The front door opened and Audra held it wide as Jarrod came through, loaded down with boxes balanced precariously in his arms. Victoria followed after him and set down the assorted bags
she had brought in with her and called out, "Nick, Heath, we're home."
Silas came down the hall from the kitchen and said, "Mrs. Barkley, y'all wasn't supposed to be home till tomorrow." He helped Jarrod stack the boxes on the table in the foyer, "Mr. Nick and Mr. Heath is out in the barn. I'll go tell 'em you're back."
Victoria shook her head quickly as he was about to start back down the hall, "no, no Silas, don't tell them yet. This will work out quite nicely I think." She thought for a moment then pointed at her oldest son, "Jarrod, you and Silas take these packages upstairs to your room while Audra and I change out of these travelling clothes."
He raised his eyebrows and looked at her in confusion, "why are we putting them in my room Mother? I thought you and Audra wanted to start wrapping them tonight?"
"I do, but if I know my sons, and I do, they'll be coming into my room every few minutes asking silly
questions so they can try to see what we got them. They do it every year and always manage to find out so there's no surprise left for them on Christmas morning."
Audra took the bags her mother held out to her, "so we're going to wrap them in Jarrod's room this year Mother?"
"Yes, and when we're done, Jarrod can keep your brother's occupied playing pool or something while we hide the presents in the attic."
"But you know they always find them when we hide them up there Mother. They're worse than little boys those two. They always want to be surprised but they can't wait for Christmas Day, so if they don't see what we bought when we're wrapping them, they start searching and find where we hid them and open them ahead of time."
Victoria patted her arm as Jarrod and Silas gathered up the packages and headed for the stairs, "don't worry Audra. That isn't going to happen this year because I've given it some thought and here's what we're going to do..."
Nick and Heath came into the house at noon and threw their hats and gloves on the table.
Victoria came from the library where she had been enjoying a cup of tea while Jarrod and Audra played a game of gin, "stop shouting Nick, I'm right here."
Heath gave her a hug and kiss, "Ciego said you were back. We weren't expecting you until tomorrow though."
She returned his embrace and gave Nick a peck on the cheek before turning back towards the library, "I know, but we finished our shopping early so we decided to take the morning train back. San Francisco is so busy this time of year I just wanted to get done and come home."
They followed her and hung their coats on the rack beside the door then went over to warm
themselves in front of the fire.
Nick, ever impatient, blurted out eagerly, "what did you get us?"
Victoria settled herself in her chair, picked up her cup and took a sip before she answered, "you'll both just have to wait until Christmas morning to find out, now won't you?"
Much to Audra's chagrin, Jarrod laid down his winning gin hand then got up to go over and stand in front of his brothers. He put his fingers in his front pockets and his blue eyes twinkled as he tilted his head at them and asked, "what makes you think we got you anything? Have you two been good boys this year ... hmmmmm?"
A guilty look passed between them as they recalled a certain incident from the month before that Jarrod obviously hadn't seen the humor in. Nick waved his hand and shrugged, "well we ..."
He scowled as his older brother cut him off in mid sentence and nodded knowingly, "that's what I thought. I don't think either one of you deserve presents."
Heath gave him a pleading look, "but you said you'd get me that new pocketknife with the pearl handle I saw last time we were in San Francisco. It was the only one they had and you told me not to buy it 'cause you'd get it for me for Christmas, remember?
Nick piped up, "yeah, and you were gonna get me an antique dueling pistol for my collection."
Jarrod shrugged, "huh, my memory seems to be a little blurry on that, but perhaps Mother and Audra got you something."
He went back to his card game and they looked at their mother who raised her hands and shook her head as if to say, 'don't ask me'. She knew Heath had wanted a new pair of boots and Nick a new hat and she was enjoying keeping them wondering.
They looked across the room at their only other hope. Audra dealt a new hand, ignoring the anxious glances thrown her way and said frostily, "don't look at me you two, I seem to recall finding a snake in my dresser drawer."
Heath gave a half-hearted laugh, "it was a joke sis, besides, it was dead."
She sniffed huffily, "I didn't find it amusing."
Silas ended the discussion by anouncing lunch was ready and as the rest of the family left the room, the two young men hung back and a devious look passed between them. Dark head and fair bent close together as they talked quietly.
Christmas Eve arrived and Victoria came upon her two youngest sons hanging around the stairs to the attic and knew her plan to wrap the gifts in Jarrod's room had worked and they were none the wiser about what they were getting. She and Audra had kept moving the presents from place to place and Nick and Heath were getting frustrated in their search. They hadn't been able to find the gifts and were beginning to think maybe no one HAD gotten them anything. Victoria laughed to herself, knowing that even if they managed to find the gifts, she would be able to surprise them this year.
She schooled her features into an expression of mild curiosity and asked, "what are you boys doing?"
A look passed between them and Heath answered nonchalantly, "nothing Mother, just talkin' is all."
Victoria decided to press them a little further, "why are you talking here, why not come downstairs and join us for some eggnog?"
Nick leaned on the stair railing and shrugged, "oh well, me and Heath here have some presents to wrap and we were just on our way to his room to do that." He gave her a confidential wink, "can't be lettin' anyone see what we got 'em now can we?"
Victoria eyed them suspiciously, "I see."
Heath gave her what he thought was an innocent grin, "yeah Mother, we gotta' get that wrappin' done, so you go ahead on down before Jarrod drinks all that eggnog and we'll be along shortly."
Victoria looked at them skeptically, they both had guilty looks on their faces and she had a pretty good idea of what they were really up to, "all right, will you two be coming down soon?"
Nick grabbed Heath's arm and propelled him towards his bedroom, throwing an answer over his shoulder just before the door slammed shut, "we'll be awhile Mother, you go ahead."
They cracked open the bedroom door and waited till they were certain she was gone before
sneaking out and up the attic steps. The door creaked and Heath held his finger to his lips as though that could stop it from making noise. They lit the lantern that was sitting on a dusty table in a corner and started searching through trunks and boxes. Ten minutes went by before Nick happened to open the doors on an old cupboard that was hidden under some old draperies.
He let out a gleeful chuckle, "ha! Found 'em! Get over here and give me a hand Heath."
The two sat down on the floor with the four boxes they had found. Yes, this was definately them. They were wrapped in dark red and blue paper and the tags said, 'to Nick' and 'to Heath' . One each was from their mother and Jarrod. The ones from Jarrod were in two small boxes, just the right size and weight for a pocketknife and pistol and the other two from their mother were large and heavy. The large boxes were very intricately wrapped and they knew they wouldn't be able to redo them without their mother knowing. The smaller boxes though, were simply done and could be rewrapped quite easily with no one the wiser.
Nick picked up his small box and gave it a shake, the satisfying clunk bringing a smile to his face, "this has got to be my pistol Heath, I can't wait to see it. I've always wanted one for my collection."
"Yeah, and Jarrod musta' got me that pocketknife I wanted. It sure was pretty and he knows I broke my old one."
They carefully undid the paper and slowly lifted the lids off in anticipation. Nick stared at the contents in disbelief.
"WHAT THE...???" His dark brows lowered in a scowl as he lifted out a pair of ladies bloomers.
Heath picked up his 'gift' gingerly and held it up in front of him as he looked at Nick in horror.
Nick grimaced at him and shook his head, "I gotta' tell ya Heath, the next time I see a woman in one of them, all I'm gonna' be able to picture is your hairy chest stickin' out the top of it!"
Heath gave him a dirty look and dropped the dainty silk and lace camisole back in the box and said sourly, "yeah big brother? Well I got a vivid picture in my mind of you in those bloomers, and it ain't pretty!"
"Never mind about that." Nick slapped the lid back on the box and reached for the paper, " let's get these wrapped up again and go downstairs."
Heath eyed the other two gaily wrapped packages and asked timidly, "do ya wanta' open the other two boxes?"
Heath visibly shuddered, "I think one good fright tonight is enough thanks."
"Ya got that right little brother."
They haphazardly rewrapped the boxes and made their way to join the rest of the family in the
Nick stopped Heath at the bottom of the stairs, "ya know Heath, our mother sure is a devious woman."
Heath's blue eyes narrowed as he listened to his mother's laughter coming through the open door and he nodded in agreement, "she sure is Nick, she sure is."
Jarrod brought the gifts down from the attic after Nick, Heath and Audra had gone to bed. He placed them under the tree and went to sit beside his mother. She smiled as she looked at the colorfully wrapped pile, "well, I see Nick and Heath found some of the presents."
Jarrod took a sip of his brandy and gestured at the small boxes at the front, "they don't know much about wrapping though do they? Your plan worked though Mother.They were so anxious to see if I got them what they wanted that they opened the small boxes first, then they were too scared to open the rest."
She laughed and nodded her silver head, "like I said Jarrod, I do know my boys."