At seven in the morning, I quietly climb from bed and make my way to the kitchen. Last night at Mason’s, after all three Santa Claus movies and hot chocolate and popcorn, Stella and I headed for home. But while Stella was busy tucking Jules in, reading a Christmas book to her before bed, I gave him his copy of the restored photo.
The place I brought it to did a spectacular job, and you’d never know the photo survived a fire. He was able to trim the burned edges and cleaned the soot and stickiness from it. When he scanned it into the computer, he was able to brighten the parts that were too dark, and now it looks perfect.
I’ve never seen Mason cry, and he kept it together pretty well, but I saw the sheen in his eyes. He hugged me and thanked me, and I wasn’t sure if it was for the photo or for taking care of Stella, but either way I returned it.
Busying myself, I make a stack of pancakes and chop up some strawberries. Putting the teapot on the stove, I set it to boil while I make myself some coffee. I’m just about to pour a cup when Stella comes walking into the kitchen, dressed in one of my work T-shirts and a pair of cropped leggings.
“Merry Christmas.” She yawns, running her fingers through her long locks.
“Babe, I was making you breakfast in bed,” I groan, wanting to surprise her.
“It’s okay, I had to pee like a racehorse. What’d you make me?” she asks, coming up behind me and wrapping her arms around my waist from behind. I feel her warm lips press to the back of my bare shoulder, and I turn my face to kiss her head.
“Pancakes. Strawberries too, since they’re your favorite.”
“Merry Christmas, baby.”
Stella takes a seat at the island and reaches for the stack of pancakes, taking three before grabbing the bowl of strawberries. I watch her pile the pancakes high with the slices and then drown them in syrup. The teapot begins to whistle, and I shut the stove off, pouring some water into her favorite mug.
“What kind of tea do you want?” I ask.
“Do we have any of that peppermint left?”
Peering around the cabinet, I find one left and turn around with it between my fingers.
Grabbing my cup of coffee, I move around the island to sit next to her. She hands me a plate with three more pancakes, sliding the syrup to me.
“They good?” I ask, and she groans, taking another bite.
“So good. And I’m hungry this morning. Luckily I don’t feel too nauseous, so I’m hoping these stay down. Sorry, that’s gross.” She laughs, and I shrug.
“Doesn’t bother me. I know you can’t help it.”
“So what time are we going to your parents’?” she asks, reaching for her tea and blowing on the steaming liquid before taking a tentative sip.
“Mom said they’re doing presents at eleven, and then lunch is at one.”
“And you’re sure they don’t mind that Mason is coming over?”
“No, baby. He’s part of the family too.”
Stella had mentioned last night that Jules was going to her mom’s house for Christmas around ten, so without a second thought, I invited Mason to my parents’. He seemed surprised, but I just shrugged it off.
He’s Stella’s family, so he’s my family.
“So, do you want to do presents here or at Mom and Dad’s?” I ask, finishing my cup of coffee.
She takes the last bite of her breakfast and swallows.
“Here. ’Cause you’re gonna need your gift today.” She winks and saunters out of the room, my eyes trained to her ass the entire time. Pregnancy has been beautiful to see Stella grow into, and I’m even a little damn sorry that her ass is even more devastating.
“Where are you going?” I ask.
She looks back at me, reaching for the broom. “To get your last gift.”
I tilt my head at her, but she ignores me as she walks out of sight. A couple minutes later, she comes out with a box in her hands and the broom tucked under her arm.
“Oh wait,” I say, understanding dawning on me. “Is that what you put under the bed a couple weeks ago and then got stuck getting back up?”
She starts laughing at me and nods, and I can’t help the belly laugh I let out.
Grabbing the dishes, I set them all in the sink and pour myself another cup of coffee. Making a pit stop in the bedroom to throw on a T-shirt, I find her waiting for me in the living room, sitting down next to the tree.
“Let’s do this,” I say, rubbing my hands together.
“I might have gone overboard,” she tells me with a shrug as I settle down next to her. She hands me a red box and I open it, finding a new coffee cup that says #1 Dad. I give her a wry grin before I kiss the hell out of her, pulling back with a smile.
“I love it, Stell. I’m drinking my coffee out of this every single day.”
Over the next ten minutes, we each open miscellaneous gifts, and then I hand her a small box with a bow on top. She pops it open to find a diamond drop necklace, and her eyes widen in shock.
“Oh, Jace, it’s beautiful.” She fingers the delicate chain, and I lean over to kiss her again.
“Beautiful necklace for my beautiful girl.”
“Thank you. I love it so much. Now here. This is your big gift, and I want you to promise me something.”
She hands me the box that was hidden under our bed, and I set it on my lap.
“And what’s that?”
“I want you to promise you’ll use it every day. And not just for us.”
I give her a questioning stare, but she just points to the box, her grin infectious. Tearing the paper away, I swear to God my heart stops for a moment, the meaning behind her promise suddenly making sense, and I have to fight back the urge to cry.
A camera, and a beautiful leather bag for it to go in.
“Stell….” I can’t manage any more, unable to speak around the lump in my throat.
“I want you to take pictures again, Jace. I want you to fall back in love with photography. You lost enough on that day, baby.”
Tears prick my eyes at her words, the term of endearment she’s never used, and just the simple fact that I’m going to spend the rest of my life with this extraordinary woman. Setting the box to the side, I pull her into my arms and bury my face in her neck, breathing her in.
Thank you,” I whisper hoarsely, pulling back to see tears on her cheeks.
“Merry Christmas, Miller.” She kisses my cheek and gives me a smile.
“You still have one more to open, babe.”
Reaching around her, I carefully pick up her gift. I had it framed and wrapped so it wouldn’t get damaged, and I carefully set it on her lap.
“I need you to know something before you open this.”
“The nursery was going to be your big gift, because I wasn’t sure if I could get you this. Mason is the reason this happened, I just want you to know. I can’t take all the credit for this.”
“I’ll make sure I thank him today,” she teases, and with that she opens the gift, looking confused as hell when she finds bubble wrap. Sliding her finger under the tape on the side, she carefully unwraps everything, and I’m on pins and needles watching her.
My eyes are locked on her face, wanting to see her reaction the second the image is uncovered. She laughs when she sees how many layers are covering it and I give her my best innocent face. The final layer comes off and she turns the frame over, one of her hands immediately covering her mouth.
Her eyes well up with more tears that fall unashamedly down her cheeks. Uncovering her mouth, I watch her bottom lip tremble as she runs her fingers down the glass, unable to look away from the photo.
“How…? How on earth did you…?”
She lifts her head to look at me, and I reach out to brush at her tears, though more quickly replace the ones I clear.
“Mason had it in a box. I guess he found it when he went back with the investigators before they had to tear everything down. I found someone in town who could restore it, and I brought it to them.”
Stella chokes on a sob and carefully moves the photo out of the way so she can climb onto my lap. She winds her arms around my neck and sobs against my throat, her entire body trembling.
Rubbing circles on her back, I press my lips to the top of her head, leaving them there to comfort her. I have no idea how long she sits there crying, but finally she pulls away, using the back of her hand to wipe her tears away.
“Thank you,” she whispers hoarsely.
“Anything for you, baby.”
“You have no idea what you’ve just given me, Jace. I’ll be able to show our babies their grandparents. It killed me knowing they’d never meet them, but it hurt knowing I had nothing to show them. No baby pictures, nothing. I can never explain how much this means to me. I love you so much, Jace Miller.”
“I love you too. And this might be the only picture, but we’re gonna make sure our girls know them, Stell. I promise you that.”
I lift her chin with my fingers. “Now, if we’re done with all these tears, can I spend the rest of Christmas morning with you in our bed?”
“I think that can be arranged.” She smiles, her whole face aglow.
I don’t bother responding. Helping her up, I watch her set the photo of her family on the mantle, her fingers lingering on the frame. Then she makes her way to me and grabs my hand.
“You, Jace Miller, just made this the best Christmas of my life.”
“It’s about to get a whole lot better, baby,” I growl in her ear, and she throws her head back, laughing hard.
Lifting her into my arms, I carry her to the bedroom and kick the door shut, then deposit her on the bed, where we spend the next hour.