The train pulls into Kingâ€™s Cross Station. I remain in my seat, waiting while most of the other passengers disembark. Business people pass, carrying briefcases and chatting with accented voices into cell phones. Or mobile phones as theyâ€™re called here in London. A
|Christmas in the Air: A 'Something in the Air' Short Story by Marie Landry|
nanny in a stiff-looking uniform the same muddy colour as the Thames ushers two little girls from their seats. They were amazingly quiet and well behaved, unlike the toddler a few rows back who screamed bloody murder for the first twenty minutes of the ride from Cambridge. Thank god for noise-cancelling headphones and the latest playlist Declan made for me. With only a few stragglers left, I stand, grab my overstuffed backpack, and make my way from the train. I weave through the crowded station and detour around to Platform 9 and 3/4. This has become a ritual every time Iâ€™m at Kingâ€™s Cross. My first visit was with Declan just days after we arrived in September. Heâ€™d patiently waited with me to have my picture taken with the luggage trolley where Harry Potter fans from all over the world gather for a photo op while imagining theyâ€™re off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I linger a few feet from the line that snakes to the spot where people pose with the trolley. When Declan and I came, heâ€™d insisted I get the printed photo from the professional photographer, even though it was ridiculously expensive. Still, I donâ€™t regret it; I have the picture of me holding Hermioneâ€™s wand and wearing a Ravenclaw scarf (and a giant, goofy grin) sitting in a frame on my nightstand next to a picture of Declan and me in front of Tower Bridge. Christmas music filters from one of the nearby shops, making me smile. I canâ€™t believe Christmas is just a week away. This year has been a whirlwind. It started with me stuck in a job Iâ€™d grown to hate, living with my controlling mother, and unsure what I wanted to do with my future. This past summer I met Declan, quit my job, moved into the apartment above Declanâ€™s familyâ€™s pub, and then took a research internship in London. Sometimes I still feel like Iâ€™m dreaming, but if I am, I donâ€™t want anyone to wake me. Suddenly eager to see Declan after three days in Cambridge doing research for Professor Gillingham, I head to the Underground. Being directionally challenged, Iâ€™d been nervous the first few times I took the subway (or Tube, as itâ€™s called here), but quickly got the hang of it, and now Iâ€™m a pro at it. Iâ€™ve only ended up on the wrong train a few times, but I figure those are pretty good odds for someone who comes from a small town and never rode public transit before. I emerge onto the street a few minutes later, blinking in the weak morning sunlight and drawing my coat around me tighter. The sky is full of slate-grey clouds that look like they might carry snow, even though thereâ€™s been no sign of the white stuff yet this year. So far, winter in London hasnâ€™t been as harsh as back home in Canadaâ€”Dad told me the other day itâ€™s already dropped to -10 degrees Celcius in Bellevueâ€”but itâ€™s chilly enough I was able to justify splurging on a gorgeous dark-purple vintage wool coat from a shop on Oxford Street, along with a matching set of mittens, hat, and scarf. After a short walk, I let myself into the flat I share with three of Professor Gillinghamâ€™s other interns. I strip off my outerwear while admiring the additions my roommates have added to the Christmas decorations while I was away. We got a wonderfully pathetic-looking Charlie Brown tree the day before I left for Cambridge, and as promised, my roommates have waited for me to decorate it. I canâ€™t wait for the four of us to crowd around it and add the baubles weâ€™ve collected around London the past couple weeks. John will be leaving tomorrow to spend the holidays in Scotland with his family, but Denny from Australia and Lynnette from South Africa are staying in London. I climb the steps to the main living area. Denny strides into the room carrying a menorah and humming to herself. She doesnâ€™t notice me, so I clear my throat and she whips around, brandishing the candelabra like a weapon. â€œJeeze, Rose, you scared me!â€ She lets out the tinkling laugh Iâ€™ve come to love over the last couple months. You canâ€™t help but smile when Denny is around; sheâ€™s like a ray of sunshine. Sheâ€™s a bit high-strung, but sheâ€™s a genuinely good, happy person, and I love being around her. â€œDid you just get back? How was Cambridge? Did you get what you needed? You donâ€™t mind if I put this menorah in here, do you? I know Hanukkahâ€™s over, but this was my motherâ€™s and Iâ€™ve had it in my room and I thought it would look nice out here.â€ Clearly sheâ€™s been into the coffee. John, Lynnette, and I try to moderate her intake, otherwise sheâ€™s a hyper, fast-talking ball of energy. The others must not be home. I pause for a minute, waiting for her to realize she asked me four questions in a row. She simply smiles at me expectantly. â€œYes, I just got back,â€ I tell her. â€œCambridge was great. The professor there was really helpful, and I got to see a lot of the area, plus the college. And no of course I donâ€™t mind if you put the menorah in here.â€ â€œGreat!â€ She sets it on the table, adjusting it so itâ€™s perfectly centred. â€œYour dad and stepmom are getting in tomorrow, right?â€ â€œYep. I canâ€™t wait.â€ When I left for London, my dad said heâ€™d try to get some extra time off around Thanksgiving to come for a visit. Once I arrived and Professor Gillingham gave me my schedule for the next six months, I realized it wouldnâ€™t make sense for him to come so soon after I got here. With Canadian Thanksgiving being in early October and no coinciding holidays in England, I told him to wait for his two weeks off at Christmas. â€œAre you heading over to Declanâ€™s soon?â€ Denny wiggles her eyebrows, the way she always does when she mentions Declan. The first time she met him sheâ€™d stared in stunned silence, then almost swooned when he spoke. I canâ€™t blame herâ€”I still get weak-kneed over his deep voice and lilting Irish accent. â€œIn a bit, yeah. I want to unpack and do a few things here first.â€ â€œOkay, cool beans. Just make sure youâ€™re back in time to decorate the tree. John said six so we can do dinner first, and then he still has time to pack. Tell your hot Irishman heâ€™s welcome to join the festivities. Oh, and if youâ€™re anywhere near Borough Market, will you grab me some of those meat pies I love?â€ Sheâ€™s out of breath and my head is spinning by the time she finishes speaking. I cross the room and grip her shoulders. â€œI will be back in time, I will bring Declan, and I will even get you your meat pies if you promise me something.â€ She nods vigorously. â€œNo. More. Coffee.â€ She giggles. â€œI guess I did overdo it a bit on the java this morning.â€ She pulls my hands from her shoulders so she can step forward and hug me. She squeezes and jiggles me a bit, and I canâ€™t help but laugh. The girl is a caffeine-fueled nut, but I adore her. She releases me and goes back to arranging decorations on the table. I grab my backpack and head for my room, where I pull out my laptop before slinging my bag on the bed to unpack later. Iâ€™ve barely got the computer turned on before Skype alerts me to an incoming call. I accept it and slip into the chair at my desk, smiling when my best friendâ€™s face appears on screen. â€œThereâ€™s my girl,â€ Dante says. I still canâ€™t get over how tanned he is, even in December. All that Greek sunshine has agreed with him over the last couple months. â€œHow was Cambridge?â€ â€œIt was great. I got everything Isobel asked for, plus had time to explore the area. I even got a personal tour of the campus, and I joined a walking tour that described the history of the city.â€ â€œSo basically it was nerd heaven,â€ Dante says. â€œYou know it.â€ He grins, tilting his head and studying me. â€œYou look good, Rosie. Have I told you that lately?â€ He tells me on a regular basis, but I never get tired of hearing it. Just like life in Greece has been good for Dante, life in London is agreeing with me. In fact, itâ€™s pretty much exceeded my wildest dreams. I fell in love with the city from the moment our plane landed, and while itâ€™s been an adjustment in many ways, itâ€™s also been the adventure of a lifetime. I preen a little, drawing the desired laugh. â€œHave you talked to Maura lately?â€ I canâ€™t help but ask the question, even though I already know the answer. Declan and I have a standing Skype date with Maura twice a week, and she and I text regularly. â€œYep, talked to her last night.â€ His voice has a forced lightness to it that tells me he knows about the guy who asked Maura out last week. â€œSheâ€™s really enjoying that business class. Says sheâ€™s learned a lot, and Sharonâ€™s slowly giving her more responsibilities in the pub.â€ â€œShe and Declan seem to talk business more than personal stuff lately,â€ I say. â€œBut Iâ€™m glad sheâ€™s so happy.â€ â€œMe too.â€ His gaze shifts away from the camera. He has a tiny bedroom in his uncleâ€™s house over the family restaurant. The lack of space is made up for by the stunning view of the ocean from the window near Danteâ€™s desk. Sometimes I make him turn the camera to face the window so I can enjoy the view while we video chat. â€œShe turned the guy down, you know,â€ I tell him. His gaze snaps back to the screen. His look of surprise morphs into a small, rueful smile. â€œI told her she should go out with him.â€ He settles back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. â€œShe said she was too busy to date, blah, blah, blah. I told her the same thing I told you when you said you were too busy to date: thatâ€™s bullshit. She and I agreed it was okay to see other people. The timing wasnâ€™t right for us, so all we can be now is friends, and itâ€™s better than nothing. I want her to be happy.â€ â€œYour optimism is one of the things I love most about you, Dante.â€ â€œDonâ€™t forget my good looks and sparkling personality.â€ I snort. â€œNever.â€ We talk for a few more minutes before signing off, promising to talk again soon. Since weâ€™ll all be separated for Christmas, he, Maura, Sharon, Declan, and I plan to do a video chat on Christmas Eve and open the presents we all sent to each other. I thought it would be strange not spending Christmas at home, but Iâ€™m actually excited to spend it in London, especially since my dad and Pamela are coming. Thereâ€™s a tiny part of meâ€”very tiny, like a whisper in the back of my mind when Iâ€™m sitting in a room thatâ€™s too quiet or Iâ€™m having trouble falling asleepâ€”that feels bad I wonâ€™t be spending Christmas with my mom. Iâ€™ve talked to her a handful of times since coming to England, but our conversations are stilted and never go past surface things. I hate the emotional distance between us, but I keep telling myself the physical distance will be good. Maybe by the time I get back to Avonloughâ€”if I ever do move backâ€”time and perspective will have worked its magic and we can have some sort of relationship again. And maybe we wonâ€™t. Only time will tell. For now, Iâ€™m doing the best I can. Christmas has never been my favourite day of the year, but this year holiday cheer seems to have worked its way into my bloodstream. I found happiness this past summer when I freed myself from my motherâ€™s control and a job I hated, and I chased that happiness until I caught it and wrapped it around me like a warm blanket. I wish that for my mother, too, but as I realized a few months ago, I canâ€™t make that happen for her. She has to figure it out herself, find what makes her happy, and go after it. Like I did. Like Iâ€™m doing. And the main source of that happiness is waiting for me a few blocks away. I send Declan a quick text telling him Iâ€™m home and canâ€™t wait to see him. He answers almost immediately, asking if Iâ€™d like to meet at his place and we can make plans from there. Half an hour later, freshly showered and dressed in warm clothes, I call goodbye to Denny, promising to be home in time for dinner. I step outside and pause on the front step, breathing in the crisp air. We live on a quiet street lined with old houses and even older trees that tower over the neighbourhood. The leaves were a riot of colour when I first arrived, but now the limbs are bare. Our neighbour across the street, Ken, who lives with his wife and two kids, is winding lights in the branches of the smallest tree on his lawn. â€œLooking good!â€ I call to him as I reach the sidewalk. He gives me a smile that appears almost rueful. â€œThe missus thought the house needed an extra festive touch this year. Iâ€™ve a feeling Iâ€™m going to be here all day.â€ He holds up the string of lights so I can see the tangled mess near the end. Cringing in sympathy, I point over my shoulder toward the flat. â€œDennyâ€™s home and full of caffeine. Iâ€™m sure sheâ€™d be more than happy to help and could probably get it done at super speed.â€ Ken chuckles. â€œI might pop over and recruit her in a bit if this keeps giving me trouble. Thanks, Rose.â€ â€œGood luck.â€ Continuing down the street, I round the corner and just like that, I go from quiet neighbourhood to busy street. Itâ€™s one of the things I love most about Londonâ€”the fact you can be on a peaceful street one minute, feeling like youâ€™re in any small town, and then a second later youâ€™re thrust into the city with cars and bikes and red buses zooming everywhere, crowds of people, and shops with bright signs. I love London even more than I expected I would. I thought itâ€™d be a big adjustment, moving from a place like Avonlough to a huge, metropolitan city. While Iâ€™ve had a few hiccups and thereâ€™s been a learning curve in some ways (like taking the Tube or remembering to look left when crossing the street since cars drive on the opposite side of the road here), itâ€™s also been amazing. It didnâ€™t take long for London to feel like home. Iâ€™ve been working hard for Isobel; there are a lot of days when I barely see the outside world because Iâ€™m shut away in a library doing research for her King Arthur series, but itâ€™s worth it. The work is something I enjoy, even when it leaves me cross-eyed and so stiff Iâ€™m barely able to walk home. During my free time, I can wander through one of the many parks or museums London offers, or visit somewhere with hundreds of years of history, like the Tower of London or Westminster Abbey. When Dante joked earlier about nerd heaven, thatâ€™s how Iâ€™ve felt since the moment I started exploring London. I cut through the park that separates my neighbourhood from Declanâ€™s. He spent the first few weeks here couch surfing at friendsâ€™ places until a guy he met in Scotland a few years ago offered him the spare room in his flat. We talked about living together, but since things moved so quickly for us this past summer, we agreed this arrangement is best for now. If Professor Gillingham extends my internship past the six-month trial period, weâ€™ll decide whether itâ€™s time for us to live together again. For now, we go on regular dates, hang out at his place or mine, travel together when we can, and basically just enjoy being young and in love and living in a great city where thereâ€™s always something to do. I wake up every morning excited about what the day will bring, and Iâ€™ve never experienced that before. Itâ€™s a wonderful kind of magic. Soft Christmas music follows me as I turn onto the street of shops near Declanâ€™s place. I detour to the coffee cart I discovered my first week here. Wilf, the white-haired, wrinkly-faced man who runs it reminds me of a British version of Mr. Alexander, my favourite customer at the diner where I worked for three years. â€œGood afternoon, Miss Rose,â€ Wilf says, smiling his endearingly crooked smile. â€œBeautiful weather weâ€™re having.â€ â€œIt is.â€ Small talk about the weather seems as common in London as it is back home. Even though I see him nearly every day, Wilf always leads with the weather. â€œDo you think weâ€™ll get snow any time soon?â€ Wilf sticks his nose in the air and inhales deeply. â€œThe smell of it has been in the air the past few days. I wonâ€™t be surprised if it snows by the end of the weekend. I suppose youâ€™re hoping for a white Christmas?â€ â€œI am. Itâ€™s hard to imagine Christmas without snow. Even a light dusting would be nice.â€ Itâ€™s not that I particularly like snow, but a lot of my best childhood Christmas memories involve snow. Waking up on Christmas morning and seeing a fresh blanket of sparkling white outside the window. Opening presents and then dashing outside to play. Christmas was the one day my parents would play in the snow with me; weâ€™d build snowmen and forts and have snowball fights until our noses were redder than Rudolphâ€™s and our fingers were numb inside our mittens. It was the only time my parents seemed to let go of all their problems, stop fighting, and act like kids who didnâ€™t have a care in the world. Wilf turns to fill two cardboard cups with coffee. With his back to me, he places something from the baked goods tray into a paper bag before setting it and the cups on the counter. I eye the bag with raised brows, but he simply smiles and rings up the drinks. I hand over the money and slip a couple pounds into his tip cup when heâ€™s not looking. â€œI hope you get your white Christmas, Rose.â€ â€œThanks, Wilf. See you later.â€ I scoop up the cups and the mystery bag and continue toward Declanâ€™s place. Curiosity gets the best of me when I round the corner. I set the drinks on a stone wall and open the paper bag. Inside are four chocolate-covered peanut butter ballsâ€”my favourite. Theyâ€™re dusted with icing sugar, which is unusual; I guess Wilf wanted to make sure I had at least some snow before Christmas. Have I mentioned I love London? Declan is waiting for me at the front door when I arrive at the flat he shares with his friend Alistair. His eyes light up and his face creases in a grin the minute he sees me. This never gets old. I hurry up the steps, wishing I could throw my arms around him. He greets me with a too-short kiss before ushering me into the flat. The instant weâ€™re inside, he takes the paper bag and coffee cups from me, sets them on the table, and wraps his arms around me. Iâ€™m enveloped in his warmth and the familiar scent of his cologne and shampoo. Three days away felt like an eternity. I canâ€™t imagine what it would have been like if Iâ€™d come to London on my own and left him behind, as weâ€™d originally planned. His lips trail through my hair and down my face. His mouth meets mine, and he cups my face in his warm hands. I sink into the kiss. Itâ€™s long and languorous and feels like making up for the days we spent apart. â€œI missed you,â€ he says, his breath tickling my lips. â€œI missed you, too. Next time I leave London I think you should come with me.â€ â€œGladly.â€ He brings his mouth back to mine for a moment, then peppers my face and neck with kisses. â€œI say we both take a few days off in the new year and head up to Bath. We could even do a detour and finally see Stonehenge.â€ â€œI support this idea wholeheartedly.â€ I kiss him again, taking my time and revelling in Declanâ€™s quiet moan when I release him. â€œIs Alistair home?â€ One of Declanâ€™s eyebrows quirks up. â€œAye, he isâ€¦â€ â€œGood.â€ I laugh at his confused expression. â€œIt would be way too easy to hole up here for the rest of the day.â€ â€œThat does sound appealing.â€ I poke him in the chest. â€œIt does, but we have all winter to do that. The Christmas markets only last so long.â€ â€œYou and your Christmas markets. Youâ€™re obsessed.â€ He shakes his head, but I can see the smile twitching around the corners of his mouth and the affection in his eyes. He secretly likes them, too. Or maybe he just likes how excited I get by them. Either way, he indulges me every time I ask if we can go, and he never complains when I buy way too much stuff and he ends up being my human pack mule. We take a few minutes to drink our coffee while itâ€™s hot, then set out for the nearest Tube station. We get off at Covent Garden and join the throngs of people making their way up to the street. Itâ€™s so crowded weâ€™re moving at a snailâ€™s pace. Seems a few dozen other people had the same idea we did. Declan has a firm grip on my hand, and he ducks around people when he can until weâ€™re finally away from the thickest part of the crowd. Covent Garden is one of my favourite neighbourhoods in London. Declan and I come here often to check out the markets, and Iâ€™ve been here at least once a week since the Christmas Light Switch On, when what seemed like thousands of glittering lights were lit in a ceremony with live music, food, and the kick-off of the Mulled Wine Festival. A lot of places in London are decorated for the holidays, but for me, nothing beats Covent Garden. Every time I visit, I feel like Iâ€™ve stepped into a Christmas movie. â€œWhere do you want to start?â€ Declan asks. â€œDo you still need gifts for anyone?â€ â€œIâ€™ve already picked up Dad and Pamelaâ€™s main gifts, but I was thinking Iâ€™d make them a little basket of local stuffâ€”teas, cheeses, meats. Maybe get them a gift card from one of the bakeries or tea shops and bring them down here next week for a day.â€ â€œThatâ€™s a brilliant idea, love.â€ Declan kisses my cheek. Even after all these months, a simple gesture like that can flood me with warmth. I tighten my grip on his hand, and randomly point out a place to start. We visit a variety of shops and stalls, sampling goodies along the way before stopping for hot chocolate, which we take outside to a bench. We watch a street performer who looks and sounds just like Elvis. He croons â€œBlue Christmasâ€ while a nearby mime in a Santa hat pretends to swoon and cry and keep himself in an invisible box separated from the singer. After a spirited group sing-along of â€œBaby, Please Come Home,â€ we go into the covered markets for more shopping. I drag Declan over to a rack with handmade Christmas ornaments. I pick through them, looking for ones my roommates would like. We agreed to do a small gift exchange before John leaves, and while Iâ€™ve already reached my Â£5 apiece spending limit for all three of them, these ornaments would look perfect on our little tree. I find an adorable kangaroo for Denny and hold it up for Declan to see. Heâ€™s looking over my head, a deep line forming between his tightly pinched brows. I follow his gaze, but donâ€™t see whatâ€™s caused the dark look. â€œYou okay?â€ I ask. Declanâ€™s gaze snaps to mine. The furrow between his brows slowly smooths. â€œSee that woman over there with the dark brown hair? The one in the red coat?â€ I glance back over my shoulder and spot the woman heâ€™s talking about. Sheâ€™s standing in front of a jewelry store window admiring the display inside. â€œYou know her?â€ He makes a funny little sound, then clears his throat. â€œAye, thatâ€™s...sheâ€™s my mum.â€ A light breeze could blow me over right now. I whip around to look at the womanâ€”Declanâ€™s mother?â€”again. From what Declan has told me, I know sheâ€™s about my momâ€™s age, but she looks younger, with smooth, glowing skin, and her dark hair swept into a fashionable up-do. Itâ€™s hard to believe this seemingly regular-looking person caused Declan so much pain, heartache, and self-doubt for most of his life. She steps back from the window display and picks up four or five shopping bags at her feet. She scans the crowd as she straightens. I turn quickly to face Declan. Iâ€™m not sure why; itâ€™s not like she knows who I am or would recognize me. Watching Declanâ€™s face, I know the instant their gazes connect. His whole body goes rigid, his eyes tightening around the corners as if heâ€™s resisting the urge to cringe. â€œShould we go?â€ I whisper. I donâ€™t know what to do. I canâ€™t bring myself to look back and see his motherâ€™s expression. For all I know she saw him and walked in the other direction. From what Declanâ€™s told me about her, it seems like something sheâ€™d do. He draws in a long, slow breath. I brace myself before taking Declanâ€™s hand and moving to stand beside him. â€œMother.â€ â€œDeclan. This is certainly a surprise.â€ She stops a few feet away and gazes at him steadily, her expression friendly in a bland way. She makes no move to embrace him or show any other sign of affection. Any sign that the man in front of her is her only child. â€œI could say the same.â€ His fingers twitch around mine and I squeeze back. I canâ€™t imagine how uncomfortable this must be for him. Itâ€™s been years since he spoke to his mother and even longer since he saw her. Youâ€™d never know this was a reunion between mother and son. â€œAre you here for the holidays?â€ â€œYes, your father and I flew in last week.â€ Her gaze travels around, as if hoping her husband will suddenly materialize from the crowd. â€œHeâ€™s about somewhere. He grew tired of trailing after me and said something about finding a place to have a pint.â€ Her lips quirk into an almost smile. She hasnâ€™t looked at me once. I have a feeling itâ€™s more indifference than any sort of personal snub. Her gaze flicks over Declan, and I wonder what she sees. If she feels anything toward her son. I wait for her to suggest they find Declanâ€™s dad or get together for dinner or even go for coffee. After several long beats, I have a feeling Iâ€™d be waiting a long time for any such suggestion. Declan finally breaks the silence. â€œAre you staying at the Ritz?â€ â€œYes. You know your father, itâ€™s his favourite. Weâ€™ve stayed there the last few Christmases, so itâ€™s a tradition of sorts now.â€ Declan flinches slightly. His mother doesnâ€™t seem to notice. â€œThatâ€™s nice. Iâ€™m sure they put on a grand Christmas for their visitors.â€ Iâ€™ve never heard him sound so stiff and formal. Itâ€™s like heâ€™s talking to a stranger, but even with strangers heâ€™s warm and kind, treating them as if they were long-lost friends. His tone, paired with his blank expression makes my heart hurt. â€œOh, they do.â€ Her smile widens without reaching her eyes. â€œWell. It was nice to see you. I hope you have a happy Christmas.â€ Her eyes shift briefly to me. Thereâ€™s not a hint of warmth or curiosity in them. I wait for Declan to introduce us, but canâ€™t really blame him when he doesnâ€™t. This chance meeting isnâ€™t going to go any further. His mother and I wonâ€™t go to tea together or bond while shopping at Harrodâ€™s. Iâ€™m the love of her sonâ€™s life, and she doesnâ€™t even care to know my name. â€œHappy Christmas, Mother. Please pass my wishes along to Father.â€ She nods, smiling tightly. When she turns, it only takes her a second to disappear into the mass of people around us. Declanâ€™s shoulders slump as he expels a loud burst of air. His hand goes limp in mine, then tightens again. He brings it to his lips and kisses it, lingering, then holds my palm against his cheek. â€œDid that just happen?â€ â€œYes. Unless we both simultaneously hallucinated the same thing.â€ This draws the desired smile from him, weak as it is. â€œMy heart feels like itâ€™s twisted.â€ He knocks a fist against his chest, shaking his head. â€œIâ€™m sorry I didnâ€™t introduce you. I wasnâ€™t trying to be rude, butâ€”â€ I hold a finger to his lips, silencing him. â€œI get it. It wouldnâ€™t have made a difference. It would have just prolonged what was already a supremely awkward encounter.â€ â€œMm.â€ He rubs his free hand over the side of his face. His gaze moves past me, out of focus. He looks sort of stunned. Iâ€™m about to ask if heâ€™s okay when he straightens and his gaze clears. He meets my eyes and smiles. Itâ€™s a real smile, full of love and just for me. The kind of smile that made me fall in love with him. Iâ€™m happy to see it, and yet now Iâ€™m the one whoâ€™s stunned. â€œReady to go?â€ he asks. â€œThat bakery you love is just up the way a bit. We could stop there and Iâ€™ll buy you as many overpriced macarons as you like.â€ â€œAre you sure? I mean, are you okay?â€ â€œAye, why wouldnâ€™t I be?â€ I sputter out a laugh, but he doesnâ€™t seem to be kidding. Heâ€™s not one to hide his emotions, and Iâ€™ve always thought he was fairly easy to read, but right now I have no idea what heâ€™s thinking. He raises his eyebrows in question, but other than that his expression remains neutral. I open and close my mouth, unsure of what to say. Maybe heâ€™s still in shock and what just happened will hit him later. â€œAs many macarons as I want?â€ I ask instead. â€œThat could be dangerous.â€ I pick out a couple more ornaments to go with the kangaroo and pay for them before we continue through the market. Weâ€™re both quiet as we walk. I have no idea what Declan might be thinking, but my mind is whirling. Things with my mom are far from great, and the last time I saw her she did her best impersonation of an Ice Queen, but Iâ€™ve never doubted for a second she loves me. In the back of my mind, I know weâ€™ll make things right somehow someday. It might not happen any time soon, but I know if I ran into her on the street after not seeing her for ages, especially this close to Christmas, we could forget our differences for at least a minute, and remind each other that even though things may be rough right now, weâ€™ll always love one another. â€œRose.â€ Declan stops walking, and Iâ€™m forced to stop too since weâ€™re holding hands. â€œI can practically hear your brain working. Whatâ€™s the matter?â€ â€œI just canâ€™t believe how calm you are after that run-in with your mother. Youâ€™re family, but she acted like you were practically strangers. How are you okay with that?â€ Declan releases a long sigh. â€œIâ€™m not okay with it. Itâ€™s simply something Iâ€™ve accepted.â€ â€œBut youâ€™re family,â€ I press. â€œIn name only. We share the same blood, but thatâ€™s as far as it goes. We were never a happy, loving family. My true family, the ones whoâ€™ve shown me unconditional love, are Sharon and Maura. Theyâ€™re my family. And you, Rose. Youâ€™re my family.â€ He ducks slightly so weâ€™re eye to eye, his blue gaze steady and serious. Declanâ€™s aunt Sharon told me once that family isnâ€™t always blood. She said people say you canâ€™t choose your family, but sometimes you can and do. Sometimes you make choices that are right for you, even if it means cutting out family because theyâ€™re toxic. She told me I had the Connellys now, and from the very beginning the three of them welcomed me into their lives without questions or reservations or conditions. According to Sharon, sometimes you make your own family out of the people who love and support you, and thatâ€™s what I did. Thatâ€™s what Declan has done. Part of me still canâ€™t believe how lucky I am that he chose me. â€œYouâ€™re really not upset?â€ I ask. â€œIâ€™m not. I promise. The woman we saw today, she may have given birth to me and I may have grown up under her roof, but she was never a mum. Not truly. She didnâ€™t dry my tears or hold me or laugh with me. That was Sharon. Always. She was more of a mum to me than Carol ever was. I moved on long ago, and I donâ€™t want you to dwell on it, because I certainly donâ€™t.â€ I study Declan. He wouldnâ€™t say it if it wasnâ€™t true. His honesty is one of the things I love most about him; he doesnâ€™t tell me things because he thinks theyâ€™re what I want to hear. â€œOkay,â€ I say. â€œNo dwelling.â€ He nods. â€œMoving on, then?â€ â€œMoving on. Only happy thoughts, like macarons, and shopping, and snow.â€ â€œSnow.â€ Declan chuckles. The sound of it, paired with the sight of his dazzling smile makes my whole body go warm and my knees give an unsteady quiver. That quiver turns into earthquake-like tremors when he swoops down and covers my mouth with his. It only takes an instant for my senses to drown out the bustle of the markets. â€˜And you, Rose. Youâ€™re my family.â€™ Declanâ€™s words echo in my mind. Tonight weâ€™ll have the first of our Christmas celebrations with our send-off for John, then weâ€™ll exchange gifts and finish decorating our flat. Tomorrow my dad and Pamela will arrive for two whole weeks. And next week Iâ€™ll spend my first Christmas in London, the city Iâ€™ve fallen for, with the man Iâ€™m completely and utterly in love with, plus part of the family I was born into and all of the family Iâ€™ve made for myself, whether theyâ€™re here with me or hundreds of miles away being beamed in through video chat. Christmas may not have been great the last few years, but itâ€™s going to be wonderful this year. I just know it. I can feel the Christmas magic in the air.