“I’m happy to hear that.” Her strong arms went around me, and she nearly squeezed the air out of me. “When Jase told me what—” She glanced over to where Jack was rolling dough into balls. She lowered her voice. “I don’t want the little one to overhear, but I’m glad you’re okay and that—”her voice dropped low—“crazy son of a bitch is in jail.”
My lips twitched. “Me too.”
Mrs. Winstead shook her head sadly as she watched Jack plop a ball of batter onto a cookie sheet. “Just that poor girl . . .”
“I know.” I bit down on my lower lip. “I keep telling myself that at least there’s justice for Debbie now.”
Jack looked over his shoulder, a frown of curiosity on his cute face. “What’s justice?”
“When bad people have their comeuppance, baby. And that’s the good thing.” Mrs. Winstead smiled at me, and the lines around her eyes deepened. Her voice lowered again. “But that . . . that’s not all.”
Placing her hand on my shoulder, her chest rose with a deep, heavy breath. “I’m glad that you know—that Jase told you.”
I didn’t know what to say. All I could do was nod, and Mrs. Winstead’s smile spread as Jack snuck a piece of dough. “Jase used to do that as a little boy too,” she said, blinking rapidly. “He ate more dough raw than he did cooked.”
“That’s when it’s at its best.” My voice was surprisingly hoarse.
She patted my shoulder. “You’re good for my boy, so damn good. He hasn’t gotten close to anyone since Kari, and you’ve gotten him to open up that heart of his. I know we haven’t had a chance to really get to know each other, but for that, you’ll always be like a daughter to me.”
Oh dear, I was going to cry.
Blinking back tears, I smiled and then I laughed. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to cry.”
Jack was turned around again. “Why you sad?”
“I’m not sad,” I quickly told him, smiling for his benefit. “I’m happy, really happy.”
He took my word for it and went back to the cookie dough. I wiped at my eyes and pulled myself together. “Thank you. That means a lot to me, and I would never jeopardize him,” I said, nodding at Jack’s back. “Or Jase’s heart.”
“That’s my girl.” Her eyes turned misty, and she cleared her throat. “Now, look at me. I’m about to start shedding tears, and that ain’t gonna do us any good, not when my boy is coming right in here.”
“Hey, Mom.” Jase strode across the cluttered but homey kitchen, leaned in, and kissed his mother’s cheek. As he pulled back and glanced between us, he frowned. “Is everything okay?”
“Everything is good,” I said, smacking my hands together. “Jack is pretty busy over there.”
He glanced over at him quickly, before eyeing both of us closely. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, hon. Us gals were just chatting. All good things.” Mrs. Winstead turned, opened the oven door, and peeked in. “These are almost done.”
Appeased, Jase went over to where Jack was and snuck a ball of dough off the cookie sheet.
“Hey!” Jack giggled as Jase popped the whole thing in his mouth.
Kissing his little boy’s cheek, Jase then pivoted around, coming up behind me from around the kitchen table. He slipped his arms around my waist and hooked his hands together. “Can I steal her away now? Want to show her the tree.”
Mrs. Winstead winked at me.“Only if she wants to be stolen by you.”
“Oh, she wants to be stolen by me,” Jase replied, and I smacked his arm. He laughed. “Don’t be embarrassed.”
His mom shook her head as Jase spun around. Moving his arm to my shoulder, he led me back through the dining room. His father was no longer in the hall, and the large living room was empty.
The Christmas tree was huge and real and reminded me of home. Full of different and mismatched bulbs, the lights blinked every few seconds. Stockings hung above the fireplace.
“Look at this.” Stretching forward, he unhooked a red stocking and held it up. “What do you think?”
“Oh!” The stocking had my name on it, written in red glitter. “That’s mine? Are you serious?”
“Yes.” Jase laughed, hooking it back up. “Jack made it for you this morning.”
I don’t know what it was about the stocking with my name on it, but it made my heart swell like the Grinch’s had done. I thought it might burst.
“You like it?” he asked, sitting down on the floor with his back against the couch. Tugging on my hand, he waited until I sat. “I’m thinking you love it.”
“I do.” I laughed and then swiped at my face again. “I swear. I’m an emotional baby.” Lowering my hands, I let my gaze wonder over his striking face. “I really do love it.”
“I wonder what Santa will put in your stocking.” The way he said it made me think of dirty things. “And under your tree.”
I lifted a shoulder and then put my hands on the hardwood floor. Leaning forward, I kissed his lips. “I already have everything I want for Christmas.”
“Mmm.” His hands settled on my h*ps and he swept his lips over mine. “I don’t,” he murmured. “Because I’m greedy, I want to wake up with you tomorrow morning. That’s what I want.”
“Cam’s already left with Avery and I was taking you up late tomorrow morning. So why should I take you back to the apartment tonight?” He kissed the corner of my lips. “You can stay here with me. My parents wouldn’t care. We can pretend we’re sixteen and having quiet, dirty sex so no one hears us.”
I laughed. “You’re such a perv.”
“I am.” He kissed the other corner. “Stay with me?”
Kissing him, I pulled back just a little. “Like I’d say no.”
Jase wrapped his arms around me, situating me so that I sat between the vee of his legs and my back was to his front. I felt his lips curve against the side of my neck when Jack let out a high-pitched laugh at something Jase’s father had said in the kitchen.
“You know what?” he asked.
I turned and his lips then grazed my cheek. “Chicken butt?”
Jase laughed under his breath. “That was really dorkish.”
Giggling, I snuggled closer. “Yep. But you love me, so . . .”
“That’s true.” He kissed my cheek. “Which brings me to what I wanted to say.” There was a beat of silence, and his chest rose against my back. “In a way, you’ve already given me my best gift ever.”
“This morning?” I twisted so I could see him. “When I woke you with my—”
“Well, that was great, but no.” He grinned. “It’s bigger than that.”
I held my breath.
His gaze searched mine. “I never could picture myself married, you know. After what happened with Kari and spending these last couple of years watching my parents raise Jack, I didn’t see a family for myself in the future.”
My heart rate picked up.
“But that’s changed,” he continued, holding my stare, and those silvery eyes became my entire world in that moment. “And it changed because of you. Now I can see myself married, and I can see myself having my own family. With you. And that’s the best gift I could ever have.”
I opened my mouth, but I was beyond words. What he said was like basking in the August sun and had stolen my very ability to speak.
“Hey.” He cupped my cheeks. “Say something.”
I needed to say something, because what he said was so wonderful and so beautiful. My heart was pounding, and my thoughts were a mess of so many things. Elation rose deep inside me. Us. Together. Marriage. A family. One day. I fell in love all over again.
“God, Jase,” I breathed, closing my eyes. “I love you. I love you so much.”
He made a deep sound in the back of his throat and closed the tiny distance between us, fusing our mouths together. We kissed as if we were desperate for each other, pouring how we felt into it. And even when the swell of passion subsided just enough for us to breathe, we stayed close. Forehead to forehead. Lips brushing every so many seconds. Neither of us spoke, because everything that we needed to say had been said.
We stayed like that until the sound of pounding little feet forced us to break apart. Jack plopped down beside us, precariously holding a plate of cookies in one hand and a tablet in the other. He looked up at us with eyes that matched his father’s and tugged at my heart.
“Cookie?” Jack held out a half-eaten chocolate chip cookie.
I took it and broke it in half, holding one half up. Jase’s lips brushed my fingers as he took the whole thing in his mouth, causing Jack to burst into giggles. I ate mine a bit slower.
“These cookies are the best,” I told him.
A proud smile puffed up his round cheeks. “Cuz I made them.”
“That’s right.” Jase rested his chin on my head as he reached out, messing up his son’s hair with a large hand. “You’ve got mad cooking skills.”
“I wanna make Krispie treats next year for Santa.”
Jase groaned. “I don’t have good luck with those things.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I can teach you. I make some really good Rice Krispie treats.”
Jack’s eyes widened. “Really?”
“Promise.” I grinned as I glanced up, seeing his parents standing in the doorway. Tears glistened in his mother’s eyes as Mr. Winstead squeezed her shoulder. As my gaze fell back to Jack, who had moved on from the cookies to the tablet and was already engrossed in his game, I realized what his parents were seeing.
Because I was seeing it too.
The three of us.
So much had changed for us in a little over four months. Back in August, I never thought I’d be here on Christmas Eve, with my lips still tingling from Jase’s sweet kisses. Our future together wasn’t something any of us planned. I’d always thought I’d be a dancer. Jase always believed he’d never let himself fall in love again. None of this was expected, but I wouldn’t give any of this up to dance again.
My dream had been shattered, but then re-created, fashioned into something with more meaning and becoming more precious.
Holding the game high, Jack whooped as he smiled up at Jase. One day, he would know the truth about his father and his mother and I knew deep in my soul, I’d be standing next to Jase when that day came, there for the both of them.
I slid my hands down Jase’s arms, coming to where his hands were nestled just below my belly button. I spread my fingers over his, and he flipped his up, threading our hands together.
“Do you want to play the next round?” Jack asked with hope in his beautiful gray eyes as he looked up at me.
“I’d love to.”
Appeased, Jack returned his attention to the game, and Jase pressed a kiss to my temple, and then, against my skin, he mouthed the words I’d never grow tired of or used to hearing.
He whispered I love you.