In last year’s Holiday One-Shot, A Christmas Cluster, Allie refers to the Scotland trip The Greys took in November. So for this year’s Holiday story, I thought it would be a hoot to write about that trip. Here we go. I’m not sure how long this will be yet, but safe to say this is part one…..
On the timeline this happens little over a month after Fifty Shades of the Moon. The week after Thanksgiving….
On the road to McGovern Castle…..
Christian Grey sat between his wife and his one month old son in an SUV that was more of a mini-bus. With its three rows of bench seats, it had seemed an over-abundance of space when he’d rented it, but with the McGovern sisters piled in, it was feeling a little crowded.
Sisters, he discovered, seemed incapable of doing even the most mundane things without a great deal of…. discussion.
The four women with Gavin McIntyre in tow, had met them at the car rental lot and immediately engaged in this back and forth style of communication. Everything from the best route to the Castle to the placement of the luggage to the weather to the traveling music to the placing of Teddy’s car seat to where the McGoverns themselves would be seated was discussed and re-discussed and then discussed some more. With his wife snickering behind Teddy’s head, Taylor and Sawyer making themselves scarce by aiding McIntyre in loading the luggage into the vehicle the girls arrived in. He was left on his own to figure out the best way to shut this phenomenon down so they could actually get on the road as opposed to merely talking about it. Even Jose had let him down, when he’d scooted by them to pull John into the back seat of the rental, murmuring, “You’re on your own Sugar-buns.”
Finally Mckenna, who more or less stayed on the fringes of these discussions had, apparently, had enough. Throwing the hand that wasn’t engaged in rubbing her temple in the direction of the SUV, she shouted, “Oh, for the love of the Goddess, just sit the hell down!”
Damn if it didn’t work. With sheepish little looks and apologies, the women settled themselves in seats. Either something had shown on his face or Gavin McIntyre was used to this type of thing. After loading all the luggage into the large Jeep with the McGovern Crest on the doors, the large man leaned down and whispered, “They’re a little wound up, what with it being their first trip back and all.”
He nodded, yes that made sense. Other than Mckenna’s yearly trips, the sisters had not been back their childhood home since the tragedy that took them from it nearly twenty years ago. He supposed it could have been worse, and after they got on the road things settled down to a manageable hum with only the occasional snipe and huff.
Allie, seated on the other side of Teddy in the first seat, flipped through various fashion magazines. The remaining three took the middle seat. Christy, settled behind him, was texting her staff at the animal shelter and giving them all occasional updates on Shakespeare, the Bard Owl with a broken wing. Lena sat next to her muttering dire warnings about Bard Owls and Blue Macaws engaging in bloody fights to the death in between complaints about having to pass fashion magazines between Allie and Jose in the back seat. Mckenna was fast asleep against the window. With Taylor confidently behind the wheel and Sawyer riding shot-gun, Grey had just managed to convince himself that they were going to get to McGovern Castle relatively drama free. Foolish he knew.
It started when Christy shouted directly in his ear, “Stop! Stop! Stop the car!”
Slapping his hand over his ringing ear, he jumped, flipping around in his seat to see Mckenna bolting upright with a, “Who’s dead?” Allie closing her magazine with an, “Oh…dear…” And Lena flopping back with a sulky, “Whatever it is, I’m not feeding it.”
Christy was still yelling for “Mr. Taylor” to stop, her hands frantically slapping around for the lock release in the unfamiliar vehicle.
Grey cut his losses. Drama free was shot to shit.
He sent a backwards nod to Taylor. As usual when dealing with these women, he didn’t have a clue what was going on, but Christy looked ready jump out while they were still moving. They had barely halted on the non-existent shoulder when the tiny girl threw the door open and jumped out, running pell-mell across the narrow, two-lane road and into a field towards what looked like a big brown lump.
Behind them, the McGovern Jeep, pulled off the road, the door flying open and a giant leaping out. Gavin McIntyre took off after the girl, bellowing the entire way, “Laura Christiana Rose, do not go near that thing. It could be diseased.”
Both Taylor and Sawyer looked to him with identical bewildered and expectant expressions. What the hell for, he didn’t know. Board rooms and hostile takeovers were his areas of expertise. Diseased brown bulges dotting the Scottish landscape were out of his element.
Soft snorting sounds coming from beside him had him turning to his wife, “Mrs. Grey, that wasn’t a half attempt at suppressing a giggle was it?”
Bursting into laughter in lieu of answering, Ana helplessly waved off his raised brow and choked out something like, “The look on your face.”
Behind him, Mckenna stumbled out of the car, holding her hand over her eyes and gazing in the brown bulge’s direction. He heard a muttered, “Damn, it’s moving.” And then she started toward it with a lot less urgency than McIntyre and a lot more dread.
“What in the blazin’ blue balls is that thing?” Jose pressed his face to the window.
“I think it’s a cow.” John leaned over him.
“We are so fucked.” Lena said the words under her breath, but her low voice carried.
“Lena! Language!” Allie gasped, covering Teddy’s ears, who was sleeping through the entire thing. Even if he’d been awake, Grey doubted at one month his son would understand.
“Seriously?” Lena flung an arm in the direction of the brown bulge, “You do know she’s going to make us load that thing in here.”
“Oh, no” Allie’s worried gaze strayed to the window as she protested with no conviction whatsoever, “We don’t have room…..”
They made room.
Gavin McIntyre came back to them, standing just outside the door Christy had thrown open, a sheepish look on his face, “Uh, we have a problem.”
Resigned to the insanity, he followed McIntyre across the wind-swept field to the brown lump on the grass. The problem turned out to be a cow that looked like a yak and smelled like week old garbage.
“Christy sweetheart,” Mckenna stood by her sister where she knelt on the ground next to whatever the hell that thing was, “We can’t just take it.”
“He’ll die out here, Mac. He’s sick.” Christy protested from where she was kneeling in a damn mud-puddle shivering.
“I’m not saying we can’t help him, but we don’t have any way of transporting him at the moment.” Mckenna patiently and carefully tried to lay out the reality of the situation. Grey took note of both hands behind her back, her fingers crossed, “Let’s get to McGovern Hall and then I can send Edwards back out with a horse cart.”
“Okay,” The tiny girl bobbed her head, “I’ll stay here with Buster.”
Mckenna mumbled something he couldn’t hear, but he read the, “Oh shit, she’s named it.” on her lips.
“Laura Christian Rose,” He had no trouble hearing McIntyre however. His low rumbling voice carried even at a whisper. Not that he was whispering now. No, the man was currently in what Mckenna referred to as mini-me bellow mode, “You are not staying out here in the damn cold with that half-dead thing…”
Enough talk. The girl’s lips were blue for Christsake. Grey walked over and leaned down, gripping her under her arms, and with very little effort, as she weighed next to nothing, he pulled her up and out of the mud. “No. No buts, ifs, ands, or pleases.” He cut off her sputtering protests with the same voice he used when telling board members of floundering companies that there would be no bonuses in their future, “You are going to catch your death.” He turned to Mckenna, who was watching him with a not quite smile on her face, “Take her back to the SUV and get her dry and warm. Tell Sawyer and Taylor we are moving the luggage to the racks on top. So we can load the….” He paused, realizing he didn’t have a clue as to what that thing actually was… “Animal.” He was relatively sure it wasn’t vegetable or mineral, “Into the SUV.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Grey sir.” Mckenna sent him a mocking salute, but when she walked by she whispered, “You’re a good man. We’ll name Buster’s first born after you.”
And so that was how he came to be loading a smelly, horned beast into the McGovern’s SUV. He had it at shoulders near his head. Taylor and Sawyer had its front and rear flanks. McIntyre had produced a roll of duct tape and insisted on tying the hooves together. The thing was barely conscious, but all it would take was a single kick and none of them would ever again father children. It was a tight fit, but he was getting lots of helpful advice on how to go it as everyone had piled out of the rental and stood around them shouting suggestions.
“…maybe if you turned him the other way…”
“…scrunch his legs up….”
“…watch his head….”
“…it’s not an infant…”
“…no, not that way…”
“…look out for the hooves….”
“…it’ll put a dent in the side..”
“…how? It’s barely conscious and tied up…”
“…the horn is caught on the door….”
“…twist the head up…”
“….No, no… back up first…”
“…it’ll scratch the paint…”
“…that thing is rank….”
“….it’ll stink up the car..….”
“…we’ll roll down the windows…..”
That comment from Christy had him looking over his shoulder, with a stern, “No, you will not.” Which turned out to be a tactical error. He felt a tug on his shirt and then….something slimy and cold.
“Shit! He’s eating your shirt.” Lena yelled, then burst out laughing.
Sure enough, the damn thing had burrowed under his sweater and was happily devouring the entire tail of his shirt. When he felt the brush of teeth on his bare skin he jumped back, but damn the thing had a hell of a grip. Before he knew it, he was right up against it, the stench burning his nose. McIntyre grabbed the shirt and tried tugging, but those teeth weren’t letting go, and as the man was weak from laughing his ass off, he wasn’t putting his best effort into it. Between trying to keep the damn yak’s legs still and contorting into strange shapes from trying to suppress laughter that was rolling out of them anyway, Taylor and Sawyer were worthless. Ana was snorting and howling. Allie was jostling Teddy, giggling behind his head. Christy was wringing her hands and saying something about intestinal blockage. Jose was falling all over John who was bent double. And not a soul was helping him.
“Take it off.” That came from Mckenna. She was the only one other than Christy that wasn’t laughing.
“Take the shirt off.” She said, her lips twitching, “You can’t get leverage.”
“Yeah, baby…take it off.” Lena shouted and whistled, “Take it all off.”
Jose was all over that idea, belting out striptease, “Bah-bah-dah-bah-bah-bahms.”
Well, shit. He jerked the sweater over his head. By the time he got to the last button on his shirt, the striptease, “Bah-dah-dahs” had caught on. Shit, John was even harmonizing while filming the incident on his phone. His wife had joined Lena in her lascivious, “Ooooo baby baby’s” and “Show us what you’ve got, Hot-stuff.” Sawyer, Taylor and McIntyre were struggling to hold on to the animal as they were all three bent double and howling. Allie and Christy were turned away, both giggling.
Mckenna was the only one not laughing or cat-calling. He shot her a somewhat disgusted and thoroughly frustrated look.
She just shrugged, “It’s a good look for you.”
He snorted and jerked himself all the way out of his shirt. And well….damn. If someone had told him that he’d be standing fucking naked from the waist up in the middle of a fucking pasture in the middle of fucking Scotland fighting a fucking half-dead yak for his fucking five hundred dollar shirt – he’d have had them committed.
Hell, before this trip was over he might just commit himself.
The damn thing devoured a good third of the shirt before he managed to wrestle it away, with half-assed help from a howling McIntyre. Taylor and Sawyer got it together enough to finish shoving the beast in the SUV, albeit with a lot of cackling and snorting, while he stood by holding his shirt up by one corner, a third of it coated in cow spit and half-digested dark green slime that slid down the shirt and fell to the ground in wet splats.
Everybody else was still howling.
Everyone except Christy, who wrinkled her button nose at him, “Eeeccchhhe, that’s gross.”
“Really? Gross? You think so?” He bit out through clenched teeth, and he was cold and tired and half-naked so the words came out a bit sharper than he intended.
The tiny girl took an anxious step back, “I’m sorry. I’m sure Edwards can get it cleaned.” Big blue eyes blinked rapidly behind those round glasses and he realized she was fighting back tears. Oh no. On hell no. He had to head this off. Those tears were soul destroying. He slammed the shirt on top of the SUV and tugged his sweater back on.
Then softening his voice, he stooped low to meet the small girl’s eyes, “Christiana, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap. I’ll contact the local vet myself and get him to come out. I’m sure he can bring any equipment you need to get…uh…Buster there back on his feet.”
“Okay.” With nothing more than a few snivels, she crawled up into the back of the SUV beside the filthy thing, “Did you hear that Buster? We’re going to get you well and you can stay in a warm barn with fresh hay and graze in a nice pasture and I’ll bring you some apples. I’ll bet you’d like apples…..”
The girl was still telling Buster all the great things he was going to get when McIntyre shut the door on them.
“Thanks Grey.” There was no mistaking the relief in those rumbling words, “I know it can be trying, but the girl gets attached.” The man shook his head helplessly, his eyes locked on Christy still cooing to the yak in the back of the SUV, and damn that was not something he’d ever thought he’d hear in his own head.
Shot. To. Shit.
“Holy Crap! It’s a castle.” Ana pressed her nose to the car window like a five year old and blinked at the massive stone structure. She knew they were going to a castle she’d seen pictures but…
“Oh my God, it’s a castle.” Jose’s face hit the glass beside her.
“Wow.” John’s lean forward was a more adult two inches from the window.
Even her Demi-God was awestruck, murmuring a subdued, “Shit, that’s impressive.” From behind the wheel of the SUV“
Their merry group had split up. McIntyre, with the help of Taylor and Sawyer were delivering Buster to a stable with Christy along to supervise and Lena tagging along for “Shits and giggles” As she’d put it. Ana suspected she wanted a little alone time with Sawyer. The two had been trading heated glances the entire trip.
They had proceeded straight to the castle, crossing over McGovern Hill and rounding a bend and there it was. The intimidating structure loomed over them, and it was as if they’d crossed over into an alternate reality.
“I wonder if this was how Harry Potter felt.” Ana whispered. Bigger than a city block, the outer walls were connected at each corner by honest to God turrets, “They’re flat on top.”
“As opposed to cone-shaped.” Mckenna nodded in answer. She had taken Sawyer’s place and was riding shotgun, “Yes, this structure was built for defense. It’s a fortress. The walls are thirty feet high and ten feet wide. The towers at each of the four corners are flat on top for the cannons.”
“Oh.” Well sure..cannons…of course.
They drove over an actual, honest to God drawbridge and over an honest to God mote then through the open archway of the outer wall into an inner courtyard and there it was. A castle. As if pulled from the pages of one of Bronte’s Gothic novels. Gray stone and stained glass, ivy trailing up the walls. The grounds bordered by sculptured gardens and a circular drive that led them to the very grand and intimidating arched entry. The elaborate wrought iron gates were flanked by lions, their immortal stone bodies at rest and yet their heads were raised and ever vigilant. It was regal, powerful, and just this side of menacing.
“Can you get to the towers from the castle?” John asked.
“Not above ground, no.” Mckenna explained like the tour guide she’d been, “The castle itself is three stories and shaped like a giant “X” and as you can see don’t stretch all the way to the towers. This was a deliberately misleading design. An enemy might gain the tower and think themselves safe, but they are connected to the castle by way of the tunnels.”
Ana didn’t think she could be anymore awed, but then they stepped through the double arched doors and okay it really was Hogwarts.
“Holy Shit!” Ana slapped her hand over her mouth and spun in circles. Beside her, Christian said something like Damn. Behind her, John said Holy shit.
“This is just….” Jose tried speech, but the words died. He just spun in a slow circle patting Teddy’s bottom.
“Here you are. The Mrs. was getting worried.” A barrel chested man with thick gray hair and the bushiest eyebrows Ana had ever seen ushered them inside.
“Sorry Edwards,” Mckenna said, “We…uh..ran into a little…trouble.” Mckenna continued speaking to Edwards in low tones, probably about the yak, but Ana’s attention was diverted by the fa-rickin castle she was standing in.
The space was the size of a cathedral. Open all the way to the top. In front of them was a wide staircase that led to the catwalk around the landing of the second floor and then more stairs to the third. On either side of the hall were huge identical hearths carved in cream colored stone. She could stand upright in that fireplace and still have room to spare. Tapestries and portraits hung on the walls. Beyond the staircases were more arched doors leading off to either side of what Mckenna had referred to as the great hall. Yep, just like Hogwarts.
The only seating in the hall were period couches and chairs grouped around the hearths. The walls were rich dark wood. The staircase gleaming in dark mahogany. It was surreal, overwhelming, and somehow, humbling
“Is it open all the way to the top?” John asked, looking up at the painted ceiling. Of the four of them he seemed to be the only one not awed into silence.
“Yes, just in this central area. The second and third floor landings are perfect squares.” Mckenna’s dry voice floated down the walls and up the staircase like a ghost. “Originally this was only open to the second floor, but in 1910 the third floor became unstable in the restructuring they decided to leave it open to the roof.”
“Are these chairs originals?” Jose had walked to one of the chairs that dotted the walls. Intricately carved wood upholstered in dark leather.
“Yes. The chairs were commissioned in the 1659,” Mckenna kept spouting facts, but her face was pale. She seemed smaller, her dark eyes roaming over the walls, haunted by things none of the rest of them could see.
“They’re beautiful.” Jose said.
“Yes.” She smiled, but rubbed her arms as if chilled. Ana darted a concerned look at Christian who was watching the woman closely.
“Why don’t I show you to your rooms.” Allie came forward smiling, but her blue eyes were clouded, “I’m sure you’d like to get Teddy settled.”
“Yes, that would be helpful.” Christian darted a significant look her way. She shook her head in a tiny, but unmistakable movement.
Then in her bight husky voice, “You’re on the ground floor in the east wing. It gets the morning sunlight.” She led them down the great hall past the stairs and through another arched doorway one of the doors was open. She and Christian followed, but as soon as they were out of ear shot.
“How is she doing?”
“Okay, we think, for the most part” Allie said, “This is the first time she’s been here outside of the time she spent giving tours. It’s been both wonderful and painful for all of us, but more so for her. Sometimes she just kind of disappears for a while, not literally of course, but in her mind. Mac does that anyway, but it’s happening more often.”
“Memories.” Ana said.
“Yes, being the oldest she has more than we do.”
“So she still has the flashes.” Christian’s reflection in the long mirror lining the hallway was grim.
“Yes,” Allie opened a door, “Here we are.”
“Holy….” Ana looked around the room in wonder
“Shit.” Adonis finished for her.
“Damn…” John and Jose wandered in behind them.
“This is unbelievable.” Ana didn’t know what she expected, but this open and yet cozy room with the walls of palest minty blue, white crown moldings, and gleaming hardwood floors wasn’t it.
One end of the room was home to a regal four poster bed. Curtained off with brocade silk in pale yellow, touches of that same minty blue, and shimmery gold. Near the bed in the corner was a complete nursery a changing table a modern bassinet and a beautifully carved rocking chair. Tall arched window were hung with that same pale yellow brocade. There was a living space defined by thick oriental carpets, two sofas and several chairs, a coffee table, and a small breakfast table and chairs. Beyond that was an open doorway that led to a small thoroughly modern kitchenette.
“This wing was most recently renovated.” Allie explained, “So it has all the modern conveniences. Jose, you and John are across the hall. That room mirrors this one.” Allie walked around the bed to the farthest wall and through here is your bath and beyond that your closet.”
Ana peeked in to see a deep claw-foot tub resting on marble floors, a large enclosed shower, and a double-sinked vanity.
“Oh, and all the floors are heated.” Allie said as she walked out, “The remote for all that techie stuff is here.” She opened a panel in the wall revealing a high tech command center, “Honestly though, I haven’t a clue how to work any of it. I’ll get Lena to stop by and show you. Mrs. Edwards has dinner in the small dining room by 6:30 pm its buffet. We’re doing things casually, since it’s been so long. Breakfast is at 7:00. I thought you might like to have it in your room. We’re on our own for lunch. The refrigerator is fully stocked, but if there’s anything you need just let Edwards know.”
“I can’t believe we’re staying in a castle.” Ana said, struggling to take it all in.
Allie smiled shaking her perfectly tousled golden head, “Not a castle, your castle.” She crossed the room to her and Ana was engulfed in expensive perfume and luxurious cashmere. It was like being hugged by the Neiman Marcus Angel. “Welcome sister.” Allie’s husky heartfelt whisper had tears stinging Ana’s eyes.
Then releasing her she gave them all a smile that would make angels weep and was gone. Ana swore the room dimmed a little.
“Wow,” John said staring after her, “How the hell does she get anything done?”
“With all those straight men hurling themselves at her feet, you’d think she wouldn’t be able to get anywhere.”
“So are ya tellin me, you stole somebody’s cow off their land and we now have the thing in the stables?” Edwards is rubbing his bushy head and yeah that’s exactly what I was telling him. I was hoping to break him into McGovern Drama slowly but well….
“His name’s Buster.” Sometimes you just have to throw ‘em in the deep end and hope they swim.
“So a bull then?” His bushy eyebrows shoot up.
“Uh…” Honestly the thing looked more like a yak, but I’ve never really seen a yak so maybe more of my idea of a yak….Shit, I’m giving myself a migraine.
“I’d better go ha’ a look.”
“Yeah…. I’m just going to go say hi to Martha.”
“You do that.” Edwards stomps away muttering something about Highland Cattle, and neighbors and maybe something about the police, but his brogue is so thick I only get half of what he says when he’s looking at me. He could be reciting Shakespeare for all I know. Shaking off the feeling of ghosts in the darkness. I head for the family wing. It’s familiar and warm and the memories are happy ones. I never included that wing in the tour. It’s on the opposite side of the east wing, where Allie took our guests so I guess that would make it the West Wing, but that just sounds strange so family wing it has always been.
My steps echo on the original stone floors. While not as modern as the guest wing, it’s still plenty up to date. The original stone walls are covered over with dark wood and hung with with tapestries to help hold the heat that thankfully is pumped throughout by a modern heating system. I open the double doors and enter what used to be the library and though it’s still loaded with books, it’s now the central living area. The first thing I see is a tall evergreen in the corner just like when we were little. The scent of fresh pine and cinnamon tickles my nose and the past sucks me under like a vortex.
I hear my mother’s voice, crystal and bell like, singing one of her favorite carols. Standing in the corner of the room opposite the fireplace, her dark hair in a sloppy bun, she’s engulfed in one of my Dad’s old wool sweaters in shades of green and off white. It hangs half-way down her thighs. Mom was short like like my sisters. I get my height from my Dad.
She’s holding strings of cranberries in her arms as she lays them on the branches of the freshly cut evergreen. In a play pen is a baby girl with copper curls happily sucking on her thumb. Behind me I hear running feet giggles and breathless excitement. Three girls run by me shrieking with delight at the sight of the tree. Love and happiness wraps me in a warm cocoon and I willingly sink into my memories.
“Mckenna, babe you need to get back here.”
“Yes, come on now, I’m not decorating this huge tree by myself.”
“You have to put the lights on.” I whisper, the past evaporating like predawn mist.
“Yeah, and then you girls take over. I’m not hanging ornaments. You always move them anyway.”
“You put them too close together.”
“So you say.”
I blink and I’m still in the same room. The fireplace crackles, a huge evergreen tree is in the corner waiting. The couches and chairs are loaded with boxes that hold ornaments, but the special innocence and happiness untainted by tragedy is gone. In its place is testosterone, lots of testosterone, probably due to the wall to wall grim-faced Alpha males studying me.
“I’m fine.” I get the two words out through chattering teeth.
Sawyer’s, “Yeah, we can see that, what with all the shivering and teeth chattering,” is a bit of a surprise. As is Taylor’s worried, “Damn, her lips are blue.”
Grey’s emphatic, “You are not.” however, is entirely predictable.
As for Gavin ignoring my words altogether, plucking me up off the floor and dumping me in the chair closest to the hearth while barking out orders….that one’s a given. McIntyres have long been known as men of action,“Taylor, hand me that afghan. Sawyer, there should be bourbon on the dry bar.”
Taylor and Sawyer prove to be the military men they are by jumping to it. Before I can launch a protest, I’m bundled up in hand-knitted wool and a bottle is being shoved in my hand.
“I hate bourbon.” Crap. I sound whiny. And in front of all these Alphas, dammit.
“Babe, don’t argue.” Gavin looks ready to hold my nose if he has to, “One swallow.”
In the choosing of battles one sometimes must relent. I take one small swallow and try not to shudder. The nasty stuff burns some of the chill away and yet another male enters the room.
“Here, this will help.” Edwards trades the bottle for a steaming mug. I smell spices – Helen’s Cider. Cupping the copper mug in my hands. I sip the steaming concoction. Cloves and cinnamon the sweetness of Apple. Even laced with whatever alcohol they slipped in it it’s yummy. My head clears enough to make words of all the male rumbling going around the room.
“How long was she out?” Grey was straight to the point as usual.
“Twenty minutes at least.” Taylor, and just how the hell did he know that?
“Is that bad?” Sawyer looks almost as bad as I know I do.
“It’s not good.” Gavin’s short to the point and grim. Very grim. And well yes technically he’s right. Over twenty minutes is not good.
“Why’s she shivering?” Sawyer again.
Every other man in the room answers with variations the the theme of, “It’s the adrenaline.”
“Twas the tree that did it. I didn’t think…” Edwards, sounding guilty.
Before I could issue shuddering reassurances Gavin speaks up, “No need blaming yourself. She’s been slipping back more often since we got here.”
Another technically true statement.
“Should she lay down?” Man, Sawyer really looks worried and that’s just weird.
“We should have a doctor look at her.” Taylor says like he knows what he’s talking about and that’s just presumptuous.
“I’m calling Flynn.” Grey says like the megalomaniac he is and that’s just ridiculous.
“Oh, for fucks sake, does anyone want to hear from me?”
Grey just shoots me a raised eyebrow and puts his phone to his ear. Gavin gruffly orders me to finish my cider. Sawyer keeps insisting I should lay down and Taylor asks Edwards about the closest hospital.
So that would be a no. I huff and slouch and may have mumbled something about being surrounded by testosterone laden morons.
Gavin grinned at me, “Feeling outnumbered babe?”
I ignore the comment and sip my cider. Gavin’s always complaining about being surrounded by crazy McGovern women so this is a momentous turn the tables moment for him.
I hear the clicking of heels and the rapping of booted feet on the stone floor.
“What the fuck…” Lena’s sharp eyes dart around the room finally landing on me, “How long this time?”
I shrug, but Taylor’s more than happy to share, “Almost half an hour.”
What the hell? That sounds way worse than over twenty minutes, the drama queen.
Lena takes in the tree, her eyes narrowing and dammit-all she figured it out. I meet her gaze and silently plead with her to keep her mouth shut. She nods, but the look she gives me says we’re going to have a serious talk later. Fine, I can deal with Lena, but the men are worse than Old Mother fucking…
“Flynn can be here in the morning.”
“That’s insane. It’s Thanksgiving.” I throw my most annoyed glare in Grey’s direction.
It bounces right off. “Thanksgiving was Thursday. It is now Saturday.” He informs me, sliding his phone in his pocket.
“Still you can’t drag that man out here…”
“He’s flying first class with his wife and has an opportunity to stay in an authentic centuries old Scottish Castle. All expenses paid. He and his wife are over the moon.” Grey shoots my protest down like an expert marksman, then his eyes go flinty and hone in on me, “He also said we should ask about the nature of the memory. He seemed to think that was important.”
I look into Grey’s shrewd gaze. Damn, either he figured it out or Flynn did. Either way I’m toast. Every eye in the room turns to me for an answer. I close my own in hopes of escaping. A childish move, but desperate times and all that.
I breathe in jasmine and spice. I open my eyes and meet Allie’s velvety lashed gaze, “Eau des Merveilles.”
“Perfect. Your 0 for 10 this week. I need to buy some new fragrance. You’re getting too good.” She takes one of my hands in both of her tiny, feminine ones, “Where did you go sweetie?”
Time to give it up and let the chips fall, “Mom was here. She had the cranberry ropes. She was singing….we were decorating the tree. We were so happy….” and shit, my voice breaks. I close my mouth, pressing my lips together and stubbornly hold back my tears.
Sawyer chooses that moment to use his long dormant and heretofore unused deductive reasoning skills, “Shit, she didn’t want to come back.”
It has always fascinated me how silences can be so very different – awed, surprised, ominous, worried, sad, lonely. This silence was heavy and strained and troubled.
“Babe?” Gavin kneels in front of me, his hazel eyes watching. And under that concerned gaze is fear, no terror. I’ve scared him. Hell, I’ve scared myself.
I don’t know what to say. I have no words of comfort for either of us. The benign memories have always been fleeting. I’m back within a couple of minutes. I’ve never willfully stayed in them. The only place I get trapped is the fire and I fight and claw my way out of that memory till my fingers are bloody, sometimes literally.
It’s Allie who saves me, patting my hand, she rises and in that gentle way of hers effortlessly takes charge of every Alpha in the room, “Well, we’ll just make more happy memories.” She turns to Edwards, “I assume the Greening of the Hall still happens?”
“Good, well you’ll have lots of help this year.”
“Oh dear God…”
“Damn, that’s a lot of green.”
The next morning Grey stood in the Great Hall between Jose and John and began to get the full impact of what Allie had meant by “The Greening of the Hall”. It looked as if an entire forest had been sacrificed to the event. And those McGovern girls were….
“They’re as bad as Annie.” Jose whispered the thought from his head.
“Uh…I think that Mckenna girl is worse.” John muttered.
Grey conceded the possibility, but it was hard to tell as there was four of them and it amplified the effect.
“I still say we should weave the cranberries in the garland.” Lena insisted, her hands on her hips.
Mckenna spun around and threw one hand at the stairs, “What the hell, Lena? We’ve been over this. They. Will. Not. Show Up.”
“Yes. They. Will.” Lena snapped back, “Fuck a duck you’re stubborn. You see ‘em on the Goddess be damned tree for crying the fuck out loud.”
“Damn I think that girl can work ‘fuck’ into every sentence.” John whisopered.
Jose was silent. Grey thought he might be suffering from some type of evergreen trauma. Piles of garland surrounded them and what looked like a hundred large cardboard boxes full of ornaments scattered around. It was Christmas mayhem. And his kitten was having the time of her life digging in one box after another and exclaiming over Victorian ornaments and hand-blown glass while the McGovern sisters stood at the bottom of the staircase and went about discussing, talking over each other in the effort to get whatever dire decorating point they were making across to the other three.
“…should go with the cinnamon scented pine cones….”
“…don’t have enough….”
“…use them on the bottom half of the stair case.”
“… still say we should string lights….”
“…it’s not authentic….”
“Uh, perhaps you ladies should put it to a vote.” Flynn suggested with a terrible attempt at a straight face.
“Good idea, Doc.” Mckenna nodded at the good doctor where he lounged on one of the sofas by the hearth. He and his wife had arrived a couple of hours ago. He’d settled his wife in her room and had immediately come to observe and had been having a rollicking good time. “Okay, all in favor of cranberries in the garland, hands in the air.” Mckenna kept her hand down as did Allie. Christy and Lena popped theirs in the air.
“Well shit, it’s a fucking tie.” Mckenna tried to snake her hand through her hair, got stuck in her ponytail and flopped down on the stairs with a disgusted, “Fuck a damn duck.”
“Ana, get your head out of that box and get over here.” Lean called out, “You’re a McGovern now.”
Ana rose up, blowing her hair out of her face and holding a delicate clear glass ornament in each hand, “These are gorgeous.”
“Yeah, we have hundreds.” Lena waved off delicate antique glass, “Now get over here and vote.”
“Um, well….” His kitten hesitated, her teeth coming out to worry her bottom lip.
“Shit, she should stay out of that one.” John whispered beside him.
“It’s okay.” Mckenna offered a weary, but reassuring smile, “We won’t get mad.”
“Um, well I saw one of those Christmas specials on HGTV where they worked the cranberries into the bows.”
That got the girl’s attention. All four of them swung their heads in her direction. Grey was reminded of a setter on point.
“Was it Color-splash?”
“Well, they used wide white velvet ribbon.” Ana picked up a white swath of fabric from one of the boxes and folded it over, reaching for the rope of cranberries Allie held out to her. Kneeling down she placed them on the floor and lay the cranberries carefully along the edge.
Christian watched as all four McGovern sisters went mercifully silent. All their attention focused on Ana as she demonstrated the technique she claimed to be simple, but sure as shit didn’t look like it to him. “You fringe the ribbon on both sides with a whip stitch. It’s a little labor intensive, but if you just do the landings then you’ll just need six.”
“Oh that’s beautiful.” Allie whispered.
“Stunning.” Lena agreed.
“Okay, yes now that makes sense.” Mckenna got up from the stairs and walked over nodding down at the result with approval, “We need to get white velvet ribbon.”
“Edwards can get it when he goes into town to get Buster’s feed.” Christy pushed her glasses up her nose.
The women went on with their second vote and another compromise was reached. Something about using the old fashioned bulb lights. Then they went about making multiple lists for Edwards. Grey made out white ribbon, feed, apples, and thought he heard something about Christmas music and Charlie Brown. This was confirmed when Jose muttered a horrified, “Oh God, the Brownians.”
“Your Ana’s a McGovern alright.”
He turned around to see Gavin McIntyre wrapped up in strings of lights. He’d been stringing them all morning. Apparently, there were a grand total of eleven trees in the castle that needed decorating. The large man looked completely frazzled.
“So Mckenna and her sisters enjoy decorating for Chistmas?” Flynn asked, strolling over with that huge grin on his face.
“Uh, enjoy,” The man shook his head, “That’s not the word I would use.”
“Obsessed.” John muttered.
“Yeah,” The large man nodded enthusiastically, “That’s the one.”
“Gavin!” All five of them jumped at Lena’s shout, “Get over here. We can’t reach the top of the tree.”
Since the tree in the great hall was a good fifteen feet tall, Grey could see that being an issue.
“Does anybody sew?” That question from Christy had all four sisters freezing.
“Oh, Jose is great with a needle and thread.” His kitten happily volunteered the man beside him. Who promptly proceeded to sway on his feet and clutched at Christian’s arm, “Oh sweet Baby Jesus,” He whispered, his head spinning around like he was looking to make a run for it, “Quick, somebody grab that poker out of the fireplace and stab my eyes out.”
“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.”
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.”