Christmas Cheer Part 4

Blurb | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

“Let’s go sledding.”

Christine squinted against the glare coming off the snow. Joe stood on her doorstep with a bright blue, plastic sled propped against his side and an even brighter smile.

“Excuse me?”

“Come on.” He tipped his head toward the street. “At least a foot of snow fell last night. Excellent sledding snow.”

Sledding snow? There was such a thing as sledding snow? She looked past his shoulder. Sure enough the town was blanketed in the white stuff. Deep grooves were carved in the street where a few intrepid vehicles dared to venture out. Other than that, nothing was touched. Cars were merely lumps, sidewalks non-existent. A group of kids walked down the middle of the street, pulling their own sleds behind them.

Joe shifted into her line of sight and looked at her expectantly. Like a little kid. A black knit hat covered his hair, his nose was pink, his eyes sparkling as if he couldn’t wait to get out there and fly down the snow-encrusted hills.

“Come on, Christine. Just a few hours of sledding. I’ll have you back here before you know it.”

What was it with this man? Why was he determined to keep her from meeting her deadline and why was she so tempted to ignore the deadline when he was here? His enthusiasm was contagious and for one wild moment she thought about actually going with him. Of taking his hand and heading down that street to the biggest hill they could find. But just for a moment.

“I can’t,” she said, true regret in her voice, but proud of herself for sticking to her guns.

Some of the sparkle in his eyes dimmed. The smile faded just a bit and that temptation rose again. Would one afternoon make a difference? Not even an afternoon, just a few hours. A few hours in Joe’s company. Despite her resolve not to think about him, he crept into her thoughts constantly, destroying her concentration.

“Work?” he asked, making the word sound like a curse and causing her back to straighten.

“Yes, work.”

The smile was long gone and he looked at her with serious blue eyes, the sparkle turning to speculation while he held the silly sled in gloved hands. He nodded, as if coming to some conclusion.

“Okay, then. See ya around.” With a two finger salute, he turned and headed down the steps to the street.

Christine clutched the doorknob to keep herself from racing after him. Deadline. Work. They were the whole reason she was here. She picked Plinemarsh because it was a small town where tourists came in the summer. Summer. Not winter. She figured no one would be around and she’d hole up in her rented apartment and let the creativity flow. Except people were around. It wasn’t as quiet as she’d hoped and it was beginning to look like she’d left her creativity in New York. Along with her good sense.

“Wait!” The word was out before she knew what she was saying, but she couldn’t—didn’t want to—take it back.

Joe turned around and looked up at her.

“Give me a minute to get my coat and gloves.”

When he smiled, it was as bright as the snow coating the car behind him and it stole her breath more than the frigid air.

“Sure,” he said. “But wear something a little warmer than flip-flops.”

She laughed and the sound almost startled her it’d been so long since she’d laughed.

***

Joe still couldn’t believe Christine agreed to go sledding. After talking with Julie last night, he’d decided to give it one more shot. If Christine said no then he’d walk away. Some things in life were worth pursuing but sometimes you also had to know when to throw in the towel.

Of course just because she decided to venture into the sunlight didn’t mean she would go out with him, but he was patient—a trait he’d recently acquired.

She’d turned her face up to the sun and was smiling. Her riot of corkscrew curls poked out from beneath a knit cap. The cap made him laugh. Crazy bright colors with a pom pom on top and braided tails that fell over her ears. Her mittens matched and lo and behold she had actual shoes on her feet. Boots, no less.

“What changed your mind?” he asked.

She shrugged and watched two boys troop past, sleds trailing behind them. “I don’t know. The snow, I guess. I haven’t been sledding in years.”

He was a little disappointed that she hadn’t said he was the one who changed her mind, but the disappointment was slight and easily pushed away. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that she was here.

She slipped on a hidden patch of ice and he grabbed her arm to keep her from falling. She smiled up at him and for a moment he was pole-axed. His feet stopped moving while his heart thundered. Her smile, the first genuine smile he’d seen from her, transformed her normally dour expression into something beautiful.

Instead of letting go of her arm, he slipped his hand down to her mittened fingers and left it there. She didn’t look at him, didn’t acknowledge in any way that they were holding hands. Neither did she pull away.

Children’s shouts reached them before they even saw the hill and the sound brought back so many memories of sledding down this hill with his friends.

“It looked bigger when I was younger,” he said. The place was crawling with kids dragging their sleds behind them as they trudged up the slope. Parents crowded around the bottom, most of them holding steaming cups of coffee and hot chocolate. A few dogs raced up and down the hill, barking and getting in the way.

Christine shaded her eyes with her free hand and peered up the hill. “You lived here as a kid?”

“Born and raised.”

She looked at him but whatever it was she was going to say, she never said it. Did she know about him? For the first time his past made him uneasy. It wasn’t something he regretted, but just the same he wondered what she thought.

She tapped the sled with the toe of her boot and shot him a mischievous, whimsical look that got his nearly frozen blood moving. “You going to show me how this thing works?”

He smiled and headed up the hill at a fast clip. “Last one up buys coffee.” To his surprise she jogged past him, the sound of her laughter leaving him in the dust and he might have, just a little, felt his heart turn over.

***

Christine couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed so hard. Joe was playful, something she’d never encountered in the men she’d dated before. He loved to laugh and the people of Pinemarsh loved him. She lost count of the number of times women stopped to talk to him or just said hello as they walked by, toting a child or two behind them. Young and old, married and single, men and women, everyone seemed to love Joe. And he always had a nice thing to say to them, something that left them smiling.

The men Christine dated had been more like her, driven to succeed, worried about their smart phones in case they missed that one important call.

Occasionally she thought about her project and a smidgen of guilt would shadow her day, but Joe seemed to sense those moments and pulled her from them, whether it was a snowball aimed at her head or a breath-taking run down the steep hill.

She hadn’t realized how long they’d been sledding when he finally pulled her aside and offered her a cup of steaming hot chocolate from a thermos she didn’t even know he had. Gratefully she sipped the warm beverage and looked over the once pristine, snow-capped hill that was now furrowed with hundreds of runner tracks, green and brown grass poking through the snow.

Her wandering gaze landed on Joe and she almost bobbled her hot chocolate when she discovered he wasn’t looking at the scenery but at her. Those bright blue eyes that held nothing but laughter all afternoon were now seriously regarding her.

“What?”

“Nothing.” He blew on his hot chocolate, causing steam to billow up, obscuring his face.

Feeling more content than she had in a long time, and more sore than she’d ever been before, she smiled. His eyes darkened to a deeper blue.

“Thanks,” she said. “For forcing me out here. I had fun.” Her voice held a tinge of regret that the day was over and her thoughts turned to the mound of work waiting for her in the empty apartment. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to rent the place. She’d hoped to get away from her life so she could concentrate. If she landed this deal, she was guaranteed a promotion. It was everything she wanted, everything she’d worked toward since she entered high school and understood that hard work rewarded you with a full stomach and a constant roof over your head. Everything depended on successful completion of this project.

And here she was playing in the snow with a man who couldn’t take life seriously.

She tossed her empty cup in the trashcan. “I should get back.”

Joe caught her hand and held it. This wasn’t the first time he’d touched her today and there were several layers of gloves and mittens between them but she couldn’t help but feel warmth where they touched. “Don’t go. Not yet. Have dinner with me.”

She drew in a breath, so tempted. Yes, Joe Rossi was a kid at heart with seemingly no direction in life. He was the total opposite of what she wanted in a boyfriend, but let’s face it, she wasn’t here for a boyfriend and she wouldn’t be around for much longer. A week at most. If she got her butt moving and worked instead of played. Which wasn’t happening at the moment.

“Don’t say no.” His fingers tightened around hers. “Not yet.” He pulled her closer and she allowed it. When it came to this man she had no strength of will. He zapped it out of her with his magnetic eyes and bright smile. That should have raised red flags—did raise red flags—but she didn’t seem to care.

Inches separated them. Their breaths blew steam that mingled and drifted away. His nose and cheeks were red and his knit cap was pulled down to his brows but strands of black hair peeked from beneath.

He moved his head closer and suddenly they were kissing. His lips were cold but his tongue was warm from the hot chocolate. He wrapped his arms around her and drew her to him and she stood on her tip toes because she didn’t want to miss any of this kiss. His gloved hands cupped her cheeks, warming them, scorching them, and he pulled away to kiss her nose before resting his forehead against hers. He looked into her eyes and there was no hint of amusement or laughter.

“Have dinner with me, Christine.”

“Why?” The question was a loaded one but he seemed to realize that.

“Because I like you. A lot. And I want to get to know you.”

She should pull away, step back, disengage, but found she couldn’t. “This isn’t a good idea.”

“Tell me why over dinner.”

They both smiled. “You’re incorrigible.”

“Not the first time I’ve been accused of that. Say yes. Let me cook for you.”

She sighed, helpless to say no. Helpless when it came to this man. “Dinner. But then I have to get back to work.”

He stepped away and immediately she missed his heat. Not because it was cold, but because she missed the comfort and security she found when she was near him. She dismissed that thought. She of all people knew comfort and security didn’t come from people but rather things—like a home and clothes and food.

He didn’t let go of her hand as they walked back to their apartments. She was a little saddened to see that the plow trucks had been down their streets, leaving large mounds, dirty and gray.

She turned to head up to her apartment, her mind on what she was going to wear. She’d only brought comfy clothes because she never intended on going out to dinner with anyone. Especially anyone like Joe.

This was a bad idea. No good would come of this and she could think of about a dozen bad things that would come of it. Like she’d miss her deadline because she was spending too much time with Joe.

Just as she was thinking that maybe she should decline his dinner invitation he gently tugged her past her apartment and toward his.

“Oh, no you don’t. No way am I leaving you alone. You’ll just think of ways to not have dinner with me.”

Christmas Cheer Part 1

Christine pounded on the door for the third time. She shifted from foot to foot and rubbed her arms. Geez, but it was cold out here. She’d run out of her apartment—or rather, she stomped out of her apartment—so angry, she hadn’t thought that it might be below freezing.

She blew out a breath which immediately puffed into a frozen cloud and drifted away. Laughter erupted from inside and she pounded on the door again. She was all for having a good time and understood it was the holidays, but this was ridiculous. Nearly every night her neighbor had some sort of party going on with the loudest music. How was a girl supposed to get any work done if she couldn’t hear herself think?

She stamped her foot and looked down at her toes. Maybe flip-flops weren’t the best footwear this time of year.

Suddenly the door opened. Startled, she stepped back.

He stood in the doorway. Her noisy neighbor who partied every evening.

Leaning a shoulder against the doorframe, his chrystal blue eyes lazily looked her up and down. Messy, black-as-night hair fell over his forehead, hiding the dark slashes of his brows. One hand was shoved into the pocket of very worn, very well-fitting jeans while the other negligently held a beer bottle. A black t-shirt stretched across an impressive chest and was tucked into the loose waistband of those worn jeans.

This wasn’t exactly what she pictured when she’d been told her neighbor was the chef of the town’s only Italian restaurant.

“Yes?” One of those black brows rose.

Get a grip, Christine. It doesn’t matter what he looks like, only that he turns the volume down on this party.

“I’m Christine. I live next door.” She pointed to her door, as if he didn’t know. Which was stupid because she was his only next door neighbor.

His brows lowered and he took a sip of beer, his gaze sweeping over her. Those penetrating eyes made her squirm, reminding her that her toes were nearly frozen. Damn it! She wouldn’t be losing limbs if he’d just keep the noise to a dull roar.

“I’m Joe.”

Lord above but his voice was nice. She cleared her throat. “Pleased to meet you.”

A corner of his mouth lifted and amusement danced in those light blue eyes. “Pleased to meet you, too.”

“Hey, Joe, it’s your turn.” A long-legged woman stepped up next to him and he flung his arm around her shoulders. She looked Christine up and down, frowning at the flip-flops.

“I’ll be right in, Julie.” He kissed her on the temple and she disappeared back into the apartment, leaving her disapproval of Christine’s footwear hovering in the frigid air.

Christine shifted again, trying to get the blood flowing to her toes.

“What can I do for you, Christine?”

How was it that he made that innocent question sound not so innocent? And why was it that suddenly she didn’t want it to be innocent? Focus, Christine. Right, the music. Her work. Her deadline. Sheesh, how could she forget her deadline?

A burst of laughter had her glancing over his shoulder. His apartment was like hers in layout but nothing like hers in design. He’d decorated in dark colors, maroons and browns, forest greens and beiges, making it warm and homey. Lit candles littered various surfaces and the dining room table nearly groaned with the food piled on it.

Her stomach growled, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten in… She couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten. Sometime today. Maybe.

“Would you like to come in? You’re looking cold. And I think you’re hungry.”

He made her sound like an abandoned puppy. “No, thanks. I just wanted to ask if you could possibly turn the music down.” Way to be firm, Christine. Could you sound a little less timid?

He straightened from the doorframe, his movements leisurely. She got the feeling that everything Joe did was leisurely. There seemed to be no hurry in him.

“Sorry if it bothered you.”

She waved her hand in the air, suddenly feeling like a shrew. “Not a problem. I just have a lot of work to do and the music makes it hard to concentrate.”

He looked her up and down again. She hadn’t checked in the mirror before leaving the house so she was probably a mess, but she resisted the urge to touch her hair and straighten her oversized sweatshirt.

“Sure you don’t want something to eat? We have plenty.”

She took another look at that table full of food and thought of the box of cookies and the jar of peanut butter in her cupboard. “No, but thanks. I, uh…” She waved her hand vaguely toward her apartment. The apartment that seemed absolutely perfect when she rented it but now seemed a little cold and a lot empty.

Deadline!

Right. Her deadline. That’s why she needed the cold and empty apartment.

Joe stuck out his hand and for a moment she looked at it in confusion. “Sorry you had to run over to tell me to turn down the music. Sometimes I forget there’s a boarder next door.”

Boarder. That was what she was. The boarder he forgot about. Somehow that didn’t sit right with her but she took his hand anyway and shook it, refusing to give any thought to how warm his fingers were.

“I’ll turn it down.”

She looked up at him. “Turn it down?”

He smiled and holy cow, what a smile it was. Dimples on either side of his mouth and white, white teeth against olive skin. Mother Nature sure knew what she was doing when she made this man.

“The music,” he said. “I’ll turn down the music.”

Picture prompt

I’m new-ish to this blogging thing. Kinda. What I mean is that I had a blog a long while back and abandoned it only to decide recently to pick it up again. My problem is coming up with ideas. Or at least ideas that are interesting to other people, because, you know, the purpose of a blog is to draw people in.

Anywho, all of this led to me do a Google search for blog post topics. Because I was procrastinating and didn’t really want to write or read. I came across this amazing site. Its a picture prompt. Every day they post a new picture and its supposed to get your creative juices flowing, I guess.

So I saw this picture and I think you’re supposed to write about what Christmas means to you, but that wasn’t what I saw when I looked at the picture. Immediately a story started to take shape and I thought to myself, “What a cool blog post. What if I post a picture and write a little blurb about it then ask other people what they see in the picture.” Slowly the idea took shape (over about a 10 minute period) and then I thought “What if I give my readers a Christmas gift. A story. Written totally off the cuff and posted in segments. Now that idea I tossed around for a good while. Do I have the time to write something like this? Do I have the energy? It’s the holiday season, after all, which means I have to juggle my outside job, my writing job and all the holiday stuff that comes along. But Joe and Christine wouldn’t let me abandon them. So (deep breath), here goes…

by Sharon Cullen

The holidays have arrived. The town is decked out in all its red and green glory, the streets are a slushy, gray mess and the snow just keeps coming. Bah-humbug. Or at least that’s how Christine feels. She could do without Christmas. While people are caroling and drinking their egg nog, she’s trying to finish up the biggest project of her career. If successful, it will launch her into the stratosphere of the marketing world. To accomplish her goal and finish her project by New Years day, she escapes to Pinemarsh. The place where people take their summer vacations–not their Christmas vacations. She fully expects peace and quiet. What she gets is something entirely different. The rental agency conveniently forgot to tell her that her cozy apartment with the view of the lake and the twinkling lights of the city one stop light is situated right above an Italian restaurant. A very noisy, very busy Italian restaurant owned by a very hot Italian chef.

Joe Rossi loves food, loves his family, loves a good laugh and a good beer–and not necessarily in that order. He spent nine very long, very stressful years as head chef in one of New York’s best Italian restaurants. He was touted as the most promising chef to come along in years. He’s published eleven cook books and even discussed having his own show on Food Network. Good things were happening to Joe but when the stress got to be too much and an accident nearly took his life, he knew he had to reevaluate and slow down. So he moved back home, to the place where it all began. The most laid-back, total-opposite-of-New York he could get. In Pinebluff he can create to his heart’s content and make his own hours.

The only burr in his side is his grumpy, but  beautiful neighbor who rarely smiles and barely says hello. In Christine, Joe sees his old self which makes him all the more grateful for what he has. Determined to spread his holiday cheer Joe decides Christine’s world needs a little less work and a little more fun and he’s appointed himself as just the man to do it.

Stay tuned for Part 1 of Joe and Christine’s story…