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The Holiday Present
by Johanna Lindsey
Avon, 2003

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Chapter One

England, 1825

The Malory clan always spent the Christmas holidays at Haverston, the ancestral estate in the country where the oldest among them had been born and raised. Jason Malory, Third Marquis of Haverston and the oldest of four brothers, was the only family member who was still a permanent resident. The head of the family since he was only sixteen, Jason had raised his brothers -- two of whom had been utterly scandalous in their pursuits -- and a young sister.

At present the various Malorys and offspring were quite numerous and difficult to place, sometimes even for Jason himself. So it was a very large brood that gathered at Haverston these days for the Christmas season.

Jason's only son and heir, Derek, was the first to arrive, more than a week before Christmas. With him came his wife, Kelsey, and Jason's first two blond and green-eyed grandchildren.

Anthony, his youngest brother, was the next to arrive only a few days after Derek. Tony, as most of the family called him, admitted to Jason that he'd deserted London early after hearing that their brother James had a bone to pick with him. Annoying James was one thing, and something Anthony often strived to do, but when James was out for blood, well, Tony considered that a different matter entirely.

Anthony and James were his youngest brothers, yet only a year apart in age themselves. They were both skilled pugilists, and Anthony could hold his own with the best of them, yet James was heftier, and his fists were frequently likened to solid bricks.

With Anthony came his wife, Roslynn, and their two daughters. Judith, the oldest at six, had taken after both her parents, having her mother's glorious red-gold hair and her father's cobalt blue eyes, a seriously striking combination that Anthony feared was going to make her the reigning beauty of her day -- which as her father and a reformed rake he was not looking forward to.

But his younger daughter, Jaime, was going to break some hearts as well.

But even with all his guests, Jason was the first one to notice the present that had appeared in the parlor while the family was breakfasting. It was hard to miss, actually, placed prominently up on a pedestal table next to the fireplace. Wrapped in gold cloth, banded with a red velvet ribbon and bow, it was oddly shaped, nearly like the size of a thick book, yet a round protrusion on top suggested it was nothing that simple.

Poking a finger at it showed that the protrusion could move, yet not very much, as he found out when he tilted the present sideways and it didn't change position. Strange, yet stranger still was that there was no indication of whom the present was from, nor whom it was for.

"A bit early to be passing out Christmas gifts, ain't it?" Anthony remarked as he sauntered into the room to find Jason holding the present. "The Christmas tree ain't even been brought in yet."

"That was my thought as well, since I didn't put it here," Jason replied.

"No? Then who?"

"I've no idea," Jason admitted.

"Who's it for, then?" Anthony asked.

"I'd like to know that myself."

Anthony raised a brow at that point. "No card?"

Jason shook his head. "None. I just found it here on this pedestal myself," he said, and put it back.

Anthony picked up the present as well to poke at it a bit. "Hmmm, someone sure dressed it up fancy. I'll wager it will fascinate the children -- at least until we find out what it is."

As it happened, it fascinated the adults as well. In the following days, since none of the family owned up to having put it there, the present created a sensation. Just about all of the adults poked, shook, or otherwise examined it, yet no one could figure out what it might be, or whom it was for.

Those having arrived so far were gathered in the parlor the night when Amy walked in holding one of her twins. "Don't ask why we're late, you wouldn't believe it," she said, then in the next breath, "First the wheel on the coach fell off. Then not a mile down the road, one of the horses lost not one, but two of his shoes. After we finally get that all taken care of and we're almost here, the bloody axle broke. I thought surely Warren was going to kill that poor coach by then. He certainly kicked it enough. If I didn't think to wager with him that we would arrive here today, I really don't think we would have. But you know I never lose a wager, so ... By the by, Uncle Jason, what's an unmarked grave doing in that lovely clearing east of here? The one close to the road that runs through your property? We ended up walking through it to get here, since it was the shorter route by that point, to just head across that clearing."

No one said a word at first, still in bemusement after that long dissertation. But then Derek said, "Remember that grave m'self, now that you mention it, cousin. Reggie and I came across it when we were younguns gadding about the estate. Always meant to ask you about it, Father, just never got around to it, then forgot about it."

They were all looking toward Jason by then, but he merely shrugged his broad shoulders. "Devil if I know who was laid to rest there. That grave has been there since before I was born. Asked my father about it once, as I recall, but he put off answering, hemmed and hawed so much, actually, that I figured he just didn't know, so I didn't ask again."

Excerpted from The Holiday Present by Johanna Lindsey. Copyright © 2003 by Johanna Lindsey. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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