Welcome to Chapter Twelve 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
“Miss Mitchell, you look beautiful.”
“Thank you. And please, I’ve told you before, call me Emily.”
“Emily. A beautiful name for a beautiful lady.”
Not for the first time, Emily wondered what she’d been thinking to agree to this. She was regretting it already, and Neil hadn’t even walked through the front door yet. Three times he’d called her beautiful in less than a minute. It should have felt like a compliment. Instead it felt contrived, as if he’d planned the speech before he even saw her. She probably could have been wearing the water-spotted clothes she’d been wearing all day, her hair a humidity-induced halo and he still would have said it.
But Matt . . .
Matt had called her gorgeous.
Right before he’d kissed her.
Not that he’d meant it. Or that she was thinking of Matt right now. Or ever.
Neil. This was Neil. Her dinner date. She refused to give in to the disappointment she felt over that.
Emily smiled politely as she reached for the large bouquet of flowers Neil offered her. “Thank you. Again. Please, come in.” Lilies. Not her favorite—she’d have to pull off all the stamen as soon as Neil left, before they spread pollen all over her house and gave her a migraine—but they were beautiful.
“Something smells good.”
That tugged out a real smile. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had so much fun preparing a meal. Nor laughed so hard. “Lasagna.”
“Oh.” That single syllable made her turn around. Neil had stopped, two steps inside the door, uncertainty on his face.
“I don’t suppose it’s made of vegetables?”
“Uh, there are carrots in there. And tomatoes.” Were tomatoes classified fruit or vegetable? She could never remember.
“But also meat.”
“Of course.” What lasagna didn’t have meat in it? Well, there were those eggplant ones she’d heard of once, but no one actually ate those, did they?
“I’m a vegetarian.”
“Oh.” Neil did.
“I thought I’d told you. I’m so sorry. Here you’ve gone to all this effort.”
Effort wasn’t exactly what she would call the afternoon she and Matt had shared, but Neil didn’t need to know that. “I have garlic bread and salad and—” Who was she kidding. Bread and the plain garden salad she’d made only counted as a meal on nights when she arrived home from work late and was too exhausted to think of anything better. It certainly wasn’t something she’d serve on a date. “You know what? Forget that. Let’s just go out for dinner.”
“Oh, I couldn’t let you do that. No. That would simply be too rude of me. I can’t have you wasting a whole meal.”
“Really, it’s fine. I’ll have it for lunch tomorrow.” And dinner. And probably lunch the next day. And the next. She’d over-catered purposely, making more than enough dinner for four people, assuming all men ate the same large portion sizes as her brothers. She figured she’d rather have leftovers than face the embarrassment of sending her date home hungry. Apparently, she’d be doing that anyway.
“You must think me terribly rude,” Neil said.
“No, not at all.” In fact, she was barely thinking of him at all. What chance did she have thinking about any other man when Matt’s kiss still tingled against her lips?
“Have you tried the new restaurant in West End? Abbott and Mozzerello? Some friends and I went there for its grand opening last month and I can highly recommend it. I have a friend who works there. I know he could get us a table, even on such late notice.”
Emily had never heard of the place but at this point, she would have been happy to eat anywhere. Anything to make this night less awkward than it currently was.
“Sounds great. Let me get my purse.”
On first impression, the restaurant turned out to be exactly what Emily had guessed a West End restaurant to be—quirky, colorful, noisy, and slightly claustrophobic. Still, the smells wafting out the door as they waited for Neil’s friend to find them a table were making Emily wish he’d hurry up. Especially since she and Neil had run out of small talk topics ten minutes ago.
Matt had kissed her. Actually kissed her. And told her she had nothing to worry about. Did that mean she’d been good at it? Or the complete opposite. Maybe he’d told her not to worry about it because she was so bad no guy would even be tempted to try.
But then, he’d called her gorgeous.
“Emily? Are you coming?”
She forced her attention back to her date. Neil was holding the door open for her, his friend standing just behind him. They were both frowning. At her. She quickly ran to Neil’s side, ducking under his arm and past him before he could take her hand. He’d tried that once already and, though she’d tried to, she hadn’t liked it. His hand was far too sweaty for it to be appealing.
She’d gone ten yards, winding her way through the maze of tables before she realized she had no idea where she was going. Spotting a bathroom sign, she headed in that direction. Better for Neil to think she had a weak bladder than that she was avoiding him. He’d be sitting at their table by the time she came out and she’d just casually walk over to meet him there.
Her plan would have worked wonderfully had he not taken it upon himself to wait for her outside the bathroom. Who did that?
“Are you unwell, Miss Mitchell?”
Emily shook her head, composing her outward appearance even if she couldn’t get her insides to do the same. “I’m fine. Shall we?” She was about to make exactly the same mistake of walking off without her date when a young and very familiar voice piped up from the table beside her.
“Miss Mitchell. What are you doing here?”
Perfect. Hopefully, Neil was too much of a gentleman to show an abundance of affection toward Emily in front of one of her students. “Hi, Cleo. Nice to see you. I’m eating, just like you.”
“Yep. I heard the food was good. Is it?”
“Yes,” Cleo said. “But you can’t be here.”
“Why not?” Emily asked the young girl. She was pretty sure she knew what the answer was but decided to play along all the same. It was always amusing when little kids realized their teacher didn’t actually live at their school.
“Because it’s not school.”
Bingo. “No? You don’t think teachers eat?”
“Well, maybe. Apples and stuff.”
“How about lasagna?”
“Nah, that’s for grownups.”
Emily held back her laugh only through years of practice. It was one of the first skills every early childhood teacher learned, given how amusing kids could be in their sincerity. She chose to assume Cleo thought her younger than a “grownup” and not in a class of her own inhuman altogether.
“Well, do you think it’d be okay if I tried it, just this once?”
Cleo thought about it for a few seconds before nodding. “I suppose. The cheesy garlic bread is my favorite. You should try that first.”
“What a great idea.”
Neil cleared his throat none too quietly beside her, reminding her that she wasn’t alone. Though she would have been happy to continue chatting with Cleo, Neil was clearly hungry, and she was technically on a date with him. She turned and offered Neil an apologetic smile before turning back to Cleo.
“I’ll go try that cheesy garlic bread then, shall I? It was nice to see you, Cleo.”
“Bye, Miss Mitchell.”
Neil barely gave Emily a chance to wave to her little student before ushering her away with a hand to her elbow. She tried not to let his high-handedness irritate her, but it was another point against him on the long list of annoyances he’d begun the second he arrived at her door.
Though the restaurant was crowded, Neil’s friend found them a table in a back corner which hadn’t been claimed yet. Likely because it was beside the swinging door the waiters kept parading back and forth through as they delivered and collected meals, but Emily didn’t mind. A table was a table, and she was hungry.
She picked up the menu when they sat down, eager to order as soon as possible. With a crowd this big, it would no doubt take a while for their food to be ready, and her stomach wouldn’t be placated with water for long. She hadn’t planned on having to wait so long for dinner when she’d missed lunch earlier and skipped snacking in favor of having a shower in order to look somewhat presentable when Neil arrived.
“May I recommend the mushroom and goat cheese lasagna? The layers of eggplant are just divine.”
Goat cheese? Emily had nothing against goats in general, but she had no desire tonight to try their cheese. Nor did she particularly like mushrooms. And there was no way she was paying for lasagna tonight when there was a perfectly good one sitting in her fridge at home. Maybe Matt would like to share it with her. It seemed only fair, given he’d been the one to teach her how to make it. And how to kiss.
Neil. She was with Neil. Not Matt. Neil.
Neil who couldn’t seem to remember that she had a perfectly good first name.
“It’s Emily. No one over three feet tall calls me Miss Mitchell. And I think I’ll give the lasagna a miss, though that cheesy garlic bread sounds good.”
“You’d take the recommendation of a five-year-old over mine?”
Wow. Someone was feeling a little defensive. “That wasn’t what I meant—”
“Because that’s what it sounds like you’re doing.”
“I’m sure the lasagna is good too—”
“Good. Then that’s what we’ll order. Waiter.”
Emily watched in silent horror as Neil ordered two servings of the vegetarian lasagna, reminding herself as the waiter walked away that it was always good to try new things. She told her students that enough. Although with them it was things like holding a pencil correctly, making friends, and using a paint color other than their favorite, not eating—Emily inwardly cringed—mushroom and goat cheese lasagna. With eggplant. At least Neil tacked an order of cheesy garlic bread on the end, albeit with a look sent her way that made her wonder just how immature he thought she was. She could fill up on that if the lasagna proved inedible.
When their meals arrived ten excruciatingly long and silent minutes later, Neil tucked into his with relish. Emily was a little slower, breaking off the tiniest corner with her fork to taste. She chewed the bite until it was almost gone before swallowing. It wasn’t inedible, to her relief, but neither was it particularly good. The cheesy garlic bread, on the other hand, was incredible. Enraptured as he was with his lasagna, would Neil even notice if she ate all six pieces?
“How do the children like their stable?” Neil finally asked, halfway through the meal.
“They think it’s great. We haven’t practiced in it yet but—”
Emily looked around the crowded restaurant, searching for the owner of the voice she knew so well. There. Big grin on his face, tugging an adult’s hand as he wound his way around tables. First Cleo, now Jai. How many more of her students were going to turn up tonight?
“Hi, Miss Mitchell. This is my dad. His name is Jason, but I just call him Daddy most of the time.”
Emily looked up, straight into the amused eyes of the same Jason who’d helped build her stable. How had she not known he was Jai’s dad? And what had Jason been doing helping her when he could have been spending time with his son? Was it her brother Gabe who’d sent Jason? Or maybe it had been Drew. Either way, her brothers had some serious explaining to do. How dare they pull a father away from his son purely to try to set her up on a date she didn’t even want.
“Jason, hi. Nice to see you again. I didn’t know you were Jai’s dad.” It had always been Jai’s mom, Kelly, who did the school run and came to parent/teacher meetings. Emily hadn’t even known Jai’s dad was still around.
“I didn’t know you were the Miss Mitchell my son never stops talking about.”
Emily looked down at Jai again, slightly mollified. She knew Jai enjoyed school but—he talked about her at home? A lot? He was such a sweet kid. She gave him a big smile as she ruffled his short, blond hair.
“Daddy thinks you’re pretty. Do you want to marry him?”
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this chapter of Deck the Halls (and bring a hammer). Read on for Chapter Thirteen!