“We still have a few things to finish up so the food will be ready,” Nathaniel said. “Why don’t you take Matthew outside.”
Katie smiled at my prince. “That’s a great idea. Besides, Zerbrowski is dying to show off his new grill.”
“That’s right, he always grills the meat, and he’s never set anything on fire,” I said.
“Grilling meat is the only thing he can do without needing a fire extinguisher, but let him near the stove, or oven, and it’s terrible,” she said.
“I grill vegetables just fine,” he said.
“I’ll give you that,” she said, and went up on tiptoe to kiss him.
Nathaniel kissed me and then Micah good-bye. Normally he would have kissed Micah more thoroughly, because he might not get another chance for hours, but we’d started doing less of the tonsil-cleaning kisses in front of Matthew—not just between the men, but between me and the men, or anyone and anyone. Why? Because Matthew liked to imitate, and he’d gotten sent home with a note from preschool. We’d been left having to explain that certain kinds of kissing was grownup kissing, and he had to be a grownup to do it. He’d accepted our reasoning and filed it away on the same list as driving a car, drinking liquor, or being able to lift weights. It made perfect sense to him that it was just one more thing he wasn’t old enough to do, yet.
Matthew hugged Nathaniel bye, and took my hand in his, then reached for Micah’s hand. We followed Zerbrowski as he led the way through the house. Matthew was almost skipping between us, excited about meeting other kids, and playing outside. I wished I was as happy about being here. I glanced across at Micah and he met my eyes, both of us still in sunglasses. I thought we’d keep them on; it’s always harder to keep the hurt feelings, or anger, out of your eyes than the rest of you. We’d known that coming here was going to be a test of sorts, and it had been brave of Zerbrowski and Katie to invite us, but she’d already shown that her nerve wasn’t as strong as his. She was a teacher, and he was a cop. Of course, maybe Katie was just being realistic, and it was the rest of us that were fooling ourselves. When you live in a way that’s too different from everyone else, you get grief about it. Is it fair? No, but it’s still what happens. I wanted to go home.
Zerbrowski led us out the back door onto the deck with the other early arriving guests. There were a half dozen kids already playing in the yard. Matthew was so excited that he jumped up and down to get rid of some of the energy of it. There was no going home, no disappointing the kid, or even Nathaniel, who was finally in the kitchen with the other domestic partners. For our big boy, and our little one, we were going to smile and smile and have a good time even if it killed us. Strike that, no killing today, though depending on the level of stupid aimed at us, I was willing to look at a little mayhem.
Matthew asked permission to go play, we nodded, and off he went. He joined the running and laughing children as if he’d known them all his life. I’d half expected some hesitation, or shyness, but nope, the other kids accepted him just as easily.
Zerbrowski opened his new grill and began to wax eloquent about it. Micah and I stood with our arms around each other, pretending we cared—or I pretended, maybe Micah would actually grill meat if we had a grill.
I got greetings from the other cops of, “Hey, Blake . . . Anita, good to see you . . .” then they closed around us introducing me to their wives; so far I was the only female cop here. I introduced Micah as my boyfriend, but felt strange not saying that our third was in the house.
We got a lot of, “My husband, my other half, my guy, Dan, Saul . . . didn’t tell me you had a little boy.”
It took us almost thirty minutes of conversation to try and explain that Matthew wasn’t ours, but he spent a lot of time with us. Once we said that he was our nephew and we were Uncle Micah and Aunt Anita, they accepted it more easily. I’d originally been adamant that we weren’t Matthew’s uncles and aunt, so he couldn’t call us that, but it made him happy, and it made conversations like this much easier. I was tired of the topic long before the other women were, because they asked more questions than the guys. They were men and they were cops, most of that combination learns early not to ask too many personal questions. Micah helped me find a shorthand to explain, “His mother’s out of town on a business trip, and we’re the only family in town.”
Then there was more small talk. I met more spouses of fellow officers in the next few minutes than I’d ever met, and because I was the woman they seemed to expect me to be the chatty one. I wasn’t. Both the men with me today were more easily social than I would ever be. Micah did his best to redirect the conversation away from me and to him, but the women just didn’t seem to understand that I was the “husband,” and that our “wife” was actually in the kitchen with Katie. Of course, we didn’t try to explain that part either.
By the time Micah and I managed to find a way to be by ourselves for a few minutes my nerves were raw and I was sort of clinging to him. I’d forgotten how much I hated get-togethers like this; it was just too many people who were work friends at best, work acquaintances, or near strangers. Touching Micah helped, but it had been years since I’d been at a large party where I didn’t have more of my lovers with me, and those parties had also been vampire and wereanimal events, which meant it wasn’t the same kind of socializing, or they were already my friends. I hadn’t realized how much I relied on touching my lovers, having them help out with the small talk, or having someone to huddle in the corner with and hate the social together. Micah was better at it than I was, but he held me tight, too, his hands stroking my back.
“You okay?” he asked softly.
“I’d forgotten how bad I am at these things.”
He spoke with his face pressed into the line of my neck. “If it’s our people it’s refreshing.”
“Some of these are friends, but they aren’t our people,” I whispered against his hair.
Micah raised his head up, body tense with listening. “That’s Matthew.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“He’s angry, yelling.”
I didn’t ask him how he heard that over the crowd noise. One of the benefits of being a lycanthrope was better hearing, and we’d discovered that the catweres could hear higher noises than the canines. Small children had high-pitched voices.
We started down the steps of the deck, going for the side yard and the kids, but Zerbrowski called after me. “Can I talk to you a minute?”
“We were just going to check on Matthew.”
“I can do it,” Micah said, “you talk cop stuff.”
He came back to the steps and kissed me. “I’m sure.”
He started walking through the crowd, leaving me with a stupid grin on my face.
“Earth to Anita,” Zerbrowski said.
“Sorry, what’s up?”
He grinned at me, and shook his head.
“What?” I asked.
“You guys are good together, that’s all.”
The grin faded around the edges. “But I need you to see something in the kitchen.”
“Is Nathaniel all right?”
“Oh, he’s fine; a lot of the other wives think he’s just fine.” He drew the last “fine” out into that ghetto drawl.
I frowned at him. “What do you mean?”
“Haven’t you noticed that we’re missing a lot of the wives?”
I glanced around and it was mostly men, not all, but suddenly a lot. “So the women have gone inside to talk about things other than guns, sports, and police work. Doesn’t it usually end up divided between cops and non-cops?”
“Not this early in the day. Come see.” He motioned me to follow him, and I did, wondering what was going on.
The dining room was what you walked into from the back door, so I could see that the table was covered in food, waiting for Katie to give the “come and get it.” But I knew that the traffic jam of women spilling out into the dining room from the kitchen hadn’t helped cook, because if all of them had helped, or were helping, the kitchen wouldn’t have been big enough to hold them all. Usually, people ask if they can help and if told no, they go outside and visit, drink a few cold drinks from the cooler.