On the twelfth day of Christmas, Davy Dempsey rolled over and reached for his wife.
Who was considerably furrier than he remembered.
He forced one eye open, and Steve looked up expectantly from the edge of a very expensive pillow, panting hot puppy breath in his face. "Don't get any ideas," Davy warned, pulling his hand back, and a long tongue lolled sideways and landed with a dull splat.
"Right. Time for new pillows."
He glanced at the clock and groaned – it was criminally early, his wife was evidently gone, and he'd just felt up his dog.
"Back to bed, mutt," he grumbled, since they'd somehow woken up in a bad honky tonk song. Consciousness could call back later.
Then Tilda slipped silently from the bathroom, a whole lot of pink-flushed skin wrapped in a whole lot less lace-trimmed fabric, and Davy barely caught himself before he hopped on the drool bandwagon. Perhaps I spoke too soon.
She tiptoed carefully around the attic, which did amazing things for her legs, and he slid his hands behind his head and watched her, wide awake all at once, at full alert and attention. In more ways than one.
Across the room, she shimmied into a pair of jeans, bouncing a little as she slid them skyward. The movement set off a chain reaction, making everything else bob in the best way possible – her dark curls in their horned halo, her round flesh in its cotton confines.
Sleep could probably wait.
Steve was equally entranced, hopping down and halting the show and leaving him to curse canines in general.
"Hey, puppy," Tilda cooed quietly. He trotted over as she bent to pat the top of his head, and Davy set aside his ire to admire the view. "Just give me a sec and we'll go out, okay?" Steve honked his answer, and she said "Shhhh" in a hushed hiss and looked over to the bed, and Davy was busted and back to the cursing.
"Crap," she breathed, turning toward him. "I didn't want to wake you."
"Vilma, you smell like a bakery and look like dessert. Dead men couldn't sleep through that." He sat up with a smirk and leaned back to the headboard. "Why are you creeping around at the crack of dawn? Were you planning to go burgling without me?"
She smiled at that, yanking a sweater over her head. Steve whimpered at her feet, and Davy looked down at him in solidarity and thought, Yeah, I hear you, buddy. "I have to finish the last few loads of…" She trailed off and rolled her eyes. "Why am I still whispering?" she whispered, and Davy shrugged and said, "Lose the shirt and you can whisper all you want. Make it something dirty."
"I just showered. You'll have to get dirty on your own." She rounded the bed and peered into a formidable pile of shoes before she pulled something free, and the whole mess crumpled like a house of cards. "There are still a few batches of ornaments at the blowers that I need to prep before they're painted –"
"'Blowers'." He batted it around, and she glared in mock indignation. "Don't think we're really on the same page there, but it's a start."
Then she dropped to her knees, and he lost his breath for a few good heartbeats. "Though I could be wrong."
"And then I actually have to paint them," she continued, ignoring him completely – on all fours now, head half under the bed frame. "And get them all glazed and boxed. And finalize the menu with the caterer. And at some point, finish up that commission."
"That is a lot of 'and's," he conceded, as if he didn't have quite a few of his own to plow through. Nevertheless, she sounded hectic but happy, and she hadn't needed her inhaler once, and she'd lost that drowning look in her eyes the moment she'd confessed all her Scarlet sins, so he'd leave her to her conjunction junction.
She finally came up for air, triumphantly holding a boot high, and he tugged her down to the mattress and sent it skittering back again.
He held tight and waited for the inevitable objection, but she just fell forward and pressed her kewpie doll mouth to his, smelling like cinnamon and tasting like heaven and feeling like forever, the way she always did.
They broke apart, a warm hand on his face and a warm lap full of woman making him rethink his whole line of reasoning. "About that to-do list," he started, sliding his hand south for emphasis. "I'll trade you four bland 'and's for one great butt."
Laughing, she wriggled free and bent to re-rescue her footwear and didn't even have the decency to look tempted.
"I have to go." She swayed to kiss him again, lingered for a moment that wasn't nearly long enough, then grabbed for the matching boot and called to Steve.
"Mmhmm," he muttered, watching the pair of them make their way to the door. "'I'll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too.'"
Davy was fresh from his own shower, hunting through vine-wrapped drawers for a clean shirt, when Sophie called.
"We're coming for Christmas," she said, her tone daring him to argue. "It was your idea."
He snorted and gave up, plucking yesterday's shirt from a discarded pile of mostly-clean laundry. "And hello to you, too."
"I gathered. I'm just trying to make sense of the early parole, since it couldn't be on account of good behavior."
He spotted a fresh pair of jeans folded atop a different pile entirely, and looked around the room at similar stacks and mountains and one large pyramid in particular and thought, I'm beginning to see a pattern here. "What happened to all that Tucker Family Tradition, patent-pending?"
Sophie laughed, and it sounded more than a little manic. "I'm throwing over tradition in favor of sanity. Liz is driving me mad."
"'We all go a little mad sometimes,'" he reasoned, and she said, "Don't joke, that's her signature quote. I've used that quote more in the three years I've been here than in all thirty-four years before. She's the whole reason that quote even exists."
Davy chuckled in spite of himself. "Madness is not a new development. So why the mutiny?"
She took a deep breath and launched into her latest Liz Tucker tale of woe, involving toy drives and soup kitchens and a late-night reading of 'Twas The Night Before Christmas in their quaint little bookstore, all culminating in a featured float appearance for the Temptation holiday parade.
"'It's your civic duty as an elected official,'" Sophie snapped coolly, her snarl marring an otherwise-admirable impression, "'and it is the last holiday season before we campaign.' Ugh. Ugh. I know she means well, and that there's a good heart under all that ice, and I thought I could grin and bear it the way I do everything else. Then she brought out the hand-made costumes. Hand-made costumes, Davy. "
"Mrs. Claus as Mayor actually paints a very progressive picture. And clearly Santa would be your bitch."
She chose to let the spousal dig slide and sighed instead. "She's got Dempsey cast as Rudolph, so Dillie got stuck as an elf," she said miserably. "I swear, she held up those costumes and started fawning over the stitching, and all I could think about was Dad at this time of year, plastering us in Goodwill leftovers to shove the sympathy card at every easy mark with a soft heart."
Davy swallowed hard and remembered, too, doe eyes in grubby faces and souls worn thin, too many roots in realism making them play their parts to perfection, and he gripped the phone a little tighter as she picked up steam.
"And then I thought about them all grown up and looking back on their childhood and having the same bad memories, just with curled shoes and clown noses, and spending Christmas in Columbus was the only out I could come up with before I completely snapped."
She stopped, perhaps to reign in the desperation, but when she spoke again it bled through the line anyway.
"I love this town, you know I do. And most days it's good to be queen. But I am not about to pimp my kids to get reelected."
It was desperate for damn sure, but she'd added resigned and resolute by the end, along with every drop of Dempsey in her blood, and he blinked back old wounds and took a deep breath and said, "Christmas in Columbus it is."
The rush of breath was sweet relief in his ear, and all the desperation was gone when she said, "I love you, Davy."
"You say that now. Have fun telling your husband that he doesn't get to play dress-up. Especially the part where it was all my idea."
"My husband never believed in Santa," she lobbed back easily, "and would rather dress in nothing at all. Besides, everything that goes awry is your idea. Honestly, you should know this by now."
On the eleventh day of Christmas, Davy roused to find his arm around a familiar ball of fur, and opened his eyes to scowl over at Steve and say, "We've got to stop meeting like this."
Tilda had successfully made like a thief in the night – her creeping skills were improving, much to his consternation – so he reluctantly pulled on clothes and headed downstairs in search of sustenance, Steve on his heels. In the kitchen, he let Steve out the back door and groggily greeted Andrew, who turned from the sink and his coffee to eye him curiously and say, "Were you wearing that yesterday?" while The Shirelle's crooned "A Thing of the Past" in the background.
Ignoring him, Davy poured himself a glass of juice. The gallery was strangely quiet, save the jukebox, but that had been the case more often than not since Dorcas had begun her blue period and Eve had started to integrate and Gwennie had gone gallivanting around the globe on an ex-Fed's pension, blissfully boinking her way through a Beach Boys song.
"Are we alone in the house?"
Andrew fished a couple muffins from the ever-present bakery bag and tossed one his way. "Tilda's off being Superwoman, Jeff's working on a deposition, and Eve took Nadine out for some last-minute shopping."
There was a flurry of frantic scratching at the door, and Davy went to let the dog in, taking the tang of pineapple-orange pastry with him and thinking, Shopping. Something I should probably do at some point. Preferably after he fixed all the focus spots and installed the new wall safe and gave the interior a fresh coat of decorators' white.
"We're, what, ten days out?" he said, aiming for casual and overshooting the mark and landing on bored, instead. "Not all that last-minute."
"It is if you expect to find anything decent. All the good stuff goes early." His brother-in-law raised an eyebrow, and for the first time in a long time, Davy wondered what he was missing.
He opened the door, and Steve shot him a withering glance and shook the snow from his silver-streaked fur, slinking inside and leaving wet paw prints behind. "You're already done, I take it."
Andrew nodded and said, "We're putting the finishing touches on a couple things, but for the most part, yes," and Davy stopped and swallowed mid-muffin and said, "Finishing touches?" and watched Andrew grin in a way that didn't bode well for his procrastination.
"When it comes to Goodnight women, you've got two choices: give vintage, or go handmade."
Davy groaned, even though it made all kinds of sense. "Well that figures. They couldn't be normal about Christmas when they're not about anything else."
"We wouldn't love them the same if they were normal," Andrew answered, shrugging, and damn if he wasn't right. "But Goodnights are nothing if not practical."
"Don't I know it," Davy muttered, thinking of Nadine's rotating costumes and Eve's revolving personalities and Gwennie's recurring teeth and Tilda, always Tilda, firmly rooted in reality, until he finally tossed the rest of his muffin to Steve and trudged back upstairs to figure out what the hell he was going to do.
Davy was still planted at Tilda's palm-painted desk, blinking at a blank sheet of paper and totally devoid of ideas, when she came home for lunch. She crossed the attic in long strides, looking slightly disheveled and significantly paint-splattered and so radiant that his heart caught in his chest, and he shoved the paper aside and took it all in and thought, Normal is wildly overrated.
"Another 'and' down," she sighed, plopping solidly into his lap, "forty million to go." Then she frowned down at the empty evidence, too observant for her own good, and said, "What are you up to?"
"I'm contemplating the Great American Novel," he said, "which is code for porn. You're just in time to be my muse."
"Talk about my lucky day." She grinned and kissed him, sweet and slow and not stressed in the least, and he held her close and breathed her in and tried like hell not to panic.
"You snuck out on me, Celeste."
She batted blue-eyed innocence behind her glasses and said, "I left you Steve," as if that made it any better, and he looked down at Tilda and all her softness and down at Steve and all his wolfishness and said, "Not really an even trade."
"I'll make it up to you," she said, and her voice was such a promise that he forgot all about his present problems and leaned in to kiss her again, only to frown when she ducked and covered. "After this day is over, and I've put in some more hours on that commission, and I don't have glaze in my hair, I will definitely be making it up to you."
"Promises, promises," he grumbled, but she slid her hand around his neck and slipped her lips over his ear, and his vision blurred for a bit. "Refresh my memory," he started, so suddenly hoarse he had to clear his throat. "How is taking on commissions any different than the murals you hated more than life itself?"
"Extenuating circumstances," she said, mouth hot on his skin, breath hotter in his ear. "This one's special. Someone made me an offer I couldn't refuse."
"Shame it wasn't me." She moved lower, and he shivered as his eyes crossed completely. "Christ, Tilda. You're not making the greatest case for patience, here."
"Sorry." She pulled back to peck him chastely on the cheek, looking shamed and sheepish and almost selling it, were it not for the mischief on the outskirts. He arched an eyebrow, silently calling her on it, and she flushed and laughed and said, "I came up to change, pal. Is it my fault that you're so distracting?"
"I actually have it on good authority that everything is my fault."
She shook her head and moved to get up, and he let her go and watched her unfold, thinking, Yeah, like you're sorry, either. "Speaking of which…" He trailed off as she pulled clean pants from a stack somewhere south of her easel and headed for the bathroom. "I thought you were changing."
"I am," she drawled, disappearing through the door. "Trust me, it's safer this way."
"'Playing it safe is just about the most dangerous thing a woman like you could do.'"
She ducked around the doorjamb, bra undone and brows pulled together. "Mermaids."
"Moonstruck," he said, blatantly staring and dangerously distracted and totally making her case for her. "But you get half a point for Cher."
"Sweet," she said, ducking back again. "'Speaking of which?'"
"What?" She stayed silent beneath the sound of running water, and he beat back the flesh-induced haze and tried to retrieve the thought that had flown away. Focus. Visiting sister, not seriously sexy wife. "Oh, right. Turns out Sophie's coming down for Christmas."
"Oh thank God," Tilda exclaimed, making him chuckle and shake his head.
"I wasn't quite that enthusiastic, but apparently it was all my doing, anyway." He moved from the chair to the bed, hoping for a better view. "Not the reaction I expected from you, with everything going on."
"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Sophie's a sweetheart, and Dillie's a great kid, and Phin is… well, growing on me."
Then she already had one up on him. "I'm guessing the problem isn't Dempsey."
"I'm sorry, but that woman scares me," she said. "And I survived Gwennie and her teeth."
"Not to mention her jukebox." He caught a glimpse as she bent – a sliver of skin, a peek of profile, a glint of hammered gold at her finger – and grinned, remembering postcards and paper umbrellas, visions of vacations and months of missing her mother, until his offhand "We could always honeymoon in paradise" had made her laugh and say, "I'm pretty sure we'd have to be married to honeymoon," and he'd shrugged and said, "So let's get married" while Dusty asked what she was doing the rest of her life, and she'd stopped laughing.
They'd ended up barefoot on a beach in Bermuda with Ford and Gwen and Gwen's umbrellas, Tilda wrapped in a white sundress and her battered Chinese jacket and walking toward him in the sand as the steel band cued up "Chapel of Love."
"Interesting choice," she'd mouthed, beaming, and he'd whispered, "I'm making peace with the time-warp, Scarlet. Go with it," and reached out to pull her close. She'd squeezed his hand and kissed him too soon, and he'd smiled into the setting sun and sworn to love her forever.
"I know you don't do holidays without your family," she said now, turning off the water and bringing back memories of the long Thanksgiving weekend after their wedding. When all was said and done, they had married in paradise and honeymooned in Temptation – fitting, since they lived in an Eden of Tilda's creation. "But it's barely been a month, and I honestly don't think I could make it through another meal in the house that humor forgot. Or with my great-uncle Claude's Manet glaring at me from the mantle."
"If you'd shared that particular tidbit, we probably could've skipped dessert."
Steve hopped onto the bed, draping his long body over Davy's leg, and Davy reached down to scratch him and thought, Not a word about that muffin.
"I wouldn't feel too guilty," he said dryly. "There's a reason Sophie's running away from home for the holidays. I guess Liz scheduled some strategic Christmas cheer."
Tilda snorted. "God help all the little Whos in Whoville."
She padded out of the bathroom, grinning and gorgeous and newly glaze-free, saying, "Luckily, Sophie's got you to run to," and looking at him as if he were God's gift to impossible situations, and Davy closed his eyes, wondering what in the world he could give this woman that was worth as much as she was and coming up empty.
"So yes, somewhat selfishly and even with all that's going on, I am completely on board with the extra company." She buttoned her jeans and moved to the dresser, crouching to dig through the bottom drawer. "Where the hell is my blue sweater?"
"Basket by the door," he said, half-hollow. She made a beeline for it, mumbling, "We should really do some laundry," and he grimaced and said, "Our clothes combined are like gremlins, Til. If we get them wet, they'll only multiply."
She tugged the sweater on, realized it was inside out, and shrugged back out of it. "I need to stop for supplies and drop the deposit at the caterer's," she said, shoving her arms into the righted sleeves and talking more to herself than to him. Then she said, "Crap, I was supposed to pick up Gwennie's gift this morning," and his ears perked up.
"About that… "
"It's covered," she said knowingly, hopping into one boot. "Joint gifts are an underappreciated marital perk." He gaped his surprise, and she smirked satisfaction right back. "What? I have untold psychic powers."
"You have a brother-in-law with a big mouth," he groused, but it was smothered in a sigh of relief.
Except there was still Tilda.
He stood and crossed the room to her, wrapped his arms around her waist to feel her settle around him, mold to him like clay. "If we ever get back to the porn and the promises, I'd be more than happy to show you just how appreciated you are."
She smiled and kissed him and left, all too fast, and he was alone again. Almost.
He turned from the door, trying to spot Steve amid the stacks. "It's just you and me, buddy," he said. "You and me and imaginary present porn."
Then he took a good hard look around, at all the piles and packs and that one pesky pyramid, and thought, Have I really been living in the obvious answer? Steve yelped pitifully from somewhere in the midst of the madness, sounding for all the world like clear confirmation, and Davy hit the stairs at a dead run, headed for the nearest hardware store.
On the tenth day of Christmas, Davy woke to the wet swipe of a warm tongue across his cheek, and turned his face from the softness of his pillow to meet Steve's anxious eyes and say, "This is becoming a problem."
He showered and stretched through the soreness of the day before, of planning and progress and Tilda keeping all her promises, and marveled at how she'd managed to find the energy to creep away yet again.
Downstairs, Nadine slid him a slathered slice of toast as soon as he hit the kitchen, Ethan handed him the juice, and Davy grabbed a glass and took a moment to absorb the day's ensemble.
"Who's the schoolgirl for?"
"Jared," Nadine said, blowing at the bangs on a black wig that must've been Louise's once upon a time. "There's an anime."
He nodded. "I'm sure there is."
She looked down at the short blazer and the bouncy skirt and the impossibly tiny bowtie and frowned. "I'm thinking it's a little too Britney," she said, pulling at one striped stocking, and Davy shook his head and said, "No pigtails. Or air of overt sluttiness."
Her smile lit up the room, more blinding than usual, and he grinned back, conjuring last week's June Cleaver and chalking it all up to Dr. Mark. "Thanks," she chirped, hopping onto the counter. "Will you be around later? I want you to meet him. Jared."
"I don't know, 'Dine. 'I already know an awful lot of people.'"
"'And until one of them dies, I couldn't possibly meet anyone else,'" Ethan finished, and Davy thought, This kid is one in a million for approximately the thousandth time, watching Ethan watch Nadine and wondering when she'd wise up.
"I thought you were going to stop subjecting them to my kind of welcome wagon. Since it went so well with the last one."
She shrugged and tossed Steve a torn piece of crust. "Zander was just… really into literature."
"The kid spoke Elvish," Davy said. "Without any irony whatsoever."
"See, this is exactly why I need you," she pleaded. "You're a good judge of character."
Davy snorted, thinking, Well, that's a first. "Got the smile," he said, "but you needed a 'yes' before the ridiculous flattery." She nodded gravely, as if she were taking notes in her head, then turned big blue eyes on him, falling back on what she knew best, and he thought, Oh, hell.
"Please, Uncle Davy?" She blinked, bewildered, and the spell was broken. "Huh. I thought I'd try it, just to see how it felt."
He raised an eyebrow, surprised and curious and amused all at once, saying, "How was it?" and watching her nose scrunch in a way that, anime aside, made her look about twelve.
"Weirder than I thought it would be."
Reaching over, he patted her shoulder. "We're good with the status quo."
He finished his toast and polished off the last of his juice while Steve hunted for crumbs at his feet. "Thanks for breakfast. You two go learn something." Waving to Ethan, he headed for the basement and the many, many pieces of his wife's perfect present, but paused at the door, turning to throw Nadine a bone.
"I'll be downstairs," he said, caving. "Bring the doughnut."
Davy was hard at work, methodically ripping down two-by-fours while Dusty promised that his secret was safe with her, when his phone rang, and he reset the saw with one hand and reached for his cell with the other.
"If you're changing again, I'll be right up," he said smoothly, and Simon snorted into his ear and said, "I see the honeymoon isn't over yet."
"I see the rumors of your death have been greatly exaggerated," Davy said. "It's been awhile."
"Yes, well, I thought I'd leave you to your domestic bliss," Simon deflected, and in his mottled accent it was only mildly condescending. "From what I hear, you've got nearly a foot on the ground. Must be perfectly picturesque this time of year."
He thought of Miami in December, beaches still dotted with blankets and bikinis and his best friend in the middle of it all. Then he thought of Tilda, bundled up within an inch of her life, laughing into the lake-effect wind and lobbing snowballs at him with a surprisingly solid arm, and suddenly felt sorry for Simon.
"Definitely has its perks," he said, and cut to the chase. "Whatever you're selling, I'm not interested."
"Absolutely legit. It's a Bureau consult on an estate burglary in upstate New York."
Davy chuckled. "You've gotten soft on the wagon. Since when can't you handle an off-radar WASP job?"
"This guy's connected," Simon said, sounding slightly disgruntled, "and the furthest thing from off-radar you can imagine. He's been moving money since you were in nappies. The job's an SEC outsource, they've had eyes on him for years."
"Then you should have plenty of company."
"I could really use your help on this one." He dished it out with all the British gravity he could muster and topped it with a heaping spoonful of mutual history and unpaid favors, and Davy snorted and said, "Bullshit. It's slow season, and you are bored out of your mind," and listened to his friend's deep laughter.
"It came across my desk, if you will, and I found myself wondering if your better half would let you come out and play," Simon said, and dangled the bait. "There's an electronic account at UBS in it for you."
Morbid curiosity got the better of him. "Numbered?"
"Is there ever any other? And if that doesn't prove motivation enough, there's always the one in Singapore."
Groaning, Davy leaned to the table for support and tried to tell himself that he wasn't weak in the knees. Even at his best, he'd never managed Singapore.
"You're a real bastard when you want to be."
"Consider it an early Christmas present. I can have you on a flight in four hours," Simon said. Dusty switched to "The Other Side of Life," and Davy shook his head to clear the lingering contact high.
"No can do," he said. "I've got responsibilities here."
Simon scoffed. "What on earth could you possibly have to do that trumps Singapore?"
"A safe, a whole lot of spotlights, and a solid coat of paint," Davy ticked off, thinking, And my wife, though that's less responsibility than privilege. "But at the moment, I need to finish framing."
"I won't even pretend to have understood any of that," Simon said, and gave up the ghost. "Davy Dempsey, filling his days with manual labor. Christ, what a sad state of affairs. I knew you were getting out of the game, which I can respect. But this isn't legit, this is housebroken."
"This is family," Davy said. "Always came first with me, Si."
"I suppose you're right about that. And how is the newfound family these days?"
"As functionally dysfunctional as ever," Davy answered, and waited for the real question. It didn't come, and he sure as hell wasn't going to volunteer the information – if the man didn't have balls enough to ask, than he didn't deserve to know. "Sophie and her brood are coming in, so the full house will be fuller than usual."
Simon was quiet for a moment, and the silence crackled heavily over the connection. "Enjoy," he finally said. "I'll just have to handle Singapore on my own."
"Take notes. I plan to live vicariously." Davy paused, the steel toe of one work boot absently drawing patterns in the sawdust. "It's good to hear from you, man."
"It's good to be heard from," Simon said, and coughed to cover the break in his voice. "Kiss that wife of yours for me."
Davy nodded and moved to cut the call, then thought better of it. "Hey, Si… Just out of curiosity, what are you doing for the holidays?"
"At this point? Diana. But plans change."
He hung up, and Davy smirked down at the phone and went back to work.
On the ninth day of Christmas, Davy felt a tiny paw prod at his shoulder and a cold nose nudge at his chin, and didn't bother saying anything at all. Clearly, his words were falling on deaf doggy ears.
He took Steve outside, watched him sniff and shiver and sink into the snow, and came back in to catch his sister-in-law in the kitchen, her blonde hair snipped into a sleek pageboy, her dark grey sweater slipping off her shoulders, not entirely Eve but not altogether Louise.
"What?" she said, the gravel and gossamer of their blended voices sounding like Patty Duke by way of Pussy Galore, and he blinked and went about his business while she sipped her coffee and smoothed a hand over her hair.
"Tilda mentioned that your sister's coming for Christmas?"
He nodded, spotting the less-than-Louise bubblegum-pink bra strap that peeked out from under her sweater, and bit into a muffin to keep his foot out of his mouth.
"That'll be nice," she said, and patted at her hair again.
"Mmhmm," he mumbled, eyeing the very un-Eve-like heels beneath the hem of her very practical pants and thinking, I really hope we got them a joint gift.
"You must be excited to see her."
"Absolutely," he agreed, noting her now-brown eyes and seriously contemplating taking his breakfast downstairs. A little sawdust never hurt anybody.
The Chordettes launched into "Just Between You and Me," and she folded the empty bakery bag into smaller and smaller squares, looking fidgety and forlorn and everywhere but at him.
"How long are they staying?" she said, and he set his muffin aside and folded his hands on the counter and said, "You know, I happen to be perfectly comfortable with uncomfortable silence."
Her face fell, and she glanced down at the character collision and threw her hands in the air. "I'm trying to find a happy medium."
"Then you should probably be happier about it."
She blew out a breath and dropped onto a stool, tugging the ends of her sleeves over her thumbs. "I don't know how to do this anymore, Davy."
"Be one person," she said with a sniffle. "But that, too."
He rounded the counter and propped himself next to her, crossing his arms over his chest. "It's doubtful that daily dress-up is the answer," he offered, as gently as he could manage, and she leaned heavily against him, laying her head on his arm and looking utterly lost.
"You hacked off your hair. You're wearing contacts. You're headed to work in stilettos, with ten inches of snow on the ground," he said, and watched her wince. "If you're wondering whether or not the whole thing comes across as absurdly as it sounds, that would be a yes. You look like your own evil twin. And you're a teacher. I'm almost positive that's going to scare small children."
Tears traced their way down her cheeks, sketched in the charcoal of Louise's mascara, and he nudged her with his shoulder and handed her a napkin.
"I don't know where your happy medium is, kiddo, but I don't think it's in your closet."
She laughed, a little pitifully, but he'd take what he could get.
Davy was just finishing up his construction camouflage – an assembly line of drop cloths strung floor-to-ceiling along the back wall, all tacked tightly together and hung with a sign that read "Keep Out On Pain Of Abstinence" – when Tilda burst into the room.
"Hey," he said, both surprised to see her and this close to caught, and she broke into a broad grin and launched herself at him.
"You," she murmured against his mouth, "are wonderful."
He concentrated on the contact and not his confusion, sliding his hands down to her hips. "'Thank you. I've worked hard to become so.'"
"I don't know what you did," she said, and he thought, Oh good, that makes two of us, "but whatever it was, I think you actually got through to her." She smiled, lips quirked on his, and his upstairs brain finally kicked in.
Ah, he thought. All about Eve.
Since he couldn't exactly tell her that his particular method of intervention had consisted of a whole lot of awkward, followed by letting Eve in on the fact that she looked ridiculous, he settled for distraction. "Glad to be of service," he said, and bent to finish the celebration she'd started.
Spying the makeshift masking job, she turned to hook a thumb at his handiwork. "Do I even want to know what that's about?" she said, one eyebrow cocked, and he shook his head and waved it off.
"The stage isn't set yet, but I'll fill you in once they install the pole."
She rolled her eyes and slipped out of his hands, crossing the room to flop flat on her back on the bed.
Which, all things considered, was still a step in the right direction.
"God, she's functioning again," Tilda said. "Like a real person. Or at least closer to the way she did when she one real person and one imaginary person."
She pressed her palms to her forehead and took a deep breath, grinning giddily at the ceiling. He moved to the bed to sprawl out next to her, and she rolled to her side and propped her head on his shoulder.
"I didn't even have to fix her," she breathed, warm wisps of repentance and relief. "I didn't know how to fix her. I'd been feeling so guilty about it, and there is nothing worse than feeling guilty about being happy."
"It's not your job to make her happy, not the way she needs to be," he said, and ached for her. "We've talked about this, Matilda. You can't fix everything."
"I know. Honestly, I do. It's just that we were in the same boat for so long that we got used to having each other. And now I have you. And Gwennie has Ford, and Andrew's had Jeff for ages, and Nadine will always have Ethan, whenever she figures that out… Eve just has Louise, which isn't the same at all and is kind of disturbing on multiple levels, and boiled down just means that she's alone. That she's going to keep being alone unless she lets go of whoever she's not. There isn't room for anyone else."
She tipped her head back to meet his eyes. "She gets that now. And she's trying to fix herself."
Thoroughly baffled, he opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again. "And she had this miraculous revelation after… something that I supposedly did."
"That's what I'm told," she said, settling against his arm again.
He pulled her a little closer, held on a little tighter, turning to drop his face into her hair and thinking, Hell, a win is a win.
"So she's cured," he said, mostly muffled in her curls, and she choked out a laugh and said, "God no, she's out back bawling and burning all her clothes. But it's progress."
On the eighth day of Christmas, Davy crashed into consciousness with the unique sensation of smothering, thanks to twenty-five pounds of silver-dappled dachshund, and he pitched to the side to dislodge his dumb dog, gasping and glaring as Steve fell from his face.
"For future reference," he said, spitting out fur, "trying to wake me up with death is a little counterproductive."
They went outside without incident and ate breakfast in relative peace, and he'd just managed to rough in the new office safe when Steve sprang from his spot on the floor, tail turning like a propeller, and Gwennie came in from the cold, grinning and glowing and loaded up like a pack mule.
"Davy," she said brightly, dumping everything onto the sofa.
He smiled and shook the plaster from his hair, taking a step toward her, and she sunk into the sofa herself, sliding down the back with a sigh and saying, "Vodka."
Backtracking, he headed for the booze. "I thought the new you only drank the frozen and fruity."
"The bottle is in the freezer," she countered, "so be a good boy and get me a lime."
He reached for a tumbler and poured it three fingers full, quirking an eyebrow while she knocked back an impressive belt and pressed the glass to her temple.
She shook her head and waved with her drinking hand, sloshing Grey Goose over the backs of her fingers. "No, no, nothing like that," she said, and he thought, Why don't I believe you? "Just a very long flight with a very loud toddler." Taking another long sip, her eyes slipped closed. "They ran out of vodka."
"The horror." Davy sat down on the arm across from her, swung his feet into the seat. "Didn't think we'd see you 'til Saturday. Were you that eager to escape from paradise?"
"It's raining in paradise."
"It's raining in Columbus," he said. "Just somewhat solid and considerably colder."
"Be that as it may," she said, "if I'm in for crappy weather at Christmastime, I'd rather brave it with family." Downing the rest of her drink, she set the empty glass down at her feet. "Sometimes paradise is the last place you want to be."
He thought of Simon, alone and miserable in Miami, and decided that she had a point. "Where's Ford?" he said, watching her eyes shift anxiously and deciding that maybe he'd had one as well.
"Still down in Florida, taking care of a few things and getting the boat squared away. He'll be back in a couple of days."
He nodded, scratching the back of his neck. "And you do plan to let him in, right? Because I'm fairly sure he's counting on having someplace to sleep."
"Don't be silly," she snapped. Her annoyance vanished as quickly as it came, and she suddenly looked thoughtful. Which was somehow scarier than the snapping. "I guess I could always put him back across the hall." Davy stared incredulously, and her shoulders bunched at her neck. "Well, my apartment is just so small."
"You spent the last five months living on a boat," he said. "Any smaller and you'd be inmates."
"That was different," Gwen said, gnawing on her lip, and Davy leaned forward and said, "He wanted you before paradise. He'll still want you after."
"That's not the point," she sighed, and he maintained pointed silence until she broke. "That's not entirely the point. The past few months away have been like a dream. And now that I've returned to reality, I can't help but wonder what if I'll be the same person here that I was there."
He looked into her Goodnight-blue eyes, thinking of the amazing women she'd raised and all their reinvention issues, of Tilda and her Scarlet secrets and Nadine and her serial doughnuts and Eve and her happy medium, and tried to channel the same mysterious guidance he'd apparently given Gwen's wayward daughter.
"Ford's the kind who sticks," he finally said, "and he's crazy about you. Here, there, doesn't matter. Guys like him, they find a good thing and they don't let go. Besides, once you go Goodnight, you never go back. I'm living proof of that. But whatever's going to happen will happen, whether or not you're back in the real world. You were fed up long before he walked through that door." He spread his hands with a shrug. "Maybe the new you wasn't paradise. Maybe it wasn't even Ford."
She seemed to think it over, then took a deep breath and reached up to pat him on the cheek. "You're a good boy, Davy." Bending, she scooped the empty glass from the floor and passed it off. "Even without my lime."
He smirked and stood, watching Steve hop into her lap. "Ease up on the vodka and steer clear of errant teeth. You'll be fine," he said, and got them both some water. "It's not like you have much choice. Eve had a bonfire breakthrough and burned your stash of Double-Crostics in effigy."
"Thank God for small favors," she muttered, and clinked their glasses together.
Davy was drilling sheets of drywall into perfectly squared studs when the vibrations started in his back pocket, effectively scaring the shit out of him, and his jolt of surprise skewed the angle on the bit and sent screws flying everywhere.
Setting the drill aside and shooing Steve away from the construction carnage, he checked the caller and flipped open his phone. "Yeah, Soph."
"We're coming early," she said, sounding harried as all hell, and he dropped his chin to his chest and said, "Of course you are. Was that my idea, too?"
"What? No." She paused, and he heard the peals of Christmas carols and the squeals of children behind her. "Liz staged an impromptu tree lighting ceremony."
"So you're staging a coup?"
"No, I'm going through with this one. And then I'll need a quick escape to avoid strangling her to death with a handful of tinsel."
"Festive," he said dryly. "What the hell are you doing over there?"
"Braving the crazy," she sighed. "I brought Dempsey to see Santa."
Davy drew his brows in confusion, conjuring the not-entirely-welcome memory of his brother-in-law in costume and ho-ho-hoing his way through Temptation's town square. "I thought Santa was Dempsey's dad," he said, and she blew out an exasperated breath and said, "In Temptation that's true. In Groveport Santa is a nobody, and plopping my kid in his lap doesn't turn into a photo-op for the evening news."
"Jesus." He pressed his fingertips to his temple and rubbed. "Just break out the tinsel, already."
"She'll settle down," Sophie said, calming. "She always does. Once we're through the election and into a new term, I'll have a good… month of breathing easy before she starts in again."
"The election is next November."
"Hence me needing a vacation now. Just a few days of peace and quiet somewhere stable and sane."
He sat on the edge of the desk, thinking of the newest branch on his family tree and all their turbulent, tumultuous, mercurial madness, and snorted. "Yeah, good luck with that."
"I just wanted to let you know that we'd be in on Monday," she said, unfazed as only a Dempsey could be, "and to pick your brain. Is there anything in particular I should be getting for Tilda?"
He frowned. "Getting Tilda for what?"
"For Christmas." She left the 'idiot' implied, and he bit back a groan, realizing who he'd forgotten in his present predicament, and thought, Idiot would be about right.
"Uh, nothing off the top of my head," he said, and grudgingly got the ball rolling. Goodnight women might be practical, but Dempseys could absolutely be bought. "Make it something good and I won't tell your husband that you're two-timing him with another bowl full of jelly."
She laughed, and he cringed and thought, One.
"Still shopping, huh?"
"Sadly, yes," she said, and he tapped two fingers against his thigh.
"That's not like you," he said, adding a third. "Even when we were dirt broke, you were always on top of this stuff. Which means…"
"That I'm fixing someone else's mistakes," she finished. "One someone in particular. She got Dempsey this ridiculous robot. It cost an arm and a leg, so you know it's wildly popular with the silver spoon set. The thing's supposed to teach him how to and read and multiply and interact with other kids. He's eighteen months old! He can't read with a robot. He can't even say robot. But Liz thinks that he needs an educational toy."
"'Educational toy' is an oxymoron. Like 'military intelligence' or 'liberal Republican.'" Davy flexed four fingers and closed his eyes, thinking, I am going directly to hell.
He swallowed and said, "He's a boy, we're easy at that age. Hell, we're easy at any age. Get him something he can destroy. It'll ease the pain. And hey, if he can put it back together and destroy it again, that's even better."
"You may have a point. But that doesn't solve the Dillie problem."
His features pulled together in genuine confusion, breaking his rhythm and knocking the ball off track. "Dillie doesn't know what she wants? Dillie always knows what she wants. It's part of her inherent genius."
"Dillie knows exactly what she wants," she said. "I just can't get my hands on it."
"And the almighty Liz Tucker can't, either? Surely she could use her powers for good just this once."
"She just told Liz that she wanted something 'cool.' Which, in Liz-speak, meant the best full-size concert keyboard on the market."
"Can't say she didn't try," he said, and then processed what he'd just heard. "If Dill's still playing piano, then what the hell was that five hundred dollar guitar for?"
Sophie sighed and said, "Remember Jordan?" and Davy racked his brain until it came back to him. Ah yes, he thought, the practice swing, and felt guilty for his con coaching all over again, and guiltier still for conning her mother, who'd been coached by the best.
"The name rings a bell. And what does Jordan have to do with Dillie's guitar?"
"Jordan may or may not have made an off-color comment about girls and sports, and Dillie may or may not have clocked him in the head with it," she mumbled. "So he's history and she's back to piano."
Davy fought the urge to laugh, thinking, Hell of a practice swing, kid. "Then my birthday present was put to good use, and my job here is done. For now. Remind me to get her an electric before her senior prom. Perhaps a nice weighty Les Paul."
"Do not encourage her. Or Phin, who thought the whole thing was hilarious."
"You know how I hate to agree with Harvard on anything, but I'm with him there." He laid his palm flat, all five fingers extended, and thought, Get what you need and get out. "So what's this holy grail gift?"
"She wants an Xbox."
"She'll shoot her eye out."
When she didn't offer any more details, he pulled in a breath and said, "You'll have to enlighten me here, Soph. Because, with a name like that, my mental picture of this thing isn't exactly kid-friendly."
"It's some kind of video game," she said. "Nobody's got them this close to Christmas. But Jamie Barclay already has one, and she has oh-so-graciously offered to share it with Dillie in exchange for various payoffs and her unending public devotion."
Davy rolled his eyes. "Have I mentioned that I really hate Jamie Barclay?"
"Don't get me started," she muttered. "And don't play me again, either. I know you con out of love, but you could've just asked."
"Noted," he said, contrite and trying to come up with a way to fix it. "Tilda's into vintage pieces, pottery and furniture especially. She looks amazing in blue, the darker the better. And she's got this incurable addiction to 60's-era girl groups, but I try not to encourage her on that front."
"Thanks. That helps."
"How 'bout you? I haven't heard anything about your perfect present this year." Her laughter filled his ears, tinged with surprise and sounding like the best parts of his childhood, and Davy figured all was forgiven.
"You're sending my kids to college," she said. "Not to mention saving me from a miserable Christmas with my crazy-making mother-in-law. You have a present pass for life."
On the seventh day of Christmas, Davy stirred to the strange sound of scratching, something curiously like puppy paws on hardwood, and he wrenched his eyes open just in time to catch Steve taking a flying leap from the floor. Then Steve caught him square in the chest, and all the air rushed from his lungs.
"That's it," he choked out, once he had his breath back. "From here on out, you're sleeping in the bathroom."
Nadine was at the counter when he came into the kitchen, flanked by Ethan and the latest doughnut and sporting a spiky red wig that was almost painful to look at.
"Morning," she beamed, tossing him the bread.
"Back at you. I need your computer."
"Sure," she said, running off to get it, and he popped a couple slices into the toaster and nodded in the doughnut's general direction.
"Jared," he said stonily, and watched him squirm in some very tall boots until Ethan piped up.
"What's the computer for?"
"'Let me explain,'" he quoted, complete with Inigo accent. "'No, there is too much. Let me sum up.'" Ethan grinned, Davy grinned back, and Jared looked back and forth between them and said, "You guys are weird."
Davy poured himself a glass of juice and put his toast on a plate. "I might take offense under any other circumstances, but I'm afraid I just can't take you seriously while you're wearing a duster."
The Blossoms cued up "He's a Rebel," and he sipped his juice and stared at Jared over the rim, trying his damndest to summon spontaneous telepathy. I can make your life hell, kid, he thought. And I'll enjoy every minute.
"Tell Nadine I'll see her at school," Jared mumbled, getting the gist and storming out, his duster trailing behind him.
"Something I said?" Davy called after him, and Ethan chuckled.
"You didn't even mention the fingerless glove," he said, and went back to his muffin.
Nadine came trotting back in, laptop in hand, just as the front door closed, and she slammed the computer to the countertop and scowled darkly at Davy. "What did you do?"
"Exactly what you wanted me to," he said innocently. "As I recall, you begged for my two cents. Seeing as how I'm such a good judge of character." He finished coating his toast in peanut butter and tossed the knife into the sink, and it landed with an echoing clang. "That kid's about a dozen different characters, and none of them are remotely muffin-like. Judgment rendered. Keep the change."
"Ethan," Nadine said, and he looked up as her eyes spit blue fire. "Out."
"Right," Ethan said, and went.
"I asked for your honest opinion, not for you to scare him off."
Davy shrugged. "Well, beggars can't be choosers."
She slumped onto a stool, looking forlorn and furious, and he pushed his plate aside and planted his palms on the counter. "What are you doing, 'Dine? You keep parading doughnut holes through here and you're going to give Ethan a complex."
"Ethan has a complex immunity." She tugged off the bad wig and tossed it aside, fluffing her squashed curls with her fingers. "I keep hoping I'll stumble into something that sticks."
"Well stop it," he said, "you bruise too easily. Besides, stumbling never works out the way you want it to. Just think of all the unfortunate coeds who stumble running away from the knife-wielding psychopath. Never ends well."
"I stumbled into the gallery."
He shook his head. "That was in your blood, kiddo."
"You stumbled into Aunt Tilda," she tried, and he winced and said, "That was in Clea's closet. And it was more of a collision than anything."
She crossed her arms, exasperated. "How is colliding any different than stumbling?"
He thought of Tilda, magnetic and irresistible, undeniable to her very bones, and said, "Trust me, it's different." Nadine scowled, and he leaned down on his elbows to catch her bright eyes. "There's no stumbling into a collision. You get broadsided. It's messy, and it's confusing, and more often than not it hurts like hell. And when it's over, all you want to do is get up and do it all over again."
She blinked, and he straightened and resisted the urge to chuck her under the chin. "You can't make it happen, so stop trying so hard," he said. "You're seventeen. Don't sweat the sticking so much. But for the sake of my sanity, no more stumbling. I can't keep track of the wardrobe changes."
She swiveled and slid to her feet. "I've got school."
"Go be brilliant," he said, sweeping an arm toward the door, and she took a step toward him instead, wrapped an arm around his neck and held on tight.
"Thanks, Uncle Davy."
He pulled back to peer into her face. "Still weird?"
"Not so much," she said, slipping from the room, and he smiled and sighed, feeling every inch an uncle, and took her computer into the office to find Dillie a damn Xbox.
Davy was drawing the drop cloths back together and brushing the debris from his clothes when Tilda sauntered in, hands full and face flushed, and he leaned down to her lips as a diversion and got lost when it grew, his hands in her hair and her taste on his tongue.
"Well hello," she said slyly, Vilma oozing from every pore. "Is that a hammer in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?"
He grinned and stripped off his tool belt, and she tossed her banded bundle to the bed and hopped in after it. "Mail call. We got more RSVPs in today." Her hands flipped through the stack, pausing to pluck out one piece as he sat down next to her and reached for the rest.
He stopped sorting to look over. "What?"
"Nothing," she said, "just a Christmas card from Scott," and his eyebrows shot toward the sky.
"As in Scott the ex-fiancé?"
"It's addressed to both of us." She frowned down at the envelope. "Sort of."
Davy snorted. "I'm surprised the guy even knows my name. Though, in his case, I would also answer to 'Lucky Bastard.'" He eyed an envelope in his pile, noting the postmark. "I think this one might actually be from Rabbit and Clea. Which means we should probably have it tested for trace amounts of anthrax."
Tilda pivoted the paper in her fingertips, and he reached for it, intrigued to no end, and choked out laughter at Scott's scrawled words.
"'Mr. and Mrs. David Dempsey.'" Shaking his head, he tossed the envelope to the floor, and Steve took off after it as it spun away. "Oh Scotty," he said, suddenly feeling for the moron. "You never stood a chance."
"Why?" Tilda said, and he blinked and said, "Why what?" and she pulled in a breath and said, "Davy, do you want me to be a Dempsey?"
He stared at her in open confusion. "That would make the sex more than a little awkward," he said carefully, "and illegal pretty much everywhere but Alabama."
"You know what I mean," she said in a rush, and he thought, No, I really don't. "It doesn't ever bother you that I didn't take your name when we got married?"
"Why would it? You've got a perfectly good name. Several, in point of fact." He inched closer as she pressed her lips together. "Where is this coming from, Til?"
She shrugged. "I'm curious, is all. You have this whole Dempsey dynasty. You, your sisters… it just seems so important to you. To all of you. Important enough for Sophie to name her son accordingly."
"Yeah, but imagine the hell he'll catch on the playground." She shot him a look, and he sobered.
"Look, this thing with Amy and Sophie and me… It's more about survival than anything. Crappy childhood, crappier father, whatever. We came, we conned, we lived to tell the tale. And we're still together. Ame's a Mazur now, Sophie's a Tucker, but having Dempsey blood is our own little red badge of courage."
"Oh." Her head bobbed a bit, and she laid a warm hand over his. "Okay, I can understand that."
"You can understand it better than anyone," he said, thinking of the gold leaf lettering outside the gallery and the three generations of Goodnights inside, bound together by love and laughter and a lot of questionable music. "It's the same thing you've got going with every woman under this roof."
"Touché." She smiled softly. "Scott didn't get it."
"Scott didn't even have sense enough to hyphenate. His loss." He turned her hand in his, thumb rubbing circles on the inside of her wrist, halting to press close to her pulse. "If you want to dub yourself a Dempsey, I sure as hell won't stop you. We both know you're bent, so you're definitely a Dempsey in spirit. But you've got a name in your blood already, and you're just starting to make it mean something better than the one in mine."
He closed her hand in both of his and lifted it to kiss her knuckles, her wedding ring cool against his mouth.
"You're not half bad at this husband thing," she said, trailing a finger along his jaw line, and for a second he fell into the clear, sweet spark that lit in her eyes. "I think I'll keep you."
"I require nothing but food, water, shelter, and sex," he said, and tugged her close. "Not necessarily in that order."
On the sixth day of Christmas, Davy turned over and took a deep breath, then froze at the feeling of being watched. He opened his eyes, catching the sliver of light from the open bathroom door, and Steve's face hovered over his, eyes solemn and staring.
"Okay," he said, swiping a hand down his face, "this has officially crossed the line into creepy."
Steve shot past him on the stairs, only to skid to a stop as Ariadne took a swipe at his nose, and Davy shook his head and wrote it off as karma.
"Beware of women holding grudges," he said sagely. Steve whimpered and looked pitifully up at him, and he decided they were probably about even. "Oh, suck it up. We all learn the hard way."
They had the kitchen to themselves for breakfast, and he was perched on a ladder placing anchors for the new incandescents when Steve whined and lifted his head from his spot in the corner. Davy frowned and turned to look toward the front door, and a male someone somewhere entirely too close cleared his throat and said, "Need some help with that?" and Davy dropped his screwdriver and damn near lost his grip.
"Jesus," he said, hunched over the top rung and hanging on for dear life, trying to get his balance back and his heart out of his throat. "I didn't hear you come in."
Ford held out the screwdriver handle first. "You weren't supposed to. Just wanted to make sure you're staying on your toes."
"Is there any way you could do that when my toes are on the ground?"
"I'm sure there is," Ford said, "but what fun would that be?"
Davy scowled and went back to work, half-wishing Gwennie had locked the guy out after all, and Ford crossed his arms and swept shrewd eyes around the space.
"What've we got?"
Gritting his teeth, Davy screwed at an anchor with more muscle than necessary and thought, Since when are we a 'we'? "Some electrical, nothing major. I got the new safe in already, so once this is done, the place just needs some paint and we're good to go."
"Not bad," Ford said. "Gwen worried while we were gone, but I can see she left things in good hands," and Davy stopped screwing like a madman to pin him with a look.
"Gwen left things with Tilda," he stressed. "Best set of hands there is."
Ford chuckled low and rubbed at his temple. "I know full well she's running things around here," he said, "and implying that I don't is a waste of my time and yours. Now get your ass down from there so we can slap some paint on these walls."
Davy glared and grumbled and begrudgingly got down, and half an hour later they'd managed half a coat in stony silence. But he'd never been a big fan of ignoring elephants, and when they met in the middle, him going high, Ford on the ground, Davy looked down from the ladder and pooled all his earlier annoyance and decided to take advantage of the opportunity.
"So," he said, brush moving in quick cuts at the ceiling, "what exactly are your intentions?"
Below him, the roller hitched, leaving a flat spot of excess paint behind, and Ford shook his head. "What business is it of yours?"
"My family, my business," Davy said, his voice deceptively pleasant. "But if you have a problem with it – "
"You'll just wonder what I've got to hide," Ford finished for him. "Which makes me wonder what the hell's gotten into you. I don't seem to remember rubbing you the wrong way before."
"You would've had to be around for that," Davy said, and cocked his head to one side. "Though I am a little confused. Would 'before' be when you were sleeping with my then-engaged mother-in-law? Or when you were trying to kill me?"
"You know damn well that was a cover," Ford said, and Davy snorted and said, "Oh I'm sorry, when your cover was trying to kill me."
"And Gwen was engaged to a murderous arsonist," Ford growled, taking his tone somewhere unmistakably loaded and undeniably law enforcement, then leveling like he'd never lost control. "For all of about five minutes. I'd like to think I'm a better alternative than that."
Mason came back to Davy then, obnoxious and oblivious, lording over the gallery like he owned the place and claiming Davy's mortgage payoff as proof, and he sniffed and thought, Well, can't really argue there.
"So you plan on marrying her."
Ford put down his roller and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, wiping at hands that were seemingly spotless, and Davy looked down at his own paint-streaked palms and cursed the man his Fed-like foresight.
"Look," Ford said, a hard smile on his hard face, "your heart's in the right place, even if your head is screwed six ways from Sunday. So I'll humor you here. I'd marry Gwen tomorrow if that's what she wanted, but I don't think it is. She's been married. She's had, she's held, she's over it now. My plans are whatever her plans are, and I'll just play the rest by ear."
He folded his handkerchief, and the ends waved like a white flag. "If you're done," he said, "we've got work to do."
Davy watched him grab the roller and gloss over the flat spot, smoothing it out as if it had never been, and he palmed his own paintbrush and decided the elephant could probably wait.
Davy was mudding the drywall, shaping all the corners and smoothing all the seams, when the thought came to him, and he put down his trowel and picked up his phone and hoped his idea was as bright as it seemed.
"I need a favor," he said when the call connected, and Simon said, "That's strange, I could've sworn we just had this conversation."
"Funny. Listen –"
"Unless you've come to your senses about Singapore. In which case, I can call Sandy and have you up here before you can blink."
"That would be impressive," Davy said, leaning to the wall left of the construction zone, "but it's still a no. I need you to locate something. Something I can have in hand by Wednesday."
"Wednesday being Christmas," Simon scoffed, full of tangible distaste. "Is this another one of your grand gestures in the spirit of giving? Because, honestly, I can't understand the compulsion. You've bought these people houses. Paid off their mortgages. Financed pipe dreams with envelopes of hard-earned cash."
"I got creative with a borrowed bank book," Davy said wryly. "And I use the term 'borrowed' loosely."
"That's hardly the point. When is enough enough?"
Davy thought of his wife, worth her weight in whatever money could buy and most things it couldn't, and decided not to expend the energy arguing. There wasn't an argument in the world good enough to make his reasoning resonate with Simon, and he'd only end up with a headache afterward.
"When I say it is. I'm sharing the wealth." He dropped his head back to the wall. "You've still got distribution contacts, right? Overseas import and export?"
"I wasn't sure it was possible," Simon said, "but this conversation is becoming less and less interesting by the minute."
"Focus, Si. I'm looking for an electronic toy called an Xbox."
Simon chuckled. "And the world makes sense again. Would this toy be for Tilda?"
"Tilda's covered. This is for Dillie."
"You're giving your niece a sex toy?" Simon sputtered, clearly confused and definitely disturbed, and Davy pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers and thought, At least I wasn't alone in jumping to pornographic conclusions.
"I'm giving my niece a video game system," he clarified, as patiently as possible, "which is where you come in. Far as I can tell, it's on a lot more lists than shelves. And I'm all out of remote corners of the internet to scour. It's like the hot toy from hell. Demand through the roof, damn-near impossible to find, the whole nine yards. But it's all Dill wants for Christmas."
Simon actually yawned, and Davy thought, Screw it and conned for the greater good.
"This thing is a unicorn," he said, and let it hang there, invoking bitter memories of mythical marks and all the ones that got away. His best friend had unicorns of his own, locked behind doors even the best couldn't open, and he'd never been able to resist going for the un-gettable get.
Simon took a breath. "Let me make a few calls," he muttered, and Davy barely reigned in his grin.
"Good man. I owe you one."
"I'll add it to the collection," Simon said. "Do you ever have the overwhelming urge to share some of that wealth with me?"
"I respect you far too much not to make you work for it," Davy answered. "Besides, you're on the wagon. Wealth is a thing of the past."
On the fifth day of Christmas, Davy moved on his pillow, his pillow moved back, and he jerked awake to the furry feel of Steve beneath his head and said, "I don't even want to know how you got there."
He left the dog with Andrew and grabbed a muffin for the road, headed for the local big box store Simon had wrangled out of his dubious contacts – incidentally the only place in Ohio that had a backordered Xbox shipment incoming. And thanks to his best friend, he had a handy address and a hot toy on hold.
The wiry kid in the electronic department popped gum and looked bored, and Davy handed over the information and watched him peck slowly at the keyboard behind the desk.
"Yeah," the kid said, squinting at the monitor, "that's on reserve."
"I know," Davy answered. "I reserved it."
"Nothing I can do. Somebody prepaid for the whole order." The kid shoved the slip of paper back across the counter, and Davy peered at the badge pinned to his vest, with its block lettering and ludicrous little happy face, and managed to resist the urge to strangle young Mitchell.
"Listen," he said, flashing a grin made for grifting and thinking, This would be so much easier if you were a woman. "Mitch, is it? There must be some misunderstanding. I put this thing on hold last night without any problem at all, which means that whoever reserved the rest of them did it without the one reserved for me. So if you'd just fire up your computer and find mine, I can get out of your hair."
Mitchell glared and pecked away again. "I don't know what to tell you. They're all going to one person, scheduled for pickup this morning." He shrugged. "Sorry."
Beneath the counter, Davy curled his hands into fists. Breathe, he told himself, trying not to think of Dillie and her imminent disappointment. You need a name.
"And this lucky person would be?"
"I can't give you that information, sir," Mitchell droned. He popped his gum again, and Davy contemplated the five-step process for about half a second, then looked into Mitchell's blank face and thought better of it. God only knew what it took for this kid to crack a smile.
Across the aisle, at the edge of the toy department, the bane of Sophie's gift existence was stacked in two trios, tiny pyramids of primary color with a truly ridiculous price tag, and the con came together in his head like magic.
Screw a name, he thought. What he needed was a mark.
He picked up his paper and pulled out his phone, stepping away from the sales desk and into the television aisle. "Rally the troops," he said into the receiver, "I want everyone we've got."
Twenty minutes later he was staked out around the corner, watching Mitchell surreptitiously pick his nose, when there was a tap at his back, and he turned to see the cavalry - Nadine in her over-the-top teenwear and Gwen in the worst "World's Best Grandma" sweater ever made and Eve in full-on Louise, fishnets and four-inch heels and all.
Behind them, Ethan waved, looking very much like Ethan, just with glasses and a pocket protector, and Ford hung back, in pleated Dockers and a comb over, looking deceptively docile and vaguely disgruntled and like every dimwitted grandfather who'd ever walked ten miles uphill both ways.
"Andrew's watching the gallery," Louise said, making the crack of chewing gum infinitely more appealing than Mitchell did, "but he wanted to be here. There's a new lace-front wig he's been dying to take for a test drive."
Davy looked at the ragtag gang at large, his team, his people, and nodded appreciatively. "Not too shabby," he said, thinking, Thank God they're not normal, and pulled them aside to put the plan in place.
Nadine frowned once she'd heard all the details. "I don't know," she said. "There has to be a good reason to buy so many, right? What if it's, like, a nun from the Make-A-Wish Foundation?"
"Then Dillie has a tragic mystery disease and isn't a long-lapsed Lutheran," Davy said flatly. "Trust me, we are not dealing with a nun."
Their mark was the farthest from it, all slick hair and slicker smile, easing to the counter in mildly expensive shoes and a highly questionable Rolex, and Davy smirked. "Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is your garden-variety scalper. At best, he's got a pawn shop. More than likely, he's got the trunk of his car. Either way, it is our responsibility to liberate one paltry piece of his inventory for a child in need. We're the nuns today." He turned to wink at Nadine, then motioned over his shoulder. "Places, people. Do me proud."
They scattered in perfect formation, fading back and falling into position until only Louise was left, and he felt the rush under his skin and the hum in his bones and thought, It's not a job, it's a necessary evil. I con out of love, dammit.
"This guy's no saint," he stressed, more to himself than Louise.
"Neither are you," she said, "and this is an awful lot of trouble to go to when you could just steal the thing and be done with it."
"'Don't be vulgar, Jane,'" he chided. "'Let us be crooked, but never common.'"
Eve grinned at him from behind Louise's mask, bright and open and in confident control, wearing the other woman like a sheep in wolf's clothing, and he chuckled and bumped her arm in solidarity. "Get your head in the game. You've got places to go and stock boys to seduce."
"What a swan song that'll be," she mused, and sauntered away.
Slick Scalper glanced impatiently at his knockoff, Mitchell struck keys even slower than before, and Davy crept back to base camp, hidden but well within hearing distance, pulling an empty shopping cart with him.
"Could we do this sometime today?" Slick snapped.
Mitchell rolled his eyes and stepped away from the desk. "I'll go check on your order," he muttered, and Davy thanked the con gods for good timing and sent Nadine the signal to start phase one, hoping Louise was the one thing that could coax a smile out of morose Mitchell.
Slick paced in front of the sales desk while Nadine doubled back and approached from the front, and Davy watched as she caught the toy display out the corner of one eye and Slick caught her with both of his.
She ground to a halt and grabbed for a box, bouncing on the balls of her feet as she shrieked, "Omigod, Mom!" and hurried away, holy grail in hand.
"Good girl," he muttered, and looked back to his mark, who was watching Nadine's retreat with no small amount of interest.
Careful there, Slick, he thought, or I'll take more than an Xbox off your hands.
The guy turned to give the toy display a once-over, looking hard for a long minute, then glanced down at his watch again and went back to pacing, and Davy nodded and gave Gwen and Ford the go-ahead.
They rounded a corner and shuffled down the aisle at a snail's pace, Gwennie poking at everything she could reach while Ford trailed after her, looking put-upon and pushing a cart they'd half-filled with light bulbs and Listerine, and Davy raised his eyebrows and thought, Huh. In another lifetime, we could really have something here.
Gwen made it to the display, plucked a box from the second pyramid and turned to Ford. "Oh George, look," she said, her delight drawing Slick's attention. "I didn't think they would have it!"
Ford reached into his pocket for a pair of half-height reading glasses that he'd probably pilfered elsewhere in the store, then reached out a slightly-shaky hand to take the box from her, holding it close to his face with a frown.
"I don't know, Jeannie. It's a bit much, don't you think?"
"Oh hush," Gwen said, swatting at him. "They were three times as much at that little place downtown. And he wants one so badly." She took the box back and put it in their cart, then forged ahead and went back to poking, and Ford sighed and followed her, cart squeaking as he went.
Davy smiled, and Nadine said, "Gwennie's still got it," suddenly beside him and sipping a slurpee that turned her tongue blue, "but Ford is a pleasant surprise." She dumped the decoy into the empty cart. "Who would pay a hundred bucks for an educational robot?"
"You don't want to know," he said dryly. "Is your mom where she's supposed to be?"
Nadine nodded. "And drawing a crowd," she said. "If you need Mitchell, just follow the trail of drool."
Curiosity finally got the better of Slick – he moved toward the display, picking up a box and turning it in his hands, and Davy fell back to give their final player his cue, only to find Ethan's post empty.
"Where the hell is he?" Davy hissed, and Nadine put a hand on his arm and said, "Just give him a second. Ethan doesn't know how to let people down."
Ethan entered the scene stage left, complete with an employee in tow, a bubbly-looking blonde with a wide smile. She giggled at something he said and pointed him to the robots, attracting all of Slick's attention and quite a bit of Nadine's, her hand tightening on Davy's arm like a vice.
"Watch the claws, kitten," he said. "He's just playing his part."
Ethan grinned and thanked the girl, then picked up a robot with reverence and whipped out Davy's phone.
"They're here," he said, practically peeing on himself, and Davy thought, Damn well, I might add. "And they're way below retail. We might even have enough to get three. I don't know, it'll be close. Yeah, I'll call you back."
He hung up, and Slick held up the box in his hands. "What's the deal with these?"
"Um," Ethan stammered, "deal?"
"Deal," Slick said, as if Ethan were slow. "I never heard of 'em before. And they look like they're for little kids."
"Well, yeah, that's 'cause they kind of are. Until you mod them." Ethan's eyes lit up, and he took a step closer. "At the last LAN party I went to, there was a guy who had totally wiped his and equipped it with a short wave frequency and a spliced firewire connection, so it could run Linux and live demo all his ten-hit combos from Tekken."
Slick blinked and stepped back, his mouth dropping open in confusion. "So it's a geek thing."
Ethan looked momentarily wounded, then shrugged it off. "It is geek gold," he said, gathering the remaining robots in his arms and stalking away, and Davy felt a sharp stab of pride at the unexpected performance.
"I don't get it," Nadine said. "What's to stop him from just buying the last one with the rest of his stuff?"
Davy shook his head, studying Slick carefully. He knew this guy. He'd been raised by this guy. "Believe me, he wants to," he said. "But he's cash poor. Tapped himself out on the game system. These guys see a sure thing and sink everything they have into it."
Right on cue, Slick slowly put the box down, watching it like a hawk as he went back to the sales desk.
"So what do we do now?"
"Now," Davy said, "we throw him a life jacket. Go rescue Mitchell from your mother."
Ethan jogged up, crossing paths with Nadine and dropping his haul into the handoff cart, and Davy reached out for his phone. His wife's warm voice drifted through the line, and he smiled and said, "Suit up, babe. We need reinforcements."
Mitchell made his triumphant return a good ten minutes later, looking dazed and confused and pulling a flat cart full of boxes behind him, and he started checking Slick out at the speed of molasses. By the time he got all the paperwork printed, Slick scrawling at the bottom and looking longingly back to the last lonely robot, the rest of Davy's crew had called it quits and Tilda had sidled up next to him, resplendent if not at all herself.
"Is it okay?" She straightened her pencil skirt and tugged at her pin tucked jacket. "Best I could do on short notice."
He looked past the dark contacts and Louise's inky black wig, laid a hand on the small of her back to pull her close and kiss her hello. "Perfect," he said softly, and slipped a wad of cash into her palm, enough to make up the price difference. "Poor bastard will never know what hit him."
She smirked and set her shoulders back, flipped her cell open, and headed into the fray.
"I know that," she snarled into the phone, apropos of nothing. "What do you expect me to do? They don't have any more. They were gone before I got here."
Slick swung around to watch her go by, appreciating the view far too much for Davy's liking, and Tilda spotted the lone toy and stopped.
"Hang on a minute," she said, stepping forward to grab it. "No, but I found one of those robots she asked for, and it's a hell of a lot cheaper here than it was when I saw it downtown. And they sold out a couple days ago." She tucked it under one arm and shook her head, looking exasperated. "Then you find it, Scott. Until that happens, she's getting the damn robot."
She slammed the phone closed, muttering "Honestly" under her breath, and Slick waved off Mitchell's offer of carryout service and plastered a smile on his slimy face.
"I couldn't help but overhear," Slick said, rubbing his nose. "Maybe I can help you. I just happen to be in the business of finding the hard-to-find."
"Oh yeah?" Tilda sniffed. "Would you happen to have my ex-husband's balls in your back pocket?"
Slick's smile faltered, and Tilda tossed her head and took a deep breath. "It's the Christmas shopping. Brings out the worst in me." She arched an eyebrow. "What is it that you want?"
"I was just gonna ask you the same thing."
"Look, I don't have time for games, okay? My kid has a list a mile long, and nobody has any of it anymore. Bratz dolls and those stupid spinning tops from Japan and that Xbox thing, it's all driving me nuts."
Slick looked from his stack of sure things to the single shiny new one underneath Tilda's arm, and spread his hands. "I think we can work something out."
Ten minutes later, they shoved the cart full of robots into the automotive aisle, Xbox in hand.
"I can't believe you conned your way into Dillie's Christmas present," Tilda said, shaking her head, and Davy clucked his tongue.
"It's not technically a con if you pay for it. And I don't have the slightest clue what you're talking about. I was nothing more than an innocent bystander."
She laughed. "More like benevolent ringleader."
"Potato, potahto. Veronica did all the heavy lifting," he said, and sighed. "You still do a beautiful bitch." He took in her head-to-toe black, so simultaneously subdued and skintight that she looked like a thoroughly-sexed Sunday school teacher. Then he shifted the box in his arms, thinking of Nadine and her nuns, and rolled his eyes.
"Grab one of those damn robots, will you? I have a donation to make on the way home."
Davy was sipping champagne and watching the crowd converge when Tilda came into the gallery, grinning and free of glasses and wrapped in wine-red satin. It wound around her bare shoulders and hugged her to her knees, and he set his glass down and made his way toward her, drawn like a moth to a flame.
"It's kind of a red flag," she said when he reached her, smoothing her hands over her hips, and he wrapped an arm around her waist and put his lips to her ear and said, "You look like Christmas, Scarlet. I think I'll unwrap you early."
She shivered in his hands and shot him a sideways look, one corner of her crooked mouth quirking. "Oh yeah, I'm sure that'd be a big hit. We could call it performance art."
"Whatever works." He grinned and slid to her side, sweeping his eyes around the room. "And since we're on the subject, check out your handiwork."
The gallery looked magical, bathed in a soft glow that showcased all the new pieces – a few whimsical watercolors and a large-scale abstract by local artists Tilda had scouted. A massive blue spruce stood in one corner, twined in twinkling white light and hung with her ornaments – great glass globes painted with angels and elves, mischievous snowmen and red-nosed reindeer. Even Dorcas' new collection, full of fishing boats in icy waters, didn't seem quite as depressing as long as you didn't look too closely.
"I did good," she said proudly, and he turned his head to press a kiss into her curls.
"Damn straight you did."
She sighed. "I should mingle."
"You should celebrate," he countered, thinking, Preferably naked. "'Dine has things under control." He nodded to Nadine, who was standing in the center of the floor with one of the new artists and Steve, in his brocade and bowtie, and captivating the crowd with her unending charisma.
"'It's an art gallery. Full of dark corners, for doing… dark deeds.'"
"Love Actually," Tilda said, stepping away with a wink, and his fingers followed her of their own accord. "Point for me. We'll celebrate later."
He spotted Scott studying one of Dorcas' snowy seascapes with a kind of disturbing intensity and frowned.
"No mingling with the ex, Vilma. Not in that dress."
She rolled her eyes and joined Nadine, wrapping an arm around her niece's shoulders, her laughter tinkling like silver bells and reminding him that Goodnight charisma was genetic, and he crossed his arms and thought, It'll almost be a shame to strip her out of that.
He turned to see a suited Ethan, all spit and polish and patented-Ethan eagerness, and raised an eyebrow. "Pretty dapper."
Ethan grinned. "Thanks," he said, and joined in the observation. Tilda and Nadine continued to wow the crowd, Gwen glowed behind the sales counter, and Eve wandered the floor, mingling and making small talk, her eyes rimmed in kohl and her severe haircut softened by loose curls.
"They're an amazing bunch of women," Davy said, glancing over at his awestruck company. "But you knew that already."
Next to him, Ethan got the message and smiled sadly. "I, on the other hand, am somewhat less than amazing."
Ethan swallowed but stayed silent, burying his hands in his pockets and looking down at his feet, and Davy thought, You are breaking my heart, kid.
Then he remembered Nadine's palpable, painful reaction to the perky, flirty blonde, and decided that now was as good a time as any.
"I can understand not wanting to lose her," he said gently. "You two have got something pretty special. So yeah, it's a gamble. But anything worth anything always is." He grabbed a fresh glass of champagne from a passing waiter and tipped the flute in Ethan's direction. "And the only surefire way to lose is not to gamble at all."
He clapped Ethan on the shoulder, squeezed for good measure. "Give it some thought. 'Even Ringo Starr married a Bond girl.'"
The ghost of a better smile played on Ethan's lips, and as he opened his mouth, Davy shook his head.
"Finish that quote and I may be forced to hurt you," he warned, and Ethan, so much smarter than the world gave him credit for, snapped his mouth shut and went back to watching.
On the fourth day of Christmas, Davy rose to absolutely nothing – no bad puppy breath, no beating tail in his face – and sat up in a blind panic, thinking, Well that can't be right.
He found Steve in the kitchen, eating breakfast without him, and he raised his hands and said, "What, no wake-up call of doom? For a minute there I thought you'd crawled off to die."
"Talking to yourself?" Ford said from somewhere behind him, and Davy flinched in surprise and thought, Gwennie really needs to put a bell on this guy.
"You're only crazy if you answer yourself," he said, "but, for the record, I was talking to the dog."
Ford looked down at Steve, then snorted and moved to the coffee pot. "That's not much better."
Davy clenched his jaw and went to the fridge. "So I know where my wife is. What about the rest of the womenfolk?"
"Gwen took the girls out grocery shopping," Ford said, sipping from his mug and flipping through the Sunday paper. "Christmas dinner."
"Right." Davy poured himself a glass of juice and settled onto a stool, trying to ignore the tension in the air. When that didn't work, he settled for glaring over at Steve and thinking, This is all your fault, you know.
"You weren't half bad yesterday, George," he said offhandedly, reaching for a muffin. "I'm sure it had to offend your delicate Fed sensibilities."
"Is that your half-assed way of saying 'thank you'?"
Davy looked up at the ceiling, feigning contemplation, and finally shook his head. "No, pretty sure that it's not. But if I ever get the urge, I'll be sure to let you know."
Ford chuckled. "You just can't help but be contrary, can you, boy?" he said, and Davy's hand stilled with the glass halfway to his lips.
"I'm not your boy."
"And I'm not your daddy," Ford said, far too affably to be anything but a warning, "so whatever issues you've got, I suggest you take them up with him." He gathered up his paper and picked up his coffee, then nodded in Steve's direction.
"If you need a practice run, keep talking to the dog," he said. "It's about damn time you snapped at something that can bite you back."
Davy was finishing up the last coat of primer and halfheartedly fuming over Ford's grating glibness when his phone rang. He checked the area code and wrenched it open to grunt a greeting at Sophie, and Amy's chipper voice chirped, "No, moron, it's your other sister."
He smiled in spite of himself, wandered outside the cave of construction to sit on the bed. "I'm sorry, who?"
"Do not mess with me, Davy," she warned. "I'm so high on hormones that they would never find your body."
"That hurts. Especially since I helped you get rid of the last one." Steve hopped onto the bed to lay his head on Davy's knee, and one hand absently scratched him between the ears. "To what do I owe the pleasure? Will you be waddling your way to Columbus for Christmas?"
She actually whimpered, and he closed his eyes, thinking, God, I miss this kid, while his mind boggled at the idea of her having one of her own.
"Sorry, Sophie and company are rolling solo on this one. At this point, I can barely roll my ass out of bed. And Soph and Wes can't both be gone at once, regardless. Steven Garvey would unleash his undead army of family value zombies, and the whole town would go to pot."
He laughed, picturing a secret stronghold of Norman Rockwell subjects with a predilection for brains. "Good point."
"How's Tilda?" she said, and snickered. "God, I can't believe you're married. I can't believe I like who you married. For awhile there I really thought you'd be stupid for the rest of your life and we'd all be stuck with Clea."
"There was a compliment in there somewhere, but I think I might've missed it." Steve flipped over, and Davy switched gears to rub underneath his chin. "Tilda's good. Running herself ragged and trying her damndest not to fix everything, but good. The whole holiday extravaganza was a rousing success. Sold a few pieces, ran out of her ornaments, the whole bit."
"And the rest of the peanut gallery?"
Davy raised his eyebrows. "We talked about you calling them that."
"I get a pass on account of pregnancy brain. And really, can you blame me? All I've got to go on are the stories you tell."
"Those stories will come in handy once it's time to pen my memoir," he said. "It'll be a harrowing tale of one man's fight for survival in a world full of women, be it real, imaginary or cross-dressing. I've tentatively titled it 'Mind Over Muffin.'"
"Catchy," she said. "You must be crazy to be in a loony bin like that."
His hackles went up automatically, zero to defensive in two seconds flat. "Nobody here is crazy, Ame. They're just not entirely sane. But hell, neither are we." He blew out a breath. "I have a feeling you'll be hearing fewer stories from here on out," he said, idling again, and Amy groaned and said, "Oh, Davy, what did you do?"
He blinked. "What?"
"You really can't resist, can you?"
"What?" he repeated incredulously, hearing echoes of Ford in his head. "Point me to the breadcrumbs, because I am lost here."
"You, Mr. Fixit. You're just as bad as your wife. Worse, even, because you go looking for things to fix. You did it with Sophie and her farmhouse –"
"Well she had to live somewhere."
"– and me and my movie –"
"You relocated a dead body to the inside of your shower curtain," he objected. "And that was before you made a porno and played it on public access television. You'll have to excuse me if I didn't want the good people of Temptation coming for you with torches and pitchforks."
"– and now you're fixing every nut in the peanut gallery," she finished, undaunted. "Admit it."
"What else am I supposed to do?" Davy threw his hands in the air, disrupting a disgruntled Steve. "They ask for help. You all do."
"No we don't," she argued, astute and annoyed and all grown up. "You see that we need help, and you swoop in to save the day before anybody can help themselves. You always have. And now that we're fine, you found yourself a new family to fix."
He swallowed hard, thinking of Nadine and her stumbling and Gwen and her vodka and Eve and her alter-ego and Tilda more than anything, the two of them colliding in closets until he'd saved all her skeletons.
Amy sniffed, and there was a catch in her voice. "Don't take this the wrong way, okay? You're damn good at it, and it's been greatly appreciated. But Sophie and I… we let you do it for way too long. So just stop. Make yourself fine, and let everyone else figure it out on their own. Seriously, enough is enough."
Simon's voice started then, folded over Ford's and bouncing between his ears, and he looked down at his hands and thought, When.
"Ame," he said, sounding far away even to himself, "I have to make a call."
"Sure thing," she said, close to chirping and cheerful again. "I'm overdue for a potty break, anyway. I swear this baby is moon-bouncing on my fucking bladder."
Davy laughed, and it only broke a little. "You are planning to baby proof your vocabulary before this kid gets here, right?"
"I suppose," she sighed. "But hey, Dillie's survived her entire life at the right hand of the devil, so maybe a little childhood trauma does a body good." She paused, and her tone softened. "You're the best big brother in the world. You know that, right?"
He smiled and pulled in a breath. "I do, actually. But it's always nice to hear. Means the subliminal messages haven't worn off."
She laughed and hung up, and he dialed a number from a previous life.
"Sandy," he greeted, "it's Davy Dempsey. I find myself in need of transportation."
On the third day of Christmas, Davy woke to the feel of being gnawed, and he slid his eyes open to watch Steve and his overbite nibble down his arm like an ear of corn.
"Technically-speaking," he said, "you are biting the hand that feeds you."
He got dressed and went downstairs to forage for food and find Steve something to chew on other than him. In the kitchen, Eve passed him a muffin and Gwen gave him a glass of juice and Nadine beamed her best Lucy and lit up the whole room, bending down to coo at Steve for being such a good gallery dog. The Ronettes shooped their way through "I'm Gonna Quit While I'm Ahead," and Davy chewed his muffin and drank his juice and thought, I am the luckiest bastard in the world.
Steve jerked his head toward the front door, someone called "Hello?" from out in the gallery, and Davy got up, jogged through the office, and saw his sister's smiling face.
"Davy," Sophie said, dropping her purse and handing Dempsey off and rushing toward him. She flung her arms around his neck, feeling like the first home he'd ever had, and he smiled into her shoulder and squeezed to make sure she was real.
Then she pulled back to grin up at him and was promptly knocked aside by her daughter, who latched herself around his waist with the strength of a major-league linebacker.
"Easy there, short stuff," he said, stumbling a bit at the sheer force of impact. "You just took out your mom."
He spotted Phin over her head and nodded in his general direction. "Harvard. I guess they couldn't help but bring you along."
"Probably for the best," Phin said, "or Dempsey would be on the floor right about now." Lassie wound circles around his feet, hopping on her short legs like a hobbyhorse and making Davy shake his head.
"I see the gang's all here."
"Uncle Davy," Dillie said, tugging at his collar until he looked down, "I get to open all my presents here with you. Dad put them in the car, already wrapped and everything."
Davy chuckled. "Except the ones from Santa, right?" he said, and Dillie rolled her eyes and said, "I'm twelve. Give me a little credit."
"Forgive me," he said dryly. "I don't know what I was thinking."
"I counted down to vacation on my calendar," she said. "And I packed a whole week in advance. Jamie Barclay was less than thrilled when she found out that I got to spend Christmas in Columbus and she had to stay home with her stupid Xbox."
She spat that last bit, wound up but wounded, and Davy hugged her tight and thought, Cheer up, kid. In a couple days you'll have a stupid Xbox of your very own.
Sophie walked the gallery floor, her eyes taking in everything. "This is really beautiful, Davy." Then she stopped in front of one of Dorcas' dismal masterpieces and winced. "Well, most of it. So where is everybody?"
He looked around, belatedly realizing that they were alone in the gallery, and silently thanked his newest world of women for their insight.
"In the back," he said, hooking a thumb over his shoulder. "Probably wanted to give us a moment of peace before they pounced."
They followed him through the office and into the kitchen, where they were greeted by a trio of grinning Goodnight blondes and their merry men, and everyone lined up on opposite sides, Davy in the middle.
Red Rover, Red Rover, let somebody come over, he thought, and Steve inched forward to give Lassie a tentative sniff and set off a chain reaction.
"You must be Sophie," Gwennie said, stepping out and extending her hand. "We've heard a lot about you."
"Davy lies," Sophie said, and hugged her. "Thank you for having us."
He hung back, watching Gwen take the baby and Eve smile at Sophie and Phin shake hands with Ford and strike up a conversation with Andrew and Jeff, until only Nadine and Dillie stood off to one side, still silent and sizing each other up.
"I like your dress," Dillie finally said.
"Thanks," Nadine said, smoothing the skirt on the Lucy dress and shoving her chin in the air. "I like your dog."
"Thanks." At the counter, Ethan reached into the bakery bag, and Dillie's eyes went wide and woeful, and Davy thought, Oh lord, here we go. "Are those muffins?"
Nadine glanced at the bag and cut her eyes back to Dillie, looking rightfully suspicious. "Pineapple-orange. We like tangy."
"It's a really long way from Temptation to Columbus, you know. And I didn't have breakfast."
"I'm sure it was all very sad," Davy said, shooting her a look. "Cut it out, Dill."
He stared, she shrugged, and Nadine looked back and forth between them and said, "You two are definitely related." Then she reached into the bag to snag the last muffin, tossing it over to Dillie.
"Pineapple-orange isn't for everyone," she cautioned. "If you can handle it, we'll talk."
Davy was sitting in the small apartment that had been his once upon a time, holding his nephew while he happily babbled and blew raspberries and squashed his cheeks between chubby baby fists, when Sophie reached over and patted his knee.
"Okay," she said tiredly, "I love you, but little man and I need a nap. Oddly enough, two hours on the road with a teething toddler and a dog is not as much fun as it sounds."
"Go figure." He laid Dempsey down in the collapsible crib, tucked him in with the stuffed tentacle monstrosity Dillie had called a cuttlefish, then bent over to kiss Sophie on the top of her dark head. "I'm glad you're here."
She smiled ruefully. "Believe me, the feeling is mutual."
He opened the door and nearly ran into his brother-in-law, and thought, Note to self: invest in bells.
"The car's finally clear," Phin said. "I dumped everyone's swag around the tree."
"Fine," Davy answered, thinking, Three years, and I still don't want to like you.
They eyed each other in silence until Phin broke first, clearing his throat. "At some point, most people usually walk through doors," he said. "Expecting an earthquake?"
Davy smirked and shook his head. "Dillie's off with Nadine and Soph is down for the count, and she took your son with her. Which means that I need to see you downstairs." He clapped a hand on Harvard's shoulder. "It's long past time you lost your religion."
In the basement, Phin eyed the mostly-empty space – power tools in one corner, four folding chairs along the back wall, a portable CD player on a stack of empty milk crates, and one massive tarp-covered block in the middle – and raised an eyebrow. "Love what you've done with the place."
"It's a work in progress," Davy said, blowing at stray sawdust. "Until recently it was the land where dirty little secrets went to die, so this is actually an upgrade."
He swept the tarp off his pride and joy, then stepped back to savor the sight of Phin's jaw going slack.
It gleamed mahogany in the overhead light, all burled Mission legs and bronze lattice pockets, bun feet and Brunswick crown, and Phin ran a reverent hand over the fluting and traced a finger down the dentil molding, whistling under his breath.
"Rosewood rails," he breathed. "Ivory sights. Not to mention some serious woodwork." He brushed a feather-light touch over the felt, moving with the nap as any self-respecting player should, and looked up at Davy. "1900?"
"1895. But you were in the ballpark."
"Indeed," Phin scoffed. "Where the hell did you find a beauty like this?"
"Hole-in-the-wall place in Missouri. Sadly, she'd been used and abused. Took them three months to refinish." Davy went to the rack and held out a perfectly-weighted, pro-tapered cue. "Up for a rematch? I've got a feeling there's a twenty with my name on it."
"Ignore that feeling. It's probably indigestion." Phin rubbed his jaw and contemplated the table. "Straight pool?"
Davy nodded. "To fifty," he said, and Phin nodded and took the cue.
"Rack 'em up."
Phin fell into perfect position and sunk the apex ball on the break, and they settled into a silent exchange of short runs and sweet shots, the count steadily neck and neck, the clink of solids hitting stripes the only sound in the air.
Then someone cranked up the jukebox, Leslie Gore launched into "You Don't Own Me," and the muffled blare of it through the floorboards made Davy blink and blow his backspin.
Phin chalked his cue and stepped up to shoot with a smirk. "Perhaps the pool gods are trying to tell you something." He put away the nine with a fluid natural and tilted his head to consider a cut shot to the corner. "Is there any particular reason why your jukebox is permanently stuck in the 60's?"
"Gwennie's doing," Davy said. "Goodnights are all about the girl power."
"Sucks to be you," Phin muttered, flinching when his ball jawed in its pocket. "'It's no good pretending that any relationship has a future if your record collections disagree violently.'"
"High Fidelity," Davy said, banking the two off the cushion and ignoring the backhanded implications. "Good Cusack."
"Better Hornby. Do none of you Dempsey's read?"
Davy chuckled. "Not if we can help it."
He sunk the nine with a sweeping swerve shot, but corner-hooked the next one, and Phin chalked while he moved to re-rack. "I'm curious," he said. "Does your mother plan on driving Sophie nuts for the rest of her natural life?"
"I certainly hope not," Phin said, squaring his stance, "since I have serious doubts that my mother will ever die."
They fell into rhythm again, Davy answering Phin's follow shot with a dart stroke that jumped the six, and he grinned while Phin groaned.
"Harvard, old buddy," he said, "remind me of the count."
Phin shook his head and rolled his cue in his palms. "You know damn well what the count is."
"Naturally. But since you're going to hate me either way, I just wanted to hear you say it." Phin glared his answer, and Davy flexed his fingers and chalked for the last time.
"Game ball," he said, sighting down his cue. His shot cut across the center string and pocketed the six clean in the opposite corner, and when he straightened and turned, Phin was there with his winnings.
"It's still a pleasure to watch you play pool."
"Likewise." Davy reached out for the twenty, and Phin put a hand in his and held it there.
"You mean the world to the people who mean the most to me," he said, suddenly serious. "We may never be bosom buddies, but I think 'hate' is a bit much, don't you?"
Davy studied his face and finally nodded. "To tell you the truth, Harvard, I've actually grown pretty fond of tolerating you."
"Thanks for the ringing endorsement," Phin said, replacing their cues. "As long as we're on the same page."
"Funny you should mention that," Davy said. "I heard about the guitar incident."
"Never tell my daughter that girls suck at sports." Phin laughed. "I don't think Jordan appreciated the irony, but Dillie always did have a great swing."
On the second day of Christmas, Davy took a deep breath through his nose and turned over onto his back, sleepily saying, "At last, a morning free of torture."
Then Steve stepped solidly over his leg, landing somewhere very sensitive and vastly important to his livelihood in general, and Davy couldn't say anything for a good long while.
He hobbled downstairs to get some ice and keep from killing his dog, stopped halfway to the kitchen when he heard happy voices from out in the gallery, and pushed open the office door to find Sophie smiling and Dillie laughing and Dorcas out of her cave and Dempsey bouncing on the knee of a bearded, suited Santa who looked curiously familiar.
Phin stood off to one side, as close to glowering as his refined face got. "Guess what the Goodnights dragged in," he said, and Davy took a closer look and said, "Oh, hell."
Santa spotted him then, stood as Davy came forward, and his eyes twinkled with what looked like merriment but may have just been plain old plotting.
"Hi, Uncle Davy," Dillie said, beaming. "Want a muffin?"
"Hi, sweetie," he said, smoothing a hand over her little blonde head. "No. I need to see Santa in the kitchen." Santa sighed and moved toward the door, Dempsey still squirming in his arms, and Davy held up a hand. "Without the baby buffer, thank you very much."
They went into the kitchen and squared off on opposite sides of the counter, until Davy raised an eyebrow and said, "So tell me, St. Nick, have you been naughty or nice?" and Michael peeled off his beard.
"I promised you I'd be back for Christmas, didn't I?"
"You promised me a lot of things over the years. Luckily I learned to take them with a grain of salt." Davy got himself a glass of juice and took a long swallow, thinking, Welcome to dysfunction junction, population me. "What do you want, Dad?"
"To spend some quality time with my family for the holidays. Is that such a crime?"
"Not usually," Davy said. "But you have a knack for making just about anything legally questionable." Michael clutched his snowy beard to his chest, Soapy Smith in a Santa suit, and the whole effect was so equally disarming and disturbing that Davy chuckled. "'If I didn't know you any better, I'd swear you had some class.'"
"I'm wounded," Michael said, smiling and not slighted in the least. "Why must you always believe the worst of me, boy?"
"Precedence," Davy answered flatly. "Plus, I've been cursed with common sense. It's the one thing I didn't get from you."
Michael laughed low, pondering Davy with a thoughtful tilt of his head. "Sophie was such a serious child, and Amy was far too eager to please. But I always could count on you to be nothing but straight with me."
"I was trying to balance out the crooked." Davy closed his eyes and leaned on the counter, more than a little disgusted. "That figures. Just because I despise you, I'm the only one you trust."
"Something like that." Michael nodded amiably and tugged off his hat. "This place is starting to look like gold instead of coal. Your doing?"
"All Tilda," Davy said, shaking his head, and thought, This place is not for you to mine. "I just put in some elbow grease."
"I'd wager you put in a good deal more than that."
"Well that's between me and my wife."
Michael looked down at Davy's wedding band in genuine surprise and raised an eyebrow. "Congratulations are in order, it seems. I'll just assume my invitation was lost in the mail." He leaned forward and laid it on thick, taking up his best thick-as-thieves. "It really is a sweet setup. And you are every inch my son. I can't help but wonder how it is you stay here every day and resist the urge to do what comes so naturally to you."
Davy shrugged. "'When I find myself in a position like this, I ask myself, 'What would dear old Dad do?' And then I do the opposite." He took another sip, sized up the situation, and forced himself to face the obvious.
"How far in the hole are you?" he said evenly, and hoped like hell he was wrong.
Then Michael fixed wily eyes on his and flashed him a wide Dempsey smile, and Davy slammed his glass to the counter and sloshed juice everywhere. "You've got to be kidding me. You blew a hundred grand in six months?"
"'Blew' is such a strong word," Michael said with a wince. "Makes it all seem so fleeting. But since you ask, I may have been –"
"Temporarily embarrassed of funds," Davy finished for him. "If taking away that 'temporary' is contingent on convincing me to float you another six figures, you can spare us both the trouble and just consider it permanent."
Michael spread his hands wide. "I can tell you the whole story," he said, and Davy snorted.
"Fiction or non-fiction?"
He pulled in a breath, thinking, Do not try to fix this. He had things to consider, now – marrying Tilda was a realized reality, having kids still a hopeful one, as long as Steve steered clear of his vital appendages. His family. Their future. Being a better man than Michael had been, to everyone he loved.
And – try as he may, try as he might – there was just no fixing his father.
"I'm sorry," he said, and almost meant it. "I can't bail you out again, Dad."
Michael shrugged and reached into the bakery bag, giving up far too easily for anything to stick for long. "Well, no harm in asking," he said, biting into a muffin, and Davy thought of Ford and clenched his jaw and focused his frustration squarely where it belonged.
"That's where you're wrong," he started, "and since you seem to prize it so much, I'll be straight with you. Our whole lives, Sophie took care of us until we could take care of ourselves. Showing up out of the blue and expecting us to take care of you isn't fair to anyone, not when you never gave a damn and still don't. There's sure as hell harm in that. So do what you're gonna do, Dad, but stop asking."
Michael looked into his face for a long moment, until whatever he saw in Davy's eyes made him swallow and nod with something close to contrition.
"Fair enough," he said. "I would like to stay for Christmas, if that's all right."
Davy considered telling him the inn was full, then thought better of it. He'd only end up sleeping on Sophie's floor. Or back in Dorcas' bed. "Fine. Long as we're clear."
He made his way back to the gallery, leaving his father the felon behind only to run into his quasi-father-in-law the Fed.
"Feel better?" Ford said knowingly, and Davy smirked and slapped him on the back and thought, As a matter of fact, I do.
"I always liked you," he mused. "Even when you were trying to kill me."
Davy was putting the finishing touches on the interior, coming out of the construction zone with a smile and putting the drop cloths back in place, when Tilda called him down for the festivities.
There was a tray of eggnog in the office where the couch used to be, and he grabbed a glass and went into the gallery, only to stop when Tilda stepped in front of him and slid her hands into his hair and kissed him senseless.
"I forgot to warn you – there may be stealth mistletoe," she said, looking up to the top of the doorway, and he grinned and raised an eyebrow.
"Why Betty, I'm appalled. Did you plan this?"
Behind him, the jukebox cued up "I Love How You Love Me," and she laughed and kissed him again. "I'm crafty that way," she said, eyes dancing, and took his hand to lead him to the party.
Someone had dragged the sofa out in front of the tree, and Sophie and Eve and Dillie and Nadine were squeezed in tight, stringing popcorn on a length of thread. Elsewhere, Ford passed Gwen ornaments up the ladder, Ethan tacked stockings to a fake fireplace, Jeff and Andrew hung garland around the windows, and Phin tried to stop Dempsey from eating the tinsel. Michael was notably absent, and Davy shook his head and gave some serious thought to Dorcas' sanity.
"Remind me why we're decking the halls for Christmas on Christmas Eve," he said, plopping down in an oversized armchair and drawing Tilda into his lap.
"Unhealthy family tradition." She reached for a bowl of cranberries and another spool of thread, speaking around the needle between her teeth. "Dad never wanted the gallery decorated at all. Said it was passé. But Gwennie's a sucker for Christmas season and put her foot down, so going all out the night before was their passive-aggressive compromise."
"Good for Gwennie," Davy said, sipping his eggnog. "But with your dad gone, why not do it earlier?"
Tilda shrugged. "I don't know. We probably should, but… It's become a thing now. Kind of a good one, even. Whatever craziness is going on, we're always together for this, you know?"
He watched her artists' hands thread the needle and knot the end, thinking of all the crappy Christmases Sophie had saved when all they'd had was each other, and all the ones after when having each other was all they'd needed, and cleared his throat.
"I do, indeed."
She smiled softly, and he kissed her collarbone and started stringing cranberries.
An hour later, they'd hung and strung and decked themselves out, until the twelve-foot tree was full of tinsel and garland and Nadine's childhood Christmas projects and ornaments Tilda had personally painted for each of them, and Gwen stretched to put the star in place while Jeff went through the first floor flicking off all the overheads. Davy stood with the rest of the family, pulling Dillie to his side while he groped for Tilda's hand in the dark, and Ford flipped the switch and flooded the space with fairy light.
Dillie gasped. "Wow."
"My sentiments exactly," Tilda said. "Good tree."
The chasing lights danced over her face in shades of blue and green and gold, and Davy laced his fingers with hers and squeezed. "Better company."
He leaned down to press his lips to hers, tasting cranberries and contentment, and kissed her until the world went dark.
"Damn," Ford muttered. "Your good tree blew the gallery fuse," and Davy pulled back and thought, Yeah, that makes more sense.
Ford stumbled out of the room and fiddled with the fuse box, and when the power snapped back on, The Crystals lurched into "And Then He Kissed Me," Nadine was wrapped around Ethan under the mistletoe, and there was a ghost at the front door.
Tilda whistled and said, "Oh look, a Christmas miracle," Dillie made a face and turned away, and Davy arched an eyebrow, saying, "I swear that jukebox has a cosmic sense of comic timing," and went to let Simon in.
He opened the door, crossed his arms, and pinned his best friend with a curious look. "I think you took a wrong turn at Toledo."
Simon looked down, unsure for the first time Davy could remember. "Perhaps I should have called," he said, and Davy grabbed the lapel of his ridiculously expensive cashmere-blend coat and yanked him inside.
"Consider yourself formally invited."
Across the floor, Eve looked caught, torn in two all over again, and excused herself to head into the kitchen.
"Well," Davy said, "you do know how to make an entrance." He took the bag from Simon's hand, bumping his shoulder. "Come on, I'll get you some eggnog to go with your brandy."
"Marvelous," Simon said, smiling grimly. "I had a few before I got here, but they're starting to wear off."
On the first day of Christmas, Davy felt movement on the mattress, threw out a hand to thwart whatever Steve was about to do, and hit his wife instead.
"Ow," she grumbled.
He blinked the sleep from his eyes and managed to locate Steve, dutifully laying at the foot of the bed without a care in the world. "You're here."
"As opposed to where?" she said, and he rolled to reach her and nuzzled the side of her neck, thinking, This has got to be the best part of waking up.
"If you're trying to kiss it better," she said, more than a little breathless, "you're in the wrong spot."
"Point me in the right direction," he said, lips slipping over her skin. "I'll get there eventually." He pressed his mouth to her pulse to feel her heartbeat on his tongue, and she gasped and clung to him as the rhythm of her echoed everywhere.
Then Dillie stopped pounding at the door to yell, "Come on, it's Christmas," and they groaned and reluctantly rolled out of bed.
"This should be fun," Davy said, slowly making his way down five flights of stairs. "I wonder if Louise let Simon live."
"If there was any bloodshed, it's on Eve's hands," Tilda said, trailing after him. "She's back to her old rules, and Louise doesn't do holidays."
The psychic jukebox had gotten into the swing of things, and The Supremes waxed poetic about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens as they came into the kitchen. Tilda let Steve out the back door, and Davy passed on the juice in favor of coffee, took muffins out for both of them, and looked down to see Lassie sitting at his feet, looking longingly at his breakfast and rolling onto her back with a pitiful whine.
"Sorry, sweetheart, I know your game already." Steve bounded back in then, stopping next to his sprawled canine counterpart and eyeing the muffins with interest, himself.
Then he whined and flopped onto his back, legs in the air, tongue lolling out, and Davy grabbed the muffins and glared at them both.
"Do not cavort with con dogs," he told Steve. "It's beneath you."
Simon was alive and well when they went into the gallery, hand-in-hand with Eve on the sofa. Davy raised an eyebrow in his direction as he and Tilda settled into their decorating chair to watch Dillie and Nadine tear open gift after gift, ripping at wrapping paper until the squealing got to be too much and an adult took a turn.
Afterward, they sat in a sea of paper and cardboard, ribbons and bows, Tilda grinning at Sophie over the seat of her new vintage workshop stool while Davy nursed his cold coffee.
"Hey Dill," he said, leaning forward and setting his mug down, "I think you missed one." Her eyes narrowed, and he pointed to the far wall. "See? Check behind the fireplace."
She crawled over and wrestled the box out from where he'd wrangled it, squinting at the label. "It's for me," she said, and rolled her eyes. "From Santa."
"Well look at that. He even stops for fake chimneys." She shot him a look, and he chuckled. "Are you gonna open that sometime this century?"
Her hands tore at the taped corners, peeling back one long strip of paper, and her eyes went wide as saucers.
"You got me an Xbox," she shouted, more of a kid than he'd ever seen her, and he held up his hands and shook his head.
"Do I look like a jolly fat man to you?" he said. "But you're twelve. Old enough to know what 'Santa' is code for."
She dropped the box and threw herself at Phin, then latched her arms around Sophie's neck, and Sophie smiled tearfully over her shoulder and mouthed, Thanks, baby brother.
He nodded with a smile and looked around the room, watching as Dorcas showed Michael a new painting, and Nadine let Ethan in the front door, and Eve talked quietly with Simon, and Jeff laughed while Andrew made faces at Dempsey, and Gwen grinned at Ford and twirled the world's largest parasol.
Then Tilda slipped back into his lap, laying a hand on his face and her lips on his, and he wrapped his arms around her and thought, For once, I have absolutely nothing to fix.
Davy was dragging himself up the stairs after dinner, Tilda on his heels, when she stopped him at the door with a hand on his arm.
"I have a present for you," she said, and he turned on the top step and said, "Does it have anything to do with the context of our bedroom? Because I've been looking forward to unwrapping you all week."
She bit her lip and looked away. "It seems kind of stupid now. So just… don't be disappointed, okay?"
"Scarlet, the last time we had one of these dark hallway conversations, you'd painted a jungle on the walls."
Blowing out a breath, she reached behind him to turn the knob and push the door open. "Well, since you brought it up…" She trailed off, and he turned to see a flat-wrapped square resting on her easel, its size something he'd become very adept at spotting.
She ducked out from behind him and lifted it from the crossbar, cradling it close to her chest.
"I thought I'd try a portrait," she said softly. "It just didn't turn out the way I expected."
Swallowing, she held it aloft, and he reached out to pull the paper away.
He caught the checkerboard first, the alternating squares of her signature Scarlet skies, and peeled the rest of the cover from the canvas in glimpses of green and gold, revealing an arc of faces all too familiar. Andrew and Jeff, happily linked arm-in-arm. Nadine, a ray of sunshine in her Lucy dress, with Ethan peeking out from behind her. Gwen, gazing out from beneath a lacy umbrella, while Ford pinned his heart on his sleeve like a badge. Eve, fresh-scrubbed and fair, looking into an antique mirror that held Louise's face. Sophie and Phin and Dillie and Dempsey, huddled together on their farmhouse porch. Even Amy, in her heart-shaped sunglasses, hair as fiery red as her personality.
And Tilda, front and center in her Chinese jacket, looking down at the biggest muffin Davy had ever seen, with a golden mushroom crown covered in shimmering granules of sugar and a wrapper that looked curiously like his wedding ring.
He looked into her eyes and couldn't help but laugh, and when the first hint of hurt flashed, he pulled her close and kissed her hard, the painting wedged between them.
"You don't think it's stupid?" she said, and he laughed again and said, "I think it's amazing," and buried his face in her hair.
"Oh thank God," she said, her voice muffled in his chest. "I had this crazy idea and I had to fit it in with everything that was going on with the gala…"
"And the time-sucking commission," he said, and pulled back to gape at her when she giggled. "This was the commission?"
She nodded. "Took me two weeks in the studio at CCAD. I told you it was special."
He stepped away to set the painting on the easel, and finally noticed how she'd signed it. Matilda Goodnight Dempsey. Her work.
Unexpected tears sprang to his eyes, and he coughed to cover the lump in his throat.
"I did manage to get you a little something," he said, waving a hand at the wall of drop cloths. "Sorry about the wrapping."
She reached out to peel back the first panel, and he grabbed the whole rig and yanked, the canvas falling to the floor as she gasped.
"You made me a closet."
He chuckled, moving to stand beside her as she swung one door open. "You made me the muffin man. I guess that makes us even."
She stepped inside, running a hand along the interior shelving. "It's primed and ready for paint," he said. "I figured you'd want it to match the rest of the rainforest." He laughed as she kicked off her shoes and wiggled her toes in the grass green carpet, turning around in circles.
"Just one more thing."
He opened a drawer, and she peered inside and pulled out an envelope marked Australia.
"You didn't," she said, and he shrugged and said, "Technically, I did not violate the handmade rule. I made all the arrangements myself."
Her eyes shone, her crooked mouth quirked at one corner, and she wrapped her arms around him and sighed. "I am definitely keeping you."
"That's good to hear," he said, "because this is as much my present as yours. We have unfinished closet business, Vilma."
She looked up and arched an eyebrow. "Do we?"
"Oh yes. There's a good reason behind this plush carpet."
"Is that right?" she said, grinning.
"Indeed it is." He went down on his knees, taking her with him. "Allow me to demonstrate." He sank into the carpet, thick and lush, and then into Tilda, thicker, lusher, heaven in his hands.
"Did you know," he started, "that every time you get naked, an angel gets his wings?"
She laughed, and he added the first pile of clothing to their new closet, thinking, Oh, it is a wonderful life.
On the day after Christmas, Davy woke up with his wife warm in his arms, and promptly went straight back to sleep.
When he stirred again, she was half-naked and humming Dusty, painting giant fireflies around the bulbs in the can lights. He smiled and stretched and sleepily got to his feet, coming up behind her to kiss below her ear, and thought, Thank God the closet is a canine-free zone.
Then there was a scratch at the door, followed by a pitiful whimper from the other side, and he patted Tilda somewhere south of the equator and took a deep breath.
"You finish that," he said. "I'm going to build Steve a doghouse."