If you haven’t read MY SOUL TO KEEP, I recommend you stop reading now. Instead, check out the first three chapters for FREE! If you have read MSTK, this deleted scene occurs after Thanksgiving when Rhys buys Kai a Christmas tree and before the scene with Rhyson’s parents at Christmas dinner.
In years past, the holidays have been a blur of activity. Everybody wanted Mama’s holiday specials at the Glory Bee. I loved to see newcomers do a double take when a tiny Asian woman, just shy of five feet, would emerge from the kitchen in her apron, making sure they were loving her Southern cooking. She made fruit cake that actually tasted good, cinnamon spice loaves and, of course, her famous mint hot chocolate. We made more money in December alone than any other quarter. We nearly made more money on Christmas morning than the rest of December. While other kids were tearing into their presents, Mama, Aunt Ruthie and I were prepping for Glory Bee Christmas breakfast. Most years, I even managed to recruit San.
You wouldn’t believe how many folks didn’t want to cook breakfast on Christmas morning. They much preferred Mama’s hot biscuits and homemade preserves to anything they could do themselves. We were always up by four that morning prepping, open for business from eight to noon, and home opening our own gifts by two. A strange Christmas; a working Christmas, but I never minded. The money we made that morning didn’t just pay for Christmas gifs. It paid for dance and singing lessons. For cheering and gymnastics fees. For new tap and ballet shoes. Mama never held with me having a job because she knew how demanding my schedule was, but I worked for her.
Inevitably, I’d have Christmas dance recitals, parades, holiday singing competitions. Mama never complained, but just juggled all her responsibilities at the diner, always making sure I got where I needed to be and that she was there when I needed her presence and support.
I settle onto the couch and enjoy the tree occupying the corner of our living room, something I do every night when I get home from The Note. It’s gleaming, beautiful, festive and almost too big for the small space. Rhyson and I argued over the six-foot or the eight-foot. He won, of course. He always wins. The angel tree topper barely fits under the ceiling.
San’s stack of packed bags by the door nicks my heart a little. This will be one of the few Christmases we’ve spent apart. He’s headed to Florida, where his grandmother moved when she retired last year. I’m headed back to Glory Falls to spend Christmas with Aunt Ruthie. San walks into the living room, patting his pockets, his forehead squeezed into a frown. I lean forward and grab his keys off the coffee table, jangling them to draw his attention.
“Thank God.” The frown clears, his handsome face relaxing into a smile. “I can’t afford to be late.”
He takes the keys, looking me over from head to toe, starting with the brightly patterned caftan I picked up at a sidewalk boutique and strappy sandals. Colorful earrings dangle from my ears, Grammy’s gold necklace hangs at my throat. I’ve braided colorful ribbons into my fishtail braid. My make up isn’t heavy, but the fact that I rarely bother, makes even the little I’m wearing scream “special occasion.”
“Hot date?” San plucks my earrings, making them swing against my neck. “Better not let Rhyson find out.”
“Very funny.” I swat at his hand. “Of course not. Rhyson’s just coming over for dinner.”
“So a date at home with Rhyson.”
“It is not a date.” I wish I could turn down the heat in my cheeks. “It’s just…dinner before we go home for Christmas.”
“Dinner with a guy you see every chance you get, who texts you constantly and who bought you a Christmas tree. I can’t wait to see what an actual relationship between you two looks like.”
“San.” I groan and drop my head in my hands. “What am I gonna do about it?”
“About the fact that you’re in love with Rhyson Gray?”
My head pops up like a Jack in the Box.
“I am not. Take it back.”
“Okaaaaayyyy.” His face sobers and he sits beside me, rubbing little circles on my back. “I wouldn’t have suspected it, I mean him being an asshole rock star and all, but he’s a good guy. At least to you.”
“Your point?” I ask, my voice weaker than my words.
“My point is the sooner you work through these issues – the whole I wanna make it big first stuff and your Daddy issues – the sooner you and Rhyson can do what it’s obvious to everyone you want to do.” He leans in to press our foreheads together, a leer on his full lips. “You can fuck.”
I shove him back, and he flops against the couch laughing.
“Shut up, San. You have a one-track mind.”
“You think Rhyson doesn’t?” San flashes his you-gotta-be-kidding-me look. “Wait’ll he gets you on that track.”
I want to shove him again, but the doorbell rings. I can’t stop myself from checking my earrings and smoothing my hair.
“That’s probably your non-date.” San gets up and walks over to the door. “I’ll get it.”
Rhyson and San fist pound and both turn to look at me.
“Hi.” Rhyson speaks first, the long look he gives me warm like the sun on my skin. “You look great.”
“Down boy.” San laughs and walks over to me, giving me a quick hug. “I gotta go, pip squeak.”
“Text me when you land, k?” I squeeze him a little tighter before letting go. “And kiss Grandma Letty for me.”
“Will do. She hates that you aren’t coming with me.” San slings his backpack over his shoulder.
“I need to be with Aunt Ruthie.” I give him a sad smile. “First Christmas without Mama and all, and she could use some help with the Christmas morning crowd at the diner.”
“How long you think she’ll keep the Glory Bee going?” San asks.
Panic spins my head like a top. It never occurred to me that Aunt Ruthie might not want to go on with the diner she and Mama built from the ground. Mama was the cook, for sure, but we’d gotten someone else to help with the food when Mama got too sick to do it anymore. Nobody could cook like Mama, but the sweet lady we’d hired did a great job with Mama’s recipes. The thought that Aunt Ruthie might close Glory Bee rattles me. My childhood is in those weathered wooden tables. My adolescence in that kitchen. My last years with Mama, written on the walls and floors.
“I…well, we’re paying down Mama’s debt so she can keep it. You think it’s too much for her?”
‘I’m sure she’s fine,” San says quickly enough to let me know he’s not sure. “It was a stupid question. I’m late already. Love you. Merry Christmas, Rhyson.”
San speeds out, taking my worry with him. I’m too distracted by the fact that Rhyson and I are alone to dwell on the possibility of losing Glory Bee and all the memories it holds. We just stare at one another for a few seconds, taking in the details. He wears dark wash jeans, and a chunky oatmeal colored sweater hides the dense muscles I wonder about. I’ve never even seen him without a shirt, but I’ve touched him. The pads of my fingers tingle with the memory of smooth, warm skin. My palms heat recalling the shape of the sculpted muscles in his back and arms. My hands remember and my mind wonders.
“Hungry?” I brush past him and into the kitchen, needing to busy my hands before they do something stupid.
He follows behind me more slowly, his pace as careful as the eyes he lifts to watch me pulling out plates.
“I could eat.” He sits down, placing a small wooden box I hadn’t noticed him carrying onto the table.
I go still and smile a little.
“Is that for me?”
“If you’re a good girl.” Rhyson laughs and reaches for my hand, pulling me to stand in the vee of his long legs. “And if you feed me, of course.”
“Of course. We can eat in here.” This close, the dark flecks in his eyes nearly consume the grey. The strength of his legs pressed against my thighs makes the breath in my throat jagged. I can’t draw one smooth breath with his heat surrounding me. If I don’t break this intimate spell, I’ll regret it.
“Let me get one thing before we eat.”
I rush back into the living room, reaching for my composure along the way. I grab a small box wrapped in black paper with a silver bow from under the tree and take it into the kitchen.
“Is that for me?” He reaches for the gift, but I stash it behind my back.
“Maybe if you’re good.” I step farther out of his reach. “And after we eat.”
I’ve been so busy getting the girls at the center ready for the dance competition and working the holiday madhouse at The Note, I didn’t have time to prepare all the dishes I would have liked to for him. Instead it’s a simple roasted chicken with vegetables and mashed potatoes, half sweet and half white.
We’ve actually spent less time together since Thanksgiving. Partly because we’ve both been so busy, and partly because I needed to dial back the intensity of what I felt with him that day. It’s like we’re driving at a breakneck speed, rounding a curve, running out of road, mere feet from barreling over a cliff. I’m not ready for that freefall, and I don’t want this ride to end; to lose his friendship, but I’m not sure how much farther we can go like this. So I tried to slow us down.
I push those thoughts aside and focus on our time alone. I could almost fool myself that we’re just two friends catching up before going our separate ways for the holidays, except as I talk his eyes fix on my mouth. Except he reaches for salt so he can brush his fingers over my hand. Except he could be talking about aliens landing from outer space and I wouldn’t know it I’m so distracted by the heat rising around us every time our eyes catch and hold.
“So Grip’s started working on his first album. It’s incredible. We’re doing a song together. Think Kanye and Chris Martin. You know that song Homecoming? That kind of collaboration. Hip hop, piano kinda thing.” Rhyson taps out a rhythm on the kitchen table. “You should come to Wood and sit in on our next session after the holidays.”
“Wood? Your studio?”
“Well, it’s my friend Gunnar’s studio, but I’m a silent partner.”
“You, silent?” I scoff. “Yeah, right, control freak.”
“You know me well.” An unabashed grin creases his lean cheeks.
I do. Amazingly, I do know him well. We met just a few months ago, but something has connected us almost from the beginning. It defied reason. It pressed through all the barriers that should separate us – his fame, my caution and mistrust – and has bound us over time, over late night dinners, over gut-busting laughter, over intimate moments pregnant with possibilities our bodies long to explore. It has grown through confidences and secrets. Through truth-telling, soul-baring conversations, almost all right here on the lumpy couch in my apartment. I’ve never even been to Rhyson’s house, yet I’d know his shape in the dark, his scent in a roomful of people, and could pick his voice out of a choir.
“That, like everything you cook, was delicious.” Rhyson reclines in the chair, stretching his long legs out in front of him.
“Thank you.” I reach for the dishes, walking them the short distance to the sink. “I wish you could taste the food I’ll be cooking tomorrow in Glory Falls.”
“Believe me, so do I.” Rhyson pulls himself to his feet and crosses over to stand with me at the sink, falling into a familiar rhythm of loading the dishes into the washer after I’ve scraped and rinsed them. “I’d much rather be in Glory Falls than with my parents in New York.”
With the last dish loaded, I prop myself against the sink’s edge, facing him.
“Your first time home since?”
“Since I was sixteen.” His voice is low and deep enough to hide the truth from someone not looking for it.
“It’s okay that you’re nervous.” I reach for his hand, looking up at him.
“So much could go wrong.” He mingles our fingers, pressing them to his chest. “What if this only makes things worse? If that’s even possible.”
His heart thumps strong and even beneath my hand like a mallet against a bass drum. Mine isn’t nearly as steady, trilling in my chest like a blindfolded bird frantically flying and knocking into the bars of a cage.
“Grady will be there.” My words come out breathy, his closeness whittling my voice down to a whisper. “He’ll be your buffer.”
“Yeah, maybe.” He sounds distracted, tugging on my wrist until I’m pressed into the hard expanse of his chest, my hair barely brushing his chin. He lowers his head until his breath is a sweet singe over my lips. “Pep, I—”
I jerk back, knowing if he kisses me, we’ll be around that bend and hurtling over the cliff just ahead, a precipitous fall from which we won’t recover. Once you drive off a cliff, you can’t change your mind. The thump and splat when gravity turns its back on you are inevitable. Rhyson dragged me out of a darkened pit of grief and sorrow. I can’t afford our friendship to be a casualty of this attraction, no matter how it grips me at the throat and chokes my reason.
“We should open our gifts.” I take another step back, easing my body away from temptation.
For a moment, I fear he won’t let me get away with it. His expression hardens, a frown jerking his brows together. I silently plead for just a little more time. He presses his lips against whatever he would say and just nods.
We sit back down at the table, each passing our small parcels to the other. He rips away the black paper but doesn’t open the gift, an eager look on his face as he watches me manipulate the small ornate catch on the wooden box. I laugh as soon as I see his gift glinting against a bed of black velvet.
“A nameplate necklace.” I hold it up to my neck, admiring how the gold name scrawled under my collar bone layers prettily with Grammy’s gold chain.
“It’s like the one Carrie wears on Sex and the City, right?” Rhyson asks with a smile.
“Yes, I love it.” I twist my lips into a wry grin. “Except it says Pepper. You got me a nameplate necklace with a name only you call me?”
He doesn’t disguise the look in his eyes when they drop to the gold glinting against my neck. The look is a claim, hard and possessive before he shutters his expression into something deceptively harmless.
“Our little inside joke. ” He gives me the innocuous smile of a tiger hiding and biding his time.
“What do you think of yours?” I bite my lip, so uncertain. What do you get the rich-all-his life rock star who has everything?
He pulls the gift out of the box I wrapped so carefully. His eyes go wide and a genuine smile overtakes his face.
“A harmonica?” He laughs, staring at me and not the small instrument in his hands I so painstakingly chose.
“Well, you said you’d never played so I assumed you didn’t have one.” My words trip and fall between us in the small kitchen. “And well that’s a shame, so I thought this might be fun. And I know you have a dozen instruments. Rare and expensive. I just thought that something like this would—”
His finger at my lips startles me, that light pressure enough to send my senses into a tailspin.
“You’re rambling.” His mouth softens into an affectionate smile. “It’s perfect.”
“There’s an inscription,” I whisper against his finger.
For a moment, he doesn’t lift his finger, but traces his thumb over the bottom curve of my mouth, an unhurried caress that leaves my lips trembling.
He finally pulls back, flipping the harmonica over to see the writing I had hoped would make him smile.
“Sometimes the little things we’ve overlooked become our favorites,” he reads, running his fingers over the dark wood. He looks up, his eyes moving over my neck and breasts and shoulders. “I’d have to agree with that.”
I will combust before this night is over. It’s like someone spiked my blood with liquor; Fireball enflames my veins, swelling them with a heated rush. A luscious, intoxicating burn. I pop to my feet and stumble to the refrigerator, removing the lemon custard pie Grady told me Rhyson likes.
“Dessert.” I hold the pie aloft as proof that I did indeed have a reason for abandoning the table. For fleeing the flame that always leaps between us.
Rhyson walks over to me, taking the pie and setting it on the counter. Deliberately, slowly like a man lowering a gun to the ground inch by inch, he places his hands at my hips. He’s giving me a chance to pull away, but I can’t. If he decides to press the issue, I’m not sure I’ll be able to resist him. He squeezes my waist as he lifts me off the floor and onto the counter. He steps into the tiny space where my legs spread slightly, leaning until his mouth is right by my ear.
I about die when his breath penetrates my ear, heavy, hot and a little ragged despite his outward calm.
“Kai, I’m not doing this much longer.” He kisses behind my ear, laving the tiny strip of skin with his tongue. I shudder against him. “We’re not going into the next year with things like this between us.”
He pulls back, his broad palms caressing my shoulders and arms through the thin caftan. He presses his forehead to mine, and I’m afraid he’ll be bold enough to kiss me on the lips.
“But tonight, for now,” he says, smiling and lifting one hand to toy with the ends of the braid hanging over my shoulder. “Merry Christmas.”