That’s What I’m Talking About is so excited to participate in Berkley Bookmas and we’re sharing a special Christmas deleted scene from School Ties by Tamsen Parker today! Berkley Bookmas is chock full of exclusive content from authors like exclusive excerpts, deleted scenes, author recipes and more! Check out the calendar of events below:
A Hawthorn Hill Christmas
a deleted scene from School Ties by Tamsen Parker
It’s our second Christmas together, and I cannot wait for Shep to wake up. Usually when I get up before him (which is almost always since my husband is not a morning person) I go out to the living room so I won’t wake him with my fidgeting. But I can’t today, because his mom is staying on our couch for a few days for the holiday. Caleb really hadn’t wanted to go home for the month-long winter break and we weren’t about to make him.
Their dad has been better but still not great, so we invited their parents to Hawthorn for the holiday. While Christy was excited, Doug passed. Fine with us. It still leaves me trying my very, very best to be still and quiet even though it is Christmas morning, and there are presents under the tree. Not a lot, but enough that the spread had made Caleb’s eyes go wide when he’d brought his backpack over a few days ago with stuff from his dorm room hastily crammed in. It’s not like he needs to worry if he forgot something—his other room is right across campus.
To prepare for the festivities, I went all out with the decorating—it looks like the North Pole threw up in our apartment, there’s even tinsel in the bathroom—and with the cookies since it’s not like I can provide anything special in the way of Christmas dinner. Luckily, Uncle Rett and Aunt Tilly took pity on us and we’ll be having the afternoon meal with them. Tilly promised to make pot roast for Shep, and I think he might be more excited for that than he is for his presents under the tree.
He shouldn’t be.
I’ve been saving my money for almost a year, and Shep is going to be delighted. Not just by his actual present, but by how much planning and foresight I put into it. He is going to love, love, love it. So much. I can’t wait.
My excitement can’t be contained apparently, because Shep rolls over with a sleepy grunt and flops a heavy arm over my mid-section before snuggling into my side.
“Why’re you up so early, lamb?”
I love his sleep-musty smell, the weight of his warm body, and usually I’d encourage him to maybe start a little something. Begin our morning with a bang. But Caleb and Christy are here, so we’ll behave ourselves. Mostly. We’ll still play our little games, and they’ll have no idea. It’s kind of like being a dirty secret agent.
“I’m sorry I woke you. But it’s Christmas, and I just—it’s Christmas, and I can’t wait to give you your present.”
He huffs a laugh, kisses my neck, and then bites my shoulder. “Are you sure it’s not about getting your present? Because I think you’re gonna like that too.”
Of that, I have no doubt. We don’t have a lot of money, but he always gives me really thoughtful gifts. Things he knows I’ll enjoy, and frequently there are two. One I can show people, tell people about when they ask and another, not so much.
“I know I will.”
He seems to have fallen back asleep so I try to occupy myself so I don’t disturb him again. It’s impossible. I don’t have any work to do for a few days at least, all the presents are wrapped, and the holiday preparations are done. Having to be still is killing me. When I just can’t handle it anymore, Shep laughs in that quiet, adoring way because he knows I’m not the best at being still when I’m excited. It’s something he uses to his advantage when we play.
“There might be a little something under the bed to keep you occupied until Caleb and my mom get up.”
He laughs more when I practically fall out of bed so I can grab what’s waiting for me. It’s flat and wrapped terribly because that is not Shep’s strong suit, but the wrapping doesn’t last long anyway. I rip it off in a flurry, and under the paper is a sticker book. A grown-up one where you can make famous works of art by matching the stickers to the spaces like a sticker-by-number, but a sticker book nonetheless.
I love it.
I scramble back into bed, arrange my pillow so I can sit up and before I dig in, lean over to brush a bit of hair off his forehead before I press a kiss there.
“Thank you, Zach. It’s perfect.”
And while he goes back to sleep, I set to the project he’s given me, content.
The smell of bacon frying is what finally rouses me. My mom must be making breakfast, because except for baking, Erin stays far away from our kitchen. I’ve gotten better with some basics, but let’s just say it’s a good thing we eat ninety percent of our meals in the dining hall with the guys.
Cracking open an eye, I half-expect Erin to be gone from the bed since my mom and Caleb are already up—no way my little brother has slept through the smell of bacon. He eats like two horses and the four inches he’s sprung up since he got here proves it. He’s still kinda skinny, but I think that’s just his build. Wiry and lean, he’s not inclined to bulk up. Not that he needs to—he plays squash for his required sport, and the rest of the time he’s in the theater. And on student council. And in Model UN. And on yearbook and the student paper. He’s flourishing here, and Erin is killing it as the Chair of the math department, and basically everything is right in my world.
Which is why Erin is still in our bed, her gift spread across her lap, a look of extreme concentration furrowing her brow.
“It’s ‘sposed to be fun, lamb.”
She turns her head, a shy smile lighting up her face. “It is. I love it. I just don’t want to mess it up.”
My sweet lamb. Well, as long as she’s enjoying it.
“You ready to get up now? Smells like my mom’s making breakfast. Which means Caleb’s up and probably chomping at the bit to open his presents under the tree.”
“Do we have to eat first?”
“Yeah, we have to eat first. You don’t want to hurt my mom’s feelings, right?”
Erin shakes her head, because of course not. She and my mom get along really well, and it makes me happy to see them together. I talked to my mom a bit last night after Caleb and Erin had gone to bed, and things are better with her and my dad. With me and Caleb out of the house, he’s less stressed about money, and she’s convinced him to cut back on the drinking. He’s still kind of a jackass, but he doesn’t yell hardly at all, and that’s a huge improvement. Hopefully he’ll keep getting better and she’ll keep getting happier. And if not, we’ll figure out a way to move her up here. Maybe not in Hawthorn because it’s pretty ritzy but in a town close by.
I stretch and finally manage to set my feet on the floor, pull on a Hawthorn Lacrosse sweatshirt on over my T-shirt, and Erin puts her sticker book aside to get out of bed, shoving her feet into her sheep slippers and looking freaking adorable in her fleecy Christmas llama pajamas.
We make our way out to the living room where my mom and my brother are already seated at our dining table, helping themselves from plates piled high with pancakes and bacon and sausage. I tug the syrup bottle out of Caleb’s hand before he can flood his plate with it. He’s got a stack of pancakes about as big as his head, and I’m sure he’ll have another one before he’s through.
When it’s finally time to open presents, Caleb and Erin make a break for it and distribute the packages to everyone. Caleb gets mostly clothes because he keeps freaking growing out of the ones he has, but he doesn’t complain. It’s nice for him to have things that fit properly and aren’t hand-me-downs. Erin and I also got him a video game that he has to keep here since he’s not allowed to have a game system in his dorm room. I think maybe Erin picked that one instead of one he could load on his laptop because she likes having him around. He comes over a lot during the weekends, and sometimes when I get back from a Saturday away game, I find them baking cookies together in the kitchen or watching a movie. It frigging kills me, how full that makes my heart.
After everyone’s opened everything, Erin and I look at each other. There wasn’t a present from me to her or from her to me. Suspicious. I know why mine couldn’t go under the tree, but what’s her excuse?
“Yours should be arriving any second,” she says, eyes flicking to the clock and then to the door.
“Yours, too.” I narrow my eyes at her, but she just bites her lip and looks like she’s about to burst from keeping this secret. She’s so proud of herself, and so excited. No matter what it is, how happy she is for giving it to me will make it the greatest thing ever.
We weren’t off much on the timing, because there’s a knock at the door and Erin scrambles over to it, not even giving me a chance to get off the couch before she’s flinging the door open, letting Ellie Fishburne in with her squirmy little girl in her arms. Maya is bundled up in a hat and gloves and snowsuit and she is not happy about it.
I take the restless munchkin from Ellie, settling Maya on my hip and pulling off her hat and gloves and zipping her out of her snowsuit before she loses her little mind. I don’t miss the way Erin looks at us, like she loves seeing Maya smile her gummy smile at me, but it also squeezes her heart.
Soon, Erin, soon. I know she wants a baby of our own, and I do too, but we said we’d wait until Caleb goes to college. Kid deserves a few years of having all our time and resources dedicated to him. And it wouldn’t hurt for us to get more established here at Hawthorn, either.
Erin can’t see it, but I think Rett Wilson is grooming her to take over his job as Head when he retires. Has been bringing her to boarding school leadership conferences under the guise of being a doddering old man who needs someone to keep him on task. Yeah, right. He might be old, but that man is sharp as ever. If he really thought he was losing it, he’d step down because he’d never do anything to hurt this school that he’s dedicated his entire professional life to.
Makes me forget for a second that one of the Fishburnes is missing. “Hey, where’s Cole?”
And what Cole is supposed to be bringing over from their faculty apartment across the quad…
Ellie pulls off her own hat and unwinds her scarf while stomping snow off her boots. In a small miracle, we’re actually having a white Christmas on the Hill. “He’s coming. He’s just lugging that, uh, package up the stairs.”
I head to the door, passing Maya off to Erin on my way. She’s only too happy to take the little muffin. Before I can get out to the hall to lend Cole a hand, he’s there in the doorway with a big crate in each hand, looking like he might pass out.
Two crates? I know what one of them is, but…
One of the crates barks, and the other one barks back.
Maya’s grabbed a hank of my hair, and I’m trying to untangle her tiny fingers without hurting either of us. Shep is still standing in the doorway, frozen. He must know by now what his present is, and not that I can see his face, but his body language doesn’t scream “thrilled.”
I thought he’d be happy. He loves the dogs around campus, and I thought he’d like company when he goes running on Sundays since I sure as heck don’t go with him. And I know he doesn’t like to think about me alone here when he goes away for lacrosse camp over spring break, which is silly since I spend most of the time with Ellie and Cole and Maya or Uncle Rett and Aunt Tilly, but what’s the harm in indulging his more protective instincts?
Which is when I hear it.
One bark I was expecting, but there’s a second one, and now there’s a cacophony of woofing coming from the hallway. A racket that could not possibly be made by a single dog. Did he…
When Shep steps to the side, Cole finally makes his way in, heavy plastic carriers in each hand.
“Next time you want to get each other puppies, you need to pick smaller dogs. I’m thinking Chihuahuas. Teacup poodles. Something like that.”
Ellie smacks Cole on the chest and then turns to me to take Maya, whose little fist I’ve managed to unwind from my hair. Maya’s only too happy to go back to her mom and plants a wet kiss on Ellie’s face. By kiss, I mean she opens her mouth as wide as she can and flops her head onto Ellie’s cheek.
Shep and I stare at each other, bewildered, before Ellie nudges me in the back with an elbow. “Go on, go meet your new fur babies.”
Before we can let the yippy little things—or not so little as the case may be—out of their crates, we both turn to the teenager who’s cackling hysterically on the couch and shout at him in unison.
Shep grabs a ball of discarded wrapping paper and chucks it at his brother’s head, hitting his mark easily. “You knew about this? And you didn’t say anything?”
Caleb just laughs more and tries to dodge the barrage of wrapping-paper snowballs Shep is continuing to pelt him with. “What was I supposed to say? You were both so excited about it, and I really like dogs.”
“Yeah, well, I hope you know you’re on pooper scooper duty for the rest of your life,” Shep mutters.
“I’ll be the best puppy uncle you could ask for!”
The thought of Caleb being excited to be an uncle—even to dogs—makes that little fire of domestic bliss in the hearth of my heart burn a little brighter.
“Aren’t you going to let them out?”
Maya gurgles, as if in agreement with Caleb. I look at Shep and he shrugs before taking my hand and towing me over to the crates. We each kneel in front of one and open the metal grate doors and are soon accosted by very enthusiastic fluff balls.
The one that’s licking my face is black as night, and the one that’s jumping all over Shep is a motley blend of black and white and brown because she’s a mix of some kind—probably of a lot of things, according to the woman at the shelter. Judging by her paws though, she’s going to be a big girl.
There’s a lot of barking, a lot of licking, and a lot of furry limbs climbing all over the place. I’m not convinced there are only two of them. It feels more like six. After a few minutes, the dogs settle down, the black one curling up in my lap and the patchwork one collapsing beside Shep and resting her head on his thigh.
I smile at Shep helplessly and shrug while still petting the little ball of love that I suspect will always be a lapdog, even when he’s no longer so little. “I know dogs are expensive, but don’t worry. I already put aside money for her vet bills, and her food, and obedience school and all that. I didn’t want to give you a present that would make you worry. She’s a shelter dog, so she was pretty much free, and she already had her shots, and…”
I trail off, waiting for him to say something, but the way his dark blue eyes are sparkling, I think he’s pretty happy, his big hand resting on her head and using his fingers to rub behind her ears, which she clearly enjoys. I like it when he pets me too, puppers.
“You know I did the same thing? I mean, putting money aside. He’s not a mutt, he’s a giant schnauzer, but I got him for cheap from Ettleman’s mom because she breeds them for show. He didn’t meet her standards, though. Something about his tail. I don’t know, he looked pretty good to me, and I don’t need him to have a perfect tail. They’re supposed to be good guard dogs.”
I roll my eyes fondly, because of course they are. Right now the only way I think the little monster could defend his kingdom is by licking intruders to death.
“He’s the cutest, I love him. Thank you.”
I lean over to give Shep a kiss, and my furball decides he wants in on this action. I hold him back just long enough to give Shep a proper kiss, and we lean our foreheads together for a moment.
“She’s a sweet little girl, we’re going to have a lot of fun together. And she’s going to give my teams a run for their money.”
She sure will, when she gets a little bigger. For now, she’s basically asleep from all the excitement.
“Thanks, lamb. She’s an awesome present.”
“Great minds think alike. Merry Christmas, Zach.”
Our quiet little bubble is burst by everyone else wanting to pet the puppies and asking what we’re going to name them, and Caleb wants to know if he can have some cookies, and it’s all so perfect. Best Christmas a girl could ask for, and it’s all right here at Hawthorn Hill.
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