Welcome to Chapter Six 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 waved goodbye to Hollie and Bryce, the last two kids to leave, and finally let herself laugh. A flamingo. She’d agreed to a flamingo. So much for her authentic nativity with its real life-sized stable. At least Hollie had agreed that flamingos don’t talk. The nativity might have a bright pink one-legged flamingo out the front of it but at least the bird would be silent.
Like the knights.
Emily shook her head, still laughing to herself. She’d never be able to sing “Silent Night” with a straight face ever again thanks to Finn and JT.
“Well, that was amusing,” Matt said, coming up behind her. “When is the actual performance? I am definitely going to be there.”
“December fourteenth. And really? You’d come?”
“Flamingos, knights, wombats, and an angel announcing to shepherds that they should go and tell everyone that ‘Jesus Christ is bored’?” He grinned. “Wouldn’t miss it.”
Emily laughed. “She meant ‘born.’”
Closing the door behind them, Emily walked down the halls of the church she’d practically grown up in. The loud popping of a balloon, followed by a surprised shriek and a whole lot of laughter came from the youth room, where leaders were setting up for the annual End of Year Youth Formal. Emily poked her head in the room to let them know she was leaving, ducking back out quickly when a wave of sentimentality almost floored her.
She was leaving. This place that had been a second home, these people who’d been almost as close as her own family. How had it not hit her until now that moving on meant leaving this all behind? She’d thought about—worried about—what her family would say when she told them, and answers to every question they’d no doubt inundate her with, but not once what it would mean for her.
“Ready to go?”
No. Not even a little bit. Although that wasn’t what Matt was asking. Emily swallowed back a wave of emotion and somehow found a smile. Don’t look back. Look ahead. Hold onto the dream. What little there was to hold onto. If only that letter would hurry up and arrive.
“Yes. Although I’m actually going to my parents’ house next. Family dinner night. If you don’t mind taking me.”
“How else were you planning on getting there?”
Maybe she’d just stay here. Sit herself down in the visitor’s lounge and pretend that chasing her dream didn’t mean letting go of everything familiar.
Matt was looking at her like she’d lost her mind. Maybe she had. “Really, Emily? I realize you don’t know me all that well, but you can be assured I’d never leave a woman marooned, especially not one with a broken hand, and especially not when I promised Luke I’d—uh—”
“Drive me around?”
Emily couldn’t be sure, but the way Matt squirmed gave her the distinct impression that hadn’t been how he’d been going to finish that sentence. Odd.
“Come on, Miss Priss.”
Emily shook her head, good-naturedly frowning. “Luke is in so much trouble.”
Ten minutes later, Emily considered telling Matt to turn around and drop her straight back home. Or to the church. Shops. Park. Rubbish dump. Anywhere but here. Only she’d promised her mom she’d be here tonight, and she’d missed the last three family dinners. She had to stay. She groaned. It was the airport all over again. Matt had saved her last time. Maybe . . .
“What are your plans for dinner tonight?” she asked.
Matt looked at her warily. She didn’t blame him. It was a rather personal question for two relative strangers like themselves. If she could still call them that after all the time they’d spent together over the past week.
“Christmas shopping. Though if you have a better idea, I’m all ears.”
“Want to stay? I mean, have dinner with us? My family, that is. I know, we’re a crazy bunch and Luke’s not even here and I don’t even know what we’re having—although I do know there’s chocolate cheesecake for dessert since I made it this morning so there’s at least that and . . . um . . .” She was rambling. She did that sometimes. Rarely—only when she was really nervous—but it happened. “Sorry.” At least he’d know she wasn’t attempting to ask him on a date or something. Not with an invite that pathetic.
Matt was still looking at her like she’d lost her mind but, in the time it had taken her to give him reason to think that he had parked the car, and taken his seat belt off, so that was a good sign. “You’re staying?”
He shrugged. “Sure. Don’t know many men who’d decline free food and the promise of cheesecake. You made it, you said?”
“Yeah, this morning. Allie brought it over.” Which he already knew, given he’d been at her house when Allie had taken it. Come on, Em. Pull it together. “It’s Tag,” she blurted out, although Matt hadn’t actually asked for a reason. “He’s here. I recognize his car.” It was impossible not to with his name written on the license plate.
“Got it,” Matt said with a nod.
“He thinks we’re going on a date. Tonight, actually.”
She wasn’t, was she? Oh no. Was that why he was here?
“He said he’d confirm, and never did. Although that might have had something to do with the fact that I never gave him my number.” And had no plans to rectify that any time soon.
“Did you want to go on a date with him?”
“Maybe,” probably not, “had he actually asked or given me a choice. He just assumed I would. Told me when, where, how privileged I was to be going out with him, even what to wear.” Was that a smile trying to escape Matt’s otherwise serious face? It was. He was laughing at her.
“So I’m playing the part of your boyfriend, to dissuade him?”
“What? No.” Oh wow. She’d kind of led him into that one. “Just—I don’t know. You’re a guy. Talk to him or befriend him or something. Just keep him away from me.”
“Thanks for the tip, but he doesn’t really seem my type.”
“Oh, go away.” This was going to be a disaster. Was that Josh she spied through the living room window, and Jason beside him? Forget “going to be a disaster.” It already was. Tag. Josh. Jason. Matt. Her family. Oh boy.
“Nope. Someone promised cheesecake and I intend to have some.”
“Fine. But stop teasing me. This is serious.” Although Matt’s grin was pretty infectious and, to be honest, if she looked past her mortification, it was kind of amusing—her being so annoyed with one man that she begged another to stay.
“Absolutely. Very serious.”
Emily bit at the insides of her cheeks to keep from smiling. She would not give him that satisfaction. Only, from the grin and wink Matt sent her way before hopping out of the car, she already had. Funny thing was, she didn’t even mind. Nor did she mind when he stopped her before walking to the house. She wasn’t in any rush to get inside, especially knowing Tag was in there waiting.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve met all your family at various events over the years but in case I’ve forgotten anyone, want to remind me who’s who before we go in?”
Wrapping her arms around her oversized purse, Emily leaned back against the car door. Now this she could handle. People. Facts. Family.
“Well . . .” She felt as if she should ask for a drumroll but maturely refrained. “You know my parents . . .”
“And I have five older brothers, four of whom are married. Drew’s the oldest, then Chris, Gabe, Jon, and Luke who, obviously, won’t be here tonight. The rest should be as far as I’ve heard.
“Drew is married to Jadyn, and they have three kids—Belle, Wade, and Jeremiah. Chris’s married to Felicity. You’ll know her by her laugh. It’s loud and should be irritatingly so, but she’s just too much fun. Their kids are Casey and Ethan. Next come Gabe and May with little West, and Jon, who’s married to Hope. Then last but not least, there’s Luke and me.”
“The only daughter.”
“It has its perks.”
Matt’s smile quirked again. “And its downfalls I assume.”
Where did she even start? “Five brothers trying to run your life? Yep. You could say that. And they wonder why I’ve never had a boyfriend. Like a guy could ever meet their approval.”
“You’ve never had a boyfriend because of your brothers?”
“No. But it’s probably true.”
“Which bit? The ‘not having a boyfriend’ or it being your brothers’ fault?”
“Oh, look. There’s Mom.”
Emily ducked around Matt, almost tripping in her haste to get to the door. Why did she suddenly feel embarrassed to admit she’d never had a boyfriend? It had never bothered her before. Only with Matt there, barely a body’s distance between them, it did. This was Luke’s friend, who was doing them both a favor by driving her around. He already thought of her as Luke’s kid sister. She didn’t need to add immature and naïve to that opinion.
Not that she cared what he thought.
Matt was doing his best to occupy Tag’s attention, but it wasn’t easy. It didn’t matter what question he asked, Tag always featured in the answer. Matt hadn’t even realized such arrogance occurred outside of fiction. Emily owed him. Big time.
There she was, happily chatting with her young nephew, while he listened—or at least tried to listen—to Tag go on and on about the impossible catch he’d taken in last week’s cricket match. And the five wickets. And the half century off just sixteen balls. Was there anyone else even on the team? The man certainly hadn’t mentioned any others.
“Ricky Ponting couldn’t have held on to that catch. But there the ball was, straight in my hand, secure as a newborn baby in their mother’s arms. You should have seen the look on the batter’s face. Even he was impressed. I mean, if you’re going to get caught, at least let it be a classic. I’ll bet he’s telling all his friends about it too, what a brilliant catch it was. I’m surprised he didn’t ask for my autograph after the match.”
“And then, oh that six. Right out of the middle of the bat, it was. Sweet a shot as you’ll ever see. I could have played for Australia, you know, if not for my—”
Tag’s phone rang, interrupting whatever he’d been about to say. Matt was only too happy to let him excuse himself to answer it. “If not for my arrogance and complete lack of team spirit?” Was that how Tag had planned on finishing that sentence? If not, he might as well have. Matt loved cricket, but he was pretty sure being on a team with someone like Tag would ruin that love for life.
Now Emily, on the other hand . . . He would definitely pick her to be on his team. Whether she could play cricket or not, he had no idea, but she was an encourager and a team player. And he’d take mediocre skills with those traits over someone like Tag any day.
Matt wandered over in Emily’s direction. By the expression on Tag’s face, and the way he kept flinging his hand around in frustration, the phone call was going to take a while.
“Matt. Hey. Have you met West?”
“Nope. Not yet.” Matt stuck his hand out to shake the hand of the serious-faced boy talking with Emily. He doubted he’d ever looked that serious as a child. Even when he’d been trying to argue his way out of having to clean his room. “Nice to meet you, Master West.”
“It’s Weston. Only family is allowed to call me West.”
Matt hid his smile, certain showing it would only win him more disapproval from the young boy. Matt had never been a good estimator of age but surely Weston couldn’t have been more than five years old.
“Certainly. Forgive me, Weston.”
Weston looked at him for a few long seconds before nodding his head in approval. “Yes, sir. But don’t do it again.”
And with that, he got up off his chair and walked away. Matt waited until Weston got through the glass doors on the other side of the room before letting out the laughter trying to burst free of him. Emily was quick to join in.
“So, you’ve met West.”
“Precocious, I do believe we’re calling it, but yes, delightful too. He’s good fun.”
Emily offered him a can of Coke. He took it gladly, relishing both the coolness of the can and the way it hissed when he opened it. Cricket, mowing, and cans being opened—the sounds of summer. Though he hadn’t done much of any of those activities in the past couple of weeks.
“How’s your hand?” he asked Emily, in an attempt to distract himself from the way her red skirt danced as she swayed back and forth to whatever song played in her head. It was something he’d noticed over the past week. Even in the car, Emily Mitchell was rarely still.
“Emily. Emily. Where are— Oh, there you are.” Jadyn poked her head around a doorway. “We need you in the kitchen. Matt, the rest of the guys are in the living room watching cricket.”
Matt laughed again as Jadyn disappeared as quickly as she’d come. “I think that was a hint.”
“Jadyn’s never been particularly subtle.” Emily shook her head as she let out a dramatic sigh. “I’d better go see what they want. See you at dinner, if the guys don’t roast you first.”
Uh oh. “You think they will?” Her brothers knew he wasn’t really with Emily, right? And even if they didn’t, wasn’t them thinking he and Emily were together a good thing? Finding her a husband was the whole point of this crazy scheme they were running. Unless they didn’t think he was as worthy as their picks. Or worthy at all.
With a final hopefully confident grin at Emily, Matt walked down the hall to the living room, Emily’s brothers, and, quite possibly, his doom.
Of all the times for Luke to be in another country.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this chapter of Deck the Halls (and bring a hammer). Read on for Chapter Seven!