October 2020 Newsletter
THE MANE SQUEEZE
Lock parked his SUV in front of his parents’ New Jersey home and got out. If this had been the weekend, when he spent most of his time in his workshop, he would have been more rushed to get in and get out. But on this lovely October morning, he found he was in no rush. Besides, he enjoyed spending time with his dad. The old man could be quite entertaining in his own wacky way—unless you were some poor guy trying to fix the plumbing and move onto your next job.
Using the same set of keys he’d had since he was nine, Lock entered his parents’ home.
“Dad? You around?” When Lock didn’t get an immediate answer, he closed the door and headed through the sun room into the living room, through the dining room, and straight into the kitchen. A big bowl of berries sat on the table and he grabbed a handful. He could hear sounds coming from the basement, so he entered the tiny hallway, which had a doorway to the right that led out into the backyard and to his parents’ two-car garage, and a set of stairs to the left that led to the basement.
Lock barely had his foot on the first step when he heard a, “No, no, no, don’t!” Followed by a “woosh!” and a definitely girlish squeal that he refused to believe came from the old man.
Lock charged down the stairs, but stopped when he hit the last step. He simply wasn’t in the mood to get his boots wet.
He watched his childhood-favorite stuffed dog float by before looking in the corner to see his father standing there, looking typically guilty and holding a giant wrench. Beside him stood…
Lock blinked, not sure he was seeing correctly.
“You,” he said, too-shocked not to show it. Then he did something he rarely ever did—he laughed. Bent-over-at-the-waist laughing. He couldn’t help it. Not a day had gone by when he hadn’t thought about her. Part of him still ashamed he’d left her alone, part of him mad she’d made him care one way or the other. But he never thought he’d see her again. At the very least he never thought he’d see her again in his basement, with his dad, drenched from her knees to her boots from whatever fuck-up Brody MacRyrie had managed to get himself into.
“Lock?” his father asked, most likely shocked at the laughter coming from his only boy. “Are you all right?”
Lock couldn’t answer. He was laughing too hard, which did absolutely nothing but piss off the little feline with the hospital phobia. And even though she clearly didn’t appreciate being laughed at, she decided to take it out on Brody rather than Lock.
Yanking the wrench from Brody’s hand, Gwen shook it at him—although Lock would be eternally grateful she didn’t use it to bash the man’s head in.
“What did I say? I said don’t touch!”
“I was just curious.” And that only made Lock laugh harder. He’d lost count of how many bad days with his parents began with the sentence, “But I was curious!” It was true, almost all bears were curious by nature, even Lock, but Brody took it to an extreme that made those who knew him love him and want to punch him all at the same time. “I merely wanted to see—”
“Out!” the little feline roared, the sound a bit more frightening as it seemed to combine the roar of a territorial lion with the warning growl of a pissed-off tiger.
“But why? I didn’t do—”
“Dad.” Lock stood up, wiping tears from his eyes. For a moment he thought that wrench would come right at his head. “Upstairs.”
“I’m your father, boy. You can’t tell me—”
“Up. Stairs. Or I’m calling Mom.”
“Traitor,” Brody mumbled, but he mumbled while moving, so Lock didn’t bother arguing with him. “And you’re both being unreasonable.”
Lock waited until his father marched up the stairs and back into the kitchen, then he focused on Gwen.
“You’re the plumber?”
Those gold eyes narrowed dangerously. “What does that mean?”
“It means I’m having a hard time believing you can fix my parents’ plumbing.”
“Why? Because I’m a woman?”
“No. Because you’re you.”
The wrench slapped into her left palm with a “swack!” “First my brother and now you. What a perfect fucking day.”
He sloshed over to her, grateful he’d worn his work boots rather than his sneakers. “I don’t know your brother. Just the half-brother of your half-brother, which I still find entertaining.” He took hold of her left hand and lifted it. “But these are not the nails of a plumber.”
“What’s wrong with my nails?” She snatched her hand back and studied them. “The polish isn’t even chipped.”
“Exactly! What kind of plumber has pristine nails?”
“A smart one.”
Lock took her hand again, studied her nails. “Are these the colors of the Philadelphia Eagles?”
Once more she snatched her hand back. “I support my teams. You got a problem with that too?”
“If they’re the Eagles.”
“At least we have a team,” she shot back. “And just because I have style and my nails look good, doesn’t mean I’m not the best plumber you’ll ever know.”
“Is that right? Are you even licensed in Jersey, Mr. Mittens?”
“As a matter of fact, I am.”
“How did you manage that? You have to live in Jersey to get a license.”
“What are you? The plumber police?”
“Only for the Tri-state area. And how come you won’t answer my question?”
“Because I don’t have to! And—” she threw the wrench to the floor, water spraying the front of his jeans “—you left me!”
And there it was. He couldn’t describe how satisfying it was to know that she had cared he’d left that day and that she still thought about him. He’d hate to think he was obsessing all on his own. “I had to leave. They called the Park Rangers.”
“I’m guessing the half-brother of your half-brother—and can I call him that for eternity?”
“No. His name’s Brendon. And you let some cop force you to leave me when you promised you wouldn’t allow the organ thieves to get me?”
“The organ thieves didn’t get you, and yes, I just said that out loud. And it wasn’t some cop or some ranger…it was Toots.”
“Who the hell is Toots?”
Embarrassed, Lock didn’t answer her right away and Gwen put her hands on her hips. “Well?”
“He’s a polar. Okay? Seven-seven, almost four hundred pounds, and he beat me up once.”
“He beat you up?”
“We were only fifteen at the time, but it was lasting damage.”
Lock cleared his throat. “Emotional.”
“It can be just as devastating, Mr. Mittens!”
“Yeah. I can see it. You look completely devastated.”
“At least I can admit to my fears, She Who Is Stalked By The Organ Thieves Of America.”
“That’s it, I’m leaving.”
Lock started laughing again. “Why? Because I’m rudely suggesting you have issues?”
“I don’t have issues.” She bent down and picked up her wrench. “I’m fine.”
“You snuck out the window when no one was looking so you could get away from your doctor.”
“I’m not talking about this.”
He grabbed the wrench from her. “You brought it up.”
“I brought up the fact you left me in that mortuary to die.”
“You call a medical center a mortuary and you don’t think you have issues?”
Snarling, she reached for the wrench, but he kept it from her by lifting it over his head. “You have to fix whatever damage my father’s done before my mother gets home.”
“Find someone else.”
“Please. I promise I’ll keep him upstairs and out of your hair.”
“Another promise? You sure do toss them around.”
“This one I can keep as long as the half-brother of your half-brother doesn’t show up and ruin everything.”
“Stop calling him that.”
“No need to hiss, Mr. Mittens.”
“And stop calling me that!” She leaped up and snatched the wrench from him. “Get out of my sight!” she ordered after she’d landed.
Unable to keep his smile under control, Lock pointed at the stairs. “I’ll be upstairs if you need me.”
“Yeah. Sure you will.”
Lock went back up the stairs and found his father in the kitchen—sulking.
“How about some coffee, Dad?”
“I don’t see why I can’t observe.”
“Dad,” Lock asked sincerely, “do you even know the meaning of that word?”
His father shrugged. “Sometimes.”
After a solid fifteen minutes of uninterrupted time, Gwen discovered three things. One, the MacRyrie family needed a new water heater. Two, she’d need to get the pump out of her truck to deal with the water on the floor that wasn’t going anywhere in that concrete basement. And three…that deserting idiot was even cuter than she remembered.
Marching back up the stairs, leaving a trail of water behind her, Gwen walked into the kitchen and stopped. Father and son sat at the table, their elbows on the wood, their hands gripping extremely large coffee mugs, the same expression on their faces. So much father and son, Gwen felt this weird tug at her heart.
“Well?” the grizzly son asked.
“Do you need some help, dear?” the grizzly dad eagerly offered.
And all that anger she’d been carrying around since her argument with Mitch that morning washed away. They were just so damn cute, she couldn’t stay mad at either one of them.
Biting back her smile, Gwen said, “You need a new water heater.”
“That sounds expensive,” the older bear said, his brow furrowing. “Your mother isn’t going to like it if it’s expensive, Lock.”
“Mom has no choice.” He shrugged at Gwen. “I’ve been trying to get them to get a new one for years. I did what I could.”
“It lasted longer than it should have, so you did really well. But it’s time to put her out of her misery and to get you folks up to the here and now.”
“Of course, of course.” Brody MacRyrie put his coffee mug down. “I understand.”
Eeesh. Twenty minutes ago, she was ready to charge this guy out the ass simply for being a pain. Now she didn’t have the heart. “Don’t worry, Mr. MacRyrie. I got ya covered.” She winked at him and the older bear’s face turned red.
“Well…uh…um…would you like some coffee, my dear?”
Gwen grinned. “I’d love some.”
By the time they were finished installing the new water heater, hauling out the old one—helped along by Lock being able to simply pick it up and carry it out—and ensuring the basement was dry, it was late. Nearly seven o’clock.
Gwen sat on the curb behind the MacRyrie family home. She watched the company truck driven by one of her employees head off down the street while she checked in with Blayne.
“How did your job go?” Blayne asked after complaining for nearly ten minutes about her own.
“New waterless water heater installed and working fine.”
“Water heater installation. Cha-ching!”
“You’re not going to believe whose house this is, though.”
She smiled, thinking of Lock keeping his father busy and out of her hair anytime the man even glanced toward the basement. “The bear’s.”
“The one from the infamous Labor Day weekend fiasco. The one who left me to the whim of organ thieves.”
“Stop saying that! I told you what happened.”
“Yeah. Whatever. He apologized anyway.”
“You made that man apologize?”
“Yes! As a matter of fact, I did.”
“I was owed an apology.”
“I’m not arguing with you on this. I’ve gotta go.”
Gwen’s eyes narrowed. “Oh? Where to?”
Gwen’s eyes narrowed more until they were nothing but slits. The wolfdog was up to something, had been for weeks, and Gwen was determined to find out what. “To…” she prompted.
“To the hospital.”
Gwen’s back went straight. “What the—”
“As a volunteer.”
Blayne was lying and they both knew it. “That’s where you’ve been going after work the last few weeks?”
“To a hospital?”
“As what? A therapy dog?”
Blayne’s gasp of outrage came through the phone. “Low blow, O’Neill!” Yeah. It was. But she hated when Blayne lied to her. Still, that was too low, even for Gwen.
“Blayne, wait. I’m sor—”
Not surprisingly, the phone call abruptly ended, leaving Gwen to stare at the “disconnected” message on her screen until she heard something breathing beside her.
“You’re supposed to lumber,” she accused softly, looking over at the grizzly quietly sitting next to her. Poor full-humans. Without the same hearing as Gwen, they’d never know the bear was next to them until he said something or until the mauling started. She shuddered at the thought. “Because I can hear lumbering.”
“I do lumber. Since I was eight.”
“You need to lumber louder. No one wants to look up and see a bear sitting next to them. Breathing.”
“Gee, thanks.” He jerked his thumb toward his house. “My mother’s home. She wants to talk to you.”
“You’re not going to get a better deal from anyone else,” Gwen tossed out.
“Would you stop doing that?”
“Arguing a point before anyone’s given you a reason to. Don’t pre-emptive argue. It’s annoying.” He stood up and so did Gwen. “The reason I’m talking to you now is that I need to warn you about my mother.”
Gwen put her hands on her hips. “Let me guess. She doesn’t like cats. She’s going to say snide remarks about climbing trees and hacking up hairballs, and you’re going to apologize now for whatever she says. Right?”
“You’re doing it again,” he accused.
Shit. She was.
“If you’d let me talk for myself, I was going to say that my mother is a dyed-in-wool feminist and she’s dying to meet you because she’s completely in love with the idea of a female plumber putting in her new water heater. She also may ask to interview you for her monthly newsletter, but you’re not obliged to do that unless you want to.”
Gwen could say with all honesty she hadn’t been expecting any of that. “Oh. All right then.”
He leaned down until their noses almost touched. “Did you know that you’re very frustrating?”
“Maybe, once or twice, I’ve heard that before.”
His mother was in love. Lock knew it as soon as she set eyes on Gwen that she’d fallen head over heels in love.
First off, Gwen was dressed “correctly.” Sturdy work boots, no cute shoes. Curly hair held off her face with a headband, no cute hairstyle more concerned with glamour rather than functionality. Cargo pants with lots of pockets for easy access to often-used small tools or pen and paper, no cute jeans with a thong hanging out. Long-sleeved Philadelphia Eagles sweatshirt that had seen better days but still did the job, no “I’m your sexy plumber” cute T-shirt in pink.
But what made it perfection for Dr. Alla Baranova-MacRyrie was that Gwen had those nails, because in his mother’s mind that meant she embraced her femininity even while rejecting society’s standards on women. Give Lock a couple of hours, he could write the paper that his mother would present at the next female empowerment rally she would be hosting in the New Year.
“So you’ve been doing this for years,” Alla said to Gwen, ignoring the burning smell coming from the stove.
“Mom, when was the last time you checked the meat in the oven?”
“You’re supposed to be warming this up, ya know? Not grilling it all over again.” Lock motioned her aside so he could pull the oven door open.
“I used to follow my Uncle Cally around when he’d come over to fix Ma’s plumbing and by the time I was thirteen, I had a regular summer job with his company.”
“Now this Uncle Cally is he an actual uncle or simply one of the many males your mother had around for breeding purposes while you were growing up?”
Lock bolted up so fast, his head slammed into the stove. “Mom!”
Perplexed, his mother studied him while he rubbed the back of his head. “Whatever is the matter with you?”
“Me? You can’t ask Gwen a question like that.”
Alla sighed in exasperation. His mother had often told Lock that he was much too polite to ever be a true intellectual. “But this is a Pride we’re discussing, Lachlan. They don’t keep males around except for protection and breeding purposes.”
“Any Breeding Males we had around the house,” Gwen calmly cut in, “were never called uncle. Ma always thought that was creepy.”
“I have to agree with her,” Alla muttered, again ignoring the glare from her son.
“My Uncle Cally is one of Ma’s brothers.”
“Half-brother?” Lock asked.
Gwen scowled but he knew it was to keep from laughing. “Shut up.”
Brody walked into the kitchen, happily clapping his hands together. “Dinner ready?”
“Mom burned the meat. Again.”
Alla glared at her husband rather than her son. “If you wanted a housesow, you should have married one!”
“I didn’t say anything!” Brody argued, pointing a damning finger at Lock. “It was the boy!”
“But you were thinking it,” she accused. “Now, I’m going to take Gwen into the living room and you two can work out dinner.” She smiled at Gwen. “You’ll stay for dinner, of course.”
“Okay,” Gwen said easily, surprising Lock.
Alla walked to the refrigerator and Gwen stepped out of her way. The kitchen had always been too small for a family of four bears but Lock wondered if Gwen was feeling a little overwhelmed. She was only about five-eight. His mother was six-four and had the sturdy hips and shoulders of a true breeding sow. Lock could never think of a time as a child when his mother didn’t make him feel safe. Because who’d be crazed enough to try and get near him when his mother was around?
“I have iced tea, dear. Or beer?”
“Maybe a saucer of milk?”
Gwen and Alla looked over at Lock and he immediately pointed at his father. “It was him,” he lied.
His father, oblivious as always, held up a menu from the stack they kept on hand in one of the cupboards. “How about Chinese food? They deliver and have those wonderful family-style meals to feed four. So I’ll order eight of those.”