“Come on, come on… ”
Aaron charges through the busy shop fast enough to make his trainers squeak, dodging the crowds of people – mostly parents – with increasing impatience.
Finally, he reaches the shelves holding the stuffed toys. There aren’t many options left, same as every other branch he’d tried, but within a few steps he spots what he’s looking for. One cuddly Olaf toy – the only one left on the shelf. Thank god.
Picking up the pace, he jogs towards it, reaches out and – sees someone else’s hand snatch it a mere millisecond before him. His head shoots up to see a man in an expensive-looking suit clutching the Olaf toy protectively to his chest.
“Uh – ” Aaron’s jaw drops, stunned. “I was gonna have that.”
“Sorry, but I got there first,” the man says, mouth curling in a way that’s so smug it makes Aaron’s chest tighten with anger. “Snooze, you lose.”
“What’re you, five?” Aaron grouches, glaring hard. “Look, I need that Olaf, I promised – ”
“Yeah, I get it, but so did I.” The man has the nerve to roll his eyes, all casual and amused and clearly missing the fact that Aaron’s on the edge of having a very public breakdown in the middle of the Disney store. “It’s three days to Christmas, every dad for himself.”
“I’m not – ”
I’m not her dad.
“Better luck next time, mate.”
And with that, the man – and the last Olaf – is gone, disappearing into the crowd.
After standing rooted to the spot for a long minute and taking several deep breaths, Aaron glances at nearly-empty shelves once more, like the thing he needs might miraculously appear if he wishes hard enough.
He trudges outside, but instead of heading towards his car, he takes a step to the side and ends up slumped against the brick wall, staring unseeing into the sea of last-minute Christmas shoppers zooming past him.
That was the last Disney store within travelling distance, his last hope. He’s got no chance.
All he had to do was track down one cuddly Olaf toy. And if he couldn’t get that one thing right, how the hell is he supposed to figure out the rest of it? How is he supposed to be enough when he’s already fucking up at the first hurdle, failing to accomplish the first thing she’s asked of him?
He feels tears pricking in the back of his eyes, and he angrily scrubs a hand over his face. Crying’s not going to get him anywhere, he’s learned that the hard way over the years.
Sighing heavily, he pushes himself away from the wall and turns towards the direction of the car park, only to see a familiar figure watching him. It’s the man from inside.
“Uh, are you alright?”
Aaron takes another swipe at his wet eyes and shoves his hands in his pockets.
The man takes an uncertain step towards him, huge and heavy-looking Disney-branded carrier bags swinging in his grip.
“You don’t look fine.”
“Pretty sure how I look is none of your business, mate.”
“Is this… because of the Olaf toy?”
Aaron feels his cheeks flush hot in the cold December air.
“No – yes – look, it’s fine. Just piss off, would you?”
The man doesn’t move, though. Instead, he looks down at the bags in his hands, then at Aaron, then back at the bags again. He puts them down on the ground and briefly rummages around in one, before yanking out the Olaf toy. He straightens up and holds it out to Aaron.
Aaron stares at it blankly. “What?”
“Here, you can have it.” The man moves towards him, pushing the toy into his hands. “Seems like your need is greater than mine.”
“What about your – ?”
“My son asked for Frozen stuff.” The man gestures to the bulging bags. Aaron can see what looks like a toy reindeer and a boxed Elsa doll sticking out the top. “There’s plenty in here he’ll love, he won’t mind going without an Olaf. And if he does… I’ll come up with something. I’m resourceful like that.”
He shrugs and shoots Aaron a grin. Aaron stares back, hardly believing his luck.
“I – thanks.” He quickly tucks the toy under his arms and yanks his wallet out of his pocket. “Here, what do I owe you for it?”
“It’s alright,” the man says with a shake of his head.
“I’m not takin’ your charity, mate.”
“It’s not charity. Consider it an apology for how I was before.” The man’s expression turns sheepish. “I can be a bit of a rude bastard sometimes.”
“Right, well… accepted, I guess.” Aaron looks down at the toy, soft and squishy in his hands, and allows the relief to course through his body.
“Do you fancy a coffee?” The man asks, seemingly out of nowhere.
Aaron looks up with a frown. “A coffee?”
“There’s a nice place round the corner, they’re doing these really good Christmas drinks and… look, you seem like you could do with a chat.”
“Okay… ” Aaron says after a long silence, slightly confused by the turn of events. “But you’d better let me pay for them.”
The man nods easily. “You’ve got yourself a deal. I’m Robert, by the way.”
“So,” Robert says, taking a sip of his drink. It’s covered in a mountain of whipped cream and sprinkles, making him look more like an overgrown child instead of a businessman. “No judgement, but I’ve never seen anyone start crying over a stuffed toy before. Not anyone over the age of six, anyway.”
The burning feeling of embarrassment returns, making him wish the chair could swallow him up there and then.
“Uh, it wasn’t about the toy. I mean it was, sort of, but… wasn’t just that, not really.”
“I thought as much.” Robert studies him intently, green eyes boring into Aaron’s own. “Are you okay?”
Aaron opens and closes his mouth a couple of times. “Yeah. Just… lot going on right now. And you’ve caught me on a bad day.”
“Had a lot of bad days recently?”
“Could say that, yeah.”
“Well, I’m not usually much of a listener – my sister says I’m terrible at it, actually – but if you need someone to talk to… ”
Aaron slowly twists his mug back and forth, staring down at the dark wood of the table.
“I have a little sister. That’s who this is for.” He gestures to the Olaf toy on the chair next to him, snugly tucked between his side and the wall their table is next to. “I became her guardian a couple of weeks ago.”
“Oh. How old is she?”
“She’s four.” His mouth twitches at Robert’s look of surprise. “Yeah, there’s a bit of an age gap.”
“What’s her name?”
“Eve.” He slides his phone out of his pocket and taps it so Robert can see his home screen – a photo of himself with Eve in his lap. “That’s her.”
“Cute,” Robert smiles down at the phone. “She’s the double of you.”
“People always assume she’s mine when we’re out together, even before my – ”
He feels his face fall abruptly, the reminder of exactly what had him so stressed to begin with coming back to him with alarming speed.
“Before your what?”
Aaron sighs heavily.
“It’s a long story. But the short version is that her parents – my mum and stepdad – split up a few months ago, and now they’ve both left.”
“Left? As in… left her?” Robert’s eyebrows shoot up, mouth falling open in what’s clearly shock.
“Yeah. They had a really messy breakup, my mum had been havin’ an affair. Once Paddy – her partner – found out, he took a job in New Zealand not long after. Said he needed a fresh start. Left Eve behind and his stepson from his last marriage, too. And my mum… ” Aaron’s mouth twists into a grimace. “She’s never exactly been the maternal type. I’m not sayin’ that she didn’t love Eve, she did, but… ”
But she never got past losing Grace, her and Paddy never should’ve had another baby so fast. So she bolted, just like she always does when she decides she’s not happy with her lot in life. She left me behind when I was a kid and now she’s done the same to Eve.
“A couple of weeks ago, she moved abroad too. Went off with the guy she’d had the affair with, some sleeze called Al. Said she couldn’t cope, couldn’t stay in our village anymore, so she left Eve behind with the family. With me. Said it was for the best.” He sighs again, running a frustrated hand through his hair. “I really thought she’d be better this time around, but I was wrong. I was so fucking wrong it’s not even funny.”
He looks up to see Robert looking slightly stunned and he bites down on his bottom lip, already regretting blurting out as much as he had to a near-stranger.
“Sorry. I know this is pretty heavy, ’specially coming from some random bloke you just met in the Disney store.”
To his surprise, Robert shakes his head rapidly. “No, it’s fine. Sounds like you’ve had a hell of a time.” He clears his throat and nods to the phone. “So Eve lives with you now?”
“Yeah, she moved in the day Mum left.”
“And you’re finding hard, right?”
Aaron swallows around the building lump in his throat.
“Yeah. I feel terrible for saying it out loud, because she’s a great kid and I love her, course I do. And it’s not like she’s never stayed with me before, my place is only down the road from where my mum and Paddy used to live. But havin’ her with me full-time, permanent… it’s different. I never thought I’d have a kid, not this soon anyway. And she’s not settling, she keeps asking where her mum and dad are, she won’t sleep at night which means I don’t sleep and – ”
To his absolute horror, his eyes fill with tears once again and he blinks rapidly.
“God, sorry, I swear I’m not usually this much of a wuss.”
Robert just gives him a sympathetic look and slides a napkin towards him. “Here.”
“Cheers.” Aaron takes it and blows his nose.
“Things always seem worse when you can’t get a decent night’s kip.”
“Probably,” Aaron sighs and shoves the scrunched up napkin in his pocket. “It’s just, the other day Eve watched Frozen for the first time and she bloody loved it. It’s the only thing that’s really cheered her up since – yeah.”
“Let me guess, she wanted Olaf for Christmas”
Aaron’s mouth twitches. “She’s obsessed with that snowman. It’s the only thing she’s asked for from Santa, I’d been trying to get her to make a list before but she just wasn’t interested until she decided she wanted him. I promised her Santa would bring her one, only I’ve not been able to actually find it. Every shop’s been sold out and online orders wouldn’t come until January. I’d left it too late.”
“It’s not your fault. Olafs are like gold dust this time of year, believe me.”
“I thought if I could just get this one thing right for her, then maybe… I don’t know.”
Robert hesitates, looking thoughtful as he taps a finger on the handle of his mug. Eventually, he clears his throat and leans forward slightly.
“When my son, Seb, was a couple of months old, his mum was in a pretty bad car crash. We weren’t together or anything – ” He hurries to add when Aaron looks at him in shock. “She was just a one-night stand, and until then she'd had primary custody of Seb. Her and her family didn’t want me anywhere near him because – long story, doesn’t matter.”
Robert takes a gulp of his coffee, a dark look clouding his eyes before he quickly blinks it away.
“But on the day of the crash, he was actually with me – thank god. It one of the few afternoons I’d been allowed with him since he was born. She was in a coma for a few weeks, but passed away in the end. And just like that, I was all he had.”
He shoots Aaron a rueful smile.
“I had no idea what I was doing. Up until then, I’d only had him for a few hours at a time, not even an overnight stay. I wasn’t prepared for him at all, had no idea what I was doing. And I don’t know if Seb was just a fussy baby or if he just picked up on my stress, because he would not sleep or stop crying for more than a few minutes at a time. Those first few weeks… I was a mess and I was so exhausted, it was all I could do not to cry just as much as he was.”
Aaron stares at Robert. It seemed like his entry into parenthood had been even more shocking and unexpected than his own.
“I’m sorry,” he says quietly. “That sounds rough.”
“Yeah, it was. My point is, I know what it’s like to suddenly become solely responsible for a kid when you weren’t ready for it, to feel like you’re not enough or that you’re always fucking up, no matter how much you love them. I get it.”
Aaron nods slowly, eyes dropping down to the table.
“But eventually,” Robert continues. “Seb settled, I found my feet, things became easier. I got through it. And I know your situation isn’t exactly the same, but you obviously love your sister to bits and as long as she knows that, she’ll be alright. You’ll get there too, I’ve got faith in you.”
“You don’t even know me.”
“I’m a good judge of character.”
Aaron finds his mouth curls upwards. “I’ll take your word for it.”
They sit for a few more minutes, finishing their drinks as they talk about Seb and Eve respectively. Eventually, Robert glances at his watch and swears under his breath.
“Sorry, I need to pick him up from school.”
“Oh, okay.” Aaron glances at the time on his phone and realises he needs to get going soon himself. “Thank you. For the Olaf and the coffee and… everythin’ else.”
“You’re welcome.” Robert hesitates for a second, before pulling out his phone. “Listen, my sister and her boyfriend are throwing a party on Christmas Eve. A kid-friendly one.”
“Yeah, they’ve both got a couple of boys between them – Harry and Theo, they’re the same age as Eve. It won’t be anything fancy, just a few games, some food, Vic probably playing Wham on repeat. You and Eve should come, if you fancy it?”
Aaron’s eyebrows shoot up, surprised. “Really?”
“Yeah, of course. I mean, if the two of you already have plans or she’d rather stay home that’s fine, but the offer’s there. Might do you both some good.”
“We, uh, won’t we be crashing it?”
“Nah, there’s no official invites or anythin’, loads of people are coming – pretty much anyone in the village with kids, plus some from Harry and Theo’s nursery. Plus me and Seb’ll be there.” Robert slides his phone across the table. “Stick your number in there, I’ll text you the address.”
Aaron wordlessly picks it up and does as he’s asked, before handing it back.
“Ta.” Robert pockets it, gathers his shopping bags in his hands and gets to his feet. “If I don’t see you at the party… you and Eve have a good Christmas, Aaron.”
His eyes are almost as soft as his smile, and Aaron can’t help smiling back, cheeks heating again.
“You too, Robert.”
On Christmas Eve, Aaron pulls up outside a small cottage, looking up at the multi-coloured lights covering the windows and rooftop.
“Okay.” He switches the engine off and checks the address on his phone one last time. “Think this is the place, kiddo.”
Eve cranes her neck from the backseat curiously. “They have lights. It looks nice.”
“Not as nice as our lights though, right?”
He’s never been particularly into decorating for the season, but when Eve moved in he’d ended up decking his place out from top to bottom. Yet another desperate attempt to try and make up for what she’d lost just weeks before Christmas.
“Right.” She nods decisively.
He lifts her out of the car and holds her gloved hand as they walk up the short garden pathway, the sounds of raucous laughter and Christmas music already blaring from inside. Just a few seconds after he knocks on the door, it swings open to reveal a petite woman around his age standing there.
“Er, hi. This is Keepers Cottage, right?”
“Yep, that’s right. Sorry, you are…?”
“I’m Aaron, I’m not sure if your – ”
“Oh, you’re Aaron!” She beams at him and pulls the door further open. “Aaron from the Disney store? Robert’s Aaron?”
“That’s me,” Aaron nodded, not sure which is weirder – being referred to as from the Disney store or as Robert’s. “He said it was okay if we came, I hope you don’t mind – ”
“Of course not, anyone’s welcome! He told me all about you, I was hoping you’d show up.” There’s something of a glint in her eye as she she sticks a hand out. “I’m Victoria, his sister.”
He shakes it, before shoving the gift wrapped bottle of wine he’d bought in a panic into her hands. “Uh, here.”
“Oh, ta. You didn’t have to.” She crouches down to smile at Eve, who’s half-hidden behind Aaron’s leg. “And you must be Eve?”
Eve nods bashfully. “'Lo”
“It’s lovely to meet you. Come in, both of you!” She practically strong-arms them through the door and into the warmth of her narrow hallway, closing it behind them. “I’ll see if I can track down that brother of mine, make yourselves at home!”
The house is filled with a mix of adults and children of varying ages, tinsel strewn everywhere and – just like Robert had said – George Michael is crooning in the background.
“C’mere, let’s get all this off.” Aaron moves them to an unoccupied corner and helps Eve out of her coat, hat and gloves, chuckling when she immediately smooths down the glittery party dress Marlon and Rhona had given her. “You okay?”
“Yeah. D’you think they have good snacks?”
“I bet they do, d’you wanna see if we can find – ”
“Aaron?” He looked up to see Robert standing in front of him. “You came.”
He’s wearing an eyesore of a Christmas jumper and a reindeer antlers headband. It’s miles away from the flash suit he’d been wearing the last time Aaron saw him. He snorts before he can stop himself and Robert flushes lightly, yanking the antlers off his head.
“Er, these are Vic’s but Seb wanted me to wear them so… ”
“Nah, they suit you,” he smirks. “Goes with the Christmas jumper.”
Robert rolls his eyes. “Where’s your jumper then?”
“He wouldn’t wear his,” Eve pipes up, the little snitch.
“Wow, what a grinch.” Robert’s smile widens when Eve lets out a small giggle. “Well, I’m glad you made an effort anyway. That’s a great dress you’ve got on.”
“We’ll have to find something for your brother, won’t we? Bet I can get him in a Santa hat by the end of the night.”
Eve laughs harder at that, and Aaron has to fight the urge to sigh with relief at the sight of her coming out of her shell so quickly. She doesn’t always do well with new people, but Robert’s proving to be an exception.
A blond-haired boy who looks a couple of years older than Eve appears in the doorway. He’s the double of Robert.
“Hey mate, I thought you were doing that gingerbread house with Dotty?”
“She kept eating it, now it won’t stand up.”
“Just Dotty, was it? Nothing to do with you and your sweet tooth?” Robert laughs and tugs him closer to ruffle his hair. “Hey, I want you to meet someone. This is my friend Aaron and his sister Eve.”
Seb grins at them both and steps forward, not even a hint of the shyness that Eve tends to carry with her.
“Hiya, I’m Seb!” He quickly zeroes in on Eve. “D’you wanna come get some gingerbread? My Auntie Vic gave us loads.”
Aaron glances down at her. “You fancy it?”
When Eve hesitates, Robert adds, “They’ve got Frozen playing on the telly next door, I heard you’re a fan.”
Her face lights up at that, and when Aaron gives her a gentle nudge she follows Seb into the other room where, from the sounds of it, most of the kids have congregated.
Robert watches them go, before waving his beer bottle at Aaron. “Want one?”
Aaron spends the next few hours alternating with checking in on Eve – who seems in her element once she’s settled in with the other kids – and spending time with Robert.
Robert who, Aaron learns, adores his son, tells terrible jokes, likes binging nerdy sci-fi shows and is slightly full of himself. Not to mention fit.
It’s not like Aaron hadn’t noticed it the first day they’d met, in the way he always notices if a bloke’s good-looking or not. But with the stress and exhaustion he’d been suffering from at the time, it hadn’t really registered.
It is now, though. As is the way Robert keeps leaning into him, the way he flirts as easily as breathing. The way Aaron lets him.
The hours fly by and before he knows it the party is starting to wind down, guests trickling out one by one.
“Aaron!” Victoria comes bounding over, her boyfriend, David, just behind her. Her cheeks are flushed and words slurring ever-so slightly. “Thank you so much for comin’, have you and Eve had a nice time?”
“It was great, thanks.” Out of the corner of his eye, he spots Eve running around with Harry and Theo, the three of them playing some game that only they seem to understand the rules of. She looks happy and carefree, and the sight of it makes some of the tension that he’s been carrying around all December finally ease a little. “Eve’s loved it, too. Thanks again for letting us crash the party.”
“Oh, don’t be daft.” She turns to Robert, that glint in her eye returning. “Robert never brings a date to these things, how could I say no when he finally asked?”
“It’s not a date, Vic,” Robert retorts quickly, throwing his sister a murderous glare.
“Mhm, if you say so,” she sing-songs. “Well, feel free to not bring him as a date anytime you like. Aaron, what’re you doing for New Year’s, because – ”
“Alright love,” David jumps in, eyes crinkling with amusement. “Let’s leave them to it, eh?” He wraps an arms around her shoulders and steers her away.
Aaron turns to Robert, biting down a grin at the mortified look on his face.
“Didn’t realise I was your date.” He laughs when Robert lets out a groan and drops his face in his hands.
“Sorry about her, honestly I only told her I’d invited you and Eve, I didn’t say anythin’ about – I don’t even know if you’re single.”
“S’alright. And I am, by the way. Single.”
“Pretty much. Well, there’d been this bloke, Ben. I was sort of seeing a few weeks back, but he ran for the hills pretty much as soon as Eve came into my life.”
“Idiot,” Robert says with a frown.
“Eh, it wasn’t really going anywhere anyway. And I guess people don’t really sign up for a kid when they’ve just starting seein’ each other so… ”
“I’ve been there. Lot of people back off pretty fast when they realise you’re part of a package deal.”
“Yeah. So you’re… single too, then?” Aaron raises an eyebrow, his voice turning suggestive without him meaning it to.
Some of the embarrassment in Robert’s eyes disappears as he registers Aaron’s tone, and he grins slowly.
“I am… which is why I was hoping you’d like to go for a drink sometime? Maybe once Christmas is over?”
There’s an agreement on the tip of Aaron’s tongue, when he’s distracted by the sound of Eve’s laugher somewhere to his right and the haze of the last few hours suddenly clears.
“That sounds great but… ”
Robert’s brow crinkles slightly. “Not liking the ‘but’.”
If Aaron had been in this situation just a month ago, he would’ve been agreeing without hesitation. Fuck, he wouldn’t even want to wait to get a drink, he’d be getting Robert in the nearest bedroom he could find.
But it isn’t a month ago. A month ago was his old life, one he can’t ever go back to.
“It’s just, I have Eve, I have to... ”
Understanding washes over Robert’s face. “You have to put her first. Of course you do, sorry I shouldn’t have – ”
“No, don’t be – I do want to, I just… ”
“Can’t right now.”
“Yeah.” Regret is already coursing through him, screaming at him to take back his refusal and just agree to the fucking drink. He pushes it down. “At least until she settles some more and I figure out what the hell I’m doing. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to be sorry, you idiot.” Despite his reassuring smile, Robert lets out out a dramatic sigh. “Although you have just made me fancy you even more, so thanks for that.”
“Uh, sorry again?”
“Aaron?” He looks down to see Eve has suddenly appeared at his side, swaying slightly before letting him take her weight. “M’tired.”
He sighs and scoops her up. “All partied out, are you?”
She nods against his shoulder.
“Okay, home time. Need to make sure you’re in bed before Santa gets here, don’t we?” Despite her exhaustion, she grins excitedly at that, squirming in his grip. “Let’s find your stuff and we’ll get going.”
He turns back to Robert, who’s watching them both with a small smile.
“Think I need to get this one home.”
“Yeah, I should get my own monster home, too. If I can find him, that is – last time a party was ending him and Dotty barricaded themselves in Vic’s wardrobe.” He puts his drink to one side and straightens up. “Tonight was good, though.”
“It was,” Aaron says with a sigh, hoisting Eve higher in his arms. “Thank you. For inviting us, talkin’ me into coming. You were right, it did do Eve good to get out and have some fun.”
“What about you?”
“Good. I’m glad.” The two of them stare at each other, the silence dragging out until Eve lets out a small hiccup and jolts Aaron out of his trance-like state.
“I should – ”
“Course,” Robert says with a nod. “Merry Christmas, Aaron. Try and enjoy tomorrow, yeah? You deserve it.”
“You too.” After a half-second of hesitation, Aaron leans into Robert before he can stop himself, planting a kiss on his cheek. “Merry Christmas.”
He’s only taken a couple of steps towards the door, when he’s stopped by Robert calling his name. He turns back and gives him a questioning look.
“So, I know a drink’s off the table right now,” Robert says, scratching the back of his neck. “But I was thinking… if Eve would ever like some company, me and Seb do a pretty good play date.”
Aaron blinks at him, before huffing out a laugh.
“It is. So if you ever wanted to bring her to the park or round to mine, maybe for a Frozen marathon…”
Aaron snorts. “You’re pretty relentless, y’know that?”
“I’ve been told,” Robert replies with a casual wave of his hand. “So?”
“… I think she’d like that. Text you in the new year?”
“Great, it’s a date then.”
“A play date.”
Aaron laughs once more. “Night, Robert.”
Feeling like he’s having to drag himself away, he gets Eve bundled back up in her coat and takes her out to the car. She barely even snuffles as he straps her into her seat, well and truly conked out. As he begins the drive home, he glances back at her in the rearview mirror and thinks about the pile of presents – including one stuffed Olaf toy – that’ll be waiting under the tree for her in the morning.
Then he thinks about what happens when the madness of Christmas dies down – about texting Robert, about the play date he’ll arrange for her and Seb in the new year. If it goes well, he’ll arrange another, then a few more, and if that goes well… then just maybe, he can finally text Robert about that drink.