An O'Brien Family Christmas

By: Sherryl Woods


Laila stood beside the window in her new office at The Inn at Eagle Point and watched the whitecaps on the Chesapeake Bay roll toward shore. She’d only been here a few days, but she knew she’d never tire of that view.
She whirled around at the sound of Trace’s voice, a scowl in place to greet him. “What do you want?”
“We need to talk,” he said firmly, already stepping into the office and closing the door behind him.
“I can’t imagine what we could possibly have to discuss. You made your opinion of my relationship with Matthew quite clear. Then you got Mom and Dad all stirred up to boot.” She regarded him accusingly. “We both know how that turned out.”
“I’m sorry,” he said simply. “I never expected things to get so far out of hand. I was worried about you, and I thought they had a right to know.” He looked chagrined. “I should have anticipated that Dad would get on his high horse and say something that would force your hand.”
“Yes, you should have.”
“Still, quitting was pretty rash and impulsive, Laila.”
“Here we go,” she muttered.
“Okay, I’m lecturing,” he admitted. “But don’t you think you should reconsider leaving your job? Maybe try to make peace with Dad? For as far back as I can remember, all you wanted was a chance to take over at the bank for Dad one day.”
“Well, it’s never going to happen,” she said wearily. “I’ve accepted that. You’re not going to be able to intervene and make it right this time, Trace. Dad obviously doesn’t want me there. He never did, and I handed him the perfect excuse to make it official.”
“He didn’t fire you,” Trace reminded her. “You quit.”
“Oh, please,” she protested. “That’s little more than a technicality, under these circumstances. The handwriting was on the wall. You didn’t hear him. He treated me as if I didn’t have a brain in my head, as if my going out with Matthew was the next worse thing to stealing the life savings of little old ladies. What choice did I have? Sooner or later I was going to have to stand up for myself with him. If it hadn’t been over this, something else would have come along.”
Trace continued to look dismayed. “Laila, be reasonable. That’s in the past. You’re no longer with Matthew. I have that right, don’t I? Just tell Dad that. It would make all the difference.”
She frowned at him. “Come on, Trace. None of this is really about me and Matthew. Dad wants the prodigal son in that job, not me.”
“That ship has sailed,” her brother said fiercely. “Dad knows that.”
She smiled. “You don’t really believe that, do you? How many times since I left has he called you with some crisis only you can resolve? Compare that with the fact that he hasn’t once reached out to me, not personally, not professionally.”
Trace gave her a rueful look. “Okay, you’re right. He hasn’t given up entirely on luring me back, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to do it. You were meant for that job, Laila. You and I both know that. So does Dad, when he’s not being impossible.”
She couldn’t deny the truth of that. Ironically, her instinct for numbers, accounting and banking had been honed at her father’s knee, for all the good it had done her. Maybe it was because she had a real aptitude for it. Maybe it was simply because she’d craved his attention and approval. Look where that had gotten her, she thought wryly.
“Yes, I was perfect for it,” she conceded. “But as far as Dad’s concerned, I’ll never be more than second best. I’m not willing to accept that. I’ve moved on. I’m not beating my head against that particular wall ever again. I can make a good living with accounting.”
“It’s not about earning a decent wage,” Trace argued. “It’s about doing what you love, what you were destined to do. Don’t settle, Laila.”
“I’m not settling. I’m accepting the inevitable. If I’d done that years ago, my life would have been far less frustrating.”
Trace frowned. “You’re sure about this?”
“A hundred percent,” she said with what she hoped sounded like total conviction.
“If you say so,” he said skeptically. “And it really is over with Matthew?”
“It really is. You can rest easy. Your sister is no longer interested in disgracing the family name.”
Her response seemed to make him unhappy. “It wasn’t about me or the family name,” he said with obvious frustration. “How could you even think that? I just didn’t want Matthew messing with your head.”
“Well, he’s not messing with any part of me now. You should be thrilled.”
He winced. “You’ll find the right guy,” he said, seeking to reassure her. “I could ask Abby—”
“Don’t you dare!” she ordered, horrified. “I do not want your wife parading a bunch of men in front of me.”
“It was just a thought,” he said defensively. “I feel as if it’s my fault you’re miserable.”
“I’m not miserable,” she insisted. “I’m in transition.” She was pleased with the word. It described exactly where she was in her life, somewhere between the happiness she’d never expected and the uncertain future that was somewhere around the corner.
Trace stood up, apparently satisfied. “We’re good, then?”
She sighed and crossed the room. For all of his annoying flaws, he was a good brother. One of the best. “Of course we’re good,” she said, hugging him fiercely. “Just try to remember you’re a Riley, not an O’Brien. Meddling doesn’t come naturally to you. You made a real mess of it this time.”
“Again, very, very sorry,” he said contritely, a twinkle back in his eyes. At her skeptical look, he said, “Okay, at least a little bit sorry. I think you can do way better than Matthew.”
“You probably ought to leave before I feel compelled to argue with you about that,” she responded.
“Love you.”
“You, too,” she said, watching as he left.
From the window moments later, she could see him crossing the inn’s lawn and heading down to the beach to walk along the shore to the home he’d bought for himself, Abby and his twin stepdaughters. He was whistling, obviously pleased that the visit with Laila had been a success, that their relationship had been mended, if not hers with their father.
She shook her head. She knew her brother loved her, knew he wanted her to be happy, but he didn’t have even the tiniest bit of insight about what it would take to make that happen. If he had, he’d have understood that her best chance at happiness was with the man of whom he’d so vocally disapproved. Not that she intended to admit such a thing to Trace or anyone else. She could barely even admit it to herself.

After a frustrating hour of holiday shopping when her heart hadn’t been in it, Laila was eating a solitary evening meal at Sally’s when she looked up to see Nell O’Brien standing beside her table. The place was jam-packed with other shoppers, holiday carols were being played on the sound systems here and in every store in town, which had left Laila somehow feeling more alone and out of sorts than ever. She’d barely touched her meal, which by now was cold and unappetizing.
“May I?” Nell asked, gesturing toward the empty seat across from Laila. “I swear I’m just about worn out from Christmas shopping, and I’ve barely gotten started.”
“Of course. Have a seat,” Laila said. “Tell me why on earth you’re shopping here, when you’ll be spending the holidays in Dublin?”
“Oh, you know how it is,” Nell responded after ordering a cup of tea and a bowl of Sally’s homemade vegetable beef soup. “There are a lot of people who’ll be expecting a little something. Many of them no longer have family around, so it’s up to friends like me to make sure they aren’t forgotten.”
“Wouldn’t they be happier with a gift from Ireland?” Laila inquired.
Nell chuckled. “Oh, they’ll be hoping for that, too, if only a small token so they’ll know I was thinking of them. I suspect I’ll be coming back with a lot of soft woolen scarves that’ll be perfect for the chilly Chesapeake Shores winter.”
Laila hesitated. She was the one who’d brought up Ireland, but she wasn’t really sure it was a topic they ought to be discussing. The whole subject was fraught with peril, especially for her. Still, there was little point in pretending the big family vacation wasn’t just a couple of weeks away.
“You must be getting really excited about the trip,” she said, treading carefully. She hoped Nell couldn’t see through the casual indifference she was trying to project. “How long has it been since you’ve been back?”
Nell’s expression turned nostalgic. “The last time was the year before my husband died, so quite a while. I’m anxious to visit one last time, to see the few friends who are left, and to show some of my favorite spots to all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I want them to understand where their family came from. I might not have grown up in Ireland the way my ancestors did, but it’s in my blood and my descendants’. I knew that the first time I set foot on Irish soil.”
“I know Jess is looking forward to it,” Laila said. “It was practically all she talked about the last time we spoke.” Of course, the real focus had been on getting Laila to come along, but that was best left unsaid.
“I think she and Susie are almost as excited as I am,” Nell agreed. “There’s nothing quite like Ireland at Christmas, you know. There are so many decorations. The holly is especially bountiful over there. Windows are lit with candles to welcome neighbors.” Her eyes filled with delight. “There are just so many wonderful traditions I’ve missed. My parents tried to keep some of them alive here, but it’s not the same. I didn’t realize that until I’d gone to live with my grandfather for a year. Summer visits were one thing, but being there for all the seasons, and especially Christmas, was magical.”
“I wish…” Laila began, then cut herself off with a shake of her head.
Nell’s expression brightened. “Wish what, my dear? That you could be there? You should be. We’d love for you to come. You’re very much a part of this family.”
Laila sighed. “Not really.”
“You’re Trace’s sister, aren’t you? And Abby’s sister-in-law? You’ve been in and out of Mick’s house and mine practically since you could walk. In my book, that makes you one of us.”
Laila noticed that she’d made no mention of Laila’s past relationship with Matthew. Even Nell obviously understood it had been little more than a passing infatuation.
“Jess told me I’d be welcome, but I’d feel out of place,” Laila admitted.
“Not because of Matthew, I hope,” Nell said. “No one is holding that against you.”
Laila bristled at her choice of words. “Against me?” she repeated. “I know O’Briens stick together, but why would anyone hold what happened against me?”
“Well, you did dump him, after all,” Nell said, her tone matter-of-fact. “Family loyalty surely puts us on his side, though I know you must have had your reasons. Still, all of us understand that the relationship simply wasn’t meant to be. There are no hard feelings.”
Laila knew she should bite her tongue, but she couldn’t let the comment go unchallenged. “No offense, but Matthew has some responsibility for what happened. He’s not exactly a saint.”
Nell chuckled. “Not exactly,” she said agreeably. “Much as I love him, I would never suggest such a thing.”
“Then why do I get the feeling that you’re heaping all the blame for what happened on me?”
Nell regarded her innocently. “Is that the way it sounded? I didn’t mean for it to. I know as well as anyone how impossible my grandson can be. I’m sure he must have done something perfectly outrageous for a kind, considerate woman like you to drop him the way you did.”
“There was no dropping,” Laila insisted stiffly. “It was a mutual decision.” More or less, anyway. She’d said there was no way they could continue to see each other, and he’d gone along with it. She’d hated that almost as much as she’d hated her father’s disdainful, unyielding attitude and the rift that had created.
Nell looked surprised. “Is that so? Matthew certainly seemed to suggest… Well, never mind. I must have gotten it wrong.”
Laila frowned. “Exactly what did Matthew say?”
“That he was paying the price for your father’s ridiculous stance, that on some level you still want to get back into your father’s good graces and that cutting Matthew out of your life was the first step.” She shrugged. “I can understand how he might have come to that conclusion. Your father’s not an easy man, now, is he?”
“No, he’s not, but the whole idea that I broke up with Matthew to appease my father is insane,” Laila said indignantly. “I’m not even speaking to my father, much less trying to win him over. He has nothing to do with this. I’m done trying to jump through hoops to please him.”
“I hope that’s true,” Nell said gently. “You’re a smart, thoughtful woman, Laila. You should be deciding things for yourself, especially when it comes to choosing the man you’ll love.”
“And that’s exactly what I did,” Laila said heatedly. “I decided Matthew was all wrong for me. He agreed.”
“If you say so,” Nell murmured. She seemed to be fighting a smile.
Laila couldn’t believe that Matthew was going around town psychoanalyzing her. Wasn’t that Will Lincoln’s domain? Jess’s husband was the shrink in the family.
“I have to go,” Laila said abruptly. She stood up, pulled a twenty from her purse and left it on the table. Though she felt like storming out, good manners had her bending down to kiss Nell’s cheek. None of this was her fault, and she was only expressing whatever nonsense Matthew had fed her. “If I don’t see you before the trip, I really do hope you have a wonderful time.”
“Happy Christmas to you, too, dear,” Nell responded.
Happy? Laila couldn’t imagine anything less likely, but at the moment she wasn’t concerned with holiday spirit. No, what mattered to her right now was straightening out the infuriating and apparently very chatty Matthew O’Brien before he managed to turn the whole town against her.

The last person Matthew expected to find on his doorstep on a frigid December night was Laila. She was shivering, either from the cold or indignation. Judging from the sparks flashing in her eyes when he opened the door, it was probably the latter.
“How dare you!” she said as she walked right past him, took off her coat and tossed it in the general direction of a chair. It missed, but she left it where it had landed.
When she whirled to face him, her eyes were blazing. He hadn’t seen that much heat in them since the last time they’d made love. In full fury like this, she reminded him of some kind of mythical goddess—statuesque, strong and wildly desirable. He jammed his hands into his pockets so he wouldn’t reach for her.
“Something I can do for you?” he inquired mildly. “You look upset.”
“I just had a fascinating conversation with your grandmother,” she announced. “It seems she, and probably everyone else in town by now, is under the impression that I dumped you, that poor Matthew did nothing to deserve such a thing.”
“You did dump me,” he replied reasonably.
“We agreed,” she insisted, her agitated pacing starting to make him a little dizzy.
He shook his head. “Sorry to contradict you, sweetheart, but you said it was over, tossed me out of your apartment and told me never to darken your door again.”
She frowned, probably annoyed by his depiction of what had happened.
“It was hardly that dramatic,” she said.
“Pretty much,” he insisted, amused despite himself that she’d somehow turned herself into the victim here.
“But you agreed we were over,” she countered.
“No, I said it was pointless to try to argue with you when you were being irrational. Then you slammed the door in my face.”
“Well, of course I did,” she retorted. “Who wants to be accused of being irrational by some condescending man? And just so you know, I am never irrational. I thought the whole thing through and came to a sensible conclusion.”
“Not from my perspective, but you certainly did sound convinced about what you were saying. It’s little wonder I took you at your word and stayed away.”
She looked taken aback by his response, as if she’d never considered that, by avoiding her, he was only doing as she asked. “You never took me at my word before.”
At the surprising hint of wistfulness in her voice, he regarded her with confusion. “You wanted me to fight you, to keep coming back even though you’d told me rather plainly not to?”
She sighed and sat on the edge of the sofa, her expression a little lost. The hint of vulnerability made his gut twist.
“I sound totally ridiculous, don’t I?” she said. “I’m not a woman who doesn’t know her own mind. At least I never was until I got involved with you. You confuse the daylights out of me, Matthew, and, to be perfectly honest, I don’t much like it.”
He sat a safe distance away from her to avoid the temptation to take advantage of all the mixed signals she was sending. Pulling her into his arms would be exactly the wrong thing to do. Sex wasn’t the answer, not this time. Sex between them might be mind-boggling, but it wouldn’t solve their problems. If he wanted her back in his life, he had to find another way.
“Understandable,” he said quietly. “You’re a woman who likes being in control.”
She gave him a startled look, as if she hadn’t expected him to get that. Then an even deeper sigh shuddered through her. “I’ve missed you,” she admitted. “I’ve hated not seeing you, not talking to you.”
“The lack of sex?” he inquired.
She gave him a wry look. “Yes, that, too, Matthew.”
“Well, if you came over here tonight for some kind of booty call, you’re out of luck,” he told her. “I don’t do that anymore.”
She regarded him with disbelief. “Since when?”
“Since I grew up, matured, whatever you want to call it.” He grinned at her. “See, you’ve ruined me for other women. And, just so you know, I’m not sure I’m crazy about that, either.”
She sat in silence for a while, then regarded him with a helpless expression, or at least as helpless as a woman with her boatload of strength was ever likely to display. “What happens now, Matthew? I still think I was right to walk away. So many things happened. I lost so much. I already blamed you for that. I figured over time the resentment would only grow and destroy us. I figured it was better to cut our losses.”
Here was the opening he’d been waiting for. “Do you honestly want to know what I think?”
“Of course.”
“I think you panicked and ran because we’d moved way past your comfort zone. As long as you thought it was just about sex, you were fine, but then you threw away your job at the bank. That terrified you, because you’d never expected anything or anyone to matter more to you than that job. I obviously did, and it scared you.”
She blinked at his assessment, but she didn’t even try to deny it. “Have you been talking to Will? You sound way too much like a shrink.”
“Hey, I’ve been known to have an insight or two all on my own,” he protested. “But, yes, Will did share a few observations. So have Jess, Susie, Uncle Mick and just about everyone else in the family. We’ve been the talk of the entire O’Brien clan for a while now. Frankly, it’s getting a little tiresome. I wish my brother would go back to dating my brother-in-law’s ex-lover so they would focus on somebody else for a change.”
Momentarily distracted, Laila regarded him with shock. “You don’t really think Luke and Kristen belong together, do you? That’s just crazy.”
“Good grief, no. That’s what makes it so perfect. The family would be freaking out about it, and we’d be off the hot seat. We could figure things out without all that well-meaning interference.”
An oddly hopeful expression crossed her face. “Maybe then I could go to Ireland and wouldn’t feel as if we were under a microscope every second,” she said, then winced. “Sorry. Forget I said that. I can’t possibly go to Ireland. It would send entirely the wrong message.”
Despite her quick retraction, Matthew’s heart took an unexpected lurch at the mention of the family trip. He had no idea what had really brought her over here tonight, but he couldn’t blow this tiny opening with some careless remark.
“Why not? You’re as much a part of this family as anyone. Everyone would love for you to be there. Frankly, I’ve been taking a lot of heat because you decided against going. You’d be doing me a favor, not that you owe me anything,” he added quickly.
“Hardly,” she said, regarding him with amusement.
“I’m just saying you should go.” He hesitated, then admitted, “I already have your ticket, as a matter of fact.”
Her mouth gaped. “You bought a ticket for me?”
“Months ago,” he confirmed. “No refund, so it’ll just go to waste if you don’t change your mind. I know how much you hate throwing money away. It’s practically your obligation to go.”
“I could just pay you for the ticket, then use it some other time,” she countered, though there was an undeniable spark of excitement in her eyes.
“And pay all those charges for changing it? Not very frugal,” he chided.
“What about a hotel room? Did you think about that? I’m sure everything’s booked by now.”
“I booked a room for us, but I can bunk in with Luke, if you’d prefer that. It’s not a problem.”
“Really? You’d do that?”
“I told you I’m not just after your body. I’m willing to make a few sacrifices to prove that to you.”
She actually looked a little disappointed by that news. “You do still want me, though, right?”
Matthew couldn’t help it. He laughed. “You are a very contradictory woman.”
“That doesn’t answer the question.”
“I could prove how much I still want you in half a second, Laila, but I’m not going to,” he said, his tone a whole lot more noble than the desire thrumming through him. “If we start over, and I’m sensing that might be a possibility here, then we’re going about it the right way this time. No more extremely hot, middle-of-the-night trysts.”
“You mean no sex?” She seemed a little shaken by that.
“No sex,” he confirmed, barely able to choke out the words.
“What’ll we do?” she asked, sounding bewildered.
“Now, that’s just downright insulting,” he said indignantly. “We’ve been known to have intellectually challenging conversations.”
“Sure, in bed,” she replied, then grinned. “But maybe we could compromise.”
He was fascinated by the suggestion. “Compromise how?”
“We could talk first.”
Though Matthew laughed at her notion of compromise, he refused to back down. “Nope, I think we’ll do this my way. You’ll come to Ireland. I’ll share my brother’s room. And I’ll court you like the fascinating lady you are in full view of my family.”
“I’m not all that enamored with being a lady,” she complained. “That’s why being with you was such a refreshing change. You saw me in a completely different light, as an unpredictable woman who was impossible to resist. I liked that.”
“Oh, if you must know, you’re still plenty tough to resist, but I’m going to pull it off.” He looked her over with just enough heat in his gaze to make his point. “Those are the terms. Are you in or out?”
“Your grandmother says there’s no place quite like Ireland at Christmas,” she said wistfully.
“Is that a yes?”
She took a deep breath, met his gaze, held it for what felt like an eternity, then finally nodded. “Yes, I’ll go with you.”
Matthew resisted the desire to get up and do a little jig. There’d be plenty of opportunities for that once they got to Dublin.
Laila gave him a wry look. “You do know we just got manipulated by a master, don’t you?”
He regarded her blankly. “Who? How?”
“Your grandmother, of course. I didn’t see it at the time, but every word she said to me at Sally’s tonight was calculated to get me to race over here and confront you.” She shook her head. “I thought I was smarter than that.”
Matthew gave her a consoling look. “Don’t feel bad. We’ve all been taken in by Gram a time or two.”
This time, though, he was going to owe his grandmother big-time for accomplishing what no one else had been able to. She’d broken the impasse between him and Laila. Now it was up to him to make sure the détente turned into something that would last.

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