THIS IS BOOK TWO IN THE BOOKS AND BADGES SERIES. If you have not read BOOKS AND BADGES, it is highly suggested that you stop now and read the previous book before continuing.
The light from the motion activated night light by the bedroom door cast soft shadows around the room. The little girl who had activated it stepped a little further into the room, her favorite stuffed animal hugged to her chest. After taking a moment to convince herself he wouldn’t be mad, she hurried across the room and grabbed her father’s hand. “Daddy!”
Theodore Eckart’s eyes opened, settling on the redhead’s freckled face. “What do you need, baby girl?”
“You gotta come into the living room and see! But you have to be really, really quiet.”
He cleared his throat and sat up in bed. Grabbing his cane from where it leaned against the nightstand, he used it to push himself to his feet. He grabbed his daughter’s hand and let her lead him out of his room and into the living room. They stood at the very edge of the hall, leaned around the corner to peer into the living room.
“It’s Santa,” Vera whispered.
“Wow,” Theodore whispered back.
The man in red sticking little presents into the stockings leaned against the tree definitely wasn’t Santa Claus. It was Russell Steele, Theodore’s boyfriend for the last two months. The man had been incredibly kind and caring, not to mention patient when it came to every single issue Theodore had developed from the abuser he had finally divorced not long before meeting Russell.
He had also taken on the role his ex-husband never had: acting as a second father figure to Vera. Dressing up as Santa Claus just because it might make her happy was far from the first thing he had done to make up for the abusive nightmare she had witnessed when Theodore had been married to Shane. For Halloween, the man had dressed up as Luigi just so they could all go trick-or-treating as characters from Mario, like Vera wanted. The day before Thanksgiving–since Theodore and Vera had spent the actual holiday with his parents–Russell had taken them to an animal rehabilitation facility so Vera could see and feed a real turkey. Since it had started snowing in the latter half of November, he had built countless snowmen, snow families, and snow forts with her.
Russell Steele was a goddamn miracle worker when it came to Theodore and Vera, fake Santa Clause included.
Theodore squeezed his daughter’s shoulder. “Hurry on back to bed so Santa doesn’t see you,” he whispered.
“Okay!” she whispered back, unable to contain her excitement. She ran out from the hall and headed straight back to her room. Theodore waited until he heard her bedroom door shut before he walked into the living room. “Morning, Santa.”
Russell grinned at him. “Morning, Mister Eckart.”
“She was so excited, Russell. You… you did good.”
“Thank you.” Russell tucked one more present into Vera’s stocking before straightening himself back out. “You… are on my nice list. Double checked and everything. Am I on yours?”
Theodore rolled his eyes, though he couldn’t help the smile that came to his face. Free hand wrapped around the fluffy white collar of Russell’s jacket, he leaned up and kissed him. “You’re kinda always on my nice list nowadays, Detective.”
“Mm, thank God.” Russell brushed a thumb over Theodore’s cheek, a soft smile coming back to his face. “Go on back to bed. I’m gonna go put this in my car to make sure she can’t find it, and then I’ll be back. We can get a couple more hours of sleep in before breakfast.”
“Thank you… for understanding that I’m not ready to bring you to Christmas with my parents yet.”
“No problem, Theo. I wanna always take things at your pace. I don’t wanna rush you or make you feel guilty for not doing something right this second. When you’re ready, we’ll do more holiday stuff together. Until then, I am more than good enough with breakfast and presents,” Russell said.
Theodore pressed a kiss to his lips as a silent thank you before heading back to his bedroom.
It wasn’t long before Russell, his skin a little cold from the winter chill of the early morning, slid into bed behind him. He wrapped an arm around Theodore’s chest, pressing a kiss to his shoulder. “Night, Theo.”
Russell chuckled against the back of his neck, sending a delightful little shiver down Theodore’s spine. “You sure she didn’t know it was me?”
“Positive. She came and got me so I could see Santa. You just gave her the best damn Christmas she’s ever had.”
“Seeing her dad happy, healthy, and safe is the best Christmas present to her. Seeing Santa at the tree is just a close second.”
Theodore couldn’t help but smile. “Thank you.”
“No problem, Theo.”
Theodore pulled the cinnamon rolls from the oven, setting them on the counter behind Russell. “Are you still seeing your brother today?”
“Yeah. Visiting Mom too.”
Theodore nodded. Russell’s mother, a victim of abuse, mental health issues, and suicidal thoughts, had been in a mental health facility for over two years so Russell could guarantee her safety. His brother, mobility greatly damaged by a bullet to the spine, was in a rehabilitation facility in hopes of keeping him sober and away from his pain relief-driven drug abuse.
“Think everything will go okay?” Theodore asked.
Russell took a long sip of his coffee before offering a shrug. “I don’t know, but I hope it will. I just saw my brother for Thanksgiving, and he was doing pretty well, but I haven’t seen Mom in a while. I’m hoping… I don’t know what I’m hoping. That things go well, I guess.”
Theodore laid a hand on Russell’s chest, smiling when the man met his gaze. “I think everything will be just fine.”
One corner of Russell’s mouth lifted. “Thanks, Theo,” he murmured, lifting a hand to brush his thumb over Theodore’s cheek. He took another sip of his coffee as Theodore opened up the container of frosting for the cinnamon rolls. “What do you think of Teddy?”
“Sorry. For you. You don’t want me to call you ‘babe’ or ‘baby’ because of your past… experience with Shane, and I understand and respect that. But how do you feel about me calling you Teddy sometimes?”
“I… don’t think I mind it. Not from you, anyway.”
Russell smiled that warm, soft little smile of his. It was different from his professional cop smile, which Theodore had also seen quite a few times. The cop smile was friendly, reassuring, comforting. The warm smile he was more familiar with was simply Russell–warm, gentle, caring, kind.
“Then we’ll try out Teddy. But you gotta let me know if it makes you uncomfortable or anything like that, okay?”
Theodore nodded. “I will. I promise.”
“Mm.” Russell pressed a kiss to his forehead and pushed himself away from the counter. “Am I still forbidden from helping carry the cinnamon rolls into the living room?” he asked, grabbing the empty plates and forks from the island.
“Yep. If I sacrifice carrying Vera to bed for the sake of helping my hip, I still get to carry lightweight things from one room to the other in the meantime.”
“Then I won’t push you on it. You’ve made great progress with that hip in the last two months, so… I trust you. I’ll wait in the living room with Vera. Let me know if you change your mind,” Russell said.
“Okay. Thank you.”
“No problem, Teddy.”
Like most things Russell did, the word made his heart flutter. Russell gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze and made his way to the living room. Theodore let out a breath and went about pouring the glaze onto the rolls.
There were still many, many things with Russell that he couldn’t bring himself to trust, but Russell knew that. There were many, many things he couldn’t let his guard down around, but Russell knew that.
After Russell’s last homicide case at work, they had filtered their relationship to something more normal for Theodore. When Russell had been grieving the loss of his father figure, the man his case had revolved around, Theodore had been okay with them sleeping in the same bed every single night. Russell had needed the comfort, and Theodore had needed to know Russell was safe.
But once he no longer needed that comfort, about a week and a half after the man’s funeral, their nightly sleepovers had decreased. Russell came over to the house to spend the night primarily on weekends now, and they never planned anything for Fridays, since that was when Theodore and Vera talked about their weeks and shared how things were going at work or school.
Theodore and Vera usually went over to Russell’s place to spend the night at least once a week. It was a nice escape from the house filled with memories of Shane, his ex-husband. They saw each other quite often for lunch or supper dates–either in public or at one of their homes–but spending the night felt more dependent for Theodore, and he never wanted to be dependent on another man again. He wanted things with Russell to be healthy, and he wanted them to stay that way.
Temporary distance in how often one spent the night in the other’s bed was his best idea for controlling the dependency for now.
With a little sigh, Theodore grabbed the cinnamon rolls. Held securely with a pot holder, he made his way into the living room. He set the pan down on the coffee table and, with a little help from Russell, lowered himself onto the floor. “All right, while the cinnamon rolls cool off, we can open our stockings, and then we’ll eat before opening the rest of the presents. Sound good?”
“Okay, Daddy.” Vera, still in her footie pajamas, crawled over to the tree to retrieve their stockings.
Russell leaned over, lips brushing Theodore’s ear. “For the record, the present I got you wasn’t going to fit in that stocking, no matter what Santa tried. So the present from me in there is just a hint.”
“You didn’t have to get me anything, you know.”
One corner of Russell’s mouth lifted. “Christmas was the one holiday my father was guaranteed to never be around for. I like to go all out when I can. But, if it makes you uncomfortable, I’ll try again next year.”
Theodore raised a brow. “Will the present be good next year?”
“You go ahead and decide once you find your hint.” Russell grabbed both of their stockings from Vera. “Thanks, sweetheart.”
“Yep!” Vera sat down next to Theodore and dug into her stocking.
Theodore pulled out the stuffed animal resting at the top of his own. A fish. He turned to Russell. “D-did you… buy me fish?”
Russell shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t.”
“I-I want the fish,” Theodore whispered.
Russell smiled. “Was hoping you’d say that. I roped Gina into unlocking the place for me after you go to your parents’ place so I could move the fish in.”
“You’re… sneaky as hell, Russell.”
“Ah, my real specialty in life.”
Theodore snorted, rolling his eyes. A hand wrapped around Russell’s chin, he pressed a kiss to his lips. “Bring the fish after I leave. I wanna be surprised.”
The detective grinned. “You got it, Teddy.”
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