A Christmoose Story


She was only a few rows ahead of Lars on the small plane, but she may have well been a hundred miles away.

Lars tried desperately not to stare at the edge of her face, just visible behind waves of mousy brown hair as she bent her head over the book she was holding. The oblique angle and her thick glasses made it impossible to tell what color her eyes were.

If only she would look up, glance back. If he could just catch her attention for a moment, maybe he could make sense of the way the sight of her made something deep inside him ache and awaken. Deep within him, his animal rumbled anxiously.

Whatever it was, it something that was affecting his moose as much as it was the rest of him.

The plane was crowded with people; every seat in the charter was filled. Most of them were chattering cheerfully, gazing out the windows where turquoise sea wrinkled away from the emerald jungle below. They were varied in nationality, but clearly all of them were well-to-do.

Lars glanced at the woman sitting next to him using a tablet. She gave the impression of stupendous wealth, from her perfect, frosty blonde hair to her glittering jewelry and designer clothing. Her tablet had a gold and leather case.

The young woman he was trying not to watch was a stark contrast, and Lars wondered if that was why she had caught his attention, because she was as poor as he was.

But he wasn’t poor anymore, he reminded himself. His tablet was as high-end as the woman next to him, and his clothing was as well made.

But the woman he was watching had simple clothing, and her luggage was a small, battered, second hand carry-on. Lars hadn’t seen her with a phone or any technology, just… books.

Since he had first caught sight of her in the San Jose airport, she had done nothing but read. Book after book, as far as Lars could tell. Judging by the way she carried her bag, it was more books than clothing.

The scowling young man traveling with her had not offered to carry it, despite having an even smaller, more worn bag for himself.

Lars frowned at the man, trying to determine what kind of relationship they might have. They were basically ignoring each other; the man hadn’t even taken a seat next to her.

Lars wouldn’t even have been sure they were traveling together, but there was something about their shared shabbiness, and the close-but-not-too-close way they were with each other that clinched his suspicion.

He was staring at her again, Lars realized, at the tantalizing line of her cheek, and the way her fingers flipped the pages of her book.

The plane gave a little hiccup of turbulence and he watched, hopeful, to see if she would look around. She glanced up only briefly, and then returned to the words on the page.

Even when they had landed, on a postage stamp of an island that didn’t even look large enough to put a plane down on, she didn’t glance back, only packed her latest book into her bag and slipped into the crush of people exiting the plane.

One of the last to leave the plane, Lars looked at once for her, and was glad to see that she hadn’t boarded the courtesy van to the resort yet.

One last seat!” the driver called.

An old lady pushed forward and Lars let her go, eyes only for the brunette.

She was already taking a seat in the tiny covered shelter that appeared to be all that counted for an airport, pulling out a book. Her companion was glowering generally at everyone — he certainly wasn’t shy about meeting Lars’ eyes. He went to one end of the shelter, lit a cigarette, and silently dared anyone to complain.

Lars’ seatmate gave an exasperated sigh and minced in ridiculous high heels to sit beside the real object of Lars’ attention.

That left a seat free for Lars, and he darted forward with athletic reflexes to claim the place.

Up close, the young woman smelled like soap and, not surprising, books. Her brown hair, not dark, not exactly light, was soft-looking and inviting.

Sitting next to her was electric — exciting and tantalizing. But she still would not look up at him, utterly engrossed in her open book.

A half an hour!” the blonde beyond her groused. “That’s ridiculous. There’s nothing here to do.” She waved her phone around in the air. “I can’t even get a phone signal here!”

Lars checked his own phone and confirmed. “Nor can I.”

The blonde gave him a look over her sunglasses. “Swedish?” she asked without seeming particularly interested.

“Soon to be American,” Lars said firmly, realizing that he had answered her in the wrong language the first time. “I have…” his English failed him. “I am hockey player,” he tried to explain. He was keenly aware of the young woman between them, and wondered if she was hearing him at all. It made him irrationally nervous to think that she might be, and it occurred to him that it sounded like he was a hockey player for fun.

Professional, he wanted to add, but he could not remember the English word for it. The Russian word, and the German, but English was suddenly a cipher. “I play it for team,” he tried to explain. “Expert.”

The blonde failed to look at all impressed.

The brunette turned another page in her book.

# # #

Julie stared at her book, and occasionally remembered to turn a page, even though she couldn’t make sense of the words on them.

The blond man with the delicious accent was sitting right next to her, so close that she could feel the heat of him, even with the sultry, humid warmth of the jungle all around.

He smelled like new clothing, and below that, a heady mix of sweat and musk.

In her head, her caribou was all attention, absolutely riveted on the man sitting next to them.

He’s a hockey player, Julie tried to tell her dismissively, but her caribou found the promise of athleticism exciting. He’s not our type, Julie insisted, continuing to pretend she wasn’t a basket case of irrational nerves.

She also didn’t want to admit that it was far more likely that she wasn’t his type.

She wanted to look up at him, desperately wanted to, but she didn’t want to watch his gaze slide right over her. Already, he was talking over her head to the very well-to-do blonde on her other side. Clearly, he was interested in her, not Julie.

And who could blame him? Shifters were supposed to be fit and perfect, and here she was, with her poor eyesight and her extra curves and her mousy in-between hair. In the tropical humidity, it was nothing less than frizzy. She wondered enviously how much product the blonde had used to keep her locks so tamed and lovely.

Probably none, Julie realized sourly. She was probably naturally that perfect.

She remembered to turn another page.

The hockey player, who had finally introduced himself to no one in particular as Lars, was continuing to babble in his broken English, and Julie didn’t want to admit that she was hanging on every word.

Lars seemed like the most beautiful name she had ever heard.

When the resort van returned, rattling down the winding road to the tiny airstrip, Julie sighed in regret.

This was probably as close as she was going to get to an actual conversation with Lars. She tucked her book into her luggage and lifted her head to meet Tom’s eyes.

He took a long drag of his cigarette and held her gaze a thoughtful moment before dropping his butt to stub it out beneath his heel.

# # #

The jolting ride to the resort was more of the same kind of torture that the plane ride had been. Lars could see the back of the young woman’s head and little else, as she bent over a book that he couldn’t imagine she was able to focus on between the jaw-rattling potholes.

She was out of the van first, and Lars fidgeted to have to wait until the few people in front of him slowly — soooo slowly — unloaded from the vehicle.

The entrance to the resort should have been enchanting, but the object of all of his attention was already disappearing into the shadowed courtyard beyond, and Lars scrambled to follow.

He was right about her traveling with the surly smoking man — they were standing together at the check-in desk, and he had to remind himself not to crowd too close behind them to be obvious about eavesdropping.

Welcome to Shifting Sands.” The woman behind the desk had improbable red hair, neatly pulled back in a fancy updo. “Do you have your confirmation number?”

Cigarette man looked expectantly at the bookworm, who dug into her luggage for a worn notebook. “Yes, sorry, here you go.”

The woman smiled. It was a cool, practiced smile. Lars recognized it as the one his press agent had been training him to adopt. “No problem. Ah! Julie and Tom Johnson. Congratulations on winning the sweepstake!”

Julie. Her name was Julie.

It was lyrical and utterly perfect for her. He turned it over in his mouth, mouthing it without sound as the woman checking them in began going over maps and procedures.

Lars frowned at the back of Tom’s head. Where did he fit in this picture? He had the same last name. Was he a husband? An estranged husband, he thought, from the chilly distance between them. Maybe this trip was a last attempt at rekindling their romance.

The idea made him want to check the man into the desk.

He was alarmed at his own vehemence and he looked with longing at the tiny bit of Julie’s face that he could see. What had she done to him? Who was she? Why was he so drawn to her?

Then they were walking away with their luggage and their maps, and Lars stared at them for some time before he realized that the red-haired woman was waiting for him to step forward.

Your confirmation number?” she asked firmly. Lars recognized that she had already asked that, while he was staring after Julie.

He rattled it off for her, then heard himself speaking Swedish and started to repeat it in English.

The woman waved him off halfway through. “I’ve got it, thank you,” she said in badly accented Swedish.

Lars wasn’t quite able to keep from wincing, though he knew that his own English had been twice as terrible today.

I apologize,” she said ruefully. “I only had a book to learn from, I hadn’t heard the language spoken.”

No, I apologize,” Lars said swiftly. “It was a good try and I appreciate the effort.”

He could remember ‘appreciate,’ but ‘professional’ still eluded him.

You failed to fill out the field for the type of shifter you are,” the woman said politely, and waited.

Lars froze. Älg, he wanted to say, but no, it was elk in English. And an American elk was something altogether different than the European elk. What did they call it? A moose.

Then he thought about Julie, and was suddenly frozen with indecision. Girls didn’t like prey animals. They wanted predators. Big, fierce predators.

Björn,” he said impulsively. “Bear. I’m a bear.”

His moose gave a derisive snort, and would have facepalmed if it had possessed the correct appendages.

# # #

Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was the rich food. Maybe it was the droning insects at night.

Julie couldn’t sleep.

She couldn’t even read.

She turned off the light after an hour or more of reading the same chapter. It was light fantasy fiction. It should be easy to shut off her brain and escape to the book world, but every time she turned a page, she imagined his voice. It was so rich and wonderful to listen to, even though he appeared to be a self-centered braggart who always seemed to be explaining to someone else that he was an expert hockey player.

Not just a hockey player. An expert hockey player.

The way he trailed off sometimes, Julie wondered if he wasn’t a little slow-headed.

And she still couldn’t get his voice out of her head, or stop thinking about him.

Every so often, she caught a glimpse of him, of his broad shoulders or his shock of blond hair, and she had to flee, or pretend to find something engrossing in a book, because otherwise, she knew she was going to embarrass herself staring.

After a few moments tossing in the dark, listening to Tom’s even breathing from across the room, Julie got out of her bed and crept out of the hotel room in her pajamas.

The resort at night was enchanting. There were Christmas lights up all around, even though Christmas was still several weeks off.

Julie frowned to see them. She would be gone the week before Christmas, back to her ordinary life, her grinding, soul-killing retail job. This was just a temporary escape, a once in a lifetime lucky win. It was lovely living like the other half, but she knew her own dull life was waiting for her return.

There was a book exchange shelf in the back of the bar; maybe a new book would soothe her restless mind.

Like so many public rooms in the resort, there was no distinction from inside space and outside space at the bar deck; the weather here was so beautiful and mild that a mere roof served as plenty of protection.

Julie was looking up at the stars as she walked, listening to the white-noise of the water features, trying to memorize all of it. This would be a beautiful memory to cherish someday in the future.

Then she realized that there was already somebody sitting in front of the book exchange shelf. She frowned, not eager to share the quiet joy of picking out a new book with a stranger, and then caught her breath as she realized that it was him.

One bank of the bar lights was switched on, a row of spotlights that did little to illuminate the space. But it lit up Lars’ blond head, and the broad expanse of his shoulders.

Inside, her caribou gave a caper of excitement and urged her to approach.

Fear rooted Julie to the spot.

Before she could decide between obeying her animal’s fascination with the stranger or her own urge to flee before he noticed her, Lars looked up, directly at her.

# # #

It wasn’t something he heard — the noise of the waterfalls into the pool below drowned out all the quiet sounds of the night — but something caught Lars’ attention and he felt compelled to look around.

She was standing in the shadows just beyond the puddle of lights from the empty bar, but Lars would know her curvy figure anywhere, in any light at all. The moonlight behind her turned her silhouette to silver.


He scrambled to his feet and stood there uncertainly for a long moment as they stared across the space between them.

He wasn’t sure who started moving first, but they met at a half-lit table halfway between, gazing hungrily at each other. Lars’ heart hammered in his chest, and he tried to make sense of what his moose was insisting.

If he’d been drawn to Julie before, it was nothing compared to what he felt now. He belonged to her, he was utterly, wholly hers. There wasn’t a language in the world that could encompass how complete she made him feel, at least no language for tongues.

Then she nervously licked her lips, and Lars thought maybe it was a language for tongues.

Her gaze flickered down. “Are you reading that?” she asked breathlessly, and Lars looked helplessly down at the book in his hands.

War and Peace.

I have already,” he said, not sure why he wasn’t kissing her. “But the Russian version.”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “You read Russian?”

Da,” Lars said. “And German. And a little French. In case I got drafted to a Canadian team.”

She blinked in surprise.

Julie…” Lars didn’t know where to go from there.

You… know my name?” She said it full of wonder. “I never thought you noticed me.”

How could I not? Lars should have said. I never noticed anyone except you. Or maybe, You are the only thing in my world now.

Instead, not wanting to seem like a stalker, he desperately said, “Your name is on your pyjamas.”

Julie looked down at herself in sudden consternation, the blush that rose in her cheeks obvious even in the dim light.

Oh, I… of course. I didn’t think anyone would be up. It wasn’t… I should have changed… I was just coming to find a book.”

Lars wanted to gather her into his arms and kiss away her confusion; it took all of his willpower not to.

You like to read,” he observed.

Yeah,” she said shyly, pushing her glasses up on her face. “Tom keeps teasing me about coming to an exotic tropical island to do the same thing I’d do at home.”

But it’s a nicer place to do it, yes?”

Julie gave a low, musical laugh. It was a sound that Lars wanted to coax from her again. “Much nicer,” she agreed.

Where are you from?” Lars asked. He wanted to know everything about her.

Montana,” Julie said. “You?”

Sweden — er, New York now,” he said swiftly. “I am American soon.” It didn’t feel quite true yet. Should he explain that he had been drafted for professional hockey? He wanted desperately to impress her. But he still hadn’t remembered the word for professional, and kept forgetting to look it up on his phone when the rocky resort connection was working.

I’ve always wanted to go to Sweden,” Julie said wistfully. “It sounds beautiful.”

You’re beautiful, Lars wanted to say.

She was, with her not-blonde, not-brown hair soft around her face. Her eyes were huge and blue behind her glasses, and her pajamas did nothing to hide the entrancing curves of her figure. She was smiling, slowly and shyly, as they talked. He wanted to kiss her, so badly. His moose was encouraging him to do more.

Ours, he insisted. Our mate.

Your animal…” Julie started to say cautiously.

A bear,” Lars remembered. He’d told the resort that he was a bear. He wanted to tell Julie the truth, but the words were out of his mouth before he could catch them. And once said, he couldn’t take it back. Besides, a bear was impressive.

And he desperately wanted to impress her.

A bear,” she said with wide eyes. “Wow. Grizzly? Black?”

Lars had only the faintest idea what the species of bears were called, but grizzly certainly sounded like the sort of tough he was going for. “Grizzly,” he said, hoping it sounded appropriately manly.

And you?” he asked swiftly. “Your animal?”

Caribou,” she said.

It took Lars a moment to resolve the sounds into a word. “Caribou.” He should pretend he knew what that was.

It’s basically an undomesticated reindeer,” Julie supplied, to his relief.

Ren,” Lars agreed. “They are the Christmas deer in America.”

To his complete delight, she laughed again. “Yeah! Every year I pull the sleigh at the local children’s center on Christmas eve.”


They both looked around in surprise.

Tom was bearing down on them. “Is this jerk bothering you?”

The smile on Julie’s face froze. “No,” she said faintly.

Come on, leave my sister alone,” Tom said, as if she hadn’t said anything. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed you creeping on her this whole week.”

Relief flooded through Lars. Sister. They were siblings. Wait… creeping? Lars tried to figure out the translation for that, and could only guess from his tone that Tom thought Lars was being impolite. Guilt replaced the relief. Had he been unwittingly rude?

Let’s go, Julie,” Tom said firmly. “You don’t need to worry about this prick.”

Julie looked between them in consternation, her discomfort at being caught between them clear in the roll of her shoulders and the shy duck of her head. After a moment, she turned away and Tom shot Lars a triumphant look over his shoulder.

Wait!” Lars cried.

They paused, turning back. Tom’s eyes burned with anger. Julie trembled. Did Lars only imagine that she looked as hungry as he felt?

A book,” he said desperately, holding his out impulsively. “Didn’t you come looking for a book?”

As if drawn back on a cord, Julie returned to take the book from him. “Thank you,” she said weakly. “I…”

She’s not interested in conceited hockey stars who can only talk about themselves,” Tom interjected, muscling up beside her. “Learn to take a hint. She can do a lot better than you.”

Lars was overwhelmed by his urge to hit him in the face, but wrestled back his moose’s instinct. Giving her brother a black eye would probably not endear him to the woman who had upended his world.

Tom,” Julie hissed, turning away. “Let’s just go.”

Lars knew that his best bet was also to leave, before he was tempted to trample Tom into a pulp.

And wasn’t Tom right? Julie probably did deserve better than him. She deserved someone smooth and sophisticated. He was only here because he was lucky, and luck was just a thing, not a quality.

His mind was in such a turmoil that the first thing he did when he returned to his cottage was shift into his moose form and browse all the nearby bushes down to ankle-high.

# # #

How could you be so horrible to him?” Julie demanded, once they were out of earshot.

How could you not have noticed him?” Tom retorted. “He’s been absolutely leering at you since we got here. He’s clearly some entitled rich sex maniac, and I thought you were too smart to fall for that kind of charm.”

Julie tried to tamp down the thrill of excitement at the idea. Lars had been watching her? She’d been so busy trying not to stare at him! Her caribou wanted to turn on her heel and chase after, but long experience told her that she would not get rid of Tom so easily.

Tom,” she tried to explain. “There’s… something… there. Lars… Lars is my…”

Mate, her caribou supplied with a caper. Our mate.

Your what?”

My mate,” Julie breathed, wrapping her arms around herself. The pajamas that had been so warm earlier felt insufficient against the cool night.

Your… what?” Tom stopped and Julie walked several steps without him before she realized.

My mate,” she repeated, smiling despite herself.

He’s a moron,” Tom said incredulously.

He’s not,” Julie defended him instantly. “He knows four languages, Tom. English isn’t even his second language.”

He’s a hockey player, Julie. An expert hockey player.” He mocked the accent perfectly. “You deserve better than some rock-headed, over-paid athlete. Worse, he’s a bear. Predator and prey, they don’t mix.” Tom patted his pockets and came up with a cigarette, which he lit.

That’s disgusting,” Julie said. “You know I hate it.”

I hate you thinking you couldn’t do better than that vain, shallow jerk,” Tom retorted.

He’s not shallow,” Julie protested. “And you don’t have to protect me.”

She couldn’t have said why she was so sure… something about the way he looked at her. He spoke a little slowly, like someone struggling through layers of language might… or someone who was as dizzy with unexpected desire as she was.

She wanted to kiss him, to peel him out of his loud, too-new clothing and see what the muscles he wasn’t shy about sharing on the beach and pool deck felt like under her fingers. But to her surprise, more than that, she wanted to find out why he read Russian, and what Sweden was like and even how long he’d been playing hockey.

They were at the door of the hotel and Tom paused to take another long drag of his cigarette before stubbing it out and throwing the butt into the trash can. “How could you know that he’s your mate? I mean, I get that he’s good-looking, but…”

I don’t know,” Julie said, over her caribou’s protests. “It’s confusing. Overwhelming. But I’ve never felt like this. My caribou is so sure. And…” she wasn’t going to talk about the rest of what she felt with her brother. “I just think so,” she finished lamely.

Tom looked at her, and not even the darkness could hide his guilt or his anger. “You’ve thought someone was right for you before,” he reminded her, like a knife in the side. “You even said he might be your mate.”

Julie had no answer for that, unable to articulate how different this was.

Tom shook his head as he opened the hotel door. “Come on, let’s just go to bed. I have no desire to sleep through one of the resort’s amazing breakfasts.”

Julie followed him without comment, turning the book in her hands as she went.

She slept with it under her pillow that night, and dreamed of what she imagined Russia looked like.

# # #

Tom lay awake, listening to Julie’s steady breath, until dawn started to color the sky. Leaving her to her sleep, he dressed silently and crept out of their little hotel room and down the hall.

He didn’t believe in mates, not really. It seemed like a fairy tale, something for gullible shifters or a story for children because it was too hard to explain desire. But Julie’s face haunted him; it was the first time she had looked truly happy in longer than he could remember. Whether Lars was her mate or not, Tom was going to find out more about him before he had a chance to hurt his sister.

It was impossible not to know where Lars was staying; his cottage was the first one off the main path, and his porch was not as well screened in greenery as most of the others. He seemed to enjoy sitting out, sunning himself vainly, and had already started developing a deep, glowing tan.

Tom looked down at his own arms. He’d been cautious about sunning, given his starting pallor, but was developing stubborn color. In the early light, it looked pretty pathetic.

He froze at an unexpected sound from behind the hedge. It was a familiar sound, but not one he expected here. It was… munching.

Tom peered around the gate that led to Lars door and confirmed his suspicion. A moose was standing in the tiny yard in front of Lars’ cottage, chewing viciously at the foliage, its gawky, giant shape utterly unmistakable even without the distinctive antlers.

As Tom watched, aghast, the huge moose shifted back into the hockey player, and bent put on the robe that had been lying on the grass as Tom ducked back out of sight.

Tom retreated quietly, trying to make sense of this.

Lars was a bear… supposedly.

And if he wasn’t a bear, what else might he be lying about?

He wanted his sister to be happy; she deserved every joy in the world, and he’d be cursed if he was going to let some conceited, untrustworthy foreign jerk break her heart. He’d already let her get hurt once, there was no way he was going to do it again.

# # #

Lars was tired of pretending.

He was tired of pretending that he was comfortable with his money and his new clothes. He was tired of pretending he was a predator. He was tired of pretending not to stare at Julie.

He was just going to find her, and tell her all the things he was feeling, however awkwardly it came out. He was going to confess that he was a charlatan who didn’t belong in a resort like this.

Would she forgive him? Or would she find that his deception was too much to accept? Was he too much of a… what had Tom called him? A creeper? The dictionary had helpfully supplied that a creeper was someone sneaky and deceptive. It had also confirmed that ‘expert’ was the English word for ‘professional,’ but it still didn’t sound right to his ears.

But the next morning, Tom intercepted him at the restaurant.

She’s not interested,” he said, like a brutal check against the boards.

Not… interested?” Lars could only repeat dumbly.

“She knows you’re a moose,” Tom snarled. “Did you think she could possibly want to see you after finding that out?”

Lars could think of nothing. He didn’t think of himself as a dummy, but he knew that he sometimes took longer to find the right words than it ought to, which led to him repeating himself, and over-compensating by talking too much. And if she knew he was a moose…

I won’t bother her,” he told Tom mournfully. “If that’s what she wants.”

That’s what she wants,” Tom said firmly.

Appetite gone, Lars picked at his breakfast half-heartedly and returned to his cottage to find a strongly-worded letter on his door regarding the state of the foliage that he’d eaten the night before.

# # #

Julie had gotten adept at watching Lars while she pretended to read. She sat with her book where they might see each other and hoped with an excited flutter in her chest that this time he would come and talk to her, prepared to put the book down at the slightest invitation.

But he didn’t come over, not even to make loud conversation with someone nearby, as he’d been in the habit of doing.

Now, every time he caught sight of her, he reversed direction so quickly, Julie would have guessed he was on skates.

Was he disappointed that they were mates? Had he found out that she and Tom were dirt poor and only at the resort by grace of winning a sweepstakes? She ached at the idea that he might not want her.

She tried a meditation class to clear her mind, failing miserably at it. She took salsa lessons with a beautiful Hispanic woman with a rich accent that she could only compare to Lars’ European lilt. She even tried a fancy drink with an umbrella at the bar.

Are you going to be at the dance tonight?”

Julie looked up in surprise. She had been gazing out over the pool and put her book down absentmindedly. The bartender had apparently taken that as an invitation for conversation.

Oh, I don’t know,” she said miserably. It sounded like another chance for Lars to avoid her.

You should come,” the bartender coaxed in his thick Southern accent.

Julie had once liked Southern accents, but there was only one accent she wanted to hear now. “I don’t really have anything to wear,” she fibbed. She had brought a black dress she’d never had the courage to wear.

Don’t be too put off by the word formal in the description,” the bartender said kindly. “We get all kinds of dress styles at these things. It’s understood that everyone is living out of suitcases. You should come!”

Julie looked up at him, out of excuses. “I guess,” she agreed reluctantly.

# # #

Lars eyed himself in the mirror. The suit was the best that money could buy, perfectly tailored to his broad shoulders. The gold watch was a gift from a technology company courting him to do a commercial. The haircut was hours old from the well-appointed resort spa and perfectly styled with product that even smelled expensive. He should feel confident and ready for everything.

Mostly he just felt like a fraud.

Every time they put him on television, he wanted to blurt out that there had been a terrible mistake. He wasn’t the hero that they made him out to be. He wasn’t the rising star, the next Gretzky. He was just a lost kid who had never felt comfortable in any country, good at fighting and fast on skates.

Now he was expected to wear expensive suits, and vacation at exclusive resorts.

He didn’t recognize the young man in the mirror.

That man looked like a bear.

There wasn’t a bear inside of him, just a gangly-legged moose that he was wrestling back with sheer force of will.

Julie had liked the bear. There had been awe in her eyes at the idea of it.

Was it only finding the truth that had driven her away? Or was it his awful habit of saying exactly the wrong thing and never finding the right word? She was obviously very smart and well-educated. Probably she saw through every part of his facade from the very beginning. Her brother had been right, she hadn’t wanted anything to do with him, clearly preferring the company of her books to any more of his.

He really was a creeper: inadvertently rude, too pushy. Her message of disinterest was unmistakable and he had been inexcusably forward anyway.

Had her eyes, when they met, been as hungry as his, or was he just trying to project his own bone-deep need for her onto someone who wanted no part of him?

Lars shook himself. He couldn’t keep dreaming about those blue eyes. He was going to go to the dance and lose himself in glittery social swirl like his agent kept pressuring him to do.

Julie wasn’t likely to be there, he thought, with mixed feelings.

It was less complicated when she wasn’t nearby, but it somehow eased his heart when she was. He was always aware of her sitting in the dining room by herself, her books her only companions. Even if he wasn’t going to pursue her against her wishes, it was comforting to know she was nearby.

# # #

Julie had regrets.

Sometimes it felt like a lifetime of them, so heavy it bowed her head. And more than anything, she regretted letting her heart run away with her. Tom was probably right, she was probably seeing what she wanted to be there, just like she always did.

Her caribou snorted and pawed in protest, but Julie couldn’t trust her any more than she could trust herself.

She also regretted the black dress.

It was a dress for someone who wanted to show off curves, tight through the body and low-cut, with a flirty skirt that ended above the knees.

Julie didn’t want to show off her knees, let alone her curves, and here she was, like an exhibition of both.

If you don’t go, you’ll always regret it,” Tom told her, sensing her indecision. “You have always wanted to go to a ball, and you were so excited about it when you told me about the sweepstakes.”

I was a kid, Tom,” Julie reminded him. “A little girl who read too many fairy tales. I’m too old for that nonsense now.”

Tom was quiet a moment. “I… miss that kid.”

Julie looked at her reflection pensively. “Me, too.” Her blue eyes looked unfamiliar with the contacts she was wearing. Reading was always a challenge with them, so she rarely bothered.


It wasn’t your fault,” she reminded him.

His silence was rebuttal enough.

Julie knew better than to argue on the topic, and pulled her hair back from her face. Maybe a braid?

You should go to the spa, have them do your hair up in some fancy do,” Tom suggested.

Oh, I couldn’t…”

We got a bunch of passes, and it’s not like I’m going to go get a manicure,” Tom said dryly.

Julie gave a hiccup of a laugh. “But darling, your nails!” she mocked.

Tom smiled briefly, then frowned again. “About that hockey player…” He sounded guilty.

He wasn’t interested,” Julie said too quickly, knowing the source of his guilt. “I was probably… imagining things. You… were right.”

Her caribou stomped in protest, but she ignored it.

But you really did like him?” Tom asked reluctantly.

I have terrible taste in men,” Julie reminded him. “I’m glad it didn’t go further.” The heat in her body just at the thought of Lars turned her words to a flat lie.

Hang on,” Tom said unexpectedly. He got up from the bed where he was lounging and pulled his duffel bag out from underneath it. He dug into it, and came up with a little box. “I brought your Christmas present,” he said unexpectedly. “I know it’s early, and I didn’t wrap it yet, but… I thought you might want to wear it tonight.”

Julie knew what it would be before she opened it, heart in her throat. “You… got it back?”

The pawn shop held it for me until I could pay it off.”

Julie opened the box with trembling hands. “Mom’s pearls.” It was a necklace of shimmering black pearls, three tapered strands nestled in the red velvet box.

You couldn’t go to the ball without it,” Tom told her, frowning to mask his emotions.

Julie threw her arms around his neck. “You’re the best brother,” she said sincerely.

She knew by the knots in his shoulders that he didn’t believe her, but he put his arms around her anyway. “Wear them to the ball, princess,” he told her.

You’re coming with me,” Julie said, leaving no room for refusal. “I won’t go unless you do.”

Dammit,” Tom said, but it was warmly.

# # #

Lars wondered why he bothered coming to the dance, hating the music, hating the food. He should just go back to his cottage, or go hit the gym and see if he could work off some of his frustration with the free weights. Maybe he should risk the wrath of the gardener again and go browse in his animal form somewhere no one could see him and realize that he wasn’t any of the things he claimed to be.

Then Julie arrived, and it seemed like there was no other place to possibly be.

She paused in the doorway at the other end of the hall. There was a modest crowd of people at the formal dance — not enough that the hall felt crowded, but just enough that he had to move to get a good view of her, and he wondered helplessly as he did so if that made him the creeper her brother had accused him of being.

She was wearing what he recognized was a “little black dress,” a garment that managed to mix sexy and sweet in perfect harmony, showing off tantalizing cleavage and shapely legs. There were three strands of dark pearls glimmering at her neck, and her hair was up in a swirl, with little ringlets at her neck. There was something unfamiliar about her, and it took Lars a moment to recognize that she wasn’t wearing glasses.

She was, however, carrying a book, and something lifted in Lars’ heart when he recognized that it was the thick paperback that he’d given her several nights before.

Then he caught sight of her brother skulking behind her, and he remembered Tom’s emphatic declaration that Julie wanted nothing to do with him and realized he was still staring.

While he was casting around the room for anything else to look at, the cowboy bartender, Tex, kissed the woman serving drinks and went to intercept the siblings.

As Lars jealously watched, Tex tipped his hat to both of them, then spoke a moment to Tom, who looked surprised and rather pleased as he shrugged. Julie handed her book to Tom, then Tex was giving his hand to Julie and leading her out onto the dance floor.

Lars had to wrestle down his instinct to fly out onto the floor after them and pull her away for himself. Tex’s hand was at her waist like he owned her, and he was saying something that made her blush shyly and laugh as he led her into the steps of a dance.

He looked back to find that Tom was scowling at him across the floor, and he scowled automatically back as he thought back through Tex asking Julie to dance. First, he had asked Tom for permission.

Had Lars bypassed some simple courtesy?

Sudden resolve set his feet into motion, and he closed the distance to Tom in a few determined strides.

Tom bristled at Lars’ approach, and greeted him with a glare that did nothing to help Lars.

I am not good with your language,” Lars said, point-blank. “I am not good at knowing what to say, or what to do, and I probably have been creeping, but I had no meaning to, and I need you to tell me how to make it right because I am for her in a way I have never imagined and I cannot be happy without her.”

Tom stared at him, his glare lost to astonishment, and said nothing.

After a moment of silence, Lars fidgeted. “I know I have not been entirely honest,” he said desperately. “But I will be, I promise.”

Tom’s eyes narrowed with new suspicion. “What else haven’t you been honest about?” he demanded. “Are you even a hockey player?”

Yes,” Lars assured him. “Everyone says I am very good. I just signed a big contract, but I am very afraid that I will not be good enough to deserve it.” If he was going to come clean, he was going to come clean about everything, and he was going to do it with his head high. This man was Julie’s brother, and if he wanted to win Julie, he was going to get through him first.

I need a cigarette,” Tom said earnestly.

I don’t have one,” Lars said regretfully. It would have been a good gesture to politely offer Tom something he desired, he thought.

Tom put the book that he’d been holding into one of the folding chairs along the wall. “Look,” he said, drawing Lars a little further away from the nearest people. “My sister says you’re mates.”

Mates. Hearing it out loud made the word settle into sense. Lars’ moose sighed at the rightness of it.

Yes,” Lars said earnestly. “Yes.

Listen,” Tom said, equally serious. “My sister had a boyfriend. He said he loved her, convinced her she was the only one in the world for him. She even thought they might be mates. And he took her to the cleaners. He skipped out of the state with her car, everything she had of value, and left her with tens of thousands in credit card debt. She got kicked out of her apartment and lost her scholarship trying to pay off his debt with a second job.”

Lars clenched his hands into fists. “He hurt her,” he snarled. “He broke her trust.”

It was my fault,” Tom said grimly. “She wasn’t that interested in him at first, but I wanted her… I wanted her to be happy. I convinced her to date him, to go out and live a little.”

Lars wrestled back his desire to dismantle something with his bare hands. “He hurt her,” he repeated. The words he wanted to say didn’t translate directly.

Tom continued, scowling. “When you started watching her, I could only think that I needed to protect her. I’m the only family she has. And I wasn’t going to let you take advantage of her because she looked like an easy target.”

Easy target?”

Damn,” Tom said in exasperation. “She’s as naive as you are, man.”

Naive was the same in almost all languages. “I would never hurt her,” Lars said fiercely.

I get that now,” Tom said, looking conflicted. “But I… I told you she didn’t want you.”

Lars felt his heart plummet in his chest at the reminder.

We’re being honest now,” Tom said. “And I wasn’t being honest earlier.”

Lars felt his eyebrows knit in confusion. “You aren’t a caribou?” he guessed, feeling dense.

About Julie,” Tom elaborated with exasperation. “She likes you. She likes you a lot. I only told you she didn’t so that you’d leave her alone. I didn’t tell her you were a moose.”

A bubble of hope expanded inside of Lars. “She likes me?” he said hopefully. Without meaning to, he turned to search her out among the dancers. She was laughing at something the bartender was saying to her, stumbling a little as he turned her through the steps.

Man, you are hopeless,” Tom said in exaggerated disgust. “Go get her. And if you break her heart…He left the threat hanging.

Lars had to stare a moment longer, not quite able to accept his luck, drinking in the sight of Julie’s perfect legs under the swishy black dress, and the bounce of her glossy brown hair. Then he was closing the distance between them.

# # #

Julie had heard other guests speculate that Scarlet chose her male staff for their good looks; though none of them seemed anything less than competent, they were without exception stunningly handsome and well-built. She recognized the lifeguard among the guests at the dance, and a waiter from the restaurant who had flirted outrageously with her. They were dutifully circulating among the guests, inviting anyone looking bored to dance.

She privately thought it was a good move; it was flattering to have Tex draw her out onto the dance floor, even though she knew it was doubtlessly something he had been paid to do.

He was a perfect gentleman, his touch absolutely professional, his conversation kind. He was a good dancer, too, compensating for the fact that Julie had only learned most of the steps the previous day.

You’re enjoying your stay, I hope?” he asked, when the music slowed enough to allow conversation.

I have,” Julie said automatically, but she knew she said it sadly.

You’re not thinking about a certain Swedish hockey player, now, are you?” Tex teased her unexpectedly.

Julie met his gaze in appalled surprise. Had everyone seen what a goose she’d made of herself over him?

Aw, honey, don’t look like that,” Tex said coaxingly. “I know he’s a little rough around the edges, but it’s clear he’s over the moon for you.”

Julie shook her head. “No. It’s not like that. He’s not interested in me.” Even the mention of him left her feeling tingling and too aware of her body. Memories of how deliberately he’d been avoiding her the past few days crowded into her head and she miserably stumbled over her steps before Tex could guide her back to the right footwork.

Hmm,” Tex said dubiously. “I’m going to have to disagree with that, sugar.” He turned her deftly, and swirled her unexpectedly away from him — directly into the path of Lars, who was bearing down on them with a look of determination.

Her skirt was still swishing into place above her knees as Lars gently took the hand that Tex had released and put his other at her waist.

Her body on fire, Julie let him draw her close, gazing up at him in longing she didn’t know how to mask or stop.

He was not as skilled a dancer as Tex, and they collided knees several times when one of them stepped forward instead of back, but Julie didn’t care. There was no place in the world she wanted to be more than here, with Lars’ hand in hers, with his brown eyes adoring her.

It was every dream ball she had ever imagined, every princess fantasy that had ever crossed her mind. She was the heroine of a book, and here was her happy ending, all six foot something of gorgeous athlete, dancing with her, staring down at her, holding her like she was something precious and fragile.

Julie,” he breathed when the music ended, and she realized that they had stopped dancing several beats before, simply standing, holding each other and looking into each others eyes like they’d found all the answers to the world there.

She made herself look away at last, as most people changed partners with the new song starting up.

Julie,” he repeated. “Will you come walk with me? I have… confessions to make to you.”

Confessions of love? Julie’s heart was too full and confused to do more than nod.

She reminded herself that she was not in a novel, and she should be practical, but when Lars led her out the side door into the moonlit garden, she did not feel the slightest bit practical.

When Lars brushed the side of her face with one hand, she leaned forward and he caught her mouth in a kiss so sweet and lingering that Julie thought she might overflow from it.

You’re crying,” he said in concern, drawing back and wiping her tears away with careful thumbs.

I’m happy,” she promised. “I just… I thought you didn’t want me.”

He gave a little growl, gathering her close in his arms, and he kissed her again, less gently, this time. His hard body against her made it clear that whatever else he felt, he wanted her as badly as she wanted him.

I will stop,” he gasped. “I will stop if you ask.” His hands were caressing every place her skin was bare, and he was kissing her neck with the same hunger that was burning through Julie’s veins.

Don’t you dare stop,” Julie told him, sliding her hands up under his jacket. “No stopping. Nyet.”

They made it a few more steps, deeper into the scented green depths of the garden. Then he was lowering her into one of the flower beds. She tried to remember how to get out her dress, then gave up and hitched the skirt up as he was shrugging out of his jacket and fumbling with his pants.

Then, finally, tremblingly, he was pulling her damp panties down below her knees and Julie had only a moment to appreciate the fine length of him before he was straddling her, and driving into her. She arched up to meet him, crying out in a feral, desperate need as a crest of pleasure broke over her.

His weight on her, his strong arms around her, his ragged breath in her ear, the way he filled her, satisfying her need even as he raised more within her — Julie struggled to find words for what she was experiencing, and eventually stopped trying to think about it and let it wash over her, in wave after wave of bliss.

They rolled together in the flowerbed, and Julie heard fabric rip. Was it Lars’ pants, which she didn’t remember him fully removing? Or her dress, which at that moment she would cheerfully have torn from her body in order to have more of him against her skin?

She didn’t care, and neither did he, clutching her hips as she rode him, turning her over in the fragrant, bruised foliage.

At last, they lay together, spent and panting, and Julie felt like every romance book she’d ever read had fallen sadly short of the mark.

# # #

Lars could have lain in the flowerbed forever, holding Julie’s delicious curves in his arms in the tropical night air.

But after not nearly long enough, she gave a great sigh. “I can’t believe we’re leaving in only a few more days,” she said sadly.

A few more days. Lars felt his heart drop at the idea of her leaving. “You couldn’t… stay longer?”

Julie gave a hiccup of a laugh. “We couldn’t possibly afford it,” she said frankly.

Lars chewed on his bottom lip, trying to decide a safe way through the conversation tangle before him. It would have been impossible even in his first language, and having it in his third was a challenge he wasn’t sure he was equal to. He wanted to invite her to come and have Christmas with him in New York and never to leave.

While he was still trying to figure out what he wanted to say, let alone how to, Julie continued, “Anyway, it’s been really nice at the resort, but… I feel like I don’t belong here.” She sat up, trying to make sense of how her dress had been bunched up.

Me, too,” Lars could say sincerely as he tried to sort out his own garments. His pants were twisted around both ankles, and he had no idea where his jacket had ended up.  

You?” Julie scoffed. “You’re just the sort of famous rich person that a resort like this is for.”

Lars sat up, and looked at her in consternation. “I have been pretending as hard as I can. But I… haven’t been this for very long,” he said honestly. “My parents were poor Russian immigrants to Sweden. I never really had anything until I got signed to the team just a few months ago. Suddenly, I have more money than I’ve ever realized even existed, I’m getting a green card and working towards American citizenship, and they’re putting my photograph on subway walls.”

Julie giggled. “Really? Subway walls?”

Twice life sized,” Lars admitted. “I rode the entire city route three times in an order because it was so… ah…”

Surreal?” Julie supplied, while he was still trying to remember the word.

Exactly.” Lars took her hand. “I am only here because there are some contract problems with other players, and when I asked what to do with my money, this is what they said I might do.”

Julie was silent a thoughtful moment. “What would you be doing for Christmas, otherwise?”

Lars looked away. “My parents, they have died,” he said, as lightly as he could manage. “Or I would go back to Sweden and have a traditional Russian Christmas, with the most amazing food… oh, the food. I would be hard pressed to say it is better than here, but ah… the pirogi and karachi…”

Julie was smiling wistfully at him; he could just make out the curve of her mouth in the darkness. “My parents used to do big holiday meals. Turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes and seven kinds of olives. I remember putting them on my fingers.”

They don’t, anymore?”

Julie’s smile grew sad. “They died when I was little. Tom had just turned eighteen and we didn’t have any other family, so he got custody.”

That must have been hard,” Lars said gently.

It was. He worked so hard, gave up so much. And… he tried to protect me.”

Lars gave up his attempt to button his shirt in favor of catching Julie’s hands in his own. “Tom told me,” he confessed. “About your… boyfriend.”

It wasn’t Tom’s fault,” Julie said immediately.

It wasn’t yours, either,” Lars said, equally swiftly.

She blinked at him, eyes bright in the moonlight.

I should have…”

It wasn’t your fault,” Lars repeated.

Julie gave a great sigh and bowed her head, and Lars imagined he could see a great weight resting on her shoulders. “I feel… like I should have known better. Like I should be able to tell when someone is being honest.”

Guilt pierced Lars.

Julie,” he said in agony.

She looked up at her, her eyes trusting.

I haven’t been honest,” Lars confessed.

Her hands in his froze. “What do you mean?” she asked faintly.

I’m… I’m not a bear.”

She was silent.

This was it. He had broken her trust. Once bitten, twice shy, as the song went. Whatever hopes he had for taking her back to America with him died now.

What are you?” she asked, her voice utterly neutral.

Lars sighed. “A moose.”

She said nothing.

The silence ate at Lars’ confidence. “I’m sorry I didn’t say so at once,” he said. “I wanted to impress you, and I thought a bear was… impressive.”

Her head was bowed, and her shoulders were shaking. Was she crying? Lars wished he could go back to past-him and punch him in the teeth; the idea of hurting Julie caused such a wretched mix of regret and horror.

The she raised her head, and Lars could see the trails of tears down her cheeks. “I’m a terrible person,” he said in agony. “I’m sorry for lying. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Before he could continue, Julie began to laugh out loud. “A moose,” she choked. “You’re a moose!”

Lars blinked. “Yes,” he said. “I should have told you.”

She punched him in the shoulder, but it was gentle. “Yes, you should have.”

Please forgive me,” Lars said desperately. “Tell me you will forgive me and come live in New York with me and be mine forever and please don’t let me spend Christmas without you.”

Her laughter faded to something like wonder. “You mean that? You really mean that?”

It is my first American Christmas,” Lars said, hoping it sounded convincing. “Your brother could come. I have an empty house and an oven that isn’t in Centigrade. I have no idea how to make a turkey.”

The first thing you do is lie about being a bear,” Julie suggested archly.

Lars stared at her in confusion a moment as she dissolved into laughter at her own statement. “Because I am a turkey?” he guessed, trying to figure out the joke.

Oh Lars,” she said, leaning forward to kiss him on the forehead. “You need me.”

Lars caught her in his arms. “That,” he agreed, “is the truth.”

When he finished kissing her, they rose from the flowerbed at last, and he found his jacket lying in the middle of the gravel path.

Oh dear,” he said, surveying the garden. “I fear I am going to get another nasty note from the gardener.”


As Julie clopped from the ice, tossing her head cheerfully and making the bells on her harness ring merrily, the gathered children behind her clapped and hollered happily. The music rose as the next part of the entertainment continued on the open-air rink behind her.

Lars met her with a bundle of her clothes. Out of sight behind the bleachers, she shifted, slipped out of the belled harness, and dressed quickly, shivering.

Your brother seems really grumpy about this,” he observed.

He’s cranky because he doesn’t have antlers at this time of year, so he doesn’t feel like he can really be part of the festivities.” Julie pulled the sweater down over her head, and when she struggled out of the neck hole, Lars was waiting there for a kiss.

It was so sweet of you to give up your last few days at the resort to come here,” she said, when he had finally released her lips and pulled a knit hat down over her chilled ears. “The community center kids were really excited to meet a real famous hockey player.” Together, they pulled the tiny sleigh to where Tom waited with the trailer in the parking lot.

I’d rather have Christmas here, with you,” Lars said sincerely. “And Montana is beautiful and reminds me of home. Of Sweden. Which isn’t really home now.”

New York will feel like home before you know it,” Julie told him reassuringly, slipping one mittened hand into his.

Anywhere that you are will feel like home,” Lars said solemnly, and they stopped to exchange another lingering kiss.

The kiss was interrupted by a loud honk as Tom reached into the open truck window and leaned on the horn.

Let’s go, lovebirds,” he scolded. “The community center gets charged double if the sleigh isn’t back by eight for the next event.”

Julie giggled into Lars’ scarf. “Let’s go. He’s also grouchy because his Christmas present to me this year was to quit smoking.”

Lars nodded approvingly. “That’s a fine gift,” he said. “I hope you find mine half as good.”

Julie gave a little caper better suited for her caribou form. “I’m so excited,” she said. “I get to give you yours tonight after we drop the sleigh off.”

I will love it,” Lars promised, as they hauled the sleigh up onto the trailer.

# # #

The hall of the tiny apartment that Julie shared with her brother was piled high with shipping boxes already marked with Lars’ New York address. Nearly all of them had the word BOOKS scribbled on one end. They would be leaving the following week, and Lars could not wait to make his sterile apartment across the country into a home with the woman who had taken his hand and was dragging him into the kitchen.

Cover your eyes,” she commanded, as they rounded the corner.

Lars stumbled over the edge a box and recovered by ‘accidentally’ catching Julie in an embrace.

Whoops,” she said without remorse.

Lars’ nose had him guessing what his gift was before Julie pulled his hands away from his eyes.

I found a Russian grocery in the next town over,” she said, hopping in place. “I wasn’t sure what was traditional for Christmas, so I got a little of everything. I even got the ingredients for piroshki, though I’m not confident I can make them; there are about a hundred recipes on the Internet. And I made Olivier salad. I couldn’t believe how much mayonnaise it called for. There’s this can of herring stuff I can’t read, and something called meat jelly, and Tom made deviled eggs, but they’re probably Americanized.”

Lars stilled her mouth with a kiss. “It’s perfect,” he said.

Tom cleared his throat behind them. “I didn’t get you anything except the deviled eggs,” he said with a shrug. “I figured you were getting my sister, and that ought to last me a few holidays.”

Julie laughed and pulled off her coat. “Where do you want to start?” she asked eagerly. “I’m starved!”

I want to start with your present,” Lars said. “There are two parts!”

He rummaged into his bag and withdrew two wrapped packages. One was thin and light, the other thick and heavy. Julie mimed staggering when he put it in her arms. “Which do I open first?” she asked eagerly. Lars put the lighter one on top.

Julie put them both on the last clear place on the counter and tore the wrapping off the tablet, already in a sturdy case and loaded with books. Lars hadn’t been able to discern a pattern from her reading habits, so it had mysteries, thrillers, romances, children’s books, some non-fiction about Egypt mythology and a wide selection of classics.

Oh,” she said in awe, as Lars showed her how to navigate the screens and adjust the font. “So many books and it’s so tiny and light. I’ve always wondered how it would be to read on one of these. I worried I might miss the feeling of a real book in my hands.” She looked up at Lars in alarm as she seemed to realize how that might sound. “I mean, I’m sure I’ll love it,” she said swiftly.

That’s why I got the next one,” Lars said with a grin.

Julie laughed as she tore open the paper. “You got me War and Peace,” she exclaimed. “In Russian!”

First edition,” Lars said. “I couldn’t find a signed version.”

It’s perfect,” Julie said, putting it down and falling into his arms. “I love it. I’ll learn Russian immediately. Da! Nyet!”

I got you something, too,” Lars said, looking at Tom over Julie’s hat.

Tom looked uncomfortable. “I hope it’s on par with deviled eggs,” he said awkwardly. “Because seriously, I didn’t get you anything else.”

Lars fished into his pocket around Julie’s arms. “I didn’t wrap them,” he said apologetically.

But Tom seemed to think this leveled the playing field as he opened the envelope. “Airline vouchers?”

I want you to come visit us in New York. They’re good for a year.”

Thanks,” Tom said gruffly. “That will be great.”

Julie, still wrapped around him, gave a sigh of contentment. “This is the greatest Christmas I’ve ever had,” she said happily. “You picked these gifts like a pro.”

Like a pro?” Lars had to ask.

A professional,” Julie clarified.

A professional. There was the word he had been looking for so long. He had to laugh out loud at himself and bent to kiss Julie as Tom gave a groan of disgust.

Merry Christmas, everyone,” Tom said, turning to plug in the twinkle lights on the little tree.

Merry Christmoose,” Julie laughed near Lars’ ear. “Let’s eat!”