An O'Brien Family Christmas

By: Sherryl Woods

5


Nell thought she detected a flare of disappointment in Dillon’s eyes when she arrived at the train station with Matthew and Laila in tow.
“Dillon, this is my grandson, Matthew O’Brien, and his friend, Laila Riley. Her brother, Trace, is married to my granddaughter Abby.”
Whatever his disappointment, Dillon was too much the gentleman to make the young people feel uncomfortable. He gave them a beaming smile and took their hands. “It’s a pleasure to meet more of Nell’s family, though I admit I’ve been wondering why I’ve yet to see the first sign of her sons.”
“Mick and Jeff have been busy, and Thomas, in fact, has just arrived,” Nell was quick to say.
“As if that has anything to do with it,” Matthew teased. “Believe it or not, my grandmother is afraid my uncle Mick might forbid her to see you. He seems to have a real aversion to the idea of her dating.”
Dillon chuckled until he looked into Nell’s eyes. Then he reacted with dismay. “Can this be true? Your son disapproves of your dating, even though you’ve been a widow for some time now?”
“He’s simply having a little difficulty getting used to the idea,” Nell said, scowling at Matthew for making such a revelation. “For now I’m trying to be considerate of his feelings. You’ll all meet when the time is right.”
“Which, if Gram has her way, will be on the day we leave for home,” Matthew countered, a twinkle in his eyes. “I think she enjoys sneaking around and making my uncle a little crazy.”
Nell scowled at him. “Young man, you are not too old for me to send you back to the hotel to your room.”
Matthew laughed. “Will you send Laila with me?”
“She’s done nothing wrong,” Nell pointed out. “And that would turn a punishment into a reward, now, wouldn’t it?”
“To say nothing of the fact that I intend to see Howth today,” Laila added. “Matthew, behave yourself. Stop teasing your grandmother.”
Matthew sighed dramatically. “Now you’ve taken all the fun out of the day.”
Dillon looped an arm around his shoulders. “Buck up, Matthew. You’ve a beautiful woman by your side and we’re going to a picturesque seaside town. If you can’t enjoy yourself under those circumstances, then you’re not any relation of Nell’s. She’s a woman who’s always been able to find joy in any moment.”
Nell regarded Dillon with surprise. Was that how he remembered her? All she recalled were the tears she’d shed when she’d finally made her choice to leave Ireland and return to Maryland and the life her parents had wanted for her with Charles O’Brien. Duty had trumped what she’d felt at the time, convincing her it couldn’t possibly be anything more than infatuation. She’d left so much misery in her wake. All she remembered of that time was the heavy burden of her guilt. Time, apparently, had washed away whatever bitterness Dillon must have felt back then.
She saw the sign on the platform flash, indicating that their train was arriving. Her heart skipped a beat at the prospect of a day’s adventure down memory lane. This time, she assured herself, they would be happy memories. She’d make sure of that. How could they be otherwise when she was surrounded by people she loved?


“This hands-off business is good for us, don’t you agree?” Laila asked as she and Matthew followed the winding stone walkway that led along the edge of the sea at Howth. It curved around to create a charming marina that reminded her of Harbor Lights back home.
They’d left Nell and Dillon in a cozy café sipping tea and eating scones. When Laila and Matthew had gone off on their own to explore, Nell had been complaining that the scones weren’t nearly as good as her own.
Now, with the sea splashing against the rocks and a brisk wind blowing, Laila was chilled through, but she’d never been happier. The sun was playing tag with heavy, dark clouds and mostly winning, at least for the moment.
“You look half-frozen,” Matthew noted. “Are you sure you don’t want to go back and have a cup of tea?”
“Soon,” she said. “Right now I just want to absorb the fact that I’m here in this lovely place.”
“With me?” he asked quietly.
She turned to face him. “With you,” she agreed solemnly. “That’s what I meant before. I think we’re seeing each other differently, now that ripping each other’s clothes off isn’t an option.”
He smiled at that. “Is that so? How do you see me now?”
“As a wonderfully mature, complicated man who adores his grandmother,” she said, then tilted her head thoughtfully. “And maybe adores me.”
Heat flashed in his eyes. “I do adore you.” His expression turned serious. “I love you, Laila. For months now, I’ve made no secret of that.”
The words settled into a secret room in her heart and warmed her, but still she said, “I’m not sure I’m ready to believe that yet.”
He looked puzzled. “What do you mean? You think I’m lying?”
“Of course not,” she said at once. “But if I believe you, if I accept that your feelings really do run that deep, then there will be decisions to be made, won’t there? I’m not ready to face those decisions. Just being with you has cost me a lot. I have to deal with that, Matthew. Otherwise, I’ll wind up resenting you, which wouldn’t be fair at all. That’s why I called things off before.”
“Do you really not know your own heart?” he asked. “Or is it that you don’t trust mine?”
“A little of both,” she admitted candidly, hating the hurt she saw in his eyes. “But that’s why this time is so precious, Matthew. We’ve taken the pressure off. There’s nothing that has to be decided today or tomorrow or even the next day. We’re just here together.” She regarded him hopefully. “Can’t that be enough for you for now?”
“For now,” he conceded eventually, then added earnestly, “But I want more, Laila. I want it all—the house, the family, the future. I won’t settle for less, and I won’t wait forever.”
She frowned at what sounded a lot like an ultimatum. “It’s not entirely up to you, you know.”
“Believe me, I get that. You’ve made all the rules up to now. If you ask me, some of them haven’t worked out so well, especially the one that kept our families in the dark. Maybe it’s time I made a few rules of my own.”
She regarded him with a narrowed gaze. “Such as?”
“Not letting you treat this relationship as if it’s something to be ashamed of, for one thing. Surely, around my family at least, we can be open about it. They’ve done nothing but accept us as a couple.”
“Agreed,” she said at once. “Hiding it from them was a mistake, no question about it.”
“Okay, then. And we won’t let your father dictate what happens between us.”
She regarded Matthew with annoyance. “I thought I’d made it clear that my father’s not involved in my decisions any longer.”
He tucked a finger under her chin and forced her to meet his gaze. “I know you want to believe that, want to stick to it, but his opinion still matters to you. I just want you to commit to not letting it be the deciding factor.”
Sadly, she could see his reasoning. Much as she wanted to believe she could turn her back on her father, it was going to be harder than she’d anticipated. She’d spent too many years trying to please him to change overnight.
“Fair enough,” she told Matthew, pleased that he understood her so well, even if the insight didn’t speak highly of her and the influence her father continued to have over her life. She either had to break that bond—sever it with no regrets, which seemed unlikely—or find a new strategy for dealing with not only her father, but her mother as well. Those two had acted as one as far back as Laila could remember, even when she and Trace had thought for sure that their mother sympathized with them.
Laila shivered once more in the cold, damp air, and this time she couldn’t ignore it. “I think I’d like to have that tea now,” she told Matthew.
“Good idea, since your lips are turning blue,” he teased. “I could remedy that right here.”
Her breath caught. “Oh?”
His gaze searched hers. “With your permission.”
She nodded, unable to squeeze a single word past the lump in her throat. She wanted to be kissed here in this beautiful place, capping a memory she knew would last a lifetime.
Slowly he lowered his mouth to hers. The heat was instantaneous. It spread through her from head to toe like a wildfire burning free.
“Oh, Matthew,” she murmured against his lips. She could feel his smile even as he deepened the kiss, made her remember just how intoxicating his effect on her was.
But all that heat was dangerous, she reminded herself. If she wasn’t careful, she could get burned. She could lose her heart, lose the future that had once mattered so much to her.
Those thoughts snapped her back to reality. She’d already lost that future. Hadn’t she been saying for weeks now that there was no going back, not to the bank, not under her father’s thumb? Was she as uncertain about that as Matthew had implied only moments earlier?
Matthew, however, was here, holding her ever so gently, claiming her with a passion she’d only dared to dream of. Had she been crazy to let this go?
Or was it crazy to believe it could last?
Since she had no answer, she gently extricated herself from his embrace, pretended not to see the confusion in his eyes.
“That was nice, but I still want tea,” she said, an unmistakable hitch in her voice.
Matthew looked as if he had plenty he wanted to say, but in the end, he only nodded. “Then tea it is.”
“And one of those fantastic scones with lots and lots of Devon cream.”
He laughed then. “Are you sure you’re not Irish?”
“Sorry, no,” she said. “Unless it’s very distantly.” She only aspired to be…by becoming an O’Brien. The thought startled her so badly, she nearly stumbled on the path and tumbled into the sea.
Matthew, of course, steadied her. “Something wrong?” he asked.
“Not a thing,” she responded cheerfully. “Nothing that a steaming cup of tea won’t cure.”
But even as she said it, she knew it wasn’t true. Only giving in to her feelings for Matthew was going to cure what ailed her. She just didn’t know if she dared risk it.


Matthew had been cornered by his sister and Mack the minute they returned from the trip to Howth.
“We need your help,” Susie told him, dragging him into the bar and ordering Irish coffees all around before Matthew could even speak up to say he’d prefer something a little less lethal.
“Okay, what’s this about?” he asked, looking from his sister to his brother-in-law.
Mack shrugged. “Ask Susie. She’s the one who has some kind of bee in her bonnet.”
Susie gave him a chiding look. “Quaint expression,” she commented. “I just have a few concerns. I think it’s my sisterly duty to discuss them with you.”
“Concerns about…?” Matthew asked, even though he had a feeling he wasn’t going to like the answers.
“You and Laila. Or, rather, your intentions toward Laila. We all did our part to make sure she came along on this trip, hoping that the two of you would mend fences and get your relationship back on track.” She studied him with a narrowed gaze. “I hope that wasn’t a mistake.”
“Why would you think it might have been a mistake?” Matthew asked.
“I’m not seeing any signs of progress,” Susie said, sounding miffed.
“You’re not the one who has to see them, now, are you?” Matthew responded.
“Then things are better between you?” she inquired hopefully.
He didn’t even attempt to hide his amusement at this sisterly concern run amok. “I’m satisfied.”
She seemed taken aback by his declaration. “Really? Seriously?”
“Yes, Suze. Things are progressing quite nicely, and I expect them to continue to progress. I assume I can trust you to leave the situation to me.”
His sister looked disappointed. “You don’t want my help?”
“Not so much,” he said dryly.
“Good luck with that,” Mack murmured.
Susie scowled at her husband. “I can mind my own business.”
Both men laughed.
“In what universe?” Matthew asked.
She gave him an impatient look. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, I’m just trying to help. Do you want Laila or not?”
“I want Laila,” Matthew said. “But I think I’ll go about winning her on my own terms, if that’s all the same to you. What kind of honeymoon are the two of you having, if you have all this spare time to worry about my love life?”
“Careful,” Mack warned. “I might take that the wrong way. You know perfectly well that your sister is excellent at multi-tasking, and meddling seems to be in her genes.”
“Well, I’d consider it a personal favor if you’d keep your wife focused on you and out of my business.” He held Mack’s gaze. “Please.”
With that, he stood up and walked out of the bar, but not before he heard Mack say, “I told you this was a bad idea.”
Susie, to Matthew’s surprise, laughed. “No, it wasn’t. I found out everything I needed to know. Matthew is firmly on the hook. Now I just need to focus my energy on Laila.”
Matthew groaned. He debated leaving his sister to her machinations, but he knew they’d backfire. He turned around and went back. He leaned down and looked his sister squarely in the eye. “Stay out of it, Suze,” he said quietly, holding her gaze. “I mean it.”
“I think he’s serious, Susie,” Mack commented.
“Oh, if he had any idea what was good for him, he’d have sealed this deal by now,” she scoffed. “He obviously needs some help.”
“Stay out of it,” Matthew repeated.
She only grinned. “You don’t scare me.”
“Well, I should. I know your secrets. I could spread them far and wide. A few of them might even stir up this happy marriage of yours,” he threatened with absolutely no intention of following through. He loved that Susie and Mack were finally together. He merely hoped to shake her up, make her think twice about messing around in his life.
“Secrets?” Mack inquired, looking from him to Susie and back again.
Susie patted his cheek. “Nothing for you to worry about,” she said, then scowled at Matthew and added pointedly, “nothing!”
“Try me,” he retorted, hoping the empty threat would be enough to at least slow her down, if not get her to forget her scheming.
He held her gaze steadily. She was the first to blink and look away. He heaved a relieved sigh and walked away for the second time. This time, though, only silence followed him.


Laila found half a dozen messages at the desk on her return from Howth. One was from her father. The rest were from Trace. Since her brother was less objectionable, she called him first.
“You’re back?” he asked when she reached him.
“Just walked in.”
“Meet me across the street in the park. We need to talk.”
“I can’t right now. There are some guys coming over to speak with Nell about a possible family connection, and I promised to be there.”
“If you think someone should be there, Abby will go,” Trace said. “This is important, Laila.”
“Does this talk have anything to do with Dad calling?”
Silence greeted the question.
“You’re not answering me, which can only mean yes,” she said.
Trace sighed. “Then he did call you,” he said, sounding frustrated. “I told him not to, that I’d talk to you.”
She echoed his sigh. “What’s this about, Trace?”
“He’s reconsidering what happened. He wants to talk to you about coming back to work. First, though, he wants to know if it’s true that you and Matthew are through.”
Her brief moment of hope faded. “We’re not,” she said succinctly. “I imagine that changes everything.”
“Just meet me and let’s talk about this. I have a plan.”
“Has it occurred to you that the mere necessity for having a plan to deal with Dad pretty much says how dysfunctional all of this is?”
Trace laughed. “Of course, but we’re talking about Dad. It just comes with the territory. The key to success is accepting that and playing the game more skillfully than he does. Ten minutes, Laila.”
“Okay, fine,” she agreed.
Moments later as she walked past the bar, she noticed Matthew stalking away from a table, leaving Susie and Mack behind. He didn’t look overjoyed.
“Problems?” she inquired when he exited the bar.
“Nothing that strangling my sister won’t resolve,” he said darkly.
“You know you don’t mean that,” she said.
“Well, of course I don’t mean it,” he said irritably. “She’s just exasperating. She’s all starry-eyed these days and thinks she can manipulate the rest of the world into being the same way.”
“Ah, she’s matchmaking,” Laila concluded. “I think it’s sweet.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you’d been there.” He waved off the subject. “Never mind, I’ve neutralized her.”
“How so?”
“I threatened to reveal all her deep, dark secrets to Mack.”
Laila laughed. “Susie has no deep, dark secrets. She’s the epitome of the wholesome, all-American girl.”
“Of course she is, but it’s made her nervous. Maybe that’ll keep her in line for a while.”
“Boy, are you an optimist,” Laila said.
He shrugged. “Probably.” He regarded her with a narrowed gaze. “Where are you going, by the way? You’re not meeting up with Gram, Sean and Liam, are you?”
“Not right now. Abby’s going to fill in for me. Trace wants me to meet him across the street in the park. Apparently he’s determined to mediate yet again between me and my father.”
Matthew looked surprised. “Really?”
“So he says. I have my doubts that he has that much skill at mediation, but I’m willing to listen. Since a lot appears to hinge on you and me being through, I don’t see this going anywhere.”
“I probably shouldn’t, but I find that oddly encouraging,” Matthew said. “Do you want backup?”
“No, thanks. Trace isn’t the problem, and my father’s thousands of miles away. I’ve got it.”
Matthew pressed a quick kiss to her cheek. “Good for you. I’ll see you later. Want to walk over to the pub with me? I can stop by your room and you can tell me how things went with your brother.”
“Sure.”
“Then I’ll see you at six.”
Laila gave him a wave, then headed across the street. Just inside the park, she found a bench in the quickly fading sun. It wasn’t especially warm, but she turned her face up and closed her eyes.
“You praying for patience?” Trace inquired as he sat down beside her and stretched out his legs.
“Am I going to need it?”
“We’re talking about Dad, so of course,” he said.
“So, what’s this proposition he wants you to make to me? And what did he offer you first?” Trace winced.
She patted his knee. “Don’t feel bad. It’s not your fault you’re always going to be his first choice. So, what was it? Did he offer to step down as president of the bank? Give you his seat on the board? What?”
“He mentioned a few things along those lines,” Trace admitted. “Frankly, I tuned him out. When he finally let me get a word in edgewise, I said no. Again. And told him he was being a stubborn idiot for not making the exact same offer to you.”
“Trace, we both know that is never going to happen. Even if he begged me to come back, the most he’s going to offer me is a vice presidency, and he’ll do that grudgingly. He doesn’t think I have what it takes to run the bank.”
“You could go back, prove him wrong.”
“Not if the cost of doing that is walking away from Matthew.”
Trace’s gaze leveled. “You told me before we left home that it was over between you. I thought you only came along on this trip so you wouldn’t be alone for the holidays.”
“I thought it was over.” She shrugged. “Now, not so much,” she admitted. “And before you get all worked up, I have no idea where this is going, but I’m not just walking away because my being with Matthew makes Dad crazy. I’m happy when I’m with him, Trace. I see myself in an entirely different way. He’s good for me like that.”
She regarded her brother earnestly. “Do you know what it’s like to grow up with everyone around you thinking you’re stuffy, reliable and boring?”
“Reliability is a good quality,” Trace countered.
“But stuffy and boring aren’t. Heck, I was boring myself. Remember Dave? He was perfectly suitable. Dad adored him. But even you thought I’d wind up bored to tears if I stayed with him. Matthew’s taught me how to live. Really live.”
“You’re talking about a wild, passionate fling,” Trace said. “I get that. You were probably due, but come on, Laila, you can’t live your life that way. It’s not realistic. Life is about compromise and being sensible, about making plans and sticking with them.”
She gave him a long look. “Is your marriage to Abby that dull?”
He immediately bristled. “Of course not. We have—” He hesitated.
“Passion,” she said heatedly. “That’s what you have. Don’t you think I can see that every time I look at the two of you? I want that, Trace. I want to feel alive when someone walks into a room and looks at me. I want my heart to pound when someone says my name. I want to see the same look in a man’s eyes that you get when you see Abby, as if you’re seeing the sun, the moon and the stars all wrapped up in that one person.”
“And Matthew makes you feel like that?” he asked skeptically.
“Yeah, he does,” she said softly. “And maybe it can’t last, but for now I want it, big brother.”
“Even if you wind up with your heart broken?”
She nodded, then answered with absolute certainty. “Even then.”
“Okay,” he said, sounding resigned. “You know all I really care about is your happiness. If Matthew can give you that and you consider it a fair trade-off for losing the career you always wanted, it’s your call.”
She sighed. “It shouldn’t have to be a trade-off, but yes, it’s worth it.” It had taken her a while to realize that, but she understood it now. Life without that blood-sizzling excitement was hardly worth living.
“Shall I tell Dad that, or do you want to return his call?” Trace asked. “Maybe he’ll have a change of heart if you tell him what you just told me.”
She chuckled. “No, if I tell him that, what he’ll have is a heart attack. You call. Tell him whatever you want to, but the bottom line is no. I won’t take the job under his conditions.”
And truthfully, she didn’t want to risk listening to any of his persuasive arguments, especially knowing the price tag that would go along with them.
“No second thoughts?” Trace asked.
“Not a one.”
“Okay, then. I’ll tell Dad.”
As they walked back to the hotel, Trace draped an arm around her shoulders. “I’m proud of you,” he said.
She regarded him with surprise. “Why?”
“For knowing what you want and sticking to your guns. I know it’s not easy. They say that Mick O’Brien is a master manipulator, but I think Dad’s tactics are just as sneaky. For what it’s worth, I think you made the right choice.”
“You do?”
“Yep, but the first time I see you crying over Matthew, I’m going to punch his lights out.”
She smiled at the fierce note in his voice. “Goes without saying,” she said.
She just prayed Matthew would never give her—or her brother—any cause to make good on his threat.

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