Extra, extra, read all about it—the South of Forever series is now available on Kindle Unlimited! It’s also got some updates.
The prequel novel is now a free bonus when you join the South of Forever email list. I’ve long struggled with finding the proper place for this story; it’s important to the SOF series, but I think a lot of readers were confused. No more! Readers get it free. Click here to get your copy.
I’m testing new cover designs. What do you think? My favorite is SOF3. Poppy looks like she’s having the time of her life! And her rockin’ hair is love. 😍
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.”