Chapter 1: The First Thanksgiving
“So tell me again why I agreed to go to a Thanksgiving of someone I’ve never met?” Cullen asked, pursing his lips.
“Because,” Alistair, his best friend and partner on the police force replied candidly. “I know that Mia isn’t hosting it this year, the rest of your siblings are out of town, and you were planning on watching Die Hard in your pajamas and ordering Chinese. Again.”
Cullen rolled his eyes, a flippant smile quirking on his lips; “I was not going to watch Die Hard again. That’s my Christmas Eve tradition. No, I was planning on binge-watching Jessica Jones. Cassandra said it was really good.”
Alistair pressed his hand against his chest, feigning pain as he slumped dramatically in his chair; “If Lynn heard that, she would faint dead away.”
“Yeah, remind my why Lynn isn’t doing it this year? You know, like every other year?”
“Because Emma is her friend, and Emma really wanted to, so Lynn let her have it,” Alistair answered. “Are you just afraid of meeting Emma?”
“Maybe,” Cullen retorted. “The last girl you set me up with was… well, I hate to use the word ‘crazy’ but she did try and steal my dog.”
“That reminds me, we told Emma you have a Mabari and she can’t wait to meet him,” Alistair leaned over his desk at Cullen. He wasn’t going to let this go, that much was certain.
“She does know how big a Mabari gets, right?” Cullen was suddenly incredulous. If this girl lived in the same building as him, as Alistair claimed, he doubted his massive hound would fit in her apartment on top of Alistair and Lynn with their dog, plus whoever else was coming.
“She’s met Tank,” Alistair retorted. “Come on, Cullen, you really do need to get out and Lynn is dying to introduce you!”
“All right!” Cullen threw his hands up in surrender. He wasn’t getting out of this. “Should I bring anything?”
“Lynn and Emma will have dinner covered, but I may have mentioned to Lynn you were coming, and your pumpkin-ginger cheesecake may have come up.”
“How many limbs can I expect to lose if I don’t show up with a cheesecake in hand?” Cullen asked, completely put off by Alistair’s sheepish grin.
“I’m sure Lynn will leave your… how did that girl Sera put it? Dangle-bag?”
“ALISTAIR!” Cullen reflexively crossed his legs.
“Just show up looking dashing as all hell, like you do, you prick,” the other man shot a wry grin at him. “And trust me. You are going to adore Emma. I know I do.”
“All right,” Cullen repeated, mentally making a checklist of things he needed at the store. He wondered off-hand if he could get the really good gingersnaps this close to the day proper. He would also need treats for Brutus and a dry drink option for himself. He didn’t expect everyone to cater to his recovery; especially when they’d never met him. “So, Thursday at noon?”
“Thursday at noon,” Alistair confirmed, finally returning to his work. “And don’t dress too nice. I’d put 100 on Lynn putting you to work the second you walk in the door.”
“I don’t bet against Lynn’s power of persuasion, and you know it,” Cullen chuckled.
He stood outside apartment 4C, the one just below his, and tried to juggle Brutus’s leash, his messenger bag, and the carefully covered cheesecake long enough to ring the bell. He could hear two booming barks over the clatter, which meant fellow police officer, Ana Hawke, was here with her Mabari, Delilah. This was going to be one crowded apartment. It was getting more difficult to control Brutus when he heard friends to play with. He shrugged and kicked the door, instead of trying to knock. He hoped she wouldn’t think it rude; it really was his only option.
“Hold on!” an unfamiliar voice called. He heard a distinct clatter before the door flew open.
Oh, Maker, I’m in trouble.
He didn’t recognize her, so he assumed he was staring at Emma. She was tiny, coming just to his chest, with long platinum hair swept into a long ponytail. A cute hostess’s apron covered a plum-colored sweater dress, but she was barefoot—a strangely vulnerable thing—and she was still wearing her oven mitt. There was a big, open smile on her face that lit up her blue eyes—when Lynn had described her, she certainly hadn’t done her justice.
“Hi!” she greeted brightly, stepping aside. “You must be Cullen! Come on in!”
“Thanks,” he replied, clearing his throat and hoping she didn’t notice how nervous he suddenly was. “This is Brutus. He’s friendly.”
She gasped loudly, quickly getting on Brutus’s level; “Hey, handsome! Oh, Maker, aren’t you just the cutest.” She giggled when Brutus gave her a big, sloppy kiss. She ruffled his ears and planted a loud kiss on the side of his face, which just made the dog’s whole back end wag. She reached into her apron pocket and pulled out what looked like a strip of bacon. “Left over from breakfast. May I?”
“Only if you want a friend for life,” Cullen quipped, feeling his smile soften. Brutus took the bacon gently from Emma’s outstretched fingers, gulping it down in one easy move. He immediately started sniffing around for seconds.
“Oh, sorry, I got distracted by your dog,” Emma stood and took the cheesecake and his bottle of sparkling cider, which she regarded with a soft smile. “Is this the famous cheesecake?”
“The one and only,” Cullen felt a slight swell of pride for some unknown reason. “You need any help?”
“Nope, I think Lynn, Ana and I have it covered,” she furrowed her brows for a moment before grinning sheepishly. “I’m Emma, by the way.”
Cullen had to laugh; “I figured, but it’s nice to meet you, regardless.”
“Well, drop your bag anywhere you’re comfortable,” she indicated the corner vaguely where shoes and coats were piled up, along with leashes. “Brutus is free to wander; we have a big bowl of water out for Delilah and Tank already. Help yourself to drinks, and make yourself at home! I’d give you the tour, but I fear for my kitchen’s health and well-being if I leave Lynn too long.”
“I’ll track Alistair down, it’s ok,” Cullen stooped to unhook Brutus’s leash, who immediately set off for the source of the barking.
“Well, living room is right through there,” she indicated through the foyer out into the open-plan apartment. “Have fun!”
Cullen shot a quick wave to the other girls in the kitchen; Ana appeared to be shredding Brussels sprouts, while Lynn was transferring root vegetables to an oven-safe serving dish. The smells coming out of Emma’s kitchen were so delectable, it was no wonder the dogs kept shooting inquisitive glances towards the girls. The apartment was not large, and laid out similarly to his, with an open floor plan and what appeared to be a bedroom just off the living room. The table was lovely, set with simple but rustic linens, plain white plates, and a couple of lit jar candles in a seasonal scent.
Alistair and Fenris, Ana’s boyfriend, were lounging on Emma’s overstuffed sectional, and watching a movie. Alistair was nursing a beer, shooting Cullen a friendly nod, while Fenris balanced a glass of wine on his leg. Cullen took a bottled water before settling next to his friend.
“What’re we watching?” he asked, trying to control the fluttering in his chest. He tried his best not to stare.
“Doesn’t matter, we came in half-way through,” Alistair answered. He smirked at Cullen. “So?”
“He’s trying to see what you think of Emma,” Fenris deadpanned, quirking a thick, black brow over the rim of his glass. “Personally, I think Ana will be a bad influence.”
“She seems… sweet,” Cullen offered, a flush spreading to his hairline. He couldn’t help a fond look over his shoulder as she bopped along to the music from her phone. He didn’t recognize the band, but if the pile of CDs in the corner was any indicator, she was a music buff of a whole other caliber.
“Sweet is a bit of an understatement when it comes to Emma,” Alistair giggled. Actually giggled. Grown man, detective, former Warden, and he giggled. Cullen rolled his eyes; he wasn’t going to be able to sit idle for long, especially when Tank decided at that moment to stretch out on Alistair’s lap.
“I’m going to see if I can help in the kitchen,” Cullen said, removing himself from the living room. He wandered behind the counter, clearing his throat. All three ladies whirled on him and smiled-- Emma sweetly, Lynn and Ana knowingly. “Um… is there anything I can do?”
“Yes!” Ana interjected quickly, whipping her apron off. “You can take my place, I want booze and Fenris.”
“Gross,” Emma teased, hip-checking Ana. “Not on my new couch.”
“No promises,” Ana shot back, taking a generous glass of red wine from the counter. “Have fun kids.”
“That being said, I should check on Alistair,” Lynn offered softly, wiping her hands on a towel. “I’ll be back.”
And with that, they were alone. Emma picked up her wine glass—the color seemed a bit off for white wine; “Looks like we’ve been abandoned.”
“It certainly seems that way,” Cullen replied. He made a vague gesture at the piles of ingredients on the counter. “So… can I help?”
“Well, I’m just keeping an eye on things right now,” Emma said. “But how’s your arm? The cream could use some whipping.”
“Can do,” Cullen took up the whisk and bowl she indicated, measuring out the double cream and caster sugar. They worked in comfortable silence for a minute, listening to music. It was strangely domestic… it was nice.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I broke into the sparkling cider already,” she indicated her glass with a sheepish grin. “I’m glad you brought it, actually… I don’t mind booze being around, but I sort of forgot to buy something for myself.”
He furrowed his brows; “Recovery?”
“Six months sober,” she nodded at her key ring on the board by the fridge, and he saw the familiar AA chip. “I don’t know if that’s too personal, but considering how blatant of a set-up this whole thing is I figured I’d just air it all out now.”
Cullen put down the whisk, reaching into his pocket, and pulling out his own keys; “Nine months, for me.”
She eyed his chip with raised eyebrows and her whole expression softened; “It wasn’t a requirement, but it’s nice to have someone who… understands. Alistair can actually stop at any time, so he just doesn’t get how hard it is.”
“I hear you,” Cullen gave a soft laugh. She was right… it was nice.
Dinner was a riotous affair, with dishes being passed around, dogs being fed under the table, loud conversation and plenty of laughs. Cullen and Emma were pretty blatantly paired off in their own corner of the round table. While the other two couples had their fun, Cullen was able to get to know her; like how she attended the Ostwick Circle of Magi Military Academy, training to become a Knight Enchanter, and now she was in Medical school. She came from a long line of Ostwick Templars but when she became friends with Lynn she moved to Haven. He also learned that she hadn’t volunteered to host Thanksgiving so much as she’d been volunteered.
She was right… it was about as blatant as a set up as you could get.
About halfway through dessert and coffee, it started to snow, much to Fenris’s chagrin; he came from the much warmer Tevinter and didn’t much care for the south’s bitter cold. Emma packed a generous Tupperware full of leftovers and sent them off with a hug and a fond wave. Alistair and Lynn followed soon after to relieve Lynn’s brother from babysitting duty; Emma sent plenty of food home for Fergus.
Soon, it was just Emma, Cullen and a sink full of dirty dishes. Brutus had passed out on Emma’s couch; Emma set up her Gotye Spotify while she set to the clean up. Cullen stood awkwardly by the counter, stacking her dishes and putting her leftovers away for her.
“I don’t want to overstay my welcome, but--,”
“Oh, no, please,” she shot him a genuine smile that sent warmth down to his toes. “I don’t mind you staying.”
He grinned, standing beside her at the sink to help. They fell into a comfortable silence once more; it was nice that he could just be with her, and she seemed to be able to do the same. He’d never felt this instantly comfortable around a woman before. Her music filled the empty space, and they busied themselves with clean up. It didn’t take long for it to look like a big dinner with six people and three massive dogs never took place. She started putting her dishes away while Cullen bagged up the trash and recyclables.
The song changed to Smoke and Mirrors, a decidedly dark and seductive song, and one of his favorites. He allowed his gaze to pause on her; he couldn’t help but notice the sultry sway of her hips and the unctuous play of her bare calves and feet. She looked delectable, and he felt like if he didn’t act, he’d never get another chance. He slid up behind her, placing two tentative hands on her hips. She spun towards him, setting the plate on the counter behind her. He ran his big hands over the generous curve of her waist and hips; he reveled a bit in the way he was teased with glimpses of her creamy thighs as her skirt moved.
“I don’t…” he sighed deeply, turning his amber gaze on hers. She blinked those beautiful, blue eyes at him, her pupils blowing wide. “I’m not normally like this… Maker’s breath, I wasn’t expecting to like you as much as I do. But… I do. And I want to pursue this. If you’ll let me.”
“Sure,” she replied softly. She dragged her hands over his chest, ghosting her fingers over his nipples through his shirt. He drew in a sharp breath as she pressed against him. “Under one condition—kiss me, first.”
He blinked a few times; he’d never met a woman quite like her. And he wanted to kiss her—Maker, he wanted it so badly—but he had to make sure. He couldn’t pressure her; “You sure?”
“Please?” she tilted her head slightly, causing her platinum ponytail to fall over her shoulder. She gave him a coquettish smirk from under her lashes.
“Well, if the lady insists,” he growled low in his throat as he lowered himself to her rosy lips.
It was tentative at first, a bare whisper of a touch, but with a soft sigh from her he surged forward. He felt the slick slide of her lip-gloss and he tasted mint. She pressed against him, tilting her head to give him better access. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close, balling his fists at the small of her back. She tipped forward on tip toes, meeting him move for move. Heat curled low in him while a savage growl burned at the back of his throat—low and dark. She moaned against his lips—so softly—and nibbled an unforgiving little bite on his bottom lip, immediately sweeping her tongue across the affected area. He felt dizzy, drunk, on her. Her perfume was heady, and there was something about her scent that was unidentifiable but distinctly feminine. He wanted her.
He began to pull away, allowing his lips to linger and press against hers. She leaned forward as if to follow; it took her a few moments before her eyes fluttered open. He put a tender hand under her chin, running his thumb on her lower lip. Her ponytail had come lose and her lips were red and swollen; she looked completely debauched, and he loved it.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured, his voice low and husky. “That was… really nice.”
“Hm?” she sighed. Her voice was low and dark and her eyes were clouded over. She blinked a few times; the dazed longing in her eyes caused heat to curl tight as a fist in his core. “Oh, please don’t be sorry.”
He skated his fingers over the curve of her jaw, feeling a swell of masculine pride when she swooned against him. Her eyes flickered closed and she leaned into the gentle touch, moving her hands over his chest.
“Can I see you again?” he asked softly, pressing his forehead against hers.
She nuzzled his nose with a giggle; “Make me a cup of coffee and we’ll talk.”
He had to laugh, and risking immediate rejection, pressed in one more soft kiss; “As you wish.”
Chapter 2: The First Christmas
Precisely a week before Christmas, he was back in Emma’s apartment, gathered around her white Christmas tree decorated in dark blue. Despite the relatively small gathering, it was a bit of a riotous event. Lynn and Alistair were there with their three children—twin seven-year-old boys Duncan and Bryce, and four year old Eleanor—and Lynn’s older brother, Fergus. Fenris was teaching Ana and Emma to use the French press to make affogatos. Carver and Fergus were discussing…something, Cullen couldn’t really be sure, but he rarely saw Carver so animated. Cullen? He was grasping Emma’s gift in his hands, trying desperately not to crease the meticulously wrapped paper. It was small, but sentimental… he wondered if she would like it.
As a matter of fact, he agonized over it.
He recognized Fenris and Ana’s presents—the hand-painted wrapping paper courtesy of Fenris and the origami gift bows that Ana always loved to make made them pretty distinctive. The Star Wars and Doc McStuffins wrapping paper distinguished Alistair and Lynn’s gifts, given the t-shirts their kids were wearing. Cullen had carefully arranged his gifts next to what was probably Emma’s stack—she loved the metallic wrapping paper, or so she said.
Cullen tipped the little box over and over in his hands, wondering if he should make a quick escape back to his apartment to grab his back-up present. Of course, though, he’d been caught.
“Uncle Cullen!” Bryce shrieked, causing Cullen to jump violently and drawing every pair of eyes in the apartment. Of course. “What’s that, Uncle Cullen!?”
“Bryce!” Lynn snapped, though her full lips twitched. “Do not shout!”
“I’m sorry, mama,” the boy said sheepishly. With his floppy dark hair and his father’s crooked smile, Bryce could make just about anyone melt. Except his mother.
“Apologize to Uncle Cullen,” Lynn said, quirking a dark eyebrow.
“Sorry, Uncle Cullen. I just wanna know what that is.”
“It looks like Aunt Emma’s present,” Alistair waggled his eyebrows at Cullen, and he had to resist throwing the nearest soft object (which looked like Tank’s teddy bear, and that could have easily ended in tragedy, considering their proximity to the Christmas tree) at Alistair’s face.
“Aw, Cullen, you didn’t have to,” Emma called from the kitchen. She was cradling her mug, and he felt a tug behind his belly button when her tongue darted out to lick foam off of her lip.
Well, he was trapped. Nothing to do now but put it under the tree with a nonchalant grin and hope to the Maker or whatever was listening he didn’t look as terrified as he felt. Emma had turned back to Ana and Lynn and they were giggling, which was never a good sign. Carver and Fergus resumed their cryptic conversation, while Alistair went to plug in a movie for the kids. A mug was suddenly pressed into his hands.
“You look like you could use this,” Fenris shot him a wry smile.
“What is it?” Cullen asked, giving it a sniff. It smelled sweet, but also strong and bitter—like espresso and… was that ice cream?
“An affogato, which is hipster-coffee-snob lingo for hot espresso poured over vanilla gelato.”
Cullen shot a wary glance at the open bottle of Amaretto on the counter, and Fenris shook his head with a crooked grin; “Not yours or Emma’s. What kind of dickhead do you take me for?”
“I’m sorry,” Cullen replied sheepishly. “I just… you can’t be too careful.”
“I was pulling your leg, but I understand when people don’t know I’m kidding,” Fenris quirked a thick, dark brow at Cullen. “You’re stressing.”
Cullen bit his lower lip, scratching at the back of his neck. He glared at the little package like it had insulted his mother; “It’s just… we haven’t been seeing each other for long, and I’m nervous… that’s all.”
“I felt the same way at my first Christmas with Ana,” Fenris sighed.
The wistful look in the normally-broody man’s eyes was… almost too much. His whole face softened when he looked at Ana, like they were the only two people in the whole world. Cullen noticed the same thing when Alistair was around Lynn. It was like they were two pieces of a puzzle and they fit together perfectly.
“She invited me back home to Lothering as a friend, sort of as a buffer between her and her mother,” Fenris said, turning back towards Cullen. “Her mother was so convinced we were a couple, she practically shoved us together. Filled the guest room with so much stuff you couldn’t get to the bed if you tried, conveniently ‘lost’ the trundle bed. I spent six days in a very small bed with Ana next to me. But… I just let things play out. And I’m glad I did. Because I love her, and I can’t imagine my life without her. My advice—just let things play out. Do whatever feels right to you, because if it’s right for you but not her, maybe…”
He let his sentence drop off, leaving it unsaid.
“Either way, enjoy your coffee,” Fenris took a sip of his, smirking at him. “Oh, and Ana thinks she, and I’m quoting here, ‘nailed your gift this year.’ Just figured I’d pass that on.”
Cullen smirked; Fenris strode across the common area and wrapped his tattooed around Ana’s waist. She turned into him, smearing a bit of foam across his lips with her finger. She giggled brightly before nuzzling her nose against his, her tongue curling out to lick the foam off his upper lip. Emma swatted Ana on the arm with an exaggerated gasp; one of the twins shrieked from the sofa at the display of affection.
“Uncle Fen! That’s gross.”
Cullen rolled his eyes and hefted himself onto the couch, nudging Alistair with his shoulder. Alistair was covered in children—his daughter was sprawled across his lap, one son at his feet, and the other on his other side. All three of them were engrossed in the film, while Alistair’s eyes were only for his children. They were still young enough to lavish their parents with affection, and Cullen felt a surprising twinge of… jealousy? Alistair and he were around the same age, and the other man had everything he wanted. A beautiful wife… loving family… and here he was, just…him. In all his damaged glory.
“What’re we watching?” Cullen asked, taking along draw from his mug.
“No idea,” Alistair admitted with a shrug. “Kids like it, though, and anything to keep them quiet for this long is OK in my book.”
Cullen felt a soft hand on his shoulder before an insistent warmth and weight settled next to him. Emma wiggled into the space between him and the arm of the sofa (which wasn’t much space, even considering her slim frame) and nuzzled against his neck. A sharp pang of desire rushed through him, quickly cooled by the delighted squeal of one of the kids.
“Having fun?” she asked quietly, pulling her blonde hair over her shoulder, exposing the long line of her neck.
Cullen couldn’t resist—he skimmed his knuckles over the pale skin, reveling in the little shudder that ran through her; “A blast, Emma. Thanks for inviting me.”
“Of course, Cullen,” she pulled back, her brow knitting… almost like he’d hurt her feelings. “We’re dating. Why wouldn’t I invite you?”
“Also, he brought baked goods!” he heard Ana call from the kitchen area. She’d attacked the eggnog cookies he’d brought, and he felt a small surge of pride.
“So Cullen,” Emma wriggled her hips a bit, draping her long legs over his lap. “Tell me all about this lovely baking habit of yours.”
Cullen scratched nervously at the back of his neck; Emma’s grin was infectious and bright, and he couldn’t resist her. He also couldn’t resist skimming his palm over her thigh ever so gently; “Well, my mom taught me.”
“Aww,” she giggled, though there wasn’t any malice behind it. That was new.
“Yeah, well, Mom was special,” he smiled slowly, only a slight tinge of regret at her loss. She’d died of cancer when he was young—11 or 12, he couldn’t really remember—but he did remember her teaching him all her favorite recipes. It was their little Christmas tradition, him and her in the kitchen, preparing breads and desserts. “She taught me all her recipes, and left them to me when she… when she passed.”
He heard her hiss with what may have been sympathy, but she said nothing. He would be forever grateful for that. He couldn’t help but maintain intense eye contact; they hadn’t been seeing each other long, and between her school and his work, they rarely saw each other, despite living precisely one floor from one another. Her scent was intoxicating to him, and the slide of her hair between his fingers filled a hole in his heart he hadn’t known was there. She was so beautiful, and she looked at him like he was the only man in the whole world.
“You two either need to get a room or quit it with the romcom eye-contact,” Lynn teased, nudging Emma’s shoulder.
“Well, this is my apartment,” Emma quipped. “What would you do to stop me if I decided to drag Cullen to my room and ravish him until he couldn’t remember his own name?”
Cullen choked on his coffee, desperately thinking of anything but that to stop the swell of arousal he couldn’t quite get a handle on.
Lynn snorted; “Remind you that children are indeed present. Speaking of which, it’s getting kind of late, and I know some of us have early flights.”
“That’s true!” Ana clapped her hands sharply. “Present time!”
The kids, at that point languid and content to cuddle with their father, jumped into action at the mere mention of presents. Bryce and Duncan started clamoring over one another to be the first at the tree, while Eleanor jumped up and down on the couch, waving her father’s arm in her tiny hands.
“Daddy!” she shrieked over Alistair’s giggles. “Daddy, presents!”
Alistair rolled his eyes at Ana; “Do you see what you’ve done?”
The dogs were sensing the excitement, jumping merrily around the living space, chasing the squealing children. Brutus started barking his massive, chesty bark, which of course got the other two going.
“Brutus!” Cullen exclaimed. Of course, the massive hound couldn’t hear him, or chose to ignore him, so Cullen had to (reluctantly) extricate himself from Emma’s haphazard embrace to calm his dog.
Fenris eventually wrapped a hand in Delilah’s collar and Tank, who was considerably older than the other two dogs, settled quickly when Lynn beckoned him to lay at her feet. Emma set up some beanbag chairs for the kids to sit in with some boxes to keep their unwrapped presents in. Ana fetched a trash bag while Alistair slid to sit next to Lynn. The pair gave Cullen a knowing look.
“What?” he asked, watching Brutus finally settle in Emma’s lap. Filthy traitor.
“Cullen should be the one to hand out presents,” Alistair suggested. He leaned heavily into Lynn’s side. She promptly poked him in the ribs, but it didn’t seem to deter him.
Cullen felt a sharp choke in his throat; when he was a kid, his father handed out the Christmas gifts, making sure everyone had one to open at all times. It was a sort of honor in his family. He knew that Alistair knew that about him. He also knew his friend was giving him all the time in the world to decide when to give Emma her gift. He was doubly grateful.
“My pleasure!” Cullen answered brightly, kneeling next to the pile of gifts.
Despite every effort to stay organized and cleaned up, they still ended up surrounded by piles of crumpled wrapping paper. Bryce and Duncan were shrieking in delight over their new toys (which Lynn refused to let them open, much to their short-lived chagrin) while Eleanor curled sleepily in her father’s lap. Cullen was skimming his hands over Ana’s gift; a real leather jacket, lined in the softest fleece he’d ever felt.
“Wow, Ana, you were right. You nailed it,” he quipped, shrugging it on over his broad shoulders. “Damn, perfect fit, too.”
“Well, I know this guy,” Ana retorted flippantly, though he could see the genuine swell of pride in her face. “He does all humane-sourced Antivan leather, it’s environmentally sound, and the quality is killer.”
“Personally, I approve of Ana’s gift,” Emma purred from her chair. She was giving him an appreciative stare through her eyelashes that made him blush to his toes. Maker’s breath!
“Well, I think that just leaves the couples’ presents,” Ana declared knowingly, quirking her brow at Cullen. He balked for a bit, but was saved when Ana indicated the box for Fenris from her. “Hand that to me, will you?”
Fenris had to laugh when he opened the gift—a pair of hand-shaped mugs (Ana’s specialty, according to her) one that said ‘Paint Water’ and another that said ‘Not Paint Water’. He pressed a soft kiss to her cheek while she opened his gift to her—what appeared to be a ‘Joy of Painting’ boxed set. Alistair received a handsome statuette of what looked like a dragon, while Lynn was cooing over a leather briefcase from Alistair like it was a newborn babe. Cullen eyed the tiny box in his hands like it was bringing the Blight.
He whirled on Emma and encountered her sheepish grin, a gift clutched in her hands.
“Merry Christmas,” she said tentatively, extending the neatly wrapped package.
He grinned back at her, slipping his own package into her hands with a soft kiss on her cheek; “Merry Christmas.”
He opened the little package and felt gob smacked. He knew his jaw had fallen open in shock; nestled in the vivid blue velvet was a gold wristwatch. A lion’s head was carved into the face and tiny rubies marked the 12, 3, 6, and 9 positions. He whipped off his old sport’s model and clasped it around his wrist.
“Emma, this is too much!”
“Well, you’re a practical man, but you deserve nice things,” she said simply, pressing a kiss to his temple. “Looks good on you; I knew that sales girl didn’t know what she was doing. She suggested white gold or, Maker forbid, platinum. You like it?”
“Emma, I love it,” he leaned into the kiss, skimming his thumb over the face.
“Good, then it’s my turn!” She whipped the paper off her gift and popped the little jewelry box open… and then froze. Her eyes were wide, almost teary, when she saw the dainty sterling snowflake necklace. “Cullen, it’s… oh, Maker.”
The glowing… happiness in her eyes was almost too much for him. Going on instinct, he plucked it out of the box and pushed her hair to the side, clasping the delicate chain; “I saw it and thought of you.”
She turned and gave him a watery grin that did odd things to his insides. It sat perfectly at the hollow of her throat, and the tiny gemstone in the center matched her ice blue eyes. She reached to cup his cheek, tenderly running her thumb over his scar. She stood on tip toes to press a quick kiss to his lips and she gave him that look—the one like he was the only man in the world.
And for a brief second, he chastised himself; what had he been so worried about?
The Policeman’s Ball was an annual New Year’s tradition, and the detectives often attended out of obligation. Cullen had been to several before, and he distinctly remembered the fine whiskey being passed around like it was nothing. It was a night to cut loose with one’s coworkers. Any other year, and he would be there—sometimes with a date, always with a drink. Only his captain, Cassandra, knew about his recovery, and she’d excused him this year.
He wasn’t ready.
So he found himself sitting at home on New Year’s Eve, alone save for his Netflix queue and a desire to order his weight in take-out when his phone chirped at him. Lynn was calling, and he quirked a brow—she normally didn’t call if it wasn’t important.
“Lynn, what’s wrong?” he asked, pausing the mindless movie he was watching.
“Oh, Cullen don’t sound so nervous,” Lynn admonished, though there was a hint of panic in her voice. “Cullen, I have a huge favor to ask and I don’t know who else to call. My sitter cancelled on me last minute—she has the flu and I don’t need Eleanor or the boys sick right now. Fergus is out of work at 7:00 and he can come pick them up, but I was hoping to be in my hotel room before then. If they’re here, I’ll never be ready on time.”
“Lynn, I’d love to watch the kids for a few hours,” Cullen said, smirking. She could never just ask, could she?
“Oh, Cullen you’re a lifesaver!” Lynn sighed. “Can I bring them over in an hour?”
“Sure,” he replied. Gave him plenty of time to clean up.
It took a little less than an hour to get his dirty dishes in the dishwasher, pick up his dirty laundry, and hide the violent video games he knew Bryce and Duncan would be all over the second their mother was out the door. He didn’t believe the busy body suburban moms who thought violent games turned you into a serial killer, but he figured his seven year old nephews didn’t need to be bludgeoning zombies to death for the night.
Sure enough, there was a sharp knock on the door not ten minutes later, followed by the excited screeching of the boys and Eleanor. He heard Lynn try in vain to keep them under control; Cullen couldn’t help but snort a bit. He loved the kids, but they were hyper. He could understand why Lynn needed him for the day. She’d never be able to get ready with this level of excitement
“Hey, Lynn,” Cullen threw open his door, a sardonic grin pulling his scar taught. Bryce and Duncan scrambled under his arm and flung themselves into his living room. Eleanor clung to her mother, Lynn patting her dark brown hair.
“Sorry about this, Cullen,” Lynn sighed, leading her daughter into the apartment. “Fergus will be here at 7:30 to pick them up; feel free to sugar them up between now and then.”
Cullen laughed, listening to the excited squealing coming from his living room; “Anything I should know?”
Lynn rolled her eyes; “For some reason, Alistair let them watch IZombie and they’re obsessed. And yes, I hate it but telling them no will just make them want it more.”
“Alright, weird hipster zombie show, anything else?” Cullen asked sardonically.
“Not really,” Lynn sighed, ushering Eleanor into the room, where she promptly wrapped herself around Cullen’s legs. “I have to go; Alistair is meeting me at the hotel.”
“Special evening planned?” he asked wistfully, resting a big hand on Eleanor’s hair.
“Alistair and I are making an appearance at the Policeman’s ball, and then I don’t know,” Lynn replied, her eyes going sort of soft and goofy at the thought. “Alistair said it was a surprise.”
“Well, have fun,” Cullen pulled her in for a one-armed hug before seeing her off, mindful of the garment bag she held.
“Will do, and thanks again!” Lynn swept out the door, shooting a coy look over her shoulder. “Oh, and no girls. Unless it’s Emma, of course.”
“Emma’s working today,” Cullen replied, narrowing his eyes. “She said she has paper.”
“That’s the thing about med school,” Lynn said with a roll of her eyes. “She always has a paper.”
Turned out IZombie was weird and delightful and strangely bloody, considering it was a network show, but he found himself actually enjoying it. Eleanor was watching Disney movies on his IPad, leaning against his leg, and Duncan and Bryce abandoned him for some of their Christmas toys; despite the fact they weren’t watching it, when he changed the show over they complained, so he left it on.
Around early afternoon, his phone blared an unfamiliar song at him. He saw Emma’s picture on the screen—did she customize her own ringtone? He swiped at his screen, trying to contain the unbridled enthusiasm he felt; “Hey. I thought you were working today.”
There was a long, loaded silence; “Um… I was. I just got out. Sorry, are you busy?”
“No, I’m free, what’s up?” he paused the show, leaning forward.
She was quiet again; “So my sponsor is spending the night in Denerim with his wife, and I just got a call from some friends from undergrad about going out tonight.”
“They don’t know about your recovery,” Cullen said matter-of-factly.
“I’m not ready, Cullen.” Her voice wavered in a way that closed a fist over his heart.
“Hey,” he said softly around an obvious hiccup. She’s crying? “Come over.”
“I don’t want to be a bother,” she sighed, obviously trying to make her voice sound even. “I shouldn’t have called.”
“Emma,” he admonished. “Come over. We’ll order take out and hang with Lynn’s kids for a bit. We’ll commiserate about how much New Year’s sucks for alcoholics.”
“Eleanor and the boys are there?”
“Just for a couple more hours, then we have the place to ourselves. Emma, you live one floor below me. No excuses, ok?”
He didn’t want to push her, or make her think he was pressuring her in any way. But he knew the kind of shit you could do to yourself when you were hurting and alone. If she was anything like him, she knew exactly where to get a quick fix and it wouldn’t help her to be alone.
“There’s this fantastic Rivaini place near there,” she suggested, attempting bright optimism in her voice.
“Perfect,” he scooted Eleanor over a bit so he could get up. “I have to walk Brutus, so come over in twenty?”
“Perfect,” she echoed, an obvious smile in her voice. “I’m wearing my lazy pants, just FYI, so if you expected me to be all dolled up…”
“Emma,” he reproached.
“All right, see you in twenty.”
Yoga pants were the most amazing thing. Cullen had to admit when he heard lazy pants he’d assumed shorts, like the lecher he was, but yoga pants. Emma stayed in shape (maybe it was lugging those text books up and down stairs, or maybe it was a holdover from the Academy) but her hips, thighs and arse were always so soft and rounded. He couldn’t tear his gaze away; especially when her fishtail braid tickled the curve of her back. He watched the play of muscle under the tight-fitting black fabric; he pictured his fingers digging into the soft flesh of her hips, pulling her flush with him. She would absolutely feel the growing tension as he crushed her lips with his; leaving bruises where his grasp grew just too tight.
Then she shot him that smile and he melted a bit. Rivaini food was on its way and the boys were excitedly showing Emma their toys. Eleanor was nodding off on his oversized throw pillow; Cullen scooped the girl into his arms, his heart seizing at the look of longing Emma shot at him.
“I should,” he had to clear his throat. “I’m going to put Eleanor down in the room.”
“I’ll watch the boys,” Emma sank to the couch, crossing her legs and pulling a tablet out of her bag.
Eleanor conked pretty quickly once he tucked her in. He couldn’t resist pushing her dark brown curls out of her little face—Eleanor was just the sweetest girl and pretty much anyone who met her became enamored. Cullen was no exception—he’d always wanted children, even when he joined the Templars. It was a secret, deeply-held desire of his. But he was broken—he knew no one would want him. The fact he had fun with Emma didn’t seem to matter—she was so young and so beautiful with so much promise. She deserved better than him.
“New Year’s sucks,” Emma groaned, her head nestled in his lap.
“It’s an excuse to go out and get drunk,” Cullen sighed, carding his hand through her long platinum hair. “Without that, it’s just a big crowd in the dead of winter screaming about precisely 11 seconds worth of excitement.”
Emma snorted derisively, burrowing deeper into his lap; “I’m glad I could be here tonight. Even if I spent most of it with two hyperactive seven-year-olds and a cranky toddler.”
Cullen draped his hand over her shoulder, caressing her cheek gently with the tip of his thumb; “You seemed so stressed earlier.”
“I’m having trouble with my cranial nerves,” she sighed, like that was supposed to make sense to him. “Work was hell. I mean, it’s New Year’s Eve and you waited until today to make your dinner reservations and of course that’s my fault.”
“Aw, babe,” he tried to suppress the laughter he felt in his chest. He did his time in the customer service trenches—he could relate.
“Plus, I’m pretty sure Dr. Orsino is going to have us elbow-deep in a fat guy starting Monday, so there’s that.”
Cullen nearly choked on his water; “Please tell me you’re joking.”
“Orsino likes to start the year with the worst cadavers he can find because he’s the worst,” Emma groaned. “Sorry. You don’t want to hear about my cadavers.”
Cullen nestled into the couch; it was 10:30 and he could already hear the noise in the streets below. It wasn’t going to be an easy night.
“Emma, I’m glad you’re here tonight,” he said softly.
“Well, I like you,” she replied. “I figured you were probably not doing too well tonight either, so…”
“You’re not wrong.”
She pressed a soft kiss to his cheek; “Happy New Year, Cullen.”
“Happy New Year.”
He brushed her hair back from her face, leaning in for a soft kiss. He knew she deserved more than he could give her. His jagged edges could never fit with another person’s, let alone someone as beautiful as her. But he was crazy about her, and she felt so right here next to him. He could feel himself falling for her… and as scary as that was, it was also sort of exhilarating. It had been so long since someone punched through that hardened veneer of stoicism he clung to like a security blanket. Tiny pieces of vulnerability shone through, and yet she handled him with such care… he figured it couldn’t get better.
He was in love.
Happy New Year, everyone!!
I am so happy to have met all the great people in the fandom this year. I also love my new Skype group. You guys are the best and know who you are!!
Enjoy this little slice of fluff. I will most likely end up posting more from this AU... because I can't control myself.