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Christmas With... Elizabeth Hunter!

Chapter One

Ava leaned into the sofa, shifting the unwieldy bulk of her eight-months-pregnant body further into the embroidered cushions that decorated the couch. Malachi’s eyes were trained on the television in a corner of the room, the black and white image glowing in the dim sitting room. The fire crackled in the hearth and early snow fell outside the window. A peaceful scene. Idyllic on a cold winter night. 
But the jostling in her belly was just a bit much.
“Calm down in there,” she muttered.
Malachi’s hand drifted over to her, running a comforting hand down her arm and then lower over the swell of her stomach. He lifted the edge of her wool sweater and laid his skin against hers.
Instant relief.
The pulse of his power flowed over her like a warm wave. Spreading from her abdomen and up her torso, she felt her body calm, then the ache eased. The tension in her belly relaxed and the jostling slowed down.
She heard the last of the old dialogue on the classic Christmas film fade out and Malachi heaved a sigh.
“Really?” he said.
“What?” She blinked at him innocently. “Didn’t they teach you that at the scribe academy? Everyone knows that every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings. Common knowledge, Mal.”
He tried not to smile, but she saw the peek of his dimple through the beard he’d been growing since they arrived in the old farmhouse outside of Prague.
“You’re ridiculous.” He swung his legs up and stretched out, resting his head in her ever-shrinking lap. Then he turned his head to the side, lifted her shirt, and pressed a kiss to her belly.
Beautiful man. Ava’s heart felt like it could burst when he did things like that. And he did. Often.
All Irin men were tactile by nature, feeding off the energy Irin women contained. They couldn’t touch the humans they protected without hurting them. Touch was reserved for family, friends, and lovers, and before he’d met Ava, Malachi hadn’t felt an Irina touch in hundreds of years. Since then, he’d been making up for it.
And once she’d gotten pregnant… 
Well, if she hadn’t derived so much mental ease from physical contact, she’d have been tempted to call him clingy. He was constantly with her. Leaving him to visit the small market in the village or run into the city with some of her Irina sisters was almost impossible. Malachi didn’t want Ava out of his sight.
But the Irina needed Irin men just as much. The energy Malachi drew from her with his touch allowed Ava’s mind to rest. Before she’d met him, she’d been a case study in anxiety. Socially isolated. Jittery. The energy she’d built up in her system, believing herself only human, had slowly been driving her insane. 
Ava would never reject her mate’s touch. They were, as bonded mates, truly two halves of one whole. And soon they’d be adding to their small family. Before Malachi, Ava never thought being a mother was even a possibility.
He glanced up and saw the tears in her eyes. “What is it?”
“You know me. I cry at the drop of a hat these days.” She shook her head. “Nothing to worry about. Happy.”
He reached an intricately tattooed arm to touch her face. “If they are only happy tears, that is acceptable.”
“Acceptable, huh?”
“Yes.” He pinched her chin. “I am your mate. Anything other than total happiness is unacceptable.”
“We need to talk about your dictator voice, Mal.”
The front door blew open and a booming voice filled the room. “Hello!” Bruno said with a shout. “It’s almost as cold as home out there!”
Almost everything that Bruno said was a shout. The giant scribe had moved from his homeland in Scandinavia to start the haven outside of Prague with his mate Karen and several other Irina singers from the disbanded haven in Norway. He’d been less than happy with the “dreaded warm weather” in Bohemia. The light snowfall reddened his cheeks and made him look like a child with a new toy.
“Hello, sister.” Bruno peeled off his jacket and put his boots by the door before he walked over and placed a hand on Ava’s shoulder. “And brother! Hello, Malachi. I didn’t see you there. What were you watching?”
“Christmas movies,” Ava said with a smile.
Bruno frowned. “But Irin don’t celebrate Christmas.”
Ava threw her head back and moaned as Mal sat up with a know-it-all expression on his face.
“That’s what I told her,” he said. “But she insisted. I have been forced to watch White Christmas, Miracle on some street, and It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Bruno frowned. “I was surprised by how dark that one was.”
“See?” Ava said. “Bruno watches Christmas movies.”
Bruno shrugged. “I’m more of a Jimmy Stewart fan. That is how I learned English. But the bit at the end with the bell…”
Malachi said, “Thank heaven I am not the only one. Ridiculous. That child would start crying if she saw a real angel.”
Bruno nodded. “Agreed.”
“That’s not the point,” Ava said. “The point is that Christmas is… a wonderful holiday and there’s no reason Irin shouldn’t celebrate it. It’s about family and good cheer and love for your fellow man. People give presents—”
“What do you want?” Malachi asked. “I’ll get it for you.”
“That’s not the point.” Ava shook her head and looked around the tree-less living room. 
The house in Karlštejn, forty minutes out of Prague, was cozy and beautiful. Snow fell on bare trees and evergreens blanketing the hills. It was the middle of December and the otherwise picture perfect winter house had not a single red bow or pine bough. She’d been drooling over some of the glass-blown ornaments in the small village near the house, but she felt silly buying them because there was no tree.
Christmas had been one of the few bright spots in Ava’s childhood. For much of the year, she’d been shipped off at this school or that camp. But at Christmas, her mother told her stepfather to stuff it, which usually meant Carl went skiing in Utah with his buddies, leaving Ava and her mother alone to celebrate the holiday quietly. 
Lena would send the household employees away, making the mansion peacefully empty, while mother and daughter decorated a small tree bought for Ava’s room. Her very own tree. Not the large, lushly ornate tree that was for the benefit of guests, but one just for a little girl. Ava’s collection of ornaments had been moved to her house in Malibu, but she and Malachi were hardly ever there.
Malachi leaned closer and peered at her face. “Now you are sad.”
She sniffed. “I just like Christmas, okay? It’s not a big deal. I know Irin have midwinter holidays, too. You celebrate the winter solstice, I heard Karen and Astrid talking about it yesterday. I’ll learn those traditions over time.”
“No,” Malachi murmured. “I think this is a big deal. Canım, you must tell me these things. You have given up so much to be with me—”
“I gave up nothing.” She grabbed his hand. “Nothing. You have given me everything. You and all your brothers. And my sisters. I have everything I need.”
Home. Family. History. Purpose.
He nodded slowly. “But you also want a tree.”
Well, when he put it like that, Ava felt like an ungrateful brat. “Malachi, I’m fine. I’m being silly.”
“Memories are not silly. Traditions are not silly,” he said. “We know that better than anyone.”
Their first Christmas, Malachi had been a confused wreck. They’d been together, but most of his memories had been gone. He hadn’t remembered the traditional foods or songs the Irin sang at Winter Solstice and Ava had felt lost, even as she tried for Christmas cheer. It had been the saddest winter she could remember. The next Christmas had been better, but still quiet. They’d been in Germany, but they’d both still been recovering from Vienna.
And now…
“Let’s not tempt fate, all right?” She smiled. “We’re blessed.”
His smile was slow and sweet before he leaned over and kissed her.
“I am the most blessed of scribes,” he whispered in Turkish. “To have you as my reshon. As the mother of my children. The heavens envy my fortune.”
“Oh, you two,” Bruno said with a big sniff. He wiped unashamed tears from his ruddy cheeks. “I’m so glad you came for Midwinter. It was too quiet with just us five.”
Ava smiled at Bruno. He was like the really giant, really loud big brother she never had. She had lots of brothers now, but Bruno would always be one of her favorites. He and his mate Karen had been a solid island of comfort and safety when life had gone to hell.
“I wanted to be near Astrid when I deliver.” Ava rubbed her belly where the football match had started up again. “Orsala taught me the songs, but I’m worried I’d forget on my own.”
Ava had learned songs of protection to quiet the tiny mind of the daughter who would be born hearing the soul voices of the world. Songs to guard the son who would grow at his sister’s side, learning and protecting the legacy of knowledge his father would pass to him.
Bruno shrugged. “I will confess my ignorance when it comes to babies. But I cannot wait to meet them.”
Malachi and Bruno had been hard at work on the double crib for the tiny boy and girl nesting in Ava’s belly. At least that was what Orsala claimed she was having. The old singer was certain there would be one boy and one girl arriving near the midwinter holidays. Children were rare among the Irin, but when they came, they were often in sets.
At first Ava had been completely overwhelmed. Twins? She’d never planned on having any children, much less two. Especially not two at a time.
But Malachi had been overjoyed to hear it, and the announcement of twins had caused so much rejoicing—and more than a few vodka toasts—in the scribe house in Istanbul that Ava knew she’d never be hurting for extra help. Damien and Sari, Max, Leo, and Rhys were all thrilled at the prospect of a baby in the house. Two babies meant they wouldn’t have to share as much.
Ava and Malachi’s children would be the first born in Irin history with blood from both the Forgiven and the Fallen sons of heaven. Unique beings among an already unique angelic race.
Despite her concerns, Astrid told Ava that hers was a completely normal pregnancy. When Malachi drew spells across her belly, the babies calmed. When Ava sang quiet songs to them, she could hear their tiny, unformed minds attuned to her voice. When Orsala looked to the future, she saw tranquility. When Karen dreamed, it was of laughter.
And so, with the comfort of her new family around her, Ava had found peace.
“Hurry with the babies, will you, Ava?” Bruno asked. “If you have them on midwinter, they’ll be doubly blessed. And Karen will make so many more cakes.”
Malachi smiled. “How are you not the size of this house, brother?”
Bruno puffed up his chest. “Who do you think chopped the wood in that fire? And cleared the driveway? She feeds me then puts me to work.”
Ava said, “And you love it.”
Bruno winked. “Of course.” He sniffed the air. “Oh, gingerbread…”
He wandered toward the back of the house and the kitchen with the gingerbread while Ava shifted on the couch again.
So hard to get comfortable…
“Why did Bruno say the babies would be doubly blessed if they were born at midwinter?”
“It’s tradition,” Malachi said. “Any birth is very lucky. But babies born at midwinter are doubly lucky.”
She frowned. “But it’s the middle of winter.”
“Exactly. The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year. So for the first part of their life, every day after their birth is just slightly longer than the last. A little more light every day as they grow.” Malachi shrugged. “It’s just superstition. It’s the opposite for babies born in the Southern hemisphere during June.”
“Weird. But kinda wonderful, too.”
She leaned against his shoulder as Malachi began to rub the small of her back.
“Oof.” The football game in her belly started up again. 
“Soon,” he whispered.
“Come, little babies,” he crooned, putting a warm hand on her belly as the twins rocked and rolled. “Baba wants to kiss you.”
He took Ava’s breath away. After all the trauma of the last two years, she’d had no idea how he would deal with the realities of fatherhood. He had mental wounds she couldn’t even imagine. But Malachi was eager to meet his children; Ava was the one who often felt unprepared.
“You’re going to be such a good dad,” she said.
He smiled. “But I have not been such a good mate, I think. Tomorrow, I get you a Christmas tree. And we will decorate it together. And when our children come, they can lay under the tree and look at the lights and the beautiful glass ornaments you have been looking at in the village.”
The smile almost cracked her face. “Malachi—”
“But you do not need to give me any presents,” he said as he kissed the top of her belly. “I think you have that covered, canım.”
“I love you so much.”
“Just promise me… no silly stories about angels with wings.”

get the rest of the story:
Smashwords | Amazon US/UK

ELIZABETH HUNTER is a contemporary fantasy, paranormal romance, and contemporary romance author. She is a graduate of the University of Houston Honors College and a former English teacher. She once substitute taught a kindergarten class, but decided that middle school was far less frightening. She’s the author of the Elemental Mysteries, the Irin Chronicles, and the Cambio Springs Mysteries.

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