Isobel hesitated, trying to think of a tactful way to say what she was thinking. But there wasn’t one, so she just blurted it out. “Gwen, I thought you told me your grandparents were dead.”

Gwen shrugged. “They are. Now put the damn thing on so they’ll stop parading into my dreams to tell me how disappointed they are. Do it before your dad finds out I’m here and calls animal control.”

“Too late,” came a mellow voice from behind them. “Too bad they’re not open today.”

Both Gwen and Isobel swung around to find her dad standing in the doorway leading from the hall to the kitchen, a steaming white Santa mug in one hand. With the bags under his eyes, his unshaven face, and the scraps of hair poking out around his head, Isobel thought he looked a little like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

“Morning, Mr. Lanley.” Gwen gave a stilted full-armed wave, like the swipe of a windshield wiper. “I like your slippers,” she said, pointing. “Go Big Blue.”

His eyes narrowed to near slits. “Are you supposed to be here?” he asked.

“No,” she replied. “But I know you’re not gonna kick me out.”

At this, her dad actually looked more amused than annoyed. “Oh yeah?” he said. “Why’s that?”

As he tilted his mug to his lips, Gwen flashed one of her bright toothpaste-commercial smiles. “It’s Christmas!”

“Humph,” he said, and gave her another once-over before turning his attention fully to Isobel. “It’s safe to come back into the kitchen, Izzy,” he said. “Your hot chocolate’s ready.” He shuffled back around, but paused in the archway. He stood there for a few seconds, as though debating whether or not to say what he was thinking. Finally he gave a long, loud sigh. “Ask Gwen if she wants marshmallows in hers.”

Gwen’s bag hit the floor with a thud. “Actually, I take mine with whipped cream, but I’ll settle for Cool Whip if that’s all you’ve got.”


“Super,” he said, turning to face them again, a tight-lipped smile in place. “Can I get you anything else while I’m at it? Muffin? Bagel? Taxi?”

“Now that you mention it, I am kinda hungry.” Leaving Isobel behind, Gwen made her way down the hall toward the kitchen door, shedding her coat.

Isobel’s dad stepped to one side, allowing her room to pass. “Jeannine,” he called into the kitchen. “Isobel’s got company. You remember Gwen, don’t you?” he asked, staring down into his mug and swirling its contents as he spoke. “Young lady who called from that illegal warehouse party to inform us that she’d lied about the sleepover and that our daughter was missing?”

“Hey, at least I called,” Gwen said. “Is this mug clean?”

Isobel moved to her father’s side and laid a hand on his sleeve. “Dad?”

He aimed a thumb over his shoulder toward the kitchen. “She always this polite?”

Isobel gave him a weak smile. It faded quickly, and she squeezed his arm. “What did Mom say?”

He nodded as though he’d been expecting the question. Then he lifted his mug to his lips again, taking another small sip of the steaming liquid before answering.

“She said we’d better dress warm.”

“UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND, HUH?” GWEN asked after taking a noisy slurp of her cocoa. Leaning forward out of her chair, she reached across the table and grabbed a handful of peanut M&M’s from a green-and-red-striped candy dish. “I’d have thought you’d want to go somewhere a little bit closer to home.”

Sitting next to Gwen, Isobel opened her mouth to respond, but it was her mom who cut in, glancing up from her stack of newspaper coupons. “Isobel’s just going to look,” she said. “She hasn’t decided yet.”

Isobel shut her mouth again and returned to stirring her own cocoa with a long-handled spoon. Every now and then, she glanced at the box that held the necklace Gwen had tried to give her. Isobel had set it on the clear wooden space between their holly-decorated place mats in an effort to communicate to her friend that she had by no means agreed to take it.

“Hey,” Gwen said. Perking up, she aimed her half-eaten candy cane at Isobel. “In that case, you should come with me to look at U of K in the spring. And University of Louisville, too. They’re close, and they’ve both got killer athletics departments. Right, Mr. Lanley?”

“Mm,” her dad mumbled into his mug.

“I’m pretty sure I’m goin’ to one of those two,” Gwen went on, waving the candy cane back and forth with one hand, fishing for more M&M’s with the other.

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