"I'd apologize for my family, except I think you started having fun."
Ice grinned. "Once I realized I didn't need to play nice . . ."
"Yah, Mr. Glib Tongue. Wacky and Azek started out embarrassed and alarmed, and wound up laughing their asses off over a couple of your comments."
"And you were so well brought up, you politely stepped out of the room?"
"It was like one of those horrible vid comedies where you spend hours cringing, and waiting for the whole charade to collapse into a massive embarrassment."
"Oh dear. I hate those, I'll have to up my game next . . . does this go on all weekend?"
"Yeesss . . ." She sounded cautious. "Through Wednesday, actually."
"I mean, I'd hate to let them think they'd run me off . . . or worse, that I'd refunded your advance and . . ."
"Ice!" She started laughing. "Well today everyone's just sort of lounging around working on jet lag or hangovers, if not both."
"Clearly I should take you out to lunch. Just, pop in and say hi to everyone, then whisk you off."
"You don't have a car."
"Autocab." Their reaction to the ute might be interesting . . . Or better yet . . . He started tapping at his computer.
"Umm . . ."
"Not the right impression?" There we go, Town Car Services. Not the usual prom or fancy ball, but . . .
"Not at all."
"All right. I have a plan. Would a suit be too much for lunch?"
"No. Everyone needs to see your suit."
"Right. See you in a couple of hours."
It wasn't a limo, just a really nice big white car. With a cheerful driver. Harry Jackson was young and thin, and drove with confidence.
"We're just what you need to impress a lady."
"Actually it's her parents, brothers, and various aunts and uncles that need to be impressed."
"I see . . ." he popped off the freeway and turned . . . "Oh, my. If they live here they're going to take a lot of impressing. I've never been up here before—these are the sorts of people with their own chauffeurs."
"Yep. Turn right and take the third driveway to the right."
Harry whistled as they got past the closer-to-the-street neighbors and the manicured gardens spread out on both sides.
Ice tapped out a quick note to Keiq. "Fortunately I'm wooing the son-in-law's sister, not a blood relative. Although the patriarch actually approves of me. Else I'd probably just slink off."
"Holy . . ." Harry slowed as he took in the mansion. Then stiffened his shoulders and swung around and stopped at the steps to the over-sized main doors.
Ice hopped out. "Shouldn't be long. I just need to show off the suit."
The butler, who looked quite fit and might have been armed—his suit probably cost double Ice's, and was also tailored to not show a shoulder holster—opened the door as Ice walked up. "Miss Keiq is in the parlor."
"Do you guys travel with Arc?"
"Of course." He indicated the doorway on the right with a wave of a hand.
Ice strolled through, taking in the selection of relatives.
Her father, two brothers, one cousin.
Aqki started. "Really Keekee, running off during the Family Reunion? What will your mother think?"
Keiq rolled her eyes. "That I'm sensibly taking a break from criticism, Dad. And then she'll complain about my running off with someone who can barely ride." She hopped up and headed for Ice.
Blocked by Brother Number Four. Atlo, tallest of the batch, loomed. "Why don't you let me introduce you to . . ."
"No. Thank you, but those old men you lot seem to think I should marry are . . ."
"Rich, and high count." Atlo shrugged. "Well, probably not two-sixteens, but you're hardly the motherly type and they already have heirs so they won't mind."
Azek looked to be stifling a grin.
Probably talked to Arc.
"I happen to like my job, and I have no desire to quit and . . . what? Cater to some old guy's whims?" She stepped around Atlo, who tried to block her again, but Ice had stepped up to get in the way and refused to yield when bumped.
"Oh, sorry." Ice smiled, turned away and braced against Atlo's attempt to shove him and followed Keiq out of the parlor.
"I've got reservations for Brentwood."
Keiq grinned. "Oh, you are going all out."
"No point in being a compulsive saver if you can't splurge every once in a while." He grinned back. "Not that I'm foolish enough to try to compete with your family on financial terms."
Keiq nodded. "Tell me about it. I nearly had to force them to rent me an apartment, instead of being a welcome perpetual guest. And always buy my own clothes and so forth. To give them no way to control me. Not that Azek and Wacky would, but just . . ."
"More like psychologically placing myself in the same column as a perpetual child. A dependent. Both from my perspective and theirs."
"Oh. And some of your brothers seem to be determined to keep you there."
The butler—I wonder if he's retired Black Horse?—opened the door for them and Harry leapt out of the car to open that door.
Ice swapped a grin with Keiq. "And not competent to open doors?"
Keiq laughed and slid gracefully in. "In this case it's minions, not family. And where did you get this car?"
"Hired it from Town Car Services." Ice looked forward. "What do you mostly do, Harry? Weddings, parties, and proms?"
"Yep. The good thing about a white car is I don't get assigned to the funerals."
"Oh, do you own your own car?"
"Yep. There's five of us, we just hire office staff to run things."
I wonder if Aces will ever get big enough to need staff? We could become a think-tank or an on grid news and political analysis "paper."
Brentwood lived up to its swank reputation, with a view of downtown and excellent food.
"My family is going to drive me crazy."
Ice snickered. "Mind you, I'm tempted to take couple of them outside and thrash them. But I don't think it would help. Now I never did figure out which kids were which and whose. Clue me in."
She snickered and pulled out her minicomp and brought up the family pictures.
It was an excellent ploy, requiring much leaning and getting his head close to hers.
A disapproving phalanx of relatives appeared to usher Keiq inside before a goodbye kiss could happen.
"Honestly Keiq, a man that pretty is bound to be a homo."
"No telling what diseases he's got!"
"And he doesn't like horses!"
Arc walked in from the garden, shaking his head. "They've never quite gotten past thinking of Keiq as the baby of the family. But they've got seven teenage girls and three almost teen girls. Hopefully they'll spread this . . . aggressive overprotectiveness out over them all. Real soon. If they try for this level for all of them, we'll have to hold these get togethers some place remote, where their admirers can't reach."
Ice snorted. "And Keiq gives such an impression of not quite knowing how to even flirt. I see Karma looming."
"Heh. I suspect it will be funny in retrospect. Possibly painful at the time. Come tomorrow. Eleven. Casual dress."
Khaki pants, hiking boots, blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up, neck unbuttoned. He grinned at the baffled and appalled looks the ute harvested.
Even Keiq raised her eyebrows.
"I need it for going out to job sites." Ice glanced over at the family cluster. "I swear at least two of them looked down the driveway to see if the real Ice was coming too."
She snickered. "A year ago I'd have been one of them."
"Ouch! Even after taking a knife for Afgu? Man, you are a tough sell."
"What?" Number two brother Anze stomped up. "He jacking the price up on you, Keekee?"
Ice took a deep breath. Must resist . . .
"Can't blame him, having to escort a big klutz like you. How much should we offer him to just go awack, quack, quack . . . Quack quack QUACK!"
It got pretty loud for a while, between the cussing and wailing, the laughing. The quacking.
Arc laughed until he ran short of breath and his wife summoned half the staff to haul him away.
"Honestly Arc! It wasn't that," snicker, "funny!"
Azek was snorting and mopping tears. "If ever a brother deserved . . . but maybe you should stop it?"
Ice looked at Keiq. "What do you think? Should I wait until after lunch?"
She pinched the bridge of her nose and snickered. "No, at this rate lunch won't happen."
Ice sighed. "If I must . . ."
Quacking turned into cursing.
"And he's not even imaginative. Umm, and already repetitious." Ice raised his voice. "Anze? The quacking was more fun, why don't you throw a few in? You know, 'You quacking low-life mother-quacking absolute quack!' What do you think?"
Anze roared and charged. Ice sidestepped. Anze ran head on into the ute. Staggered back, shaking his head.
"Oww! I'll bet that hurt." Ice grabbed his arm and steered him toward the house. "I think you need to sit down. Let someone you don't want to hit take a look at your eyes . . ."
Anze's wife, Rion, stopped vilifying Ice and hustled inside.
Azek took over and Avvw grabbed Anze's other arm, glaring at Ice. "What happened? I couldn't see! Should we call the police?"
Azek shook his head. "No, Uncle Av. Anze ran head first into Ice's ute. I think the ute won."
Ice hung back with Keiq. "Sorry. Serious failure to resist."
She grabbed his arm and hauled him to a stop. Stepped up close and hugged him. Rested her head on his shoulder and giggled. "That was . . . so funny . . . so perfect."
He added his hug to hers, and when she looked up, kissed her. "So long as he's not seriously hurt. Shall we go find out?"
"Umm, might as well let them calm down first."
"Good idea." He kissed her a few more times, tromped hard on a desire to haul her off into the bushes, and reluctantly let her go.
Everyone was in the big room at the back. Arc and Azek both grinning off in a corner while a middle aged woman bent over Anze. "Your pupils are equal and reactive, so I'll just lay on a general healing spell, an anti-inflammatory spell . . . and would you like a pain killer spell?"
Keiq nudged him to the side, where Wacky and her mother were keeping a distant eye on Arc.
Kyws shrugged, with a rueful smile. "Arc is perfectly healthy, for a man two hundred and six years old. I just, well, we all worry."
Ice nodded. "I hadn't realized he was that old. With luck he'll be around for another century."
They all nodded and looked worried.
And his entourage apparently includes a medgician, or at least a nurse with considerable magic at hand.
Keiq raised her eyebrows at him.
He nodded in answer to the unspoken question. "A trip to Embassy and the Comet Fall Hospital might be a better idea, though."
Kyws switched her gaze from them to Arc. "Now there's a good idea."
Ice nodded. Because no matter how I worry about freezing politics with today's players forever, dammit, some people are worth keeping around forever.