*7* Gifts


You’d think the process of probating an estate would be as easy as it can be. After all, for the most part, you’re dealing with the loss of a loved one already and the endless complexities of funeral planning, not to mention living through the actual event.

It’s not.

Even with someone as organized as Juliet was, even with a will, the roughly four step process is still exhausting, nerve-wrecking work, none of which I need when I’m still hurting from her loss and not certain how to run the farm anyway.

It’s also expensive.

I balk at the probate lawyer’s retainer, unable to justify the cost against my budget, and put off the decision month after month.

Finally, after Thanksgiving, no further along in figuring out how to get the property through probate myself and stressing the growing expenses the longer I wait, I break down and hire someone.

With no other heirs or beneficiaries, even the matter of posting the probate hearing notice shouldn’t be much of an issue.

Except of course if you live in a small town where the local bigwig happens to want your farm and had a long running feud with your deceased grandmother. After Mueller’s first stop by the house to discuss the probate process with me and pitch his bid to buy me out, I take to parking my truck in the barn after Rob leaves so that I don’t have to fend off any further attempts.

That doesn’t stop Mueller from dropping by the house and knocking anyway, essentially making me a prisoner in my own home. At least I don’t have to interact with the slimeball.

All of that comes to a grinding halt when I realize Mueller refuses to come by if Rob’s car is out front. So I achieve some peace by selfishly lending my truck to Rob in exchange for his car on the pretense of it being safer to drive on the wintery roads.

Once the initial hearing is over, I have the lawyer give notice to Juliet’s few creditors and start the massive process of inventorying the farm’s assets. It’s no small task. November washes into December with me working on the process daily, talking with appraisers to establish values.

With all Juliet’s final expenses and bills paid and the property valued, that’s when the big hurt hits. Paying the estate taxes on the property and assets takes a huge chunk of my budget—way more than the surplus that I had in the account from last year’s profits on the farm—and eats into the cash Juliet left me in the lockbox.

It seems to take forever, but when I finally hold the deed to the farm in hand, the relief is short-lived. I still have the issue of fixing up the farm and coming up with the extra cash to get it planted in the spring. Though Rob is efficient and frugal, I start mentally triaging household repairs to make up my newly acquired budget shortfall in a desperate attempt to keep myself on track and in my family home.


“Rob? It’s Tabitha.”

I suppress a groan as I make my way across the icy parking lot after classes, eager to get home. Tabitha Aragon is my lawyer, the one working on my parents’ immigration case, and for the most part, when she calls, it’s not good news. Today isn’t likely to be an exception. “Hi Tabitha. What’s up?”

“Looking to finalize the last of the documentation Judge Michaelson asked for and get it submitted. Just to confirm, you’ve moved four times in the last two years—once into St. Mary’s dorms, then into three different apartments?” She doesn’t give me time to reply before she launches into her well-meaning advice. “I really wish these weren’t such shoddy locations, Rob. Is there anything you can do to look more stable? Buy a house? Move in with a friend or girlfriend? Get married?”

“Actually, it’s five.”

“You’ve moved again?”

“Yes.” It’s clear from her deep sigh, Tabitha isn’t pleased and I struggle with a way to make the circumstance look better, since that seems to be her priority. I fumble with the keys to Grace’s truck, finally unlock the door and climb in out of the cold. “Mid-fall I moved to an old farm with my—,” without thinking, the lie rolls off my lips, “—my girlfriend. It’s been in her family for more than fifty years.”

“Oh. Well, at least that part’s working in your favor.” Temporarily mollified, Tabitha continues, “I’ll need to submit that to the Courts. It’s not going to look good you’ve moved again, but hopefully I can play it off that you’re getting more settled here. What’s the new address?”

As I rattle it off, I hear Tabitha scribbling it down in the background.

“Moving in together’s kind of serious. Any possibility you two might be getting married soon?”

To say I’m struck dumb at the question would be an understatement. Especially since I’ve just lied about my relationship status with Grace in the first place. Though my bank account is liking the move, I’m still barely above the minimum balance Tabitha told me to have saved. There’s no way I could afford a ring, let alone a wedding. Even a Green Card type marriage of convenience.

What would that even look like? I muse.

It’d be pretty awesome to have ties to Grace’s roots. Fifty some odd years of Christmas trees and a beautifully crafted old farmhouse that creaks and whispers family stories through the ages.

Being married would also mean being able to kiss her.

And not just on her cheek. The thought jolts my member awake even in the cold, and I shift in the seat trying to give the stiffening bulge more room. No, if we were married, I could explore every sweet recess of her mouth, taste the tender flesh behind her ear and down her neck.

Oh God.

I could share her bed.

My imagination is all too willing to fill in those details. To imagine that fine pale skin under my tanned hands, caressing Grace, the wild sparks leaping between us. The feel of her pert breasts in my hands, her nipples like cherries, ripe for tasting. The soft silky wetness between her thighs yielding and welcoming my length moving into her…


“I—wha?—sorry.” The mental downshift to reality grinds the gears painfully. “I don’t know, Tabitha. I don’t know how she’d feel about that right now.”

“Well, give it some thought. It would help your case, especially since it’s assigned to the judicial equivalent of Russian roulette. Six solid months in a stable place and an impending marriage to a multi-generational farmer would look especially good for both your parents’ skillsets.”

A huge heavy rock falls into the pit of my stomach. Before I can pursue what Tabitha thinks might happen without the connection, she’s onto the next thing.

“What’s your girlfriend’s name?”

My heart starts to pound, and not because I don’t like the thought of Grace as my girlfriend. “We don’t have to submit that to the Courts, do we?”

“No, but I’d like to have it in case it comes up. Being able to throw out a name gives your story credibility.”

A little hard to give a lie credibility, I think, but it’s not my job to win this—it’s Tabitha’s—and if she thinks a name alone will do that, what do I have to lose? “Her name is Grace Hammond.”


Whatever was going on the day that we decorated the tree appears to have settled. Thankfully.

I guess.

I’m not fooling myself that I don’t still have the hots for Rob, just that I have some self-control again at least. Not certain what that was. Mercury in retrograde with Venus. Or the Moon was in my House of Carnal Temptation. Green M&Ms. Whatever it was, I won’t be breaking down his bedroom door or sneaking into the shower uninvited.

Invited is still on the table though. Entirely. The thought pulls the corners of my mouth up with amusement.

Without the routine provided by Rob’s school schedule, one day blurs into the next for both of us. A wave of storms blows through, dumping several inches of snow every couple of days and casting a gloomy pallor on the holidays. It also makes my Christmas present project take even longer than my poor skills might have allowed me to finish.

I think it must bother Rob to be inactive, because as soon as the snow stops, he’s out shoveling a path to our vehicles and clearing the drive. Which means when the weather is clear enough, I’m off to the library as soon as I can to work on his Christmas presents.

Rob and I both gravitate towards staying up and sleeping late, which has led to some fun days together. One particularly stormy day, he did all the cooking, only allowing me to supervise. The kitchen mishaps were numerous, but he takes everything in stride— even my teasing—and with that gorgeous smile of his.

Nearly every evening, we play a game, usually cards, and talk, sitting at the coffee table, cross-legged on the floor. He’s so generous with his smile and laughter, it’s impossible not to enjoy the time I’m around him.

That’s what we’re doing Christmas Eve, sipping hot cider in front of the fire and playing cards as it snows outside.

“So did your family go to church, then do presents and dinner?” Rob shuffles the deck, then deals each of us ten cards.

I shake my head, turning over my cards as he slides them across the table to me. “We always opened presents on Christmas eve. Christmas day was for church and in the evening, we’d have dinner. What about you?”

Rob shrugs, but doesn’t answer as he sorts his hand and frowns. I’m not fooled. He’s frowned the last three hands of Rummy and won all of them.

“Why don’t you want to share your family’s holiday traditions?”

Rob looks up at the fire at the sound of my voice and I feel a little guilty for the accusation that was in it.

Rising, he puts another log on, then shrugs again as he wanders over to the tree. He turns over a woodcut ornament, squinting at the date and inscription burned into the back. “To Juliet, my love. Yours forever, Sam 1975,” he reads aloud.

“There’s not much to share. My family didn’t have—,” he cast his eyes about the room’s decorations, before his eyes fall on me, “—this. We put up a tree. Exchanged gifts.” He moves slowly, taking a seat opposite me, but on the sofa. “But it was all very commercial. There weren’t years of handmade decorations, a long row of planted trees. Hot cider that you pressed yourself the autumn before. You don’t even know how amazing this is.”

“I do actually.” My smile is tight, almost bitter as I remember and my eyes wander towards the fire. “When my dad remarried, the holidays were just like that. After I graduated high school, I quit going there for Christmas. Juliet was always glad to have me home.”

Until this moment, I hadn’t known how lost I’d become before Rob had moved in. It had been emotionally exhausting, carrying all the memories this old house held. Especially once Juliet had become bedridden and, in her last few weeks, begun to sleep most of the day. Bereft of my grandmother’s fortitude, I’d felt disconnected and unequal to what faced me.

As the agonizing anticipation of Juliet’s death drew closer, her need for additional care had added physical and mental exhaustion to such an extent that sometimes I’d fervently wished it was over. The guilt of those thoughts compounded my depression in the weeks after Juliet was gone, as one day blurred numbly into the next.

Then Rob had come.

Where I’d wallowed in the slow decay of a life I’d cherished and didn’t know how to save, he saw an enviable history, rich and worthy of preservation. His skills lifted the crumbling ruins and restored beauty, his unwavering reverence gave me back my equilibrium.

I want to thank him. Twice I start to, then stop, realizing the words aren’t equal to the gift he’s given me just by being him.


Across the space between us, Grace is staring at me. Or perhaps through me.

I wonder what she’s thinking—where she is in time and space— and ardently wish I could follow. As she grows silent and the room fills with the fire’s crackling, I can see she’s fading into herself. She almost wavers, like the mist over water.

Home, she’d said, referring to this place, and there’s something a little sad in her expression. As if she is fading, vanishing like a ghost. I’m suddenly afraid she’ll disperse like vapor against the sun. Twice she draws breath as if to speak, that perfect little space opening between her luscious lips before it closes, and I wonder if she actually did and I just can’t hear her anymore. Finally, she just stares into the fire.

I don’t know how long we’d been there when unexpectedly, Grace rises, and her voice is clear and silky in the way I can’t hear enough. “I’ll be right back.”

I nod, startled by her voice and sudden solidity. I watch her until she’s out of sight in the kitchen, then close my eyes so I can see her gorgeous backside and tiny waist again in my memory. When she returns a moment later, Grace takes a seat beside me on the sofa, one hand tucked behind her back.

She’s just smiling, the slightest pull at the corners of her lips. It stretches them tighter, and with the shadows from the firelight, it makes them look even fuller. “For you,” Grace says softly, grinning as she sets a gift bag between us on the sofa.

For a moment I can’t move. Her smile lights her face, lights the whole room, and it’s so achingly beautiful, I want to bask in every second of it. “You didn’t have to do that.”

Frowning, Grace waves a hand at me, dismissing the sentiment. “Just open it.” Unconsciously, she sucks her bottom lip between her teeth in eager anticipation.

The effect on me is instantaneous and powerful, heaping a fierce sexual desire onto the romantic infatuation I’ve been secretly nursing since I moved in. Images flash into my head, crashing about and against each other.

Of putting my hand behind her neck and kissing her hard on the mouth.

Of undressing and sliding her naked body beneath mine on the floor in front of the fire.

Of making love to her until we’re both too exhausted to move.

Drawing a steadying breath, I force the thoughts into the shape of reality and reach for the bag.

Inside are three, green, tissue wrapped packages, each tied with cheery red and white checkered bows. I don’t know which to open first but take my cue when Grace points at the largest, roughly rectangular and nearly twice the size of the other two. Pulling the ribbon gently, I set it aside, then tear through the layers of tissue and lift out a dense knit scarf in a shade of sapphire almost exactly the color of Grace’s eyes.

“Oh, wow. It’s so soft.” I drape the scarf around my neck, running my hands appreciatively along its length on either side. “Thank you.”

“It’s bamboo, if you can believe it.” Beaming, Grace points repeatedly to the others, bouncing adorably with anticipation. “Open those too.”

Her excitement’s contagious and I tear into the next package with enthusiasm, unsurprised to find a matching knit hat in the same intricate pattern and rich color. The last package contains a pair of knit gloves with leather palms. Sliding one onto my right hand, I open and close a fist a couple times, then examine the palm, noting the fine, occasionally crooked stitches. “It fits perfectly. You made these?”

Nodding, Grace reaches across my lap, turning my hand at the wrist. She lays her left palm against my gloved right and I can feel the warmth of her hand through the glove. Her dainty fingers extend along mine and only reach my second knuckle. Inside my body, the urge to help and protect her surges.

Gently, she pinches each of my fingertips with her free hand, confirming her sizing. My fingertips tingle, remembering her touch when it’s gone.

“It’s the first time I’ve put leather on the palms,” she explains, reaching over me to collect the tissue paper and ribbon and stuff them in the bag. Setting it aside on the coffee table, she meets my eyes and she’s so lovely I ache looking at her.

“I figured it would keep you drier when you have to brush the snow off your car before you leave for school.”

“You’re exactly right. They’re perfect. Thank you.” Sliding my hand free of the glove, I set it with its mate on top of the hat beside me. There’s a thought in my head I shouldn’t be entertaining, and I know I’m going to do it anyway as I stand. Extending my hand to Grace, I pull her to her feet. “Turn around.”

With a bemused smile, Grace turns, waiting. She can’t suppress her soft gasp when I lower the scarf over her eyes and tie it behind her head. I’m grateful she can’t see my trembling fingers.

“What’s this?”

Guiding her from behind by the shoulders, I move her into the open space before the fire. “You’ll see,” I chuckle, turning her in place until she’s laughing, disoriented and stumbling against me.

When I right her, my hands at her shoulders, Grace crosses her arms over her chest and rests her hands over mine. It sends a jolt of electricity through me like a defibrillator.

“Don’t let me fall.”

There’s no reason for me to do it, besides I really want to, so I bend my head close to her ear and whisper, “I promise to catch you if you do.”  It sends delicious shivers rippling over her that I can feel in my hands, and along her neck, enticing goosebumps rise on her skin. A knot forms in my stomach and tightens.

Urging her forward, I gently guide her a couple turns about the room. I choose a random pattern, turning her in place every now and then to keep her disoriented and a little wobbly. Finally, I guide her through the dining room and kitchen before stopping in the hallway outside the parlor. “Hold still. Steady?”

I reach around her to flip the overhead light and open the parlor doors. “Okay. Now.”

Lifting the blindfold, Grace opens her eyes and gasps. Inside the parlor’s spotless, the floors gleaming with a fresh coat of polish, the walls glowing with new paint and the trim and molding stripped to reveal their original pattern and repainted to match what she’d wanted in the kitchen, laundry and mudroom.

She covers her mouth with her hands, tears welling in her eyes as she steps into the room. Turning in place, she lets it soak in, and I’ve never been happier about working on a project for anyone.

I trail in her wake, my hands tucked in my jean pockets and a broad grin I can’t stop if I want to on my face. I had a hard time figuring out what to give her, but clearly, I’ve chosen well. When she faces me, I frown at her tears, leaving shiny streaks down her velvety cheeks. Reaching up, I wipe them away tenderly with my thumbs. “Do you like it?”

Nodding, Grace laughs, throwing her arms around my neck tightly. “How did you ever manage this without my knowing?”

I’m so stunned by the embrace, by the feel of her against my body, the weight of her arms around my neck, I can’t move. Grace releases me before I can recover and hug her back, and I struggle with words. “That is my secret, and I intend to keep it.”

“Oh, Rob, thank you,” she breathes, turning again to look at the room. “This is too much. I could never repay you.”

In that instant, I fervently wish there were a thousand more rooms in this farmhouse in need of exactly this kind of TLC. I yearn for more opportunities to bring that awestruck, happy adoration to her lovely face, to hear her say my name in exactly that way. “Giving to you is so rewarding. You have no idea.” The words tumble out without my intending them to as I offer her my hand. “It’s cold in here. Let’s go back by the fire.”

Grace sets her hand in mine, allowing me to pull her behind me and close the door. But when I step towards the great room, she tugs the opposite direction, into the kitchen. I yield, let myself be led by the hand as she had.

In the kitchen, she ladles us each a fresh cup of hot cider, then with a playful wink, opens the high cabinet over the stove and pulls out a bottle of cinnamon whiskey. Spiking each cup, Grace hands me one and holds hers up.

Catching on, I tink the lip of my mug against hers. “To happy Christmases.”

“May there be many more of them for both of us.” Grace raises the cup to her lips, smiling over it as she takes a sip.


I couldn’t have explained why but Rob was even more handsome, his broad shoulders slouched, one hand in his pocket accenting the narrowness through his waist and hips as he takes a sip from his mug. He still has the scarf I gave him hanging loosely over his shoulders, and all I can think about is how much I’d like to tie it over his eyes. Only instead of turning him until he’s dizzy, I’d like to kiss him until that happens.

His eyes are that intense golden color, and he’s looking at me like I’m the snack I’d dearly love to be. I realize then I have no idea how to actually accomplish that anymore. I don’t know how to date. I definitely don’t know how to seduce someone—I never did. I’ve always taken my cues from the men who asked me out.

Which is when it occurs to me, that’s how. Maybe. Rob moves as I do, in that delicate dance that keeps us facing each other as I head towards the great room again. I extend my free hand, offering it to him as he did to me in the parlor. His hand is warm as it encloses mine, and he follows, sitting next to me on the sofa but not touching me.

The cards are still laid out on the table, Rob’s gloves and hat set off to the side, but I don’t have any desire to play games anymore. The lights are dim, the fire is warm and romantic, and I’m sitting next to a gorgeous, sensitive man who makes me happy.

“I think this is the best Christmas I’ve had in years,” I tell him in a whisper, leaning my head against his shoulder. “Thank you.”

I can’t help smiling when I feel Rob press a gentle, almost fatherly, kiss into my hair. “Happy Christmas, Grace.”


I don’t know how late we sat there, watching the fire burn low, with Grace’s head leaned against my shoulder. We didn’t talk, and I’m glad. Anything that could have come out of my mouth would only have profaned this moment, and I want to remember it exactly like it is.

I finish my cider, now cold in my hand and lean forward to set the cup on the coffee table. As I do, Grace slumps down the sofa behind me, fast asleep.

Lightweight, I think fondly, taking her empty cup from her hands. I set it beside mine, then turn so I can look at her again. I probably ought to carry her upstairs to her bed, but I know I won’t want to leave the room once I set foot in there. Nor do I want to get a blanket to cover her and leave her here.

What I want to do is carry her upstairs to my bed. A host of wild imaginings bound around inside my head in a crashing blur—all the things I long to do to her body with mine—and it takes a Herculean effort to forcibly rein in my desire. That and a compromise to my recalcitrant body.

I’ve made up my mind when I rise and turn out the lamps on either side of the room. As quietly as I can, I load the fire with wood so it will burn the rest of the night and keep her warm. It’s not going to be the only thing keeping her warm. The thought makes me smile. Returning to the sofa, I lift her legs gently onto it.

Sitting beside her, I ease one arm under her neck, pulling her against my shoulder, and lie down. Grace stretches out, tucking herself up against me in her sleep, with one of those contented sighs that makes me wish I had more to give her. Everything to give her. Anything to give her.

Like everything else about her, how Grace fits against my body is perfect. How she slides one hand up my chest to rest along my neck. Perfect. How her breath creates a little warm spot and tickles against my shoulder when she exhales. Perfect.

I shouldn’t be here, cuddling her in her sleep and I don’t care that it’s wrong. That I didn’t ask her if it was okay to touch her like this.

It’s the first time since I was sixteen that my conviction wavers. I want my family back together—permanently—but there’s this growing part of me that wonders how I could pursue a relationship with Grace and what would happen if I did. What it might cost. What I might gain.


I don’t know why I wake when I do. I’m warm, and under my ear the reassuring rhythm is Rob’s steady heartbeat. My head rises and falls in a slight, soothing rocking motion with each deep breath as he sleeps. We’re still on the sofa in the great room, and the fire crackles faintly across from us, giving the only light.

Something warm and fuzzy spreads around my chest as I realize it—that the fire is the only light. Rob had to turn them off. Which meant he’d also decided to come back to the sofa. To sleep here. With me.

He has everything going for him, and he still chose to be here. Sleeping with a ragamuffin on a tattered old sofa in my rundown farmhouse on a nearly broke farm.

My breath catches as it occurs to me, he also chose for me to know.

By slow process, I work my way out of his embrace, resenting the cold against me where Rob’s warmth had been. Shuffling the wood in the fireplace, I add a few more logs, then hurry to the entry closet and pull out a blanket.

Returning to the sofa, I shake the blanket out to drape behind me and ease myself against Rob again, pulling the blanket over both of us. He stirs, only a little, and lifts his arm around me again, pulling me onto his chest and nuzzling a kiss into my hair. “Come back to sleep.”

It’s barely a whisper, and I know he’s not awake. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter if he’s dreaming of someone else, because I’ll remember these words and this moment for the rest of my life-- it's the sweetest gift anyone's ever given me.

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