A Stepbrother for Christmas:The Hard and Dirty Holidays(6)

By: Celia Aaron

“Your mom went all out on the tree.” Niles opened the front door for me and stood back so I could pass. Who is this man?

“Yeah.” I entered the home, the smell of some sort of delicious food, spiced with citrus, hit me in the nose. The uphill walk back to the chalet had made me even hungrier. I stripped off Niles’ coat and handed it back to him. He took it and hung it on the pegs by the front door and held his hand out for my light jacket. I pulled it off along with my scarf and hat.

I caught his stare. He’d tensed as I’d removed the knit warmth piece by piece. He watched me intently now, his eyes hungry. I wanted to look away, to forget I saw that look. But I couldn’t. My heart pounded and my skin felt as if his hands were on it, touching and teasing. His adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed hard and broke eye contact. He hung everything up and turned back to me, his eyes no longer giving anything away. Guarded.

“Anna?” Mom called.

I let out a breath, not even aware I’d been holding it. “Coming.”

I followed her voice through the living area and into the kitchen. Niles followed.

“Oh, there you are. And I see you found Niles.” Mom’s smile faltered.

“Yes. We got a coffee.”

“Together?” Mom flipped a browned fish filet in a pan with an obscene amount of butter. Brent was setting the table in the adjacent dining room.

“Not really.” I spotted an open bottle of red and beelined for it.

“With the fish, Anna?” Mom asked. “I thought we’d have a white.”

I didn’t care what color it was, I just needed alcohol. I poured a glass and took a decidedly unladylike gulp. Mom turned and watched me over her shoulder as she worked on the island cooktop. She raised an eyebrow in question. I shook my head. I couldn’t discuss anything right now, especially not with Niles in the room. She took the hint and returned to dinner.

Niles leaned against the door frame, not exactly relaxed. Handsome, though. Too handsome. I took another drink. Undeniably gorgeous. I drained the glass and poured another.

Brent walked past with a bowl of salad. “Go easy, Anna. We have to have enough wine to get sauced every night for two weeks. I’ll start rationing if necessary.”

I laughed and raised my glass to him. Niles smiled and began helping Brent with the food. Mom bossed me around a bit and we all fell into our roles. I had never been much of a cook, so getting the salad dressing and watching Mom make the risotto was the height of my participation. When it was all done, we sat down and dug in. I was across from Niles and made a point of not looking at him.

“So, Niles, tell us about your rowing team. I heard there was a competition or something that’s a big deal in England?” Mom asked.

Brent laughed and shook his head. “It’s much, much more than just a competition. The Boat Race is, is—” he leaned back in his chair, eyes misting beneath his glasses “—transcendent. My year with the blues, we beat Cambridge by a full thirty seconds. Thirty seconds, can you believe that? Those were the days, I tell you.”

“Blue?” I smiled, my body lighter than it had been all day. “So Oxford team is blue? Is Cambridge red, then?”

“We’re both blue, actually,” Niles said.

I took another drink of wine. Mom was nuts. This red went perfectly well with the fish she’d made. I giggled. “Both blue? What sort of crap? How do you even tell which team is which?”

“Oxford wears a more dignified darker blue, almost navy. Cambridge, tossers with no sense of style, wear some lighter blue. Hideous, really.” Brent took a respectable drink of wine.

Niles nodded in agreement.

“So you won?”

Niles raised his gaze to meet mine. “Yes, my team did.”

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