A Stepbrother for Christmas:The Hard and Dirty Holidays(10)

By: Celia Aaron

Ellen cleared her throat and I realized I’d been gawking for an awkward amount of time.

I recovered under Ellen’s gaze. “So, what’s for breakfast?”

“Anna is cooking some delicious pancakes. Quite fabulous, no doubt.” Dad winked at me.

“Looking forward to it. Can I help?”

“Go ahead and set the table.” Ellen looked between me and Anna, as if unsure whether we would start sparring again.

It depended on Annalise. Her beautiful smile told me one thing, but I didn’t know if her mouth would tell me another. After all, it was only one night and I had years and years to make up for. The thought made me grin.

“What’s gotten into you this morning?” Dad clapped me on the back and sank into his chair.

“Just glad to be back Stateside I guess.”

“It grows on you, doesn’t it? I don’t miss much – maybe hot cross buns and tea time – but this—” he waved his hand toward the women in the kitchen “—is far better than anything I could have ever imagined. Worth it, yeah?”

For the first time, I actually agreed with him on the point. One glance back at the snow white dream in the kitchen cemented it. I was happy to be back, and the reason was making a mess of pancake batter.

“Yeah.” I sat down and watched Ellen try, and fail, to teach Annalise how to prepare breakfast. Ellen eventually took over and Annalise came and sat at the table with us.

She tucked a dark lock behind her ear and sipped at a steaming mug of coffee.

“Ready?” Dad unfolded his newspaper.

“We’re not still doing that are we?” Annalise asked, mock exasperation in her tone.

“Well, if you can’t handle it anymore. American education ruining your mind and all that, then I suppose I’ll have to represent the dark blue and handle the crossword myself.” Dad drew a stub pencil from his pocket.

“Pencil?” Annalise snorted. “Amateur.” She scooted her chair closer to his and they went to work.

This brought back memories. The two of them, both with their brows wrinkled in concentration, every Sunday morning. I’d hated it when I was younger, the way Dad somehow had a bond with Annalise that he never had with me. Now I realized it was a good thing. Their bond was strong, something different yet somehow the same as my bond with him.

“That’s not even a word.” Annalise laughed, the sound smoothing away the bad memories and leaving only butterflies darting around in my stomach.

Ellen came in carrying a plate of eggs, bacon, and pancakes. “Eat up. I might think twice about the pancakes, though.”

“Oh, come on, Mom. I’m sure they’re fine.” Annalise paused the crossword and started serving out the food. When she took her first bite of pancake, she brought her napkin up and spit the bite right back out.

Laughter filled the dining room.

“Oh, shut up, all of you.” Annalise smiled despite her words. The daggers from the previous night’s dinner were gone. Instead, she was radiant, happy.

I may have given Howie a few bites of my pancake. He didn’t seem to mind the consistency.

We had a good breakfast, discussing the skiing and shopping we planned for the day. I intended to ski. The slopes were calling, the bitter wind from the previous day having died down overnight. The sun was out, making all the white gleam to a blinding shine.

“Well, I intend to hit Main Street.” Ellen put the last of the plates in the sink. “Hard.”

“Oh, dear.” Dad kissed her on the top of her head. “I can already feel my pockets getting lighter.”

“You coming, Anna?” Ellen asked.

“I think I’m ready to stretch my legs and do some skiing. It’s been a while.” She shimmied past where I stood in the doorframe. Her heat was there for a second and then gone, leaving me wanting. Her hair smelled like an intoxicating floral bouquet. It lingered in my nose, stealing any thoughts I’d had for a second.

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