Strolling along the second floor landing over the great hall, Ana snuggled closer to Christian a sudden chill making her shiver. With Jose watching Teddy while he and John played a game of lively charades with the McGovern sisters in the family wing portion of the castle, and that had been a hell of a sight. She and Christian had taken the opportunity to explore the Castle. The second floor landing was where the portraits of all the McGovern ancestors hung. An felt the eyes staring down at them from the walls, the dim winter flight floating around the faces gracing the walls in ethereal wisps. The smell of fresh pine in the air. Ana felt the eyes following them. The quiet somehow filled with whispers.
They got to the far back wall where only one portrait hung centered on the wall. Ana stumbled to a stop and stared at the woman.
“Shit.” Christian finished in an awed whisper, “So this is the famous ancestor.”
Unlike the other portraits of sedate ladies in formal gowns, the woman who was her descendant’s mirror image stood on a cliff, feet bare, her gown sliding down in ragged sheers of blood red pressed to her body by the same wind that whipped inky ropes of hair around her face. The dark unfathomable eyes looking into a horizon only she could see.
“Except for the hair she looks just like her, even the expression’s the same.” Christian murmured.
“No wonder they wanted her for the reenactments.” Ana said, having seen that look on Mckenna’s face many times, “This must be a modern portrait. The painting would be considered indecent in the 15th century.
Spinning around at the husky confirmation behind her, Ana clutched her chest and screamed the rafters down. Christian cursed, yanking her behind him and jumping forward to pull their son from the arms of an apparition.
The woman froze, her long skirts swirling around her, “I…I’m sorry…he was fussy. Jose thought he might be getting hungry. I offered.… ” She stuttered, her alabaster skin fading to ghastly white, “I was coming to speak to you anyway…”
Oh God, Ana’s heart broke at Mckenna’s stricken expression, “No, Mckenna, we’re sorry….”
Christian rushed to explain, “We just were looking at the portrait….”
“Oh…” Haunted eyes rose to the identical ones behind them, “Right, I forget sometimes.” The woman they had both mistaken for the ghost of her ancestor crossed the hall, looking as if she’d stepped out of Queen Elizabeth’s court, swaths of velvet rolling in her wake. With a tremulous whisper, Mckenna gently placed her son in her arms, “Here’s mommy, Teddy-Bear.”
Oh God, they had to fix this. Stalling for time, Ana blurted out the first thing in her head, “That dress is something.”
“Yeah,” Mckenna stepped back, nervously twisting her hands in the rich fabric. The bodice and over-skirt of winter white velvet draped over an under-skirt of crimson taffeta. The brocade trim around the neck-line and sleeves in that same deep crimson. “We… uh… thought it would be nice for me to greet the pageant participants in…uh… character, so to speak.”
“Damn.” Christian looked from the portrait to Mckenna and back again, “Your hair…”
“It’s a rinse.” She ran a hand through the ebony strands, “I was on my way to tell you dinner is being served early. One of Helen’s best dishes, a venison roast. It’s delicious. We all pretend we aren’t eating Bambi’s mama.”
“Sounds yummy.” Ana said, “I’ll just go feed Teddy and …uh..meet you there.” She leaned in, kissed Adonis on his cheek and whispered, “Fix this.” She couldn’t bear to think they’d hurt the woman who they had both come to care so much about.
He leaned down to kiss Teddy’s head and murmured, “Consider it fixed, kitten.”
He watched the woman who had saved his wife and unborn child walk to the portrait – reluctantly, as if drawn against her will.
“Mckenna, I’m sorry…”
“It’s alright.” She sent a small, sad smile in his direction and damn, he thought Christy’s tears were soul destroying. That sad, rueful expression ripped his heart from his chest and stomped all over it.
“No. No, it is not. It is most certainly not alright.” He grasped her shoulders and turned her to face him, being sure to catch and hold her troubled gaze, “Mckenna, there are very few people I trust with the safety of my wife and child. You are at the top of that very short list. Understand?”
Some of the sadness left her eyes, her smile became a soft laugh, “Wow, you even apologize bossy.”
“So, I’ve been told.” Seeing he’d gotten through, he released her.
“More than once I’ll bet,” Came the dry reply, both of them turning back to the portrait, “And really, I, of all people, know how reality blurs in these hallways.”
“The resemblance is uncanny.”
“Yes,” Mckenna raised one hand brushing her fingertips over the white capped waves, “This was painted after her death. There are several traditional portraits of her done while she still lived, but this one speaks to who she was.”
“And who was she?”
“A woman who would not bend her knee.”
We fall silent. Both of us studying the woman for whom I’m named. And as always in this place of joy and sorrow, I feel the weight of my legacy. Rubbing my arms against the chill of spirits watching me from the shadows, I whisper my secrets, “I wonder sometimes, if she had converted to Catholicism, what our lives would be like? Would my mother be alive?”
Quiet words from the man beside me, “That way lay dragons, Mckenna.”
I see the corner of his mouth lift, “Your castle inspired me.”
“And true.” The smile fades, “I would call you friend, Mckenna.”
The simple, sincere words are unexpected as is the warmth that fills me hearing them, “Actually, we’re family.”
“Maybe,” He acknowledges dryly, “But you can’t pick your family.”
Standing in front of the embodiment everything that has formed my life, I can attest to those words, “Ain’t that the truth.”
“I choose my friends, Mckenna, and I have very few.”
Heat envelopes my chilled hand. I look down to see his hand holding mine and remember our conversation under the conifer trees, “Well that’s because you’re an insufferably arrogant, pain in the ass, smarty-britches who thinks he knows everything.”
“True,” He shrugs carelessly, “But I’m so beautiful to look at I get away with it.”
A gentle squeeze and a tug on my hand has me facing him. Serious, silver eyes bore into mine as he speaks a single deliberate word, “Friends.”
Wow. Okay, this is important to him. I nod because it’s the truth, “Yes. Yes, we’re friends.”
“Good,” He releases me and turns back to the portrait, “So you’ll let me know immediately if anything is wrong. If you or your sisters need help in any way.”
Uh-oh. Oh, boy. I get a psychic flash of what calling this man friend will mean, “So basically you’re telling me I’ve got another pain in the ass, bossy as shit, overbearing Alpha male who thinks he was born with the God given right to stick his nose in my business – all up in my business.”
“Yes, good.” He gives me a single, arrogant, alpha male nod, “We understand each other.”
Dinner, like every other meal they had been served since arriving, had been excellent. It had also been highly entertaining. As the twins had been arguing over the trouncing they took in their game of charades. Jose and John had, in Jose’s words, “kicked their cute hineys.” John said it was the most fun he’d had in years and challenged the girls to a rematch saying they would spot them points. Sawyer and Taylor had their heads together whispering something about odds and setting up some kind of charade pool. Flynn had simply laughed his ass off through dinner in spite of his wife’s elbow gouges. Mckenna and McIntyre had been absent. Christy said Mckenna was busy getting ready and Gavin was busy “Making Mac nutso”.
Grey had no trouble believing that. The man had been her shadow ever since the library incident.
After dinner they made their way to the great hall, Lena and Allie still arguing. He and Ana deliberately hanging back so they wouldn’t have to guard their expressions. John and Jose were behind them snickering. Flynn wasn’t bothering. He was walking between the two women so he wouldn’t miss a thing.
Barbara, who was walking on his other side, shook her head, “He’s impossible. You should have seen him after he got off the phone with you. It was like he’d won the lottery, grinning and grabbing luggage, muttering about chimneys and cats and daggers, and somebody’s dead grandmother named Rose.” She flipped a hand at her husband’s head, “He’ll be trying to get me to move to Virginia before long.”
He was about to assure her that Flynn wouldn’t leave him as he was his cash cow, but the argument in front of them blew-up.
“A baton? A baton? Are you fucking kidding me?” Lena leaped forward and spun around so she was walking backwards, facing her sister, and waving one arm over her head, “What the hell Allie? Sounds like a damn whoever the fuck you were pointing to and spinning in a circle. Shit, and just who the fuck is this Lou Bootin dude anyway?”
“Honestly,” Allie’s heels made sharp agitated strikes on the stone floors, “I was pointing at you, you idiot. Sounds like ‘you’ and I was twirling a baton. Louboutin, the shoe designer.”
“Shoes?” Lena threw both hands up and, without looking, turned at exactly the right time, so she went around the corner as opposed to colliding with the wall, “How the fuck was I supposed to go from 15th century Christians to shoes?”
“The word was Christian, you doofus.” Allie shot back, “I didn’t mime anything about the 15th century.”
Grey had to cover his bark of laughter with a half-assed cough. “Doofus” was not a word he expected to come out of the lovely woman’s mouth. He needn’t have bothered as Flynn’s head-throwback of a howl drowned out any sound he made.
“Well, shit what else am I supposed to think?” Lena spun in a full circle her arms out and stepped down the two small steps into the back of the great hall, never breaking her stride and still moving backwards, and damn that was impressive, “We’re at the place where they lit her up for crying out loud.”
At that, Allie threw a thumb over her shoulder, “And we brought Christian Grey with us. And why do you think I kept pointing to my shoes?” She then flicked a dainty hand at her red soled stilettos.
“How the fuck should I know?” Lena spun back around, falling in beside Flynn who had managed to work down to chuckles, “Didn’t make a damn bit of sense.”
“We are never partnering for charades again.” Allie huffed, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Fine by me.”
“Oh now, don’t be like that.” John protested from behind him, “We have a rematch tomorrow.”
“Yeah, you can’t back out now, Pip.” Sawyer called out from the very back of their group.
Lena threw a sharp eyed look over her shoulder, “Whatever you’re running, I get a cut of the house.”
“Uh, sure Pip.” Then under his breath, “Damn, that’s hot.”
Taylor grunted in disgust.
“Aren’t twins supposed to have a psychic connection?” Flynn had finally sobered up enough to ask.
To which both girls immediately turned to him, “We’re fraternal.”
“I can’t believe I shared a womb with you. You’re a Philistine.”
“Whatever, Miss Priss.”
“Oh my God, it’s beautiful.” Ana whispered.
“Damn, that is something.” He agreed, standing at the front of the hall taking it all in. The decorations had been completed. Everything from the mantels to the chandeliers to the grand staircase was dressed in balsam and pine and sparkling with crystal. The only lights came from the hearth and the chandeliers and the lights woven though the garland and decorating the giant tree.
“It looks, I don’t know…mystical.” Ana breathed.
“The tradition of greening was not originally a Christian ritual.” Allie informed them.
“Uh, yes.” Flynn nodded.
There was a commotion at the entrance Edwards opened the doors and people streamed in. Grey thought it must be at least eighty. Small children holding the hands of parents wandering in, their faces lit with wonder. There was bustling and the low hum of awed people whispering but then…
“Welcome.” The single word soared over the hall, silencing the crowd. Or maybe that was the sight of Mckenna McGovern standing at the top of the stairs, wrapped in velvet, her hair a tumble of sable down her back, she looked regal, yet at the same time wild…untamed. And the words from earlier came back to him. ‘A woman who would not bend her knee’. No, he couldn’t see this woman bending her knee to anyone.
“I, Mckenna McGovern, Lady of these Halls, welcome one and all. Here, you are treasured guests. Eat, drink, and joins us as we celebrate The First Night of Noel.”
“Holy Shit!” Taylor came up behind him, “That’s…”
“Unsettling?” Grey offered a diplomatic answer.
“Spooky as shit, you mean.” Sawyer didn’t bother with diplomacy.
“Holy Shit!” Flynn finally spoke, “That’s….”
“What’s the First Night of Noel?” Ana asked.
“Nothing. She made it up. Sounds official, and pretty, and all that.” Lena waved a hand at the crowd, “Not like we can invite them to celebrate the onset of winter by killing all the livestock so we won’t have to feed them.”
“First Night of Noel does sound better.” He agreed, stifling his chuckle.
“Yeah, and ‘Join us in our worship of the Mother Goddess, Cailleach…. ” Lena snorted in disgust, “Well, they already think we’re stealing cows and bleeding them for our black-magic rituals.”
“Yes, I can see how that would only encourage existing prejudice.”
“So First Night of Noel it is.”
Grey was pleased to see the evening went well, exceedingly well. The children had lined up on the staircase and belted out off-key Christmas carols to teary-eyed parents sipping on Helen’s cider and a gorging on Christmas cake. The children had then gathered around the tree and received small gifts from The Lady of the Manor. Grey watched as the invisible walls that normally surrounded Mckenna melted away, she knelt on the floor in a sea of white velvet handing out presents and laughing with small children who were fascinated by the beautiful lady in white.
In the end Edwards escorted happy children and happier parents out of the hall with the promise that they would each receive a video file of their “little darlings” as he’d called them.
And now they all stood around the hearth sipping mulled wine and nibbling on the array of food Helen kept bringing out. Well, some of them were nibbling. Jose was gobbling.
“Where the hell does he put it.” He muttered staring at Jose’s piled-high plate.
“Are you kidding?” Ana snorted, “He burns it off.”
“Ah right,” He nodded. Jose was even now in motion, waving his arms around in an animated conversation with Allie.
His phone vibrated in his pocket, “That’s Teddy.”
“I’ll go get him.” Ana kissed his cheek, “Save me some cake.”
“So you guys Pagan?” The innocent question from John had an odd effect.
All four McGovern sisters froze. Just stopped right in the middle of their various conversations and turned to John with a vehement, “NO!”
“Uh…okay…” John held up his hands and backed up. Hell, they all did with the exception of Flynn who was watching the scene with a huge giddy grin.
All four were immediately contrite.
“What we’re saying is…”
“Uh…how can we put this….”
“You see, Pagan was a general term used by the Catholic Church to refer to any non-Christian religion.” Allie answered slowly.
“Oh.” John wisely kept his response to a neutral mono-syllable.
“So we were pagan by default, and technically that is still true and we still call ourselves that, but” A blush stole over Allie’s cheeks, “Well, modern paganism we don’t um…practice that.”
“Yeah, no, hell no.” Lena waved her hands in front of her face, “People calling themselves Pagans these days do crazy-ass shit.”
“Like what?” John asked.
“Oh Goddess, don’t ask.” Lena said.
Grey looked from one McGovern sister to the next. Damn, if they didn’t all look green. McIntyre, on the other hand was obviously and unsuccessfully trying to stifle laughter. Mckenna elbowed him in the ribs. Lena punched him in the arm.
What the hell?
“Well, now we have to know.” Flynn insisted. His face lighting up with fanatical excitement. Grey rethought his ability to keep the man on the west coast.
Allie blushed and sipped her wine. Mckenna muttered something about hard liquor and Excedrin. Lena said she couldn’t do it without throwing up in her mouth, but it was Christy who came back with, “They dance naked around Totem Pole Penises.”
The smile melted off Flynn’s face.
Grey was trying to wrap his head around Christy’s statement while all around him shit happened.
Sawyer spurted mulled wine out of his mouth. Taylor slammed his back while muttering curses. McIntyre bent double laughing. John opened and closed his mouth but beside him Jose was flailing like a maniac. He jerked on John’s arm, his other hand beating his chest, his face panicked and purple.
SHIT! Jose wasn’t flailing.
“He’s choking!” Lena shouted, “Heimlich his ass.”
Taylor, Sawyer and McIntyre jumped forward, but John was already there.
Spinning Jose around, he put his arms around him and pumped his hands into his diaphragm. With a pop of air, something flew from Jose’s mouth and landed on the floor in front of the hearth. Grey looked down to see an almond. Jose was fond of those spicy nuts.
Sucking in air and clutching his chest, Jose sank into a chair, “Oh God, Oh God, that was…oh fuck…”
John grabbed a bottle of water from the side-board and handed it to him. He flipped it up and downed the bottle while they all looked on.
The shock of the moment dissipated. Shoulders sagged. Sawyer grabbed a bottle of bourbon not bothering with a glass. As soon as he pulled it from his mouth Taylor grabbed it, took a swig and, rubbing his face muttered, “Damn, you girls need to come with a warning label.”
McIntyre snorted, “That’s not a bad idea.”
Mckenna elbowed him again.
Then Grey heard a sniffle. Ah shit. Christy.
The tiny girl shuffled up to Jose, “Oh Jose, I’m so sorry.”
Jose looked up. Grey saw the instant he caught on, his eyes widening with more panic for a bare second, but then the man rallied to the cause, “Now sweetie, that wasn’t your fault. I was inhaling those nuts and well, that Totem thing took me by surprise.” Then sitting up he whispered with a grin, “So how big was it? Enquiring boys want to know?”
Grey breathed a sigh of relief along with every other person in the room.
“It was huge!” She raised her thin arm over her head, “Six feet at least. And the naked people were um…you know…doing it.”
“NO!” Jose gasped, grabbing his chest in mock horror.
“It was horrible.” Allie shuddered, her horror all too real.
“Excuse me,” Lena stuck her finger in her twin’s face, “Miss I-can’t-walk-out-here-in-these-heels. And you” She whirled on Christy, “Your ‘I need to give Trudy her medicine.’ You abandoned us. And we…” She threw her arm between herself and Mckenna, who was rubbing her temple still looking green, “Had to grab that pasty, naked hippie by ourselves.”
“Those Minolos were brand new.”
“Trudy had a fungus.”
“Yeah yeah” Lena waved them silent, “Then the fucking Totem thing erupted…”
“Uh…erupted…you mean…” John’s eyebrows shot up into his dreads.
“Yeah you got it.” Lena nodded, “Damn thing shot fireworks fifty feet in the air.”
“Okay, that’s it. This discussion is now over.” Mckenna stalked to the middle of the room, spinning on them in a swirl of regal winter white, “I’m the fucking Lady of the fucking manor and this subject is now fucking off limits.”
Grey noticed McIntyre grinning and Taylor and Sawyer both grimacing. Obviously Mckenna was somehow making Gavin money while the other two lost.
“By the Goddess, I had to fucking live through that fucking nightmare of a night. I will not listen to it being fucking rehashed on the First Night of No-whatever-the fuck-el. The next person who says anything about that fucking Totem is going in the fucking dungeon. We’ve got one of those and it’s got fucking stocks and shit. Are we fucking clear?”
Then, “Uh…okay.” John said.
“I’m with you on that one, sis.” Lena flopped down on the couch.
“I agree.” Allie primly sipped her wine.
“Um…I’m going to check on Buster.” Christy scampered off.
Jose jumped up, “I’ll come with you. Just let me grab another one of these scones.” He grabbed two and followed her. Jose wanted to hear the rest of that story. Hell, so did he.
“Uh, yeah I’ll tag along.” John took Jose’s arm.
“I’ll join you.” Flynn jumped up from his seat behind his wife. She waved him on with a smile, a roll of her eyes, and a toast of her wine.
“Dammit.” Grey jumped at the low curse behind him. He turned to see Ana had returned, Teddy on her shoulder, “What did I miss?”
“Uh…well…” Shit, he had no idea where to start.
“Here you go.” Sawyer walked over and handed her his phone, throwing a furtive look over his shoulder, “We had a..uh.. couple of hidden cameras set up streaming to the phones.”
“Really?” Somehow he wasn’t surprised.
“Uh, yeah. See, we uh have some running pools going and thought it would be easier to uh.. set up surveillance. So we didn’t, you know, miss anything.”
“Huh,” His kitten handed Teddy to him and took the phone from Sawyer, “Well, fuck me. That was fucking genius.”