Chapter Five:

Dressed in her favorite red flannel pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt pilfered from Jason's closet years earlier, Holly stretched out on the couch. From the stereo behind her, Frank Sinatra crooned Christmas carols. The fire crackled and popped. Warmed her face and hands. She pulled her fuzzy snowman blanket up over her shoulders and rested her head on a Santa pillow.

She had made the rounds of Christmas Eve parties. She'd laughed and caroled and joked with family and friends. She'd eaten until her stomach protested. She'd had two glasses too many of Barry's spiked pumpkin eggnog.

She was exhausted. Her face hurt from forcing a smile. Her feet hurt from too much dancing. Her heart ached from the fight with Jason. After years of keeping her wedding ring around her neck, she'd grown used to the slight weight. There were times she forgot she was even wearing it.

Why then did she feel its absence so keenly?

She squeezed her gritty eyes closed when tears threatened. She was tired of crying over damned Jason Barnes. Tired of crying on Christmas Eve. She adored him - had since she could remember. After his mother had disappeared, she'd toned down her Christmas zest for him. For a time, at least.

It was difficult. Christmas was a special holiday in the Jenkins family. A time of celebration and joy and togetherness. Not a time of grouchiness and hiding and pushing everyone away. She understood that Jason had issues and heartbreak, but there was only so much she could take. She couldn't fight the specter of his selfish bitch of a mother forever.

Five minutes with Hannah Barnes. That's all she wanted. Just five minutes.

She shouldn't have pushed. Playing Secret Santa had seemed like a good idea at first. Not even Jason Barnes could resist presents and a mystery. The party had been pushing it, though. He'd seemed to enjoy himself once she'd finished her song, but how much of it was an act? Had he just been pretending for her sake?

Ugh. She would have to apologize. Make pumpkin spice pancakes first thing in the morning and throw herself on his mercy. Blame the angry, stupid things she'd said on painkillers or the weather or temporary insanity. So what if she wanted them to give them a try? It wasn't worth losing Jason. Nothing was.

Not even Christmas.

She sighed and rolled over onto her back. The firelight cast dancing shadows on the ceiling. Mistletoe hung from the ceiling fan cord. She hadn't plugged the tree in. She'd endured too many lectures from her father about fire hazards and electrical overloads.

Her front door opened. Holly didn't move. No one was stupid enough to break into the house next door to Jason's. Even if they were, she had a 9mm in the coffee table drawer that would take care of intruders.

Most likely it was her father or brother. They stopped by on Christmas Eve to eat the sugar cookies and drink the eggnog she left on the mantle. Her father usually left a small present or tucked something in her stocking. Shawn just left crumbs and an empty glass.

She threw a hand across her face. If they thought she was sleeping, they would leave her alone. She loved her family dearly, but she wasn't in the mood for conversation. For pretending to be happy when she just wanted to pull the blanket over her head and wish for a do-over.

Booted feet approached. Stopped short of the mantle. Something rustled. The air above her shifted. She contemplated moving her arm. Maybe it was an intruder. Maybe they'd do her a favor and put her out of her misery.

"Ho! Ho! Ho!" a voice above her boomed.

Startled, she jack-knifed up. And fell off the couch. The blanket remained tangled around her feet. She banged her knees on the coffee table.

"Ho! Ho! Ho!" the voice repeated.

She glanced up. A sea of red velvet met her gaze. She blinked. Rubbed her eyes. Tilted her head back to look further up. Red velvet suit. Shiny black boots and matching belt. Red gloves. White beard. Red hat atop a head of white hair.

Santa. In her living room. Just how much rum had Barry poured in the eggnog?

"Merry Christmas," Santa greeted.

"Merry Christmas," she squeaked.

Santa leaned forward. She caught a glimpse of clear blue eyes. She knew those eyes. She'd been losing herself in them for years.

Jason Barnes. The Scrooge Sheriff of Yates County. Dressed up as Santa.

Had Barry laced the eggnog with LSD?

Had she hit her head when she'd fallen off the couch.

Was Doc wrong? Had she started bleeding internally and fallen into a coma? Was septicemia making her delirious?

"I think," she said, voice distant, "that I've finally lost my mind."

Santa-Jason laughed. With two hands on her waist, he lifted her back onto the couch. She wrapped the blanket around her shoulders and clutched it like a lifeline.

"I had you on my naughty list," Santa-Jason said. "Nothing but a sack of coal for you, Miss Jenkins."

Of course. He'd come to continue their argument. Tell her that she'd gone too far and they were done. In every way. But why the costume?

"Fortunately, someone intervened. You have quite the advocate in Sheriff Barnes. Handsome man. Very kind. Generous. Forgiving," Santa-Jason continued.

"Egotistical," she muttered.

Santa-Jason glared. "Keep that up, and you'll get the coal."

She'd given Jason coal one year. A bag of charcoal briquettes. He'd ignored the joke and grilled steaks for New Year's Eve. It was the last time she'd put any actual thought into his presents until she'd come up with the Secret Santa idea.

"Sorry," she said, not feeling the least bit apologetic. The sooner he said whatever he wanted say, the sooner she could get back to her pity party.

"As I was saying, your advocate changed my mind. Gave quite the passionate defense. You're still getting coal. Just… not in the traditional form."

Santa-Jason lowered himself onto one knee. He pried Holly's hands free of the blanket. Something warm and smooth slid onto the fourth finger of her left hand. "Merry Christmas, Holly."

The ring was beautiful. Antique. Sparkling diamonds and shiny gold. And worn on Granny Barnes' hand the last time Holly had seen the older woman.

She opened her mouth to thank him. To tell him she already had a wedding ring. To apologize and tell him how much she utterly adored him. To tell him how ridiculous he looked with a crooked fake beard.

None of that came out. "Diamonds don't actually come from coal," she said, still dazed.

"You know, you're a real Debbie Downer sometimes," Jason groused. He ripped off the Santa hat , wig, and beard and flopped next to her on the couch. He automatically reached for her hand.

"Sorry," she said, meaning it this time.

"Marry me. Please."

"I already did."

"Again. Right this time. With our family and friends and the whole hullaballoo."

"Jase," she sighed, resting her head on his shoulder. The fur trim around his collar tickled her nose. Her heart wanted to say yes, but her head reminded her of how he pushed her away every Christmas. Of how he shut himself off so he wouldn't get hurt. How long until that wedge between them created a gulf they couldn't cross? "Oh, Jase."

"I want a Christmas wedding," he blurted. "I want the holiday to be full of happy memories. No more memories of someone that doesn't matter. I want it to be about us."

"Are you sure?"

"More sure than I've ever been in my life. Christmas. Me and you and the whole damn town. Gingerbread cake and eggnog and wassail and a Christmas tree at the reception."

His enthusiasm was contagious. She pictured their church decorated with greenery and ornaments. The tree in the corner and the pews draped with lights. Candles and carols and everyone she loved under one roof.

"I hear Storm's pretty good at pulling a sled. What better way to get to and from the church," Jason cajoled. "If you want, we can take him out for a test drive tomorrow afternoon."

"I'm having lunch with my family," she said. She'd stopped inviting him after high school graduation. There was only so much rejection a person could take.

"We're having lunch with your family. Granny and Dad, too. Shawn's offered to do dishes so that you and I can have that sleigh ride."

It was too much. The costume. The ring. The Christmas wedding. Lunch with her family and a sleigh ride. Tears burned her eyes. She blinked to keep them at bay.

"I'm not marrying a pod person," she warned.

"No pod person. Just a man realizing that he let a woman who abandoned him dictate his life. I should have forgotten about her the same way she forgot about me."

"She's a bitch," Holly said. It was an oft-repeated statement. Almost an automatic reaction to mention of his mother.

"Yes. And I'm not giving her another thought. She left and it hurt and it ruined Dad for a few years, but he got over it. I'm over it, too. Christmas is supposed to be a happy time." He brushed his lips across the top of her head. "And I can't be happy without you. Bit of a conundrum, you see. Only solution is that you'll have to spend every Christmas with me. Every day in-between, too."

"I'm right here. I've always been right here."

"Yes, you have." He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her fingertips. "And now I think it's time for you to be one house over."

She grinned. Warmth swirled in her belly, spread out through her limbs. "My kitchen's bigger."

"My bathroom's bigger," he countered, trailing kisses up her arm. "So is my closet."

"My bed's closer."

His laughter rumbled through her chest as he hoisted her off the couch. His long stride carried them down the hallway in record time. The lights on the small tree on her vanity bathed the room with a soft glow. Jason's eyes sparkled like sapphires.

"I love you," she said, tracing his lips with the tip of her finger.

"Bet I love you more," he teased.

"No way, bud. Not even close."

"Wanna prove it?"

Shawn Jenkins paused to shake the snow off his coat before stepping into his sister's warm house. He'd come straight from Barry's house. He hoped he'd beat his father to the eggnog and cookies. He needed something to soak up the alcohol swirling in his stomach.

Halfway to the mantle, he heard his sister say something that made him spin on his heel and rush back into the snow.

"Oh no, I think you should keep the Santa suit on."