Noah bit his tongue, holding back the snide remark that rose up, while the doctor shined a light in his eyes for a third time and asked him a series of questions. Even blinded, he could feel Rowe across the sectioned-off area, glaring at him with his arms folded over his chest. The air was heavy in their little corner of the emergency room and Noah knew that his friend was just waiting for the doctor to leave so he could explode.
Not that he could blame Rowe.
He’d not followed his training. Well, his training for Ward Security. And he’d gotten hurt. Not badly, but enough that he’d been required to make an appearance in the ER.
“Well, Mr. Keegan, it looks like you got lucky,” the doctor said, clicking off his little pen light. He stepped back and stuffed the light into the pocket of his white coat. “You might have a mild concussion, so I’m going to order up a scan to get your head checked. I want to also x-ray your wrist. It’s not broken, but you could have a hairline fracture in there that could only get worse for you if we don’t catch it.”
“But other than that, I’m just fine, right doc? Nothing serious?” Noah said, earning a snort from Rowe.
The doctor scratched the gray stubble along his jaw and glanced at Rowe out of the corner of his eye before looking at Noah again. “No, nothing serious. Let’s just get those scans done and then you can be on your way.”
“Any chance you can give my boyfriend here a sedative before you go?”
The doctor looked over at Rowe, who was still glaring at Noah and stammered something about getting those orders in before he scurried past the dividing curtain and out of sight.
Noah smirked. Sometimes it was too easy. He looked at Rowe and his amusement faded away. “All right. Just let it loose. You’re going to hurt yourself if you hold it in any longer.”
“What the fuck!” Rowe shouted. A few voices outside their curtain immediately stopped. Rowe walked to the foot of the bed where Noah sat. His hair was standing up, pointing in all directions as if he’d been pulling on it in frustration. Probably had been considering that Rowe had actually beat him to the hospital and then been forced to sit in the waiting room while he was initially checked out.
“I know. I screwed up. I wasn’t supposed to chase the guy, but Royce said he had the client covered. I hated missing the opportunity to catch the douchebag.”
“We’re not cops. We’re not in the Army any more. We protect the client. That’s all. We don’t pursue. We don’t catch the bad guy. We keep people safe.”
Noah lifted his right hand to shove his hair away from his eyes but stopped himself. His wrist did hurt like a motherfucker from where he’d tried to catch himself while diving out of the way of a car running him down. He’d landed hard and ended up slamming the back of his head against the concrete … hence the potential mild concussion.
Not that any of this was really bad. Hell, he’d been more painfully injured playing flag football with friends, but Royce called an ambulance the second he’d seen Noah go down and the paramedics started throwing around “concussion” as they checked him out, requiring a trip to the hospital.
But Noah knew this wasn’t just about him breaking from his training.
Unfortunately, any comforting words he could offer were cut off by the curtain being pulled back to reveal Snow standing there in a set of dark blue scrubs. The surgeon looked over Noah quickly before turning his narrowed gaze on Rowe.
“Don’t even fucking say it!” Rowe snapped, pointing a finger at Snow. “I can freaking hear Lucas laughing already.”
“He wouldn’t laugh at you,” Noah said.
Snow snickered. “Like hell he wouldn’t. Do you know how many times he’s come to the ER because Andrei was injured on the job and Rowe said that he needed to stop worrying so much? He’s definitely giving you shit about this.”
“He wouldn’t if you didn’t tell him.” Rowe barely got the sentence out before his cellphone started to chime. Rowe didn’t even reach for it. He just glared at Snow. “You called him.”
“Of course I called him. He worries.”
“Hell,” he sighed, pulling his phone out of his pocket. He started for the opening in the curtain and then stopped, pointing at Noah. “Stay. We’re not done.” And then he disappeared on the other side of the curtain.
Noah let out a sigh of relief before he glanced at Snow, who watched him with narrowed eyes.
“Your chart says you’re good,” Snow said carefully.
“It’s not lying. I’m good. Stupid, but good.”
Snow grunted. “Don’t be stupid. He needs you intact.”
“I know. I’ll be careful and smart.” And he meant it. Rowe had already lost Mel and he was taking a big risk with his heart by dating Noah. The least Noah could do was to not take unnecessary risks.
Grabbing the curtain, Snow started to leave the little area when Noah stopped him. “Hey! Wait!” Noah said in a harsh whisper. “I wanna ask you something.” Snow turned back, letting the curtain fall into place again. Noah hesitated, licking his lips. He didn’t know Snow all that well. He’d spent more time talking with Andrei and Ian, but neither had been available recently. And well…Rowe was pretty tight with Snow. The surgeon would know.
“I was wondering…when Rowe and Mel were together, was Christmas a big deal for them?”
“What do you mean?”
Noah shrugged and rubbed his hands on his dirty pants. “Lots of decoration and parties and the whole nine yards. Was it a big deal?”
Snow looked down, his hands opening and closing into fists at his sides for a second as if he were incredibly uncomfortable. “Yeah…it was. Mel loved to decorate for Christmas. They always went over to the Festival of Lights at the Cincinnati Zoo to see the display and threw a big party for employees. Lots of fun.”
But where did that leave him?
Noah had never really had a big Christmas celebration. He hadn’t decorated a Christmas tree since he was a kid. Starting a life in Cincinnati had left Noah hoping that maybe he could enjoy some of those family traditions like Christmas parties and trees and gift giving again. But would it all hurt Rowe, reminding him of what he’d lost?
“What do you think I should do? Should I forget it? Pretend it’s just another day?”
“What do you want?”
“I’ve love to have all the craziness. Big tree. Lights on the house. Stockings. Gifts. A party where we eat and get wasted. You know, the traditional stuff.” Noah sighed and pushed his hair out of his face, remembering to use his left hand this time. “But I don’t want to hurt Rowe. Maybe it’s best we try to forget everything.”
Snow surprised him by clapping a strong hand on his shoulder and squeezing. “It’s his first Christmas without her. He’s going to hurt no matter what we do. Maybe try something a little nontraditional for Christmas. It won’t remind him of Mel and could give him a little happiness this month.”
Noah nodded, grateful for Snow’s insight.
“Do you have my number?” Snow demanded unexpectedly.
Noah shook his head, then smiled when Snow gestured for him to hand over his phone. Noah did and he watched as Snow quickly typed in not only his number, but Jude’s and Lucas’s as well. He’d already had Ian’s and Andrei’s numbers.
“Call me or any of us if you need something,” Snow said as he handed back Noah’s phone. “Even if it has nothing to do with Rowe. You’re family now.”
“Rowe is going to have a rough time this holiday, but you’re not in this alone. Call any of us at any time.”
Noah wrapped both hands around his phone, clutching it tightly. “Thanks.” He was surprised at the relief that coursed through him at those words. The approaching Christmas holiday had him scared shitless. He was worried about Rowe, worried that he wouldn’t be enough for his lover. Knowing that Snow and the others had his back went a long way to creating some breathing space for him.
The surgeon was right. It was going to be a rough time for Rowe regardless, but maybe he could come up with something that created their own memory, something to add joy to Rowe’s life.
Rowe sat on the lowered tailgate of his truck, his keys clenched in his left hand and his cellphone in his right, pressed to his ear. He just gotten home and was trying to unload the truck when Lucas had called. They hadn’t spoken in a few days since the hospital incident. Shit had just been too busy to catch the man with more than the occasional text. Of course, he had a feeling that Lucas was still trying to make up his recent stupidity to Andrei and that was taking up most of his free time.
“I’m okay, I swear,” Rowe said for the third time.
“You’re not okay. We all know it. It’s okay if you’re not,” Lucas pressed.
“Then quit fucking asking if you know I’m not okay!”
Rowe growled. “Yes, I miss her, but I’m not going to disappear off the face of the earth again. I think we’ve both learned our lesson.” He paused, letting the heavy silence sink into their conversation.
Lucas cleared his throat. “Definitely.”
“Look, if you want to worry about someone, worry about Keegan. He’s the one living with me, putting up with my moody ass. You think this is the kind of Christmas he had in mind when he finally got out of the Army?”
“I think he’s happy as long as you are.”
Rowe grunted. Noah would have said the same thing, but he didn’t feel like it was enough. He wanted to do more. Shoving to his feet, Rowe kicked a small rock sitting in the middle of his driveway and watched it bounce into the street. “I’m good, Luc. Let’s just get this through this holiday and nail Jagger’s ass to the wall. Then we can start working on getting back to great.”
“I like that plan.”
He smirked as he wished Lucas a good night. His gaze strayed to the contents of his truck bed as he shoved his phone into his back pocket. Just looking at it made his stomach twist into an uncomfortable knot. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes, getting the anxiety to ease slightly. He’d go inside. Eat dinner with Noah. Get back to normal for a little while, and then try this again later.
But normal wasn’t what was waiting for him in the house.
Rowe stopped in the process closing the front door when several things seemed to hit him all at once. The lights were all turned off and the house was lit by a dozen flickering candles, casting the house in a warm glow. Something small and dark hung from the ceiling in every doorway and room that he could see from the entrance. It was like a tiny forest was sprouting from the plaster.
And to top it all off, Noah was sprawled across the couch, naked except for a pair of tiny briefs with an image of Santa Claus stretched across his junk. The merry old elf’s mouth was stretched open as if he’d been caught mid-laugh.
“What the fuck?” Rowe demanded, finally shutting the door when a cold wind slipped through the narrow opening. “What’s on the ceiling?”
“Mistletoe.” Noah jumped to his feet, revealing that he was wearing a pair of felt reindeer antlers. “You wanna play some reindeer games?”
Laughter slammed through Rowe, knocking him back against the door so that he was leaning on it for support. Noah…Noah was fucking perfect. The man always knew how to force him out of a bad mood. He surprised Rowe like no one else ever could. Rowe gasped, trying to catch his breath as his laughter gave way to some low chuckles. Noah stood in the middle of the living room, fists on his hips and a wicked grin on his lips.
“Yeah, let’s play,” Rowe growled. He pushed away from the door and started to stalk toward Santa’s reindeer.
“Wait!” Noah said, throwing both hands out to stop Rowe. “You’re under the mistletoe.”
Rowe looked up and found he was in fact under a small sprig with white berries. “It’s kind of hard not to be. It’s everywhere!”
Noah closed the short distance between them and captured Rowe’s mouth in a rough kiss, while at the same time, sliding his hands inside of Rowe’s coat. Rowe immediately responded to Noah’s rare show of force, opening his mouth, letting the other man dominate him while shoving his coat off his shoulders. The second the heavy material thumped to the floor, Noah broke off the kiss and stepped back.
“Every time I kiss you under the mistletoe, I get to remove an article of your clothing.”
Rowe arched an eyebrow in question. “That’s a rather easy game.” As if to test Noah, he slid a few inches to his right so that he was standing under a new sprig of mistletoe. Without hesitation, Noah was on him, tugging at the dark green waffle Henley while shoving his tongue deep into Rowe’s mouth. Rowe groaned loudly, his arms circling Noah’s waist. He would never get enough of this man. His hands slid down to cup Noah’s ass and was surprised to hit bare skin rather than fabric. He broke off the kiss in surprise, allowing Noah to pull his shirt over his head.
Peering around Noah, he noticed that he wasn’t wearing briefs with a Santa face, but a jockstrap with red straps accentuating Noah’s perfect ass. There’s was even a small sprig of mistletoe fastened to the back strap, just above Noah’s crack.
Rowe pulled back and swallowed hard. “Holy fuck. Please tell me that’s where this game ends,” he demanded in a rough voice.
Noah shook his head, his smile growing even more wicked. “Nope. That’s the third game of the night.”
“Third? What’s the second?”
Grabbing a handful of Rowe’s hair, Noah pulled him under another sprig of mistletoe. “Find the lube.”
A loud groan left Noah when he tried to sit up, but he quickly stopped. Everything hurt. And not all of it was the good kind of hurt, even though there was a lot of that. His knees still felt like they were on fire from the rug burn and his back was not loving the cold tile of the kitchen floor. Roughly rubbing his face in an attempt to clear his brain, Noah blinked and was a little surprised to find himself staring up at the underside of the kitchen table with Rowe laying half across him. He wasn’t completely sure how they’d gotten there. Thank fucking god Gretchen had agreed to babysit the dogs for the night. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been able to sneak in the fun they’d had since Rowe had walked in the front door.
After one round of “Mistletoe” and two rounds of “Find the Lube” in the living room, they’d agreed to sandwiches to regain their strength before moving on to other activities. But then Rowe had tackled him in a kitchen chair when he discovered another small bottle of lube Noah has stuffed in the flatware drawer and demanded that they had to play another round. Noah didn’t fight him. He briefly thought he should find the other two dozen small bottles he’d hidden around the house, but then shoved the thought aside. It would be interesting to see their friends’ faces when they randomly turned up an unexpected bottle from a strange location.
“I can’t move,” Rowe groaned. He turned his face into Noah’s neck, snuggling closer.
Noah lifted a hand, wincing slightly as he shoved it into Rowe’s hair, rubbing his scalp. “We never got to the third game.”
“Save it for later. I like the ‘Mistletoe’ and ‘Find the Lube’ games.” Rowe paused and then lifted his head a little so he could look Noah in the eye. “How many more bottles do you have stashed around the house?”
“About two dozen.”
Rowe’s grin matched the smile he could feel stretching across his own lips. “Good.”
Then again…maybe their friends wouldn’t get the chance to find the other bottles.
Rowe sat up, running one hand through his hair so that it stuck up in every direction. Noah watched the play of muscles under his tattoos. They were both naked now and sporting the beginnings of some new bruises.
“We never ate dinner,” Rowe announced, sounding a little surprised.
Noah shrugged. “You found lube.”
Rowe snorted. “Are there more bottles in the kitchen?”
With a shake of his head, he slowly pushed to his feet and then held his hand out to help Noah up. Noah found himself pulled tightly against Rowe’s body, his flushed skin chasing away the lingering cold of lying on the kitchen floor. Rowe strong hands rubbed his back, easing away lingering aches and pains. “Then you get to make the sandwiches.”
Noah laughed, shoving Rowe away. “Fine. Go. But you’re cooking tomorrow night.”
Rowe started for the living room and then stopped suddenly, his body tense. When he turned back to look at Noah, all the laughter was gone from his face. Noah’s heart jerked at the sudden worry furrowing Rowe’s brow. Was their laughter already gone? Had he said something to stir up an old memory to haunt Rowe? He’d been walking on eggshells for nearly a week, trying to keep Rowe’s mood up while not triggering any specific Mel-related memories.
“Grab some clothes. I need you to help me get something out of the truck,” he said gruffly.
“You don’t want to wait until after sandwiches?”
He shook his head, already walking toward his clothes scattered around the living room. “It’ll just take a second.”
Without another word, Noah hurried to their bedroom and grabbed the sweats he’d been wearing earlier and shoved his feet into the sneakers he wore to take the dogs out for their morning walk. When he rejoined Rowe in the living room, the other man was pulling on his coat. He flashed Noah a tentative smile as if trying to ease Noah’s worry, but it wasn’t enough.
Stepping out into the brisk cold, Noah flinched against the wind that whipped his hair around. But it was forgotten when he saw into the bed of the truck to find a bound Christmas tree along with a new tree stand and a bag containing several boxes of lights.
“You got a tree,” Noah said, his voice barely over a whisper. They’d hung no Christmas decorations. Well, none other than Noah’s mistletoe. Rowe hadn’t given any indication that he wanted to even celebrate Christmas in any way.
“Yeah,” Rowe said and then paused to clear his throat. “Mel never wanted a real tree. She was afraid we’d have to fight the dogs to keep them from drinking out of the reservoir or knocking it over.”
“Or peeing on it,” Noah added, earning a snort from Rowe.
“That too. But I always wanted a real one. I thought…I thought we’d try something new.”
A lump grew in Noah’s throat and for a second he couldn’t speak. He didn’t think that Rowe would even consider something like this yet. Maybe not for another year or two as he worked through his grief for Mel, but he did. “You want to make this our thing.”
Rowe nodded. “Yeah, like you and the mistletoe.”
Noah stepped up to Rowe until their chests bumped. He gently brushed his lips across Rowe’s, drawing him into a slow, gentle kiss that stole his breath away. “Thank you,” he whispered, his mouth still pressed against Rowe’s. “Thank you for doing this for us.”
“Thank you for making me so damn happy.”
Noah gave him one more quick kiss and stepped back. “Anytime.”
As they pulled the tree from the truck and grabbed other supplies, a new idea hit Noah, making him chuckle.
“What?” Rowe demanded, looking over his shoulder at Noah.
“Yeah….” he said slowly like Noah had lost his mind.
“And we have to go through the living room again.”
Rowe stopped and smiled at Noah. “I think we’re gonna have to play another round of Mistletoe.”