STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Christmas, two years later
Lucy surfaced slowly. She was too warm and comfortable to be in any kind of rush, so she burrowed deeper into her pillow and sighed.
“Lucy, baby. Time to get up.”
“Still dark out.” Or at least, that was her theory. She’d have to go to the supreme effort of opening her eyes to be sure, and she wasn’t that motivated to prove the rightness of her statement. “Go back to sleep.”
“I can’t. It’s Christmas morning, and Santa’s been here.”
That curled the corners of her mouth. During her growing-up years, Christmas morning had never been a big whoop. Santa had an unfortunate habit of skipping Garden Court, Bitterthorn’s “wrong side of the tracks” neighborhood, so anticipating a gift-filled visit from a white-bearded home invader had never been a factor. Of course, she had always loved the season while growing up. It was the time of year when everything was bright and cheerful, people seemed to remember that loving was better than hating, and she thrilled at making people smile with her baking delights, especially her Pfeffernüsse. But there had never been any point in getting excited. In Garden Court, December 25th was just another day.
Sully had changed all that
“Santa, huh?” Her smile remained as she pried sleepy eyes open to find her husband leaning over her, his eyes alight with the grin that touched every part of his face. Tousled dark hair, stubble, and the indent of a pillow crease along one cheek—yup. Without a doubt, Sullivan Jax was the handsomest man she’d ever known. And wonder of wonders, he was all hers. “Why would Santa stop here? Aren’t we both permanent residents of his Naughty list?”
“I know I am, but I think he’s got a soft spot for a master cookie-maker like you.”
“You know it, baby. My cookies are freaking irresistible.” As she spoke, she stretched and pressed against him. It didn’t matter that she’d tugged on a baggy nightshirt the night before to ward off December’s chill. There wasn’t a barrier in the world that could stop her delight in having him so close. “And spoken aloud, I now realize that sounded way naughtier than it did in my head.”
“Yeah, but I approve—even if it does make Santa sound like he’s perving on my wife.” With a low laugh he slid his hands over her breasts, his thumbs rubbing the nipples through the material until stiff peaks formed and she arched into his palms with a happy sigh. “I just thought we should get in the habit of dragging our asses out of bed before dawn on this day. Before you know it, it’s going to be like this every December 25th.”
The thought made her heart spin in a fluttery, thoroughly unexpected way, even as he stroked a hand down to her still-flat belly. It seemed like change was the norm for their lives from the time Sully returned to Bitterthorn. It had taken her a long while to get comfortable with the reality that he was back to stay. From the moment his memories of her began to clear, Sully did everything possible to win her trust once more. She had to give the man credit—he kept his word about not pushing her into any corners. He may have camped out on her doorstep, set up residence in Pauline’s shop whenever Lucy was on duty, and called her to talk for hours about nothing in particular whenever they were apart. But he never pushed her to accept him back into her life. All he did was plant himself there, and waited for her give in to the inevitable.
As she looked back now, she couldn’t imagine how frustrating it must have been for him when she worked so hard to keep some sort of emotional distance. With the benefit of hindsight, she saw that while she loved Sully, her trust had been shattered to the point where all she could do was curl up deep inside herself whenever he was near, and shield herself from the next anticipated blow. But when that blow never came, her frantic defenses slowly began to relax. It had taken a good six months before she finally agreed to have him move in with her, but life in the loft—with Sully and Coe within snarling distance of each other—was another facet of her life’s ever-changing landscape. By the time Christmas rolled around again and she was scrambling to pull off a New Year’s Day wedding, they had moved into a newly built house on the outskirts of Bitterthorn.
The man she’d married last January was both familiar and completely different from the man she’d married the first time around. Sully had always loved her, she knew that now. But her belief in the man he had grown to become paled in comparison to the gung-ho guy he’d once been. The man who had waited for her, loved her without ever once pressuring her to give as much as he did, was a man who would rather die than let her down. By simply being there every day, he had shown her far better than words that he was the one thing in the world that she could count on.
“Luce? What are you thinking about?”
She couldn’t help but smile at the faint concern threading his tone. “I’m thinking how grateful I am that you’re so patient. Thank you for waiting for me.”
Instant understanding bloomed in his expression. “Being apart from you was godawful, I’ll admit it. But every time I’d get so lonely I wanted to bulldoze my way back into your life, I’d remember what broke us apart in the first place. I was an asshole who hurt you in ways that still make me cringe, so I had no right to be impatient. I had to wait for your wounds to heal.”
“I must have driven you crazy.”
“The only thing that drove me crazy was the fear that you’d never believe in me again.” A storm of love and remembered desperation shadowed his eyes as he brushed the hair from her face. “It made me sick at heart, knowing I’d made you so unreachable. But it was no wonder you feared that if we got back together, you’d just wind up being forgotten all over again. I had to show you that I was a changed man. I'm just grateful you gave me a second chance.” Very gently, as if he believed she was made of the most fragile crystal, he cherished her lips with his. “So, sweetheart? Do you still believe I’d make the same mistake twice and somehow forget that you are the most important person in my life?”
Lord, how he turned her inside-out. “Not anymore. Though I’m totally fine with playing second fiddle either Brianna or Brian.”
Sully smiled brilliantly and once again pressed a hand on her stomach. He'd been doing that a lot this past week, ever since Dr. Pruitt confirmed Lucy's pregnancy. “Thank you for agreeing to name our little rugrat after my friend. I think he would have liked that.”
“It’s a strong name, from a wonderful inspiration.” A knot tightened her throat when she caught a flash of sadness in Sully’s eyes. It was an untruth that time healed all wounds; they scarred over and the initial agony ebbed, certainly. But the pain of loss was still there, quietly sitting in the shadows to be stumbled over at the most unexpected of times. That didn’t mean happiness could never again come into full bloom; far from it. If anything, that echo of sorrow made the purity of happiness that much sweeter. “We can’t gift our kiddo with a better start in life than that.”
“Agreed. And speaking of gifts.” With one last kiss, he moved to his side of the bed, then rolled back with a small present wrapped in bright red foil paper and a shiny red bow. “Merry Christmas, Luce.”
“Oooh, presents in bed. Me likey. Do you want to bring the tree in here too? I could spend all of Christmas day right here between the sheets.”
He lifted a brow. “Sounds good to me.”
“I thought you might like… oh. Sullivan.” When she peeled off the paper and opened the box, the first sight of the ring brought her hand to her mouth. But it didn’t stifle her shuddering breath when she caught sight of the engagement ring he had given her the first time they had been married. It had been his mother’s ring, a beautiful circular-cut diamond in a detailed Victorian-style gold setting, and she’d adored it beyond words. But it was a ring she'd believed she'd never see again.
The day Sullivan had asked for a divorce—a horrible day that still gave her cry-in-her-sleep nightmares—had been the day when hope had died in her soul. It had been murdered, with the knives that were his words sticking into her heart and bleeding her dry. Numb, she’d left his hospital room, spotted his father Lowell in the waiting area, and dragged the ring off her finger along with the wedding band, and handed it over without a word. There had been no words in existence to express how she’d just been gutted. The man she’d believed in, the love that had never stopped thrumming through her heart and soul, was officially snuffed out of her life, and the center around which her universe had spun, had vanished.
To be confronted with such a reminder of that moment now, when she had shut that memory out so completely it was as though she had some form of amnesia herself, was shattering.
“Lucy?” All playfulness gone, Sully hovered over her in alarm. “Baby? Are you okay? I’m sorry, I thought it was a good idea—“
“No.” She had to dig deep to find her voice, and the stricken look in his eyes was all the inspiration she needed to do it. “Don’t apologize, it’s… it’s a wonderful idea. I was just surprised, that’s all.”
“That wasn’t surprise I saw just now.”
“Yeah, it was. Don’t,” she said, sitting up to catch him when he would have edged off the bed. “You’re not allowed to take a Christmas gift back after you’ve given it away. Get back here.”
“Lucy.” Reluctantly Sully let her pull him back to bed, his face tight with a bitterness she hadn’t seen in a long while. She couldn’t help but notice how he tried tucking the now-closed box out of sight, as if he feared the mere sight of it would bring about the end of the world. “I guess I should have sounded you out about that ring before springing it on you. But I do remember you used to love it… right? You loved it, didn’t you?”
So much so that taking it off that final time had been like taking off a part of her body. “You’re memory’s perfect on this, babe.”
He shook his head. “It’s not like I’m trying to get back to our old marriage or anything like that. I don't want to go back to the way we were, because I think we’re better now. Stronger. I simply wanted to give back to you something you once loved. The last thing I wanted to do was upset you.”
“You didn’t.” Framing his face in her hands, she leaned in to kiss him and didn’t stop until she felt the tension drain out of his muscles. “The only one upset right now is you.”
“All I want to do is make you smile.” His free hand sifted through her hair, as if he loved the feel of it even when it was in its crappy, bed-head mode. “When you smile, I feel like everything’s right with the world.”
Her heart squeezed in a sweet kind of anguish. “Then I’d better keep smiling, huh?”
“Not if you don’t mean it.”
She sighed. “Sullivan, every now and again I get tripped up by things that are less than pleasant to remember, much the same way you stumble into things that you might not remember at all. That’s not a bad thing or a good thing—it’s simply the way things are. Considering how close we are now, and how much we’ve come to understand and treasure each other, I wouldn’t want it to be any other way.”
“I do treasure you, more than you will ever know.” The intensity of his gaze as it locked with hers made the breath back up in her lungs. It was as if she was the only thing he wanted to see for the rest of his life. “There are times when I wake up in the middle of the night, absolutely convinced I’m back in the apartment over my dad’s garage, all alone and lost without you. It hits me so hard I can barely breathe. The only thing I can do is reach out and hold you, and try to convince myself that I'm not stupid enough to ever lose you again. You're my heart, Luce. And I can’t live without my heart.”
“You’ll never have to.” Liquid warmth swam in her eyes, she was so moved by the passion burgeoning in his tone. To distract them both from it, she tapped a finger to the box he still had tucked by his side. “So? Do I get my Christmas present or not?”
“Only if it’ll make you smile.”
“There’s only one way to find out, pal.”
Without another word he brought the box back out and, after a dubious glance her way, opened it once more. In the wash of the glow from the bedside lamp, the facets winked up at her merrily.
“How do you want to do this?” She kept her tone light, and felt like she’d won the lottery when the beginnings of a grin appeared. “And just to make things clear, you’re not getting my lovely PX chip-diamond ring from me, I adore it far too much to ever part with it. So—“
“Hold on.” He plucked the ring from its velvet nest and picked up her right hand, only to hesitate one last time. When he glanced at her again, she nodded, unable to stop from smiling with an ever-expanding joy. The memory attached to the ring faded as he slid it onto her right ring finger, and that was as it should be. They were different people now, who knew what it was like to have lost something profoundly precious. They’d never again be so careless with something as beautiful as the love they had been lucky enough to rekindle. This time around, there was no doubt in her mind that they would last a lifetime.
His swallow was audible as he slipped the ring on her finger. When it was in place, he kissed it, then flipped her hand over to press his mouth into her palm. “My Lucy. I love you so much.”
“And I love you.” Happy and feeling utterly loved, Lucy settled back against the pillows while pulling him down with her. “Now, if you don't mind, I think it’s time for me to give you your Christmas present. Any objections?”
"Not a single one." With a smile, his fingers snagged the hem of her nightshirt and pulled it up.
I wanted to write a scene showing Sully's connection to his fallen comrade, but I couldn't figure out how to work it in while still keeping within shouting distance of the 35K word-limit (as it is, STARTING FROM SCRATCH weighs in at 36,057. Oy). In the opening chapter of SfS, Sully mentions to Lucy that he'd just mailed off presents to some children of a fallen comrade. This was the Christmas card Sully wrote to accompany the gifts.
Dear Samantha and Theo,
Merry Christmas to you both! I know it’s been a while since you heard from me, but it’s not my fault, honest! The thing is, I got a bump on the head and it conked me out for a while, but I’m back on my feet thanks to the doctors who made me feel much better. In fact, I’m now feeling so good, I couldn’t wait to send off a few Christmas presents to you guys. Your dad called me his brother, after all, so that makes me your uncle, and it’s an uncle’s privilege to spoil his niece and nephew at Christmastime.
Samantha, you’ve got to be five now, right? Wow, you’re getting to be so big. Your daddy told me that one of his favorite things to do when he was home was tuck you in at night, sit with his arm around you and read you to sleep. I’ll never forget how he said you fit perfectly against him, like you were a piece of him that had found its way home. That leads me to breaking with tradition, and telling you what I got you (I need you to know how to use it properly). I got the biggest, cuddliest teddy bear I could find so that you could lie against him and have his arms wrap around you while you read some books that I’ve also sent along (I hope you like American Girl). I know it’s not as good as a Daddy-hug, but we both know he’d want to give his favorite little girl the next best thing, right? So do me a favor and think about how much he loved to be with you every time you snuggle into your new teddy bear. And when you think about him and remember how much he loved you—how much he’ll always love you—it’s like he’ll be sitting right there with you. At least, I hope that’s how it will feel, and I hope it makes you smile. Merry Christmas, Samantha.
Theo, I know you’re only three, but from what I’ve seen of you, you’re going to be the spitting image of your dad! Next year I’m probably going to go crazy with baseball stuff for you (your dad was a HUGE White Sox fan… don’t ask me why, ha), but this year I wanted to do something special that you and your mommy can share. I’ve collected pictures of your dad and put them in a book for you to look at whenever you start wondering why your nose wrinkles when you laugh, or why your hair sticks up in the back no matter how many times you comb it down. You’re like that because you are your father’s son, and that is something to be proud of, Theo. I know you don’t have a lot of memories of him, but over the past year I’ve come to realize just how important memories are. If you don’t have any of your own about your father, you can borrow my memories of him. Believe me, they’re good ones. (And if you don’t like that gift, I’m also sending along a really loud baseball video game. I’m sure your mom will LOVE the noise!)
This much I know—your father loved you both very, very much. Even if you can’t see him anymore, he’s always with you in spirit, and he’s so proud of both of you. As your unofficial uncle, I’m proud of you too, so don’t be surprised if I check in on you every now and again. I hope you have a merry Christmas, and a wonderful New Year.