by Julian Keys
“In this family, the greeting is ‘Happy Holidays!’ And we mean it.”
It’s three days before Christmas, and out-of-work handyman Ethan Rowe has hit rock bottom. In the midst of robbing a thrift store, he responds to a loud and ringing cry for help.
Science teacher Sophie Cauldwell isn’t looking for love when she shouts for help, only a rescue from attempted robbery. When soulful, chivalrous Ethan answers that cry, however, she’s found her knight in shining armor. It doesn’t matter that she knows absolutely nothing about him, Sophie opens herself, her soul, and her family home to him.
Enchanted as Ethan is by brainy, beautiful Sophie, he is only hoping to get a free meal when he accepts her invitation to dinner. Warmly welcomed into a home that celebrates the season in every possible way, however, he begins to fall in love with her and her multi-cultural kin. But is it only the magic of the holidays keeping their romance alight? Ethan finds it hard to believe that their love could survive the truth, even in this time of miracles. Can Sophie and her family change his mind and restore his faith?
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Chapter 5: A Christmas Gift
Sophie was disappointed to find Ethan gone when she woke. She slipped into her nightgown, socks and robe and padded downstairs. Everyone else was up and they gave her sly looks as she stepped into the kitchen. Even Benji grinned knowingly, which was just wrong.
“Good night?” Nikki innocently asked.
“None of your beeswax.” Sophie poured herself some coffee. “Anyone seen Ethan?”
“He’s down in the workshop,” her mother said. “He ransacked the kitchen drawers, made off with some cookie cutters, and no one’s seen him since.”
“He’s working on a secret project,” Benji announced.
“I guess that gets him out of kitchen duty for the day,” James remarked. “If you all would finish up and get dressed.”
There was a general groan at that, typical and only half serious. The tradition was that James made the Christmas Eve meal, and the rule was that he could draft anyone and everyone to help him. It wasn’t that anyone really minded, but the family liked giving him a hard time about it.
Sophie’s groan was a more honest one this year as she’d hoped to spend a little time with Ethan. Okay, a lot of time.
James put her on vegetable duty, peeling and cutting up carrots and parsnips and trimming brussel sprouts. She sat at the table with Benji, who was busy scraping seeds out of a butternut squash. Mom, the family baker, made chocolate ganache for her Christmas Eve bûche de noël while Nikki and Isaac polished up the silver and prepared the centerpiece.
“Good morning!” Ethan suddenly appeared toolbox in hand. He paused to give her an unabashed peck on the lips before kneeling down to check out a loose floorboard.
“Um, good morning.” Sophie exchanged a glance with her mother. “What are you doing?”
Sophie wasn’t sure what to make of that, but apparently Ethan meant it literally. Over the next few hours she heard him moving up and down the stairs, going in and out of rooms. There was hammering, sometimes cursing. Now and then he appeared, brushing dust out of his hair or asking for a Band-Aid.
James finally got everything into the oven or the refrigerator, and his crew took a much needed break. They went out for a game of football, which quickly turned into a snowball fight. Ethan joined in. To Sophie’s chagrin, he sided with Benji and James against her, Nikki and Isaac.
“Hey, Sophie! Newton’s first law!” he shouted, throwing a snowball and hitting her right in the head. There was fierce retaliation, and they all ended up back in the house wet and cold. A change of clothes, in Ethan’s case another trip to the dryer, and it was time for Christmas Dinner.
There was a candlelit centerpiece of roses and pears and all the good silver and crystal sparkled. James set out the roasted vegetables and wild rice stuffing. Then with fanfare he brought in the glistening brown goose. Wine was poured, grace said, and everyone started in.
“What have you been up to?” Sophie asked Ethan as James carved the bird and dishes went round.
“What hasn’t he been doing?” her mother interrupted. “He fixed a dozen things I didn’t know were broken. Plastered over cracks, adjusted picture frames. You remember that one door lock that never worked? Well now it works.”
Ethan smiled shyly. “Just wanted to repay your hospitality.”
Sophie didn’t know why, but somehow that comment made her uneasy. Ethan had clicked into place with her family yesterday, yet now he was back to sounding and acting like a guest. All she could figure was that he was trying to put some distance between them, to make what he planned on telling her easier.
The meal passed at a leisurely pace till nothing but bones and scraps remained. As everyone had helped make it, they now all helped to clean up. Trash was removed and the prize silverware and crystal washed and restored to the cupboards. Finally, they all went into the living room. Her mother plugged in the Christmas lights while James and Isaac served up the chocolate bûche de noël.
Ethan sat by Sophie, pressing his leg near hers, resting his arm over her shoulders as if they were a couple. But he seemed tense, unsettled. She couldn’t understand it. He obviously liked her family a lot and she would have sworn that his passion for her was genuine. Why was he acting like he was there under false pretenses?
“I’ve got a little gift for everyone,” he said, putting aside his dessert and getting up. They heard him head down the basement steps. A moment later he was back, cradling something in his arms. The gift wasn’t wrapped. Ethan just set it down on the table. It was rectangular and made out of hammered copper with a wire handle at the top. On the sides were four pieces of cut, colored glass.
“What is it?” Benji asked.
In response, Ethan got down the box of matches. Unlatching the top of the object, he fished out a tea candle, set it aflame and returned it. The thing lit up and the glass on each side threw colored shapes onto the walls. There was a golden sun on one side, a violet dove on another, a green Christmas tree and a blue snowflake shaped like a six-pointed star.
“The multicolored lantern!” Sophie’s mother was the first to say, and she looked at Ethan with awe. “You made it real.”
“It was already real,” he murmured.
“It’s wonderful,” Sophie said. It was—as wonderful as its creator.
“It’s an apology,” Ethan said. And that’s when Sophie knew that her moon dream had come to an end.
“Sophie,” Ethan said, his heart pounding, “I’ve something to say, and then I’ll be going. I wasn’t entirely honest with you. With any of you.”
The family exchanged anxious looks, and both Isaac and James scowled. They were probably wondering if they were going to have to beat the living shit out of him. In truth, they might after they heard what he had to say. But it was Sophie’s pained expression, the way her eyelids dropped in anticipation of something terrible that ripped his soul apart.
“I want you to know,” he said quickly, lest she get the wrong idea, “if I had one wish, it would be to stay. To stay with you, Sophie, and be your hero. But I’m not what you think I am. You see, that robber I knocked over wasn’t the one who broke into the thrift store. That was me.”
“You?” she echoed. Her tone said she didn’t believe it. Didn’t want to believe it.
“I picked the charity because I knew where they hid the float money. I was about to take the cash when I heard you scream for help. Rescuing you saved me from being arrested.”
“You’re—” Sophie swallowed. “You’re a thief?”
“Lately, yes. I was a handyman of sorts some months ago. It was an under-the-table thing, a bunch of us unlicensed, unemployed guys doing whatever needed doing. We had a boss who provided us with the tools and stuff. He got arrested for, well, running a fake contracting business.” He shrugged. “So I misled you there, too. I’m not really a bona fide handyman.”
He felt the rest of the family shifting, but all he could look at was Sophie and her cooling expression.
He took in a breath. “After that I took to stealing. Petty theft: cigarettes, a bottle of liquor, that sort of thing.”
“Why?” Benji wanted to know. The boy had moved himself close to his mother for comfort. His disillusioned gaze hurt Ethan almost as much as Sophie’s.
“I was broke and hungry, and too proud to go to a church or a shelter. I know that probably doesn’t make sense. A person should feel worse about stealing than about accepting hand-outs.” He glanced down at his stocking feet. “But I kinda lost myself—my better self–over the years. You, all of you, helped me find a bit of that lost self. I don’t know if it’ll make any difference to you, but I’ll be going to the police station tonight. I won’t let that other guy be blamed for what I did.”
Deafening silence. Oh, for a clock radio. Ethan released a breath. It was done. He turned and made for the entry hall, then paused as one last thing occurred to him. “I’m sorry if I ruined the holidays for anyone. Really sorry. I never, ever meant to do that.”
He got his boots and gloves on and took his jacket down from the hook. The sound of the front door shutting behind him seemed very final.
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