"Natalie!" Ambrose Monk, having first peeked cautiously through the door, quickly unhooked the clasp and opened it wide. "What a pleasant surprise. Please, please, come in." He peered behind her. "Is Adrian with you?"
"No, it's just me. How are you?" Natalie inquired, stepping inside the Monk home.
"I'm quite well," he replied, closing the door behind her. "To what do I owe the honor of a visit from the lovely Ms. Teeger?"
Natalie laughed. For someone who never left his house and very rarely socially interacted with other women, Ambrose was quite the charmer. "I came to ask a favor, actually."
"A favor?" he repeated, one eyebrow raised in a very Monk-like gesture. "What's that?"
"I'd like you to come to my house for Christmas."
"To – to your house?" Ambrose paled noticeably. "Oh – I – thank you for the invitation, but I don't think I could do that."
Natalie took his hand in hers and smiled her most persuasive smile. Mitch had always said that no one could resist that smile unless they were made of stone. (Natalie, however, had since found out that Adrian Monk was an exception to the rule. Perhaps his brother was too, but she thought it was worth a try.) "It wouldn't be hard at all. I'll pick you up, we'll go straight there, and I'll bring you home again at the end of the night. It's just going to be me, Julie, and Mr. Monk, so no one unfamiliar."
Ambrose shuffled nervously, withdrawing his hand from hers and fiddling with some nearby papers. "We could have Christmas here," he offered. "If you and Julie wouldn't mind, that is."
"Ambrose." Natalie hesitated for a moment, choosing her words carefully. "I don't think it'd be inaccurate to say that you and Mr. Monk haven't had very happy Christmas memories in this house."
He nodded reluctantly.
"I think that if we spent Christmas here, both you and Mr. Monk might spend too much time dwelling on those memories, and it might – well – dampen the holiday." Natalie took his hand again. "You've spent a lot of Christmases alone, I think. Wouldn't it be nice to spend the day with friends and family, in a new place with no bad memories attached to it?"
"Well, I – I suppose so," he conceded grudgingly. "But I don't think I can – I mean – leave. You know."
"I know how difficult it is for you, Ambrose," Natalie said softly. "And I realize it's a lot to ask. But don't you see what a wonderful Christmas gift it would be for Mr. Monk, to know that you left the house to spend Christmas with him? He would be thrilled."
"Do you think so?" Ambrose asked, frowning slightly.
Natalie nodded. "I know so." She smiled, once again, her most coaxing smile. "Please, Ambrose? I'll do everything I can to make you comfortable."
Apparently Natalie's smile worked its magic once again, because Ambrose sighed and said, "I guess – I'll try. I can't make any promises, but I'll try."
She beamed. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" She squeezed his arm and gave him a swift kiss on the cheek. "Don't worry, you'll have a great time. I promise. I'll pick you up at eight-thirty a.m. sharp on Christmas Day, all right?"
He blushed endearingly. "All right," he agreed, but still looked unsure. "See you then."
Christmas Day dawned clear and bright at the Teeger house that year.
Adrian Monk had grudgingly agreed to spend the night in the guest room – which he'd cleaned and sanitized to his own standards the entire morning yesterday – and had been up since eight a.m. sharp, as was his habit. Natalie, he'd assumed, was sleeping in, so he'd occupied his time reorganizing her spice cabinet. She'd actually had her cardamom between the curry powder and the dill weed. How she slept at night, he didn't know.
"Good morning, Mr. Monk," Julie said, breezing into the kitchen. "Merry Christmas."
"Good morning, Julie," he said, nudging the paprika a millimeter closer to the parsley. "Guess your mom is sleeping in this morning."
"Mom? She's gone," Julie said, turning on the oven.
"Gone," he repeated in surprise, turning away from the cabinet in surprise. "What do you mean, gone? Where did she go?"
"She had to go do something," Julie said, moving to the refrigerator and taking out the ham Natalie had prepared the night before. "She'll be back soon." She slid the ham into the oven, humming a Christmas carol under her breath.
"What did she have to go do before eight a.m. on Christmas Day?" Monk said skeptically.
Julie just smiled enigmatically. "You'll see. It's a surprise."
"I hate surprises," Monk muttered fretfully. What was Natalie thinking? Now he'd have to spend the day pretending to tolerate whatever harebrained surprise she'd cooked up. He shuddered, remembering the Christmas when she and Julie had given him a – a thing for Christmas. A fish!
"Don't worry, Mr. Monk," Julie said, reading his expression accurately. "You'll love it, I promise."
"Well, I won't hold my breath," he said, eyeing her askance.
He spent the next hour puttering around nervously, cleaning things that didn't need cleaning and straightening things that were already perfectly straight. He breathed a sigh of relief when he heard Natalie's car pull into the driveway. "It's about time," he muttered, washing his hands for the twentieth time that morning.
The front door opened just as he reached the archway between the kitchen and living room. Natalie came in, red-cheeked from an unusually cool San Francisco morning. She was smiling and her eyes were sparkling from excitement.
"Merry Christmas, Mr. Monk," she said, and drew someone in by the hand.
Adrian stared, then blinked and stared again, hardly able to believe his eyes. "Ambrose?"
His elder brother was wearing what looked like a brand-new gray coat and matching gray fedora, and was laden with gaily-wrapped packages. He was also trembling slightly, likely from fear and nervousness. He managed a tenuous smile. "Merry Christmas, Adrian," he said.
"Ambrose!" Monk repeated, taking one step forward, and then another. With an incredulous laugh, he clasped his brother in his arms in a rare, spontaneous hug of affection as Natalie relieved Ambrose of his packages. "I don't believe it! What are you doing here?"
"What do you mean, 'what is he doing here'?" Natalie asked, laughing. "He's come to spend Christmas with us."
"But – but how?" Adrian said, looking from one to the other.
"Natalie invited me," Ambrose said, relaxing a tiny bit. "She can be very persuasive."
"More like bulldozing," his brother replied wryly, but he was smiling as he said it. Natalie laughed again, nearly beside herself with delight at the success of her surprise.
"Hi, Ambrose," Julie said, popping out of the kitchen. "Merry Christmas!"
Ambrose waved at her timidly as Natalie ushered him inside. "You two make yourselves at home; I need to go start the potatoes," she said while hanging up her coat. "Julie, take Ambrose's packages and put them under the tree, please, and then come help me in the kitchen." She disappeared into the kitchen while Adrian helped Ambrose with his coat and hat and Julie took his gifts to the Christmas tree.
"Ambrose," Adrian said, once they were seated comfortably in the living room, "I still can't believe you left the house! How did you do it?"
Ambrose was looking slightly more comfortable and less as though he was preparing to bolt. "Natalie talked me into it," he said simply. "She said it would mean a lot to you."
"It does," Adrian said. "I'm proud of you."
Ambrose smiled. "Really?"
His brother nodded. "Really."
"I almost backed out," Ambrose admitted. "This morning, Natalie had to talk me into it all over again."
"The important thing is that you're here," Adrian said, reaching over to adjust the already perfectly-draped tinsel on the tree. "How long – how long has she been planning this?"
"Three weeks," Ambrose said. "She came to the house to invite me."
Adrian shook his head. "Some detective I am. I had no idea." He glanced at the kitchen, where he could hear the two Teeger ladies laughing and chatting as they prepared Christmas dinner.
"She's something, isn't she?" Ambrose said, following his gaze.
"Yeah," Adrian agreed quietly, almost to himself. "She is."
Later, after Natalie had called them both to dinner, he quietly detoured to the coat closet and extracted two small, wrapped packages from his coat pocket. They were Christmas gifts for Natalie and Julie – very special ones, and ones he'd been debating giving for weeks, changing his mind at least three times a day. This morning, he'd taken them from under the tree and put them back in his coat pocket. But now, he put them back, and resolved to leave them there.