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Four Pucking Christmases: Chapter 11


I WAKE up on Christmas morning at six, stiff from our cramped sleeping conditions but sighing contentedly. Last night was incredible. I can never get enough of Dani.

Sliding off the couch I moved to after the others fell asleep, I pull on joggers and a sweatshirt. The bedroom is quiet, so I assume everyone else is sleeping, which gives me an opportunity to spend a few minutes with Kevin and Mary by myself.

After stepping into my sneakers, I glance into the bedroom. Dani is in the middle of the bed, her hair a riot of auburn curls in the morning sun peeking through the RV window. She looks beautiful and peaceful, a single slender foot poking out from under the sheet. Crew’s hand is resting on her stomach, which has caused the top of the sheet to drag down, exposing the swell of her breast. She’s facing Nathan, who is jammed against the wall. Her hand is splayed over his head, as if she was running her fingers through his hair when she dropped off to sleep.

Being with her here is the only Christmas gift I need, but I also can’t wait for her to meet my family. I don’t expect they’ll ask a lot of questions because they assume everyone’s relationship is their own business. I just want them to understand and appreciate why I’m in love with Dani and what these two other men offer her.

Which they will, I’m confident of that.

Dani’s parents, on the other hand, still need some time and some coaxing.

I figure it won’t hurt to butter them up with some pancakes.

Mary comes into the kitchen ten minutes later in a robe and slippers, eyeing me curiously. “Do I smell coffee?”

“You do. Would you like a cup?” I reach for a mug. I’ve already started the pancake batter I’m making from scratch, and the coffee has just finished brewing.

“I would love one.”

“Cream and sugar?”

“Yes, please. Forty years in this house, and I’ve never once woken up to coffee made for me.”

I finish stirring in the sugar and hand her the mug. “Then Merry Christmas, Mary.”

She gives a small smile. “Thank you, Michael. Merry Christmas.”

“Should I get a cup ready for Kevin?”

“Oh, Kevin is not a morning person.” She sips and eyes me over the rim. “Besides, I think he drank way more of that bourbon than he’s used to. He was snoring like a freight train all night. I hope it didn’t wake you up.”

“Not at all,” I say smoothly, not willing to admit we all hightailed it to the RV. “I hope you don’t mind me poking around your kitchen and starting some pancakes.”

“Michael, no one, and I mean no one, has ever just taken it upon themselves to start cooking in my kitchen without me.”

I pause, whisk in hand, concerned that I’ve now totally offended her.

But Mary sighs. “And I absolutely love it. This is amazing. Thank you.”

Relieved, I put the whisk in the eggs and make quick business of them. “I enjoy cooking. I think it’s something I learned from my mother. Feeding people is an easy way to show them you care about them.”

Mary sets her mug down and moves in beside me. She starts to zest the lemon I pulled out. “I’ve always felt the same way. Though sometimes I do get tired of doing it by myself. Dani never liked being in the kitchen with me.”

“Whenever I’m in town, we can plan to cook together,” I tell her, wanting to make it clear that I’m in this with Dani for the long haul.

She nods, but then she says, “To be totally honest, I wish it were just you.”

I know what she means, but I want her to spell it out clearly. “What do you mean?”

“I wish Dani was just dating you. You’re a lovely, intelligent, nurturing man, and you cook. You’re exactly who I always envisioned marrying my daughter.”

“I’m flattered. It’s a huge compliment to get your stamp of approval, and I don’t take that lightly.” I really don’t. I’m honored she thinks so highly of me already. “But—

Mary cuts me off. “I know. But. There’s always a but.” She sets down the zester and reaches for her coffee. “It’s nothing against Nathan and Crew. They’re nice men, and I appreciate how hard they’re trying. Please don’t mention what I just said. I would never want to upset them or hurt their feelings. I should have kept my thoughts to myself.”

She probably should have, but I understand where she’s coming from. “I won’t mention it.” I gesture to the refrigerator, which is sporting a Christmas tree magnet Dani made in grade school. It’s very heavy on the glitter. “You know how Dani was always making things as a kid?”

“Yes, like I said last night, she loved to craft, to sew, and to write her little stories. Only she’d never let me read them. She was very creative.”

“She still is. She still writes stories. Romances, love stories.”

“She does?” Mary looks startled but pleased. “I wonder why she didn’t tell me?”

“Because they’re love stories that you might not understand.”

“Oh.” She frowns. “I don’t like to think she can’t share her creativity with me.”

“Dani is very romantic, and her writing reflects that. Why wouldn’t she be, right? She sees her parents share a loving, long-lasting marriage, and she’s always felt incredibly loved and wanted by the both of you. I think that she was always searching for a love that’s big enough to fill that need. To be all-consuming and powerful, and permanent. Instead, she’s focused on her writing because she hasn’t found one man who could give her all of that.”

Mary nods and gives me a knowing smile. “So maybe she needed three men? Is that what you’re telling me?”

“Maybe she needed three men.” I take a swallow of my own coffee. “Just food for thought.”

Mary definitely seems to be thinking about my words. We fall into a comfortable silence that is almost immediately interrupted.

“My fucking head is killing me,” Kevin says, stumbling into the kitchen. He bends over the sink and drinks straight from the tap, reminding me a lot of Crew. This is the first time I’ve heard him swear. I think Nathan’s bourbon is the gift that keeps on giving.

“Kevin, good Lord!” Mary says. “Get a glass!”

He stands up and wipes his mouth on his pajama sleeve. “My mouth tastes like I gargled with muddy rocks.” He meets my gaze. “Good morning. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas. Coffee?”

He nods. “Thank you.” He eyes my mixing bowl. “What’s this?”

“Pancakes. Plus, I found some bacon in the fridge I was going to fry.”

Kevin claps me on the shoulder. “You’re a good man. Even if you went to Purdue.”

That makes me laugh. Kevin went to Indiana, our biggest rival. “I am a Boilermaker for life.”

I hand him a coffee mug. I don’t even ask if he wants cream and sugar. He strikes me as a man who thinks lattes are a waste of good coffee beans.

He takes it and swallows half the mug. Then he nods in approval. “That will put hair on your chest. Perfect brew, Doc. If I can call you Doc.”

“Absolutely. That’s what friends and family call me.”

Dani has just come in the back door, cheeks pink from the cold, wearing her sweats and slippers. Hearing my words, she pulls the door shut behind her, steps right up to me, and kisses me softly on the lips, breaking her father’s no-PDA rule.

To my surprise, neither of her parents say a word of protest, and when Crew comes in behind Dani, Mary goes right up to him and gives him a big hug.

“Merry Christmas, Crew,” she says.

He looks startled, but he hugs her back. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Larkin.”

“Call me Mary.” She pats him on the cheek.

Crew grins like he’s won the Stanley Cup.

Nathan enters the kitchen, his hair sticking up straight, rubbing his jaw. He has beard stubble and looks like he doesn’t understand why he has to be awake.

But then Mary reaches out to give his hand a squeeze. “Merry Christmas, Nathan. We’re glad you’re here.”

The cobwebs seem to lift, and his back straightens. He smiles at her. “Merry Christmas, Mary.”

“Did I tell you all about the time Danielle played an angel in the Christmas play?” She reaches into the refrigerator and pulls out the bacon. “All those red curls under that halo—it was so cute, I almost couldn’t stand it.”

“Mom, no one cares.”

“Not true,” Nathan protests.

“I want to see the pictures,” Crew says.

“I bet she was the most angelic of all the angels,” I agree, dropping some water on the skillet to test the heat.

Mary beams at all of us. “She really was. But…” Mary’s smile turns just a bit mischievous, and I see Dani’s face in forty years. “Her halo was a little crooked the entire time.”

We all laugh together at that as Dani grins and blushes.


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