A Dartmoor Christmas
Ava woke up with a sore throat and a pounding headache. “Ugh,” she muttered into her pillow. Her limbs felt weighted as she rolled and reached for her phone. Her eyes were full of grit and she blinked a half dozen times before she could read the screen. Seven a.m. It was still dark out. And she felt like shit.
Thank God it was a holiday, she thought, slumping back down against her pillow. Mercy would be home, and he could help her with the kids, if she needed it. Which she would. In her experience, cold symptoms only got worse as the day progressed.
Speaking of Mercy…
She could feel the coldness of the other side of the bed, but glanced over to check. She could just make out the white of their sheets in the darkness; Mercy wasn’t in bed. She saw the shadowed indentation on his pillow where his head had been.
She checked her phone again, to see if he’d been called in to the clubhouse and left her a text; he hadn’t. Then she summoned her resolve, told herself to suck it up, and flipped the covers back.
The cold floorboards were like ice against her feet, and she hissed, tiptoeing over to her slippers – ridiculous, gator-shaped things that had started as a joke and turned into a necessity. She grabbed her robe off the end of the bed and belted it tight. She was not going to sniffle and shuffle and look like she was sick. She wasn’t. It was hard to stop the shivering, though.
She tripped on no less than three toys in the living room, stubbed her toe and cursed under her breath. It wasn’t until she reached the kitchen that she heard any clues as to Mercy’s whereabouts: a radio playing softly in the garage.
“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” was playing, and Mercy was sitting at a folding table in the bay where he kept his bike. He had a table lamp set up, extension cord running to the wall, to provide light over what he was working on. Ava caught a flash of silver before he clapped both big hands over it, hiding it from view.
“Shit, baby,” he said, sounding startled. “I was gonna let you sleep.” His expression read guilty.
“I woke up,” she said, and her voice came out a croak. She winced, and he frowned.
“Think I’m catching a cold, actually.”
“Aw, fillette, I’m sorry.” He started to get up, then his eyes widened, remembering he was hiding something, and stayed put. “Go back to bed. I’ll get the kids.”
She shook her head. “I’ll take some aspirin. Get some coffee in me. They’ll be excited about this afternoon.” The big freaking club party she was hosting. Ugh. She took a step deeper into the garage. “What are you doing?”
“It’s a surprise,” he said, cheeks coloring. “Supposed to be, anyway.”
“Okay.” She knew how he got about Christmas presents. The poor idiot put way too much thought and effort into them every year. She didn’t give a damn about presents, personally, but she knew Mercy fretted. He tried so hard to be the best husband and dad. “I can go back in.” She edged a step back to prove her point.
She lifted her brows.
“Wait,” he repeated, blush deepening. “Just…come over here and see what you think. If you hate it, I can get you something different.”
“When have I ever,” she said as she approached, “hated anything you ever gave me?”
“There’s a first time for everything.”
“Felix,” she scolded, squeezing his shoulder.
“Alright, alright. Well…I know you’re not real big on jewelry. But…” And he opened his hands to reveal a small coiled puddle of silver nestled between his massive palms. He nudged it with a finger, and it unfurled. A bracelet. A simple silver charm bracelet, loaded with small charms.
It was true; aside from her wedding ring, Ava wasn’t big on jewelry. And for one moment – one that she wasn’t at all proud of – she envisioned one of those mass-produced big-box jewelry store things, the kind she always saw in commercials this time of year. But then she leaned closer, hair sliding off her shoulders so it mingled with the dark fall of Mercy’s hair. And she saw what the charms were. In perfect, miniature detail: a motorcycle, a dog with pointed ears and a long tail, a truck, a typewriter, a Tennessee T, a silhouette of the state of Louisiana, a shotgun, and five alligators.
“It’s us,” she said, a surprised and delighted smile tugging at her mouth. “Right? It’s all of us.”
“There was this place at the mall that did custom silver work. Aidan and I saw it a couple weeks back, and well, I went in and made an order. But if you don’t like it–”
“I love it. “
She slipped an arm across his broad shoulders and kissed his cheek, hard, with a nice satisfying smack. “I love it, baby,” she repeated, and saw how relieved and pleased he looked. “You never cease to amaze me.”
Shane woke to the sound of horses pawing at their stall doors. He experienced a moment of disorientation before he remembered that he was in the apartment above the barn, and then he experienced a moment of panic, because he hadn’t intended to stay the night.
He sat up, squinting through the semi-darkness. Becca had left a lamp on over in the kitchenette, and through the windows he could see that dawn was just breaking. Fuck, he thought. And then said it aloud: “Fuck.”
They’d had screwdrivers – of all things – with dinner, and last night tumbled through his head in a blur. This thing with Becca, whatever it was, had been going on for a few months now, and they were growing less and less careful; throw in a little alcohol and today was looking like the day that the cat was finally let out of the bag.
“Shit,” he muttered, and flung the covers back.
Shane was not the kind of brother who spent lots of nights at the clubhouse with groupies in his bed; he’d never been awakened by his president’s insistent knocking the dorm room door, hollers of “wake the fuck up!” jolting him awake. So he wasn’t very good at dressing on the fly, hopping into his jeans while buttoning his shirt.
The light beyond the windows was silvery gray when he stepped into the bathroom, borrowed a smear of toothpaste and brushed his teeth with a fingertip. It was going yellow around the edges when he stepped into his boots and grabbed his jacket.
Rationally, he knew that getting caught wasn’t going to be a life-altering event. It was just that he felt so guilty. Becca was Emmie’s working student, and a surrogate little sister. There was no way the news Shane had been shagging her would go over well.
When he reached the barn aisle, he found Becca dressed in jeans and river boots, her thick down barn coat and beanie, toting buckets to the hungry horses. “Morning!” she said, brightly, and paused to kiss his cheek on her way past. She smelled of shampoo and sweet feed.
“You didn’t wake me up,” he said.
She managed to shrug while carrying buckets. “I was going to, but you looked so cute. Shoo, Apollo.” Emmie’s big black gelding pinned his ears but withdrew his head so Becca could pour his feed through the window.
“Yes, well.” He took a deep breath. “Thanks, but Emmie’ll be here any second. And then she’ll know.”
“It’s Christmas Eve. I told her I could handle things this morning.”
“Yeah?” He lifted his brows, staring her down when she turned around. “And when has she ever listened to that?”
Becca made a considering face. “When she had the baby. And when she had the stomach flu.”
The heard the Rhino’s engine approaching.
Becca’s eyes went wide. “Oh my God.”
“Oh my God,” Shane echoed.
The engine came closer, sputtering a little in the cold morning air.
Becca exhaled loudly, lifting the little wisps of hair that had escaped her beanie. “I figure we can play it two ways. Either you run back upstairs and hide.” Her expression told him what she thought of that. “Or act like you wanted to come help with the horses.”
“Or.” Shane wanted to shiver, and clamped down on it. “We just tell her.”
She stared at him a moment, and then grinned. “I like that option.”
The Rhino chugged to a halt outside the barn and shut off. Emmie’s boot heels rapped across the concrete as she approached the mostly-shut double doors.
Here went nothing.
Whitney didn’t need to sleep late. She had five batches of cookies she’d promised to bake for tonight: double chocolate chunk and iced oatmeal. The oatmeal were Tango’s favorites, so she’d decided to make an extra batch that she’d leave at home for him. She had to drop off gifts for her sister-in-law and the girls and wrap the hostess gift she was taking Ava: hand-painted ornaments for each of her three little ones (and a bottle of wine, because ornaments were cute, but wine was the elixir of life).
So she didn’t need to sleep late. But want and need were two very different things.
She lay on her side, facing the window, watching the sun come up in graduating shades of silver and pale yellow, the Christmas stopwatch in her mind already ticking. But she didn’t want to move. Tango was stretched out behind her, his arm around her waist, their bodies connected at every possible point. He breathed in regular little huffs against the back of her neck, stirring her hair…and indecent thoughts.
She found his hand where it rested between her breasts and pressed her own to the back of it, traced the shapes of his tattoos without having to look; she knew every tiny detail of them.
“Tango,” she said, softly.
“Hmm?” he hummed, and she felt the vibration against the skin of her neck.
“I have a confession.”
“Yeah?” He sounded less groggy; she felt his body tense behind her.
“I got you a really stupid Christmas present.” Several of them, actually. She wanted to get him something meaningful, romantic, and emblematic of her love for him. Instead, devoid of all useful ideas, she’d ended up at Sports Authority. He’d been running seriously for the past year now, and she’d enlisted the help of a very thin and fit-looking store employee to help her find the right pair of Nikes (they were highlighter yellow), hoodie, tracks pants, and even a Fitbit. Workout gear. She’d gotten him workout gear. She didn’t feel much like an artist at all.
But Tango snorted a laugh into her hair. “Baby, there’s no such thing as a stupid Christmas present.”
Because he’d gone his entire childhood and most of his teen years without any at all.
Sometimes she hated herself.
She squeezed his hand. “Okay.”
Sam rolled over and found Aidan’s side of the bed cold. When she opened her eyes, the alarm clock red nine-fifteen.
How in the hell had that happened?
She listened for Lainie crying, and didn’t hear it. And then she smelled the bacon.
Aidan stood in front of the stove in the kitchen, holding Lainie on his hip, turning bacon strips in the skillet with his free hand. He was shirtless, all tattoos and pale winter skin in the morning light. When he turned to her, it was with an errant black curl falling down onto his forehead.
“Hi.” His smile managed to be both shy and mischievous. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” she echoed, dumbstruck. She forgot sometimes, amidst the grind of their daily lives, that Aidan Teague had the ability to turn her absolutely stupid when he looked at her like that. “What’s all this?” Now that she looked around, she could see coffee, a waiting stack of buttered toast, scrambled eggs. Lainie was dressed in her Christmas outfit: red dress and red-and-white striped leggings. She had a red bow clipped into her meager hair.
“Um…” He set the fork down and scratched at the back of his neck. “I’m just gonna be honest. I’m not any good at shopping. So I thought…” He gestured to the spread on the counter. “I’d let you sleep in, and get Lainie up, and make breakfast.”
When she went to hug him, she was assaulted by the smells of clean baby, hot food, and warm husband. The thing about a man who’d gotten so much wrong in his life? He worked so hard to get things right.
“Go sit,” Maggie ordered. “Before you sneeze in the cheesecake.”
“I’m not that sick,” Ava complained, but it came out I’m nob tha’ ‘ick.
“Uh-huh. Do it anyway.”
Grumbling to herself, Ava all but fell into one of the kitchen chairs. The charm bracelet around her wrist rattled.
Maggie smiled to herself as she pulled a knife from the block and started slicing her un-sneezed-on cheesecake. Dinner had gone off spectacularly – which was to say it had been its usual, chaotic, biker-family-filled affair. There were far too many people packed into Mercy and Ava’s house, the kitchen was crowded with old ladies setting out desserts, and both the front and back doors were open to let all the body heat out. The decorations were lovely and almost overdone, the kids were thrilled, and the men were loud and a little tipsy.
It was perfect.
When it was sliced, she turned and set the cheesecake on the table alongside the cookies, brownies, and homemade truffles.
“Plates, napkins, forks,” Sam said, ticking the items off on her fingers. “Is that it?”
“That’s it,” Maggie said. “Now all we have to do is make sure to step back and keep our fingers clear.”
“And get some for ourselves first,” Ava said, indignant. “It’ll just be crumbs after those vultures get at it.”
When they’d set plates of their own aside, Maggie went to the living room doorway and said, “Dessert’s re–”
And all the guys stood up at once.
She laughed. “No stampeding.”
“No promises,” Aidan said.
Ghost paused beside her on his way through, slid his arm around her waist and drew her away, beyond the reach of the stampede that was indeed happening.
“Hey,” he said, right in her ear, voice low and rough from laughing, breath smelling of whiskey. “You having a good Christmas?”
“I am.” She leaned into his strong chest. “I wish it was Christmas all the time.” Because they were all together, and it felt so warm and happy. The year’s stresses melted away and it was easy to forget that their lives were always just a little bit in danger.
“No you don’t,” Ghost said. “You’d get bored with everything being so sappy all the time.”
She sighed, and leaned up to kiss him. “You’re probably right.”
For now, though, she was glad for a little peace…while it lasted.