Deck the Halls (and bring a hammer) // Chapter Nine

Welcome to Chapter Nine 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)

Happy reading!

*****

CHAPTER NINE

Saturday, December 7

Emily’s brothers were missing.

Again.

Luke had an excuse. He was in another country. The other four, she wasn’t letting off quite so easily. She’d call them soon. As soon as she talked to Neil. She’d tried to ignore him for twenty minutes now, but this was beyond ridiculous. He had no idea how to use a hammer, and if she had to watch him struggle with it for one more minute, she was going to be the one in pain.

“Neil, hi. How’s it going?”

“Wonderfully well, if I do say so myself. Another few hours, I estimate, and this stable will be done. Not bad for two day’s work, I say.”

Emily smiled, just as thrilled as he was with the way the stable was coming together, helped in no small amount by the two nail guns Jason had managed to source. It was like the barn raisings she read about in books, when the men of the town would come together and hammer together a barn in a day while the womenfolk baked pies. Maybe Emily should have brought along a couple of apple pies instead of the boxes of doughnuts she and Matt had picked up at the convenience store on the way.

“It’ll be wonderful to see it finished. You’ve all done such a great job. Speaking of which, it’d be easier on your arm if you used the hammer properly.”

“Used it properly?” Neil’s smile instantly disappeared. Emily was tempted to walk away there and then. What was it to her if he chose to strangle the hammer’s weight? He wasn’t one of her students. He was a grown man. And a clearly defensive one at that. She should just walk away.

Only then she’d have to watch him flounder. And there was too much teacher in her to do that.

“You’re using your arm,” she tried again.

“Yes. Of course. What else would I use? My foot?”

“No. I mean you’re using your arm’s strength rather than the hammer’s weight. You’ll tire yourself out. Didn’t your father ever teach you how to use a hammer?” Hers did. The day he’d let her help put together her new bed as a five-year-old. She could still remember his words today. Use the hammer’s weight, Emily. That’s what it’s there for. You don’t have to be strong to use a hammer. Let its weight do the work.

 Neil didn’t seem to agree.

“It’s a hammer, Miss Mitchell. You use it to hit nails. How hard can it be?”

“But if you use your arm as the fulcrum, you’ll need less—”

“Thank you for your advice, but I believe I know how to use a simple hammer.” Just to prove his point, he pounded in another nail. The fifteen strokes it took to get the nail’s head flush with the wood proved the exact opposite. It should only have taken three. Four at the most.

“I was just trying to help.”

“Well, you didn’t.” Neil put down the hammer and made a big show of looking at his watch. “Oh, look at the time. I have to go.”

He didn’t even bother to say goodbye. Emily stood, watching him go, stunned at how fast he’d gone from pleasant and friendly one minute to stomping away like a tantrum-throwing child the next. She should have just stayed silent.

She was still standing there when Matt walked up beside her, two glasses of water in his hands. He passed one to her, which she accepted gratefully. She hoped Neil was at least right in how much longer it would take to get the stable finished. It was never nice having to work in such humid heat. What she wouldn’t give to have a white Christmas. Not that that was ever going to happen in Australia.

Matt nodded toward the hammer, sitting innocently on the ground.

“Where’s Neil?”

Emily made a face. “Honestly? Sulking.”

“Oh?”

“I tried to give him a little advice. I don’t think he appreciated it. I think I might have accidentally insulted his manhood.”

The clear glass he raised to sip from didn’t do a very good job of hiding Matt’s grin. “We are a tender lot.”

“I shall endeavor to remember that in the future.”

“You do that.” He grinned again before bending down to pick up the abandoned tool. “Want me to finish this?”

“It wouldn’t insult him more?”

Matt looked in the direction Neil had stormed off. Emily followed his gaze. Neil was gone, his car easing out into oncoming traffic as they spoke.

“I think he’ll be fine.”

“Then thanks. I’d appreciate it.”

With a nod, Matt got right to work. Emily couldn’t help noticing that not only did he know how to use a hammer but that he looked exceptionally good doing it.

***

Two hours and forty-five minutes later, the last plank was nailed on the roof. The stable still needed fitting out with a manger and such but the structure was done. The guys, sans Neil who’d already left by then, had all promised to come back and give a few more hours to help finish it off. Come performance day, the kids would have a stable. Emily doubted any of them would be as excited about it as her.

She waved goodbye to Jason, Josh, and Tag, not even caring that a giddy grin had taken up residence on her face. She would have done a silly dance if she’d had any energy left.

She’d actually pulled it off. Well, she, Matt, Luke, and the four strangers who’d taken the place of her brothers. Two of them, at least, who were under the impression she was interested in dating them. She had no idea why. It wasn’t like she’d paid them any special attention. She hadn’t even known their names until her brothers had sent them along as—

Emily wasn’t sure, but her heart just might have stopped for a second as realization hit hard. “They didn’t.”

“Didn’t what?” Matt asked, making her jump. She’d forgotten he was standing beside her.

She didn’t want to believe it of her brothers but there was no other explanation for the four men suddenly taking up residence in her life, turning up everywhere she went, as if they had a right to be there. As if any of them cared. “Oh, you have got to be kidding.”

“What’s wrong?”

“They’re setting me up. I can’t believe my brothers did this to me.”

“They love you.”

“So give me an amazing Christmas gift. Don’t give me a man. And certainly not four of them.”

Was that a laugh Matt tried to hide? It sure sounded like one, though Emily refused to look at him to see for sure.

“Luke said you started it. Something about making your brothers promise that, if you weren’t married or in a serious relationship by the time you were thirty, they’d find you a man?”

Emily let out a laugh. “I was fifteen. Who listens to a fifteen-year-old?”

“Your brothers, apparently.”

“Wait.” This time Emily did spin to face Matt, eyes narrowed as she stared him down. It couldn’t be, but— “You knew?”

“Uh, yeah. Luke told me.”

Could life be any more embarrassing? Or her brothers any more frustrating? “I can’t believe this. They think I can’t find a man by myself. That’s what they think. I’ll always be little Emily to them. Well, I don’t need anyone to arrange a marriage for me. Least of all my brothers.” She covered her face with her hands, mortification heating her cheeks beyond anything the sun could have managed. Oh no. “Please tell me you’re not Luke’s pick.”

“I’m not Luke’s pick.”

Emily peeked through two of her fingers, wishing he was telling the truth despite feeling patronized. “Seriously.”

He tugged on her unbandaged hand, waiting until she dropped both of them and met his gaze before speaking again. “Seriously, I’m not. Well, not the way you’re thinking anyway.”

“No? In what way, exactly?”

“He asked me to keep an eye on you while he was away. Run interference in his place should any of the men your brothers chose get too close.”

“Oh.” That explained a lot—specifically why Matt was suddenly around every day, checking in on her, and being so willing to drive her around. She should have been offended but it was hard to be when he was so apologetic about it. “So, you’re my bodyguard.”

“Something like that.”

Right. Bodyguard, not boyfriend. “I don’t know whether to whack Luke or thank him.”

Matt scoffed, shaking his head ruefully. “Trust me, I know the feeling.”

Emily sighed. At least she didn’t have to feel bad about declining Jason’s invitation for a date now. Gabe must have told Jason Emily was interested in him, hence the invite. She’d just tell him it was all a misunderstanding and surely he’d agree. It wasn’t like they’d spent all that much time together anyway. He’d get over her fast enough and find someone who actually wanted to be in a relationship.

They walked to the car together and were halfway to Emily’s house before Matt spoke again.

“So, do you think any of them have potential?”

“Matt!”

“What?” he said, glancing sideways at her before turning his attention back to the road. “However they came about, they’re here. You could at least consider them.”

“And give my interfering, completely infuriating brothers the satisfaction of thinking they succeeded? Not a chance.”

“Infuriating brothers aside though, the guys seem nice enough. Neil, maybe?”

A huff exploded out of Emily before she could reel it back in. Maybe it was even a laugh, the thought was so inconceivable. “Neil Potter? Are you kidding? I had to teach him how to hold a hammer. And he did not take it well.” As Matt had witnessed for himself.

“Jason, then.”

“He’s sweet I guess, but too short. Call me old-fashioned, but I always liked the idea of looking up at my husband and not down at him. And I’m pretty sure the only reason he asked me out was because Gabe told him I was interested because we have nothing in common.”

“Tag, then.”

He could not be serious. Tag? Really? Had he met the man?

“Absolutely not. All he talks about is himself. I suppose he expects me to fall at his feet like every other female. I can just imagine what a life would be like being married to him. ‘Why did she marry me? Need you even ask? I mean, look at me, dude. Who wouldn’t want to marry me?’”

Matt turned onto her street. Emily wasn’t sure whether she was relieved or annoyed that their conversation was almost over. It was nice to know Matt was as exasperated with her brothers as she was, but she could have done without the interrogation. 

“I suppose you have a problem with Josh too then?”

Of course she did. Um . . . Josh. What was wrong with Josh? “He swears too much.”

“Are we talking about the same Josh? I’ve never heard him swear. He barely even talks.”

“Well, he did,” Emily claimed before mumbling,  “once.” Unfortunately, Matt turned off the engine just in time to hear it. And laugh. Somehow, she doubted he was laughing with her. Mostly because she wasn’t laughing. Why had he turned the engine off anyway? Wasn’t he just dropping her off?

“Once?”

Still, she stood by her claim. “It’s enough. I’m not marrying a man who swears.”

“I never knew you were so picky.”

“I’m not picky. I just know what I want.” And right now, she wanted a hot shower and some painkillers. And to find all her brothers and knock their heads together before telling them exactly what she thought of their interference in her life. She settled for opening her door, though her dramatic departure was stayed when Matt kept talking.  

“Oh? And what does Emily Mitchell want in a man?”

Not any of the men her brothers so unkindly provided, that was for sure. Leaving the door open, Emily settled back in her seat, turning slightly to face Matt as she considered his question.

“Well, he has to be a strong Christian,” she began. “Not just one of those guys who says he is but one who actually lives it and wants to grow more in his faith.” That much was easy.

“Fair enough.” Matt nodded, apparently thinking she was finished. She wasn’t.

“And like I already said, he has to be taller than me. Oh, and get along well with my family. Much as they are currently driving me crazy, I couldn’t handle it if my husband didn’t like my family. That would just be too painful.”

“Christian, tall, likes family. Got it.”

Not yet he didn’t. There was more.

“He’s got to like the beach, and be good with computers, because God knows I’m not. And not mind being the one in charge of killing spiders and cockroaches. They freak me out totally. And it’d be good if he was a handyman too, or, at least, knew how to fix the basic things. It’s so weird when a guy can’t even change his own flat tire or screw together a furniture flat pack or put up a simple shelf.”

“That all?” Matt said dryly.

“Yep.” That pretty much covered it. “Wait, no. A guitar player. I want to marry a guitar player.” There was something so incredibly appealing about a guy who played guitar.

Matt shook his head, sighing far too melodramatically for it to be real. He threw both hands out in surrender, nearly whacking Emily in the process. “I don’t play guitar.”

Emily rolled her eyes. “Tease me all you like but you were the one who asked.”

“I can see why you’re not married yet with a list like that.”

“What. You think it’s too specific?”

He laughed again, before stilling. “You don’t?”

“No.” Not at all. “A girl’s got to have some standards, after all. This is the biggest decision of my life. Marriage is for life. I’m not marrying some guy who doesn’t even like the same things I do to start with.”

“I’m surprised you don’t have on your list that he has to watch Pride and Prejudice or something of the like with you before he even thinks about proposing.”

“Hey, good idea.” It was her favorite movie, after all. Mr. Darcy . . .

“I wasn’t serious.”

“Oh.” Oops. Still, it was a good idea. Maybe that could be her final challenge for any guy hoping to win her. Had to be willing to watch Pride and Prejudice with her. The five-hour version. That would certainly sift out any man who wasn’t truly serious—and seriously in love with her.

“Come on, Emily. Couldn’t you just have, say, one or two things on your list? No guy is ever going to match up to all of them.”

Emily crossed her arms, determined not to be swayed. There was nothing wrong with having standards. The right guy would measure up to them, and she certainly didn’t plan on settling for the wrong guy. “What’s on yours?”

“Mine?”

Matt seemed surprised. “Your list,” Emily clarified.

“I don’t have one. Guys don’t do that sort of thing.”

Yeah, right, they didn’t. “Sure they do. They just don’t call it a list. Just tell me, what are you looking for in a wife? Or are you not planning to get married?”

“Oh, I plan to marry, all right. I just haven’t met the right girl yet.”

See? There it was. “The one who fulfils your list.”

Matt ran a hand through his hair, looking as exasperated as she felt. Though likely for different reasons. “Believe me, Emily. If I did have a list, it would be very short.”

“Yeah? So tell me, what’s on it? What would your perfect girl be like?”

“Fine. She’d be a Christian, like you said, and I’d be attracted to her.”

Emily waited in silence for Matt to continue. He didn’t. “That’s it?”

“Yep.”

“Wow.”

Emily turned back to stare out the open door, her mind too full to even notice the Christmas lights blinking in her neighbors’ houses. Could it really be as simple as Matt had said? Or was it okay to have a list of expectations? Surely there was nothing wrong with having standards. And yet, there was Matt.

He’d already admitted he didn’t meet all of the qualifications on her list, but there was no denying she was drawn to him. No, more than simply drawn, if she were honest. She was seriously close to falling for him. And it was all his fault. How dare he be so gallant and sweet and—

Handsome. There was no denying it. He’d gone beyond simply “cute,” as she’d admitted to Allie, and easily passed the handsome mark. His hair, his dark eyes, his smile, the way one corner of his mouth tipped up anyway when he tried not to grin.

Did she fit his list? Heat tinged her cheeks as she tried not to wonder whether Matt was attracted to her. There was no way she was asking. Still—

“What sort of things do you find attractive in a woman?”

Emily’s heart skittered as she waited for him to answer. What was she thinking, asking Matt that? Matt was Luke’s friend. Luke’s friend, Emily. Not boyfriend material. Luke would kill you.

Matt shot her another glance, this time frowning. “Trying to set me up, Emily? And here I thought you were mad at your brothers for doing just that.”

He was right. She should just stay out of it. She knew firsthand how annoying being forced into a relationship you’d never asked for was.

“It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m not going to be around next year even if the guys are actually interested.”

“You’re not?”

Emily gathered her things together. Time to end this pointless conversation. “Nope. So my brothers can give up on this ridiculous matchmaking scheme of theirs and leave me be.”

Matt’s hand on her arm stopped her from getting out of the car. She stared down at it, feeling her breath catch at his touch.

It’s just a hand, Emily. On your arm. Matt’s hand, on your arm. It doesn’t mean anything.

“Where are you going?”

“What?”

His hand didn’t move. Like it had set off some kind of alarm, Emily’s heart started to thud. Hand, Emily, just a hand. It’s not like he’s kissing you or—

Kissing Matt . . .

“You said you weren’t going to be around. Are you moving somewhere?”

Emily blinked as his words registered. “Oh.” Oh. How had she let that slip? This whole situation had her mind so crazily turned around that she hadn’t even realized what she’d been saying. But Matt had. Of course he had.

“I’m, uh—”

“Luke didn’t say anything about you leaving.”

“He doesn’t know.”

“Your sisters didn’t say anything either.”

“No one knows.” Except Matt. Who was now looking at her with concern. “I’m, um, yeah, I’m—”

“You’re not dying, are you?”

“What? No, of course not.” Was that why he was looking so worried? “No, just, I’m—”

Matt rubbed his thumb across her arm. “Hey, Emily?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t worry about it. I don’t need to know.”

Emily nodded, thankful for the reprieve. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to tell Matt. She just didn’t have anything to tell, yet.

“See you Monday? Seven-thirty, right?”

Emily nodded again. “Thanks, Matt. For—everything.”

She got out of the car then, and his arm dropped off hers.

But she felt the weight of it there for hours afterward. And his concern.

*****

Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this chapter of Deck the Halls (and bring a hammer). Read on for Chapter Ten!

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