Katie sat at the head of the long farm table, looking out on her family and the couple of helpers they kept around as everyone laughed and ate. Her husband Cal sat at the opposite end of the table; feeling her gaze, he looked up and smiled at her, his green eyes dancing with love. Their children, eight year-old Tommy and ten year-old Elsie, sat to Cal's immediate left, one to either side of their Uncle Jack. On the other side of the table sat Ryan with his six year-old son Adam on his left, while his two year-old boy Charlie sat to his right. Next to Charlie sat Gus and Fred, the two stable hands, both grizzled old tough New Englanders.

The empty spots at the table always seemed forlorn to Katie, despite the seeming abundance of diners. David, younger than Ryan by three years, ran the local Irish bar, his wife Suzanne waited tables there, as did Katie's youngest sibling, Eve, whose husband Dan tended bar. She knew it was silly, that the foursome had to work evenings as part of their job description, but she still missed them not being there for supper. Many nights, the whole lot of them would troop down to the bar and eat in the special dining room that was set apart for large parties and group functions, but tonight that room had been booked, and the bar already hopping when Katie had called to see if they should come down with Jack. David had sounded distracted as he spoke with her on the phone, and had let her go quickly and with a curse just after a loud crash was heard on his end—a tray of glasses, no doubt; Eve had become even clumsier since her pregnancy.

Katie looked to those who were present though, and still felt a tug—Elayne, despite numerous invitations, was absent once more, eating a solitary meal in the manager's apartment of the bunkhouse. Katie was never offended by Elayne's polite refusals, just worried about the younger woman's determined solitariness.

As usual at the Healy table, the words came so fast it was a wonder anyone had time to eat, but then things settled down a bit as Ryan asked Jack about the trip to Boston. Cal groaned inwardly, knowing that Jack never told a short story when he could tell a long one instead.

"Well, you know Thurmann and Rowe was offering to make a book of some of my photos," Jack began slowly, teasing them with information they already had.

There were some sighs of exasperation, but Ryan nodded solemnly, realizing that Jack was just starting his story, just going into storyteller mode—his accent thicker, his words more dramatic, his pace more deliberate. It was a mode of storytelling young Jack had learned at Ryan's knee, that Ryan had learned from their father.

"Aye, we know," he responded, encouraging Jack to continue.

"So I get to Boston—I parked my car in Haverhill after taking the 49 over to 93—oh what a drive that was! The crisp morning air, the leaves showing their colors against the backdrop of the mountains…" Jack leaned his head against the back of the chair, closing his eyes and resting his entwined hands in his lap, looking for all the world as though he were taking a nap. He knew he was driving his niece and nephews crazy, and likely the adults a bit as well. He grinned to himself, watching their eager faces through hooded eyes.

"We can picture that, as well, seeing as we live in the area," Katie responded wryly. "Get to Boston, and the meeting already."

Jack, still leaning back in his chair, cracked open his eyes and sighed in exasperation at his sister's attempt to curtail his story. He sat up, leaning forward to take a bite of Katie's garlic and cheese mashed potatoes, chewing thoughtfully before swallowing. "Katie, if it weren't for incest, I'd marry you for these potatoes!" he declared, earning a kick under the table from Ryan as six year-old Adam, asked, "What's incess?"

Jack winked at his nephew. "Something your Uncle Jack shoulda never mentioned in mixed company. Well, so I get to Thurmann and Rowe, and I walk into this big glass building. You can well imagine how overwhelmed I was, being a bit of a country boy."

"We know you're a rube," Katie chimed in, sticking out her tongue at Jack's dark glare.

"Do you want me to finish my story or not?" he demanded hotly.

"So finish, already!" put in Cal from the end of the table. Being the local chief of police, he had heard more than his share of tall tales, from teen-aged boys who didn't know what that stench was, despite the pot smoke that swirled around their bodies like early morning fog, to his staff members who suddenly became too ill to work on the first good snow day of the year. Cal was a cut-to-the-chase guy, and his brothers in-law always gave him fits, particularly the two artists, Ryan and Jack.

Jack waved his hands up and down in an effort to placate his brother in-law. "All right, all right. So where was I?"

"Little rube, big building," Ryan teased.

Jack frowned, raising an eyebrow at his oldest brother, but chose to ignore the remark, clearing his throat before continuing.

"So I walk in, and there's the security guy, and he waves this big wand over me after I pass through the security gate thing. He sends me on my way, directing me to the tenth floor, and up I go in the smoothest elevator you ever rode in." Jack could feel the anticipation in the air—the excitement of the children, who had never ridden in an elevator, the eagerness of the adults to hear the end of the story, the frustration of his brother in-law, who wanted to know what happened already and if he got the book contract.

"I get up to the tenth floor and there's this gigantic desk in the middle of a busy foyer; the desk is kind of a crescent-moon shape, and gray to boot, can you believe it? There's a vase full of flowers on it—pink and red hothouse roses with baby's breath sprinkled in and the prettiest little secretary sitting behind them, her brown hair in a tight bun, her black business suit as shiny and polished as her make-up. She looked quite severe—likely to scare off the no-talent hacks…"

"Were you scared?" put in Ryan sarcastically, earning snorts of derision and laughter from the others. Had the children not been at the table, Jack would have waxed poetic on his conquest and subsequent lack of need for the cheap motel room he had already booked. Instead, deterred by Ryan's sarcasm, he glared at his big brother and carried on.

"She calls in to the boss' office, and out pops Mr. Rowe himself after a moment, looking a bit harried with his shirtsleeves rolled up and his hair looking all like he'd slept in it. He shakes my hand, apologizing for the wait—can you imagine, a big man of business like him, apologizing to the likes of me?"

"Will wonders never cease?" muttered Cal impatiently.

"Exactly!" agreed Jack before carrying on. "We get into the big office and there behind an oak desk that must've come over on the Mayflower it's so old, sits Charles Jacob Thurmann, Esquire. He's an impressive figure, is C.J. He's hair of salt and pepper, eyes of ice, and shoulders that would make a man think twice before trying to rob him, despite the Italian suit and the Rolex watch. When he stands, he does so slowly, but not like an old man who can't move for the pain, but rather like a great cat, moving because it behooves him, preparing to pounce on the unwary prey. And oh, did I feel like prey of a sudden. He extends his massive paw of a hand over that great oak desk as Mr. Rowe introduces us; his hand was pale, but so large it made me feel like a child holding his…"

Jack stumbled for a moment before changing his metaphor. A memory of himself swinging between his parents as a child, hands held tightly by them both came to his mind and the old pain and guilt threatened to swallow him again before he recovered. He cleared his throat. "…his big brother's hand. 'A pleasure to meet you at last, Mr. Healy,' he says in a voice deep enough to scare a felon, but soft enough to calm a crying baby. 'Samuel has spoken of little but your work since he first saw the photos in New Hampshire.' And down we sit to negotiate terms. My agent says…"

"Since when have you an agent?" demanded Katie. "You didn't have one when you left here!"

"Despite our best advice," added Ryan.

"Did I not say?" asked Jack innocently.

"No!" the adults all chorused as one.

"Well, you lot kept interrupting me and demanding that I hurry things—I must've forgotten that part. It was back in Haverhill, just coming in from the parking lot, this fella sees the car I got out of and says to me, 'Hey that's an old Baja isn't it?' "Yes it is,' says I. 'And who might you be?' He doesn't answer at first, just grins and points to a shiny new Legacy GT. 'A fellow Subaru enthusiast,' he answers at last, holding out his hand. 'Brian Marsden by name, literary agent by trade.' To make a long story short," Jack paused at Cal's snort of disgust. "Brian Marsden is now my agent, since he handles writers and photographers both."

"So you met your agent, who negotiated a new contract for you with a major publishing house, in the parking lot of a T station just hours before your big meeting? And you hired him because you both drive the same brand of car?" Cal asked incredulously.

Jack nodded thoughtfully. "That about sums it up, I'd say. Oh, and I've got the contract for the book with enough money up front to keep me going for quite a bit of time. Thurmann and Rowe have exclusive rights to a selection of my photos for a period of time that we can renew if the sales exceed a certain amount or not if the sales are poor. So, I'm to be a published author, just like Ryan—congratulate me!"

Cal heaved a sigh of relief at the story's sudden end and everyone offered congratulations around the table, quickly finishing up their dinners so they could take dessert in the living room before the fire.

"Where's the new girl?" Jack asked, suddenly remembering the little Valkyrie as he brought his plates over to the sink and turned to take the next load from his brother.

"Elayne is dining alone," Katie answered tightly.

"Why? Does she not shower before dinner or something?" Jack's question was sarcastic, but he was genuinely confused. Everyone loved dining at Katie's table. Everyone. And while she was strict, Katie was not one to keep someone from dining with the family, particularly not over a trifle.

"That's not it," Katie answered, slapping Jack with the dishtowel before tossing it over his shoulder in an unmistakable gesture. "She's just…"

"Rude? Stupid?"

"Solitary! Honestly, Jack, you are such a child sometimes!"

"Am not," he declared, sticking out his tongue.

Katie rolled her eyes at his antics and dipped her hands into the hot soapy water. She loved washing the dishes after dinner, particularly when one of the others helped her and the chore became a time to hang out together, to share the events of the day. She wouldn't miss this time with her family for anything. After Jack's slip-up, she knew he needed to feel close to the family right now, too.

In the bunkhouse, Elayne had finished her bowl of canned soup in front of the television set, watching an old black and white movie—she enjoyed the innocence of life as it had been then that the movies depicted. She never watched the news, and it seemed even family movies these days made her shudder at the power struggles and the violence, although she did like it when the bad guys lost in the end. Too bad movies aren't real life, she thought as she washed her bowl, her spoon, her pan and her ladle in the sink. Another lonely task in a recently lonely life that made her want to cry, to rage, to jump from the highest cliff—but if she was dead, the bastards would win. Right now, being alive, she was winning, even though she was the only one outside of her agent who knew of the victory, and even though it often didn't feel like a victory. She missed her parents and her friends, the freedom to form attachments without worrying about the consequences.

Through the trees, she could see the warm lights in the main house, and hear the laughter float across the small lawn as the Healys and the two stablemen ate and swapped stories. She wanted to be there with them desperately, in spite of the presence of Jack, who had been away on a "photo trip" when she had been hired. Sighing, she turned away, peeling off her clothes before turning off the light and climbing wearily into bed. Once more, she cried herself to sleep.