Married for Christmas (Willow Park)

 

Married for
Christmas

 

Noelle Adams

 

This book is a
work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of
the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual
events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Copyright ©
2013 by Noelle Adams. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce,
distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means.

The author
acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of the following
wordmarks referenced in this work of fiction: Scrabble.

Content
Editing, Kristin Anders,
The
Romantic Editor
.

Author’s Note

 

The hero of
this book is a pastor, but this is not an inspirational romance. It’s a regular
contemporary romance featuring characters who happen to be religious.
Spirituality is an important aspect of human experience and the lives of a lot
of people, but it’s often surprisingly absent from contemporary romances. Because
of that, I thought I’d write this note to prepare readers of this book. The
point of this story is not to present any sort of religious message, but
because faith is important to these characters, the plot and their development
turns on their spiritual condition as much as anything else. In writing a story
like this, the challenge is that there’s likely to be too much religion for
some readers and too little for others. I don’t know if I navigated this
difficult creative challenge successfully, but I do believe it’s worth the
attempt.

One

 

Jessica Cameron had to propose
marriage in a couple of hours, and she was a little nervous about it.

Trying to keep the anxiety at bay, she focused on the three
computer monitors on her desk, trying to wrap up the day’s work before she headed
over to Daniel’s. Focus was one thing she’d always done well. She’d been
working as a web developer for seven years—three of those years working from
home—and she’d never had any problem avoiding distractions.

Today was different, however.

It wasn’t every day a woman popped the question to one of
her best friends.

As it happened, an impromptu conference call with her team
took up the last hour of her work day, saving her from endless minutes of
pretending to accomplish something constructive. When it was over, she loaded
her dog, Bear, into the car, stopped at a Thai place for takeout, and then drove
over to Daniel’s.

Only after she left did she realize she should have worked
harder on her appearance. She’d changed out of the sweats she normally wore at
home, but she’d just put on jeans and a sweatshirt, with her hair pulled into a
low ponytail and no makeup.

She looked the way she always looked—average, forgettable, no
frills.

Daniel wasn’t likely to be awed by her appearance, even if
she’d made an effort, so she decided it didn’t really matter.

He stood just outside the side door of his bungalow as she
pulled into the driveway. She tried not to notice how adorably rumpled he
looked in his khakis, wrinkled dress shirt, and disarrayed hair. He had dark
eyes and a fit, athletic body, and he didn’t shave often enough so he always
had something between stubble and a short beard.

After he’d graduated from seminary six years ago, Daniel had
gotten a job as pastor of a small church in the Charlotte area, where she’d
been living since college. She’d known him all her life, and his handsome face was
as familiar to her as her own.

She never imagined she’d be proposing marriage to him,
although she’d day-dreamed often enough about him proposing to her.

He was frowning as he walked over to open the driver’s side
door of her car. She beat him to it, climbing out as he approached.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, surprised because he normally
greeted her with a warm smile.

“Your engine doesn’t sound right.”

“My engine sounds fine.”

“No, it doesn’t.” He leaned over to pull the hood release in
her four-year-old sedan. “Something’s wrong. You can’t ignore it when something
sounds off in your car.”

“I’m not ignoring it—Wait!”

Daniel had been about to slam the door before she stopped
him.

“Bear is coming out,” she explained, reaching down to rub
the dog’s nose, which had almost been smashed by the closing door.

Bear was a Samoyed, big, long-haired, and pure white.

Daniel shook his head. “Why did you bring the dog?”

“Her name is Bear. Not ‘the dog.’ She wanted to come, so why
would I leave her by herself all evening?”

“Because she’s a dog. Not a guest at a dinner party.”

“She’s not going to hurt anything. Don’t be grumpy. You’ve
never even tried to get to know her.”

Bear wagged her tailed excitedly at Daniel until he deigned
to give her a token pat on the head.

He looked tired, she realized, as he pulled open the hood of
her car and peered in at the engine. She wasn’t sure he always got enough sleep
or had regular meals.

 “You don’t have to mess with my car,” she said, adjusting
her bag of Thai food to the other hand as she went over to stand beside him.
“It’s fine.”

“It is not fine.” He reached in to fiddle with something.

Daniel loved to work on cars and wasted ridiculous amounts
of time on his old pickup truck.

Jessica tried not to look at his long legs and firm butt as
he leaned over, but didn’t entirely succeed. To hide her response to how hot he
looked, she said sharply, “Stop. You’ll get your clothes all greasy.”

He glanced down at himself, as if surprised he was wearing
clothes at all. “They’ll wash.”

She tugged at his arm. “That’s a good shirt, Daniel, and
grease isn’t easy to get off. Stop messing with my car. If something is wrong
with it, I’ll take it to a service place.”

“Why would you pay someone else to—”

“Because
they’ll
know what they’re doing.”

“I know what I’m doing.”

“Maybe, and maybe not. I can’t afford for you to play around
with my car. Our food is getting cold, so please leave my engine alone.”

With a sigh, he slammed the hood closed. He still looked
tired as he leaned against the car, but amusement glinted in his eyes.  “I
don’t think you trust me.”

 “I trust you with theology and with helping me through problems
and to always beat me at Scrabble and to be smarter than anyone else and to
invariably whine about my dog. I don’t trust you with my car.” With her free
hand, she grabbed his shirt and tried to pull him away from the hood and toward
the side door to the house.

He smiled, in that way he had that made her heart flip over
a couple of times. “I’m good with cars.” He resisted her tugging by the simple
act of refusing to budge.

“Uh huh.” She got a better grip on his shirt and tugged
again, this time pulling so hard she accidentally pulled his shirttails out
from his trousers. She gasped in surprise and immediately let go of his shirt,
but not before she’d see a quick glimpse of a very fine abdomen when the fabric
was pulled up.

Daniel laughed, either at the mishap or her startled
expression.

“Sorry,” she mumbled, feeling ridiculously embarrassed,
although there was no good reason to feel that way. “Why are you so dressed up
today anyway?”

 “There was a lunch prayer meeting for local pastors.” He
straightened up and stuffed his shirt back into his pants, still
half-chuckling. “Evidently, they’re still willing to let me into the club.”

She frowned at the self-deprecating words. “Don’t talk like
that. What happened to the church wasn’t your fault.”

A couple of months ago, the church he’d pastored for the
last six years had fallen apart when a young couple in the church had filed for
divorce. Normally, a divorce wouldn’t have such a monumental effect on a
congregation, but the couple belonged to the two founding families in the
church, and a feud between the families had erupted in the wake of the divorce.
Daniel had done his best to pursue reconciliation and bring the congregation
back together, but it was a losing battle. Finally, both families had left,
along with other families who sided with one or the other, and the people who
remained weren’t enough to sustain the church. Or the salary of its pastor.

He’d never complained. He’d never berated the people
involved. But she knew how heartbreaking it had been for him to watch the work
of so many years in building a church simply go down the drain.

He sighed. “If you say so.”

“I
do
say so.” Her heart ached for him, and she put a
hand on his chest—the only means she had at her disposal of comforting him.
“You couldn’t have done anything better than you did. Sometimes, those things
just happen.”

“Yeah,” he breathed.

He was gazing at her now with something deep and speaking in
his eyes, the laughter transforming into something else. Her breath hitched at
the sight of it, and her blood started to throb in response.

She stood there, her hand resting on his chest, waiting for
something
.

Then his face changed, and he took the bag of food out of
her hand. “I still think you should let me work on your car.”

Jessica felt her heart thud back down to its proper
location. She managed to murmur, “Never going to happen,” in a casually teasing
voice and started for the door, calling for Bear to come, although the dog
needed no encouragement to follow the food.

They went into his kitchen, which was in the state his house
always was—basically clean but cluttered with books, unopened mail, and grocery
bags, some with items still in them.

She’d been distracted by the intense moment before, but she
suddenly remember that she had to propose to him in a few minutes. She went
cold with a wave of fear and tried to swallow over it.

To focus on something else, she opened the dishwasher and
pulled put two clean plates. He never put his clean dishes in the cabinets.
Sometimes, she did it for him, but usually the clean dishes stayed in the
dishwasher until it was empty—then he filled it up again with the dirty ones.

“What’s the matter?” he asked, taking little cartons of
rice, curry, and seafood out of the bag she’d brought.

“Nothing. What do you mean?”

“You look upset or nervous about something.”

“I’m not upset or nervous.” It wasn’t exactly true, but this
was hardly the time to blurt out the marriage proposal. She had it all planned
out. After dinner, they would naturally start to talk about his job situation.
Then, very smoothly, she would offer her well-reasoned suggestion, exactly as
she’d planned it out in her mind as she lay awake all last night.

“Did you talk to your mom today?” Daniel asked, shamelessly
pinching a stray piece of shrimp from her carton and putting it in his mouth.

She narrowed her eyes, to make sure he knew she’d seen the
shrimp-snatching. “Yeah. She sounded all right. She knew who I was.”

“That’s good. So what’s the problem?”

“No problem. I told you. I’m just hungry.”

“It looks like there’s a problem.” He didn’t look annoyed or
displeased. In fact, his brown eyes were still warm and laidback. But he was
always like this—somehow knowing what she was feeling and not leaving it alone
until he found out the whole story.

“There’s no problem,” she said, trying to sound as relaxed
as he was.

“You sure?”

Her attempt at staying relaxed failed miserably. “Listen to
what I’m telling you. There. Is. Not. A. Problem.”

“All right. Fine. Weren’t you just complaining that
I
was grumpy? No reason to be in a bad mood about it.”

“I’m not in a bad mood.” She tried to moderate her tone, but
sometimes it was really exasperating that she couldn’t hide anything from him.
“Why don’t you ever believe what I tell you?”

He looked like he was hiding a smile as he picked up the two
plates he’d prepared. “Because you don’t always tell me the truth.” When she
opened her mouth to object to this statement, he spoke over her to continue, “Okay,
that’s an exaggeration. But you don’t always tell me the whole story.”

“You don’t always
need
the whole story,” she grumbled,
grabbing two bottles of water and following him out to the living room to
settle on the couch.

“Well, I
want
the whole story, whether I need it or
not. So why are you so stubborn about giving it to me?”

“Because some things are none of your business.”

He chuckled at her bad-tempered tone, and she couldn’t help
but smile too. It was nearly impossible to stay annoyed with him for very long.
No matter how infuriating he was, he always had her best interests at heart.

Plus, he was just so adorable, even when he was being
stubborn.

He took a long sip of water and leaned back on the couch, his
plate in his lap. He offered brief, silent thanks for the food and then gazed at
her with brown eyes that suddenly looked soft.

Her breath hitched at the fond expression.

She’d been going to wait until after they ate, but now might
be a good time to work in the marriage proposal.

“Daniel,” she began.

Bear had planted herself next to the couch, sitting upright
and staring fixedly at the food. After being ignored for longer than she was
willing to tolerate, she raised one paw.

“No, you’re not getting any food,” Daniel told the dog.

“Don’t be rude.” Jessica frowned at him and then said to
Bear, “I’ll give you a snack later.”

When she turned back, the soft expression and her nerve were
both gone.

“But, seriously, Jessica,” Daniel began, after swallowing
over another bite, “you don’t have to tell me everything if you don’t want, but
I don’t like that you’re so isolated.”

This shift in tone and the unexpected topic made her stiffen
her shoulders. “I’m not isolated. What are you talking about?”

“You work from home. You don’t have any family but your mom.
You don’t hang out with friends much.”

“I hang out plenty,” she replied, immediately defensive. “I
talk to my neighbors. I do things at church whenever I can. I hang out with
you
enough to drive me crazy. You know I did more before my mom…  I have to leave
every weekend to go see her.”

“I know.”

“I’m never going to be a social butterfly, but that doesn’t
mean I’m isolated.”

“Okay.” He was watching her as he chewed, and he looked
concerned, thoughtful, observant.

She wasn’t comfortable with any of those things. “I don’t
need you to be worrying about me.”

“Okay.” His expression changed, and he gave her a lopsided
grin. “I’ll remind you of that the next time you worry about
me
.”

“Wait. That’s different. Of course, I’ll worry about
you
.”

He arched his eyebrows, and she returned the expression with
nothing but a cool glare. Eventually, he chuckled and returned to his food.

She ate for a minute too, barely tasting the food, although
Thai was one of her favorites. As she chewed, she glanced around the
comfortable living room. It had been decorated by Lila, Daniel’s wife, and he
hadn’t changed a single thing in the room since she’d died almost two years
ago.

Without conscious volition, Jessica’s eye rested on the
framed picture of Lila on the console table. The woman in the photo was
dark-haired, small, and achingly pretty.

Daniel must have noticed the direction of her gaze because
he said, his voice softer, “I know you worried about me after Lila died, but I’m
really okay now.”

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