New York Times & USA Today Bestselling Author

A Very Charley Christmas by Darynda Jones

      The ball-and-chain, otherwise known as the rather delectable Mr. Reyes Alexander Farrow, was busy chopping something green in our restaurant-style kitchen. I didn’t dare try to guess the mystery vegetable. His concoctions always tasted like a little corner of heaven—despite the venue of his upbringing—so I remained in a constant state of denial about the fact that whatever I was eating might actually be healthy for me.  
      I dropped the bundle of Christmas presents in my arms and walked to the other side of the island. But Reyes had stopped chopping and was looking at the presents. I’d probably gone a tad overboard in his eyes, but then I realized his eyes were filled with something else. Something resembling sadness.
      “Reyes, what’s wrong?” I asked in alarm.
       He glanced at me from beneath his painfully thick lashes, his dark irises shimmering in the faux light, before returning to his task. “So,” he said, addressing me at last.
      I perked up. I did that a lot when he talked. Or walked. Or breathed.
      “The presents already taking up half the apartment weren’t enough?”
      That took me off guard. I recovered quickly, though. I did that a lot, too.  
     “We still have another half we could fill. And they’re for Beep. Mostly.”
      We rarely got to see our daughter so I had to make up for it somehow. Bombarding her with gifts seemed like a reasonable replacement.
     “You know she’s only two months old.”
“I know, but this time I thought ahead. I bought her clothes to last the whole year. Speaking of which, do you know how hard it is to find summer clothes for a baby when winter has just started?”
     He forced a smile, pulled out another unnamable plant-based product, this one orange-ish with scary little knots, and began peeling. My faith in his abilities wavered. Not for long though. I remembered what he was capable of both in and out of the kitchen. Moment of weakness over.
      I tried not to watch the hills and valleys of his muscles shift every time he moved, the light dancing with the shadows playfully. Sensually. Evocatively. I could not be distracted, which was really hard because ADHD was a real thing. But I wanted to get to the bottom of his sadness.
     “Are you going to tell me what that was about?”
     “What?”
     “That look when I brought in the presents.”
     “Probably not.”
     “I could pay you. I’m married to a very rich man.”
     “You don’t say.”   
Clearly my powers of persuasion had taken a vacay. It happened. I rounded the island to force his attention my way. It didn’t work. “Reyes, I’m your wife.”
     “So, that’s why you sleep in my bed. I was wondering.” He didn’t look up, but the expression on his face told me he had already moved on. He had no intention of talking about whatever was bothering him. This required diplomacy. Deftness. Delicacy.
      I could be delicate. I was a delicate freaking flower, after all. I could do this.
      I girded my loins, metaphorically, and went straight for the jugular. “Is this about Christmas? Why you won’t talk about it?”  
      The sadness that hooded his eyes was so fleeting I almost missed it.
      I tried again. “I know that your childhood was horrible, Reyes.”
      The chopping stopped, but he still didn’t look up. It was not a subject he liked to talk about.
       Leaning closer, I softened my voice. “I can’t even imagine how horrible it was, but it’s Christmas. Surely you have a happy Christmas memory. Right? I mean, doesn’t everyone?”
      “Dutch—” It was a warning. He’d said my name through gritted teeth. But I couldn’t give up. Not on this. Not on him.
      I bit my bottom lip. “I know, and I’m sorry. It’s just—You’re so dismissive of the entire holiday. It makes me sad when people get depressed during the holidays. It should be joyous. A time of remembrance and nostalgia. Surely you have at least one happy Christmas memory.” For some reason, the thought of him not having one single happy Christmas memory growing up broke my heart. But he was raised by a monster. I knew I was asking a lot.
      He lifted one shoulder and began chopping again. “Kim and I did okay. Isn’t that enough?”
      Kim. Of course. Was that why he didn’t want to talk about it? Her death was still an open wound, raw and exposed, on his psyche. It nearly killed him. Along with a lot of other people.
      His fire, the fire that engulfed him 24/7, that moved when he did and caressed every molecule in his body, had grown out of control when he saw Kim’s body. When he cradled her in his arms. When he bent over her and cried and cursed and swore vengeance.
      It was hardly his fault. He’d been forged in hell, after all. His temper was bound to get the better of him eventually. And that day, that horrible, cruel day, he burned. So much so that he was a microsecond away from going nuclear. From laying waste to an entire town. If not the entire state. But he’d stopped.    
Pulled it back inside. Controlled it.
       Barely.
       “I’m so sorry, Reyes. Is that why you don’t want to talk about it?”
       Growing frustrated, he put the knife down and focused on me, his jaw flexing with the emotion he was trying to bite back. When he finally spoke, his voice was thick and hoarse. “I failed her in every way possible, and now she’s gone. Why do you need to know the depths of my failures when it comes to my sister? Aren’t my other failures enough?”
       I blinked in surprise. What was he talking about?
      “Excuse me.” He stalked past me into the living room, headed for our bedroom.
       I followed. “Please stop.”
      He halted his long stride and took in a deep breath, keeping his back to me.
     “I’m sorry, Reyes. I just—I hoped your childhood wasn’t all horror. I know it’s stupid.” I walked behind him and wrapped my arms around his waist. “I won’t ask again, but I don’t understand how you could possibly believe you failed your sister. She adored you. You did everything you could for her.”
     He turned and pulled me into his arms, but his expression was hard. Angry. “Not everything.”
      “I don’t believe you,” I said, shaking my head.
      “Yeah?”
       It was a challenge, and I knew him well enough to realize he was about to regale me with a heartbreaking story. One that I probably didn’t want to hear. But I’d started this. The least I could do was listen. If nothing else, it would give me one more kernel of information. One more piece of the puzzle that was Reyes Farrow.
       “Kim loved Christmas. When she was old enough, she would even cook Christmas dinner. Or try to. I remember thinking how sad it was that she put any effort into it. The bastard would find something wrong. He always did. But she loved it so much, she didn’t care.”
      So far, so good. Kind of.
     “We would get up early, before he did, and exchange presents. One year she made me a God’s Eye with some yarn she’d found in an alley. I got her earmuffs. I’d stolen them. I didn’t tell her that, but she knew. She scolded me. Told me if I didn’t stop doing stuff like that they’d take me away. They’d take me away from her. It was her greatest fear.”
      I knew the feeling.
     “We were always so happy until he woke up. Then I’d go to whatever corner he’d assigned to me and—and I’d experience Christmas. A real Christmas.”
I questioned him by scrunching my eyebrows a heartbeat before realization dawned.
     “My happiest Christmas memory was of a little girl who got white go-go boots, as she called them, and a tricycle. Later the next year she began suspecting her stepmother’s aversion to her. Her apathy. But that year, she was happy. She and her sister opened presents and squealed and hugged. She didn’t care that her sister had twice the number of gifts she did.”
     “I was three,” I said. “I remember. But you’re wrong. I suspected my stepmother’s apathy long before that.”
     He bent his head. “But I left her.” His words were a mere whisper, as though he couldn’t admit what he’d done. “Her greatest fear and I’d done it not an hour after she confessed it to me. I left her alone with him.”
     As heartbreaking as that was, I still didn’t understand. “I thought he never touched her. I thought he never abused her. Not like he did you.”
     The smile he offered me was sad, as though he felt sorry for me. “There are many ways to abuse, Dutch, without ever laying a hand on someone.”
     I swallowed back the sorrow that crept up my throat. Trying to close it. Trying to force the wetness gathering behind my eyes past my lashes.
     He frowned. “I thought we agreed,” he said, his voice suddenly hard.
     “I don’t feel sorry for you, butthead. I feel sorry for your sister.”
     He dropped his hands and stepped back, nodding. “You should. She had me as a brother.”
     “Not for that reason, Reyes. You both had to deal with that man.”
     “Not me. I could just leave, remember?”
     “And that was how you dealt.”
     “By leaving her alone with him.”
     “By surviving,” I argued.
     He started to walk away, but I stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Uh-uh, buddy. You know the laws of Christmastime.”
     I gave him a moment to recover. To realize where he was standing. The conversation was over. He was off the hook. He knew the drill. Pay up or pay the price.
     After a moment, he looked up and squinted. “How the hell did you manage to get mistletoe on a rafter twenty-four feet in the air?”
     Glancing up at my handy work, I glowed with pride. Actually, I glowed either way, but I really was proud of what I’d accomplished. It’s the little things in life. Especially since I almost died in the process. “Dude, you do not want to know.”
     He turned so fast I didn’t see it. One minute I’m standing there, admiring my lackluster will to live, and the next I’m in his arms. The same arms that mesmerized. That turned my knees to jelly. That dissolved every bone in my body until I resembled a rag doll I’d had as a child. I’d taken it to school one day and Jeremy Brewster cut her red-yarned ponytails off with those little scissors that could barely cut paper. Kid had skills.
     “I do, actually,” he said, the edge to his voice replaced with something deeper. Darker. And definitely sexier.
     I rolled onto my toes and got as close to his mouth as I could without actually kissing him. “You don’t. Now, do your job.”
     He raised a brow. “Okay, but remember, you asked for it.”
    Before I could protest—not that I would—he swept me into his arms and continued his trek to the bedroom.
      Oh, yeah. This was going to be a great Christmas.