A decade or so later
Christmas Eve was always chaos in our house. It was tradition that our family gathered here every year for an over-the-top holiday/anniversary dinner. Over the years, our family had grown considerably.
In the immediate family, we had two dogs, the now elderly and still judgmental Meow Meow, and a very expensive saltwater aquarium with one bad-tempered fish that had proceeded to eat every other fish until a pretty little clown fish kicked his ass. Sloane named him Lucian.
Despite my annual offering to hire a caterer, the women—and Stef—commandeered the kitchen, drinking wine, laughing, and cooking for hours while the men ran herd on the younger kids.
There were so many traditions and so many people observing them. It should have been overwhelming, but every time the front door opened and a familiar face wandered in carrying gifts, bundled up against the cold, another broken piece inside me knit itself back together.
Not that I’d ever admit it. I was, after all, Lucian Fucking Rollins. And even though I’d gone part-time in my own company, I was still a scary motherfucker.
Except to my family, of course.
I wandered into the kitchen, holding my first grandbaby. Amara was a tiny, bald little peanut in a too-big Christmas onesie. I hadn’t put her down since she got here. Sloane swooped by and delivered a kiss to Amara’s cheek and then mine.
“Lookin’ good, Grandpa,” she teased.
Our oldest son, Caden was twenty-five. We’d finalized his and his sister Caitlin’s adoption from foster care when Sloane was pregnant with our first baby, a boy we named Simon. In the course of four months, we’d gone from zero children to three. And we’d added a fourth, Juliana, just one year later.
I shot my wife a smoldering look, a promise of things to come.
She winked, then asked, “When will Nolan’s family get here?”
“They’ll be here tomorrow night in time for Stef and Jeremiah’s Christmas party.” Stef had purchased the foreclosed Red Dog Horse Farm on the outskirts of town and turned it into a luxury spa. Every year, we gathered there for a catered feast.
Knox marched through the kitchen with his youngest daughter tossed over his shoulder. He paused long enough for Gilly to reach down and snag two cookies off the platter.
“Viking and Mini Viking, you’re both in trouble!” Naomi called after them.
“Does anyone need anything in here? A beverage? A clean dish towel? Some sanity?” I offered, admiring the platters of food.
“Wine,” everyone chorused at the same time.
“Lou, the kitchen needs wine,” I bellowed at Naomi’s father who, with Lina’s father, was manning the bar we’d added in the dining room. Amara looked up at me wide-eyed and then belly laughed.
“How’s my little one?” Waylay asked, cooing at her daughter nestled in my arms.
In a twist of fate, Caden and Waylay had officially joined our families by overcoming years of friendship and falling in love in college. I still thought they were terrifyingly young to have jumped into that kind of commitment, but Sloane made me promise to keep my concerns to myself.
As my beautiful wife pointed out, if we’d done our job right, Caden would be a well-adjusted, productive adult who knew what he wanted. So far, her prediction appeared to be accurate. Even Emry, who was in the family room with his wife, Sacha, wearing a Hanukkah sweater and explaining the dreidel to Nash’s twins, assured me that they seemed like a happy, healthy couple.
“Knock knock!” a cheery voice called from the front door.
“Let’s go see who it is,” I told Amara. We arrived in time to see my mother-in-law, Karen, stroll through the door with my mother, their boyfriends, and their suitcases. I was still withholding judgment on both men. Even though the barrel-chested Max, who charmed Karen through salsa dancing, and the Purple Heart recipient veteran José looked at my mother as if she’d given birth to the sun, the moon, and everything in between, I wasn’t ready to trust either of them any further than I could throw them.
The great-grandmothers dissolved into delighted squeals, and Amara was wrestled from me.
My flour-covered wife appeared and started doling out hugs and cheek kisses. “Your rooms are ready upstairs. Dinner is in an hour. And wine is now,” she said.
“We’ll take the bags,” Jose offered, using his good arm to heft my mother’s overnight bag. As an above-the-elbow amputee, the man was annoyingly good at everything. Which only served to make me want to find his weakness even more.
Karen sighed as she watched Max head for the staircase. “Tell me the truth. Am I too old for this?”
“Too old for what?” Sloane asked, slipping her arm around my waist.
“To be so…infatuated.”
“We’re never too old,” my mother assured her emphatically, winking at me as she jiggled Amara on her hip. I was still getting used to this new, confident Mom. And she was still getting used to Lucian the family man. But we were making it work.
“Mom, it’s like Dad picked him out personally for you. He’s lovely,” Sloane said.
“He is, isn’t he? Speaking of lovely, when are Maeve and Kurt getting here?” Karen asked.
“Maeve just texted. Chloe and her girlfriend just arrived so they’ll be here in a few minutes,” Sloane reported.
“I can’t wait to meet the woman who got Chloe to stop talking long enough to fall in love,” Karen said with a grin.
A twitch of fur caught my eye, and I spotted Meow Meow hidden behind the drapes in the front window.
Knox growled theatrically from the living room and lunged on hands and knees. Two kids screamed and streaked down the hallway, three dogs yapping at their heels. Knox laughed, until he had to get to his feet.
“Goddammit, this middle-aged thing sucks,” he groaned.
We were all older. More things hurt getting out of bed in the morning. But I’d never felt better in my life. Being part of this circus of a family had healed so many scars I didn’t even know I carried. I’d stopped tattooing over the physical ones after watching my wife wear hers like a badge of honor.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” Duke Morgan, Knox and Nash’s father, appeared in the open doorway. The man was dressed as Santa, and his wife was dressed as Mrs. Claus. On the porch was a red velvet sack overflowing with presents.
“Grandpa Santa’s here,” Nash, in uniform because he was on call, yelled. Lina was tucked into his side, her arms around his waist. Kids from all corners of the house ran to greet the newcomers.
Taking advantage of the distraction, I grabbed Sloane by the wrist and nodded toward the front door.
She grinned at me. We snuck our coats out of the closet and ducked outside onto the porch.
“There’s too many damn people in there,” I complained as she led me to the swing.
“You love it, and you know it, Lucifer.”
I did, and there was no hiding it despite my best efforts.
I pulled my wife into my side and covered us with the fleece blanket we kept on the porch for such escapes.
Sloane snuggled against me and let out a sigh of contentment. “Every year just keeps getting better,” she said.
I stroked my hand over her hair, currently a silver blond. It really did. My semiretirement hadn’t been the bump I’d expected it to be. Nolan and Lina had been promoted. The unbearably chipper Holly had moved in next door to us in my old house with her new husband to work with Sloane’s foundation. Between the library and her foundation, Sloane continued to amaze me with her generosity and tenacity.
We’d kept my place in the city, but it had taken buying a monstrous place in the Outer Banks to get Sloane to truly slow down. Every year, we wrangled the entire extended brood into a two-week beach vacation. The kind I’d always dreamed of as a kid. With bonfires and fireworks and lazy days spent getting too much sun.
The life we’d built was the stuff of dreams.
Sloane sat up and looked at me with eager eyes. “I got you something.”
“You got me everything.”
“Said the rich guy who literally showers me with gifts on a daily basis. Do you think you can handle your anniversary present?”
I sighed. “Of course, but do it quickly before someone finds us out here.”
It had become yet another little tradition between just the two of us, sentimental gifts exchanged privately on our anniversary. This morning, I’d given Sloane hers, a custom-made dress by the same designer who had made her wedding gown. She was wearing it now, and every time I looked directly at her, my heart beat just a little faster.
Smugly, she lifted a pillow from the end of the swing to reveal a package wrapped in red-and-green-plaid paper.
I unearthed an acrylic frame from beneath the paper and lifted it free.
It was a single, perfect cherry blossom.
“It’s from our tree. I figured since you gave each kid a cutting that you should have something from it that you can enjoy all year-round.”
I traced my fingers over the blossom that had symbolized so much for me for so long.
Hope. Love. Family.
All of it I’d earned. All of it Sloane had given me.
“It’s…uh… It’s…nice.” I managed to get the words out around the lump in my throat.
Sloane grinned, bouncing on the cushion. “I knew you’d love it!” She paused her victory dance as the sound of breaking glass, a chorus of “uh-ohs,” and raucous barking sounded from inside. “Now, get your shit together before we go back in there.”
I chuckled and looked up to catch the winking angel on top of the porch tree. “He would have loved this,” I said.
“You know what else he would have loved? The dad and grandpa you are.”
I pulled her into my lap and framed her face with my hands. “All for you. Always.”