Doggone Holidays

Note: Starts at Thanksgiving and ends at Christmas, so it wraps around Give Me The News, Rally Rage, and part of To Trust, Cherish, and Honor.


“Look, Uncle Theo, it’s Santa!” Lyra cried, bouncing up and down beside me with excitement as the last float of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade rolled into view on the TV screen.

“I see him,” I told her.

Tyler, Ike’s ten-year-old nephew, rolled his eyes from the recliner and said, “Santa’s not real.”

Lyra rolled her eyes back at him. “Well, duuuh,” she replied. “I know Santa’s make-believe.”

I wasn’t surprised that my four-year-old niece didn’t believe in Santa Claus, as Zeggy and Ike have always told the twins that he’s just pretend. (Zeggy says, “Why should I subject my children to a delusion for the sake of tradition? I never believed in Santa, and I still had fun at Christmas.”) What did surprise me was the eye-roll and sarcasm. “Who taught you to say ‘well, duh’ like that?” I asked her.

“You say it to Mommy all the time.”

My mouth dropped open slightly. “I don’t think I say it like that.”

“Say what like what?” That was from Quint, walking in from the kitchen with Griffin riding piggy-back.

Lyra turned around to face him, eager to explain. “Uncle Theo says ‘well, duuuh‘ to Mommy a lot.” She rolled her eyes again as she said it, and layered even more sarcasm into her tone.

The corner of Quint’s mouth twitched upward as he set Griffin on the sofa next to her and crouched down in front of them. “Oh, I see. Well, maybe you should ask your mommy before you start repeating some of the things Uncle Theo says, okay?”

“’Kay. He says the s-word sometimes, too, and we’re not allowed to say it.”

“It’s not what you’re thinking,” I said quickly, as Quint raised an eyebrow at me. Swearing in front of the kids would warrant getting my mouth washed out, but I always forget that Zeggy’s told them ‘shut up’ is a bad word.

“Oh?”

“I’ll explain later,” I promised.

He teasingly ‘mm-hmm’d, but let it drop when Griffin said, “Uncle Quint, sit between us and watch the rest of the parade.”

Zeggy came in, wearing an apron and closely followed by Tyler’s eight-year-old sister, Melissa, who had been with her all morning. “I think the parade’s over, honey. They’re going to have the national dog show on next.”

Lyra gave a squeal of “Puppies!”, but Tyler scowled and said, “I don’t want to watch dogs.”

“You can go upstairs and watch football with the other guys,” Zeggy suggested.

“What guys?” he asked.

“Your dad, Uncle Ike and Grandpa are up there, and so are Lyra and Griffin’s Poppa and Uncle Donny,” she told him.

Tyler took her up on the offer and Melissa took his place in the recliner, while Quint sat down beside me on the sofa. Lyra climbed onto his lap and Griffin insisted on squeezing himself between us, but it was still the first time I’d seen him since we arrived, so I gave him a quick kiss over Griffin’s head.

“What have you been up to all morning?” I asked.

“Melissa, Griffin, and I made two pumpkin pies, an apple pie, and a cherry pie, and then we made cranberry sauce,” he said, ticking each dish off on his fingers as he spoke.

“Sounds yummy. Smells yummy, too,” I said. The whole house was filling with the scent of dinner and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. My stomach was growling.

“I can’t take credit for that. Zeggy and her mother- and sister-in-law have been cooking all sorts of things, but they haven’t started to bake the pies yet.”

I was going to ask when dinner would be ready, but Lyra shushed us. “I’m trying to watch the puppies, please,” she said.

“We want a puppy,” Griffin added. “Daddy says we’ve already got two kitties, and maybe when we’re older we’ll get one.”

“I always wanted a puppy, too,” I told him. I saw Quint glance at me from the corner of my eye, but I didn’t return the look. We’d never talked about getting a pet before and I didn’t really want to have a discussion on it right then.

“I said, shush, please.”

“Sorry,” I whispered, smiling as I settled down more into the cushions.

*

Dinner was delicious, as usual, and the pies Quint and the kids had made were the perfect way to finish it off. I offered to help clear the table afterward. As I set a stack of plates in the sink, Zeggy turned from packing leftovers into tupperware and said, “I’ll have your food ready in just a few minutes.”

“Thanks. Sorry we couldn’t stay longer. If Quint hadn’t pulled the early shift tomorrow-”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. I’m going to be getting up early myself, to hit the Black Friday sales. Hey, you should come with me.”

I thought she knew me better than that. “I only stand in line for hours in the early morning to get concert tickets, thanks.”

“Oh, c’mon. It’ll be fun. Pleeease? And anyway, think how much of your Christmas shopping you can get done. I bet you haven’t even started yet.”

That was true. I hesitated, and she pulled out the ultimate weapon: the pouty face. “Oh, fine. Anything to get you to stop making that ridiculous expression.”

She grinned and snapped the lid down on the last container of food. “Great. I’m not sure where I’m starting; I’ve gotta check where the best deals are going to be. So I’ll call you later, say around eight, and let you know where we’re meeting up, okay?”

“Yup.”

She gave me a stack of tupperware and a kiss on the cheek, and I went to find Quint so we could start saying our goodbyes to everyone.

*

Quint wanted to go to bed almost as soon as we’d put the food away. “You don’t need to come with me, but I have to be up at three-thirty to get to work on time,” he said as he headed towards the bathroom.

I followed, and he handed me the tube of toothpaste as he started brushing. “I’ll probably join you soon,” I said, running water over my brush. “Zeggy invited me to go shopping with her, so I’m going to be up early, too.”

He pulled the toothbrush out of his mouth and turned his head to look at me. “Excuse me?” he asked, pulling off the Voice perfectly with a mouth full of foam. I paused in the middle of squeezing the toothpaste, startled. He doesn’t normally require me to ask before making plans for when he’s at work.

“Zeggy and I are going shopping tomorrow, and we need to be up early to stand in the lines?” I said uncertainly, thinking perhaps he hadn’t understood.

He spat foam into the sink and shook his head as he filled a Dixie cup with water. “No, you’re not.”

“Why not?!”

He rinsed and dried his lips off before answering. “Because those Black Friday sales can get dangerous. I’m working in the clinic tomorrow specifically because we get more walk-in injuries.”

I rolled my eyes. He is way too overprotective sometimes. “Quint, I’ll be fine. After last year, the stores are taking all sorts of precautions, and anyway, I can take care of myself.”

“I don’t doubt that you can, but I get last say in anything that may affect your health or wellbeing, and I’m saying no,” he said, sounding alarmingly firm as he put his toothbrush away.

“But-”

“End of discussion, Theodore.”

My mouth dropped open. I couldn’t remember a time he’s pulled that line so soon in the debate. Normally he at least lets me present my case before shooting it down with infuriatingly reasonable arguments. “Quint!”

He crossed his arms – never a good sign. “Can you drop it, or do you need to stand in a corner?”

I gritted my teeth and managed to sound somewhat calm and levelheaded as I said, “I’ve already told Zeggy I was going.”

“You’ll have to call and cancel, then.”

I huffed and finally started brushing my teeth, with a bit more force than necessary.

“Still coming to bed?”

I shook my head. There wasn’t really any point, now. He walked out and came back after just a few seconds with my phone in his hand. I basically ignored him as I finished brushing, but after I put the toothbrush away he handed me the phone and said, “Call her now, please, before it gets too late.”

I was too ticked off to tell him she’d been planning to call me in just under an hour. Instead, I dialed Zeggy, and when she answered, I said, “Hey. Sorry, but it’s been decreed that I can’t go with you tomorrow. Apparently I’m too feeble to survive Christmas shopping.”

Quint took the phone out of my hand. “Zeggy? He’s going to have to call you back in a few minutes, okay?”

Then he ended the call and took me by the arm, and before I could do more than say “Quint!” he had one foot on the edge of the tub and me hanging over his thigh. I have no idea where he set my phone down, but it certainly wasn’t in his hand as his palm met my butt in about a half-dozen sharp swats.

He stopped, and I tried to catch my breath. “Are we done?” he asked calmly.

Oh, yes, please. There’s nothing like a sudden smart in your backside to make you realize it really isn’t as big a deal as you’re making it. I mean, I didn’t even want to go in the first place. “Yes, sir,” I said. “We’re done.”

“Good.” He set me back on my feet and handed me the phone. “Call Zeggy and explain to her properly, please. I’m going to change for bed.”

The first thing Zeggy said was, “You actually did that right in front of him?”

“I’ve never claimed that intelligence is among my many gifts,” I replied drily.

She snorted. “Well, what about just meeting me for brunch somewhere? The Barnes & Noble on Fifth- no, that one’ll be packed. How about the one on East 60th street?”

After what had just happened, I figured I’d better ask Quint first. He okayed it, so we agreed to meet in the B&N cafe at ten-thirty.

*

We ate at a small table by the window, and then I figured since I was already there I might as well have a look around and see if there was anything Quint would like for Christmas. The store was only a little more crowded than usual, and people weren’t pushing each other over to get to books or anything. Zeggy wanted to check out the children’s section, too, so we each ambled off on our own.

I was wandering through the non-fiction when a section of books about dogs caught my eye, and I remembered my off-hand comment to Griffin the day before. I’d always wanted a dog growing up, but my father was not an animal-lover. I picked up one of the books geared toward first-time owners and started flipping through it.

Twenty minutes later when Zeggy found me, I was still reading it. She pushed it up so she could see the title on the cover and then said, “You’re getting a dog?”

“No. I mean… I haven’t even talked to Quint about it, but I was thinking of getting one,” I admitted.

“Well, maybe you should get the book. It’ll help you talk about it.”

“Yeah, I think I will.”

“Cool. I’m ready to go whenever you are.”

*

I spent the time until Quint came home from work with my nose in the book, which is quite a rarity for me. I left it on the coffee table when he opened the door and went to give him a kiss.

“Hey. How was work?” I asked as he toed off his shoes.

“Good. How was your day?”

“I bought a book after Zeggy and I had brunch.”

“Oh? What book?”

“It’s called Your First Dog. I kinda wanted to talk to you about it.” I watched his face carefully for his initial reaction, and could only identify mild surprise.

“Let me change first,” he said, moving past me.

“Okay.” I went back to the couch and sat down, flipping through the book nervously while I waited.

He came back wearing jeans and an turtleneck sweater, and sat down beside me. “Theo, I’m moderately allergic to dogs.”

I blinked, a bit startled that I hadn’t known that about him before (although now that I think of it, no one we know owns a dog, so it’s never come up), but said quickly, “So is Malia Obama – or was it Sasha? I can never remember. But the point is, they still got a dog.”

“I know,” he said reassuringly. “I just wanted to let you know that if we do decide to get one, it’ll have to be a hypoallergenic breed.”

“That’s fine,” I agreed readily. Giving up the Golden Retriever I’d always pictured seemed a minor concession. “This book lists questions you should ask yourself before getting one, and it has a chart so you can see how much it will cost. And I’ve already answered the questions and calculated that we can afford it, so… what do you think?”

He hesitated, while I waited anxiously. Finally, he said, “I think getting a pet is a big decision, and not one that should be made on impulse.”

“I know,” I rushed to explain. “I’m not being impulsive, I swear. I said yesterday I’ve always wanted one, didn’t I? And I know what it involves. I’ve been reading all about it.”

“Yes, I see that. I’m not saying ‘no’, I’m saying give me a few days to think about it and be sure that I want one, too, alright?”

“Okay. You should read the book,” I said, handing it to him.

“I will. We could read it together before bed tonight, actually.”

I made a face. “No non-fiction before bed. It gives me indigestion.”

He laughed. “Alright, I’ll read it on my own time, then.”

*

All through dinner, I kept ‘casually’ mentioning the ways a dog would improve both our lives. I even brought up those studies you hear about, that pet-owners have longer lifespans. Finally, Quint gave me a mild Look and said, “Angel, I know you’re excited, but I’d like to talk about something else for awhile. I’ll let you know when I’ve come to a decision about the dog, okay?”

I winced slightly, realizing that I was maybe pushing him too much. “Sorry.”

I know how methodical he is, and that he doesn’t like to be pressured into making a decision before he’s ready. That’s why we don’t do grocery shopping together. Quint sticks to the list exclusively, goes aisle by aisle from one side of the store to the other, and if there’s a new item, he has to compare prices and nutritional values of all the different brands before he’ll put it into the cart – and don’t even get me started on how he is with produce. I go about it haphazardly, buying things that aren’t on the list (although I’m not allowed to buy junk food, or spend more than twenty dollars on my additions), and grabbing the first brand that catches my eye. If we try to do it together, we drive each other nuts.

We talked about normal couple-y stuff for the rest of the meal, and I didn’t bring up the dog again until the next morning, when I couldn’t resist.

I’d been hit by another bout of insomnia around four and he’d used one of the more effective cures, after which I’d fallen asleep where I collapsed: on top of him. So when he shifted out from under me in the early morning hours, I half-awoke with a mumble of protest.

“Go back to sleep, angel. I’m just going out for my jog,” he whispered from the side of the bed.

I opened one eye blearily and used it to give him a look of incredulity. “It’s still dark out, and it must be freezing.”

The corner of his mouth quirked up. “The sun is rising, and you know I don’t mind the cold.”

“Yeah,” I said, closing my eye and hugging his pillow close to my face, for both the warmth and the scent he’d left behind. It muffled my voice slightly as I continued, “You’re like a postman. ‘Neither wind nor rain nor… something something…’”

“’Sleet nor snow’. And no, I wouldn’t jog in a full-out thunderstorm, but a bit of a chill won’t hurt me, as long as I dress appropriately.”

I cracked open my eyes again to watch him dress, and after a few seconds, said, “Y’know, when we get a dog, you could take it jogging with you.”

He gave me another Look, although it was edged with amusement. “If we get a dog. Go back to sleep. And you’re not to get out of bed until nine-thirty. You lost about an hour last night.”

“So’d you,” I muttered, but I was already dozing off again. I faintly felt him brushing his lips over mine before he left.

When I woke up again, he was sitting in the bed beside me, smelling fresh from the shower and reading Your First Dog.

“G’morning,” I said.

“Morning. You’ve got another twenty-six minutes to rest until nine-thirty. Close your eyes and no talking, please.”

He went back to reading. I didn’t seeing any point in staying in bed when I was awake (unless, of course, we weren’t resting), but I knew he wasn’t going to relent. He’d enacted this system of making me stay in bed longer whenever possible to make up for lost sleep shortly after the Matinee Incident in the spring. Of course, he couldn’t do it on the days when I had to get up for classes, so we still had occasional debates about whether I needed a nap in the afternoon like a preschooler.

“May I pee first, your royal preppiness?” I asked in my most respectful tone of voice.

He swatted me lightly through the comforter without taking his eyes from the book, and said, “Yes, you may, but be quick.”

I padded to the bathroom and back, and as I slid underneath the covers again, said, “Y’know, we could be doing more fun things with this twenty-six minutes.”

“Hush and close your eyes.”

I rolled them first.

Annoyingly, the next thing I remember is him gently shaking me awake at nine-thirty.

*

I spent most of that day writing an essay (I know, assigning an essay over break?!) and Quint had to work in the afternoon. He always winds up with odd shifts around the holidays, although this year had been much better than the last two – at least he wasn’t on call on Thanksgiving.

He didn’t bring up the dog subject until Sunday afternoon. We’d spent the morning cleaning, as usual, and when we sat down for lunch he said, “I think hypoallergenic dog breeds don’t shed much, which is good. You know I’d be completely anal about dog hair getting on everything.”

I paused with my fork halfway to my mouth. “Does that mean you’re saying yes?”

His lips curved. “Yes.”

I whooped and got up to give him a hug. “When?” I asked, pulling back enough to see his face, but not completely out of his arms.

“Well, we need to do some research and find a reputable seller. It might still be a few months, depending, so you’ll have to be patient.”

“I can be patient.” He quirked an eyebrow at me. “Well, I can try!” I insisted, laughing.

I wanted to start researching hypoallergenic dog breeds right then, but he insisted that we finish eating first, so I sucked it up and showed him me being patient.

As soon as the dishes were in the dishwasher, I was at the computer typing. “Okay, here’s a list. Poodles, Portuguese Water Dogs – I think that’s what the Obamas got – Bedlington Terriers, Havaneses…. Most of these I’ve never heard of.”

“Hang on. Before we fall in love with the look of a breed, we should probably make a list of the qualities we want,” Quint said.

Leave it to him to suggest a list. He got a pen and paper, and I stifled a sigh and sat down beside him on the couch. “We know it needs to be hypoallergenic,” he said, writing in his slanting cursive.

“And you want it to jog with you, right?”

He nodded and put that down on the next line. “I think ‘trainable’ would be a high priority.”

“Definitely. I want to be able to teach it tricks.”

“Housebroken,” he continued, writing as he spoke.

“Wait,” I interrupted. “If we get a puppy, it won’t be already housebroken. We’ll have to do it ourselves.”

He looked up at me with a slight frown and asked, “Do we want a puppy? I was thinking more along the lines of an adult dog.”

“But puppies are so much more cute and playful!”

“An adult can be cute and playful, too. I’ll put that down as a requirement.”

“Can you put ‘preferably housebroken’?” I asked. He hesitated, and I said, “I’ll be in charge of the housebreaking, if it’s not. I mean, I’ll be here with it more while you’re at work, anyway.”

“Alright, ‘preferably’,” he agreed after a moment’s thought. “What else?”

“Well, Lyra and Griffin are going to want to play with it, so I think it needs to be good with younger kids.”

“Yes, but we’re never going to leave them alone with the dog, okay?”

“Of course. Oh, and if we want to take it to the dog run at the park, it needs to be good with other dogs, too. They won’t allow it to be there, otherwise,” I said.

“Hang on, let me get that down… alright. What about barking?”

“You can train them out of that. They make collars that spray nasty-smelling stuff whenever they bark.”

“I think that’s another ‘preferably’,” he said, and then muttered ‘quiet’ as he wrote it down. “Is that it?”

“Um… oh, it needs to be able to live in an apartment, without much room to run around.”

He wrote again, and said, “Alright. That’s nine things – seven if you don’t count the ‘preferably’s. Does that seem realistic to you?”

“Yeah, I think we can find a dog to fit those requirements,” I said.

*

That night, I was flipping through TV channels and out of curiosity stopped at Animal Planet, which we usually just skipped over. It was a program about rescuing animals from neglect and cruelty, and some of the stuff they showed was enough to break your heart. That’s what gave me the idea of adopting from a shelter. Quint said he’d like to as well, though he was doubtful that they’d have the breeds we were looking for. I called Zeggy to ask her about it, because she adopted her cats at the ASPCA, and she told me they list all the adoptable adult dogs online, but not the puppies because they’re gone so quickly.

We checked out the website with no luck, and Quint said he would call from work the next day to ask about puppies. It was my first day back in classes after break, so I was very busy until four, but I kept thinking about the dog all day as I waited impatiently for Quint to call and tell me what was going on.

Finally, just as I was about to head home, my phone started playing his ringtone. “Well?”

“They don’t have any purebred puppies right now, but they want us to come in and fill out an application. They say they can call us when they get something hypoallergenic, but she warned me it may take quite awhile, so I think we should set a time limit on this. How long are we willing to wait for a shelter dog before we start looking at other sources?”

I frowned, thinking about it. “How about a month?”

“Sounds good. We can go in and do the application today, if you meet me there when I get out of work.”

*

Amy, the woman that Quint had spoken to on the phone, helped us fill out the application at the shelter. She was very friendly, and even had a box of tissues ready for when the lingering dog dander in the air started to make him sneeze. Before we left, she shook our hands and said, “Well, you two are going to make some lucky dog a very good home. I hope we can find one that’s a good fit for you.”

We spent Tuesday evening doing Christmas shopping (splitting up after we got into the stores, thank god), although we agreed that the dog would be our one big gift to each other this year, because it was going to be so expensive.

Of course, Wednesday night was when the whole marriage equality thing started, and the for the next week we were planning the commitment ceremony every spare minute – which there weren’t many of, because it was also the start of Finals Week at school – so discussions about the dog kinda got pushed to the back burner, although I kept thinking about it. My last final was the morning of the fourteenth (I always seem to wind up with one on the very last day possible, at eight AM), and Quint spent the fifteenth and sixteenth torturing me, although he called it ‘getting something decent to wear for the ceremony, because you are not wearing those jeans, Theodore’, but that’s a whole other story. The seventeenth was when we finally got a call from the shelter. I answered the phone just as Quint walked in the door from work.

“Hi, this is Amy calling from the ASPCA. May I speak to Rafferty Hanniford or Theodore Calhoun, please?”

My heart jumped. “This is Theodore Calhoun.”

Quint, sliding the pantry door open for his shoes, mouthed ‘who is it?’ at me. ‘Shelter,’ I mouthed back.

On the phone, she continued, “Mr. Calhoun, I’m calling because yesterday morning we received a surrender of a one-year-old Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier, which is a hypoallergenic breed, and we were wondering if you and your partner would be interested in coming to see him and possibly adopting him.”

“We’re very interested!” I said, ignoring Quint’s ‘tell me what’s happening’ look. “When can we come in?”

“Well, we’ll be closing in about an hour. If you can’t make it in tonight, you can come in tomorrow or on Saturday. We’re open from eleven AM to seven PM both days.”

I grinned at Quint and said, “We’ll be there when my partner gets out of work tomorrow, around six.”

“Excellent! We’ll see you then.”

As soon as I’d hung up, Quint said, “Be at the shelter? They have a dog for us, then?”

“There’s one they want us to look at,” I said, giving him a rough hug and a smacking kiss before I continued, “It’s a Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier. I want to google that and see what they look like.” I was already heading to the computer as I spoke. He followed me and stood watching over my shoulder as I pulled up the American Kennel Club’s page on the breed. “Oh, they’re adorable! Like a fluffy teddy-bear, don’t you think?”

“Yes, very fluffy,” Quint agreed, in not quite the same tone of voice. “How much do they shed?”

I rolled my eyes at him. Typical.

“They’re hypoallergenic; they can’t shed much. Hang on, let’s look at the breed characteristics.” I skimmed over the short description, reading key phrases aloud. “’Happy, steady, self-confident, and alert… versatile… competes in obedience, agility, and earth dog trials’ – I have no idea what ‘earth dog’ is, but that must mean they’re pretty trainable…. Oh, and look, they’re originally from Ireland. It says they were bred as ‘an all-purpose farm dog… less scrappy than many other terriers… enjoys plenty of exercise every day’ – that’s good, he’ll like jogging with you. ‘They relate well to children and can adapt to city life… sheds minimally’. There!” I finished triumphantly, looking up at him.

“’But needs regular grooming to keep its coat mat free’,” he continued from where I’d left off.

“I’ll groom him every day if I have to,” I promised.

“’Him’? It’s a male?”

“Yeah, and she said he’s only a year old.”

“Why is he at the shelter?”

“Um.. not sure. I think she said he was ‘surrendered’, whatever that means.”

He frowned. “It might mean he had some behavioral problems his previous owners couldn’t train him out of.”

I sighed in exasperation. “Must you be so negative about everything? Maybe it means they were neglecting him and turned him over when the cruelty investigators showed up.”

“You’re right, I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head. “But I don’t want you to get your heart set on this dog when we haven’t even met him yet, okay?”

“I know. I’m just excited.” I stood up and asked, “Aren’t you excited?”

“Yes, I’m excited, too,” he said, grinning at the way I was bouncing on my toes.

I gave him another sloppy kiss, said, “Good. Now I’m so excited I have to pee,” and headed for the bathroom.

“Thank you for announcing it,” he called after me, laughing.

When I returned, he was sitting at the computer looking at another website on Wheaten terriers. “Hey, that was my seat,” I said, and he hooked an arm around my waist and pulled me down onto his lap.

“Didn’t see your name on it,” he replied, nipping at my neck.

“That’s alright. This one’s nice, too.”

He gave me a quick smile and said, “I was just reading about their temperament. It says they need to be started out early with training and socialization, so if he’s a year old and hasn’t had any yet-”

“Yeah, but a year isn’t that late,” I pointed out. “And we don’t know that he hasn’t had any.”

“True. It also says the trainer needs to be firm and consistent.”

I had to laugh. “You’re worried that you’re not firm and consistent enough?”

“No, I know I am. But he’s not going to be only my dog. You’ll have to be involved in the training, too.”

“I know. But you’ll still be leader of the pack. You can show me how it’s done.”

He nodded and continued, “It’s rare, but they can have genetic diseases called PLN and PLE. They’re fatal, so we’d need to be on the lookout for the symptoms and get him tested annually. The tests will only come back positive if the disease is already active; you can’t test to see if they’re going to get it. It also says they commonly have flea allergies. Just one bite can give them a skin rash.”

“If the diseases are rare, I think we’ll be safe. I’m sure the shelter wouldn’t put him up for adoption if he was showing any of the symptoms. And I can’t imagine you’d let him get fleas, anyway.”

“True.” He scrolled down the page a bit and pointed at another paragraph. “They retain their puppy exuberance for their whole life, which I think fulfills your requirement of ‘playful’.”

I nodded. “Even if we don’t get this dog at the shelter, I think we should definitely keep the breed in mind. They seem just about perfect.”

“Yeah, they do.” He patted my leg and said, “You can keep reading, but I need to change and get started on dinner.”

He had to drag me away from the computer to eat, and as soon as we were done I was back at it, doing more ‘research’, which mainly consisted of looking at pictures of adorable dogs. I kept calling him over to see, until he went to bed.

I thought I’d be too excited to sleep, but I was actually pretty tired and dropped off quickly. When I woke up, there was a note from Quint on my nightstand saying we could meet at the shelter again, and that he’d arranged to leave work a couple hours early so we’d have more time before they closed.

*

We were met by Amy, who led us to a small room with a wooden bench set against the wall, a shelf with a box on it, and an air filtration device humming in one corner. “I put that in here last night,” she said, gesturing to it. “We needed a dander-free environment for you guys to meet him in, but I’ll turn it off now so it won’t be masking any reaction you might have. If you’ll wait here, I’ll go and get him.”

While we waited, I asked Quint, “Feeling sneezy at all?”

“Nope, I feel fine.”

Amy was back very shortly, leading a medium-sized, shaggy, blond dog that immediately ran over to us, his short tail wagging.

“Sit, Tigger,” she said, and he plonked his butt down on the floor. “Okay, you can pet him now. If he starts to jump, just tell him to sit again. We’re told he was named for his tendency to bounce.”

“He already knows some basic commands, then?” Quint asked, crouching down to pet him. I did, too, and found the breed is very appropriately named – his coat was soft and silky.

“Yes,” Amy said, standing next to him and holding the leash. “He knows ‘sit’, ‘down’, and ‘here’. He passed his behavioral evaluation with flying colors, and he’s housebroken. He does pull on the leash, but that can be fixed with the right training method and a bit of patience and determination.”

“We’ve got plenty of both,” I said, smiling as he rolled over so we could rub his belly.

“Why was he brought here?” Quint asked.

“It’s my understanding that his previous owner passed away in a car accident, and her family didn’t have the money to care for him.”

“That’s too bad for them. He’s a good boy, isn’t he?” I said, more to Tigger than to them.

“He’s very sweet and playful,” Amy agreed. “His coat will require a visit to the groomer’s every four to six weeks and combing out about twice a week, or it’ll get matted.”

“Yes, we were researching the breed last night and saw that,” Quint said. “It also said they can have protein wasting diseases?”

“Yes, they are more prone to them, but we have his registration papers here, so we know what breeder he came from, and they have a good reputation, which reduces the odds significantly. You might want to contact them yourselves, just to find out more about his parents and let them know he’s in a new home.”

“Do you know if he’s ever been to a groomer’s before?” Quint asked.

“We’re not sure. He certainly hasn’t been clipped in a while, by the look of him. But we gave him a bath yesterday, and he wasn’t frightened at all – in fact, he thought it was playtime.”

Tigger rolled back over and tried to jump up on me, and before Amy could say anything Quint said, “No, Tigger, sit.” He sat down almost immediately and looked up at Quint with his mouth open and tongue hanging out. It reminded me of myself – although I try to control the panting, most of the time – and I laughed.

“Well,” Amy said, smiling, “I can see you’re going to pick up on the training quickly.”

“Quint’s a natural,” I told her. “If we change his name, is it going to confuse him too much?”

“You don’t like the name ‘Tigger’?” Quint asked.

“I was never really into Winnie the Pooh,” I said. “It sounds a little… I don’t know, childish?”

“We have people change the names of their new pet all the time, and they learn the new one really quickly,” Amy reassured me. “But if you’re worried about confusing him you might try something that sounds similar.”

I glanced at Quint and said, “We’ll have to think about it.”

“Of course,” Amy said. She pulled the box off the shelf and set it down on the bench, and I saw it was full of dog toys. “You guys can play with him for awhile, if you’d like, to get to know him better. Depending on the severity of the allergies and the particular dog, a reaction might take some time to develop, and we want to make sure that won’t happen before you make a decision to take him home. I’ll take the leash off and sit out of the way on the bench.”

She did, and I picked a ball from the box and tossed it across the floor. Tigger chased after it and picked it up, then dropped it again and trotted over to Quint. I laughed and said, “Guess no one’s taught him how to play fetch.”

“If we do decide to get him, will we be taking him home today?” Quint asked, rubbing the dog’s ears as I went and got the ball myself.

“Well, he needs to be neutered still,” Amy said. I winced instinctively, but she didn’t seem to notice. “That’s scheduled for Monday, and we can’t release him until the day after it’s done. You can put down a seventy-five dollar deposit on him today and pick him up Tuesday evening.”

“That would be better, actually. It would give us time to get supplies,” Quint said.

“He’s crate trained, so you’ll probably want to get one of those. It’s better to keep him in one for the first few nights and when you’re not there, until he’s settled into his new home.”

“Isn’t it a bit mean to confine him like that?” I asked, scratching his back as he pressed up against my legs.

“Actually, many dogs find a crate very comforting. They’re naturally den animals, and like to have a place of their own to retreat to. As long as it’s big enough, with bedding in it, and you don’t use it as punishment or leave him there for more than six hours or so during the day, he should be fine.”

“It wouldn’t be that long, anyway,” Quint said. “It’s not often that we’re both out of the apartment for six hours. How big should it be?”

“Big enough for him to stand up and turn around. I can give you the exact dimensions when you come to pick him up.”

“My partner likes to go for a jog in the morning, and we were hoping the dog would be able to go with him?” I said.

“He’d love it,” Amy confirmed, “and giving him daily exercise would also help prevent behavior problems.”

I gave Quint a teasing grin. “How many items have you checked off the list so far?”

“Six,” he said, and then explained to her, “We made a list of nine things we’re looking for in a dog.”

“Oh, that’s good. So often we get people who come in without any idea of what they want other than ‘cute’. What are the other three?”

“Good with young kids, not aggressive towards other dogs, and doesn’t bark much,” Quint said.

“We always strongly recommend supervising younger kids while they play with a dog. In his case I’d say you’d have to watch that he doesn’t get too rambunctious and knock them over,” she said. Considering how hard he was pressing against me, I could see what she meant. “We test for aggressiveness towards other dogs before they become eligible for adoption. As for barking, we have a lot activity going on here every day, and many dogs will bark if they hear other dogs barking. It’s hard to say how noisy he’ll be in a home environment, but I can tell you that Wheatens as a breed generally only bark to let you know someone’s at the door.”

“That was a ‘preferably’, anyway,” I said to Quint. I was sold already. “So, what do you think?”

“I think we should play with him awhile longer and make sure I don’t start sneezing,” he said. “Toss the ball again, and let’s see if we can teach him to bring it back.”

At the end of ninety minutes, Quint’s sinuses were still clear and Tigger was getting the hang of fetch. I started suggesting new names.

“Pigger? Lizard? Wizard? Gizzard?”

Amy giggled and Quint said, “Not a chance. But I’m sure we’ll think of something before Tuesday, angel.”

“Have we made a decision, then?” Amy asked.

Tigger already seemed to know who had seniority. He tilted his head to one side and looked at Quint appealingly. Figuring it couldn’t hurt, I put on my best puppy-dog eyes, too.

Quint laughed. “You can both stop with the looks; the answer’s yes.”

“Did you hear that, boy? You’re coming home with us soon!” I gave the dog a hug, and he licked my cheek excitedly.

“Wonderful!” Amy said. “I’ll go get the forms you need to fill out.”

After we had completed the paperwork, told Tigger good-bye, and left the shelter, Quint looked at his watch and said, “It’s nearly time for dinner, and it’s Friday. Why don’t we get pizza to celebrate?”

*

Quint’s much more flexible about my sleeping patterns when I’m on break, but I still need to be in bed by two at the latest. Otherwise I wind up switching my schedule around completely, and it’s not fair to him if I sleep all day. But I was too hyped up that night. Finally at three, I woke him, and when our favorite cure didn’t work, he did the count-my-heartbeats bit. It was still nearly five by the time I drifted off, though.

A pressing need to use the bathroom roused me at ten the next morning. Quint came in as I was washing my hands and said, “You need to stay in bed until eleven-thirty. Really, based on the amount of sleep you lost it should be one, but I know that’ll only mess up your cycle more.”

And an hour and a half would make that much difference? “Can I call Zeggy first and tell her about the dog?” I asked. It had been the twins’ bath- and bedtime when we left the pizzeria the night before, which is too late to call when she’s not expecting it.

“No, you can tell her after you get up. Come on.” He herded me back to the bedroom.

“I’m up now,” I pointed out. “It’ll only take a few minutes, I promise.”

“No. Under the covers, please,” he said, holding them up for me.

I huffed in exasperation. “Quint!”

“Yes, Theodore?” he asked, with a mildly inquisitive look.

I rolled my eyes and muttered “Nothing” as I got into bed.

“I need to finish up some research and paperwork for work on the computer, so I’ll be right in the living room,” he said. I couldn’t tell if he meant it as a warning or a reassurance. “Keep your eyes closed and no talking, please.”

I closed my eyes until he’d left the room, then opened them again. I know, I know – and looking back on it, I did need more sleep. But I swear, at the time I didn’t feel remotely tired!

I saw that he’d moved my iPhone from the dock on my nightstand to the top of the dresser. I glanced from it to the half-open door and back again. I knew he’d hear me if I tried calling Zeggy, but if I could just get it without him noticing, the games would at least give me a way to kill the time.

Very slowly and carefully, I sat up and slid my legs over the edge of the bed. I paused, but I could still hear him typing in the living room, so I gradually transferred my weight to my feet and stood up. Our bedroom is small enough that I only had to take one step to reach the dresser, keeping my ear on the sound of the typing as I picked up the phone, before turning, taking the step back just as cautiously, and climbing back under the covers.

“Theo, stop shifting around, please.”

My heart stopped momentarily and I nearly dropped the phone, but my voice somehow sounded normal as I called back, “I’m just trying to get comfortable.”

He didn’t say anything else, so after a few seconds I relaxed.

Making sure to mute the volume first, I opened Alive4Ever and started killing zombies. In the middle of the third level, I heard the desk chair sliding back and then a footstep. I shoved the phone underneath my pillow, closed my eyes, and started breathing slow and deep – which isn’t easy when you’re heart’s beating that fast.

I heard him enter the bedroom, and then the carpet muffled his footsteps and there was nothing else until a very stern, “Theodore William, open your eyes. I know you’re awake.”

My heart stopped again. You’d think a doctor would show more concern about placing such stress on a vital organ. Instead, when I opened my eyes, he was Looking down at me with his arms crossed.

“I left your phone on the dresser. Where is it?”

Fuck. I didn’t even think about him noticing that it was missing. Still, I gave him my best innocent look and said, “I don’t know. I’ve been laying here with my eyes closed, remember?”

His eyebrows went an octave higher, and he held out a hand. “Young man, give me your phone, now.”

“I don’t have-”

“One.”

I grimaced, pulled it out from under the pillow, and dropped it into his hand.

“Thank you,” he said evenly, sticking it in his back pocket. “Roll over, please.”

He didn’t even have the courtesy to seem like he was kidding. I winced harder, but I didn’t need him to start counting again, so I reluctantly turned over. He pulled the covers back, put one hand on my shoulder, and very briskly dusted off the seat of my pajama pants with the other. With only thin flannel to protect me, my eyes were watering by the time he was finished.

“If I need to speak to you again before eleven-thirty, you’ll be going over my knee for a proper spanking, understood?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, subdued. He tucked the covers around my shoulders, rubbed my back for a few seconds, and left.

I did manage to fall asleep after a while, and when I woke up Quint was beside me, reading one of his historical biographies. He glanced down at me and said, “Ten more minutes.” I sighed and closed my eyes again.

When I was finally allowed to open them, he gave me my phone back and said, “You can call Zeggy now, but don’t talk forever. We need to eat lunch and go to the pet store to pick up supplies.”

Zeggy was just as excited as I was about the dog, although she didn’t have any suggestions for a new name that we hadn’t already vetoed.

*

Okay, you remember I explained about how we drive each other nuts when we shop for groceries together? That applies to all other kinds of shopping as well. I wasn’t looking forward to the pet store.

Quint, of course, had made a list of what we needed for the dog, and as soon as we walked into the store he said, “First thing is food and water dishes, and a mat to go under them. Get a cart, please, angel?”

I did, and followed him down aisle number one. Trying to speed things along, I pointed at a set of ceramic dishes and said, “I like those.”

“Those are for a cat or a very small dog, Theo.”

“Oh. Well, I still like them,”

We looked at each other, and after a moment we both laughed. “Okay,” he said, “I promise I’ll try to hurry up, if you promise you’ll try to be patient.”

“Deal.”

So we checked off the majority of the supplies much less painlessly than I had expected, and when we got to the toys, we really started to have fun.

“What about this one?” I asked, squeaking a stuffed bear at him.

“He might tear the stuffing out of that,” Quint said.

“Yeah, we probably want things he can chew on without ruining too badly.”

“What about a disk to play fetch with? Or this looks neat. You put food inside and he has to work to get it out, see? It’ll give him something to do when we’re not home.”

We wound up with more toys than anything else, and Quint added a basket to keep them all in. Then as we were about to go to the register, I spotted Christmas stockings shaped like a dog’s paw and convinced Quint to get one. “He’s going to be spoiled rotten,” I said, watching the cashier ring everything up.

“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Quint said. “We’ll wrap some of the toys up for Christmas, too.”

We had too many bulky purchases for the subway, so we took a cab home and started unpacking. After a brief debate over where the crate should go – I very nobly said I was willing to sacrifice ‘my’ corner, and Quint turned down my offer – he moved the floor lamp a few inches closer to the chair to make room for it next to the TV.

When that was done, I looked around the apartment and said, “You know, it’s less than a week ’til Christmas. We should have the tree up already.”

“You’re right. Help me get the boxes down from the closet?”

Our tree is artificial, but it still looks very festive once it’s all decorated. We bought it together the week before our first Christmas, after Quint admitted to me he hadn’t had a tree of his own in ten years because he couldn’t be bothered with trying to pick one out when he spent most Christmases at friends’ houses. He assembled it in front of the right side of the picture window while I worked on detangling the lights that always wind up in knots, however carefully Quint wraps them up every year.

“I think we should keep the glass ornaments packed until we know how the dog will react to the tree,” he said, coming to help me with a particularly nasty tangle.

I agreed, but once we had put the lights and garland on we realized we didn’t have very many non-glass ornaments. We hung up the ones we had, and Quint said we could buy more before Christmas so it wouldn’t look so bare. Then he switched our regular tablecloth for the red and green plaid one, and started transferring the fruit from the wooden bowl we use as a centerpiece to the Santa Claus bowl Lyra and Griffin gave us last year, while I took a chair and climbed onto it to hang a ball of mistletoe over the couch.

“I hereby declare this to be an area of peace and goodwill towards men – this man, in particular – for the remainder of the holiday season,” I said, spreading my arms wide as I stood on the chair.

“That’s fine, we’ll just use the bedroom if we need to,” Quint said placidly, glancing up from his fruit. “Now get down from there before you fall.”

“Crap, I forgot about the bedroom. Do we have any more mistletoe?” I asked, climbing down.

“’Fraid not. Maybe we can get some when we go shopping for the ornaments. In the meantime, can you hang the stockings from the bookcase, please?”

“Nope. We only have two hangers for three stockings.”

“Oh, right. I’ll add that to the list of things to buy. Just hang ours for now.”

*

We went shopping again the next day, and he took so long picking out ornaments I thought Christmas would be over by the time we got to the checkout line. He also only let me get one more ball of mistletoe because they were ridiculously overpriced, and when I pointed out that there were still the dining chairs to worry about, he said, “You’ll just have to take your chances, angel.” Which is silly, because it wasn’t up to chance at all.

*

I spent Monday while Quint was at work tweaking the song I was writing for the ceremony, but when he got home I set my guitar back in its stand and went to give him a kiss.

“How was your day, angel?”

“Jagger,” I said without thinking.

He gave me the look that non sequitur deserved and said, “What?”

“Sorry. I just thought of a new name for the dog,” I explained. “What do you think of ‘Jagger’?”

“As in Mick Jagger?” I nodded, and he tilted his head to one side, considering. “I like it. What made you think of that?”

I shrugged, smiling. “I’ve been practicing your song, and I guess the muse struck me.”

“Jagger it is, then. We’ll have to get him an ID tag before we pick him up tomorrow,” he said, hanging up his coat. “Which reminds me – the shelter called me on the way home to let me know the surgery went okay, and he’s recovering well. They also said one of their volunteers taught him to ‘shake’ over the weekend. He’s a quick learner.”

“Wonder if we can teach him to play guitar?”

*

Jagger seemed very happy to see us when they brought him out. He was wearing a cone so he wouldn’t lick his stitches, but his recent surgery certainly didn’t slow him down any. He bounded over to me and jumped up on my legs. I grinned and started scratching behind his ears, and Quint said, “Tell him to sit, Theo. We don’t want him thinking it’s okay to do that.”

“Oh, right. Jagger, sit.” I said, and I was pleased that he didn’t seem to notice the name change. I hooked his new collar around his neck below the cone, making sure the shiny green tag we’d just had engraved was centered, while Quint payed the rest of the adoption fee and filled out the final bit of paperwork.

We took a cab home, with Jagger sitting on my lap with his nose pressed against the window. Luckily, the cabbie was a dog person and didn’t mind that he was leaving snot marks on the glass.

Before we went up to the apartment we decided to take him for a walk, and soon discovered that he’s much stronger than he looks. After he nearly dragged me into the street, Quint took the leash and said we’d have to do some training to stop the pulling before I could walk him on my own.

“I’d like to enroll in an obedience class next month, too,” he said as we walked through the apartment door. “We need to learn how to train him as much as he needs to be trained.”

We showed him his crate, putting a few treats inside so he’d go in and check it out, and then I started playing with him while Quint made dinner.

“Theo, if you’re going to romp in there, move the lamps, please, so they don’t get broken, and stay away from the tree. Oh, and don’t let him on the furniture.”

“Oh, c’mon, Quint,” I protested. “He doesn’t shed much, remember? Why can’t he go on the couch?”

He looked from Jagger to me, then sighed and shook his head. “I can see I’m going to be getting double-barreled puppy-dog faces from now on. Alright, but I draw the line at the bed.”

*

Before I went to bed I took Jagger over to his crate and pointed into it. He went in and laid down, and I shut the door, glad that he seemed okay with it. As soon as my head hit the pillow, though, he started whining. I got up and went back into the living room.

“You okay, boy?” I asked as I let him out. He jumped up on my legs, wagging his tail. “You seem okay. Go back in your crate and go to sleep, alright?” I put a few of his treats on the bedding, and he went in to eat them and then laid down again. “Good boy. Go to sleep.”

I went into the bedroom, climbed under the covers, and heard him start whining.

“Quint, wake up.”

“Mm?”

“Jagger’s whining. I don’t think he likes being in that crate.” He sat up and listened for a few seconds, and I said, “I went and checked on him, and he seems okay.”

“Try ignoring him,” he said, laying back down. “He’ll settle down and go to sleep in a few minutes.”

“Would you ignore me if I was acting like that?” I asked, propping myself up on one elbow so I could give him a Look.

“If you were doing it for attention? Yes, I would,” he said, apparently impervious to my raised eyebrows. I’ll have to catch him in an exceptionally candid mood sometime and ask what the trick is to making them so disconcerting.

“He’s not doing it for attention, he’s doing it because he’s lonely,” I insisted. “He’s been in the shelter smelling other dogs for nearly a week, and before that he was with his old owner. He probably still misses her. I think we should move the crate in here. Maybe if he could smell us it would calm him down.”

“There’s no room for it in here, Theo.”

“Well, I’m not going to just ignore him,” I said, throwing back the covers and starting to get up. He caught me around the waist and pulled me back.

“Stay here; I’ll go.”

He was gone for a few minutes, and when he came back Jagger was quiet. “What did you do?” I asked suspiciously as he laid down.

“I did some research online and then put a chew-toy and a couple of our old t-shirts from the hamper in with him so he can smell us.”

“It wasn’t my Beatles shirt, was it?”

“No, but you are getting rid of that soon. It’s riddled with holes.”

“It’s worn-in and comfortable.”

“And stained, but we can continue that debate tomorrow,” he said as he hooked an arm around my shoulders and tugged until I was laying more on him than the mattress. “Go to sleep.”

*

He woke me at an ungodly hour. I looked at the clock, moaned, and tried to pull the covers over my head. Quint, who was obviously channeling his inner sadist, stopped me.

“I know, angel, but I need to talk to you. Sit up and open your eyes, please. It’ll only take a minute.”

“You couldn’t leave a note?” I grumped as I forced myself into a more or less upright position and pried my eyelids apart.

He sat down on the edge of the bed by my knees and said, “I need you to promise me you won’t take Jagger outside while I’m at work today. We need to work on his leash-pulling together, and with all the holiday traffic, if he gets out of your control one or both of you could get hurt. I had a hard enough time trying to jog with him just now.”

I noticed he hadn’t showered yet and his t-shirt was more sweaty that normal. “What if he needs to go out?”

“He already went, so just wait to feed him until I get home and then we’ll take him for his evening walk.”

“Alright,” I sighed.

Quint shook his head, not satisfied. “I know you’re going to be tempted. Promise me.”

“I promise.”

“You promise what?”

“I promise I won’t take Jagger outside while you’re at work today,” I parroted faithfully.

He said, “Thank you,” and gave me a quick kiss. “You can go back to sleep now.”

*

With outside off-limits, I spent most of the day playing with and taking pictures of Jagger. I took his cone off for the pictures, but put it back on as soon as I was done. I also discovered that if I played guitar and sang, he’d sit in front of me staring with rapt attention and his head tilted to one side. It was the best audience I’d had in a long while. I sang every song about dogs that I could think of, walking around the apartment with my acoustic guitar hanging by its strap from my shoulders and him following behind me.

A light snow was falling outside. I stopped at the window after my second rendition of Hound Dog’ and watched it for a few minutes, then looked at Jagger, who was gazing up at me hopefully.

“I know, boy,” I said, reaching down to scratch his ears. “But Quint would find out somehow, and you don’t want to break a promise to him, believe me. I only ever did it once, very early in our relationship, and it did not end well. Plus it took forever for him to start trusting me fully again and I felt really, really awful.” I glanced at the snow again and reluctantly went to sit in the chair. “What we need is a distraction,” I told Jagger, pulling my guitar strap over my head and propping the instrument against the side of the couch. “How about I teach you to roll over, hmm?”

I’d made a little progress when Quint opened the door and Jagger barked and bounded over to greet him, but the dog was more interested in getting his belly rubbed than rolling all the way over. I followed him at a slightly more sedate pace and watched as Quint made him stop jumping and sit down before he patted his head.

“I get the feeling my ‘welcome home’ kisses are going to pale in comparison to that hello,” I said.

“Guess you’re going to have to ramp them up,” he agreed.

I gave it my very best, and when I pulled back we were both out of breath and he looked slightly dazed. “How was that?”

He blinked at me. “What were we talking about, again?”

*

Quint had done some research on leash-training methods during his lunch hour, and he had me read the information he’d printed out after we fed Jagger and ate a quick dinner. The basic idea was to keep the dog by your side while you walked by holding a handful of treats in front of his nose and rewarding him with one every few seconds, then gradually increasing the amount of time between rewards.

“I’m going to cut up some cheese into small pieces for us to use as treats,” Quint said. “If we’re constantly giving him those biscuits we bought he’s going to get overweight.”

“Maybe then he’ll slow down and stop pulling,” I suggested.

“I don’t think that’s how it works,” he laughed.

The instructions said that the dog should be sitting calmly before clipping the leash on, which took a few tries, but soon we were headed out the door. We started practicing in the hallway, where there weren’t nearly as many distractions, and Quint discovered that he was too tall to walk upright and hold his hand in front of Jagger’s nose at the same time, so I took over the rewarding while he held the leash and Jagger walked between us.

Once we got outside, he started getting distracted and pulling ahead or off to the side. Every time he did we had to stop, call him back, tell him to sit, and then praise him and give him a piece of cheese. It took awhile and we didn’t get very far before the cheese was half-gone, but on the way home we were already starting to see some improvement. We took him out again later that night, taking along a bigger supply of cheese this time, and got a lot further before turning back.

“We can work with him tomorrow, too, in between wrapping gifts and cleaning,” Quint said as he pulled a t-shirt out of the dresser to sleep in.

Before he could put it on, I wrapped my arms around him from behind and nipped at his shoulder blade. “Have I mentioned how glad I am that you’re not on call tomorrow or Christmas this year?”

“Once or twice, yes,” he said, turning around in my arms and linking his hands at the small of my back. “So it’s worth cutting our vacation during spring break short two days?”

“Definitely,” I untied the drawstring of his pajama pants with a quick tug. “In fact, I’m so grateful I thought I’d give you one of your presents early.”

His eyes twinkled as he asked innocently, “Oh? Where is it?”

“I think I left it in the bed. Let’s go see.”

*

We made a quick trip to the pet store the next day – Christmas Eve – before they closed, and bought smaller treats for training. Jagger took short walks all day, and by early evening he had improved a bit more, but all three of us were cold and tired. After the last walk, we curled up on the couch with peppermint-flavored hot cocoa for the humans and a candy-cane chew toy for the canine, and watched It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street before going to bed.

Quint always insists that we eat breakfast before opening gifts, no matter how many times I tell him it’s traditional to do it the other way around. There were more things for Jagger under the tree than for us, but we had a few smaller presents. I gave Quint a book called The Hemingses of Monticello and an argyle sweater vest; he gave me black leather Converse All-Stars to wear during the commitment ceremony and a new case for my iPhone.

I took Jagger’s cone off and made small holes in the wrapping paper of all his gifts, and because we had put a treat inside with each toy, he took care of the rest. It was fun to watch, although Quint pointed out that we’d have to make sure he didn’t get near any other wrapped packages until he’d forgotten that there might be food inside.

Zeggy and Ike had their gift delivered straight to us from Amazon.com, because they were in Chicago for a week with Ike’s family. They’d insisted that we open it on Christmas day rather than wait until they got back. Quint read the card aloud first. “’We know how much you two enjoy playing this with the kids, so we thought you should have one of your own. Have fun!’” He frowned slightly in bemusement. “There’s a lot of things we enjoy playing with the kids. What is it?”

I tore off the paper and grinned broadly. “It’s a Nintendo Wii! Let’s set it up and play.”

They’d given us a couple of games with it, but we started out with the Wii Sports bowling and soon I was… well, to put it bluntly, kicking Quint’s ass. I never beat him when we bowl for real, which made the taste of victory even more sweet. I did a little boogie after I rolled a turkey, then spun around, pointed my controller at him, and crowed, “You’re going down, old man.”

“Who’re you calling an old man?!” he demanded in mock-outrage.

“Wellll,” I said, looking around the room, “I only see one old man here, sooo…”

“Oh, yeah?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. Then grabbed me by the elbow, dragged me to the couch, and wrestled me down over his lap. For an old man, he’s surprisingly fast and strong.

“No, let me up!” I cried, laughing as I tried to wiggle away. He pinned me easily and started swatting my butt, not at all hard, but he must have had his hand cupped, because it was loud.

I’d also like to point out for the record that he was completely ignoring the terms of the Mistletoe Treaty.

“Who’s going down now, hmm?” he asked over the sound of the swats and Jagger’s excited barks.

I was giggling so much I could hardly speak, but I choked out, “You are, old man!” He gave me another couple of swats and then had to stop and prevent Jagger from jumping up onto my legs. “It’s okay, boy,” I said breathlessly, reaching around to pet him. “He’s not hurting me.”

“Wonder how he’s going to react when I have to actually spank you,” Quint said as he let go of me so I could sit down next him and lean against his shoulder. “I may have to put him in his crate.”

“Let’s wait a really long time before we find out, okay?”

He smiled and said, “That’s entirely up to you, angel.”

Jagger climbed onto our laps and rolled over. I rubbed his belly as I said, “I don’t know why you keep implying that you don’t have a say in things like that. It’s not like I ask you to do it.”

“I’m sure we could debate that for hours, but let’s just agree to disagree, hmm?”

Jagger nosed at his hand until Quint started scratching his ears, and I glanced at the TV. “It’s your turn to bowl again.”

“In a minute. I’m having more fun doing this.”

“Yeah, because I’m kicking your ass.”

Now you’re asking for it.”

I gave him a cheeky grin. “You can’t do anything. Jagger won’t let you.”

He pointed a finger at the dog, looking down at him with narrowed eyes. “You, young man, need to behave as well.”

Apparently under-awed, Jagger licked his hand.

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