Vampires, the New Endangered Species

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Chapter 8 Home for the Holidays

Their flight was leaving in an hour and Emily was not only antsy but very nervous; she hated to fly. She had only done it twice in her life and both times were terrifying for her. Marcus was there holding her hand as they sat in the terminal and waited to board.

“It’ll be fine Doll, thousands of flights happen every day and no one dies, we’ll be hugging your family in no time at all. Just try and relax,” he gave her hand a squeeze then whispered dirty little ideas for them to do on the plane; at least that got her laughing a little.

Marcus hated to fly because it was so boring and the movies they showed were usually pretty lame to him. But at least he had Emily to talk to this time so he was looking forward to a flight for once. Finally they started to board first class and he took her hand to help her up, “Hey babe, let’s get going.”

Confused she stated, “But they’re calling first class now, we can’t board yet.”

“We are first class, come on.” Marcus shook his head, she apparently only looked at the dates on the tickets.

Once they were settled into their huge and comfortable seats Emily took another massive shaky breath, “Okay, I’ll be okay now.”

Marcus looked at her, “Are you telling me that, or yourself?”

Emily looked over at him with a blank stare, “What? Oh, I guess to myself really.”

The stewardess came around and asked them if they wanted anything to drink and Marcus ordered a glass of wine for Emily and just water for himself.

Emily looked at him, “Wine? It’s not even noon yet.”

“It’s eleven so close enough, and it’ll calm you down a little, I won’t tell your mummy that you had a drink before noon if it makes you feel better.” Marcus turned towards her as much as his seat belt would allow and smiled down at her, she started to giggle.

Relaxing a little more she leaned back into the seat, “Thanks, I’m glad you’re here with me. I’m just a little nervous about you meeting my parents and brother. Really just Steve, he’s going to put you under a microscope and that just has me worried that he’ll find something out.”

In a mock scoff, “Like what? I’m a more stealth hunter than he is, without a drop of blood of my shoes either,” Marcus looked coy as he said this, he was trying to be silly to relax her more, it seemed to be working a little at least.

She snickered and shoved his elbow off of the rest, “Yeah, like that. He’s just such a competitor that he looks for the smallest flaw in people so he can figure out how to win one over on them. I’m just worried that he’s going to do the same with you.”

“Well you can fix, or change, that you know. Tell him as soon as we get there that you are madly in love with me and if he does anything to ruin it for you then you can make his life a living hell. Isn’t that what sisters normally do?”

That really made her laugh, “Yeah, I guess we do. You’re right, I need to not freak out about it… it’s just that I want them to accept you and like you so very much. It’s not that you’re not wonderful enough for them to be aware of your greatness, it’s just that… well…”

Marcus took her hand into both of his, “Babe, you’re not a child anymore, so stop feeling like you need to prove anything to them, especially your brother. And on the other note that you’re worried about, well I’ve been a vampire around humans for many decades and have fooled them all. And if I didn’t fool some of them, well... they’ve never come asking. But who cares if they do find out, there’s always positive ways to get out of negative situations. So, will you promise me now to relax, be yourself and let’s have some fun?”

Emily sighed once more, “Alright, fun on the agenda!” She smiled and started to feel better, then the plane started to taxi and she immediately tensed up again and started to squeeze Marcus’ hand.

He patted hers and told her to just breathe and was telling her what all of the noises were and what was going on. When the plane took off Emily almost ripped his hand off, luckily he had the strength to take it. He started to whisper calming thoughts in her ear as she had her head back with her eyes closed.

Once they were level in the air and on a smooth flight she started to calm down again, and the second glass of wine really helped as well. They played cards, talked about Mort, the book and her family some more. Eventually Emily leaned on Marcus’ shoulder and fell asleep. Marcus reclined both of their seats as far back as they would go and closed his eyes as well to make it look like he was sleeping also. The stewardess came by and put a blanket over the both of them. After she walked away Marcus took it off, the blankets were so nasty to him, they weren‘t cleaned after every flight and who knew what funk was on them.

They were finally starting to descend and Marcus thought about waking up Emily but then thought the landing might stress her out all over again so he let her sleep. Once they were parked at the gate he gently shook her awake, “Wake up Doll, we’re here.”

She opened her eyes then sat up and stretched her arms and back, “Man I’m sore.” She turned and looked out the window, “Oh, we’re at the airport already?”

“Yep. I decided to let you sleep the rest of the way.” When they were able to leave he got their carry-on’s and followed her off of the plane. As soon as they were in view of the terminal Emily beamed, “There’s my mom,” and pointed to a petite, very lovely looking woman. Next to her was a good looking young man, Marcus thought that must be Steve. It was about nine at night in Alaska so he thought that her dad must be at home.

Once they were out in the open Naomi and Emily rushed into each other’s arms, there was no bond like a mother and daughter’s. As they were embracing Steve walked over to Marcus and put his hand out, “You must be Marcus? I’m Steve, Emily’s brother, nice to meet you.”

Marcus shook his hand and noticed that Steve had a firm handshake, one that was obviously used to prove his strength and to try to intimidate. Marcus just smiled, “Hi Steve, it’s nice to finally meet you.” Marcus shook it back with the same vigor then released it just as quickly. Steve was well built and an inch or so shorter than Marcus, he could see why Emily was concerned about him meeting her brother; Marcus was getting strange vibes from him right away. But Marcus then thought if he had a younger sister he would probably be scrutinizing her lover as well.

Naomi let go of her daughter and turned to Marcus, “Howdy darlin’, well you are a fine lookin’ thing aren’t ya?” She didn’t bother with a handshake, she just went in and gave him a big hug. She was as short as Emily and just as thin, Marcus made sure not to squeeze back too tightly.

As they headed towards baggage claim Steve told them dad was at the house, he had a long shift at the plant so he didn’t want to make the drive, but he would be awake when they got there. Naomi piped in that she made a big pot of chili so they can eat when they get to the house, it was a thirty minute drive from the airport so if they were starving she was sorry but they had to wait. Both Emily and Marcus said they could and wouldn’t have a problem waiting for her chili. They pretty much just made idle chit-chat while they waited and eventually got their bags.

When they were all piled into the car, Emily hopped in back with Marcus, she held his hand tightly and looked over at him. He gave her a huge smile to let her know that everything was just fine. Naomi was talking non-stop about the news of Palmer, Alaska so Marcus just stayed quiet as Emily and her caught up. There was no way that he and Steve could carry on a conversation, so Steve just looked out the window of his mom’s Land Cruiser.

Finally they got to the house so Steve and Marcus both jumped out to get the bags. Marcus said to Emily, “Go inside and get warm and say hi to your dad, we’ll get these.” He noticed again that Emily’s evaluation of her brother was spot on, Marcus saw him trying to carry as many bags as possible, chuckling and taking two bags, “We can make two trips if we have to.”

Steve looked up at him and smirked, “Yeah but if we don’t have to that would be cool too.”

Marcus just shrugged his shoulders and grabbed three bags, two large ones and one small piece, and followed Steve into the house. Two trips would have to be made, Emily packed a bag full of presents alone so there were more bags than the men could handle. Once inside Marcus put the bags down by the door and got the rest of them before Steve could try to play ‘Superman’ again.

Once everyone was inside George walked up and shook Marcus’ hand. As soon as they were empty he took it, “Nice to meet you Mr. Cook, and thank you for the invite, I really appreciate it.” Marcus shook his hand and let go quickly as he always did before anyone could get a good feel of his skin.

Heading down the hall he declared over his shoulder, “Call me George please, Mr. Cook is my grandfather! Come in and sit by the fire, I’m sure it’s much colder here than your England!”

Marcus agreed as he followed him through the foyer then down a long hallway filled with family pictures. Marcus paused to look at one of Emily at her High School graduation, he made a little noise and George turned around to see him looking at the picture on the wall. “This is the Hall of Shame as Steve and I call it. Naomi’s always flipping the pictures around and shows them to everyone with details of the occasion, so don’t worry, you’ll definitely get your chance to look at all of them. But that is a great one of Em, she was very proud that day, got Valedictorian.” George was beaming at the thought of his daughters’ success.

“Wow really,” Marcus didn’t know that, “She never mentioned it. I know she’s incredibly intelligent, and that is a great accomplishment!” Marcus was even more enthralled at how modest Emily was and how she really didn’t boast about herself at all.

Scoffing and shaking his head the knowing father said, “That sounds like Em. Did she happen to tell you also that her schooling over in your neck of the woods was free?” When George caught Marcus’ look he figured not and just chuckled, “Come on, let’s get you warmed up and fed, I’m sure the plane food was nasty as usual.”

After the hallway they turned to the right and walked into a huge family room. The fireplace flanked by large wooden, and stocked, book shelves took up one entire wall and windows took up another. The room was so cozy and welcoming that it made Marcus feel so good to be here with her family. George motioned him to sit on the loveseat that was close to the fire and Marcus took the spot furthest from the fire, holding the warm seat for the woman that would actually needed the heat.

There was silence for a bit, not awkward but yet not very comfortable, so Marcus spoke first to ease the father’s anticipation, “So I hear that you and Steve are hunter’s; what do you hunt around here?”

That was the ticket, George lit up and sat more upright. “Well mostly elk around here. We have seasons for hunting certain animals and for using certain weapons. You a hunter?”

Marcus kept his smirk to himself, “Yes I am, deer mostly in our parts, some elk. But I like to hunt birds as well, I feel it’s more of a challenge to hit something small that is flying away from you. Good eating also.”

George was impressed already by Emily’s boyfriend. Not only was he smart and good looking, but he seemed like a skilled hunter, “Well we should go shootin’ while you’re here if you like, I took the rest of the week off to be home with you guys.” George leaned back into his easy chair and grabbed the remote, “You like sports?”

Crossing his legs casually he answered, “Some. Soccer mostly, and lacrosse is fun to watch. You?” Of course he already knew that he was a huge American football fan but he needed to keep the conversation going until Emily joined them.

“I’m a football man really, love baseball and boxing also. I played a little baseball in school, nothing too big, but we made Nationals. That’s my only claim to fame,” George smiled and lit a pipe then remembered his company, “Mind if I smoke?”

Raising a hand to signal that the man should continue, “It’s your house sir. But I appreciate you asking.” Marcus despised smoking, the smell was so nasty to him. But when George lit and puffed on his pipe Marcus was pleasantly surprised that it smelled like cherries.

Looking over his shoulder making sure his wife wasn’t in earshot and raising the wooden smoking pipe he declared, “I’m restricted to this chair and the garage, and I’m not freezing my balls off tonight. I’m just too damn tired.” George sat further back into his chair and puffed away and Marcus just looked into the fire and rubbed his hands together to look like he was warming them up.

George looked over at the young man sitting in his family room and gave him a good once over while no one was paying attention. He was always proud of his daughter’s choices and to him it seemed as though she made another good one, “So I wanted to thank you for buying Em’s ticket, let me know how much I owe you.”

Marcus shook his head, “Absolutely nothing, it’s my pleasure. You guys putting us up is repayment enough. Thank you for offering though.”

Finally Emily and her mother came into the room with two bowls of chili and a big bowl of chips. Emily gave Marcus a look that only he could see when she set the bowls down on the coffee table in front of the loveseat to say sorry for having to deal with the food thing.

Smiling at Emily and proclaiming, “Wow that smells great. If this is as good as yours then I am thankful already!”

Emily chuckled and thought to herself that he was such a damn good faker; then said aloud, “It’s way better, my mom’s rocks compared to mine, I still can’t get her recipe right like she does.” Emily then sat on the floor to eat at the coffee table and Marcus just scooted closer to the table and leaned in. There was no way his long legs were sitting on the floor like that. He thought it was strange to eat in here, but ‘when in Rome’ he thought. After he took a bite, “Wow this tastes great, and thank you for the wonderful hospitality!”

Naomi smiled and looked at him, “Well thanks darlin’, an’ your quite welcome. George isn’t he just darlin’? And that accent, I just love it!”

George just rolled his eyes and gave Marcus a smirk and lifted his pipe to him as in a mock toast, “Welcome to the family Marcus!”

Emily smiled at both of them with a full mouth and rubbed Marcus’ knee with her foot under the table where no one would notice. When she swallowed she asked, “Where’d Steve run off to?”

Naomi shrugged her shoulders, “Probably at his apartment, he came straight from work to the airport with me. Ya know how I hate the drive alone.” Emily nodded her head, her mom hated to go anywhere by herself much less the airport.

Emily and Marcus ate while Naomi and George talked about his day at work. They then shifted the conversation to the sleeping arrangements. Emily looked at Marcus with bug eyes in anticipation of what her mother had planned.

As she shifted in her seat to look at her daughter she said, “Now Sweetpea, you guys’ll both just sleep in your room, we put a full bed in there. Now I know you’re a tall one Marcus, but I think your feet won’t hang off! Then when Meemaw and Pop-Pop come into town tomorrow they’ll take the spare room. Sally and Mark will all bunk up with Steve and the kids will sleep in here. Sound good Em?” Naomi always asked Emily her opinion, no matter if she already made up her mind or not.

After she swallowed a bite of cornbread, “Sounds good to me, “Emily said.

Marcus felt odd sharing a room with Emily in their house, “I can sleep in a separate room, I don’t want to seem inappropriate in your home.”

George chuckled and Naomi actually laughed, “Darlin’ you are too cute! Now Em’s dad and I are not stupid, we know how serious you two are, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I trust ya both, I know you’ll be respectful.” Emily’s mother gave her a wink and took a sip of her wine and settled deeper into the fluffy couch.

With a slight blush Emily looked at Marcus and gave him a weak smile, then looked from one parent to other and thanked them, “Thanks mom and dad, that’ll make things easier with a full house that way,” she rubbed his knee again to reassure him that all was well and not to worry about it.

When Emily and Marcus finished eating they both stood and when her mom tried to clean up after them Emily insisted she didn’t and Marcus jumped on her bandwagon. Naomi didn’t fuss too long but sat back down and put her feet back up. Marcus followed Emily to the kitchen so they could put their own bowls away.

As they entered into the warm kitchen Marcus said, “Wow, this kitchen is great!” He was awestruck by the cleanliness of the kitchen to start with, the counter was a green and white marble and on top of it the few appliances were all stainless steel, as well as the double stove, microwave and dishwasher. Except for the refrigerator, that looked like the oak cabinets that seemed to surround the entire room. The floor was a wonderful green and white check tile that accented the steel and oak very well and of course matched the counter colors exactly. After turning around again Marcus exhaled, “Now I could cook in here all day long!”

“My mom loves to cook and when dad got a promotion that was the only thing she wanted, all stainless steel and oak, and she got it of course. She usually always gets what she wants.” Emily took his bowl and put it into the dishwasher along with hers and the bowl the held the chips. When she was done she turned to him and took his attention away from the gas stove he was admiring, “So, do you want to puke yet?”

“What? Why do you ask that, your family is great.” Marcus was confused by her question.

“Just that you actually ate an entire bowl of chili with god knows how many chips.” Emily went over and patted his flat, firm stomach.

Realizing his mental error he shrugged, “I’m fine, thanks for asking though,” he put his arms around her and gave her a quick kiss on the lips. “Let’s get our stuff put away before your mum starts ironing our jeans that got wrinkled on the way.”

Emily had to laugh, “You’re very perceptive, she’s a bit of a neat freak, you two will get along greatly!” They both went to the front door to get the last of the bags but they weren’t there, Emily knew that her mom already put them in her room, “Come on, I’ll show you to our room.” She took his hand and led him up the stairs.

The stairwell had pictures along the wall that were all oil paintings of different flowers, they were very well done. He looked closer and saw the initials, “GC” on all of them. He had to ask, “Who did all of these, they’re wonderful.”

Emily stopped to see which one he was looking at, “My dad actually, though you’d never know that he could do such a thing huh? He did those before Steve was born, I don’t think he really even paints anymore. He still draws every now and then to pass the time, he’s really amazing I wish he did it more.”

With an ‘O’ mouth he showed how he was impressed, “Oh my, he’s amazingly good. And you’re right, never would have pegged him for that seeing as how he loves to kill elk and watch football…” Marcus smiled up at Emily and they both chuckled.

Emily’s bedroom door was open and she was shocked at the transformation of it since she left for England. And there was her little baby girl Mitz, her cat of ten years lounging on the new bed. She scooped her up right away and the cat started purring instantly in her mama’s arms. Marcus stayed back a little, some animals reacted well to his presence, and others didn’t. Now he wondered where her dog, Scruff was, they didn’t see him in the house when they came in. Emily turned around and said, “This is Mitz, I wanted to bring her with me but figured it was less stress on her to stay here; glad I did because I’m hardly ever at my flat.”

Marcus slowly walked over to the cat in her arms and Mitz looked up at him and started to sniff the air, Marcus thought it was now or never so he slowly reached his hand out for her to sniff the tips of his fingers. Both he and Emily were holding their breaths to see what the cat would do. Mitz sniffed Marcus’ offering, took a little sneeze, then sniffed them some more. Emily started to calmly tell her that it was okay then told the cat Marcus’ name and kept petting her gently to keep her still. After Mitz leaned in to get a better smell, Marcus started to step a little closer to pet her. Mitz flattened her ears at first then straightened them back out when Marcus’ fingers gently scratched between them. Mitz started to purr again and lifter her head up into his fingers.

Emily smiled up at Marcus, “Whew, first test passed, Mitz likes you.

Nodding his head in agreement, Marcus then asked, “Where’s your dog? Actually he’s the one I’m worried about; cats seem to take to our kind better than most dogs do.”

“My mom said that she put him in Steve’s place so we wouldn’t get accosted the second we walked in the door. He’s about twelve now but still a little spit-fire. He’s a black lab and goes hunting with my dad and brother a lot. But we’ll introduce the two of you tomorrow when there’s no one around, if he has a reaction I don’t want anyone noticing it.”

“Sounds good to me, at least the cat likes me…” Marcus then pet her a little more then turned his attention to where their bags where in the bedroom.

Emily put Mitz back on the bed and she looked around to take in the new changes of her old room. They took out her little twin bed and replaced it with a full, like her mom said. But they also repainted the entire thing to a lovely creamy yellow and took down all of her posters that she had up there when she was still there. When she left it still looked like a high school girl’s; now it looked like a woman’s room. There were more paintings in there, one of her and one of Steve when they were babies, done by her dad of course. Emily walked over to them, “I cannot believe they still have these, I haven’t seen them in forever!” She turned around to see the furniture was the same cherry oak that she had in there; she took great care of it so it didn’t look like it was the fifteen year old set that she grew up with. There was the same bookshelf in there with her old books and some of her old dolls and toys on it, but her mother refinished it from the white chipping paint to a nice cherry to match the rest of her set. After taking it all in again along with the stripped green bedding and heavy cream curtains she nodded, her mom decorated the room beautifully.

He nodded with her, “Very nice, comfortable,” Marcus saw their bags over in one corner lined up against the wall, he went to Emily’s and placed it on the bed, then went to his on the floor and opened it to get out his toiletries bag.

Starting to get her stuff out as well she proclaimed, “Let’s take a shower, I’m beat!”

“Sure, I’ll get in after you,” Marcus was rooting around for the pajamas that he had to pack. He did his packing carefully to make sure that he added all of the things that normal people would have; jacket, undershirts, PJ’s, thick wool socks, stuff that he never wore because he was never cold and never slept.

Emily looked at him, “No you won’t, I have my own bath in here and it’s big enough for the both of us. Trust me, if we didn’t emerge until three days from now they wouldn’t care. Plus it would be faster and save water if we took one together.”

Marcus just laughed, “You got it Doll, whatever you want. Oh, now I see where you get it from!”

Emily laughed and got the rest of her stuff as he waited for her. They went into her bathroom that was also repainted from the white walls she grew up with to a lovely pale green that matched the stripes in the bedspread and it was accented in the same cream like the curtains. She started the shower and got undressed as Marcus locked the door then took his clothes off as well, “So what was that comment about them trusting us and your mum’s wink to you?”

With one leg in she turned to him, “Oh that. Well basically, well, um, she knows we have sex so if we’re going to do it, don’t be too loud to wake them up.”

Marcus’ mouth hit the floor, “What? Are you serious?”

“Yeah, why? You’ve got to understand, we’re a very open family, we talk about everything and we rarely keep secrets from each other. Steve has a new woman every other week, so they’re used to hearing women shout all sorts of profanities into the night. That was one of the reasons why they built the apartment over the garage as soon as he was 19, they couldn’t handle the women he brought over at night and the friends he brought over during the day to eat and play the ‘PlayStation’ all day.”

When Marcus just shook his head and looked at his bare feet in response, Emily finished climbing in. After they were both in, Marcus washed Emily’s hair for her, she loved it so much. They chatted about nothing as they bathed, it was nice to be together for the both of them, and the trip was also something new and different also to do together. But to be somewhere new for him and to meet her family finally was a great experience for Marcus.

After they were dressed they went back into the family room where Steve was now there in his sweats watching ESPN with his dad. They were talking about the college football game earlier that day and Naomi was reading a book and drinking her red wine. Emily and Marcus took a seat on the loveseat that everyone obviously left open for them, Steve was at his mother’s feet on the couch and George never moved from his recliner.

Once they were settled George turned the TV down a few notches in case they wanted to talk. Steve was looking at the TV but was stealing glances at Marcus when he could. Emily caught Steve’s peeks and just looked at him, wondering what was going through his mind. Finally Steve spoke up, “So Marcus, your grandfather owns, a book store is it?”

Marcus looked from the telly and over to him, “Yes. It’s actually been in our family for several generations, it just keeps getting passed down along the lines. One day it will be mine; granted I already feel that it is, my grandfather is very old, so I do mostly everything around there now as it is.” He thought to himself how odd that sounded out loud, ‘getting passed down’, he thought that he got passed down right along with the shop over the decades.

Naomi piped in, “That must be so wonderful to be surrounded by great books all day. No wonder Emily found ya, that’s her kind’a place!”

Marcus smiled over to the charming little woman, “Now I must say, your accent is the wonderful one,” Marcus loved to hear her talk, he had never heard anyone speak that way but had heard of how Southerners spoke. Some Europeans hated it, considered it to be ‘lazy-speak’; but Marcus liked it, to him it was soothing and charming. “But yes, it’s quite wonderful to have most books at my fingertips, I probably indulge a little too much.

Naomi smiled at his comment and wanted to let him know, “Well thanks darlin’! Are all the men such gentlemen as you are where you come from?” She said it as though he were from Mars and not across The Pond.

“Sadly no, I think it depends on the families, just like here. But thank you for the compliment.”

Emily had to step in to change the interrogation away from Marcus, “So mom, my room and bathroom look great, thanks!”

“Don’t be thankin’ me, I couldn’t handle it lookin’ like a kids room anymore, you’re a lady now and need to have a ladies room when you come an’ visit. Plus those white walls were killin’ me!”

George rolled his eyes to the sky, “She re-did every room of the dang house this summer, got rid of all the white and put up new pictures. Sorry about the ones in your room, I tried to talk her out of it.”

Emily scoffed, “Why dad, your paintings are marvelous, it’s nice to see them, I thought they were locked up in storage somewhere, or gone.”

Marcus chimed in, “You really are a wonderful artist, and the pictures look very lifelike.”

Looking over to Marcus with tight lips then smirked, “Now kissin’ ass will only get you far in this family, but thanks my boy! Sadly that was a long time ago, haven’t picked up a brush in years.” George smiled and thought to himself, yep, he liked this kid already.

Marcus laughed at his remark and Emily poked him in the ribs, “Well you should start painting again dad, I bet you haven’t lost your touch at all!”

After George just shrugged and shook his head as if saying those days were long gone now, a comfortable silence fell upon the room again and all eyes seemed to gravitate to the TV, except for Naomi’s, hers went back to her book. After a few minutes Emily was bored of the sports and tugged at Marcus’ sleeve cuff, “So I think we’re going to hit the sack, we’ve had a long day.” She stood to go and Marcus stood as well, Emily kissed her family good night and Marcus shook their hands, except Emily’s mom’s hand, she got up and hugged him.

When they got back into her room she closed and locked the door, “Man, sorry about that, Steve is up to something, I can see it in his eyes.”

“Why do you say that? He’s being a normal older brother Emily, put your guard down, this is your own family for Pete’s sake.” He climbed into the bed beside her and wrapped his arms around her as they got into their usual spoon position.

“I don’t know, I just know him too well. But I’m glad my dad and mom love you, I knew they would. Nice brownie points with the painting comment too, he loves that stuff. But granted I think all men love to get their egos stroked every now and then.” Emily scooted backwards so she was right up against Marcus’ front side.

Once she was settled he nuzzled into her hair, “I didn’t say it to win points, I said it because it’s true. I like to give compliments when they’re due.”

Just then they heard a little scraping noise at the door, Emily lifted her head up a little not too sure what it was that she heard, she wasn’t used to these noise again yet, “What’s that?”

“It’s Mitz at your door, does she usually sleep in here with you?”

Emily got up, “Yep,” and opened the door to let the cat in. After Mitz crossed the threshold Emily closed the door again but didn’t bother to lock it this time, she was too tired to do anything but sleep.

Mitz jumped up onto the bed by Marcus’ feet then curled up next to Emily as soon as she was settled back into her spot. Marcus stuck his hand out and rubbed the cat’s head again gently as she lay in front of her mama. Her purring started instantly and so he kept scratching her soft little head. He noticed that Emily was petting the cat as well on the body, then her hand stopped and she feel right to sleep.

Marcus closed his eyes and listened to the house and new noises around him. Outside it was very quiet, except that he could hear some rustling, like small animals scurrying hither and thither in the darkness, he also heard Naomi get up and say her good nights and went to her own room down the hall. Then he tuned in to what George and Steve were talking about downstairs. He kind of hated to eavesdrop, but he couldn’t help it and he wanted to see what they thought of him, if they talked about it, just so he would know what to expect in the morning.

Sure enough after they were done chatting about their day at work Steve asked his dad what he thought of Marcus. George said that he liked him very much and he obviously made his little girl happy and that’s all that really mattered to him. Steve said that he had his reserves still. George told him to lay off, but that he knew that he was being the typical overprotective older brother. George also piped in that if Naomi liked him then Marcus must be a good person, she was a great judge of character. They stopped talking and watched the news for some time, then Steve said good night and went to his apartment that was behind the house, somewhere. George stayed up for a few more minutes then turned off everything in the house and joined his wife in their room.

Naomi was still awake and she chatted with her husband about Marcus as well, all was good there so he tuned out from listening in to them for a bit and listened to the cat and Em breathe almost in unison. Several more minutes had passed then Marcus was surprised of what he heard next, he could hear them start to make love. He was embarrassed that he could hear that, they were being very quiet, but with his hearing nothing escaped him in the same house.

Instantly turning his attention back to the cat that was now right up against Emily’s tummy, he started to pet her again then closed his eyes and thought about how to proceed tomorrow with Steve. Marcus knew that he had to still keep his guard up with him, but he figured that was going to be the case before he even got onto the plane to get here. But tomorrow he was going to meet the rest of the family, it was the 23rd tomorrow so Emily and her mother were going to be in the kitchen for most of the day cooking and getting ready for the two dinners they always have. On Christmas Eve, Emily told him on the way over, they have a big meal, then on Christmas day they have the huge roast with all of the fixings.

Morning finally came and Marcus could hear Naomi getting up and she went downstairs to make coffee. After he waited in bed for a while, Marcus then got up and put on his robe and slippers and went down the stairs to the kitchen. He found her at their breakfast table in the kitchen having coffee and reading the morning paper, “Good morning,” he said.

She looked up, “Oh mornin’. You’re an early bird too huh?”

Smiling then sitting at the table across from her, “Yes I am, always have been. I usually have to wait for Emily to get up for an hour or so.” Once this was out of his mouth he thought that he shouldn’t have said anything like that and quickly looked down at the table.

Naomi caught his embarrassment, “Don’t be shy Marcus, I know that you stay there. And I must say that’s very sweet of you to light her fire every mornin’ for her, she really loves that. She’s not used to havin’ to do that stuff so it’s great you’re there for her to help out. Oh and by the way, thanks for gettin’ her ticket, we can repay you.”

“I won’t have any of that, I already told your husband that it was my pleasure to do it. I’m thankful that you invited me and are putting us up, that’s repayment enough as it is.” Marcus then took the front page that she had finished reading and started to read through it.

Smirking and looking back at her page as she started to sip her coffee she remembered her manners, “I’m sorry darlin’, you want some coffee?” Naomi started to get up but he put his hand out to stop her.

“No please don’t get up, and no thank you, I have never acquired the taste for coffee, it smells good but sadly to me it doesn’t taste the same way.”

“Oh that’s right, you Englishmen have tea, I’ll put the kettle on, Emily will want some too when she decides to get up,” Naomi got up and put water into the kettle to boil, “We only have it in bags if that’s alright with ya, I don’t have the loose stuff here.”

Marcus flashed her a smile when she turned to look at him, “Thank you, that would be just great.”

Once everything was started, Naomi returned to the table and they both sat in silence and read the paper. He was taken aback to see how different the paper was in the US, the news stories themselves, but also the layouts and the bright colors used here. It was sad to read that most of what was written was mostly doom and gloom, was there no good part of the paper that reported the nice things that happened around here?

After Naomi was done with the entire paper, and Marcus was shocked that she read the entire thing, even perused the Classifieds, she got up and started breakfast.

“Would you like some help,” Marcus offered and stood.

“Sure darlin’ if you like. My boys love a huge breakfast on the weekends and this is a Saturday for both of them, they both took the week off. Em tells me that you know your way around a kitchen pretty well, glad she’s not starvin’ over there!”

As he was washing his hands he replied, “No, that she isn’t. But she takes pretty good care of herself without me, that’s one of the things I love about her.”

Naomi went to the fridge and took out eggs, bacon, butter, cheese, tomatoes and mushrooms for omelets for all of them. Marcus started the omelets as Naomi started the bacon and toast. The cutting board and block of knives were already on the counter so he started to dice the tomatoes and mushrooms. He was just doing his normal thing when he realized that he was moving at his pace, a little too fast for human speed so he slowed down a bit. Even still he had the veggies diced in no time and Naomi complemented him on his skill with a knife.

Emily woke up to the smell of coffee and bacon, she loved that about being home, waking up to her mother’s cooking. Mitz and Marcus were both gone so she stretched out her arms and legs to their full but diminutive length and got up. As she was opening her door she almost ran into her dad, “Oh, morning dad,” and she gave him a hug and kiss on the cheek.

“Good morning dear, did you guys sleep well?” George was still tying up his robe and rubbing his eyes, “Damn that smells good down there!”

“We did thanks. That food does smell grand!”

Emily and her dad walked into the kitchen to see Marcus and Naomi cooking and laughing away. Emily beamed when she saw this and George smiled, “Looks like you mother has a cookin’ buddy this week.”

Nodding to her father, “He loves to cook, and is very good at it too, I’m sure they’ll be swapping recipe’s before the week’s over.”

Both of the cooks turned around and said good morning and each went to their respective mate and exchanged kisses. Emily asked Marcus, “How long have you two been awake?”

“Not too long, we read the paper then started to cook. Did you sleep well? You were squished between Mitz and I so I wasn’t too sure how much room you had.”

“Oh it was great, I slept like a baby! Where is my kitty anyway?” Emily looked around the kitchen but didn’t see her, she was normally under foot when bacon was cooking.

Naomi said, “Oh she wanted to go out and harass the birds for breakfast, I’m sure Steve will bring her in with Scruff when he gets up.”

Emily and Marcus exchanged a quick glance but said nothing. Marcus handed her a mug of tea and her father a mug of coffee and both of them sat at the table and picked up the paper. Marcus turned from buttering the toast to see what section they each grabbed, you can tell a lot about a person by what they read first. Emily grabbed the Local section since it was right on top but didn’t open it then George butted in to grab the Sports page, Marcus pegged that one. Once her father was done pilfering and teasing Emily, she went in for the comics and started reading them instantly, Marcus loved that about her.

When breakfast was about done Naomi went to an intercom on the wall and pushed a button. She waited for a few seconds then pushed it again, still no answer from the other end. She shrugged her shoulders, “Guess he’ll come in when he’s ready, we’ll set a plate to the side for him.”

She and Marcus plated the four omelets, toast and bacon. Marcus gave George the largest one and took the smallest for himself, he hated wasting food on himself. George looked over his reading glasses to his plate, “Wow, this looks great, thanks guys!”

Emily gathered up the paper and dropped it on the floor and all four of them sat and enjoyed the food. George raved about the eggs, said they were the best he ever had. When his wife gave him a sideways glance he started to back pedal and all of them got a good laugh from that. Emily and George did the dishes while Marcus went upstairs to get dressed and Naomi went to water her many plants throughout the house.

Steve came into the house with Scruff and both sniffed the air, but as the four-legger took to the floor, Steve asked, “Did I miss breakfast?”

Emily bent down to give her dog lots of love and in response he wagged his tail very hard and licked her tremendously, it made her so happy to see him again. Deciding now was a good time to make the introduction, she had Scruff follow her up the stairs to Marcus while her dad got Steve’s plate heated up.

She gingerly opened the door, “Marcus? Can I bring Scruff in?”

Marcus was already dressed and opening the curtains to let the sun in, “Um, sure.” He kept his place on the far side of the room while Emily brought Scruff in and closed the door behind them. Scruff sniffed the floor then looked up at Marcus.

Emily said in her cooing voice, “This is Marcus, Scruff.”

Scruff was apprehensive but he wasn’t snarling so Marcus took a slow step forward, “Hey there buddy,” he said very softly and sweetly. He got down on his haunches so he was down at the dogs level. Emily walked over and knelt down next to Marcus, “Come here boy, it’s alright.” Scruff gingerly walked over keeping his nose in the air the entire time. Marcus held his hand out, palm up, “Hey boy, you’re a good boy huh?” Scruff came a little closer and sniffed his fingers then backed up a little.

Emily spoke again, “It’s fine Scruffy, come say hello baby,” she put her hand out as well next to Marcus’ and Scruff sniffed her hand, then sniffed Marcus’ again. He didn’t come any closer but stayed in his place and kept sniffing the fingers in front of his nose with his neck stretched completely out so he didn’t have to move his paws any closer. The three of them stayed in that posture for a few more seconds then Scruff had enough and went to the door. Emily got up and let him out.

After closing the door behind the pooch Emily said, “Well that went better than I thought it would. Give him some time, he might come around. Glad he didn’t try to take your hand off though!” Emily started to take her PJ’s off and went over to her suitcase. She was half naked and decided to put their clothes into the empty dresser. “I wonder where my clothes went, the dresser’s empty?”

Marcus looked over her shoulder into the empty drawer, “I’m sure your mom put them somewhere,” he walked over to the closet and it was half full of Emily’s clothes and there were boxes on the shelves. Marcus grabbed one and opened it, “Here they are. Do you want me to get them all down for you?”

“Not now, maybe later, I obviously won’t be able to reach them!” She put their things away then got out her usual jeans and sweater combo that she loved to wear. They both brushed their teeth and Emily asked Marcus to help her take all of the presents down to put under the tree.

“Where’s the tree, I didn’t see one?”

“Oh hell, now I’m the bad hostess, I’ll give you a tour of the house. The tree’s in the living room, it’s in the front of the house; we never sit in there really, it’s the formal room. We live in the family room as you saw last night.”

They took their arm loads of presents down the stairs and Emily led him to the living room in the front of the house. Marcus set the presents around the live, very full and packed with new and old ornaments, tree, and then turned to look around the room. It was wonderfully decorated like the rest of the house, at least that he had seen so far.

There were large windows in the front, looking out onto the expansive snow covered front yard and across the small street to the neighbor’s house and yard that was settled about 400 feet away. He turned and saw that Naomi had decorated the room in the 1920’s style, just like he loved. There were couches and chairs upholstered in deep maroon in the original style, not the horrid 1950’s rendition. There was another fireplace in here and over the mantelpiece it held a beautiful Japanese fan that was three feet long by about two feet tall with a maroon lotus flower. It was accompanied by two wonderful fireside chairs that were upholstered with birds and flowers in complementary colors. There were wonderful paintings in here as well adorning the walls and antique tables held colorful vases placed about upon them; it was definitely the “formal room”.

After all of the gifts were placed under the tree Emily plugged in the lights and went over and hugged Marcus who was standing in front of the fireplace looking at the old fan.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said. She put her head onto his chest and he put his arms tightly around her, “I’m so glad I’m here as well. You’re family is as wonderful as you are.” Emily looked up at him and had tears in her eyes, he looked down at her and asked, “What’s wrong Doll?”

Lightly sniffing, “Nothing, I just love you so very much, and I never want this happiness to end.” She hugged him tighter to her, she didn’t want this feeling to cease.

After a few moments reality settled back in, “Well I better give you that tour,” Emily said as she let him go, “My mom and I have a lot of stuff to cook today.“ She looked into his marvelous blue eyes and gave him a kiss before they left the room.

Emily showed him the 2,600 square foot house and he was impressed. Her mother did a marvelous job of decorating it, and he could see outside the windows, now that it was day, he realized they had a huge backyard. As they stood in the family room looking out the window into the back yard, Scruff went dashing across their sight after something that was scurrying in the snow. Emily and Marcus watched him, arm in arm, as he found the little mouse and flushed it from its hiding spot. When Scruff was happily carrying his prize away and working his way to the side of the garage where his doggie door was, Marcus said that he was a good hunting dog.

“My dad got him when he was only six weeks old and started to train him for hunting right away. Scruff loves it too, he can be out there all day long and never get tired. He’s more Steve’s dog than mine but he stays in the house more than outside in the garage so I spent a lot of time with him.”

George came into the room just then and stared out the window into nothingness, “What’cha guys lookin’ at?” He peered left and right but still didn’t see anything except the trees and snow on the ground.

Emily told him about Scruff’s grand catch and George just shook his head, “Great, if he starts eating mice then he’s gon’na get sick, damn dog.” George went out of the room and Emily heard him go into the garage, probably going to take away Scruff’s snack.

Sure enough her dad walked back in a few minutes later, “Stupid dog ate the thing already. Help me keep an eye on him huh Em? I don’t want him getting sick or rabies.”

“You got it dad,” Emily removed her arm from around Marcus’ back, “I better see what mom and I are making today.” She headed off towards the kitchen and Marcus decided to sit and watch some of the football game with George.

Emily found her mom already in the kitchen with her apron around her waist and the radio turned on to the classic rock station both of them liked. She was getting ingredients out of the fridge when Em walked in she turned her head, “Hey babe.”

“Hey mom, what are we making today?” Emily got an apron out of the drawer and tied it on.

“Oh not too much stuff today, I want to get the stuffing made as well as the pies. Tomorrow we’re havin’ a big pot of meat sauce with pasta, then the usual roast on Christmas. Meemaw’s gon’na want to make her bread pudding today when she gets here, so I want to try and have everything else done so we’re not bumpin’ into each other.”

Emily loved her grandparents and hadn’t seen them in a long time and was quite happy, “What time are they all getting here?”

Dumping down another load of ingredients and answering, “Well… probably not until about four or so. They had to pick up Jamie an’ Joey since their parents are at Joe’s parent’s this year. The kids wanted to see ya so they’re coming here instead. Then your Aunt Sally an’ her new husband Mark will be flying in at about seven, so your dad and Steve are gon’na go pick them up in Anchorage then. A nice full house this year, I love it!”

Shocked she asked, “Have you met Mark yet? When did she remarry?” Emily loved her Aunt Sally, she was her mother’s sister who was divorced when Emily was young and had always been single, she was quite the partier back then.

Naomi was a little apprehensive about this new man of her sister’s. Sally didn’t have the best sense when it came to choosing guys. Burying her feelings of frustration with her sister she just shrugged, “Nope, never met him. Talked to him on the phone a few times though, seems pretty nice. Let’s see, I think they got married about a month after you left. They only dated for a few months, then went to the court house and that’s that. Meemaw and Pop-Pop weren’t too pleased with the big rush, but you can’t say nothin’ to Sally once her mind’s set.” Naomi put the ingredients next to the corresponding recipes on the counter and table and directed Emily to start on the apples for the pie.

Emily began peeling the apples as her mother dove into chopping veggies for the stuffing. There was no turkey to put it in, but her father had to have stuffing every Christmas no matter what. The women were chatting and having a great time as they worked, they loved being together again.

Naomi then changed the subject from Emily’s school to Marcus, “So he’s a very nice man Em, good job! And that was nice to him to buy your ticket, wish he would let us pay him back.”

“No mom, Marcus’ family is very well off, so don’t bring it up to him again please, it’s no biggie for him, trust me!” Emily of course didn’t give away just how ridiculously rich Marcus was, that would lead to too many questions that she didn’t want to lie to answer.

Back in the family room, Steve came strutting in and sat on the couch that was open to watch the game with his dad and Marcus. All three men only spoke when commenting on what was just seen or heard on the television; Marcus noted that George was just sitting comfortably loving the day off, a good game, his family home and more to come. Steve on the other hand sat with both legs extended on the couch as he sat fully upright to ensure his spine was straight and his pecs noticeable. This was another time when Marcus was thankful for his unnatural abilities; he was able to look so quickly at, or away from, Steve to watch him more than Steve was watching Marcus. This happened to be quite often.

After a while the three of them heard the women in the kitchen singing as loud as can be, “I’m Every Woman.” Steve and George rolled their eyes in unison. Steve voiced sarcastically, “Oh great, now they’ll be all self-righteous for the next few hours.”

Marcus had never heard the song so he had no idea what they were talking about, “Why’s that?”

George laughed, “That song my boy is every American woman’s theme song. You’ll have to listen to the words to understand.”

“Ah, got it,” Marcus replied. He would look up the song and take a listen one day to see why American women loved it so much.

After about thirty more minutes of watching the game Marcus couldn’t take it anymore, he was too bored with the slow game even though Steve and George were hooting and moaning as the game progressed. “I’m getting something to drink, do you guys want anything?”

They both said no so he got up and went into the kitchen to see what could occupy his time better. When he got in there he went over to Emily and gave her a kiss, “What can I do to help?”

Naomi answered for her, “Nothing, go out an’ watch the game, you don’t have to be in here with us gals.”

Emily chuckled, “Trust me mom, he would rather be in here than watching football.” Then quickly adding, “But don’t say anything to dad.”

Naomi gave Marcus a wink then said in the same whisper as her daughter did, “Oh gotcha’, I don’t blame ya darlin’, football is so damn borin’! If it wasn’t for those tight pants on those cute little asses I wouldn’t last longer than one second!”

They all laughed and Marcus started to work on the pumpkin pie while Emily put the apple pie into the oven. She helped him out while her mom went on to make the sauce for tomorrow’s meal. With the extra pair of hands in there they were done faster than Naomi expected and she was quite pleased to be done with everything in just a few hours time.

Since it was only two in the afternoon Emily announced that she was going to take Marcus around town until her grandparents arrived. Her dad gave her the keys to his truck, “Be careful with her, I just got new tires put on.”

Emily grabbed her coat as she took the keys from him, “Yes dad, and thanks. We’ll see you soon.” Emily then turned to head out the door and looked over to a bare handed Marcus so she had to quietly remind him to get his coat. “Oh yeah, thanks Doll,” he whispered, “You have to help me to remember to be normal.” He put on his coat and they went into the garage to get the truck. Scruff was in there on his bed chewing a bone and Emily went over to make sure he was doing well after his nasty morning snack. He looked fine but never moved his eyes from Marcus, he obviously wasn’t too sure yet about his new guest. Marcus stayed by the truck so he wouldn’t upset the dog any.

They drove around her small but quaint little town. Once Emily parked at one end of the main street which consisted of three blocks of brick buildings built in the early 1900’s by settlers, they went into a shop to get some more Christmas presents. She didn’t know that her little cousins were coming and she didn’t bring them anything from England. The toy store was the same one that Emily had gone to all her life here, she loved that she still had this and didn’t live in the big city’s that only had a Wal-Mart or Target for a toy store; those weren’t real toy stores after all. After paying for the cute things they walked around town, which was actually walking up then back down the street, then Emily got some hot cocoa and they watched the skaters having fun and falling on the frozen over pond that lay a block to the north of where they parked. After a bit they got back into the truck and headed on home. She wanted to be there when her grandparents came in.

When they pulled up she was disappointed to see that she was about ten minutes too late and that her grandparents and cousins were already there. Her dad was getting their bags out of their camper so she quickly parked the truck back into the garage and her and Marcus went out to help her dad.

Puffing out, “Hey kids, have fun?” George was lifting a bag that was obviously very heavy so Marcus went over to help, “Let me help you George, that one looks like a killer.” Of course Marcus had no problems lifting it, but he made a little grunt so George wouldn’t look twice at him.

He did get looked at twice though, but for a positive reaction, “Man you’re a strong one… we could use arms like that down at the plant! Thanks for your help!” George then grabbed another lighter bag while Emily picked up some smaller ones.

They all headed into the house and put the bags into the spare room that was in between Emily’s and her parents’ room. Everyone was gathered in the kitchen so Emily took Marcus’ hand and led him in to meet more family.

Emily’s grandmother turned and saw them first, “Emmy baby, I’ve missed you so!” The plump and short woman waddled over and gave Emily a huge hug and kiss. “Now didn’t you catch yourself a hunk of man huh? Good job kid!” Her brown eyes gleamed as one of them winked then giving her granddaughter a quick nod of approval she quickly turned to the tall handsome thing, “I’m Naomi’s momma, you can call me Meemaw, nice to meet cha’,” she put her hand out to be shook as a polite and proper woman should and Marcus took it.

Emily was embarrassed as all get out but by the time she could voice a protest to the loveable woman, she was on her path and her voice went unheard, “Meemaw!” She looked at Marcus and shrugged her shoulders as an apology for her grandmothers’ brashness.

As he lightly shook her fragile and tiny hand he said sweetly looking down at the elderly woman but answered his lovers gesture, “No problem, I’ll take it as a nice compliment. Thank you Meemaw.”

When he gave a slight bow and broke eye contact she quietly said over her shoulder to her daughter, “Ooo-eeee, you’re right baby, his accent is darlin’!” Then turned her head more to give her a wink.

Marcus just laughed, American’s always loved the English accent for some reason. He did notice that her Texas accent was very thick, even more so than Naomi’s.

Then the older man that got lost amongst the women piped up, “Woman, let that boy be an’ let me through!” He pushed past his wife to hug Emily and shake Marcus’ hand as well. “Welcome to the family Marcus, I’m John, Sophie’s husband,” he said formally as those of his generation do

“Thank you sir, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” and shook the old, frail hand. When Marcus looked down at him he noticed that this was where Emily, and her mother, got their eyes from. John’s eyes were a magnificent hazel. They were a bright green trimmed in brown; the contrasts of the two colors were brilliant. Emily also had his build, thin and bony, not round and plump like her grandmother.

After about three seconds the old man started to shuffle out of the kitchen as he quietly grumbled something about the bathroom again and Naomi helped her father up the stairs.

Meemaw took Emily’s hand and said as she walked into the family room, “So tell me all about England dear… I want to hear everything.”

“Yeah, of course, but where are the kids?” Emily was looking around the house as they walked. Marcus could hear them hiding in the other room but kept his silence. When they walked into the family room Jamie and Joey jumped out from behind the couch and screeched, “Boo!”

When Emily jumped and yelped the kids were hysterical with laughter. Jamie jumped up and down in traditional five year old fashion, “We scared Auntie Emily, ha, ha!”

Emily went over and scooped up the kids in her arms, “You guys! You got me good huh?” They all laughed and Meemaw sat on the couch, “Marcus darlin’, can you light a fire for me, it’s freezin’ in here!”

“Of course I can, I bet you’re not used to the cold up here are you?” Marcus started to build up the wood and kindling to make a nice big fire in the fireplace.

Tugging an afghan over her legs and settling into the couch she quipped honestly, “Oh hell no! The only reason we’re even up this far north is ‘cause Em and you are here. But my ol’ bones aren’t used to this snow crap still. Ya know I’ve lived in the South my entire life.” Meemaw was all tucked in now and on perfect queue George entered the room and handed her a mug full of egg nog. As she grasped the cup in both hands she questioned, “Now this is the good nog right darlin’?” She gave him a wink as she took her first sip.

George smiled down at her, “Well of course it is, I wouldn’t do that to you!” He went over to help Marcus with the fire then whispered to him, “Has to have the whisky in there.”

Marcus smiled at him and looked over at the old woman on the couch, “She’s a very nice lady.”

“Sure is, just don’t piss her off! But I’m sure you’ve found that out from being with Em.”

Marcus furrowed his brows and looked from the stacked logs back up to George, “Actually I don’t know. I guess I haven’t pissed her off yet. I know she’s a spitfire though!”

George just gave him a grunt and got the match lit and started the fire, “Thanks for gettin’ it set up.”

Marcus dusted his hands off and stood upright his full height, “Yeah, no problem, my pleasure.” He didn’t realize that he was a few inches taller than Emily’s dad, and George didn’t either, for when Marcus was fully erect George looked up at him and smirked but said nothing.

Emily was on the floor with the kids so Marcus sat on the loveseat and George took his spot in his recliner. All three sat and chatted and when the time came for Steve and George to pick up Naomi’s sister, Emily took the kids with Marcus to play out back. They tossed the ball to Scruff, then played with the Frisbee until it got dark, then went inside and played hide-and-go-seek and really just enjoyed the time together.

After a couple of hours the group came back from Anchorage then everyone enjoyed a dinner of chili. Marcus and Emily insisted that the pot left over from last night get eaten, plus no one wanted to get into the kitchen to cook any more.

Sally and Mark took to Marcus quickly, and Emily seemed to like Mark as well, he was a good match for her crazy aunt. Mark had been to London so he and Marcus spoke at length of the area and such. All was well in the Cook household on this wonderful evening.

Much later as Emily and Marcus lay in bed, with Mitz on Marcus’ side of the bed this time, they spoke of her family and the kids. Marcus liked Jamie and Joey, he thought they were great children and very funny. “I haven’t really been around little ones much, except of course Mort and Morty, but that was so long ago, and kids are so different these days then they were ninety years ago!”

With a snort Emily said, “I bet, no TV’s or video games to contend with, no drugs, no teen pregnancies. Wasn’t life much simpler then?” She rolled over and put her arm over him and began to pet Mitz.

“Yes and no. In some ways it is now for the fact of dishwashers and washing machines. But in other ways families were closer because we sat around and talked and did things together, we weren’t all preoccupied with the telly and such. But I like it better now, better medicines and more things to do. We were pretty limited in the recreational area of things to choose from.”

Emily nodded understanding his point of view, “I guess I lost my kitty to you huh? She sure loves you!” Emily scratched her in between her ears and Marcus tickled the cat under her chin, Mitz started to purr even louder than before.

After a minute Marcus said, “She’s a great cat, I’m sorry Scruff is so distant.”

“Marcus, if Scruff is the only one in this house that keeps his distance from you I’m just fine with that. My family adores you, as they should, and like I knew they would. Steve is coming around also, I saw you guys chatting for a bit over dinner.” Emily put her hand on Marcus’ chest and started to run her fingers through his chest hair.

“Yeah he’s a good guy, just very protective of you. But the true testament will be when we’re hunting. We’ll see if he tries to take a shot at me.” When Emily slightly pinched him he whispered, “What? Kidding, and don’t give me that look. Anyway, I think he and your dad will give me a good grilling when it’s just the three of us out there. Your grandpa isn’t going is he?”

Putting her head back down after kissing where she pinched Emily answered, “No, he stopped hunting a long time ago. He says it’s because of the noise, but we know he’s just gotten too old and tired to hike much anymore.”

He put his hand from the cat to Emily and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear so he could see her face better, “I’m so glad I’m here with you, it would have been hell back home with you gone!”

“I’m ecstatic you’re here also, I love you so very much,” she rolled over and stretched her neck up to give him a kiss. He bent down to meet her half way. Their embrace was interrupted by a very loud snort and her grandfather started to snore from the room next door. It was so loud that it made the two of them start to laugh.

Marcus asked through chuckles, “How does your grandma sleep through that, he’s worse than Mort?”

“I have no idea. She’s a little hard of hearing, so she might lie on her good ear at night.” Emily snickered, “Glad you don’t snore.”

He just rolled his eyes, “Well gee, I wonder why? But I think that would be my line here Doll.” Once they were settled back down, soon they stopped talking and just lie there until Emily finally feel asleep. Marcus listened to the sounds of the house, how different they were from last night. Not only the snoring from the other side of the wall, but he could also hear the kids sleeping on the pullout bed in the family room, and if he really focused he could even hear Sally, Mark and Steve above the garage. The three of them were still awake and laughing a tremendous amount. After a while Marcus realized why, Mark had smuggled some pot onto the plane and the three of them were getting stoned. He wondered if Emily knew that her brother smoked. Well he sure wasn’t going to be the one to tell her.

About an hour after the sun rose Naomi woke up, and her mother was out of her room and right behind her. This morning Marcus decided to stay in bed until Emily woke up. He didn’t have to wait too long since Emily was up earlier today and was very happy to see her lover still in bed next to her. “Good morning baby, I’m surprised you’re still in here and not down in the kitchen.” Emily stretched out and rolled over and grabbed Marcus and made sure he stayed put.

Not planning to get up he let her wrap him up and he did the same, “Morning. Your mum and gran’mum are down there, I figured I would let them have time together. Plus I never mind staying here with you.” He hugged her tight, “It’s Christmas Eve, do you guys have any other traditions for today besides the mini-feast?”

“After dinner we get to open one present. That’s really it, nothing spectacular, but the kids love to get that one present. My dad always tries to choose a cool toy they can play with for the night. What do, or did, you guys used to do?”

“Nothing, we kept it all for Christmas Day. But these last few years Morty and I would just exchange one gift on the Day and light a candle for our family. Last year I made a small roast for him, but it seems more of a sad, instead of a grand, occasion.”

She was sad to hear that, she then hugged him tight and let him know that was all going to be different from now on and she would make up for lost times. Finally Emily had to get up to go to the bathroom so Marcus rose, without waking Mitz, and got dressed for the day.

Emily decided she would get dressed now as well and put on the new red sweater that Marcus bought for her in London. When he turned to her he made a whistle, “That looks great on you! Granted anything… and nothing… look great on you as well,” then kissed her hard and deep and opened the door to head out.

Emily grabbed him by the belt and pulled him backwards back into her room, “Oh no you don’t,” then kissed him again and with such passion he almost closed and locked the door. She let him go just as quickly, then sashayed out the door before him.

He grunted, “Cruel, you’re so cruel,” then slapped her in the ass as he caught up to her on the stairs.

They made it to the kitchen to find pretty much everyone gathered there drinking coffee. When they were seen and greeted, Naomi put the kettle on for Marcus and Emily, they were apparently the only ones that didn’t drink coffee in the house. The two little ones were at the table drinking their chocolate milk out of mugs so they felt like the adults.

George piped up over the din of chatter, “Hey Marcus, feel like makin’ omelet’s again this mornin’?”

“Sure, do we have enough eggs and vegetables still?” Marcus went over to the sink to put his mug down and wash his hands. Emily joined him, “We always have enough food, I’ll help you.”

As they cooked her mother put on more coffee and tried to help out but Emily told her to sit and she didn’t argue with her daughter. Marcus turned to Emily, “Cover me,” and gave her a wink as he held the knife in his hand. She knew what he was talking about; he didn’t want to be here all day so he was going to make breakfast at his pace.

As Emily beat the eggs she turned around with the bowl in hand and asked her dad about something in the paper that she thought she heard about; and sure enough, it did the trick, he and her mom started on the search of the mysterious article about elks in the area. In about thirty seconds her grandparents got bored with the topic and left the room with the two little ones since they were done with their cocoa. Emily turned back to Marcus and he was already done chopping the tomatoes, mushrooms and green onions as well as shredding the cheese. She made an “O” mouth and he just smirked at her.

He decided to make three big omelets and split them instead of making several small ones. Emily made the toast and sausage while the eggs were cooking.

When Emily just happened to lean up to kiss him on the cheek, Joey came back in and gagged, “Don’t get cooties in the food Auntie Em!” Joey was only eight, so kisses and cooties were very gross to him. Emily turned to him and smiled, “I promise I’ll keep them out! Do you want eggs with us?”

Joey walked over and saw all the veggies in the eggs, “Ew, not those eggs.”

Marcus laughed and looked down at the boy then leaned down to look him in the eye, “Want me to make you some normal eggs with lots of gooey cheese?”

Joey beamed, “That would be awesome Uncle Marcus!” Then he raced out of the kitchen.

At the word “uncle” Emily, George and Naomi all stopped what they were doing to look at Marcus at the stove. He was shocked at the title as well, but realized that he liked it and had a huge smile on his face, then looked at the other expressions then said simply, “Guess he really likes eggs with cheese.” He shrugged his shoulders and went back to the pan.

Naomi laughed and looked at her husband, “Guess he’s official now huh?” Her spouse just nodded his head and looked back into the paper.

While breakfast was being plated George finally spoke up, “Em I can’t find that article you were talking about, sorry baby.”

She winked at Marcus, he knew full well there was no story for them to find, “Oh no worries dad, thanks a bunch for looking. It might even have been from yesterday’s paper. But breakfast is ready, we’ll eat in the dining room where all of us can fit. Guess we’ll plate up Steve, Aunt Sally and Mark’s plates, they sure are late sleepers!” Marcus knew why, they were up until three in the morning partying but kept his silence.

He put Jamie and Joey’s eggs on small plates and Em added one piece of toast and one sausage for each of them. Everyone piled into the large and elegant dining room for the first of many times of the weekend and enjoyed a nice meal. Everyone raved about Marcus’ cooking and the kids were overjoyed with not having to eat vegetables for breakfast.

George and Naomi cleaned the table and did the dishes as the older set of parents went upstairs to get dressed; Emily and Marcus not having anything else to do took the kids into the living room to scope out the presents. Jamie was shaking them and trying to guess what all of hers were and Joey was counting how many he had compared to everyone else. Marcus was under the tree counting the ones in the back and telling the names to Joey to keep track of. On four occasions Joey lost count and Marcus had to remind him how many he and his sister had.

The moment was priceless so Emily grabbed her camera and snapped a bunch of shots. One that got Jamie into the fits of giggles was of Joey and Marcus with their heads under the tree and their butt’s high in the air. The girl wailed, “Brudder, you and Uncle Marcus have big booties!”

Emily started giggling as well and the girls started whispering to each other and giggling even more. Finally Joey got tired of being the brunt of his sister’s jokes and crawled out from under the tree. Emily knew what was coming and had to make a preemptive strike to head the argument off at the pass, “Hey Joey, I bet you have more than anyone, how many did you count?”

Joey stopped going for his sister and his face went from rage to a smile, “Oh I do have the most, I already have fifteen and Santa isn’t even here yet!” Then sticking his tongue out at his sister he went back to the tree to see if he missed any gifts. Marcus wriggled out and sat on the floor at Emily’s feet.

Jamie went to start counting also because she didn’t believe that her brother had more than she did. Emily moved her feet so Marcus could sit between them and leaned back on the chair and used her knees as armrests. He kissed her left knee as he gazed over to the little ones, “They are so cute, I forgot how it was to be that small.”

Emily snapped a few more shots of the kids then put the camera down and started to run her fingers through Marcus’ thick hair. They watched the kids for a while then Emily’s mind started to wander. She whispered in his ear, “So what happens if you cut your hair?”

He chuckled, “You ask the darndest things at the darndest times. If I cut it that’s where it stays, it doesn’t grow back. I had to cut it some time back because the styles changed so much, that’s why I have it the way it is now. Short but long enough to still do stuff with. It’s actually pretty annoying really. Especially now that I have to brush it again after you’re done molesting it.”

She scoffed and lightly flicked his ear, “Oh sorry, let me fix that for you!” Then she ruffled it even more so it was everywhere. He laughed, turned and grabbed her and flipped her to the ground, “That’s it, you’re getting it now. Kids, I need your help here!” He was holding her down and she was starting to laugh and squirm. “Do you two know Auntie Ems tickle spots?”

“No, Marcus, no!” Emily cried and tried to get free to no avail. Both kids got out from under the tree in seconds and Jamie shouted a jubilant yes and went straight for Emily’s ribs. Joey got in and started to tickle her bare feet. Emily started laughing and screaming all in one bout and began to cry for laughing so hard. The kids had more fun torturing their aunt and soon all of them were rolling on the floor laughing. Emily got a hand free and grabbed Jamie’s foot and started tickling her. Then the kids were pinned getting tickled and were in hysterics as well.

Naomi and her mother peeked around the corner to see what the raucous was. They saw the kids all laughing on the floor and Naomi and Meemaw looked at each other and chuckled themselves. Meemaw said, “Well I guess they’re havin’ a grand time. That Marcus can tickle me any ol’ time!”

“Maw! You are too much… but I hear ya!” And both women laughed at themselves as they went back to the kitchen and bumped into the rest of the family. Steve and gang finally emerged from the apartment and were starving. Naomi reheated their breakfast as the three of them sat in the kitchen nursing their hangovers.

Steve spoke first, “What the hell are those two kids doing? Can they yell any louder?” He was a little foul because his headache was numbing, he knew he and Mark shouldn’t have stayed up so late drinking whisky shooters. Suddenly his mother spoke loud in his ear, “Well young man if you weren’t boozin’ all night it wouldn’t be so loud to ya!”

Meemaw laughed, they loved to torture their children too much. Sally said, “Sis, now that’s mean, let the boy be.” She wasn’t as bad off as the guys were, she did more smoking than drinking so she was more tired than hung-over.

Purposely ignoring her sister, Naomi spoke back to her son, “Oh whatever, don’t you be tryin’ to shush your sister and Marcus when they’re havin’ fun with the kids while you’re feelin’ sorry for your hung-over self. Now eat your breakfast and have some coffee, you have work to do for me today which I’m sure you let slip your memory.” She put the plate in front of him and just placed the entire pot of coffee atop a homemade tile, a smiling sun painted by Steve when he was six years old, on the table for the three of them. He said nothing more, one because he didn’t want her yelling at him again, and two because she was right, he was mad at his sister for making noise and three, he did forget what he had to do today.

The men ate in silence as the three women started to get more stuff done for tomorrow’s big dinner. Naomi put the huge pot of meat sauce on to heat up for dinner that night, Sally nibbled at her plate as she started going through the cupboards for ingredients and the mother of the two rummaged in the fridge to check what wine and beer was there and needed. Just then Joey came running in breathless, “Save me, save me!” He ran behind his Meemaw’s dress as she was standing upright.

Emily and Jamie soon trailed behind him, “Brudder? Oh brudder where are you?” Jamie was calling for him in a mischievous little sing-song voice and Emily was giggling as she followed Jamie into the kitchen. He gave a little squeal when his sister got too close and made a dash for it, Emily tried to grab him but Marcus was there first, “Grab hold little buddy, I got cha’!” Marcus held out his hand and when Joey grabbed it Marcus swung him up and dashed off for the family room.

Jamie went screeching after him and Emily was in pursuit as well. Sally and Mark laughed and Steve mumbled a curse for the noise, “She’s as bad as the little one!”

Sally poked Steve, “Who Emily or Jamie? Maybe you should go back to bed, you were up pretty late man.”

Steve didn’t want to seem like a pansy that couldn’t handle his partying, “I’m fine, just Jamie’s scream was about 1,000 decibels too loud.” He finished his food, dumped the plate into the sink and stomped back to his apartment to shower.

“What did you two do to my son last night for heaven’s sake?” Naomi spun to give her sister the evil eye, she knew how she was.

“Nothing Sis, just drank too late that’s all. He’s a big boy, and don’t worry, he’ll be your slave for the day!” Sally knew how her older sister could be and didn’t want any friction. “I’ll help you also so don’t worry.”

“I’m not worried about gettin’ the cookin’ done, my kitchen is never a problem,” she decided to stop there, it was Christmas Eve and she didn’t want a fuss today.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Meemaw spoke up, “Now girls, shush it. Sally, finish your business, Naomi get me the salt would ya’?”

Both women spoke in unison, “Yes momma.”

Mark snickered and Sally snapped him a look and he went back to his eggs right away, “Great eggs, thanks Naomi.” He got up and put his plate in the dishwasher along with Steve’s.

“Thanks but I didn’t do it, Marcus cooked this mornin’ for us.” She got the salt down for her mother then went back to her cooking in silence.

In the family room Marcus was holding Joey in his arms and when Jamie came in the room she tried to tickle her brother but he raised Joey over his head to get him out of her reach. Well unbeknownst to him Jamie was a smart little girl and she turned on Marcus instead. She started to tickle his ribs and just happened to hit the one and only spot that he had, Emily still had never found it. Well he started to laugh instantly and that only egged her on more. Emily was right behind her and started in on him too.

Joey was squealing above his head and when Marcus started to lower his arms Joey grabbed hold of his head, “Don’t put me down Uncle Marcus, she’ll kill me!”

Jamie looked at George who was in his chair watching a game, “Help us Papa George!”

George jumped up, “Sure thing,” then he grabbed her and started to tickle her.

She yelped, “You’re supposed so help us not them!”

He winked up at Joey, “What? Isn’t it boys against girls?”

“No Papa George it’s not… tickle them, tickle them!”

When Emily turned to help Jamie, Marcus set Joey down and declared, “Now it’s three to two, ha, ha, ha!” Joey screamed as he pounced on Emily’s back.

The tickling melee went on until Emily was too tired and her dad was worn out pretty quickly. Of course Marcus wasn’t tired but pretended to be as well, when he sat on the couch Joey hopped on the spot next to him, Marcus had a new buddy apparently.

As the day went on the children grew more excited for the evening and the adults grew happier and more excited as well. Steve helped his mother throughout the day, as promised, while the other adults chatted and played games with the kids. The spaghetti dinner was fabulous and the little ones inhaled their food because their one present was waiting for them after dessert. To their disappointment though, they still had to wait for the adults to finish their meals as well.

Once the dishes were done everyone gathered in the living room and George dug around and made a grand spectacle out of choosing the right gifts for the over excited children. He gave both of them their presents and they tore into them with a vengeance. Jamie shrieked with delight at the new “Princess Barbie” that she got and handed the box to Emily to free the treasures inside.

Joey was so happy with the remote controlled truck as well, “Thanks Meemaw and Pop-Pop, you’re the greatest!” Steve helped him get the truck out and as soon as he put in the batteries Joey started driving it around the house.

The adults all got their drinks of choice and sat around the lit tree and enjoyed each other’s company. Soon after ten o’clock the children fell asleep by the tree, Jamie still clutching her doll. Steve and Marcus lifted the children up and put them to bed on the pull out couch that Naomi got ready for them. It was noted that Steve instantly picked up Joey who was heavier than the two before Marcus got too close to the sleeping boy. After waiting another hour or so, all of ‘Santa’s presents’ were pulled out and the two little stockings were stuffed with candy and toys; Emily also bought little bits of jewelry for Jamie’s stocking and little cars for Joey’s.

After the gift exchange everyone went to their respective rooms to get some sleep before the kids woke them up at dawn. Soon Emily and Marcus were tucked into their own bed and once snuggled in he asked her, “So how are you related to Jamie and Joey? I got very lost when they called him Papa George.”

Emily rolled over to face him, “Oh yeah, it’s an odd situation. Okay, so Jamie and Joey’s parents are Diane and Joe and they live in Wyoming near Meemaw and Pop-Pop. So my dad met this gal Margie and on the second date had sex, on the third date my dad realized she was a bit coo-coo and broke it off. Then about seven months later he and my mom just started dating and dad got a letter from Margie that she was pregnant with his baby and she was going to keep it. So to tell you how cool my mom is, she told my dad that he could break it off with her to do the right thing and marry Margie. He said no way, she was a nut and that she, my mom, was his soul mate and he wasn’t going to leave her. So Margie and my dad stayed in touch and then Diane grew up knowing her dad via a long distance relationship. I think when Diane was about 19 or 20 her mother died. After that her and my dad got closer and saw each other more. She married Joe, and I think he’s from Wyoming originally, so they moved up there and had Jamie and Joey. They’ve always been so close to their grandpa and they consider my mom their grandmother even though they know about Margie and all. Diane and Joe went to his parents’ house this year but the kids really wanted to come up here and see us instead. Weird family tree huh?”

“Wow, that’s one heck of a story. Your mom is pretty amazing for offering that, and accepting the kids as well. Jamie and Joey are great kids, they are so cute!”

“Yeah, Joey really has taken to you. I was getting a little worried when Jamie was tickling you though, I thought she might notice the hardness of your skin. Oh, and why didn’t I know of your tickle spot?” With that she poked him in between the two ribs and he jumped slightly.

“Alright now, we’re not starting that up again!” He put his arms around her and pulled her closer to him, “Merry Christmas Doll,” and he kissed her. They hadn’t made love since they had been here, he was embarrassed and felt awkward about it but now he felt a little different. Everyone was sound asleep and he wanted Emily very badly. She obviously wanted him as well and they very quietly welcomed Christmas day in each other’s arms.

Christmas was absolutely wonderful for everyone. The kids were up at five in the morning and Meemaw said they could open their stockings while everyone got up and got their coffee, and tea. Marcus called Morty over at Mary’s house and wished him a Merry Christmas along with her family. They chatted for a little bit and he let him know that Emily’s family was wonderful and yes, he was accepted and yes to Morty’s concern that his secret was still being kept. Once the kids got the go ahead they dove into their presents and soon the room was full of wrapping paper and smiles. Emily brought everyone something from England and they all loved their trinkets and unique jewelry. Of course she got some books for her mother from the shop and she loved them. Marcus bought Emily a wonderful necklace and earrings as well as books and some more clothes that she adored. She was at such a loss as to what to get him but with Morty’s help she bought him the complete set of books from Clive Barker. He questioned her about where she got them and he felt better that she used his usual distributor and didn’t go to the competition. To his surprise she also bought him a platinum book marker that was very thin and in the simple shape of an oblong oval about four inches long, it also had an inscription on it, “To Marcus, may your place in life always be kept safe and full of love. I love you, Emily.” He got chocked up but held his composure as he gave her a kiss of thanks. Her mother asked what it said and she did tear up after she read it and handed it back to Marcus.

Also to his surprise, Marcus got gifts from George and Naomi, they got him a lovely sweater and a nice watch. He didn’t want to open them at first, but he also didn’t want to offend them either, he felt overwhelmed with compassion for this family and their kindness and generosity they showed to him.

They ate dinner at three o’clock and all of them were so stuffed and tired by six, even the kids fell asleep on the couches. Emily had one more gift for Marcus though; she got the truck keys from her dad and loaded the bed with blankets and a couple of pillows. Her mom and dad knew what she was up to and kept Marcus busy while Emily was getting everything ready.

Once she was prepared she went into the kitchen and found Marcus with soapy hands helping Sally clean up the last of the dishes. Interrupting their conversation Emily asked, “Hey Hon, can I please see you for a moment?

He turned around, “Sure, let me dry my hands and I’ll be right there.”

She slowly walked to the garage and he followed her, “What’s up babe?”

“Hop in, I have one more present for you,” Emily jumped into the driver’s seat of the truck and Marcus got into the passenger seat.

He looked over to her, “Where are we going?”

“You’ll see, I finally have a surprise for you!”

After driving for about twenty minutes, out into the middle of nowhere it seemed to Marcus, to her she was going to a lookout point that all locals knew about, Emily parked the truck then got out and put the tailgate down. A couple of minutes later she shouted to him, “Come back here.”

Marcus got out and was surprised to see the makeshift bed in the back of the truck, “What are you up to?”

“Just get in and you’ll see in about ten minutes.”

He did and they snuggled up together under the blankets and waited. He finally impatiently asked, “What are we waiting for?”

Looking at her watch, “Okay, now I want you to look over there, up in the sky.” She pointed to the north and they waited. He was trying to have patience but it was hard, then he started to see something in the night. He sat upright, “What is that?”

She pulled him back down, “Just watch, geez patience young grasshopper!”

He laid down and took her back up into his arms, then what he saw next took his breath away and gasped out, “What is that?”

“That my wonderful lover is the Aurora Borealis. Amazing isn’t it? We would come up here all the time to see it, you can see it better at the equinoxes, granted we’re a few days late for the winter one but this is still close enough.”

He was wonderstruck, “I have never seen such an amazing spectacle in all my life.”

When she looked at him his face looked like Joeys this morning, filled with wonder and delight. “Merry Christmas baby.”

He looked over to her, “Thanks, I love this present very much, Merry Christmas,” he kissed her and then looked back up into the sky.

After a few minutes she whispered, “I do have one more little bit of a present here for you. She rolled over to look at him instead of the light show, “Marcus honey.”

He turned to look at her again, “Yes Doll?”

“I want to tell you that I am yours, completely and forever, I guess you can say that I’m your final gift.”

Replying slowly, “Um, yeah… but sorry, I thought you already were mine?” Looking a little confused as to what she was getting at, “What do you mean?”

“Well, I mean that, I want to be with you forever, and ever. When the time comes, either on my death bed when I’m seventy years old, or if I get into a horrid accident… or whenever you feel like it, I want you to guarantee that I will be with you, forever.”

With furrowed brows trying to piece it all together her words finally hit him like a ton of bricks, “Oh… OH!” He furrowed his brow even deeper, then straightened it again as his thoughts raced through his head. “I see. Well, you know how I feel about this, but for you, if that is what you want… then I will give that gift to you. I love you so much and the thought of us being apart kills me. But also the thought of taking your life and taking you away from your family kills me just as much. After a slight pause he continued, “How about we ponder that more when the times comes though. Right now I just want to enjoy you just the way you are.” Not knowing what else to say but knowing that he said enough already, he kissed her and she put her hand behind his head so he didn’t stop kissing her. Once she released him he asked, “How long is the light show?”

“It lasts for several hours, as the time goes the colors change and melt into each other.”

He looked back up to the sky and they watched it for a while longer. Then he rolled over to face her, “I want to end this day the same way we started it.”

So Emily and Marcus made long, slow and passionate love under the red, blue and green shaded night for a long time. It was a wonderful Christmas indeed.

The next morning Marcus heard George’s alarm go off at 3:00 in the morning, hunting time. George didn’t hit he snooze button at all, he sprung up and out of bed right away. Marcus smiled to himself, he knew that the man was looking forward to today; Marcus just hoped that it would be a good one. He waited a few minutes then gently pulled his arm out from under Emily and her cat and got dressed into jeans, a long-john shirt, sweatshirt and topped it off with a flannel sheirt, then grabbed his coat. He had to borrow a good pair of boots but George said that Steve had an extra pair and he would leave them by the bedroom door for him. Marcus opened the door and sure enough, there were the boots, a thick pair of wool socks and a hat had been added as well; Marcus knew the hat and socks were Naomi’s addition to keep him warm. After completing his outfit he went down the stairs and Steve was already in the kitchen fully dressed pouring hot coffee into a thermos. He turned to look at Marcus, “Mornin’. I think we have a smaller one for your tea if you want?” He jerked his elbow towards the large cupboards to his right.

“Oh I’ll be fine, thank you though. So do you guys always get up this early to go hunting?” Marcus sat down at the table and smoothed his hair down with his hand. Trying to act human all the time was getting a little annoying, he didn’t realize how different he really was until this trip. He had to fake a stretch to make it look like he was never awake normally at this hour.

Steve made a slight grunt, “We’re normally up at 2:00, we decided to take it easy on you, and my dad didn’t think you were used to getting up this early.” He put the cap onto the thermos and put the empty pot in the sink for his mother to wash later. “We’ll get somethin’ to eat on the way if you want, I can’t eat this early and dad doesn’t really like to have a full stomach and sit in the woods for several hours, if you know what I mean. So, you want a bow or a gun today?”

“Oh um, well what are we hunting?” Marcus stood up to follow Steve out of the kitchen and into the garage.

Steve was talking as he went through the house, not caring at all to whisper for the kids that were asleep on the couch, “We’re gon’na shoot duck today, and pheasant if we find any. I like to use the bow with birds sometimes, my dad always uses his rifle though. Hope you don’t mind Scruff comin’ along; I noticed he’s not too keen on you yet.” Steve turned and gave Marcus an odd glance as he switched on the light in the garage and maneuvered his way to the back of the large space where the locked gun cabinets were.

“I don’t mind Scruff, but you might want to ask him that though,” Marcus tried to brush it off like he didn’t care, but he was apprehensive about spending the drive in the back seat of the truck right next to the dog however. Then continuing to answer Steve’s question, “But anyway, I like to use a bow with bird hunting as well, I feel like I have more control.”

“Smart man, my dad can’t seem to agree with me on that point. A gun has too much pull and there’ve been too many damn times when I’ve blown the stupid thing apart, Scruff chases nothin’ but feathers.” Once Steve got the cabinet opened Marcus made a low whistle at the arsenal of weapons in there.

One door was completely covered with knives ranging from two inches up to thirteen. The other door was lined with scrapers for skinning, other curved blades, rope, arrows and what looked to be small traps. The left half of the seven foot tall cabinet was reserved for two racks of rifles, all spots full of course. The other half was shelved and there were handguns filling up three of the six shelves. Steve bent down and pulled a couple of bows from the bottom racks that extended the entire three foot width of the cabinet , “Here, see which one feels good for you.” Steve took out one more bow, a Parker Buck-Hunter with a scope, but this one was obviously his and not up for inspection.

Marcus took the two bows and felt the weight of each one. He set down the lighter one and pulled the string of the Crosman Elkhorn Compound bow, it was nice and tight and seemed true, “I think I’ll use this one, thanks.”

Steve looked at the bow then looked at the one he first set down, “Cool, I’m glad to see that you didn’t want to take Em’s bow.” Steve just gave him a smirk and started to load up the arrows and other things they would need into a bag.

Marcus looked a little surprised, “Emily goes hunting with you guys? And she can shoot a bow? Is she any good?” Marcus knew the answer but he wanted to see what Steve would say.

“Good? She can hit you dead square between the eyes from 600 yards away,” the look on his face looked appalled that anyone would doubt his sister’s skill, “She’s been hunting with us since she was about ten or so. I think it’s been about two years since she went last though. She hates the guns, says their too loud and obnoxious, she’s always used a bow. Knows how to shoot too, my dad made sure she could empty a cartridge in her .22 before she left for London. Granted he has no clue that she refused to take it with her and it’s hiding in her room still.” He gave Marcus the “and you better keep your mouth shut” glare and Marcus just nodded his head in acknowledgement.

Covering a little, Marcus proclaimed, “She wouldn’t need it there anyway, we actually live in a very safe and boring province. So she’s been Valedictorian, can shoot a bow, lethally, and is one hell of a pistol when she’s mad; is there anything else I should be forewarned of?” Marcus chuckled to make light of it and to his surprise Steve laughed in response.

“How long have you two been dating?”

Squinting and looking to the sky as if in thought, “About two months I think.” Marcus knew the exact date to the day with the hours but didn’t want to seem fanatical.

“Yeah, right,” Steve stood up after he finished loading the supplies from the cabinet and handed the bows in their cases to Marcus to help load up the truck, “Well Em doesn’t talk about herself at all really, and especially not about her accomplishments. But yeah, don’t piss off an intelligent bi-… um I mean gal, who can use a lethal weapon… usually a good rule of thumb Marcus.” Steve let the tailgate down so they could load it up. Marcus set the bows in the very back on a wool blanket that looked as though it had seen its fair share of hunting and camping trips. Steve tossed in the bag and then loaded up a huge cooler. Marcus looked at it, “What time have you been up since to get all of this ready?”

“My mom packed the cooler last night, she’s always done this stuff before we go, she knows that my dad would just drink beer all day and not eat. The way she shoves food down our gullets I’m surprised we’re not all 500 pounds.” Steve rolled his eyes for emphasis and puffed his cheeks out. “Well I think this is it, my dad will toss in some more stuff that he wants, you can go back inside while I get Scruff’s bag ready.” Steve went over to the dog’s area and took an old worn backpack off of the wall.

Marcus had to laugh, “The dog even has a bag? You guys are serious.”

“Yeah. It’s like having a kid, he needs food, water and a toy or two if he gets bored while we’re waiting for game. He’s a little too spoiled if you ask me.”

Marcus had seen Steve with the dog, he knew that Steve loved that dog like a child and was trying to put off that he was too macho to pamper his pooch too much. Scruff followed Steve around everywhere, and since he wasn’t in the garage Marcus knew that he was still sleeping in Steve’s apartment.

Marcus opened the door to go back into the house, “Well, just let me know if I can help with anything else.”

“We’ll be leaving in about 15 minutes or so,” Steve said over his shoulder as he put some dog biscuits into the sack.

Marcus just went inside and decided to check on Emily. He crept up the stairs so he didn’t wake anyone and slowly opened the door to Emily’s bedroom. She was still sound asleep naturally, Marcus looked at the clock and it was not even four yet. Mitz was curled up into a little ball right where he was laying less than an hour ago, he went over and gave her a scratch, “Sorry I didn’t leave it warm for you little one.” Mitz lifted her head in response to his touch and rubbed her ears into the palm of his hand. He went around to the other side of the bed and pulled the covers up high onto Emily’s shoulders and he gave her a kiss on the head. She mumbled something incoherent and snuggled into the covers further. He just smiled down at her and left the room as quietly as he came.

Marcus found George in the kitchen getting some more snacks together and loading a small cooler full of beer, he turned and looked at Marcus when he entered, “Good morning. Hope you like the canned stuff, we can’t have bottles out there anymore, damn idiots shooting glass all over the damned place. We had to get Scruff twenty stitches in his foot a few years back.” He lifted a beer can for emphasis then shoved it into the cooler full of ice.

“Oh thanks, I’m not much of a drinker though. Steve was finishing up loading the truck, do you need me to do anything else?”

“Sure, take this cooler out there and that’ll do it, we’ll get going then. He shut the lid and left it there for Marcus to pick up and haul away then went into the pantry and started to load up cookies, trail mix, dried fruit and some other stuff for them to munch on. Marcus made a mental note as he lifted the cooler that everything George was loading up was all quiet foods and nothing in noisy wrappers, they really did take their hunting seriously.

Marcus put the cooler in the back of the truck and saw Steve going out the door to his apartment, probably getting the dog. Marcus made sure everything was secure in the bed of the truck and went over to look at the tools hanging on the wall next to him. The tools were all very clean and hanging neatly in rows along the wall. The work bench was spotless like everything else in the house and there were little drawers with labels on them telling the worker were to find screws, wood nails, picture nails, hooks and everything one would need around a house. He knew that Naomi did all of this and her husband and son knew better than to disorganize it.

George walked in through the door interrupting Marcus’ curious inspection and tossed the bag of food into the backseat, “We need to keep this back here or Scruff will sniff it out and eat it before we get there, damned dog.”

Marcus was so relieved to hear that Scruff would be in the bed and not in the backseat next to him. Just then Steve walked in with Scruff in tow. “Load up”, Steve said and the dog hopped right into the back, then Steve hooked a leash to Scruff’s collar. Marcus saw that the three foot long cord was attached to an eye hook secured to the bottom of the bed. Good idea he thought, he hated to see people driving around with their dogs running all over the back of a truck, it looked so unsafe to him.

The three men climbed into the truck and George hit the button to open the large door and they backed on out into the cold morning. The three of them sat in silence for the first twenty minutes of the drive; Marcus didn’t want to initiate the conversation, so he just stayed quiet and looked at the surrounding landscape. Finally George spoke up, “So how different is it here compared to your neck of the woods? Or what is it they say, ‘Across the pond’?”

“Yep, that’s the term for it. Well it is completely different here. For one, we don’t get that much snow, it’s mostly rain. And there isn’t much terrain and water either, we’re not that far from London, so there are just some farms scattered here and there along the way. It is very lovely out here though, and the Aurora is quite a spectacular thing to behold. It would be nice if you could come out to see our neck of the woods.” Marcus regretted saying the last part and he winced to himself.

“Well actually, Naomi and I wanted to talk to you about that,” George looked into the rearview mirror to look at Marcus, “We wanted to surprise Emily for her graduation and come on out there for it. What do you think?”

Marcus was shocked at the question, “Yes of course, that would be great, she would love that surprise. I’ll tell you when the time gets closer and I will make the arrangements for you.”

“Do you have any good looking girls out there?” Steve had a one track mind and it was below the waist.

“Um, yeah. I think your sister might actually have a few friends that you can meet.” Marcus didn’t really know how to address that question and he was relieved when George told his son to have some manners. Marcus let the topic drop and looked back out of the window at the rolling landscape beyond. There was a lot less snow than what he had originally assumed. Emily said that it really only snowed a lot in the mountains, they just happened to get a storm the other day.

George and Steve talked a little about work but it ended as soon as George asked if Steve had finished his last assignment; when Steve said that he got behind and would finish it after the holiday George just shot his son a look and ended the conversation abruptly. Marcus could hear George’s heartbeat quicken and knew that the father was upset about his sons’ lack of work ethic. After several minutes of silence Marcus piped up, “So do you guys hunt often in the area we are going to?

Steve answered, “We’ve been here a few times to hunt bird and what, once dad, for deer?”

“Yep.”

Silence again.

Finally George turned off onto a smaller dirt road and they drove on for another ten minutes or so then he turned again onto a rocky and very bumpy gravel lane. After a few more minutes he turned into an outcropping then parked the truck. Scruff started to bark and Steve hopped out, “Alright, Scruff, hold your horses!”

Marcus and George got out and started to unload their gear. Steve threw a few sticks for Scruff to preoccupy him then turned and helped unload the cooler.

“We’ll set up our camp over here, then hike out a bit and scout.” George grabbed his cooler of beer and found a nice, small clearing about 20 yards from the truck. He set his cooler down and stretched his back. Steve and Marcus each had both hands full of bags and weapons and set them down in the clearing. Steve went back for the last of their things and Marcus took in a breath of air, “Smells so clean out here.”

George grunted, “Lots of smog out there huh? Nothin’ like the good ol’ outdoors here, just lots of air and space up here.”

Marcus just nodded his head in agreement and kept taking in the surroundings with all of his senses. He smelled the trees, bushes, birds, something fowl nearby and a few other scents he couldn’t place quite yet, they must have been too far away still. He heard all of the birds singing, a squirrel rooting around nearby, the wind as well as Scruff sniffing in the bushes. Marcus also felt relief that they didn’t drive into any sunshine, it was still nice and cloudy here. Asking Steve, “So, do you get much sun here this time of the year?”

Steve walked up with the last of the gear, “Not too much these days. Are you a sun guy or happy that it’s like London now?” Steve looked over to Marcus and gave him a good long look. He was still leery about the man, even though he seemed nice enough, but there was still something that kept him on guard.

Marcus had to keep on his toes, so he just shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t know, I guess it would be nice to see the sun, but I’m so used to it so it really doesn’t matter one way or the other.”

“Well I sure as hell would love to see the sun a little more, I still can’t get used to the lack of it here,” Steve picked up the stick that Scruff had dropped at his feet and chucked it pretty far.

George went over to the duffel bag and started to get out his rifle and ammo, “Alright now boys, let’s get our stuff together, it ain’t gettin’ warmer out here, sun or no sun,” he was digging around in the bag for his tools of hunting gear and filled his belt and hunting jacket.

Steve put the bag of arrows and gear between him and Marcus and he started to get his bow ready. Steve didn’t give Marcus any direction, he wanted to see if the man knew what he was really talking about when it came to hunting. He made it look as though he was busy with his own gear, but he kept looking over to see what Marcus was doing. He was surprised to see that the guy Emily brought home did actually know a thing or two. The tall foreigner was adjusting the grips to fit his hands, and he even knew how to tighten the string, that bow hadn’t been used in quite a long time, it needed some adjusting. Steve was still casually watching Marcus as he went through the bag to look at the arrows, and sure enough, he picked the right ones for that bow. Steve’s bow took a different arrow and he just tossed all of them in the bag on purpose to test the man. Steve then grunted to himself as he turned away from his inspection and looked for Scruff.

The dog was scrounging around a bush still so Steve walked over to see what had his attention. When he got close enough he said in a deep but quiet voice, “Scruff, leave it.” The dog backed out of the bush then made a whimper as he looked up at his master. The dog turned back into the bush to continue his groping around. Steve took another step forward and pushed the dog out of the way, “I said leave it, now get!”

After the dog retreated Steve bent down to see what the distraction was, they needed Scruff when they hunted bird and he didn’t want the dog coming back here all the time and not keeping up with them. Steve laid his bow on the ground and got down on one knee and pushed the bushes back to take a look. When he saw a bloodied muzzle he gasped and shifted backwards, “Oh god that stinks!” He took a thick stick and pushed the severed head a bit, “Damn it, we might not get much hunting in today guys,” he said over his shoulder.

“What is it son, what the hell did that dog find now?” George shouldered his rifle and walked over to where his son was crouched down, “Man that does stink.”

Marcus knew they found whatever it was that he smelled earlier and walked over to the other two men and dog. As he got closer the stench was too much for his nose to bear, he only plugged it when he got right up to them, “That is horrid, what’s under there?”

“It looks like something ate a coyote and left part of the head here. Whatever it is, it’s big.” Steve stood back up and let the branches fall back into place, “Now Scruff leave it,” he took the dogs face into his hands to see if he had eaten anything and was very relieved to see no blood on the dogs muzzle, “You’ll get more damned diseases from that thing, let’s go.” He pushed the dogs head away and headed out towards the north were they were going to start hiking. Scruff looked back at the bush, made a snorting noise but obediently followed his master in the opposite direction.

George put the last of their stuff in a pile and covered it with a tarp and Marcus helped him secure it with rocks, “Will it be safe here?”

“Oh yeah, we’ve been here before, plus our name’s all over everything, no one would dare to steal from us, especially out here, the hunters here are pretty courteous to each other.” George put a small pack onto his back and put the rifle back onto his shoulder and started to follow his son into the trees.

Marcus fell into step next to Emily’s father, “Thanks for inviting me out.”

George looked over at the young man, “No problem. Are all the guys your age over there like this?”

Marcus had to keep the look of apprehension off of his face, “What do you mean sir?”

That’s what I mean. You’re polite, you’re educated, you speak well; it’s like you’re from a different time or something.” He raised a hand, “Now don’t get me wrong, it’s okay, it’s just, well, different from what’s come to be typical these days, that’s all. I’m glad that Emily could find a man that will treat her like a lady… and one that can keep up with her.”

“Oh, well thanks. I don’t think there are many like me I suppose, guess I’m one of a kind then huh?” Marcus shrugged his shoulders and kept looking forward but did notice George look over at him again then he resumed his pace looking forward in silence.

Steve stopped when he got near the tree line to let the other two catch up. When he turned around to look at them he noticed that Marcus was a few inches taller than his dad and walked straight as an arrow. There was still something different about him that made him uneasy. It wasn’t that the man was sneaky or dishonest, and his sister looked at him with googly eyes all the time, but there was something that he couldn’t put his finger on still. He couldn’t ask his mother, she adored the Londoner and would just tell him to stop being the over reactive brother. Feeling better he knew that he would get a good perspective from his dad after today. Steve looked down at the dog by his side and scratched the top of his head, “You sure are apprehensive of him huh fellow?” Scruff just made a little huff of breath and thumped his tail at his master’s touch.

The other men caught up and George stopped to take a breath, Marcus took in some deep breaths of fresh air through his mouth, it was so clean here. As the three of them stood in silence for a few seconds Marcus casually sniffed the air. He could still smell the dead animal head, now that he knew what the smell was; but there was another smell in the distance that he still couldn’t figure out. It seemed he knew it, but he couldn’t place it yet.

“Come on dad, let’s get going,” Steve started the hike again into the woods. It was darker here and the fog seemed to linger more as they got into the trees, thus creating the atmosphere of eeriness and mystery to him. Scruff was alert and sniffing the ground as well as the air, the dog sensed something too. Instinctively Steve turned around to look at Marcus, catching the man unawares and spied him sniffing the air; he had a furrowed brow and a slight scowl on his face. As soon as Marcus noticed the eyes on him after a millisecond, he turned to look dead at Steve. Steve turned around quickly and avoided a longer gaze into the pale blue eyes. He shook it off as Scruff scampered ahead of him chasing a butterfly; he realized he was just being paranoid.

They got into the clearing where a small brook intersected the sparse but tall grass from northwest to southeast. There were always duck and dark geese there this time of year when the sun came into here. Steve went over to his and his dad’s spot, which was declared the last time they were here, and knelt down. He made a slight clicking noise and Scruff instantly went to his side and lay down.

George went to the other side of the silent dog and took off his backpack, “Huff, some days that hike is a long one.” He took apart his sack and produced three small fold-up chairs. As he unfolded them his wife’s wonderful face popped into his mind as he remembered the day she gave these to him. She was so excited that she got four of the “cute little things” at a garage sale for $20 and brand new still. George recalled how he was so skeptical if they were even comfortable. The foldable steel and material contraptions stood only ten inches off the ground and the dark green canvas fabric was only 14 inches by 8 inches. The so called back was only three inches in height. But then she told him to sit “Indian style” on the ground and put the chair under his butt; he sat back down and was pleasantly surprised. It supported his butt enough and took the pressure off of his knees and lower back. After he took a couple with him his first trip after that, he and Steve would never go without them again. George looked up at Marcus’ face and laughed when the long legged beanpole looked stupefied that they were to sit on these things. “Yep, they’re chairs, watch.” George sat and got comfortable then took out the thermos of coffee and poured three cups. Steve sat down, and slowly Marcus sat as well.

“Well, I’ll be. These are an ingenious idea, quiet clever. And they are more comfortable than squatting or sitting on the dirt,” Marcus moved his long legs out and in into several positions. Not that he felt discomfort anymore like the two others did, but he remembered what it was like to be human and to be uncomfortable, especially when he went hunting with Alex and his father.

“Momma finds the damndest things in her shopping escapades,” Steve dug into his pocket and took out a bite size piece of red licorice and popped it into his mouth. Scruff looked up and licked his lips and kept his stare on his papa’s pocket and lips, alternating from one to the other every few seconds. Steve just silently shook his head and looked into the brush fifty yards out with small binoculars. “I think there’s a few birds over there already, a bunch more will be here in about thirty minutes when the sun comes out.”

Father and son talked about their hunting strategy in quiet whispers so they didn’t alert the birds that were already splashing in the stream several yards away. After they came to their final line of attack Steve leaned over to his right and told Marcus what they were going to do. Marcus listened as if he had no idea, because naturally no mortal man would know, as Steve told him that they were going to sit here for about fifteen minutes then were going to move into position over there by another large gathering of tall grass and brush, then when the rest of the flock comes in they’ll take shot. Marcus nodded in agreement and said that was a good plan.

The three sat in silence, drank their coffee, after George poured Marcus’ cup back into the thermos, completely forgetting that he drank tea, and they enjoyed the quiet serenity around them. George loved coming hunting mainly for this reason. No noise that was obtrusive and loud to him, just the wind, birds and trees rustling. He realized on these outings that he was constantly bombarded with noise; between the machinery at work, guys yelling to be heard over it, then at home he has his wife, her friends, the bar, something. Always something. Like in every hunting trip he vows to turn the TV off more and sit and read in silence like his wife does. Maybe that’s why she does it, for the quietness. George then looked over to his son and watched him for a moment. He couldn’t believe this man was his son. It seemed just like yesterday they went hunting for the first time and his little Stevie had a plastic bow and arrow.

Then they had Thor, his German Sheppard at the time, and the three of them would play more than hunt. But when Stevie tried to shoot at something, Thor would always run over in the direction of the arrow and Stevie would jump for joy thinking that he killed something. That confident overzealous boy is now Assistant Manager of Production at the plant and surely hits and kills everything he shoots towards now. He was proud of his son but in the same respect sad. Sad that he still depended on he and Naomi so much. The father looked away to the distance and thought that it was all his fault; he coddled the boy too much when he was younger. Then when they moved up here to Alaska years ago they only had each other since Naomi and Emily were inseparable; and as much as he hated to admit it, he didn’t want his son any further away. In the corner of his eye, George noticed Steve look at his watch then look into the sky to the north.

“The sun should be hitting the tree tops in a sec,” Steve quietly picked up his bow and started to tinker with it. It was pretty much ready to go, he just hated this part of hunting; the waiting. The kill of course was the best part, and the hiking was invigorating as well, but this waiting crap was boring as hell he thought. With his left boot heel he started to dig into the dirt, he was getting impatient. Just then Scruff lifted his head and sniffed, Steve moved only his eyes and looked over to Marcus; he hadn’t moved a muscle. He moved his eyes back to his dog and Scruff was starting to get up and stand with his nose extended into the air.

Knowing the signs he whispered, “Let’s get into position,” Steve stood and started to move in a low crouch to their new spot.

George lifted his hand up to motion Marcus to go in front of him and he did, also in the low crouch posture. The older man followed in the same manner and took his place in the smaller brush on the ground next to his son, “The sun’s a comin’.”

“Yep. The birds should be here in a few.” Steve positioned his arms under his torso so he could lay on them comfortably yet still be able to get up quickly.

Marcus was laying in the exact fashion as the men but his nose smelled the same strange scent as the dog at their feet, and his senses were tingling like a live wire. He sat still and closed his eyes for a moment and listened for the birds they were waiting for; he could hear them, they could be another three or four minutes away still. The smell, how far away is that now? Marcus thought to himself. He focused his attention to the scent that bothered his nose, it was musty and earthy, yet there was something else… it was another human and dog… Marcus snapped open his eyes and looked up instinctively. He had to stop himself from standing upright because he knew that would alert an unexplainable realization to his company. He casually looked back to the black retriever six feet behind them standing fully erect with his nose to the sky and ears perked forward. He noticed Steve looking from him to the dog then back, so Marcus looked into the young man’s eyes, “You smell that by chance?” Marcus didn’t know why that was the first thing he thought of to say, so he quickly got back into his original position on the ground and looked up to the sky hoping the birds would come and change the attention from him.

Steve looked at Marcus and flared his nostrils and spoke dead seriously, never shifting his gaze form Marcus, “Nope, nothing in particular. Dad, did you fart?”

Marcus had to laugh out loud at that and put his head into his elbow. George also chuckled, “Nope, sure didn’t, maybe Scruff.”

“What was it that you smell there Marcus?” Steve looked a little harder and kept the serious note.

Marcus looked over, and up, to Steve who was slightly higher than him in his laying position, “Well it just smelled musky, what other animals are in these parts?”

Steve just made a grunting noise, “Well deer, elk, and bear, some cat, maybe not this time of year though.” He glared at Marcus, not knowing what to make of the situation.

“Well then, I guess it could be anything. And knowing what was hiding in the bushes earlier, who knows what can be around here as well.” Marcus shrugged a shoulder and looked up to the sky, the birds should be in site any moment now.

Sure enough a few breaths later there was a distinguishable quacking in the sky. George looked up and got into position, “Here we go boys.”

Steve and Marcus also got into low crouches and got their bows ready. They all looked to the north and waited for the V formation of birds to get closer and into a landing position. Scruff was now pacing back and forth next to the men and Steve quietly told him to lie down. The dog obeyed instantly and lie at his masters’ knee but still kept his ears perked up.

Marcus was also tense and thought it was just because he hadn’t been hunting like this in a very long time. And he was also aware of the fact of having to smell the scent of the blood of their kills. He was sure that he could restrain himself from looking like a freak, and he was now more grateful to Emily for making him feed right before they got onto the plane. But there was still this underlying edge to everything. He shook his head to refocus himself, and his eyes, back to the hunt and looked to the sky for the now low flying dark geese coming in to join the other birds now milling about in the water and grass to the south east of where they crouched.

Steve and George both took their aim, so Marcus did the same. The wind was blowing from the west, which was to their left, so he couldn’t smell the musky scent at the moment. He focused on the birds that were closing in, he pulled back and right before he let the arrow fly he heard a loud crack, a gunshot went off to the east and then there was a man’s shout. Steve let his arrow fly on accident, he obviously was about to let the arrow fly at the same time as Marcus, but didn’t stop as Marcus did. He started to curse as his arrow went wild and missed the geese that were now scattering about in the air.

“Damn it, who the hell is out here?” Steve shouted. Then there was something coming up to them from the right. Scruff barked and dashed out into the tall grass after it. “Scruff, stop, come!” He shouted after the retriever.

Marcus knew that he had to act fast. Taking up his bow he went around to the southeast, there were some taller bushes that he could take cover under. He dashed off when he was safe from the eyes around him and took off at his vampire speed towards the dog that was in grave danger.

Running quickly, Marcus was able to catch up to Scruff just as he was about to come upon the bear, and vice versa. Marcus heard a man’s shout in the distance trying to warn of a loose bear. Yeah, no shit, he thought to himself. Just as Scruff saw Marcus and stopped, his hackles raised; the bear came out of the trees at a full run on all fours. It was a huge black bear, a female on a full sprint to get away from the hunter behind her. She saw the dog in her path and let loose a growl that shook the ground under Marcus’ feet. Right as the bear came towards the dog at a rush Marcus scooped the quivering dog up and ran to the north. After he was about 50 yards away he dropped the black, shivering pooch in his arms onto the ground and turned around with his bow in hand. The bear slowed and looked at the human and skittered to a stop. She cut the silence with another growl, but this one was more piercing with her anger. Marcus took her up into his sights and let the arrow fly, right into her chest then instantly put another one into the side of her neck as she spun from the first sting. The second arrow dropped her down; Marcus heard her heart beat slow and then stop within a few seconds. When he turned back to the dog Marcus found him curled up right where he left him a few seconds prior. Going over and gently picking up the scared animal Marcus walked over to the bear. As he got closer and closer the scent of the blood smelled so good, the taste of bear was an acquired taste, and he surely had it. The chances of him getting caught even taking a finger swipe from the bear were too great, so he didn’t yield to his temptation. When he was within five feet of the dead and bleeding massive beast the dog whimpered so Marcus turned and went back to Steve and George.

He found his companions along with another man, the one responsible for the first gunshot, talking in raised voices, at the moment it was the rancid hunter, “Well it was an accident man; do ya think I would shoot at a bear this time of the year?”

The hunter, whom George later found out was Dave, a known poacher in the area, was dirty and ragged looking. The camouflage pants that hung below his gut were patched up in several spots but the dirt kept it all together with its crustiness. The matching shirt and jacket were just as disgusting, but what was even more interesting is that his face matched the ensemble. As Dave grew older the wrinkles seemed to have swallowed the edges of his eyes and the space between his eyebrows. The beady blue eyes that poked out of the flesh looked at all of the men; he looked over to George, who had shouldered his rifle with the safety on, then over to Steve, whom was perceived as young and a tough kid who was poised in front of him.

Dave saw another man off to his left suddenly and stopped his next thought to look over at a tall, thin guy put a dog down on the ground. He knew his dog was close by, but the mutt ran away when they saw the bear come out of the brush. “So, well, um,” he looked from the creepy looking one to the kid again, “Anyway, I’m sorry that I ruined your shots, that bear ruined mine, I was um, I was shooting some bird over there.” He poked a black, grimy fat finger towards where Marcus was coming from.

Steve looked at the scummy man then over to Marcus. He furrowed his brow when he saw him carrying Scruff, as soon as Scruff was on the ground he came scurrying over to his feet with his tail under his legs. “Hey boy,” Steve said in a low voice, then looked back up, “Listen I don’t care what you say you were doin’, there was a fuckin’ bear running towards my pop and I, besides the fact that you scarred off our fuckin’ birds! Now find your scrappy ass mutt and the get the hell out of here!” His anger was boiling up and was about to spill over, he even half prayed the asshole would start something just so he could punch something.

“Fuck you man, who the hell do you think you are tellin’ me where I can or can’t hunt?” The crusty old man put his hands on his hips and faced Steve fully in defense.

Marcus picked up his pace and was a few feet off to the right and back of Steve. George looked at him then to his son, “Look now fella we don’t want no trouble here today. I just want to enjoy the mornin’ and not get shot,” he looked at the greasy guy with a sideways glace; then looked at Steve, “Nor do we want to get eaten by a bear or waste our time with having to go to the store for dinner instead of carrying it in. Now if you please…” George stopped short and looked over at the big brown mutt of a dog that was growling and coming towards Scruff at full speed, “Oh shit!” he shouted.

Steve looked down and right before this rabid mutt put his teeth into Scruff he picked up his dog and raised him above his head, “What the hell man, get your damned dog!” Steve was about to kick the dog but his footing wasn’t secure yet and he didn’t want to risk a fall.

“Bear, come, leave that dog alone!” Taking the dog by its rope of a collar he yanked it backwards towards him.

Steve tossed Scruff into his dad’s hands and went after the dirty face that started to laugh in front of him, “You bastard!” Steve took a swing at the fat face but the guy saw it coming and ducked. Steve was fast on his feet and pulled his arm back and took another swing that landed on the guys jaw.

“You little fuckin’ punk,” the man got his footing and let go of the rope that held Bear to take a shot back and teach the boy a lesson. He heard the old guy yell something then he cocked his right arm back and went for the little head that was an inch taller than his.

Steve ducked and landed two quick punches into the guts behind the nasty, smelly shirt in front of him. “Hell man, you need to bathe!” He felt a fist come down onto his back and he stumbled forward a step but regained his balance. Steve came up under the man that was trying to retreat backwards but caught him and shouldered him in the chest and sent the man flying backwards.

Marcus was about to help Steve but then saw Bear going after Scruff in George’s arms. The dog was about to bite the human holding his prey. Marcus dashed to help and picked up the brown and dirty beast and threw him a few yards away. The dog yelped as he hit a small tree and slunk off into a bush.

Dave stopped in his tracks as he saw his dog flying through the air and hit the tree, “What the hell did you do to my dog you skinny freak?” The fat man started to move towards Marcus in a rage now.

Marcus raised his hands up, “Hey look man, he was going to bite him and who knows what to our dog, I just tossed him, he can’t be hurt!” He tried to look passive to the man, but then gave Steve a sideward’s glance. Steve caught it then took the older guy out.

Steve gave out a short but menacing shout and tackled the guy to the ground. The big shoulder hit the ground with a crack and the man shouted out in pain, “Ahhh, you broke my arm!”

Steve jumped up and kicked him in the back, “You’re lucky if that’s all that happens you piece of shit!”

He started to take a third kick but Marcus picked him up and moved him, “Enough.”

“Let me go asshole!” Steve tried to get out of the surprisingly strong arms around his arms and chest.

“That’s enough, all of you!” George let go of Scruff and went over to the whimpering man on the ground, “Get up, your arm ain’t broken. Marcus set that boy down, and Steve relax!” He took a deep breath as everyone did as they were told. He took a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it, “Since the friggin’ birds are gone now,” the lighter clicked and George inhaled. As he was putting the lighter away he looked at the trio in front of him, “Now. I don’t give a shit what the hell you were shootin’ at, even though I can take a good guess that it wasn’t no birds, an’ I reckon that you scared the hell out of the bear in your sights.”

Starting to open his mouth to protest but after flashing the six rotten teeth in there Dave shut it up again, he didn’t want to get himself into a bigger mess so he let the other hunter continue.

“From what I saw, our dog here went after something, an’ the damned bear was coming straight in our direction.” George turned to Marcus, “Where the hell did you run off to, how the hell did you get Scruff, and what the hell happened to the bear?”

Marcus took a deep breath; he had been running this answer over in his mind for the last few minutes. “Well when Scruff ran off I just had a weird feeling I guess. I ran after him and when I was trying to get him to come to me the bear saw us. She turned in our direction, then I shot two arrows into her and dropped her before Scruff and I were lunch. I guess Scruff won’t be so distant to me now, he jumped into my arms when I went back to him. What did you guys see?” Marcus tried to ask this question without sounding like he was trying to hide something.

George exhaled the smoke, “Well I saw that damned dog take off, then I looked up further into the distance and soon enough here comes a frickin’ bear. I saw her turn direction, then she disappeared behind that large brush. Then here you,” George looked at and pointed towards the malodorous trailer trash, “come barrelin’ out from that direction with your vicious mutt snappin’ in tow! That’s what I saw.” George turned to Marcus at the last part of his answer and what he saw now was not some kid that his daughter brought home, he saw a man, ready to fight for his family, and apparently shoot a bear for his dog. Marcus stood there, back straight as always, but he had this look in his eye, a look like Steve had, one of killing.

Steve took a step towards his father but spoke to the prick, “Look, this is bull shit man, you need to take your mutt before you can’t walk, out of here. Better make sure you don’t ever run into me either.” Steve squared off his shoulders and looked straight at the scruffy hunter. Marcus went and stood behind Steve and next to George, Scruff kept himself attached to Steve’s right calf.

Dave spit on the ground, “Yeah, I’ll git goin’. But you better not have hurt my dog,” He stuck a finger towards Marcus, gave an eye to Steve and George, then slowly backed up. He walked backwards until his heel got stuck on a piece of wood and he almost fell. Amazingly he kept his dirty and bulky frame from toppling over then turned around and walked to where he thought he saw Bear scamper off. Once he gathered up his dog, which was fine, he just had a little limp, they went back into the trees to the southeast from where they came from.

Steve bent down and patted Scruff, “Damn boy, you’ve had one hell’uva day huh?” Steve lovingly gave his dog attention then looked up at Marcus, “Hey man, thanks for saving him, guess I owe you one.” He then looked down at Scruff but continued, “And I’m sorry for callin’ you an asshole, I was just caught up in the moment you know. “ Apologies were not a common thing for Steve so he didn’t look at Marcus until he was done.

“Not at all, I’m just glad that I got there in time,” Marcus tried to play it off like it was nothing.

George spoke up and interrupted them, “Let’s go see that damned bear you took out, good job by the way, sadly we have to report it and can’t keep the meat, they’re good eatin’.”

Steve got up and started off in that direction, “Yeah, let’s take a look.” He looked over at Marcus then turned and followed his dad. He missed the look that crossed Marcus’ face, one of dread.

The three men and cowering dog came upon the dead animal sooner than Marcus’ fears, but it was still too long for his comfort level, he was afraid the other men might start thinking about the distance and time frame of the situation. Marcus had to get it together, he was just being paranoid he thought.

George bent down and took a look at the wounds, “Damn, you must ’a been pretty close, these are in there deep.” He flicked the tip of the arrow that was sticking out of the bear’s neck. I better call Thelma, we don’t want to get into trouble for this one.”

“Dad! It’s that jackass’ fault; tell her that this is all of his slip up. I don’t want to get messed up in this shit,” Steve kicked a rock at his toe and it went skittering pretty far.

“Relax boy. We did nothing wrong, and I’ve known Thelma for years, it’ll take two seconds to place the call. I’ll just tell her where to find it, you won’t have to talk to anyone.” George looked over to Marcus then back to his son quickly as he took his phone out of his pocket. He raised the phone in the air, then walked around in a circle, then a bigger circle, “Damn phone. Can’t get a signal.” He put the phone back into his pocket, “Marcus, you can pull those out of the bear and clean them off. Steve, let’s get our stuff and pack up.”

“Pack up? Seriously?” Steve was about to protest more but his dad turned around and gave him a nasty look and the boy knew to shut his mouth.

“We’re not goin’ home for Pete’s sake! I just want to move to another spot now that there’s a dead bear here. No darn bird will come here and who knows what else will come round looking for easy food. Guess we know what ate that coyote now huh guys?” George’s mood wasn’t darkened at all, he rolled with the flow pretty well and lead the way back to where their little chairs and packs were sitting. The three of them quietly got their things and went back to the truck. George tried his phone again and got a better signal once they were out of the trees.

Once around at the back of the truck, George told Thelma at the Ranger Station exactly what happened and Marcus and Steve got into the truck to wait. Steve turned on the heat and popped open a beer. His mood was very blackened and he was hoping the beer might chill him out a bit. After the first swig he looked at the clock and winced after he saw that it wasn’t even 9:00 yet; his maw would freak out if she knew he was drinking this early. He downed the next few gulps pretty quickly in the hopes to have it finished before his dad got back into the truck. After a few more swigs he looked into the back seat to see Scruff curled up into a ball next to Marcus. After a second he looked up from his dog to Marcus, “Humph, guess you’re not so bad now huh?”

Marcus stroked the dogs head while he watched the dog sleep, “Guess not. I think he figured out that bears bite and I don’t. He’s a great dog, very obedient to you and a great hunting dog too. My dad would have loved a dog like this when we went out.” Marcus said no more as he thought about his father and the last time they went hunting, Alex went as well and the three of them went out into the forest one weekend when his mother was visiting her family. He must have been about fifteen or so and they were hunting for elk that time.

The driver door opened and startled Marcus out of his daydream and he looked up to notice that Steve had been looking at him the entire time. He suddenly felt embarrassed and turned to look at the back of George’s head.

“Well no worries kids, Thelma will come on down and take care of the bear and will look out for Mr. Stinky Ass. She said that if it’s the same guy that she thinks it is, then he’s a bear hunter, the bastard probably missed shooting the damned thing. So anyway, I think we’ll head over to the Forks, sound okay Steve?” George looked over for the first time at his son since he hopped into the warm cab, “That shook you up so bad you needed a drink? Damn boy… oh never mind it…” He put the truck into reverse and headed back towards the main road.

They drove on in blissful silence to the next spot that was only about fifteen minutes away to the north. They pulled into the dirt clearing to find three other trucks already there. Steve mumbled something about a crappy hunting trip and too many people as he got out of the truck and started to get their things again.

As George and Marcus got out, with Scruff very close behind, George took Marcus’ arm, “Hey, sorry about the drama this morning, and about Steve. I don’t know what’s gotten into him, he’s usually not violent like that, or drunk by ten.”

Patting his arm to comfort him, “Oh no problem George, it has been a bit of an exciting morning so far I must say. Let’s just hope it’s quiet from this point on.” Marcus just shrugged his shoulders to look like he didn’t care. He didn’t much, but he sure learned a lot about Emily’s father and brother on this trip. Emily is just like her dad, always calm, cool and collected. Steve obviously got his mother’s spark.

As the men were carrying their bags and weapons to find a spot to squat down George heard his name being called. He looked over to his left and saw a huge man waiving an arm to him. He squinted a little and looked over his sunglasses, “Oh, it’s Hank, cool.” George raised his cooler-filled hand and waived in response to Hank’s shout. Both men moved towards each other and Marcus followed behind. He turned his head to look at Steve who made a slight grunting noise that his father wouldn’t hear.

Marcus slowed his pace to let Steve catch up with him, “One of your dad’s buddies I take it?”

“Sure, you can say that. I think he’s a bit of a schmuck, but whatever,” he took a gulp of beer that was now hidden in his travel coffee mug. “He’s worked with my dad for about ten years or so, he’s an alcoholic and fell asleep on the job not too long ago.” Steve’s eyes squinted in scorn as he remembered the fiasco that was the result of the drunken fool’s carelessness.

Marcus had to bite his tongue to hold back his alcoholic comment, he wondered if Hank was sipping something else besides coffee in his mug this morning. “So your dad likes him though, is he a good hunter?” If he could take the mood back to hunting then maybe the kid could keep his mind on one damn thing, it annoyed Marcus how Steve bounced around all the time, in his conversations as well as his apparent lifestyle choices.

Steve looked over, he noticed that Marcus wasn’t standing as tall as he was before, he hunched his shoulders down when they were around more people. He blinked as he looked into the freaky dog eyes, “Um, yeah I guess so. He’s lived here his whole life so he knows the patterns of the birds. His dog’s a champion too, but Hank’s too much of a… well… he’s not all that together to really go to that level with the dog, but anyway, Zeus is the king of these parts. Scruff even rolls over to the fuckin’ dog… humph!” Steve looked up ahead at his dad setting his stuff next to Hank’s dirty chair and muddy cooler. Scruff was running circles around Zeus as he trotted over to George with a stick in his mouth.

“Damn, that’s a huge black lab,” Marcus had to keep his mouth from hanging open as he saw the hundred plus pound canine run with a huge piece of a tree limb in his mouth. He stopped short in his tracks, shit, he though, how will this dog take to me? He didn’t know what to do, he had to move forward but something in him stopped, he knew that the dog would sense his apprehensiveness and he needed to get himself into check, real fast. Marcus took a deep breath, closed his eyes, focused on the bird song, the conversation of the two men, the heart beat of Steve, Scruff’s yipping. He opened his eyes and found Steve looking at him.

“What’s up man, why’d ya stop?” Steve raised his hands up, “I wan’na put this stuff down now.” He turned around and started walking again.

Marcus put one foot in front of the other and reminded himself to keep breathing. Then the inevitable happened, Zeus stopped staring at George, willing him to throw his stick, and sniffed the air. The nose caught something different in the air and the sharp canine eyes looked straight at the tall creature coming towards them. Marcus didn’t slow his pace, he watched the dog sniff, then stand, and now advance in his direction. Not a sound came from the animals throat but Scruff knew immediately that something was not right with the other dog.

Scruff circled around Zeus and released a deeper bark instead of the playful yip from moments ago. Zeus looked over at the other dog and raised one side of his upper lip and let a low and quiet growl out. He never slowed the four paws, he kept his pace and his glare right into Marcus’ eyes. Then what Marcus’ eyes beheld next took his breath away; Scruff ran ahead of the alpha male, about six feet from where he was now, and about three feet ahead of Marcus; he then turned and stood his ground. Scruff had his back lowered, his tail went down and his ears looked as though they were pushing the rest of his head towards the dead grass. His growl was so low and menacing that the larger dog stopped and reverted his gaze from Marcus to the smaller dog. Both dogs got into a stand-off.

Both dogs were just inches from each other, Marcus was standing right behind Scruff and he started his own low growl, only one that the dogs could hear, not the human ears that were now only feet from him. Zeus looked up from Scruff to Marcus, then back down to Scruff. The smaller dog got his stance a little lower into an attack position and started his own chesty moan in sync with the tall creature behind him. Zeus took a step backwards, then his tail went down a little lower between his back legs. He attempted his own growl in retort but it didn’t come out like a great massive alpha snarl, it was more of a meek attempt at one. Marcus gave another low grumble and the large lab finally gave in and turned around to go back to his master. Once Scruff was sure that he was the alpha, in this situation at least, he straightened back up and turned to Marcus. The dog went and put his head under Marcus’ hand then paced over to Steve and leaned against his knees. Steve looked down at his dog, up at Marcus, over to Zeus now lying at Hank’s feet, back to Marcus and finally to Scruff again. He pet the dog’s head and said meagerly and just for the sake of feeling like he had to say something, “Good boy.” The glare he shot Marcs was one of confusion and contemplation, he kept his silence though and joined his father at the small site where he was squatting.

Because he felt there was nothing to say or do, Marcus just followed Steve and Scruff. Once they got closer he now paid attention to the older men’s conversation. George was laughing how Scruff finally stood up to old Zeus but Hank was saying that his dog was just tired and wanted to save his energy for more birds. The men were laughing when Steve sat into his low chair then George turned to a still standing Marcus, “Hank, this is Emily’s beau from London, Marcus, meet Hank.”

Hank didn’t get up nor put his hand out so Marcus didn’t either, “Nice to meet you sir.”

In more of a grunt than a greeting, “Hey’a,” the large man grumbled out. He didn’t care much for people that Zeus didn’t take to. But he knew George’s family, and they were good people so he just had to tolerate this kid for a few hours. “Sorry ‘bout Zeus, guess you two can just steer clear of each other huh?” It was more of a statement than a question, then he turned his attention back to George, “So there are some ducks comin’ soon, we should head on out to the pond now.” Hank placed his fat hands on the arms of the rickety chair and heaved himself out of it, then bent over and picked up his gun that fell to the ground and grabbed a nasty backpack that was next to his chair. Marcus was still standing with his bow in hand, he never even set anything down, and Steve and George gathered up their gear and all four hunters headed out to the west to the pond where their prey lay.

When it was midday all of the gear was piled into the two trucks, along with the five duck that Hank shot got tossed into his pick-up, and the three ducks and four quail that were shot between the three in their party, were stowed in a cooler in George’s truck bed. Both older men made their farewells until Monday morning then headed into opposite directions to their homes. Steve was reclined a bit in the front seat and Scruff, who had his head on Marcus’ lap with his legs stretched out straight in the back of the cab, were sound asleep for the entire drive back to the Cook residence. Marcus thanked George again for inviting him and George made the comment that it was nice to have someone new to talk to. To Marcus’ surprise George complimented him on his shooting and hunting knowledge. Marcus turned the compliment over to his own father and told George about how he and his brother learned so much in their youth from their papa. Once the conversation ended another one was not brought up, both men respected Steve’s slumber, and both really didn’t know what else to talk about. The silence was comfortable, but the house could have gotten there sooner.

Father awoke his son by nudging him in the arm when he swung into their driveway, “We’re home, wake up.” The big truck pulled back into its spot in the garage and when the engine was cut did Scruff finally make a last stretch and get up.

“Thanks,” Marcus said snidely to the dog when he was able to move his leg without disturbing the canine’s slumber. He got out of the truck and started to gather all of the things that would go into the house: the cooler, bag full of garbage and empty cans to be recycled, the jackets that were taken off several hours ago along with the hats and gloves that were thrown in the back of the pick-up. George took the birds over to his washing station behind the garage and Steve was carrying the weapons back to their place in the locked cabinet.

Marcus found the kids with their great-grandparents in the living room playing with a new card game and Emily was in the kitchen with her mother and aunt. Marcus was quiet when he walked in, they didn’t hear him enter until he said, “Hello” in his wonderful deep accented voice.

“Oh shit!” Naomi squeaked, “You’re so damned quiet boy!” She put the glass she was rinsing into the dishwasher. When she turned and saw the look of regret on his face she quickly said, “It’s alright, but when you find my heart give it back.” She chuckled as she took the bag that was full of recycling from him, “Did you boys have fun, are we havin’ duck for dinner tonight?”

Wanting to apologize first, Marcus flashed her a smile, “Sorry about the scare, and yes. You can choose from quail or duck, there is plenty of both for dinner. We had, well, we had an exciting time,” he looked over to Emily and once again the sight of her made his breath quiver and his mind flutter into a hundred different directions. She was holding her arms out to take the jackets from him and when he handed them to her he gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, very close to her lips. He still couldn’t be too open in front of her family, it didn’t feel proper to him to be so disrespectful.

Sally dried her hands from doing dishes and took the cooler from him as well so he was free from his load. He asked his hostess, “Do you want me to tell George to get something ready for tonight?”

Sally spoke for her sister instead, “Oh Mark knows the best recipe for a quail soup, we can do that for an appetizer then a duck for dinner? How’s that sound Nay?”

“Sounds great to me, Marcus darlin’ tell him to get two quail and one duck ready. I’ll cut up the other quail and make “chicken strips” for the kids.” She lifted her pointer and middle fingers of each hand to emphasize the chicken fingers, “The duck will taste too funny to them, I can fake it with the quail.” She winked at her daughter and Emily chuckled, she knew how good her mom was at hiding things in food. All throughout her childhood her mom was always tossing in fruits and vegetables into everything. She even remembered having spinach in cupcakes once for St. Patrick’s Day. They were good, and the kids in her class thought the green stuff inside were lucky clovers like Naomi convinced them of.

“Okay, sounds great,” Marcus turned to leave to deliver the message and Emily was by his side in a second. She was slipping her hand into his as they headed down the hallway. When they were in between the kitchen and the family room where no one was she pulled his hand towards her and made him stop. When he did she leaned up and kissed his lips, “Missed you. Did everything go well, I see my brother didn’t try to shoot you and Scruff didn’t eat you, so all must have gone well enough.”

A snort came out of his nose, “Yeah I guess you can say that, I’ll tell you about it when I get the chance, it was quite interesting. But one great thing, your dog is now enamored with my presence as much as Mitz.” He kissed her again then they headed through the garage and out the back door to where George was hanging up the birds by their necks.

Emily hated coming back here when he was cleaning his scores from the days hunting trip. As Marcus told him what was on the menu Emily looked into the garage at her brother putting the guns away. He was already drinking a beer, she shook her head and looked away as she thought that beer for lunch was a sure fire way to have liver failure by forty; if she only knew.

Emily and Marcus were to leave for London on the 28th, so they really only had one more full day with her family. Her grandparents were leaving the same day as well as Sally and Mark so they decided to play games and cards during the day then had the plethora of leftovers for dinner.

After the dishes were done Sally and Mark wanted to go out to the local bar and Steve invited Emily and Marcus to come along. So the five of them loaded up into the truck and went on down to “The Whisky Blues”, it was a regular joint where Steve and his friends liked to hang out. As soon as they entered there was a table full of guys that cheered Steve over to join them. Some of the guys pushed another table alongside the already occupied one so all of them would fit. They were good friends of his from high school Emily noticed, and one was even a guy that had a crush on her when they were all younger. He started to give Emily a look of interest until he saw her take Marcus’ hand and he immediately diverted his eyes and didn’t look her way for the rest of the time they were there. She was sure Marcus’ height had a lot to do with it, he was several inches taller than Jacob, but then again just looking at Marcus’ demeanor could be intimidating as well.

The merry group sat and drank for a few hours and had a good time. Marcus ended up speaking with Mark and Sally the duration of the time and Emily caught up with her brother and some of the old acquaintances that she had years ago. When Emily looked at her watch it was about midnight and she wanted to get going, luckily Sally and Mark were ready to head home as well. Their flight was leaving at nine in the morning, but Emily and Marcus weren’t leaving until about six tomorrow night, sadly her parents were going to make two trips to the airport. Emily offered to take a cab but her mother refused of course.

Sally and Emily finally talked Steve into leaving and they headed home at almost one in the morning. On the way home Steve turned to Emily, “Hey, you want some?”

When she looked down she realized that he was holding a joint in his hand, “Steve! Since when do you do that shit? No, I don’t want any.”

He just shrugged his shoulders at her and turned his attention away from his prude sister, “Whatever, you Marcus?”

“No thanks, does nothing to me so no need to waste it.” He took Emily’s hand and gave it a squeeze to try to calm her fury a bit.

Steve passed it to Sally and after she took a drag she passed it to Mark. Steve looked back to Emily, “Hey be cool and don’t say anything to mom or dad, they don’t need to know what I do.”

Emily just stared at him, “Whatever,” she said mocking his response to her earlier. She was pissed but he was a grown man and it wasn’t her place as his younger sister to tell him otherwise. They drove home mostly in silence but Sally and Mark were talking about what their flight plans and such were for tomorrow. Sally didn’t even acknowledge the tension between her niece and nephew, she felt better to steer clear of it altogether.

When they got home Emily jumped out of the truck and went straight to her room, she didn’t even say good night to her Aunt and brother, much less Mark. Marcus said goodnight to them all and followed Emily up to their room. Once he opened the door he saw her sitting on the bed with a red face, he quietly closed the door and started to pick up some of his things to put into his suitcase.

After she sat in silence for a bit and watched Marcus pack his things in a tidy order she finally declared, “I just can’t believe him,” Emily had venom in her voice. “How stupid of a hobby, he can lose his job in a second if anything happens, not to mention what that crap does to your body!” She got up and opened her closet, “Get those boxes down for me. Please.”

Marcus turned to her, “Sure. But hey, lighten up just a little. Your bother is a grown man and can make his own choices, stupid or not. Besides, marijuana actually has some very good medicinal benefits.”

At that last comment Emily gave him such a look that he actually took half a step backwards and raised his hands as if blocking a blow, “Okay, okay… don’t throw that anger towards me, geez.” He reached up and took down the four boxes that had her clothes in them and put them on the floor in front of the dresser. “I think I’m going to take a shower to get this smoky smell off of me.” Marcus quickly went to the bathroom and closed the door and started the shower. Now he understood what George meant about the women’s fury, wow he thought, he hoped he never ticked Emily off on his own accord.

He took a nice long shower, not for his benefit but to give her time to cool off. Right before he turned the water off he heard the door open so he waited and kept the water running but made it a little cooler for her skin, she would probably get third degree burns if he kept it the way he liked it.

Emily got undressed and opened the curtain, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to yell at you.” She got into the shower and started to wash her hair, “Bars are so nasty, I hate the way they make you smell.”

“I agree, it’s so gross,” then took over scrubbing her hair. “Hon, I know you hate what your brother is doing, but don’t be angry for his decisions, nor your aunt and uncle for that matter.”

Emily didn’t think of them joining Steve, “Oh yeah,” her shoulders sunk and she let out a sigh.

“Rinse your hair babe.” Marcus let her move under the water and started to wash her with the soap. He decided not to say any more about the night, “You ready for our flight tomorrow?”

She was done rinsing her hair and moved out of the warm stream, “Yeah I guess so, I’ll miss my folks a bunch though.” She put the conditioner in her hair while Marcus washed her back, “It sure was great having you here with me, this was undoubtedly the best Christmas ever.”

“I agree, I’m glad I came as well, your family is wonderful.” Marcus was truly happy that Naomi invited him; he wanted to ask to come before she offered and was glad that he didn’t have to ponder how to ask Emily without sounding rude.

They were done washing and drying, then they climbed up into bed when Marcus heard a light scratching at the door. He got up and let Mitz in, “Come in sweetie,” he whispered softly and picked her up. She instantly started to purr loudly in his arms. Emily just chuckled as he climbed into bed under the covers since they were both nude and put Mitz between the two of them, but on top of the quilt. “I must admit, she is the coolest cat I have ever met.” Both of them petted her and Mitz was in kitty-heaven.

Morning came and Marcus got up and went to the kitchen to join Naomi and her mother, both ladies were already dressed and reading the paper. Naomi looked up, “Mornin’ your water is ready in the kettle.”

“Wow, thanks. It has been so nice being here with you and your family, I really appreciate you inviting me and being so hospitable, I am quite grateful.” Marcus gave her a slight bow and the women giggled.

Meemaw piped up, “Darlin’ if I were thirty years younger Emily would have to beat me away from you!”

“Mother really!” Naomi rolled her eyes but giggled just the same at her mother’s brashness.

Marcus also chuckled, “Thank you ma’am, I appreciate the compliment.” If he could have blushed he surely would have.

They had their morning caffeine and finished the paper when Sally and Mark came down to join them. They were dressed and Mark already loaded their bags into the truck. Sally gave her maw and sister a kiss on the cheek and smiled at Marcus, “Good morning all.” She poured her and her husband both some coffee and grabbed the front page of the paper.

Marcus stood, “Here Sally, sit, I need to wake Emily up.”

“Thanks Marcus,” she took his seat and noticed that it wasn’t warm as it should be, “You’re a cold one aren’t ya? Not used to the Alaskan winters?”

Marcus had to take a second to think about her question, “Oh no I’m not. It’s cold in England, but not this cold. Sorry I couldn’t give you a warm seat,” he shrugged his shoulders, smiled and left the kitchen. Damn he hated it when some people were so observant.

He bumped into George on the way up the stairs, “Oh, good morning sir, sleep well?”

Yawning, “Oh, mornin’ Marcus. I did, and you?” George was tying his robe closed.

Marcus stepped to the side to him pass, “Very well thank you. And thank you again for having me here, it was a pleasure being here with all of you.”

George patted Marcus on the shoulder, “Well my boy it was a pleasure to have you here as well. And thank you for making my little Em so very happy, that means more to me than anything!”

“Now that is my pleasure, she is a treasure, you raised her to be a fine woman.”

After George gave him a nod and a smile of agreement both passed each other on the steps and Marcus gently opened up the bedroom door and found Emily just waking up and stretching. He had to laugh because next to her Mitz was stretching the same way. “Okay, now that is cute!” He went over to the bigger yogi and kissed those luscious lips, “Good morning Doll.”

“Mornin’ babe. I slept like a baby, what time is it?”

He looked over at the clock on the nightstand, “Only seven, but your aunt and Mark are getting ready to leave soon.”

“I better get up then, I want to spend a little more time with Sally before they go,” she got up and put her robe and slippers on and shuffled out the door.

Marcus stayed in the room and finished packing the rest of his things and then sat on the bed and pet Mitz. She was laying there on her back and her tummy was waiting to be scratched, “Sure wish we could take you back with us little one.” He rubbed her longer then headed back down the stairs to see if he could help with breakfast. That ended up being his requested duty while he was there, and he didn’t mind one bit, cooking was something he loved to do and he loved doing it for a group of people that were so grateful.

Once down there he saw that Steve had joined the rest of the family as well as Scruff. Scruff sniffed the air then laid down under the table; only Marcus noticed this and thought anything of it. Meemaw and Naomi were at the stove and already had breakfast going, it looked as though he had the morning off. Everyone was talking all at once to each other about one thing or another, so Marcus went out into the family room to check on Jamie and Joey. They were awake and sitting up on the pull out bed playing with some of their new toys.

Both of them chimed at the same time, “Hey Uncle Marcus!”

He went and sat on the edge of the bed, “Hey there, did you guys have a wonderful Christmas this year?”

Jamie beamed, “We sure did, this one was the best ever. I just wish momma and daddy was here with us.”

When she got a little frown on her face Joey poked her in the ribs, “Knock it off baby.”

“Stop it!” she cried.

Wanting to stop an argument before it started, “Well I’m glad that I got to meet you, and hopefully I’ll see you again next Christmas, then we’ll have your parents here as well, and that one will be better than this one!”

That made Jamie’s frown turn around, “Yeah, that would be awesome!” She went back to playing with her doll and brushing her hair as she sang a Christmas song.

Joey looked up from his army guys, “So when are we going to see you again Uncle Marcus? I hope soon, you’re pretty cool.”

That made Marcus smile broadly, “Thanks buddy, I think you’re pretty cool too. Well I hope soon, but Emily and I live pretty far away, but maybe this summer we can come back when your aunt is finished with school. How does that sound?”

“Sounds super to me! Do you wan’na play war with me?” Not waiting for an answer Joey thrust a tank into Marcus’ hand.

Stifling a laugh as he took the toy, “Sure, do you have any more guys?”

“Oh you bet, Papa George got me a bunch of them!” He grabbed a green bag that he had on the floor and Marcus got down on the floor with him and they started to set up their men in a shield wall style battle.

Jamie looked down from her spot, “You just better keep away from my princesses, I don’t want them blown up!”

Marcus chuckled and Joey rolled his eyes, “We’ll leave your stupid dolls alone.”

Jamie was about to protest that they were not stupid when Meemaw came in, “Breakfast is ready kiddo’s, wash up.”

All three of them went to the “teeny bathroom”, as Jamie called it, that was at the end of the hall towards the front of the house, to wash their hands and then join the rest of the family that were already seated in the dining room. It smelled great and Marcus noticed the women had made banana pancakes, sausage, eggs and hash browns; there was enough food to feed three families! Marcus took his place next to Emily and she patted his leg and whispered into his ear, “Only one more meal to suffer through babe, thanks for being such a great sport.”

He just winked at her and kissed her on the cheek. “Wow ladies, I must say this breakfast looks splendid, thank you.”

“For you darlin’, no sweat, you look like you need some more meat on those bones of yours, so eat up!” Meemaw was a great woman, Marcus loved her openness.

They all ate and when they were through Sally and Mark finished getting the last of their things ready for Steve to drive them to the airport by himself. He was taking the first drive, and then Naomi and George were going to drive Emily and Marcus later on in the day.

When the three of them left Joey and Marcus resumed their war and Emily finished packing her things. She spent the last few hours with her parents and grandparents in the living room catching up on news, school and her plans for after graduation, which there were none and her mother was a little curious about what she wanted to do. But she new in her mother’s heart that Emily was still waiting to see what happened with her relationship with Marcus before she made any definite plans. And Naomi was very proud that time was being taken as it should.

The time finally came when Emily and Marcus had to go. The kids gave their tearful goodbyes and Meemaw and Pop-Pop hugged Emily until she thought she was going to miss her plane, “We’ll be back soon, don’t worry!” She gave her brother a hug and he said a quiet thanks in her ear that she didn’t say anything to their parents about the other night. She just shrugged her shoulders and kept her mouth shut, she didn’t want to leave with bad blood between them.

On the way to the airport Marcus thanked them again for their hospitality and George thanked him for Emily’s ticket. They all agreed that they will have to get together again very soon, and before next Christmas. Naomi almost told Emily that they were planning on going to England as a surprise for her graduation but George gave her a look to keep her mouth shut.

George and Naomi walked them as far as they could to the gate, then when Emily and her mother hugged they both started to cry and George had to peel his wife away. Marcus shook George’s hand then to Marcus’ surprise the man pulled him closer and put an arm around his back for a quick hug, then Marcus gave Emily’s mother a hug then he and Emily went into the terminal to wait for their plane. Emily buried her face into his chest and got the last of her tears out and he just held her, he knew how hard it was on her to leave her family, they were truly wonderful people and the family was very close.

The plane ride back home was quiet and uneventful and Emily fell asleep on the drive home to her flat. Marcus kept her in the warm car while be took her bags up and lit a fire, the flat was freezing, if there was any moisture icicles would have been hanging from the ceiling. After he dug around in her closet he found a couple more blankets and put them on the bed for her. She was still sleeping when he went back down to his car so he carried her inside, took her shoes off and buried her under the mound of quilts so she would be warm. He gave her a kiss on the forehead then headed home.

Once he was upstairs in his own home Marcus put his bags away and took a shower. Their flat was spotless just like he left it so he knew that Mort never came up here. He walked to Mary’s house and listened quietly outside. It was two in the morning so he didn’t want to ring the bell. He could hear Mort snoring so he knew that all was well there so headed back home. He decided to go to his office to see what needed to be done and started working on the books that piled up over the last week. When he saw dawn breaking through the window he got up and went to see Emily. She was still sleeping when he let himself into her flat with the key she had given him a while back, so he just stoked her fire and put on the kettle, went back out to get the paper and waited for her to wake up. He laughed at himself, they sure had themselves a nice pattern in life already. He couldn’t believe that they had only been together for two months, they were so comfortable with each other and knew so much it was like they had been together for years. One day he will look back and realize that years had passed. Then he remembered Emily’s last present to him, herself. He so badly wanted to change her but knew that he wouldn’t, it was a moral dilemma that he had to work through on his own.

Emily woke up at about nine and went out to find Marcus reading a book on her couch, “Hey babe, have you been here all night?” She went over and gave him a kiss then got her tea.

“No. I got you settled, then brought my stuff home and checked on Mort, then I came back here, I’ve been here for a while though. Did you sleep well?”

“Oh yes, I need to bathe, badly!” She took her tea into the bathroom and started the shower. It felt so good to wash her hair and get the plane funk, as she called it, off of her and into some clean clothes. She was so happy that she brought more clothes back from home, plus all of the new ones that Marcus kept slipping into her closet and drawers, she had a huge selection to choose from now. She had to think for a second and realized that it was Saturday and she didn’t have to go to work for two more days, so she put on loose 5-0-1 jeans and a sweatshirt. She figured they would be spending most of the day at the shop so she wanted to be comfortable but still look presentable.

Going back out to her living room she curled up next to the wonderful man that was always there for her. “Thanks again for coming, this was the best Christmas.”

“Joey said the same thing, guess I made a good impression; and your dog didn’t want to eat me so I think it was pretty successful all the way around.” Marcus then told her about the hunting trip and why Scruff had suddenly become his best friend.

Emily heard his tale then laughed it off with him, “Yeah well I’m glad it all turned out well and he ended up loving you, at least Mitz sure adored you right off the bat. Along with my mother and grandmother. I thought Meemaw was going to pack you into her bag.”

“I think she would have if she could have,” he told her what she said in the kitchen and Emily laughed, “That’s Meemaw for you!”

Later that morning they went to the shop to say hello to Mort and of course Mary was on her stool right next to him. She jumped up and gave them both big hugs and started talking their ears off of the news of the last week. Mort looked great and was obviously very happy. They all had lunch together, but Marcus discreetly disappeared into his office for the meal, he had enough of food over the last week and Emily didn’t blame him one iota and covered for him to Mary saying that her mother fed him enough to last ten lifetimes and he was chomping at the bit to get some work done. That night Mort was back at home and everyone’s normal patterns emerged and life was rolling along again as usual.

For New Years Eve Marcus took Emily to London for the celebrations and she was ecstatic with the great parties that were happening in every square and on every street corner. When Big Ben chimed fireworks went off, confetti was everywhere and there were hugs and kisses all around. Complete strangers even hugged her and Marcus. A few women tried to get some kisses onto the lips of Marcus but he was sly to avoid them all. Emily just laughed, she couldn’t be jealous about it, he was a spectacular show all on his own. They went back to her flat and of course made mad, passionate love, and not quietly this time, to bring in their own new year.

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