Holiday Games


Page 10





Author: Jaci Burton






And of course he was right. Which didn't mean she wouldn't ask this new girlfriend of Nathan's some probing questions. She wouldn't interfere, of course. It was more like . . . protecting him.


"Oh, you're here." Tara greeted them at the front door and led them inside. "The guys are in the game room."


"Later, gorgeous," Gavin said, giving her a swift kiss before heading toward the men.


Liz rolled her eyes. "I knew I'd lose him as soon as we walked in the door."


"I know, right? Mick loves the game room. So do his dad and his uncle. They're all like kids in there with the TV, pool table and video games and the rest of the stuff."


Tara led her into the kitchen. "Something to drink? I made this amazing nonalcoholic punch, plus there's wine, beer, and tea."


"I'd love some punch."


Tara poured her a glass. "Everyone else is in the family room."


"Is Nathan here?"


"I sent him and Sonja on an errand. They should be back soon."


"Sonja, huh? Nice name."


Tara smiled. "Nice girl. Wait 'til you meet her. You're going to fall madly in love with her."


"Is that right?"


"Yes. She's sweet. I can't believe he met someone like her. She's smart and so athletic. And funny, too."


Liz was going to reserve judgment about Sonja until she had a chance to grill- uh, talk to her.


She settled into the family room and visited with everyone, including Mick and Tara's little boy, Sam, who was pulling himself up on the furniture. His hair was dark and curly, and when he giggled, it shot straight to her heart. He had the sweetest smile and charmed everyone in the room as he made his way over to them, laughing every time he fell down.


When Sam came over to her and rested his cheek on her knee, every part of Liz ached. She picked him up and kissed his cheek, but after only a few seconds, he wriggled to get down.


"Okay, mobile man, I know you don't want to be cuddled right now. Off you go."


"I told you," Tara said. "I think my cuddling days are over."


"You might be surprised how much he still wants to cuddle his Mama," Gavin's mom said to Tara. "He might want to be moving around right now, but wait until he falls and cries. Then he'll want you holding him."


"You're right, of course," Tara said.


After a few minutes, Liz heard the front door open.


"Mom, where do want this stuff?"


"Excuse me," Tara said. "If I don't direct Nathan, he'll end up putting milk in the pantry."


Liz got up, too. "I'll help you."


She followed Tara into the kitchen.


Nathan was in there and she was struck by how much he'd matured in the past few years. He was taller, and had picked up a lot more muscle. He wore his hair shorter now, and it was a darker brown. Though still young, he was no longer a young boy. Now he was a young man.


"Hi, Nathan," she said.


He smiled at her. "Hey, Liz. How's it going?"


"It's going good. On errand duty?"


He grinned. "Always."


A tall, quite gorgeous young woman carried a bag in. "Where do you want this one, Mrs. Riley?"


"On the counter, Sonja. Thanks."


The girl had to be nearly five-eleven or maybe even six feet tall. Considering Nathan had shot up his senior year to six-four, he was still taller, but wow. She was beautiful, with café au lait skin, honey colored eyes, and sleek black hair.


Wow.


"Oh, Sonja, this is Nathan's Aunt Elizabeth, but we all call her Liz."


Liz stuck out her hand in greeting. "Nice to meet you, Sonja."


"Same here. And I'm probably never going to remember everyone's name so I'm going to apologize if I have to ask it again."


Liz laughed. "That's okay. Ask away."


"Hey, I warned you I had a big family," Nathan said, casting a grin at his girlfriend.


"You did."


"Where are you from, Sonja?"


"A small town in southwest Texas that no one's ever heard of. Nathan wanted to drag me here to see more big-city life."


"Well, St. Louis isn't exactly a huge city."


Sonja leaned against the counter. "Bigger than where I grew up, that's for sure."


"What's your major?"


"Marketing with a minor in communications. And I play for the UT basketball team."


"She's good at it, too. One hell of a guard," Nathan said. "You should keep your eye on her, Liz. She might go pro."


Sonja laughed. "I don't know about that. I'm just happy to have the scholarship so I can get my education."


"Yeah, and she's being modest. She really is good."


"Then I'll definitely keep my eye on you."


"Liz is a sports agent," Nathan said to Sonja. "She could get you a great deal."


"Nathan," Liz warned.


Sonja just looked at her. "I'm not even thinking that far ahead. I just want to get a degree." She elbowed Nathan. "Quit being so pushy. You're making your aunt uncomfortable."


He shoved back into her. "Hey, I believe in you."


She laughed. "Whatever."


He put his arm around her. "Come on. Let's go hang out."


"Dinner's in about thirty," Tara said.


"Okay."


After they left the room, Tara asked. "So? What do you think?"


"I think she's stunning."


"I know. Isn't she? Like fashion-model beautiful. And she's very smart. Nathan said she has a 4.0 GPA, plus she plays sports, too. She's outgoing and she really seems to be into Nathan and he's obviously very much into her."


And she very obviously wasn't at all how Liz had imagined her. So she relaxed on that count. "She's very sweet. Nothing like that first love is there?"


"Well, I wouldn't know about that since my first love got me into a lot of trouble . But yeah, I like her. She seems grounded and reasonable and not flighty and all into Nathan just because he's the quarterback. She seems to have her own goals and ambitions. So that reassures me."


"I'm sure it does." Liz was a bit reassured, too. She wished Nathan didn't have a girlfriend at all, but she supposed that was a bit unrealistic. He was in college and out on his own now, and he needed to have some fun, to grow up some and become a man. He was going to likely have a lot of girlfriends in his lifetime.


She wasn't his mother, so she had no idea why she was so nervous about Nathan getting involved with Sonja. She should just let it go.


But she did watch them during dinner, when the family could really get noisy, talking over each other and often arguing over the most innocuous topic. Maybe they were on their best behavior tonight because Sonja was there and they didn't want to scare her off, but it was relatively calm. Plus, the baby was still awake and he captured a lot of attention. In fact, Nathan sat next to Sam and he and Sonja entertained him during dinner, feeding him and making him laugh.


Sonja seemed at ease with the family, which didn't happen often with strangers. After dinner she even helped Tara in the kitchen.


"You seem pretty comfortable around our crazy family," Liz remarked as she, Tara, Alicia, and Jenna, along with Gavin's mom and Alicia's mom, helped Tara with the after-dinner mess.


"Oh, I come from a big family. I have three sisters and two brothers."


Liz's eyes widened. "Really. Wow. So dinnertime is a lot like this."


Sonja laughed. "Yes. Exactly like this. Only maybe more yelling. My brothers are younger than me, so they're a little . . . boisterous."


"Boys do tend to be like that," Gavin's mother said from across the room.


Tara nodded. "Yes, they do. And I only had one. Well, one at a time, anyway."


"I imagine it takes parents ruling with an iron fist to keep a brood like that under control," Alicia said.


"My mother is pretty fierce. When she speaks, believe me, you listen."


"And your dad, too?"


"He died when my youngest brother was two years old. It's mostly been just my mom for a while."


Liz laid her hand on Sonja's arm. "I'm so sorry."


"I am, too." Tara pulled up a chair at the kitchen island. And suddenly the women surrounded Sonja.


"Oh. Wow. Well, I didn't mean to talk about it. But he got cancer and it took him pretty fast. It was hard on my mom having all us kids to deal with, but she had my aunts and uncles and my grandparents to help her. It's been okay, really."


Gavin's mom patted Sonja's hand. "It's nice that she had all the family to help support her."


"It was."


And Liz could tell Sonja was uncomfortable.


"Hey, how come the guys never help with the dishes?" Liz asked, sliding off the bar stool. "Sonja, let's go track down Nathan and my husband and find out where they're lurking."


"Sure. If you all don't need me in here."


"We're fine. We're just about done anyway," Tara said.


As Liz led Sonja down the long hall toward the back of the house, Sonja turned to her. "Thanks for that."


"For what?"


"For pulling me out of that conversation. I miss my dad for sure. But I just don't like to talk about it."


"Understood. Especially with a bunch of people you don't really know."


She smiled. "Right. Not that I don't like all of you. You're all . . . great."


"Hey, you don't have to sell me. I get it. We're all pushy and nosy and overprotective, and we'll ask you a million questions if you let us. So don't let us and feel free to tell us to back off."


"Oh, I'd never do that. But I might have to ease my way in. Things with Nathan and I are just getting started. And we both have our priorities, which are school and career first."


The more she talked to Sonja, the more she liked her. "Those are good priorities to have."


"Yeah, I mean we're just eighteen. Plenty of time for all that romance later."


Liz laughed. "Yes. Much later."


***


Give a guy a game room, and the world is a happy place. At least a guy's world is a happy place. There was pinball, pool, video games and even a foosball table, which reminded Gavin of college and of old times in their family basement, when he and Mick would go at it for hours. Gavin, of course, was the Riley foosball champion.


Mick, on the other hand, remembered it differently, claiming he consistently kicked Gavin's butt. So they had to have a rematch.


Gavin won. Until Ty joined in and kicked his ass. And then Nathan took over and trounced all of them one by one.


Damned kids.


He sat back drinking a beer and watched Nathan and his girlfriend Sonja flipping the handles as they faced off against each other. She was pretty good at it, and Nathan didn't let up just because Sonja was a girl. It was a pretty fierce competition, but in the end, Nathan won again.


Garrett rubbed his hands together. "I'm going to take you down this time, kid."


"You'd like to think so, wouldn't you?" Nathan asked with a gleam in his eye.


Sonja sat at the bar with a soda and grinned as Nathan took Garrett down easily. And then the women came in and started their own tournament. Tara faced off with Liz, and then Sonja hopped in. It was clear that Sonja and Nathan were going to be the foosball champions tonight.






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