CHRISTMAS WITH HOLY (Chapter One)
Until his sister's death, Mark Nolan had treated his niece Holly with the usual offhand affection of a bachelor uncle. He had seen her during the occasional holiday gatherings, and he'd always made certain to buy her something for her birthday and for Christmas. Usually gift cards. That had been the limit of his interactions with Holly, and it had been enough.
But everything changed one rain-slicked April night in Seattle, when Victoria had been killed in a car wreck on I-5. Since Victoria had never mentioned a will or any plans she had made for Holly's future, Mark had no idea what would happen to her six-year-old daughter. There was no father in the picture. Victoria had never divulged who he was, even to her close friends. Mark was fairly certain that she had never told the father about Holly's existence.
When Victoria had first moved to Seattle, she had fallen in with a bohemian crowd, a group of musicians and creative types. This had resulted in a string of short-term relationships that had provided all the artistic razzle-dazzle Victoria had craved. Eventually, however, she had been forced to admit that the quest for personal fulfillment had to be balanced with a regular paycheck. She'd applied for a job at a software company and had gotten one in human resources, with decent pay and great benefits. Unfortunately by that time, Victoria had found out she was pregnant.
"It's better for everyone if he's not involved," she had told Mark when he had asked who the guy was.
"You need some help with this," Mark had protested. "At the very least, the guy should live up to his financial obligations. Having a kid isn't cheap."
"I can handle it by myself."
"Vick...being a single parent isn't something I'd wish on anyone."
"The concept of parenting, in any form, freaks you out," Victoria had said. "Which is perfectly understandable, coming from our background. But I want this baby. And I'll do a good job."
And she had. Victoria had turned out to be a responsible parent, patient and kind with her only child, protective without being overcontrolling. God knew where such mothering skills had come from. They had to have been instinctive, since Victoria certainly hadn't learned them from her own parents.
Mark knew without a doubt that he didn't have those instincts. Which was why it was a shock upon shock when he learned that he had not only just lost a sister, he had gained a child.
Being named as Holly's guardian was nothing he had ever anticipated. He knew his own capabilities about most things, and he had a good idea of what he probably would be able to do in situations he hadn't yet encountered. But this...taking care of a child...this was beyond him.
If Holly had been a boy, he might've had half a chance. Boys weren't all that hard to figure out. The entire female gender, on the other hand, was a mystery. Mark had long ago accepted that women were complicated. They said things like, "If you don't already know, I'm not going to tell you." They never ordered their own desserts, and when they asked your opinion on which outfit to wear, they always wore the one you didn't pick. Still, although Mark would never claim to understand women, he adored them: their elusiveness, the surprises of them, their intricate, fascinating shifts of mood.
But toactually raise one...Jesus, no. The stakes were too high. There was no way he could set a good enough example. And guiding a daughter through the treacherous, tricky climate of a society that presented every kind of pitfall...God knew he had no qualifications for that.
Mark and his siblings had been raised by parents whose version of marriage had been a war of attrition in which their children had been used as pawns. As a result, the three Nolan brothers--Mark, Sam, and Alex--had been fine with the idea of going their separate ways upon reaching adulthood. Victoria, on the other hand, had craved the kind of connection their family had never been able to muster. She had finally found it in Holly, and that had made her feel lucky.
But one wrong half turn of a steering wheel, one patch of wet road, one out-of-control moment, and the amount of life measured out to Victoria Nolan had run cruelly short.
Victoria had left a sealed letter, addressed to Mark, kept in a file with the will.
There's no other choice but you. Holly doesn't know Sam or Alex at all. I write this hoping that you'll never have to read it, but if you are...take care of my daughter, Mark. Help her. She needs you. I know how overwhelming this responsibility must seem. I'm sorry. I know you didn't ask for this. But you can do it. You'll figure everything out.
Just start by loving her. The rest will follow.
"You're really going to take her?" Sam had asked Mark on the day of the funeral, after a reception at Victoria's house. It had been eerie to see everything the way she'd left it: the books in the bookcase, a pair of shoes tossed carelessly to the closet floor, a tube of lip gloss on the bathroom counter.
"Of course I'm going to take her," Mark said. "What else can I do?"
"There's Alex. He's married. Why didn't Vick leave Holly to him and Darcy?"
Mark gave him a speaking glance. Their youngest brother's marriage was like a virus-ridden computer--you couldn't open it in safe mode, and it ran programs that seemed harmless but performed all kinds of malicious functions.
"Would you leave your kid to them?" he asked.
Slowly, Sam shook his head. "I guess not."
"So you and I are all Holly's got."
Sam gave him a wary look. "You're the one who's signing on for this, not me. There's a reason Vick didn't name me as her guardian. I'm not good with kids."
"You're still Holly's uncle."
"Yes, uncle. My responsibilities are limited to making jokes about body functions and drinking too much beer at family cookouts. I'm not the dad type."
"Neither am I," Mark said grimly. "But we have to try. Unless you want to sign her up for foster care."
Scowling, Sam rubbed his face with both hands. "What is Shelby's take on this?"
Mark shook his head at the mention of his girlfriend, an interior decorator he had met when she had been decorating the high-end house of a friend on Griffin Bay. "I've only been going out with her a couple of months. She'll either deal with it or bail--that's up to her. But I'm not going to ask her for help. This is my responsibility. And yours."
"Maybe I could babysit sometime. But don't count on much help; I've sunk everything I have into the vineyard."
"Exactly what I told you not to do, genius."
Sam's eyes, the same blue-green as his own, narrowed. "If I listened to your advice, I'd be making your mistakes instead of my own." He paused. "Where does Vick keep the booze?"
"Pantry." Mark went to a cabinet, found two glasses, and filled them with ice.
Sam rummaged through the pantry. "It feels weird, drinking her liquor when she's...gone."
"She'd be the first to tell us to go ahead."
"Probably right." Sam came to the table with a bottle of whiskey. "Did she have life insurance?"
Mark shook his head. "She let it lapse."
Sam shot him a look of concern. "Guess you're going to put the house up for sale?"
"Yeah. I doubt we'll get much for it in this market." Mark pushed a glass over to him. "Don't hold back," he said.
"Don't worry." Sam didn't stop pouring until both glasses were liberally filled.
They resumed their seats across from each other, raised their whiskey in a silent toast, and drank. It was good liquor, sliding smoothly down Mark's throat, sending a rush of mellow fire into his chest.
He found unexpected comfort in his brother's presence. It seemed their cantankerous childhood history--the fights, the small betrayals--would no longer get in their way. They were adults now, with a potential for friendship that had never existed while their parents had still been alive.
With Alex, however, you could never get close enough to like or dislike him. Alex and his wife, Darcy, had come to the funeral, stayed at the reception for about fifteen minutes, and then left with hardly a word to anyone.
"They've gone already?" Mark had asked incredulously upon discovering their absence.
"If you wanted them to stay longer," Sam had said, "you should have held the funeral reception at Nordstrom."
No doubt people wondered how three brothers could reside on an island with approximately seven thousand residents and have so little to do with one another. Alex lived with Darcy in Roche Harbor on the north side. When he wasn't busy with his condo development, he was taking his wife to social events in Seattle. Mark, for his part, kept busy with a small coffee-roasting business he'd established in Friday Harbor. And Sam, who was always in his vineyard, tending and cosseting his vines, felt a deeper connection to nature than to people.
The only thing they all had in common was their love of San Juan Island. It was part of an archipelago that consisted of approximately two hundred islands, some of them encompassed by the Washington mainland counties of Whatcom and Skagit. The Nolans had spent their childhood in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, a place sheltered from much of the grayness of the rest of the Pacific Northwest.
The Nolans had grown up breathing in humid ocean air, their bare feet constantly coated with the silt of exposed mudflats. They had been gifted with damp lavender mornings, dry blue days, and the most beautiful sunsets on earth. Nothing could compare to the sight of nimble sandpipers chasing the waves. Or of bald eagles swooping low and fast in pursuit of prey. Or of the dance of orcas, their sleek forms diving, spy-hopping, and cutting through the Salish Sea as they fed on the rich pulse of salmon runs.
The brothers had rambled over every inch of the island, up and down wind-bitten slopes above the seacoast, among somber columns of timber forests, and across meadows thick with orchard grasses and wild-flowers with alluring names...Chocolate Lily, Shooting Star, Sea Blush. No mix of water, sand, and sky had ever been as perfectly proportioned.
Although they had gone off to college and tried living in other places, the island had always lured them back. Even Alex, with all his hard-shelled ambitions, had come back. It was the kind of life in which you knew the local farmers who grew most of the produce you ate, and the guy who made the soap you washed with, and you were on a first-name basis with the owners of the restaurants you went to. You could hitchhike safely, with friendly islanders giving one another a lift when they needed it.
Victoria had been the only one in the family who had ever found something worth leaving the island for. She had fallen in love with the glass peaks and cement valleys of Seattle, the urban coffee-and-culture scene, the stylishly understated restaurants that seduced your taste buds, the sensory labyrinth of Pike Place Market.
In response to a comment of Sam's that everyone did too much talking and thinking in the city, Victoria had replied that Seattle made her smarter.
"I don't need to be smarter," Sam had said. "The smarter you are, the more reasons you have to be miserable."
"That explains why we Nolans are always in such high spirits," Mark had told Victoria, making her laugh.
"Not Alex, though," she had said, sobering after a minute. "I don't think Alex has been happy a day in his life."
"Alex doesn't want happiness," Mark had replied. "He's fine with the substitutes."
Bringing his mind back to the present, Mark wondered what Victoria would say if she knew that he was going to raise Holly on San Juan Island. He didn't realize he had given voice to the thought until Sam replied.
"Like she would have been surprised? Vick knew you'd never move away from the island. Your coffee business is there, your home, your friends. I'm sure she knew you'd take Holly to Friday Harbor, if anything happened to her."
Mark nodded, feeling hollow and bleak. The magnitude of the child's loss was not something he could dwell on for long.
"Did she say anything today?" Sam asked. "I didn't hear a peep out of her."
In the days since she had been told of her mother's death, Holly had been silent, only responding to questions by nodding or shaking her head. She wore a distant, dazed expression, having retreated to an inner world where no one could intrude. On the night of Victoria's death, Mark had gone straight from the hospital to her house, where a babysitter was looking after the little girl. He had broken the news to the child in the morning, and had stayed practically within arm's reach of her ever since.
"Nothing," Mark said. "If she doesn't start talking by tomorrow, I'm going to take her to the pediatrician." He let out a shallow, shaken breath before adding, "I don't even know who that is."
"There's a list on the fridge," Sam said. "It's got a few numbers on it, including one for Holly's doctor. I'm guessing Vick kept it there in case a babysitter needed it in an emergency."
Mark went to the refrigerator, pulled off a Post-it note, and stuck it in his wallet. "Great," he said sardonically. "Now I know at least as much as the babysitter."
"It's a start."
Returning to the table, Mark took a long, deliberate swallow of whiskey. "There's something I need to talk to you about. Living in my condo at Friday Harbor isn't going to work for me and Holly. There's only one bedroom, and no yard for her to play in."
"Are you going to sell it?"
"Rent it out, maybe."
"And then where would you go?"
Mark paused for a long, deliberate moment. "You've got plenty of room."
Sam's eyes widened. "No, I don't."
Two years earlier Sam had bought fifteen acres at False Bay in pursuit of his long-held dream to establish his own winery. The property, with its well-drained sand and gravel soil and cool-climate terroir, was perfect for a vineyard. Along with the land had come a cavernous dilapidated Victorian country farmhouse with a wraparound porch, multiple bay windows, a big corner turret, and multicolored fish-scale shingles.
"Fixer-upper" was far too kind a term to use for the place, which was troubled by creaks, sags, weird drips, and puddles without apparent origin. Past residents had left their mark on the house, installing bathrooms where none had been intended, putting in flimsy chipwood walls, shallow closets with wobbly sliding pocket doors, slathering cherrywood shelves and moldings with cheap white paint. The original hardwood floors had been covered with linoleum or shag carpeting you could actually lie on and make rug angels.
But the house had three things going for it: there was more than enough room for two bachelors and a six-year-old kid, there was a big yard and orchard, and its location on False Bay was Mark's favorite part of the island.
"It's not happening," Sam said flatly. "I like living alone."
"What do you have to lose by letting us stay with you? There's not a single aspect of your life that we would interfere with." We. Us. Pronouns that were apparently going to be replacing the "I" in most of Mark's sentences from now on.
"You're kidding, right? Do you know what life is like for single guys with kids? You miss out on all the hot women, because none of them wants to get conned into babysitting, and they don't want to raise someone else's kid. Even if by some miracle of God you manage to get a hot woman, you can't keep her. No spontaneous weekends in Portland or Vancouver, no wild sex, no sleeping late, ever."
"You don't do that stuff now," Mark pointed out. "You spend all your time in the vineyard."
"The point is, that's my choice. But there's no choice when there's a kid. While your friends are knocking back a beer and watching a game, you're at the grocery store looking for stain-fighting liquids and Goldfish crackers."
"It's not forever."
"No, just the rest of my youth." Sam lowered his head to the table as if to pound it, then settled for resting it on a forearm.
"How are you defining your youth, Sam? Because from where I'm sitting, your youth jumped the shark a couple years back."
Sam stayed motionless except for the middle finger that shot up from his right hand. "I had plans for my thirties," he said in a muffled voice. "And none of them included kids."
"Neither did mine."
"I'm not ready for this."
"Neither am I. That's why I need your help." Mark let out a taut sigh. "Sam, when have I ever asked you for anything?"
"Never. But do you have to start now?"
Mark made his tone quietly persuasive. "Think of it this way...we'll start off slow. We'll be Holly's tour guides to life. Easygoing tour guides who never come up with crap like 'reasonable punishments' or 'because I said so.' I've already accepted that I won't do the best job raising a kid...but unlike our dad, my mistakes are going to be benign. I'm not going to backhand her when she doesn't clean up her room. I'm not going to make her eat celery if she doesn't like it. No mind games. Hopefully she'll end up with a decent worldview and a self-supporting job. God knows however we do this, it'll be better than sending her off to be raised by strangers. Or worse, our other relatives."
A few muttered curses emerged from the hard-muscled crucible of Sam's arms. As Mark had hoped, his brother's innate sense of fairness had gotten the better of him. "Okay." His back rose and fell with a sigh before he repeated, "Okay. But I have conditions. Starting with, I want the rent from your condo when you lease it out."
"And I'll need your help fixing up the house."
Mark gave him a wary look. "I'm not great with home renovations. I can do the basics, but--"
"You're good enough. And the sight of you refinishing my floors will be a balm to my soul." Now that Sam had the promise of rent money and cheap labor, some of his hostility had faded. "We'll try it out for a couple of months. But if it's not working for me, you'll have to take the kid somewhere else."
"All right, damn it. Six months." Sam poured more whiskey. "My God," he muttered. "Three Nolans under one roof. A disaster waiting to happen."
"The disaster's already happened," Mark said curtly, and would have said more, but he heard a soft shuffling sound in the hallway.
Holly came to the kitchen doorway. She'd gotten out of bed and was standing there with a bewildered, sleep-dazed expression. A small refugee, dressed in pink pajamas, her feet pale and vulnerable on the dark slate floor.
"What's the matter, honey?" Mark asked gently, going to her. He picked her up--she couldn't have weighed more than forty pounds--and she clung to him like a monkey. "Can't sleep?" The round weight of her head on his shoulder, the soft tangled mass of her blond hair, the little-girl smell of crayons and strawberry shampoo filled him with unnerving tenderness.
He was all she had.
Just start by loving her...
That would be the easy part. It was the rest of it he was worried about.
"I'm going to tuck you in, sugar-bee," Mark said. "You need to sleep. We've got a lot of busy days ahead of us."
Sam followed as Mark carried Holly back to her room. The four-poster bed was fitted with a frame at the top, from which Victoria had hung an assortment of fabric butterflies with sheer gauzy wings. Settling her on the mattress, Mark pulled the covers up to her chin, and sat on the edge of the bed. Holly was quiet and unblinking.
Looking into her haunting blue eyes, Mark smoothed the hair back from her forehead. He would have done anything for her. The force of his own emotions surprised him. He couldn't make up for what Holly had lost. He couldn't give her the life she would have had. But he would take care of her. He wouldn't abandon her.
All of those thoughts, and more, flooded his mind. But what he said was, "You want me to tell you a bedtime story?"
Holly nodded, her gaze flicking briefly to Sam, who had come to lean against the doorjamb.
"Once upon a time," Mark said, "there were three bears."
"Two uncle bears," Sam added from the doorway, sounding vaguely resigned, "and a baby bear."
Mark smiled faintly as he continued to smooth Holly's hair. "And they all lived in a big house by the sea..."
CHRISTMAS WITH HOLY Copyright 2010 by Lisa Kleypas.