Welcome to Chapter Two 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).
Saturday, November 23
“Jason,” said the short man with the terry toweling hat by way of introduction. “Gabe said you needed help today, maybe even next weekend? I’m free both.”
“Gabe couldn’t come?” First Chris, now Gabe. Drew and Jon were also missing. Had they also sent replacements? Was that who those two other men were?
“His lawn needed mowing.”
And apparently, he couldn’t leave it for another day. Emily tried to be understanding but truly? Gabe’s lawn needed mowing? He could have just told her he didn’t want to come. One of her students could have come up with a better excuse than a lawn suddenly needing a mow. Every single one of them could have.
“Well, thanks for coming today.”
“No worries, miss. Happy to be working for a pretty lady like you.” Jason winked before turning his attention back to the concrete he’d been mixing. Emily blushed. Was he flirting with her? She certainly hoped not. The last thing she needed right now was a man. She wasn’t even sure whether she wanted to meet the other two strangers building her stable. Not that she had any choice. They were spending their Saturday working for her, she owed them at least a greeting.
The one carrying wood seemed the least daunting of the two, so she walked toward him first. He looked vaguely familiar, though she couldn’t place him. Was he one of her brothers’ friends? A teacher from another school she’d seen at a conference? She hoped he wasn’t a parent of one of her students. That could prove awkward.
“Hi. I’m Emily,” she said by way of greeting, hoping he’d take the hint and introduce himself.
“Emily. Hi.” The man wiped his hand down his shorts before offering it to her to shake. He nodded when she did. “Jon said you were pretty. He wasn’t wrong. You’re easy on the eyes.”
“Um. Thanks.” So he knew Jon. He still hadn’t shared his name though. “It was nice of you to help today. Thanks.”
“Well, Jon said you needed a strong man, and I am that.” The man lifted the long piece of wood onto his shoulder as if to prove the point. Emily would have preferred he left it on the ground and shared his name instead, especially when he almost knocked her in the head with it. She’d already put one hand out of commission today. She certainly didn’t need to add a black eye or concussion to the mix. “Join me for dinner later?”
What? She was still trying to figure out if Jason had been flirting with her or not and this man asked her outright to go to dinner with him. Did she look like she was desperate for a date? “Um. I don’t even know your name.”
“Tag. Tag Butler. So, eight then?”
“I’ll pick you up for dinner at eight.” He looked at her as if she had all the brains of a stuffed toy. She didn’t appreciate the way his eyes roved down her clothing and back up again but refused to be intimidated. “Dress formal.”
“You don’t want to go out with me?”
Would it be inexcusably rude to say no? “Uh . . .Not . . . tonight?”
“Next Saturday then. I’ll call you to confirm. Nice to meet you, Emily.”
With a nod of his head, Tag walked off, carrying the piece of wood over to the rest of the pile and leaving Emily wondering when she’d agreed to go on a date with him. She replayed the conversation in her mind. She hadn’t. It didn’t matter anyway, she told herself. He had neither her address nor her phone number.
Unless Jon had given them to him.
She’d quite happily kill Jon if he had. Well, maybe not kill him but certainly make his life miserable for a very, very long time.
Where was Jon anyway? She’d confirmed with him just last night that he’d be here today. Emily was going to have to have a serious talk with her absent brothers. Starting with Jon. And there was no better time than right now.
He answered his phone within seconds.
“Emily. How’s the stable going? Sorry, I meant to call you. I woke up this morning feeling just terrible but, lucky for you, one of my friends was able to fill in for me. Is Tag there yet? You remember him, don’t you? From my thirty-fifth birthday party?”
Well, at least that answered the question of why the man looked familiar. Emily had talked to Tag, briefly, that night. He’d tried to ask her out on a date then too, if Emily remembered correctly, although had been interrupted. It appeared he hadn’t given up.
“He’s here. Um, you didn’t give Tag my phone number or address, did you?”
Then she was safe. For now. He couldn’t pick her up for a date if he didn’t know where she lived. “Just don’t. Please.”
“He asked about you after my party, you know. I think he likes you.” Emily thought he liked himself more but chose not to say so. “You should give him a chance. I think you’d like him too.” She didn’t bother correcting Jon’s assumption. As far as she was concerned, Tag was a good worker but that was where her appreciation of him ended. He had enough appreciation for himself without her stroking his ego further.
Matt’s waving hand caught Emily’s attention. He gestured toward the giant pile of wood before throwing both arms out in question. She said a quick goodbye to Jon before hanging up and stuffing the phone back in her pocket. It was definitely time to get back to what she’d come here to do, and that was to build a stable. She’d leave making Jon’s life a misery for later.
Matt watched as Emily swigged a bottle of well-earned water. He couldn’t help but be impressed by her. She had to be in pain and yet she’d not stopped ever since they got back from the doctor two hours ago. First carrying wood, then plotting out and marking the dimensions of the stable onto the ground, laying out planks to brace the concrete slab foundation, hammering them into place. No doubt she would have done the digging, concrete mixing, and taken control of one of the wheelbarrows as well if she’d had two hands.
She’d thanked them all for their assistance when the last of the concrete had been poured half an hour ago, telling them she’d be finishing for the day soon and heading home, and they should do the same, but she’d yet to actually stop. None of the men had either, no doubt fueled by a mix of chivalry and testosterone which stubbornly refused to quit before the only woman on site did.
He was pretty sure the men would give up work for the day before she did, Neil being the first to cave. With his fancy clothes totally unsuited to manual labor and the way he kept checking his hands for splinters, he seemed the least comfortable on the construction site, small as it was. If Matt hadn’t known about Emily’s brothers’ matchmaking plan, he would have wondered why someone like Neil had offered to help in the first place. The poor man didn’t even know a Philips screwdriver from a flathead.
But a date with Emily was a pretty good incentive to come. She was beautiful, but either didn’t realize or didn’t care, the way she’d thrown on a floppy hat and oversized long-sleeved shirt. Sun-safe, but not the most flattering outfit, though he respected her all the more for it. She was graceful too. And had a laugh Matt didn’t think he could ever grow tired of.
Not that that was why he was here. At all.
He was here as a favor to Luke. That was all. Speaking of which.
“What time do you fly out tomorrow?” he asked as he and Luke walked two trestle tables back to the church building.
Luke shrugged. “Close enough. I’ll head to the shops after we finish here. Forgot to pick up my malaria medication. I was supposed to start taking it yesterday. Not that that’s important.”
“You might rethink that if you get malaria.”
“True, but it’s pretty unlikely. Anyway, I’ll get the meds. We told the teens they had to so I’d better. I’m more worried about Emily. You will look out for her, right?”
Matt wedged the door open with his foot so Luke could bring his table through.
“I said I would.”
“I know. It’s just—” Luke sighed. Frowned. “I didn’t expect the men my brothers sent to be quite so charming. I mean, Neil might not be much of a handyman, but that accent will turn Em to mush. Jason and Josh are the chivalrous type which, again, total mush, and Tag doesn’t strike me as one who’d take no for an answer. I’ve never quite understood what Jon sees in him. They’re all totally wrong for Emily but they don’t know that yet and I doubt she’s confident enough to send them away.”
Luke might not have been trying to set Emily up with a man, but he was still babying her. From what Matt knew of Emily, she was plenty confident, and more than capable of taking care of herself. Still, if it set Luke’s mind at ease—
“I’ll be around.”
“Thanks.” Luke clapped a hand on his shoulder before something out the window caught his attention. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me.”
“What?” Matt asked.
Luke’s glare in his little sister’s direction, punctuated by the way he stormed back outside, all but running toward her, negated the need for an answer. Emily had emptied the last of the bins and was now heading toward her car, keys in hand, looking for all the world like she planned on driving home.
Matt didn’t know what help he might be but followed his friend all the same. Emily was already behind the wheel, working on putting her seat belt on by the time they made it to her car door.
“You’re not actually going to try to drive, are you?” Luke asked her, holding a hand on the door to stop her from closing it.
“Of course I am. How else do you propose I get home?”
“Call a taxi. Catch a bus. Better yet, I’ll drive you.”
“Taxis are expensive. There are no buses around here, and you’re supposed to be at the shops already. They’re only open for another hour.”
Luke glanced at Matt, eyes narrowing as a satisfied grin brushed across his face. Matt knew exactly what he was going to say next. Emily’s protective brother couldn’t have planned this moment better if he’d spent a year doing it. “Matt will drive you.”
With a loud scoff, Emily pushed Luke’s hand off the top of her door.
“I’m fine. The doctor didn’t say anything about not driving. It’s just my left hand. My car is automatic so it’s really only my right hand I need anyway. And you should probably ask your friend’s permission before volunteering him, especially since he already spent half of his morning driving me around. I’m sure he has better things to do than spend his evening doing the same.”
“It’s fine,” Matt found himself saying. “I like driving.”
Emily frowned, unconvinced. “No one likes driving. Not in the city anyway.”
“I do,” Matt told her. “And I really am happy to drive you home. We’ll figure out getting your car home for you later.”
He watched Emily fight that idea for a few seconds before sighing and letting the seat belt go. “Fine,” she said, leaning over to grab her purse off the passenger seat and hook it over her arm before stepping out of the car. “But it’s not like I won’t be driving anyway. I have to get to school and home each day somehow, and then there are rehearsals for the Sunday school play, Christmas shopping, grocery shopping . . .”
“Matt’s going to drive you to them too,” Luke offered.
Emily let out a short laugh. “Is he now.”
“Yep, anywhere you want to go for the next two weeks.”
Emily looked from Luke to Matt and back again. Matt didn’t know what she was looking for—protest perhaps?—but she wasn’t going to find it. He’d promised to look out for Luke’s little sister and Luke had just come up with the perfect way to do that.
Shaking her head, Emily handed Matt her keys. “Fine. Whatever.”
Luke looked triumphant, no doubt thinking his little plan was going wonderfully well. Matt wasn’t quite so certain. He was beginning to wonder exactly what he’d just gotten himself into.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this chapter of Deck the Halls (and bring a hammer). Read on for Chapter Three!