Welcome to Chapter Five 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
Matt took another bite of his gingerbread and told himself to stop being so paranoid.
It didn’t work.
Something was going on. He was trying his best to ignore it but there were far too many not-so-covert glances going back and forth between Emily and her friend for it to be nothing. And somehow, he knew it was about him. He should leave. Before it got weirder or he got roped into something worse than just watching over his best friend’s little sister. Only—
The place was filled with gingerbread. And Matt McLaughlin was a sucker for gingerbread.
If Luke had told him Emily filled her house with gingerbread every Christmas, Matt would have been begging to be the one to keep an eye on Emily.
“Hey Em, it’s almost three.”
“What?” Emily shot a glance at the clock on the wall, cringing as she did so. “I knew I should have set an alarm. I always forget the time when I’m baking.”
Matt watched on in amusement as Emily fluttered around the kitchen for a minute or so apparently trying to figure out what to do first now she was running late, for whatever it was she was running late for. The butter got picked up and moved three times before it made its way back into the fridge and the kitchen counter was only half wiped before Emily spotted more finished gingerbread which needed to be put into a container. When she went to find another container, she was distracted by three dirty bowls above the plastics cupboard and when she went to put them in the sink, remembered the half-wiped counter and—
“Leave it.” Allie put a hand on Emily’s arm just as Matt got up to do the same. “I’ve got this. Go get ready.”
“I’ll just do the—”
“Seriously, Em. Go. Matt will help me.”
“It’s okay, I have time to—”
If Emily turned around in the middle of the kitchen one more time, Matt was going to pick her up and deposit her in the living room himself. Wherever it was she was going, she was clearly late. Or going to be. After helping himself to enough of the gingerbread “rejects” to send a dietician into cardiac arrest, he owed her. “I’ll wash up. You go. Detergent under the sink?”
She nodded, but still didn’t leave. “You don’t have to—”
“Of course I don’t. But I have to work off that gingerbread somehow, right?”
Emily threw up her hands in mock surrender. “Fine, fine. I’ll be back in a second.”
“What’s she late for?” he asked Allie as Emily ran out of the room, just missing the edge of the table in her haste. Allie didn’t answer. He turned to look at her, and almost instantly wished he hadn’t. Emily had mentioned Allie was a kindy teacher like her but even if she hadn’t, Matt would have known it in that instant. Allie’s expression as she looked at him was pure calculation. The look of a teacher who might have been asking her young student what was going on but already knew the whole story. He tried not to squirm.
He swallowed. Definitely trouble. “Yes?” Plunging his hands into the steaming, soapy water, he started washing bowls.
“What do you do for work?”
“I’m an IT manager.” That was easy enough, and apparently passed as an answer because it earned him a nod and a half-eyebrow raise from Allie. He turned back to the water, dunking in a handful of cutlery and two wooden spoons. Maybe he’d misjudged her.
“Good job. And you’re not seeing anyone right now?”
And maybe not. “You mean, do I have a girlfriend?” He did not like where she was going with this. “No.”
“Good, good.” She stopped for a moment, likely to think of what else she desperately needed to know before she approved him as a possible match for her best friend. He took the chance to set her straight.
“I’m not interested in Emily, if that’s what you’re getting at. Not like that. I’m just doing her a favor. Well, Luke really. I’m doing Luke a favor by driving Emily around.” And watching her, but Allie didn’t need any more reason to think he was interested in Emily.
“Of course, of course.” Allie waved a hand, dismissing his words as if she completely agreed with him. He wasn’t clueless enough to be fooled. He might have just met Allie, but he’d seen enough animal documentaries to know what a mama protecting her babies acted like. Allie might not have been Emily’s mother, but she had the protection thing down pat.
“Really, Allie. I’m not.”
“I said yes. Now, are you busy this afternoon?”
She wasn’t listening to a word he said. “Allie—”
“Emily,” Allie said with a smile as Emily bounded back into the kitchen, a tank top and bright red Christmas skirt having replaced her tee and shorts. “That was quick. Ready to go?”
She looked adorable, if a little flustered.
“Yep, I’ll just grab the box of scripts and then we can leave.”
“Actually, Matt’s going to take you.”
Though Allie tried to look innocent, she failed. Miserably. The message she was trying to pass on to Emily was either lost in translation or totally ignored. Most likely the latter, if the way Emily was glaring at her was any indication. Matt thought about asking, but decided it was probably best he didn’t know.
“He’s going in that direction.”
Matt shook his head. This was ridiculous. He might not have been interested in Emily in a romantic sense but, for better or worse, he was invested in her life for the next two weeks. None of the things he’d planned on doing this afternoon were urgent.
“I mean, sure. I can drive you,” he told Emily.
“See?” Allie clapped her hands. “All sorted. I’ll even drop your cheesecake to your parents’ house, so you don’t have to take it to the rehearsal since they’re on my way. Thanks for the gingerbread.”
“Traitor.” It was muttered under Emily’s breath, but Matt still heard it. Allie clearly did too.
“You’ll thank me one day.”
Emily shook her head. “Believe me, that day isn’t today.”
Matt heard Allie’s laughter all the way to her car and tried not to be downright terrified by it. This was definitely about him—something he’d let himself think about later. When Emily wasn’t already running late. He let the water out of the sink, drying his hands on the sides of his pants, since every tea towel in the kitchen seemed to be coated in flour.
“Come on, Miss Priss.”
Emily instantly narrowed her eyes. “Where did you hear that?”
“I’ve been friends with Luke for ten years. I’ve heard it enough.”
“He talks about me?”
“I’ve heard stories.” Many, many stories. For someone he’d rarely come into contact with—thanks to a demanding job and being so intimidated by the family that was The Mitchells that he did his best to be busy whenever any of them but Luke were around—he knew a lot about Emily Mitchell.
Matt laughed. Tell her his secrets? “Not a chance. You’re late already, remember? Now, get in the car like a good little girl and tell me where I’m apparently taking you.”
“You’ll get in the car?”
“Nope. Fine, I won’t make you tell. But Luke is going to pay.”
They were going to the church, somewhere Matt thankfully knew well. This afternoon was the kids’ first rehearsal for the actual nativity play. Matt had tried to ask Emily how her hand was three times before giving up and letting her fall completely into the alternate world of the script she was reading. He was more than content to drive in silence—and ruminate on the fact that, despite changing outfits, Emily still smelled like gingerbread. It must have been in her hair. He leaned a little closer, jerkily straightening up again as he realized what he was doing.
Drive, McLaughlin. Just drive.
“You could stay if you wanted to,” Emily said suddenly. “The rehearsal only goes for an hour.”
“I wouldn’t be in the way?”
“Not at all. We’re allocating parts today. You might find it amusing.” She blushed. “That is, if you really don’t have anything better to be doing.”
Christmas shopping could definitely wait. “I’d love to stay.”
Emily wasn’t wrong. A quarter of an hour later, Matt wondered if he’d ever laughed so hard in his life. Silently, of course, since it would hardly be kind to laugh out loud at the riotous little kids. He’d learned that lesson the one time he’d let out a short laugh—earning himself a glare from Emily, amused as it was.
He’d considered trying to help but decided it was more fun to watch her flounder. She must have known choosing roles for the nativity play would be an interesting endeavor or she wouldn’t have said such a thing to him earlier, but he wondered if she’d realized just how much.
“I want to be a wombat.”
“There weren’t wombats in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, Bryce,” Emily said patiently.
“How do you know?”
“Well, wombats live in Australia. That’s a long way away from Bethlehem, almost on the other side of the world.”
“But maybe they burrowed their way there. Don’t you think they wanted to see baby Jesus too?”
“Well . . .” Emily paused to think, no doubt wondering whether it was worth the argument. After all, Bryce made a good point. No one could fault the boy’s logic. “Okay, Bryce. I suppose you can be a wombat.”
Emily didn’t see the adorable way Bryce the wombat curled up in a little ball and celebrated—with a dig, as any good wombat did—because her attention was already caught and claimed by two more boys.
“JT. Finn. Put down those sticks before you hurt each other.”
“But, Miss Mitchell, we’re practicing.”
“Practicing what? You look like you’re sword-fighting.”
“We are. We’re knights.”
Another frown from Emily, although this one seemed to be more confused than exasperated. “There weren’t knights at the stable either.”
“Yes, there were.”
“Nope. Sorry boys. Sheep, shepherds, wise men, angels, donkeys, Mary, Joseph. Maybe even a wombat,” she said, sending an amused glance Bryce’s way before turning back to the two boys, “but no knights.”
“But they’re in the song, Miss Mitchell. It says so.”
“Silent Knight. You know. Silent knight, holy knight? See, Miss Mitchell? He’s the silent knight—” JT pointed to Finn, who smiled and waved at Emily with his sword, but didn’t make a sound. “—and I’m holey knight. I even have the perfect costume at home already. The pants have holes all over them. Mom was going to throw them out but they’re my favorite and she’ll have to let me keep them if I tell her they’re for my costume.”
“Knights.” Emily might have sounded dubious, but she was already starting to cave. It was there in the way she looked down at the two boys, half admiration, half resignation in her expression.
“We could protect baby Jesus, for when the bad king comes and tries to hurt him.”
“Oh, very well. You can be knights. But everyone else has to be something that was actually mentioned in the Bible, okay everyone?”
“Yes, Miss Mitchell,” came a chorus of voices. And then, up popped one hand. Matt started smiling before the girl even said anything, already anticipating whatever argument this little one was going to bring.
“The Bible doesn’t actually say there were any camels. Or donkeys. So Malakai, Blake, Archer, and Joelle will have to be something else.”
“You’re right, Hollie, the Bible doesn’t mention them exactly, but I think it would be okay if those animals were still in our stable since most stables back then had them.”
Emily consulted her script, but before she could say anything else, Hollie piped up again.
“Then could I be a flamingo?”
A huff of laughter escaped. Matt hid it behind his hand, but not quick enough to escape another attempted glare from Emily. He sat back in his chair and wondered how she was going to manage this one.
“I don’t think—” she started, before Hollie interrupted again.
“Please, Miss Mitchell? I’m really good at standing on one leg. I can do it for ages. See?”
Matt’s estimation of Emily soared as she smiled and nodded at the girl now standing on one leg at the back of the group. First a wombat, then two knights, and now a flamingo—because he knew already that Emily wouldn’t be able to say no. This was going to be the strangest nativity Matt had ever seen.
Somehow, Emily managed to settle the group down, handing out scripts before sending the kids to the masking-taped “stage.” Of course, by the time she’d gotten each child in their right place—and authorized what seemed like the vast majority of the class to go to the toilet—the hour-long rehearsal time was over, and the parents back from the afternoon tea Emily had provided for them in another room. Matt didn’t know whether to be relieved for Emily or disappointed. It felt like she hadn’t actually gotten anything productive done, and yet, if he’d been in her shoes, he would have sent the kids home half an hour ago before sitting down to pull out his hair.
One strand at a time.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this chapter of Deck the Halls (and bring a hammer). Read on for Chapter Six!