One gourmet party. Six potential couples. The taste of love?
Nico De Luca has been doing his best to keep his family together and off the street since he was sixteen. Everyone thinks he’s doing such a good thing, but they never care about the cost to him. With his stepfather fresh out of jail … again … trouble is brewing.
Coming home after travelling is always bittersweet for Jade Russell. She loves seeing her sister and friends, but her parents have made it very clear she’s not welcome. Christmas is full of fake happiness and spending money on junk people don’t want. She sees it in the parents’ eyes in her job as an elf taking photos with Santa.
When Nico meets Jade in her elf uniform, he is enchanted. When they meet again at a Rainbow Cove Christmas lunch, he realises Jade is out of his league. She knows what she’s doing with her life. She has a life. Following Jade makes stepping off the path easy and, before he knows it, freedom is within Nico’s grasp. But if he leaves, he can never come back …
‘I’m taking the car,’ Nico called out. He wasn’t sure if his mum or stepfather, David, were awake, but it was past ten and his stepsisters, Riley and Michelle, wanted to get to the shops for last-minute present buying. He was more than happy to take them—anything to get out of the house for a few hours.
He scooped the keys off the kitchen counter, where they lived next to the currently empty fruit bowl. He’d have to buy some apples and bananas while he was out. Mum had done the shopping a couple of days ago. He shouldn’t need to pick up anything, but he took a quick look in the pantry to confirm his suspicions. The pantry held only a few essentials, nothing that could’ve been called a week’s shop for a family of five. The amount he paid in rent and board should’ve well and truly covered the groceries.
Now there were three adults in the house—though for how long for he didn’t know, as David was locked up more than he was free—Nico should be only paying a third of the rent and food, not half. When David was in prison Nico was more than happy to pay half and support his stepsisters. But Nico was not supporting that man. However, it was almost Christmas and he’d said he’d pay half until then. After Christmas he’d talk to Mum, and this time he wouldn’t be coaxed into paying more than a third. He shut the pantry door, knowing he’d pick up extra food even though he shouldn’t have to.
Heavy footsteps shuffled toward the kitchen. Nico moved swiftly to the front door and was halfway down the steps to where the girls were waiting in the car, before David caught up with him.
‘Nah, mate, I need the car.’ David put his hand out, expecting the keys.
‘It’s my car,’ Nico said. He paid the rego and insurance. And while he didn’t mind Mum driving it, after David had pranged hers eighteen months ago—and refused to get it fixed—he didn’t want his stepfather driving it. His stepfather’s wallet seemed to be sewn shut.
‘I said I need it.’ David’s tone became belligerent. He was used to being obeyed. And
Nico was used to capitulating. But that had been before David’s most recent stretch.
Nico lifted his chin and stared up at the man his mother loved and failed to see anything worthy of love or respect. His heartbeat quickened and sweat formed under his arms. ‘So do I.’
He stepped back, closing the distance between him and the car. Nico might be taller now, but David had bulk from too many sessions in the prison gym and he knew how to fight and cause pain.
David came down the steps, his weight making the wood sag. He wasn’t going to let the keys go.
Nico jogged over to his car and opened the door. ‘I’ll be back in an hour, maybe two. Then I’ll be taking it to work. I need it today.’
David stopped in the middle of the front lawn and pointed at Nico. ‘You’re an ungrateful shit.’
Right back at ya.
‘We can catch the bus,’ Riley whispered from the back seat.
They could, but why the fuck should they when it was Nico’s car? Three weeks ago, when David had arrived back on their doorstep, the first thing he’d done was berate Mum for not picking him up. She’d been working; she was a teacher’s assistant at the school whenever the regular one was sick. Now it was school hols there was no work.
‘Be back soon.’ Nico got in the car. His hands had a slight tremor and his heart was racing down the street without him. While he’d thought about standing up to David when he was younger, this time David was different. The contempt was clear, the demands more so. Nico would put money, that he didn’t have, down that his mum had bought less food on David’s orders so Nico would buy more.
Nico had played this game before. He worked in a restaurant. He got fed. The only losers were Michelle and Riley. He’d buy them lunch, but no extra food—Mum would have to sort her shit out.
The girls buckled up and Nico started the car. It hiccupped to life as though resentful and he didn’t blame it. David thumped the bonnet, his face a red twist of anger.
Nico reversed out the dirt driveway, and then they were on the street and free. It felt like breaking through the Earth’s gravity or something. A weight lifted, he turned up the Christmas carols on the radio and grinned.
He wasn’t going to let himself think about what would happen when he got home. It was his car. And he wasn’t the parent responsible for keeping food on the table. David was Michelle and Riley’s dad. He should start acting like it.
In the rearview mirror his sisters had pinched expressions. ‘You shouldn’t make him so mad.’
‘Maybe he should buy his own car or fix Mum’s.’ They were older this time: at twelve and ten, they saw and understood too much. He’d been eight when Mum had hooked up with David, ten when Riley had been born. Nico hadn’t liked David from day one, but then he hadn’t liked many of her boyfriends. He liked the weeks he spent with his dad over the summer holidays.
He hadn’t seen his dad in six years. Yet the offer of a plane ticket the moment he wanted it was there. Dad knew what the situation was, but Nico understood that Mum needed him. Needed his help when David was away. If Dad hadn’t walked out, then they wouldn’t be in this mess.
‘Mum says be nice and quiet because Dad’s stressed,’ Riley said.
Nico snorted. ‘If being a criminal is so stressful, he should quit.’
‘He was innocent,’ Michelle added.
Nico laughed. Drugs, assault, unpaid fines and they were just the charges he knew about. He didn’t want to dig any deeper. He was about to argue, but David was their dad. They had no plane ticket out of here.
‘Most people who go to jail are guilty, so either he’s got some really bad luck or …’ ‘Why do you hate him so much?’ Riley crossed her arms and glared out the window. ‘He gave you a home.’
So David had been talking to them, trying to get them onside, instead of ignoring them. It was always one extreme or the other.
‘Mum and I had a home before him.’ Every time David got out he was worse. Nico had moved out a few times, but had never made it far. He’d lost jobs because David had made phone calls. Working for Christophe was the best one he’d ever had and he didn’t want David screwing it up for him. ‘If he got a job, he’d have a car, and you two would get whatever you wanted for Christmas.’ His budget didn’t stretch to new tablets and phones and the other electronics they wanted. He sighed. It wasn’t their fault David was such a dick. ‘I’m sure he’ll get you something great.’
Hopefully David would, something to make up for the all the Christmases and birthdays he missed out on because he’d broken yet another law and gotten caught.
Nico swung the car into the parking lot and circled like a rather pathetic small, silver shark until someone pulled out and he claimed the spot. Even if he forgot to lock the car, no one would steal it. It wasn’t worth the couple of hundred he’d paid for it when he’d gotten his licence.
He cast his gaze over the car park as the girls got out, already talking about the shops they wanted to look at and how much pocket money they had. Nico had never received pocket money, but when it had just been the two of them it hadn’t mattered. He stared at a nice blue four-wheel-drive four bays over. It cost more than he earned in a year but that didn’t stop him from wanting to run his hand over its shiny paint and undented doors.
Next year, he’d get a second-hand one, something that needed only a small loan. He’d be able to put down the seats and sleep in the back, go camping for a few days. His smile faded. If he brought anything that slick home, David would pinch the keys.
‘Come on, Nico,’ Riley said.
He glanced at his trusty silver hatch that had once been better suited to busy mums. He gave the roof a friendly pat. He wasn’t ready to move on.
‘I’m coming.’ He checked the doors were locked and followed his sisters into the cool, noisy shopping centre. Colour popped in every display and tinsel hung from the roof as if an over-enthusiastic Christmas spider had visited. He grinned, unable to help himself.
He should buy more tinsel, make the house a bit more festive.
Michelle led them to the stationery store where she made some careful selections within her budget. Riley wanted accessories, cheap earrings and rings. He’d already bought her a set of earcuffs and bangles. Their presents were wrapped up and ready to go.
In the middle of the store was Santa’s sled. Three kids waited for their turn.
‘That’s so lame. It’s not even real.’ Riley tossed her hair like she knew everything at twelve.
‘Hey, don’t be ruining the magic for others, okay?’
‘What magic.’ She gave him such a dead-eyed stare it was like looking into David’s eyes.
Nico almost stepped back, but she blinked and the moment was gone. ‘The magic of giving gifts, of seeing the people you love open the presents you bought. You’re going to do this one last time and give it to Mum, okay?’
‘If you want to sit on Santa’s lap then why don’t you? Maybe you want Santa as a boyfriend,’ Riley cooed.
‘Maybe I do,’ Nico said with a smile. But it wasn’t Santa he was looking at. The elf helping out was far more interesting. She had red-and-white striped socks and a cute green dress and hat. Two long brown braids hung down her back as she wrote down the names of the children and got the tired-looking mum to sign the paperwork. ‘You know Mum likes this stuff; give her one last one.’
‘Only if you join us,’ Riley said with a smug grin.
That wiped the grin off her face. Michelle’s eyes widened. ‘But you’re too big.’
‘Let’s find out.’ They joined the line. His palm started sweating and all of a sudden the elf was too close, and up close she was really pretty. Next to her he was dirty dishwater. He should’ve dressed better, something smarter than black jeans and a black T-shirt that had seen better days, but he hadn’t expected to be in any photos.
‘Hi! You ready to see Santa? Have you been good?’ The elf spoke to Michelle as she was the youngest.
Michelle turned red and looked away.
‘She’s a bit shy,’ Nico managed to get out.
The elf’s smile was still in place, but it didn’t reach her blue eyes. ‘Just the one?’ ‘He’s making us do it, so he has to too,’ Riley said.
Nico sighed—there went any chance of appearing cool enough to talk to the elf—and he nodded. Yeah … he never had a shot anyway.
But the elf lifted an eyebrow and smirked like it was funny. ‘Great. What photo package would you like?’
Whatever is cheapest. He sorted out payment and then they were up. Riley put on a good show and asked for the impossible pony. Michelle wanted a kitten—same as last year. He couldn’t imagine that happening either.
Then Santa asked him what he wanted. Nico glanced at the old man. The retired doctor had been playing Santa for as long as Nico could remember. But Nico couldn’t remember any of the things he’d asked for in the past. He shrugged and joined the girls in wishing for the impossible. ‘A new car.’
Santa laughed. ‘I have a slightly used magic sleigh, though I don’t know how the reindeer would go living in Rainbow Cove all year round.’
‘I don’t think I’d be able to park it at work.’ Christophe would not be amused if there were reindeer stealing carrots from his restaurant.
Nico sat on the floor for the photo. It was easy to smile as the elf took the photos. Then it was done. He picked one and took the receipt so he could collect the prints from the centre management tomorrow.
They shopped for their mum and grudgingly for David. Then it was lunch time and given that there was no food in the house, and he wasn’t buying more, he let them load up their plates at the food court Chinese shop.
Riley stopped trying to be cool and cynical and actually had some fun. Michelle chatted a little. He kept an eye on the time, needing to shower and get changed before going to work.
‘Do you need to make a pit stop before we head home?’
Riley rolled her eyes. ‘We aren’t five.’
‘We haven’t bought you anything,’ Michelle said, her eyes wide and troubled.
‘It’s fine.’ Maybe Mum would get him something, maybe she wouldn’t. Sometimes she bought out of guilt when David wasn’t around. He had no idea what he wanted anyway.
‘It’s not: you made us buy for everyone else,’ Riley said, and Nico was almost convinced she cared.
‘There’s nothing I really want.’
‘Give us twenty and we’ll get you something.’ She held out her hand.
He pulled out his wallet. He had fifteen left and he wasn’t taking anything else out of his bank account—or dipping into his savings account, the one no one else knew existed. ‘That’s it.’
Riley glanced at Michelle and Michelle nodded. ‘You can’t come with us.’
‘I can’t leave you—what if you get lost?’
Riley gave a dramatic sigh. ‘We’ll meet you at the donut shop.’ She pointed across the food hall.
Nico glanced at the donut shop. ‘Ten minutes.’
‘Fine. But if you’re late I’ll get security to call you over the speaker.’
‘Fine.’ Riley grabbed Michelle’s hand and they took off.
Nico repacked all their shopping into one bag to make it easier to carry, then he gathered up the plates and stacked the trays, making sure there was no spilled food on the table before ditching the rubbish. Then he meandered over to the donut shop to buy a six-pack to take home, putting it on his card and knowing that he shouldn’t.
At the croissant shop was the elf. He smiled as he walked past, expecting to get a
blank stare. But she turned and her gaze locked with his. She nodded and returned his smile.
He really wanted to say something or ask her for her number, but she’d shoot him down before the question left his mouth.
‘Nice socks,’ he mumbled. It was her legs that made the socks look nice but still … And it was a totally lame thing to say. Fuck, he was a loser.
‘Is that the best you got? What about “I’d like to see them on my floor”.’
Heat crept up Nico’s neck. Now she’d said that, it was all he could imagine. ‘I …’ He glanced at the ground but all he could see was her candy-cane striped socks. He needed a smart comeback. He lifted his gaze and found a scrap of courage. ‘Socks like that should definitely stay on.’
Then he turned and kept walking before she could see the heat spreading over his cheeks like a summer bushfire.