Updated: Aug 29, 2021
My friend, Susan Scott Shelley and I tried to build a gingerbread house. I’ve built gingerbread houses with my kids and figured it would be easier when two grown women did it. I was wrong. If you want to see our struggles and a lot of laughing, the video is posted on our YouTube Channel, The Introverts Corner.
We also thought it would be fun to write some bonus material with Thad, Julia, and Max from Returning To Friendship, and Susan’s characters from her books Mad Scramble, Hometown Hero, Sugar Crush, and Fighting for More. Below you’ll find Thad, Julia, and Max, and to read Susan’s bonus scenes you can click on the link at the end of this post.
“Thad. Max,” Julia called while kicking off her heels and dropping her ancient messenger bag next to the entry table of their Old City brownstone.
“Jewel.” Max thundered down the steps, nearly wiping out as he slipped on the hardwood floors in his socked feet. Julia braced herself, but when the five-year-old launched into her arms, she almost landed on her butt. His squeeze around her neck was so tight she was afraid she’d blackout, but he loosened his grip and looked at her, his dark brown eyes so much like his father’s. “I missed you.”
Setting him down, she grabbed the paper Leon had given her in one hand and took Max’s hand in the other as they set off to find Thad, who, from the smell of it, was making dinner. “You just saw me this morning.”
“I know, but I can still miss you.”
Agghh. This kid and his cuteness. He really was too much. “Well, I missed you too.”
When they entered the kitchen, Thad was bent over peering into the oven. Julia let out a happy little sigh. Her husband was just too darn sexy for his own good.
“Five more minutes until dinner’s ready.” Turning, Thad pierced her with hooded eyes and stalked her. Max dropped her hand as Thad’s arms engulfed her waist. Lips to her ear, voice low and filled with promises for later, he said, “Welcome home, Jules.”
Ugh. Melting. Like a big puddle of frosting left out in the summer sun.
Frosting! She’d almost forgot.
With a quick kiss to his cheek, Julia untangled herself from her husband and waved the flyer. “Look what Leon brought in today.”
“What?” Max said while vroom, vroom, vrooming the Batmobile and a dump truck around the table.
Julia held the paper up so her boys could see.
“A gingerbread house competition?”’ Thad quirked a brow. “And all entries are to be dropped off at Bliss Bakery by tomorrow evening?”
Julia squinted at Thad and his you’ll-never-pull-it-off tone as Max jumped up and down. “Yay!
Yay! Gingerbread house! Gingerbread house!”
“So, you want to enter, Max?” Asking the question to which she already knew the answer, Julia chuckled.
“YES!” Max clapped. “Will Uncle Leon help?”
“He’ll come over after work tomorrow to see the finished product. Since I was already taking the day off because you have off from school—” Before she can finish, Max was in her arms.
“I love it when you don’t have to go to work. What about Mommy? Will she help?”
Julia’s heart splintered for this sweet little boy who had taught all of them about love and being a family. “Unfortunately, Mommy’s working a double tonight and tomorrow. She’ll need some sleep after helping bring all those new babies into the world.”
Max’s bottom lip puffed with his dissatisfaction. To avoid any unnecessary tears Julia talked faster. “But Mommy said she’d come with us on Saturday for the judging.” Julia leaned in, fake whispering, “And she said to make sure Daddy doesn’t eat all of our building supplies.”
“But we can taste some, right?”
Julia tussled Max’s blonde hair. “Of course.”
Sarah had been disappointed she wouldn’t be able to help—and truthfully, so was Julia. But Julia promised to take lots of pictures and videos, keeping Sarah updated on their progress throughout the day.
Lifting Max from Julia’s arms, Thad gave him a kiss on the temple. “Dinner’s ready, little man. Go wash your hands. We’ll make a list of what you need from the grocery store, and I’ll run out after we eat.”
This was going to be so much fun.
In yoga pants and one of Thad’s old tees, the smell of cinnamon and sugar-filled the air as Julia surveyed their creations. She and Max had baked the gingerbread parts and were waiting for the walls, roof, and extra pieces to finish cooling on the racks.
“Looks good.” Thad patted her behind and kissed the back of her neck as he passed her on the way to the coffee maker.
“How much longer until we can decorate?” Max bounced on his toes as if his excitement was more than he could contain.
“I think about another ten minutes.” Julia poured gumdrops into a cup in the muffin tin, sneaking Max one on the sly. “Why don’t you go play, and I’ll call you when they’re ready?”
“I’m going to build a Lego gingerbread house,” Max said as he scampered to the living room.
“Make sure you pick up all the Legos when you’re done,” Thad called after Max, who may or may not have been ignoring his father. “I stepped on one of those suckers last night.” He mumbled into his coffee, “Hurt like hell.”
“Poor baby.” Julia patted his cheek while she looked over her blueprints.
Okay, so they weren’t technically blueprints, but she’d printed out a design pattern that Max selected. Of course, he chose a castle. It took some work, but she talked him into settling for a smaller castle, with only four turrets. He negotiated a moat and dragons. Still, at least she wasn’t looking at trying to put together a three-foot-high monstrosity with four levels, ten turrets, and a draw bridge.
Caging her from behind, Thad’s warm lips found her neck again, sending a tingle down her spine. “I could be persuaded into taking a ten-minute break while the gingerbread is cooling, and Max is occupied.”
Flutters vibrated in her belly, and she pressed her back into the heat of her man. “It’s never just ten minutes with you.”
Not that she was complaining.
Even though she couldn’t see it, she knew his grin against the side of her throat is filled with dirty promises and seduction. “It’s hard to be quick when I want to savor every.” Kiss. “Delicious.” Kiss. “Morsel.” Kiss. “Of you.” Bite.
A surprised laugh escaped, and she smacked her husband on the chest as she spun to plant a kiss on his delectable lips. “You’re bad.”
“And you love it.” He squeezed her ass.
“I do. But Max and I have a castle to build.” She gave him another quick peck and pushed at his chest.
Thad allowed himself to be moved, grabbed his coffee mug, and pointed one of his panty-dropping looks at her. “Tonight. You, me, naked.”
Julia pushed down her want because let’s face it, tonight could not get here soon enough. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Go tell your son it’s time to build.”
An hour later, frosting speckled Max’s nose like little snowflakes, and two gobs of the white goo had landed on the front of Julia’s shirt. Ludwig was having a ball, batting gumdrops around the kitchen floor, pretzels were strewn across the table, and Julia was helping Max squeeze more frosting onto the sides of the castle.
“I have a good feeling, this time.” Standing behind Max, she guided the frosting bag while they applied a straight-ish line of frosting along the edge of the sidewall of the castle. “We just need more frosting.”
“Do you think a glue stick would work better?” He asked as he dipped his finger in a glump of icing that landed on the table, then licked it off.
“If this doesn’t work, then I say we try the glue stick.” Or maybe a hot glue gun. She had one around here somewhere.
Once every wall was covered with more frosting than one would have imagined, Julia held them, praying they would stay together this time.
“I’ll put more frosting here.” Max took a spatula and dipped it in the bowl, smothering the outside of the structure and Julia’s fingers with the sticky, white substance.
“Reinforcements are here.” Thad strode in, holding up two bags containing more tubs of icing. When he surveyed the scene, his mouth twitched. “Good thing you printed out those plans, Jules.”
Slitting her eyes, she glared at him. Her beautiful plans were now littered with M&M’s, candy canes, and you guessed it, frosting. “We don’t need the plans, do we, Max?”
“Nope.” His tongue poked out from between his lips as he opened the package of ice cream cones they were going to use for the turrets.
“I don’t think we’re ready for the turrets yet, sweetie.” Julia didn’t dare move her hands from the castle, for fear it would collapse. Again.
“I know, but I’m going to start dipping them in the chocolate, so they’re the same color as the castle.”
Oh God, the mess. This was not turning out how she anticipated. It was supposed to be fun. They were supposed to build a simple castle, and it would turn out adorable. She had blueprints for crying out loud.
Her anxiety must have shown because, skillfully, Thad took the ice cream cones and set them on the counter. “Why don’t we make some lunch while Jules holds the walls together?” He winked at her and continued, “After lunch, we’ll melt the chocolate and dip the cones.”
“Okay.” Max slid off his chair and padded to the refrigerator from which he pulled out grapes.
Thanks, she mouthed as she inhaled the confectionary scent of two tubs worth of frosting. She’d never be able to look at another birthday cake again without getting queasy at the sight of the icing coating.
Thad held up his phone. “Smile.”
“Don’t, Thad. I’m a mess.” Removing her hand from one of the walls to brush the strands of hair that had fallen from her messy bun, out of her eyes, the roof began to slide. “Nooo!” Faster than Max diving for the last brownie, Julia thrust her hand back into position, saving the castle at the last minute.
Looking up, Julia saw Thad smiling and typing. “Sarah will love this one.”
She groaned. “Don’t send her that one. She already has enough of me failing miserably in my step-mom duties.”
Thad chuckled and rubbed small circles in between her shoulder blades. “You know she and Max love you.” He kissed the top of her head. “You’re not failing. Your making memories.”
“You’re lucky my hands are occupied, or I’d punch you,” she huffed, even though his words banished all of her insecurities about being a step-mother and being a part of a blended family.
Eight hours after they began the ill-fated gingerbread house fiasco, Leon, Thad, and Julia lifted the delicate structure from the back of Thad’s SUV.
“Be careful.” Julia slid her hands under the board, noting the curb as she walked backward. “If this thing falls apart, I’m stringing you both up by your balls.”
Leon grimaced. “Geeze, Julia. I like a little kink as much as the next guy, but that’s just weird.”
“What kind of balls are your favorite, Uncle Leon?” Max appeared next to her; his question innocence personified.
Thad mostly covered his laugh with a cough as Leon’s face drained of color before turning the same shade as the strawberry icing they’d used to glue the candy cane gate to their creation.
“Um. . .”
“I have lots of balls. Baseballs, soccer balls, tennis balls, footballs. And I have lots of those bouncy balls.” Max skipped beside them as the group slow-walked a block to Bliss Bakery.
Leon, having fully recovered, said, “I like volleyballs. They’re big and can take a good smacking.”
Thad choked out a Jesus while Julia rolled her eyes. “Will you stop?”
Feigning innocence, Leon fluttered his lashes. “What?”
“We’re here! We’re here!” Max ran to the door of the bakery, where an attractive man in a Bliss Bakery tee-shirt held the door open for them.
“Welcome to Bliss Bakery. I’m Gabriel.” He eyed their structure. “Are you here to enter the gingerbread house competition?”
“We are. My Jewel and I made a castle.” Max pointed as they set it down where Gabriel directed.
The big man bent down, inspecting it. “I see. Are those ice cream cone turrets?”
Max nodded his head wildly, his eyes bright with pride and excitement.
“And what is this?” Gabriel pointed to the red blob that was supposed to be a dragon.
“That’s the fire-breathing dragon, but he sneezed and caught his tail on fire, and when he jumped into the moat,” Max pointed to the electric blue glaze surrounding the castle, “he had an allergic reaction and started to melt. But he took some medicine and now he’s resting. He’ll be better in a couple of days.”
Gabriel’s mouth pulled as he nodded, like it all made perfect sense. “Well, I’m glad he’ll recover. It looks like he’s had a harrowing day.”
As Max pointed out all the points of interest on their castle to Gabriel, Julia strode around the shop, taking in the other entries. Each one was better than the other, while theirs looked like a dumpster fire that had been doused in every flavor of frosting. Her stomach sank. She wanted this to be a pleasant experience for Max.
Shoot. She should have thought this through more. Would he be upset when they didn’t win even an honorable mention? Would he cry if anyone laughed at their entry? Would he be mad at her for not being better at making gingerbread houses?
An arm around her shoulder pulled her into the hard, familiar planes of her husband’s stomach. “You did great, Jules.”
She glanced over her shoulder to find Max and Leon still chatting with Gabriel and whispered, “It’s awful.”
“He had fun.” Thad squeezed her closer.
“Next time, we’ll make a plan, do a practice run—”
“Jules.” The rumble of her name in that voice set off a rally of goosebumps. “He. Had. Fun. That’s what’s important. He’ll remember the day his Jewel stayed home so the two of you could cover yourselves in icing and build a questionable castle with an allergy-prone dragon.” He kissed the top of her head. “Relax. Okay?”
“Okay.” Releasing a breath, she eased into Thad, thankful for his ability to talk her down when she needed it.
Julia, Thad, Leon, and Sarah stood at the back of Bliss Bakery, sipping coffees and munching on the baked goods Ashley, the owner, and her staff had set out. The pretty holiday decorations and Christmas music brought a moment of melancholy for Julia. This time of year was usually hard. She wished her dad had lived to see her happy and creating a more well-rounded life. Plus, he would have loved being a grandfather.
“All I’m saying,” Leon whispered, “is it’s not fair that someone that good looking and good with kids is taken.”
“He is sexy,” Sarah, who was on the other side of Leon chimed in.
“And you should have seen him with Max last night.” Leon’s gaze was fixed on Gabriel. “He was so adorable; I was ready to buy a house and adopt dozens of babies with him.”
Sarah shook her head. “The good ones are always taken.”
“Ah-hem,” Thad cleared his throat and twisted his torso to catch his ex-wife’s eye. “You had a good one.”
The bark of Sarah’s laugh had all eyes turning to their little group.
“Hi, Mommy.” Max waved from the front where all the contestants were seated.
“Hi, baby.” Sarah waved and blew a kiss before pointing her attention to Thad. “You’re Julia’s good one, not mine.” She winked at Julia.
Julia caught Thad’s eye. “She’s right.”
“Why do you two insist on ganging up on me?”
“Because it’s so much fun. And you’re an easy target.” Sarah lifted her hand, and Julia high-fived her.
Leon shook his head. “This is your own doing, Tanner. Having these two in the same city is a recipe for shenanigans.” He jerked his thumb in Julia’s direction. “This one has actually used vacation days,” he loud whispered with wide eyes, before putting his fingers to his lips like he’s describing the lewdest of behavior. “And now she’s stockpiling all the frosting in the tri-state area. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Sarah giggled. “The castle is quite spectacular. How much did you use?”
Enjoying the easy banter of this unusual family she and Thad had created, Julia stuck out her chin and replied in her haughtiest voice, “We used what was needed to get the job done.”
“So what, three gallons?” This from Leon.
Julia swatted his chest. “Shut up.”
“Hello everyone and welcome. . .”
“Shh. It’s starting,” Julia whispered before turning her attention to the bakery’s owner, who was talking about how the gingerbread competition was started by her mom.
“Are you ready?” Ashley asked the crowd.
The front row erupted in cheers and claps. Excited voices wondering who would win. When Max caught her attention, she gave him a thumbs-up, and he nodded like there was no doubt they’d win.
Ahh, to be five again.
“The first award, for The Most Frosting Used, goes to Max Tanner.”
“WOOO WHOOO,” Julia cheered.
“That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout,” Leon called through cupped hands.
“You go, Max,” Thad hooted.
“That’s my boy.” Sarah waved to Max, who was wide-eyed with a huge grin on his face as he walked up to receive his trophy.
Running back to them, he jumped into Sarah’s arms, waving the enormous sugar cookie shaped like a trophy. “We won, Jewel! We won!”
“We did, buddy.” Holding out her fist, he bumped it.
Meanwhile, Thad, Leon, and Sarah were far too amused that the cookie trophy actually had Most Frosting Used piped in the middle above the Bliss Bakery logo.
“Maybe next year you can shoot for Best Use of Glitter,” Sarah teased.
Julia stuck out her tongue at all of them, which just made them laugh harder.
After the last award was handed out, Max slid from Sarah’s arms and took Julia by the hand. “Let’s pick out our treats, Jewel.”
“Wait.” Thad pulled out his phone. “Go stand by your castle so I can get a picture of you two before someone eats the trophy.”
“Daaaaddy,” Max whined but followed when Julia led him to where their prize-winning castle was on display. Still standing, and in one piece, thank you very much.
Thad, Sarah, and Leon all had their phones pointed at Max and Julia. “Say, gingerbread,” Leon directed.
Bent down next to Max, Julia smiled as she and Max sing-songed, “Gingerbread.”
After the pictures were taken, Sara and Leon guided Max through the crowd to the display case where he selected a cupcake of his choice and treats for the rest of them.
Thad slung his arm over her shoulders and maneuvered them to a relatively quiet corner. “Thank you, Jules.”
She snuggled into him, lapping up his warmth. “For what?”
“For loving Max. For loving me. Hell, for loving Sarah.” His hand brushed the underside of her sweater, the feel of his fingers against her skin, creating an oh-so-good friction. “Thank you for this life.”
Pressing up to her toes, she kissed his chin. “Thank you for giving me the family I never knew I wanted.”
He hugged her closer. “Maybe we can start thinking about expanding our family?”
For once, she wasn’t freaked out by thought. In fact, she liked the idea of Max having a younger sibling.
“We should probably start practicing tonight.” She wiggled her brows.
“Don’t tease me, woman.” His pupils dilated, then his voice softened. “Are you serious?”
“I think I am.” For some unknown reason, her throat constricted at the thought of creating another human being with this man. “At least I’m ready to discuss it.”
Thad pressed his lips to hers. “God, I love you.”
Every time he said the words, she fell harder for her best friend and was thankful they’d been given this chance. “I love you, too, Thad.”
To read Susan’s scenes click below.