Good at The Whole Package
"Are you sure you're up for this?"
Luke rolled his eyes and stifled a groan that threatened to escape when he bent to scoop Dane's discarded silky from the floor. "Suddenly I'm not capable of looking after one baby? I managed three at one time, you know."
"Oh, I know. And you were so good at it too." Lorelai smiled as she flipped her hair from the collar of her coat. "I bet you miss the man-naps."
"I was just thinking it had been a while since you had one of these that didn't walk and talk." She pecked a quick kiss to his scruffy cheek then grabbed her purse from the hall table.
"Makes it easier."
"You'd like to think…" Lorelai shook her head as she peeked into depths of the bag to review its contents. "He may not be as responsive to the stare and stern talking to bit you've got going on around here."
"Every kid is scared of the stare."
Rory appeared in the doorway, her eyes lighting when she spotted Dane scampering toward her as fast as his little hands and knees would carry him. "Well, you'd better turn it on, because little Mister Easypeasylemonsqueezy just took off."
"Oh, geez!" Luke made the length of the hall in three and a half strides, snatching the little scooter up by the elastic band of his corduroy pants. Rory didn't bother to hide her amusement when he straightened, clutching the wayward baby to his chest. "I forgot how fast they can go when they're crawling," he admitted in a huff.
"Like greased lightning," Rory confirmed.
Lorelai grinned at her grandson. "He's systematic…hydromatic—"
"I've got him now. No problem." He nodded. "We'll be fine."
Rory met his rushed reassurances with a serene smile. "I know you do. And you will."
"We won't be too long," Lorelai called to him. "An hour, maybe two."
"Right," he grunted. Curling his biceps, he rolled the little boy closer and lowered his face, pressing a distracted kiss to his grandson's cheek. "See you next week."
Rory laughed and followed suit with a noisy smooch to Dane's forehead. "God, I hope not." She fixed Lorelai with a direct stare. "I don't see why I have to pay the price for someone has turning into last-minute Lucy with her Christmas shopping."
"Hey, it's not my fault you had to go and get all compulsive. Who finishes shopping in October?" Lorelai groused.
"Lots of people," her daughter shot back.
"Yeah, but who actually stops buying stuff after they finish in October? You're a freak!"
"Like mother, like daughter." Rory scooted past Luke and Dane and made a beeline for the jacket she discarded on the newel post. "Thanks for watching him, Luke. The thought of trying to steer that ginormous stroller Grandma bought us through the mall on Christmas Eve," she shuddered. "Jess should be back from Philly by about three. If we aren't home by then, send in a SWAT team."
Luke settled Dane onto his hip. "Will do."
Lorelai sneaked a peek into the living room on their way toward the door. Luke had recorded the latest episode of Chopped,and all three kids were enthralled. The judges announced the first contestant to be cut from competition, and cringed when the twins exchanged jubilant high fives. "What have you done to my children?"
Luke poked his head around the doorway and smiled as the boys deigned to include their little sister in the celebration. "Your mother always says that blood will tell."
"Stop. Don't even go there." She held up one hand as a violent shudder shook her from head to toe. "Sure you don't want us to take Car—"
"I've got this."
"But this is a Gilmore girl tradition, and she's a Gil—"
"We'll be fine, Lorelai."
The unmistakable underpinning of steel in his tone set alarm bells ringing in her head. Lorelai whirled, her eyes narrowing as his widened with feigned innocence. "What's going on?"
"Why are you practically shoving me out the door?"
"You're the one who's not done shopping yet." He darted a glance at Rory. "Did I set this up?"
"No," he reiterated with a nod. "I'm just trying to help you out."
"Too helpful," she muttered. "Why? Why are you being so helpful?"
"I'm always helpful."
She snorted. "No, you're not. You're never helpful. You refused to build the new manger for the nativity—"
"You complained for days about baking cookies for the kids' Christmas pageant—"
"They wanted six different varieties. That's insane! I have a life, a business, a family to feed—"
"…And when your best friend asked you to feed his cat—the cat you rescued then pawned off on him—while he was on his honeymoon, you kvetched for weeks."
"I did not," he scoffed.
"Well, she only likes him," Luke grumbled.
"And you can't stand that she doesn't prefer you anymore." Lorelai smirked. "Typical man." She leaned in to give Dane's chubby cheek her signature smoocheroony. "Don't be a typical man, D-Mario."
"Stop giving him rapper names," Rory groused. "He's from the Hollow, not the Hood."
"I have to do something to cool-up the way you dress the poor kid," she shot back. "Look at him; he looks like he just shot a round with your Grandfather."
"He looks fine," her daughter grumbled.
"Who knew that Carter's even made golf clothes?" She tugged at the hem of Dane's wide-wale cords. "Or, are these part of the new Mitt Romney collection from Osh Kosh b'Gosh?"
Luke tucked the little boy's face into his neck, shielding him from his mother and grandmother as he propelled them through the door. "Have fun shopping. Don't forget we have a houseful of lunatics coming at seven."
The glass rattled when the door slammed on their heels. Lorelai and Rory exchanged shocked glances when they heard the deadbolt tumble into place. The sheer curtain twitched. Lorelai looked up to find Luke grinning from ear to ear. When she fixed him with her best squinty-eyed stare, he simply waved Dane's dimpled little hand then disappeared.
"They'll be okay," Rory murmured.
Wrapping her arm around her daughter's waist, Lorelai pulled her close. "Of course they will." They started toward the stairs. "If not, you can always make another. Kids are like pancakes, right?" She punctuated the sentiment with a playful hip check. "The first one never quite turns out right."
Emily Gilmore pursed her lips as she surveyed the lavender silk pajama set and matching robe she'd purchased to wear Christmas morning.
"Lovely color," Richard remarked. His gaze barely flickered from the folded newspaper he held, but he managed to steer a clear path to the chaise lounge situated just outside of her walk-in closet.
Of course, he didn't seem to notice the discarded ensembles she'd piled there. No, the man simply dropped down on top of a scrumptious cranberry colored Donna Karan she had already deemed too dressy for Lorelai and Luke's little cookie and cocoa soiree. "I can't believe we give into this madness each year," she grumbled.
"Of course we give in to it, Emily." He barely blinked, let alone troubled himself to spare her a glance. "We want the grandchildren, they have the grandchildren."
"But honestly, Richard, Lorelai and Luke are no longer the "Hip, young" rebels they once were..." Her pronouncement came equipped with air quotes. "...would it kill them to host a proper holiday party?"
Her complaints managed to ignite a flicker of attention. "They host the type of party that suits their lifestyle, Emily."
"Well, I have nothing to wear for cookies and cocoa," she announced with a sneer, folding her arms over her chest. Richard dared to raise his eyebrows. The man had the unmitigated gall to stare at her over the top of his glasses and raise his eyebrows as if she were an errant child about to erupt into a tantrum. "Do not give me that look."
Spinning away from his steady blue glare, she snatched the pajamas from the bed and wadded the delicate fabric into a ball. The snarl of rumpled silk sailed across the room, unfurling as it landed in a heap near her dresser.
"Did that help?"
The exaggerated calm in his tone pushed her last button. "No, it didn't help," she retorted with a sneer. "It didn't help at all, but I'm used to that. You aren't very helpful either!"
Affronted, he lowered the newspaper at last. "I'm not helpful?"
He rose, unfolding his body and drawing himself up to his full height, just so he could stare down his nose at her. Well, she wasn't taking it. Not from a man wearing a black and purple velour jogging suit.
"How exactly was I unhelpful, Emily? I simply stated a fact."
"Don't you try that with me," she hissed. Tears burned in her throat and she curled her hands into fists, trying with all her might to suppress the quiver that threatened her voice. "You've been trying to stare me down for nearly fifty years, Richard Gilmore, and it hasn't worked yet."
"I'm not trying to stare you down, Emily; I'm simply trying to make sense of your erratic and irrational behavior."
"Erratic and irrational?" The adjectives were cause enough to put her balled fist to good use. To make him aware of the stupidity inferred by his choice of words, she gave his chest a smart thump. "I'll give you erratic and irrational—"
"I believe you already are." He captured her wrists before she could strike another blow. "Now, why don't you simply tell me what's wrong, and I'll do what I need to do to fix it?"
She stumbled, of course. That seemed to be all she could do lately. A stumble here, a dizzy spell there… The doctor called them TIAs and downplayed the severity of the episodes to ease her mind, but she wasn't fooled. A TIA, or Transient Ischemic Attack, was a miniature stroke—nothing more and nothing less—and she refused to allow him to sugar-coat them with some asinine acronym. She also refused to tell Lorelai about her little…incidents. There was no need to worry her or Rory over something no one could control. She would simply have to deal with them as best she could.
Of course, calling them names and keeping them secret didn't keep them at bay. No, those harbingers of doom required a raft of new medications and a complete overhaul of her diet. They resulted in a constant imbalance that left her unable to continue her daily exercise routine at the club without fear of tumbling from the treadmill. The lack of exercise led to inevitable weight gain, and culminated in that morning's wardrobe crisis. And tears.
The tears welling in her eyes were the worst part. Thanks to the short-circuiting of her brain, she was now the owner of a passel of disturbingly uncontrollable emotions. Everything she thought and everything she felt sizzled just beneath her ever-thinning skin, threatening to erupt at any second. Every day she bit her tongue until she drew blood, using the metallic tang as reminder to get a grip. Richard pulled her close, anchoring her, holding her steady as wave after wave of emotion buffeted the flimsy fortifications she rebuilt with the dawn of each new day.
As always, the quiet tenderness that wrapped around the ridiculous endearment was her undoing.
A tear leaked from her left eye, trickling over her lashes and landing on her cheekbone with a hot splash. She blinked, infuriated by the breach in her defenses. Richard's hand slid into her hair. He cradled the back of her head, pressed her cheek firmly to his chest and stared straight ahead, soothing away the sharp edges of the pain that threatened to swallow her whole while allowing her to cling to the last shreds of her dignity.
"Emily, talk to me."
"I'm fat," she whispered.
His guffaw helped more than a little. "You are far from fat."
"I can't wear any of my clothes. I'm going to have to run around naked all the time."
His arm tightened around her, as his fingers gently massaged the base of her skull. "This is the best news I've had in years."
A watery laugh burbled from her lips before she could stop it. Prying herself from the safety of his embrace, she stood up straight, forcing her legs to hold all of the weight gained due to their treachery. "You aren't helping."
He smiled down at her. "Yes, I am." He pecked a soft kiss to her lips then straightened his own spine. "And I am completely serious. If I had known this was an option, I would have burned your entire wardrobe long ago."
Luke jostled Dane into a more comfortable spot on his hip and tried to ignore the weight of three antsy kids pressing into the back of his legs. "If you guys don't cut it out you're gonna push me through the window," he grumbled. The windowpane was cold against his cheek and his breath fogged the streaky glass. As the taillights of Lorelai's car disappeared, he made a mental note to add window washing to his to-do list and pushed away, taking his entourage with him.
"Okay, we're clear. We've got a lot to do before they get back, so we have to hurry." He pulled his phone from his shirt pocket and handed it to Josh. "Here, call Steve and tell him we're ready before you go change. I'll take care of the squirt."
Puffed up with pride, Josh pressed the phone to his ear. He paused at the foot of the stairs, glanced at Luke for confirmation, and announced, "We're ready!" before jabbing the end key with his thumb. Josh tossed the phone in his father's direction then took off up the stairs shouting, "Hurry! Hurry! We have to hurry!"
"Hey!" Luke bobbled the baby in his effort to save the phone from crashing to the floor. He growled as he secured them both at the last second, clutching both in his chest. Dane stared at him, his brown eyes wide with concern. "Don't worry, I've got ya."
A long, thin line of drool darkened the front of the boy's shirt. Dane stared at him, open-mouthed and measuring. The frown on his grandson's face spoke volumes about the level of trust between them. Luke winced then pressed an apologetic kiss to the little guy's head. The suspicion in those dark eyes had been then almost since the day he was born, but that didn't mean it didn't break his heart. He didn't know what he did to earn the baby's mistrust, but it was deeply rooted and only in the last couple of months had Dane deigned to let his grandfather hold him at all.
"I don't get it…I never dropped you, or fed you the yucky green gunk…I haven't done anything to deserve this," he mumbled, searching the depths of the little boy's eyes for the answers. "Don't you know I'm crazy about you? What do I have to do, kid?"
"Daddy!" Carly's imperious shout jolted him.
"I laid everything out on the bed," he shouted.
Dane flinched, his forehead puckering as storm clouds gathered in his eyes. Luke patted his back and, hoping to dodge the tears he feared, headed toward the stairs. He took them two at a time, pausing on the landing to meet his daughter's demanding glower.
"Your clothes are on the bed," he said, fixing her with the stern stare Lorelai was convinced was a magic trick. "Get changed and get back down here."
"No buts. We don't have time for this, Pea. If you want to decorate cookies, we have to get moving."
With that, he turned and started down the stairs, feeling a little more centered now that he got to boss one of the short people around. "See? We can do this," he murmured to Dane. "I just need to get you changed and—
The doorbell derailed his train of thought. "There's Uncle Steve and Aunt Kate. Let's let them in, huh?" He switched the squirming baby from one hip to the other as he detoured to the door.
A relieved smile curved his lips when he spotted the camera in Kate Larson's hands. Ignoring the tall redhead looming behind her, Luke grasped her elbow and hauled the very pregnant woman into the house. "Thank you. Thank you so much for doing this."
Steve followed his bride over the threshold. "Hey, I'm the one who plied her with chocolate— Whoa!" He laughed and reached for the lunging baby, quickly snatching him from Luke's arms. "Hey, big guy. How's it going? Still hate the old guy?"
"He doesn't hate me," Luke grumbled, leading them into the living room.
"He doesn't love you," Steve shot back.
Ignoring his best friend's relentless razzing, Luke nodded to the heavily decorated Douglas Fir in the corner. "I figured we could get them in front of the tree."
"Sounds good," Kate concurred.
"I don't blame you," he whispered to Dane. "He's cranky and wears flannel all the time." Rubbing his nose to Dane's, he grinned when the little boy favored him with a smile. "I hear he likes vegetables, too."
Luke scowled when Steve squinched up his face and gave an exaggerated shudder that elicited one of those delicious baby chortles Dane doled out sparingly, and never to his doting grandfather. "Great-uncle," he muttered under his breath.
Kate glanced up. "What?"
Steve chuckled as he placed Dane on the area rug and turned the boy loose. "I don't think reinventing yourself as the crotchety great-uncle is going to help."
"I am his great-uncle."
"He'll get used to you eventually, we all did," Steve assured him. Glancing down, his head swiveled comically then he took off for the door. "Wow! Hey, you're fast," he puffed as he snagged the runaway tot and tossed him into the air.
"Careful. Jess has a strict you-break-it, you-buy-it policy," Luke intoned. Opening the diaper bag, he reached into the never-used zipper pocket, silently praying the kid's father had come through for him. He smiled when he pulled out the tiny jeans and red plaid flannel shirt.
Seconds later, Jake made an entrance worthy of a Tom Cruise couch jump when he slid to a stop in his sock feet. "We're ready!" he crowed, sporting a blue flannel and jeans, and echoing his brother's earlier sentiment.
Luke's mouth twitched into a smile as he surveyed his plaid-clad progeny. "Good job." Carly's mouth pulled into a sulk as she slumped into the room. Tossing the baby clothes onto the couch, he nodded to Steve. "Do you mind taking care of that?"
The other man's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "How long has it been since his diaper was changed?"
"Fine." Turning the little boy upside-down, Steve stalked to the couch. "Come on, son, let's get you suited up."
Kate sank into the easy chair with a grateful sigh and rested the camera atop the mound of baby in her belly. "Let me know when you're ready," she murmured, letting her eyes close. "And I expect cookies for services rendered."
Luke's knees creaked as he squatted in front of his little girl. Curving one finger beneath her chin, he tipped her face up. "What's wrong, Pea?"
"Imma girl," she mumbled.
His brows drew together in concern. "I know. You're my best girl."
"Imma pretty girl."
A breathy laugh escaped him. "You're the prettiest girl ever. Modest too."
Carly nodded solemnly. "How come I hafta dress like the boys? I'm notta boy. How come you only like boys now?"
Taken aback, he blinked. "What? Are you as crazy as your mommy?"
"Mommy's a girl, but she doesn't wear shirts like an icky boy," she sneered, shooting her brothers the death ray she'd been perfecting for years.
Luke rubbed her blue and green flannel-encased arms. The shirt she wore matched Josh and Jake's perfectly—one generation all in blue, the next in red. "Hey, I have a shirt just like that. Do you think I'm icky?"
"You're a boy."
Squeezing his eyes shut, he drew a deep breath. "I'm not following you, Pea. What's the problem? This is the outfit Mommy and Rory picked out for you guys months ago, remember?"
"But I'm notta boy."
"And this one is ready," Steve announced, holding Dane up for inspection.
"Yeah, thanks," Luke growled. Turning back to Carly, he bobbed a quick nod. "I know you're not a boy," he huffed, his patience slipping. "Remember you were supposed to get pictures taken? When you guys got the pink eye and Mommy had to cancel?" When she bit her lip and nodded, he forced a smile past the knot of frustration in his chest. "Remember how sad Mommy was when the photographer called last week 'cause she was sick and had to cancel the appointment again?" She nodded again. "Don't you want to give Mommy and Rory the picture of you guys for Christmas?"
"But Imma girl," she moaned.
"Yes, we all know you're a girl," he cried. Rocking back on his heels, he rubbed his close-cropped hair then shook his head to clear it. "What? What do you want from me?"
"She wants to wear a pretty girl dress," Kate responded without opening her eyes.
Luke darted the pregnant woman a quick glance, then turned back to his daughter. "Is that it? You want to wear a dress?" When Carly nodded, he turned to look at Steve and the boys; just to be sure their bewilderment matched his. Feeling validated by their mystified expressions, he shrugged. "Okay."
Nodding again, he glanced at the boys. "Yeah, sure, why not? Go. Run upstairs and put on a dress. Whatever."
Carly scampered from the room and Kate roused herself just enough to fix him with a solemn gaze. Refusing to back off from his executive decision, he stifled a groan as he straightened to his full height. "Okay." He clapped his hands, demanding their attention. "While she changes, let's get this thing set up so we can get to decorating those cookies."
Kate shot him a skeptical look as he herded the boys toward the tree. "Don't you think you should help her pick a dress?"
"Me?" His scoff melted into a laugh. "No, she'll pick one out on her own."
"But how do you know it'll match?" she persisted.
Luke nodded to the spot front and center and waved the boys into place. "Oh, it won't."
Fiddling with the settings on her camera, Kate surveyed the scene in front of her through narrowed eyes. "And you don't care?"
Turning toward the door, Luke bellowed, "You have one minute, or we're taking this picture without you!" A satisfied smirk twitched his lips as the sound of pounding feet hit the steps. Plucking his grandson from Steve's hold, Luke planted a firm kiss on the boy's chubby cheek before plopping him down between his fidgeting uncles.
Carly flew into the room in a flutter of sparkling pink and purple fairy wings. Gold glitter dusted the frothy yellow skirt of her dress and a large orange gemstone of unknown origin anchored a silver tiara. Red and black Hello Kitty slipper socks and the red, white, and blue baton she twirled in Miss Patty's Independence Day Salute to The Great American Art of Twirling completed the ensemble.
Luke grinned as she waded into the sea of gift-wrapped presents mounded under the tree and claimed the spot just behind the boys, her wild, dark curls backlit by multi-colored lights. "Better?"
"Perfect!" his baby girl declared with an exultant smile. "I'm perfect!"
Luke chuckled as his sons rolled their eyes. "Yes. Yes, you are."
Patty offered a vague smile, but her gaze remained glued to Steve Larson's backside as greetings were exchanged. "How are you, Emily?"
"I'm fine, thank you."
She glanced down at the watery cocoa swirling in her Styrofoam cup and squelched a shudder. Jake had been manning the dispenser Luke set up in the kitchen, and though her younger grandson was a handsome, loving boy, he wasn't a particularly conscientious host. He was wearing a suspicious taupe-colored moustache and had the swirly-eyed stare of a sugar junkie on a binge. Emily eyed the rim of the cup warily, not entirely certain he hadn't stolen a sip before serving it to her.
"What a delicious gingersnap of a man," Patty murmured. Her smile widened to a predatory grin as she glanced from Babette to Emily before focusing on her prey once more. Nostrils flaring, she sniffed the air appreciatively. "I love that lean and hungry look men get when their wives are on the nest. There's something so primal about them. I suppose it's all that pent-up testosterone, every fiber of their being geared toward protecting their nesting female to ensure the continuation of the species."
The breathy recitation proved hypnotic. Emily found herself openly staring at her son-in-law's good friend. She shook herself from the trance just as the image of Steve Larson beating his bare chest ala Tarzan popped into her head. "Honestly, Patty," she murmured.
"Please, yes." Still enraptured, Babette whispered the fervent prayer, crushing the forgotten sugar cookie in her fist.
Patty threw her head back and laughed when Steve moved out of the living room, breaking the spell she'd woven. "God, do you remember Luke?" she gushed to Babette. "The man was…" She paused for a moment to fan herself. "…incredible."
"Oh yeah," Babette rasped. Nudging Emily with her elbow she nodded enthusiastically. "That Lorelai was one lucky woman."
Patty eyed the man in question over the rim of her cocoa cup. "Still is," she mumbled into its depths.
"True," Babette concurred. Turning her full attention to Emily, her eyes opened a little wider to prompt a response of some kind, but Emily had no idea how to contribute to this conversation. The brassy blonde continued to nod long after the thread frayed and faded into nothingness. "So, uh, Emily…You okay?"
"I'm quite well, thank you for asking," she replied primly.
Patty's sharp gaze homed in on her. "Really?" She pursed her magenta painted lips and Emily fought the urge to cringe when she inspected her with a jaundiced eye. "You don't look so 'quite well'."
"Why, thank you. I think you're aging beautifully, too," Emily sniffed. Gripping the arm of the couch, she started to leverage herself from the depths of the cushions, but Patty reached across her friend to stop her.
"I wasn't trying to be catty, sweetheart. Trust me, you'll know when I am," she cooed. "I'm just a little concerned. You don't seem to have your usual spark lately."
"Yeah, you're not quite as feisty as you usually are these days," Babette agreed. "You feelin' okay, doll?"
"I told you, I'm fine."
Patty chuckled. "Sell it to someone who's buying, darling. I saw you walk in here. You usually move with the grace of a dancer, but not tonight—"
"Forgive me if I'm not as…spry as I used to be—"
"None of us are." Babette jumped in with a sympathetic nod. "Just the other day I was complainin' to Morey about it. I mean, in my mind I'm still twenty, you know?"
"Oh, the damage I could do when I was twenty," Patty murmured, lost in a haze of nostalgia. Her sad smile grew sly. "The damage I did do," she amended with a throaty laugh. Emily stiffened when the laugh faded away leaving her locked in the crosshairs of Patty's steady gaze. "I know we don't see you very often, dear, but one does not have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that something isn't right with you."
"I'm sure I don't know—"
"Aw, cut the crap," Babette blurted. "We saw Richard hanging onto your arm, we saw you usin' the walls and the chairs and stuff..." She reached over and patted her knee, her eyebrows rising as she caught the fine wool/silk blend of the Donna Karan suit between her thumb and forefinger. "Nice."
Emily jerked the fabric from the nosy woman's grasp. "I was just feeling a little unsteady, that's all. It's a... an inner ear infection."
"Uh-huh." Patty stared straight through her. "What are they giving you for it?"
"I have the best physicians in all of Hartford."
"You have a daughter and granddaughter who have been watching you like hawks all evening," she retorted, nodding toward the doorway.
Emily looked up to find Rory peering around the corner. She carried Dane propped on her hip, his tousled waves of ebony hair even more mussed after dozens of kisses and pats. His dark eyes alight with pleasure, his face smeared with frosting and crumbs, and his 'Elf in Training' shirt damp and sticky. Her gaze clashed with her granddaughter's and a telltale blush rose in her cheeks. A sheepish smile tilted her lips as she stepped into the room.
"Hello, Rory. Hello, Dane." She couldn't have reined in her smile if she tried. One look at her great-grandson's disheveled appearance and she didn't even bother. "He's a mess."
Pleased pride chased the dregs of embarrassment from Rory's smile. "I know. Isn't he wonderful?"
"I think we're going to go refill our cocoa before Jackson runs out of schnapps," Patty announced. She elbowed Babette, jarring her from the goo-goo eyes session she had going with the baby.
"Oh! Yeah, I...uh...What Patty said," she said as she clambered from the depths of the couch cushions.
Rory smiled at the pair as she claimed one of the abandoned spots. Snagging a paper napkin from a stack on the coffee table, she did her best to alleviate some of the mess on her son's face. "I swear he was clean five minutes ago."
"Some children can be like that." A fond smile curved her lips as she envisioned Lorelai's wild mane of curls escaping from every hair accessory she attempted. "Your mother was one."
An infectious grin lit Rory's face. "She still is."
Emily turned her head, her mother's radar scanning until it pinged on her daughter. Lorelai threw her head back and laughed at something Sookie said. A fine shower of powdered sugar from the cookie she waved wildly rained down on the fire-engine red top she was wearing. When she finally noticed, Lorelai simply popped the treat into her mouth and brushed at the sprinkles, smearing them in amongst the sequins. "She used to drive me to my wits end," she admitted in a whisper.
"I think she might still do that too."
Emily glanced at her granddaughter. "I think our relationship had improved markedly over the past few years," she said primly.
"Oh, it has," Rory agreed. She dropped an absent kiss to the top of Dane's head. "But I know you do a lot of pretending with Mom. Maybe with me too." She looked up and those piercing blue eyes too wise for her years, just as they'd been when she was just a baby. "I get it now. It used to drive me crazy before, the things you two keep from each other...But now that I have Dane...And I'm older..." Her jaw tightened as she turned to catch a glimpse of Lorelai. "I understand why."
"Do you?" The question came out in a whisper, but Emily didn't have the strength to repeat it.
"She worries about you. I don't know if you know that or not. I know that if you do, you probably hate it," Rory said with a sad smile. "I get that now. I'd rather walk on hot coals then let Dane fret for even one minute over me."
Emily chuckled quietly. "Ah, so you do know now."
"I do. And I know that he loves me, just like I love Mom, and Mom loves you." She sneaked a peek at her grandmother as she nuzzled her little boy's hair. "I just want you to know, you don't really have to pretend. Not with us." She ran her fingers through that thick nest of hair, trying to create some semblance of order from the crumb-sticky locks. "No matter what. I know you don't want her to worry, just like Mom doesn't want to bother me, and I try to protect this guy." She pressed a smacking kiss to his cheek then banished him from her lap, making sure he got his feet under him and two fistfuls of couch before she let go. "That's what we do, right?"
"Right. And right now, I'm trying not to freak out because I know the coffee table is right behind him and there's a chance he could bump his head on it. Aren't I doing well?" she asked, beaming a bright, false smile.
"Beautifully," Emily concurred.
"See? We're all so darn good at pretending." She stood, pried Dane's hands from the cushions, and offered her index fingers as handholds. Dane took two swivel-hipped steps with his mother close at his heels and stopped. Once he decided he was okay with the journey thus-far, he took two more then let out a squeal of delight. Rory glanced over shoulder at her. "Seems kind of silly, doesn't it?"
"So, what does that mean? They want you to move back?" Luke asked as he fished another beer out of the cooler on the back deck.
"No, they just want me to take a more active role again," Jess answered with a shrug. "Truncheon is growing and my books aren't exactly setting any sales records. I don't have anything contracted at the moment, so maybe it's a good time to play publisher rather than writer. I don't have to be in Philly for that, I can handle acquisitions and such from here, hire a few editors..."
"But is that what you want to do?" Luke twisted the top of the beer and handed it off to his nephew, ignoring the bitter wind that sliced through his flannel and prickled his skin. He took a bracing breath and plunged his hand back into the cooler to snag one for himself. "I mean, I thought you wanted to write..."
Jess took a sip of his beer then wrapped his arms around his torso. "Well, they aren't mutually exclusive you know. Most writers work a day job to pay the bills." He smirked as he glanced over at Luke. "Most writers who aren't married to a Gilmore."
"Is this the part where you start tryin' to tell me it's hell being a kept man?"
His nephew snorted and shook his head. "No, it was the right thing to do at the time. I had to get that book out, and I never would have managed to get it done if Rory didn't insist I work on it full-time." He took another sip of his beer then went back to hugging himself as he stared into the depths of the dark yard. "But that book was different. It won't be like that again."
Luke frowned as he studied the label on his bottle. The frigid air made his lungs sting, but he didn't make a move for the door. Moments like this, when it was just the two of them—no kids, or wives, or nosy townies sticking their noses in—these moments were few and far between anymore. "Have you shown it to your mom?"
Jess exhaled a long white stream of steam. "No, not yet."
The upcoming release of Jess' most recent novel hung heavy overhead. The story of a boy trying to conform to the expectations of a never-ending parade of step-fathers was highly fictionalized, but still struck close enough to home to rattle Jess' emotional cage. Neither of them had the cajones to speculate about Liz's reaction to the story. "She's gonna see it, Jess," he warned. "Better to nip it in the bud before she gets any crazy ideas in her head."
"Are there any other kind of ideas in her head?"
Luke chuckled as he tucked his chin to his chest, determined not to let his teeth chatter. "Just...Better to give her a heads up. That's all I'm sayin'."
He glanced over to confirm his nephew's level of sincerity, and caught an unmistakable shiver rippling down the younger man's back. "Cold?"
Jess' teeth clacked together when he rolled his eyes. "What are you, Nanook of the North?"
Tossing off a laugh, Luke tried to smother the surge of relief that coursed through him as he reached for the door. "Come on, sissy-boy. Let's go park you by the fire."
"Hey, I'm not the one Richard calls Mary," Jess reminded him as he darted into the over-heated house.
The hum of conversation enveloped them the moment the door closed behind them. Carly screeched and dashed through the room, Martha, Kiki, and Kirk hot on her heels. Luke turned his head just in time to see Davey Belleville drop a couple of hunks of fudge into a punch bowl filled with spiked egg nog. The twins snickered and he would swear one of them whispered the word, 'Doody'. Jackson's voice carried into the kitchen from the hall. "Is Luke in here? Have you seen Luke?"
The man in question darted a pleading look at his nephew. Jess smirked and rolled his eyes. "Go on. I'll grab our coats and meet you out there."
"You're a good man," Luke muttered as he scooted past the younger man and ducked out the door into blissful quiet. Stealing one last peek at the mayhem ensuing in his normally somewhat peaceful home, he plunged his hand into the cooler, extracted four beer bottles by their necks, and stuck to the shadows as he made his way to the garage.
"So I told him he'd been a very bad boy, and he'd have to be punished."
Lorelai cringed, scanning the room for a likely excuse to ditch her best friend before caught up in a flood of information no one needed to know. She spotted Emily headed in their direction and her wince melted into a worried frown. Her mother's fingers trailed along the wall, her steps to slow and deliberate. The lines of concentration etched between Emily Gilmore's brows were enough to send her aesthetician off the deep end. Her father stepped out of the shadows, gently taking her mother's arm as he had time and again as the evening progressed. To anyone else, the gesture would appear to be nothing more than a touch of affectionate gallantry, but it set alarm bells clanging in her head.
The devil made her do it. Almost instantly, the bitter tang of regret flavored her tongue. She swallowed the morsel of remorse formed by years of conditioning and forced a smile for her parents. The saving grace would be the fact that Emily's presence would certainly stem the flow of TMI threatening to flow from Sookie's lips.
"Hi, Mom. Are you having fun?" She inched closer to Sookie, making room for her parents in the small space she'd carved out by the windows. To make things a little easier, she tapped straight into the well of grandparent-ly adoration. "I saw you flirting with my boy, Dane."
Emily's smile grew exponentially. "How could any woman resist such a handsome young man?"
"He certainly is a good-looking boy, isn't he?"
"Aside from the cloud of dust that follows him everywhere, yes," Lorelai confirmed.
"Ooh! Like Pigpen," Sookie chimed in.
"He always seems to be a little disordered, doesn't he?"
Lorelai marveled at the fond smile Emily wore. The shimmering warmth emanating from her mother bore the sharpest contrast to the fierce scowls Lorelai remembered from her own childhood oopsie-daisies. "He's a slob."
"A precious slob," his clearly besotted great-grandmother answered. "Did they leave? Rory said they were going to try to take Dane home early. Something about detoxifying him."
Lorelai nodded sagely. "Yes, I think someone accidently filled his sippy cup with Patty's egg nog. Thank goodness the lid wasn't on securely."
"Yeah, uh…sorry about that," Sookie whispered. "I should…" she gestured to the front stairs, "I should go spring Davy from time out and get them home. Not that Santa is stopping by our house tonight."
Smiling as her friend slinked away, Lorelai turned her attention back to her parents. Craning her neck, she scanned the room. "Rory was looking for Jess, but he seems to have disappeared."
Richard cleared his throat. "I think I may have an idea where he might be." Sucking his head in a courtly bow, he smirked. "If you ladies will excuse me."
The moment his back was turned, Lorelai and Emily exchanged a knowing glance. "Garage," they said in unison.
Lorelai laughed, turning back to check the thinning crowd of friends and neighbors. In the front hall, Lulu and Kirk were trying to crowbar a recalcitrant Kiki into her parka. Over by the fireplace, Gypsy plucked the beer from Andrew's hand and replaced it with bottled water. An icy breeze whipped through the room as Morey and Babette exchanged an impassioned lip-lock beneath the bough of mistletoe tacked above the front door then disappeared into the night arm in arm.
"Another wonderful gathering," Emily murmured, jolting her from her perusal.
Cocking her head, Lorelai studied her mother with the same careful attention to detail. "You think?"
A small smile played at the corners of Emily's mouth. "Every year I wonder why you can't host a more…civilized holiday party," she admitted, meeting Lorelai's gaze head-on. "Then every year I end up having the most enjoyable evening I've had in months."
The rush of chagrin Lorelai felt in anticipation of her mother's slight dissipated on the spot. She stared straight into her mother's dark eyes and lowered her voice. "Mom, what's going on with you?"
"What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean. You're walking slower, holding onto things or using Dad as your personal crutch… Are you sick? Is there something you're not telling me?"
The question seemed to give Emily pause. For one fleeting moment, Lorelai thought maybe her mother was actually going to confide in her. Then the moment was gone. In its place was a Mona Lisa smile and a gentle pat on the arm. "Nothing is going on, Lorelai."
She glanced down at the immaculately draped trousers Emily wore. "Are you having trouble with your foot again? Have you told the doctor—
Her mother shook her head. "My foot is fine. The doctors have merely adjusted my medications and at times they make me feel a bit dizzy, that's all."
"Are you sure?"
Emily smiled. "Of course I'm sure," she murmured, sounding more like herself than she had in weeks. "Don't you worry about me, Lorelai, I'm fine."
A squeal pieced the air, slicing through the low buzz of adult conversation. The boys darted into the room, weaving through the guests as slippery as eels, desperate to elude the thunderous look on their father's face. The twins took refuge behind their mother and grandmother, tipping their heads to peek around them.
"I don't care whose idea it was, Andrew, if I catch your kid kissing my daughter again—"
"If you don't want people kissing, then maybe you shouldn't hang mistletoe. Huh? You ever think of that?" Gypsy shot back.
"I didn't hang the damn mistletoe!" Luke roared.
"Oops," Lorelai whispered to her mother. The crowd parted and Carly dashed to them. The little girl flung herself into Lorelai's legs and clung like a burr. "Pea, what did you do?"
"I kissded Nate and he liked it!"
"Oh boy," Lorelai breathed. Twisting to peek behind her back, she caught Josh staring up at her with a plea in his eyes. "Why are you hiding? Did you kiss Nate too?"
"Ew! No!" he protested, wiping the imaginary kiss from his lips with the back of his hand.
She fixed Jake with a steady stare and he crumbled like a Christmas cookie. "We told him we'd give him a quarter."
"Each," Josh confessed.
Lorelai nodded, watching her husband glower at Andre and Gypsy's backs as they hustled their son from the house. "So, you sold your friend out for fifty cents?" she prompted. "Did you at least pay him first?"
A smiled lit the devilish gleam in Jake's dark eyes as he shook his head. "We gave him an I.O.U."
"Uh-huh." Having heard enough, Lorelai shooed them from their hiding spots. "Upstairs. Now. All three of you," she ordered. "Party's over for you, brush your teeth and pajamas. I'll be up in five minutes to check on you."
The kids doled out grumbling kisses goodnight to their grandmother, then turned to leave under protest. Heads down, they tiptoed past their glowering father then sprinted for the stairs. Lorelai released a breathy chuckle as she watched them trample each other in their haste to escape the paternal death ray.
Turning back to her mother, she blinked when she caught sight of the serene smile the older woman wore. "Glad we could entertain you," she said with smirk.
Her mother returned her stare with dancing dark eyes. "I should thank you."
Uncomfortable under Emily's scrutiny, Lorelai turned away, her gaze drawn automatically to the tall, flannel-clad man wishing their friends and neighbors a merry Christmas as he practically shoved them out the door. "Always a floor show in the Danes household."
"And that is a wonderful thing," Emily said with quiet conviction.
Startled by the unexpected approbation, Lorelai's head swiveled. "What?"
Once again, her mother favored her with that Mona Lisa smile and gave her arm a gentle pat. "You don't need to worry about me, Lorelai. I'm fine." Her smile melted into a smirk as she shot a glance in Luke's direction. "Worry about your own children. I believe your husband is giving serious consideration to a nice boarding school education."
All around them the house creaked and popped, its aged joints settling in for the long winter's night. The bottom step squeaked its displeasure as he stepped off, but the slick hardwood underfoot was time-tested and sturdy. The detritus left behind by dozens of small-town denizens had long-since been wiped away, the overhead lights and end table lamps extinguished.
Lorelai sat curled into the corner of the couch, her hands wrapped around an oversized mug of coffee. The pile of presents mounded around the tree were proof of a job well done, but here in the dark of the cold Christmas night, his vivacious wife sat still and silent, and seemingly perfectly content.
Still, the sight was just a bit disconcerting. She was an anomaly lit by hundreds of twinkling fairy lights and captured in the prisms cast by crystal ornaments. A dark-haired angel gazed down at them from on high. Perched atop the tree, she was the guardian of all the blessings, great and small, they'd accumulated each year.
Luke paused in the doorway, taking a moment to drink her in, needing just a second to thank the lucky stars that sent her his way. "I'd yell at you all over again," he whispered into the darkened room.
Her head popped up. A puzzled smile curved her lips. "You yell at me every day."
"Do not," he scoffed. Crossing the room in three strides, he claimed his rightful spot on the couch next to her.
"Are they really asleep this time?"
He nodded and prized one of her hands from the mug. "I have something for you."
She snorted softly. "Sorry, Santa, but Mrs. Claus is worn out—
"I'm serious." Leaning forward, he fished under the couch for the package his wingman slipped under there for him earlier that evening. He reveled in the bewildered smile she flashed him as she exchanged her precious coffee mug for the flat package without protest.
"I get to open this now?"
"Right now," he answered with a nod.
The paper was shredded in seconds and the flaps on the box torn from their moorings. Luke couldn't help but smile when she plunged through the pillow of tissue paper with typical Lorelai enthusiasm. He basked in the sparks of pleasure her gasp of surprise turned loose inside him. She stared down at the framed photo nestled into the bottom of the box, tears glistening in her eyes as she absorbed the impact of it.
"I remember thinking I wanted to kill that Doogie Houser guy," he rasped. "I might have, if you didn't give me a chance."
"I used to feel so alone," she whispered, still staring at the picture. "I mean, I had people around, lots of people… people who liked me and cared about me, but not many who really…got me." She looked up, tears spilling over dark lashes. "Rory…Sookie…this town…you." Her smile was watery and wobbly, but still it was the smile that made his heart stutter-step. "At least, I think I've got you…"
"Good. Just checking." Lorelai reached into the box. With the very tip of her finger, she traced the outlines of the children they'd made together and the grandchild who embodied the most convolutedly perfect blend of their crazy little family. "We're so good at this, Luke. Did you ever think we'd be so good at this?"
"The kids, the marriage, the dating…the dirty stuff," she added with a laugh. "When I met you that day—the day you told me to sit down, shut up, and you'd get to me—did you ever think…"
"No, but you were there and gone before I knew what hit me, and you know I was never a very fast thinker."
Lorelai nodded and turned her attention back to the photograph in her lap. "You let Carly pick out her own outfit?"
"I was told I knew nothing about girls' wardrobe choices."
"True." She sneaked a shy glance at him out of the corner of her eye. "You're happy?" she asked in a whisper.
Her brilliant smile outshone the fairly lights and crystal ornaments. The heaven he saw in her eyes as she leaned in to kiss him was enough to make the angel perched atop the tree weep with envy. Their lips clung to one another's for just a moment before Lorelai pressed her forehead to his and sighed her contentment. "I just like to see you happy."
He kissed her again, then gently extracted the box from her grasp. "Come on, Crazy Lady, let's go to bed."
Lorelai fell into his arms when he pulled her from the couch, but he didn't mind catching her. Holding her close, Luke pressed a tender kiss to her rumpled curls. "You're as much of a mess as Dane is," he murmured into the dark cloud.
"Sweet talker," she whispered. "Take me to bed, Burger Boy. I have a feeling Christmas is going to come awful early this year.
A/N: You don't know how I've agonized over those last two words. I know that many of you will be unhappy with me when you see this story marked complete. Trust me, I'm sad about it too. I love this world and all the people in it. I love it so much, I've resisted killing off characters in tragic accidents – or worse, introducing a real threat to the happiness and stability of the Gilmore/Danes union— just to create the conflict needed to keep the story going. I couldn't do that to them. I love them too much. So, instead of writing the tragic carbon monoxide poisoning chapter I've threatened for years, I leave you with this more every-day-life glimpse in Christmas in the Danes household.
This is a bittersweet moment for me. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all of your encouragement and support. I posted the first chapter of Good at Dating in 2007, I wrote my first novel in 2009, and it was published in 2011. What an amazing journey we've had together. I have no idea how many millions of words I've weaved into these chapters —I leave the data to Chants and Pink and their magical spreadsheets—but, here we are about to start 2012 and I think it may be the perfect time to leave the Danes family to live out their happily ever after in peace.
Oh! But I'm not ditching the GG world. No, never! I'm leaving SlipoftheTongue open (and I may have a new chapter started on my computer) so I can dabble in a little dirtiness when the mood strikes. You're not getting rid of me that easily!
Love and kisses - Mags