The Return of Antonides: Christmas at the Castello

By: 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.

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