A California Christmas (Silver Springs #7) - Brenda Novak


Monday, December 7

Dallas Turner figured he shouldn’t be surprised when he walked into his mother’s house to find someone who wasn’t part of the family in her kitchen. Aiyana had taken him in, hadn’t she? She’d taken in and raised seven other boys, too. Only a couple of years ago, she’d expanded the campus of New Horizons—the school she’d started twenty-four years ago for troubled boys—to include a girls’ side.

But she hadn’t adopted any girls yet.

This wasn’t a girl, anyway. Although he was seeing her from behind, he could tell it was a full-grown woman who was reaching into the cupboard. A full-grown woman who wasn’t entirely dressed.

“Hello?” he said.

Startled, she whipped around, and he nearly dropped the groceries he’d carried in. This was no stranger to him, as he’d first assumed. It was Emery Bliss, someone he’d known when he was living here in the artsy community of Silver Springs, ninety minutes northwest of Los Angeles. He hadn’t seen her since he moved away after graduating high school ten years ago, but he recognized her instantly.

She was equally surprised to see him—or to see a man suddenly standing behind her. He didn’t know which.

With a yelp, she yanked her T-shirt down far enough to cover her underwear. “Excuse me, I—I didn’t expect anyone to be home until this afternoon. Aiyana said—” She blinked several times and her blush deepened. He was no longer the skinny boy with the bad acne whose gaze had so often trailed after her when she returned her horse to the equestrian center of her private school, where he’d worked mucking out stalls, but he could tell she now recognized him. “I was just...getting a bowl of cereal and...”

Her words trailed off as she edged along the counter, leaving her breakfast behind while she stretched her T-shirt down as far as possible, holding it in a death grip with both hands.

“No problem,” he said, relieving her of the burden of trying to finish that sentence. She didn’t seem to know where she was going with it, anyway.

“I’m really sorry,” she mumbled as though she’d caused him some terrible injury and escaped the kitchen as soon as she could.

He could hear her footfalls racing up the stairs as Aiyana and his two youngest brothers filed into the house with the rest of the groceries—Aiyana telling them they had only a half hour, at most, before they had to leave again. They were looking forward to playing a particular video game, so this was met with the type of groans one might expect from much younger boys.

“Give us an hour, at least,” Bentley, the youngest, a senior in high school, pleaded.

“Just one hour,” Liam chimed in. Two years older than Bentley, Liam was working and taking online classes instead of going to college because he’d injured his knee playing basketball and was getting an operation next month.

“No,” she said firmly. “We can’t miss this appointment.”

After setting down the bags in his hands, Dallas pulled their mother aside and lowered his voice so that it wouldn’t carry to the second level. “What was that all about?”

Aiyana didn’t respond right away. She was still preoccupied with his brothers. “You can’t start anything interactive where other players are depending on you. We don’t have time.”

“We’ll turn it off the second you say so,” Bentley promised, and they dumped the groceries they were carrying on the first horizontal surface they could find and rushed into the living room to turn on the Xbox.

“Mom?” Dallas prodded.

“What?” She gave his hand an affectionate squeeze before disengaging so that she could set her purse aside and put away the food.

Dallas could hear his brothers negotiating which video game to play, since they didn’t have time for the one they’d initially planned. Aiyana, Bentley and Liam had met him for breakfast as he came into town from Las Vegas, where he lived in the months he wasn’t rock climbing. They’d expected to go directly from there to Santa Barbara, so that he and his brothers could be fitted for tuxedos. Aiyana’s wedding was on the nineteenth, and every one of her eight adopted sons would be in the line. But the tuxedo place had called while they were eating and asked to reschedule for later in the day, so they’d done the weekly grocery shopping before they left town instead of waiting until they were on their way home. “What’s the deal?”

Confusion showed on Aiyana’s face, so he clarified. “Emery Bliss was in the kitchen when