The Present

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The Malory clan always spent the christmas holidays at Haverston, the ancestral estate in the country where the oldest among them had been born and raised. Jason Malory Third Marquis of Haverston and the oldest of foul brothers, was the only family member who was still a permanent resident. The head of the family since he was only sixteen, Jason had raised his brothers—two of whom had been utterly scandalous in their pursuits—and a young sister.

At present the various Malorys and offspring were quite numerous and difficult to place, sometimes even for Jason himself. So it was a very large brood that gathered at Haverston these days for the Christmas season.

Jason's only son and heir, Derek, was the first to arrive, more than a week before Christmas. With him came his wife, Kelsey, and Jason's first two blond and green-eyed grandchildren.

Anthony, his youngest brother, was the next to arrive only a few days after Derek. Tony, as most of the family called him, admitted to Jason that he'd deserted London early after hearing that their brother James had a bone to pick with him Annoying James was one thing, and some-thing Anthony often strived to do, but when James was out for blood, well, Tony considered that a different matter entirely.

Anthony and James were his youngest brothers, yet only a year apart in age themselves. They were both skilled pugilists, and Anthony could hold his own with the best of them, yet James was heftier, and his fists were frequently likened to solid bricks.

With Anthony came his wife, Roslynn, and their two daughters. Judith, the oldest at six, had taken after both her parents, having her mother's glorious red-gold hair and her father's cobalt blue eyes, a seriously striking combination that Anthony feared was going to make her the reigning beauty of her day—which as her father and a reformed rake he was not looking forward to.

But his younger daughter, Jaime, was going to break some hearts as well.

But even with all his guests, Jason was the first one to notice the present that had appeared in the parlor while the family was breakfasting. It was hard to miss, actually, placed prominently up on a pedestal table next to the fireplace. Wrapped in gold cloth, banded with a red velvet

ribbon and bow, it was oddly shaped, nearly like the size of a thick book, yet a round protrusion on top suggested it was nothing that simple.

Poking a finger at it showed that the protrusion could move, yet not very much, as he found out when he tilted the present sideways and it didn't change position. Strange, yet stranger still was that there was no indication of whom the present was from, nor whom it was for.

"A bit early to be passing out Christmas gifts, ain't it?" Anthony remarked as he sauntered into the room to find Jason holding the present. "The Christmas tree ain't even been brought in yet."

"That was my thought as well, since I didn't put it here," Jason replied.

"No? Then who?"

"I've no idea," Jason admitted.

"Who's it for, then?" Anthony asked,

"I'd like to know that myself."

Anthony raised a brow at that point. "No card?"

Jason shook his head. "None. I just found it here on this pedestal myself," he said, and put it back.

Anthony picked up the present as well to poke at it a bit. "Hmmm, someone sure dressed it up fancy. I'll wager it will fascinate the children—at least until we find out what it is."

As it happened, it fascinated the adults as well. In the following days, since none of the family owned up to having put it there, the present created a sensation. Just about all of the adults poked, shook, or otherwise examined it, yet no one could figure out what it might be, or whom it was for.

Those having arrived so far were gathered in the parlor the night when Amy walked in holding one of her twins. "Don't ask why we're late, you wouldn't believe it she said, then in the next breath, "First the wheel on the coach fell off. Then not a mile down the road, one of the horses lost not one, but two of his shoes. After we finally get that all taken care of and we're almost here, the bloody axle broke. I thought surely Warren was going to kill that poor coach by then. He certainly kicked it enough. If I didn't think to wager with him that we would arrive here today, I really don't think we would have. But you know I never lose a wager, so ... By the by, Uncle Jason, that poor unmarked grave doing in that lovely clearing east of here. The one close to the road that runs through your property We ended up walking through it to get here, since it was the shorter route by that point, to just head across that clearing."

No one said a word at first, still in bemusement after that long dissertation. But then Derek said, "Remember that grave m'self, now that you mention it, cousin. Reggie and I came across it when we were younguns gadding about the estate. Always meant to ask you about it, Father just never got around to it, then forgot about it."

They were all looking toward Jason by then, but he merely shrugged his broad shoulders. "Devil if I know who was laid to rest there. That grave has been there since before I was born. Asked my father about it once, as I recall, but he put off answering, hemmed and hawed so much, actually, that I figured he just didn't know, so I didn't ask again."

"Think we've all come across that grave at one time or another, least those of us who were raised here,'' Anthony remarked to no one in particular. "Strange place for a grave, and a well-tended one at that, when there are two cemeteries nearby, not to mention the ancestral cemetery right here on the property."

Judith, who had been standing next to the pedestal staring at the mysterious present, came over to her cousin Amy and held up her arms to take the two-year-old twin from her. Judy was tall for her age, and very good with the toddlers. Amy was only surprised that she got no greeting, and said so.

"Where's my hug, puss?"

Those exquisite features just stared at her mulishly. Amy raised a brow toward the girl's father.

Anthony rolled his eyes, but explained, "She's pouting 'cause Jack ain't here yet."

Jack was James and Georgina's oldest daughter. Every one knew that Jack and Judy, who were only month apart in age, were inseparable when they were together, and they were so fond of each other that their parents made sure they were often together—especially since neither was very happy when they were separated for very long.

"Am not," Judith denied in a pouting mumble as she marched back to the pedestal.

Jason was the only one to notice when Amy's attention centered on the present that had garnered everyone's curiosity. He would have thought nothing of it, except for her expression. Her brief frown made him wonder if she was getting one of her feelings about it. This niece of his had phenomenal luck, never having lost a wager in her life, which she attributed to these "feelings," as she called them, that she got. Jason considered such things as feelings exceeding strange, which was why he would as soon not hear if she was getting one now. So he was relieved when her frown eased and she gave her attention back to his brother.

"Uncle James hasn't arrived yet, then?" Amy surmised from Anthony's last response.

Anthony did some mumbling himself. "No, and hopefully he won't."

"Oh, dear. You two are fighting?" Amy surmised again.

"Me? Fight my dear brother? Wouldn't think of it," Anthony replied, then, "But someone bloody well ought to tell him this is the season for good cheer."

Derek chuckled at his uncle's sour expression. "Heard a rumor Uncle James was out for your hide. What's set him off this time?"

"If I knew, then I'd know how to defuse him, but I'm deuced if I know. Ain't seen James for a good week, not since I dropped off Jack after the outing I took the girls on."

"Well, James would have let me know if he wasn't coming," Jason pointed out. "So when he gets here, kindly take any altercations outside. Molly seriously objects to blood staining the carpets."

No one would think it strange that he called Haverston's housekeeper by her first name. After all, Molly Fletcher had held that position for more than twenty years.

That she was also Jason's very longtime mistress—and Derek's mother—was not something that everyone in the family was aware of, however. In fact, only a couple of members had ever learned or guessed the truth. Jason had only told Derek, his son, about this time six years ago.

And around that Christmas, Jason, who deplored all scandals attached to the family, was willing to create one in giving his wife, Frances, the divorce she wanted, just to keep her from revealing what she knew about Molly.

But since then, Molly had remained the housekeeper. Jason had tried, ever since Derek found out the truth, to get her to marry him, but she was still refusing.

Molly didn't come from gentry. She had in fact been just a parlor maid when she and Jason fell in love more than thirty years ago. And although he was willing to make one of the worse scandals possible, that of an esteemed lord marrying a commoner, she wasn't willing to let him.

Jason sighed, thinking of it. He had been forced to come to the conclusion that she would never give him the answer he so wanted to hear. Which didn’t mean he was giving up, not by any means.

He was drawn back to the conversation when Amy said, "There is a little idiosyncrasy our twins have developed. Strangest behavior. When Stuart wants Warren's attention, I might as well be a stranger to him, he ignores me so thoroughly, and vise versa, when he wants my attention, Warren can't do a thing with him. And Glory does the same thing exactly."

"Least they do it at the same time," Warren, who had finally arrived, added as he reached for Stuart and handed Gloriana to Amy.

"I've been meaning to ask Uncle James and Aunt George if they're having the same problem with theirs," Amy said with a sigh.

"Has he gotten used to them yet?" Jason asked Anthony, since Anthony, being closest to James, saw him the most often, and Jason didn't get to London often.

"Course he has," Anthony assured the family.

Yet they all still remembered his reaction when Amy had borne twins and he'd asked his wife Georgina, who was Warren's sister, where they came from. "Good God, George, you could have warned me that twins run in your family every other generation. We are not having any, d'you hear."

Georgina had been pregnant again herself at the time, and had given birth to just that, twin boys.

Yes, the Malorys at Christmas were a wonderful sight, Jason thought. His life only lacked one thing to make it perfection.

As the housekeeper, Molly usually wasn’t present when the Malorys dined, but today she was supervising a new maid who was serving for the first time. By long practice, she managed to keep her eyes away from Jason's handsome face, sitting at the head of the table. It wasn't that she-thought she might give herself away if she was caught staring at him, though she supposed that was a distinct possibility. Sometimes she simply couldn't keep her feelings from showing, and she had a lot of feelings where Jason Malory was concerned.

No, she wasn't so much worried that she might give herself away, it was that lately, he was revealing too much when he looked at her, and he didn't seem to care anymore who might notice. And with the house rapidly filling up with his entire family, there were a lot more people around who just might notice.

Molly was beginning to suspect that he was doing it on purpose, that he was hoping they would be found out. Not that it would change her mind about anything, but he might think it would.

It wouldn't, and she was going to have to assure him of that if he didn't return to his usual show of indifference when others were around. They had always been so careful, never giving away by look, word, or deed what they meant to each other, at least when they weren't alone. Until their son learned the truth, the only one who had ever come upon them in a moment of intimacy had been Jason's niece Amy, when she'd caught them kissing. And that wouldn't have happened if Jason hadn't been foxed at the time.

Keeping their relationship a secret had always been important to her. She wasn't gentry, after all, and she loved Jason too much to cause him embarrassment. Her lack of social status was also why she had convinced Jason that Derek should never know either, that she was his mother, though he hadn't wanted to keep that from his son. Not that Jason had considered marrying her back then. But he'd been young and, like anyone else of his class, adhered to the fact that a lord did not marry his lowborn mistress.

He had instead married an earl's daughter, just to give Derek and his niece Reggie a mother figure. Which had ended up a disastrous decision, since his wife, Frances, had been anything but maternal. A pale, thin woman, Frances hadn't wanted to marry Jason in the first place, had been forced to it by her father. She'd deplored his touch, and their marriage had never even been consummated. She had lived most of it separated from him, and had finally insisted on a divorce, which she had ultimately used blackmail to obtain.

Frances had been the only other member of the family to figure out that Molly was Jason's mistress and Derek's mother, and she had threatened to tell Derek this if Jason didn't end their marriage. The family had weathered that scandal fairly well, and six years later, it was rarely if ever mentioned anymore. Jason could have stopped it—Derek had actually learned the truth before the scandal of the divorce reached the gossip mills—yet he hadn't.

"This is something that should have been done years ago," he had told her at the time. "Actually, it's a marriage that never should have been. But then it's rarely easy to correct the mistakes one makes in one's youth.”

The reasons he had made the match had been ones. The reasons he had ended it were good ones too but ever since it was ended, he'd been asking Molly to marry him, to her utter frustration, when he knew she'd never agree. And her reasons were no different than they'd ever been. She was not going to be the cause of yet another Malory scandal. She hadn't been raised that way. And besides she was already more a wife to him than Frances had ever been.

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