At Last by Girl Bard

At Last
by Girl Bard
Part 5 in the Jaden and Grace Series

February 10, 2001

Why can’t anything be easy? I mean seriously, shouldn’t there be a law about the number of things that can go wrong within a few hours?

The wedding is tomorrow. While Jaden and I planned to wed on Valentine’s Day, it fell on a Wednesday this year. So we felt the eleventh of February, a Sunday, would be a better choice.

But the way things are going, the extra few days might have helped.

I’m making a big deal out of it, I know. Nothing is really that bad, sure, we’ve had a few minor mishaps, but that happens in all weddings. Everything will work itself out. So what if the dj just cancelled on us due to the flu and the flower order is totally messed up. No big deal, right?

Right. I’ve just got to calm down.

I take several deep breaths, feeling my bits of nervousness slowly fade.

“Grace?” Kim calls as she lets herself into my apartment.

“Help.” I respond, only partially joking.

“What’s up? I just saw Jaden pull out of the driveway like a bat out of hell.” Kim questions as she flops down onto the couch next to me.

“The florist just called to let us know our flowers will be delivered tomorrow morning to Hammond.” I tell her warily, my hand reaching up to rub my temples.

“And that’s bad new how?” She answers.

“They’re delivering the wrong flowers.” I say and Kim’s hazel eyes brighten in surprise. “It seems they messed up our order. Instead of lilacs and lilies, we are getting ivy and some other flower.”

“Oh.” Kim’s round mouth forms the word perfectly. “Crappy.”

“Yeah. So Jaden went to talk to them in person. She thought it would help the situation.” I pause and close my eyes briefly. “I had to force her to leave her gun behind.”

Kim chuckles. “Good thing.” She puts a comforting arm around my shoulder. “Look at it this way, ivy is pretty cool. Not as cool as lilacs and lilies, but ivy kind of fits with the whole castle thing, right?” I think briefly before smiling. “Good point. No wonder you’re my best friend.” I tell her honestly and am rewarded by a bright smile.

“Likewise. Now, get out of your funk. I have last minute maid-of-honor duties to go over with you and I think I’ve solved your sick dj problem.”

My spirits raised, I join Kim at the kitchen table. She has been instrumental in helping Jaden and I prepare for our ceremony and I couldn’t have done it without her.

Spots and I thought long and hard for several days about where to hold the wedding. She was adamant against having it in a reception hall and I didn’t really want to make it into a church affair, so we decided on a restaurant, although neither of us were fond of that idea. It just didn’t seem right.

In a fit of despair, I phoned Kim who immediately suggested Hammond Castle in Gloucester. In the mid 1900’s, a millionaire who salvaged different parts of castles put them together to build Hammond. Jaden and I actually visited there this summer and the place is incredible, with almost a 360-degree view of the ocean. It feels like a medieval castle and it has beautiful gardens as well as a completely furnished interior.

Somehow, beyond chance, it was free for the date we wanted. I almost had a coronary when I saw the price to rent it for the day, but Jaden didn’t even balk.

I’m trying the best I can to keep all other costs at a minimum, which isn’t difficult because one of Joe’s cousins owns a catering business. We are getting a wonderful discount, and we really are only inviting our closest family and friends.

It’s still a pretty pricey affair, and I planned on taking out a loan to pay for it. Jaden wouldn’t allow it and has been paying everything up front. I have no idea how she is doing it, mounted officers really don’t make that much. She just keeps telling me not to worry about it because she has been given a lot by her grandmother.

Understanding the entire thing is a sensitive issue for her, I’m trying not to press. But it’s frustrating because I don’t want her to feel like I’m mooching off her.

“So, I figured that we’ll just give Derek full freedom with the music during the reception. I’ve already told him what not to play, and he’s pretty excited to be doing this. He’ll take requests and everything.” Kim says, checking the music line off her to-do list.

“That’s great. Thanks so much for telling us about him.” I tell her honestly. Kim has just saved the reception by finding a local dj, actually a student that attends Pressman with us and is in the psychology department. He’s a really nice guy who has more tattoos than anyone I’ve ever seen.

Kim snorts. “Please, he was foaming at the mouth when I told him about you guys. He gets to go to a lesbian wedding and it looks good on his music career resume.” She scans her list. “Okay, I have the final table settings and I think they all should work. Everyone coming likes each other anyway, right?” “Right.” I answer. “I don’t think it matters, this is going to be really informal.”

“Yep.” Kim responds. She looks at me, indecision written on her face. “Did you hear from your mom?” “Which one?” I joke warily. “You know Laura and her family are coming. I haven’t heard from Debbie or my father. I doubt they’ll be here.”

“I’m sorry.” Kim tells me honestly. “They are assholes.”

“I know.” I sigh. “But it still hurts.”

“Lydia will be here though, right?” Kim asks and I brighten.

“Yeah, my uncle is bringing her. They are flying up for the day.”

Kim ticks off the reception guest list on her fingers. “So we have your uncle, Lydia, Sam and Eva, Steele and my sister, Stacey, Joe and Diana, Kasey, Jaden’s shrink, her husband and baby, your shrink and her girlfriend, my mom and stepfather, your family from Chicago, the family that owns the barn, Jaden’s friends from the mounted patrol, and your downstairs neighbors. Am I forgetting anyone?” She questions.

I think for a minute. “Probably. But my mind is cluttered at the moment. Where’s the guest list?”

She searches through her stacks of papers. “In here somewhere.”

“Don’t worry about it, we’ve gone over it a hundred times and everyone has RSVP’d except Debbie and my father.” I mention, my eyes downcast.

“It’s okay. Just think of your honeymoon!” Kim reminds me and I smile brightly.

“I can’t wait! It’s going to be so much fun, and it’s exactly what we want. No singular destination, just a good old road trip.” I can’t wait for Jaden and I to leave. We plan on leaving right after the ceremony and reception tomorrow and driving up to Vermont. “Thank you guys so much for staying here and taking care of the dogs. We’ll bring you back something really nice.” I smile at Kim.

“No problem. It gets Stace and I away from the dorm for a week. It will be heaven.” She answers, looking down at her list once more. “That’s all I have. Let’s get out of here and go get coffee. I’m sure Jaden will need it when she gets back.”

“Okay.” I agree hurriedly, my mind eager to focus on something else tomorrow.
Sunday, February 11, 2001
Pressing the cool washcloth to my forehead, I will my stomach to settle down.

“Jaden?” Diana’s voice calls from outside the bathroom.

“I’m coming.” I tell her, my voice unusually weak and strained.

“We’re ready to leave.” She says and I use all of my strength to stand upright and stop shaking. I splash my face with cold water and dry it with a soft towel.

“Okay, let’s get this show on the road.” I tell her, trying to put some enthusiasm and bravado into my voice.

It really doesn’t work.

Di looks at me curiously. “You okay? You look kind of green.”

“I’m fine.” I snap, my eyes pleading with her not to make a big deal out of this.

“Good.” She responds, winking at me. I know it should make me laugh, but it freaks me out more. If she knows how nervous I am, then Grace will too, and it will in turn make Grace nervous.

Hell, I’m not afraid to pledge my eternal love for her, I’m afraid of being the center of attention in front of everyone I care about. It’s just not my style.

“Relax.” Diana’s voice grounds me as we leave the apartment. “No one’s going to be looking at you. Have you seen Grace’s dress?”

I shake my head, a smile forming on my lips. “She wouldn’t let me. But she did tell me it was purple.”

“Ha!” Diana responds. “Purple my ass. You’re in for a surprise, my friend.” We get into my Explorer, which is stocked with goodies and our suitcases for our adventure later tonight.

The drive to Hammond is short, the castle looking like something out of a storybook covered in snow. We had a killer snowstorm last weekend that left inches of white, fluffy snow on everything in sight. It is still clinging to all the branches of the trees and the roof and turrets of the impressive structure.

“Great day for pictures.” Diana comments and I shake my head in agreement. Stacey will be doing the photography, and I know she’s been here all morning scooping out the best locations for our pictures after the ceremony.

I park the car, feeling relieved as I see Kim’s Honda in the driveway along with several other vehicles. At least I know that Grace is here and she’s okay. I haven’t seen her since early this morning, when Kim whisked her off to have her hair and makeup done.

“I’ve already been here, everything’s set up nicely. The flowers are all in order, thanks to you, I’ve been told by Grace. What did you do, threaten their lives?” Diana asks, her round face curled into a smile.

“Basically.” I respond, my guts in a knot again.

“Well, good job. They’re gorgeous. And the caterer is all set up in the dining hall, the cake is here, everything is okay. Just calm down, hell, you’re more nervous than I was when I married Joe.” She kids.

“How’s Kasey?” I ask, wanting to be distracted. Our feet crunch through the snow as we make our way into the castle.

“Excited as anything. She already has her dress on and she looks great.” Diana responds, the love for her child evident in her sparkling brown eyes.

“And Kasey #2?” I ask, motioning to her growing belly.

“Getting big.” She tells me, rolling her eyes. “And from the activity level, he is going to be another Kasey. Lord help us all!” Di adds.

“He? Did you guys find out what it is?” I question, knowing they wanted to wait.

“No. I just have a feeling. Everyone thinks it will be a girl, but not me.” Diana says knowingly.

“Well, it’s not much longer until we find out.” I answer, smiling.

“Yeah, don’t remind me. Now that Joe’s stupid casts are off he can finish painting the nursery.” She comments and I laugh.

I hold the door open for her as we enter through the massive wooden doors. The grand foyer is filled with flowers and soft music fills our ears.

“Wow, this is great!” I say, looking around. Grace will be so thrilled; this is just how we pictured it.

“Check this out.” Diana orders, leading me into the front hall where the ceremony will be held.

Padded chairs have been arranged in a semi-circle around a wooden platform covered with thick carpets that run down the center aisle into the back entrance. Candle-filled wall sconces and candelabras give light to the quiet space. Flowers accent the room, and large stained-glass windows fill the entire space with colored light.

“It’s beautiful.” I breathe, smiling.

The knots in my stomach slowly untie themselves, replaced by the anxious feeling of anticipation.

**********************

“Are we ready?” Kim asks, taking a deep breath. I nod my head in response, my hands feeling clammy.

“You look amazing!” She offers, smiling. “Although, I think we have this a bit backward. Aren’t you supposed to wear white?”

I grin at her, thankful for her calming presence. I stand back and study her lovely, pearl-colored gown, complete with buttoned gloves.

“I don’t know, it looks better on you I think. Virginal, you know?” I kid and she laughs.

“Yeah, that’s me.” She comments, her curly blonde hair already pulling free from its clasp. “Christ, let me fix my hair once more. It’s driving me nuts.” She retreats to the bathroom as I study my reflection in the mirror.

I notice my hands shaking as I hold my beautiful bouquet of bright purple lilacs crowned by one giant lily. Whatever Jaden threatened the florist with, it sure worked.

Jaden and I decided we didn’t want to make this into a wedding. Sure, I wanted a ceremony in the traditional sense, with a cake and walking up the aisle and everything, but since our commitment isn’t yet legally recognized, Jaden wanted to make it our own ceremony.

So instead of a traditional wedding gown, I found this amazing iridescent lavender and cream dress that I really can’t describe. It’s just beautiful, with a tight top and a huge bustle and train. Kim and I found it at Filenes’s basement in Boston and it just happened to be in my size.

It was easy to find a dress for her that matched; we really had fun that day.

I begged Jaden to wear a dress. Well, I didn’t beg her, but I tried to persuade her. She relented and said if I really wanted her to she would, but I didn’t want to force her into anything. So she decided on a beautifully tailored, almost racy cream pantsuit.

I saw her in it and it made me drool. It’s just like that outfit Angelina Jolie wore to the Oscars or Golden Globes a few years back. Incredible. Somehow, it showcases all the wonders of Jaden’s body and once I saw her in it all thoughts of her wearing a dress vanished.

Steele is standing up for her, and he has a snazzy tux with a lavender cummerbund. He looks good in purple.

“Okay, now we’re ready.” Kim tells me, fresh from the bathroom, her unruly hair pulled up once again.

I close my eyes briefly, praying to whatever deities exist to let this go smoothly.

Opening my eyes, I nod at Kim as we make our way to the aisle.

****************

Steele walks down the plush aisle in front of me, smiling at the crowd like he’s a male model. I can’t help but smile as he winks at Kim’s sister Val before taking his position on the platform.

He’s such a show-off.

Now it’s my turn. I feel my entire body start to shake, but I will my feet to move anyway, the unfamiliar sensation of walking in strappy heels making my knees wobble with fright.

I try to calm down, allowing the lilting sounds of Pachabel’s Cannon carry me to the front of the crowd. I can’t really look at the audience; I’m afraid I’ll see Diana and start laughing or something just out of plain nervousness.

As I take my place up front next to Steele he gives me a reassuring smile. This smile turns into a full grin as Kasey begins her walk up the aisle.

She looks great, dressed in a dark lavender dress and holding a big basket of flowers. Instead of gently dropping them like we’ve rehearsed a thousand times, she is giving them to everyone in the audience. They, of course, are all chuckling at her, which just encourages her to do it more.

When she reaches her father, Joe softly whispers something in her ear that causes her to frown, a pout on her lips as she now drops the flowers onto the aisle like she is supposed too.

Kasey reaches Steele and I and giggles, turning around to curtsey in front of the crowd. They laugh and applaud her and I think the kid will die with happiness.

I swear she will be onstage accepting an Academy Award someday. Steele takes her hand and my attention is diverted to Kim, who is slowly walking up the aisle.

She looks really nice, and I grin at her as she makes her way and stands across from Steele.

I whip my head back around, hearing the crowd ‘ohh’ when the see Grace. A huge smile graces my face as I see my beloved determinedly walk toward me.

Gracie looks incredible, and Diana was right. Her dress is gorgeous and sexy and perfect, but I can’t take my eyes off her face. She is looking right at me, the hugest grin formed by her soft lips and her eyes speak of happiness.

It is the most gorgeous sight and I don’t think I will ever forget it.

I am only vaguely conscious of Stacey snapping pictures as Grace joins me on the platform and hands her flowers to Kim before linking her hands in mine.

Diana, standing behind our joined hands, pauses to beam at each of us before speaking.

“Today is truly a blessed day, as we gather to support Jaden and Grace in their future together. We thank you all for coming and bringing your good faith.”

Winking slightly at me, she continues. “I have known Jaden for many years. While she is not the easiest or rational person to be around, I have found her to be a true and honest person.” The crowd titters at Diana’s words and I mockingly glare at her.

“Having Jaden in your life is like holding a firefly, bright and wild, but fragile. I trust that Grace can hold Jaden as gently as possible without extinguishing her light.” Diana pauses again and my throat becomes tight at her words.

I look into Grace’s eyes; they are deep green, filled with unspeakable emotion.

“Grace, while I have only known you a short time, I know you as a true and good soul. You are the bright ray of light we all strive to be. I trust that Jaden will feel the warmth of Grace’s light and allow it to surround her always.”

Diana clasps our entwined hands. “I have no power, I am not a member of any religious practice, and I am not certified to legally marry anyone. But I do know true love when I see it. And I have been blessed to witness the most pure form of love between the two of you.”

She smiles at the two of us, her brown eyes wet with unshed tears. “What you share is stronger than any of us. Revel in it and never lose sight of each other.” Clearing her throat softly, she adds, “Grace has a few words.”

I quirk my eyebrows, unaware that she had anything planned.

“Jaden,” Gracie begins, her voice soft and small, “All my life I lived in fear of the future planned out for me. Now, I can’t wait for what the future will bring to us. Thank you for making the simple act of waking in the morning something to look forward to. I will never be able to show you how much I truly love you.”

Tears spill down her fair cheeks, her green eyes so full. “I offer you all that I am and I treasure all that you are. You are my soulmate and where you go, I go.”

I smile, knowing my eyes are mirroring hers and allow the tears to fall freely down my face. I need to say something; I just don’t know what to say. My mouth opens, and words just start spilling out.

“Before I met you, I didn’t know what life was. I was living by rote, not taking any time to feel or think. You changed everything for me, Gracie, and for the better. I can’t think of life without you and I need you by my side always. I love you. That’s all I know to say and I hope it’s enough. I love you.” I tell her, almost urgently.

She grins, her pink lips quirking. “It’s enough.”

The crowd laughs softly and I hold her hands tight in mine.

“The fates have allowed you to find each other. Live in happiness for eternity.” Diana finishes. “Kiss and solidify your union.”

Now that, I can do. I lean forward and gently cup Grace’s face in my hands. Our kiss is simple and tender, filled with years of promise. Her lips are soft in mine and I feel myself getting lost in the sensation of this ultimate perfection. I love her with such intensity that it almost scares me.

Everyone is clapping and cheering as we finally break apart, our hands still clasped. We make our way down the aisle, our eyes locked on each other until we exit to the back private room.

It is then the emotion of what just happened hits me and I feel my knees buckle. Grace catches me in a surprisingly strong grip for someone so small and I manage to stand upright.

“You okay Spots?” She questions and I kiss her in response.

“Never better.” I answer in between kisses. “You look gorgeous.”

“So do you.” She tells me, breathless, as she strokes my long hair. “I can’t believe what this suit does to me. You’re never taking it off.” Gracie says and I laugh low in my throat.

“Really? Bummer of a honeymoon.” I respond and she giggles.

“And you left your hair down, Goddess, do you know what that did to me when I saw you? I wanted to ravish you right there in front of everyone.”

“That would have really made everyone uncomfortable, huh? Including your father.” I tell her, waiting for her reaction.

“My father?” She says, her hands flying up to her mouth. “He’s here?”

I nod. “I saw him in the audience, sitting with Rick and your sister. I take it you didn’t know?” She shakes her head. “I had no idea he’d be here. What about my mother?”

I lower my eyes. “I didn’t see her.”

Grace’s lower lip trembles. “Well, at least he came.” She shakes her head slightly, as if to clear the thought away.

“Are you okay?” I ask, pulling her close to me.

“Sorry, it was just a shock.” She mutters.

“You don’t have to be sorry for anything.” I tell her, kissing the top of her head. Her hair looks pretty cute, the stylist put tiny flowers in the front, making her look even more pixie-like.

“Well, we have a reception to go to, right?” She says bravely and I squeeze her hand.

“Yep.” I respond. “Or we can just blow this place and get onto the honeymoon part.” I grin at her, seeing her blush in return.

“Let’s save that for later Spots. Besides, I want to look at you in that outfit some more.” Grace tells me as she leads me toward the great hall of the castle.

I sigh dramatically. “You just married me for my good looks.”

She just laughs.

************

I sink back into the passenger seat of the Explorer wearily and close my eyes.

“That was so much fun.” I say, my voice tired.

“Yes it was.” Jaden responds honestly. “I can’t remember when I’ve had more fun.”

“Well, I can decidedly say that our ceremony was a huge hit.” I tell her. “I mean, it was funny enough when Kasey was the one that caught the bouquet, but it was even funnier when she then ran around asking everyone to marry her.”

“They are going to have trouble with her.” Jaden says jokingly. “And to have another on the way nonetheless.”

“Doesn’t Di look gorgeous? She’s so beautiful anyway, not to mention pregnant.” I answer, my tone almost wistful.

Jaden looks at me as she makes her way down the long hill headed away from the castle. “Jeez, we just got married and you want me to knock you up already?” She grins to let me know she’s kidding.

I laugh, my hand finding hers in the dark. “No, not yet. I really want to have a career first and everything. But I can’t say the image of having a child with you isn’t really appealing.”

“Yeah.” Jaden agrees firmly. She glances at the clock and squeezes my hand. “We should make it to the inn within a few hours.”

“Good.” I tell her, eager to feel her body next to mine.

“Did you see Steele and Val dancing? They looked pretty happy, huh?” Jaden comments and I snicker. “What?” She questions.

“You are such a little match maker, that’s all. Besides, I have the inside scoop from Kim and yes, they are pretty happy.” I tell her.

“Oh! Tell me, I want details.” Jaden begs, sounding like a five year old.

“Nope.” I say simply. “Let them have their privacy.”

“Come on!” She pleads and I have to relent. She’s just so darn cute.

“Fine. They talk all the time, and Val told Kim that she could be falling for him.” I answer. “That’s all your getting.”

“Hrumph. I can get more dirt out of Steele.” She says before changing the subject. “Your father was okay, huh? He didn’t seem too weirded out.”

“I was really glad he came, although it made me nervous to have him and Laura in the same room. I didn’t think he expected her to be there, but Uncle Rick said he had already filled him in that Laura and I had met.” I tell Jaden, still having mixed feelings about my father’s presence. I’m thrilled that he came, but I guess I expected him to be a different person. Instead, he was very much the way he normally is, quiet and withdrawn. He did hug me awkwardly and tell me that he didn’t want to miss his little girl getting married, even if it wasn’t how he envisioned.

At least he wasn’t rude to Jaden, not exactly friendly, but not rude.

“I’m glad Laura and her family could attend. They are really nice.” Jaden mentions and I agree.

“I know how expensive it was for them to come out here, and for that I am so thankful. I can’t believe they drove the entire way. That’s a long trip for a van filled with seven people.” I laugh.

“Well, they took their time and stopped along the way, kind of made a family vacation out of it. Besides, do you really think Laura wanted to miss this day? She was crying during the entire ceremony.” Jaden adds.

“Really?” I question, surprised for some reason. “Well, everyone had a good time. The food was great, the dancing was great, and I’ll never forget dancing to ‘At Last’ with you.” “You won’t have to. Stacey was taking pictures the entire time.” Jaden says matter-of-factly.

“I can’t wait to get them back and hang them all over the apartment.”

She grins, her white teeth visible in the dark. “You look pretty good in that dress.”

I pluck at the delicate fabric. “This old thing?”

Our laughter carries us down the road to our future.
Part 2

Sunday February 18th, 2001
A random dream awakens me and I glance around the strange room, startled for a second. The winter moonlight filters in through the open curtains, casting a bright white light over the hotel room. There’s just cause for me to be confused, our road trip honeymoon has led us from the Cape to Rhode Island, New York City, through upstate New York, the mountains of Vermont, and finally to Maine; which is where we are now.

Grace’s peaceful breathing is the only sound and as much as I would love to be lulled back to sleep by her quiet presence, I suddenly am restless. Looking up to the popcorn ceiling, I try to bore myself to sleep by making pictures in the shapes and textures, but to no avail.

I sigh in frustration as I get up from the soft bed and stand, stretching my arms over my head. My back pops loudly and I grin, fully knowing the reason for being so stiff.

During our road trip honeymoon week, I haven’t exactly been keeping up on my routine of running and spending all day on horseback. As much as I have enjoyed our trip, I have to admit to my anxiousness to return home. I’ve even missed work, a rarity for me. The past few months I’ve almost felt burnt out by my job, something that’s upset me quite a lot. Maybe I just needed a quick break to make me realize how much I love what I do.

I hope so.

That’s probably why I’m so restless tonight. I know as soon as Gracie awakens and we have breakfast, we will be back on the road to home. I glance at the clock, seeing it’s only 4:00am. She’d kill me if I got her up to leave now.

I flop down in the hotel chair and consider turning on the TV. Turning to look at my beloved, I resolutely set the remote back down. I can’t help but smile at her sleeping form as the moonlight caresses her delicate features and highlights her pale skin and hair. It’s giving her almost a translucent look and she’s never looked more beautiful.

Tiny particles of dust cling to her long eyelashes and her full lips are parted slightly, pulling the corners of her mouth into a small grin.

I wonder what she’s thinking of.

As I stare, an idea pops into my head that leads me to rummage through our luggage in search of my camera. Finding it, I quickly adjust the light meter, grateful that we left the curtains open. The moonlight is more than ample and it’s showcasing the wonder that is Grace perfectly.

She is curled up around the blankets, one shapely hip and her shoulders bare. She has her left arm tucked under her head and seems to be in a tranquil sleep. It’s a modest enough pose that I am certain she will not be embarrassed when I show them to her later.

I circle her and look for the perfect angle, feeling much like a peeping tom but unable to resist her simple beauty. After quickly adjusting the light meter and focusing on my subject, I say quick thanks for Stacey being such a great teacher and begin to snap pictures.

The click of the shutter seems deafening in the quiet night, but luckily my Grace is a sound sleeper and allows me to finish an entire roll of black and white film. I hope the pictures turn out as wonderful as she looks right now.

I put the camera away, this impromptu picture session has taken the edge off and I eagerly crawl back into bed, Grace automatically shifting to accommodate my tall frame. She scoots over to me, resting her hand on my heart and snuggling up to me.

Thinking of the pictures I took tonight, I smile as I imagine showing them to our grandchildren and explaining they were taken on our honeymoon. This thought causes me to shake my head in wonder. A few years ago I never would have even let the notion of grandchildren cross my mind. I never considered the possibility of having a family.

But now I’ve already got a family, and all I can think about is our future and how our life will be in five years, ten, and fifty after.

My eyes close and I sigh contentedly in the darkness. I never thought I could have these feelings. But I like them.
Friday May 11, 2001
My fingers cross as I hand in my paper to the professor. He gives me a kindly smile and I rush out into the hall where Kim is waiting.

“Glad it’s over, huh?” She asks and I smile wearily.

“That was so nerve wracking. What kind of psycho gives us a huge final exam and makes us turn in a 12-page paper on the same day?” I ask, grumbling to Kim.

“Him. That’s why he’s called the Psych Nazi, you know like the soup guy from Seinfeld?” She responds drolly.

I giggle. “He’s Jaden’s favorite character. I’m more partial to Elaine.” I answer and Kim and I laugh as we head down the hall.

“Did you ever notice how each Seinfeld character represents a part of the brain? The Ego, the Superego, the Id, it’s all very clever.” Kim states and I roll my eyes.

“Well, there you go. Your senior thesis paper topic!” I joke and she looks at me, her hazel eyes twinkling.

“Yeah! That’s a great idea, thanks pal.” Kim grins. “And I have over an entire year to finish research for it and everything.”

“Come to my house.” I offer seriously. “Jaden must have every episode on tape.”

Kim chuckles. “Speaking of your house, are we still on for tonight?”

I link my arm in hers. “You bet. Now that we have Psych Nazi’s class over with, let’s grab lunch. I’m starving.”

Pulling my car into the driveway, I lock the doors and bolt upstairs. My last exam of the semester, and I had to run to the store to get snacks and stuff for dinner tonight.

As I throw open the door and set the bags on the counter, I catch a whiff of our wonderfully-smelling kitchen. Hmm..pizza.

A quick peek in the oven confirms that Jaden has put several large homemade ones in the oven.

“Spots?” I call, thrilled to the max that I don’t have to quickly whip up lasagna before everyone gets here.

“In the bedroom.” She answers and after I say a loving hello to the excited dogs I head toward her voice.

I find her lying, naked as a jaybird, on the bed. I can feel my face instantly flush and the only thing I can manage is a very uncool “Erugh.”

Jaden laughs, her voice low and rumbling. “Come here.”

My eyes close and I swallow loudly. “Okay.” I answer and practically fly into her arms.

Her skin is milky smooth and soft under my fingers. I know I always describe her as beautiful, but that really doesn’t depict how she really is. Jaden is simply breathtaking, and it never ceases to amaze me just how incredible she is.

“Hi.” She whispers, taking my lips in her own. “Happy final exam day.”

“Hi yourself.” I respond in-between kisses. “Thank you for making dinner.”

She rolls me underneath her, looking down on me, a feral look on her face. “All I could think about at work today was making you come, and I figured making dinner myself would expedite that.”

My eyes widen in surprise as I feel my clothes quickly being removed. “Well, who am I to stop you?” I ask, already weak in my desire for her.

I am rewarded with a low chuckle and she kisses me once again. “I love you.” She growls in my ear before kissing me thoroughly.

My hands tangle in her impossibly long hair as I return her kiss. She tastes of peppermint and chocolate, and I close my eyes with pleasure.

As she tenderly kisses her way down my neck and latches on to a nipple my breathing becomes labored from the sensations she is causing. “Goddess, I love you. And I love when you do that.” I manage to tell her.

Jaden looks up at me and smiles slyly, her eyes twinkling. “Good thing I married you then, huh?” Her attention immediately returns to my breasts and I make no move to stop her.

But the knock on the door does.

She looks up at me, frustration evident on her face. “Are they early?”

Sighing, my head drops to the pillow. “I guess so.”

She reluctantly rises to her feet. “I really hate our friends.” She mutters as she pulls on a pair of snug jeans and a black sweater.

“Me too.” I add as I look for my clothes. Where in the heck did she put them? Spots smiles sympathetically at me as she heads to open the door.

I hear Kim’s jubilant voice as I make my way to the living room. Even though we just saw each other a few hours ago, I can’t help but smile at her exuberant face. We’ve become almost inseparable these past few months.

“Junior year is over!” She says, cheering as she sets the bag she brought onto the counter.

I hug her giddily and then move to hug the always-quiet Stacey. “I can’t believe we’re seniors!”

“I know.” Stacey responds, smiling. It looks feigned and I can’t help but think something is wrong. I quirk my eyebrows at Kim who shrugs sadly before changing the subject.

“Where are we going tonight?” She asks and Jaden smiles evilly. She and Kim can’t ever stop teasing and goofing on each other. I know they truly like each other, but just enjoy their banter.

“I thought we’d go out after dinner for drinks at this really cool Chinese place.” Jaden remarks innocently.

I close my eyes and stifle a giggle. She wants to take them to The China for karaoke. Kim will die when she realizes where we’re going, she can’t sing to save her life.

“Cool.” Stacey responds, evidently understanding that Jaden’s up to something. Kim eyes the two of them suspiciously and rolls her eyes.

“I brought beer and stuff.” She says, taking it out of the bag and putting it in the fridge. “When are Joe and Di getting here?”

Looking at my watch, I see that they should be here in fifteen minutes. “The same time you were supposed to get here.” I tell her pointedly.

“Yeah, the store wasn’t crowded for a Friday so we were early. Why, did I invade on your sickening lesbian life-partner lovemaking or something?” Kim jokes and I glare at her, crossing my arms over my chest.

“Yes.” I growl and her hazel eyes go wide.

“No shit? Seriously?” She says, her mouth forming a perfect ‘O’. Her reaction quickly turns to laughter and she starts giggling like crazy.

“Jerk.” I respond, smiling to let her know I’m only teasing her. Stacey looks mortified and Jaden just smiles.

“I mean, we can watch TV or something if you want to go finish.” Kim says seriously and I chuckle.

“Loudmouths, I can hear you all the way down the hall.” Diana’s voice quips as she lets herself in. “I’ll take the two of them down to the car so you and Grace can get it on.” She says to Jaden, whose face flushes.

“Alright, no more talk of my failed attempt to seduce Grace before you all got here, okay? Jesus Christ!” Jaden exclaims, causing us all to laugh.

“Fine, when’s dinner? Kasey #2 is starving.” Diana remarks, her hand on her huge belly. She’s due on June 14th, only a month away. She thinks she’ll go a week or so early because she’s enormous and she’s already started having those small contractions that signify the onset of labor. I can’t wait to see the baby!

“Now.” Jaden says as she takes the pizzas out of the oven. We all sit around the kitchen island and I start pouring drinks for everyone except Di. She’s obviously our designated driver for tonight.

After we’re all seated, I raise my glass to make a toast.

“To the end of school! And girls’ night out!” I exclaim, clinking everyone’s glasses.

“And to friends who prevent me from pleasuring my wife.” Jaden adds, resulting in hysterical laughter from us all.

You should have seen Kim’s face when she realized where we were. As soon as she saw the karaoke stage and all the weirdos singing, her reaction went from horror to disbelief to hilarity.

I link my arm in hers and follow Di to the closest table available to the stage. Kim’s already slightly drunk, having consumed more alcohol during dinner than any of us. I know something is bothering both her and Stacey, but they seem determined to have a good time tonight.

“Joe is going to be so bummed he didn’t come.” Diana mentions as Jaden looks over the song list.

“I know, it won’t be the same without him. He’s my singing buddy!” Jaden mentions glumly. “Why didn’t he come with you? Is he babysitting Kasey?”

Di shakes her head. “No, she’s with my sister. He said he wasn’t man enough to balance out all of our estrogen.” She smiles, continuing. “I knew he wanted to come, but he wouldn’t admit it.”

“Is he at home?” Jaden asks, taking out her cell phone. Di smiles and nods her head as Jaden dials.

“Joe, it’s me. We’re at The China and no one will sing with me.” Jaden complains and I roll my eyes at Di.

“You’re what?” My beloved exclaims in disbelief. She cups her hand over the phone. “You’re not going to believe what he’s doing.” She says before ordering him to get here now.

Hanging up the phone, she tucks it away in her bag. “He and Harry were playing PlayStation.”

Kim snorts. “Dweebs.”

Diana sighs. “Are they coming or not?”

Jaden nods. “Yeah. And I’m going to make Harry sing with me.” She grins, and I lean over to give her a kiss. She’s so cute sometimes.

“Awww, look at that.” Di teases in a singsong voice. “They’re married for three months and still can’t keep their hands off each other.”

“Tell me about it. They’re the make-out queens.” Kim remarks dourly.

“You’re just jealous.” Jaden remarks and Kim smiles at her evilly.

“Wouldn’t you like to think so?” She quips and Jaden takes the bait, already preparing a retort.

“Enough!” I tell the two of them, placing a sign-up sheet in their hands. “Battle it out on the karaoke stage.”

Jaden grins, that sexy expression that makes me melt. “With pleasure.” She begins leafing through the extensive song list.

“Do I really have to sing?” Kim complains before looking through her own list.

“I’m not singing.” Stacey mentions.

“Me either.” Di adds. “I never do. I prefer to sit and pass judgment on others rather than try anything myself.” She smiles as we laugh at her.

“You singing Grace?” Kim questions and I shrug.

“I don’t know, I’m not very good.” I respond.

“Not true.” Jaden says. “Come on, Gracie. Sing something for me.” She looks at me, her blue eyes round and pleading.

She knows I can’t resist that face.

“Oh, alright.” I give in and she gleefully hands me a song list.

*********

From the stage, I can see Grace shaking with laughter so violently that she almost spills her drink.

Meanwhile, I continue to try to keep up with Joe to the words of “The Devil Went Down to Georiga.”

I’m puzzled, not really knowing what Gracie finds so funny. The reason Joe and I keep messing up is because it’s a really fast song. And it’s only natural that we would mime the fiddle playing in-between verses because that’s what the song is about.

Our turn finally ends and we cheer for ourselves along with the rest of the crowd. I have to hold onto his arm just to get off the stage. We’ve all had a little too much to drink tonight, but it’s all in good fun. My favorite part so far was when Kim sang, “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred and I one-upped her by reenacting that Rod Stewart “If you want my body, come on baby let me know” song. Ha.

“Wonderful job, Spots.” Grace tells me as I sit down. She gives me a sloppy kiss on the cheek and I grin. She’s funny.

“Next up, Grace!” Yo-Yo the dj calls out. Grace springs up from the table, dizzy and I reach out an arm to steady her.

“This one’s for you, Spots.” She slurs in my ear as she rushes to the stage.

She looks so cute up there, kind of nervous but too drunk to care. The music starts and I cock my head, knowing it sounds familiar.

Suddenly, the movement of Harry and Joe banging their fists on the table and guffawing makes me realize what song she’s decided to sing.

“Wild Thing” by Tone Loc.

I close my eyes, suddenly stone cold sober and; briefly, embarrassed for her. To her credit, she does a commendable job, but the sight of my little blonde sweetheart singing that song just makes me laugh.

Our entire table is cracking up, hell; the entire bar is cracking up. Gracie is trying to do some kind of sexy dance, but it’s really not working.

Joe looks like he’s going to puke he’s laughing so hard. Diana is massaging her temples, one hand on her bulging belly and a little frown on her face. Weird. Kim is just staring at Grace, her mouth hanging open with surprise, and Stacey, Harry, and myself are just about peeing our pants.

When the song finishes, our entire table stands up and gives her an ovation. She sure as hell deserves it. Gracie wobbles back to our table, grinning like a Cheshire Cat.

“Now you know how silly you and Joe look.” She tells me pointedly, and immediately the entire table begins to laugh at me.

“Jaden and Harold, come up!” Yo-Yo beckons and I see this as my chance to redeem myself.

“Ha!” I counter, pulling Harry out of his chair. “Watch this!” Harry, who normally would have protested making an ass of himself, willingly comes along; placated from the effects of the alcohol.

I hand him the mike and he grins when he sees the song title come up on the little screen. “You start.” He points at me and I begin.

“Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you.”

“No you can’t.” Harry argues, in a surprisingly nice baritone voice. I can tell he’s really getting into it and we start getting into it.

The crowd loves us! We are the best karaoke singers in the world.

I look to Grace, excited to see the loving look on her face directed at me and instead see both her and Kim waving their arms at us. Joe is helping Di away from the table on unsteady feet and she looks really pissed.

Harry nudges for me to continue the song, but my muddled mind is still trying to process what is happening at our table.

Gracie is making some kind of weird motions to her belly and rocking a baby and Kim is just yelling at us.

“Hey, I can’t hear you guys.” I say into the mike and Grace practically snarls at me. She marches up to the stage and grabs the mike out of my hand.

“Diana is in labor! Come on, we have to go!” She shouts into the mike, resulting in the entire crowd cheering.

“We’re having a baby!” Harry shouts and the three of us rush off the stage. By the time we grab our coats and bags, we see my Explorer out in front of the bar.

As fast as our wobbly legs will carry us we jump in the car, squished by the additions of Joe and Harry.

“Are you okay?” I ask Di who looks really pissed and in a lot of pain.

“Yeah, I’m great. I love having my water break in a Chinese karaoke bar where everyone I am with is drunk off their asses so I have to drive myself to the hospital.” She retorts as she peels out of the lot.

“Does anyone else feel sober enough to drive?” Grace asks meekly and gets no response.

I check the time on my dashboard clock and see it’s almost 1:30am. That means that we’ve all been drinking steadily for almost five hours.

“Why don’t I call an ambulance Di.” I offer and she shakes her head.

“Don’t worry about it, I’m fine. We’re not that far, only an hour or so from the birthing center and I won’t deliver that soon.” She smiles briefly. “I just can’t believe this is happening so fast. I started having longer and closer together contractions throughout the night, but they felt nothing like when I had Kasey.”

“What does it feel like?” Gracie asks, her voice still a bit slurred.

“Like a full-body orgasm without the good part.” She answers.

“Like every muscle in your body is tensing at the same time.” Stacey offers from the far back seat.

“How do you know?” Harold asks drunkenly.

“Do you think it’s a boy or girl?” Kim asks quickly.

“Boy.” Diana says.

“What’s his name?”

Diana smiles. “Jay.”

“Why Jay?” Kim continues.

“For Jaden, she’s like our best friend.” Joe says drunkenly. “She’s honest and brave and trustworthy. Like the person I’d want my son to be.”

“Shut up.” I tell Joe, reaching into the front seat to punch his arm. “Seriously, why Jay?”

“He is serious.” Diana responds quietly, and I sit back in my seat. I don’t really know what to say.

“That’s a great name.” Grace offers, and I feel her small hand curl around my arm. She rests her head on my shoulder and I instinctively kiss her soft hair.

I close my eyes, a smile forming on my lips as my Explorer races down the highway with the important job of bringing us safely to the hospital.

To meet Jay.

I think I like that.
Part 3

May 12, 2001
3:17 AM
“Can you all please quiet down!” The attending nurse tells us sternly for the fifth time. We all immediately shut our mouths and look at each other guiltily. Except for Jaden, who frowns and glares at her.

“Easy Spots, she’s just doing her job.” I mutter quietly, my hand resting on her thigh.

As the nurse retreats, Kim begins to giggle, and soon we’re all snickering like drunken idiots.

Which we all are.

The reality of the situation hits me and I put my head in my hands.

“Goddess, we are all awful people. I can’t believe this baby is going to be brought into the world after a night of drunk karaoke. Di is going to kill us, and everyone here is looking at us like we are the biggest losers.” I moan as Jaden rubs her hand in comforting circles on my back.

“It’s not our fault, we didn’t know she was going to go into labor a month early. It’s not like we were out partying on her due date.” Jaden responds.

“Yeah, and Joe and I would have been sober enough to come and get all of you if you hadn’t dragged us to the bar.” Harold states, his arms crossed over his massive chest.

“Oh, so sorry that we interrupted your Playstation game and male-bonding rituals.” Kim snorts as Harry scowls at her.

“Enough.” I say tiredly. “Di is in there bringing a baby into the world. The least we can do is support her and Joe. Besides, Harold, Di wouldn’t have stayed at the bar waiting for you to pick all of us up, you know that.”

He raises a hand in defeat.

“I wonder why she went so early.” Kim muses, glancing at Jaden. “It couldn’t have had anything to do with your touching rendition of ‘Anything you can do, I can do better?’ could it?”

“Bite me.” Jaden practically growls and I sigh in annoyance at Kim.

“Enough!” I respond, louder this time. Everyone stays quiet.

I hate awkward silence, I always have. And I really have no clue as to why we’re all mad at each other. So I decide to ask.

“I feel guilty.” Jaden answers first, surprising me. I raise my eyebrows at her, encouraging her to continue. “I’m their best friend, and I should be smart enough not to be drinking when Di was so close to going into labor.”

“I understand.” I tell her honestly. “But sweetheart, it’s not your job to look out for and protect everyone that you care for. I know it comes naturally for you, but Di is responsible for her own health and well-being, not you. I’m sure she had no idea she would start labor tonight, otherwise she never would have gone out in the first place.”

“Grace is right.” Kim adds. “Think of the times Di has done anything like this, throughout her entire pregnancy she was so careful not to go anywhere that people would be smoking. This is the first time she’s really been out, and I know that she thought it would be fine. It was her choice, not yours.”

“It could have been worse, at least she was able to drive okay. It would have been horrible to have to wait for an ambulance and have her deliver on the side of the road!” Harold states.

“That would have been scary.” I state. “At least she and the baby are here safely.”

“I’m going to get some coffee. Anyone want anything?” Stacey asks, standing up. We all shake our heads and she heads quickly down the hall.

She’s been acting weird all night, and Kim has been on edge too.

“She okay?” Harold asks.

“Yeah.” Kim responds, her face set. “She doesn’t like hospitals. She doesn’t really like much of anything right now.”

“What’s going on?” I ask, concerned for my friends.

Kim dismisses the conversation with a flick of her wrist. “No big deal, just end-of-semester blues.” She clears her throat. “How long do you think it’s going to take?”

“She went into labor pretty quickly, I guess if that’s an indication, it could be any time.” Harold remarks, his handsome face lighting up in a huge grin.

“I can’t believe we’re going to have a baby!” I say, happiness floating around my entire body. “A brand new life, it’s going to be incredible.”

“I wonder how Kasey is going to handle it.” Jaden muses and we all nod in understanding.
Later that morning
My feet tap nervously on the floor, my fingers drumming their own rhythm on Grace’s thigh.

Kim’s bloodshot eyes keep darting from the clock and then to the door leading to the delivery room while Stacey seems to be absorbed in the outdated magazine she is reading.

Harold is mindlessly staring at the television, his eyes glazed over.

Grace is sleeping, her fair head tucked sound against my shoulder. She seems completely relaxed, but I can tell from the frown lines around her mouth she is just as anxious as the rest of us.

It’s been a really long time since we got here. I don’t know much about babies, but I didn’t think things like this should take this long.

Joe has appeared briefly, to tell us Di’s making progress. He finally called their families, and Di’s sister should be here with Kasey in tow later.

But I haven’t seen Joe for more than two hours now, and I just want to make sure everyone is okay.

I really hate waiting.

I wonder if I’ll ever be in Joe’s place, waiting for Grace to deliver our child. The entire process seems so strange to me, I’ve always been fascinated with children and how they develop. Grace would be beautiful pregnant, and I know she’d be a wonderful mother. She’s so nurturing and caring to everyone, and I bet she’d be fiercely protective of our child.

So would I.

How would it work? Would we use an anonymous donor or speak with someone we know, like Joe or Harold and ask them to father our child. I’m sure Grace would want to carry it, I can’t imagine myself pregnant.

And then who would have legal rights? I know the lesbian and gay movement has made tremendous strides in allowing same-sex partners to adopt and share responsibility for the child, but I’ve also seen the scary stories about one partner dying and their children being taken away.

I couldn’t bear that, the thought of Grace dying or the loss of our children.

“You think too much.” Grace’s slurred voice breathes in my ear.

I smile fondly as her cold hands wrap around my bicep.

“Yeah?” “Turn your brain off, Spots.” She repeats tiredly before sitting up and rubbing her eyes.

“How did you know I was thinking?” I ask curiously.

“Your entire posture changed, you went from being my big, soft, pillow to one big cramped muscle. I knew you were thinking about something sad.” She responds matter-of-factly. “Any news yet?”

I shake my head. “No, I’m getting worried.”

“Don’t. When my mother had Lydia, it took forever, almost 28 hours.” Grace says, yawning. She looks at her watch. “Besides, it’s only been ten.” Gracie stands and stretches her arms above her head, exposing her cute navel. I reach to tickle it and she giggles. “I’m starving, you want to go to the cafeteria and grab breakfast?”

“Nah, you go ahead and take Kim. She’s making me nervous, watching the clock like that.” I say loud enough for her to hear and she scowls at me. “I’ll stay here in case anything happens.”

“Okay.” She answers. “I’ll bring you back something.” She heads to the elevator, Kim, Stacey, and Harold in tow.

I claim the warm couch Kim and Stacey were sharing and stretch my long legs out, immediately grateful for the change in position. Glancing briefly at the clock, I see that it’s 11:02 am. My eyes flutter shut of their own accord and I sink into the surprisingly comfortable couch.

****

“Jaden.” A voice calls me and I immediately wake to find a smiling Joe standing over me.

“She okay?” I ask, sitting up so quickly the blood rushes from my brain and I feel dizzy. The clock reads 11:39, so I haven’t been sleeping that long.

“Come see for yourself.” He responds with a proud smile on his face.

“Alright Daddy!” I tell him with glee, following him into Di’s room. She looks exhausted, but gives me a warm smile. In her arms is a sleeping bundle, snuggled in a blanket.

“You look like hell.” Di comments and I laugh.

“Well?” I ask, motioning toward the sleeping baby.

Joe gently takes him? her? from Di’s arms.

“This is our son, Jay.” He tells me, handing him to me. I awkwardly hold him and look down into his tiny face.

“He’s incredible.” I breathe, studying his tiny eyelashes and nose. His eyes are firmly closed and his little lips pursed. I can immediately tell a difference between him and what Kasey looked like as a newborn, she’s always looked just like Diana. Jay has the more pronounced features of Joe and dark wisps of hair stick out from beneath his little hat.

“Congratulations.” I say to them, feeling almost choked with emotion. “And it really means a lot that you named him that.”

“Jay Joseph Albano.” Joe responds. “I think it’s a strong name.”

“JJ, huh?” I remark, grinning down at the sleeping baby.

Di looks at me warily. “JJ? God, I didn’t even think of that. We’re not calling him that!”

“I think it’s cute.” I answer, looking down again at little JJ.

I continue to stare at him, memorizing every little feature until I hear Di yawn. I gingerly hand him back to her.

“I’ll get going, I know you’re tired.”

“He actually was born a little after 9:00am, we spent a few hours in here alone before coming out to get you.” Di remarks, unable to keep her eyes off her child.

“I’m glad you had some down time.” I tell them honestly. Leaning over to give Di a kiss on her cheek, I slap Joe’s back before turning to leave the room. “I’ll tell everyone the good news!”

“Nah, I’ll tell them. Besides, Kasey is probably here now and she’ll want to come in.” Joe says and follows me out.

Our group, with the addition of Kasey and members of Di and Joe’s family, is anxiously standing outside and they start cheering when they see Joe and me.

“It’s a boy!” Joe shouts and everyone goes nuts.

Grace throws her arms around me, kissing me soundly. “Did you see him? What does he look like? Is Di okay?” She babbles and her excitement is so contagious that I pick her up and twirl her around, feeling like we’ve just had our first child.

“I saw him, he’s perfect, looks just like Joe, and his name is Jay Joseph. Di is thrilled and looks beautiful!” I respond.

“Yay!” She says. “Now put me down!”

I comply and look around the room to see everyone else celebrating in much the same way. Except for one person.

“Poor Kasey-girl.” I mutter, seeing her held securely in Joe’s arms, bawling her brains out.

“She’s been kind of upset. I think we should send everyone home and spend some time with her so Joe can be with Di.” Grace remarks.

“Good idea. Why don’t you all go see the baby and I’ll take her down to the cafeteria for awhile.” I offer and Gracie gives me that beaming smile.

“She’ll love that.” Grace nods and tells the idea to Joe, who smiles and nods eagerly.

“Does Di feel up to visitors?” Grace asks, and after receiving the affirmative from Joe, leads the rest of our group in there; leaving just Joe, Kasey, and myself standing around.

“Hiya munchkin.” I tell Kasey, who is still sniffling.

“Hi.” She responds sullenly.

“Listen, I’m hungry. Do you want to come with me to get something to eat?” I ask her and she raises her brown eyes to meet mine.

“Just with you?”

“Yep.” I answer her.

“Okay.” She decides, wriggling from Joe’s hold. “Bye daddy.” She calls as I take her hand and lead her to the elevator. Joe calls goodbye and scampers off to Di’s side.

While we wait for the elevator, Kasey remains quiet, which is very unusual for her. “Would you like a piggyback ride?” I ask and she smiles brightly.

“Yeah!”

I easily pick her up and swing her onto my back. Our combined height is almost taller than the elevator and I instruct her to duck as we step on.

We quickly get settled in the cafeteria and I hold her small hand as we pick out our meal. I sit her in a booth with a booster seat and she sips happily on her chocolate milk.

“You know, I had a brother.” I mention as I pick up my egg salad sandwich.

“Was he mean?” She asks and I shake my head.

“He was the nicest person in the entire world.” I respond and she furrows her brow in thought.

“Like Santa Claus?”

I think for a second. “Kind of like Santa Claus. He didn’t ride around in a sleigh with elves or anything, but he was very giving and loving like Santa.”

“Where is he?” She asks.

“I’m not sure.” I tell her. “Jonah died a long time ago.”

“Oh.” Kasey says, her eyes wide. “Are you sad?”

“I’m very sad.” I answer honestly. “We were best friends in the whole world. We used to play all sorts of games and make up silly stories and build things in the backyard. One time, we wrote an entire play for our mother to act in, because she was an actress.”

“Michelle has a brother and he’s mean. I don’t want a mean brother.” Kasey says.

“How do you know your brother will be mean? My brother wasn’t mean.” I tell her and she thinks about it.

“Maybe he won’t be mean, but he’s always going to be here.” She responds quietly.

So this is what it’s really about. Poor Kasey has been the apple of her parents’ eyes her entire life. She’s never known what it’s like to have to share their attention or love. She probably thinks the new baby will take up all their time and they won’t want her around.

“I know he’s always going to be here.” I begin. “But think about something, okay? Your parents are always around, right? And you don’t mind them being around because you love them so much. So let’s just say you end up loving your brother. Then you won’t mind him being around because you’ll love him and love to play with him, right?” She looks at me and nods slowly.

“And listen to this, munchkin, you’re going to kindergarten soon and you’re going to be learning all sorts of important things that Jay won’t know. You’re going to have to teach him the important things, like what time to wake up your parents on Christmas morning, and what to ask for on birthdays.”

“Yeah.” She says softly, her eyes meeting mine.

“Most importantly, your mom and dad love you more than anything. Just because they have Jay doesn’t mean they’re going to love you any less. Do you love one of your dogs more than the other?”

“No.” She answers; a hint of a smile around her mouth.

“So there you have it. I am the expert on brothers and if you have any questions, just ask me, okay?” I smile at her and receive a toothless smile in return.

“Okay.” She says happily, contently eating her peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I ruffle her hair and dig into my lunch.
June 18, 2001
I throw open the door and do a little dance. “Kasey’s here!” I shout, picking her up and hopping up and down with her.

“Who’s here?” Jaden exclaims, sauntering in from the bedroom. “Who’s Kasey?”

“I’m Kasey!” The little girl yells and we giggle.

“Oh yeah, that Kasey.” Jaden responds. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m staying the weekend, remember?” She answers and Jaden slaps herself upside the head.

“Duh! Let’s put your stuff in your bedroom.” Jaden suggests, taking the girl’s overnight bag from Di’s arm before leading Kasey into the spare bedroom. “Bean and Bella have been waiting all day for you to come and see them!”

“Hey JJ!” I coo at the infant, immediately taking him from Di’s arms. He’s very alert, and his muddy blue eyes study the ceiling intently.

“Hello Jaden and Grace! How are you today? You both look well. Myself? I’m fine, thanks for asking!” Di exclaims and I blush.

“Sorry, you look wonderful, how are you?” I ask, focusing the attention back onto her.

“I’m great, actually. Jay’s been sleeping really well and things are going okay with Kasey. Whatever Jaden said to her at the hospital completely changed her attitude about her little brother. Of course, because Jay sleeps all the time it give me plenty of time to spend one-on-one time with her.” Di mentions as she takes off her coat. “And you guys are a tremendous help. She really looks forward to these outings with you.”

“Don’t mention it.” I tell her as I gently rock the baby. “We love having her and she’s never a problem. She and Jaden are thick as thieves.” I smile. “Grab a seat, can you stay awhile?”

“For a minute. Joe is running to the store to pick up some diapers and then we are dropping Jay off at my mother’s. I’m so excited to be able to go out to dinner!” She exclaims, leaning back tiredly on the couch.

I expertly shift Jay to one arm as I take a drink from my glass. I’ve been holding him a lot in the month he’s been here, and he seems to like me. He actually seems to like everyone, he’s a really easy going baby.

“Crap.” Di mutters, looking down at her lovely blouse that is bearing matching wet spots. She glances at me warily. “The only thing I hate about nursing is leaking milky boob juice for months.”

I snort with laughter, causing my coke to fly out of my nose across the room and luckily not on the baby. “Arugh! It burns!” I exclaim over Diana’s frantic laughter.

Jaden and Kasey, followed by an excited pair of dogs come bounding out of the bedroom.

“Pixie-head! Jaden said we could go ride the horses and take the dogs on a walk in the woods and go to Six Flags and go see a movie!” Kasey shouts as I try to make my nose stop burning.

“Well, that’s my cue to leave.” Di laughs as she puts on her coat. “Have an exciting weekend!” She says as she takes Jay from my arms and kisses Kasey goodbye.

I have a feeling it’s going to be exciting, to say the least.
Part 4

June 20, 2001
Lying back on the bed, I close my eyes wearily. I never want to get up again, and I honestly think I could be content to lie here forever. Jaden’s tall form is stretched out, and each second her breathing grows heavier.

“Are you as worn out as I am?” I ask tiredly and she chuckles in return.

“How can one little person have so much energy? It’s not like we fed her sugar all weekend or anything, but she just never gets tired!” Jaden responds, her voice tinged with disbelief.

“I know. I kept waiting for her battery pack to wear out. I don’t know how Joe and Di do it, especially now with little Jay.” I mutter as I massage my aching temples.

We’ve never had Kasey for an entire weekend before, and it sure took its toll on the both of us. Don’t get me wrong, we had a blast, but the little girl can’t get enough excitement.

“I think she’s going to be a stuntwoman when she grows up.” Jaden mentions, causing me to giggle at the thought of Kasey jumping off roofs.

“Did you see when she tried to leap from horse to horse on the carousel? I thought we were going to get kicked out of Six Flags.” I laugh, remembering how much fun she had. We went on all the rides she was tall enough for, and had a great time.

“She’s a nut. Speaking of horses, you feel like a trail ride?” She questions and all thoughts of my exhaustion fade away.

“I’d love it.” I answer immediately, pecking Jaden on the cheek as I spring out of bed and pull on my riding clothes.

****

The driveway crunches under our tires as we pull down the long driveway of the barn. As soon as the car is stopped, we unhook Bean and Bella from their doggie seat belts and they spring eagerly from the car.

They love running around here, and Jaden was very careful and took lots of time teaching them proper behavior around the horses. Bean pretty much left the large animals alone, but Bella; being part Border Collie, couldn’t resist trying to herd them in the pasture. Jaden must have spent hours out here with the two dogs; working with them until the horses are the last things on their minds when they’re here. There are other fun things like the pond and acres of rolling pastures for them to explore.

I haven’t spent as much time out here as I would have liked. Since our wedding, Jaden has tried to make it out every few days after work. She’s also been visiting her grandmother quite regularly, and I’m really proud of her. I know it’s difficult for her to do.

College kept me really busy this last semester, and it almost seems like a relief to be working with Dr. Dodes four days a week. I like my job, and I think the patients feel comfortable around me. The Doctor is fair to work for and Kim and I are able to have lunch together a few times a week since she is working for another psychiatrist in the same building.

I hope to be able to visit the barn a lot more this summer. Jaden doesn’t ride much, since all the horses are aged, but she makes sure they get the right amount of exercise.

By the time I make it into the barn, the four horses are at the gate to the paddock, their necks craned over the fence as Jaden feeds them treats. They love her; as soon as they see her approach they come running.

“Hiya Lucy.” I greet the big Draft-type mare. She’s the horse I usually ride; she and Studley have the least physical problems. Jaden slips through the rails of the fence and distracts the other two horses as I open the gate for Studley and Lucy.

They obediently trot to their stalls as trained. The first time I saw Jaden do this I almost had a heart attack. My experience with horses is that you never, ever let them loose unless they are in a safe and enclosed area. So to see Jaden just let them out of the paddock with free rein of the entire property, I almost swallowed my tongue. I soon realized that she has a knack for animals, an innate knowledge that allows her to train them easily to do just about anything she wants.

It still freaks me out though, and one of these days I expect them to go trotting off. Jaden says she trusts these two, and they are so old that if they did decide to get loose, they wouldn’t go far.

I easily tack Lucy up; at first it was a challenge to me because of her huge size. My horse, Annie, was really small and better suited to my height. I’m not used to having a 17-hand horse, that’s for sure. But Lucy and I have become fast friends. She’s gentle and sweet, and appreciates the treats I slip her during my visit.

I still miss Annie though, everyday.

“Ready?” Jaden questions from Studley’s stall and I lead Lucy out into the bright sunlight. It’s a rather warm day, but the breeze makes it perfect for riding.

Giving me a boost onto Lucy’s broad back, Jaden then effortlessly swings onto Studley. I take in her completely relaxed form with bemusement.

“No saddle today, huh?” I ask as she gathers the reins in her hands.

She shrugs self-depreciatingly. “Nah, I sit in a saddle all week. Besides, he’s not going anywhere.”

I take in Studley’s almost snoozing form and bite back a laugh. “No, he’s not exactly a wild steed.” I answer as we head off to the trails.

Jaden gives a shrill whistle and I can hear the dogs running toward us from the stream at the bottom of the pasture.

By the time we enter the cool forest, they are bounding happily ahead of us, water dripping off of their fur. I glance at Jaden, her face bathed in shadow and light and smile. Life doesn’t get any better than this.

****************

We’ve been riding in comfortable silence for about a half an hour. Stretching my long legs down Studley’s side, I glance to Grace and find her looking ahead with a gentle smile on her face.

“I’ve been thinking about something.” I tell her, and she turns toward me and raises her eyebrows.

“My horse Robbie, he’s probably going to be ready to retire in a few years. He’s getting older and stiffer, you know? That’s what happened to Studley, and I ended up buying him from the force. I want to do the same with Robbie, he’s been a great horse for the past few years and I want to make sure he’s taken care of in his later years.” I start and Grace nods.

“That’s a great idea.” She says, smiling.

“Well, I thought maybe by that time, cause you’d be finished at Pressman, that maybe we could buy a little place like this farm, you know? With a barn and lots of property to keep him and Studley on. We could get a few horses for ourselves if you’d want.” I continue, wondering what her reaction would be.

Her eyes light up. “Would you really want that? A farm would be a lot of work, and we’re both so busy now with everything.” Gracie says, her voice concerned, but I know the idea is exciting her.

Now is the time to break the news. Unsure as to how she’s going to react, I carefully begin my speech I’ve been rehearsing in my head for months.

“Um, I know it would be a lot of work, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.” I begin, looking to her for a reaction. She looks encouraging, so I continue. “I think by then, I’d want to quit the force.” I say quickly.

Grace gently pulls back on the reins, causing Lucy to come to a halt. “What?” She questions in disbelief.

I lean back and Studley immediately stops. Patting his side for reassurance, I try to explain my point.

“I don’t know, Gracie, I just haven’t been happy there recently. I don’t know if I’m tired or burnt out, but my work doesn’t give me any kind of satisfaction anymore. Maybe it’s because I resent the long hours and unpredictable shifts now, before I didn’t care how much I worked because I didn’t have anything else. Now, I want to be with you and the dogs. I want to start a family with you in a few years, and I want to be there when our children are born and start to walk and crawl. Not on some cold Boston street freezing my ass off and wondering if the next time I go into action I won’t come home. I don’t want you or our children to live with that fear. I’ve seen guys get hurt or killed and leave their wives and children, and I don’t think that’s fair.” I say, the words coming out of my mouth in a rush.

“Whoa, slow down!” Grace begins, reaching her hand out to lightly grasp my arm. “Where is this all coming from? Suddenly we have children?” She begins, the corners of her mouth curling into a smile.

“This isn’t funny.” I tell her and her smile fades.

“I’m sorry, Spots, I wasn’t making fun of you.” She replies honestly. “I’m just surprised that you’re thinking this far into the future. It doesn’t seem like you, that’s all.” Grace pauses, pursing her lips. “Listen sweetheart, I’m behind you, 100% in whatever you want to do. I do worry about you every day and I’m fully aware your job is dangerous. But most importantly, I want you to be happy. I know your job has made you happy in the past and that you love working with the horses. I just want you to think things through and make the best decision for you.”

I work out what she’s said in my head. It all seems to make sense, I really didn’t think Grace would care if I quit the force, but I wanted her honest opinion. “Thank you. I’m just going over ideas for the future, like I said, it wouldn’t be for a few years. There’s a possibility for me to work just as someone who trains horses for the force, and not actually go into the field.” Swallowing, I admit what really has been bothering me. “It’s strange, Gracie, I’m not really sure what’s wrong with me. I’m not afraid to do my job, but the parts of it I used to find so exciting and thrilling now just make me hate it even more. I feel like such a wuss.” I tell her, my voice low.

Her warm hand tilts my chin up until we are looking eye to eye. “You are not a wuss.” She tells me vehemently. “You are the bravest person I know. Jaden, everyone in your line of work goes through this, you know? You’re growing up and realizing how fragile life is.” She continues, tilting her head. “Remember how when you were a teenager and it was fun to do exciting and dangerous things? You’re coming out of that phase in your life and realizing that you’re not invincible. It’s perfectly normal and there’s nothing wrong with you.” She finishes.

Lucy stomps her massive foot in impatience. Smiling at Grace, I squeeze her hand. “Thanks.” I tell her as I urge Studley forward into a brisk trot. Lucy follows, her lumbering gait, as usual, making it difficult for Grace to post.

“Anytime.” She answers, her voice vibrating from her perch on the horse. “Remember what I told you, Spots? You can’t get rid of me; where you go, I go. And if you want to quit the force and become a farmer, then I’ll get a pair of overalls and you can just call me Ellie Mae.” Grace smiles, her nose crinkling adorably.

“Come on, Ellie Mae.” I call to her as Studley eases into a canter. “I’ll race you!”

Lucy’s hoof beats echo behind me as Studley lopes down the trail, his long black mane blowing into my face.
July 7, 2001
Humming under my breath, I finish cubing the cheese and pull the saran wrap over the platter. We’re having the gang over for a post-fourth-of-July party on the beach this afternoon, and everyone should be arriving shortly.

Jaden is down at the beach, finishing assembling the lawn chairs and cleaning out the fire pit. We’re going to roast hot dogs and Joe is bringing his portable gas grill to cook hamburgers and chicken.

I’m really excited, the weather is really nice and the last of the early summer seaweed is off the beach. It should be really fun. We bought a few large umbrellas to sit under so Kasey and JJ didn’t have to be out in the sun all day.

“It’s me!” Steele calls before opening our front door. He enters, his blondish hair made lighter by the sun and his skin bronzed into a deep tan.

“Hey!” I greet him with a quick hug. “How are you?” I ask, having not seen him in a few weeks. He and Jaden have been working completely opposite schedules and this is the first day they’ve both had off in awhile.

“Good!” He smiles, shrugging. “Val and I are kind of over.” He offers, his smile quickly fading.

“Oh, Harold!” I say in despair. “What happened? I thought things were going okay?” He shrugs again, a gesture that looks foolish because of his massive size. “It’s the distance thing, she’s so far away and we never get to see each other. I guess it’s for the best.”

Clearing his throat, he looks around the apartment. “Where’s Jaden? I promised I’d help her set up my volleyball net.” He questions, holding the bulky box in his hand.

“Down at the beach.” I tell him and he quickly excuses himself to go and tag along with her.

I’m sorry to hear about him and Val, they were really cute together and it was nice to see him happy with someone. I know that if it’s meant to be, they will work it out.

“Hey, Grace!” Kim’s booming voice calls from down the hall and I open the door for her. She looks cute, dressed in a pair of denim overall shorts and a gray tank top. Her unruly hair is pulled back in a few barrettes, but a few curly blond locks keep slipping free.

“Hi!” I smile at her; concerned, as I notice the circles under her eyes. Since Jay was born I can tell something’s been bothering her, but she won’t admit to anything. “Where’s Stace?”

Kim frowns slightly. “She’s not coming, something about having sleep to catch up on.” Her hazel eyes meet mine. “But we’ll have fun without her. How can I help?”

“Do you need to talk?” I ask her and she shakes her head quickly. I continue to press on. “Because if you do, I’m here for you. You know that?” I add and she looks up at me, faint tears visible in her expressive eyes.

I pull her into a hug. “Hey, what’s going on? Kim, talk to me, something’s been bothering you for months now.”

She returns my embrace briefly before pulling away and rubbing her eyes. She waves her hand in the air and composes herself. “It’s nothing, just the usual crap. I’m stressed out about finding a job after graduation, and Stace and I aren’t really getting along right now. It’s really no big deal.” She says unconvincingly.

“Darling,” I smile at her, “You are the last person who has to worry about finding a job in a YEAR from now.” I tell her, stressing the last part. “Your stepfather knows everyone under the sun but you don’t even need his help, you are the star of the department! Professors’ place bets on how high your GPA will be and whatever or whenever you write anything they line up to read it. You’re brilliant and gorgeous and everyone loves you.” I continue, causing her to smile briefly. “I’m sorry if you and Stace are having problems right now.” I tell her honestly. “But things will work out, I promise.”

“Thanks.” She responds almost shyly, a rarity for her. She eyes the platters of vegetables and other goodies I’ve been preparing. “Now, let’s get these where they are supposed to go.” Kim says as she swipes a carrot.

I smile at her, bumping her with my hip as we carry the spead of food down to the beach.
Part 5
The smoldering fire is gradually dying, but none of us make a move to rekindle the flame. I lean back into Jaden’s sand-covered form and sigh in pleasure.

What an utterly fantastic day.

Harold is nursing his beer slowly, reclined in a chair. Kim is staring at the fire, lost in thought as she traces patterns in the sand with her hand. Sam and Eva are talking in low tones to each other, their hands entwined as their dog frolics with Bean and Bella.

Di and Joe left a little while ago, with an exhausted Kasey and sleeping baby. The rest of us are sitting here, the majority tipsy, just enjoying the night.

“Anyone up for a midnight swim?” Harold asks suddenly and we all chuckle. “Come on, the water’s warm!” He continues, bravely stripping off his shirt and running down to the edge. He doesn’t even hesitate, diving into the gently rolling waves.

Jaden’s chest shakes with her silent laughter. “The water is freezing.” She whispers in my ear, causing goose bumps to break out all over my skin.

Sure enough, Harold quickly emerges from the water, yelping in displeasure. “Holy shit, that’s cold!”

“Told you.” Jaden whispers again and I snuggle deeper into her warm embrace.

“I’ll go in.” Eva says, surprising us all. Dusting sand off of her bathing suit, she grabs Sam’s hand and leads her to the water.

“Hell, why not.” Kim grumbles as she follows suit. “Come on Grace, don’t be a chicken!” She calls to me and I curl my toes in the sand.

“Cluck.” I answer, grinning. I hate being cold, and I hate swimming in cold water.

“You guys have fun.” Jaden calls as she wraps her arms tighter around me. “I’m perfectly content to stay here and stay warm.”

“You’re both chickens.” Harold answers, as the brave swimmers all voice their displeasure about the cold water. “Bawk bawk bawk!” The big man continues, doing a strange little chicken dance in the shallow water.

Jaden sighs and I close my eyes. She’ll not be able to back down from a challenge, especially one offered by Harold.

“I hate our friends.” I complain as I take off my warm sweatshirt and pants. My swimsuit is still a bit wet from our earlier game of water beach volleyball, when the ocean water was much, much warmer.

“Think we could get away with it if we drowned them all?” Jaden asks as we head down to the water.

I laugh in response. “Come on, Gracie.” Jaden calls, poised to run in. “It’s best if you just get it over with.”

I shudder with anticipation of the coldness to come. Grabbing her hand securely, I grin at her as we run into the freezing water.

Actually, the water isn’t so bad once you get used to it, but despite our brave attempts, none of us can stay in for long, and we all find out that getting out into the night air is worse than getting in to the water.

“Shit, the fire’s out.” Sam complains as we towel ourselves off. Jaden and Harold throw more kindling on it and soon it’s blazing again.

“Wow, it’s cold.” I mention as I pull my clothes back on. The cool air hits me, and suddenly, I really have to pee.

“I have to go inside for a sec.” I tell everyone as I start to hurry toward the house.

“Me too, I have to pee.” Kim adds and follows me.

As we walk away, we hear Harold’s booming voice call out; “You should have gone in the water like I did!”

Kim and I scrunch up our noses. “That’s disgusting.” She comments as we trot up to the house.

“Men are gross.” I answer.

“Yep. Why do you think I’m gay?” She finishes, and we laugh all the way into our apartment.

While she’s using the bathroom, I search around in the cabinets and find some hot chocolate mix. Making two cups, I present Kim with a steaming mug.

“Ohh, you’re a Goddess.” She says as she breathes in the intoxicating scent.

“I’m going to stay in for a minute.” I tell her, sitting down on the couch. “I need to get warm before going back out.”

“Good idea.” Kim says as she joins me. “This was a great night, thanks for having me.”

“You’re welcome here anytime, you know that.” I tell her fondly. “You’re my best friend, and I’m sorry you’re going through a lot right now.”

“Thanks.” She mentions, a faraway look in her hazel eyes. “Things are pretty shitty, and I’m not really sure why.”

“What’s going on? Honestly?” I ask, concerned by the pained look on her face.

For a second, it seems like she’ll give me the same noncommittal answer that she has been. Then, something breaks inside her, and suddenly she’s sobbing.

I set down my drink and pull her into a hug. “It’s okay.” I tell her, and she continues to cry, burying her face in my shoulder.

“It’s not okay, everything is bad.” She mumbles and I rub her back comfortingly.

“What’s bad?” I ask softly and she pulls away from me, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.

“Stacey.” She states, sniffling.

“What happened?”

“She doesn’t think she’s gay. She wants to move back to Michigan after graduation next year.” Kim tells me, her eyes filling with more tears.

“What?” I question, not expecting her to say this.

Kim shrugs, shaking her head sadly. “I don’t know. I thought everything was fine, and suddenly, a few weeks ago she tells me that she moved here because she had a baby she gave up for adoption, decided to try out an alternative lifestyle, but she isn’t happy and wants to move back home.”

“Stacey had a baby?” I ask, caught completely off-guard.

“Her parents made her give it up, they had a big fight, and she moved here.” Kim responds.

“Holy crap.” I mutter.

“Yeah, tell me about it.” Kim agrees. “We’ve been together for almost three years and I’m just finding out about this now? She’s been lying to me all along.”

“I’m so sorry.” I tell her awkwardly, not sure what she needs to hear.

“Me too. I really loved her, you know? I mean, I knew we weren’t going to spend the rest of our lives together or anything, but stillÉ” She says, her voice trailing off.

“I know.” I tell her, my hand on her arm. “You deserve someone who will be truthful with you, Kim. You’re an incredible person and any woman would be honored to be with you.”

“Even if I turn them straight?” She responds, her mouth smiling faintly, but I can tell she’s serious.

“Darling, you didn’t turn her straight. It sounds like Stacey can’t cope with being gay, so she’s going to do what I did before I moved here. Play the good little straight girl and be miserable. It has nothing to do with you.” I assure her, understanding Stacey’s feelings but wishing my best friend wasn’t so hurt by her actions. “She should have been honest with you from the beginning and made you aware of what was going on.”

“You’re a good friend.” Kim tells me, her eyes meeting mine. “I love you.” She adds softly.

“I love you too.” I respond, smiling at her tear-stained face. “And I promise that everything is going to be okay.”

Kim looks at me intently, something unreadable in her golden eyes. Suddenly she leans forward and the next thing I realize is she’s kissing me.

It takes a second for my shock to wear off, and another second to realize that she’s not going to stop. Placing my hands on her shoulders I try to gently push her away, but her insistent lips refuse to release mine.

I push her again, roughly this time and she gets the message, sinking back into the couch. She starts to sob again, and despite my confusion about what just happened, my heart goes out to her.

“Come here.” I tell her, pulling her into another hug.

“I ruin everything.” She mumbles and I shush her. “Jaden’s going to kill me.” She adds and I can’t help but smile. My smile quickly fades when I realize I’m going to have to tell Jaden what happened, and while she won’t kill Kim, she’ll want to do some serious bodily harm.

“No she won’t. It’s going to be okay and you didn’t ruin anything. You’re upset and reached out to comfort, it’s normal and it doesn’t change anything.” I assure her, not really knowing how to help her.

“Really?” She questions, pulling away.

I meet her eyes honestly. “Really.”

“I don’t deserve your friendship.” She states, her hands playing with the edge of her shorts.

“Yes you do. Nothing’s changed, okay? And if you need to talk about what’s going on with Stacey, I’m always here for you.”

“Thanks.” She states again, as she wipes her eyes and stands up.

“We better get back down to the beach or they’ll send out a search party.” She says, her mouth attempting to grin. Her lower lip quivers and I know she’s going to start sobbing again.

“It’s okay.” I tell her for the thousandth time as I put my arm around her shoulders. I just hope I’m right.

***************

A few beers later and still no Grace I realize that I’m tired, kind-of drunk and cold. I bury my feet in the chilly sand and wish Grace and Kim would just hurry up and get back so I can snuggle with my partner.

“You want to call it a night?” Steele asks slowly, his eyes unfocused. Jesus Christ, he’s the biggest person here and he’s more trashed than any of us.

“Yeah. I’m on at the hospital tomorrow morning.” Eva says in her lilting accent as she and Sam stand and bush the sand off of their legs.

“You okay to drive?” I ask Eva and she grins.

“I only had one beer, Jaden. Unlike the rest of you.”

I shrug my shoulders, returning her smile. “Thanks for coming.”

“It was a blast!” Sam responds excitedly. “We’ll have to do this again soon.”

“Sure.” I answer as they gather up their things. Steele carefully puts out the fire and I tidy the beach up enough so no one will complain before I do a more thorough job tomorrow.

“You want a ride home?” Sam questions my pal Harry as we make our way to the house. He looks at me in question, almost tripping over the three exhausted dogs weaving their way up the path.

“You’re welcome to stay buddy, Kim will probably crash here. She seemed pretty wasted when she and Grace went up to the house.” I answer.

“Nah, I’ll go home if you guys don’t mind dropping me off. I don’t want to interrupt the lesbian orgy or anything.” Harry slurs and elbows me in the ribs.

It’s really painful, he’s pretty strong and I punch him in the arm in response.

“Lesbian orgy? Tsk tsk Jaden, we weren’t invited.” Eva jokes and I wink at her. “We can easily drop you off Harold.” Eva states and Harry recoils from my punch.

As we reach the apartment, Grace and a flushed Kim are just coming to meet us. “Party’s over.” I tell them as we all go into our kitchen.

“We need to get going, I have to work in the morning. But thanks for having us, it was a great time.” Eva tells Grace after quickly hugging her.

“Oh, I didn’t realize we were in here so long.” Grace states, her voice weird.

“Yeah, what were you doing? Should I be jealous?” I joke and Grace’s entire body stiffens.

“No, we were just talking.” She responds and I glance at Kim who looks like she’s going to puke and suddenly I’m very, very, almost too sober.

“Thanks again guys.” Sam calls as they head out the door, trailed by Harry.

Kim races to catch up with them. “Can I get a ride with you guys?” She asks, grabbing her bag before waving goodbye to us.

When everyone is gone, Grace shuts the door and leans against it tiredly. I am just standing in my same spot, frozen with images dancing around in my head. Something happened in here, obviously, and Grace is upset by it.

“Let’s go to bed, Spots.” She tells me, her face ashen.

I continue to stand, unmoving. “What’s the matter?”

Closing her eyes briefly, she swallows. “Kim did something stupid.”

My fingers clench into a fist. “Like what?”

Grace’s brilliant aqua eyes open to meet mine. “She’s upset, Stacey has broken up with her and has been lying to her the entire time they’ve been together. Kim’s feeling really insecure and upset and alone right now.” Grace tries to explain.

“I don’t give a fuck how she feels, I want to know what she did.” I growl, knowing the amount of alcohol in my system is allowing my anger to spiral out of control.

Grace takes an unconscious step back away from me and I snap my eyes shut and try to get my emotions under control.

“She kissed me.” Her voice whispers and my eyes fly open in surprise.

“What?” I screech and Grace flinches. “Why in the fuck did she kiss you? What did you do? Did you kiss her back?” I yell, my fingers digging into my fisted hands so hard I feel my skin start to split apart.

Raising her hands in self-defense, Grace’s eyes well up with tears. “No, I didn’t kiss her, I stopped her. She’s really upset right now and wanted comfort.” A sob escaped her throat. “Please don’t be angry at me, Jaden. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know it would happen and the entire time I just wanted it to stop.” Bringing her hands up to hide her face, she collapses onto the kitchen floor and buries her face as she bawls. Bean rushes over to her side, nervously sniffing her hair as Bella creeps out of the room.

Seeing her prone figure on the floor dissipates my anger, and I’m standing here ashamed of myself. This wasn’t Grace’s fault, hell; it probably wasn’t Kim’s fault.

I sit on the floor next to her, my voice meek. “I’m sorry.” I offer and my hands itch to reach out and take her into my arms. But I stop myself. She’s probably terrified of me and wishes she were with Kim instead. Kim would never scream and act out of control like I just did.

Grace looks up at me, confusion evident in her teary eyes. “Why are you sorry?” She whispers.

Mortified, I look down at my hands. “I’m sorry for getting so angry and out of control. You don’t deserve that and I apologize for acting that way. I just got really upset at the thought of that happening to you.” I offer, unwilling to meet her gaze.

“I don’t blame you.” She says, surprising me. “If you told me someone kissed you, I’d probably punch their lights out.”

“But you’d at least hear my side of the story first.” I tell her. “I had no right to say any of those things to you or accuse you of kissing her back. I don’t own you and I have no control over what you do.” I look into her sad eyes, smiling a little. “I just love you so much.”

Grace takes my face in her hands and kisses my forehead. “And I love you. I’m sorry it happened, and I promise you honestly that I do not want Kim. She’s my friend, and I want her to stay my friend. I’ve already made it clear what she did was inappropriate and can never happen again.”

“Good.” I tell her honestly. “I’d have to hurt her if she tried it again.”

Grace grins. “She’s already afraid you’re going to kill her. That’s the first thing she said, as a matter of fact.”

A smile lights up on my face. “You mean, I have complete freedom to taunt her about this and use it to my advantage?”

“No, Spots.” Gracie responds. “She’s really hurting right now, please try to hear that. She didn’t kiss me because she has the hots for me, she kissed me because she’s vulnerable and sad and I’m her closest friend. Please don’t tease her, she’s already upset enough.”

As much as I still want to pummel Kim or at least have a trump card with her, I have to respect Grace’s genuine caring personality.

“Fine.” I tell her and am rewarded by finding Grace’s soft lips on mine. Her tongue gently caresses my lips before slipping inside my mouth.

Grace increases the pressure and intensity of the kiss and soon she is straddling me, our breasts meeting and hips grinding against each other.

Her cool hands work their way under my shirt and slide the straps of my bathing suit down.

Our kiss never breaking, Grace’s nimble fingers lightly pinch my nipples and I moan into her mouth.

It seems as if we kiss for eternity, Gracie’s hands on my breasts the entire time. Finally she pulls away, my mouth swollen and begging for more of her attention. Her hands slip out from under my shirt and grasp mine.

Looking intently into my eyes, Grace smiles. “Every day for the rest of our lives I plan on kissing you and only you.”

I nod dumbly as my eyes become watery.

“I love you more than anything and no one will ever come between us to stop that love. I promise.” She says and I nod again before pulling her back to meet my mouth once more.

I stand and pull Grace into my arms as I carry her to the bedroom, intent on showing her just how much I love her.

Part 6
The shrill ring of the phone just won’t stop, and some pretty ugly curse words leave my mouth as I climb out of bed and grab the offending item.

“Speak.” I grunt, wishing my head would stop throbbing.

“Grace?” Kim’s voice calls and I lie back down in bed, closing my eyes. Last night just came back to me very clearly, and I’m not sure if I’m ready to deal with this.

“Are you there?” My friend’s voice, nervous as I’ve ever heard it, questions.

“Yeah, I’m sorry Kim, I was just waking up and I’m not with it yet. Does your head hurt as bad as mine?”

She snorts in response. “Worse. I’ve been up puking all night, though I’m not sure if it’s because I realize how big of an asshole I was or the alcohol I drank. Probably both.”

“Well, I’m glad it’s not just me. The house is quiet which means Jaden took the dogs for their morning run.” I comment, wishing I could have Jaden’s tolerance for booze and virtually have no repercussions from getting wasted.

“That’s disgusting.” Kim comments. She is silent for a moment, and I know she wants to talk about last night. To prepare myself and wake up a little better, I get up, pulling on shorts and a tank top and make my way to the kitchen to grab a Coke. Kim is still silent as I sit down on the couch and sip my drink.

“Speaking of Jaden, does she have a bounty on my head or what?” My friend finally gets up the courage to ask, and I imagine what she must look like right now, probably curled up on the bed she and Stacey used to share, dressed in rumpled pajamas and twisting her fingers in her curly hair.

“No.” I tell her, wishing I were still asleep. Or dead.

“Really?” Kim asks, her voice perking up. “Wow, I thought she’d be on her way over here to wring my neck. And I don’t blame her, I deserve it.” She adds hurriedly.

“She took it better than I thought.” I mention, taking a long swig of my Coke. “I mean, she was really angry and didn’t understand why, but I explained what has been happening with Stacey and it made things a little clearer. She loves me so much, Kim, and she’s so afraid of losing me.”

“I know, and if it will make things better, I’ll talk to her.” Kim says bravely. “I mean, I’ll probably be peeing myself the entire time, but I will if it will help.”

The door opens, and two excited dogs come running in, panting from their exercise and slobber me with kisses. “Hang on, Kim.” I tell her, putting the phone down for a second.

I find Jaden in the kitchen, her tall body glistening as she drinks almost an entire bottle of water. She’s so incredibly beautiful, not to mention sexy as hell in her tight shorts and skimpy top. “I shouldn’t let you out of the house like that.” I tell her as I engulf her in a hug, kissing her breastbone through her shirt. Regardless of the fact I see her every morning after her run, it never ceases to cause a powerful reaction in me.

She wraps her long arms around me and kisses the top of my head. “Kim?” She asks, indicating the phone.

I nod slowly. “She called to apologize. She feels really bad, Jaden.”

“Can I talk to her?” My big, bad, devastatingly sexy partner asks. Her blue eyes are twinkling, and she gives me a big, wide smile. I’m not sure what she’s planning on doing, and it kind of scares me.

“Um, sure.” I drawl, hoping she will be good. Grabbing the phone I speak into it. “Kim, Jaden wants to talk to you, okay?”

“Eep!” I hear her respond, and I can’t help but giggle. Handing the phone to Jaden, I mouth, “Be good!” And she gives me a look, like she’s so innocent.

“Hi Kim, how are you?” She starts politely and I nod my approval. “Good, because I want you to know that I don’t want to kill you, okay?”

I can almost hear Kim’s relief through the phone. Jaden continues, “In fact, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and if you’re hot for Grace, then who am I to stop you from getting it on with her?” I gasp in outrage, putting my hands on my hips and glaring at her.

Kim is protesting, no doubt, but Jaden interrupts her. “I just want to be able to watch, okay?”

“Jaden Katrina Phillips!” I screech, grabbing the phone out of her hands. “Kim, I am so sorry.”

My friend doesn’t respond, and Jaden takes the phone back from me. “Relax blondie, I’m just kidding. I’m not upset anymore, but I can honestly say that if you ever try anything like that again I won’t be as good-natured, okay?” She pauses, hearing Kim’s response before softening her tone. “I’m really sorry to hear about you and Stacey, and I know that must be a difficult thing to go through. What exactly happened?” Jaden asks, sitting down on the couch and stretching her long legs out.

I sit next to her on the floor, patting my two loving dogs that plop their hot, hairy bodies down on me.

Expecting Jaden to resolve any issues she has left with Kim, I stand up and head for the kitchen, starving but still slightly queasy from last night.

Nothing that a big plate of eggs and greasy bacon won’t cure. I know Jaden hasn’t eaten yet, so I start cooking, unable to repress a grin when the dogs join me with their noses twitching in the air.

“Hungry?” I ask them, noting their food bowls are filled with their Iams. They sit, like good dogs, Bella’s unusual brown and blue eye color staring at me intently. Bean tries the more pitiful approach, lying at Bella’s feet with her head cocked to the side.

“You two are spoiled.” I mention as I flip the eggs and put the bacon in the microwave.

“Toast, Spots?” I call to my gorgeous partner who is lying with her head back on the couch.

She nods at me upside down and holds up two fingers. I put two pieces in the toaster for her and an onion bagel for myself. The eggs are soon done so I turn off the oven and grab plates from the cabinet.

Jaden rises from the couch, her little top revealing her toned midriff. As she joins me in the kitchen, I can’t resist bending over and kissing her exposed navel, resulting in a strangled moan from my normally reserved wife.

“Okay, I’ll see you later.” She tells Kim before hanging up and mockingly glaring at me. She waggles a finger in my face as she hangs up the phone.

“You know, I’m trying to be a mature adult here and talk to your friend who smooched you last night. I don’t appreciate your wandering lips distracting me from my matureness.” Her cerulean eyes twinkle and she tries to suppress her grin.

I lower my eyes and wind my fingers in the waistband of her shorts. “I’m sorry.” I tell her apologetically. I let seconds pass before I begin to tickle her mercilessly.

“You sneak!” She shrieks as I hit a particularly sensitive spot. I move my hand down to her inner thighs, easily the most ticklish part of her body. She begins to collapse onto the floor, her strong arms reaching for my hands with no avail.

“Gotcha!” I call to her, proud of myself for pulling the wool over her eyes on this one. Using my weight, I push her down onto the cool tiled floor, pinning her with my body and tickling with all my might. My hand works between her thighs while my other moves up to torment her ribs.

Bean and Bella join the fun, assaulting my tall Spots with kisses and licks as well as climb all over her prone body.

“Erugh! You traitors!” Jaden screeches, twisting her face back and forth. I am now laughing helplessly, causing me to lose momentum. Jaden seizes this opportunity and I find myself suddenly flipped over and held down by her much larger size.

“Gotcha.” She grins triumphantly, her cocky grin devastatingly sexy. I hear the click of the dogs’ toenails and I shut my eyes, preparing for what’s to come.

They assault my face and neck and regardless of how much I squirm, Jaden’s strong hands pin my wrists and make it impossible to escape.

‘Maybe if I try to scoot down and then roll quickly I can throw her off-guard.’ I tell myself, biting my lip as I suddenly move my body down and twist is to the left.

This throws Jaden off of me, like I’d planned, but I didn’t expect her arm to snake out and try to hold me in place. It catches the back of my tank top and I’m pulled backwards, my head connecting soundly with the hard floor.

“Oof.” I groan in pain as the thud echoes through my head.

“Gracie!” Jaden coos, immediately sitting up and cradling my head in her lap. “Are you okay? I’m so sorry!” She tells me, her eyes conveying her apologies.

The ringing in my head slowly subsides, and I know it just seems worse because of my slight hangover.

“I’m fine, it wasn’t your fault.” I tell her as I slowly sit up. “My grandmother always used to say, ‘Laughing makes for crying!’ and I guess that’s true.” I joke, holding my hand to my slightly throbbing head.

Jaden looks so completely devastated that I kiss her nose quickly. “I’m fine, Spots. But I’m starving, let’s eat.”

“You sit down, I’ll bring everything in.” She says and I try not to roll my eyes.

“Are you going to wait on me all day? It’s a bump on the head, sweetheart, nothing more.” I tell her as she helps me stand up.

“I don’t want to take any chances.” She says, lifting me effortlessly in her strong arms. She carries me to the couch despite my protests and lays me down gently, fluffing a pillow for my head and pulling the light blanket over my legs.

I watch humorously as she fixes a little breakfast plate for the dogs complete with eggs and bacon, and pours the bacon grease over their dry food. “Mama’s puppies are hungry-wrungry!” She says to them, and I slowly shake my head from side to side in amazement.

After setting down their food, she brings me my plate and half-finished Coke on a little TV tray she sets over my hips. “Jaden.” I tell her and she shushes me before retrieving her own breakfast.

No one would believe the tall, somewhat scary and intimidating cop I fell in love with is actually this mushy.

“You’re going to be a great mother.” I tell her, pointing with my slice of bacon.

Jaden looks at me, her great blue eyes wide with astonishment.

I grin and continue eating.
July 29, 2001
It’s already 8:00pm and I can still practically see the waves of steam rising off of the concrete. I have Robbie and myself placed strategically in the shade of a tree, but it doesn’t help much. My horse is hot underneath me and I feel streams of sweat rolling down my back.

At least we haven’t had to do much today, the Common is filled with people to the brim, but so far the crowds have been peaceful and it’s been a nice, if not boring day.

I constantly scan the crowd for Grace, wondering where she and Kim are. Today is Boston Pride, and the turnout is great. They have a stage set up on the far end of the Common for musicians, and lots of booths both for food and shopping.

We have seven from the mounted force out today, set up in various parts of the large park. We’re not really expecting any problems, but it’s always good to be prepared when the crowds are this big. Horses are great for crowd control, even better than motorcycle cops.

My radio crackles with static, and when I hear my name being called, I lift it to my mouth.

“Phillips.” I respond.

“It’s Davies.” The cheery voice of one of my pals on the force calls. “I have two cute blondes here looking for you. Where are you right now?” Keith asks and I chuckle.

“Under a tree and enjoying the shade.” I answer laughing.

“Jerk, I’m standing in the middle of the road waiting for the parade to be over.” He responds and I answer sympathetically.

“Sorry, I had that route last year, it sucked big time.”

“Yeah, well, should I send them over? One of them claims to be your wife.” He says, and I blush.

“Yep, that’s the lucky girl.” I tell Davies where to direct Gracie and Kim and sit patiently, knowing it will take them a few minutes to make the walk over.

I try to stem down the slight jealously I feel knowing Grace and Kim are walking around Pride together. They are such good friends and both naturally affection that in this primarily gay crowd they could easily be mistaken as a couple. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

I’ve been pretty mature about them staying friends, I had a talk with Kim and I do understand what she’s going through. I’ve thrown myself at people when my emotions were out-of-control. The last thing I want is for Grace to lose someone she’s so close with, but even Miranda says I’m justified in my jealously.

Do I ever think Grace would be unfaithful? No. I really and truly don’t. But I don’t know Kim as well as I know my partner and how can I be sure she won’t try anything again?

I can’t, according to Miranda. I just have to trust Grace and know that if her relationship with Kim begins to become unhealthy that she will back away.

I’m proud of my ability to not over-react and blow things way out of proportion.

Spying the two blonde heads through the crowd, I pat Robbie’s damp side and glance at my watch. My shift is over at 9:00 and then I will shower and change at the station before meeting Kim and Gracie for a late dinner. I told them to come and find me about this time, and as always, Grace is prompt.

“Hey.” I tell her, unable to keep the silly grin off of my face every time I see her. She’s just so beautiful, especially today in her cutoff denim shorts and purple flip-flops. I don’t know how she’s comfortable to walk around in those all day, but she swears by them. Her short and messy hair glows in the retreating sunlight, and her lavender tank top shows her soft curves and strong shoulders. She is the quintessential adorable baby dyke, and I’m sure she’s had people fawning over her all day. In that aspect, I’m almost glad she’s with Kim.

“Hiya!” She greets me, squeezing my leg through my boot. “You’ve got to be dying from the heat.”

“Yep. You guys having fun?” I ask, noting Kim’s nervous look she still gets when being around me. I hope that fades one day, I really do like her.

“Yeah, we saw a lot of cool people sing and stuff.” Gracie says. “And I bought a lot of things.” She indicates a heavy plastic bag and I chuckle.

“I can see that. We still on for tonight?” I ask, glancing around at the milling crowd.

“Yes ma’am.” Grace answers, her eyes a light sea green today.

“Great. I’ll see you then. I love you.” I tell her, wishing I could hop down from Robbie’s back and give her a hug.

“Love you.” She tells me, squeezing my leg once again.

“Bye Jaden.” Kim waves, almost shyly before turning to walk back into the crowd with Gracie.

Admiring my wife’s cute retreating form, I wish I could be walking around with her today, proud to be hers.

I am suddenly touched by an emotion so powerful it never ceases to scare me.

Nothing is more important than what I share with my Gracie.
Part 7

August 8, 2001
I arrive home to the wonderful smell of chicken, and as I open the door I am greeted by two rambunctious dogs and my Gracie.

“Hey!” She greets me cheerfully, a simple white apron tied around her waist. She looks adorable.

“Mmm.” I answer as I pull her into my arms. “I don’t know what smells better, you or dinner.”

She playfully swats my arm before kissing me lightly on the lips. “I missed you today. I hate when you work double shifts.”

“I know.” I haven’t been home in twenty hours. “I’m exhausted and really tired of this new schedule.” One of the guys on the force is out on paternity leave, and we’ve all had to cover for him.

It’s been brutal, but I’m looking forward to sharing my good news I just received with Grace.

Her birthday is in five days, and hopefully, if everything works out we’ll be sharing it with her family in Chicago.

“Well, sit down. I made your favorites.” She exclaims, squeezing my shoulders as I sit at our little table.

“How was your day?” I ask, knowing she had to work this morning and then was going to lunch with Kim.

“Kind of crappy, Stacey is moving back to Michigan in a few weeks. She’s dropping out of Pressman.”

“What?” I ask, surprised. I didn’t expect Kim and Stacey to work anything out, but I didn’t think she’d honestly be moving.

“I know. Kim is pretty upset, but taking it better than I thought. It’s hard for them to be living together, but Kim doesn’t want to go back to her parents because they are newly weds themselves, you know? She doesn’t want to impose.”

“She can stay here.” I tell her. “No one uses our spare room, she’s welcome?”

“Really?” Gracie looks at me, evidently surprised.

“Sure.” I tell her, finally giving in to the two excited dogs at my feet that are patiently waiting for me to say hello. I reach down to pat them, Bean clamoring to get up on my lap and Bella, as always, giving me her paw.

“Hey ladies.” I tell them, lifting the little terrier up and scratching one dog with each hand. Their excited panting always causes me to smile and as Gracie starts delivering our dinner, I put Bean down and stand to help her.

She’s made teriyaki chicken and rice, and a big bowl of fresh fruit salad.

“Sweetheart, thank you so much. This looks wonderful.” I thank her as we sit to eat.

Grace beams with the compliment and I softly clear my throat. “What are the chances of you getting two weeks off?”

Cocking her head slightly, Gracie eyes me. “Why?”

“Humor me.” I tell her and she grins.

“Pretty good, Dr. Dodes knows Kim and I start school at the end of the month, so he is flexible with my schedule right now.”

“Okay, good to know.” I tell her as I dig into my dinner. “Wow, this is really good.” I tell her. “You put pineapple on it and everything!” I exclaim about the chicken.

“Jaden.” Grace states and I look up at her innocently.

“Yep?”

She sighs and turns her beseeching aqua eyes on me.

“What?” I ask and she sighs again. She knows I’m unable to resist her puppy dog eyes.

“Why do I need to take two weeks off?” She finally asks and I grin.

“Well, I got a new assignment today that will take about a week or so. They need me to help out with the Chicago mounted force, it seems they’ve had a huge turnover and a lot of green horses. I’m the most qualified, so the chief nominated me for the job.”

A slow smile begins on Gracie’s face. “And?”

“And, I thought you could go with me, then we could take a little break before the semester starts up again.” I tell her.

“Seriously??” She asks, her eyes dancing with merriment.

“Seriously.” I answer.

“Yay!” She cries, standing up and plopping herself down in my lap. Her arms go around my neck and she plants kisses over my face and neck.

I can’t contain my giggles as she displays her excitement. “When do we go?”

“As soon as you can be ready.” I answer and she squeals again.

“You are such a goofball.” I tell her and she laughs with delight.

“Yes, but I’m your goofball.” She responds.

“Yep, you are.” I say proudly.

*****

As the plane taxies down the runway, I lay my head on Jaden’s shoulder.

“You okay?” She asks, handing me a piece of gum.

“Yeah, but I hate this.” I tell her for the thousandth time.

“I know. It’s not that long of a flight.” She answers.

“Do you think the dogs will be okay?” I ask, wanting to think about something else then the fact we’ll be up in the air in a blasted airplane for the next four hours.

Jaden glances at me fondly. “Sweetheart, they love Kim and Kim loves them. I think they are thrilled at being able to stay home for two weeks rather than go to the boarding kennel, okay?”

“I think Kim was really glad to be able to stay at our place and clear her head. Besides, she isn’t working so she’ll be at home with them all day, so that will be a treat for them.” I respond, ignoring the fact that clouds are streaming by my window. At least the takeoff is over and I only have the landing to dread.

“Yeah, distance might be good for both her and Stacey. Maybe she’ll change her mind once Kim is gone and realize she’s making a mistake.” Jaden agrees, linking her hand in mind.

I shrug my shoulders. “I used to hope they’d get back together. I really like Stacey, and she’s been a good friend. But I don’t like Kim to be treated like she’s been nothing but an experiment. She deserves better.” I answer, tracing Jaden’s smooth skin with my thumb.

Changing the subject, I close my eyes briefly and allow myself to acclimate to the altitude as the plane levels out. “How was your grandmother?”

“Fine, the same, really.” Jaden answers. She’s been visiting her grandmother twice a week now, and while sometimes I go, lately I’ve been giving them privacy. I know it’s hard for Jaden to keep up her strong façade in front of me, though I always tell her she doesn’t need too.

“I’m glad you can see her more often.” I comment and she nods her head against mine.

“Me too. Speaking of family, are you excited to see everyone?” She asks and I nod eagerly.

“Yeah, Laura was so thrilled to have us close, especially for my birthday. I guess they are having a big party for everyone and her husband’s family so they can all meet us.” I answer.

“Good. I hope you can spend more time with them, especially while I’m working. I won’t be around all that much.” Spots answers, and I frown.

“Crappy.” I tell her succinctly. “But I’m glad we’re staying close to them so when you are around we can spend time together.”

“Me too.” She responds.

We sit in silence for a few minutes, until Jaden’s restless energy takes over. She begins thumbing through the airline magazine, and I enjoy watching the little movements her face makes while she reads.

It’s really rather cute, her lips twitch as her bright blue eyes scan the print.

“Oh! X-Men is our movie.” Jaden suddenly exclaims as the televisions lower themselves.

I groan and elbow her in the ribs. “You have such horrible taste in films, Spots.”

She mockingly glares at me. “Excuse me, Miss ‘I love Chocolat.’ That was the worst movie I’ve ever seen.”

“How can a movie that stars Juliette Binoche be the worst movie you’ve ever seen? Are you serious?” I respond and she grins.

“Totally. Now leave me in peace to watch Halle Berry’s eyes turn white.”

I roll my eyes at her as the movie begins.

After seeing a few minutes of the previews, I reluctantly become interested and plug my headphones into the jack. Jaden gives me a triumphant smile as she slides her arm around my shoulders and pulls me close.

*****

race tentatively knocks on the door, to have it flung open with a very excited Jillian appearing. She jumps up and down before turning around to shout “They’re here!”

Immediately, the entire clan fills the doorway and ushers us inside. Grace is pulled into a hug by Laura, and Jillian flings her skinny arms around me.

“Hey Jaden! How are you?” Jason asks and I grin at him.

“Good, thanks. You?” He smiles and shrugs, a trait he and Gracie both share.

The twins turn identical grins on me and I nod at them. Michelle gives me a cool stare and I meet her dark eyes.

She’s so standoffish, and I can understand. It was a huge shock to have her long-lost older sister suddenly enter their lives, and it’s probably not been easy for her to have to transition from being the oldest girl to the second oldest.

“Hey Michelle, I like your hair. New style?” I ask her and she blushes a bit and gives me a small smile.

“Yeah, thanks.” Her dark eyes flash as Grace compliments her on it too.

After the initial greetings, we are led into the living room, where everyone plops down. No surprise, Jillian practically sits on Grace’s lap. She seems to adore her new sister.

“Jason, we were so sorry we couldn’t make it out here for your graduation. How was everything?” Gracie asks, and her oldest brother clears his throat.

“I got a job, actually.” He responds, and both Laura and Jackson look on proudly.

“Really? That’s great, where?” Grace asks and Jason smiles.

“Boston.”

“No way!” She responds. “That’s great! When do you move?”

Shrugging his shoulders, he looks to his parents. “I’m not really sure if I’m going to take it. It’s for a entry-level position at Jung Brannen, and it’s really good money. I would be working with a team of architects, so the experience is great.”

“That’s one of the best architecture firms in the country.” I comment, familiar with the firm who built our new police department. “Why might you not take it?”

“Jason’s scared he’ll be homesick.” Jillian informs us, receiving a dirty look from her brother.

“I understand. I really miss my sister Lydia and my uncle in Ohio. But I get to see them a lot, and you are always welcome at our place.” Grace replies and Jason smiles in thanks.

“I’m going into sports management.” Jack quips, changing the subject onto himself. “Coach thinks I can make it into the majors for baseball, but I want to have something to fall back on.” He adds proudly.

“Yeah right, the only position you could play for the majors would be bench warmer.” His twin Ryan jokes.

“Shut up, fag.” Jack responds.

“Hey, language!” Laura says sternly at the twins. “That word is not to be used guys, you know that.”

Ryan folds his arms in front of him and smirks as Jack apologizes.

Grace and I share a glance, and conversation resumes.

“Michelle, what do you want to do?” I ask the silent sibling. She shrugs and looks at her nails.

“Michelle wants to be a folk singer. She’ll probably be good at it too, she doesn’t shave her legs and she’s angry all the time.” Jillian explains and I can tell Grace is trying not to laugh.

“Jillian.” Her father warns the youngest sibling who grins in response.

“Do you write songs?” Grace asks, her curiosity peaked.

“Sometimes.” Michelle answers, her face coloring. “I play the guitar.”

“So does Grace.” I supply and Michelle looks at her sister in surprise.

“Really?”

Grace shrugs embarrassedly. “A little.”

“I’m going to be in a rock band.” Ryan comments. “You know, heavy metal?” He mimics playing the air guitar as Michelle rolls her eyes.

“If you can call that crap music.” She tells her brother.

“Hippie.” He retorts.

“Drunken frat boy.” She responds.

“Enough!” Jackson interrupts. He looks at Grace and I, continuing, “It’s not usually this bad.”

“Yeah, it’s worse.” Jillian supplies.

I smirk and massage my temples. It’s going to be a very long week.

*****

Stifling a yawn, I roll over and snuggle deep into Jaden’s body. Resting my head on her chest I hear the steady beating of her strong heart.

“Morning.” She rumbles, her voice thick with sleep.

“I love you.” I respond and I swear I can feel her smile. She closes her arms around my back and squeezes me tight.

I run my hand down her flat abdomen and shapely hips to her smooth thigh, sighing with pleasure.

“I don’t know how anyone can be with a guy.” I mention and she chuckles.

“Why is that?”

I mock shudder. “The forest of body hair, the icky smell, and the whole penis thing.”

This elicits a deep laugh from her and I grin.

“What, Scott didn’t do it for you?” She questions and I frown.

“You know the answer to that.” I tell her quietly and I feel her breathing stop.

“I’m sorry.” Jaden answers and I feel tears unexpectedly spring to my eyes. “I didn’t mean it that way.” She rushes to explain and I shake my head.

“Spots, you didn’t do anything, that just hit me the wrong way. Please don’t worry about it.” I stretch and snuggle further into her. “Now, what were we talking about before my extreme and sudden over-reaction?”

“Um, about how wonderful my body is?” Jaden comments and I chuckle.

“Oh yeah, where was I?” I respond, my hand twitching on her thigh. “I think I was right about here.” I comment as my hand finds it’s way between her delicate folds.

She is wet to my touch, and the feel of her instantly turns my blood on fire.

“Jesus Christ.” Jaden moans into my mouth as I roll on top of her and kiss her deeply.

“No, not Jesus. It’s Grace, remember?” I tell her in-between kisses.

“Smart ass.” She responds, slapping the body part in mention lightly.

We continue our exploration of each other, and in order to stop Jaden’s roaming hands I place them on the headboard.

“Keep them there.” I order her and she gives me her trademark cocky grin that I so love.

“Now, back to what I was talking about.” I tell her, placing delicate kisses on her eyebrows.

“What I love most about kissing you is how full your lips are. You make love to me with your mouth and always know when to be gentle and when to be rough.” I whisper, my lips a millimeter from hers.

She whimpers with the desire to kiss me, but I move lower, nibbling on the sweet-smelling skin of her neck.

“You have the most graceful and long neck, and the strongest shoulders.” I continue, placing fine kisses along her collarbones.

“And your breasts, Goddess, I don’t even know where to start.” I cup them in my hands, running my thumbs over her erect nipples. “They fit perfectly in my hands and in my mouth.”

“Please.” Jaden begs as I run my tongue over one nipple. Giving into her, I suckle it into my mouth, feeling it harden under my tongue. My eyes close involuntarily; I could die right now and be completely happy.

But I still have work to do.

Releasing her breast, I move down to her wonderful stomach. With defined muscles, yet still a definitively feminine appearance; Jaden’s stomach and hips never fail to turn me on. They are just so perfect.

“The way you move your hips when you’re grinding into me is so hot.” I tell her, and my Jaden throws her head back in frustration.

I move lower, my hands trailing over her long legs. Shamelessly, she spreads them wide, revealing where she wants me the most.

“I love your legs and feet too, but I’ll worship them some other time.” I tell her, unable to stop myself from touching her at this precise moment.

“Please.” She asks again, and I plunge my fingers inside her as I ravish her mouth with mine.

Her muscles clamp around my fingers as I move them in and out. I know just how she likes to be touched, and as her fingers clench around the headboard I increase my speed. She’s being such a good girl about that, she deserves to be rewarded.

“I love you so much.” Jaden says in a ragged breath.

“I love you.” I tell her, biting down lightly on her neck. My hand pumps faster and her hips rise and fall with the same rhythm. It’s so hot, so incredibly arousing, I almost can’t stand it.

“So close.” She grunts and I fuck her as hard and as fast as I can. She hisses with approval and within seconds, she’s screaming out my name.

I close my eyes, reveling in the moment and committing it to memory.

“I love you.” Jaden tells me again, her brilliant blue eyes meeting mine.

“I know. I answer her with a smile.
Part 8

August 17, 2001
I open the oven door for Jillian and she slides the pan of lasagna in triumphantly. Grinning at me, I’m once again surprised by our physical resemblance.

“How long till it’s done?” She asks, setting the timer.

“About an hour. We should make a salad or something to go with it.” I tell her as I open the fridge and get some ingredients out.

“This was cool, I’m glad we made dinner for everyone.” My little sister says as she plops herself down on the kitchen stools and begins chopping cucumbers.

“Me too.” I answer. “I know Jaden will be starving after work.”

Jillian cocks her head, studying me. “She hasn’t been around much.”

Frowning, I wash the lettuce before ripping it apart. “I know. She’s been really busy lately, especially since we’re leaving in a few days.”

My sister mirrors my frown. “I wish you weren’t. You’re so much cooler than Michelle. She never wants to do anything with me because she’s always hanging out with her weird friends.”

“I know.” I tell her. “And I know it has nothing to do with you personally. Michelle is just getting older and more independent now.” I smile at her. “Anyway, we have to get going. My semester starts soon, and you have school. Can you believe you’ll be a sophomore this year?” I ask, hoping to cheer her up by changing the subject.

Jillian shrugs. “I want to be done with school. It’s so boring. Jason is so lucky that he’s graduated and has a real job.”

“I’m really excited to have him so close to us in Boston.” I tell her honestly. Jason announced he was taking the job on the East Coast last night at dinner. I’m thrilled to be able to have him closer! “I wish I got to see all of you more, though.”

“Well, I’m going to go to college in Boston, so I’ll see you then.” Jillian says, smiling.

“I hope you do.” I answer. “Now, come on, let’s set the table. We’ll put a place setting for Jaden in case she is able to make it for supper.”

*****

My eyes stinging and skin tight from windburn, I yawn with exhaustion. This project is taking more time of mine than it should, and I’m counting down the days until I return home with Gracie.

To our normal life.

Chicago is a beautiful city, certainly cleaner and easier to get around than Boston, but I miss the charm and people of my hometown. I’d never thought I’d say that.

“Jaden, you up for a drink tonight?” David asks from atop his mount. “We all get together on Thursday nights.” Glancing over at him I regard my options wearily. Martha, one of the other officers smiles at me, and I’m torn between saying yes and doing what I really want to do. Maybe if I socialize with the officers more, they’ll try a little harder for me and won’t put up so much resistance.

Sighing in defeat, I smile briefly at them. “Sure, but just for a while.”

“Great, let’s get off of these fleabags and head out.” David states, patting his mount’s neck roughly. My heart goes out to the horse, a nice draft mix gelding, as he kicks the horse into a trot.

Martha follows suit and I shake my head in both anger and frustration at the people I’m working with on this program. Most of them have no idea what it takes to be a mounted officer, and the rest just don’t care. I’ve tried everything from lectures to real world experience and still can’t get through to a few of them.

I can’t wait to go home.

After our shift, I hitch a ride with Martha, Joanie, and Greta to the bar where the force is meeting tonight. They are the only three women new to the mounted program, the other newcomers being seven men. As soon as I complete their training, they and their mounts will join the existing force of five.

Needless to say, it scares me that the ten newcomers will outnumber the veterans on the force, but it’s not my problem.

I’m discouraged about everything right now, and it’s frustrating because I’ve never once felt this way about work. Maybe it’s because I can’t see any good coming out of my hard work here, or that I’ve been working so much I’ve seen Grace for only a few hours a day at best. Usually by the time I get in she’s sleeping, and I leave before she even gets up.

At least she has her family here, and I know she’s able to visit them while I’m working.

“This is a new place that just opened.” Joanie comments as we join the others on the force at the large central table. “We haven’t been here yet, but it seems nice.”

“Yeah.” I answer, looking around. It seems to be filled with mostly college kids, and I suddenly feel very old. Was I ever that young?

I know I’m not that much older than Gracie, but sometimes I feel it.

“Jaden! Let’s get you a drink.” David and John, two of the male officers greet me. I agree, exchanging pleasantries while wishing the entire time I was home with Grace.

Soon the table has a few more pitchers of beer and everyone around me is getting more and more increasingly drunk.

I’m a little tipsy, realizing the night will be a lot more tolerable if I’ve at least had a little to drink.

Steve is one of the nicer guys in training, and I didn’t turn him down when he offered a game of pool. He’s alright to talk to and we’re both equally matched at the game. After we’ve been playing for a while and he has more and more to drink I realize he’s flirting with me.

Ignoring his advances, I glance at my watch and realize it’s late. Finishing one last game I drink the last of my beer and set it down noisily on the table.

“Steve, it’s been fun, but I gotta go.”

The tall man approaches me, a frown evident on his boyish face. “We were just getting started!” Slinging an arm around my shoulder, he gives me a wide smile.

“Stay, Jaden. I’ll make it worth your while, I promise.” He practically leers with beer-laden breath. Disgusting.

I give him a slight hug. “No, but thanks anyway.”

Steve leans over to kiss my cheek, and then I pull away. “Listen, I said no thanks.” Flashing him my left hand, I make sure he sees the gold band of my commitment ring to Gracie. “Besides, I’m married.”

Holding up his hands, Steve backs away. “Can’t blame a guy for trying. See you tomorrow.”

“Yeah, see you.” I tell him before saying goodbye to everyone else at the bar.

I catch a cab back to the hotel and let myself in the room, hoping Grace is still awake. Instead, I find her sound asleep and clutching my pillow.

Exhausted, I sink onto the soft mattress and immediately fall asleep.

When I wake the next morning, Grace is gone. Pushing down my surge of disappointment, I check the clock to find I’ve got little more than thirty minutes to get to work.

“Shit.” I complain as I get out of bed and turn on the shower. It’s then that I see the note.
Hey Love,

Missed you last night. You lost out on my lasagna at dinner, but don’t worry, I saved you some for lunch at work today. It’s in the fridge, so enjoy.

The family is taking us out tonight; we’re leaving their house at 6:30. I hope to see you, it’s my birthday, remember?

Of course you do. J

Love forever,

G
“Double shit.” I moan as I step in the steaming water. I didn’t forget it was Gracie’s birthday, but the days just caught up and flew bye. I’ll have to make sure I’m there tonight.

Throwing on my uniform, I take the Tupperware container housing Grace’s famous lasagna with me for my lunch break. She’s so considerate, sometimes I feel like I can never repay her for all she’s given me.

*****

I glumly hang up the phone and turn to my waiting family. “We can go, she’s not going to make it.”

Laura places a comforting hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, sweetheart.”

“That sucks.” Jillian says as she follows her brothers out the door.

“She’s just really busy right now.” I say, understanding why Jaden can’t make it to dinner tonight. She sounded really upset and I thought she might be crying.

I can’t say I’m not disappointed though, I really wanted to see her tonight. And it is my birthday; I wanted to spend it with my wife and family.

I head out the door, followed by Laura and Jackson. Michelle trails along, a strange little smile on her face.

“This is beautiful, thank you all for coming.” I tell my family after we order. We are at a beautifully decorated Italian restaurant.

The loud and boisterous company of my family is helping to ease my disappointment about Jaden, with the usual exception of Michelle who won’t stop smirking.

Try as I might, there’s something about her that always makes me feel uncomfortable.

“Such a shame Jaden had to work tonight.” Michelle suddenly states, her dark eyes flashing.

“I know, she’s been working so hard, I was hoping it would be easy for her to get off tonight.” I respond, taking a sip of my wine.

“She didn’t look like she was working hard last night when she was getting fresh with some hottie.” Michelle answers, smirking.

I almost drop my wine glass and it clatters loudly on the table as I rush to catch it. “What?”

“Michelle!” Laura practically shouts.

“What are you talking about?” I ask, hiding my hands under the table to hide the shaking.

My sister shrugs, trying to act nonchalant. “I saw her in a bar last night, some guy’s arms all around her. They were laughing and he kissed her.”

“What were you doing in a bar? You’re only 20!” Jackson growls, his hands clenching his napkin.

I just feel sick, my stomach doing flips inside.

“We will talk about this later.” Laura tells her daughter, her composure finally returning. “When we are at home. Now, let’s enjoy our family dinner.”

“Sure.” I agree before excusing myself to the restroom. I think I’m going to be ill.

Begging off desert because of my stomach, I thank everyone as they drop me off at the hotel. Entering the room, I see Jaden isn’t here yet.

Perhaps that’s better. I wearily kick off my shoes and lie down on the bed. “Happy birthday to me.” I mutter to myself as I burrow my face in Jaden’s pillow.

Tears flow suddenly, and I soon find myself sobbing. I don’t know what to say or who to believe, Jaden has never lied to me before and has no reason too.

But why would Michelle make that up? I know she’s bitter and angry toward me, but that doesn’t excuse her for making up an outright lie. The only thing to do is discuss this rationally with Jaden when she gets here.

As if on cue, the door opens, and Jaden strolls in. She’s carrying balloons and flowers and has a huge smile on her face.

“Hey birthday girl! I’m so glad to see you, I’ve missed you so much!”

I fly into her arms, still sobbing uncontrollably.
Part 9

August 17, 2001..
My arms fly around Grace’s back automatically as she hurls herself into my waiting arms. Startled, I drop the cluster of balloons and bouquet of flowers I brought for her.

“Shh, sweetheart, what’s the matter?” I ask as I hug her close to me.

She doesn’t answer, but simply buries her face further into the crook of my neck and tightens her grip around me.

The balloons float up to the ceiling and I sigh.

“Grace?” I question, my frustration level growing.

Silence sounds back and I ponder what to do next. Mostly I want to find out what is wrong and fix it so things can go back to normal and I can salvage what’s left of the evening and my wife’s birthday.

“Listen, if this is about me missing dinner tonight, I truly am sorry. Something came up and I just couldn’t leave in time.” I tell her honestly, hoping she’ll forgive me.

“Something came up, or someone?” Grace asks bitterly.

I push her away, a little stronger than I mean too. “What do you mean?”

Rubbing her arms, Grace looks at me with tear-filled aqua eyes. “I know what you did.”

“What I did?” I question, honestly at a loss about what she’s talking about.

Her eyes turn angry. “Don’t treat me like I’m stupid. Michelle saw you last night at the bar kissing some guy.”

My jaw drops in surprise as my normally sane and peace-loving wife starts stomping around the hotel room, disrupting everything in her path.

“I can’t believe you! After all we’ve been through you’re going to destroy our vows and relationship over some asshole you just met? Or have you known him for a while now? Maybe he’s one of your past boyfriends that’s come back into the picture to destroy what we have. Wasn’t one enough, or would you prefer I was shot again?”

Grace’s last statement sets my temper loose and it takes everything I have not to grab her and shake her senseless, just so she’ll stand still and listen to me.

“I didn’t kiss anyone!” I argue in self-defense, but Grace keeps storming around.

“Are you telling me that she’s lying? That you weren’t at a bar last night with some guy who had his hands all over you?” She asks, finally standing still.

“I was, but it wasn’t like that.” I try to explain.

My admission sends her further over the edge and she practically collapses onto the floor sobbing. The sight of her agony makes my heartache, but I am still boiling mad and not about to let her accuse me of something I didn’t even do.

“Do you want to hear my side of the story, or believe the sister who hates your guts?” I ask with venom as I fold my arms across my chest.

Grace looks up at me warily with an expression of profound hurt on her face. When she doesn’t respond, I continue.

“I was pressured into going out with people from the force last night after our shift. I’m trying my best to get us the hell out of here so we can go home and I figured if I socialized with them more they might be more apt to participate in the program. We went out, had some drinks, and I ended up playing pool with one of the guys.”

Her expression turning to that of poorly concealed disgust, Grace still says nothing.

“We didn’t get drunk and fuck on the pool table. We chatted for a while and then when I opted to leave, he asked me to stay longer. I knew what he was after and I turned him down, he hugged me and kissed my cheek. I did nothing wrong. I flashed my ring and told him I was married and I left the bar.” My words come out clipped and angry.

“That’s all that happened.” I add, resentful of the fact I have to defend myself over something I didn’t even do. “You can choose to believe me; the one person who has never lied to you, or the sister you just met.”

Seemingly mute, Grace just stares at me, her expression unreadable. For some reason, the fact that she won’t respond makes me angrier and I feel the need to get the hell out of here before I do or say something I’ll regret.

“Fine, I’ve had enough.” I state as I grab my bag off of the floor and leave the room.

I ignore the sound of Grace sobbing as I storm down the hall and to the elevators.

*****

My hands shaking, I dial the number and press the receiver to my ear.

After a few rings, my own voice answers me, causing a new wave of tears to emerge.

“Hi! Jaden and Grace aren’t home right now, but if you leave your name and number we’ll call you back.” BEEP.

“Um, hi, Kim?” I start, my voice choked with emotion. “Kimmy? It’s me, Grace, and I really need to talk to you so if you’re screening can you pick up? Please?” I wait for what seems like an endless amount of time before continuing. “Okay, but can you please call me back at the hotel? Thanks.”

Defeated, I hang up the phone.

Looking out into the gray Chicago night, I notice it’s begun to rain. Jaden is out there somewhere, angry and upset at my accusations.

If they are just accusations. I don’t know what else they could be, Jaden was correct when she stated she’s never lied to me. Withheld information, but never outright lied.

But why would she even let that guy hug or kiss her? I know my wife, and she’s not the touchy-feely type. So it doesn’t make sense to me that she would even let him get that close.

My mind flashes images of Kim, leaning over and kissing me before I even understood what was happening.

Maybe that’s what happened, it all occurred so fast she didn’t even have time to push him away. According to her, it’s not like they were making out or even having a lip-to-lip kiss.

Putting my head in my hands I have the urge to pull my hair out. It’s all so confusing and mixed-up. All I wanted was a nice, normal birthday with my family and wife before we leave to go back home.

I don’t even know when she’s coming back. Or if she is.

Shaking my head, I push away the sudden onset of fear. Of course she’s coming back, why wouldn’t she? Jaden just needed to blow off steam and then she’ll come home.

She’ll come back. I repeat to myself as I remove my clothes and climb into bed, smelling the sweetness of the rain through the slightly open window.

Jaden will come back.

*****

Slamming my glass down on the bar, I’m immediately offered another by the attentive bartender.

“No thanks.” I state as I fish the money for my tab and hand it to him. He nods in appreciation for the tip and I gather my things before heading out.

I probably should go back to the hotel. Grace will probably be asleep, it’s so late, either that or she’ll be really worried. I shouldn’t have stormed out, but it seems lately I’ve been at my wits end.

I know it’s this assignment; the lack of progress is driving me crazy. I want to get out of this city and head home, to our quiet little apartment that overlooks the sea and sit by Grace’s side with our dogs.

It’s silly to miss them, but I do. They’re like our children and the lack of quiet time is driving me insane.

All of those things combined added with Grace’s insane accusations were about to push me over the edge. I had to get out. I just hope Grace understands.

Standing outside the bar, the drizzle from before has now turned into a pounding rain. I try to hail a cab, but there are none to be found this late in this weather. Resigned to my fate, I begin to walk the 18 blocks to the hotel.

I unlock the door and creep in, unable to see until I turn on the small table lamp. This sends a formerly slumbering Grace scurrying under the dark covers like a vampire.

“Sorry.” I offer, feeling bad for waking her up.

“S’okay.” Grace mumbles, her voice thick with sleep. “Are you okay?” She asks, and I know she’s only half-awake. She probably won’t even remember any of this in the morning.

I slip out of my drenched clothes and pull on a dry t-shirt and boxers. “Yeah, but we ne..”

The shrill ring of the phone interrupts me.

Grace’s slender hand snatches it from the receiver before it can ring again. “Hello? Oh hi Kim.”

My head turns sharply when I realize its Kim on the phone. Why is she calling at almost 2am?

“Yeah, thanks for calling me back. No, it’s not to late. Yes, I’m fine. It’s not a big deal, I’ll talk to you later, okay?” Grace pauses. “You too. Bye.”

“Isn’t that nice, your girlfriend calling to wish you sweet dreams.” The words escape my mouth before I can stop them.

Grace looks at me through stricken eyes as I turn off the table lamp and leave us in darkness.

Climbing into bed I deliberately turn my back to her and close my eyes, pretending to ignore the shaking of the mattress as she begins to cry.

Pounding awakens me, and as I sit upright in bed I first think it’s the door. It takes a few seconds to realize it’s actually the rain.

I glance at the clock, and then to the phone, hoping it will confirm my suspicions. There’s no way we can practice pursuit drills in this weather, it would be risky both for horse and rider. As if on cue, it rings and I answer it.

“Phillips.”

“Jaden, Tom here. Assignment is off for today because of this blasted weather. Plan on reporting tomorrow as planned for your last official day.”

“Sounds good.” I answer, a slight grin appearing on my face. “I’ll be in later to work on a few things in the meantime.”

“No, you’ve been putting in more than your share of hours. Enjoy the day, if you can manage it.” Tom answers and I feel relieved to be off today.

“Thanks.” I set the receiver down and glance at Grace.

She’s only feigning sleep. She just doesn’t want to open her eyes and face me. Not that I really blame her.

Throwing the covers off of me I stand, stretching briefly before heading into the bathroom. I’ll take a shower and clear my head a little more, and then I’ll suck it up and apologize for flying off the handle and walking out last night.

I turn on the water and head back out into the room to gather some clean clothes. Grace’s birthday balloons are hanging in mid-air, and her flowers are still on the floor from where I had dropped them. I never got around to giving her the other presents I had for her. Maybe she’ll want them today.

After showering, I dress quickly and open the door. Grace is gone.

*****

As soon as I hear Jaden step into the shower I make a break for it. I throw on some clean clothes, grab my bag and leave the hotel room.

I’m not sure where I’m going or what I’m going to do, but I can’t face her. Not as she’s showering and primping to go and meet her boyfriend.

Or whoever that was that called. It sounded like someone from work, but that could have been a cover. She probably didn’t want to say “Oh hey loverboy, my dumpy wife is lying here next to me so I can’t talk about your sexual prowess right now, but I’ll see you later where you can fuck me good and hard,” when I was lying right there.

I’m a fool.

Stepping out of the lobby, I pull my hood up to guard against the pounding rain. The sky is ominous and overcast, with heavy gray storm clouds.

It’s perfect, fitting my mood exactly.

I hail a cab and slide in to the ripped vinyl back seat. It smells of stale tobacco and mold.

“Where too?” The polite middle-Eastern man gives me a smile in the rearview mirror.

Where’s the best place to lose yourself on a rainy day when your entire world is crumbling? It’s too rainy outside to walk the city and shop, so I give the driver the first other option that I can think of where no one will ever find me.

Countless hours later, I wander through the gift shop, several stuffed animals in my arms for the young ones in my life. Kasey gets a dolphin, JJ a shark, Jillian a turtle and Lydia a penguin.

I saw every show here at the Shed Aquarium today; and though the exhibits are beautiful and all the animals healthy and well cared for, I still can’t get my mind off of Jaden and my suddenly messed-up life.

Maybe I should not try to put it out of my mind, but everything is a little too painful to think about. Besides the entire question of weather Jaden did or did not cheat on me, the other issue is her walking out on me during an argument, and saying that horribly hurtful thing about Kim last night.

I really had thought she had no more unresolved issues about what happened a few months back. She must still be harboring something that is bothering her.

Sighing, I glance over the expansive gift shop once more, adding a big stuffed lobster to my collection. Bean and Bella will love to rip the stuffing out of this.

Maybe I should get Jaden something, you know, a peace offering. I can’t believe we’ve been married for such a short time and already we have both been kissed by someone else. It’s like there’s something or someone watching over us that is adding constant strife so we can’t possibly be happy.

I don’t really believe that, I know. I guess I just selfishly wanted to have a perfect birthday surrounded by those I love.

I guess nothing really is perfect.

A huge, blue, stuffed humpback whale with an adorable expression beckons me to pick it up. It’s precious, and I can’t help but think of a seemingly simpler time when Jaden and I were on the small whale watching ship.

Goddess, I’m being over dramatic. I can’t believe I just thought that being on a sinking ship, in fear for my and Jaden’s life was easier than this little bump in the road we’re enduring right now.

Decision made, I add the whale to my basket and head to the checkout.

It’s time to go back to the one I love.

*****

“Jaden, stop or you’re going to have to pay to replace the hotel’s carpeting.” Diana’s comforting voice instructs me.

I stop my pacing and flop down on the bed. Pressing my cell phone to my ear, I sigh in frustration.

“I fucked up, big time.” I admit and my closest friend just chuckles.

“I know, but it’s not that bad. You just need to get all of your brooding tendencies to go away and talk to your wife.” Di instructs me.

“But it’s so hard, I hate that she doesn’t immediately trust me.” I complain, knowing I’m being whiny.

“And why should she? Did you immediately believe her after what happened with Kim? A little bird told me you had about five minutes of serious freak-out before you were calm enough to listen.” She mentions, her tone slightly scolding.

“I never said I was the calm one.”

“Jaden, for Christ’s sake, stop this. Think of it from Grace’s perspective. You’ve been working night and day, you’re in a foul mood whenever you’re around her, you missed her birthday for crying out loud, and her sister saw you being kissed by a guy in a bar. How do you expect her to believe anything else that what every sign is pointing toward?”

I sigh again. “You’re right.” The sound of the hotel door opening diverts my attention from the phone and I sit up on the bed just in time to see a waterlogged Grace creep into the room.

“Di, I gotta go.” I tell her and she sighs.

“Don’t fuck this up, Jaden.” She warns me.

“I won’t.” I promise her. “Bye.”

“No brooding!” She responds before hanging up the phone. I click my cell phone shut and bring my eyes to meet Grace’s.

“Hi.” I tell her softly.

“Hey.” She answers, her eyes a deep blue-green. My beloved Gracie looks profoundly sad, worry lines etched deeply into her forehead, her normally bright eyes bloodshot.

“How are you?” I ask, knowing it’s a stupid question.

“Lousy.”

“Me too.” I say. Clearing my throat, I stand up and approach her. I’m surprised and heartbroken to see an unreadable expression in her eyes, a combination of hurt, regret, and a little bit of fear.

“Why did this happen?” She asks, her voice broken. “Everything was going so well, then suddenly we just stopped talking or something.”

“It’s nothing we did, it’s just this stupid project. As soon as we go home it will be better.” I argue, trying to keep my tone calm and low-key. I don’t want this to escalate into a screaming match.

Grace holds up her hands. “I don’t know if that’s true. We’ve lost something, Jaden. We don’t have trust in each other any more. You don’t trust me with Kim, and I don’t trust you after what Michelle said.” Her eyes start to well with tears. “It breaks my heart to think of you with someone else, and I want so badly to believe in you. But I don’t know if I can.”

“Why?” I ask, my voice becoming shrill. I consciously lower my tone, not wanting to frighten Grace. “What have I done to make you not believe in me?”

“Why did you let that guy close enough to you to kiss you?” She asks, her eyes flashing.

“I was drinking, I didn’t expect it I guess.” I answer, feeling defensive suddenly.

“That’s not like you, Jaden. You’re super sensitive to everyone’s movements. I can’t believe you would let someone get that close.” Grace responds, and I have to admit that she’s right.

“I don’t know, maybe it felt good to be flirted with.” I tell her honestly, and there is no way I could have expected the utter expression of hurt visible in her green eyes. “Jesus, I’m sorry Grace. I didn’t mean that the way it sounds.” I add, knowing I’m unable to heal the pain I just caused.

“Oh Gods.” She says before staggering and falling to her knees. I reach my arms out and catch her before she falls, and she immediately fights my embrace. “Let me go, I can’t be near you right now.”

She is still struggling, but I easily outweigh her and I use my strength to an advantage as I hold her to me. She’s still dripping wet from the rain but I don’t care.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” I tell her over and over, but it’s not sinking in. Grace struggles and sobs in my arms before finally going still.

“How could you?” She whispers against my shoulder. “Don’t I give you what you need? Don’t I love you enough?” Sniffling, I feel huge tears drop from her eyes. “Are you not gay? Don’t you love me enough?”

I take her face in my hands and plant soft kisses along her jaw line and mouth. She tries hard not to flinch at my loving administrations, but I see the tightness and resistance she has for me.

“Sweetheart, you give me everything I need and you love me more than I love myself. That’s probably not the healthiest way for me to think in this relationship, but it’s true. You love me so much that sometimes I feel like I’m this invincible hero in your eyes that always has to be perfect. So when something happens that tarnishes that, like when I feel guilty for not spending enough time with you, I feel like a huge disappointment.” I try to explain all of the thoughts that have been circling through my brain.

“I don’t understand.” She says, hushed.

“I know. I don’t really get it myself sometimes.” Clearing my throat, I continue to look into her eyes.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is that no matter how much I love you, I still don’t love myself all that much. And that combined with stresses such as work and not seeing you sometimes makes me do stupid things.” Ashamed, I lower my eyes.

“I am sorry, and I didn’t mean for it to hurt you. Please know I would never cheat on you. Ever. That is something I can promise you.” I add softly.

Meeting her eyes once again, I find them less angry than before.

“The situation was entirely my fault. I knew Steve was flirting with me, and I chose to ignore it rather that discourage it immediately. I won’t lie and say it wasn’t a bit flattering, but please believe that I was and am not the least bit interested in him or anyone besides you.” I tell Grace.

Taking her hand, I place it over my heart. “This beats for you only.”

“It should beat for you, too.” She says, her voice quiet.

“It doesn’t.” I tell her honestly. “Only for you.”

Her eyes grow even sadder than before, if it’s possible. Huge tears flow down her apple cheeks as her lower lip trembles. “Oh Jaden, why can’t you love yourself?” She throws herself into my arms and resumes her sobbing.

I sigh into her golden hair. “I don’t know.”

We sit for what seems like eternity. I hold the precious bundle of my wife in my arms, relishing in the feel of her body next to mine. I missed her using me as a body pillow last night in bed, and never want to sleep apart from her again.

“Jaden?” She finally says, her voice rough from crying.

“Yes sweetheart?”

“Please take me to bed.” She struggles roughly to her feet and begins to discard her rain-covered clothing.

“Don’t you want to talk more or som..”

“No.” She says firmly. “Get undressed.”

“Grace, maybe this isn’t the best idea.” I try to reason with her, but one look from her deep green eyes instantly stops me.

“I know this isn’t the best idea, and that I’m using sex to temporarily solve our problems. But I need to feel you tonight, Jaden. I’ve missed you.” Grace tells me directly.

I stand in front of her, unmoving.

“Get undressed.” She practically orders, and I comply. I lift my t-shirt over my head, revealing my naked torso to her and pull down my boxer shorts.

“You’re beautiful.” My Gracie states reverently as she drinks in my nude form. Then suddenly her sweet demeanor changes into something more demanding, more possessive. “Get in bed.”

I pull back the freshly made bedclothes and lie down as she finishes undressing.

“Grace, I want you to know th..”

She presses a finger to my lips. “No talking, please. I just want to feel you.” She slides on top of me, parting my legs with her thigh.

Removing her finger from my lips, she kisses me, soft at first before roughly claiming my lips with hers. Her tongue greets mine and she moans long and low into my mouth.

Grace breaks the kiss, her darkened eyes meeting mine. “Show me how much you love me. Please show me.”

I switch positions, rolling Grace over onto her back. Kissing her once again, I run one hand through her damp hair. My hand trails lower, to her smooth neck, shoulders, and resting on her breast.

She groans into my mouth again as I caress her silky skin, pinching her nipple roughly as she cries out. This is how she loves to be touched when she needs me in this way.

Her kisses then turn frantic, and it’s as if she’s trying to devour me.

“More.” Grace orders as I lower my hand to her hip. “Please, take me now.”

I part her with my fingers, her essence coating my hand. “Oh, you are so wet.” I tell her as my fingers glide over her slick skin. Spreading her legs wider for me, I enter her with two fingers and she hisses sharply in pleasure. She moves one thigh in between my legs and moans when she feels my wetness grind against her firm thigh muscles.

“Harder.” She orders as my hand pumps in and out of her. I comply and lower my mouth to suckle her tight nipple.

“Harder!” Grace commands now, roughly grabbing onto my hair as she presses my mouth against her breast. My hand couldn’t possibly move faster or harder, and her smooth thighs begin to tense around my arm. She’s so very close, and I desperately want to bring her over the edge.

“Oh Jaden.” Her voice is all I need to climax and I thrust myself against her thigh as she reaches her peak. My fingers feel her inner spasms as her hands clench the bed sheets. Grace cries out in pleasure, her eyes opening to reveal fresh tears.

“I love you so much.” She tells me as she curls her body into mine. “I just want you to love you.”

“I know.” I tell her as I kiss her soft hair. It feels like a repeat of the end of our former conversation, but I don’t know what else to tell her.

I wish that I did.

My hands create intricate patterns on her back until I hear her fall into a deep sleep. Her body rests boneless against mine and tears fall freely down my cheeks.

I allow Grace to sleep, despite all the things I want to say to her. I want to tell her how much she means to me, how sorry I am for everything, how I can’t wait to go home with her and live our normal lives, and how excited I am for her to finish school and become who I know she can be.

I know I’ve told her these things a thousand times, but now, at last, I want her to believe them.

“Spots?” A voice whispers and I frown and try to pull Grace tighter to me.

“Go away, I’m tired.” I grumpily answer, and I feel Grace’s body shake with laughter.

“Wake up.” She demands.

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No.” I state more firmly, not even remembering falling asleep.

“Yes, or I’ll tickle.” Grace states, and I reluctantly open my eyes, adjusting to the low light in the hotel room. My wife is on top of me, her strong thighs straddling my hips. Her nude form is bathed in the light of the dim lamp and she is beautiful.

“You’re a goddess.” I tell her, raising one arm to trace her gently swaying breasts. She blushes as my hand makes contact, goose bumps breaking out over her fair skin.

“I’m sorry.” She answers, her green eyes boring into mine.

“I know.” I state, smiling slightly. “I’m sorry too.”

“I know.” She mirrors my response. “We have a lot of things to work out, huh?”

“Yeah.” I tell her slowly, smiling wider now. “But we have forever to work them out.”

“Forever.” Grace says, rolling the word around in her mouth. “I really like the sound of that.”

As she lowers her lips to mine, I know that eventually; everything will be just fine.

 

 

The End.

Continued in Answer

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