AN ABBOTT THANKSGIVING
From It’s Only Love
Everything about this Thanksgiving felt different to Ella from every other one that came before it. For one thing, it was the first one they’d spent in the lake house. For another, the family football game happened on the beach rather than in the field next to the barn. It was strange not to have Hunter and Max with them, which was also a first. It was the first Thanksgiving in which they’d taken turns going to the hospital to visit Max and baby Caden, who’d had a good first night.
It was the first Thanksgiving that Ella had somewhere else she’d rather be—or rather the first time she wished she could be in two places at once.
After dinner with the family, Ella helped clear the table and pack up the leftovers before she went into her room to grab her stuff. To Charley, she said, “I’m going to head back to Butler now. Do you want to come or hang here for a while?”
“I’ll go back later with Will and Cam.”
Ella hugged her sister. “See you later then.” After saying her good-byes to everyone else, Ella headed off to Butler, pressing a little harder than usual on the accelerator because she was so eager to be with Gavin.
It had been an odd Thanksgiving for Gavin. He’d spent most of the day wishing Ella were there to make everything better, but his parents were also different today. Sure, his mom was scurrying around making the traditional turkey dinner, but they were also packing for their trip to Turks and Caicos in the morning.
By three thirty he was standing in front of the window that looked out over the driveway watching for Ella. He and his parents sat down to eat at four, and as it did every year, Caleb’s glaring absence left an empty space across the table and in Gavin’s heart. He missed him so much—every day, but more so on days like this that were set aside for family, and he was forced to confront how small his family had become.
Over dinner, his mom said she wanted to talk about what they were thankful for. “I’ll start,” she said with a warm, happy smile. “This year I’m thankful for my husband and son and what we’ve managed to weather together. I’m thankful to have been Caleb’s mother, to have the incredible blessing of his life to cherish for the rest of mine.” She took a deep breath, dabbed at her eyes and continued. “I’m thankful for the inn that Hannah started, which has given Dad and me all new purpose this year and for the grandbaby she will soon bring into our lives. I’m thankful for your beautiful smile, Gavin. I’ve missed it, and it’s nice to see it back again. And for that, I’m most thankful to Ella, who has given you reason to smile again. That’s my list.”
“Ditto,” his dad said.
“That’s a cop-out,” Amelia said, smiling at her husband.
“How so? I’m thankful for all those same things.”
“All right, fine. Be that way. What about you, Gav?”
Gavin felt surprisingly emotional after hearing his mother’s heartfelt list, and her inclusion of Ella touched him deeply. “I’m thankful for all those things, too. Mostly for you guys. I’m glad we always have each other even if we don’t see each other every day. You know I’m right there for you, or at least I hope you do.”
“Of course we do,” Amelia said, laying her hand over his. “You’ve been a wonderful son to us your entire life, but never more so than since we lost your brother.”
Gavin forced a smile for his mom as he contended with the lump in his throat. For as long as he’d lived, he’d done so in the shadow of his much more accomplished older brother. He’d never minded the shadow and had missed it after it was gone, but the irony that Caleb had been the one to die young wasn’t lost on him. It should’ve been him. Caleb had a wife he’d adored, an incredible career, so many talents and a future filled with promise.
Whereas Gavin had none of those things. He would always wish it had been him instead of Caleb. It would’ve been easier for everyone if it had been him. But as he waited to see Ella again, for the first time in a long time, he was glad it hadn’t been him. He finally had something worthwhile to live for again, and he couldn’t wait to see her.
They had finished dinner and were cleaning up when a knock on the mudroom door had him bolting across the kitchen. Gavin threw open the door, and there she was looking fresh-faced and beautiful and as happy to see him as he was to see her. He pulled her into his arms and held her tight against him, breathing her in and filled with relief to have her back where she belonged.
Two weeks ago, he would’ve shied away from that thought, but now he couldn’t deny that she belonged to him, and he belonged to her. And he liked it that way.
“There you are,” he said after a long moment of silence.
“Here I am.”
“Missed you, too.”
He drew back from her and gazed down at her lovely face before stealing a quick kiss. It took all he had to remember where he was and that he couldn’t lose himself in the kiss or her. Not now anyway. But the minute he could spirit her away from his parents’ house all bets were off.
He helped her out of her coat and took her by the hand to lead her into the kitchen where his mother was preparing to serve up the one pie she’d made—apple because it was his favorite. She normally made a lot more food, but because they were leaving town for a week, she’d dialed it back this year.
“Ella!” Amelia rushed over to hug and kiss her. “Happy Thanksgiving and congratulations on the new nephew.”
“Thank you. He’s beautiful.”
“I’m sure he is, and I love his name.”
“I do, too.” She hugged and kissed his dad and gratefully accepted the pie his mother offered.
Gavin fixed her a cup of coffee the way she liked it and brought it to the table, which now seemed less empty with that fourth seat filled by someone he loved. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. She looked so good, but then again she always did. From her shiny hair to the rosy glow of her cheeks to her gorgeous brown eyes and delicious pink lips, she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever known—inside and out.
He couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t been drawn to her. She was so kind and sweet and always thinking of others before herself. He’d recognized those qualities in her long before the time they’d recently spent together and had probably been in love with her for years, if he were being honest with himself.
Every time he’d laid eyes on her, he’d wanted her. Never more so than right now when she chatted happily with his parents about their upcoming trip while enjoying her pie and coffee. She seemed to be in no particular rush to get out of there while he was on the verge of spontaneously combusting from the desire that coursed through him.
Running her fork through a dollop of whipped cream, she brought it to her mouth, her eyes catching his across the table.
He covered his moan with a cough that didn’t fool Ella. Standing so fast he nearly knocked over his chair, Gavin took his plate to the sink, rinsed it and put it in the dishwasher. “We’ve got to get going.”
“So soon?” his mom said. “Ella just got here.”
“Yes, Gavin,” Ella said. “I just got here.”
The glare he sent her was met with a grin that told him she knew what he wanted and was enjoying making him wait. Well, two could play at that game. As soon as he had that thought, he had to squelch it or risk walking around with an embarrassing bulge in his pants.
Rather than indulge in thoughts about his plans for later, he continued to load the dishwasher, making as much noise as he could to vent his frustration.
“Go easy on my plates, Gavin,” his mother said sternly, making Ella laugh.
It was nice to hear laughter in this house again, even if it was at his expense. He’d happily take the lumps to bring some light back into his life and that of his parents. Ella was all light and joy and peace. He was drawn to her like a magnet to steel, the pull impossible to deny or resist, not that he wanted to do either of those things. Not anymore.
Right in that moment, standing at his mother’s kitchen sink, he became acutely aware of the fact that he needed to marry her to ensure she’d never be anywhere other than with him, where she belonged. If one night away from her had left him reeling, the thought of the whole rest of his life without her was like imagining a return to the barren wasteland of nothingness where he’d been stranded for far too long. After the taste of heaven he’d had with her, he had no desire whatsoever to return to that life.
Filled with irrational fear of all the many ways he could still screw this up, he resolved to act sooner rather than later to make this relationship permanent. Once she had his ring on her finger, she wouldn’t be able to get away. She’d be stuck with him, for better or worse. And he’d be gloriously, blissfully stuck with her.
He couldn’t wait for that.
Ella decided an hour with Amelia and Bob was enough to be polite, enough to make Gavin suffer a little.
“You ready?” he asked from his spot next to her on the sofa.
“If you are.”
He glared at her, letting her know how ready he was to leave—how ready he’d been for some time now.
“It was so nice of you to cut short your holiday with your own family to spend some time with us,” Amelia said when she walked them to the door.
“It was well worth it for that pie of yours,” Ella said. “I need your recipe.”
“I’ll write it down for you. It’s Gavin’s favorite.”
“Thanks for a fabulous day, Mom,” Gavin said, kissing her cheek. “Have a great trip and be safe.”
“We’ll call you while we’re away.”
“Don’t worry about me. Just have a good time.”
“I will worry about you, and I will call you.”
“Thanks for the warning,” he grumbled with a good-natured grin for his mother.
“He’s all yours for the next week,” Amelia said when she hugged Ella.
“I’ll keep a close eye on him.”
“That sounds good to me,” he said. With his hand on Ella’s back, Gavin led her out of the house.
“Your place or mine?”
She could tell he was surprised to hear her say that, because they’d been spending most nights at his place thanks to her nosy landlady.
“It’s closer,” she said meaningfully.
“Hurry.” He patted her ass and sent her along to her car, which was parked behind his truck.
As Ella followed the speed limit to the letter, she could almost feel him boiling behind her. She’d felt him on slow simmer the whole time she’d been at his parents’ home, trying to be polite while she visited with Bob and Amelia when all he wanted to do was get her out of there.
It was heady stuff to be wanted that way by the man she loved. But it was also fun to play with him a little, to make him wait, to build the tension.
She pulled into her driveway with him right behind her. Before she could gather her purse and the backpack she’d taken to Burlington, he was upon her, opening her door and reaching for her seatbelt. “Gavin! Wait.”
“I’ve already waited long enough.”
“Five more minutes won’t kill you.”
“It just might. Move it.” He “helped” her out of the car and propelled her along with the force of his own desire. Her feet barely touched the ground on the way inside or as they went up the stairs as one being, his arm around her waist moving her along. Once again, she felt swept away by him, overtaken in the best possible way. The potent excitement of being back in his arms was overshadowed only by the lingering fear of how her surprise would be received.
Inside her apartment, he took the backpack from her and dropped it with a thud inside the door. Then he removed her coat, her sweater and was working on her jeans by the time she caught up to him.
“Gavin, wait, I want to talk to you—”
“After. We’ll talk after.”