kitchen and the table in the dining room were covered in food. There were platters of meat, cheese, crackers, vegetables, and fruit. A few warmers were placed in the center of the table with lids over top. At one end of a counter was where the drinks were placed. A large bowl was set up, along with canisters for hot cider, cocoa, and tea.

“You got a bartender, Mom?” Mark craned his neck, seeing into the screened in porch that was attached on the other end of the kitchen.

“Yes, but I think you’ve had enough, my darling son that I still want to be a darling tonight.”

Mark chuckled, saying under his breath, “I think I’m the last of your worries tonight, Mom.”

Hearing the sudden alertness in his voice, Sam stiffened, and glanced up. His gaze was fixed past the kitchen and to the entryway. And there, just coming in the front door, wasn’t the reason why she’d been tense, but the reason why she experienced a rush of warmth.

Mason and Logan both walked in, and both met her gaze, gave her a smile, but trailed past her shoulder. Their easygoing grins instantly strained and their eyes grew cold.

Sam knew, she felt their coldness adding to the numb lining of her stomach, even before she heard those two words spoken behind her.

“Hi, Samantha.”

She couldn’t look away from Mason.

His hair was wet, like he just showered, and he had already taken off his coat so his shoulders looked even wider, but so delicious under his navy shirt. Logan stood next to him, both looking crisp and on high alert. As Mason continued to hold her gaze, she saw from the corner of her eye as Logan moved towards them. She told them both her mother was coming, but it’d been a week since either of them saw Analise, and that night hadn’t ended well. She readied herself for whatever was going to come next. As she did, Logan stopped right in front of her. Mason came behind him. She was still staring up at her boyfriend’s gaze. If she could, she would’ve taken his strength in her because she was already sapped of it.

Only Analise. Only her mother could do this to her.

Then, she heard Logan drawl, “Well, hell. The psycho bitch from the psycho ward has officially entered the building.” He glanced to Malinda and flashed a smirk. There was a hard edge to it. “What’s up with this, Mama Malinda? I didn’t think you were down with peeps who like to hurt Samantha.”

Analise drew in a breath as Malinda said, “Come on, Logan. You were told she was coming. I’d expect some decency from you.”

“Nope.” Logan shook his head, his smirk growing. “I see the Anabitch and my jackass side comes out.”

“Logan.”

He glanced back to Mason, who had spoken. Logan asked, “Don’t tell me you’re okay with this.”

Mason shook his head. “I’m not, but it’s not our call.”

He cast Sam a meaningful look and Logan let out a small growl. “Are you fucking kidding me? Analise scares the shit out of Sam. It’s our job to be the jerkoffs. We’re doing it for her.”

“We’re also not in high school anymore.”

Logan let out a disgruntled sound, but made a point of swinging his head to Sam. “It’s your call, I guess. You want me to tear her apart or should I leash the asshole?”

Before Sam could respond, Malinda moved forward. She stepped between Sam and Logan, placing a hand on his shoulder and turned him around. She spoke, “You’re going to leash the asshole and you’re going to go somewhere else because this is my home. If, and that’s only if, Sam needs someone to step up for her, I’ll get the pleasure of kicking someone out of my home.” She emphasized the ‘my’ before walking away with Logan. Before they were out of earshot, Sam heard Malinda say, “You just got here and I already feel like another drink.”

Logan chuckled. “It’s my charm, Mama Malinda.”

“God help us then.”

Mason moved forward so he was standing in front of Sam, but while he reached out and linked their hands, neither said a word. He looked over to Mark and raised an eyebrow.

“Oh.” Mark’s eyes widened. He coughed and laughed. “Uh, yeah. I think…” He jerked around, pointing around the room. “Oh yeah. I’m needed over there, next to the...uh, yeah. I’m going for a drink too.”

As he hurried away, Mason and Sam turned as one. They were standing side by side as both faced against Analise.

Samantha stared at her mom for a moment. She looked different this night compared to the other times Analise stopped by the house. There’d been a desperation clinging to her mother, but this mother, she looked composed. Calm. Almost serene, in a small way. Sam frowned, not seeing the beautiful white dress her mother was dressed in, how it was so similar to the black dress Sam wore, or how her mother’s long black hair was pulled up in a braid, much the same as her own hair. She wasn’t seeing that she was almost a spitting image of Analise. All she was seeing was the memories over the years and the reminder of how her mother threatened to ruin Mason’s life.

Sam could only see that last night, when she told her mom to go to hell. The feeling of walking away, having an empty pit in her stomach and feeling the hole inside of her, the one that only a mother should’ve filled, widened instead of closed. But when she fixed a polite smile on her face and murmured, “Hello,” her mother had no clue of the agony Sam was feeling.

Mason did.

He glanced down at their hands. Sam’s knuckles were white. She was clinging to him.

She said further, her tone almost light and casual, “Is James with you?”

Analise was studying her daughter, taking her all in. A look of wonder entered her eyes and she blinked, as if realizing her daughter asked a question. “Oh! Oh yes.” She gestured to the living room. “He’s over there.” Her lips pressed against each other before she added, “I believe he’s talking to Garrett.” She said to Mason, “I didn’t realize you guys were so friendly with Samantha’s biological father.”

Mason narrowed his eyes, but looked as well. Just like she said, his father was talking to both of Sam’s fathers, her biological one and the one who raised her. He swung his gaze back to Analise and fixed her with a polite fuck-you smile. “Looks like. David too. They all seem to be getting along, don’t they?”

Analise’s eyes mirrored his, narrowing. “It looks like.”

Sam cleared her throat. “What do you want, Analise? Why are you here?”

“Samantha—” Analise started to laugh, even raising a hand to her throat.

Sam cut her off, scowling. “Cut the bullshit. You want a relationship with me? Is that it?”

The hand went back down. The fake smile dimmed and Analise’s head moved back half an inch. She was reassessing her daughter. “I thought you were terrified of me.”

“I am, but I’ve learned how to be a bitch while I want to crap my pants at the same time.” Sam let go of Mason’s hand and stepped forward. She leaned her head, angling so she was in her mother’s face, standing on the exact same level. “You know I want nothing to do with you. Why are you here? Why are you forcing your presence on an entire house that wants nothing to do with you?”

Analise sucked in her breath, but replied a second later, “Because I am going to marry Mason and Logan’s father. Because whether you or they believe me or not, I do love him and now that I am better, we are all going to be one big happy fucking family. That’s why.”

“So it’s because of James?”

“It’s because of everyone involved.” Analise’s shoulders dropped. Some of the tension left her. “Because I really do want to have a relationship with you and I want a civil relationship with them.” She said to Mason, “I’m not going anywhere. I’d like peace between you and your brother and myself. I’d like to do that for your father.”

“Then why didn’t you want them here?” Sam asked.

Mason frowned.

Analise closed her eyes for a beat. She opened them again as her shoulders lifted up, taking in air. “Because it’s easier to talk to you when they’re not around. Because I know they?

??ll always hate me so I was hoping to get a shot, just a small shot, of having a decent conversation with you.” Her voice softened. “I wanted to apologize for all the hurt I caused you and I wanted to see if there’s any chance, even the slightest, that you would be willing to start over again?”

A sheen of tears formed over Analise’s eyes, but she didn’t blink or look away. She held her daughter’s gaze and waited for the answer.

Sam didn’t say anything. Not for a second, then another, and another. More than ten seconds passed before her eyes dropped. She said, “No.” She added, “Please leave.” And then she walked away, her hand lifting to her own eyes as she brushed a tear away.

Mason remained behind, watching his girlfriend disappear back down to the basement. This would have ramifications. Even if Analise became a nun, he knew the type she was. Batshit crazy. That never went away. Analise was trying. He saw that. He recognized that, but he saw what she wasn’t seeing. It wasn’t going to work. The harder she pushed, the more Sam would go away.

She turned away, her jaw trembling, and she folded her arms over her chest.

He saw the damage Sam’s words caused her too, and even though this woman wanted to ruin his life before and tried to take his girlfriend away, he knew tearing into her wasn’t going to help anyone.

“You must be having a hay day,” Analise clipped out. A tear broke free, sliding down her cheek. She ignored it. Her eyes flashed back at him, searing in anger.

He didn’t say anything. He waited.

She added, “You and your brother have hated me since day one. You never gave me a shot.” Her hand jerked out, indicated where Sam had gone. “And she wants nothing to do with me now. It’s been like this all week.”

“It’s been like this all year,” Mason corrected her.

She stiffened. Her gaze met his again.

He said further, “And the year before that.” His head bowed a little bit, but his voice hardened. “And the year before that. And the year before that, but for those years, you didn’t want to see the damage you were causing her. That’s the only difference.”

“I am going to marry your father.”

He nodded. “I know. I’ve accepted that, so has Logan.”

She let out a harsh laugh. “Really? You could’ve fooled me.”

“You’re misunderstanding some things here.” He spoke softly, eerily softly. “If you want peace with all of us, for my father’s sake, we can give that to you. We don’t have to war against you, but that’s not what you’re coming in here for and that’s not what you’re pushing for. You’re pushing for a relationship. There’s a vast difference between peace and having a relationship. You cannot ask for a relationship. Not with your daughter. Not with your fiancé’s sons. You cannot force something we will not give.”

“So what am I supposed to do?”

“Nothing.”

A bitter sound ripped from her throat. It was supposed to sound like a laugh, but it failed even that. She shook her head as a second tear fell. “I want my daughter back—”

“Then earn her back,” Mason shot back. Logan was returning, weaving through the small crowd from the bar. His gaze was centered on them and he narrowed his eyes, raising a beer that he was bringing back for his brother. Mason held his hand out, but Analise didn’t see it. She was half turned away, as if she would’ve gone after where Sam went. Her back was to where Logan was coming from and when he paused, lifting an eyebrow in question, Mason shook his head from side to side. He held up a finger, asking for a minute. Logan nodded, letting his hands lower back so they were in front of him. Mason added, speaking quietly but firmly, “Show her why she should want her mother back. Sam wants the same thing that she’s always wanted since I’ve known her. She wants her family back, and yes, that’s you too. She has Malinda, but Malinda’s not you. She didn’t raise Sam all her life.”

Analise sucked in her breath. She blinked, letting more tears fall. “You think so?”

“She wants some type of relationship with you, yes, but if you try to force it, it’ll never happen. Don’t force it.”

“So what? Do nothing?”

“Yes.” The answer was so simple and Mason delivered it as soon as she asked that question. “Be polite to her. Be nice to her, but that’s all you can do. You need to back off from her.”

“That could take years.”

“So it’ll take years. Who cares?” His words were clipped again. “If you force it, it’ll never happen. Ever. If you don’t, it may happen. It’s your choice in the end, but hear me right now. I want to be really clear.” He waited until Analise turned so she was looking right into his eyes. He said then, “I’m older. Logan’s older. That means we’re smarter than we were and if you ever hurt your daughter again, we will ruin you and you’ll have no idea how we even did it. Remember that.”

Then, his eyes cut back to Logan’s and he nodded, moving his head in the direction of the basement. He moved forward, leading the way. Logan came up behind him, and right before they moved through the party and slipped downstairs, Logan flashed Analise a grin. He chided under his breath to her, “Still hoping to get to know us again?”

“All right, Sam.” Logan cocked his head to the side, a teasing grin on his face, as he sauntered down the stairs. Sam was at the bar, pouring herself a drink, when he stepped down and moved forward, right behind Mason. Logan added, “Did you stuff my stocking with a big dildo? Tell the truth.”

Sam watched him. She didn’t blink. She didn’t move. She did nothing, except hold an empty glass in front of her. Then, she grinned back. “Yes, Logan. I’ve been wanting to ram a stick up your ass. You caught me. It was on my wish list this Christmas.” She fanned herself. “Santa finally came this year.”

Logan chuckled. “Came, you said?”

“Oh my God.” Sam rolled her eyes and finished pouring herself a drink. She set it down, then eyed both of them as they slid onto the barstools. “What do you guys want?”

“No, no.” Logan held out his hand. “Just give me the rum.”

She grabbed an unopened rum bottle and started to twist it open.

Logan reached over and grabbed it from her, giving her another grin. “I meant the whole bottle.” He wiggled his eyebrows at her. “Unlike you, Miss Samantha, I’m planning on making up Santa’s entire naughty list…just tonight.” He twisted the cap off and saluted the bottle in the air. “Bottoms up, mi familia. Feliz navi-don’t.”

Sam glanced to Mason and he pointed to one of the beer bottles and Sam opened it before handing it over. He asked her, “You okay?”

She lifted a shoulder up, gripping her glass once again with both hands. “It’s whatever. I was prepared for her tonight, and it’s over with now. So…” She shrugged again. “Yeah. Whatever. She’s back...”

Mason watched his girlfriend, just like he watched all those years ago. He saw the same tonight that he saw on her face the first time she was going to be his roommate. Hurt. That’s all Analise had done to Sam. Even trying to remember, he couldn’t recall a time when Analise had been there for her daughter, or supported her how a mother should’ve. It had put him in an almost rage back then, though Sam never realized truly how deep his fury went. He remembered the night he, Logan, and Nate forced wine down Analise’s throat. He cringed now at the memory, but it was what it was. Analise was trying to take Sam away from them. She was trying to hurt her even more and they stopped her. They showed her what they could do. It was a power play. They had the power. She needed to realize it, and now, all these years later, he knew Analise wouldn’t fight the same way.

She hadn’t been prepared for them to stand up to her. She narced on them, told their dad what they did, but it was all of them against her word. If they did something like that again, Analise would fight back with a better strategy. He saw that in her tonight. She was smarter. She was more ‘sane’, but that made her more calculating and more dangerous.

Maybe she really did want to have peace in the family.

He did believe she loved his father. And it would make sense that she’d want a relationship with her daughter. That’s what mothers did, right? Even the inept ones. Analise seemed like she was born with the natural love a mother had, but she was also born with her mental illness. He could be the nice son. He could be the nice boyfriend. Glancing at Logan, Mason considered even being the nicer role mentor, taking the high road.

Fuck that.

He wasn’t the nice guy.

No. Even though, he said he’d play nice with her above and Sam really did want a relationship with her mother, Mason had no plans of letting Analise hurt his girlfriend again. Nope. He would watch, and wait. If anything she did had harmful consequences towards Sam, he was going to ruin his future stepmother once and for all.

She wasn’t allowed to hurt her daughter. Not if he could help it.

“What are you planning?” Logan pointed at him with the rum bottle. His eyes narrowed and he started to shake his head from side to side. “I know that look. It’s your calculating look.” The corner of his mouth curved up. “I’ve missed that look.”

Mason grinned back. “You saw it three weeks ago.”

Logan shrugged, placing the rum onto the bar. “All this holiday cheer and ‘be merry’ attitude is making me feel constipated. It’s making me want to shit on everything, literally. I figure we should do whatever you’re planning instead. It’ll be less messy.”


Tags: Tijan Fallen Crest High Romance
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