Thank you to my beta reader, Pam, and to Marion for test reading.
This is a short story sequel to my novel Second Nature , which is available at http://l-book.com. It takes place about a year and a month after the end of Second Nature . The short story is also available as a free e-book at http://l-book.com/free_page.html
"A CHRISTMAS DINNER?" Brian set down his glass on the coffee table and licked a drop of milk from his lips. "You know we don't celebrate Christmas, so why would we start now?"
Griffin stared down at him and at Gus, who was leaning back on the couch and hadn't yet offered an opinion. "Because I'm inviting you to celebrate Christmas with Jorie and me."
"Ah." Her father waved a negligent hand. "Christmas is a stupid human tradition. Invite us over some other time."
Annoyance raced over Griffin's skin. She scratched her itching forearms. "Jorie is human and she's my mate, so if you want me to be part of the family, you better get used to celebrating this stupid human tradition!"
"Calm down, you two." With a lazy stretch, Gus looked up at Griffin and then glanced at his brother. "What's so bad about Christmas? Spending time with the pride, eating a turkey or two, and solving the mystery of surprise presents... sounds like the perfect feline entertainment to me."
"What's so bad about Christmas?" Brian grumbled. "Christmas carols blaring everywhere." He covered his sensitive ears to make his point. "Human cubs on a constant sugar rush from eating too many cookies, and humans strolling through the forest in search of the perfect Christmas tree... The pride hasn't had a quiet, uninterrupted run in weeks!"
Griffin had to admit that some Christmas traditions were pretty annoying. The lack of privacy in the forest bothered her too. Last night, a family searching for a few fir branches to decorate their home had nearly surprised her as she had been about to shift shape. Still, she was quickly warming up to other Christmas traditions. So far, the mistletoe that Jorie had hung over the doorway was her favorite. Not that I'd need an excuse to kiss Jorie whenever I want to.
Thinking about Jorie made her anger fade away. She directed a calm gaze at her father. "The dinner is important to Jorie and to me, not just because of Christmas. We want to tell Helen, and I want both of you there to support us."
"Tell her what?" Brian sipped his milk again. "That you and Jorie are... sharing the same pillow at night?" He winked at her.
A frown replaced Griffin's pleading expression, but she knew her father was just having fun teasing her a little. She took her commitment to Jorie too seriously to laugh about his offhand remark, though. "No." She scowled down at Brian. "Helen already knows that Jorie and I are a couple. We want to tell Helen who and what I really am."
Milk spattered all over the coffee table. "What?"
"Jorie has lied to her mother about her sexual orientation or at least not told her the truth for so long. She doesn't want there to be any more lies between them. She wants her mother to share that part of her life with her too." Griffin was secretive by nature and her skin prickled with unease at the thought of revealing the Wrasa's secret existence, but she supported Jorie's decision.
Brian brushed drops of milk from his beard. "Don't tell me the council has given you permission to reveal our existence to a human."
They hadn't, of course. The decision to come out to the human public might take the council years, and Jorie didn't want to wait that long. "Since when did you ever wait for the council's permission?" Griffin asked. "It's a family affair, and the council doesn't need to know we told Helen. I trust Helen. She won't betray us."
"How can you know that?" While Brian had come to accept and even like Jorie, his first reaction was still to distrust humans.
"Helen loves Jorie," Griffin said. "She would never do anything to hurt her and hurting me is hurting Jorie." It was as simple as that.
The "and vice versa" hung unspoken between them. Hurting Jorie by refusing to come to her Christmas dinner would be hurting Griffin too.
"Fine," Brian finally said. "We'll come. Don't let it be said that a human has more sense of family than a Kasari."
The tension fled from Griffin's body. "It's great that you see it that way, because Mother is gonna be there too."
"So, Christmas Day, two o'clock be on time or dinner will get cold." Griffin shot both of them a glance. "And bring your bag with some of the cat allergy stuff, please. Otherwise, poor Helen might not survive having dinner with eight big cats."
Muscular arms crossed over Brian's chest in a feline pout. "I told you I don't make house calls for humans."
"She's not just any human," Gus said. "Since Griffin and Jorie are living together, Helen is Griffin's mother-in-law."
The blood rushed from Griffin's face. She blinked. She had never thought about it that way, but Gus was right. Wrasa law considered a couple married as soon as they were living together. Huh. What do you know... I'm a married woman. I wonder if Jorie knows or what she'll say when she finds out.
Twin grins spread over Gus's and Brian's faces. Brian threw his brother an amused glance. "Seems our daughter never thought about that. Maybe you are right, brother. Christmas could be fun. We never had that conversation about marrying into the pride with Jorie. Might be a nice opportunity to talk to her. Asking her about her willingness to bear a litter of cubs for the pride will be fun."
A deep growl rose up Griffin's chest. "Maybe I'll just tell Jorie that you refused her invitation after all."
"Oh, no, I'll be there. Now you made me curious." They all knew you couldn't keep away a curious cat. "Make sure you have enough food. And don't let Jorie anywhere near the kitchen."
"She's not that bad," Griffin said, automatically defending Jorie.
Silence filled the living room, giving Griffin enough time to remember the last meal Jorie had tried to cook for her. Her lips eased into a smile. "Okay," she said. "Jorie stays out of the kitchen."
* * *
"Christmas dinner?" Helen repeated. "Oh, how wonderful. Of course, I'll be there. It'll be wonderful to see you again. You and Griffin, of course."
Her mother's constant acceptance of her relationship filled Jorie with warmth. She pressed the phone to her ear with a grateful smile. "It won't be just me and Griffin, though," Jorie said.
She wanted to give her mother fair warning. Both of them were used to quiet Christmas celebrations. Even before her father had died, it had been just the three of them, not a big family. "We invited Griffin's whole family her father, her mother, her sisters and their partners. I hope they won't overwhelm you."
For her, it had taken some getting used to.
"Oh, the more the merrier." Helen laughed. "It will be wonderful to meet Griffin's family."
Jorie's stomach twitched nervously. Let's hope you'll still think that when you learn who they really are.
"You'll have to give me some kind of idea about what to give them for Christmas," Helen said. "I don't know Griffin's family, but I don't want to show up empty-handed."
As far as Jorie knew, Wrasa didn't even celebrate Christmas. "Don't worry about it, Mom. Griffin's family isn't big on presents. If we feed them, they'll be happy."
"With so many guests, I could book an earlier flight and help Griffin with the cooking," her mother said.
Jorie hesitated. At times, Griffin could be pretty territorial about the kitchen. Or maybe it's just me she doesn't want in there.
"I don't want to intrude," Helen said when Jorie's hesitation continued.
"You're not intruding, Mom. I'm sure Griffin would love to have some help. I know she's planning a big dinner." In fact, their shopping list read like a supply order for an entire army regiment.
"Wonderful." Joy vibrated in Helen's voice. "I'm really looking forward to Christmas, then."
Jorie gulped. "Me too, Mom." Her hands shook when she hung up. God, I hope I made the right decision.
* * *
"Emmy! No! Get down!" In one tigerlike pounce, Griffin crossed the living room but she was too late.
The Christmas tree, complete with its tri-colored cat ornament, came crashing down.
"Shit!" Only Griffin's quick reflexes saved the Christmas balls and glass figures from smashing on the table with its dinnerware. She grabbed the slender tree trunk. Fir needles bit into her hands, and Griffin growled.
Emmy jumped down from the tree and disappeared under the couch.
The door to the living room opened, and Jorie peeked in. Her eyes widened when she saw Griffin's hands wrapped around the Christmas tree, holding it at an angle. "What are you doing with the Christmas tree?"
"Um, me?" The glowing star on top of the tree started to pitch to the side, and Griffin quickly reached up and straightened it. "I didn't do anything. Emmy..."
"You're not sharpening your claws on the Christmas tree, are you, liger?" Jorie crossed the living room and bumped Griffin's hip, making the ornaments on the tree rattle.
"No! But unlike me, Emmy never learned to keep her claws to herself."
A playful twinkle entered Jorie's dark eyes. "Since when are you good at keeping your claws to yourself?" She lifted up on her tiptoes. Warm breath brushed over Griffin's lips, then Jorie kissed her.
The scent of coconut and spring grass replaced the Christmas aromas drifting through the house. Griffin closed her eyes and sank into the kiss. Her hands slid down a warm back.
"Hey!" This time, it was Jorie who caught the tree before it could fall.
"Oops." Griffin grinned down at her and bent to steal another kiss. "Okay, so keeping my claws to myself isn't my strongest point. But at least I didn't try to climb the tree, like Emmy did."
Jorie shook her head and sighed dramatically. "Cats."
Before Griffin could protest, the door opened again. Helen entered while drying her hands on the "kiss the cook" apron she had borrowed from Griffin. "Griffin, I think the turkey could use another " She stopped when her gaze fell on the tree, to which Jorie was still holding on. "Oh. What happened?"
"It seems the cats in this household can't keep their claws to themselves," Jorie said and finally straightened the tree and replaced a few ornaments that had fallen off.
Under the pretense of helping her, Griffin pinched one firm ass cheek.
"Ow!" Jorie glared playfully. "See? You're proving me right," she said, just low enough that her mother couldn't understand. More loudly she added, "Emmy tried to climb the tree, and it almost toppled over."
"Oh, gosh." Helen stared at the tree. "Cats and Christmas trees don't mix well, do they?"
Jorie grinned brightly and gave Griffin a sideway glance. "No, they don't."
"It's a really beautiful tree."
It was. Griffin looked at it with satisfaction.
"Oh, yeah, it's the most beautiful tree on the Upper Peninsula and I would know because Griffin made me look at all of them before she decided on this one," Jorie said with a laugh. She reached for Griffin's hand and kissed the tiny marks where the fir needles had pressed into her skin.
Griffin had never really celebrated Christmas before. For her first Christmas with Jorie, not just any tree would do. It had to be the perfect tree with the perfect decoration. Every string of tinsel was exactly in the right place or at least it had been before Emmy had decided to climb the tree. Now it looked a little worse for wear. Well, at least my family probably won't notice since they never had a Christmas tree before.
The doorbell rang.
Griffin's gaze met Jorie's. They exchanged a silent nod. "You and your mom go greet my family. I've got a cat to get out from under the couch."
* * *
Helen stayed back but watched with interest as the first two guests entered the house.
A blond, slender woman set down the two covered dishes she carried and wrapped her arms around Jorie in a warm greeting. Her taller companion, loaded down with more dishes and a heavy looking bag, kissed Jorie on the cheek.
Tears of joy blurred Helen's vision, and she quickly wiped them away. After decades of worrying about her daughter, it was the best Christmas present Helen could imagine to see Jorie surrounded by people who obviously cared about her and to have Jorie return the warm greetings with obvious affection.
"Mom, this is Griffin's sister Leigh and her partner, Rhonda." Jorie gestured first to the tall woman, then to the blonde with the friendly smile. "Leigh, Ronnie, this is my mother, Helen Price."
Partner, Helen repeated. Right. Jorie mentioned that Griffin has a sister who's gay too. Helen shook hands and helped to carry in bowls and dishes.
The door had barely closed behind them when the bell rang again.
"Leigh, can you help Griffin out in the kitchen?" Jorie asked. "And Ronnie, if you want, you have time to look at the latest chapter before dinner. My laptop is in the bedroom. Just be careful not to let the cats escape. My mother is allergic."
As if evoked by that word, Helen's eyes started to water and a tickle began in her nose. She sneezed twice and helplessly shook her head at Jorie's worried glance. The sudden onset of her allergies surprised her. Before, when she had helped Griffin in the kitchen, her eyes had burned and her nose had tickled too, but she had blamed it on cutting onions. But this was clearly a reaction to cats. Her neighbor's cat usually evoked a light itching, not much more. Her cat allergy was a very mild one. But something about Jorie's cat made her react strongly. Maybe it's because she has three of them.
Jorie opened the door to reveal an auburn-haired woman who tugged at the ribbon around the present in her hands. When she looked up, Helen met observant eyes the same color as Griffin's.
Again, Jorie made introductions and confirmed that this was indeed Griffin's mother.
Helen observed with interest how she greeted Jorie. Friendly, but not with the same warmth that Rhonda and Leigh did. Is that just how Nella is, or does she have some reservations about Jorie and Griffin's relationship?
Instantly, Helen vowed to show her unconditional acceptance tonight. Maybe she could even help Nella come to terms with her daughter's sexual orientation.
Another car rolled up the driveway before Jorie had fully closed the door.
Two men got out and fell into step with each other. A woman followed behind them. They, too, carried covered dishes.
Maybe they thought Jorie would be doing the cooking, so they wanted to bring their own food, just in case. Helen chuckled to herself.
The lighter-haired man reached the door first and didn't hesitate to pull Jorie into a warm hug. "Hey there, kitten." He fluffed Jorie's hair in a fatherly way.
Tears filled Helen's eyes again. Just the allergies, she told herself but knew that it had nothing to do with cat hairs and everything to do with the man's greeting. Jorie's father had always greeted their daughter in much the same way. It was bittersweet to see Jorie have that kind of relationship in her life again.
The second man loomed in the doorway for a moment. He silently touched Jorie's shoulder.
"We're not celebrating Christmas in the doorway, are we?" a female voice asked behind the two men. When they stepped aside, a slender blond woman of about Helen's age walked up and hugged Jorie too.
"Guys, this is my mother, Helen Price. Mom, this is Rhonda's mother, Martha. And these two are Brian and Gus, Griffin's fathers." Jorie stopped. Her eyes widened, and she looked as if she had already said too much.
Ah. Helen patted her hand. So Griffin has two fathers, she thought. Oh, well, what's another gay couple in the family? No big deal, right? Helen shrugged. Other people might have a few prejudices, but not Helen. They are people like you and me.
* * *
Helen helped putting away the guests' coats and carried food and presents inside, all the while listening to the family members hugging and greeting each other. They all seemed like one big, happy family.
Except for Nella.
She didn't really seem all that interested in interacting with the others. Her gaze swept through Jorie's house as if she was trying to find the quickest way out.
How weird. Helen had looked forward to spending Christmas with Jorie and Griffin since she had learned about the dinner, so she couldn't understand Nella's lack of enthusiasm at all.
Where's her Christmas spirit? Where's her love for her daughters and for mine?
"I'm so glad we finally get to meet each other," she said to Nella, who lingered in the hall instead of following the others into the living room.
Nella nodded but said nothing.
"I want you to know that I think the world of your daughter." Maybe that would get her some reaction, some clue how Nella thought about their daughters' relationship. "Griffin is such a lovely girl."
An auburn eyebrow shot up. Nella eyed her skeptically.
Okay. Helen chuckled. Maybe calling a six-foot-two woman a "lovely girl" was a bit over-the-top. "Before she met Griffin, my daughter lived in a world of her own and had almost no contact with friends or even with me. I'm sure if not for Griffin, she'd spend Christmas just with a bunch of cats."
Now a grin spread over Nella's face. "Oh, no, spending Christmas with a bunch of cats... of course we wouldn't want that."
Is she being sarcastic? But Helen couldn't figure out any possible double meaning to her words, so she decided that she just didn't know Nella well enough to interpret her tone. "Would you like something to drink? Red wine? White?" she asked and led her into the kitchen. Maybe a good glass of wine would make Nella warm up to the family dinner a little.
"No, thank you," Nella said. "But a glass of milk would be great."
Helen furrowed her brow. Milk? "Ah, sure." She lead Nella into the kitchen and poured her a glass of milk. Again, she tried to find some common ground with Nella and find out if she was supportive of Griffin and Jorie's relationship. "So have you visited before or do you want a tour of the house?"
"I've been here before," Nella said. "I spent some time here when Jorie and I were... working on a book together."
"Oh." She hadn't known that Nella was a writer too. "So you knew Jorie before? Were you the one who introduced Griffin and Jorie?"
"No. They met through Griffin's job." Again, a slight smile darted across Nella's face, as if she was secretly amused about something that Helen didn't get.
Her superior demeanor was starting to irritate Helen. Does she think her daughter is too good for mine? Or does she think it's just a phase and doesn't take their relationship seriously? "But you did know that your daughter is gay before she met Jorie, didn't you?"
"Sure," Nella said. "I knew when she was just a cu just a girl."
"Mom?" Jorie called from the living room. "Where are you? Don't you wanna join us in the living room?"
Helen gave Nella a nod. Her Christmas mission to make sure Nella was supportive of their daughters would have to wait.
* * *
"You can show your muzzle now," Nella called. "I know you are there."
Not looking guilty at all to have listened in on her conversation, Gus strolled into the kitchen. "You know she thinks you are homophobic?"
"What are you talking about, Kasari?" They had only met a handful of times over the past thirty years, but somehow, Nella always felt attacked by Gus, maybe because she didn't understand him and his sense of humor at all.
"You're not exactly spreading Christmas cheer, and Helen thinks it means you don't want to spend the holidays with your daughter and her lesbian lover." His green eyes sparkled with amusement.
"I don't want to spend the holidays with the whole pride," Nella said. "It has nothing to do with Griffin and Jorie." This was exactly why she had insisted on raising her daughters alone instead of accepting Brian's offer to move in with him. Too many pride entanglements and too little solitude.
Gus grinned. "Yeah, but then again, Helen doesn't know that you are the only Puwar in the room."
The human's endless questions were beginning to make sense now. She was trying to find out if I accept Jorie in Griffin's life. A glimmer of respect started deep within her. Unlike Gus, Nella had never liked humans at least not until she had met Jorie but she understood the need to protect her cubs.
Well, let's hope revealing our existence to her doesn't go horribly wrong. A mother protecting her cub can be a dangerous opponent even if she doesn't have any claws.
* * *
"Where's Mom?" Jorie craned her neck. Her guests were looking at the Christmas tree, grumbling about the human need to fell a perfectly good tree and drag it inside, but her mother was nowhere to be seen.
"Relax," Griffin said. "She's probably just in the kitchen, getting something to drink." She trailed her hands over Jorie's shoulders, gently massaging them.
Some of the tension dissipated from Jorie's muscles. "I just want today to go well." Introducing the in-laws to each other was nerve-racking enough, but she also worried about how her mother would take the revelation that shape-shifters existed.
"It will." Griffin squeezed her softly. "Just think how poor Rufus felt when he introduced his and Ky's parents to each other. A coyote shifter, a wolf shifter, a tiger shifter, and two lion shifters compared to that meeting, today should go just fine."
Helen entered the living room. Her blue eyes were shining as she took in the people crowding around the Christmas tree.
For Jorie, having so many people in her house, which she normally shared with just Griffin, took some getting used to, but Helen had always loved being around people. She'll fit right in with the Kasari part of Griffin's family. At least I hope so.
Helen took a seat on the couch and slid to the side to make room for Brian and Gus, who promptly sat next to her. The couch dipped considerably. Wide-eyed, Helen grabbed for the armrest.
"See? I told you we should have given Jorie a new couch for Christmas," Brian said to his brother. "Her furniture is not fit for... us."
"Brian." Gus's voice sounded as if he were speaking to a three-year-old. "You don't give furniture for Christmas. People want to pick their own couch." He sent Helen an apologetic glance. "Our family is not big on Christmas, usually, so you have to excuse Brian."
"Is it time for the presents?" Griffin asked.
Jorie chuckled. If she were in her cat form, her ears would perk up. With typical feline curiosity, Griffin had tried to find out what was hiding in the wrapped parcels at the bottom of Jorie's closet since the beginning of December. She had pawed them and sniffed them until Jorie had threatened to ban her from the bedroom. "After dinner, Griff," she said.
"But the turkey still needs a little time in the oven." Griffin's whiskey-colored eyes gleamed with curiosity. "Let's open presents now."
Helen reached out and patted Griffin's knee. "Remember when you were a little girl, Jorie? We always opened presents before dinner, back then, so you wouldn't have to wait so long. Maybe we should take pity on the little one too?" She looked up at Griffin with a teasing grin.
Griffin's family members looked a bit startled that Griffin would allow a human to tease her like that, but Griffin just grinned. Sometimes, she seemed more at ease with Helen than with her own mother. "Yes, please," she said.
"I think we should at least wait for Ky and Rufe," Jorie said. "It seems they are running late."
The doorbell sounded before she had even closed her mouth.
With a satisfied grin, Griffin strode to the door. She returned with Kylin and Rufus.
Jorie saw her mother's eyes widen when she took in Kylin. Is it her size, or does Mom think she looks like Griffin, despite them being fraternal twins? With whiskey-colored eyes and wind-tumbled red locks, Kylin resembled her twin, but for Jorie, they had always looked very different.
Kylin looks good, though. Her cheeks were flushed from the cold and her eyes were shining as if she was looking forward to the Christmas presents as much as her sister did.
Her guests began to unwrap their presents, and Jorie laughed at the items that were piling up on the coffee table. Except for the books from Rhonda and Leigh, most of them weren't exactly traditional Christmas gifts.
Nella smoothed her fingers over the bow on her present before handing it over. "Here," she said, sounding as if she were holding the most original present in the history of Wrasa.
Laughter shook Jorie when she removed the wrapping paper and saw what it was.
Helen eyed the meat mallet they had gotten from Nella.
"I thought you said no furniture and no kitchen utensils?" Brian said to Gus.
"Yeah, well, apparently no one enlightened Nella about the do's and don'ts of Christmas presents," Gus answered.
"I'll have you know that meat mallets are a popular Christmas gift," Nella said. "I bet you can't beat that."
Uh-oh. The cats are getting competitive about Christmas gifts.
Brian handed over his present with a flourish. It revealed two pairs of socks. Tiny paw prints dotted the soles.
"Socks?" Gus arched an eyebrow at his brother. "You gave them socks?"
"They're really warm," Brian defended himself.
"They're great," Jorie said. She felt a little the way she did when one of her cats brought home a dead mouse and laid it in front of her with feline pride. She leaned up from her position, sitting cross-legged on the floor, and kissed Brian's bearded cheek.
A satisfied smirk crossed Brian's face. "What did you get them?" he asked.
Gus pointed at the gift certificates that Griffin was studying. "Massages for Griffin and cooking lessons for Jorie."
The roomful of people erupted into laughter. Heat flushed Jorie's cheeks. Behind her, Griffin vibrated with a silent purr at the thought of enjoying a massage.
Helen leaned down and tugged on Jorie's sleeve. "I see they know your little flaws already." She looked up when a small, wrapped box landed on her lap. "For me?" Clearly, she hadn't expected that anyone in Griffin's family would bring a gift for her.
"Just a little something," Gus said.
When Helen opened the present, a stylish silk scarf, with colors that matched Helen's eyes, landed in her hands. "Oh, how pretty. I had heard that men like you have a wonderful sense of fashion, but I always thought that was just a stereotype."
Men like Gus? Jorie wondered. Most cat shifters were indeed very fashion-conscious, but Helen couldn't know that. Jorie forgot about it when Brian handed Helen a small, round box. Oh, no. He didn't get Mom jewelry just to outdo his brother, did he? As the dominant leader of his pride, Brian was naturally competitive.
When Helen tentatively lifted the lid, no silver or gold sparkled in the lights of the Christmas tree. Instead, a piece of chocolate candy lay in the box.
Just one? Jorie grinned. Oh, how little he knows human women.
But Brian grinned as if he had given Helen a precious jewel. "Eat it."
Helen hesitated. Her gaze searched out Jorie. "But dinner will be ready soon, and I don't want to spoil my appetite."
"Eat it!" Brian growled.
At Jorie's encouraging nod, Helen put the piece of chocolate into her mouth. She chewed twice. Then her jaw froze. Her eyes watered, and this time, it had nothing to do with her allergies. Her gaze darted around as if in search of a napkin or a garbage can where she could safely spit out the chocolate, but finally, her good manners won out.
She swallowed and then sat gasping. Gratefully, she reached for the glass of water that Martha handed her and gulped it down.
What the hell did he give my mother? Jorie glared at Brian.
Griffin settled down on the floor next to Jorie. Her breath brushed Jorie's ear as she whispered, "I think he put the Wrasa antihistamine in there. Doesn't taste very good, but it has no side effects and having dinner with eight big cats shouldn't be a problem now."
Still, Jorie didn't appreciate Brian giving her mother the medicine without her consent. It's not like he could ask her, she told herself. And I'll make him apologize later.
When the last drop of the water was gone, Helen looked up. "Um... delicious. Thank you, Brian."
Sharp teeth glinted for a moment when Brian smiled. "See, Gus? She liked it." He grinned down at Helen. "I'll give you more of them next year."
"Oh. Um." Helen blanched. "That's not... um... necessary."
Poor Mom. Jorie reached up and squeezed her mother's hand. Welcome to the world of cat-and-mouse games.
"Here." Griffin set the biggest present in the room down on her lap.
Jorie looked from the box to the strangely serious Griffin. Shadows swirled through the whiskey-colored eyes. Was this guilt about breaking their agreement of not buying gifts for each other? "I thought we said no big presents this year?" Jorie asked. "We're saving up for a vacation on the Bahamas, remember?"
Secretly, Jorie planned to make it their honeymoon.
"Yeah, I know, but this is one thing that I still owe you," Griffin said.
Holding her breath, Jorie tore off the wrapping paper. She hoped Griffin's present wasn't anywhere near as personal as hers had been. Heat flushed her skin when she remembered the adult-rated story she had written for Griffin. She had promised to read it to Griffin as soon as they were alone in the house again.
The big box opened, and Jorie pulled out a new laptop. "Griffin..." Speechless, she smoothed her hands over the black surface.
"Your old one has never been quite the same after you... um... accidentally dropped it," Griffin said, her gaze lowered to the floor.
"Hey." Jorie reached for her hand and pressed a kiss to the palm. It was the same hand that had been wrapped around a knife when Griffin had broken into her home last year. But instead of killing her, Griffin had saved her life and risked her own. Jorie had long since forgiven her, and she didn't want Griffin to feel guilty anymore. "You didn't have to do that. I was the one who dropped the laptop."
Actually, she had smashed it against Griffin's head, but her mother didn't need to know that.
"I know I didn't have to do this. But I wanted to," Griffin said, looking into her eyes as if they were alone in the room.
"I helped pick it out," Leigh said proudly.
"Yeah, while they left me to shop for all the other presents," Rhonda said. She was the only one in Griffin's family who actually liked shopping in malls and big stores. While the crowds and the noise were simply too much for all the other cat shifters, Rhonda stalked the stores like a lioness on the hunt, searching for just the right prey.
"Then thanks to all of you." Jorie put the laptop back into its box. She knew she would get to play with it tomorrow morning while Griffin took Helen out for pancakes. The two of them had made it their own personal tradition every time Jorie's mother came to visit.
Helen handed out little presents she had brought to Griffin's family.
Jorie received a fist-sized gift. She hefted it in her hand, surprised by its weight. "No socks," she commented and peeked at Griffin, who held a wrapped present that was obviously a book.
"You didn't confuse us, did you?" Griffin chuckled. "Jorie's the one who rarely takes her nose out of a book."
"She won't put her nose in this one," Helen said.
With her typical catlike patience, Griffin slipped her finger under the tape and removed the wrapping paper without tearing or wrinkling.
Jorie was faster. Seconds later, she held a tiger figurine in her hand. The level of detail was amazing, right down to the whiskers and the white dots on the backside of the tiger's ears. It looked amazingly like Nella's cat form. "Beautiful," Jorie said and trailed her finger over stripes that resembled that of Griffin's liger form.
"For your desk," Helen said. "Maybe it will inspire you to write a sequel."
While Jorie thanked her mother, Griffin had finally folded the wrapping paper and held up her present. "A cookbook. Thank you, Helen."
Jorie's throat constricted when she took a closer look. This wasn't just any cookbook. It had belonged to Helen's mother. When she had been a child, Helen had often tried to lure her into helping in the kitchen by promising that she would one day inherit her grandmother's cookbook. After years of continued disinterest from Jorie, she had given up and had accepted that Jorie would never like to cook.
Her gaze met Helen's.
If she had ever doubted her mother's acceptance of her relationship with Griffin, these doubts were gone now. Words failed her.
"It was my mother's," Helen said quietly.
Griffin's gaze flew up from the cookbook. "Helen..." She cleared her throat. "Are you sure you want me to have it?"
"Yes." Helen's one-word answer said it all.
"Thank you." Griffin leaned over to hug Helen, cradling her with the gentleness she reserved for family.
"Thanks, Mom. This means a lot to both of us," Jorie said. She took a breath and handed her mother an envelope. "And this is from Griffin and me."
With one flick of Helen's finger, the envelope opened. "Airplane tickets?"
"I want you to be able to visit us whenever you feel like it," Jorie explained. Time together was the most valuable gift she could give her mother. In the past, she had hidden from the world, including Helen, here in small-town Michigan, but all of that had changed in the last year. Her heart and her life felt complete now, and she wanted her mother in it.
Helen wrapped one arm around Jorie, the other around Griffin, and pulled both of them into a shared embrace. "Thank you," she said, her voice trembling with emotion.
The timer went off in the kitchen.
They pulled back from their embrace.
"The turkey is ready," Griffin announced.
Before Jorie could even twitch, nine hungry Wrasa were on their feet and heading for the kitchen.
Helen stood too and reached for Jorie's hand to help her up from the floor. "Griffin's family is really lovely," she said, one hand pressed to her chest in a gesture of sincerity. She lowered her voice. "But between you and me, their taste in chocolates is a little off."
* * *
Helen stared at the table, halfway expecting it to break down under its heavy burden. A giant turkey sat in the middle of the table, surrounded by two hams, roast beef, meatballs, a large dish of lasagna, and two different pasta dishes. Behind them, on the coffee table, mashed potatoes were piled up in two large bowls. Different breads and rolls stood within easy reach of the main table. Steam rose off two casserole dishes of gravy.
Wow, Helen thought as she watched the other guests pile food up on their plates. It seems they all have Griffin's appetite. She forgot to eat while she watched them interact with each other.
The young man across from her lovingly picked the juiciest pieces of roast beef and placed them on the plate of Griffin's twin sister. Kylin graced him with a soft smile. Next to them, the girlfriend of Griffin's other sister stole the corn off her partner's plate and nudged a bite of turkey over in exchange.
Helen's gaze wandered to Gus and Brian, then to Jorie and Griffin, who stole a quick kiss before they reached for their forks.
They are just like any other couple. Not that she had ever really thought otherwise, but before seeing Griffin and Jorie together, she'd never had an opportunity to meet gay people.
At the beginning, Helen had been afraid that being gay would make her daughter an outsider, but now she found that the opposite was true. With her black hair and dark eyes, Jorie looked very different from the rest of the blond or red-haired, mainly green-eyed people at the table, but there was a sense of familiarity and of family that included Jorie.
After growing up as a solitary only child, Jorie seemed completely at ease with Griffin's family. She teased even the gruff Brian, and Griffin's sister and their partners treated her like a favorite sister-in-law.
"Mom?" Jorie asked. "Everything okay? You aren't eating."
Brian winked. "Maybe my delicious chocolate spoiled her appetite, just like she said."
Just thinking about that piece of candy made Helen's stomach roil. But at least her allergy seemed suddenly gone, now that the cats were safely in the bedroom, so she could enjoy her meal. "I'm fine," she said and poured a little gravy over the delicious mashed potatoes that Griffin had made. "I'm just not used to so many people at the table."
"Yeah," Nella said. "It can be a bit overwhelming."
It was, but in a very good way. "Oh, no. It's really nice," Helen added quickly.
"Now here's a woman who knows the value of family," Brian said and patted her arm. His fingers lingered for a moment, and he winked at her. "And mine is a really lovable family."
Is he just being nice, or is he flirting? Helen wondered. She peeked at Gus, who was talking to Rhonda's mother, oblivious to his partner's straying attention. Maybe Brian is bisexual. Or is he flirting with me to hide that he's gay?
She still hadn't figured out the relationship between Griffin's fathers when the last crumb of dinner had disappeared before her baffled eyes.
Without being asked to help, Griffin's family began to pile up empty bowls and plate and carried them to the kitchen.
Helen stood to help too.
Next to her, Griffin's brother-in-law snatched a big pot away from his wife, leaving her to carry a few of the glasses to the door.
Oh, what a gentleman. It seemed that all of Brian's daughters had chosen their partners well.
When they suddenly stopped in the doorway, she almost collided with the couple.
"I'm very sorry, Mrs. Price," the young man with the earnest brown eyes said. "But Jorie said it's tradition, so would you mind if I kissed my wife?" He pointed up to something above the doorframe.
A twig of mistletoe dangled down from the ceiling.
Helen laughed. "Oh, no, go right ahead, young man." She respectfully averted her gaze when they kissed.
On her way back to the living room to pick up more empty plates, she passed Gus and Brian. She realized they were the only couple who hadn't even touched hands all evening. Maybe they think I wouldn't like it if they were openly affectionate with each other.
"You know," she said just as they stepped out of the living room and paused under the mistletoe, "I really wouldn't mind if you wanted to kiss each other."
Brian's eyes widened. "Kiss each other?" He looked at her as if that were an utterly foreign concept to him.
"Sure." Helen gave him an encouraging smile. "You're under the mistletoe, after all."
Through squinting eyes, Brian stared up at the ceiling. "And because we're standing under a piece of greenery, you want me to kiss... him?" He stabbed a finger in Gus's direction.
"It's fine, really," Helen said. "I'm not homophobic."
"Homophobic?" Brian's brows now almost reached his hairline.
Gus laughed. He trailed his hand up his partner's arm and breathed into his ear. "Oh, don't be upset that she found us out, darlin'."
"What?" Brian shoved him away and continued to stare at Helen. "You think I'm gay? You think we are...? Ick!"
"Something wrong?" Jorie asked when she left the kitchen and found them standing in the hall and Gus laughing hysterically.
"Yes! Your mother thinks I'm gay." Brian grumbled.
He's not? Suddenly, nothing made sense to Helen anymore.
"She thinks we are gay," Gus said. "Gay together." He wiggled his brows.
After a few seconds of baffled silence, Jorie started to laugh so loudly that the others came out of the kitchen to see what was going on. "Oh, Mom." She gasped for breath. "Gus and Brian are brothers."
"Brothers?" Helen's gaze darted from the grinning Gus to Brian, who didn't look amused at all. "But you said they are Griffin's fathers, so I thought..." She stopped, completely confused now.
"They are." Jorie sighed. "Mom, I think it's time to explain a few things."
The tension in the house rose noticeably.
"Let's go into the living room. I think you need to sit down for this conversation," Jorie said.
That didn't sound good. Helen's knees trembled as she followed Jorie back into the living room. Jorie telling you she's gay didn't shock you, so you should be able to take whatever else she has to tell you, she firmly told herself.
"What made you think I'm gay?" Brian called after them.
"Later, Dad," Griffin said. "Right now it's not important."
Someone gently pressed Helen down onto the couch. Jorie settled down next to her and reached for her hands. "Mom..." Jorie cleared her throat. "There's something I wanted to tell you for a while, but I always chickened out." Fear flickered in her daughter's dark eyes.
An icy ball formed in Helen's stomach. "You aren't sick, are you?"
"No." Jorie's fingers caressed her own. "No, Mom. Nothing like that. It's nothing bad, really. It will just be a bit of a shock because I'm sure you aren't expecting it."
The ball of ice transformed into excited butterflies. "You're pregnant!"
"If that's true, then my daughter is even more talented than I thought," Gus said.
Helen looked up at him. I thought he wasn't Griffin's father after all?
"What?" Jorie made a sound somewhere between a cough and a laugh. "No, of course not. Aren't you forgetting something?" She gestured between her and Griffin, who was blushing. "Sorry to be so blunt, but there's no sperm involved in this relationship."
Determined not to show how rattled she felt, Helen looked her in the eyes. "There are other ways nowadays, you know?"
Now Jorie was blushing too. "I'm not pregnant, okay?"
"Okay. If it's not that, what do you want to tell me?"
In the sudden silence, Griffin's family exchanged glances, as if deciding who should tell her. Finally, they all looked at Jorie.
Griffin stepped behind Jorie and laid both hands on her shoulders in a gesture of silent support.
"Mom..." Jorie took a deep breath. "You read my new novel, right? Song of Life ?"
Helen nodded. She hadn't just read it once. She had read it half a dozen times during the last few weeks. "I loved it. It's the best of all of your works."
A blush dusted Jorie's cheeks. "Thanks you."
"I mean it. It's fantastic." The most fantastic thing was that Helen could feel the love between the two main characters, and it made her think that Jorie had written a lot of her own experiences and emotions into the story. In fact, Quinn reminds me a little of Griffin.
"Then I'm sure you remember the shape-shifters?" Jorie asked.
"Of course I do." Normally, Helen didn't read a lot of fantasy novels. But Jorie's shape-shifters... "I loved them. They just seemed so real."
All over the living room, the other guests exchanged meaningful glances. It seemed there was a silent communication going on, and only Helen was excluded.
"Mom, I don't know how to tell you this, but..." Jorie's eyes fluttered shut, then opened again. "They are real. These shape-shifters... they really exist. And Griffin, Brian, Gus, and all the others here, they are shape-shifters."
Silence spread in the living room. Even Brian's grumbling stopped.
Helen laughed. "Isn't she an amazing storyteller?" She gazed at the other guests. "When she was a child, she amazed her father and me with these fantastic stories about her imaginary friends."
"They weren't so imaginary after all, Mom, and what I'm saying isn't just a story. You just had dinner with a bunch of cat shifters."
"And a half wolf, half coyote shifter," the nice young man said quietly.
Helen stared at them. Surely they were joking? She couldn't figure out why they thought it was funny, but they had to be joking.
"I think she needs to see it," Gus said.
Again, gazes were exchanged all over the room. This time, everyone ended up looking at Griffin.
"Me?" Griffin touched her own chest. "Are you crazy? You seriously want a ten-foot liger to be the first Wrasa she sees in her animal form?"
Brian stood. "Let me do it. I'm the natak of the Ottawa National Forest pride after all."
What is he talking about? Helen's confusion grew with every word.
"No." Griffin stopped her father from unbuttoning his shirt. "An alpha male out to prove that he's not gay is not the kind of first experience with a shape-shifter that I want Helen to have."
"Maybe Rufus could...?" Jorie tentatively suggested. "He looks a bit like a large dog and is not quite so scary. Sorry, Rufe. No offense."
The brown-haired man just shrugged. "No offense taken. But I don't think I should shift around humans." He looked at his wife. "Not right now. I feel a bit out of control today."
Everything felt so surreal. Why are they discussing this as if they can really turn into animals? "Jorie, please." Helen squeezed her daughter's hands. "This isn't funny."
Jorie didn't listen. She looked at the friendly blond woman who had been the first guest of the evening. "Ronnie, would you? Compared to the others, you are small and nonthreatening."
"Of course." Without hesitation, the young woman stood and started to unbutton her blouse.
"Um, sweetie," her partner said. "Not that I'm not fond of watching you, but humans don't undress in front of each other. Maybe go to the bedroom, okay?"
When the young woman opened the bedroom door, two of Jorie's cats rushed out.
They hissed at the brown-haired man and ignored the other guests before they disappeared under the couch on which Helen sat.
"Oh, no." Helen prepared for sneezes and watery eyes, but nothing happened. Weird. This whole evening is getting weirder and weirder.
Muffled groans and grunts came from the bedroom.
When Griffin's sister opened the bedroom door, the blond woman was gone.
In her place stood a golden lioness. Her whiskers vibrated as she rubbed her cheek against Griffin's sister.
Darkness threatened at the edges of Helen's vision. She sank back against the couch.
"I can't believe she thought I was gay," was the last thing she heard before she allowed herself to slip into a soothing unconsciousness.
* * *
"Griffin, can you please make your cats stop hissing at me?" Rufus asked. "It makes me want to howl and chase them up a tree."
Griffin looked away from Helen's pale face for a moment. "They're Jorie's cats, not mine."
"They smell like you, though. I bet they all sleep on your side of the bed. So please, tell them to stop."
He wasn't joking. Waves of agitation hit Griffin's nose. Even Rufus wasn't his usual quiet self today.
Kylin settled down next to him and trailed soothing fingers over his arm.
"Did you ever try to tell your own cat to stop doing something she wanted to do?" Griffin asked, nodding at Kylin. She waited until the truth of her words sank in and a slow smile spread over Rufus's face. "I'm not wasting my breath." At least the three felines in the household had learned not to hiss at fellow cats, as big and as human-looking as they might be. Now only poor Rufus was the object of hissing and bristling.
"Hush," Jorie interrupted. "She's coming to." She lifted the cool cloth from her mother's forehead. "Mom?"
Groaning, Helen opened her eyes and sat up. "God, I had the weirdest dream."
Awkward silence answered her.
"It wasn't a dream?" Scared blue eyes stared at Rhonda. "You really were a... a lion?"
Rhonda settled down on the edge of the couch next to Jorie. Everything about her was gentle and friendly. Nothing screamed "predator," and Griffin knew she had really been the best choice to introduce Helen to the Wrasa. "We are what you would call shape-shifters. Leigh and her dads and my mother and I, we can all shift into something that you humans call a lion."
"Shape-shifters?" Helen repeated as if giving her brain a chance to catch up.
All the Wrasa in the room nodded.
Helen rubbed her temples. No doubt they were pounding with confusion. "A-and all you... lions are gay?"
"Why does she keep thinking that?" Brian complained.
"No, Mom," Jorie said. "They aren't both Griffin's fathers because they're a gay couple. In Kasari society, all the members of a ruling coalition are considered the fathers of a child, not just the one who really fathered him or her."
"If it helps you deal with the situation, just think of me as their uncle," Gus said kindly.
Still glassy-eyed, Helen looked at Griffin.
Griffin froze. Oh, please, Great Hunter. Let her accept this. For Jorie's sake.
"And you?" Helen asked, almost as if she was afraid of the answer. "Rhonda didn't include you in her list of lions."
"You said you liked the cover of Jorie's novel, right?" Griffin asked.
"Good. Because that's a picture of my cat form." Of course, no one outside of this room and the council knew that. All the human readers of the novel probably thought it was just a photo of a liger in a zoo.
Helen's already pale face blanched even more. "You want me to believe that you are this giant..." She gesticulated.
"Liger, yes," Griffin said. Please don't force me to show you. It would be a bit much for one day.
Helen pressed the balls of her thumbs against her eyes, then peeked out from behind her hands. "Can you give me a moment alone, please? You too, Jorie," she added when just the Wrasa moved to the door.
The door fell closed behind them, and Griffin immediately wrapped her arms around Jorie, who slumped against her. "She'll be fine with it," she whispered into the coconut-scented hair. "It just takes some getting used to."
The rest of the family crowded around her, supporting Jorie with reassuring words and soft touches. Moments like this made Griffin glad that she had grown closer to her family in the past year.
Jorie leaned her forehead against Griffin's shoulder. "I hope you're right."
* * *
Chaotic thoughts raged through Helen's head, making it pound. Questions repeated themselves over and over, but she didn't find an answer. I feel like I'm stuck in Jorie's novel. This can't be real. It just can't. What's going on?
Nothing made sense anymore.
Helen pressed her hands to her face and massaged her pounding temples.
"You know, I wasn't too fond of having a human daughter-in-law at first."
The unexpected voice made Helen jump. She pulled her hands from her face.
Griffin's father the biological one stood in front of the couch. "I don't like humans." His thick beard parted in what Helen hoped was a smile. "Present company excluded, of course."
Helen's insides quivered. She sensed something untamed, something potentially dangerous about this man. She wanted to send him away, but now that she was alone with him, she thought it would be better not to anger him. "Of course," she said but watched him cautiously. Calm down, she told herself. If he was dangerous, Jorie would never leave you alone with him.
With unhurried steps, Brian walked over to the table, picked a leftover shrimp, and dunked it into the cocktail sauce. He ate with the enjoyment of a cat, then turned his green eyes back to Helen. "You humans can be the most dangerous and treacherous animals of all."
Anger sparked and chased away the fear. "Excuse me? I have neither claws nor sharp teeth." Helen stretched out her fingers and pulled back her lips. "I don't hide who and what I really am. I don't spring nasty surprises on people on Christmas Day."
"I told them it was a stupid idea to tell you, but despite their sensitive hearing, Wrasa children don't listen to their parents any more than human children do." Brian stepped closer. "Jorie is showing her trust in you by telling you this, and we trust her enough to let her decide for herself. But there are some Wrasa who wouldn't react so tolerantly. Jorie is risking a lot by telling you the truth."
Mother instincts reared up. "You mean she's in danger?" Her gaze flew to the door. Jorie's alone with eight of these shape-shifters! She tensed her muscles, ready to jump up and defend Jorie in whatever way necessary.
He settled down on the couch next to her, ignoring Helen's flinch. A heavy hand landed on Helen's arm and kept her in her seat. "She's not in danger from any of the Wrasa in this house."
"But you said you don't like humans! How can I trust you to keep my daughter safe?"
"She's Griffin's mate, and that makes her my daughter too." The wild expression in his eyes gentled. "We all love that little human kitten, okay? She's one of us now."
One of us? New panic rose in Helen.
"Oh, Great Hunter, not in the bloodsucking, 'turning you into one of us' way." He rolled his eyes. "She married into the pride."
"They live together, so my kind considers them married."
Hm. Helen blinked. Getting married had been her dream for Jorie for so long. A tiny smile crept onto her face. "Maybe you shape-shifters aren't so bad after all."
Brian stretched out his long legs. "Well, our traditions and legends make a lot more sense than stories about a fat man climbing down the chimney with a sack of presents; that's for sure."
Helen ignored the comment and focused on what was important. So many questions were running through her mind, and she struggled to understand. "When Jorie got together with Griffin, did she know who... what Griffin is?"
The thought rattled around in her brain. She shook her head as if that would help her understand. Why would Jorie choose to be in the middle of all this confusion? All this danger? She helplessly spread her hands. "Then why didn't she break it off? Wasn't she scared?"
Even with Jorie there to help her understand, Helen's whole body was shaking. She could only imagine how scared Jorie must have been if she'd lived through the revelation alone.
"Oh, she was scared all right. And she had every reason to be." Brian stopped, and Helen had a feeling there was more that he wasn't telling her. "But love gives you the courage to face the scary things."
Love. From the beginning, Helen had never doubted that Jorie loved Griffin. And shape-shifter or not, the feelings she had seen in Griffin's eyes whenever she looked at Jorie had clearly been love too.
"I know you are worried about your cub," Brian told her.
An involuntary smile formed on Helen's lips. Cub. Somehow, the term was endearing.
"But I promise you that at Griffin's side is the safest place in the world for her." The green eyes held nothing but sincerity. "We're not animals or monsters. We Wrasa are capable of love, friendship, and loyalty the same way you are."
"I'll try to understand," Helen said. At the moment, that was all she could promise.
"Good." Brian picked a bit of lint from his shirt. "Now tell me something..."
Helen suspected what was coming. She secretly rolled her eyes. After all the shocks and revelations, her patience was running thin. "You know, you really have to get over me thinking you were gay. It was an honest mistake after Jorie introduced you and Gus as Griffin's fathers. Stop being so offended. Being gay is not a bad thing, you know?"
White teeth gleamed in a catlike grin. "That's not what I wanted to ask."
"Oh." Helen looked at him but couldn't tell if he was lying or not. Griffin's father was as mysterious as a cat. "Then what did you want to ask?"
Brian directed interested green eyes at her, watching with the intensity of a predator. "You read Jorie's novel. What did you think of Quinn's father?"
* * *
Awkward silence settled over the kitchen. Only Jorie's shaky voice interrupted it.
"Maybe Brian was right," she mumbled, her head burrowed against Griffin's shoulder. "Maybe telling Mom was a bad idea. This is all just too much for her. She can't deal with it."
Griffin slid her fingers through soft black strands of hair. "Don't underestimate your mother." She kissed Jorie's ear. "Give her a little time, and I'm sure she'll be fine, just like you were." She wished she could be sure of it, though.
"What if she's not fine with it?" Jorie groaned. "I never thought about that. What if she can't accept this? Can't accept us?"
There was no easy answer. Helplessly, Griffin stared over Jorie's shoulder at her family.
All of them crowded around them in silent support.
Gus settled one hand on Jorie's shoulder while the other rested on Griffin's back.
"Come on. Let's clean the kitchen while we wait," Nella, the ever-practical tiger shifter, said. Griffin knew it was her way of helping Jorie by distracting her.
Griffin watched as the members of her family began to wash the dishes, stow away leftover food, and sweep the floor. She wrapped her arms more tightly around Jorie and looked around. "Where's Brian?"
"No idea," Jorie said. "Maybe he is getting some fresh air. I think he's still not over the shock of Mom thinking he is Gus's lover."
Come to think of it, Griffin hadn't seen him since they had left Helen in the living room. "Oh, no." She let go of Jorie and strode to the door.
Before she could throw open the door to the living room, someone grabbed her arm.
Griffin whirled around.
"Leave them alone for a while longer," Gus said calmly. "They're just talking."
Her sensitive hearing confirmed it. Brian's calm voice rumbled through the living room, followed by Helen's higher-pitched tones. She didn't sound scared or threatened any longer. In fact, Griffin heard her chuckle a time or two.
Used to respecting other people's privacy, Griffin turned her head away and returned to the kitchen.
"Everything okay?" Jorie asked. Concern reflected in her dark eyes. "Brian's not in there with Mom, is he?"
"Yes, he is." She grabbed Jorie when she tried to hurry past Griffin. "Don't worry. Gus is keeping an eye on them. And they're actually sounding pretty friendly. My father is using his feline charms on your mother."
"What?" Jorie still looked worried. "Since Gus is already happily married to Martha, I assume you mean Brian?"
Griffin trailed soothing hands up Jorie's back. "I think your mother really impressed him. Not that he would ever admit that a human " She stopped midsentence and mentally repeated what Jorie had just said. Her throat constricted, and she gulped. "You know that moving in together makes the Kasari consider a couple married?"
A nod from Jorie. "Ronnie told me when Leigh moved in with her."
"But... but..." Shock made Griffin's skin itch, but she quickly shook it off. "But that was before you asked me to move in with you."
Dark eyes crinkled when Jorie smiled. "Somehow, asking you to move in seemed less scary then asking you to marry me." The smile vanished. "You're not angry with me for not telling you I knew what it meant?"
"Angry?" Griffin laughed and bent to kiss Jorie. "I was trying to figure out how to tell you that U-haul jokes have a very different meaning for Wrasa."
Jorie laughed. "The bigger problem is how to tell my mom that I got married without her."
"Oh, Great Hunter." Griffin helplessly scratched her head.
"One family crisis at a time, sis," Kylin said as she and Rufus walked over. "While we're all here together, there's something we want to tell you." She hesitated and looked over at Rufus, who just grinned. "Remember how Helen thought Jorie was expecting the latest litter of Westmore cubs?"
Griffin rolled her eyes. "She's not pregnant."
"No," Kylin said. A grin lit up her face. "But I am."
Still grinning madly, Kylin nodded.
"Oh. Oh, wow." Griffin wrapped her arms around her sister and whirled her around. Wild waves of happiness wafted up from Ky and mixed with the aroma of Griffin's own joy.
"Put my mate down!" A low growl rumbled through Rufus.
Griffin had never heard a sound like that from the usually quiet hybrid. Suddenly, she understood why he had refused to be the one to demonstrate shifting for Helen. As an expecting father, he was in a state of constant overprotective vigilance.
She set Kylin back down but kept grinning at her. "This is so great. Congratulations. I always thought having children together wouldn't be possible for two hybrids."
"That's what we thought too," Kylin said quietly. Her amber eyes glowed like golden treasures.
"Yeah, well, apparently, this is one area where I'm more 'talented' than you, cat," Rufus said, using Gus's words. He regarded Griffin with a smug smile.
Wolf humor. Griffin's eyes narrowed. She shot him a fake threatening gaze. "Just be glad that you are the father of my future niece or nephew."
"Niece or nephew?" Gus rushed over to them.
Nella was hot on his heels. She stared at Kylin. "Does that mean...?"
Chaos broke out in the kitchen as the family crowded around Kylin and Rufus, shouting questions.
"What's going on in here?" Brian boomed from the doorway. "Do you want Helen to think we're nothing but an uncivilized bunch of howling animals?" He stood with one hand on Helen's back.
"Do you want Helen to think we're a horde of uncaring monsters who don't even celebrate when they learn that their daughter is pregnant?" Gus shouted back.
Brian's hand slid from Helen's back. "Daughter? Pregnant?"
"Don't look at me," Leigh grumbled. "No sperm in this relationship either."
"Ky?" The booming voice was now a whisper.
Kylin nodded, the liger-size grin still on her face.
Brian stormed across the kitchen and whirled Kylin around until Rufus growled at him too.
A shell-shocked Helen still stood in the doorway. "I think I need a drink," she murmured.
"Sorry," Griffin said. "Wrasa can't drink alcohol, so we don't keep any in the house."
Jorie walked over to them. "I'm sorry we sprang this on you today, Mom, but I don't think there's an easy way to tell you that I'm married to a shape-shifter."
Married. Griffin flinched. They hadn't wanted to tell Helen that just yet. "Um, sweetie..."
But Helen just chuckled. "Relax. Brian already told me that his... his pride considers you married." She stood watching Kylin and Rufus for long minutes. "They look as happy as your father and I when we brought you home," she told Jorie.
"Ky and Rufus always thought they weren't able to have children together," Jorie said. "They tried for over a year, but the Wrasa doctors didn't give them much hope."
Understanding shone in Helen's eyes.
Griffin knew that Jorie's parents had gone through the same before adopting Jorie.
"The Wrasa... they are good people," Helen finally said.
"Most of them," Jorie answered. "Just like us humans."
Helen turned to Griffin. "I don't think we should have pancakes together tomorrow morning."
An iron fist squeezed Griffin's heart. "Oh?"
"Judging from the way your family ate at dinner, I think we should go for bacon and sausages."
Relief swept through Griffin. She regarded Helen with a grateful gaze.
Jorie rushed into her mother's arms.
"You know, this was the weirdest Christmas I ever had." Helen sighed.
"Mine too," Griffin said.
Smiling, Jorie reached out and touched her hand. "This is the first Christmas you ever celebrated," she reminded.
Still wrapped in Jorie's embrace, Helen turned toward Griffin. "You won't try to top this next year, will you?"
Griffin chuckled. "No."
The old warmth filled Helen's eyes when she extended one arm to include Griffin in the embrace. "Then Merry Christmas."
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