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--The Incredible Flying Wolf
I woke up the next morning, not quite sure where I was. What I did know, however, was that I was not only completely naked, but freezing my ass off. My hands groped blindly for the comforter, finally finding it in a heap on the other side of the bed. I pulled. I yanked. I nearly killed myself trying to get a piece of that damn bedspread.
Finally I pried my eyes open, sitting up beneath the flimsy sheet. Fallon was firmly wrapped up in the comforter, with only a mess of black hair sticking out from one end and his feet peeking out from the other.
I should have pegged him for a blanket-hog…
I let out a sigh and began working the thick comforter out from underneath his heavy frame. As soon as I had a big enough section I dove beneath it, fidgeted until the sheets warmed up again, and curled back into a warm, contented ball. A few seconds later Fallon's arm snaked around my waist, pulling me close. "G'morning, beautiful," he murmured sleepily, pressing a kiss on the back of my neck.
"Morning to you, too. Blanket-hog."
He chuckled softly, hugging me tighter to his chest. He was so warm… "I guess I should have warned you. I tend to wake up with the sheet in a rope around my ankles and the comforter turned sideways."
I grinned. "Yeah, that information would have been nice to have last night."
"Any especially irritating nocturnal habits of yours that I should be aware of?" he asked, his voice sleepy and deep, his chest rumbling softly.
He pressed another kiss to my shoulder. "Duly warned."
I felt a smile pull at my lips. "You're a dork, you know that?"
The voice that replied a few moments later was nowhere near sleepy. "I may be a dork," he started, rolling me onto my back, "but I know where all of your sensitive spots are, and I have no problem exploiting them."
I didn't even get a chance to reply. I will say this, though; the man certainly wasn't lying.
Half an hour and two pieces of gum later, he rolled over onto his stomach, throwing an arm around my waist. I could get used to this, I thought, letting my fingers roam over the muscles in his arm.I was content to just lay there, thoroughly enjoying the warmth and comfort of both the man and his bed… but in typical ruin-the-moment fashion, I desperately had to pee, and the taste in my mouth was getting foul, even after the minty gum. I moved to get up, but he hugged me tighter, nuzzling my shoulder with his nose. "Please don't go," he pleaded softly, a note of…something…coloring his voice. I couldn't quite identify that tone, since I'd never heard him use it before. He almost sounded like a child who expected to be abandoned.
That tone struck something in me, melting whatever sarcastic reply had been waiting on the tip of my tongue. "I'm not going anywhere," I whispered back, turning to meet his eyes. "I promise."
A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, and he pressed his lips to mine.
"Now, if you'll excuse me," I began, covering my mouth so he couldn't get a whiff of my awful morning breath (kind of dumb, since I'd just been kissing him with said morning breath about five minutes earlier), "I have a date with the shower."
That gorgeous mouth turned up in an evil grin "So do I."
Around one or so we headed up to the penthouse. Fallon's mother had unlocked one of the rooftop doors so we could take the emergency stairwell up to the garden, instead of having to go down to the lobby to catch the private elevator. The cold air stung my face as we emerged onto the rooftop.
My stomach growled loudly as I made my way towards the big glass door. "What time is dinner?"
"Four, I think," Fallon replied, nudging me with his shoulder.
"But I can't wait that long!" I whined, yanking open the sliding door and stepping into the warmth of the living room. Tantalizing scents drifted out of the kitchen, filling the room with a homey smell. Sleeping bags and air mattresses were stacked in a heap in the corner, Christmas music playing quietly under the hum of voices. A fourteen-foot tree stood in the opposite corner, completely devoid of decoration. That would come later, after dinner.
"So go beg something out of the kitchen, then," Claire said, wrapping me in a big hug. "I'm sure someone will spare something for you if you pull that cute face."
I couldn't help laughing at that. "I think I'll go try that," I replied, watching as she hugged her son.
Five minutes later I was set with a sandwich and a coke, and was told to pretty much keep my ass out of the kitchen until tomorrow. Fallon had disappeared by that point, so I called out hellos to everyone, begged hunger as an excuse to avoid any extended conversations, and finally managed to make my way into the den (where all the twenty-and-unders usually hang out). I found Fallon sitting Indian-style on the floor next to the younger kids, interrogating them on the various rules and regulations of the board game they were all gathered around. Deeming the situation hopeless for any sort of physical contact, I searched for a suitable place to plunk down and devour my food. The only open seat was on the sofa next to Emma. The spot probably would have been taken if Emma hadn't looked like she just wanted to hit something.
I decided to take a risk, and plopped down beside her. "What's wrong?" I asked, nudging her with my shoulder and taking a bite of the sandwich.
The blonde lifted a sandy eyebrow at me, then shook her head. "Hi to you, too."
"She's sulking," Ashley whispered, suddenly materializing on the couch arm next to me.
I glanced back and forth between the twins, taking the time to swallow the bite of sandwich in my mouth before voicing my question. "Any particular reason why?"
Ashley sighed, shaking her head. "Boyfriend dumped her about two weeks ago, and her date for New Year's just cancelled this morning. I told her she was too good for him, but she wouldn't listen."
Emma shot her twin a look that could have melted flesh from bone. "Anything else you'd like to share before I start in on your business?" she demanded, a bright red flush suffusing her face.
"Sor-ry," Ashley replied nonchalantly, hopping down off the couch and disappearing into the living room.
After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, I glanced over at Emma. "She does that a lot, doesn't she?"
"She's the master exit-maker," the blonde deadpanned in reply.
"Wish I could do that," I started, staring wistfully in the direction of the living room. "Unfortunately, I'm not very good at moving through people… my hips are too wide, and my ass is positively huge. I practically knock people over when I try to sidle past. A svelte exit like that is completely out of the question." Just laugh, dammit, I thought.
Emma bit back a laugh. "You're awful," she replied, a hint of a smile showing on her mouth. "You shouldn't put yourself down like that."
"Well what the hell am I supposed to say? I haven't had a date since high school— that's over three years." Okay, so while Fallon and I were now officially an item, 1) we hadn't gone on a date yet, and 2) we'd agreed not to tell anyone until after Christmas. Mostly for the sake of our sanity.
"Plus the one guy I've ever really been serious about—that last one I dated before I started college—turned out to be a complete asshole. So trust me, you're not alone."
Emma cocked her head to the side, a question mark written clearly on her face. "How so?" she asked, scooting a little bit closer and leaning in, eager for a tidbit of juicy gossip.
I sighed, leaning in just as close. The den was buzzing with activity, but I didn't really want to be heard. "Let me give you some background first. I wasn't always a complete romantic anathema."
Emma swatted at me. "Don't say that!" she cried, insulted. "You're pretty."
I just shook my head, continuing my story. "I started dating at sixteen; mostly guys from other high schools in the area that I'd met during away football games… Note that everyone at my high school was either completely repulsive or had practically adopted me a sister. Those other guys usually didn't last long… Most of the time I was just better suited to being a friend than a girlfriend. I tried not to let it get to me, but after a while it always does."
The blonde-haired girl nodded sagely, as if I'd struck a nerve. "I know the feeling. It blows."
"No kidding." We traded grins, and she motioned for me to continue.
"Well, about halfway through the senior year football season, I ran into an old friend from the next town over at one of our home games. He'd gone to our school for a while, but had moved away freshman year. We kept in contact every now and again, usually when he changed locations, which was quite often. But he never told me he'd finally ended up in LaGrange, or that he'd gotten on with the football team there.
"He literally ran into me after the game, knocking me on my ass as I rounded a corner. We'd stared at each other for a few seconds, trying to figure out why the other one looked so familiar. He figured it out first, smiling and holding out a hand to help me up. I invited him back to hang out, and one thing led to another… A few weeks later, we were officially dating. I fell completely head over heels for him."
By this time, Ashley had wandered over again, plunking down on the floor in front of her twin. She listened just as intently as Emma, both sets of eyes locked on me.
"About two months after we became an item, he took me out on this ridiculously romantic date. Needless to say, one thing lead to another, and… well, you get the point." I grinned conspiratorially, leaning in even closer. "We couldn't get enough of each other."
Ashley rolled her eyes, and Emma's cheeks took on a slight blush. I lifted an eyebrow, but didn't ask. She'd break eventually. Part of me wondered how I got along so well with these two, even though I had very little experience with female friends. Must be an innate female thing or something.
"We had our problems, like any normal couple… but they always seemed to be rooted in jealousy. Every time I asked him about it, he would evade the question. The fight would fade into memory, and everything would go back to normal for a while. But two weeks before my eighteenth birthday, he dumped me. He claimed my heart wasn't in it; that he couldn't handle being the third wheel all the time. I didn't really understand, and he wouldn't give me the courtesy of an explanation."
A bitter laugh cut through my thoughts. "I wish mine hadn't explained," Emma spat, tugging on her sister's hair. "He dumped me because I wouldn't have sex with him. He kept talking about how he could get better girls than me; about the girls that would bend over backwards for the opportunity to just talk to him. I told him that if he wanted a whore, he'd have to look elsewhere."
"She cried for hours. I wanted to kill him afterwards," Ashley growled, her fist clenching. "He's such a scumbag."
I shook my head. "I wish I'd had a sister to go to. I'm an only child, and I never had any really close girl friends." Obviously I'd always identified more with the guys, and as a result I hadn't really had anyone to go to with this confusing bit of information. So I went to the only person I could… Fallon. He'd held me tightly, wiped my tears and sworn on his soul that he'd never let anyone break my heart again.
Something clicked inside my head.
After high school, men stopped approaching me altogether. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out why… until now. Fallon had more or less been running them all off. He'd become so protective that nobody even bothered trying to get close to me anymore. He probably hadn't even realized he'd been doing it, but the effect had still been the same…
"They're good to have." Emma glanced down at her sister, and they traded smiles.
I shook my head, breaking myself out of that particular train of thought. While it was certainly interesting to mull over, it wasn't particularly useful at the moment. That was a conversation best saved for another day.
The twins traded each other a few rather significant looks, and then turned their attention back to me with an intensity that frankly scared the hell out of me. I felt like an innocent diver being circled by two blonde sharks. "So. Thea."
I lifted an eyebrow at the twins. "Yes?"
"I'm glad we got the chance to talk to you," Emma started, nudging me with her shoulder in an ironic echo of the little move I'd pulled earlier when I sat down. Obviously her mind was off her ex, and onto another fascinating topic… me. "I didn't think we'd actually get the opportunity before we had to leave."
"We just had one question for you." Ashley smiled innocently, leaning in even closer than before. Her voice was low and quiet. I didn't even really have time to brace myself before she dropped the bomb on me…
"I… well, we were just wondering when you and Fallon were gonna inform the rest of us that you're an item."
I nearly choked on the bite of sandwich I had just crammed into my mouth. However, choking proved to be my saving grace—it gave me just enough time to compose myself. Well, aside from the whole coughing and wheezing thing, anyway.
"Excuse me?" I wheezed, trying like hell to keep a straight face.
Fallon had glanced over when I'd started choking, and had simply grinned in that cute way he did whenever I did something stupid that he thought was funny.
"The way he looks at you," Emma supplied confidently, her voice just as soft as her sister's. "It's changed since we got here. Either you've hooked up, or he's doing some serious planning."
Stunned beyond speech, I felt my mouth open and close once or twice. Finally I managed to clamp it shut, knowing that I couldn't formulate a reply if I tried. How the hell was I supposed to reply to that, anyway???
"Told you," Emma said, reaching over me to poke her sister in the shoulder. "My hunches are always right."
"You got lucky on this one," Ashley shot back.
"You still owe me twenty bucks," the older blonde hissed, smiling apologetically at me. "Don't tell Fallon… but the whole family has bets on when you two would finally realize that you're perfect for each other. A lot of us thought you would've figured it out by now."
"Well that makes me feel loved," I drawled, finally finding my tongue and the sarcasm that always went with it.
"No… what should make you feel loved is the fact that the winner's pool is almost three grand," Emma said, her voice still quiet. "People keep betting, but nobody's won yet. It's all starting to pile up. I wasn't kidding when I told you we all thought you'd have figured it out by now."
"Yesterday," I murmured, completely and utterly beaten into submission. "It happened yesterday."
"I had my bets on New year's." Ashley sighed, obviously disappointed. "Emma had hers on today."
Emma's expression was definitely one of smug triumph. But it fell the moment I opened my mouth again. "Just don't tell Claire, okay? We don't need this getting out just yet… we'll never make it out of here alive."
The twins both sighed, but Emma looked like she was about to burst with the effort of keeping such juicy news to herself. "You really know how to ruin my fun, you know that?"
"And just what are you three gossiping about?" Claire had materialized out of nowhere, in that same unnerving manner that Ashley had. Hell, Ashley probably learned how to do it from Claire…
"Nothing, big sis," Emma replied sweetly.
"Yeah, sure," Claire replied disbelievingly. "You two are troublemakers. Be nice to Thea… she was raised with a bunch of boys. She's not used to girls like you."
"Oh, she was doing just fine," Ashley replied with a smirk.
"Jesus H. Christ," I muttered, dropping my head into my hands. "You people will be the death of me, I swear it."
Claire smothered a laugh. "Dinner's in twenty, guys."
I listed my head out of the forest of fingers I'd smothered it with and checked the clock on the wall. "Wow, that's early. It's not even three yet."
"Just in case you didn't remember, that means all teenagers into the living room to set up the table." Claire glanced at the three of us, smiling sweetly. "NOW."
"Yes'm," we all chirped, jumping to our feet to go help out with the huge table. Cal, who had probably just arrived, was already being put to work moving furniture and sleeping bags from the living room into the den.
I wolf-whistled at him. "Hey there, mister tall, dark, and Scottish."
Cal looked up, smiling. "Hey, Thea."
"What took you so long?" I asked, pulling my jacket on.
The Scot shot me a mischievous grin. "Melissa."
"That's enough information," I replied quickly. "I have a table to assemble."
The twins and I headed outside to bring the big, heavy sections of the table inside. It took all three of us to carry the one section. We were just heading out to get the second when Fallon appeared, making the task that much easier. There were four big sections that could be assembled any number of ways. We laid them end-to-end in a big line across the far end of the now-clear living room, creating one long table that could hold thirty some-odd people and all the food it took to feed them.
By the time we had the table assembled and decked out with white tablecloths and Christmas tapers, Claire and Melissa had already begun the ultra-formal procession out of the kitchen with huge platters of food. The rest of the family was already seated at the table, watching the cooks and the honorary helpers (Melissa and a couple of the younger teenaged cousins) lay the food out.
To say the least, it was chaos. Christmas dinner was always chaos—the combination of thirty people, "Christmas cheer", and gourmet food tended to do that to our families. Fallon—being the ass that he is—kept trying to play footsie under the table with me.
I wasn't going for it.
Of course Emma noticed, and shot me a couple of smug little looks… but other than that, she didn't draw much attention to us.
After dinner, everything was broken down and we all drew straws to see who would get the dishes. Both Fallon and Cal drew short straws. A few of the aunts followed them into the kitchen, while the rest of us went out to decorate the fourteen-foot tall tree. About an hour later, both the tree and the dishes were finished, and there was a fire going in the fireplace. The adults were all in the living room, sipping eggnog and catching up on the latest news.
The rest of us had retreated to the den to start our usual Christmas movie marathon. Fallon, Emma, Ashley, Cal and I were sprawled out on most of the available seating space, so the others began staking their claims on parts of the floor. While laying out sleeping bags and blankets, they began making bets on who could stay up the latest. Whoever made it to the last movie would win the title of "The Night Owl" for the rest of the year. Fallon had won three years running; and Daniel, one of Cal's cousins, was determined to beat him this year.
The lineup consisted of The Nightmare Before Christmas,Scrooge, Love Actually, Miracle on 34th Street, A Charlie Brown Christmas, the Grinch, and Home Alone… if we managed to stay up late enough.
In addition to the couch and the loveseat, there was a wraparound couch in the far corner of the room. I curled up on the corner piece, while Emma lounged on the cushion to my right, with her sister on the far side, hugging the plush arm. Fallon sat on my other side, sprawling across two cushions. Cal had the reclining end piece, footrest already up. No doubt he'd be asleep halfway through the second movie. The couch and the loveseat had been taken over long ago by a couple of the younger cousins, two of which were already sleeping.
"Looks like we're going to have to crash downstairs," Fallon murmured as he hit the play button. "There's no room to sleep up here."
I took another glance around, noticing the distinct lack of floor space. The twins would probably be claiming the couch at the end of the marathon, and there was no way we'd get Cal off that recliner with anything short of a nuclear explosion. Which left the two of us on our own in terms of sleeping space.
"We can always crash in one of the bedrooms," I replied, suddenly remembering. "There are four of them."
Fallon shot me a slightly confused look. "Four? I thought there were only three."
I grinned. "The previous tenants turned the office into a bedroom. It's on the other side of the bathroom in the hall. I took a peek around earlier. I doubt anybody thought to look in there when everybody was coming in, seeing as it's always been an office."
"Guess that's not a problem anymore," he replied, grabbing a pillow. He dropped it on my lap, lay down on his side, and stretched out.
You've got to be kidding me, I thought, staring down at the head on my lap. "I hate you sometimes, you know that?"
The little shit had the nerve to laugh at me.
I sighed. "Oh, just shut up and watch your movie."
While I was proud of my title as "The Night Owl", I wasn't too proud to pass it on. There would be some teasing in the morning, but that always happened when someone lost the bet. If nothing else, I could always claim that I'd held the title the longest.
I pretended to fall asleep sometime around two a.m., giving Thea a quick wink to let her know that I was still awake. She shot me an evil little smirk in reply, and her fingers instantly threaded in my hair, her nails raking softly across my head. She was purposely trying to put me to sleep! Through some miracle, I managed to resist until she fell asleep halfway through The Grinch.
Daniel glanced around when nobody got up to change the movies. He grinned, put in Home Alone, and promptly fell asleep on his sleeping bag.
Thea's eyes cracked open as I got up off the couch. She yawned, rubbing her neck. "I'll wake up the twins… you go check on the fourth bedroom."
I nodded and began picking my way across the den, trying to avoid out-flung limbs and dreaming, restless children. About five minutes later, I reached the two steps that led up into the living room. The adults who weren't camping in the bedrooms had set up out here, but there was a clear path against the wall from the den to the hallway, where the bedrooms were.
I tiptoed through the living room, down the hallway, and opened the door on the other side of the bathroom. To Thea's credit, there was a completely unoccupied queen-sized bed. Nobody had even bothered to check this room.
I sighed in relief, turning to make my way back into the den, but Thea was already tiptoeing down the hall. I gave her a thumbs-up, waving her into the room. I purposely left the door wide open so everyone could find us in the morning. "Great idea," I whispered as we climbed into bed, pulling the thick covers up.
"Never underestimate my brilliance," she whispered back, snuggling up against me. I loved the way she fit in my arms…
"Of course not." I wrapped an arm around her waist, kissing her softly. "Good night, Innish."
She smiled up at me, those green eyes heavy with sleep. "G'night, Keyes."
I pressed a kiss to her forehead. "Good night."