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Authors: Rebecca Brock

Tags: #Romance

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BOOK: The Giving Season
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Groggy from the fever, Jessy nodded and closed her eyes as he pulled the covers up to her chin and tucked them around her shoulders, then curled his own body around hers. She drifted to sleep listening to the steady sound of his heartbeat, the soft hush of his breath, safe within the circle of his arms.

And it felt like the most natural thing in the world.

CHAPTER FOUR

By the time Jessy woke up the next morning, the blizzard had passed and the sun had returned with a vengeance.
Wincing at the light that streamed through the half-open curtains, Jessy was instantly aware of three things: that the television was on, soundlessly flashing manic pictures of what looked to be a Thanksgiving Day parade; that she didn’t feel like she was camping out on death’s doorstep anymore; and that she was now utterly alone in the room.

“Michael?” she said as she slowly sat up, still squinting against the glare of sunlight. She might not feel like she was dying anymore, but she wasn’t exactly bursting with energy, either. Her head alone felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. “
Michael?

No response. He was gone.

Coughing as she leaned against the headboard, Jessy closed her eyes again. So Michael had left while the leaving was good. What a shocker. She’d known all along that nobody could be
that
nice,
that
generous. Maybe he was one of those sociopathic types who liked to mess with people’s heads, building up their trust before destroying it completely. Maybe he liked to play mind-games with unattractive women, making them feel almost desirable and wanted, then annihilating their sense of self-worth.

Good thing she hadn’t fallen for that. Good thing she’d kept her wits about her and saw through his little act. Otherwise, she might be feeling disappointed right now. Or she might actually—God forbid—miss him.

She had almost managed to talk herself into believing that little spiel until she remembered how he helped her get through the night. He’d wrapped his arms around her without a moment’s hesitation, comforting her without judgment. He’d whispered soothing words into her ear, stroking her hair, until she’d finally slipped into the first good night’s sleep she’d had in years.

Yeah, good thing she hadn’t fallen for all that.

A key rattled in the lock and Michael stepped into the room, a grocery bag in each arm. Unaware of her surprised stare, he stomped the snow from his boots, humming “Jingle Bells” with unabashed enthusiasm. When he finally turned around and saw her staring at him, he grinned and closed the door with a nudge of his elbow. Jessy knew she shouldn’t be so glad to see him again, but she couldn’t help it. All at once she felt a jillion times better.

“Hey—she lives,” he said, grin growing almost impossibly wide and crinkling his eyes until they nearly disappeared. What had been merely stubble the night before was a full-fledged salt and pepper beard. “Good morning, Sleeping Beauty.”

Jessy nodded faintly. She was so sure that he’d left for good that she half-suspected she was imagining him. “Morning—”

“Happy Thanksgiving,” he said as he put down the bags and shrugged out of his jacket. He wore a red and black flannel shirt over black thermal underwear—the classic lumberjack look—and Jessy caught herself staring. She quickly looked away, but her gaze was drawn to him again despite her best efforts.

“Hope you’re hungry,” he said, oblivious to her stare. “It’s not my mom’s turkey and dressing, but—”

He snagged one of the bags and reached into it, withdrawing a loaf of bread, a package of turkey lunchmeat, bags of potato chips and pretzels, and a six-pack of soda.

“And for ze—how you zay—dessert—” he said, mangling a faux French accent as he reached into the bag one last time and pulled out a handful of candy bars. “Gas stations, by the way, are not great places to shop for Thanksgiving dinners.”

Jessy had to smile. “Looks like you did okay.”

“And for you, oh plague-ridden one—” He grinned, upending the other brown bag onto the bed beside her. Boxes and bottles of cold pills, flu pills, and cough syrups fell onto the blankets. It looked like he’d bought at least one of every cold medicine on the market. The man obviously didn’t believe in doing anything halfway.

“What did you do?” she asked, looking up to him again. The smile on his face made her toes curl. “Buy out the store?”

“I wasn’t sure about what you needed, so I didn’t take any chances.” Michael grinned and sat down on the edge of the bed, flattening his palm against her forehead. The touch of his hand did strange things to her heartbeat. “How are you feeling today?”

“Better,” Jessy smiled self-consciously. She ran a hand through her long hair, hoping to tame it into some semblance of order, and managed to meet his gaze again. “Where’d you get all this stuff?”

“There’s a little gas station about a mile down the road.” He unexpectedly reached up and brushed a strand of hair from her forehead—and that was it for her defenses. She knew herself well enough to realize when she was in trouble, and she was in serious trouble now. She liked him. She really liked him. And liking him was the absolute
last
thing she needed in her life right now.

Oh, Lord—this wasn’t good. This wasn’t good at all.

“I had a chance to talk to the bus driver on the way out,” Michael said quietly, some of his smile fading. “Want to hear the news?”

Jessy nodded silently, not quite trusting herself enough to speak.

Michael shifted forward slightly, frowning as he laced his fingers together and rested his forearms on his knees. He didn’t speak for a few seconds, staring intently at his hands instead. “The roads are clear,” he said quietly, raising his gaze to hers again. “We’ll probably be back on the highway in two or three hours.”

“I see,” Jessy said, already missing him. “So—I guess this is it, then. Isn’t it?”

“I guess so.” He took a deep breath and sighed, wrinkling his brow as he absently scratched at his cheek, looking away from her for a moment. “Jess—I’ve been thinking—”

He finally looked back to her again, trying for a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. For the first time she noticed the sadness in them, an almost weary grief that lingered even when he smiled. It was as if life had disappointed him one too many times, a feeling that Jessy knew all too well.

It was then that—as much as she hated to admit it to herself— she realized that she trusted him. It wasn’t because he was friendly and handsome. It wasn’t because of his sweet smile and charming manner. She trusted him because of his eyes, because of the sadness, the shared pain.

Oh, God—she didn’t want to have these feelings. She didn’t want to like him, didn’t want to be attracted to him—but it was too late now. She liked him. She trusted him. And she would miss him when they had to go their separate ways.

This
definitely
wasn’t good. Wasn’t good at all.

“So—” She cleared her throat quietly and forced a faint smile. “What were you thinking about?”

“To be completely honest,” Michael’s own smile fell away as he gently took her hand. “I’ve been thinking about
you
. A lot.” He laughed quietly, shaking his head at himself. “More than I probably should.”

The touch of his hand sent a ripple of shock through Jessy, but that paled compared to his words. What was
this
about?

“I have to tell you,” he said quietly, gazing at their joined hands for a moment, then back to her eyes again. “I don’t think I can go home knowing that you’re wandering around the country by yourself.”

“Michael—”

“I know, I know—it’s not real politically correct of me to even admit something like that, but I can’t help it. I just don’t like the thought of you riding around the country alone and sick.”

“I appreciate your concern, but it’s not—”

“Listen, I know it’s hard to let anybody do anything for you. Trust me. I know.” He looked into her eyes with such sincerity that Jessy’s few remaining doubts vanished. “But you can’t keep running away—”

“I’ll go home with you,” Jessy said softly.

“—because there are some good people out there who won’t hurt—” His voice trailed away as he frowned. “What did you just say?”

“I said I’ll go home with you.” Jessy could barely believe she was even saying the words, but there they were. Point of no return. She was actually agreeing to go home with Michael Forrester—a total stranger. “But just until Christmas, okay?”

“Make it New Year’s and you’ve got a deal,” he said and grinned.

Jessy studied him for a moment, not quite sure if he was serious. Despite his smile and comically arched eyebrows, Jessy knew he’d meant it when he said he would worry about her.
Why,
she didn’t understand—but her instincts were telling her to trust him, that here was someone who could be the friend she so badly needed. She knew better than to even hope that anything else could come of the relationship. Michael Forrester was willing to take her into his home as a friend, and it didn’t matter if she weighed a hundred pounds or a thousand. If there was one thing she needed more than anything right now, it was a friend.

“Okay,” Jessy said and smiled, shaking his hand. “Deal.”

“My turn already?”
Michael grinned, keeping his eyes on the slushy road as he drove. “What letter are we on?”

“You’re stalling.” Jessy ignored the scenery to look at Michael— who was far more interesting, in Jessy’s opinion, than a bunch of snowy farms. They’d been on the road since he’d rented a car at the Minneapolis bus terminal that afternoon, and now they were on the last leg of the journey. “And we’re on the letter C.”

“C, huh. Lemme see—state capital that begins with the letter C—”

“Give up anytime you feel like it.”

“Forresters do not give up.” Michael’s grin slanted as he glanced over to Jessy and winked. “We just whine and pout until we get our way.”

Jessy laughed and looked out the window as Michael tried to think of an answer. The sun was setting over the snowy plains, and for just an instant Jessy felt homesick for eastern Kentucky’s hills.

“Who thought up this goofy game, anyway?” Michael grumbled, not a bit subtle with his attempts to make Jessy smile.

He drummed his fingers against the wheel as he drove, forehead furrowing slightly as he concentrated on the road. Watching him, Jessy realized that he had the kind of good looks that would never be boring—at least, not to her. She couldn’t decide which feature she liked the most: his hang-dog, smiling eyes or his silver-laced dark hair. Or his beautiful, graceful hands. Or his wide, friendly smile—

He glanced over to her and caught her staring. Jessy managed a quick, startled smile and added one more thing to her list: his dimples. Men should not be allowed to have dimples like that.

“Charleston!” he said suddenly, a huge grin on his face. “Charleston, West Virginia—so
hah!”

Jessy laughed, forcing the lovesick thoughts to the back of her mind. “Very nice. It took long enough, but very nice anyway.”

“Thank you—I think.” He glanced away from the road again, smiling at her. “You nervous?”

“Who, me? Nervous?” Jessy laughed dismissively, then nodded, suddenly sober. “Like you would not believe.”

“Well, relax. They’ll love you.” He reached over and cupped her cheek with his hand—which might have seemed to be a romantic gesture if Jessy hadn’t known he was just checking her temperature again. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m hopped up on cold pills, but I’m okay.” Jessy smiled, missing the touch of his hand the instant he lowered it from her cheek. “I just hope I don’t infect your kids.”

“My kids are walking petri dishes. They’ll be fine.” Michael smiled and turned off the highway and onto a side road. As they passed beneath a snow-covered wooden arch, Jessy could see nothing but acres of rolling, snow-covered countryside.

“Don’t tell me
this
is the farm,” she said as she gazed out the side window, catching a glimpse of cows wandering near a huge red barn, nosing through the snow in search of grass. “Wow.”

“You flatter me.” Michael grinned as Jessy turned to him again. “But yeah, this is the farm. What do you think?”

“I didn’t expect it to be this big. Or to have so many cows.”

“We tend to have those at dairy farms,” Michael said with a teasing smile.

Jessy knew she was gaping like a tourist, but she couldn’t help it. She could almost imagine how the farm would look in the spring, with the willow trees in bloom and the rolling hills carpeted in thick green grass. When she realized that she wouldn’t be there to see the seasons change, she felt a wholly unexpected twinge of sadness. By spring she’d be far, far away from upstate Minnesota.

“And there’s the house. We’re home,” Michael said softly. Something in his voice, in the smile on his lips, touched Jessy deeply. Michael was finally home, and to him,
home
represented something that Jessy had not known for a very long time. Home meant family. Love. Home meant far more to Michael than it did to most people. His home was his life—and he had offered to share it with her, if only for a few weeks.

The realization was at once touching and overwhelming. She hadn’t known how deeply she’d yearned for a sense of home—even if it was someone else’s.

Distracted by the expression on his face, Jessy didn’t notice the house itself until Michael pulled into the horseshoe-shaped driveway—and then she couldn’t help but to stare. The Victorian house almost didn’t seem real, suited more to a storybook than a Minnesota farm. Larger than she’d expected, the place was something out of a child’s imagination, with gingerbread trim and pointed turrets and lots of oddly shaped little windows. A porch wrapped around the front of the house; rocking chairs and hanging swings and a hammock waited patiently for spring. Warm amber light spilled from the windows and onto the walkway leading up to the front steps, welcoming them home.

Michael eased the Bronco to a stop and cut the engine. “So, what do you think?” he asked quietly.

“I think this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.” Jessy smiled as she turned to him again. “It looks like a dollhouse my father made when I was a little girl.”

BOOK: The Giving Season
4.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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