I'm not even sure how many of you remember these characters, LOL, but here is the epilogue for this story. Sorry for the delay - I've been so busy with Leitmotif that I forgot all about it! Don't worry I will still update it tomorrow as scheduled.
Erik's eyes opened as he heard the click of footsteps outside the French doors, followed by the sound of the knob turning. Alert, he stood and moved into the hall, holding Isabel tight against his shoulder. The intruder easily opened the door and entered the room, letting out a muffled curse when the hinge squeaked loudly.
Slowly Erik roused his daughter, murmuring quietly into her ear. "Go to your mother, little kitten. Run upstairs."
"No, Papa," she mumbled, clinging to his neck.
Erik winced, and moved farther away from the sitting room. They had all come to be near Lily since she had gone into labor the day before, and all the Talbots were beneath one roof to welcome the new addition. Susanna was upstairs with Elizabeth and Daniel, exhausted, and Isabel had made herself sick stealing cookies. Erik had brought her downstairs so that Susanna might get some rest, and he knew it would be impossible to take her upstairs without being noticed by their nighttime visitor.
"Yes, Isa, go upstairs," he urged, setting her on the bottom step. He kissed the top of her head and gave her a little push, fearing whoever was in the sitting room would come out at any moment. As long as his family was safe, nothing else mattered. "I'll take you for a ride on Cesar tomorrow if you just go upstairs now."
Isabel mumbled sleepily again, but staggered up the stairs. Erik waited, his eyes fixed on the door that the intruder was behind, until he heard Isabel close her door upstairs.
Moving stealthily to the sitting room door, he peered in. The man, who Erik supposed to be a thief, was kneeling near the wall searching through his father's liquor cabinet, again muttering and swearing beneath his breath. Erik could not make out the words, but he smiled slightly. This sot had picked the wrong house to break into. His target never noticed the tall, muscular man stalking toward him. Erik's mask lay on the sofa where Isabel had taken it off earlier, proclaiming in her advanced maturity of four that he shouldn't wear it because it made him look scary.
A half second before Erik pounced, the man happened to glance up, delight stabbing through him in the same instant his brother knocked him off his feet.
"You'll pay for this," Erik whispered furiously, leaping onto his back. "You should have stayed out of here. There's plenty of liquor at the pub!"
"Exactly," Erik replied.
Erik hooked his arm around the man's throat and proceeded to tighten his hold, wrenching him up and backwards. Suddenly something flashed in Erik's line of sight, followed by a blinding pain as a bottle of port was knocked against his temple.
"Dammit!" Erik roared, stumbling off the man.
"Sweet Christ, Erik! What did they do, put you on guard duty?" Jackson demanded, coughing on the floor.
"J-Jackson?" Erik stumbled to his feet and turned on a light. His brother was still sprawled on the carpet clutching his throat. "What the hell are you doing, sneaking in like that?"
"I was looking for some whiskey," Jackson muttered, finally turning around.
"Papa, why are you yelling?" Isabel whispered from the door.
Startled, Erik stared at his daughter. "You're supposed to be in bed with your mother, Isa," he said sternly.
"I had to...to...," she lowered her voice, glancing suspiciously at the man on the floor, "...you know..."
"You can do that by yourself," Erik reminded her with a frown.
"But it's dark!"
Erik silenced Jackson's chuckle with a look and scooped his daughter up. At the top of the stairs, his father and Anthony stood with equally irritated expressions on their faces.
"Erik, what the devil going on?" Colin asked, rubbing his eyes.
"Jackson has returned," Erik announced calmly before passing Isabel off to a sleepy eyed Susanna.
Immediately the noise in the hall grew so loud that Lily protested weakly from her room where she was resting after giving birth.
"Jackson's here?" Colin gaped.
"Hmmm," Anthony said thoughtfully before returning to his wife's side.
"Move aside," Grandmother Talbot ordered. "I've a thing or two I want to tell that boy. Gallivanting all over God's green earth...," her voice trailed off as she continued down the stairs, ranting about the foolishness of young men.
Colin cleared his throat discreetly and dabbed at his eyes. "I...ah...suppose I will go say hello," he murmured. "Emma was very tired. I think she's still asleep."
Erik and Anthony followed Colin downstairs to where Grandmother Talbot had her cane pointed an inch away from Jackson's smiling face.
"And another thing," she thundered, "you missed your sister's wedding, and now you've missed the birth of her first child!"
The smile slid from Jackson's face. "Lily's married?"
Grandmother Talbot stood up straighter. "I arranged the match myself."
"With whom?" he demanded.
Jackson chuckled and slapped his leg. "Oh, but that was a good one, Grandmother. Anthony and Lily? Never! Never in my life has my legged been pulled so good!"
"It's true," Anthony broke in from behind Erik. He stepped into the room with a bundle of blankets in his arms, a proud look of fatherhood on his face. "Would you like to meet your nephew, Peter Anthony Favero?"
Looking warily between the adults he had unintentionally roused, Jackson stood and approached his best friend. "You married my sister?" he asked doubtfully.
"It took some convincing," Anthony allowed, "but she finally agreed to it."
Jackson glanced down at the sleeping bundle in Anthony's arms, unnerved by the sight of it. This was the man who'd held his head as he puked, who'd chased after and tried to catch the most flirtatious girls his lucky heart could find. Who'd told him once his sister Lily was a nuisant little brat that needed disciplining.
The baby cried as Jackson disturbed his sleep, and Anthony pulled him away protectively. "I should return him to his mother," he said quietly. "Lily wants to see you, but perhaps tomorrow would be a better time."
"Of course," Jackson murmured, still in a state of shock.
Jackson was still standing there, staring after them when his mother rushed into the room and threw her arms around his neck. "My little boy," Emma whispered tearfully. "I prayed every night for you to come home."
Jackson dropped a kiss on her head, feeling his throat tighten. Dear Lord how he had missed them all! He gave a slight nod to Susanna as she slipped up beside her husband and linked her arm through his. On her hip was the sleepy eyed girl he'd seen earlier. "Did you receive my Christmas gifts?"
"Yes," Emma cried, "but I would have rather had you!"
"Ah, I'm sorry Mama," Jackson said regretfully. "I had to do things my way for once."
"And did you find what you were looking for?" Colin asked, staring at his younger son as if he were an apparition. "That is to say...you are home permanently, Jackson. Right?"
Jackson glanced at his father, but nodded. "I have nowhere else to go for the time being."
"Good," Colin stated, and heartily thumped his back.
"Yes, now you can babysit," Erik said with a tilted smile. "Susanna and I are going to Italy on a delayed honeymoon next month."
"Umm. How many children do you have now?" Jackson asked cautiously.
"Just three," Susanna laughed. "And don't worry, Emma and your father are keeping them."
Erik pulled his wife in front of him and kissed the back of her head. "I wouldn't trust you near my children," he stated.
"You don't trust anyone," Susanna replied, elbowing him in the ribs. Stepping out of her husband's embrace, she gave her brother in law a kiss on the cheek. She stumbled slightly as Erik's arm snaked around her waist and yanked her back against his chest, child and all. "We're happy to have you back, Jackson."
"Happy to have you back," Erik agreed. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have a wife and daughter to tuck back into bed."
"Right about that," Grandmother Talbot declared, thumping her cane on the floor. "Don't see why you couldn't have come at a decent hour. Don't you know old women need their sleep?"
"Mother," Colin said, giving Jackson an apologetic look. "Why don't you go check on Lily? Tell her Jackson will be up to see her first thing tomorrow morning."
"Hmph!" Grandmother Talbot raised her chin, thumped her cane, and headed to the door. She stopped, turned, and looked her grandson dead in the eye. "We'll also see about finding you a wife first thing in the morning!"
"Wife. Wife. Wife," Grandmother replied crabbily. "A wife. You know, so I can have more grandchildren before I'm dead and gone. I want more babies in my arms, and I want them now!"
Jackson's eyes bulged as he stared after her retreating form. "She isn't serious is she?"
There was no answer but laughter, and Jackson began to regret coming home so soon. A wife? He had traveled the length and breadth of America, visited the crush of New York and the wilds of the west before leasing a small lodge from a rancher in the Montana Territory. He had settled down and poured out several books, becoming well liked by Americans for his easy story telling and the description of life in the west as he saw it.
But a wife? Jackson had avoided women unless absolutely necessary, and by that he meant the sort of necessities a man had to take care of every once in awhile.
A wife remained near the bottom of his list, somewhere between babysitting Erik's children and having his teeth pulled. Still, if his grandmother could tie Lily and Anthony together, then anything was possible.
"Is she serious?" Jackson asked again, this time sharply.
Erik smiled as he led his wife away. "You'll be married by this time next year," he predicted. "Just wait and see."
Jackson felt sweat bead on his upper lip, even as he noticed the look of delight that shone in his mother's eyes. Casting a pleading look to his father, he could not detect sympathy their either.
"Good night son," Colin murmured. After hesitating a moment, Colin put his arms around Jackson and hugged him quickly. "I love you, but if you want to run like hell, I wouldn't blame you."
Startled, Jackson blinked, feeling foolish as tears pricked at his eyes. Caught between wanting to ask, "Do you really love me?" or "I love you too", he didn't quite know how to respond.
"I want to run like hell," Jackson admitted, choked by emotion. "But I'm not going anywhere, not anytime soon."