Thank you so much for signing up for my newsletter! I hope you enjoy my historical Western romance novella, The Christmas Switch! (If you haven’t signed up for my newsletter yet, you can do so on the signup page.) On this blog post, I’d like to share another Christmas story with you. I wrote this one several years ago, and it’s contemporary, but the other day at our Pinkerton Matchmaker launch party, I met a lovely woman who mentioned that she works in a nursing home. I then told her about this story which I had written and promised I would share it with her. And then I thought I should share it with all of you, too. If you’re like me, you can’t read too many Christmas stories, right?
This one is called Knight in Red Armor. Enjoy!
That ornery old cuss was at it again! Every time Lexie Marsden turned around, Mr. Hudson was ringing that blasted buzzer. The bed sheets kept bunching up underneath his legs or his pillow slid down his backside, he said. On her best days, Lexie was able to grin and bear Mr. Hudson’s constant complaining.
This was clearly not one of her best days.
With an inaudible sigh, Lexie asked, “What can I do for you, Mr. Hudson?”
“You can tell me when they plan on feeding us around here. Or do they intend to let us all starve?”
“It’s only ten-fifteen. Lunch will be served directly at noon.”
“That’s too long. I’m tired of always waiting on you, missy. What do you do all day, anyway?”
Nothing much, Lexie wanted to tell him, except take care of you and nine others six days a week. Wisely, she kept her mouth shut. One could never be too careful with Mr. Hudson. These days, the man was about as fun to be around as a broken Ferris wheel.
That isn’t nice, Lexie silently admonished herself while carefully schooling her features. Not exactly a nurse yet, she’d taken this job at Living Well Care Center as a way to pay for nursing school while gaining valuable experience. But lately, with an ever-growing stack of homework and debt that seemed to be doubling by the minute, Lexie had been doubting her nursing abilities—or any of her perceived accomplishments after her engagement to Wes fell through. The jerk had tried to force her to repay him for the thousand-dollar tickets he’d bought for a sold-out concert she’d had to cancel on when she came down with the flu. Yeah, a thousand dollars was a lot of money for a college student, but Lexie hadn’t asked Wes to buy the tickets in the first place.
Not only that, but what did his insistence that he get his money back say about their future? Lexie had the feeling that she’d just dodged a bullet.
Still, Wes’s parting words stung. “I knew you were too good to be true. You’re not willing to share your goods.”
“No,” Lexie had told him. “I want to be true to whomever I marry. And I’m tired of always fighting you over it.” A girl had to stand up for herself at times.
Lexie took a calming breath and said, “Mr. Hudson, I’m sorry you thought that lunch would be sooner. If you’d like, I could bring you a snack. What would you like? Fruit? Crackers?”
“What I want, dang it, is to get out of here. I’ve been stuck here for four days. I want to go home!”
Actually, Mr. Hudson had been living in the nursing home for the past four years, but it wouldn’t do any good to remind him of that. Five minutes later, he’d be singing the same tune.
Days like this that were both physically and mentally draining made Lexie want to crawl back into bed and pretend they never happened. Maybe she really wasn’t cut out for nursing. The ugly thought slammed through her muddled brain again, causing her shoulders to sag.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she said through stiff lips.
Fifteen minutes later, Lexie was just setting down a serving of fruit salad before Mr. Hudson when her phone signaled that she’d received a text message. She pulled it from her pocket and read the reminder for the Christmas party that was being held tonight for the singles group in her church. It sounded like fun with games, food and a white elephant gift exchange. Lexie even had her gift—a package of batteries, labeled: toy not included—all wrapped and ready to go.
“I don’t want no fruit salad, woman. I just want to get outta here!” Before Lexie could discern his meaning, bits of apple and banana hit her on the cheek and in the corner of her eye. Had Mr. Hudson really just thrown his fruit salad at her? Though the old coot had seemed out of sorts this morning, Lexie now knew that she’d underestimated his ire.
The guy was trapped in a deteriorating mind. He knew something was wrong, but he couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Logically, Lexie knew this and even felt sorry for him. But in that moment, she couldn’t take his rudeness any longer.
“Jean,” she called over the intercom. “Could you come to Room 16, please? I need your help with a situation.”
“Mr. Hudson again?”
“Be right there.”
All right. For the first time all morning, Lexie breathed a sigh of relief. She could take an early lunch herself right after she checked in on Mrs. Cranby.
Lexie almost didn’t go to the Christmas party, but her friend, Daysha, called and insisted on giving her a ride. Together, they walked into the pastor’s house after his wife greeted them. Daysha made a beeline to the refreshment table while Lexie hung back. It wasn’t like she was a stranger among these people, but she hadn’t hung out with them in a while. Plus, she’d always felt a little shy in social situations. Through the years, Lexie had learned that she fared better in one-on-one conversations rather than in group discussions. For some reason, a whole round of eyeballs trained on her made her freeze up. And then she stuttered and sounded like an idiot. Not a pretty sight.
“Hi, Lexie. We’re glad you made it tonight.” Pastor Reid guided her back where the others were mingling, hors d’oeuvres in hand.
From across the circle, Lexie’s eyes connected with a twenty-something man wearing a grayish-black button-down shirt with the sleeves pushed up, revealing sinewy forearms. Curly wheat-colored hair accentuated his mossy green eyes and strong jawline. His wide lips curved in a friendly smile. He stretched his arm out to shake her hand.
“Hi. Drake Daugherty. And you are?”
Before Lexie could answer, Daysha beat her to it. “This is Lexie Marsden.” Turning to her with raised brows, Daysha asked, “Lexie, you’ve met Drake, haven’t you?”
Gazing into Drake’s eyes, Lexie’s tongue momentarily knotted itself. “Um, I-I don’t think so.”
Daysha’s expression cleared after a moment. “Oh, that’s right. You were with Wes the first time Drake showed up.”
Drake’s brows shot up. He cocked his head toward Lexie. “Who’s Wes?”
“Oh, just a guy Lexie was dating, but they broke up.”
“Yeah,” another guy, Rich, spoke up. “They were pretty tight for a while or else I would’ve asked Lexie out.” He winked flirtatiously at Lexie, but his silly grin gave him away.
Lexie playfully punched his arm. Rich was always joking around. “Yeah, right.”
With a feigned grimace, he said, “No, it’s true. Really. And if that creep tries to get fresh with you again, Lex, you let me know. Now’s my chance to show you what a real man is like.”
Everybody laughed at Rich’s antics. Everyone, that is, but Drake. His eyes, which had been so mesmerizing a moment ago, narrowed as he glanced back and forth between the two of them, as if he couldn’t quite decide if Rich was serious.
“What happened to you and Wes, anyway?” a woman named Pamela asked.
An uncomfortable heat crept up Lexie’s neck. As she was deciding how to answer, Pastor Reid intervened. “Let’s give Lexie a break from all this talk, shall we? Who do you think will win the Bengals/Patriots game?”
“Bengals all the way!” Rich shouted in typical bravado.
A lively discussion broke out among the group, particularly with the guys, although Daysha put her two cents’ worth in from time to time. Lexie tuned their talk out while her mind replayed the humiliating discussion from a few moments earlier. She didn’t notice that Drake had moved next to her until he spoke in a low tone that only she could hear. “Sorry that I embarrassed you.”
Striving for an air of nonchalance, Lexie shoved a chunk of her dark hair behind her ear. “It’s no big deal.”
“Sounds like the gang has your back.”
“They’re really fantastic that way.”
He gave her a half-smile, which was fantastic, too.
Lexie continued, “We’ve been friends forever, it seems like. We’re more like siblings who argue—good-naturedly, of course—and then we get over it and move on.”
“So no one in this group actually graduates?”
It took a moment for Lexie to catch his meaning. “Of course, they do. We’ve had a few weddings this year.” She’d thought hers would be one of them, but oh well. Plans changed. Life went on. “It just doesn’t happen all that often, I guess because we’re having too much fun being single.”
Drake laughed dryly. “Yeah, I see your point. It’s so much fun juggling classes with a full-time job.”
Lexie added, “And getting dumped by an obnoxious boyfriend.”
“Hey, at least you weren’t stood up on the night of prom.”
“Oh, no.” Lexie cringed. “That happened to you?”
“Yeah,” Drake admitted with a shrug. “It took me almost ten years, but I’m over it now.” They stared at each other in mock seriousness before simultaneously bursting into laughter.
Clearing her throat, Lexie asked, “So what classes are you taking?”
“I actually just graduated with my masters degree and am waiting on my license to practice, and then I’ll be all set. I’ve interviewed for a couple of jobs.”
“That’s exciting. What do you do?”
“I’m an OT.”
Lexie nodded. Occupational therapy was a good field to go into right now. “The OT at the nursing home I work at is retiring soon. I’m not sure if they’ve found a replacement for him yet.”
“Which nursing home do you work for?”
“Living Well Care Center.”
“And do you enjoy it?”
“I do, for the most part, except when the residents become a little too, uh, spirited, for lack of a better word.”
His handsome face broke out into a knowing grin. “You mean ‘riled’?”
“You said it, not me.” Lexie’s said, recalling her earlier confrontation with Mr. Hudson. As the horrid moment of coming face- to-face with his fruit salad replayed itself in her mind, she realized too late that she’d unconsciously raised her hands to pick non-existent pieces of apple and banana off once again. And that Drake was staring at her as if she’d gone mental. Her hands came down with a jerk. Then, not knowing what else to do, Lexie reached for a cookie from the table and shoved it in her mouth.
Gulp! It stuck in her throat while trying to swallow. Oh, man. Who’d brought these? They were drier than crusty old bread. Tears stung her eyelids at the abrasion she suffered from her reckless actions.
“Are you okay?” Though his words were meant to show concern, Lexie had a feeling he was trying not to laugh at her.
“Fine,” she choked out, taking a swig of her punch.
Great! And all this time, Lexie had only thought she fared better conversing one-on-one with people. Where was Daysha when she needed her? Lexie searched frantically around the room. When had the others wandered off? Lexie fled the room in embarrassment and found them in the basement playing a game of ping-pong. Rather, Daysha and Rich were locked in an intense battle and the others were cheering them on.
After a while, Pastor Reid and his wife gathered the group upstairs around the warm fire for the white elephant gift exchange.
“I wonder who will get the Thighmaster this year,” Pamela said.
Daysha pierced her with an accusatory glare. “Didn’t you receive it last year? Darn! I didn’t see you come in with your gift. Which one is it?”
Pamela smiled secretively. “I guess you’ll find out.”
Drake held his hand up. “Wait! Are you saying that a Thighmaster makes the rounds every year?”
“Yep.” Daysha laughed. “It’s become the running joke. Whoever gets it sneaks it back in to pass off to someone else the next year.”
Shaking his head in disbelief, Drake broke out into a fit of laughter. Lexie smiled, liking the deep sound.
“Okay, I’m game. Let’s see who ends up with the infamous Thighmaster.”
In the end, Rich was the lucky winner. Show-off that he was, he plopped himself down on the floor and pretended to demonstrate the proper technique for using the contraption. Thankfully, Pastor Reid came to their rescue. “Lexie, I believe it’s your turn.”
At least she didn’t have to worry about that anymore. With a sigh of relief, Lexie made her way over to the small stack of brightly colored gifts. There were no name tags, of course. Hmm. The small gift bag or the large rectangular box? She picked each of them up and gently shook them to decipher the sounds they made. Only a rustling whisper came from inside the bag and from the box?—nothing! Whoever had wrapped this was a genius. Visions of crumbled newspapers filled her mind. Now she had to see what was really inside.
Anxiously, she tore the red- and white-striped paper from the box and opened it to reveal…another box within. A collective groan escaped from the crowd. The second box wasn’t as easy to open as the first with all the tape holding it together. She slit the last piece with her thumbnail and unfolded the flaps. A Scrabble game lay inside. Correction–the board but no letter tiles. Her brows crinkled in puzzlement.
“Being fairly new to this group, I thought I’d play it safe with the game,” Drake said. “I kept the tiles out so you wouldn’t be able to guess what was inside. They’re in my car. I’ll give them to you before you leave tonight.”
There was that half-smile again. It turned Lexie’s insides gooey, just like before. Stop it! she silently scolded herself. He’s probably just like Wes, warm and friendly on the outside but cold and lustful within.
There was no way that she was getting caught in a relationship like that again.
“Did you have fun?” Daysha asked Lexie on the drive home.
“Yeah. It was okay.”
“Just okay?” Daysha probed, turning her head toward Lexie.
“Don’t take your eyes off the road!” Lexie grabbed the steering wheel at the same moment a car whizzed by in the other lane.
“Relax, Lex.” Daysha quickly straightened the car, adding, “You looked like you were having such a good time and now you’re down in the dumps. Why?”
Surely it was the hot air from the vent that was warming her cheeks, right? No. Lexie sighed. She might as well tell her bestie the truth. “Drake asked me out for coffee.”
Just as she’d predicted, Daysha’s voice took on a happy lilt. “That’s great, Lex. What’d you tell him?”
“That I don’t drink coffee.”
“Seriously? Come on, Lex. You could’ve at least played along, told him you’d go for a hot cocoa instead.”
With a hard swallow, Lexie turned her gaze out the window. White flurries blurred the street lights.
“Lexie?” Daysha had softened her voice considerably. “Drake isn’t like Wes. You know that, right?”
Pressing her lips together to keep threatening tears at bay, Lexie waited for the worst to pass. “How can I be sure?”
“Look at him, Lexie. Really look at him. Do you know what you’ll see? Honesty and caring. He’s got nothing to hide. And he’s a true gentleman to boot.”
It sounded to Lexie like Daysha had already given him the onceover. “If you’re so enthralled with the guy, why don’t you have coffee with him?”
“Nah. I’ve got my sights set on someone else.”
“Who?” Her voice sounded sharper than she’d intended.
With a chuckle, Daysha said, “Let’s just say he’s now the proud owner of a Thighmaster.”
On Monday morning, as Lexie made her rounds at work, Lexie kept thinking about the party and couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d made a huge mistake. She liked Drake, had been drawn to him in a way that she’d never been with Wes. But one bad experience was enough to make her question her judgment. Better focus on this crazy thing called nursing school. If the rumors about the program were to be believed, she was going to have a tough time of it.
“You can do it! Don’t give up on your dream yet!” Psyching herself up every day was the only way she was going to get through it. Taking a deep breath, Lexie stiffened her spine and walked with renewed resolve into Mr. Hudson’s room.
But as the day wore on, her spirits sagged. The work was back-breaking and it seemed that the residents did their best to try her patience. Lexie struggled to keep her professional smile in place amid the cheerful Christmas lights and music playing softly in the hall.
“What’s the matter, dearie?” sweet ninety-eight-year-old Mrs. Cranby asked when Lexie came to take her to lunch. Though old age had weakened her care-worn body, her mind was still as sharp as ever. “I’ve been watching as you walked past my door all morning. Something’s bothering you.”
Glancing up in surprise at the keen woman’s observation, Lexie set the brakes on the wheelchair she’d propped near the bed. “Pardon?”
“You look a little glum today, if you don’t mind my saying so.” Mrs. Cranby’s thin, veined hands grasped her forearms as Lexie planted her feet more firmly to help her stand up and move into the wheelchair. “Have winter blues come upon you? Or is that rascal, Mr. Hudson, giving you a hard time again?”
“No more than usual.” Unlocking the brakes, Lexie wheeled her slowly out of the room. “How are you feeling today?”
“Oh, not too bad. My hip’s a little sore from where I slept on it, but other than that, I’m doing okay.” Lexie softly offered her condolences. “I heard there’s going to be a Christmas party.”
“Yes, on Saturday. We’ve had fun planning it. We hope all of you will enjoy it. We’ve got a musical program planned. Santa will even come a little later.”
Mrs. Cranby chortled. “I guess we all wish from time to time that we could go back to those carefree days when we believed in him.”
Sadly, Lexie acknowledged the truth of her statement. At the very least, it would give the residents an opportunity to mingle and forget their cares for a little while.
They arrived at their destination and Lexie pushed her up to a large table. After a moment of silence, Mrs. Cranby ventured, “So will you tell an old woman about your troubles?”
As Lexie hunched down to set the brakes, she peered into the woman’s faded blue eyes. Nothing but kindness met her gaze. Before she could control the impulse, her worries spilled out. She told Mrs. Cranby everything, including her doubts about nursing school and dating someone new. “I guess I’m a little confused,” she confided. “I thought I’d found my knight in shining armor in Wes. Apparently not.”
Mrs. Cranby patted her shoulder. “The funny thing about knights in shining armor is that most of them wear overalls and suspenders.”
Lexie’s head jerked back. She wondered if Mrs. Cranby had finally taken leave of her mental faculties. “What?”
Mrs. Cranby chuckled at her response. “At least, that’s what they wore back in my day. I’m talking about hard-working men.”
“Oh. Now, I see.”
“Do you?” The old woman’s sharp gaze pierced her soul. “My husband, John, was a modern-day knight. He slew many dragons, including wild animals on our property, foxes trying to get into our henhouse, thin tarpaper walls on cold winter nights, and hunger. Always the hunger. He didn’t wear shiny clothing. In fact, the only day of the week he dressed up was on Sundays when we went to church. But he was as honest and hard-working as the day was long. He cared for his own.”
“What did he do for a living?”
“Anything and everything from farming to manufacturing. During the Great Depression, we thought he’d finally found a good job working for a major cereal company in one of their factories, but six months after he started working there, they started laying off workers. John arose at three in the morning to see if there was enough work for him to do that day. Those who showed up at the regular time had no guarantee. Most were sent home. But with four mouths to feed, John was determined to provide. The good Lord blessed us with enough, nothing more.”
When Mrs. Cranby finished her story, Lexie was astonished to feel tears stinging her eyelids. Blinking the moisture away, she stood on stiff legs and ran a hand over cheeks. Then she reached down to give the old woman a hug. “Thank you for sharing, Mrs. Cranby. I’m sure you miss him very much.”
Her soft words and quiet conviction stayed with Lexie for the rest of the week. She decided she would not give up searching for her own knight in overalls and suspenders.
Saturday rolled around as clear as a summer morning, though the air was crisp and cold. The sun reflecting off the mounds of snow as she stepped out of her apartment temporarily blinded Lexie, but her heart felt lighter than it had in a long time.
The party at the nursing home was held near the end of her shift. The residents were brought to the main lobby before the musical program began. An a cappella group sang festive renditions of “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” and then settled into the melodious chords of “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “Silent Night.”
A few of the residents applauded after they finished, though most of them were unable to do so. Before they became too restless, a jingling sounded from the west wing. Jean, the CNA who had spelled Lexie last week after Mr. Hudson’s tirade, sat with him. They, along with the others, watched as Santa Claus entered the room with a flourish. “Ho! Ho! Ho!” Lexie watched, transfixed, as the icon set his bag of goodies down and circled around the lobby, stopping to give each resident a hug.
Even Mr. Hudson got into the spirit of the holiday. “Somebody must have given you bad directions, Santa. This ain’t no day care center.”
“Ho! Ho! Ho! Frank, don’t worry. I’ve got the right address.”
All of a sudden, Mr. Hudson’s dower face split into a wide grin. “I guess so, seeing as how you know my name.”
Lexie felt a grin forming on her own face at his shenanigans. One never knew what to expect from the old codger.
The residents waited gleefully as Santa pulled out gift after gift. Most of them were identical little boxes wrapped in gold foil and tied with a red ribbon. Lexie and the other CNAs helped those with limited abilities open their gifts, which were silver-plated snowflake ornaments. “Thank you,” several of them murmured, some of their voices sounding slurred.
The party ended and the CNAs wheeled the residents back to their rooms. Lexie helped Mrs. Cranby get settled and checked on a few others before clocking out. Walking back toward the employees’ lobby to retrieve her coat, Lexie was startled when a loud voice boomed, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” behind her.
She turned and stared at Santa in surprise. “Pardon?”
His beard twitched when he said with a laugh, “I have something for you too, Lexie, if you’ll follow me into the main lobby.”
At the familiar use of her name, Lexie froze. Who was the guy behind the beard? Hadn’t she heard his voice before? But where? Lexie followed Santa into the main lobby, which had been cleared of the party decorations and refreshments in an amazingly short time, save for one juice pitcher that was filled with dark liquid and two Styrofoam cups. She cleared her throat. “No offense, Santa, but what could you possibly have for me? You don’t even know me.”
“Are you sure about that?”
What? Lexie narrowed her eyes. Behind his glasses, which were part of his costume, she stared into the most arresting set of mossy green eyes. ”Drake?”
Slowly, he pulled his fake beard down and stepped closer. What she saw gave her hope even while leaving her shaking. He gestured to a smaller table off to the side. “I forgot to give you the letter tiles from the Scrabble game last weekend.”
In a daze, Lexie walked over to the table and read the tiles which had been arranged on a plain white mat. Hot cocoa instead? The question mark had been scribbled on one of the blank tiles.
She whirled on him. “How did you find me?”
Offering the half-smile that had captured her heart, Drake said, “I’m going to be the new OT after the first of the year. Playing Santa actually gave me an opportunity to observe the residents’ movements, although I’ll conduct a more formal assessment for each of them when I begin.”
Feeling as if she’d been tricked yet again, Lexie took a step back. “Why didn’t you tell me at the Christmas party?”
“I had only just interviewed with Living Well. I figured I didn’t have much of a chance of getting the job. They offered it to me earlier this week.” With an amused smile, he added, “Besides, you were a little preoccupied when we were talking about it.”
Drat! He was right! Heat flooded her face and she averted her eyes. “I was thinking of something that happened at work that day when that cookie stuck in my throat.”
“What was that?”
Lexie hesitated. Why humiliate herself further? But as her gaze caught his again, his kind expression told her that he really wanted to know. Lexie told him how her face had ended up tasting like tutti-frutti. As she talked about that day and the doubts she’d been harboring, he poured a cup of hot cocoa and handed it to her, then poured one for himself.
Lexie took a sip of the rich chocolate, thinking that she’d probably just killed any chance she had with Drake after spilling her guts.
“Did you know that Mr. Hudson served our country in World War II?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“He was a sergeant. He and his men fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima.” He proceeded to tell her some of the exploits Mr. Hudson had related to him.
Lexie asked, “You found out all of that from just one meeting with him?”
“After my interview, I stopped in and said hello to a few of the residents. The guy can talk your ear off, can’t he?”
“Not if he doesn’t like you enough to do more than just yell at you.” But maybe she hadn’t taken enough time to really listen to him. Her heart dropped at the impact of her negligence.
Drake shrugged. “I happened to come in during one of Mr. Hudson’s more lucid moments. Don’t be so hard on yourself, Lexie. Everybody experiences doubts about what they’re trying to accomplish in life. You’ll make a terrific nurse.”
“You’re just saying that.”
“No, I’m saying that because you’re a caring person. You handled the situation with Mr. Hudson just right. The residents here may have lost their memory or a limb or their freedom in one way or another. But they’ve all lived amazing lives. They deserve our best. And that’s what you give every day. I promise to do the same.”
“Thank you,” she said softly. A feeling of warmth filled her and then it swelled into one of awareness. He was looking at her. Really looking.
Lexie decided to take a chance and looked back. And then they weren’t looking at all but were sharing the most amazing kiss that sent her heart soaring.
In that moment, Lexie knew she had found her knight. He wasn’t wearing shining armor. He wasn’t even wearing overalls and suspenders. He was wearing Christmas red.