"So," Nia Athers said, slightly out of breath. With the last bit of energy she had left, she set her newly purchased Christmas tree down in the middle of the tiny entryway of the apartment she shared with her husband, Eric, and smiled. "What do you think?"
She waved her tired hands in a way that would have even made Vanna White proud, showcasing the small tree she'd lugged up four flights of stairs. The elevator at their less-than-luxury apartment complex was once again on the fritz, leaving her no other option but to make the long trip by foot. Thankfully, the tiny fir had fared better than she had, only losing a few needles in the process. Nia, on the other hand, hadn't fared as well. After that impromptu workout, she was sweating, sticky and most definitely in need of a shower.
Luckily for her pride, Eric only had eyes for her new acquisition. From the displeased expression on his handsome face, Nia could tell he was far from impressed.
Irritated at his unenthusiastic demeanor, Nia lowered her arms. "What?"
"Charlie Brown called," Eric said with all seriousness. "He wants his tree back."
What a clown. "Ha. Ha. Ha." Nia stuck her tongue out at her husband then looked over at her purchase with a critical eye as she took off her gloves and stuffed them in her pockets. Okay, so it wasn't as full or as tall or as straight as she would have preferred, but the scrawny, right-leaning tree had character. "It's not that bad."
"I've seen greener tumbleweeds in Death Valley." He pushed back a bit from the small, round, secondhand wooden table to cross his arms over his chest. "During the summer."
Liar. Nia was not going to let his sour mood spoil her holiday cheer. Mindful of her purchase, she carefully leaned the tree against the wall and waited a few seconds to make sure it was stable before turning to face her prey once more. With a devilish plan in mind, she slid her purse off her shoulder as she walked over to her husband of two years and gently whacked him in the back of his head with her bag.
"A very Merry Christmas to you too, Ebenezer."
Eric let out an expected "Ouch," but Nia knew it was all for show. Her husband had a wealth of thick, dark, dirty-blond hair to protect him from her tiny assault. Besides, she hadn't been trying to hurt him, just smack some sense into him.
After setting her purse down on the table, she unzipped the cream-colored, insulated coat she wore to protect herself from the below-freezing weather outside and slid it off her weary, tender shoulders. "God it's cold out there."
Before she had a chance to hang it on the back of her chair, Eric pulled her down onto his lap. After taking her coat from her and dropping it on the floor, he cupped her chilled hands inside his larger, warmer ones and brought them up to his mouth to breathe on them. "Not much warmer in here," he said between huffs.
Nia glanced down at his Stanford Cardinal sweatshirt and sighed. "The heater on the fritz again?"
"Yep, I called down and complained. The super said he'd be up tomorrow to look at it."
They both knew that was a lie. "I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen."
"I wouldn't. I know one thing though, if the damn thing doesn't get fixed soon, we'll have to change the lyrics from 'Jingle Bells' to 'Jingle Blue Balls'."
"Sounds jolly enough."
"Not to my balls," he grumbled.
"Oh my poor Santa baby." Nia wrapped her arms around his shoulders and leaned back to stare up at her man. Her man, wow. No matter how many times she thought of him like that or how many times she caught a glimpse of the gold band on her left ring finger, it was still sometimes hard to believe he belonged solely to her, and she to him.
At times it seemed as if he were too perfect. Brilliant, loving and fine as hell. Even now, with his hazel eyes bloodshot from long hours at the hospital, and the five o'clock shadow gracing his rugged jaw line, Eric was still hands down the hottest-looking man she'd ever seen in her life. When she first met him, she'd thought he was the handsomest white man she'd ever seen. Now he was the most attractive man of any race to her. Because Nia was no longer looking with her eyes, but with her heart, and that made a world of difference.
It still amazed her that someone like him would ever have been interested in a girl like her. While he was making the Dean's list at Stanford, she took courses to register as a massage therapist. Eric used every spare minute he had hitting the books, whereas she enjoyed game nights with her friends and hitting the same ol' bar every Saturday night. Not to pick up men, but to drink and dance. In fact, it was at that exact bar she'd met Eric, who was there begrudgingly celebrating a friend's birthday. She'd thought he was hot but distant, and later he'd told her he thought she was loud but friendly.
Whatever it was they saw in each other obviously made a very big impression, because studious Eric soon put as much effort into wooing Nia as he had making good grades. And when it was time a year later for him to pack up and leave California to begin his residency, she came along as his wife. Sometimes it amazed her how quickly it all had happened or how it happened at all. Eric played his cards close to his chest. He was reserved, but there was more to him than met the eye. She saw it, even when he tried his best to hide it from her. Besides, she knew he loved her, needed her, even if he didn't say it as often as she would like.
"What are you looking at?" His words pulled her back from the past, while his hands pulled her even closer against him.
The heat from his body radiated straight through her clothes. If she stayed on his lap, she wouldn't be cold for long...or clothed for that matter. Two very good things in her book. "My handsome husband. What about you?"
"My very beautiful wife who has horrid taste in trees."
Nia narrowed her eyes. "Didn't you get the text? 'Tis the season to be jolly."
"I thought it was spam, so I deleted it."
"But you saw it."
"Yes, Sunshine," he said in a joking manner, as he always did whenever she did her glass-was-half-full thing. "I saw it."
"So you have to do what the spam god says, or you'll get seventy years of bad luck."
"Yes. Seventy." She liked it when he kidded around. Eric was far too busy with his residency these days to take pleasure in much of anything. They both knew the road to becoming a physician wasn't going to be a cakewalk, but even with that knowledge, she still hadn't been prepared for the never-ending, all-consuming black hole that had become their lives.
Between her two jobs, and his residency and extra hours in the emergency room, there were days when they literally only saw each other in passing. To make matters worse, despite them both working their butts off, thanks to the mound of debt due to the school loans, they basically lived paycheck to paycheck. There was never enough money for anything extra, only necessities, and it was far from the way she wanted to live.
However, if the choice was being debt free without Eric, or being broke but in love, Nia would pick broke every time. Even during the bad times, the fights about money and their uncoordinated schedules, things weren't awful, because she still had Eric.
In spite of working a double shift and lugging the tree up the stairs to an unappreciative reception, Nia was tired but happy. Sighing, she sat up and stretched. "Are you hungry?"
"No. I grabbed something from the cafeteria."
Nia grimaced. The stuff they served down there barely counted as food. At least at the diner where she worked part time she could ensure the food she fed him was fresh. "Yuck. You should have come down to the diner. I would have made sure you ate right." Eric was working so hard he was beginning to lose weight he really couldn't afford to.
"I assure you, I barely tasted anything it went down so fast."
"That can't be good."
"It is what it is." Eric turned his attention to the tree again. "So, do I even want to know how much you paid for this?"
She gave him her most innocent look from beneath lowered lashes. "It was a steal."
"Oh, there's no doubt in mind about that. Your money was definitely stolen." Eric eyed the tree critically. "We should call the police."
Nia swatted his chest. "Stop hating on the tree."
"I'm not sure if it honestly fits in the tree category." He tilted his head to the side as he studied it. "More like a nearly bald bush."
"Stop it," she said with a slight pout. "It's cute, or it will be as soon as I'm done with it." She already had the decorations from last year, and a few more in the hall closet she'd scrounged up at the dollar store in preparation for tonight. The first one they'd had in a long time where they both would be at home in the evening at the exact same time. Awake. It was a Christmas miracle, and she was going to embrace every second of it. "You'll see and you'll be amazed."
"I can say this, it can certainly only get better."
"Are you going to help me trim it or just complain about it all day?"
"Can't I do both?" His lips curved into a smirking grin.
"You most certainly cannot."
"What do I get if I help?"
Hmm... They were negotiating. This was promising. "What do you want?"
"The only thing I ever want." Eric slid his large, warm hand under her hair to her nape and pulled her closer to him, so their mouths were mere inches apart. "You."
Nia licked her lips at the promise in his words. "I think that can be arranged."
"Then you've got yourself a tree trimmer."
"And you've got yourself...well...me."
"Deal." He sealed their agreement with a kiss that made her pulse speed up, her nipples tighten and her bones melt. Kissing Eric was like coming home. He knew what she liked, where to linger, and exactly how to drive her wild with a single touch of his lips. By the time he pulled away, Nia was no longer sure she'd be able to stand let alone decorate a tree. But Eric made the choice for her. He nudged her off his lap then stood. "I'll move the not-a-tree into the living room, and you get the decorations."
"You know," she said seductively. "We can always do that later."
"Oh no." Eric grinned devilishly. "We're going to decorate it, then I'm going to lay you down in front of it and make sweet love to you."
"The sweetest," he reiterated with a naughty smile.
Nia quivered. "I'll get the boxes, and you keep that idea first and foremost in your mind."
"Don't worry, baby. It will be."
She was counting on it.
That tree flat-out sucked.
Decorating it wasn't making it better. Only worse. Now instead of the slight lean it had when she first brought it in, the little Christmas tree-that-couldn't was tilting hard to the right, despite the decorations she piled on the left to counterbalance it. Truly, Eric had never seen a more homely piece of wood in his life. It was actually so bad he had begun to feel sorry for it. So sorry, in fact, he insisted they move it out of the window, so no other real trees would catch a glimpse of the limp little thing and laugh.
"Stop it," Nia warned from the floor where she was sitting, wrapping the remaining lights around a cardboard square for easier storage.
Eric glanced from the tree to Nia. His lips quirked a bit as he thought of how childlike she appeared. She was dressed in a navy blue sweater and jeans, and her shoulder-length black hair was pulled up into a high ponytail. There wasn't an ounce of makeup on her face, but he couldn't remember a time when she'd looked lovelier.
"I mean it," she warned again.
"Stop what?" he asked, a bit confused about what she was referring to. He'd been too busy staring at her to pay mind to what she'd been saying. Not that he was dumb enough to admit it. "I wasn't doing anything."
"Yes, you were."
Nia glanced up at him and arched a brow, as if daring him to lie. "You were pitying the tree."
"Its hard not to," he admitted. "It's like the saddest tree in Sadland. It's so bad I think someone should write a children's book about it."
It really was pathetic. For the first time in his life, Eric had only used one strand of lights on a Christmas tree. Normally it was two at the least, but this little thing was so bald that too many lights on it would make it look like a glowing orb.
By the way she pursed her lips he could tell she was doing her best not to break out in a smile. "Then try harder." Like the drill sergeant she could be at times, she handed him a spicy cinnamon candy cane and pointed at the tree. "Find a place for this, please, then that should do it."
He could only hope. "Aye aye, Captain." Eric took the red-and-white treat and made his way over to the tree. He stood there for several minutes, debating which limb to bring low with the added weight of the candy. When nothing seemed viable, he glanced over his shoulder at Nia, who was busy cleaning up the mess, and tucked the candy in his pocket. Obligation fulfilled, he made his way to the kitchen and snagged a beer from the fridge.
After opening it, he returned to the living room and leaned against the wall next to the picture of a fireplace Nia had ripped out of a magazine and hung their Christmas stockings beneath, so he could watch her in her element. Christmas music was blaring from his laptop, and she was bopping her head to the beat as she worked.
Nia was going all out this year, and even though he thought she was crazy at first, he had to admit it was cute. She was making their shitty apartment a home, in every way possible. Nia was at her core a nurturer. It was a side of her that called to him and made him want to just bask in the warmth of her love. She looked up at him at that very moment and smiled, as if she knew what he'd been thinking about her.
Instead of returning her smile, he lowered his gaze and took another swig from the bottle. Eric wasn't someone who was comfortable expressing his feelings, and he hadn't yet grown used to being emotionally bare in front of her. He held himself back, he knew he did, but he wasn't sure how to tell her how he felt. Saying I love you was easy, showing it outside of the bedroom was a completely different thing. Clearing his throat, he looked at her again and jumped on the first thing that came to mind. "So you never said. How much did it cost?"
"Dollars?" Eric cocked an eyebrow in disbelief.
"No, cents." Nia rolled her expressive brown eyes. "Of course dollars."
"Because as homely as it is..." and man, was it homely, "...that's awful cheap."
"Are you complaining?" Disbelief was heavy in her voice.
"No, I'm curious, where did you buy it from?" More importantly, who did she buy it from?
"The lot down the way from the diner. The guy who works there comes in a lot."
"They were having a big sale or something?"
"Or something," she said with a little smile as she closed the box containing the remaining decorations.
"Right." That was what he figured. Eric snorted and straightened away from the wall. It appeared as if Eric was going to have to have a talk with this tree salesman.
"Don't what me." He set his bottle on the floor then made his way over to her. "You flirted with that guy, didn't you?"
"I don't flirt. Flirting is for girls who have to try."
"And you don't have to, do you?" She certainly hadn't with him. The first time he'd seen the dark-skinned beauty he damn near swallowed his tongue. He could still remember the way the short black dress she'd worn molded to her curves, accentuating her lush breasts and long silky legs. One look and he'd been a goner. Hell, he still was. All she had to do was walk into the room and he grew hard. "I guess it's one of the luxuries of being beautiful."
Her full lips curled in a slow smile. "I'm beautiful because you love me."
"You're beautiful because of your remarkable deoxyribonucleic acid. My love has nothing to do it with it."
"Oh, baby. You say the sweetest things." Nia rose to her feet and wrapped her arms around his waist. "Have I ever told you you're cute when you're jealous?"
"I'm not jealous." He was possessive. There was a difference.
"And I love it," she continued as if he hadn't spoken, "when you use medical terms. Makes me so hot."
Eric snorted. "Going for charm now?"
"I'm going with the truth. I'm yours. All yours. No one else matters."
She said it with so much conviction he couldn't help but believe her, but for the life of him, he couldn't figure out why she felt the way she did. There wasn't a day he didn't come home thinking this was going to be it. The day he found the letter from her telling him she'd had enough and she was going home to sunny, warm California.
Not that he would blame her if she did. He'd sold her on something he hadn't been able to deliver yet. A better life. And right now she was working twice as hard as she had been when they first met, just so he could follow his dream. It killed him inside to know she'd given up her family and friends and he couldn't even get Christmas off to be with her. Nia, being Nia, had quickly said it didn't matter, but looking around the apartment and all the little knickknacks she'd put up, he could tell it did. He was failing her, and sooner or later she was going to wise up to that fact.
"Did you hear what I said?" Nia tapped her fingers on his chest. "I'm all yours."
"You better be because I don't share." He couldn't even fathom the idea of doing so. "Not even for discounts on sad little trees."
Laughing, Nia released him and turned in his arms so her back was against his chest. "Look."
Eric wrapped his arms around her and glanced over to the corner where the tree was. "Yeah?"
"Doesn't it look great now?"
Eric chose his next words carefully. "Remember how I said I didn't think you could make it look any worse?"
"I might have been mistaken."
Nia gave him a sharp jab to his stomach. "Shut up. It's perfect, brat."
"Well, it is perfectly...done."
Nia looked up at him and smiled. "That it is."
"But I see we have a box of decorations still to be put up."
"True, but..." Nia glanced around the now completely Christmased room with a discerning eye. "I don't really think we can put up anything else. It might be overkill."
"Oh I agree. I wasn't going to decorate the room." His voice dropped to a seductive whisper as he leaned to speak into her ear. "I'm going to decorate you."