MIKAH

 

I DRAGGED a breath in through my nose and tried to catalogue the scents of my father’s house: woodsmoke, furniture polish, espresso, citrus. The combination of smells was still too unfamiliar to be of any real comfort. My heart raced, and the next breath came in ragged. I stared into the fireplace. The flames chased crackling sparks, consuming the words hastily scrawled on notebook paper. Something inside me relaxed. I felt lighter. The letter was nothing but ash now. Gone forever.

“Mikah! Che cosa fai?” Elena’s sharp voice snapped my gaze away from the fire. “What the hell are you doing?” she repeated in English, adding the expletive when I chose not to answer. “Please don’t tell me you’re sitting in here moping again.” My sister tossed her perfectly tousled chestnut hair and thrust a sheet of paper into my hands.

“Want me to burn this too?” I asked, trying and failing to sound appropriately snarky.

“No, you idiot.” She shook her head as her eyes flicked to the fireplace. “Naomi wants us to go pick up the Christmas tree.”

I glanced down at the paper, an advertisement for some place called Haskell Farms boasting the opportunity to fell your own Christmas trees. Was my stepmother out of her mind? Really, I’d only met Naomi a handful of times before deciding to spend over a month in her home for the holidays, so I couldn’t be sure. She had, after all, agreed to marry my father with all of his grandiose bluster and his tendency to spend every waking moment at the office.

“Um, Elena.” I dragged the tip of my finger over the words on the flyer. “This says you can cut down your own tree. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a chainsaw in real life.”

This comment earned me an extravagant sigh. “Ugh, can you at least try not to sound so pathetic? It’ll be fine. Besides, Naomi’s been running herself ragged getting everything ready for the golden boy’s arrival. It’s the least we can do.” As irritating as my sister could be, I had to admit she was solicitous. From the moment her plane touched down at the Jackson Hole Airport, Elena had bustled around, cleaning, running errands in town, and generally being her exuberantly pleasant self. Conversely, I’d holed up in my impeccably decorated bedroom like a brooding thirteen-year-old since my arrival two days earlier.

“Why don’t we just go to the grocery store like normal people? They sell trees, right? Plus isn’t it kind of early for that? Jesus, El, Thanksgiving was yesterday. Can we at least have a few days devoid of holiday merriment?” I knew I was not about to win the argument.

“Overpriced. And no.” Elena clucked. “Naomi said the one they got in town last year lost all its needles right away. Let’s go. It’ll be fun. And you need to get out of the house. Pretty please.” She tugged on the sleeve of my hoodie. Her whining reminded me so much of my students, I had to school my features to hide the grimace of regret.

“Fine.” I sighed and took one final glance at the fire.

I followed my sister into the large foyer, all rustic pine beams and gleaming hardwood floors, still unwilling to let go of my sullen silence. Elena chattered on about the drive and what kind of tree we should look for. We could get the mangiest of Charlie Brown Christmas trees for all I cared. Pulling on my totally impractical black combat boots and insufficiently warm denim jacket, I almost jumped when Naomi’s manicured hand landed on my shoulder. Her enormous diamond ring glinted in the weak winter sun.

“Are you kids going to get the tree?” She looked thrilled, bright smile and soft eyes.

“Yup! Need us to get anything else while we’re out?” Elena yanked up the zipper of her far more sensible black parka.

Naomi put her index finger to her lips in consideration before gesturing for me to hand her the flyer. “Right. I thought so. They have a farm stand too. If they have any Yukon Gold potatoes or something similar, get about two pounds. I was thinking of doing steaks tomorrow night since your dad said that’s Luca’s favorite. And, of course, feel free to pick up anything else you guys want.”

“Got it!” Elena beamed as Naomi handed her some cash. I said nothing.

As we trudged across the snowy driveway, I cut my eyes at my sister. “I’m driving.”

At first I was relieved. For once Elena wasn’t going to argue or insist she knew how to drive and then subject me to her breezy, inattentive approach to operating a vehicle. My sister was brilliant, but living her entire life in Manhattan without access to a car did not a skilled driver make. “Fine,” she sighed. “But you’re taking Dad’s car. I’m not riding around in that death trap.”

“It’s not a death trap,” I snapped. “Subarus are some of the safest cars on the market. Haven’t you seen the commercials? Plus I’m not strapping a tree to the roof of Dad’s Benz. He’ll kill both of us.”

“Fair point. But we’re listening to Christmas music, then.”

As I navigated the winding, slick roads, Elena flipped from station to station, finally settling on one promising a solid hour of commercial-free holiday favorites. Great.

“The pass better be open,” I muttered, more to myself than to Elena, as we approached the road taking us from Jackson into Idaho. Occasionally the Teton Pass was closed down due to inclement weather. Although, maybe if it was closed, I could forget this whole Christmas tree mission and get back to my regularly scheduled fireplace brooding.

“It will be. There isn’t that much snow.”

The landscape outside was a blur of green and white. Heavy snowflakes drifted down from a mottled slate sky onto a dark mass of swaying pines. An occasional powerful gust of wind kicked up glimmering swirls of powder. I gripped the wheel harder as the car slid on a patch of ice. The defroster was no match for the frigid temperatures.

“Ooh, I love this song!” Elena turned the dial on my radio to blast “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid.

I balked and tore my eyes away from the road to desperately change the station. “No way.”

“Come on!” Elena whined, deftly flicking right back to the offending song. “This song is awesome. It kinda takes me back.”

“Okay, for one, you were born way after this song came out. And it’s offensive as hell. It presents this totally monolithic image of African nations and codes the entire continent as deficit and needy. It’s such white savior bullshit.”

I could feel Elena’s incredulous stare. “Dio mio, Mikah. Not everything has to be so serious.”

Gripping the wheel even tighter, I rolled my eyes. “No, but it’s worth unpacking—”

“Unpacking? It’s a Christmas song, bro. You really find a way to overthink everything, don’t you? Please don’t analyze the music to death.”

“Some of us like analyzing. I mean, it used to be my job and all,” I teased. Elena tended to get irritated with my endless desire to nitpick and evaluate. She simply charged through life, absorbing what she wanted and eschewing the things she found unnecessary. I envied her.

We drove for a few more miles in silence. Well, not in silence. I had to endure the rest of the offensive holiday atrocity in addition to “Feliz Navidad,” that weird, kind-of-metal version of “Carol of the Bells,” and a truly awful rendition of “Santa Baby.” Finally, though, my sister piped up to instruct me to turn off onto a dirt road marked with a small wooden sign welcoming us to Haskell Farms. I groaned.

When I eased the car to a halt in the gravel driveway, the place was deserted. Nothing but blowing snow, a drafty barn made of graying wood, and the icy wind cutting through my jacket as we stepped out of the car. It was eerily silent, and I almost missed the aggressive cheer of the Christmas music. Almost. All I wanted was to go home, curl up with a book, and forget everything. Although, I realized with a jolt, I had no idea where home was. Not my apartment back in Cambridge. I’d broken the lease at the beginning of November before selling off most of my belongings and hauling the rest to my dad’s place. Home wasn’t my mother’s sprawling penthouse in SoHo, where my childhood bedroom had been transformed into a well-appointed office. And certainly not Josh’s cramped, messy studio in San Francisco, where I’d never quite felt at ease.

“Um, are they even open?” I asked, not bothering to mask my irritation.

“That’s what I’m looking at,” Elena mumbled, eyes locked on her phone as she scrolled. “Google says they opened fifteen minutes ago. But the coverage out here sucks, so I can’t get their actual website to load.”

I was about to climb back into the driver’s seat and steer us to any nursery or grocery store boasting even the sorriest of Christmas trees, when I was unceremoniously knocked to the ground. Frigid water and mud immediately soaked every inch of my clothing. I struggled to make sense of why the hell I was sprawled on the gravel. A large, wet tongue dragged over my face. Unaware I’d clamped my eyes shut, I cracked them open to find an enormous dog standing over my body, snuffling into my neck and pawing at my chest. It was so cute—with dopey eyes and silky brown, black, and white fur—I couldn’t even be angry that I’d been slammed onto the cold, slushy driveway. My fingers tangled into the dog’s coat, and a startled laugh erupted from my throat.

“Moose!” A low male voice sounded from a distance, and I tried to crane my neck to place the speaker. Not wanting to look like a total moron in front of some Idaho farmer dying to label me as a stuck-up city boy, I attempted to catch my breath. The dog had totally knocked the wind out of me. Elena was laughing in a wholly unhelpful way.

“Sorry.” A big hand, rough and dotted with silver-white scars, enveloped mine and hauled me to my feet. I turned, brushing at my soaked clothes and struggling to shrug off my humiliation. But when I lifted my gaze from the ground to the man in front of me, I froze. He was exactly the kind of guy I would silently lust over but would never work up the courage to talk to. He had windswept dark blond hair, surprisingly warm blue eyes, and an almost unfairly perfect square, stubbled jaw. And he was huge, a towering wall of bulk clad in a brown Carhartt jacket and faded jeans. But, somehow, he wasn’t intimidating. The man seemed to radiate a kind of earthy calm, like the molecules around him vibrated at a lower frequency. I could feel my mouth going a little slack as his eyes flicked from me to the dog, and a tiny smirk twitched his full lips. Before I could continue gawking at him, though, Elena stepped forward, extending her hand and beaming.

“Hi! We saw a flyer saying you sell Christmas trees?” Her voice had shifted from its usual slightly pestering tone to something softer. Was she flirting? I wanted to tell her to back off.

The man nodded at my sister. “Yes, ma’am. We have twenty-five acres of forest.” He jabbed his thumb in the direction of an expanse of snow-dusted evergreens. “Any tree tagged with a white blaze is yours to cut down. It’s seventy dollars.”

“Perfect. And you can help us get it strapped to the car?”

For some reason I wanted to protest, to prove to this broad-shouldered hulk of a stranger that I could take care of it, despite the fact that I was easily a half foot shorter than him and at least fifty pounds lighter. When I chanced a look at him again, his eyes were on me, scanning over my wreck of an outfit. I was shivering hard and tried to relax my muscles and unclench my jaw.

“You want some dry clothes?” he asked, shoving his big hands into the pockets of his coat. “Sorry Moose knocked you over like that. He’s not usually so wild with strangers.” The dog wagged his tail like he knew he was the topic of conversation.

“Nah,” I said breezily. “I’m good.”

Elena scoffed, and I shot her what I really hoped was a withering look.

“My place is right over there. I can get you guys some hot chocolate, and you can warm up. It’s no problem.”

“Hot chocolate sounds fantastic,” Elena agreed before I could even open my mouth to speak.

We followed the man for about five minutes, crunching over frozen grass. The farm was sprawling, with two barns, a modest ranch-style house, a greenhouse, and snow-cloaked fields that seemed to be largely plowed under for the winter. As we walked, Elena fired off a series of weirdly astute questions about organic farming, and the man answered her with earnest enthusiasm. I felt immediately like a sullen third wheel, hating myself for being jealous of Elena’s ability to bond easily with new people. Then a small log cabin came into view, and my attitude shifted. The house looked like something on one of those Christmas popcorn tins. Smoke billowed from a stone chimney toward the winter-white sky. The railings of the wide porch were trimmed with juniper and pine sprigs. Icicles glittered along the eaves, and heavy drifts of snow coated the roof.

“Come on in,” the man said, tugging open the substantial wooden door. I stumbled as I yanked off my boots, and the man’s large hand gripped my shoulder, holding me steady. Heat coursed through my veins that had nothing to do with the blazing woodstove in the corner. My head spun as I glanced around the cabin. Hopefully I didn’t have a concussion from my skull slamming into the driveway. But I figured the dizziness was just because the place was so damn perfect. If the outside of the cabin was dark and rustic, the inside was dreamy and light. Everything was whitewashed and clean, but still somehow cozy. The furniture was mismatched but well maintained. Inviting. The plaid sofa looked like the ideal place to nap or tuck my feet under me as I disappeared into a favorite novel. The rough-hewn walls were largely devoted to wide windows framing views of the snow-dusted forest and fields beyond. The scent of fresh-cut wood and coffee mingled with the snap of cold air from outside.

“Wow, this place is great.” Elena followed the guy into the kitchen area as he set a gleaming kettle onto the stove’s blue flame. He shrugged in response. I was still standing in the doorway, arms wrapped tight around myself. His clear, blue eyes kept flicking over me, and I started to worry I had mud all over my face or something.

“Do you have a bathroom?” I asked, immediately wanting to punch myself in the face. Of course he has a bathroom. The man’s mouth twitched into a tiny smile again, and heat crept up my neck and into my cheeks.

“Yup. I’ll grab you some dry clothes. Here—” I trailed behind him as he led me down a short hallway.

Darting into the bathroom and locking the door behind me, I didn’t even allow myself to glance in the mirror as I scrubbed my face and hands with hot water from the tap. The bathroom was tiny but tidy—everything scoured clean and set in its place. A small, nosy part of me wanted to rummage through the unfairly gorgeous farmer’s medicine cabinet and figure out something, anything, about him. Thankfully a soft knock startled me, saving me from myself. When I pulled the door open, the man pressed a bundle of neatly folded clothing into my hands. Our fingers brushed, driving a hot shock down my spine. Desire rushed through me, and I seemed to lose all ability to think rationally. I could feel myself blushing.

“Hot chocolate’s ready whenever you are.” He held eye contact for a tremulous moment, then looked down at the floor, smiling softly and rubbing the back of his neck.

Although he was being nothing but kind, a sharp, almost desperate longing twisted in my stomach. Homesickness for a place that didn’t exist. I gave him a curt nod and hurried to strip out of my filthy clothes.

There was no way the flannel pants and long-sleeved T-shirt he’d given me would fit, but the fabric was soft and warm, as though he’d just pulled the clothes from the dryer. I cinched up the waistband of the pants and pushed up the shirtsleeves as best I could so I didn’t look like a rag doll wandering back into the living room. A quick glance in the small mirror above the sink revealed that I did, unfortunately, look ridiculous in the baggy clothes.

Elena and the man were sitting on the couch, chatting amiably and sipping from steaming mugs as I shuffled down the hall. His voice was low and soft, a soothing rumble like thunder. I heard my name and something about me spending time out here after losing my job. Wow, thanks for making me look good, El. As I rounded the corner, my foot caught on the hem of the pants, and they slid down my hips. My cheeks burned. Fuck Christmas trees.

 

 

“HE WAS really cute, huh?” Elena raised her voice over a somewhat decent cello rendition of “Silent Night.” Of course she would talk through the one Christmas song I could tolerate. And of course she would try to force me to discuss the nameless, probably straight, definitely gorgeous farmer.

“I guess.” I fixed my attention on the road ahead, trying and failing to ignore the way my stomach flipped and my throat tightened at the mere mention of him. Desperately I tried to rationalize my overblown reaction as simple embarrassment at barely being able to stay upright in the guy’s presence. But I knew what desire felt like: the buzzing heat, the intense curiosity, the inability to stop picturing his hand clasping mine as he pulled me off the snowy ground. I needed to clear my head, but it was hopeless. I was still wearing his clothes, enveloped in him. The clean smell of his fabric softener filled the small cabin of my car, mixing with the scent of pine from the holiday greenery Elena insisted we needed. The clothes, while way too big, were undeniably cozy. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d worn anything so comfortable. Had I been alone and not navigating the twists of an impossibly icy road, I would have lifted the hem of the T-shirt to my nose, would have breathed him in.

My sister snorted and shook her head. “Come on, just because Josh turned out to be a cheating idiot asshole doesn’t mean you can’t admit some random, undeniably handsome dude is hot. Crushing on cute strangers is, like, my bread and butter.”

Crush. I let the word swirl through my mind like the snowflakes spinning through the air outside. A crush was okay, right? A one-sided, short-lived crush. I could allow myself a little bit of harmless fun after the pathetic failure that had been my relationship with Josh. Of course, there was a chance I would actually have to talk to the hot farmer again tomorrow when I brought back his clothes. Then what? I imagined his big arms wrapping around me, the sound of that low voice in my ear. The feeble stream of tepid air blowing from the dashboard vent did little to heat up the car, but I was suddenly uncomfortably hot. Desperate for any distraction, I turned up the volume on the radio, the motion mindless and immediately regrettable.

“Hell. Yes.” Elena turned the dial to blare Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” loud enough that I was pretty sure the song echoed over the peaks of the Tetons and all the way back to the farm.

Damn if I didn’t have to try really hard to hide my smile the whole way home.