Tomorrow is Christmas Eve! Can you believe it’s already here? Even with the tree and the decorations, it just doesn’t seem like it should be Christmas yet. Just a heads up and reminder that the Austen Variations book sale starts on Christmas day this year, so make sure you check out our website to see what goodies we have up! This is a scene from my Persuasion-based holiday romance. So, without further ado, here’s the chapter 🙂
I sat cross-legged in front of the door under the stairs with a flimsy open box in front of me. Last night, after I’d agreed to this insanity, Jensen had given me an old pair of his work jeans and a hoodie to wear so I didn’t ruin my clothes, then we’d plonked down on the floor and set to work.
He hadn’t lied, this was absolutely disgusting. Who knew how long some of these boxes had been under here? They weren’t just filthy but also a bit warped as though they’d once been damp and had dried. Silverfish occasionally darted out from underneath as the boxes were lifted carefully so the contents wouldn’t fall through to the floor below. We’d worn gloves and masks to keep from being swamped completely in dust, not to mention the remnants from mice that had apparently made a home under here until Jensen set traps a few months ago.
“You’re up early?”
I jumped about a mile in the air, my gloved hand pressing to my chest. “Shit, Jensen. You scared the fuck out of me.”
“Sorry,” he said with a smile. Daphne rose from where she sat beside me and trotted until she stood before him, tapping around on the tile with her front paws. “Has she been outside?”
“I took her when I woke up an hour ago.” I shrugged and unwrapped whatever had been carefully packed in newspaper. “I couldn’t go back to sleep.”
Jensen had tried to give me his bedroom last night, but I’d insisted on the sofa. For my own sanity, I wasn’t setting one toe up there.
“Have you found anything interesting?” he asked, scratching the back of his head.
“Just a couple of boxes of paperwork that the mice must’ve turned into nests at some point or another. The documents inside were shredded to bits. I brought them all out to the porch.”
“I should’ve gone through everything before I remodeled, but I felt like I was taking advantage of your parents by living in their house for free. I quickly fixed up what I needed so I could move out.”
I pulled the mask away from my face. “I hadn’t realized you weren’t paying rent, but I understand why they would offer. I mean, you were at our house almost constantly when we were growing up. They’d help Ellie or Jena in the same way if either of them needed it.”
“Your parents are great.”
I pulled a white glass piece from the paper. Jensen crinkled his nose. “What is that?”
“Oh,” I said kind of softly. “It’s milk glass. I had a bride who collected pieces like this. Some of her close friends searched for really nice vintage pieces to buy for her. We’ll need to go online and see how to clean it.” When I glanced over my shoulder, his eyebrows were high on his forehead while his nose remained crinkled. “You’re not getting rid of it. You’ve got those shelves in the living room and the mantel with nothing on them. Besides, you can’t buy pieces like this anymore.”
I set the glass beside me and pulled out the next of the paper wrapped balls, revealing a boat-like dish on a pedestal, two candlesticks, and a cake plate. I shoved the paper back in the box before I dumped the box on the porch with the rest. “Don’t you have one of those big sinks in the laundry room? We can clean them in there instead of the kitchen.”
“How about some coffee? You put those in the laundry room and get cleaned up. I’ll brew some and get breakfast going.”
I padded into the laundry room and pulled Jensen’s too large jeans from over the boxers he gave me to sleep in as well as the hoodie I’d thrown on over that old Navy t-shirt I wore to bed. After I washed my hands and bare feet, I met him in the kitchen as the fresh smell of coffee began to fill the air.
“I checked the weather forecast,” he said as he put the milk back in the fridge. “We’re supposed to hover near freezing all day, and there’s a chance of snow again for tonight.”
“So, basically it’ll melt a bit this afternoon and then freeze back tonight anyway.”
“Pretty much. I left a message for Earl. Hopefully, he’ll tow your car in the first chance he gets.”
I blew out a breath as I took the cup he set on the island in front of me. “Thanks.” Don’t get me wrong. I appreciated having a warm place to stay, but things were uncomfortable—awkward. I wasn’t going to sleep with him again, especially after hearing Kimber-bimbo whining while ice skating, but it didn’t mean my feelings had disappeared overnight or that my body had forgotten what he could do.
I don’t think I was the only one feeling odd. At times, his eyes would venture to where Navy was emblazoned on my chest only to jerk back up to my face. He also scratched the back of his head and cleared his throat—a lot.
“How much is left in that closet?”
“A few boxes all the way to the back. Do you have a shop vac to clean it up?”
“I do. I’ll drag it out once we have everything removed. William’s guys are coming in next week and ripping that wall out. William suggested a bench and shelves. Sort of like a reading nook.”
“Oh, I like that.” I could see a long bench with a grey cushion to match the furniture in the living room and a few throw pillows scattered around. “He has some great ideas.”
Once Jensen had fixed his own coffee, he pulled out a cast iron skillet. “How about some eggs and whole grain toast?”
“Sounds good to me.”
We talked about oddly impersonal topics while we ate: movies, music, who would win the Superbowl. After we’d cleared up and loaded the dishwasher, we threw on our work clothes and started back to work on the storage area.
Unfortunately, no more milk glass lurked behind all of the rubbish we’d sorted, but when I unwrapped the first bit of yellowed newspaper, I gasped. “Jensen, look! Christmas ornaments!”
He took the pink glass bauble and held it up to the light. “I wonder if these were from when my mother was little.”
“Maybe they were on her grandparents’ tree. They look pretty old.” I rolled the next out of the paper. “It’s too bad you don’t have a tree. It would be fun to decorate one.”
He opened his box and laughed as he pulled out a jumble of ancient electrical cords. “I found the lights.” His head shook while he lifted them to one side. “Talk about a fire hazard.”
After we removed all of the ornaments, he shoved all of the old wrapping and the lights in the boxes and put them outside while I studied all of the colorful baubles, loving how the light caught the colors and the different designs.
“Do you really want to decorate a tree?” When I looked up, he stood in front of me with his hands shoved in his pockets. “I have some Christmas lights upstairs in a box and a young Scotch pine in the front that I’m going to have to cut down eventually.”
“Seriously?” My voice was high and sounded ridiculously excited even to my own ears. “Do you really want to go out in this weather and cut down a tree?”
“It’s cold and icy, but we can shake a lot of that off before we bring it inside. It’ll have to dry before we can put lights on it.” He held out his hand and helped me up. “I have a small chain saw in the shed out back.”
The frozen grass and leaves crunched under our feet. An inch or so of snow coated the ground and had frozen, but we made it to the shed then out to the overgrown front of the property. I saw the tree before he approached it. It was the perfect shape! It was a bit tall but the ceilings in the living room were high. It would probably fit well.
Most of the ice flew off when the tree hit the ground, and I giggled as I hurried around to the top, ready to help carry it into the house. Jensen shook his head and grinned. “That laugh reminds me of when we were kids.”
We hauled the tree into the mudroom and laid it out on some old sheets we’d set out before we ventured outside. I slapped my thighs to remove the water and sap after setting it down. “What do we do until it dries?”
“I have more things to go through in the dining room. Do you want to help?”
“Sure,” I said. He’d asked hesitantly like it was an imposition, but to tell the truth, it was kind of fun. It was dirty work, but each box held a potential treasure like the milk glass or the Christmas ornaments.
We spent the afternoon rummaging through more boxes, but whether Jensen thought we found treasure was another matter. More paperwork, this time water-damaged, boxes of old moldy clothes, and shoes were all moved to the porch for a trip to the dump. We did find an antique wooden mantel clock that had missed the water damage by being at the bottom of the pile. An odd box of mis-matched door knobs were also hidden under a box of old draperies. The draperies quickly found their way to the rubbish outside as well.
“Don’t throw the door knobs away,” I’d said, insistently. “I’ve seen hooks and curtain pull backs made from those on Pinterest. If you don’t want them, someone else will upcycle them.”
It wasn’t until almost four that we called it a day. While I stripped my filthy, dusty clothes into the washing machine, Jensen returned the chain saw to the shed. As soon as the last bit of my clothes made it into the wash, I turned to head upstairs right as Jensen walked back inside, stomped on the mat, and froze solid.
In my defense, I wasn’t completely naked. I’d left on my panties and my bra, but everything that could be dusty from cleaning was gone. “I was going to go up and take another shower.” I’d taken one last night before I changed to sleep.
“That’s probably a good idea,” he said, clenching his hands at his sides.
Turning my back on that crackling current that filled the air between us, I rushed upstairs and into Jensen’s bathroom. I let the water run a moment to warm up while I pulled off my bra and panties then stepped under the rainfall shower head, letting the hot water seep into my scalp and skin.
After I’d washed all of the grime from me, I dried off and went into Jensen’s bedroom where a clean pair of boxers and another Navy t-shirt were laid out on the bed. “I guess those are for me.”
My underthings went into the wash when I returned to the kitchen. After, Jensen followed me from the living room where he’d spread the Christmas ornaments out on the coffee table. “I wiped them all down, and I’ve turned over the tree to get more water out of it. The trunk is still slightly damp but the needles are pretty much dry. When I’m done with my shower, we’ll put it up.”
“Okay,” I said as he scratched the back of his head again before he shook himself and disappeared upstairs. Without anything to do, I rummaged through the kitchen, finding a pack of steaks in the fridge with some arugula salad mix. It took me a bit to find everything I needed, but I could at least make myself useful by cooking dinner. After all, Jensen had put me up last night, and at the rate the weather was going, I wouldn’t be able to go home until tomorrow. The least I could do was make him a meal.
I found a bottle of Malbec and poured a glass for while I cooked. When Jensen returned to the kitchen, I was pulling the steaks out of the broiler.
“You cooked?” he asked with a wide-eyed expression.
“Don’t act so surprised. I can cook. I just don’t do it often. Kind of silly for one person to make a full meal.” I held up my glass. “I found a couple of bottles in the rack. I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, it’s fine.” He held up his dusty clothes. “I’m going to get the wash started.”
“I’ll have everything on the table when you get back.”
He disappeared into the laundry room while I plated the steaks with an arugula salad dressed with parmesan. When he reappeared, we sat down at the table. Jensen poured himself a glass of the wine before he topped off mine. “Thank you for all of your help. I appreciate it.” He held up his glass, and I clinked mine against it.
“You’re welcome. It’s actually been kind of fun—like a treasure hunt.”
His low chuckle vibrated down my spine and made parts of me hum. “I don’t know about that. More like sorting garbage.”
While we ate and chatted about the house, I probably relaxed for the first time since being in his home. We were sitting at his kitchen table, eating steak, drinking wine, dressed in the most casual clothes ever. I mean he was wearing a pair of cotton shorts and a t-shirt. The thing was that it was perfect. Being in that moment with him, dressed as I was, was perfect.
By the time I’d loaded the dishes in the dishwasher and cleaned up the kitchen, he had the tree standing in the living room. He’d also started a fire in the fireplace.
I handed him his glass of wine and set the bottle we’d opened during dinner on the coffee table. “How’d you get it straight without help?”
“The trunk wasn’t crooked.” His face remained even until he pointed to where a tool rested on the mantel above the fireplace. “I also used a small level.”
An unladylike snort escaped when I started laughing. “A little OCD of you, don’t you think?”
“Well, I could just hear you make fun of me all evening if it was crooked.”
I gasped, faking insult. “I would not!” I took sip of my wine, but he kept looking at me with a steady gaze. “Okay, maybe a little.”
After a roll of his eyes, he grabbed a box and opened it, pulling out a bundle of Christmas lights. “I found a surge protector in one of my boxes. It’s too old for a computer but it’ll work for this.”
“Is the tree dry enough?”
“The trunk feels pretty dry, and the rest is definitely not damp. The lights won’t be that far in anyway.”
I set my glass of wine next to his on the coffee table and stood on the opposite side of the tree from him. Once he’d plugged in the strand, we passed the bright multi-colored lights back and forth until we reached the end, Jensen opened another box, and we continued with the new strand. Even though a zing shot through my fingers whenever they touched his, I didn’t flinch, and soon enough, we had lights from bottom to top.
All of the ornaments had old hooks or gold thread to hang them on the tree. The old baubles might have been a tad faded and the paint had crackled on some, but they were still beautiful and caught the colors from the Christmas lights just so. A finial was the last ornament on the table, so Jensen pulled out a step ladder.
“This was your idea, so you put it on.”
I bit my bottom lip as I picked it up. “Are you sure?”
He nodded while he opened the ladder. “Positive. Besides, we’ve both been drinking. It makes more sense for me to spot you than for you to spot me.”
He did have a point. I picked up the tall red and green spire of glass and carefully climbed the two steps to put me high enough to reach. After I’d slid it down the top, I put a hand on his shoulder to steady myself as I stepped down.
The view outside the window caught my eye. “Look, it’s snowing again.” I ran to the front door and rushed onto the porch as fat, white flakes lazily drifted down to the ground. With a grin, I tiptoed down the steps.
“Charlie, what in the blazes are you doing? You’re going to freeze.”
I spread my arms and held my face to the sky, letting the bits of cold land on me and melt. “It’s not like we get snow all of the time. Let me enjoy it.”
He crossed his arms over his chest while I stuck out my tongue and caught a few bits as they fell. Jensen’s eyebrows simply lifted. That was when my eye caught his squad car that boasted a solid cover of snow. I made a baseball sized snowball before I turned back to Jensen.
“Charlie, no.” One hand was now palm out and facing me.
“Why ever not?” I asked innocently. Before he could answer, I gave a quick wind up and let the snowball fly, hitting Jensen square in the face. His muscular body sprang from the porch, and I frantically began gathering more snow. His arms wrapped around my waist, throwing me over his shoulder as my hand with more snow found its way down the back of his shirt.
“Shit! I can’t believe you did that!”
The warmth of the house hit me like humidity hits you coming out of an air-conditioned building in the summer. In a blur, my back landed on the sofa and his fingers dug into my ribs, right at that spot where I’d always been ticklish. He pinned one of my hands over my head while I squirmed and laughed. It didn’t take long for him to pin the second over my head and continue what he’d started until I couldn’t breathe.
“What do you say?”
“More?” Yeah, I knew what he wanted, but I’d never been one to give in easily. His fingers dug in harder while Daphne, now wide awake from the commotion, barked incessantly by my ear. “Okay! I give up. Please stop!”
As I panted, I realized my t-shirt had ridden up under my ribs, and Jensen was situated between my legs just so. Our eyes caught as his free hand landed on my bare thigh, sending a wave of heat through me, making me shiver.
There was no slow gradual dip of his head. Instead, his lips devoured mine as his tongue plunged to take possession. A whimper bubbled from my throat as I clenched his hips between my legs. He was already hot and hard and pressing against that place that already throbbed and insisted upon relief.
His hands released mine and cool air hit my breast as he released my lips. When he latched on to my breast, I shook myself. What was I doing? He lightly bit my nipple, and that ache jolted. I pushed Jensen’s shoulders.
“What?” he said, panting.
I jerked my shirt down and crossed my arms over my chest. “I heard Kimberly at the ice rink the other night. The two of you might not be exclusive but it’s not fair to her. We also can’t just fuck whenever we feel like it. We aren’t together anymore.”
I scooted to the other side of the sectional and took a large gulp of wine. Not that it would help. I couldn’t look at him, so instead, I examined tonight’s handiwork while Daphne, disappointed the entertainment was over, plopped back down in her bed. “It’s interesting that you have Christmas lights but no artificial tree or ornaments?”
My eyes might have been glued to the tree, but his eyes were on me. I didn’t have to look at him to know, my body prickled under his steady gaze. “I have a couple of ornaments in a box upstairs, but no, I don’t have a tree.” Out of the corner of my eye, he did that awkward scratch thing he did to the back of his head. “When I got married, I thought we’d have one so I bought lights.”
I covered my mouth to keep from spitting my red wine all over his new furniture. “You were married?” I squeaked like an idiot.
If you haven’t read It’s Always Been You and Me, it’s available on Kindle, paperback, and KU!