Rory Woodward thought he would never set foot in Eagle River again. He left years ago to get away from his family, the Redstones. Now, with word that his grandmother is dying, he must leave his peaceful life as an author in San Francisco to come home and pay his respects. To do so, though, he must confront an overbearing mother, a viciously greedy sister, and the rest of his kin, who are all eager to take the Redstone reputation for benevolence and shove it in the coffin with matriarch Winifred Redstone.
Staber Montana never enjoyed the life of leisure the Redstones have. He has spent most of his life fending for himself while dealing with his drug-abusing, overpossessive mother and alcoholic brother. He has never kept a healthy relationship because his mother would scare away potential mates. More than anything, he wishes he could escape his life.
Rory and Staber may come from two different lives and backgrounds while growing up in the same town, but their paths are about to cross at the most wonderful time of the year. They find themselves drawing closer, but they need to find a way to keep their overwhelming pasts at bay long enough to see if they can create their own Merry Christmas, perhaps the first of many.
Rory looked at the clock on the nightstand. It was almost eight. It would undoubtedly be a while before the maid made up his bed. He decided to walk around the house to pass the time. Maybe later he could focus on his writing and work on the novel he’d started a few weeks ago.
Walking down the hallway, Rory could hear a voice coming from another room. He couldn’t make out the words, but whoever it was sounded angry. Not a surprise. If there wasn’t somebody in the mansion that was mad, this was the wrong mansion. There was one room where the door was open. Light poured into the hallway. He peeked into the room.
The woman angrily talking into a cell phone stopped cold upon hearing Rory’s voice. She turned to Rory before saying, “I’ll call you back,” to the person on the other end of the line.READ MORE
Clare Woodward was the director of the Redstone Foundation, the family’s benevolence association that provided grants to local non-profits and college scholarships to area high school students. She had never garnered much favor from Winifred, even when Rory’s father ran off to Maui with his secretary and left Clare to raise the children alone. At least, her and the servants.
Clare folded her arms. “This is a surprise. When did you arrive?”
“I got here about twenty minutes ago. Anastasia greeted me, if you could call it a greeting.”
“Well, you’ll have to excuse her. She’s had a lot of employees quit at the restaurant in the last few weeks, so she’s been a little shorthanded. That, on top of caring for your grandmother, has her a little on edge. I trust you can appreciate the situation.”
Rory did not reply, although he had a burning desire to tell his mother that excuse was complete and utter bullshit. Sparring with his sister was one thing; Clare was another.
“How are you doing, mother?”
“My assistant messed up the transfer of funds. She gave ten thousand dollars to the orphanage and twenty-five thousand dollars to the women’s shelter when it was supposed to be a tenth of that. I swear, it’s impossible to find someone who’ll do the job right these days.”
“Has she done this a lot, or was this her first blunder?”
“That is beside the point, Rory. There is no room for mistakes in this business. We’re trying to help those in need, but we don’t need to drown them in cash in the process.”
Rory was starting to regret coming into the room. He looked at the door. “I should let you get back to berating your assistant. I just wanted to say hello.”
“You should go check out the Christmas tree downstairs, Rory. The servants have really outdone themselves this year with the decorating.”
“I’ll do that. Thanks.”
Rory walked down the stairs, thankful that his encounter with his mother had been brief. He couldn’t believe how outraged she had been about the clerical error and having the opinion that the orphanage and the women’s shelter did not need that much money. Benevolence knew no dollar limits, especially at this time of year, when the Christmas spirit should be prompting the Redstone family to give more instead of less. It was yet another reason why Rory would rather be on his own in San Francisco than be trapped here in the Redstone mansion.
The Christmas tree stood in the main hall. It was a fifteen-foot spruce covered with classic antique ornaments and glowing in all red lights. There was a glass star at the top, and it had topped the Redstone Christmas tree for almost fifty years. Clare had been right; the servants did an amazing job on the tree. Granted, Rory hadn’t been back in years, but the Christmas trees of his childhood were nothing compared to the glowing symbol that stood in front of him now.
Rory sat down on the floor with his legs crossed. There was something soothing about the tree. For a moment, Rory forgot he was in the same house as some of his family. His attention wandered to the lower right part of the tree, and he saw the snow globe he bought when he was eight. Rory had saved up his allowance for months to buy that globe. His grandmother adored it, while his mother berated him for spending his allowance on something so trivial.
“Hey there, you sexy prodigal son! I heard you were coming back to us.”
Rory sighed as he turned around and saw D’Shon standing in the hallway, dressed in dark blue coveralls. D’Shon’s dark skin glistened from the combination of tree lights and body oil. He was one of the servants in the mansion, but he also had an unhealthy infatuation with Rory. While the acts of perversion were perfectly legal now, having D’Shon try to get into Rory’s pants when he was sixteen was downright creepy. From D’Shon’s statement, it sounded like he was still horny—in a bad way.
“Hello, D’Shon. How have you been?”
“It’s been a trifle touchy here, home fries. Your grandmother’s turn for the worse has transformed this grand estate into a real life animal house, with the stronger members of the Redstone family trying to pick off the weaker ones. I wonder if I’m even going to have a job come the new year. It’s not the sort of thing you like having to deal with during the holidays.”
Rory nodded. “I just wish we knew a way to make Grandma better. She was the glue that held this family together, and now it’s all just coming apart.”
“I know one thing that would make me feel better, bro. It’d be good for you, too.”
“What?” As if Rory didn’t know.
“Why don’t we go on back to your room and comfort each other? I can show you my new tattoo, and we can get…” D’Shon’s hand connected with Rory’s thigh. “…reacquainted.”
“D’Shon, like I said years ago when I blew out of this cesspool with no intention of ever returning, I am not interested in you for sexual ya-yas, so if you’d still like to have your hands come the new year, you’ll take your left one off my thigh.”
D’Shon nonchalantly pulled his hand away. “It was just an idea. You don’t have to get your undies in a bunch, Rory. I guess coming back here was tougher for you than I thought.”
Rory couldn’t deny that, but before he had a chance to respond, Anastasia appeared at the bottom of the stairs. “Rory, Grandma wants to see you immediately. I told her it would probably be better to see you in the morning, but you know how insistent she can be.”
Rory stood up, smiling gently. “Is her room in the same place on the third floor?”
“Of course it is. Why would it be anywhere else?”
Rory didn’t answer, strolling past her to ascend the stairs. His hands trembled at the reality of seeing Winifred. Part of him wished he didn’t, as he couldn’t bear the thought of seeing her in such a frail state. Still, his time with his grandmother was severely limited.
Rory paused at Winifred’s bedroom door, waiting for a moment to brace himself for what he might see. Then he knocked and heard a gentle “Come in” from his grandmother. He opened the door and saw Winifred huddled in bed, her blue hair—usually tied up in a bun—draped along her shoulders.
“Rory. It is so good that you came. Please come inside and close the door behind you.”
Rory obeyed and then came to the side of the bed. Winifred looked paler than Rory remembered, undoubtedly from being on bed rest. At least she didn’t look like she had both feet in the grave and was shopping for her headstone.
“Hey, Grandma. Fess up. You’re just faking this heart condition so you can get everyone else in the family all riled up. I know that’s what you’re doing.”
Winifred smiled at the grandson’s joke, although it looked like it pained her to change her expression. “Yes, I admit it. I’m faking being near death just so the slave drivers don’t put me back to work. What’s the fun of family if you can’t tweak them once in a while?”
“Anastasia is sure raising a stink about having to take care of you.”
Winifred scoffed. “That lazy brat of a granddaughter hasn’t lifted a finger to care for me. One time she was in here talking to me, and I asked her to hand me the glass of water on the nightstand, and she went down the hall to get the nurse to come in and do that. Of all the nerve!”
Rory smiled. That sounded like Anastasia. “How are you doing, Grandma? Really.”
Winifred looked thoughtful. “I know I’m not getting any better. The doctors said, at my age, any attempt at surgery would surely kill me. The rest of the family seemed all too eager to agree. The only one fighting for the surgery is your cousin, Veronica. She’s threatened to kidnap me and hide me someplace where the rest of the family can’t find me. Smart girl, that one.”
Rory loved his cousin, Veronica. The two of them shared the mantle of “black sheep.” It had been Veronica who told him about Winifred’s illness. No one else in the family would have thought to contact him, and a few would have gone to great lengths to keep him from knowing.
“Grandma, is there anything the doctors can do?”
“They’ve set me up with a full-time nursing staff and plenty of pain medication. Right now, it’s a guessing game as to when the Lord’s going to call me home. Could be tomorrow. Could be just after the broadcast of the Rose Parade. It all depends on how ornery I can be.”
“In that case, Mom and the others could be waiting years to find out who your successor is.”
Winifred chuckled. “That’s another reason I wanted to talk to you, Rory. I need someone I can trust to take on the leadership role in our family, to be the CEO that Redstone Enterprises needs. I know you’re happy with your life in San Francisco, but I want you to think about becoming that leader. The only other person I remotely trust with that much power is Veronica, but she has already passed on my offer.”
Rory took a deep breath. He knew it was vital for someone with a head on their shoulders and no pole up their ass to take over the Redstone dynasty. However, he was not very keen on putting his writing career on the backburner to take on the leadership mantle. If he wanted to dodge attempted stabbings and drive-bys, he would have moved to Los Angeles.
“I know you trust me, Grandma, but I’m not sure I have what it takes to head up Redstone Enterprises. Aside from working in the family store from thirteen to eighteen, I really haven’t been that involved in the family business.”
“That’s what makes you perfect for it, my boy,” Winifred said adamantly. “You haven’t been—what’s the word I’m looking for—corrupted by the family politics. You’d be able to bring a fresh, unbiased perspective to everything this corporation stands for. I hope you’ll at least think about it. I don’t want your sister or, even worse, your mother becoming the CEO. As much as I love my family, I don’t trust them as far as I can throw them.”
Rory couldn’t argue with that. “I need to think things over, Grandma. It would involve a lot of changes in my life, and I’m not sure I’m ready for that.”
Winifred nodded gently. “I certainly was not expecting a definitive answer. I just want to make sure that my affairs are in order before I pass on. Your grandfather worked every day for more than fifty years to make sure our family prospered. I don’t want to see all that work go down the crapper because we happen to have a bunch of rotten apples in our family tree.”
As Winifred repositioned herself to be more comfortable, Rory wondered if he could take the reins of Redstone Enterprises. He had worked very hard to escape the immense shadow of his family, and the last thing he wanted to do was come back home. As much as he loved the community of Eagle River, the thought of being surrounded by family members who were more interested in making a buck than sharing it with their fellow man sickened him greatly. He’d have to figure out how he could be a CEO without letting it consume all he worked for.
“Grandma, how would we get this legalized, if I were to agree? I imagine it takes more than me getting a verbal promise from you.”
“I’ve already made arrangements with my attorney to update my will. It might not be a hundred percent solid, but it will be a lot stronger than my ‘deathbed confession.’ Once the will is updated, it will be up to you and my attorney to deal with the intricacies, but I daresay the family will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to challenge a legal document. That’s not to say they won’t try, of course.”
“Of course.” Rory sat down on a chair near the bed. “Why don’t we talk about something else for a while? I think I’ve had my fill of the family for one day—possibly for the rest of the century.”
“All right.” Winifred smiled. “Is there a man in your life?”
Rory shook his head. “The last guy I had was about seven months ago. He thought I should spend more time drinking and partying, and when I said I wasn’t interested in being his party boy, he dumped me like an old couch.”
“Well, that’s depressing. Don’t you have any good news to share with an old woman?”
“Book sales are up, and I’ve been working on the first draft of my latest book. I’m still trying to figure out a name, though.”
“Perhaps being back here will jog some ideas. It’ll give you something to do besides dodge relatives over the next few days.”
“I think I’ll build a snowman tomorrow, just for old times’ sake. That storm that’s coming in is supposed to drop quite a bit of snow. Remember how we’d always come out after a storm and build a bunch of snowmen? It used to piss off my mom.” Rory paused, and then laughed.
For more than an hour, Rory and Winifred talked about everything under the sun. Winifred seemed to really enjoy having someone to talk to. Eventually though, she started to show fatigue, so Rory soon excused himself, but not before wishing his grandmother a good night and wandering back to his room. When he arrived at the bedroom door, he noticed something that wasn’t there before: a sprig of mistletoe hanging from the top of the doorframe. Rory huffed. Subtle, D’Shon, he thought.
After pulling the holiday symbol off the door, Rory went inside and sat down by the window. The light snow that heralded his arrival had now turned into almost a whiteout. It was soothing to see, but it didn’t help to solve his current dilemma. Redstone Enterprises might have been doing fine financially, but the family infrastructure was quickly decaying. His grandmother had asked him to take over and restore family harmony. However, he couldn’t envision a black sheep alone being able to fend back the firestorm that was sure to follow when Winifred died. Still, he knew he had to figure out some way to preserve the Redstone dynasty. To not do so would be to share responsibility in its demise.
Rory sighed. As he undressed for bed, he knew the solution had to be out there. Still, it would do no good to spend all night stressing about it. He climbed into the bed, which had been made, knowing the real answer would present itself soon. It had to; this was Christmastime, a time for miracles.COLLAPSE