“Where is your grandmother’s china?” Caroline swept through the grand dining room, throwing open cabinets and scoffing every time she found “lesser” dishes or nothing but emptiness. One maid followed her, but it was mostly Ian’s job to smooth over whatever bothered his mother this fine Christmas.
“I have no idea. I’m not even sure which china you’re talking about.” China? The Mathers had tons of china. “Your grandmother’s china” could have referred to any of the first three sets to pop into his head, and they were vague recollections at best. “Were they Christmas themed or something?”
“Christmas… Ian! They were the fine white ones with the gold woven in around the edges! You seriously don’t remember? What good is Christmas dinner with the family if we’re not using your grandmother’s china?”
“This is Grandma Mathers we’re talking about here, right?” Because any china Caroline claimed to be her own heirlooms would have gone with her after the divorce. They were probably in some cabinet in her townhouse in Old Town.
“Of course it’s Grandma Mathers. Why would I be talking about my own mother? She’s dead.”
“So is Grandma Mathers.”
Caroline puffed up in her red and black jacket. Crimson Christmas ball earrings dangled from her ears and flopped through the air every time she turned around in a huff – which was every five seconds, for it wasn’t Christmas with Caroline unless she flipped shit over every little thing.
“I believe it’s kept in the upstairs salon.” Kathryn swept in as if this were one of her charity dinners, and she was tasked with making everything run smoothly. She placed a reassuring hand on the maid’s arm and said, “Check the salon, Ms. Holly. That should be where Grandma Mathers’s china lurks for most of the year.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The maid bowed her head to the mother and son before hustling out of the dining room. Just in time for one of the kitchen maids to pop out with the first parts of Christmas dinner.
Caroline, whose reins had been yanked from her, looked as if she didn’t know what to do now.
“It’ll be fine, Mom.” Ian looped his arm around his mother’s shoulders and directed her toward the nearby den, where Dominic and Spencer sat in front of a TV playing a Hallmark holiday movie and chatted about the state of the Italian economy. As if either one of them had anything to do with European commerce these days. “Why don’t we sit down for a few minutes while everyone gets dinner laid out. It’s been a while since you asked Dad what he thinks of your new pantyhose.”
After thirty Christmases with his parents – pre and post-divorce – Ian had figured out how to diffuse his mother’s outbursts and his father’s disregard for the world around him. That’s what happened when one came into a life of money and the other was born into it.
Yet they still have Christmas together.
Kathryn had a fine handle on everything. Which went to show how familiar she had always been with the Mathers family even before she and Ian were a couple. Like how the hell did she know where that china was?
She knows more about my house than I do.
Granted, it hadn’t been Ian’s home for a good ten years. He had an apartment in the city that he called home, although he had a feeling that Kathryn would not be renewing her lease that upcoming year and they would be searching for their own place to call home – together. Only almost took three years. Ian only speculated. He had no idea if Kathryn would move in with him. She sure as hell wouldn’t move into his bachelor pad. But he was in real estate, so it was simple enough to have his personal assistant spend her maternity bed rest looking up luxury condos and penthouses that the couple might like to rent or purchase.
Kathryn came into the den, announcing that they had found the china and it was currently being shined and served alongside Christmas dinner. Caroline sighed in relief before profusely thanking Kathryn for her quick wit. It was all Kathryn could do to shirk her boyfriend’s mother off her and have a few moments to herself on a couch.
The five of them had dinner with the dining room doors closed. Ian overheard some mumbling in the kitchen that the staff were not happy about working on Christmas, although Kathryn assured them time and again that their holiday bonus would be quite hefty. This was what happened when staff turnover at Mathers Manor was high enough to see new staff every damn year.
Ian tried not to think about it. He was supposed to be enjoying Christmas dinner with his family, which now included his long-term girlfriend Kathryn and her father Spencer. It helped that Dominic Mathers and Spencer Alison had been friends for decades, and that Caroline thought sunshine exploded from Kathryn’s ass whenever she farted. By all accounts, it should have been a pleasant Christmas.
Oh, nobody fought, and nobody heckled the young couple about when the fuck were they going to get married, but Ian was finely tuned to his girlfriend’s moods, and Kathryn was a shaking ball of nerves even as she made pleasant conversation and ate her dinner as if she were a fresh graduate of Lady Winchester’s School of Manners.
He didn’t find out why until later that evening, when the staff had retired to their wing and both Dominic and Caroline had mysteriously disappeared around the same time. Not thinking about it. Gross. Ian relaxed with a book by the fire while Kathryn approached her father in the corner of the den, where Spencer had been reading a day-old newspaper.
“Have you heard from her at all?” Spencer asked his daughter.
Kathryn shook her head. “Not a peep. If her friend hadn’t texted me earlier this week to say they were spending Christmas in Oslo, I would have lost my mind.”
They must have been talking about Kathryn’s estranged mother Marilyn, who kept to herself in Europe. The Alisons were still married, but as far as Ian knew, Spencer hadn’t seen his wife in years – not since her mental breakdown long before Ian started dating their daughter.
“I’m sure she’s fine, Kitty-Kat. Your mother can take care of herself.”
“I wish she would at least say Merry Christmas.”
“And I wish you would stop living like this, Daddy. I hate saying this, I really do, but I feel like Christmases would be more bearable if you two finally…”
Ian pretended to not listen. He held his book closer to his face and acted as if it were the most engrossing tome to come off his father’s bookshelf. It probably is. Probably full of smutty sex. Oh, well. Family gossip was more interesting.
“Leave us be, Kat.”
“I don’t like seeing you so alone all the time, Daddy. You live in that big house all by yourself…”
“Dominic lives in this house by himself.”
“That’s different, and you know it.”
Spencer sighed. “We’ll talk about this later. It’s not decent Christmas talk.”
He retired to his guest room shortly after. Kathryn sent her boyfriend a pitiful look that suggested they go to bed as well.
“I hate how he beats himself up over her,” Kathryn said in bed. “That man doesn’t deserve to be abandoned and so alone.”
“Some of that is his choice, you know,” Ian pointed out. “It’s not like he doesn’t have access to a bigger social life. Your dad always struck me as a man who values his privacy and alone time.”
“Yes, but, it reaches a point where I worry that he’s depressed.”
“Your dad has been estranged from your mom for years. She’s made it clear that she wants nothing to do with you two. Of course he’s depressed about it.”
“I can’t believe I’m telling him to divorce her. Why he hasn’t, I still don’t understand.”
“Because he wants her taken care of.” Ian understood it, to a point. What would I do if I were in those shoes? What if Kathryn left me like that? Wouldn’t I want her to be taken care of, wherever she was… whoever she was with?
“Does that mean sacrificing his own happiness, though? What if he meets another woman who will love him back?”
“Then let your dad cross that bridge when he gets to it.” Ian pulled the covers up to his chin and slung his arm around Kathryn’s waist. “Maybe he’s still not ready to let go.”
“It’s been almost fifteen years.”
“Like I said… maybe he’s not ready to let go.”
“You sound like you speak from experience.”
Kathryn fell into a light snooze while Ian stared at the ceiling of his childhood bedroom. The room had been renovated more than once since the days of posters on the walls and toys spilling from the shelves, but the ceiling was the same, and the view out the wide windows was the same. Frosty. A big yard and a bigger sky. Surrounding forest. He couldn’t see any of it on a late December night, but he knew it was there.
Usually, that was enough to help him fall asleep. But that night, with his head full of crap and stomach full of food, he decided to stop fighting everything on his mind and practice some healthy redirection.
He’d start by grabbing that book he had been reading downstairs. Ian made sure to not awaken Kathryn as he slipped out of bed and strolled down to the den to find the book using nothing but his cell phone light. Only the upstairs hallway light was still on.
Too bad. Because that meant he encountered his mother in the hallway.
“Oh! Ian!” Caroline closed her robe over her sexy Mrs. Claus negligee. “Didn’t expect to see anyone in the hallways.” She slammed herself against Dominic’s bedroom door. The movement jostled a pair of fuzzy handcuffs out of her pocket. “Whoopsie!”
“Have a good night, Mom. I’m going to bed.”
“Same, same.” She slinked into her ex-husband’s bedroom and flashed Ian a smile through the crack in the door. “Merry Christmas, dear.”
He waved at her before returning to his room. Kathryn had momentarily gotten up to use the bathroom, and was just hopping back into bed when Ian returned.
“You know what?” Ian said with a sigh. “Between your parents and mine, we are one blessedly normal couple.”
Kathryn snuggled up next to him as soon as he was back in bed. “Are your divorced parents gettin’ it on over there?”
“Don’t wanna know.”
“And to think, Ian, we’re the BDSM ones.”
“Like I said. Blessedly normal.”
They woke up the next morning so tightly intertwined within the covers that they almost had to call for help. So much for being the normal ones.