“Annie you have got to try this cider.” Jose raved with his usual enthusiasm over great food and drink.
She pulled the empty bottle from Teddy’s mouth and lifted him to her shoulder, patting his back. She, Jose and John were gathered around one of the hearths in the great hall. She’d taken a break from decorating to feed Teddy. John had just joined them taking a break from light stringing duty. Jose had been planted by the food the entire afternoon.
“Helen what do you put in this cider? It’s divine.. oh, and these nuts are fabulous.”
Helen set a tray of fresh scones on the side-board between the carafe of hot cider and various other delicacies she’d been bringing out all afternoon and beamed at Jose, “Why thank-you, but I can’t take credit for the nuts. It’s Mckenna’s recipe.”
“I get cinnamon,” Jose popped a couple in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully, “And sugar, salt…but..there’s heat… ”
“Cayenne.” Helen said, then whispered, “I’m not supposed to tell. It’s her secret ingredient.”
Jose did an elaborate job of turning the key to lock his lips, “It’s in the vault.”
Ana was busy burping Teddy so she didn’t snort or roll her eyes. The lock on Jose’s vault had long since rusted through.
“And these cheese wafers are divine…addictive.” He popped another into his mouth. “Oh John sugar, pass me that plate of shortbread. I’m just going to grab one of these warm scones. He grabbed two broke them open and slathered them with butter. “Oooh orange marmalade,” He plopped a liberal piles of the jam into the middle of the generous amount of butter, “My favorite.”
How Jose kept his trim physique was one of the great mysteries of the universe.
“You know, Annie,” Jose took the large wedge of shortbread, but when he would have put it on his plate there was not so much as a millimeter of room left, so he plopped down in his chair, loaded plate in one hand and a wedge of shortbread in the other, “We should take notes for next year. This is how to throw a tree trimming party.”
She felt someone should point out the obvious, “You haven’t hung a single ornament.”
“Mrs. Annie Grey” Jose extended one finger and shook it at her on his way to popping the shortbread in his mouth, chewed, swallowed, and, “I have worked my fingers to the bone whipping up your cranberry-velvet dream bows.”
Oh please, Helen had whipped five of those bows together while he sipped cider and devoured nuts. He’d done one and Helen had grabbed it out of his hand half-way through so he could butter the first plate of scones she’d brought out. They were currently on plate number three.
The sisters had worked old-fashioned bulb lights and even crystal ornaments into the garland that now ran up the first two floors, and were now busy on the third landing decorating small topiary trees flanking the staircase. They could hear Lena’s occasional “Fuck it all,” Mckenna’s “Goddess be damned,” Allie’s “Honestly, grow up,” and Chrsity’s, “That looks wonky…”
“Hey, what’s that?” John tilted his head.
Ana heard a single female voice singing, pure and clear as crystal, “It’s beautiful.” She spun on Jose, “I thought you said the sound system was down….”
“Uh..no not exactly,” Her friend made a big deal of putting the two halves of his scone back together, “I just said the Brownian CD wasn’t working….”
“CD?” Oh, she was onto something, “What CD? We’re using Spotify…”
“Well honey, I don’t know. I’m no techie genius. I’m just going by what the bad-ass bitch said…” Then Jose made a fatal mistake and plucked lint from his sleeve.
“Ha! You’re lying.” Lint plucking was Jose’s tell.
“Why Annie Grey, that’s a horrible thing to say.” He sniffed. Another tell.
“You plucked lint.”
“I most certainly did not.” He denied, his hand freezing halfway to his sleeve, but couldn’t stop his sniff.
“Sniff! You sniffed. Lying Sniffer!…..”
He sniffed again, “I will not sit here and be insulted…”
“Quiet down, you two,” John waved them silent, rising and heading towards the stairs, “I don’t think that’s Spotify.”
Seeing that she would get nowhere with Mr. Pants on fire, Ana rose and followed, Teddy on her shoulder. “It sounds like Celtic Women.” The single voice had been joined by others. A hauntingly familiar tune in four part harmony in a language Ana didn’t understand, but it was beautiful. Mesmerizing.
“Holy Jesus, those girls can sing.” Jose whispered from beside her. It was the last thing anyone said for a while.
In the dim light of early evening they could barely make out the McGovern sisters on the third landing. They moved around the small trees hanging ornaments and singing. The songs flowed from that foreign language to English and back again sometimes fading into oohs and sometimes only humming. It seemed random, yet the harmonies were perfect, the haunting strains soaring through the hall like a prayer given wings. Chills raced along her spine. Tears filled her eyes. At some point she became aware of heat at her back.
“Damn, that’s beautiful.” Christian’s whisper slid by her ear. His arms going around she and Teddy, holding her loosely against him.
Sawyer and Taylor were standing at the foot of the stairs staring up at the girls with a great deal of awe and a dash of what the fuck?
“What language is that?” She whispered.
“Gaelic,” Gavin McIntyre’s low rumble answered. He must have entered with her husband, The giant man stood at the bottom of the stairs, “’In the Bleak Mid-Winter’, it was Lara’s favorite Christmas carol.”
Ana was so transported by the magic when it stumbled to a stop the silence slammed into her like a heavy weight. She blinked, shaking herself back into awareness and thought she heard a woman crying, but then Lena yelled down at them, “Gavin, dammit where’s our soundtrack?”
“I’ve been a little busy stringing lights on a dozen trees.” He called back.
“No excuses, you’re our sound guy.” Lena yelled back down. Grey thought she was covering for the soft sobbing he could barely hear, “We need some Vince. And Grey you need to take over the feeding. We need another tie breaker.”
McIntyre walked across the room to the hearth, flipped open one of those panels in the wall, hit a couple of buttons, and very familiar music filled the room.
“Ha! See there Jose Rodriguez.” Ana handed Teddy over to Christian and with one last triumphant glance at a deathly pale Jose she ran up the stairs.
“What…what is that?” Jose whispered.
“It’s the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Gavin returned to them shrugging his huge shoulders, “The girls love it. Listen to it every year. It’s not so bad once you….Hey man you okay?”
Jose stood there looking sick. Confronted with the reality of the soundtrack to what he called, “Anastasia Rose Steele’s Christmas from Hell.”
With supreme effort he managed to keep the laughter out of his voice when he asked, “Uh, I don’t suppose I could get Mrs. Edwards to make some hot chocolate. Ana loves it.” And sipping it would keep her from singing along. His kitten didn’t inherit the McGovern vocal talent.
“Hot Chocolate.” Jose came back to life saying the word with relieved reverence, “Yes…yes we need…yes. Perfect.” He ran towards the kitchen, his voice carrying in the cavernous space, “I’ll just go see if I can round up some cocoa and milk, or cocoa and water, or milk and sugar and brown food coloring….or something…hell anything…”
Overall our first day decorating the castle had gone better than I’d expected. Allie and Lena didn’t try to stab each other with crystal icicles. The bickering never went above ten decibels, mainly due to Ana’s tactful interventions, and we only had five of the light strands go out, but when you’re dealing with the laws of large numbers… well, we were due for some drama and damn were we getting it.
Standing with my three sisters and my new tactful cousin in the great hall, I’m wondering if the bleach we’ll be using to clean up the blood about spill will damage the aged marble floors.
“I took Buster.” Christy insisted for I think the fourth time, her chin jutting out, a sure sign she was not budging, “He was sick. My sisters didn’t have anything to do with it.”
“See there, she’s confessin’. Arrest the little thief and get me my damn steer back.” Says the man who will soon be bleeding on our floor. Our pain in the ass, superstitious, bigot of a neighbor. I’d forgotten about him. Around here neighbors are anyone within twenty miles. This hairy wart on humanity’s backside is our closest one, but still over ten miles away. I’ve not seen him since I was nine. It’s all coming back to me now though. The beady-eyed stump hadn’t changed a bit. With his greasy gray hair and a pointed, mean, little face, he was an ugly son of a bitch inside and out.
“Corbin, there’s no need to arrest anybody…” Says the man trying to keep the blood from spilling. I hadn’t had much contact with Inspector Sullivan over the years, but Gavin always had good things to say about him. Poor man was in over his head with this one and he damn well knew it, if that panic he was working so hard to hide was any indication.
“She stole my property.” The little weasel stuck his gnarled, dirty finger in Christy’s face and Oh. Hell. No.
Before I could get there, Lena jumped between them. Her eyes shooting death-ray sparks. The guy was startled into pulling his hand down. Lucky for him. Lena can snap a finger broken in under a second, “You’re half-dead property, asshole.” She snarled, her eyes still tracking that finger.
“What did you just call me?” The soon to be nothing more than a stain on our floor sniped.
“Asshole.” Lena repeated, not the least bit troubled that the man was over twice her size, “You having trouble hearing? Why don’t I spell it out in braile over your fucking face…”
Dammit Lena. No threats. Auntie’s right on that one. They don’t work and they can get you dragged off before you can do any damage.
“Did you hear that? She threatened me. Arrest her.”
And I’m right again. Nobody believes me when I say this, but it really does suck sometimes.
“Dammit Corbin, shut up.” The Inspector pushed the greasy waste of space back, “I’m handling this.”
“Inspector, the cow was practically road-kill.” I step in and try to stop the express elevator carrying this day straight to hell, “We did you a service.”
“Steer.” The asshole yelled over the inspector’s shoulder, “It’s a steer and you stole my property.” Damn, that moron’s not going to be satisfied till he’s in pieces, “What did you do, bleed it and use it in some black magic ritual?”
“Fucking ‘A’ sis,” Lena shoulder bumps me out of her way, “Can’t we just shoot him…”
Or riddled with holes. Either way we’re going to have a problem with the floor
“Honestly, is that your answer for everything?” Allie huffs and crosses her arms over her chest. It’s a good distraction. Both the men’s eyes swing around and lock on her chest, but before Allie can use her wonder-twin powers to calm the savage beast, Lena opens her mouth again.
“The guy’s an asshole…”
Oh for fuck’s sake. My head drops and my temple begins to throb. The left one, always starts with the left one. My eyes fall to the floor. Maybe Edwards has got some Formula 409.
“She’s got a point there.” Sawyer whispered.
Christian nodded. He clustered with the rest of the men just out of sight behind the staircase. They had a pool going.
“So it’s whoever gets the closest?” John whispered.
“Yeah, but if she goes over you’re out.” Taylor said, folding over the twenties he was being handed in a rush.
“So bid high.” John nodded, “Fifteen”
“You think?” Jose was watching the scene go down while bouncing Teddy on his hip.
“She’s pissed.” McIntyre said, “I’d go higher.” He’d chosen to abstain saying he had an unfair advantage.”
“She’s already said it four times.”
“Right.” Jose nodded, “Eighteen.”
“Put me in for twenty.” Grey said to Sawyer who was keeping track of their bids on his phone. He’d seen first hand just how creative Lena’s cursing could be. Twenty fucks or any derivatives there-of in fifteen minutes would be no problem.
“Lena,” Mckenna’s frustrated voice pulled his attention to the floor, “We don’t shoot people for being assholes…” The phrase had the rote sound of one that had been repeated many times.
“I wouldn’t put it past them…” Taylor whispered right on top of Lena’s “Since when?”
“Now, uh, ladies,” The Inspector protested, raising his hands in something of a halt sign but with his desperate expression it looked more like a plea. It reminded Grey a lot of Detective Carson. He sincerely hoped the man didn’t have a heart condition, “I can’t be listening to talk about shooting people.”
“Then get the fuck out of our castle…”
“Is that five?” He asked.
“Nine.” Sawyer said.
Damn he must have missed a couple while they were talking. He should have gone higher.
“Lena, don’t curse the man out. He’s just doing his job.” Allie gave the men apologetic smiles.
“Fine, then fucking arrest my ass.” Lena pushed her beautiful sister aside, “I stole the fucking cow. And get your skeevy eyes off my sister’s chest you fucking perv.”
“Damn, how many fucks does that make?” Taylor had all ten fingers up.
“Twelve, I think.” Sawyer said.
“Flynn are you keeping the official tally?” John asked.
“Oh no, I’m in the pool.”
Grey looked around to see Flynn behind him with his usual shit-eating grin in place, “I put in for Thirty.”
“That high?” That was a fuck every thirty seconds.
Flynn shrugged, “We’ll see.”
“I’m recording.” Sawyer waved his phone.
“Excellent, we can review it later.” Grey nodded his approval. Yes, he was rich but he liked to win.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, I took that damn cow… ” Mckenna spoke up.
“Uh….” The inspector started rubbing his sweating head.
“Dammit, those girls are gonna get their asses tossed in jail.” Gavin McIntyre was shaking his head, looking seconds from stomping out there and pulling the asshole apart by hand.
“I insisted we take the steer, did you call it.” Allie stepped in front of her sisters, “Arrest me.” Then turning a tragically disappointed face to the asshole neighbor, “And you don’t believe all that black magic nonsense, surely.”
The neighbor went red-faced and looked at his suddenly shuffling feet.
“Man, it’s a good thing that girl uses her power for good.” Sawyer whispered.
“Ain’t that the truth.” Taylor nodded.
“Now Miss, jail is no place for the likes of you.” The Inspector shook his head.
“Yeah, you might chip a fucking nail.” Lena shoved her sister behind her again.
“Thirteen.” Sawyer said with a low curse, “I’m out.”
“Like I said, I took the fucking cow. Fucking arrest my ass.”
Taylor and John threw up their hands in defeat.
“Lena for fuck’s sake…” Mckenna was now rubbing her temples with both hands.
“Now ladies” The Inspector protested, digging a handkerchief from his pocket and patting his damp forehead, “I can’t take you all down to jail.”
“Why the fuck not?”
“I assure you, all we have to do is call Auntie and she’ll come bail us out.” Mckenna said.
Both men went white as sheets.
“Uh…now” Sweat was now running down the Inspector’s face, “Let’s not go getting carried away. No need to call Theodora.”
“Oh no, I think that’s exactly what we do need.” Mckenna’s smile was one of the most disturbing sights Grey had ever seen. Had she ever sent that particular smile in his direction? No, no he’d have never let her anywhere near Ana if she had.
“Damn, right” Lena pushed in beside her and held her hands out, “Slap the fucking cuff on and fucking arrest our fucking asses.”
“Fudge,” Jose moved Teddy to his other hip, “There goes my winning streak.”
“They’re not gonna be happy till they spend the night in the slammer.” Edwards repeated McIntyre’s words practically verbatim, “And with the pageant coming up, dammit.”
“Pageant?” Grey prompted.
“Well, over the next week we have the children come sing carols.” Edwards explained, “They come from all over. The parents love it. And it’s important this year. The girls will be here. Give folks a chance to see them in a better light. Cut back on some of that stupid prejudice. And they a’ gonna go and get themselves arrested.”
“The hell they are.” McIntyre took a step forward.
“If you will allow me.” Grey stepped in his path. The giant paused, but didn’t look like he was going to relent, “I owe the girls a debt.”
“Right. Alright. Yes.” Gavin nodded grudgingly.
Grey had learned debts were something the Scots took seriously and to The McGovern clan they were next to sacred. He strode to the foyer, stopping at his wife’s side and sliding his arm around her shoulders.
She released her bottom lip, “Please tell me you’re here to save the day in all your billion dollar glory.”
“Consider the day saved, kitten.” He kissed her temple then turned to the inspector.
“Inspector Sullivan, it’s good to see you again.” He’d met the inspector earlier in the day when he’d accompanied Edwards into town to make sure they got the proper ribbon.
“Mr. Grey.” The inspector acknowledged with a small nod, looking like a man stuck between bad and worse and not knowing which way to jump.
“While it is heroic of the ladies to cover for me, I would count myself a coward if I allowed them to spend the night in jail. I stole the uh, steer,” He turned the stare that had backed down CEO’s of million dollar corporations on the asshole, “Is that what you called it?”
“Uh…yeah…” He took a shuffling step back.
“Mr. Grey, that’s gallant of you, but the steer is in their barn.” The inspector pointed out reluctantly.
“Uh, not really.” Ana spoke up, “It’s our barn.”
“Pardon?” Inspector Sullivan’s perpetually tormented gaze swung to Ana. Grey swore the man’s eyes crossed.
“Yes, my wife’s a McGovern, you see.”
“Pardon?” The crossed eyes came back to him.
“A direct descendant of Ariana Rose. Theodora and Teddy even share the same birthday.” He clarified.
“Pardon?” The inspector finally blinked. His eyes straightened but were strangely unfocused.
Grey thought he might be suffering a brain aneurism. He gave it a couple of seconds, but when the man didn’t fall to the floor unconscious, he turned to where the men were clustered, “John, do you still have that video?”
“Sure,” John came forward pulling out his phone, tapped it a couple of times and held it up to the inspector. Grey heard catcalls and whistling and knew without looking what the men were seeing.
“It’s…uh… eating your shirt.” The inspector noted dimly.
“Yes, as you can see I have to actually strip in order to get it back. And there’s surely no doubt who actually took the steer.”
“No, that’s proof positive.”
“I don’t care who took it.” The neighbor blustered, “I want my property back.”
Sure he did. Grey made his counter offer, “I’ll give you twenty thousand for it.”
The reactions were varied and instant. Mckenna’s hands dropped from her temples, turning on him with a shocked, “What the hell?” Allie protested with a shake of her golden head, saying that was kind, but he was too generous. Christy said something about Buster being gelded. The inspector stammered about money and steers and Mad Cow Disease. Predictably, the greedy neighbor’s response was an eager, “I’ll take it”, but all and a sundry were cut off and drowned out by some of the most vicious, creative, and enthusiastic cursing ever to assault Grey’s ears.
“Twenty fucking thousand??!! For that fucked up, stinking to fucking high heaven, half-the fuck-dead, fucking cow? What the fuck, Hot-Stuff? Have you fucking lost your fucked up, whack-a-fucking-doodle, too-the-fuck gorgeous, ever-the-fuck-loving MIND?”
Finally, it stopped. Lena stood in front of him hands on hips, panting.
“Time!” Sawyer called out from behind the staircase.
“And I believe that is thirty, gentlemen.” Flynn came forward Grinning, “Never bet against an expert on human behavior when betting on human behavior.”
Not that he didn’t trust Flynn, but “Sawyer?”
“Confirmed,” Sawyer’s hand popped out, waving his phone, “But shit, He’s just lucky she ran out of oxygen.”