How do you thank someone for saving you from yourself?
Selfishly, I let my hands rest on the swell of Ella’s hips a fraction longer than necessary after I positioned her in just the right spot.
“Did the blindfold slip? Are you peeking?”
A small smile tipped the ends of her mouth upward. “For the tenth time, Ayden, I’m not peeking. But I’m wondering if you should have clothes-pinned my nose too. I smell chocolate.”
I chuckled. “Stand here and don’t move. What else do you smell?”
I loved watching her nose twitch like a bunny’s as she sniffed the air. Tearing my attention away from her adorable, sightless exploration of our surroundings, I quickly unpacked the rest of the meal from the basket. Setting a dinner roll on each small plate. Uncovering the bowl of butter. Pouring cream soda—her favorite—into the glasses.
“Peppermint, maybe.” Ella tipped her nose toward the ceiling, the strands of the ice blue silk blindfold hanging long on her back. “Bread. Fire.” She giggled. “Or maybe heat. Does that even make sense?”
I smiled, but remained silent. She’d know soon enough. I pulled the top off a bowl and a groan rumbled in her throat. I eyed the pulse of skin over her carotid artery, suddenly hungry for something beside dinner. Can a boy live off the taste of a girl’s skin?
“Whatever that is,” she said in a rumbling, wistful voice, “it smells amazing. Oh my god, I’m drooling. Are you almost finished?”
I stepped in front of her and slid my hands back onto my favorite spot on her hips. She startled and her grin grew wider. How could I read both confusion and wonder in her smile?
“Oh, hello,” she said.
I couldn’t resist, I leaned forward and soaked the smile from her lips into my own. Though the action was tender and light, my desire was greedy and soon my lips, my grip on her waist, even my guarded internal thoughts demanded more of her than her sunny smile. I cooled the pressure when I felt her sway unsteadily. “Is the lack of sight making you off balance?”
“No,” she said, dreamily. “You’re making me swoon.”
I laughed. She always knew what to say to fortify me. I reached behind her, careful not to pull her hair as I untied her blindfold. “Okay, keep your eyes closed until I tell you.”
Her voice and her smile were filled with anticipation. God, she was fun. Despite wanting to postpone her anticipation, I stepped to the side to clear her view of the room, but continued to face her. I wanted to see her reaction. “Okay. Open.”
Ella’s lids fluttered like she was trying to savor the anticipation. Then her eyes widened and her mouth fell open. She sucked in a breath like she was going to speak, but nothing came out. She spun a slow circle. The reflection of more than thirty licks of candlelight defined her delicate features and flickered in her tear filled eyes. “It’s beautiful, Ayden.”
Suddenly I felt shy and awkward, even though she’d already expressed her approval. “Maria said beef stew is one of your favorites.”
“Maria?” Ella’s gaze swept across the table in the middle of the room, set with fine china, crystal stemware, and silver flatware.
I guided her toward her seat and pulled it out for her, gesturing for her to sit. It took her a beat longer than expected to fold into her chair, because she was busy taking in the atmosphere of the room.
“Who do you think helped me with all of this?” I smiled at the sudden arch of her eyebrows as I claimed my seat across from her. “I got the candles and stuff, but she came in to light them all and set the table. Of course she made the meal. As soon as I asked what your favorite meal was, she offered her assistance.”
Tears glimmered in Ella’s eyes. “No one’s ever done anything like this for me before.” Her voice choked on emotion. “And now my two favorite people…”
I grasped her hand across the table and squeezed. “Ella, I know this isn’t a grand gesture by any means, but…”
“But it is!” She interrupted. “The candles, my favorite meal, the private setting. Where are we anyway?” Her eyes scanned the rustic paneling of my dad’s “hunting” cabin, but she didn’t wait for an answer. “Ayden, my parents have never surprised me with so much as a peck on the cheek. I’ve always been the one to plan things among my friends. I know how much thought went into this and I’m…” Her voice broke off and tears flooded her eyes again.
“I’d like to say we’re even then.” I gave her what I hoped was a snarky grin, but what probably looked desperate and needy. “You’ve saved me from myself, and I’ve shown you—I don’t know, a small measure of my…something—but truth is, I’ll never be able to repay what you’ve done for me.”
Ella laughed her tears away. “My motivations are strictly selfish. Who wouldn’t want to be your girlfriend? You’re handsome, rich and very attentive.”
The spark in her eye made me want to wrap my arms around her and attend to her lips. Instead, I raised my glass and waited for her to do the same. “Merry Christmas, Ella.”
She clinked her glass against mine. “Merry Christmas, Ayden. Thank you for making me feel very, very special.”
I took a sip and grasped her hand one more time before releasing it so she could enjoy her stew. “This meal doesn’t quite show how special you are. I hope to have many more opportunities to show you exactly what you mean to me.”
I leaned forward and feathered my lips across the back of her knuckles. The mischief in her eyes was a promise of opportunities to come.
This is a supplemental story to my Worth the Effort novella series. Though Ella and Ayden are happily celebrating Christmas together now, their relationship hasn’t always been so easy.
Ella’s Story (book 1) Ella Jones is a coward. There is a teen boy living in the alley behind her work and she is terrified of him. (Another gift: download for free from all major ebook retailers.)
And because there are two sides to every story:
Ayden’s Story (book 2) This isn’t the first time Ayden Worth has taken to the streets for comfort.
Thanks for your interest in my writing. I love talking books with readers and hope you’ll share your thoughts by leaving a comment. It’s easiest to get a hold of me through my website. Perhaps you expect my bio to say things about me, such as I hate to handle raw meat, I’m a wife and mother of four, a compulsive walker, and a Mozart fangirl. But since you stopped by, what I really want you to know is that I love that you read. Readers are smart, quick-witted, and usually good conversationalists—even if it’s only in their head. Introverts unite!
I write middle grade fiction because those are the most formative years of our lives. It’s when we are trying to claim our freedom, while still being restricted by rules. The things we learn in books can give us the skills to navigate that maze. I write young adult fiction because there are no limits to what message I share or how I share it. Plus young adult readers are some of the most passionate readers out there. I heart YA readers.
If you’d like an image of me as a writer, go ahead and picture me with my laptop in a quaint bookshop café, fingers flying over the keys while the words pour out of my fingertips. It’s much better than the real image of me in my pajamas with coffee breath, sinking into the me-sized crater in the couch, grumbling at my laptop when the words don’t come.
For a list of my published work, visit www.kaistrand.com.