“Okay,” I said. “I’ll start with Ben. See how it goes.”

He leaned over and pressed a kiss on my lips. “Thanks, baby.”

Then we opened the doors and moved. For now, the conversation was over. But my doubts? Those little black bits of disaster that poison every healthy crevice of your mind? Those ran wild and unattended, setting up house and planning a big party, with all of my insecurities invited.

Chapter 20


Days until wedding: 236

I folded over the red metallic paper and ran my thumb down the edge of the book, making a crisp line, the only OCD bone in my body was obsessed with perfect wrapping.

“Almost done?”

I turned to look at my mom, smiling when I saw her raised eyebrows. “You’re really asking me that question? After twenty-one Christmases of experience?”

“I thought you were bad before. Now, with proper funding, it’s become an official addiction.”

I bit my lip, keeping my pathetic comeback swallowed. “Think Dad’s getting along with Brad?”

“I can’t think of anyone your father’s ever not gotten along with. They’ll be fine.”

My father, one hour into today’s holiday festivities, had shot Brad a look of desperation, one that had been easily received, Brad asking for his assistance with some additional exterior decorations. They had left, Christmas lights and garland on the shopping list. Three hours ago. Three hours during which Martha had made hot chocolate, three batches of sugar cookies, and eight colors of icing. Three hours during which I had called Becca and Olivia, and they had showed up, eggnog in hand. With finals over, my last day at CDB complete, and Christmas just one week away, everyone’s spirits were high, and the kitchen and great room buzzed with feminine energy.

Mom and Dad were on day three of their visit, their car heading back to Georgia in the morning. Staying at a hotel in between campus and Brad’s home, I had been pleasantly surprised at how naturally they had fit into our lifestyle. Mom hadn’t blinked twice at Brad’s house, Martha had taken to them both with a friendly ease that had shocked me into silence, and Dad hadn’t tried to find a garage sale all weekend.

Friday, I’d taken them both to the office, Mom helping me pack up the drawer-full of items I had accumulated in a little over six months at the firm. It was bittersweet, packing up the pieces of the job that had brought Brad and me together. Once it was done, a small cardboard box holding my belongings, I sealed it with tape and then made my final rounds of the West Wing. Burge was professional, Sheila got a little teary, and the rest of the staff made their polite goodbyes. I had never regained my original standing as beloved intern, not after the news of my engagement broke. But the staff had warmed up considerably over the last two months, and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t miss, in some small way, that wing of the firm.

“Okay, I’ve looked through this entire pile, and I can’t find a single gift with my name on it,” Becca grumbled, looking up from her curious shake of a wrapped present, the evergreen tree and mountain of presents almost swallowing her blonde figure.

“I haven’t wrapped yours yet,” I mumbled through a mouthful of cookie.

“So ... in other words, look for it around Easter,” Olivia cracked from the kitchen, where she put the final sprinkled touches on a cookie.

Mom’s earlier comment regarding my wrapping addiction was true. Before, I painstakingly wrapped gifts with paper and ribbon, mixing up the landscapes with fun labels. This year I had put Brad’s credit card to good use, cleaning out the local Michael’s craft store. Half the kitchen table was now covered with ribbons of every shape and size, individual stamp cutters, metallic pens, tiny ornamental garnishes, and enough rolls of paper to cover half of downtown.

“It’s six,” Martha announced without preamble, glancing at her watch. “You guys planning on eating sugar all night, or should I put something on?”

“Do you feel like cooking?” I glanced over casually. Martha’s weekends were traditionally untouchable, a time in which she disappeared from view and did whoknowswhat. The fact that she’d been hanging out with us all afternoon had been shocking on its own, an oddity I had avoided pointing out in fear of scaring her off. “I can call Brad. Have him and Dad grab pizza on their way home.”

She shot me a look that, five months earlier, would have melted my bones. “I’m not having him pick up pizza when I have a fridge full of cookable food. Let me get something on. But go call him. Tell him it’ll be hot in forty-five minutes if he wants to get fed.”

I didn’t argue, dialing Brad immediately. He and my father returned a half-hour later, bags from Home Depot in hand, and we moved to the dining room and ate, Martha’s beef soup and cornbread disappearing amid a flurry of conversation and laughter. Then we headed to the theatre room, my parents agreeing to one movie before they headed back to the hotel.

A Christmas Story won, and I curled against Brad’s chest in one of the leather couches, the dark room sending occasional flickers across my parents’ faces, two couches over. “Thank you,” I whispered to Brad.

He moved his head down, until his mouth was close to my ear, stealing a quick kiss before responding, his voice low, “For what?”

“Everything. Spending time with my parents, my dad.”

He turned his head slightly, my eyes looking up and catching his. “Family is important. Your family is important.”

I didn’t know what to say, and pushed up, brushing my lips against his before settling back against his chest, his strong arms wrapping around and squeezing me gently. I felt a moment of sadness at the realization that we would never experience this with his family, with his parents. Family was important. But was that only true when the family was a positive force? I didn’t know the answer to that question.

Chapter 21


Days until wedding: 197

I blinked rapidly, tried to focus on my professor’s voice. Twenty minutes left. Twenty minutes, and then I could hike a half-mile across campus, get in my car, and head to Brad’s. Pack a bag and sneak in a nap. Maybe convince Martha to whip up some cookies for our flight.

Hmmm ... cookies. Martha’s best are plain chocolate chips. Though maybe she could make some peanut butter ones. I like the ones where she puts in chunks of Reese’s Cups... Fuck. I closed my notebook quietly and stuffed it into my bag. Law school apps and records had already been sent. Getting a B on next week’s exam wouldn’t kill me. I knew my strengths. Focusing on a Friday afternoon with Vegas on standby wasn’t it. I pushed back my chair and snuck out of class.

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