ONLY PROCEED IF YOU ARE UP TO DATE ON RNOLA 1-3
Algiers Point, New Orleans
There was a knock at the door. Ophelia went to answer it, and I picked up my coffee like a security blanket just in case the unexpected visitor was Luke.
Ophelia pulled the door open and tsked. “Brennan, seriously? You know better than to knock on my door.” She stepped away. “Just let yourself in.”
“Sorry.” Brennan stepped through the door carrying a small stack of elegantly wrapped gifts, his gaze homing in on Liza immediately, and I clutched my coffee cup, trying not to stare at either of them. This was a whole other type of awkwardness than what would have arrived with Luke, but it was wholly awkward nonetheless.
He approached the living room, standing on the edge of the rug, offering the three of us a warm, gentlemanly smile. “Ladies. Merry Christmas Eve.” He turned to Ophelia and nodded at the stack of gifts. “The one on top is for you, sweetheart.”
Ophelia clasped her hands together at the level of her chest for a second before taking the box on top, which was rectangular and long. “Is it what I think it is?” she asked giddily.
“Always,” he said. “And this one uses traditional stills in one of the last remaining absinthe distilleries in Pontarlier, and they use the original, pre-ban recipe.”
“Oooooh, we’re going to make the best Sazeracs ever,” Ophelia squealed, clutching the box to her chest. “Thank you, honey, I don’t know how you’ll ever top this one.”
“You are very welcome, and I don’t know either,” he said, chuckling as he approached me and paused in front of me. Liza chose that moment to stand up from the couch and move to another side of the room like she was avoiding him. “But I’ll figure it out.” Brennan lowered himself to take a knee in front of me, shifting the gift stack to balance in one hand while he picked up the one on top and held it out to me. “This one’s for Jackson. We’re clueless, so the receipt is taped to the bottom if he wants to swap it out for something else.”
“Oh, y’all really didn’t need to do this, Brennan,” I said, guilt creeping in while I set my coffee on the table and took the gift.
“Of course we did,” he said dismissively. “It’s the holidays, and we missed the Réveillon.” He picked up another gift, leaving him with one flat, square gift in his stack. “That’s for you, and yes, we did need to do this.” I took it hesitantly as more guilt assaulted me, and as if perceiving my sudden intense guilt, he set his hand on mine. “Chloe, darlin’, you have given us something invaluable. Skye doesn’t take it lightly, and neither do I. I’m sorry for what happened to you at our home the other day. This isn’t to make up for that, I just needed to formally apologize to you because I didn’t have the opportunity to then. I know that the past few weeks have been a bit chaotic for you personally, and it means the world to me that you’ve given us the best of yourself every time we’ve met with you. Thank you for using your gift to help her dreams come true.”
No, this was definitely the a lot Ophelia had mentioned, and I couldn’t ignore the prickling on the rims of my eyes. “You’re so very welcome, but I don’t really have a gift for anything. It’s just my job—”
“You do though.” He squeezed my hand and stood up, bowing forward at the waist and lifting my hand to smooch my knuckles. “And it means way more to us than a chintzy little Christmas gift can express.”
I offered him my most appreciative and gracious smile as I slipped my hand out of his. “Well, you’re beyond welcome, and it’s been a huge honor telling her story and a delight getting to know you both.”
He offered me a nod, and I noticed Liza pausing awkwardly a few steps away while she was holding a little brown paper bag. Brennan turned to her, tucking the remaining flat, square gift under his arm, and she gave him a polite, but perfunctory smile. “Merry Christmas Eve, B. All ready for the honeymoon?”
“Just about,” he responded, and at least I wasn’t the only one fighting the urge to stare at their completely tense interaction. Ophelia sat back down on the sofa next to me, grabbing her own empty coffee cup and pretending to stare into it.
“Is Skye feeling better about you flying?”
“Well…” he gave a nervous chuckle. “Not really, but her flight anxiety medication will certainly help.”
Liza approached him with the gift bag, staring at it and not looking at him. She stopped about half an arm’s length from him and stuck her hand in the bag, pulling out a small spray bottle that looked like a beauty product of some sort. “This is the stuff I was telling her about,” she said, shaking the small, clear bottle of pale amber liquid. “After she gets out of the water, she just needs to wring out her hair and then spray this all over it, and then kinda scrunch it up.”
Brennan smirked a bit sadly. “Scrunch it up?”
“Yeah, just…” With her free hand, Liza grabbed a palmful of her hair, bunching it up and squeezing it in random places, causing her smooth, shiny brunette locks to fall into long, unkempt sections. “Scrunch it up. She’ll know what that means.” She dropped the bottle back into the bag and looked up at him for only long enough to offer a quick smile. “It’ll condition it and make it dry into those beautiful Irish curls of hers, and she’ll look super beachy. But also…” Liza pulled a bottle of sunscreen out of the bag and wagged it at him. “She doesn’t need to look too beachy. She doesn’t need to try to tan. She needs this.” Liza looked at him with severity. “SPF 50 all over her body. I’m not even kidding. The sun is no joke in Turks and Caicos, and she will be miserable if she—”
“I know, L.,” he said gently. “I got her some of that, too, and I plan to use it on her.”
“Yeah.” Liza nodded agreeably, her downturned expression listless and glum. She looked up at him with another small smile. “I know you know. You’re already a really good husband, B. I’m really happy that y’all are taking this trip now. This is the reason people go on honeymoons. It’s going to be really good for you both.” She drew in a breath and exhaled a quick sigh. “And since I already took Skye for her Christmas present and we won’t see y’all again for a while, I stuck your present in there, too.” She paused, holding out the handles of the bag to him. “I doubt you even want a Christmas present from me right now, but I’m giving you one anyway because I still think some things don’t ever change, so I’m not going to act like they have.”
The bag hung in her outstretched hand for a second, long enough for me to look at Ophelia, who wore a knowing smile.
Brennan was still looking at Liza with that melancholy expression as he took the bag and peered inside. He reached in and then pulled out a small leather box that looked like it could have a ring in it. “I know this box,” he observed, holding it up between them.
Liza folded her arms across her chest. “I guess now it’s something borrowed then, huh?”
“Yeah.” He carefully opened the lid, and all of his handsome, aristocratic features melted into the saddest face I had seen him make in all three weeks I’d known him.
He forced a quick smile at Liza as he turned the box around as though showing her what she already knew was inside, and I hastily squinted to see what it was.
It looked like a small gold pin in the shape of a capital cursive B.
“So, we match now,” he said, giving the box a little shake while still holding it up.
“Yep. Or sort of, I guess,” Liza quickly agreed, turning and stepping away from him.
Liza paused and turned back around. “Yeah.”
He held out the box. “Aren’t you going to pin me?” He pointed to the left lapel of his black suit jacket. “I think it would look great on this coat.”
She smiled, tight-lipped and placating as she crossed the room again and took the box from him. He set the small paper bag on a neighboring chair while Liza removed the pin from the box and stepped close enough to him to attach it to his lapel.
“Here,” he said just as she was finishing, taking the flat, square from under his arm. “It’s for the shelf.”
Still standing close to him, Liza took the gift and slowly tore half the paper away from the front as though she already knew what was inside. I couldn’t see what it was, and I cast a questioning glance at Ophelia, who shrugged.
Liza stood still in place, holding the gift between them and staring down at it, and then she gave a tell-tale sniffle. “Thanks, B.,” she squeaked through a teary voice.
He clasped her arms and dipped his face so it was close to hers. “I’m sorry,” he said very quietly; so quiet I could barely hear. “I’m so sorry, L.”
Liza responded equally quietly. “It’s okay.”
She blinked up at him with a total mom look. “It is.”
Brennan took a dramatic step back and held open his arms in a grand gesture at the room. “I am prepared to grovel loudly.”
Ophelia stifled a snort behind her coffee cup, which forced me to press my mouth shut tightly to avoid laughing.
Liza rolled her lips between her teeth and raised her eyebrows at him as her shoulders shook with a small laugh. “I would really rather you didn’t.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, hugging the gift to her chest, and then she tapped her nails on the back of it. “Just remember the only reason I’m here.”
Brennan lowered his arms and offered a single, solemn nod. “I do. And I will.”
Liza carried the half-unwrapped gift to a table where her purse was and called over her shoulder, “Hey, Savannah Banana! Come say bye to B. before he goes on his trip.”
“Beeeeeeee!” Savannah’s tiny voice pierced the air of the house as little footsteps thumped rapidly down the hall. The toddler burst into the living room, scampered straight to Brennan, and launched herself like a mini rocket toward him.
He bent low and intercepted her, picking her up so she could wrap her hands around his neck and bop her mouth against his cheek repeatedly in a series of wet, slurping toddler kisses. His typical movie-star grin broke across his face, and he rubbed Savannah’s back.
“I’ll miss you, little sweetheart.” He kissed her cheek and turned her in his arms so she was facing him. “Who’s the smartest little girl I know?”
Savannah gave him a grin, showing off the couple of tiny teeth poking through her gums, and pointed at her chest.
“That’s right, honey. And do you know that I love you lots and lots?”
She grinned wider and nodded enthusiastically.
“And do you know that if you, or your mama, or your daddy ever need anything, B. will take care of it?”
Savannah nodded again. “Beee tah-cay!”
“That’s right, honey.” He kissed her cheek again. “B. will take care of it.” He paused, smiling at her while she smiled back. “I hope you have a very merry Christmas, little sweetheart. I’ll miss you every day I’m gone.”
“Mee-wooo…” she cooed, theatrically dropping her head to his shoulder.
“Uh oh,” Ophelia said with a laugh, standing up from the couch. “Don’t let her get too cozy because we’re about to take them to the park to wear themselves out.”
“Yeah, I can’t stay,” Brennan said. He picked up Savannah’s little hand and kissed the back of it before bending to set her feet down on the floor.
“Have fun on your trip, Brennan!” Caroline hollered from down the hall.
“Yeah, have fun on your trip, Brennan!” Jackson echoed, causing me to smile.
“Thanks, y’all!” Brennan called to them. “Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas!” the two children chirped.
Brennan picked up the small bag and offered a wave to all the ladies. “We’ll check in when we get home.” He looked at me. “But feel free to get a hold of us if you need anything for the story. Even if you just want to text one of us.”
“You got it,” I replied, setting down my coffee. “But I think I’ll be okay, and I think you guys should just focus on no stress while you’re gone.”
“Yep!” Liza interjected, sounding cheery but with a little quaver in her voice. “No stress. Just check your worries at the door and have a good time.”
“I appreciate it.” He paused one last time before he marched across the room to Liza, cupping the side of her head and drawing her ear close to his mouth. After whispering something that nobody else in the room had a prayer of hearing, he kissed her cheek, then her forehead, and then he marched out of the house.
Liza stood at the table, staring at the gift as she removed the rest of the wrapping paper. She pulled away the ribbon and folded it neatly, tucking it into her purse, and then she attempted to flatten and fold the gold paper. “We’ll never be able to reuse this,” she murmured, her voice still fragile, as she gave up and set the paper aside.
“How are you?” Ophelia asked.
Liza looked up with a stiff smile. “Fine.”
“What did he give you?”
Liza picked up the gift and turned it toward Ophelia and me.
It was a framed wedding photo. Liza as a bride, smiling brightly, but with tears in her eyes while Brennan, dressed in the formal Marine Corps uniform, saluted her from across a beautiful, vintage room. “I’ve been wanting to have this one framed for my shelves for a while.”
“Aw,” Ophelia cooed. “I love that photo. That was really sweet of him.”
Liza nodded wordlessly, her throat pulsing with a swallow.
“That’s a great photo,” I added. “Your wedding must’ve been beautiful.”
“It was.” Liza offered a more relaxed smile. “It was perfect.” She sighed wistfully. “Long-awaited perfection.” She set down the photo and turned her attention to Savannah, who was up on her toes, trying to grab the bundle of gold paper. “Just like you, my little Savannah Grace,” she squealed, scooping up Savannah in one arm and grabbing the paper with her free hand to waggle it in the air. “Did B. pick some pretty paper or what?”
“So pweeee,” Savannah agreed.