Ronan sat on the rug beside the boxes he’d set down. He opened the top box and viewed a set of round ornaments made of red glass and sprinkled with gold. As he lifted one, he recalled his mother showing him how to hang it on the tree. He’d hung a few on the lower branches while she sang along to Christmas music, encouraging him to sing with her. Riley the Border Collie yipped along when he wasn’t sleeping before the electric stove. It was new then.
Gabbi knelt beside him. “Ronan? Where are you?” Apprehension edged her voice.
“Right here. No flashbacks. Only real memories. Fine ones I’ve chosen to think on.”
As he described the highlights of his reminiscence, her taut expression eased. “That sounds wonderful. I wish I had memories like that.”
“And I wish it could have been different for you. I wish I could say that maybe we’ll make our own Christmas memories some day, but…”
Did I really say that?
Still on her knees, she leaned closer to him. “But what?”
Fumbling, he set the ornament back in its box. “That came out wrong. I’ll try again. You’re only here for a few days. Till when?”
“My flight leaves from Dublin right after New Year’s Day.”
“It’s a short time, and I’m sure you have plans that don’t include me. Still and all, if you’re amenable, we might make a Christmas memory or two while you’re here.”
“Like getting ourselves dusty up in your attic?”
“Something like that.”
“I see.” She peered at him. “You’re right. I do have plans, and I don’t think I like you enough to spend more than a little time with you.”
“What?” Had he heard her correctly?
She tapped her shoulder to his. “My grandmother used to say, if you want to get rid of a pesky man who’s trying to sweep you off your feet, tell him you love him and want to get married. He’ll panic and run for the hills. However, if you meet a man you like a lot, you should never tell him. If you do, he’ll think he can stop trying to make you like him. Always tell him you don’t like him, so he’ll try harder. The more you like him, the more you should say you don’t like him. At least that’s what my grandmother said.”
As the meaning of her words sank in, roses bloomed in Ronan’s soul. He let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “I see. Am I correct to think you aren’t keen on spending time in my company?”
“You are. In fact, I thoroughly dislike you, Ronan Swanton.” She leaned closer, caressed his chin, and kissed him. “I practically despise you.” Another kiss. “Mmm. You’re a rude, unpleasant man.”
She’d not only defused his embarrassment when he’d nearly confessed that he loved her, she’d also made the first declaration, upside down as it was, of how things stood between them. Buoyed by her humor and honesty, he offered an inkling of his own. “Your grandmother would surely disapprove to hear that I’m growing attached to you, Lady Fox.”
Playfully, she punched his arm. “Yeah, I figured that.”
“Did you?” Serious now, Ronan sighed. “Did you also figure I shouldn’t be saying such things to you? I can’t look too far into the future, Gabbi. Not until I’ve fixed whatever is wrong with my head. Whatever it is, I’m hellbent on sorting it out.”
“I do understand. I know you’ll be okay. I want you to believe it too. How about this? Let’s agree to appreciate our time together with no worries about the future. Have fun while I’m here. No strings.”
He brushed his fingers over her sweater. “I like your strings.”
“I’ll run in and put on some clean clothes. We’ll do our errands, you’ll take your pictures, and I’ll treat you to dinner, as promised.”
“Sounds good. When we stop by the house for my camera, I’ll change my clothes too. And maybe…”
“Maybe pack my toothbrush?”
“Bad idea, Lady Fox. I don’t like it at all. Not one bit.” Grinning away, he went to his bedroom to change.