What Child is This?

By

Brigid Doyle lpdir@aol.com

December 1999

 It is best to read "Halfway to My Heart" before this piece. Consider this a bit of a follow up, but not quite a sequel. I know it is a bit early for the season, but for all those who have written and asked for something more from these characters…


 

"Ya know what, Marjorie?" Reagan McAllister asked around a mouthful of brown sugar covered oatmeal.

Marjorie turned from her task at the kitchen sink, taking a moment to glance out at the steel colored sky that held a certain threat of snow. She glanced at the petite girl seated at the breakfast nook. Reagan stared into the depth of her cereal bowl, stirring the thick steaming mixture back and forth before taking another mouthful. She swung her feet to match the rhythm of her stirring. The housekeeper shook her head and wiped her hands on her apron as she stepped toward the table.

"You shouldn't talk with your mouth full, Reagan, you know that." Marjorie smiled as she tucked a wide, linen napkin into the collar of the bright, red sweater of her young charge. Reagan smiled back and swallowed hard before continuing.

"Sorry…but do you know what I was thinking?" She repeated more clearly, taking the corner of the napkin to wipe her lips.

Marjorie shook her head as she reached for a pitcher of orange juice in the center of the table. She poured it into a small glass and set it in front of the child. Reagan wrinkled her nose. "None of that nonsense," Marjorie warned, "it's good for you, and you need it, so drink every drop." The small, stout woman stood back with her arms across her chest in a mock scolding stance. The girl took the glass, closed her eyes and swallowed the liquid in one quick gulp. She grimaced as she returned the glass to the table. Marjorie nodded and smiled. "Now, what were you thinking?"

Reagan wrinkled her face and coughed twice before composing herself. Marjorie waited, almost laughing at the girl's antics while at the same time relieved to see her behavior a bit lighter than it had been in the past few weeks. "That foyer is very, very big." Reagan stated simply, pointing with the tip of her spoon, as her eyes grew wide with the fact she shared.

The housekeeper looked in the direction the girl pointed and nodded, wondering where this line of thought was going. "Mmm, hmm." She agreed.

"And high." Reagan added, holding the spoon over her head at arm's length.

"Rrrright." Marjorie agreed, still confused by the child's conversation.

"We're probably going to need an awful big Christmas tree, then." Reagan finished matter-of-factly, as she spooned more oatmeal into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully.

Marjorie stared at the child for a beat, not knowing what to say. She could barely remember the last time Mac an Bhaird had seen any Yuletide decoration, let alone a Christmas tree of any size.

"And a lot of ornaments," Reagan added between chews, then remembered her manners and swallowed quickly, "and lights, too."

Marjorie nodded at the small face that seemed to search hers for an answer.

"Do you think Payton will let me help choose the tree? Do you think she'll let me help decorate it?" Suddenly, there was a bit of enthusiasm in the child's voice.

Marjorie drew a short breath to hold back a tear that threatened to fall. She turned away quickly, and returned to her task of scrubbing pots and drying dishes. "I think you'll have to ask Payton yourself." She replied without facing the girl.

"Ask Payton what?" A deeper female voice inquired as the kitchen door swung inward and the tall, well-dressed young executive entered. She stood with her hands on her hips, facing the occupants of the room.

"Looks like snow, Miss Payton." Marjorie quickly changed the subject as she poured a cup of coffee into a delicate china cup and carried it carefully to the table.

Payton sat down in front of the cup. It had taken some doing but she was gradually getting used to having breakfast in the sunny kitchen as opposed to the much duskier dining room. She looked across the table at her younger sister, wincing at the dark circles under the child's eyes. Reagan had not slept well since her ordeal on the docks a little less than a month before. The girl had been sullen and withdrawn since her release from the hospital and although all of the cuts and bruises had healed, the emotional wounds were still raw and intensely painful. Night after night, Payton had rushed into the girl's room in answer to the shrill screams that brought the child from her nightmares. Older sister had held and rocked younger sister, offering sounds of comfort, hugs of security and soft kisses placed on the girl's head just to assure her that their bond could not be broken. The doctor had told the older McAllister that it would take time and patience to help Reagan past her distress but eventually she would begin to heal. Payton could not bear to see her little sister experience such despair, on top of losing her parents. She would gladly trade places with the child if she could.

"You should drink orange juice." Reagan's soft voice broke into Payton's train of thought.

"Uh?" Payton wrinkled her brow.

"Orange juice," Reagan pointed at the pitcher, "it's good for you."

"Really?" Payton replied semi-sarcastically. Reagan nodded as she took the last spoon of her breakfast and let the spoon clink into the empty bowl. Marjorie poured a second glass of juice and held it out to her employer. Payton stared at the glass for a moment before the housekeeper motioned for her to take it. She looked back at her sister then at Marjorie before taking it and bringing it to her lips. She took a small sip then placed it on the table. "Mmmm, with lots of pulp," she glared at the housekeeper, "just the way I like it." The comment dripped with sarcasm.

"Payton?" Reagan interrupted quickly. Payton glanced at the child in answer. "Can I help choose the Christmas tree?"

Payton blinked a few times and did her best to avoid Marjorie's glare. "Christmas tree?" She managed to choke out, then quickly sipped again at her orange juice. She hadn't even considered Christmas. It wasn't something she celebrated. It was something she abandoned years before when she had spent so many of them alone or with household servants. She remembered the hell she had put Marjorie through by deliberately dropping colored glass balls from the top of the stairs into the foyer and watching them smash into sparkly dust on the floor below. She remembered too, the last great tree that had graced the main hall of Mac an Bhaird. She had been fourteen that year. It was the year Jack and Jordan had announced their plans to start a family. In her anger she had toppled the entire tree, sending the twelve-foot Spruce to the floor and kicking ornaments in all directions before her father grabbed her and pulled her away. He had shaken her roughly and sent her away with stinging cold words. She had forgotten the incident many years ago…many years ago when she decided Christmas was nothing more than another day in a year full of days that meant nothing.

"Yes, Miss Payton, a Christmas tree," Marjorie helped to explain, "a very large Christmas tree." She winked at her boss before turning and walking across the kitchen.

"Please, Payton?" Reagan continued, ignoring the interchange between the adults. Payton looked into the dark eyes of the child across the table and for a moment was sure she saw a hint of the sparkle she had quickly grown used to before L'sandra Teschner had snuffed out the light of those sometimes blue, sometimes green orbs.

"I don't…well…it's just that…we…" Payton stumbled over memories long, and not so long past, in an effort to answer the girl's question.

"We all could go. You and me and Marjorie and Henry, just like a family. Just like Mother and Daddy used to…" Reagan's voice trailed away with her own recent memories. She swallowed hard and rubbed her hand quickly across her eyes, bravely pushing tears away. "You do want a Christmas tree, don't you Payton?" Suddenly, the girl thought that maybe her sister wasn't feeling very Christmas-y.

"Well…it's been a long time, Reagan…and well I don't know if we…if there are any decorations…or if…." Payton continued to flounder in this new uncharted territory.

"Oh there are probably plenty of them stored somewhere." Marjorie added as she reached to place a stack of plates into the cupboard. "There used to be some wonderful parties here at the manor this time of year."

"Parties?" Reagan sat up straight, suddenly very interested in what the housekeeper knew about the hidden memories and treasures of Mac an Bhaird.

"Not so fast…" Payton warned. "I don't…"

"Payton," Reagan stood and moved closer to her sister, placing a small hand on her shoulder, "you do like Christmas, don't you?" Her eyes were both curious and sorrowful.

"I haven't…it's been a long time since there was a Christmas in this house, Reagan." Payton finally managed to say but refused to meet her sister's eyes, staring instead into the tan swirls that formed as she poured cream into her coffee.

"You aren't like that mean, stingy, old Scrooge that says it's humbug, are you Payton?" Reagan asked quietly, placing her head on her sister's shoulder. "You don't want ghosts to visit you, do you?"

'No Reagan, I think we've seen enough ghosts in the last few weeks,' Payton thought. Someone she was sure this little blonde imp would use any tactics to convince her of the need to celebrate the season. She was just as sure that she was being manipulated now and would eventually be wrapped around this little one's finger. Payton took a sip of her coffee, pretending to ignore the child.

"Pleeeeeeeeeeez?" Reagan implored, her deep blue-green eyes opening wide.

Payton smiled, resisted the urge to chuckle at her sister's 'act', then shook her head and reached an arm around the dainty child that stood next to her, bringing her into a quick embrace "No," she kissed the girl's forehead, "no more ghosts. It's time we had a little Christmas and big tree to go with it." Reagan smiled and hugged her back. "And if Marjorie and Henry want to share it with us," she glanced up at the housekeeper who smiled at the sight before her, "they are more than welcome."

"And we can have a decorating party!" Reagan exclaimed, stepping back with her hands still resting on Payton's shoulders. "We can invite Connie and Colin and Pam. You said she could visit and it will be holiday at school soon and I can call her and she can spend the whole weekend. Her mom will let her. And Donnie too, we could ask Donnie to come. I bet he would like that," Reagan blurted out without a single stop to take a breath.

"Whoa there, Kris Kringle! Not so fast," Payton laughed, knowing for sure she not only saw, but also heard the spunk that was Reagan return for a brief moment. "It is a little late to invite people, they might have plans." Reagan's smile quickly turned dark. "But, there's no harm in asking, is there? And heck if they say no, well you and I and Marjorie and Henry will have a grand time anyway."

"So you can ask them at the office?" Reagan's voice went high with the hint of excitement. Payton nodded and sipped the dark liquid she had been stirring. "Today?" Reagan added.

"Today, yes, today…" Payton's answered with a sigh.

Reagan spun away from her sister and almost skipped the short distance to wrap her arms around Marjorie's waist. "I knew she'd say yes! And we can look for the decorations today too. We can have everything ready before Payton gets home tonight and then Henry can take all of us to find the perfect tree. A tree that is big and fat with lots of soft needles and smells fresh and spicy and…"

"Wait a minute, little girl," Payton's voice stopped her sister's breathless oration, "aren't you forgetting something?"

Reagan turned and leaned against the housekeeper as Marjorie crossed her arms in a loose hug around the girl's shoulders. She smiled at Payton knowing that her employer felt the same joy she did in seeing Reagan's sudden ebullience. It was hard to resist her excitement and even harder to put a damper on it. Reagan's eyebrows went up asking a silent question. She couldn't think of anything she'd forgotten but after all she'd just now started thinking about this. There probably were zillions more things to do and prepare before they could have a real party.

Payton rose from her seat and brushed the wrinkles from her dark blue skirt. "Before you two go dragging out a hundred years worth of dusty Yuletide antiques," she crossed the room and stood in front of the pair, "there is the matter of a certain student doing a certain amount of studies."

Reagan's shoulder's slumped and she let out a little huff, "But, Payton, it's Christmas," she protested.

"Not for two weeks and for at least one of those weeks, my dear little sister, you," Payton tapped Reagan's nose gently, "need to get those grades up and be ready for school come January fifth." Reagan let out a frustrated whine and Payton turned quickly to hide the grin that she could not suppress. The older McAllister pushed the swinging door with one hand and exited the room with her smaller sister in close pursuit.

"But, Payton…" The girl continued to plead her case.

"No buts about it…you hit the books and I'll take care of the arrangements." Payton stuck to her guns despite the urge to let the little imp have her way. It was very difficult to say no since Reagan had, for the past four weeks been silent and moody. Payton had almost seen a bit of herself in the morose child. It was wonderful to see this break in the storm. Reagan grabbed her sister's satchel and followed her into the foyer where Payton pulled on a heavy, woolen, ankle length coat.

"Payton, you won't forget to ask them…today?" Reagan made a weak attempt to change the subject.

Payton pulled a white silk scarf around her neck and tossed her long dark hair out of her collar. She pulled black leather gloves on to each hand then reached for the briefcase. "I won't forget. Promise." She crossed her heart in a motion she hadn't used since she was a child and smiled at the fact that she had done it without so much as a thought. "And I won't forget your studies either." She bent to the girl's level as Reagan cast her glance to the floor. "Four hours and then you can call Pamela to see if she'd like to visit next weekend. You and Marjorie can hunt for decorations later this evening. You still need your rest if you want to be 100% well." Reagan developed a fine pout. Payton shook her head and placed her gloved fingers under the girl's chin, lifting her face. "We'll hunt for the perfect tree on Saturday. I know just the spot." She winked at the girl, who managed a small smile. Payton stood back and ruffled the child's hair before reaching for the doorknob.

"You'll ask Donnie, too, Payton, you won't forget." Reagan called after her.

Payton shook her head and stopped with the door half opened. "Did you hear anything I said?" She glared at the girl who was already retreating to the safety of the kitchen.

"Every word," Reagan giggled, "don't forget to ask them, Payton." Her voice disappeared as she passed farther into the back of the large manor.

Payton shook her head again and rolled her eyes. "I must be nuts. Oh, yeah Connie and Colin are going to think I've lost it totally. Donnie? She wants me to ask Donnie? Maybe he has plans." She continued mumbling to herself all the way to the waiting limousine. Henry stood holding the door of the long black car that had run long enough to be as warm as the house. He nodded at her and she returned the nod. It was an odd greeting, but one they were both comfortable with. Payton laughed inwardly, imagining the reaction he would have when she suggested he help her to find the perfect Christmas tree. 'Oh yeah,' she thought, 'I have really lost my marbles.'

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Reagan tapped her pencil in tandem with the ticking of the grandfather clock. She tried to sneak a peak at the time on its large face before her temporary private teacher noticed.

"One more hour," the young girl announced stepping into her student's line of vision, "and you'd finish faster if you'd watch what you were doing instead of the movement of the clock."

"I'm tired." Reagan yawned and set down her pencil, hoping Colleen Gibson would fall for the little white lie.

"Reagan McAllister!" Colleen gasped in feigned shock, "two weeks before Christmas, what will Santa think. That's one black mark after your name." Colleen made an imaginary check mark in the air.

Reagan smiled and retrieved the pencil; she scratched her head and tapped it again. "I really hate geometry," she grumbled.

Colleen smiled, "so you've mentioned…daily." She tapped a finger on the book to bring the girl's attention back to her work.

For a few moments Reagan scratched diligently in the notebook before her, then sat back and dropped the pencil on the dining room table. "Finished," she announced with long exasperated sigh.

"Good!" Colleen replied, "that gives us just enough time to do States and Capitals before we're done for the day."

Reagan leaned forward, dropped her arms onto the tabletop then let her head fall against them. She liked Colleen Gibson, the girl the school had sent to help her keep up with her studies until she could enter St. Brigid's Academy when the new term began after the holiday. St. Brigid's was sort of a cross between a private school and a public one. She didn't have to live there. Henry would take her and pick her up every day, but it was prestigious enough to be McAllister worthy. She didn't really care; going there meant she could stay at home and be close to the people that she now called family. The teachers seemed pleasant, the other students were friendly, and best of all, the principal (not headmistress) was a happy, smiling, young woman that invited them into her office. The office was sunny with pictures of students. It was bright and colorful, and the desk covered with photographs, trinkets, mugs, papers and all sorts of odds and ends that proved Mrs. Doughtman was truly a busy administrator. Reagan was apprehensive about starting a new school, but not totally opposed to the idea. Mrs. Doughtman had sent Miss Gibson, a former student of St. Brigid's, while the younger teacher worked to obtain her permanent teaching license. She was gentle and understanding of Reagan's plight and never pushed more than she had to or forced Reagan to do more than she was capable. However, she was also able to see past the young girl's shenanigans and rarely let her get away with shirking off work that she was more than able to accomplish.

"The capital of Alabama is Montgomery, the capital of Arizona is Phoenix, the capital of Arkansas is Little Rock, the capital of California is Sacramento." Reagan began in a softly droning voice.

"Okay, smarty-pants," Colleen smiled, "I know you know them in order. New Mexico?" She shot at her student.

"Santa Fe." Reagan mumbled back

"Montana?"

"Helena." Reagan replied blowing out a long sigh that tossed her reddish blonde bangs up like tiny feathers.

Soon it became more of a rote exercise, with neither participant quite paying attention to the other. "Connecticut?"

"Hartford. Colleen?" Reagan answered.

"Michigan? What?" Miss Gibson asked.

"Lansing. I need you to help me." Reagan continued. She hadn't been thinking at all about this unnecessary lesson. Instead her thoughts returned to the preparations she needed to make before next weekend.

"Pennsyl…help? What's wrong, Reagan?" Colleen grew apprehensive; fearing the child was still dealing with her recent trauma.

"Harrisburg." Reagan finished then leaned forward as if preparing to share a deep, dark secret. "It's only two weeks till Christmas." She explained.

"Yes?" Colleen leaned toward the child, wishing she had chosen to share this pain with her sister, but willing to offer what comfort she could to the girl.

"I need something." Reagan informed her teacher. "It's really important."

"What, Reagan? What is it you need?" The teacher encouraged the girl to continue.

"Presents." Reagan stated simply.

Colleen almost expelled a loud sigh of relief, but being a professional (albeit a novice professional) she managed to control her reaction. "I'm afraid you'll have to wait like everyone else, sweetie." She patted the girl's hand gently.

Reagan blinked and thought for a moment before fully understanding the answer. "No, no not for me. I need presents for other people, for…for Payton and people." She corrected her tutor.

"Oh," Colleen laughed at herself, "I see, and how can I help?"

"I don't need money. I have money. Daddy always said to save it for a rainy day, but I can't go anywhere." She pouted for a moment. "Payton won't let me out of the house, except to see the doctor and I really need to do this. I don't want to go into the city…" She stopped seeming to drift away to bad memories. She shook slightly then continued, "Maybe you could take me someplace close, someplace here? Please?"

Colleen thought for a moment, not knowing how to answer this request. "I can't take you without your sister's permission, Reagan, you know that."

Reagan sighed in defeat. Colleen had been her only hope; Marjorie and Henry were just as bad as Payton when it came to her leaving the manor. Colleen could see the disappointment in her student's eyes, as they grew heavy with unspent tears.

"I might have a better idea, if you're interested?" She smiled at the forlorn child. When she was sure she had Reagan's attention, she flipped her text book closed and tossed it into her large canvas bag that seemed to hold everything every teacher ever seemed to need or want. "First, we get rid of these," she announced. Reagan wrinkled her brow but remained curious.

"You are right, it is just two weeks till Christmas. Enough of this geometry stuff! It's time we started some Christmas projects." Colleen smiled at the shocked expression on the girl's face. "Tomorrow and everyday from now until next Saturday I will bring enough supplies for you to make presents for everyone on your list. That way you don't have to leave the house and everyone will be surprised." She sat back, satisfied with the look of joy that fell over her student.

"We can do that?" Reagan asked wide-eyed.

Colleen leaned closer and whispered, "it's Christmas, we can do a lot of things we wouldn't usually do. Now, open your notebook and grab that pencil."

Reagan looked shocked, "but you said…"

"I know what I said, but we have to make a list, girl, we have to plan this thing…get started, get organized, know what we want and how we want to do it!" She flipped open the small leather covered notebook that she wrote everything down in and began making a list of her own. "Come on, come on, get moving…you need to start with who and what…I'll help you from there."

Reagan took the hint and smiled as she grabbed her pencil and started her list.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"You want me to what?" Connie arched her eyebrows in disbelief.

"I want you to come to a Christmas party." Payton mumbled again as she nervously stacked loose papers and quickly stuffed them into a file. She handed the file to the secretary who stood in front of her desk.

Connie stuck a finger in one ear and wriggled it as she leaned closer to the anxious executive behind the large desk. "I'm sorry, Payton," she laughed, "for a minute I thought you said something about a Christmas party? Could you tell me just one more time?" She smiled brightly.

Payton's eyes narrowed as she sneered at her secretary. "You're not going to make this easy, are you?" She asked through clenched teeth.

Connie took the file and shook her head. "Nope!" She smiled as she turned, walked toward the door then stopped and turned back, "and I can't wait to see the look on Colin's face when you ask him!" She closed the door just in time to deflect the small tablet that was tossed in her direction. The secretary crossed her office, heading for the filing cabinets against the far wall. Payton McAllister had invited her to a Christmas Party. A Christmas Party! All kidding aside, she was as pleased as she was shocked at the changes in her stiff-backed young employer and was just as certain that the younger, fairer McAllister sister was somehow behind this.

The door to the interior office opened and Payton rushed into the room. She was pushing her arm into the sleeve of her dark coat. "Connie, get your coat! I just realized something!"

The secretary moved quickly to retrieve her garment. Recent memories of the tragedy that rocked the executive office of McAllister Shipping caused her to immediately become apprehensive. She moved quickly to catch up with Payton, who was already out of the office and rushing toward the elevator. Grabbing her oversized purse, she pushed open the glass-door and hurried down the hall then stopped next to Payton at the elevator, hoping for a quick explanation.

"It's only two weeks until Christmas, Connie!" Payton exclaimed with a hint of distress in her voice.

Connie shrugged her shoulders, "nothing gets past you, huh?" she teased as the tension faded.

Payton wrinkled her brow and shook her head. "You don't understand, Connie…I…I didn't think much about it…Christmas is…well, I…" she stumbled over her explanation, hoping the blush in her cheeks didn't show as much as she felt it burn. "I'm not, I mean I have, don't have anything for her," she continued in a hushed voice, inwardly berating herself. "Hell," her voice grew louder, "at first I was too angry and then too scared and then just damn relieved she was alive." She punched the elevator button again. "Where the hell is that fool? I have to ask him too, or she'll never forgive me." She said more to herself than to Connie.

Connie shook her head, suddenly sympathetic to Payton's plight. "Payton, calm down. You've got plenty of time."

"I don't even know her," Payton grumbled. "I don't know what she likes or doesn't like and…I can't give her what she wants or needs."

"Don't be ridiculous," Connie scolded, grabbing the younger woman's arm tightly, "you've given her exactly what she needs! What she wants is for you to be there for her and to let her be there for you. If you ask me, she's given you exactly what you need as well." She waited for a moment, expecting the dark, young woman to pull away. "Didn't you learn anything from that horrid situation we all survived?"

Payton shook her head again and turned away from the secretary to collect her thoughts. "What do you suppose is popular with twelve-year-olds?" She smiled, hoping Connie would take the hint and change the subject.

Connie blinked and smiled in return. "I'm not quite sure, but I'll make a deal with you." Payton's eyebrows went up. "You let me help you spoil her rotten, and I'll do my utmost duty to find out!" For a moment the two women looked into each other's eyes then both let loose the laughter they tried to hold. Payton patted the hand that still rested on her arm. Connie hugged her briefly. "Besides, you know me and shopping!"

The elevator door opened with its familiar soft ping. Both women stepped inside offering silly smiles to the lanky young operator. "Calling it an early day, ladies?" Donnie quipped as he pulled the doors shut and pushed the lobby button.

Payton rolled her eyes and took a deep breath. 'Better get this over with before I choke the life out of him.' Connie nudged her gently. 'Might as well get it all over with at once,' she told herself as she nudged back. "Take us to legal, Donnie and…" she hesitated, "do you have a car, Donnie?" She hedged.

"Ya need a ride, Miss McAllister?" He grinned, anxious to help.

"No, she doesn't," Connie helped, "she needs to ask you something." Payton glared at her, forcing her silent. Connie put up her hands in mock surrender.

"I meant, do you drive?" Payton clarified herself. "If you needed to be somewhere, how would you get there?"

Donnie was clearly confused. "Welllllll…mostly I take the L train or the bus, sometimes a taxi…but yeah, I do have a jalopy I keep in my Mom's garage, out in Queens. It isn't much, but it gets me where I need to go." He pulled the car to a slow stop at the third floor and opened the door with practiced ease.

Payton stepped closer to the young man. "Good," she commented as she handed him a small card she had taken from her purse, "you'll need it." Donnie flipped the card over in his hand. "You're invited to a Christmas party, next Saturday, my house." She stepped out of the car and moved down the hall before he had a chance to react.

He stared at the card in his hand, realizing it was a set of directions. Connie peered over it for a moment and nodded. "She's kidding, right?" He squeaked at the secretary.

"Uh uh," Connie shook her head, "totally serious, humor her, okay?"

Donnie pushed back the round cap that sat atop his head and scratched his scalp in disbelief, then smiled as the realization of what he had been asked hit home. "Holy smoke, a Christmas party in the Hamptons, and she invited me!"

Connie smiled again and patted the young man's shoulder. "We have Reagan to thank, I'm sure." He nodded and readjusted his cap. The secretary stepped out of the car, eager to catch up to Payton before she dropped this bomb on the young lawyer in the office at the end of the hall.

Donnie pulled the doors of his elevator closed in answer to a call, still staring at the small card in his hand. "You tell her I'll be there with bells on!" He called after the woman, just before the two panels came together.

Connie nodded in his direction and hoped, no prayed, he did not mean that literally.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 

Payton walked into the legal department causing four secretaries and three legal aides to stop in their tracks. She ignored the reaction, heading straight for the door marked with the name, 'Walters, C'. The CEO did not stop to knock, only paused a second as if in some deep thought, before she pushed open the door and stepped inside. Connie entered the larger outer office at the same second.

"Where is she?" She asked breathlessly. Seven index fingers pointed to the door that had just closed softly. "Damn!" the secretary breathed as she plopped down in a large chair next to the outermost desk. "I'm too late." She drummed her fingers on the edge of the desk for a second before noticing seven sets of eyes trained on her. Connie wrinkled her brow as her eyes darted from one shocked face to the next. She slammed her hand hard against the polished wood causing every one to jump in unison. The secretary chuckled under her breath. Slowly the office staff went back to their tasks, each alternately avoiding Connie's eyes and watching Colin's door.

Colin's office was a small sectioned off area, bordered by a wall that was half plaster and half frosted-beveled glass. It was impossible to see inside, but the shadows of the occupants cast squiggling imagines on the outer panes. The walls were thick enough to block out all but the garbled murmuring of the voices inside as well. On an average day the office staff simply disregarded the background drone; it was just part of their job, but today every ear was trained on the conversation behind the third glass cubicle. Connie noticed this and casually rose to walk across the large office and take a seat in one of the leather chairs outside Colin's office door. This was a double advantage since she found she could hear a little more clearly and had the added pleasure of watching the staff strain to eavesdrop as well.

 

Payton stood in the small office facing the young lawyer who sat at his desk. He rose to greet her, quickly pushed down the shirtsleeves he had rolled up before beginning to pour over one of the company's most recent contracts. "Payton!" Even he was surprised to see her 'down in the trenches'. He stepped quickly from behind the desk and took her hand, gently squeezing it before giving it a softer than normal shake. She pulled it back quickly, startled at the strange sensation that overtook her just by the touch of his hand. It was pleasant and frightening at the same time. She shook it off quickly, but could not push the odd sort of tickle out of her stomach that accompanied it.

"What brings you here?" Colin inquired as he cleared the stacks of files from a wooden chair. He brushed it off quickly and motioned for her to sit.

Payton watched with an interest that seemed ridiculous to her. 'What was so fascinating about clearing a chair?' She shook her head. "No, ah…no, no I'm ah…not staying." She managed to tell the chair, then turned to face the young man holding it. She couldn't help notice the look of disappointment that fell across those deep dark eyes. The flutter in her stomach threatened to make her giggle (something she would never be guilty of, at least not in front of Colin Walters).

"Is there a problem?" He changed his approach, becoming very professional as well as serious. "Is it Reagan?" He asked with a bit more urgency.

Payton smiled, actually feeling a twinge of affection for the man who showed such concern for her little sister. "Reagan is doing well, better actually," she assured him, "but she is part of the reason I'm here."

Colin shoved both hands into his pockets and walked back to the chair behind his desk. He stood waiting for Payton to continue.

"Reagan would like, that is I would…WE, we would like it very much if you'd consider…I mean if you'd like…or be interested in…" Payton was finding this very difficult with those deep brown eyes staring at her.

Colin's brows went up, he was interested. "Yes?" He urged her to continue.

She cleared her throat and started again, "I thought it would be a good..." She stopped again realizing she was lying to a lawyer and thought about what Reagan would think of that. Payton shook her head and repositioned the bag she had slung over her shoulder. "I'm not very good at this kind of thing, I'm afraid." She spoke softly while keeping her eyes on the pile of paper atop Colin's desk.

"Hey, I'm a lawyer," he reminded her with a small laugh, "I've heard a lot." He sat down at his desk and folded his hands on top of it. "Just tell me in your own words." He jested.

Payton smiled and relaxed in his company. There was just something so comfortable about this man, but at the same time he made her more nervous and self-conscious than anyone she had ever met. It was the most confounded feeling and nothing she did made it go away. Even when she wasn't in his company, more and more often she would find him sneaking into her thoughts. "Reagan wants a Christmas tree," she began in earnest, "and a 'decorating party', I believe she called it." Payton laughed remembering the girl's excitement that morning. "It's the first time since…since," her voice grew cold, "since that bitch Teschner…" Payton paused and drew a deep breath, stopping the bitter tears that threatened to fall. Colin was on his feet and at her side in less time than it took her to exhale. He grasped her hand in a gesture of comfort. She stared at his large warm hand covering her own and marveled at how that warmth seemed to infect her.

"Anyway," Payton brought herself back to her original mission, "it would mean a great deal to her if you were there." She slowly looked from their hands to his eyes realizing how up close they were not black, but a deep warm brown. She took another breath hoping he did not notice the shudder that followed.

"Reagan," Colin repeated, "no, I wouldn't want to disappoint Reagan." He rubbed his thumb across the back of her hand then released his grasp.

"Then you'll come?" She regretted immediately the twitter in her own voice.

"For Reagan." He smiled.

"Yes, for Reagan." She struggled to keep her emotion out of her voice as she turned and placed a hand on the doorknob. "Seven-o-clock, next Saturday?" She had almost forgotten to tell him when.

"Payton?" Colin's voice stopped her and she turned slowly. He paused for a moment only to have the opportunity to see her just a bit longer. "I won't disappoint you or Reagan. I'll be there." He smiled at the color that appeared on her cheeks as a smile covered her face. She nodded and turned again. "Oh, and Payton?" He stopped her again; "you should smile more often." She shook her head, but never lost her smile as she exited the office and was still smiling when Connie stopped her.

"So?" Connie pouted as she stood. Payton walked past her secretary barely noticing her as she did. Connie huffed, and watched, as her boss seemed to glide out of the legal department. She blew out a frustrated breath and hurried to catch up. "So?" she repeated as she stepped next to Payton in front of the elevator, "how'd it go in there?" She smiled and wiggled her eyebrows expectantly.

"He'll come." Payton answered calmly, trying to hide her urge to laugh at Connie's curiosity. Sometimes, it seemed Connie was worse than Reagan was.

"He'll come? That's it, he'll come?" She gasped as they stepped into the building's employee elevator. She pushed the button marked 'L'.

Payton smiled. "Of course! He wouldn't disappoint Reagan, now would he?"

The elevator doors opened and admitted the women into the busy Bhaird Building Lobby. Connie shook her finger under Payton's nose. "Payton McAllister, you are going to tell me every detail, every single detail of what went on in that office!"

Payton laughed again and put an arm around Connie's shoulders as they stepped into the frosty winter air. If this was Christmas spirit, she was sorry she hadn't found it a lot sooner. It felt wonderful.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Reagan ran to one of the tall windows that bordered the front door and pushed back the curtain. She peered into the blackness of the mid-December evening, straining to see headlights coming over the small knoll halfway down the driveway. After several seconds she sighed and walked slowly back to sit on the bottom step of the circular staircase. Marjorie stepped into the foyer, carrying a large vase of red and white carnations. Reagan sat with her elbows resting on her knees and her chin resting on her hands. Marjorie frowned at the child, hoping this morning's exuberance wasn't a fluke.

"What time is it, Marjorie?" She asked without looking at the housekeeper, who was busy arranging the flowers.

Marjorie glanced over her shoulder at the ancient grandfather clock in the main hall. "Just past seven," she replied then returned to her work.

A soft noise outside brought the girl to her feet and she repeated her vigil at the window, sadly returning after another false alarm. "It's just the wind." She huffed as she resumed her position on the stairs.

"What is it you're looking for, sweetie?" Marjorie asked, over the large bouquet she had placed on the grand piano.

"How long before she gets home?" Reagan asked as if Marjorie should have known.

"Reagan," Marjorie tsked, "is that all?" She was actually relieved that’s all it was. "Payton won't be here before eight and if you know what's good for you, you will be scrubbed, tubbed and tucked in before she gets here," she warned amiably. "You know what the doctor said."

Reagan crinkled her nose. "But Marjorie," the girl protested as she rose and stood on the opposite side of the piano. She rested her hands on its edge and placed her chin on top of them. "I need her to call Pam's mother. Pam said her mom wouldn't let her come unless Payton asked her herself. If it's too late she won't be able to call." The she quickly added, "I'm not a little girl, Marjorie…eight o'clock?"

"Then she'll call tomorrow." Marjorie reasoned as she patted the girl on top of the head and headed for the kitchen, tactfully avoiding the last comment.

Reagan took one long last look at the front door before moping along behind. She plopped down on the bench at the breakfast nook and laid her head on her arms. She watched as Marjorie scurried about the kitchen from one area to another checking items on the stove, scrubbing things that poked out of the steaming sudsy water in the sink, while carefully storing cups, utensils, glasses and the like in various cupboards. In between she sorted piles of laundry that had collected in the far corner of the room. The soft hum of the washer's agitator vibrated the kitchen with a quiet homey feeling. Reagan lifted her head and propped it on one hand as she turned to gaze out of the window.

She had finished her studies by 3:30 and then spent the last half an hour making lists and plans with Colleen. She was pleased with her ideas and welcomed her tutor's suggestions. Tomorrow there was a spelling test and the last of that horrid geometry chapter to finish before she and Miss Gibson could begin work on her 'projects'. The teacher had promised to bring all the necessary supplies and they had devised a wonderful plan to take their work into the library after telling Marjorie that Reagan would be studying for exams and needed absolute quiet. That way they could keep the door closed and get their secret sessions done without interruption. After Colleen had packed up and left for the day, Reagan raced to and dialed the phone so quickly she got the wrong number four times before connecting to the Brisbey School. It took a few minutes to transfer the call to the correct dormitory and then a few minutes more to find Pamela Morgan, but eventually the two schoolmates were chatting and giggling over plans for a wonderful visit. Pamela couldn't wait to fill Reagan in on all the things happening at Brisbey and how Miss Feeney was planning an art show in the spring. Reagan almost missed the school, almost, until she shivered with the memories it woke up in her mind. Terrors of the night threatened her day as she gasped a bit and quickly changed the subject. Pam was thrilled to be invited and hung up promising to call her mother immediately.

Reagan sat next to the telephone waiting for the return call and picked it up before it completed one ring. It was Pam, with not so pleasant news. Her mother would gladly let her visit providing she was assured it was all right with Reagan's parents. Problem was, Reagan had no parents - only Payton. Pam explained the best she could, but Mom was strict after raising four rambunctious boys. The only way Pamela was going anywhere was if Mrs. Morgan had a long talk with the 'adult in charge' and there was no way around it.

Reagan yawned and stretched then laid her head back on her arms. She sighed again remembering that she had promised Pam she would call before 'lights out' to let her know that Payton would definitely make the phone call. "What time is it Marjorie?" She breathed softly.

Marjorie lifted a lid from one of the pots on the stove and stirred its contents. She let out a slightly frustrated breath as she looked over her shoulder at the sleepy eyed child. "Skipped your nap this afternoon, huh?" she scolded, "I knew it would catch up with you."

"I'm too old for naps." Reagan yawned again and rubbed her eye with one hand.

Marjorie turned and faced the girl placing her hands on her hips. "Hmph! Tell old Henry about that. He's almost five times your age and takes just about that many naps as well. I might remind you little miss, that if you push yourself too far you might just be spending the holiday doing more resting than you planned." She warned in good nature. "You can check the time on Old Frederick as you march your not so little self up to the tub!" She pointed to the door and motioned the girl to get moving.

"Oh, Marjorie," Reagan whined, "I need to talk to Payton and it isn't late and I'm not…" She continued as the housekeeper gently pulled her to her feet, turned her toward the door, placed her hands on her shoulders and nudged her in the right direction.

"I'm sure Payton will be up to see you as soon as she gets in. She isn't going to be very pleased with either of us when she finds out you skipped your rest this afternoon." Marjorie continued as they passed through the dining room and into the foyer.

"She doesn't need to know." Reagan answered tilting her head back and looking at the woman in a topsy-turvy position.

"She'll know." Marjorie replied in a deep teasing voice. Reagan smiled and allowed herself to be steered to the base of the staircase. Marjorie slid her hands up the to the girl's cheeks and gently turned her head toward the grandfather clock. "What time is it?" She asked the girl.

"Seven thirty sev…no, eight, seven thirty-eight." Reagan replied with a slight giggle.

Marjorie spun the girl around and held her chin with one hand. "And time for you to bathe, change and get settled." Before the girl could protest, she turned her back toward the stairs and sent her off with a gentle pat on the backside. "No dilly dallying, either little miss," the housekeeper smiled, "I'll be there in a few minutes." Reagan slowly walked halfway up the staircase and turned back, Marjorie pointed again and the girl sighed heavily before dragging herself up the rest of the steps and down the hall.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The bath was actually relaxing. Reagan basked in the warm soapy water. She had borrowed just a bit of Payton's bubble bath. She spent the time thinking about the plans she had made and the kind of tree they would choose. She wondered what kind of decorations she and Marjorie would find and just how tall a tree Henry could manage and if Marjorie knew how to make those white cookies with the pink and green frosting that Mrs. Tarramino, who lived in her apartment building, used to make. One thought ran into another and she didn't even realize she had fallen asleep until a soft knock and the sound of the doorknob turning woke her. Marjorie was there with a giant fluffy towel. Reagan was more than able to take care of this need on her own, but she enjoyed the extra 'mothering' Marjorie was always so anxious to cover her with. Part of her needed it more than she understood.

After drying and dressing she trudged to her bed vowing to wait for Payton's arrival. Marjorie did not argue but simply pulled back the heavy quilt and sheets then tucked them under the girl's chin after she crawled inside and snuggled down onto the pillow. "I'll send her up here the minute she opens the door." She promised in a whisper as she bent close to the child's ear and kissed her brow.

"Thank you, Marjorie." Reagan answered sleepily, as her eyes closed slowly.

At eight fifty-three Payton pulled the quilt back up over the child and brushed a stray hair from her face tucking it behind her ear. She smiled at the peaceful expression on her younger sister's face and hoped it would last the night. Perhaps the nightmares of the past few weeks would be replaced by dreams of the festivities to come in the next. She bent and kissed the girl's temple.

"Payton?" Reagan mumbled groggily, starting to push herself up from the mattress.

"Shh, shh," Payton crooned, gently pushing her back and stroking the hair on the side of her head, "shh, go back to sleep, shh."

"I need…need to you…call…" the girl muttered sleepily as she gave in to her sister's comforting.

"I know. I'll take care of everything, Reagan. I'll take care of it." Payton assured her as she drifted back to sleep. She kissed the child again as she rose and moved from the room, careful to leave the door open. The young woman walked across the hallway to her own room, leaving her own door ajar. She pulled the scarf from her neck and unbuttoned the top few buttons of her blouse. Shoes were kicked off in two directions and she dropped onto her bed as she reached for the telephone next to it. She looked at the number on the small scrap of paper in her hand and dialed. An unfamiliar voice answered after four rings.

"Mrs. Morgan?" she began, "My name is Payton McAllister…"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 The week passed quickly, too quickly, and both McAllister sisters found themselves rushing to finish the things that needed finishing before December twenty-fifth. Marjorie spent hours in her kitchen creating dozens of the cookies she had once baked for her own children. She hummed long forgotten carols and sang along with the various artists whose voices rang from the tabletop radio she had positioned on the kitchen cabinet. Henry shook his head in disbelief. Surely, his employer, as well as his wife, had been either dipping into the cooking sherry or were suffering from a touch of fever. Henry was a man who enjoyed the holiday, but it had been so many years. The halls of Mac an Bhaird were never 'decked' and its inhabitants were far from jolly. He carried logs from the woodpile in the back yard to the wood box on the back porch and watched through the window as Marjorie, Reagan and Payton cut little Santas, bells, trees and angels out of soft tan cookie dough. Occasionally they would laugh out loud or even 'waltz' from the table to the oven with a tray of finished delicacies. He pushed back his Dodgers' cap and scratched his head.

"Henry!" Marjorie's voice caught him off guard. "Come in out of the cold, now. Can't have you sick when we are off to pick the perfect tree in just two days." She scolded as she reached out of the backdoor and tugged at his sleeve.

The man stepped inside and removed his jacket. He hung it in the small closet in the far corner of the room and stood staring at the sisters who were busy decorating their pastry creations. Marjorie carefully removed a tray from the oven and held them out for inspection. There were smiles all around. Henry stuck his hands in his pockets and started for the door that led to the small apartment he shared with his wife. He stopped when a small hand grabbed his wrist.

"You can help too, Henry." Reagan looked up at the tall muscular man. She tugged him toward the table. He glanced quickly at his wife who turned away to avoid his look, then to the employer he barely recognized. Payton sat at the table wearing a bright red cobbler's apron. Her long dark hair was pulled back, splotches of flour dotted her cheeks and nose. The sleeves of her soft pink sweater were pushed up to her elbows, and could she be wearing blue jeans? She smiled at him and held out a large Santa cookie cutter.

"Would you prefer St. Nick or," she held up a second cutter in the opposite hand, "are you more of a pine tree man?"

Henry slid his hand out of his pocket and around the one on his wrist. He patted the girl's hand gently and smiled as he moved toward the table. "I've always been a bit partial to angels." He winked at Payton as Reagan reached for the cutter and handed it to him.

Marjorie smiled at the family she never would have believed could exist within the manor and brushed a happy tear from her eye.

An hour later the small group settled in front of a fire crackling in the living room hearth. It had been so many years since the largest fireplace had been used that Marjorie protested the idea at first, claiming they would surely burn the manor to the ground before midnight. Henry laughed and reminded her that he had kept the flue clean and the chimney clear, even after the fireplace had become obsolete. Now the fire popped and snapped, as the red and gold flames licked at the dry logs Henry had used to create a blazing masterpiece.

Marjorie helped make the moment special by brewing a pot of steaming hot cocoa and topped the large mugs with marshmallow before serving it to all. Payton was adamant about having the elderly housekeepers, who were more her family than anyone else had ever been, join them in this quiet moment. She sat in the corner of the large couch against a large plush cushion. Reagan rested alongside of her sister, content in the feeling of family comfort. Marjorie and Henry chose to use the chairs opposite the sofa that faced the fire. For a few moments each of them simply stared into the flames, possibly lost in the memories of Christmases long, long ago.

The large clock in the foyer chimed nine times calling everyone back from their reveries. Henry stood, finished the last mouthful of his drink and excused himself. The furnace had to be stoked before the fire went out. He had to add coal to the hopper and check to be sure there was enough water in the boiler. The wind rattled the windows and he pointed out it would be a very cold night with that chilly wind blowing in off the bay. There was no snow, but the sky still held a threat and Henry claimed the ground was ripe for a covering. The grass was frozen and crunched when it was stepped on making a sound like shells cracking. He claimed he could smell the snow in the air and feel it in his old war wound. He rubbed his hip and pretended to limp from the room. Marjorie scolded him for his exaggeration, saying the only war wound he ever got was when he bumped his noggin on the wing of a fighter plane he walked under. Henry continued to limp, saying he never got any sympathy. Marjorie swiped at him with the towel she had flung over her shoulder. She picked up the empty mugs and placed them on a tray. There were dishes to do before she was finished for the evening and then a list for the grocer to fill, if she was going to have enough for the celebration on Saturday.

Reagan yawned and snuggled up closer to her sister. It was quiet and warm, she felt safe and loved. The dark feelings, the sad feelings and the scary feelings couldn't touch her here. Payton put an arm around her and hugged her even closer.

"I think its time you got to bed," she whispered into the soft blonde hair under her chin, "big day tomorrow."

Reagan shook her head. "I like it here."

"Hmm, me too, but tomorrow is not far off and I still have to go to the office and you have some studies to finish and Pam is arriving on the 5:35." Payton reminded her, still resting her chin on the girl's head. "You can come with Henry to pick me up and we'll all meet her when the train arrives. Would you like…" Payton stopped short feeling the tremble from the girl that rested against her. "Reagan?"

Reagan shuddered. She hadn't planned on going into the city. She hadn't been to the city since…since…she pushed the thought away. "I can wait here for you." She whispered.

Payton hugged her tighter realizing the anxiety the child felt but knowing she would have to overcome it if she were to heal completely. "No, I think Pam would like to see you there."

"Payton…" Reagan began in a very quiet voice, "I can't, I'm…afraid."

"I know," Payton assured her, "that's why you need to do it. If you don't you'll always be afraid. You'll have to run and run for the rest of your life and after a while there will be no place left to go and by that time your fear will be so big you won't be able to control it. So you turn around now and squash it! You'll see, you'll be fine."

Reagan said nothing, simply resting her head against Payton's shoulder and turning the thought around in her mind. She pictured her fear getting bigger and bigger like one of those cartoon snowballs that grows and grows as it rolls downhill. What Payton said made sense, but she didn't see how she could squash anything. "I wish I was brave like you Payton." She sighed.

Payton laughed and pulled her around so they faced each other. "Reagan, I am afraid too, lots of times, and if I told you what scared me, you would laugh yourself silly."

Reagan crinkled her nose and shook her head. "I wouldn't laugh at you Payton."

"Well, you should," Payton replied as she leaned forward touching her forehead against the girl's. "Believe me Reagan, I do a lot of things that scare the bejeebers out of me, but…" Payton paused and pulled her little sister into a tight hug. "Tomorrow you and I, and Henry, will be together. We'll meet Pam and be back here before you know it." Reagan looked skeptical. She swallowed hard and nodded without too much conviction. "Good," Payton smiled. "Now…it's…time…for…bed." She stated, slowly punctuating each word as she attempted to rise only to find the small form against her not quite as ready.

Reagan sighed and then smiled as she rested her head against her sister's chest and stared into the dying fire. "Can't we wait until the fire goes out?"

"Nice try." Payton growled amicably, close to her younger sister's ear. She pushed herself and the girl up from the couch and pointed her in the direction of the stairs. "March!" She commanded in a mock authoritative tone.

Reagan took a few steps and turned back. "Can I sleep with you tonight?" She waited for Payton's reply.

Payton shook her head and for an instant Reagan felt a twinge of rejection. Then the taller McAllister laughed, "sure, why not?" She approached the girl and wrapped an arm around her shoulders turning them both back toward the staircase. "You'll just end up there anyway," she teased as she squeezed her tighter.

Marjorie watched from the kitchen door as the sisters walked up the stairs, still engaged in friendly banter. The tall dark woman kept her arm around the child's shoulders. The small fair girl stretched a thin arm around her sister's waist. The housekeeper smiled as she allowed the door to close without a sound.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The sounds of Grand Central Station at the height of the day were overwhelming. People rushed from one platform to the next and redcaps scurried to help folks with heavy luggage. Announcements came one after the other in such a garbled tone that Reagan couldn't understand how anyone knew where anything or anyone would arrive or depart. Lights flashed and buzzers buzzed, a newspaper boy called 'Get the Times, right here,' over and over in what seemed like a strange song. Everyone was in a hurry. She squeezed Payton's hand tightly on her right and Henry's on her left. They walked together to the information area and Payton spoke to the man inside the little cage. He smiled and pointed toward the large archway to the left of his station. He pulled a large round watch that was connected to a chain from his pocket.

"Yep, she's right on time." He announced. "You can wait over there," he pointed again, "they'll announce her when she pulls in. You have about ten minutes." He smiled again and turned to a very large man with a handlebar moustache that stood next to Henry.

True to the word, Pam's train arrived exactly at 5:35. The girl stepped off the car and on to the platform holding a small pink case. She looked from face to face searching for someone familiar. Henry had lifted Reagan high in order for her to see over the crowd. This helped Pam as well and soon the trio became a quartet.

It took very little time for the girls to be reacquainted and before they arrived at the manor they were giggling over some shared secrets and whispering plans for the rest of the weekend. After introductions were made and Pamela was able to accept the fact that the entire house was where Reagan now lived, the girls gulped down a quick supper and disappeared upstairs anxious to share the time they would have together.

Payton found herself making repeated trips to Reagan's room to remind them to keep down the noise. Pamela's brother had given her a small record player and a few 45's. The girls alternated between the sweet sounds of recorded Christmas carols and the thump, thump, thump of some deep voiced young man who sang sweet songs that could only warm the hearts of 12-year-old girls. (Payton was sure of that.) Eli or Elwood or Elvis? What's-his-name was not someone that would be around very long. Finally the player and the records were confiscated by a very bleary eyed Payton and a final no nonsense 'light's out' order was commanded. After another hour of hushed giggling and murmurs under a bumpy quilt the two girls were asleep. Payton made one last 'bed check'. 'Half past eleven,' she moaned to herself as she moved a small pink foot under the covers and peeled the quilt away from one curly head. She moved to the opposite side of the large bed and picked up a stray pillow. Gently lifting the other head she slid the pillow back in its place and lowered Reagan onto it. Immediately, the girl drew her hands up under her cheek and snuggled into the soft down cushion. Payton pulled the quilt even on the bed and tucked it under her sister's chin. She kissed her softly and stood smiling. She'd been so afraid of letting this little imp into her heart, now she couldn't imagine being without her. It felt good to have someone love and need her, it felt even better to love and need them back.

A sudden feeling of warmth and excitement flooded her and for the first time in more years than anyone could recall, Payton McAllister could honestly say she was filled with the spirit of Christmas. That anxious bouncy feeling that won't be calmed, no matter what you try, had taken control of the Wall Street Warrior. She found herself wishing it was already Christmas. She didn't think it was possible to wait the last few days. Tomorrow they would have a tree, a wonderful glorious tree that Henry would cut. They would choose it themselves and decorate it with the help of the people that meant the most to her and to Reagan. She looked at the clock again and sighed, wondering if it were too late. After checking the girls one last time she quietly stepped out of the room and into her own. She paced back and forth, nibbling on one nail, then she slapped her own hand away from her teeth.

"Oh hell, Payton, take your own advice and face your fears!" She snatched the phone from its cradle and dialed before she had a chance to change her mind.

"Hello?" A groggy voice answered after only two rings.

"Colin," she began hesitantly, regretting her decision as her mouth suddenly went dry.

"Payton?" Colin was awake and concerned. "What's wrong?"

She just listened for a moment to his voice and to the sound of her heart beating against her chest. Such a strange feeling. She shook herself out of it. "Um, nothing, nothing's wrong. I just wondered if you were busy tomorrow morning?" She closed her eyes and shook her head. That had to be the most stupid thing she had ever said. What was she thinking?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 "PAYTON!!" Reagan's screech brought Payton wide-awake. She half leapt, half tumbled from the tangle of quilts and sheets, catching herself on the edge of the bed before landing on the carpet. Payton ran from the room without stopping for her robe or slippers. She pushed her sleep-tangled dark hair away from her eyes and scanned Reagan's room. The bed was empty, the quilt having slid off one side but still clinging desperately to the mattress. Reagan was nowhere in sight. Her heart raced as she pushed the panic down.

"PAYTON!" the child's voice rang out a second time. Payton turned toward it, running out of the room and down the long hallway to the large window that looked out over the rear of the estate.

Reagan knelt on the window seat with both hands resting against the frosty glass windowpane. Pamela was at her side in the same position. Reagan turned to call to her sister a third time only to see a very frazzled Payton charging toward her. She smiled widely at Payton, who rarely looked the way she did at the moment. The flannel nightgown she wore was twisted to one side as she held it up to move her bare feet quickly over the plush carpeting. Her hair was wild and tossed in every-which-way about her head. Her deep blue eyes were wide and the expression she wore was one of combined fear and anger. Reagan swallowed hard, turned and slid down onto the seat. Pamela scrambled to her feet and stood on the seat with her back against the cold window. She'd seen that look on her mother's face more than once and it usually meant someone was in BIG trouble.

"Reagan." Payton breathed the name with relief as she snatched her sister from the seat bringing the girl to stand in front of her. The apprehensive woman took a deep breath to calm herself and squeezed the girl's upper arms just a bit. "Don't ever do that again." She managed to say with a gentle shake, but without the anger that was slowly melting into relief. Reagan's squeal had brought back memories Payton herself had been wrestling with since their encounter with the crazed L'sandra Teschner. The empty room added to that fear. Payton again breathed deeply and looked down at the startled expression on her little sister's face. She immediately pulled the girl close and hugged her tightly.

"It snowed." Reagan's muffled voice came from beneath the hug.

"What?" Payton asked, releasing the girl.

"Snow," Reagan smiled and pointed toward the window, "it snowed last night. Look!" She kept her voice calm but couldn't keep the excitement out of it. She could sense Payton's displeasure and hoped to exonerate herself quickly. Another hug wouldn't hurt. She wrapped her arms around her sister's waist and squeezed tightly.

 Payton looked at the wide-eyed young girl who still stood on the window seat. She smiled at Pamela, hoping to ease the tension.

"I'm sorry, Payton," Reagan whispered against her sister's chest, "I didn't mean to scare you."

Payton thought for a moment about scolding the child, but considered her options. Her heart still raced wildly and she could feel the heat in her cheeks. The child had given her a scare and this parent…guardian… parent…big sister…whatever it was, was not getting any easier. She bit her lip and hugged the child back, deciding it could wait, it was mostly a misunderstanding. 'Praise in public, discipline in private.' Connie's bit of advice seemed to echo in her mind. Instead she leaned down and touched her forehead against Reagan's. "Later," she whispered tapping the girl's nose with her index finger. She tousled the child's blonde hair and turned them both toward the window. Payton tugged up the hem of her nightgown and knelt on the window seat just as Reagan had done a few minutes before. Pamela stepped down and stood next to her friend. Both young girls watched as the woman, who minutes before seemed more than ready to give someone 'what for', now peered out the frosty window just as they had done. Payton smiled inwardly, snow never really looked good to her before.

"Can we still go?" Reagan asked hopefully.

The countryside was covered with white, giving it an almost surreal appearance even the ocean seemed to blend into the snowscape. Payton turned and sat on the seat, then reached out quickly pulling both girls down on either side of her. She rested her arms around their shoulders hugging them tightly. "You don't think a little white stuff can stop a McAllister, now do you?" She asked with exaggerated curiosity. Both girls giggled. Payton laughed as well. She stretched out her long legs and wriggled her bare toes. She slid her arms out from around the girls and grabbed each of them by one hand. "Now," she began with a hint of mischief in her voice, "last one to the kitchen has to help Marjorie scrub the oatmeal pot!" Payton laughed evilly, jumped up and was halfway down the hall before the girls sprang from the seat and followed in a fit of giggles.

After a mad dash to wash and dress before breakfast all three arrived in the kitchen simultaneously. Reagan and Pamela had raced through the hall and down the main staircase while Payton used the steps from the east wing directly to the kitchen below. Their laughter rang out through the halls as they raced to their goal and continued even after they were all seated at the breakfast nook.

"Well," Marjorie smiled as she placed a large platter of hotcakes on the table. "It's good to see everyone so very jolly this morning."

"We're just happy there's no pots." Reagan quipped before breaking into another fit of giggles.

 Marjorie shook her head, clearly confused by all the tomfoolery, and moved to continue her morning chores. Henry opened the backdoor and entered, shaking the snow from his collar and stomping his snowy feet on the small mat. "'Bout ten inches I'd guess," he announced soberly. "Gonna be a long trudge up that hillside, Miss Payton." He winked at the woman seated at the breakfast nook. Both younger girls fell seriously silent. They looked to Payton then to Henry and back again. "Ya got any snowshoes ladies?" He asked the girls. They shook their heads in tandem as their mood suddenly turned from gleeful excitement to wistful disappointment. "Hmmm," the big man shook his head as he rubbed his gloved hands together, "guess that means we'll have to change our plans." He smiled and winked again then turned to his wife. "I think I'll need a big cup of Joe before I take care of it, though." He pulled off his gloves and reached for the mug Marjorie had already poured for him. He noticed the girls had begun pushing the food around on their plates. "Hey, no long faces," he warned with a fatherly tone, "and if you're gonna do any tree trimmin' today you best get yer bellies full." He pointed toward their plates.

Reagan peeked through her bangs at Payton who was sipping her own cup of hot coffee. She looked sideways at Pam who looked just about as disappointed as she felt herself. Henry didn't miss this and realized it was time to stop the teasing.

"Now ya hold on there swabbies," he shook a finger at the pouting faces, "ya don't think a little bit of snow is gonna stop Old Henry? No sir, no way!!" He laughed a hearty bellowing laugh. "I've got a surprise for ya both, for ya three…but, not till yer plates are clean." He took a long sip of his drink and swallowed hard. "Understand?" He waited for a reply.

Reagan and Pamela's curiosity was piqued. They renewed their efforts to finish their stacks of sticky hotcakes. Payton watched with a small silent chuckle and sipped her coffee once again. "And that goes for you too, Missy!" Henry shook a finger at the older McAllister causing her eyebrows to rise in astonishment. She put down the cup and picked up her fork.

"Yes sir!" Payton replied and joined the once more giggling twosome in finishing Marjorie's Marvelous Hotcake Special.

 

After breakfast Henry disappeared out the back door. He had whispered something in Marjorie's ear and she smiled broadly as she nodded. Something was up and everyone was filled with curiosity. The domestic staff of the manor was surely up to something and no amount of prodding or threatening by Payton could bring Marjorie to divulge even the tiniest bit of information.

"You'll just have to wait like the rest of the children." The older woman teased then almost laughed at the expression on her employer's face. It was a rarity to see Payton McAllister smile. Even as a small child she had been quite serious, moody, and infinitely stone faced. Marjorie was glad to see her boss in a lighter frame of mind. She recalled some of the Christmases past that she had shared with young Payton who had opened gifts without expression and usually spent the day holed up in her room, refusing to socialize with anyone. By the time she had reached Reagan's age, Payton had opted to spend Christmases at school refusing so much as a phone call from her father. 'She's missed so much,' Marjorie told herself, 'such a stubborn fool for so very long.'

Payton pursed her lips and nodded slowly as she turned and placed her hand against the swinging kitchen door. The manor's loud doorknocker echoed clearly and the thumping of two sets of feet signaled the fact that the girls would be greeting the 'surprise' visitor first. "You know Marjorie, I do have ways of getting even." Payton warned with one eyebrow raised, her voice was suddenly cold and serious. Marjorie took a small breath and almost took her seriously, but managed to catch the smile that broke across her face as the young lady of the manor stepped through the door.

Payton was barely across the dining room before Reagan and Pamela raced back, almost crashing headlong into her. "Payton!" Reagan announced, "it's Colin, and you have to see him!" She grabbed her sister's hand and tugged her toward the foyer. Pamela followed closely behind, wondering if this kind of thing went on here all the time. Reagan had never talked about her family at school and the way the others spoke of Payton had the little girl a bit apprehensive about visiting this weekend. So far, nothing seemed a bit like what she had expected. These folks were just about the strangest lot she had ever seen.

Colin stood in the main foyer brushing the last of the snowflakes from his dark jacket. As Payton entered the hall he snatched the woolen cap from his head and twisted in his gloved hands. Payton stared for a moment at the rather casual man she was not accustomed to seeing. Reagan took notice also and giggled at the difference in her lawyer friend. She was used to seeing a man in a dark suit with a starched white collar and tight necktie. Today, Colin Walters wore a heavy woolen shirt with large red and black checks and blue jeans. His shiny black loafers were replaced with heavy boots that reached up past his ankles and were tied with bright red laces. He wore a waist length jacket instead of his overcoat and had a red and white scarf wrapped around his neck. Reagan giggled and Payton squeezed her hand in a silent warning. Immediately, Reagan's face scrunched up in mock pain.

"Sorry, I'm late," he began. His cheeks were deep red and Payton couldn't decide if it was from the wintry weather outside or the same feeling that was making her cheeks match that color. "Didn't expect this stuff," he smiled, "my car is definitely not built for snow, had to borrow my uncle's station wagon and it was a real bugger getting those chains on." He shuffled from foot to foot as he unzipped his jacket, wondering why it was suddenly so very warm.

"We're not quite ready yet either," Payton answered then hesitated trying to think of something to say that wouldn't sound as silly as she was feeling. Reagan put her hand over her mouth to contain a giggle as she looked at Pamela. Payton cast a quick look at her that stifled the laughter immediately. "Let me take your coat, Colin. How about a cup of coffee?" She stepped forward reaching for the garment as he shook it off his shoulders.

"Sounds great," he smiled, watching as she hung the jacket on the straight-backed chair that stood in the foyer. She turned and motioned for him to move into the dining room then cast a warning glance toward the two young girls that stood whispering to each other. Both girls immediately stood at attention, feigning the most innocent looks they could muster. Payton shook a finger at them then followed Colin out of the room.

"I think your sister likes that guy," Pamela whispered to Reagan as they peeked around the large doorframe at the older twosome.

Reagan's eyes twinkled as a smile crept across her lips, "I think that guy likes my sister."

 

Henry stomped through the back door making enough of a racket to cause the first Long Island avalanche, while at the same time putting a finger to his lips in order to hush his flustered wife. Marjorie shook the wooden spoon she was holding under his nose and used her best 'look here mister' fašade to let him know she was definitely not pleased. The man winked at her and snatched her around the waist with his cold hands, spinning the small woman in a circle before setting her down safely on the kitchen floor.

"What on earth has gotten into you, you crazy old fool?" Marjorie laughed despite her effort to appear angry. She hadn't seen her husband in this state in a good many years. Not since he had played Santa to his own lively brood, had Henry Brauer been so full of Christmas silliness. It was good to see his cheeks rosy with excitement instead of overwork. "What are you up to?" She narrowed her eyes suspiciously.

Henry grabbed his wife's hand and tugged her into the pantry. From the small narrow window she could just make out the front driveway. "You didn't!" she exclaimed, turning wide-eyed to face him, "How? When?"

"Never mind all the questions," he whispered, again putting a finger to his lips and casting a quick glance over his shoulder for any sign of the others. "Watch," he smiled mischievously. Marjorie had seen that look before as well, usually when Henry was teasing the children or trying to 'pull something over on someone'. She wiped her hands on her apron and followed behind her husband.

 

The kitchen door swung open and a very serious handyman stepped into the dining room. "I'm real sorry, Miss Payton," he began.

Reagan and Pamela popped into the room from their perch on the stairs. They had discovered that if they sat very quietly there, the voices from the dining room seemed to echo in the empty foyer. It was amazing what they could hear.

"What's wrong, Henry?" Reagan asked with a twinge of apprehension.

The man looked down at the floor as his wife entered to clear the dishes from the dining room table. She carefully avoided making eye contact with her husband. Henry played the part well. He wrung the cap he had taken from his head, between his hands and shuffled from foot to foot. Marjorie rolled her eyes, he reminded her of a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

"Henry?" Payton was concerned, "is there a problem?"

"I'm real sorry, ma'am, real sorry. I tried best I could, but that car is not going to start and there's no way my old truck can make it up that mountain." He trailed off hoping they would take the bait.

The girls sighed deeply, then groaned with disappointment. Payton glanced quickly from her sister to her employee. 'Now what?' she silently asked herself.

"What'll we do, Payton?" Reagan was at her side, tugging at her sleeve. "We won't have a Christmas tree." The girl was on the verge of tears.

Payton looked to Colin who seemed just as perplexed as she was at the moment. He was certainly sure his vehicle was in no condition to travel up a mountainside in the snow. They could probably go into town and buy a tree, but Payton had told him she promised Reagan a special tree.

Henry knew when enough was enough. "Well," he drawled out the word rubbing his hand over his stubbly beard, "there might be a way…"

 

Reagan rushed to his side, staring up at him eagerly. "What?" She breathed.

"Well, I don't know if you'd be interested…it's kind of old fashioned…" he hemmed and winked at Payton who smiled with relief.

"Tell me." Reagan leaned closer as if to share in a special secret. Pamela moved close as well, not to be left out of the mystery.

"I'll do ya one better," he replied, crossing his arms over his chest, "you get your duds on and follow me and I'll show you!"

The scramble to dress for the weather was almost comical. Two young girls, one lawyer and one former stone faced executive wriggled into puffy snow-pants, shoved their feet into respective boots, wrapped long scarves around their necks, pulled itchy sweaters over their heads, zipped heavy jackets, donned woolen caps and tugged on fuzzy warm mittens. Once deemed prepared for winter's blast by their gruff leader, Henry led the way to the front door.

"One last thing," he began as he pulled on his own gloves and straightened his cap, "everyone close yer eyes."

For a moment they looked at each other and then four sets of eyes shut tight. The blast of cold air told them the door was wide open and carefully they each stepped into the bright winter morning.

Reagan almost opened her eyes when she was sure she heard the sound of bells. Payton was certain she recognized that soft grunting sound. Pamela was sure of the earthy scent and Colin was totally confused by the low thumping sound.

"Whadya think?" Henry asked matter-of-factly.

"WOW!" Reagan was off the porch and in the drive before the others moved, "A real one horse open sleigh, just like the song!" She reached up and patted the tall horse whose breath came out in steamy puffs. The animal whickered softly and pawed at the ground.

"Two horses, actually." Henry corrected her as he patted the other horse's flank.

Pamela jumped from the steps to join Reagan. Payton smiled and moved toward the large sleigh. "I remember this." She said in a hushed voice as she ran her hand over the polished wood. The sleigh brought back a memory so deep and so convoluted Payton wasn't sure if it were a real or imagined remembrance. Sounds, smells, and feelings ran together in darkness creating a feeling that was warm and comforting, but left a deep emptiness as well. It was disconcerting. Payton pulled her hand back and pushed it into the pocket of her jacket.

Henry stepped next to her as he lifted Reagan into the dark burgundy sleigh. He nodded at Payton as she stepped back to inspect the vehicle. "Yer daddy purchased her for yer mama the first Christmas after they were married," he informed her, "least wise, that's what he told me," he finished, off her look of confusion. The large man lifted Pamela up next then watched as both young girls made a full inspection of the inside of the sled. He smiled at their giddy excitement as they bounced on the plush seat and pulled the large green and blue plaid blanket over their laps. Both Payton and Colin turned at the sound of the front door opening.

"Henry Brauer!" Marjorie exclaimed from the front porch, "I don't believe you have those children in that old thing!" She wrapped a multi colored shawl around her shoulders as she stomped down the steps toward him.

"Quiet down, ya old worry wart!" Henry chuckled, "it's safe, sound and," he grabbed the side of the craft and gave it a hard shake, "sturdy!" Marjorie shook her head. "I told ya someday it'd be worth havin'." He gave her a smug smile.

"He's been polishing that thing every Christmas for the last 25 years." Marjorie slapped her husband's chest playfully.

"Mr. McAllister said it'd be used again someday." Henry nodded at Payton who suddenly seemed intrigued by the sled's history. Marjorie shook her head as Henry opened his mouth to continue. The man realized he was treading in dangerous waters and turned to check the horses' tack.

Payton moved from Colin's side to face her employee, who seemed to know more about this sled than he was willing to tell. "No, no, please Henry, continue." She smiled and Henry looked to his wife for approval. Marjorie hesitated, then nodded quickly.

"Yer daddy bought this here sled for yer mama first year they was wed," he began, turning toward the vehicle as if addressing it. Reagan and Pam leaned forward and placed their elbows on the edge of the front 'scoop' in an effort to hear what sounded like a great tale. "She saw it at some antique shop and said it was just like one of those 'Currier and Ives' paintings. Yer daddy told me she talked about it for weeks and told him what a wonderful sight it would be to have the two of them bundled up and traveling over the countryside just like their grandparents." He smiled at Payton who stared at the sled as if it were telling the story itself. "Yep, he went straight out and bought her. Had a local smithy repair all the hardware, got it painted and reupholstered, even picked out two of the sturdiest horses he could find to pull her. Had 'er here that Christmas Eve. Became a kind of tradition with them after that." Payton looked at him tilting her head slightly. "Even after you came along that next September, they bundled ya up and took ya along, rode up to the top of that there hill," he cocked his head in the direction of a slope that faced the ocean. "After yer mama…" Henry hesitated, wondering how to approach this part of the tale, "well, after she p-passed on," he stammered.

Payton placed a hand on the man's forearm in understanding. "I have no real memories of my Mother, Henry, but I do remember this sled. I always thought it was a dream," she ended in little more than a whisper as she laid a hand against its side and walked around it slowly. For a moment the others simply watched, as she seemed lost in the reverie.

Reagan's eyes were wide with the story of her father's early years. She stared at the team in front of the sled. "You mean you kept the horse all these years too, Henry?"

Henry stifled a laugh, "no, no little missy…these here animals belong to the Collier's, live up the road a piece. I fixed old lady Collier's old Auburn a few months back," he looked at his wife who was giving him a cold gaze, "she owed me a favor, so's I ambled over there this mornin and asked to borrow 'em. Fine bit of horse flesh, doncha think?" He patted the nearest animal's withers as he moved carefully away from Marjorie.

"You know," Colin's voice brought everyone back to the present, "if we're going to find a tree, we better get going. Looks like we're in for more snow." He pointed toward the gray sky. The girls nodded in agreement and in a tangle of excited voices encouraged both Henry and Payton to join them in the sled. Payton shook off the strange memories and the odd feelings that they brought and climbed into the sleigh from the opposite side. Colin held out a hand to assist Marjorie.

"Oh no, thank you. You youngsters go and have a grand time. One of us has to stay here and have a warm meal ready when you Eskimos get back." She laughed as she shooed him away with the edge of her shawl. "You be careful, Henry," the woman warned her husband with a stern glance. Henry simply groaned as he pulled himself up into the driver's seat and took the reins.

Colin climbed into the back and positioned himself against the right side of the plush seat. The younger girls snuggled between him and Payton who tucked the heavy woolen blanket across all of their laps. "Okay, all ready," she announced. With a sharp crack and a tug at the reins Henry set the team in motion. His passengers rewarded him with a rousing cheer and the sled slid gracefully down the driveway and out over the open field.

Marjorie smiled and watched as they grew smaller and smaller, then turned back toward the house humming a jingle bell tune under her breath.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Four hours passed before the troupe of tree hunters returned from their afternoon adventure. By that time Marjorie had prepared a grand feast for the evening’s festivities. She spent the peaceful afternoon blissfully slicing, dicing, mixing, stirring and baking the delicacies for the party that would bring the holiday spirit back to the halls of Mac an Bhaird. The housekeeper brought out table covers and china that had not been used by the inhabitants of the manor for more than twenty years. She smiled with self-satisfaction as she stepped back and viewed the elegantly set table. The large clock chimed three times and Marjorie parted the drapery in the front hall to peer out at the drive. Colin was busy lifting two giggling young girls to the ground. Payton stood in the sleigh and Marjorie was totally shocked when she allowed the young lawyer to take her hand and assist her to the ground as well. For a moment the group stood discussing details of, what the housekeeper assumed was, the procedure for getting the giant soft needled pine from the back of the sled into the main hall. Reagan and Pamela grew tired of the adult conversation and wandered away, dropping into the soft snow and creating snow angels for a few seconds before forming the cold wet pack into neat spheres and tossing them at each other. Marjorie laughed out loud at their crestfallen expressions when Payton directed both girls into the house. She stepped back away from the window to greet them.

The girls stepped into the foyer stomping the snow from their boots. Apparently they had already exhausted a set of mittens each, since Reagan was now wearing Payton’s angora mittens and Pamela sported Colin’s leather gloves. Their cheeks were bright red as well as the tips of their noses, and the strands of hair that dangled below the edges of their hats dripped with melting snow.

"You're soaked!" Marjorie exclaimed hurrying to the children. She pulled off two knit caps exposing the damp heads beneath. The girls wriggled out of jackets dark with the remnants of snowball splashes and kicked off boots, uncovering socks that drooped in elongated forms off their cold wrinkly toes. "I guess you got more snow inside your boots than outside," Marjorie tsked in a motherly tone. Their snow pants were so heavy with the melted snow that the girls had to sit on the floor while the housekeeper yanked the garments off, tugging mightily on the edges of each leg to extract them. Last came the heavy woolen sweaters that crackled and sparked with static electricity as Marjorie pulled them over the girls heads one at a time. Reagan and Pam laughed and pointed at each other as the few strands of hair that managed to stay dry floated upright with the magnetism of the wool. The housekeeper bundled the damp lot in her arms as she headed for the laundry. She cast a quick glance over her shoulder as the front door opened admitting Payton and Colin. "I hope you two are in better condition than my first customers," she warned playfully.

Payton frowned for a moment then looked at the two barefoot girls that stood on the plush foyer carpet. She noticed immediately how her younger sister's teeth chattered and worried at the bluish tinge on the girls' lips. The woman quickly unzipped her jacket and unwrapped the scarf she had tied around her neck. "I think it's a hot bath and then a hot meal for both of you." She announced, stepping toward the girls. She worried that perhaps four hours in the snow on top of that hillside and then in that open sleigh might have been a bit too much for a child still recovering from mental and physical trauma. She scolded herself mentally.

"Awww, P-Payton I'm n-n-not c-c-cold," Reagan whined as her jaw vibrated, rapidly clicking her teeth together. Pamela nodded quickly making a useless effort to still her own shivering. "W-we w-want to help with the t-t-t-tree." The girl pleaded carefully stepping over the bits of snow that lay melting on the carpet.

Payton shook her head as she hung her jacket and pulled off her own boots. "Not a chance," she informed them, "you use my tub and Pam can use yours." She continued as she rose and moved toward the chilly young girls.

Marjorie stepped back into the foyer to gather the rest of the snowy paraphernalia. "I've got a nice pot of chicken soup and some hot cocoa that will warm you right up," she smiled. The girls perked up immediately as they started toward the door to the dining area but were stopped short as Payton stepped up and caught each one by an arm turning them in the opposite direction.

"Not so fast," she teased, "tubs are this way. Once you're warm and dry you can help all you want."

Reagan and Pam continued their protest as Payton gave each a gentle shove toward the staircase. "It's not f-fair," Reagan pouted, "you were out there t-too. You were c-cold too…" she tilted her head back at her sister and then to Colin hoping for some support from her lawyer friend.

Colin laughed quietly and shook his head, "Sorry, slugger I gotta go with the judge on this issue. You get sick now and you miss the whole shebang." He shrugged his shoulders and smiled broadly.

Reagan stopped abruptly, causing Payton to bump into the girls, knocking both slightly off balance for a second. "Pay…" she began her plea anew. Payton's patience was slowly waning. She was cold and tired from the midday jaunt and desperately needed a nice hot cup of coffee. She was also very concerned with Reagan's welfare and just a bit miffed that the girl was being slightly defiant.

"Move it!" Payton announced in her no-nonsense, executive, 'I am the boss' voice. Pamela understood the tone and sprinted up the stairs not wishing to anger her host. Anyway she was cold and a nice hot bath in Reagan's giant tub sounded great! Reagan, however, was not so easily intimidated by her sister's authority. She folded her arms across her chest, turned, and stared at the woman before her. Payton almost smiled at the kid's courage. No one in her office, no one in her whole company would dare defy a direct order let alone stand right in front of her and practically dare her into confrontation. She folded her arms across her own chest, mirroring the girl's position, then raised one eyebrow. For a moment the two sisters faced each other in what appeared to be some sort of stand off, neither prepared to give an inch.

Payton took one step forward. Reagan flinched but remained where she stood. The older sister took a second step and then a third coming to a stop nose to nose (or rather nose to navel) with the younger. Reagan swallowed hard and blinked rapidly, then took a deep breath as Payton began to circle around her. The woman stopped directly behind the girl and leaned over to whisper in her ear. "If you aren't up those steps by the time I count to three…" she purred.

Reagan's eyes went wide as she drew a deep breath and loosened, but did not drop, her arms from their position.

Payton moved slowly to her sister's other ear to continue. "I'd be more than happy to give you a very nice view of the foyer from over my knee," she smiled as her voice dropped low and threatening.

Reagan pondered the threat for a second, wondering if Payton would really…. She dropped her arms to her sides and turned to the smiling face that was still next to her right ear. Her eyebrows raised in a silent question. Payton grinned menacingly and gave one curt nod that said, without words, 'You bet I will'. Reagan's shoulders slumped in defeat as she took a slow step toward the stairs. One quick painless swat from her sister convinced her that playtime was over and things were definitely going to be Payton's way. Without turning or reacting she bounded up the stairs and disappeared down the hallway.

Marjorie shook her head as she stepped past her young employer. "Reminds me a lot of someone I used to know," she smiled, "perhaps still does." Payton laughed at the reference to her own stubborn streak. "Don't worry, Miss Payton," Marjorie continued as she began climbing the stairs. "I'll be sure they are both sufficiently warmed and into dry clothes."

"Thanks," Payton smiled then turned to Colin who still stood in front of the door. They were alone for the first time since he had arrived that morning.

"Thanks for…" They both began at once then stopped allowing the other to go on. Colin smiled and motioned for Payton to continue.

"Thanks for helping this morning," Payton remarked quietly.

"Thanks for asking me," Colin returned.

For a moment they listened to the ticking of the large clock in the foyer, neither really knowing what to say or how to say it.

"You should take your own advice," Colin's voice broke the momentary silence. Payton cocked her head in confusion. He pointed at her feet; clearly just as wet as the young girls she had just dismissed. "You ought to get out of those wet things, yourself." He nodded. "I'll give Henry a hand with getting that monster in here and set up." He pulled the zipper of his jacket closer to his chin and poked his right hand into one of the gloves he had retrieved from Pamela. He turned and placed a hand on the doorknob.

She wanted to call to him, to ask him to stay, to suggest they share a few minutes together before the girls returned. She didn't. Did he hesitate? Was he expecting her to stop him? Colin turned and smiled again then waved as he stepped out the door. Payton stared at the door for a moment half-hoping he would return. She shook her head and silently admonished herself for her uncommon behavior, then turned and slowly walked up the stairs.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

By the time two young girls were sufficiently warmed, dried and fed, Henry and Colin had the twelve-foot Scotch pine anchored securely against the arc of the semi-circular staircase. Its top reached exactly to the edge of the railing that bordered the landing at the crest of the stairs. Reagan and Pamela traded 'oo's and ah's as they examined the mighty conifer on their way from the second to the first floor. Payton was similarly impressed as she descended the stairs. Colin stepped from behind the tree, visibly spent by the afternoon's work. His usually perfect hair was awry and bits of loose needles and excess forest remnants that had stuck to the tree were now stuck to the young lawyer. He excused himself quickly, seemingly embarrassed by his appearance, explaining that he had only a few hours to make the trip back home and be ready to return for the evening's festivities. Payton stifled a giggle at him as he hurried to escape. She walked slowly to the window and parted the draperies, listening as the old station wagon he had used to make it through the weather rumbled into gear and then slowly made its way down the long drive.

"Colin likes you." A soft voice came from her side. She looked down at Reagan who was also watching the old car disappear down the driveway.

"Think so?" She asked, looking back at the now empty drive.

"Uh huh," the girl nodded as she wriggled a small hand into her sister's. Payton gave it a little squeeze and let the drapery slip closed.

"Okay, ladies," she announced in a loud voice as she turned toward the giant tree that graced the main foyer. Reagan spun with her and waited eagerly for whatever proclamation her sister was about to make. "It's off to the attic for us!" Reagan was doubly thrilled. She would be able to explore a yet undiscovered region of this massive house and Payton was going to do it with her! The older McAllister marched across the floor, catching her sister's friend by the hand as she passed.

"I went ahead and got some of those new fangled lights, last time I was in town." Henry remarked as she went by. "Figured them old bubbly things would be way past their time, even if ya can find 'em in that mess up yonder." He pushed a hand into his pants pocket and drew out a large set of keys. "You'll be needin these as well." He flipped a few keys and pulled out a long silver rod with a large circular top and an odd squared off bottom. Payton stopped in front of him and took the key.

"Thank you, Henry." She smiled then retook Reagan's hand, holding the key between their palms. Payton practically pulled the two younger girls up the stairs and down the hallway. They raced all the way to the very end of the hall at the very back of the house to a narrow door. Payton took the key and carefully slid it into the keyhole. It turned easily and clicked loudly. With a bit of a flourish she turned the knob and pulled the door open. Before them was a narrow staircase that led up into total blackness. She turned the knob on the black bell shaped box just inside the door and the area was illuminated in soft light. "Ready?" She asked the two young faces that now seemed a bit apprehensive. They nodded and the threesome began their ascent into the McAllister storage area.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The attic was massive. Reagan figured it was at least as large as the perimeter of the house. The ceiling was low, just a few inches above Payton's head. There were chests latched closed with cracking leather straps and tarnished brass hinges. Tall double door wardrobes lined one wall and crates with strange foreign markings were stacked against another. Reagan made a mental note to come back on a sunny afternoon to do major exploring. A wicker pram lay tilted against an oak rocker that held a small three-mast ship on its seat. Both girls jumped and pressed close behind Payton as they passed a large bearskin rug that was thrown over an old barrel, its mouth open in a vicious snarl and its amber, glass eyes glaring menacingly. Payton chuckled as she put an arm around both frightened girls and pulled them closer. She pushed open a side door and waved her hand in the air searching for the string that would click on the bare light bulb overhead. When it lit, boxes and boxes of shimmering Christmas trimmings glittered in its incandescence.

"Some of this stuff is pretty old, so be careful," Payton warned as she released her companions. They nodded in understanding without taking their eyes off the glitz that surrounded them. They stepped gingerly into the room and examined the contents of the boxes with the kind of care one might give a priceless jewel. "Hmmm," Payton thought out loud, "I seem to remember some of these things." She peeked into a few boxes then brought them to the floor. Pamela walked along examining a shelf at her eye level, careful not to touch anything. Reagan stood in the center of the room and turned slowly in a circle, wondering which box to look into first. Most of the boxes looked older than she was and the things Payton placed on the floor looked like something she had seen in pictures of 'Christmases long, long ago'. She spotted one box high on the shelf that seemed not quite that old, that seemed somewhat familiar. The girl could barely make out what was written on the side of it, but the handwriting was unmistakable.

"Payton?" Reagan's voice shook a bit.

"Yeah?" Payton answered in a muffled voice as she tugged another box free. "We're going to have to make a few trips, I think."

"Payton?" The girl's voice was almost a whisper. Her sister placed the carton she held next to the others and followed Reagan's stare to the top shelf. Payton recognized the box immediately. "Can you get it?" Reagan breathed as Pamela also stepped closer to see what the attraction was.

Payton looked at the box for a long moment, then at her sister and then back at the box. The child's eyes remained glued to the item. Payton stood on her toes to reach it and barely touched it with her fingertips. She looked over her shoulder at Reagan whose eyebrows drew together with worry. Payton glanced around the small room and found just what she needed. She pulled a small chest to the spot below the box and stepped on top of it. This time she was able to grasp the cardboard container with both hands and bring it down to her younger sister.

Reagan held the case in her arms simply staring at the large, black, block letters scribbled across its top. This handwriting matched that on the side she had seen from below. 'CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS', it said simply. Pamela scrunched up her nose and looked at Payton with a cockeyed scowl. Payton shook her head slowly as if warning the girl not to ask. Reagan stood still, hugging the box and breathing in short shaky breaths.

Payton turned to the taller girl. "Pamela, I need your help," she began, "do you think you can find your way downstairs and get Henry to come help carry some of this stuff?"

Pamela looked at her friend and realized what Payton was trying to do. She nodded slowly and hurried out the door leaving the sisters to deal with this moment in private.

Payton placed her hand on Reagan's shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Reagan?" She began then slowly moved around to face her sister. "Reagan?" Payton's voice remained quiet and calm. She knelt down to meet Reagan's eye level. The girl seemed to be staring into nothingness, trying desperately to see or not to see something before her. "Reagan?" Payton tried a third time to break into this strange trance. She placed a hand on either of the girl's cheeks and brought her face to look at her own.

The girl looked straight through the person before her as dozens of memories spun through her mind, each one strangled by the reality she had pushed so far into its depth. Not even the joy of Christmas could overshadow the agony of the loss she could not seem to face. It had been so easy to push it away before. At first it just hurt so much she refused to believe it, she had told herself it was all some terrible nightmare and soon she would wake up in her own bed safe in her mother's arms. Then there was a new school and so much to think about there that nothing else seemed to fit into her twelve-year-old mind. Miss Thorne had seen to giving her a new series of events to deal with and then coming here to live with Payton filled up another corner of her mind. The insanity of what had happened last month pushed the memory deeper and her time in recovery was so full of so many people hovering and fussing over her that she had very little opportunity to think of anything else. Now, this one box, this one small piece of a life that no longer existed, opened a floodgate that one small girl could not hold together. Not any longer.

Payton shook the child's face firmly. "Reagan, look at me." Her tone was commanding, but not overpowering. Slowly the girl looked into her sister's eyes. Payton smiled with relief, but before she had a chance to speak, Reagan's wall came tumbling down and she let her pain go in one mournful sob. The woman pushed down her own panic at having to deal with this moment. She tugged at the box the child held, finding her grip quite solid. Slowly Reagan slumped to the floor resting her head on this small memento of her parents and their life together. She hugged it tighter and cried bitterly into it, seeking the comfort of one that could not come to her.

Payton was at a loss. She wished Marjorie would suddenly appear, like she always did when something like this happened. Marjorie knew what to do, what to say, what to…. Payton knelt before the sobbing child, wrestling with the urge to pull her into her arms and absorb all of the grief that should not burden someone so young. She wasn't sure if it were the right thing to do. Maybe Reagan needed to cry, needed to feel this way. As the panic in the woman grew the defense of anger threatened to overtake her. Part of her wanted to just tell Reagan to 'get over it' and go on. Things like this happened. She'd lost a mother too and she didn't go around sobbing on silly knick-knacks. Payton closed her eyes, listening to her little sister's soft mournful cry and willed that feeling away. There was no way she would allow Reagan's heart to ever become as cold and black as her own. She reached out and took the child by the shoulders gently tugging her up from the hard surface that offered very little comfort. This time Reagan released her box of memories and allowed herself to be wrapped into her sister's embrace. For the moment Payton realized there wasn’t anything she could say or do to take this pain from the girl. She could only hold her, could only be a source of comfort (if it were possible for Payton McAllister to ever play that role). The woman stroked the child's hair and rocked her gently. There was little else she could offer. Reagan's sobbing continued alternating between deep gasps and bitter sighs then eventually becoming soft whimpers and sniffling as she relaxed against her sister's chest.

"Why, Payton, why?" She cried into her sister's shoulder, squeezing her tightly, "it's not fair, NOT FAIR," her small voice shrieked with bottled anger. Reagan pushed herself away and placed her hands against Payton's shoulders. "I WANT MY MOTHER!!! I WANT HER BACK!! IT ISN'T FAIR!!" She pounded her small fists against Payton until the older woman took her wrists and held them tightly. "I want my mom, Payton. I want my daddy…it's not fair," she practically begged as the tears fell freely. Payton covered the small fists with her own hands and held them until they relaxed. It was a few moments before she realized she too had tears streaming across her cheeks.

"I know," she whispered, "it isn't fair, none of it is fair…" She paused for a moment as she realized the child had stopped her tirade and was gasping short breaths between sniffling back some of her grief. Reagan was listening, waiting for some words of…of wisdom? …comfort?…. Payton searched the red rimmed eyes that stared into her own then pulled the child back against her chest hugging her tightly. "It isn't fair, Reagan. It is horribly unfair and I don’t' know if I can ever make you feel as loved as your parents did…I'm so very sorry Reagan."

As she finished Payton felt a pang of her own loss and her voice cracked with emotion. She felt the grief that had been clouded by years of hate and anger hit her with full force and in that moment cried for her own loss. She cried for the mother she never knew and the father she pushed out of her life. She cried for the woman that brought this wonderful child into her life and for the time she wasted in never giving that person a chance to love her as well. She rested her cheek against the top of the blonde head on her chest and wept with the child until a small hand reached around and patted her back with a gentle soothing touch.

Reagan pushed herself up to rest her head on her sister's shoulder and whispered into her ear, "don't cry, Payton, I'm here, don't cry now." Those little words of comfort, the child had to have learned from her mother, pulled at Payton McAllister's heart strings and an even greater sob issued from her chest as she wrapped the girl in a tight hug.

"I'm here too," she whispered back into the ear at her cheek, then kissed the child softly. The kiss was returned and for a few moments the room grew quiet. Reagan pulled away and offered a weak smile then reached into the sleeve of her sweater and extracted a small white handkerchief. She dabbed her sister's eyes with it. "Marjorie says…" she hiccuped shakily, "a lady should always have a clean kerchief." Payton smiled as well and slowly reached up taking the cloth, then used it to wipe the child's eyes as well. Reagan leaned forward and rested her forehead against her sister's. "I love you, Payton," she whispered as if it were a secret.

Payton felt goose bumps rise on her arms and swallowed the lump in her throat. Such small words, three little words, and yet she could not bring herself to say them as well. She nodded and closed her eyes. "Do you want to show me what's in the box?" She replied softly. Reagan nodded then scooted across the dusty floor on her knees to retrieve her precious treasure.

"This was Mummy's special box," she explained through her sniffling. "She liked all the other stuff we had, but this was the most important." She carefully lifted the lid exposing mounds of red and white tissue paper inside. "One time, in the apartment store room, someone knocked down our boxes of Christmas ornaments and a lot got broken. Daddy said he would put these in a special secret place where no one would ever break them." She ran her hand over the tissue as if it were a sacred icon.

Payton thought for a moment about the trips that her father had made in and out of Mac an Bhaird. She never paid much attention. He could have carried an Egyptian Mummy Sarcophagus through the house and she would not have noticed, let alone one small insignificant box. Reagan scooted closer to the box and wiped her nose quickly and absent-mindedly on her sleeve. She wiped both eyes with the backs of her hands and reached into the wrappings bringing out one small bundle. She stared at it, blinking quickly.

"May I?" Payton asked for permission as she reached for the little blob of paper. Reagan nodded then sat back on her heels and watched as Payton unraveled the tissue and exposed a tiny glass house decorated with silver glitter and white sparkling paint. Reagan smiled as Payton held it up for inspection.

"That's the one Mummy's Aunt Grace gave to her before she left England. She said it would always remind her of her home there." Reagan smiled, then sniffed again. She reached in and pulled out another package, carefully unwrapping it as well. The child smiled broadly at the small glass imitation of a bunch of grapes. It was a silvery purple color with faint green leaves near the top. "Daddy said this one was from France. It reminded him of the wine at a special vineyard there." She looked at the round pink and rose colored globe Payton held in her hand. "There's two of those," Reagan smiled, "Mother hung one on the tree when it was my first Christmas, the other one is kind of the same just older. Daddy said he kept it to remind him of someone else who was just as special." One by one Reagan unwrapped the delicate decorations and told the short stories that went with each. Apparently she had heard them over and over in the eleven Christmases she was able to share with her parents. Payton listened to every word and helped to re-wrap the treasures and gently place them back into the box. At the very bottom was a cigar box that Reagan lifted tenderly from its nest of paper. "Mother kept these separate," she laughed, "she said they were the most precious." She held the box out to her sister. Payton took it; surprised that Reagan would want her to open it instead of doing it herself. Inside were small paper ornaments jaggedly cut and colored, decorated with buttons and sequins. Reagan picked up the top item, a triangular tree. "I made this one in kindergarten," she giggled.

Payton looked up as Henry stepped into the room. Pamela peeked around his side. She shook her head slightly and nodded toward the boxes she had piled near the door. The man took the hint and reached down, handing the smallest box to the girl behind him, then taking two in his large arms and cocking his head in a motion for Pam to follow. He winked at Payton as they left.

"Would you like to put these on our tree, Reagan?" Payton asked her sister who was still admiring her small paper tree.

Reagan looked up surprised, "Can I?" She remarked. "You wouldn't mind my Mom's ornaments on your tree?"

Payton felt a twinge of guilt and a bit of embarrassment as she realized that Reagan had probably known about her relationship with Jordan. She stood and brushed the dust from her knees and hands, trying not to make eye contact with the child. "I think…I think they'd look terrific on our tree, Reagan."

Reagan stood and looked at the box then back at her sister. "But," she was a bit confused, "I thought you wouldn't like it if my Mom's things were…"

"I used to think that too, Reagan," Payton explained, moving a strand of blonde hair away from the girl's eye, pushing it behind her ear. "I didn't know your mother Reagan…but I know now," she took a deep breath, "she had a wonderful little girl, so she must have been a special person."

Reagan smiled and hugged her sister's waist. "She would have loved you too, Payton. I know she would." For some reason the usually skeptic Payton believed that. She smiled and hugged the child back.

"We better get moving, or we won't be ready for tonight," she reminded Reagan. Payton reached down and picked up the box of treasured memories then pointed toward the door. Reagan tucked the cigar box under her arm and headed in that direction.

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Continued