Chapter 28: Christmas Eve

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Andrew always loved walking into his house, but walking in behind Emma had become his favorite way to do it the past few weeks. He loved when she was there with them. It's like the air changed or something, and the entire place felt different.

The girls ran to her the second she walked through the door, Jeffrey hobbling behind. Emma squatted to hug them.

Snow glistened on Emma's dark hair, and he remembered that she needed to dry off. "Let Miss Emma get changed into something warm, okay? We were just out in the snow and we're really cold."

The girls let go of her. "You'll be right back down, right Miss Emma?"

"We have to show you what we made." They were always making something. "And Santa's going to be here soon!" The twins jumped up and down, yelping.

"Oh my," Emma said, standing. She greeted Jeffrey over their chants of "San-ta, San-ta, San-ta."

His father smiled. From their conversations the past week, he'd learned that Jeffrey was just as smitten with Emma Ballard as the rest of the Mooney's. "Coffee, dear?" he asked her.

"That would be great, thanks Jeff."

Jeff. Nobody called his father "Jeff," but the old man didn't bat an eyelash before rushing off to kick on the coffee maker. "I'll have some too, thanks," Andrew called behind him, sarcastically. He grunted and disappeared into the kitchen.

Emma smiled, a girl attached to each leg. "It's always so warm here. Thanks for having me."

"I'll show you upstairs," Andrew said, feeling his pulse race simply from looking at her. He peeled the girls off of her and they ran into the living room. Lifting Emma's bag, he carried it up the stairs into his room.

"I can't take your room," she said. "I'm perfectly fine staying at Jeffrey's, or on the couch."

Andrew shook his head. "I insist. Jeffrey's second room is a storage area, and you're not staying on the couch. Be my guest, like I was yours."

Later, Jeffrey retired next door and everyone put on their pajamas for a night around the fireplace. Because of the storm, they'd have to forego church. The snow had accumulated to about eight inches, and much to the delight of all the Mooney's, Emma was snowed in.

Emma, Andrew, Devon and Bella played board games and ate junk food, then shut the lights, except for the tree. As the snow got deeper and the night darker, the four of them sat on the floor of the little living room, mesmerized by the tree, the fire crackling in the fireplace, as they told stories about Santa and checked his whereabouts online.

As it got later and later, the girls finally started to peter out, Bella resting her head on her father's thigh, and Devon on Emma's. Emma ran her hands over Devon's long hair.

"They're so pretty," Emma said. "What are you going to do when they're teenagers and boys start coming around?"

"I try not to think about that." He lifted Bella so she was asleep on his shoulder, and stood up. "Don't move, I'll be back for her."

"I don't mind." Emma smiled down at Devon. "Take your time."

Andrew smiled and carried Bella to her room, laying her softly in the bottom bunk. He kissed her cheek and put Stella in the doll crib next to her, so she'd see her if she woke up. Quietly, he crept out and back down the stairs.

Emma was on her phone, texting. When she saw Andrew, she held the phone up. "Teagan," she whispered. "Wishing us a Merry Christmas."

"You said 'us,'" Andrew whispered back. He took Devon from her, his hand grazing Emma's thigh as he slid it under Devon's shoulders. "Sorry," he said, and looked up at her. Their eyes were close, their lips too. He could smell her peppermint oil.

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