Underneath The Mistletoe
Author’s Note: Thanks go to Germansoulmate and Claire for their help, Thyme for her beta and Sabina for the pic.
Josephine stretched out full length, sure that with just a little bit more effort she’d be able to reach the edge of the archway and be able to fasten the swag of ivy at the highest point...almost there...just a tad more...her fingertips grazed the wood and she knew she just needed a little bit more to push in the thumbtack held poised in her uppermost fingers....So she teetered on her toes to get just that extra bit of loft....
And her foot slipped from the folding chair she was standing on, and she got that feeling. You know the one, that feeling, that sinking feeling that tells you beyond all shadow of a doubt, that oh no, sister, this is gonna hurt feeling. It’s often accompanied by that old, know it all feeling, the one that is just sitting back and waiting, shaking its head and saying, mmhmm, I knew you shouldn’t have gone and climbed up on that chair in those fool heels like you were some kind of teenager or something, now you’re gonna pay, I could’a told you.
Josephine often wondered why the voices in her head insisted on talking like Oprah or Whoopie Goldberg when they were annoyed with her. She never sounded like that a day in her life. Praise Jesus, as, Daphne, naughty girl, would say with a smirk. Jo also often wondered why a person had so much time to think so damn much when it was too late to avoid an impending disaster but never took a moment to stop and think enough to avoid the damn disaster in the first place?
Time relativity in connection with brain patterns and actions–medical school never teaches you things like that! Nothing useful.
She squeezed her eyes shut to avoid the sight of the floor rushing up to meet her, resigned to her fate,
“Hey!” A deep voice, accompanied by the sound of pounding feet and Jo landed with a thud...but not the thud she expected, when she felt herself being caught up against a hard but warm chest instead of the cold hard floor. Jo opened one eye cautiously and saw from the amused green eyes peering down at her that her rescuer was none other than one of her daughter’s brothers-in-law. Or was it brother-in-laws? She’d have to ask someone.
In any event, the important thing was that she was still in one piece, if you didn’t count her shredded pride. Jo tried squirming to her feet but found that she was being very firmly held in a pair of very strong arms. Never before had Jo realized just how undignified it was to be cradled in a man’s arms like this. Of course, when you’re six feet tall by the time you reach high school, there aren’t all that many men who can sweep you up in their arms, she mused, beginning to enjoy the novel sensation. But, all good things must end, she told herself firmly, and she raised her chin and gathered that shredded dignity around her, with a clearing of her deep...for a woman...alto voice.
“Thank you, Mr. O’Keefe, for your timely rescue, but I think you can give your poor back a rest now and put me down.”
The only response Jo got at first was those completely lovely dimples being flashed at her. Then, the big man easily shifted her in his arms, so that she was more comfortably situated, her back sitting up a little higher and her sacrum resting firmly against his forearm. Her rump was seated squarely on his right hand. At least, she was pretty sure it was his big hand that was palming her rear end very familiarly, and she could feel her face growing warmer. She’d always been told she had a fairly substantial rear end but this man’s hand seemed to fit it quite nicely, she couldn’t help noticing, and having noticed, couldn’t help wondering if he’d noticed.
Stop it, you silly woman, Jo told herself. The man might be one of those gorgeous Irishmen that populated her daughter’s new family, and even if he was the single one...and she wasn’t kidding herself, she knew quite well he was Matt O’Keefe, her son-in-law’s oldest and only single brother if you didn’t count the gay one, and even that one was pretty much spoken for, but a woman liked to pretend she didn’t know every detail about the family of Pittsburgh’s most eligible bachelors...it isn’t as though he would be the slightest bit interested in her in any way but as his sister-in-law’s mother.
Ugh. What a lowering thought. But that is where she belonged, to a different generation from this man, technically, for all that he was several years older than her in reality. And what about reality? In that reality, he moved in different circles from her, circles which had him squiring a rich Italian business woman to the family holiday gatherings they both attended while she went alone and was treated with respect, as befitted one of the elder members of the family. He was still viewed as one of her daughter’s generation, part of the soccer games they played on weekends and part of their teasing. She’d watched last Thanksgiving as he walked his date, Gianetta Rizzuteri, out to her Maserati, and then competently drove them away, despite the car’s left sided steering wheel. He might be a simple pub owner but those different circles he moved in were fancy ones. Too fancy for her.
Even if he was keeping his hand on her ass for an unseasonably long time at this point, Jo decided.
“Mr. O’Keefe?” she tried again. “Down?”
“Have you really forgotten my name?” He looked boyishly hurt. “The first time you called me that I thought you were teasing, so I shifted to let you get a better look at my face. We all look similar, I admit, but Mark has bragged that you can always tell him from the others, which made me jealous, as he knew it would. I’d hoped that it meant you were a sharp enough lady to be able to tell each of us from another...without seeing us next to each other, that is.”
She felt bad. Who wouldn’t, looking at those dimples and those mossy green eyes? She answered him primly, as primly as anyone could with that large warm hand cozily tucked against her ass and her arm now resting around the broad shoulder of this he-man? She swore it was primly and not at all flirtatiously. She was a responsible middle-aged surgeon, after all, not a flighty young girl. “I’m sure that if you’re Mr. O’Keefe to me, it can only be because you haven’t made yourself memorable to me yet.”
No sooner were the words out of her mouth than she was thinking, “What the hell am I saying?” Sure this man was a grandfather, and a seemingly somber fifty-three. Or so she’d been told, (not that he looked a day over forty, and a damn good looking forty at that), but she’d been suckered, believing the reports of her beloved but wicked son-in-law, a born devil if ever she met one, who was always sharing tales of how his oldest brother was so serious, kept him and the other young ones on the straight and narrow. Right. Responsible compared to out and out idiots is what she should have remembered.
Her ill chosen words were no sooner out of her mouth than those green eyes lit up with that same devilment she’d seen countless times in Jamie’s eyes when he teased Daphne, and after a quick glance upward, that dark head bent down toward hers. She had a moment to think, uh oh, he’s up to something. But she still was not expecting what he did next.
Matt kissed her. Not one of your, I was just teasing you, we’re all having fun, we’re all family now kind of kisses, either. This was a kiss. After just a second...or twenty... she tightened her arms around the man’s neck because she realized that this was quite a kiss she was receiving and she wasn’t about to start slipping away before it was over. Dear Lord, this man knew how to kiss, like it was not a means to an end, but an end all in itself.
He took her breath away completely, and he did so while standing up, holding her in his arms as though the weight were nothing. And mind you, Jo was not one of your little girls. She was just over six feet tall and to call her voluptuous would not be an exaggeration. The muscular arms tightened around her and she felt the fingers of his hand spread out and press in to mold against her ass cheeks, but mainly she was conscious of that lovely mouth of his as his tongue tasted and touched her, exploring the shape and feeling of her lips as she opened her mouth to him and let him in, lying there in his arms, rapt in the knowledge that here was a man who just took control without taking too much, who knew how to wait for that tacit approval without being tentative...who...was....
Who was ending the kiss. Feeling bereft as Matt lifted his head away from hers, Jo opened her eyes slowly and gazed up.
Mistletoe. There was mistletoe on the garland of ivy that she’d managed to hang just before falling. That was why Matt had kissed her. She could feel her face burning. She pushed at his chest, and he must have sensed that she meant business because he lowered her feet to the ground but held her steady until he was sure she’d gotten her balance, despite her obvious eagerness to be on her own two feet. There was just such a steady, sure way about him that she found tears pricking her eyes. What was wrong with her today? She didn’t need anyone to steady her? She’d been standing on her own two feet...and guiding Daphne’s through to adulthood, thank you very much...all on her own without any man and she was quite satisfied with the status quo.
It was just...well, she could see him helming that big family with ease; the man just oozed security. Not that she saw him as big brother material for herself actually, but she could see how others might see that side of him.. No, she didn’t see him in a brotherly way at all.
Jo looked up to meet his questioning look...and wasn’t that another new sensation, to have to look so far up to meet a man’s gaze as he held her in his arms. Even in heels, she had to look up to meet this man’s eyes.
“Are you all right?” Even his voice was lovely and deep, she mused. “That could have been a nasty fall.”
“I’m fine. Thanks to your catch. That’ll teach me not to use a proper ladder. I would read Daphne the riot act if she pulled a stunt like that.” A terrible thought occurred to Jo. “You won’t tell on me, will you? Daphne will scold and Jamie will tease and I’d never hear the end of it if they were to find out about my climbing on a chair, in heels no less, and falling.” That is what she said, but what she meant was, don’t say a word about any part of it, especially that kissing part.
Matt smiled easily and reached down to pick up the over-turned chair. “Of course not. We parent types have to stick together. And Jamie will never fit into that category, I’m afraid, even when he has fathered the requisite O’Keefe dozen, or half dozen, as this generation more sensibly stops with. Can I help you with whatever it is you’re trying to do here? Fixing up your new Clinic, is what Jamie said, I think. So you’re starting with the decorations?”
He looked around doubtfully. Jo didn’t blame him, it didn’t look very much like a Clinic yet. But it would. She was determined to bring affordable health care to people in this section of the city so they didn’t need to use the hospital’s emergency room for routine health problems. And more importantly, she wanted to start providing them with preventative health care and with help for chronic health problems like high blood pressure and diabetes, two conditions that led to more serious problems when untreated.
Jo turned back toward her guest at the sound of his deep chuckle. “What is so funny?” she asked, her hands going to her hips as she faced him, realizing that it wasn’t so nice after all to be looking up at a man. Maybe she could get four inch heels?
Matt’s grin widened as he took in her indignant expression and militant posture. “That look is never going to work with me, sugar. I’ve got far too many sisters and daughters and nieces who do exactly the same thing for me to be intimidated by a woman glaring at me. Especially when they do it simply for the offense of being in a good mood when she isn’t. Come on now, where is that lovely smile I know you have? Life is too short and you’ve always struck me as far too sensible a woman to get upset for no reason.” He raised an eyebrow at her.
Jo felt foolish. She was too sensible to be acting like this, actually, and normally she would be the one making that speech to some young resident or staff doctor who took his or her new status as doctor too seriously. She gave herself a mental shake, thinking maybe the real shaking up she got when she fell into Matt O’Keefe’s arms addled her brains? She looked at him with a rueful smile that brought out her own dimples that were far more entrancing than she’d ever credit. The tall widower certainly thought so, the smile fading from his face as his gaze grew intent.
“I’m so sorry,” Jo told him, holding her hands up as a sign of surrender. “I don’t know what got into me.” Besides those incredible arms of yours, and those nice big hands, her wandering thoughts helpfully supplied a few suggestions, but she forcefully suppressed them, saying aloud, “Can I offer you a cup of coffee? Along with my wonderful decorating efforts, of which you’ve seen the results, I’ve managed to get the coffee-maker unpacked. Not that I’m all that good at actually making coffee but I’m sure I could figure it out.”
Matt’s grin returned but he refrained from laughing this time. “How about you show me where the machine is and I make the coffee? After all, I’m the professional barkeep, you’re the surgeon. This is a union town, we shouldn’t cross some lines, you know. Certain tasks require skilled labor. I don’t know about yours, surgery might be easy, but getting people’s beverages right, especially coffee, is a precise science...too much water and the coffee is weak, too much coffee, it’s too strong and they’re up all night. The stress keeps me pacing the floors at night, I tell you. Of course, that could be a function of that too strong coffee, but there you have it, another risk of ill prepared coffee.”
She pointed a finger at him. “You are looking for someone to give you a good smacking, Matt O’Keefe!”
“Ah, I knew I would make you remember my name. Already we’ve progressed from that formal last name status to a discussion of secret kinks. Now where is that coffee pot?”
She started to protest his comment but gave it up when she saw him waiting with a twinkle in his eye for her to do just that. Play it cool, Jo, she told herself. She smiled, the aloof, enigmatic smile that she used for visiting politicians and trustees of the hospital. “Right this way, Matthew. You may make the coffee while I look for a suitable paddle.”
He just laughed.
She waited until he handed her a much needed cup of perfectly brewed coffee–he hadn’t lied, he was a professional. And indeed, the coffeemaker, a gift from some married friends who had a plastic surgery practice in New York, was an incredibly high tech, industrial size, complex model that she never would have figured out in a million years.
It made gorgeous coffee. She might have to come to work in the clinic every morning if it meant she could have coffee made on this machine. But only if she could find someone else who could figure out how to work the damn machine, which looked like it required a master’s degree in engineering to operate. She looked at it with a mixture of love and suspicion. Matt leaned against the counter that held it and laughed.
“That’s exactly how my mother looked at the first microwave we bought her after we showed her how quickly it defrosted a roast or reheated . She knew she wanted this thing but she wasn’t sure it wouldn’t turn on her at some inopportune moment.”
Jo smiled back at him, more relaxed now that she had a cup of coffee to sip. Something about it helped put the day into perspective. She looked at his empty hands.
“Aren’t you having any? It really is divine coffee. I am sure there is some milk in the refrigerator if you don’t like it black.”
She glanced up, wondering if he was as conscious of the double entendre as she suddenly was. There was something wrong with her today, she decided. She had sex on the brain. Too long without a man, Jo Chanders, that’s what your problem was.
“I’d love some,” he confessed, “but I’m supposed to avoid caffeine, some stupid doctor rule. And by that I mean a stupid rule given to me by a doctor, and not the other way around, so don’t get your back up again. Seems all you have to do is have a little problem and next thing you know, they start treating you like you’re an old man.”
The dimples were back but the green eyes weren’t smiling, Jo noticed. It was something she’d noticed when she first met these O’Keefe men. If you wanted to know how they really felt about something, watch their eyes, not their distracting mouths, with those charming dimples. Their green eyes changed colors with their moods, lighter with certain types of anger, dark with hot passionate anger, mossy green with humor or affection. Green like the sea when it was smooth sailing, Daphne would say, although each one had his own moods and shades. Danny, the dancer and singer had the darkest green to his eyes, like deep emerald. The lawyer, John, had icy green eyes, like peridot, much of the time. Her new son, Jamie, was like a big old cat, jungle green were his eyes, except when something set off his temper, and then his were a tiger’s eyes, deadly sharp, green fire.
Matt, the peacemaker brother, had eyes like jade, her favorite stone, soft and welcoming. They varied in their shading but were always soft, never the hard, glittering eyes that looked out from his younger brothers’ faces when their tempers flared. Joey, the teacher, was like that as well, his deep green eyes often softening in laughter, and rarely in anger, unless it was the anger of injustice. They were both good and true family men and Jo hoped that her Daphne’s Jamie settled down to follow their example.
This oldest brother now, his eyes were harder to read. He was their patriarch, even Jamie, that scamp, spoke of Matt with respect he showed few others. His status as a widower seemed to set him apart from the rest, such loss being something his rough and tumble brothers, with their non-stop, no holds barred teasing weren’t quite sure how to handle. Even less had they seemed to know what to do with him dating, Jo reflected, remembering the few family gatherings she’d attended when Matt had brought a date, the Rizzuteri widow. His sisters had been obviously uncomfortable with it while his brothers had struggled to act naturally. And his children had veered between awkwardly unhappy to overly enthusiastic. It had made Jo happy that she’d managed to conduct most of her dating away from Daphne’s critical eyes.
Well, most of it. She shuddered to think of the few times Daphne had come home unexpectedly from a sleep-over and found her mother with her own overnight guest.
Dragging her thoughts back to her unexpected guest and his surprising revelation, she looked him over clinically. “Whatever kind of problem did you have that made your doctor make you give up caffeine? A man with your kind of conditioning? A little high blood pressure? You're obviously in great shape so that seems like a bit of over-reaction. Not that it’s any of my business.”
“Now, Mama, if I were to start interfering with a non-patient’s doctor’s advice like that, you’d have my head!” Daphne chastised her mother as she breezed into the small kitchen. She gave her mother a quick kiss to soften her words and then gave Matt a hug and kiss also. He was quick to take the bags from her that she carried into the room.
“Our bodies belong to the Chanders women, I think that was in my wedding vows somewhere, Matt, so you may as well give it up and tell Dr. Jo anything she asks. She’ll just sic Daphne on you later anyway and despite what she says now, she’ll be asking you questions later too.” Jamie followed his wife in, carrying his own bundles of food and dishes. Matt was already unpacking Daphne’s bags, looking at the contents critically.
“Is this a Clinic or a café?” he asked, holding up several canisters of sugar. “I could have told you a place to get this cheaper, Daphne.”
“Jamie took it from one of your pubs, so it was really cheap,” Daphne giggled. Jo protested but Jamie shrugged and kept unpacking his bag, handing things to Matt, who examined them and started shelving them, with minimal fuss and discussion with Jamie. Jo and Daphne watched them for a moment in silence, until Daphne saw the coffee.
“Oh! It’s working! Jamie, look! The fancy coffeemaker is working! Mom, I know you didn’t do this...Matt?”
“Of course it was Matt,” Jamie said matter-of-factly. “Be a sweetheart and pour me a cup.”
Jo looked at him. “And why does Daphne have to pour the coffee?”
Jamie smirked. “Because my big brother put the coffee maker together...so I’m ahead.”
Matt stopped in what he was doing. “What the hell does that mean? You’re ahead?”
Jamie froze for a second. “Um....well, it just kind of means I’m ahead and she owes me, so she can get the coffee.”
Daphne looked at both of them. “It isn’t a big deal, Matt. Jamie was just joking. I’m happy to get the coffee.”
Matt looked perfectly calm, to a point, but his eyes were darkest green, Jo was fascinated to see.
“That’s fine, Daphne, and I was happy to put the coffeemaker together for your mom, just as I was happy to come by today and see if there was anything that needed fixing up, or anything that any of my workers could lend a hand with to get the Clinic ready...because you all are family,” Matt put heavy emphasis on the last five words; Jo was busy thinking, ah, so that is why he came down here today. “Jamie, let me talk to you for a minute...excuse us please, Jo, Daphne.”
Jo watched fascinated as Matt grabbed her big son-in-law by the arm and propelled him through the door of the small kitchen and on into one of the Clinic’s small examining rooms. She looked at her daughter questioningly.
Daphne shrugged. “Give it a moment. Matt might be trying to keep this private,” she confided, but without them being in one of Danny’s sound-proofed rooms, there is no such thing as a private O’Keefe discussion...those voices just naturally carry. You need earplugs to get any sleep around them.”
Sure enough, in less than a minute, the two men’s voices grew louder.
“It isn’t a big deal, Matt! Daphne and I share everything, that’s the way young people do things now and I wish you’d get with it that things are different now. It’s no different than the way Mama taught us all to be and it works fine. No hurt feelings about one person doing more than the other person.”
“And you’re such an expert on marriage then, are you, boy? You’ve been married such a great amount of time that you know more than I do that I should just butt out of your business? Well, our parents are gone so it is my business to stop you being an ass. Mama and Dad didn’t keep score between each other. Dad worshipped the ground Mama walked on and that’s the way he taught us to be. And maybe O’Keefes keep score and barter between each other, Jamie, though John and Danny have a good idea that it’s past time that ended, but I’m telling you right now that we don’t keep score with our wives. When it comes to our marriages, we give one hundred percent. That’s what you need to do, give all of yourself and then you give more. And thank God for every moment that he gives you to share with a woman like Daphne and don’t take her for granted for one second of it, you hear me?”
There was a silence from the other room. The two women didn’t hear Jamie’s words distinctly but they heard Matt’s reply, spoken in his deep voice that carried through the walls. Jo found that she was holding on to her daughter, who was tearing up. Tears were blurring her own eyes as she listened in to the emotion filled voice, the Irish accent thicker than normally.
“There isn’t any question of ‘fair’ lad because you can’t make it even when the lass you love is carrying your babe and you see her in such pain that would drive you to your knees and there is nae a damn thing you can do to take half of that on your shoulders for her...then you’d be thinking about how you made her carry half of the grocery bags to be fair and her a wee thing and you have those big shoulders made for carrying that kind of load...you tell me. Is that fair?”
There was just a rumble from Jamie. Matt continued, no longer yelling but his voice still carrying.
“I thought you might see it that way. A good thing because that, believe it or not, is better than the other way, you find. It is far, far easier for you to be the one who has the lighter load...I see you looking at me like I’m crazy now, but that’s because I’ve known it both ways and I know what I’m talking about, lad. My Julie would have gladly taken on the lion’s share of any pain, but it was hell to see her suffering, and yet, the only pain she couldn’t bear was knowing that she couldn’t ease the pain of her dying for me. Have you any idea what it is like when the woman you love is sick and you have to tend to her every need? Do you want her worrying herself over owing you? God no! That is what the vow means, in sickness and in health...you owe each other your all, and there is no mine or hers in marriage, only ours, and if you are counting up debts to each other now, in good times, then you are in trouble already, for God help you if you ever have bad times!”
The voices faded away to a rumble of deep voices.
Jo rubbed at her daughter’s damp cheeks.
“Oh Mom, I want a love like that, but I don’t know if I can handle it,” Daphne whispered, burying her face against Jo’s sweater.
“Baby girl, we all want to find a love like that, but it takes work. You don’t get it handed to you on a platter the minute you take the white dress and veil off. Or even after a year or so. Lord knows your father and I never had the knack. But, your Jamie and you have some wise teachers to go to for advice, and you have a powerful lot of love between you to build on.”
“I do love the big galoot a lot,” she confessed.
“I kind of guessed as much,” her mother said dryly, hugging her tightly then letting her go as the men came back in, Jamie looking a bit abashed, and Matt reflective. He looked at the two women as he ran a hand through his hair. “Listen, I’d better get back to the bar, I left Liam watching it and that’s never a good idea for too long. Jo, it looks to me like you could use some strong arms here for a good eight hour day, how about I send down Mary Fran’s boys along with my Sean and three of their friends, along with her twins to act as foremen? I can pull them from their usual shifts, and they can get this place painted and fixed up, you just leave them a list of what you want done. If you want your doors open before the Christmas rush of indigestion and head colds, you’ve got a lot to get done.”
With a smile and a wave of his hand, he had turned and was out of the small kitchen and strolling briskly out of the Clinic before any of them could draw a breath to respond. Jo started after him but Jamie reached out and grabbed her arm. She gave him one of her most quelling looks.
“It’s not a good idea, Jo. Matt needs time to cool off after one of his tempers. He’s like Danny that way, or rather, Danny’s like him. They burn really hot when they’re mad, and it’s a good idea to let them cool before you go near them or you’ll get burned. Thankfully, Matt doesn’t lose his temper anywhere near as often as Danny does, but then again, we don’t dare get Matt mad, because he can still kick our asses,” Jamie ended with a laugh.
Jo was frustrated. She really thought someone should go after the man, who was clearly upset. “Why did he lose his temper over you and your usual nonsense, though? Explain that to me? Not that his advice, which we overheard, wasn’t good, but it seemed rather....” Jo searched for the right word.
“More like Danny having a drama queen moment in its delivery. Yeah, baby. Matt is usually pretty even-tempered, and he seemed pretty cheery with Mom when we came in. What set him off? Other than your normal Neanderthal act, which he should be used to, as we all are, that is, what happened that I missed?” Daphne sipped her coffee and leaned against her big husband, rubbing her head against him like a kitten, willing to show her caveman that she was content with him.
“Today was his day to take Robby to see Julietta’s family,” Jamie said matter-of-factly, as he shifted Daphne slightly so he could rummage in the cabinet for some cookies that he’d seen Matt put away. “At the funeral, they had a bit of a reconciliation and while his older kids refuse to have anything to do with Julie’s family, since they were so rotten to her, Matt makes a point of taking Robby to see his grandparents at least once a year for a couple of days around this time of year. It’s awfully big of him, I think, since the old man is a rotten bastard, but what are you going to do? Matt is a saint.”
Daphne’s eyes were wide. “Did Julie ask him to make peace with her family, as a kind of deathbed wish?”
Jamie laughed. “No, Julie was never so morbid as to do something like make deathbed wishes. She kept fighting her cancer until the end...and Matt right along with her. She never planned to die. I think he’ll love her to the day he dies.” Jamie wrapped his arms around Daphne suddenly and hugged her fiercely. “What he was telling me just sunk in, Daffy, and he’s so right. My God, to even think of having to live one day without having you in this world, let alone having to face the rest of my life without you. I should want to make you coffee or warm up your car or do the laundry...anything you want, just because I’m so lucky to have you with me.”
Jo slipped out of the kitchen and left her son-in-law alone to demonstrate to her daughter, lucky girl, just how thankful he was to have her in his life. She, meanwhile, decided to ignore his advice and go hunt down a certain tall handsome Irishman. She grabbed her coat and headed out of the Clinic. But before she did, she saw a piece of mistletoe lying on the floor beneath the archway. Taking it as a propitious sign, she picked it up and tucked it into her collar.
Snow had started to fall while she’d been at the Clinic and while it made following a man with big feet easy, Jo wished she’d worn gloves. Or brought a thermos of that divine coffee. She wondered why Matt didn’t drink any and resolved to be nosy. If she were going to be relegated to the old lady couch at gatherings, she may as well enjoy the benefits, she decided, and shameless nosiness was one of them.
Walking quickly through the darkening afternoon, Jo followed the footprints until they led her to the path that wound down to the lake. She scanned along the bank and saw the tall figure standing off by a lookout point that offered a fine view of the boats heading out onto the lake from the small marina that served the locals. With his hands in his pockets and shoulders hunched against the cold, Matt O’Keefe didn’t look like his usual tall confident self. He almost looked drawn in, like he was trying to hide from the world.
Well, too bad, Jo thought, I’ve found you. So, you have to talk...just for a bit. Man puts his hand on her ass, the least he can do is answer a few questions, she figured.
“Pretty impressive speech you gave your young brother. I think I’m going to work it into a quilt for Daphne, so she doesn’t forget them, as she needed to hear them and take them to heart too. It isn’t like she had an example of a good marriage growing up to guide her now.”
Matt whirled around at the first sound of her rich voice, but he relaxed as her words sunk in. He gestured for her to come closer.
“It’s gotten colder. You’ll freeze in that little jacket.”
“Well, you’ll have to act as a wind block then,” she told him calmly, surprising him. Then his eyes narrowed.
“You aren’t feeling sorry for me, are you? This isn’t a pity the poor widower visit, I hope.” His voice deepened; Jo noticed that his eyes darkened when his emotions grew stronger, just as his voice deepened. An intriguing combination, she decided.
“Why would I be feeling sorry for you? You had an amazing marriage for over twenty years to a lady who by all accounts was the love of your life–I, on the other hand, was married for two years to one of this generation’s most charming bastards–but who was talking about me? And in any event, my marriage left me with my most wonderful daughter, so I am not complaining. You were not complaining either, I believe, were you?” Jo looked at Matt, struck again by just how well he suited her physically. She was six foot three in her heels...a fashion choice she was very much regretting now that her day had included chair climbing and a walk to the park, and she still looked up at him, while those shoulders...oh those shoulders just made her want to....
Well, as she was saying, she had no complaints.
Matt's broad shoulder was snug next to hers as they stood shoulder to shoulder, leaning on the railing, looking out over the lake. She waited patiently for him to pick up the conversation. She knew that with Jamie, it didn’t take long for him to tell her his troubles, but it had to be on his terms. Questions didn’t work, but opportunity did. Working on that principle, and a hunch, Jo had followed this oldest brother out to the lake in her too thin coat and her too high heels. She decided to follow another hunch.
“It must be hard to move on with your life when you’re the oldest, and everyone looks to you as the symbol of marital fidelity. In addition to your children, and your own heart, you have the added weight of all these brothers and sisters and their expectations of what you should do and feel.”
He looked at her sharply, but as she continued to watch the boats calmly, he relaxed. Smiling ruefully, he asked her, “So, been tapping our phone lines long?”
Her dimples flashed. “Just a year or so. Got to keep up on my Daphne somehow.” She turned to face him. “Seriously, it isn’t that hard to guess. From that time I worked with all of you on the quilt, it was easy to see that you’re all close, and also that your sisters especially hold you boys to certain high expectations. Was your friend, Ms. Rizzuteri, the first woman you’d brought home to a family meal since your wife....” She trailed off.
“Since Julie died? Yes. If I hadn’t been so nervous about that I might have been more help with the situation that developed with Danny, but I was totally caught up with my own little drama that day. Thank God Mark was on the ball. I guess I didn’t make a very good impression on you back then, did I?”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Jo denied.
“So much that I stayed Mr. O’Keefe?” He asked.
“Why do you have to avoid caffeine and why did you leave so quickly?” She decided changing the subject would be a good tactic.
“I...” He blushed, realizing that his excuse about needing to get back to his pubs was revealed to be just that, an excuse, since he was lingering by the quay, daydreaming, which left him with little choice but to answer with the truth. Or tell her it was none of her business, which he didn’t want to do.
Matt liked Jo Chanders, a lot. He’d been taken with her when he first met her, but at that time he’d finally started dating, after a five year grieving process. Gianetta Rizzuteri had proven very good for him, as she was beautiful, bright, also widowed, very much attracted to him...and she lived half a world away. So, while they had a good time and saw quite a bit of each other when they could, there was no way it was ever going to go further than close friends...with benefits, as his fresh mouthed older son added until he received a very quelling look from his father.
But yes, with benefits. Matt really enjoyed having a sex life again, he’d been chagrined to find, after being so sure that he would never really enjoy being with another woman after losing Julie. For, unlike some of his siblings, Matt was a romantic, and he would have sworn that like his father, he was a one woman man. He’d met Julie when he was seventeen and there had never been another woman for him since. His soldier brother Luke had been appalled on the eve of their brother Mark’s wedding when he’d learned that Matt had never made love to any woman except Julie since he was seventeen, and wanted to take his brothers on a wild bachelor night, insisting that their women need never know, but both had turned him down.
Matt looked out over the water and started to talk, telling Jo a lot of the thoughts that were running through his mind. Finally, he turned back toward her, after telling her about Luke and the rejected bachelor party.
“When Julie died, I was forty-five, and she was still the only woman I’d ever made love to since I’d been a boy of seventeen. To tell you the truth, I can’t even remember those handful of girls I took to bed before her, but I can remember the regret I felt that Julie wasn’t my first like I was for her. My brothers are all such ladies men, well, except for Danny, and they all, including him have such reputations, even the best of them, they assume that is what is expected of a man, I guess, but I tried to tell my sons that enthusiasm more than makes up for all the experience in the world. I always regretted that there had been anyone before Julie, that didn’t bring the same innocence to our relationship that she did.”
He smiled at the memory of the two of them, so young once upon a time–and Jo was entranced by this big romantic man. She could have wept for him and his lost love. For such devotion not to have been rewarded with a long life together...it wasn’t fair.
“Don’t be sad for me,” he murmured, his arm around her waist pulling her closer in a friendly gesture. At least she thought it was a friendly gesture. She hoped it was more.
“What Julie and I had was wonderful, but she was the last one in the world who would have wanted me to be alone. I guess if Gianetta did anything for me, she showed me that I was made to be with someone. As my sister Kate says, I was born to be a husband. Not a player. I don’t like sleeping with a woman who isn’t tied to me. I want the right to tell her she can’t fly back to Italy if there are storm warnings...not because I’m sexist, but because I worry. Same reason she could tell me that I can’t drink too much coffee or work too many hours....it isn’t a question of who is the boss, but of caring. I miss having someone care about me as an equal. I’m the boss over everyone since Mama died,” he laughed ruefully.
“I know what you mean,” she agreed sympathetically. “My Mother passed ten years ago and it suddenly hits you...there is no one left who can tell you ‘no, Josephine, you can’t do that, child.’ You might have spent years saying to your Mama, you’re not the boss of me anymore...but the truth is, the Mama is still the boss on some level. And when she is gone, there is a big hole where that person used to be. I tell Daphne all the time, when she fights with me, be glad child that you still have your mother here to backtalk.”
Matt grinned. “I can just see those battles. Must be worth watching. She’s a sharp tongued girl. She keeps my brother in line and we didn’t think there would ever be someone who could handle him. Then came your Daphne and whssht!” Matt made a gesture like a sock to the gut knocking the wind out of him. “Jamie was out for the count after the first meeting.”
Jo nodded with satisfaction. “My Mother was like that with men. Not like me at all, thank goodness Daphne is smarter.”
“Jo is not smart with men?” Matt raised an eyebrow.
Jo shook her head firmly. “No sir, we’re talking about you today. We’ll do me another time. I think we’re up to you and the lovely Italian lady, Ms. Rizzuteri? That is not still going strong?” Jo tried not to look avidly interested.
“Ah, yes,” Matt nodded his head thoughtfully. “My brother’s foray into matchmaking. In a way, that was a bigger disaster than when they’d all decided that I should remain the mourning widower for the rest of my life. You know what is driving me crazy in all of this? That they all seem to think they know what I need, you know? I’m fifty-three years old and my kids and kid brothers are trying to arrange my life. Not my sisters...they want me to stay just as I am. A monument to faithful husbands, which is actually the worst thing, I guess. Danny at least meant well, introducing me to Gianetta, and she was a very sweet woman. She’s a widow and has a son, she’s small and dark, and speaks Italian, so I think Danny thought she would be an easy transition. Not that he would be so thoughtless as to think I could replace my Julie with someone like her, but more that someone similar would be less painful? I don’t know....” He trailed off.
“Well,” Jo said, her voice thoughtful. “I don’t know if it was replacing your Julie, per se, or maybe just that he was trying to find someone who matched up to what seems to be the O’Keefe male taste. If you ask me, I’d say he did a pretty fine job finding what you’d be likely to like. Aren’t your brothers all married to short, pretty, dark-haired women...tell me again, what did your Mama Rose look like?” She peered up at him through her curly lashes mischievously, a look that Daphne had stolen from her, if truth were known.
Matt looked stunned. “Oh my sweet Lord,” he gasped, laughing. “We all married our mother! And I’m the worst, because mine even had an accent!”
Jo joined him in laughing. Somehow, as they calmed, she found his arms around her waist and those green eyes staring down into hers.
“I see you found more mistletoe,” he commented, his gaze drifting to her collar for a moment before returning to focus on her lips. Jo felt her cheeks warm.
“It seemed a shame to let this little piece lie there on the ground to get crushed,” she said, her voice not as steady as she would have liked.
His fingers brushed it, lifting it from her collar to hold it over her head. “The truth is,” he whispered, his voice low and sexy, “it isn’t that we O’Keefe men search for women who look like our mother so much as we try to find women who don’t remind us of our sisters. Now you are wonderfully tall, which I find I like quite a lot, but I don’t find myself reminded at all of my sisters when I’m with you...underneath the mistletoe.”
Jo’s arms slid around the broad back, one hand reaching up to comb through that dark wavy hair, with just the trace of gray, the other settling on top of one broad shoulder. Kissing with two feet planted firmly on the ground was lovely too, she decided, fighting the urge to pick one foot up and kick it back....
Blame it on the mistletoe. She’d have to be sure to keep it around.
Two Weeks Later, Christmas Eve.....
“Wow, this place looks incredible, Mom. How did you get it finished in time?” Daphne was wide-eyed. The Hope Is Here Health Clinic was opening its doors for low cost health care to the community on schedule, right before the holidays, with free blood pressure and blood sugar screenings, along with blood tests for HIV/AIDS, Sickle Cell Anemia, Tay Sachs, and several other medical conditions, and unlike other screenings, the HIH Clinic was providing follow-up care to the patients who needed it, including nutritional counseling and where needed, meal delivery. Emmett had helped set up the meal program, working with dietitians to make the meals palatable while Rodney, Vic’s old lover, and Carl, worked on finding delivery people. This program was intended to serve not only the gay community, Jo explained, but the elderly and black communities, as well as the disabled, or the working poor who didn’t have insurance. Any group that needed the help that wasn’t receiving it from someone else was their target.
“Pretty ambitious,” Brian Kinney remarked, on reading the mission statement posted inside the door. “How can any group hope to achieve all that?” He raised an eyebrow and looked cynical.
“By emptying your pockets, oh rich lover boy, so ante up for those pigs in a blanket...'tis the season to be jolly... and generous,” Emmett chirped as he walked past with a tray of fancier hors d’oeuvres than pigs in a blanket could ever aspire to be. Brian grabbed his arm.
“Speaking of lover boys, where is mine? He’s supposed to be here...or so I was told. Otherwise I would have just mailed a check, much as I love doing good and all that.”
“You're just in time, Mr. Kinney, if you wish to write a check for my Clinic...I prefer one with several zeroes.” Dr. Josephine Chanders walked up just then and nodded to Emmett, permitting him to escape gratefully as she regally took the handsome Mr. Kinney’s arm. If she hoped to nonplus him, she was disappointed. But if she wished an elegant escort for her own grand entrance, she made a fine choice.
“Dr. Jo, you are looking smashing, as always,” Brian told her. “But it isn’t my escort you want tonight. May I suggest we proceed to that piano I see over by the x-ray machine...what a clever idea, music while you get irradiated...and we’ll trade partners. You take the distinguished looking man with the touch of gray and I’ll take that long-haired scamp on his knee. No doubt telling him what he wants for Christmas this year, as though he’s been good.”
Daphne, who’d been listening in as she followed with Jamie tagging along with her, giggled as Danny got up from where he’d been sitting on the piano bench with Matt. He tossed his long hair back with dramatic flair.
“I’ve been so good this year, I’ve been outlawed in three states...and California is talking about forbidding me in their next election,” he drawled, winking at Daphne, who giggled again.
“Proposition 8 is nothing to joke about, young man,” Josephine reprimanded him as she took his place by Matt’s side and let him pull her close, resisting any effort to be drawn onto his lap, however, exchanging a dimpled smile with him that promised retribution for his attempt.
“Believe me, Jo, as a gay man who sees little chance of ever being able to marry the man I love in this Commonwealth, I think there is every reason to mock the laws of this country.”
“Listen to the little one, like the man he loves would ever be caught dead getting married even if the Archbishop of Canterbury himself were to come off his high horse and bless the marriage in his annual Christmas message,” Jamie laughed.
Before Danny could explode, Matt stood and got between the two of them, putting a hand on each of their shoulders.
“Peace, you two, now! No more fighting until after twelfth day...and that’s an order. Danny, sing a song for me, please? By the way, I made a donation to the Center in Angel’s name.”
“You made that one, Matt?” There was a tinge of color on Danny’s cheeks. “I thought no one...never mind. That was really thoughtful of you. I was pleased to see it. For Briana’s sake, but for mine also.” Brian was rubbing his lover’s back to give support; he knew how much Danny hated getting emotional in public.
“She was my sister too, Danny, and it’s past time she was remembered...by all of us.” He looked meaningfully at his other younger brother, whose wife was kicking him.
But Danny was putting his arm out to pull Jamie close in a hug.
“Jamie does his part to honor Angel all the time, Matt. He’s been serving on the board of the Dark Angel Foundation that provides funding for programs that help runaways and other young people in trouble with addictions and other problems. Plus, he and Daphne are like a second set of parents to Briana. Now me, he treats like a bum.” Danny twisted away lithely as Jamie, who’d been touched by his accolade, tried to put him in a headlock when his words turned to complaints.
Jo turned to Brian. “They made it almost a full minute that time.”
Brian nodded. “Almost a record. Must be the season.”
“I think they need a yoke, like horses, that would keep them apart,” Matt grumbled.
Brian started to add something to that, having formed a mental image but Danny shot him a look and said, “No.”
“What?” Daphne asked, innocently.
“You don’t need to encourage him, trust me,” Danny told her, pecking her on the cheek. “Let me have some room at this piano and I’ll sing a song for my favorite brother.”
“Since when is Matt your favorite brother?” Joey walked up, carrying a plate of carrots that he was munching on. He was maintaining his new slimmer form, Jo noticed approvingly.
Danny eyed the carrots enviously. “Since he didn’t wave carrots in front of me without sharing. Go away, all of you. Brian, get me some carrots...please?. Jamie, Matt, take your beautiful women away and go dance with them. Let’s get this place hopping.”
Danny sat down at the piano and began to play as they laughed and moved to do his bidding.
After playing a bit to warm up, teasing the crowd and getting their attention, Danny spoke into the microphone,
“Okay everyone, I’m ready to play my first request. The rules for tonight are one thousand dollars a song, so I hope you don’t leave me sitting here twiddling my thumbs. Matt has taken the first step so that means I expect every O’Keefe out there to do as well by the lady...or lad...he wishes to impress.” There was a laugh as Danny looked pointedly at Brian before continuing. “This is a special song for a very special lady. Dedicated to Hope is Here’s very own Dr. Claus...please bring your hands together for Dr. Jo!”
Matt bowed and reached out a hand to Josephine then led her out to the impromptu dance floor that had been cleared for the evening’s fundraiser while Danny began to sing. Their eyes met with amusement as they heard the words.
It must have been the mistletoe
The lazy fire, the falling snow
The magic in the frosty air
That feeling everywhere
It must have been the pretty lights
That glistened in the silent night
It may be just the stars so bright
That shined above you
Our first Christmas
More than we'd be dreaming of
Ah, Saint Nicholas had his fingers crossed
That we would fall in love!
Matt’s arms tightened around Jo as he swirled her around the room, surprising her with how well he danced, with how well they danced together. His cheek brushed her temple, and she shivered at the feeling of being held so closely in his arms again. They’d been taking it slowly–this, whatever it was they had–but she knew that tonight was the night that he was going to take that extra step. As she knew from that very first morning he kissed her under the mistletoe. Matthew was a man who knew when he wanted to move forward and he knew how to ask without saying a word, as well as how to tell when that answer was yes. Jo had made sure that mistletoe was in every doorway of the clinic tonight. No sense messing with a good thing.
It must have been the mistletoe
The lazy fire, the falling snow
The magic in the frosty air
That made me love you!
On Christmas eve our wish came true
That I would fall in love with you
It only took one kiss to know
It must have been the mistletoe!
It must have been the mistletoe!
It must have been the mistletoe!
They ended their dance by the doorway of one of the examining rooms. As Danny accepted his applause, Matt managed to slip the two of them inside, with only Mark O’Keefe’s warm gaze seeing where they went. And his purpose in watching was to cause a distraction at that moment over by the piano so no one else would look for his big brother.
He was very happy to see the light back in his big brother’s eyes. And while it might have been the mistletoe, it was more likely the long awaited answer to his prayer that his lonely brother would find love once more.
“It will be a Merry Christmas, love,” he told his wife, kissing her under the mistletoe before swinging her away to dance.
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