The Present Page 5

He chuckled at that point, used to his wife's strange logic, and used to her ignoring any of his attempts at sternness. But then that was the magic of Amy. She was unlike any other woman he'd ever known.

He gave in gracefully with a smile. "Very well, fetch our robes and some shoes. I would imagine the fire has been banked in the parlor, so it will be a mite chilly."

It wasn't long before they were standing next to The Present, Warren merely curious, Amy finding it hard to contain her excitement, considering what she expected to find beneath the pretty cloth wrapping. The parlor wasn't chilly at all, since whoever had left the room last had closed the doors to contain the earlier warmth, and Warren had closed them again before he lit several of the lamps.

But the doors opened once more, giving Amy quite a start since she was just reaching for The Present when it happened, and Jeremy said as he entered the room, "Caught in the act, eh? Amy, for shame."

Amy, noticeably embarrassed despite the fact that Jeremy wasn't just her cousin, but one of her closest friends, said stiffly, "And what, pray tell, are you doing down here at this hour?"

He winked at her and said dryly, "Same thing you are, I would imagine."

She chuckled then. "Scamp. Close the door while you're at it."

He started to, but stepped out of the way instead as Reggie sauntered in, barefoot and still in the process of tying her bed robe. When everyone else there just stared at her, she huffed indignantly, "I did not come down here to open The Present—well, maybe I did, but I would have chickened out before actually doing so."

"What a whopper, Reggie," Derek said as he came in right behind her. "Nice try, though. Mind if I borrow that lame excuse? Better than having none a'tall."

And Kelsey, close on his heels, said, "You amaze me, Derek. You said we'd be lucky if we were the first to open it, and goodness, you couldn't have been more right."

"Not a'tall, m'dear." He grinned at his wife. "Just know my cousins very well."

He did indeed, because next to arrive were Amy's brothers, Travis and Marshall, shoving their way through the doorway, or trying to, at the same time. So it took a moment for them to realize they weren't alone.

But one look at the crowd already present had Travis grumbling to his older brother, "Told you this wasn't a good idea."

"On the contrary, looks like we ain't the only ones who had it," Marshall replied cheerfully.

"Hell's bells, does the whole family think alike?" Jeremy asked with a chuckle.

"Hardly," Amy answered. "You don't see Uncle Jason and my father here, do you? Nor Uncle James and Tony. Not that those latter two don't think alike, they just don't think like the rest of us."

But there was a cough out in the hall that had Amy rolling her eyes, then grinning when she heard Anthony say, "Now, why do I get the feeling the younguns think we're too old to be up this time of night?"

"Harping about our ages again, dear boy?" James shot back. "You might be getting senile, but I'll have you know I'm in my prime."

"Deuced hard for me to get senile before you, old man, since you're the elder," Anthony pointed out with a good deal of pleasure.

"By one bloody year," James was heard to reply before they walked into the parlor.

Unlike their nieces and nephews, who were all in their bedclothes, James and Anthony were both still fully clothed, since neither had gone to bed yet. They had in fact been commiserating over a bottle of brandy in Jason's study, since they'd both found their bedroom doors locked to them, and had heard one too many creaks on the stairs not to investigate.

They hadn't expected to find quite such a large gathering, however, and Anthony couldn't resist remarking, "My, my, now, what would draw so many children to this room in the middle of the night, I wonder? Jack and Judy aren't hiding behind you, are they? D'you get the feeling these younguns think it's Christmas already, James?"

James had already deduced what was causing so many red faces, and said, "Good God, take a gander at that, Tony. Even the Yank is blushing, damn me if he ain't."

Warren sighed and glanced down at his wife. "You see what your silliness has caused, love? Those two will never let me live this down."

"Course we will," Anthony replied with a wicked grin. "In ten or twenty years perhaps."

"If I'm right about what's in The Present, then no one will be calling this silliness," Amy said.

"What's in it?" Marshall piped up, staring at his sister. "You mean you've guessed what it is? You're not just here out of curiosity?"

"I made the bet with Jeremy," Amy explained, as if that was explanation enough.

It was actually, but Reggie reminded her, "Even after Uncle Jason pretty much forbade it?"

Jeremy blinked. "Hell's bells, cousin, you didn't tell me I wasn't supposed to accept your wager."

"Well, of course not, then you wouldn't have," Amy replied in perfect logic.

And Warren added, "Don't even try to figure that out, Jeremy. When she gets one of her 'feelings,' she gives new meaning to the word 'determination.' "

"Would have said 'mulish' myself, but I suppose you know her better than I these days."

"Oh, bosh," Amy mumbled, giving them a disgusted look. "You both will have my permission to eat your words, since I am going to be proven right."

Reggie said, "You actually think The Present has something to do with our great-grandmother?"

"I do," Amy replied excitedly. "When I first saw it, I had the feeling that it was important. But today I got the feeling that it was now related to my bet, so it must have something to do with Anna Malory."

"Let's not talk it into the ground, children, or we'll be here all night," James said. "Just open the bloody thing and be done with it."

Amy grinned at her uncle and did just that. But no one was expecting that under the wrapping, The Present would still be difficult to get at—under padlock to be exact.

The silence that settled on the room as everyone stared bemusedly at the padlock on top of The Present was finally broken by one of James's drier tones as he said, "I take it no one has the key?"

Whatever the gift was, it was bound tightly in thick leather that had been cut to fold over it in triangular flaps, each flap having a metal ring on the end of it that allowed the padlock to lock them all together. It was very old-looking leather. The padlock was also rusty, indicating it was very old as well, so obviously, whatever was under it would be just as old.

That, of course, lent credence to Amy's feeling that The Present might be relevant to Anna Malory in some way. Yet no one could yet guess how, or what it was, and especially who had put it there. The shape of it could be a book, but why would someone lock up a book? It was more likely a book-shaped box with something smaller in it, something of great value, something, as far as Amy was concerned, that would point clearly to Anna Malory's true ancestry. She tried to lift one of the flaps a bit to see if she could see under it, but the leather was just too stiff and tightly drawn to budge.

"An attached key would have been too simple, I suppose." Reggie sighed.

"The leather was cut to shape around it. It can be cut to unwrap it," Derek pointed out.

"So it can," James agreed, and reached down to lift a very sharp-looking dagger out of his boot. That, of course, had Anthony raising a brow at him, to which he replied with a shrug, "Old habits are hard to break."

"Quite so, and you did haunt some of the more disreputable waterfront establishments in your day, didn't you?" Anthony remarked.

"Are we doing the laundry now, or getting inside that box?" James shot back.

Anthony chuckled. "The box, of course, old man. Do slice away."

The leather was tougher to cut than they imagined it would be, particularly with so little room for a blade to slip under any of the flaps to do the job. In the end, it was more James's strength than the dagger that snapped the leather away from the rings, so the padlock could be set aside and the flaps peeled back.

He handed it back to Amy to do the honors. She wasted not a moment pulling the flaps out of the way and lifting the gift out. It was a book after all, leather-bound and untitled. There was also a folded parchment in it that fell out and floated to the floor.

Though a half dozen hands reached for it, Derek picked it up first, unfolded it, and after a quick glance, said, "Good God, Amy, you really do know how to call 'em, don't you? I hope you didn't wager too much, Jeremy."

Jeremy chuckled at that. "She wasn't interested in winning anything, just in making the bet so she would win it. Works for her every bloody time, if you ain't noticed. Ought to drag her to the races one of these days. She'd even put old Percy to shame in picking winners, and he's been amazingly lucky himself in that regard."

Percy was an old friend of the family, at least of the younger generation. He'd chummed about with Nicholas, Derek, and then Jeremy as well, when Derek took his newly found cousin under his wing years ago.

"If you don't say what's in that letter this instant, Derek Malory, I'm going to kick you, see if I don't," Reggie said impatiently.

She and Derek were more like brother and sister than cousins, having been raised together after Reggie's mother died, and she had been known to kick him quite frequently over the years, so he was quick to reply, "It's a journal they wrote together, a history so to speak. Gads, that was nice of them, considering there's no one left alive who knew them—really knew them, that is."

He handed the parchment to Reggie, who shared it aloud with the others.

To our children and their children and so forth,

This record we leave to you may be a surprise, or it may not. It's not something we talk of other than in private, nor have we ever told our son. And we are not assured of having more children that we may or may not speak of it to.

Know that it was not an easy task, getting my husband to agree to add his thoughts to this record, because he feels he does not express himself well with the written word. In the end, I had to promise him that I would not read his portion, so he would be free to include feelings and perspectives that I might not agree with, or might tease him about. He made me the same promise; thus, when we finished this record, we did securely lock it and throw away the key.

So we leave this written record to you, to be read at your leisure, and with your own imagination lending it life. Though when you do read it, it will most likely be when we are no longer with you to be questioned about our motives and less than honest dealings with the people who would do us harm. And I give you fair warning: If you have been led to believe that we are individuals that could do no wrong, then read no further. We are human, after all, with all the faults, passions, and mistakes that

humans are known for. Judge us not, but perhaps learn from our mistakes.

Anastasia Malory

Amy was beaming widely as she held the journal to her chest. She'd been right! And she wanted to start reading this unexpected gift from her great-grandparents immediately, but the others were still discussing the letter . . .

'Anastasia?" Anthony was saying. "Can't say I've ever heard my grandmother called that before."

"It's not exactly an English name, is it, whereas Anna is," James pointed out. "An obvious effort to conceal the truth, if you ask me."

"But what truth?" Derek asked. "Anastasia could be a Spanish name."

"Or not," Travis put in.

Marshall said, "No need to speculate at this point, when we'll be reading the truth for ourselves. So who gets to read it first?"

"Amy does, of course," Derek suggested. "It might have shown up before she made that bet with Jeremy, but it's related as far as I'm concerned, though I'd still like to know who found it and wrapped it up for a Christmas gift, rather than just give it to m'father."

"It's likely been in this house all these years, with no one aware of it," Reggie speculated.

"I'll buy that," Derek said. "Hell, this house is so big, there's places in it even I haven't looked into, and I was raised here."

"Lot of us were born and raised here, dear boy," Anthony mentioned. "But you're right, not every little thing gets investigated when you're young. Depends what you find interesting, I suppose."

Amy couldn't stand the suspense anymore and offered at that point, "I'm willing to read it aloud, if some of you want to stay to hear it."

"I'm game for a chapter or two at least," Marshall said, and found himself a seat to get comfortable in.

"As thick as that journal is, it may take right up to Christmas day to get it all read," Warren noted as he sat on one of the couches and patted the spot next to him for Amy to settle into.

"Lucky then we opened it ahead of time, eh?" Jeremy grinned.

"Can't very well get to sleep now, not after that 'Judge us not, but perhaps learn from our mistakes,' " James said. "Too bloody intriguing, that."

"Think we should wake the elders first, though," Anthony replied.

James nodded. "I agree. You wake them while I find us another bottle of brandy. I get the feeling it's going to be a long bloody night."

There were four large wagons in the caravan. Three of them were nearly little houses on wheels, made entirely of wood, including the slightly curved roof, and replete with a door and windows covered in bright curtains. Some were ancient, a testimony to the superior quality of craftsmanship that made them. Even the fourth wagon showed this quality, though it was merely a typical supply wagon. When the caravan would move off to the side of a road at night to make camp, tents would be removed from the fourth wagon, along with large kettles and the iron rods that formed triangles over campfires to hold them, and the food to throw into them. Within minutes of the caravan halting, the area would take on the atmosphere of a small,

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