Monday, September 17, 2012
Quality Family Time
“Will you look at us,” Vernon MacMahon said. He beamed around the table. “All the kids together. We look like a family already.”
Nobody beamed back, other than Elly. Nick didn’t bother to hide his scowl. They were probably holding hands under the table, like a couple of sappy puppies. His brother Mooney, who should have had his back, had a stiff, brainless grin on his lips because such a look was expected. That was a beta for you, content to sit back and let the higher ranks do all the thinking. He even let his girlfriend push him around, and she was a monkey, for Lycaon’s sake. No help from Mooney’s corner, that’s for biting sure.
Or from the other camp. Bo and Hannibal Ewing gave him the bighorn stink eye from across the table. Neither had said a word since they all sat down. Mary had already made her feelings for Nick clear at work, courtesy of that granite-hard head of hers. If a ewe could knock him flat on his ass, imagine what those two gargantuan rams could do. Better still, imagine those two oversized herbies bleeding all over the floor with their throats ripped out. The image cheered him somewhat.
“Is that why we’re here?” he said. “To show off to Talbot’s Peak how well we all get along?”
“Of course not,” Vern said. “We’re here because neither Miss Elly nor I are about to cook for you moochers, and because this place’s owner is a rat with a meat cleaver, and that squirrel behind the bar has a gun and has been known to use it. So nobody’s going to cause any trouble. Right?”
He said this to Nick and Mooney. Miss Elly directed a similar silent warning to her mountainous male offspring. Unhearing Mary sipped blandly at her water, her eyes darting from one set of lips to the next. She caught Nick’s eye and grinned evilly at him. Nick bared his teeth back at her.
Packs had blended before, when an alpha had to take a new mate. But a pack and a herd? This herd? No freakin’ way.
“Just tell me this has nothing to do with the election,” he said. Which would make it even worse if it didn’t, but he had to know.
Both Vernon and Miss Elly looked hurt. “You’re not buying into that scat Lance has been spreading around, have you? About voters wanting their candidates mated? I thought you knew better than that. Elly and I have known each other for years. We’re getting up there in age—”
“Speak for yourself, you old gray wolf,” Elly said with a grin.
“And the clock’s running out. Why spend my twilight years alone, when this tasty morsel’s just been waiting for me to sweep her off her feet?”
“Our mom’s not a ‘tasty morsel’,” Bo said in a growl that would do a wolf proud. “That’s how predators talk.”
“Knock it off, boy. At my age, I’m lucky I’ve still got my real teeth. Any woman who’d have me is a treasure beyond price.” He nuzzled Miss Elly’s neck. “Lucky me, I found her.”
“Lucky us,” Miss Elly corrected, and nuzzled him back. It was sickening. “As long as you don’t expect another crop of heirs. That ship has sailed.”
“Never fear, my sweet. Been there, done that, stepped in the housebreaking accidents.” He wickedly waggled his eyebrows. “Doesn’t mean we can’t take a stab at it anyway. Several stabs, I hope.”
Nick’s stomach flipped over. “Do you have to talk about that at the table? Where people are eating?”
“Get used to it, sonny. There’s fire in the old wolf yet, and spring in the lady’s step. Or did you think that all shuts off after we turn forty?”
Both Hannibal and Bo stiffened on their chairs. “You watch your mouth, carnie,” Bo said. “That’s our mother you’re licking your chops over.”
“And your mama hasn’t been drooled over in ages,” Elly snapped at her offspring. “If you’ve got a problem with it, keep it in your cud sack. Vernon and I are getting married, and we’re going to do everything married folks do. Deal with it.”
Mary signed frantically. Elly caught her hands and pinned them to the table. “That goes for you too, missy. We’re happy, and we’re going to stay happy. If you kids can’t handle it, tough turds.”
The squirrel ambled over. Nick checked his shirt for gun-shaped bulges. “Everything okay here, folks? Get you anything?”
Vern and Elly ordered cocktails. Everyone else ordered sodas. Keep a clear head, first rule on the hunt. The glares flashing around the table over the heads of the starry-eyed lovers could probably flash-fry their entrees, if Nick was any judge of hostility. Oh, wait, these were herbies. They ate their awful veggies raw.
Being the oldest, Nick figured he’d have to take out Hannibal. He doubted if Mooney could handle Bo. They’d have to double-team him. Same for Mary. The little ewe was a vicious fighter. It’s for Dad’s own good. He’ll thank us when it’s over.
To everyone’s surprise, Louie himself brought their drinks over. “I can hear you folks from the kitchen,” he said. Nick bristled automatically, even though he understood Jersey accents made even “good morning” sound belligerent. “I don’t want no trouble in my place.”
“And you won’t get any,” Vern said firmly. Elly shot a glare at her kids. Their stony faces promised nothing. Nick refused to alter his own scowl. Mooney went on smiling idiotically. Didn’t the damn spineless beta have any other expressions?
Louie rattled off the night’s specials. “Now,” he said at the end, “what can I getcha?”
Vern nodded across the room. “Excuse me, but is that Judge Alsop over there?”
“Yeah. He likes the Wellington. It’s one of our specialties. You wanna give it a go?”
Vern leaned in and whispered something to Elly. She gasped, then giggled. Nick had never pegged her as a giggler. They had to get these two apart. Their ill-considered love was upsetting every natural order in the universe.
“Excuse us a minute, would you?” Vernon got up, holding out his hand to Miss Elly. They left the table with Louie in the lead. Nick recognized his dad’s hunting stalk. The shifty old wolf was up to something. Nick started to rise.
Hannibal’s hand clamped onto his wrist and forced him back down. “Oh no you don’t. Nobody’s going anywhere until we hash this out.”
Nick reseated himself, glaring. “They can’t get married. No offense to your mom—”
“And none to your dad, but you’re right. That’s the only thing we can agree on.”
“Why not?” Mooney said. “So Dad’s a carnie and your mom’s a herbie. So what? If they—”
Four sets of hostile eyes glared him into silence. Mooney gulped his soda.
“So,” Bo said, “what do we do about it?”
Nothing at the moment, because the squirrel returned with a server bearing a broad tray. The server placed Caesar salads before the bighorns and plates of meat appetizers in front of Nick and Mooney. “Compliments of the house,” the squirrel said. “Your mom and your dad express their apologies. They’re gonna be delayed for a bit. They said for you guys to go ahead with dinner.”
“What do you mean, delayed?” Nick demanded. “What’s going on?”
The squirrel just shrugged and reached around behind his back. Some shooters kept their guns in their waistbands. Nick quickly subsided. The squirrel grinned. “Enjoy your meal.”
Good luck with that. Since neither species was averse to free food, all five dug into their salads. All chewed loudly and carefully, as if they were imagining chewing on something else. An enemy's body parts, for instance. Except for Mooney, who inhaled his appetizers with gusto. Damn betas. Next to useless.
Time stretched uncomfortably. Nick glanced at his watch and was startled to discover close to an hour had slipped past them. Where the hell was Dad? What was he doing?
Mary squirmed. Nick figured she was getting restless too, until she pulled out a cell phone. Obviously she couldn’t hear it, so she must have had it set on vibrate. She checked her text messages. Her face went white. She hauled frantically on Bo’s arm, then showed him the screen.
Bo’s mouth got thin and hard. “They didn’t.”
Hannibal broke off glaring at Nick to glance over. “Didn’t what?”
In response, a white-lipped Bo activated Mary’s never-used voice mail. “Greetings, pups. By the time you hear this, it’ll be too late for retaliation. Y’see, tonight proved to Elly and me that you pigheaded twits will never see reason. So hump you. Judge Alsop was kind enough to marry us in the kitchen, with Louie and Gil as our witnesses. We’re on our way to Vegas for our honeymoon even as we speak. So play nice, boys and girl, you’re family now. Oh, and somebody tell Lance, will you? And email me a picture of his face.” The message ended on a hoot of laughter.
Stricken faces ringed the table. Mary’s came on a time delay, following Bo’s sign-language recap. “They eloped?” Mooney said. Nick glared at his brother. Mr. Obvious.
“Well, good for them.” Mooney picked up his glass of soda, made a face at it, and got up and headed for the bar.
“Good?” Nick echoed. “What the hell’s good about it?”
“That’s not all,” Hannibal said. “They stiffed us for the check.”
Just like a wolf. Just like Dad. Nick put his head in his hands. “Who could use a drink?” he said. “On me.”