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Lifting her head, she glanced at Gavin’s beautiful face, beyond grateful for him. Though she was happier than she could ever remember, her mood shifted as emptiness anchored deep in her gut. She didn’t want to look back, but ghosts from her past wouldn’t allow her to move forward. Her ache for her mother hovered like a dark storm, bringing a cloud of sadness.

Trying to escape the despair taking hold, Emily slipped from the bed. The yearning for her mother followed her with each quiet step she took across the cold wood floor. She shivered as she reached for the door handle, careful not to wake Gavin as she opened and closed it. Being it was just shy of a quarter to eight, the house wasn’t alive yet. Void of any sound and clear of any movement, Emily was alone in her thoughts.

On a sigh, she moved toward the Christmas tree. Her gaze fell upon several ornaments she and Lisa had made for their mother when they were little girls—paper angels glued to clothespins and silver, red, and gold glittered reindeer highlighting each of their names tossed themselves into her memory. Emily ran her fingertips across the fading reminders of the past as tears gathered in her eyes. She swallowed, her body instantly shaken, her heart instantly crushed. Had she already been without the only parent she’d ever known for close to a year? The same parent who’d brought her love and insanity in equal parts? Her mother’s voice danced in her ears as she tried to compose herself.

Emily didn’t hear Gavin come into the room, but she didn’t need to. His soothing presence blanketed the air. He wrapped his arms around her from behind as she wiped away an errant tear slipping down her cheek. Still staring at the ornaments, she shook her head and sucked in a deep breath. “How do I let her go?”

Gavin placed a soft kiss on the crown of her head, and without saying a word, he gently reached for Emily’s hand and led her back to the bedroom. Confusion dripped into her mind as she watched him haul his luggage onto the bed. After unzipping it and pulling out a small black velvet box, he sat on the bed, motioning Emily toward him. When she approached, he stared at her, his eyes soft with concern. Once again, he reached for her hand and guided her onto his lap. With her back against his bare chest, he moved her hair away from her shoulders.

“You don’t let her go, baby,” he whispered as he clasped a diamond-studded, platinum oval locket around her neck. “You hold onto her with everything you have. You carry her with you through every joyous moment in your beautiful future. Your accomplishments. Seeing your children’s eyes for the first time. Your life in general. You shoot for the stars with her in mind. She’ll be there, watching. You forgive her for the mistakes she made while you were growing up, and during the bad times you have to face, you lean on whatever words of wisdom she gave you. But you never let her go. Ever. She wouldn’t want you to let her go.”

Opening the locket, Emily’s breath caught. Her eyes swept over a picture of her mother as a teenager. With the sun shining against her dark hair and her smile highlighting the warm, carefree glow found only in one’s youth in her eyes, Emily couldn’t help but think it was the happiest she’d ever seen her mother. Emily sniffled and more tears fell. However, these tears were delivered by a man who couldn’t even begin to understand the empty space in her heart he’d filled so many times.

Turning, Emily straddled his waist and stared into Gavin’s eyes. The emotions swirling behind them riveted her. She was in awe he was hers. “My God, are you even real?” she whispered.

Holding her gaze, a sad smile lifted his mouth. “I think I am.”

“You make me feel like I’m in a dream,” Emily confessed, wrapping her arms around his neck. “Like I’m sleepwalking and I don’t even know it.” Continuing to take in the pure, honest, unselfish man in front of her, Emily lost herself in the fact he was real. “I’m able to close my eyes and just… trust you. You’re the color on my blank canvas, the light in my dark, the air in my lungs, and I almost let you go. I almost erased us from ever happening. I can’t imagine not having you here with me. Please tell me you know how much I love you, Gavin. I need to hear it right now. Please.”

Gavin swallowed, his senses reeling. She owned him, mind, body, and soul. Words. God, he didn’t have enough words to let her know how much he knew she loved him. Even if he did, how could he ever begin to let her know how much he knew she’d risked changing her life for him? Words weren’t meant for this moment and Gavin knew it. He brought his lips to hers, kissing her softly. He kissed her the way she should’ve been kissed the first time a man was ever allowed to feel her body. He kissed her hoping he could banish every headstone of grief that’d taken up an ounce of space in her heart. Wanting to wipe away every sick moment and twisted memory her eyes ever witnessed, he held her closer, trying to shield her from the demons he knew she was battling.

In the silence, with only the sound of their beating hearts, Emily slowly pulled away. The heaviness in her chest lifted, its weight no longer suffocating, no longer draining.

Gavin ran his hands through her wavy hair, his smile soft. “Merry first Christmas.”

“Merry first Christmas,” Emily whispered, placing another kiss on his lips. After a moment, she edged off him. She hopped to her feet, strolled across the room and dug in her luggage. Pulling out a white bag, she lifted a devious brow. “Now it’s my turn to give you your gifts, but I have to warn you, you have to start using each of them today.”

With an equally devious brow lifted, Gavin ran a hand through his messy hair and leaned against the headboard, the grin on his mouth wide. “These gifts wouldn’t happen to include a black lace ensemble worn by you, double ‘A’ batteries, and your shmexy legs shaking uncontrollably around my head, would they?”

Eyes wide, Emily belted out a laugh. But shit if he didn’t look so hot waiting for her, shirtless no less. She swallowed, suddenly aware of the throbbing between her legs. All humor left her face as she slowly crawled onto the bed. With the bag in one hand, she slightly lowered his sweatpants with the other. She rained kisses along his hip, following his glorious tattoo all the way to the side of his left rib cage. Sighing in pure contentment, she moved her lips back over every delicious peak and dip of his washboard abs. She felt Gavin tense, his muscles tightening. He buried his hands in her hair as she hovered, lightly skimming her tongue along the edge of the evil-looking beast’s wings. In all its evilness, it tasted like the sweetest cotton candy.

Emily brought her eyes up to his, their light-blue sexual intensity shocking her system. She smiled. “So you never told me why you got this particular tattoo.”

Gavin blinked, a rush of puffed air escaping his mouth. “Are you honestly going to ask me that after you just achingly licked your way up my body?”

“What?” Emily giggled, straddling his waist. Looking down at him, she frowned. “I want to know. You told me why you got it where you did, but you left out why you picked a dragon.”

Eyes zeroed in on her lips, Gavin smirked. “I got the dragon because I knew women would never… ever… ever be able to resist licking it.”

Emily playfully swatted his arm. “You bastard. Are you saying I’m not the first to lick it?” In one quick movement, Gavin slipped his arm behind her waist and flipped her onto her back. Emily gasped, her heart nearly stopping as he hovered above her, lightly brushing his mouth against hers. “Oh my God,” she breathed. “I was right. You are crazy.”

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