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Evergreen

Katniss huffed in the chilly late fall air and watched her misty breath rise as she deftly bound pine boughs together and attached them to a wire frame.

"You know that we might as well not sell these damn things, since Wal-Mart came in," she complained to her friend and sister outside of her farm market as she prepared to open for Christmas season. "My sales were down nearly fifty percent last year."

"Hey, we've always done well with the trees," Prim said as she made a large, pretty bow. "Last year was a fluke."

"Yeah," Johanna commented, never pausing while she hacked off boughs of a pine tree with a hatchet, "those Wally-World trees are shit! Everyone who bought one last year and had it go bald before Christmas Eve will be back here this year."

"Johanna is right," the blonde agreed. "People will be back." Prim was always trying to get her sister to look at the bright side of things; sometimes it worked, although not today. 2014 was far from being a good year. It started with Katniss and her on-again-off-again boyfriend finally breaking up for the last time. During the growing season, a cooler than usual summer made for poor yields, and powdery mildew wreaked havoc with the pumpkins. Then to top it all off, the old John Deere's engine blew and she had to shell out four grand to fix it, which added insult to injury when things were already tight.

"It sucks that you have to work both Thanksgiving and Christmas," Katniss commented. It was the weekend before Thanksgiving and Prim had come home to help her sister get ready for tree season. She was a nurse at a children's hospital two hours away.

Johanna helped when she could after her shifts as an EMT. Her other usual helper, Uncle Haymitch, was laid up after back surgery. It had gotten harder to find temporary help since the big-box store had come to town and Katniss didn't want the expense of hiring help. She was certain that trees were going to be a flop again this year.

"I can't pass up the overtime. That wedding isn't going to pay for itself" Prim shrugged. "And with Grant being overseas, it makes sense."

Katniss would have scolded her sister for working too hard, but then she knew that Prim would remind her that Katniss herself had set the precedent years ago. Their parents died in a car accident when she was twenty and Katniss took over the family's farm. She nearly had the trees all cut down after her parents passed, but it brought in a nice chunk of change and it brought back good memories. Her dad started the trees when she was little, to extend the selling season of the farm market. There were ten acres of evergreens. It was labor intensive, but in the past it had been very rewarding—up until last year.

"Who is that?" Prim asked when she saw a well-built male runner coming up the road.

Johanna laughed, "That's Peeta Mellark. He likes Katniss's Big Bertha's—and I don't mean tomatoes."

"He does not," Katniss scoffed. She glanced at the attractive figure as he jogged past and waved.

"My mistake," Johanna joked. "Yours are more like cherry tomatoes, but I'm sure that he'd still like to take a bite."

Prim and Johanna giggled at Katniss's annoyed expression. "What is wrong with you, Mason?"

"He bought that place that sat empty forever?" Prim asked curiously when she saw him run into the driveway directly across the road. Katniss nodded and started on new wreath.

Katniss detested the big, ugly, modern monstrosities that had been built just across the road from her farm over the last few years. She hated to see houses that looked like they belonged in the suburbs being plopped in the middle of the country, her country, and she hated change to no end.

The people who lived in those houses were most often snooty and obnoxious. The women who came to the market were constantly telling her that she needed to go organic but complained when manure was spread in the fields. She'd chased countless kids and adults on ATVs out of her fields and pastures, only to have them complain that they were only having fun."I'm trying to make a living and this is private property!" she would retort.

The only one of her neighbors that she didn't outright abhor was Mr. Mellark. She was somewhat thankful that he'd bought the house directly opposite the market. The first owners built it and lived there only six months before they divorced and moved out. It had sat empty for nearly three years. He was quiet and didn't complain when Prim's old pet goat, Lady, got into his yard. In fact, he helped to putthe goat back in, and even talked one neighbor lady out of calling the sheriff after Lady ate her flowers. But no matter what he did, she resented him; he was still one of them.

It wasn't that she had something against townies. She just didn't like them across the road from her farm.

"How do you know his name?" Prim wondered.

"He's been here a few times to buy produce," Katniss downplayed the truth, "and he used a debit card."

"He was here a lot more than a few times," Johanna corrected.

"What does he do?" Prim asked.

"I don't know anything about him other than his name," Katniss lied. She knew that when he moved in last spring he'd spent morning, noon and night working on the long-neglected house.

She knew that he liked sweet corn, preferred red peppers and heirloom tomatoes, and that he was always full of polite yet unobtrusive conversation, like 'How are you today?' or 'What about this weather?'

"Here comes your neighbor again," Prim commented a little later.

"What?" Katniss spat and looked up, and yes, indeed Peeta Mellark was walking up the lane. She was a little surprised; she'd not seen him since pumpkin season. Unconsciously she straightened up and pushed some stray hairs behind her ears. She would never admit that she had missed him.

He had changed out of his running gear and wore an orange coat, which seemed to set off his gorgeous blue eyes. He greeted them in a friendly tone. "Hello ladies. Is the market opening back up soon?"

"Yeah," Katniss replied and hung a wreath on the side of the barn.

"I'm Prim, Katniss's sister," Prim introduced herself.

Peeta introduced himself, "Well I saw you guys out and I thought I'd see when the trees were going to be for sale. I've never had a real tree, but I would like to get one this year."

"Never had a real tree!" Prim proclaimed. "You don't know what you are missing! They smell so good and they're so much cheerier."

"This might be your last chance to get one here," Katniss said matter-of-factly. "If I don't do better this year, I'm going to cut them all down."

"That would be a shame," Peeta said sincerely. "This place wouldn't be the same without the trees."

"Blame Wal-Mart." Katniss sighed. "If you want a tree, you are more than welcome to look and let me know. I'll reserve it for you, or you can go ahead and cut it. The wagons and saws are just around the corner of the barn. I tagged the prices earlier this week."

"I'll go look around," he said and wandered towards the trees.

When he was out of earshot, Prim gave her a teasing look and whispered, "He does like you!"

Katniss rolled her eyes. "No he doesn't; he's just nice."

They worked for a while and then Johanna broke the silence, "Are you seriously thinking about getting rid of the trees, brainless? Or was that just a shitty attempt at sales tactics?"

"I'm serious. It is so much work for so little reward," Katniss grumbled. "I guess I'm just a Grinch this year."

"I know it's been a rough year, but things will turn around soon," Johanna consoled. Prim echoed the sentiment.

"I hope so," Katniss said quietly.

Seconds later, they heard Peeta's heavy footfalls coming back. Katniss met his eye and he said, sort of embarrassed, "I have no clue what I should be looking for or what to do when I find it."

"Why don't you show him, Katniss," Johanna said meaningfully.

"Um, sure," Katniss said hesitantly. She really didn't want to, but every sale counted.

"So how big of a tree are you wanting?" she questioned.

"I don't know. The living room is vaulted, so I could use a tall one."

"Skinny or fat?"

"What do you like?" he posed.

"Every trees has its own beauty," she said truthfully. "What do you like better? Firs, pines, or spruces?"

"What is the difference?"

"Firs have short needles, pines have longer ones and are really fragrant, and spruces have nice stiff branches but aren't as fragrant."

"I'll try apine. It will cover the paint smell," he concluded. Katniss took him over to the area where the tallest pines were. After much examination, he finally picked one out. "Beautiful." He grinned when he found the one he wanted.

Katniss showed him how to saw it down and put it on his wagon.

As they walked back, he asked, "So has business beenbad?"

"A bit nosy are we?" she snarked, and hoped that he'd not heard everything that the women had spoke of.

"Sorry, I overheard you guys talking. I didn't mean to pry," he said apologetically. "Do you have a website?"

"Prim started a Facebook page for the market, but it has been neglected for the most part since she got a job. I haven't had time to keep it lately…Anyhow I hate Facebook."

"You're not alone," he chuckled. "I could make a website for you," he offered sincerely. "That's what I used to do, web design."

"Why do you want to help me?" she asked suspiciously.

"I have a vested interest in keeping your business. I bought the house because it was across from this pretty farm. I like the trees. Also it cuts my trips to the grocery in less than half."

"Thanks but no thanks," she replied. "I can't spare that kind of cash right now."

He was silent for a few moments and then he offered, "Tell you what, give me the tree and maybe some produce next summer and I'll do it free of charge. I'll have it finished before next week, just in time for the season rush. I'll maintain it for you and everything."

She thought about for a few moments. "Alright," she agreed.

"Great, I'll have something put together for you by the first of the week," he said congenially.

She really didn't think that it would amount to anything but thought that she wouldn't be out too much.

She sent Peeta home with a tree and a stand and thought nothing more of it, until the rainy Monday afternoon of Thanksgiving week when she officially opened for the season. She was surprised when she saw Peeta walking up the driveway in a raincoat.

"Hi, I'm glad that got my tree last week," he said.

"Yeah, this certainly doesn't help business," she said soberly. Then, trying to sound more positive, she added, "But it's early in the season and the first few days arealways slow. Rain doesn't inspire people to think about Christmas."

"Maybe this will." Peeta pulled out his tablet from his coat, turned it on and handed it over to Katniss. "It's your new website."

Katniss looked it over and was amazed. "When did you get all the pictures?"

"I've been taking them over the summer. This is really a beautiful place," he said, with just the amount of shyness for her not to be upset with him. "I just need some Christmas pictures to advertise the trees."

"All I have is old ones from when I was still in high school," she told him and pointed to some pictures in the wall. Antique tractors were lit up, one had a Santa sitting in it. There was a star at the tippy top of the old barn, and a beautiful nativity in done in white lights. "But it doesn't look the same anymore. My mom and dad used to go all out with the lights and decorations."

"It looked amazing," he marveled, looking at the pictures. "Why not do it again?"

"I did some lights and stuff," she said and pointed at the lights that outlined the market pole barn and the old family horse sleigh. "Although I've not been in the spirit to do much more. My decorations were always sad compared to what my parents used to do…They died six years ago."

"I'm sorry," Peeta replied sincerely.

She nodded her head in looked back to the old images. "I bet a lot of people came to see it when it was all decorated."

"They did," Katniss reminisced. Then she handed back the tablet. "I think this is the best barter I've ever done. Thank you. It looks so professional."

"I hope so," he laughed, "It was what I used to do for a living."

"Used to?"

"Yes, then I had this brilliant idea to buy a house, live in it, and flip it," he said sarcastically.

"You're not planning on staying in the house?" she said in a disheartened tone.

"No, I'm going to sell it," he shared. "It is too much house for one person."

"Oh, what about liking the view?" she asked, very confused.

"I love the view and I hope that they potential buyers will too."

Katniss felt herself getting unreasonably upset; she tried her best to hide it.

"As soon as the weather gets nicer, I'll get tree and wreath pics too," he promised, unaware of her sudden change in mood. "Hey, I was thinking that if you wanted some help, I'm free. I'm not going to put the house on the market until after the New Year. I know that your uncle had some sort of surgery."

"I think that Johanna and I can manage," she said curtly.

"You sure? Sounds like a bunch of work for one person and a part-timer."

Katniss would not admit it but she'd had the same thought. There was a ton of lifting and physical work. She and Johanna were strong but it made for a long tiring day…and she wouldn't have a single day off, other than Thanksgiving. "What would you want to work for?"

"I'm happy just to have something to do. Lunch and/or dinner would be plenty for me." He grinned.

"After eating my cooking that often,you may regret asking for that much," she rolled her eyes. "I have to pay you something. My pride won't allow you to work for free."

"Fine, how about you give me five percent of whatever your sales are," he suggested. "And meals."

"You're talking about less than a one hundred and fifty, based on last year's sales," she laughed.

"Your sales will be through the roof this year," he promised.

"We'll see," she said skeptically.

The deal was struck and Katniss's life would never be the same.

Peeta came over early the next afternoon to help, although there weren't many people to stop by because it was pouring down rain again. The few who did stop bought a wreath or some roping, so the day wasn't a total loss.

There was nothing they could do outside, so they were stuck inside making wreathes. While they worked, Katniss explained how different types of evergreen boughs had different meanings.

"What about the trimmings?" Peeta quizzed her.

"Cones, nuts, and seedpods are a no brainer, new life and resurrection. Juniper is prickly, which equals protection. The holly plant has a ton of meanings one of which is prophecy. Then there is mistletoe—"

Peeta cut her off and twirled a sprig in his hand, "Means smooching."

Katniss tried not to laugh at him, but she did, "Well nowadays mistletoe is used to extort kisses but traditionally it was symbolic of overcoming difficulties."

"Who ever knew that there was so much to making wreaths?" he said, with a little awe in his voice.

Peeta quickly learned how to assemble the pieces and make the bows. With the addition of a few pinecones, Christmas bulbs, ribbon, and jingle bells he'd made several yuletide masterpieces.

"Yours are better than mine," Katniss lamented as she examined his handy work.

"What can I say?" Peeta grinned. "I'm good with my hands."

She hoped that she didn't flush when she thought about what else his hands might do well. She covered by saying, "They're pretty, to be sure. I hope that we can sell them all. It would be a shame for them to go to waste."

"What are your plans for Thanksgiving?" Peeta asked out of the blue.

"I'm helping Johanna at the food pantry. The firefighters and EMTs put on big Thanksgiving meal for the disadvantaged."

"That's nice of you," he observed.

"It is better than sitting at home alone, or so Johanna tells me."

"Johanna sounds smart."

"She is," Katniss admitted. "But never let her know that, she'll get a swelled head and then she'll really be impossible to deal with."

"I have a friend like that too," Peeta shared.

"I never see anybody at your place," she said, before she thought better of it.

"I…um have been a bit of a recluse lately," he said with a bit of embarrassment.

"Why?"

"My dad died unexpectedly last year. I took it really hard. We were close."

Katniss looked at him in astonishment, unable to form the appropriate response. She never could have guessed.

"One day after I visited his grave, I went for a drive and just kept going, then I found myself in this picturesque landscape, in front of a house begging for someone to care about it. My dad and I talked about flipping houses all the time. It was one of the many things we never got to do." He told her, "I called about the house that day. I took my inheritance and all the money I had saved and I bought the house. I got it for dirt-cheap. Hopefully it will be a good investment."

"Peeta, I'm so sorry," she finally found the words. "I had no clue."

"Thanks, I am doing better now." A wry smile rose on his face. "I did a lot of drywall therapy in the middle of the night."

"Work is a good way to get through rough patches," she said. "Sometimes it works."

Wednesday, the rain finally stopped and few families braved the mud to get trees. Peeta obviously had done his tree research and was able to help the customers make selections. One woman ordered five of the largest wreaths Katniss had available, to be decorated with lights and pine cones. It was a pleasant little windfall.

In between customers, Peeta took pictures of the trees to post to the new site. They stayed busy all day. Johanna brought pizza for dinner and they sat in the market office to eat it. The office was an insulated corner of the barn, with an old desk and a worn, puffy plaid couch.

Johanna sat on the desk chair and kicked up her feet, forcing Katniss to sit on the couch with Peeta.

"Hey, I was thinking, if it was alright with you," Peeta clarified, "if I could come over here and work while you're gone tomorrow."

"You don't have to do that Peeta," she said sincerely. She already felt bad that she wasn't paying him much of anything, and then working on Thanksgiving on top of that.

"I want to get that big order filled. Anyhow I'll be done with my turkey day plans early in the day."

"If you want to you can. I'll give you the spare office key." She handed him the key, as she felt pretty sure that she could trust him. "If you rob me, I know where you live."

Thanksgiving night, Katniss drove home after a long day of mashing potatoes and dishing out stuffing. The volunteer work kept her from feeling sorry for herself and sitting alone in her house. Even Haymitch came to eat a meal and sit with her for a while before heading off to drink beer and watch football at his friend Chaff's house.

Her heart nearly burst with emotion when she saw all the little faces of the kids who were so grateful for the meal being served. Then it nearly broke when she realized that so many of those same children wouldn't have presents under the tree or even a tree itself.

All the magical holidays that her parents created for her and Prim rushed to her memory and brought bittersweet tears to her eyes. She was thankful for the wonderful childhood that she had, but was resentful that it all ended so suddenly. Her parents had been going to a New Year's Eve party. The road had been icy and an oncoming car had swerved into their lane and hit them head on. They had died on impact. Katniss was twenty and quit college to be with sixteen-year-old Prim and to run the farm. It was so sad to take down Christmas decorations that year. The family had put them up together, but she and Prim had dismantled them alone.

Katniss was so lost in her own thoughts that she didn't immediately notice the bright glow coming from the barn lot. She got out of the truck and locked it; only then did she see it.

There were yards and yards of evergreen roping entwined with white lights draped over the split rail fence, with big red bows at each post. The maple trees that lined the driveway had strands of blue colored lights strewn in them. A pair of light-up reindeer looked as if they were pulling the old sleigh, which was illuminated with lights. Then she saw something that filled her heart with joy: It was her mother's nativity. Her father had cut them out and inserted hundred of lights himself. The lights had stopped working the year after her parents passed. For a week she had tried to fix them before giving up, and never touched them again.

Katniss was so astounded that it took her several minutes to form coherent thoughts. She heard someone approaching her. She turned to see Peeta. He seemed to be waiting for her reaction.

"Did you do all this?" she asked.

"No, it was a bunch of Santa's elves. It was an amazing sight," he said jokingly. "Little suckers did it in like fifteen minutes."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "How did you have time to do this?"

He shrugged. "My mom called last night. Her new boyfriend surprised her with a cruise, and both of my brothers had in-law dinners to go to. One of them invited me to come along because he is constantly trying to fix me up with one of his wife's cousins. Nice girl, but not my type, a bit shallow. So I passed. I came over here about ten and I have been here ever since."

"It's nearly nine o'clock now," she said amazed, looking at her watch.

"Yeah, not a bad day's work," he said proudly; his smile was sincere and winning. All of a sudden he gave her a cautious expression. "I hope that you don't mind. I saw them up in the haymow when you were showing me where the wreath supplies were. I saw them today and the inspiration hit me. Sometimes I get carried away. I was halfway done before I thought better of it."

She wanted to be mad at him for having the presumption to go through her things and set them out, and if it all hadn't turned out so beautifully she probably would have.

"It looks wonderful. How did you get the nativity working?" she questioned. "I've fooled with it many times and it never worked for me."

"I changed the fuses. It lit right up."

She walked around to examine it from every angle.

"I don't recall having any blue lights or reindeer," Katniss thought aloud.

"Those came courtesy of the former owners of my house. I found dozens of unopened boxes in my attic. Do you like them?"

"Well if a blue Christmas is was good enough for Elvis, then it's fine with me."

"If you want, there is a huge inflatable Santa playing football too."

"No, you can keep the tacky stuff," she deadpanned.

Katniss looked at Peeta and imagined his long, lonely day. "Have you had anything to eat lately? I think that I have some chicken pot pies in the freezer. I could eat again."

"I like a girl who loves to eat but really, freezer pot pies?" he questioned with a chuckle. "Why don't you come to my house? I have some leftover lasagna, not much of a Thanksgiving meal but better than frozen shit. I make my own noodles and everything."

"Probably is better." She laughed. Peeta led the way to his house. She noticed several cars slowing down to look at the lights. She hoped that it would catch their attention and bring them back to buy trees soon.

Katniss was amazed when she walked through his front door; his Christmas tree took center stage inside his grand room. "Wow, you put Martha Stewart to shame," she said in awe as she looked at the beautiful tree. It had white lights with silver ornaments and tinsel; she could not help but to hear Yukon Cornelius singing "Silver and Gold."

Dinner was delicious. They ate over Peeta's kitchen island. The house was nice and Peeta had clearly put a lot of work into it. It didn't look like a generic new house; it had character with the antique furniture and the custom finishes.

He told her about how it was infested with mice, and it had been robbed of the pipes and wiring. Basically he had to start from scratch. She listened to his hypnotic voice with rapt attention.

After dinner and a lengthy conversation, Katniss walked herself home as the stunning Christmas lights illuminated the way. Although when she entered her own little house she never felt so alone.

The day after Thanksgiving was chaotic. As soon as they opened, the driveway was packed and people traversed all over the acreage, looking for trees. Katniss, Johanna, and Peeta were never idle. About noon, Haymitch showed up and sat behind the cash register.

"What in the hell are you doing here?" Katniss asked when she saw her uncle. "Your doctor said that you shouldn't be working."

"He meant that I shouldn't be hefting trees and tying them onto cars, I can run a cash register, sweetheart," Haymitch grumbled.

If they hadn't been so busy, she would have sent him home.

It was everything that they could do to keep up; a few people mentioned the new website and the light display. By the time they closed up at sunset, everyone was beat. Johanna left early for a date and Haymitch limped away, whining that it was time for his pill.

Katniss and Peeta stood awkwardly for a few moments before he offered to make her dinner at his house. She accepted, with the provision that she provided the food. They shared an excellent meal and good conversation. Peeta told her about how grew up working in his family's bakery and she talked about growing up on a farm. While from the outside they seemed to have little in common, the more they talked the more they found that they had similar upbringings. They both had started working very young, and by their fathers' sides.

Saturday and Sunday were just as crazy as Friday, and ended the same way—with Katniss at Peeta's. The weekdays that followed were surprisingly busy too. Seven days into the season Katniss had made more money than she had the entire tree season the year before. Johanna and Haymitch had helped when they could, but it was Peeta who was her constant companion. Katniss knew that it was all because of all the work Peeta had put in. She didn't know how she was going to repay him.

She was drawn to him in a way like she'd never known and she didn't like that. But at the same time, she resisted thinking about him and what they could be to each other. She'd sworn off love, too many bad relationships and experiences in the past. But he made her almost forget her promise. Just be friendly, nothing more.

The first three weeks of the season sped by. The pair had a routine; they met at noon for lunch in the office, assembled orders, and worked around the market. After opening for business, they kept busy with costumers until closing time when everything was closed up they would have dinner at Peeta's house and watching Sleepy Hollow or superhero movies.

The sales finally started to slow down to a steady trickle after the second weekend in December, but Peeta never cut back his hours; he just kept coming back. It had given them time to visit and really get to know each other, the 'deep stuff' as Peeta called it: favorite color, worst date, and most embarrassing moments. It was so easy to be Peeta's friend; he led the conversation and was eager to laugh.

The last Sunday before Christmas was a surprise to Katniss; she sold a dozen wreaths and at least as many trees. Christmas was only days away and they were still making sales. Katniss had had the best year ever—she would actually make money this year. She and Peeta decided to celebrate at her house with dinner.

Peeta had never been in her house before. She was a little embarrassed; while it was clean and tidy it was nothing compared to his house. It was the typical hundred-year-old farmhouse. It had had been remodeled a few times, and was a mishmash of decades. The kitchen had 70's cabinets, the bathroom was stuck in the 80's and had a gag-me-pink tub and toilet, the dining room was still sporting the 90's wallpaper.

"It's not much," she admitted.

Peeta looked around the old farmhouse with look of wonder in his eyes. "No, it's amazing, great bones…It would be so nice to restore it. The dormers are still in place and look at that hardware. It all must be original. I would love to try an actual old house someday."

They made ham and grilled cheese sandwiches on of the bread that Peeta made that morning. After a filling dinner, they played checkers at the kitchen table and drank Yuengling. After Peeta bested her half a dozen times they moved to the one fairly original room in the house, the living room, and Peeta chuckled at her little tree.

"What is up with your tree?" he asked as he sat next to her on the loveseat.

Katniss felt a little nervous tickle in her stomach at him being so close but explained, "When Prim was little she always felt bad for the ugly, scrappy trees that never got picked. She insisted that if we loved them and decorated them then it would be like the Charlie Brown tree." She gave him a lopsided grin and rolled her eyes. "They never turn out like that but after a while it became tradition. Prim picked that scrappy one out and made me put it up before Thanksgiving. She knew that I wouldn't put one up otherwise."

"Do you not like Christmas?" he asked curiously.

She shrugged, "It's not that don't like it. It is just that there is no point in putting a lot effort in when there is no one at home to do it for."

They were silent for a few moments. Peeta looked at her with a dreamy expression. "I don't see how you are alone." He straightened up and added in a joking tone, "I mean, uh…I'm surprised that a girl like you isn't married or doesn't have somebody special."

"Oh, that one is easy," she gave chuckle. "I don't have time for anyone. The farm keeps me busy. There is also the matter of my personality. I don't make friends easily, and boyfriends come even less easily. I've been told that I am hard to get close to."

"No, you aren't," he agreed, "and you are well worth the effort."

She didn't know what he was implying, if anything. To derail the conversation, she stretched and rubbed her lower back, never expecting what happened next.

"Your back hurting you?" he questioned, leaning forward as his large hands gently caressed her shoulders.

Katniss knew that she ought to decline him, but it felt too good to stop him and she turned to give him better access. The thrill that she felt intensified; her body thrummed with the effects of Peeta's proximity and the alcohol in her veins. She felt as if some unknown force was drawing her closer to him.

"No wonder. I saw you wrestling that nine-foot spruce all by yourself today." His thumbs applied pressure over the tense muscles and his palms soothed her aching back. "Just because you physically can do something on your own doesn't mean that you always have to. "

Before she knew what she was doing, she let out an embarrassingly loud moan."Sorry," she hastily shifted away from him and sat on the couch, trying to avoid his gaze, "it has been a long time since I've gotten a back rub. It felt really nice."

Peeta laughed a little. "If you would have told me that months ago, I could have been giving you massages and listening to you make animals noises all this time." His cheeks flushed and he had just the right amount of shyness and humor that endeared him to her. "I mean that in the most innocent way."

Amused by his reply, she laughed until she had to dab her eyes with her sleeve. "You realize any guy but you would get slapped for that," she gasped as she finally managed to stop.

"I guess that I am happy to be me then," he grinned, his blue eyes twinkling mischievously.

The old mantel clock struck eleven. Peeta checked the time on his watch. "I didn't realize that it was so late. I have some things I need to do before tomorrow."

Katniss nodded, got off the couch, and led him to the mudroom where his coat hung. "I should offer to repay the favor of that back massage," she said bashfully and handed him his orange coat.

"I would gladly take a rain check," he winked and tugged on his coat, pulling Katniss along with it. "Or I think a kiss would be a good trade."

Katniss was acutely aware of his physical presence. A strong jaw and an all-American-boy smile made him undeniably attractive. His broad shoulders and heavily-muscled limbs were indicative of his strength. He'd impressed her many times over last few weeks with the ease that he was able to handle even the largest trees. He looked at her attentively; she could never get over how perfectly blue his eyes were.

Maybe it was a moment of weakness on her part, or it was that last bottle of beer, or even a combination of the two. Whatever overtook her, it made her stand on her tiptoes and meet her lips to his. Her hands gripped his shirt front and held tight. After a second of shock on his part, he began to return the kiss. Katniss's body hummed with excitement and warmth pooled in her belly.

It was a first kiss that cut that felt nothing like a first kiss. There was no awkwardness or hesitation. Peeta seemed to know what she liked even better that she did. The kiss was intense yet not too deep; their mouths moved in sync as his hands gently framed her face.

Katniss pulled away when she realized that if she didn't stop now, one kiss would never be enough to satisfy her. Backing away, she touched her now swollen lips.

"Wow," Peeta breathed. "I was only teasing, but I am very happy that you did that."

"I hate the feeling of owing someone," she said, half joking. She was afraid that she had done something wrong in kissing him.

"I'd say that we're even," he grinned cheekily. "I think that I owe you now."

"I don't know about that." She rolled her eyes. Peeta put on his coat. "Um, see you tomorrow?" she asked.

"Absolutely," he assured her and walked out the door.

She watched him start down the driveway. If he turns around he felt it too. To her pleasant surprise, he turned and waved at her when he was under the security light. She waved back and turned off the mudroom light.

Katniss didn't know if she wanted to celebrate or kick herself in the ass. She had fallen hard for Peeta Mellark.

What followed was a restless night, Katniss tossed and turned and didn't sleep. She kept thinking about how good his hands felt on her body and how sweet his lips tasted. She'd often heard people talking about having a spark, but what she'd felt with Peeta felt like a lightning bolt.

Somewhere around three AM she fished in the nightstand drawer for her rarely used "little friend." After a lackluster orgasm that sated her body but not her desires (because the vibrator was nothing compared to how she imagined Peeta would feel like) she was able to find some sleep.

She slept in far later than usual the next morning. At nine she was awoken by a text from Peeta:

i will be a little late today. But i promise that i will be there.

Katniss sent him a quick "okay" response before she got ready for the day.

Two hours later, she found herself in the farm office with a cup of hot chocolate with a piece of toast ripped up in it (a treat that Peeta had introduced her to), looking out the office widow. It was a pastime that she didn't partake of in usually; she abhorred the landscape since the houses had been built. Although now that she'd gotten to know Peeta, she'd found herself looking at his house on a near daily basis.

Watching the window, Katniss nearly dropped her cupin her lap when she saw a brand-new SUV with Trinket Real Estate printed on the backgate pull into Peeta's driveway. A woman in high-heeled boots and a fur-trimmed coat sashayed up his driveway with a 'for sale' sign in her hands, and she enthusiastically jabbed it into his front yard. Peeta had walked out of the house and joined her in the driveway. He reached out to shake her hand; instead the woman pulled him close and kissed his cheeks.

"That bitch," Katniss spat watching them. She felt betrayed. Peeta had said nothing about putting the house on the market so soon.

She was angry: at Peeta for making her like him, and at herself for not keeping up her guard. The hot chocolate suddenly tasted like mud and she threw the cup in the trash. She stomped outside and started to rearrange the few remaining wreathes and greenery. Since there wasn't much left, it didn't take long.

The other pre-opening tasks were finished and Katniss was looking over the books in the office by the time Peeta came over early in the afternoon.

"I made this for you," he grinned widely. In his hand he had an evergreen centerpiece arrangement on a silver platter. He placed it in front of her. "I hope you like it."

Katniss barely looked at the green-and-red arrangement, "It's nice." She tried to smile back, determined to not appear to be put out, but she couldn't quiet manage it. "Hey, Peeta, I've been thinking…things are going to be slow this week, you don't have to help."

"Oh, well we could do some brainstorming for next year…I was thinking that you could add more items," he said cheerfully. "Handmade ornaments, gift baskets of local goods you know—jams and jellies, honey, that sort of stuff."

"I doubt that you'll be around this time next year…I bet that you'll have the house sold by Valentine's Day."

"Katniss, what's wrong?" His smile faded to a look of concern. He was clearly confused by her sudden coldness.

"Nothing, you can go home," she said firmly. Then she tried to excuse herself. "I need go Christmas shopping and run some errands. Prim is coming home tomorrow and we're going to have an early Christmas."

He must have seen through her story. "What is this really about?" Peeta was grasping at straws. "Is this about last night?"

"You put your house on the market," she said curtly.

His confusion deepened. "Yes. It's been my plan to flip this house for a long time…I've talked about that."

"Then what? You're not from here, and will probably leave when the house is sold."

He looked stunned. "I don't know what I am going to do next, Katniss."

She ignored his comment. "I will bring you your share of the sale profits later," she said dismissively.

Peeta's shoulders slumped at her tone and he turned to leave. "I'm sorry, I don't know why you're being like this, or what I've done to upset you, but I'm sorry."

She could hear the hurt in his voice and wanted to tell him that it wasn't his fault because she felt awful for treating him like this, but she couldn't. In Katniss's mind, she was saving herself future heartache. He was going to sell his house and be gone with a matter of months. He'd never said anything about staying in the area. She'd tried long distance relationships in the past; they'd never worked for her. He wouldn't have time for her, or she for him. No, this was for the best. They were friends and watching a friend leave was hard enough. If they were anything more, it would be impossible. She had to nip this in the bud now.

He left; this time he didn't turn back.

The next day Prim came home for an early Christmas dinner with Katniss and Johanna.

"I really thought that Peeta would be joining us," Prim teased her sister, unaware of what had transpired between them the day before.

"He had other plans," Katniss lied.

Johanna, not so subtly glanced out at the window that looked out to Peeta's house, then eyed Katniss suspiciously. Katniss was afraid that she would call her out, but surprisingly her friend stayed silent on the subject.

The trio had a wonderful dinner, but Prim asked far too many questions about Peeta and all the time they had been spending together. Thankfully Prim's fiancée called and she excused herself to talk to him.

Katniss breathed a sigh of relief, although it was like she had escaped the frying pan only to fall into the fire, because then Johanna lectured her.

"What did you do, brainless?" Johanna hissed."The poor guy has had a huge crush on you since he first laid eyes on you. He spends a month working his well-toned ass off, not because he wanted the money, but to be close to you."

"He put his house on the market. There is no point in entertaining a relationship," Katniss defended herself in a whisper."He's going to leave and I can't go through that again. He's not a local; he has no reason to stay."

"No reason what so ever?" Johanna gave her a disbelieving expression and motioned at her. "Not every man is Darius or Gale. You have to give people a chance."

Katniss knew that Johanna was right, but she hated to admit it.

"You need to apologize to him," Johanna lectured her, as if she were her mother. "Because I know you, and I bet that you were not nice about it."

"Oh, this coming from Little Miss Sunshine herself," Katniss said sarcastically.

"I come off as a smartass bitch; you come off as a cold bitch, huge difference. And you aren't a bitch, period, so it doesn't suit you," Johanna explained with a grin. "You like him too and that you are looking for an easy way out. I know you've had a rough past few years but you have to put yourself out there sometimes."

"Yeah," Katniss agreed lamely. "I'll talk to him when I drop off his money. I've probably turned him away for good but I guess I owe him an 'I'm sorry'."

"I think you owe him more than that, brainless—yourself too," Johanna waggled an eyebrow.

Prim came back into the room. Johanna changed the subject by regaling them with sweet and then dirty stories of her newest fling/ fuck buddy/ boyfriend or whatever Thresh was.

Katniss was thankful for the distraction, although what her friend had said only added to her mounting guilt over how she'd treated Peeta. She examined the centerpiece that Peeta had made her for the first time—she'd thrown it on the table the day before and all but forgot it. It was made of balsam, pine cones, juniper, and beautiful red roses.

Anticipation, new life, and protection, along with red roses which even she knew meant love. Peeta was confessing his feeling for me with this and I treated him like shit.

She resolved to make it right the very next day.

The following morning was Christmas Eve and Prim made them French toast for breakfast; it used to be their family tradition on Christmas morning. On the kitchen table, Prim had bridal magazines strewn all over. She wanted Katniss to help her narrow down the styles of dress.

Katniss was of very little help but loved to see how excited her sister was about her wedding. Although it only shed more light on the fact that Prim was moving on, and while they would always be sisters, Katniss would no longer play such a huge part of in her sister's life.

Prim left just before noon, leaving Katniss alone with her thoughts and regrets.

She put on the soft grey sweater and skinny jeans that Prim had given her for Christmas. After pulling on her best pair of cowboy boots and her old leather coat, she searched through the barn and found a few sprigs of mistletoe and taped it to the envelope of money as a peace offering, just in case she was invited to stay. She wasn't expecting a warm reception, but at the very least she hoped that he might accept her apology.

There was a fresh layer of snow on the ground and a sharp chill in the air. She decided to walk, if for no other reason other than it gave her a few extra minutes to mentally recite what she was going to say.

Finally she knocked on Peeta's door. The butterflies that fluttering in her stomach were instantly killed and replaced with a wave of nausea when the door was opened by a tall, dark-haired woman who was impossibly pretty and undeniably pregnant. The two women stared at each other for a long moment.

"Hi," the woman finally sputtered out, "Can I help you?"

Oh, fuck….Peeta has a girlfriend, a pregnant one at that….And I kissed him the other night. That fucker has a girlfriend and he let me kiss him! I'm giving him his money and I will never see him again.

Katniss didn't know if she was more upset or pissed off. She tried to cover her emotions and force a smile that even she knew must have appeared to be psychotic. "Hi, uhhh, is Peeta here? I have his pay."

The woman's confused expression melted into a smile. "Oh, you must be Katniss!" the woman opened the door wide and motioned for her to come in. "Peeta will be happy to see you."

"No, you can give him the money," Katniss insisted and began to pull the envelope from her pocket, only to remember about the mistletoe attached to and shoved it back in her pocket. Another voice called out.

"Shut the door, Annie," said a tall man who could have passed for a male model. He walked into the entryway and kissed the woman's cheek. "You're in letting in all the cold air." He paused when he saw Katniss and gave her a huge smile. "You must be the farm girl! Get in here, it is freezing out there. I'm Finnick Odair, by the way, Peeta's friend. This is my wife Annie."

Katniss was utterly confused but stepped in. As soon as she wiped her boots on the mat, Finnick was helping her with her coat and calling for Peeta.

Peeta appeared and he had a deer-caught-in-the-headlights-look. Katniss knew that it must have reflected her own expression.

Annie pulled Finnick aside. "Honey, let's go make some cocoa."

Katniss and Peeta were left alone.

"Hey, I brought your percentage over," she offered lamely.

Peeta looked disappointed. "Oh, I guess that money is always good."

"Well, five percent is worth a lot more this year than it was last year." She tried to smile. "Thanks to you."

"Have I saved the trees, or at least the ones that are left for another year?" he said, attempting humor as if he were testing the waters.

"Yes, yes you did," she grinned and began to idly play with a lock of her loose hair.

"Was that the only thing you came over here for?" he asked.

"No." Her face fell. "I owe you an apology about the other day." Katniss paused for a moment, trying to find the right words. The speech she had prepared would not work with his friends in the next room. "Long story short, I have abandonment issues and when I saw that 'for sale' sign going up, I freaked out."

"I should have told you. I was going to but Effie, my agent, surprised me with it."

"Well, I didn't mean to interrupt your holiday." She tried to dismiss herself to spare him the trouble. "I'll see you around."

"Stay?" he questioned softly and took her hand. His eyes were wide and he looked like a pleading child. It tugged at her heartstrings. "I would love for you to get to know my friends and it would spare me being the odd man out. Unless you had other plans...I know that you said that Prim wasn't going to be around and that Haymitch was on a fishing trip with his buddies." He began to ramble, "I understand if you don't want to…I get it."

"I can stay," she quieted him with the soft-spoken words.

"Good," he smiled and he led her to the kitchen to get acquainted with his friends.

The afternoon passed away pleasantly. Finnick was Peeta's old friend from college. He had had an interview for the principal position at the local high school the day before so he and his wife crashed were crashing with Peeta.

They enjoyed a lovely early dinner and great conversation. Annie and Finnick were easy to get along with. Katniss didn't know how to behave around Peeta at first, but he acted as if nothing had happened between them and was his usual friendly self. Soon she felt herself at ease with him again.

The group sat around the Christmas tree in the great room. Peeta sat next to Katniss on chaise and had to wrap an arm around her so they could both fit. She didn't realize how much she'd missed him over the last 48 hours. Her feelings for him were far stronger than she allowed herself to believe.

"I like it here, Peeta, go ahead and take the house off the market," Annie announced. "But one of the conditions of sale will be that you have to come and put up the tree every year."

"I think that you are getting ahead of yourself, love," Finnick chuckled. "I haven't even gotten the job yet."

"When you get the job," Annie assured her husband, "we ought to put an offer in. It is pretty out here, we wouldn't have to do anything but unpack our stuff. No remodeling."

"You don't think that I could take on a remodel?" Finnick questioned in mock offense.

"Oh please, you remodel?" Peeta joked. "Your version of remodeling is duct tape and toothpaste."

"I got our security deposit back on our college apartment, didn't I?"

Katniss didn't offer much conversation, but enjoyed the banter between the old friends. It was obvious that Peeta was adored by his friends.

As the sun went down, the couple started to gather their things and got ready to leave. Finnick pulled Katniss aside.

"I'm very happy to have met you," he said and shook her hand. "I was starting to wonder if you were real. He described you as if you were a dream or a delusion."

"How did he describe me?"

Finnick winked at her. "If you don't know, than I'm not going to tell you. You'll have to ask Peeta."

Peeta and Katniss saw the couple off. When their car pulled out of the driveway, Katniss stared at her the toes of her boots, uncertain of what to say or how to say it. Peeta cleared his throat, "Do you want some wine? I've had it chilling but I thought that it was insensitive to serve it since Annie couldn't have it. It's her favorite."

She consented and he told her to relax on the couch as he went to the kitchen and brought back the bottle and two filled glasses. The lights were dim but the lights on the tree and the fire in the hearth gave off a pleasant glow. As soon as he handed her the glass, she took a deep drink.

"You're supposed to sip that you know?" he teased and sat near her.

"Sorry, I've been dying for a drink all day," she said, and absently played with her glass. "I am so sorry about the other day, Peeta."

"You said it was part of a long story. We have time now."

"Let's say that I've never had much luck in love," Katniss swallowed the rest of her glass and handed it to him to refill it. "I made one of the worst mistakes of my life and I dated my best friend in high school. When I graduated, he wanted us to go away together but I had goals of my own and said no. So he broke up with me and went anyway.

Then when my parents passed I was dating this guy, Darius. We tried to make it work after I left for college but it didn't last but more than a couple of months. We just drifted apart. Another guy I dated, Dalton, he had a dairy across the state, we had a lot in common but we just couldn't make it work because we couldn't make find the time.

About a year and a half ago, Gale came back and I made the worst mistake and got back together with him. I did it out of loneliness more than anything. We were okay for a while, then right after Christmas he wanted to leave again and find some big adventure. I told him that this is my home and will always be and if he wanted me, he had to stay. As you can see, I'm single, so you know what he chose."

"The guy sounds like a dick, but I'm glad that he was stupid enough to leave without you," Peeta said softly and brushed her hand with his. He waited for her to meet his eye before he continued. "If you gave me that choice, I would give you a totally different answer."

Katniss was stunned; it was what her heart ached to hear, yet her head made her leery. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves, "Please don't say anything you don't mean, I've been promised things before that turned out to be lies."

"I have never told you an untruth or exaggeration, Katniss." He took her hand and interlaced their fingers. "The only lies I have told you have been by omission."

She gave him a playful scowl. "If you can tell me no lies, then tell me what Finnick meant when he told me that you described me like a delusion."

Peeta's face turned red, but he didn't let go of her hand as he cleared his throat and took a deep breath. "As I told you, I visited my dad's grave, then instead of going home I went for a drive. I had no clue where I was going. I just randomly took turns, trying to outrun the grief. Then, out of the blue, I saw this beautiful girl driving a tractor along side of the road…I remember it perfectly: you were in a red flannel shirt, with a long braid down your back. I pulled over in the first driveway I saw and I watched you until you disappeared over the hill."

He swallowed deeply as his thumb began to slowly stroke the back of her hand. "I turned around and saw a dilapidated house for sale. It was just like the ones my dad and I used to talk about fixing up. It felt like it was a sign somehow— fate, chance, providence, whatever you want to call it that brought me there. I knew that I had to take the chance, so I bought this house. I apologize I know that it sounds a bit stalker-ish and creepy."

Katniss's mouth had fallen open as she realized just what he was confessing.

"So, after just a few seconds of looking at me from the road, you decided we were fated to meet, and quit your job and bought a shitty house just because of it?" she questioned, curious and maybe a little weirded out by what the answer would be.

"No, not exactly. I felt like the house was fate," he tried to clarify. "I would have been happy just to admire you from afar. One summer day I got brave and came over here to buy produce and you intrigued me, so I kept coming back. I slowed down on the progress of the house just to give myself more time to get to know you. The day I came to get a tree, I'd decided it was my last chance to get to know you, so I put it all out there. Whatever little crush I thought I had was blown out of the water when I did get to know you. You are unlike anyone else I've ever met. You're stubborn, proud, sometimes moody, and independent. I couldn't help but to fall for you, because you're also beautiful inside and out and brave, dedicated, and strong."

Katniss had heard enough. She put her glass on the coffee table, pulled her hand from his, and went to the closet where her coat hung.

"Katniss, I-I," he stammered after her.

She hoped that he wouldn't be put off by her actions, but she didn't trust words alone to reveal how she truly felt about him. As speedily as she could, she retrieved the envelope and handed it to him.

"Before I forget," she offered it to a defeated-looking Peeta with a half smile. "It's nearly five hundred dollars. The trees have never done so well."

"Mistletoe," he looked at the greenery taped to the paper, "overcoming difficulties seems appropriate timing. You're probably trying to think of a way to get the hell away from me."

"No, the only thing I had to overcome was my own issues," she said and sat close to him. Pointing at the mistletoe she said, "I'm not as thoughtful as you. Actually I was hoping to extort some kisses."

Peeta turned his head to look her square in the face. She told him, "I've fallen for you too, Peeta."

Before he could utter a word, her lips were on his. Katniss did not even try to keep herself in check this time. This time, she tried to pour all of her feelings for him into the kiss. She parted the seam of his lips and invited him to play with her with a come-hither tickle of her tongue.

He responded by wrapping his arms around her and pulling her hard against him. Katniss buried her fingers into his hair and pulled him even closer. Peeta slid off the couch and knelt before her. He pressed open-mouthed kisses down her neck until he found the place that made her keen. Parting her knees she invited him in closer. Wrapping her legs around his hips, she searched for some relief for her aching core. When she found the hard bulge in jeans, he groaned and pressed it where she wanted it most and they moved in sync. His hand covered her breast and she arched into it, begging for more.

She couldn't get enough of him. Tugging on his Henley shirt, she let him know that she wanted it off. It was quickly removed. Winding her arms around him, her hands explored his chest and back. He was so warm and solid, just like she dreamed he would be.

He was intoxicating; she never wanted a man as much as she wanted him. He had won her over bit by bit. When she first met him, she never could have imagined them being like they were at that very moment. But she was glad that he had snuck up on her, because she never would allowed him close any other way.

Suddenly she was hot and decided to shed some clothes too; she pulled up the hem of her sweater and lifted it over her head, leaving her in her silky camisole. He licked his lips, and looked at her, seeking permission to go further. With a subtle nod of the head, she granted it.

With a single finger, he pulled the thin strap down her shoulder. The material fell, exposing her already taut peak, which tightened further in the air. Gently he rolled it with his thumb and forefinger, making her mewl his name impatiently. He gave her a naughty smirk and pulled the camisole off of her, leaving her bare before him. The second she was free of the garment he attacked the untouched breast with his mouth.

With terrible timing, the inappropriate memory of what Johanna said about him wanting to take a bite out of her came to mind and Katniss couldn't help but to laugh.

"What is so funny?" he asked mischievously.

"I'll tell you later." She smiled before scolding, "don't stop."

"I have no plans to stop until you tell me to," he said in a husky voice and began to play with the button of her jeans.

"That won't be happening tonight," she assured him. Emboldened, he popped the button, undid the zipper and tugged on the denim. She lifted her hips to help him and the pants slid off, the unexpected addition of her underwear going with it. When Katniss realized it, she reflexively closed her legs.

Peeta ran his hands up her legs and promised, "We don't have to do anything you don't want to."

Katniss relaxed, parted her legs, and pulled him close again, "You talk too much."

"Then I'll put my mouth to better use." He kissed her with renewed passion, then made his way down her body. As his head descended, Katniss reclined lower herself, sinking into the upholstery of the couch.

Peeta's fingers parted her lower lips and began to slowly lap at her sex. A shiver of pleasure ran up her spine; his mouth on her felt indescribably good.

"You are so good at this," she whimpered.

He chuckled and she could feel him smile into her skin, "You've not seen anything yet." He inserted a finger in her warm heat and captured her sensitive clit into his mouth and flicked it with his tongue.

Katniss felt her impending climax starting to rise, far too quickly for her liking and willed herself to hang on just a little while longer. Peeta added another finger and stroked her front wall. Knowing that her orgasm was imminent, she gripped the cushion and strained against him. She cried out his name as she came and her body slumped back onto the rested his head on her belly.

As good she felt, Katniss was not done with him yet. She reached out and tugged slightly on his hair to urge him closer. She kissed him deeply and could taste herself on his lips. Her hands fell to his belt and unbuckled it."Your turn," she said in her sexiest voice.

When his pants slid down his hips, his impressive erection sprung out to meet her. She wrapped her hand around it, loving the weight of him in her hand. She couldn't help the pleased expression that came over her face when she felt his girth.

"I think that he likes you too," Peeta teased. He jumped in her hand when she stroked him.

She had planned on returning the oral favor, but now that he was so close to being where she wanted him most, she got greedy and pulled him towards her waiting center.

Just as his head began to enter her, he pulled back. "Protection?"

She felt her face flare up at her blunder; she had never been so careless before. But it wasn't the end of the world. "I'm on the pill. I'm clean, there's been no one for a year."

"It's been at least that long for me too," he admitted easily. "Do you trust me?"The want was obvious in his voice.

"Yes," she breathed. She wanted him so badly that she was willing to take the chance. She sat up straight and wrapped her arms around his neck.

Peeta nodded in agreement, took himself in his hand, and guided himself into her. Katniss stretched around him; the sensation was overwhelming.

He paused when he was fully sheathed, panting to keep control as he whispered, "God you feel so good, Katniss. Give me a minute. I've never done this without a condom before."

"Me neither," she confessed, pulling him close and urging him on. His hands gripped her thighs and he began to thrust into her. They steadily built up a rhythm. Katniss felt another peak beginning to rise, although she wasn't ready to let go yet.

"Lay down," she commanded him. Peeta reluctantly stopped and eased himself down into the plush rug. Katniss climbed over his body and straddled his hips, sunk down, and rode him.

Peeta moaned beneath her and reached up to caress her breasts. The sensation was too much and she was determined to come with him. Grabbing his wrists, she pushed them over his head and held them there. "That is so hot," he rasped, and he thrust up to meet her. In warning, he told her, "It won't be much longer."

"Let go, Peeta," she urged him and quickened her pace, finally allowing herself to let go of the spasm that she'd been holding onto. Peeta growled and followed after. Her sated body collapsed on top of his and she felt him envelop her in his embrace.

"That was the last thing I expecting when I got up this morning," Peeta said contentedly.

"I hadn't I planned it either," Katniss responded, propping her chin on his chest to stare into his brilliant blue eyes. "However I can't say that I didn't enjoy it."

"Enjoyed? Don't we sound proper?" he chuckled. She could feel his hand absently tracing her spine. "But I did enjoy it very much too."

"Alright, it was more along the lines of incredible," she said with her cheeks burning.

"That's more like it," he joked. They shared a moment of silence before Peeta asked, "So what happens next?"

"I really don't know," Katniss confessed. "It really depends on what you have planned next."

"I have some options," he related. "My old boss is begging for me to come back. My realtor said that there is huge demand for home staging in this area. Or I've been thinking about getting my contractor's license. I can do that anywhere. In truth I have been waiting to see what happened between us first. I'll stick around, if you'll have me."

Without missing a beat, she craned up and kissed him sweetly, "I'll have you."

They snuggled on the couch with a blanket and after much conversation, a little wine, and some more making out, Peeta invited Katniss to spend the night with him. She accepted and soon was laying in his comfortable king-sized bed, and she fell asleep in his arms.

Katniss awoke the next morning, naked and in a strange place. It took her a minute or two to figure out where she was. Once she remembered her night with Peeta, she reached over to his side to find him, but the sheets were cold. But she could hear some motion in the kitchen down below.

Finding a green plaid flannel shirt on the back of a chair, she tiptoed down the stairs. Peeta was wearing low-slung pajama pants and a thin white t-shirt. She leaned against the doorway and admired him while he whisked eggs in a bowl. He is so damn sexy without even trying to be, she thought and could already feel herself getting wet for him. Moments later, he jumped a little when he saw her. He smiled brightly and said, "Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas," she returned and approached him. Reaching up on her tiptoes, she kissed him in greeting.

"That's my favorite shirt," he rasped in her ear.

"If you want it, then you're going to have to take it."

"Challenge accepted." Peeta began to undo her buttons while she reached her hands into his pajamas to toy with his hardening cock. Just as he was about to push the flannel off her shoulders, she sunk to her knees and tugged off his pants. She wanted to repay him for all the time he spent on his knees the night before.

She took much pride in the lustful look in Peeta's eyes as her tongue swiped over the head of his cock before taking as much as she could in her mouth. He groaned as she worked him in and out and cupped his sensitive sac.

Suddenly he reached down under her arms and with very little effort, lifted her to the island countertop. "Sorry, I have to be inside of you again."

With little preamble, he was pushing into her. His thrusts were hard and deep as he quickly built up speed and nipped at her shoulder. She was so distracted that she did not realize that he was rubbing her clit until she was coming and gasping his name. He followed suit.

"Nothing like a little Christmas morning fornication," Katniss said, smirking in the afterglow of another powerful orgasm.

"It's only fornication if one is married and/or there is no love involved," Peeta teased.

"Then we'll have to think of another name for this," she said truthfully. "I've never felt this way about anyone before."

"Either have I," he concurred.

Sometime later they reluctantly put on clothes and ate omelets. Peeta invited her to come and sit in front of the Christmas tree. "I have something for you."

He pulled something small, wrapped in tissue paper, out of a stocking and gave it to her.

"I have nothing for you."

"You've already given me more that I could have ever hoped for. Open it," he urged.

Katniss opened the package and saw that it was a thin section of a Christmas tree trunk, hanging from a hemp string. Upon further inspection, she saw that it there was a picture burnt into it. She knew it instantly it was the farm.

"Peeta," she felt her eyes burning with tears. "It's perfect." She hugged him tight and never wanted to let go. She hadn't been so happy in years. As far as she was concerned, it was the best Christmas ever.

"I'm going to out do him this time," Katniss said to herself triumphantly as she prepared her house for her and Peeta's Valentine's dinner. For weeks, she'd been trying to think of something just as sweet and thoughtful as his Christmas gift to her had been. Her job had been made more difficult by the fact that they had agreed that they were not to spend more than twenty dollars on gifts for each other.

The past seven weeks had been incredible. They'd hardly left each other's sides —or beds. Over dinner the night before, Johanna asked if they'd discovered all the ways to stay warm while they were buck-naked yet. Katniss answered with a scowl and a furious blush, which Johanna laughed at heartily.

But Katniss really couldn't be upset; Peeta made her so happy and content. They had grown so close in such a short amount of time; it had all been like some sort of wonderful dream.

After much thought, finally she thought of the perfect gift. While it was a very small token, it was a huge move for Katniss. She'd never trusted any man so much before to give him one, not even Gale. She put her little token in a jewelry box and put it next to Peeta's plate before she made a dinner of salad, steaks, and sweet potato fries.

Peeta knocked on the door just as she was putting the finishing touches on dinner.

"Come in!" she called out.

Peeta swung open the door,with a vase of flowers and pink pastry box in hand.

"What do you have for me?"

"Heart-shaped sugar cookies with lots of icing," he said proudly.

"Yummy!" she said and took the box from his hand and instantly pulled out a cookie and took a bite. Before her mouth was empty, she asked, "Daisies and lilies, what is the symbolism behind those?"

"That roses get sold out early on Valentine's Day," he chuckled and kissed her sugary lips. "Happy Valentine's Day, by the way."

"You already told me that today," she reminded him, and thought about the mind-blowing sex they had under the multiple showerheads that morning. Her body broke out in goose bumps thinking about how he made her come while he had nibbled her neck and took her from behind.

"I know." He grinned. "But I still can't believe that I get to say it to you."

"You'd think that you'd remember after what we did in this morning," she said in husky voice. "When you get the house sold, I will miss that master suite and mega shower. My pink tub/shower combo will never measure up to that."

Peeta eyes twinkled the way that they always did when they had something exciting to tell her.

"What is it?" she questioned and stepped back.

"Maybe we can do something about yours," he hinted. She looked at him expectantly, he continued. "I talked to Finnick today. He got the job, he starts next fall."

"That's great."

"He also said that he and Annie want to buy the house," Peeta said happily. "They offered the full asking price, but they won't be able to move in until June. They want me to stay there and watch it until then."

It took Katniss a moment or two to respond. "That's great…what does that have to do with my bathroom?"

"I was thinking that maybe,"he said hopefully, "for just a couple of months, you might want to come and stay with me in the house. In the meantime, we could gut your bathroom and redesign it."

Katniss was speechless. It wasn't that far off of what she'd had in mind, but she had not been expecting for him to suggest that they stay together.

"I know that we've not been together for a very long."

"Not quiet two months," she reminded him.

"We more or less live together already. This could be like a dry-run for the future," he pointed out and tried to lighten the mood. "Although I was thinking that maybe we could role play. I was thinking, I could be the live-in handy man or we could come up with something different."

She shook her head and rolled her eyes and leaned against the counter. Peeta mimicked her and stood by her side.

He became serious again, "I have no plans to leave you. I'm in this for the long haul."

"I know," she confessed, looking at him. It was her turn to joke, "Although I bet that you'll regret the whole handyman thing when you're digging holes for 100 new Christmas tree saplings this spring."

He had a hopeful expression. "So you're open to this?"

Katniss pointed at his plate. "Go and open your present."

Peeta made the very short journey to the kitchen table and picked up the little box and opened it. "It's a key."

"It's your key," she corrected him, "to the house. Understand I am giving this to you because I expect that you will make an honest woman of me when the time comes."

"Any time you want," he promised and hugged her tight. "I know that we don't say the actual words all that often, but I am madly and deeply in love with you."

She knew that Peeta had been cautious about dropping the 'L' word because he knew that that she was uncomfortable with it. For her, everything changed when 'I love yous' were exchanged, and she had never done it in the past. But she also knew that it would mean the world to Peeta to hear, and she did love him.

"I love you too," she acknowledged openly for the first time.

Peeta kissed her passionately and she could feel his joy. There, in his arms, she felt as if her spirit had been renewed. Somehow she knew that this love would be evergreen; they could weather the storms and hard times and emerge stronger in the spring.