The Mistletoe Pact by Jo Lovett
Now – Christmas Day 2021
At lunchtime the next day – Christmas Day – Dan dodged a couple of waitresses in – surely very demeaning – skimpy elf outfits, rounded a pillar covered in mini Santas climbing tinsel, and scoured the hotel dining room for the others.
They were all, including Evie, who was looking stunning in a sparkly green jumper, already sitting at a circular table on the far side of the room. Evie was directly opposite the one remaining empty chair, which was ideal because the table was big so they wouldn’t be able to talk much. His night with her had felt like a much bigger deal than your average one-night stand, and he’d enjoyed her company yesterday evening way too much for comfort. He didn’t really want to spend too much time with her again until things felt back to normal.
‘Happy Christmas,’ everyone chorused as Dan sat down. He’d opted for a lie-in and a swim this morning so this was the first time he’d seen any of the others today.
‘We’re thinking lunch now, obviously,’ Sasha told him, ‘and then Secret Santas in the lounge with coffees, and then a slow walk to work off some of the food.’
‘Great plan,’ Dan said. And he was going home tomorrow, and then next time he saw Evie they’d be divorced and have almost forgotten about this and be completely back to normal with each other. And why did that thought cause him a little twinge of misery? It would be great to have forgotten about it. He’d moved on very easily from his last relationship, with a woman called Hannah who he’d gone out with for a few weeks in the autumn. A one-night thing was nothing. Not a relationship at all. Although it didn’t feel like nothing.
An hour and a half later, they’d all agreed that Vegas could definitely do a good Christmas turkey and that they were far too full to have pudding yet.
‘Crackers and joke-reading?’ said Angus.
‘We’re joke-reading?’ Dan said.
‘Yes, we’re joke-reading.’ Angus was looking at Dan like he’d grown two heads. ‘You have to treat Christmas crackers with respect or it isn’t a proper Christmas.’ Yeah, so Christmas lunch was probably a lot more relaxed and a lot less fraught in Angus’s family. The Marshalls had learned young that their father wasn’t that tolerant of weak jokes. ‘I hope you aren’t a cracker philistine, Sasha. I want us to do Christmas properly when we’re married.’ They all whipped their heads round to stare at Angus and he went bright red. ‘Sash, could I just have a word with you outside?’ Wow. It seemed like Angus had tripped himself into a surprise proposal right in the middle of Christmas lunch.
‘Oh-kay.’ Sasha mouthed OMG behind Angus’s back as she stood up.
All the rest of them turned to watch Sasha and Angus make their way across the room, and then they all turned back to each other, with varying degrees of wide eyes and slack jaws.
No-one spoke for a couple of beats and then Evie said to the whole table, ‘So what are everyone’s New Year plans?’
‘Well, maybe celebrating Sasha and Angus’s engagement,’ said Millie.
Evie shook her head. ‘I don’t think we should talk about that,’ she said. ‘Just in case one or both of them comes back in here upset.’
Dan suddenly worried that might have a broader meaning, so he picked up his cracker and inspected it.
‘If anyone would like to join us,’ Evie persisted, ‘Sasha and I will be in the pub in the village on New Year’s Eve.’
‘And Angus too, I’m guessing,’ Millie said.
‘I’m not sure about this year but I often work on New Year’s Eve,’ Dan said. ‘It’s a busy night for us.’ You could always turn a conversation with a few medical anecdotes, and Evie was right; they shouldn’t gossip about what Sasha and Angus might be doing. He really hoped that Angus was proposing and Sasha was accepting, because Angus was loyal and decent and they blatantly adored each other, and if anyone could make each other happy, it was those two.
He was busy fielding questions from Millie about cosmetic surgery and, specifically, boob jobs, and genuinely worried that she was about to lift her top and invite some very personal advice, when Sasha and Angus came back into the restaurant, holding hands.
‘We’re engaged,’ Sasha started squealing from about halfway across the room.
Through the, frankly, insane restaurant-wide congratulations and ring-viewing that followed, Dan focused all his attention on his sister and her new fiancé – again, wow, his younger sister was getting married, to a very nice man – and carefully avoided looking at Evie, in case she was finding the group chat about weddings anywhere near as awkward as Dan, ridiculously, was.
Angus was just finishing explaining how he’d been planning to propose during the trip, maybe later today, just not during Christmas-cracker-pulling or in front of an audience, so he’d handily had the ring in his pocket, when one of the waiters hurried over and pressed a card into Angus’s hand. ‘You get engaged in Vegas, you gotta get married in Vegas. This is the best wedding chapel in town. Run by my sister.’
‘Is that the one you two got married at?’ Millie raised her eyebrows and looked from Dan to Evie and back again.
Neither Dan nor Evie replied.
Why had Sasha and Evie been friends with Millie for so many years? She was really annoying.
‘Oh, wow. When did you two get married? Which chapel was it?’ the waiter said.
Dan took a sideways glance at Evie. She was rolling her eyes and shaking her head and laughing a little.
‘Um,’ he said.
‘They aren’t really married,’ Sasha said. ‘It was a joke. We, however, are getting married. In England, in the Cotswolds. Anyway, everyone, we all need to look at my ring again.’
The congratulations and ring admiration were followed by the crackers.
‘As the new Mrs Angus-to-be,’ Sasha said, ‘I’m going to be really strict about joke-telling. We’re all going to take it in turns to read them, and we’re going to do guessing and everything.’
‘Steady on,’ said Angus, smiling at her besottedly.
Evie was third up. ‘I have a medical joke,’ she said, holding her piece of paper up. ‘Why did Santa’s helper see the doctor?’
‘Nope,’ she said a couple of minutes later. ‘You’re all wrong. Wait for it. It was because he had low elf esteem. Ba boom.’ Nice delivery. You could see how she’d make a good teacher. She was smiling at everyone and there was that dimple again that Dan had first noticed all those years ago.
An hour later, they were all in the hotel lounge drinking house champagne to toast Sasha and Angus before doing their secret Santas. Sasha had told them that they had to spend as close to £20 as possible and that they had to buy proper presents, and had drawn them all out of a hat to decide who gave to whom. Dan had got Rav, who he’d only met a couple of times. After an initial total lack of inspiration, he’d bought him a pair of 3 kg dumb-bells for £21.
Following the cracker jokes, Sasha was going big on everyone taking turns, and no-one was going to contradict her. She was fairly bossy at the best of times, but when she was on a high from getting engaged, you’d be mad to mess with her if you didn’t have to.
‘Thanks, mate. Genuinely a good present,’ Rav said when it was his turn.
‘No problem,’ Dan replied. ‘I was pretty pleased with my brainwave until I realised that it’d take me over my baggage allowance for the flight. Had to leave my heaviest pair of shoes at home. I can take them back in my bag if you have the same issue. Best to go light on presents when you’re travelling.’
‘My present for Evie is light,’ said Sasha, bringing out a fancily wrapped square, flat, soft present. Clearly clothing.
‘It’s gorgeous,’ said Evie, beaming, when she’d unwrapped it and pulled out a cream scarf. ‘Linen and silk. Hmm. Pretty sure you cheated on the price criterion.’ Good present, actually. Now Dan thought about it, Evie wore a lot of scarves in different colours.
‘Organiser’s prerogative,’ Sasha said. ‘And I’m engaged. I can do anything I like.’
‘You are so right,’ said Evie. ‘Engaged people can do literally anything. Thank you again, lovely Sasha.’
Dan was last on the present opening. His present was clearly going to be from Evie, because she was the only person left.
She stood up to hand it to him and then sat back down between Millie and Tola on their sofa.
‘I’m going to apologise in advance,’ she said. ‘I was completely out of good present ideas. And every other secret Santa I’ve ever been involved in was at least partly a joke. So, yeah, I’m kind of sorry. But also not.’
‘Can’t wait to find out what’s inside,’ Dan said, raising his eyebrows.
Evie covered her face with her hands while he unwrapped. The paper was nice – gold Santas on a green background – and she’d wrapped it very neatly.
She’d bought him the Home Alone film collection and a pair of Christmas novelty socks. Not that controversial, surely.
‘You said you’d never seen Home Alone that time you drove me from London to Melting,’ she said, ‘and DVDs of old films are very cheap nowadays, because no-one buys them, so I had money left over. So I bought the socks. They’re very cool. You see the folded bit, like the cuff at the top. Lift it up.’
Dan lifted one of them and choked. ‘Evie Green. That’s outrageous. And clever. That’s some serious Santa sock pornography.’
‘Did you say Santa sock or Santa sack, ooh-er?’ Rav asked while Anita play-smacked him and Evie covered her face again.
‘Thank you very much,’ Dan told Evie. ‘I’ll watch the film and marvel that I’ve never seen it before, and I’ll wear the socks with pride.’
Evie uncovered her face and smiled at him and Dan felt something inside him falter.
They all went for a stroll late afternoon, before their next eating fest, Dan careful to avoid walking next to Evie, because he didn’t want any more strange feelings. He did the same over their evening buffet meal in the hotel restaurant.
‘Christmas-engagement-last-night-of-your-stay cocktails in the bar,’ pleaded Sasha as they finished dinner, waving her ring in his face again, when he said he was going to get an early night before his flight the next day.
Dan looked around the group. Everyone except Evie was watching him. Yep, he couldn’t be a party pooper. Of course he couldn’t. His sister had got engaged today.
‘Sure,’ he said.