Slipping his room temperature sweat pants over body parts on the verge of frostbite, Ryan whooshed out a long, appreciative sigh. Stephanie had handed the clothes over just in time. He was about to lose the battle to keep his teeth from chattering. Definitely not the way a totally in charge male acted around the woman he loved. The one who hadn’t let him freeze to death after all.
It was a tossup whether he was more relieved to be out of the bone chilling cold. Or grateful that Stephanie had forgiven him enough to let him back in to their apartment. On second thought, no contest. Possible forgiveness won. He chanced a quick glance her way as he pulled the sweatshirt over his head.
Long brown hair framing a flawless complexion, an adorable, turned up nose, moist and delicious lips. A delicate chin that had notched up in defiance more than once since they’d moved in together. The sleek, inviting throat, gently sloping shoulders…
“Is that better?”
His head came up at her question. Further thoughts scattered. “Much. Thank you.”
Thick, sweeping lashes rimmed beautiful brown eyes. Eyes that had charmed him from day one, and held him captive ever since. Eyes staring, narrowed and wary, as she squared up before him now.
Icy knots of fear gripped him. Ten-fold what hit there when he’d nearly lost it and sailed over the railing a few moments ago. Since rappelling down from the apartment above, he’d assumed she forgave him. As he’d recently learned, living by assumption could be dangerous. He wasn’t about to venture down that slippery slope again.
None the less, being this close after spending one night without her, all he could do was jam both hands in the pockets of his sweat pants. That way, he’d be much less likely to wrap her in his arms and kiss her senseless.
“I put my heart and soul into our recent discussions about marriage. Shared my expectations and my fears.”
“No more than I did.” He couldn’t help his defensive tone. Pausing to swallow, he took a breath and fought to soften the rest of it. “All I was doing last night was taking a break. Things were spiraling out of control. I didn’t know how to make it stop.”
With a giant step toward her, he opened his mouth to launch into the apology he’d rehearsed to perfection during his all-nighter. His arms lifted to reach for her. “Stephanie. I—”
A buzzer, blaring from the kitchen drowned him out.
She was quick to turn her back on him, as if she’d been waiting for the opportunity. “My cookies are done. Angel wings. Very delicate.” Hurrying away, she flung more information behind her. “Only a couple of minutes of over baking can burn them.”
Even if they did, whatever she had in the oven would sure taste a heck of a lot better than the crow he’d come down here to eat. Hands coming out of his pockets, he padded after her. Past the apartment sized drop leaf table flanked by two chairs, one at either end.
He’d done the exact same thing last year at this time. Followed her into the kitchen, rather showed up there whenever she was bustling around in it. Coming from a family where the holidays were merely another opportunity for more heartache rather than joy, he fed off Stephanie’s strict adherence to holiday traditions. Being part of anything to do with this woman filled a need in him he wasn’t willing to give up.
As always when Stephanie was in the kitchen cooking and baking, the place was a direct hit. Open bags of flour, white sugar and brown stood on the counter. The lid was up on a half empty egg carton. Two measuring cups, one big and one small, sat beside a large, green mixing bowl. Small containers of spices were lined up beside that.
Last year, their first Christmas living together, he was a big part of the holiday preparations. Shopping. Baking. Wrapping. Laughing. Loving.
Last year on Christmas Eve….
They’d made the cookies together, gone to see her grandma, a friendly, gracious woman who made no secret of her fondness for both of them.
“He’s a keeper, Stephanie Dear. Don’t ever let this one go.” Eyes dark and warm like her granddaughter’s, the comment was bestowed in a stage whisper from behind a frail hand. To which the love of his life had replied, “I don’t intend to, Grandma. Ever.”
After that, they’d shared dinner, laughed at the antics of the poor sucker all dressed up, pretending to be Santa. The same one who had agreed to play the role this year. Until he broke his leg on a downhill ski run. Stephanie asked Ryan to fill in at the last minute. Actually, she’d assumed he would without asking. Just brought the darned suit home with her.
Because she hadn’t checked with him first, his initial response was refusal. Then he figured he’d get points for trying the thing on. He also figured once he was in it, she’d see what he was talking about, how silly he looked. Understand why he wasn’t cut out to play Santa. She didn’t.
In the end, he came off like some damned Grinch.
“Why wouldn’t you do this for me?” Eyes glistening with tears that shocked the heck out of him, she didn’t wait for an answer, just turned her back on him, flinging a sharp, “Never mind!” over her shoulder.
“It’s not that I’m being selfish.” His defense sounded pretty shallow, and he’d cut himself off. Caught up in his own argument, he had to admit, that’s exactly what he was being. Selfish. By then their disagreement had reached the point of no return. Fueled by idiotic pride, he’d stormed out wearing the rented Santa suit. Hard to believe his stupidity at not leaving his street clothes on underneath. It was a miracle he’d taken the two extra seconds required to slip into his running shoes.
Not that he had to hurry. It wasn’t as if Stephanie had been in hot pursuit begging him to stay. Quite the contrary. Arms crossed over her chest, lips a tight line and back stiff, she didn’t move as he headed out. Just uttered words akin to good riddance as he was about to shut the door. As it was, he’d neglected to take his wallet and keys. Bad idea, when she’d promptly locked him out.
The oven door slammed shut.
Wielding the wide metal spatula, she transferred the light golden cookies onto a wrought iron cooling rack. “They’re so delicate. You have to work fast with these.” She could have been talking to herself. Probably was.
He answered her anyway. “They came out perfect.”
A sidelong glimpse at him was the extent of her reply.
Sloughing off the rebuke, he kept talking. “But then, when you make them, they always do. They go in here?” He lifted a foil lined gift box off the counter.
She gave a hasty glance up, but kept working. “Yes.”
At least he’d gotten her attention. No doubt because she was afraid he’d wreck the gift container somehow. Like he’d wrecked their Christmas Eve. “I thought so.”
“Not until after they cool.” She slipped the last cookie onto the rack. The spatula clinked as she set it on the counter.
Silently, he edged toward her. Before she had a chance to turn around, he made his move.
Join me here tomorrow for Part Three of Santa's Second Chance! Also, please visit my website.