IT’S four in the morning when my phone startles me awake. With a quick, bleary glance at the screen, I see it’s Mitch calling me. I answer because I’m too sleepy to make rational decisions.
“Mitch. It’s the middle of the night.”
“I know, Blondie. And I’m sorry. But I’ve wasted enough time. Please come talk to me.”
“What?” I ask, feeling confused. Isn’t he in Canada, or on an airplane… or, something?
Then I hear the doorbell ring. I jump out of bed and rush downstairs before the doorbell wakes Noah up.
When I yank the front door open, Mitch is standing there with a huge tray in his arms. A huge tray of… I squint, trying to make out what exactly he’s holding. It’s a tray full of sub sandwiches. Like the kind you’d get to cater a huge party. No clue where he got those at this time of night…
“I couldn’t wait any longer to see you.”
I rub my eyes, thinking I might still be dreaming. When I look again, I still see Mitch Anderson, in all of his sexy, muscular glory, standing on my front porch, holding a tray of sandwiches. I tug him inside, close the door behind us, and lead him into the kitchen.
He places the tray on the counter and looks at me with the most heartbreaking expression. His face is half joy and half misery. I can tell there’s a war going on in his mind, that he’s fighting someone. Probably himself.
Unable to keep myself from touching him, even though I’m still pissed at him, I cup his bearded cheek with my palm. “Where’d you go, Big Man? What’s happening in there?”
He closes his eyes and leans into my hand. I see his throat work as he swallows. “I sort of convinced myself I had ruined yours’ and Noah’s lives… that I added more challenges instead of happiness. Then I avoided talking to you, thinking you’d figure that out, and then… you’d leave me behind.”
A tear streams down my cheek at his honest and brutal confession. And his very real fear of abandonment. And that he’d think something so small—a stupid gossip blogger—could make me leave him. “Mitch, you add nothing but joy to our lives. Monday night, Noah hugged me. I can’t remember the last time he hugged me. You know why? Because you’ve been good for him. You’ve helped him come alive again. You’re a good man, Mitch Anderson. And that’s why I love you… even when you’re an idiot.”
His eyes open and one slow tear drips down his cheek, across the faded scar below his eye. The eye that’s now purple. That’s a story I’m going to want later.
He lifts his hand to his face, covering mine. “Andie, I need you to know that I’m a broken man. I have a lot of work to do. But I am doing the work, I’m trying to be better.” He pauses, looking into my eyes. “And I promise,” he squeezes his eyes closed for a second. “I promise that I’ll never stop working to heal. I’ll never stop working to become the man you deserve, because I love you too. And I’m sorry, so sorry that I hurt you.”
More tears stream down his face, and my own. I wrap my arms around his neck and allow myself to cry against his thick chest. I never want to let go.
This is more than him messing up, more than an apology. This is the admission of a broken and abandoned boy. A boy who’s still inside there somewhere, learning not only to love, but to receive love… unconditionally.
We stand like that for a minute before he lifts me up so I can wrap my legs around his waist. He holds me to him with those big, strong arms that I love.
And I feel safe.
I feel hope.
Because we’re all a little broken… and we’re all healing.
I wake up on the couch having no clue what time it is. I’m so warm and still wrapped in Mitch’s arms. Waking up in his arms is definitely something I’d like to repeat. I nuzzle into the broad expanse of his chest and enjoy his warmth. Mitch is still sound asleep, poor guy must be exhausted.
I’m just about to close my eyes again when I hear someone clearing their throat. I look up and find Noah hovering above us, his arms crossed like a father who just found a boy bringing his daughter home past curfew.
“Is this going to become a usual thing? Because it’s really gross.”
My eyes shift to the side to look at Mitch, whose eyes are open now. “Sorry, Noah,” he says in a groggy, just-woke-up voice.
Noah rolls his eyes and runs up the stairs, probably to get ready for school.
“School!” I squeak and lift myself into a sitting position, then jump up from the sofa. Mitch follows suit, looking confused and like he’s barely awake. I rush into the kitchen to see it’s already 7:30 and grab Noah’s lunch box to start packing it.
“What can I do?”
I look up at him and see his messy hair, rumpled clothes, and black eye and can’t help but smile at him. “For starters, why don’t you tell me how you got that black eye?”
He gives me a sheepish smile. “West gave me this.”
I gasp and he puts a hand up, a silent plea for me to not freak out.
“I deserved it, believe me.”
“Hmm. If you say so.” I peek inside the fridge, smiling when I spot the tray of probably one hundred sub sandwiches. I grab two of them and stick them inside Noah’s lunchbox. Thankfully, we still have ten minutes before we need to leave.
“Want me to take Noah to school?” Mitch asks.
I’m about to tell him he doesn’t have to do that when Noah comes down the steps and answers for me, “yes, please. That’s so much cooler than my sister taking me.” He stands next to Mitch, Mitch reaches down and ruffles his hair. Noah shoves him away, making Mitch chuckle.
Noah turns and starts walking toward the front door, toward his spot on the front porch, and Mitch follows him.
When I’ve packed his lunch and thrown on some sweats, I go in search of the boys. The boys… I like the sound of that.
I open the front door slowly and find them both sitting on the steps. It’s a cold February morning, but with the sunshine filtering onto the small stoop, it seems warmer than it is. The sun shines on Mitch, bringing out the flecks of gold throughout Mitch’s hair. I take a moment to watch them. Mitch’s large shoulders fill the impossibly small space, and it does something to my heart. It’s a reminder of the space in our lives that was empty after losing our parents. But this giant man with his fragile heart came in and filled it when we least expected it.
Clearing my throat, I say, “Hey, here’s your lunch.”
They both turn and look over their shoulders at me. They both stand. Noah takes the lunch and thanks me. “See you after school, Andie.” He waves and walks toward Mitch’s Tesla that’s parked nearby.
Mitch takes a step toward me, and slips one of those big hands around my waist, tugging me close until I collide into his chest.
“Good morning, Blondie.” He kisses me again. This time longer.
I hum into the kiss, then pull back slightly. “Careful, I’m going to get used to waking up to your kisses.”
“That’s alright with me.” He closes his eyes and kisses my forehead. “I love you so much it hurts a little.”
“Are you sure that’s not the black eye?”
He huffs a laugh. “Definitely not.”
I sigh happily. “I love you too, Big Man.”
“Oh my gosh, I’m going to be late for school!” Noah yells from the sidewalk next to Mitch’s car.
We snicker and I mouth the word Sorry to my brother. Noah groans when Mitch gives me one more kiss before letting me go and walking toward his car.
I lean against the doorframe, watching as they interact with each other. Noah says something that makes Mitch laugh. They open the car doors and both have smiles on their faces. They look so happy. A sob catches in my throat and I choke it back.
Mitch Anderson, with his tender soul and his commanding presence, was everything we didn’t know we needed.
And now, this feels like a family. A whole, complete unit.
Three things I’m grateful for: My little brother, Mitch Anderson, and family.
Because family looks different for everyone. Sometimes it’s not the family you’re born into, but the one you build. The one you work for. And this is mine.
TEN MONTHS LATER
WATCHING Andie walk toward me in a wedding gown leaves me overwhelmed and breathless.
My heart squeezes as I take her in… the silky fabric of her dress that hugs her hips perfectly, then flares out just a little at the bottom. Her hair pinned back to show off that beautiful face that I adore. Her smile pulled up, showing off her dimple. The flowers she’s holding, an assortment of bright red roses, greenery, and little white buds of something I can’t name.
I’m a little surprised it’s not a bouquet of Jimmy John’s subs.
The venue in downtown D.C. is lit with Christmas lights and decked out with pine trees. It feels like we’re in a forest instead of a ballroom. The rich reds and greens lining the room and the elegant table settings make the space feel cozy and romantic.
I can honestly say this was the first time ever that I’ve looked forward to our holiday NHL break. Because today, this gorgeous woman walking toward me becomes my wife.
I finally understand that giddy feeling people get around the holidays, the one where they’re about to open a present they’ve dreamt of for months. And that’s how I feel.
I’ve never been so excited to unwrap a gift.
Feeling a nudge at my elbow, I turn slightly to see my best man, Noah, smiling at me. I glance up to find my groomsmen: Bruce, Colby, Remy, and… you guessed it, Weston Kershaw…. waggling their eyebrows like fools.
With a sigh, I turned back to my bride. She’s halfway down the aisle now, escorted by Ronda. I think Ronda likes me now. A little. Ronda looks distinguished in a silver dress that hits the floor and has long sleeves.
After Ronda kisses her cheek, then releases her, Andie finally arrives at my side. Right where she belongs. I have a difficult time not grabbing her and kissing her right away. But during the rehearsal, I got yelled at for that. Oh well, plenty of time for that later tonight.
Andie smiles up at me with tears in her eyes as we clasp hands and stand before our wedding officiant, Dr. Curtis. She turns and hands off her bouquet to her maid of honor, Melanie. Her other bridesmaids, Tori and Noel are all smiles. Their dresses look similar to Ronda’s, but in a forest green color.
When Andie focuses those brown eyes back on me, I nearly melt on the spot. Her eyes are shiny from the tears she’s holding back. I know they’re happy tears because of her genuine smile and the way she clutches my hands like she never wants to let go. Well, Blondie, you never have to. Because I’m not going anywhere.
Dr. Curtis says some wise words before having us repeat our wedding vows and exchange rings. They’re both simple gold bands because tomorrow we’re going to get tattoo rings together. Andie can’t wear large rings at work, and neither can I. Plus, permanently marking myself with our wedding date just feels right. Not that I could ever forget today. But her name, and the day we became one, will be permanently part of me… mind, soul, and body.
When we’re announced as Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, I don’t waste any time pulling her body against mine. The silky material of her figure-hugging dress feels like butter against my calloused fingers. I clutch the fabric at the sides of her waist and kiss her. She must’ve been just as antsy for this kiss and leans into me with a soft sigh. Her hands cup my face as she kisses me back, her head leaning to the side to get a better, deeper angle. Her lips feel soft and she tastes so sweet.
And then there’s that lingering bubble gum scent on her skin, making me wonder if she took a hot bubble bath this morning before getting ready. I allow myself to think of her in the bath, covered in nothing but translucent bubbles. We’re married now, I can picture her naked all I want.
A current shoots through me, thinking of having her all to myself tonight. Just the two of us, skin to skin, tangled up in the sheets in that giant four-poster bed in our suite upstairs.
I hear Noah mutter the word, Gross, behind me and I reluctantly pull away from my bride. I’ll kiss her more later. Much more.
The crowd claps as the D.J. starts to play Paradise by George Ezra. Andie grins at me as we turn to exit down the aisle together. She reaches her hand out to hold mine, but I surprise her by bending down, grabbing her behind her thighs, and hoisting her over my shoulder. It just seems fitting to start off our married life with this woman lugged over my shoulder. The same way we met. She squeals and doesn’t resist me as I carry her down the aisle like that. The small crowd eats it up, clapping and laughing.
We exit the ballroom doors and I set her down, knowing we have about one minute to ourselves out here before the wedding party joins us.
Andie pulls my head down for a kiss, then pulls away laughing. “You’re not just a big brute… you’re my big brute.”
“Forever,” I say, kissing her back.
After hours of greeting guests and dancing with friends, I’m ready to get to our suite. Not only am I exhausted, but I’m anxious to get the Big Man alone. Just us. After ten months of being chaperoned by my brother, I’m about to rip this man’s clothes off like a savage.
Mitch uses a key card to unlock the door to the suite, then instead of carrying me over the threshold, he hauls me over his shoulder again. Such a romantic.
He walks through the sitting room and straight into the bedroom before throwing me onto the big bed. I giggle as he crawls on top of me, tugging at my dress and kissing my neck.
“Finally,” I breathe, closing my eyes and enjoying the feel of his beard against my sensitive skin.
He growls against my skin. “You can say that again. I love Noah, but your brother isn’t a very good wingman.”
“Not the best time to talk about my little brother.”
He pulls back, looking at me with that handsome smirk. “True. Sorry.”
Mitch meets my eyes, his expression growing serious. His eyes are dark, so dark I can barely detect any of the usual blue and green in them. He studies me, his heady gaze making me squirm.
“You’re so damn beautiful,” he whispers.
My eyes fill with tears at how earnest his words are, how sincere. I can’t believe he’s my husband, mine for life. He gently rolls off of me and I instantly miss the weight of him. Before I can pout, he unbuttons his suit jacket and lets it slide to the floor.
He starts to loosen his tie, but I jump up and walk toward him. “No, allow me.” I shoo his hands away and remove his tie, then work on the buttons of his shirt.
He grins wolfishly, bringing his hands to my waist, then around my back to the clasps on my dress. Mitch feels around, trying to figure out how to get the dress off. By the time I slide his shirt off of his sexy, tattooed arms, he’s groaning in frustration at the dress.
I lean in and kiss his chest, whispering, “There’s a tie at the nape.”
He spins me around quickly and I gasp. Mitch finds the tie quickly and the entire dress unravels, falling to the floor. His sharp inhale makes me feel so sexy, so desired. He turns me around to face him, but instead of devouring me with his eyes, he pulls me against him. My warm skin against his. He holds me, hugging me close. I feel damp heat on my shoulder and realize he’s softly crying.
“Mitch, what’s wrong?”
He angles his head to look at me, his eyes still wet. His chin quivers slightly as he looks at me. “What’s wrong? Nothing, Andie.” He huffs a laugh. “Absolutely nothing. I’m so completely happy, so content. I can’t even express how amazed I am that you’re mine. That you chose me.”
Mitch leans in and rubs the tip of his nose along the edge of mine. I never knew nuzzling could be so sensual, but geez, someone get me a fan.
“I’m so proud to call you my husband,” I say through tears. He uses his thumbs to gently wipe the tears from my face.
“I can’t believe I made you cry on our wedding night,” he teases.
“You can make it up to me.” I flutter my lashes.
Mitch slowly moves forward, causing me to walk backward. My knees hit the edge of our mattress and I fall back onto the fluffy bedding with an oomph. He hovers over me, now allowing his eyes to rake over my body. I’m hot all over, just from having his eyes on me. Finally, he crawls onto the bed beside me and pulls me against him. “Are you hungry for some protein, Blondie?”
I burst out laughing, and then I kiss my husband.