I haven’t been in Cade’s head since Resisting Temptation, and oh gosh, I forgot how much that man makes my heart hurt in the most beautiful way. Leave it to the Big Guy to bring me tears. Oh heck, his whole dang family brings me to tears.
“Cloverton’s Hallelujah”, is the sing that Faith and Christopher sing in this scene. I encourage you to listen to it. The song is beautiful and one of my favorites.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.
May you find love, peace and joy this holiday season.
K.C. Lynn <3
Christmas Eve morning
A soft touch pulls me from my deep sleep. My eyes open and I stare into the sleeping face of an angel, one I have the pleasure of waking up to every morning. Faith’s pretty pink lips are parted, breathing light and even. Her long, red hair is fanned out on the pillow around her and she looks every bit as beautiful as she did hours ago when I lost myself inside of her warm body before kissing her good night.
A light smacking noise echoes through the air, and I realize the touch that woke me is against the mangled skin of my back. I flip onto my other side and my breath locks, chest seizing as I stare into big, innocent brown eyes, ones that grace a tiny face from my past.
“Good morning, Daddy,” Mia whispers. “Merry Christmas Eve.”
The air that’s trapped in my chest passes back and forth like a ball of fire before it’s released on a rush of breath. “Hey, baby girl,” I croak, my rough voice betraying my feelings. “What are you doing?”
“Kissin’ your owies better.” Her kind words have my heart shifting and tightening. “Did it work?” she asks, her eyes hopeful.
“Yeah, it worked. It always works.” Reaching for her, I lift her tiny body onto my chest and stare into her angelic face. My lungs constrict painfully at the white nightgown she wears and the matching ribbon she has tied in her hair, something she has insisted on wearing to bed before she could barely speak. Pair them with her brown locks, olive skin, and cherub cheeks, she looks exactly like the little girl from my past.
But she’s not.
She’s Faith’s and mine. Our flesh and blood. She might take after my side of the family when it comes to appearance but her kind nature, stunning voice, and love for cowgirl boots come from her mother.
Speaking of boots… I lift my head, looking over her bare shoulder, and find her heels clicking together behind her. My brow lifts at her guilty expression. “Did you sleep with those on?”
“Maybe,” she answers, her smile as sweet as her voice.
“Mia.” My scolding is weak at best. I don’t think there is anything this kid could do to upset me.
She huffs out a breath. “I can’t help it, Daddy. I don’t get a good sweep wifout dem.”
“But it’s not good for you. What happens if your feet grow overnight and you can never get them off?”
“Do you really think it could happen?” she asks, hope edging her question.
I should have known that would backfire.
“Mmm, a country girl could only wish,” Faith responds, her voice soft with sleep.
Turning my head, my eyes collide with her emerald ones, the sparkling irises punching me in the chest. When I’m greeted with her smile, my heart stops altogether. Even after all this time, she still knocks me on my ass.
“Good morning, Mama,” Mia greets her.
“Good morning, my sweet girl.” Faith rises up on her elbow and presses a kiss to Mia’s chubby cheek before bringing those cherry lips my way. “Good morning, my handsome, brooding husband,” she sasses with a smile.
She tries to drop one on my cheek like she did Mia but I turn my face at the last second. My hand anchors in the back of her red locks and I reel her in for the kill, swallowing her sigh and inhaling everything that belongs to me.
I will never get enough.
Mia’s giggle breaches our moment.
Faith pulls back with a smile; her eyes filled with the same need surging through my veins before she drags her gaze away to Mia. “Are you ready for the day’s festivities?”
“Yes!” she answers, excitement thick in her voice. “Can I come help you set up the sleigh ride, Daddy?”
“Yeah, baby girl.”
“Good, we’re going to dress Starlight up as a reindeer,” she tells me, talking about her horse, who also happens to be her best friend. I swear the kid would sleep in the damn barn if she could.
“And how are we going to do that?” I ask.
“Mama and I bought ears for her and I’m gonna paint her nose red. She’s gonna be Rudolph.”
My attention shifts to Red, where she peers back at me sheepishly. “We bought stuff for both her and Hank.”
My brow lifts. “You’re having a horse and a cow dress up as reindeer?”
She shrugs. “Why not?”
“You need to have an imagination, Daddy.”
“Yeah, Daddy,” Faith mimics, her soft hand gliding across my stomach under the covers. “Have an imagination.”
Oh, my imagination is running fucking wild right now. About all the ways I’m going to…
Faith snickers, sensing my thoughts, then sweeps Mia off me, climbing out of bed. “Come on, sweet girl. Let’s get dressed and you can help me with breakfast.”
She’s crazy if she thinks she just dodged a bullet. Her ass is mine tonight and payback will be just as beautiful as the girl herself.
Once she and Mia leave, I have a quick shower then join them down in the kitchen where they sit at the table, already eating waffles.
“There’s lots on the stove,” Faith says as I pour myself a cup of coffee.
“This is good but thanks.”
“You’re not hungry?”
“Oh, I’m hungry. Just not for that.”
A shy smile steals her lips, her cheeks flushing pink.
I love that fucking blush.
“Well you could always have cereal, Daddy,” Mia suggests.
“I could,” I agree with a nod. “But I’ll just wait until later.”
Faith’s smile grows and she dips her head as she takes another bite of food. I watch the way her lips close around the fork, my cock hardening behind my zipper.
It’s going to be a long fucking day.
Just as I take a sip of my coffee, my other favorite person comes bounding into the kitchen, wearing boxer shorts and one of my muscle tanks. Her matching beanie to mine is on her head, something she probably slept in, while thick black-rimmed glasses frame her pretty blue eyes.
“Good morning,” Ruthie greets us, as cheerful as always. She walks over to Mia first, dropping a kiss on her head, then hugs Faith.
“Waffles are on the stove,” Faith tells her, kissing her cheek.
“Thanks.” She walks over to me next, that light in her eyes shining so fucking bright it’s blinding.
She’s going to change the world one day, I know it.
“Good morning, Big Guy.” She does a little jump to wrap her arms around my neck and hangs off me, giving me a loud smacking kiss on the cheek.
My arm comes around her back, hugging her close, and I hate how her feet don’t dangle as high as they used to. It reminds me how old she’s getting. I don’t like it. I want her to stay young forever, so she never stops thinking I’m cool.
“I see you went into my drawer again,” I say as a greeting, placing her back on her feet.
She looks up at me with an unabashed smile. “Yep. You know they’re my favorite.”
“Yeah, I do. That’s why I buy you your own.”
She shrugs. “It’s not the same. I like yours.”
I grunt but can’t deny the shift in my chest.
She gives my cheek a gentle love tap then grabs a waffle with her bare hands and takes a monstrous bite. “So what’s on the agenda first?” she asks with her mouth full.
“I could use your help getting the cookie decorating in order then help with setting the table,” Faith says.
“Sure. How many of us are there this year?”
“I think we’re up to thirty now,” Faith answers, her smile radiant rather than feeling stressed or overwhelmed, like most people would be. But Red isn’t like most people, she never has been.
Every year we seem to be expanding. Probably because the greedy bastards can’t keep their hands off their women, like me. Anna and Logan are about to have their second already.
“Cool,” Ruthie says, over another mouthful.
It brings a smile to my face. I love the shit out of that kid.
“Do you want to go see if your brother is up?” Faith asks her, that sparkle in her eyes dimming.
“Let him be for a little longer, Red. I’ll get him up when I’m out there,” I tell her, knowing he won’t be awake yet. I heard him banging away in the music studio late last night. It has been happening a lot lately. Things haven’t been right with him since he came home.
Red is worried, but I know he just needs time and space to deal with shit. He lost his best friend not long ago and death changes a person. Nobody knows that better than me, but I’ve also been keeping an eye on him from a distance.
Faith nods solemnly, her face pinched with concern.
Putting down my coffee, I walk over to her and bend down, pressing my lips against the base of her slender throat. “He’s fine,” I murmur close to her ear. “I’ll check on him when I’m out there, okay?”
She gives me another nod, her soft hand moving to my jaw as she leans into my touch.
Dropping one more kiss on her lips, I get ready and head outside.
Mia treks alongside me, struggling to carry her big bag of supplies as we make our way to the barn, Faith’s cowgirl hat wobbling on her head. I can’t wait to see the look on her face when she opens her own tomorrow. One that will actually fit her.
“Give it here, squirt,” I say, reaching for the sack.
“That’s okay, Daddy. I gots it.”
Smirking, I grab the back of the bag and gently lift it without her knowledge. She makes it the rest of the way without dropping from exertion. The bag falls from her hand once we reach the barn and she runs to her horse that Joshua, Faith’s father, bought for her last year.
“Good morning, Starlight, did you have a good sleep, girl?”
The mare dips her head over top of the gate, leaning down far enough for Mia to reach. Her hand moves to the horse’s long face and she drops her cheek down on it, whispering soothing words and kissing its nose.
I swear the kid has a sixth sense when it comes to animals. Ruthie jokes by calling her the animal whisperer but it’s pretty fucking accurate. They all seem to flock to her, even the wild ones. It gives me a damn heart attack. One day, I even caught a deer sitting next to her in the woods surrounding our house, a place where she isn’t ever supposed to go without supervision.
My chest restricts as I think about what could have happened to her. The fear of losing any of my family is unfathomable. It’s something I would never survive. Which is why I will never let it happen.
Yanking myself from my tormented thoughts, I head for the tractor and hook up the wagon, getting it ready for the sleigh rides. It’s something we started a couple of years ago and has turned into a tradition.
Next, I help Mia dress up the animals. It seems Faith even bought Hank a fucking Christmas sweater.
“Doesn’t he look so cute?” Mia gushes.
More like ridiculous.
The smile on her face though stops me from voicing that out loud. “Yeah, real cute.”
“I wish we had snow,” she says, her soft voice wistful.
“Not gonna happen, kid. At least not today.”
Getting snow around here is rare. When it does happen, it’s usually a dusting and the entire city shuts down. A far cry from what I left back in Colorado years ago. I don’t miss the winters but I can understand how the kids want it when they haven’t experienced it. Not a true white Christmas.
My attention shifts to the guesthouse across the way and I glance at my watch, deciding it’s time. “You wait here with Hank. I’m going to go wake your brother,” I tell her, opening the gate to the pasture.
I walk across the property and head up to the guesthouse, my fist heavy on the door as I knock. When I get no answer, I try the handle but find it locked. I rap again, harder this time, and finally hear movement on the other side. The door opens slowly and the sight I’m met with has concern burning in my gut.
Christopher squints at the bright daylight, his swollen eyes dropping to the ground as he leans on the door for leverage.
“You look like shit,” I tell him.
He grunts. “Thanks. It’s Jack’s fault, that bastard can be a real asshole sometimes.”
I stare back at him, finding no amusement in the joke. “Look at me, kid.”
He doesn’t, his eyes remaining on the floor.
“I said look at me.”
My stern voice forces his haunted eyes to mine. I search his gaze, trying to see if things are worse than I originally thought.
He hangs his head again, staring down at his feet. “I’m good, man. I promise. Just a bad night is all. You know how it is.”
I do, all too well, but I hate knowing he has those nights, too. “Do you have any more alcohol in here?”
He shakes his head.
“Good. Keep it that way. That shit isn’t going to help you.”
I get nothing in return, no promise.
“Listen, I’m not going to push you,” I tell him. “I’ll give you time to deal with shit on your own. On one condition.”
His eyes finally lift back to mine, curiosity reflecting back at me. “What’s that?”
“If it gets to be too much. If it consumes you up here,” I say, tapping my temple. “You come to me. I want your word, Christopher. Otherwise, I will haul your ass to a fucking clinic. I won’t give you a choice.”
He peers back at me for a long moment, jaw flexing. He doesn’t like ultimatums any more than I do, but too bad. I care about him too much to risk this getting worse.
Eventually, he nods, giving me the promise I want to hear.
It makes me feel a little better, because if there is one thing I can count on, he always keeps his word. “Good. Now go make yourself presentable and get to the house. Faith is worried about you.”
“Yeah. I’m just going to grab a shower then I’ll be there,” he grumbles.
I’m about to leave but something stops me. I don’t know if it’s the set of his slumped shoulders or the way despair consumes the air around him. Either way, it has me saying one more thing before I leave. “I’m here for you. You know that, right?”
His gaze snaps back to mine, his haunted eyes are ones I recognize so well. They hold the same demons I’ve fought myself. It fucking kills me to know he’s dealing with them too. If there is one thing I understand more than anything, it’s this—I know what it’s like to want to bury it. To want to shut everyone out. But there will come a time when he has to face them. When they refuse to be ignored. And when that time comes I want him to know he’s not alone.
He takes a hard swallow, and I think he’s about to say something but then thinks better of it. “Yeah, I know. It’s just…I need to deal with this on my own.”
His answer is one I respect, because at the end of the day, no matter how much help he has, he has to be the one to get through it.
Nodding, I step back. “Okay. I’ll see you at the house.” I clap him on the shoulder and start down the stairs.
I turn back to him.
“You know where to find me.”
At his nod, I finish back down the stairs, leaving him be. I’ll give him space but I’ll never stop watching.
As I head back to the pasture, Jaxson, Sawyer, and Cooper show up. They make their way over to me with the kids while Grace, Julia, and Kayla head into the main house, all of them carrying food.
Annabelle, Ella, and Hope run up to Mia, their arms gathering around each other in a group hug, while Beckett and Parker hang back, mocking the girls and making fun of them.
“Merry Christmas, asshole,” Sawyer greets me, extending his hand. “You better have bought me something good.”
Grunting, I take his hand. “Yeah, got you a special enhancement to make your dick bigger so your wife can stop complaining.”
Jaxson and Cooper bust into muffled laughter.
Of course Sawyer isn’t the least bit offended, an arrogant smirk taking over his face. “Nice try, but my wife could never handle more than she gets now.”
I roll my eyes like a fucking chick then reach out to shake Jaxson’s and Cooper’s hands.
It isn’t long after that everyone else starts arriving and the festivities begin, the day erupting in absolute chaos. We start with the sleigh rides, all of the kids singing, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” as we pile them into the wagon.
“Hopefully that’s all they saw,” Sawyer chuckles under his breath.
I shoot him a glare as I hold Mia in my arms. I swear the fucker has no filter.
After an hour of sleigh rides and never-ending Christmas carols, we head into the house where the kids decorate cookies. Sarge leans over every single one of them, saying he needs to inspect them, all the while snagging pieces of their candy.
Kolan shoves him back when he reaches over his daughter’s shoulder, glaring at him.
“You better be careful, Mr. Sarge,” Hope says. “If you’re naughty, Santa won’t bring you any presents.”
“Don’t you worry about that, little lady. Santa loves me, and I plan to be very naughty tonight,” he tells her, shooting Miranda a pointed look that has her blushing.
Logan nails him in the shoulder, hard.
“Ow, what the hell was that for?”
“Stop saying shit about my mom. Keep it locked up until you’re away from me.”
Sarge chuckles, not the least bit put off. He usually enjoys riling him up.
After the kids are done with their cookies, we move into the dining room and take our seats at the large table. Joshua starts the supper off by saying grace, something that still makes me a little uncomfortable but not as much as it used to. I’ve come to respect the man a lot, especially since he respects my feelings on the matter.
Laughter and good conversation flows while we devour our food. Halfway through our meal, Faith reaches under the table, taking my hand. I glance over at her and the smile she graces me with lights up the whole damn house.
She leans over, her sweet lips grazing my jaw. “I love you.” Her voice is soft, the words whispering to my ear. It’s three words that still have my chest shifting, no matter how many times I hear them from her.
Words I never heard until her.
“I love you too, Red,” I murmur back, my hand moving to the satin skin of her cheek.
Once our stomachs are full, Sarge heads upstairs to change into the costume the women bought for him while the kids run around and play. We manage to sneak him out the back without being seen, then seconds later he rings the front doorbell.
“I wonder who that could be?” Faith says with a heavy dose of enthusiasm in her tone.
It’s so obvious.
All the kids run up to the door and squeal excitedly when they see who is on the other side of it.
“Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas!”
His rendition is fucking awful.
“It’s Santa!” Ella cheers.
Christopher grunts. “If he’s fucking Santa then I’m the pope,” he murmurs, keeping his voice low.
I chuckle but know he’s right. There is no way we’re going to get away with using him for this. My suspicion is confirmed when Annabelle sits on his lap to get her gift, her face scrunched up as she stares back at him.
“You don’t really look like Santa.”
“What do you mean? I look exactly like him because I am him.”
She shakes her head. “Uh-uh. You look and sound a lot like Mr. Sarge.”
“Well, I’ll take that as a compliment. That guy is a handsome son of a gun.”
The women and kids giggle while us guys shake our heads.
Once we make it through the presents we all take a seat and have a drink while the kids play with their new toys. When we near the end of the night, Faith pushes to her feet from where she sits next to me and moves to stand in front of Christopher, her hand reaching out to him. “Come to the piano with me.”
You can tell it’s the last thing he wants to do, but like me, he would never say no to her. Accepting her hand, he lets her lead him to the antique Steinway next to the Christmas tree. I bought it for her a few years ago. It set me back a little. Well, a lot actually, but to see the smile on her face each time she caresses those keys…worth every fucking penny.
When they both take a seat, side-by-side, Mia comes dashing over. “Wait for me. Wait for me!”
Christopher scoops her up, placing her down on his lap. The room falls silent as both Faith and Christopher begin the tune of “Hallelujah.” Only this version is different. It’s one they worked on a couple of years ago together, telling the story of Christmas, and they sing it every Christmas Eve.
The moment their voices unite; time stands still. The way they harmonize forces you to stop and pay attention. They change the world, one word at a time. Separately they are remarkable, but together, they are nothing short of amazing. And when my little girl joins in, that tiny yet powerful voice only adds to the incredible energy filling the room.
I feel someone drop down next to me, pulling me from my magnetic trance. Looking over, I stare into the face of the girl who had a big part in changing my pathetic life years ago. A girl who worships the ground I walk on and thinks I’m the hero that I’m not.
“They may have got the talent but we have the looks and muscles,” she whispers, flexing her skinny little arm.
A deep chuckle rumbles from my throat as I drop my fist for a knuckle tap. “Definitely, kid.”
She snuggles into me, her arm banding over my stomach. I pull her in as close as she can get and rest my chin on top of her beanie-covered head while my attention moves back to the rest of my family. Most of the time, it all still feels so surreal, and I pray with everything that I am that I will never lose this. It would be the destruction of my very existence.
It makes me think of one other family member. One who is never far from my thoughts or heart.
Dropping a kiss on Ruthie’s head, I leave the room to retrieve the present I’ve kept hidden in the back closet for the past week then head out the door. I traipse through the dark night, the leaves and cold earth crunching under my boots.
The closer I get to my destination the tighter my chest constricts, the pain nearly as suffocating as it was the day I lost her. It’s a pain I will live with for the rest of my life.
I swallow past the ache, kneeling before the heart-shaped headstone. Faith made this spot for me three years ago. A place just for my sister and me.
With a shaky hand, I brush leaves off to make a place for the brown, plastic horse and line it up next to the others that have been placed here over the last few years. It’s just another reminder of how much my little girl is just like my baby sister.
Sometimes I have to wonder if this is some kind of divine intervention. If somehow, some way, I got a second chance with her. Even though I know she is Faith’s and mine.
“Merry Christmas, kid,” I choke out, my throat and eyes burning like a motherfucker. The name carved into the concrete blurs before me as I’m sucked into the past, helpless against the memory that resurfaces…
“Cade, do you think Santa will visit our house tonight?” my sister asks, her innocent brown eyes peering up at me in the shadows of her room.
“Sure, why not?”
“Mommy told me he wasn’t coming this year for us. But I don’t know why. I’ve been really good. I even sent him a letter telling him that.”
I grind my teeth, hating the tremble in her voice. I saw the letter. Thankfully, I found it before Maria threw it out. “Don’t worry, Mia, he’s coming. There’s no way he’ll miss you.”
Smiling, she snuggles into my chest where I lie with her on the tiny bed. “Thanks, Cade. I know he’ll bring something for you, too. You’re the best person in the whole world.”
I remain silent and stare up at the dark ceiling, hating that we’re stuck in this shitty life.
Once she falls asleep, I climb out of bed and go grab the gift I bought for her. The toy horse and stable she asked for in the letter. It was pretty much all the money I had saved over the summer from mowing lawns but I know it’s a small price to pay. All that matters is that she thinks it’s from Santa. That he didn’t skip her.
I place the present next to the mini Christmas tree in her room that I set up last week when Maria refused to put one up in the living room. I also make sure to stick the small wrapped gift for myself next to it, because I know if she only sees one for herself she will be sad for me. And it’s the last thing I want.
As I leave her room and head into my own, I vow to one day make this better. One day I’ll get us the hell out of here and make sure she gets the life she deserves.
I’m thrust back into the present, the burn in my chest now spreading through my body like wildfire as regret consumes me.
I never got the chance to make it right.
I startle at the soft voice and spin around, my chest seizing as I stare back at a girl I see every day yet also one I miss so fucking much. Mia stands a few feet away, holding an LED candle. She wears her white cotton nightgown, cowgirl boots, and a puffy coat. Her brown locks blow across her face from the slight breeze in the air.
Jesus, how long have I been out here?
Every breath I take is painful as I stand and move for her, sweeping her small body up into my arms. “Hey, baby, what are you doing out here?” I ask, my words as rough and raw as my throat feels.
Instead of answering me, she rests her hand on my damp face, her concerned brown eyes striking me to my core. “You’re sad,” she says quietly.
I shake my head. “Not anymore.”
By the smile that takes over her face, it was the right thing to say. Leaning in, I kiss her forehead, lingering for as long as I can.
“Come on, let’s get you back inside. It’s cold.”
Her tiny arms wrap around my neck as she hugs me tightly. It astounds me how such small arms can be so powerful. Just as I take that first step, I freeze in place and look up at the sky when snow begins to fall.
Mia gasps, her eyes lighting up the dark night. “It’s snowing, Daddy, it’s snowing!”
I smile, her excitement easing a little more of the pain. When I see the rest of the group pile out of the house, I meet them halfway and place Mia back on her feet so she can run with the other kids who are just as excited as she is.
While everyone watches the kids play, Faith moves for me, her emerald eyes the anchor to my soul. She rises to her tiptoes, her arms wrapping around my neck. Mine lock around her waist as I lift her to face level and claim her mouth in a kiss that heals it all.
Her hand moves to my cheek, her touch soothing. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, Red, as long as I have you, I’m always okay.”
She smiles, resting her forehead on mine. “It wasn’t supposed to snow today, Cade.”
Swallowing hard, I look back at the headstone behind me, a certain knowledge filling my chest. “I know.”
Laughter fills the air as I keep Faith in my arms; our heads turning as Mia’s giggle overshadows everyone else’s. I find myself thankful for the second chance I’ve been given with my friends, family, but especially my daughter.
I silently vow to never take what I have for granted. And I will protect them with everything that I am. I will not fail them.
Not this time.