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A Merry Little Christmas(4)

By:Melanie Schuster

Renee's excellent meal helped restore Donnie's usual good spirits. Like  all the Cochran men, he loved to eat and, luckily for him, all his  brothers had married fine cooks who never minded an extra person at the  table. His stepmother, Martha, was of the same school and it was  perfectly possible for Donnie to have a home-cooked meal every night of  the week if he so chose. He tried not to overstay his welcome in any one  place, but he thoroughly enjoyed dining with his family members, like  this evening. His nieces were being taught nice manners by their parents  and it was a pleasure to share a meal with them. By the time the table  was cleared and everyone had been served dessert, he was so mellow,  nothing could have disturbed his mood. Except for an innocent remark by  little Andie, that is.

"Guess what, Uncle Donnie? Auntie Angel is coming back tomorrow. Isn't that good?"

Donnie tried not to let his dismay show on his face, but it was  difficult, to say the least. Andrew, who could easily read his brother's  mind, immediately picked up on the remark.

"That really is good news, sweetie. We sure will be glad to see her, won't we?" he asked innocently.

Donnie's face went through several contortions in an effort to maintain a  neutral expression. He knew what Andrew was up to and he wasn't falling  for it this time. He looked at the sweet little faces of his nieces,  waiting for his answer, and gamely managed a smile. "Yeah, that's great.  Auntie Paris and Auntie Angel are coming back tomorrow. That's really  nice," he said with a clenched jaw.

Refusing to let Andrew get the best of him, he looked across the table  at his tormentor. "I guess I'll go pick them up from the airport," he  said, the glint in his eyes at odds with the helpful statement.                       


"Oh, that's not necessary," Renee said absently as she dabbed at little  Stephanie's mouth. "I talked to Angelique last night and A. J. is going  to pick them up. It's all taken care of."

If someone had offered him a large sum of money, Adonis couldn't have  explained why he suddenly felt left out. No one was a bigger pain than  Angelique and there was no one he wanted to avoid more. So why was he  suddenly feeling weird about not picking her up from the airport? Why  was he even thinking about her at all? What he needed to be doing was  going home and taking his dogs out for a run and trying to rid his mind  of clutter. And after clearing the dishes and loading the dishwasher for  Renee, that's exactly what he did.

Chapter Two

As happy as she had been to see her family, Angelique admitted to  herself that she was relieved to be back home. And yes, she did consider  Detroit to be home now. She and Paris emerged from the Deveraux Group's  private jet at Detroit Metro Airport to find Alan Jandrewski waiting  for them. A. J. was not only Angelique's mentor and inspiration he was  one of her closest friends. Her face lit up when she saw AJ.'s tall,  lean body walking toward them. She ran to him and threw her arms around  his neck for the big hug she knew awaited her.

"Welcome home, Angel. How was your holiday?" he asked after a long, satisfying embrace.

"It was wonderful, how was yours? Did your mom make chitlin' pierogies?" she teased.

A.J. laughed along with Angelique as Paris caught up with the two of  them. A.J. often made jokes about how his African-American heritage  blended with his Polish-American heritage in strange and wonderful ways.

"No, she didn't put chitlins in the pierogies this time, but I'll bet we  were the only ones in the neighborhood with Czarina soup and collard  greens in the same meal," he said cheerfully.

Paris didn't completely get the joke. "Now, what are pierogies again?" she asked.

"They're these little dumplings that have a filling in them, either meat  or potato or cheese, and they're really good," Angelique answered  before A. J. could respond. "And Czarina soup is made with duck blood.  It's delicious."

While Paris tried to stifle her reaction to the soup description,  Angelique hugged A.J. again. "Did your parents like their present?" she  asked shyly.

A J. smiled down at Angelique and put an arm around her shoulders.  Kissing her on the cheek, he assured her they had loved the photograph  she'd given them. It was a shot she had taken of A.J. the summer before  when they were in Africa. It seemed to sum up everything there was to  know about him in one shot. He'd been leaning against the mud-spattered  jeep that had been their transportation through the remote villages  they'd visited. He'd been wearing a ratty T-shirt, baggy khaki shorts  and hiking boots, and, as always, had an expensive camera around his  neck and a light meter in his hand. Angelique had captured the rakish  essence of him with the radiant smile that showed off his perfect white  teeth, the cleft in his chin, the golden warmth of his skin and the  genuine happiness in his dark, long-lashed eyes. Even after the surgery  to remove the tumor that had invaded his brain, and the grueling  radiation and chemotherapy that had followed, A. J. was still an  incredibly handsome man.

After the usual delay in getting the myriad suitcases and bags into  AJ.'s Range Rover, the trio was at last on their way to the duplex Paris  and Angelique shared. It was near Indian Village, one of several big  brick houses owned by Andrew and Renee. Before his marriage to Renee,  buying and remodeling older houses had been Andrew's chief hobby; now he  kept them for investments. After his marriage, his main occupation,  other than his medical practice in reconstructive surgery, was doting on  his wife and children. The house Paris and Angelique now occupied had  been Andrew's last residence before marrying Renee. It was typical of  the houses of that era, with hardwood floors, ornate woodwork and large,  beautifully proportioned rooms. The baby grand piano that was once the  center of the living room was gone now, but the rooms were still  attractive and welcoming to the eye.

Angelique was the one in charge of decorating; she had a flair for  combining colors and finding unusual objects that made the rooms lively  and inviting. She had chosen a warm color palette, with a golden apricot  glaze on the heavy plaster walls. The deco-style sofa, which she'd  found at a resale shop, was an unusual shade of citron with bright  pillows in hot pink, red and orange. The tall windows had bamboo blinds  and colorful curtains made of Indian bedspreads from Pier 1 Imports, one  of her favorite stores. The coffee table and the end tables were  authentic Danish modem, circa the 1960s, and had come from the Salvation  Army. After a long weekend with both women working very hard, they now  looked brand-new, gleaming with polish. There also was a beautiful  shelving unit that housed Paris's colorful collection of ceramic water  pitchers and teapots in fanciful shapes.                       


The armchairs came from IKEA, and the cushions were covered in geometric  prints that echoed the colors of the throw pillows. The big rug in the  middle of the room also combined the warm colors in stripes; the rug was  typical Angelique-she'd found colorful, handmade cotton rag rugs at  Target and sewn them together by hand to yield a big, bright accent that  pulled the room together beautifully. Anyone who came into the room  would think a professional had decorated it, but it was just Angelique's  creativity at work. Although, as A.J. frequently reminded her, she was  an artist and a professional. Further evidence of this was present in  the big, happy abstract painting over the fireplace, and the photographs  displayed; all were Angelique's work. The total effect was charming as  well as relaxing, as attested to by Paris and A.J., who lounged  comfortably while Angelique hauled bags and suitcases upstairs. On one  of her forays through the living room, A.J. grabbed her arm and pulled  her down on the sofa beside him.

"Can you chill for a minute?" he said playfully. "You've been racing  around here like a madwoman. Those suitcases aren't going anywhere; sit a  while and talk to us."

Paris eyed her active cousin with a smile. "Please make her be still for  a minute, A.J.! She has way too much energy, that's why she never gains  a pound."

"And she's compulsively neat, besides. The whole time we were traveling,  our tent always looked like a Martha Stewart layout." A.J. gave  Angelique a one-armed hug and grabbed her hand to prevent her from  hitting him with a throw pillow.

"I'm not compulsive," she defended herself. "But I have to be organized,  you know that. And it was really nice being home and seeing all my  babies again. How was your Christmas?" she asked, deftly switching the  focus of the conversation.