Bonus Scene: Christmas Eve
Note: This contains spoilers for Bake Off
A gentle snow fell as I drove to Maddie’s house. I was nervous, but it had nothing to do with the weather. It was Christmas Eve, and I’d be headed to Memphis first thing tomorrow morning. Sure, I was anxious about seeing my family after being gone for four months, but that wasn’t what had me on edge now.
I was nervous about Maddie’s gift.
We were still new. We’d only been officially seeing each other for a couple of weeks, but I felt a connection to her like I’d never felt with another woman. While we’d both agreed to take things slow, I was struggling to follow the rules I’d been the one to set. Something about her brought a peace I craved, and I only felt it when I was with her.
That terrified me.
Did I need her more than she needed me?
My new therapist, who also agreed we should take things slow, told me that fear could be good, healthy even. The unknown is scary, and while thought of my future with Maddie held a lot of promise, part of me was worried it would all crash and burn. The closer I got to her, the harder it would be to recover.
But life was about risks, and on the scale of safe bets, Maddie was probably as good as it could get. She was kind and thoughtful and nothing like my ex-fiancée, Monica. She was someone I could easily see myself spending the rest of my life with.
So I focused on the good, the possibilities, the promise of a life with Maddie and accepted that while the worst could happen, it might not. My therapist convinced me that fear had held me back most of my life—part of why I’d stayed with my ex even though it had felt wrong. Fear of change. Fear of disappointing my mother. I needed to let go of my fear and embrace the possibilities. Of course, it was one thing to recognize my patterns and another to change them completely, but I planned to make the effort. Maddie was worth it.
Which is why I got her a Christmas gift.
I pulled up in front of her aunt’s Victorian home, Cabbage Rose House, which Maddie had belonged to her family for generations. I knew she was worried about maintaining it. Their ancient furnace had gone out last week, and she’d had to dig into her aunt’s savings to replace it. With Aunt Deidre’s growing medical bills from her dementia, and getting shot two weeks before, it was just one more worry Maddie had to deal with.
My first thought was how I could make her life easier. I wanted to help her with her burdens, but there was little I could do. Maybe that was part of the reason I bought the gift. Or maybe I just wanted to show her how much I cared about her. But what if she thought was too much?
I walked up to the porch with my hands stuffed in my pocket. My fingers curled around the small box, and I tried not to crush the bow and crinkle the Tiffany blue wrapping paper.
The front door opened when I was halfway to the porch. Maddie stepped out, wearing jeans and a red turtle neck sweater. Her dark hair was long and loose, and her cheeks were rosy from either the cold or physical exertion. Since she’d just stepped outside, I was worried it was from the latter. She was supposed to take it easy since she was still recovering from the gunshot wound to her shoulder.
Then again, Maddie didn’t believe in taking it easy.
“Hey,” she said softly as I climbed the porch steps, nearly tripping since I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off her. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” I said, drawn to her like a magnet. I gathered her in my arms and stared down at her, taking the sight of her in. I’d seen her two days ago, but it felt like a week. “Have you been taking it easy?”
“Christmas Eve dinner didn’t cook itself,” she said with a twinkle in her eyes.
“We could have ordered out, Maddie.” In fact, I’d suggested, offering to pay for part of it, and she’d refused.
She laughed. “Sacrilege. Besides, Aunt Deidre helped cook, and so did Mallory.”
“I would have come sooner to help, but I was finishing up my reports before I take off next week.”
She lifted up on her tiptoes and gently brushed her lips against mine, then sank back down, her warm gaze still on my face. “I didn’t overdo it, and while I would have loved to have you here, I’m glad you finished everything up so you can enjoy your week off.”
I still found it shocking that she meant it. Monica might have said that because it was what she was supposed to say but would have been seething under the surface, making little digs to contradict herself, but I could read Maddie better than I ever had Monica, and it was clear that Maddie wanted me to enjoy my time with my family.
Still, a hint of sadness filled her eyes. “I want you to go, but I’ll still miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too.” I’d considered cutting the trip shorter because, in all honesty, I’d rather spend my week off with Maddie than with my parents in Memphis. But my therapist thought it would be good to spend some days away from her, especially since my heart wasn’t on board with the take-it-slow plan. It would be a good test to see if proximity made me eager to speed things up or if I really liked her that much. I knew the answer to that, but I could also see the wisdom behind it.
Maddie lifted her good hand to my cheek, her thumb lightly stroking the stubble on my chin.
“We should get you inside,” I said huskily. I didn’t trust myself not to kiss her senseless on her front porch.
“Give me a moment,” she said softly. “It’s going to be a little crazy once we go inside, and I want to soak you in before I send you away later.”
That was my undoing. I gently pulled her to my chest, careful not to jostle her and her wound. I kissed her softly at first, but the little sound of contentment she made sent a jolt through my veins. I needed more of her. This wasn’t enough. Not even close.
I did what I swore I wouldn’t do only moments ago, snaking my fingers through her hair and tilting her head back as I thoroughly kissed her.
She clung to me, kissing me back with a hunger that matched mine.
To hell with waiting. I was ready to take Maddie back to my house and sleep with her now and for the rest of our lives.
“Don’t mind me,” an amused woman’s voice I recognized called out from the bottom of the porch. “Did I mention I’m a voyeur?”
I pulled away to find Chrissy, Maddie’s coworker from Deja Brew, grinning slyly up at us. Her dark hair was a sharp contrast to her pale complexion, and while she was usually dour, right now, she was grinning, albeit with a malevolent look.
I wasn’t worried. I’d figured out weeks ago that Chrissy’s tough persona was a mask to protect herself from the world. Maybe it took a fellow mask-wearer to know.
“You are not,” Maddie said with a laugh as I pulled away from her but kept an arm looped around her back. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t have announced your presence.”
“Or maybe I didn’t want to watch you and Detective Americano eat each other’s faces. It’s like watching family make out. Gross.” She brushed past us and walked through the front door as though she lived there.
Maddie laughed. “She’s not a voyeur.” She paused. “At least I don’t think she is…”
I didn’t really care one way or the other. As long as Chrissy wasn’t a peeping tom, she was welcome to live her sex life the way she chose as long as all parties involved were consenting. Besides, I was still stuck on her calling Maddie and me family.
My chest bloomed with warmth. I liked the sound of that. Maybe a little too much.
“I suppose we should go inside,” Maddie said, gazing up at me with a mixture of longing and affection that stole my breath.
I could only stare at her and take her like she’d taken me in moments ago. I had no doubts I could love this woman. If I was honest with myself, I was already halfway there.
“Oh good,” Margarete, Maddie’s next-door neighbor, said as she walked around the corner of the porch holding a platter wrapped in foil. “I was worried about knocking while holding this tray of ham. You can let me in.”
Maddie stepped away from me with a little sigh, then opened the door.
At least I wasn’t the only one reluctant to end the moment.
The next two hours were spent with dinner and wine, laughter and some Christmas carols sung badly by half the participants. Nearly twenty people filled Cabbage Rose House—many of them Maddie’s coworkers from Deja Brew, including her boss, Petra. Lance stopped by as Mallory was bringing dessert out from the kitchen, and when she teased him about his timing, he teased back that he’d shown up for the most important part. Somewhere along the course of the night, they made plans to go out for New Year’s Eve.
Aunt Deidre had moments of confusion, but she loved that the house was full of life. Maddie seemed enthralled by it too, but I could tell she was getting tired, and I suggested we put on our coats and sit on the porch swing for a few moments so she could take a moment to rest.
We slipped out unnoticed, and when we sat down, I wrapped my arm around her back and pulled her to my side. I loved the way the top of her head fit under my chin. I loved the way she placed her hand under my coat, over my heart, so she could keep it warm. And I loved how perfectly she fit against me like we were made for each other. I’d felt this before, but it was even more intense tonight, and I knew that I wanted this woman in my life forever.
I was even more acutely aware of the wrapped box in my pocket.
“Maddie,” I said softly. “Besides giving you a breather from the festivities, I had an ulterior motive for bringing you out here.”
She grinned up at me with a mischievous twinkle, then kissed me. “I like the way you think.”
I grinned back. “I’ll take any excuse I can to kiss you, but that’s not the reason why.”
Sitting back slightly, she lifted a brow. “Oh?”
I slipped my hand into my pocket and pulled out the square box, wrapped in Tiffany blue with a white satin ribbon. “I got you a Christmas gift.”
Her delight quickly changed to horror. “Noah, I didn’t get you anything. I would have, but—”
I leaned close and kissed her into silence. When I pulled back, I said, “I didn’t expect you to. We’ve only been officially dating a couple of weeks, but I saw this and knew I had to get it for you.” Which was technically true. Only I’d found it while I was specifically looking for something to show her how I felt.
She took it from my outstretched hand and untied the ribbon. “Please tell me you didn’t get this from Tiffany’s.”
I just smiled at her.
“Noah,” she protested. “That store’s expensive. You shouldn’t have spent so much money.”
My heart was beating like a hummingbird’s. Jewelry was a personal thing, and there was a chance she wouldn’t like it. “Finish unwrapping it and open the box.”
She carefully unwrapped the paper, setting it aside before lifting the lid. She gasped, delight washing over her face.
I’d never felt more relieved in my life. Well, maybe that wasn’t entirely true. That moment had been two weeks ago when I’d realized she’d been shot but hadn’t been killed topped the list.
“It’s beautiful.” She lifted a finger to touch the gold heart hanging from a delicate chain. Her gaze lifted again, filled with unshed tears.
My heart felt close to bursting with affection for her. “I know we’re still new, but you have my heart, Maddie. Both literally and figuratively.”
She threw an arm around my neck and hugged me tight for several long seconds, the box still in her hand. “You have mine too.”
Leaning back, I cradled her chin under my finger. “I’d rather stay with you than go to Memphis. If you’ll let me be a part of your Christmas plans.”
“Noah,” she said, breathless. “You are always welcome here, but your mother will be so disappointed if you don’t go.”
A sudden fear gripped my heart, squeezing and making it difficult to breathe. “I feel like I shouldn’t go.”
“Why?” she asked, searching my face. “Are you worried about seeing your dad?”
“No,” I lied, then hated myself for doing it. I didn’t want any lies between us. “Actually, yeah. We didn’t part on good terms. He accused me of running from my problems and…” I made a face. “We haven’t spoken since.”
“You’re not going for your dad. You’re going to see your mom, your sister, and your niece and nephew. Kids grow up fast, Noah. Four months is a long time.” A small smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “Besides, your mom is still upset you didn’t make it home for their fortieth wedding anniversary party.”
I didn’t respond. She was right about all of it, but something in my gut told me that we were new enough that we were still fragile. Some irrational fear told me that this trip home could ruin us. But that was ridiculous. I knew how I felt about Maddie, and she’d encouraged me to go. She’d lost her own mother. She couldn’t fathom me not wanting to see mine. And I did want to see Mom. It was my father I was avoiding.
I kissed her, needing to be reminded that she was mine now.
“I’m not going anywhere, Noah,” she murmured against my lips. “I’ll be here waiting.”
I kissed her again because something deep inside me needed her. She had a healing spirit that made me excited to spend the rest of my life with her. I may have only known her for less than two months, but I knew I’d be crazy to let her go.
“Help me put it on,” she said as she leaned back, taking the necklace from the velvet-lined box. I took it from her and unfastened the clasp as she turned her back to me and lifted her hair. I carefully draped the chain around her neck, then secured the clasp. I traced the long line of her neck, then pressed my lips below her ear.
She let out a tiny gasp that shot straight to my groin.
Why were we taking things slow?
It had seemed like a good idea when I’d made the rule. I’d consider breaking it now—Maddie willing, of course—but my therapist would disagree with this plan. She already thought my gift was rushing things. No need to prove she was right.
Maddie turned to face me, her fingers toying with the pendant. “I’m going to miss you, Noah.”
“I should stay with you.”
Her face lit up with a sad smile. “No, you need to go. Besides, we’re going to spend New Year’s together. But if things get awkward there, then come home. I’ll be here waiting. You always have a place here with me, Noah.”
My heart was counting on that.
September 26, 2023
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