“I can’t believe you had all your windows UV treated in less than a week.” Jack had sprung that surprise on me when I’d argued that I couldn’t stay the next day for his family dinner. So here I was in his kitchen, watching him cook and waiting anxiously for his relatives to arrive. He’d poured me a glass of wine to ease my nerves, but I sat on a barstool at his kitchen counter like a cat perched on a precarious limb.
“My cousin Kevin runs a construction firm. March is a pretty slow month so he was able to get it done right away.” He finished chopping an onion and tossed it into the stockpot simmering on the stove. “You want to tear up that bag of lettuce for the salad?”
Okay, that was within my limited culinary skills. “What are you making?”
“Chicken paprikash. Good Eastern European food—kinda goes with the name Marczeski. My parents and grandparents are originally from Hungary and Poland. But other people will bring all kinds of food, so there’ll be something for everyone.”
He’d already made sure I’d had some blood this morning, so anything I ate would be just for the pleasure of it. “How many people did you say are coming?”
“I don’t know. Twelve adults, maybe? Half a dozen kids? Depends on who’s available. Not everybody can get off work on a Thursday night.”
I rinsed the lettuce and shredded it with my fingers into a bright red bowl. Jack tossed a couple of chopped carrots into the pot and wiped his hands on a dish towel just as the doorbell rang. He flashed me a grin. “Be right back.”
To my immense relief it was Dara, carrying a bottle of wine and a bouquet of flowers. She kissed Jack’s cheek then hopped up on the stool beside me. “I figured you could use the moral support of a familiar face being the first one here.”
“You have no idea.” I reached for a ripe tomato and a knife and started adding that to the salad as she poured herself a glass of wine.
“Well, I didn’t want the rest of them to scare you away.” She grinned wickedly, her dark eyes twinkling. “I figured you’d want some support when you meet Cousin Eddie with his Elvis fixation or Aunt Martha, who can talk for hours about her garden slug and aphid problem.”
“She’s not that bad,” Jack objected with a laugh. He minced a few cloves of garlic with knife strokes so swift my eyes could barely follow it. “Better than Dad and his Civil War stories.”
“Oh yeah. At least he was actually there.” Dara rolled her eyes. “Uncle Mike likes to discuss the Greeks and Romans and I know he isn’t that old.”
Jack waved his knife toward Dara. “Behave, brat, or I’ll tell Susan you’re just dying to change diapers. Besides having to actually do it, Mom will be on you for hours about how it’s time to have a bunch of kids of your own.”
“Same goes, bro. With Jen working in Canada, that leaves you as the oldest unmarried child for Mom to pick on.” Dara’s brown eyes flickered over to me.
I laughed. “You two remind me of my sister and myself. We used to argue like that all the time.” I hadn’t thought about Thalia in years, and tears stung at the corners of my eyelids. I’d read her death notice in the newspaper only twenty years after I’d left home. Frederic had allowed me that much—wherever he’d taken me, he’d let me read the New York papers.
“Hey, toss me that bell pepper, would you?” Jack’s voice pulled me out of my moment of misery. “And you, brat, go answer the door. Another car just pulled into the drive.”
Somehow, I made it through that crazy noisy meal without curling up into a ball and whimpering. Jack’s relatives were all curious about me but, despite the warnings from Jack and Dara, none of them were pushy or rude about it. His mother and father were kind and welcoming, and even his aunt and uncle—the alphas of the werewolf pack—were pleasant as we ate and talked. I don’t remember much of what was said, and I certainly couldn’t have sorted out all of the various relatives, but no one did anything to make me feel unwelcome. In fact, Jack’s mother made a point of giving me a hug before she left. When they were finally all gone, Jack and I settled into the big leather couch in front of the fireplace and I shook my head.
“They liked you.” He nuzzled my ear. “No big surprise there.”
“That was—overwhelming,” I admitted. “Do you all get together like that often?” I’d been particular surprised to see how accepting they were of alternative lifestyles. One of Jack’s brothers spent the whole time holding hands with a handsome blond werewolf—also male. The love between the two was a beautiful sight. Jack’s cousin Susan had two husbands. One was another werewolf and the other a lovely man with an Irish accent whose race I couldn’t identify, though he’d had distinctly pointed ears. Both men had doted on the baby equally, to the point where I never did figure out which was the biological father. Best of all, not one other person in the Marczeski family even seemed to blink at the unorthodox relationships in their midst. And they were all perfectly accepting of Jack introducing a vampire. My head was still reeling.
“Once a month or so, unless there’s a birthday or holiday. And that was just the local clan. If it’s a big deal, then we get a bunch who come back from Wisconsin and Toronto and everywhere else. A wolf pack is a pretty close-knit family.”
“Hard to believe that everyone here was an immortal. It looked just like a family from some TV show until I remembered that when your dad started telling his war stories, he was honestly at Gettysburg.”
“Well, actually, so was I,” Jack replied with a wry laugh. “I just don’t like to talk about it. I’ve been in a couple wars—it isn’t pretty regardless of the technology.”