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All I Want for Christmas

Nora Roberts


  Zeke and Zack huddled in the tree house. Important business, any plots or plans, and all punishments for in­fractions of the rules, were discussed in the sturdy wooden hideaway tucked in the branches of the dignified old sycamore.

  Today, a light rain tapped on the tin roof and damp­ened the dark green leaves. It was still warm enough in the first days of September that the boys wore T-shirts. Red for Zeke, blue for Zack.

  They were twins, as identical as the sides of a two-headed coin. Their father had used the color code since their birth to avoid confusion.

  When they switched colors—as they often did—they could fool anyone in Taylor's Grove. Except their father.

  He was on their minds at the moment. They had al­ready discussed, at length, the anticipated delights and terrors of their first day in real school. The first day in first grade.

  They would ride the bus, as they had done the year before, in kindergarten. But this time they would stay in Taylor's Grove Elementary for a full day, just like the big kids. Their cousin Kim had told them that real school wasn't a playground.

  Zack, the more introspective of the two, had thought over, worried about and dissected this problem for weeks. There were terrible, daunting terms like home­work and class participation, that Kim tossed around. They knew that she, a sophomore in high school, was often loaded down with books. Big, thick books with no pictures.

  And sometimes, when she was baby-sitting for them, she had her nose stuck in them for hours. For as long a time as she would have the telephone stuck to her ear, and that was long.

  It was pretty scary stuff for Zack, the champion wor­rier.

  Their father would help them, of course. This was something Zeke, the eternal optimist, had pointed out. Didn't they both know how to read stuff like Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat because their dad helped them sound out the words? And they both knew how to write the whole alphabet, and their names and short things, because he showed them.

  The trouble was, he had to work and take care of the house and them, as well as Commander Zark, the big yellow dog they'd saved from the animal shelter two years before. Their dad had, as Zack pointed out, an aw­ful lot to do. And now that they were going to go to school, and have assignments and projects and real report cards, he was going to need help.

  "He's got Mrs. Hollis to come in once a week and do stuff." Zeke ran his miniature Corvette around the imag­inary racetrack on the tree-house floor.

  "It's not enough." A frown puckered Zack's forehead and clouded his lake blue eyes. He exhaled with a long-suffering sigh, ruffling the dark hair that fell over his fore­head. "He needs the companionship of a good woman, and we need a mother's love. I heard Mrs. Hollis say so to Mr. Perkins at the post office."

  "He hangs around with Aunt Mira sometimes. She's a good woman."

  "But she doesn't live with us. And she doesn't have time to help us with science projects." Science projects were a particular terror for Zack. "We need to find a mom." When Zeke only snorted, Zack narrowed his eyes. "We're going to have to spell in first grade."

  Zeke caught his lower lip between his teeth. Spelling was his personal nightmare. "How're we going to find one?"

  Now Zack smiled. He had, in his slow, careful way, figured it all out. "We're going to ask Santa Claus."

  "He doesn't bring moms," Zeke said with the deep disdain that can only be felt by one sibling for another. 'He brings toys and stuff. And it's forever until Christ­mas, anyway."

  "No, it's not. Mrs. Hollis was bragging to Mr. Perkins how she already had half her Christmas shopping done. She said how looking ahead meant you could enjoy the holiday."

  "Everybody enjoys Christmas. It's the best."

  "Uh-uh. Lots of people get mad. Remember how we went to the mall last year with Aunt Mira and she com­plained and complained about the crowds and the prices and how there weren't any parking spaces?"

  Zeke merely shrugged. He didn't look back as often, or as clearly, as his twin, but he took Zack at his word. "I guess."

  "So, if we ask now, Santa'll have plenty of time to find the right mom."

  "I still say he doesn't bring moms."

  "Why not? If we really need one, and we don't ask for too much else?"

  "We were going to ask for two-wheelers," Zeke re­minded him.

  "We could still ask for them," Zack decided. "But not a bunch of other things. Just a mom and the bikes."

  It was Zeke's turn to sigh. He didn't care for the idea of giving up his big, long list. But the idea of a mother was beginning to appeal. They'd never had one, and the mystery of it attracted. "So what kind do we ask for?"

  "We got to write it down."

  Zack took a notebook and a stubby pencil from the table pushed against the wall. They sat on the floor and, with much argument and discussion, composed.

  Dear Santa,

  We have been good.

  Zeke wanted to put in very good, but Zack, the con­science, rejected the idea.

  We feed Zark and help Dad. We want a mom for Crissmas. A nice one who smells good and is not meen. She can smile a lot and have yello hair. She has to like little boys and big dogs. She wont mind dirt and bakes cookys. We want a pretty one who is smart and helps us with homework. We will take good care of her. We want biks a red one and a bloo one. You have lots of time to find the mom and make the biks so you can enjoi the hollidays. Thank you. Love, Zeke and Zack.

  Chapter 1

  Taylor's Grove, population two thousand three hundred and forty. No, forty-one, Nell thought smugly, as she strolled into the high school auditorium. She'd only been in town for two months, but already she was feeling ter­ritorial. She loved the slow pace, the tidy yards and little shops. She loved the easy gossip of neighbors, the front-porch swings, the frost-heaved sidewalks.

  If anyone had told her, even a year before, that she would be trading in Manhattan for a dot on the map in western Maryland, she would have thought them mad. But here she was, Taylor's Grove High's new music teacher, as snug and settled in as an old hound in front of a fire.

  She'd needed the change, that was certain. In the past year she'd lost her roommate to marriage and inherited a staggering rent she simply wasn't able to manage on her own. The replacement roommate, whom Nell had carefully interviewed, had moved out, as well. Taking ev­erything of value out of the apartment. That nasty little adventure had led to the final, even nastier showdown with her almost-fiancé. When Bob berated her, called her stupid, naive and careless, Nell had decided it was time to cut her losses.

  She'd hardly given Bob his walking papers when she received her own. The school where she had taught for three years was downsizing, as they had euphemistically put it. The position of music teacher had been eliminated, and so had Nell.

  An apartment she could no longer afford, all but empty, a fiancé who had considered her optimistic nature a liability and the prospect of the unemployment line had taken the sheen off New York.

  Once Nell decided to move, she'd decided to move big. The idea of teaching in a small town had sprung up fully rooted. An inspiration, she thought now, for she already felt as if she'd lived here for years.

  Her rent was low enough that she could live alone and like it. Her apartment, the entire top floor of a remodeled old house, was a short, enjoyable walk from a campus that included elementary, middle and high schools.

  Only two weeks after that first nervous day of school, she was feeling proprietary about her students and was looking forward to her first after-school session with her chorus.

  She was determined to create a holiday program that would knock the town's socks off.

  The battered piano was center stage. She walked to it and sat. Her students would be filing in shortly, but she had a

  She limbered up her mind and her fingers with the blues, an old Muddy Waters tune. Old, scarred pianos were meant to play the blues, she thought, and enjoyed herself.

  "Man, she's so cool," Holly Linstrom murmured to Kim as they slipped into the rear of the auditorium.

  "Yeah." Kim had a hand on the shoulder of each of her twin cousins, a firm grip that ordered quiet and prom­ised reprisals. "Old Mr. Striker never played anything like that."

  "And her clothes are so, like, now." Admiration and envy mixed as Holly scanned the pipe-stem pants, long overshirt and short striped vest Nell wore. "I don't know why anybody from New York would come here. Did you see her earrings today? I bet she got them at some hot place on Fifth Avenue."

  Nell's jewelry had already become legendary among the female students. She wore the unique and the un­usual. Her taste in clothes, her dark gold hair, which fell just short of her shoulders and always seemed miracu­lously and expertly tousled, her quick, throaty laugh and her lack of formality had already gone a long way toward endearing her to her students.

  "She's got style, all right." But, just then, Kim was more intrigued by the music than by the musician's ward­robe. "Man, I wish I could play like that."

  "Man, I wish I could look like that," Holly returned, and giggled.

  Sensing an audience, Nell glanced back and grinned. "Come on in, girls. Free concert."

  "It sounds great, Miss Davis." With her grip firm on her two charges, Kim started down the sloping aisle to­ward the stage. "What is it?"

  "Muddy Waters. We'll have to shoehorn a little blues education into the curriculum." Sitting back, she studied the two sweet-faced boys on either side of Kim. There was a quick, odd surge of recognition that she didn't un­derstand. "Well, hi, guys."

  When they smiled back, identical dimples popped out on the left side of their mouths. "Can you play 'Chop­sticks'?" Zeke wanted to know.

  Before Kim could express her humiliation at the ques­tion, Nell spun into a rousing rendition.

  "How's that?" she asked when she'd finished.

  "That's neat."

  "I'm sorry, Miss Davis. I'm kind of stuck with them for an hour. They're my cousins. Zeke and Zack Taylor."

  "The Taylors of Taylor's Grove." Nell swiveled away from the piano. "I bet you're brothers. I see a slight fam­ily resemblance."

  Both boys grinned and giggled. "We're twins," Zack informed her.

  "Really? Now I bet I'm supposed to guess who's who." She came to the edge of the stage, sat and eyed the boys narrowly. They grinned back. Each had recently lost a left front tooth. "Zeke," she said, pointing a finger. "And Zack."

  Pleased and impressed, they nodded. "How'd you know?"

  It was pointless, and hardly fun, to mention that she'd had a fifty-fifty shot. "Magic. Do you guys like to sing?"

  "Sort of. A little."

  "Well, today you can listen. You can sit right in the front row and be our test audience."

  "Thanks, Miss Davis," Kim murmured, and gave the boys a friendly shove toward the seats. "They're pretty good most of the