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At last, Jeff was coming home, but he wasn't alone. Watching the big-bellied jet taxiing to a stop, Theresa Brubaker felt two conflicting emotions—excitement that her "baby brother" would be here for two whole weeks, and annoyance that he'd dragged along some stranger to interfere with their family holiday. Theresa never liked meeting strangers, and at the thought of meeting one now, especially a man, a nervous ache grabbed her between the shoulder blades. She worked her head in a circle, flexed her shoulders and tried to shrug away the annoyance.
Through the soles of her knee-high snow boots she felt the shudder and rumble of the engines as they wheezed a last inflated breath, then whistled through a dying decrescendo and sighed into silence. The accordion pleats of the jetway eased forward, its mouth molded against the curve of the plane, and Theresa riveted her eyes on the doorway set in the wall of glass. As the first footsteps of disembarking passengers thudded down the tunnel, she self-consciously glanced down and made sure her heavy gray wool coat was buttoned up completely. She clutched a small black leather purse against her left side in a way that partially concealed her breast and gave her reason to cross her arms.
Her heart tripped out a staccato beat of anticipation—Jeff. My crazy clown of a brother, the life of the family, coming home to make Christmas what all the songs said it should be. Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays. Jeff—how she'd missed him. She bit her lower lip and trained her eyes on the door as the first passengers debarked: a young mother carrying a squalling baby, a businessman with a topcoat and briefcase, a bearded, blue-jeaned ski bum hefting a blue satchel boasting the word vail, two long-legged military men clad in dress blues and garrison caps with visors set squarely across their eyebrows. Two long-legged military men!
"Jeff!" Her arm flew up joyously.
He caught sight of Theresa at the same moment she saw his lips form her name. But sister and brother were separated by a fifteen-foot-long ramp and handrail, and what seemed to be one-quarter of the population of Minneapolis greeting incoming arrivals. Jeff pointed her out while she read his lips again—"There she is"—and shouldered through the crowd toward the crown of the ramp.
She was scarcely conscious of her brother's companion as she flew into Jeff's arms, lifting her own around his neck while he scooped her off the floor and whirled her in a circle. His shoulders were broad and hard, his neck smelled of lime, and her eyes were suddenly swimming with tears while he laughed against her temple.
He plopped her onto her feet, smiled down into her joyous face and said gruffly, "Hiya, Treat."
"Hiya, snot-nose," she choked, then tried to laugh, but it came out a chugging gulp before she abashedly buried her face against him again, suddenly conscious of the other man looking on. Beside her ear, she heard the smile in Jeff's voice as he spoke to his friend.
"Didn't I tell you?"
"Yup, you did," came the stranger's voice, rich and deep.
She backed up. "Tell him what?"
Jeff grinned down teasingly. "That you're a sentimental fool. Look at you, tears flooding everything, and all over my dress blues." He examined his crisp lapel where a dark blotch showed.
"Oh, I'm sorry," she wailed, "I'm just so glad to see you." She dabbed at the tear spot on his jacket while he touched her just beneath an eye.
"You'd be sorrier if you could see how those tears make the freckles you hate so much stand out like new pennies."
She slapped his finger away and dabbed at her eyes self-consciously.
"Don't worry about it, Theresa. Come on, meet Brian." Jeff clapped an arm around her shoulders and turned her to face his friend. "This is the light o' my life, who never let me chase women, smoke pot or drive when I drank." At this last, Jeff winked broadly. "So let's not tell her what we did last night, okay, Scanlon?" He squeezed her shoulder, grinned down fondly while his teasing did absolutely nothing to disguise the deeper note of pride in his voice. "My big sister, Theresa. Theresa, this is Brian Scanlon."
She saw his hand first, with long, tapered fingers, extended in greeting. But she was afraid to look up and see where his eyes rested. Thankfully, the way Jeff had commandeered her shoulders, she was able to half hide behind him with one arm about his waist while extending her own hand.
She could no longer avoid it. She raised her eyes to his face, but he looked straight into her eyes, smiling. And what a smile!
"I've heard a lot about you."
I've heard a lot about you, too, she thought, but answered gaily, "I'll just bet you have. My brother could never keep anything to himself."
Brian Scanlon laughed—a pleasant baritone rumble like a soft roll on a timpani—and held her hand in a hard grip, smiling at her from beneath the horizontal visor of his military hat that made her suddenly understand why some women shamelessly chase soldiers.
"Don't worry, he only told me the nice stuff."
Her glance fluttered away from his translucent green eyes that were far more attractive than in the photographs Jeff had sent, then Brian released her hand and moved to flank her other side as they headed away from the gate area toward the green concourse, still talking.
"All except for a couple of stories about our nasty childhood pranks, like the time you stole a handful of Grandpa Deering's pipe tobacco and taught me how to roll it up in those white papers that come with home permanents, and we both got sick from the chemicals in the paper when it got in our lungs, and the time—"
"Jeffrey Brubaker, I did not steal that tobacco. You did!"
"Well, who found the leftover papers in the bathroom vanity?"
"But who put the idea in my head?"
"I was four years younger. You should have tried to talk me out of it."
"But that was after we got sick and learned our lesson."
All three of them dissolved into laughter. Jeff squeezed her shoulder once more, looked across the top of her head at Brian and set things straight. "I'll be honest. After we got greener than a pair of garter snakes she'd never let me smoke again. I tried it more than once when I was in junior high, but she squealed on me every time and managed to get me grounded more than once. But in the end, she saved me from myself."
To Theresa's left, Brian's laugh rolled like faraway thunder. She noted its full, mellow tone, and now, when he spoke, that tone became even fuller, richer.
"He did tell me about another incident with home permanents when you gave him one against your mother's orders and forgot to set the timer." While he teased, he studied her hair. Jeff had said it was red, but Brian hadn't expected it to be the hue of a poppy!
"Oh, that," she wailed, hiding a cheek behind a palm. "Jeff, did you have to blab that to him? I could have died when I took those curlers out and saw what I'd done to you."
"You could have died? Mother was the one who could have died. That time it was you who should've gotten grounded, and I think you would have if you hadn't been eighteen already and going to college."
"Let's finish the story, little brother. In spite of the fact that you looked like an explosion in a silo, it got you that spot in the band, didn't it? They took one look at that ball of frizz and decided you'd fit right in."
"Which also put you beyond mother's good graces for the remainder of the summer, until I could prove I wasn't going to start sniffing cocaine and popping uppers every night before we played a gig."
They had reached the escalator to the lower level where the luggage return was located, so were forced to break rank while riding down.
Studying the backs of the two heads below him, Brian Scanlon couldn't help envying the easy camaraderie between sister and brother. They hadn't seen each other for twelve months, yet they fell into a familiar groove of affectionate bantering as if they were good friends who saw each other daily. They don't know how lucky they are, he thought.
The revolving luggage carousels were surrounded, for holiday travel was at its heaviest with only a couple days left till Christmas. As they waited, Brian stood back and listened while the two of them filled in each other on family news.
"Mom and Dad wanted to come and pick you up, but I got nominated instead because today was the last day of school before vacation. I got out at two, right after the Christmas program was over, but they both have to work till five, as usual."
"How are they?"
"Do you have to ask? Absolutely giddy. Mom's been baking pies and putting them in the freezer, and worrying about whether pumpkin is still your favorite and Dad kept asking her, 'Margaret, did you buy some of those poppy-seed rolls Jeff always liked?' And Mom would lose patience and say, 'Willard, that's the third time you've asked me that, and this is the third time I'm answering. Yes, of course I bought poppy-seed rolls.' Yesterday she baked a German chocolate cake, and after all that fussing, came out and found Dad had taken a slice from it. Boy, did the fur fly then. When she scolded him and informed him she'd baked the cake for dessert tonight, Dad slunk off and took the car to the car wash and filled it up with gas for you. I don't think either one of them slept a wink last night. Mother was absolutely grumpy this morning, but you know how she gets when she's excited—the minute she sees you it'll dissolve like magic. Mostly she was upset because she had to work today when she'd rather have stayed home and gotten things ready, then come to the airport herself."
It was plain to Brian that this homecoming had taken on premiere proportions in this family's hearts, even before Theresa went on.
"And just guess what Dad did?"
Jeff only smiled a query. Theresa tipped him a smile with hidden meaning. "Get ready for this one, Jeff. He took your old Stella up to Viking Music and had new strings put on it and polished it all up and brought it out to the corner of the living room where you always used to leave it."
"Do you know how many times he threatened to turn both me and my fifteen-dollar Stella out of the house if the two of us didn't quit bruising his eardrums with all our racket?"
Just then a duffel bag came circling toward them, and Jeff shouldered forward to grab it. No sooner had he set it behind him than a guitar case followed. As he leaned to snag it, Theresa exclaimed, "Your guitar! You brought your guitar?"
"Guitars. Both of ours."
She glanced up at Brian Scanlon, remembering he, too, played. She caught him studying her instead of the luggage return, his eyes the hue of rich summer moss, and Theresa quickly dropped her gaze.
"Can't let those calluses get soft," Jeff explained, "and anyway, two weeks without pickin' would be more than we could stand, right, Scan?"
"But I promise I'll pick a few on the old Stella, just for dad."
A second guitar came bumping down the conveyor belt, followed by another duffel bag, and Theresa watched Brian's shoulders stretch his blue uniform jacket taut as he leaned to retrieve them. A young woman just behind Brian was giving him the once-over as he straightened and turned. The end of the guitar case caught her on the hip, and Brian immediately apologized.
The blonde flashed him a smile, and said, "Anytime, soldier boy."
For a moment he paused, then politely murmured, "Excuse me," and shouldered his duffel, glancing up to meet Theresa's eyes, which slid away shyly.
"All set?" She directed her question at her brother, because Brian made her uncomfortably aware of how inordinately pretty his eyes were for a man, and ever aware that they never dropped lower than her coat collar.
"Homeward bound. Let's go."
They stepped beyond the sliding doors of Minneapolis-St. Paul International into the crisp bite of December cold. Theresa walked between them again as they entered the cavernous concrete parking lot. But when they approached the correct row, she announced, "Dad and I traded cars for the day. I have his wagon, he has my Toyota."
"Hand me the keys. I'm dying to get behind a wheel again," her brother declared.
They loaded guitars and duffel bags into the rear and clambered inside. Through the fifteen-minute ride to the nearby suburb of Apple Valley, while Jeff and Theresa exchanged pleasantries, she tried to overcome her resentment of Brian Scanlon. She had nothing against him personally. How could she? She'd never met him before today. It was strangers in general—more particularly male strangers—she tried to avoid. Somehow she'd always thought Jeff guessed and understood. But apparently she was wrong, for when he'd called and enthusiastically asked if he could bring his buddy home to spend the Christmas holidays, then explained that Brian Scanlon had no family, there'd been no hesitation from Margaret Brubaker.
"Why, of course. Bring him. It would be just plain unchristian to make a man spend Christmas in some miserable barracks in North Dakota when there are beds to spare and enough food for an army."
Listening on the extension phone, Theresa had felt her heart fall. She'd wanted to interrupt her mother and say, Just a minute! Don't the rest of us have any say about it? It's our Christmas, too.
There were frustrations involved with living at home at age twenty-five, and though sometimes Theresa longed to live elsewhere, the certain loneliness she'd suffer if she made the move always gave her second thoughts. Yes, the house belonged to her mother and father. They could invite whom they chose. And even while Brian Scanlon's intrusion rankled, she realized how selfish her thoughts were. What kind of woman would deny the sharing of Christmas bounty with someone who had no home and family?
But as they drove through the late-afternoon traffic, Theresa's apprehension grew.
They'd be home in less than five minutes, and she'd have to take her coat off, and once she did, it would happen again, as it always did. And she'd want to slink off to her room and cry… as she often did.
Even as the thoughts flashed through her mind, Brian said in his well-modulated voice, "I certainly want to thank you for letting me come along with Jeff and horn in on your holidays."