“Merry Christmas!”

I groaned at the sound of yelling and cracked open an eye, seeing Lily and Danny grinning up at me, both of them eagerly holding out presents. Eden was already up, I could see her out of the corner of my eye in her pyjamas and a Santa hat, laughing at the kids and my unwillingness to wake up.

“Papa, it’s Christmas!” Lily squealed.

“No it’s not, Christmas is cancelled til I get some more sleep” I grumbled, pulling the covers over my head.

Only to have them torn off me. I looked up grouchily, seeing Eden kneeling over me with the comforter behind her. “Get up, grouch, your kids want to see what Santa got them”

For a few seconds, I genuinely considered telling them Santa wasn’t real in the hopes that it’d let me get some more sleep, but I couldn’t ruin it for them. Not yet. So I put on my happy face and pretended to be amazed at how Santa had gotten the kids exactly what they wanted and more. I’d splashed out on them a little more this year, since it was their first Christmas without Maxxie, which meant I’d splashed out on me too. I’d told Eden not to bother getting me anything, since there wasn’t really anything I wanted, but I could tell she’d gotten me something anyway. She’d been really secretive over things the last few weeks, but it wasn’t the suspicious kind of secretive behaviour.

We made the kids a special Christmas breakfast and let them unwrap a few more presents, making sure they left some to open at Grandma’s. We were going over to Mom’s as usual, but unfortunately with Ava and her lot staying over, there wasn’t enough room for what was left of Maxxie’s side of the family, so we’d agreed to see them on Boxing Day instead. After all, the kids were still related to them, and I still saw them as my in-laws.

By the time we got to Mom’s, I was just about ready to drop. I hadn’t slept well the night before as it was since I’d been worrying about house prices and whether or not I’d be able to handle Christmas without Maxxie. I should probably explain about the house prices, huh? Me and Eden had been looking for a bigger house; with a bedroom for each of the kids, and a spare in case we had anyone over. Admittedly they could’ve just had the sofa bed, but I felt bad making them essentially sleep on the couch. So a bigger house it was. I was still keeping the house me and Maxxie got together, figuring I could give it to one of the kids or keep it for me in my old age. And I guess part of me wanted to keep it for the memories.

The second we walked through the front door, Riley clung to Lily like glue. He had the Smith charm about it, I’ll give him that, and he’d inherited some of Ryan’s good looks too. Now that they were a bit older, it was starting to get a little obvious the two of them liked each other maybe the tiniest bit more than cousins should. Not that anyone minded, really. Ava and Ryan both thought it was cute, and since the two of them aren’t blood relatives, they couldn’t see anything wrong with it if it did ever turn into something serious. Mom and Dad were kind of impartial on the subject, but I could tell from the looks in their eyes they thought it was sweet. Mom had the same look in her eye whenever Danny and Beau were together.

I introduced Eden to Ava and her roost, and pretended not to notice the disapproving glance Mom shot Eden. She hadn’t been vocal about her disapproval, so I guess I at least had that to be thankful for. And with her busy in the kitchen, she didn’t have time to convey her distaste through her eyes. I remembered what she’d said last time about keeping Eden out of the kitchen, so I made sure she was busy playing with Danny to think about going out there, and while everyone else was oblivious of what I was doing, Ava apparently saw right through me. She took me to one side, taking Bradley upstairs at the same time. While he wasn’t exactly a baby anymore, he still needed naps every now and then or he’d get grouchy.

“I’m guessing Mum doesn’t approve of Eden?” she said softly when she’d gotten Bradley down.

“Is it that obvious?”

“Not from her side. But I can’t help noticing you’ve done everything in your power to keep her out of the kitchen and away from our dear mother”

I sighed. “She thinks Eden’s a drug dealer or something”

Ava laughed, covering her mouth so she wouldn’t wake Bradley up. “A drug dealer? That girl’s too sweet to be a drug dealer. What did you say she does?”

“She’s a nurse on the same ward as me”

Ava nodded. “Definitely too sweet. What made you decide to go out with her, anyway? I thought you were into guys”

“I don’t really know who I’m into” I chuckled. “I guess I’m into whoever I get the warm fuzzies for”

“That’s sweet” she smiled. “I hope you’re using protection, girls make babies, remember?”

“Yes, Ava. You serve as a constant reminder of that. Got any more on the way?”

“Watch it, you” she laughed. “And no, not this time. Bradley’s the last”

“Does that mean-”

“Do you really want to be asking your sister about her sex life?”

“No” I said, fighting back the gross mental images that were threatening to burst forth. Y’know those really horrible ones you can’t stop if someone says something like “since you have a mom and dad, that means your grandparents had sex”?

“I didn’t think so. You got lucky with your two, babies are hard work, and I don’t want you finding that out because you’ve gotten your girlfriend pregnant without meaning to”

“Yes, Mom” I said, rolling my eyes.

“Seriously, Hadley. You’re the only brother I’ve got left and you’ve made a perfect little life for yourself. I don’t want you to lose that”

“My life’s not so perfect. My husband died, remember?”

Ava nodded. “But you’ve got two beautiful children, a family that loves you, some of the world’s best friends and on top of that, you’ve got a wonderful girlfriend. Your life could be a lot worse”

I sighed. “Sorry”

“It’s okay” she smiled. “Now, I want you to go downstairs and have a good time”

“Yes, boss” I laughed, making her smile again.

The two of us headed downstairs, where the kids were busy unwrapping more presents. We did the actual gift exchange after dinner, but they were free to open stuff from Santa til then. I stuck my tongue out, pretending to be grossed out, when Ava slid onto Ryan’s lap, kissing him quickly. Ava just laughed and Ryan looked confused, but he earned himself another kiss out of it, so I can’t imagine he was complaining. It wasn’t much longer til Mom announced that dinner was ready, and Bradley could be heard waking up over the baby monitor, so Ryan was sent to fetch him, just to tease him. See, Ryan absolutely loves the skin on the turkey, especially when it’s been cooked by Mom, and every year they’d been over for Christmas, he’d sucked up to Dad to make sure he got a decent amount. So to tease him, Ava made sure he’d get last pick. We all knew she’d make sure Dad saved some for him, but it was still funny to watch.

Dinner went without a hitch, and as usual, the alcohol flowed freely, though me and Ava stayed a little more sober than everyone else so we could keep an eye on the kids. That and I had to drive home afterwards, so I couldn’t exactly have more than a glass of wine or two. Eden helped Mom clear the table once everyone was done, and Dad started fishing out the presents under the tree. Mom and Dad had gotten each other their usual mushy but practical gifts, and Ava and Ryan had both bought each other something fancy; a Rolex for Ryan and a pretty bracelet for Ava. I know I should’ve been suspicious given that I gave them money each month to help them get by, but it was nice to see them get something nice for once. I’d gotten Eden some jewellery and a dress she’d been pining over for months, and it turned out she’d gotten me some tickets to see a couple of my favourite bands. I thanked her, kissing her with a smile. I didn’t have to watch to know Lily had opened her present from me and Maxxie. Y’know that pony she wanted? Well me and Eden had gone looking at some, and we’d agreed that this year, the kids would get two sets of presents; one from Daddy and Papa, and one from Eden. The pony was from me and Maxxie, since it’d been him I’d had to persuade to let her have one. Eden had gotten her a dress and some hair things that I didn’t know much about. She’d gotten Danny a couple of video games he wanted, whereas I’d been stuck on what to get him. I wanted to get him something of equal value to the pony, but I couldn’t think of anything. So I’d ended up getting him a few games as well, along with some comics and stuff. He seemed pleased enough with it, so I hoped I’d picked well. Video games aren’t exactly my strong point.

Everyone else seemed happy enough with what they’d gotten, and we all settled down to watch some cheesy Christmas movies while the kids played with their presents. I’d just put it down to him trying to get comfy or something, but I couldn’t help noticing Ryan was a little fidgety. No one else seemed to have noticed, but once I spotted it, I couldn’t stop noticing.

“Are you okay?” I mouthed at him and he shook his head.

I nodded towards the kitchen and he nodded, excusing himself to get a beer. I got up as well, under the pretence of wanting something and getting some juice for the kids. Ryan had his hands buried in his pockets when I joined him, and he looked like he was on edge.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, grabbing some juice from the fridge.

“I may be about to humiliate myself in front of your entire family” he said, almost whining.

“How come?”

“Just wait and see, yeah?”

“Okay” I shrugged, taking the kids their juice.

Ryan emerged a couple minutes later, this look of steely determination on his face. He nodded at Riley who giggled at something, turning the TV off, much to everyone else’s annoyance. I watched Ryan curiously as he shyly walked over to Ava, offering her a hand to help her up.

“What’re you doing?” she asked suspiciously as he kissed her hand once she was standing.

Which was when the cheesy bastard got down on one knee. Ava’s cheeks flushed red, and Mom’s eyes lit up.

“Ava Smith, you are the absolute light of my life. You’ve given me two gorgeous sons, a crazy family and you’ve made me the happiest man on Earth. And I know I’ve asked you a million times already, but would you do me the honour of being my wife?” he said, pulling a ring box out of his pocket and opening it up for Ava.

“You’re never giving up are you, you daft man?” Ava chuckled, still blushing. Ryan shook his head, smiling. “Of course I will”

Ryan grinned, sliding the ring he’d gotten onto Ava’s finger. I could see a diamond glimmering in it and couldn’t help smiling as Ryan stood up, earning himself a kiss from my sister. Congrats, Ryan.

The End

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