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CHAPTER 6

          His big arms surrounded her in a hug that nearly squeezed the breath out of Annalise. Jeremy’s hugs were the greatest, she always compared him to a huge Panda.

“It’s good to see you too, Annie, and even if it doesn’t seem so, I’ve missed you too. Listen, there had been three years since my graduation. This is my time; I can feel it. If I want to be a partner by the next year, I need to make some sacrifices, sweetie. After that, I will be able to breathe and to see you more often. You will have me here for a few hours. Then, later tonight, I’ll take the first flight back to Washington. They’re expecting me in court tomorrow afternoon. I will be back soon in LA, I promise.”

          She sighed and tried to hide her disappointment. At least he showed up for the birthday celebration. Finally, they both turned to Brandon. Annalise went towards him, stood up on her toes, and gave him a kiss on the bearded cheek. He smiled at Annalise and then gave a hug to Jeremy.

“Besides, big brother, I saw you two weekends ago,” Annalise said to him stopping near the porch to wait for them. “Jeremy and I have not seen each other in forever.”

          Brandon slung an arm over Annalise’s shoulders and planted an affectionate kiss on her cheek.

“I see that ‘our great captain’ is here. I thought he was preparing for the next soccer game. I remember that this weekend ‘LA Cali FC’ is playing its first game in Atlanta,” Jeremy said.

“Yeah, it is so, but John said he couldn’t miss Mom’s birthday,” Annalise replied. “Besides I need to talk to him urgently.”

          She knew Brandon and Jeremy wanted to know more, but when she raised her hand to stop them from going further with the brief interrogation, they didn’t pursue the matter.

“Please, this is not the time or the place to talk. Mom’s waiting for us.”

“Ok, we will talk about it when you will feel ready to talk about it,” Jeremy finally said.

“Are you three going to stand out there all day or are you coming in to have lunch with John and I?”

          Martha Walsh appeared on the front porch, and they all three turned to see her leaning against the doorframe, impatience evident in her stance.

“We better go inside before she starts muttering threats, like when we were little. You know she is still a pro in this department,” Annalise grinned. “We should also save John from her long, exhausting interrogation.”

          Jeremy ruffled her hair then tucked his arm over Annalise’s neck so he had her in a headlock. He started walking toward the house, dragging her with him. When they got to the porch, she laughingly stumbled from Jeremy’s hold and gave her mom a nice long hug. Martha squeezed her and dropped a kiss on the top of her head.

“Happy birthday, Mom! Where is John?” Annalise asked.

“Where he always is, sweetie. Since he bought me that damn big screen, every time he is waiting for you, John is always parked in front of it, watching some game.”

          Martha hugged her other son too.

“Was she surprised?” her mom asked Jeremy.

“Pretty much! Thanks for keeping it a secret, Mom!” Jeremy replied and embraced his mom. “Happy birthday, gorgeous!”

“Traitor!” Annalise said to Martha smiling.

          She slipped past her mother while Martha greeted Jeremy and entered the house they all grew up in. When Annalise got to the living room, she saw John sprawled in the recliner, remote in hand as he flipped through footage of past soccer games.

“Hi, big guy!” Annalise called him.

          He looked at her and got up from the recliner. As he did that, he smiled broadly at Annalise then held out his arms. She hugged him then took a few steps and looked at John.

“I am surprised to see you here… You should be in Georgia, for your Sunday game, as I recall.”

“I wanted to be here for Martha’s birthday. I asked the coach to let me stay here a day more. Tomorrow I will join the team,” he replied.

“Great…”

          Annalise glanced back to make sure they were still alone and then lowered her voice.

“Are you going to hang around later or do you have to be somewhere?”

“I don’t have to be anywhere today.”

          His eyes narrowed, and John lost his smile.

“What is going on, babe? What’s the story behind this begging eyes?”

“Nothing bad, really. I need to talk to you about something. I have a favor to ask, and I would rather not get into it in front of everyone.”

“Is everything alright, Annie? Are you in some kind of trouble? Do I need to beat someone up?”

“You have a big game on Sunday and your team needs you. Besides, I have Brandon or Jeremy to cover this part,” Annalise said smiling.

          She looked at him with a serious gaze and calmed him down.

“No, everything is alright, I promise. Just wanted to run a thought I had by you… It is something that could be positive to us both.”

“Ok… You’re too mysterious for my taste, but I guess I can wait until later.” He came close to her and put his hands on her shoulders. “I will see you back to your place?”

“Yes, later this evening,” she replied, and she quickly pulled back when her Mom and brothers entered the living room.

          Lunch was a lively affair. Her brothers squabbled and joked endlessly while her mother looked on indulgently. Annalise had missed all this so much. After the table had been cleared, they all moved to the porch to have the cake and the coffee there. Annalise looked at her Mom’s expression while talking to her two adored boys. She was ecstatic, she couldn’t have asked for a better present than to have her kids home, with her, at least for a few hours.

          Brandon was saying something about some great projects that were going on at his work, while Jeremy was sharing something about a case he won in court just last week. Even John was talking about his last game that ‘LA Cali FC’ won. He scored two of the four goals. And Martha looked at them in such awe, she was so proud of all of them, even John.

          Annalise stood there in silence, listening to them talking. She knew her mother loved her, but she never pushed her to do better, as she did with the two princes of the house. Sometimes, Annalise could sense that Martha wasn’t so happy about what she was doing, about the fact that she was pouring herself into work forgetting about the world, pushing aside her private life.

          Since Annalise was little, Martha encouraged her to be a perfect lady of the house. All Annalise needed to do was to finish high school, find herself a husband, and let him provide for her. To be a wife and a mother, not a working woman. So very 50’s… She never told this to Jeremy or to Brandon. The fact that their mother saw on her only a good housewife would’ve bothered them, Jeremy, especially.

          Martha didn’t encourage Annalise to go to college. But when she saw how hard Annalise worked to get a scholarship, she gave Annalise her blessing with the condition of living with her for the duration of her studies. She had gotten her degree and a few months after graduation; Annalise got a good job in San Francisco. Against her mother’s wish, she left.

          After a couple of years, Annalise started to do pretty well with a large, prestigious advertising agency. At that point, the sky was the limit. Annalise got a promotion that put her up there, with the best ad execs in the business. And then all fell down the hill.

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