An O'Brien Family Christmas

By: Sherryl Woods

9


The brisk walk back to the hotel had calmed Laila’s temper and left her filled with regret. Oh, she knew she’d been wise to walk away from Matthew without leaving even the tiniest opening for him to seduce her tonight, but it hadn’t been easy. Her body was practically humming with desire.
Rather than going directly to the hotel, she kept walking. The streets were still busy, and she felt safe enough walking along Grafton Street to do a little window shopping. Lights twinkled merrily in shop windows along with holiday displays that reminded her of those back home. Many of these had a more old-fashioned look to them, with caroling figures dressed in fur-trimmed velvet, piles of artificial snow and scenes of children anxiously awaiting the arrival of St. Nicholas.
She circled around and paused to smile at the statue of Molly Malone, which seemed to be a huge tourist draw judging from the people having their pictures taken with it.
She was barely halfway down the final block leading back to the hotel when she saw Matthew. His expression was slightly frantic as he talked with one of the hotel doormen. Wondering what on earth might have happened to upset him so, she instinctively hurried forward.
“Matthew, is everything okay? Did something happen after I left the party?”
When he whirled at the sound of her voice, then saw her, his entire body seemed to relax. “There you are,” he said, his relief unmistakable.
The doorman gave her a wink. “I think he was fearing you’d run out on him.”
She studied Matthew. “Is he right? Did you think I’d left for home?”
“When you didn’t answer the door to your room, yes,” he admitted. “It’s not as if you hadn’t threatened to do just that earlier today.”
“I went for a walk. Nothing more.”
“Well, you took ten years off my life,” he told her. He gave her a speculative look. “The least you can do now is have a nightcap with me.”
She allowed herself a smile. “Really? The least I can do?”
He nodded. “It’ll be a start.”
“I probably shouldn’t ask what you have in mind for payback after that.”
He grinned. “Probably not.” He gave the doorman a tip. “Thanks for trying to reassure me that she was still in the neighborhood.”
“I told you she’d greeted me as she passed by, now, didn’t I?” the man said. “And that she had no luggage. I keep an eye out for our guests. It’s part of the job.” He gave Laila a broad smile before assuring Matthew, “And I’ve been at this a long time. You’re not the first to fear they’ve been abandoned. Now that you’ve been reunited, the two of you should enjoy the rest of your evening.”
“We will,” Laila responded.
“Nice man,” Matthew said as he steered Laila inside and toward the bar. He gave her a hopeful look. “Unless you’d rather have that nightcap upstairs?”
“The bar suits me fine,” she said.
After they were seated and had ordered Irish coffees to take away the night’s chill, Matthew met her gaze.
“I’m sorry about earlier,” he said earnestly. “I just get so frustrated sometimes that you apparently can’t see what I see when I look at the two of us. It seems we’re always taking a few steps forward, then an equal number back.”
Curious, she asked, “What do you see, and try to keep it PG-rated, if you don’t mind.”
He laughed at that. “Now, see, there’s precisely the problem. You seem to recall only what the two of us are like in bed, while I’ve always viewed the whole package.”
“Matthew, there was no whole package,” she protested. “We didn’t do anything except sneak off to your place for sex.”
He held her gaze. “And whose fault was that?” he challenged.
“Mine,” she admitted readily. “But if we go back down that road, we’ll only argue some more.” She studied him closely. “Were you honestly able to view that period when we were together some other way?”
“I wouldn’t be half so upset about our breakup if we’d only been about the sex, Laila. You know my history. If that was all it was about, I had options.”
She grimaced at the reminder. “Okay, what was different with me? How did you know it wasn’t just your usual pattern of falling into and out of bed with one more woman?”
His gaze was direct and unflinching. “Because I wanted you to stay,” he said simply. “I never tired of being with you. I looked forward to catching at least a glimpse of you at family functions. I never got this panicky feeling that things were moving too fast with us. If anything, I thought things were progressing too slowly.”
She smiled at that. On the first night they’d bumped into each other at Brady’s, things had gone from simmer to boiling in a matter of minutes, it seemed. After years of their being nothing more than casual friends, sparks had flown.
“I wanted more,” he continued. “I always wanted more. From our first night together, I knew I’d never have enough of you. And not just in bed,” he added hurriedly. “I like the way your mind works. I like that you have goals and ambitions, and it killed me that I was even partially responsible for your walking away from one of those goals.”
The sincerity behind his words was unmistakable. Laila allowed every word to seep into her heart, warming a spot that had grown cold and fearful. She wanted to believe him, needed to believe him. And yet trusting that something that had begun so impulsively and had ended so badly could possibly be right was terrifying.
“What are you thinking?” he asked.
She held her fingers a scant quarter inch apart. “That I’m this close to believing you.”
“How close are you to risking everything and jumping back into this relationship?”
She widened the gap between her fingers ever so slightly.
He nodded, grinning. “That’s pretty good given the chasm between us not that long ago.”
She smiled. “Not just pretty good. It’s a miracle.”
“’Tis the season,” he said lightly.
Laila laughed. “So they say.”
“Care to go upstairs and see if we can close that gap?” he inquired, his eyes filled with daring.
“Now, that,” she said firmly, “would take more than a miracle.”
It would take a leap of faith she had no idea if she could manage.
“Can I at least walk you to your room and sneak a goodnight kiss?” he asked hopefully.
“I wouldn’t say no to that,” she told him, already a little breathless just at the thought of it. “But outside the door,” she added very firmly.
“Laila Riley, you don’t think I’d try to take advantage of you, do you?” he asked with mock dismay.
“In a heartbeat,” she responded.
What worried her more was that she might let him.


“I thought the evening went very well,” Dillon said as he walked Nell back to the hotel.
She regarded him with amusement. “You’re quite the optimist, aren’t you?”
“There was no bloodshed,” he protested. “I consider that an excellent sign. Even Mick, though he looked as if he wanted to wring my neck a time or two, held his tongue and behaved with considerable reserve and good manners.”
“That was, indeed, a blessing,” Nell agreed. “I think we can thank Megan for that. My daughter-in-law has a talent for getting her way with him and coaxing him into a more reasonable frame of mind.”
“Because he obviously adores her. You say they were separated for a time?”
“Divorced,” she corrected. “And it was for years. They’ve only been reconciled and remarried for a year now. The wedding was last New Year’s Eve. There was some doubt it would happen even then, because Connor disapproved and Megan wanted all of the children not only at the ceremony, but happy for them.”
“Well, obviously they’ve all come to peaceful terms now,” Dillon said. He gave her a warm look. “It’s a wonderful family, Nell, and I can see how much they all adore and respect you. You’re a vital part of their lives.”
“And grateful for it,” she said with feeling, then regarded him intently. “We haven’t talked nearly as much about your family, Dillon. Aren’t you close?”
He sighed at the question. “Our only child, our daughter, was a rebellious young woman. She and her mother fought over everything. If my wife said the sky was blue, then Kiera said it was gray. The battles started at an early age and never lessened. As Kiera got older, the fights became about more important things such as the way she was living her life. I didn’t approve of her choices, either, but I could see we were only driving her away. Eventually she moved out of the house, then out of town. She cut off all ties.”
Nell’s eyes filled with tears at the thought of losing a child in such a way. “Dillon, I’m so sorry.”
“It was a terrible time,” he said with feeling. “But I sought her out when her mother got sick, warned her not to let things end with such a rift between them, told her she’d never forgive herself. She was a mother herself by then, so she understood what I was saying. She came back, mended fences. It was a beautiful thing to see the two of them, heads together, laughing before the end came.”
“And now?” Nell asked.
“We see each other often. Her children, like your grandchildren, are the lights of my life. And in a bit of irony, her daughter is every bit as headstrong as our Kiera. No one tells our Moira what to do.”
Nell could imagine it. Those were the sort of chickens that often came home to roost as payback for earlier misdeeds.
“Are they living here in Dublin? I’d love to meet them. It seems only fair, now that you know my family.”
“They’ll be arriving tomorrow for the holiday,” he said. “And I want all of you at my house tomorrow night. With a crowd so large, it will be a bit of a tight fit, but I want you to see how I live, get to know my family.” He regarded her with a hopeful expression. “Do you think Megan can keep Mick in check for another evening?”
Nell laughed. “I’ll see to it,” she promised. “Let me check to see if anyone has made other plans for tomorrow, but you can count on me being there. I’m looking forward to it. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have a get-together at a pub or restaurant? There would be less to do.”
“Trust me, I’ve managed a few gatherings this size and larger before, though generally not in my home. Thanks to my late wife, I have all of the best caterers on speed dial.”
“And just when I was about to offer you my help,” she teased.
“Your help would be welcome, of course,” he said quickly. “No party is successful without a woman’s touch.”
“And Kiera won’t mind me intruding?”
“Kiera will be on her knees giving thanks. She’s all thumbs in a kitchen and when it comes to setting a buffet table, she considers it complete when the paper plates and plastic forks are piled at one end.”
“Oh, dear,” Nell said. “Perhaps I can give her a few gentle pointers.”
Dillon laughed. “You can certainly try.”
Inside the hotel lobby, he bent down and kissed her cheek. “Thank you for another remarkable evening, Nell, dear.”
“Thank you,” she said. “It was definitely memorable.”
“That it was. I’ll pick you up tomorrow afternoon at five. Tell the others to come at seven. Will that do?”
“That will do perfectly,” she said. “I’ll be looking forward to it.”
Probably a whole lot more than any woman her age ought to be.


Matthew was happily engaged in a rather lengthy kiss with Laila outside her room when the elevator doors opened. He broke away just as his grandmother stepped into the hallway.
“Don’t let me interrupt,” she said, her eyes twinkling with amusement.
Still holding Laila’s hand, Matthew frowned at Nell. “Are you just getting home? Everyone else got back a while ago.”
“Dillon and I went for a walk,” she said. “One of the best parts of any evening is the talk after of how things went.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Laila agreed. “And what conclusion did you reach?”
“That the lack of bloodshed was promising,” Nell said with a laugh.
Laila chuckled with her, but Matthew was less amused. “Gram, are you really sure you know what you’re doing?”
A door across the hall opened and Mick stepped out with Megan trying to hold him back. “I’d like to know the same,” he said, a scowl in place.
Nell looked from her son to her grandson with her own scowl deepening. “I expected something like this from you, Mick, but you, as well, Matthew? That surprises me.”
Not especially happy about being lumped in with his uncle, Matthew winced. “I’m just concerned.”
“Well, there’s no need to be. Now, before I go to my own room, I want to let you know that we’re all invited to Dillon’s home tomorrow to meet his daughter and grandchildren. I expect you to be there at seven. Moreover I expect you to remember your manners. Do I make myself clear?”
“Of course, Gram,” Matthew said dutifully.
“Yes, Ma,” Mick said, though he was clearly unhappy about it.
“I’ll see to it,” Megan promised, already tugging Mick back into their room and closing the door.
“As will I,” Laila chimed in, following suit with Matthew.
Only after she’d closed the door did it apparently dawn on her what she’d done. She regarded Matthew with alarm.
“Do not get any ideas,” she warned him. “I was just trying to help defuse the situation.”
“Really?” Matthew said, glancing toward the king-size bed they were supposed to have been sharing on this trip. “One risky situation averted and now it appears there’s another.”
“Oh, no, there’s not,” Laila said firmly. “You can go now.”
“That bed looks awfully comfortable,” he commented.
“It is, but you’re not testing it,” she said, even as he sat on the edge and bounced up and down a couple of times. “Okay, fine. You’ve seen for yourself that it’s a lovely bed. Now, go back to your own room.”
He snagged her hand and pulled her down next to him. His gaze held hers. “Do you really want this opportunity to go to waste? It seems like a shame.”
Her lips curved. “It is a shame, but that’s the way it is. We took vows.”
“It wasn’t as if they were in a church or before a judge.”
“A promise is a promise, Matthew.” Her gaze narrowed. “Or are you admitting that yours mean nothing?”
He heaved a sigh. “Mine are serious and binding,” he assured her. “Unless both parties agree to amend them.”
“Well, both parties aren’t agreeing, so go away.”
“You’re sure?”
“If I were sure and totally in my right mind, you’d never have gotten on this side of the door, but I’m trying very hard to do the right thing here. You could help me out.”
There it was, that call for him to take the moral high ground. If he didn’t do it, what kind of a man would that make him? An opportunistic one, at best. He reminded himself he was in this relationship for the long haul, not another quickie in the sack, no matter how incredible he knew it would be.
He stood reluctantly, her hand still in his. “You really are going to make a better man of me,” he said, not entirely pleased by that at the moment.
To his surprise she looped her arms around his neck and kissed him gently. “You’re already a good, honorable man,” she told him quietly. “No need for improvement on my account.”
If she’d declared her undying love for him, Matthew couldn’t have been more pleased. “You sounded as if you really meant that.”
She smiled. “I really meant that. Now, go, before I forget all those resolutions I’ve made.”
“I imagine I could make you forget all about them.”
“I know you could,” she said with a chuckle. “But then I’d have to take back everything I just said about you.”
Ah, he thought, there was the rub.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” he said then. “Breakfast together at eight? It’ll be almost like a morning after.”
“After what?” she teased.
“Do not go down that path when I’m trying so hard to impress you with my restraint,” he retorted. “Otherwise it’ll be breakfast in bed with no apologies for what came before.”
“I’ll see you at eight in the dining room,” she said quickly, a blush on her cheeks.
“That’ll do,” he said.
At least for now.


Laila made it to the hotel dining room before eight, only to find Trace, Abby and the girls already there.
“Join us,” Trace said at once.
“Yes, please,” Abby agreed. “We’ve hardly had a chance to talk since we arrived in Dublin.”
From Laila’s perspective that was probably a good thing, and she owed her stepnieces for that. She regarded them gratefully. “Have you been taking Mommy and Trace sightseeing?” she asked Carrie and Caitlyn.
“And shopping,” Carrie said excitedly.
“I got lots and lots of new dresses,” Caitlyn added. “They’re for Christmas, but I think I’m getting other presents, too.”
Laila laughed. “I imagine you will.” It was a huge family, and everyone went a little crazy. There’d been pledges to cut back, agreement that the trip was gift enough for everyone, but not one person in the family believed such a thing applied to the children.
“So, sit,” Trace said, standing to pull out a chair.
“I’m supposed to be meeting Matthew,” she admitted.
“There’s room for him, too,” Abby said, shooting a warning glance at Trace, whose expression had darkened. “And here’s my cousin now. Sit. Join us.”
Matthew looked trapped. Laila knew exactly how he felt. She gave him a nothing-to-be-done shrug. They took the vacant seats and placed their order with the immediately attentive waiter.
“Having a good time in Ireland, Matthew?” Trace inquired politely, though his voice was cool.
“Excellent,” Matthew responded stiffly.
Abby laughed. “What he really wants to know is whether you and Laila are having a good time,” she said.
Laila jumped in. “We’re both having a perfectly wonderful time. Now maybe we ought to change the subject.”
The arrival of their food gave her time to study her sister-in-law’s face. She thought she detected an unfamiliar glow. “Abby, you look particularly lovely. Do you happen to have some news you’d like to share?” she asked, approaching the topic of a possible pregnancy very carefully. She knew it had been a touchy subject between Abby and Trace.
Abby regarded her with shock, even as a grin spread across Trace’s face.
“Told you we’d never get through the holidays without everyone figuring it out,” he gloated.
Laila’s eyes widened in delight. “Then I’m right? You’re going to have a baby?”
Abby nodded, the blush in her cheeks deepening. “We are.”
“Oh, that is so fabulous!” Laila said, knowing how much her brother had wanted this. He’d despaired of Abby ever being ready for another child. She jumped up to hug both of them.
“Congratulations!” Matthew told Trace, then kissed Abby. “You, too. We already know you make pretty good kids, even if they are little troublemakers.”
“We are not troublemakers,” Caitlyn protested. “We’re angels. Grandpa Mick says so.”
“Oh, what does he know?” Matthew teased.
“He knows everything,” Carrie said loyally. “And we’re going to be the best big sisters in the entire world.”
“Unless it’s a boy,” Caitlyn amended. “I don’t want a brother.”
Abby shook her head at her attitude. “I’m afraid you’ll have to take what we get.”
“Couldn’t we trade a boy in?” Caitlyn asked hopefully.
Laila looked across the table at her big brother. “There’s certainly been a time or two when I wanted to do just that,” she told them. “But in the end, brothers are pretty cool.”
“Big brothers maybe,” Carrie said, her expression thoughtful. “But little brothers are pests.”
“Uncle Kevin and Uncle Connor are my little brothers, and they were pretty great when I was growing up,” Abby told them. “Sure, they were pests sometimes, but not now.”
Caitlyn frowned. “But that’s a really long time to wait.”
“Now that you mention it, it was,” Abby said, smiling. “I guess you’re just going to love this baby no matter what.”
Listening to the exchange, Laila turned to study Matthew’s reaction. To her surprise what she thought she saw on his face was wistfulness. She leaned closer.
“Everything okay?”
“Just having a moment,” he said, with an obviously forced smile.
“What kind of moment?”
“How about we table this discussion for later?” he suggested, then turned to Trace. “What are you all up to today?”
“More shopping!” Carrie said with enthusiasm.
“I doubt we can squeeze another outfit into your suitcase,” Trace said, though his expression was resigned. The whole family knew he was putty in the hands of his stepdaughters.
“Then we’ll buy another suitcase,” Caitlyn said with the cavalier attitude of someone who had never worried about airline luggage constraints.
“Well, buy something special to wear tonight,” Laila told them, then grinned at Abby. “There’s a party for the family at Dillon’s house. We’re all meeting his family this time.”
“Oh, boy,” Abby murmured. “Does Dad know?”
“He heard the same time we did, when Nell got back upstairs last night.”
“How’d he take it?” Abby asked.
“Fortunately Megan was there to mediate before he said what he really thought,” Laila told her. “He did agree to show up, though.”
Matthew frowned at her, then turned to his cousin. “Abby, what do you really think of all this?”
“I think it’s sweet, and I think wherever it leads is entirely up to Gram.”
“Really?” he asked, his tone full of doubt.
“Really. None of us liked it one bit when she or anyone else meddled in our lives. We owe her the same courtesy. We need to back off and see how this plays out.”
“What if it ends badly?”
“That’s life, isn’t it?” Abby said. “And we’ll be there to support her, just as she’d be there for any one of us.”
Laila rested her hand on Matthew’s. “Abby’s right, you know.”
“I know,” he said. “I just don’t much like it. I feel as if we ought to try to save her or something.”
“From falling in love with an old flame?” Laila asked. “It is sweet. I doubt she thinks she needs saving.”
“Oh, what does she know,” he grumbled, only to have all of the adults at the table laugh.
“You did not just say that,” Abby teased. “I’m telling.”
Matthew grimaced. “Don’t you dare!”
“How are you going to stop me?”
“Want me to be the one who shares your news with the world?” he inquired.
Now it was Trace who chuckled. “I think he’s effectively neutralized you, Abby.”
“Afraid so,” she admitted, then turned to Laila. “You could tell.”
Laila held up her hands. “Not on your life. I’m Switzerland, one hundred percent neutral.”
Matthew leaned in to give her a quick kiss. “And here I thought you were going to be loyal to me forever.”
“Mostly, yes,” she teased. “But it’s not written in stone.”
“She got you, Matthew,” Caitlyn gloated.
Though it was clear the girls hadn’t followed every word of the conversation, they had quick wits and were always eager to see any member of the family one-up someone else. Their loyalty was even more suspect.
“Et tu, et tu, little Brutuses?” Matthew asked with feigned despair.
“What does that mean?” Carrie asked.
“It means Matthew is a big baby,” Abby declared, even as she regarded him with affection.
“And your mother is a big tease,” he countered.
Laila looked from one to the other, then to her brother. “I love this family.”
Trace smiled even as he warned, “Careful what you wish for, sis.”
That was the thing, though. She thought she was finally starting to wish for blissful happiness, and it was the man seated next to her who was going to bring that into her life forever.

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