“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.”