leigh57 (leigh57) wrote in 24_fanfic,
leigh57
leigh57
24_fanfic

It's the Season . . .

Title: It’s the Season . . .
Author: leigh57
Characters: Jack, Renee, Kim, Little Teri
Summary: A trilogy of Christmas fic(lets).
Warnings: Language, sexual situations. AU set in a world where the end of 8x17 went very differently. If you dislike Jack and Renee behaving in a way that’s consistent with that episode, you are likely in the wrong place;)
Disclaimer: They’re not mine, and I still hate this fact.
A/N: Under the first cut. All cut text is from Vienna Teng’s gorgeous “The Atheist Christmas Carol.”



A/N: So apparently when I’m supposed to be writing the huge angsty AU I’ve been planning since last summer, I instead write Christmas!fic on road trips. Whatever. As it says in the summary, this ‘story’ is actually three ficlets (the last one is longer) that are all interconnected (or not) however you wish them to be. Smush warning is in effect, because when you add me, Jack & Renee, and Christmas . . . yeah. In any case, I’ll cross my fingers that there are a few remaining 24 and/or Jack & Renee fans out there.

The first fic is for dealan311, based on the lovely prompt here. The second fic is for adrenalin211, who prompted me with Jack/Renee “empty stocking.” How I got this out of that, I have no clue. The third is a revised and expanded version of something I wrote last year, so a few of you have seen part of it. It was also originally for adrenalin211, so I blame all the family angst on her:-P

Huge beta thanks to Adrienne and Katie, as always. You guys are the best.

Quick note I feel compelled to make: I wrote Jack’s “You okay?” at the beginning of the third fic four months before the epic joy/neverending horror that was 8x17. I was gonna change it, but then I thought, “You know what, writers? Screw you.” That is what I thought. So I didn’t change it. Oh and finally, I’m posting this for you, adrenalin211. If it were up to me, I’d spend forever swapping one word for another, as you well know:-P So here you go.


*********************************************************

He thinks his ass must have fallen asleep an hour ago, maybe longer. It’s four a.m., and all he wants is a 24-ounce cup of the blackest coffee ever brewed. Well, that or to get on the fucking plane. He assumes that the multicolored lights strung across the second floor railing (silver bars refracting the colors in all directions) of the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport were put there to add to the seasonal ambiance, but at present they’re only a reminder that he’s been in the goddamn airport for seven hours. He tries to inch sideways in the hard plastic chair without moving his legs.

Renee’s asleep with her head in his lap, her hair splashed across the down vest she pulled off to substitute for a pillow. When the loudspeaker announces another flight delay, Jack doesn’t tense this time; she’s been asleep for almost two hours and hasn’t moved once, not even when the guy with a screaming toddler in each arm sat down across from them to search for goldfish crackers.

It’s gonna be another couple hours at least. You should try to sleep.

I can’t sleep in the middle of an airport!

I bet you can.

I’ll close my eyes, but what are we betting?

Loser has to wrap all the presents.

You already wrapped all the presents.

Did I? Then I guess you’re safe taking me up on it.


He can’t help the way his eyes gravitate to the back of the hand that rests near her face, pale skin broken with half a dozen purple-red dots in various stages of healing. There’s still yellowish-blue bruising toward the center from a botched IV insertion. He remembers that moment like he remembers every other horror from her time in the hospital, like the bone-crushing instant replays they rerun in slow motion all through football season. The set of her jaw, the color sliding from her face, the way she looked out the window and bit into her lip.

I’m sorry. I can’t find the vein. I’ll have to try it again, the nurse had said.

Renee had nodded and said, It’s fine, but she’d fixed her gaze on the window again while he’d watched the blood well on her mouth.

When the nurse managed to find the vein and left the room, he sat on the edge of the bed and reached for her, but she held up her hand and whispered, Could you not touch me for a second?

He dropped his hand back onto his jeans and said, Yeah, because he knew why.

She’s cracked in front of him exactly once since it happened, the night she spiked a temperature of 103 and the antibiotics wouldn’t bring it down, the night she tried to walk to the bathroom by herself and (underestimating the power of Oxycodone) fell two steps short of the door, bruising her left side from shoulder to thigh, the night the doctor arrived for ten o’clock rounds and told her that if her oxygen levels weren’t up within a week, he wouldn’t release her in time for Christmas.

That night she’d cried on and off for an hour (silent, shoulders shaking), tears soaking through his shirt where her face pressed into his chest, while he lay beside her on the bed rubbing her arm, drawing blood from his own lip because he couldn’t touch her any more than that without disturbing some fucking thing that was hooked up to her.

All of the sudden she’d stopped, stared up at the ceiling, and said, her voice flat, I’m not staying here for Christmas.

No, you’re not, he’d replied.

He has no idea what he’s doing.

I’m so glad you’re coming home, Kim said on the phone last night.

Home.

He knows Kim means L.A. – the city has always been ‘home’ to her. It’s been so long since his mind connected that word with a physical location that the memory of her words is jarring.

Home.

He doesn’t know what it is, now.

He looks down at Renee, at the tiny lines that edge her eyes. The brown eyeliner she insisted on applying in the car has smudged, darkening the purple circles that already jump off her pale skin in the harsh fluorescent light of the terminal.

For a second, he does what he always does when something refuses to add up for him. He makes a mental list of the facts, of what he knows. He knows most people would consider him insane for having (three days ago) signed mortgage papers on a condo he’s never seen where he plans to live with a woman he had sex with once before he spent two months sleeping on a couch in her hospital room. He knows that not even two years ago, he thought he had all this shit in hand, that he’d come back from Sangala, testify before the Senate subcommittee, and go to jail (given the likely length of his jail sentence, he’d figured there was no need for much planning beyond that).

But then Renee happened, Kim happened, his granddaughter happened, and his brilliant self-protection plan collapsed.

He knows that home will never be a place again. But when Renee laughs so hard her eyes water (even though whatever he said wasn’t that funny at all), or wears that expression of intense concentration she gets when she’s doing a crossword puzzle (tapping the end of her pencil against her wrist, which should annoy the fuck out of him but doesn’t), or reaches for his hand when she’s falling asleep, something inside of him lifts while something else quiets, and all the crap jammed into the back of his mind isn’t as heavy or as crazy as it was a minute before.

He’s grateful when the loudspeaker interrupts his thoughts. Exhaustion and boredom have made them ungovernable; they keep turning abruptly left when he told them to go straight.

“United Flight 214 to Los Angeles will begin boarding in five minutes. We apologize for the delay. Happy Holidays.”

He smoothes his fingers through Renee’s chair and touches her cheek. “Hey.”

She opens her eyes and squeezes them shut immediately, cringing at the onslaught of light. “Hey.” She yawns, rubbing a knuckle into the corner of her eye. “Is it time to go?”

“Yeah.”

She sits up; the side of her face is a map of interwoven lines, a perfect imprint of his jeans.

“You feel okay? Are you dizzy?”

She grins. “No! Stop worrying. I’m ready to get the hell out of here.” She stretches, careful. “I have eyeliner everywhere, don’t I?”

“Well not . . . everywhere.”

She smacks his arm. “Shut up and help me find a Kleenex,” she says as she digs into her purse, and the laughter in her voice is contagious.

A family walks by, two harried parents and three exhausted kids. The woman’s clutching her giant cup of Starbucks in both hands. The little girl holds the edge of her mom’s navy parka in one hand, while the other has a death grip on a rumpled stuffed bunny. The pink lining has rubbed off the inside of its ears, and Jack’s mind tumbles back a couple of decades to a time when the one thing they could never forget on a trip was Kim’s black and white (eventually dull grey) stuffed penguin. He remembers a particularly harrowing Christmas Eve when Kim screamed most of the night and he and Teri spent the next day walking around like zombies, trying to manufacture cheer while they checked the turkey and stirred gravy.

“Did I get all of it?” Renee faces him. Her face is still creased from his jeans.

“You look great. Let’s go.” He grabs a bag in each hand and watches her stand, slowly, her arms braced around her ribs.

“You still haven’t guessed what I got you,” she teases, looking up at the lights on the second floor.

He says, “Whatever. You should stop pretending it’s not that LCD Sony you caught me staring at in Consumer Reports.

He thinks, I know exactly what you got me.

They haven’t left the ground, but he’s halfway there.



**********************************************************

He wakes up before dawn, determined to make coffee and maybe even try that cinnamon roll recipe he found on the net last night after Renee fell asleep. But her side of the bed is already empty, nothing but rumpled sheets and . . . the long-sleeved t-shirt he’s pretty sure she was wearing when she went to bed.

Interesting.

He climbs out of bed and fumbles through his second dresser drawer until he finds a sweatshirt, pulling it over his head as he walks down the hall. Renee’s in the kitchen, spooning brown sugar into her coffee. She’s wearing his grey Henley; it’s clingy enough that even in the half-light it’s clear she skipped the bra.

Warmth flushes his skin, and it isn’t the sweatshirt. “Hey.”

She drops the spoon in her coffee cup. “Morning. I didn’t wake you up, did I?”

“No. I was going to surprise you with breakfast.” He leans against the counter, trying to look at her eyes and not her chest, but the fucking shirt doesn’t make it easy.

She grins. “Sorry. I wanted to put your present in your stocking.”

“Oh really?” He raises an eyebrow and walks over to the pegs on the wall near the sofa, where Teri insisted they hang stockings despite the lack of a fireplace in their condo (something about how Santa has keys). He reaches inside the fuzzy red cloth and pulls out a giant bag of Sour Patch Kids. “You got up at five-thirty to put Sour Patch Kids in my stocking?”

She makes the least convincing innocent face he’s ever seen. “Is that all that’s in there?” She shrugs. “I guess you have to find the other present. But I’ll give you a hint. I’m wearing it.”

He swallows. She isn’t talking about his five-year-old shirt. He walks over and leans close, his body pressing against hers as he pushes her gently into the counter. He can feel her all over, even through the fabric that rubs his chest when she moves. He starts at the back of her thighs, fingertips wandering upward as he watches her face. Her mouth, inches from his, twitches when he hits a ticklish spot, but she doesn’t laugh. She does, however, make a noise he can feel in the back of his neck when his palms slide around to the front and he whispers, “I’m not finding anything.”

“Keep going,” she manages. Her breathing has picked up. He feels her exhale into the edge of his jaw, breath floating down his neck, and god he just . . . wants her.

Finally his thumb drifts over the hard line of her hip, touching the thinnest strip of satiny fabric instead of skin, and he figures it out. She’s wearing one of the thongs he was pretending not to notice when they walked past Victoria’s Secret at the mall last week. He’d tried so hard not to look – his eyes couldn’t have moved for more than a tenth of a second, but apparently that was all it took.

“You’re not that stealthy. You think I didn’t notice you looking?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he mumbles, sliding his finger under the slippery fabric to rub her hip (he wonders what color she picked, imagines the contrast of black on her skin).

“Mmm hmm.” She kisses him, soft suction on his lower lip; it’s mint and sex and permission. He hooks his thumbs underneath the barely-there stretch satin and draws it down her thighs until it falls.

“You don’t wanna share your Sour Patch kids with me?” Her words hover, vibrating over his ear, leaving shivery aftershocks. Her tongue traces his earlobe and she smiles at his sudden sharp intake of air.

He reaches for the hem of the shirt he’s been waiting to yank off her since he walked into the kitchen. “Maybe later.”




************************************************************

“You okay?” He moved his thumb over her cheekbone and up to her forehead, pushing her damp hair aside.

“I’ll let you know in a second.” She shifted, sliding her leg over his stomach and touching her lips to his shoulder. “That was-” She pressed her face into his neck, laughing softly, her breath still catching in uneven gasps. “I don’t even know what that was,” she whispered.

He smoothed his hands over her back, loving the heat of her skin in the dark. It was strange and disquieting, how sometimes he still had to fight the impulse to search for pain. Feeling this good was terrifying, forbidden, the icy beer he and his friends had snuck from the fridge when they were eleven or twelve.

“Tell me what you’re thinking.” She paused, and he felt her whole body tense in half a second. “You’re not actually mad, are you? Because I didn’t mean to-”

He kissed her, Riesling and sweat. “I’m not mad. We were quiet,” he mumbled against her mouth, already distracted again by the soft slide of her tongue and the way her voice felt in his spine, that quality she used only with him. No sharp edges. He forced his fingers to stop at her ribcage and rested his forehead on the edge of hers. “I’m thinking how long it’s been since Christmas was anything other than sixteen hours of consciousness I tried to live through by force of will.” After a second, he tugged at her until she rolled fully on top of him, her body stretched over his. Fiddling with a piece of her hair, he said, “Teri believes in Santa.”

“Of course she believes in Santa. She showed me a copy of her list last night when you and Kim were trying to find Stephen’s stocking. I nodded a lot and pretended I knew what she was talking about.” She rubbed her thumb over one of his ribs. “Do you know what a Zooble is?”

He fell silent, his fingers moving in circles over her lower back. Renee drew in a breath as if to say something, but blew it out again, quiet. After another second she whispered, “I know you’re thinking about Teri. Say it. It’s okay.”

He cleared his throat, memories floating and twisting, jagged and sharp. “Sometimes I have no idea why you’re here.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” She pushed up a little, but he noticed she didn’t try to distance herself.

“You’re naked on top of me and we’re talking about my wife.” He chuffed. “Romantic.”

“You’re kind of missing the point.”

He leaned back into the pillow, studying the shadows on the ceiling. “Which is what?”

“If I had to make a list of my five favorite things about you, do you wanna know what would be on top?”

“Probably not,” he muttered, “But you’re gonna tell me anyway.”

“You don’t do anything halfway,” she said quietly. “Ever.”

“Makes two of us.”

She traced her fingertip over a scar near his clavicle, grinning mischievously. “I know. That is why I’m here.”

He scoffed. “Because this is your favorite post-sex topic?”

“Jack.” The levity had vanished from her voice. “I love that you loved her. Love her. If you could forget, if Christmas didn’t get to you like this?” She paused, swallowing twice. He forced himself to wait, not to fill the silence. “You’d be someone else. And-”

She cut herself off and kissed him, the familiar warm shape of her mouth soft and comforting. He let her for a second before he took her cheeks in his hands, tilting her face. “And what?”

“I don’t want someone else.”

Fifteen replies flashed past him, all of them equally idiotic. So he pulled her down until he could hold his lips to her neck, feel her pulse, breathe the soap she’d stolen from his overnight bag.

The heat came on again, a soothing hum, and Jack could feel the slow slide of tension from Renee’s muscles as her body relaxed into his. She felt so fucking good he was halfway tempted to flip her and start over again, but something in the silence stopped him.

He looked toward the door and thought about morning, about Teri and stockings and faith in intangible things.

Oh, shit.

“Renee.”

“Mmmmm.” She barely stirred.

“We need to get dressed.”

“What?”

“Teri. She’s gonna come in here as soon as she gets her stocking in the morning.” He exhaled. “I’m sorry. I know you’re . . . comfortable.”

Renee rolled over, and he could see her smile in the slight illumination from the clock. “No! You’re right.” She stood up, rummaging on the floor. He felt a soft thud of cloth on his chest. She laughed. “You wore my favorites. I didn’t notice when I was busy trying to talk you out of them.”

“You were doing a lot more than talking.” Jack watched the outline of her body as she pulled on her pajama pants and shrugged into the t-shirt she’d deliberately dried on hot and then stolen from him. “You’d better not do that to the black one.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She yanked her hair from the neck of the shirt and crawled back into bed, shivering. “Shit, it’s cold in here.”

_________________________

He had no idea what woke him up. There wasn’t even a sliver of light around the curtains, so he squinted at the faint glow of the tiny alarm clock Kim kept in the guest room. 4:45. Renee’s face was smushed into the pillow, her left arm thrown over his stomach. He felt the warm weight of it each time he breathed in. Even a few months ago he would have tensed, would have gently lifted her wrist and inched away until her body wasn’t touching his any more so he could go back to sleep. Now he stared at the ceiling, relaxed but not sleepy, and listened to the quiet pre-dawn rhythms of the house.

Renee’s breathing. The swish of air from the central heating system. A faraway siren, decibels decreasing by the second.

It had been years since he’d allowed himself to think about Christmas at all. In the past, the thoughts he’d pushed away had always been bordering on Christmas-card ridiculous, nostalgia and longing so powerful he’d drag himself into bed Christmas night feeling as if he’d gone fifty rounds with a possessed heavy bag. Kim’s face when he brought in her first two-wheeler. Teri singing (badly) to some Carpenters song. The three of them snuggled up on the couch watching Rudolph, Kim curled in his lap because she was terrified of the abominable snowman.

Now that he permitted himself to think about it without filters, he remembered these moments, but he recalled others, too. Nights when he’d come home late to find Teri sitting quietly on the couch, looking at the tree lights. You haven’t been home in time to read to Kim for almost two weeks. She cried herself to sleep tonight.

Fighting over money, Teri insisting Kim didn’t need another outfit for her surfer Barbie.

The night he lost track of time at work and missed the first half of Kim’s winter concert. Beyond Do you know where Kim’s sweatshirt is?, Teri hadn’t spoken to him for almost a week.

Walking into the living room the morning after Christmas, surveying the silver, red, and gold explosion of discarded wrapping paper and Scotch tape, wondering where the season had gone, how the hell the seasonal ‘magic’ had evaporated so quickly when he’d never felt it in the first place.

He heard his granddaughter’s tiny voice in his mind. Grandpa. Where’s your stocking? Santa’s not gonna bring you any candy!

He scooted closer to Renee, until he could feel the warmth of her skin through the worn flannel on his thigh.

The siren was gone now.

He closed his eyes.

_________________________

“Grandpa! Santa brought me Sour Patch Kids and lipstick and strawberry gum!”

Jack awoke to the bounce of Teri’s voice, the smell of cinnamon, and the sensation of the bed wiggling beneath him.

“Can I get in the middle? I wanna show you my candy!”

“Honey, let’s go downstairs so we don’t wake Renee up,” he whispered.

“Doesn’t she want to look in her stocking?” Teri whispered back. She sounded puzzled.

Renee rubbed her hands over her eyes and pushed herself up on her side. “I’m awake. Of course I want to look in my stocking!”

Jack watched Renee’s face, convergence of joy and confusion, as Teri jumped over him, pulled back the mound of covers, and squirmed down into the bed right between them, her blond hair tousled on the flannel pillowcase. On the comforter that covered Jack’s chest, she dumped the contents of her stocking. Hello Kitty lip-gloss, gummi worms, a tiny stuffed owl, Snickers, and some kind of fruity gum spilled onto the bed.

“I love Fruit Stripe!” Teri exclaimed, grabbing the package and ripping off the entire wrapper in a flurry of crinkling plastic. She shoved a piece in her mouth. “Want one, Renee?”

“Sure!”

“What flavor?”

“You choose, okay?”

“Lemon’s the best,” Teri announced, pulling out a yellow piece. She handed it to Renee and bounced up, pushing the covers aside. “You guys coming down? Mommy made cinnamon rolls and it smells burny like that gross coffee you like, Grandpa.”

Jack laughed. “I’ll be right down, sweetheart.”

“Okay!” Teri piled her presents back into her stocking and ran out of the room, kinetic energy and pajamas with penguins.

He rolled over to look at Renee, who was propped on her elbow, chewing her gum and smiling. “She’s a little much before coffee. That’s why I packed two pounds of Starbucks.” He raised an eyebrow. “Do you actually like that gum?”

“Are you kidding? I used to chew this stuff all the time. I didn’t know they still made it.” Renee pushed back the covers and sat up, sliding her feet into her slippers. “I’m gonna take a shower.”

“Don’t you want to do stockings with us?” Jack walked around the bed and stood in front of her, uncertain.

“Jack.” She hugged the back of her arms, bouncing up and down on her toes in the chilly room. “I love being here. But go down and have some alone time with your family on Christmas morning.” She paused, then stepped forward and brushed her lips over his cheek. “Please.”

“I just-” He heard something fall in the kitchen, followed by muffled yelling. It didn’t sound life threatening, so he went on. “I want you to feel comfortable. Here.”

She stopped bouncing, her eyes quiet, focused on his. “I do. Completely. So go.”

He took her face in his hands, kissed her (lemon tang and the light of her laughter in his mouth), and left the room, shutting the door behind him.

_________________________

He would have taken the stairs two at a time, but he could hear Teri screaming, and he figured that walking into the middle of a disciplinary moment might not be the best idea. He slowed down, stopping on each step to look at the photographs that lined Kim and Stephen’s stairwell. If you started on the top floor, they went in chronological order. He, Teri, and Kim when Kim was six months old, a red band with a bow decorating her completely bald head. Kim as a toddler, laughing atop his shoulders on a mountain hike. He and Teri, asleep on the couch, her hair tousled, head on his chest (a photo Kim had been so proud of herself for taking at 11 or 12). The last professional family photo ever taken, all of them smiling, faces touching, arms intertwined and fingers squeezing shoulders.

Together.

He curled his fingers into a fist, resisting the urge to trace Teri’s smile with his fingertip.

There was no gap in the pictures themselves (Kim was a touch of a perfectionist that way – matching frames and uniform space in between them), but time warped and they suddenly skipped ahead to five or six years ago. Kim and Stephen in a kayak, sunburned and laughing. Their wedding picture, the two of them holding hands and kissing. Teri’s birth – Kim puffy, white, and exhausted, Stephen scruffy and smiling, and Teri – her miniature hand next to her face, which was squinched up in sleep. Teri standing by the front door on her first day of preschool, Dora backpack and purple striped shirt.

The gap was in him.

He took another step down, and he was on the other side. He, Kim, Stephen, and Teri at a pizza place in the city, Teri waving a stuffed elephant Jack had bought her at FAO Schwarz, her mouth smeared with pizza sauce. He and Renee swinging Teri up off the sand on a walk at the beach.

“Dad? Is that you?”

“Yeah. Coming.” He took the rest of the stairs quickly and turned into the kitchen, where Kim was spooning icing over a pan of fresh cinnamon rolls. He walked over and pulled her into a hug, dropping a kiss on her head. “Merry Christmas, sweetheart.” He glanced around. “Where’s Teri?”

Kim laughed, licking frosting off her finger. “Already in time-out. She wanted to take Renee’s stocking upstairs and lost it when I told her no.” She caught Jack’s expression and shook her head. “Dad. We’ll be doing this all day. Don’t worry about it. She’s just overexcited.”

“Okay.” Jack pulled out an oversized coffee mug with a tuxedo-wearing snowman on it and filled it with coffee, steam rising as he poured. He sat down on one of the stools that surrounded the island in the middle of the kitchen and glanced toward the living room, where he could see the lights from the tree, glowing and reflecting off the ridiculous number of presents underneath.

Kim put down her frosting-covered knife. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” For a second he considered lying; he hadn’t been with Kim on Christmas for so long, and all he wanted was for her to be happy, enjoy the day without his baggage. But that was stupid, because even after all the time apart, she could look right through him. “I just wish-” He cleared his throat. “I just wish your mom could see her,” he said (the words felt heavy), clutching his coffee cup and relishing the burn that stung his palms.

Kim went very still, and she looked directly at him. He watched as her blue eyes turned shiny. “Me, too,” she said, her voice tight and crackly. “I wish that . . . every day.”

He would have said something else, but his throat was closing, so he took a sip of his scalding coffee.

“Hey!” Kim’s voice was still high, but it didn’t break this time. “Remember that Christmas Mom tried to make cinnamon rolls and she forgot the yeast, but we ate them anyway and they were disgusting?”

Of course he remembered. He remembered like he remembered the siren last night, -- Teri’s crushed face when she realized they hadn’t risen, her delighted smile when he and Kim had forced them down anyway and lied their asses off, swearing they were fine, her mock fit of anger when she tasted one herself and realized the truth. She’d rolled her eyes, shoved him in the chest, and whispered so Kim couldn’t hear, You’re such an ass. Why the hell would you eat that?

“Yeah.” He took another swallow of coffee to make sure he sounded mostly normal. “God, those things were terrible.”

Kim grinned. “Well mine are amazing, so you should have one.” She pulled a plate out of the cupboard and extracted a sticky sugary mass from the pan, handing it to him. “Where’s Renee?”

“In the shower. She’ll be down in a couple minutes.”

“Is she-” Kim stuffed a bite of cinnamon roll into her mouth. “Okay here?”

Jack pulled on a piece of gooey dough. “Yeah. I think she’s fine. Are you okay with it?”

Kim rolled her eyes. “We’ve had this conversation like five times, Dad.” She walked past him, kissing his cheek, leaving behind sticky confectioner’s sugar. “I’m gonna go post bail for Teri. Back in a second.”

He ate another bite of the cinnamon roll (she was right – they were incredible) and looked up to see Renee, hair dark and damp on her shoulders, fiddling with her earring as she turned the corner.

“It smells so good in here.” With her free hand she grabbed a mug and filled it with coffee, scooting onto the wooden stool beside him. “Dammit. Will you fix this for me?”

He leaned closer, holding her head steady with his hand on her neck, and slid the silver hook into her ear. The crystal snowflake dangling from it caught the light of Kim’s Christmas candle. “There.”

“Thanks.” She glanced at the pan. “Are those homemade?”

“I think so. Why?”

“Just wondering.” She inched his plate toward her and tore off a piece. “It’s been a long time since . . . I had homemade cinnamon rolls.” She stirred her coffee and didn’t look at him.

“Me, too.” He ran his thumb over the inside of her wrist, back and forth over the faint fading purple of her scar. “So you should stop stealing my food,” he teased, pulling the plate away from her, “and go see what I put in your stocking before everybody comes back.”

She grabbed for the plate again, talking through a mouthful of cinnamon roll. “Because they’ll find out you bought me dark chocolate Snickers? I found them last week when I was putting away your socks. That’s a terrible hiding place, Jack.”

“Maybe there’s something under the Snickers, smartass.”

Renee dropped the roll and looked at him, eyes wide with instant excitement. “Really?” She jumped off the stool and walked toward the living room, glancing over her shoulder. “Something I didn’t find?”

“I’m pretty sure I’d know if you found it,” he muttered, breathing deeply in an attempt to control the erratic thud in his chest.

Because the present he’d slipped into her stocking last night was the closest he’d been able to come to the wrapable version of what she was to him. Something entirely unexpected, something he never would have dreamed of asking for.

“Jack?”

Grinning, he put down his coffee and walked toward the question in her voice.
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