By Taryn Kincaid
The man sensed someone watching him and straightened a bit too swiftly, grazing his brow against the lip of the mantel.
“I was waiting for you,” the little boy told him. “You and Joe Granville. But I fink I fell asleep.”
Before turning toward the source of the youthful voice, the man wiggled his jaw and hoped for the best. A froth of fleece hung in lop-sided fashion below his chin and off to one side like the bow of a bonnet.
But the little boy did not seem to notice. Not quite four, he sat cross-legged next to the tree, half-hidden by the blue-green branches laden with ornaments. He rubbed one eye with his fist and blinked. Small bare feet peeked like pale fish from the hem of his long nightshirt.
The man winced. Pajamas on next year’s list, he thought.
Wind whistled down the flue adding to the chill in the room. A little pyramid of powdery snow mounded on the cold stone grate. He frowned and flicked a few flakes off his red sleeve.
Pajamas with feet.
Candles glowed on the tree and the fresh scent of pine blended with the aroma of oranges studded with cloves, mulled cider and sugary cookies. But the room’s frigid temperature sliced through the homey atmosphere.
He deepened his voice and threw a bit of gravel into it.
“It’s freezing outside,” he said. “In here, too. You must be an icicle, Danny.”
The youngster tilted his head to one side. “You know I’m Danny?”
“’Course, I do.”
The child accepted that with a nod. “I fought it was cold where you live.”
“Not usually this cold. Let’s make a fire.”
The boy sidled closer. “Can you get back up the chimbley, then? If there’s a fire?”
The man raised his eyebrow. A glob of white fuzz crawled across his forehead like a caterpillar. He snatched it down as the boy slipped past him to stare up the stone chimney.
More evidence of his neglect, the man thought. But he’d had to answer the calls that had taken him to global hotspots and disaster areas around the world and that, during this long, snowy night, had brought him into the mountains and rural back roads of home. And he suspected the little boy had talked his mother out of a Santa-singeing fire.
“I know the Granvilles pretty well,” the man assured the child. “I can leave through the front door. That’s how I came in.” Two days ago. Without warning. Shocking the hell out of the inhabitants.
"You know Joe Granville, too?"
The child hesitated, as if he wished to ask something else. Uncertainty shadowed the glistening excitement in his eyes. The little boy’s glance shot toward the duffel bag propped against the couch.
The man waited, but when Danny said nothing more, he turned toward the hearth and built a crackling blaze. Sticking his hands toward the glowing flames with a sigh of satisfaction, he soaked up the new warmth that filled the room.
He was done wrestling with bows and wrapping paper and the pieces of that damn sled for the night, he decided.
Danny stood beside him as he knelt on the stone. “Did you go to lots of places already?” the little boy asked.
“I go first to the places where children need me most,” he answered softly. “I didn’t think you needed me so much this year.”
“My dad came home,” Danny said.
“Sleeping upstairs, I bet. Like you should be.”
Danny shook his head. “Joe Granville went to see kids who need him, too. But he brings them medsin, not toys.”
“Don’t you want to call him ‘Dad’?”
“Mom calls him ‘Joe.’” The little boy frowned and leaned closer, his confiding whisper a breathy flutter against the man's cheek. “I didn’t remember him.”
The soft words wrenched Joe's heart. “He remembered you. He thought about you every day. Every second. You and your mom are what got him through.”
The little boy digested this. His brow furrowed. “Do you fink he’s cold?”
“Tired. But he’ll be back in his bed soon.” Or a sleeping bag on the couch. Joe yawned. Even that seemed inviting. “How ’bout we sit in the big chair a minute and toast our toes?”
“That's Joe Granville's chair."
The man ruffled the child's tousled hair. "He won't mind."
"Pretty sure." He tucked the child against his side and lowered himself into the armchair. Danny climbed onto his pillowed lap, cuddling closer as Joe wrapped an arm around him.
"I have gingerbread men for you,” the little boy said. “Do you fink those kids gave Joe Granville cookies?”
“I think those kids are sick and probably don’t have a lot to eat.”
Danny looked at the plate of treats next to the chair. His brow furrowed. “Do you fink those kids like gingerbread men?”
“I bet they would.”
“Do you fink Joe Granville would take me to see those kids? I can bring them these.”
The man’s throat tightened. He rested his chin against the top of the child’s head.
“You’re the best boy, Danny,” he murmured into the silky russet hair. Pride swelled within him. “What do you want for Christmas?”
There was no answer and he thought Danny had fallen asleep. But the child tugged on his sagging beard, until he turned his head. He met the little boy’s eyes, softer, but like his own.
“I want my dad to stay,” Danny whispered. “If you see Joe Granville, will you tell him?”
Joe’s eyes stung as much as if cinders from the fire had flown into them. The knot in his throat became a lump of coal.
“I bet he knows. I bet he’d like that more than anything in the world.”
“Oh, yeah.” His arms tightened around the small frame and he pressed Danny’s head against the broad expanse of his red velvet-covered chest.
The need to protect this child flowed through him, clenching his gut like an iron fist, the pain giving way to pure warmth. Joy filled the empty ache in his heart. His. His son. His beautiful, generous, forgiving little boy. His pulse strengthened but slowed, the juice of the adrenalin pumping through him during the night of emergency visits finally ebbing away. This is where he belonged. Nowhere else on earth.
“What do you think Mom would say about that?” Joe whispered.
His breath ruffled the child’s dark hair, shot through with fire, like his mother’s. Danny snuffled in sleep, a small fist curling beneath his childish open mouth.
“Doesn’t Santa know?”
The soft voice came from the direction of the stairway, startling him. He turned. The glow from the hearth illuminated the fiery strands of her hair, distinct shades of red and gold, ginger and spice, an extravagant tumble that flowed past her shoulders.
“I might have once. Three years is a long time, Cassie. Not sure you want me back anymore.”
Her glance slid to the sleeping bag on the couch. Then to her sleeping child, curled in his father's lap.
"He's just like you, you know. "
"Your hair," Joe protested.
He wasn't certain what she meant or how to respond to that. But he drank her in, his body tightening as he surveyed the lush curves beneath the khaki T-shirt she must have pulled from his duffel, stamped with the words "Property of the U.S. Army Medical Corps." He hadn't managed to wash it yet. Had she, he wondered? His gut clenched with fierce possessiveness at the sight of the faded letters across her chest.
“Two tours, Joe. The things you’ve seen." She belted her loose robe, hiding the words, the corps insignia. I don’t know how to act around you.”
“Just be there. The way I couldn't be.”
“I don’t blame you for doing your duty, serving your country. But I—I don’t know if you’re the man I married anymore."
“I’m not that man, Cass. I hope I’m a better one.”
“What else do you hope, Santa?”
He eased his sleeping child off his lap and stood. Directly beneath a sprig of mistletoe. He eyed the bit of greenery uncertainly before turning his pointed gaze back to his wife. She sucked in a sharp breath.
"What, too corny?" He offered her a tentative smile. The kind of smile that once had the power to melt her.
“Don’t you think I’m a little too old to be kissing Santa Claus?” The slight quaver in her voice renewed his hope.
“No. I don’t. Damn it, Cass. I just want my wife back in my arms again. To sleep beside her in our bed and awaken next to her in the morning. To kiss her like three years of hell never came between us.”
Cassie bit her lower lip. He burned to trace his tongue over the fullness of her mouth.
"You're wearing my shirt," he said. "I haven't even washed it yet. I think you want the same thing. I have to believe that."
"Come to me then, baby."
He held out his arms.
The woman he longed for, the woman he'd dreamed about during the darkest hours of his soul, tilted her head in the direction of the mistletoe. And then her eyes fixed on his again. Hungry. Devouring him. As he ached for her.
She erased the distance between them and flew into his arms.
He bent his head, seizing her lips, so sweet on his, warm, trusting, tentative. Familiar. Searing heat sizzled through him. Also familiar. For this woman. This woman alone. This woman he loved more than anything--except for the child of their hearts, sleeping peacefully in the armchair. At last content.
He deepened the kiss. Cassie’s passion for him sparked to life, like the fire he’d kindled in the hearth of the home he’d been absent from for so long. Too long.
“In that case,” she murmured, her lips against his own. “Merry Christmas, Dr. Granville. Welcome home.”