A Dartmoor Christmas
Not that she would admit it to her half-brother, but Raven always liked the old-fashioned, Dickensian look of Maude’s at Christmastime. She admired it a moment, leaning back against the side of her Rover, the sad colored lights tacked up around the windows, wrapped around a little tabletop tree inside, just visible through the condensation on the window panes. All the scene needed was snow. And maybe Tiny Tim.
She shivered against the chill in the air and pushed off the Rover. The bells overhead chimed when she entered the shop, and Albie lifted his head.
She felt an immediate, brief spark of sadness for him. He was alone, perched on his stool behind the counter, bent over furniture sketches. An untended cigarette smoldered in a glass tray at his elbow beside an open bottle of red wine and a half-full tumbler. She would never pretend to enjoy being around the club, but Albie was a member, and she felt like he ought to have been partying with his brothers tonight, sloshed and holding an easy woman on his lap. This self-imposed solitude, though, struck at the tender places in her heart. He just looked so…alone.
Though not unhappy. His expression was neutral, almost peaceful, like always.
“You’ve got the wine out, I see,” she said, approaching the counter slowly, heels clipping across the floorboards. “Rough day?”
“Merry Christmas to you too, sister. And no. Not especially.” He tapped the neck of the bottle in offering. “Will you have some?”
She nodded and moved to take the stool across from him, wiping the seat before she sat.
Albie fetched a glass from somewhere beneath the desk, but it was clean, sparkling under the lights. He filled it much too full and slid it across with the deft precision of a bartender. “It’s the Saturday before Christmas,” he said. “I would have thought you had some sort of expensive model party to go to.”
“Yeah. Well.” She shrugged and took a sip. It was merlot; not expensive, but tasty. “I was invited.”
“Didn’t feel like going?”
“There wouldn’t have been any food, for one.”
He snorted and reached under the desk again, came out with a round Christmas tin with flying reindeer on the top.
“Homemade from Mrs. Avery next door.” He popped the top to reveal an assortment: butter, and sugar, and chocolate, covered in sprinkles, and chocolate drizzle.
“Ooh, brilliant.” She plucked one out of the tin and popped the whole thing in her mouth.
“Uh-huh.” He drained the rest of his glass and refilled it. “So aside from stealing all my biscuits, and avoiding models, what are you doing here?”
He said it gently enough, but it still stung a little. She didn’t know why, but it did. “Does it matter?” she asked, and knew her tone was sharp. She took another biscuit from the tin.
“It’s just unusual, is all.” He sent her a penetrating look from beneath his lashes that made her want to squirm on her stool. She didn’t of course – she didn’t do that sort of thing – but the impulse was undeniable. He was an unsettling shithead, her brother. “Is everything alright, Raven?”
“Of course it is,” she snapped. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
“How’s your mum?”
“Fine. Not that it’s any of your business.”
“You’re not seeing anyone special?”
“Ah,” he said. “There it is.”
“Shut up, Albie.”
“What happened?” he asked, ignoring her anger.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” She tilted her head and let the wine pour down her throat. When she slapped the glass back down on the counter, Albie refilled it.
“And yet here you are.”
“Here I am.”
“He was just an insufferable asshole, alright?” She sipped her fresh glass of wine.
“He wasn’t a model, was he?” Albie asked, nose wrinkling. When she kept drinking, he said, “Ah hell, he was, wasn’t he? Don’t tell me you go for those model boys.”
“Obviously not since I dumped him.”
“But you were with him.” Albie looked so disappointed she would have laughed if she wasn’t so ashamed of her own dating habits.
“What sort of man do you expect me to date? One of your bikers?”
Albie shrugged. “Just thought you had better standards is all.”
“You…” The gleam in his eyes revealed he was goading her.
She finished off her wine and set the glass down with a sigh. As Albie refilled it, she said, “You are obnoxious. You’re a rude, horrible, obnoxious brother.”
“Brother,” she corrected, anger mounting. “You want to know all about it? Fine, I’ll tell you all about it.”
“Only if that’s what you want,” he said, but he looked pleased. Damn him.
“Your name is Albie, be quiet. Yes, Rafe and I had been seeing each other for a few weeks. Yes, he’s a model, if you must know, and a talented, sought-after one at that. He was a pompous ass. I dumped him. End of.”
“Not to call you an ass. But you’re a little pompous yourself.”
She sniffed, which she guessed didn’t help her point. “Not like him.”
Albie hadn’t been fidgeting, per se, but had been stroking his glass with his thumb, head tilting slowly from side to side. He stilled, gaze coming to her face. A hardness settled into his voice. “What’d he do?”
“He didn’t do anything. Calm down.” Secretly, she liked hearing him get protective. Lord knew there was a shortage of that in her life. “It was more what he said.”
Albie made a gesture that said elaborate.
“I was backstage at one of his shows,” she said, frowning as she remembered. “And there were all these assistants – just kids, really, not yet out of school – running around, and bringing his clothes, and working on his makeup – yes, makeup,” she said when Albie snorted. “He was horrid to them. Not for any reasons, just…just because he could be. And he said” – the anger became a hot kernel in her chest again, remembering. “He said, ‘Look at this fucking trash.’” She was breathing hard, she realized, and reached for her glass again. It had taken every ounce of self-control not to slap Rafe then. She had slapped him when he chased her down and grabbed her arm. Knee-jerk reaction then.
“Yeah, well, I’d imagine lots of people in your social circles think that way about the little people they step on to get to the top.”
“No!” She aimed a finger at him. “No, I have never stepped on anyone.”
“I may have money, and I may live well, but I didn’t hurt anyone to get what I have.”
“And I–” She swallowed, hard. Shit, she’d had too much wine too quickly. “Look at our father,” she said, quietly. “He’s the real trash. If Mum hadn’t…well, if there hadn’t been connections, and if she hadn’t had money…I’d be one of the assistants.” She sent him a spare smile. “I’d be making furniture. It just hit close to home, I guess.”
Albie sat back and folded his arms, expression thoughtful. “I’m not sure, but I think I was insulted in there somewhere.”
“Making furniture is perfectly respectable.” She smiled. “Although I can’t say that about the gun-running.”
He smiled back. “Look at you. And here I thought you were ashamed of your roots.”
“Never. Just…I wouldn’t mind being in that line when Devin finally turns back up and we all queue up to kick him in the bollocks.”
“You can be between me and Charlie.”
“And which one of you goes first?”
“Dunno. We’ll arm wrestle for it.”
Raven loved her life. Really, she did. She got a little lonely sometimes, but there were men available if she wanted one, and she kept busy. She loved her flat, and her wardrobe, and luxuriant Sunday mornings with tea in a bed.
But the thing with Rafe had rattled her. Had disturbed and offended her in an unexpected way. Because, money or not, model or not, at the end of the day…she was part of the Lean Dogs family. There was outlaw in her blood, and she couldn’t stand pompous assholes.
Having biscuits and wine with Albie turned out to be just the thing she’d needed.
“Oh, hey,” she said when they were well on the way to drunk. “I talked to King’s wife a few days ago.”
“Emmie?” Albie was starting to look at little unsteady and glassy-eyed.
“Yeah. And listen to this: she wants to try to set Shane up with a little girlfriend.”
Albie stayed straight-faced a moment, then laughed, head thrown back, eyes squeezed shut. “Jesus, he should have stayed in London!”
“I think maybe she has a point,” Raven protested. When Albie continued to laugh, she said, “I’ve never even seen the man smile! Come on, where’s your Christmas spirit?”
“It’s smart enough not to go sticking its nose in other people’s business.”
“Bloody idiot.” She pulled out her iPhone. “She’s only trying to help. I think it’s a good idea.”
“Who’re you calling?”
“Don’t. The time difference…”
But the other line was already ringing.
Shane felt his phone vibrate in his back pocket and ignored it. If there was some sort of club emergency, whoever it was would call back. And if it wasn’t an emergency, then it certainly didn’t warrant interrupting his dinner plans.
He cast one nervous glance back toward the house; all the lights were on, the trees, and garlands, and wreaths. It looked so festive. Bea was making dinner and Walsh and Emmie had wanted to spend some quality time. He took a deep breath, adjusted his clammy grip on the white poinsettia he carried, and stepped into the barn.
The aisle was swept and spotless, the horses blanketed and tucked away for the night. Some of them had stockings hanging on their blanket bars. A tiny fake tree with colored lights was set up beside the wash rack, and that was the only illumination aside from the light they always left on in the tack room.
Several horses snorted and whickered in greeting. “Hey, guys,” Shane called softly, and went to the door that led up to the apartment above.
He took another three deep breaths – this was stupid; it wasn’t like a surprise; it wasn’t like she hadn’t already said yes. He guessed he was just getting nervous that Emmie would find out soon, and that she’d disapprove.
His worry disappeared, though, when the door swung open before he could knock. Becca was in a long-sleeved black dress and heels, ends of her hair still a little damp and curling from the shower.
“Hi!” she greeted, brightly.
“Hi.” He could feel himself blushing as he held out the poinsettia. “You look lovely.”
She rolled her eyes. “Thanks. Come on up.”
In his pocket, his phone vibrated once to let him know he had a voicemail.