Welcome to Chapter One of my Christmas novella! I’ll be sharing the whole novella – one chapter a day – for the first couple of weeks of December (my Christmas gift to you, my wonderful readers!), so make sure you come back each day to read the next instalment of Emily and Matt’s story. If you’ve just found this, I’d recommend starting back at the beginning of the story (here).
Thursday, November 14
If there was one thing Matt McLaughlin hated, it was being forced into something. Especially when it was his housemate and best friend, Luke, doing the forcing, which—thankfully—didn’t happen very often. If ever. Under normal circumstances, Matt would do anything for Luke. Unfortunately for him, nothing about this was normal.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Come on, Matt. It’s just for a couple of weeks. You’re the only one I trust.”
Matt jogged his way along two more streets before answering, Luke easily keeping pace beside him. When Luke had mentioned before heading off to bed last night that he’d join Matt for his early morning run, Matt had been all too happy to let him. It had been a while since the two friends had run together, and Luke was always good company.
Make that usually good company. Matt was starting to wish he’d told Luke to stay home. Five a.m. might have been the perfect time to beat the worst of summer’s heat, but it was far too early to be trying to finagle himself out of what was definitely the worst idea of Luke’s life.
“Why can’t you do it?”
“I’m going away next week, remember?”
That’s right. The mission trip to Thailand with a group of seniors from the youth group Luke led. Luke had been counting down the days for a while now. Matt would have gone too, if he hadn’t already allocated his holiday leave to the trip he was planning next year.
“What’s Emily think about all this?” he asked, dodging two dog-walkers and their furry friends.
“She doesn’t know. That’s why I need you.”
“To spy on your sister. Isn’t there a law against that or something?” Sweat made a trail down the middle of Matt’s back, the day already humid despite the early hour. House in view, Matt picked up his pace, as eager for a glass of water and a shower as he was for this awkward conversation to be over.
“It’s not spying. Just . . . keeping an eye on her. Running interference should any of her ‘suitors’ get a little too, uh, suitor-ish.”
“Suitor-ish?” Toeing off his shoes at the front door, Matt walked inside and straight to the fridge for some water. Luke grabbed a glass from beside the sink and followed him.
“It’s a word.”
“It’s really not.”
His friend shrugged, grinning and unrepentant. Matt sighed. He wanted to refuse—desperately. The last thing he needed right now was Luke’s little sister to babysit. But it was Luke. Luke who had befriended Matt when he most needed a friend, paid for more than his share of the rent so Matt had a place to live, and so rarely asked for anything in return. He already knew he’d be saying yes. Begrudging an answer as it might be.
“But why me? I’m pretty sure she hates me.”
Luke swept a hand across his forehead, making his short hair stick up, before shrugging again. “She barely knows you. And, like I said, you’re the only one I trust. Plus, even if Emily did hate you, which she doesn’t, that would work in our favor anyway since she won’t feel like I’m doing the same thing the other boys are doing in foisting a prospective partner on her. If she sees you around, she’ll just think you’re there for me.”
Unfortunate, how much sense Luke made. Matt poured himself another glass, sculling it down before speaking again.
“So, what, I’ll just happen to keep bumping into her wherever she goes? Because you know I can’t actually follow her around or turn up at her house when you’re not even there. Apart from the fact that I still have work, and she hates me, that’s just creepy.”
“One, she doesn’t hate you. She just doesn’t know you. Big difference. And two, come on, Matt. Give me some credit. My brothers aren’t the only ones who can make plans. Nope. You’re about to make yourself as indispensable to Emily as the four suitors my brothers have sent in her direction.”
Somehow, that didn’t calm Matt’s worries in the slightest.
“You’re going to join the work crew building her a stable.”
And to think Matt had thought spying on Emily was the craziest part of this whole plan. Luke clearly needed a holiday.
“A stable? You mean a little nativity thing?” He’d seen those around. Little wooden things acting as backdrops for the holy family alongside a couple of shepherds, some wise men, and enough barn animals to fill the gaps. Not too difficult to make. A few short planks of wood for the sides and back, a couple more for the roof. Hammer, nails, and a trip to Bunnings, and he’d be done in an afternoon. Come to think of it, there were probably enough scraps of wood left over in the shed from when he’d fixed the back decking to make one in time for Luke to pass it on to Emily before Luke left for Thailand.
There. Problem solved.
Luke’s laugh wasn’t encouraging. “You wish. But no. A big one. Life-sized, if a little simplified. Em’s Sunday school kids are putting on a nativity play, and she’s promised them a stable to perform it in. Pastor Jake agreed to let her build it on the church property. Emily, of course, volunteered her brothers to do the actual building. We start work next Saturday but it’ll take longer than a day given she wants it to look as authentic as possible.”
“Yup. With a proper foundation and everything.”
Foundation and—what exactly did “everything” include?
“So, you’re in? You’ll help with Em?” Luke asked.
Did he really have a choice? “Sure.”
“Thanks, Matt. I knew I could count on you. Oh, and bring a hammer.”
Luke walked off happy. Matt couldn’t quite claim the same. He was intrigued, certainly. The feeling sat uncomfortably alongside resignation and no small amount of grumpiness inside him. But happy? Not even close.
A stable. A life-sized authentic-looking stable. And that was just the opener. He’d just—somehow—agreed to befriend and keep an eye on Emily for the next two weeks. It appeared he was just as crazy as Luke and Emily.
Saturday, November 23
Slamming the car door with four fingers still inside wasn’t exactly the way Emily had hoped to start the day she’d been preparing for for weeks. Biting back a shout that would draw far too much attention, she shook the hand, as if that might somehow help. It didn’t. At all. If anything, it only served to intensify the pain.
Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.
A pair of rogue tears slipped out despite her best intentions. Had she broken her fingers? They didn’t look out of shape but certainly hurt enough to be and were visibly swelling. How could something so small throb so much?
Ice. She needed ice.
Her First Aid training belatedly kicked in. Rest, ice, compression, elevation. Of course, that was generally the course of action for far more serious injuries, but it’d work for fingers. Right? She couldn’t exactly rest it, and a compression bandage would be slight overkill, but ice would definitely be welcome. More than welcome.
“Emily. Here you are.”
Emily slowly turned around, tucking the throbbing digits behind the pile of papers she held as she did so, pretending her entire hand didn’t feel like it was about to explode.
“Luke. Hi. And Matt. You’re here too.” At least her sunglasses would hide the wetness still lingering on her eyelashes. The day hadn’t even started, and she was already injured. Good job, Emily.
“I talked Matt into helping. I hope that’s okay.”
“Sure. The more the merrier.” The quicker it got done, the quicker she’d be able to run away. At this moment a bus full of criminals on work assignment from jail could have turned up to help and she wouldn’t have cared.
“So, the day’s finally here,” Luke said.
“Yep.” Ouch. Smile. Ouch. Look interested. Ignore it, Emily.
Distraction wasn’t working. The pain was seeing to that remarkably well. She really needed to find that ice. “Uh, I’ll let everyone know what’s happening when the others arrive but if you two want to start, the wood’s all down under a tarp around the back of the church. We need that brought around. And the ground cleared. Or you could just wait.”
Emily didn’t wait to see what Luke and Matt chose to do, instead all but running to the church building. Pastor Jake had assured her it would be unlocked. A few more tears fell, this time in relief, when she found it was—and that the office freezer was well stocked with ice packs. She grabbed two and placed them either side of her fingers, wrapping the whole hand in a tea towel. It wasn’t instant relief, but it was better. Minutes ticked by as she stood there, willing the pain away.
Now, if she could just figure out a way to hold ice on it all day while hiding from her teasing brothers the fact that she’d been clumsy enough to slam her own hand in the car door.
“Emily? Luke sent me to ask— Uh, what’s with the towel?”
Emily let her eyes sink shut for a moment as she considered how to answer Matt. He’d been Luke’s best friend for over a decade, but that didn’t mean she liked him, or even knew him really, beyond the obvious physical traits. Tall, dark-haired, strong hands.
Hands, Emily? Really?
It must have been her throbbing fingers which had brought that description to mind. Not that it wasn’t true. Still, he had turned up to help today, which meant something. What, exactly, she wasn’t sure, but something.
“I’m washing dishes?”
A half grin tickled the corners of Matt’s mouth, making his brown eyes laugh as he peered behind her to the empty sink. Emily had never seen him smile before. It took away much of the aloofness that had always irritated her about him. “You know, I might just have believed you—if the sink had been even a little bit wet. Wait, are you crying?”
“No.” Not anymore. Though she was tempted to begin again. Could this day get any worse? She already had five brothers. She didn’t need another man telling her how foolish she was. Not that Matt had said that yet, but he might as well have, the way he was looking at her. He stared at her face, scrutinizing it, before letting his gaze drop to the tea towel she had clutched up against her chest.
“Show me your hand,” he ordered.
“What?” Emily tried a laugh, but it came out more as a scoff. “No.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I just want to see.”
He wasn’t going to let this go. Of course not. Why would anything today go even so much as a tiny fraction of a degree in her favor? Still, she could probably salvage it. Laugh it off as nothing to be concerned about.
“Fine,” she said. “If you must know, I closed the car door on my fingers and now I have ice on them. See?” She took her hand out of its icy house and waved it in front of Matt’s face. “All good.”
She gasped, part in surprise and part in pain, as he grabbed her wrist with those strong hands of his, peering down at her fingers she could see were definitely not “all good.” Three of them were purple. Already. And twice their normal size. No wonder her fingers felt like they were about to explode. They really were.
Wait, could fingers do that? How tough was the skin surrounding those throbbing blood vessels of hers?
“Have you seen a doctor?” Matt asked, still holding tight to her wrist. She pulled her arm free, hiding the hand back inside the ice pack.
“I only just did it a couple of minutes ago.”
“And it’s this bruised already? Oh, for goodness’ sake, woman. They’re probably broken. You should go see a doctor.”
Well, at least he’d called her a woman. Rude a statement as it sounded, it was one step up from her brothers, who still thought she was an immature little girl.
“I have a stable to build.”
Matt snorted. “You’ll be lucky to be able to hold a pen with the way that hand’s swelling, let alone a hammer. Believe me, you’re not building anything today.”
Tears threatened to fall again as Emily realized he was right. “But—I have to.”
They were already behind, thanks to the thunderstorms which had hit right on cue the past two weekends. The kids needed the stable to practice, Luke was only able to help today because of his Thailand trip, the concrete they were pouring needed a few days to cure before building anything on it, and the closer it got to Christmas, the busier the rest of her brothers were. She needed this.
“You have five brothers. Let them do it. You’re going to the doctor.”
“Can you drive?”
“Of course I can. What has Luke been telling you? I’m a perfectly good driver.” What was it about guys that they automatically assumed a girl couldn’t drive? Admittedly, her brothers were much better drivers than her, but that didn’t mean she was bad. She’d even gotten her license the first time she’d taken the test, unlike three of her five brothers.
Matt rolled his eyes. “I meant with that hand.” He shook his head. “No. Of course you can’t. You probably couldn’t even put your seat belt on. Come on. I’ll drive you.”
“You? No way. I barely even know you.” And she didn’t like him. Two perfectly good reasons not to get in the car with him. Who knew what sort of a man he was.
“Fine. Then one of your brothers can. I’ll go talk to Luke.”
“Wait.” She couldn’t. It was stupid to be embarrassed over something so trivial but, well, her brothers weren’t silly enough to slam their fingers in a car door. They’d find out sooner or later and the teasing would begin but it didn’t have to be while she was in so much pain. “Fine. I’ll go with you. Just . . . tell Luke we’re getting supplies or something, will you? It won’t be a lie. We’ll get, uh, something.”
There was that half grin again. It was like he could see right through her flimsy excuse. But he wasn’t teasing her, to his eternal credit.
“Fine. Good. Let’s go.”
Three hours, two x-rays and one not particularly sympathetic doctor later, Emily and Matt arrived back at the church, morning tea, and three broken fingers in tow. At least the fingers had stopped throbbing—for now. It was like the doctor hadn’t trusted her to actually follow orders and rest her hand with the amount of tape he’d wrapped around it.
She tried to be thankful that it was her left hand, rather than her dominant one, but it was difficult. This was not part of the plan. Still, she was here now and ready to work and, if the pile of wood were any indication, her brothers had made a good start while she’d been gone so the day wasn’t a total waste.
Emily still didn’t know how much she’d be able to do with her hand coddled like this.
“I’ll go hand these around, shall I?” Matt held up the grocery bags full of potato chips, cinnamon doughnuts, and far too many sweets for anyone to eat without bouncing off walls. Emily swiped a packet of licorice off the top of one of the bags before nodding.
Much as she didn’t want to admit it, Matt had been a lifesaver. She’d have to find a way to thank him somehow. Not only had he driven her to the doctor, then to get x-rays, then back to the doctor, then to the grocery store to pick up the “supplies” she’d promised her brothers, waiting patiently all the while, but he’d kept her so distracted with his crazy stories that she almost hadn’t noticed the pain. She still didn’t know which of his stories were true and which were completely fabricated, but neither did she care. He’d succeeded as far as she was concerned. Plus, for all she knew, he really had turned his white dog green as a child when a science experiment went wrong.
To be honest, she was trying very hard to remember what about him she hadn’t liked. It certainly wasn’t his smile. Or the way his grin when he was telling a story made the occasional word lisp. Or the way he’d jumped in and taken charge when she’d been too mortified to ask for help. Or, had she mentioned his smile?
Emily turned at the sound of her name but didn’t recognize the stranger who’d spoken it.
“Matt says you’re the one to thank for the doughnuts. My deepest gratitude is yours.”
“You’re welcome, Mr.—uh—”
“Potter. Neil Potter. Your brother, Chris, couldn’t make it today and didn’t want you to be shorthanded so he sent me.”
Emily was charmed already. Neil was British. She held back a heartfelt sigh lest it embarrass them both. That accent. She could have listened to it all day, giggling with pleasure as it tiptoed through her ears straight to her heart.
“Nice to meet you, Neil. It was kind of you to come. Is Chris okay?”
“Yes, of course. I believe he mentioned something to do with his daughter’s swimming lesson being changed to a different time?”
Casey was doing swimming lessons now? This was the first Emily had heard of it. Not that it was all that surprising. Her six-year-old niece had already tried—and decided against—ballet lessons, violin lessons, guitar lessons, soccer, and netball. Last Emily had heard, Irish Dancing classes were the next thing Casey wanted to try. Perhaps Chris and Felicity had decided swimming was a cheaper option if Casey decided she didn’t like this either.
“Right. Well. Thanks for coming, Neil. Enjoy the doughnuts. And call me Emily. I get enough ‘Miss Mitchell’ at school.”
“Emily, then. Splendid to make your acquaintance.”
He walked off with a whistle and a jaunty skip to his step. Emily smiled when she saw him grab another doughnut from the table Matt had found to spread morning tea across. Clearly doughnuts were a favorite. She’d have to remember that for future work days. Of course, Neil likely wouldn’t be here next time, since he was just filling in for Chris today, but the rest of her work crew seemed to be enjoying them just as much.
The rest of the work crew who, apart from Luke and Matt, Emily didn’t recognize. At all. Who on earth were all these men?
And, for that matter, where were her brothers?
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the first chapter of Deck the Halls (and bring a hammer). Read on for Chapter Two!