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First Christmas, Love & Rugby series

First Christmas features Hercules and Apollo, the heroes of the third book in the Love & Rugby series, Shine

With worries swirling like snowflakes, will the first Christmas in their new house be merry or miserable?

Hercules

     “There’s my kiddo.” Crouched in the doorway with arms open, I nearly topple over when Olive dives into my arms.

     “I miss you, Hercules.” The soft hair of her ponytail tickles my nose as she mumbles into my shoulder and the cold December air pricks at my cheeks.

     I close my eyes and squeeze her tighter. “I miss you too.”

     “That’s why Herc and Apollo bought this house. So, they’d be close by,” Cam says from behind his daughter.

     Olive releases her grip and looks at her father. “But I can’t drive yet and you won’t bring me over to say goodnight.”

     My heart squeezes. The hardest thing about moving was leaving Olive. The in-law suite, aka the apartment I lived in for the last couple of years while I completed my graduate degree and mannied Olive, made it easy for her to find me when I wasn’t in the main house. And even though I’ve spent so much time at Apollo’s, we were basically living together, I miss the little girl knocks on my door and opening it to find her sweet face.

     But now it’s time for Apollo and me to start a life together, and for Cam, Aspen, and Olive to live as a family, without a fourth wheel.

     “At least I get to see you at school every day.” I tweak her nose and her giggles tinkle through the air like the soothing sounds of wind chimes. Rising from my squat position, my knee cracks and I rub my calf. Ever since my injury, my leg gets stiff if I’m in a certain position for too long, and the stiffness always seems to be worse in the colder weather. I wave them into the house. “Come in and see what we’ve done since you were last here.”

     I lead them to the living room where I was breaking down boxes before they came.

     “The bookshelves look good.” Cam runs an appreciative hand over one of the polished shelves Apollo and I spent hours sanding off decades of layered paint until the gorgeous oak shone through.

     “I shelved the books according to color. Apollo likes it.” The built-in bookshelves are the reason we bought the house. That, and there was no way we could pass on the fixer-upper. Wynnewood would have been out of our price range otherwise. Here, we’re a ten-minute drive to Cam’s, and Apollo has a relatively easy commute to the zoo.

     I also enjoy living in the same area in which I teach. Once elementary school kids get over the fact that teachers don’t live at the school, their excitement about running into me in the community is adorable.

     Nails clipping on the hardwood floors we had refinished before we moved in three weeks ago, Thor and Loki rush in, greeting Olive like she’s their long-lost sister. Olive squeals and drops to her knees. The dogs’ little bottoms wiggle with excitement and their tongues are a blur as they see who can lick her face more.

     “So you’re ready?” With a warm smile, Cam watches as Olive tosses a ball to the dogs, cheering and telling them what good boys they are each time they return it to her.

     Loki would play fetch until his paws bled if we let him, but Thor will be curled up in Olive’s lap in about two minutes.

I blow out a breath, steadying my nerves. “I’m ready.” But there’s a part of me that’s nervous proposing to Apollo tonight after our party is too much, too soon.

     “Why don’t you have a Christmas tree yet?” Olive holds her hand out as Loki drops the ball in her palm.

     “We’ve been busy fixing things and unpacking. But Apollo and I picked out a tree last night. The man at the tree lot was nice enough to hold it for us until today, so we could get the rest of the boxes unpacked.” I glance at Apollo’s silver analogue clock hanging on the far wall near the green velvet couch Estelle handed down to me years ago. They look good together. Combining our things has been easier than I anticipated. “Apollo should be home with the tree any minute.”

     “I should give this to you, then.” Cam hands me the little black box. “Estelle outdid herself.”

     When I told my grandmother I was planning on asking Apollo to marry me, being the talented jewelry artisan that she is, she insisted on making the ring. I worked with her on the design for weeks and I’ve seen pictures of the final product, but because of the move and wanting to keep the proposal a secret, Estelle held onto the ring. Fortunately, Cam offered to pick it up for me today. The last thing I want is for my grandmother to ruin the surprise by whipping out the ring in her excitement.

     Now, as I open the box, my breath catches behind my rib cage and my eyes sting with tears. “It’s better than in the pictures.”

    The Hawaiian koa wood has a blue opal inlay, made to look like a wave. The ring looks sleek and like it’s been polished to a sheen. Estelle mentioned that tungsten never loses its shine, but I wasn’t prepared for this. I trace the wave symbolizing our first kiss at the beach. Unable to believe that because of that kiss, I own a home with the love of my life, and in mere hours, I will be on one knee asking for forever with him.

     Cam’s hand on my shoulder brings me back to the here and now. “He’s going to love it.”

     “I hope so.” I swallow around the lump in my throat and stare at the ring.

     “Herc, can you give me a hand?” Apollo pops his head around the corner and I quickly snap the lid closed and shove the box in my pocket.

     The skin between Apollo’s dark blond brows creases and he inspects me, but his gaze darts to Cam. “Oh, hey, Cam.” He returns to inspecting me. “You okay?”

     “Fine.” The word scratches out on my hoarse voice, so I clear my throat. “Fine. I’m fine. How are you?”

     “Apollo!” Saving me from my own blathering, Olive abandons Loki, Thor, and the ball and runs to Apollo, who squats to catch her in a hug.

     Before I can say anything else ridiculous, Cam joins his daughter in my rescue. “I’ll help with the tree. Herc, weren’t you going to get the ornaments?”

     “Ornaments?” I stammer, heart beating too fast. Cam’s eyes bulge, and he might as well be shooting lasers at me and all my fumbling uncoolness. “Right. The ornaments. I’ll get the ornaments.”

     Apollo stands, and Olive skips back to the dogs. “You sure you’re all right?”

     “Absolutely.” My mouth stretches so wide it feels how clown makeup looks, exaggerated and painted on. I toss my thumb over my shoulder. “I’ll get the ornaments and you two get the tree.”

     Jogging from the room before I can be any more obvious, I take the stairs two at a time. I disregard the spare room filled with boxes yet to be unpacked and power walk to the large bedroom painted in hues of gray that Apollo and I share.

     Removing the velvet box from my pocket, I open it, take one last glance at the ring, and inhale a shaky breath.

     I’m doing this.

     Tonight, I will ask the man of my dreams to marry me.

     Quickly, I close the box and shove it to the back of my underwear drawer.

     On my way back downstairs, I grab the box of Christmas ornaments Estelle collected for me over the years. I was unaware that she purchased an ornament for me every year, even before I came to live with her, and tucked them away for when I had my own home, until she and Cam’s grandmother, Cora, dropped them off at Cam’s house the day Apollo and I closed on this house.

     They also brought champagne and Chinese food to celebrate, which is what Apollo and I should have done instead of deciding to have a housewarming/Christmas Eve party three weeks after we bought this place. But Apollo was eager to have all of our friends and family over. For someone who has always been shy, he’s come to love the parties and get togethers with the guys from our rugby club.

     “I have the ornaments,” I call as I enter the living room.

     Cam and Apollo have the blue spruce up and centered in front of the picture window.

     “What do you think?” Apollo holds out his hand and gestures toward the tree. His face is filled with all the cheer marketed by music this time of year.

     I swear my heart attempts to leap from my chest, only to be pushed back by the ribs surrounding it. “Looks great.”

     “Can we help decorate it?” Olive bounces around, Loki following her, his eyes on the ball she’s holding.

     Cam lays a hand on her shoulder and her bouncing ceases. “You and I have to get home. Grandma Cora said she was dropping off a party outfit for you for tonight.”

     “Do you think it has sparkles?” Olive’s eyes glitter with anticipation.

     “Yes,” Cam, Apollo, and I say in unison.

     Cam laughs, slaps Apollo on the back, and pulls him into a hug. “It’s official. You’re part of the family when you know my grandmother is all about the sparkle.”

     “Her attire matches her personality.” The hesitant, staccato pats Apollo taps out on Cam's back are laced with the awkwardness that still lingers whenever anyone—other than Aspen, Greer, Kade, Easton, and me—is affectionate with him, and he claims another piece of my heart.

     Cam points at him with a knowing nod. “You’re good. No wonder the grandmothers like you so much.”

     Pink suffuses Apollo’s cheeks, and he bends to pick up Loki, letting his hair fall in front of his face. But when he straightens, Loki tucked into the crook of his arm, he tosses his hair over his shoulder. No more hiding for my man.

     “When we come back, I’ll be sparkling.” Olive scratches Loki between the ears and hugs me.

     “You always are, Olive Oil.” Cam watches as she runs to the other room in search of Thor.

     Cam scoops up the coat Olive threw onto the floor and slings it over his arm. “Have fun decorating. We’ll see you tonight. If you need anything, let me know.”

     “Thanks, Cam.” I walk him to the door and Olive meets us there, Thor at her heels.

     Once they’re gone, Thor and I return to the living room. Apollo has turned on the all-Christmas music channel and is stringing the lights. “What else do we need to do before everyone shows up?”

     “The food is basically done.” I take the lights and wind them on my side of the tree, then hand them back to Apollo as he does the same. “We’ll need to pop the brie and the buffalo chicken dip in the oven about twenty minutes before they’re scheduled to arrive.”

     He finishes the final wrap of the lights around the bottom of the tree, then plugs them in. Standing back to inspect our work, the lights make him sparkle. “The antipasto wreath turned out well. I couldn’t imagine what a wreath made from cured meat and cheese would look like, but it’s awesome.”

     “Olive will get a kick out of it.” I open the box of ornaments and hand him a teal, crystal-studded cowboy boot.

     Apollo holds it up, inspecting the glass ornament. “This is very…”

     “Estelle,” I supply.

     Chuckling, he hangs it on a branch. “Exactly.”

     We spend the next thirty minutes decorating the tree and laughing at the various ornaments Estelle purchased for me over the years. For the first time since we moved in, it feels like our home.

     The last ornament hung, we step back and take in our work. I slip my arm through Apollo’s, loving the flex of muscle beneath the flannel of his shirt. Instead of folding his hand over mine like he usually does, he slides his arm around my shoulders, tucking me into his side. There is no other place I’d rather be than snuggled close, the heat of his body warming me. The connection I miss when he’s not near.

     Even with all the ornaments from Estelle and the ones Apollo has collected over the years, the seven-foot tree looks sparse.

     “We’ll have to buy more ornaments next year,” I say.

     “Oh. I almost forgot.” He hurries out of the room and I hear the door to the garage open, close, then open and close again. He returns holding out a thin square box to me. “I saw this and thought it would look good on the tree.”

     Taking the box, I open it. Inside is a porcelain ornament, a hand-painted house surrounded by a white picket fence. Painted in black script above the house is the year and at the bottom of the ornament, Our First Christmas flows over the snowy front yard. I chew the inside of my cheek to keep the eruption of emotion tucked inside. No need to start crying now when we still have things to do before the party. There will be time for happy tears later tonight after everyone has gone home.

     “It’s perfect.” I stand on my toes and Apollo meets me halfway. Our lips meet and it’s like the first time we kissed, only better. Better because there is no uncertainty. Better because I know this man and he knows me more than anyone. Better because we are creating this life together.

     When we pull apart, he traces the pad of his thumb over my lips. The dreamlike smile, reminding me of the soft focus filter on my camera, graces his gorgeous face. “I love you.”

     Overwhelmed with everything—the emotion of the moment, emotion of buying our first home, exhaustion from the last several weeks—I’m this close to blurting out, “Will you marry me,” because I love this kind, generous, sexy man more than anyone in the world. And because he is all of those things, he deserves a romantic proposal, not a haphazard question followed by me running upstairs to dig the ring out of my underwear. 

     So, I take a settling breath and give him a peck on the cheek. “Love you too. Where should we hang this?”

I hold up the ornament, its gentle swing is no distraction from the way his dreamy expression snaps into focus. His smile flickers, dimming so slightly had I not been watching him, I would have missed it.

     “In the front?” His throat works one hard swallow and his chin lifts slightly.

     “Definitely.” I loop the red ribbon over the branch in the center of the tree and press my palm to my heart, my eyes stinging. “It makes the tree.”

     He squeezes my shoulder. “It does.”

     We stand in silence for a moment, the awkwardness of seconds ago vanished. 

     I can’t wait for tonight.

* * * * *

     By the time our guests arrive, I’m ready to collapse; the busy weeks catching up with me. Holiday music plays low in the background and the scent of spice fills the air from the gingerbread cookies I made earlier. The tree sparkles and every time I look at it, my gaze automatically seeks out the beautiful ornament Apollo bought for us.

     Dressed in matching sweaters with snowmen in top hats knitted on them, Loki, Thor, and Cam’s dog Jeffrey follow Olive like she is their queen as she twirls around the room in her silver tulle skirt, embroidered with sequined snowflakes. Her blonde hair is pulled into a bun with a red nose in the center, two googly eyes secured to the top of the bun, and antlers made from brown pipe cleaners poking out.

     “You outdid yourself with Olive’s hair.” I fill Aspen’s glass with the Christmas punch Apollo made with a recipe from Greer.

     Aspen takes the drink, watching Olive as she instructs the dogs to sit with her in front of the Christmas tree, then asks Easton to take their picture. “We went through a lot of design options before settling on Rudolph.”

     “I like this one better than the candy cane one she almost chose.” Cam holds out his glass and I pour punch into it. “That one looked weird.”

     Aspen smacks Cam’s middle with the back of his hand. “All that matters is what Olive likes and feels good wearing.”

     “I know.” Cam kisses the side of Aspen’s red and white colored head.

     “The place looks amazing.” Owen throws his arm around my neck, tugging me into a one-armed hug.

     Caught off guard, the pitcher wobbles in my hand, but I’m able to set it onto the table before I spill any of the cranberry and sparkling wine liquid. “Thanks for coming.” I return Owen’s hug.

     “Congratulations.” Storm hands me a bottle of wine and kisses my cheek. “I can’t believe how much you’ve done in such a short time.”

     Cora and Estelle on each arm, Apollo joins us. “Look who I found lurking about the neighborhood.”

     Cam throws up his arm, shaking his head with the same drama he learned from his grandmother. “Well, there goes the neighborhood, and just when Apollo and Herc moved in.”

     Red lips turned skyward, Cora pinches his side. “Such a disrespectful child. Who raised you?”

     “You did.” Cam bends his big body and kisses her cheek. “Merry Christmas, Gran. You look gorgeous.”

     She swings her hips, the adult version of Olive’s skirt swishing, and pats him on the cheek. “Merry Christmas, my sweet boy.”

     “And what about me?” Hip jutted to the side, her hand on it with all the indignation of being cast as a secondary character, Estelle’s narrowed eyes are pinned on Cam.

     “Here we go,” I mumble to no one in particular. With Estelle and Cora, there’s the possibility of our Christmas Eve get together turning into anything from a toga party to a seance or anything in between, which is one of the many reasons they are beloved by me and every person in this room.

     Cam holds up his hands like he’s surrendering, then gives my grandmother the same welcoming kiss on her cheek. “Just saving the best for last.”

     Estelle beams. “You’re laying it on a bit thick, but since it’s Christmas, I’ll let it pass.”

     Aspen follows Cam’s lead, kissing the grandmothers in greeting. “Love the gold.”

     “Thank you, darling.” Estelle twirls in place, the overhead lights reflecting off her sequin jumper.

     “Please tell me the girls are locked in.” I wave in the vicinity of the deep dip of the cowl neck halter. The last thing I want is to be traumatized by another wardrobe malfunction in my new home. “If a nipple makes an appearance, Apollo and I will have to sell or burn the house to the ground.”

     Estelle pinches my cheek, her eyes glinting with amusement. “Don’t be disrespectful.”

     “I’m with Herc,” Cam says. “No one wants to share a house with the Ghost of Nipples Past.”

     Apollo’s cheeks are bright as the cranberries in the punch and he drops his chin to his chest to hide his smile. Thank goodness his parents are too busy chatting with Val, Anderson, and Penn to be paying attention to the insanity on this side of the room.

     Cora pins Cam with a look that says she lives to shock her grandson, and I hold on to the table to brace myself for what’s about to come out of her mouth. “When one’s nipples look as good as ours, it’s a crime to hide them from the world.”

     Covering my face, I moan in unison with Cam. I hear Apollo and Aspen chuckling, but I can’t bring myself to make eye contact with anyone, especially the grandmothers.

     “Did you know there are eight common nipple types?”

     I peek through my fingers to find Wyatt, with a plateful of food and munching on crudites, not the least bit shocked or perturbed by a conversation about nipples on Christmas Eve.

     “How do you even know that?” Cam asks.

     Wyatt shrugs a shoulder and pours himself some punch. “Worked with a women’s health center on an app about breast health.”

     Rounding the card table acting as the beverage station, I greet my grandmother properly. “Merry Christmas.”

     “Merry Christmas, my love.” She glances behind her where Apollo, Cam, Aspen, Wyatt, and Cora have moved on from nipples and breast health to the meaning of the bared breast in 18th century European artwork. Slipping her arm through mine, we stroll into the relative quiet of the kitchen. Estelle blinks and shakes her head. “When you first told me the kitchen was red, I never imagined that you meant everything. I feel like I’m trapped in a strawberry every time I come in here.”

     My gaze scans the ruby backsplash, scarlet laminate countertops and cabinets, and the crimson walls. “Thankfully, Mateo’s company will start the renovations in January. Demolition can’t come soon enough.”

     “So,” she tips her head closer, her voice a whisper, “what did you think of the ring?”

     Just like when I saw the ring, my eyes sting with emotion. “I couldn’t have asked for anything more perfect.” I clasp her hand between both of mine. “Thank you.”

     “Anything for you, my dear.” She brings our cupped hands to her lips and kisses my knuckle. “He’s a good man, and you’re a wonderful couple.”

     I wrap my arms around her thin frame, grateful for the love and care she has provided me.

     “Hercules?” Apollo pops his head in. “There you are. Kade, East, and some of the other guys want a tour of the place. Want to join me?”

     Groaning, I release Estelle. “We don’t have to show them the purple room, do we?”

     He holds out his hand. His gentle smile is my home, no matter where we live. “They’ve already seen the pictures on the club’s group chat. Gaudy colors and outdated fixtures are part of what makes having a fixer-upper fun. None of them have seen pictures of our bedroom since we removed the jungle wallpaper and painted.”

     “Go.” Estelle gives me a nudge. “Show off the work you’ve done. I’ll make sure Cora isn’t getting into any trouble.”

     I take Apollo’s hand, the warmth of his palm radiating the same pulse of electricity as the first time we touched. “Let’s go. But later you have to promise to play the piano. I want to have an old-fashioned sing along.”

     “Anything you want.” He tucks me into his side. “I’m happy to create holiday traditions with you.”

     “I can’t believe we’re doing this.” Every day, since buying this house, I want to pinch myself, but I don’t dare for fear I’ll wake from this dream.

     He stiffens and I look up at him, but his expression gives nothing away. With all the work we’ve been doing, comparing sore muscles has been our favorite topic of conversation.

     I rub a hand over his back. “You okay?”

     “Yeah.”

     Before I can question him further, Greer bounds over with a giggling Olive following.

     “Apollo, dahling, the lovely Ms. Davidson has delivered the most dreadful news.” Head darting from side to side as if he’s on the lookout for spies, he leans in like he’s relaying top-secret information. “She said that you, our vigilant defender of animals, and Hercules, the great molder of young minds, destroyed the beautiful indoor jungle.” Eyes the size of dinner plates, Greer’s hands shoot to his mouth, covering his exaggerated intake of breath. “Say it isn’t so, Apollo. Say it isn’t so.”

     Giggling louder, Olive tugs on Greer’s sleeve. “And they let me help.”

     “What?!” Greer’s performance has caught the attention of our other guests and the conversations have ceased, replaced by soft chuckles. He grabs Olive’s shoulders and shakes her like a rag doll. Her squeals of laughter signal for Thor, Loki, and Jeffrey to investigate the situation. “You coerced this innocent child into doing your dirty work?”

     Apollo nods solemnly and folds his arms in front of his chest, only the faint laugh lines at the corners of his eyes giving away his amusement. “I’m afraid so. We needed someone who wasn’t afraid to go head-to-head with the tigers.”

     “And the zebras,” I add.

     “Obviously, I took care of the giraffes.” Apollo polishes his nails on the front of his sweater and blows on them.

     Olive scoots from Greer’s grip and jumps up and down. “Don’t forget the elephants.” She looks at Greer and points her finger to her sternum. “I did the elephants too.”

     Greer stumbles back and throws the back of his hand over his forehead. “The travesty of it all. How will we be able to celebrate knowing paper animals were ruthlessly slaughtered?”

     “Punch?” Owen sidles up to Greer and hands him a glass.

     Greer straightens, looks from Olive to Apollo to me, bows and says, “And scene.”

     Our friends clap. There’s a piercing whistle, which was probably Cora, and Olive throws her arms around Greer’s middle. “I love acting with you.”

     “Ditto, kiddo.” He pats her back, kisses Owen, and takes the offered punch. “You’re so good to me.”

     I clap my hands together. “Who wants to see the scene of the crime?”

     Calls of, “Me” and “I do” sound and Apollo and I lead most of the party up the stairs.

     Food picked over, punch drained, I sit next to Apollo on the piano bench as the last notes of Jingle Bells hang in the air. Apollo’s mother and Estelle are huddled together, Estelle sketching. Anderson, Owen, and Gage are bringing empty trays into the kitchen while Kade and Penn pick up empty plates and cups.

     I rest my head on Apollo’s shoulder, my heart full from an evening with our loved ones but fluttering with what comes next. “I’m exhausted.”

     “Me too.” He lays his cheek atop my head. “Olive and the boys look like they could go all night.”

     Olive throws a toy and the three dogs chase after it. Thor captures the prize, then takes off, Loki and Jeffrey in hot pursuit.

     “If only we could bottle that.” I sag into him, his low, rich rumble a soothing vibration.

     “Hey, guys, I’m gonna go. The restaurant is closing early, and I’m meeting Rocco at his place.” Wyatt comes over, bundled in his coat and hat. I stand and shake Wyatt’s hand. “Thanks for inviting me. The place looks great.” He hugs Apollo.

     “Thanks for coming,” Apollo says.

     From across the room, Penn calls, “Wyatt, don’t forget to take one of the Grinch trees. There’s enough for everyone.” He shakes the garbage bag he’s holding at the table lined with miniature trees in red sacks, twined with red ribbons, bending to the side from the weight of the single red Christmas balls hanging from each of their tips. “There are instructions on how to care for lemon cypress trees as houseplants.”

     “They can also be planted outside. If you have questions about how or when to do that, let me know,” Val says.

     Penn turns his attention to Val, his head cocked to the side and his hands resting on his hips. “Why do I always forget we have a tree guy among us?”

     Val bows and there’s a thud, crash, screech, then a howl. I whirl to face the sounds. Across the room, the tree wobbles, ornaments swaying like Santa after too many spiked egg nogs.

     “Jeffrey, get out of there.” Cam hurries from the kitchen. “Olive, what happened?”

     I hurry after Apollo, who’s already at the tree. Crouched, he thrusts out a stiff arm to hold me back. “Careful, there’s broken glass.” Jeffrey’s collar, caught on the lights, causes the tree to teeter every time he moves. “Hold still, buddy.” Voice as gentle as his movements, Apollo is able to calm the dog and untangle him.

     Once disentangled, Apollo lifts the Golden Retriever who has to weigh at least seventy-five pounds, and hands him to Cam. “Check his paws to make sure he didn’t step on any of the glass.”

     From underneath the tree, there’s whimpering. Taking care not to kneel in the shattered mess, I stoop to look. Standing in the middle of the broken ornaments is Thor, holding one paw in the air. I can see a shard of teal poking from his tiny foot. Toy in his mouth and prancing around like he’s champion of the world, Loki circles Thor.

     “Stand still, Loki.” I reach under and pick up the pup, and move out of the way as Apollo scoots next to me to retrieve Thor.

East comes in behind us with a dustpan and broom, and starts sweeping up the sizable pieces. Greer asks where the vacuum is and I hear Aspen telling him, but my attention is on Apollo’s face, draining of color when he sees Thor’s foot. It doesn’t matter that he deals with animals at the zoo all day, every day, or that he’s seen far more gruesome injuries. Thor and Loki are his babies.

     Honestly, they’ve become my babies too and seeing Thor shivering in Apollo’s arms is akin to the time Olive fell off her bike and cut her elbow badly enough to need stitches. I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown driving her to the doctor where Cam was meeting us.

     “Should we take them to the emergency vet?” I lift Loki up higher to inspect his paws, but he bats at my shoulder like I’ve invented a new game.

     Apollo nods, stroking Thor’s head.

     “Get Loki’s carrier and I’ll meet you at the car.” I’d grab it, but he unpacked the new backpack-style carriers which arrived yesterday and I’m not sure where he put them. With Loki stowed so he can’t climb on Thor, Apollo can hold Thor while I drive. I place a hand on his forearm and squeeze. “They’re going to be okay.”

     He swallows hard and nods again. “I know. Not sure why I’m overreacting.”

     “You’re not overreacting. We’ll take them to the vet, pay an exorbitant amount of money for an emergency visit on a holiday,” that gets me a slight titter, “then we’ll come home and spend the rest of the night snuggling with them.” And I’ll have to come up with a new proposal plan. “Okay?”

     “Okay.” The smooth skin of his forehead crumples, his worry on full display as he walks away, cradling Thor and crooning soothing sounds to the whimpering pup.

     Jeffrey on one side and Olive on the other, Cam approaches. “Sorry, man.” He claps my back. “We didn’t mean to cause chaos.”

     “I’m sorry, Herc.” Olive’s eyes are rimmed red and her lip trembles.

     I crouch so I’m eye-level with her. “Oh sweetie, there’s nothing to be upset about. We’ll take the boys to the vet and they’ll be fine. How’s Jeffrey?”

     “He seems fine,” Cam answers, then he lowers his voice. “Are you still going to…” He raises his eyebrows and tips his head to the side.

     Like a meteorite plummeting to earth and leaving a massive crater in its wake, my gut drops. The acidic taste of disappointment coats my tongue. “Not tonight.” Jeffrey noses my hand, and Loki tries to wiggle free, but I hold him tight. “We’ve got to go. Can you lock up after everyone leaves?”

     With determined steps, Apollo strides toward me, Loki’s carrier in his grasp. “Got it.”

     “Go,” Cam shoos me away. “We’ll take care of everything.”

     “Thanks.” I hurry after Apollo. Of all the things I thought would happen tonight, this was not one of them.

Apollo

     The scent of pine wafts toward me, as mellow as the soft strains of early morning light filtering through the living room window. Snuggled on the couch with Thor in my lap, I tuck the soft plaid blanket more securely around him and welcome Loki to settle against the side of my thigh. He touches his nose to Thor’s, like he’s offering his brother comfort. And maybe he is.

     Drifting between sleep and wakefulness, Thor doesn’t seem bothered by the soft cone around his neck nor the little bootie covering his bandaged paw. He handled the injury far better than I. The pit that’s been lodged in my stomach for the last few weeks doubled in size last night when I saw that ornament sticking out of him. We’re lucky there wasn’t more glass lodged in the paw, and that Loki didn’t sustain any injuries.

     Loki licks my hand, his dark eyes peering up at me like he’s checking on me too. Dogs can sense their people’s moods. For as mischievous as this little guy is, he’s doubly sweet.

     “Thanks, buddy.” I wrap the end of the blanket around him, bringing him into our cocoon.

     For the longest time, my life was just me and my fur babies. No close friends, no boyfriend. A lonely existence, feeling shy and terribly awkward.

     Life is so different now. Better. Richer. Fuller. I have close friends in Aspen, Greer, Easton, and Kade. And Hercules is an amazing partner.

But something’s been up with him and has been for weeks. He won’t share what it is with me and that’s setting off alarm bells and my anxiety because we share everything.

     Slow, deep breaths aren’t helping me this morning. I don’t know if it’s stress from the ordeal with Thor and the trip to the emergency vet, or that compounded with the low-grade nerves that have been clawing through me since Herc began acting odd. Simultaneously stroking Thor and Loki’s backs, I try the tactic of immersing myself in the moment.

     The feel of the floor beneath my socks, the soft material of my pajamas, the velvet couch, the blanket. The dogs. The curtains and paint we chose with care. My piano against the wall. Our books mingling on the bookshelves. The tree’s lights twinkling amid the sparsely spaced ornaments. We lost several last night, including the Our First Christmas I’d been so excited to share with Herc. My heart sank at the shattered pieces and the horrible thought that maybe it was an omen. Then I saw Thor’s paw and became convinced.

     That pit in my stomach makes itself known again. I stop petting the dogs and press my hands against the ache. The harder I try not to dwell on Herc, I keep going back to him.

     We were excited to look for a house together, to find something we could call our own. We decided to wait until he finished school, then for him to find a job, so we could get something centrally located to our jobs. Now, we have this house with great bones and an extensive renovation list. And Hercules is acting odd.

     Secretive.

     Halting conversations when I enter the room. Taking phone calls out of my range of hearing. Being distracted from his normally laser-focused attention. Saying everything’s fine then changing the subject when I ask him if he’s okay or what’s wrong.

     Thor nudges my hand, encouraging me to continue petting him.

     “Sorry, boy. I got you.” The short strands sliding beneath my fingers is soothing.

     My gaze glides to the opposite end of the couch, where Herc usually sits if we’re both cuddling the dogs while watching TV. While I’m settled in my job and have been for years, he’s only been in his for a couple of months. Purchasing the house was a huge deal, the mortgage and renovations, the massive financial commitment. Maybe he thought he was ready, but has since learned he actually isn’t. Maybe it’s too many changes happening too quickly? Maybe he pretended he was ready because he knew I was?

     That last thought sends a sharp blade through my sternum.

     I glance from Thor to Loki. “I know Herc talks to you. I wish you could tell me what he’s wrestling with. I wish he would tell me too.”

Both dogs look at me, then Thor tucks his head between his front paws and burrows deeper under the blanket.

     With a yip, Loki bolts out from the blanket and darts across the floor, his nails clicking over the hardwood on his path to the window. Tail wagging, he puts his front paws on the small doggie step I bought so they could easily look outside, and yips again at the large snowflakes drifting lazily, triple the size of the ones that fell during our drive home last night.

     Chuckling, I shake my head. “You’ve seen snow before.”

     Thor’s ears perked up at the mention of snow. He raises his head and shifts his body, readying himself to stand.

     Careful of his leg, I push the blanket away and lift him into my arms. “That leg’s going to hurt a bit. You want to see the snow? I’ll carry you.”

     We join Loki at the window. The street is quiet and empty and the snow adds to the hushed atmosphere. No dog walkers or people out taking a stroll, most people are probably still asleep. I wonder if Herc is awake yet. He slept soundly when I crept out of bed this morning to check on Thor.

     Maybe something is wrong health-wise or work-wise with someone attached to Cam or Herc? But I talk to Aspen every day and he’s not been different at all. No one in our circle is acting differently. Except for Herc. And Cam, when talking to Herc.

     The stairs creak under steady footsteps. Emotions tangled as messy as the string of lights had been around Jeffrey’s collar, I turn to face the staircase.

     Blue flannel pajama pants come into view, followed by a gray Henley, then Hercules’s handsome face. His mane of dark hair flows to his shoulders. And my heart aches with how much I love him.

     Loki prances to his side. With a pat to his thigh, Herc welcomes the dog to jump up for a quick greeting, though his focus flips between me and Thor. “How’s Thor?”

     “He’s seems pretty good, though he’s still hesitant to put weight on that paw. I’m glad he’s content to lay down.” Heart tripping, I smooth my hand down Thor’s back, drawing comfort. “Merry Christmas.”

     “Merry Christmas.” He crosses to us, rises onto his toes to brush his lips over mine in a kiss that ends far too soon, then scratches Thor behind the ear. “Poor guy.”

     I scrutinize every centimeter of Herc’s face, looking for what, I don’t know, but desperate for anything that might give me a hint. I’m left with nothing, and he heads toward the red eyesore of a kitchen. “I was thinking I might stay home with him today. There’s so much excitement at Cam’s. Jeffrey and the cats, all the people. I don’t want him to be tempted to run around.”

     He stops in mid-stride and twists to peer at me over his shoulder. “Oh. Right, that makes sense. I’ll need to drop off the sides Cam asked me to make, and then—”

     “You can stay there, no reason for both of us to miss out on Christmas with everyone.” I force a cheerful tone and manage a smile though it takes more effort than it should. A chill seeps into my skin despite the room’s warmth.

     A tap of his finger sets the Christmas ball dangling from the Grinch tree on the small table beside the armchair swinging. “It’s fine. We can stay home.”

     “Go. I insist.”

     His brows draw together and he spins to fully face me. Long strides carry him closer, but he stops short of breaching my personal space and crosses his strong arms over his chest. “Why?”

     Although, at six-foot-six, I have eight inches and a good thirty pounds on him, at this moment, I feel smaller, weaker, like one of the zoo’s newborns, unsteady and unsure. “I thought you might want a break.”

     “From what?” 

     The temptation to pull my hair forward like a curtain, like I used to do, is strong, but I fight through the burning urge. “From me.”

     “You?” Gaping at me, he drops his hands to his sides. “What are you talking about?”

     “I need to ask you something and I need you to answer me honestly.” Heartbeat thundering so hard Thor burrows into my chest, I need answers. Now. “Do you regret buying this house? Moving in with me?”

      He takes a step toward me, confusion creasing his forehead and fanning lines around his eyes. “No. Why?”

     “You’ve been different lately.” My fears soften the syllables. Speaking them into the air, acknowledging the reality, hurts all over again.      “Secretive. Distracted.”

     “I…” That confusion shifts to understanding. Then to a solemn stillness, like he’s encased in ice and can only stare at me with widened eyes. We’re separated by a few feet, but it feels like miles. He scrubs a hand over his face. “I’m sorry.”

     The knot in my stomach loops around itself. “Please tell me why.”

     His gaze darts to the tree. Then Thor. Then me. Frustration radiates from the hand yanking through his hair to the jerking step backward. “This isn’t how I wanted to do this.”

     My knees weaken and the room seems to tilt. A buzzing fills my ears. Biting the inside of my cheek, I stumble the few steps to the piano bench and drop onto the hard surface. “Do what?”

     “Wait here.” Muttering to himself, he takes the stairs two at a time. Every muscle clenched, I watch him go, steeling myself for whatever might happen when he returns.

     Thor licks my cheek and Loki rubs against my calf. Drumming up a smile for them, I stand. As much as I want to continue holding Thor for comfort, I think I’d better meet Herc’s explanation without any distractions. “Thanks, boys. Let’s get you settled in your beds.”

     I place Thor in the soft dog bed embroidered with his name and give him and Loki treats hidden within chew toys to keep them occupied.

     Their beds are side by side against the wall by the tree. My gaze falls on the wrapped box beneath the branches, holding my present for Hercules. A framed collage of photos from the last year and a half. Herc and me together at rugby practice and games, his graduation, the zoo after one of my animal encounter talks, Cam’s beach house, nights out with the guys, the day we bought this house, and a few from renovation projects we’ve tackled. It tells parts of our love story. I can’t help but feel that whatever Herc has to say is going to be a defining moment in our relationship.

     Maybe I should remain standing. But here, facing the unknown, I’m feeling every awkward inch of my towering self. Nerves needling my shaky limbs, I lower myself to sit cross legged on the throw rug in front of the tree and wish I had one of my worry stones handy.

     Slow footsteps descend the stairs. At the bottom, Herc pauses with his hand on the newel post. His posture is stiff and his stare is so serious, I shiver. The air feels thick. Heart in my throat, I wait. It thumps hard with every step he takes.

     Finally, he’s in front of me. He drops to his knees, so close to me I could touch him, but I don’t. Gaze searching mine, he takes hold of my left hand. “I’m sorry I made you worry. I have never regretted buying this house. Not for one second. This is our home. We’re creating something special here.”

     “I thought we were too.” The rhythm of his thumb stroking my fingers steadies me.

     He sits back on his heels. “Over the last few weeks, I noticed moments where you seemed tense… and thinking about it now, I realize those times followed ones where I’d been acting differently.”

     I nod. “I was concerned over what it could be. I considered everything from you regretting the house purchase, to you being unhappy at work, to something being wrong with Cam or Estelle, to something being wrong healthwise with you.”

     With a heavy sigh, he shoves his free hand through his hair. “I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t realize how deeply I’d worried you. Apollo, I love you. I’d never intentionally do something to upset you.” 

     Hearing that thaws some of the icy worry lodged in my chest. “I know that. And I love you too.”

     The tension in his shoulders eases. He takes a breath then smiles at me. “I had grand ambitions, but who knows? Maybe doing it this way is perfect after all.”

     Thoroughly confused, I nearly look to the dogs to see what they think. He still hasn’t told me what’s really been going on.

     Emotion swimming in his gaze, he cups my cheek in his hand. “The secrets and distractions were all for one thing. A very special thing for the most amazing person.”

     Goosebumps dot my skin. “Hercules?”

     He dips his hand into his pocket and withdraws a ring. Sleek and shiny wood, with a blue gemstone inlay resembling a wave. Then he shifts his position so he’s down on one knee, holding the ring in front of his heart. 

     The world shrinks to just Herc and me. And the realization of what is about to happen. 

     “You make me happy every day. You surprise me, challenge me, support and love me. You’re the best man I know and make me strive to be the best man I can be because you deserve nothing less.” His voice breaks. Eyes shiny, he tightens his hold on my hand. “We have this home together, but I want more. I want you and I to belong to each other, officially. I want the honor of calling you my husband. Will you marry me?”

     Happiness bursts through my stunned surprise. My throat is thick and my eyes are burning. For a second, I can’t push out any words. I can only look at him and marvel at the wonder that is Hercules. I clear my throat and try again. “Yes. I want that too. Want it all. You’re everything to me, Herc. Everything.”

     He slides the ring onto my finger. It looks good there.

     More than good.

     It looks right.

     He frames my face with trembling fingers. This man has become my rock, and I love him beyond words. Slipping my arm around him, I urge him closer, so he’s straddling my lap and his lips meet mine. Our kiss deepens, and his taste, scent, and touch are more vibrant than ever. His hands and mouth are as eager as mine. We welcome each other back, reclaiming the intimacy and connection broken by those weeks of disconnection.

     The jangle of a dog collar captures our attention and the rest of the world snaps into focus. Carrying the chew toy, Loki leaves his bed and settles himself in front of Thor’s, resting a front paw close to his brother’s side. Satisfied the boys are okay, I turn back to my fiancé.

     Fiancé.

     What a wonderful word.

     Smiling, Herc tucks a lock of my hair behind my ear. “We have to replace the Our First Christmas ornament. I’m sorry it broke. We can look for another this weekend.”

     “I’m sure we’ll find one. The store had a lot.” Resting my hand on Herc’s chest, I admire my ring. “After we get married, we’ll get to buy another one too. For our first Christmas as husbands.”

     “I like the sound of that.” He lays his hand over mine. “Estelle made your ring. Cam was in on it, helping me decide and ferrying the ring from Estelle to me. The phone calls and conversations were all about the ring and proposal.”

     “I don’t know what to say. Except that I feel very lucky and very loved.” I like the weight of the ring on my finger, like that every time I see it, I’ll think of Herc and the promise we’re making to each other.

     Herc touches his lips to mine. “You are. And I’ll spend the rest of my life making sure you know that.”

     Holding him tight, I kiss him again. “I will too.”

* * * * *

 

     The scents of turkey and apple pie waft in the air, beckoning us into Cam’s kitchen. Loki runs ahead of us, tail wagging and nails clicking on the floor. He navigates through Cam’s legs, then around Aspen’s to reunite with Jeffrey. The dogs chase each other in a circle before racing into the hallway.

     “Sorry we’re late.” Hercules sets the insulated bag containing the sides he made on the island then removes his coat and gives me a wink.

     We were late because we spent a long time making love which set back the baking time for the side dishes. High on the buzzing happiness from the proposal, every touch took on a new importance, every sigh and moan and inch of skin had to be explored and celebrated. Ears hotter than a roaring fire, I hand Thor to him so I can shed my coat. “Yeah, sorry. We had a lazy morning.”

     “No need to apologize. So did we.” Dressed in jeans and a green sweater, Cam waves off the worry. He shares a steamy look with Aspen and welcomes his boyfriend, who’s all-black attire emphasizes the bright colors in his two-toned hair and multiple tattoos, to his side for a kiss. “How’s Thor?”

     I take Thor back from Herc and cuddle the dog to my chest. “Pretty good. I’m hoping he’ll just want to hang out on my lap. He’s been chilling all day.”

     “We can take turns holding him. Give him plenty of attention so he’s not tempted to run around with Jeffrey and Loki.” Herc places his hand on my back. The warmth of his arm around me, especially after all that’s happened, is better than ever.

     “We’ll all help.” Aspen’s gaze zeroes in on my ring. Blue eyes widening, he plants a hand on my forearm, his long fingers digging into my sweater. “You—”

     “Are engaged.” Eyes sparkling, Herc puffs his chest up like he’s about to burst from the news.

     My grin is equally wide. “We are.”

     With a woot that sets off all the dogs howling, Cam throws his arms around Herc in a massive bear hug. “You did it.”

     “This morning.” Herc’s words are muffled into Cam’s shoulder.

     “In front of the tree,” I add, welcoming Aspen’s hug. Sounds of several footfalls echo from the hall. Finlay, Mateo, and Olive join us, followed by Jeffrey, Loki, and a cat. Everyone chimes in with well wishes and hugs.

     Cam clamps his hand on my shoulder and, careful of Thor, pulls me in for a half-hug. “Congratulations. You got a good one, and Herc did too.”

     “Thank you.” Knowing how important Cam and Finlay are to Herc, having their approval means a lot to me.

Olive dances around the dogs. Peering at my ring, she runs a fingertip over the blue wave. “It’s pretty. The grandmas are gonna be so excited.”

     I share a smile with Herc. We’re both beaming. “One of them already knows. And if one knows, they both do.”

     “True.” Finlay nods. I’ve always found him to be more serious than Cam, but his eyes are twinkling in amusement. “They’re spreading some of their eccentric cheer at a retirement village with a few of their friends, visiting people who are alone for the holiday. They’ll be here later.”

     Placing a green headband with antlers atop Jeffrey’s head, Olive looks up at me. “Apollo, will Thor be okay? Do you think he’s mad at Jeffrey for getting caught in the tree? That’s how the ornaments fell.”

     My heart twisting, I lay a hand on her shoulder. She’s such a sweet kid. “I promise Thor will be fine. He’s not mad at Jeffrey either. He just shouldn’t run around much right now. Do you want to help us look after him tonight?”

     Her nod is so enthusiastic, the long braids hanging behind her shoulders bounce. “I’ll help. Can I hold him now?”

     “Sure. You’re one of Thor’s favorite people.” Sharing a smile with Cam, I carefully pass her the dog. With slow steps, she walks to the kitchen table, settles onto the chair Cam pulls out for her, then adjusts the tablet laying there so both she and Thor can see the cartoon playing on the screen.

     Teo slips into the space Olive vacated at my side and nods at my ring. I lift my hand for him to get a better look. He gives the ring an appreciative whistle. “That’s a beautiful piece. Estelle’s work?”

     Impressed, I nod. “How did you know?”

     “She has a signature style.” He clasps my forearm and pulls me into a hug. “When you get married, we’ll practically be in-laws.”

     Cam, Finlay, and Hercules consider each other family. With Teo married to Fin and Cam all but married to Aspen, I’m gaining an amazing group and I can’t wait. “How great is that?”

     “So great,” Aspen says. “I can’t wait for you to tell Greer, East, and Kade. They’ll be so excited.” 

     “I was thinking I’d call them later. I don’t want to drop the news in the group chat.” Even if the chat is just the five of us, this type of announcement demands a phone call. The four of them mean so much to me. They’ve given me a core group of friends I never thought I’d have.

     “Be prepared for heavy celebrating once everyone finds out.” Aspen’s warning accompanies his nod in Fin and Teo’s direction. “Those two will tell you the same thing. The club’s get-together on New Year’s Eve is going to be extra special now.”

     The pop of a champagne cork yanks our attention to the kitchen island.

     Cam pours the bubbly liquid into flutes. “I got this, hoping we’d be cracking it open to celebrate Herc and Apollo today. And here we are.”

     He and Aspen pass out the drinks to us while Finlay gets Olive a flute filled with sparkling grape juice.

     Standing in front of the island, Cam raises his glass, commanding everyone’s attention. “First, I’d like to thank Olive, because her interest in animals led to Apollo bringing a few to her birthday party two and a half years ago. At that party, I talked to Apollo about giving rugby a try. And that party is where Herc and Apollo saw each other for the first time.”

     “To Olive.” We all smile and raise our glasses. She waves to us like she’s a queen, the regal movement is one I’ve seen Cora do. Cold bubbles teasing my tongue, I shift closer to Herc and wrap my arm around him.

     Cam continues, “That party was epic because it also got Finlay and Mateo to admit they were into each other.”

     “Through deception orchestrated by you.” Fin’s tone may be begrudging, but he laughs and raises his glass to Cam. “So, here’s to Cam too.”

     Mateo kisses Finlay while we all drink to them. “Such a good day.”

     “And then,” Cam gestures for Aspen to come closer. The pair slip their arms around each other. “We all had a hand in getting Herc and Apollo together. Operation Matchmaker was a huge success.”

     Heat flooding my cheeks, I dip my head and meet Herc’s happy gaze. I’ll never forget that night on the beach when Herc and I kissed. My first kiss. My first time holding hands, too.

      He leans up and I meet his kiss. Far from the first, we’re numbering in the thousands by now, but it’s as amazing as always. He raises his glass. “I’ll drink to that. I was pissed and embarrassed about the group effort at the time, but thank you for forcing our hands. You gave me the best thing to ever happen to me.”

     Heart full, I lift my flute. “If it hadn’t been for that birthday party and for rugby, I wouldn’t have met any of you. It’s funny, the way life works. Chance encounters developing into something more. I’m grateful for all of you. For your friendship, and because you all saw what Herc and I wanted but were too afraid to reach for and helped us make it happen.”

     Aspen’s smile is misty. He took me under his wing, welcoming me into his friend group, and has been my fierce protector on and off the rugby field. “Good, because you’re stuck with us.”

     “Stuck with me.” Beyond pleased by the idea, Herc kisses me again.

     The words are as comforting and exciting as the man in my arms. “I can't wait. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

     “To Hercules and Apollo!” Cam calls.

     Glasses clink, our friends cheer, and the dogs bark. We’re surrounded by love and I get to marry the love of my life.

     This Christmas didn’t go anywhere along the lines of how I thought it would, but I ended up with the best gift ever. A lifetime of love to look forward to, married to my best friend, and I couldn’t ask for anything more.

First Christmas Copyright 2022 Susan Scott Shelley & Chantal Mer. All rights reserved.

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