Once upon a time, there was this pampered rich girl who was kind of full of herself. She really only cared about appearances and hiding all her dark, ugly secrets under the guise of an opinionated snob. But then Eva Mercer got pregnant, shot by a psycho, and kicked out of the only home she knew. Now she’s broke, unemployed, and has to start anew with a newborn to raise. But how?
On the other side of town, sexy, tattooed orphan, Patrick Ryan, can’t get a break. He’s out on parole for defending the last damsel in distress while trying to help her support her child, but all he wants is to find his one true love. He knows this woman by scent, smile, and laugh, but he’s never actually met her. He doesn’t even know her name. He just knows she’s the key to fixing everything.
One kind of hero can save you from physical harm. Another can rescue you from a different kind of doom. To reach their dreams, Eva and Pick can save each other. But first, they must open their hearts and learn how to trust.
It’s written from the point of view of Skylar (Eva’s daughter in BE MY HERO) when she’s nineteen.
TIS THE SEASON
“Here, sweetie. I have some more ornaments and garland if you want to keep hanging anything in here?”
“Sure,” I told her. “I was just about to run out .”
She set down her box so she could retrieve the empty I was holding down to her, and then she passed up a fresh supply of decorations.
“What to know a secret?” I asked, full of the Christmas spirit as I giddily rummaged through the new box until I came across a gingerbread man that smelled like cinnamon. The little red buttons on its belly twinkled up at me in greeting like rubies.
“Of course, I want to know a secret.” Aunt Felicity leaned eagerly closer and grasped the ladder like a typical mother as if to hold it steady for me when I stretched up to hang the gingerbread man from a string of lights I’d already draped from hooks around the ceiling.
“This is actually my favorite place to come for Christmas,” I confessed, lowering my voice so no one else could accidentally overhear and possibly become offended.
I bit my lip and glanced almost guiltily down at my aunt, who wasn’t actually related to me in any way, to find her pressing her hand to her heart and almost in tears.
“Really?” she said before she burst out smiling. “That’s amazing. Thank you. And here, I thought you were going to tell me you think that boy your brother brought home with him for Christmas was cute.”
“Oh.” Instant heat flooded my face.
Because she was talking about Dominic. He’d been Julian’s dorm mate their first year of college, and since Julian and I had gone to separate universities, I’d never actually met Dominic before. But I guess his parents and younger sister had been killed in a car accident coming home from a New Year’s Eve party last year, so he didn’t have anywhere to go for the holidays this year, except an uncle’s house in California, but he hadn’t been able to afford that long of a trip, which had prompted Julian to drag him home to Mom and Dad’s over winter break.
Bringing home strays was kind of our family tradition, so it made sense. Few of us were true blood relatives. The only people in the house right now that I shared any DNA with was my mom, two younger half-siblings, Chloe and Trick, my mom’s cousin, Aunt Reese, and her two kids, Gracen and Isabella. Not even my dad or brother, Julian, were technically kin to me. Mom had already been pregnant with me by the time she and Dad first met, and Julian had been his three-month-old stepson at the time. Which made our crazy concoction of family even stronger, I think, since we had chosen to be together and weren’t forced into it by fate.
Most of the group had started out as coworkers at my Dad’s nightclub, and it had just grown from there. We now numbered thirty-nine, or at least, that’s how many stockings Chloe had complained about being forced to hang tonight with Aunt Remy—the newest to our group being Jocelyn, Julian’s girlfriend’s mom, who he’d also invited this year, and Dominic, Julian’s best friend from college.
But thinking about Dominic made me feel all weird and self-conscious, so I quickly answered Aunt Felicity, “Uh, no. I mean, yes, of course he looks nice.” Especially this morning when I’d accidentally walked in on him in the bathroom, where he’d only been wearing a towel because he’d just stepped out of the shower. “But—”
“Just nice?” she teased, lifting an eyebrow and sending me a knowing smirk.
Realizing I was blushing like an idiot, I cleared my throat and ignored the comment. “But….yeah, I love coming here, because you don’t decorate until we all make it in, and then, we all get to do it together. It just makes everything so much more…you know…festive.”
Each separate household took turns hosting a holiday, so it was rare that we got to come here for Christmas, but that just made it feel even better to me.
Aunt Felicity started to chuckle. “You know, I only started that tradition because Ten complained about it so much the first time I hosted. I didn’t have the time to decorate that year, you see, so when everyone showed up, they took pity of me and jumped in until, boom, the place looked nicer than I’d ever gotten it to look on my own. It had been the perfect activity to keep the crowd occupied, too. But Ten accused me of using him for free labor the entire night, so of course, I made sure to do it again the next time I hosted, just to irritate him. And, well…” She shrugged. “It became tradition.”
I laughed. “Well, I love it, however it got started.”
“Good.” She winked. “I’ll make sure to keep doing it, then.”
Glowing because she’d taken my preferences into consideration, I hung a snowman not far from the gingerbread man just as a girl’s scream rose over the other voices coming through the arched opening that led into the rest of the house.
“Beau Gamble,” the screamer cried. “I hate you! Give it back now.”
“Oh, no. That’s Bentley,” Aunt Felicity groaned a moment before the girl added, “Mom!”
A miniature version of Aunt Felicity with the same flaming red hair and blue eyes tore into the foyer, only to plow to a stop when she spotted her mother standing next to my ladder. Planting her hands on her hips, she announced, “Beau took my Santa hat again.”
Aunt Felicity sighed warily and met my gaze as if to commiserate with me before she answered, “You know, he only teases you like that because he likes you, honey.”
“Eww, Mom. Yuck.” Thirteen-year-old Bentley crinkled her nose into a grimace. “And I really don’t care. I just want him to stop.”
“Well, you should probably tell his mother that, then. I’m not exactly in a position to scold someone else’s son.”
“Can’t you tell her?” Bentley whined. “She’s your best friend. I don’t want Aunt Aspen to think I think she’s a bad mom just because he’s a nightmare. I mean, Lucy Olivia’s the sweetest, but Beau’s just… He’s a total butthead.”
“Okay, okay,” Aunt Felicity relented. “We’ll go talk to Aspen together. How about that?” Taking her daughter’s hand, she glanced up at me. “Let me know if you need anything else, okay, Skylar?”
“Will do,” I said, shaking my head and grinning as I watched the two disappear, leaving me alone once more in the foyer. I had a feeling that in a few years, Bentley wouldn’t think Beau’s attention was quite so gross. Then again, hopefully he’d be less of a butthead by then.
Humming under my breath, I hung a few more decorations until I ran out of places to reach. So I climbed down the ladder and repositioned it another few feet away to embellish a new spot of ceiling.
The buzz of conversation in the main part of the house floated back to me, the occasional laughter and raised voices making me smile with the bits I was able to hear. It was nice to get to see everyone again. I hadn’t realized I would miss them so much when I’d gone off to college. Last year, my homesickness had been so bad, I’d nearly dropped out in the first semester. But after a single call home, Dad had talked me through the anxiety, and after that, he and Mom made sure to call at least twice a week and visit me at my dorm once a month. They were the absolute best, I swear. The only reason I was making it through this year so well was because of my parents. That probably made me a total homebody, but I couldn’t help it. I loved my family, and being away from them sucked.
I climbed back up the ladder and kept humming to myself, just happy to be here and back in my hometown again. I was untangling an angel ornament from a little drummer boy when a knock came on the front door about five feet away from my perch.
“It’s open,” I called, wondering who was late.
I thought everyone had already arrived. Maybe someone had run out to their car to fetch something and left through the back of the house only to return through the front.
Finally freeing the angel, I lifted my arms to hang it, focusing on my task as the door below came open.
A moment later, a voice I didn’t recognize murmured, “Well, well, well. Merry Christmas to me.”
Not expecting to receive what sounded like a clear come-on, I shot my gaze to the still-open doorway where a man about my parents’ age grinned wolfishly up at me, his gaze raking its way up my red and green plaid leggings until it came to rest on the hem of my jean skirt and spark upon the bare patch of skin that was showing at my waist, where my sweater had come up because my arms were raised.
I quickly lowered my hands and instinctively shifted them to shield all the parts he was ogling. “Uh…hey,” I greeted uneasily. “Can I help you?”
His gaze finally met mine. “I certainly hope so. I wasn’t expecting to run into a pretty little thing like you when I came here. What’s your name, angel?”
He swaggered forward, like he thought he was attractive. And I guess he might’ve been…twenty years, fifty pounds, and half his hair ago. But now, he looked like a soggy, used-up has-been. The bags under his eyes had bags under them and his—wait. There was something strangely familiar about the shape of his nose and mouth. Like maybe I’d seen him before. In another life.
As he drew closer, I scrambled down from the ladder so I wouldn’t feel so trapped, but in my haste, I tripped and nearly fell.
“Whoa there, darling.” He reached out, as if to catch me, but the idea of him actually touching me was more appalling than landing wrong and breaking an ankle or something.
And I was attending college on a dancing scholarship. A broken ankle was nothing to shrug about.
“I’m good,” I said, catching myself at the last moment and lifting my hands to ward him off, but also hopefully to make it look as if I was conveying to him how okay I was.
Sending him a nervous laugh, I straightened and swung my long, dark hair over my shoulder to get my bearings straight.
So I was stuck in the foyer with a creepy, old guy; I could handle this. No problem. Just play it cool and avoid all contact, and I’d come out just fine.
He slowed to a stop and just stared at me. His avid attention was unsettling to the extreme and made my skin crawl, because there was no way to get past him to go anywhere else unless I plowed through him or he decided to move out of my way.
I had a bad feeling he wasn’t going to move any time soon.
When I skittered another step back, he seemed to realize he was freaking me out, because he lifted both hands and said, “Hey. Easy. I don’t bite.” His teeth flashed into a grin, and they looked like teeth that would definitely bite. Then he added, “Not on the first meeting anyway.”
When he laughed at his terrible, inappropriate joke, I cringed. But oh my God, this guy was just gross and pathetic.
Glancing past him in the hopes someone else would enter the foyer any moment now and save me from being stuck alone with this creeper, I asked, “Were you here to see Uncle Knox? Or Aunt Felicity maybe?”
The question seemed to draw him back. “Aunt Felicity?” he asked, furrowing his brow into a frown as he stressed the aunt part. “You’re related to Felicity?”
“Oh! Uh, no. Not technically, I guess.” Then I rose onto my toes and yelled, “Aunt Felicity. You have a visitor.”
Her guest eased closer to me, and I backed up another step.
A couple more moves like this, and he’d have me literally backed into a wall.
Yikes. I needed to stop backing away and just stand my ground already.
“What are you technically, then?” he pressed.
“Uh…” The answer was long and convoluted, and I had a feeling the guy didn’t really care about the connection, anyway. I wasn’t even sure why he was bothering to ask for clarification at all.
Suddenly, my Dad blew into the foyer. “Skylar?” he said. “What’s wrong? You used your nervous—” He broke off abruptly when his gaze settled on the other man.
After taking in how close the guy was standing to me and how I was so obviously leaning away from him, Dad narrowed his eyes and pointed. “Hey. Back away from my kid, buddy.”
The guest immediately lifted his hands and took three huge, meaningful steps back.
Nice, I wanted to snicker in disgust. He completely ignored all the signals I was sending him to stay out of my personal space, but one word from another man, and he was all, okay, I’m backing off.
What an asshole.
Claiming my freedom, I darted to Dad, who immediately caught me, clasping my face between his hands and studying my eyes.
“You okay?” he murmured quietly.
“Yes. Of course.” I bobbed my head insistently, feeling silly for ever worrying in the first place. I was in the safest place in the world: with my family.
Dad hugged me to his chest, anyway, and stroked my hair soothingly. “Can we help you with something?” he asked the newcomer brusquely, talking over my shoulder. The tension I felt in his muscles told me he was probably glaring threateningly at the other guy, just because he’d spooked me.
“Yeah, man. Chill. It’s all good. I’m just here to see Felicity for a couple minutes, and then I’ll be out of your…” His voice slowed to a stop before he said, “Wait. Don’t I know you?”
“I think so, pal,” Dad said dismissively, hooking his arm over my shoulders and turning us as if to usher me from the room, away from the newcomer.
But the other man stepped forward, his eyes narrowing. “Holy shit. You’re that fucker who tried to kill me.”
Dad chuckled and shook his head. “No,” he answered. “I believe you have the wrong…” But when he glanced back, he paused and blinked before recognition lit his gaze. “Holy fuck,” he breathed, gaping as if looking at a ghost. A moment later, he shoved me behind him. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Alarmed by Dad’s reaction, I lifted up onto my toes to see over his shoulder to find the other man shifting into a defensive positon as if ready to throw down and fight my Dad right there in the foyer.
Seriously, what was that about? And why was Dad freaking out so bad? What the heck was going on here?
Before either of them answered any of my silent questions, a breathless Aunt Felicity swept back into the foyer. “Sorry, I—” She stumbled to a stop at the sight of the other man, only to stare at him with the same horror and recognition Dad had.
“Alec?” she gasped. “What’re you doing here?”
Oh my God. My brain whirred as that name spun through my head at hyper speed. Suddenly, I realized why this guy had looked so familiar to me. Mom had shown me a picture of him years ago. He’d aged a lot since then, but he was definitely the same Alec I’d asked her about.
“You know this douchebag?” Dad charged Aunt Felicity, his voice accusing as if blaming her for Alec’s presence.
“I…” Confusion spread across her features before she shook her head and said, “I mean, yeah. Barely. He’s my cousin from Florida. But I haven’t seen him in probably over…twenty-five years.”
“He should’ve fucking stayed in Florida,” Dad growled, shifting a glare toward Alec.
“Wait.” Aunt Felicity countered, reaching out to grasp Dad’s arm. “How do you know him?”
Dad merely smirked. “Oh, you know. I tried to kill him.”
“But only because he was trying to kill my mom…and me,” I tossed out quickly so Aunt Felicity wouldn’t think Dad had turned into some kind of homicidal maniac.
Dad glanced back at me, his eyes sad and knowing. “Figured out who he was, huh?”
I cringed. “Just now,” I answered honestly.
Dad gave a single nod. “Did he mess with you?”
I shook my head. “No! No, he, uh…he doesn’t even know who I am. He tried to hit on me.”
Dad grimaced. “Really? Eww.”
I almost laughed, totally agreeing with him.
But then the gravity of the situation seemed to press down on me, and I returned my gaze to my sperm donor.
This was the first time I’d ever seen more than just a picture of the guy who’d knocked up my mom twenty years ago. And now, I was standing in the same room as him.
I hadn’t been curious about him, not since I’d asked Mom for the full story and she’d told me everything when I was twelve. From her account, he hadn’t sounded all that appealing, and I felt as if my life was complete with the dad I already had. I had never needed this guy in my circle. And looking at him now, I didn’t want him in it.
But holy shit, he was my biological father.
It was all so…bizarre.
“Everything okay in here?” Uncle Knox asked, appearing in the opening of the foyer. Spotting Alec and the way Dad was glaring at him, he pointed. “Who the fuck is he?”
“Um.” Aunt Felicity took his arm nervously. “Dear, this is my cousin Alec. From the Worthington side. He, uh…well, actually I have no idea what he’s doing here, or even how he knew where to find me.”
“Your brother Max told me to try you here,” Alec finally spoke up, turning his gaze to her because he’d been staring fixedly at me and Dad as if trying to decipher what we’d been talking about.
“Max?” Aunt Felicity sputtered, setting a hand against her heart. “Wow, it’s been years since I’ve seen him. I wasn’t aware he knew where I was either. Is he…I mean, he’s okay?”
“I guess,” Alec answered on a shrug. “Seemed like the same douchebag asshole he always was.”
“Ah,” Aunt Felicity murmured. “Yeah, that does sound typical. So…why did he send you here again?”
“I need a loan,” Alec said, wincing. “Just a couple grand to get me through. I can pay you back—”
“Nope,” Uncle Knox broke in, stepping away from Aunt Felicity and approaching Alec. “I’ve heard enough. You need to go now.”
Alec scowled at my dad as if blaming him for Uncle Knox’s reaction, but then he turned the glare on Uncle Knox himself. “I wasn’t talking to you, asshole. Now if you’ll step aside and let me address my cousin…”
“Well, your cousin is my wife, and her money is actually ours, so I say no. Now get lost before I throw you out.”
Alec should’ve been cowed. Uncle Knox was not a small guy. He was packed full with muscle and used to be a boxer back in the day.
But Alec merely sniffed derisively at him before turning beseechingly toward Aunt Felicity. “Come on, Felicity. We’re family.”
Aunt Felicity lifted her chin. “My entire family can be found there.” She pointed at her husband and then me and dad before motioning toward the entrance of the foyer that led into the rest of the house. “Or through that doorway,” she added. “I’m sorry, but you’re not anything to me anymore, Alec.”
As he started to argue with her, two-year-old Ayden—the youngest person in the house—came toddling into the room. Worried about her getting caught up in the confrontation, I swept forward and tugged her up into my arms.
Uncle Mason appeared a second later, looking frantic until he saw me holding the girl. “Oh thank God,” he breathed. “Asher put me on toddler duty, but wow, this little squirt can move faster than…”
He started to reach for Ayden, only to finally notice the tension in the air. Glancing from Dad to Aunt Felicity and Uncle Knox, he finally settled his gaze on Alec and paused. “What’s going on?”
“Mason Lowe?” Alec said, squinting at him.
Uncle Mason squinted back until his eyebrows shot up. “Holy shit,“ he yelped. “What the hell is he doing here?” he asked Dad.
“Why don’t you take Sky and Ayden into the other room,” Dad told Uncle Mason in a low voice.
Uncle Mason immediately took my arm to comply, but Alec narrowed his eyes and pointed between him and Dad. “Wait a second. The last time I saw you two together, you—”
His voice broke off and his mouth fell open before his face turned a bright, angry red. “Holy fucking shit,” he snarled. “That bitch, Eva’s here, isn’t she?”
“I’d watch how you talk about my wife if I were you,” Dad warned, his voice growing even lower and quieter, how it usually did when he was his angriest.
“Your…” Alec started to repeat before he paused to throw back his head and laugh. “You married that worthless whore? God, what a match.”
“Hey!” I started to step forward, totally offended, but Uncle Mason caught my arm.
More people began to arrive in the opening the foyer then, news getting around that something big was going down in the foyer. When Aunt Remy spotted me with her daughter, she rushed in to retrieve her.
As soon as my arms were empty, I felt exposed, so I moved close to Uncle Mason, who protectively wrapped an arm around my shoulders. As everyone was murmuring amongst themselves, I accidentally made eye contact with Dominic who was standing next to Julian. Something in his gaze seemed to see that I was going through a traumatic moment and he silently commiserated with me.
It was such a strong, intense glance that I looked away, unable to bare it in that moment, only to spot my mother showing up behind him and trying to peer around everyone else to see what was happening.
“Mom,” I said in a panic, before thinking my actions through. I just wanted to somehow warn her of what she was about to see.
But instead of looking around for the danger, she came straight to me as if to protect me.
Alec instantly latched his gaze onto her, narrowing his eyes when she reached me and took my hand. Then he glanced between the two of us and frowned. “Mom?” he echoed, transferring his gaze back and forth before he settled on staring at me in shock.
I squeezed Mom’s fingers, and my stomach churned. She finally followed my gaze, only to stumble back against me.
Suddenly, Dad was in front of us both, steadying Mom and softly murmuring, “Tink?”
“I’m okay, I’m okay,” she assured, shaking her head and blinking at Dad before transferring her shocked gaze to Alec. Then she said, “Am I seeing what I’m actually seeing?”
“What the fuck?” Alec spewed, shaking his head slowly as he blinked at Mom. Then me. Then Mom again. “You’re not…” Then he went back to gaping at me. “She’s not… No. That baby died.” He returned his probing stare to Mom. “Didn’t it? How could it survive after…?”
When Mom refused to answer him, the foyer, now full with forty people, went deadly quiet
I heard Julian’s quiet murmur of, “Oh, fuck,” right before he was suddenly at my side and gripping my arm as if to protect me too. With Mom glued to me on the other side and Dad in front of all three of us, I kind of felt like a sardine.
“Oh my God,” Aunt Felicity gasped, covering her mouth with both hands. She spun to Alec, only to say, “You’re that Alec? Why did I never connect the dots? Holy shit. How could you beat a girl you’d impregnated, hoping she’d miscarry your baby?”
“Hoping she’d miscarry?” Alec repeated in outrage. He spun to Mom. “Are you saying it survived? That…it—she…” His gaze met mine, and he looked a little green. “She’s not my kid, is she?”
“She’s my kid,” Dad answered steadily.
Alec blinked, clearly confused by that. So Mom sighed. “You tried to kill her before she was even born. She’s nothing to you.”
“But, you know, thanks for the sperm donation,” I spoke up with a cringing shrug. “I appreciate being created and all. But…I already got a new dad, one I like, and he’s never tried to kill me. So, you can go now. I’m good.”
A couple people behind me laughed.
“She’s right. You should go,” Uncle Knox told Alec.
Alec shook his head vaguely, glancing around. “But I need some money—”
“Get the fuck out before I finish what I started twenty years ago,” Dad boomed. “No one here is giving you any money.”
Alec jumped, then narrowed his eyes at Dad. When Uncle Knox took a step closer, he finally gave up. “Fuck you people then,” he snarled. “I hope you all burn in hell.”
He slammed the door behind him without even glancing my way again.
And I was pretty sure that was the last I’d ever see of my biological father.
No “sorry, I tried to extinguish your life.” No, “Hey, it was nice to meet you.” No nothing. He was just there. And then he was gone. Poof.
About twenty people descended on me, asking if I was okay, looking me over as if they were certain they’d find physical damage. My parents and all three siblings couldn’t seem to leave my side. And the story of my birth was repeated for everyone in case some of them hadn’t yet heard of the night Alec Worthington had punched my mom repeatedly in the stomach to kill me off and caused her to go into premature labor and give birth to me at thirty weeks into term.
I handled it all okay, I think. I mean, this family always had a way of making things seem funny or not so bothersome when bad things happened. But no matter how much I reassured each person who asked, telling them I was fine, a strange fuzz remained in my head. It felt as if I was living in a dream, as if none of this was real and hadn’t really happened.
Except everything else was so ordinarily normal. Like, when we all sat down to eat and twelve-year-old Teagan made a fuss because she wanted to sit at the same table as the Hamilton brothers, or five-year-old Cress spilled his drink all over his grandpa Radcliffe’s lap, or Uncle Ten French-kissed Aunt Caroline under the mistletoe.
So I kept with the flow throughout the meal, chatting with Nia about college classes, teasing Bentley’s little brother Fox about how many rolls he’d eaten, and listening to Isabella when she recited her lines to me from her winter program at school.
Everyone carried on as if nothing earth-shattering had happened, so I did too.
Hiding a smile when I realized Dominic was trapped sitting between Uncle Brandt and Uncle Noel, who were arguing over football predictions and kept trying to get Dominic to pick sides, I blushed when he glanced my way and caught me staring. When he smiled back, I quickly turned my attention to my food.
I don’t know why I did that. It’s not like I knew much about him to even form any kind of crush. We hadn’t even had a single conversation together. He’d always been with Julian when I’d seen him and what little I’d said in his direction was part of group talk. And this morning, in the bathroom, I’d been too busy apologizing and trying not to stare at so much perfect wet flesh that we hadn’t really gotten into chatting about the weather or anything.
Feeling foolish for my reaction, and suddenly insecure, I just kind of pushed my food around until everyone else was done eating and it was time to open presents.
People noticed my lack of appetite, of course. Aunt Reese swooped in as soon as I stood from the table, and she wrapped an arm around my shoulders, asking if I was okay. Then Mom was there, looking into my eyes like Moms do to see if I was really handling the evening or if I was unhealthily repressing bad feelings. But then Trick dragged then both away, demanding they go to the big den with him where the tree and presents were.
I caught Dad watching me from across the room, but he only winked as if to let me know he was worried too but was going to give me the breathing space I seemed to need. I blew a kiss back at him, only to jump when Aunt Felicity hooked her arm through mine and announced how happy she was to learn she was really my aunt after all, or first cousin, once removed, or whatever we were now.
The smothering continued when Chloe and Isabella sat next to me, one on either side, squishing up against me so tight they were nearly on my lap. It was honestly a little hard to breathe with all the attention and concern. But I knew it was because they loved me, so I dealt with it, even though I kind of wanted to slink off somewhere and just…process.
I’d met my sperm donor tonight. That thought just keep repeating over and over through my brain.
I hadn’t been impressed with him, but then, he could’ve been worse. I mean, the guy had tried to beat my pregnant mom in the stomach to the point that she would miscarry me because he hadn’t wanted to be a dad. So, honestly, I’d been expecting a pretty terrible kind of guy. A monster. But he’d just been…human. A fallible, flesh-and-blood man. It was a letdown and a relief all in the same breath.
I was relieved I didn’t contain actual monster DNA in me, but then, I was disappointed because I couldn’t really hate him as much as I secretly wished I could, either. I didn’t really feel anything toward him, which made me wonder and worry that maybe I should. Was it okay to be totally indifferent to the man who helped bring you into existence and also tried to kill you?
I wasn’t sure, so I gnawed on my lip while everyone around me tore into their gifts and made a mess of Uncle Knox and Aunt Felicity’s den. Once the younger generation had all their goodies exposed, they set to work, playing with and inspecting their loot, some of them trying to trade with others, while the older crowd seem to slump back as if too exhausted to move another inch.
“What did Julian get you?” I hear Nia’s mom ask her. She was sitting next to Aunt Julianna’s dad, who was as single as she was and kept flirting with her.
Nia blinked and looked down at the wrapping paper strewn across her and Julian’s laps. “You know…” she started with a slight frown. “I don’t think I got anything from him yet.”
My brother turned to her as if surprised to learn this. “You didn’t?” Frowning, he began to pat himself as if looking for her present on his person. “Hmm. I could’ve sworn I put your gift under the tree.”
Then he totally gave himself away—or he did in my eyes, anyway—when he glanced toward Dominic, who sat on another couch, next to Aunt Zoey and Uncle Quinn.
When Dominic’s lips tightened into a knowing grin, I suddenly understood.
“Oh my God!” I gasped, scooting forward in my seat so I could watch the show. “No way! You didn’t.”
Then I frowned. Wait a second here. He’d never bought Nia anything before without making me go shopping with him to help pick out her gift or at least to approve of his choice. Except he hadn’t done that this year. He’d gotten her something all on his own, which made me think he better not have gotten her what I suddenly suspected he’d gotten her. I’d be super pissed if he’d kept me out of a loop on picking out a freaking engagement ring.
“Didn’t what?” Nia asked, cluelessly glancing at me with her eyebrows puckering.
Over her shoulder, Julian shot me a look to kill, which meant, holy shit! He really had gotten her a ring. Without me. And he was about to propose.
“What is she talking about?” Nia asked, turning back to Julian.
He shook his head and made a face as if to say, “I don’t know what she’s going on about. That girl’s crazy,” right before he brightened. “Oh, hey. Here it is.”
Simultaneously, he drew the ring box from his pocket at the same time that he slid off the couch beside her and onto the floor to kneel in front of her.
As Nia’s mouth fell open, her mom began to fan her face and murmur, “Oh my Lord. Oh my Lord. My baby’s getting married.”
“Wait! What’s happening?” I heard Aunt Reese screech from somewhere. “Is Julian proposing? I want to see! I want to see!”
“I’d hold out for at least two carats, Nia,” Ten called.
“Way to go, Julian!” Luke shouted. “Put a ring on it.”
Julian glanced over his shoulder in exasperation, scowling at the room at large. “I will,” he gritted out. “If you all would shut up and just let me ask her.”
Nia threw her head back and burst out laughing. When Julian turned back to her, cringing sheepishly, she cupped his face in two hands and kissed him slowly on the lips.
“Yes,” she said as she pulled away, tears glittering in her eyes. “I don’t care what pretty way you ask, the answer is yes.” Then she held out a shaking hand, and Julian slid the ring into place.
And just like that, two of my favorite people on earth were going to get married to each other.
I waited in line behind everyone else to give the lucky couple a congratulatory hug, but once I did, I realized no one was paying any attention to me anymore. This was my prime opportunity to slip off and finally get that moment alone to clear my head.
I found my coat in a pile of about thirty others on the bed in Fox’s room, and then I slipped out the back door and into the quiet night.
Light from a half moon glistened off the snow in the backyard. The yard lacked wind, which would’ve made the still winter atmosphere feel more like I was looking at a picture if it weren’t for the fact that the cold instantly crept through my clothes and kissed my cheeks.
Pulling gloves from my pocket, I slid then on and moved to a bench where I settled down gratefully. A layer of ice on the wood instantly soaked through the seat of my jeans and the fog my breath created floated around my face mystically.
I liked the silence and stillness and coldness though. It gave me a moment to think and force my brain to sharpen and focus, not jump around like my thoughts had been doing since I’d realized I was standing in the same room as my sperm donor.
I was okay, I told myself. I had a great life, a great family. I was doing okay in school, meeting the demands of dance and classwork. I didn’t have any reason to feel bad. There was nothing missing from my life; I had the best father on earth in Pick Ryan. And yet…I kind of felt…rejected. Unwanted. Unlovable.
I knew that was stupid. Probably even too petty to mention to anyone. I didn’t even want a relationship with Alec, the prick, Worthington. I mean, I’d been the one to tell him to go, after all. The guy wanted me dead. But the fact that he so obviously didn’t want me either, just…stung.
Who else in my life wouldn’t want me someday?
Before I could let myself dip too far down the rabbit hole of self-doubt, the back door opened and Dominic stepped out. He didn’t see me, and as soon as he shut the door, the light from the back utility room stopped spraying into the yard, so I was once again shrouded in the shadows.
Thinking he was alone, he rubbed is hands together and hissed, “Shit, it’s cold out here.”
It seemed impolite to let him continue assuming he was alone, so I said, “Did it get a little overwhelming in there for you too?”
His head shot up, and I somehow was able to see his gaze in the moonlight. Surprise and intense attention dominated his expression as he murmured, “Hey there.”
“Hey,” I sad back, simply.
A moment of silence passed, then he took a step in reverse and hooked his thumb over his shoulder. “If you needed a moment alone, I can go back in—”
“No, no,” I cut in, waving a hand to keep him from retreating, since he’d obviously needed a moment away from the chaos too. “You’re fine. You don’t have to leave. I was just feeling a little claustrophobic with so many in there. But one person around for company would actually be…nice.”
And I meant that. I realized I hadn’t wanted to scurry off and have a pity party alone; I just wanted a little less…commotion for a minute.
“Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.” Dominic agreed quietly, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his coat, which caused his shoulders to lift in an almost shy kind of way, except it just made him look extra hot. “It’s pretty crazy in there.”
As he wandered closer to where I sat, I scooted down on the bench to make room for him, even though there had already been plenty of bench space on either side of me.
Thank goodness Dominic recognized the wordless invitation for what it was, because he quietly sat next to me, his hands still in his pocket, causing his elbows to stick out further than usual until one of them barely brushed my coat sleeve.
“Different than what you’re used to at Christmas?” I asked, leaning his way so I could nudge his elbow on purpose.
He grinned at me, only for his expression to go solemn and thoughtful. “Yeah,” he said. “And yet, a lot is the same, too.”
“Is it harder or easier than you thought it would be to get through the holidays without them?” I asked, trying to be thoughtful and tactful but also open to listen if he wanted to talk about his family.
“Both,” he said after a moment. “I’m not wallowing in grief like I thought I might.” Lifting his eyebrows, he sent me a meaning glance. “Your brother’s successfully prevented me from any of that action. But then little thoughts will creep up on me unaware and surprise me with a stab of regret.”
“Like what?” I asked, watching him with my face tilted slightly.
Glancing out at the dark back yard, he blew out a breath, dragged his hands from his pockets to scrub his palms along his lap to his knees. “I don’t know. Just…random things. Like your uncle, Asher, I think…”
“Yeah,” I prompted.
He nodded. “He was humming as he helped your sister fill stockings. And I just…” with a small laugh, he shook his head. “I remember my mom used to do that too. When I realized I was never going to hear her do it again, I… It was just hard.”
My heart cracking for him, I reached out and set my gloved hand on his knee, directly over his bare one. “I’m sorry,” I said. “For your loss.”
“Thank you.” He set his other hand over my gloved one so that my fingers were sandwich between his. We sat that way, without speaking for another minute before he glanced sideways at me, and something mischievous seemed to waft off him.
“But, hey. If I hadn’t come here, I would’ve missed your brother’s epically bad proposal.”
I chuckled and shook my head. “Yeah, that was something else. You knew he was going to ask her, though, didn’t you?”
Dominic shrugged before he admitted. “Yeah. I did.”
“Helped picked out the ring too, I bet.”
Shaking his head, he bowed face and laughed. “He said you’d be pissed about not being involved in that. But he couldn’t be patient and wait until he saw you again, so I was unwilling recruited for the position, and then thoroughly threatened.”
“Threatened?” I repeated curiously.
“Oh, yeah,” he told me with all seriousness. “Julian made it quite clear that if I helped him pick out a sucky ring, you—not Nia—would skin my hide.”
“Did he really? Oh my God, he’s such an ass.” Nudging Dominic’s knee with my own, I added, “And don’t worry, by the way. Your hide is quite safe from me. The ring was gorgeous.”
“Thanks.” He wiped the back of his hand across his brow as if relieved.
I rolled my eyes, even as I grinned at the cute, corny move. “And I forgive you for stealing my role as ring approver,” I said regally.
“You can have it back, I swear,” he insisted, lifting both his hands. “I didn’t know shit about rings. They all looked nice to me.”
“No!” I cried. “You shouldn’t have told me that. Now I’m just going to think you made a lucky guess and have no taste at all.”
“Well, it’s true,” he said on a laugh, “So I guess we might as well get all delusions out of the way now. Jewelry picking is not my thing.”
“That’s it.” Crossing my arms over my chest, I faked a pout. “I’m going back to being pissed again.” But then I gave up the rouse with a smile as I uncrossed my arms.
Dominic shook his head slowly, watching me as if fascinated.
“Want to know a secret?” he asked.
Sitting upright and willing to follow a change in conversation, I brightened. “Of course. I love secrets.”
I thought he might tell me something crazy, like Nia was pregnant, but no… His grin widened. “I actually followed you out here.”
My mouth fell open in shock, because I immediately thought he followed me outside because he was interested in me, but then…no. He was probably just checking on me. Like everyone else tonight.
“Oh God,” I groaned, shrinking away and covering my ears with both my hands before dropping then to my lap and muttering, “Not you too. I’m fine, really. I swear. I mean, okay, it was strange to see my biological father for the first time. And who cares if he doesn’t want anything to do with me. Whatever. That just makes life easier for me, you know, because I didn’t want anything to do with him, either.”
“But it probably would’ve been nice if he’d at least acted halfway curious about you,” he murmured in the most logical voice ever.
“Yeah, sure.” I tossed out my hand, giving him that one. “Definitely, but he didn’t, so…great. Whatever. I can live with that. I already have the best dad ever. I don’t need another one.”
“Except that one was supposed to care, yet he didn’t, which makes you wonder what’s wrong with you.”
“Hey, that’s not at all what I was thinking,” I cried before biting my lip because I was a bad liar.
“Really?” His brow furrowed thoughtfully. “Oh. I’m sorry. That’s probably just what I would’ve thought if I’d been in your situation, then.”
Since he was acting so level-headed and calm and apologetic about it, I settled a little and reluctantly admitted, “Okay, so maybe the thought did cross my mind, a little, but honestly I’m not that insecure. I don’t need his approval. I’m okay, and life is going to continue as if I never met him.”
“Well, good.” He slapped his hands down onto the tops of his thighs as if the situation was settled then. “I didn’t come out here to check on you anyway.”
“Well, good, because I don’t need—wait, what? You didn’t?”
“Nope. I mean, I was a little worried, but that wasn’t my main intent.”
“Then…” I glanced around in absolute confusion. “Why did you follow me outside?”
Dominic didn’t answer. I turned my attention to him, and he just stared at me until the light bulb suddenly came on in my head.
“Oh!” I blurted. Oh, holy shit.
“Does that freak you out?” he asked. His gaze was cautious yet intensely seeking, like a lion waiting patiently in the tall grass for an invitation from its prey before pouncing.
My lips parted as I stared back. This guy was growing more interesting by the moment.
“No,” I said slowly, shaking my head. “I’m not freaked out at all. I’m just…well, flattered. We haven’t even said much to each other. I didn’t think you would—”
“Ergo, the reason I followed you outside.” He splayed out his hand. “Because I’d like to talk to you and get to know you better.”
My grin bloomed full force. “Really?”
He laughed. “Why do you sound so surprised? You’re gorgeous and sweet mixed in with some clever orneriness. That’s like the makings of my dream girl, right there. Of course, I want to learn more. I want to know everything. Even Julian knew I’d be fascinated by you. You know he told me before we even left the college that I couldn’t hit on you, right?”
With an outraged gasp, I pressed a glove to my chest. “He did what?”
Dominic grinned. “He said it’d be too weird to see his sister and best friend hook up, so…” He shrugged. “He put the hammer down and told me not to even think about it. But I think I’m going to have to disappoint him and hit on you, anyway.”
A laugh bubbled from me because of the way he said it, as if he were confused and surprised by his own revelation. “Oh, you do, do you?”
He shrugged. “Well, yeah. I mean, we’re sitting under mistletoe. It only seems proper that I kiss you. Right?”
“What?” I yelped, craning my attention up in order to see above us, and then frown when I spotted absolutely nothing at all over our heads but moonlight. “We’re not sitting under mistletoe.”
“Oh.” Without checking for himself, my brother’s best friend leaned toward me. “I guess we’ll just have to improvise and pretend it’s there, then.”
When he kissed me, I sucked in a surprised breath. Against the cold, his lips felt extra warm and soft as they pressed ever-so-gently against mine. I sank into him and kissed him back.
A hungry groan rumbled from the back of his throat. I scooted closer. He scooted closer. His fingers tangled in my hair at the back of my neck, tightening as he opened his mouth. When my tongue met his, I gripped his coat front in two hands and held on for dear life as he took me places I’d never been before with a single kiss.
When we finally broke apart, we breathed heavily, clouding the air with our passion, and rested our foreheads against each other as if we needed the extra support.
“Wow,” I finally said.
He made a sound of pleasure and touched my hair. “Merry Christmas, Skylar.”
“Merry Christmas, Dominic.”
I had no idea if what would come of this, or if anything would at all, but for now it was perfect: our stolen little moment of time in an evening of sadness and celebration, saying goodbye to one season of our lives and hello to another.
It was exactly what we both needed.
And so I smiled.
Merry Christmas, indeed.
About the Author
Linda writes romance fiction from YA to adult, contemporary to fantasy. Most Kage stories lean more toward the lighter, sillier side with a couple meaningful moments thrown in. Focuses more on entertainment value and emotional impact.
Published since 2010. Went through a 2-year writing correspondence class in children’s literature from The Institute of Children’s Literature. Then graduated with a Bachelors in Arts, English with an emphasis in creative fiction writing from Pittsburg State University.
Now she lives with hubby, two daughters, cat Holly, and nine cuckoo clocks in southeast Kansas, USA. Farm girl. Parents were dairy farmers. Was youngest of eight. Big family. Day job as a cataloging library assistant.
Harry Potter House Gryffindor, Patronus White Stallion, character match Hagrid. Supernatural Team Dean. Game of Thrones Team Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister. The Walking Dead Team Daryl. Outlander Team Jamie Fraser. Teen Wolf Team Stiles. Avenger Team Thor…or Hulk (can’t decide). Justice League Team Flash. Arrow Team Stephen Amell. Stranger Things obsessed. Heard Laurel, not Yanny.
Started out reading with the Baby-Sitters Club. Then moved to Sandra Brown, Linda Howard, Julie Garwood, and LaVyrle Spencer in high school. Now all over the place with her romance reading tastes.
Find her online at www.LindaKage.com