A/N: Dear readers, I'm so sorry for the delay waiting for this update. For nearly two weeks, I had company staying with me around Christmas time and life got rather busy. Then they left, and somehow, I seemed to slow down as opposed to catching up? Sigh. But I'm getting back into my writing groove now.
It's been a little while, so for those who would enjoy a memory jog: This chapter picks up immediately where the last one ended—N&E had just entered the lively pressroom where Allie works, and from across the floor, they notice a man who immediately became aware when their little group stepped in the room. . .
— Chapter 7 —
Altered Perception: Meeting The Scotsman
ELIZABETH WAS BUSY being intrigued at the alteration in the man's eyes when they fell on Allie across the length of the bustling pressroom; a veritable hive of activity. But Allie had already turned back to Nathan, who—after meeting the gaze of the man across the room—had glanced at Allie with a kind of quiet consideration, as if looking at something through fresh eyes in light of new facts.
"This is him?" he asked her in a low tone.
"That's him," Allie confirmed, not looking in the man's direction as she started playing with Holly's hand, teasing her with a finger she kept pulling away until the baby latched onto it with a grasp of determination.
The man in question looked down at a fanned sheets of paper he was holding and with a kind of slow, firm decisiveness, quietly placed them on the large desk whose corner he stood beside.
Tall, with an imposingly masculine figure and sun-burnished skin, he cut a commanding presence as he moved through the room towards them like a ship cleaving through water; thick hair, the color of moonlight glinting off winter wheat, looking like he'd just raked a hand through it. His well-tailored, crisp clothing bespoke a man of business; his build and aura, a man of the wind and air.
"Miss Grant," he greeted Allie with quiet formality.
Allie shifted on her heeled ankle boots, angling her slender body ever so slightly towards his much larger one. "Mr. MacCord," she acknowledged guardedly.
"Thank you for bringing your copy edits in." The man's face was inscrutable as he accepted the papers from Allie, but his eyes, alert and intelligent, were scanning her from under quiet lids. Allie nodded tersely. He looked at Nathan and Elizabeth then, gaze turning direct. "And this must be your family."
His Scottish accent was a soft burr, noticeable but subtle, dancing into Elizabeth's ears like a slow stream over a rough riverbed. She might have expected his accent to be stronger, but remembering Allie had mentioned he'd come across the ocean to America under his uncle's careful eye as a lad of twelve helped explain the contrast between expectation and reality. He had been here many years already.
"Yes," Allie confirmed and stepped back a hair as if to make space for him in their little group. She nodded towards them. "Uncle Nathan, Aunt Elizabeth, this is Mr. Ian MacCord. Mr. MacCord, my aunt and uncle and adopted parents, Nathan and Elizabeth Grant."
"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Grant, Mrs. Grant," the Scotsman said courteously as niceties were exchanged. He first shook hands with Nathan, then inclined in a genteel half-bow over Elizabeth's fingertips. "You had a long train journey to get here. I'm sure Miss Grant has been busy showing you the landmarks. How are you finding our city?"
His eyes—clear, startling slate-grey with a ring of smoke around the irises—were observing their faces with an unpretentious calm. His white shirt sleeves were pushed back to the elbows, revealing strength and masculinity, and there was a black ink smudge on the side of his hand.
Elizabeth liked him on sight. She sensed an innate gentlemanliness in him, and was fascinated by the contradictory interplay between Allie and this Scottish supervisor she seemed so at odds with.
"We're quite enamored with the city, aren't we?" She smiled up at Nathan, who quirked a smile back in confirmation.
"We are, love," he said softly.
The Scotsman's eyes regarded their interplay, but all he said was, "I'm delighted to hear it. We're quite proud of our city. She's one of a kind. Or so we tend to think," he finished with unassuming pride, glancing out the nearest window to the city beyond.
Nathan rubbed a hand in soothing circles across Holly's back. "I can see why. I'd be proud if I lived here too. It feels like you're on the cutting edge of things and that something momentous is bound to happen at any moment—and it very often does, I know, with minds and skills from all over the globe calling this their new home. Not to mention the pool of native talent, which is substantial as I understand it."
Interest sharpened the Scotsman's face. "You know a bit about the city?"
Nathan made a self-deprecating gesture with his dark head. "A little. Allie tells us a great deal, of course, and I try to keep up with the news from her new home on my own time as well."
Allie, who had been observing her boss out of the side of her eye, looked over at that, surprise on her shapely lips. "You do?"
"I didn't know." A light mist cast a sheen across her eyes.
Elizabeth's heart pinched at the poignancy of the moment, however public it was. She had always admired Nathan's guardian qualities, a trait he had never lost regarding Allie, no matter how old she got or how far away she moved. Distance and age would never dim his care for her. Allie would always be Nathan's "first girl."
Ian MacCord shifted as if to give them space for the moment, a courtesy more of intention than physical reality. His voice was quiet, his manner unobtrusive. "You're much blessed with a loving and attentive family, Miss Grant."
Allie's eyes swung to him, widening, as though touching on things of a personal nature came as a surprise to her. "Thank you," she responded stiffly.
There was a flicker in his eyes but his features were expressionless at the reserve in her tone.
"And who might this wee lassie be?" He changed the subject, turning the inquiry to Nathan, against whose shoulder Holly's head unsteadily wove as she tried, without success, to lift it. Being premature meant that she was far tinier than other two-month-olds and that certain things were bound to be more challenging in her development. None of that stopped her determined little will from trying however.
Elizabeth was rather fascinated by the gentling that entered the man's voice as he spoke to her baby girl, in direct contrast to the blank mask that had fallen over his face at Allie's rebuffing response. So many things, preconceived notions and expectations about this man, were now being viewed in shades of delicious contradiction and mystery, and in Elizabeth's mind, her imagination—honed by years of crafting plots and storylines—was humming, a swarm of speculation buzzing right and left.
"This is our youngest—Holly," Nathan answered readily, turning so that the newspaper man could see Holly's features more easily. She blinked huge, trusting eyes at her father, then wriggled her nose into his wool coat, one tiny hand clinging to the edge of his lapel.
The lines that had formed around the Scot's eyes melted away as he leaned forward, his eyes now the grey of a sun-warmed rock, gold and slate and sunshine all at once.
"Hello there, wee one," his low burr rolled out, and Holly removed her nose from her father's coat to examine this new face with the minute closeness only an infant could be allowed. "It's an honor to meet you."
For what seemed like a year, the baby took her time inspecting him, eyes moving across his face in long, focused stares that mapped his features, one portion at a time. He waited with no sign of impatience.
Elizabeth liked him the more for it.
Finally, the baby seemed to reach a determination about him and although no smile broke her heart-shaped face, she slowly reached a hand out to him, the other still holding onto Nathan's coat.
A slight smile—almost invisible—played at the corner of Ian's mouth. But he glanced at them before moving, a silent question in his eyes. Nathan nodded back permission, smiling down at the tiny daughter filling his arms.
Stooping still lower, Ian bent nearly in half, stopping only when he was eye-level with the baby. Nathan boosted her higher to ease the strain the man must be feeling, and with a quick nod that encompassed them both, Ian proffered an extended forefinger to the baby. Then waited. Waited for Holly to decide.
Holly stared at his finger for all of half a second before curling her hand around it, puffing in a little breath that curved her round cheeks even more.
"You've got quite the strong grip there, my lady," Ian quietly told her, speaking almost as if they were equals, like no one else was around. "I think you might have the makings of a future lumberjack. Er, lumberjill?"
Elizabeth choked. Holly's bow-shaped little lips puffed and her silky dark brows—like tiny angel wings—drew together.
"No?" Ian cocked his head, ducking a little to hold Holly's gaze better. "Hmm, no, I see the objection." He nodded thoughtfully, and Holly's mouth, as if she understood, relaxed its little moue. Two lines formed between his eyebrows as if he were giving the topic serious thought. "Perhaps a trapeze artist then? No? No good either?"
Nathan was shaking with silent laughter at this point. Unsteady on her neck, Holly jerkily rolled her head against his chest, peering up to be able to see his features. His smiling face reassured her and she returned her steady attention to the attentive Scotsman in front of her, her hand still wrapped around his forefinger.
"I'm afraid you're stuck with her." Nathan was wry. "Once she gets her grip on you, it's hard to convince her to let go."
"A happy problem to have." Carefully, Ian smoothed a thumb over the row line of tiny knuckles lined across his finger. "You're welcome to hold on as long as you wish, Miss Holly."
"You're quite good with babies—do you have younger siblings, Mr. MacCord?" Elizabeth probed, careful to keep her tone light. "Children?"
His eyes snapped up, knowing. "I'm not married, Mrs. Grant."
She nodded encouragingly, hoping he would reveal more.
"So, no children. As for siblings, I have several." Eyes amused, he surveyed her. "You interview like a journalist, Mrs. Grant."
She had the grace to blush. "I'm sorry, I can't help myself sometimes. Might we excuse it as a writer's first instinct?"
"We may." His smile was genuine.
Several heads were rather obviously turned their way by now, faces interested. Allie's boss straightened suddenly, his face becoming quiet and professional again, posture upright.
But his finger, still caught by a tiny hand, remained where it was, gentle and steady in Holly's.
He gave a skimming glance at Allie's copy edits he held in his other hand. "These are good," he said factually. Allie nodded briefly and his eyes followed the flit of the plume on her hat before swinging away.
"Will we see you at the Christmas Gala Ball Sunday night?" Rather abruptly, he addressed himself to Nathan and Elizabeth. "I hope you were invited. Everyone in The Post family are warmly welcome."
Allie's neck seemed to freeze at his words, as if she suspected he was implying she wouldn't have mentioned the invitation to her family.
Elizabeth glanced at Nathan, thinking of his formal wear and her long gown, hanging in the corner of their room at Mrs. Shemanski's boarding house.
"You will," Nathan affirmed easily, and catching her eyes swiftly, smiled—a private smile just for her, there and gone in a flash. Then his gaze turned, thoughtful, to Allie and her tautened stance, but he said nothing.
Ian nodded his head decisively. "Wonderful. I look forward to seeing you both there." There was the smallest of pauses before he added, "And you as well, Miss Grant."
Allie said nothing, but her chin dipped in silent acknowledgement.
His eyes gave away nothing as he changed course, nodding in Holly's direction. "Mrs. Grant, if it's of any assistance, we do offer on-site minding of little ones at the ball. Nannies from the city's most respected agency will be on hand to watch children for any one who finds the service convenient."
"I did mention this to them," Allie lifted her chin and spoke quietly.
His voice was as quiet as hers when he responded rather cursorily, "Of course. Forgive me."
But he didn't sound penitent and Elizabeth quite frankly wasn't certain he actually owed any apology to begin with. Her eyes flashed to Nathan's in a moment of silent communication.
"Miss Grant," Ian said briskly, but it didn't escape Elizabeth's notice that he had lowered his voice rather noticeably, "it seems a pity to keep you from spending more time with your family during their visit due to work. I have an alternate proposal for you."
Allie eyed him cautiously. "Sir?" Her voice was guarded, as if she wasn't sure she was going to like what came next.
"My proposal is this: You may spend next week out of the office and with your family—Gerard will cover your society column—but on one condition." Allie's eyebrows were up but she nodded. "You bring me back an article."
Allie's soft pink lips had fallen open. Her throat worked. "You. . . wish me to scout for an article?"
"I do. Come back and pitch me your idea for an article at the end of next week. Make it a good one, Miss Grant."
"What kind of an article?" Her question was wary, but a shine had begun in her eyes.
"Surprise me," he said simply, his eyes giving nothing away. "This being Thursday and with only one day left in your work week, the same terms would apply to the rest of this week as well. Spend it with your family and keep your eyes open for a story to write about."
"Thank you, sir," she murmured, disbelief and excitement warring in her eyes. The next words seemed to come only with difficulty. "This is. . . very good of you."
Ian's gaze dropped to her flushed cheeks, then scooted away. "It's not special treatment. We take care of our own at The Post," he said impersonally.
The flush in her cheeks darkened. "Yes, sir," she said woodenly.
"Oi, Mr. Mac, sir!" A grizzled employee poked his greying head around the same door they had entered. "Mr. Saltzer wants to see you in his office."
Ian's eyes calmly flashed over. "Thanks, Pete. Tell him I'll be along shortly."
. . . and Elizabeth realized he was "Mr. Mac." She rather liked it.
Holly had let go of Nathan's lapel and was batting at Ian's hand with a determined look in her eyes, her other hand still holding his forefinger hostage. Nathan gently pried her hand off, easing little fingers off one by one, informing her that the nice gentleman whose finger she'd latched onto needed to get back to work.
Holly's lower lip trembled and she seemed on the brink of distressed tears until Nathan pressed a long kiss to the top of her head and cuddled her cheek with his hand, whispering softly to her. She quieted, her forehead smoothing out as she curled herself into his palm, her hand finding new fingers to grasp onto, so tiny next to his.
Nathan looked up. "Crisis averted," he chuckled, but his eyes could have melted granite with the love in them as he glanced back down at his tiny, mollified daughter.
"It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. MacCord," Elizabeth murmured thoughtfully. Her head was churning with all the new knowledge garnered in the past ten minutes.
"The pleasure was all mine." He shook hands with Nathan, touched a finger to Holly's cheek, and again tipped his head to Elizabeth. "If I don't see you before the ball on Sunday, I hope you all enjoy your weekend." He nodded at Allie. "Miss Grant."
As he strode off, calling "Gerard!" to a shrunken little man at a desk that seemed to swallow him, Allie turned to them. "I'll need to pick up a few things from my desk if I'm not going to be in next week. Give me a minute?"
"Of course," they assured her as she headed off at a brisk pace.
"Well." Elizabeth let out a short exhale, speaking under her breath. "That was nothing like we expected."
"Mmm. Indeed not." Nathan was deeply thoughtful, his gaze going to Ian as hers followed.
Ian had stopped at the desk of the man he called Gerard and stood there, speaking with him quietly. As Ian finished speaking and walked away from the man's perimeter, Elizabeth didn't miss the resentful look Gerard shot across the room to where Allie was bent over her desk, her back to them.
Gerard's mouth moved.
Elizabeth couldn't make out what he seemed to be saying under his breath, but if it was anything resembling the ugly look in his eyes, it was demeaning to say the least.
Nathan, well versed in lip reading from his years as a Mountie, started for the man with a soft mutter, but materializing from nowhere, Ian got there first and bending low over the man's desk, uttered a few growled sentences that were impossible to make out but their effect was unmistakable. The man swallowed and his face whitened. Ian leveled one last steady look at the man, straightened, and coolly walked off while the man slunk down into his seat, head hanging.
Allie was still oblivious on the other side of the room, sifting papers into her work satchel. She had no idea what had just transpired, or of how—and who—had protected her.
Elizabeth breathed and caught Nathan's hand, discreetly tugging him back to her side. "This isn't a battle for us, Nathan," she whispered. "It's her workplace and her boss has it handled."
Nathan's paternal hackles were still up. "Not letting someone speak about Allie like that in front of me will always feel like my battle," he muttered fiercely, a slow-burning anger in his eyes.
Silent, she wound her fingers around his, letting them speak for her. He exhaled harshly and dropped his head for a minute. Then his thumb rubbed the side of her wrist lightly and she knew calm had descended.
When he lifted his head, he was controlled again, and the brush of his thumb grew more intentional. "But you're right. MacCord has this in hand. Still, it was ugly and I don't like what it might imply for Allie's work environment." Troubled lines creased between his dark eyebrows.
"Sweetheart." She curled her thumb alongside his and caught his disquieted eyes in hers. "For all we know, this could very well be an isolated incident. And whether it is or it isn't, does Ian MacCord look to you like he's tolerating any nonsense in his pressroom?"
The creases between his brows relaxed. He gave a little snort. "Not in the slightest," he answered, and there was dry approval in his tone.
"Ready?" Allie had returned, appearing at Nathan's elbow with a bright smile. "If you've had enough of the newspaper environment, I say we head back to our rooms to put our feet up for a bit before dinner." Her eyes glimmered with humor as she directed a teasing glance at Elizabeth. "We can take your subway back. It'll be quicker."
"My subway?" Elizabeth laughed, but she was decidedly in favor of the idea. A ride on the subway, maybe even bumping into Conductor Patrick O'Shannon again, sounded like a delight she had no intention of missing.
"Speaking of dinner," Nathan did not loosen his gentle hold on Elizabeth's hand but his smile at Allie was extra warm, not letting what he'd just witnessed show or color his interaction with her, "I want to take us out tomorrow to a nice restaurant; it'll be a nice relaxer after Elizabeth's meeting with her publisher. How does that sit with you ladies?"
"Any break I get from cooking—much as you taught me to cook well—is fine by me," Allie declared, bussing Holly's cheek for emphasis.
Elizabeth kissed Holly's other cheek for good measure and felt herself melt as the baby twisted her head to see her and immediately moved her hands toward her with a gurgle of joy. "That would be a wonderful treat, Nathan," she murmured, very distracted by her youngest daughter, whose hands were now straying dangerously close to the earrings dangling from her earlobes.
Nathan's chuckle was mellow as he swung Holly out of range. "That's decided then. Let's get little miss here home before she decides your earrings are dinner."
The two women followed him as he led the way back toward the kick-plated door they had entered through, Allie giving a wave to her female colleagues at their desks by the windows.
Dodging several men in ink-spattered work aprons and a young boy in a newsboy cap, Elizabeth leaned close to Allie's ear to murmur, "You failed to mention how attractive your Mr. MacCord is."
"Is he?" Allie glanced back at where the man in question was, now seated at his desk, eyes trained on her edits as he went over them in detail. She shrugged carelessly, but the uncertain darkening of her topaz eyes did not go unnoticed by Elizabeth's observant watchfulness. "I—hadn't paid much attention." Her voice strengthened. "And he's not 'my Mr. MacCord'," she finished firmly.
"Just a figure of speech," Elizabeth was sweetly amiable, but her eyes were razor sharp, honed in on Allie's features. Was that a faint heightening of color she saw in Allie's cheeks?
She slipped through the doorway after Allie, pausing for a heartbeat to catch Nathan's waiting eyes meaningfully. He gave her a return nod, barely perceptible. They would have much to talk about tonight in the privacy of their room, hopefully cozy under warm covers, with the stove heating the air.
She glanced back herself, one last time, at Allie's tall Scottish boss, her mind serious.
It had been a most interesting encounter. Most interesting indeed.
A/N II: In the chapters leading up to this one, you guys definitely had a variety of strong opinions regarding what Allie's boss would end up being like and I loved it! Some thought he would be a villain or a Scrooge, others thought he fit the Boss-to-Beau or Grumpy/Sunshine tropes. Still others were more cagey with their thoughts, saying that they had suspicions they were keeping to themselves until more data was presented. What do you think after this chapter?
(Full credit for the "Boss-to-Beau" phrase has to be given to my sweet reviewer Husskai, who speculated: "Perfect set-up for a really good hate-to-love, boss-to-beau trope with some major misunderstandings thrown in for good measure?" ANSWER: Stay tuned! :D)
Speaking of giving credit, I have to mention that my description of Holly's eyebrows here was something I was semi-inspired to by a line from my dear friend "Blemishes and Brushstrokes" N&E story called "An Apple For A Teacher" where she described Little Jack's eyebrows as ". . .his blonde eyebrows—which looked like bent rays of sunlight—furrowed in resolve." If you haven't yet read the story (her first!), give it a read. I think you might enjoy it. :)
Thank you to all my story followers—there are 57 of you now, WOW—and all those who have favorited this story—44 of you as of today!—and as always, to my dear reviewers who keep me going.
Truly, THANK YOU. It's humbling to see the love you shower on my little Christmas story.
Your words urge me on.