Authors: Katlyn Duncan
He leans in until our noses touch. “What have I done to deserve you?”
I nuzzle our noses together. “I could ask the same thing.”
He grins and brushes his lips over mine. I melt into him for a moment before he pulls away. “I have an idea.”
“An axe?” I say, crossing my arms over my bundled-up chest. Will insisted on dressing warm because he had to show me something outside. “This was your surprise?”
He drops the axe at his side and leans on it. “I found it when I had to dig the truck out earlier.”
“Okay?” I drag the word out, still not understanding.
He grins. “One of the reasons I wanted to come here was to give you the Christmas you wanted. And what’s Christmas without a tree?”
I jump up, clapping my hands together. “We can cut one down?”
“I mentioned it to Becky and she said her dad planted a bunch of them over the years, right down there.” He points away from us, where I can just make out a smattering of green in the distance. “Apparently they never bought a fake tree like the rest of us.”
I sprint to him and wrap my arms around his neck. “You’re pretty amazing, Will Carson.”
He kisses the tip of my nose. “As long as you don’t expect me to decorate, I’ll cut the tree down.”
I smile wryly. “When I’m done with you, you’ll be begging to decorate it.”
“Yeah, okay,” he quips.
He opens his hand to me and I take it. Our gloves make it hard to keep a good grip, but I squeeze hard, not wanting to let him go. We start towards the trees.
The conversation we had before rolls around in my head. I knew Will would probably never get over his mom leaving the way she did, but I wonder if Becky could help bridge the gap somehow? As much as I disliked his mom all of these years for the awful way she treated Will and his dad, she was still his mother. Maybe the first step for him would be forgiveness?
“What are Becky and your mom doing for Christmas?”
Will doesn’t answer right away, only the sound of our feet crunching through the fresh snow between us. “I think Becky said they were doing a spa weekend and then spending Christmas at mom’s place.”
“That sounds nice.”
I wonder how much I’m on thin ice, but I can’t help to ask. “Maybe next year you can spend Christmas together?”
“I’m not sure that’s what she’d want.”
“How do you know unless you ask?” I say innocently.
He sighs. “I believe walking out on your family is a permanent non-invitation to Christmas.”
“Your dad is speaking to her again…”
“He’s also a recovering alcoholic and not the best judge of character.”
I nudge him with my arm. “There’s nothing wrong with trying to reconnect. Life is short—”
“Hadley,” he says in a warning tone. “Spare me the lecture. I’m trying to enjoy this vacation.”
I bite my tongue and nod. Keeping him in the Christmas spirit will be hard enough without me ruining it. I change the direction of the conversation to a motherly figure he does love. “I bet Mabel goes crazy for Christmas, huh?” I ask with a smile, hoping to diffuse the tension.
He nods. “She does. She gets a tree for the living room and she also decorates the ones outside. It was strange celebrating Christmas without the snow though.” His voice is regretful and it makes my heart squeeze, but I take his hand again, silently promising to make this Christmas as snow-filled and nostalgic as I can.
Will’s voice breaks through my thoughts. “This place reminds me of Texas.”
I can’t help it but snort. “What?”
His mouth quirks into a smile. “Not the weather obviously. But the quiet.”
We stop and listen to the wind filtering through the trees. No car horns or construction, the constant thrum of the City. Only peaceful silence.
As much as I wanted Will to return to our hometown for almost two years, I never really gave him missing the ranch much thought. “You miss it?”
“Sometimes. It was simple.”
He twirls me around by my hand and I barely register him swinging me around and scooping me up in his arms. I giggle as his arms tighten and he spins us around. The heaviness in his eyes is gone and for a minute I forget all the issues we’ve had over the past few days and lean my head back, gazing at the gray sky spinning over our heads.
Without warning he drops my on my feet and runs away. He drops down to one knee and scoops up a pile of snow in his hands. He molds a rather large snowball and shoots back up to his feet.
“Don’t you dare!” I squeal half in excitement and terror.
He places his free hand against his chest. “I’m a gentleman, so I’ll at least wait until you are properly armed.”
I slowly lower myself to the ground, locking eyes with him just in case he takes my moment of weakness as a chance to fire. But he doesn’t. The snow is the perfect snowball kind and it comes together quickly in my hands. For a second, I see Will as the gangly teenager he used to be. I think of all the times we—me, Will, Lilly, and Ethan—had snowball fights between our yards. Boys against girls.
I throw the first ball and run away before I see where it lands. My breath steams the air around me as I sprint for the woods. A snowball skims my arm, missing its target. I turn my head and see Will scooping up more snow. When I put some distance between us I drop down again, catching my breath, while I make another one too.
But I’m too slow. Will has already halved the distance between us. He lobs another snowball at me and this time it finds its target right on my chest. The snow explodes over my coat and some finds its way down my shirt, chilling my skin and trickling down my neck.
“You’re going to regret that,” I warn.
Will throws his head back and laughs. “What’re you going to do about it?”
My grimace turns to a wicked grin as I plot to get him while he’s distracted with his victory. I launch up from the ground and race towards him. He sees me but doesn’t move as I have nothing in my hands to hit him with. I’m close enough to jump and he reaches out to catch me on reflex. Mistake number one for him.
I land in his arms and he loses his balance and we fall to the ground. He holds me up in his lap. I trace my gloved hand over his face as he takes in the snow all over the front of me.
“Giving up so soon?” he asks.
I smile and lean in, close to his lips. My hand touches the ground and scoops up snow. “Nope,” I say as I bring my hand up and shove the snow down the back of his coat.
His mouth opens wide with surprise as I wiggle out of his grip and run away, scooping another snowball in my hands as I turn around, ready to launch.
Will is up from the ground with a satisfied smirk on his lips. “You play dirty in your old age.”
I fully expect him to launch another attack but he walks to me, his hands open at his sides. I keep my arm at the ready but he doesn’t fight back. He stands in front of me, his hazel eyes lock on mine fixing me to the spot. His head tilts to the side and my eyes narrow. The Will I know never gives up without winning. I take a step back and his hands shoot out and grab my wrists. He squeezes the one with the snowball lightly and turns my hand toward the ground. I hold tight to the snowball.
He grins. “Truce?”
I clench my jaw, trying to figure out his game.
He presses his lips together for a moment before he speaks. “We may have no hot shower remember?”
I groan but hold onto the snowball. He leans in for a kiss but the tiniest smirk on his lips gives him away. I jump back, surprising him enough for his hands to let go of me. I throw the ball and it explodes right under his neck.
His eyebrows shoot up and he launches himself at me. I don’t have time to get away before we fall to the ground. Will’s legs and arms pin my body to the ground.
He grins triumphantly. “I was being a gentleman.”
I wiggle my body but he has me. “Truce!”
He shakes his head. “You had your chance. You’re going to get it now.” He reaches next to us, scooping a pile of snow in his gloved hand before holding it over my head.
I close my eyes as snow pepper my face. “Don’t you dare!” My body ripples with both terror and laughter. I definitely had this coming.
“Had enough?” he says.
“Good,” he says and his lips land on mine in a brief kiss.
I open my eyes as he rolls off me and helps me up.
“You should know not to mess with the best.”
I wrinkle my nose and wipe the remaining snow from my face. “Yeah yeah.”
He kisses me again. “Let’s find you a Christmas tree.”
We spend the better part of ten minutes locating the axe he dropped during our impromptu snowball fight before arriving at the grove. I find the perfect tree within minutes. The shape and fullness of it is optimal for my vision of Christmas, but I feel bad cutting it down.
Will senses this and wraps an arm around my shoulder. “How about we come back here in the spring and plant another one in its place?”
I lean my head against his shoulder. “Promise?”
I wander through the other trees as Will chops down the one I chose. The trees further into the grove have a lot of pine cones which quickly give me an idea. I collect several before they start to overpower me and fall one by one to the ground. I need at least two dozen to do what I want and the tree we cut down only has a few.
I unzip my coat and shove the pinecones I already have into it. Snow gets under my sweatshirt and through to my skin, but the sacrifice will be worth it. I have just enough when I hear Will calling for me.
I meet him by the tree I picked which is on the ground. He lifts it by the trunk and starts walking towards the cabin. He opens his hand at his side and I take it, getting more excited with each step I take.
“I did wonder how you managed to gain about ten pounds while we were out there,” Will says as I empty the pine cones onto the kitchen table. “What’re you going to do with those?”
I smirk. “I thought you weren’t interested in decorating?”
His eyes narrow in suspicion but he doesn’t say anything.
“I saw a tree stand in the top box if you want to use that.”
Will sifts through the box while I remove my coat and boots. I tracked some snow into the cabin, but I plan on making a bigger mess in a little while when I start decorating. Mom and I always made a mess when we decorated for Christmas and I didn’t plan on doing it any differently, especially with the amount of glitter most ornaments and baubles had.
Will finishes placing the stand and heads for the front door. I follow him, but keep my distance while he lugs the tree over the threshold. A wake of pine needles follows him across the room. He hefts the tree up and I go to the other side and hold my hands up to steady it.
“Grab it there,” he says and I shove my hands through the branches until I have a good grip on the trunk. He disappears among the low branches and screws the tree into the stand.
I take a minute and inhale the fresh scent of pine inches from my face. It’s one of those warm reminders of the season that I love.
“Okay,” he says and stands up, wiping his hands on his jeans. “You can let go now.”
We back away from the tree and admire it. I glance at Will and smile at the smattering of needles in his hair. I swipe at his head. “I think you should take a shower.”
He scoffs. “Not before I put the lights up.”
He hops over the couch, using his hands as leverage. Something he used to do as a kid. Something he did before his mother left and he was a carefree kid. Was my idea of making Christmas for him working? He seems to have let loose since our conversation.
I don’t want to jinx it so I go over to the boxes to help him find lights.
“Is that a wreath?” Will asks, standing over me practically shedding needles as much as the tree is.
I hold up the wire hanger I used for a base of the pinecone wreath I’ve been working on for the last hour or so. I have enough pinecones to make a thicker one than I intended. It’s actually nicer than I thought it would be.
“Your powers of observation are keen,” I tease.
He squeezes my shoulder. “Where did you learn to do that?”
“Dad created a winter break program for the camp. It was only a few days around Christmas but this was one of the arts and crafts programs.” Only a few of the counseling staff were invited back for the program last year and I helped enough kids making these things that I could do it in my sleep.
I arch an eyebrow. “I may not be Mr. Handy, but I’m pretty good with my hands.”
He grins wickedly and kisses me. “I know you are,” he says against my lips.
A delicious shiver trickles down my spine.
I open my eyes as a few pine needles fall onto my face. I wipe them away and Will chuckles.
“I’m taking a shower then I’ll make us dinner.”
“Sounds good to me.”
I finish the wreath before Will returns from his shower. I don’t have glue and glitter to really make it crafty, but the plain pinecones add to the rustic look of the cabin and I’m pleased with the outcome.
I cross the room and dig through one of the boxes for a big red bow. It has twist-ties on the back and I tie it so the top of the hanger is hidden.
I open the front door and hang the wreath on the small nail already dug into the wood from previous Christmases, I assume. Something inside of me blooms, the feeling of fullness that I always get around the holidays. And even though it’s my first Christmas without my family in the same house, it still feels right.
“Looks good,” Will says from midway down the stairs.
I admire my work for another moment or two before closing the front door. I wrap my hands around my arms and rub them together to get rid of the chill from the dropping temperature outside.
I open the box of ornaments and peek inside. “What’s for dinner?”
“That’s a surprise.”
I roll my eyes. I was the one who went shopping. There were only so many combinations of items to make from what we bought. But I play along.
I bring the box of ornaments to the coffee table before I start sorting them. Decorating the tree had always been up to dad and me. It was the only thing he was particular on for Christmas. He insisted that all angles of the tree were evenly decorated, something that required particular planning. I unpack all of the ornaments and separate them by color before I figure out where to place them.