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Erin laughed. ‘Jittery?’

‘Yes. Like… uneasy.’

‘I’m fine. I just lost my grip on the tray and then felt dreadfully embarrassed that I’d made such a mess in front of Paul’s new girlfriend.’

‘And in front of poor Leo.’

Erin’s mouth dried up. ‘Why poor Leo?’

‘Well… he lost his mum recently, didn’t he?’

‘Did he?’

‘Yes. And they were very close. I know that she was there for him all through his… you know… other loss.’

‘Other loss?’

‘Don’t you know, Erin?’

‘Know what?’ Erin’s palms went clammy, and she rubbed them against her jeans. Somewhere at the back of her mind, a bell was ringing as if to alert her to a memory that was somewhat hazy.

‘He lost his partner two years ago.’

‘Poor Leo.’

‘I know. They went to bed one night and she didn’t wake up. I think they call it sudden death syndrome.’

Erin thought of Leo and the photos she’d seen of him years ago on Paul’s Facebook pages when they’d been out with their girlfriends. Leo had always looked so happy. But he’d lost the woman he loved in such a terrible way. It was tragic. Awful.

Poor Leo.

‘Wow.’ Erin sighed. ‘So Leo needs a break then?’

‘He does. I think we can spoil him a bit, can’t we?’

‘Of course.’

Erin had thought that this Christmas would not be without its challenges because of last year being so raw still but she’d also hoped to make it a good one because she was so glad that her dad was still around. But now, knowing that Leo was here and that he’d been through hell… well, she wanted to make sure that he was able to relax and enjoy what he could of the holidays.

‘Come on then, get some more pastries on the tray and bring it through.’ Her mum picked up the pot of wine and carried through to the lounge.

Erin loaded up the tray and grabbed some festive napkins then followed her mum. It would, she thought, be nice to speak to Leo again and to catch up, even if he had been through such tragic losses. Sadly, life brought loss and pain, but it also brought love and joy and she hoped that going forwards it would bring far more of the latter for Leo.



Sitting on the sofa in the lounge, Leo made an effort to relax his shoulders and to unclench his hands. It was all too easy these days to scrunch himself up as if preparing for trouble, like his body was constantly on high alert. He’d even found that he’d been grinding his teeth at night, waking with a tight and aching jaw and stiff fingers from scrunching up his hands. Stress and tension could do such awful things to the body and he needed to try to let them go or he’d make himself ill.

‘Here you go.’ Robyn handed him a glass goblet of mulled wine and he thanked her then took a sip. The spiced wine was warm and delicious and he wrapped his hands around the glass, enjoying the comforting warmth. Paul was sitting on the other sofa with Angelina and she was telling Cain all about her job as a model. Cain was nodding and smiling and seemed genuinely interested, although Leo did wonder if Cain had a sense of Déjà vu, having been there many times before with Paul’s other girlfriends. Was Cain placing silent bets on how long Angelina would be around? Leo loved Paul — he was, and always had been, his best friend — but he never stayed interested in his girlfriends for long. This behaviour seemed to work for Paul, but Leo wondered how his family felt about it.

As for Leo, he’d been very different. Quite shy growing up, he’d been content to stand at Paul’s side and watch as he exuded confidence. Paul was a good person with a good heart but Leo was quieter, calmer, didn’t like to have too much attention focused his way. He’d happily let Paul hog the limelight so he could stay out of it. Not much had changed in that way.

Robyn sat next to her husband and tuned into the conversation with Angelina, nodding and murmuring at the right times. Leo sat back, allowing himself to enjoy the warmth of the wine and the glow of the log fire, the hum of conversation and being around people he’d known for a long time. He’d been dreading Christmas this year, had known that he’d miss his dear mum and, of course, Shelley, but now he could enjoy being with friends. In a way, it took the pressure off because he could allow himself to go with the flow of this family Christmas rather than wallowing in his grief.

Zara walked into the room and looked around. She waved at Leo but went and sat on the arm of the sofa next to Paul, clearly keen to find out more about Angelina. Leo exhaled slowly, glad he didn’t have to make conversation right now. He suddenly felt tired and like he could close his eyes and take a nap. But that would be rude seeing as how they’d just arrived and this wasn’t his family but his best friend’s.

And then Erin entered the room and he snapped awake. Alert and interested. She put a tray of pastries down on the coffee table then reached for a goblet of wine and looked around the lounge. There was a spare chair at the other side of the room or space on the sofa with Leo. She met his gaze and he smiled so she came and sat near him.

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