HOLD ME CLOSE
THIRTEEN YEARS LATER
Fin saw the missile in the rear-view mirror of his minivan, just skim the head of his youngest daughter and hit his middle daughter in the cheek. She protested loudly, hissing at her sister over the top of the still, thankfully slumbering Nora. She then hurled it back.
“Jemma, do not throw Mr Squeaky at Lucy.”
“She poked out her tongue.”
“And it hurt my feelings,” his daughter said. At eight, his eldest daughter was all about feelings.
“Lucy apologise to your sister.”
Shifting slightly, Fin saw the belligerent expression on Lucy’s face. Arms folded, jaw jutted. She had a lot of her Uncle Nash in her. About as malleable as an Oak tree. She had a sweet nature, but couldn’t be persuaded to do anything she didn’t want to do.
“We’re nearly there and I don’t want to arrive at school with either of you still wearing those faces. Your mother will know and we’ll all be in trouble.”
“She knows anyway. Mom knows everything.”
“But not me?” Fin watched Lucy shoot Jemma a look, the tongue poking forgotten as they now shared common ground.
“Dad,” Lucy said in a tone that was almost pitying. “You never see anything we do and if you do, we can talk you out of thinking you saw what you thought you saw.”
“Yeah, and you always say to us we should stop but then walk away and never check we have,” Jemma added.
“I do so check,” Fin protested.
“Last night you let Nora paint the table with spaghetti sauce even though you’d told her not too.
“I’m more focused on the big things you do wrong.”
His girls exchanged another look but said nothing more as they were pulling up outside the school.
“I’m tough when I need to be,” he muttered, climbing out. “And shouldn’t you both be nicer at the moment, seeing as Santa’s about due to pack up his sleigh and head your way?”
“I think we’re safe now. Brittany Little said her dad said that Santa would have everything sorted by now. She then said that means we can be naughty again,” Lucy added.
Fin was fairly sure he needed to track down Mr. Little and deal to him on behalf of parents everywhere.
“Ah, but don’t forget that most parents can get word to Santa should they need to if their children are naughty.”
They shared another look, unsure if he was right or not.
“We have a special Santa hotline.”
“Is that true?” Jemma asked.
He wasn’t sure but thought that Lucy whispered to Jemma that they needed to be nice for a few more days just to be sure.
“Right everyone out. Hats, and gloves on, and just for the record, I am not a pushover.”
“It’s ok, Dad, we love you just the way you are,” Lucy said, hugging him when he got out.
“Thanks, Baby, love you too.”
Jemma patted his hand. She wasn’t big on hugging.
Climbing in the back seat, he unbuckled Nora, whose eyes had just opened. The youngest girl in the Hudson household did not wake ready to take on the world like her other siblings. In fact, her eyes were open, but squinty. He didn’t speak, that only made things worse. Lifting her into his arms, he let her nestle in. There she’d stay until she was ready to speak again.
Fin thought there was nothing he loved more than being a nestling place for his kids.
“Is she grumpy?” Jemma asked.
“She’s waking up,” he said, taking her hand and heading in through the school hall doors. Lucy was skipping ahead of them in her new Christmas sweater. On the bottom she wore a red tutu and black lace-up boots. She rarely walked anywhere. “She’s just not ready to face the world yet.”
“Grumpy then,” Jemma swung his hand. She wore a denim jacket and cords. Mrs. L had picked her out a more subdued sweater this Christmas. Grey with just a single tree on the front. No sparkling lights and a few parcels around the base.
“Connor told me this morning he doesn’t want to be the back end of the moose this year. Ella is in the front and Connor says she farts.” Jemma snickered. “I hope it’s stinky and makes him gag.”
“I’m not sure you should be quite so happy about this, after all that is your brother.”
“He told me that Santa comes on Christmas Eve and sometimes takes a small child in exchange for gifts, that was mean.”
“Very mean,” Fin swallowed his smile. “But you know that’s not true, Jemma, Santa is a good guy.”
“I know, but Connor is really good at lying.”
“You mother has that skill,” Fin nudged her through the open door.
The hall was full from front to back, the hum of voices following them as they moved. Lucy was skipping down the aisle acknowledging people with a smile or a greeting, as if they were all here just to see her.
“I hate when she skips like that,” Jemma muttered. “And that smile is yucky.”
“She’s your sister who has a kind heart. You should try that sometime.”
“I’m not sure it’s in me,” Jemma added, sounding like a teenager.
Just the thought of his children hitting their teens made Fin’s knees go weak.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Lucy lend you her new glitter pens so you could send that Jonah kid in your class a Christmas card?”
“I sent lots of cards!
“You sent two, because unlike Lucy, who gave one to every kid in her class, you couldn’t be bothered.”
Jemma sighed. “I wish you and mom didn’t like each other, then you wouldn’t share everything.”
“Bad luck for you then, kiddo, that we do.”
“Up here, Daddy!” Lucy shrieked down the aisle at them.
Joe and Bailey had saved them seats. Lucy slid past her Uncle and Aunty, after kissing them, and sat next to Benjamin, who at twelve was way to cool for her, but whom she adored him.
“Bro,” Joe punched his shoulder as he sat after acknowledging Bailey. “Hey, Jem.”
“Hi, Uncle Joe, Aunty Bailey.”
“Say hello to Benjamin,” Fin reminded Jemma.
“Lo,” she threw the boy a bored look then sat next to Fin.
“Hey there, baby girl, you just wake up?” Joe leaned in and whispered something to Nora, which had a gruff little chuckle coming from her mouth.
“Fin Hudson, where is your Christmas sweater?” Mrs. L had more lines on her face and if possible, seemed to be more outrageous every year. Today she wore fake green lashes, and her eyebrows had diamantes stuck to them. On her head was a tiara.
“I like your eyebrows,” Jemma said. Fin shot her a look and saw the sickly smile that had absolutely no depth to it.
“Now that’s sweet of you, Jemma. You come on into the store any time and I’ll put some on you.”
“I’d like that.”
“You need to watch that kid the most,” Joe said. “She can lie with a straight face.”
“I know it. But she also has that surly nature, so she can’t hold out being nice for to long.”
“Show time,” Joe muttered as the music started.
“Nora, honey, you want to watch now?” She turned her head slightly, so one eye could see the stage.
“You want popcorn, Gracie made enough for the entire hall,” Dylan turned from the row in front, with a bag in his hand. Grace sat at his side. Tall, elegant, and one of the nicest kids Fin knew, she was home from college for Christmas. She gave him and Maggs hope their kids would turn out that way one day.
“Mom’s coming,” Jemma said, opening her bag and taking out a handful which she jammed in her mouth.
He made a oinking noise that had her putting some bag in the bag.
Fin then searched for his wife and found her coming up the aisle. She wore a white sweater and jeans and still made his heart beat a little faster. Her hair was shorter now, and her face had a few more lines, but she was still the most beautiful woman in the world to him.
“I’ll move along one so you can make gooey eyes at each other,” Jemma said.
“We do not make gooey eyes at each other,” Fin protested, waving at Maggs.
“Please. When you think we’re not looking you do that kissy thing, then the eye thing.”
He looked at Jemma, who did a look that made her look like a bloated trout.
“You be careful the wind doesn’t change.”
“Dad, you know that’s not true, right?”
Maggs slid into the seat next to him. Fin turned his face for a kiss. Her hand touched his cheek briefly.
“Jemma just told me she’s noticed we do the kissy and eye thing when she thinks we’re not looking.
“What eye thing?”
Maggs laughed when Jemma demonstrated. She then leaned in to hug her girl and kiss her loudly on the cheek, making Jemma squirm.
“Hey, baby,” she then moved in to nuzzle Nora, who ignored her and stayed exactly where she was.
“If I may have your attention, please.” Mayor Gripper taped the microphone, making it shriek. He’d aged and wore it well. His hair was white, clothes still dapper, and had gone unopposed as mayor for many years. “Tonight we have the Ryker Falls School concert. You will be dazzled and bewitched by the talents on display.”
“If even one child pulls out a recorder, I’m running,” Joe muttered.
“Be nice. Your children are up there.”
“Ah, but my children can play their instruments, because their mother makes them practise.”
“We playing ball tomorrow?” Fin asked as Nora stirred in his arms.
“Yup. The pirates are coming in for the last game of the year.
“Good, you need the exercise. Seriously man, that gut of yours is hanging over your jeans now.”
“Piss off!” Joe hissed, lifting his Christmas sweater.
Nora lifted her head and gave her uncle a sweet smile.
“Come here, baby,” he held out his arm, and she went willingly. Uncle Joe was one of Nora’s favorite people. He’d have something sugary in one of his pockets, which would soon be in her mouth.
Maggie leaned into him. “I just got that Christmas underwear set in the post this morning.” The last was whispered in his ear. Fin’s eyes nearly crossed.
The lights lowered, and he leaned in and told her he’d make her sorry for teasing him later.
Maggie sat with her family and friends, leaning on her husband, while they watched the moose lumber out on stage, knowing her son was in the back end. Four kids, she marvelled again. How had they ended up with four? Of course she knew how, but when they’d married, she and Fin had decided on two, then two more had arrived. Maggie loved every minute of being a mother of four.
“I sold that painting today, the one you said looked like Nora had painted it,” she whispered as Connor wiggled the butt of the moose.
“Yeah. What sucker did you fleece?”
“He was not a sucker, and I sold it to Dylan’s dad as a present for his wife.”
Fin made a choking sound.
“I couldn’t have gone to a more well deserving person than Mrs. Howard. Plus, it’s exactly her taste.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
“You are a wicked woman, Mrs. Hudson.”
“Is that Mr. Goldhirsh?” Fin asked Joe as he watched an elderly man stagger across the stage with a cane.
“It is. They had one of their shepherds get sick last night, so he’s filling in.”
“I suppose he ran a few miles this morning before?”
The play went off without a hitch, if you didn’t count the moose’s butt letting out a gagging sound halfway through the performance.
“Hey, bud, stunning performance,” Fin said to his son as they all headed outside.
Tall, with hollow legs, Connor was all Fin. The same hair and eyes, the same temperament, the boy had a lot to deal with. Three sisters who pretty much kept him on his toes from the minute he opened his eyes to when he closed them at night. At ten he was also the oldest, and as far as he was concerned that made him the most superior of the Hudson siblings.
“Ella is stinky, Dad.”
“For some animals when they expel air in the company of others it means they like them.”
“You’re not serious?” Connor’s long fringe flopped over his eyes.
“You could get a clip from Lucy for that.”
“Nona.” Nora held out her arms to Connor, and his son took his sister from Joe.
“Connor, Nora,” he said patiently as he did at least ten times every day. She wrapped around him like a monkey.
Fin had found her in his bed this morning. At some stage during the night, she’d left hers and ended up with her big brother. Nora took her pick most nights. She usually ended up sleeping with a sibling at some stage, or climbed in with her parents.
They all piled into the van. He and Maggs nicely separated in the front from the noise going on in the rear.
“Do you miss it?” Maggs asked him.
“What?” He held out his hand, and she squeezed his fingers briefly.
“Your motorbike, your single cabin. The life you used to lead. Do you ever miss it?”
He didn’t even need a second to think about that.
“The day I fell in love with you, I never wanted anything but a life with you, Maggie. They,” he waved a hand to the back where Nora and Lucy were currently singing Jingle Bells at the top of their voices, “only made that more so. I love this, them and you. I could never regret that. I have never been happier than I am right now.”
“Wow, that’s a really good answer. I was just expecting a yes or no.”
“I thought for a while there I would be single forever. I never guessed, could never imagine having all this with you.”
He kissed the knuckles on her hand, and Connor made a gagging noise.
Sometimes she still got scared and anxious, and Fin always knew when those times crept over her. Often she was tried, or worried, and sometimes just needed him to talk things through with her. She had a councillor, and now and again visited her. She called it her tune up.
“Well hang in there, Baby, it’s only just begun. I saw Lucy flirting with Benjamin today.”
“I’m wondering if there is a convent around here we can put her in.”
He pulled the van into the drive and headed up to the house he and Maggs had lived in since their marriage. It sat on the rise. Two stories, with a gabled roof and made of natural timber and stone. This place was everything they’d wanted in a home. They had gardens, grew their own vegetables and had Maggie’s compost worm farm. Phil and Roxy watched over them like they did the rest of Ryker falls.
“Before you get out,” Maggie turned to face their kids. “You need to not make a mess as the others are arriving soon. Take off your boots at the door, and place them in the box, then you can head into the kitchen and I’ll get you a snack.”
The four Hudson children all said they’d heard like little angles.
“Oh sure, be angels when mom tells you too do something.”
“She’s tougher,” Connor said, unbuckling Nora.
“Lucy and Jemma said that earlier. Maybe I need to toughen up a bit,” he said when just he and Maggs sat in the van.
“No. You’re the daddy who can be mean when he needs to be. Don’t change.” She leaned in to kiss him. “I love you, Findlay Hudson.”
“Love you back,” he whispered against her lips.
The first car pulled up ten minutes later while Fin was lighting the fire in the lounge room hearth.
“Son.” His father walked in with Ella and Mallory. Fin straightened to accept the hug that was now as natural as breathing to him. “Nice concert.”
“No recorder. Has to be an improvement on last year.”
“There is that. Now I need to see my grandchildren.” He wandered off.
Fin greeted his step-mother, then she followed. His children would shortly be smothered in hugs and kisses, which they loved.
“I thought you were bringing that loser boyfriend of yours with you?” He said to his sister.
She was tall like him, and slender with lots of dark brown hair. Mallory was training to be a ranger like him, and Fin couldn’t be prouder of her. When she was here, they tramped all over the mountains together, and he loved those times alone with her.
“You just don’t like him because he tells you when you’re wrong.” She hugged him hard. “And he’s coming later.”
Mallory left him with a punch in the shoulder. In fact, her boyfriend was a good guy, but it was a brother’s job to intimidate, and Fin was up to the task..
They all arrived then, one after the other, loaded down with food. Friends who he thought of as family and soon his home was bursting with noise. The food smells filled the house, as did the love.
Maggie moved to his side as they all congregated in the huge kitchen that was the heart of their home, just like it was in the Trainer family home.
Life wasn’t always exactly how you wanted it, and there were obstacles but Fin had to say that right in that moment, with these people around him, his kids seated on laps or sitting with people who loved them, it was pretty damned near perfect.
“We did good, Fin,” Maggie said, looking up at him.
“Real good,” he leaned down to kiss her.
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