Welcome to Chapter Four 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 30
Emily’s kitchen looked like it had been invaded by an army of gingerbread men. One hundred and twenty of them to be exact. One hundred for the various groups of kids she was involved with and an extra twenty spare, because she’d never been very restrained when it came to eating gingerbread. Once that spicy scent of baked gingerbread filled the house, they needed an army to keep her away. Not that she’d eat all twenty extras, but it didn’t hurt to be prepared.
“These are done. Where do you want them?”
Emily looked around the kitchen for somewhere that wasn’t already covered in trays to put the latest batch. Her little cottage didn’t boast the largest of kitchens, but it had always been adequate in the past—the one exception being during her Christmas baking marathons. Perhaps if she moved the ones on the side counter to the table and the ones on the table to containers? They’d be cool enough by now, surely. She’d best test one to make sure.
“Thanks for helping, Allie,” she couldn’t help saying again as she one-handedly rearranged the trays. She would have preferred to have worked on the stable today, but three days of heavy rain—and one particularly fierce hailstorm—had turned the church grounds to mud and forced Emily to postpone the stable build for another week. Annoying, but she certainly wasn’t complaining about the chance to get her Christmas baking done, in the cool bliss of air-conditioning. Spending the day with Allie was just a bonus.
“Are you kidding?” Allie said. “I love gingerbread. Especially your recipe. Give me a batch of these for Christmas every year and I would be one very happy woman.”
“So is your gingerbread. And spicy, and soft, and—ahhhhh, so good.”
Emily grinned as Allie pretended to sink to the floor, presumably into an imaginary pile of gingerbread. Twenty extras suddenly sounded a mere pittance. Maybe Emily should mix up another batch.
“Still, thanks. This hand is driving me crazy.” She lifted her bandaged hand, as if Allie wouldn’t know which one she was talking about.
“And here I thought the craziness was thanks to your new best friend, Matt. You know, the one who drove you to school and picked you up every day this week.”
“What? No. Matt is just Luke’s friend. He’s driving me around as a favor to Luke.” And she was sticking with that story. No matter how much she was starting to doubt it was the whole reason.
“And that’s all he’s doing?”
“Yeah.” Emily frowned. “What else would he be doing?”
“Falling in love with you.”
She dropped the container she was holding, hoping Allie didn’t notice the clatter. Or the way her heart suddenly started dancing to a beat rivalling “Jingle Bells.” The fast version. “What? No. Why would you think that?”
“Because you’re blushing.”
She was feeling particularly warm all of a sudden, despite the air-conditioning. “It’s the gingerbread. Hot cookies on a hot day with a hot oven going. Who wouldn’t be flushed?” Although Allie herself was looking remarkably cool, and smug.
“Sure, Emily. Whatever you say.”
As the youngest two female teachers at North Beach State School, Emily and Allie had been fast friends, their shared faith and love of all things Christmas only cementing the fact. When she realized she couldn’t roll out gingerbread with one hand, Allie had been her first call.
“Fine. He’s cute.”
Allie raised her eyebrows, the sides of her mouth pulling up with them. “He’s more than cute, Em.”
“Very cute then.” But that was all she was willing to admit. Definitely not the way his smile and that single dimple of his had turned up in her dreams every night this week. Which might have had something to do with the fact that she’d fallen asleep most nights thinking of him. Something else she wasn’t planning on admitting.
“It doesn’t matter what I think anyway because he’s Luke’s friend. I can’t be interested in my brother’s best friend.”
“So you are interested.”
Emily slid a tray of gingerbread into a container before rearranging several that didn’t need to be rearranged. Anything to keep from facing her all-too-knowing best friend.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Not in so many words,” Allie conceded, “but you might as well have. It’s okay, you know. He’s a man. You’re a woman. He might be Luke’s friend but surely that will work in your favor. That’s one brother already who thinks Matt is great. And we all know how protective your brothers are of their baby sister.”
Oh boy. Were they ever.
“Allie, dearest, if I wanted a boyfriend, I would have said yes to Tag when he asked me out, or Jason. Or even that Kiwi guy we met at the school fair last year who you were determined was my soul mate just because he smiled at me.”
“I still say you should have talked to him.”
Emily rolled her eyes before turning back to her friend. “I am not interested in being in a relationship right now, Allie. I have my kids, my family, a job I love, and the freedom to fill my house with gingerbread from top to bottom without anyone complaining. Believe me. A man would only mess that up.”
“That’s a no to Matt McLaughlin then?”
“Allie,” Emily groaned out.
“Fine, fine. I won’t say any more. But you have to promise me I can be Maid of Honor at your wedding. I want to be right beside you so you can hear me whisper, ‘I told you so’, when the pastor pronounces you Mrs. McLaughlin.”
If she hadn’t wanted to save every bit of gingerbread she could, Emily would have thrown the cookie in her hand at Allie’s head. She turned back around instead, hiding her giddy and downright traitorous smile from her friend. Mrs. Emily McLaughlin. It had a nice ring to it. And Matt was definitely more than just “very cute.”
“Emily. What’s this doing here? It was due back five weeks ago.”
Uh oh. Emily’s hands stilled. Her breath too. She didn’t have to look to know what Allie had found. She should have thrown it out, but, like so many other things lately, she’d been distracted and merely thrown it in a pile of paperwork to sort out later. Now she’d have to come up with a reasonable excuse for why her teaching preference form was still sitting on her sideboard rather than in the principal’s pigeonhole. Something other than the truth—that she had no plans to continue teaching at North Beach next year.
Nothing. She heard imaginative story after imaginative story day in day out from her five-year-olds to explain all manner of things and she couldn’t even think of a decent explanation for this.
“Wow,” Allie said.
Allie pointed a gingerbread man at Emily, before smiling and shaking her head. “Matt’s really done a number on you. You’re usually the first one to get any form back. Hey. Write on yours that we want to have classrooms side by side. How cool would that be. We could work together.”
“That’s a bad idea and you know it. We’d never get anything done.”
“Sorry, but you know it’s true.” Plus, the hierarchies were no doubt already practically finished their allocation of teachers and grades for next year. There was a good reason the forms had been due back the second week of fourth term. And Emily had already handed in her resignation. Along with a plea to keep the news secret until she was ready to tell people.
“I know. But it would be fun. Maybe when we’re married with kids, we could tag team it instead. You do half the week; I do the other.”
“Maybe.” Emily frowned. “Wait, did you just blame Matt for me not getting my form back on time?”
“I was wondering if you’d notice.”
Allie held both hands up, laughing almost too hard to speak. “Just calling it as I see it.”
Emily shook her head. “I’d barely even spoken to Matt until two weeks ago. You can hardly blame him for this.”
“But I can blame him for other things? Like the fact that you go red every time I mention his name? How close exactly are the two of you?”
Too close. And nowhere near close enough. “Oh look, the music’s finished. I’d better go put on some more.” Emily left the kitchen to the soundtrack of Allie’s laughter. She took her time choosing the next album, more because she needed time to compose herself than because it was a difficult choice. Emily was a chicken, and she knew it, but she wasn’t ready to tell anyone the truth. Even Allie.
Matt wasn’t the reason she hadn’t returned the form. He was the reason she’d forgotten to move it out of sight before Allie arrived, but not for it still being there, incomplete. That was entirely on her.
At least Allie hadn’t found out about her resignation yet. She knew exactly how that conversation would go.
But—you love teaching. You told me it was your dream.
But for the past couple of years, another dream had been growing in her heart. One that had been so big, so different, and so potentially foolish, that she hadn’t told a single one of her friends or family about it. She didn’t even know if she could do it, let alone whether she would be able to.
And yet, it wouldn’t go away. So, in a burst of courage one night, she’d taken a leap and applied—despite being both too young and completely unqualified for the position advertised. And then, she’d waited. And waited.
Any day now, the letter would arrive.
And one way or the other, she’d know what next year held. Maybe even the rest of her life.
Matt stood outside Emily’s front door, wondering what reason he could possibly come up with for being there, wishing he hadn’t noticed the strange car in her driveway when he’d been driving past. If he hadn’t noticed it, he wouldn’t have felt guilted into checking she was okay. But he’d promised Luke. And a promise was a promise.
Emily had already called this morning to tell him they wouldn’t be working on the stable today, nor would she need a lift anywhere, so that excuse was out.
He missed her? Yeah, right. Their awkward relationship had grown decidedly less awkward over the past week, but they were hardly close enough for her to believe that.
He wanted to confirm again what time she needed to be at school Monday morning? Also out. They had phones for that kind of thing. And she’d already given him her work schedule which stated very clearly what times she needed to be at school each day.
The best he’d come up with so far was the lip balm he was currently rolling between his fingers. He’d found it in his car yesterday. It must have fallen out while she was rifling through her purse for her keys at some point, as she was too organized to have left it there any other way. He could return that, but it seemed a very small thing to make a special trip to return—especially when he was going to see her Monday anyway.
Unless he went to church in the morning, instead of his usual night service. But then, Emily would be with the kids in Sunday school, so the likelihood of seeing her there was just as small.
And the chance of someone asking him why he’d suddenly changed his habits after years of attending the night service too big to risk. Not that he wouldn’t do that for a woman. One day. If she wanted, and he was actually dating her.
He was still wondering when the door opened suddenly.
“Matt? What are you doing here?”
His neck went as red as the cherry Chapstick he held in the air. “You forgot this.”
Emily took it, tucking it in the pocket of her shorts as she considered him. “Thanks, but you could have just given it to me Monday. You didn’t have to make a special trip, you know.”
He knew. Boy, did he know.
“I was in the neighborhood and for all I knew, it was your favorite.” Pathetic. It was lip balm. No doubt she had ten of them. “Something smells good.”
Emily smiled, instantly distracted. “Gingerbread. Allie and I have been cooking all morning.”
Allie. She must have been the owner of the car in the driveway. There. He’d done his duty to Luke and checked on Emily. She was simply baking with her friend. He could leave now. He should leave now.
“Gingerbread?” He’d tasted Emily’s gingerbread in the past. Luke had brought some home and forgotten to write any sort of claim on the box. It was like holding Christmas in the palm of his hand—for the instant before he ate it. “Need anyone to lick the bowl?”
Though she frowned slightly, her eyes were laughing. “It’s dough. Nothing left in the bowl to lick but a light coating of oil.”
“Oh.” In that case, he should definitely go.
“But you’re welcome to come in anyway. There is a pile of them that are a bit too cooked on the edges to give away as gifts. If you’re not opposed to a little crunch, you could fight Allie for them.”
He was through the door before Emily could change her mind. He didn’t know about this Allie person, but Emily’s gingerbread was definitely worth the fight.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this chapter of Deck the Halls (and bring a hammer). Read on for Chapter Five!