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THE CHRISTMAS HE LOVED HER
by Juliana Stone

Genre: General Contemporary Romance, Contemporary Romance

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“Edwards, would it be too much to ask for you to drive a little slower?” 

Jake rounded a sharp curve on Lakeshore Road and glanced toward the passenger side of his jeep. “Thought you were passed out.”

Raine struggled into a seating position and shot a dark look his way. “I wasn’t passed out.”

“No,” he countered. “The snores told me you were wide awake.”

“I don’t snore.”  She muttered and her eyes narrowed slightly, before she glanced over her shoulder. “Where’s Gibson?” She exhaled loudly and then collapsed back onto the seat.

“I am not,” she hiccupped and swore. “Drunk.”

“Keep telling yourself that sweet cheeks, but from what I saw, you were guzzling merlot like it was grape juice.”

He knew how much she hated the nick name but couldn’t stop himself. Earlier she’d pulled away from him as if he had leprosy and the sting of that one action had pretty much ruined his night. 

“Whatever,” she muttered.

Jake manoeuvred the jeep up her driveway until he stopped a few feet from her front door. He cut the engine and stared up at the house, his gut churning with an anger that had burned inside for hours.  It was irrational, this anger, and one he didn’t want to analyze too closely. But it was there nonetheless. Christ, he’d been home a little over twenty-four hours and nothing had changed.

She still got under his skin. Still made him ache and burn. But then, had he really expected it to go away? 

His jaw clenched. “We’re here.”

“I can see that.”

His brow furled even more.  He turned to Raine, his gaze rolling over her slight form. She was pressed against the door, her head lowered, her mad mess of dark curls damp against her neck. She’d refused her coat back at his parents—naturally—because contrary to what bullshit her brain was feeding her, she was piss drunk. 

Her dress rode up her thighs, leaving way too much leg on display and he swallowed thickly as he looked away from the dark crevice between them. Her feet were bare, the insanely high heels she’d worn, on the floor where she’d slipped them off.

Vulnerability rolled off her in waves and his chest tightened painfully. What the hell was he going to do about her? 

He’d left Crystal Lake because he knew he couldn’t be around Raine without going crazy. The woman had pushed every button he owned for as long as he could remember.  And though it killed him, he’d convinced himself that Jesse’s dying wish didn’t make sense. Raine didn’t need him. She’d always been a fire cracker who travelled her own road and had no problem being on her own.  Christ, most of her marriage had been solo and last year he’d told himself she’d be fine without him hanging around.

And yet … she wasn’t fine. Jesse had been right. Raine was a mess.

His gaze lingered on the deep silk blue top, there where her collarbone met the hollow of her neck. Her pulse rose and fell rapidly and for several seconds he couldn’t look away as He closed his eyes, his jaw still tight. He remembered the damn dress. Remembered the last time she’d worn it. He remembered what it felt like to hold her.

He and Jesse had been home on leave just in time for their cousin, Katelyn’s, wedding. It had been a hot August evening. One filled with the promise of rain and the chaotic song of the cicadas. 

He’d taken Tammie George, a local girl and one of his go-to dates along to the wedding. The four of them had ripped it up but good. Of course by the end of the evening, Jesse was done and Tammie had had one too many beers. They’d been about to leave when the band had broken into some crazy song … an Irish jig if he remembered correctly and Raine had claimed him as her dance partner.

How could he say no to her?

The two of them had danced like there was no one watching and he would have danced with her all night. Would have held her close and inhaled her scent. Taken her home and made love to her.

But she wasn’t his.

And now … now the world was a mess and some of the things that should have changed, never had. Damn but he’d thought the pain would lessen with time. Instead, it seemed to have sharpened.

Jake sighed and ran his fingers across the stubble along his jaw. “Let’s get you in the house.”

A groan was his answer and he slipped from the jeep, slamming his door shut as a fresh wave of anger rolled over him. The darkness inside him was pressing hard and he clenched his hands in an effort to squelch it. He couldn’t afford to let it win because the fallout would be nasty and Raine would take the brunt. And damned if he’d do anything more to hurt the woman than he had already done.

He took a second and got hold of his emotions. The air was chilled with the smell of snow on the breeze. He exhaled twin plumes of mist as he stared up at the house—which was in darkness—not even the porch light was on. Jake glanced around, suddenly very much aware of just how isolated she was out here. As far as he knew she didn’t even have an alarm system. Any kind of sick bastard could be lurking in the shadows.

Jake shook his head, his thoughts darkening. It wasn’t right that she was out here alone. Hell, it wasn’t right that she was alone. 

Damn, you Jesse.

He yanked the door open and cursed as Raine pitched forward. He caught her deftly, ignoring her groan as he balanced her so he could grab her shoes and bag. Her head lolled back and her eyes opened briefly, two round balls of midnight blue, and she stared up at him in silence.

Several moments passed as the cold wrapped around them. Jake’s world narrowed until all that filled it was Raine. Her eyes misted, the corners shimmering with moisture and her hand rose, but something snapped inside him and he jerked his head back.

Her eyes widened for a second and then her hand dropped weakly, as he turned and headed up the stairs.

“Where’s your key?” His voice was gruff and echoed into the dead air that swirled around them.

She leaned against him, her small frame shivering in the cold as he rummaged in her bag. He found the key and a few seconds later they were in. The house was in darkness, the shadows long, but he knew his way—hell, he’d practically lived here when home on leave—and he headed down the hall toward her bedroom.

The light near her bed had been left on however, the glow soft and muted.

“Oh God, the whole damn world is spinning,” she murmured next to his throat. “How much wine did I drink?”

“I’d say the whole bottle.”

She groaned. “Jake, why didn’t you stop me? You always stop me.”

His mouth tightened and he let her slide from his arms.  She stood facing him, swaying unsteadily as she pushed the tangled mess of hair from her face. Her skin was pale, like vintage porcelain, and her eyes were large, exotic.  She stepped backward and nearly fell onto the bed, and then cursed while trying to reach the back of her dress.

She glanced up at him and he shook his head at the question in her eyes. Not a chance.

“Just go to bed, Raine.”

"I will.” Her brows furled as she continued to stumble around and tug on her dress. “As soon as I get this off. It smells gross.”

“You can barely stand.  Why the hell do you care what your dress smells like?”

“When did you become such a big fat grumpy head.” She giggled at that and nearly fell over, but he caught her.

On reflex her hands moved forward and splayed across his chest as his large hands wrapped around her waist. Her hips poked into his groin, and the feel of her softness and the scent of her did all sorts of shit to him that he didn’t want. Every muscle inside him tightened and he loathed the fact that he was instantly hard.

Jesus Christ, he needed to get a grip.

Jake gritted his teeth and stared down at her, hating the way his body betrayed him. Hating the way she felt so right.

Raine slowly raised her head, totally unaware of the effect she had on him and giggled once more. “Jake you look like someone pissed in your cornflakes this morning.”

“Well that would be wrong.” He ground out, irritated.

“I don’t think so,” she slurred.

“I don’t eat cereal.”

She stared up at him for the longest time and he shifted his weight in an effort to alleviate the stress between his damn legs. Something changed then—a softening of her eyes, a charge of electricity in the air. Whatever it was, it put him on edge and he glared at her, resenting the effect she had on him.

“That’s right,” she whispered. “You’re an egg and waffle guy.” She paused. “Jesse liked his cornflakes.”

Her hand drifted toward his face once more but he pulled back so that she couldn’t quite reach. Her finger brushed the air between them before falling back to his chest. She swallowed, and her eyes never left his, their shiny recesses full of something he couldn’t name, though he sure as hell recognized it.

The same damn thing was reflected in his own eyes.

“You look … lost, Jake.”

A muscle worked its way across his jaw. “I’ve been lost for a long time, Raine. There’s nothing new in that.”

“No,” she answered softly. “I guess not.” A sad wistful smile claimed her lips and his heart beat erratically as she gazed up at him. “But you’re home now. We can be lost together.”

Silence filled every single nook and cranny around them.  He didn’t know what to say to that, so he said nothing and the two of them stood like stiff soldiers, staring at each other for god knows how long. But it was long enough that the cold claimed her and her teeth began to chatter as it took hold, leaving goosebumps across her flesh, and shudders rolling over her slight frame.

"I’m tired, Jake.  Can you just unzip me?” She turned in his arms and bent forward, though without his support, she’d have taken a header onto the floor.

He clenched his jaw tight and reached for the zipper, trying his best to ignore the provocative display. The fact that it wasn’t contrived, or staged, made it all the more hot. Her neck was bare, the fine curve of her spine bent in a way that would make any man think of things he shouldn’t be thinking of. Not when the woman in your arms was your brother’s widow.

Carefully he tugged her dress down and kept her steady while she shimmied out of the damn thing, until she stood in a black lacy bra and matching panties. Sure it covered as much as a bikini—maybe more—but still, seeing Raine like this was different. There was something much more intimate about a woman in her underwear. Her pale skin was luminescent beneath the glow from the lamp beside her bed and he was struck once more with how incredibly fragile she looked. 

Hip bones jutted out a little too much, and the hollow at her stomach wasn’t right. A woman’s belly should be softly rounded. Raine had always been on the thin side, but she’d had more of an athletic build.  This…this was something else entirely. She was too thin. Too pale and…

“Don’t look at me like that,” she whispered hoarsely, her eyes filled with tears.

“Raine, you need to take better care of yourself.” A pinch of anger bled through his words and she wiped at her face roughly as she backed toward the bed. “You’re not eating.”

“I eat.” She yanked on the covers and drew them back. She stumbled a bit. “When I’m hungry.  Not my fault I don’t look like your Barbie doll.”

“My Barbie doll?” He moved closer to the bed as she scrambled between her covers and pulled them up to her chin, her teeth chattering crazily in the quiet. 

“Lily St. Clare.”

“Lily isn’t my Barbie.” Christ, if Lily was here, she’d have one of those cool grins on her face because, as he knew only too well, Lily St. Clare belonged to no one. She was even more emotionally damaged than he was—which was saying a lot about the woman.

She ignored him. “We’ll talk about her tomorrow.”

Raine had always had her nose in his business.  It used to amuse him but now?  Now it irritated him to know she still thought she had a say in his life. 

“Lily isn’t something I want to talk about. Especially with you.”

Raine rubbed her eyes. “We will talk about her because I don’t care what your mother thinks.” She struggled to hold back a yawn. “That woman is all wrong for you.”

Shit, now his mother was poking her nose into his business?

“Really,” he retorted gruffly.

Her eyes drifted shut and she flung a hand above her head, turning slightly toward the empty pillow beside her. The one that used to hold his brother’s head.

His gut churned as all the dark, tortured feelings inside him rose to the surface. Every single wrong thing about his situation, about Raine’s reality and his parent’s loss came crashing back and he took a step backward, surprised at the intensity of them. He realized in that moment that running away from everything hadn’t accomplished squat. It hadn’t dulled the pain, or improved his outlook. Every shitty thing was still the same.

A strangled sound escaped him as he ran fingers through the thick hair at his nape and across the stubble that graced his chin.

His brother was dead and nothing could bring him back. The images from that terrible day, the smells and sensations were never going to leave him. They shadowed him, following in his footsteps and rested beside him at night. He knew as surely as the sun would rise in a few hours that he would be haunted by them until he drew his last breath.

So where did he go from here?

His parents weren’t whole. They were dealing with both the loss of his brother and his father’s illness. Hell, they were barely getting by but at least they had each other. He closed his eyes. Raine was right.

Jake was lost.

In the first few weeks after Jesse’s death he’d survived on a steady diet of pure, raging adrenaline. Then as the weeks had passed into months, the adrenaline had dissipated and he’d been left with nothing but the bitter taste of disillusionment. Of pain and emptiness. Of the knowledge that if only he’d…

“Jake,” Raine mumbled.

“Yeah.” Jake’s eyes flew open and he wiped at the corners of his eyes. 

“I’m just…I’m just so tired.”

He glanced down at the bed.  Raine’s eyes were still closed.

“I know.  Try to get some rest.”

He turned away and faced the door.

“Jake?”

He cocked his head to the side. “Yeah?”

“Don’t go.”

For one second his mind emptied and the need he thought he heard in her voice called to him. He turned back to her. He couldn’t help it. Jake Edwards was that weak.

“Please stay. Don’t go back with her.”

“Barbie.”