It's Family Business

Chapter One

Not even if her car, where hearing the ring of her cell phone over the clatter of the heater was highly unlikely, could Charlie get away from the demands of the holidays. The deep and smooth as molasses voice of Perry Como singing I'll be Home for Christmas forced the brunette to come to terms with her decision. She was going home.

With half frozen fingers, Charlie clutched the steering wheel tighter. She'd admit it, to herself, that she was petrified to face her family. Well, maybe not her whole family. She was positive at least one of her brother's was cheering her one, and her mom had already reassured her of whose side she'd chosen. There was just her father and eldest sibling, Brian. Neither of them would budge from their stances on the situation.

Charlie sighed, "Four days," She would have been talking to herself had it not been for her companion and best friend Zeus who sat obediently in the passenger seat. His wet nose left a trail over the window as he turned his bright blue eyes to hers. "Then we're heading home."

Home. That term felt odd. She'd never been good at defining home. Growing up she'd traveled from house to house. Her father was a lawyer and, when working for his father, had been sent all over the east coast. Her mother, being the dutiful wife she was, followed happily and brought the kids. So, home had been a relative in her childhood.

Then, she went to college. Sure, she'd loved it. Who wouldn't have? It had been the first time she hadn't been the Mason's girl, Brian's sister, or the baby. She'd been able to find herself, especially because she hadn't been studying law like the rest of her family. But that hadn't been home either. College had been a stepping stone, not a place to lay down roots.

After graduating with a degree in physiology and political science, Charlie went west, where she settled in Colorado. The main reason for the move had been because of Yellowstone Park, who dealt extensively with wolves, but she knew she'd also taken the job because of the miles between there and D.C. where her family was stationed.

She'd lived in a one roomed apartment in Colorado for a year, before she'd been given the opportunity to go and really observe a pack of wild wolves. Alaska had been full of experiences, ones she'd never trade, but she'd also learned some not so great stuff while she'd been there; stuff that had pushed her father and her into the biggest fight of their relationship.

Charlie shook her head and blinked hard to stop the negative memories from flooding back. She'd fought hard to push those events away and out of her mind for this visit, for her mom and especially her grandma. The phone call, the yelling, and the long waves of silence she really didn't want to bring up, it being Christmas.

So, while collecting herself, she drove down the familiar highway to Pennsylvania where her grandma was holding their annual family dinner. Charlie prayed things would go smoothly. She hoped she wasn't the only one who'd promised mom to at least try and behave.

Charlie let herself sing along with the Christmas tunes and smiled proudly been the eight month old gray and white husky joined in with his own vocals.

When she left behind the highway and found the delicately plowed street that led her to her grandparent's estate, the entertainment seized to ease her nerves.

By the time she reached the red and white farm house Charlie was not only biting her lip, but was also kneading her right hand into the plush fur of her passenger's neck. The dog didn't mind, which he showed by the occasional kiss on her fingers.

Charlie could only respond with a tight lipped grin. The pep talk she'd mentally given herself on the road fled as soon as she pulled her partly rusted with age Grand prex up to the polished foreign vehicles that aligned the driveway. It was just another reminder of the differences between her and the rest of her family.

The main house was a place for royalty, or at least that's what she believed as a child. It was taller than the surrounding trees and held the same personality as the lady of the house. Like Anna Mason, Charlie's grandmother, the farm house was elegant and knew she was the best card in the deck.

Behind the house and somewhat hidden by the mass of oaks and pines were three lofts. Most of Charlie's childhood had been spent in them. They were her safe haven, especially when playing hide and seek with her three older brothers. She'd been the only one who could fit in the laundry shoots that were built into the walls like mini closets.

Sighing, Charlie turned off the engine and leaned her chest on the wheel, while being careful not to press on the horn. The sky was thick with clouds. Charlie couldn't decide if they looked promising or threatening.

She would have been content to sit in the car for at least another fifteen minutes, if it had not been for a shrill whine coming from the husky beside her. Charlie gave him a mock annoyed look, "Aren't you supposed to be on my side?" When Zeus whined again, she rolled her eyes. The laugh that bubbled up her throat dampened the effect though. "Fine. Let's go."

Zeus waited for Charlie to get out, before he climbed over the gear shift and leapt onto the paved driveway. The door creaked as it shut, but Charlie was used to it. Besides that, her attention was fixed on the house. There was still no movement, from what she could see through the thin white curtains. So, satisfied, Charlie leaned on the hood of her car and finally released the finally unclenched her fists.

She had to smile when the husky didn't move from in front of her. He simply stood, alert, with his head pressed against her thigh.

"Go on." She waved her hand at him. Finally, Zeus ventured into the snow.

As the husky romped carelessly in the mounds of snow, Charlie began, not for the first time, wishing she could be a dog.

"Yeah," She muttered while shuffling her feet on the slick pavement, "You don't have to worry about appearances of relatives."

Then, out of pure coincidence, Charlie glanced back at the main house, as one of the living room curtains fluttered closed.

"No turning back now, Zeus," At the mention of his name, Zeus' head shot up out of the hole he'd begun to dig in the snow bank. "We've been spotted." When Charlie didn't give him an order, the dog stuck his nose back into the white packed in flakes.

She pushed herself off the car and started nervously adjusting her coat. After a few seconds, though; Charlie gave up. Not only was it useless, because the corduroy coat was worn and completely covered in dog hair, but also cause Charlie stopped herself. One of the things she loved, and wouldn't change, about herself was that she didn't change herself for anyone. Just because she was back to where her tormentors originated, didn't change that.

As the front door opened, Charlie stuffed her hands into her jeans pockets, and turned to face her fate.

Charlie nearly cringed when she saw her brother, Jonathan's, wife step through the threshold. Her blonde hair was almost as pale as the snow, which might have made her look angelic, if Charlie hadn't met her before. She knew better than to believe the perfect exterior of her sister-in-law.

Roxanne made it no secret that she only after Jonathan for his money. Not only did she tire out all of John's credit cards, but she openly bragged about bagging one of the countries richest men to all her girlfriends.

Of course, John was no angel either. Sure, Charlie used to pretend he was while growing up, but she was long past putting her brothers on a pedestal. John, for example, cheated on his wife. Charlie would love to say that Roxanne deserved it, but she couldn't bring herself to believe it. Even in his teenage years, Johnny had been a player, so it probably wouldn't have made a difference if Roxanne had been the perfect wife.

Roxanne pulled her designer parka tighter around her model thin form as she approached the brunette. Even through the scarf that the blonde had covered her chin with, Charlie could clearly see the look of distaste etched into her features. "You brought a dog?" Roxanne nearly spat.

Refraining from rolling her eyes, Charlie replied smugly, "Grandma knows."

Her sister-in-law merely scowled.

"What are you doing out here?" Charlie thought the blonde was out here to make sure her first few seconds at the estate were pure torture, no doubt.

"Just wanted to make sure you weren't blocking anyone in." Roxanne managed to make shrugging look chic.

Charlie frowned, but didn't say anything more to her brother's wife. Instead, she clapped her hand against he leg, as she started towards the house, "Zeus." She called not, even though she didn't need to. The husky had heard the pat, and was now bounding towards her with a sort of clumsiness only a puppy could have.

"Later Roxy." Charlie added as an after thought. The unladylike snort she received in reply made the brunette smile. One thing was for sure, Charlie still knew how to push her relatives' buttons, which had been something she struggled hard to learn in a house full of lawyers who kept their facial expressions and angry outbursts to a minimum. Growing up the youngest of three boys, it certainly had come in handy.

Charlie wasn't given the opportunity to pause and linger at the door, because it was already open, and in the doorway was her other sister-in-law. Josie, a fellow brunette, had soft features and a smile you knew she meant.

"Merry almost Christmas, Charlie." Then, before Charlie could open her mouth to reply, or smile back, Josie pulled her into a massive bear hug. "We've missed you around here."

When Charlie was released, and looked into Brian's wife's golden brown eyes she knew Josie was talking for her husband.

"He may not admit it right away, though." Josie gave Charlie's arm a squeeze. The friendly gesture almost distracted Charlie enough that she missed seeing Zeus run past them. Almost. Charlie saw enough to frown at her companion and the orange object he had poking out of the corner of his mouth.

Confused, Charlie sidestepped around Josie, who had also turned to watch the husky. But, before she could question or give a command to her dog, she heard a child's mortified cry, "Mommy! Zeus ate Frosty!"

While cringing, Charlie, followed by Josie, scurried into the living room where most of the family had gathered. Charlie didn't let her eyes wander. Instead she focused on the damp overgrown puppy who had taken refuge by the ablaze fireplace. He was happily chewing his prize – a long carrot, which he held between his paws.

Her heart was sinking as she turned her attention to her five year old nephew. Kent was standing a few cautious steps away from the canine. His jaw was hanging open while one hand was pointing at Zeus in alarm.

He'd grown since the last time Charlie had visited her oldest brother. His hair was a large mop of dark chocolate curls, unlike the neat and tidy haircut he had fashioned for the first day of Kindergarten. Charlie remembered the day well and could still see his face vividly in her mind, when he opened their front door to find her standing there. The wide eyed expression would have hard to forget, especially considering it was the desktop picture on Charlie's laptop.

The visit had been a surprise, and had taken a lot of planning on Charlie's part because of her job, but it had been worth it when Kent dashed into her arms, and later demanded that she walk into school with him.

"That Frosty already died, sweetheart, remember? We had watched him melt yesterday." Josie soothed her son with the gentleness only a mother could manage.

Charlie fidgeted. She hoped that was true. She'd hate to be the reason behind the destruction of the boy's snowman.

"You always did make a memorable entrance, baby girl." As the deep honey voice of her father boomed into the room, Charlie's frown froze, as did the rest of her body. The fear she'd felt on the drive returned then fold and she suddenly wished she had stopped somewhere to change out of her strained and overly used work clothes.

~!~

Kade Marshall didn't look at the young woman right away, as he followed Henry and Brian into the living room. Hell, it barely registered in his mind that someone new had joined them at the Mason estate. All he saw was the dog in the rear of the room.

As large as it was, he could see it still had some growing left to do. The legs were long and able, but seemed to be too much for the pup to handle as it pushed itself off the rung. Stumbling, the dog carried the vegetable over towards the woman, would seemed to be rooted to where she stood. She hadn't moved since Henry announced their arrival.

She clasped her right hand over the mangled carrot and grumbled, "Thanks." Then, as slow as rush hour traffic, she turned to face us.

At once he turned his gaze to hers. It had become a habit, as was the challenge he accompanied the stare with. Perhaps he'd gone back to his teenage ways and was simply trying to stare her down in hope of winning a tad of respect, he thought half amused.

He noticed the flecks of gold around her almost maroon eyes. At first she was hesitant to look at him, but after a second she responded to his staring contest. The slight prideful raise of her chin excited him, but the feeling quickly diminished when the girl, who barely looked old enough to be out of high school, turned her gaze to the man beside him.

At first, he was disappointed. Something in the girl's eyes intrigued him. There was hesitation in her stance, but also strength. He wanted to know everything about her, especially how she managed to look so brave even when meeting Henry Mason's eyes. Even he, as he remembered, had trouble keeping up his formerly unbreakable façade of confidence when he'd first met the man.

Then, Kade felt the familiar rush of anger shove away the useless and pathetic emotion of sadness. He was mad at the nameless girl, who'd somehow made him feel something he thought he'd banished from his being. He couldn't recall the last time he'd felt disappointed in his adult life.

Scowling, Kade turned to Henry, who still held the young brunette's attention. For a second he thought he was regret in the older man's eyes, but it was quickly masked with authority before Kade could be sure.

Then, Kade recalled how the man had addressed her. He'd called her baby girl.

Kade's eyes snapped back to the girl's face. She had Henry's wife, Lindsey's, soft face, but as he watched her, he knew she'd gotten her stubbornness from the Mason's.

So, this was indeed the lost Mason girl. She was the girl who refused to marry rich or become a lawyer like the rest of her family. Interesting, thought Kade.

She, Charlene he believed, had a tough look about her. She was obviously on the defense. He could tell that by the way she stood. Her torso and lightly curved hips were turned towards the exit, as if she were still considering making a run for it. Kade also noticed that her free hand, the one that wasn't grasping the mauled carrot, was wound through the scruff of the husky's fur. He realized that the dog must belong to her.

"Merry Christmas," Charlene paused. It would have been unnoticeable if Kade hadn't been a lawyer, and hadn't trained himself to recognize things like that. A thoughtful expression filled her eyes before adding, "Daddy." The moment between father and daughter was nothing like Kade saw in the movies. Neither father nor daughter went bounding forward into the other's arms. They barely smiled at all.

Actually, the entire room had gone still. Kade stood there with a twinge of anger in his features; just enough to keep his confusion from showing.

Then, the kid in the room broke the silence.

"Aunt Charlie, will you help me build a new Frosty?" The sadness that had previously soaked the kid's presence vanished as he wrapped his small arms around his aunt's leg. She, in turn, took her eyes off her father, bent down, and scooped the boy up into her arms.

"It's the least I can do, after Zeus ate your last one." Then, Charlie kissed Kent on both cheeks, which caused the toddler to burst into a round of spontaneous giggles.

Charlie, Kade pondered. He decided it suited her. She was dressed in boyish clothing, which she wouldn't have been able to pull off, it if weren't for her obviously feminine face. With her small curves, rosy cheeks, and round soulful and intelligent eyes, she was gorgeous.

Then, Kade realized that he was checking out his soon-to-be business partner's daughter. Being single and in his late twenties, he recognized the rare beauty of the young woman, but the sensible part of him, the part who knew that the partnership with the Mason's could make or break his career, told his hormones to take a hike.

He hated, and was surprised, that he really didn't want to put his business before his emotions. That was a first. But, after running a hand through his hair, he shook himself of the realization.

"Before you go," Again, Kade was struck by the richness of Charlie's eyes as she, and the rest of the room, turned back to Henry. "This is a friend of mine, Kade Marshall."

Instead of looking at the man of the house, everyone turned to Kade.

Having gotten used to being in the spotlight, Kade nodded to the young woman. His insides clenched when she didn't even grin at him.

"He's staying with us for the holidays."