The Greek Christmas Gift

A contemporary Christmas romance

Deborah walked up the stairs to her friend’s front door with as much reluctance as an Olympian returning to her coach after coming last in her race. She didn’t know why she did these things to herself. Every yearJen invited Deborah to her Christmas Eve party, and every year she failed to come up with a suitable excuse not to attend. The fact she was single and lived alone made her an easy target, as she had no family she could say she was seeing.

‘Just drop in for a couple of hours,’ Jen said. She always said that.

Deborah always landed up staying till well past midnight. By then she was exhausted by the effort of making small talk. But she always found it so hard to extricate herself from the revellers and make her discrete getaway.

She’d thought Covid might at least result in cancelation of the party, but Jen wasn’t so easily deterred.

‘I’ve ordered a marquee and a whole string of Portaloos – everyone will have their own. It will be perfectly safe,’ Jen said purring in satisfaction at overcoming that hurdle. ‘And you absolutely have to come. I’ve invited someone extra special that you’ll really like.’

Jen was always trying to set her up, but Jen’s idea of suitable was single and with a heartbeat. Going by the strange selection of men she had introduced her to over the years, Deborah sometimes wondered what Jen really thought of her.

Deborah gave a deep sigh, glared balefully at the twinkling Christmas wreath hanging on the door-knocker and pushed the bell.

‘Deborah!’ Jen said as she wrenching the door open. She had a cocktail glass in one hand and was wearing a tasseled white Christmas jumper, also with twinkling lights. It was typical OTT Jen. ‘Wonderful to see you. Come on inside.’

‘Thanks,’ Deborah said, and held out a bag containing the obligatory Christmas gift and card. 

Deborah had gone with a slinky black dress that she’d only just squeezed herself into after six weeks of agonising sweat at the local gym trying to shift the quarantine fifteen she’d gained during lockdown. Heaven only knew what would happen now that they’d gone back into lockdown, and Christmas temptation was all around.

‘I can’t wait to introduce you to Stelios,’ Jen said as she hurried through the hall, where she dropped Deborah’s present and where Deborah divested herself of her coat.

‘Keep the scarf and gloves, sweetie, it’s a little chilly in the marquee,’ Jen said. ‘Now, before I introduce you, I have to give you a little background about Stelios. You’ll love him. He’s Greek, you see.’

‘Really?’ Deborah said, failing to hide her lack of enthusiasm.

Not that Jen seemed to notice.

‘And he has the body of a God. My dear, you just have to see him to believe him. Out of this world.’

Since Deborah had plenty of experience of Jen’s low standards, she wasn’t in the least bit titillated by the description. She’d also had more than enough of well-built men. She’d seen a ton of them at the gym.

At first she’d found it all rather thrilling. There was no doubt the men were fit, and she cast surreptitious looks at them whenever she could. It hadn’t taken her long to realise they all had egos to match their muscles. They preened and pranced around the gym very satisfied with themselves.

Fair enough, Deborah decided. They’d earned their vanity through their hard work. It was the nastiness she despised.

Those glorious men looked everyone else up and down and ranked them. The gorgeous women, trim and perfectly groomed with their long hair swept back off their faces into ponytails, in their skimpy lycra leotards that left very little to the imagination, were feted and fawned over.

Sweaty older women like Deborah, who wore a baggy tracksuit to hide the rolls of fat and whose face turned a blotchy red from exertion, were ignored or derided. They had no idea how much courage it took to come to the gym. Nor did they know how much effort it took to hold your head up high when you knew you were being judged and ranked as beneath contempt.

Only this morning one particular Adonis, with salt and pepper dark curly hair and brown eyes so deep they verged on black had been sitting on a bench doing rep curls with a dumbbell in one very shapely arm looking like Rodan’s Thinker in both build and posture. He was an older man and the ringleader of a couple of cronies to either side who were posing in the mirror. They were ogling the reflections of all the women in the gym.

Deborah had hesitated to walk past, but since the rowing machine was on the other side of the gym, she had no choice. Her skin prickled as she’d walked by and felt three sets of eyes following her progress. Then, the one in the middle had said something. The other two sniggered.

Deborah, despite her best efforts, glanced up and made eye contact with the Thinker. He smirked at her.

‘Here,’ Jen said, dragging Deborah back into the present, and out into her garden. It was enveloped in a white marquee with widely spaced tables, each with their own mushroom shaped porch heater.

‘Is this really a good idea?’ Deborah murmured.

‘As long as you remain at your table, and only use your allocated loo, you’ll be fine,’ Jen said. She came to a stop at one of the circular tables, covered in white linen with a spectacular festive centrepiece of holly, ivy and scarlet poinsettias. ‘Here!’ Jen said and waved her hand triumphantly at a man sprawled back in his chair, watching the people at the other tables.

‘Good God!’ Deborah muttered.

‘Told you,’ Jen said, giving her a satisfied smirk as she entirely misunderstood Deborah’s stunned expression. ‘Stelios, this is my best friend Deborah. Deborah, this is Stelios. He’s just started working at my company. He used to be a soldier,’ Jen said with a meaningful look. Then a buzzer sounded from the kitchen. ‘Oh, doorbell,’ Jen said and dashed off.

Deborah stared down at the Thinker from the gym and couldn’t come up with a single word to say to him.

‘Deb is it?’ Stelios said in a rich, well-modulated voice as he looked her up and down.

‘Deborah,’ she snapped. She hated people who took liberties and shortened her name.

Stelios gave her an amused smile that annoyed her. She had the impression he didn’t recognise her, which added insult to injury. She’d never felt more desperate to flee a party than she did now. Instead, she gave Stelios a tight return smile and sat down. Thank God social distancing meant she was a quarter of a table away from the stuck up son of a bitch.

Just as at the gym, he was entirely disinterested in her and went back to watching the others in the tent. There weren’t many people, which wasn’t the norm for Jen but understandable under the circumstances.

Deborah wondered whether she should ignore him too, then decided that was exactly what he wanted and she wasn’t willing to give him that.

‘So… Jen said you were a soldier,’ Deborah said, and wished she’d sounded more confident and just vaguely interested.

‘I was,’ Stelios said and gave a slight nod but didn’t bother to look at Deborah.

It was the same infuriatingly rude behaviour he exhibited at the gym.

‘What did you do in the army?’

This time he did turn to look at her, but he looked irritated, as if she was being tiresome.

‘I was in the cavalry.’

‘You rode horses?’

‘No, tanks. I was the captain of a tank platoon.’

‘That’s cavalry?’

‘Well, we can’t ride horses into a war zone anymore, can we?’

Stelios’s sarcastic tone annoyed Deborah.

‘I don’t think it’s common knowledge that the cavalry now use tanks,’ Deborah said and felt it was a pitiful attempt at self defence.

Just then she realised that the table nearest them was occupied by two women who were both eyeing Stelios in admiration and looking frankly envious of Deborah. Her baser, competitive nature rather enjoyed the moment of superiority. Yes, that’s right, I got the table with the Greek God. Her down to earth side immediately countered with a – much good it will do me.

‘Your friend said you were a military historian,’ Stelios said. It surprised Deborah’s as she’d not been expecting an actual conversation. ‘I’d expect an expert to know about such things.’

‘My area of study is the ancient Greek army. I hope you’ll at least agree that as they had no tanks, or even a cavalry, that I couldn’t be expected to know about this modern development, not so?’

Stelios shrugged, in a way that, rather than agreeing, indicated the opposite.

Before she could stop herself, and for no good reason at all, Deborah said, ‘I may be ignorant about the modern military, but at least I’m observant. I recognised you immediately, but you obviously have no idea who I am.’

‘No, I know,’ Stelios said, giving Deborah a much closer look. ‘You’re the stuck up bird from the gym.’

‘Stuck up!?’ Deborah gasped. ‘That’s rich coming from you.’

Stelios actually looked surprised by her reaction.

‘What do you mean?’

‘You with your little band of sycophants eyeing all the women up and making nasty comments about them. I’ll bet you have a whole attractiveness ranking system.’

Deborah was shaking with the shock of being so straightforward and facing down a man like Stelios. But at the same time she was so upset she couldn’t stay quiet.

‘A ranking system?’

Stelios didn’t look quite so sure of himself now, which confirmed Deborah’s suspicion that they did score the women at the gym. My God, but she wanted to get away, especially after saying what she just said. The only problem would be explaining everything to Jen, who was busy showing guests to their tables.

At any other Christmas party she would have moved to another room and another group of guests. Today she had no choice, she was stuck at this table with Stelios. She didn’t even dare look back at him though, in case he came at her with an even more hurtful riposte.

‘At least I made the effort to greet you,’ Stelios said. ‘You just blanked me.’

‘When did you try to greet me?’

‘The very first day you came to the gym. We were both at reception. I said hello, and you walked past me like I didn’t even exist.’

Deborah blinked in surprise at Stelios. She had no recollection of him ever greeting her. Then again, she’d been in such a tizzy the day she’d signed up to the gym. She’d had difficulties just paying attention to the receptionist as she went through all the gym rules and information about lockers and the like. All the while, Deborah had been eyeing the perfect people all around her and regretting her decision to come. It had taken three attempts to muster up the courage just to walk into the gym and sign up though, so she’d forced herself to stay.

Would it help if she apologised and explained that? No, she decided, she didn’t owe Stelios an explanation, not when he’d been so rude for the subsequent six weeks.

‘Here’s your table,’ Jen said, providing a welcome distraction as she led a couple to the two vacant chairs opposite Deborah and Stelios.

Thank God for that,’ Deborah muttered.

‘This is Ed and Yasmine, I’ll have to leave you to do more introductions yourselves, duty calls,’ Jen said dashing off to the trilling of the doorbell.

Yasmine was dressed up to the nines in a lime green silk dress that was encasing a short and stocky frame. She wore an emerald and diamond encrusted choker that emphasised her rather short neck. Deborah resisted the urge to glance at Stelios to find out what he made of the newcomers.

Ed was a very English-looking man on the shady side of sixty, with thinning wavy grey hair and watery, staring pale blue eyes. Deborah had met the couple before at one of Jen’s parties and remembered that Ed was a lawyer and Yasmine had stayed home to bring up the kids, now all grown up.

‘Hello,’ Ed said, held out a hand in greeting, realised that was the wrong thing to do, gave an embarrassed laugh and sat down. 

‘Awkward these days, isn’t it?’ he murmured.

‘Not at all, we’ll be getting used to it in no time,’ Yasmine said, beaming at the table. ‘It’s Deb, isn’t it?’

‘Deborah,’ she said, and ignored the snort of amusement from Stelios.

‘We’ve met before. Knowing Jen, we’ll be firm friends soon,’ Yasmine said. Although she was talking to Deborah, she had her gaze fixed on Stelios. ‘You’re new to Jen’s parties, aren’t you?’

‘It’s my first time,’ Stelios said with an easy smile that warmed his face considerably.

Deborah felt it was a calculated move and had the desired effect on Yasmin.

She gave a girly giggle as she said, ‘We’ll be like old friends in no time! How did you get to know Jen?’

‘I’ve just started working at her company,’ Stelios said and accepted the glass of champagne Ed poured for him. ‘I think Jen felt sorry for me.’

‘Oh, why?’ Yasmine said, her eyes widening as she fluttered her eyelashes seductively. ‘Is work so hard?’

‘Not work,’ Stelios said with a laugh. ‘I’ve just come back from Afganistan and I don’t know many people. Jen didn’t want me to feel lonely.’

‘Goodness, Afganistan, that must have been hard. But why were you there?’

‘I used to be in the army,’ Stelios said and glanced at Deborah. ‘I retired and came back home a couple of months ago.’

‘You did well to find a job so soon,’ Ed said. ‘What are you doing at Jen’s company?’

‘They hired me as a sales manager,’ Stelios said, and to Deborah’s surprise he looked embarrassed.

‘A manager? Really?’ Ed said. ‘That’s unusual. I can’t see how being in the army could help you be a manager in a big company like Jen’s.’

‘Well… they seemed quite pleased to have me,’ Stelios murmured.

‘Actually, there are a lot of transferable skills from the military,’ Deborah said, unsure why she was getting involved. ‘Stelios was a captain in the army which is essentially the same as a manager. And looking after a sales force makes sense because he must motivate them and keep them organised and disciplined. So you could say his skill set is ideal.’

Ed looked put out to have his doubts explained away. He turned to Deborah with the slight supercilious smile of a lawyer who was about to put the knife into a hostile witness.

‘I must say, Deborah, you’re looking very well,’ Ed said, ‘compared to when we last saw you. It’s been difficult for me and Yasmine not to gain weight during the lockdown.’

The meaningful look he gave Yasmine at that comment made Deborah realise that Ed had gone for a dig at his wife, rather than at her. Although she felt she was getting a rather back-handed compliment herself.

‘Ah, not at all,’ Deborah said, pretending to take it as a compliment. ‘I didn’t manage to avoid the lockdown weight gain either. But, since my university is continuing with remote learning and I’m stuck at home all day, I knew I had to do something to combat the flab. So I joined a gym.’

‘Oh, that’s so brave of you!’ Yasmin said. ‘I wouldn’t dare set foot in one of those places. Everybody else there is so perfect and young. It’s too embarrassing.’

Deborah fought the urge to give Stelios a meaningful look, but she felt her face flushing as she muttered, ‘It wasn’t easy. It still isn’t, actually.’

‘You should get yourself a personal trainer,’ Yasmin said, reaching across the table as if to give Deborah’s arm an understanding squeeze. Fortunately, she stopped short of actually doing it. ‘I’ve started with one and he’s young and very dishy.’

‘Which is probably why you’re not actually losing any weight,’ Ed said. ‘You’re too busy flirting with him.’

‘I actually quite like all the equipment at the gym,’ Deborah said.

She wanted to get something in before Ed’s comment could draw Yasmin into the spat he seemed so keen to start. No, actually he was doing his sniping at the party in front of other people precisely so that Yasmin couldn’t tell him to go to hell. This party was turning out even worse than Deborah had feared.

‘The equipment makes a difference,’ Stelios said.

Deborah turned to look at him in surprise. Had he just come to her aid? Or was he doing the same as her, trying to divert the couple before them so he didn’t have to sit through a marital spat.

‘Exactly. I’ve bought a couple of weights and things for home, but I could never fit all the other exercise machines into my little flat,’ Deborah said smiling at him before she turned to Yasmin as if her comment had been aimed at her all along.

‘Yasmin already has all the equipment,’ Ed said, unwilling to have his argument derailed. ‘It’s all set up in her gym.’ He emphasised the word gym with heavy irony.

Stelios opened his mouth as if he was going to say something to Ed, decided against it, and turned to Deborah instead.

‘Which University do you teach at?’ he asked for all the world as if he was interested.

‘The Open University,’ Deborah said, willing to do anything to change the topic. ‘In some ways Covid has pushed us into online teaching ahead of when it was planned. But it was the way they were thinking of going anyway since they’re all about distance learning.’

‘You’re a history professor, aren’t you?’ Yasmin said with a sunny smile that showed she was determined to ignore her husband too.

‘I’m not a professor,’ Deborah said. ‘Just a teacher.’

‘Oh, I thought you had a doctorate.’

‘Yes, I have, but you have to be given a professorship by the university before you can call yourself a professor. I’m just a doctor at the moment.’

‘What did you do your doctorate in?’ Stelios asked, and he seemed to be genuinely interested.

‘The life of the ancient Greek soldier,’ Deborah said.

‘That’s not a terribly useful topic, is it?’ Ed said with a snort. Apparently he didn’t like being sidelined.

‘I suppose you could say the same about studying history in general,’ Deborah said. ‘On the face of it. But we can learn a lot about the past. I also have a fascination with the era. It must have been very difficult for soldiers then.’

‘It’s difficult for soldiers at any time,’ Stelios said. ‘The average soldier these days has to carry 50kg of supplies on his back when he goes into battle.’

‘That’s a lot,’ Deborah said, reflecting that she couldn’t even lift 50 kilos in the gym on her best days.

Stelios smiled at her comment and Deborah felt her face flush. What was she doing? She wasn’t supposed to feel happy because this man gave her an approving look.

‘Here you go,’ Jen said, arriving at the table with a tray laden with food. ‘I have replaced the buffet with individual servings this year. But it’s still the same nibbles you’ve come to know and love. Just… no sharing.’

Jen laid a plate of jewel like titbits down before each of her guests and hurried off.

‘Should we switch to the red wine,’ Ed said, holding out the bottle as if he was about to pour for everyone.

‘I’ll stick with the champagne, thank you,’ Deborah said, and noted that Stelios was doing the same. For some reason that made him feel like even more of an ally. It was remarkable what having a common enemy could do for people.

‘Ooh, I smell chemistry,’ Yasmin said. ‘You two have so much in common and there’s a genuine spark between you.’

‘I wouldn’t say we have a lot in common,’ Deborah said, and regretted the instant rebuttal.

‘Of course you do. He’s a soldier and you’re interested in soldiers, you both work out at the same gym and you make a lovely couple.’

‘Hardly,’ Debora mumbled into the champagne glass as she took a too deep gulp and the bubbles exploded in her mouth.

‘Deborah probably thinks I’m too stupid for her,’ Stelios said. ‘All muscle and no brain.’

‘What?’ Deborah gasped, and she put down her glass to violently champagne splashed down the side and onto her fingers. ‘Why would I think that?’

‘Because of the way you avoid everyone at the gym, like we’re not good enough for you. Finding out you’re a lecturer at a university explains a lot.’

‘I look down on everyone? I don’t even dare look up at anyone!’

‘Well, it’s not the way it comes across.’

‘That’s women for you,’ Ed said. ‘They’re impossible to understand.’

‘Stay out of it, Ed,’ Yasmin said. ‘Deborah and Stelios don’t need you to butt in and make everything worse.’

‘Oh, it’s fine, don’t worry. If Stelios can’t tell how intimidating he and the other body builders are and how unwelcome they make everybody feel, then there isn’t much I can do about it.’

‘Does the gym really intimidate you?’ Stelios said.

He looked and sounded angry, but Deborah felt like he wanted an honest reply.

‘You have no idea how much. Although,’ Deborah said, trying to make light of her embarrassment and less of the harsh things she’d already said, ‘I can see why you wouldn’t find it an intimidating place to be. I mean, after you’ve been in Afghanistan, you’re hardly going to feel threatened by the people at a gym.’

‘Not all of them,’ Stelios murmured and dropped his gaze to examine his plate of food. He decided on a blini topped with cream cheese and smoked salmon and popped it into his mouth.

‘Really, what kind of God-like creature would intimidate you? They must be supermodels or something.’

‘Something,’ Stelios said with his same slight smile.

He looked Deborah up and down in a way that made her feel uncomfortable because it was such an intense examination, but she couldn’t understand it. It was also rather similar to the expression she’d seen on his face at the gym.

‘You can’t mean me,’ Deborah said, because the idea was preposterous.

‘You’re classy, well educated, got your shit together and you’re pretty. Of course you’re intimidating.’

Deborah had never heard herself described in that way and was astonished by it. Since he’d been so honest, Deborah felt it was only fair to reciprocate. 

‘You’re a natural leader, ridiculously handsome and really fit. Everyone in the gym looks up to you and you intimidated the hell out of me.’

‘Oh my, I feel a Christmas romance coming on,’ Yasmin gushed, clasping her hands up to her chest. ‘Jen will be thrilled.’

‘I wouldn’t get too carried away,’ Deborah said. She was so overwhelmed that she stood and said, ‘I’m going for a breather.’

She snatched up the fancy golden key with her Portaloo number picked out in red and white and hurried away.

She couldn’t believe how confrontational she’d been. She wasn’t used to being so direct with anyone, and certainly not with a man she was strongly attracted to.

Deborah locked the door to the Portaloo and sat on the closed seat. She flapped both hands in front of her face to try and cool herself down.

‘What am I doing?’ Deborah muttered to herself.

What in the world had possessed her to engage with Stelios when she already knew what sort of man he was? Only he wasn’t. If he was to be believed, he had greeted her when she’d first arrived at the gym. Also, according to him, she was the intimidating one. That made her want to laugh out loud.

Then again, he’d said she was pretty and classy and… If only that was true. But she wasn’t blind. There was no way she could compete with the perfect and self-confident twenty somethings she saw at the gym.

So what did she do now? She couldn’t stay in the Portaloo for the rest of the evening. On the other hand, it was going to be damn difficult to face Stelios after their frank exchange. Why that was, she didn’t know. After all, he’d only said good things. It was just that she didn’t trust that he meant any of it.

There was only one thing to do. She was going to have to be polite, but distant. She wasn’t going to be the one to fall for his charm, only to have him blank her again at the gym. She’d feel a fool if that happened.

The decision made, Deborah washed her hands and splashed some water on her face to calm it down because she was looking flushed. Then she stepped outside and headed back to her table.

Stelios wasn’t there.

‘He said he should probably go,’ Yasmine said. ‘What a shame. I think you and he could have been great together.’

Ed snorted, and Deborah ignored him. She felt bereft by Stelios’s abrupt departure. That was stupid. She should have felt relieved. Now, she wouldn’t have to be carefully polite and noncommittal. Now she could do whatever she liked.

The problem was, now that she had what she thought she wanted, it didn’t feel right at all. She felt like she’d just lost an opportunity. A chance to change everything for herself and her whole life. Even if she went back to the gym and saw Stelios there, it wouldn’t be the same. How could she approach him now, after everything they’d said to each other here?

‘Dessert,’ Jen said as she laid a plate with a selection of tiny Christmas sweets before Deborah.

There was a miniature Christmas pud, a cute little chocolate log, a coconut enveloped white chocolate truffle and a pink champagne truffle.

‘He left,’ Deborah said mournfully.

‘I know, I’m sorry,’ Jen said and gave Deborah’s shoulder a sympathetic squeeze. ‘I’ll bring you a couple more champagne truffles. They’ll make you feel better.’

Deborah doubted that even a boatload of champagne truffles would be sufficient to help her overcome her deep sense of loss this evening. This was certainly not how a sensible woman who had her act together would behave over a near miss with a stranger.

Deborah tried her best though and concentrated on the flavour of the mini Christmas pud. At the same time, she tried to block out the conversation between Ed and Yasmin. It revolved around seeing who else they recognised at the party and all the gossip they had on each of them.

The party dragged on and Deborah started testing out and discarding the excuses she might use to get away early. She’d been checking her phone, not very discretely, at what turned out to be fifteen-minute intervals. It always felt like longer. The time was crawling despite the small live band and a comedian to pep everybody up. Deborah had to give it to Jen, she was excellent at planning parties.

Finally, her phone gave her the glowing news that it was nearly midnight. That was good enough. She could leave in good conscience now.

‘I think it’s time…’ Deborah started as she rose to her feet, her rehearsed farewell on the tip of her tongue. Neither Ed nor Yasmin were paying her attention, they were both facing the kitchen and looking surprised.

Deborah turned, expecting another of Jen’s entertainments. Instead, she saw Stelios come striding down the centre of the marquee.

He stopped right in front of her and said, ‘Do you want to go for a drink?’

‘Where?’ Deborah murmured.

‘I have no idea,’ Stelios said with a laugh. ‘Let’s think about that somewhere else.’

With that, he took her hand in a firm grip and pulled her out of the marquee and into the kitchen.

‘Jen, we’re going,’ Deborah called after her friend, because Stelios hadn’t slowed his march towards the front door.

‘Stelios!’ Jen said, her eyes widening in surprise and her face became wreathed in a grin. ‘Go! Have fun.’

Deborah flushed. She was every bit as eager as Stelios to get to wherever it was they were going.

He pulled her out of the front door, closed it with a snap and pulled Deborah towards him.

‘I really do like you,’ Stelios said as he held Deborah close to him.

‘I like you too,’ Deborah said and reached up for a first kiss as the bells started chiming for the midnight mass.