Sticky Wickets
by Nancy Kaminski
circa August 1997

Monday Evening

"Nat, what's a block party?" Nick examined the fluorescent
green flyer that had been stuck in their front door as he
walked slowly towards the kitchen, a bag of groceries in
his arms.

"Oh, neat, are we having a block party?" Nat, holding seven
month-old Michelle and the large canvas satchel stuffed with
baby things, expertly bumped the door shut with her hip.
"When is it?"

"Next Saturday." Nick deposited the groceries on the
kitchen table and read aloud. "Block Party! July 13!
Softball, volleyball, croquet! Keg provided. Bring lawn
chairs, grills, munchies to share and something to cook! Party
Central--the Larsons' Backyard!" He held up the flyer for Nat
to see. It was decorated with a clipart cartoon of a man
wearing an apron and standing over a smoking barbecue grill
and was printed with a large assortment of type styles. "So,
what exactly is a block party?"

Nat gently disentangled the baby's fist from her hair. "It's
exactly what it sounds like--it's a neighborhood party. All the
families on a block get together and have a cookout in someone's
yard, play games and socialize. We had them once a summer when
I was a kid. We'd block off the street at each corner so we
could play softball in the street. Us kids would run all over
until way after dark. It's fun." Nat bounced the baby up and
down a few times and cooed, "Ready for supper already, Pumpkin?
Let Mummy and Daddy get out of their work clothes, okay?"
Michelle burbled in agreement. "Who's organizing it?"

"It says here to call Marge Larson for details." Nick put the
flyer on the counter and started putting the groceries in the

Nat deposited the baby in her playpen. "I'll have to find out
what she wants us to bring."

Nick straightened up from the fruit bin and thoughtfully tossed
an apple from one hand to the other. He looked at Nat, an
embarrassed expression on his face. "You know, I don't know how
to play softball, or volleyball for that matter."

"You don't? Haven't you ever played? I know you follow baseball,
and I've seen you watch those California beach volleyball
matches on TV--the ones with the girls in the little bikinis."

"Yeah, well, I've just watched. Vampires aren't especially into
team sports." Nick paused--he had a sudden vision of Lacroix
wearing a tee-shirt with a CERK logo on it, pitching underhanded
and glaring ferociously at a hapless batter. He shuddered. "And
these last two years I've had other things on my mind, like you
and Michelle." Nick leaned over the playpen and tickled his
daughter. She squealed in delight and grabbed his hand. "I know
the rules, but I've never actually played."

Nat laughed and patted him on the back. "Well, don't worry--it's
not exactly professional level. Anyway, everyone usually drinks
so much beer the quality of the game goes way down real fast. No
one will notice you're a rookie." Nat's stomach rumbled. "Now
get going, buddy--it's your turn to cook dinner and I'm hungry.
What're we having?"

"Pepper steak and home fries sound okay?"

Nat sighed. "Yum. I'm so glad I taught you to cook. Among other

Nick kissed her and patted her on the rump. "You go get changed.
I'll keep an eye on the baby and start dinner. Here--take my
jacket upstairs, will you?" Nick took off his jacket and handed
it to her.

"Gonna take off your gun, too, or do you have to shoot the peppers
before you cook 'em?" Nat held out her hand as Nick shrugged out
of his shoulder holster and handed it to her with a grin.

"Nope, I'm an old-fashioned kind of guy. I kill all my vegetables
with a knife." He rolled up his sleeves and started rattling
around in the kitchen drawers.

Nat groaned theatrically and headed upstairs to change. "803
years old and this is the level of humor I get..."

Later that evening, after the dishes were washed and Nick had
done some yard work, he and Nat settled down to a boring but
satisfying evening of newspapers and sitcoms. Nat was half-watching
TV and going through the day's mail when she remembered the upcoming
block party.

"Darn, I forgot to call Marge." She looked at her watch. "It's
only 9:30--it's not too late." She dialed the number on the flyer,
reading it over again while she waited for it to be answered.
"Hello, Marge? It's Natalie... Yes, we got the flyer. Sounds
great! What should we bring?...uh-huh, I can do that...yes, he's
here..." She looked up. "Nick, Marge wants to talk to you."

"Hmmmm? What about?"

"She says there's something you can do for the party."

Nick felt a twinge of apprehension--Marge was a 50ish, birdlike
little woman with an incredible amount of energy who overwhelmed
nearly everyone except her phlegmatic husband, Chet. She could get
anyone to do anything, even if you did it just to get her to leave
you alone. He put down the paper and took the receiver from Nat,
who was laughing silently at the look on his face.

"Hi, Marge. What can I do for you?" he made a face at Nat.

"Nick, hi! How are you?" Marge greeted him is her high-pitched,
perky voice.

"Just fine, Marge. What's up?"

"Well, there's something you can do for the party. We need to arrange
for barricades to block off the street. Can you go down to the police
department and get them? And you know, get the permit to block the
street and stuff? I figured it would be easy, you being a cop and all."

Nick looked dubious but felt a certain amount of relief. At least it
wasn't something embarrassing, like that Tupperware party last winter.
"Uh, I guess I can do that. It's a little out of my bailiwick, but..."

"Oh, thank you, dear! They usually have the city maintenance truck
drop them off on the morning of the party and pick them up the next
day...ask them if they'll do that again."

"You've done this before?"

"Sure. Oh, that's right--the last block party was two years ago,
before you and Nat moved in."

"Oh. Well, okay, I'll see to it this week. Here's Nat again."

At Nat's inquiring expression, Nick held the phone against his chest
and whispered "Getting barricades for the street." He handed the
phone back to Nat.

"Don't worry, Marge. I'll make sure he takes care of it. Now, is
there anything else...?"

Wednesday After Work

Nick actually remembered to go down to the suburban
police department without being reminded. (Although
he claimed he still had his perfect vampire memory,
like any man he conveniently forgot things when it
suited him.) The tiny police department boasted six
officers and two squad cars. When Nick paid them a
visit after work, a lone officer was sitting behind
the front desk, carefully tapping at a computer and
swearing softly to himself. Nick cleared his throat.
"Excuse me."

The officer, a rumpled man in his thirties, looked up
with a frustrated expression. "Do you know anything
about WordPerfect? We just got some new software and
damned if I can get it to work. Look--the text went
all screwy." He gestured at the screen, where indeed
there was a line of normal looking text followed by
lines that were italicized, bolded and of varying
sizes. It appeared to be an arrest report for
shoplifting. Ah yes, Nick thought. Crime in the

"Sorry, no." Nick wasn't going to get sucked into that
one. He'd spent hours with Schanke arguing how to make
their own word processor behave, only to have Sergeant
Miller come over, press a function key to solve the
problem, and walk away with a smirk on her face. Better
to stick to business. "I was wondering if you could help
me get a block party permit? I live on the 3300 block
of Oakdale Street."

The officer's face brightened. "Oh, Marge Larson,

"Yeah, how did you know?"

"We all know Marge. She brings us cookies at Christmas."
At Nick's raised eyebrow he explained, "It's not like
it's a bribe or anything. She brings stuff to the library
staff, the fire department and town hall, too. I guess
she just likes public servants."

This was a side of Marge Nick didn't know about. He had
sampled her cookies (the only good thing at the ill-fated
Tupperware party), and in his considered opinion they
were works of art. Maybe he could remind her what he and
Nat did for a living...he brought his thoughts back to the
task at hand.

"How about the the permit and the barricades? What do we
need to do?"

"You don't need a permit. Just let us know when you want
the barricades, and Chuck--he's the maintenance foreman--
will drop them off."

Nick gave him the details and left with the assurance that
two orange-striped barricades would be delivered to his
yard on Saturday morning.

Saturday Morning

The day of the block party dawned clear and warm. At six
in the morning, a loud rumbling and then the backing-up
'beep beep beep' noise of a truck in reverse was heard in
front of the Knight household. Nick (who, to Nat's disgust,
had turned out to be very much of a morning person) was
already up. He went outside, coffee mug in hand, to see
what the ruckus was about.

It proved to be a large, orange city dump truck driven
by a burly man--Chuck, Nick surmised--in greasy coveralls.
Without a word, he hopped out, climbed into the bed of the
truck and proceeded to throw two 20-foot planks and four
sawhorse-like leg assemblies onto Nick's front lawn.
The planks had "Closed to Thru Traffic. Do Not Enter"
emblazoned on them in large black letters.

Chuck scowled at Nick. "Have 'em there on Monday morning.
Early! And don't bring 'em back broken!" he barked. Without
a backward glance, he got back into the truck and drove away.

Standing there in his pajamas with a pile of orange, black
and white lumber at his bare feet, Nick watched the truck
rumble away and turn the corner. "I bet Maintenance isn't
on Marge's cookie distribution list," Nick mused.

The pleasant, bright summer day proceeded as all suburban
Saturdays seemed to. Up and down the block, people were
cleaning house, running errands, washing cars, and generally
puttering around.

Nick spent a frustrating two hours trying to get his inherited
lawn mower to start. The lawn, and by extension, the lawn
mower, were Nick's particular obsessions. The lawn had been
a disaster area when he and Nat had bought the house, but now
it was a weed-free, velvety expanse of green (and currently
somewhat in need of a haircut). He finally gave it up as a bad
job and borrowed his next-door neighbor's in order to bring
the grass under control again.

When he came in for lunch, he was still fuming about the
recalcitrant machine. "It's a lousy two-stroke engine. It
should be running like a top after all I've done for it!"
he complained to Nat. She was unimpressed.

"Dear," she said patiently, "its time has come. It has gone
where all good little lawn mowers go when they die, and all
the attention in the world isn't going to resurrect it. Go
out and buy a new one. It's not like we have to fit it into
the budget or anything."

"It's the principle of the thing," Nick said mulishly. "It should
work. I'm going to go talk to that repair guy down at the
hardware store after lunch."

Nat saw an opening and dived in. "Well, if you're going out, will
you please stop by JiffySnip and get your hair cut?" she asked.
"You're about three weeks overdue, and it's been a bad hair day
for the last week, if not longer. I don't understand how you don't

"I thought it was okay," Nick replied, craning his head to
see his reflection in the toaster on the counter. He smoothed
down his hair, which promptly sprang up in several different

"Maybe for the year 1500, but for 1996 Toronto it's a fashion
'no.' If you don't take care of it, I'll get the scissors out
and do it myself when you're sleeping. Then you'll be sorry."

"Oh, all right. But I'm talking to the repair guy first."

Saturday Afternoon

Accordingly, after lunch, Nick took off (incidentally leaving
Nat with both the dishes and the baby) and had an unproductive
chat with the repairman at the hardware store. Nick just didn't
understand why everyone was so hell-bent on him junking his lawn
mower. He was all set to get a second opinion when he realized
he just had enough time for a quickie haircut before he had to
clean up for the block party.

The party didn't start until four o'clock, but Nick cut it
close by getting home at three-thirty. His haircut duly inspected
and approved ("Now I'm not ashamed to appear in public with you,"
is how Nat delicately phrased it), he showered and put on clean
shorts and tee shirt. He and Nat gathered up their contributions
to the party (Weber Kettle grill pre-loaded with charcoal, a
large pan of brownies, two lawn chairs and two rather nice ribeye
steaks) and, together with Michelle in tow, trooped four houses
down the block to Marge and Chet's house.

Nick got one of the neighbors, Bob, to help set up the barricades.
They arranged them across the two ends of the block, just off-center
enough so late-comers could drive in to park in their driveways.
It's a good thing there's not much traffic on our street, thought
Nick. He was still slightly astonished people could just block
off a street for a party.

Soon there were about twenty families gathered at the Larsons' yard.
Children of all ages ran up and down the street in giddy, excited
packs, playing games only they understood. The adults stood around
chatting, occasionally exerting parental authority by yelling at
their respective kids. The keg was tapped, and the beer began to

Soon came the moment Nick had been inwardly dreading the whole
week--Marge organized a softball game. Out in the street, bases
were marked by paper plates weighed down with rocks. Nick borrowed
an extra glove from Bob and was tentatively swinging a battered
aluminum bat. Nat, who opted out because 'someone has to watch
the baby,' smiled encouragingly and waved Michelle's tiny hand at
him. Nick returned the smile weakly, then chugged the remainder
of his beer and got a refill. If he was going to suck, dammit, he
was going to have a good reason.

By this time most of the ball players had also imbibed at least
two cups of beer, and the co-ed game proceeded with hilarity and
lots of insults for all involved. To his relief, Nick's team struck
out before he had to reveal his inexperience at bat. When the team
went out to the field, he hurried to right field, hoping that no
ne would hit a ball in that direction and he'd just have to stand
there, pretending to know what he was doing. Since the "field" was
a combination of the street and some lawns it wasn't exactly
regulation size, and the various obstacles--bushes and parked
cars--made the game much more interesting. Nick managed to spend
the rest of the first inning leaning against a parked Toyota, yelling
insults at the opposing team and drinking beer.

When he finally did get a turn at bat, he was ready. He had
watched everyone else closely and had the steps memorized. "Bend
your knees," he ticked off to himself, "wriggle a little, swing
the bat two times, and wait for the pitch." He followed his mental
checklist. The first ball whizzed past him to thunk into the
catcher's mitt. "Steerike!" yelled Mike. Undeterred, he went
through the motions again and much to his surprise, actually
connected with the ball. He stood, astonished, watching it sail
over the pitcher's head into center field while his teammates
screamed, "Run, run, you idiot!"

Nick dropped the bat, hared down to first base and pulled up.
Nat was cheering wildly. He stood squarely on the paper plate
that was first base, grinning from ear to ear. Another first!
His first base hit! He decided softball was fun and that he'd
try out for the precinct team next spring.

The game seesawed back and forth--the sides were evenly lousy--
for seven innings. They finally quit, not because anyone had
won the game (they lost count of the score somewhere in the
fourth inning) but because it was six-thirty and time to

Nick wandered over to the picnic table where the community goodies
were displayed and filled a paper plate with taco chips, salsa,
and veggies and dip. Two yards down, a volleyball game was still
in full swing, the ground around the net poles littered with
half-filled beer cups waiting for their owners to reclaim them
between points. Munching, he went over to where Nat was watching
the coals in the Weber. "Want me to cook?" he asked.

"No, you hold Michelle for a while. I'll do the steaks." Nat poked
at the coals with the tongs. "I think the coals are ready." She
laid the steaks on the grill. "So, you survived softball, eh?"

"Piece of cake," he grinned. "I only got hit by a ball twice, and
I got one single and two doubles. Not bad for a beginner."

He sat back in his lawn chair with Michelle sleeping in his lap,
chatting amiably with the neighbors and watching Nat cook. She
was right--block parties were fun.

Saturday Evening

As the neighbors ate their dinners and socialized,
the sun slipped down in the sky. Citronella candles
were lit to hold the mosquitoes at bay. The street
lights lit themselves one by one and the stars began
to appear as dusk darkened into night. The children
played "Starlight, Moonlight," dodging from bush to
tree in the game of nocturnal tag.

It had been dark for a half hour, and Nick was deep
in a discussion with Mike and Bob on his favorite topic,
lawn mower maintenance. Nick was still baby-minding.
He held Michelle on his shoulder, patting her bottom and
swaying gently back and forth while she kept up a constant
babble. The men had wandered two doors down from the
main gathering to look at Bob's new Snapper mower.

Nick looked at it morosely and said, "Everyone wants me
to get rid of mine, but I'm sure I can fix it. The damn
thing keeps stalling out on me, no matter what I do."
He took a swallow of beer.

Bob shook his head. "They're right. Just junk it. Townsend
had it in the shop every other week and it never worked
right." Townsend was the man Nick had bought the house from,
and all the yard equipment had been included in the deal.
"Now take this baby here..." Bob's voice trailed off as he
looked over Nick's shoulder. "Jesus Christ on a bicycle,"
he breathed. "Get a load of her."

Nick turned around and the blood froze in his veins. Coming
towards them, very familiar wine bottles in hand, were Lacroix
and Janette. Nick uttered a curse in a language not commonly
spoken in the last 800 years. Mike and Bob stared at him and
then turned their attention back to the exotic couple.

"Who are they? Do you know them?" Bob asked Nick.

There was a pause while Nick considered his answer. Finally,
he said weakly, "Yeah. They' family."

Janette undulated up to Nick and threw her arms around his
neck. "Nicolas! Darling!" she cooed and proceeded to kiss him
very comprehensively on the mouth. When he managed to detach
her, she stroked his cheek and scolded, "It has been far too
long since you called on me. Almost a year!" She transferred
her attention to Michelle. "And this is the little one?
Why, Nicolas, she looks just like you! May I?" She held out
her arms.

Behind her, Lacroix said, "Yes, Nicholas. I am very disappointed
you didn't tell us about this important event. We found out
from one of your coworkers just the other day and came to
offer our congratulations."

By this time, several other partygoers had wandered over in
curiosity. Janette and Lacroix stood out like peacocks among
sparrows. In stark contrast to the Saturday-casual shorts
and tee-shirts everyone else wore, they looked ready for a
garden party at the Rockefellers. Janette was attired in black
raw silk skin-tight pants, a cream-colored silk bustier and
soft leather Italian sandals. Her hair was elegantly done up
in an elaborate style and her makeup was flawless. Lacroix,
in deference to the summer weather, wore a steel gray linen
suit instead of his customary black, with a collarless black
silk shirt. Belatedly, Nick saw that he carried several small
brightly-wrapped packages under his arm in addition to the
wine bottle.

Nick transferred his attention back to Janette. She smiled
sweetly and made as if to take Michelle from him. He scowled
and then reluctantly handed his daughter to her. "Be careful.
She's very fragile."

"Oh, Nicolas, you know how I love to mother young things."
She cradled Michelle in her arms, cooing nonsense words
in her ear.

Bob nudged Nick in the ribs. "So, are you going to introduce
us?" His attention was on the baby, and, incidentally,
Janette's cleavage.

"Yes, Nicholas, do introduce us to your new friends." Lacroix's
voice sounded at once amused and just the teensiest bit

Nick glared at him. He introduced the seven people clustered
around. "This is my cousin, Janette DuCharme, and my..." he
paused and tried to think of a suitable relationship, "...uncle,
Lucien Lacroix."

"How very charming to meet you, ladies and gentlemen," Lacroix
said. "Nicholas and I used to be very close, weren't we,
Nicholas? But alas, as he grows older," Nick gave him another
dirty look, "we seem to have drifted apart. Until we heard of
the blessed event, of course. I thought a reunion was indicated."
He indicated the wrapped packages. "We came to offer our
congratulations and bring some gifts for the little one."

Natalie had caught sight of Nick's 'relatives,' excused herself
from the conversation and hurried over. She looked Janette
in the eye and said, "I think she needs changing. I'll take
her," and took Michelle from Janette's embrace. They smiled
tightly at each other. Nat put her unoccupied arm possessively
around Nick's waist.

Lacroix interrupted the awkward silence. "We were just taking
the opportunity to extend our warmest wishes for the child,
my dear doctor. Allow us to present our gifts." He handed a
small box to Nick.

"That's from me," Janette told them.

Nick unwrapped the colorful paper to reveal a jewelry box.
Opening it, he found a silver chain with a single large black
pearl gleaming against the white satin lining.

"I will give her a new pearl every birthday. A charming
Victorian custom, well worth resurrecting, non? When she
is twenty-one, she will have a suitable necklace for a
beautiful young lady."

Nat fingered the pearl, gleaming dully in the streetlights.
"Oh, Janette, it's beautiful. Thank you." She felt momentarily
ashamed of her earlier hostility. "Would you like to hold
her again?" she offered.

Janette gravely accepted the baby into her arms. Michelle
beamed up at her and waved her arms.

"And this is from me." Lacroix handed Nick an irregularly-shaped
package, tied with pink ribbon.

Nick plucked the ribbon loose and the paper unfolded,
revealing a stuffed animal. He picked it up. It was medium
brown with a plush, squishy body. Little ears stood up from
the head. A mouse? On closer inspection he saw it had soft
plush wings, beady black eyes and a mouthful of pointed
felt teeth.

"Read the tag," Lacroix said, a small smile tugging at
his lips.

Nick located the small white tag sewn to the toy. "The
South American Wildlife Collection," he read. "Nicholas
the Vampire Bat. Non-toxic, hand washable. Safe for
children of all ages." He looked at Lacroix and started
to laugh.

Between gasps for breath he said, "Look,'s a
bat...a bat...named Nicholas." She stared at
im in disbelief and then started laughing as well.
Their neighbors looked mystified.

All Nick could choke out was "Old family joke." Lacroix
was smiling broadly, and Janette was grinning, too.
Nick jiggled the toy in Michelle's face. "Look, Michelle,
it's Daddy." This set off more gales of laughter.

When they finally settled down, Nat asked, "Where ever
did you find that?"

Lacroix merely raised an eyebrow. "I have my sources."
Then he relented. "There were new exhibits at the
Natural History Museum I wished to see, and before I
left, I visited the gift shop. For some reason, I
couldn't resist it." He pulled an envelope out of his
inner breast pocket and handed it to Nick. "However,
this is the real gift."

Nick opened the envelope, Nat craning her head to see.
He removed a legal-size document written in French.
"What is it?" she asked.

Nick's jaw dropped as he read the document. "No!
Absolutely not!" he growled at Lacroix. Suddenly
aware of all the people listening in with avid curiosity,
he said, "Excuse us for a moment," and moved down
the driveway, Lacroix, Janette and Nat trailing behind.

He lowered his voice. "Don't you think I can provide
for my own family?" he hissed.

Nat said, "What is it? Tell me!"

Nick looked at her and said, "It's the deed to the
villa in Monte Carlo. He's given her a twenty room
villa and paid the taxes and upkeep for the next fifty
years." He looked at Lacroix again. "Absolutely not!"
He shoved the paper back into Lacroix's hands.

"Why ever not, Nicholas? I haven't used it in twenty
years. I don't much care for Monte Carlo any more--the
tone has gone down with the current crop of nobility,
and it is far too sunny for my tastes. She'll enjoy
it when she's old enough." He sounded very reasonable.

"I can give her that, assuming I want to introduce her
to that life. No!" Nick folded his arms and glared at
his former master.

Nat was looking at the document, now crumpled in
Lacroix's hand. "Is it on the beach?" she asked

"Oh yes. It has a private beach, as a matter of fact.
And a swimming pool. It is quite pleasant, really."

"No!" Nick asserted again.

"You're going to be tiresome about this, aren't you,
Nicholas? ." Lacroix sighed theatrically
nd gazed around him abstractedly. His eyes lit on
something in the adjoining yard, and the corner of
his mouth twitched in an almost-smile. "I have an idea.
The villa is in Monte Carlo, home of a very elegant
gambling establishment. Are you game for a little wager,
in the spirit of the place?"

Nick said suspiciously, "What do you have in mind?"

"If I win, you accept the gift. If you win, I take it back.
An elegant solution to our dilemma."

"Win what game?"

Lacroix gestured to the next yard, where wire hoops
gleamed faintly in the streetlights. "Croquet."

Silence fell as Nick considered Lacroix's proposition.
Lacroix stared at him challengingly. Nat said wonderingly,
"You're going to play croquet for a ? With a kid's
set on a bumpy lawn?" She turned to Janette. "How much is
this place worth, anyway?"

Janette shrugged expressively. "Seven, eight millions? I
do not know. It never seemed to matter. It is just someplace
we go when we are bored with Paris." She turned her
attention back to the baby. "You would love it, little one.
The gardeners are such young men..." she cooed
as she rocked Michelle.

Nat turned to Nick. "Do it," she urged him, her face lit
up with the sheer romance of the idea. Just imagine, a fortune
won or lost on the outcome of a trivial game! It was just
like those trashy Regency romance novels Grace liked to read
on her lunch hour, the ones in which young noblemen lost vast
estates on the turn of a card. (At least, that's what the
blurbs on the back covers said. Natalie wouldn't actually read
one of them, of course. She had her pride.)

Belatedly Nat realized that Nick would have to lose. She
weighed the prospect of a little short-term connubial angst
against luxurious, sun-filled vacations. Practicality won
out--she was rooting for Lacroix.

"You're on, Lacroix," Nick returned Lacroix's stare. "A few
ground rules, though. We play with the light-colored balls
to even out the vision, uh, discrepancies. And you don't use
any other 'unusual talents.' Regular backyard rules. Agreed?"

"Agreed. Shall we?" Lacroix gestured towards the adjoining lawn.

The four of them moved off to examine the field of challenge,
trailed by a gaggle of curious spectators. The croquet
mallets and balls were dented and chipped with much use,
and the wickets were no longer smooth hoops--most looked
like they had been bent and re-bent many times. At least
the lawn was mostly flat, although the grass was shaggy,
and there were enough bumps to make sure that a shot probably
wouldn't go exactly where you wanted it. A petunia bed
marked one side of the court, and the street the other.

"Nick," Nat whispered, tugging on his shirt sleeve. "Have
you ever played croquet before? You told me you never
played any sports!"

He smiled at her reassuringly and leaned over to whisper back
in her ear. It wouldn't do for anyone to hear where he
learned this particular game. "Croquet was all the rage in
the late 1800s. We attended lots of garden parties that
included 'moonlight croquet.' And Lacroix used to hang out
with the Algonquin Roundtable crowd in the '30s--they were
absolutely vicious players. Can you imagine him trading
barbs with Dorothy Parker while knocking her ball out of
bounds? It was quite a sight."

"Can you beat him?" She secretly hoped not, and then felt
a twinge of disloyalty, which she banished by thinking of
romantic Mediterranean nights.

"Maybe." He looked momentarily doubtful. "I haven't played
for about 100 years, but the lawn's lousy enough to even
that out." Nick seemed to be beginning to forget about his
wounded pride and get into the prospect of possibly beating
Lacroix at something. Although they had reached a detente
of sorts (Lacroix was no longer threatening to kill either
him or Nat) they still relished the opportunity to puncture
each other's ego one way or another. Unfortunately, Lacroix
had done most of the puncturing in their last few meetings.

Lacroix selected the yellow ball and Nick the orange one.
"You're first," Nick said graciously.

"But of course, Nicholas--yellow is before orange.
Thank you for the reminder. I do believe I remember the
rules." Lacroix carefully positioned the wooden ball one
mallet-length in front of the first wicket. He lined up
the shot and gave the ball a smart whack. It shot cleanly
through the two wickets and rolled to a stop five feet beyond
the second wicket. His first bonus shot put his ball neatly
in position to go through the number three wicket, and
the second bonus shot put him through. Lacroix smiled a
small, self-satisfied smile and said, "Yet another bonus
shot, I believe." He angled the ball towards the fourth
wicket. It stopped, perfectly placed for an easy trip
through. "Your turn." Lacroix turned to watch Nick with
an expectant air.

A look of determination and concentration on his face,
Nick duplicated Lacroix's feat, his ball following
practically the same path. The orange ball bumped to a
halt a little less than one foot behind Lacroix's yellow

"Well-placed, Nicholas," Lacroix commented. "For me, that
is." Instead of hitting his ball through the fourth wicket,
he sent it backwards towards Nick's hapless ball. It hit
with a loud 'thwock.' The yellow ball caromed off to the
left. "Roquet, Nicholas. Two bonus strokes for me," he
announced with a certain amount of relish. Nick glared at
Lacroix's ball, as if he could send it off course through
sheer force of will.

Lacroix's ball had moved only two feet after hitting Nick's
ball. Sending it through the fourth wicket was easy, and
he acquired another bonus stroke.

And so the game went. Nick would almost catch Lacroix,
who would then casually knock his ball off course and gain
bonus strokes in the process. Nick did manage one roquet,
but on his second bonus stroke, his ball hit a bump in the
lawn and bounced into the petunia bed. Lacroix's ball
never seemed to hit a bump, of course. Each shot went
precisely where it was aimed.

Nat and Janette had ensconced themselves in lawn chairs on
the sidelines. "Oh damn," Nat said insincerely. "It looks
like Nick's losing."

Janette smiled and elegantly recrossed her legs. "You'll
like the bath." She delicately sipped the contents of her
wine bottle from a blue plastic beer cup. "I ordered a very
large spa installed last year. Used creatively, that will
serve to soothe anyone's injured pride. Even someone as
determined to be insulted as Nicolas."

"I'll make good use of it, don't worry." Nat made an
encouraging noise as Nick's ball was once again knocked
off the court. "In fact, I think I'll have to do a lot
of soothing this evening."

"Every dark cloud has a silver lining, non?" The two
women smiled at each other, in perfect accord.

A smattering of applause broke out from the spectators as
Lacroix's final shot made a beeline through the last two
wickets and hit the stake so hard it vibrated for a moment.
Lacroix bowed slightly to his audience, acknowledging
the applause. Nick's ball was still three wickets behind.

Lacroix put down his mallet, reached into his inside
breast pocket and pulled out the deed. He carefully
smoothed it out and then, looking at Nick, silently held
it up, his eyebrow raised.

Nick approached Lacroix and stood there, just looking
at him. He seemed to be contemplating another use for
the finishing stake. "Oh oh, time to play referee,"
Nat said to Janette. She stood up and went to join Nick,
Michelle in her arms.

"Nice try, darling," she said brightly. "We'll have to
have a rematch some time." She turned to Lacroix. "Thank
you much for the lovely gifts. I'm sure Michelle
will enjoy them all--as will we, right, Nick?" She nudged
him none too gently in the ribs. "Right, Nick?"

Nick sighed, reluctantly nodded his assent and took
the deed. "Don't think you can just drop in when we're
there. Call first."

"I wouldn't dream of imposing on you or your family."
Lacroix held out his arms. "Now that that is all settled,
may I hold the child for a moment?"

Nat smiled, and handing Michelle to him said, "Of
course, 'Grandpa.'"

Lacroix favored Nat with his patented I-am-a-Master-
Vampire-Don't Mess-With-Me icy stare, then took the
baby. He held her up in front of him, examining her like
he was inspecting her for flaws. She was awake, having
slept all afternoon. She looked at him with a serious
expression on her face, then reached out and grabbed his
nose with her tiny hand and giggled.

"There is no doubt this is Nicholas' child." Lacroix's
oice sounded a bit nasal. "She is already trying to
aggravate me." He shifted her so her hand detached from
his nose. He held her in his arms and stared down into
her bright eyes. His look softened. He turned away from
Nick and Nat, tickled her tummy and began murmuring

Nat strained her ears to catch his words, but they made
no sense to her. She looked at Nick and whispered,
"What's he saying?"

Nick listened carefully for a moment, then had to smile.
"I think it's the Latin equivalent of 'who's a cute
widdle bunnykins,' or something to that effect."

Janette's voice came from behind them. "I always told
you he had a sentimental streak in him, Nicolas. You
just refused to believe me."

"He hides it well." Nick raised his voice. "Looks like
the party is breaking up, Lacroix." People were drifting
off to their homes, calling good-nights to each other.
"It's getting late. Time for us to get our stuff and
go home." He reclaimed Michelle and they headed back
to the Larsons' yard.

Marge bustled up to Nick out of the darkness and said,
"Dear, don't forget to take down the barricades. And
take this. Here." She handed him a Tupperware container.
"This is for the nice man who delivered them. Make sure
he gets it, will you?" She turned to Lacroix and Janette.
"It was so nice to meet Nick's relatives. You should
come by more often. I'll remind him to invite you to our
next get-together. Do you need any Tupperware? We're
having a Tupperware party next Saturday at my house.
It's so handy for storing just about anything, don't you
think? Don't forget!" She spotted someone else across
the yard and zoomed off again, calling, "Cheryl..."

They stood and looked after her, momentarily stunned
into silence by the tiny whirlwind. "That was Marge."
Nick said unneccessarily. He peeked in the container
she had pressed into his hands. Cookies. Of course.

"So sorry you had to lose--again," Lacroix said, unable
to hide his satisfaction. "Perhaps a rematch could be
arranged. But we must fly now--figuratively, not literally.
We drove," he added at Nick's alarmed look. "I have
a radio show to put on."

"And I have a club to run," Janette said. She kissed Nick.
"Come by and see me, cher. Once in a while, at least.
Bring the child." She looked at Natalie. "And Natalie,
of course."

Nick and Nat watched them walk down the street to Lacroix's
Mercedes, parked at the end of the block. Nat tightened
her arm around Nick's waist. "I'm sorry you lost, but
I'm not sorry you lost, if you know what I mean." She
sighed. "A villa in Monte Carlo! It's so romantic, Nick!"

"I know. Why do you think I threw the game?" He
laughed at her astonished look. "I used to beat the
pants off him at croquet every time we played. It drove
him crazy.He must have thought that being mortal would
interfere with my game and he'd finally get a
chance to win."

Nat said suspiciously, "Are you sure? You're not just
saying this to salvage your pride, are you?"

Nick looked hurt. "Remember, I was an actor once or
twice in the past. I was acting up a storm back there."
He smiled at her. "I must have been very convincing--
he bought the whole act! I decided to let him win when
I saw how much you wanted the villa. Anyway, I already
made my point by making such a fuss."

"Why, you sneaky so-and-so!" She smacked him in the
arm. "And here I thought I would have to make you forget
your disappointment by making mad, passionate love
to you all night!"

He waggled his eyebrows suggestively. "I do need
consoling. Letting Lacroix win was a blow
to my pride. I think I'll need very
consoling when we get home..." He assumed a woebegone

"Well, I guess that can be arranged." Nat sighed
again. "The things I do for real estate."

"What do you mean?! The things do for real

They disappeared giggling into the dark.

The End