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

Welcome to Chapter Ten 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 TEN

Sunday, December 8

Would blue swaddling clothes be okay? They were almost pale enough to be white. As much as she’d already spent on this nativity, Emily didn’t really want to have to go and buy more fabric when there were so many spare pieces already in her mom’s scrap box. It was either the pale blue or a white piece with tiny stars on it. Maybe she should go with the stars. They were tiny enough that she doubted they’d be seen from a distance.

Or maybe she should just go and buy a white baby blanket. But then, it would look too pristine. Mary hadn’t exactly had bleach and fabric softener to wash her new baby’s blankets in.

The blue. It would be fine. Just because the pictures always had Jesus wrapped in white didn’t mean it had been. It could have been blue.

And it was not worth the amount of time she’d spent worrying about it.

Emily grabbed the blue fabric, put the rest of the folded pieces back in the box and headed to her car. She’d probably regret telling Matt her hand was healed enough to drive herself—especially by the time she’d raided her mom’s craft room, dropped off a shepherd costume to Niko’s house, picked up four bales of hay from the pet store, and her dad’s Christmas present which had finally come in at the bookstore—but at least she could take her time.

Kind of.

She was halfway to the pet store before her stomach alerted her loudly that she’d forgotten to factor in time for lunch. Deciding chicken sounded good, she pulled into the car park of her favorite fast-food joint. She would have chosen somewhere else or forgone lunch altogether if she’d known Neil was already in there. Ducking behind a potted plant lost its usefulness when he turned around and spotted her a millisecond before she hid. 

“Miss Mitchell.” Neil’s exuberant greeting left Emily no other option but to walk toward him, after she picked an invisible speck of dirt off her shoe. She had to come up with some reason to justify bending down behind a plant pot and that seemed as good as any other. Not that Neil seemed to have even noticed, merry as he was. “How serendipitous to run into you like this. I was hoping to see you again.”

“Please, it’s Emily, and you were?” He was? “I mean, hi Neil. How are you?” After he’d stormed off in a sulk yesterday, she hadn’t been expecting to see him again. Certainly not with such a bright smile on his face.

“Oh, splendid, splendid. Still have all my fingers, and not a single one bruised.” He held up both hands, proving what he’d already said. It was nice that he could joke about it. She wasn’t quite sure she wanted to comment on that, even though he already had, given how touchy he’d been last time.

Neil took Emily’s hand, holding it between both of his as he stared intently at her. She was too stunned by the sudden move to react, and by the time she’d composed herself, it was too late to pull away.

“Please, Miss Mitchell, allow me to apologize again for my rudeness yesterday. You were trying to help, and I behaved in a very ungentlemanly manner. It was poor form of me, and I very much hope you can find it in you to forgive me.”

“Of course.” He spoke like he’d walked out of the pages of Pride and Prejudice. How could she not forgive him.

“You will?”

“Sure.”

“You are all kindness. But all the same, let me make it up to you. I’m free this afternoon. Perhaps I could work some more on the stable for you? Make up for the time I missed when I—Well, perhaps we’ll just forget that moment shall we? Leave it in the past? Forgive and forget and all that. But I would like to make it up to you. The stable?”

Emily pulled her hand out of his and hid it behind her back before he attempted to take it again. His expression reminded her of one of the boys in her class, who’d charmed his way out of two time-outs before Emily had managed to harden her heart against his puppy-dog eyes. Such an expression looked odd on a grown male, but was, unfortunately, no less effective.

“It’s very kind of you to offer, but the stable is finished. It only took a few more hours after you left.” And there was no way she was trusting him again with any type of power tool.

“Oh.” Emily got the impression she’d just jumped on Neil’s dreams. Or, at the very least, his plan. He’d been hoping to impress her with his dedication to the task. He obviously hadn’t been counting on the fact that there would be no task left to be dedicated to. “Dinner then?”

Emily blinked, thrown by his sudden change of tactics. He recovered fast.

“Dinner?” Was he asking her on a date?

“Oh. You already had plans tonight?”

“Tonight?” So soon? And on a Sunday? “No, I . . . uh . . . I had no plans.” Putting on a movie she could quote almost word for word and relaxing in front of the TV with a big bowl of double chocolate brownie ice cream didn’t exactly count. Although she had been looking forward to it after all the running around she’d done today—and the craziness of this past week.

“Splendid. Do you have a preference for where you’d like to go? Personally, I’m quite fond of Emilio’s but reservations have to be made a month in advance so unfortunately, we shall have to rule that particular favorite of mine out of the equation. Paddington on the Lake, perhaps? Or Offerings?”

Emily swallowed twice and forced her feet to stay still and not run away. Emilio’s was the most expensive restaurant in the state. Paddington and Offerings were close behind. Not that she’d ever been to any of them, but one didn’t live their whole life in one town without knowing them. She couldn’t afford them. Of course, with Neil being such a proper gentleman, he would likely be the one paying—which only made Emily’s stomach churn worse. Even if Neil was a billionaire, she’d feel bad having him pay such exorbitant amounts to feed her. The guilt would mar the taste of the food so much she knew she wouldn’t be able to enjoy it.

But she couldn’t suggest McDonald’s.

“Why don’t you come to my house. I’ll cook dinner.”

“Oh, splendid. Chris raves about your brilliant baking. What time shall I come?”

It was the accent. It had to be. There was no other reason Emily could think of as to why she would be agreeing to a date with Neil. Especially not at her house.

Especially cooking dinner. When she couldn’t cook.

Bake? Certainly. Cookies, cakes, desserts, snacks? Easy. Her most reliable form of stress release. She baked all the time. But meals? Not a chance. Not something appropriate for a date anyway. Prim and proper Neil didn’t seem the type to be satisfied with do-it-yourself pizzas or scrambled eggs on toast.

“Seven-thirty?” he asked.

“Certainly. It will be a pleasure.”

Emily’s smile as Neil walked away quickly disappeared as reality struck. She’d just agreed to a date with Neil. At her house. With the promise of dinner. This was not going to be a pleasure.

***

Matt told himself he didn’t need that guitar sitting in front of the house across the road and two houses up from his. A guitar sold at a garage sale couldn’t possibly be good quality.

Also, he didn’t play guitar.

Nor had he ever wanted to.

Of course, if he did happen to suddenly want to learn, for some strange reason, a cheap one would be a good place to start. It was almost justifiable.

And completely ridiculous. He did not need a guitar.

Decision made, Matt went back to putting groceries away. Emily would laugh at him if she knew he was letting a tub of ice cream melt while hiding behind the sheer curtain beside his front door staring at an instrument he had no intention of ever playing.

Ice cream and chicken breast in the freezer, milk in the fridge, cereal on the countertop, apples and bananas in the fruit bowl.

The guitar was still there.

Washing hung, lunch made and eaten, plate and glass stacked in the dishwasher.

Still there.

This was silly. He didn’t carry cash, and it wasn’t like garage sales took credit cards. Oh, but there was that money his grandma had sent him for his birthday last month which was still sitting beside his bed in the envelope because he’d become so accustomed to paying for everything by card that he kept forgetting the fifty-dollar note was even there.

Unlike the guitar.

Maybe he’d just take a quick look. See up close all the scratches and broken strings and reasons he shouldn’t buy it.

Only it wasn’t scratched. And all six strings were there. It was even in tune, or so the house owner told him. It was only being sold because their son was going away for university and didn’t have room for a cheap guitar now he had a Maton.

Whatever that was.

See? The very reason Matt didn’t need a guitar. He knew nothing about them.

But then, you could learn anything on the internet these days.

“How much for the guitar?”

***

Matt was still staring at the guitar, although this time from the comfort of his own room rather than through the front window, when his phone rang. He quickly threw a blanket over the instrument when he saw the caller was Emily. And then shook his head at how ridiculous such a move was. It’s the phone, buddy. She can’t see you.

“Emily, hi.”

“Hi, Matt. What are you up to?”

The correct answer to that question would have been something along the lines of “staring at a guitar, wondering how on earth I’m going to learn how to play it and how much of a complete sop I am to have bought it in the first place, especially when the only reason I did was because you’d mentioned you wanted to marry a guitar player.” But, of course, he couldn’t say that. It not only made him sound as if he’d do anything to catch a lady’s attention, but rather sadly pathetic as well. “Nothing much. Why? What’s up?”

“Can you cook?”

“Yeah, I guess. Why?”

“Neil just invited himself to dinner and I, uh, agreed.”

“Neil? As in, the one who stormed off sulking when you mentioned his dismal lack of hammering skills?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“You’re going on a date with Neil.” Matt couldn’t believe it. And neither did he want to. Emily was his friend, not Neil’s. He rolled his eyes at the ridiculousness of such a thought. He was acting like a school kid. She’s my friend, not yours. No, she can’t be both. She’s mine.

One, Emily wasn’t a person to claim. Two, he hadn’t told Emily how he felt about her so could hardly blame her for not knowing. Three, she potentially wasn’t even going to be around next year. And four, why hadn’t he thought of the idea of inviting her on a date before the sniveling, but far too debonair, Neil beat him to it?

“He’s coming to my house for dinner. Only I can’t cook.”

This time he laughed. Stopping only when he realized Emily wasn’t. The silence from the other end of the line was telling. And shocking.

“You’re kidding.” She really couldn’t cook? “Neil’s rudeness aside, I see you baking all the time. I’m still wondering if there’s any possible excuse you would believe as to why I need more gingerbread.”

“Tell me when, and I’ll make you some. But that’s baking. Not cooking.”

“Tomorrow. And there’s a difference?”

“Yes. Please tell me you can cook and have time this afternoon to help me.”

A chance to spend more time with Emily? He’d clear his afternoon for that. If he had had anything else planned. Which he didn’t. Googling “basic guitar chords” didn’t count.

“I’m pretty good at lasagna, but—”

“Perfect. How soon can you get here?”

Matt blinked. “Now?”

“Neil’s coming to my house in less than four hours, and I currently have nothing more interesting than scrambled eggs to feed him. So yep. Now. Are you coming here, or do you want me to come to your place?”

If she came here, he might feel guilted into telling her about the guitar. “I’ll come to your place. Anything you want me to bring?”

“A lasagna?”

“Funny.”

“I’m only half kidding. I have ground beef and a block of cheese. I’m guessing I probably need a few more ingredients than that. Pasta sauce? Is it the usual type or do you use a special type for lasagna?”

And here Matt had thought Emily kidding about not being a competent cook. This was going to be interesting. “I’ll pick up the rest on the way over. See you in half an hour?”

“Sounds good. That’ll give me time to clean up a bit. And Matt?”

“Yeah?”

Her sigh crossed the phone lines and tickled his ear. “Thanks.”

*****

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

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