“Are you sure you want to do this?” Travis had already asked him this approximately seven times since he’d initially said yes the day after they’d met. He stood in the doorway, blocking his entrance, as if once he was inside there wasn’t any going back. “I mean, you can say no at any time, it’s not like my parents aren’t used to seeing me show up alone.”
“First of all, I said I would do this,” Ethan reminded him, pushing past his host and coming inside the writer’s home. Looking around at the few touches of Christmas décor they’d put up last night, he was surprised to see Travis had added a couple more items to the mix. “Second, I meant what I said. I like you Travis, I want to get to know you better.”
Travis laughed. “But meeting the family? We’ve not even had an official date yet.”
Ethan relished the sound of hopefulness the word ‘yet’ brought to his voice. “We can count this as our first, how about that?”
The smile that graced Travis’ face in that moment warmed Ethan’s heart. Maybe this was the right decision after all? Heaven only knew he’d doubted every choice he’d made since he’d landed himself here, six months ago. Hopefully this meant he could start trusting his instincts again.
“I think I’d like that a lot,” he admitted. Holding his hand out to Ethan he said, “Does that mean you’re ready for Christmas dinner with the Murphy clan?’
Ethan reached out, taking the offered hand firmly. “It does.”
Aracely Murphy met them at the door, excited smile stretching across her matronly face. Travis couldn’t help but beam at his mother’s eagerness to meet her son’s new friend, even if the entire thing was a setup. Ah, well, my parents never need to know that, right? After all, he figured that even if the night bombed as badly as he was afraid it might, he had made a new friend. As much as he wanted a hot boyfriend, having a really good friend worked for now.
“Mama,” Travis called out to the woman in the doorway, hugging her hard against his broad chest. “I’ve missed you.”
“You wouldn’t miss me if you came around more often,” she scolded. “But I am thankful you are here.”
Travis kissed her cheek and pulled from her embrace. “Mama, this is my friend, Ethan McDowell. Ethan, this is my mama, Aracely Murphy.”
“It’s a pleasure, Mrs. Murphy.” Ethan reached out to take her hand when he found himself engulfed in a massive hug.
“Please, it’s Mama,” she corrected him, “and nothing else. Any friend of my Travis is automatically family. Come inside you two, your father has been waiting on you, Travis.”
With a look of mock horror, Ethan followed Aracely into the house, Travis close behind. “I warned you, now it’s too late. You’re officially stuck until after dessert.”
Ethan grinned, green eyes sparkling. “If this is as bad as it gets, your family has nothing on mine. They’re the scary ones.”
“Oh, you just wait, you haven’t met my Irish father yet,” Travis reminded him ominously.
Hadn’t they had this conversation once already? “Yeah, well, I have a Scottish father, so I’m not scared.”
“Maybe we should pit them against each other sometime,” Travis teased. “Come on, my dad has been asking about you.”
Liam Murphy rose at the sound of his son entering the den. “Travis! It’s ‘bout damn time,” he exclaimed, hauling his son into a brusque hug, patting him roughly on the back before releasing him. “And this handsome fella, is he your new man?”
“Now pop,” Travis began, warning his father, “we’ve talked about this. Ethan and I have only just started dating, no planning weddings yet, okay?” It was the cover story they’d agreed on, one that was not only true to an extent, but would also cover the fact there wasn’t any PDA going on between them. As much as he hated lying to his parents, he hated disappointing them even more and this little lie worked out to be the lesser of two very wicked evils.
“You might have just broken your mother’s heart,” Liam stated, giving his son a disapproving look before turning on Travis’ date for the evening. “So, you’re a Scotsman? Eh, I guess we can forgive you that much if you make my boy happy.”
“I…” Ethan began, but having no idea where to take the conversation, he wisely stopped and changed direction. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate you allowing me to invade your family dinner.”
“Any friend of Travis’ is always welcome here. Even if you’re Scots,” he poked him in the side playfully. “And although my son refuses to let us get our hopes up, we’re still happy he didn’t come home alone. It’s more than time for that boy to settle himself down.” Liam punctuated the statement with a wink and a stern look.
“Pop! Please,” Travis groaned, hiding his face in his hands. “You’re going to scare him off if you keep this up.”
“Humph,” Liam Murphy grunted, sitting back in his recliner. “If he’s that easily frightened, he doesn’t belong in this family.”
“I’m a cop, sir, I assure you I can handle myself – and this family.” Ethan looked to Travis to make sure he hadn’t overstepped his bounds. Seeing the approving smile on his face, he relaxed.
“I like this boy,” Liam said, matter-of-factly. “You can bring him around more often.”
“That’s it,” Travis whispered in Ethan’s ear, “you’re stuck here for life.”
“There are worse places to be stuck,” he whispered back. “Trapped in a studio apartment, alone on Christmas is pretty high on the list.”
“Dinner,” Aracely called from the vicinity of the dining room. “And get in here before the food is stone cold!”
“Last one to the table starves,” Liam Murphy commented, leaving the boys behind him.
“Your father is a bit of a nut,” Ethan observed, standing and stretching.
“And he’s still sober, wait till he starts drinking.” Travis left his place on the couch, standing alongside Ethan. “I meant to say it earlier, but you look really nice tonight. Thank you, for all of this.”
Ethan looked at his feet since it was easier than trying to read the expression in Travis’ eyes. “Thank you. I was afraid of going too formal, but I didn’t want to show up looking like a slob either. Tried to meet in the middle somewhere. I’d say you look good, too, but you’d look good in a gunny sack.”
Aracely cleared her throat from the doorway to the den. “Boys? Dinner’s on the table. Although…” She let her voice trail off as she looked upwards at the ceiling fan directly above them before returning to join her husband.
“What was that about,” Ethan wondered out loud.
“I don’t even have to look,” Travis laughed, pointing upwards with a finger. “But I bet my mother hung mistletoe right above our heads.”
Ethan lifted his head just enough to see that Travis was right. “Why would she do that?”
“Because she knew this would be where we’d sit. She’s sneaky that way,” he said, moving closer to his pretend boyfriend.
“So?” Ethan’s gaze flicked from Travis’ handsome face to the mistletoe dangling dangerously above his head.
“So, are you asking for dessert before dinner, Detective Mitchell? I thought you were more disciplined than that.”
“Oh for the love of Éire, kiss him already so your mother will let me eat!” Liam Murphy’s gruff voice filled the room around them.
Ethan laughed at the absurdity of it all. Were Travis’ parents really hiding out waiting to see them lay one on each other? Apparently, it was dinner and a show at the Murphy household tonight. “Well, you going to let your poor father starve or what?”
“You never let an Irishman starve,” Travis told him, hinting at something more than the delicious smelling Christmas dinner in the other room.
Despite the awkwardness of knowing his parents were watching from the doorway, he angled closer to the detective he’d grown so comfortable with over the last couple days and pressed his lips against his. Ethan’s skin was warm to the touch, slightly roughened from the cold winter winds blustering through the town. The other man leaned into the chaste kiss, giving Travis the courage to cup his face with one hand. For a single moment, he almost forgot they really weren’t a couple. Almost.
“Okay, okay,” Liam Murphy spluttered loudly, “they like each other. Can we please have dinner now?”
Travis choked out a startled, “Papa,” against Ethan’s mouth. Drawing back slightly, he looked towards the doorway, frowning. “And you both wonder why I’m still single. This. This would be a good starting point.”
Ethan hid his chuckle behind his hand, looking between Travis’ beaming parents and the man himself. “And here I thought it was because you rarely left your house.”
“You – I didn’t ask you,” he teased. Turning to his parents, he said, “Go ahead and start, we’ll be right there.”
Reluctant, his parents drew away from the den’s doorway and made their way back to the dining room. They could hear the older couple muttering between themselves all the way back to the table. The two men continued to stand close enough to kiss, but not touching, for several minutes until Travis broke the silence hanging between them.
“Look, I’m sorry about that,” he began. “This is the real reason I kept asking if you were sure. I was afraid…”
Ethan raised a hand, stalling his apology. “Don’t. It was one kiss – a respectable one at that – and if it gets your parents off your back, it was worth it, right?”
“Right,” Travis agreed. “But…”
“But nothing. Anything else? We can deal with it later. Right now, dinner is on the horizon and your dad is about to faint from hunger.”
“That’ll be the day,” he laughed, back at ease in Ethan’s presence. He was right – as long as he knew that Ethan understood and didn’t hate him for it, everything else could wait until later. When they were alone again. “C’mon then, cookie, let’s go have some of my mama’s fabulous food.”
“You do not have to ask me twice,” Ethan said, slipping his arm through the crook of Travis’. “I’m about to follow your father into starvation, I think.”
It was probably the oddest Christmas dinner he’d ever eaten, but it was also by far the most delicious. Instead of the run of the mill turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberries, he was treated to posole and tamales, beans, rice, and fresh tortillas. The Murphy matron also managed to work in some of her husband’s traditional favorites as well – Brussels sprouts tossed with chipotle peppers, roasted potatoes topped with queso fresco – but only after adding a touch of her Latina flair to them first. He’d never been so stuffed in all his life.
“Dessert,” Aracely offered around the table. “Are you boys ready for something sweet?”
“Oh dear god, no Mama,” Travis moaned. “Let us recuperate from dinner first, before you stuff us all over again.” He patted his flat stomach for emphasis.
Aracely Murphy beamed happily, having done her job well by not just feeding her family but by making them miserable in the process. “But you’ll let me know, right?”“Of course, Mama,” Travis reassured her. To Ethan, he said, “Trust me, you’ll want to stick around for dessert. Tres Leches cake, trifle, buñuelos, enough sweet stuff to rot your teeth and so good you won’t even care.”
“I wish I hadn’t eaten so much,” Ethan opined. “I hate that I have to wait now.”
“It’ll be just as tasty later, I promise.” He bent his head so that his lips almost touched Ethan’s ear. “Besides, didn’t you already get a bit of sugar tonight?”
Ethan coughed loudly, startled at Travis’ intimation. “You are absolutely incorrigible sometimes,” he stated, getting lost in those bottomless blue eyes.
Travis released his mother from another lingering hug, bussing her on the cheek one last time. “I’ll see you on New Year’s Eve, I promise.”
“You’d better,” she shook a finger at him. “And bring this one along with you, you hear me? I like him.”
“Mama, he’s standing right there,” Travis pointed over his shoulder at ‘the one’ in question.
“I know he is,” she responded. “I want to make sure he knows he’s welcome back.”
“It’s appreciated, ma’am, uh mama,” Ethan said, smiling with true affection.
“We’re leaving now,” Travis stated forcibly, taking Ethan by the arm and dragging him down the walkway to his truck. “And I apologize for that last bit. Mama’s a bit…”
“Exuberant?” Ethan squeezed Travis’ arm in reassurance. “I like her though. Both of your parents, actually. Even your curmudgeonly old father.”
“That’s probably the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about my father,” he joked. “But I’m glad you had a good time and don’t hate me.”
“Hate you?” Ethan opened the passenger door and climbed into the poor old truck. “How could I hate you? I think I like you even more after all that.”
“Truly?” Travis’ mouth hung open in disbelief.
"Truly,” he repeated. “Your family is unique and original and a lot of fun. Thank you for sharing them with me.”
“Thank you for enduring them,” he returned. “What do you think about a nightcap once we return to my place? Or do you have to work in the morning?”
“I do have to work in the morning,” he announced. Seeing the crestfallen look on Travis’ face, he hastened to add, “But I’d love to share a drink before I have to head home.”
“Great, it’s a date,” Travis said.
“I thought this was a date already,” Ethan prodded, teasing just a touch.
“That was a trial run,” Travis joked. “This will be the real thing.”
Travis pulled into his garage and shut off the engine. Looking over at Ethan in the passenger seat, he attempted a weak smile. He couldn’t believe how nervous he was all of a sudden. An outsider would think they were complete strangers not guessing they had been trapped in his house together a couple nights ago. Taking a deep breath, he plowed forward.
“You sure you want to come in?” He avoided meeting Ethan’s gaze directly, terrified of the rejection that might follow.
“Are you always this insecure? How’d you ever manage to get a novel published anyway?” Ethan reached across the bench seat and gripped Travis’ wrist, squeezing lightly.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me tonight,” he confessed. “And no, I’m usually only really insecure over the things that mean a lot – my family’s opinion of things, my writing, you get the idea.”
“Nothing to be nervous about here,” he reminded him. “Let’s go inside and have a drink, okay?”
“Sure, I’ve got the perfect thing for such a cold ass night, too.”
In the kitchen, Travis removed two mismatched coffee mugs from the cupboard and placed them on the counter. Catching Ethan’s curious gaze, he shrugged, sheepish smile firmly planted on his face. “I have a whole set of matching mugs, go with my dishes and everything, but these are my favorites. I figure we might as well go with them, right?”
“Right,” Ethan agreed, taking a seat on one of the breakfast counter’s stools.
He took a plastic container out of the freezer and plopped it onto the counter beside the two well-used mugs. From the pantry, he pulled a small jar of cinnamon and a bottle of brandy. Using a spoon, he scooped a couple dollops of whatever was in the plastic container into the mugs. After filling a kettle with water, he set it on the stove and lit the burner beneath it.
“See, this one here,” he said, motioning towards a sky blue mug of epic proportions, “was sent to me by one of my fans. My first fan gift ever. You wouldn’t know this, but I have a soft spot for cartoons – and so did my first PI. Thus, the Eeyore mug.” He added an excessive amount of brandy to each cup, topping it with a touch of cinnamon. “This one, however, came from my mother.”
Travis turned the mug so Ethan could read what was written on it. Let it be. “Are you a Beatles fan, too?”
“Naw, but I tend to take things too seriously sometimes. It was her reminder to me to let things be.” The kettle whistled and he moved to remove it from the stove. Filling the mugs near to the top with hot water, he set the kettle back on the stove, and stirred the contents of each cup. Handing Ethan the Eeyore mug, he lifted his own in salute. “Sláinte,” he toasted, taking a careful sip.
“May your beauty last long, but not as long as mine,” Ethan returned, carefully sipping from his own mug. “Oh wow, this is…” he coughed once. “Strong, but really good. What is it?”
“Something my aunt – on my father’s side, of course – calls a Tom and Jerry. Its eggs and powdered sugar and a hell of a lot of alcohol.” He took another drink, loving the warmth it filled his belly with. “Be glad I went easy on you – she puts rum and brandy in hers.”
“Well, I could get used to a mug of this on a cold night,” Ethan agreed. “Although I can see everything going downhill fast after one or two.”
Travis chuckled, knowing he was more right than he could possibly understand. “Good news is, it’s so damn sweet, you’d get sick before you got drunk.” Not entirely true, but close enough for government work.
“Yeah,” he said, licking the frothy drink from his bottom lip, “I can see that happening.”
“Can you see anything else happening,” Travis asked, placing his mug onto the counter.
“Like what, exactly?” He rested both forearms against the edge of the counter, leaning in closer to Travis. “You kissing me again? But for real this time?”
“Yeah, exactly like that.” He came around the counter, approaching Ethan on his stool.
“Well, I think I can totally see that happening,” he enticed, turning so that he faced his host fully.
“I’m glad to hear it, because it’s about to happen.” His mind wandered to his father earlier that evening, encouraging the two of them to just get on with it. A hint of a smile twisted his lips in memory, giving him the push he needed to make the first move.
Their lips met for the second time that evening, but Ethan could tell the difference between this kiss and the one that had preceded it immediately. Travis didn’t hesitate this time before cupping his face and pulling him in closer, threading one set of fingers through his dark hair. He hadn’t meant to, but a delighted moan escaped his mouth all the same.
“Like that, eh,” Travis mumbled against his mouth, nipping at Ethan’s plump lower lip.
“God yes,” Ethan breathed, opening his lips in invitation. “So please, don’t stop.”
Travis dipped his tongue into Ethan’s mouth, tasting, teasing, and tempting. “I hadn’t planned on it,” he assured him, deepening the kiss more fully. Ethan sighed against him, wrapping an arm around Travis’ waist, pulling him even closer than he was. It was all the encouragement Travis needed. “Don’t go.”
Breathless, Ethan pulled back from the kiss. “Don’t go,” he repeated, questioning.
“Yeah,” Travis said, placing quick, light kisses on his cheeks, chin, eyebrows. “Stay with me tonight.”
Ethan opened his mouth to protest, to find some excuse to say no. Instead, he surprised even himself. “I thought you’d never ask.”