Authors: Ros Baxter
Beth wanted to scream. It was more than she could bear. The night of hot dreams, followed by this rugged interloper leaning on her doorjamb. She stalked back to him, determined to get her pyjama bottoms and head back to the bathroom with some dignity. “If you don’t mind,” she bit out, standing in front of him.
But Jim was in no hurry. “No Ma’am,” he said. “I do not mind at all.” As he said the words, he caught and held her eyes again, looking so hard into her she was sure he was searching for something. But it was hard to tell, with her breath riding high in her throat and her pulse pounding in her ears. He had always done this to her, this man. Since she had been a girl. He had always messed with her equilibrium, made her clumsy and tongue-tied.
He stepped aside to let her back into her room, but as she moved to pass him, he took hold of her arm. “Beth,” he said, so close to her ear she could feel his hot breath. His voice was ragged and low, and she could smell coffee and bacon and warm, male skin.
She paused, not trying to extricate her arm from his grasp. “Yes?” She looked straight ahead into her room as she said it, not daring to meet those green eyes again.
He let go of her arm. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry,” he said. “This is really shitty timing for you. I’m sure you just want to be alone. I swear I’m not trying to upset you.”
At his words, she turned her face back to his.
He was so close she could reach out her tongue and lick him. If she’d been the kind of woman inclined to do that sort of thing. A Lizzie kind of woman. But the woman who was Beth considered doing it anyway, just to see if he tasted as good as looked.
She managed to pull herself back from the brink just in time. She pushed forward into her room, trying very hard to look casual as she threw over her shoulder. “Breakfast sounds good, Jim, I’ll be down in a few minutes.”
Breakfast somehow turned into a long, lazy brunch as Jim produced a mountain of food and they slipped into an easy detente. Beth couldn’t remember the last time she had been this full. It must have been a Christmas when her mother was still alive. If there was anything Ma loved more than a good tablecloth, it was stuffing her guests so full to the brim they needed to sleep for a week.
Beth stretched and yawned on the couch, wriggling her toes out in front of her so the fire could roast them a little more.
That honey-dark voice pulled her back from the enticing drag of an early afternoon nap.
“Beth?” Jim had gradually improved at saying her name over the course of the last twenty four hours.
She turned her face slightly so she could see him out of one eye. “Mmmmm...?”
“Storm’s clearing,” he said. “If it holds off I might be able to get away later on tonight.”
Something whiny and traitorous inside Beth rebelled at his words.
Going? So soon?
“Oh,” she said, sitting up straight. “Well...” She searched for the right words. “Well, that’s excellent. You might still get home for Christmas.” She tried to inject pleasure and relief into her words, but she wasn’t feeling it. She mentally kicked herself. When had she started liking having this enormous voyeur in her house?
Jim came and sat beside her on the sofa, sitting awkwardly as though he suddenly felt like a houseguest on borrowed time rather than someone with a valid small-town right to be here during a snowstorm. Someone comfortable enough to heat casseroles and cook breakfasts and barge into bathrooms where innocent women were drying off.
e was wearing his big jacket again, and Beth realised she hadn’t seen him for a while, and he must have been outside.
Probably chopping more firewood.
Beth felt awkward too. She assembled a question in her mind, something innocent and small-town-y, about who was home for Christmas and what the Canning clan would be doing over at their place.
But Jim spoke first. “I made you something.” As he said the words, he pulled something from his jacket pocket.
A lump of wood?
As he handed it over, the delicate curves and lines of the thing started to take shape before Beth’s eyes. It was a sculpture. A tiny, fragile wooden sculpture. And it was perfect. The little woman had shoulder-length hair, and a delicately upturned nose, a wide smile and legs that seemed somehow too long for her petite frame.
Beth stared at the legs, and the lines took on more form.
Oh my God.
The sculpture was Beth. In her pyjama top. She looked like a cross between a goddess and a siren, sweet and tempting all at once.
Was this how he saw her?
She turned the thing over in her hands, steadfastly looking down at the sculpture rather than at the dark green eyes she could feel burning into her. It felt smooth and warm in her hand and under her fingers. Sensual.
Jim cleared his throat and when she finally met his eyes, they were twinkling at her. “Just a little Christmas present, by way of thank you,” he said, a little stiffly. “For your hospitality. And your... companionship.” The little speech was so formal, and so unlike Jim, that Beth felt like they should be back at her father’s funeral.
She scratched around in the back of her throat, looking for her voice. “Th... Thank you, Jim,” she said finally. “It’s beautiful.”
“Yes it is,” Jim agreed, staring right at her, not the statue. “It sure is.”
As they sat together on the sofa, Beth wondered if it was going to happen. The room seemed to heat up indecently. Beth looked down at Jim’s big, brown hand on the chair between them. She longed to pick it up, feel it in her own. But why? What good could possibly come of it? She squeezed her eyes shut against the temptation.
Finally, Jim exhaled and stood up. “I’m going to hit the radio and check the roads,” he said. “See what time I can make a break for it.”
“Of course,” she said, not trusting her voice, but wanting, suddenly, to say something, anything, to delay him leaving. “Let’s just have a drink together first.”
He raised an eyebrow at her.
“Toast the season,” she said, swallowing carefully.
“How did you find out?”
Beth was amazed he could even speak. He’d had at least twice as many whiskeys as she had. The power had gone out, so there was no television, but she’d lit the kerosene lamps, and they still had the fire.
And as the sweet malt had slipped down, they’d started talking. She’d been surprised, again, by just how easy he was to talk to.
“Old Mrs Sayer called,” she said. “She found him when he didn’t make it to choir rehearsal.”
He studied her, those dark green eyes soft and warm. “Are you okay?” The way he said it, it was different from the way everyone else did. Just... different. Not like an obligation, not embarrassed, not awkward. Just like he really wanted to know. And like he was happy to sit and wait for the answer. For as long as it took.
She considered the question through the warm whiskey haze. She stared towards the window, where Jim had rigged up the makeshift Christmas tree with some dessicated tinsel h
e’d also managed to dig up. “Yeah, I think I’m okay,” she said. “I mean, he was.... well, everyone knew what he was. It’s not like when Ma died. That was worse, more personal.”
But as she said the words, she knew she was missing something and somehow that mattered, suddenly. It mattered that she get it right, explaining this to him.
He reached one long brown arm across and refilled her tumbler, pouring an inch of the mahogany liquid into the heavy glass. “Except?”
“Except now it’s just me.” She felt the words fill up her throat and get stuck in her mouth. “I’m all alone, don’t belong to anything. Soon,” she said, motioning around the room. “All this will be sold, and I’ll have no reason to ever come back here again.” She looked at him, leaning back on the other side of the long sofa, his bare feet stretched towards the fire and his hands resting behind his neck. “That must be hard for you to understand,” she said. “There were always so many of you, so many Cannings.”
“And only one Lizzie Gibson.” The way he said her name made her look up at him. He was staring at her, his face hard to read. He reached forward and picked up her hand.
She snatched it away, irritated at how good it had felt inside his big warm one. “Are you making me fun of me?”
“No,” he said, moving closer to her on the sofa. “Not at all, Lizzie.”
“Beth,” she breathed, vaguely aware that he was too close, and that she’d had at least one too many whiskeys.
“Beth,” he breathed back, picking up her hand again. He was so close she could smell the woodsmokey freshness of him and the sweet whiskey heat of his breath. “All I was sayin’ was there was one Lizzie, and a lot of interest in her from my brothers.”
“It always sounded worse than it was,” she sniffed. “This damn town remembers everything.” She squeezed herself against her side of the sofa, away from all the good smells he was laying down, and held up her fingers. “How about I just set the record straight? About all those brothers of yours?”
“No need,” Jim said, sliding closer again, his voice deepening an octave. “I never much cared for keeping records.”
“That’s because you had one as long as your arm,” Beth snorted, trying to put some space between herself and the long, tall, streak of warm deliciousness sitting with her on the couch. “At one time,” she added, feeling maybe her reference to his stint in reform school was kind of mean.
“Right,” Jim agreed, sitting up straighter and moving slightly away, saluting crisply. “So maybe records are important.
Go ahead then. Shoot.”
Well first of all it was Matt,” Beth started. “He was my best friend, always.”
“Yup,” Jim agreed. “He pretty much loved you since forever. Came home from first day o’ school with a hand drawn picture of a freckly redhead and said he was gonna marry her.”
“He tried to kiss me every single day of school,” Beth said, smiling as she remembered. “But we were still pals,” she said. “In between.”
“Did he ever succeed?” Jim voice was low and dangerous, and Beth tried to underst
and how the conversation had taken such a turn.
,” she conceded. “In fifth grade.”
“How did he catch you?”
Jim looked surprised. “You were the fastest girl in school,” he said, waggling a finger at her. “You made the districts.”
“I had a sprained ankle,” Beth laughed.
Jim laughed too. “Matt never had any scruples.” He looked at her carefully, and nodded. “Go on,” he said.
“Well, all that ended when he met Joanne, of course,” she said.
Jim nodded, smiling. Matt’s wife, Joanne, always made people smile.
Beth took a deep breath, determined to get the whole story out. For once. Lay it out straight. “So then there was Luke,” she said.
Jim nodded in a way that said
“Luke was a year older than us,” she said, trying to get the story right.
“Yup,” Jim said. “My folks were nothing if not predictable. We’re all exactly eighteen months apart. Poor Ma.” He shook his head. “No wonder she died so young.”
“Well, so,” Beth continued. “I was really flattered when he asked me to the Spring Dance. He was kinda a big deal.”
“Cool Hand Luke,” Jim muttered. “Still gets the ladies hot under the collar.”
“Well not me,” Beth said, shaking her head definitely. “He was beautiful, but...”
Jim moved a little closer again and she caught another whiff of the cinnamon and gasoline smell of him. “But what?”
But he wasn’t you. Like a carbon copy without enough carbon. No edge. No life.
She couldn’t say that.
He broke the silence. “Did you kiss
There was a long pause as the question hung in the air between them, and Beth found herself mesmerised by his hot green stare. Then the spell seemed to break and Jim ran his hand over his face. “Sorry, Lizzie, I shoudna asked that. I just-“
“No,” Beth said. “I didn’t kiss him.”
“Huh,” Jim breathed. “He said you did.”
“You asked him?”
“No,” Jim said quickly. “No way. I... I didn’t want to know. But he told me anyway.”
“He lied,” Beth said.
“Yep,” Jim said. “I’d believe it. “
They both shook their heads at the gorgeous wastrel that was Luke Canning.
“That only leaves Mark,” Jim said.
“Yep,” Beth agreed.
“Another drink?” Jim held up the almost empty bottle.
“I definitely kissed Mark,” Beth said, holding up her glass and remembering the moment her life changed forever. The moment that set her on the road to becoming Beth and leaving Lizzie behind forever.
“Yes, Ma’am, you did,” Jim said, closing his eyes like he was remembering.
And he probably was.
The whole damn town had seen it, after all.