~A Purity Oneshot~
The Perpetual Gift
I’ll be home for Christmas … You can count on me …
.:Monday, December 19, 2072:.
‘A hot shower, a stiff drink, and absolute quiet—in that order.’
Rubbing his forehead with long, tapered fingertips as Gunnar Inutaisho rested his elbow on the armrest of the midnight blue Maserati, he turned onto the gently winding road that led to the sprawling house that he called ‘home’.
He hated traveling; he really did.
Sensitivity to the changes in cabin pressure on most commercial airlines was bad enough and nearly always left him feeling a bit off, but since the trip he’d just returned from had been rather sudden and very urgent, he couldn’t make other arrangements. Borrowing one of his grandfather’s private planes would have been preferable, but his father was using one for a meeting with the Australian tai-youkai, and the other was being monopolized by his older sister, Coral, who was in the middle of a very sticky though potentially quite lucrative deal to acquire Yat-Sun Technologies. Hell, he’d even considered asking his cousin, Evan to lend him his plane, but in the end, he’d opted not do it, and he’d convinced himself that maybe flying first class would suffice. After all, he wasn’t going on a vacation or anything. It was a business trip, and luckily for him, the flight from Maine to Chicago was just fine, even if he had to suffer a pretty severe headache after he’d finally checked into a hotel in the middle of the Windy City.
So he had thought that the return flight would be fine, too, and it might have been—if he hadn’t been seated directly in front of a young woman and her screaming, sobbing infant. Honestly, the child had wailed for the entire flight, and he knew that he wasn’t the only one who was more than a little annoyed. The woman in the seat across the aisle from him kept turning and giving the mother rather sour looks, and he’d overheard her saying to the flight attendant after they’d disembarked that she’d be calling the airline to complain and to demand a partial refund. Gunnar wasn’t quite irritated enough to do that, but he was seriously considering telling Cain Zelig that it was high time that the North American tai-youkai buy his own private plane, too, because if Gunnar had to take another commercial flight any time in the near future, he just might decide that the cold case that he was working on could just stay cold awhile longer.
‘You wouldn’t,’ his youkai voice remarked. ‘Those cases irritate you far more than a crying baby does.’
There was no change in Gunnar’s expression despite the slight snort that escaped him. That was true, he supposed. Somehow, it seemed like a personal slight that so many cases could go unsolved for such a long time. He knew for a fact that there were even a couple cases that dated back more than two hundred years, and it irked the hell out of him that he knew damn well that the odds of those cases in particular being solved to his satisfaction were slim and none.
Besides, if he were to be completely truthful, he wasn’t at all irritated with the child. An infant had no control over the things that the parents did, and since all they normally did was eat, sleep, cry, and mess their diapers, how could it really have turned out any differently? The mother, on the other hand, should have had more sense than to try taking an infant on an airplane at all. People like her were enough to reinforce Gunnar’s general belief that some people simply should not be allowed to procreate.
‘That was harsh.’
Gunnar grunted but didn’t take back what he’d thought. ‘It’s true, though.’ If he knew nothing else after the years he’d spent working dead cases, he’d learned long ago that trouble begets trouble, and stupidity begets stupidity, too. Take the case he’d just closed last week for example. A witness to a robbery that had ended up with five dead humans including two dead police officers that had happened about twenty-five years ago recently admitted to having seen the man who had committed the crime. The informant he’d spoken with had also said that the man was bragging at the time about having done the same sort of thing a few times before—a handful of petty robberies that hadn’t benefitted him much more than a couple hundred dollars, all told, and, not surprisingly, he was a third generation criminal. His grandfather had been hunted for killing four security guards at a medical research lab in a break-in gone awry. The kid’s father was hunted less than four years later for a string of rapes in the New York area, and right now, Gunnar figured that Cain Zelig was probably looking over the recommendation that he had sent over before leaving for Chicago last week.
And with all those things lingering in his mind, Gunnar couldn’t help but feel bone-tired when he hit the button on the steering wheel that opened the electronic gates at the end of the driveway and carefully turned in. Maybe he ought to add a few hours’ sleep to his previous list of priorities when he got inside . . .
Sparing a moment to draw in a deep breath after he climbed out of the car, Gunnar stood beside it and closed his eyes, savoring the brisk wind that carried with it the scent of fresh snow. Born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, he hadn’t grown up with this smell. Sure, it snowed a little there, but it was never as much as it did here, and the city had masked the cleanness of it all. It was one of the things that he liked most about living in Maine: the difference in scents that he noticed every day.
Opening his eyes after his moment of indulgence, Gunnar let out a deep breath and retrieved his suitcase from the trunk. It was early afternoon, and the chances were good that the maid he’d hired who came in on Monday and Thursday every week was still here, and that was all right, too. Gwen was a quiet sort and a good worker. In fact, she also cleaned house for Bas and Sydnie, too. She came in sometime during the morning, she cleaned his house quickly and efficiently, and she never forgot the little things that Gunnar had told her as far as where things belonged and how he liked to have things arranged.
Pressing his thumb against the identilock, Gunnar waited for the soft beep, tapping his foot on the cold stone porch. A moment later, the tone sounded seconds before the lock released, and he pushed the door open and stepped into the house.
The first thing that registered was the sound of the television drifting through the house. It wasn’t loud, but it didn’t have to be. It was on, and that was strange enough since it shouldn’t have been. He didn’t have long to ponder that, however, because a moment later, the very distinct scents of two people whom he hadn’t seen in awhile registered in his brain seconds before a pair of very warm arms wrapped around his waist as a blur of motion smacked into him.
“Mother,” he said, leaning back slightly to look down at her like he needed to have the visual confirmation of what his nose already told him to be true. “What are you doing here?”
Sierra Inutaisho giggled and let go of Gunnar long enough to grasp his arm and tug, encouraging him to bend down so that she could kiss his cheek. “Well,” she said, wiping a bit of peach lipstick off his cheek, “when you said that you couldn’t make it home for Christmas, your father and I thought that maybe this year, the mountain should come to Mohammed.” The brilliant smile that lit up the depths of her pale green eyes dimmed slightly. “You don’t mind, do you?”
Shaking his head quickly, Gunnar reached out to pull Sierra close for a chaste hug. “Of course not, Mother. Don’t be ridiculous.”
Her smile turned apologetic, and she bobbed her thin shoulders in a rather sheepish shrug. “Hmm, are you sure? I mean, if you just didn’t want to be away from your girlfriend that long, you could have just said so—or brought her with you.” She perked up as though she just remembered something, and she glanced around before leaning toward Gunnar with a conspiratorial wink. “She seems very sweet. I like her.”
“You . . .? My . . . girlfriend . . .?” he repeated with a blank kind of expression. His response was well-grounded, considering he didn’t actually have a current girlfriend. “I don’t have a—”
Sierra clucked her tongue and stood on tiptoe, gently grasping his left ear between her fingers. “Your flight was that bad?” she interrupted with a thorough frown as she rubbed his ear.
“No,” he lied, unable to contain the slight grimace—irritation directed more at himself for being unable to control the slight tremor that gave silent testimony to the unraveled nerves he couldn’t hide. “I’m fine.”
She waved her free hand dismissively. “You never did like flying,” she mused more to herself than to him. “The first time we flew over to visit Gin and Cain, you tried so hard not to cry the whole way . . .”
“Mother,” Gunnar started in a warning sort of tone. Discussing memories like that were never high on his list of things he wanted to do. “The flight was fine.”
Sierra smiled in what he thought was a bit of a tolerant sort of way, but at least she seemed content to let the subject drop, much to his relief. Suddenly, though, her eyes widened, and her smile brightened. “And your tree! It’s just lovely!”
The blank expression on his face faded, only to be replaced by a very telling lifting of one eyebrow. “My tree?”
She grasped his hand and dragged him out of the foyer, down the short hallway that led past the kitchen on the right and through the high arched opening that led into the living room, and Gunnar blinked. Sure enough, there stood a very, very tall tree, lights twinkling in the soft hues of blue and white. Most of the decorations were blue or silver or white, but there were a number of ornaments in muted burgundy and dusty green and even some burnished gold for accent. To his relief, there were none of the gaudier shades that had somehow become synonymous with the holiday, and for that, he was grateful. All in all, he had to admit that it was very tastefully decorated, even if he still had no idea just where it had come from in the first place . . .
“Mamoruzen! Welcome home,” Toga Inutaisho said as he ran lightly down the stairs, very obviously enjoying his vacation, if only because he got to dress a lot more casually than he normally did. Pushing the long sleeves of a light gray knit shirt up his forearms, he grinned broadly at his son and slipped his arm around his wife’s shoulders.
“Father . . . aren’t you supposed to be in Australia?” he replied, inclining his head in a show of respect.
“Yes, but it was over quickly enough, and I don’t think anyone really wants to spend too much time around Jude Covington, so I cut it as short as I possibly could,” he said grimace followed by a soft chuckle as Sierra reached over to tug Gunnar’s suitcase out of his hand.
“Oh, he wasn’t that bad,” Sierra said with a disapproving look on her pretty features.
Toga rolled his eyes. “Of course he wasn’t that bad to you,” he pointed out. “You’re a woman, and he does tend to be marginally less repugnant when women are involved—and I do mean ‘marginally’ . . .”
“When did you get in?” Gunnar asked, nodding at his father’s assertion since he knew from personal experience that Toga spoke nothing but absolute truth, pulling off his coat and draping it carelessly over the high back of a nearby chair.
Toga strode over to the wet bar on the other side of the living room and bent down to retrieve a bottle of water out of the refrigerator under the counter. “Last night,” he said, grabbing a second bottle off the shelf beside the refrigerator and tossing it to his son. “Head’s up.”
Gunnar caught the flying bottle with one hand and held it up. “Thanks.”
“Thanks,” Toga repeated, shaking his head in mock dismay. “You do still remember how to speak Japanese, don’t you?” he asked mildly.
“Of course I do,” Gunnar replied with a slight grin. “But my English is almost as flawless as Mother’s, don’t you think?” he couldn’t resist teasing.
Toga laughed, tossing his bottle cap into the small trash can under the counter. “You and your sisters had an advantage with that,” he mused after taking a sip of water.
Gunnar’s smile warmed a few degrees.
“Speaking of your mother,” Sierra interrupted with a laugh, “I imagine you’ll want to take a shower, right? Maybe squeeze in a short nap?”
Stifling a sigh, Gunnar nodded. The shower, yes. The nap? That would be entirely too rude, considering the long way his parents had come to spend the holiday with him. “I’ll feel better after the shower,” he assured her.
Sierra nodded. “I set out a towel and a change of clothes for you in your bathroom,” she told him then grimaced slightly. “I hope you don’t mind.”
The somewhat tolerant smile on Gunnar’s face widened, and he quickly reached out to hug his mother. “Thank you.”
Sierra pulled away with a giggle. “Off with you, then,” she said, half scolding. “If you’d rather have the evening alone, though, Gin and Cain did invite us over for dinner . . .”
“Absolutely not,” Gunnar said with a shake of his head. “I’ll be just fine as soon as I get that shower.”
He didn’t miss the knowing glance that passed between his parents, but he didn’t remark upon it, either. At the moment, the most important thing, as far as he was concerned, was getting that shower since it was sounding better and better by the second, so after bowing slightly to his mother and father in turn, he headed for the stairs.
.:Monday, December 19, 2072:.
Stepping off the bottom stair, Gunnar was surprised to note just how much better he felt after the half-hour soak under the torrential spray of the fifty massaging water jets that comprised his shower. The weariness that had lingered around the edges during his trip home from the airport was all but gone, and he had to admit that the idea of spending some time with his parents was a welcome distraction that he hadn’t realized that he’d needed.
Interesting how that sort of thing worked, he thought. There had been a number of times through the years when he’d been a little reluctant to drop everything to fly back to Japan to spend the holidays at home, not because he didn’t want to see his family, but because there was always that feeling in the back of his mind that if he stepped back, if he stepped away, even for a day let alone for a week or two, that the leads he’d been working so diligently on ferreting out would dissolve into nothing before he’d gotten a chance to work them. When he stopped to think about it, he knew damn well that it was a stupid kind of feeling. After all, the cases that he worked on were already considered dead, and the chances that any lead he could find would be missed in the length of time he took to go home to visit were ridiculously low. Even still, he’d always found that the trips he did make had helped to clear his mind so that he could go back with a fresh perspective despite the nagging feeling that something had invariably slipped past him during his time away.
Gunnar skidded to a halt, though, and raised his eyebrows as he watched his father, who was currently poking around the cabinet surrounding the television. “Looking for something?” he asked drolly.
Toga didn’t turn to face him as he pulled the cabinet door open below the television and peered inside. “Are you going to tell me that you don’t have any video games at all?” Toga demanded without preamble. “What about the Sylantia your mother and I sent you last year for Christmas?”
Gunnar snapped his mouth closed and slowly shook his head. “Oh, that,” he said with a simple shrug. “I think it’s still in the box. Check the closet in the foyer.”
That got Toga’s attention, though, and he closed the cabinet as he slowly pivoted on the balls of his feet to stare at his son. “You mean to tell me that I bought you a brand new platinum edition Sylantia home arcade, and you haven’t even taken it out of the box yet?” Heaving a sigh, he shook his head slowly. “Are you sure that you’re my son?”
Gunnar chuckled and strode toward the archway. “I’ve been busy with work,” he said over his shoulder as he headed off to look for the video game system.
“I’m telling you, Mamoruzen, there are times when you need some senseless first-person shooting violence to work out the stresses of the day,” Toga pointed out, following him out of the living room and down the hallway. “Bashing a car into a mountainside in excess of a hundred miles an hour is also pretty therapeutic.”
Gunnar snorted and pulled the closet door open. “Only if you’re already in last place,” he retorted.
“Or you can spend your time, trying to nudge your opponents off the road. That’s always a good stress reliever, too,” Toga went on thoughtfully.
“If I wanted to do something like that, then I’d just shove Bas into the street during rush hour.”
Toga chuckled and took the box that Gunnar pulled off the top shelf. “Isn’t he your best friend?”
Gunnar snorted again and followed his father back toward the living room. “He is,” he allowed. “He’s just a pain.”
“Ah,” Toga drawled with a knowing nod. “Kind of like the baka twins.”
“Something like that,” Gunnar muttered, stuffing his hands into his pockets as he lounged in the doorway and watched his father unpack the box. “I’m surprised you were able to get away for Christmas,” he remarked casually. “How long are you staying?”
“We’ll be here till after New Year’s. Traveling before that would just be too much of a hassle,” Toga remarked but didn’t look up from the bag of connector wires. “Father’s watching over things that might need immediate attention,” he allowed absently. “He said that a vacation would be good for me.”
Gunnar digested that for a moment without comment. It wasn’t the first time that Sesshoumaru had suggested a vacation to Toga, he knew, and it wasn’t really surprising, either. Toga might well be tai-youkai, and he’d held that title for quite awhile, and he was damn good at it, too. Still, Gunnar knew better than anyone that the position was hard on a man like Toga. It always had been. Toga had problems separating tai-youkai business from his personal life—entirely too compassionate, that was what Sesshoumaru had said before, though, to his credit, he had never meant it as a criticism. It was one of the things that had always made Toga a great father, even if he did have his moments.
“So tell me about your girlfriend,” Toga remarked as he carefully plugged cables into the back of the game system.
Gunnar frowned. That was the second time that this girlfriend had been mentioned though in his haste to get into the shower, he’d forgotten about Sierra commenting on it earlier. “Father, I don’t—”
The sound of the front door opening interrupted his statement, and Gunnar leaned back, turning to see who had come in, and he narrowed his eyes when Stephanie Lufstead stomped her feet on the gray mat just inside the door and carefully shook big flakes of snow off her scarf and coat. They melted before they hit the floor.
Gunnar’s frown deepened. He’d dated Stephanie a number of times before being called away on business, and when she’d mentioned that the superintendent was doing some massive work on the apartment building where she lived, she’d asked if he minded if she stayed with him for a couple days while the work was being done. Considering he was going to be out of town for a week, he had told her that it was fine. What he didn’t understand was why she was still here—and why his parents seemed to be under the misconception that she was his girlfriend.
“Excuse me,” he said as he pushed himself out of the doorway and strode down the hall to confront the woman in question. “Stephanie?”
Turning her head to smile over her shoulder at him, she paused briefly as she hung her coat in the closet. “Welcome back, Gunnar,” she greeted brightly. “How was your trip?”
“Never mind that,” he replied, sparing a moment to make sure that neither of his parents was spying on him. “I thought you were only staying here for a couple days.”
Letting out a deep breath that lifted the tangle of tightly curled bangs off her forehead, she grimaced and shot him a rather sheepish sort of look. “I tried to call you, but your phone was out of range,” she told him with an apologetic shrug. “Anyway, Bill—the superintendent—called to let me know that they’d found some other structural issue with the building so they were going to go ahead and fix it to keep the building up to code, and that it was going to take about a week until I can move back home.” Crossing her arms over her chest, she smiled. “You don’t mind, do you? If you do, I can always go to a hotel or something . . .”
“No,” he said, flicking a hand in blatant dismissal. “It’s fine, but tell me . . . why is it that my parents seem to think that you’re my girlfriend?”
“Oh, that,” she hedged as though she were trying to think of a good reason for it. “I panicked.”
She nodded, quickly tucking a long strand of tightly curled blonde hair behind her ear. “Well, they’re your parents,” she hurried on to say. “I didn’t know what I was supposed to tell them.”
One eyebrow arched as he continued to watch the sparrow-youkai. “You could have told them that you were staying here while they were working on your apartment,” he pointed out reasonably.
Stephanie sighed and shot him a rather coquettish glance. “I did say that I panicked, didn’t I? Besides, I’m not that good with parents, in general.”
The other eyebrow rose to join the first one. “That would be a distinct disadvantage in your line of work, wouldn’t you say?”
Stephanie giggled and thumped the back of her hand against his chest. She worked at Bangor General Hospital in the fertility assistance clinic. She’d told him the first time they had gone out for dinner that she counseled potential parents-to-be on the realities of assisted parenthood. “You know what I mean,” she chided.
“So you panicked,” he repeated, a hint of amusement lighting the depths of his gaze. He knew that she had been raised by her grandmother and had no memory at all of her parents. She’d said that they had died when she was about three in a yacht accident off the coast of Brazil where they were on a second honeymoon. When she told him that story, however, she was very candid about it, and he’d appreciated that she simply didn’t seem to bear any kind of baggage over the incident. In fact, it was one of the things about her that had impressed him at the time. In his line of work, he’d found that most of the people he’d encountered tended to surround themselves with a kind of victim mentality, and though a part of him could understand why that would be, he couldn’t help feeling most often that it was a bit of a cop out.
“I apologize,” she said, blue eyes widening, full red lips pursing in a pretty pout. “I’ll take care of it; don’t worry.”
Relenting with a soft chuckle, Gunnar shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. They’re not going to be here that long. Just don’t panic again. I shudder to think what you might say the next time you do.”
She laughed. “If it makes you feel any better, I have since learned that your mother is an absolute dear and your father . . . well . . .”
That earned her another raised eyebrow-ed look. “What does that mean?”
She laughed again then cleared her throat as though whatever it was she was thinking really shouldn’t be funny to her, at all. “Well, they kind of . . . let themselves in . . .” she drawled, “and I . . . I’d just taken a shower, but I hadn’t realized that anyone would actually be stopping in, so I’d thrown a sweater and my favorite jeans into the dryer to warm them up a little, so-o-o-o . . .”
“So you presented my parents with an eyeful, did you?”
“Absolutely not on purpose,” she insisted. “I think I might have been more embarrassed, too, if your father hadn’t blushed about ten shades of red and dropped his coat over my shoulders.”
“And then they came to the conclusion that you were my girlfriend?”
“That sounds about right,” she agreed, squinting just a little at his abilities of perception. “He’s quite a gentleman, isn’t he?”
Gunnar considered that then slowly nodded. He supposed that it could have been much, much worse. Besides, it might have been interesting to have seen Toga’s face when he’d walked in, only to find Stephanie bearing what had to be a hell of a lot of very, very long, slender legs, and Gunnar knew from experience that those legs in particular were damn impressive, indeed . . . “I suppose he is,” he allowed slowly. “I imagine he was more embarrassed than you were.”
She laughed softly and shrugged. “Well, he does turn red whenever I walk into the room.”
Somehow, that didn’t surprise Gunnar, either.
“It’s remarkable how closely you resemble him,” she went on, her sandy brown eyebrows drawing together in a thoughtful frown. “You two could be brothers—or twins.”
“I don’t look that much like him,” Gunnar muttered, shaking his head.
Stephanie giggled—it wasn’t a high pitched or almost annoying racket that many women made. It was more of a husky sound, infinitely easier on the ears and very much appreciated—which was not to say that Stephanie didn’t have a much more exuberant laugh. She tended to be on the more free-spirited side overall with a zest for what she called getting the most out of life. Maybe a little too impetuous, but then, she did possess some redeeming qualities, too—like those legs of hers, for starters. That aside, though, she had a good sense of humor, she was very independent, and she understood what he wanted out of a relationship—any relationship.
“You do,” she said with a simplistic shrug. “You really do.”
Figuring that commenting on it would only drag it out longer, Gunnar shook his head and let it drop. “I’ve got to make a couple phone calls,” he said instead. “Would you mind calling Birch Cove and making a reservation for tonight? I want to take my parents somewhere nice.”
“I can do that,” she agreed with an easy smile. “For three or will you be asking your cousin and his wife to join you?”
Her question earned her a droll kind of look. “You won’t be joining us?”
Her smile didn’t falter as she tilted her head to the side to remove the simple pearl earrings she’d chosen to wear to work. “I didn’t want to be presumptuous,” she informed him. “Honestly, if you’d rather that I don’t, it’s fine.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Stephanie. It’s just dinner,” he said as he turned on his heel and started out of the foyer again. “Do as you wish.”
“Then I’ll make the reservations and change my clothes. Is seven o’clock too late?” she called after him.
“Just fine,” he replied, lifting a hand to indicate that he’d heard her without slowing his gait as he moved toward the kitchen where he figured his mother was up to something. “Why is it that you seem to spend more time in the kitchen now than you ever did when we were small?” Gunnar asked, leaning in the doorway, crossing his arms over his chest as Sierra tapped her index finger on the counter where she was leaning in, frowning thoughtfully at her laptop computer’s screen.
“Hmm, I was looking at the local sales ads,” she told him in a distracted sort of tone. “Gin called earlier and said that she was neck-deep in Christmas shopping for the children’s hospital, so I figured that we could help her out with that tomorrow.”
“We?” he echoed.
She nodded, clicking on a link and waiting for the called page to load. “Your father and me. I thought we’d go shopping while you’re working—you are working, right?” Sparing a moment to grin at him, she shook her head and waved a hand dismissively. “Of course you are! You work more than your father, and he works more than he should.”
Gunnar didn’t deny it. “Then I suppose I can give you my contribution this year instead of sending Aunt Gin a donation.”
Sierra nodded again, her smile a little censuring. “You need to take some time off now and then,” she chided. “You’re entirely too serious all of the time—like your grandfather.”
“Stephanie’s making dinner reservations,” he said, opting to ignore his mother’s critical assessment.
“Reservations? Then I suppose I ought to go change,” she replied, closing the laptop and striding over to Gunnar. “I’m so glad I talked your father into coming.”
Gunnar smiled and leaned down to kiss Sierra’s cheek. “I am, too, Mother. I am, too.”
.:Tuesday, December 20, 2072:.
Gunnar rubbed his forehead, tapping the tortoiseshell fountain pen against the desk blotter as he scowled at the email open on his computer screen. ‘One step forward; ten steps back,’ he thought, his frown darkening a little more.
He’d emailed a nursing home in Cincinnati, Ohio, asking for permission to interview one of their residents—a human who had witnessed a crime over seventy years ago that Gunnar was investigating. While he didn’t really think that he’d get much he could go off of—after all, the man, who was around twelve years old at the time—had been interviewed by police a few times, and nothing was ever solved, but then, maybe he still remembered something that might be useful. Since they knew that the incident involved youkai, there was a slim chance that he might have said something that the police dismissed that Gunnar could make more sense out of.
Unfortunately, the facility’s administrator had just emailed back to let him know that the gentleman in question had died last week—a massive heart attack, she’d said.
“Damn,” he muttered, dropping the pen and flopping back in his chair with a definite air of dejection. “Back to Square One.”
The soft tap on the office door was a welcome intrusion, all things considered. “Come,” he called without standing up.
“Sorry for interrupting you,” Connie Leadbetter remarked as she opened the door and peeked around it. “You’ve got a guest.”
“A guest?” Gunnar echoed. Guests weren’t exactly something that he encouraged at his office. Considering the nature of his work, it wasn’t really surprising. “Who . . .?”
Connie chuckled and ducked out of the doorway, and a moment later, Gunnar blinked when one of his older sisters, Cassidy, strolled into the office. “Hi!” she said, smiling brightly at him as she hurriedly discarded her coat and bag on an empty chair and turned to face him. “It’s so good to see you!”
Slowly getting to his feet, Gunnar smiled, crossing the floor and opening the small refrigerator mounted in a cabinet build into the wall. “Soda? Water?” he offered.
“Water would be great, thanks,” she said. “The air in the plane was unbelievably dry.
“Here,” he said, handing her a plastic bottle. “Mother didn’t mention that you were coming,” he remarked though not unkindly. To be honest, of his sisters, Cassidy was his favorite, even if she did tend to try to mother him, sometimes more so than Sierra did . . .
Cassidy shot Gunnar one of her endearingly shy little smiles and fidgeted with the bottle of water that he’d given her. Of his sisters, she was also the smallest in stature, having very obviously taken after their mother far more than any of the other girls. In fact, if she didn’t have the raven hair and golden eyes of their father, she really would look just like Sierra . . . “I wasn’t sure that I could make it,” she confessed. “I mean, I wanted to, of course, but I wasn’t sure that I could get the time off . . .”
That earned her a rather narrow sort of look. “Your boss is your uncle. Are you telling me that you were afraid to ask Uncle Yasha to let you have a couple weeks off?”
“Silly, huh?” she admitted, her grin widening as she glanced at her watch then heaved a sigh. “I got a room at the Bangor Regent, but check in isn’t allowed for another two hours . . . Got any good suggestions for somewhere quiet where I can get something light to eat?”
“A hotel?” Gunnar asked, eyebrows lifting as he gazed at Cassidy. “I do have guest rooms, you realize.”
She wrinkled her nose and bobbed her shoulders in a nonchalant shrug. “I don’t want to impose . . .”
Gunnar rolled his eyes. “As long as you don’t make a habit of showing up on my doorstep more than once a year, then I don’t mind—this time, anyway.”
Giggling at his teasing, she set the untouched water on a nearby table and reached for her coat. “You look like you’re busy. I just wanted to stop in and say hello . . . unless you aren’t busy . . . In that case, I’d have to let you buy me some breakfast . . .”
“Let me, would you?”
She laughed. “You have a better paying job, don’t you?”
Gunnar chuckled and glanced at his desk, deciding quickly that he could afford to take an hour or so to humor Cassidy, after all. “You’re the one who decided you wanted to teach—which makes no sense, by the way. You have a degree in behavioral science, don’t you?” he reminded her as he pulled his coat out of the nondescript closet behind the door.
“Uncle needed teachers, and I didn’t have a job at the time,” she explained. “Besides, teaching kids is pretty fun.”
“I’ll take y our word for it,” he said, pulling open the door and stepping back so that Cassidy could slip out before him. “Connie, I’m going to step out for a bit. If Bas calls, tell him to call my cell, otherwise take a message, and I’ll get back to them.”
Connie nodded without looking up from some documents she was scanning. “Tim Carver called a few minutes ago,” she said. “Said he was going to fax over the quarterly report for you to go over.”
“Okay,” Gunnar called over his shoulder as he escorted Cassidy out of the office building.
“She’s human, isn’t she?”
Gunnar shrugged and slowed his gait to match Cassidy’s slower one. “So?”
He could feel her gaze on him though he didn’t look to verify it. “Is it safe to have a human working for you?”
Gunnar chuckled. If it was anyone other than Cassidy, he might have told them to mind their own business, but Cassidy wasn’t necessarily trying to criticize him, and he knew it. “Connie only takes care of my business with Inutaisho Industries—for the most part. She doesn’t really have any idea what else I do—and she doesn’t ask questions, either.”
“Was that a hint?” Cassidy asked, arching an eyebrow in silent question.
“No,” he replied, straightening his back, letting his gaze roam over the street. “Maybe.”
“I wasn’t trying to be nosy,” she argued, nudging his arm with her elbow. “Are you still growing? I swear, you’re a good half foot taller than you were the last time I saw you . . .”
Rolling his eyes, Gunnar shook his head. “Perhaps you’re shrinking, Cass,” he teased.
She heaved a melodramatic sigh and grinned at him. “Entirely possible, I suppose. Oh!” Eyes widening, she stopped abruptly and turned to face him as she reached out to grasp his forearm to stop him, too. “Did Coral call you?”
“Coral?” he echoed blankly. “Was she supposed to?”
Wrinkling her nose, she started walking once more. “Well, she was going to fly in with me, but she had a last minute meeting that she had to make, so she said she’d call to let you know that she’ll be here tomorrow instead.”
Gunnar frowned thoughtfully, wondering vaguely why it should surprise him that Coral was apparently coming, too. Maybe because of her penchant for being more of a workaholic than he was, and that was saying a hell of a lot . . . “How did you talk her into leaving her job for that long?”
Cassidy giggled. “I didn’t,” she confessed, linking her arm through his. “I think Mama might’ve laid a guilt trip on her . . . Whatever works, right? It worked.”
Gunnar grimaced slightly, mostly at the idea of Sierra laying a guilt trip on Coral. Though she didn’t do it often, he knew from first-hand experience that no one on earth was better or more subtle than Sierra Inutaisho at setting you up and knocking you down with one of those . . . “I almost feel sorry for Coral . . .” he mused.
Cassidy paused long enough to look at an intricately carved tinderbox on display in a small cigar shop window. “That’s pretty,” she commented before moving on again.
“You need a tinderbox?” Gunnar teased.
“You don’t have to use it for that,” she pointed out with a grin.
“So,” Gunnar drawled, tugging open the door, “I take it that Hikari-san didn’t come with you?”
Cassidy sighed and glanced at Gunnar as her bubble of happiness seemed to burst, and he could have kicked himself for causing that, even if he hadn’t realized that his seemingly innocent question would have that effect. He had just assumed that Kazuya Hikari, Cassidy’s boyfriend for the last few years, would’ve accompanied her, but judging from the look on her face, he could see that wasn’t the case. What was it that Sierra had said to him awhile back on the phone? That she and Toga were pretty positive that Hikari was Cassidy’s mate . . .? Maybe his parents were wrong . . . “We broke up,” she said simply, carefully modulating her tone, making sure that she sounded a lot more upbeat than he suspected that she felt.
“I didn’t know,” Gunnar mumbled as the hostess led them to an empty table near the back of the establishment in a nice, quiet corner. He had to admit that he was more than a little uncomfortable with the topic at hand but he was unable to see a good way out of it without causing more damage than he already had.
Waving a hand dismissively, Cassidy did her best to paste on a bright smile that seemed more like a grimace. “It’s okay,” she told him quickly. “He said that I didn’t act enough like a youkai—whatever that meant.”
Narrowing his eyes as he pulled out a chair and waited for Cassidy to sit, Gunnar snorted inwardly. “Not enough like a youkai,” he repeated with a shake of his head as he slipped into the chair across from her and snorted indelicately. True, he didn’t know the man as well as some, but he had met him a few times while Cassidy was dating him, and in a way, he supposed that he could understand what Hikari was trying to say, even if it did bother him that anyone should try to allude to the idea that one of his sisters wasn’t ‘youkai enough’ for him. Cassidy was just too sweet, too nice, too kind to everyone—human and youkai alike—which tended to be quite normal in his family, but he knew, too, that there were still many youkai, especially back home in Japan, who still considered themselves to exist on a higher plane than the humans. He remembered his father having said once that it wasn’t that he’d set out to find a human mate as much as he’d set out to find a woman with passion who didn’t mind showing her emotions, unlike many of the youkai who tended to be aloof and cold to a fault. At least, that was what Toga had maintained, and Gunnar had to admit that there was certainly something to that. When he stopped to consider the women he’d spent any length of time with, they all seemed to be like that to a certain extent, too . . .
But to tell Cassidy that she wasn’t ‘youkai enough’? Just who the hell did Hikari Kazuya think he was speaking to?
Frowning at the uncharacteristic outrage that shot through him, Gunnar tapped his claws on the table and slowly shook his head. “You have more youkai in your little finger than one the likes of Hikari Kazuya has in his entire body,” Gunnar pointed out evenly. “Forget about him.”
The tight little smile that she cast Gunnar was purely for his benefit, and he knew it. “Y-yeah,” she said, and her tone wasn’t much brighter than her smile. “You’re right . . .”
.:Wednesday, December 21, 2072:.
“Tell me you’re not really hiding from your family in here.”
Gunnar grunted but didn’t look up from the slim-file in front of him. “Of course not, Father,” he said in a monotone, “just from the two terrors of the apocalypse.”
“I’m assuming that you mean Charity and Chelsea,” Toga reiterated. Gunnar could hear the hint of amusement in his tone but ignored it.
“Oddly, I don’t remember inviting them to stay here,” he pointed out.
Toga let out a deep breath then chuckled. “I can’t remember the last time we were all in the same house for Christmas,” he remarked. “Your mother is really enjoying herself.”
That, in Gunnar’s estimation, was entirely unfair—and the only reason that he’d actually consented to let Charity and Chelsea stay in his home, in the first place. Toga knew damn well that Gunnar really wouldn’t deny his mother something as silly as the presence of her children in one place. Hell, he’d probably banked on it . . .
He really didn’t know why he hadn’t figured that they’d show up. It should have occurred to him long before he’d ever thought of Coral making an appearance. Somehow, though, the thought hadn’t actually crossed his mind—until he’d arrived home from work a couple hours ago, only to find all four of his sisters sitting at the kitchen table with Sierra, eating homemade cookies Aunt Gin had sent over and generally polluting the air in his domain with more female laughter than he could have possibly imagined, and his father? Well, Toga was sitting at the table, too, though he seemed to be thoroughly absorbed in the hand held video game unit that he’d bought when they were supposed to be out shopping for Aunt Gin’s charity . . .
Even more unsettling was the sight of his sisters in his room when he’d emerged from his shower shortly after that. Cassidy had apparently decided that his closet needed to be organized and Coral opted to help, which was annoying but not nearly as bothersome as the sight of Charity perched on the edge of his bed, but the kicker was Chelsea, miscreant that she was, who had decided that his bed looked comfortable and was stretched out on it. When he’d told her to move, she’d grinned at him then rolled around, wiping her stench all over his comforter, much to her delight and his chagrin . . .
“It’s not that bad, is it?” Toga asked, correctly assessing Gunnar’s silence.
“Father . . .”
Gunnar grunted. “Aside from Chelsea’s stench all over my bed, need I point out that there is potpourri in my bathroom,” he grumbled, “and I know damn well who put it there.”
Toga chuckled. “So throw it out after everyone leaves. What’s the harm in that?”
Heaving a longsuffering sigh, Gunnar didn’t bother to respond to that. What good would it really do him, anyway? After all, he was talking to the man who had no qualms about letting the twins put makeup on him because it ‘amused’ them . . .
“I’ll tell them to stay out of your bathroom. How’s that?” Toga offered.
Gunnar grunted again, figuring that it was the best he was going to get at the moment. “I like them much better when they’re in New York—and I’m not.”
“Now is that really the best you can do? Where’s your Christmas spirit, Mamoruzen?” Toga chided.
“It’s in a basket, smothered under that potpourri,” he grumbled.
He was saved from further commentary when his cell phone rang, and with a sigh, he picked it up and smiled just a little. “Excuse me, Father. I’ve got to take this call,” he said.
Toga nodded and ambled out of the study, leaving Gunnar alone once more.
“Hello?” he said.
“Hey, Gun, have you seen the slim-file on the Becker case?”
“The Becker case? Of course I have. I’m working on that one right now,” he drawled, sitting back in his chair and closing the slim-file as a scowl surfaced on his features. “Why do you need it?”
Bas Zelig uttered a disgruntled little sound. “The kid’s grandmother called me awhile ago,” he said. “She says he’s got an alibi for the night that the factory blew up, but she wants to meet with one of us, so I figured I’d go since you’ve got family in town.”
Bas sighed. “She’s in Mississippi,” he said. “Can you just bring me the file in the morning?”
Drumming his claws on the desk, Gunnar shrugged. “I’ll go,” he replied. “You’re already working, what? Four cases?”
“It’s not a problem,” he assured him. “Besides, how often do you get to see your family, right?”
“It’s my case,” Gunnar insisted. “I’ll go.”
“And your family?”
Gunnar grunted. “I’m sure they’ll be here when I get back.”
Bas didn’t respond right away. In fact, it took quite a few seconds before he actually spoke again. “So that’s it, huh? You don’t want to go talk to that woman nearly as badly as you want to escape your family. Am I right?”
“Hardly,” Gunnar scoffed.
‘Just the twins,’ his youkai voice chimed in.
‘Well, one of the twins more than the other, but that’s not the point.’
‘What is it, then?’
Gunnar snorted inwardly and tried his best to sound sincere. ‘It’s my case. That’s the point.’
His youkai voice snorted, too.
“Oh, come on,” Bas went on, “your family’s not that bad. At least you don’t have to deal with Evan. Anyway, I’ll take care of it. I wouldn’t dream of robbing you of your precious family time, after all.”
Gunnar narrowed his eyes, wishing dearly that Bas was right in front of him so that he could let his deranged cousin know exactly what he thought of his magnanimous offer . . . “Bas—”
“Tell you what, Gunsie,” Bas interrupted. There was an unmistakable note of gloating in his tone that really made Gunnar want to beat him down, “if you admit that you’re trying to escape them and if you ask nicely, I’ll consider letting you go instead of me. How’s that?”
Grinding his teeth together for a full minute, Gunnar reminded himself that he couldn’t possibly become the tai-youkai of two regions if he made good on the idea of killing his irritating cousin. Since Bas was in line to inherit the title of North American tai-youkai, that would be exactly what happened . . . unfortunately. “That is not why I offered to go,” he ground out. “I was thinking of your wife and your children. Isn’t it a little close to Christmas for you to be off, running all over the place? What if you get stuck and don’t make it back home for the holidays? Wouldn’t that upset them?”
“Good God, you’re not really trying to sell me that line of shit, are you?” Bas shot back. For some reason, he sounded even more amused than he had before—the jackass. “Do us all a favor, will you? Don’t try to play noble. We all know that you suck at it.”
The connection went dead, leaving Gunnar struggling not to smash the damn thing into a million pieces.
‘But he was right. You were trying to find a good reason to disappear for a few days.’
His youkai voice laughed at him. ‘And now you sound like a sulking child.’
‘. . . Do not.’
His youkai laughed again, only louder.
Just a few days till Christmas . . .
He wasn’t entirely sure that he’d make it until New Year’s.
.:Thursday, December 22, 2072:.
“So how did the two of you meet?”
Gunnar paused as he lifted the fork to his mouth and glanced across the table at Stephanie, who was seemingly unfazed by the question his mother had so casually tossed out there. “It’s not really that interesting, Mother,” he demurred, pointedly lifting an eyebrow as he continued to eat.
Stephanie cleared her throat. “I nearly ran him down on a pair of runaway rollerblades,” she said as though it was the simplest thing in the world.
Not surprisingly, all the talking around the table stopped cold as heads turned to stare at Stephanie, who apparently didn’t realize that she’d just said something unusual since she was concentrating on the medium-rare steak in front of her.
“You nearly ran him down?” Chelsea echoed with a shake of her head, “and he’s letting you live with him?”
“That’s not really the point,” Charity pointed out a little more diplomatically. Then she turned toward Stephanie with a confused frown. “How could you nearly run him down in rollerblades? I mean, don’t they usually have those stopper-things on the underside of the toes?”
Stephanie swallowed the bite of steak she’d just stuck in her mouth and set her fork down. “Oh, see, I have this friend—Trent—who likes to invent stuff.” Charity and Chelsea nodded slowly. “Anyway, he figured out a way to put little engines on the bottom of the skates—battery operated—not standard batteries but those phremonic charged ones they came out with a couple years ago?”
Charity’s mouth rounded in a perfect ‘o’. “Engines . . .”
“This is really not that interesting,” Gunnar stated again, a little louder this time.
“Oh, no, it’s great,” Sierra insisted with a smile and a flutter of her hand. “I want to hear this—you didn’t run over her dog or anything, did you?”
Toga snorted, his cheeks pinking at the blatant reminder of exactly how he’d met Sierra years ago. Gunnar wasn’t amused, either.
“He stepped out of his office, and I couldn’t stop. I kept clicking the remote controls, but they were glitching, so they didn’t work, so I kind of yelled, ‘Watch out!’ . . . and he whips around, seconds before I flatten him and catches me. Good thing he’s got damn good reflexes, right?”
Gunnar shook his head as everyone around the table turned to stare at him with varying levels of amusement evident in their expressions.
“That . . . is so cute,” Chelsea gushed, smiling brightly as she reached for her glass of wine, “and so entirely unlike Gunnar . . .”
“And then you started dating?”
Stephanie shot Gunnar a wide-eyed look. They were treading on dangerous ground, and judging from the looks of her, she was about to panic again, and that wouldn’t be good. If she panicked again, she’d probably announce their impending and nonexistent plans to be married . . . “We had dinner a few times, yes, but it was later,” Gunnar stated in a matter-of-fact tone.
Cassidy laughed. “I’m sorry, Stephanie,” she apologized. She was always better at perceiving others’ moods than the rest of his sisters. “It’s just not very often that we get to meet Mamoru-chan’s girlfriends.”
“I-it’s okay,” she hurried to say, twisting a lock of tightly curled hair around her finger in the nervous sort of way that Gunnar had noticed during their first dinner together even as he gritted his teeth at the nickname that he’d outgrown long ago. Only Cassidy still called him that . . . “I don’t mind.”
“Meet them?” Chelsea scoffed, shaking her head and rolling her eyes. “We rarely get to hear about them, period. Then again, I suppose that those other girls aren’t actual girlfriends, anyway, which is probably for the best since they didn’t really have a single personality to share between the lot of them.”
“They were all very nice girls,” Sierra said quickly, glancing at Gunnar before reaching over to pat Chelsea’s hand.
“But this is the first time that he’s actually moved anyone into his domain,” Charity quipped, tugging a slice of bread apart and popping a bite into her mouth.
“Well, you see—” Stephanie began, glancing at Gunnar and hurrying to speak when she saw the expression on his face.
“Who does or doesn’t live here is irrelevant,” he interrupted. The look wasn’t exactly directed at Stephanie though she apparently had thought that it was. No, it was directed at his nosy sisters—sisters that were created expressly to cause him grievous discomfort and a heaping helping of embarrassment for the rest of his naturally born life, he was sure . . . “Can we drop this?”
Coral’s cell phone beeped softly, and she excused herself, much to Toga’s undisguised chagrin.
Chelsea wrinkled her nose and shrugged offhandedly. She never was one to take a hint, no matter how blatant that hint might be, and Gunnar knew that well enough, too. “Anyway, I like you, Stephanie. Maybe you can yank the stick out of his a—”
“Chelsea, at the risk of being rude, I’d appreciate it if you’d drop it since it’s none of your business,” Gunnar said tightly.
She narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth, probably to spout something else absolutely ridiculous. Before she could, however, Toga must’ve realized that Gunnar wasn’t in the mood to listen to her ration of crap, and he cleared his throat and leveled a look at his youngest daughter. “Leave it alone, Chelsea,” he said. “Your brother’s private life is his business. You wouldn’t want him poking around in yours, would you?”
She stared across the table at Gunnar and finally broke into a relatively insincere smile. “Of course not, Papa,” she said.
Gunnar stood up and bowed to his mother. “If you’ll excuse me, I have some papers I need to look over,” he said. Sierra looked like she wanted to say something but smiled instead and nodded.
Breathing a sigh of relief as he strode out of the dining room, Gunnar shook his head.
It wasn’t that Chelsea was that bad, as far as that went. She just had an uncanny knack for getting under his skin. Always had, really . . . She was just too different from him, maybe. Impetuous and headstrong, more apt to do things because someone told her that she shouldn’t, her rebellious streak was just one of the many reasons that she and Gunnar had never seen eye to eye. Oh, she meant well, and that was about the only reason that Gunnar could tolerate her at all, but that didn’t stop him from wanting to choke her from time to time when she purposefully sought to step on his nerves.
Striding into his study, Gunnar stopped short and blinked when he spotted Coral, comfortably situated behind his desk frowning at the slim-file that he’d left there when Sierra had come in to tell him that dinner was ready. “Those are classified, you realize,” he pointed out mildly. He wasn’t actually irritated with her. After all, Coral had a level head on her shoulders and, unlike most of the other women in the family, she wasn’t given to overzealous shows of emotion, one way or another. Still, it did bother him that she had invited herself into his study since he generally regarded it as his last defense.
She didn’t look up from the file as she tapped a long, tapered claw on the built-in touch pad. “This case is . . .”
He wasn’t really surprised at the hint of a grimace on her face. It was hard for most people to come to terms with the things contained in those files, himself included, and the file she was looking over was pretty bad. “Which is part of the reason why they’re classified,” he said.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, closing the file and setting it on the desk again. She didn’t really sound sorry, but then, Coral wasn’t very good at apologizing, in the first place. He wasn’t complaining; not really. He wasn’t very good at it, either. “I keep telling myself that I’m on vacation. Maybe it’ll sink in before I go home.” She didn’t sound like she believed that, either.
“Cassidy said you were having some trouble with a merger,” Gunnar replied.
Coral sighed and slowly shook her head. “Not a merger: an acquisition, and not really—at least, nothing I can’t handle.” Waving a hand dismissively, she smiled slightly. “I must commend your show of restraint.”
He blinked and picked up the stack of mail that he’d brought in when he got home earlier. “Restraint?”
Tossing a few pieces of junk mail into the garbage can beside the desk, he grunted. “About Stephanie? She did nearly run me down with those damned rollerblades.”
Coral chuckled and shook her head. “Actually, I meant with the potpourri, but that, too. About your Stephanie, though . . . She seems a little more . . . free-spirited than your other women. That’s not a bad thing, of course, but I thought you preferred women with a little more . . . self-discipline.”
Gunnar grinned slightly, tapping the sorted mail on the desk and neatly setting it aside. “Stephanie and I have an understanding,” he told her. “Besides, she’s . . . interesting.”
Lazily glowing sherry eyes rose to meet his as a rather knowing smile surfaced on Coral’s pretty face. “There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose.” Sitting back in the thickly cushioned black leather chair, she regarded Gunnar for a few moments before uttering a low laugh. “Do you remember when you were little and you got mad at me for telling you that there was no Santa?”
“I believe that I got mad at you for breaking a promise,” he corrected though he smiled, too.
She sighed and had the grace to look somewhat contrite. “I always meant to tell you that I was sorry for that.”
Gunnar shrugged and shook his head. “A little late, isn’t it?”
“Is it ever too late to say you’re sorry for something?” She laughed. “Besides, isn’t Christmas the time for goodwill and all that bunk?”
“I don’t know about that,” he muttered. “I do know that it’s a time to put up with annoying sisters—at least for a little while.”
That comment earned him a raised eyebrow-ed look. “I hope that wasn’t directed at me,” she said mildly.
“Call it payback for breaking my robot,” he replied.
Coral stood up and snorted, straightening the beautifully tailored tweed jacket over the flare of her hips. “Oh, please! It was a Kubrick kit! You snapped it back together again in, what? Five minutes?”
Gunnar arched an eyebrow and blanked his expression completely. “Five minutes that I could have been playing with him and not sitting on the floor, piecing his arm back together again.”
Coral’s lips twitched as she thought about that Christmas day so long ago. “You cried, if memory serves . . .”
“I did not,” he argued, “and if I did, I was, what? Three? Just a pup, remember?”
“A spoiled little brat of a pup,” she retorted as her smile widened. “But you were exceptionally cute,” she allowed slowly, “especially when the girls put you in dresses and carted you around in that silly pink plastic baby carriage . . .”
“I don’t remember that,” he retorted in a clipped tone of voice. Thankfully, he really didn’t remember that humiliation . . .
“You know,” she drawled, her smile fading, only to be replaced by a thoughtful frown as she stared at him, “not that I’m one to talk, per se, but . . . but what did happen to your Christmas spirit, anyway? You used to love the holiday . . .”
“Come on, Coral. I grew up,” he replied curtly. “Same as you, unless I’m mistaken.”
She nodded slowly. “Got too busy to sit down and play with Kubrick?”
“And do you still have time to sit around, playing with dolls?” he countered.
Coral laughed and wandered over to the large teak bookshelf that extended the length of the far wall. “I never played with dolls, in the first place, Mamoruzen,” she pointed out as she picked up a silver framed photograph of Toga and Sierra—one of two pictures that stood on the shelf. The other was a very formal portrait of Sesshoumaru and Kagura. “Grandmother says that you’re too much like Grandfather.”
Gunnar chuckled. It wasn’t the first time that he’d heard that, too. “I take that as a compliment.”
Coral paused in her perusal long enough to smile over her shoulder at him. “I do, too, when she says it about me.”
A brusque tap on the door drew his attention, and Gunnar shot Coral a somewhat dubious look. “Why do I get the feeling that I shouldn’t answer that?” he muttered, more to himself than to his eldest sister.
“Mama said to tell you that it’s time for dessert, and she made cheesecake,” Cassidy said as she peeked around the door and smiled impishly.
Coral slowly shook her head but set the photograph back on the shelf and moved to trail behind Cassidy out of the room. “She made it, huh?”
Cassidy giggled. “Sure, she did. She made it all the way back to the house from Baker’s Delights with the cheesecake still intact.”
Gunnar sighed and rolled his eyes at Cassidy’s really awful joke then followed his sisters out of his study. He wasn’t exactly a dessert kind of person and generally didn’t like much in the way of sweets, but cheesecake wasn’t so bad, and he supposed that he could eat a small slice if it pleased his mother.
.:Thursday, December 22, 2072:.
Shuffling through the papers in the folder that he’d grabbed before leaving the office, Gunnar scowled at the scrawl of notes that weren’t really in any particular order. It was a really old case, one that hadn’t been put into a slim-file yet, and it required some patience to make sense out of everything. Hell, there were even some notes that were scribbled on an old napkin . . .
A soft tap on the study door drew his attention though he didn’t look up. “Come in,” he called, keying one of the memos into a slim-file he’d started for the case.
“I know your study’s off limits,” Stephanie said as she peered into the room, “but I brought you some tea.”
Gunnar shut the slim-file and closed the folder in front of him before sitting back and crooking two fingers toward Stephanie to invite her further into the room. “I suppose that it’s all right this once,” he allowed.
She smiled and set the steaming mug of tea on the desk in front of him. “I like your family,” she ventured at length, rubbing her forearms even though the house was warm enough. “Your sisters are a riot, although I have to admit that Coral’s a little intimidating.”
“Just a little?”
She wrinkled her nose but laughed. “I was trying to be tactful,” she pointed out.
“Tell that to the men she dates. They all end up feeling inadequate and intimidated by her, too, which is probably why she isn’t mated yet.”
The sparrow-youkai winced. “Must be hell on her personal life . . . I still like her, though.”
A hint of amusement lit his gaze, and he chuckled. “Yes, well, I’ll caution you not to spend too much time with my sisters. They’re like vultures, hovering and just waiting for their chance to pick your carcass clean.”
“Oh, they’re not that bad,” she scoffed. “The twins were telling me some really cute stories about you when you were younger. Did you really shoot your grandfather—the Sesshoumaru Inutaisho—with a paintball gun? Talk about ‘intimidating’ . . .”
Gunnar made a face and slowly shook his head. “Vultures,” he stated again.
She smiled. “And to think, I could have gone to Africa to hang out with lions . . . Makes me glad that I didn’t.”
Tapping his fingertips together, he frowned as he considered what she’d said. “Oh, right . . . with that guy that works at the zoo . . . What was his name again? Taylor? Something like that?”
She laughed and shook her head. “Talon,” she corrected. “You said that you didn’t like him, though.”
Gunnar almost smiled—almost. “So you didn’t go with him because I don’t like him?”
She shrugged and drew a deep breath, letting her head fall back slightly as she closed her eyes for a moment. “I figure you’ve got to be a pretty good judge of character, don’t you? Besides,” she continued, wrinkling her nose, “he carries around a man-bag. That had to mean something, right?”
“Perhaps,” he allowed with a nonchalant flick of his wrist. “You shouldn’t change your plans on my account.”
“I didn’t,” she assured him. “I doubt I could’ve gotten that much time off work, anyway.”
Gunnar sipped the tea she’d given him and sat back a little deeper into his chair. That was something he really appreciated about Stephanie, wasn’t it? She’d understood from the very start, just what Gunnar really wanted out of any kind of relationship he was in, regardless of whether it was a serious thing or just a casual moment, and she didn’t mind, either. If he called her on a Saturday night to ask her to dinner, she had no qualms about telling him if she had already made plans, and he respected that about her.
The first time they’d slept together, though, wasn’t the day she’d nearly run him down on her out of control rollerblades. It was a month or so later when he’d inadvertently seen her again at a fundraiser dinner that Gin Zelig was hosting. She’d been there with some guy named Kline who had spent the majority of the evening staring at other women—so much so that it had irritated Gunnar enough that he’d gone over and re-introduced himself to Stephanie. He took her home after the party, stayed for a nightcap that had ended in some very satisfying sex, and they’d seen each other off and on for the last few months. It wasn’t a serious relationship by any means, but the diversion it provided was very, very nice.
Stephanie pushed the sleeve of her sweater up and turned her arm to check her watch. “Hmm . . . I’m going to go to bed,” she said, straightening the cuff of her sleeve once more. “Don’t you dare come knocking on my door—unless you knock softly,” she teased with a wink.
Gunnar chuckled but shook his head. There was just no way in hell he’d take her up on her offer as long as his family was in the house. It seemed somehow disrespectful, and even then, Gunnar appreciated discretion more than just about anything else.
But he did appreciate the very nice sway of her hips as she slipped out of the study. The house was quiet at last. If his sisters were sleeping, he didn’t know, but at least they weren’t bedeviling him, and that was blessing enough.
Gaze shifting around the room as he slowly sipped the tea, Gunnar frowned when his eyes passed over the two bags on the sofa and returned again.
He’d sent Connie out to do his Christmas shopping earlier today since he had simply been too busy at work to bother with running out to do that, too. Connie hadn’t said anything when he’d set the task to her, but she did give him a strange sort of look that he’d summarily dismissed a moment later. Besides, he trusted her taste when it came to gift-buying . . .
Setting the empty tea mug down, he stood up and rounded the desk, grasping the bags and heading out of the study to stash the gifts under the tree.
Stephanie had bought the tree, he’d discovered. He hadn’t remarked upon the fact that he never bothered to put up one since he was the only one here. That aside, he wasn’t fond of the needles that invariably ended up all over the floor or the sap that always seemed to make a mess of things, nor was he a fan of the fake plastic trees that others who disliked trees for those first reasons tended to favor. Maybe if he had a family around all the time it’d be different, but as it was, it seemed ridiculous to waste the time, the energy, and ultimately, the tree.
She hadn’t realized that, however, and since they hadn’t really discussed it, then he wasn’t irritated with her over it, either. In fact, he had to admit that he was rather glad that she had taken it upon herself to see to the tree. If he didn’t have one when his parents had arrived, he figured that they would have been more than a little puzzled—at least, his mother would have been. Since Toga was born and raised in Japan where Christmas was not really that big of a deal, he wouldn’t have thought too much about it.
No, the only change Gunnar had made to the actual tree was replacing the blinker bulb in the chain with a constantly glowing blue one. For reasons that he didn’t completely understand, he’d never liked the chaos of a blinking Christmas tree . . .
Letting out a deep breath, he knelt down and started to pull packages out of the bags and stuffed them under the boughs. Connie had them wrapped, too, much to his relief. Wrapping the damn things was almost as much of a pain as buying them, in the first place, as far as he was concerned.
“Oh . . . you’re still up?”
Gunnar placed the last gift under the tree and peered over his shoulder as his father ventured through the living room from the kitchen with a bottle of water in hand. “I was looking over some files in my office,” he explained, pushing himself to his feet and grabbing the bags to throw away.
Toga nodded and stared at his son for a long moment, like he was trying to figure out something. Finally, though, he shook his head, frowning as he waved a hand toward the sofa. “Talk to me for a minute,” he coaxed though Gunnar could sense the underlying demand in his father’s tone.
Seeing no way out of it, Gunnar dropped the bags on the coffee table and sat in the chair that his father had indicated. He had a feeling that he knew what was bugging Toga, but damned if he’d make it easier for him, either . . .
Toga sank down on the sofa across from him and set the bottle of water in his hand aside for the moment. “I, uh, couldn’t help but notice that Stephanie isn’t sharing your bedroom,” he finally said, clearing his throat nervously as a hint of pink—discernable even in the wan light of the glowing Christmas tree—filtered into his cheeks. It wasn’t entirely surprising. Considering Stephanie’s state of undress when he’d met her, Toga blushed whenever he actually met her gaze or mentioned her by name, for that matter . . .
Gunnar stared at his father for a moment then shook his head. “Is this relevant?” he countered mildly, cocking an eyebrow as he tapped his claws on the arm of the chair.
“Isn’t it?” Toga countered, arching an eyebrow of his own. “Then you’re saying that I’d be correct in assuming that she’s not your mate.”
“She needed a place to stay while they did some work on her apartment building,” Gunnar replied, wondering absently why he was explaining all of this, in the first place.
“So she’s not even your girlfriend,” he concluded with a slow nod. “Why didn’t you say as much before?”
“I don’t mind having her around,” Gunnar said. “Is that a problem?”
“Of course not,” Toga insisted with a shake of his head. “Are you sure that she understands how you feel, though?”
Gunnar almost laughed but didn’t. “You’re making it sound like you think she’s in love with me or something, Father. I assure you, she’s not.”
“And you think that couldn’t change over time?” Toga contended.
Gunnar shook his head and frowned. “You’re reading a little too much into the situation, Father,” he replied tightly. “Besides, finding my mate is not exactly my driving ambition, anyway.”
Toga sighed. “Mamoruzen, I can’t even begin to comprehend why you feel the way you do, and I know that it’s somehow my fault—”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Gunnar cut in, leaning forward, resting his elbows on his knees as he scowled at his father in an openly contentious sort of way.
Toga didn’t look like he believed his son. “Maybe you don’t blame me for whatever it is that you are trying to avoid, exactly,” Toga relented softly but shook his head just the same, “but there’s always been something, hasn’t there? I’ve always felt it even if I don’t really understand what it is.”
Gunnar sighed and rubbed his forehead. “What you and Mother have is special—maybe even beautiful,” he said at length. “I’m just not so sure that it’s something that I want for myself, Father.”
“I just don’t.”
Toga scowled at him, and for a moment, he looked like he wanted to say something. In the end, though, he sighed and nodded curtly as he reached for the bottle of water and slowly got to his feet again. “I . . . I’m sure that you’ve got your reasons. Just think about it, please. If there’s no chance that she’s your mate, is it really fair to her to have her living here?” he asked, pausing before heading toward the stairs long enough to cast a half-smile at his son. It was thin and strained despite the will to hide his emotions from Gunnar. “Night.”
“Night,” Gunnar replied, watching Toga disappear up the steps with a thoughtful scowl. Only after he heard the door to the guest room where his parents were staying close did he let out a deep breath and haul himself out of the chair, stalking across the room, over to the doors that overlooked the back yard.
‘I’m going to be tai-youkai,’ he thought simply, as though it was the obvious explanation, and in his mind, maybe it was. He knew what it meant, though, didn’t he? As much as Toga loved his family, Gunnar had seen it often enough: long hours spent behind closed doors . . . problems that he took to bed with him at night . . . decisions that had to be made, regardless of how he felt on the matter . . . times when Sierra would smile tightly and tell them that Toga had to work late . . . And it wasn’t that anyone had felt neglected, either, but they’d all known how stressful Toga’s position really was. They’d all seen it, and, to an extent, they’d all felt it, too. Gunnar had never felt compelled to shirk his responsibilities or the title that he would one day inherit, but . . .
But it was more than that, too. Mates were weaknesses—a youkai’s only real weakness. Emotions aside, the physical repercussions of having a true mate were more than Gunnar could reconcile himself to. Being reliant upon someone else for his very existence? His lip curled slightly as he stared out into the night. ‘Never.’
He’d decided long ago, hadn’t he? His father could deal with the pressure, and there was certainly no question whatsoever that he absolutely adored his mate, too. Gunnar respected Toga for that; of course he did. That didn’t mean that he wanted the same things for himself, and given the stories that he’d heard over time—of Toga’s own rebellion against what his father had wanted for him—then Gunnar figured that Toga had to understand him on some level, too, even if he didn’t completely agree with Gunnar’s choices. Thing was, he had reasons for the choices he made. He’d grown up with the inexorable truth of his existence, hadn’t he? Being hanyou set to inherit the title of tai-youkai one day was just too harsh, and he knew that there were always the whispers—whispers that others didn’t think that he heard. Questions of whether or not he was worthy of that position that were completely ridiculous but entirely valid, he supposed. There simply wasn’t any way he could entertain the idea of perpetuating that, and as much as he loved and respected his parents, maybe he resented them on some level, too . . .
And when the time came for him to take a mate, he would, of course. After all, he would eventually need to produce his own heir to the legacy that Gunnar considered to be his duty and his honor. That didn’t mean that he had to change his ideals or goals. He simply had to find the woman who understood the things that Gunnar wanted and who accepted the things that he was willing to give—a name and the prestige that went along with it, money, even a certain level of respect, and in the end, Gunnar’s heir would be as close to full youkai as possible, and that was more than enough, as far as he was concerned.
All that aside, though, it hardly mattered now. He was nowhere near ready for any of that, anyway, and while he could appreciate Toga’s concerns over Stephanie’s role in Gunnar’s life, did it really matter when the two of them understood what they wanted well enough?
.:Friday, December 23, 2072:.
“What brings you up here?” Bas asked as he strode into his living room with his one and a half year old son hanging from his neck. “Shouldn’t you be at home with your guests?”
Gunnar tapped his gloves on his bare palm impatiently. “Oh, that file . . . you said you forgot it earlier,” he told him.
“Oh, yeah, sorry about that. I was going to drop it off to you,” Bas said in a rather distracted tone of voice. Bailey, it seemed, had spotted a plate of cookies and was using his feet, trying to spur his bull of a father toward the goodies.
“I wanted to read it over the weekend,” Gunnar replied with a shrug.
“I’ll get it for you,” Bas said. “What, Bailey? You want a cookie?”
“Cookie!” Bailey echoed happily when Bas moved toward the table.
Gunnar frowned thoughtfully as he watched Bas and Bailey. “Oh, right . . . didn’t you mention at the office earlier that you and Sydnie haven’t finished your Christmas shopping yet?”
“No, Daddy! That one!” Bailey said when Bas held a small wreath shaped cookie over his shoulder, letting go long enough to wave a finger at a thickly iced snowman cookie.
“What? This one? Okay,” he said, handing over the cookie before popping the rejected wreath into his mouth and turning to face Gunnar. “Yeah,” he replied in answer to Gunnar’s question. “Not a big deal, though. We’re going to go finish that up as soon as Sydnie’s done feeding and changing Olivia.”
Shifting uncomfortably, Gunnar nodded tersely and licked his lips. “What about the pups?”
“Huh?” Bas asked distractedly since Bailey had gobbled down the cookie and was whispering in his father’s ear that he wanted another one. “Them? Oh . . . Mom’s going to watch them.”
“You know,” Gunnar said, trying for a more nonchalant tone than he was feeling, “I could take Bailey home with me . . . He’d have lots of fun.”
Bas stopped and slowly quirked an eyebrow as he stared at Gunnar rather dubiously. “Come again?”
Gunnar rolled his eyes and pinned Bas with a no nonsense look. “I said that I could take Bailey home with me while you go finish Christmas shopping,” he reiterated.
“W . . . why would you want to do that?” Bas asked almost carefully like he thought that maybe Gunnar had finally lost his mind.
Gunnar snorted and shot Bas a marked scowl. “I’m offering to help you out,” he said, careful to keep as much irritation out of his voice as he possibly could.
Bas suddenly chuckled, shaking his head at Gunnar as his eyes took on a knowing sort of glint. “You think I wouldn’t have asked my mom to watch them? I mean, come on, she’s right down the road. You’re an hour away . . .”
Gunnar rolled his eyes, crossing his arms over his chest. “You’re not seriously going to finish your shopping here, are you? Bangor’s got three times the number of stores as Bevelle.”
“Actually, we were planning on driving to Bangor,” Bas replied easily.
“But isn’t Aunt Gin still worrying over last minute plans for the Christmas party tomorrow night?”
“Well,” Bas mused, scratching his chin as Bailey leaned precariously to the side in an effort to nab another cookie. “I know she was doing some baking and stuff, but she’s done it before and watched the pups at the same time.”
“Maybe, but . . . You know, you could just drop him—” his eyes widened as another thought occurred to him. If Bas dropped off Bailey, then he might as well drop off Olivia, too. After all, there were more than enough women in his house at the moment that he wouldn’t actually have to pick her up or anything, right . . .? “—Them—off, and you can pick them up before you head home . . . and it’d be nice because if anything should happen, you’d be closer than you would be if you were just leaving them with your parents.”
“Wo-o-ow,” Bas drawled then whistled low to emphasize his point.
“What?” Gunnar asked when Bas didn’t offer any explanation.
“You’re really desperate, huh?”
Gunnar blinked innocently and shook his head. “Desperate? What do you mean?”
Bas’ grin turned downright catty—cattier than his wife’s, if that meant anything at all . . . “You want to use my children as a distraction for the women in your house, don’t you?”
Blanking his expression, Gunnar silently cursed Bas’ powers of perception. Why did it seem like the only times Bas was really that sharp was when he was trying to make Gunnar’s life harder, anyway . . .? “Bas, listen. I’m offering to help you out; that’s all.”
“Yeah, but you’re sounding a lot like a desperate man—or worse: a used car salesman,” Bas shot back.
“I do not,” Gunnar retorted, scowl darkening as he glowered at his demented cousin.
“Sure, you do,” Bas parried. “One of those greasy guys with the slicked-back hair, the double-knit plaid jackets and mud-brown slacks . . .”
It was on the tip of his tongue to tell Bas to go straight to hell, but the memory of last night’s dinner was entirely too fresh in his mind, and he tamped the urge down instead. “It’ll be fun,” he said instead.
Bas snorted. “Okay, let me think about it—No.”
“Because,” Bas went on, “you didn’t say ‘please’.”
Gunnar counted to ten before he trusted himself to try to speak again. It wasn’t the idea of watching Bailey and Olivia that bothered him nearly as much as Bas did . . . “Please,” he gritted out, unable to keep the growl out of his tone.
Bas blinked and leveled an incredulous sort of look at him. “You didn’t just say what I thought you did, did you?”
“Good God, you did! I should write it down! You never say—”
“Shut up, will you?”
Gunnar sighed. “You know, forget it,” he growled, turning on his heel to stomp out of the house.
“Oh, come on, Gunnar, it can’t be that bad,” Bas called after him.
Gunnar stopped in the doorway and slowly pivoted on his heel to pin Bas with a carefully blanked stare. “You’d think, wouldn’t you?” he challenged. “For a normal family, maybe it wouldn’t be, but you’re forgetting that there isn’t a damn thing ‘normal’ about my sisters. They spent all of dinner last night bugging Stephanie for details on how we met, and—”
Waving a hand to cut Gunnar off, Bas frowned. “Why was she at dinner?”
“Because she’s staying with me for awhile,” Gunnar admitted.
Bas opened his mouth to say something. He was cut off before he could, though. “Who’s staying with you?” Sydnie asked as she breezed through the doorway on the far side of the room from the kitchen with Olivia cuddled against her chest.
“Stephanie,” Bas replied before Gunnar could answer.
Sydnie’s eyebrows arched dramatically. “Psycho Steffi?”
Gunnar snorted. “She’s not psycho,” he grumbled.
“Of course she is,” Sydnie replied. “I mean, how normal is it to ask me what diet I’d used to drop all that weight?”
Rubbing his forehead, Gunnar grunted. Okay, so Stephanie actually had asked Sydnie that shortly after Olivia was born, but he was more inclined to believe that she was just joking, and it hardly merited the deplorable nickname that Sydnie infallibly used.
“Oh, and how normal is it for her to believe that she’s actually talked to ghosts?” Sydnie went on.
“She didn’t say that she can talk to ghosts,” Gunnar insisted. “She said that she was open to the idea that there could be something to it.”
“And that’s completely normal,” Sydnie intoned sarcastically, a smug sort of expression slipping over her face.
Bas leaned toward Sydnie and cleared his throat. “Gunnar’s offering to watch Bailey and Olivia,” he muttered despite the fact that Gunnar could hear him.
Sydnie’s eyes widened, and she shook her head. “But you’re scared of babies,” Sydnie pointed out.
Gunnar grimaced. “I’m not scared of babies,” he countered. “I just prefer not to hold them.”
Sydnie nodded quickly. “Of course,” she agreed. “Scared of them.”
“Well, kitty, if it helps, there are other women there, and Toga’s good with pups, too,” Bas said reasonably.
Sydnie’s jewel-like eyes narrowed suddenly, and she tilted her head as she regarded Gunnar. “I don’t know, puppy,” she said more to Bas than to him. “Are psychotic tendencies contagious?”
Gunnar heaved a sigh and shook his head. “Forget it,” he growled and turned toward the door once more.
Sydnie laughed and waved a hand. “Hold on; hold on. I was teasing, Gunsie!”
He waved a hand over his shoulder and reached for the door handle to let himself out. A tiny hand tugging on his slacks stopped him, and when he glanced down, it was to see Bailey’s upturned face beaming at him. “I go home wif you?” he asked, his voice clear and bright.
“You want to, Bailey?” Gunnar asked, eyebrows lifting in surprise.
Bailey nodded happily. “Yeah!”
Behind them, Bas chuckled then sighed. “All right,” he relented, shaking his head slowly. “Your grandma’s going to be sad, though.”
“I tan go see Gwamma ‘morrow!” Bailey insisted before turning back to face Gunnar once more. “I tan have cookies?”
Gunnar smiled slightly and nodded. “Sure, I’ll get you some cookies,” he agreed.
Bailey was sold, if the expression on his face meant anything at all.
“All right,” Bas said. “We’ll drop them off in a little while.”
Bailey laughed and ran off, babbling about wanting to take some toy or another along.
“Hey, Gunnar . . .”
Crossing his arms over his chest, Bas’ smirk was still firmly in place. “Have fun.”
Gunnar smirked back as Bailey came tearing down the steps once more, dragging a case of Matchbox cars behind him. “Rather watch them than deal with the crowds at the mall,” he retorted just as pleasantly.
For some reason, his answer only served to further Bas’ amusement.
.:Friday, December 23, 2072:.
“When I get bigger, I’ll be big like my daddy,” Bailey announced as he sat on the floor near Gunnar’s feet without taking his eyes off the television and the racing game that Toga had rented earlier in the day.
Toga chuckled and spared a moment to glance at the future North American tai-youkai. “Big like your daddy, eh?”
Cassidy walked into the room to deposit a tray of cheese, crackers, and assorted Christmas candies and cookies on the coffee table. She set it down then paused long enough to ruffle Bailey’s long bronze hair as he used his hands on the floor to propel himself forward without getting up. “Thanks,” he said moments before stuffing a cookie into his mouth.
Cassidy giggled and leaned down to kiss the top of Bailey’s head. “You’re welcome. Do you want a glass of milk?”
Shaking his head vigorously, he reached for another cookie. “Milk’s for kitties,” he told her. “I’m a puppy!”
“Okay, then, how about some juice?”
Bailey nodded and leaned to the side in an effort to elude Cassidy’s second barrage of kisses and see the television at the same time.
Gunnar smiled slightly as he watched the boy. He couldn’t say that he blamed him, could he . . .?
Bailey hadn’t wanted to wait to go with Gunnar, so he’d brought him home then which had given Bas yet another opportunity to laugh at him since the sight of a toddler seat in Gunnar’s Maserati was apparently amusing to his demented cousin.
What had surprised Gunnar, however, were the questions that Bailey had asked him on the drive: questions such as how many miles per gallon the car got, when was it born, could he ride in it with Gunnar without ‘Olive’—Bailey’s name for his infant sister—again sometime, whether Bailey would get a car like Gunnar’s if he worked with his daddy when he grew up . . . Somehow, he hadn’t realized that the boy was capable of such detailed thought and perception, and Gunnar had to admit that Bailey wasn’t nearly as intimidating as he had been when he was a squalling infant, complete with thin little chicken legs and a very loud cry . . .
And it wasn’t like he really disliked children, either, no matter what Bas thought. He simply had trouble believing that he wouldn’t hurt them when they were still infants, not to mention that one always had to be on guard when dealing with one of those. They cried, they sometimes stank, and they had a deplorable habit of erupting at the slightest provocation. Gunnar had witness that more than once—Bailey or Olivia throwing up on their parents. Bas called it burping. Gunnar called it disgusting.
But Bailey, at a year and a half old, was beyond that, which wasn’t to say that he wasn’t damn good at burping. He was very good at that, actually, as Gunnar had discovered after they’d arrived at his house and he’d given the boy a juice box from the small bag that Sydnie had handed to him right before they’d taken off in his car. Bailey sucked it down and promptly unleashed a belch that would have made Gunnar’s twisted cousin, Morio proud . . .
He was also potty trained—Gunnar already knew that since it was something that Bas was quite happy about, too—and he had no trouble at all with talking. All in all, Gunnar had decided that a child Bailey’s age was all right and even a little fun, too.
Olivia, on the other hand, had arrived about forty five minutes after Gunnar had gotten home, and after a few minutes of quiet whimpering after her parents left, she’d promptly fallen to sleep on Toga’s lap. The women had all descended upon Toga, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the sleeping infant, which he supposed that he could understand—Olivia was very pretty, and considering she looked just like her mama, that wasn’t entirely surprising, either. The only exception to that, though, was Coral, who seemed much more comfortable as she stood back and observed from a healthy distance, apparently not as keen on the whole baby business as the rest of the womenfolk were. The baby woke up about an hour ago with a whine followed in short order by a ‘burp’ that left Toga smiling rather ruefully and handing off the infant to Sierra before carefully wiping himself clean and remarking that the entire display brought back a lot of memories . . .
Bailey knelt on the floor, leaning on Gunnar’s knee with an expectant expression on his face. “Uncle Gunnar?”
Peeking around the edge of the newspaper, Gunnar blinked and met Bailey’s curious stare. “Hmm?”
“You catch the bad youkai with my daddy?”
Gunnar nodded. “Yes.”
Bailey thought that over then nodded solemnly. “When I get big, I can catch bad youkai, too,” he stated as though it was a foregone conclusion.
“You’re going to work with us?” Gunnar asked.
Bailey nodded again. “Then I can have an office, too!”
Chuckling softly, Gunnar shrugged. “I suppose you can.”
Bailey grinned and turned around to watch the game again.
“I’m surprised that Aunt Gin isn’t watching them,” Coral remarked as she strode into the room.
“She was busy baking and stuff for tomorrow,” Gunnar replied vaguely.
“You should definitely have one of these, Gunnar,” Chelsea commented as she strolled back into the living room with Olivia securely nestled in her arms. “You and Stephanie going to start a family soon?”
That, in Gunnar’s estimation, didn’t deserve an answer, and he held the newspaper a little higher, deigning not to comment on Chelsea’s ridiculous question.
“She’s just like a little princess, isn’t she? She’s just so cute!” Charity squealed as she carefully took Olivia from Chelsea.
“Why don’t you go have one of your own instead of trying to irritate your brother?” Coral asked, messing around with her cell phone, probably checking messages to see if she was missing anything at the office.
Chelsea was unfazed. “Because it’s much better when I can spoil them rotten and give them back to their parents,” she replied.
“Speaking of parents,” Sierra said as she settled down beside Toga, “when are Bas and Sydnie coming back?”
“Tired of babysitting, Mama?” Cassidy teased with a wink.
“Of course not, but I gave her the bottle awhile ago, and if she gets hungry again, we don’t have another one,” Sierra pointed out.
“Oh, she’s old enough to give water with a little sugar added to it if it comes to that,” Stephanie chimed in. She sat on the edge of the ottoman that Gunnar wasn’t using. “Not much sugar—just a pinch, really . . .”
“You know a lot about babies,” Sierra remarked with a smile.
Stephanie waved a hand in dismissal and laughed. “Goes with the job, I guess.”
“What do you do?” Cassidy asked.
Gunnar stifled a sigh. ‘Here it comes,’ he thought darkly, opening his mouth to divert the current conversation.
“I council prospective parents-to-be at the fertility clinic in the hospital.”
‘And there it is.’
“It was either that or move to the rainforest and study snakes.”
Pressing his lips together in a tight line, Gunnar wisely repressed the urge to chuckle. His family wasn’t sure whether or not Stephanie was serious, but she’d told him the same thing before, too, and he knew her well enough to know that she really was being dead serious.
“Anyway, there aren’t as many men in the rainforest, so I figured I’d do the counseling thing for awhile, instead.”
Gunnar folded the newspaper and set it aside as Bailey hopped up, jamming his little fists into the air and hollering happily when Toga’s car crossed the finish line.
The sound of the doorbell abruptly put an end to the conversation before it got any weirder, and Gunnar stood up, striding out of the room to admit his guests—Bas and Sydnie, he figured.
“Merry Christmas, puppy!” Sydnie exclaimed, launching herself directly into Gunnar’s arm when he pulled the door open.
Gunnar chuckled and caught her easily, giving her a little squeeze as she rose up on tiptoe to lick his cheek playfully. “Well, if it isn’t my favorite kitty,” he drawled. “Decide to ditch that bastard you married?”
“Hardly, you ass,” Bas grumbled, wrapping his arms around Sydnie’s waist to pull her out of Gunnar’s grasp. “How are my pups? Did you traumatize them?”
“They’re just fine, Bas.”
Bas laughed as Bailey came tearing around the corner. “Was Gunnar nice to you?”
Bailey nodded happily as Bas swooped him up over his head before slinging him onto his hip. “I had lots of fun!”
Bailey wrinkled his nose. “She’s fine,” he muttered, obviously not impressed with being asked about his sister.
“Fine thing to greet your daddy,” Sydnie said with a marked pout. “What about your mommy?”
Bailey laughed and wiggled to be let go. Bas lowered him to his feet, and the boy scampered over to his mother. “Mommy!”
Sydnie giggled and picked up her son to smother him with kisses that he wasn’t thrilled about but was tolerating very nicely. Soon enough, though, he was squirming to get down again, and once his feet hit the floor, he was off like a shot, probably to see what Toga was doing. Sydnie followed him out of the foyer in search of her daughter, and Bas grinned at Gunnar. “Did it work?”
Gunnar grunted and stuffed his hands into his pockets as he turned on his heel to leave. “Did what work?”
“Operation: Distract the Women,” Bas said, trailing along behind.
“What do you think?”
Bas chuckled. “You know, I had a feeling that it’d backfire on you,” he mused. “Did it?”
Heaving a sigh as he stepped into the living room just in time to hear Chelsea asking Stephanie when she and Gunnar were going to start their own family, he slowly shook his head.
“It’s not so bad, you know,” Bas muttered, leaning in closer to Gunnar so that the latter could hear him.
Bas chuckled again. “They’re leaving after New Year’s right? So you’ve only got another . . . little over a week to deal with them.”
“Gee, Bas,” Gunnar growled, careful to keep his voice low so that no one else heard him. “Thanks. I really mean that.”
“Any time, buddy,” Bas assured him, clapping him hard on the shoulder. “Any time at all . . .”
.:Saturday, December 24, 2072:.
“Are you going to go tell Santa what you want for Christmas?”
Gunnar blinked and frowned as Chelsea Inutaisho perched on the arm of the chair that Gunnar was sitting in. “I don’t think so,” he replied, shifting his gaze to the other side of the room where Cain Zelig, dressed up as Santa Claus, sat, holding Tanny on his lap.
“You used to love Santa,” she pointed out, flipping her claws and inspecting her immaculate manicure.
“Yes, when I was Bailey’s age,” he said dryly.
Chelsea sighed and shot Gunnar a knowing sort of look before returning her attention to her fingernails once more. “I really like your girlfriend,” she said at length. “She’s a lot of fun.”
Chelsea nodded. “Sure. Yesterday we went to the salon and had lunch . . . she’s nice—nicer than you deserve, anyway.”
Gunnar grunted but didn’t answer. He didn’t know that Stephanie had gone to lunch with Chelsea, and he couldn’t help but wonder exactly how much damage had come from that little excursion . . .
“You know, she really likes you,” Chelsea went on, oblivious to Gunnar’s mood. “I mean, she said that it’s all just casual, but she’s living with you, right? Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that I’m happy for you.”
“Happy for me,” he echoed. “Is that right?”
She giggled and nodded across the living room where Ben Philips and Charity were talking. “Do you think they’ll ever figure it out?”
“Figure what out?”
She wrinkled her nose and turned to pin Gunnar with a disbelieving sort of stare. “That they’re mates, silly!” she said as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“It’s not really any of your business, Chelsea,” he pointed out, raising an eyebrow to emphasize his point.
“It’s kind of stupid, isn’t it? Both of them are too shy to just say what they want, so instead, they just kind of dance around each other like a couple of school kids . . .”
“And what do you know about it?” Gunnar demanded evenly. “I don’t see you telling everyone that you’ve found your mate, so what makes you the expert on it?”
Chelsea laughed and waved a hand dismissively. “I’m not,” she said simply. “But if I did find my mate, do you think I’d be acting like that? Of course not! When I find my mate, I’m going to grab him and tell him, ‘Look, you’re my mate, so let’s just do it and be done with it.’ No muss, no fuss, no asking permission from Papa or anything silly like that.”
Gunnar snorted. “And then you’ll watch as he runs as fast and as far as he can away from you.”
Chelsea’s laughter escalated, and she hurriedly leaned down to kiss him on the cheek before he could try to thwart her. Then she hopped up and ran away as quickly as she could, her laughter lingering in the air after she’d ducked into the hallway.
He was in the process of wiping his cheek when another set of lips brushed over the side that hadn’t been contaminated yet, and he turned to scowl at Isabelle Izayoi Marin, who was grasping the back of the chair and leaning over to try to kiss him again. “Merry Christmas, you grouch,” she greeted with a smile. “How’s my favorite cousin?”
Gunnar sighed and shook his head. “Doesn’t your mate get jealous when you go around, kissing other men?” he complained.
“Are you kidding? If it keeps her damn lips away from me, then I don’t care how many other men she kisses . . . If I’m really lucky, she’ll sprain something and then she’ll have to keep them to herself for awhile,” Griffin Marin grumbled, cheeks reddening as he continued to cross the living room floor.
“I’m still not sure why you married him,” Gunnar pointed out as he watched the retreating back of the bear-youkai.
“Why else?” Isabelle quipped, giving Gunnar a quick squeeze. “I mean, you saw how big his hands are, right? And bodies tend to be proportional, you realize . . .”
“Spare me the sordid details,” Gunnar grumbled, rolling his eyes and shaking his head.
Isabelle giggled and locked her arms around Gunnar’s neck, her clenched hands resting against his chest. “You haven’t been by to see me lately,” she complained with a mock pout. “A little birdie told me that you have a new roommate, though . . . is it true?”
“For now,” Gunnar allowed, unable to control the hint of belligerence that crept into his tone, “and before you say anything—”
“Oh, relax. I wasn’t going to say a thing,” she interrupted and nodded in Stephanie’s direction. “Well, other than that I’m a little surprised—never thought that you’d move her in, of all people . . .”
Gunnar sighed and shook his head as Isabelle let go of him and rounded the chair, only to perch on the arm that Chelsea had just vacated. “Actually, she showed up on my doorstep with a suitcase right before I left on my trip, saying that she needed a place to stay while they were doing some work on her apartment building,” he admitted. “It wasn’t a big deal; I was going out of town at the time, anyway.”
Isabelle nodded slowly as she considered that. “But she’s still there?”
“They found some other issues that needed to be addressed,” he explained.
“So she’s just there over the holidays.”
Gunnar shrugged, his gaze venturing over to the woman in question, who was currently chatting away with Madison Cartham, a family friend and the daughter of one of Cain’s hunters, Deke but better known as just plain ‘Cartham’. “Maybe.”
“Maybe?” Isabelle echoed, eyebrows lifting in surprise. “You like having her there?”
“I don’t mind it,” he corrected.
A knowing sort of expression settled over Isabelle’s pretty features as she considered what Gunnar had said.
“It’s not what you think,” Gunnar warned. “It’s just rather . . . convenient.”
“But what if she falls in love with you?”
Gunnar snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he muttered. “Our relationship isn’t like that.”
Isabelle nodded but looked a little dubious, at best. “If you say so,” she said with a smile. “Oh, my . . . Look at Olivia’s dress! She looks like a little Christmas angel! Aww!”
Gunnar blinked and watched as Isabelle hopped up and hurried over to Sydnie and Olivia, who was quite possibly more ruffles and crisp white lace and deep red velvet than actual baby. He frowned. The party was being held in the activity room of the St. Mary’s Children’s Hospital and was more for the residents of the hospital than it was for the family, but it was a holiday tradition with the Zeligs, one that Gunnar really did appreciate even if he didn’t always make it to the festivities. Gin had started hosting these informal parties just after she’d married Cain, or so Gunnar had been told. Seeing the children who couldn’t go home for the holidays, children who were sick, mostly with terminal or untreatable illnesses was hard, but something that Gunnar had noticed was that they always smiled brightly when they were given their gifts, always thrilled with what they were given instead of being bitter for what they couldn’t have . . .
Cain pulled another child onto his lap while Gin dug through the mountain of packages for the ones that she thought would suit the little girl. She was wearing a ridiculous outfit of garish green tights, bright red miniskirt, a green tunic and a silly little pointed hat, complete with an oversized jingle bell dangling from the tip—obviously one of Santa’s elves. On anyone else, Gunnar figured that the outfit would have looked entirely ridiculous. Luckily for her, Aunt Gin was just entirely too cute and was therefore able to carry off the goofy look quite nicely . . .
Gunnar chuckled to himself as he stood up to grab a bottle of water off of the refreshment table that was stacked and nearly overflowing with cakes and cookies and candies of every conceivable kind. He stopped short, though, when he spotted a scowling Bailey leaning against the wall, almost hidden behind a giant Santa Claus cake that Gin probably ordered from the bakery since everyone knew damn well that Cain claimed any and all things ‘cake’ that Gin produced in her own kitchen.
Rounding the table, Gunnar stopped beside the boy and leaned his head to the side as he looked down at him. “Something wrong?” he asked casually.
Bailey blinked and lifted his chin to stare dolefully at Gunnar. “That’s not really Santa Claus,” he said simply as his scowl deepened. Something sad, almost mournful, in his expression touched a chord with Gunnar, reminding him of himself years ago, on that day when Coral had said that there was no Santa Claus . . .
“It’s not?” Gunnar asked, unsure why he was playing along with the whole Santa spiel, in the first place.
Bailey shook his head as the scowl softened into a more sorrowful kind of expression. “It’s Gwampaw,” he said in almost a whisper. “But Gwampaw isn’t Santa Claus.”
“Oh? Did he thump you on the head?”
Bailey frowned and shook his head. “No-o-o . . .”
Gunnar chuckled at the memory of the familiar Santa in his youth doing exactly that when Gunnar had tried to point out who he thought it really was. “Never mind,” he said. “Why do you think that’s your grandfather?”
Heaving a loud sigh, Bailey’s gaze dropped to the floor. “Because he smells like Gwampaw, and that means that Gwampaw’s gonna get coal for Christmas . . .”
Bailey nodded. “Because he’s lying, and Daddy said that lying means you’re bad, and when you’re bad, you get coal for Christmas,” he reasoned.
Gunnar sighed, too, tugging on his slacks legs so that he could kneel down beside Bailey. “Well, that’s true,” he admitted slowly. “When you’re bad, you do get coal in your stocking, don’t you?”
Bailey nodded unhappily.
What could he say to that? Strictly speaking, lying was bad, wasn’t it . . .? “But . . . but your grandfather is making all those pups happy, too. See?”
Slowly, slowly, Bailey lifted his chin and peered over at the line of kids waiting for their turns to sit on Cain’s lap and get their presents from Santa.
Smiling slightly, Gunnar could appreciate the situation. Bailey was a perceptive child, indeed . . . “See, Santa can’t always make it everywhere, right? It’s Christmas Eve, you know, so he’s really busy tonight. Don’t you think that it’s okay if your grandfather pretends to be Santa just tonight? So these kids get to see Santa, too?”
Bailey considered that, and though he was still frowning pretty thoroughly, the aura around him seemed to have lightened considerably. “Daddy says they’re sick,” he said at length, waving a hand in the direction of the assembled children. “If they’re sick, then their mommys can’t take them to see Santa at his house, huh?”
“Something like that,” Gunnar agreed. Bas had mentioned weeks ago that he and Sydnie had taken the children to see Santa at the little house that was always set up on the courthouse lawn in Bevelle’s town square. Bailey had loved it. Olivia had cried . . .
Bailey thought it over slowly. “So . . . Santa told Gwampaw to be Santa so they could see him, too?”
Gunnar nodded and chuckled. “Sounds about right.”
Suddenly, Bailey smiled. “Then Gwampaw is Santa!”
Then he sped off, making a bee-line straight to his father, probably to tell him what he’d just figured out.
Gunnar watched him go, standing up, leaning against the wall as he crossed his arms over his chest, as the barest hint of a smile surfaced on his face, illuminating the depths of his golden eyes.
For just a moment, he remembered that Christmas so long ago—the time Coral had told him that there was no such thing as Santa. It was his father who had assured him that Santa Claus was real, and he’d believed Toga; of course he had. ‘Uncle Yasha in a Santa suit . . .’
He chuckled, appreciating now the lengths that his great uncle had gone to just for the children that Christmas. He’d felt completely ridiculous, hadn’t he? The hanyou of legend who tended to be a little gruff but whose heart was always in the right place . . . And yet for Gunnar, it was one of those Christmases that stood out in his memory even now, years later . . .
“That was really sweet of you.”
Gunnar blinked and glanced down at his mother. She smiled at him, slipping her arms around his waist and giving him a little squeeze. “I was starting to think that you’d become the Grinch. Glad to see that you haven’t,” she teased.
“He’s a pup,” Gunnar muttered, shaking his head and feeling oddly flustered by his mother’s genuine compliment. “Isn’t Christmas for children, anyway?”
“Not necessarily,” Sierra replied. “I’ve always loved Christmas, and I’m not a child.”
He smiled and slipped an arm around Sierra’s shoulders. “I’m glad you’re here, Mother,” he said, and he was. He really, really was.
She stared at him for a long moment, her eyes brightening, glossing over with tears that stood but didn’t fall as a trembling little smile turned up the corners of her mouth, and she hugged him again. “I am, too, Gunnar,” she told him, sniffling just a little and blinking to dispel the moisture that gathered. “I am, too.”
.:Monday, December 25, 2072:.
Stepping off the bottom stair, Gunnar stopped short and leaned against the banister as his gaze came to rest upon Stephanie’s back. Sitting on the sofa, her feet tucked demurely beneath her, she sipped a mug of fragrant tea—he could smell it where he stood—and stared at the softly illuminated Christmas tree in silence. Long golden hair hanging in tight little ringlets that caught the gentle hues and shone in the half-light like brushstrokes of gold in the moonlight, she sighed gently and lifted the mug to her lips once more.
Someone had lit a fire on the hearth, but it had burned down to a few glowing embers. Every so often, a sharp little hiss erupted from them, fading out in the quiet of the sleeping house, and the only other sound was the comforting tick of the old clock on the mantle—a gift that had been given to Gunnar when he was just a pup.
“Staring at the tree won’t make Christmas come any faster,” he mumbled, careful not to speak to loudly, lest he should ruin the tranquility of the moment.
She started and turned her head to smile at him. “It’s already Christmas,” she said, patting the sofa beside her. “It’s been Christmas for . . . oh, a couple hours, at least.”
Smiling slightly, he wandered forward, sank down beside her. “The tree’s really pretty,” he told her, gaze narrowing in a lazy sort of way. “I don’t usually put one up, but . . . well, I’m glad that you did it this year.”
She laughed and shrugged offhandedly, leaning forward to refill her mug from the ceramic carafe on the table. “You know something? I don’t normally put one up, either,” she admitted as she turned over a clean mug and filled it for him. “I don’t know why I did this year . . . I was walking down the strip past the grocery store, and there was this little stand set up. It was some boy scouts, and they said that they would cut down and deliver a tree, and I thought, what the heck, right? They delivered it the day before your parents arrived.”
“Talk about good timing,” he mumbled, sipping the tea that Stephanie had given him.
“Oh, my landlord called,” she told him, turning to face him and tucking her feet in closer underneath herself. “He said that I can move back in next week.”
Gunnar nodded. “Good . . . good . . .”
She drew a deep breath and nodded. “Yeah, but . . . an old friend of mine called me after that, and she was talking about how much she loved my apartment and all that, and she half-joked that she’d love to sublet it from me if I ever wanted to move—just got a job at the university . . . and you know, I really hate moving . . . Would you mind if I just . . . stayed . . .?”
She shrugged then smiled. “I didn’t realize how nice it is, not to come home to an empty house every night,” she mused then suddenly shook her head. “I mean, let’s be clear here—you’d still have to knock if I’m in my room, and your office is off-limits . . . but we understand each other, right? It’s not like either of us is looking for something permanent so what’s wrong with enjoying what we have?” When he didn’t reply right away, she heaved a sigh and wrinkled her nose. “Never mind. That’s stupid, isn’t it?”
Gunnar frowned. He’d never considered sharing his home with anyone before. In fact, the idea had never even crossed his mind except for once when Isabelle had just finished med school and had suggested that the two of them share a place for awhile. His answer then had been a resounding ‘no’. Still . . . “My bedroom is off-limits, too,” he reminded her in a no-nonsense tone. “I mean it.”
“I know,” Stephanie smiled and nodded. “I’m sure Kay will thank you.”
“Kay?” he echoed with a raised eyebrow.
“Yes, Kay,” she said. “My friend.”
He chuckled and concentrated on his tea for a minute. The soft chime of the clock announced the time: two in morning—Christmas morning—and all was calm and peaceful. A steady sense of well-being crept over him as he stared at the glowing lights, the dazzling reflection dancing off the ornaments of the quiet tree. It was a nice feeling, wasn’t it? Family might drive him nuts, but he couldn’t deny the contentment they’d somehow brought with them, too, even if it was a transient feeling that was reserved for days like Christmas. Then again, maybe it wasn’t . . . At least, maybe it wasn’t meant to be . . .
“Merry Christmas, Stephanie,” he said, setting the mug on the table.
She smiled at him over the brim of her mug. “Merry Christmas to you, too, Gunnar.”
Kubrick: Japanese Lego.
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Final Thought from Gunnar:
Merry Christmas, indeed …
Blanket disclaimer for The Perpetual Gift: I do not claim any rights to InuYasha or the characters associated with the anime/manga. Those rights belong to Rumiko Takahashi, et al. I do offer my thanks to her for creating such vivid characters for me to terrorize.