In the kitchen she loaded some of the freshly baked goodies onto trays and put the heat on under the pan of mulled wine to warm it gently. She heard the front door open and voices filling the hallway and she smiled, anticipating seeing her big brother again. Keen to offer him and whoever was with him a warm welcome, she picked up a tray of baked goods and made her way to the hallway.
Her mum, dad and Zara were standing together near the front door welcoming Paul inside. He had his arm around the shoulders of a woman who he introduced as Angelina, and Erin peered past Zara to get a better look at her. She was tall and had a shiny waterfall of black hair that tumbled over her shoulders. She was wearing what Erin thought must be a faux fur coat in leopard print and black boots that reached above the knee. In the hallway light, she appeared flawlessly made up, beautiful in the way that often made Erin feel a bit self-conscious. Erin had never thought of herself as ugly, but she did think she was plain and while she told herself time after time that looks weren’t important, sometimes being around women as incredibly stunning as Angelina made her feel like she was less than in some way. She suspected it was some primitive instinct that had encouraged women to compete for the biggest, strongest mate and that it was inevitable that some women — usually the most beautiful — would win. Whatever it was, it didn’t matter because this was her brother’s new partner and Erin was going to welcome her into the family home.
She stepped forwards with the tray and was about to offer it to Angelina when another person stepped inside. She froze and gasped loud enough for Zara to hear and turn to look at her, curiosity burning in her eyes. When the new arrival turned his dazzling smile towards Erin, the room seemed to shudder beneath her feet and the tray slipped from her grasp and sent mince pies and gingerbread stars flying off on all directions.
‘Hello, Erin,’ he said, and she felt like she was a teenager all over again.
Leo had entered the hallway to Paul’s parents’ home right behind Paul and Angelina, but he’d been carrying his bag and one of Angelina’s suitcases and so, at first, he hadn’t seen everyone who was waiting to greet them. But as he’d looked around, his eyes had locked with Erin’s, and it had been like he’d hurtled back through time.
Erin was as beautiful as ever with her long, dark blonde hair, her sparkling blue eyes and her… clumsiness! She’d been carrying a tray of food and when their eyes had met, she’d dropped it. He set the luggage down and rushed over to help her. As he reached for a mince pie that had rolled underneath the beautiful Christmas tree, Erin did too and their hands met beneath the branches. He sucked in a breath and looked up and found that she was staring at him. It felt like hours passed as they gazed at each other but in reality it was only seconds because they both pulled their hands back quickly as if they’d been burnt.
‘Sorry!’ he said.
‘Me too.’ She shook her head. ‘I mean, it’s fine. Thanks for helping.’
They crawled around the hallway picking up food and putting it back on the tray and Leo had to admit that it was a shame because the mince pies and gingerbread stars smelt fantastic.
‘What a waste,’ he said when he finally stood up and brushed the crumbs off the knees of his chinos.
‘There’s more in the kitchen,’ she said, eyes glued to the tray as if she couldn’t bear to look up.
‘Oh dear, Erin.’ Her mum came to her side and peered at the tray. ‘What happened?’
‘Oh… uhhh… it slipped from my grasp.’
‘Let me take it and you go and wash your hands in the downstairs cloakroom,’ her mum said. ‘Would you like a drink, dear?’ she directed this question at Leo.
‘That would be great, thanks,’ he said.
‘Let me show you to your rooms and you can drop off your bags then we can all have a drink to welcome you to Sunflower Street,’ Cain said.
‘Great, thanks.’ Leo glanced back at Erin and she shot him a small smile then scurried away so he followed Cain up the wide staircase while Paul and Angelina followed, chatting about what a lovely village Wisteria Hollow was and how much they were looking forward to celebrating Christmas here.
In his room, which was a nice sized double with a view out to the side of the garden that appeared to wrap around the house, he put his bag on the bed then added his laptop case. Even though he was officially on holidays for three weeks, he knew he’d go stir crazy if he didn’t fit some work in. After all, work was his glue, it kept him sane and kept him from ruminating about things he wanted to avoid thinking about.
He put his washbag in the ensuite bathroom then washed his hands and face. In the mirror, he looked at his reflection, wondering what Erin had thought when she saw him. He was thirty-four now, so not exactly old, but older than the last time she’d seen him. What had she thought about him? Had she thought anything at all? Why would she care? There were a few greys in his brown hair but it was still thick and shiny. His eyes had some fine lines around them when he smiled but he didn’t mind them at all. He preferred to think of them as smile lines rather than frown lines, although in recent years he’d done more frowning than smiling. Shelley used to say she loved the lines as they meant he was happy, and he’d loved that she loved them. He’d been very happy for six years but sometimes it felt like a dream or like a memory of someone else’s life. Perhaps that was nature’s way of protecting the mind so the pain wasn’t as raw every time you thought about the person you’d lost.
Sighing, he rubbed a hand over his face and then placed both hands on the cool porcelain of the sink. He was here to share in the Dawlish family Christmas, so he needed to keep his thoughts positive and to avoid dwelling on what he’d lost. He had plenty of time alone when he could do exactly that and he didn’t want to spoil Christmas for anyone else so he needed to make an effort to be positive.
In the kitchen, Erin dropped the broken pastries into the food recycling bin then cleaned the tray. She couldn’t believe she’d been such an idiot and reacted in that way. Whatever was she thinking? It was only Leo Steele for goodness’ sake! Her brother’s best friend from childhood and, she thought, probably still his best friend now because the last she could remember they’d worked in London at the same company together as financial consultants and they even lived near each other. It had been a while since she’d heard anything about Leo but then she’d been away and going through her own crisis, so why would Paul tell her anything about Leo? Although… searching back through her memories she recalled something about Leo going through a hard time, but she hadn’t asked about it because she’d been wallowing in her own sorrow after what had happened to her last Christmas.
‘This wine smells wonderful,’ her mum said as she turned off the heat under the pot. ‘Shall I take it through to the lounge?’
‘Yes please,’ Erin replied. ‘I’ve already taken the glasses through.’
Her mum tilted her head then came to her side. ‘You OK, love?’
‘What? Me? Yes, I’m fine.’
Her mum didn’t look convinced. ‘You seem a bit jittery.’