Welcome to Chapter Eleven 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).
Sunday, December 8
“You’re quiet all of a sudden.”
Emily dried two more of the spoons Matt had washed before answering. “Nervous, I guess.”
The lasagna was in the oven, garlic bread sitting prepared and waiting for the right time to be added in, and the kitchen three quarters cleaned up already. They’d even tasted the meat and sauce before layering it, just to make sure. No doubt it was all due to the joy of relief on Emily’s face when she’d realized she’d cooked an incredible meal, but Matt had never known lasagna to taste so good. Her nerves had nothing to do with the food.
“About the date?”
She sighed. She’d been doing that a lot this afternoon—amidst the laughter they’d shared. He hadn’t meant to burn the first batch of white sauce, but it really had been her fault, no matter how much she refused to believe it, laughing as she’d accused him of over-selling his skills. He’d meant to stir it continuously, but she’d distracted him, standing as close beside him as she had. It was a good thing they’d had enough milk to make another batch since by the time they’d both stopped laughing about the multitude of lumps floating in the sauce, it had been burnt beyond saving.
He wondered if she noticed that he’d almost burnt the meat too.
“Yeah. I don’t do this much.” She made a face. “At all.”
“It’s not too late to back out, you know. You could still call him and tell him not to come.” Blast, he’d even dial the number for her. Then he and Emily could eat the lasagna which was starting to fill the house with that wonderfully warm scent of tomatoes and basil. They could skip sitting at the table she’d set so pristinely and pull up chairs together out on the deck, watching the sun fade as it gave way to the golden lights dotting the horizon and every house from here to eternity. The mosquitoes might be annoying, but the company would more than fully make up for any discomfort they caused.
“No. It’s fine. I want to. He helped with the stable. I owe him at least dinner.”
Did she feel she owed the other three men who’d helped dinner too? He certainly hoped not. “It’ll be okay, Emily. He’s a nice guy.” Matt couldn’t believe he was trying to talk Emily into this when all he wanted was for Emily to—
What did he want from Emily? To turn around and declare her undying love to him? Luke might have some pretty forceful words to say about that.
“Yeah, but—” She broke off, staring at her hands. Transfixed by them. Wait, was she blushing? What exactly was going on in that mind of hers?
“Nothing. I should finish cleaning up before he gets here.”
Matt watched Emily, her stillness belying her words. Her cheeks were flushed, and while she’d no doubt attribute the blush to the heat of the oven, he couldn’t help wondering what really caused it. What had her so afraid?
“Em? Are you okay?”
She spoke to the counter when she answered, but he heard her all the same. “What if he tries to kiss me and I don’t want him to?”
That was it? That was what had Emily staring in fear at the spoon she’d long since finished drying? Well, that was easy enough to fix.
“You tell him no.”
“What if I don’t know he’s going to?”
Matt swallowed back a laugh. Barely. “Believe me, you’ll know.”
How? She was seriously asking him that? He didn’t know whether to run away or try to kiss her himself.
“Uh . . .”
She shook her head, glancing up at him then, apology alongside the pain in her eyes.
“Sorry. I know. Awkward. It’s just—well—come on, you’re a guy.” Yeah. And didn’t he know it right at this moment. “How would you act if you wanted to kiss a girl?”
Matt looked at the door. The floor. The mess of pasta sauce still on the cooktop which he really should have offered to clean off by now. Anything to keep from looking at Emily’s face and the pleading he knew would be etched there. He should leave. Now. Before he gave in to—
It was the tremble in her voice which undid him. Gone was the confidence he’d seen in her as she bossed the men around the building site. Gone was the laughter and teasing which had accompanied their lasagna-making lesson. Instead, there was just fear. And she was asking him to save her. To slay her proverbial dragon. He couldn’t walk away from that.
“You’re really nervous about this, aren’t you?”
“I’ve never kissed a guy before.”
“Seriously? But you’re gorgeous.” Oh. He hadn’t meant to say that out loud. She was staring at him, cheeks rosier than any makeup could hide. Much more talk of kissing from her and he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from kissing those cheeks, and feeling the mix of heat and softness he knew they’d hold.
“You think I’m—um—”
“Very.” He let the word out with a sigh. He’d never been hesitant to tell a woman she was beautiful before, but then, the woman had never been his best friend’s little sister. It was crossing a line—another one—to admit even that much to her, but he had to say something. Maybe it would help her nerves. Only now she was staring at him with an expression of— What was that? Wistfulness? Hope? They were friends. Nothing more. And barely even that, much as he wished it to be different. “I mean—You’re not bad looking.”
Matt pursed his lips, wishing he could take back the words he’d just uttered. Way to go, Matt. I’m sure she feels really beautiful now.
“So, um, what would you do? If you were going to kiss a girl, that is.”
The only girl Matt could even think of kissing right now—or ever again—stood a few feet away from him, her hair starting to come free of the elastic she’d used to pull it back.
“Uh, I suppose I’d get closer, to start with.”
“How close? Show me?”
“Now? I mean, us?”
“C’mon, Matt. Help me out, please? It’s not like you’re actually going to kiss me. It’s just an example.”
“Right.” For her maybe. Her heart wasn’t thumping like a herd of elephants tramped through it. “Okay, well.” He walked up to her, stopping so close beside her that he could feel the warmth of her arm against his chest and hear the shakiness of her breathing. Or maybe that was his. “This close.”
“Right. Ah. Wow. That’s close.” She had no idea. “Then what?”
“Really?” She was still confused? There wasn’t much more he could show her without actually kissing her—which was completely and utterly out of the question.
Luke. Remember Luke.
“Please, Matt. I know I’m asking a lot of you, and you’d probably rather be anywhere but in this room with me right now, but I really don’t want to look like an idiot. Believe me, I feel like enough of one already.”
He heard her words, but they could have been another language for all the sense they made to him. All he could think of was her lips, and what they might feel like against his. The reasons why he shouldn’t kiss her were much harder to hear standing this close.
“You’re not an idiot.”
Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes wide enough for him to see the down lights behind him reflecting in them. He’d seen her face a thousand times but never had it made him feel like this before. Small, weak. And yet, somehow, strong. He could be her hero. He wanted to be. The man who cared for her. Who made her feel beautiful. Who called her gorgeous, without apologizing. The only man to ever kiss those lips. Now or ever.
“Matt?” Her voice was tiny, more a breath than a whisper, but she might as well have shouted, close as they were.
“Do you want to kiss me?”
“Why don’t you?”
Were a thousand and one reasons enough? She was Luke’s sister. Matt was supposed to be protecting her. Her date, who wasn’t him, would be here in less than an hour. They were alone in her house. He wasn’t as indifferent as he’d let her believe. She was leaving for—somewhere—soon and, by her words, not even interested in a relationship. And, oh yeah, she was Luke’s sister. “You’ve never been kissed.”
She nodded but didn’t make any move to step away. “Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad for my first one to be with you. I mean, what if I’m terrible at it?”
“I doubt that.” She couldn’t be, even if she tried.
“But I might be. And I’d rather be a fool with you than any other guy.”
It wasn’t fair. She was killing him. She knew that, didn’t she? Those eyes. That hair, which somehow still smelled like gingerbread. Or was that the kitchen itself? Gingerbread and pasta sauce. He took a step back. “I should go.” Before he became the complete fool. Before he actually did it. With a strength far greater than he’d ever possessed before, he turned away.
A hand touched his shoulder, halting his retreat. Her other hand followed, turning him back. They stood there, her hands on his shoulders, his eyes staring at the tiles beneath her feet, as time slowed. His fortitude might have lasted had he not looked up.
A speck of tomato sauce graced her right cheek, just to the side of her nose. Before the repercussions had the chance to paralyze him, he wiped it with his thumb, his palm staying against her cheek long after the sauce was gone.
She was so close. He need only lean forward a breath and—
With a final breath, and a half-hearted plea for Luke’s forgiveness, Matt closed the gap between them.
The kiss wasn’t long, nor was it deep. But it was enough to shake Matt to his core. He dropped his hands, clasping them behind his back where he forced them to stay.
“Mmmm?” Her eyes were still shut, the corners of those lips he’d just kissed turning up so slightly that he doubted she even knew she was smiling. He had to get out of here before he did something stupid, like kiss her again. And again. And again.
“You have nothing to worry about.”
He, on the other hand, had just opened up a thousand worries in his mind.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this chapter of Deck the Halls (and bring a hammer). Read on for Chapter Twelve!