Heart of Christmas

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BUY

Chapter One

Ten Years Later…


“Care to do the honors, Mrs. Evanko?” Beau, her handsome husband of nearly ten years handed Bristol the extension cord.


“I’d be honored to do the honors,” Bristol said, stamping her feet on the porch floor boards to keep warm. “Drumroll, my handsome helper.”


Beau obliged, drumming on the railing that he’d carved their initials into in a romantic, and splintery, gesture when they’d built the cabin.


“Let the Evanko-Quinn Christmas begin,” Bristol announced, plugging the cord into the outlet. She pumped her fist into the air as the twelve-foot, snow-tipped pine lit up with a dozen strands of Christmas lights. “Yes! We didn’t accidentally string up any of the blinky lights this time.”


Beau draped an arm around her and pulled her into his side so they could admire their work.


Pretty as a picture. The snow was falling steadier now, adding to the already pristine blanket. Night would fall soon, and with it, would come the Quinns bearing side dishes and desserts and presents.


“You know, if that tree gets any bigger, we’re going to need a bucket truck to decorate it,” he mused.


“How about we just make the kids do it while we stay inside and drink hot chocolate?”


“I like where your head’s at, gorgeous,” Beau said, smiling down at her. “Especially if hot chocolate is a euphemism.”


And suddenly the Sierra Nevada Christmas cold wasn’t a factor anymore. Bristol still loved looking at him after ten years, kids, and more milestones than she could mark. Sure, the crinkles by his eyes were deeper, and there were more gray strands in his reddish-brown beard. But Beau only got better with age.


She looped her arms around his neck and stepped her boots between his. “Thanks for the last decade, Beau.”


He gently stroked the long hair that spilled out from under her wool cap. “You’re still happy after all this time?” he teased.


She nodded. “Deliriously.”


“Good. Then I’m doing my job.”


Bristol raised on tip toe and placed a soft kiss against his mouth. “I love you. Thanks for doing this for my family.”


“Bristol, you say that every Christmas.” That was her Beau, sweetly exasperated every time she felt the need to say thank you. It was because he was intent on spending his life thanking her.


“It means the world to all of us that we can be together here.” She stretched her arm out to encompass the cabin. “Cabin” was an understatement. It was like calling a six-foot-seven professional hockey player “Tiny.”


When Beau had announced that they were building a cabin six years ago, Bristol imagined a cozy little cottage with a stone fireplace. Well, she’d gotten the stone fireplace. All two-stories of it. And five bedrooms—plus a bunk room—and more bathrooms than she cared to clean. Also a kitchen fit for a gourmet chef and his or her extended family. Every year since its completion, they’d hosted Christmas. The more the merrier.


She took another breath of the crisp winter air. “I’m going to go inside and make sure the kids haven’t fed the dog all of the Christmas cookies.”


Beau pulled her in for a hard hug, pressing her face against the flannel jacket he wore. He smelled of sawdust and snow and pine, a heady combination.


“I’m going to do another pass on the driveway before everyone gets here.”


“You just want to play with your new ATV,” she teased, pulling back to look up at him.


He grinned boyishly, and her heart fluttered the way it always did when she spotted that dimple.


“I’ll see you inside.”


He gave her a quick kiss on the forehead and bounded down the porch steps.


Bristol paused at the front door as was her habit and ran her fingers over the angel and heart carving that Beau had commissioned for the house.


Hope lives here.


Bristol stepped inside the front door shaking snow off her hat and vest.


“Mom!” The call came in surround sound as both Violet and Aaron vied for her attention from opposite ends of the great room.


“One at a time,” Bristol laughed. “Is anyone bleeding?”


“No,” they groaned in unison.


“I started the fire in the fireplace just like Dad showed me,” eight-year-old Aaron announced proudly from the living room. He looked so much like a miniature version of his father—taller than nearly every kid in his class, shaggy auburn hair, and those sea green eyes. It had been a shock to them both that, personality-wise, he’d taken after the Aunt Hope he’d never meet.


“I can’t find the pecans,” Violet called from the kitchen. At eighteen, she was as tall as her mother and, in Bristol’s humble opinion, a beautiful, kind soul… as long as you didn’t try to wake her before ten.


Bristol paused in front of the fireplace to admire Aaron’s handiwork and kissed him on top of the head. “It’s perfect, bud. When you’re done here, do you want to sneak the gift bags into everyone’s rooms?”


His green eyes lit up. “Yes!”


It was another Evanko tradition. On Christmas Eve, they welcomed their guests with little gift bags of cookies and goodies and silly trinkets. Everyone’s favorite part of the gift bag was the name of the Angel Tree child that Bristol and Beau and the kids had shopped for and the list of gifts they’d purchased in their honor.


Aaron hastily cleaned up the newspaper and kindling that he’d strewn about the hearth and made the mad dash for Beau and Bristol’s bedroom.


“Just the gift bags, Aaron. Leave the wrapped ones alone,” Bristol called after him.


“What time is Aunt Alli coming?” Violet asked.


Bristol joined her daughter in the kitchen, giving her tomboy daughter’s ponytail a tug as she looked over her shoulder.


“That looks beautiful, Vi,” she said peering at the pecan pie her daughter was making. Another sweet reminder of Hope. “Aunt Alli and Uncle Samaar will be here by dinner.”


“They should know whether they’re having a boy or a girl by now,” Violet said, weaving two pieces of pie dough into a fancy crust. It was her daughter’s creative expression on an old family tradition. As was the letter H over a cutout heart baked in the center of the pie. Just looking at it made Bristol a little misty, missing her sister and wondering what Hope would think of their lives now.


“Maybe they don’t want to find out what they’re having,” Bristol pointed out.


“I think it’s a girl,” Violet announced, putting the pie on a baking sheet and sliding it into the oven.


“Definitely a boy,” Aaron countered as he raced through the kitchen with gift bags looped over both arms.


“She!”


“He!”


“As long as the baby is—”


“Healthy,” Vi and Aaron announced with twin eyerolls.


“We know, Mom,” Violet said, hip-checking Bristol to take the sting out of her rebuke.


Health was always a concern. Eleven years ago, Beau’s little sister had lived what was supposed to be her last Christmas. But in a cruel and beautiful twist of fate, Bristol’s sister had died instead. Hope’s heart had saved Alli’s life. And now, more than a decade later, Alli the half-marathon runner, spinach smoothie-drinker, and marketing executive for the American Transplant Foundation, was four months pregnant.


The entire family was thrilled.


“Mom!” Aaron poked his head over the railing of the upstairs loft wielding two gift bags. “Who are these two for? They don’t have names.”


“Oh, those are extras,” Bristol lied. “Just put them in the back bedroom, okay?”


“’Kay!” he yelled.


Violet smirked at the thunder of her little brother’s feet above.


Chapter Two


 The ham was in the oven. The potatoes were boiling. The bottles of wine were open. The tree and candles were lit. And nearly all of their guests had arrived. Nolan, Bristol’s ex-husband and father to Violet, and his Halle Berry-lookalike wife, Lissa, had just arrived with their two kids, Lyric and Dexter. While they unpacked their SUV load of gifts and luggage and kid accessories, the rest of the crew including Bristol’s parents and her older sister’s family were crowded around the big leather ottoman in the living room playing a game and laughing.


Bristol watched them from the bottom of the staircase and felt her heart fill with blessings. Beau was missing from the chaos, and she spotted him in the foyer examining the Christmas cards they hung on the wall. There were dozens of them. Her favorites weren’t the ones from Beau’s old NHL teammates. And they weren’t all of the family and friend cards either. Her very favorites, the ones she always hung in the middle, were the ten that came from the other people whose lives Hope had saved.


Bristol wrapped an arm around Beau’s waist. “Doing a little light reading?” she asked, pressing a kiss to his cheek.


“Just feeling beyond lucky,” he said.


“Me, too,” Bristol whispered.


They both heard the engine of a car, and Beau squeezed her shoulder. “Alli and Samaar are here,” he called to the living room. A cheer erupted.


Beau and Bristol stepped out onto the front porch and watched as the couple climbed out of their SUV. Alli’s little rounded belly was barely visible under her turtleneck, but just the glimpse of it was enough to send a bolt of joy through Bristol’s heart.


Beau jogged down the steps and swept his sister up into a hug that brought her feet out of the snow. “Missed you, Al.”


Samaar, ever fashionable in a cranberry cashmere scarf, grabbed Bristol for a tight hug. “How’s my favorite sis-in-law?” he asked, giving her an extra squeeze.


“Great. How was your drive?” she asked.


“Long!” Alli winked, playfully shoving her husband out of the way so she could hug Bristol. “Don’t hug me too hard because I have to pee.”


Bristol laughed. “Well, then. Let’s get you inside to some indoor plumbing.”


They did just that, and after another round of hugs and greetings and one bathroom break, they all sprawled out on the couches and chairs in the living room.


The chatter of a dozen conversations rose over the crackling of the fire and the snoring of Savannah’s dog, Honey.


Bristol saw Samaar and Alli share a secret smile, and then Samaar brought the whistle to his lips.


Another tradition, Beau’s coaching whistle had been commandeered one Christmas when Nana Ludavine couldn’t get the family to shut up for four seconds. Since then, it had become part and parcel of nearly every Evanko-Quinn get-together.


They moved to stand in front of the Christmas tree, facing the rest of them. Samaar nervously twirled the whistle on his finger.


“What’s going on?” Big Bob Quinn, Bristol’s dad asked.


“Yeah, you two look suspicious,” Savannah, Bristol’s older sister observed.


“We wanted to wait to do this until everyone was together,” Alli announced.


Beau pulled Bristol into his lap where he sprawled on the leather armchair. “Baby news?” he whispered in her ear, his voice hopeful.


“Last week we…” Alli cleared her throat, and her eyes clouded with tears.


Oh, God. Bristol froze. Was it bad news?


Samaar rubbed Alli’s back. “What my wife is trying to say and can’t get out, due to pregnancy hormones and general holiday mushiness, is that we found out what we’re having last week.” He grinned. Alli was glowing too despite the silent tears.


Bristol sagged with relief against Beau. He stroked her thigh through her jeans.


“Anyway, we know that all we’re supposed to want is a healthy baby. But we both were hoping for…” He paused and gazed down at Alli. She was smiling and crying and shining so brightly that Bristol could feel the joy radiating off of her.


“A girl. We were hoping for a girl, and we’re having one,” Alli blurted out.


Mary, Bristol’s mother, squealed in delight, jumping up and clapping her hands. “A baby girl! We’re having a baby girl!”


Aaron slouched onto the couch next to six-year-old Dexter. “Another girl. Great.”


“A baby girl named Hope,” Alli added.


Squeals turned to gasps and then tears.


“For the love of God, will someone get me some tissues,” Savannah wailed from the couch. Vince, her husband in a hideous reindeer sweater, scrambled for the box on the end table, his own eyes misty.


“A baby girl named Hope,” Mary sniffled. “We get another Hope.”


Violet was crying softly as Aaron helpfully shoved the tissues in her direction.


Bob mopped at his own eyes with his sleeves.


Nolan’s wife Lissa tearfully grabbed Lyric in a headlock and squeezed her daughter tight.


“Mom! You’re crushing me.” Lyric’s arms flailed, and Nolan did his best to pry his wife off her.


Bristol pressed her face into Beau’s chest and squeezed him tight before jumping out of his lap. She crossed the living room and wrapped Alli in a hug. They swayed side to side for a long, quiet moment. Tears, salty and sweet, decorated their cheeks.


“I want in on this!” Mary elbowed her way into the hug. “Grammy wants a hug!”


Savannah and Lissa weren’t about to be left out. The women joined in, wrapping their arms around everyone.


“Hey, I helped make this baby,” Samaar pointed out from outside their tight, tearful circle.


“Get in here.” Bristol pulled him into the center.


“Group hug,” Violet announced. And everyone joined them in front of the tree, a tangle of arms, a flood of tears, a shared joy so palpable they could all feel it.


“I told you they’d like it,” Alli sniffled at Samaar.


“Are you sure they like it? They’re all crying. I think they hate the idea,” he joked.


“Shut up, Samaar!” They shouted as one.


#


Christmas Eve dinner was its usual chaotic, two-hour party. Too much wine, too many cookies, and plenty of laughter. They dined by candlelight in their pajamas, all talking at once. The dining room table, a fourteen-foot behemoth, had room for everyone. And just like every other year, Bristol held Beau’s hand under the table.


They had plenty to be grateful for every holiday season. Beau had retired from the NFL before they met. But he’d been smart and careful with his money. They’d invested in real estate and a few commercial ventures, freeing him up to dabble in the hardware store and apartments next-door, while still lending a hand over at Bristol’s Early Bird Café. The café’s business was brisk and profitable. She’d paid back the money her parents and Nolan—God bless him for being the best ex-husband and co-parent a woman could want—had lent her.


She no longer woke in cold sweats wondering how she’d send Vi to college. And college was right around the corner for her high school senior. Her terror-on-skates high school senior. Thanks to Beau and Violet’s combined influence, the high school started a women’s ice hockey team, coached by none other than the legendary NHL hero Beau Evanko.


He’d fit seamlessly into her family, becoming a second dad to Violet and giving Bristol another sister in Alli. He’d been welcomed by her parents and her hard-ass divorce attorney sister. Even her crazy Italian aunts and Nana Ludavine loved him. They’d all be here tomorrow for Christmas brunch. The men would retire to the basement with its big screen TV and line of recliners when the women got too loud and wild on the main floor.


Traditions. No matter how much a family changed, there were traditions to uphold.


And things would be just a little louder, a little wilder next year with baby Hope. Bristol savored a sip of wine only half-listening to the laughter and conversations around the table.


Beau tossed something small and shiny at Violet. Ever the athlete, she caught it one handed. Beau gave her a subtle nod. She grinned at him and blew a sharp trill from the whistle.


Honey whimpered and ran out from under the table where she’d lurked in search of handouts.


Conversation came to a screeching halt.


“I have some news,” Violet announced.


Bristol frowned at Beau. How did her daughter have news that she wasn’t aware of?


Violet took a deep breath.


“Well, spit it out already,” Aaron encouraged.


“Give them the shirts, Beau,” Violet said in a stage whisper.


On cue, Beau reached under the table producing several rolled up t-shirts. He handed one to Bristol and winked.


Bristol unfurled the shirt and held it up.


UW Badger Mom


A pair of hockey sticks crossed in an X under the words.


“No. Way.”


Violet nodded vehemently. “Yes way. I got into University of Wisconsin,” she said in a rush. “I’m going to be a Badger!”


Bristol let out a “whoop” and slapped the table with her palm in excitement. Her baby girl was going to her dream college, her first choice. Not that Bristol was by any means ready to let Violet go. But she had a few months to work her way up to it.


“That’s not all,” Beau’s deep voice broke through excited congratulations.


“I also made the team… and got a partial scholarship,” Violet grinned.


Bristol stood up so fast she knocked her chair over. She raced around the table, grabbing Violet from behind for a hug. Nolan rose to join the embrace.


“I’m so damn proud of you, kiddo,” he whispered.


Bristol would have echoed the sentiment, but the lump in her throat was preventing any words from getting out. She pressed a kiss to Violet’s head and met Beau’s gaze. He was glowing with pride. Violet was as much his as she was Nolan’s, and they were all more than okay with that.


She released Violet and returned to her husband. “You sneak,” she hissed poking him in the shoulder.


He pushed his chair back and pulled her into his lap. “I just happened to be there when she got the email and ran to find out why she was screaming.”


“This is just the best Christmas Eve ever,” Mary proclaimed. Bob was too busy proudly pulling on his UW Badger Grandpa t-shirt over his pajama top.


“I don’t think I can take any more surprises tonight,” Savannah said. “If there are any more, can we please hold them until tomorrow?”


The doorbell rang, and the table quieted.


“Who would be showing up here on Christmas Eve?” Beau wondered. “Are the aunts coming early?”


“Why don’t you go find out,” Bristol suggested. “And maybe take Alli with you?”


“What are you up to, gorgeous?” he demanded, rising from his chair.


Bristol smiled innocently. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Hurry up.”


Beau and Alli made their way to the front door.


“Mom? Dad?” Alli’s shocked announcement sent a ripple of gasps down the table.


“Hey, Mom, you want to go grab two more plates from the kitchen?” Bristol suggested. She took her wine into the foyer where Alli was hugging their mother and Beau was gaping at their father as if he were the ghost of Christmas past.


“Bristol!” Gladys Evanko reached for her daughter-in-law.


“You did this?” Alli asked in shock as her mother and Bristol embraced.


Bristol had invited the Evankos to every Christmas celebration. But their work, leading relief efforts in various parts of the world, always came first. This year, Bristol wasn’t willing to take no for an answer. It had been three long years since they’d last visited. That visit, though short, had gone a long way in repairing the rift between parents and the children who had been set aside for a greater good.


Beau shook his father’s hand and pulled Don in for a one-armed hug. “It’s good to see you, Dad.”


“Oh, my! Our little girl is having a baby,” Gladys sighed, admiring her daughter’s tiny belly.


“Your little girl is having a little girl,” Alli said, patting her stomach.


“What smells so good in here?” Don asked, rubbing his hands together on the way to the dining room.



Chapter Three


Bristol stepped out of the bathroom and into the bedroom to find Beau sprawled naked across the flannel quilt. He hadn’t been a professional athlete in over a decade, but he’d certainly held on to the physique.


The electric candles in the bay window bathed the room in a soft glow. Outside the snow fell steadily, quietly, beckoning her.


Bristol crossed to the window and stared out at the midnight Christmas scene. The lights on the pine shone from under a new layer of snow on the branches. In the distance, the Sierras glowed white against the inky purple sky.


It was picture perfect. And everything felt right.


She felt Beau behind her, and then he was wrapping his arms around her. Those big, capable hands that had changed her life, traveling her body on a never-ending exploration.


Bristol leaned her head back against his broad shoulder.


“Beautiful night,” she whispered, twining her arms around him over her head.


He skimmed his palms over her breasts. Her nipples tightened in reaction to the heat of his hands and the silk of her nightshirt. Beau gave a rumble of approval deep in his chest. “It might be a beautiful night, but there is nothing more beautiful in this world to me than you, Bristol.”


“Beau,” she sighed out his name with love, with want.


He slid his hands down her waist, over her hips, until his busy fingers found the hem of her nightshirt. With the whisper of silk, he pulled the shirt up and over her head, discarding it on the plush, ivory rug.


“That’s better,” he murmured against her throat. His hands continued their lazy tour of her body.


He was hard for her, achingly so. Seeing him wanting her never failed to ignite her own desire. Even after so many years together, babies, and weddings, and now college. It was a life better than Bristol could have ever dreamed for herself.


“I love you, Beau,” she whispered into the snowy night.


He pressed her forward with his weight against her back. And Bristol braced herself against the window, palms on the cold glass.


With the patience of a man who knew what good was yet to come, Beau pushed into her slick center. He took his time, moving, worshipping, loving.


Bristol trembled beneath his touch as she had a thousand times before. No one knew her body better.


Those capable hands returned to her breasts to squeeze and tug and stroke. She could feel the heat of his breath, the rough of his beard, against her bare shoulder.


This was love. And this. And this.


They moved together to music only they could hear, reverently chasing each other toward the peak.


Her breath, short and hot, fogged the glass until all that was left was candlelight and Beau.


“My love. My life,” Beau chanted the words softly and Bristol felt him go impossibly harder inside her.


He released one breast and brought his hand to the apex of her thighs. She let out a quiet little moan when he used his fingers on her. Stroking her inside and out, he carried her to the light.


“Beau. Yes. Yes. Yes.” Her words were a breathy gasp as the orgasm built, rising like the sun over the mountains. She gave herself over to the rapture of the glow that spread throughout her body.


He stiffened against her and groaned as he came. He poured himself into her, his love, his seed. And as she had a thousand times before, Bristol whispered a silent thank you.


#


Eventually, they found the bed, sliding between the soft flannel sheets and pulling the quilt up around them. They rarely used the fireplace in the bedroom. Though winters in the Sierras were cold, Beau put off more than enough heat for them both.


Bristol curled against his side, resting her cheek on his chest where she could listen to the steady thrum of his heart.


She traced her fingers over the tattoo there.


Hope.


A few years ago, after a few beers and no kids at home for the night, they’d walked to a tattoo parlor on a whim. It was Beau’s idea and had only cemented the love she had for him. The love she insisted couldn’t get any deeper and daily, daily, it did. She felt rooted and strong with Beau by her side. And none of this would be possible if it weren’t for her sister.


Beau ran his finger over her matching tattoo, small and dainty on the inside of her bicep. A daily reminder of the woman who couldn’t physically be here with them but still made her presence known in beautiful and unexpected ways.


“I have to ask. How did you get my parents in the country, much less our part of it?” Beau asked.


Bristol laughed softly. “It took about two months of convincing. I started in June and came up with a solution to every excuse. By the way, you and I may have to travel to Haiti next spring to do some building.”


Beau chuckled and ran his hand down her arm. The touch warmed her and sent a zing through her blood. She let her hand wander across his chest, down his taut abs. She watched in hazy delight as he hardened again at her touch.


“You are a biological miracle,” she teased.


“That is a guarantee, my beautiful and ever-so-sexy wife. But first, Santa brought you something else.”


He held up a small black box.


“Beau,” Bristol sighed. “You always go overboard!”


“I have everything I’ve ever wanted, and all of my favorite people are under one roof on the most magical night of the year. Of course I’m going to mark the occasion.”


Spoiled was an excellent adjective for how Beau made her feel three hundred and sixty-five days a year.


Bristol held the box aloft and opened it.


“Oh, my god, Beau,” she breathed.


He took the box from her and freed the necklace. It was a large diamond heart that glittered like the snow falling outside their window on a long, gold chain.


“I got you a long chain so you can wear it to work under your clothes without worrying about it catching on anything,” he said, looping it over her head and adjusting the diamond where it fell between her breasts.


“It’s stunning,” Bristol whispered.


“So are you,” he insisted.


“Damn it, Beau! I really wanted to win the present war this year!”


“Gorgeous, neither one of us is ever going to win the present war. Someone else already did.”


“Who?” Bristol asked, holding up the diamond to admire it in the candlelight.


“Hope,” he said. “She saved my sister, and she brought me you.”