Winter Wolf 1

c. 1998 by Anne Fraser and Sara Joan Weber

Lady Jeanne Dark looked up in puzzlement as the garishly
bright blue envelope landed on her open ledger.  Beth stood
before her, smiling tiredly, still balancing a sack of
groceries on her hip.

"You've completely forgotten, haven't you?" the vampire's
mortal friend asked.  "I rather suspected you would, so I
took the liberty of getting at least a card for you to send.
It's the best I could find at Glen's." With that, Beth
wandered back towards the kitchen.

Lady J turned over the card stuck in the envelope and
groaned.  She had indeed forgotten, completely forgotten. 
Thank the powers that be for Beth!, she thought. She might
not be particularly _close_ friends with Baron Gideon and
Josh, but that was still no excuse for forgetting a birthday
and an anniversary...

"Thanks Beth!" she yelled to the other room.  "Would you do
me another favor and find Chessie and SaraJoan so they can
sign it? I think they're back on the sledding hill.  I'll
have to special deliver this if it's going to get there
anywhere close to in time, at this point." There was no
answer from the kitchen, but Lady J heard the back door
close as Beth went looking for the rest of the household.

Returning her attention to the card, Lady J read the words
written on the outside, "Only true love can last
forever...", written in a flowing script over a watercolor
of a coastal cliff scene.  Opening it, she saw, "And you two
have made such a wonderful start! Congratulations and Happy
Anniversary!" Other than the envelope's color, it was really
a rather nice card.

The kitchen door slammed, and her charge came running into
the room.  <Someday I will have to explain removing snow
clothes at the door,> she thought, before being almost
knocked out of her chair by a no longer small child climbing
into her lap.

"Why did I have to come in?" demanded Chessie.  "I wasn't
cold yet! And it's so _pretty_ out there in the snow, and we
were making a snowgirl soldier by the tree fort, she was
going to be our guard so no one sneaks up into the fort, and
I had only been down the hill a few times, and..."

"THANK you!" whispered SaraJoan as she moved past Lady J
towards a chair near the fireplace.  The young were-kitten
continued to prattle on about her outdoor adventures.  Both
sets of cheeks were windburned, and SaraJoan's eyes showed
just how tired keeping up with youngest member of the family
had made her.  She slouched into her chair and waited for
the little girl to finally wind down. 

"Ahem." Lady J interrupted Chessie a few minutes later, when
it became clear that she was not likely to stop soon on her
own.  "I called you, and Aunt Sarjin, in so we can all sign
this card before I send it.  It's for Baron Gideon and
Joshua," she continued on quickly, as Chessie opened her
mouth to ask another question or six.  "Their anniversary is
this Monday, and the Baron's birthday is today."

Chessie frowned thoughtfully for a minute, and then smiled. 
"They're the ones whose wedding you took me to, on the
island! I had fun there, with Ash and the other kitten,
Smoke.  I like the Baron and Joshua.  When will we get to
see them again? When?"

"Soon, I hope," Lady J replied, looking up at the two other
adults.  "If it's okay with you two, I'm going to invite
Baron Gideon and Joshua to come stay with us sometime in
January, after things calm down from winter holidays."

Both SaraJoan and Beth nodded, and then Beth added,
grinning, "Better warn them about the I-500, so they don't
wait till February, though!" They all laughed, and Chessie
started to make vroom-vroom noises and run an imaginary
snowmobile in circles of the rug.  Settling down soon after,
they each signed the card, allowing Chessie to go first. 
(Although her handwriting was improving daily, she still
managed to take up a LOT of space in signing a card.  It was
best to work around her.)

Lady J signed last, and added a note on the back:

     Dear Baron Gideon and Joshua,

     I hope this finds you both doing well.  I apologize for
     not writing sooner, but life has been hectic.  It does
     not seem possible that two whole years have passed
     since your wedding! I hope you find this anniversary as
     wonderful as the day itself was, and each one
     successively more joyous.

     Baron Gideon, do not think I have forgotten the other
     event to be celebrated: Happy Birthday! I wish you
     many, many more happy returns of the day, and may this
     day be the beginning to a wonderful year for you.

     I would like to extend, on behalf of all of us here at
     Birch Fields Farm, an invitation to you both to come
     and stay with us early in the new year.  I would
     suggest a trip in mid-January or mid to late February,
     for that is when our winter is at its most beautiful. 
     By March, though, everything begins to be covered in
     mud.  Ah, U.P. springs!

     Be warned, however, that you might not wish to come on
     the _first_ weekend in February, that's when the I-500
     is held.  It is a local tradition, a snowmobile race in
     which the contestants see who can be the quickest to
     ride their machine 500 times about the one mile track. 
     You can hear them for miles about, though thankfully
     not here at the farm.  Still, it wouldn't make the town
     much fun.

     Oops, I'm out of space! I'll try to write a _real_
     letter soon -- promise!  Lady J

Inserting the card in its envelope, Lady J took it outside
and set it on the stone half-wall of the porch.  Closing her
eyes and doing her best to concentrate (as her "sire",
Michael, had taught her so many years ago), she imagined the
envelope in the mail box she had seen on the Baron and
Joshua's property when she had gone to the Latchgate party. 
When she opened her eyes, the envelope was gone.

"Well, that's that." She smiled, pleased to know she hadn't
lost the knack yet.  But my how it drained her! She glanced
back through the window into the kitchen, and saw Beth
giving Chessie a cup of hot cocoa.  The little girl hadn't
stopped talking yet, and wouldn't begin to wind down for at
least another hour.  Just enough time to head into town for
a quick bite and be back to read Chessie her bedtime story...
_____________________________________________________________
___________________________________________________________

Joshua, lying prone on the cot in his office, managed to
read the card out loud to his husband while the latter
applied some of the balms and oils that Pandora had left for
Josh's treatment. 

"What do you think?" asked the antiques expert as Gideon
rubbed his thighs, perhaps straying a bit farther up than
absolutely necessary.

"They _are_ nice," the vampire murmured.  "Hm? Oh, the
invitation.  Are you up to it?"

"I think so.  Pandora says I'm doing really well, and if she
says so, then I must be." Josh grinned, though Gideon
couldn't see it.  "Oh, that feels good, don't stop.  We
don't know them that well, but it was nice of them to invite
us.  I'd like to go, if you would."

"There's nothing pressing business-wise," Gideon replied,
continuing to knead.  "Are you sure you won't find it too
cold?"

"Colder than here?"

He had a point, Gideon thought.  "It does sound rather nice,
although it might be a bit wearing to have a small child
around."

"Piffle.  It would be good for you."

"Then we'll accept.  It does say to bring as many of our
household as want to come, shall we take a survey?"

"Later," Josh said.  "Much, much later."

     *  *  *  *  *  *

"I'd love to go," Mitch said.  "I don't get much chance to
be around other weres, and even a kid's better than nothing.
Besides, Chessie's cute."

"Are you sure it's _Chessie_ who you think is cute?" Evan
asked pointedly.  "It's a house full of young women.  Of
course you want to go."

"Look who's talking, Mr.  High Cycle himself."

"I'm in mid," Evan said with dignity.  "And someone has to
stay here to look after whatever animals don't go.  I
volunteer.  Gideon, would it be all right if I brought Darcy
and MaryAnne here for a change?"

"Certainly," Gideon replied.  "Although the place is
scarcely child-proofed."

"That's okay, we'll manage."

"Warg had better stay behind," Mitch said, looking sadly at
his old wolf. 

<Can I go?> Smoke asked, showing off her new maturity by not
bouncing up and down, and by phrasing the question politely.
<Please?>

"Yes, of course, I think the invitation is meant for you, as
well, Smoke," Gideon assured the panther, a cub no longer.

"Pumpkin better come, too," Mitch said, "or she'll be jealous."

"Calvin stays here," said Joshua, as if it needed saying. 
"Although if he _wants_ to come, I don't see how we can stop
him."

So Gideon sat down at his desk later that night, and
composed a reply to Lady Jeanne.  On the finest bond, with
the Redoak coat of arms embossed on the top, it read:

     "My dear Lady Jeanne:

     Thank you for the card, and the anniversary and
     birthday wishes.  Both were truly happy occasions.  It
     does seem difficult to realize that two whole years
     have passed since our wedding, but you know that all
     the clichés about time are true.

     Thank you also for your kind invitation to Birch
     Fields.  I have talked it over with my household, and
     three of us plus two of the animals would be delighted
     to accept, if it is not too much of an imposition on
     you.  Joshua, Mitch, myself, Smoke and Pumpkin would
     very much like to visit; it is very kind of you to ask.

     The last weekend in January would be optimum, if this
     is at all convenient.  If not, we will gladly come
     whenever it suits your schedule, simply let any of us
     know.

     With gratitude, and the hope that this finds you all
     quite well,
          Baron Gideon Redoak"

"Mom, you got a wedding invitation!"

Chessie came to a skidding halt in front of the desk and
held out the stack of mail she carried.  Lady Jeanne looked
up from her work and frowned in confusion. 

"A wedding?" She thought for a minute, trying to figure out
who they knew that might be getting married.  After waiting
patiently for a full two minutes, Chessie started prattling
again. 

"Well, it _looks_ like a wedding invitation," she said,
somewhat defensively.  "It's really pretty paper, anyway,
just like a wedding invitation."

Jeanne smiled reassuringly at the young werecat, and opened
the envelope.  Seeing who the letter was from she had to
smile.  "It's not a wedding invitation, Chess," she said. 
"But it's something just as good. 

"Oh, and what's that?" Beth walked into the room just then
and flopped down in the chair at the sewing table.  "And by
the way, you need to talk to your daughter about waiting
until the car has _stopped_ before she gets out of it.  When
we got back from getting the mail she jumped from the Jeep
while it was still moving."

"Aunt Beth!!" Chessie glared a moment before looking and
down at her feet, instantly contrite.  Jeanne put one finger
under the little girl's chin and raised it till their eyes
met. 

"Is what Beth says true?" she asked sternly.

"Yessss..." Chessie admitted quietly, and then quickly
added.  "But we were _almost_ stopped! And I wanted to know
who was getting married." She looked pleadingly up at her
"mom". 

It is _so_ hard to discipline her, thought Jeanne, but she's
going to seriously hurt herself one of these days if I
don't.  She looked across at Beth, who just raised an
eyebrow and kept quiet. 

"No riding to get the mail for rest of the week," Jeanne
said slowly, adding over Chessie's protests, "and if you
fuss about it, I'll make it two weeks."

Chessie hushed, but started to look sulky.  However, when
she looked up and saw the letter, she forgot to be upset and
asked urgently, "WHO is the letter from?? You said it was
better than a wedding..." The last was said rather
doubtfully, for what could be better than pretty dresses and
dancing?

"Oh, the letter!" Lady Jeanne looked down at the paper she
was still holding.  "Baron Gideon and Joshua have accepted
our invitation to come visit.  And Mitch, Smoke and Pumpkin
are coming with them."

Chessie jumped up and down, clapping her hands.  And then,
suddenly, there was a medium sized kitten there instead,
bouncing on all four paws.  She stopped, looked up at Lady
Jeanne and mewed.  The look on her face caused Beth to laugh. 

Lady J bent over and scooped the kitten into her lap,
stroking her head soothingly.  She looked across at Beth and
shook her head.  Beth stopped laughing. 

"Maybe Mitch can help Chessie learn more control over her
shifting," Beth suggested, knowing how both her friend and
the little werecat worried about this a lot.  "He sounds
like a nice guy, from what you've told me.  And Chessie will
enjoy playing with Smoke, I know." She thought a moment, and
added, "When did you say they were coming?"

"I didn't say," Jeanne said, looking at the letter again. 
"It says here the last weekend in January, if that's ok with
us."

"Hmmm, and Pumpkin is a dog, eh? Well, Sarjin's going to be
back at school by then.  We can let Mitch stay in my room --
I'll sleep in the studio in the attic -- and the Baron and
Josh can have the guest room."

"Sounds like a plan to me!" Lady Jeanne set Chessie down on
the floor and continued, "Why don't you two go tell Aunt
Sarjin while I write back to them?"

After the other two had left, Jeanne looked at the mess on
her desk and sighed.  Selling the northern-most 160 acres of
the property was the right decision she was sure, but why
did it have to be such a hassle? Finally she found a clean
sheet of paper that was only _slightly_ wrinkled and started
writing. 

     "Dear Baron Gideon and Joshua,

     We are so _very_ glad that you've decided to accept our
     maintains that our two barn cats (Mason and Nymph
     Chaser) are "very nice but not nearly as _interesting_
     as Smoke is!"

     The weekend of January 31 and February 1 will be fine,
     if that's best for you.  SaraJoan will be gone, back at
     school, so it will just be Chessie, Beth and myself at
     the Farm.  Oh, and the various animals, of course.

     How do you plan on traveling, and when will you arrive?
     You are welcome to come on Friday, or earlier, if you
     like.  In fact why not make it a really long weekend,
     to be worth the trip?  I assure you it's no imposition
     if you arrived, say, Thursday and didn't leave until
     Tuesday.  Do you need directions?

     You had better bring some warm clothes, it's quite cold
     this time of year.  If you like, we can plan a sleigh
     ride about the property.  In any case, Chessie will
     drag anyone she can plead into it to the sledding hill
     at some point, I'm sure.

     I can't say how pleased we are that you will be coming
     to visit us.  I vaguely remember Mitch from one or two
     of the parties, I think.  In any case, we will do our
     best to make all you feel at home here at our home.

     Sincerely,
          Lady Jeanne Dark"

Lady J chewed on her pen thoughtfully for a moment, and then
added her e-mail address and phone number in a postscript
before sealing the letter in its envelope.  Well, that's
done, she thought, staring with distaste at the paperwork
that awaited her.  Perhaps she'd find Chessie and take her
into town to mail the letter instead... 

     *  *  *  *  *  *

Gideon, armed with Lady Jeanne's e-mail address, sat down at
his keyboard.  Really, this new method of communication
lacked elegance and charm, but it could not be topped for
swiftness.  He cautiously typed in the address and sat
staring at the blank computer screen.

<What are you doing?> Smoke inquired, brushing against his
legs.

"Trying to think of a reply to Lady Jeanne," he sighed.  "I
would be much happier with pen and paper."

<I get to play with Chessie again,> purred the panther. 

The vampire nodded, then smiled suddenly and stroked the
gray cat's fur.  "That's it," he said.  "Thank you, Smoke."
He began to type.

     "Dear Lady Jeanne:

     Again, thank you for your most gracious invitation,
     especially your not minding that we bring along the
     animals, and thrust ourselves as almost relative
     strangers into your household.  Joshua is anxious to do
     as much traveling and visiting as his health currently
     permits.  Smoke is quite excited about seeing Chessie
     again, and inspired me to reply to you as soon as
     possible.

     We will be arriving by private chartered plane.  If it
     is inconvenient for you to come and pick us up at the
     airfield, we can arrange to rent a car if you'll be
     kind enough to send directions to Birch Fields.

     I think, though, that at least Joshua and I will have
     to regretfully pass on the sleigh ride.  It sounds like
     fun, but Joshua cannot take the risk of prolonged
     exposure to the cold.   I am certain, however, that
     Mitch will easily be persuaded to go sledding with
     young Chessie.  And plenty of warm clothing will be
     packed, never fear.

     Thursday evening would suit as an arrival time--around
     7 or 8 pm? Are you certain you want us for such a long
     visit? Whatever suits your convenience.  The plane is
     already booked, and the pilot is flexible.  Mitch
     regrets not having yet earned his wings to fly us
     himself, but he is getting very close to that goal.

     Just let me know what is convenient for you, our own
     arrangements can be worked around your schedule.

     Yours sincerely,
          Gideon"

     *  *  *  *  *  *

*Beep!*

Lady Jeanne looked down at the bottom of the screen and saw
that the latest incoming message came from Oakwoods.  She
quickly read it and sent back a reply assuring the Baron
that 7 pm was fine, she would pick them up herself. 
Grabbing the phone book she leafed through to the Kinross
airport's phone number and address, added the information to
her note and sent it out into the ether.

That done, she logged off and shut down the computer. 
Looking about her office she grimaced.  It wasn't _too_ bad,
but the house was certainly in need of cleaning before she
would consider it ready for company. 

Oh well, Lady J thought as she scooped up a stack of
month-old newspapers, no time like the present to start.
___________________________________________________________