A Stepbrother for Christmas:The Hard and Dirty Holidays(5)

By: Celia Aaron



Damn. Niles was throwing off my headspace, making me do things that were beyond dumb.

I just needed to get to some sort of sanctuary where I could think straight. His hand was still on my waist, making any rational thought impossible. My hair stirred at my ear from his warm breath, scented with delicious coffee. His fingers pressed into me almost possessively. His chest was hard against my back as he kept me against him.

“Calm down, Annalise. I’m not going to hurt you. Not anymore.” It was a whisper I wanted to believe.

The light finally changed and we were moving. When his hand left my waist, I missed its pressure and warmth. Like an idiot.

The crowd spaced out as we reached the next corner and only a handful kept trudging up the slope along with Niles and me. We passed storefronts with ropes of garland and lights. Scents of peppermint and cinnamon flavored the air. I should have felt comforted. Instead, I felt on edge. My emotions were roiling. Niles didn’t seem like the boy I remembered. The one who stole my diary and read my most secret thoughts before throwing them back in my face. Red suffused my face at that particularly painful memory.

Maybe he was different. I granted him that. But would that be enough to make me reconsider anything? How much could a person really change?

“Annalise, please, just let me walk with you.” He stayed behind me, waiting for my permission. No, definitely not the Niles I remembered. The Niles of days past would have barreled past me, not caring if I fell on my ass. Actually, he would have preferred that outcome.

I slowed my pace. He matched me, still waiting for some sign of assent. I took a deep breath and waved my hand in a “come on” motion. He took the few steps between us and walked at my elbow. We moved along a bit slower than my previously frenzied pace. He smelled wonderful, like coffee and some sort of woodsy soap. I pushed my scarf further up, trying to cover my mouth and nose against the invading scent.

“Cold?”

Was that genuine concern in his voice, his blue eyes? I looked away quickly, staring up toward the chalet. I was frozen, my Dallas wardrobe no match for the mountain winds. But I just wanted to get out for a little walk and a lot of caffeine. A shiver shot through me.

Niles moved closer to my side. “Here.” He shrugged off his heavy coat.

“Wait. No.” I tried to scoot away. The last thing I wanted was help from Vile Niles. But he slung the warm coat around my shoulders. It was toasty and smelled even more like him. “Won’t you freeze.”

“No, I’m good. Really.” He was wearing a blue plaid button-down with some sort of thermal looking undershirt. His jeans were a dark blue, hitting his muscular frame in all the right places. Whoa. That was not the way to be thinking. Not at all.

“So, how’s school?” He asked, his elbow touching mine lightly as we ambled past the bustling storefronts.

“Fine.” I drew my arm closer. Touching was bad, especially when I couldn’t decide if I wanted to run or snuggle more deeply into the coat that smelled like him.

He sighed. “Okay. I get it. Walking’s enough for me.” He looked down into my eyes. “For now.”

A little thrill went up my spine at his words. Disgust, surely that was why.

We walked the rest of the way in silence. Ugly memories paraded through my mind but they were cut off by his hand at the small of my back when we maneuvered around some ice or the way he looked at me with concerned yet somehow hopeful eyes. Confusion settled over me like a fresh snow. I’d always believed that the best predictor of future behavior was past behavior. But Niles was destroying that paradigm moment by moment.

By the time we reached the chalet, the sun was already sinking behind the mountain, sending everything into shadow. The chalet was lit up, warm light pouring out of the wide windows. Mom’s Christmas tree glowed through the night, beautiful and overdone at the same time.

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