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The barrage of light and noise that thrust into the darkness was quickly extinguished as Kim shut the front door behind her. Moving quietly, she joined Kerry on the porch swing, settling an arm around her shoulders. "Thought I might find you out here. You doing all right?"

Kerry tilted her head. "Mmm. Hot chocolate and peppermint Schnapps." She smiled into their kiss. "Better now. Just needed some air." A kitteny sigh escaped as Kim's hand wound into her hair and gently caressed her scalp.

Lips pressed softly to her temple. "I'm not surprised. The Legaspi clan en masse can be overwhelming. Strong men have been known to run screaming into the night."

Chuckling, Kerry wreathed her arms around Kim's waist, welcoming the warmth of the slender body. Kim was a furnace; even though the temperature had dropped precipitously after sunset, she wore nothing over her thin cotton sweater. "They're not that bad. I do have a hard time keeping track of who's who –- I mean, I remember the ones I've met, but you weren't exaggerating by much when you said you had a hundred nieces and nephews, were you? Really, though, everyone's been so nice."

"Nice? Hmmm."

She nipped the side of Kim's neck. "What's wrong with nice?"

"Nothing. Just means they haven't quite made up their minds about you. When you're one of us, they'll tease you mercilessly and compete to see who can give you the hardest time."

"And that's supposed to be a good thing? I'm an only child, remember; the dynamics of large families are utterly foreign territory. Matter of fact, I strongly suspect that we might be from different species."

"It's not too late to change our plans. If we left now, we could be at The Mansion on Turtle Creek in less than an hour."

Kerry shook her head. "Tempting, but I think I can handle it. Besides, I want to get to know them."

She snuggled closer, breathing in the marvelous alchemy wrought between Kim's perfume and Kim herself. The velvet black night cloaking the big rambling house seemed endless, pierced by a sliver of moon and a million brillant stars. The only sounds were the rustling of wind through grass and trees, the creak of the swing rocking to the gentle pulses of Kim's long legs, and the slow steady thump of the heartbeat under her ear.

Until the calm was shattered by a swarm of children that tore around the corner of the house, shouting and screaming with high-pitched laughter; dodging in and around them were a motley assortment of dogs, barking joyfully to add to the chaos. Just as quickly, the horde disappeared, the Doppler effect of their voices receding to some far-off area of the yard.

Not difficult to identify the ringleader, a compact dark blur at the head of the pack. "Their parents don't mind that Henry's got them running around like maniacs?"

"Are you kidding? They're probably thrilled to have them out from under foot. The little beasts will be so exhausted they won't even have to be tucked into bed –- we can just let them lie where they drop and sort out the remains in the morning. Let 'em run; there's sixty acres for them to get lost in."

A chorus of howls went up, human and canine. "You don't suppose they've gone all Lord of the Flies on us, do you?"

Kim laughed. "They're not naked and no one's been sacrificed yet that I can see, so I think we're safe. For now."

Kerry brushed her lips lazily along Kim's neck, seeking out tender spots, grazing with the barest edges of her teeth and soothing the marks with the tip of her tongue. Ever so slowly she worked her way down to the hollow of the throat, licking the satiny skin that barely contained the bounding pulse. She had just begun to move lower when her parental instinct noted a change in the character of the shrieking; at the same time she felt Kim tensing against her. Kerry rested her forehead briefly against Kim's shoulder and sighed. "Guess we should check that out."

Hand in hand, they ambled down the wide porch steps in the general direction of the children's voices. Small feet pounded toward them. "Mama," said Henry, wide-eyed and panting, "you better come quick!" He grabbed her free hand and pulled, urging them to move faster.

"What is it, honey?"

"Hayley's hurt. Come see!" He took off running again, leaving them to follow.

"Which one's Hayley?" murmured Kerry.

"Kathy's middle child. Next older sister," said Kim.

"Right."

They approached the mob of children ringed around a coltish blonde girl of about 9 or 10 who was sitting on the ground beneath an enormous magnolia tree. She was stoically silent, but even in the darkness they could see the tightening of the corners of her mouth as she fought to keep from crying.

"What happened?"

A babel of voices spilled over one another as everyone tried to talk at once. "... fell out of the tree... " "... said she bet she could climb faster... " "... almost got to the top... "

Kim stuck her thumb and middle finger in her mouth and whistled shrilly. Instantly there was silence. "Hayley?"

"Henry and I were racing. It wasn't his fault," the girl interjected before Kerry could say anything. "I just slipped."

A glance at her son confirmed concern but no sign of guilt. "Anything broken?"

Hayley shook her head. "Don't think so. I can walk, but every time I move my leg bleeds like crazy."

"I'll bet. All right, kiddo," Kim bent to scoop her up, cradling her with one arm and supporting her under the knees with the other, "you get a free ride this time." The whole crowd trailed them toward the house. "First casualty of the holidays," she called as they trooped in through the kitchen door. A smattering of ironic applause greeted them as various relatives stood aside to let her pass.

An older, more full figured version of Kim met them by the table. Evidently this was Kathy. Carefully she lifted up the torn, bloodstained leg of Hayley's jeans and whistled. "Good going, babe. That'll leave a mark."

Kerry leaned closer to inspect the wound, a linear full-thickness laceration at the right calf over the lateral belly of the gastroc. It was fairly long but with relatively clean edges; as far as she could tell, there was no damage to the underlying muscle. "Not necessarily. Should close pretty nicely."

"What do you say, Kim?"

Kim shrugged. "Kerry's got a hell of a lot more experience with this kind of stuff than I do. The only stitching I've done since med school is replacing the odd button on my shirts."

"Yeah, I've seen your sewing," said Kathy with a smirk. "Well, all the other docs in the family are either absent or snockered. Looks like you're our best bet, Kerry. No offense, Sarah," Kathy nodded toward a lanky brunette across the room.

"None taken. Kid doesn't have enough legs and she's missing a tail, anyway."

Acutely aware of the roomful of eyes on her, Kerry self-consciously hedged, "I haven't actually done this for years, Kathy. Not to mention I'm not licensed to practice in this state."

Kathy smiled lopsidedly, strengthening her resemblance to Kim. "The nearest emergency hospital is almost 45 minutes away. Last time we went there, we waited six hours to be seen by a resident who hadn't slept in days. Judging by Matthew's scar, the guy must've been working with his eyes shut. I'd really appreciate it if you could take care of her here."

"Please, Aunt Kerry," said Hayley. Huge blue eyes in a small oval-shaped face beseeched her. Kerry had a sudden, powerful impression that Kim must have looked very much the same at this age. "I promise I won't sue."

Laughing, Kerry assented.

A brief but thorough physical exam verified her initial impression that Hayley had not sustained significant head trauma; the girl would, however, have a spectacular collection of bruises by morning. In short order the patient was seated on the counter with her feet in the sink, jeans rolled up to her thighs. With a practiced hand and exasperatedly amused air, her mother irrigated the wound with warm water from the pull-out sprayer.

Kerry sorted through a large plastic bin that housed an extensive collection of medical supplies. Quickly she found everything she needed, bypassing the prepackaged suture kits in favor of the much higher quality individually autoclaved instruments, including a beautiful Olsen-Hegar needle driver and a pair of mouse-tooth thumb forceps. "You know," she said, "I've seen EMS rigs that weren't this well equipped."

"Helps to have a handful of doctors and RNs around," said Kim's stepmother Sandra dryly. "Especially in this family. Wouldn't be a Legaspi gathering without someone bleeding somewhere. Now," she said, addressing the flock of children perched expectantly on every available surface, hovered over by a handful of adults, drinks and snacks in hand in preparation for the show, "all you heathens stay put and hush. No one says anything or 'helps' unless Miss Kerry tells you to. Got it?"

A ragged but respectful chorus of "Yes, Mamaw"s answered her.

Kerry directed Kathy to move Hayley to the counter height kitchen table, where the girl sat propped up on her hands with her legs extended. Shadows obscured her vision. "Could I have some light, please?" A floor lamp with a powerful floodlight was fetched from the living room and trained on the field. "Thanks," Kerry said to the room in general. Carefully, she checked for any remaining debris but found none, then swabbed around the site with Betadine.

"Any allergies to medication?" she asked.

Kathy shook her head. "None that we know of."

"Okay." Quickly she pulled up a few ccs of Marcaine, then switched the needle on the syringe for a 25g.

"Oh," said Hayley in surprise. "It doesn't burn as bad as the last time I got stitches."

"That's because I warmed the vial in my pocket," Kerry told her as she finished infiltrating around the wound. "And the little needle makes it hurt less."

Kim handed her a pair of sterile gloves and then a fenestrated drape. Kerry directed her to open packets, leaving the contents neatly ranged within easy reach. Taking a deep breath, she released it slowly, and let her hands remember.

With light but firm application of the forceps, she exposed the dermal/epidermal junction on each side of the wound, working smoothly and rapidly to take precise bites in a plane exactly parallel with the skin. Keeping the tension perfectly even in a running subcuticular closure was always a little tricky, but when performed correctly a laceration seemed to zip itself shut. Burying her final knot, she snipped the 5-0 Vicryl close to the skin and watched with satisfaction as the tail of the suture retracted beneath the surface, rendering the repair all but invisible.

She squeezed a ribbon of Neosporin along the apposed edges and smoothed a Tegaderm dressing over the whole thing, finally allowing herself a smile. "There. What do you think?"

Hayley's older brother -– Sean? Stephen? Kerry couldn't remember -– leaned in. "That's not even going to leave a scar," he scoffed.

"That's the idea, buster. She shouldn't need antibiotics," she said to Kathy, "but I'm sure you know what to look for if infection develops. Don't get it wet for 24 hours and you," she said sternly to the girl, "stay out of trees until that's healed."

Kathy nodded and carried her daughter out of the kitchen, presumably for cleanup and to find a bed. "Thanks, Aunt Kerry," called Hayley over her shoulder, flashing a brilliant smile.

As if on cue, the remaining children melted away, herded yawning off to parts unseen; she caught sight of Henry, who seemed content to be chivvied along with his new friends. Soon Kerry found herself in the den burrowed into a vast, squashy sectional sofa. Kim curled on the floor leaning against her leg, head resting on her thigh. She twined her fingers through the heavy silken strands, stroking idly, sipping her hot chocolate and listening to the conversations swirling over and around her.

The population had segregated at some point, the male members of the family wandering down to the rec room and its giant screen TV, pool table and kegerator. Not from any antiquated sexist notions -– Kim's brothers Mark and Clay had been largely responsible for cooking dinner and everyone had pitched in for cleanup afterward -– but more likely out of self defense. In Kerry's experience, there was nothing that a group of women wouldn't talk about, but the Legaspis seemed to take candor to an altogether different level and positively reveled in bawdiness to a degree that made her blush.

Sensing her discomfiture, Kim shifted to face her and reached for her hand. Running her thumb over the calloused palm was reassuring.

Not the worst Christmas she'd ever spent, Kerry reflected, thinking of all those holidays when she'd picked up extra shifts so her residents and staff could be with their families. She was warm, drowsily comfortable and looking forward to an entire week together with the woman she loved. As if reading her mind, Kim's lips curved into a devilish smile that promised a great deal. She smiled back, lost in the blazing blue gaze, her pulse quickening. Only gradually did she realize that they had become the subjects of discussion.

"Lordy," said someone. "If my husband ever looked at me like that, I'd be more than happy to put up with his snoring and his dirty socks on the floor instead of wanting to brain him with a cast iron skillet."

"You just better hope you don't get stuck in a room next door to them," said Anne, Kim's oldest sister. "You'll have to listen to them going at it all night."

Kim rolled her eyes. "Oh, come on. We're not that bad."

"Oh, no? When the kids and I visited you over Labor Day weekend, all I heard for hours was 'God, yes, right there, yes, yes, harder, faster!'" followed by an uncannily accurate imitation of a familiar scream. "I had to move to the basement to get any sleep -– even with four teenagers bouncing around, it was still quieter down there." Kerry felt heat rushing to her cheeks as everyone burst out laughing. Kim's hand tightened over hers.

"You should see their toy collection," said a young woman with long honey-blonde hair. Diane, Kerry remembered belatedly, one of the sisters-in-law. "Kim said I could borrow a sweater and I guess I opened the wrong drawer. I swear, I didn't know what half those things were."

Kim's brother Rob, who had been heading toward the kitchen with an empty tray, retreated hastily at the fresh wave of laughter.

"Y'all are worse than a bunch of barnyard hens," said Sandra. "Thank you for confirming for our guest that you're just as crazy and uncouth as advertised. Now, it's getting late and we've got to figure out where to put everyone. Kerry and Kim can have the barn."

Kerry raised an eyebrow.

"It's not what you think," whispered Kim. She rolled gracefully to her feet, then helped extract Kerry from the depths of the sofa. "It's been a long day, so we'll say good night. Besides, it's been far too long since I've had my hands on -– "

"Go on with you," Sandra cackled, making shooing motions. "Before this turns into an overly educational opportunity for these delicate, sheltered maidens."

"Yes, ma'am." Kim bent to kiss her stepmother's cheek on their way out.

In the crisply clear and blessedly quiet night air, Kerry leaned into Kim's embrace. "The barn?"

Kim grinned at her, stopping to haul their bags out of the trunk of their rental car. "My last major project the summer before I left for college. Cleared out the haymow and converted it into a finished apartment. Turned out pretty well, if I say so myself. And I've updated and improved things over the years."

"So getting sent to the barn is actually a privilege."

"It's Sandra's way of thanking you for Hayley. And you might have noticed that your reputation has preceded you."

"Meaning that any time we're out of their sight, they assume we're fucking each other's brains out?"

"Pretty much. They're all incredibly jealous."

"Well, I see no reason to either disappoint them or disabuse them of their notions." Kerry pulled Kim into a full contact kiss, letting her hands slip down to cup the curves of the perfect ass. A shudder rippled through her, liquid heat gathering between her legs.

"Weaver," Kim's voice dropped into its huskiest range, "I do like the way you think."