What was he supposed to do?
Leo removed his phone from his pocket. He stared at the screen and worried his bottom lip with his teeth. Ace did say that he should call if he needed anything. In fact, he reminded Leo all the time, always insisting he was never too busy to help.
Taking a deep breath, Leo found Ace’s number in his contacts and tapped the green button.
Ace answered right away. “Hey, buddy! What’s up?”
“Are you busy?”
“Never for you, you know that.”
Leo did know that, and it made him smile. From the moment they’d met, Ace had been there for him. Not that the others hadn’t been, but it was different with Ace. Next to King, Ace always seemed to know what to do where Leo was concerned, even when Leo himself didn’t know. Ace got Leo in a way only King did, and it made Leo feel… safe.
“Great, I um, I’m in trouble. I need help.” His ear was met with scuffling sounds, like Ace was moving around. Running? Probably just busy around the office.
“Are you okay? Are you bleeding, hurt? Do I need to call an ambulance?”
Leo frowned. “No.” Why would he need emergency services? They wouldn’t be able to offer him the kind of help he needed. “Can you come over?”
“Are you home?”
“He’s at Bibi and Nash’s helping Nash build the space princess castle they got Lily for Christmas. I stayed home. I can’t… tell him.”
“Just hang tight. I’m on my way, okay? I’ll be there in a few minutes. Are you safe?”
“Yes.” He was home. Home was always safe. It was his happy place, surrounded by all the little things that reminded him every day of the amazing life he had with a man who not only cherished him, but understood him. Any place King was, that was Leo’s happy place, but this was home, from King’s running sneakers neatly placed by the door, to Leo’s super soft blankets taking over the living room.
“Okay, good. Don’t move, and remember anything can be used as a weapon.”
Leo dropped his gaze to the bag of Goldfish crackers in his hand. “Even fish-shaped snacks?”
“Especially fish-shaped snacks. You could crush them and blow the cracker dust in someone’s eyes, or throw the bag in your enemy’s face as a distraction and knee them in the balls. Or, you can stab someone in the eyes with your Swedish Fish.”
“I’d rather eat them,” Leo commented. “Though I never considered snack warfare before. Have you ever defeated an enemy with a snack?”
“I once made someone bleed with a Gobstopper.”
Leo’s jaw dropped. “You took someone out with a Gobstopper?”
“His name was Billy Sumpter, and in my defense, he was a total shit. He stole my Tonka truck.”
Leo opened his mouth then closed it. Should he ask? With Ace one never knew.
“I may have been ten at the time. My mom was so mad. He didn’t even bleed that much, and it was only a baby tooth. It grew back. Probably.”
“Anyway, that doesn’t matter. I’ll be there soon. Do you want me to stay on the line?”
“No. I’ll see you soon. Thanks, Ace. Bye.” He hung up and felt better already. Ace would know what to do. And if he didn’t, maybe he’d call Colton. Leo took a seat on the couch in the living room when his phone rang. His heart skipped a beat when King’s name appeared on the screen. His smile couldn’t get any wider when he answered.
“Hey, sweetheart. I just wanted to hear your voice.”
Leo had sussed out quite some time ago that King often said that when he wanted to check if Leo was okay, rather than just say he was calling to check in, which was King all over. He always knew what to say to put Leo at ease. In the time they’d been living together, Leo’s anxiety had calmed. He didn’t get as frustrated by his work, or lose himself completely to his coding. How could he when he had a gorgeous, funny, amazing guy like King?
“I was all but ready to send you a picture of the instructions. I’m pretty sure they were designed during the Cold War as some kind of clandestine code. It took us twelve minutes to work out one of the images was the top view of a screw and not a toilet seat for Princess Rosita’s royal space bathroom.”
Leo barked out a laugh. King was always making him laugh. Few people even knew King had a sense of humor. Leo supposed it was because King looked serious, plus his big muscles and posture. He might not be Special Forces anymore, but he still carried himself like a Green Beret. Whenever someone met Ward Kingston, they reacted in one of two ways. They either swooned, or they ran for the hills, or since this was Florida, swampland. Leo snickered, his heart swelling at King’s warm chuckle on the other end of the line.
“What are you up to?” King asked, the smile evident in his voice.
“I’m going to hang out with Ace for a while.”
King’s heavy sigh made Leo smile. “Please don’t let him out of your sight. We really do not need another Ace-mageddon .”
Leo couldn’t help bursting into laughter. Ace had come to hang out with Leo for an afternoon while King was at work. Leo had been out of sorts that day, and King had asked Ace over. In the span of one short afternoon, Ace had managed to print out what seemed like a never-ending number of images that he cut out and taped everywhere. When King opened the fridge that evening, there was Ace’s face winking at him. Bathroom? Ace’s face cringing in horror. Linen closet? Ace pouting. Ace had stuck images of himself making various facial expressions all over the house.
“I found one in the closet this morning,” King said gravely. “It was taped to the scarf Bibi gave me last year. No one needs Ace’s face looking at them with ridiculous cheer before coffee.”
Leo tried his hardest not to laugh but failed. “I’ll try my hardest,” he promised.
“Okay. I’ll let you know when I’m done here. I love you.”
“I love you too,” Leo said with a bright smile. He’d just hung up when the doorbell rang. That was quick. He jumped up and hurried to the door, throwing it open when he reached it. He stood in the doorway, his eyes going huge at the small army on his porch. Before he could get a word out and ask why everyone had shown up, Ace took hold of his arms.
“Are you okay? Where are you hurt? I don’t see any blood.”
“Where are they?” Lucky demanded. “Whose ass do I have to kick?” He turned to Mason. “Mi amor, I need you to go to the truck. Grab the tape, the zip ties, the shovel—”
Red put a hand up. “No one is getting a shovel.”
“Easy, darlin’,” Mason said, putting his hand on Lucky’s shoulder. “Let’s not go plotting any kidnappings before we know what’s going on.”
Kidnapping? Leo lifted a questioning eyebrow at Ace who leaned into Red.
“Do you think he’s concussed?”
Red checked Leo over. “His pupils aren’t dilated. He doesn’t seem to have any scratches or wounds. Leo, are you okay? Does anything hurt?”
“Um, no.” Leo blinked up at Red. “Why are you here?”
Red seemed confused. “Ace said you were in trouble. I wanted to make sure you didn’t need medical attention.”
That made sense. “I suppose something like this could cause certain stress levels that might develop or escalate symptoms of a distressing ailment, but I don’t think I’m there. I mean, I am stressed, but I don’t think I’m at the point where I need medical attention,” Leo replied. “I’m sorry. I’m being rude.” He stepped aside and smiled brightly at his friends. “Come in.” He wasn’t quite sure why they all looked so puzzled as they entered. An excited howl made Leo laugh. His favorite canine squeezed through the crowd to get to Leo.
“Chip!” Leo dropped to his knees so he could wrap his arms around the soft, furry Belgian Malinois with ginormous ears. Leo loved those ears! “Who’s my favorite good boy? You’re my favorite good boy,” he cooed, giving Chip scratches behind his ears. Chip wagged his tail so hard it made his butt wiggle. He made doggie noises that sounded like he was conversing with Leo, a bunch of half growl, half howls. No one was ever as excited to see Leo as Chip.
“Look at him,” Joker said, shaking his head. “It’s official. You’re his favorite. I’m chop liver when you’re around.”
Leo laughed as Chip threw his paws onto Leo’s shoulders and attacked his face with his tongue, showering him with doggie kisses and talking to him. He was all but trying to climb onto Leo’s lap.
Leo lifted his gaze to Ace who looked particularly worried. “Yes?”
“Are you okay?”
“Maybe we should go inside,” Leo said, standing. He motioned for them to enter. Why was everyone here? Since they were here, maybe they could help too. They headed into the living room. Mason and Lucky took a seat together on the couch, Red next to Lucky, Joker and Jack on the loveseat with Chip at Joker’s heels. Ace remained standing. Now that everyone was here, Leo’s nerves kicked in. It was silly. These were his friends. His family. They’d taken him in as one of their own, looked after him like a bunch of big brothers. “I’m sorry. Now that I think about it, it’s going to sound stupid.”
Ace put a hand on Leo’s shoulder. Normally he hated being touched by people, but his friends were a huggy, touchy-feely group and it had never bothered Leo. Maybe because he knew they’d never hurt him, or make fun of him for his weirdness.
“Hey, nothing you say is ever stupid. Talk to us.”
Leo worried his bottom lip with his teeth again. “I um, well, this is my first Christmas with King. I mean, my first Christmas as his boyfriend. I want it to be amazing, because he’s amazing. But the more I thought about it, the more I started to panic. Where do I even start? Anytime I asked him what he wanted, or what kind of Christmas he liked, he’d just kiss my cheek and say, “whatever makes you happy”. I know it’s because he didn’t want to overwhelm me, but…” Leo gazed around the house. “It doesn’t feel very Christmasy. I haven’t even gotten him a present yet.” The back of his eyes stung, and Ace turned Leo to face him.
“I’m glad you called us. Don’t worry. We got this.”
Leo blinked at him. “We do?”
“Yep. But we need to call in reinforcements.” Ace straightened and nodded at the others. “Operation King’s Christmas is a go. Red, get on the phone with Bibi. You’re in charge of cookies. Lucky, Mason, you’re in charge of decorations. Wild Cards, you and the furry menace are in charge of lights. Let’s do this.”
Everyone jumped to their feet and took off. Leo’s heart squeezed in his chest. “What about me?”
“You and I are going to work on King’s Christmas present.”
Leo had no idea what that entailed, but he couldn’t be more grateful to Ace. He threw his arms around Ace and hugged him tight. “Thank you, Ace.”
“That’s what family’s for, remember?”
Leo nodded. He pulled back and beamed brightly. “Okay, let’s do this.”
In less than twenty minutes, Bibi arrived. She gave Leo a big hug.
“Thank you so much for coming,” Leo said, returning her hug. “And for your help.”
“Anything for you, hon. Okay, let’s get moving. We have a lot to do. Luckily King and Nash are only halfway finished with the space castle. It’s going to take them at least twenty minutes to figure out the diagram of the giant cog wheel looking thing is actually the top view of the tower.”
Bibi took over the op, giving orders as if she’d been the army general instead of Leo’s dad. The house was a flurry of activity with cars coming and going. Saint, Ryden, Jay, and several other employees from Four Kings Security came by to drop off boxes of supplies. Jack and Joker brought in what looked like enough Christmas lights to light up an airport. Red and Bibi got to work in the kitchen and soon the whole place smelled amazing. Leo could make out cinnamon, vanilla, and gingerbread. Mason and Lucky made their way around the house with all kinds of decorations.
In a little over an hour the entire house had been transformed into the coziest, most beautiful Christmas setting. Leo stood in absolute awe. It made perfect sense. King’s perfect Christmas was steeped in tradition, and although Leo had feared Ace might go a bit overboard—because, you know, it’s Ace—everything was elegant and simple, from the pine wreath with berries, white-tipped pine cones, and tartan plaid bow hanging over the fireplace to the matching garland strategically placed around the house, along with stockings hanging from the mantle, beautiful candles painstakingly arranged, red, white, and tartan plaid throw pillows, and a the most precious gingerbread house Leo had ever seen. The place looked and smelled amazing.
“I can’t believe it.” Leo wiped a tear from his eye. “It’s perfect.”
“Remember,” Bibi said, hugging Leo close. “The best gifts come from the heart.”
“Thank you.” Leo hugged her and thanked everyone. Ace winked at him as he walked with Leo outside, which was almost as much Leo’s favorite as inside. Jack and Joker had made the outside look like a winter wonderland, from the thousands of twinkling lights to the environment friendly fake snow falling delicately from the hidden snow machine. Leo stood by the pair of life-size fake reindeer and waved goodbye to his friends. King texted he was on his way, so Leo remained outside, his heart beating a million miles a minute. He inhaled deeply as King’s truck pulled into the driveway.
“It’s okay. It’s Ward,” Leo reassured himself.
King got out of his truck and stilled. He stared wide-eyed at the house before his gaze moved to Leo. A slow smile spread on his handsome face, warming Leo all over. Closing the door to his truck and setting the alarm, King hurried over. He swept Leo up in his arms and kissed him, making Leo laugh. Placing Leo on his feet, their sweet kiss quickly turned heated like it always did. When they were forced to come up for air, King pulled back.
“What’s all this?”
“It’s part of my Christmas present,” Leo replied, feeling the heat in his face at the adoration in King’s blue eyes. “Did you finish the space castle?”
King nodded. He wrapped an arm around Leo’s shoulders and turned them to take in the house. “We did. Someone with less fortitude might have given up after the Loch Ness monster diagram that turned out to be a bracket, but we persevered. Leo, this is gorgeous.”
They stood together for several minutes just enjoying the twinkling light, the slight chill in the December air feeling good against Leo’s warm skin. Being in King’s arms always made him feel warm and happy. With a kiss to Leo’s head, they made their way inside.
“It smells incredible in here,” King said as he closed the front door behind them. He turned and gasped. “Oh my God.”
Leo worried his bottom lip with his teeth. “Do you like it?”
King slowly ventured farther into the house, stopping by the living room which glowed from the electric hearth and the many lit candles. The scent and sounds of Christmas filled the air, cheerful and soft classic holiday songs floated from the speakers. Leo took King’s hand and led him into the kitchen.
“Bibi gave me the recipe for your mom’s Christmas cookies. I thought we could make some together.”
King’s smile was radiant, and it reached his blue eyes, making little wrinkles at the corners. “You did all this? For me?”
“I had a lot of help,” Leo admitted. “But I wanted to do something special for you for Christmas.”
“Oh, sweetheart.” King brought Leo into his arms. “Having you in my life, knowing how much you love me is the greatest gift of all, but thank you. It’s absolutely perfect.”
King nodded. “It reminds me of Christmas growing up with Bibi and my parents, but you know what the best part is?”
“What’s that?” Leo asked, smiling when King nuzzled his temple.
“That you and I can start our own Christmas family traditions.”
Leo’s heart all but burst. “There’s nothing I’d love more.” He threw his arms around King and all but climbed him. With a laugh, King picked Leo up in his arms and kissed him. They laughed and murmured to each other as King carried Leo into their bedroom. He lay Leo on the bed and crawled over him, their lips eagerly coming together in a heated kiss filled with love and adoration.
“Oh, I have a little pre-Christmas Christmas present.” King lifted up onto his elbows and popped a kiss on Leo’s lips before getting up. He went over to the dresser and came back with a little brown box.
Leo sat up, his heart doing little flips as King handed him the box. When he opened it he gasped. “Oh my God!” He gently took one of the little Goldfish crackers out of the box, snickering when he realized what they were. “Goldfish cracker cufflinks.”
“Yep. Bibi was browsing one of her favorite online shops the other day at the cafe when she scrolled past them. I had her order them for me. Like them?”
“I love them!” Leo placed the box on the nightstand then threw his arms around King, bringing him back down onto the bed with him so he could kiss the breath out of him.
“Merry Christmas, sweetheart.”
Leo smiled against King’s lips. “Merry Christmas, Ward.”