By the time Darcy stood, Mom was on her, hugging her like the prodigal she was. "It's so good to have you home."
Darcy hugged her back. "It's good to be home." Sort of. At least, it was good to see her mom.
Other facets of her holiday return were a different matter. She felt like an ill-prepared cage fighter getting ready to step into the cage with the champ. Only a few months ago, she'd been so snatched, so cool, so confident. That was sure gone. Would there be any merry in this Christmas? "Put your things away, then come on out to the kitchen," Mom said. "Erika's in there. She's got her hands in pie dough at the moment."
Of course she did. Erika was the artsy one. She was probably shaping dough into little trees to top the pie crust.
"It's the last of the blackberries from the freezer, by the way," Mom added. "I've been saving them for when you came home."
A traffic jam of emotion clogged Darby's throat, making it hard to get out a thank-you.
"Hey, it's not just for you," pointed out her brother. He would obviously help keep her humble while she was home.
Cole lugged her suitcase upstairs, leaving her to bring the carry-on. She freshened up, then put away her things in the same old dresser and closet she and Rika had used when they shared the room. Rika had taken the two bottom drawers, just as she had when they were growing up, and the rest of her clothes—properly stylish for an up-and-coming movie production assistant—were hanging in her side of the closet. Darby hung up hers, then took a deep breath and went back downstairs.
Only Mom and Erika were in the kitchen. Mom had a cup of tea already on the table for Darby, along with a small plate holding two pieces of pink divinity. Darby's favorite.
Mom was back at the stove, stirring a pot with the pie filling, as Erika put the bottom layer of crust in a fluted pie pan.
She barely looked up as she worked. "Hi, Darb."
"Hi, Rika." The exchange was stiff and chilly. Darby attempted to warm it. "You look great."
She did. Her reddish hair was cut in a midlength shag with bangs. She looked like an influencer ready for a shoot in her designer jeans and shirt. Erika had always been cute, but since getting the job as a production assistant in LA, she'd gone from cute to polished. Maybe part of her new look was simply confidence. She was doing what she'd always wanted to.
But she was minus the boyfriend she'd had last time she and Darby had been home together. Ugh.
"Thanks," Erika said.
Okay, this wasn't simply standoffish chilly. It was a deep freeze. Who could blame her?
For all appearances, though, it was a happy family dinner that evening once Dad came home from work, with some joking back and forth between him and Cole and compliments for Erika and Mom on the pie.
Then came the questions Darby was uncomfortable trying to answer. Like, what had happened to the hotshot copywriter position?
"I thought it was supposed to be such a great job," Erika jabbed.
It should have been—working for a big-name clothing manufacturer headquartered in NYC. Talk about a dream job.
"It was," Darby said. "My boss..." Hated me. Was a jerk. She reined in her anger, knowing the bulk of it needed to be turned on herself. "It just didn't work out."
"What are you going to do now?" her father wanted to know.
"I'm not sure."
"You should come home for good," Mom said. "You're too far away out there on the East Coast. Family should be together."
Darby stole a look at her sister. Erika was concentrating on finishing her pie, in no hurry to second that motion.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," Darby said.
At least not that far in the future. She knew what she needed to do while she was home, though, and she had a tough job ahead of her.
After dinner Mom shooed the three siblings out the door. "Go have a good time. But don't stay out too late. We have things to do tomorrow."
Yes, cookie baking and tree decorating. And Sunday would be the big neighborhood open house. Oh, goody.