The Present Page 4

"Is Uncle Tony still among the living?" Amy asked, probably because neither James or his brother had returned back downstairs last night.

"Give me a few more days to figure that out, puss, 'cause I bloody well ain't sure just now," Anthony said as he came slowly into the room, an arm tucked to his side as if he were protecting some broken ribs.

A melodramatic groan escaped as he took the seat across from his brother. James rolled his eyes hearing it.

"Give over, you ass," he sneered. "Your wife ain't here to witness your theatrics."

"She's not?" Anthony glanced down the table, then made a moue and sat back in his chair—minus any groaning this time. However, he did complain James, "You did break my ribs, you know."

"Devil I did, though I'll admit I considered it. And by the by, the option is still open."

Anthony glared at him. "We're too bloody old to be beating on each other."

"Speak for yourself, old man. One is never too old for a spot of exercise."

"Ah, so that's what we were doing?" Anthony shot back dryly, as he gently fingered his own black eye. "Exercising, was it?"

James raised a brow. "And that's not what you do weekly at Knighton's Hall? But I understand your confusion in the matter, since you're used to doling out the damage, rather than receiving any. Tends to give one a skewed perspective. Glad to have cleared that up for you."

It was at that point that Jason walked in, took one look at his two younger brothers' battered faces, and remarked, "Good God, and at this time of the year, no less? I'll see you both in my study."

That Jason said it in that not-to-be-disobeyed tone that he was renowned for, and promptly exited the room again, left little doubt, in James and Anthony's mind at least, that they were to follow immediately. James rose without expression and came around the table.

Anthony, however, huffed in annoyance, "Called on the carpet at our age? I bloody well don't believe it. And I won't forget who instigated—"

"Oh, put a lid on it, puppy," James said as he dragged Anthony out of the room with him. "It's been so long since we've had the pleasure of seeing Jason rant and rave, I'm looking forward to this myself."

"You would," Anthony replied in disgust. "You always did enjoy provoking his rages."

James grinned unrepentantly. "I did, didn't I? Well, what can I say? The elder is just so amusing when he flies through the roof."

"Well, then, let's make sure all his flying is directed at you first, shall we?" Anthony retorted, and opening the door to Jason's study, began to immediately place blame where it was due. "Jason, old man, I tried to calm this great hulking bull down last night, indeed I did, but he was having none of it. Blames me—''

"Great hulking bull?" James interrupted, one golden brow raised sharply.

"—because George ain't talking to him," Anthony continued without pause. "And now he's got me in the same bloody boat, because Roslynn ain't said a word to me since."

"Great hulking bull?" James repeated.

Anthony glanced at him and smirked, "The shoe fits, believe me."

Jason, standing stiffly behind his desk, snapped at them both, "Enough! I'll hear the whys and wherefores now, if you please."

James smiled. "Yes, you did leave out the best part, Tony."

Anthony sighed and told his elder brother, "It was the worse bloody luck, Jason, indeed it was, and could have happened to any one of us, if truth be told. Jack and Judy managed to sneak into Knighton's Hall while I wasn't looking, and just because I had the care of them that day, I am being blamed because the little darlings came away with a phrase or two that don't belong in their young vocabularies."

"That's dressing it up a bit too nicely," James interjected. "Let's not forget to mention that George didn't blame you a'tall, that she instead blames me, as if I could possibly have known you could be so witless as to take the girls anywhere near—"

"I'll fix things up with George soon as she gets here," Anthony mumbled. "You may depend upon it."

"Oh, I know you will, but you'll have to hie yourself back to London to do so, since she ain't coming here. Didn't want to inflict her dour mood on the festivities, so decided it would be best to absent herself."

Anthony looked appalled now and complained, "You didn't say she was that mad."

"Didn't I? Think you're wearing that black eye just because she's a mite annoyed?"

"That will do," Jason said sternly. "This entire situation is intolerable. And frankly, I find it beyond amazing that you have both utterly lost your finesse in dealing with women since you married."

That, of course, hit quite below the belt where these two ex-rakes were concerned. "Ouch," James muttered, then in his own defense, "American women are an exception to any known rule, and bloody stubborn besides."

"So are Scots, for that matter," Anthony added. "They just don't behave like normal Englishwomen, Jason, indeed they don't."

"Regardless. You know my feelings on the entire family gathering here for Christmas. This is not the time for anyone in the family to be harboring any ill will of any sort. You both should have patched this up before the holidays began. See that you do so immediately, if you both have to return to London to do so."

Having said his peace, Jason headed for the door to leave his brothers to mull over their conduct, or rather, misconduct, but added before he left, "You both look like bloody panda bears. D'you have any idea what kind of example that sets for the children?"

"Panda bears indeed," Anthony snorted as soon as the door closed.

James looked up to reply drolly, "Least the roof is still intact."

Though she had said she wasn't coming, James's wife showed up with their children late the next morning. Georgina also had the rest of her brothers in tow, much to James's chagrin, since he never did get along well with his many American brothers-in-law, and he hadn't been warned they were coming to England for Christmas this year.

Judy, delighted that her best friend was finally there, still said huffily, "It's about time," and grabbing Jack the moment she stepped in the front door, pulled her into the parlor to see "The Present," as it was already being termed by then. And the two young girls spent most of the rest of the day with their fingers pressed to the pedestal table, which was nearly as tall as they were, and doing a lot of whispering back and forth about the mysterious gift.

Their avid interest, though, managed to bring The Present back fully to the attention of the adults in the house, who couldn't help noticing the girls more or less standing guard over it. A strange thing, curiosity. Occasionally, too much of it simply couldn't be contained . . .

But in the hall, without much more than a curt nod to Georgina's brothers, though the rest of his family converged on them with greetings, James followed his wife upstairs to the room they always shared at Haverston, while the children's nanny took the twins off to the nursery. She hadn't said a word to him yet, which didn't give him much hope that she was no longer annoyed with him, despite her showing up.

So he reminded her pointedly, "You said you weren't coming, George. What changed your mind?"

She didn't answer immediately, since a footman followed them into the room with one of her trunks, which she moved to start unpacking. James, hearing another one coming down the hall, promptly closed the door and leaned back against it, figuring the servant would get the message that his delivery could wait.

He watched her closely as he waited, no hard chore that. She was quite a beautiful woman, with rich brown hair and eyes of the same hue. She was petite yet nicely rounded; bearing one daughter and a set of twins had only enhanced her figure.

Theirs had been an unusual beginning, hardly what one would call a courtship. Georgina, wanting to return home to America, had signed onto James's ship as his cabin boy. He'd known, of course, that she wasn't the young lad she was pretending to be, and he'd had a splendid, if sometimes frustrated, time seducing her. He hadn't expected to fall in love, though, but that had happened easy enough, to his own jaded amazement. He had, however, sworn never to marry, so it had been a bit of a dilemma, figuring out how to make Georgina his permanently, without actually asking her to marry him.

Her brothers had solved that problem for him nicely. With a little subtle provoking on his part, they had forced him to the altar, which he'd always be grateful to them for, though he'd be twice damned if he'd ever admit that to them.

After wrapping up a few loose ends, like getting her to admit she loved him, too, they'd had a wonderful marriage ever since. She might blow up every once in a while— with her hot American temper, she'd never had any trouble expressing her displeasure. But then he'd never had any trouble charming her out of any snit she got into.

Which was why he didn't understand their current spat and why it was continuing as long as it was. When he'd left for Haverston, she still hadn't been speaking to him, hadn't been sleeping with him either, for that matter. And all because their daughter had uttered a few colorful phrases more suited to the adult male gender?

That had been her excuse, but he'd had time and enough to wonder if that was really what had made her temper blow up. It wasn't like Georgina to go overboard on trifles. And to blame him for Jacqueline's vocabulary when he wasn't even responsible for it . . .

"Well?" he prompted when she still hadn't answered.

If somewhat stiffly, she replied, ''Thomas convinced me that I might have overreacted about Jack."

James sighed in relief. "Only levelheaded brother you've got. I'll remember to thank him later."

"Don't bother. I'm still upset, and you're the reason I'm upset, and I would really rather not discuss this just yet, James. I'm here for the children's sake, since Jack has been doing nothing but moping about, knowing that Judy is here while she isn't."

"Bloody hell, then I'm not forgiven yet?"

Her answer was to turn away and continue her unpacking. And he knew that mulish look of hers. She really wasn't going to discuss this with him, whatever it was that she was upset about. He was sure now that it had nothing to do with their daughter. But he was damned if he knew what it could be that she was obviously blaming him for, when he hadn't done anything to be blamed for,

And then he noticed her shoulders drooping, a clear indication, to his mind, that she didn't like this estrangement between them any more than he did. And of course, she wouldn't. He knew she loved him.

He took a step toward her, but made the mistake of whispering her name as well. "George."

She stiffened again, her moment of despair gone and her stubborn streak firmly back in place, lames promptly swore a blue streak, which fortunately there were no children about to hear, but unfortunately had no effect whatsoever in getting Georgina to talk to him again.

Later in the afternoon, Edward, the second oldest of the four Malory brothers, arrived with the rest of his family. It was when Edward was being "filled in" by Reggie about what they had discovered concerning the mysterious grave on the property that Amy got the feeling that The Present was not just a present. She felt that it was much more important than a mere gift, that it was actually somehow related to the mystery that was Anna Malory.

And the feeling wouldn't go away once it took root. It was so strong that she made the decision to open the gift that very night. She just was undecided about waiting until Warren fell asleep, or confiding in him. The fact that he didn't seem to be the least bit tired, even after some vigorous lovemaking, settled the matter.

Still held in his arms, with his hands idly caressing her, she whispered by his ear, "I'm going to go downstairs and open The Present tonight."

"Of course you aren't," he replied mildly. "You'll enjoy the suspense and wait until Christmas like the rest of us to find out what it is."

"I wish I could, Warren, really I do, but I know it will drive me crazy, especially after I made a bet with Jeremy, that we would find out about our great-grandmother before the end of the year."

"After Jason expressly forbade it?"

"He didn't exactly forbid it, and besides, it's too late to take it back."

He sat up to look down at her. "And what has that to do with that present?"

"That's just it. I have the strangest feeling that what's in that box is the answer. My feelings are rarely wrong, Warren. And knowing that, how can I wait until Christmas to find out what's in that box?"

He shook his head at her and said in such a disapproving tone that she was reminded of the old Warren who never laughed or smiled, "I would expect such behavior from the children, not from their mother."

She tsked at him, not even a little daunted. "Aren't you the least bit curious?"

"Certainly, but I can wait until—"

"But I can't wait," she cut in passionately. "Come with me, Warren. I'll be careful with it. And if it's nothing more'n a simple gift, albeit a mysterious one, then I'll have the box wrapped up again perfectly, so no one will know we tampered with it."

"You're serious about this?" he asked. "You're actually going to sneak downstairs in the middle of the night like an errant schoolgirl—"

"No, no, we are, like two perfectly sensible adults making a reasonable effort to solve a mystery that has been around far too long."

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