“I’ll come back in...what do you think, maybe an hour?”
“That works. Do you want sticky notes for what’s in each box or does it matter?”
“How about I number them and then you can just put the number on the back of the box?”
Within a few minutes he’d assigned each item a number.
Jenna nodded, offering him an approving smile. “She’ll love all of it.”
He was counting on that...but mostly he wanted her to know how much she meant to him...although he wasn’t altogether sure that he knew himself. He did, however, know she meant a lot.
Now that she’d been out of his life, he realized how much better it was with Trudie in it.
IF SHE HADN’T left the front porch light on, she might’ve tripped over the gifts on her doorstep. But she had left it on, and she didn’t trip over the packages.
Her heart flip-flopped in her chest because she knew the bow-topped boxes were from Knox. They had to be. Who else would’ve left it for her?
Excitement and anticipation welled up within her as she picked them up. She’d so missed their gift exchange last year. It seemed every store window she passed, every ad she saw, she thought of him. Even when she was internet surfing, she’d find things she knew he’d like.
Balancing her boxes in one arm, she went into the chilly cabin. They’d always opened the gifts together. Trudie knew they were more than just presents.
It was a return to tradition—it was also a calling card. She placed the packages on the table and crossed to the stove. She hesitated. Did she want to crank up the heat with Knox? If she accepted his gifts, she was accepting far, far more than what was beneath that fancy wrapping.
Yes. She wanted it. She wanted him. For tonight, she’d have him on her terms. They’d make that leap from friends to lovers and hope they both stayed intact. And either way it went, she wouldn’t bring regrets to the table.
Heat and desire coursed through her. She’d wanted him, dreamed of his touch. That light in his eyes she’d seen today...she should be nervous. Instead she simply felt in the grips of something hot and heavy inside her. Anticipation tightened her skin, tingled between her thighs.
She picked up her cell phone and rang him. It rolled to voice mail and disappointment flooded her. She plopped onto the sofa. She hadn’t considered him not answering. What now? It was incredibly anticlimactic, but she supposed she could hang up her half of the ornaments she and Knox had made as kids. She’d assembled the tree the night before but hadn’t gotten around to decorating. Nah.
She wandered over to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator then closed the door again. Nothing in there looked particularly appealing. She could— The text notification went off on her cell phone. She crossed the room in record time.
With Elsa now at function. Hour and a half work for you?
Jealousy, swift and hot, knifed through her. He’d make time for her when he was done with Elsa? She drew a deep breath and reminded herself that Knox was here as Elsa’s escort. And he wanted to spend the evening with Trudie after his public obligations were met. Knox was making a choice here. Trudie made her choice. She texted back.
C u then.
Her heart raced. An hour and a half? She’d drive herself insane before then. She’d have to stay busy.
An hour and a half later she’d finished decorating the tree, showered, and dressed. She’d just dragged the brush through her hair again, when he texted.
On my way.
Ten minutes later she heard the pull of his truck engine. There was no point in prevarication. She had the door opened by the time he turned the engine off.
Jessup leaped out of the cab and bounded up the steps. Knox followed in a more orderly fashion. He hesitated at her door. Trudie hesitated as well. To kiss or not to kiss? The moment passed as he followed the dog in.
Trudie closed the door behind them. With a smile he shrugged out of his jacket. Good Lord, he smelled good...and he looked even better. He wore a greenish-gray zip-up sweater with heavy trousers. It suited him—dressy, yet casual.
It took her a hot minute to realize he looked and smelled good...to escort Elsa. The insight didn’t totally ruin the moment for Trudie, but it took an edge off her glow.
“How’d it go tonight?” she said. “You look nice.” And that was an understatement. He was knee-weakeningly handsome and heat-inducingly sexy. She should’ve kissed him when he came in.
He shrugged. “It was okay. You know I’m not really into all of that. I would’ve been here a little earlier but I stopped by the cabin to change and pick up Jessup. You don’t mind that I brought him, do you? He’s been alone all afternoon and I wasn’t...” he suddenly seemed as unsure of himself as she felt “...well, I wasn’t sure how long I might be over here this evening.”
“It was fine to bring him. He’s always welcome.” She felt the smile wreathing her face. She was still stuck back on the fact that he wasn’t just looking sharp because he’d escorted Elsa. He’d changed for her, Trudie.
He studied her and the expression in his eyes left her breath in her chest. “Good Lord, you’re beautiful, Trudie.”
A flush rolled through her, leaving a dampness between her thighs. She was glad she’d opted for the long black skirt that flared slightly from the knees down and the low-cut black top shot through with threads of gold and silver. She’d brought it to wear to the Miss Chrismoose pageant but decided it could pull double duty. The expression in his eyes said it had been a good decision on her part.
Suddenly she didn’t know where to look, but she found she couldn’t sustain contact with that heated gaze without totally melting. She glanced away from him as she said, “Thanks.”
Knox nodded toward the tree in the corner. “I see you got your tree up. It looks nice.”
Tension stretched between them like a fishing line with a salmon on the other end.
He shoved his hands in his pant pockets. “So, you want to open your presents?”
Yes. And she wanted to kiss him...and be kissed by him.... All in good time.
“I don’t have yours.” She’d thought about it but she’d been busy and then she found she just wasn’t ready to take that step.
“It’s fine, Trudie.” He grinned and her world seemed to turn upside down. “And you do have a gift for me—you’re accepting these, so....” He scooped one up from beneath the tree where she’d placed them, and held it out her. “Open it.”
“Okay.” Her fingers brushed his as she took the package. That brief contact shot through her, rocking her.
Her hands weren’t quite steady as she tore into the paper, tossing aside the bow. Knox leaned against the wall, watching her. He’d watched her for nearly twenty Christmases, but this time felt different. “I’ve always loved the way you open presents—you just rip into them.”
She returned his smile as she tossed aside the paper. “Is there any other way?”
It was a candle, but not just any candle. It had been handcrafted and Alaskan wildflowers were pressed into the thick pillar.
She held it to her nose and inhaled. The faint aroma of the dried flowers was there. It smelled as good as it looked. “It’s lovely. Thank you.” Okay, she had to ask. “Did you pick it out?”
He ran his hand over his head, a sheepish expression on his face. Knox was a notoriously awful gift-buyer. Mormor had always helped him choose Trudie’s gifts. “Not exactly. I gave final approval but Jenna at the spa did the picking.”
“Oh, good. That means they’ll be nice, not weird.”
“You’re never going to let me live down the travel sewing kit, are you?”
She laughed. He’d given her a travel sewing kit for her birthday one year. “Nope.”
Rolling his eyes, he handed her the second gift. Lavender bath salts. “Thank you. I love it.”
He took a step toward her, his intent clear in the glimmer in his eyes. With a shocking disregard for her presents, she put the bath salts on the table next to her candle, her interest caught and held by his advance.
He opened his arms and she walked into his embrace. Her heart tattooing a rhythm, she simply stood there for a moment, absorbing him as his arms closed about her, pulling her into intimate contact. His heat...his strength...his scent... She rested her head against his chest and wound her arms around him, her fingers seeking his taut back muscles through his sweater. Languor replaced the frantic longing she’d known earlier.
Knox reached between them and tilted her chin up with one finger, a question in his eyes but no words coming from his lips. Maintaining the same silence, she answered him with her own eyes. He gave a slight nod of satisfaction as she slid her hand up to cup the nape of his neck with her palm.