What Child is This?
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
"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 thats 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' façade 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 evenings 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 Paytons angora mittens and Pamela sported Colins 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 wasnt 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 dont' 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.
The boxes had been carried to the foyer and examined to be sure every ornament was intact. Henry had tested and strung each set of multi-colored lights under Marjorie's strict observation. When the clock struck six everyone stopped and stared at the large face refusing to believe the hours had passed so quickly. Each one scrambled from the floor to their feet or from a ladder to the floor in order to scurry off to get ready for the night's events. At 6:45 the doorbell chimed. Marjorie pulled the door opened to admit Connie who wore a full-length fur coat.
"What do you think?" she winked at Marjorie as she spun in a circle to model her wrap. "Took me five years to save up enough to pay for the damn thing and I don't have anywhere to wear it!" She laughed hysterically as she handed the two large shopping bags she carried to the housekeeper and slipped the coat off her shoulders. The two women exchanged the items they held. "Be careful with that now, Marge, lots of little fuzzy wuzzies were generous enough to sacrifice themselves for it and I want to take very good care of them for a long time." Marjorie laughed at Connie's jest as she opened the long hall closet and hung the garment inside. "I know Payton said not to bring anything but I couldn't resist. I'm off to Virginia to visit with the family at the end of the week and I wanted to be sure the little sweetheart had something special from me." The secretary moved to the tree and started unpacking the bags and setting at least a dozen packages of various sizes, shapes and colors beneath it. She glanced over her shoulder and caught the look on Marjorie's face. "Oh, now don't, Marge! They're not all for Reagan, I've got a few here for my other sweetie as well." She smiled again and quickly folded the bags, handing them to the woman. "Quick," she whispered, "get rid of these before old iron bottom sees them." Both women shared a chuckle at Payton's expense.
"Starting without me?" Payton's voice came from the top of the stairs as she leaned over the railing to see what the commotion was all about. Marjorie quickly exited the room taking the 'evidence' with her. Payton began a slow descent. She walked across the foyer, eyeing the gifts that had appeared beneath the tree. "Hmmm," Payton raised an eyebrow and wrinkled up one side of her face, "could have sworn we agreed on no gifts."
"Gifts?" Connie exclaimed innocently, "Those gifts?" She pointed at the packages beneath the pine.
Payton nodded with a silly grin, "they'd be the ones."
"Don't know a thing about them, I just got here myself. Santa must have paid an early visit." She smiled, trying to hide her guilt.
"Uh huh," Payton laughed as she shook her head and wrapped an arm around the tall slender woman. "You are something else, Connie."
"You're quite a complication yourself, Miss McAllister." Connie retorted as she did the same. "Let's have a drink. I've heard this place serves a mean Egg Nog."
"Connie!!!"a familiar young voice exclaimed, as Reagan raced down the stairs and practically knocked the secretary over as she crashed into her with a powerful hug.
"Ooof!" Connie expelled as she caught the child and bent to place a quick kiss on the top of her head. "Glad to see you too, sweetheart."
Reagan looked up without releasing her hold on Connie's waist. "I'm glad you came," she smiled broadly then moved back and turned to Pam, who had followed her down the spiral staircase. "This is my friend from school, this is Pamela Morgan."
Connie stepped toward the child, "Hello, Pamela Morgan, I'm Connie Sinclair."
"Hello, ma'am," Pamela nodded quietly.
"Oh none of that ma'am stuff with me, honey, just call me Connie," she smiled at the child who smiled back her, "and I must say you all look absolutely magnificent this evening!" She remarked stepping back to admire her hostesses.
Reagan wore a dark green velvet dress with a with white filigree collar, off white stocking and black velvet Mary Janes. The dress was simple but the color was an excellent contrast to the girl's fair complexion and reddish blonde hair. The sprinkle of freckles across her nose seemed to glow in the combination of colors. Pamela's dress was similar in design and Connie suspected Payton had made sure the visitor had been given a special gift for the evening. This child, whose hair was honey brown and as curly as that little Temple girl's, was decked out in a deep burgundy dress with a white collar and three tiny pearl buttons at her neck. Her stockings were the same as Reagan's and her shoes just a wee bit different in style but made of the same velvet material. Apparently Payton had been doing some styling as well, since both girls' coifs were impeccable.
Payton herself seemed to have a special glow and Connie wondered if it were the holiday or the anticipation of that 'certain someone' who was due at any moment. Payton wore a black evening dress that complemented her figure as if it had been designed for her alone. Over it she wore a short jacket adorned with an array of tiny silver beads that caught the light and reflected it in a myriad of colors. Her hair that she usually wore down was pulled up and away from her face. She wore a single strand of pearls and small pearl earrings. Connie arched her eyebrows just a little. "I see you've done some shopping. Trying to impress anyone I know?" She teased as they walked into the dining room behind the girls.
Payton poked her arm around Connie's and smiled evilly, "You'll just have to wait and see now won't you." She wriggled her eyebrows a few times causing both of them to snicker at the silliness of the conversation.
Before the women reached the dining room table, the loud clap of the doorknocker announced the arrival of a second guest. Since Reagan and Pamela had been versed on the protocol of the evening they made no attempt to race to answer it, allowing Marjorie to walk slowly to do her duty. It did seem a bit odd to the housekeeper, since Payton had insisted she and her husband join the party as guests that evening. She pulled open the door and greeting a six-foot tall pile of gaily wrapped boxes. Marjorie blinked a few times then reached out to the stack. "Can I help you?" she snickered.
Colin craned his neck to peer around his parcels. "Marjorie?" he greeted her, quickly shifting his weight to avoid losing his goods. The topmost package teetered precariously then bounced off the side, bumping down against the others. Marjorie grabbed the small box and put her hand against the others, helping Colin to steady the pile. "Mr. Walters, is that you under all those boxes?" She leaned to the side to meet his gaze. He nodded with a smile, the motion immediately setting the gifts into a second wobbly dance with their porter. Again Marjorie helped to stabilize them, this time removing the upper boxes and revealing the young man's face. "You'd better get in here before you end up decorating the front stoop with your cargo!" She scolded as she moved aside to let him pass.
The young man slipped across the foyer with such stealth that Marjorie found herself tiptoeing behind him and looking from side to side for peering eyes that might be watching. Once they reached the tree, Colin took one last look around then quickly placed his trove under it. Marjorie followed suit. He turned to her and placed a finger on his lips, signaling her to keep quiet. Marjorie's eyes widened and she nodded slowly as she moved around him to take his coat. She shook her head. 'Did these silly people actually think Payton wouldn't know where these gifts came from? They should have been as sneaky as she and Henry and placed them BEHIND the large tree, not right out in front!' She walked to the closet to hang the garment as Colin straightened his tie and walked toward the sound of laughter coming from the dining room.
"Colin!" Connie crooned as he entered. She moved to meet him and kissed him softly on the cheek. "Merry Christmas!!" She smiled, then winked at Payton.
Colin took a step toward the lady of the manor, focusing on her smile. "Hi Colin!" Reagan beamed as she stepped in his path and took his hand. "Doesn't the tree look great since all the branches settled down?" She smiled and tugged at his arm.
"Everyone thing looks wonderful," he commented, still eyeing the dark haired woman across the large room. He looked down at the child smiling up at him and put a hand against her cheek, "especially all of you lovely ladies." Reagan giggled and pulled the young man toward her sister.
"Bet you never saw anything so beautiful!" the girl announced waving her arm in an arc to display the decorations that had sprung up throughout the house.
"Never," Colin repeated in a hushed tone as he stepped in front of Payton. She cast her eyes to the floor, suddenly embarrassed by his attention.
The usually dark and dismal manor was sparkling with trails of bright green garland that stretched in loops across the mantle and tops of the long draperies. Bright shining sliver balls hung at regular intervals below large red velvet bows. Tall white and gold tapers stood in crystal holders entwined with holly. Their flames blinked and flickered happily almost as if they had taken on the spirit of the season. The back of each chair was covered with a deep green mat bordered with gold Greek key designs. The gold fringe hung down almost reaching to the seat of each. The shining cherry tables were covered with matching runners and each one held a pine centerpiece that wrapped tightly around thick bayberry candles. All in all, the entire house glowed with the holiday spirit.
The hall clock chimed the half-hour. Payton sighed with relief as she stepped around the lawyer. "I think Marjorie has dinner ready," she announced in a voice slightly higher than usual. Connie's eyebrows went up in a silent look of surprise. Payton's glare quickly erased it. Colin quickly shook off his infatuation (for now) and assumed a more casual attitude. He released the button on his silk jacket and pushed one hand into a pocket.
Reagan looked at the dining room table and wondered why her sister insisted it were dinnertime. The table was covered with a white lace cloth. A large crystal bowl of yellowish liquid set in the center, circled by several matching crystal cups. Small plates of various treats were placed strategically across the rest of the surface. Reagan couldn't imagine this being dinner and pretty much figured they wouldn't be eating in the much smaller kitchen. She looked at Pam, who seemed to be having much the same thoughts. They both scrunched up their noses and shrugged their shoulders.
A small bell rang out clearly, reminding Reagan of the sound that preceded the entrance of a priest at Sunday mass. She hadn't been to chapel since she'd come to the manor and for an instant she wondered if Payton did that kind of thing. The bell rang a second time and she looked to her sister for explanation. Payton reached out a hand to her and smiled as if she had a great secret. Reagan grabbed Pamela's hand and took her sister's in the other. "Follow us." Payton said quietly as she started toward the foyer. Reagan was even more confused. Were they going to have dinner in there?
The entire group moved across the wide foyer, passed the tree and stopped in front of the tall double doors that Reagan had never seen opened in all her time in the manor. Payton dropped the child's hand and looked down at her with a sparkle in her eye that hinted Reagan would enjoy what was to come. She quickly glanced over her shoulder at the others as she placed both hands on the brass knobs of the doors, dragging out the act as long as she possibly could. Reagan held her breath as Payton turned the knobs and pushed the large doors apart revealing the spectacle beyond them.
The banquet room's opulence went far beyond the grandeur of the dining room and parlor that was the main living area of the manor. This room was certainly the jewel of the house. The chandelier that hung in the center of the gold inlaid ceiling was at least as big as Colin's small car and aside from the crystal prisms that hung from it, it was decked with the same green garland and silver ornaments that adorned the other rooms. The table was long and black, the chairs so massive Reagan was sure that she would need help to move them. There were tall candles set on either end that burned brightly, casting their flickery light that reflected off the one full wall of mirrors and all of the prisms above. Rainbows of refracted light danced around the room adding to its magnificence. Marjorie stood next to the table that was set for eight and covered with every food imaginable. Henry was at her side, tugging at the collar of his starched white shirt. His stubby beard was gone revealing the strong handsome profile under it. Gone was the old Dodgers' cap and the older man's hair was neatly parted and combed. He seemed uncomfortable, but Reagan couldn't help smiling at him.
The small crowd stood in the doorway a step behind their hostess merely staring into the grand ballroom. Payton raised her arms in a 'tah-dah' motion. "What are you waiting for?" she beamed with the joy of being able to do this for her 'family'. "Let's "
An unusually loud bang stopped her short and everyone turned toward the front door. A second series of loud knocks came fast and furious. The group exchanged looks and Payton took a step toward the entranceway. Henry stepped forward quickly motioning for her to stay put. He exited the room and all eyes watched as he opened the front door just enough to view the noisy visitor.
Henry narrowed his eyes as he scanned the stranger from tip to toe. This person was covered from head to foot in a long dark woolen overcoat. It wore a cap that came down over its ears and tied below the chin and a scarf that was wrapped around the face to the extent that only a pair of pale blue eyes blinked out at him. Small balls of snow clung to the garments adding to the odd outfit. The being held a rather wet and tearing paper bag in a tight hug.
"Umm lkng frrr a Mmmllstr redin," it mumbled.
"Huh?" Henry cocked his head and moved to stand between the creature and his family. Connie sensed the danger and quickly moved the girls into the ballroom. Marjorie put out her arms and took them close to her. Colin started to ease Payton out of the line of fire, then caught himself. If anyone could take care of herself, it was Payton McAllister.
The stranger bent over at an odd angle and used one mittened hand to pull the scarf away from its mouth. "I said," the figure took a deep breath and continued, "I'm looking for the McAllister residence." The hat slipped down over the thing's eyes as the scarf slid back up cutting off the end of its statement.
"Uh huh " Henry nodded slowly, just a bit suspicious of this odd visitor, "why's that?"
The creature repeated its routine of removing the scarf. "Party invited lost broke ." Henry managed to get from the garbled reply.
" Fleischman?" Colin inquired as he stepped around the older man.
"Mmmm Msssrrrs!" Came the muffled exclamation as the thing raised its head to see from under the peak of its hat. It reeled back, dangerously close to going backside first down the stairs. Colin reached out quickly and snatched it by the lapels, bringing it back to a standing position. He put an arm around the smaller person and pulled him into the house. Henry shut the door, still eyeing the thing with trepidation. Payton stood in the doorway with her arms folded over her chest. She shook her head and put a hand to her mouth to hide the laughter she could not contain. Two small faces peeked from behind her. Connie stood protectively close to them.
The snow-covered bagman set his package on the floor carefully and stood unraveling the scarf from his neck and face then pulled off the cap that had covered his ears and the rest of his head. He shook the snow from his shoulders and smiled a wide sideways grin at the group. "Sorry I'm late, Miss McAllister," Donnie explained, "it's kinda hard to read those directions in the dark and that old car of mine broke down about a mile back and I had to walk the rest of the way and ."
"Oh, you poor boy!" Marjorie exclaimed rushing past the others to him, "you must be frozen solid!" He smiled again as the red blush of embarrassment flooded his cheeks.
"Oh no, ma'am," he assured her as he squirmed out of the coat she was tugging on, "I'm not cold well, not really cold ." He sighed as he shucked off the Buckle Arctics that covered his feet.
Colin slapped the young man on the back knocking him forward a few inches. "Come on, join the party!" He laughed. Donnie smiled. Colin steadied him again then turned the young man toward him, straightened his tie, flattened the lapels of the jacket that seemed a little too large and pointed him back in the direction of the ballroom.
Donnie took a few steps then stopped remembering his package. He went back, retrieved it and walked back to Payton. "Um, thank you for inviting me Miss McAllister," he began shyly, "my Mom sent this, said she didn't think it'd be polite to come empty handed." He looked at the woman then quickly added, "I know you said not to but its just some jellies and jams Mom put up this fall and a loaf of her special nutbread and "
"It's okay, Donnie." Payton said quietly as she took the bundle from him. "I'm glad you could make it. Thank you." She smiled and he swallowed nervously then entered the ballroom. Marjorie smiled as well and took the package from her employer motioning for her to join the others.
After dinner was over the entire group volunteered to help Marjorie clear and carry all of the dishes to the kitchen. Once again Reagan was astounded by the layout of her ancestral home. A small white door on the inside wall of the banquet room opened into a long hallway that wound under the staircase and led into the main dining room on the opposite side. The housekeeper explained to the wide-eyed girls that it was a way for the servants to carry food and drink into the banquet room without passing through the foyer. In the old days, when the manor hosted many parties the meal was cooked in the kitchen and set in the dining area. The dining room doors were kept closed so the room could be used to hold the food, and the guests' coachman could be served there as well. That way all of the 'upper crust' celebrants could use the ballroom and never lay eyes on the 'help'. Reagan and Pamela were fascinated with the manor's history. Colin and Connie shared memories of holidays in their own homes and how after the main meal everyone would gather in the kitchen as the clutter was cleared. Connie confessed that although she generally hated the clean-up process, that was probably her most favorite part of the holiday. Colin laughed that he was usually not involved in what was considered the ladies' chores, but even as a boy he wondered what all the revelry was about in the kitchen. His sisters usually grumbled over doing dishes, but they rushed to this duty after holiday meals. Marjorie smiled at Payton who stood listening to her friends' memories, hoping that she too was enjoying the moment. The housekeeper and her two small shadows made their way back to the ballroom through the long tunnel. Donnie looked up with a startled expression as they entered. For a moment the poor housekeeper thought perhaps, the poor boy was choking. She moved quickly to his side and gently thumped his back. The young man looked at her with such a mortified tone that she was almost positive of her thought.
"Oh m'gosh," he squeaked, patting his trousers with one hand, as if looking for some lost item. "I left it in the car!"
"Left what, dear?" The housekeeper asked in a motherly tone.
"I gotta go back," Donnie announced as he almost dropped the stack of fine china he was holding. He caught himself in the nick of time, easing the pile back onto the table then rushed past Payton, who was entering the room, practically knocking her over in the process. The young man quickly grabbed her by the upper arms, then realizing just who he was holding, just as quickly released her. "I I I'm s-sorry Miss McAllister I was I just I forgot " he stammered in such haste that very little was intelligible. Payton merely stared at him, utterly dumbfounded by his actions. He finished or rather didn't finish, by nodding quickly and hurrying to the closet where Marjorie had hung his woolen overcoat. "It won't take long I'll be right " His voice was lost as he moved into the closet searching for his coat. He appeared a moment later with his silly hat plopped on his head, his scarf dangling in long strands on either side of his neck, and one arm stuffed into a sleeve. The coat hanger still stuck out of the back of the coat. He stopped in mid stride, realizing he was pressing against another body. He lowered his arm, slowly sliding into the other sleeve and raised his eyes to meet the pair looking down at him.
"Where are you going?" a low voice almost growled. Donnie looked from under the brim of his cap at a very stern Payton. He swallowed hard.
"M-m-my car " he began in a high pitched whisper, "I left something th ." Payton was shaking her head. She took a deep breath, but before she could say anything he hurried to finish. "I have to get it Miss McAllister. It's very important, the most important thing I had tonight. Oh, lord I can't believe I left it there." He finished more to himself than to her. Somehow the urgency in his voice convinced her of his desperation.
"I can't let you go out there, Donnie," she shook her head again as she reached over his head and caught hold of the hanger that was poking out of the collar of his coat. She used it to steer him in the direction she wanted him to go. Before he could protest she continued, "Henry can take you back to your car in his truck. I'm sure you can get what you need and get it started as well." She stopped and turned him to face her, "that is unless, you planned on spending the night?" She cocked her head to one side, raising her eyebrows.
"Spend the night?" he repeated, "Spend the night! Oh no, no, Miss McAllister, no, no I I I no, no." He shook his head rapidly from side to side causing the ear covers of his cap to flap wildly.
Henry stepped behind him and took the hanger from Payton, steering the young man toward the front door, "Doncha worry yerself none, Miss Payton, we'll be back before old Ben chimes the hour." He caught the young man as he stumbled once. "Better git yer sea legs, bucko 'er I'll leave ya in my wake." He scolded as they exited the manor.
The door shut softly and the manor fell into dead silence. Outside the revving of the truck's engine signaled the duo's departure and the entire group broke into laughter.
By the time Marjorie set the last dish back into the tall china closet and the ballroom darkened with its doors once again pulled shut, Henry and Donnie had returned. The young man smiled broadly as he entered and placed a very large box under the tree. He stood and looked at it with a hint of pride.
"You can be first, Donnie." Reagan's voice came from his side. She stood holding a painted glass ornament out to him. He took it gently and held it in his hand. Mentally he told himself over and over 'don't drop it, oh please don't drop it'. He looked over his shoulder at Payton who nodded with a small smile. Donnie carefully reached out and hooked the baseball-sized decoration on one of the branches of the tall pine. Reagan clapped in approval as the others moved closer and began to gingerly take more of the glitzy ornaments to decorate the beautifully shaped tree. Henry trimmed the upper branches. Colin stood on the tall ladder that had been brought into the foyer earlier in the day while Reagan and Pamela used the staircase as a means to reach them. Before long the boxes were filled with nothing but crumpled tissue paper and were quickly recapped with their respective lids then piled in the kitchen to be returned to the attic by morning.
"Can we turn on the lights now?" Reagan asked eagerly.
"Not yet," Payton shook her head slowly, "something is missing, something very, very important."
Reagan looked at what she thought was probably the most beautiful Christmas tree she had ever seen. It actually seemed to glow without the lights. She scanned each branch, carefully noting the location of her 'special' ornaments. The candy canes Connie had provided as extra decoration, and the white tipped glittery pine cones Marjorie and Henry had taken from a small box and placed on the branches near the far wall (even though Payton insisted they put them in the front). She looked at Pamela who shrugged her shoulders and turned up both palms. "What, Payton, what's missing?" She asked her sister, her face scrunched up in confusion and wonder.
"Well," Payton explained as she walked toward the one box that was still on the foyer floor. "You know we had all these ornaments from a while ago that I suppose were mine. And then there were yours," she placed her hand under the silvery pink and blue ball that had adorned Reagan's first tree and quickly took a breath in order to continue. "So there were your things and there were my things, but there wasn't anything that was ours " Reagan still seemed confused. "Something," she picked up the box and walked back to Reagan, "that would be special to both of us." The girl looked at the box for a moment then back to her sister who nodded and motioned for her to open the lid. Pamela moved next to her friend for a better look.
Reagan lifted the top of the box slowly, revealing the folded white paper underneath. The girl was forced to place the box on the floor in order to maneuver the rest of the unveiling. She slowly parted the paper as the group moved in an arc around her. The young girl's mouth dropped open and her eyes went wide, freezing her in a moment of silent awe. Almost in slow motion she looked up at her sister then back down at the object under the tissue. She reached into the box taking the item in her arms and lifting it as though it was a newborn babe. "Payton," she breathed, "she's beautiful." She turned the article toward the others displaying it carefully, but with pride.
Everyone nodded in agreement as the girl showed off the baby-doll-sized angel she had lifted from the box. It was clothed in a white satin robe edged with gold that matched the cord around its waist. Its wings, that spread out at its shoulders, were covered with real feathers that glowed with iridescent colors of dark greens and metallic hues. The figure held its hands out in annunciation of the birth of the King and its look of celestial contentment was unmistakable.
"Would you like to put her at the top?" Payton asked quietly, bending close to the child's ear. Reagan was speechless and managed only a slow nod as she hugged the angel close to her heart. She looked into the figure's soft blue eyes. Her heart thumped against her chest and she wondered if Payton's thoughts matched her own. 'Was this the angel her mother had promised would always look down from heaven at her? Was this the angel that now protected her parents?' "Come on," Payton placed an arm around her shoulders and led her to the foot of the stairs where Colin met them. They walked to the landing at the top. The young lawyer lifted the thin youngster and held her tightly as she reached across the small space to place the figure on its rightful perch. For a moment everyone merely admired it. Payton was careful to stand back from the railing in order to brush the tears that fell, despite her efforts to control them.
Colin turned to the child at his side. "Now the lights!" He smiled, grabbed her hand and the hand of the woman behind him then walked quickly down the stairs. Reagan practically skipped to Henry who stood next to the handle shaped switch on the wall. With one hard push she flipped the lever up and brought the illumination of the tree to life and at the same time switched off the regular lights in the foyer. She practically jumped from the spot behind the tree in order to be in front of it as the lights came on.
"Beautiful," Reagan nodded as she leaned back and rested against her sister. Payton hugged the child. Pamela smiled and nodded as Connie put an arm around her. Marjorie leaned her head against her husband's shoulder. Donnie poked Colin in the ribs with his elbow and grinned sideways in a look of approval. Colin put a hand on the young man's shoulder and nodded in agreement.
They had made an excellent choice; it was a very special tree sharing in a very special moment.
The clock in the foyer chimed ten times, but before Payton could announced it was past the time certain young people were in bed, Connie pulled a small box from under the tree and held it out to her. "Sorry, boss, couldn't resist. You know how I love to shop." She shrugged guiltily. Payton shook her head as she took the small gift. Connie leaned close and kissed the younger woman's cheek then hugged her tightly, whispering in her ear, "had to bring something for you, the rest are for the little one." She snickered as Payton pushed her away with a similar sound.
"I've got presents for everyone, too!" Reagan piped from across the foyer. Before anyone could respond she disappeared through the dining room door. The others looked at each quickly then back to the opening that the child had just gone through. A moment later they all jumped a bit as the hollow sound of the library door slamming echoed through the house. Reagan appeared again, her arms were full of small packages wrapped in white paper and tied with red or green ribbon. She strode across the room examining small hand written cards then distributing the gifts to their respective recipients. Connie put her package up to her ear and gave it a small shake as the girl asked them to wait until she was finished so they could open them at the same time. Then she stood in the center of the wide foyer for a better view of the group. "Okay, now!" Reagan announced pointing her index finger up then dropping her arm quickly. For a few seconds the only sound in the room was the rattle and swishy crinkle of paper as it came off of the small treasures. Then one by one the beneficiaries of Reagan's Christmas creations began to admire their special gifts.
Marjorie held a multicolored almost square swatch of thick fabric in front of her. It was roughly made and she would definitely take a needle and thread to the edge to prevent it from unraveling but its simple childish beauty brought tears to the older woman's eyes. It had been many years since she had received such a heartfelt gift. Unable to speak she simply pulled Reagan into a giant hug, which the girl returned with equal gusto. "It's a pot holder or," she explained seriously, "you could use it to put your hot kettle on so it doesn't make a burn mark on the table." Marjorie hugged her again and Reagan noticed the tears. "Don't you like it?" Her voice was quiet and hinted a bit of anxiety.
"Oh, no, sweetheart," Marjorie's voice was hushed and cracked with emotion, "no, no don't you ever think that," she cooed as she squeezed the girl a third time and rocked her gently back and forth. "This is the most special, most beautiful, wonderful tea kettle holder I have ever, ever seen." Marjorie managed a smile then held the girl's face in her hands and kissed her on both cheeks. She held out the cloth for everyone to admire, then hugged it to her chest with one hand while reaching into her sleeve with the other to pull out her handkerchief. She sniffled a few times before realizing all eyes were trained on her. "Well now, then lets have a look at what everyone else found." She announced firmly, then quickly wiped her eyes and brought herself back to her former state of mind.
"Hey, its a its a a " Donnie smiled holding up a baseball sized globe covered with small brown bumps and tied with a deep blue string.
"It's a potpourri ball," Reagan helped him. "You can hang it in your elevator so when those men come in smoking those awful little black cigars," she wrinkled her nose and waved her hand beneath it while scrunching up her face in a most unpleasant scowl, "it will help keep the car smelling much better!" Her smile quickly returned and was matched by the young man's.
"Well, that is just the one thing I never thought of," Donnie nodded and brought the ball against his nose. He took a deep breath followed immediately by a round of very loud sneezes. "Kinda smells orangey," he managed to comment between sniffles. Donnie rubbed his nose with one finger and blinked the tears from his red-rimmed eyes. "Sure is powerful." He sneezed one last mighty sneeze.
"Bless you," everyone replied for the fifth time. He nodded his thanks and pulled a large red paisley railroad hankie from his hip pocket. The toot that echoed from his nose caused the younger girls to explode into a fit of laughter.
"It's made from an orange and a lot of whole cloves, Donnie." Reagan explained through her giggles. "You shouldn't put it that close to your face." She shook her head. Donnie was funny, but he was one of the sweetest, most caring people she had every known. She imagined her father had been much like this young man long before she or Payton were part of his life.
"Thank you, Reagan," Donnie mumbled through his hankie as he tooted his proboscis a second time, but much more quietly. "I can't wait to try it out."
Colin approached the girl quietly, wrapping one arm around her shoulder. He gently rubbed his thumb across the embroidered letters in the corner of the starched white handkerchief he held in his other hand. "Did you do this yourself, Reagan?" He asked quietly.
Reagan nodded with a smile of her own. "Well, mostly Colleen," she looked quickly at Payton then corrected herself, "er Miss Gibson helped me. She traced the letters in good handwriting and brought me the threads. The handkerchief was her father's." She paused and thought for a moment, "oh, but he didn't use it. It's still new. It was extra," she assured the young lawyer. "I picked the colors though."
Colin smiled wider. Purple and yellow were not one of his usual color combination choices, but it was something that he could honestly say he did not already have. "It's terrific, Slugger." He bent down and kissed the top of her head, causing a deep blush to flare across the girl's cheeks. She quickly ducked out of his half-hug and hurried to Connie's side.
"That one took a long time because I had to find just the right shaped bottle," she pointed to the hourglass shaped jar the secretary held. It was covered with multicolored, various shaped bits of tissue paper that seemed to shine with some sort of high gloss finish. Each piece of tissue was outlined with a raised black substance. "I glued on all the pieces, then C ," she coughed a tiny cough, "Miss Gibson helped with the outlining."
Connie turned the item over in her hand, examining the workmanship. "This Miss Gibson of yours is a woman of many talents, I imagine." She looked at Payton, who looked away quickly, to avoid a chuckle.
"Oh, she's a teacher almost." Reagan commented casually. "She has to know a lot about everything." Connie smiled again and held the small colorful bottle out at arm's length. "If you put a little chubby candle inside, you can see the colors reflect all over the room."
"A candle holder," Connie repeated quietly, "a candle holder, of course!" She looked up quickly at the others who were staring accusingly. "I knew it all the time!" she laughed loudly as she pulled Reagan close, squishing her into an engulfing squeeze.
"How'd a little mite like yerself come up with the likes of this?" Henry beamed as he held the nine-inch, white, braided cord against his wrist.
Reagan reached up and tied the ends together, then stepped back to admire the boson bracelet's fit. "There's a lot of books about the sea in that library," she informed the rugged older man. "Marjorie said you were a seaman, so I looked in them for the best thing to give you. I found a book that said sailors' wives gave them this kind of bracelet so they would always be reminded of home so they would always come back from the sea," she recited as if she had memorized the text. "The seawater made them shrink so they fit snug and the sailor's didnt' lose them."
Henry ran his finger over the thick twine on his wrist, "and every family'd have its own design so nary a one of 'em was like another." He looked at Marjorie then back at the youngster next to him. "Its a fine band, best I've ever had the pleasure to wear." Reagan smiled then hugged the old sailor's waist causing the man to get a bit flustered. He gently patted her back. "I'll keep 'er with me always," he assured her.
Pamela held up a string of colorful beads set in a repeating pattern. She immediately recognized it as one that matched a necklace she had once admired in Reagan's room at school. Reagan winked at her friend and pulled a similar piece from beneath her lace collar. "Now, we match," she whispered as the two girls latched their pinkie fingers together in an pre-adolescent symbol of friendship.
At that moment all eyes seemed to be trained on Payton, who had waited until all of the others had opened and admired the gifts so painstakingly made by her younger sister. She still held the small rectangular package pressed against her heart with both hands. It really didn't matter what it was, what mattered was that Reagan had given it to her. She thought for a moment trying to remember the last time that any little trinket or elaborate gift had meant anything at all to her. Payton McAllister never actually realized that the value of any gift came not inside the package but in the heart of the giver. She wanted to keep this small treasure, as it was, forever. She looked from face to expectant face then noticed the pair of blue-green eyes watching her carefully. Slowly, the woman pulled the red and green ribbon loose and wound it around her hand before carefully freeing the tape and unfolding the tissue. Reagan moved next to her sister's side and stood on tiptoe to watch her unveil the special gift.
"Are you sure you don't want me to wait for the 25th?" She asked the girl. Reagan shook her head quickly and motioned for her sister to finish. Payton pulled the last of the paper off of the flat box and gingerly lifted the lid. She stared at it for a moment as a smile spread across her face. She stooped low to meet Reagan's level. "Thank you," she whispered as the sisters looked into each other's eyes.
"So?" Connie interrupted, "share?"
Payton stood and lifted the oval shaped frame from the box. It was adorned with small shells and tiny dry pink roses. The picture inside was of a very young couple dressed in wedding attire. Jack McAllister's image was unmistakable, despite the fact he could not have been more than nineteen or twenty-years-old in the photo. The young woman in the regal bridal gown was tall with dark hair and striking blue eyes. There was no doubt it was Payton's mother. Payton barely remembered ever seeing the photo. It must have been part of Jack's possessions. She felt a pang of regret that her sister had known more about her own mother than she had ever cared to learn. They would certainly have to talk. Odd that the younger sister would be the one to fill in the holes in the older sister's memory. This was only a start.
"I've got a picture of Daddy with my Mom. Payton needs one too." She explained to Connie who suddenly was speechless. "Miss Gibson gave me the shells she found at the Jersey shore and those little pink flowers were part of a bouquet that Daddy kept in a hat box. Collee Mmmiss Gibson got the ribbons clean and showed me how to get them to stick to an old frame I found in one of Daddy's boxes that Henry put in my room."
"Where did this picture come from, Reagan?" Payton asked as she passed the frame to Marjorie, who admired it with awe.
"Daddy," she answered confidently, "he kept it in a folder in his briefcase. One day I spilled it over and found the picture. I knew it was Daddy but ." She looked at her sister, suddenly afraid to continue.
"But?" Payton urged her to continue.
"B-but it wwwasn't my Mom so I kept it. I hid it in my school bag and when he looked for it I wouldn't give it to him. I told him I never saw it, but Mother explained who the lady was and said that Daddy kept it because she was special to him a long time before found her or had me." Reagan waited for someone to give her permission to continue. At Payton's nod she went on. "I gave it back to him the next day. He was awful angry," she paused and a blush rose on her cheeks, "he told me all about it, and her and Payton " she finished in a very, very tiny voice.
"I'm sorry for that, Reagan," Payton put an arm around her sister's shoulders. Reagan quickly hid her temporary embarrassment in her sister's side. "But, I thank you for this beautiful gift. I'll be sure it is never far from sight." She wrapped both arms around the girl and bent to kiss the top of her head. "Now," Payton breathed nervously, "I've got a few gifts of my own to distribute." She squeezed the girl one last time then released her and walked to the piano to retrieve four large white envelopes. She handed one to each of her employees as she crossed the room on her way back to her sister's side. "You," she tapped the girl on the end of the nose, "will just have to wait for Santa."
A moment later a clamor of voices came together in a chorus of "Oh no, I can't accept this," and "This is too much," and, "Oh lord!"
Payton held up one hand signaling silence. "No, it isn't 'too much'," she began staring at Donnie who seemed to be protesting the most. "And YES you can accept it," she aimed directly at Connie then turned to her housekeeping staff, "but the Lord had an awful lot to do with it," she smiled at Reagan, "I have a lot of Christmases to make up for, consider it a down payment. Donnie, I know you dropped out of law school when your dad passed away. You can't be an elevator operator for the rest of your life. That will get you through the first year of college, the rest you can work off after you pass the bar and become a member of McAllister's legal staff." She announced to the young man leaving him very little room to protest. "Marjorie, Henry," she turned to the elderly couple, "I made an awful lot of horrible Christmas memories for you and I know how much your children and your grandchildren would love to see you during the holidays. You leave on Tuesday." She held her hand up again stopping Marjorie before she could begin. "Don't worry about us, believe it or not I can cook AND I'm sure my office can do without me for a few days while my sister and I enjoy our first Christmas together. Besides, I've already spoken to your daughter in South Carolina and she is expecting you before the holiday." She hugged the woman who had been the closest thing to a mother she had ever known and both were then wrapped in Henry's huge bear hug.
Connie was shaking her head when Payton turned to face her. Payton wagged a finger at her. "Don't you dare say a thing!" she warned. "That covers the amount I should have raised your salary to back in September forgive me?" She looked for a moment as young as Reagan. Connie was overwhelmed. She pulled Payton into a tight squeeze then released her. "The ticket is to the New Year's Eve Party at the Waldorf Astoria. It is the party of the year and " she smiled saucily, "you'll finally have somewhere to wear that fur coat and all that jewelry you are always collecting." She hugged the secretary quickly and brushed away a tear before anyone could see it.
"Colin," she turned to the young lawyer, "you were a little more difficult, yet if it weren't for your quick thinking, I might not have the opportunity to be here tonight. You saved my sister's life," she stated quietly. 'And mine in the process, I do believe,' she thought. "I understand the legal department hasn't had any renovations since the war. That should get you started, that is if you are willing to take charge down there." She asked hopefully. The young man stared at the form in his hand, for a beat, before nodding. It would mean more work, but it would also mean the opportunity to improve the way the department worked. It would also mean he would spend a lot of time in conference with Miss Payton McAllister. Perhaps they would get to know each other a lot better.
Before anyone could become melancholy Connie began passing gifts to Reagan and Pamela, then all the adults relaxed in the festivity of watching the girls open them. It wasn't long before the entire foyer floor was covered with sheets of crumbled wrapping paper. Reagan opened a silver plated box that played the tinkling tune of a familiar lullaby while Pamela unwrapped a fine crystal snow globe. Other gifts included sweaters and leather school bags, stockings, candy, a stuffed bear, and so many things it would take the rest of the night to carry everything upstairs and sort it out according to new owner. The last box left was the one Donnie had returned to his car to retrieve. He pulled it out gently and brought it to Payton.
"It's for both of you," he blushed, "I didn't figure you'd have one."
Payton pulled the wrappings from the box, but allowed Reagan to reveal its contents. Inside was a miniature stable, unmistakably hand made, and fine, hand-carved wooden figures that made up the entire Nativity scene. Reagan held the small crib in her hands admiring the infant Jesus.
"Um I my we ." Donnie stammered an explanation, "my grandpa, he, ah he does this as a hobby and I kinda help him, so when you asked me to come I wanted to give you something special." The young man spoke in such a hushed tone it was hard to hear every word.
"Donnie, this is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen and no I do not have one, but if I did this would certainly take its place." Payton thanked him as Reagan and Pamela took the box to the base of the tall tree and began to set the pieces in place.
Colin moved to the piano and pulled the bench from beneath it. "May I?" he asked Payton, as he set the glass he had been holding on top of the instrument. "My Mother insisted I learn, said I'd be a hit at parties," he explained when she looked surprised at his request. Payton nodded and the young man sat down fingering a few arpeggios before playing the more familiar chords of well-known carols.
The group joined in singing, as they scooped up the piles of paper from the floor and deposited them a large box Henry had brought in to do the job. As the clock struck twelve Payton noticed two youngsters trading very tired yawns while alternately rubbing their eyes and Colin began to pick out the tune of 'What Child is This'.
"What child is this, who laid to rest on Mary's lap is sleeping " Reagan's voice rose clear and strong above the others as she knelt in front of the crèche. The others fell silent to listen to the child's sweet rendition of the century old carol. Payton looked up at the angel that a few hours before had been set atop the tree. She had chosen the figure because its soft countenance, reddish blonde hair and greenish eyes reminded her so much of the child that had become not only a part of her life, but a part of her heart. 'Whose child is this? is more like it,' she thought to herself as Reagan went into the second verse of the carol. 'Does she really deserve the likes of me?' She shook her head. As if on cue, Connie wrapped an arm around the younger woman's shoulder and gave her a motherly smile. Had she known what Payton was thinking?
"She's a treasure, Payt," the secretary whispered, "keep her close to that big heart of yours. She's good for you." She squeezed her young employer again and this time Payton relaxed, listening to the song and resting her head against Connie's strong shoulder.
Colin finished the song with grand flourish then rose to applaud the young singer with the others. He bowed when Payton held a hand out acknowledging his skill at the keyboard. Reagan covered a wide yawn and blinked a few times before Payton took her hand and turned to find Pamela already fast asleep on a huge stuffed panda lying beneath the tree. Henry bent and scooped the girl into his strong arms, ascending the stairs a few steps before his employer. Donnie thanked his hostess for a wonderful evening and Marjorie brought the coats from the hall closet. Connie hugged and kissed both McAllister sisters several times before Colin helped her into her long fur wrap and insisted on walking her to her car. He pulled on his own coat and the three MAC Shipping employees left Mac an Bhaird together. Marjorie closed the door behind them and turned to her boss. She cocked her head toward the smaller sister that leaned against the taller one, practically sleeping on her feet. Henry was halfway down the stairs when Marjorie informed him he had a second customer. The large man smiled and took a very tired Reagan into his arms. She rested her head on his shoulder, vowing to wait for Payton to come to say good night but was fast asleep before Henry reached the fifth step.
"The house is happy again," Marjorie gleamed, "Thank you, Miss Payton." But before Payton could answer she excused herself, announcing there was more to clean up in the kitchen before she could retire for the evening and that Payton had two little ones to get undressed and under the covers. Not an easy chore, she informed her young employer, when they are already asleep. Marjorie quickly disappeared into the dim interior of the dining room. Payton waited until she heard the soft whoosh of the kitchen door and the muffled voices of the elderly couple before she turned and took one last look at the tree that now adorned the manor. She flicked the switch on the far wall casting the room into darkness then turned toward the soft glow at the top of the stairs. Yes, the manor had taken on a new feeling. It was fresh. It was comfortable. It was home.
Tuesday morning found the McAllister sisters once again at Grand Central station. Pamela waved from the platform as she boarded the train bound for Albany. The youngster held her small pink case, but was sure that the 'extra' baggage she had to carry would surprise her brothers, who would meet her at that station. Both girls promised to write, to call, and to stay in touch as long as they could. An hour later Marjorie and Henry nervously boarded the south bound express to Fayetteville. Marjorie still protested as Henry took her hand and led her to the platform. She fretted over how Payton would run the house and take care of Reagan, alone, and who would cook Christmas dinner and they would be alone and . Henry gave her a gentle shove into the car then waved at the sisters. Marjorie waved from the window until the train was out of the station.
A driver from the office met them and drove the limo that Henry had piloted from the Hamptons back to the Bhaird Building where Payton had a few last minute things to take care of before returning home. She had left her car in the parking garage the day before and would drive them back after they shared a special dinner at Connie's Greenwich apartment. She'd insisted they visit before she too left for a visit with her family.
Reagan held Payton's hand tightly as they walked through the lobby and although she casually joked with Donnie who explained some very important, yet not widely known, Santa Claus rules, she refused to relinquish her need for sisterly protection. He informed her that she absolutely must not forget to hang her stocking immediately before retiring for the evening but not a second before. To do so would mean the owner was anticipating a bit too much and might risk forfeiting a few gifts for their effort. He reminded her to leave at least two large cookies, a large glass of milk and a few raw carrots as a kind of thank you for the man in red.
Payton made several phone calls, signed four contracts, reviewed shipping manifests, verified shipping schedules and returned three important messages in the three hours she spent locked behind her office doors. The most important task she had to undertake meant a trip to the legal department. There she made a special visit to Colin Walters informing him that she wanted to see a copy of her father's will on Monday morning. Then she wanted him to do whatever he had to, to make sure she was legally Reagan's guardian. He was to make it airtight. She did not intend to take any chances on any relatives showing up with ideas of taking the child away from her.
Reagan finished a report on South America, the last of four Geometry problems, and a book report on Robinson Crusoe. Connie answered the phone that seemed to ring endlessly, dealt with visitors that seemed unusually agitated for the season, and fielded complaints from several heavy set men with those awful stinky cigars. Reagan wondered if Donnie had brought his potpourri ball. By 3:30, they considered themselves finished for the day and set off for the village in Payton's car, leaving the limo so it could be used to pick up the Brauers when they returned the next week.
Dinner at Connie's small apartment was excellent yet simple. There were soft buns with crispy crusts and a variety of cold meats and cheeses. Several salads were included in the meal and Reagan suddenly felt more like she was at a Fourth of July picnic than a Christmas supper.
"Hey, you know what I always say," the secretary explained as she passed a large glass of iced tea to Reagan, "never be ordinary!" Connie laughed loudly causing Payton and Reagan to join in. It was wonderful to see her boss smiling, laughing living. "Besides, I figure you'll be having enough of all that high falutin' food at all those dinner parties you'll be invited to this weekend." She winked at Reagan while poking Payton with her elbow.
There were wonderfully unique decorations in Connie's dwelling. She had a small Christmas tree in a large pot. The secretary explained that she had brought it from her father's land in Virginia as sort of a little piece of home. She never thought the little thing would survive in the city but here it was twenty years later and it was still thriving. After the holidays it would go back to being just a little tree in a big pot, but for now it was a sparkling addition to her cozy living room. The evening was warm and relaxed, filled with friendly conversation and easy banter. By 9 p.m., Payton and Reagan had said their farewells and wished Connie a pleasant trip. The drive back to Mac an Bhaird was long and a light snow fell under a full moon. Payton pointed to the deer, silhouetted in the eerie winter light only to find her sister curled into a tight ball on the back seat and fast asleep.
The next two days seemed to drag for Reagan who was suddenly convinced that either there were certainly more than twenty-four hours in the days just before Christmas or that there were a lot more than sixty minutes in every one of those hours. Payton on the other hand knew exactly where those extra hours had come from. The same two days raced past her despite her efforts to get every last minute thing done before Christmas Eve. Reagan had been through so much and lost even more, she wanted to be sure this holiday was special for her.
Thursday evening brought a loud knock at the front door that startled both McAllisters as they prepared to enjoy the meal Payton had taken all day to create. It even included a special dessert. Living in a small apartment while studying business management had proved beneficial for the young heiress. She fought her way into the course, despite the objections of the 'old boy' society that ran the college, then graduated with grades that rivaled the top students in the class. Somehow she suspected her father's donations to the school had had something to do with her being accepted there and at the time resented him for it. Now she wished for the opportunity to thank him. She stood behind her sister as the child pulled the large front door open.
"You're phone isn't working," Colin announced, explaining his sudden visit. "I hope you don't mind that "
"No, no of course not," Payton replied, placing her hands on Reagan's shoulders. Inwardly she smiled, remembering distinctly that she had made a call not twenty minutes before. Somehow that didn't matter very much, she found herself intrigued by the young man's visit and curious as to what was so urgent it brought him to her doorstep. A terrible rush overcame her as she thought that perhaps he had come to tell her that her guardianship of young Reagan had already been challenged. But, Colin would not do that here in front of Reagan or now, two days before Christmas. She stepped aside, so the young lawyer could enter, taking Reagan with her. He shook the fresh snow from his collar and stomped his feet before stepping into the foyer. They stood facing each other both waiting for the other to speak first. Reagan stood between her sister and the man. She glanced quickly from one to the other and scowled. It seemed so funny to the girl that two people who seemed to like each other so much always seemed to have so very little to say.
"Do you want to stay for supper, Colin," Reagan asked grabbing the man's hand and tugging him a bit. "Payton made Beef Stroganoff and a lemon meringue pie!"
"Oh wow," the young man slapped his forehead, "I didnt even think I'm sorry to ruin your meal ." He answered Reagan but never took his eyes from her big sister.
Payton smiled and shook her head as she took his other hand, "Nonsense, Colin. Please come in, join us." She motioned toward the dining room with one hand and turned quickly to hide the look of glee that suddenly overcame her.
"Stroganoff, huh?" Colin raised his eyebrows as he shrugged off his coat and set it on the large foyer bench. Reagan nodded quickly as she waited then took his hand again.
"I had a Russian b fr acquaintance in college, his grandmother insisted I take the recipe," Payton boasted, suddenly remembering the tryst she had recklessly had with the feisty European Cossack." 'That is one memory I will not be sharing with little sister and if she ever pulls a reckless stunt like that I'll ' Payton allowed her thoughts to bounce between her torrid past and her sister's, soon to be very 'over protected' future. Colin stopped, noticing the look of displeasure that crossed her face. She quickly pushed the thoughts away and brightened her expression.
"It's sort of my specialty," she smiled at the lawyer.
"In that case, I would be honored," Colin replied extending his arm to her. Payton hesitated for a moment then looped her arm through his. Quickly, Colin repeated the action with his opposite arm and Reagan stood on her tiptoes to mimic her older sister. The trio walked into the dining room together.
"So, what are your plans for Christmas?" Colin asked as Payton placed a steaming plate in front of him. She looked at Reagan, who quickly shrugged her shoulders.
"Well, I guess I hadn't given it much thought past getting up to see what surprises Santa leaves for us," she explained with a quick wink at the young man. She looked back at Reagan who had suddenly become very silent and seemed lost in some private thought. 'Memories,' Payton told herself, worrying that perhaps Colin's question had stirred some private misery in the child's mind. "Reagan?" She nudged the girl softly as she placed a plate in front of her. "Is there something special you'd like to do." The girl shook her head slowly, keeping her eyes cast toward the table. Even at that angle, Payton could see the tears threatening to fall. She squeezed her sister's hand and looked to Colin for some kind of assistance.
"We've got lots of Christmas customs in my house," he began, "done the same thing every year since well, since I was just a little guy." He could see that wasn't a lot of help as the girl's head seemed to drop lower. "All families must have them, huh? Hey, Slugger, why don't you tell us what kinds of things you do," he suggested, hoping that Reagan would share her memory and thereby give Payton a hint as to what she could do to help make things a bit easier for the girl. Payton bit her bottom lip and smiled a thank you at the man. Her feelings for him seemed to grow stronger every time they met.
Reagan shrugged again, then took a deep breath. "We had dinner, just the three of us " she looked up quickly at her sister, "but there was always an extra place just in case." Payton felt the shard go through her heart. They never stopped hoping she would change her mind and show up on that holiest of nights. She closed her eyes, squeezed the girl's hand tighter and hoped the tears would not fall before she could pull her defenses back into place. A larger, stronger, hand fell on hers and pressed its warm and support against her. She turned to the young lawyer catching his quick smile.
"It's okay," Payton's voice cracked just a bit, "go on, Reagan, what else?"
Reagan looked from face to face and blinked back her own tears. "After dinner Daddy would read a special Christmas story. I always picked that Scrooge one. It was my favorite, because I used to wish to wish that " her head slowly fell back down until her chin bumped her chest.
Payton lifted the girl's head with one finger under her chin. "It's okay, little one," she whispered, "I wish I had come too." She smiled a half-smile and nodded permission for the girl to continue. Reagan smiled too, and quickly brushed away a tear with the back of her hand. She sniffed once before staring again.
"Mom would make a special drink that her great-great-great-grandpa always had on Christmas Eve and we would all toast and clink the glasses together. Then we would walk, walk all the way to St. Patrick's for Midnight Mass. Daddy would stop and talk to everyone and he'd wish all of them a Merry Christmas. We would hold hands and walk together. After Mass we would walk home and sing Christmas carols all the way." She laughed a little, "sometimes other people would sing with us and one time a man put a silver dollar in Daddy's hat." She laughed again then added, "but he gave it to another man who was very cold and sitting in a doorway." She picked up her fork and moved the food around a bit then took a small taste. She chewed thoughtfully. "When we got back, Mother would say 'get to bed quickly or you'll miss Father Christmas', that's what they call him in England," she explained. "Next thing I knew it was morning."
Payton thought for a bit. She hadn't seen the inside of a church since her days at Brisbey when the students were marched into chapel every Sunday morning. After graduation she dismissed the whole thing, praying never seemed to work for her anyway. She had told herself that God had more important things to worry about than Payton McAllister, much like her own father. 'What a stupid fool I've been " she told herself. There was a small church in town. It was the parish church connected to the school Reagan would soon attend. She would call tomorrow.
Colin sat back and wiped his mouth with his napkin. "Well, ladies the reason I came here tonight and the reason I asked is because I would like to officially invite you to Christmas dinner at my parent's home. It isn't far from here and I can pick you up at 4:00. However, I can't take no for an answer," he leaned closer to Payton and added. "My mother would never ever let me live it down." He sat back up and continued, "So please say you'll come?"
"Can we Payton?" Reagan's cheerful disposition seemed to be returning.
"I don't know." Payton drummed her fingers on the table and made believe she was deep in thought. She tapped the side of her head with her index finger. Reagan's eyebrows went up in anticipation of a positive answer; a quick glance at Colin told her he was expecting much the same thing. "I don't suppose it would be an imposition then?" Colin shook his head quickly. "And it wouldn't be considered a conflict of interest?" She raised her own eyebrows. The young man coughed to hide a blush then shook his head again.
"Absolutely not, just two ah, three friends," he corrected himself, quickly winking at Reagan, "sharing in the spirit of the holiday. Anyway the family is so big, you'd just blend right in."
"Then tell your mother to count two more guests for dinner." Payton announced as Reagan cheered.
Dinner continued without incident and finished with large slices of luscious lemon pie. Payton and Colin moved to enjoy their coffee in front of the fire place after the three diners had washed, dried and put away every dish, pot and pan, leaving the kitchen just as immaculate as Marjorie would have done. Reagan sat at the dining room table working on a puzzle Colleen had given her before leaving the week before. She smiled as she listened to the muffled sounds of their quiet conversation and watched how easily they seemed to become relaxed with each other.
Of course most of the conversation was about the party a few nights ago and plans for the coming holiday, but still it was comforting to the child. When the clock chimed the hour Colin stood and announced it was time he said 'goodnight'. Payton rose as well and walked with the young man to the archway that separated the dining room from the main foyer. Colin turned back to say goodnight to Reagan, but found the girl snickering behind both of her hands. He looked at Payton, who looked back with an equally confused expression, then back at Reagan.
Reagan pulled one hand from her mouth and pointed to the doorframe directly above the couple. Both looked up slowly. Above them hung a small green ball dotted with silvery white berries. It hung by a gold cord that was attached to a matching bow at the top. The couple looked back into each other's eyes.
"Mistletoe! You have to kiss her, Colin!" Reagan managed to blurt out between giggles.
Payton's eyes went to the toes of her shoes as she shuffled nervously. Colin took both of her hands in his own pulling her a little closer. She quickly freed one hand and placed it on his chest, stopping him. "Hey," he leaned even closer and whispered into her ear, "can't ruin the kid's holiday, now can we?" He drew back just enough to keep them nose to nose and raised his eyebrows in a silent challenge.
Payton shook her head so slightly, it was more of a thought than a motion. Her heart raced wildly and thumped so loudly she was sure he could hear it hammering against her chest. Her knees felt week and deep within her something stirred that she was sure would never be reawakened. He was so close she could feel his breath against her lips and it was everything she could do not to pull away and run from this terrifying, yet somehow gratifying moment.
She closed her eyes losing all conscious thought as their lips met. Then he stepped back and somewhere she could still hear the tinkling sound of Reagan's laughter. She released the breath she had been holding and found herself very glad that Colin was still holding her tightly, otherwise she was sure she would just dissolve into the carpet. He stepped back slowly, as if he really would rather have stayed exactly where he was. Payton wobbled a bit and put a hand to her head. Colin quickly put his hands back on her upper arms until she was steady.
"Must have been the wine," she sighed.
"What wine?" he whispered through a gleaming smile. She smiled back. Reagan had moved closer to the couple, suddenly very curious about this odd behavior. The lawyer snatched the girl and pulled her beneath the holly, lifting her up to his level and kissing her forehead before placing her back down on her feet. Reagan giggled even more than before then moved quickly to the steps where she was far away from the mistletoe to consider herself safe. Payton and Colin crossed the foyer where he pulled his coat on before putting a hand on the doorknob. He turned back to the woman and took her hand and gently pulled her closer.
"Good night, Payton McAllister," Colin whispered as he quickly kissed her cheek and pulled open the door.
"Good night," she whispered as she pushed it closed, then leaned against it lost in a myriad of thought.
Reagan watched from the staircase for a few seconds, then walked down the steps and across the foyer. She took her sister's hand and scrunched up her face as she looked up at her. Then taking Payton's hand she tugged her until she took a few steps forward. Payton let out a long sigh and clasped the girl's hand with a bit more pressure. She shook it once then looked down at the child. "He is kind of special, don't you think Reagan?"
Reagan nodded in agreement. "Come on, Payton," she patted her sister's hand as they walked toward the staircase, "its time for you to tell me its time for me to go to bed." Payton squeezed her shoulders and kissed her head as they started up the stairs. Yes, Colin Walters was turning out to be much more than she had ever expected him to be, much, much more.
Christmas Eve dawned bright and sunny. The cold air gave the sky a brilliant blue color and the snow glistened like thousands of tiny diamonds. Marjorie called to check up on her girls and to let them know she and Henry had arrived safety. She was thrilled to see all of her children had gathered there and wondered if young Payton had had anything to do with that. Payton pleaded innocent and was glad Marjorie was on the telephone and not in front of her. Of course MAC Corporation had made sure the entire Bauer clan was able to get to South Carolina for this very special family holiday. A second call came from Connie and Payton spent over an hour telling her secretary about the events of the impromptu dinner with her young lawyer.
Reagan tried to keep herself busy, but no amount of activity seemed to make the time pass any quicker. She sat in the window seat in upstairs hall looking out at the snow-covered hillside. It would be great to go sledding, but she knew Payton would never allow that. Not for a long time anyway. Payton did suggest a phone call to Pamela and even made the connection for her. The girls talked for more than an hour before they were told to say good bye then spent another thirty minutes doing that.
By three Payton called her younger sister to the kitchen and handed her an apron announcing they were about to prepare the best Christmas Eve dinner ever served in the manor. Payton pulled a large salmon from the refrigerator and gave directions to her aide on how to prepare the specialties that would go with it.
After dinner and what was by now the usual clean up, Payton shooed her younger sister off to the bath. Reagan whined a bit but decided it was much better to obey her older sibling since she did not want to test her threat of a certain view of the floor, especially on Christmas Eve.
"Now get dressed," Payton spoke through her teeth as she pulled a towel off her sister's head. "Sunday best!" She insisted as she disappeared behind her own bedroom door.
Reagan had no idea what kind of mischief her suddenly very silly sister was up to, but it did sound like fun. She quickly dressed and waited for Payton to return. When she did, she too was dress in holiday finery. She put out her hand and took Reagan's.
"Ready?" she asked. Reagan nodded and quickly followed her sister to the hall closet where she handed the girl her coat.
"Where are we going?" Reagan asked as she slipped it on.
"You'll see," Payton teased.
A half-hour later they were in the center of the little village of Donalson Bay, just five miles from their estate. They spent the evening window shopping in the gaily-lit shops that dotted the small square. A small coffee shop that remained open was inviting, as the sound of Christmas music rang from its door. They entered and were treated to hot chocolate and homemade cookies by a very round woman with rosy cheeks and a perpetual smile. After which they walked across the square toward the brightly-lit church on the small knoll beyond it. Payton marveled at the glow in Reagan's eyes as she tried to take in every sight and sound of the evening. She managed to sing along with every well-known hymn the choir lead the congregation in singing. Reagan added her own sweet voice and after Mass they walked silently back to the car. Even the drive home was more quiet than Payton had thought it would be. A few times she glanced at the girl thinking she had fallen asleep, but found Reagan staring pensively out the side window.
"Mummy always said that stars were the windows of heaven," Reagan's voice broke the silence in the large car. "She said that angels peeked through them to see us." She swallowed hard and took a deep breath. "Payton?" She took another breath but did not turn from the window to face her sister.
"Yes?" Payton tried to keep the emotion out of her voice. It was little more than a whisper.
"Do you suppose my Mom is an angel?" The girl asked in a very small cracking voice. "Do you think she saw me tonight? Do you think God let her look?"
Payton was certainly at a loss. She knew no more about angels or religion or beliefs or those little things Mommies' tell their children to keep them safe than she knew about how to build a Model T Ford. In fact she could probably build the car faster! She blinked a few times and was glad she had to keep her eyes on the road.
"Do you think, Payton?" Reagan repeated, turning to look at her sister for the first time since they had left the village.
She thought about the angel on top of their tree and the woman in the photo with her father. She thought about the notes in the scrapbook that Reagan kept under her bed and the empty place at her father's Christmas dinner table. She thought about this child who had to have come from a most special mother, a most loving and gentle mother and suddenly she answered without considering her words. "I believe she is and she did, Reagan. Your mother has to be an angel."
Reagan smiled as one solitary tear rolled over her cheek. "I bet she's found your Mum too, Payton. I bet they're best of friends. I bet they looked down at us together." The girl turned back to the window and leaned back against the seat. "I bet they are." She whispered comforting herself and her sister. It was a beautiful thought, a selfless thought and it sent Payton's soul searching for some memory of her mother. For a moment she could actually picture the two women seated at a large window, smiling down at them.
Once at home, Reagan happily hung her stocking on the mantle and made sure Payton did the same. They climbed the stairs together. Although she knew Reagan did not need it, Payton helped her into her pajamas and turned down the quilt on her bed. Reagan stood staring at the clean white sheet.
"Payton?" she asked in a hushed tone, "can I sleep with you, please?"
Payton sat on the bed and took the girl's hand and pushed one stray hair behind Reagan's ear and turned her head to look into the child's eyes. "Reagan? Is everything okay? Do you feel all right?"
"Can I please, Payton," Reagan begged again. "I'm not sick I just just don't want to be all by myself."
Payton looked at the child for a moment before answering. Suddenly it occurred to her that she really didn't want to be alone either, not anymore. Payton allowed a slow smile to spread across her face as she pulled the greatest gift she was ever to receive into a soft embrace. "Sure," she kissed the head that had easily come to rest on her breast, "come on." She stood and moved to her own room repeating the process of turning down the bed there. Reagan climbed inside and watched as her sister prepared for bed. When Payton finally settled beneath the covers she was sure Reagan had already fallen asleep but the girl snuggled closer pushing her head under her sister's arm to rest it against her chest. She wormed one slender arm across Payton's tummy and hugged her gently.
"I love you forever." Reagan mumbled sleepily. "I'm glad youre my sister and I'm glad you came to Christmas." She added around a yawn then snuggled even closer.
Payton wrapped the girl in a bear hug, pulling her up close enough to kiss her forehead. "I love you too, Reagan forever and ever," she whispered the words that she thought would never pass her lips as she rested her cheek against the soft blonde hair. Somehow those words just tumbled out without so much as a thought. Perhaps it was time, time for a lot of things. As far as Payton was concerned she was holding the very best gift she could ever receive. She wasnt quite sure if what she was doing in church was praying, but she had a very long talk with Jack McAllister and assured him that she would be a much better sister than she had been a daughter. It was very strange, but somehow she felt he had heard her. She hugged the girl against her chest tighter and began humming a familiar tune before softly singing close to the child's ear.
"What child is this, who laid to rest ."
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