An O'Brien Family Christmas

By: Sherryl Woods

She’d lost the job of a lifetime because of a man!
Every time Laila Riley allowed herself to think back—how hard she’d worked to gain her father’s trust, how desperately she’d wanted to prove herself capable of running the bank he’d established years ago in Chesapeake Shores, only to throw it all away for what had to have been the most ridiculous fling of all times—it made her a little crazy. She was not the kind of woman who did anything because of a man. She wasn’t impetuous or flighty. She was better than that, more sure of herself, more independent.
She allowed herself a sigh. Surely she must have been out of her mind to think that she and much younger playboy Matthew O’Brien could possibly have a respectable future. That had to explain her uncharacteristic behavior.
But because she’d taken leave of her senses, here she was, back in a tiny office, doing the sort of accounting work that bored her to tears. None of the hoped-for jobs at other area banks had materialized. Her credentials were impeccable. Everyone had agreed on that. But in the current economy, no one was hiring at her level. If that changed, she’d be the first person they called. Blah-blah-blah. She’d seen the encouraging words for what they were—so many empty promises.
Within weeks of quitting her job in a huff at the family owned community bank, she’d started berating herself for her foolishness and resenting Matthew for his role in it. If only he hadn’t been so blasted irresistible, she’d thought accusingly. So determined to win her heart. She’d been caught up in the romance of his pursuit.
Even as she was blaming him for all that charm and sex appeal, she was forced to admit that Matthew himself had been totally supportive in the aftermath of her impulsive decision to leave her father’s bank. He’d even found—or created, she suspected—an accounting opening for her at his uncle Mick’s architectural firm, but she didn’t want his handouts. She no longer wanted anything from him, in fact, except to be left alone.
Correction: she wanted sex, but that was out of the question. Lust, combined with loneliness and envy for all the happily married couples around her, was exactly what had gotten her in trouble in the first place.
Ending their misguided relationship within weeks of quitting her job had been her only choice. If she’d also packed up and left Chesapeake Shores, it would have been the ultimate trifecta, a complete upending of her life.
But, no, she didn’t quite have the will to cut the ties to the town she loved and her infuriating family. So she was stuck here, alone and miserable and working for half a dozen pitiful clients who barely kept her in the rocky road ice cream that lately she craved by the gallon.
“Sulking, I see,” Jess O’Brien Lincoln said, braving Laila’s dark mood by stepping into the office uninvited. She looked around, took in the drab beige walls that needed paint, the tiny window with no view and the seriously scarred desk, shook her head, then sat on a chair that had seen better days. Not even the bright posters Laila had framed could save this place, and they both knew it.
“I am not sulking,” Laila protested. “I’m working.”
“Yes, I can see all the work piled up on your desk,” Jess noted, her tone wry.
“It’s on the computer,” Laila informed her. “Haven’t you heard? Financial records are computerized these days.”
Jess tried to settle more comfortably onto the cramped office’s one guest chair, gave up and shrugged. “So I hear. Not my forte.”
Laila gave her friend a wary look. “Why are you here? I hope it’s not on your cousin’s behalf. I’ve told Matthew—”
Jess cut her off. “Matthew didn’t send me.”
Despite the convincing tone, Laila wasn’t reassured. O’Briens were a sneaky lot. “Then what brings you by?”
“I can’t stop in to check on a friend?”
“You could, but lately you’ve been so caught up in the extended honeymoon phase of your marriage that you barely leave the inn.”
“Not true. I go out all the time. Will and I are not joined at the hip. He does his thing. I do mine,” she declared with a nonchalance that didn’t fool either of them. Once Jess had accepted her feelings for Will were real and his for her, she’d been a little gaga ever since.
“If you say so.” Maybe it just seemed to Laila that everyone in Chesapeake Shores was traveling in contented pairs these days. “Okay, let’s say I believe this is a purely casual visit. What’s up with you? Is everything running smoothly at the inn?”
Jess’s expression brightened. “We’re packed, as a matter of fact. Connor gave me this idea a while back about offering specials for small business conferences, and now that the golf course has opened nearby, that’s working out really well during the week. Even better, weekends are booked all the way through the holidays with tourists. The word seems to be out that the inn is a great spot for a romantic getaway. It helped that we had a huge spread in a regional travel magazine showcasing how beautiful it is here at Christmas.”
Laila was genuinely impressed. “That’s terrific. You should be proud of yourself, Jess. Making a success of the inn is a fantastic accomplishment.”
Jess grinned. “Quite a change from my teenage screwups, huh? And that brings me to one of the things I wanted to discuss with you.”
“Uh-oh, here it comes,” Laila murmured, regarding her accusingly. “I knew this wasn’t just some spur-of-the-moment visit.”
“Okay, I’ll admit it. I am on a mission,” Jess confessed. “Two, as a matter of fact. One from Abby and me, and one from Susie. Neither one has a thing to do with Matthew, I promise.”
Laila wasn’t entirely placated. They were all O’Briens, after all, a family that was notoriously tight-knit. These days, she didn’t trust a single one of them, not even her sister-in-law Abby, much less the clever friend seated across from her with the cat-that-swallowed-the-canary glint in her eyes. As for Susie, she was Matthew’s sister, so her motives were suspect on more levels than Laila could possibly count.
“Okay, try me,” she said grudgingly. “What do you and Abby want? And why didn’t Abby call me herself?”
“She did. Several times, in fact. Apparently you haven’t been returning her calls, or your brother’s, or those of anyone else with the name Riley. Or O’Brien, come to think of it. Connie says she hasn’t spoken to you in ages, and even though I’m a Lincoln now, you’ve pretty much been ignoring me, as well.” She gave Laila a chiding look. “Thus the personal visit.”
“I’ve been busy,” Laila claimed defensively.
“Yeah, right,” Jess replied, clearly not buying it. She waved off the subject. “We’ll leave a discussion of the way you’ve been neglecting your friends for another time. This morning I want to talk to you about taking on the accounting duties at the inn.”
Laila regarded her with deepening suspicion. Jess had started The Inn at Eagle Point, gotten herself into financial hot water even before the doors opened, and needed her older sister to bail her out. Abby, the family’s financial whiz, had maintained a fierce oversight of the inn’s accounting procedures and expenditures ever since. She’d put her own hand-chosen man in charge of keeping tabs on things. Jess had chafed at the strict oversight, but even she knew it had been a necessity.
“What happened to the accountant Abby brought on board?” Laila asked.
“He was okay, but it was time for a change,” Jess responded blithely. “We need someone full-time, or close to full-time, anyway. Abby agrees.”
Laila stiffened. “So, this change was your idea? Jess, I don’t need your charity. I have clients.”
“How many?” Jess asked bluntly.
“I doubt it. Something tells me your dispute with your father over Matthew affected more than your position at the bank. Your old clients have been slow to return, thanks to all the gossip. Am I right?”
Laila ignored the question. Jess clearly didn’t expect an answer. She thought she had the situation pegged and, sadly, she was right.
Jess shook her head, her expression indignant. “I swear some people in this town are living in the Dark Ages!”
“Exactly as my father predicted,” Laila admitted ruefully.
“For an idiot, he has way too much influence,” Jess countered.
“Well, he was right about one thing,” Laila said. “Apparently nobody trusts their money with someone who displays poor judgment in their personal life.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Look, that’s all water under the bridge. I’ve been networking like crazy the past couple of months. Everything will work out. You don’t need to worry about me or make up jobs for me.”
“But you’re not so overburdened with work that you can’t take on the inn, are you?” Jess persisted. “Tell the truth.”
Laila sighed. “No.”
“Then you’re officially hired as of today. You can stay here in this charming space, if you choose to, or you can move into the nice, spacious office I have ready for you at the inn.”
Laila wasn’t quite ready to cave in. “What am I supposed to do, ditch the clients who dared to take a chance on me?”
“Of course not. You can continue handling as many private clients as you’d like to. I have no problem with them coming to the inn to meet with you.” She gave Laila an encouraging grin. “There are windows, Laila. Big windows with a view of the bay. And that huge piece of expensive modern art that hung on your office wall at the bank? The one there’s not even room for in here? There’s a perfect spot for that, too.”
“Now you’re just taunting me,” Laila said, imagining it. Currently that prized picture was gathering dust in a storage locker.
“All you have to do is say yes, and the office is yours, along with the job,” Jess confirmed.
Laila’s pride, which had taken a beating lately, kicked in. She started to refuse, just on principle, then chided herself for allowing emotion to overrule logic. She needed more work, especially if she was to keep herself sane. It had nothing to do with the income. She’d been frugal with her paychecks over the years. She could weather these lean times, at least if she limited her ice cream intake. No, it was too many empty hours weighing on her. She needed to fill them.
Lately she was spending way too much time thinking about Matthew, wondering if she’d made a mistake in cutting him out of her life once and for all. Those were the kinds of weak, mostly sex-driven thoughts that could prove dangerous.
Biting back the desire to refuse, she forced herself to nod, forced a gracious note into her voice. “Thank you.”
Jess grinned at her, clearly understanding how difficult it had been for Laila to acquiesce. “You do know that working with me is no piece of cake, right? You won’t be thanking me a few weeks from now. You’ll be earning every penny of the generous salary Abby thinks we should pay you.”
“I learned how to deal with you years ago, when you were nothing more than an annoying little brat,” Laila countered. “I’ll survive.” Her gaze narrowed. “Maybe before I give you a final answer, though, you should tell me about Susie’s mission.”
“No big deal,” Jess claimed casually. “One thing has nothing to do with the other. She just wants to be sure you’re coming to Ireland with us for Christmas.”
When Laila opened her mouth to say such a trip was impossible, Jess held up her hand. “Before you refuse, think about this. Abby, Trace and your nieces will be going. All of your friends will be there—me, Susie, Connie, Shanna, Bree and Heather. If you refuse to come, you’ll be spending the holidays back here all alone with only your parents for company. Do you really want to endure an entire holiday season of their lectures about your many recent mistakes?”
Laila could envision the dreary situation Jess was describing all too clearly. She’d thought about it a hundred times since learning of the O’Briens’ plan to take their grandmother back to Ireland for Christmas.
Laila had always dreamed of visiting Ireland. Anyone living around the O’Briens had heard enough tales about Dublin and the countryside to make it sound idyllic. She loved the O’Briens—one of them a little too much, as a matter of fact. The temptation to say yes was nearly overwhelming, which was why she’d spent the last month studying brochures for holiday cruises and Christmas tours of Savannah and Charleston—anything to avoid giving in and going on a trip that had emotional disaster written all over it.
“I can’t,” she said, proud of herself for choking out the words.
Jess actually seemed a little startled by her flat refusal. “Of course you can.”
“Have you forgotten that the reason I am in this tiny little office rather than my great big impressive one at the bank is going to be in Ireland with the rest of you?”
“Matthew? Well, of course, he’ll be there, but it’s not about you and Matthew. It’s about Gram. It’s about Susie and Mack finally being able to celebrate their marriage and Susie beating cancer. Focus on all that. Hang out with the rest of us. You’ll hardly have to set eyes on Matthew if you don’t want to.”
That, of course, was the problem. She wanted to set eyes on Matthew. She wanted to throw herself into his arms, drag him into the biggest, softest feather bed around and have her wicked way with him. The man was like an addiction, one she hadn’t been able to kick no matter how hard she’d tried.
“Jess, you have no idea how badly I want to go with you, but I just can’t. The timing is all wrong.”
Her friend regarded her with a knowing expression filled with sympathy. “Because you’re still in love with him, aren’t you?”
“Absolutely not,” Laila said emphatically. “What Matthew and I had, it had nothing to do with love.”
A grin spread across Jess’s face. “Who are you trying to convince, my friend? Me or yourself?”
“You, of course,” Laila insisted. “I know how I feel.”
“You know how you want to feel,” Jess corrected. “But it’s not working out so well for you, is it? You haven’t gotten him out of your system. Not even close.”
Laila wanted to deny it, but Jess was right. Since she couldn’t utter an outright lie, she said, “Look, I agreed to work for the inn. Take your one victory and go.”
Jess dutifully stood up, started for the door, then turned back. “You know he’s miserable, don’t you?” she said softly, the parting shot coming as she hesitated in the doorway. “I know my cousin has his faults. Heaven knows, he has a history of being a huge flirt, a player, whatever you want to call it, but it was different with you, Laila. It really was. And having both of you miserable when it doesn’t need to be that way doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
“It’s the way it has to be,” Laila reiterated, unmoved. “We never should have gotten involved in the first place. The whole relationship was crazy, like some kind of fantasy. Matthew’s years younger than I am. It never would have lasted. I was just a temporary infatuation for him. If I hadn’t broken it off, eventually he would have. It was better this way.”
“Says who?”
“I say it,” Laila told her, holding her friend’s gaze with a steady look.
Jess clearly didn’t believe her. And Laila was having a hard time convincing herself. She knew, though, that she had to. It was the only way she’d ever be able to move on with her life.

“So help me, Matthew O’Brien, if you don’t make things right with Laila, I will never forgive you,” Susie declared, standing over her brother’s desk and glowering at him.
Matthew glowered right back. “Not at work, Susie,” he warned. “We’re not discussing my personal life here. I mean it.”
Naturally, she ignored him. “I will not have this honeymoon trip ruined, to say nothing of how terrible Gram will feel if you’re moping around Ireland missing Laila.”
“I won’t mope. I promise.”
She merely scowled at the offer. He sighed.
“Isn’t it enough for you that you have a clean bill of health from the doctor, and that your marriage to Mack is solid?” Matthew asked her plaintively. “Do you really need to meddle in my life, too?”
“Actually this isn’t about you. It’s about me and my happiness. I want Gram’s trip to Ireland to be perfect, and it won’t be if the entire family—the entire extended family—isn’t there.”
He pushed aside the architectural rendering he was supposed to have finished days ago. Lately his concentration was shot. He met his sister’s gaze.
“Look, nobody wants Laila in Ireland more than I do,” he admitted. “I’d planned to ask her to marry me there on Christmas Eve, if you’ll recall. That’s no longer in the cards, obviously, since she won’t even speak to me. If I try to talk her into going, she’ll turn me down flat. If her presence is so critical, put somebody else on the case.”
“I’ve already sent Jess,” Susie admitted. “No luck.”
“What about Trace? Surely her brother can talk some sense into her.”
“She’s not speaking to him at all. She’s lumped him in with her parents. They’re all the enemy right now. She wouldn’t even return Abby’s calls, and those were about work. She’s cut herself off from practically everyone.” She regarded him earnestly. “I’m worried about her, Matthew. If you really care about her, you should be, too.”
Matthew groaned, knowing he was at least in part responsible for Laila’s isolation. “How did this turn into such a huge mess?”
Susie didn’t hesitate. “Because the two of you kept everyone in the dark about your relationship,” she said readily, always eager to enumerate his many flaws as she saw them. “You snuck around town for who knows how long like a couple of criminals. It left everyone to conclude that even you knew that your dating was somehow wrong. It made it seem as if this were just another stupid fling for you and that Laila was ashamed of being another one of your conquests. If you’d been open about it in the first place—”
“I wanted things out in the open,” he snapped. “Laila thought it was a bad idea. Seems to me she was right. The minute her stodgy parents got wind of what was going on, all hell broke loose.”
“Whatever,” Susie said, not one bit swayed by truth or logic. “You’re the only one who can get through to her now. Apologize, grovel, beg, heap on a boatload of guilt about how the trip won’t be the same without her, whatever you need to do. Just don’t take no for an answer. You have to get her to come to Ireland. You got her into your bed, which, given how sensible she usually is, had to take some smooth talking. Surely you can convince her to go on a family vacation.”
“The only way I’m likely to pull it off would be to tell her I’m staying home,” he said realistically.
“Not an option,” Susie declared. “Find another way. I mean it, Matthew. You love her. She loves you. This standoff has to end.” She leveled a look into his eyes. “I expect you to handle it. Do not let me down.”
With that she flounced out of his office. He stared after her, wondering when she’d turned into such a demanding woman, sure of her convictions. It probably had a lot to do with the grit and determination she’d found to fight ovarian cancer, to survive it against all odds. Nothing much scared her anymore, certainly not her brother.
A few months ago he’d have said he shared his sister’s intrepid, determined nature. In the face of Laila’s uncompromising rejection, in the wake of her stubborn stance that they were destined to ruin each other’s lives, he was no longer half so sure of himself. He’d thought they could weather the fallout from people finding out about their relationship, but they hadn’t. Laila hadn’t even wanted to try. She’d barely stuck it out a few weeks before calling it quits.
He’d found her attitude annoying, insulting and demeaning. It trivialized what they had, in his opinion. What he hadn’t been able to figure out was why he loved her anyway.
Still, he had his pride. Groveling, apologizing, begging, all those things his sister had recommended were out of the question. He’d put his heart on the line. He’d made his case. More than once, in fact. If that hadn’t been enough, then why would he go back for more ego bashing?
Besides, being in Ireland with Laila, knowing that he’d intended to make it the most romantic holiday of their lives, that he’d planned to propose to her there on Christmas Eve…it would be torture, and he was no masochist. This was Susie’s trip. If she wanted Laila along, then she was going to have to find some way to convince her to go.
And if she did? Well, he’d worry about that only if Susie managed to pull off some sort of holiday miracle.

“Well?” Nell O’Brien demanded as she sat in her cozy kitchen with two of her precious granddaughters. The Irish-breakfast tea was strong, the blueberry scones fresh from the oven.
She’d sent Jess and Susie on a personal mission to straighten out this ridiculous standoff between Matthew and Laila, but it was obvious from their troubled expressions that they’d failed.
“Laila refuses to go,” Jess admitted. “I know she wants to, but she’s as stubborn as any O’Brien.”
“As for my brother,” Susie said, “he’s actually hurt that she dumped him. As badly as he wants Laila in Ireland with the rest of us, he refuses to do a thing to make sure she goes.” She shook her head. “Men and their stupid pride! Heaven save us.”
Nell knew exactly what she meant. Her grandchildren had inherited many fine qualities from their parents and from her, but stubbornness wasn’t among them. Unfortunately, they all had it in spades. She supposed it was handy in certain situations, gave them the stick-to-it strength and resolve to weather many tough crises, but most of the time it interfered with their happiness. They’d be far better off with a little more tolerance and a little less bullheadedness.
“Do the two of you have any ideas?” she asked. “I will not have this family trip ruined because we’re all thinking about the one person who isn’t there.”
“I don’t think Laila views herself as indispensable,” Jess said. “Or as a member of the family. She’s pretty down on herself and her own judgment these days. And she’s not overly fond of anything O’Brien, either.”
“She’s down on herself because she fell in love with Matthew?” Nell asked incredulously. “Nonsense! I’ll admit to having a few reservations when I first heard about those two, but she was good for him. Anyone could see that.”
She thought about her grandson and the changes she’d seen in him after he’d gotten involved with Laila. “She steadied him, made him want to settle down. I think it worked the other way around, as well. Her life needed a little shaking up after growing up with stuffy old Lawrence Riley for a father and trying to meet his old-fashioned expectations. Just his reaction to her relationship with a fine man like Matthew speaks for itself about how out of touch he is. Matthew put some color in her cheeks and a sparkle in her eyes. Lawrence should have been singing his praises for that, not condemning the two of them.”
She gave her granddaughters a bewildered look. “What kind of man doesn’t put his own daughter’s happiness first?”
“I don’t think Mr. Riley thinks much beyond what’s good for the bank,” Jess said. “Look how he coerced Trace into working there, even though anyone could see how miserable he was. He loves being a graphic designer. Thank goodness, he was able to get back to that.”
“Well, it’s about time Mr. Riley thinks about what’s good for Laila,” Susie said vehemently. “And there’s no question that my brother was very good for her. The first time I saw them together, once I got over the shock, I realized how perfect they were for each other. They complemented each other, just as you said, Gram. Matthew couldn’t keep his eyes off her, and Laila looked like a teenager. She couldn’t stop blushing.” She paused reflectively. “Of course, maybe that had something to do with the wine I kept pushing on her to get her to open up and tell me what was going on.”
Jess nodded slowly. “So we all agree that Mr. Riley is the real problem here, right?”
“Looks that way to me,” Susie said.
“Okay, then,” Jess said. “Do you suppose if Laila’s father changed his mind, maybe gave them his blessing, it would help?”
Nell shook her head. “That would be like getting a tiger to change his stripes. Lawrence has never admitted to a mistake in his life. He’s all but publicly disowned Laila now. He’s not going to back down.”
“Maybe Mrs. Riley,” Susie began, but again Nell shook her head.
“She’s a lovely woman, but she’s always done exactly what her husband expected of her,” Nell said.
“Then you could talk to him,” Jess suggested. “He’d listen to you. Or maybe Dad.”
“I don’t think we want Mick in the middle of this,” Nell said quickly. “His meddling generally backfires. Even though things work out eventually, it’s usually in spite of your father, not because of him.”
“I agree with that,” Susie said. “Uncle Mick’s well-intentioned, but involving him is a bad idea. Surely you can see that, Jess.”
“Hey, I’m willing to look at any and all options,” Jess argued. “Don’t dismiss Dad just because he drove us a little crazy. He’s one of the few people in town with more power than Lawrence Riley. People respect him, even Mr. Riley. I’ll bet Dad could turn this whole situation around if he said a few words to the right people, persuaded them to talk to Mr. Riley.”
“True,” Nell said. “But I think this situation calls for more finesse than Mick, bless him, possesses. I suppose it’s up to me.”
Both of her granddaughters looked relieved.
“What are you going to do?” Susie asked, her eyes alight with curiosity. “Something sneaky and devious, right?”
Nell gave her a chiding look. “Sneaky and devious are not traits I condone,” she scolded.
Both young women simply laughed. Nell shrugged.
“Well. Not ordinarily,” she said sheepishly. After all, it was pointless to fib when everyone knew she had as many matchmaking tricks up her sleeve as anyone else in the family.
“What’s it going to be, Gram?” Jess prodded.
“I’ll have to give that some thought,” Nell murmured, then looked from one beloved granddaughter to the other. “But this O’Brien holiday of ours is going to wind up with someone walking down the aisle, no matter what I have to do to make sure that happens.”