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The Return of Antonides: Christmas at the Castello

By:Anne McAllister

The Return of Antonides: Christmas at the Castello
Anne McAllister

       CHAPTER ONE

"GETTING MARRIED IS EXHAUSTING." Althea Halloran Rivera Smith Moore  collapsed into the back of the cab and closed her eyes, unmoving.

"Which is why you're only supposed to do it once," Holly said drily as  she clambered in after her sister-in-law. She pulled the door shut and  gave the driver her address in Brooklyn.

As the taxi edged back out into the late Saturday afternoon Midtown  Manhattan traffic, Holly slumped back in against the seat. "Those  dresses were horrible." She shuddered just thinking about the pastel  creations she'd tried on all day. It wasn't as if she hadn't worn  identically repulsive bridesmaids' dresses for Althea's other weddings.

"This is the last time." Althea put her hand over her heart. "I swear. I'm just too impulsive."

In the eight years since Holly's wedding to Althea's brother Matt,  Althea had marched up the aisle three times. And into divorce court each  time shortly thereafter.

"But not anymore. This time is different," Althea assured her. "Stig is different."

Swedish professional hockey player Stig Mikkelsen had nothing at all in  common with the aloof doctor, the extroverted stock broker and the  pompous professor Althea had married previously. Stig had swept into  Althea's life six months ago, charmed her, teased her and refused to  take no for an answer. He'd overturned her resolve never to walk down  another aisle, and best of all, had somehow given Althea the greatest  gift-helping her return to the sparkling, cheerful woman she had been  before her three marital disasters.

For that alone, Holly blessed him. So when Althea began making wedding  plans and asked Holly to be her "one and only bridesmaid, please,  please, please!" Holly had gritted her teeth and agreed.

She'd even silently vowed-if necessary-to force herself into another  stiff, ruffled, pastel cupcake of a dress. But even with just the two of  them to please and all of Manhattan's gauziest wonders to choose from,  they hadn't been able to find "the perfect bridesmaid's dress."

"Stig will know what we need. I'll take him next time," Althea said.

"He's a nice guy," Holly allowed. But if he went dress shopping with Althea, he should be nominated for sainthood.

"And he's got teammates..." Althea shot her a speculative look. "Single ones."

"No," Holly said automatically. "Not interested." She crossed her arms over her tote bag, holding it against her like a shield.

"You don't even know what I was going to say!"

Holly arched a brow. "Don't I?"

Althea had the grace to look a tiny bit abashed, then gave a little  flounce and lifted her chin. "Some of them are very nice guys."

"No doubt. I'm not interested."

"You're not even thirty years old! You have a whole life ahead of you!"

"I know." There was nothing Holly was more aware of than how much of  her life there still might be-and how flat and empty it was. She pressed  her lips together and made herself stare at the cars they were passing.

Suddenly Althea's hand was on her knee, giving it a sympathetic  squeeze. "I know you miss him," she said, her voice soft but thick with  emotion. "We all miss him."

Matt, she meant. Her brother. Holly's husband. The center of Holly's life.

Just thirty years old, Matthew David Halloran had had everything to  live for. He was bright, witty, handsome, charming. A psychologist who  worked mostly with children and teens, Matt had loved his work. He'd  loved life.

He had loved hiking, skiing and camping. He'd loved astronomy and  telescopes, basketball and hockey. He'd loved living in New York City,  loved the fifth floor walk-up he and Holly had shared when they'd first  moved to the city, loved the view across the river to Manhattan from the  condo they'd recently bought in a trendy Brooklyn high-rise.

Most of all, Matt had loved his wife.

He'd told her so that Saturday morning two years and four months ago.  He had bent down and kissed her sleepy smile as he'd gone out the door  to play basketball with his buddies. "Love you, Hol'," he'd murmured.

Holly had reached up from the bed she was still snuggled in and snagged  his hand and kissed it. "You could show me," she'd suggested with a  sleepy smile.

Matt had given her a rueful grin. "Temptress." Then he'd winked. "I'll be home at noon. Hold that thought."

It was the last thing he'd ever said to her. Two hours later Matt  Halloran was dead. An aneurysm, they told her later. Unknown and  undetected. A silent killer waiting for the moment to strike.                       
       
           



       

Going in for a lay-up at the end of the game, Matt had shot-and dropped to the floor.

Simultaneously the bottom had dropped out of Holly's world.

At first she had been numb. Disbelieving. Not Matt. He couldn't be  dead. He hadn't been sick. He was healthy as a horse. He was strong.  Capable. He had his whole life ahead of him!

But it turned out that Holly was the one who had her life ahead of her-a life without Matt. A life she hadn't planned on.

It hadn't been easy. All she had wanted to do those first months was  cry. She couldn't because she had a class full of worried fifth graders  to teach. They looked to her for guidance. They knew Matt because he and  Holly took them to the marina on Saturdays to teach them canoeing and  kayaking. They shared her grief and needed a role model for how to  handle it.

Psychologist Matt would have been the first to tell her so.

So for them, Holly had stopped wallowing in misery. She'd wiped away  her tears, pasted on her best smile and resolutely put one foot in front  of the other again.

Eventually, life began to resemble something akin to normal, though for  her it never would be again-not without Matt to share it.

But even though she had learned to cope, she wasn't prepared when  friends and family began trying to set her up with another man. Holly  didn't want another man! She wanted the man she'd had.

But ever since last summer Althea had been dropping hints. Holly's  brother, Greg, a lawyer in Boston, said he had a colleague she might  like to meet. Even her mother, a longtime divorcee with not much good to  say about men, had suggested she take a singles cruise. At Christmas  Matt's parents had begun telling her she needed to get on with her life,  that Matt would want her to.

She'd always done everything Matt wanted her to. That was the problem!

"At least you're dating Paul."

"Yes." A few months back, Holly had determined that the best way to  deter meddling family and friends was to appear to have taken their  advice and gone out. Charming, handsome, smart, a psychologist like  Matt, Paul McDonald was like Matt. But he wasn't Matt. So no danger to  her at all. It just kept well-meaning relatives and friends off her  back. And she knew she wasn't leading Paul on. Long divorced, Paul was a  complete cynic about marriage.

"If you married Paul," Althea said, oblivious to Paul's lack of  interest, "you wouldn't have to hare off across the world to sit on a  coral atoll somewhere." She gave Holly an indignant glare. "I can't  believe you're even considering that!"

Joining the Peace Corps, she meant. Last fall, fed up with the  emptiness of her life and admitting to herself at least that she needed  to find a new purpose, a new focus, Holly had sent in her application.  They had offered her a two-year teaching position on a small South  Pacific island. She was to start preliminary training in Hawaii the  second week in August.

"I'm not considering. I'm doing it," she said now.

"Paul can't talk you out of it?"

"No."

"Someone should," Althea grumbled. "You need a man who will make you  sit up and take notice. Paul's too nice. You need a challenge."  Abruptly, she sat up straight, a smile dawning on her lips. "Like Lukas  Antonides."

"What? Who?" Holly felt as if all the air had been sucked out of the  universe. She was gasping as she stared at her sister-in-law. Where had  that come from?

"You remember Lukas." Althea was practically bouncing on the seat now, her cheeks definitely rosy.

Holly felt hers burning. Her whole body was several degrees warmer. "I remember Lukas."

"You used to follow him around," Althea said.

"I did not! I followed Matt!" It was Matt, damn him, who had followed Lukas around.

Lukas Antonides had become the neighborhood equivalent of the Pied  Piper from the minute he'd moved in the year he and Matt were eleven and  Holly was nine.

"Ah, Lukas." Althea used her dreamy voice. "He was such a stud. He still is."

"How do you know?" Holly said dampeningly. "He's on the other side of the world."

Lukas had spent the past half dozen years or so in Australia. Before  that he'd been in Europe-Greece, Sweden, France. Not that she'd kept  track of him. Matt had done that.

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