From the author: Ruby Barkley faces her first Family Christmas in Paris with the Martinieres. But she's not the only one nervous about this new aspect of her life. Her husband Gabriel Martiniere is coming back as the Family leader, after thirty years of exile following his testimony against Family abuses of indentured workers. It's a new world...for both of them. And they both have concerns to face....
Ruby Barkley scowled as she held up one of her favorite nice winter sweaters, a green cashmere that she’d splurged on three years ago, studying it closely. Was this going to work for her first official Family functions in Paris, as the Matriarch of the Martinieres? Or was it too worn and shabby? Could she get away with wearing it over one of her nice snap-button Western shirts?
Trying to figure these things out was hard, damnit. She had some appropriate clothing, but those were mostly for official gatherings or summer business casual dress. The jeans and Western snap-button shirts she regularly wore around her Double R Ranch and for other occasions were too informal even for at-home in Paris, she suspected.
And she definitely didn’t want to come off as a hick hayseed rancher. It wasn’t just Paris. Ruby needed to up her game for business purposes as well. Paris was the beginning of an entirely new life.
A huge sigh from her husband distracted her, and she put the sweater down, glad to think about something besides appropriate wear for a few minutes.
“What’s wrong, Gabe?”
Gabriel Martiniere looked up, face solemn. He sat at the end of their bed, gazing at his interlocked fingers.
She sat next to him. “That sigh didn’t sound like it was nothing. Damnit, Gabe. You promised to stop hiding things from me. What’s wrong?”
Gabe shook his head, a smile quickly twitching his lips before fading. “You caught me, Ruby.” He sighed again, but softer. “It’s—it’s just become real for me. This is the first Family Christmas I’ve been to since my testimony against the Group thirty years ago. And I’m returning as the Martiniere. Not the rebel I used to be.” He waved a hand. “All that’s happened until now hasn’t hit me like this. I’m the Martiniere. I have the authority—and the responsibility.”
Ruby absorbed this information silently, putting her arm around Gabe and giving him a squeeze. When they were here in Northeastern Oregon, either at her Double R or Gabe’s Moondance Ranch, it was easy to forget that Gabe—once a flat-broke saddle bronc rider on the run—was now one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. The Martiniere, head not only of the interlocking structures that formally made up the Family—with a capital F, always—but of the Family’s privately held conglomerate, the Martiniere Group.
“I’m quaking in my boots, myself,” she said finally. “I don’t have the right clothing, and I’ve never done anything like this. Two weeks in Paris. Yeah, some of it is business, but you know what really scares me? Will I measure up to everyday clothing and manners? I don’t have the right casual wear, and as the Matriarch, I know I can’t come across as a hick hayseed rodeo queen.”
Gabe’s grandmother Donna had dropped the title of Matriarch of the Martinieres on Ruby when Gabe and Ruby had remarried a few short months ago. Besides providing Ruby with the authority to manipulate Martiniere mind control programming, being the Matriarch gave her power over the Family structures, including advisory boards of assorted charities and nonprofits that she was still learning about. And that was in addition to her duties for the ranch and the businesses that she ran in collaboration with Gabe.
Gabe laughed softly and slid his arm around Ruby, pulling her close. “Clothing can be remedied pretty quickly in Paris, Ruby.”
Ruby rolled her eyes. “Duh, damn it. I should have been thinking about that. Too accustomed to not having money. Another attitude I’ve got to work on.”
“It takes some getting used to. I’m—” he hesitated, frowning thoughtfully. “After thirty years away from the Family, there’s still some things I’m readjusting to. Even though my marriage to Rachel brought me into some money, that went away after her death. And it was—nothing—compared to the resources we have now.”
“Yeah,” she said slowly. Her encounters with Gabe’s second wife had been brief, and tied to Brandon, the son she and Gabe had as part of their first marriage. But it still hurt to know that there had been someone else Gabe had loved enough to marry. And mourn, when she died. Still mourned, at times.
Gabe hugged her, then kissed her temple. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t bring her up.”
“Rachel gave you and Brandon joy, and she wasn’t the one who broke us up,” Ruby said tartly. “Her memory has a place in our lives.” She had to be fair. Rachel had loved not just Gabe, but Brandon. Had been a good stepmother to him.
“Oh, Ruby.” Gabe kissed her again. “In any case, I’m planning to do some shopping, because I’m in the same position of needing to upgrade my wardrobe. I’d say just pack light, with plans to invest in high-quality winter business and casual attire.”
“I know that fussing about clothes is silly, next to your worries.”
“Your concerns aren’t silly. Just new experiences for you—and I’m not that worried, really. It’s just—I suddenly realized that thirty years ago, the last time I was in Paris for Christmas, I showed up late, and between Serg and Piotr, Justine and Donald, I was shambling, staggering drunk for the whole three weeks I was there. When I wasn’t fighting with Philip and Joseph. This time is going to be so different.”
Gabe had originally thought Philip was his uncle, until his grandmother revealed just before he and Ruby remarried that Philip was his father. Philip was the former Martiniere, with a legacy of corruption and exploitation that Ruby, Gabe, and their allies inside the Family were only starting to ferret out. Joseph had been Gabe’s cousin and Philip’s adopted son, now dead as well.
Ruby leaned into Gabe, providing comfort through contact.
He continued after a significant pause. “It’s the contrast. If it hadn’t been for my allies dragging me out to get drunk back then, things could have gotten pretty ugly. Philip and I nearly got into several fistfights, as it were.” He shivered. “And honestly? I’m afraid that if I had started beating on him, it wouldn’t have stopped until he was dead. If he hadn’t locked me down with the mind control vocal tones and killed me first, that is. It was too damned close for comfort at times. One or the other of us would have died. It was just that bad that final Christmas. My first Christmas here, rough as it was, still was pleasant in comparison.”
Gabe exhaled. “I haven’t missed that experience.”
“And then there’s going to be wondering who’s on our side and who isn’t.”
“Mmm, that’s always been part of Family life. Factions forming and breaking. Except for our closest kin, and even that’s not guaranteed.” Gabe rubbed his face. “I keep being struck by the difference. Thirty years in between. Coming back as the Martiniere, not simply a high-level heir. That’s going to be different. Starting with the accommodations. Before, I had a junior suite on a lower floor. Now we’re in the penthouse.”
“Penthouse? Junior suite?” Ruby’s voice almost screeched out of control. Just how big was the Martiniere mansion in Paris? Big enough to hold at least fifty or more family members easily during the holidays, from the way both Gabe and Justine talked.
She hadn’t had time to discuss their housing with Gabe after he’d told her he would take care of it, and she trusted him to advise her of any special considerations. Her life had become crazy busy over the past six weeks. Their adopted son Mikey, Philip’s five-year-old clone, had contracted strep throat after Thanksgiving. The release dates for new versions of the biobots both strictly hers and those she shared with Gabe and their business partner, plus Gabe’s microbials had arrived. Since Gabe was buried in Martiniere business connected to the change in leadership for both the Group and the Family, Ruby was managing those distribution agreements plus orders and plans for expanding their labs. While managing a miserably sick five-year-old.
That initial flood of work had diminished to a manageable level, only requiring a couple of hours a day to check in. And, fortunately, Mikey was pretty good about keeping himself entertained. Almost too good—if anything, Ruby had to keep an eye on him to ensure he wasn’t concealing how bad he felt.
She hoped—probably futile, but a woman could dream—that Paris was a chance to take a holiday from business. Gabe had promised that this would be their belated honeymoon, but Ruby knew their businesses too damn well to imagine that they could completely get away from work. Even in Paris. Especially in Paris, with Gabe’s responsibilities as the Martiniere.
Gabe nodded. “Yes. We’re in the penthouse. Have our own primary suite. I invited Brandon, Justine, and Donna-gran to stay with us, in the junior suites.”
“Oh.” She could handle seeing their son Brandon and his wife Kris, Gabe’s sister Justine, and his grandmother Donna in a casual setting. Justine and Donna had stayed at the Double R and Moondance, already knew Ruby and how she did things.
“The penthouse is private, for the Martiniere and his chosen family members. Has its own kitchen and cleaning staff. Secure entrance. Secure locks on each suite in the penthouse.”
Ruby raised her brows at that. “Are things that difficult?”
“The reasons for the layout are based on Family history over more than four centuries. Not just me and Philip, or Philip and his brothers.” Gabe nuzzled her temple and cheek once more. “But it also allows for privacy and a chance to relax.”
“Now that sounds promising,” Ruby said. She turned her head just enough to capture Gabe’s lips in a long, lingering kiss.
“Temptress,” Gabe murmured against her lips.
“Always,” she purred back, as his hands slid under her turtleneck.
It was a long flight from the Double R to Paris even on a private jet, one of the fleet maintained by Gabe’s sister Justine. Before landing in Paris, Gabe, Ruby, and Mikey changed from the sweats they had traveled in to more formal attire—slacks, collared shirt and tie with a sweater for Gabe and Mikey, a dressy skirt suit for Ruby, and good overcoats for all three of them.
“So here’s what to expect,” Gabe said. “Mikey, listen close, too, because you’re a part of this.” He rubbed his face, sighed, and continued. “When we arrive at the house, there will be a reception. The whole damn Family in residence by then. I’m not sure what my uncle Gerard has in mind—I asked him to keep it simple because we are going to be jet-lagged. No food or formal reception—we’ll eat once we go to the penthouse. It will be a good excuse to break free sooner. But it’s not just my return to his house after thirty years, I’m returning as the Martiniere. There are Family heads for us to meet, possibly even oaths to swear.”
“And all of us need to go through it?” Ruby glanced over at Mikey. His face had gone tight and pale. He chewed on his lower lip. “Mikey’s going to be really tired.”
“The initial greeting, yes. It will be carefully choreographed. First us, then Brandon and Kris, then Justine. There will be photographs.”
“It sounds like a royal function,” she said.
“Don’t kid yourself—if France had gone back to a monarchy while Philip was alive, he’d have been agitating to become king, in spite of his US passport. As Martinieres, we descend from Charles IX through a cadet branch connected to his illegitimate son, Charles de Valois. And a very distant connection to Napoleon Bonaparte.” Gabe fixed Mikey with a stern look. “Philip took that descent much more seriously than he should have. It fueled his ambitions to be the dictator of the United States.”
Mikey nodded, his face mirroring Gabe’s solemn expression. Gabe smiled and ruffled Mikey’s hair, then straightened it out.
“The cyborg brothers will be there, Mikey. You won’t have to do much besides the initial greetings and photographs.”
Mikey didn’t look quite as scared after Gabe mentioned his former protectors.
“But where am I staying?” he asked.
“You’ll be in the penthouse, with us. The brothers are serving as our protection, so they’ll be in and out.”
Ruby contemplated that. She was still adjusting to this new life, not just the money but the other parts of being a Martiniere.
“Meanwhile,” Gabe concluded as the plane descended. “Just remember this. I’m proud of you. You are my family, and to hell with anyone who has a problem with any member of it.”
Ruby couldn’t help but stifle a yawn as they rode through Paris, cobblestones and pavement glimmering damp under streetlights. They had left the Double R in the middle of the night to get to Paris at a reasonable time in the early evening, and while she had napped during their flight, she was still tired. Mikey slumped against her side. He had fallen asleep shortly after they got into the SUV.
They slowed to turn through a stone archway as iron gates swung open, and drove into an enclosed courtyard. Ruby glanced around.
“Welcome to the Hôtel Martiniere,” Gabe said, his voice oddly tight as Mikey jerked awake.
“Is this all—?” she asked in a very small voice.
“Yes,” Gabe said, pointing to a well-lighted entrance. “We go in there, and the penthouse is in that portion. But all of this?” He waved a hand. “Yes.” He pointed to the wing on their right. “I was born in Los Angeles. But I spent my first seven years there, before we returned to LA.”
“Wow,” Mikey whispered, his eyes wide.
The passenger door opened next to Mikey, and a woman wearing a uniform with a long, gray overcoat and white gloves held out her hand. Mikey pushed close to Ruby, his slight body tensing.
Ruby gently kissed the top of his head. “It’s all right, Mikey. Give her your hand.” She glanced at the woman. “Be patient with him, please,” she said in French. “He’s shy with strangers. Also, his French is minimal.”
The woman smiled at Mikey. “I am just helping you out of the vehicle so that you don’t fall, little one,” she said softly, in heavily accented English.
Mikey hesitantly extended his hand to rest it on her white glove. Then he stood carefully. He slipped on the running board as he stepped down, and the woman caught him, steadying Mikey until he stood straight on the ground. Then she turned back to offer a hand to Ruby, and finally Gabe.
“Mikey,” Gabe said once he was out of the SUV. “I need to take Ruby’s left hand. You can either take my free hand or hers. Your choice.”
Mikey pressed in close to Ruby and took her right hand.
Doors slammed behind them. Ruby glanced back to see Brandon and Kris, her pregnancy showing even with her heavy coat, and the cyborged brothers, who had flown over with them. More doors thumping, and Justine stepped out of her SUV.
Gabe turned slightly to look at the others as they lined up.
“Here we go,” he said. “Everybody ready for the presentation of the new Martiniere and his close family?”
“Yes,” Ruby said.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Brandon said, his voice tight.
“Easier than you expect,” Justine said. “Relax, everybody.”
“That’s what you think, Tine. You’ve not been away as long as I have,” Gabe muttered as he turned to face forward. “All right. Let’s do this.”
They walked forward. Uniformed security staff standing alongside the red carpet leading to the double front doors bowed to Ruby and Gabe as they passed by. When they approached the doors, two of the staff opened them. Ruby briefly wondered if they were indentured or free. No way to tell with gloved hands and high collars. The Martiniere indenture brand could be either on the webbing between thumb and index finger of the person’s right hand, or on the neck. Hand meant temporary. Neck meant permanent.
Gabe nodded at the staff as his hand tensed on Ruby’s. He straightened up, imperceptibly an inch taller, his face tightening and falling into stern lines. Ruby followed suit.
On her other side, Mikey clenched her hand almost as snugly as Gabe did.
This is it. The real meaning of becoming a Martiniere.
Butterflies danced in her gut. And this was somehow more daunting to face than Grand Entry at the Pendleton Round-Up. Riding barrels at the National Finals. Making formal sales presentations to a large group of investors. She really had married into nobility, even though they no longer claimed any titles.
Before they stepped inside, Gabe released Ruby’s hand, slipping his arm under her elbow, then taking hold of her hand again as he raised their arms, displaying the emerald Martiniere mind control command ring that served as her wedding band for all to see. Another Family tradition. If she ran a finger over the emerald, then she could issue commands to any mind-conditioned Martiniere or Martiniere indentured servant—and be obeyed. A ring worn only by certain wives of the Martiniere—and it had been hidden in Gabe’s possession for years.
Gabe’s uncle Gerard met them. “Gabriel. Welcome home.”
Gabe inclined his head. “Thank you, Gerard.”
Breathe, Ruby, she told herself as she looked beyond Gabe and Gerard to the mass of people waiting to see them.
She heard Gerard greeting Brandon and Kris. Then he guided them to Mikey’s side, and placed Justine next to Gabe. Staff stepped forward and Gabe helped Ruby and Mikey out of their overcoats, followed by Justine, then removed his. He slipped his arm back under hers as Mikey clenched hard on her other hand, pushing close to Ruby’s side.
Gerard stepped forward and clapped his hands.
“Family,” Gerard said, in French. Ruby listened closely, tense. She’d been cramming and updating her college French over the past few weeks. “May I introduce the new Martiniere and his close kin. Gabriel Marcus Martiniere, son of Philip. His wife, Ruby Marie Barkley, the new Matriarch. Their adopted son, Michael. Their son Brandon, the Martiniere-in-waiting, and his wife Krista. Gabriel’s sister Justine.”
Gerard bowed low to Gabe. The mass of people beyond him bowed or curtsied, deeper than Gerard. Gabe inhaled sharply, his hand and arm tensing even more on Ruby’s.
But when he spoke, his voice was steady and calm, unwavering, as if he wasn’t gripping Ruby’s hand as hard as he could to keep from trembling.
“Family,” he said, in English. “I thank you all for this welcome. My family and I are grateful for this honor. It’s a quite different reception from when I was here last, thirty years ago, and my everlasting thanks go to those of you who supported me and made me your Martiniere.” He paused, repeating what he had just said in French before switching back to English. “I appreciate your presence. But it has been a long flight from Oregon for us. Michael has been ill and Brandon’s wife is expecting their first child.”
Some of the elders amongst the mass of people shifted their attention to Brandon and Kris. Ruby thought she saw growing approval and pleasure softening their expressions.
“They in particular need time to rest,” Gabe continued. “I ask that we save the formalities for Christmas dinner and keep our introductions informal.” Another repeat in French, then continuing in English. “As many of you know, my dear Ruby and I have recently remarried, and this is the first opportunity we have had for a honeymoon. I ask for your indulgence during my first Christmas as the Martiniere. We will be withdrawing more than you might expect otherwise, and I request that we treat tonight as an informal gathering.”
The crowd burst into applause even before Gabe repeated his words in French.
Mikey pushed closer to Ruby.
“Let our revelries begin. May our gathering be peaceful and without conflict. I will conduct limited business, of course, but for this gathering—” He eased his hand free and wrapped his arm around Ruby, turning her slightly to give her a big kiss. “This is our honeymoon.”
More applause, and laughter. Ruby grinned at Gabe, then looked down at Mikey. His face was pinched and drawn.
“I think we’d better give Mikey a break after the photographs,” she said softly to Gabe, as photographers now pushed in front of the rest of the Family.
Gabe nodded. “Bran, if you and Kris want to take Mikey and go to the penthouse once the photos are done, that would be a really good idea. There’s supposed to be a cold supper waiting for us.”
“I’m good with that,” Brandon said.
“Gerard—?” Gabe asked.
“I’ll escort them upstairs,” Gerard said. “You do remember—”
“I’m not likely to forget the way to the penthouse,” Gabe said dryly. “Even if it has been thirty years since the last time I got hauled up there for an ass-chewing by Philip.”
Once Brandon, Kris, and Mikey followed Gerard up the stairs, followed by the cyborged brothers—Ruby hadn’t seen them until now—Justine moved to stand next to Ruby. The Family approached in smaller groups. Ruby recognized some faces from her quick trip to Europe during October to drum up support for Gabe’s bid to depose Philip. Some had attended their wedding, and still others had made the trek to Moondance for the meeting which confirmed Gabe as the Martiniere. As they came forward, Justine whispered to Ruby how they were connected to Gabe.
“There’s going to be problems with Adrien and Vincent,” Justine muttered to Ruby, nodding toward two middle-aged men who hung back, once most of the Family had greeted them and introduced themselves to Ruby.
“I’m not surprised,” Ruby whispered back. She had already encountered the two during her previous trip to Europe. Both men had grilled her intensely about Gabe’s intentions. Vincent was Gerard’s younger son and Adrien the younger son of Gabe’s aunt Madeline.
Justine rolled her eyes. “Younger sons. A problem for the Family over centuries.”
“This isn’t the 1600s.”
“That’s what you think.”
“Ladies.” Gabe’s voice was soft but firm. “Not the place.”
“All right, Gabie,” Justine snarked in response, smirking.
Gabe’s hand was tighter on Ruby’s than ever. “Enough, Justine,” she said quietly.
Her sister-in-law glanced at them, and didn’t say any more.
At last, it was done. Gabe put his arm around Ruby. “That’s all for tonight,” he said firmly. “We are tired and hungry. More tomorrow.”
Justine remained behind with the other Family members as Gabe propelled Ruby through the gathered crowd and up the stairs, the pressure on her back only easing after they had climbed a couple of flights and were on a landing out of sight from below. Then he dropped his arm from her back and leaned against the railing.
“Are you all right?” Ruby asked. His face was its normal color, so…not a health problem?
But Gabe had already experienced one heart attack, nine years ago, at age forty-eight. Ruby vividly remembered Brandon’s frantic call once Gabe was safe in the hospital, because it had happened when he was visiting Gabe, and Brandon had seen his father collapse.
Gabe rubbed his face and exhaled. “I just need a moment, Rubes.” He looked up and gave her a faint smile. “It’s not my heart. I promise.” He pushed off the railing and reached for her again, taking her into his arms, nuzzling that area between her neck and shoulder that he sought when seeking solace.
They stood together for a few moments. Then Gabe straightened up. “Yeah. First appearance in Paris as the Martiniere. Now that it’s over, I’m feeling one hell of an adrenaline crash. It’ll be better after this.” He smiled at Ruby. “And now, I’m absolutely starving.” He pulled away but took her left hand in his as they climbed up the stairs.
“Not surprising. You didn’t eat much today.”
“I never ate much during Christmas until we got together. Hangover from the old days,” Gabe said. “If I knew there was a likelihood that I’d have my control words used on me, I wouldn’t eat much, to minimize the risk of puking or soiling myself. Because sometimes things were just that bad.” He grimaced. “That happened during my testimony. Philip co-opted a couple of my minders and got a psychotropic to me, using my underwear. When his attorney used my control words in the courtroom, the results were—pretty damn embarrassing. Even though something like that happening was extremely unlikely to happen tonight, old habits die hard.”
She tightened her hand on his. “I’m sorry.”
Gabe shrugged and glanced around. “I have a lot of things to adjust to yet. Especially being the prodigal son, after being in exile so long.” They stopped at the head of the stairs and he raised her hand to his lips. “And I am so, so very grateful to have you at my side, my love. So very damn grateful.” That sharp, piercing gaze of his smoldered as Gabe straightened up with a slow smile, his eyes fixed on her, sending a frisson of delight through her body.
They say that power’s an aphrodisiac, but I’ve never really needed that with Gabe.
Ruby smirked at him.
Then again, perhaps she had always sensed the power lying underneath his façade, back when he appeared to be just an impoverished bronc rider on the run from indenture.
“The two of us together, Gabe,” she said softly. “Side by side, we can deal with just about anything. Even now.”
He exhaled. “Especially now.” He pulled her close and they kissed. “Mmm.”
“Food first,” she said. “Then a shower, and—we’ll see, hmm?”
“I’m going to hold you to that,” he said.
Ruby laughed as Gabe opened the door to the penthouse.
She could get used to this life, she supposed.
Exiled heir. Rebel. Husband. Father. In 2029, Gabriel Martiniere testified against the Martiniere Group's forced imposition of mind control programming on unwilling indentured workers. For his pains, he was forced into exile for over thirty years. Forced to divorce the love of his life. But he's still coming. Still bent on vengeance against the man who forced him into exile, Philip Martiniere. Gabe will win...or die trying.
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