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Four Pucking Christmases: Chapter 1


FORTUNATELY, two-thirds of the people who have regular slumber parties at my penthouse are not early risers. And the one who does get up early like I do is currently in the shower. I should be able to slip out before I see anyone this morning. I’ll take care of my business, get it out of the way, and be back here with brunch groceries before Dani and Crew are even out of their pajamas.

I glance at the bed. Crew is spooning Danielle, his head buried in her neck, his hand splayed over her belly, their feet tangled under the duvet. Wrapped around our girl like that is his favorite place in the world, and it would take a not-so-minor earthquake to wake him up.

He’s started saying that he can’t sleep as well without her in his arms.

It’s possible that he’s saying it because he loves my sheets, and my rainfall shower, and my very expensive shower products.

But it’s even more possible that it’s the truth.

Because it’s true for me.

Right now, I want to strip off my clothes and climb back into bed on her other side, where I sleep, and cuddle her soft, warm, sweet-smelling body up against me. Yes, I’ll have to drape my arm over her next to Crew’s, but I’ve gotten used to having another man’s arm resting against mine in the night. Even another man’s foot on mine. It’s just how it goes when you’re sleeping with a woman who’s sleeping with two other men at the same time.

It’s fine.

I’m saving on my heating bill, at least. Michael is like a furnace, and Crew is a cuddler, so when we’re all in the same bed, it’s plenty warm, even in Chicago in December.

Danielle made a soft grumbling noise, and her hand tightened on me when I slipped out of bed from her other side, but her eyes hadn’t opened, and when I kissed her forehead and said, “Sleep, sweet girl,” she’d sighed and smiled and burrowed deeper under the covers.

They’re not going to catch me before I leave. Which is perfect. We have a big weekend ahead, and I need to take care of my own personal stuff before all of that starts.

It’s December twenty-third, and after Crew’s game tonight, we have three family Christmases ahead of us.

I take a deep breath. It’s going to be fine. Great even. It’s a holiday. It’s bright and festive, and full of good cheer, and…

Who the fuck am I kidding?

I’m dreading this. All of it.

I’m not just going home to meet my girlfriend’s family for the first time. I’m also meeting her two other boyfriends’ families for the first time.

I shove a hand through my hair. How the hell is this my life?

For a guy who’s always been pretty happy not forming ties and getting emotionally attached to the people I date, I’ve broken every rule and turned my back on everything I thought was common sense in relationships.

Because of Danielle Larkin.

I don’t just have a serious girlfriend. I haven’t just fallen head over heels in love for the first time. I haven’t just gone from being completely alone and emotionally unavailable to thinking about moving her in with me, wedding rings, and the future in the course of two and a half months. I also have a relationship with two men who are also in love with her.

And it’s working.

That might be the most startling thing about all of it. Having Crew and Michael as a part of all of this is fucking working. We’re a family.

And for a guy who spent most of his life alone, I’m still trying to get used to it.

But damn, I like it.

Most days.

It’s also coming with unique pressures and some complications.

Like Christmas.

For the past few years, it’s been only my grandfather and me. Now I’m not just going to meet Dani’s parents for the first time. We’re also stopping by Crew’s mom and dad’s, where it will be his parents and his sister Luna, and God knows who else.

Then we’re looping up through Indiana to see Dani’s mom and dad and the extended family that always comes for Christmas Eve. I have no idea what to expect there.

After we spend the night there, we’re stopping in Decatur to have Christmas Day brunch with Michael’s family. Wouldn’t you know that I would get involved in a poly relationship that includes a guy who is the oldest of six? I won’t just be meeting his mom and dad for the first time, but all five of his sisters, their significant others, and several nieces and nephews.

I feel my gut clench.

I have been through a number of high-stakes, cutthroat business negotiations in my life. I’ve sat through very tense hockey games where my team could win or lose it all. I’ve sat at doctor’s appointments and heard terrible news about my grandfather’s health.

And I don’t think I’ve ever been as tense as I am right now, thinking about the next two days and the three fucking Christmases that we’re going to have to get through.

But I need to go see my grandfather first. I don’t have a lot of family to bring into the chaos. Thankfully. At least I won’t be contributing to this… Damn, even with my nerves about it all, I hesitate to call it a mess.

I’m about to meet the people who helped make Danielle, Crew, and Michael into the people they are. And those people are now the three most important people in my life.

But yeah, Nathan Armstrong, a forty-one-year-old billionaire, mature, grown-assed man, is nervous.

I grab my phone off the counter, tuck it into my pocket, and start for the door. My driver will be downstairs waiting for me. He’ll take me to the nursing home, where Val is going to meet me. We’ll talk with my grandfather for a little bit, and then I’ll be able to swing by and pick up some food before coming back to the apartment.

‘Where are you going?”

My hand is literally on the doorknob when I hear Michael’s voice behind me.

I take a breath. Fuck.

I turn back. ‘Just out for a little bit.’

‘Great. I’ll go with you. I wanted to grab some more stuff for brunch.’

I was going to get the brunch stuff. Michael’s the cook, so I don’t mind being the one who grabs supplies. Of course, I could have someone do that for us. But there’s something about being the one who picks out the food and drinks we enjoy together that I really enjoy. I guess it’s my way of providing for the family.

That’s also bizarre. I’ve always had other people shop for me and oftentimes cook for me as well.

Food is certainly something I enjoy in social settings and have used to impress people, and I definitely can tell the difference between an expensive steak and a cheap one. But since having people in my home more often, sharing meals with me, I’ve started to care more about being a part of it all.

I love that they all want to spend time at my apartment most often. It makes sense, of course. I have the most space. But both Michael and Crew make great money and have very nice apartments. There’s just something about them all coming to my apartment that means a lot to me.

‘I’m actually not going to the grocery store first,’ I tell Michael.

But even as I’m trying to think up an excuse to keep him in the apartment, I know it’s not going to work. Crew is a little easier to distract, and I could just ask Danielle to leave it alone, and she would, but Michael is insightful. He can read us all. He’ll know something’s up.

‘Where do you have to go?’

What’s the point of lying? At some point, they’re going to ask me if I’m going to see my grandfather. I’d be a real asshole if I didn’t see him for Christmas.

But these three make me so happy. So much of our time together is fun and happy. I guess I’m hesitating to take them with me today because… it could be sad.

My grandfather may or may not be having a good day. He may not even know who I am. It’s easy to go see him for Christmas on the twenty-third because he won’t know that it’s the twenty-third. We can tell him that it’s Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day, or, hell, Easter, and he won’t know the difference. And a couple of hours after my visit, he may not remember I was there.

I sigh. ‘I’m going to the nursing home. Valerie and I are going to see my grandfather this morning.’

Michael’s eyes widened. ‘Hell, Nathan. Give me a second. I’ll go with you.’

‘You don’t have to.’

‘Of course, I don’t have to. I want to. You don’t need to do that alone.’

‘I’ve done it alone a lot.’

Michael’s waist is just wrapped in a towel, but when he crosses his arms and looks pointedly at me, I know that I’m the one who is vulnerable here.

‘Do you want to go alone?’ Michael asks. “Really?”

Three months ago, I would’ve said, “Hell yes”. I don’t need other people. I’m used to being on my own. I can take care of myself.

That has changed. Quickly. And majorly.

‘It’s not a fun trip,’ I tell him. ‘It’s not like the other Christmas trips we’re going to make.’

Michael nods. ‘I’m aware.’

Michael has met my grandfather. Hughes was working for the Racketeers before the Alzheimer’s got bad, back when my grandfather still came to the office sometimes. And Michael is a doctor. He understands better than anyone that there are good and bad days— good and bad times—even within the same day.

Danielle has also met my grandfather. She’s come with me to visit several times and has experienced many of his moods. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

But Stanford adores her. Even when he’s meeting her for the first time in his mind, he quickly warms up to her and finds her charming and lovely.

Of course, he does. She’s adorable. She wraps him around her little finger over and over again.

I know exactly how that feels.

Crew is the only one who hasn’t met him in person. Crew joined the team after my grandfather was…gone. My grandfather knows who Crew McNeill is, though. He watches Racketeers games when he’s having a good day. Everyone in Chicago who’s even a tiny sports fan knows who Crew McNeill is.

Actually, my grandfather would love to meet Crew.

Again, if he’s having a good day.

‘I just don’t want you all to have to go. Danielle and Crew are still sleeping. And we’re having brunch. And you have to be at the arena later—’

“And you’re trying to protect us,” Michael said. “But you don’t have to. We want to be there for you. You have to put up with all of our families.’

I give him a half-smile. ‘Mine is just a little different.’

‘No family is perfect, Nathan. But the four of us have decided that we’re in this together. The fun stuff and the shitty stuff. Please let me come.’

I could probably handle having Michael along. He’s a very calming presence. And his medical background means I won’t have to explain anything or prepare him.

I give him a single nod. ‘Okay.’

He turns on his heel and heads for the bedroom to get dressed.

But the next thing I hear is, ‘Come on, Cookie. Let’s go, Crew. We gotta get up. Nathan needs us.’

‘What’s going on?’ Crew sounds groggy.

‘We’re going with Nathan to the nursing home,’ Michael says.

The closet door opens. They all brought their clothes for the next few days when they arrived yesterday. Crew just lives out of his duffle bag, but Michael hangs his clothes up when he brings things over.

‘Oh, I didn’t know.” Danielle’s soft voice slips out to me.

I feel myself smiling, even though I hate that Michael woke them up.

‘He was trying to sneak out without us,’ Michael says.

‘What? Why?’ Crew asks.

I hear the rustling of the bed sheets, and I know that they’re both getting up.

“Hey, it’s Dr. Hughes,” Michael says to someone.

I’m assuming he’s on the phone.

“I need you to hold the car until we’re all down there. Don’t let Mr. Armstrong leave without us.”

I roll my eyes. He just called my driver. Andrew works for me. I sign his paychecks. And his generous bonuses. He wouldn’t directly defy me if I went downstairs and got in the car. But he knows Michael, Danielle, and Crew well by now, and I wouldn’t put it past him to stall until they made it downstairs to go with me.

“Thanks, Andrew,” Michael says.

“I can’t believe he was going to go over there without us,” Danielle says.

I do feel bad. A little bit. I’ve been something of a Grinch about this Christmas.

I’ve never decorated much in my apartment. It’s always just been me. Even when my grandfather and I did spend time together during the holidays, we would just go to a restaurant for dinner. We didn’t exchange gifts. What do you give a billionaire who loved hockey so much that he bought a team?

Before my grandmother died, we’d have dinner at their house, but it was prepared by a cook and was still somewhat formal. After she passed, my grandfather and I started spending the holidays in the Caribbean.

I haven’t had a true, warm family Christmas since I was a kid.

There never seemed to be a reason to decorate the apartment. When Crew and Danielle mentioned putting up a tree, I said no. I didn’t want needles all over the floor. Then I pointed out the fact that we would not actually be here on Christmas since we were going to see everyone’s families.

So Crew had taken Danielle out to shop, and they had decorated her apartment. It now looks like the North Pole threw up in the tiny space above the bookshop and bakery where she and Luna live together. A lot of it has trickled down the stairs and spread out through the bookshop and bakery as well. There’s tinsel and garland, brightly colored balls and snowflakes, huge stuffed reindeer, plastic Santas, felt gingerbread men, and Styrofoam candy canes everywhere.

We all spoil Danielle in our own ways, and even though making her apartment and bookshop into a mini replica of Santa’s Village wasn’t my style, I smile thinking of the two of them piling carts full of bright, gaudy Christmas decor, and bringing it all back to her place, and decorating. Crew’s credit card has a very high limit on it as well, and when he spoils her, it’s in a more colorful, loud, over-the-top way than what Michael or I do.

But he makes her smile, and that makes me smile.

It also keeps the stuffed reindeer and plastic Santas out of my apartment.

I glance over at the mantle above my fireplace.

Despite there not being an inch of her own living space not covered with fake snow and red and green felt and tinsel, Danielle has managed to get a little Christmas spirit in my apartment anyway.

Crew assured me that the tiny gold hooks they’d stuck to the edge of the mantel are removable. From those hooks now hang four stockings in varying Christmas patterns. There’s one with each of our first initials on the fuzzy white trim. And she’s added a simple garland to the top of the mantel. It is all understated and looks very nice. Nothing gaudy or over-the-top about it.

Looking at them makes my chest tight with emotion.

I haven’t had a stocking since I was a kid.

Just then, Crew comes stumbling out of the bedroom. He’s dressed in blue jeans, a sweatshirt, and sneakers. His hair is tousled, but the long shaggy curls always look a little mussed so maybe he did do something with it other than just roll out of bed.

He staggers for the refrigerator, yanks it open, and grabs a bottle of orange juice. He unscrews the top and tips it back, taking three long gulps. It’s a full-sized bottle of orange juice that most people pour into glasses and share with their family, but we’ve given up on Crew not drinking straight out of the bottle and have simply labeled the side with CREW in black sharpie.

After he swallows, he looks at me. ‘Hey, man.’


‘So, what should I bring him?’

I frown. ‘Bring him? What do you mean?’

‘We’re going to see your grandfather for Christmas, right? I’m so sorry. I didn’t even think of it. What should I bring him as a gift?’

I shake my head. ‘You don’t need to bring him anything. He won’t even know that it’s Christmas.’

‘What? But we’ll tell him, right?’

‘We don’t need to. We can just make it a visit. He won’t remember anyway.’

‘Yeah, but for the ten or fifteen minutes or whatever, he will. It’s Christmas, man.” Crew spreads his arms wide. ‘Everybody deserves to have Christmas, even if it’s only for a few minutes.’

I stare at the younger man. The much younger man. Literally, I could be this guy’s father. He drives me crazy. He seriously does. A lot of the time, I want to smack him. But I have to admit, not only is he my star player, and the one who is very likely taking us to the Stanley Cup this year, he makes the woman I’m in love with deliriously happy.

And dammit, he makes me happy.

I might roll my eyes and shake my head, a lot, but I also smile and laugh a lot more since Crew McNeill became more to me than just one of my players.

Not that I am ever going to tell him that.

‘He’s going to be pretty excited to meet you,’ I finally admit. ‘He’s a fan.’

Crew grins a grin that clearly says, of-course-he-is. He tips back the orange juice and takes another swallow. ‘I’ll sign a jersey,” he says after swallowing.

‘My grandfather used to own the team. He has more signed jerseys than he knows what to do with.’

‘But he doesn’t have a signed jersey from me.’ He thinks for a second. Then he says, “How about skates? I just got new ones. Still have my last pair. Those are a lot harder to come by than jerseys.”

I open my mouth to argue with him. I intend to tell him that, again, my grandfather won’t remember that he even has the skates. Crew should keep those and give them to a charity auction or some kid with cancer or something. But then Crew’s words about even five minutes of Christmas come back to me. Even five minutes of meeting his new favorite player and getting a pair of signed skates would give my grandfather immense joy. My grandfather could easily revert back to his forty-year-old self. Or his twenty-year-old self. Or possibly his ten-year-old self. He’s been a hockey fan his whole life.

And then I could show him those skates again next week. And the week after. He could have those five minutes of joy again and again.

I feel my chest tighten as I also realize that I can always give those skates to charity someday…when my grandfather is gone.

I suck in a breath. Hell, I’ll write a check to a kids’ cancer charity today and give my grandfather some Christmas joy at the same time.

‘Okay. He’d love that,” I finally say.

“Cool. We’ll swing by my place,” Crew says easily.

Danielle walks into the room just then. She comes straight to me. “Good morning,’ she says sweetly as she wraps her arms around me.

I dip my head, putting my nose into her hair and breathing deeply. ‘Good morning. I didn’t mean to wake you up.’

‘I know. And we might talk about that later, because you should have woken us all up. But for now, let’s go see Stanford.’ She pulls back and looks up at me. ‘Okay?’

I know she’s not asking if I’m okay. She’s asking if it’s okay if they all come along. I know that if I say no, Danielle will go to bat and try to talk the other guys out of it. But the thing is, I’ve come to trust Michael. I’ve always been the guy in charge. I make big decisions that affect people’s lives every day. I’m known for my cool thinking, my ability to see the big picture, no matter the tiny distracting details, and I will make the decision for the greater good, the entire team, every time.

But when it comes to my personal life, I’m not so good at that. I have come to trust Hughes to be our voice of reason. He’s someone I can actually lean on and trust to help with those decisions when my emotions are involved. I’ve never had a friend like Michael Hughes before.

If he thinks they all should come with me today, I believe him. And maybe it’s not just for me. Maybe it’s for them too.

I nod and lean in to give her a soft kiss. ‘Yes, it’s okay.’

We’re all going to be meeting each other’s families. We’re all going to be getting some insight into what makes the others tick. For better or worse.


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