“You know, if you really wanted to do me a favor, you could say something reassuring. Like how your family’s going to love me or that they’re not that bad.”
Kaycen ‘Ace’ Thoreau was something of a BMOC at Stanford University. He was on the football team, actually not a dumbshit meathead jock (he got into Stanford on an academic scholarship), and he was dating one of the hottest girls at Stanford, Laura Hale. He had a lot to be confident about and he knew it, but at that moment he felt like anything but the cock of the walk.
Because spring break was upon them, and they were going home to Laura’s hometown of Beacon Hills and Ace would meet her parents for the first time.
He wasn’t too proud to admit he was intimidated as fuck. There was something about Laura that just set her apart from everyone else. She had a spark of something, a deadly grace to her every move. It reminded Ace of a ninja woman in a Tarantino film. Or a jungle cat that would kill you before you even knew you were being followed. Ace had always found it sexy, but now he was scared she’d inherited that panther-like power from her parents.
Whom he was going to meet in two days’ time.
Laura turned from her dorm room closet with four shirts in hand and gave Ace a look. It was not reassuring. “I could do that… it’d be a lie, though.”
Ace gulped. “Just promise they won’t kill me.”
Laura said nothing.
“Oh my god,” Ace jumped off Laura’s bed, “seriously?”
“They probably won’t. I’d caution against any sudden movements, though.”
Ace gaped at her as she carried her shirts to the suitcase open on her bed. “Laura, please tell me you’re joking.”
Laura gave him a wicked smirk. “Mostly.”
Laura barked a laugh, tossing her dark hair in the process. “I’m sorry, Ace… but you should see your face.”
Laura stepped in and gave him a quick kiss. “Listen, the truth is my family’s… intense.”
“What do you mean ‘intense’?”
“I mean intense. I’d like to lull you into a sense of security about this week, but it would be a false one. I’m telling you upfront that my family can be kind of scary. I mean, I’m used to it, but outsiders can get kind of overwhelmed.”
Ace swallowed nervously. “You make them sound like serial killers.”
Laura looped her arms around his neck. “Definitely not. Though the town has its rumor mill…”
Ace dropped his head to bury his face in her hair with a groan.
Laura smoothed her hands over his shoulders. “You’re the first boyfriend I’ve ever brought home to them, if that makes a difference. You’re the first one I thought was strong enough to face them.”
“Good to know you think so highly of me.”
“I do.” Laura pulled back to look him in the eye, her hazel-green gaze penetrating. “And they know how I feel about you. I promise they’re not going to chase you out of town, nothing that drastic, but you should just brace yourself right now to be put through the gauntlet. My parents are pretty protective. And don’t even get me started on my brother…”
“Is it too late to just back out of this whole thing? I mean, I don’t really have to meet them, do I? I can be your mystery man. Isn’t that kind of romantic?”
Laura swatted him on the shoulder and turned back to her packing. “At this point, backing out would be a mistake. It’ll look like weakness.”
“Geez, Laura, is your family in the mafia?”
Laura snorted. “Kind of feels like it sometimes. It’s big like a mob family. I have a lot of aunts and uncles.”
“Who will probably all want a chance to put me in the thumbscrews and ask me about my intentions toward you.”
“Now you’re catching on.” Laura smiled at Ace, blinding and gorgeous.
“Damnit,” Ace sagged. “I almost kind of hate that you’re worth it.”
Laura turned, gave a smart, “Damn right I am,” and pulled him into a kiss.
Ace returned the kiss before drawing back enough to study her face, running his fingers through her dark hair. “My Halen of Troy,” he teased lovingly.
Laura blushed. “I’m not asking you to launch a thousand ships here… just survive a week with my family.”
“I think I’d rather launch the ships. It would probably be easier.”
“You’re probably right.”
Beacon Hills was about a four hour drive from Palo Alto, which was plenty of time for Ace to work himself up to a near panic.
“Would you relax?” Laura freed one hand from the steering wheel to cover his where he was clutching his thighs in a death-grip. “I can hear your heart from here.”
He didn’t doubt it. It felt like his heart was going to beat right out of his chest. “Would you think less of me as a man if I told you I was terrified right now?”
“Of course not.”
“Okay, I’m terrified.”
Laura gave him a sympathetic look.
“What if they hate me? What if they think you can do better?”
Laura lifted one eyebrow imperiously. “Better? You got a full ride to Stanford and you’re one of the team’s star players.”
“So? They’re probably expecting you to snag an actor or an English nobleman studying aboard. You could be a princess!”
Laura laughed. “Ace, baby… can you picture anyone less likely to be a princess than me?”
“There are kickass princesses, too,” he muttered sullenly. He’d seen the recent Disney movies (though he would lie his ass off and say he hadn’t).
Laura patted his hand and resumed her 10 and 2 grip on the steering wheel. “The day you met me, I was breaking up a fight between two Great Danes at an adoption fair for the animal shelter. I’d hardly call that ladylike.”
“Yeah,” Ace smiled softly at the memory. Laura had been wearing cut-off shorts that showed off miles of tan legs and an animal shelter volunteer t-shirt. The Danes, one black and the other harlequin, had easily outweighed Laura twice-over. Not that it had made her so much as hesitate to jump into the fray when the two dogs went at each other. “I was sure you were about to get ripped to pieces, then you just shut those dogs down… I still don’t know how you did that. It was like you beastmastered those giants. You were so hot. It’s giving me a boner just thinking about it.”
Laura snorted. “Better get that under control before we get to my parents’ house.”
Well, if anything was going to be a boner-killer…
“My point is, I’d rather have you than some snobbish aristocrat.”
“Now who’s being sappy?” Ace asked playfully.
“Don’t make me pull this car over so I can manhandle you to prove my dominance.”
Ace chuckled. “First of all, we were trying to discourage my boner, and that is not the way to do it. Second, your freakish strength is not in question. And lastly, Laura, sweetie… there is no question who’s the boss in this relationship.”
Laura’s lips twitched in a smile. “Who would have thought the big-shot football player would have such a thing for take-charge women?”
“No one. That’s why all my past girlfriends combined still don’t hold a candle to you.”
“Oh, it’s you! You want to know who the sap in this car is? So you!”
Ace laughed. “Fine, it’s me.” He found himself lost watching her face. “I love you.”
Laura’s mocking air vanished and she smiled, genuine and warm. “I love you, too.”
The banter had momentarily distracted Ace from the dread he felt, but as soon as silence fell in the car his anxiety returned.
“A little piece of advice… if you want to win points with my family, you should probably work into the conversation somehow that I’m the alpha of this relationship.”
Ace gave her a puzzled look. “Umm… okay? You think that’s going to matter to them?”
“Definitely.” She gave him a quick look. “Trust me… it’s a Hale thing.”
Maybe her parents were uber-feminists and inordinately worried she was being cowed by a man. Although if they thought there was a chance in hell Laura Hale could be cowed by anyone, they didn’t know their daughter. Still, he’d do whatever it took to win favor with Laura’s parents.
“Okay, I can do that. Definitely.” He was not ashamed of the fact Laura was the dominant one in their relationship. It was one of the things he loved about her. Screw gender stereotypes – popular jocks could like having their girl take the reins, too. “Any other useful tips?”
Laura thought about that a minute. “You’re on your own with my parents… you’ll just have to make them believe you think the world of me. How will you ever manage?” She winked at him. Then her smile slipped. “My brother…” she paused a moment, deliberating. “Okay, so… he’s been bisexual since forever, but he was in denial about it for a long time. I don’t really know why. My family doesn’t care about that kind of stuff. None of us would have given him a hard time about liking girls and boys. But it was a huge deal for him, for whatever unfathomable reason. I think he might have gone his whole life pretending he wasn’t into guys just as much as chicks, but he met someone. A guy. And he’s…” Laura smiled fondly. “He is so gone on him. I’d call it cute, but it’s almost sickening, really.” She seemed to get lost a moment in being happy for her brother before she shook herself and got back on topic. “So he’s out now, and he has a boyfriend, but he’s freshly out, if that’s a thing, so he’s still kind of touchy about it. So if you could go out of your way to make him comfortable with his sexuality…”
“I’m not kissing him.”
“I told you,” Ace continued, “Tyler was a fluke. That one exception to the rule. I mean, the guy was an Adonis. Half the football team would have made an exception for him. I think a quarter of the team did.”
Laura reached over and carded her fingers through Ace’s hair. “One – do not kiss my brother, his boyfriend would hate you. Two – you know I love that you can be so cool about making out with a guy. Not while I’m dating you, of course, but as a matter of principle. I couldn’t be with you if you were a homophobe.”
“Love is love, babe,” Ace reached up to capture Laura’s hand and kiss her knuckles. She rolled her eyes but touched her thumb tenderly to his bottom lip before returning her hand to the wheel.
Ace grinned. “All right, so… bond with your brother over the guy I made out with in high school, let your parents know you’re the top dog…”
Laura burst into hysterical laughter.
“Why is that so funny?” Ace asked.
Laura struggled to get control of herself. “It just is… my god, you don’t even know.”
“I’m starting to think it’ll be a miracle if I make it through this week without being eaten alive.”
The wolfish grin Laura sent his way did not help allay his fears.
It was around one in the afternoon when they hit Beacon Hills and Laura turned off the main street, following an unpaved road into the woods. Ace felt his nerves ratchet up again. “Your parents live in the middle of the woods?”
“Yup. Why, is that a problem?”
“Nooo… just, how many horror movies involve a cabin in the woods?”
Laura snickered. “I won’t let the scary monsters get you, baby.”
“You better not. And for the record, I’m counting your parents among those ‘scary monsters’.”
She beamed at him. “So was I.”
Ace groaned. “Laura. You think you’re helping with the jokes, but you’re really not.”
“Who said I was joking?”
Laura chuckled, reached over, and took his hand. “Hey, calm down. It’s going to be fine. I’m not going to lie and say my family isn’t scary sometimes, because they are, but honestly, they just want to make sure you’re worthy. Think of it as a hero’s quest.”
“Just promise me I won’t have to slay any dragons,” Ace grumbled.
“I can definitely promise no dragons.”
Ace took a deep breath and squeezed Laura’s hand.
That was all the time he got to brace himself, because they turned a bend in the winding road and a huge house came into view. Given its location, it might as well be a three-story gothic mansion.
“Told you, big family,” Laura pulled her hand free to manage pulling up alongside a black Camaro and parking.
“Yeah, but you said a lot of that was aunts and uncles.”
“It is. The Hale clan’s pretty close; all my aunts and uncles have a room in the house.”
“They all live here?” Talk about peculiar.
“No, but they do stay over a lot. And since they knew I was bringing you home this week, I’m sure the place will be packed soon, if it’s not already.” She gave him a smile. “Ready?”
“Can I say no?”
Laura leaned over to give him a quick kiss. “Nope. Get your ass out of the car, Thoreau, before I Thoreau it out.”
Ace rolled his eyes. “Your puns are painful, Laura. Literally, they pain me.”
Laura chuckled and got out of the car.
Taking a deep breath, Ace followed.
He approached the house at Laura’s side, staring up at it like it was a cursed castle waiting to devour him. He felt like asking Laura if she was sure there were no dragons. There was something about the place that made his hairs stand on end. He’d done ‘meet the parents’ before, and it had never felt like this. He felt like a baby deer walking into a lion’s den.
The front door opened and Ace couldn’t help a tiny squeak.
Laura took his hand and squeezed.
Two men stepped out of the house, one broad and dark and giving off predator vibes like nobody’s business. The other was lean, less scowly than tall-dark-and-handsome, but a glint in his eye told Ace he’d met his intellectual match… if not his superior. Together, both men stepped off the porch and stood facing Laura and her suitor.
Laura broke from Ace’s side and rushed at the two men. “Dad!” she exclaimed and launched herself into the first man’s arms. He folded her in a hug while giving Ace a beady look over his daughter’s shoulder.
The second man cleared his throat. “What am I, chopped liver?”
Laura laughed and swung from one man’s embrace to the other like a monkey swinging from tree to tree. Dark and scary seemed reluctant to let her go.
The lean man squeezed Laura tightly. “So good to have you home, Laura.” He glanced meaningfully at Ace. “And I see you brought dinner.”
Ace’s eyes widened.
Laura stepped out of the man’s arms. “Pop, don’t. He’s already freaked out as it is.”
“Good,” dark and scary intoned.
Lean and quick smacked his companion on the arm. “Be nice, Derek.”
Laura beckoned Ace forward. He stepped closer numbly, not even sure how he covered the distance.
“Ace, these are my dads, Derek and Stiles Hale. Dad, Pop, this is my boyfriend, Kaycen Thoreau.”
Ace’s jaw dropped. “Your…” He swallowed his tongue before he could blurt out the first thought that raced through his mind.
Dark and scary, Derek, glowered.
Lean and quick, Stiles, grinned and looked toward his daughter. “You didn’t tell him.” He looked amused by the blunder.
Laura’s eyes went wide and she covered her mouth. “Oh! I… I thought I did. I guess I didn’t?” she looked at Ace questioningly.
Ace shook his head. No, he definitely would have remembered Laura mentioning this.
Laura winced. “Um… whoops?”
Ace couldn’t help but chuckle. It wasn’t often Laura was caught flat-footed. It was kind of adorable, like watching a jaguar startle when it caught sight of itself in a mirror. He held out his hand. “Mr. and Mr. Hale, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Derek eyed the hand like it was covered in feces, but Stiles reached out to shake it. “Just call us Stiles and Derek, it’ll save everyone a lot of confusion.” Stiles released Ace’s hand and nudged Derek in the side. “Derek…”
With a huff, Derek shook Ace’s hand a little too firmly to be polite.
Ace turned a wince into an awkward smile.
“So,” Stiles draped one arm over his daughter’s shoulders, casual but unmistakably protective. “You go by ‘Ace’?”
“Uh, yeah. I’m not really a fan of ‘Kaycen’. My parents had me in the middle of that huge Aiden-Brayden-Jayden-Kayden fad and wanted to mix it up. They should not be allowed to name things. Our dog’s name is Oleander.”
Derek lifted one eyebrow at his husband. “I don’t think you have room to make fun of anyone’s name, Stiles.”
“Fair enough, fair enough. Honestly, I would have been happy with a name like ‘Kaycen’.” Stiles nodded at Ace. “Stiles is a nickname because my real name should be banned by the Geneva Conventions. I feel like me and Arnold Schwarzenegger share a special bond; I’m sure we were both the only kids in our kindergarten classes crying trying to spell our names.”
Ace ventured a smile.
“Where’s Aaron?” Laura asked, looking around.
“He’s out with Sam. I told him he could have lunch with his boyfriend, but we expect him home for dinner with the family.”
“Speaking of which… who all will be coming?”
Stiles’ grin looked almost wicked. “Everyone.”
Ace looked from Laura and Stiles over to Derek, who actually looked delighted the way an evil supervillain in a movie would. Like the victim had walked right into his trap.
Yep… he’d be lucky to make it out of this week with his flesh still on his bones.