Christmas With Elizabeth Hunter!

Merry Christmas, Monsters


Javi’s arms were crossed. His face was the sternest he could make it. “Kate, we have to do it.”
She shook her head.
“There’s two of them now,” he continued. “We’ve gotten away with the hippy artist excuse for three years now. You’ve pacified her with a shit-ton of artfully framed baby pictures—“
Beautiful pictures.” She looked up from the drafting table in her office. “Stunning pictures.” Kate gestured at the walls where dozens of pictures of three-year-old Dora and her baby brother were framed. “Our children are gorgeous. Do any of her grandma posse have pictures of their grandkids that look like they could hang in a museum?” Kate raised her eyebrows. “I don’t think so.”
And they said parenthood made you humble.
Javi dragged a stool from the workbench and sat on it, caging her with his knees. “Katie, my mother has been calling me ever since Gus was born, and I can’t keep putting her off. She’s getting my sister in on it now. Mari called me yesterday. She threatened to withhold tamales if we don’t get a family picture taken.”
He heard the small gasp.
“That’s low, Javi.”
He stifled a smile and rested his chin on her shoulder, wrapping his arms around her waist, which was still soft, her belly still round from the baby, even though Gus was almost six months old. She’d lost the baby weight faster with Dora, but she was holding onto it a little longer with Gus. Javi had to admit he kind of liked it. Kate could be a stubborn pain-in-the-ass, especially when she was working. She bossed around models and was a tyrant on shoots. It was part of what made her so good.
But under that exacting exterior, his wife was a total softie. Javi liked a little evidence of it around her waist.
Kate said, “Mari knows I can’t make tamales! What kind of monster would withhold Christmas tamales from her sister-in-law, beloved brother, and adorable niece and nephew?”
“The kind of monster who wants a real family picture for Christmas. All four of us in the same frame, sent out in the form of Christmas cards or at least an Instagram picture that she can share with her friends.”
Kate’s head swung around. “She has an Instagram addiction, and I’m not going to feed it. That’s enabling.”
He laughed. “Then Christmas cards. We’ll take pictures, and I’ll take care of ordering everything and sending it out. You know, we get cards every year, but we never send any.”
“We can send cards.” She shrugged and closed her laptop. “You don’t need pictures for cards.”
“What is the issue with family pictures?” He didn’t understand it. Kate took a million pictures of the kids. Lots of pictures of him. And when he snapped pictures with his phone, she wasn’t one of those women who ducked away or hid. She wasn’t camera-shy. “I don’t get it. Why am I the one having to argue for this one? I would think family pictures would be right up your alley.”
“Because I’m a female photographer? That’s sexist.”
He pinched her waist. “Because you’re constantly taking pictures of the kids, Ms. Mitchell, famous photographer. You’ve put them in gallery shows, but we can’t take a family picture?”
She sighed. “Family pictures are just so…”
“What? Normal?”
“Posed!” She curled her lip. “It’s just so superficial. ‘Look at our beautiful family who got all dressed up in fancy clothes to go randomly wander in the woods where we happened upon a professional photographer who will photoshop all the runny noses and zits out of our family portrait!’ Everyone takes stupid posed pictures this time of year and it does nothing to capture who they really are or how they feel about each other, which is the whole point of photographing subjects in the first place.”
God, save me from overthinking artists.
“Kate.” He hugged her around the waist and Kate put her hands on his, leaning back into his shoulder. “Katie…”
“Don’t start with the sweet voice.”
He kissed her neck.
“Oh… that’s nice.” Her voice was softer. A little breathless. “You didn’t shave today, did you?”
He nibbled up her neck until she was suitably pliable.
“We’re grown-ups,” Javi whispered. 
“I’m feeling pretty grown up at the moment, thanks.”
He grinned against her skin. “We have two cool little kids with grandmas and aunties and friends that love them. We gotta do some of this stuff. Neither of us are Facebook people. It’s important to my family. And you can’t tell me your mom hasn’t said anything about it.”
“She does. Of course she does. But I ignore her.”
“Because she doesn’t have tamales to threaten you.”
“If she’d known how effective they were as a threat, she would have learned how to make them years ago.”
Javi held her around the waist. “We need to take Christmas pictures this year.”
Kate groaned. “I love your sister, but I hate her a little right now, too.” She turned and kissed Javi’s rough cheek. “Fine. We’ll take Christmas pictures.”
He smiled. “Why don’t I call Dee and see when she can come over to the house?”
“What?” Kate frowned. “Javi, I can take our pictures. It’s not that big a deal.”
Oh no…
“But…” He had to tread carefully here. Giant egos were in play. “Dee does Reed and Sam’s pictures every year. She’s really good with kids. I’m not saying you can’t, but you’ve said yourself that kids on photo shoots are… problematic.”
Actually, Kate said child models were a nightmare and slightly frightening because of their plastic smiles, but he wasn’t going to remind her of that. Dora was about as far from plastic as a kid could get.
Kate waved a hand. “Sam and Reed have four kids under the age of five. We have one three-year-old and a baby who can’t walk yet. I can handle two kids.”
“They have four kids? I could have sworn they had five.”
“No, they just always keep one or two extra around. Sam says it makes the other ones behave better.”
“Huh.” He tucked that one away for future reference. At age three, Dora was happy as a pig in mud to tag along with daddy on his days watching her. But his daughter liked to talk. A lot. Maybe they should find another kid to borrow until Gus could talk back.
“Don’t worry.” Kate patted his arm. “If I can handle musicians, I can handle a three-year-old. They’re practically the same thing.”

“Baby-girl, what is all over you?” He reached down and swung his daughter into his arms as she came running to him. “Mari,” he shouted. “It’s me.”
Dora patted his cheeks and turned his face to hers for a sticky kiss. “I got chocolate.”
“I can see that.”
Dora had been playing at Mari’s house with her big cousins, who were crazy about her and gave her everything she wanted. Which meant that his daughter tended to be a tiny, adorable monster after she got back from Tía Mari’s house.
“We goin’ to work?” Dora asked.
When Dora had been a toddler, Javi had built a kid-proof corner in the warehouse with a locking gate. No way were his kids wandering around in that death-trap of a workshop. Dora loved being at work with her dad. He’d shifted toward jewelry and wood-sculpting, which weren’t quite as dangerous as large scale work, deciding to coast on his reputation for a while his kid was little so he could enjoy being a dad.
He hadn’t thought Kate even wanted kids. When she’d decided she did, he was surprised how much he liked the idea. She was a kick-ass mother. And Javi liked to think he rocked at being a dad, even if he refused to wear chinos. Of course, it probably helped that his and Kate’s kids were brilliant and hilarious.
“No work today,” he said. “We’re going home for dinner.”
“Mama! And Gus!”
Everything was shouted. Why did everything have to be shouted?
“Hey!” His sister walked down the hallway from the kitchen with a grin on her face. “So?”
“Kate bowed to your threats, but there was a lot of adult language, and she called you a tamale blackmailer.”
“Ha! I knew it would work.” Mari shook her finger at Javi. “This is so silly, you two.”
“Don’t look at me. She’s the one who’s been holding out.”
“Whatever. I just want a family picture of you guys.” His sister gestured to the wall of pictures in the living room. “Look at this! Not a single one. Just give me one with you two and these gorgeous babies.” She tickled Dora’s cheek and the little girl giggled.
“Don’t you have your own gorgeous babies?”
She raised her eyebrows. “You mean the tall, sweaty ones who leave socks all over my house? Those gorgeous babies?”
“Oh yeah.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek. “Thanks, sis. I’ll call you when I have the goods.”
She clapped her hands. “Cool! Who’s taking them?”
“Kate is.”
Mari fell silent. “Really?”
“She’s a professional photographer, Mari.”
“Yeah, and I’m a chef. But I still ask for help at Thanksgiving.” She patted Javi’s cheek. “I say nothing. Good luck with that, and I hope you both survive.”
Okay, she had to be exaggerating. It couldn’t be that bad.

Except that it was.
Kate had dressed the kids. Javi had shaved. They all looked charming and Christmas-y and the mantle in their old house was decorated for the season in their own eclectic way. The red and green banner they’d found in India. The tin star lanterns they bought in Guadalajara. Art from their friends and a clay nativity scene Javi had sculpted the year Kate had been pregnant with Dora that sat under the angel mosaic another friend had made.
But peace on earth was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
“Dora, I said stay still.”
“But Gus is crying!”
“Dora, pay attention to mom.”
“No arguing. This is not the time to argue. This is the time to smile and be merry and it’s Christmas!” Javi grinned, but he had a feeling it looked a little more like a snarl. “Isn’t this fun? I like your dress so much. Did you braid your hair yourself?”
“Yes.” Dora stuck out her lower lip. “But then mama fixed it.”
Normally, Kate was very firm about letting Dora be Dora. Which meant her clothes rarely matched and her hair had three or four pigtails instead of two. For their family picture, however, Dora’s creativity had been stifled, and she was not happy about it.
“Hey!” Kate was behind the tripod, still setting the camera. She snapped her fingers at Dora. “Dorothea Marisol Agatha Lugo. if you tug on that braid one more time, you’re not getting cookies until Christmas.”
“But Gus is cryyyyy-ing!”
The baby, who was having none of this ‘posing for pictures-business,’ had passed crying and was closer to wailing. Javi lifted him to his shoulder and tried a firmer back pat. When Dora had been this little, she’d been so tiny Javi had been afraid of breaking her. Gus was a little… sturdier. Javi feared was going to take after his father in the looks department. The baby already had a barrel chest and grunted in a bass voice that just didn’t sound right coming out of a six-month-old.
Kate was trying to reason with Dora. “The baby is fine. Daddy has him. Please” —Kate took a deep breath and closed her eyes— “please just stay still for another few minutes while I set this up.”
Javi started, “Can I—”
“Nope.” Kate decided to change the lens.
Dora said, “I want Mr. Dolphin in the Christmas picture, too.”
Kate said, “Dora, stay right there.”
Javi grabbed Dora by the back of her green sweater when she started to walk away. “Nope, not happening.”
“I’m grabbing your sweater. That does not hurt you.”
“But Mr. Dolphin is in my family too!” she whined.
“We are not putting your stuffed dolphin in the picture,” Kate snapped. “That much grey is does not work with this composition.”
Javi bit his lip. “Katie, maybe we need to let you get set up and let the kids—”
“We don’t have time for that. The light is good right now. If we wait even a half an hour, the sun is going to come through the stained glass over the front door, and we’ll have to contend with that.” Her voice rose. “And if I’m going to send out a posed picture of my family and have your sister and our mothers post it all over Facebook” —and got higher— “and Instagram and God-knows-where-else then we are getting the lighting right, Javi!
Javi closed his eyes and tried not to growl. 
Was he this bad? He couldn’t be this bad. She was being unreasonable. And why was everything in his life so damn loud?
Gus was wailing in his ear. Dora was whining. His wife and daughter were sniping at each other.
It was the dog howling next door that finally broke him.
“Enough!” he yelled. “Everyone be quiet right now!”
Gus burped and fell silent. Javi looked at him. “Good one, buddy.” He turned back to Kate, whose face had turned red with frustration. Dora was near tears. Then Gus farted in his diaper, and Javi burst into laughter.
“This is not funny!” Kate yelled.
“Katie…” He walked over, bouncing Gus in his arms. “You know it is.”
He put his arm around her shoulder and handed her the baby. “Go stand in front of the fireplace, mamá.”
“What are you doing? I haven’t set the light—”
He kissed her long and hard and maybe a little pushy. “Kate” —he bit her lower lip— “go stand by the fireplace with the baby. I know how to set the timer on this thing.”
Her nostrils flared a little, but then Gus started crying again and she took over, kissing the little boy’s fat cheeks and brushing the tears away. Javi looked over the camera, checked the settings—which were just fine—pointed it in the right direction, and set the timer.
“Here we go, monsters.” He jogged over, scooped Dora up, and put his arm around Kate. “Everyone say ‘tamales.’”
Forget the usual two dozen after this mess. He was doubling his order this year.
“Daddy put me down!” Dora tried to wiggle out of his arms, so he swung her up onto his shoulders. Javi started laughing again when Dora started whining. Gus decided to join the dog next door and howl. 
Javi just kept laughing. He put his arm around Kate and tugged her over for a kiss.
The camera snapped. 
Damn, his life was sweet. Howling kids, barking dogs, pissed-off wife.
He whispered, “You know you want to smile. Look at our crazy life.”
The camera clicked again.
Kate tried to stay mad, but she couldn’t. She started to smile.
“We’re such a mess,” he said with a chuckle.
The camera clicked again, and Kate started to laugh.
“We’re a crazy beautiful mess, and I love it all.”
Gus was still howling. Dora had dissolved into tears that neither of her parents were giving enough attention to her dramatics, and Kate and Javi were laughing.
Kate bounced a noisy Gus in her arms and leaned into Javi, who put his arm around her. Javi looked up at Dora, who had gotten into the spirit of the insanity and was smiling through her tears.
“Mama,” she said. “Why are we saying ‘tamales?’”
“Cause it’s Christmas, baby.” Kate lifted her face, and Javi kissed her again. “Merry Christmas, monsters.”

The End

* * *
Dear Readers,

The Genius and the Muse has had four different covers, but none of them felt like exactly the right fit for one of my favorite books. This Christmas, I finally feel like I've found the right “wrapping paper" for this contemporary romance. I hope you’ve enjoyed this look ahead at Kate and Javi. Have a wonderful and blessed holiday season.

Happy Holidays,

When Kate Mitchell decided to research the mysterious portrait in the student gallery, she had no idea how her life would change. She thought she knew what she wanted in life. She had a great boyfriend, a promising career, and a clear path. How could one simple portrait change all that? A photograph. A sculpture. A painting. One clue leads to another, and Kate learns that pieces of the past might leave unexpected marks on her own future, too. And how, exactly, did she end up in an irritable sculptor's studio? One portrait may hold the answers, but learning its secrets will challenge everything Kate thought she knew about love, art, and life. A single picture can tell more than one story, and in the end, a young artist will discover that every real love story is a unique work of art.

Elizabeth Hunter is a contemporary fantasy and romance author. She is a graduate of the University of Houston Honors College and a former English teacher.

She currently lives in Central California with her son, two very ineffective canine assistants, and a pitifully empty fish tank.

She is the author of the Elemental Mysteries and Elemental World series, the Irin Chronicles, the Cambio Springs Mysteries, and other works of fiction.

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