up from his task of adding the postage stickers to Iris’s package. “I’ll be with you in a moment.”
“Take your time.” Iris bristled at the recognition of Jordan’s voice. She took in a breath to calm her nerves.
“How’s it going?” Jordan’s voice projected confidence. More confidence than Iris could handle. But what does one do during the holidays? They act happy.
“Pretty good,” Iris said. “I heard someone shoveled Larissa and Helen’s front porch.”
“I saw that when I tried dropping off…” Jordon cut off his sentence.
Iris threw a sharp stare that demanded he finish what he started. “I knew you were going to accept my help, so I got an early start.”
The rumble of a dropped package distracted both Iris and Jordan from the conversation. “I’m sure you and Shannon have a lot of things in the works.”
At the same time, George and Jordan said, “Shannon?”
Iris passed George her card to pay for the postage. She had a choice, out Jordan and Shannon, or change the subject. Leaning forward and glancing around the room to act like she was divulging a secret, Iris said, “Shannon and Jordan are planning a surprise for the mayor.” It was a truth hidden in a vague statement. A surprise for the mayor could have been anything, and if Shannon was involved, Rod would eventually know about his daughter’s newest project.
“Oh.” George nodded at Jordan as if to say your secret is safe with me.
As she circled around to leave, Iris patted Jordan on the arm and said, “Your secret is safe.”
For the entire walk home, Iris scolded herself. She should have apologized to Jordan for behaving like a child the night before. The commitment to follow through with the intention hadn’t quite solidified when Iris saw Jordan’s company pickup parked in front of the craft store. Her heart wanted to run into Jordan’s arms for a hug and apologize for being harsh with him in the post office. Her bruised ego needed more time to settle down. Iris didn’t know what got into her, but she hoped whatever it was would run its course so things would get back to normal.
Jordan clipped his keys on his carabineer and circled around the back of his work truck. “What was that about at the post office?”
“Well…” She pushed at the snow with her toe. Pieces of dead grass poked out from the empty space. She was in her mid-thirties. It was time to accept her faults and move on from there. Iris shrugged at a loss for what to say. “Let’s face it. You and Shannon have always done a better job than me. It makes sense that you’d team up.”
“You’re putting words in my mouth.” Jordan’s angry retort surprised Iris. She expected “I told you so,” or “that’s okay. I still like you,” or maybe a “no, we’re not.”
The contradiction between hopes and expectations set her off. “Let’s see.”
She raised her thumb. “You’re doing it wrong.”
“I didn’t mean it the way it sounded.” Jordan pulled on his ear at first; then, he grimaced. It was as though hearing his words with Iris’s voice added something he hadn’t thought of when he initially pleaded his case.
The next finger followed. “You could do so much more for people.”
“It could be a part of the town’s identity.” Iris raised a third finger.
She shrugged away her disappointment of all that had gone wrong so she could do the right thing. “I just wanted to do something kind. Your vision is great, and it goes beyond anything I ever intended. And that is good. You and Shannon go for it.”
Jordan squinted. “Why does it feel like we’re breaking up?”
“Probably because I realize you need so much more than I can give you.” Iris wished she were wrong. Other than her heart pleading for Jordan to love her, everything pointed toward Jordan and Shannon being better than her. They’d be better off without her.
“You know what I think,” Jordan’s eyes darkened. “You’re mad because you won’t get all the attention.”
“Whoa! What!” Iris had worked fifteen years for the exact opposite. She still didn’t know how Jordan reached the conclusion that this was about her.
“Think about it. You give the gift to people, and you watch. You’re getting more attention than if you straight up gave the gift to them.”
Iris’s throat felt like someone had dumped a cup of gravel in it.
When Jordan added, “Everyone gets excited,” the scratches combined into a large rock she couldn’t clear away.
Iris couldn’t argue her defense. The possibility that Jordan was right muffled anything she could have said to defend herself.
“Then they chatter about this anonymous person that is in the room. Now you’re mad because it will go to someone else.” The matter of fact tone he used chilled every feeling Iris ever had toward him.
Her voice was lost. If she dared to speak, Iris knew she’d cry. Instead, she nodded to say she heard what he said and hurried down the path to her house. The next thing she knew, the air was knocked out of her lungs, and she had a perfect view of the sky.
“For the love of Martha Stewart!” Iris pounded her fist into the ground. “Can this day get any worse!”
The next thing she knew, Jordan was at her side, grabbing at her shoulder to help her up. “Don’t touch me,” Iris cried. Grateful that she had the fall to disguise the reason behind her tears, she rolled to her side. Mirroring the awkwardness of a camel, elbows first, then knees, then feet, Iris regained her composure. “Don’t talk to me. I don’t know how I could have ever been in love with you.”
Confident that she was on the grass, Iris stomped up the porch, and through the door and marched to the bathroom, where she could mend her wounded ego in privacy.
Iris splashed cold water on her face to wipe away the tears to have to repeat the process a couple of seconds later. She pointed to herself in the mirror. “You are not too talk to Jordan Miller ever again.” Which made Iris cry some more. Why had she wasted so many years? She acted like a puppy waiting for a bit of affection. Then when Jordan gave it to her, Iris crumbled. Never again. Iris promised herself.
A soft tapping on the door preceded her Grandma Rose’s gentle inquiry. “Iris? Honey? Is everything okay in there?”
Iris swallowed her bitterness. “Yes, I’ll be out in a minute.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Rose Sinclair was a persistent woman. Many times, she said it was her not so hidden secret. “Don’t take no for an answer. Ask the question a different way until you get the answer you want.”
It was also how Iris learned the subtle art of answering a question with a question. “Can we wait until later?”
“I’ll give you five minutes.” Rose was also the queen of bypassing the question and forcing the resolution she wanted.
Iris opened the door. “I did what you said. I shared my dream. Except now, I don’t want it anymore.”
“Slow down, darling.” Rose wedged her way into the bathroom and wrapped a supportive arm around Iris’s shoulder. “Let’s have some tea and talk about it.” She ushered Iris into the creative corner and sat her in the rocking chair. Larissa, Helen, and Rose listened with sympathetic frowns of concern.
Iris started, “Jordan found out I was the Holiday Kisses Angel.”
“You shoveled my lawn?” Helen asked.
“No, it was Jordan and Shannon.”
“You’re having a disagreement with Jordan because he lied to his grandmother about shoveling our paths?” Larissa’s brow wrinkled. She turned to Helen as though she was trying to reconcile the contradiction between the intent and the outcome.
“No, we had a disagreement because he and Shannon said they could do a better job than me.” She gestured toward Helen, “Obviously he was right. I never thought to help you with your yard.”
“And you got mad?” Her face scrunched as though she wanted to understand but couldn’t.
“No, I’m happy they helped you. I just get tired of Jordan and Shannon’s message that they’ve always done things better than me.”
“Oh, honey.” Rose patted Iris’s hand. “Kindness is one of those things that can’t be measured. There is no better or worse.”
Rose whispered to her friends, “We may need to put our heads together and find her a male companion.”
“Grandma!” Iris exclaimed.
“Don’t Grandma me, Iris Sinclair. I can tell you this now. Most of us already knew you were the Holiday Kisses Angel. And you were doing a wonderful job. There’s a whole host of people doing random acts of kindness because they want to be like you. It’s time someone gave you a little bit of some special attention.”
“I don’t need special attention.” Iris, envisioning a line of men being introduced by Simon in her future, thought it was best to set the record straight.
“Like a fairy doesn’t want powdered sugar, coated gingerbread.”
“Speaking of gingerbread.” Helen pulled a tin out of her handbag. “These cookies have been known to soothe a broken heart. Of course, time with the ladies goes with the prescription.”
“Yes, you can help us finish the blanket,” Larissa added.
“We’ll talk about pleasant things like holiday crafts and that charming man who just started working at the radio station.”
Iris didn’t want gingerbread, or the cute guy who worked at KPHM. She wanted what she couldn’t have: Jordan to love her before he discovered her secret. Even worse, she didn’t have a Santa to guide her toward a gift that would make her happy.