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Those we love always come home.

Christmas has always been a happy affair for the Friessens, but this year, as the family returns home, they are faced with more than a few challenges—from the crazy whirlwind of an on-again, off-again romance to a fairytale marriage now on the rocks, with more secrets than the family knows what to do with.

Can the Friessens pull together this holiday season, and will the gift of love be all they need?

Chapter 1

Becky and Tom were on again, Brad realized as Becky strode into the kitchen, sneakers squeaking, wearing her running gear, with her red jacket zipped up and a wool hat on her head. She was sweaty, but her nose and cheeks were red from the December cold.

What could he say to his daughter, who was in an on-again, off-again relationship with a man Brad thought he’d always have reservations about? Yes, Tom was a doctor, yes, he had a past, and yes, he was almost ten years older, though to some that would have been no big deal—but there was something about the man that he didn’t want for his daughter, something about him that Brad realized might always place him in the “not quite good enough” category.

“Dad, didn’t you hear me? Tom’s coming for dinner tonight, and he’s going to help set up the Christmas tree.”

Becky moved across the kitchen, pulling open the refrigerator. Her back was to him as she leaned in and lifted out a carton of orange juice, then gave it a shake.

“What’s going on?” Emily strode in, wearing a flannel checked red shirt hanging loose over her blue jeans, her hair in soft waves. She had just come back from the hairdresser, and he could no longer see the threads of gray he’d teased her about just that morning.

“Was just telling Dad that Tom is joining us for dinner tonight, and he’s going to help with decorating the tree.” Becky lifted the jug to her mouth to drink, leaning on the open door of the fridge.

“Use a glass. Seriously, Becky.” Emily reached around Brad in the cupboard for one.

“Why dirty a glass?” Becky said. “I’m drinking it all.”

He watched his daughter down the juice straight from the carton and looked at his wife, who was now shaking her head.

“Sometimes, Becky, I wonder whose child you are,” Emily said. “There are times I swear you were raised in the wild.”

As if making a point, Becky belched and wiped her mouth with her sleeve.

Brad just took in the scene, mother and daughter. The physical resemblance between them was similar, but their personalities were polar opposites, and he was still trying to figure out what to say about Becky’s latest bomb.

Emily was looking at him, and he knew the look well. She was waiting for him to say something. Instead, he nudged Becky away from the still open fridge and lifted out a beer.

“So your answer to your daughter’s news is to have a beer?” Emily said.

He took in both Becky and Emily as he unscrewed the top and then took a swallow. “Yeah, so you went for a jog…”

“A run, Dad. I don’t jog,” she interrupted as if to make a point.

“Fine, a run. When you left, you and Tom were done, over, and then when you come back you’re suddenly seeing each other again?”

Emily was shaking her head, and Becky had that look on her face as if this was no big deal. Brad looked to his wife as if she could make sense of what was going on between Becky and Tom.

“We didn’t ask you what happened when you came home last week and said it was over,” Emily said. She was leaning now against the counter, her arms crossed.

“Come on, Becky,” Brad said. “You have to give us something. I think I’ve lost count of this back and forth between you two. Sometimes a relationship isn’t meant to be. Sometimes there’s a lot of chemistry but nothing else to hold you together. No matter how much you want it, you can’t force it to settle into something that can stand the test of time—”

“He asked me to marry him,” Becky said.

Brad nearly dropped his beer, as it took him a second to understand her. He couldn’t get his mouth to form a word, and Emily wasn’t handling it much better, from the shock he could see written all over her face.

“I don’t understand,” Emily said. “He asked you to marry him…”

Becky was already shaking her head as she put the empty carton on the counter. “Last week he did, which is why I ended it.”

Brad looked to his wife again, hoping she’d translate Becky’s craziness for him.

“So let me get this straight: You came home last week, crying, upset, and storming into the house, calling him an asshole and saying it was so over and you never wanted to see him again, because he asked you to marry him?” Emily’s mouth opened as if she were at a loss as she stared at Brad.

Becky shrugged and actually looked to the ceiling, making a face. “Well, I panicked,” she said, then shrugged again. “He worked me down. What can I say? He’s…”

Brad wondered as he leaned in, waiting for her to finish, but again she seemed to be racking her brain, thinking. “You know what, Becky?” he said. “Maybe that panic is telling you something and you should listen. Marriage is a serious matter and not something to be taken lightly.”

She made another face and shook her head as if to laugh. “Geez, Dad, stop. You think I don’t know that? Tom’s become all mister serious and responsibility, and I overreacted, is all, because I don’t want an ordinary life. He gets that, and he’s convinced me that being married doesn’t mean I have to suddenly be shoved into a mold. No, he just helped me see that marriage can be how we make it, not how society expects us to be. So I’m going to grab a shower. He’ll likely be here in an hour or so…” She was walking away and stopped in the doorway as if she’d remembered something. “Oh, Dad, he also wants to talk to you, so if you could maybe act surprised?”

He was staring at the hopeful look on his daughter’s face just as the phone rang, and he found himself reaching for it so he wouldn’t have to answer, because he needed more than a moment to get around all his daughter’s madness. He had to sit her down and have the “What the hell is going on in your head?” talk.

“Hello?” he said, lifting his beer again and taking in Becky’s face. Her expression said everything. She knew what he was doing.

“Dad, it’s Katy.”

Katy, he mouthed to Emily as he took a step into the living room. “How you doing, honey?”

“Well, that’s why I’m calling. I’m actually on my way there a few days early,” she said. Now he knew what he was hearing in the background. She was in the car, driving.

“Oh, your mom and I weren’t expecting you and Steven until the twenty-third. You said Steven had to work?” He settled his beer on the sofa table as Becky bounced up the stairs.

“I’ve left Steven.”

He just stood there, taking in the empty stairwell, then turned to see Emily standing there. “What? I don’t even know what to ask. Did you seriously just say you left Steven?”

Emily had her hand on his arm, and he knew she wanted to talk to Katy. Her eyes were wide, and she was doing the overprotective mother thing. He just shook his head.

“Katy, come on,” he said. “What’s going on?”

“I’m tired, Dad, and I just need a few days. We kind of got into it, and I don’t want to go over it on the phone, but Fletcher and I are on our way. We’ll be there in about half an hour.”

Half an hour meant she’d been driving for quite some time, and instead of calling when she’d left and telling her family there was a problem, she’d decided to just, what, walk out on a husband for whatever reason just days before Christmas? This was getting better and better.

“Okay, we’ll see you soon,” he said, then listened to Katy say goodbye and hang up. He stared at Emily, whose expression showed her confusion.

“See you soon? What was that about?”

He just shook his head as he glanced to the now empty stairs and set the phone back in the cradle. “I don’t know exactly, but Katy said she left Steven. She’ll be here in about half an hour with Fletcher.”

Emily touched her face. “Oh my God, now what? We’ve got Diana, Jed, and the boys coming in a few days and two daughters with two very different and unstable relationships. This is not the time of year for this to happen.”

Brad picked up his beer and took in his brother Neil, who’d just pulled in with the Christmas tree tied to the top of the SUV. Trevor and Jack and Cat and Michael were all in the car as well, excited and ready to begin. “Yeah, well, so much for a peaceful family Christmas.”

Chapter 2

“You know what? We can always have Christmas dinner over at our place, considering everything you have going on here,” Neil said. He could hear laughter inside and the kids’ excitement as they decorated the tree. Brad just stared as if thinking some heavy thoughts as he leaned on the railing, his all-season coat on, taking in the yellow Beetle Katy had driven in just a few moments ago, looking like she’d seen better days.

Brad hadn’t yet said a word, but he tossed Neil an uneasy look, shaking his head. “No, you and Candy are already having Christmas Eve dinner for everyone. Besides, Emily’s already planned it out and ordered the birds from the Hedleys’ farm. It’ll be fine. Jed and Diana will be here in a few days, and you’ve got Andy and Laura and their brood and Mom and Dad, who are coming still?”

They were going to be on top of each other, but he was so looking forward to it. It had been a few years since they’d gotten together, since Katy’s wedding. “Tomorrow, late, Mom and Dad are flying in. So what do you think happened with Steven? What did she say?” Neil didn’t know what to think, and after what had happened to Steven and his recovery, he hated to hear they were at such odds at Christmas. He liked Steven a lot more than he’d ever like Tom, who was still quite a sore spot for him—maybe because he reminded him of himself in ways he didn’t like to consider.

“She said nothing,” Brad replied. “Emily is helping get her settled. I don’t know what to think, but I’m sure we’ll find out soon.”

“You going to call Steven?”

Brad glanced his way again and this time shook his head. “Not yet. Let’s find out first what’s going on…”

The door squeaked, and Neil took in his niece, her blond hair a tousled mess, pinned up. She was pale, with no makeup, wearing an oversized baggy sweatshirt and sweats. She appeared as if she’d lost weight. “Dad, Mom said she needs you to reach the air mattress on the top shelf in the closet for Fletcher,” she said.

“Okay.” Brad started to the door and pulled it open. “You look tired.”

Neil watched his brother reach around Katy and hug her.

She just shrugged. “I am a little. Not been sleeping much, is all.”

Even Neil could see how strained her smile was as Brad went inside. Katy started to close the door. She wasn’t the same happy Katy he’d once known, but then, she hadn’t been since her life had been turned upside down a few years ago. So young to deal with life’s tragedy.

“Katy, hold up.” Neil took the two steps to the screen door, holding it, taking in Katy, seeing the dark circles under her eyes. No wonder Brad was so quiet. She said nothing as she looked at him, and he realized the naive innocence she used to have was no longer there in her expression, which was instead weighted with something that showed how unhappy she was. She stepped outside, shivering, and Neil shrugged out of his coat. “Here,” he said and put it around her shoulders.

“Thank you.” She offered a weak smile.

“Your dad said you left Steven.”

She didn’t look his way but instead narrowed her eyes as she glanced past all the vehicles to the trees and the driveway that led out to the highway. “Yeah,” she said so softly. He would have expected tears, something, anything but this resigned sadness.

“Did you two have a fight?”

This time she did glance up to him. Her blue eyes were tinged with fine lines of red, likely from driving. “Same thing Mom asked me. All we do lately is fight, it seems, but it’s more that there isn’t anything there anymore.”

He didn’t have a clue what to say to that. “In what way? Steven meant everything to you. Are you saying you don’t love him anymore? Because I have to tell you, Katy, every marriage goes through a rough patch. The first year is like the honeymoon, and then it’s over and reality hits, but you and Steven have been together for as long as I can remember, high school sweethearts.”

Then everything in their world had changed.

She pulled at the sides of his coat. “Yes, we have. Maybe that’s the problem.”

He didn’t know what to say at how quiet Katy was, so he slid his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. “You know we love you?”

She leaned against him as he pressed a kiss to her head, taking in the mess of her hair. “I know,” she said.

“And you would tell us if you were in trouble or there was something else going on?” he said, then felt her tense as she stepped away. Oops, he’d hit a nerve. “Katy, what is it?”

She turned to Neil, and he could see such sadness and something else that seemed like anger. “I never imagined my life would be like this. Even after Steven woke up from the coma, I realized he’ll never be like he was, but at the same time, my life has barely started, and I feel as if it’s over. I don’t have a husband. I have a man I drive to work because he still can’t get behind the wheel, a man who won’t sleep with me. He sleeps in the guest room, and when we have company, he sleeps on the floor of our room to keep the secret. I schedule his doctors’ appointments, his physio. I help him with the meds he still has to take, which have taken away whatever else remained that made him a man. And do you know what’s left for me?” Her voice was so low, and the impact of what she was saying really hit home.

He swallowed hard, because he realized what he was seeing: It wasn’t anger but bitterness. The love she’d had for Steven was turning to hate, or so he thought. “I didn’t realize it was that bad.”

This time a tear slid down her cheek, and she swiped at it roughly, hard, before fisting her hand, fighting with everything she had to stuff away the emotion that had slipped out. Katy had never been a girl to hide how she was feeling, but the woman she’d become was holding on to everything.

“You know what? Maybe some time away would do you both good,” he said.

She was already shaking her head, so stubborn. She wasn’t going to listen. “You don’t get it. I see you, my dad, even Steven, how he was before. He’ll never be that way, and as much as I hate what happened to him, we’ve become two strangers. I worry and hover, and a little part of me dies a little more every day. I’ve become a nurse, someone to help him do the things he can’t, and I see the way he looks at me because it’s the same way I’m looking at him. The man I fell in love with isn’t here anymore, and as much as I resent him, and I know that sounds horrible, I know that he resents me, too.”

She was wrong, of course. She had to be.

“Hey, just listen to me,” he said. “You’re just tired. You’ve had to deal with something very few could, and you’re likely reading more into it than there is. I know Steven loves you—”

“No, he doesn’t, Uncle Neil,” she said, cutting him off, so direct and in his face and so sure of herself. She sighed, and he wondered whether there was more. When she flicked her gaze back to him, he saw the finality. “He told me to go. All we do is argue, and he snaps at me and I at him. Just thinking of seeing him, having him in the same room with me, my stomach turns to knots. We don’t even communicate anymore. We’ve become two strangers sharing Fletcher, sharing space, and I lie awake at night, staring at the ceiling, wondering if this is as good as it gets. When he got up this morning and came down for breakfast, the breakfast I put out for him, he dumped it in the sink and said to me that as much as he loved me, now he could see us heading fast to the point where he knew he was going to hate me. And you know what? Instead of feeling sad that he threw in the towel, I was relieved.”

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Copyright 2017,  Author Lorhainne Eckhart

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