‘One man’s love is another man’s strength.’
A twenty-year veteran of the police force, Carson Mackenzie has worked hard to carve his niche in a demanding environment where stress is the operative word. Thanks to his occupation, he’s never relied on anyone, not even his husband Stephen until he’s involved in a severe car accident while on duty one night. His recovery isn’t smooth; reoccurring nightmares of the crash play havoc with his mental health and he starts to experience a new kind of stress—something he’s never dealt with, anxiety.
Adding to his problems, Dudley Kramer corners him in a restaurant, a shady art dealer who almost ruined his marriage and career once before. Arrogant and self-serving, Dudley wants sex and he’ll do whatever it takes. Too ashamed to ask for help, he tries to handle the situation alone but quickly discovers the art dealer won’t take no for an answer.
The dinner was excellent, duck and goose with all the festive trimmings, followed by trifle for dessert. Judy and Shirley stayed late and helped us clean up. I was pleasantly exhausted. Stephen left the Christmas tree lights on for the night—the great room and living room sparkled—a beautifully orchestrated kaleidoscope illuminating the darkness. Twinkles, then flashes and fading to reignite seconds later.
Christmas morning was stunning, the backyard blanketed in a mantle of white. I stood at the master bedroom French doors, curtains spread and pinned beneath my hands, admiring the view. Stephen hugged me from behind and kissed my back. The heat of his bare, hairy flesh against mine sent a pleasurable shudder through me. I turned around and embraced his head and shoulders. We kissed hard, and I expected to have sex. But Stephen had other plans.
He threw my robe at me. “Quick, get dressed, hon.”
“You’re blowing tradition here.”
“We can have sex after. This is more important.”
“Okay, now you’re scaring me, baby.” I tied my robe and sauntered out of our bedroom. “Need I remind you what Doctor Engel said?”
He greeted the dogs with hugs and kisses. “There are two other beings in this house and they deserve to open their presents.”
“You bought them bones to chew on and—”
“Shhh!” He shoved me all the way in the great room and I collapsed, bouncing to sink into the overstuffed couch. “You’ll spoil it for them.”
I eyed Saber and Bruiser, who sat at attention, eagerly waiting. “Mmm…I’m beginning to think it was a mistake bringing them home.”
“No!” I laughed brusquely, overlapping my robe and lifted my legs to rest on the coffee table. “They’re not children.”
“Maybe not, but they’re as close as we’re going to get.”
There was no use arguing. I leaned on the armrest, my gaze focused dreamily on Stephen as he entered the kitchen.
He banged around in the cupboards. “Tea or coffee?”
“Tea, please.” I stroked Saber’s head. He dropped his chin on the couch and his big brown eyes were locked on me. “Boring isn’t it?” I whispered and he acknowledged me with a snorting sigh. “Well, we’ve got to wait for mommy.”
Eventually, Stephen set a cup on a coaster in front of me and a platter of fattening treats: cupcakes, cookies, Christmas cake, along with buttered toast, peanut butter and honey and cheese.
“Well, I guess I’ll get you your present.” He removed four stockings from above the fireplace, gave the dogs the items from theirs, then he handed me mine.
“What do you get the man who has everything?” I lay the stocking across my lap.
“You’re right. I do have everything.” Stephen smiled handsomely. “That’s why I told you not to bother.”
“Like I wouldn’t get you something.”
He fished a red envelope out of his stocking. “What’s this?”
He blushed and tore the paper. Once he’d opened the card, he paused, almost holding his breath. “What’s this…?”
“An all-expenses-paid trip. You’d mentioned the West Edmonton Mall, and you love to shop, so I thought it would be perfect for you. I bought you a plane ticket and everything you’ll need, hotel room for four nights, car rental.”
He stared at me. “But there’s only one ticket.”
“Baby, you deserve a holiday on your own once in a while. Take Abby with you—or better yet, Bethany. She’s been there. Have fun.”
“You don’t mind?” His voice was hesitant.
“Why would I?” He was worrying needlessly again and I tried to reassure him. “I want you to forget about work and me, and really enjoy yourself.”
“That’ll be hard, but I’d try. Thank you.”
Stephen held out a legal-sized, plain white envelope. “I guess it’s the year of envelopes…Merry Christmas, hon.”
I set my plate of treats aside on the coffee table, brushed my hands and opened the envelope. Inside was a dog-training school brochure. At first, I thought he’d made a mistake, but when he encouraged me with a nod, I tore it open. A credit card slid out from the inside folds of the glossy paper and landed in my lap. “What’s this?”
“It’s got a twenty-thousand-dollar limit. Which according to my calculations should be enough for you start your own business.” He stuffed a piece of Christmas cake in his mouth and took a sip of his coffee and downed it. “You’ve got to set up your company first…apply for a business name, etc. That’ll cost and take a little time. Then you’ll need to register the name and get a business license and bank accounts. I can walk you through it if you need the help.”
Staring dead ahead, I squeezed the card as he talked. I couldn’t have been more touched. His generosity never ceased to amaze me; he was the kindest person I’d ever met in my life. My emotions swelled to overflowing. I couldn’t control myself, sniveled loudly and a tear ran down my face.
Stephen set his mug down. “Hon, are you all right?”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Well, I wouldn’t get too broken up, it’s just a loan. But not to worry,” he said matter-of-factly, patting my arm, “I’ll only charge you three-percent interest, which is five percent less than the banks.”
I burst out laughing and pressed a palm to my damp cheek. “How generous of you, only three percent.”
“Yeah, I’m a sucker for your blue eyes.” He leaned close with a huge grin and then whispered, “Like I’d ever charge you interest. The money’s yours.”
“God, baby, first you give me the truck in the summer and now this…. You’ve spent way too much.”
“Who else am I going to spend my money on?” The reprimand was affectionate and I suddenly felt self-conscious. “You’re my man, Carson Mackenzie, and I want to see you happy…and you haven’t been happy for a very long time. Raise dogs. Train dogs. Hell—fill the house with the smelly creatures!” Bruiser sat up and cocked his head with a grunt. Stephen glanced at him. “Not you. You’re not smelly, you’re handsome like your owner.” Then he grinned. “See, even he knows. Do whatever you want just as long as it puts a smile back on your face.” He sat back, stuffing another piece of cake in his mouth and mumbled, “There, I’ve had my say.”
I fell backward into the couch, shaking with laughter, and couldn’t stop.