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*6* Mistletoe

*Grace*

After I get my truck, I spend a few hours at the library. 

Juliet taught me how to knit years ago, and I’m knitting a scarf, hat and gloves for Rob for Christmas. I was never particularly good at it, so it’s taken a few unravelings and restarts. I’ve improved with each try, and today I’ll finish the scarf. 

I’m fairly pleased with it actually. It’s bamboo yarn, dyed a deep blue I thought might bring out the color of Rob’s eyes. If nothing else, it’s soft and strong, with good drape and an attractive luster, and will keep falling snow off the back of his neck and hands when he’s outside. 

When the scarf is done, I tuck everything away in its bag, hiding it under the seat of my truck. I’ll start on the hat or gloves, either when Rob goes out or at the library tomorrow.

It doesn’t take long to pick up the items I want from the grocer, even though it’s busy—well, as busy as a small-town grocery can be. It’s a decent excuse for all the time I’ve been gone. Not that I need one; Rob never questions my comings and goings anyway, only asks if I need help.

Parking my truck beside Rob’s low sports car, I glance at the veranda. The wood rack against the rail is noticeably diminished, and I smile. He’s a man of his word. Inhaling deeply, I enjoy the spicy, woodsy scent of evergreens filling the cab for a moment longer, bracing myself for the cold.

Pulling the bags of greens and grocery items from the back seat, I position them together so I can gather all the handles as easily as possible, then slide the small potted pine I bought to use as a Christmas tree into my arms. Though the tree’s bundled to protect its branches during transport and stands barely as tall as me, its height and the weight of the root ball make it awkward. Its pot slides through my arms, a few needles poking through its wrapping scraping lightly along my face and neck, before it finds a precarious seat, hooked on the pocket zipper of my coat. 

Stooping, I grab the handles of a couple bags, easing them into the hand holding the tree. Pushing the truck door closed with my shoulder, I gather the remaining bags with my free hand and start across the yard to the house. 

I’m fumbling with the front door when it opens abruptly and Rob steps in front of me.

“Here, let me help you.” Rob pushes the front door out of my way with one hand, taking the bulk of my bags with the other. “This is heavy, Grace. Why didn’t you ask me to carry it?”

I secure the loose and sliding tree clutched in my other arm with my freed hand, then inhale deeply. “I smell fresh paint, that’s why. You’re working on something else, Rob.” I drop the tree heavily to the kitchen floor and place my bags on the counter beside the stove. I’m extracting items when Rob sets what he’s carried beside me.

“I’m done painting. Sorry about the smell. I closed the mudroom door and covered the vents before I started, but I think we’re going to smell it at least a little since we can’t ventilate better with the cold. If you have a space heater, that might speed the drying process. I put on the bathroom and stove exhaust fans already.” Leaning against the counter behind me, he pauses. “Is there anything else you need from the truck?”

Without turning, I shake my head. Out of the cold, I’m getting hot and shrug out of my coat, then drop it to the floor beside the tree. Moving around it, I open a cabinet to search for a bowl. “No, thank you.” 

Spying the one I want on the uppermost shelf, I ease the nearer one aside with my fingertips, stand tiptoe to reach the other, then on one foot trying to stretch a bit more as the chosen bowl eludes my grasp.

“You’re the most stubborn woman I know, Grace. You’re going to kill yourself on the stairs trying to haul fifty pounds of groceries inside because you refuse to make more than one trip.”

Seeing me stretch for the bowl out of reach, Rob rushes up, reaching over my shoulder to retrieve it. “Or to ask for help. This one?” His front presses against my back as he confirms which bowl I want.

A spark zaps life into my feminine core, dormant since long before my divorce. “Yes.” The reply is breathy and a bit throaty—the voice of that awakened component suddenly hyper-responsive to him, and even though he can’t see me, I blush. 

As Rob lowers the bowl to the counter, I turn to face him quickly. Though I don’t know why, he catches his breath with a soft gasp, and my eyes drop to his mouth. A slight smile pulls the corners and the flush on my face becomes hotter. Our bodies are still touching, and inside me, that spark has grown into a ferocious hunger more powerful than the sun.

“Thank you. Again.” It takes all my willpower not to reach up and run my fingers along his smooth jaw, graze my fingertips over his lips. I tear my eyes away from his mouth. “It seems like I’m always asking for your help.” 

*Rob*

I didn’t really think about what I was doing when I reached over Grace to get the bowl for her. Mostly I was afraid she’d drop the heavy glass thing on her head. But when I set it on the counter for her and she faces me, it all becomes suddenly and compellingly clear.

Grace is flushed across her pink cheeks and full lips, the contrast heightened against her usual cool tones. That tiny space that so fascinates me has opened between her perfect lips as she looks up at me, focused not on my eyes, but on my mouth. 

We’ve been knocking sparks off each other more and more lately, and my body isn’t confused about the non-verbal communication going on now. I smile and it deepens the color she already has.

It’s breath-taking. 

I’m standing too close to be polite, and I know it, but in that instant, the faint, feminine smell of her tinged with the woodsy, pungent evergreen is so delectable, so heady and potent, I can’t force myself to step away. My hands itch to touch her and for a long minute, her sapphire eyes seem to invite it. 

I’m standing on a narrow ledge and I’d dearly love to step into the yawning unknown that stretches out below me.

And that’s when Grace looks away, thanking me, and seems ashamed of asking for my help. Reluctantly, I step back. Out of the charged field that had grown around us, the energy disperses as suddenly as it gathered.

“It’s no problem, Grace, and it’s what you hired me for. It’s not like you asked for my kidney.”  I meant the words to be light, reassuring, but they don’t disguise an edge in my voice. There’s only so much stimulation a guy can take without an outlet before that frustration gets difficult to hide. 

To redirect both our attentions, I gesture to the bags. “What are all these?”

“Christmas decorations.” Sorting bags of evergreen cuttings onto the floor beside the tree, Grace unloads those still carrying groceries onto the counter. “I didn’t know what your holiday traditions were, but we can incorporate them too.”

“These look more like food than any decoration I’ve ever seen.” Curious, I step closer, unconsciously sorting oranges and apples into separate groups on the counter. “Popcorn. Cranberries. Whole cloves. Cinnamon sticks.” Grace wears a slight smile when I glance at her for explanation. 

“That bag has the food,” she replies, pointing to a different one. “My family has always used natural decorations. After the holidays, we put them outside for the animals and birds.” 

Pulling me gently with a hand on my upper arm, Grace gestures through the kitchen window. Beyond the deck, a row of closely planted pines of varying ages encloses the yard between the barn and the farmhouse. She points to them. “The snow barrier. Those are my family’s Christmas trees.”

I let my breath out in a slow sigh of amazement, staring at the trees growing strong, healthy and evenly spaced like sentinels protecting the Hammond property. “Wow. How long has your family been here?” 

“Originally we had the farm across the street—the one that Mueller took over and bulldozed.” The last was spoken with no small amount of bitterness as Grace explains. “My grandparents bought this larger farm when it became available, about ten years before my mother was born. We’ve planted the Christmas tree in the spring every year since. They’re all there.”

Staring at the trees after what Grace has shared, what she’s sharing with me now, fills me with a new appreciation for the roots she has here. This is more than a nice old farmhouse. This farm is more than where she grew up. This is a deep and loving part of her and her ancestors.

To be invited here is a gift of immeasurable value and I’m humbled by it. “Thank you for letting me be a part of this.”

“You might not thank me after we get started making decorations,” Grace laughs, her smile slowly fading at the seriousness in my eyes.

“I absolutely will.” 

*Grace*

By late afternoon, I can barely detect the smell of paint beneath the strong scent of evergreens, popcorn and dried apple and orange slices. With Rob’s help, I move the furniture in the great room to accommodate the small tree and now, sitting across the coffee table from me, he strings popcorn and cranberries into garlands while I tie together the last of the dried apples, oranges and cinnamon sticks into star and snowflake shaped ornaments. One of the logs in the fire is still a bit green and it hisses and snaps, crackling merrily as it burns. 

“Why did your grandparents move from the farm across the street?” Rob asks, gently threading another piece of popcorn onto the growing garland he’s working on. He’s good at it and carefully works the piece up against the others without breaking it. 

I take a sip of my hot cider. Rising, I collect my ornaments, adding them to the tree. It’s already hung with the ones stored from previous years. Clove studded oranges with ribbon hooks are tucked in amid cleverly crafted pinecone and twig animals, elves with brightly painted hats and hand-carved and hand-feathered balsa birds, sisal angels with braided wings and white painted acorns wired together into snowmen with sisal scarves. “This farm was nearly double the size of the one they had, and my grandparents thought they were starting a family.”

“Thought?”

Finishing with the ornaments, I begin tucking dried bunches of red, yellow and orange autumn leaves tied together with festive red and white checkered ribbon into the tree. “My grandmother was Rh-negative. She lost her first child from it and was told not to try again. In time, there was a medical treatment that allowed her to carry my mother to full term. But by then, she was in her thirties and the doctors told her no more children.”

At the end of his thread, Rob ties a knot and stands, carrying the popcorn garland to me. “That must have been devastating.”

“She never talked about it.” I drape the garland along the branches, happy with the way it looks. “I think it was worse when she lost my mother and my grandfather.” I reply to his unspoken question. “Lung cancer.”

“They smoked?”

I shake my head, carefully arranging red berry-speckled holly sprays with mistletoe at the top of the tree. Despite my care, a thorn catches me along the side of one finger. “No. Only my grandfather. Both Mom and Juliet were nonsmokers. They developed it from secondhand exposure.” I stick the finger in my mouth, sucking at the tender needle prick. 

“Juliet too?” Rob asks, watching my hand at my mouth. When I nod, he says, “I’m sorry. That must have been hard on you.”

Facing him, I smile, but it doesn’t touch my eyes. These are the sad ghosts of the past. Though they’re intangible specters, they haunt me with a lot of pain.  “I don’t remember my mom. Or much before the funeral when my grandfather died. It was hard watching it slowly take my grandmother years later, especially when she wouldn’t take treatment.”

“You took care of her?”

I know we’ve never had this conversation and Rob must be curious, but it takes a lot for me to go on. For a moment, I say nothing, watching my hands as I wire evergreen boughs with more sprays, like the ones in the tree topper, into a garland. 

“Of course,” I manage eventually to answer him. “She’s the one who took care of me after my mom died. When my dad was working.” Laying the evergreen garland along the mantle, I tuck a few wood cut bells and wreath ornaments into it—gifts my grandfather made for my grandmother years ago. 

I begin picking pine needles up off the hearth, tossing them into the fire, listening as they hiss and pop before drawing a deep breath and continuing, “After what she went through with my mom and my granddad, she didn’t want to be in a hospital. At the end, she was so weak, I don’t think she knew that’s where she was.”

“Are you okay?”

I nod, give him an obviously fake smile and begin wiring more sprays into another garland. “I’m fine.”

*Rob*

Watching her, I can tell Grace is upset. Though I can’t explain why, when she feels sad, I do too. I’d like to hug her when she dismisses her feelings and says she’s fine. It’s something I’ve said countless times to my parents, this denial of feelings. But where my parents would reply, ‘we’ll wait for you to catch up’ and give me time to decide when I’m ready to talk, to Grace, I can only nod.

“I love all this, by the way,” I offer as a distraction, gesturing around at the decorations. “What’re the light green sprigs with the white berries?”

“Mistletoe.”

“Isn’t that supposed to go over a doorway?” I point overhead. 

“There are a lot of traditions about mistletoe. My grandmother used to say hanging it in the house warded off bad feelings during the holidays and brought luck in the new year.” 

Grace is wiring together another garland of the dwindling evergreen bunches. “We always trimmed the tree and garlands with it. When I was little, my grandparents used to hang it over the entry. You can still see the little hook in the ceiling.”

Sure enough, the hook’s there when I look. It’s like I can feel the years of holiday joy pour into me and I smile, knowing how to give it back to Grace. “Let’s hang it there too then. To ward off bad feelings and bring luck.” 

This time, the smile Grace gives me is real, and it’s absolutely beautiful how radiant it makes her look.

While Grace bundles mistletoe together, tying it with a ribbon and creating a loop, I retrieve the step ladder from the mudroom and set it under the little hook in the entry. I climb up, waiting for her to finish. Standing beside the stepladder, Grace hands the bundle up, smiling back at me when it’s on the hook. 

*Grace*

“Thank you.” I stare at the mistletoe on the hook, my mind awash in memories, as Rob descends the ladder. I look at him when he reaches the bottom, reality dawning when I see his expression and recognize, as he just had, we’re standing under the mistletoe together. 

Rob’s honey-colored eyes have the dark intensity they’ve had a lot today. Though it feels overwhelming, I hold his gaze, trying to absorb the emotion. 

Unconsciously, his eyes shift to my lips, and I lift my mouth toward him. I’m expecting him to withdraw and hoping desperately that he won’t when he leans down. 

My heart’s pounding so hard I can’t hear over the blood rushing past my ears. I hadn’t realized how lonely I’d grown taking care of Juliet. How much of myself I’d lost, trying to juggle household chores and help my grandmother with her basic care— eating and taking medications, dressing and moving around, the frequent medical appointments—and managing a household’s worth of chores single-handedly. I’ve become a ghost myself, a shadow, silently disappearing into the ones around here. 

Until Rob. 

Maybe until this moment with him. 

Caught up in his gorgeous eyes, swept up in his kindness, I want this kiss with a single-mindedness that aches. I’m like sleeping beauty, only instead of waking from a hundred-year slumber, Rob’s kiss would bring me back to life, give substance to what I’ve become. I close my eyes as his mouth draws near, vibrating in anticipation. He’s so close, I can feel his breath on my lips. 

The kiss, when it comes, isn’t on my mouth, but a light, gentle brush against my cheek. Cold air rushes into the space he’d occupied as he moves away. I feel weak, faint, as though some essential energy has been sapped from me. Why had I thought he might want to kiss me?

But opening my eyes to him, I’m struck again by the intensity there. Confused and ashamed, I can only stare. 

“Where do you need this next?” 

Without a word, I point to the space over the bay windows, and Rob moves the ladder for me. 

*Rob*

Not kissing Grace’s mouth is the right thing to do, I repeat in my head, trying to convince myself. I have no business taking advantage of her emotional vulnerability. 

But chivalry doesn’t satisfy the needs Grace creates. The ones that have been steadily growing the longer we live together. It’s more than that she’s undeniably beautiful. That she’s kind and gentle and welcoming. That she puts little pieces of herself into everything she gives. Those things are contributing too. 

But right now, my body craves hers. Her upturned face and luscious lips are burned in my memory. The skin on my cheek tingles remembering her breath. My lips crackle at the tip of every nerve that touched her and those that didn’t are rioting against my self-control. 

My head is spinning with all the ways that kiss might have gone— in explicit and arousing detail. I should stop while I’m ahead and help her finish and clean up the decorations before I meet Dan at Three Fools because dwelling on Grace’s full and pink and incredibly kissable lips is enough to drive me crazy. 

Fortunately, Grace is quick and efficient. When she’s done, all the greens she brought home are hung in garlands, all the ornaments are on the tree and the only thing left to do is put the stepladder away.

“It looks really nice.” I draw her by the arm to stand beside me, carefully avoiding the spot between the front door and the stairs that’s become the Mistletoe Zone. “This is beautiful, Grace.” 

I don’t say her name often, but I love the way it sounds. A whispering breeze. Soft and feminine. Like her. I shouldn’t do it, because I know it’s only going to make more suffering for me, but I lean toward her and kiss her cheek again, this time firmly. “Thank you.”

Before she can react, I grab the stepladder and fold it up, hurrying out of sight into the kitchen with it. Once it’s put away, I cut through the dining room and rush up the stairs. “I need to grab a shower. I’m meeting my friends tonight,” I explain unnecessarily because Grace hasn’t said a word since I kissed her under the mistletoe. 

But I can’t hide the semi in my jeans anymore—I’m only getting harder the longer I’m around her—and I do have plans to meet Dan tonight, even if it’s not for a few more hours. Immediately, my brain volunteers images of all the things I could do with Grace in a few hours and I can’t think of a single thing to distract myself from them.

By the time I jump into the shower, I’m so hard even the cold water doesn’t lessen it. For the first time in my life, I consider calling the aggressive waitress from Three Fools and meeting her in the back of the bar before Dan gets there, like she’s always suggesting. 

But that wouldn’t be fair to her, even if she agreed, and I know it wouldn’t relieve anything. I’d be imagining she was Grace. And if I’m going to do that, I may as well handle the job solo. Nobody gets hurt then. Besides, I’m standing in the shower anyway. 

I turn up the hot, and gratefully, immediately, it takes the edge off the bitterly cold water. I praise the water heater in this old house as I get started on the coup to regain control of my body. It’s over quietly in a matter of minutes and while it’s not the same without the pleasant distraction of a woman, it does what I need. 

When I get out, I realize I forgot to grab clean clothes before I came in here—in every aspect of the words. I debate my work clothes laying in a pile on the floor. Screw it, I think. It’s two feet between the bathroom and my bedroom. I wrap the towel around my waist and exit the bathroom. Striding into my room to dress, I close the door behind me.

*Grace*

I understood when Rob didn’t kiss me under the mistletoe. And he was right. It’s a tradition, yes, but he didn’t offer to hang it there because he wanted to kiss me. He offered to hang it there because he wanted to cheer me up. I’m the one who took that someplace it wasn’t meant to go. 

But when he does kiss me after we’ve finished with the decorations, an entire migration of butterflies starts fluttering inside me—again—and the confused roller coaster of arousal I’m on absolutely every time he’s around me rolls out for another turn around the park. Since Rob is going out with his friends, I don’t have to worry about when I’ll fix something to eat, so I climb the stairs slowly and walk into my room. Maybe I should lie down for a bit. This incessant state of sexual excitement is exhausting.

In my bathroom, I can hear the water running for Rob’s shower as I wash my hands. Where the tree’s needles scratched my face as I carried it in itches a little and I’m checking to make sure it’s not worse than I thought it was when I realize my shirt’s dirty from decorating. 

It’s as I walk out of my bathroom that Rob walks out of his across the hall and it’s all I can do not to groan out loud at how wet he is. His towel is hitched low around his narrow hips and his arms and back are gleaming—actually shimmering with the water clinging to him—like he didn’t bother to dry off.

And I’ve known he’s lean— I see him every day— but it’s just not something you mentally translate out of clothes that way. With the light and the water picking out every cut line of him, the muscles of his calves and arms, how narrow his waist is compared to his shoulders, I think I might have an aneurysm. Completely. Everything but my lust. That’s alive and well and making a fantastic elevator pitch for marching across this hall and opening the door to his room just to get another peek. 

I cover my eyes with my hands and focus on my breathing. I don’t even know how long I’ve been standing there, just inhaling and exhaling to calm down. “What is wrong with me?” I whisper to myself. 

“Are you okay?”

I’m so startled by the sound of his voice that I stumble backwards and nearly fall onto my bed. When I catch myself and look up, Rob is standing in my bedroom doorway, one hand on the frame, as if some invisible barrier keeps him from entering. Like a mime. The thought seems surreally possible. There’s definitely a barrier between us—one I loathe fervently. 

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” There’s concern in his voice and in his eyes.

He’s dressed in jeans and a dark gray thermal with the sleeves pushed up his forearms, but I can’t unsee him walking out of the bathroom in his towel now and my heart speeds up again. Ironically, it’s nice to know it won’t be cancer that kills me. That doesn’t answer his question though. “It’s okay. I’m okay.”

If I’m honest, which I clearly can’t be in this situation, I’d admit that I’m not okay. Wanting to jump him is not okay. It’s insane, exactly like every tissue in my body yelling at me to do that very thing is insane. 

“You don’t look okay. You look pale.” Rob looks as if he wishes he hadn’t said that, then qualifies his statement. “You—you are pale. Fair is probably the correct term. But this is different. Are you sure you’re okay?”

Recovering my senses, I nod. “Yes. Just a little tired maybe. It’s been a busy day.”

Rob’s brows pull together in a frown. “I think I’d best stay here. In case you need some—.”

“No,” I interrupt. Heaven knows he’s the last thing I need staying around here, especially with the sexual tension flipping on and off between us frustrating my uterus to mutinous levels. “You don’t need to do that. Go out with your friends. Enjoy your time off for the holidays.”

I can see him debating still and want to settle the issue. After all, it’s not like I can tell him the reason I look pale is because I’ve been entertaining thoughts about what he’s got under his towel and what I’d like to do with it. “Rob, go. Have a good time. You have your phone. I can always get a hold of you.”

At the mention of his phone, Rob pats his back pocket and finding it there, draws a deep breath. “Okay,” he finally agrees half-heartedly. “I’ll be back early though. And if you need anything, please, just call.”

I smile and nod, and reluctantly, Rob turns and goes downstairs. A minute later, I hear the front door close as he leaves. Lying back, I close my eyes. Time rolls backwards and I see him walk out of the bathroom in his towel again and smile.

*Rob*

Tim and Cameron have already left to spend the holidays with their families, but Dan doesn’t fly out until tomorrow. It’s quieter when I arrive at Three Fools. Some of that is because it’s only Dan and me, not the four of us. But the rest is that there just isn’t the usual crowd over the holidays. 

We drink and talk while we shoot some pool, but I’m not really into it and I realize Dan isn’t fooled when he puts his beer down on the table and gives me a hard look. 

“What’s going on, buddy? Spill already.”

“Worried about Grace.” It rolls off my tongue before I can stop myself. 

“Why? What’s up?”

I shrug. “She just doesn’t seem herself.”

Dan moves around the pool table, sinking a few balls. “It’s a hard time of year for folks. Especially ones by themselves.” 

It’s remarkably insightful, especially given I’ve never corrected my friends’ notion that Grace is an old lady. I lean on my billiard pole. “Yeah. I’ve been working on something to maybe cheer her up, but now I’m debating if I shouldn’t show her sooner.”

Dan scratches his shot, curses and stands, peering at me closely. “You made her a gift?”

“No. I’m just fixing up the parlor she mostly ignores. On the sly when she’s gone.” I cue up and clear the last couple balls from the table and Dan racks them again. “What could I possibly give her anyway? As near as I can tell, she has everything she wants. Except for the farmhouse to be fixed up.”

“Sounds like you’ve found exactly the right thing then. Your turn to break.”

**

Even though I’m home earlier after hanging with Dan than I usually am, when I pull into the drive, the lights are out in the farmhouse windows, except in the great room, where I can tell by the flickering it comes from the fireplace. Grace is usually up later—she reads in bed if she’s not downstairs scribbling notes in a spiral bound journal she keeps—and my worry creeps in again. 

Savory scents assault me as I enter the house through the mudroom. It’s a significant improvement over the faint smell of cheap cologne and beer that clings to me after being at Three Fools. 

At least if she cooked, she probably ate, I think, following one of the smells to a pot of stew Grace fixed, kept warm on the stove to wait for me. I’m grateful it’s there, even as I resent the reminder of how much she’s taking care of me. I know she sees it as a division of labor—she’s told me as much when I’ve brought it up.

That’s not entirely true, I correct myself, filling the mug-like soup bowl Grace left out for me with a generous helping from the pot and dropping a couple of homemade biscuits from the basket beside it on top. I do work here. For my part, it doesn’t seem fair. To me, the work she needs just isn’t hard, and maybe that’s her perspective about cooking. Maybe over our next meal together, I’ll ask. 

Or maybe next time she’s cooking, you should ask her to teach you, some little piece of conscience chimes in.

It’s as I’m wandering into the great room to eat in front of the fire that I realize Grace is still downstairs. She’s cuddled into the cushions, asleep on the sofa. It’s just crossed my mind that it’s strange and she must not be feeling well when I see her journal and pen dropped on the floor between the sofa and the coffee table. At least that much is typical Grace behavior.

I set my soup on the coffee table and add a few more logs to the fire, then get a blanket out of the entry closet to cover her with. Grace stirs a little as it settles over her, then gives this deep, contented sigh. I don’t know why, but it makes me happy. Like I belong here with her. 

Sitting down, I watch the way the firelight looks on her face and hair as I eat. Since I can. It’s nice to not have to steal glances at her, to just stare at how perfect she is. The room is warm, the light and sound from the fire soothing and the last thing I see before I fall asleep is her face.

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