Richie Ryan wasn't used to this. Carols played throughout the shop and the apartment attached to it. Decorations covered every corner. A pile of gifts rested under the tree. He stood in the middle of the antique shop, taking in every tiny detail.
When he thought about Christmas, he remembered different types of celebrations with his various foster families over the years. Some families would get him a small gift; others would completely forget him. Then there were the Christmases where he was lucky if he got away from his foster father's belt buckle.
No, Richie wasn't used to Christmas being a warm and inviting holiday. As far as he was concerned, Tessa Noel had gone crazy, and not in a good way.
"Richie, could you wrap this around the upstairs banister?" Tessa asked as she handed him a long strand of garland. Her eyes twinkled as she hummed along with "O Holy Night."
Richie took it, one eyebrow lifted. "Why?"
Tessa stopped humming and laughed. "Because it'll look pretty. Now, go, and don't argue."
Richie groaned, but did as she asked. He always did find it difficult to say no to Tessa. He climbed the stairs to the narrow balcony above the antique shop. As he started to wrap it around the banister, he watched Tessa fuss with the tree by one of the display windows.
"Tess?" he asked, breaking the silence between them.
"Does it usually look like Santa threw up in here every Christmas?"
Tessa stopped hanging ornaments and peered up at Richie. "You sound like Duncan, only I don't think he's ever put it quite like that before." She picked up another ornament. "But to answer your question, I suppose it does. Christmas is my favorite holiday." She found an empty spot and hung it. "I can't help it." She took a step back from the tree, assessing each empty space. Smiling up at Richie, she continued, "Christmas always seemed to be such a happy time for me."
Richie continued to wrap the garland, reaching the stairs he had climbed. "I don't see what the big deal is," he grumbled.
When he finished wrapping the garland, he looked down at Tessa. The tall blonde was hanging more ornaments. "Yeah?"
"May I ask you a personal question?" She hung the last bell in her hand, and then met his eyes. Her face appeared thoughtful.
Richie shrugged. "Sure. I got nothing to hide." He bounded down the stairs. "What do you want to know?"
"How many good Christmases have you had?"
Richie blinked, clearly taken aback by the question. He shoved his hands into his pockets and narrowed his eyes. He didn't like giving away too much about his past, not even to Tessa. "What does it matter?"
Tessa sighed. "I see." She chose another ornament instead of prying the answer out of him.
Richie shuffled from foot to foot. Eventually, he said, "One."
Tessa paused in mid-hang, an ornament shaped like a blue ball dangling from her delicate fingers. She met Richie's eyes, concern clearly in her own. "Only one?"
"I don't really remember any when I was with Emily, but I remember the one when I was nine. I got placed with this great family. A mom, a dad, brothers, a dog. It had everything. They included me in everything, even made sure Santa brought me what I wanted."
Tessa smiled. "What did he bring you that year?"
"A toy fire truck with working lights. It was awesome!" Richie felt a warm glow in his chest at the memory, but the sadness quickly followed. "I left them two months later. I guess they couldn't adopt me or something." He shrugged. "But that's it."
"I'm sorry, Richie. If I could, I'd go back and make all of your Christmases wonderful."
Richie let his guard down a little. "I know you would. Thanks, Tess."
The smile quickly returned to Tessa's face. "I can make this one good for you, though." Before he could stop her, she reached into the box of decorations and pulled out a glittering yellow star. She placed it into his hands. "I want you to put it on top of the tree this year."
"Are you sure? I bet Mac's better at this."
Tessa waved away his protest. "Duncan complains about it every year. I want you to do it."
Richie grabbed the small step ladder resting next to the tall tree and climbed onto it. He stretched as far as he could and shoved the star onto the top of the tree. It glittered in the waning sunlight.
"Excellent job!" Tessa exclaimed.
Richie couldn't stop the swelling pride he felt. "Thanks." It was silly to get excited over decorating a Christmas tree, but for some reason, Richie felt he had done something important. He peered down at Tessa, who beamed at him. Somehow, she had a way of making him feel important.
"Come down," she said. She closed the lid on the decoration box and lifted it off the floor. "We have a few more rooms to decorate."
Richie climbed down and folded the step ladder. "You sure we're not going overboard?"
"I don't believe you can go overboard with Christmas decorations." With that, she led the way out of the shop and into the attached apartment.
Richie shook his head as he followed her. Even though he never thought Christmas was a great holiday, maybe this year wouldn't be so bad. After all, it was kind of hard to be a Grinch with Tessa around. And he knew, he just knew, that neither Tessa nor Mac would forget him during the holiday. He certainly knew he wouldn't forget them.