The Present Page 3

So his derogatory answer didn't really add to her surprise. "The infant."

She winced at his tone, though, as well as his expression, which had reverted to deadly menace at mention of the "infant." Big, blond, and handsome, James Malory was, just like his elder brothers, and rarely did anyone actually see him looking angry. When James was annoyed with someone, he usually very calmly ripped the person to shreds with his devilish wit, and by his inscrutable expression, the victim had absolutely no warning such pointed barbs would be headed his or her way.

The infant, or rather, Anthony, had heard James's voice and, unfortunately, stuck his head around the parlor door to determine James's mood, which wasn't hard to misinterpret with the baleful glare that came his way. Which was probably why the parlor door immediately slammed shut.

"Oh, dear," Molly said as James stormed oil. Through the years she'd become accustomed to the Malorys' behavior, but at times it still alarmed her.

What ensued was a tug of war in the reverse, so to speak, with James shoving his considerable weight against the parlor door, and Anthony on the other side doing his best to keep it from opening. Anthony managed for a bit. He wasn't as hefty as his brother, but he was taller and well muscled. But he must have known he couldn't hold out indefinitely, especially when James started to slam his shoulder against the door, which got it nearly half open before Anthony could manage to slam it shut again.

But what Anthony did to solve his dilemma produced Molly's second "Oh, dear."

When James threw his weight against the door for the third time, it opened ahead of him and he unfortunately couldn't halt his progress into the room. A rather loud crash followed. A few moments later James was up again dusting pine needles off his shoulders.

Reggie and Molly, alarmed by the noise, soon followed the men into the room.

Anthony had picked up his daughter Jaime who had been looking at the tree with her nursemaid and was now holding her like a shield in front of him while the tree lay ingloriously on its side. Anthony knew his brother wouldn't risk harming one of the children for any reason, and the ploy worked.

"Infants hiding behind infants, how apropos," James sneered.

"Is, ain't it?" Anthony grinned and kissed the top of his daughter's head. "Least it works."

James was not amused, and ordered, barked, actually, "Put my niece down."

"Wouldn't think of it, old man—least not until I find out why you want to murder me."

Anthony's wife, Roslynn, bent over one of the twins, didn't turn about to say, "Excuse me? There will be no murdering in front of the children."

The smirk that elicited from Anthony had James raising a golden brow at him. That, of course, gave Anthony ample warning that he wouldn't like what was coming, knowing his brother as he did.

And James didn't keep him in suspense, saying, "Ask yourself what would happen when Jack, out of the blue, mutters, 'bloody everlasting hell,' within her mother's hearing. Then ask yourself what would happen when George asks her daughter where she heard such a phrase. Then imagine what would happen when Jack, unaware that she had just shocked her mother, pipes up that Uncle Tony took Judy and her to Knighton's Hall, finally, imagine George hunting me down to demand why I let you take our daughters to that strictly male establishment when blood flies freely in the ring, where gamblers swear most foully when they lose their wagers on the contenders who get too bloody, where every kind of topic unsuitable for six-year-olds gets discussed freely. And then picture George not believing me when I tell her that I didn't know you could be that bloody irresponsible. She blamed me for letting you take them there. And since I didn't even know you were taking them there, guess who I'm bloody well blaming?"

Even Reggie took a deep breath after that long diatribe. Anthony had looked rather shocked at first, but now he looked quite uncomfortable, especially when his wife turned to narrow her gold-flecked hazel eyes on him, her Scots temper obviously about to erupt.

"Och, mon, I canna believe what I just heard. You did that? You actually took Judy and Jack to Knighton's, of all places? You didna ken how damaging that could be to such impressionable young girls?"

Anthony winced and tried quickly to explain. "It wasn't like that, Ros, really it wasn't. I was taking the girls to the park. I stopped by Knighton's just to run in quickly to have a word with Amherst. You had asked me to invite him and Frances to dinner, and I knew he'd be at Knighton's Hall at that time of day. How was I to guess the girls would sneak out of the carriage and follow me in?"

''When those two darlings are known to be getting into things and places they shouldna?" she retorted stiffly, then turned to Reggie. "Fetch the other two bairns," she said as she scooped up the twins. "We're leaving James to get on with his murdering."

Reggie tried to hide her grin as she plucked Jaime from Anthony and grabbed the other toddler's hand, then followed Roslynn out of the room. It was accomplished within moments, as efficient as the women were with children.

James leaned back against the door after it closed, crossed his arms over his exceedingly wide chest, and said to his bemused brother, "How's it feel, old chap? Least she was still talking to you before she flounced out of here, whereas George ain't talked to me in a week."

"Bloody hell," Anthony growled. "You can stop blaming me. You heard what I said. Wasn't as if I deliberately took the girls to Knighton's. Same thing could have happened to you, you know."

"Beg to differ," James replied laconically. "I ain't that bloody stupid."

Anthony flushed angrily, but it was a bit of guilt that had him retorting, "I like that. You want a piece of me, then? Won't be satisfied without it? Have at me, then."

"Don't mind if I do."

The problems that arose with the staff with so many guests in the house were typically wearing on Molly, who prided herself on keeping everything running smoothly. So though she wanted to confront Jason about her suspicions, she'd been unable to stay awake long enough last night to wait for him to come to her room.

But he had joined her as usual, and he was still there in her bed when she awoke the next morning. In fact, it was his hand gently caressing her breast and his lips on the side of her neck that woke her. And although she did recall near immediately that she was annoyed with him, she selfishly kept that to herself for the moment and instead turned slightly so that he could better reach the areas of her body that he was showing an interest in.

She sighed and put her arms around him. She did so love this man. Even after more than thirty years, his touch still thrilled her beyond measure, his kisses able to fire her passions just as easily as he'd done in their youth. And she knew she had the same effect on him.

It wasn't long before they were kissing quite heatedly, and Molly knew where that would lead, which it did. But she was ready for him. She was always ready for him. She supposed that was one of the nicer benefits of loving someone and desiring him as well. And Jason never stinted in his endeavors. His lovemaking was done in no small measure and immensely satisfying—as always.

"Good morning," he said, leaning back to grin at her once they both regained their composure.

A morning could easily go sour, but he sure knew how to start one off "good." She returned his grin and then held him extra tight before she released him, perhaps be cause she knew she was going to scold before they parted, and she wanted to soften the blow.

The rest of his family, aside from their son, saw him as the sternest of the lot, even quite formidable. He was, after all, the head of his family and had had the responsibility of raising his younger siblings when he'd been young himself. But she knew his other side, his charm, his teasing, his tenderness. These were things that, from habit, he restrained in front of others due to his position, but not with her, never with her—except, of course, when they weren't alone.

That was the rub that was frustrating him, and yet she could see no way around it. He wanted to treat her at all times as he did when they were alone, yet he had to marry her to do so, and she wouldn't let him. And his insisting that they marry and her continued refusal was putting a strain on their relationship. One of them was going to have to give in, and as far as Molly was concerned, it wasn't going to be her.

She was nearly dressed before she put a damper on his morning with what she had to say, but it had to be said. "Do I need to hide from you in the day, Jason, while your family is here?"

He sat up more fully in the bed, where he had been lazily watching her as she went about her morning toilet. "Where did that question come from?"

"From the way you were looking at me yesterday in the dining room, which anyone there could have noticed. This isn't the first time. What has gotten into you, that you so forget that I'm merely your housekeeper?"

"The fact that you aren't merely my housekeeper?" he countered, but then sighed, admitting, "I think it's this time of year, Molly. I can't help but recall that it was at Christmas that Derek overcame Kelsey's objections to marrying him, and her reasons had been the same as yours."

She was surprised to hear that, that the very season was making him brood about it, and was quick to point out, "But there's a huge difference and you know it. Good God, Jason, she descends from a duke. Anyone can be forgiven with such an illustrious family as hers. Besides, the scandal she feared was avoided completely. Yours wouldn't be."

"How many times do I have to assure you that I don't care anymore? I want you for my wife, Molly. I obtained a special licence to marry you years ago. All you have to do is say yes and we could be married today."

"Oh, Jason, you're going to make me cry," she said sadly. "You know I'd like nothing better. But one of us has to consider the consequences, and since you won't, I must. And letting your family know, which you seem to be trying to do inadvertently, won't change anything, it will merely embarrass me horribly. I have a measure of respect in this household. I will have none if it becomes common knowledge that I'm your mistress."

He came to her then, completely na**d as he still was and without a thought for it, to draw her into his arms. She heard his sigh before he said, "You don't think with your heart enough."

"And you don't think with your mind enough lately." she rejoined.

He leaned back to give her a wry smile. "Well, we can agree on that at least."

Her hand rose to caress his cheek. "Jason, let it go, it can never happen. I'm sorry that my birth was common. I'm sorry that your peers would never accept me as one of their members, whether you marry me or not. I can't change any of that. I can only continue to love you and try to make you happy as best I can. You have to let it go."

"You know I'll never accept that," was his stubborn and not unexpected reply.

She sighed now. "I know."

"But I'll make the effort you want and try to ignore you during the day—at least when my family is around."

She almost laughed. It was damned hard, getting him to concede anything these days, at least on this subject. She supposed she was going to have to take what she could get—for now.

When James entered the breakfast room that morning, it was to varied reactions. Those who hadn't known that he'd arrived started cheerful greetings that sputtered to an end as they got a good look at his face. Those who did know of his arrival and what subsequently followed it were either tactfully silent, grinning from ear to ear, or foolish enough to remark on it.

Jeremy fell into the middle and latter categories when he said with a chuckle, "Well, I know the poor Christmas tree didn't do that to you, though you did try valiantly to chop it down to size."

"And succeeded, as I recall," James grouched, though he did think to ask, "Was it salvageable, puppy?"

"Minus a few of its feathers is all, but those pretty little candles will dress it up so as not to notice—at least if someone other than me finishes the task. I'm much better at hanging the mistletoe."

''And making good use of it,'' Amy noted with a fond smile for her handsome cousin.

Jeremy winked at her. "That goes without saying."

Jeremy had turned twenty-five not too long ago and had turned out to be a charming scamp. Ironically, he so resembled his Uncle Anthony that he was nearly a mirror image of Anthony in his younger years. But then rather than taking after his own father, Jeremy had gained the cobalt blue eyes and black hair that only a few of the Malorys had possessed, those who took after the ancestor rumored to have been a Gypsy.

The mention of mistletoe and the use it was most noted for put James back into his sour mood, because he knew he wouldn't be doing any kissing under the festive greenery this year himself, not with his wife refusing to come to Haverston with him because of her sour mood. Bloody hell. He would get this settled between them, one way or another. Taking his frustration with the situation out on Anthony hadn't helped—well, perhaps it had a little.

Warren, still staring at the splendid black eye and several cuts on his face, remarked, "Hate to see what the other fellow looks like," which James supposed was a compliment of sorts, since Warren had personal experience of his fists from numerous occasions himself.

"Like to congratulate the other fellow myself," Nicholas said with a smirk, which got him a kick under the table from his wife.

James nodded to Reggie. "Appreciate it, m'dear. My feet wouldn't reach."

To which she blushed that her kick had been noticed. And Nicholas, still wincing, managed a scowl, which turned out rather comical looking, considering the two expressions didn't mix all that well.

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