Jolly Hour by Melissa Williams

6

Let’s Get Lit

Nadia

How the helldid I end up here?

I didn’t even know tree lots like this existed anymore. Not outside TV shows and movies. Yet Ajay had found one.

When I’d stupidly agreed to his secret plan, I thought we’d spend the day in bed. Ordering food and watching holiday specials or something. After our little talk about slowing down, my original plans for the day—of sorting my work email and running through projections for the New Year—were thrown out the window. I never expected him to lift me back onto my feet, slap my ass, and tell me we were going Christmas tree shopping. I thought he’d been joking.

He wasn’t.

I’d been so stunned, I’d nodded dumbly.

So here we were, rounding his car and making our way into the gated lot. His hand reaches for mine and our gloved fingers interlock. He does that a lot. Reaches for me. When I’m not pressed up against him or I’m not near enough, he always pulls me into the warmth of his body.

The weather today is nicer than it has been over the last week. The sun is out but the chill is almost breath-stealing. I’m hoping we can make this tree picking thing fast. I went for warmth over style when I prepared to leave with Ajay, deciding on my nylon down jacket, knee-high water-resistant boots, and wool hat. Ajay on the other hand is still in his peacoat, looking dashing and put together. I swear I almost had a mini orgasm when he pulled out a fur-lined trapper hat. How did he still look jaw-droppingly gorgeous decked out in winter gear?

“So,” he says, wrapping an arm around my shoulders and pressing me tight to his side, “where do you want to start?”

“Me? I thought you’d done this before.”

“Nope. No idea what I’m doing.”

I laugh at his total nonchalance. “Then why are we here? Couldn’t you have had someone else do this?”

His deep, rich laugh catches me off guard, the sound captivating and warm. Looking up at him, I catch a twinkle in his eyes. Wanting to catch some of that joy, I press up on my tiptoes and kiss him. It’s quick, but powerful. The simple brush of our lips reminds me that what’s building between Ajay and me is unlike anything I have ever felt before. We’ve known each other less than a day and yet…I feel like I’ve known him my whole life.

I’m not one to believe in fate but I can’t stop myself from thinking that some holiday magic might be intervening. Oh my God, if Libby could hear me now!

“What would the fun in that be? No, I want us to pick out the tree ourselves. That way, every time we look at it, we can remember how we almost froze our asses off for it.” I turn into his chest as I chuckle. I will definitely remember the cold.

“I think we’re supposed to walk around and wait for a tree to”—I hold up my gloved hands and make air quotes—“speak to us.”

“If a tree talks to me, I’m running for it.”

“No, you idiot,” I laugh at his childish joke. “Isn’t that what the Griswold’s did? Roam the forest until Clark saw the one?”

“I’ve already got the one,” he says like it’s not the most impactful sentence of my life, giving my shoulders a squeeze. “And I love the fact you’re basing our entire tree-pricking experience off of a movie.”

Shaking off my haze quickly, I force a smile up at him. “Seems logical.”

“Ever my logical girl. Okay, let’s do it. Let’s walk this lot and wait for our tree to call out to us.”

Okay, hearing him say it, the notion does sound silly. We begin to walk around the densely packed lot, looking at firs, spruces, and pines. Nothing calls out to us as we finish the first circle of the lot. Then, just as we’re about to turn into a grouping of pines, I stop in my tracks. My hand is on Ajay’s chest as I gaze at a tree that looks perfect. His hand covers mine, following the direction of my gaze.

“Is that it?”

I don’t speak, I simply nod. Turning us around, we make our way to the tree. It looks to be just shy of seven feet, full, and a beautiful lush green. This is the tree for us. Our tree.

“She’s a beaut. Is this the one?”

“Yeah,” I whisper, “it’s the one.”

Kissing the side of my head, he agrees. I miss what happens next, lost in memory as I continue to stare at the tree. When my eyes start to water, I tell Ajay I’m heading over to the hot chocolate stand. I don’t think I successfully hide my tears, but he lets me go. Not wanting my tears to fall and freeze on my face, I press a gloved finger in the corner of my eye, hoping it will soak up the stupid emotion. I don’t know why I’m getting sentimental over a tree. We’d never had a real tree back in the day.

Maybe it was the ceremony of it? Or the fact that I was acknowledging the holiday for the first time in seven years. Didn’t matter though, I needed to get myself together. I order two hot chocolates, one peppermint and the other original. As soon as my hands are around the warm cups, I feel better. Grounded. Ajay is quickly back at my side, taking the treat I offer him as we walk toward his car.

He searches my eyes with his, making sure I’m okay. I don’t overthink telling him what I’m feeling, I just go for it.

“I lost my parents seven years ago in a car accident, right before Christmas. I haven’t celebrated since. I think”—I pause, taking a deep breath—“I think it just kind of hit me. I wasn’t close to them but it still…hurts.”

Setting his drink down on the hood of his car, Ajay pulls me into him. I go easily, placing my hot chocolate beside his, fisting my hands in the collar of his jacket.

“I’m sorry, beautiful. I didn’t know.”

“I know,” I reassure him, not meeting his eyes. “I didn’t think I would react this way. I guess it’s been a long time since I acknowledged the holiday. Besides ringing some bells.”

“We’re going to come back to that bell comment since this is the second time you’ve brought ringing up. But you know you can lean on me with anything, right? If this tree stuff is too much, we can do something else. Mini golf? Laser tag? Hot dog eating contest?”

“No, no.” I tip my head back up to him, smiling at his absurdity. “I kinda want to celebrate this year. With you.” The last part is whispered.

“Then that’s what we’ll do, beautiful.” His lips slowly descend onto mine.

“Umm, sir? You’re good to go,” a young voice calls over my shoulder. Smiling as we end the kiss, Ajay gives me one last squeeze before picking up our drinks and waving his thanks at the attendant who helped tie the tree to his car. Opening my door and helping me get settled, Ajay then rounds the hood, chatting with the young guy briefly before getting in the driver’s side.

“So, tell me more about these bells.” I almost spit out my drink, his comment catching me off guard. My throat burns, as I choke-laugh. “Oh shit. Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I wheeze out, still trying to curb my laughter. “I’m okay.” Placing my drink down in a cup holder, I clear my throat. “I’m…ah…part of a bell ensemble group. We ring bells in the tune of songs.”

“Do you ring holiday songs?”

“Yeah, this is actually our busiest time of year. We get booked for a ton of holiday events.”

“Do you have any coming up? I’d love to hear you.”

Rubbing my lips together to hold back my smile, I shrug my shoulders. “We have one on New Year’s Eve…” I let my words trail off.

“Excellent. Sounds like the perfect way to ring in the New Year.” I turn my head to look over at him and see him trying to hold back a smile. He looks so proud of himself for that joke I can’t help the snort that escapes me.

“Nice,” I snicker.

“How did you get into ringing bells? No offense, beautiful, but I can’t see you rocking out to bell music as a teenager.”

“My best friend Libby actually got me into it. The group she’s a part of, that I’m now a part of, needed someone for a small part and she volunteered me. Since then I’ve kind of been hooked.”

“Well, you’re definitely gonna have to play for me before New Year’s. I’m too curious to wait.”

“I think I can make that happen,” I say, looking out the window and smiling.

* * *

“I think it looks pretty good,” Ajay says, coming up beside me and throwing an arm around my shoulders. Grabbing the hand that’s dangling very close to my boob, I entwine our fingers and continue gazing at our work. The tree truly does look amazing. “Does it look crooked?”

My lips scrunch up as I study the area. Ajay has asked this question three times now. He’s adorably obsessed with how the tree looks. “Nope. Looks straight.”

Ajay might not have thrown around his money to get our tree picked out and delivered but he had hired someone to pick out decorations. At first, I had been shocked at how many boxes had been carried in. There was no way that the tree could hold that many metallic balls. In the end, we actually could have done with maybe two more packages but I’m not going to tell Ajay that. I know he would send someone out immediately. The tree looks absolutely beautiful, causing a warmth to spread in my chest as I gaze at it.

“It’s perfect.”

“Almost,” he says, letting go of me and walking to the far side of the room. I don’t see the small plastic container until he’s picking it up and coming back to me.

“What’s that?” There are words written on the top of the lid in dark marker that I can’t make out.

“My family has a holiday tradition of getting decorations made every year. When I moved out, my mom gave me all my decorations so that I could hang them on my tree.”

Opening the lid, I contort my body so I can see his hidden treasures. “Oh whoa.” Each decoration has its own small padded square. Reaching in for one, I pull out a small wooden sleigh with two bears riding it. Ajay’s name and the year are printed on the back in neat calligraphy. My eyes begin to water at the sweet sentiment.

“Hey now. What’s with the tears?”

“Sorry. It’s nothing.” I try to swat him away when he makes to bring me closer. “This is just the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.” I couldn’t even remember what kind of decorations my parents put up. The holidays had always been a busy time of year for them and they never turned down the extra hours at the hospital. Taking a deep breath, I get myself under control. “Here, put this one up.”

Pulling me in with the arm that’s around me, he kisses the side of my head. My lashes flutter closed, soaking up the feel of him. “Sure,” he says quietly but doesn’t make a move to get up. Instead, he reaches for the ornament bucket and pulls out a red ball from a side slot.

Wait. No. “Is that—”

“The Rudolph nose was in my hand the first time we kissed at the bar. I stole it, thinking we could start our own ornament tradition.”

I’m done for. It’s that exact moment I lose my heart to him. There’s no fighting it anymore. It’s fast, but it feels right. Like he was meant to come into my life at a time where I’m my most crestfallen. His thoughtfulness, kindness, and huge heart broke through the frosty wall I keep up and melted all my doubts and worries away. This man is mine. I love him.

I open my mouth, ready to say the words. His lips descend on mine, stealing my breath.

“I’ll let you put that one up,” he says, bringing us both to stand. Not taking our eyes off each other, we finish decorating the tree with Ajay’s childhood memorabilia. Sharing our pasts and creating a new future. Together.