The other day, right after I finished bitching about my “super bug” here, I found out that my girl friend, her husband, and her youngest daughter all have the same thing—killing my theory that this was just my immune system being an asshole. My girl friend said she and her husband were convinced it’s the flu, which made me stop and think. I’d said several times to Mike that this felt like the flu. Could it really be, even though I’d gotten my flu shot?
For hahas, I looked up flu symptoms and yup, it’s the flu—to a T. I had to come out of denial and surrender to the enemy. It was way too late for Tamiflu, so I’ve had to just ride it out: DayQuil severe, Gatorade, ginger ale, and rest. I didn’t bother with seeing a doctor, because there’s nothing they can do for me.
12 days in, I’m still exhausted. Today I have a bit more energy, so I’ve mostly been reading Let’s Get Visible by David Gaughran on my iPad and doing some administrative things with my books (categories, keywords, etc)—when I have a bit of energy. The tiniest things wipe me out, which sucks. I’ve said “This sucks!” more times in the past two weeks than I have the entire time I was a surly teenager.
I’d planned a blog hop, which pretty much got blown because almost 50% of us have the damn flu. I’d also planned on finishing beta reading for my CP, which I’ve been doing in tiny bursts. And I’d planned on re-outlining SOF4 this week, but my brain is mush, I tell you.
I’m not good at resting. I’ve always been a go-getter, so one of the things I’ve struggled with the most since getting sick in 2007 is just resting. I’m stubborn and impatient, so sitting still is not my forte. I’m absolutely sick to death of Netflix right now, so reading marketing books is a compromise. And even then, I can only do it in bursts because brain fog.
Just writing this blog post will cost me—which feels pathetic to me and not many people understand how this can be. But that’s the thing about autoimmune diseases and chronic illness in general; the invisible illness takes such a toll on your system, it’s exhausting. Throw in an illness like the flu, and you’re microwaved zombie.
You’d think, after almost 10 years, I’d be used to this by now, but no. I still hate it, I still get frustrated with myself, and I still stubbornly try to push my body. But the harder I push myself, the more I pay for it after.
The good news is, the flu won’t last forever, and the Prednisone/Plaquenil cocktail I’m on now should help with the pain and fatigue. Granted, it’ll be about six months before I notice any real difference. In the meantime, I need to practice patience with myself—which has been a theme in my life.
I’m getting there.
Need to get in the holiday spirit? I’ve got goodies for you!
This year I put together another Holly Jolly Blog Hop with other authors. I’d like to do more collaborations in the future, because they’re always so fun!
Anyway, this year’s theme is “The Wrong Gift.” Every author participating in the hop posted a free short story on their blog. This is a great way for you to discover new authors or enjoy some bonus scenes with your favorite characters, so be sure to check out the entire list here.
And now, without further ado…
“South of Christmas”
A South of Forever Holiday Short
Koty tugged open the oven door and peered inside. The pre-cooked Christmas roast he’d bought was faring well—meaning he hadn’t burnt it. If nothing else went right, he’d consider the holiday a win just for the roast.
Jett—his girlfriend and the lead singer of South of Forever, the band he played in—padded into the kitchen. She lifted a meaningful eyebrow at him. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
He nodded. “I know how rough the holidays are for you. I wanted to make it special.”
“Yes, but . . . inviting the entire band over?” She grimaced, exaggerating the face. “This can’t go well.”
Koty said nothing. It was going to be awesome—especially the gifts. Thanks to Poppy, the band’s manager, he’d scored the perfect present for Jett. He still couldn’t believe it.
The doorbell rang, and Koty marched toward the front of their condo. He pulled open the door, not sure who to expect. The entire band crowded on his front stoop. “You’re . . . all on time,” he said, shocked.
“That’s because I told them to be here an hour earlier than what we’d planned.” Poppy beamed.
Griff, her boyfriend and South of Forever’s bassist, kissed her temple.
“Wait a second.” Max shot Poppy a glare. “So you made me think I was running late when I’m actually perfectly on time?”
“Devious,” he muttered.
“Come on in, guys.” Koty waved them inside.
They crowded into the living room, making the ordinarily spacious condo seem so much smaller. Chloe, Max’s daughter, threw herself into Koty’s arms at full force.
“Uncle Koty!” she exclaimed. “Look what Santa brought!” She held up a kids’ palette of watercolor paints. “So I can paint like Mommy—I mean, Na Na.”
Across the room, Savannah—Max’s girlfriend and the band’s graphic designer—exchanged glances with Max. “Should I correct her?” Koty heard her whisper.
“Nah,” Max said. “You are her mother.”
“You’re going to make my mother childless if we don’t eat soon,” Perry, the bassist, complained.
Krista, South of Forever’s music blogger, swatted at him, rolling her eyes. “When was the last time you even talked to your mother?”
“Food’s ready,” Koty said. He gestured to the kitchen. “If you guys all wanna sit down, we can get started.”
They filed past him, somehow managing not to stampede through the condo. As Poppy neared, he drew her aside.
“Did you get it?”
“Of course. What do you think I am?” She pressed a small, wrapped box into Koty’s hands.
Relief washed through him as she sashayed into the kitchen. He bent and tucked the little box under the tree, then joined the band at the table.
Somehow Jett had set the table and laid out the food without breaking into hives. He grinned. Perhaps she could be domesticated, despite the jokes she always cracked.
The knowing glare she shot him from across the table said otherwise. He bit back a smile. His girl was amazing just the way she was—whether she was into homemaking or not.
Dinner flew by. None of the band members argued, and several times Koty noticed a contented smile on Jett’s face. He’d been determined to make this holiday season a warm one for her. Too many in the past had broken her heart—and he’d had enough bad Christmases of his own to last a lifetime.
When everyone was stuffed, he ushered them into the living room. He could take care of the kitchen later.
“Thank you all for coming,” he told them, making his way to the tree. “We really wanted this Christmas to be special. You guys are like our family, and—”
“Gross,” Perry ribbed. “I’m going to need a shower now.”
“Yeah, cut it out,” Griff said. “This is not very rock ’n’ roll.”
“Speak for yourselves! I love you too, bro,” Max said, clutching at his chest and making crazy eyes at Koty. The other guys cracked up.
With a shrug, Koty reached under the tree. Clutching the box, he held it up for Jett. “I don’t want to make a big deal out of this, but . . . I think you’re going to love it.”
The entire room fell into hushed awe. Both Savannah’s and Poppy’s eyes were glued to the box, and Jett eyed it as if it might explode.
He pressed it into her hands. “Just open it.”
Her lips were a tight line as she peeled off the paper. The velvety black box she held in her hand held so much more weight emotionally than physically. He steeled himself for her reaction. Her brown eyes darted up to his, eyebrows lifting in question.
The wrapping paper fell to the floor as she flipped the box open.
A grin tugged at his lips. He couldn’t wait for her to see it. He’d spent days perfecting it, standing over Poppy’s shoulder while she sketched.
“Gah!” Jett dropped the box as if it were a spider. It tumbled to the floor.
“What? What’s wrong?”
She stared at him accusingly. “Why? Why would you do this? I thought we agreed!”
Koty blinked. He tried to remember if they’d made a no gifts pact. His brow wrinkled. “What do you mean?”
Jett snatched the box up from the floor. She thrust it in front of his face. “This!”
A sparkling diamond ring nearly blinded him.
“Gah!” He jumped back, pushing the box away. “I didn’t do this!” Horrified, he scanned the room until his eyes met Poppy’s. “What is this, some kind of sick joke?”
The band manager cocked her head at him. When he held the ring up, understanding dawned on her face. “Sorry,” she said with a laugh. “I must’ve mixed up the boxes.”
Griff stared at her, his fair complexion even paler. “I didn’t do that either,” he sputtered.
“Of course not.” Poppy plucked the box from Koty’s hand. “I designed it for myself. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, you know.” She slid the ring onto an index finger. “Ooh, and it fits perfectly!”
“Yeah, that’s great,” Koty said, “but where’s my gift for Jett?”
“Oh!” She reached into her bag, digging around. She tossed Koty another box—this one unwrapped.
Pressing his lips together, he handed it to Jett. “I promise,” he said while throwing a glare toward Poppy, “that there’s no engagement ring in this one.”
“It’s not an engagement ring,” Poppy muttered.
“Are you trying to tell me something?” Griff asked.
Jett considered the box for a moment, the expression on her face unreadable. Koty thought she might be amused, but also slightly embarrassed. He made a mental note to never put Poppy in charge of gifts again.
“Go ahead,” he told Jett, voice gentle. Sometimes his tough girl could be like a startled deer, crashing through the woods at the first sign of being caged. He knew she loved him, and he had no complaints about what they had.
Jett opened the box. As she took in his real gift, her eyes softened. She turned toward him. “This,” she said, “is perfect.”
“Well? Hold it up!” Savannah called to her.
Jett lifted the white gold necklace from the box, dangling the diamond-encrusted guitar pick so that it caught in the light. On the back, Koty’d had the jeweler engrave their initials: JC + KJ. It’d been expensive, but even without South of Forever, Koty was set for life. Every penny he’d put toward that necklace had been worth it.
Turning, Jett threw her arms around his neck. “Thank you,” she whispered into his ear.
“Merry Christmas,” he whispered back, his arms twining around her.
Thanks for reading “South of Christmas”! You can now read the entire South of Forever series for free in KU. Click here to get started.
Rowan stared out the almost too-shiny front window of Elli’s. It’d long been replaced since the wild thunderstorm a few months earlier, but the glass was nearly reflective. She suspected it had more to do with Matt’s obsessive cleaning of the window than the actual glass itself.
She sighed. Snowflakes drifted down from the sky, painting the quiet Main Street in soft white. The scene was picturesque—or it should’ve been. Watertown’s Christmas cheer contest was in just three days, and she was nervous.
Actually, “nervous” didn’t even begin to cover it. She’d entered Elli’s—the bakery she’d inherited from her aunt Katherine—with confidence, but that was before The Curse started.
Yes, she was definitely calling it The Curse now.
It was more than a funk. She’d been in baking ruts before—where no matter what she did, she botched every single recipe—but that was years ago when she was still a student. She was a pastry chef—one with certification and her own business. She never messed up the recipes she’d made a thousand times before. It was getting to the point where Matt—her handsome business partner and boyfriend—was taking over her morning work. She was even ruining plain old bread. No matter how carefully she measured, it ended up too salty or completely flat.
She was cursed, plain and simple.
She sighed again and looked away from the pretty town. Normally, snow would cheer her up. It was almost Christmas, after all. But if she couldn’t pull it together, Elli’s would not only lose the competition, but they’d become the laughingstock of the town.
Her shoulders slumped. “C’mon, Aunt Katherine,” she whispered. “Be my angel and guide me or something.”
The bells over the door jingled and Rowan straightened in her seat. A vaguely familiar young woman strode in, a red Starbucks cup in her gloved hand. She was decked out in full winter attire: the world’s cutest knit cap, a red sweater wrapped several times around her neck, and cozy UGG boots. Rowan glanced down at her flour- and chocolate-streaked chef’s jacket. Matt should be up front greeting customers—not her.
“Hello,” she said, managing not to sound like a total Scrooge. “What can I get for you?”
“Hi there,” the other woman chirped. “I’m from over at Tilly’s.” She pointed in the direction of the little café. “I’m just scoping out the competition.” She peered into the display case, not even trying to look ashamed. “All you have are sandwiches? Where are those famous cookies and cheesecakes I keep hearing about?”
Rowan suppressed a groan. Tilly’s Café, to both her and Matt’s chagrin, had opened about a month earlier. The town only allowed three total bakeries, but Elli’s hadn’t had a competitor in years. Everyone loved Elli’s. There was no need for another place like it. But Tilly’s had roared in, taking the space where the old chocolate café had once been. The owners fixed up the inside, repaired the stage, and reinstated the open mic nights and other events the town had loved when Rowan was a kid. Elli’s couldn’t possibly compete with that vibe, considering they didn’t have enough space to add a stage.
There had been no stopping it, though. Technically Tilly’s was well within their right, and the town approved it unanimously. Competition, everyone said, was healthy.
Composing herself, she lifted her chin. “Gotta keep our secret weapons hidden until the big day.”
“Ah.” The woman lifted a finger. “Good plan.” She held out a hand. “We haven’t met yet. My name is Tilly. Are you surprised?” She simpered, perfect dimples appearing in each cheek.
Rowan shook hands with her and resisted the urge to gag. Tilly was sugary sweet, in that completely fake way that some women adopted. “So you’re the baker?”
Tilly scoffed. “Oh no, sweetie, I’m the director. I have people baking for me.” She glanced Rowan up and down. “I’m assuming you’re the baker here. Where’s your director?”
“You’re looking at her,” Rowan said, not bothering to hide her disdain.
“Oh my. That’s telling.” Tilly shook her head and clucked her tongue in disapproval. Straightening, she sniffed the air, her delicate nose wrinkling. “Is something burning?”
Eyes widening, Rowan darted out of the front room and careened into the kitchen. “No, no, no,” she protested, yanking open the oven door. But it was too late. The pan she withdrew and placed on the counter held a dozen nearly black red velvet cupcakes. She slumped against the stainless steel counter.
“Well,” Tilly said from the kitchen entrance, “it’s been a pleasure. I’m really glad I came by.” With one last condescending smile, she turned and left.
Rowan glowered at her back. “I’m really glad you’re a total bitch,” she muttered. She shook her head at herself. That was hardly even a comeback.
“Are you talking to yourself again?” Matt strolled into the kitchen from the back room. He carried a clipboard in one hand and pushed back brown curls from his eyes with his other.
“You were supposed to be watching the cupcakes,” she accused.
“I was?” Green eyes shifted from side to side. “I thought I was taking inventory.” He pointed to the clipboard.
Jabbing a finger at the ruined goodies, Rowan scowled. “Tilly’s owner came by. She was a complete tool.” She crossed her arms.
“Sorry, babe.” Matt put the clipboard down. It clinked against the stainless steel counter. He drew her in for a hug, and she couldn’t help but relax against him. With his green eyes, cherub-like curls, and muscular arms, he was living, breathing Ativan. “Still on that streak, huh?”
She huffed. “It’s a curse.”
“Nah.” Stepping back a bit, he lifted her chin with a warm finger. “It’ll pass. You’re Rowan, Elli’s amazing baker.”
Snorting, she shook her head. “More like Elli’s walking disaster!”
“It’ll be okay.”
“Oh yeah? When? The day after the competition?” She stepped completely away and put her hands on her hips.
“It’s no big deal. It’s just a contest.”
Her eyes widened. “Just a contest? Matt, you must have amnesia. Elli’s has won every single Christmas cheer contest for the past ten years.”
“To be fair,” he said, “that’s only because we’ve been the only bakery in town.”
Rowan’s jaw dropped open. “Are you saying we didn’t deserve those awards?”
He held up his hands. “I’m just saying that there was no one else in our category. It’s been, well . . . a piece of cake.”
“I hate you right now.”
He chuckled and slapped his thigh. “Sorry, I couldn’t help it.”
Rolling her eyes, she turned back to the burnt cupcakes. “This event always meant a lot to Aunt Katherine. Christmas was her favorite holiday.” Tears stung her eyes. Exactly six months had passed since Katherine had suddenly died—well, suddenly to Rowan. She’d had no idea that Katherine was even sick. She’d been out in New Jersey, licking her wounds and hoping to sever her family ties all the way down to her DNA. She’d been so, so wrong.
Matt cupped her shoulders. “I know,” he said quietly. Those green eyes bore into hers, pulling her back from the abyss. He smiled. “What if we go through Katherine’s recipe book? Maybe you just need to try something new.”
“And botch one of her sacred recipes?” She shook her head. “I don’t think I could handle it.”
“Well, it’s better than ruining your own recipes and beating yourself up.” His lips flattened. “Actually, it’d be great if you could just stop the self-flagellation altogether. Ro, you’re a freakin’ magician in the kitchen. Everyone has a bad day now and then.”
“A two-week bad day?” she asked. Still, she bent down and retrieved the cherished recipe book from its spot, nestled in a wicker cube that also housed Katherine’s lucky apron. She eyed the apron thoughtfully. “Maybe I should put that on.” Her forehead wrinkled. “Or . . . not. It’s probably better if I don’t taint it.”
She plunked the recipe book onto the counter. It was a two-inch binder wrapped in a floral pattern fabric. Each of Katherine’s recipes was tucked into a clear sheet protector, written in her looping hand that Rowan had always loved. She flipped it open and skimmed through the contents. “What do you think?”
He drummed his fingers on the counter. “Something we don’t make very often . . . and something easy.”
“Hey.” She swatted at him.
Shaking her head, she read through the list again. “What about Aunt Katherine’s candy cane cookies?” She tapped the photo with a fingernail that she’d nibbled down to the nub.
“Those are good,” Matt agreed. “She made them the first year I worked here.”
“You mean the year you stole my job?”
“Yeah. That year.” He grinned. “Anyway, she wouldn’t let me touch them. I could only watch. She was so particular about how everything was done.”
“In the best way possible.” Rowan smiled. “She always wanted to make sure you were paying attention, that you really learned how to bake with your heart.”
He nodded, then pressed a kiss to her cheek. “Bake with your heart, babe.” He picked up the clipboard again.
“You’re not going to help?”
“I believe I just did.”
“You know what I mean.” She began laying out the ingredients.
Grimacing, he continued toward the store room. “And hang around you? That’s bad juju.” He strolled away, whistling “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
“Brat,” she called after him. Still, she smiled. Despite their rocky beginning, Matt was the best thing that had ever happened to her.
Rolling up her sleeves, she got to work.
She flipped on her favorite Christmas music playlist—a mix of piano-only songs on Spotify. With the cheerful tunes drifting through the kitchen, she started mixing the dough. Mixing was always her favorite part. Though she used a mixer, there was just something so soothing about watching all of the ingredients come together. She combined butter, sugar, egg yolks, and peppermint extract, watching as the paddle stirred the wet components together. Her shoulders loosened and a sappy smile played on her lips.
This was it. She was going to break the curse, if it was the last thing she did.
Switching the mixer to low, she stirred in the dry ingredients. The dough churned, becoming more and more solid with each turn. It was hard to believe that, at one point, she’d been willing to give all of this up.
Once the dough was mixed enough, she shut off the machine and separated it into two equal halves. She swaddled one in plastic wrap and set it aside. Maybe covering it completely was going overboard, but with her luck she’d splash red food coloring everywhere and she’d end up with completely red cookies instead of candy cane-shaped cookies, alternating in red and white.
She hummed to herself as she dyed the other half of the dough red. Already she could see the perfect little candy canes, positioned in the display case so that every other one of them were Js, their sugar sprinkles glistening.
Using her hands, she shaped each ball of dough into a flat square, smoothing the edges into perfection with a bench scrape.
The front door jingled again, and she cringed. “Matt,” she called.
“It’s just me.” Her best friend, Charlotte, practically floated into the kitchen. Her face glowed, and Rowan suspected it had little to do with the cold weather.
“Tell me everything,” Rowan said as she wrapped the squares, “in just one more minute.” She tucked the dough into the walk-in refrigerator, taking a moment to admire her work. Content, she hurried back into the kitchen. “Go!” she told Charlotte.
“Okay, so you remember Amarie?” Charlotte said, unable to hide the goofy grin that clung to her lips like confectioner’s sugar.
“How could I forget?” Rowan tossed everything into the pot sink for later scrubbing.
“Well,” Charlotte drew out the word, “she added me on Facebook a while back.”
“Uh-huh. I remember,” Rowan prodded.
“She hasn’t posted much lately, because of finals and all that, but . . . she’s coming home for winter break!” Charlotte clapped her hands together and bounced on the balls of her feet, her hair flying off her shoulders. Usually dyed one bright color or another, Charlotte had made no exceptions for the holiday season and had turned her naturally blonde locks into cheery Christmas red.
“That’s awesome, Char,” Rowan said with a smile. “So are you gonna make a move?”
Charlotte’s smile faded. She took a deep breath. “She’s still with Jason,” she admitted.
Rowan nodded sympathetically. “We’ll just have to plan a get-together and then you can sweep her off her feet!”
Her best friend shrugged. “I don’t know . . . I mean, I know she’s queer. My gaydar has never failed me. But . . .”
“Jason puts a wrench in the plans.”
“Exactly. I’m not into adultery.”
“They’re not exactly married,” Rowan said, lifting a finger.
“Right, but they’ve been together a while now. Over a year? Maybe even close to two. And I don’t think she knows she likes girls, too, Ro. Like, maybe deep down, but not really, you know?”
Rowan nodded. She slung an arm around Charlotte. “We’ve got to cure you of this crush, babe. It’s only going to tear you apart.”
Charlotte twisted her lips to the side. “I know it. I barely know the girl. I’ve never felt so connected with anyone before, though. It sounds freakin’ stalker-ish.”
“Nah. I get it.” Rowan shrugged out of her chef’s jacket. “How about we go get our Starbucks fix? I’m really craving a peppermint mocha now,” she said, sniffing at the faint traces of the oil on her hands.
Charlotte giggled. “So I take it your streak has ended?”
“I think so,” Rowan said. “I can feel it.” She pulled on her winter coat, a black parka that fell to her knees. Though Charlotte had tried talking her into dying her whole head green, Rowan had gone back to her natural mousy brown—just until the competition was over. She meant no offense to Charlotte, but she’d wanted to be taken seriously, and she was glad now that she knew how put-together Tilly was.
Linking arms with Charlotte, Rowan called out to Matt that they were heading out, and promised to bring him something back. Arm in arm, she and Charlotte stepped onto Main Street. It was at least a mile walk to Starbucks, but with Charlotte she didn’t even feel cold. They chitchatted as they walked, catching up on their lives. Charlotte had started bartending school so that she could be a mixologist at The 545, the lounge she was a short order cook at.
“This way I can chat up cute girls and make some extra money in tips,” she reasoned.
“Makes sense to me.”
Rowan glanced into the windows of the various shops they passed. Main Street was always cute, but it had an even more special vibe during the holidays. Each bare tree was wrapped in white string lights, the lights intertwining and forming a canopy above the sidewalk. It was pure magic, she surmised.
By the time they stepped inside Starbucks, though, her cheeks and nose were numb.
“My treat,” Charlotte said, blocking her from the chip reader.
“No, mine,” Rowan insisted. “You got the last time.”
“Plus Matt’s ordering too. C’mon.”
Charlotte stuck out her tongue playfully and gave the barista their orders before Rowan could argue further.
“You,” Rowan told her, wrapping her in a one-armed hug.
“Me.” Charlotte beamed.
They took their coffees and sat down at a table.
“So,” Charlotte said meaningfully, dragging out the word. “Any special Christmas plans with Matt?”
Rowan tilted her head, her eyebrows furrowed. As far as she knew, they were each spending Christmas with their families. They saw each other every day anyway. They could exchange gifts any time.
“Seriously? He didn’t invite you to Christmas dinner with the family?”
“So what? I mean, he doesn’t really have a lot of family. It’ll just be his mom, his little brother, and him. He doesn’t get to spend much time with them.”
Charlotte gave her a flat look. “You guys have been together for like six months now.”
Her best friend rolled her eyes. “Six,” she said firmly. “That month or whatever you were ‘broken up’ so doesn’t count.”
“Either way,” Rowan said, “it’s family time.” She suppressed a groan. “Family time,” to her parents, meant ditching their children just before the holidays for their annual cruise. “What are your plans?” she asked, changing the subject.
“The Butler family tradition: Christmas Eve mass and a stern talking-to about how God hates gays.” She rolled her eyes.
“I’m sorry, love.” Rowan reached across the table and gave her best friend’s hand a warm squeeze. “Any way you can skip?”
“Only if I’m bleeding to death. And even then . . .” She shrugged.
Rowan raised her coffee cup in a salute. “To family.”
Charlotte knocked her cup against Rowan’s. “Happy holidays.” She giggled.
A little while later, they headed back to Elli’s. Full dark had fallen in the meantime and, with it, the temperature. Rowan huddled deep into her coat.
Charlotte walked her to the door and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Good luck with those candy canes,” she said. She hopped into her warm car, thanks to her remote starter when they were still a block away, and waved as she pulled from the curb.
Taking a deep breath, Rowan hurried into the warmth of Elli’s. She hung her coat up, then went into the walk-in.
Matt bent over a shelf, his black Dickies accenting his ass.
“Nice,” she said flirtatiously.
Straightening, he turned and wrapped her in a hug. Full, warm lips pressed to hers. “Aw, look who’s cold. Let me warm you up, baby.”
“In the walk-in?” Rowan lifted an eyebrow.
He smirked. “We could do it in the kitchen instead, if you prefer.”
“Tempting,” she said, twirling away, “but I’ve got a hot date.” She grabbed her chilled dough and took it to her station, leaving him chuckling after her.
Heart thudding in her chest, she eyed the dough on the stainless steel, willing it to cooperate. “All right,” she said. “Let’s break this streak.”
Rowan is determined to win the town’s Christmas cheer contest, but she’s in a funk—for the past two weeks straight, she’s managed to botch every single recipe. With the judging day only a few days away, can Matt get her back on track?
Just One More Christmas is a standalone holiday romance novelette set six months after the novel Just One More Minute.
The following is a short story occurring about a year before ESX (the South of Forever prequel novel) and a few years before Diving Into Him. I wrote it two years ago but didn’t really know what to do with it. It’s really less short story and more of a personal memory of Jett’s. I figured I’d post it here as a little Christmas present to you. Enjoy! 🎄
“The Last Christmas”
Jett Costa ran a hand through the left side of her hair. Her hairdresser had buzzed the right side again that morning. Her scalp itched where the hair had been shortened. She still hadn’t had the chance to wash and condition it. As soon as she got out of the chair, she went to the grocery store. It turned out that shopping for food on Christmas Eve was a bad idea. Everything was picked over, and the lines were long. She ended up with a package of pork chops, some bacon to wrap them in, onions, and potatoes.
She eyed the still packed grocery bags on the counter of her apartment. She could just hear her Catholic grandmother. “It’s a sin to eat meat on Christmas Eve,” the woman would say.
Jett rolled her eyes. Parting a plastic bag open with fingernails lacquered with black, she lifted the package of pork chops and set them next to the stove. Her doorbell buzzed and she fled from the kitchen. Flinging open the door, she nearly yanked Phillip inside.
“Easy,” he said, smoothing his sweater. “This cost me a lot.”
She gaped. Cross-eyed cats and ratty balls of yarn decorated the sweater. It looked like a blind two-year-old high on methamphetamine had knitted it. “What in the world are you wearing?” she asked, her eyes beaming death rays at him.
Phillip matched her glare. “Dude. I thought we agreed to wear ugly sweaters. If I’m the only one, I’m going to kill you all.”
She pointed to the red sweater dress she had donned. “This is as ugly as I get.”
He laughed. “If that’s ugly, then this sweater is a work of art.” He made a grab for her rear.
She danced away, into the dreaded kitchen. “Get to work,” she said, pulling herself up onto the counter. “I got what you wanted… sort of.”
Her bandmate and ex-boyfriend rifled through the bags. “No greens?” He rose an eyebrow at her. “Bacon? Are you high?”
“Not right now.” She winked. “They were out of everything, Phil.”
“This is why I wanted to do the shopping myself,” he muttered.
“Hey, you’re the one who was too busy.” She scooted along the counter until he was within arm’s reach, then shoved him playfully. The way his head drooped and his eyelids lowered froze her, though. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he said, pulling away and returning to the bags. “This will be fine.”
“Whatever you say, Captain.” She glanced out the window. The sky, formerly a bright blue, was overrun with white clouds. A single snowflake drifted down, landing on the pane. Another followed, then another. Soon a flurry cascaded beyond the glass. “It’s snowing,” she whispered.
He came up beside her. Though he did not touch her, she could feel the warmth of his body. “Hey, a white Christmas.” He pressed a kiss to her temple.
Her eyes widened. Phillip hadn’t kissed her since they broke up. She ached to turn toward him, to wrap her arms around him and return the kiss. Instead, she remained gazing out the window. The snowfall quickened. “I didn’t see anything in the weather report.”
Phillip remained next to her. “They were calling for a blizzard starting tomorrow night,” he said.
“I hope the boys get here soon,” she said, though she didn’t entirely mean it. The thought of being snowed in with Phillip sent her heart racing. Maybe they couldn’t rekindle their relationship, but one night wouldn’t kill them. She wrapped her arms tighter around herself. If she knew Griff and Matt, they were running late. It was possible that the other members of Perpetual Smile wouldn’t be able to make it. She would have Phillip all to herself. Closing her eyes, she sent a silent wish to the falling snow.
Phillip nudged her. “No falling asleep,” he said. She jumped, her eyes flying open. “Get to work. You’ve got bacon to unwrap.”
She turned toward him, making a face. “I am not touching raw bacon,” she said, remembering its slimy texture. She preferred ordering it in restaurants, where she could instruct them to nearly burn it.
“Then you can chop the onions.” He winked. “Actually, I really don’t want you touching any of this. You might cut off a finger or set the place on fire. Go call the guys and see where they are.”
She stuck out her tongue at him, but sashayed out of the kitchen. Christmas wish number one granted, she thought with a grin. The last time she had tried to cook anything other than a piece of toast, she had nearly burned down her apartment. There was still a black smudge on the brick wall above her shiny new oven. She retrieved her cell phone from her bag and dialed Griff.
“Yellow,” he said.
“Where the hell are you guys? It’s snowing and Phillip is trying to make me cook.” She did not mention the ugly sweater. If the other members of Perpetual Smile had forgotten to pick their own up, all the better.
“We’re in New Haven,” Griff said, raising his voice above the background noise.
Jett wrinkled her eyebrows. “Why are you all the way out in New Haven?”
“Matt wanted to go to this special candle shop for his mother. He wanted Pepe’s, too. I still don’t see what the big deal is about their pizza, but the guy loves it.” Griff chuckled. “Dude, it’s snowing like crazy here.”
She bit down on her lip. Clasping her hands, she dared to hope. If we get snowed in together, I’ll never ask for anything again.
Static drowned out his next words, but she made out enough: The trains had been shut down. Her bandmates were stuck in New Haven.
“So, to be clear, you’re not coming.” She glanced out the window. The New York traffic below her classic six had slowed to a crawl. A good inch of snow already covered the ground. Every time it snowed, people forgot how to drive. Horns blared. An SUV’s tires spun. Stuck in an inch of snow. She snorted.
“I don’t think so,” came Griff’s response. “I’m sorry, dude. Save us some leftovers. We’re gonna try to get a room here, jam out.”
“Be careful,” she said, keeping her voice even. Giddiness bubbled up inside of her. “Call if something changes.”
“Will do,” Griff said. They hung up.
Outside, the snow fell faster. She watched as it hurried down, hypnotized by the sheets of white blanketing the world. The scent of warm apples and cinnamon filled her nostrils, and she closed her eyes, inhaling it deeper. If she had known this Christmas would be so perfect, she would have made more of an effort. She and Phillip were meant to be. She knew that. With the band doing so well, though, it would be crazy to continue having a relationship. They were too intense, too on again, off again. The tabloids were too nosy, and any unrest rippled into the rest of the band. She and Phillip had promised to walk away from their romance and focus on the band. Still, maybe a Christmas alone was all they needed to bring them back together.
Jett opened her eyes. These are silly, girlish dreams, she chided herself.
“They’re not coming,” Phillip said softly from behind her.
She turned. He stood with oven mitts tucked between an arm and his ribcage. “Yeah.” She reached for her bag and withdrew a pack of cigarettes. “They’re in New Haven, of all places.” As she went to light one, Phillip snatched it out of her mouth.
“Those will kill you,” he said, plucking the lighter from her fingers.
She lifted an eyebrow at him, trying to decide whether he was joking. She hadn’t known Phillip before he started smoking. Even though he could afford to buy packs, he insisted on rolling his own. “Did you quit?” she asked, reaching for the rest of her pack.
“Yes,” he said, an edge to his voice, “and you should, too.”
This is romantic, she thought. Aloud, she asked, “Should we check the weather?”
“No.” He sat next to her on the couch. “It’s coming down really hard.”
She realized he had lit candles around the living room. Remembering past blizzards and mass outages, she nodded her approval. They smelled like hot apple pie, fresh from the oven.
“Jett,” he said.
Outside, the sun had dipped below the skyline, bathing the city in darkness. The windows were frosting over, making it hard to see the progress of the storm, but intuition told her that if Connecticut and New York had already shut down the trains, it was going to be bad. Her eyes met Phillip’s, and she realized his hand rested on her thigh. She traced the curve of his fingers, the shape of the skull ring he wore, and the wiry hairs on his knuckles.
He lifted her chin until their eyes met. “Do you want me to go, before this storm gets worse?”
Her apartment was small. Though she had been able to upgrade from a studio to the two bedroom, there was little room for a guest to stay. She had converted the guest bedroom to a studio. He would have to sleep on the couch. The alternative was one she didn’t want to consider. Heat spread across her cheeks. “You’re welcome to stay, if you need to,” she offered.
His lips were only inches away. He nuzzled his nose against hers. “Do you want me to stay?” he asked.
Her lips parted to answer him. The candlelight and heat from the stove wrapped her in warmth. She didn’t technically need him to stay. She had enough food, bottled water, candles, and flashlights to get through a week without power. Her oven was gas powered, so without electricity, she could heat herself by lighting the burners with a match. The apartment was small. If she closed the bedroom doors and camped out in the living room, she would be plenty warm. Of course, someone had to man the pork chops and potatoes that Phillip had put in the oven, but even if he decided he couldn’t stand being snowed in with her, she could probably finish them without charring them too much.
Like Griff and Matt, she had her own guitar to see her through the storm. Her fingers itched to play the holiday songs she had grown up with. If she needed to, she could keep herself company.
She didn’t think she would get another chance alone with Phillip, though. Even if it was a silly dream, she had to try. Maybe there was no such thing as Christmas magic, and maybe she would destroy the band while trying to force it, but she was tired of being alone.
She licked her lips. She wanted to tell him all of this, but the words wouldn’t come. Countless songs had been born of her mind, yet not a single word sprang to her lips. She threw her arms around his neck and pressed her lips to his.
He did not resist. His mouth moved against hers and he wrapped his arms around her body. When she peeked at his eyes, they looked sad. The kiss deepened, though, and his embrace tightened. She shut her eyes, feeling silly for looking. Phillip was far from her first kiss. She let him lead, though. He tasted like mint and chocolate, and she remembered the coffee in his hand when he arrived. There was both sweetness and urgency to the way his lips and tongue moved, and she was not surprised to find her back against the seat of the couch, with Phillip hovering over her.
Her hands were at the button of his jeans when he pulled away from her. “No,” he said. “This needs to be better.” He jumped up from the couch and paced her small living room.
“I can put on a made-for-TV Christmas movie,” she quipped. A grin spread across her lips.
His eyes met hers, though, and her smile faltered. Pain danced across his face, and he looked away.
“It’s Christmas,” she said, as if that solved everything. She wished he would stop trying to be the better person. Neither Griff nor Matt had ever had a problem with them dating. If anything, she surmised, their breakup was putting more strain on the band. Sexual tension constantly stretched between them, and every time they found themselves accidentally giving in, both walked away weighed down by guilt. She held out her arms to him. “Come here.”
“Music,” he said, as though answering a riddle. He scooped up the television remote and turned on a holiday music channel. Soft instrumental carols drifted through the room. In the glow of the candles, with the windows frosted over, it seemed that they were the last two people on Earth.
She stood and went to him, wrapping her arms around his waist. He stood a whole head taller than her, and had to bend down to kiss her. His lips were warmer than before, and pressed tightly against hers. She led him back to the couch, still kissing him, and yanked off the cat sweater.
* * *
By the time the timer for their dinner went off, Jett and Phillip were reclined in a tangle on her bed. His arms were wrapped around her, and she had been about to drift off to sleep. “Let it burn,” she murmured.
“Never,” he said. He disentangled himself from her arms and pulled a quilt over her. “Be right back.”
She sighed, and he kissed her forehead. She watched him pad out of the room from slitted eyes. More candles burned. The power had gone out an hour before. Luckily, the oven still worked. Only the starter was electric, Phillip had told her. As long as they didn’t shut it off, it would still cook their meal. Outside, at least a foot of snow buried the city. She did not have a tree, but it felt more like Christmas than ever before. Somehow, her wish had come true.
She snuggled deeper under the blanket, her breath warming her face. He had to see that things were better when they were together. At the very least, she ate better.
As if on cue, he padded back into the room. Two plates and a bottle of wine balanced in his hands.
“You’ve still got it,” she said, referring to his pre-band days as a waiter. She sat up, folding her legs, the quilt still wrapped about her. He set the plates down on the bed and put the bottle down on the nightstand.
“I’ll get some glasses,” he said, disappearing from view again.
She inhaled the scent of baked onions and garlic, the rich bacon, and the savory pork. Her mouth watered. “This smells delicious,” she called to him. She cut into a pork chop. Even in the dim light, she could see the juices oozing from it.
Phillip returned with glasses and utensils. “Wait for me,” he said. He filled their glasses with a red wine she’d forgotten she had, and held his up in a toast. “To crazy storms.”
She clinked hers against his, and they drank. “Phil,” she said as they dove into their meal, “we need to talk.” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them, and she pressed a napkin to her lips. Few men loved those four words. She took a sip of wine and watched his face in the candlelight.
“Yes,” he agreed, “but not tonight.” He stole a sliver of onion from her plate and popped it into his mouth.
She swatted at his hand, but her mind raced. Her heart lurched into her chest. If he wanted to delay it, it couldn’t be anything good. Maybe he regretted staying, but didn’t want to ruin the moment. Either that, or was afraid of upsetting her while they were still snowed in. The last time he gave her his “we can’t be together for the sake of the band” spiel, she’d pushed him. Not hard, but he hadn’t expected it, and he careened into some equipment. He’d walked away with a bruised tailbone and she had to replace the broken guitars.
Even though it had been an accident, she did not trust herself. Emotions swirled through her like pressure in a soda bottle. She wanted him—no, needed him—by her side, in her life, for the rest of forever. He was her best friend, her co-founder of Perpetual Smile, and the other half of her heart. Tears pooled in her eyes, and she was glad the lighting was so poor.
I need to stop being such a stupid girl, she thought, finishing the last bite of pork on her plate. Bandmates don’t date. They can’t. She drained her wine glass and sat back amongst the pillows. The wine warmed her but also dragged her down.
“You’re really quiet,” he said, pushing away his own meal.
“I’m just afraid,” she admitted.
He said nothing.
The streets of New York wrapped them in silence. Not a single plow had rumbled by. It seemed the state wasn’t even going to try to stay on top of the storm. It was probably the smarter decision, but she wondered whether it had been wise of her to invite Phillip to stay. She reached for his plate. It would be better to keep moving. If he didn’t want to talk about things, fine, but she refused to lay in bed with him with nothing resolved.
He grasped her hand gently. “It’s not that I don’t want to talk about us,” he said. “I just figured, it’s complicated, and we should just enjoy tonight.” He removed the plates, setting them on the nightstand. Pulling her in close, he pressed a kiss to her temple. “I want to spend every second of tonight with you, not worrying about the future.”
She tilted her head. “Damn smooth talker,” she whispered, and kissed him.
* * *
Sunlight slanted through the blinds. Outside, snowflakes drifted down from telephone wires and the tops of buildings. Jett woke with Phillip’s arms around her. The candles had burned out on their own, or perhaps he had blown them out after she fell asleep. She hoped for the latter, because the former was a frightening prospect. The plates and wine glasses were gone, though, so she assumed he had cleaned up while she slept. She smiled. If they ever settled down, he would make a good husband. The question was whether he would be hers.
She rolled over and slipped out of bed, wrapping a robe around her body. Phillip remained asleep, and she smiled. Tiptoeing away, she went into the bathroom. Whatever happened next, she could handle it. If they had to go their separate ways, or break up the band so they could be together, she would accept it. Maybe it didn’t have to come to that.
She padded out of the bathroom and back into the bedroom. Phillip sat up in bed, eyes watching her as she came back in. She dove into bed, snuggling up next to him. A smile broke out across her face and she moved to kiss him, but he stopped her.
“We need to talk,” he said.
“You’re pregnant,” she said, laughing. She rested her head on his shoulder.
“I’m serious.” His voice was flat, and his eyes shimmered.
Jett frowned. “What the hell’s wrong with you?”
Phillip took a deep breath. Looking into her eyes, he said, “I quit smoking because I had to.”
David Cervantes, Perpetual Smile’s manager and the owner of Simon 1056 Records, constantly nagged Jett and Phillip to quit. “Your range will improve,” he said. “You’ll be less winded after a show.” He had even offered to increase their salaries. Both Jett and Phillip had agreed that he was full of it, and they would quit when they were ready. As a compromise, they took extra vocal lessons and diving classes to improve their lung capacity.
“You gave into David, huh?” She snorted. “Oh well. How much did he give you?”
He pulled away from her. “This isn’t about that, Jett.”
“Then what is it? I don’t care what you do.” I just want you with me, she wanted to add. She touched his cheek. Stubble dotted his face. She imagined him trying to shave with one of her razors, and stifled the laughter that bubbled up in her throat.
“I have pain in my hip,” Phillip said.
Her eyebrows furrowed. Perhaps he was still drunk, she surmised. She looked around for the bottle of wine, but didn’t see it.
“I kept trying to ignore it, but finally went to see a doctor.” He halted, clearing his throat.
The look in his eyes made her uneasy. She wished he would just finish. We need to talk about us. Where is this going? “Pulled a muscle on stage?” she asked.
“No,” he said, his voice breaking. “Long story short, they did a bunch of tests and I have cancer, Jett. Stage four. It started as lung cancer, but it’s in my bones now. They don’t think there’s anything else they can do.”
The bedroom tilted, the floor rushing up at her. She remembered the rehearsals he had left early, saying he was too tired. The bags underneath his eyes jumped out at her, stark. She tried to remember if he had actually finished his dinner. He had taken the plates, so she didn’t know. “How long?” she whispered, her voice hoarse.
“I found out five months ago. They just told me the other day that I have a couple of months left.”
She slapped the lamp on her nightstand. It shattered on the floor. Phillip remained as still as a statue. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she sobbed, tears dribbling down her cheeks. She threw a pillow at him and rolled out of bed. A storm touched down in her head, whirling through her thoughts.
They would never be together, she realized.
“Why would you tell me this now, on Christmas morning?” Her chest heaved.
He rose from the bed, reaching out to her. “I’m sorry.”
“You’ve ruined everything,” she said. “Get out.” She threw another pillow at him.
He nodded. Without another word, he dressed and left her apartment.
She watched him go, then locked the apartment door behind her. Tears still running down her cheeks, she padded into the kitchen. A tiny rectangular box sat on the counter, wrapped in bright red and green paper. She peered at the tag.
“To Jett,” it read. “Love, Phillip.”
She picked up the box and tossed it into the garbage.
Jett stormed into the the bathroom. With one hand, she turned on the faucet of the bathtub. Her free hand grabbed a bottle of bath bubbles and poured it in. Tears streamed down her cheeks. The rush of the water drowned out the sobs that poured from her lips.
As the water reached halfway, she paused. Her nose and eyes were red. Sniffling, she stood from the edge of the tub and tiptoed back into the kitchen. She stopped at the garbage and looked down at the pail. The gift sat on top of a discarded plastic bag, surrounded by the remains of their meal. She plucked it from the container and peeled away the paper. The box was a simple white with a lid that lifted away from the bottom.
Nestled in some tissue paper sat an SD card. Frowning, she took it to her desk where her MacBook Pro sat, still on from her last production session. She and Phil had been messing around with Christmas carols throughout December. She slid the card into the slot and waited. A video took over her screen.
Phillip smiled. He sat on the couch in his own living room. “I figured you’d throw me out,” he said, chuckling.
She gasped, clasping a hand to her mouth.
“I didn’t even want to tell you,” he continued, “but I know how you are. You’d kill me if I kept it to myself. So, here we are.” He spread his hands. Taking a deep breath, he leaned closer, his eyes piercing hers, even through the screen. “I wanted to play this in front of you, get your feedback, but you kind of kicked me out.”
He reached for his guitar. “Before I go, I want to record one more song with you. That’s why I told you.” Strumming a few notes, he hummed, warming his vocal cords. Then, giving her a shy smile, he launched into the song.
An empty bed
Ghost sheets stretching
At the end of the flat line
Our guitar strings still entwine
At the end of this chemo road
With the video still playing, Jett lurched across the room. She grabbed her coat and ran out the door, her phone already pressed to her ear. With the elevator still dead, she flew down the stairs, the sound of her boots on the concrete ringing in her ears.
Outside, snow drifted slowly from the sky. She burst through the door into the icy air. Phillip stood at the corner, his hands in his pockets. Breaking into a run, she collided with him, her arms encircling his neck and tears soaking into his coat.
He pressed a kiss to her head and smoothed her hair. “What did you think of the song?” he murmured into her ear.
“It needs some work,” Jett said, sniffling. “Do we have time?” She swallowed hard. Her body tensed. He had every right to tell her to go home—or worse.
Wrapping an arm around her waist, Phillip led her back to her building. “I’ve got all night.”