Silent, I watched him tug off his toboggan and bow his head and I didn’t know if he was praying or if he was talking to Kari. Either way, I felt like I was eavesdropping; it was such an intimate, sad moment.
Blinking away tears, I fixed my gaze on the tree and swallowed hard. Snow coated the bare branches, causing the thin tips to turn down at the edges.
When Jase returned to my side, he’d pulled the toboggan back on and the tip of his nose looked as red as mine felt. “Do you mind if we stay for a few more moments? I know it’s freezing and you can wait—”
“I’m okay.” If he wanted to stay here for a month, I’d be right beside him. “We can stay as long as you want.”
“Thank you.” His spine lost some of its stiffness as he draped his arm over my shoulders. Tugging me against the shelter of his body, he rested his cheek against the top of my head and sighed. “Thank you for being here with me.”
The Winstead farm was decked out.
It looked like Santa threw up holiday cheer all over the grounds, but in a good way. Multicolored lights covered the split-rail fence lining the driveway. Red, green, and blue twinkled off the barn, and the entire front of the house glimmered like a giant, square disco ball.
Jase chuckled as my eyes widened, which made me smile, because it was the first he’d laughed since we’d left the cemetery. “My parents go a little crazy during Christmas, especially because of Jack.”
A little? There was an inflatable Santa sitting off the right of the porch. On the roof, there were eight plastic reindeers. Rudolph, the ninth and most important reindeer, was MIA. A plastic Santa was perched on the chimney, complete with a bag of gifts.
There was a giant frosty snow globe, bubble thing in front of the porch. Through the large windows, I could see the lights from the Christmas trees. My parents tended to stick to the one Christmas light color theme, but I liked this better. There was something warmer about the chaos of lights.
“We’re going to leave the presents in the Jeep,” he said as we climbed out. “You know, Santa hasn’t arrived yet.”
I grinned. “Santa looks a little drunk on the roof.”
He looked up and laughed as the wind caused the plastic Santa to spin on the chimney. “That’s my kind of Santa.”
I lingered at the steps, dragging my boot in the dusting of snow. “Are you sure it’s okay for me to be here?”
Shooting me a look, he placed his hands on my shoulders and lowered his head so that we were eye level. “Of course. Mom and Dad are happy that you’re spending Christmas Eve with us, and they know you know the truth.” He smoothed a hand over my head and tucked my hair back behind my ear. “I think they’re more excited about you being here than me.”
I laughed. “That’s because I’m pretty damn amazing to have around.”
“That’s true.” Jase slanted his head, and his warm breath danced over my lips. I shivered, and his lips curled up. “Thank you for today. Seriously. I can’t say it enough. I don’t think I’d have been able to do it without you.”
I leaned forward and stretched up a little, brushing my cold nose against his. “You would’ve done it with or without me, but I’m glad I could be there. Really.” Having left my gloves in the Jeep, I placed my bare hand against his cheek, loving the feel of the slight stumble against my palm. “Are you okay?”
His thick lashes swept down. “You know, I didn’t think I’d feel any different, but I do. It’s not huge, but I feel good about it.” He placed his hand over mine as his other curved around the nape of my neck. “I think I owe you a thank-you kiss.”
“You don’t owe me a thank-you, but I’ll take the kiss anyway.”
He smiled as his lips brushed over mine once and then twice, as soft as the snowflakes falling around us. His hand held me in place as he coaxed my mouth open, teasing the seam with his tongue. Heat flowed through me, causing my muscles to tense when he flicked his tongue over the roof of my mouth.
This was the kind of thank-you kiss I could get behind.
And Jase, well, he simply didn’t just kiss. He tasted. He devoured. He promised pleasure with his lips and teased of more to come with his tongue. The boy could offer a class on kissing. He made it an art form when he drew a soft moan from the depths of my core.
“Now, come on, son. I taught you better than to kiss a pretty gal out in the cold.” His father’s voice interrupted, spreading a hot flush across my face as Jase pulled back.
“I’m keeping her warm,” Jase replied, grinning. As I turned to shield my flaming face, because there was nothing like getting caught by your boyfriend’s parents when your knees were weak from kissing, I saw the lightness in Jase’s expression, a gleam to his silver eyes that had never been there before. “Right?”
I blinked slowly and murmured, “Right.”
His father grinned. “Come on. Yer mom has Jack in the kitchen, baking cookies for Mr. Santa.”
Jase winced as he reached down and took my hand and led me up on the porch. Oh. There was the ninth reindeer, standing guard by the door. “Is it a disaster?”
“Boy, it’s about as bad as you being in the kitchen.” He turned, holding the door open for us. “So, yeah, it’s a disaster.”
I laughed at the face Jase made. “Come to think of it, I’ve never seen you cook anything besides soup from a can yet.”
His father laughed as we stepped into the house. The room smelled of cookies and evergreen. “Honey, that is not something ya’ll want to see.”
“It’s not that bad.” Jase frowned as he stripped off his jacket. “I only melted the spatula in the Rice Krispie treats once.”
“Once?” I draped my jacket off the hook of a coat rack. “I think that’s more than enough.”
“What he ain’t telling you is that he also tried to feed it to his cousins.”
I laughed at the sheepish look that crossed Jase’s face. “Oh my God, are you serious?”
“What?” He shrugged as he dragged his toboggan off. “They didn’t eat it.”
“Only because it was as hard as a brick and could have killed someone,” his father replied, smiling. “My son is a lot of damn good things, but a cook ain’t one of them.”
“Jase!” shrieked Jack from the kitchen. “Tess!”
We turned just as Jack came barreling through the dining room. “Whoa, buddy! Slow down,” Jase said, stepping forward as Jack almost head butted the dining room table. “Jack, you’re gonna—”
Sensing that Jack was about to make a kamikaze dive attempt, Jase knelt and caught his son the second he launched himself at him. He wrapped his arms around the boy, standing up. Jack clung to him, sinking his tiny hands into Jase’s hair.
“I made cookies for Mr. Santa!” Jack announced, holding fistfuls of hair. “They have chocolate in them and walnuts!”
“Is that so?” Jase turned slightly, holding his son close. My chest tightened at seeing them together. Even though Jack didn’t know the truth, you’d be hard-pressed not to see the love between them. “What about peanut butter cups? You know that’s my favorite kind.”
“We have them, too. I ate a lot of them.” Jack grinned as he put his head on Jase’s shoulder.
“A lot?” Mr. Winstead snorted. “The boy ate about half the batch.”
The grin on Jack’s face spread, and then, seeing me, he let out another squeal. “Lemme down! Lemme down!”
Smiling, Jase lowered the kid’s swinging feet to the ground. The second he landed, he took off, wrapping his arms around my legs.
“Hey,” I said, messing up his already out-of-control hair. “You excited about Santa coming?”
“Yes! Daddy said Mr. Santa would be leaving soon!” He pulled back, grabbing my hand. “Come!”
I glanced over at Jase. He smiled and shrugged, lingering back with his father as Jack tugged me through the dining room.
The kitchen was a mess. Cookie batter covered the island and the countertops. Flour was on the floor and the egg shells filled bowls, but the smell of sugar goodness had me anticipating a heavenly sugar rush.
“Lookie who I found! Lookie!”
Mrs. Winstead turned, wiping her hands along the Christmas trees lining the bottom of her red apron. “Oh, honey, I’m so glad you’re here.” She strode over to me in the same long, purposeful strides Jase made. “Look at you,” she clucked, brushing a finger along my jaw, where I knew a bruise was still fading. “How have you been, honey?”
“Good.” I smiled as Jack slipped free and climbed up on a step stool that was pushed again the counter. He sunk his hand into cookie batter. “I’m doing really good.”
“I’m happy to hear that.” Her strong arms went around me, and she nearly squeezed the air out of me. “When Jase told me what—” She glanced over to where Jack was rolling dough into balls. She lowered her voice. “I don’t want the little one to overhear, but I’m glad you’re okay and that—”her voice dropped low—“crazy son of a bitch is in jail.”
My lips twitched. “Me too.”
Mrs. Winstead shook her head sadly as she watched Jack plop a ball of batter onto a cookie sheet. “Just that poor girl . . .”
“I know.” I bit down on my lower lip. “I keep telling myself that at least there’s justice for Debbie now.”
Jack looked over his shoulder, a frown of curiosity on his cute face. “What’s justice?”
“When bad people have their comeuppance, baby. And that’s the good thing.” Mrs. Winstead smiled at me, and the lines around her eyes deepened. Her voice lowered again. “But that . . . that’s not all.”
Placing her hand on my shoulder, her chest rose with a deep, heavy breath. “I’m glad that you know—that Jase told you.”
I didn’t know what to say. All I could do was nod, and Mrs. Winstead’s smile spread as Jack snuck a piece of dough. “Jase used to do that as a little boy too,” she said, blinking rapidly. “He ate more dough raw than he did cooked.”
“That’s when it’s at its best.” My voice was surprisingly hoarse.
She patted my shoulder. “You’re good for my boy, so damn good. He hasn’t gotten close to anyone since Kari, and you’ve gotten him to open up that heart of his. I know we haven’t had a chance to really get to know each other, but for that, you’ll always be like a daughter to me.”
Oh dear, I was going to cry.
Blinking back tears, I smiled and then I laughed. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to cry.”
Jack was turned around again. “Why you sad?”
“I’m not sad,” I quickly told him, smiling for his benefit. “I’m happy, really happy.”
He took my word for it and went back to the cookie dough. I wiped at my eyes and pulled myself together. “Thank you. That means a lot to me, and I would never jeopardize him,” I said, nodding at Jack’s back. “Or Jase’s heart.”
“That’s my girl.” Her eyes turned misty, and she cleared her throat. “Now, look at me. I’m about to start shedding tears, and that ain’t gonna do us any good, not when my boy is coming right in here.”
“Hey, Mom.” Jase strode across the cluttered but homey kitchen, leaned in, and kissed his mother’s cheek. As he pulled back and glanced between us, he frowned. “Is everything okay?”
“Everything is good,” I said, smacking my hands together. “Jack is pretty busy over there.”
He glanced over at him quickly, before eyeing both of us closely. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, hon. Us gals were just chatting. All good things.” Mrs. Winstead turned, opened the oven door, and peeked in. “These are almost done.”
Appeased, Jase went over to where Jack was and snuck a ball of dough off the cookie sheet.
“Hey!” Jack giggled as Jase popped the whole thing in his mouth.
Kissing his little boy’s cheek, Jase then pivoted around, coming up behind me from around the kitchen table. He slipped his arms around my waist and hooked his hands together. “Can I steal her away now? Want to show her the tree.”
Mrs. Winstead winked at me.“Only if she wants to be stolen by you.”
“Oh, she wants to be stolen by me,” Jase replied, and I smacked his arm. He laughed. “Don’t be embarrassed.”
His mom shook her head as Jase spun around. Moving his arm to my shoulder, he led me back through the dining room. His father was no longer in the hall, and the large living room was empty.
The Christmas tree was huge and real and reminded me of home. Full of different and mismatched bulbs, the lights blinked every few seconds. Stockings hung above the fireplace.
“Look at this.” Stretching forward, he unhooked a red stocking and held it up. “What do you think?”
“Oh!” The stocking had my name on it, written in red glitter. “That’s mine? Are you serious?”
“Yes.” Jase laughed, hooking it back up. “Jack made it for you this morning.”
I don’t know what it was about the stocking with my name on it, but it made my heart swell like the Grinch’s had done. I thought it might burst.
“You like it?” he asked, sitting down on the floor with his back against the couch. Tugging on my hand, he waited until I sat. “I’m thinking you love it.”