THE HOLIDAY party was going full swing—had been for an hour or so—but I was working at my desk. It wasn’t because I was a workaholic trying to make points with the boss. Well, maybe it was, a little. But it was more because I didn’t know any of those people, since I had only been here a month. I did want to finish out one more account before I went and tried to be social.
I really don’t have the personality to be charming and witty. I’m too serious and too geeky, and I never really know what to say to someone.
But I was enjoying the music I could hear faintly over the distant buzz of voices. And I was talking on the phone with my mother, so I wasn’t actually working working.
“Do take care of yourself,” she instructed. “I’m worried that you’re alone for the holidays.” This sounded a little more intense than my mother’s usual fussing.
I broke up with my boyfriend when I transferred here, because we both knew a long-distance relationship wasn’t going to work for us. We just weren’t that committed to each other. Ted had been more of a fuck buddy than a lover, since we hadn’t really attempted to date. We each showed up at the other’s apartment, ate and fooled around, and then left the next morning. We’d been together for almost a year, and I hadn’t even left a stray book at the man’s place, never mind clothing or a toothbrush. That was what we had wanted at the time, since we were both rebounding from high-maintenance, messy relationships.
“I’ll call,” I promised. “And being alone isn’t a bad thing.”
Christmas and the end of the year were coming, but at this company, no one took a vacation, so I couldn’t go home for the holidays. I usually did, no matter where I was working. This was the first year I wouldn’t be able to.
“It’s the Solstice today,” she murmured. “The beginning of the Yule. You received your presents?”
I had no idea what she was talking about. We celebrated Christmas when I was growing up; my parents had been devout but not pushy about it. They did the same thing every year—no matter how old the children were—and that was send new clothing for Christmas every year. And I teased them about it, because I felt I was too old for such things. The Yule Cat wouldn’t eat me because I didn’t have new clothing.
“I got my packages, and I promise that I’ll open them when I’m supposed to. I love you,” I told her. “Give everyone my love, and I’ll call you on Christmas.”
“Please remember that I love you,” she said in an odd tone of voice. “No matter what, I always will love you.”
“I figured that out when you accepted me jumping out of the closet,” I teased, wanting to cheer her up. Christmas was hard for her with my father being gone.
She laughed, even if it was a little strained. “A mother knows those things. And you didn’t steal your sisters’ boyfriends.”
“I’m not stupid,” I replied. My sisters were clever, ruthless women who made Viking men look like wimps.
“We love you,” she repeated and then hung up on me.
I snapped my phone shut and put it next to my keyboard. I frowned at the screen and managed to add up another row of numbers before I was interrupted again.
“C’mon, you’re making the rest of us look bad.”
I had positioned my desk so my back was to a corner and I could see the door even as I hid behind my monitor screen. The voice belonged to an older man, in his midfifties, with silver hair and a curly beard, who was peeking around my door. He sort of looked like St. Nick, but he was wearing a blue suit—designer—not a red one.
He smiled. “I’m going to get a reputation as a Scrooge,” he admonished as he glanced over my desk, probably looking for my nameplate. It was buried under a couple of piles of paper, so he couldn’t see my name. I recognized him, though. He was the VP of this section, Ben Scudder. “Um—”
I stood up, skirted around my desk, and held out my hand. His eyes widened a bit when he saw how tall I was. “Gunnar Dagviðurson,” I said.
He stared at me for a moment before shaking my hand, looking at me like I might crush it while I shook it. I was used to the reaction by now. I even found it funny. I had lived up to that name. I was big and brawny, and even in a suit, since I looked like I should have an axe in one hand and a shield in the other, because the suits never appeared to fit quite right, even when tailored. I looked like I should be out pillaging a farm someplace instead of running numbers. My appearance almost matched my name.
When I was a teenager, I had thought my parents were insane for naming me Gunnar. I was adopted. I figured that out as soon as I learned to walk, I swear. It wasn’t hard. My parents were tall, blond, and blue-eyed, advertisements for the Swedish Bikini Ski team, although they were actually Icelandic. I had the blue eyes, but that was where it ended for me. My skin was the color of strong tea, and my curly hair was darker, cut short so I could impose some sort of control over it. I really didn’t look anything like either of them. My parents had adopted me shortly after they married. I had never asked them about it and had never wanted to find my birth parents, much to their relief. We weren’t blood, but they had raised me and treated me the same as they did their four daughters. That was why they had given me a traditional Icelandic name, no matter how odd it sounded with the way that I looked.
“I promise I’ll knock it off soon,” I told him with a smile in return. “I just want to make sure I wrap up the Leup account.”
“Don’t worry about that,” he said, waving his hands at me. “Now is the time for some Christmas cheer.”
He looked guilty for a second, so I grinned and started to shut down my computer. I knew enough not to argue with a VP about working through the party. I could always come back to my spreadsheets later.
“Protestant,” I reassured him. “I promise my parents weren’t pagan, even though they’re Icelandic. We always celebrated Christmas no matter where my father’s job took us.”
“Ah, that’s why you don’t have much of an accent,” he said as he started to shoo me out the door. “Even though your name makes me think of the Swedish Chef from the Muppets.”
“Bork Bork Bork,” I said with a grin. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that joke, and I doubted it would be the last. “But I’m Icelandic,” I repeated, “not Swedish.”
I glanced back, shrugged, and decided I could be seen without my suit coat for once. I still had my tie on, at least, not that the dress policy was very strict, but it was the principle of the thing.
“I hate to ask this, but how long have you been here?” Scudder asked as we walked down the hallway to the party in the boardroom. The food and alcohol were in there, while the rest of the party had spilled out into the hallway and surrounding cubicles because of the number of people.
“I transferred in about a month ago,” I said. “From the Tampa office.”
The company moved employees around every couple of years, either as a lateral transfer or a promotion. Smart people took the moves, no matter how much it screwed up their lives. Those who didn’t usually didn’t get promoted after the second refusal.
He looked at me questioningly, and I smiled. “I like snow, even though I didn’t see a lot of it growing up.”
“But I thought you said you’re Icelandic?”
I shrugged, very aware of the people looking at us and trying to guess why we were together. I had found out over the years that office politics were at their most cutthroat during the Christmas season, and I wondered how many people thought I was kissing his ass instead of Scudder just being a nice guy.
“My father’s job moved us around a lot, so I’ve spent a lot of time other places,” I explained. “My sisters and I grew up all over. A lot of them weren’t cold, though. I didn’t see snow, really, until I went back to Iceland for university.”
“Where did you grow up?”
We stopped in front of the bar. He grabbed a couple of glasses of red wine and handed me one. I took it, not wanting to make a fuss. At least it wasn’t some sort of mixed drink. I didn’t drink a lot, and getting drunk at the office Christmas party wasn’t a good idea. I made the mental note to start eating as soon as I could. Breakfast had been a while ago.
“Italy, Egypt, Brazil, France, and a couple of other places I probably can’t remember,” I said. “My parents were sent all over until my father died two years ago. My mother lives in Blönduós now, and my sisters are scattered all over Iceland. I’m usually home with them for Christmas, since the whole family tries to make it, but not this year.”
I felt guilty about not going home. But there just wasn’t any way for me to take the time off. I was going to visit after the holidays, but it wouldn’t be the same.
“You seem to have led a really exciting life,” he said. “And I stayed put in good ol’ Beantown.”
I could have guessed that, since he had a Boston accent so thick it was almost a caricature. But that didn’t mean he was stupid; he had his MBA from Harvard and his undergrad from Amherst College. My education wasn’t as highbrow. I had earned my BA and my MBA from the top universities in Iceland, although they weren’t as impressive as an Ivy League education was to Americans. But I didn’t know what to say about his comment, because while growing up, I had thought everyone lived like that. It wasn’t until I got to university that I found people who hadn’t moved all over the world because of a parent’s job.
We moved into the boardroom to get something to eat. People moved out of our way, mainly because of Scudder, but also because I think people didn’t want to get between me and food. Scudder moved off to spread more cheer, and I soon finished piling my plate with odds and ends, which was kind of difficult while juggling a glass of wine. I was figuring out where to eat when Ida Minos thankfully relieved me of my glass of wine. She was the departmental administrator. Her age was somewhere between thirty and retirement; she didn’t look old but had been working for the company for decades. From the flush on her cheeks, she’d had a couple of glasses of something herself.
“Follow me,” she said, then worked her way through the crowd with ease. No one wanted to peeve the woman in charge of the office supplies. It wasn’t quite the parting of the Red Sea, but close. We ended up near her office.
“Thank you for the cookies,” she told me as she handed back my glass.
I had baked her cookies and dropped them off in a tin earlier in the day. It wasn’t really a bribe, but I was in the mood to bake, and it wasn’t like I knew a lot of people I could give them to. I could only eat so many chocolate gingersnaps without either getting sick, or sick of them.
“You’re welcome,” I answered sincerely. “You’ve been very good to me.”
She snorted. What had been happening was I was polite enough to actually ask her for office supplies instead of just raiding her closet like so many people did.
“Finish that and let me show you around,” she said. “I want you to meet some people, and this is the time to do it.”