A metal version of The First Noel rings out down the hallway.
Christmas present number one because who doesn’t like metal? Combine rock with Christmas and I’m set for the day.
I roll out of bed, scrubbing the week’s-old scruff on my face, and shuffle into the hall where slobber and a thick, square head rams into my thighs. I grunt, but am quick to scratch behind Poppy’s ears until her heavy tail nearly pounds a hole in my wall.
“Where is she?” I whisper. My dog licks my wrist, big tongue flopping out from her droopy lips. I noogie her head, laughing. “You’re no help.”
A breath of cinnamon and spice fills my lungs, and I follow like it chains me and pulls me along. A smile curves over my lips the closer I get to the metal Christmas carols and the banging of pots and pans in the kitchen.
Always big in the Cole house, even during lean years. My parents never let the day go by without a lot of laughs and a lot of memories. After Dad died, my mom worked even harder making sure the day was buried in friends and family.
This is not the first Christmas Day Alexis Knight and I have spent together, but it is the first Christmas where I get to call her all mine.
It’s the first one where my heart is open and hers for the taking.
I keep quiet as I push into the kitchen. The second the door opens, my smile broadens.
I love this woman.
Dressed in flannel pajama bottoms with a green T-shirt with Fragile written over the leg lamp from Christmas Story she shakes her hips as she whips up something in a mixing bowl. No doubt she’s been awake since five getting ready for the day.
Our first year together, so we decided to host the Christmas dinner party. I’ll rephrase—Alexis decided to host the party. I kept quiet, smiled, and nodded.
In five hours my house will be packed with Becca and Adam, Finn and Micah. Tate and Ellie are coming together, and I have no doubt something happened last night after they both ran out of the Stone’s Christmas Eve party. But more than the band, we’ll have my entire family, Quinn, Greyson and Sam, Tim and his girls, Dan and Jan, Old Lady Morgan, then Parker and some of his teammates who don’t go to family gatherings.
We invited Mama Knight, but it’s still up in the air if she’s coming.
Only if she behaves, in my opinion. Al is going through too much trouble to have it ruined because her mom decides to be critical.
I watch Alexis hum to the song. It doesn’t fit with the guitar and drums, but it makes my chest tight simply seeing her here in her element.
And it’s getting too hard to stay back, not touching this woman. I cross the room and slip my arms around her waist. She startles, but a second later leans her head back against my chest. I press a few kisses up the side of her neck, scratching her soft skin with my stubble until she laughs.
“Merry Christmas, Al,” I whisper against her skin.
She spins around, her palms against my cheeks. She smiles for one second before kissing me.
Christmas gift number two: Alexis Knight’s mouth on mine, her arms around my neck.
Done. Nothing more needed here.
She pulls away and nuzzles her nose against mine. “Merry Christmas, Cole.”
With a gentle tug, I pull her back from the mess on the counter. “How about you take a break, and let’s do our gifts before everyone shows up, then you put me to work serving your every need.”
She arches into me, grinning. “You, superstar, rock god, as my servant? Done. Agreed.”
Hand in hand, I lead her into the front room. The last few years, I’ve managed to set up some ratty, Charlie Brown Christmas tree my mom forced me to get when I got out of rehab. This year, we picked one ourselves, and Alexis turned it into a thing straight out of the North Pole.
Since we’ve been on our break in the tour, it’s been my favorite place to write and brainstorm.
She dips under the tree and pulls out two gifts. We made a promise nothing big, and I didn’t get her anything enormous. But I hope it’s something she’ll never forget.
“Okay,” she says, handing over a gift in green wrapping paper. “I’m nervous.”
I chuckle and take the gift. “Why?”
“Because I’ve always given you a CD or a novel since we were kids. I went off track this year. Then again, it’s a different year, and it felt like this should be different. And you know how I get when an idea hits, I’ve got to follow through.”
I press my lips to the diamond ring I gave her a couple months ago. “It is different.”
I unwrap the gift slowly—exaggerated to annoy her—but once I see the frame, I can’t move. I’m breathless, speechless, all of it rolled into one. “Al . . .” My voice catches.
She links her arm through mine and props her chin on my shoulder as my thumbs trace over the glass covering my dad’s different fire badges.
One is tarnished, the first one, and the other two from when he was promoted to driver and lieutenant. Beneath it is a gold plague that says, Garett Cole, a one in a million hero. Maybe some guys who are supposed to be the persona of bad boy rocker would be embarrassed shedding a tear or ten.
Not me. Not with Al.
I clear my throat, then blink through the blur, and pull her mouth to mine. It’s wet, sniffly, and I’m pretty sure the un-sexiest kiss of all time, but it’s ours. She smiles against my mouth when we come up for air because our noses are officially plugged.
“This doesn’t mean I like you, Cole,” she whispers, at the same time she holds my head to hers, stroking her fingers through my hair.
“Thank you.” She gets a few more kisses to her face, her neck, her lips. I study the frame again. “I love it, Al. I love you, and I’m not sure mine is going to even come close to this.”
With care, I place the badges to one side, and hand her the box I spent nearly an hour wrapping and rewrapping until it was perfect.
“Before that,” I say, stopping her from digging into the paper. “This is for you, and I think you’re the only one who’ll appreciate it.”
I hold out my arm, and lift a square Band-Aid off my forearm. She squeals, running her fingers over the tattooed book with pages that have a bit of magic sparkle coming from the edges. On the cover is Jane Eyre.
“When did you get this?” Alexis lifts her grin to meet mine.
“Two days ago. Names are bad luck, right? Well, this is my version of your name. There forever.”
“You said you cut yourself.” Alexis laughs and kisses the tattoo, then wiggles the box and tears the wrapping paper away. “What is this?”
I grin and lift the flash drive out of the box, take out my laptop from the end table, and pull up a video. “I never realized how much my parents filmed us as kids. I’ve dug through so many over the last few weeks, but I think I narrowed it down to the best ones.”
Alexis’s eyes brighten. “Really? I haven’t seen that many videos.”
I open one arm, so she’ll nestle against my side. She gets as close as possible, fingers running over the new tattoo, head on my shoulder.
Adam, Tate, and Parker helped me edit the clips. Truth be told, that was almost as enjoyable as this. Their faces are in the clips as much as Al’s, but it’s the little moments I wanted to catch. The unspoken words picked up by a few shots throughout our life.
We laugh as a video of Alexis’s seventh birthday pops up and my dad keeps jumping out of the way as she wildly swings at a llama pinata. Nine-year-old me covers my face, exasperated, then marches next to her, taking hold of her elbows.
“Geez, Al. It’s right here.” My skinny arms guide hers against the llama until she finally gets a crack at it and everyone cheers.
Alexis tightens her arms around my waist. More moments of riding bikes in the street. One of me teaching her how to rollerblade when she was eleven. There are a lot of sighs and grunts, but we zoomed in on my face when she finally masters turning on the blades. A smile curves over my pimply teenage face.
The night we were signed by Enigma is on there. Alexis wasn’t even sixteen, but someone is filming as we line up with our contracts for a photo-op. Finn was with us by then, and we all looked forward, holding up the sheets of paper.
But what the camera caught after the picture was taken is what matters. While all the guys gathered around with Finn and my mom, I stepped back to where Alexis stood near the wall.
We’re too far away to hear what we’re saying, but in a rare moment the video catches a hug between us. Only this time, I pull back slower. We stare at each other for a long moment. I loved her then. I didn’t admit it, but I knew it. And I didn’t know what to do with it.
The scenes shift to times at our first shows in small clubs and venues. Alexis is there at almost all of them, and its painfully obvious now how many times I steal looks from the stage to the girl off to the side.
As the scenes play out, some through darker times, a few from rehab, the day I left, but it’s all part of us.
I pull her closer, press a kiss to her forehead.
“Al, listen up,” I whisper. “I’ve always loved you, that’s what I wanted you to see this year. Even if I didn’t want to admit it, looking through all these, it’s so obvious to me that you’ve always held my heart. You’ve always been who I wanted.”
Her cheek is on my shoulder. My shirt is wet from a few tears. But she lifts her eyes to mine and kisses me. Deep, needy. Forever. That is what Alexis Knight is. A forever. A tomorrow. An always.
This is the first Christmas we’ve had officially together, engaged, admitting we love each other. But the best gift of them all is knowing we’ll have a lifetime of Christmases to come.