Several minutes passed and then he nodded. “Okay.”
“Okay,” I whispered.
He opened the car door and a blast of cold air rushed in. I did the same, pulling my gloves out of my pocket as he grabbed the poinsettias we’d picked up at the nearby grocery store on the way to the cemetery.
My boots crunched over the frozen grass and light snow as I joined him on the other side of the Jeep. He stopped and glanced down at me. The uncertainty and vulnerability in his expression tore at my heart. With his free hand, unprotected from the elements, he reached between us. I immediately gave him my gloved hand. Through the wool, the weight of our joined hands seemed to give him strength to move forward.
We were silent as we passed the stones, and I tried not to think of Debbie’s funeral and how Erik had blamed me for her death in front of the entire procession, but it was hard. She was buried here too, but on the other side of the main road.
Cemeteries were supposed to be peaceful, but the stillness—the utter lack of life—always gave me the creeps. Today was different though. As we got near the great oak, I wasn’t thinking of the Night of the Living Dead or the fact there were a whole bunch of bodies under our feet.
I was only thinking about Jase and how hard this was for him.
When Jase suddenly stopped, I knew we were at Kari’s grave. Following his gaze, I drew in a shallow breath.
The gravestone was made of polished, gray marble and the head was shaped in a heart. An angel praying had been engraved in the stone, and below the kneeling figure was the name Kari Ann Tinsmen, and the birth and death dates were unfairly close.
This was her. No face. No body. Her whole life was summed up in the calligraphy below the dates, Loving sister, daughter, and mother, asleep with the angels.
A knot formed in my throat. Kari never really had a chance to be a mother. Hell, she really hadn’t the chance to be any of those things.
Jase shook his head slowly as he stared at the gravesite. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what he was thinking. Probably a little of everything as he stood there, going through their short life together.
A lot of things Jase had said in the past made sense now. How he’d sworn that beautiful things could come from tragedy. He’d known that firsthand. An unexpected pregnancy had given him Jack, and a tragic death had pushed him in the right direction.
The same could be said about losing the ability to dance. I hoped that through teaching, I could actually make a difference in the world and wasn’t that why people became teachers? Sure as hell wasn’t for the money. The reasoning was deeper than that, more substantial. Teachers molded the future. Dancers entertained. And it wasn’t like I would never be a part of that world again. I had my goal of getting Avery back in the studio and could help out with the really young dancers if I wanted to.
And I wanted to.
That’s the thing about death that makes it useful. Death was always a reminder to the living to live—to live in the present and to look forward to the future.
“She was a really . . . good girl,” he said finally, breaking the silence.
My smile felt watery. “I’m sure she was.”
He stared at the tombstone for a stretch. In his hand, the red poinsettias petals trembled. I doubted it was from the bitter cold. “She loved winter and the snow.” He paused, throat working as he looked up. Flakes of the white stuff fell in heavier patches. His words were thick as he spoke again. “This is kind of fitting, I think.”
I watched a rather large snowflake come to rest on the curve of the marble stone.
Jase drew in a deep, shuddering breath. “I think Jack gets that from her. You know, the love of winter. It’s his favorite season. Might be because of Christmas, but I like to think it’s because of her.”
I squeezed his hand. “Winter isn’t a bad season.”
One side of his lips moved up. “I’m a summer kind of guy.” He eased his fingers free from mine and stepped forward. Kneeling down, he placed the pretty red flowers at the base of her headstone.
Silent, I watched him tug off his toboggan and bow his head and I didn’t know if he was praying or if he was talking to Kari. Either way, I felt like I was eavesdropping; it was such an intimate, sad moment.
Blinking away tears, I fixed my gaze on the tree and swallowed hard. Snow coated the bare branches, causing the thin tips to turn down at the edges.
When Jase returned to my side, he’d pulled the toboggan back on and the tip of his nose looked as red as mine felt. “Do you mind if we stay for a few more moments? I know it’s freezing and you can wait—”
“I’m okay.” If he wanted to stay here for a month, I’d be right beside him. “We can stay as long as you want.”
“Thank you.” His spine lost some of its stiffness as he draped his arm over my shoulders. Tugging me against the shelter of his body, he rested his cheek against the top of my head and sighed. “Thank you for being here with me.”
The Winstead farm was decked out.
It looked like Santa threw up holiday cheer all over the grounds, but in a good way. Multicolored lights covered the split-rail fence lining the driveway. Red, green, and blue twinkled off the barn, and the entire front of the house glimmered like a giant, square disco ball.
Jase chuckled as my eyes widened, which made me smile, because it was the first he’d laughed since we’d left the cemetery. “My parents go a little crazy during Christmas, especially because of Jack.”
A little? There was an inflatable Santa sitting off the right of the porch. On the roof, there were eight plastic reindeers. Rudolph, the ninth and most important reindeer, was MIA. A plastic Santa was perched on the chimney, complete with a bag of gifts.
There was a giant frosty snow globe, bubble thing in front of the porch. Through the large windows, I could see the lights from the Christmas trees. My parents tended to stick to the one Christmas light color theme, but I liked this better. There was something warmer about the chaos of lights.
“We’re going to leave the presents in the Jeep,” he said as we climbed out. “You know, Santa hasn’t arrived yet.”
I grinned. “Santa looks a little drunk on the roof.”
He looked up and laughed as the wind caused the plastic Santa to spin on the chimney. “That’s my kind of Santa.”
I lingered at the steps, dragging my boot in the dusting of snow. “Are you sure it’s okay for me to be here?”
Shooting me a look, he placed his hands on my shoulders and lowered his head so that we were eye level. “Of course. Mom and Dad are happy that you’re spending Christmas Eve with us, and they know you know the truth.” He smoothed a hand over my head and tucked my hair back behind my ear. “I think they’re more excited about you being here than me.”
I laughed. “That’s because I’m pretty damn amazing to have around.”
“That’s true.” Jase slanted his head, and his warm breath danced over my lips. I shivered, and his lips curled up. “Thank you for today. Seriously. I can’t say it enough. I don’t think I’d have been able to do it without you.”
I leaned forward and stretched up a little, brushing my cold nose against his. “You would’ve done it with or without me, but I’m glad I could be there. Really.” Having left my gloves in the Jeep, I placed my bare hand against his cheek, loving the feel of the slight stumble against my palm. “Are you okay?”
His thick lashes swept down. “You know, I didn’t think I’d feel any different, but I do. It’s not huge, but I feel good about it.” He placed his hand over mine as his other curved around the nape of my neck. “I think I owe you a thank-you kiss.”
“You don’t owe me a thank-you, but I’ll take the kiss anyway.”
He smiled as his lips brushed over mine once and then twice, as soft as the snowflakes falling around us. His hand held me in place as he coaxed my mouth open, teasing the seam with his tongue. Heat flowed through me, causing my muscles to tense when he flicked his tongue over the roof of my mouth.
This was the kind of thank-you kiss I could get behind.
And Jase, well, he simply didn’t just kiss. He tasted. He devoured. He promised pleasure with his lips and teased of more to come with his tongue. The boy could offer a class on kissing. He made it an art form when he drew a soft moan from the depths of my core.
“Now, come on, son. I taught you better than to kiss a pretty gal out in the cold.” His father’s voice interrupted, spreading a hot flush across my face as Jase pulled back.
“I’m keeping her warm,” Jase replied, grinning. As I turned to shield my flaming face, because there was nothing like getting caught by your boyfriend’s parents when your knees were weak from kissing, I saw the lightness in Jase’s expression, a gleam to his silver eyes that had never been there before. “Right?”
I blinked slowly and murmured, “Right.”
His father grinned. “Come on. Yer mom has Jack in the kitchen, baking cookies for Mr. Santa.”
Jase winced as he reached down and took my hand and led me up on the porch. Oh. There was the ninth reindeer, standing guard by the door. “Is it a disaster?”
“Boy, it’s about as bad as you being in the kitchen.” He turned, holding the door open for us. “So, yeah, it’s a disaster.”
I laughed at the face Jase made. “Come to think of it, I’ve never seen you cook anything besides soup from a can yet.”
His father laughed as we stepped into the house. The room smelled of cookies and evergreen. “Honey, that is not something ya’ll want to see.”
“It’s not that bad.” Jase frowned as he stripped off his jacket. “I only melted the spatula in the Rice Krispie treats once.”
“Once?” I draped my jacket off the hook of a coat rack. “I think that’s more than enough.”
“What he ain’t telling you is that he also tried to feed it to his cousins.”
I laughed at the sheepish look that crossed Jase’s face. “Oh my God, are you serious?”
“What?” He shrugged as he dragged his toboggan off. “They didn’t eat it.”
“Only because it was as hard as a brick and could have killed someone,” his father replied, smiling. “My son is a lot of damn good things, but a cook ain’t one of them.”
“Jase!” shrieked Jack from the kitchen. “Tess!”
We turned just as Jack came barreling through the dining room. “Whoa, buddy! Slow down,” Jase said, stepping forward as Jack almost head butted the dining room table. “Jack, you’re gonna—”
Sensing that Jack was about to make a kamikaze dive attempt, Jase knelt and caught his son the second he launched himself at him. He wrapped his arms around the boy, standing up. Jack clung to him, sinking his tiny hands into Jase’s hair.
“I made cookies for Mr. Santa!” Jack announced, holding fistfuls of hair. “They have chocolate in them and walnuts!”
“Is that so?” Jase turned slightly, holding his son close. My chest tightened at seeing them together. Even though Jack didn’t know the truth, you’d be hard-pressed not to see the love between them. “What about peanut butter cups? You know that’s my favorite kind.”
“We have them, too. I ate a lot of them.” Jack grinned as he put his head on Jase’s shoulder.
“A lot?” Mr. Winstead snorted. “The boy ate about half the batch.”
The grin on Jack’s face spread, and then, seeing me, he let out another squeal. “Lemme down! Lemme down!”
Smiling, Jase lowered the kid’s swinging feet to the ground. The second he landed, he took off, wrapping his arms around my legs.
“Hey,” I said, messing up his already out-of-control hair. “You excited about Santa coming?”
“Yes! Daddy said Mr. Santa would be leaving soon!” He pulled back, grabbing my hand. “Come!”
I glanced over at Jase. He smiled and shrugged, lingering back with his father as Jack tugged me through the dining room.
The kitchen was a mess. Cookie batter covered the island and the countertops. Flour was on the floor and the egg shells filled bowls, but the smell of sugar goodness had me anticipating a heavenly sugar rush.
“Lookie who I found! Lookie!”
Mrs. Winstead turned, wiping her hands along the Christmas trees lining the bottom of her red apron. “Oh, honey, I’m so glad you’re here.” She strode over to me in the same long, purposeful strides Jase made. “Look at you,” she clucked, brushing a finger along my jaw, where I knew a bruise was still fading. “How have you been, honey?”
“Good.” I smiled as Jack slipped free and climbed up on a step stool that was pushed again the counter. He sunk his hand into cookie batter. “I’m doing really good.”