Matthew turned up his nose. “I don’t want soup.”

“I’ll make you something, bud.” I took a deep, cleansing breath and started toward the pantry, but Viper caught my arm.

“You sit. How about I make pancakes?” His eyes slid from me to Matthew, whose face lit up as he threw his hands in the air.

“Yes! Yes! I want pancakes!”

“Pancakes it is.” He grinned with a nod and kissed the side of my head.

Christmas had always been my favorite holiday, but I couldn’t remember a time in my entire life where I’d been more excited for that morning. Michelle said she was already done with all of the Santa shopping for Matthew and Maura, but I only saw that as a challenge. After therapy sessions, I’d stopped and gotten a few more things but hadn’t told her. I couldn’t wait to see the kids’ faces on Christmas morning.

The morning of Christmas Eve, I went to pick up Gam. Michelle and I had invited her to the house to spend the day with us, then sleepover and spend Christmas with us, too, but Gam was a homebody, so she turned us down initially. That’s when we’d handed the phone to Little Mo and told her to ask. Needless to say, I was picking Gam up to come home with me for a few days.

“Seriously. How long do you plan on staying?” I said playfully as I picked her bag up off the couch.

“Shut up, you little asshole,” Gam spat as she walked into the kitchen.

I ignored her and continued teasing. “This thing is so heavy!”

“Of course it is. My whiskey is in there,” she called out.

“You brought whiskey? We have whiskey.”

“Probably not enough.” She shut the kitchen light off with a laugh and headed to the front door.

“You ready, you old bat?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be!” She grinned up at me excitedly.

“Everything locked up?”

“Except your mouth.” She punched my arm and laughed so hard I thought she was going to fall over.

I rolled my eyes and hooked my arm under hers, holding her tight as we walked to my car together, both of us still with slight limps . . . like two mangled peas in a broken little pod.

When I pulled into the driveway at mine and Michelle’s house, Maura and Matthew were jumping up and down at the front door. Typically when we saw Gam, we went to her house because it was just easier. She rarely came to ours for a visit, let alone a sleepover, and the kids were bouncing off the walls excited.

“Look at that.” Gam motioned to the door as we walked up. “You should have been as excited as they are when you rang my doorbell.”

I laughed out loud and helped her up the porch steps.

Gam slid out of her coat and I hung it in the closet as she pulled the kids against her and wrapped them in a huge hug.

“Boy, you guys sure know how to make an old lady feel good!” she said as she kissed the tops of their heads.

The house smelled amazing. Michelle had been working so hard all day, desperately wanting to impress Gam with making a big dinner all by herself. She wouldn’t even let me help. The whole thing had her so frazzled, I didn’t even have the heart to tell her that her apron was on inside out.

“Ooooh, it smells fantastic in here!” Gam lifted her nose in the air and closed her eyes.

Michelle’s eyes lit up. “Really? It does?”

“It does. If it tastes even half as good as it smells, we’re all in for a real treat.”

Michelle looked over at me and took a deep breath as a tiny grin crept across her lips. Her pleased blue eyes sparkled and the little bit of chocolate I noticed on the end of her nose only made her cuter.

“Were you baking, too?” I asked with a laugh.

She squished her eyebrows together and blinked up at me. “Yeah. I made fudge. Why?” Before I could answer, her eyes crossed and she looked down at her nose, finally noticing the chocolate. “Oh! Oops!” She giggled as she grabbed a paper towel and wiped it off.

Gam clapped her hands once and looked around the kitchen like a woman on a mission. “Okay, what can I help with?”

“Nothing.” Michelle shook her head. “I just want you to sit and relax while I do everything.”

Gam eyed Michelle skeptically for just a second before she shrugged. “In that case, I’ll make myself a drink.”

Michelle bent over and pulled the sweet potatoes from the oven just as the doorbell rang. She stood and stared at me with wide eyes and a hot dish in her hand.

I held my hand up. “You do that, I got this.”

A tiny body, all bundled up in a coat and hat, stood with its back to me on the other side of the glass door. As I walked up, Joel stepped onto the front porch and waved.

“Hey!” I opened the door and motioned them in.

“Hey!” Joel said, turning Gavin around and pushing him gently into the foyer. “We’re not staying. We’re heading out of town to my aunt’s for the evening, but then Gavin goes back to his mom’s house, and he just threw a royal fit because apparently he made Matthew something for Christmas and had to give it to him before we left.”

I glanced down at Gavin, who was grinning up at me anxiously. “Hang on, bud. I’ll get him.” I stepped back toward the hallway that led to the kitchen. “Matthew!”

Within seconds, he came sliding around the corner, holding onto the counter for stability, and ran toward us. “Hi!” he said as he ran up to Gavin.

“Here. I made this for you.” Gavin held out a small box.

I lifted my head to Joel who shrugged. “He made it at his mom’s. I have no idea what it is.”

Matthew opened the box and his mouth fell open. “This is awesome!” He pulled a rock that was painted to look like a Ninja Turtle out of the box and stared down at it in amazement.

Gavin smiled shyly and took a step back toward Joel.

Matthew’s face swept up to mine. “Can Gavin come and help me put it in my room?”

“Uh . . . fine by me, but it’s up to his dad.”

Joel gave Gavin a warning with his eyes. “You have two minutes, got it? We’re already late.”

Gavin nodded and he and Matthew shot up the stairs together.

Joel and I stood in the doorway like a couple of awkward teenage boys. I wasn’t sure what to say to him. Do you thank the man who spent Thanksgiving with your girlfriend? The old Viper would have probably punched him right in the mouth, but I didn’t feel like doing that anymore.