He left around eleven; neither of them wanted that, but Jones reminded him that leaving Suze home alone was wrong, and grumbling, he agreed.

"Sometimes I really don't want to be a grown-up," Nathan grumbled, pulling on his socks and searching for his shoes.

"I know, I know," Jones soothed him. "But you wouldn't be thrilled if Suze spent the night somewhere without arranging it with you first, right?"

His expression made it clear she had a point, and Jones moved closer to help him button his shirt; the warm masculine scent of him- the mix of pheromones and sweet body musk making her smile.

"I love you," she whispered. "We really do have to make some plans for Christmas, Nathan."

"I love you," came his quick reply, "and yes, we do. Let me talk to the kid and see what's on the table. Oh, and those things you mentioned?" he asked, "Did you really want those from Santa?"

Jones grinned. "Quid pro quo, Doctor EvilGardner—I need to know some items you'd like."

"Oh I dunno," he told her, and his grin was utterly charming. "I'm pretty content with what showed up in my life starting in September."

"Nathan-!" she spluttered, smiling and letting herself be swept into his hug. He laughed into her hair.

"Hmmm, well, I could use a new bathrobe. My old one is . . ."

"Old?"

"And embarrassing to my daughter," Nathan admitted. "She keeps threatening to 'lose' it when doing laundry."

Jones laughed softly. "Maybe I should get you both new ones."

"Fine, but no matching numbers, okay? That's just . . ." she watched him shake his head at the imagery.

She stepped out to his car with him, the floodlights bright in the darkness, and kissed him once more at the car door. "Okay, get home and get some sleep, Mr. Gardner," Jones told him tenderly. "I'll see you soon."

She watched him drive off, and went into the house again, curling up on the still-warm recliner, and watched the tree for a while, then fell asleep in front of it.

The last week before Christmas vacation proved to be more fun than expected. Jones threw out any serious lesson plans and chose quick lessons in Origami, helping students make beautiful cranes and frogs and other whimsical animals out of holiday wrapping paper. Most enjoyed it; some, like Charlie proved to be genuine artists at the form, and soon her classroom windows were decorated with long strings of gorgeous animals.

Across the hall, Nathan was showing slides of Valley Forge and discussing the hardships of the Continental Army as part of a review. His lecture style was quick and easy, and Jones could hear snippets of it periodically when both of them had their classroom doors open.

The entire staff seemed as geared for vacation as the students, and talk in the teacher's lounge centered on trips and Newt was sharing his plans to go ice fishing with anyone who would listen, droning on about the joys of a solitary cabin on one of the many lakes in Minnesota. Jones shot him a skeptical look.

"Why? You can get fish just as easily from the store, Newt. In fact, you can get it already cleaned and ready to cook, I hear."

"That's not the same," he grumbled, and added in a low voice, "Gwen's promised me she'll pan-sear anything I catch in butter and herbs Provencal."

Jones laughed softly. "This is about cooking?"

"It's more than that," Newt protested, "But in part—the bigger part I admit—it's about cooking, yeah. She's getting good at it lately. We're thinking about doing a foodie road trip for spring break."

"Wow," Jones marveled, "Cool. So she's going with you to Minnesota?"

"Oh yeah," Newt nodded, his face slightly pink. "First time, actually. Here's hoping we don't drive each other nuts when I'm not fishing. So what are you and Gardner doing for the holidays, and don't give me that coy 'we don't have any plans' BS."

"Um, we don't," she confessed. "That is, we're both sort of new at this, so nothing's been decided."

"I know in years past he's spend time at his sister's—those years after the divorce," Newt nodded. "But you know, I would like to point out that if I'm going out of town, I'd need a house sitter."

"I don't think Nathan needs the job—" Jones commented, but Newt rolled his eyes.

"No, but his daughter might. She'd be responsible for taking care of Beau and watering Gwen's—er, my plants, and taping Iron Chef and the monster truck rallies. I'd pay good money for a mature, responsible caretaker to make sure the mail gets collected and nobody breaks in."

"Hmmmm," Jones smirked. "Sounds like a good opportunity for Suze to help out."

"Yep," Newt nodded, fighting a grin. "Not that anyone else would ever take advantage of the situation at all. I just figured that Ms. Gardner would appreciate a chance at independent living for two weeks before heading off to college in the spring. I'm a pretty selfless guy that way."

"Meaning you're going to hold it over Nathan the next time you need a favor," Jones predicted, but she was smiling.

"Exactly. I may need help with re-varnishing my deck this spring, and Gardner's patient with that sort of icky homeowner chore. We'll negotiate it later."

Jones was tempted to share the information with Nathan, but since his classroom doorway had been decorated with mistletoe, she wisely avoided popping in during the school day. To be evil, however, on the last day of school, she did choose to wear a particularly dangerous pair of open-toed green velvet high heels, slipping them on after wearing boots in from the parking lot.

When he glanced her way during first period, Jones made a production out of standing in the doorway before she deliberately dropped a whiteboard marker. When she finally straightened up, Nathan was frozen in place, staring at her feet for a long, hungry moment before forcibly pulling himself back to the lesson at hand.

During passing period, he was in her classroom like a shot.

"You, Miss Jones, are SO getting coal this year," he hissed, forcing his gaze upwards. "C-O-A-L in case you missed that."

"They went with my dress," Jones pointed out innocently.

"I wouldn't know, since I haven't looked that high yet," Nathan replied tersely, a twinkle in his eyes. "Did I not mention this thing I have for your feet?"

Jones was spared a reply since students were beginning to walk into her room. She coquettishly smiled at Nathan. "Thank you Mr. Gardener for reminding me about the dress code. Are you aware of the mistletoe outside your door?"

The school day finally ended, and Jones waited until the majority of students had cleared out. Her desk held a few cards and candy canes given to her, and she scooped them into a tote, along with her lesson plan book and a few last minute catalogs and notes. Carefully she left a small present for the custodian, locked up and looked over at Nathan's door.

It stood open, and she heard him moving around, talking with someone. Peeking in, she smiled. Susan smiled back, blushing a little.

"Would you please explain to dad that I'll be fine starting the house sitting tonight? I'm only going to be two streets over; I could walk home in ten minutes."

"She's got a point, Nathan," Jones nodded. "Not like she's going to Venice."

"Fine," Nathan grumbled. "But I'd like us to have dinner first, and then we can walk you over, okay? Just . . . pander to your old man this once."

"Fine," Susan agreed, not rolling her eyes, but grinning just the same. "What are you making?"

"Tacos," Nathan replied. "And before you ask with chicken AND beef and I've even got Texas salsa to go with it."

"Yum," both Jones and Susan said at the same time, making him smirk lightly.

"Okay then. Dinner at five, and afterwards we'll walk you over."

"Agreed," Susan nodded. "Gotta run—shopping with Ellen and then I need to talk to Charlie about the movies for tomorrow. See you at five," she darted over to peck her father's cheek and then gave Jones a quick hug before bouncing out the door, backpack over her shoulder. Jones watched her go and smiled.

"Bet she's shopping for YOU."

Nathan closed the lid of his briefcase and looked up, his smile warm. "Or you. Or Charlie. Oh, and we've been invited to his place for Boxing Day brunch. That okay with you?"

Jones blinked. "Um, okay. I don't know his family—"

"He lives with his mother, Marilyn, and she's . . ." Nathan paused, and Jones watched him search for the right adjective, "Um . . . a bit . . . scatterbrained."

"Scatterbrained?" Jones echoed, startled. Nathan wasn't the sort to speak disparagingly of anyone.

He gave an embarrassed shrug. "Perhaps 'ditzy' would be better. Seriously, Just—I'm pretty sure she talks not only to her plants but also her car and her kitchen appliances and accessories as well. She's a very sweet woman, but not completely in touch with planet Earth. That being said, she loves Charlie and by extension loves Suze, so I consider her to be a good person for that alone. Charlie's dad-"

"I know," Jones cut in. "Suze mentioned it to me. I feel for the boy."

"Yeah," Nathan agreed. "Anyway, Marilyn will set a nice table, I'm sure, and we'll get a chance to . . . be a couple."

Jones arched an eyebrow at his slightly smug tone. "Oh really?"

He moved closer, slipping an arm around her, the other lightly gripping his briefcase. "Oh yes. That's all right with you?"

Jones pretended to consider it, her gaze drifting upward towards the mistletoe. "I might need persuading, Mr. Gardner."

"Mmmmm," he smiled, nuzzling her cheek. "Well, let's see. I'd like you to come stay with me for the holidays. We'll sleep in, and relax, and lounge and . . . find some way to keep ourselves busy."

Jones shivered pleasurably. "I could be talked into it," she murmured, and turned her face to kiss him.

Dinner started awkwardly, but by the time Nathan served up the tacos and fussed a little with the toppings, both Suze and Jones were chattering, and he felt the knot in his stomach relax a bit.

He wanted things to work out; it wasn't a lot to ask, and it meant more than he wanted to admit. Nathan finally sat down, pouring himself a glass of milk and listening as Jones described a Christmas festival she'd been to, years ago.

"Millions of lights," she smiled. "More lights than any single celebration needed, but against the snow they were SO beautiful."

"Sounds like it," Suze sighed. "We've got that winter carnival over at the city college, but it's nothing huge—some snow sculptures and booths and stuff."

"Snow sculptures?" Jones perked up, and Nathan laughed.

"Artists—they like all mediums," he pointed out to his daughter. "Is it open tonight?"

"Yeah," Suze nodded, "Charlie and I went yesterday and had some hot chocolate there. There's a sledding hill too, and some cheesy booths if you want to blow your money, dad."

"I might be coerced into it," he harrumphed, looked over at Jones, who giggled.

They walked Suze over to Nathan's house; the booming barks of Beau greeted them as they made their way up the porch steps.

"Dog," Nathan told Jones unnecessarily. "Blood hound. He'll lick you to death."

The sun was starting to set, and Jones nodded, her grip on Nathan's hand tight. The three of them stepped into Newt's house and Suze flicked on the lights while holding off on the enthusiastic Beau, who was delightedly sniffing everyone, ears flapping as he chuffed each shoe and pant leg.

"Hey Beau," Suze murmured, tugging him by the collar. "Behave, dude."

Jones patted the dog, who seemed to like her and licked her palms. Nathan snickered, but let himself be hand-washed as well. "Well, I see Newt's security system is as good as ever."

"Dogs are a good deterrent," Jones agreed. "They can alert you to a lot you might miss, and make for pretty good company most of the time."

"Beau's a big old baby," Suze giggled. "Aren't you, buddy?" she stroked the dog's head affectionately and set down her backpack. "We're good, guys, really. Coach stocked the fridge and gave me a schedule of what to tape, what to water and who to feed, so . . ."

"Okay, okay, we get the hint," Nathan rolled his eyes. "But if you have any problems, Suze-Q, you call, hear me?"

"Daaaaad," she smirked back, and hugged him hard. Jones was slightly startled and then touched when Suze turned and hugged her as well, lightly.

"Okay, we're off. Dinner Christmas Eve, and what time on Christmas day?" Nathan asked.

"About ten or so," Suze's smile twisted a little. "I don't think I'm up for that 'crack of dawn' thing anymore."

"Thank God," Nathan replied. "Take care sweetheart."

He and Jones headed out and waved to Suze and Beau, who watched them from the picture window of the living room.

Jones looked up at the darkening sky and shivered. Nathan slipped his arm through hers, and handed her the big flashlight. "Here."

She smiled.