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Trisha opened the door and froze in place, her lips caught half way between resting bitch face and welcoming smile. Finally, she unfroze and offered an animated proclamation. "What the hell, Ryker. You aren't supposed to be here."

"Merry Christmas to you too, dear sweet sister." He shoved a tin of butterscotch cookies into her hands, kissed her on the cheek and pushed past her into the living room where he deposited a canvas shopping bag filled with presents. As always, Trisha had gone all out with the decorating. An eight-foot tree, trimmed with thousands of twinkling lights and his great-grandmother's antique mercury glass ornaments, graced the room's corner at the far side of the hearth. Tiny white vanilla candles on a holly-laden mantle battled with the tree to become the house's predominant Christmas aroma.

No sooner had he taken in the Christmas cheer than the Grinch was on him again. "I mean it, Ryker. You aren't supposed to be here. What happened to your plans with Arjun?"

"They fell through. His mother-in-law got sick so they're staying in Boston. Anyways, what does it matter? It's not like I'm some ne'er-do-well who never shows up for his family's Christmas. I'm always here."

Before she could reply, his nephew and niece, Rhys and Penelope, came rushing into the room, squealing as they wrapped their arms around him.

"Santa's almost here, Uncle Ryker." Penelope let go of him long enough to grab a piece of peppermint bark from a snowman-shaped tray on the coffee table. "What did you ask him for?"

"A better sense of timing, hopefully." Trisha handed Ryker's cookie tin to her son. "Bring these to the kitchen. DO NOT open them. Then both of you, go out in the backyard and run around for a few minutes. Penelope, that's your last piece of candy until after dinner, do you hear?"

The children laughed lightheartedly and ran off, leaving Ryker alone with Trisha. "Where's Dan?"

"Where do you think? In the kitchen making dinner. He better not have known you were coming because if he did, he didn't tell me."

"Jesus, why are you so opposed to me being here."

Sighing, she pointed to the dining room adjacent to the living area. The table was laid with a red and green table runner – one of their aunt Marilyn's creations. A centerpiece with red tapered candles and an assortment of Christmas baubles arranged on pine branches completed the picture. "How many place settings do you see?"

 "How many place settings do you see?"

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