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Chapter Forty-six
Christmas in Three Mile Bay

"The LORD will be the hope of His people..."
~ Joel 3:16 ~

After that first struggle to sleep on the bed, Madison continued to need all the lights on until she thought to ask Terry for the angel in her apartment-- the tall Victorian angel guarding the two children crossing a damaged bridge. When it was placed on their dresser, it crowded with the second porcelain angel, but when both guardians were plugged in, their soft light was enough for Madison to calm herself and go over her verses. It wasn't so bright they kept Terry up at night, and all through it, he never complained.

All they'd been doing was snuggling though, and she knew he had to be missing her. By mid December, she had resorted to sleeping some nights on the floor so she and Terry could be close. She promised herself to not be defeated. She would keep trying.

As Christmas neared, the house became busier than usual while Madison and Izzy prepared for the holidays, and Terry and John kept up their hectic work pace. It became even busier when little kids wanted to watch.

Christmas cookies were in the oven, and as they baked, they filled the house with the spicy scent of gingerbread. They lured little children from their play to watch as Izzy and Madison set out wire racks on the countertops and table, and made them want to peek through the glass window on the oven door to see what was happening inside. More than once, they had to be warned not to get too close or their noses would be burned, and when the batch of gingerbread came out, the women had their undivided attention.

While Izzy arranged the cookie-cutter shapes on the wire racks, Madison rolled out more dough.

Lizzie popped up at Madison's side, and with Izzy's approval, the girl scooted in a chair and was given a small wad of dough to form as she liked. Madison cut out a gingerbread man, placed it on the metal sheet as Ruthie looked up pleadingly and Madison nodded for her to get another chair. It didn't take long for Debbie to join in, and soon small hands were busily forming and reshaping their cookies while laughter filled the kitchen. Madison kept cutting gingerbread men, then did several ginger-women, before moving on to trees and stars. There were so many cookie-cutters to choose from, it kept Madison busy doing ornaments, dogs dressed as carolers, and pretty snowflakes. The real stuff swirled in the sky every time Madison looked out the window-- a reminder of just how cold it was, and how much they were enjoying the warmth of the kitchen.

The next batch went in with the triplets clamoring to see their wads of dough. Then the process was repeated, and the women took turns setting out the cookies. While the girls waited for their creations to cool, it occurred to Madison that the triplets could wait and add frosting, but the thought of frosting on all those small hands made Madison shudder, and she willingly gave them their cookies when they cooled.

When the girls left, Madison repeated her thought to Izzy, and Izzy laughed.

"Now you're thinking like a mom."

The icing was as messy as Madison had feared, until she learned how to control the piping. Once she got the hang of it, she enjoyed making smiles on the ginger-people, dressing them in clothes, and writing the names of family members on the front. She paused to watch as Izzy outlined in different colors, then added sprinkles. She could do that too, and before she knew it, she was experimenting, and having more fun than she thought possible.

When Izzy stopped to watch, she gave Madison a slightly hesitant smile.

"I'm getting carried away, aren't I?" Madison stepped back and looked over her snowman, all covered in small swirls of white, and decked with a red and green scarf.

Izzy winced. "As long as you're having fun."

"But if I take this long with each cookie?"

"We're going to be here a long time," Izzy nodded.

With that in mind, Madison went back to work.

By the time a triplet had wandered into the kitchen and was asking when it was time to eat, Madison's hands were cramping.

"Is it really dinnertime?" Izzy groaned when she checked the rooster clock. They had turned on the overhead light long ago, for the gray overcast hadn't helped them see very well, so the sun had been useless to warn them it was getting late. Izzy looked to Madison for help.

"I'll keep going," Madison smiled, and Izzy nodded her thanks, and went to fix dinner.

The ache in Madison's neck had been steadily growing worse, but this needed to get done. This was fun, she kept telling herself, but the truth was, it had stopped being fun a while back, and now it was just plain work. She was making Christmas cookies, though. Life was truly amazing. She looked over her gingerbread man, swept a lopsided smile over his face, wrote "For Terry," then moved on to the next cookie.

"Do you have enough wrapping paper?" Izzy asked.

Madison didn't look up, but kept beading the white icing over the gingerbread snowflake. "I think so."

"I'm going to stay up after the girls go to bed tonight, and wrap presents. I don't know when you were planning to do yours, but you're welcome to join me. Girls," Izzy called into the next room, "settle down, please." Izzy looked back at Madison. "I overheard John on a conference call, and I have a feeling the guys are going to be working late again. We might as well make the best of it."

"Do you know if anything is wrong? I sometimes don't understand everything Terry tells me."

"There's always something going on in that office, but from the sound of it, they're just busy, that's all. Girls, what did I tell you about settling down?" Izzy went into the living room while Madison finished the last of the gingerbread men.

When dinner was ready, Madison set aside her cookies and sat down at the table with the others. Ruthie grinned when the men's chairs remained empty, as though they were having a special meal for "girls only." Izzy had called the men to dinner, and after ten minutes of them not coming, Madison went to check on them. Looking through the open door, she found Terry and John deep in discussion with a woman on one of the large monitors. Never mind the smooth dark hair that looked as though it had never known frizz, that effortless smile, the easy way she made men smile back at her; Terry was working-- Madison trusted him, but didn't that woman know Terry had to eat?

Terry glanced away from the screen, smiled at Madison, then did a double take.

"Dinnertime," Madison said a little loudly.

"We'll be there in a minute." John wrote something on a notepad as he spoke. "I want to get this down while it's fresh in our minds. I'd hate to have to go over this again."

The woman laughed. "Thanks for letting me take you away from dinner."

"Lara, I'd like you to meet someone," Terry waved to Madison. "You know I got married recently, but you haven't met my wife. Maddie, I want you to meet Lara Garcia, a friend and colleague, currently living in Baltimore."

"It's nice to meet you," Lara smiled. "I'm glad to see you have a life," Lara laughed to Terry. "You spend so much time working."

"You're one to talk," Terry laughed back.

Lara smiled. "I'm happy for you both."

"I think I've got all the major points down," John said, looking over his notepad. "I'll type this up in an email. Is there anything else we can help you with?"

"No, that should be it," Lara sighed. "Thanks, guys. This really wasn't my area of expertise."

"Security can be a lot harder than people think," Terry nodded. "If that's all, I'm afraid we've got to run--"

"I'll let you go," Lara smiled.

Madison smiled back at the pretty woman, and the camera turned off.

"Am I hungry." John pushed away from the desk. "You said dinner was ready? Great. I'll send off that email after I get something to eat. I wish we didn't have a deadline on top of our Singapore account, but I guess it couldn't be helped. You coming, Terry?"

"Yeah, in a moment." Terry sat back in his chair and looked at Madison.

"What deadline?" Madison asked. "Does it have to do with her-- the woman I just saw?"

"Who? Lara? That was just helping out a colleague." Terry scratched his cheek. "One of our clients needs some work done, and there's a deadline involved. We would turn them down, but they're counting on us."

"Aren't you already too busy?"

He shrugged. "By the way, Lara is just a colleague."

"But she likes you. So do I."

"I'm fond of you, too," Terry smiled. "If Lara forgot I was married, she knows now." He got up, reached for Madison, and she rested against him. "You've been baking cookies, haven't you? The house smells of gingerbread, and there's flour in your hair. If we're good, then let's go eat. I'm hungry." He kissed her cheek, and they went to the kitchen while Madison wondered what Terry's colleague must have thought of the flour.

To everyone's delight, they got to sample the gingerbread, though when Terry picked up the gingerbread man with the lopsided grin, he looked it over thoughtfully.

"I guess I shouldn't ask who made this," he chuckled.

"I did," Madison smiled.

"So you're asking me to eat myself?"

"I said 'For Terry.'"

"But you gave it a smile like mine. I don't know..." The triplets giggled as Terry bit off a limb, and munched. "I may be biased, seeing I'm eating my own gingerbread, and my wife helped make it, but this is good. Are there enough to send to Abe Winkler? Can you send cookies to Arizona?"

"Why not?" John smiled. "We should still have his address after we sent that retirement card."

Terry shook his head. "I wish Abe hadn't sold his store at the marina. That place hasn't been the same without him."

"It'll take some packing so the gingerbread won't arrive broken, but it could be done." Izzy got up, and when she came back, she had her recipes. "We're not done baking. I thought tomorrow we could make snowballs, and oatmeal raisin cookies. Then we can pack the Christmas tins, and send them to our neighbors, and of course, some to Abe Winkler." Izzy glanced over at Madison. "He's an old friend of the family. Is there anyone you'd like to add?"

"Could we give some to Carol? She's done so much for me and Terry."

"Carol it is." Izzy set aside the recipes. "I want to make sure we make up a nice tin for Dick and Sara. They'll be spending Christmas with Sara's mother, so we'll need to get it to them before they leave." Izzy thought a moment. "We'll still have plenty for our Christmas, and we'll need to, for there's going to be a lot of us."

"Will Tim be here for Christmas Eve, as well? Let me guess," John sighed when Izzy gave him a patient smile, "you told me while I wasn't listening. I'm sorry, Honey. If you could tell me one more time?"

"The O'Briens will be here for the twenty-fourth, as well as the twenty-fifth. I know I didn't schedule this on your calendar, but I thought I had your agreement that you and Terry would show up."

"We will," John nodded, standing up from the table. "It's a perfectly reasonable expectation."

"We'll be there," Terry assured them as they went back to the office.

Izzy looked at Madison. "This happens every time John gets swamped with work. I talk, and I'm never sure if he's listening."

"They have a deadline on top of their Singapore account," Madison explained, and Izzy looked defeated. "It's okay, they'll come. If they forget what day it is, we'll roll them out in their office chairs. We could get my brother to help."

Izzy laughed. "The poor guys. They work hard for us, don't they?"

"Do you think we could get the house ready on our own? I've never put up a tree, but if we could do it ourselves, then we wouldn't have to bother Terry and John. How soon do we need to get the tree?"

"We usually wait until Christmas Eve, but I'd like to get it done early since we're going to have company. But do it ourselves?" Izzy puffed her cheeks. "I've never put it up without John. You don't know what you're suggesting. Those trees can get huge-- they're usually twice my size."

"I'm bigger than you," Madison tried to encourage.

"We can help, Mommy."

Izzy looked at her girls.

"We could get Jake," Madison suggested. "I know Abby's probably busy with her work, but maybe Jake could spare some time."

"We could pay him in cookies," Izzy nodded, and went to get her phone.

* * * *

It wouldn't count as an interruption if they didn't know she was there, but of course they would. She wasn't invisible, and she had to get all the way to the bathroom. Easing the office door open, Madison kept her eyes on the bent heads, the faces intent on their work. Terry glanced at her, and she quietly groaned, and decided to just go where she needed before he asked questions and she made the interruption worse.

She kept the light off in the office bathroom, and grabbed every bag on the floor-- every Christmas present, and every office gift still left. Terry had stayed out of that bathroom for so long, he no longer seemed to have trouble remembering not to go in there, and she wanted him to have the room back. As she left, she hugged the rolls of wrapping paper as they slipped about in her arms, and winced as all the noise of crinkling shopping bags made both men look up from their work.

"You need help?" Terry asked as she made her way to the office door.

"I've got it--" Madison grabbed after a spool of ribbon as it bounced into the hall. "I still have it."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. You can go back to work." They were still watching her-- she could feel it as she gingerly balanced her bags and lowered herself without toppling over and losing more from her arms. She grabbed the silly spool of ribbon, glanced back into the office and saw Terry's head cocked.

"Anything in those bags for me?" he asked.

"Maybe, and maybe not." She stuck the spool into a bag. "The bathroom's all clear now. You can go in."

Terry wiggled his eyebrows at John, and she sighed.

"Thanks for staying out."

"Have a good time wrapping presents."

As she closed the door, Terry tossed her a wink. The door shut, but she was smiling. He thought he knew her so well, he could guess and be right. The trouble was, he had. As she struggled with her load of goodies to the master bedroom, she wondered if she had enough. The rest of her surprise gifts weren't going to be much of a surprise to Terry, for he already knew they were going to be office supplies, and she'd already given him the best ones. She'd bought him a nice sweater at the mall where she and Terry had done their shopping, and though he hadn't known it was for him, she'd felt a little disappointed that she hadn't been able to find him something better for Christmas.

Preparing herself for the master bedroom, Madison bumped against the door, and Izzy opened it and ushered her inside. "I'm glad it's so late," Madison said, as Izzy took her bags. "If the kids weren't in bed and asleep, there wouldn't be any way I'd could've gotten in here without them asking me half a dozen questions about what I was carrying."

"The girls can be alarmingly perceptive," Izzy smiled, looking over the wrapping paper Madison had brought. "You have some lovely gift wrap. Would you mind if we traded once in a while? I love the stars."

"I don't mind." Madison handed Izzy the rest of the wrapping paper as they knelt on the blanket they'd spread on the floor. "I was thinking I'd like to get Terry something more than just a sweater. He's so special, a sweater doesn't seem enough."

"I've always felt the best gifts are the ones that come from the heart."

Izzy's fine scissors zipped through a length of paper before Izzy snipped off the last part. "When we take Jake with us to get the Christmas tree, we could do some last minute shopping before we reach the tree lot. If we don't take long, I don't think Jake will mind."

It was a struggle to flatten but not crease her paper, and when there wasn't enough room, Madison turned and unrolled it on the carpet behind her. "Do you think Terry would be disappointed with a homemade Christmas present?"

"I don't think he would, especially if it came from you." Izzy flipped her package, added another piece of tape, then started in on the ribbon.

"Then I think I won't need to do more shopping." Madison smiled at her own plan, then hurried to follow what Izzy was doing. It wasn't easy to make the wrapping paper behave, or make those folds neatly. It took patience, and willingness to not get it perfectly, but Madison thought she was making progress. When Izzy turned on her laptop, and played festive music on low, so it wouldn't wake the girls down the hall, it helped to pass the time as they worked. Whenever Madison got into trouble, Izzy helped out, and held down corners while Madison taped.

Sometime after four, Madison realized Terry and John hadn't come looking for them.

"Those crazy men," Izzy mumbled, as the women climbed off the floor from a jumble of brightly colored paper clippings, strips of ribbon, and gift tags gone wrong. "They're still working, and haven't even noticed we've kept quiet about it."

"We usually do."

"I usually give mine a reminder," Izzy nodded, going for her phone. "I'll just text him so he'll know I've noticed. I think we've done a decent job for one night."

"Thanks for helping me, Izzy. I couldn't have done this without you."

"Nonsense. You pick up quickly."

"Not that quick." Madison rubbed her back. She'd been bending over packages all night, and was looking forward to bed. If Terry was still working though, she would be watching TV on the couch.

"He answered," Izzy said, texting John in return. "I'm telling John what we're going to be up to the day after tomorrow."

A minute later, they heard a knock on the bedroom door. Terry came in, his eyes bloodshot from having been up late reading from his large screens. "John told me you were getting a tree. Surely, you weren't getting it without me? Man, I knew I've been working too much. I always get the tree. It's tradition."

"But you're busy--" Madison tried to explain.

"Not too busy for the tree." Terry ran a hand over his hair, and made it stand on end. "If you want to get it early, great, but you're not getting it without me. You girls wouldn't know what to look for-- you'd be lost without me."

Madison nodded. "Yes, Terry."

"So I'm going."

"We don't want to be lost without you," Madison smiled.

Terry quirked an eyebrow, and she went over and kissed him.

"Okay then." Terry shook his head. "Though I suspect you're humoring me, I'm glad we agree." Then she saw him look about the master bedroom, and watch as she gathered the clips and unusable bits of leftover wrapping paper. "I'll get a trash bag," he offered.

It went faster with Terry helping, and he even carried all the presents to the office bathroom, where they would be safely tucked away from the munchkins until the tree was up. Terry stacked them carefully so none of the bows would be crushed, and John also helped, both men saying it came as a welcome break from their work. When the last gift had been put away, the bathroom door was locked, with Terry joking that he would be staying out, after all.

That night, though Madison needed the music to cover the sounds of the mattress, she fell asleep so fast, all she really cared about was her pillow, and Terry's arm about her waist.

* * * *

The next day found Madison in the kitchen making the last of the Christmas cookies with Izzy. They packed up the gingerbread into festive, cleaned-out tins Izzy had saved from previous years, put gift tags on them, then set the tins aside to be delivered along with Abe Winkler's package. The gifts had been wrapped, the cookies made, and the way was clear to get the tree.

As promised, Terry took the evening off from work the next day, and so did John. They bundled up the triplets in their boosters, and the family packed into the minivan for a short three-mile drive to the Christmas tree lot in Chaumont. The weather was cold, but not so bad John minded taking everyone out for an early evening outing. The overcast sky sent down a soft dusting of tiny cold lace as Madison walked between the rows of cut evergreens with Terry.

Terry's breath turned to white puffs as he spoke. "We're looking for the right shape, at least two good sides, and a decent price." He took her hand, and pulled her close to his side. "I love you."

She hugged his arm.

"I just want to make sure I'm not too busy it goes unsaid." Terry squeezed her hand, looked at her as though making sure of something, then moved on to the next row.

"What?" she asked.

"If I was doing something wrong, you'd tell me, wouldn't you? Before I kept doing it and it hurt our marriage? Sometimes, I may not see it coming, Maddie, but you might. I may be too dumb, or too busy, or God forbid I'm doing it on purpose, but I'm counting on you to help me out. Tell me." Terry looked at her. "Level with me. Please."

"I will."

"Have I been too busy? Have I been taking care of you? Have I missed any signals, and not been there for you when you needed me?"

She bit her lip.

"Tell me, Maddie. I need to know."

"When you work really late..."


"I don't sleep as well without you."

Terry stopped walking. "You've been watching TV, and waiting up for me, haven't you?"

She shrugged.

"Have I been that blind?"

"You're under a lot of pressure. I understand." Madison hugged him, and pulled him forward until his feet started to work again. "I'm all right, Terry. I would have told you if I thought I was in trouble."

Terry punched the air as though he wished it was himself. "I'm sorry I didn't do better, Maddie. I think I'm going to need your help on this. Izzy texts John, so maybe you could do the same for me? Maybe we could work on an outside late time, and if I haven't knocked off by then, you could text me. I promise, I'd do my hardest to get to a cut-off point as soon as possible."

She hugged Terry as the snow fell and they strolled through the tree lot. She didn't know anything about finding the right Christmas tree, but she had definitely found the right man.

When Terry had picked out the tree and John had agreed that "this was the one," they brought it home, then ate a hot dinner.

Their night was just beginning.

The Murphys came over, and Abby, Debbie, and Ricky went out to the garage with John to find the Christmas things while Jake and Terry hauled the Fraser fir into the house. Soon John came in with a Christmas tree stand, and when he went back, it was with an excited Lizzie and Ruthie. While the others went to find buried treasure in the garage, Terry and Jake lifted the large tree into the stand, and made sure it had enough water.

The front door pushed open as Lizzie came in, her arms full with a dirty white bag labeled, "Christmas wreath-- don't crush."

"Not on the couch!" Izzy gasped as the girl dumped her armload onto a clean cushion, then dashed outside.

"Is it supposed to be crooked?" Madison asked, cocking her head at the tall evergreen.

Izzy's eyes went wide as Debbie raced into the house with a tall dusty box that was supposed to hold the angel for the top of the tree. "On the floor, please. Thank you."

Kneeling, Terry adjusted the base. "How about now?" he called.

"Now it's crooked the other way."

"Which way?"

The front door slammed, Abby came in, boxes coming up to her nose, while Debbie scampered around her, and back outside. "I can hardly wait until Jake and I have collected enough history to put up this much junk," she declared with a rosy face.

"Just don't put the junk on the couch," Izzy implored. "Terry, Jake-- did you know the tree is lopsided?"

"But which way?" Terry asked.

"To the right," Izzy pointed, and went to Abby's boxes. "Madison, would you help me find the mini lights? Those have to go on first."

Jake shook his head. "I don't know. The tilt might be built into the tree."

"We're going to get neck aches, but we'll survive," Abby laughed.

"How about now?" Terry asked, as he and Jake slightly moved the base.

"I think you have it-- don't move," Madison cried, and Terry scrambled out from under the tree. "Terry, you're brilliant. So are you, Jake." Madison hugged Jake, and the young man smiled.

When the front door slammed open, Izzy shook her head. "Would you children please be more gentle with the front door?" Izzy turned, and saw John.

John grinned sheepishly, and held up a box. "I found the nativity set." Three girls, and a little boy ran in behind John carrying a long garland, the end trailing behind them. "You were supposed to leave that in the trash. It's shedding like crazy."

"Oh, my." Izzy looked a little faint when she saw the carpet, but she revived and went back to searching the boxes for the mini lights.

This was a special night, a tree trimming night, one filled with captured memories from the family's past. Madison searched through ornaments handmade by Izzy during different stages of the girls' childhood, store-bought bows, near-antiques that Abby assured Madison weren't but had been in the family so long they looked expensive. Madison saw wooden cranberries on strings, a pair of white doves with the year stamped in glitter-gold, a porcelain mother holding a baby angel, and cute girl ornaments, often in sets of three.

At last, John found the box of multi-colored mini lights. He placed the large tangled wad of green cord and bulbs on the carpet, and moved to plug the end into the wall. When it lit up, Izzy tried to remember if that meant there weren't any bad bulbs, or if it only meant they now could see the ones that were.

"Careful, those bulbs are made of glass," John warned when someone began to handle them roughly. "Let me do this while you guys fluff the tree, and put hooks on the ornaments. We'll go faster that way."

"Good old Dad. Way to take charge, Dad." Abby smiled at John, but John just shook his head, and worked to sort through the hopeless knot before him.

All four children wanted to help get the ornaments ready, and while the grownups helped them, it seemed progress went slowly. When a child picked up an ornament to "look at it," the wire hook sometimes fell out. While they seemed to be having fun, John was another story.

"Next year, we're storing these lights differently," John announced.

"You say that every year," Izzy smiled.

John rolled his shoulders, and Terry moved to the floor to help his buddy.

It took some doing, but by the time the men had the mini lights untangled, and the bad bulbs replaced, everyone was mostly ready with the ornaments. Abby went into the kitchen to make everyone hot cocoa, and since Ricky was eager to help, she took him along to count out the mugs and spoons.

"I don't know," Jake sighed, sitting on the couch while they all took a break and waited for the cocoa, "by the time we get this tree done, we might not have the heart to put ours up when Christmas Eve rolls around. We might just come over and look at yours."

"Oh no, we're putting our tree up, even if it kills us," Abby called from the kitchen, and Jake dropped his head back with a groan.

"Come on, Baby, you're only thinking like that because you're tired."

"He looks it," Terry said from the recliner.

Abby leaned in from the kitchen, and looked at the couch. "If you'll help me put up the tree, I'll do the decorating."

"I'll help you put it up," Terry said, and John seconded the offer as he came back from checking his email.

Jake smiled his thanks, and Abby grinned.

When the hot cocoa was brought out with a plate of Christmas cookies, everyone perked up, including Jake. The living room was a festive mess, the munchkins were wearing brown mustaches, and Madison felt warm inside-- a kind of happy warmth that couldn't come from hot cocoa, but from a full heart. She felt like hugging someone, and since Terry was the closest, she snuggled with him while everyone watched John and Izzy begin to string the lights. Next came the garlands, and the strings of carved wooden cranberry beads.

Then the fun really started, and the triplets begged to put up their own ornaments. Not wanting to leave Ricky out, John entrusted his grandson with the anniversary ornaments, and John's personal favorites. His small face set and determined, Ricky treated each one as though they needed just the right spot, and Ricky even crawled under the tree to find them. Madison noticed each child was doing things in their own unique way, even the triplets. Debbie asked anyone who was willing, to place her ornament up where she wanted, while Ruthie scooted a chair from the kitchen to stand on it, and do it herself. Izzy hovered to make sure Ruthie didn't fall. Lizzie, however, hung her ornaments from branches all within reach.

As Madison watched everyone trimming the tree, she felt a tap on her shoulder.

"Why aren't you joining in?" Terry asked. "Maybe it's because you don't have anything in your hands. I can fix that." He handed her a small shipping box. "I ordered this a few days ago, thinking I had more time before we would be getting the Christmas tree. When Izzy told John you were getting the tree early, I thought this might not get here in time."

"What is it?" She looked at the box that had been delivered that very day.

He smiled as she pulled off the packing tape. When she took out what was inside, and unwrapped it from all the foam, she realized Jake was smiling at them.

"I see you followed the same suggestion you gave me," Jake said, as Madison gazed at a porcelain couple-- one with brown hair, the other with hair like her own. They were standing together, holding a Christmas wreath, and on the wreath it said, "Terry and Maddie, Our 1st Christmas," and it gave the year. Jake nodded to Terry, and went back to the tree while Madison held the couple, treasuring their sweet faces, the way they held the wreath and looked at each other.

"You like it-- I can tell," Terry grinned. "This is going to be the first of many. Between John and Izzy, and you and me, we're going to flood this tree with memories. It's going to keel over, it'll be so heavy."

Madison turned into Terry, and hugged him.

"Breathe, Maddie. Just breathe." Terry hugged her, and she wished she could've taken a snapshot of that moment, that warm feeling inside her that love was only beginning. When she looked at the ornament, she realized that's just what Terry had done.

As they hunted for a spot on the tree to hang their keepsake, Izzy saw it, and beamed her approval.

"Since this is your first Christmas together," Izzy said, leading them to the very front of the tree, "it should have a place of honor."

Choosing a branch that could bear the weight of their ornament, Madison looked to Terry to see what he thought. He grinned, and handed her another-- this time a glass bulb. Before Madison knew it, she was hanging ornaments with everyone else. Though it took time, she thought she'd never seen a prettier Christmas tree. It didn't look like one of those trees on TV, all glossy and flawless, and designer. This one had kittens with mittens, skating snowmen, and candy canes from the MegaMart. This one looked like someone loved it, that it was real, and belonged in an actual home.

When they were done, everyone stood back, and John plugged in the tree. Madison had seen what the mini lights looked like on the floor, but on the tree, they took her breath away.

Izzy moved closer. "Can you hear any music yet?"

John stepped behind the tree, fiddled with something, and in a music box voice, the tree began to play "Away in a Manger." Then the lights began to softly pulse to the music, and Abby went over and turned off the overhead lights. Everyone ooed and ahhed, and though Madison knew her mouth had surely dropped open, she couldn't help it. It was the most beautiful sight she'd ever seen, homemade ornaments, and all.

"She's beautiful," Terry whispered, hugging Madison to his side.

"She is," Madison nodded. "Look at the angel on top-- she's dimming in time to the music." Madison glanced at Terry, and saw he was looking at her, and not the tree.

The glow of Christmas lights danced in his eyes as he leaned in for a kiss. Sweet and soft, and filled with love, and every bit of that love tasted of Terry. He chased after her with a nibble on the ear, and she cuddled against his neck. As the tree changed to "Jingle Bells," they turned to watch the lights dance. Madison leaned against Terry, and sighed as his arms circled her and kept her warm.

She was loving Christmas.

* * * *

The apartment was ready for Tim, Karen, and the girls, and if the weather would only hold, they would soon be here. Karen had called, and they were close. It was Christmas Eve, and Madison's excitement was running high as she added another ornament to the small tree she and Terry had bought for the living room. They had wanted to give the O'Briens a taste of Christmas during their stay in Terry's apartment, though if things went according to plan, they would only see it at night, when they came back from Three Mile Bay. The TV was on, and Terry was half watching, half smiling at someone running down a snowy street shouting how wonderful life was. Terry had said he'd seen the movie a hundred times, but Terry's smile told her he was willing to make that a hundred-and-one.

When Madison glanced at the clock in the TV cabinet, she heard Terry chuckle.

"That won't bring them here any faster."

"Will the wreath fall off?"

"I put the fastener in myself. The girls can open and shut that door all they want, and it won't fall off."

"They should've been here by now." Madison looked at Terry, but Terry was watching TV. She put the last ornament on the tree, put the box away, then went to the window. Tim could come now. Everything was in place. Just to be sure, Madison stepped outside and straightened the wreath.

"Maddie, you're letting the heat out."

She came back, and closed the door.

"Double-checking my work?" Terry smiled.

"If they had car trouble, Karen would call. Wouldn't she?"

Muting the TV, Terry held out his hand to Madison. "Do you want to pray about their drive, again?"

She nodded, and went to Terry. As they bowed their heads, something sounded out front. They looked over and saw a vehicle pull up, one that looked an awful lot like Tim's minivan.

Terry smiled. "I'd say that's an answer to prayer, wouldn't you?"

Quickly changing her prayer request to one of thanks, Madison hurried to welcome her family. She threw open the door, and Terry was right-- the wreath stayed put. Terry rushed after her with her coat, and Madison struggled to get the thing on as she ran. Tim came around the hood of the minivan as the side door opened, and Paige hopped out. The girl reached Madison first, a bundle of blue coat and flying red hair.

"Merry Christmas!" Paige flew into Madison's arms. "It's so wonderful about the baby! Oh, why can't we always be as happy as we are right now?" Looking up, Paige smiled into the sky as the snow started to fall. "I love it, don't you? Snow makes the world so pretty!"

Shaking his head at Paige, Tim came over and gave Madison a hug. "I can't believe you're making me an uncle. How are you? Any morning sickness?" The passenger door opened, and Tim hurried to help Karen out of the minivan, giving Madeline her chance to get a hug from Madison. A baby's cry broke through the hellos, and Madison looked over to see Tim lifting Connie from her baby carrier. "There, there," Tim said, rocking the precious bundle before Karen wrapped the baby in one more blanket against the cold.

Madison felt a tug on her coat.

"We brought presents," Madeline informed her, and Madison looked about to see if anyone could hear them.

"I believe there's something under the tree for you, too."

Madeline grinned, the cold turning her cheeks a rosy bright pink.

"Merry Christmas!" Karen waved to Terry, then hurried over to Madison while Tim carried Connie. "You know what this means, don't you?" Karen greeted Madison with a sunny smile and open arms. "Our babies are going to grow up knowing each other." Karen hugged her, then smiled and hugged Terry. "Congratulations to both of you, and Merry Christmas. Thank you for inviting us-- you know how we love coming, especially the girls. I'm afraid it's my fault we didn't make it for Thanksgiving. I was feeling under the weather."

"You needed your rest, and besides, you're here now." Madison smiled as Tim gave the baby to Karen. "Is this the same little girl?" Madison pushed a bit of blanket away from Connie's face, and the baby gazed back at her with the pale blue eyes of her momma. "I can't believe how much she's grown in only two and a half months."

Karen laughed. "I'm afraid babies do that."

"The snow is picking up," Terry apologized, and the party headed inside while the men gathered luggage.

"It hasn't been snowing all morning, so you picked a good time to get here," Madison said, showing her guests into the apartment.

While everyone got settled, Madison pulled out her cell phone and let Izzy know that Tim and Karen had arrived safely.

"I'll have lunch waiting, so come when you're ready," Izzy said, talking over the sound of children playing in the background. "Jake and Abby have their Christmas tree. Would your nieces like to join in the tree trimming after lunch? The more the merrier."

When Madison asked Paige and Madeline, their eagerness surprised her. Then she found out from Karen that they'd only had room for a tiny tree in their apartment, so the chance to decorate a full sized one came as a treat to the girls. Paige and Madeline couldn't get into the minivan fast enough, though the men had to get the bags upstairs first, and Karen wanted to see the bassinet AJ had loaned them for Connie.

"I'm afraid we're putting you to a lot of trouble," Karen worried as they filed outside.

"If you were, we'd be charging you rent," Terry said, and Madison punched Terry in the side. "What? I was kidding."

Tim only laughed, and the couples parted as they climbed into the two vehicles for the drive into Three Mile Bay. Terry had borrowed Izzy's car, and though it wasn't the jeep, Madison enjoyed the gentle ride.

By the time they reached the house, the snow had all but stopped, so when everyone climbed out, sunlight was filtering onto the bay.

As Karen stood in the snow in her boots, she pulled out her camera. Karen had seen the bay before, but Madison had to admit Three Mile Bay held a wild beauty with those snow-covered banks. The bay wasn't frozen yet, and according to Terry, probably wouldn't until mid-January. Tim stood by his wife and held Connie, while Madeline and Paige walked around the house, and out to the shore.

"Come back," Tim called. "You've made enough snowmen at home."

"But not here," Madeline whimpered.

"Later," Tim said, and the girls came trudging back.

As John came out, Lizzie stuck close at John's side. "Merry Christmas," John greeted them.

"Merry Christmas," Tim chuckled, as Connie grasped a tiny hand at John and goo'ed.

Any renewed shyness the triplets had over the O'Briens quickly vanished when Karen sat on the couch and unbundled Connie. The baby girl began to coo, then fuss, and the girls watched, seemingly fascinated as Karen checked Connie's diaper. Paige was sent to the kitchen to warm a bottle while Karen got up with a diaper bag.

When Karen started for the master bedroom, Madison opened the door to her own bedroom, and Karen gasped a little, as though she hadn't expected to see what she did.

"We don't have the couches, anymore," Madison explained, trying not to hug herself. "Do you want the door closed?"

"Thanks, no. I'm only going to change her diaper." Karen glanced around the room, as though taking a silent survey. Her eyes stopped at the wall, then moved away, as though sensing she was seeing something personal. With a nod, she looked back at Madison. "You're a strong woman."

"I didn't move the couches out, myself. Terry--"

"No," Karen smiled, "I didn't mean it that way. You're stronger than I am. I would have given up a long time ago."

"I survived," Madison shrugged. "It's what you do when you don't give up, and since God didn't let go, neither did I."

"Then you keep going," Karen nodded, "because whatever you're doing, it's working." As Madison glanced back at her wall, Karen turned to the bed. "Would you like to help change Connie's diaper? So you'll know how, when your turn comes?"

Grateful, Madison stood beside Karen, and for the next several minutes, Karen showed her the useful skill of changing a diaper. Karen was a pro, and Connie responded to her voice, and to her touch like someone who knew without a doubt, who her momma was. When Connie was changed, and dressed, Karen gentled the baby into Madison's arms, and for a moment, Madison felt too overwhelmed to hold her. The heft of her-- a life, and so trusting, it filled Madison with awe until Connie heard her momma's voice and decided she would rather be with her momma instead of this stranger.

"You're her world, aren't you?" Madison asked, as Connie settled on Karen's shoulder.

"Not all of it, but a big part of it," Karen admitted. "Tim has been a big help, though. Connie knows who her daddy is, don't you, Sweetie?"

Madison smiled. Though she wondered how things were going between Karen and Tim, she didn't want to intrude.

They folded the changing blanket, put things away, then went to join the others in the living room as the tree was being admired. While carols played, people enjoyed ham sandwiches and cranberry juice, then Christmas cookies were brought out and everyone loaded up on sugar.

Then John called AJ, and the party moved to the little yellow house so they could trim the new Christmas tree.

As Ricky snacked on the gingerbread Madison had brought, the tall Fraser fir in AJ's living room put on her gown of tinsel and lights. Terry and John sat on the couch and watched with Ricky, Tim, and Baby Connie, for there were enough decorating the tree to make quite a commotion.

Moving closer to the couch, Madison could hear Terry and Tim chat over the laughter, the giggles and screams when Madeline and Debbie tossed tinsel at each other. "Maddie said you were coming?" Terry smiled when Tim nodded, "yes." "The road will only be worse tomorrow, so John and I thought we should try and get to this evening's Christmas Eve service, instead."

Tim nodded that it was fine with him, while on his lap, Connie played with his fingers. Tim glanced at the tree where Karen stood with two of the triplets, holding and passing ornaments. "You know, I didn't think it would last this long."

Madison wondered if Karen could overhear, but the men were speaking quietly, and no one was paying them any attention.

"You've got something good going," Terry said, and Tim nodded.

"She's still here, no thanks to me." Tim looked away from Karen. "We had some hard times after the baby came, but lately, it's been good. It's hard to trust it won't go wrong like it did with Andrea, but I guess it's not Karen I don't trust, but myself. I mean, Andrea didn't just leave-- I drove her away. I must have. She left--" Tim glanced at Madeline, and lowered his voice even more. "If I ever do that to Karen, I don't know what I'd do. Did you know I'm reading a Bible?" Tim glanced at Terry. "I know that sounds crazy coming from me. I mean, Grandma treated religion like a superstition she was afraid to completely ignore, which was more or less how I was raised. Karen, though," Tim nodded as he looked back at his wife, "she was brought up with a little more respect for religion than me. She had more than I did when it came to God, or for that matter, parents, and a home. Which wasn't hard. Everyone always had more than I did." Tim looked at Terry. "Sorry, I didn't mean... I heard about your..."

"We all had things to deal with," Terry shrugged.

Tim slowly nodded, and his eyes fell on Madison.

Madison smiled.

"I was just telling Terry, I've been going to church with Karen."

"You have?" Madison strained to hear her brother, for now that he was talking to her, he lowered his voice even more.

"I haven't joined, or anything, but I'm trying to listen with an open mind."

"It's a start," Madison smiled.

"What's going on?" Karen asked, coming over with a handful of artistic fish ornaments. She smiled as Connie reached for her, and slobber fell from her chin and onto her yellow bib. "Have you asked them about the presents?"

"Oh, yeah," Tim nodded, "we have gifts in the minivan."

While they talked about their plans for Christmas morning, Madison did her best to help Abby clean away the tinsel, pine needles, and ornament hooks from the carpet. Jake turned on the lights, and the kids cheered when the lights began to race over the tree in blinking patterns that Madison had to admit were very hypnotizing. She thought back to Tim's conversation, and prayed. She would never stop praying for Tim and his family.

The sun had come out by the time they tramped across the freshly fallen snow, and when Madison stepped into the house, it welcomed her with "Silent Night." She smiled at the tree, took off her coat, and went into the kitchen to help Izzy prepare Christmas Eve dinner while everyone, including Jake, Abby, and Ricky, gathered in the living room. Someone quieted the tree, then turned on "A Christmas Carol" movie that had the munchkins singing and laughing. While Izzy took in eggnog, Madison finished arranging crackers around the cheese log. Then Madison took in the appetizers, as Izzy slid the homemade pizzas into the oven and set a timer.

The living room was boisterously crowded and noisy, but everyone was having fun, including Connie, who fell asleep in spite of it all.

There was plenty of pizza for everyone, and pumpkin pie and Christmas cookies for dessert.

Then John and Terry closed up the house, and everyone got on their shoes and coats, and Karen went to change Connie one more time. Izzy made sure the triplets used the bathroom, while Abby re-combed Ricky's hair with her fingers, and the men went out and warmed the engines until John came in and quietly wondered what was taking so long. The families piled out of the house and into the vehicles as the sky darkened and a light wind swirled the few snowflakes that fell from the heavens.

Madison got into the car with Terry, and watched as the vehicles formed a caravan. Terry nodded to John to lead the way before pulling in back of John's minivan. Then Madison looked in the mirror as Tim's minivan got in back of their car, and headlights behind them showed AJ's truck. It was quite a line for such a short drive.

"Warm?" Terry asked, as he adjusted the heater.

Madison nodded, though she still kept her coat zipped up over her new red and white sweater. "How did Tim and Karen look to you? I've been praying for their marriage."

"I think they're far from calling it quits." Terry checked the mirror. "Give them time."

"One day, I wish they could be as happy as us."

"They aren't us, Maddie. No one is going to have the same marriage as the next couple."

She sighed.

"I went bird watching once," Terry smiled, "and I asked my friend who knew more about birds than I did, if those small birds all had their own personality. I'm not talking about big flashy parrots here, but common little birds that bounce on the grass looking for bugs-- the ones people miss all the time because they're everywhere. And he said yes, as far as he knew, they did. And then he pointed out their behaviors: the one who kept hopping close to the others and didn't like being alone, the one who pushed the others away from their hunting spots even though he hardly used them himself, the scared one who was frightened of everything and made the others scatter. The more I watched, it occurred to me that God isn't afraid of variation. Not in snowflakes, not in birds, and certainly not in people."

"You went bird watching?"

"You're missing my point. Tim and Karen's happiness won't look like ours."

Madison smiled at her sweet husband.

"What?" Terry asked.

"Did my present come in time for tomorrow?"

"Did you get my point?"

"I got it," she nodded. "Did it come?"

He grinned as they pulled into the church's parking lot. "You'll find out tomorrow."

A light blinked on in the parking lot, showing off the red bow beneath its lamp. Cars poured in, and it took some doing to find a parking space as John, Tim, and Abby did the same.

"We've should've gone with John and Izzy, and saved ourselves some trouble," Terry sighed, after they'd found a space, and he'd shut off the engine. He quieted as Madison took his hand, and good humor came back to his voice. "We won't let a little hassle get in the way of why we came here."

Squeezing Terry's hand, she pushed her door open. Neighbors waved, cold nipped at Madison's nose as she and Terry joined the rest of their family. Three Mile Bay was in full celebration mode, and everyone was greeting each other with a hug. Madison saw Tyler Greene and his wife there, looking as though they were enjoying the evening with their baby, and Tyler's parents.

The crowd slowly filed inside, found their pews, and even though Madison didn't know all the carols and hymns, she stayed close to Terry and shared his hymnal as they always did. When Pastor Bill read from Luke about the shepherds hearing an angel tell them of "the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger," Madison tried to dry her eyes without anyone noticing. God had loved her enough to send His own Son, and now that she was having a baby of her own, it meant even more to her.

After the reading, they sang more carols, and then it was time to leave with people lingering in the aisle to wish each other Merry Christmas. Love. That was what Christmas was about, and as she went home with Terry, Madison promised herself to never forget the sacrifice paid by the small Baby in the manger.

* * * *

How could Terry sleep? Madison watched the closed eyes, the slack mouth, then wondered what would happen if she stuck an earbud in his ear with her music pumped up. She pressed the button on top of the phone, and the screen lit up, showing her the time against the green glow of Terry's pajamas. It would be Christmas in four hours and eighteen minutes. Or when everyone woke up, and Tim and Karen and the girls came over. Or did the fact it was after midnight count?

Terry's mouth moved.

"What?" Madison took an earbud out.

"I said, go to sleep."

"Are you having a nice Christmas?"

"Uh-huh." Terry's voice drifted off into a snore.

"Abby said you sometimes go caroling. Could we do that next year? Would you take me? Terry?" Madison nudged him, but he kept sleeping. She went back to her music, closed her eyes, and wondered if it was snowing.

* * * *

For some odd reason, Madison had the feeling she was being watched. The dream slipped away, and the feeling stayed, until she forced her eyes open. A pair of startling blue eyes blinked back at her, along with a sweet, sweet smile. Ruthie bumped noses with Madison, and said something Madison could only half hear.

Pulling the earbuds out, Madison sat up. The mattress started to creak, and Madison had to hurry the earbuds back in.

"It's Christmas," Ruthie said in a loud voice, and Madison nodded that she'd heard her. Ruthie excitedly tugged at Madison's hand, her eyes as large as Madison had ever seen them. "We can't... until... get there." Madison was only picking up a word here and there, but she got the general idea, and hurried to climb out of bed.

Terry appeared in the doorway, and shooed the girl from the room. He pulled out an earbud so she could hear him, then went and closed the door. "Get dressed, the O'Briens are on their way."

He was half dressed in pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt, and they both went to the closet. Terry put on a long-sleeve shirt, some slacks, went to the bathroom to shave as Madison hurried into her soft wool stockings, and the green one-piece dress she had bought for the occasion.

As Terry shaved, Madison shared the mirror with him, fixed her hair, and put on her makeup.

He finished first, of course.

"If you're not out of here in five minutes, we'll start opening presents without you." Terry grinned as he danced from her reach. He was in high spirits, and stepped back to snag a kiss before leaving the bathroom to get his shoes. "Are all our presents in the living room?"

"They should be." Madison added a little more eyeshadow, then looked over her hair. Good thing she'd showered before bed to make getting ready this morning easier.

Deciding she was done, Madison went into the bedroom and found Terry had left. She put on her shoes, made the bed, then hurried into the hall, and checked the triplets. Izzy had her hands full getting them dressed. After Madison promised she would get breakfast started, she hurried to the kitchen, for it seemed everyone had slept in but the munchkins.

The front door sounded as Madison tied on her apron, and Abby came into the kitchen with a sleepy smile.

"Merry Christmas," Abby greeted. "I came over to see if you needed any help."

"If you could make sure the coffee is ready, I can do everything else. Are your presents under our tree?"

"Jake and Ricky are bringing them," Abby said with a yawn. "Ricky had so much trouble staying asleep last night. He kept asking if it was Christmas. He gets it from his dad," she smiled.

Madison was grateful Terry wasn't there to tease her with a comment of his own. While she arranged the platters of muffins, cinnamon rolls, and Christmas cookies, Abby sank into a chair half awake.

Hurrying in with an apology for not helping sooner, Izzy looked over their progress. "It looks as though you and Abby have everything under control," Izzy nodded. She went to the cupboard and got out the paper plates with the poinsettia and holly, and the matching napkins. "Listen to those girls, they can hardly wait. John--" Izzy turned as the men came into the kitchen looking for their coffee-- "would you go out there and make sure the girls don't touch the presents? I told them to wait for the O'Briens."

"They're here, they're here!" The triplets flooded around Terry and John, their excited faces searching for someone, anyone, to admit that it WAS TIME.

Running out of time herself, Madison looked over the tray. "I forgot the eggnog." She raced to the fridge while the front door opened.

Terry snagged his mug.

"Where do you want the presents?" Jake asked, as he came into the kitchen with a wide-awake Ricky.

The grownups looked at the triplets, and Debbie shrugged.

"I thought it was them."

"Who?" Jake asked.

"Put the gifts around the tree," Izzy directed, and as she spoke, everyone heard a door slam. "Okay," Izzy admitted, "now that sounds like the O'Briens."

As John went to go check, everyone followed but the women.

"It's them," John announced, and while the triplets cheered, the women rushed to finish getting everything ready. Izzy took two platters, Madison took the last, and Abby followed with the napkins and plates while John invited the O'Briens inside.

As the food was set out on the end table, Madison greeted her family. Karen came in with Connie, but Tim and the girls were carrying presents, and the sound of "Merry Christmas!" filled the air. Cold rushed in behind Madeline before John shut the door, and the living room bustled as coats came off and Tim and Jake set out the new presents around the tree. With so many families, the tree was full to overflowing, and the children, including Paige, were growing restless. Before everything, John asked if they would all mind a prayer, and Tim told John to go ahead.

With bowed heads, John thanked God for the chance for their families to come together and celebrate Jesus's birthday, and for the blessings they were about to share with each other.

Then, with the house smelling of hot cocoa and coffee, the grownups found seats on the couch, pulled out chairs, and with Abby and Jake sharing the recliner, the munchkins sat on the floor. Presiding as the gift passer-outter, John sat near the tree, and pulled out the first gift. "To Debbie, From Daddy and Mommy."

The girl thanked her parents, then tore into the present with all the enthusiasm of someone about to turn five next month. She took out four books all on one subject, cried with delight, and went to hug John and Izzy.

"Books," Karen said, looking impressed.

"She'll need someone to read to her, but Debbie is into astronomy right now," Terry smiled. "Before, it was whales-- anything, and everything about whales." Terry shrugged, and John passed the next present to Lizzie. One by one, John made sure the munchkins each got a present, right on up to Paige. Ruthie got a fifty-piece jigsaw puzzle, and Lizzie got a working toy camera. Not wanting to show favorites, Terry and Madison had prepared for each triplet, Ricky, Paige, and Madeline a small gift bag loaded with all kinds of goodies. A wind-up dog, a die-cast car, a necklace, a small bottle of perfume, some sugarless candy. Ricky didn't have the perfume, of course, but each bag was heavy with age-appropriate things they hoped each child would enjoy.

The bags were all passed out at the same time, and Madison and Terry had the joy of seeing so many faces light up around the room. Even Connie got a bag, though the girl had no idea what was going on.

"Thank you," Paige said, giving Madison a hug. "I've never tried L. M. Montgomery before."

"Your momma suggested the book," Madison confessed. "I haven't read it, but she said it's a great story. She said something about carrots."

As the gifts went around, Karen got a new coat from Tim-- a nice one that brought tears to Karen's eyes. Though Karen had evidently admired it before, and Tim had bought it in secret, he still looked taken off guard when Karen kissed him. Tim seemed more grateful, than pleased. None of it went unnoticed by Paige, and even though the girl had lovely presents of her own, none of them made Paige look as happy as that one gift from Tim to her mother.

A fact that made Madison love her niece even more.

Then Madison saw John pick up a familiar box.

"For Terry, From Madison."

Everyone smiled as the gift was passed down and handed to Terry.

Smiling at Madison, Terry shook the flat box. "It doesn't rattle. I wonder what it could be." The kids laughed as Terry put his ear to the present. "I don't hear any breathing noises, so it's not a pony."

"Ponies aren't flat," Ricky laughed.

"I know, it's a tie." Terry nodded. "Whenever people don't know what to get me, they get ties. Not that I can't use them," he added quickly, and Tim laughed. Terry lifted the top off the box, then parted the white tissue. "Well, well," Terry smiled as he took out a sweater-- a dark one that was soft to the touch. "I was there when you bought this, Maddie, but I didn't know it was for me. Now that I do, it looks familiar. Like I used to own something like this before."

"It's not the same one you loaned me," Madison explained, "but I tried to find one that matched as close as possible. I've kind of worn yours out."

"So I'm really not getting my sweater back, am I?" He grinned, and pulled the new one on, never minding that it was messing up his hair. "I love it, Maddie, thank you." As he pulled the sweater down, something tumbled onto his lap. He looked at Madison, and she smiled. "What's this?" he asked, picking up a small booklet made of construction paper. On the cover it said, "Terry's Coupons." "What in the world?" Terry flipped it open as people craned their necks to get a look. "Good for one foot rub," Terry read, and Izzy smiled. "Good for one spaghetti dinner, redeemable with one day's notice." Terry flipped to the next page and read to himself, and people stopped craning their necks. "You made this?" he asked.

Madison nodded.

"Who gave you this idea?"

"From the kids' arts and crafts book. I just changed it to fit us."

Terry flipped to a coupon, and quickly closed the book before anyone saw.

"Do you like it?" she asked.

"Spaghetti dinners, back rubs-- what's not to like? Before I go through all these, I'm going to be counting down the days until next Christmas."

Madison sighed happily, and Terry shook his head.

He leaned over and whispered as John announced that the next one was for himself. "You're spoiling me, Maddie."

"You're only saying that because it was for you."

She smiled when he didn't have a quick comeback. If she wanted to give him a coupon for a romantic night, it was hers to give, and his to accept. It wasn't a big deal, she couldn't be on the bed with him like a normal person, but that didn't mean they couldn't have romance.

One by one, the gifts under the tree vanished, and Terry opened the last of his office supplies, until John announced they were done. Everyone had opened all there was under the tree. While Madison had gotten presents, she still didn't have any from Terry, and when she looked at her husband, he looked back with a blank expression that instantly told her he was up to something.

"Say, John," Terry leaned forward, "I think you may have missed one."

"No," John looked about, "I don't think I have."

"There's one more. I know there's one more." Terry looked over as Tim munched on a cinnamon roll, and Terry smacked his lips. "That looks good." Terry loaded a plate with food while John searched under the tree. "You know what," Terry said, as though it had just now popped into his mind, and he half grinned when John cast him a wary glance, "I believe I stored it in your closet."

"You mean that big trash bag?" John sat back on his heels and blinked at Terry. "You can't be serious. That was for Madison?"

Terry leaned back on the couch and bit into a sticky cinnamon roll. "I've never been more serious in my life. Well, I can think of a few times. But I'm serious."

"If you say so," John shrugged, and got up to get whatever it was.

Madison watched Terry, but Terry kept eating his cinnamon roll.

"Okay," John said, coming into the living room with a large squared-off object covered in a black bag. "Do you want me to take it out?"

"Thanks, my hands are sticky." Terry wiped his fingers on a napkin while John lifted an unmarked, long, nearly triangular box from the trash bag.

Abby laughed. "You bought Aunt Madison a guitar?"

Terry slid Abby a look. "Did you have to say that in front of Maddie? I tell you," Terry shook his head, "you can't surprise anyone in this family. They're too good at guessing. It's scary."

"What do you mean? Aunt Madison doesn't have to guess. That's what that box is, isn't it?"

John placed the box squarely on Madison's lap. On one side of Madison, it took over Izzy's lap, as well, and on the other, Terry used it a moment as a table. When Madison looked at Terry, he quickly bit into a gingerbread. Madison sighed, and worked the top off the guitar box while Terry held up his plate.

"Well?" Abby asked, craning to see inside.

"It's not a guitar, Abby." Madison took out a small gift-wrapped box, and pushed off the huge cardboard thing. This gift was in shiny paper, and had a beautiful bow-- the absolute reverse of the ugly trash bag. Madison hated to open it, for it looked so perfect, and shiny, but curiosity was killing her and she nibbled at the ribbon with her fingers until someone handed her a pair of scissors. Wincing, she snipped the ribbon.

"Who wrapped that for you?" John asked curiously, and Terry laughed.

"It came gift-wrapped," Terry acknowledged. "I'm not that good."

The bow came off, the wrapping paper fell away, and Madison's breath caught when she saw a slick box with a picture of an iPhone. It looked a little different from Terry's, but she still knew what it was, and she didn't know what to say.

"I once gave you my phone," Terry said, taking the shiny new smartphone from the box. "Now I'm giving you another, but this one you can keep." He turned it on, and it greeted her. "I'll need to sync this up with mine, so it'll have your notes and music, but when I'm done, you shouldn't miss anything important. And this, you can make your own." He handed it back to her, and she looked at him. "If I thought you were going to cry--" Terry pulled out a handkerchief, and she took it and blew her nose.

"I'm sorry," she wept. "It's just that's it's so wonderful."

Terry shook his head. "I should've let you guess what it was-- I shouldn't have hidden it in that guitar box. I got it from a neighbor. No one in this family even plays guitar."

"I never would have guessed, Terry. Not in a million years." She hugged him, and as Terry showed her how the smartphone differed from his, people started to eat, and John began to clear away the wrapping paper and boxes. The room filled with the sound of kids playing with new toys, while Connie fussed until Karen got up and rocked her near the tree. Sitting back with his coffee, Tim seemed to enjoy the whole scene.

After they had eaten their fill of muffins, Terry took Madison into the office, and she watched as he got her phone ready. Since this was a newer model than his, she asked if he didn't want to trade. She felt bad for having such a nice phone, but Terry waved it off and said that he didn't need a new one. This was hers. She watched as he did clever things with some settings on his laptop, then he said he was configuring the Wi-Fi settings on her phone. When he was done, he handed the phone to her, and she didn't know what to do first.

"Can I change the picture behind the icons?" she asked, and Terry smiled, and showed her how.

The next two hours found Madison on the couch with Paige, searching for pretty winter pictures and trying them in the background.

Madison had never really known Christmas before, and she was sure she would never forget this one.

For love made all the difference.

Madison's prayer: "Because Thy lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise Thee... My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; and my mouth shall praise Thee with joyful lips: When I remember Thee upon my bed, and meditate on Thee in the night... My soul followeth hard after Thee: Thy right hand upholdeth me."
~ Psalm 63:3, 5, 6, 8 ~

end of chapter