MERRY AND BRIGHT
Merry and Bright
Copyright © Pandora Pine 2018
All Rights Reserved
This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the copyright owner except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, places, events, business establishments or locales is entirely coincidental.
First Digital Edition: November 2018
To make up for the year you took a bite out of Santa’s cookie…
‘Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house, every creature was stirring, especially Ronan O’Mara. The Cold Case detective was standing in the middle of his usually immaculate kitchen, which at the moment looked like Christmas had thrown up all over it.
“Sweet baby cheeses, Ronan! What is all of this? What are you doing with those grapes, trying to channel Dionysus?” His husband, psychic Tennyson Grimm, half-shouted.
Ronan was dangling a small bunch of grapes over his upturned face, looking more like Julius Caesar, truth be told. “Nope! This is what they do in Spain on Christmas Eve. They eat twelve grapes.” Ronan plucked the one closest to his mouth with his teeth. He moaned out loud when the sweetness of the fruit burst over his tongue.
Ten looked around their kitchen. “Babe, do you think we’re in Spain?”
“Of course not!” Ronan crunched on another grape. “Remember I told you I was looking for a Christmas Eve tradition for us to start this year.” Ronan had been shopping for a tradition for weeks. He had a list as long as his arm. Nothing had really caught his fancy. Now it was do or die time. The literal eleventh hour.
“You know Everly Erin won’t be able to eat one grape next Christmas, never mind twelve, right?” Ten still wore a look on his face like he thought Ronan had gone off the deep end, for real this time.
Sighing, Ronan set the bunch of grapes down on the counter along with a pile of other things. Everly Erin was their unborn daughter. Conceived back in the spring, via surrogacy and due on Valentine’s Day next year, all of this was for her. “I know.”
Tennyson looked around the kitchen again. “Usually I can see where you’re going with something, but I don’t get this, Ronan. Explain it to me.” His hand slipped into his husband’s giving it a squeeze.
This was exactly what Ronan needed right now. He’d wanted to come up with a family tradition to dazzle Tennyson with all on his own, but maybe it was better if they did it together.
He tugged Ten over to the kitchen island which was covered in glitter, glue, and clear Christmas balls. “Okay, so I saw this on one of those morning shows. You get empty plastic Christmas balls and you pop the top off. Put glue inside and swirl it around until the inside of the ball is coated, then you put glitter in and shake it around until the inside walls are covered in glitter. Then, after it dries, you pop the top back on and hang it on the tree. This doesn’t look anything like it did on television.” Ronan grimaced at Ten.
With his free hand Ten picked up the green glitter ball gone oh, so wrong. There was white glue puddled at the bottom with a raft of glitter floating on top. “No, I’d guess this wasn’t how it looked on television.” When Ten set the craft project down on the counter, his hand was covered in green glitter. “What did you have going on at the stove?”
Ronan felt a blush creeping up his spine. He’d been in a local craft store last week and had seen lollipop molds and chocolate melts. The girl who helped him made it sound so simple. “I was making chocolate lollipops. All I needed to do was melt the chocolate and pour it into the plastic molds. Then you set the stick in the little groove in the tray. It didn’t work out that way.” Didn’t work out that way was an understatement. Ronan had gotten distracted by Dixie and then started to smell singed sugar. When he tried to pour the chocolate into the mold, the plastic started melting. He wasn’t one hundred percent sure, but he thought they were going to need a new saucepan too.
Ten wrinkled his nose when he got closer to the melted mess near the sink. He looked up at Ronan without saying a word. “What’s this?” Ten changed gears seamlessly, pointing to the kitchen table.
“It’s a gingerbread house. The Salem building inspector would condemn it for sure.” Ronan shrugged. What Tennyson was looking at in no way, shape or form resembled a gingerbread house. The raw materials were there. Walls and roof pieces were spackled together with copious amounts of white frosting while two dozen types of candy spilled out of various bowls and Tupperware containers. “I saw this on Pinterest. I guess you could say I nailed it.”
Ten snickered before slapping a hand over his mouth.
Reaching his limit, Ronan sighed, sinking into one of the chairs.
“Explain to me why this is so important to you.” Ten took a seat across the table from his obviously upset husband. “It isn’t like you to go to pieces over a lopsided baking project.
“When I was a kid, my Mom and would spend Christmas Eve shopping for Christmas dinner and we’d come home and bake Toll House chocolate chip cookies with M&Ms to leave out for Santa, like we did earlier this afternoon. Even when I was too old to believe in him, we still did those things. Then, when she died, that family tradition died with her. These last fourteen years without her I haven’t had a Christmas tradition. Now, with our baby on the way, I wanted to start one.” Ronan knew he sounded like a sad sack. He didn’t care. This was for his little miss.
Ten studied the warped gingerbread house. “Go grab a butter knife and some cans of soup.” He grinned at his husband.
“Cans of soup?” And Tennyson thought he was the crazy one.
“Yes, go!” Ten started gingerly pulling apart the pieces of the house Ronan had pieced together.
Ronan had no idea what Ten had in mind but he brought the knife and three cans of Chicken and Stars soup. “Here you go.”
“Use the knife to scrape of the hardened frosting on those pieces.” Ten grabbed the pastry bag filled with frosting and started edging a fresh wall. The cans of soup are to hold the walls in place while they dry so they don’t slip apart or tilt.”
Ronan had to admit that was a genius idea. He grabbed the knife and got to work. “What traditions did your family have?” It was a slippery question to ask since Ten’s parents kicked him out of the house on the day he’d graduated from high school for coming out as gay and psychic.
“Since my parents served Christmas dinner to the poor, we celebrated Christmas the day before. I’d open my present when I woke up and then we’d have a big breakfast with pancakes and bacon. After that we’d take turns reading the Bible out loud until it was time to go to the church. We always helped clean it to get ready for Christmas Day services.” Ten shrugged. “It wasn’t until last year with you that I had my first real Christmas where I opened presents on Christmas morning. You were the one who gave me my first tradition, so I guess it’s fitting you’re doing the same thing for our baby.” Ten blinked away the tears starting in his eyes.
Ronan reached for a red gummy bear, popping it into his mouth. “Maybe the Spaniards twelve grape tradition and gingerbread house construction is a little advanced for our baby. How about if we all wear matching pajamas and take a family picture in front of the Christmas tree next year?”
“Then we can tuck her into bed with visions of sugar plums dancing in her head?” Ten got up from the table to pull his husband into his arms.
“Yeah, then we’ll head off to have a not-so-silent-night.” Ronan tipped his husband a wink.
“We could go do that right now, you know…” Ten trailed off, running his hands under Ronan’s tee shirt.
Hoisting Ten over his shoulder, Ronan started to sing, “Oh, come, all ye faithful…”
“Okay, my little velociraptors, where are you?” Carson Craig called out to his nearly two-year-old triplets. He’d come up with the Jurassic nickname for his babies when they’d started running away from him at bedtime as a flock and would suddenly break formation and take off in three different directions, just like the movie dinosaurs.
“Seriously, wife? You’re calling our babies that on Christmas Eve?” Truman Wesley, Carson’s husband asked. Truman was laughing as he asked the question.
“It’s just another day to them, husband.” Carson rolled his eyes. It would be a few years before his kids understood the true meaning of Christmas.
“You are so wrong, but we will discuss this later. I hear the pitter patter of little feet.” Truman pointed to the door. He smacked a kiss to Carson’s lips in the meantime.
Carson heard the footsteps too. Six tiny feet were stomping into the living room from the kitchen where the babies had been coloring pictures of Santa at the table.
“Da! Da! Da!” Dressed in matching footie pajamas, Brain, Stephanie, and Bertha ran toward their fathers.
“Okay, everyone, it’s almost time for bed,” Carson cooed. He was exhausted and there were still toys to build and presents to wrap. Carson wished he was the one being told it was bedtime.
“Noooo!” all three babies wailed in unison.
“Santa’s coming tonight. You don’t want him to skip our house, do you?” Carson reasoned.
“Ro?” Baby Bertha asked. She was named for Carson’s deceased mother. Bertha Craig had been the life force of their small family, raising Carson and his younger brother, Cole, singlehandedly, while also running her psychic shop, West Side Magick. The Craig brothers, along with Tennyson Grimm, now owned and ran the store.
“She thinks Ronan is Santa. How cute!” Truman was snapping pictures of all three kids while making funny faces at them.
“Just adorable,” Carson grumbled. Baby Bertha thought Ronan hung the moon. When the babies were smaller, Ronan would bring Truman lunch and feed the infants by himself so Tru could enjoy his lunch in piece. Bertha was the fussiest of the lot, but he had a magic touch with her. That special bond continued, Ronan was still her favorite.
“Why don’t you grab the Santa cookies and milk so we can get some snaps and then it’s off to B-E-D. We can have some beers and get busy putting stuff together.”
Carson started to laugh. “I’m all for having beers with my handsome husband, but how is that going to help us put things together. Those instructions are crap to begin with.”
“That’s my point exactly!” Truman laughed. “They get easier to read when you’ve had a beer or two. That’s probably how those toy company people write them, buzzed and feeling no pain.”
“Uh, huh,” Carson shook his head and walked into the kitchen. He heard tiny footsteps behind him. He didn’t need his psychic gift to know it was Steph. His little girl followed him everywhere. “Okay, let’s leave cookies for Santa. He’s got a lot of work to do tonight!” Grabbing the plate, he turned toward his toddler.
Her blue eyes lit up. “Cookies!” Stephanie squealed.
Oh shit… It was in that moment that Carson realized he was in trouble. More squeals came from the living room, followed by stomping feet. When it came to food, the velociraptors always stayed in formation.
“Cookies!” Baby Bertha shouted. Brian echoed his sisters’ shouts.
Truman came into the kitchen behind the happy babies. His phone was up and he was filming the whole thing. All three babies were surrounding Carson cheering for cookies. “Looks like you’re in a bit of a pickle.”
“This was your idea! Putting out cookies for Santa. You know we were just going to eat them when the velociraptors were in bed!” Carson started to laugh. The babies were jumping up and down calling out for him and cookies at the same time. “What do I do? It’s almost their bed time.” He could feel panic rising up from his toes. “We can’t give them cookies before bed!”
“Carson Cornelius Craig!” Bertha Craig’s spirit barked from in front of him. “If you don’t give my grandbabies a cookie, I swear to God…”
“You swear to God what, Mom?” Carson started to laugh, finally seeing the ridiculousness of the situation.
“What is Bertha’s verdict?” Truman was laughing along with him.
“She wants me to give them a cookie.” Carson rolled his blue eyes. “Of course, my mother agrees with you.”
“Face it. I’m Bertha’s favorite. When Ronan’s not around.” Truman pressed a kiss to Carson’s temple. “It’s Christmas Eve. One cookie past their bedtime one night of the year isn’t going to kill them or give them a mouthful of cavities.”
“Here! Here! I knew you married a smart man, Carson!” Bertha started to cackle.
Truman had a point. They’d just brush the kids’ teeth with extra care tonight. “Okay monkeys, go sit in front of the Christmas tree. Daddy will bring you a cookie and some milk.”
More squeals went up as the babies ran into the living room.
“I’ll grab some milk for everyone.” Truman kissed Carson again.
“Are you sticking around to watch us build toys, Mom?” Carson loved having his mother around for moments like this.
“Nope! Just like Santa, I have other stops to make.” Bertha cackled.
“Mom says she has other stops to make,” Carson translated for Truman.
“Yeah, she’s probably on her way to Ronan’s house.” Truman shuddered.
“For your information, I’m on my way to see Laurel and Brady. Although I wonder if there’s time for a quick peek to see if I can catch Ronan in the shower…” Bertha trailed off, her eyes losing focus.
“Oh, Jesus.” Carson set five cookies on a separate plate when Truman had sippy cups of milk ready for the kids.
“What?” Truman was already starting to snicker.
“Mom’s got plans to be a peeping Bertha.” Carson’s mother had an infamous crush on Ronan. Saying Bertha had a crush on Ronan was like saying Everest was a hill. “Bye, Mom. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“Don’t be so puritanical, Carson. Toodles!” Bertha was gone.
Carson shook his head. “She accused me of being puritanical. Can you believe that?”
“Yes, but we’ll talk about that later. The kids are being super patient. I don’t want to press our luck.” Truman grabbed their sippy cups and headed toward the living room. “Here we go, kiddos!” he announced.
All three babies were sitting in front of the Christmas tree staring up at the lights like little angels. Truman set down the drinks so he could snap some pics. “Merry Christmas, Carson.” Truman kissed him.
“RO! RO! RO!” All three kids chorused.
Truman burst out laughing.
“No, Santa says Ho! Ho! Ho!” Carson grimaced.
Truman passed out cookies and cups to each of the kids before sitting down behind them in front of the tree. He motioned for Carson to join him. “You know what, wife? I think it’s okay for tonight. Ronan never has to know!”
Carson nodded. ”RO! RO! RO! Merry Christmas!”
“Well, what do you think?” Kevin Fitzgibbon asked, strutting into the bedroom wearing his new pair of Christmas boxer shorts complete with matching Santa hat. The boxers were red satin with a black waist band. The leg holes were edged with a fluffy white cotton.
Kevin had spent the last ten minutes looking at himself in the bathroom mirror. His stomach was still flat and he’d managed to pluck out the three white chest hairs he’d spied. He looked damn good for a fifty-year-old man, if he did say so himself.
Jace Lincoln, the Boston Police Captain’s fiancé stared at his half-naked man. “Hot damn, Fitz.” He was sitting up in bed, after being promised Kevin would be back with a surprise for him.
Kevin watched with amusement as his lover’s eyes roamed over him from top to toe. The boxer shorts had had been a gag gift from Ronan O’Mara at the department Christmas Party two weeks ago. He’d been so embarrassed by the present that he hadn’t even shown the underwear and hat to Jace, he’d just shoved them as far back into the closet as he could reach, forgetting about them, until tonight at dinner.
He’d taken his man out for a dazzling night on the town. They’d had caviar and lobster with the finest champagne. The evening had ended over Irish coffees and a shared crème brulee, with Jace wondering what other festive plans Kevin had waiting for them at home.
Kevin hadn’t had any other festive plans, aside from shouting out, “Oh, Jesus!” toward the end of the naked Olympics he had on tap, but then he’d remembered the boxers and hat. He figured why not add in a little, “HO! HO! HO!” while he jingled Jace’s bells.
Kevin shimmied around, turning so that Jace could see his ass. He wasn’t about to admit it out loud, but damn that satin felt good against his skin. All of his skin. He was popping wood just from the way the material was caressing his dick. Well, that, and the way Jace was licking his lips and staring at his ass.
“Where the hell did you get those? I just can’t see you walking into a store and asking for the Sexy St. Nick model.” Jace crooked a finger at him, motioning him toward the foot of the bed. He pushed the covers forward and stood up on his knees. “I have a surprise for you to unwrap too.”
Damn… Jace wasn’t naked under the covers. He was wearing a candy cane striped G-string that was bulging with his erection. The wet tip was peeking out past the waistband. “I guess great minds think alike.” Kevin moved to stand at the foot of the bed.
Jace crawled toward Fitz on his hands and knees. His eyes were on the Santa boxers and the prize they held inside. When he reached Kevin, he nuzzled his face against the satin. Pulling back, he licked up Kevin’s shaft, wetting the material.
The silky slide of the satin against his dick combined with the hot wetness of Jace’s mouth was heaven on his cock. Kevin set a hand on Jace’s head and let his lover go to town soaking his boxers with his tongue.
Sliding his hand up through one of the leg openings, Jace fondled Fitz’s balls.
Unable to take another second of the sweet torture, Kevin took a step away. “Lay flat on your back with your head at the foot of the bed.
Jace swiped a hand over his slick lips which twisted into a filthy grin before he obeyed Kevin.
“And take off that ridiculous nut sack before it chokes your dick.” Kevin snorted.
Pushing his ass off the bed with his heels, Jace started to wriggle the small piece of fabric down his hips.
Kevin had to stop to watch. Jesus, his man was gorgeous. It had been a long and winding road for the two of them to get to this point in time, but he wouldn’t change a thing. They were together forever and celebrating their first Christmas as an engaged couple.
Finally getting the skimpy G-string off his left ankle, Jace chucked it behind him, like a bride tossing her garter on her wedding day. Kevin had to duck out of the way or it would have hit him in the face.
Gloriously naked himself, Kevin climbed up on the bed, positioning his face over Jace’s cock, while dangling his own over his fiancé’s lips. “Is it okay if this is the only thing I got you for Christmas?”
Jace chuckled. “It is, but that means that the new Mercedes I got you is going back to the dealership first thing in the morning.”
Laughing, Kevin descended onto Jace’s dick, slowly lowering his own into Jace’s waiting mouth. He knew damn well there was no Mercedes with a big red bow waiting for him. Even with all of Jace’s money, all Kevin wanted for Christmas was to wake up with Jace lying in bed with him. That was the God’s honest truth.
Fitzgibbon was startled out of his thoughts when Jace hitched his hips upward, sending his cock straight to the back of Kevin’s throat. His obvious signal to stop thinking and start sucking. Grinning around his prize, Kevin did just that. Bouncing his head all the way down until Jace’s hair tickled his nose, he pulled back, setting a steady rhythm.
Meanwhile, Jace was gripping his ass with both hands, pulling Kevin down and choking himself on his lover. He was giving it all he had, as if he was going to die if he didn’t get his salty reward in the next few seconds.
Kevin was willing to oblige him. All through dinner, Jace had been running a shoeless foot up and down his leg and giving him a look that said he wanted to run off to the restaurant bathroom for a quickie. Making matters worse was the slow but steady hand working his dick during the three-mile ride home. He was ready to blow any second now and could tell Jace was in a similar state. His lover was making kitten-like mewls in the back of his throat, urging him on.
Lashing his tongue harder against Jace’s cock, Kevin was rewarded with a deep moan from Jace. He felt his dick jerk and got a mouthful of release. Jace moaned around his own cock before going right back at it like a champ. Kevin kept swallowing, not wanting to miss a drop.
Jace’s hands gripped him a bit tighter and before Kevin could say, “Here Comes Santa Claus,” he was spurting down Jace’s throat. He could feel Jace’s tongue slow on him as both of them were focused on themselves, rather than on each other in the moment.
Kevin didn’t mind one bit. When they were finished, he rolled to the side, staring up at the ceiling, and away from Jace’s feet.
“Damn, Fitz!” Jace laughed, crawling down the bed to rest his face on Kevin’s chest. “You never said where you got the Santa boxers.”
Kevin felt his gut tighten. It was an unspoken rule to never talk about Ronan O’Mara in bed. “You-know-who gave them to me.”
Jace started to laugh. “Seriously? We owe him big! You think they’d want a boat or a house in the Caribbean?”
“It was a pair of boxer shorts, Jace. The bastard didn’t cure cancer.” There was no heat in his words. Kevin knew how much he owed Ronan and Tennyson, not that either man ever wanted anything in return for the part they played in helping him and Jace sort themselves out.
“They’re the reason we’re together,” Jace said as if he’d read Kevin’s mind.
“We’re bringing the cheesecake to Christmas dinner. That will have to be enough.” Kevin snorted against Jace’s neck. “Now, are you in the mood for round two or do you want to talk about him all night?”
Jace’s eyes sparkled. “Round two! I’ve been a bad boy this year. How do I get off the naughty list, Santa?”
Cole Craig watched with amusement while his three-year-old daughter, Laurel, sang Let It Go during the Frozen sing-along at the end of the DVD. This was always the worst part of his night. Laurel knew that it was bedtime after Elsa wrapped things up. He hoped that with tonight being Christmas Eve bedtime wouldn’t go nuclear. He wasn’t likely to get his wish.
Laurel warbled with the last note, her arms flung wide into the air, giving the performance all she had.
Clapping like he did every night, Cole was prepared for the battle to come. He had planned to tell his toddler that Santa was coming and wouldn’t it be terrible if he had to skip their house because Laurel was still awake. Or wouldn’t it be awful if Santa had to put her on his naughty list at the last minute and give her coal instead. He had no idea how he’d explain the difference between Cole and coal, especially when Laurel got so wound up that her face turned purple.
“That was the best singing you’ve ever done, cupcake!” Cassie cooed from the kitchen door. “Are you ready for your secret mission?”
Laurel nodded so hard that her riot of blond curls flew all over her face making her look like she was getting a face-hug from an octopus.
“Okay, well I’m going to give baby brother to Daddy and you come with me.” Cassie handed Brady off to Cole with a wink.
“Secret mission?” Cole hadn’t heard anything about a secret mission for Laurel, but since the three-year-old wasn’t screaming the walls down, he couldn’t care less if she was off to be an interrogator for the C.I.A.
Cassie pressed a kiss to her husband’s forehead. “You’ll see. We might even have a treat for you, Daddy.”
Cole liked treats. “Okay. I’m a patient man.” It was true for the most part. The only thing that had tried his patience of late was Laurel’s bedtime tantrums. She’d always been such a good baby. Never gave them a spot of trouble. She’d started sleeping through the night at four months old, wasn’t a picky eater, didn’t bite other kids at preschool, and as far as Cole was concerned, the terrible twos was just a myth.
“Bye, Daddy.” Laurel kissed her father’s cheek, her tiny upturned nose wrinkled at her baby brother before she skipped off into the kitchen with her mother.
Ah. That dirty look from Laurel explained a lot. In all of the years he’d known his little girl, she rarely frowned. Now, she frowned all the time at her brother.
Cole looked down at the peacefully sleeping infant in his arms. Brady Truman Craig. His little man. He’d always wanted to become a father. His own had been shit. Never there for his family and a con man to boot, Cole had wanted to prove that he was a worthy man by having a family of his own.
Now, it was starting to look like Laurel’s jealousy of Brady was turning her into a tiny harpy. He supposed it was a tale as old as time. Sibling rivalry.
He was ten years younger than Carson. His own father, Cornelius, had been kicked out of the house for good shortly after his birth and Carson had doubled as big brother and father. There hadn’t been room for a rivalry between them.
“The hell if there wasn’t!” Bertha Craig cackled, suddenly appearing on the living room sofa.
“Merry Christmas, Mom!” Cole laughed. “Always coming in with a bang.”
“I was content to watch the Christmas lights with you and my grandson, but then you were off on a tangent about no rivalry between you and Carson and I had to step in.” Bertha rolled her blue eyes. The ones Cole and Laurel had inherited from her.
“There was sibling rivalry between me and Carson?” Cole never remembered anything of the sort.
Bertha sighed. “This is a hell of time to go digging up old bones, kiddo. You have to remember Carson was so much older than you. He got stuck watching you after school and making dinners and doing laundry while I was working. His friends were out playing sports and doing stupid teenager things. I know you remember it wasn’t always easy being the son of the town psychic, but now imagine being your little brother’s keeper and being a bit feminine too. It wasn’t always easy for him.”
Shit… Cole had never thought about it like that before. Carson had always been there for him. “I never knew those things.”
“Of course, you didn’t. I didn’t want those things to weigh on you. He and I talked all the time about the bullying and how he could combat it. We all got through it the best we could.” Bertha swiped at tears forming in her eyes. “Look at you boys now, you’re closer than ever. Both happily married with growing families. You’re business partners who found a third brother in Tennyson. I’ve never been prouder of the two of you.”
Cole nodded. It was true. He and Carson had never been closer. Bringing Tennyson into the business was the best decision they’d ever made until they’d started working on cases with Ronan. That brought them more business than ever and had allowed them to expand the store and bring in Emilyn last year. They were gearing up now to bring in another psychic. “Life is so good, Mom. It’s just this thing lately with Laurel. She was so excited about Brady and now that he’s here…” Cole shook his head. “It’s like she hates him.”
“Laurel had no idea what Brady was. She was two years old. She had no context for what a baby brother meant to her life, Cole. You could have told her she was getting flaming dog poop and she would have been excited because of the tone in your voice. It wasn’t until Brady got here and she saw how much of your and Cassie’s time she was losing to the little nugget that she figured out he was the enemy.”
“Shit, the enemy?” Cole hadn’t thought about it in those terms either. “What do I do?”
“You need to find ways to show her she’s special. Look at your morning routines. Mommy abandons her. You hurry to feed her and get rid of her so you can spend the day with Brady.”
“Wait! That’s not what we’re doing at all! Cass goes to work and Laurel goes to preschool.” He paused to think about how it looked from Laurel’s point of view. “Oh, I see what you’re saying.”
“It’s all about her perception.” Bertha reached out to run a finger down the cheek of her sleeping grandson.
“What do I do?” Cole was really at a loss here. How did he change Laurel’s perception of their family and her role in it?
“Talk to her more. Help her realize that she’s still your little princess. Tell her things like how special she is that she can feed herself and her little brother can’t. Take her on father-daughter trips to the library and leave the baby with someone else. Make a special bedtime routine that’s fun. You and Cassie are brilliant people. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” Bertha’s hand patted her younger son’s cheek.
“Thanks, Mom!” Bertha was right, he could figure this out.
“Here we come!” Cassie announced.
“Yup! Here we come!” Laurel parroted.
Cole watched as his daughter marched into the room carrying a plate of cookies. Cassie had a tray with mugs and a carrot. “What’s the carrot for?” Cole laughed.
Laurel giggled. “Rudolph!”
Cole was confused. He looked to Cassie. “The cookies and one mug of cocoa is for Santa. The carrot is for Rudolph. He works hard too. Laurel thought he deserved a treat.”
“Wow! That’s smart thinking, sugar plum!” Cole loved the way Laurel beamed at him. “Who are the rest of the mugs of cocoa for?”
“Us, Daddy!” Laurel jumped up and down making the balls on the tree jingle.
Looking down at the sleeping baby in his arms, Cole had an idea. “How about if I put Brady in his crib and we have a Christmas Eve picnic?”
“Yay!” Laurel cheered.
Cassie looked concerned. Cole would have to explain it to her later. He could see his mother grinning at him and the look of pure joy on his little girl’s face was the best Christmas present a father could ask for.
Jude Byrne could hear some kind of commotion coming from downstairs. Thankfully, it was of the uproarious laughter sort of commotion, rather than of the fucking each other senseless sort.
He was spending the night at Ronan and Tennyson’s house in the spare guest bedroom. He would have been perfectly fine staying in his own house across town, but the lovebirds and expectant parents had insisted he stay with them so he wouldn’t have to wake up alone on Christmas morning.
He’d woken up alone on every other Christmas morning for the last twelve years, he didn’t know what difference this one would make. Jude had seen how important it was to his friends, so he’d agreed.
It wasn’t like the accommodations sucked. Ten had cooked a first-class meal earlier with all kinds of Italian dishes. Ronan had called it The Feast of the Seven Fishes. He was on some kick about starting a new Christmas Eve tradition for his growing family, and the Italians had this thing they did where they didn’t eat meat on Christmas Eve. No one had warned him of that little fact ahead of time and he’d gotten a nasty shock when he’d eaten a meatball only to discover mid-chew that it was, in fact, a tuna ball. He’d almost decided to go home then and there.
The rest of the meal had made up for that little faux-pas. There had been stuffed calamari, shrimp scampi, balsamic-glazed salmon, and boiled lobster, along with scallops and fish chowder with haddock. Tennyson had really knocked the meal out of the park, with the exception of the fucking tuna balls.
Jude really liked the room he was staying in as well. It was the perfect combination of Tennyson and Ronan. In the far corner was Ronan’s old desk with his ancient record player. His mother had given it to him for his thirteenth birthday. He had an impressive selection of records to go along with it. He was currently listening to Synchronicity by The Police. Over the desk was a faded KISS concert poster.
This was also the room Ten used to meditate. His rug and statue of Buddha were in the room along with crystals and candles. It seemed to be such a random mix of items, but somehow or other, everything worked together. Just like Ten and Ronan.
Gagging at the thought of his almost never seen whimsical self, Jude rolled his eyes. Relationships were for suckers because all you ever got from them was sucker punched, right in the fucking gut.
He flopped back on the bed, letting Sting’s voice soothe him for a minute. If he really thought about it, Ten and Ronan didn’t seem gut-punched at all. He’d never seen two happier people in his life. Sure, they’d been through the wringer thanks to the cases they’d worked, but that only seemed to make their relationship stronger.
Surely not all men were like, him… That dirty bastard who’d taken everything from him and stomped his heart to pieces in the process.
Jude had never seen real jealousy in Ronan’s eyes. There had never been mistrust on Tennyson’s part when Ronan was out working late and wasn’t answering his phone. Not even after that time Ronan had called needing a ride from the Salem Police Station.
After the one disastrous relationship Jude had been in, he’d stuck to one-night stands, threesomes, back-alley blow jobs, and hurried hand jobs in bathroom stalls at gay clubs. You name it, Jude had done it and probably more than once. His one caveat was that he did it all safely and got tested once a month to boot.
He couldn’t help thinking about something ER doc Walker Harmon said to him a few months back. Walker had been crazy-stupid in love with his now-husband Hunter Conroy. Men who were in love like that tended to want everyone around them to be blissfully in love too, so Jude had taken his words with a grain of salt. Walker had told him that if he was happy with one-night stands that was fine, but if he wasn’t, maybe now was the time to make a change.
What the hell did that even mean anyway? Make a change? What kind of a change? Taper off men like he was quitting smoking? Only fuck two guys a week instead of four?
Shit, none of this made any sense. What made even less sense was that he was up here alone thinking about it.
Walker had said something else that had been knocking around the back of his skull for the better part of four months. He’d said Jude should give a man longer than a few hours to see if he was worthy of earning his trust. These men earned Jude’s trust enough for him to take them home and fuck them. Wasn’t that enough?
He was playing semantics and he knew it. There was nothing in his bare apartment that revealed anything about him, which he supposed was a revelation in itself. It was a giant, blinking KEEP OUT sign rigged with barbed wire and dynamite. If lovers started asking too many questions, Jude gagged them, fucked them, and sent them home. No round two. It was as simple as that. The only difference between him and a rent boy was that there was no money exchanged at the end of the encounter.
Playing devil’s advocate for a minute, what if he took Walker’s advice? What if he found a nice man like Ronan did. Like Walker did. Then what? Could he be a friend to another man? He already proved he could do that. He had Ronan and Ten and their whole friend group. He wasn’t fucking any of them…not for lack of trying with a few of the single ones.
Jude had thought at first that big old crazy group of friends took him in like a stray dog because Tennyson liked him, but over time, he’d come to realize the others really liked him too. There were times when Cole invited him to dinner or to go shoot hoops. Same went for Fitzgibbon and Truman. Hell, he was going to yoga twice a week now with those two. If anyone ever told him he’d be going to yoga, he would have laughed until he pissed his pants, but here he was going all downward facing dog.
Okay, so he could be friends with men and not fuck them. That was a good first step. He supposed step two would be trusting a man. Jude shivered. He had a lot of junk in his trunk and he wasn’t talking about his ass. For once.
He’d always been a trustworthy man. In his line of work, he had to be, but he’d never been good at letting the flow of information swing the other way. He knew so much about Ronan’s train wreck of a first marriage and the shit Carson and Truman went through on the cruise ship. He knew more than he cared to know about what went down the first time around with Kevin and Jace and what Ten’s childhood had been like back in Kansas. If you asked any of his friends what they knew about him, Jude figured the best they’d be able to answer was that he was the horniest motherfucker they’d ever met and that he came from New Mexico.
Sure, they knew superficial shit like how he liked his burgers cooked and that Corona was his favorite beer, but beyond that, no one knew him at all. He was a ghost. A haunted soul. That was just the way he liked it.
Or was it?
Maybe it was time for a change. Could he do it though? Could Jude make that kind of a large-scale change?
The one thing his friends knew, aside from well-done burgers with pickles and Corona, sans the lime, was that his mother had died in childbirth. Her last words, according to his father, had been, “My own son is a fucking Judas…” Somehow or other, the name had stuck. He’d been christened Judas Byrne.
Sighing, Jude shut his eyes. Memories of his childhood weren’t exactly soothing, to say the least. His father had been murdered when he was thirteen and he’d been raised from there by his paternal grandfather, who’d shortened his name to Jude.
“Are you there, God? It’s me, Judas…” Now there was a start to a prayer if ever he heard one. Did God even listen to prayers from people who were named after such a vile traitor? He supposed he’d find out.
“I’m not even sure how to do this. It’s been a long time. I pray for people all the time, just never for my own needs. I’ve been pretty good at taking care of myself and getting by on my wits and charm. Thanks for those things, by the way.” Jude chuckled. Did God like it when you chuckled in the middle of a prayer? He supposed he’d find out the answer to that too.
“I think I’d like to meet someone.” He snorted “Now, I know what you’re thinking, that I meet more someones than the average man. That’s true. I surely do meet more than my fair share. I’m thinking that I’d like to be done with that. Maybe with your help, I could find a nice man to be friends with at first, none of that insta-love bullshit you read about in romance novels.” Shit, did God get mad when you said “bullshit” in the middle of a prayer? Oh, well, this was Jude unvarnished. God knew who he was inside and out. He knew all the hairs on his head, right?
“Anyway, if you could see your way to forgiving my many, many, many trespasses and bring someone worthy into my life. You know, someone hot. Not too short. Not ugly. I don’t mean to sound like a judgmental prick, here, but it’s not gonna work if he’s sweet as pie but needs a bag over his head to go out in public, you know? Shit, I sound like an asshole. Just send me a nice man. I’ll figure the rest out from there. A nice man who won’t stick my heart in a blender and hit puree. Okay?” Jude swiped at the rogue tear coursing down his left temple to melt into his dark hair.
“Oh, and say happy birthday to baby Jesus. I know he’s not a baby anymore, but, well, you know. And, thanks for my friends. Keep them safe.”
Clearing his throat, Jude sat up, throwing his legs over the side of the bed. He could still hear Ronan and Tennyson laughing like loons. Maybe he should go see what the hell was so damn funny. Join the party. Live a little with those friends he’d just asked God to protect.
Greeley Fitzgibbon had spent the last two hours baking. There had been some leftover cookie dough in the refrigerator at West Side Sweets and he knew when the bakery reopened for business on December 26th, it would all have to be thrown out. He hated the idea of food going to waste especially when he knew it could be used to make people’s holiday a bit more merry and bright.
When the shop had closed for the night at 4pm, Greeley had asked Cassie Craig for her okay to take the rest of the sweets and cakes left in the cases. She’d given him her blessing and permission to take as many boxes as he’d needed. She’d even offered her help to wrap things up.
Greeley had refused knowing her family was upstairs waiting for her. He’d put some Post Malone on his phone and had gotten to work. Now, with the last batch of cookies cooled and boxed up, he was ready to hit the road.
Thankfully, the city of Salem, Massachusetts didn’t have as large a homeless community as in Boston or Lowell, but there were still neighbors who needed assistance. Stopping by the Salem Commons, Greeley parked the car and grabbed three boxes from the backseat of the car. On cold nights like this one, the Salem Police tried to get as many people into shelters as possible, but there were some hardy souls who refused to go.
“Merry Christmas, Jimmy! Brought you something from the bakery.” Greeley set a box beside the man wrapped up in a tinfoil blanket.
“What’s this, charity?” Jimmy grumped. “You know I don’t want no fucking charity.”
“This isn’t charity, Jimmy. Just leftovers from the bakery. Chocolate chunk cookies. Cassie made me clean out the pastry cases. I figured you’d rather have them than that damn raccoon behind the shop. Fucker’s as big as a bear from eating all the leftovers. I figure I’m saving him from diabetes by sharing with you.”
“You got some more of those?” a voice asked from Greeley’s left.
“Sure do, Bruce. Got some for you and Cindy.” Greeley handed him the two other boxes.
Bruce nodded. “Thanks, man.” He tapped Greeley’s shoulder and moved back into the shadows.
“Sure thing.” Heading back to the car, Greeley started thinking about nights like this he’d spent on the streets of Boston. Born to a drug addicted mother, he’d been placed into the foster care system. He’d had a pretty good life until he’d come out as gay to his foster parents when he was fourteen. They promptly kicked him out.
He’d sold his body on the streets of Boston to survive. Never having finished high school, there were no other jobs he was qualified to hold. Even if he could have been hired by McDonald’s or CVS, the wages he would have been paid could never have supported an apartment and utilities. So, he’d stayed on the streets. Kept fighting. Kept hooking.
Then there was the night he’d seen an ad on Craigslist from a sugar daddy looking for a long-term boy. Something in his gut told him not to answer it. The money was a thousand dollars cash for the night with more to come on a weekly basis. It was enough to get him off the streets and enrolled in a GED class. It was enough to make plans for his future.
What it had been was a waking nightmare starring a serial killer.
Greeley shivered. He’d been lucky that night. He’d escaped with his life. Turning to drugs to numb the pain and the shame of being raped, he’d been in a bad way until Captain Kevin Fitzgibbon had found him, strung out and on the edge. In exchange for the information he had about the killer, he’d sent Greeley to rehab and offered to adopt him if he made it through ninety days.
That had been nearly two years ago now. He got through rehab. Got adopted. Got his GED. Now, he was enrolled at Salem State University and was attending the police academy. He was following in the footsteps of his father and his uncle, Cold Case Detective, Ronan O’Mara.
Feeling tears pricking at the backs of his eyes, he starting blinking to keep them from falling. So many things had to fall in the right direction for him to have gotten the breaks that he did in life. If just one thing had gone a different way, he could have ended up dead.
Pulling up to the LifeHouse shelter, Greeley shut off the engine. He ran up to the front door where a handsome young man was sitting at the front desk. “Hi, Greeley!” the young man waved.
“Hi, Garrett!” Greeley greeted. “I brought a trunkful of goodies for you.” Garret Jones had been working at the shelter for as long as Greeley had been a volunteer. They’d become fast friends.
“Wow, man, thanks!” Garrett grabbed his phone, dashing off a quick message before grabbing his jacket and following Greeley outside.
Popping the trunk, Greeley grabbed a bunch of the bags. “Why don’t you grab the cakes.” There were three sheet cakes in the back of the trunk. All of them had been expertly decorated by Cassie. They hadn’t been purchased before the store had closed at the end of the day.
“Maybe we’ll serve these with Christmas dinner tomorrow.” Garrett carefully gathered them up in his arms.
“We’ll be here around 10am to help with prep work.” Greeley shut the trunk with his right elbow.
“Who are you bringing?” Garrett sounded curious.
“Dad and Jace, Cole and Cassie, Jude, Dempsey, and Grandma Kaye.” Greeley thought there might be others coming too, but didn’t want to get Garrett’s hopes up for more volunteers. Christmas Day was the busiest meal LifeHouse served every year. It was also the day with the least number of volunteers.
“The Dragon Lady? She’s coming to help serve Christmas dinner?” Garrett laughed.
“In the flesh!” Greeley rolled his eyes. “She’s been staying with me since she flew in from Kansas City a few days ago. You’ll like her when you meet her tomorrow.” Kaye had always helped to serve Christmas dinner at her church back home in Kansas. She was looking forward to helping out tomorrow.
“I thought you said she wasn’t a fan of the gays?” Garrett raised an eyebrow.
“She’s gotten better over time.” Greeley grinned at Garrett before hustling back inside the shelter. It was freezing outside. The temperature readout in his car had registered twenty-eight degrees when he’d parked in the lot. He knew it would get colder as the night went on.
It was nights like this he’d spent at the Tremont Street Mission, the homeless shelter run by Jace Lincoln. He got a hot meal, usually his only one for the day, unless one of his customers treated him to a quick burger and fries before it was time to get down to business. The shelter also provided a cot with a warm blanket.
Greeley promised himself on nights like these that if he were ever lucky enough to escape that life, he’d give back. After things had gone south between his father and Jace last Christmas, he and Kevin had come here, to LifeHouse to help serve Christmas dinner.
Tennyson and Ronan had put their Christmas dinner plans on hold to come help and before Greeley had known what was going on, the whole gang was there, minus Cassie and Emilyn, who’d stayed back to watch all of the kids.
Greeley knew Ronan had been casting around for a tradition to start for his growing family, what he didn’t think the veteran detective realized was that they’d all started one last year by going to the shelter. Ten had told him earlier today that they weren’t having Christmas dinner until 7pm. That would give them plenty of time to volunteer at the shelter and then get home to prepare the meal.
Before Ronan knew it, his daughter would be following in his footsteps peeling potatoes and shucking peas on Christmas morning. Greeley couldn’t wait to see it happen.
“I’m going to put the cakes away, but feel free to put the cookies out with the coffee. People are still awake and milling around. I think the kids are getting ready to sing some Christmas carols. It’s a perfect time for treats.”
Nodding, Greeley headed toward the main room of the shelter. He took a deep breath, knowing what he was about to see was going to hit him hard. When he pushed through the double doors the cacophony of sound reached his ears first. The low hum of a hundred conversations drifted over to him.
There were kids scattered all over the place. Some were chasing each other around. Others were sitting around the Christmas tree. More were gathered around a teenager reading a battered copy of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Greeley’s heart pinched in his chest. At least he didn’t have to spend his single-digit years in a place like this.
Clearing his throat, he brought the cookies to the table and started laying out the boxes.
“Hey, you’re Greeley, right?” a small voice asked from behind him.
Turning around, Greeley saw a teenage boy nervously wringing his hands together. “I sure am. What’s your name?”
“I’m Luke. Someone said that you used to be homeless too, but you were adopted and go to college now.” There was a tiny spark of hope in the boy’s hazel eyes.
“Why don’t we grab something to eat and we can talk?” He reached for a napkin and some cookies before making a cup of tea. Tennyson had introduced him to tea and now he was drinking it over coffee. He felt a lot less jittery as a result.
Nodding, Luke made himself a cup of something hot and followed Greeley to a table.
Greeley took a deep breath, trying to decide how much of his personal story to share. From what Luke had said, part of it was out already. “I was kicked out of my house as a teenager and had to make my way on the streets. When I was sixteen, I had a run-in with a serial killer which I managed to survive. A year later a member of the Boston Police Department came looking for me hoping I could help him catch the bastard. After my encounter with this killer, I’d turned to drugs to dull the pain of what he’d done to me. The cop offered me rehab and a place to stay if I got clean, which I did. Then he adopted me.”
Tears glittered in Luke’s eyes. “I was kicked out of my house too. I told my father I was gay and he totally lost his shit. My mom died a few years ago and my therapist has been trying to find ways to bring us closer. She thought me confessing my secret would be the way to do it. I told her she was wrong, but she talked me into it anyway.” Luke shrugged his thin shoulder. “I never should have listened.” Luke bit into one of the cookies.
Greeley couldn’t imagine anything worse that Luke’s situation. He knew his father wasn’t the type of man to accept him, but an outsider forced his hand. The social workers he’d dealt with in foster care were always doing shit like that too, sticking their noses in and trying to make him tell his foster parents things he knew would make the situation worse. Sometimes adults had no clue what they were talking about. “What happened?”
“My dad listened. He nodded along while we were in her office. Once we got home though, all hell broke loose. He screamed and yelled and finally told me to get the hell out. That’s what I did, with just the clothes on my back.”
“What’s your last name, Luke?” This boy’s story broke Greeley’s heart. Maybe there was something he could do to help the situation.
“Do you think maybe your father regrets those harsh words? Your Dad seemed like he was overwhelmed and flying off the handle, but maybe once he had the chance to calm down?” Greeley had an idea. It was a longshot, but it was Christmas and it just might work.
“I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to him since that day.” Luke shook his head. “Hey, you want some more cookies?”
Greeley laughed. He hadn’t eaten any of the ones he’d brought to the table. “Sure. Oh, and can you ask Garrett about paper plates? I think he has the bag with the ones I brought from the bakery.”
“Sure thing.” Luke headed off.
The second he was out of sight, Greeley had his phone in his hand and was sending off a quick text to his friend, Luca Pennington, who just happened to be engaged to Salem’s Police Chief.
Luca sent back a quick reply. Now, all that was left to do was wait.
Life was all about opportunities. Ones that were lost. Ones that were grabbed with both hands. He couldn’t help but wonder what the outcome would be here.
Grandma Kaye was home tonight working on some old family recipe. She’d wanted him to come home after work and bake with her so that she could hand the tradition down to him. As much as he’d wanted to do that and hear more stories about her marriage to David Grimm, Greeley had known there was something else he’d needed to do instead.
Cookies and cakes might not nourish these people’s bodies, but they might just give their souls a little boost. Tonight, that was good enough for Greeley.
The doors opened and Luke walked back through, waving at him with a stack of paper plates. The kids who’d been listening to The Grinch screamed, “Cookies!” and charged toward the table. Greeley watched Luke help them make their selections before he came back to their table with a plate for them to share. He noticed Luke had grabbed candy cane cookies. Those had been the first ones Cassie had taught him to make, which gave him an idea. “You know I work part time at the bakery, right?”
Luke’s eyes narrowed. “I thought you were in college?”
“I am, but Cassie Craig, the owner of the bakery, is a friend of the family and she just had a baby a few months ago. I know she’s looking for help. I’ll be going back to school full-time in a few weeks and she’s going to have to go through the hiring process. Wouldn’t it be great if you saved her the trouble?”
“Why do you think I want to work at a bakery?” Luke’s eyes studied Greeley as if he were trying to ferret out Greeley’s ulterior motive.
Greeley snorted. “Come on, man. I saw the way you were studying that cookie. I have a friend who is a biology major. He does the same thing with plants. Like he’s trying to figure out how they work.”
“I’ve always wanted to go school to be a pastry chef.” Luke shrugged.
“Cassie is self-taught. Hell, if she can teach me to bake, she can teach anyone.” Greeley had been a disaster in the beginning. Mixing up sugar and salt. Forgetting to add chocolate chips to the chocolate chip cookie dough. He was lucky Cassie loved him so much or he would have been out on his ear.
“Okay. I’ll go see her the day after Christmas. The bakery is next door to the psychic shop, right? Maybe that Tennyson Grimm will tell me I was born under a lucky star or something.”
“Luke!” a deep voice boomed. “Where’s my son? LUKE?”
“Dad?” Luke shot Greeley a shocked look before turning around to look toward the front door.
Greeley stood up and could see Police Chief, Cisco Jackson standing in the doorway. He was dressed in his uniform but was wearing a smile that was a mile wide. “Hey there, Superman.”
“I’m not Superman. I think that title belongs to you.” Cisco slapped a hand on Greeley’s shoulder. “I came down here just in case things didn’t go well. Randy Johnson sounded relieved to hear where his son was, but sometimes you never know.”
Greeley looked at the father and son who were hugging and crying. He hoped their future would be filled with peace and understanding. It wouldn’t be an easy road to reconciliation, but they’d be together as a family. On Christmas that was all that mattered.
Salem Police Chief Cisco Jackson was riding high. After reuniting Randy and Luke Johnson, he’d stuck around at LifeHouse to sing a couple of Christmas Carols with the kids and he was asked to read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Cisco had always been involved in the Salem community, but he seemed to be doing more since he’d become friends with Tennyson Grimm and Ronan O’Mara.
He would be helping to serve Christmas dinner with the others tomorrow while Luca slept. Tennyson said their Christmas dinner would be held at 7pm so everyone would have a chance to volunteer. He couldn’t help but wonder though if the late hour was so that Luca could help with the prep work. It started getting dark in Salem around 4pm which meant Luca could be outside without fear of getting burned by the sun.
Now that he was on his way home, Cisco’s full attention turned toward his fiancé. Luca Pennington was the man of his dreams. It didn’t matter to him that Luca’s sun allergy kept him from going out in the daytime. They’d been together since June and had managed to make things work, courtesy of being able to pick his own hours at work. It was good to be chief.
Pulling into his driveway, Cisco couldn’t help but admiring his house. It was decorated with a million lights and had one of those inflatable snowmen in the front yard. Luca’s family back in suburban Pittsburgh never had the money to decorate for Christmas, so Cisco decided they’d go all out this year. He thought the blow-up Frosty was gaudy as hell, but Luca loved it and that was why he’d bought it.
Finally climbing out of the truck, Cisco made his way to the front door.
“I was wondering how long you were going to sit in the SUV admiring our house.” Luca was all smiles, framed in the front door. He was wearing a Santa hat, perched at a jaunty angle on his head.
“You did an amazing job.” Cisco pulled his vampire into his arms, hugging him tightly.
“It’s easy when your fiancé hands you his credit card.” Luca laughed when Cisco lifted him up and carried him into the house. He kicked the door shut with his left boot.
“I was thinking,” Cisco said, pressing Luca back against the closed front door before kissing his lips off.
“I can feel your train of thought pushing against my stomach.” Luca’s blue eyes darkened.
“That’s only part of what I was thinking.” Cisco grabbed Luca’s hand and started dragging him toward the living room. His vampire was insatiable. He’d quickly learned the biggest challenge in dating someone nearly half your age was the refractory period. Luca, at twenty-two years old, was ready to go minutes later, while he, at thirty-eight, took a bit longer.
Cisco pulled Luca to a halt in front of the Christmas tree. “I was thinking we could open presents tonight and then head to bed.”
Luca’s eyes narrowed as if that thought hadn’t occurred to him. “Oh, that’s right, you’re leaving in the morning to volunteer at the shelter.”
Cisco nodded. “Ronan and Ten are having a little breakfast for everyone and then we’re all going over together.”
“I said I’d meet Ten around 4pm to help make Christmas dinner at their house.” Luca looked thrilled to be invited, even though he’d be drinking his dinner through a straw.
“I’m glad we found our family.” Cisco held Luca close. “Just don’t tell Ronan I said that. We didn’t get off on the best foot.”
Luca laughed. “Greeley told me all about that.” He kissed Cisco again. “So, how about if I play Santa?”
“Well, you’re certainly dressed for it.” Cisco took a seat on the floor in front of the Christmas tree which was overflowing with presents, most of which were for their friends. It made him feel like a kid again, sitting here like this staring up at the tree which was brightly lit and crowded with glittering ornaments.
“This one.” Luca handed Cisco a brightly wrapped square package.
Cisco held the box in his hands before giving it a small shake. He thought it was about the right size to hold that new Polo gift set he’d seen at Macy’s. He’d been wearing Polo since he was a teenager. He couldn’t get enough of that shit.
“It’s not going to bite you. That’s my job.” Luca giggled. His phone was held up filming Cisco.
Okay, maybe this wasn’t cologne. Why would Luca be taking a video of that? It was their first Christmas as a couple, so maybe he wanted to record every moment. Shaking his head, Cisco tore open the paper to reveal a brown cardboard box with no markings. “Thanks, babe. Just what I always wanted, a box!” Cisco leaned over to press a kiss to Luca’s cheek.
“Open the box, Cisco.” Luca deadpanned. “Your present is inside.”
Cisco snorted. “I knew that.”
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his utility knife to slit the packing tape. What the hell else could it be? He had mentioned wanting a new watch. Maybe Luca had ordered the one he wanted from Amazon since it was cheaper there than at the jewelry store on Essex Street. Everything was cheaper on Amazon.
Looking into the box, Cisco pulled out another box. “What the hell?” This box was also wrapped, but in a different paper from the first one.
“Well that’s strange.” Luca’s eyes widened in surprise. “Maybe you should open that box.”
Grinning, Cisco did just that. Instead of finding another wrapped box inside, there was a box from that jewelry store down on Essex. Tipping the wrapped box upside down, the white box fell out into his hand. Opening the lid, Cisco found a white velvet box inside. He knew instantly it was too small to hold a watch. It held a much smaller, more intimate piece of jewelry. “Luca?”
The vampire plucked the box out of Cisco’s hand. “Well, your proposal on the Fourth of July blew me away. I never saw it coming. Then, a few weeks later, when you surprised me with my ring, it was such a magical night.” He looked down at the glittering platinum band on his left hand.
Cisco picked up Luca’s hand, pressing a kiss to the ring before kissing Luca’s palm.
“I started thinking how could I ever top that?” He opened the ring box to show Cisco what was inside.
“Oh, Luca…” Cisco couldn’t breathe. He was almost expecting a band to match the one Luca wore, but this one was completely different. The ring itself was black. It was absolutely stunning.
Plucking it out of the box, Luca held it up to Cisco. “It’s black ion plated cobalt,” Luca said with tears shimmering in his eyes. “I chose this ring because you said to me that you didn’t care if we lived our lives under the moon or under the sun, you just wanted to live your life with me. You made the darkness my home, Cisco. This ring symbolizes the sacrifice you made to share your life with me.”
“It wasn’t a sacrifice, sweetheart. My life is nothing without you by my side.” Cisco meant every last word.
“Francisco Reyes Jackson, will you be the sun to my moon? The green grass to my stars? The singing birds to my chirping crickets? Will you marry me?” Luca slipped the ring on his finger as a lone tear cascaded down his cheek.
Cisco nodded. He couldn’t believe the thought and planning that had gone into this moment on Luca’s part. Of course, there was only one answer. “Yes, Luca!” He pulled his laughing man into his arms. “Do you think Santa will get mad if he has to skip this house because we’re going to be awake all night?”
“Nah! I left him beer and store-bought cookies. I’m sure he’ll be fine.” Luca waggled his eyebrows
Laughing, Cisco got back to his feet. He held a hand down to Luca who was still filming. “Best, first Christmas ever. How do you think we’ll top it next year?”
Luca snuggled against Cisco’s chest. “Hmm, this holiday is famous for celebrating a baby…”
No one knew better that Cisco Jackson how many kids in Salem needed a good home. It wouldn’t take much to sneak out of bed later and print out the foster parent application. There was red ribbon around here somewhere. Maybe there was time to slip one more present under the tree for Luca before the clock struck midnight on Christmas morning.
Hunter Conroy was alone on Christmas Eve. That wasn’t a surprise. He usually was. What made this year different was that his newly minted husband, Emergency Room Doctor, Walker Harmon, was working tonight. His shift would be over at 11pm. The one thing Hunter had learned after four months of wedded bliss was that Walker rarely left the hospital when his shift was over.
It wasn’t possible to walk away from a patient just because a magic bell tolled a certain hour on the clock. That was one of the things Hunter loved most about his new husband. He’d also learned that everyone else on staff in the ER at North Shore Medical Center was the same way. That was why his truck was stuffed to the gills with bags of food from Lotus Blossom, his and Walker’s favorite Chinese food restaurant, along with some other goodies he’d picked up earlier in the day from West Side Sweets. Hunter had this surprise planned two weeks in advance.
Now that his curse was reversed and he was a permanent member of the Salem community, he’d dug in with both feet. He’d gotten himself on the charity board at the hospital and had been instrumental in planning the children’s Christmas party which had been held yesterday. He’d gotten Ronan O’Mara to dress up as Santa Claus and some of their other friends to dress like superheroes. Tennyson Grimm had been Spiderman, Jude Byrne was Thor, and so on.
All of their friends had run fundraisers through their businesses for the toy drive with Captain Kevin Fitzgibbon’s fiancé, philanthropist Jace Lincoln coming in big with a donation that still made Hunter’s head spin. He had a feeling a huge thank you, like an entire wing of the hospital, was going to be named in Jace’s honor. The kids had a blast.
Pulling into the parking lot, Hunter gathered all of the bags of food, along with the cake, and somehow managed to shut the doors of the truck. It was going to smell like Kung Pao Chicken in there for the next week. He hurried toward the ER doors. Christ it had to been in the teens out here tonight.
“Hi, Hunter!” Cindy waved from the intake desk. “What’s all that?”
“A surprise for everyone. Can you buzz me in so I can set it all up in the lounge?” He was hoping to make it past everyone so that the secret didn’t get out before the food was set out and ready to eat.
“Sure thing, chicken wing.” Cindy was seventy if she was a day. She always volunteered to work the holiday shifts so other colleagues could be home with their families. Walker always talked about what a sweet soul she was.
Hunter hurried to the doctors’ lounge which was at the far end of the emergency department. There was no one in there at the moment, which didn’t surprise him at all. Walker mentioned Christmas Eve tended to be a bit dicey. There were drunk driving accidents, kitchen mishaps where people cut themselves trying to open champagne bottles and sometimes there were suicide attempts. It was the season for family and sometimes it was difficult for those who were estranged or recently had a relationship break up. Then, of course, there were the domestic disputes. Hunter’s heart had broken when Walker explained just how crazy tonight could be.
Shaking his head to get rid of those bad thoughts, he set out all of the Chinese food. Next, he grabbed the bags with all of the heavy-duty paper plates and plastic utensils. There were also some decorations he scattered around the tables. Last was the three-tier cake he’d had Cassie make for him at West Side Sweets. It had a message of thanks for the entire ER staff and was done in green, red and silver fondant. Hunter snapped a few pictures to send to Cassie in the morning.
“Rumor had it my incredibly handsome husband was in here.” Walker said from behind him.
“Hey! There you are!” Hunter spun around to see his husband dressed in blue scrubs. His hazel eyes looked tired. He could tell it had already been a long night.
Walker pulled him into his arms. “Here I am. I am so ready to go home. Do you think you could smuggle me out in one of those big bags?”
“I wish I could, which is why I did this for all of you. Everyone here works so hard. Why don’t you sit and I’ll fix you a plate?” Hunter hated when his husband looked this worn out. He knew it was an occupational hazard, but it sucked all the same.
“I’ve got my eye on that cake!” Walker laughed. He didn’t often eat sweets. “Can I just have that whole top silver tier?”
Hunter laughed. He piled a plate high with shrimp lo mein, white rice, and two crispy crab ragoons. They were the one deep-fried treat Walker allowed himself. On his way back to the table he grabbed plastic utensils. “I can’t believe this is our first Christmas together.”
“Our first of many,” Walker agreed, kissing Hunter before picking up his fork.
“What were your Christmases like back in New Mexico?” Of all the things they’d talked about long into the night, Christmas hadn’t come up until now.
Walker grinned up at Hunter. “Pretty quiet. It was just the four of us. My parents, sister, and me. We got a stocking and one big present, which was usually something to do with education. You know, a chemistry set or a microscope. Now, I mean the real deal, not some cheap-ass toy. One year I got a telescope. It was cool. How about you? What the hell was Christmas like in the fourteenth century in Wales?”
Hunter felt that old familiar pang of loss. All of his family was long dead. On their honeymoon to Wales, they’d visited Hunter’s hometown and the graves of his parents and his sister, Effa. The grief had been just as raw on that day as the day all of those centuries ago when she’d been lost to a fever that Walker would be able to cure so easily today with a bottle of Children’s Tylenol and some antibiotics. “We made gifts for each other. We sang carols and lit the Yule log. It was a time to be together and not have to worry about our work.”
The Conroy family business was demon hunting. It had been that work which had led to Hunter being cursed into a stone gargoyle by a centuries-old warlock. It was thanks to Walker and their friends that the curse had been broken and he was now free to live his life with the man of his dreams.
“We heard there was a party in here!” a pink scrub-clad nurse stuck her head around the corner.
“Make a rotation schedule, Whitney, okay? We can’t have everyone in here at once.” Walker smiled at the nurse.
“I know, you just want a few more minutes alone with that hunky husband of yours.” She winked at Hunter and disappeared.
“Whitney has a point.” Walker grinned at Hunter. “All I want to do is throw you over my shoulder like a caveman and take you off to one of those on-call rooms.”
“Aren’t you always telling me that real life medicine isn’t like Grey’s Anatomy?” Hunter laughed. He wouldn’t mind a down and dirty quickie with his husband. Walker was smoking hot in those scrubs.
Walker shrugged. “When I think about how close I came to losing you.”
“Hey, now, we said we were done thinking like that, right? Our future is in our hands now. We’ve got that appointment coming up in January with our social worker, so we need positive vibes only.” Walker had said he wanted a child as a wedding present. When they’d gotten back from Wales, Hunter had gotten to work on that right away. He’d gotten them on the list to be adoptive parents, filled out three miles of paperwork in triplicate and jumped through every hoop the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had asked of them. It all came down to an interview in the middle of January which would decide if they were fit to become parents.
“Tennyson said we were all set.” Walker’s hazel eyes glittered with happiness.
It still amazed Hunter how Walker had become such a firm believer in Tennyson Grimm and his gifts. One reading with the medium who’d reunited Walker with his long-dead grandmother and he’d become the psychic’s biggest fan.
Hunter believed wholeheartedly in Tennyson’s prediction that they’d become fathers sometime in the next calendar year, but he still knew he needed to keep a level head and his eyes on the prize. Ten was also famous for saying the future was fluid. In other words, shit happens.
The beeper at Walker’s side started wailing. He grabbed it, frowning as he read. “Accident on the 114 bridge. That’s my cue, hubby. Gotta run. Don’t wait up. I could be a while.” Walker pecked a kiss against his husband’s cheek. “Love you.” Walker dashed out the door.
“Love you, more,” Hunter whispered to the empty room.
He walked over to the bag of stuff Cassie Craig had sent him off with earlier today. Grabbing one of the treat boxes, he opened it up and brought it over to the cake. Using the cake servers, he popped the top tier of the cake off and set it in the box along with two forks. He wiped the butter cream off the red fondant of the second layer. There! Now no one would ever know the cake had three layers.
Walker was going to deserve a treat when he got home tonight. It would be Christmas morning by the time he made it home and he’d damn well better believe that Hunter would be waiting up for him. Their first Christmas together was only going to come around once. Walker wasn’t going to miss a minute with his husband for the world.
The Christmas Eve party was hopping at the Black Cat Inn. Niall Gallagher was in his element overseeing the food and the ten guests who were staying at the Inn for Christmas. He was dressed in a black suit with a crisp white shirt. His red tie was studded with Christmas trees.
His fiancé, contractor Tobin Woods, had gone for a subtler look. He was wearing black dress pants and a red sweater. The material was stretched over his bulky muscles and looked like it didn’t have a lot of give left in it.
“I’m betting that sweater won’t last the night before it cries, “Uncle!” and rips up the back,” Mrs. Periwinkle said from Niall’s elbow. Seventy-five years old if she was a day and barely five feet tall, she grinned up at Niall like they’d known each other for years.
“What’s the bet, Mrs. P?” Niall loved the saucy widow. In town visiting her daughter from Ohio, the aptly named Violet was his favorite guest by far. Every outfit he’d seen the woman wear during her five-day stay had been a different shade of purple.
“Oh, just a fun-sized bag of M&Ms.” She giggled. “My Victor was a big man like your Tobin. Big and strong, but so gentle with me.”
Niall had heard this story fifteen times already. He’d listen to it a thousand more times so long as Violet was smiling when she told it. Victor had passed away earlier in the year, just like his own mother. This was their first combined Christmas without the people they’d loved the most. “How did the two of you meet?” Niall, of course, knew the answer, but he wanted to hear the story again.
“I was a first-grade teacher and he was the janitor. One of my students had lost his lunch in my classroom, poor little lamb.” She made a face that indicated the situation had been a bit beyond her, back in the day. “I had to fetch the janitor to clean up the mess. Victor assured me he would take care of everything. He came to my classroom with sawdust to sprinkle on the pile and then he opened all of the windows. He made sure I was out in the hallway when he cleaned up the sick, so my delicate sensibilities wouldn’t be offended.”
Niall always laughed at that part of the story. He could picture the sweet little school teacher standing in the hallway while the burly janitor saved everyone from the pile of puked up Salisbury steak and tater tots.
“Later in the day when I brought my class back from the gymnasium, there was a small vase of wild flowers on my desk with a handwritten note from Victor asking if he could take me to dinner. How could I possibly say no to that?” Violet’s green eyes twinkled up at him.
“I would have said yes too.” Imagine a man bringing you flowers so you wouldn’t have to smell stale puke for the rest of the day. Niall sighed. Victor was a true prince among men. This was his favorite part of the story.
“We were married on the first day of summer vacation. My bouquet was from that same field of wild flowers that Victor picked that first batch from. I still have them pressed in our wedding album.” Violet’s eyes were glassy.
Niall patted her wrinkled hand. “Vi, have you given any thought to speaking with that friend of mine that I told you about?”
“That Witch City Medium?” Violet’s eyes were back to twinkling again. She hadn’t been so keen on talking to a psychic when Niall asked about it a few days ago. “Now if this handsome young fellow agreed to be my escort, I might just consider it.”
Tobin Woods had joined the small group. “Hello, Miss Violet. How can I possibly be of assistance?” He bent low over her wrinkled hand, kissing the top of it.
“Violet was telling me the story about the day she and Victor met.” Niall’s own eyes twinkled up at his man. He imagined it was the same look Violet graced her husband with over their fifty years of marriage.
“Ahh, wildflowers and a handwritten note. I can’t think of anything more romantic.” Tobin grinned.
Niall could. How about being saved from malevolent spirits and then being brought to the hospital with a raging concussion? Niall had ended up living with Tobin after that little encounter with the spirits of the Salem Witch Trial victims right here at the Inn. They’d been together ever since.
Tobin had taken care of him like no man ever had. He’d fallen in love with his husband-to-be at first sight.
“If you’d like me to take you to visit Tennyson, you say the word. I know he’d be more than happy to reunite you and Victor.” Tobin’s blue eyes looked a bit misty. “He was able to do that very thing with Niall and his mother Betty-Lou.”
“What if he doesn’t miss me, Tobin? What if he’s hooked up with Marilyn Monroe and he’s forgotten all about me and the life we shared together?” Violet’s eyes had gone glassy again. Her fears were real.
“Well that’s just nonsense.” Tobin patted her hand. “No one who’s known you for more than thirty seconds could possibly forget you.”
“Your man is a real charmer, Niall.” She managed a watery smile.
“He certainly is, Vi.” Niall agreed completely. Tobin was the most amazing man he’d ever met in his life. He’d jumped in with both feet to not only renovate the Black Cat Inn, but to also help Niall deal with the spirits who were haunting the property when he’d first purchased it.
Now that the Inn was open and running smoothly, Tobin was ready to start planning their wedding. He’d told Niall he wanted them to get married more than anything, but knew how important the bed and breakfast was to him.
Niall had suggested a quickie wedding at city hall, but Tobin had seen right through him. He’d known that no son of Betty-Lou Gallagher wanted a quickie wedding in some Justice of the Peace’s office. They were going to have the wedding of their dreams this spring. Niall was over the moon.
“You boys hold on to each other. Don’t miss a moment together. You might think forever is a long ways away, but it isn’t. My time with Victor went by in a flash. It feels like our wedding was just yesterday.”
“What was your wedding song, Miss Violet?” Tobin winked at Niall over her head.
Vi laughed. “You’ll think it’s horribly old fashioned, but it was This Guy’s in Love with You.” I still love that song to this day. Victor used to sing it to me at odd moments when the mood struck him.”
“By Herb Alpert?” Niall’s mother loved that song. She used to spin the 45 constantly when he was a kid. He grabbed his phone and pulled the song up on YouTube. The sound of the synthesizer filled the room.
“May I have this dance?” Tobin bowed over Violet’s hand. His blue eyes sparkled in the low light of the fire.
She nodded shyly as Tobin escorted her to a free space on the dining room floor. He took her into his arms and they started to slowly move to the bluesy beat.
Niall pulled up the camera and started recording while Tobin swayed with Violet. He was blinking back tears watching them dance together.
He’d watched his mother spend her entire life alone. She’d told Niall time and time again that having him was all the love she ever needed in her life. Watching Tobin spin Violet around the dining room, he knew for a fact that his husband wasn’t all he needed. This was a big house. The living quarters he’d had Tobin design for them on the third floor were huge. There was plenty of room for a child or two and certainly more than enough room for another cat. Not that Midnight would be pleased to hear that bit of news.
Betty-Lou’s cat had settled in to his new home well, especially after he’d chosen Tobin as his person. Niall would swear the cat loved the bulky contractor as much as he did.
As the song drew to an end, Tobin brought Violet back to Niall.
“I haven’t danced like that in years. Thank you so much, boys. I think I’ll head up to bed now. Merry Christmas.” She offered each man a hug.
“Do you want me to walk you to your room, Miss Violet?’ Tobin asked.
“Goodness, no. You stay here and enjoy Christmas Eve with your husband. You might be working, but you’re also together.” Violet waved and headed off toward the stairs.
Tobin reached out for Niall’s hand. “Fifty years is a long time to be married.”
“It sure is. Sounds like a nice goal to shoot for.” Niall wrapped his arms around Tobin. He could only hope that their marriage could be as happy as Victor and Violet’s.
“What happens when we reach fifty years?” Tobin’s teeth worried his bottom lip. His eyes danced with joy as he teased his husband.
“Well, then I guess we’ll just have to pick another goal, won’t we? Like helping to raise grandbabies or foster kids or animals.” Niall laughed when Tobin’s eyes widened.
“I guess that’s what family is all about, right? To carry on after you’re gone. Vi has her daughter and grandkids here. I’d like that too. A big old brood of Gallagher-Woods to fill this house with love and laughter.” Tobin looked like any or all of those three options were fine with him.
“It doesn’t matter what we do, Tobin, as long we’re doing it together.” Niall reached up on tiptoe to press a kiss to his fiancé’s lips.
“Hey, where did everyone go?” Tobin spun around. “We’re all alone down here.”
“Guess they saw us swaying together and figured we were about to get jiggy with it right here in the dining room.” Niall couldn’t help laughing. The last place he would get down with Tobin was in a common area of the house. Not that they hadn’t done that before the Inn was open for business.
“Why don’t we take a page out of everyone else’s book and head up to bed. Santa won’t stop here if we’re not in bed you know.” Tobin dropped a line of kisses down Niall’s neck.
“You think Santa’s gonna stop by our house?” Niall shivered under Tobin’s magic touch.
“You were a very good boy this year, Niall. I’m sure he’s got you on his nice list.” Tobin laughed against his neck, his breath tickling Niall’s skin.
“I don’t know, maybe I should shake things up a bit. Why don’t we head up stairs and I’ll be naughty?” Niall winked at Tobin.
“I like the way you think!” Tobin hoisted Niall over his shoulder and carried his laughing man up the stairs. Their first Christmas together was going to start off with a bang. Or two.
Kaye Grimm was a fruitcake machine. A machine that was currently taking a break. As she sat at Greeley Fitzgibbon’s kitchen table, she admired her handywork. There were fruitcakes for as far as the eye could see.
Before she’d gotten started on this epic adventure yesterday, she’d made a list of all the friends in Salem she’d wanted to give one to. It was hard to believe how many people were on the list to start with. Then, even more unbelievably, Greeley had suggested a few more. It seemed her son and son-in-law had been making even more friends while she’d been back in Union Chapel, Kansas trying to put the pieces of her own shattered life back together.
Staying in Kansas had been her own choice. Tennyson and that pesky Ronan had asked her to move to Massachusetts often enough, God knew. She even got a weekly call from that mouthy P.I., Jude Byrne. It turned out the boy wasn’t half so brazen when her son-in-law and all the others weren’t around. There were also the weekly Skype calls with Carson and Cole’s families. Not to mention the tons of text messages with pictures. Grandma Kaye, as everyone had taken to calling her, thanks to Greeley, was really a part of the family.
“Alexa, play White Christmas.” Kaye sat back and listened to Bing Crosby croon her favorite Christmas carol. This was her second Christmas without David. To tell the truth though, this was the first real Christmas without him.
Last year, she’d still been in shock from the loss. Running on muscle memory of Christmases past, she’d smile when people greeted her. Hug them back if they hugged her. She’d even managed to shop for some presents thanks to Greeley and Amazon. She didn’t know how she would have made it through last year without him.
Rubbing her hands over her shoulders, she could see the error in that statement. Up until October of last year, she never even knew Greeley Fitzgibbon existed. While her son, on the other hand, she’d known for thirty-one years.
The one thing she’d learned, the hard way, of course, over the last fourteen months was that change was hard. She had been so rooted in her beliefs that it had been difficult at times to find common ground, even with Greeley. He kept telling her that love was stronger than any concept taught in a building or in a two-thousand-year-old book, but there were days, sometimes whole weeks, when she struggled.
Greeley, bless his persistent heart, loved her all the same. The calls, texts, and pictures kept coming. He never held anything against her. Over time, that boy had taught her the meaning of unconditional love.
It was through that concept she’d been able to find her way back to Tennyson. Her little boy had always been the light of her life. He had this smile that lit up a room and an infectious giggle that always made her laugh along with him.
Then, slowly over time, things started to change. That giggle stayed high pitched. His stories stayed on the flamboyant side. Her little boy hated playing football. He wanted to be a cheerleader instead. There were other changes too. More subtle ones. Kaye would notice times when Tennyson would be telling a story and he would stop short and look to his left almost as if someone were standing there.
She realized now, of course, that someone was, a spirit or something was probably asking him for help. Those kinds of things started to dim the bright light in her son and she’d been glad. It made Kaye cringe to think about it now, but she’d been happy to see the sparkle fade. She’d hoped that his little phase was over and he could get down to the business of being a man.
That had been another thing Greeley had gone over with her a million times, it seemed. The idea of gender roles. A man was still a man even if he was a nurse or a ballerina or gay. It worked on the flip side too. A girl was still a girl even if she was a construction worker or a soldier or gay. Lord have mercy, she still messed up with that one from time to time, but she firmly believed that Humpty Dumpty wasn’t rebuilt in a day. She didn’t have all the king’s horses and all the king’s men trying to rebuild her. It was a solo act. Well, a duo, technically, if she counted the “carpenter” upstairs.
Greeley talked a lot about Jesus. He preached over and over again that God didn’t make mistakes and that He loved Greeley just the way he was. Then, he’d play Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. It took Kaye a while to catch on, but she did. Eventually. She even liked the song.
Now, here she was, sitting in Greeley’s kitchen surrounded by a literal ton of fruitcake and its raw ingredients.
“Grandma Kaye?” Greeley’s voice shouted from the front door.
“Kitchen!” Greeley had been off to run an errand of some sort and said he’d be back later to learn the recipe with her, but she’d had her doubts about that. What young man wanted to learn how to make fruitcake, the most reviled holiday dessert in history, with an old lady when you could be out with your friends?
“Hey! You got a lot done without me!” Greeley hugged Kaye in her chair. “It smells so good in here. I bet this is what Santa’s house smells like in the North Pole.”
Kaye laughed. “You think his house smells like fruitcake, not gingerbread?”
Greeley turned the water on in the kitchen sink to wash his hands. “Nope! That’s what the toy workshop smells like.” He grabbed a towel to dry his hands. “I’m all ready to start.”
“What was your errand after work tonight?” Kaye watched carefully as Greeley blushed.
“There was a lot of food left at West Side Sweets so I brought it around to the homeless in Salem who didn’t go to shelters and then dropped the rest off at LifeHouse. I met a young man there who’s father kicked him out of the house when he came out. We talked for a bit and then when he left the table for a bit, I texted my friend Luca about him.”
“He’s the young man who goes around with the police chief?” Greeley had made so many new friends over the last year it was hard to keep them all straight.
Greeley laughed. “That’s such an old-fashioned saying, Grandma Kaye. They’re engaged. Luca called Cisco, who called the boy’s father. It turned out he’d been frantic to find his son. They reunited at the shelter and went home together.”
“Words matter,” Kaye mumbled under her breath.
“What did you say?” Greeley’s eyes were bulging out of his head.
“All of these young kids today with those signs that say, ‘Words Matter.’ They’re right. All those years ago when Tennyson told us about his situation, all I could do was quote scripture and then stand by silently when David told him he was no longer a part of our family. I treated my child like a ghost in his own home because my husband and some damn book told me too.” Kaye could feel her emotions trying to get the best of her.
“That’s all in the past now. Tennyson forgives you and you’re going to be a grandmother in a few months.”
Kaye frowned at Greeley. “I’m a grandmother now. Bertha Craig says so. Carson and Cole say so. You say so.” Her frown quickly morphed into a smile. Within the first few days of knowing her, Greeley had started calling her Grandma Kaye. The name stuck.
“You sure are!” Greeley looked around his kitchen. “So, explain the history of this recipe to me.”
“My great-grandmother brought it with her from Germany when she came to this country as a little girl. She was only twelve when she came here with an aunt. Her mother was supposed to follow on another ship.” Kaye felt her emotions creeping up on her again. She should have known Greeley was going to ask this question. She should have been prepared for it.
“But that didn’t happen,” Greeley said softly, taking Kaye’s hand.
“No. She died from influenza. My great-grandfather did too.” Kaye sniffled. “All she had left of the old country and of her mother was the recipe. Her aunt insisted she make it every year. And that’s what the women of my family did every year with the exception of last year.” Kaye felt the tears closing in now. They were inevitable.
“I’ve had this for a year now, Grandma. I was waiting for the right time to show you.” Greeley turned his phone around to show a picture on his phone.
“Is that Shelly Brinkman?” Kaye took the phone from him and made the photo bigger so she could see what was going on. “She’s surrounded by fruitcakes. What is this?”
“She made them for you last year because she knew you wouldn’t be able to, what with your situation with David and your trip out east to see us. She called me to ask if I thought you’d mind if she carried on the tradition for you.”
Kaye’s mouth hung open. Shelly had been her best friend when Tennyson was growing up. That friendship had turned bitter over the years after Shelly called Kaye out for disowning her son. If Kaye had known about this kind gesture last year, she likely would have flown off the handle. Greeley had done well to keep if from her. “Thank you, Greeley.”
“You’re welcome. There’s just one thing you need to promise me in return.” His smile lit up the room just like Tennyson’s used to do.
Anything. She’d promise Greeley anything in return for knowing her tradition was still intact. “Name it and it’s yours.”
“A few minutes ago, you said the women of your family had been making this fruitcake. Next year, I want you to teach Tennyson so he can pass it down to Everly. Deal?”
Kaye nodded. “Deal.” She hugged the teenager close. “You know, everyone hates fruitcake. Do you think any of Tennyson and Ronan’s friends will like it?”
Greeley laughed. “My money’s on Jude. That guy eats everything.”
“Alexa! Play White Christmas!” Kaye laughed. She was ready to teach her grandson the prized family recipe.
Emilyn Cassidy was standing in Everly Erin’s bedroom. Actually, it was going to be her room for the night. With Jude spending the night in the spare bedroom, she’d agreed to stay in the baby’s room. Em didn’t mind one bit.
Painted a pale pink, dubbed simply Bermuda Dream, by the company who manufactured it, they’d all agreed it was the perfect color for Ronan and Tennyson’s little miss. All that was in the room at the moment aside from the blow-up mattress, Em, and her little jelly bean, was the still boxed crib and a petal pink dress Inez Salazar had given Tennyson when the happy news had been announced.
She guessed Everly wasn’t such a jelly bean anymore. The baby was due in a mere six weeks. That didn’t give the boys much time to get this room into shape. Everly started kicking up a storm. Em set a hand on her belly. “I know, sweetheart. Your Daddies are going to have a party in a few weeks to celebrate us both. Yes, Uncle Truman should be the one to build your crib. I’ll mention that.” Em laughed, taking a seat on the carpet, resting her aching back against the pink wall.
If memory served, it had been Truman who’d built the cribs for his own babies and for Cole and Cassie as well. Every friend group had that one man in it who was the responsible builder. Ronan was the one who saved your ass if you were stuck somewhere in the middle of the night, but Truman was the one you called if you needed a sturdy bookcase or a crib.
“It sounds like you could use a little company if you’re talking to yourself about which of my son’s friends is the builder of the group.” Erin O’Mara’s laughter filled the room.
“Hello, Grammy.” Emilyn smiled at the spirit of Everly’s grandmother.
“Merry Christmas, my two loves.” Erin sat next to Emilyn, placing her hand on the baby bump. “She’s kicking to beat the band tonight, isn’t she?”
“It’s tight quarters in there.” Em groaned with a smile. She wouldn’t trade this experience for the world. Being pregnant was the joy of her life.
“I remember feeling like that when I was expecting Ronan. Happy as a clam, but ready for it to be over.”
“What was he like as a little boy? All I see is this tough as nails man with a heart of gold. I can’t imagine him as a child.” Em couldn’t help but wonder sometimes how much of Ronan this little girl would inherit.
Erin laughed. “He was precious. With those big blue eyes. When he was three, things were really tight. All I could afford was this stuffed dog he’d seen at some department store. There were other little things my parents bought him, like action figures and Legos, but all there was under the tree from me was this dog, a dalmatian like in the Disney movie. He ripped the paper off and lost his little mind. ‘Doggie, Mama! Doggie!’ he kept yelling over and over. He cuddled that dog to his chest and just wouldn’t let go. I swear I didn’t sleep a wink all Christmas Eve because I was so scared that the damn dog wasn’t enough for him. That I’d failed him as a mother, but there he was screeching over that stuffed dog like it was the best present ever.”
Emilyn had tears sparkling in her eyes. “That’s such a sweet story.”
Erin laughed. “What wasn’t so sweet was that he still had that damn dog into his twenties. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if it’s in this house somewhere.”
Emilyn knew for a fact that it was. She could see it in a box in Ronan’s closet. Tennyson had never seen it either.
“Can I ask you a question?” Erin’s tone was careful.
“Anything.” Em knew what was coming. Not just because she was a psychic, but because this was Everly’s grandmother asking.
“What made you decide you wanted to do this?”
By this, Erin meant carrying a baby for a gay couple. Em turned a bright smile toward Erin. “I’ve had visions of Everly for a long time now. This little redheaded pixie girl who twirls like a ballerina through my garden. I knew all along she was mine, but not mine. Which never made any sense to me. I knew eventually the answer to the riddle would come to me and it did.”
“How?” Erin sounded enchanted by the story.
“A friend of my mother back home. She had a daughter who could get pregnant but couldn’t stay pregnant and needed a surrogate to have a baby of her own. After the little boy was born, Mom sent me pictures. That’s when I knew what I was meant to do. I signed up with an agency in town and waited for Ronan to find me.”
“You waited for Ronan?”
“I didn’t know it was him exactly. I just knew that the other couples requesting my services were wrong. If that makes sense?” Emilyn had used her gift and gut instinct to navigate the process. When Tennyson and Ronan’s application arrived in her email inbox, she knew she’d found the right couple.
Erin nodded. “Its all part of your gift. Is Everly going to get that from you?”
“She is. Although I’m not sure what parts exactly. She’ll be able to read auras. All the women in my family have that ability, but she’s going to be special beyond that, thanks to you and Ronan.”
“Ronan?” Erin looked stunned.
“Not all gifts are the types that allow people to read minds and bend forks in half. Thanks to the way you raised your son, Ronan has some amazing qualities that he’s going to pass down to this child that will make her extraordinary. She will brim with empathy and love. It will pour from her like an overflowing bathtub.”
“My gun-toting son will raise a child overflowing with love.” Erin chuckled.
“Were you here earlier when he was losing his fool mind over family traditions?” Em’s giggle filled the room.
“I was laughing my ass off. That boy had more glitter on him than an entire flock of strippers.”
Emilyn burst out laughing. “I know. He’ll never get it off. I’m betting he’ll still be sparkling on New Year’s Eve.” She took a deep breath. “Ronan might not be a champion crafter, but he’s already a champion father. He was test-driving Christmas Eve traditions so he’d have one in place for Everly’s first Christmas next year. Who does that?”
“My son.” Erin offered a watery smile.
“Hey, Em! I heard voices up here and…” Tennyson stuck his head around the corner of the baby’s room. “Hi, Mom!”
“Hi, Ten.” Erin waved at her son-in-law.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt. Ronan made hot apple cider and it didn’t kill me or Jude, so I figured I’d invite you down for some and the cookies he made.”
“My son made cookies?” Erin’s mouth fell open.
“I helped. They were the M&M kind. He was pretty insistent we make them. He actually went out with Jude to find a bag of red and green M&Ms. I was starting to worry if he needed to be sedated.” Tennyson looked a bit more relieved.
“We made them when he was a kid. Those were the cookies he left out for Santa. Is there a carrot in the mix too?” Erin started to laugh again, holding her hand over her mouth.
“A carrot? In the cookies?” Emilyn felt her stomach turn. She was all for cookies, but not if there were carrots in them. There was a time and a place for veggies and inside cookies wasn’t it.
“No, bunny.” Erin set a hand on Em’s. “When he was a boy, Ronan would leave out a carrot for the reindeer. I’d just slip it back into the fridge when he went to bed and gobble up the cookies along with a cup of hot chocolate.”
“Count me in.” She held up her arms. “Ten, could you help me off the floor?”
Tennyson did just that before turning back to Erin. “Mom, why is Ronan so bent on traditions tonight?”
“I always used to tell him family was everything. He got a chance to see I was right after I was gone and he didn’t have a family anymore. He did the best he could making his own family, but it wasn’t until he met you, Tennyson, that he truly had a home and a real family again. He’s making sure that he’ll always be a part of this family for generations to come.”
“Now I have to have all of those cookies, so Ronan can tell my jelly bean she ate his cookies when she was in my belly.” Em laughed. Hearing these stories about Ronan tonight made her love him more. “Are you coming with us, Erin?”
“In a minute.” She set a hand on the box holding Everly’s crib. “Have Ronan set a place for me at the table.”
Emilyn turned toward the door so Erin wouldn’t see her tears. Everly’s grandmother was right. Christmas was all about family. The ones who sat at the table with you in body and in spirit.
Dempsey McMillan was exhausted. Spell work took a lot out of him. He wasn’t casting them, but trying to unwork them, as it were.
Magick was a tricky thing. There was most definitely a light and a dark side to it. Unless you worked with a witch or true wizard, like himself, who really knew what they were doing, you could find yourself in a heap of trouble in short order. Spell casting wasn’t for amateurs.
Take tonight’s client, Kate Roberts. Pretty name. Pretty girl. From the middle of nowhere West Virginia. Kate was a college senior making excellent grades and had been fielding offers from the top design firms in New York and Miami until she’d met Matt Dever.
Matt was an electrical engineering major. Normal, every day sort of a kid. From a good family and already had a job waiting for him after graduation. The kid was going places. He’d manage his own business by the time he was thirty.
That was cheating, Dempsey chuckled to himself. Using his own gifts to see into Matt’s future like that, but it was part and parcel of his job. He always gathered all the pieces to the puzzle before he began to work for any client. It was good business practice. He needed to know what Matt’s original trajectory had been before Kate’s spell set things on a different course.
All of Kate’s friends had boyfriends. One was even engaged and planning a summer wedding at a winery. To say that Kate was jealous was an understatement. She was greener than a newly planted hayfield after a week of rain.
What Kate, of course, could never have known was that her forever love was waiting for her in Miami. Yup, all she had to do was slow her role, finish school, and take the job in the Sunshine State. She would have met him in the elevator of her apartment building the second week she lived there. He would have offered to help her carry in her heavy load of groceries. The rest, as they say, would have been history, with successful careers, gap-toothed kids, and sun-splashed vacations to Costa Rica.
Now, what she had was a lovesick Matt stalking the fuck out of her thanks to a love spell gone so wrong, the object of Kate’s affection could end up in jail. Two lives ruined faster than it took Kate to say the words of the incantation in the first place.
Dempsey sighed. He could barely keep his eyes open and it was no where close to midnight. It was definitely time for more coffee. He got up from his desk and made his way toward the kitchen.
He couldn’t thank Hunter Conroy enough for letting him move into his old house. It was always hard moving to a new town. Finding a place to stay was always the hardest. The worst part was always crashing on a friend’s couch while he found his new digs. This house had been ideal. It came fully furnished. Hell, Hunter had even left all the non-perishable food and spices for him in the kitchen. The former demon hunter was now happily married to Walker Harmon and living in the ER doc’s house.
It seemed like most of the friend group he’d fallen into here in Salem was already coupled up, with the notable exception of Jude Byrne. He’d seen through the use of his gift that Jude wasn’t a road he wanted to travel. They were going to be good friends and business associates, that was for sure. His gift showed him heaps of money, but Dempsey’s lips weren’t going anywhere close to Jude’s trouser region.
On this night, more than any other of the year, Dempsey could understand why people would turn to the internet in search of love. All of his friends had plans with their families. Even Jude “The Walking Dick” Byrne was spending the night at Ronan and Tennyson’s so he wouldn’t have to be alone on Christmas Eve. Not that he was in any danger of taking a bath with razor blades or anything similar, but Jude was the kind of man who didn’t do well on his own. Dempsey, on the other hand, was used to it.
Freaks got used to their own company quickly. Kids didn’t want playmates who could light things on fire with their minds or other such similar parlor tricks. Thought-arson as a parlor trick. That made Dempsey laugh out loud. He’d discovered that little talent when he was seven-years-old.
Grabbing a mug from the cabinet, he set the single-cup coffee machine to brew. Even this little gizmo was meant for single people. What the hell use did he have for a six-cup coffee pot? That was something for a couple or a single guy with a shitload of constantly visiting friends. Dempsey shook his head. Envy didn’t become him.
He’d picked up random lovers over his life, but they’d never been the type of men who’d be able to understand that being a wizard meant more than laughing along with Harry Potter jokes and the continual asking of when he was going to get a real job.
This little gig he’d picked up from Kate Roberts was bringing in two grand for a few hours work. He had a stack of emails in his inbox from similarly affected people just like her. Too stupid to have thought three steps ahead in her plan for love, and flush with enough of Daddy’s money to pay him to make her little love spell moot.
What Kate hadn’t realized when she typed “Love Spells” into Google was that you never knew what you were getting online. It was like going to the supermarket and looking at the beef case. There was a big difference between the Wagyu beef at $50.00 per pound and the ground beef priced at $3.99. Not to mention everything else available in between. Unless you knew what cut your recipe called for you’d have no clue what to purchase.
Spells worked much the same way. Did you want something to catch a potential lover’s eye? A spell to put a current relationship back on track? A true love at any cost spell? A spell that opens your heart to receive any and all types of love? The possibilities were endless. Unless you went to someone trained in spell work, you didn’t know what results you were going to get.
There were also different levels of skill involved. A first-time chef might want to stick with pot roast rather than prime rib for example. You could get into worse trouble if you weren’t skilled enough to handle the magick you were trying to invoke. Dempsey always pictured a child trying to wrangle a firehouse and flying through the air, holding on for dear life.
Then there was the problem magick being mislabeled. Not such a bad thing if you buy meat labeled ground chuck and it turns out to be prime rib, but how about if you’re looking for a spell that attracts Mr. Right and instead it makes Mr. Wrong fall hopelessly in love with you to the point he’s now a stalker?
As Dempsey had researched Kate’s situation, it had been easy to see where she’d gone wrong. She’d been a girl desperate to fit in with her friends. Matt had been a cute boy that Kate had wanted to date so that she’d have someone in her life just like her sorority sisters. What she got, thanks to the spell she cast, was a disaster that was on the verge of ruining two lives.
Quickly adding cream and a heap of sugar into his coffee, he carried it back to his desk. All that was left to do was sever the ties the spell had created between Kate and Matt and then try to set their life paths back on their original courses. It would be a lot easier with Kate, but Dempsey was going to send along a set of strongly worded instructions for Kate to follow on how she was going to handle things with Matt going forward. She was the one responsible for putting his life and freedom at risk. She would be the one to fix it.
Shutting his eyes, Dempsey took several deep, cleansing breaths. In his mind’s eye, he pictured the threads tying Kate to Matt. He began snipping them, one at a time, severing the ties Kate’s spell wove between them. All the while beginning to chant, “Dragon brave and Dragon wise, let nothing escape your eyes. I summon you from your hidden lair, Kate is entrusted to your care. Permit no harm to come to Kate within your sight, in your presence let all evils take flight.” Again, and again Dempsey chanted these words as he cut all of the ties holding her to him.
The next part was a bit trickier. Since it was Kate, who in essence cursed Matt, setting him free from her would take a bit more work. Dempsey centered himself again, making sure his breathing was deep and even. He visualized Matt from the picture Kate had sent to him. “What is dark be filled with light, remove this spell from my sight.”
Dempsey concentrated again on snipping the threads that connected Matt to Kate. He could feel their connection fraying with every thread he cut until at last Matt was free. The fingers of his right hand glanced over the softball-sized obsidian crystal ball sitting to his right.
Clouds began to swirl within its depths until a picture came into focus. He could see Matt furiously pacing in front of his bedroom window at home in upstate New York. Snow was falling heavily outside.
Dempsey could feel the obsession within the boy. He needed to get out of the house, get into his truck and get the fuck back to West Virginia. If he left now and drove like a bat out of hell, he could be to Kate’s house by dawn. He could tell her that he loved her again. This would be the time she listened for sure. He would make her listen. Turning around, Dempsey could see a handgun on Matt’s bed.
Christ, he was cutting all ties not a moment too soon. He kept chanting, knowing that Matt would begin to feel some relief soon. Dempsey watched as the boy’s frantic pacing began to slow. “That’s it, Matt. You’re doing great.”
It took a few more minutes before he stopped moving all together. Dempsey held his breath when Matt turned and saw the gun sitting on his mattress. Shaking his head as if he had no idea how the weapon had gotten there, he picked it up as if it were a venomous snake, holding it out two feet in front of him. Walking quickly, he brought it back to his parents’ room. Dempsey watched closely as he slipped it back into his father’s nightstand drawer.
Thank the goddess… “Repeat after me, Matt, ‘With these words I banish my feelings for Kate Roberts forever. With these words I banish my feelings for Kate Roberts forever…’” Dempsey kept saying the sentence again and again. Soon, Matt was saying the words along with him.
Knowing how hard it would be for Matt to get over all of the things he’d done while he’d been under the power of the love spell, Dempsey added in a soothing spell of his own, “Let the powers of the universe open my mind, let them travel to my memories of a harsher time. This event will no longer be the anchor attached to my life, nor the pain similar to which is caused by a knife. Acceptance is in my soul and let forgiveness take its toll. By the power of three times three, so mote it be.”
“I give you my peace, Matt,” Dempsey whispered before swiping his hand over the crystal ball. In a matter of seconds, the ball was back to its old self again.
Dempsey spent a few minutes typing up his email instructions to Kate. He sent them off before he could rethink his harsh words. Today’s teenagers had to learn that everything in this life wasn’t of the instant gratification sort. Words had consequences. Words mattered.
Grabbing his cup of coffee, Dempsey moved into the living room. “Harry, where are you?” He heard a mewl from somewhere close by. Seconds later, a tabby kitten was trying to scale his pant leg. Plucking the cat off his jeans, Dempsey laughed at the tiny thing. “Well, well, Mr. Potter, what have you been up to?” Dempsey rubbed his face against the kitten’s fur.
He’d found the fuzzball in the garage a few days ago on the winter solstice. Tired and cold, he’d been quick to bring it into the house and warm it up. A search for siblings and the mother had turned up nothing. Dempsey figured the kitten had been a sign from the universe that he was meant to stay in Salem and make a life for himself. He’d named the cat Harry Potter as a joke. The cat didn’t seem to mind.
“Merry Christmas, Harry!” Dempsey scratched its tiny ears.
The cat gave a soft meow and made himself at home on Dempsey’s chest.
Reaching for the remote control, Dempsey couldn’t help feeling like he’d found a real home here in the Witch City. A place where he could put down roots and spend a lifetime. Hell, he already had a cat.
Bertha Craig was feeling a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge. Not in the way that she was a selfish old miser, but more along the lines that she getting to see what Christmas was like without her. In essence, she was The Ghost of Christmas Future. This joke didn’t make her cackle.
Nine times out of ten, she found ways to chuckle about being dead. This was the tenth time. Christmas did that to her.
In the grand scheme of things, being dead wasn’t all that bad. The pain and agony of the breast cancer was gone. She had a full head of hair again and her original assets were back and in pre-baby shape, no droop and not a stretch mark in sight. Thank you, Jesus. All of her original psychic powers had followed her to the other side and somehow or other, her boys had come into gifts of their own.
That had been the worst part about dying, knowing that she’d have to wait until Carson and Cole joined her on the other side for her to be able to talk to them again. It had been a jolt out of the blue the night Carson had his first real vision right here in her old reading room.
She ran her hand over her old crystal ball. It had been a gag. A prop she’d picked up at some old magic shop downtown. Bertha figured if she was going to open a psychic shop in the Witch City, she was going to have to play the part. She draped the table in the most exotic looking cloth she could find and plopped the glass ball down on a pedestal in the middle of it. She’d made a habit of touching the damn thing a time or three over the course of each reading. Her client’s eyes would go wide each time she did it.
Bertha remembered feeling like she was dying a bit inside each time that old parlor trick worked, but one of her spirit guides had reminded her that her gift was true. Who cared if it took a little razzle-dazzle to get clients to believe in her words? Once word got out that Bertha Craig was the real deal, her calendar had been booked solid until the month before she’d died.
Touching the ball one last time, she closed her eyes and found herself in the room shared by Stephanie, Brian, and her namesake, Baby Bertha. She loved these little ones more than anything, but being a Mimi from the other side sucked donkey balls.
It was really Truman who got everything started. Bertha wouldn’t be a grandmother at all if it weren’t for him. The son-in-law that she loved every bit as much as if she’d given birth to him herself.
Carson had been in free-fall after her death. He’d been conning people at the Magick shop to make ends meet, using his people-watching skills to read them and passing that off as having inherited Bertha’s talents. The only reputable thing he was doing at the time was making sure Cole stayed in college. It wasn’t until Carson had that first vision. His vision of love, that his life started coming into focus.
He and Cole had both been convinced that she was the one who’d sent the vision to Carson, but Bertha was innocent. No one had been more surprised than she was to see her son stuck in the vision watching this green-eyed man being held at gunpoint. Bertha hadn’t even known how the story would play out. She’d never been good at reading her kids.
These beautiful grandbabies were another story. She could read their futures like a book. Stephanie and Brian would have a touch of her gifts, but little Bertha was going to blow their socks off. When she hooked up with Tennyson’s little one and someone she still wasn’t getting a full picture of yet, oh Mama! Were they going to be a powerful triad. As soon as they were out of diapers.
“Meeeeee!” Baby Bertha squealed.
“Hello there, precious.” Bertha stepped up to the baby’s crib, reaching out to touch her hands. She could sometimes make herself solid enough for people to feel her touch. She occasionally did it for Ronan and her sons when they needed her most. It was her grandchildren that she saved her powers for the most. She would never get the chance to hold them until they joined her on the other side and she was praying that was a century away.
“Meeee! Meeee!” Bertha squealed again.
Mimi was the grandmother name she’d chosen when Carson and Cole were little. She’d been over the moon when Cole announced that’s what Bertha would be to Laurel. That was back before either of her sons had come in to their powers.
She felt blessed in that Laurel was going to get a piece of her gift as well, but as far as things were going, it didn’t look like her baby brother would be as lucky. It was still early days though and the future was fluid.
“Hey, Mom,” Carson whispered from the door. “Twice in one night. You okay?”
There was no sense in lying to Carson. He wouldn’t hesitate to throw the bullshit flag. “Christmas is hard. You know that. Now this year with Emilyn being pregnant and we’ve got Luca and Cisco and Hunter and Walker and Dempsey. Our family is getting bigger and…”
“And you’re on the outside looking in, right?” Carson scooped baby Bertha out of her crib, pressing a kiss to her downy head. The baby wrapped her arms around his neck.
“Yeah. You know I try to keep a positive spin on things, but sometimes being dead sucks.” The last thing Bertha wanted to be was a wet blanket on Christmas, but she knew Carson understood.
Carson snorted. “You’ve always had a way with words, Mom.”
“I wish I could be here tomorrow for the big dinner Ten and Ronan are throwing. We never got to do this when I was alive. It was just the three of us.”
“We had the best Christmases, Mom. We were together as a family and you weren’t working. It was the one full day we got with you.” Carson’s smile was full on.
“I worked too much, Carson.” That was always Bertha’s one big regret. She taught her boys the meaning of working hard for a living but there were a lot of nights she wasn’t home to tuck them into bed.
“No, you didn’t, Mom. You worked just enough to keep us together. Cole and I both knew there were people who needed you more than us sometimes. We understood that. I didn’t mind cooking and watching after my brother.”
“You really mean that.” Bertha was surprised. She was expecting there to be a hint of residual bitterness at losing part of his childhood to playing father to his younger brother.
“Cole has always been more important to me than anything. Even now, the only things more important are Truman and my babies.”
“I did a pretty good job with you two, huh?” Bertha shot him a wistful grin.
“You did the best job, Mom.” Carson smiled. “And you still are.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re here with me every day. Offering advice and helping me and Tru raise these kids. It’s not easy for me either having to go to work and leave them here for hours at a time. It helps knowing you’re here with them. I love it when you stop in to see me at lunch with stories about funny stuff they do.”
“I wasn’t sure if you liked that or not.” She did know how hard it was for Carson to leave the house and drive to the Magick shop every day. At least when she was working, the kids were just upstairs from the store.
“Everyone at the shop loves it, Mom! The way you tell the stories about the kids and Cole and I love having lunch with you every day.”
“Bullshit. You just love having dirt on Truman.” Bertha’s cackle was back.
Carson’s grin sobered. “The day we lost you was the worst day of my life. It was bad enough that you died, but I felt like I lost you a second time because I didn’t have your gifts too. I knew what a lost opportunity it was because if I were a medium like you, we could speak all the time.”
Bertha hung her head. She’d known what both of her sons had been going through at the time of her death. It hadn’t just been Carson who’d felt this way. Cole had too. She’d tried to stay close to them during the early days, hoping her presence would comfort them, but then as weeks went by and then months, she saw that their grief was only getting worse.
“You knew, didn’t you? How badly Cole and I were taking your death?”
Bertha nodded. She stepped away from Carson to look in on Brian who was lying on his back sleeping peacefully.
“It was my vision of Truman that really saved us. Cole was the one who encouraged me to go find him and save him. Without Tru, none of us would be here now.” Carson looked surprised by his revelation.
“I know. I think that same thing all the time. My third son.” It wasn’t a surprise to Bertha that Carson had picked up on her thoughts. She wasn’t doing anything to keep them from him
“Then we added Ten, who added Ronan.” Carson snorted.
Bertha started to laugh. “Not even I saw that coming for our Tennyson.”
“Me either. Our family just keeps growing.” Carson stood beside Bertha at Brian’s crib.
“You need to get back to bed. The velociraptors will be up in no time raring to go.” Bertha smiled fondly down at her grandson. She also didn’t want to accidently spill the beans about the additions to their family that were coming in the new year. Carson deserved to have some surprises.
Nodding, Carson set a now sleeping Baby Bertha back in her crib. “I love you, Mom. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you too, Carson.” Bertha held up a hand as Carson headed back to bed. She looked around the room at the three sleeping little ones. “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.” Taking a deep breath, she was gone.
Vann Hoffman was falling asleep. How that was possible amid all the sitting and standing and kneeling and peace-be-with-you handshakes, he had no idea. Then there was the singing. It actually did sound like a heavenly host of angels. The one thing Vann could say about Catholic Mass was that at least there was no speaking in tongues.
He hadn’t been to church, much to his mother’s chagrin, in twenty years at least, barring weddings, baptisms, and funerals. He was here tonight at Saint Joseph’s in New Bedford, Massachusetts because Broughan Beals had asked him to come. Like it or not, Vann could never deny him anything.
The sexy redhead was sitting to his right with his equally redheaded parents to his right. Going to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was what they did to keep their “Catholic card” punched. According to Broughan, when he was a kid they used to go to church on Christmas Eve and Easter. Now that everyone was older and with families of their own, they only came on Christmas.
The entire row in front of them and the entire row behind them was filled with the Beals family. When the priest had done his bit about peace be with you, it had taken Vann five minutes to shake everyone’s hand. Broughan said that the priest gives extra time for this because it’s Christmas. Thank God, otherwise Vann wouldn’t even have gotten through half the family.
He’d nearly had a stroke when Broughan kissed him. Now, he saw all of the other married couples do the same thing to offer each other a sign of peace, but all of those couples had been different sexed couples. He was half expecting God to hurl a thunderbolt down at them for kissing in a Catholic church. Broughan had grinned at him which had soothed him a bit, but Vann had still spent the next two hymns running through the stroke checklist and listening for distant rumbles of thunder.
The one thing he loved about Saint Joseph’s was the church itself. The stained-glass windows showed the story of the stations of the cross. The glass was beautiful by the low, electric candlelight of the mass, he could only imagine how dazzling the windows were in full sun.
Vann also loved that this church was part of Broughan history. This was the church where his parents had been married, as had his brothers and sisters. All of the Beals siblings had been christened here. It was a shame that as the last unmarried member of the family, Broughan wouldn’t be able to get married here like the others sitting in the pews around them had done.
Broughan had given him the grand tour of his parents’ house when they had gotten down here from Boston yesterday. There was a giant wall, opposite the fireplace in the family room that held framed family pictures. All the wedding pictures were there. All five of Broughan’s siblings and their wedding parties were photographed up on that very altar. There was a professional picture of him and Broughan gracing the wall. Vann had it taken during a trip to the White Mountains in New Hampshire during foliage season. He appreciated that Broughan’s mother had it blown up to the same size as the wedding portraits.
He’d bought the ring weeks ago. It had been shoved into the toe of a pair of old gym socks at the back of his drawer. Now, it was sitting in his suitcase waiting for him to make a decision. Would he ask the question tomorrow morning in front of the immaculately decorated Christmas tree? Or would the ring stay hidden?
Turning to his right, Vann looked at Broughan. He was singing along without having to read the words from the hymnal. He looked at peace. Like he enjoyed being here. Vann, on the other side was itching to escape.
Vann looked around at the other members of the family. Some were singing along like Broughan. One sister was yawning. A brother-in-law was rocking a sleeping child. At long last the final song rose to its crescendo before mercifully ending. He was exhausted and wanted to get back to the house.
“Are you ready to go?” Broughan pulled his knit cap down on his head.
Vann nodded. He stepped out into the aisle, waiting for Broughan to kneel beside the pew before they walked out of the church. He still had no idea why Catholics did that. He did dip his finger in the holy water font and made the sign of the cross. The gentle smile curving Broughan’s lips did not go unnoticed.
Once they were back in the car with the heat blasting, Broughan leaned over the center console to kiss him. “What did you think of the Mass?”
“You mean aside from all the commands to sit, stand, kneel?” Vann laughed. It was certainly better than the two hours of standing he remembered from church when he was a kid.
“Yes,” Broughan laughed. “Aside from that.”
“It was very peaceful and calming. None of that fire and brimstone shit I was used to as a kid at the Pentecostal church.” Those services hadn’t been peaceful at all with members of the congregation shouting out “Amen” or worse, flapping their hands in the air and speaking in tongues. At least there hadn’t been any live snakes. Praise Jesus.
He believed in God, but all the pageantry that went along with it was a bit much for him. Going to Christmas service once a year with Broughan wouldn’t be half bad. He could live with that, but could his handsome redhead live with not being able to get married in his home church?
“What’s on your mind? You’re awful quiet.” Broughan reached out a hand to Vann after he pulled onto Main Street.
“Where are you with our relationship?” Shit! He hadn’t meant to blurt it out like that. He’d wanted to ask where Broughan saw them a year from now. Or something along those lines.
Broughan snorted. “That’s my Vann. Always straight to the point.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. So harsh and without context. I meant where do you see us going? You looked really happy sitting in that church tonight.” Broughan had looked almost angelic sitting next to him.
“I was happy. You were sitting next to me, occasionally holding my hand. All these years, I’ve had to watch while my brothers and sisters brought their significant others home and now, after all of these years, it’s my turn. I know what a big step this is for you, Vann, meeting my family and coming home for Christmas with me. That’s where I am with our relationship. This is taking the next step for me. I hope you see that.”
Vann raised Broughan’s free hand to his lips. He saw it all right. “They all got married at Saint Joseph’s. I saw all of their pictures at your parents’ house.”
“What does that have to do with- Oh.” Broughan interrupted himself, seeming to understand all at once where Vann was going with his train of thought. “Catholic churches don’t allow same-sex marriage. Is that what you’re worried about?” He gave their joined hands a squeeze.
“It crossed my mind sitting there tonight with your entire family.” Crossed his mind? Hell, it was all he’d been able to think about when he wasn’t obeying the priest’s commands to sit, kneel, and stand.
“You know what’s funny?” Broughan’s voice was quiet.
Vann had a feeling this wasn’t going to be one of those stories where he was going to come anywhere close to laughing. “Tell me.”
“Neither one of my parents or any of my brothers and sisters had any issue with me being gay. No one made fun of me or even asked if I was sure this was what I wanted. They accepted me for who I was and that was the end of the discussion. Great, right?”
Vann also knew nothing about the rest of this story was going to be great. “I sense a ‘but’ coming.”
Broughan nodded. “But that was where they drew the line. That creaky old church and its teachings had no tolerance for people like me, but they made me go just the same. All of my siblings got married there knowing I wasn’t welcomed. When Quinn got married, the old priest gave him hell about having me as a groomsman, so I couldn’t be in the wedding. Instead of telling the old fucker to pound sand, I had to sit in the pews and watch my brother get married. No one stuck up for me, Vann. Not my brother, or any of my siblings. Not my father. No one.”
Vann felt sick to his stomach. What Broughan was talking about was a form of passive acceptance. It was okay to be gay, but we’re not going to fight for your rights if it affects anything we’re involved in. The shittiest part about it was that the church wasn’t even that important to them. Broughan said they only went to services on Christmas and Easter, just to keep up fucking appearances. “How did you forgive that?”
“I’m not sure that I did. I think it’s just one of those things I stuff down and try not to think about.” Broughan sounded resigned.
Along with Vann’s sick stomach, now his blood was starting to boil. “Why did we come down here?” His voice was gentle. He wasn’t upset with Broughan, just wanting to know where his head was at.
“I wanted to show my family how amazing you are. They didn’t give this whole energy healing thing a whole lot of credit. They just thought I was out on some whim. That I’d eventually have to settle down and put my accounting degree to good use. No one said much since I wasn’t asking to borrow money for rent. They weren’t coming to my shows either, though.” He shrugged and flipped on the blinker as he made a right turn. “I just wanted to show them that I did one thing right with you.”
“Pull over, sweetheart.” Vann had heard enough.
“What’s wrong? Are you sick?” Broughan pulled off his gloves and reached his hands out toward Vann.
“Aside from being angry at the way your parents treat you, I’m fine.” He took his boyfriend’s hands in his own and kissed them. He could feel the tingle of healing energy against his lips. Vann wished there was a way he could turn that power back on Broughan so he could heal himself. “What would you say to going home tonight?”
“Home?” Broughan sounded confused.
“Our little love nest is filled with everything we need to be happy. Ronan and Tennyson are having a late dinner tomorrow night so they can volunteer at a homeless shelter, then they’ll have presents and a big dinner with the whole gang.”
“The whole family, you mean.” Broughan’s lips curled into a faint smile.
Vann nodded. “That’s right. They’ve built their own family full of people who love and support them. We were invited, you know?”
“They always make enough food to feed an entire army.” Broughan laughed.
“Plus, there would be time to make your famous seven-layer dip before we headed up there to volunteer at the shelter…” Vann knew how much Broughan loved volunteer work. He also knew all Christmas Day entailed at the Beals house was presents, chaos, and Irish Whiskey. “We could be packed and out of there in fifteen minutes.”
“I don’t know.” Broughan snorted. “Mom was going to make hot chocolate and put out a tray of cookies and stuff.”
“There’s a twenty-four-hour Dunkin Donuts near the highway. I’ll get you a mint hot chocolate and anything else your heart desires.”
“I just want to run away with you, Doctor Hoffman.” Broughan reached across the center console to kiss him.
“Let’s do it then!” Vann settled back into his seat as Broughan pulled back into traffic. He knew exactly what he was going to do with that ring now. He was going to put it under the tree at Ronan and Tennyson’s house tomorrow so that he could pop the question in front of their family. It was going to be the best Christmas day ever. The gift of Broughan’s love would be enough to last a lifetime.
Christmas had never been Callum Churchill’s thing. He wouldn’t go so far as to say he was a Grinch, but his toe was definitely on the line. He did hate the Christmas season, especially now that it seemed to unofficially begin on November first.
To be honest though, he had started seeing Christmas decorations showing up in local stores around the middle of October. Then there was that one store, whose name he refused to even say, which started putting fake Christmas trees up in fucking July.
“Now, Callum, how many times have I told to you stop frowning like that. You’ll get wrinkles.” Madam Aurora used her right thumb to smooth out that spot between his eyebrows.
“I was frowning about fucking Christmas.” He rolled his icy blue eyes. “And how the marketing starts in October.”
“Oh, come on, honey. We both know that you hate Christmas because you were never allowed to celebrate it as a kid.”
Callum folded his arms over his chest. Damn, Aurora! She could read him so easily. It didn’t matter how many blocks he put in place or how many charms he cast over himself. She was easily able to blast through them like a toddler knocking over a sand castle at the beach.
His father had been raised Jehovah’s Witness and had insisted his mother convert before they were married. Callum had been raised in the ways of the church as well. It wasn’t until he was a teenager and had been assigned a research project on the Salem Witch Trials that he’d discovered his family history.
His ten times great-grandmother, Abigail Churchill, had been one of the victims of the trials. From that moment on, Callum had devoted his life to learning as much as he could about her and his family history. This led to a lot of contention at home which eventually led to him becoming estranged from his parents.
When Nobody’s Witch, the biography he wrote about Abigail and the history of her life in Salem made the bestseller list, he hadn’t spoken to his parents in a decade. They’d tried to get in touch with him when he’d gone on a nationwide media tour, but the reunion hadn’t gone well. Wiccans and Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t mix well. The idea that their son had become a “boy-witch” was the last straw. Callum had been officially shunned by his own family.
That was where Madam Aurora stepped in. She’d offered Callum a job at her shop and helped him develop his gifts to their fullest advantage. They’d become fast friends and eventually business partners.
“How about a cup of cocoa before I put on the next movie?” Aurora asked as she hopped off the couch.
“Seriously? I’ve had one cup already.” That was enough chocolate to last him an entire year. He didn’t want to end up doughy around the middle. He’d never find a man looking like that.
Aurora arched an elegant eyebrow at him. “Didn’t you say you were always jealous of the stories the kids at school would tell about Christmas?”
She was right. He had been jealous. Not just of the presents and the trips to the mall to meet Santa, but of the tradition of it all. The family gatherings and the meals shared together. All he ever had at the Kingdom Hall was stale baloney sandwiches while the adults talked about tithing more money to the church.
“Okay, I’ll have another cup with mini marshmallows this time.” He’d run extra hard at the gym the day after Christmas. It wasn’t like men were beating down his door anyway.
“I’ll be right back.” Aurora hurried off toward her cozy kitchen.
They’d spent the morning shopping for presents at the mall. Ronan and Tennyson had invited them for Christmas dinner tomorrow and Callum didn’t want to show up empty-handed. He’d even had his picture taken with Santa. He’d had an answer when the man in the Santa suit asked him what he wanted for Christmas: a new cauldron. Santa had looked at him funny, but promised to bring him one since he’d been such a good boy this year.
“Here we go!” Aurora handed him a steaming mug of hot chocolate. Peppermint marshmallows crowded the surface of the cup. “How about White Christmas? That’s my favorite movie.”
“Why? Isn’t this movie like fifty years old?” Callum hadn’t quite found what Aurora found so quaint in movies that were older than them both combined.
“That’s why. I used to watch this with my Mom and my sisters when we were little. It became an annual tradition. Even when we didn’t all make it home for Christmas, we’d call each other on the phone and watch together.”
“It’s not the movie. It’s the memories of being a family.” Another thing Callum didn’t have. His parents were always doing things with the church. He’d been a good kid, bookish and self-reliant. They’d always left him home alone so they could go to this meeting or that, always proving he was never their priority.
“Now you stop those thoughts. You’re a priority now and that’s all that counts.” Aurora patted his knee. “It’s never too late to start new traditions, Callum. Spending Christmas Eve together, helping out at the shelter tomorrow, then having dinner with Ten and Ronan, we’re building a family and new traditions.”
Callum nodded. It had been so long since he’d belonged to an actual family. He’d dated someone a few years back during the height of his book’s success, but it hadn’t really panned out.
“You know there’s someone on the way for you.” Aurora started to laugh.
“Woman, would you get out of my head!” Callum started to laugh along with her. “You’ve been saying that for nearly a year now. First you said he was coming in the winter, then the spring, then whoops, I was wrong, I see him coming in the summer. Now, it’s fucking Christmas and here we are, two old queens watching White Christmas and drinking cocoa, without a man in sight!” Callum reached for another cookie, biting off half of it at once. He didn’t care. It wasn’t as if Mr. Right was going to ring his doorbell tonight.
“You know the future has a way of changing depending on other circumstances. There’s a big change coming for you.”
“You said that before,” Callum said through a mouthful of cookie. Crumbs rained down on his silk pajama top. “Only the last time you weren’t getting a clear picture of it.”
“Oh, it’s clear now and it’s got Jude Byrne written all over it.”
“Kill me now, Goddess!” Callum looked up at the ceiling as if he expected a lightning bolt to do just that. “I wouldn’t touch that man with a stolen dick and a pair gloves.”
“No, it’s not like that.” Aurora shook her head. “It’s this new job that Jude’s going to undertake at West Side Magick. This ghost hunting…thing. He and whoever his partner is going to be are going to have some epic cases. Adventures, I’d call them.” Aurora’s smile was a mile wide. “People love paranormal stuff, Callum. They watch shows about it on television, go to see movies that scare the pants off of them. They buy romance novels about vampires and werewolves and psychics. What there isn’t really a lot of are true stories. The true hauntings of Salem…” she trailed off.
Callum followed the breadcrumbs Aurora was leaving. “Wait! Are you saying I’m meant to write the stories of Jude’s and whoever’s adventures?”
Aurora nodded. “Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? You’d still have your clients at the shop, but this would get you out a bit. Get you meeting people. Maybe you’d meet that special person.”
“Just what I need, a haunted husband.” Callum started laughing again.
“The new year is going to be pretty magical for all of us. Now hush, the movie’s starting.” Aurora rested her head against Callum’s shoulder.
The warlock managed a smile. He’d been at his happiest when he’d been writing and researching Nobody’s Witch. The idea for a follow up book had been bouncing around his head, but he could never get any traction with it. Maybe this was why. He was meant to write something else.
Callum supposed Jude wasn’t half bad, when he wasn’t being a dick about witches. Or calling him a boy-witch. Or trying to get in everyone’s pants. Jude wasn’t half bad when he wasn’t being Jude. When he was on a case there was no one he trusted more.
Skeletons in Salem’s Closet… Now that had an interesting ring to it. All he needed to do now was get the stories without killing Jude Byrne.
“Come on, Callum. Sing with me. I know you know the words.” Aurora nudged him. “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…”
The kids were nestled all snug in their beds, and by kids, Tennyson meant Jude and Emilyn. The two of them ended up making a last-minute switch when Em realized she couldn’t get off the air mattress without rolling onto the floor. Jude insisted she take the bed in the spare room and he’d sleep on the air mattress in the room that would be Everly’s. He joked that he wouldn’t be able to see the petal pink walls in the dark.
Now that his guests were all settled, Ten could find his own bed. When he opened the door to his room, he found Ronan and Dixie sound asleep with the TV blaring an old rerun of Law & Order: SVU. Ronan claimed that Dixie loved the show, but Ten knew better, he’d managed to turn his husband into a fan.
He headed into the bathroom to brush and floss. When he came out, Ronan was sitting up in bed, yawning. His hair was sticking up in all kinds of crazy directions.
“Is it Christmas yet?” He looked down at Dixie who was still asleep with her head on Ronan’s knee.
“Not yet. Thirty more minutes.” Ten scooped the dog off Ronan and put her in her own bed. She snored like a drunken sailor and putting her across the room helped to cut down on the noise.
“Man, I was out cold. I feel like I woke up in another century.” Ronan rubbed a hand against his already messy bed head.
“Well, that’s because you tried to enact a hundred different family traditions tonight.” Tennyson had been touched by Ronan’s impression of the Tasmanian Devil moving from thing to thing at light speed. He’d gone from movies to crafts to baking to toy assembly, all faster than Tennyson could keep up with. No wonder Ronan had napped like the dead.
Ronan started to laugh. “I did, didn’t I. Do you think that’s a record?”
“It is in our family.” Ten sincerely hoped Ronan found what he’d been searching for tonight because with a ten-month-old baby to care for, they weren’t going to have time for family tradition Olympics, Ronan edition, one year from now.
Dixie let out a very unladylike snort from across the room.
“Do you think our little miss is going to snore like that?” Ronan asked.
“Of course not. She’ll make dainty little girl noises, drink her bottle with her pinkie high in the air, and her shit will smell like lavender.” Ten climbed into bed, brushing a kiss against Ronan’s temple.
“I love when she’s here with us, Ten. Sleeping under our roof.” Ronan’s voice was filled with emotion.
Emilyn was still staying at her house. Where they already knew Everly’s due date, Em didn’t see any need to come stay with Ten and Ronan. “I love when she’s here too.”
“Our baby here with us for Christmas. That’s why we needed a new tradition, Ten, because Everly is here. Em talks to her all the time. I know Bertha and Mom visit her spirit. I know she’s here with us. She might not remember the year Daddy Ronan lost his fool mind making crafts, cookies, and a lopsided gingerbread house, but we’ll have hundreds of pictures to show her someday.”
Ten had fallen in love with Ronan at least a dozen more times today. This was lucky number thirteen. “Do you think she’ll lap that up or be like ‘Not the pictures again, Daddy!’”
“Probably both.” Ronan wrapped an arm around Tennyson. “I think those teenage years are going to break us. When she doesn’t want hugs or kisses from us anymore, you’re gonna have to love me extra hard, Ten. I don’t think I’ll survive my little girl not wanting me to tuck her in at night. Hell, I’m having a hard time with Dixie being across the room.”
Tennyson looked over at their little princess who was hanging halfway out of her pink princess dog bed with her tongue lolling out, snoring like a lumberjack, and burst out laughing. “I’m so sorry, Ronan,” Ten managed between fits of the giggles. “Dixie’s a hot mess and so are you.”
Ronan started to laugh along with him. He swiped at his eyes, pulling Ten closer. “Laugh it up now. I’ll remind you of this when Everly’s off on her first car date.”
Ten sobered instantly. “Shut your mouth. Everly’s not dating until she’s thirty.”
“Try forty.” Ronan snorted.
“Who’s gonna walk her down the aisle?” Ten asked. He couldn’t imagine the two of them flipping a coin for that honor.
Ronan clutched his heart like he was having a heart attack. “Both of us! I’m gonna need you on the other side of her holding me up.”
Ten agreed. He was going to need Ronan just as much. “We have so many things to look forward to, Ronan.”
“We do,” Ronan agreed. “What was your favorite tradition tonight? Out of all the crazy shit I tried, which one did you like best?”
Ten was torn, did he tell Ronan about the little chat he’d had with Erin or make something up? “Well, I have a bit of inside intel.” The truth was always the best policy.
“Shit,” Ronan sighed. “That means you were visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, weren’t you?”
“Emilyn was, but I walked in on the middle of it.” Tennyson loved that Erin was spending time with Em and Everly like that.
“Which ghost are we talking about? Bertha or my Mom?”
“It was Erin.” Ten knew Ronan was going to have a hard time hearing that. He knew how much he missed his mother.
“I’m sorry I missed her.”
Ten could hear the emotion in Ronan’s voice. He knew this was a possibility. “She told us about the way that the two of you used to make those same M&M cookies when you were little. So, my vote for the new Grimm-O’Mara family tradition, goes to the old O’Mara family tradition.”
“Damn.” Ronan shook his head. “I was going to tell you all about that tonight, but I guess Mom beat me to it. Baking cookies was always my favorite part of Christmas Eve. It meant it was just the two of us. All of our errands were done and we could stay home together. We’d always talk about Christmases past…”
“Just like we did today?” Ten had loved that part too. It was another way to get to know his husband better.
Ronan nodded silently. “Was Mom with us when we were baking and doing all of those other crazy things?”
“No. I never saw her until I went up to get Emilyn. I think she was with us, but not making herself visible. I think she wanted us to define our own traditions instead of her butting in.”
“We never would have seen it that way.”
“Well, of course not.”
“I’m glad she was here and spending time with Em.” Ronan pulled Tennyson closer.
“You know, babe. In all of the madness of these last few weeks, you never told me what you wanted for Christmas.”
Ten snuggled closer to Ronan. “It’s five minutes until Christmas, Ronan, haven’t you left it a little late in the game to be asking?”
“I’ve got plenty of time. I might even get this present in a little early.” Ronan chuckled against the side of Ten’s head.
“I’ve got my big, burly present right here.” Ten pressed a kiss against Ronan’s heart.
“How did I know you were going to say that?”
“You’re married to a psychic. Something was bound to rub off on you sooner or later. I love you so much, Ronan.”
“I love you too, babe. Just so you know, there’s a real present waiting for you under the tree that’s going to knock your socks off. No fair using your gift though.” Ronan leaned over to switch the light off.
Too late… Ten couldn’t help peeking inside Ronan’s head for a tiny glimpse at what Ronan had bought him. As usual, his husband was right. The baby book, complete with all of Everly’s ultrasound pictures and videos already inside of it was going to knock his socks off.
Ten could only hope his present to Ronan would have the same emotional impact. It wasn’t every day that a man got the fifty-five-inch flat-screen television of his dreams. Oh, and a perfect 4D ultrasound picture of Everly’s face. That tiny smile was definitely going to make this a Christmas Ronan would never forget.
12:01am Christmas Day…
“Merry Christmas, Daddy Tennyson.” Everly Erin’s spirit crossed the room to Ronan’s side of the bed.
“Merry Christmas, Daddy Ronan.” Pressing an angel-soft kiss to Ronan’s temple, Everly smiled at her father. “Only fifty-one days until I’m here to stay…”
IF YOU ENJOYED MEETING COLD CASE DETECTIVE RONAN O’MARA AND PSYCHIC TENNYSON GRIMM, GO BACK TO WHERE IT ALL BEGAN WITH BOOK ONE IN THE COLD CASE PSYCHIC SERIES, DEAD SPEAK!
Demoted to the cold case squad after shooting a suspect in the line of duty, Detective Ronan O’Mara knows that his career with the Boston Police Department is hanging by a thread. His first assignment is the case of Michael Frye, a five-year-old boy who has been missing for seven years. With no new leads or witnesses to interview, Ronan has to start from scratch to solve this mystery. When he sees a handsome local psychic on television, Ronan figures he’s got nothing to lose in enlisting the man’s help to find Michael.
Psychic Tennyson Grimm is riding high after helping South Shore cops find a missing child. He’s even being courted by the Reality Show Network about a program showcasing his abilities. He has no idea that his midday appointment with a customer, who instead turns out to be a police detective, is going to change the course of his life and his career.
With the blessing of the BPD, which badly needs an image makeover, Ronan is allowed to bring Tennyson in to assist with the Frye case. Being thrown together in front of cameras is never easy, but add in an emotional missing persons investigation, a tight-lipped spirit, and a cop who’s a skeptic, and it definitely puts a strain on both men and their working relationship.
When the child’s body is found, the work to identify his killer begins. As Ronan and Tennyson get closer to solving the case, the initial attraction they feel for one another explodes into a passion neither man can contain.
Will working together to bring Michael’s killer to justice seal their fledgling bond, or will unexpected revelations in the case tear them apart forever?
Dead Speak is available in eBook, Paperback. Kindle Unlimited, or Audio Book format!
IF YOU’RE A REGULAR FOLLOWER OF THE COLD CASE PSYCHIC SERIES, BOOK NINE, DEAD MAN WALKING, IS AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER! GRAB YOUR COPY TODAY!
Cold Case Detective, Ronan O’Mara is stunned to see the breaking news that a well-known mobster he helped to put behind bars, Vito “The Dragon” Dragonni, has been released from prison after his life sentence is overturned on a technicality. When prominent members involved in the original case against The Dragon start turning up dead, Ronan starts to wonder if he’s next.
Psychic, Tennyson Grimm starts having visions of dead men with The Dragon’s signature kill shot: two bullet holes to the forehead. The men in the visions are strangers, but when he learns from an undercover agent that Dragonni has compiled a hit list with Ronan and his ex-partner, Tony, at the top, he fears a day will come when he recognizes the murder victim in his vision.
Tony Abruzzi has been a broken man since the tragic death of his adopted son, Mark. Refusing the offer of protective custody until Dragonni and his hit squad are off the streets, he seems to be daring the mobster to come after him. Despite the fact that they’ve been estranged since the case that cost Tony’s son his life, Ronan decides to stick to his former partner’s side as his personal bodyguard, whether Tony wants his help or not.
Can Ronan and Tony find a way to work together to stop The Dragon before he can cross more names off his hit list or are both detectives dead men walking?
THAT OLD MAGIC, CAPTAIN KEVIN FITZGIBBON’S LONG-AWAITED SPIN OFF IS NOW AVAILABLE! GRAB YOUR COPY TODAY!
Boston Police Captain, Kevin Fitzgibbon thought he’d found the missing piece of his heart when psychic Madam Aurora prophesied the love of his life was philanthropist, Jace Lincoln. After spending months as on-again, off-again boyfriends, the pair are off again, perhaps for good, leaving Kevin distraught and grumpy.
Jace Lincoln is still trying to put his life back together after Fitz dumped him on Valentine’s Day. While getting back into the swing of things with a new man, a drunk Fitzgibbon barges in on their date like Godzilla destroying Tokyo. Listening to Fitz carry on about how much he misses what they had together makes Jace wonder if they still have enough of that old magic left to try one last time.
Through a series of dates ranging from ridiculous to right on the money, Fitz and Jace reconnect and find that the things keeping them apart might not be so insurmountable after all. Deciding to give their relationship another try, they start planning a bright future together.
That future is stopped dead in its tracks when tragedy strikes at a party celebrating the tenth anniversary of Jace’s homeless shelter. Will Kevin and Jace survive to begin a new life together or have they lost their last chance at happiness for good this time?
TO KEEP UP WITH ALL THINGS COLD CASE PSYCHIC, JOIN MY NEWSLETTER!
Books by Pandora Pine
Cold Case Psychic Series
Vision of Love
Dead to Me
Dead in the Water
Dead of Night
Dead Man Walking
Cold Case Psychic Spin Offs
Beyond the Grave
That Old Magic
Christmas Short: Merry and Bright
Coming Soon… Tiny Dancer
Sand Dollar Shoal Series
Reading, Writing, and Romance Series
A Little Love
A Little Lesson
A Little Luck
On The Radio Series
Student Bodies Series
Like the Knight
In the Shade
Do No Harm
Brick and Mortar
All Fall Down
Ties That Bind
Third and Long
Across the Pond
Happily Ever After
Find all of my books here: