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Camouflaged

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Thwack! The snowball bounces off my shoulder and lurches me forward. My hands clutch the grocery bag as the knit cap I’m wearing catapults into a snow bank. I push my glasses up with a mitten-covered thumb. Left hand on not-so-narrow hip, I survey the neighborhood but see no one. Sun breaks through hazy clouds, and I squint against the reflective glare as my teeth pound out Beethoven's Fifth. Cap retrieved, I walk on booted heels as fast as the slippery sidewalk allows.

This trip to my parents’ house has been one big pain: I’ve maxed out my credit card on the airline ticket, plus I seem to be wearing a bull's eye on my jacket. The worst part though is that I turn thirty tomorrow, and Brad didn’t come with me to Boston.

Head down, thoughts run amok as I walk onto the shoveled driveway where my father's car announces it’s cool down with a ping-ping-ping. I catch a movement out of the corner of my eye. Rusty, the family dog, is airborne. Front paws make contact and knock me backward into the piled snow. Pinned to the ground, my cheek contorts with each swipe of his rough, wet tongue.

"Yuck! Get off me, you mangy mutt!" I manage to push the big lug away and struggle upright. Nose to snout, I say, "Don't you know a cat lover when you see one?" Rusty, aware I adore him despite my reprimand, takes another swipe at my nose and bounds off. Fuzz-covered mongrel, I think as I stagger to my feet.

Thoughts of Brad persist. I remember his hopeful expression when he told me his ex-wife called. Brad and Tommy were crushed when she left, so how could Brad still have feelings for her? Mom says he may just need more time to rid himself of the past and that I'll push him straight into Julie's arms if I let jealousy get to me. It’s hard not to be jealous, though, when he’s chosen to spend my birthday with her.

Zing! A second snowball whizzes past my head and smashes against the porch rail. I throw caution to the wind and haul up the stairs, but not before the child in me shouts, "Ha! You missed!"

When I walk into the house, the difference in temperature renders me sightless. I lean against the closed door and remove my glasses to wipe them.

My father looks up from his newspaper. "Hi, Pumpkin. Did you see me drive past you a little bit ago?"

"No, but I’ve been a sort of preoccupied lately."

"Talk about your understatement! Is everything okay?"

His face is so filled with concern that I feel guilty for making him worry. So I tell him everything’s fine, plant a kiss on his cheek, and head to the kitchen where the aroma of cinnamon fills the air.

Mom's talking on her cell phone: "So it's where I suggested, and you're keeping an eye on it? Perfect!" She smiles and hangs up.

"Hi, Mom."

She jerks and blinks in quick succession.

"Sorry; I didn't mean to startle you.” I place the groceries on the counter. "I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but who’s keeping an eye on what?"

"Um, that was Peggy, next door. She’s dog-sitting."

I frown. “Glad I asked.”

Mom ignores me and begins to slice an apple for the pie. I grab a piece, dip it in the cinnamon sugar and pop it in my mouth.

"You know, dear,” she says. “I've thought about how you said Brad looked when he told you Julie invited him and Tommy over."

I push my glasses up. "And?"

"Well, dear, what if that 'hopeful' expression you described was for a different reason than you assumed?"

"What do you mean?"

"You've said Tommy misses his mother, right? What if Brad only wants Julie to re-establish herself in their son's life?"

Even a whisper of truth in my mother's words makes my heart flutter.

"You said he gave you a birthday present, didn’t you?"

I nod and pull a gift-wrapped box from my pocket. I fluff the bow then shake the package for the umpteenth time.

"May I see it?" Mom asks and promptly imitates my actions. "Hmm, it's so lightweight."

"Feels empty, doesn't it?"

"It does! I'm surprised you haven't opened it yet."

I hang my jacket on the coat rack by the back door and sigh. "I've been dying to, but Brad asked me not to open it until my birthday. I promised I'd wait until midnight, if I can stay awake that long."

"Oh, go ahead and open it," she says. "I'm sure he won't mind!"

I tear into the package to find it holds nothing but a cryptic note. I read aloud, "You'll find your gift on the nose of a frosty old man." I look at Mom. "What the heck does that mean?"

"The only frosty old man I know, dear, other than your father," she says with a wink, "is in the front yard. Maybe you should check the snowman."

Brow furrowed, I look closely at Mom’s face. “What’s going on?”

She goes back to slicing apples.

I yank my jacket on and stride out the kitchen and through the living room to the front door. Once outside, I slip and almost fall. Rusty spies my movements; tongue lolling, ears flying, the dog bounds straight for me. Unfortunately for him, my focus on the snowman is intense. Rusty leaps, and I do a half-twist side step out of his way. I watch him sail into a low snowdrift, then back out and give his body a vigorous shake. Silly dog, I think, as I chuckle and pat his head. Then I round the snowman's ample behind.

There on the tip of Frosty's carrot nose is the most exquisite diamond ring I've ever seen. I feel my eyebrows lift. Glancing up, I see the smiling faces of my parents framed in the doorway.

Smack! A snowball barrels into my backside. I whip around to confront ... Brad? My mouth drops open as I watch him step from behind our tree, sporting a sheepish grin. He gives a thumbs-up to my parents, who respond in kind. In that instant, I realize I've carried proof in my pocket all along, proof that I'm the one Brad wants – not-so-narrow hips and all!

Overwhelmed, I fly into his arms and shower him with kisses. He laughs, pulls me close, and whispers, "I take it that's a 'yes'?"

 

Bio: April is a sucker for romance. Hopefully you are, too.

 

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