Author: Jaci Burton
"I'm a mess," she said, sliding her fingers over his back. "I'll need a shower before we go back downstairs."
He rolled over and tugged her next to him. "Or . . . we could just stay here."
She pondered the thought. "You don't think we'd be missed?"
"I think they'll manage just fine without us."
It was a tempting thought. She was exhausted, and the thought of climbing back into that tight dress made her want to cry.
"Maybe we can just rest here for a few minutes. Then we'll clean up and go back downstairs."
"Sure, babe. Whatever you want to do."
She didn't make it five minutes before she was out cold.
Gavin took a deep breath and counted to ten. Again.
It was Christmas Eve, and tomorrow, they'd have the whole family over. Which meant for the past few days his wife had been losing her goddamned mind.
He didn't see the big deal. The cleaning people had been here yesterday, so the house looked great. They had all the food and drink they could ever need, because Gavin had gone to the grocery store at least twenty-five times in the past four days.
Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but it seemed like every time he saw Liz, she handed him a grocery list. He had started to hide from her.
Like now. He was currently in the basement TV room trying to watch sports, and cringed when he heard her heels coming down the wood stairs.
"Gavin? Are you down here?"
For a second, he actually thought about not saying anything. Maybe she'd think he'd left the house. But she'd eventually figure it out when she saw his truck in the garage.
"Yeah, babe. I'm here."
"Oh, good. I need you to go to the store for me."
Shit. He pushed off the chair and stood, then came around to the stairs to see her standing there.
"Seriously? We already own everything the grocery store has. What could you possibly need now?"
Throwing him a look, she waved a list back and forth. "You just have no idea the things I still need. Would you mind?"
If he said yes, he knew he'd be in one for one hell of a lousy Christmas. "Sure. No problem. Just let me grab my coat and my keys."
He walked up the stairs, taking the list from her on his way. When he got to his truck, he looked at the list and mentally cursed.
Gruyère cheese? What the fuck was that?
Fresh cranberries. He was sure he'd just bought those yesterday. In fact, he was positive he had. He should go inside and double-check. He got out and went inside, and found Liz in the kitchen.
"I just bought cranberries yesterday."
She gave him a look like he was stupid. "Yes?"
"So . . . you need more?"
"And what the hell is Gruyère cheese?"
"Just go to the deli. Melinda is working today. She'll help you."
"Oh. And stop at the liquor store and get one more bottle of that Australian Merlot Savannah and Cole like so much."
"We already have two bottles of that."
Again, she shot him one of those looks. "And your point?"
Count to ten. Count to ten. "Okay. I'll pick up another bottle."
He needed to get out of this house and away from Liz before one of them totally lost it. And by the looks she was giving him and his blood pressure, at this point he wasn't sure which one of them was going to explode first.
He was certain his mom didn't go to this much trouble when she had Christmas. Or maybe she did and he just wasn't aware of it.
He picked up his phone and dialed. His mom answered on the second ring.
"Hi, Mom. How's it going?"
"It's going very well. I'm making a coconut cream pie. And how's it going over there?"
"Elizabeth is losing her ever-loving mind."
"Really. What's going on?"
He filled her in on Liz's craziness over the past few days, including his current trip to the grocery store to buy some crazy cheese and the repeat trips to buy things he'd already bought.
"Be patient with her, Gavin. This is her first time having the family over and she wants everything to be perfect."
"I don't remember you being stressed-out about having the family all these years."
"Well, not after doing it for thirty-some-odd years. But the first time I had Christmas for your father and his family? I broke out in hives and threw up the night before. Your poor father had to give me whiskey on Christmas Day just to calm me down."
He couldn't imagine his never-ruffled mother being afraid of anything. "You did not."
"I did. I imagine what's bothering Liz is just nervousness. She wants to satisfy everyone's tastes, and unfortunately, that's impossible to do. I'm going to finish up this pie and then drop by and see if there's anything I can do to help, providing you don't mind."
"I don't mind at all, and I think you can do a lot to ease her mind. Thanks, Mom."
After he hung up, he went to the store, got the cranberries and the damned cheese he couldn't pronounce. Then he stopped at the liquor store to buy yet another couple bottles of that wine that they'd undoubtedly have on hand until the end of time.
When he got home, Liz was bent over her laptop at the kitchen counter studying something in an online cookbook. He stored the wine and put the cheese and cranberries away. His first thought was to go hide in the basement again, but instead, he came up and kissed her on the cheek.
She lifted her face and frowned. "What's that for?"
"For having the family over tomorrow
. I know this isn't easy for you and you're going to a lot of trouble to do it."
"Gavin, I love your family. They've been my family for even longer than you and I have been together. You know how much I've been wanting to do this."
"I know. But I don't want you to be stressed about it."
She laughed. "Not much you can do about that. It's a big deal to me and I want everything to be perfect."
He was about to tell her that perfection was overrated, though she likely wouldn't have listened to him anyway, when the doorbell rang.
Liz looked like she was about to have a panic attack. "Oh, shit. Who could possibly be here?"
"I have no idea, but relax. Whoever it is, I'll get rid of them."
"Thanks. I have to make this casserole."
He went to the front door and opened it.
"Hi, Mom." He hugged and kissed his mother, and whispered to her. "I didn't tell Liz I called you."
She patted his shoulder. "Don't worry."
He followed his mother into the kitchen. When Liz looked up, she registered a combination of shock and dread. But then she managed a smile.
"Oh. Mom. Hi."
"Hi, Liz. I thought maybe you could use some help."
Liz's gaze flitted from his mother's to his. And he read the panic there
"That sounds like a great idea, Mom," he said. "Though I think Liz is doing a fantastic job."
"Of course she is, but I'm always grateful for extra hands when I'm trying to do everything."
Thank God for his mother. "If you all don't need me, I'm going to get out of your way."
"That's a really good idea, son. We'll call you if we need you."
Liz didn't know whether she wanted to grab onto Gavin like a lifeline or kick his ass down the basement stairs. She'd wager anything he called his mother and told her she was losing her mind.
Which she was.
"How's it going here?"
"Oh . . . fine. I have the turkey cleaned and ready to go into the oven tomorrow morning. The side dishes are plotted out and well in hand. Some I'm prepping today, and others will be done tomorrow. I'm working on hors d'oeuvres right now."
"Yes. I'm doing individual shrimp cocktails, stuffed figs, an olive and cheese spread, spinach and artichoke dip." She paused. "I know there's something else. Let me go grab my menu."
Mom nodded. "Uh-huh. You do realize it's just family, and that you're not serving Christmas dinner for the President of the United States, right?"
Liz laughed and waved her hand. "Of course. It's just that there're so many, and I want to make sure there's enough. Anyway, here's my list if you want to take a look and tell me if you think I'm missing anything."
Liz worried her bottom lip while Gavin's mom perused the list. When she looked up, Liz noted the look of concern on her face.
"Oh, crap. I've forgotten something, haven't I?"
"Yes. You've forgotten we're just the Rileys. We're very simple. Have you ever seen me serve anything like what's on this menu?"
"Well . . . no. But I thought I'd fancy it up a little."
"And there's nothing wrong with that, as long as you don't have a complete meltdown trying to do that. You know, once the family started to expand, I decided that holidays would be more like potluck, with everyone bringing a side dish. And I also enlisted help. Cara came over and started helping out with cooking the main dishes."
"Right. But I thought-"
"That you could manage doing it all yourself."
Kathleen took a seat at the island. "And how's that working out for you?"
Liz exhaled and leaned against the counter. "I feel like I'm about to drop. I'm so tired, Mom."
"So why are you doing all this?"
"I don't know. Because it's my first time, and I want everyone to be happy."
Her mother-in-law laughed. "Honey, no matter what you feed everyone, they'll be happy. It's Christmas, and we're all delighted to spend the day together with those we love. You could serve turkey sandwiches and chips and we'd be content."
"I don't know about that, but maybe I have been overdoing it . . . a little."
Kathleen perused the epic disaster that was Liz's countertops and cocked her head to the side. "A little?"
"Okay . . . a lot. Gavin called you and said I was making him crazy, didn't he?"
"I refuse to answer that question on the grounds you might be angry with him."
Liz laughed. "I couldn't possibly be angry with him, since I'm so happy you're here."
"I've been offering to help you for weeks now, and you kept saying no."
"I know. I'm so sorry. I wanted to be the perfect daughter-in-law and do it all by myself."
Kathleen slid off the bar stool, came around the island, and pulled Liz into her arms. "You've always been the perfect daughter-in-law. You love my son and he loves you. It's all I will ever ask for."
Liz batted back tears. "I love you, Mom."
"I love you, too."
Liz took a look at her menu, then at her mother-in-law. "Okay, so help me out here and tell me how I can scale some of this back so I'm not hiding in a corner by tomorrow."
By early evening, Gavin's mom had left and he'd helped Liz finish up the last of the prep for tomorrow's meal. Then he'd done all the dishes and cleaned the kitchen. After that he'd gone out and picked up a pizza, because the last thing his wife needed was to cook dinner tonight or have anything else in the kitchen to have to clean up.