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Four Pucking Christmases: Chapter 12

Nathan

“NATHAN, WOULD YOU LIKE MORE COFFEE?” one of Michael’s many sisters asks me with a smile.

“I would love some, thank you.”

She holds her hand out for my mug, and I pass it over, feeling very content this Christmas day. Danielle slept tucked against me all night, exactly the way I like it, and meeting Michael’s family is going even smoother than expected.

Being with the Hughes family is a walk in the damn park after being at the Larkins’. Or even with the McNeills, who while wonderful and welcoming, are… exuberant. Like Crew himself. Full of energy, and questions, and high fives. Danielle’s parents were exhausting in their strained disapproval, even if in the end I felt like we’d made some serious progress after my talk with Kevin, Crew’s determined enthusiasm, and Michael’s cooking skills.

Both previous houses had also felt crowded for different reasons. The McNeills have a large house, but it was stuffed to the gills with family and friends, and everyone had talked loudly and over each other. The Larkins’ small house had compartmentalized rooms and too much furniture. Between that and their clear discomfort, the house had felt a little suffocating.

Which was why it was so important to escape to the RV and spend time alone, the four of us, fucking out our frustration. It had been a long, taxing day, with the best possible ending—all of us loving on Danielle.

But I could spend every Christmas with the Hughes family and actually enjoy myself. I don’t even care if Michael is there or not, just give me a stocking on the mantle and a seat at the table because this is comfortable to me. Of course, that’s not actually true. Part of what is making this Christmas stand out isn’t just being around a loving family or spending it with Danielle. It’s us. Cookie & Co. My friendship with Michael and Crew is just another layer to the foundation of a different future for myself than I ever imagined.

The coffee mug reappears, and I take it with a thanks, raising it to my lips as I observe the gathering.

It’s clear where Michael gets his chill demeanor from because his father, Clayton, is exactly the same. Genuine smile, strong handshake, social but not aggressively so, and easy to talk to. His mother Lorraine is warm, intelligent, and can direct her children with a single look.

Michael has five siblings, three brothers-in-law, and six nieces and nephews, yet nothing feels chaotic or crowded in the ranch-style home filled with books and landscape artwork that I’ve been told was done by Clayton’s mother. The Christmas decor is classic red and very elegant, with ceramic angels and a large hand-carved nativity scene. It’s the complete opposite of the plastic Christmas emporium Crew turned Dani’s apartment into. The poinsettia I brought fits perfectly in the Hughes’ home.

The food covers the entire length of the buffet table, and my mouth is already watering just eyeing it all. I barely ate last night or this morning because when I’m tense, I can’t swallow, so I’m starving now.

I’m sitting on the sofa between Michael’s sister, Tonya, and her son, who is seven, who keeps eyeing me with a half-smile, like something about me is cracking him up.

The other kids are all downstairs in the finished basement, with one of Michael’s brothers-in-law supervising. I occasionally hear running, or a thump, or a cheer coming up the stairs, which makes me think there are obstacle courses in play down there.

Danielle is in a wingback chair across from me, holding Michael’s other sister, Becca’s baby, Braydon Junior. I’ve been told he’s six months old, and he is sporting a toothless grin, round cheeks, and a full head of hair. He’s wearing a tiny rowing sweater that matches his father’s, along with baby khakis. He’s pretty fucking cute.

Watching Danielle smile at him, pure joy on her face, is making my heart squeeze. She looks natural holding a baby.

“Nathan, I’ve heard you have a stunning view from your apartment,” Clayton says, popping a handful of pistachios in his mouth. “Do you like living downtown?”

“I do, actually,” I say, wrenching my eyes away from our sweet girl to focus on Michael’s father. “It’s very convenient for work, and I like the sounds of the city.”

“I always wanted to try out city life, but Lorraine’s career was really taking off at the university here, so we settled in. It was a good place to have a family, though. I can’t imagine raising kids in downtown Chicago.”

“I really can’t imagine that either, though lots of people do. I grew up in Winnetka, in the suburbs. Well, until I was twelve.” When my parents died. That’s not a topic for a happy Christmas lunch, though. “I’m impressed that you both managed your careers and raised six kids.”

Michael’s mother is a Lit professor, and his father is now retired but was a CPA.

“Oh, that’s all credit to Lorraine,” he says with a smile directed at his wife. “She has endless energy and is the most hardworking woman I know. Smart as a whip. She can manage circles around me.”

“Then my question is for you, Lorraine. What’s your secret? To having a career and raising a wonderful family?”

She takes the hand her husband offers her and smiles at me. “Patience. Being organized, very organized. Giving love and hugs and making time to eat dinner together. And respect. You have to both give it to your children and demand it in return.”

“I think it’s obvious you’ve accomplished that.” This is a family filled with love and respect. That’s very clear.

“Remember when Tonya called you a dictator, Mom?” Becca says, running her hand over her baby’s head as she walks past. She gives her sister an amused look.

“Why are you bringing that up?” Tonya asks, though she doesn’t sound angry. “I was twelve, and I wanted to stay out later. I think that’s totally normal at that age.”

“Oh, I remember that,” Lorraine says. “You thought you were grown and should be allowed to run around until midnight. I told you this was not a democracy, and you got no vote. You had two choices. You could be home by ten or not go out at all.”

“What did you do?” I ask Tonya. Michael told us she’s four years younger than him and a statistical analyst, which makes me instantly like her. “Besides call her a dictator.”

“I didn’t say that in front of her, just to be clear. I don’t have a death wish. Her eagle ears overheard me in my room.” She shakes her head at me. “Nathan, can you believe that I thought I would “show my mom” and just stay home? Like I was punishing her and not myself. So, then all my friends were out having a good time, and I was watching cartoons with my baby brother. And I had to write an essay on the difference between dictatorship and democracy.”

“Hey, I’m good company,” the youngest Hughes sibling, Garrett, says. He’s a student at Northwestern, though I didn’t catch what he’s studying.

“I like hanging out with you,” George, Tonya’s son, pipes up.

“I like hanging out with you too,” Garrett says, giving George a fist bump.

George turns and gives me a look of triumph. I smile at him, and he frowns. I’ve never spent a lot of time around kids. Not even when I was a kid. I have no idea what to say to him. “You like hockey?” I ask him.

He shakes his head. “No.”

So that topic is a dead end. I’m kind of amused by his honesty.

“George,” his mother reprimands. “Mr. Armstrong owns a hockey team, and Mr. McNeill is a pro hockey player.”

“Well, I still don’t like hockey.”

“George, come help me in the kitchen,” Lorraine says, giving him The Look.

George pops off the sofa instantly and follows, though he eyes me like it’s my fault he’s probably in trouble.

“Do you have kids?” Becca asks me.

“Me?” God, I hate this question. I’m sure I have “childless middle-aged rich man” written all over me, so I’m always surprised people even ask me. “No.”

“We always thought Michael would be the first to have kids,” Tonya says. “He was like our second father. Very patient, always the mediator when we weren’t getting along. When he wasn’t reading, that is. He constantly had his nose in a book.”

“He’s still like that,” I say. “He keeps me and Crew from killing each other.”

“It’s always Nathan’s fault,” Crew calls out from where he’s playing checkers with Braydon Senior in the corner.

Michael, who has been in the kitchen busily prepping something, as if the buffet actually needs any more food, comes into the family room. He’s wearing a Christmas apron that says “Cookie Crew,” the irony of which is not lost on me. He sets a platter down on the straining sideboard.

“It’s both your faults,” he says, leaning over to tickle Braydon Junior on the cheek, then kisses Danielle on the top of the head before returning to the kitchen.

Michael told us we could feel comfortable around his family touching Danielle, as long as it is respectful affection, and not overtly sexual. A hand on the small of the back is cool, but no ass pats. I think that’s fair for a family gathering. No one has asked us much about our relationship. They seem to accept it for what it is, and I appreciate that tremendously.

Danielle stands up with the baby and smooths down the green dress she’s wearing. She comes over and faces Braydon out, bouncing him in front of me. “Do you want to hold the baby?”

“Uh…”

No. The answer is no. I’ve only held a baby maybe twice in my life, and both times they cried. But it seems rude to refuse. “I guess, but only if he wants me to.”

Danielle laughs. “Just put your arms around him when I set him on your lap.”

I’m mildly panicking. My back stiffens, and I hold my breath when she puts the baby down, facing me. I put one arm around his back and put my opposite hand squarely on his waist, terrified he’ll topple onto the floor. In spite of my nerves, Braydon smiles at me, drool slipping down his chin.

Damn. This kid instantly owns me.

“He’s very cute,” I say to Becca.

“Thank you,” Braydon Senior calls out. “I did that.”

Becca snorts.

Braydon Junior and I check each other out. He stares at me with big brown eyes, and something shifts and cracks inside me. He’s freaking adorable. I relax a little and start to make faces at him. “Hey, little man. Do you like hockey?”

He grins at me and gives me a sweet little coo.

“Definitely likes hockey,” I report, glancing up at Danielle.

The look on her face makes me fall in love with her all over again. She’s beaming watching the baby. There is so much love in her that she’s glowing with it. I didn’t think she could be any more beautiful than she already is, but seeing her joy at being here, on Christmas, with us and Michael’s welcoming family, watching me hold a little chubby baby, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her look more radiant.

Our eyes lock, and I try to convey everything that I feel for her, for us, for this moment. Her eyes widen, and her bottom lip drops so her mouth forms a perfect “o.”

“Wow,” Tonya says, which snaps me out of it.

I glance over at her, then quickly back at the baby when I see Tonya’s amusement. My heart is racing. Braydon raises his arms up and down.

“I think Dani’s plan worked perfectly,” Tonya said.

I frown. “What plan?”

She chuckles. “A woman doesn’t hand her man a baby unless she has plans.”

Instantly, I’m lifting the baby and shoving him back into Danielle’s arms. I jump off the sofa and narrowly miss kicking over the coffee mug I set on the floor.

“Nathan,” Danielle says, concern in her voice.

“Did I say something wrong?” Tonya asks. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

“It’s fine,” I tell Tonya. “I just need a coffee warmer.” I grab the mug off the floor.

I give Danielle a tight smile to let her know it’s okay and make my way into the kitchen. Instinctively, I seek out Michael as I set my mug down on the counter. He’s become my emotional touchstone. True to form, he reaches out and claps me on the shoulder.

“Here.” He puts an oven mitt in my hand. “Pull the au gratin potatoes out of the oven for me.”

While I yank open the oven door, he moves in next to me under the guise of stirring a pot on the stove. “I’m sorry about that. You okay?”

I nod. “I’m fine.” I lift the heavy casserole dish and set it on the stove.

“We should talk about this later,” he murmurs.

I nod again. “Sure.”

I want to say there’s nothing to talk about. I can’t give Danielle a baby, now or at any point in the future. But this isn’t just about me. This is about all of us. Where we’re going and what we’re doing.

Christmas has really brought it home that we need to discuss what we all want. Now and later.

I’ve never wanted kids. I don’t even know why I’m upset.

Maybe because the idea that I can’t give Danielle something she might want makes me feel like shit. But I remind myself that even if I can’t meet all of Danielle’s needs, there are two other men in this relationship. That’s something pretty damn special.

“I’m really happy to be here,” I tell Michael truthfully. “Your family is awesome.”

“They are. But, fair warning, I think my mother has decided to adopt you. I’ve never seen her pat a newcomer’s arm as much as she has yours.”

That makes me feel ridiculously pleased. I want Michael’s parents to like me. “It was the poinsettia. It won her over.”

Michael chuckles. “It didn’t hurt. Do you think we have enough food?” he asks with a grin.

“I’m going to destroy everything in sight. It all looks amazing. Then I’m going to need to hit the gym first thing tomorrow. Care to join me?”

“I would love to.” Michael pats his gut. “I lied. I’ve been eating cookies all week.”

“You weren’t fooling anyone,” I tell him. “Crew isn’t the only one with a sweet tooth, and we all know it.”

Lorraine comes up behind us. She rubs my back with the palm of her hand, and it makes me feel pretty damn good.

Michael gives me a “I told you” look.

“Do you two have everything ready in here?” Lorraine asks.

“Michael? Anything else we need to do?”

“No, I think we’re ready to eat.”

“Isn’t he fantastic in the kitchen?” his mother asks, clearly proud of her son.

“Mom,” Michael says, chuckling softly. “What’s he supposed to say to that?”

“What? I’m allowed to brag on my son. The doctor. Who also cooks.”

“He definitely keeps us in pancakes,” I tell Lorraine. “And he’s slowly breaking Crew of his dependence on Pop Tarts.”

“Then I have even more reason to be proud of him.” Lorraine takes a bowl of biscuits and departs. She calls down the basement steps, “Time to eat!”

My phone buzzes in my pocket. I wouldn’t even look at it, except I see Michael’s phone light up on the counter at the same time. It’s from Danielle.

“What does that say?” he asks.

I hold his phone up so we can both read it.

No one panic. I do NOT want a baby right now.

Crew responds.

#17 to Cookie&Co: Thank God. lol.

Michael quickly types.

Doc to Cookie&Co: No one is panicking. Just enjoy Christmas.

Boss to Cookie&Co: I never panic.

Then I realize I have another text I didn’t notice earlier. I read it and actually laugh out loud.

It’s from Wade, our Racketeers mascot. Who has clearly been hitting the eggnog. Or more likely, he’s been popping edibles.

Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal! This is your OFFICIAL Sammy, the malamute. Thanks for the bonus! I hope you’re getting your balls jingled and you’re feeling that big Nick energy with your girl. Say hi to Dr. Hughes and McNeill for me.

Then there’s a nutcracker emoji and #crushinit.

The only thing Wade is officially is an idiot.

I forward it to our Cookie & Co. group text. I have a feeling Wade is going to regret sending that, so I text him back, so he doesn’t wake up tomorrow terrified I’ll fire him.

Merry Christmas to you too. See you at the game Thursday, and never mention my balls ever again.

Crew comes jogging into the kitchen. “Boss is laughing? It’s a Christmas miracle.”

I roll my eyes, but I don’t mean it. I catch Danielle’s eye and give her a big smile, then kiss her on the cheek.

One more text, and then my phone is going back in my pocket for the rest of the day.

Boss to Cookie & Co: I’m glad I’m spending the holidays with my favorite people. I love you all. Even Crew.

Then I shove my phone away and whistle Jingle Bells as I carry the potatoes to the table.

Kids come racing up the steps and tumble into the family room, and someone yells at them to wash their hands. Adults are talking and laughing, and music is playing.

It’s the best Christmas I’ve had in a very long time.


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