An O'Brien Family Christmas

By: Sherryl Woods

8


Mick put on a tie, then yanked it off. “Why am I getting dressed up as if this is some special occasion?” he asked Megan irritably. “What is Ma up to, anyway, insisting that everyone be there tonight?”
Megan gave him a soothing look. “You know perfectly well why she wants us all to be together tonight. She’s bringing a date.”
Mick saw red at the reminder. As if his mother had any business dating at her age. And, of all people, some man she hadn’t seen in sixty years or more, if the story was to be believed that she’d left him behind to marry Mick’s father. What was she thinking? It was only going to end badly.
“If she thinks I’m going to show up and give them my blessing, then she really has lost her mind,” he growled.
Megan crossed the room and stood directly in front of him, hands on hips. Despite the difference in their sizes, she was capable of being intimidating when she wanted to be.
“You will be on your very best behavior tonight, Mick O’Brien. I mean it. You will not embarrass Nell.”
“I won’t have to. She’s embarrassing herself.”
Megan’s eyes flashed. “Nonsense! And if you can’t change your attitude, then perhaps you ought to stay right here and sulk like the petulant two-year-old who seems to have taken over your body.”
Stunned by the accusation, Mick stared at her. “Petulant two-year-old?” he echoed.
“No better than your namesake, though even little Mick is getting past the tantrum stage.”
He sat down on the edge of the bed, considering her words, then sighed. “You’re right, as usual,” he conceded. “I’m just worried about her, Meggie. It’s not like Ma to act all fluttery around some man none of us even know. She’s not some young girl.”
Megan chuckled. “No, she certainly isn’t. She’s a grown woman who knows her own mind. She raised three amazing sons, then served as a surrogate mother to our children after I’d left. No one could do that without being sensible and wise.” She met his gaze. “Agreed?”
He wrestled with his conscience, then nodded. “Agreed.”
“And it’s not as if this man is someone she met just a few days ago. I gather she was once quite serious about him.”
“Years ago,” Mick reminded her. “They were little more than teenagers then. Who knows the kind of man he’s become?”
“Which is precisely why you and the others will use this evening to get to know him. Your opinions and advice will mean a lot more to Nell if they’re coming from someone who’s actually knowledgeable when it comes to Dillon O’Malley, and not leaping to conclusions based on fear.”
His gaze narrowed. “Fear? When have I ever been afraid of anything?”
“Only once before that I’ve ever seen, when Nell had pneumonia years ago and we all thought we might lose her. You have that same terrified look about you now. Don’t you know that she’ll continue to be a part of our lives no matter what happens with Dillon O’Malley?” She regarded him pointedly. “At least she will if you don’t force her to choose.”
He pulled his wife onto his lap. “How’d you get to be so smart?” he asked, his tension easing as he held her.
She grinned. “I’ve always been smart. You just pay a little more attention to me now.”
“Could be,” he agreed. “I won’t make the mistake of ignoring you again.” He ran his fingers through the short cap of frosted curls that made her look like a girl. “You ground me, Meggie. I hope you know how much I love you, have always loved you.”
Her hand rested against his cheek, her touch gentle. “I never questioned your feelings, Mick. Not once. It was only your priorities that tore us apart for a while.”
“But we’re good now?”
“Better than good,” she said with a smile, then tweaked his nose. “Unless you do something to make me change my mind tonight.”
He laughed and set her on her feet. “Best behavior, I promise.” No matter what it cost him.


After the day she’d had, Laila wasn’t especially eager to spend the evening in a roomful of O’Briens, but her curiosity about how the family would react to Nell and Dillon’s romance won out. If nothing else, she could provide the couple with some backup if the environment was hostile. She probably had a clearer view of what it was like to be caught in the family headlights than anyone else, especially after today’s revelations.
Reluctantly, she agreed to walk to the pub with Matthew.
“Just so you understand that no one is to get the impression that we’re reconciled or that the plan is moving forward,” she warned.
“Message received,” he said, though there seemed to be a twinkle in his eye when he said it.
The light drizzle that had made the day damp and dreary had ended earlier, so the walk was pleasant. Inside the pub, there was a decided atmosphere of merriment. A fire was blazing in the hearth, and a band was already warming up with a promised repertoire of Irish tunes.
Mick had booked a private room that still allowed access to the pub’s main room. It, too, had a fire going, but in there the atmosphere was decidedly strained. Laila glanced around. There was no sign yet of Nell and her date.
“Where’s your grandmother?” she asked Matthew after surveying the roomful of O’Briens and their spouses and children.
“Probably waiting to make a grand entrance,” he said. “Or perhaps she came to her senses and decided to have dinner with Dillon somewhere else.”
“Nell’s no coward,” Laila chided.
“No, she’s not,” he agreed, then nodded toward the doorway. “There’s the happy couple now.”
Laila deliberately caught Nell’s eye and gave her an encouraging smile, then winked at Dillon. Both of them seemed to relax.
“Going over to the enemy?” Matthew whispered in her ear.
“I like Dillon,” she replied. “I thought you did, too.”
“I do. I’m just not sure how wise it is to make that clear with this crowd. I sense some hostility.”
Laila gave him a disgusted look and crossed the room. “Why don’t I take your coats?” she said cheerfully, since no one else had stepped forward.
Nell gave her a grateful smile. “Thank you, Laila.”
Susie rushed over to join them. “Hi, Gram. Mr. O’Malley.”
“It’s Dillon, please,” he said, giving her a warm smile.
“Let me take you over and introduce you to my parents,” Susie said. “Gram, maybe Laila can get you something to drink.”
“Of course,” Laila said at once. “What would you like?”
Nell’s gaze followed Susie and Dillon. “Perhaps I should go with him. I know the family’s divide-and-conquer tactics all too well.”
Laila smiled. “Dillon will win them over. I’ve no doubt of that. And Jeff and Jo aren’t the problem. Susie will see that they’re on his side, so there will be plenty of backup before Mick has his say.”
Nell nodded. “I suppose you’re right,” she said, though there was still a note of concern in her voice. “I’ll just keep a close eye on things. In the meantime, I believe I’d like a Bulmers cider if they have it. I have a feeling anything more alcoholic than that would be unwise tonight.”
“I’m on it,” Laila said, relieved to see that Megan was heading Nell’s way with a reassuring look on her face.
“And so it begins,” Matthew intoned, joining her at the bar. “Maybe there won’t be bloodshed after all. Mick may be scowling, but he doesn’t look as if he has any murderous intent.”
Laila rolled her eyes at his feeble attempt at a joke, then handed him the Bulmers. “Take this to your grandmother. Show her your support. I’m going over to Dillon just in case things get tense between him and Mick.”
“Jeff, Jo and Thomas are there now,” Matthew said. “They’ll keep Mick in check.”
“All the same, I’ll feel better if I’m nearby to help Dillon make a quick getaway.”
Matthew frowned. “Is this the way it’s to be tonight, with you darting off on various missions that will keep us apart?”
“Entirely likely,” she told him unrepentantly, then followed suit by walking away.
She told herself it was better to keep a safe distance between them. Despite her knee-jerk response to the whole impromptu wedding notion, she was entirely too susceptible to Matthew lately. Far from Chesapeake Shores, her father and the bank that was such a bone of contention between them, it had become increasingly difficult to recall why being with Matthew was such a terrible idea. His family at least clearly embraced the idea of a union     between them.
Still, when it came time for dinner, she managed to slip into a seat between Connie and Thomas on one side and Jess and Will on the other. Matthew gave her an amused look from across the room, then settled at a table with his parents, along with Susie, Mack and Luke.
Though the door between this room and the main room of the pub had been shut to lessen the noise during dinner, someone reopened it as soon as the meal was over. The sound of the band drifted in, and soon the O’Briens were singing along with gusto. Laila caught Nell with a nostalgic expression on her face. She smiled when Dillon leaned in to whisper something in her ear.
“I think we need to try our luck on the dance floor,” Thomas said to Connie. “I believe I can remember a few of the steps I was taught.”
Connie regarded him skeptically. “Are you sure? I’ve never learned to do an Irish jig.”
“Then I won’t be making too big a fool of myself in front of you, will I?” Thomas said, drawing her away from the table.
As soon as they’d left, Jess and Will wandered off, as well. Laila felt someone slip into the vacant seat next to hers and knew instinctively it was Matthew. He’d just been waiting for this opportunity to present itself.
“We’re taking bets on how long it will be before Uncle Mick’s head explodes,” he said, nodding in his uncle’s direction.
Laila laughed. “He is looking fiercely protective, isn’t he? Still, he hasn’t caused a scene tonight. He should get some recognition for that.”
“Dad believes Mick’s more worried about how our lives will change if Gram stays in Dublin than he is about the possibility that her heart might be broken.”
“I’ve heard something similar from Susie and from Jess. They’re scared Nell will decide to stay.” She met his gaze. “How about you?”
“I wouldn’t much like it, but I’m more worried that the whole thing is doomed. He has a business here. She’s coming home with us next week.”
“Love always finds a way, Matthew, at least when it’s right.”
He looked surprised by her comment. “You believe that? I thought you’d grown cynical.”
“Of course I do. I think most women believe that or want to, unless they’ve been deeply hurt by someone.”
“And yet you walked away from what we had just because it got a little complicated.”
She sighed at the characterization. Besides, weren’t they past this now? “It was more than a little complicated,” she said patiently. “I gave up my career because my father disapproved of us.”
“You quit in a huff, then resented me because of it,” he reminded her. “Somehow you’ve managed to forget that I tried to stop you, but you weren’t willing to spend some time trying to turn his opinion around.”
“Because it was hopeless,” she said stubbornly. “Besides, my father’s low opinion of me went back further than that. I was only in that job because Trace manipulated my father into giving it to me.” She met his gaze. “Do you have any idea how much that hurt, Matthew?”
“Of course I do. I know what it’s like to disappoint someone you love.”
She wasn’t sure of that. “Really? Who?”
“You,” he said. “Maybe if I’d fought harder for us, you wouldn’t have found it so easy to walk away. And if I’d been a better man, had less of a roving eye, maybe your father would have approved of me.”
She was startled that he was blaming himself for any of what had happened. As he’d just noted, her blaming him was unjustified. “Maybe both of us need to stop casting any kind of blame. You didn’t create the situation, Matthew. It was me. I showed poor judgment in having some casual fling with you. I let myself be carried away by the moment. If I’d been thinking at all—”
He cut her off. “Way to deliver a blow, Laila. Are you suggesting that no woman in her right mind would get involved with a guy like me?”
“No, of course not,” she said, rattled. “You’re a great guy, just the wrong one for someone in the position I held at the bank.”
He gave her an amused look. “Because I’m an O’Brien?”
She found the deliberately teasing question annoying. “Don’t be ridiculous. The town adores and respects all things O’Brien.”
“Then it’s because I’m an architect following in Uncle Mick’s footsteps.”
She frowned. “Of course not!”
“Then what? Is it because I dated a lot of women? That’s what men do when they’re single. Last I heard, it wasn’t a crime.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, you know perfectly well I wasn’t suggesting that. It’s only your dating record combined with your age that made you inappropriate for me. The way my dad saw it, we were risking a scandal.”
“You seemed to be enjoying our scandalous behavior every bit as much as I did,” he reminded her.
She sighed. “I can’t deny that.”
He gave her a satisfied nod. “Now we’re getting somewhere. Most people would have fought for what we had, proved it meant more than what anyone assumed. It seems to me the only thing you did was prove your father right.”
She regarded him with shock. “Excuse me?”
“The going got tough, and what did you do? You ran. You walked away from the job and from me. Quite the double whammy, wouldn’t you say?”
“It sounds as if your opinion of me isn’t any better than my father’s,” she said. “Tell me again why you think we should waste time trying to reconcile?”
Even as she spoke, she was gathering her purse and gloves, preparing to leave.
“There you go again, running just because I said something you didn’t like.”
Because of the taunt, she made herself stand her ground, fury causing her to tremble. He was on his feet, as well.
“Matthew O’Brien, are you calling me a coward?”
“If the shoe fits…” He held her gaze, then said quietly, “Dance with me.”
“What?” she asked, incredulous at the out-of-the-blue, poorly timed request.
“We seem to communicate much better when you’re in my arms,” he explained.
“That’s no way to resolve our problems,” she insisted, but with his hand outstretched and his gaze steady, she found it impossible to resist. “Fine. Whatever.”
But even before they’d taken a step toward the dance floor, she knew she’d made a mistake. Picking a fight with him had felt a whole lot safer. She’d never been able to think straight in his arms.
He hesitated, obviously disconcerted that she’d accepted his invitation, albeit ungraciously. “Really?”
She gave him an impatient look. “It’s a dance, Matthew, not an invitation to bed.”
A wicked gleam lit his eyes. “We’ll see about that.”
Despite the deliberate challenge in that comment, Laila felt herself relax once she was in his arms. It felt so good to be close to him again…so dangerously tempting. The sparks were flying all over the place, but she felt safe, too. Cherished, even. It was surprising, given how annoyed she’d been with him just moments ago.
“You still sure about not joining me in bed?” he inquired, the teasing question a whisper against her cheek.
She allowed herself a smile. He was such a guy! “You were the one who declared this trip a sex-free vacation. And not ten minutes ago you were berating me for having no gumption. What would your opinion of me be if I allowed you into my bed after all those promises we made before we left home?”
“I’d still respect you in the morning,” he said. His expression was somber, but his eyes were twinkling.
She laughed, then sobered. “Seriously, Matthew, after what you said a little while ago, why would you still want to sleep with me? It sounded as if you think I’m spineless.”
“Sorry,” he said with apparent regret. “I was trying to make a point about how easily you backed away from conflict, when I know you’re stronger than that. You’re also a complicated, exciting, desirable woman. I can’t even look at you without wanting you so badly it makes my whole body ache with it,” he said frankly, allowing his hand to slide from its respectable spot on her back to someplace suggestively lower.
There it was, the open declaration that made her feel like all of those things, a view she’d never held of herself before they’d gotten together. They were heady words for a woman who’d accepted that she was every bit as stodgy as the parents to whom she was so frequently compared.
It would be so easy to say yes to Matthew tonight. That was the problem, though. She’d said yes too quickly from the beginning, established a pattern that was filled with heat and no demands or expectations. For a long time it had satisfied both of them.
Now it was clear that Matthew wanted more. She knew it. So did his entire meddling family. He’d transformed from lusty playboy to a man ready to settle down and play by all the rules. Laila was still trying to catch up.
“No,” she said, the word little more than a reluctant whisper. She looked into his eyes with regret. “I can’t do this, Matthew. I’m sorry. I don’t want to go back to the way things were.”
“Neither do I,” he insisted. “I want us to take the next step forward.”
The trouble with that was, she thought, it was even more terrifying. She left his arms hurriedly, grabbed her gloves, purse and coat and exited the pub, walking as fast as she could to escape him, to escape her confused thoughts, and most of all to escape the desire that once more was simply too much for her.


“Go after her, you idiot,” Luke said when Matthew walked to the bar and ordered another pint of ale.
“That’s the last thing she wants tonight,” Matthew told his brother. He knew perfectly well that Laila had deliberately picked a fight with him to slow things down because she was scared not only of her feelings, but all the pressure from everyone else who was determined to see them married.
“All women want to be pursued,” Luke said with surprising conviction for a man barely out of college.
Despite his age, though, Luke had made a practice of emulating Matthew and their brother-in-law Mack, both of whom had well-known reputations for casual flirtations. Luke, however, seemed to have added an element of wisdom that had eluded Matthew, at least.
Still it was difficult for Matthew to take his little brother’s opinions all that seriously. “Says the man who’s in Dublin alone.”
“Only out of respect for our sister,” Luke said. “I spoke to Kristen just tonight, and she’ll be flying over to meet me as soon as the rest of you take off for home. We’ll start the New Year together.”
Matthew frowned. The news was not only unexpected, it was distressing. He didn’t trust the woman. He knew she’d deliberately tried to work her way back into Mack’s affections, even knowing that he was married and Susie had cancer.
“It’s that serious?” he asked Luke worriedly.
Luke shrugged. “Not a word I’d choose,” he insisted. “I can’t be a hundred percent sure yet, but it has potential. Maybe watching all the rest of you fall in love has influenced me, but I like the way Kristen challenges me. She’s not even close to what I expected.”
“And have you taken our sister’s feelings into consideration?”
“Of course,” Luke said. “Didn’t I just say that Kristen’s not here because of Susie?”
“Suze won’t be one bit happier if she finds out later that the two of you are together.”
“Hey, I’ll worry about that if things do start getting serious. Right now we’re just together off and on, sort of like you and Laila.”
Matthew bristled. “It’s not like that for Laila and me,” he said heatedly.
Luke didn’t back down. “We both know it was,” he said.
“Well, things change.”
“She walked out of here alone, didn’t she? And you let her go. If you ask me, somebody’s still playing games.”
“Well, it’s not me,” Matthew insisted.
“Laila, then?”
“No. Geez, you’re a pain,” he said in exasperation.
Luke grinned. “Only because you know I speak the truth. If you want her, you’re going to have to fight to prove it. Sitting here with me and licking your wounds isn’t going to cut it.”
Reluctantly, Matthew had to admit he had a point. “Thanks for the advice and for the pint,” he told his brother, then walked off whistling.
“Hey, who said I was buying?” Luke called after him. “You owe me for straightening you out.”
“Only if this works out,” Matthew said.
His upbeat attitude was all for show, though. Realistically he thought there was a very good chance that Laila would slam her hotel room door in his face.

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