The Present Page 18

He smiled and pulled her close. He'd had no chance to talk to her since that journal had been unwrapped. She'd been asleep these last few nights by the time he came to her, and gone in the mornings, she rose so early. Nor, with the house so full, was there much chance to find her alone during the day to have a few private words.

And the subject of the journal wouldn't be discussed by the rest of the family, at least not in front of the servants, which they all considered Molly to be—with the exception of Derek and his wife, and now James, who knew the truth about her, that she was Derek's mother, that she'd been Jason's only love for more than thirty years.

So Molly wouldn't know yet what was in the journal. However, she couldn't help but know that the family had all been camped in the parlor for three days, hearing it read. She had appeared in the doorway several times to shake her head over the fact that they were all still there.

"I want you to take the day off tomorrow and read it for yourself," he told her.

"Take the day off? Don't be silly."

"The house will get along fine without you for a day, m'dear."

"It won't."

"Molly," he said warningly.

She mumbled, "Oh, all right. It could wait until after the holidays, when the house isn't so full, but I'll admit to a certain curiosity about that journal, after having it in my possession for most of my life, yet not knowing what it was."

He sat up abruptly. ''Most of your life? When did you find it? And where?"

"Well, I did—and I didn't. What I mean is, it was given to me when I was but a child of four or five—I can't remember which. I was told what to do with it, and when to deliver it, but not what it was. And I must confess that it was so long ago, Jason, that I put it away with some old things of mine and completely forgot about it ever since. It's been up in your attic all these years, with my old childhood things that I have stored there."

"But you finally remembered it?"

"Well, no, and it was the strangest thing, how I found it again," she admitted.

"What do you mean?"

She frowned to herself, remembering. "It was when I first started fetching the Christmas decorations down from the attic. The sun had been out most of the day, which had caused the attic to be quite stuffy and warm, so I opened one of the windows up there, yet it didn't do much good other than let in a little cold air, since no breeze was stirring, and wouldn't have come into the room anyway, with only the one window open—or so I thought, Yet just when I was heading toward the door with my last load for the day, this great gust of wind tore through the room, knocking things all over the place."

"You'd left the door open, to account for such a strong cross breeze?"

"It was no breeze, Jason, it was a very Strong wind, which didn't make much sense to begin with, when it hadn't been a bit windy that day. But no, the door was closed, which is why I found that wind so strange, least I did afterwards, when I had time to think about it. At the time, though, I was too busy picking the things up that it knocked over. It was when I came to this large folding Oriental room divider, that had fallen over on a stack of paintings, jarring several out of their frames, that I noticed my old things. I still didn't recall the journal, though, and

wouldn't have bothered to look inside that old trunk of mine, except, well ..."

Her frown got deeper. He almost shook her, to get her to finish.

"Well?" he demanded.

"Well, if the wind didn't gust once more in that corner, rattling the lid on the trunk something fierce. I swear, it seemed almost as if the wind was trying to open it. It really was the strangest damned thing. Gave me the chills, I don't mind telling you. And that's when I remembered that old leather-wrapped thing I'd put in that trunk long before I ever came to Haverston to work—and that I was supposed to give it to your family as a gift. Stranger yet, soon as I did open the trunk, the wind stopped completely."

He laughed suddenly. "I can just hear what Amy would say about that if she'd been there. She'd insist it was my grandmother's ghost, or perhaps even her grandmother's ghost, making sure the journal got delivered. Good God, don't ever tell her about that wind, Molly. She really will think this old place is haunted."

"Nonsense. It was just a wind, likely stirred up by the heat in the room."

"Yes, obviously, yet my niece is a bit fanciful, so let's keep that part of your discovery to ourselves, shall we?" he suggested with a smile.

"If you insist."

"Now tell me who gave it to you all those years ago. You aren't old enough to have known my grandmother."

"No, but my grandmum was. And it all came back to me when I found it again, what she'd told me when she gave the present into my keeping. She'd been Anna Malory's personal maid, you know."

He grinned at her. "Now, how would I have known that, when you never bothered to mention it before?"

She blushed. "Well, I'd forgotten about that, too. I don't remember much about my grandmum, since I was so young when I knew her, and she died soon after she gave me that journal. And my mother never worked here at Haverston, so she'd had no dealings with the Malorys herself, nor ever had reason to mention them, which made it all the easier for me to forget about it. And it was more than ten years later before I came to work here myself, but even that didn't stir my memory."

"So Anna Malory gave it to your grandmother to deliver?"

"No, she gave it to her to give to me. Let me tell you what my grandmum told me, and maybe you'll understand I certainly didn't at the time, and still don't, but here it is, as best as I can remember. My grandmum was already Lady Malory's maid, but the lady summoned her one day, told her to sit and have tea with her, that they were going to be the best of friends. Grandma said the lady often laid strange things, and one of them she said that day, She said, 'We're going to be related, you know. It won't be for a very long time, and we won't see it happen, but it will happen, and you'll help it to happen when you give this to your granddaughter.' "

"The journal?"

Molly nodded. "Lady Malory had more to say about it, specific instructions actually. My grandmum admitted she'd thought the lady was daft at the time. After all, she didn't have a granddaughter yet. But the instructions she was given was to have her granddaughter—me; I'm the only one she ever got, after all—deliver the present to the Malory family for Christmas in the first quarter of the new century. Not to any specific member of the family, just to the family. And being a gift, she wanted it to look like a gift. And that's all she had to say about it. No, wait, there was one other thing. About the time of delivery. She said, 'I have the feeling that's when it will be of the most benefit.' "

Jason smiled slowly and gave his grandmother a silent thank-you. To Molly he said, "Amazing."

"You understand it, then?"

"Yes, and so will you, I think, as soon as you read it. But why didn't you leave a note with it, so we would have at least known who it was for, and who it was from? Not knowing turned it into quite a mystery, which is why the younguns didn't wait for Christmas to open it."

"Because it was for all of you, of course." And then she chuckled. "Besides, if it turned out to be nothing important, I wasn't going to own up to putting it there."

"Oh, it was important, sweetheart, and more than that, a valuable heirloom for this family. And I'm most definitely looking forward to hearing what you have to say after you read it."

She gave him a suspicious look. "Why do I get the feeling I'm not going to like whatever's in that journal?"

"Possibly because you're so pigheaded stubborn about certain things."

"Now you're really starting to worry me, Jason Malory," she said in a grumbling tone.

He grinned. "No need to fret, love. Only good things will come of it, I promise."

"Yes, but good for whom?"

Christmas morning dawned bright if chilly at Haverston, though the parlor where most of the family was gathered was quite comfy, with a nice fire crackling. Jeremy had lit the small candles on the decorated tree. Though the extra light wasn't needed, the flickering flames fascinated the children, and the sweet scent from the candles was a nice touch. The last to arrive were James, Georgina, and their three younguns. Jack ran immediately to her oldest brother, Jeremy, whom she adored, and got her usual tickle and hug from him. Then, typically, she headed straight for Judy, ignoring everyone else, though she would make the rounds to greet the rest of her large family after the two young girls finished their morning whisperings.

Anthony, never one to let a prime moment pass, said to his tardy brother, "Now that you've managed to find that bed of yours again, having trouble getting out of it, eh?"

Anthony had got most of his teasing done yesterday, though. When he'd seen James in such obvious good spirits, he'd been unable to resist taunting, "What? No longer in a mood to pass out black eyes?"

"Put a lid on it, puppy," his brother had replied with a snort.

That never worked, at least not with Anthony anyway. "George has forgiven you, I take it?"

"George is having another baby, or babies, as the case may be," James said drolly.

"Now, that's what I call a nice Christmas present, news like that. Congratulations, old boy."

Just now, though, it wasn't James who replied to Anthony's renewed teasing, it was his own wife who, in her charming Scots burr, said, "Put a lid on it, mon, or you'll be wondering where your own bed has gone."

To which James burst out laughing, and Georgina said, "It wasn't that funny. Notice your brother isn't one little bit amused."

"Course I did, love, and that's what's funny," James replied.

Anthony did some mumbling and shot James a disgusted look before he leaned close to whisper something to his wife that had her smiling. Obviously, notorious charmer that he was, he'd just patched things up nicely.

The present opening began soon after, with the children all gathered on the rug before the tree. Judy noticed the missing Present on its pedestal, and went to Amy for questioning. She and Jack hadn't come near the parlor during those days the journal was being read, having much more adventurous things to do at their age.

"It was just a book?" Judy asked after Amy answered her first question, obviously disappointed that what had caused her and Jack such interest was actually not at all interesting in her mind.

"Not just a book, love. It tells the story about your great-grandparents, how they met, how it took them a while to realize that they were meant for each other. You'll want to read it someday."

Judy did not look impressed, and in fact was already distracted, watching Jack open her next present. But several of the adults were close enough to have heard her questions, and reminded of the grandparents they all shared, had a few more comments to make.

Travis said, "I wonder if he ever liked this place, considering how much he hated it at first."

"Course he did, since she was in it," his brother replied. "Makes a world of difference if you've someone to share things with."

Anthony commented, "Find it remarkable that he agreed to brighten the place up himself. Wouldn't catch me wielding a bloody hammer."

"No?" his wife said pointedly.

"Well . . . perhaps." Anthony grinned. "Wonderful thing, the proper incentive, specially when it yields wonderful results."

Roslynn rolled her eyes, but it was Derek who said with a chuckle, "You'll have to admit, they did a good job on fixing the place up. For all its huge size, Haverston still has a homey feel to it."

"Only because it's been your home," his wife replied pointedly. "To those not raised here, it has more the feel of a royal palace."

"My thoughts exactly," Georgina agreed.

"American thoughts don't count, George," James told his wife dryly. "After all, we know quite well you won't find such grandeur in those primitive States of yours, barbaric as they still are."

Anthony chuckled at that, nodding across the room to where Warren was sitting on the floor before the Christmas tree with one of his twins on each knee, quite involved with helping them to open their presents. "Wasted that one, old man. The Yank didn't hear you."

"But this Yank did," Georgina replied, giving James a jab in the ribs to show how much she appreciated his disparaging remarks about her country.

He grunted, but it was to Anthony that he replied, "Do be a good chap and remind me to repeat it later, when he is within hearing."

"You may depend upon it," Anthony replied.

They were, after all, united when it came to their nephews-by-marriage, against them, that is, despite their merciless barbs reserved for each other when the "enemy" was not around.

Reggie came by, passing out a few presents, one of which she dropped in James's lap. It was from Warren.

"See if that doesn't change your mind about keeping today, of all days, friendly," she said.

He raised a brow at her, but opening the package, he chuckled. "Hardly, puss," he said, examining a small bronze caricature of an obvious English monarch looking decidedly silly. "Couldn't ask for a nicer gift, though."

Since it was a gift meant to provoke, James would be delighted with it. Warren was his preferred and most challenging barb-slinging choice, after all, with Reggie's husband coming in a close second.

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