Exposure Season 2 by Xwpfanatic & TNovan

lindac

Exposure Season 2

Exposure: Season Two
Episode One: Looks Like We Made It
I watch as the paramedics rush in. Please, God, let them bring Kels out of that house soon. I just need to see her, to know she’s all right. “Bear, can you go to a back channel and find out if she’s alive? I can’t take this. Please?”

I don’t know if it’s the desperate tone in my voice or the pleading look in my eyes, but he picks up his radio. He walks away from the car to give himself some privacy. He knows if she’s the one dead, I don’t need to hear it from a stranger.

Robie steps up and wraps his arm around my shoulders. “She’s alive, Harper,” he whispers, his voice tight with emotion. “I know it. Kels is tough and she wouldn’t leave you.”

I nod, fighting back the tears. I feel like I’m a kid again, afraid of the unknown.

Bear returns to me, taking me gently by the arm. “Come on, let’s go see your gal.”

Oh, thank you, God! What sweet words to hear! I throw my arms around Bear’s thick neck and kiss his cheek. “Thank you, Bear.”

He pats my back awkwardly. Poker buddies aren’t supposed to embrace and kiss in public in his world. Or in mine either, but I’m willing to make an exception right now.

I release him and turn toward the house, heading for it at a run. All that matters now is Kelsey is inside and she needs me.

Bear drags me to a stop at the door. “We wait here,” he explains patiently, seeing my indignant look. “That’s still a sealed crime scene. They’ll bring her out as soon as she’s stable.”

“She’s alive, Bear,” I reply quietly. As I wait for her to be brought out, I find myself shuffling back and forth a bit. I am flooded with adrenaline. My body realizes the end of its ordeal. Now all of my energy is back, focused on Kelsey and her safety. I’m going to spoil her rotten.

The door opens and one of the paramedics comes backing out of the house, nearly toppling me over. I step aside and take my first look at Kels.

My baby.

What did that sick fuck do to you?

The paramedics are moving on toward the ambulance and I follow after them quickly, anxious to not be left behind. I take inventory of the injuries I can see on her. Her face is bruised and swollen from being badly beaten repeatedly. Her left leg has been splinted, along with her right hand and wrist. She has two lines running into her – one an IV, the other oxygen. Her eyes are closed.

It’s a good thing the coroner is coming for that son of a bitch. I want to shake the hand of the cop that shot him.

They stop for a moment to ready the rig for transport, giving me a chance to take her hand. I touch her gently, desperate to not cause her any more pain. “Hey, Little Roo?” I call softly.

Her eyes open for a moment. She struggles to say something, her lips moving, but no sound coming forth. Her lips are so chapped, different from the softness I normally find there. I lean in close so I can hear her as she whispers.

Finally understanding, I reply. “No, baby, you’re not dead. You’re gonna be fine, I swear it. You’re with me now.”

One of the paramedics gives me a little nudge. “We’re ready.”

“Can I go with her?”

He looks at me. “Are you family?”

“All that she has.” And that’s the God’s honest truth. Her mother is worthless, preferring to stay in New York while her child was missing. Her father is out of the country on business.

“Yeah, sure, come on.”

I let them load her in before I climb inside. I immediately retake ahold of her hand. I lean down and whisper to her. “Just relax, Kels. You’re out and you’re alive. You hold on. We’ve got a big move to New York to put together. And Mama will be seriously upset if you give up your spot in the kitchen.”

* * *

The ride to the hospital is one of the longest on my life. I know she is alive. I am watching the rise and fall of her chest – for the first time without lascivious purposes – but what disturbs me is I can’t get her to grip my hand. I hold her limp hand in my own, willing her to be strong, to be all right.

“Everything’s going to be fine, Kels,” I whisper, close to her ear. “I love you.” With those words, I hear a little whimper from her and feel a very slight grasping of my hand. Elated, I try again. “I love you, Kels.” Again, she grasps at my hand and I watch her eyes flutter open. I position myself so she can see me. “Hey, sweetheart.”

Her green eyes seem almost devoid of color, but full of pain. She licks her lips and breathes out, “Harper.”

I don’t think her voice has ever sounded so lovely. “Shh, rest. You’re safe and I’m here.”

“Love you”

I close my eyes, thanking God for those few words. When I look at her again, her eyes are closed, but her grip remains steady on my hand. “That’s right, Little Roo. Everything is gonna be fine.”

We arrive at the hospital and they are quick to unload her, to get her into the emergency room. I am forced to let go of her hand to allow them to move her into the trauma room, but I stay as close as I can.

I am stopped at the door by a heavyset and imposing nurse. Her hands are gentle, but firm, on my shoulders, keeping me out of the room. I strain past to see them lift Kels from the gurney to the table.

“We’ll let you know as soon as we can,” she tells me before closing the doors, leaving me to watch through the small windows. How come the family members always seem to be in the trauma room on ER?

It’s not long before I feel a hand on my shoulder. I turn to find Robie and Bear. I offer them as strong a smile as I can manage. “She’s alive. She spoke to me on the ride over.”

“I told you she’s gonna be fine.”

“He hurt her, Robie.”

“I know. But she’s alive, and she’s going to stay that way. You keep telling yourself that.” He squeezes my shoulder.

I nod. “She told me she loved me.”

“Yeah, well, wait ‘til she finds out you’re not a girl,” he teases, reminding me of our conversation earlier tonight. Or was it yesterday? The dawn raid on the house, lack of sleep, emotional exhaustion of the last four days, all come crashing down on me.

“Right.” I laugh, wiping away the tears that have pooled in my eyes. I notice Bear staring through the window at the team working on Kels. “What’s wrong?” I turn my attention inside the trauma room, fearful of the worst.

“That’s a hell of a woman in there.”

“You don’t need to tell me that.”

He turns to me, shaking his head slightly. “You don’t understand.” He pauses and seems to be figuring out how to tell me something. In the end, Bear is simply direct. “She killed him, Harper. She put fourteen bullets into the bastard. The SWAT team found her holding his gun, dry firing into his dead body.”

“How?” I ask. I don’t even want to imagine how she obtained his gun. If he had it near her, it means he was planning on using it. We were almost too late. Almost.

Bear shrugs. “I dunno. We’ll have to ask her later what happened.”

I look through the doors at Kelsey. She killed him? My mind can’t even picture Kels holding a gun, let alone pulling the trigger fourteen plus times.

“It probably saved her life, Harper.” Bear must sense my distress.

I nod. “Of course, it did. She wouldn’t have done it otherwise. She’s not that kind of person.” I, on the other hand, had I encountered the bastard and had a gun in my hand would not have hesitated even a second. I’m sorry Mama and Papa, but some people don’t deserve to live.

“I know,” Bear agrees sympathetically.

* * *

It seems like it’s been hours, but I know it’s only been a short while that we’ve been sitting in the waiting room. The rest of the family arrived a few minutes after Robie and Bear did. Mama is sitting next to me, her hand on my back. Rene is on the other side of me, her hand wrapped around my upper arm. Clark in sleeping soundly in my embrace, baby drool staining my shirt. Papa and Robie have been sent to find food and coffee, not necessarily in that order.

“As soon as Kelsey is well enough, you both should come home,” Mama says softly, glancing toward the trauma room doors, as she has every few minutes. She’s as worried as I am.

“If the doctors say it’s okay, and Kels wants to, we will,” I agree, giving Clark a little kiss on the top of his head. He still has that baby soft spot, reminding me of how fragile life truly is.

“We’ll convince her.” Mama smiles at me, holding out her hands for Clark. My Mama is the only person in this world I would give him up to right now. Once I am no longer holding him, I need to move around the room.

I find myself standing in front of the door again, peering through the window. The flurry of activity around Kels has stopped and only a doctor and a nurse remain. This is a good sign. It means soon I will be able to get to her. The doctor makes a note in his chart, while the nurse adjusts an IV drip. Finally, the doctor turns and heads toward us. At last.

“Are you with Ms. Stanton?” he asks me, letting the door close behind him, keeping me from her still.

“Yes. How is she?”

“She’s a remarkably strong woman. Right now, we have her stabilized, and we expect her condition to improve fairly quickly.”

“Thank God,” I murmur.

“She’s been through quite an ordeal, however. She’s dehydrated and malnourished. She has a concussion, three broken ribs, a broken right wrist and a badly damaged left knee. In addition, she has bruising to her liver and kidneys from when he beat her. But, given time and rest, I don’t expect she’ll suffer any complications from those injuries. She may need to have surgery on the knee, but I think we can do it orthoscopic when she’s healed up from her other injuries some.”

“Can I see her now?”

“As soon as we get her settled in her room. She’s been sedated and she’s going to be groggy. She may not even know you’re there.”

“She’ll know,” I reply, confidently. I’ll make sure she knows. I don’t want to, but I have to ask. “Doctor, was she raped?”

“No. The rape kit came back negative.”

* * *

The family has gone back to my place to rest and let the others in the family know the good news about Kelsey. Papa also could tell I needed time with Kelsey, alone, and he made sure I got it. I love my father.

Kels and I are in her room. She’s resting comfortably, even snoring a little. I think that’s my favorite sound now, and will be for the rest of my life. It tells me she’s alive.

I make myself at home here. I dare anyone to tell me I can’t stay with her. I’ll never understand a legal system which doesn’t guarantee me the right to be by my partner in time of crisis. Hell, maybe it is a good thing Mom is on that Committee for Same Sex Marriages. If anyone can beat sense into lawmakers, it’d be my Mama. I need to make sure Robie draws us up health care proxies and power of attorney, as soon as possible.

Taking my jacket off, I toss it over a chair, then take a seat next to the bed.

Lifting her uninjured hand, I give it a little kiss, resting my head on the mattress next to it. I feel her fingers move, brushing my cheek. Lifting my head up, I find her looking at me.

“Hey, Little Roo.”

“I want a vacation.” She struggles with the words and a smile.

“You got it, chér. I know just the place.”

“Oh yeah? Tell me about it.”

I smile, so glad to be enjoying easy conversation with this woman. “It’s a big, old house surrounded by magnolia trees. During the summer, and especially during a rainstorm, you can smell that sweet scent hanging heavy around you. In the house, there’s this amazing feather bed in an airy room on the third floor. The room has a fireplace and a balcony. And, there’s this bossy lady downstairs who cooks all the time and won’t let me into the kitchen.”

Kelsey whispers, “You don’t belong in there.”

“No, I suppose I don’t. But, you do.”

* * *

I feel like I’ve been run over. And then the truck stopped, backed up, and ran over me again.

I try to decide what hurts worst – my knee or my wrist. My knee wins. Jesus, it hurts. I can feel every heartbeat in it, as blood passes through the huge swollen appendage. I couldn’t move it, even if I wanted to, which I don’t. I don’t want to ever move it again. Not if hurts like this.

My nose itches. Carelessly, I reach up to scratch it and nearly give myself another concussion. Note to self: don’t scratch with the hand in the cast.

I study my right hand and wrist, encased in white plaster. I broke my arm once in grammar school. I had jumped out of a swing, a little too high, and landed rather badly. But it was fun for a couple days having everyone write on my arm. It made me feel a part of things for once.

I was sent to a new boarding school the next semester. Mother said this one, the one where I had friends, didn’t have a high enough standard of safety for her tastes. I think I hate my mother. And I am not surprised to not find her at my bedside right now.

A glance out the window tells me it’s either very late at night or very early in the morning. Either way, it’s dark outside. I can’t see the stars due to the light given off by Los Angeles. I miss the stars.

And I don’t mean the Hollywood kind.

I turn my head to the left and look down at the head nestled against my waist. Her long arm is wrapped around my hips, holding me in place securely, as if I could go anywhere. I can’t see her features, her hair has fallen over them, obscuring my view, but I imagine what she looks like in sleep. She looks unguarded, like she does when we’re in New Orleans, surrounded by people she loves. Her lips are always slightly parted and she breathes more through her mouth than her nose. When I closed her mouth one time, she began snoring and woke herself up. It was endearing.

With the free and unhurt fingers of my left hand, I gently comb her hair back so I can see her face. Her hair is silky under my fingertips, its darkness blending in with the shadows in the room. God, she’s beautiful. I didn’t think I’d ever see her again.

I thought she had died.

That thought, even in the face of such obvious falsity, causes me to choke up. I can feel the tears streaming down my face, pooling in my ears. I hate that. I start to reach up to wipe it away, but catch myself in time. I nearly clocked myself again. This is going to take some getting used to.

“What’s wrong, Little Roo? Are you in pain?” she asks, awake now. She pushes herself up and looks down at me, her thumb wiping away my tears.

“I thought you were dead,” I choke out, a tidal wave of emotion rolling over me, submerging me in its depths. I begin sobbing, unable to help myself.

Harper begins making soothing, nonsensical sounds, carefully pulling me into her embrace. I grab onto her like the drowning woman I am. She is my life preserver.

Somehow I manage to sit up and wind my arms around her neck, pulling myself as close to her as I can. My ribs hurt from this exertion, but I’d rather have their pain than the pain of being separated from her again.

“Shh, chér, it’s alright. I’m here. Even in death, I would never leave you.” Even in death, I would never leave you.

I cry myself out in her arms, feeling safe for the first time in days, or it is weeks? I don’t know anymore. Time meant nothing when I was with him.

Him.

I killed him.

I knew he was growing tired of me. I could feel it.

It started when I made my one futile attempt to escape and get past him. He hobbled me. He took a police baton and beat my left knee until it folded under me. That was the beginning of the beatings. I lost track of the others, the pain simply became constant and overwhelming.

I just wanted to be able to sleep, to have it all over with. I wanted him to kill me so I could escape the pain.

That last time, he came to the room and left the door open. I knew then that when he walked out, I would be dead. It was a final taunt to me. Freedom, just beyond my reach.

He came to the bed and pulled my legs, to turn me over. My knee screamed in agony, but I did not. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of hearing me.

“It’s time!” he growled.

I knew what he meant. I was to be like the others – raped and murdered.

At least, it was almost over.

He unchained my hands from above my head. The right one was bent awkwardly. He had broken it before, when I wouldn’t touch him.

He placed his gun to my head again, the same way he had hundreds of other times since I’d been in the room. “I want you to put your arms around me.” It was the same request I had refused before.

“Go to hell,” was my reply.

I didn’t really feel the slap he gave me. It was just another in a long string of them.

Maybe it was that slap which put some courage back into me. But I decided right then that I wouldn’t give up quite so easily. I wouldn’t let Harper hate me for just giving up. I knew she was dead, he had told me so, but she was watching me. She had visited me. Well, at least her ghost had. And I wanted her to know that I was strong enough to put the sick bastard in jail for what he did to her.

I felt him move the gun so he could get closer to me. I felt his hands on me, tearing my clothes off my body.

And then I knew.

If he was using two hands, his gun was somewhere nearby. Waiting for me.

It was by my left hand, thank God. The one he hadn’t broken. An unfortunate oversight on his part because I reached out and grasped the handle, felt my fingers slide around the grip and the trigger.

And I prayed for God to give me the strength to kill him.

I put the gun to his rib cage and pulled the trigger.

The look of surprise on his face was almost comical as he looked down to confirm what his body was telling him. He had been shot.

I pulled the trigger again.

He pushed himself away from me, standing on trembling legs, blood spilling out of his side. His hands were covered with the dark liquid, trying to hold it in.

I rolled onto my side and leveled off the gun, once again, aiming for his gut. I pulled the trigger again.

And again.

And again.

And again.

And again.

I just kept pulling the trigger.

“Sweetheart,” Harper whispers, breaking into my memories. “Let’s get you lying down. I know you must be in pain.”

“I killed him,” I choke out. Will she hate me now?

She shudders and nods tightly. “You came out alive. That’s all that matters. I’m so proud of you for coming back to me.”

“You don’t hate me?”

Harper looks genuinely shocked by my question. “I could never hate you, Kelsey Stanton.”

“Will Erik?” I ask.

“No, Erik won’t hate you either, Kels. Sleep now. You need to get better. We have a vacation to plan, right?”

I nod, exhausted. Sleep sounds perfect right now.

* * *

I wake up again. I don’t know how much later. It’s light outside, though, so it’s been a few hours, at least. My fingers are tangled with Harper’s. I don’t know if I’ll ever let go of her again.

I realize she is talking to someone so I open my eyes to see who our visitor is. To my delight, it is Mama, Rene and baby Clark.

Mama’s sharp eyes focus in on me. “Oh, look who has joined us.” She gets up from her chair and walks over to the bed. She bends down to place a kiss on my forehead. “Welcome back, little one.”

“Merci, mamman.”

Rene comes closer as well. “Hi, Kelsey. Good to see you with us.”

“Thanks, Rene. Where’s Christian?” Truth is, if there was a man in the Kingsley family who could take me away from Harper, it would be Christian. He’s precious.

“He’s with his Uncle Gerrard and Aunt Katherine right now. Probably eating sugar and drinking caffeine. It’ll take us a week to get it out of his system.”

I smile, but my face is still tender from being struck repeatedly the last few days. “Thanks for coming.” I relax back into the mattress .

My mind turns to my other favorite guy. Erik.

Oh God.

The last I saw of him, he was lying there on the living room floor. How could I have not asked about him sooner? Dammit, Kels, nothing like being self-occupied.

Harper raises a quizzical eyebrow. “What’s wrong?”

“How’s Erik? Is he okay?”

The prolonged silence should be enough of an answer for me. But, I need to hear it. To know it for certain.

“Kelsey, honey, I’m afraid Erik didn’t make it,” Harper says in a gentle tone, her hand squeezing mine gently.

Didn’t make it. Sounds so benign. Like he didn’t make the train. Or the grade he wanted. Surely death shouldn’t sound so trivial.

He died because of me.

Like those women. They died because they looked like me. Erik died because he lived with me.

My fault.

How come I escaped and they didn’t?

‘And I alone survived.’ What novel was that from? I remember it was depressing, whatever it was.

Just like now. All I feel is emptiness. I suppose I should happy to be alive, grateful to have been spared. And a part of me is, I can’t deny that. But a larger part knows I don’t deserve this. And I shouldn’t be here.

I’ve cheated death and others paid the price.

I killed Erik.

* * *

She’s been asleep for about four hours. The doctor had to sedate her after I told her about Erik. I hated having to do that. Yet, I didn’t want anyone else to be the one to tell her. Wow, taking responsibility in a relationship, Harper. Big step.

Kels was inconsolable. She kept saying over and over again she had killed Erik. Nothing that Mama, Rene or I said to her would make her believe that wasn’t true. I hate that she’s in so much pain, both physically and emotionally, and there isn’t a goddamn thing I can do except sit here and hold her hand. Of course, Mama says that’s the most important thing. I’ve always trusted Mama in the past. Best if I don’t start doubting her now.

With Kels asleep, Mama and Rene have gone to look after their husbands. Robie is especially helpless without Rene, except with his sons. We’re all glad for that one area of domestic competence he has displayed.

Even through the sedatives, she’s still crying out in her sleep, calling Erik’s name. She didn’t ask me for specifics and until she does I don’t intend to tell her. And even then I don’t see a need to fill her in on the gruesome details. She knows he’s dead and I really think that’s all she needs to know. It’s bad enough I know. Those images haunt my dreams too.

I’m raking my fingers gently through her hair, calming her from her latest nightmare when the door opens slightly.

“Hey,” Bear calls softly, sticking his head in the door.

“Hi, buddy. Come on in.”

“CJ’s with me. Is it okay…?” He lets the multitude of possible questions fill in the empty air.

I don’t object. There’s no need for me to play the jealous, immature lover. “Oh yeah, please, come on in.”

They both enter quietly. Bear has brought a stuffed teddy bear that has a really silly, little hat. He holds it up, giving me a grin. “I just thought….” He shrugs, handing me the bear.

“Thanks, she’ll love it.” I set it on the table near Kels’ bed. Both the bear and I would love to crawl in there next to her.

CJ has brought flowers, a bouquet of Freesia, yellow, white and purple. Their strong scent quickly fills the room. “Her favorite,” she says quietly, nodding to Kels, and lays them on the bed tray. I make a mental note of the information.

I know this has to be as hard on CJ as it is on me. They did, after all, love each other once. I move from Kels’ side and offer my place to CJ. She looks mildly surprised, but takes me up on it. Once seated, she gently reaches out to hold Kels’ uninjured hand.

Watching her with Little Roo, I can see that CJ definitely loves her still. This must be hard on her. I can’t imagine how I would feel if our positions were reversed. I find I’m feeling a little jealousy. There is a nagging deep in my gut, a strange feeling for sure; one I don’t recall experiencing in the past. Kels doesn’t need me to be a child right now, though, and I decide to get over it. Bear and I move back a bit, to allow them some privacy.

Kels opens her eyes, looking panicked. “Harper! Harper!”

I move to the other side of the bed, brushing my fingers through her bangs. “I’m here baby. I’m right here.” Strangely enough, her calling out my name has assuaged the feeling in my stomach. “You have some visitors.” I gesture toward CJ and Bear.

Kels turns her head and smiles at the cop. “Hi, Tough Stuff,” she whispers, squeezing CJ’s hand.

“Look who’s talking,” CJ chokes out, her throat constricting. “Brought you some Freesia.”

“You remembered.”

“Of course. How could I forget?”

The little gnawing is coming back in my gut. I stand by impassively though. I am a mature adult.

“I still get them on my birthday.” Kels bestows CJ with a fond smile.

Okay, I am a mature adult. I am a mature adult.

“And you always will. As long as it’s all right.” CJ looks to me.

I do my best to give a sincere smile in return. I may not have been the first to love Kels, but I do intend to be the last.

I guess the talk of the future, reminds Kels of their past together. “Erik,” Kels whispers, tears spilling out of her eyes.

“I know, sweetheart.” CJ drops her head closer to Kels, giving her a little kiss on her left temple.

“I killed him, CJ. I killed Erik.” Kels curls toward CJ, clutching at her shirt.

“No, sweetheart, you didn’t. Bill killed him. You saved him, Kels, a long time ago.”

“Bill?” she echoes. “Oh my God! That was Bill! I knew I recognized him, but I didn’t make the connection.” She shakes her head sadly.

“See, my fault too. If he hadn’t been my partner, he never would have met you.” I appreciate CJ trying to take some of the guilt off of Kels’ shoulders. “Erik had a great life that he wouldn’t have had if it weren’t for you.”

Kels sniffles. “If it weren’t for us.”

“Right. We did good with our boy.” CJ laughs a little, before her tears start flowing.

It occurs to me that these two people are basically parents mourning the loss of a child.

Kels reaches out, brushing away CJ’s tears, words failing her.

“He was a good kid, Angel, and he loved you a lot. He’d be very proud of you for coming out of this alive. And it’s through us that he’ll always live. Well, us, and those really bad movies he made.” She laughs, trying to ease the tension.

Kels sniffs a little, nodding. “There are those.”

“Lots of those,” CJ agrees. “The most important thing here, Kels, is that you’re all right,”

“I will be.”

“Good. Well, you know me, if you ever need anything don’t hesitate to pick up the phone.” CJ looks over at me. “Either of you.”

I smile at being included in her offer.

“I love you, CJ,” Kels whispers.

I am a mature adult.

“Love you too, Angel. I’m gonna get going. I’ll drop by soon.” She kisses Kels’ knuckles and stands up, stretching her lower back. I think all cops have lower back pain after a year on the force.

“Be careful out there, ok? Nothing bad is allowed to happen to you, Tough Stuff.”

“Always.”

CJ gives Kels one last kiss on the forehead. She then stands up straight and offers me her hand across Kels’ bed. “If either of you need anything, day or night.”

“You’ll be the first to know,” I reply, taking her hand.

She winks at Kels and leaves. Bear moves into the spot vacated by CJ.

“Hi, Bear.” Kels gives him a little smile, reaching out to take his hand. “Thanks for everything.”

“It wasn’t me so much as your partner there. She figured it out and put it together.”

Kels’ green eyes track over to me. They look a bit surprised, but also proud of me. “Well, I know her. I’m guessing you made her keep her head and she probably didn’t like that much. Thanks for keeping her safe.”

“No problem. I’m pretty fond of that one.”

She looks to me again and beckons me closer. The fingers of her broken hand graze across my mine. “So am I.”

“Well, you’ve got your hands full, that’s for sure.” Bear winks at me.

“Wouldn’t have it any other way.” Kels yawns a little, her eyes fluttering closed.

I can tell the sedatives are starting to take effect again. “Sleep, chér,” I instruct gently.

“Sorry, Bear …” Kelsey mumbles before fading off.

Bear remains quiet, moving away from the bed to let her rest. He settles into a chair on the far side of the room.

I stay with her until I can tell she’s fully asleep again, her breathing deep and even. Then I join Bear.

“So, how’s she doing?”

“All in all, not too bad right now.” I pick up a cup of coffee that must be three hours old. It’s cold, but it’s coffee. “I think she’s overwhelmed and not sure what to focus on. We’ve got a long road ahead of us here.”

Bear looks at me steadily, then asks, “You sure you want to travel that road, Harper?”

The force of his question hits me square in the chest just as sure as if he had thrown a punch at me. “Of course, I am,” I reply angrily, biting off each word. “What kind of a dipshit question is that?”

“Think about it, Harper. You’ve gone from being a very free spirit to being settled with one woman rather quickly. And that woman is now facing a very rough time in her life, physically and emotionally.”

“Yeah, and I won’t let her go it alone. I love her, Bear. I’ve never felt this way about anyone before. I can’t just let her go because it’s inconvenient for me.” I take a deep breath. “I know it’s going to be rough, but we’ll make it. As soon as I can, I’m going to get us the hell out of Los Angeles. That’ll be a big help.”

“New Orleans?”

“Yeah.” I have to laugh a little. “When Papa found out Kels will most likely be in a wheelchair when we get there, he was ready to call a contractor to start making the house accessible for her.”

“You have a very special family.”

“I know it. I’m lucky to have them. And I’m grateful to be able to share them with her. Her own family is fucking worthless. Her mother wouldn’t even come out here to be with her. She didn’t want to be part of a ‘media snowstorm.'”

“What about her father?”

“I’m trying to reach him. He’s out of the country on business. I’m having a hell of a time trying to track him down. Apparently, he’s somewhere in Eastern Europe and their phone service is less than reliable.”

“Anything I can do to help?”

“Nah. His company is helping out. I’m sure they’ll find him.” I take the last sip of my cold coffee when something occurs to me. “She’s not going to have any legal problems here, is she? You know, because she, ah….” I can’t quite bring myself to say it.

“No, not at all. It’s one of the most clear-cut cases of self-defense I’ve ever seen. When Kelsey is up to it, we’re going to need a detailed statement, but I don’t foresee any problems.”

“Good. I just want to get her out of here so she can rest and get better.” I hear her fuss again. Returning to her, I take her hand. “It’s okay, sweetheart.”

Her eyes open again. “It hurts. It all hurts,” she whimpers.

“I know, chér.” Yup. Gotta get her out of here and get her home. She’ll rest much better in that big, old, feather bed. So will I for that matter.

I need to call Saunders and tell him we’re both taking extended vacations. Hell, maybe Kels’ agent will have our new contracts negotiated soon then we can just quit.

I fuckin’ hate LA.
Episode Two: It’s Gonna Take Some Time This Time
When I come back into the room, I find Kels lying on her side, with two doctors examining her knee. They are discussing the surgery, and making small marks on her skin with black felt tip pens. I am not amused that my Little Roo’s backside is on display and I am quick to at least cover her a bit. It may be a body part they see everyday, but I had too wait a helluva long time to see this particular one, and I don’t like everyone else getting to just pass go and collect an eyeful. When I tug her hospital gown closed, she looks over her shoulder and gives me a very silly grin.

“Hi ya, Tabloid!” she says, a bit too loud.

Oh, I get it now. They gave her a shot before her surgery. I move around the bed to sit by her head.

“How you feeling, Little Roo?” I reach out and take ahold of her hand, squeezing it gently.

“Oh, I feel great!”

I laugh a little. “I’ll bet you do.”

She brings our joined hands to her lips and kisses my knuckles. “I love you.”

I look over her shoulder at the doctors who have paused in their work at her proclamation. The older doctor chuckles and then continues on. “I love you too, Kels.”

The doctors finish their exam and pull the sheet up to her waist. “Someone will be up to get her in a few minutes.”

“Okay.” I smile at the doctor who has spoken. He’s been very good with Kels during her time here, three weeks now, making sure she gets the best care. He’s also seen to it that I’ve been allowed to stay with her despite posted visiting hours. Once we made it through the first awful week, when everything was still so raw and painful, Robie drew up a health care proxy for Kels. Once she executed it, I had the same rights as family to be at her bedside.

“Okey-dokey, Doc,” Kels offers, giggling a bit.

He shakes his head, smiling as he leaves with the young intern.

I return my attention to Kels who is wide awake but cruising at about 30,000 feet. The air is definitely thinner up there. Sipping my coffee, I smile.

“Wha’s that?” she slurs. The meds must be working.

“Coffee,” I reply.

“Yuck. I don’t like coffee.” She gives me a pouty face.

“I know, but it’s not for you. You’re not allowed to have anything anyhow.” I comb my fingers through her hair. I need to have the nurse bring me the stuff I need to wash her hair later.

“You know where they gave me a shot, Tabloid?” The pouty face transforms into an indignant one.

“I have a pretty good idea.”

“In my butt.”

I can’t help but chuckle at the comment. “Yeah, I know.”

“So.” She leers at me. “You gonna kiss it and make it better?”

“Later.”

“Promise?”

“I promise, chér.”

I am a bit surprised that she seems content with this. I must admit, I didn’t particularly want to be caught with my lips on her ass when the orderlies come for her in a few minutes. Some things are just too damn hard to explain.

“Harper?”

“Hmm?”

“When can we go home?”

Lately, she has taken to calling New Orleans home, pleasing me no end. The first time Mama heard it, I thought she would swoon with pleasure, as well. “As soon as the doctors give you the green light, we’re on the first plane out of here.”

“Good.” She intertwines her fingers with mine. “I miss that big feather bed.”

“So do I.”

“I miss sleeping with you.”

“I know, sweetheart. Me too.”

“Harper?”

“Yes?” She’s like a kid with these meds, full of questions and non-sequiturs.

“The doctor said I may always walk with a limp.”

“Ah, don’t sweat it, Little Roo. You’re gonna be fine. They say that so you won’t sue them later.”

“Yeah, but if I do, are you still going to love me?”

I lean in, kissing her cheek, whispering in her ear. “Of course, I will Kels. I will always love you.”

“Like Whitney Houston?”

“Huh?” I am well and truly confused.

She looks at me like I’m stupid. “She sang that song.”

“Ah, I remember.” I don’t want to tell her that Dolly Parton composed the song and was the first to record it. Lord knows where a discussion of that particular blonde might lead to at this moment.

“Even if I’m not perfect?”

Guess we’re back on the prior subject. “Hey, I’m not perfect. We make a great team in our imperfections.”

“Nah.” She draws back a little, wiggling a very dopey finger in my face. “You are perfect.”

“I’ll remind you of that when the drugs wear off.”

“You do that, Tabloid. In the meantime, shut up and kiss me.”

I happily comply, giving her a gentle kiss. It’s one of the few real kisses we’ve shared since we got her back. I haven’t wanted to push anything and she hasn’t been in any shape to initiate any lascivious behavior. This simple act speaks volumes to me, telling me we’re going to be all right.

An orderly enters, bringing our kiss to a close. His look shows his disapproval. “Problem?” I ask, staring him down.

He shakes his head, moving the gurney closer to her bed.

“Don’t hurt her,” I warn in a low voice, still staring. I swear to God, if he causes her pain because of me, of us, I will deal with him. Personally.

A second man enters to assist in getting Kels ready to go.

When she is settled on the gurney, she turns her head to look at me. “Do me a big favor, Tabloid?”

“Anything, sweetheart.”

“When I get out of surgery, I’d really like a cup of tea.”

Okay, that wasn’t a request I expected. Glad she didn’t remind me that I had to kiss her butt later. The homophobic orderly would have pissed in his pants with that one. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“‘Kay.” She nods, the meds finally taking their toll on her.

I watch as they tuck her in, and raise the rails to keep her safely on the gurney. I lean over, giving her a kiss on the forehead. “Love you, Little Roo. Everything is going to be fine.”

“If ya say so…,” she slurs, her eyes falling closed.

“I do.”

I release her hand but walk alongside her until I’m once again stopped at a set of doors. Standing there as they swing closed, I remain looking through the tiny window until I can’t see her any longer. Out of options, I head back to her room to wait.

As I do so, I am tired and nervous all at the same time. Glancing at my watch, I know Mama will be bringing lunch by in a couple of hours. I look at the cot where I have spent the last few week of my life, and I briefly consider taking a nap. Hell, I’ll be lucky if I don’t need to visit a chiropractor for the rest of my life after sleeping on it so long. I decide against it and settle back in the chair, closing my eyes.

I don’t know how long I’ve been dozing when the slight creaking of the door catches my attention. I open my eyes to find Dr. Susan Hamilton. Apparently, she got lost on her way to the pediatrics ward.

“Hey, Doc,” I mutter. I don’t bother to stand up or offer my hand.

She seems surprised to see me. Get used to it, Doc.

“Ms. Kingsley,” she says cordially. “I came to see Kels.”

Don’t call her that. I call her that. You don’t. “Kelsey.” The correction slips out before I can stop it. Mama would be appalled at my manners. “Has been taken to surgery, a little while ago.”

It’s clear that Susan caught my correction. “Ah, well, okay. Sorry to disturb you. I’ll check back in a few hours.”

I force myself to keep from swearing a blue streak. Catch a clue, Doc, and move along. You ain’t her girlfriend anymore. “If you insist.”

She pauses. “Meaning?”

“Nothing, Doc,” I lie. “It’s just that when she comes back, she’s barely going to know I’m here. Let alone if you are.” Okay, I can only do mature adult for so long and I’m fucking tired of ex-girlfriends dropping in.

I mean, I can understand about CJ, they had the Erik connection. But, this one … Jesus … all they did was share a couple sweaty nights under the sheets. It wasn’t very long before she traded the substitute for the real thing. Kinda like switching from Pepsi to Coke. Once you’ve made the change, you never go back.

And now, I’m tired, I’m frustrated, I’m scared, and I want the parade of ex-lovers to leave us alone. We’ll send out a fucking group email to all of them when she gets out of the hospital.

Of course, I still don’t know who the fifth lover was. Beth was her first, at college. CJ was in LA. Susan … far too recent for my comfort. Me. Who was the other? And where does she fit in the timeline? Or was it a man?

Oh God, Harper, don’t go there. Calm down. It doesn’t matter if she slept with a duck. She’s with you now.

Actually, the duck thing would be kinda hard to overlook.

“Ms. Kings … Harper, I know you and Kelsey are together now. I suspected I was a stand-in the first time I met you, to be honest.”

Yeah, well, if so, why didn’t you walk away then?

“I’m not here to interfere in that. I was merely stopping in to see a friend.”

I shake my head a little, trying to get some of the nastiness out. I can’t believe I’m being such a jerk. “I’m sorry. I’m tired and we’ve been through so much…”

She puts her hand up to stall my words. “I know. I didn’t mean to add to your frustration. I’ll call before I come back over. In the meantime, why don’t you take advantage of the quiet and get some sleep?”

I let loose a deep, relaxing breath. Well, at least the Doc is a gracious loser. “Doctor’s orders?”

“Absolutely.” She digs into her pocket she tosses me something. “For after your nap.” With a slight wave, she leaves the room.

I look in my left hand to find a sucker. I can’t help but laugh. Well, I was acting like a child.

* * *

The ringing phone wakes me up. I stumble over to the bedside table and lift up the receiver. “Hello?”

For a moment, all I hear is static on the other end of the line. Then a man begins speaking, occasionally being overwhelmed by the bad connection. “Hello! Is this Kelsey Stanton’s room?”

Great. Now we have the tabloids from across the pond calling us. “Who’s calling?”

“This is her father, Matthew Stanton.”

Not the reply I was expecting. “Mr. Stanton, this is Harper Kingsley, I …,” I stumble over our relationship, not wanting this call to go poorly, “I work with your daughter.”

“May I speak to her, please? I’m calling from Bulgaria and the phone system is less than reliable, I’m afraid.”

I can hear the connection breaking up again. “I’m afraid she’s in surgery right now. I don’t know when she’ll be back.”

“How is she?”

“She’s going to be fine, sir. The surgery is to repair her knee. Otherwise, she is doing really well. The doctors are pleased with her progress.”

I hear him let out a deep breath. “Thank God. Can you give her a message for me, please?”

“I’d be happy to, Mr. Stanton.” All the manners I couldn’t dredge up for Susan are coming out in full force for Kelsey’s dad.

“Tell her I love her, I’m thinking about her and when I get back stateside I’ll come visit her. I’m, unfortunately, going to be here in Sofia for another few weeks. My firm has been called in to help them restructure their economy -”

Shit, is that all?

“- And I can’t leave yet.”

“Of course, I’ll tell her.” But I’m talking to dead air, the connection gone. “Nice meeting you.”

* * *

I hate the dopey feeling of waking up after surgery. I seem to remember waking briefly in recovery and being told I was being moved back to my room. My brain immediately translated that to being back with Harper. I was happy.

Something smells awfully good. This means I must still be dreaming, because nothing in this place smells good. Not the orderlies, not the medicine, and certainly not the food.

I open my eyes and see Harper and Mama sitting across the room eating whatever it is that has my stomach rumbling. I lick my lips, but can’t seem to get past the cotton in my mouth.

God, I hate this. I hate being here. I hate having my knee all screwed up. I hate having a broken wrist. I hate still feeling crappy after three weeks. I hate that I can’t take a shower, or even go the bathroom on my own. I hate not sleeping next to Harper. And I really hate eating food I can’t identify.

I must have moaned my frustration, because before I can do anything else there is a concerned set of blue eyes staring down at me. I actually smile in response.

“Hey, Little Roo.”

“Water,” I manage.

“Sure, chér, hold on.” I feel her slide a strong arm behind my back to prop me up a bit. I put my lips around the straw presented to me. Oh, this has to be the best drink of water I have ever had.

“Thanks.” I let the straw go. “What smells so good?” I fumble for the controls of my bed to bring myself more upright. I’m damn tired of lying flat on my back. Especially when it’s not for a good reason. Since Harper is not in this bed with me, there’s no good reason.

“Mama made sweet potato and andouille soup.”

“Oh that’s cruel, Tabloid. You sit in here eating like a king while I’m gonna be brought pudding and soft eggs.”

“I’m willing to sneak you some.” Harper offers me a dazzling smile. She knows we’re being bad.

“I’ll love you forever.”

“Ah, that’s not a bribe, Kels. You were gonna do that anyway,” she teases.

I watch as she and Mama prepare me a small bowl of real food. I feel my stomach wake up in response. If they don’t hurry, I might digest my pancreas at this rate. To distract myself from my hunger, I look at my knee. My whole leg is now encased in a brace to keep me from moving it. This is not something for which I needed any incentive. It hurts like a son of a bitch.

Harper returns to me, lowering the rail on my bed and carefully takes a seat. I am impressed that she didn’t spill the soup all over. I would have. Especially now in my dopey stage.

Feeling the spoon at my lips, I take a little taste. Oh, that’s good. Very good. I’ve got to get out of this hospital before I starve to death.

It doesn’t take long before I’ve finished the small bowl of soup.

“As always, Mama, wonderful.” I smile at her when she joins us at my bedside. She places in my hand a mug of tea. “Ah, that’s good,” I hum taking the first sip.

“Mama brought a thermos of Earl Gray for you. You can count on her to take good care of us.” Harper’s voice is filled with fondness for her mother.

“We can’t wait to have you home, Little One. We’ll have you back on your feet in no time.”

“Speaking of which.” I look to Harper, waiting for her to tell me the news about my knee. “Will I be getting back on my feet?”

“Absolutely. The doctor said the surgery went very well and with the proper physical therapy you should be up in no time.”

“Thank God.” I let my head drop back on my pillow. I want to be up and out of here. I will never go to another hospital in my life.

“Amen.” I hear Mama intone quietly and watch her cross herself.

“I am ready to go home now, Tabloid,” I announce.

“Is that so?”

I lean into her hand as it threads through my hair. I know I must look awful. Thank God I haven’t seen a mirror in awhile. “Wanna break me out of here?”

“Tell you what, Little Roo, how about we wait for the doctor to tell us it’s okay?”

“If you insist.” I fold my arms across my chest. I’m doing better about not beating myself with my wrist cast though.

“Afraid so, Kels. I don’t want to risk hurting you or slowing up your recovery. Especially not when you’re doing so well.” She leans in to give me a little kiss. “We don’t want to do anything to mess that up now, do we?”

“I hate it when you’re right.”

“You must hate life often then,” she teases.

* * *

I watch as she grits her teeth and closes her eyes against the pain. The tech isn’t purposely hurting her, but her knee needs to be exercised and this is her first day of therapy since the surgery.

I’m here because I need to learn how to help her do her exercises. A big part of me wonders if I’ll be able to do this to her if it’s going to cause her that kind of pain. She’s been hurt enough. The last thing I want to do is add to it.

Though it was nice to be the one to tell her that her father called and said he loved her. She looked a bit surprised at the endearment, but it seemed to make her feel better.

“Break,” she whispers after about ten minutes. He very gently places her leg back on the bed. Her breathing is shallow and I can see the tears in her eyes. “Thanks.”

“No problem, Miss Stanton. I told you we’d take it easy to begin with.”

She nods, wiping away a tear as it starts to fall down her cheek. “It really hurts.”

“I know it does, but, with therapy and time, the pain will go away.”

“Okay,” she nods, her breathing back to normal. “Let’s get back to it. I want it over with for today.”

He looks to me. “You want to do this round? I’ll talk you through it.”

I look to Kels for her permission. I can understand if she doesn’t want a rank amateur working on her the first time out. She shrugs, and I make my decision. “Sure,” I tell him, rubbing my hand together to warm them.

I take her leg in my hands and begin the routine with him talking me through it. I can tell she’s in pain, but she handles it well, keeping me from feeling worse than I do. I finish the routine and we replace the brace around her leg.

“Do you want something for the pain?” the young man asks, making a note on her chart.

“No. Tired of being doped up.”

“I’ll have them bring you some Tylenol, at least.”

“Okay,” she groans, her head dropping back to her pillow. “And maybe a new knee too.”

He laughs. “I’ll see what I can do for you, Miss Stanton.” As he walks out the door, in comes an Armani clad woman.

She takes a few steps in, puts her briefcase down on a vacant seat and smiles. “Hey there, champ.”

Kelsey smiles in return. “Foster! What brings you here from New York?”

Ah, this is Foster McGovern, Kels’ agent. And mine, by proxy. She’s tall, athletic looking and has green eyes, the same color as Kels. She seems vaguely familiar, I must have met her at one of the annual broadcasters’ conventions.

She turns to me and extends her hand, “Harper, good to see you again.”

Yup, guess so. “Hi, Foster.”

“Well, I have good news for you both.”

I note that she has a slight Southern accent. I like her.

“Well, the only thing that would get me to this smog-infested, over-hyped, make-believe city is to tell you that CBS has met all your terms. And I have the offer letters to prove it.”

“Yes!” I pump my fist by my side. I bound over to Kels’ side and give her a big kiss. This is the best news we’ve had in weeks. Our new life will actually begin. Soon.

Kels kisses me back enthusiastically. She’s relieved as well.

“Thank you, Foster,” Kels says when we break off. “You don’t know how much I appreciate it.”

“You appreciate it a lot, based on the fee I’ll be collecting on this one.” She goes to her briefcase and pulls out the letters in question. “Let’s go over the highlights. First, and most importantly, Harper is assigned to be your Executive Producer on all your stories. Guaranteed. Of course, Harper, you know this will make things a bit more difficult on you there, at first.”

I nod. “I know.” At Kels’ quizzical look, I explain, “It looks like I’m riding your coattails, sweetheart.”

“But we know you’re not. I mean, all they have to do is look at our work together. Jesus, we know that the studio submitted the anthrax and Omaha stories for Peabody Award consideration.”

I shrug. “I know. I’m not concerned about it, at all.” I take her hand in mine. “Go on, Foster.”

“Second, no more ‘morals’ clause concern for either of you. I had it reworded so that basically you’d have to sleep with an elephant, have it caught on videotape and broadcast before they can fire you for moral reasons. Also, the brass knows you’re a couple. As long as you don’t make it an issue, or let the tabloids make it one, they won’t either.”

“So we can’t pull an Ellen and Anne and make out in front of the President, eh?” I ask.

Foster frowns. “I would advise against it. Besides, he might try to join in, knowing the fella. Hell, he might try to join in if you did do something with the elephant.”

We all share a good laugh.

“The rest is pretty standard – vacation, benefits, stock options, signing bonus, relocation expenses, compensation structure. They want you as soon as you’re medically able. Actually, they want you before then, but they’ll take what they can.”

“Thanks, Foster. You did a great job.”

She shrugs. “It’s easy when I have great clients. I just went in there and did my brass balls negotiating tactics. They fell in to line pretty quickly. And, they paid out more than I think even they expected.” She hands over our offers.

I scan down to my compensation. Shit. She is good. It’s five times what I’m making now. I glance at Kels’ letter. Okay. It’s half of what Kels will be making. Don’t freak out, Harper. Talent gets all the money, you know that. She was making more than you before. Now, she’s just still making more than you. At a higher level.

And it doesn’t include all the money I have in investments. I mean, I probably have a higher net worth than Kels since I’ve been investing since I was born. Well, not me, but Papa for me.

Argh! Knock it off you insecure, two year old. Kels has never even mentioned money around you. And it’s not like you’ll be hurting for anything.

“Harper?” Kels says softly, bringing me back to the present.

“Yeah?”

“Everything okay?”

I kiss her nose. “Everything is perfect.”

* * *

The doctor gave Kels a nice shot of valium before the flight. She’s very relaxed as we settle into our seats on the plane. It’s late and we’re going to be getting in very early in the morning, but I wanted a flight that wouldn’t be overly crowded and would afford us a reasonable amount of privacy. Even in first class, that can be hard to come by. I’m pleased to see we have the cabin to ourselves so far.

We had to dodge the damn paparazzi when we left the hospital. You’d think that a month would have been enough time for them to forget about her but apparently not. Bear did a good job running interference for us, and CJ drove us to the airport in a squad car. It’s always good to have cops as friends … and lawyers as brothers. Gerrard already has a restraining order issued against the most aggressive of the paparazzi. Robie is looking into suing a couple of the rags for libel based on their reporting over the last month.

Of course, having great parents is also a good thing. Mama and Papa went home earlier this week to ready the house for us. I even got them agree to bring Trouble out for me. I managed to convince Papa not to do any construction. We’ll have a wheelchair for Kels, but only if we go out for extended periods of time. Otherwise, she’s to get around on her walking cast and a cane. Lord knows, all of us want to baby her, but the therapist warned against it. Better to help her get well.

I open up one of our bags and pull out a small quilt from home. I tuck it around her as the other passengers begin boarding. I’m grateful when all but one of them proceed to coach. Kels is still a little self-conscious about being seen, despite the fact that all the bruises have faded.

Kels opens her eyes and gives me a little smile. “Hey, Tabloid.”

“Hey, Little Roo.”

“Are we there yet?”

“Well, we’re on our way, sweetheart. Or at least we will be in a few minutes.”

“Good.” She pulls my hand under the blanket, then settles against my shoulder. “Can’t wait to get home.”

“That makes two of us, chér.”

* * *

It is very late when we get in, or very early, depending on how you want to look at it. I have to carry Kels off the plane. The valium certainly did a number on her. She’s sound asleep in my arms, snoring again. I keep the quilt carefully tucked round her to obscure her face. I simply don’t trust the paparazzi. I’m sure they’re lurking around here somewhere. Bastards.

One of the stewardesses is behind me with our carry on luggage. I see Mama and Papa are here to meet us, even though I told them not to. I should have known better. Papa quick comes over and takes the bags from the stewardess, thanking her for her help.

We begin walking through the terminal to the parking garage. I shipped all of our luggage federal express earlier today so we wouldn’t have to deal with bags this morning. It’ll all be at the house by the time we get there. I may fly like this more often, actually.

Mama rubs my back as we walk. “You look exhausted.”

“A little tired, I’ll admit.”

“Then let’s get you home.”

That is the best offer I’ve had in awhile.

* * *

We’re at home. For the first time in over a month, I feel the tension gone from my neck and shoulders. I’ve been instructed to have a shower and get some sleep. The rest of the family is coming over this afternoon to see us. Kels will be glad for that. I know she’s been wanting to see Christian again.

I’ve settled her into the big, old feather bed. I sit on the edge of the mattress and watch her sleep. I slide the covers over her and give her a little kiss before I go shower.

She stirs, opening her eyes. “Home?”

“Don’t you feel that bed under you? And don’t you hear that loud purring machine over there?”

She glances over at the fat cat sitting in a patch of light, then snuggles down into the comforter. “Oh yeah, we’re home.”

“That we are.” I start to get up.

“Come to bed,” she commands, holding out her hand.

“Huh?”

“Come to bed.”

“I’m going to take a quick shower.” I tell her with a kiss.

Kels looks panicked. “Then you’re coming back here, right? To this bed? To me?”

“Of course I am, chér.” It looks like she’s going to cry. “What’s wrong? Are you in pain?”

“I’m afraid,” she whispers.

I can barely hear her, so I get closer. “Afraid? Afraid of what, Kels? That bastard is dead and, I swear, no one will ever get close enough to hurt you again.” Cross my heart and hope to die, literally.

“No, I was afraid you wouldn’t want to.” She sniffs, her tears are falling freely now.

“Oh, baby. What wouldn’t I want to do?”

“Be with me. Because of what happened. Because he…”

I can’t take it anymore and I pull her into my arms. “No, no, no, no, darlin’. I’m coming to bed, coming back to you, I promise. It’s just I smell bad and you wouldn’t be able to stand me.” I offer with a little laugh to try and ease her doubts. “Mama told me I had to shower before I get in there with you.”

“Okay, if Mama said you had to.” She wipes away her tears. “I’m sorry for being so silly.”

“Don’t you be sorry about that. If you ever need reassurance, you let me know. Deal?”

She smiles. “Deal.”

* * *

I’m not sure what time it is, and, quite frankly, I don’t care. All I need to know is we are home and Harper is in bed with me, curled up at my side with her arm securely draped over my waist. I pull her hand up to hold it under my chin, kissing her fingers. Just being here in New Orleans with her eases some of the pain in my mind and body. I am very content.

She groans a bit, and her fingers tickle the base of my neck. “You awake?” she mumbles in my ear.

“Uh huh.”

“Finally.”

“I’m going to try and move my leg a bit.” I give her fair warning so she can give me a lot of room.

We readjust and I grit my teeth as I shift, trying to straight out my leg. Having to sleep with it propped up on a couple pillows is a pain. I never seem to be able to completely relax my hip that way. And, I really prefer to sleep on my side, but it’ll be a couple more weeks before I can do that.

Harper props up herself on her elbow, looking down at me. I note that her bangs have grown too long. She certainly never left my side to get a haircut. “How do you feel?”

“Not bad, considering. Being here is wonderful.” I can hear the activity in the house below. I remember Harper said something about her brothers coming over today. I can’t wait to see everyone. And take my seat in the kitchen.

“It certainly is. I won’t argue with you.”

“Well, there’s a first,” I tease. “How long can we stay?”

“Until you feel well enough to go to New York. Although, I was thinking we could go up to the city ahead of time and do some apartment hunting before our move. Give us a little time to familiarize ourselves with the place. And, of course, to sign our big, new contracts.”

“We got a good deal there, didn’t we?”

“Oh you better believe it, Little Roo.”

“A nice fresh start, just what we need. Or at least what I need.”

“It’s best for both of us, Kels.”

I look up into her clear blue eyes and I feel all of my emotions run up and grab me by the throat. “You’re all I have left, Harper. He took everything.”

She smiles, but shakes her head. “No, he didn’t, sweetheart. It just feels that way right now.”

“He took my job, my car, my apartment … my family, my security. Everything.”

“Chér, you’re only a victim if you choose to be. And, with the exception of Erik, everything else doesn’t matter. It’s all replaceable. And, for what he did to Erik, I hope he burns in hell for all eternity. But, Kels, you have a new network job with nationwide exposure. Your car was due to come off lease soon anyway, and insurance paid for it. We’ll get a great apartment in New York. And, there’s no such thing as perfect safety. Bad things happens. But, like they say, it’s not how many times you get knocked down that matters, but how many times you get up.”

“Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down, eh?” I quote the old toy ad. I imagine myself as a Weeble and immediately decide to go on a diet.

“Exactly.”

“So,” I tug on her hand, interlacing our fingers together. “I take it we’re moving in together?”

“Ah, well, I had hoped so.” Harper blushes and studies the down comforter. “I mean, well, I guess you would want to be asked. And this isn’t really the most romantic setting for that. I just kinda assumed, given everything that’s happened lately. But, I suppose, I shouldn’t have. I mean, you might want to have your own space for awhile …”

“Harper,” I try to interrupt.

“And I could understand that. I don’t want to force you into anything. I’m not real good at this whole relationship thing, don’t have a really good track record, you know. Hell, I don’t even have a track record. I’ve never even thought about living with anyone, except my cat …”

I put my hand over her mouth to stop this flood of insecurity. I never expected to hear that from Harper. “I don’t think I could stand to live without you,” I say simply.

I feel her lips under my hand transform into a smile. Her cocky edge comes back immediately as well. Perhaps I overstated my case.

“Glad to hear it.” She kisses my palm. “It makes sense, seeing how I’m perfect and all.”

“Huh?” I tease.

“Oh, you don’t remember, do you?” She replies, obviously knowing something I don’t.

“What? Tell me, Tabloid. Don’t make me hurt you,” I mock threaten. I slide my hand under her T-shirt and hook my finger through her navel ring, giving it a gentle tug.

“Be nice!” she growls.

“Tell me!”

“The other day, when you had your surgery, you told me I was perfect.”

“Oh that.” I release the ring and give her stomach a little caress. “You can’t hold me to that. I was under the influence of heavy drugs.”

“You said you loved me, too.”

“Well, that you can hold me to, because it’s true. The other, sadly, isn’t.” I capture her lips with mine, trying to ease the blow to her ego. “Now, can you give me a hand in the bathroom, so I can get presentable for your family?”

“I’ll give you two hands,” she leers.

* * *

At least the walking cast can come off for showers. This is a good thing since the plaster one on my wrist is really annoying me. I have to swaddle it under what feels like a thousand layers of plastic while I get cleaned up. I’d be a real bitch on wheels if I had to deal with two casts I couldn’t get out of.

After a nice shower, nice only because I had help, we found a pair of sweats I can be comfortable in and look halfway presentable. Okay, so it’s not the best look I’ve ever had, but I’m having a hard enough time as it is without trying to look like a million bucks too.

“You ready to test the water, Little Roo?” Harper gives me a little smile, handing me my cane.

“I guess so.” I take it from her, gripping it for a moment or two before I find enough courage to actually try to stand up. “Oh, shit, that hurts!” I want to collapse and just stay in bed. Tears immediately spring to my eyes and I really, really, don’t want to go any further.

“You okay?” Harper places a gentle hand on my arm.

“Yeah, it just hurts.” I pause as I take my first real steps. “A lot.” Stop being a wimp, Kelsey. “Come on, Tabloid. I need tea.” She chuckles and moves in behind me to make sure I don’t fall on my face. I’ll have to make sure to thank her properly when I feel better.

I feel a little guilty on that front. We certainly haven’t been intimate since all this happened and I’m not sure when I’ll be able to again. There so much swirling around in my mind right now. I think I want to, then when I think about it more, I get scared and nervous. I hope I can pull it together before I force her away from me for ‘greener pastures’. I don’t think Harper has been without sex for six weeks since she turned eighteen.

I stop at the top of the stairs and look at them. “Uh, Tabloid?”

“Yeah?”

I shake my head. “I can’t do this. I’ll never make it down the steps.”

“Well, I know I’m not supposed to baby you, but…” It only takes a second for me to register the fact she has scooped me up in her arms. God, she’s strong. “I think an occasional lift is okay. Hold tight.”

Oh, I intend to, Tabloid, don’t worry about that.

She eases me back to my feet at the bottom. “There you go.” She watches me teeter a bit, still ready to catch me. We walk toward the kitchen where I can hear the sounds of laughter. I think all the sisters are in there.

Standing at the end of the hall is my favorite little Kingsley guy. He’s dressed in a pair of Osh Kosh overalls and a little white polo shirt. His dark hair is slicked back, like he’s going to Sunday services, and he has a very serious expression on his face. “Christian! C’mere, you!” I call out.

Suddenly, he transforms, breaking into a huge smile. To my delight, he starts running down the hall toward me, his arms opening wide. I don’t know how or why it happened, but I fell in love with this child the second I laid eyes on him.

Christian stops just short of me, failing to wrap his arms around my legs like he has the other times I’ve been here. The cast must worry him.

“It’s okay, sweetheart, c’mere and give me a hug.” I lean over with Harper’s help and give him a tight hug. “I’ve missed you.”

His little arms clasp at my neck. “Missed you too, Aunt Kels.”

Aunt Kels?

Where did that come from?

I blink back tears and kiss his cheek.

Actually, I don’t care where it came from. I love it. I’ve never been an aunt before.

I manage to hold Christian’s hand with the tips of the fingers extending from my cast as we continue into the kitchen. He’s very patient and gentle with me for someone so young. God, he’s sweet.

Once inside the threshold, I pause for a second, absorbing the warmth of the room’s occupants. All of them look over and stop their conversation, smiling at me. I turn to Harper. “You can go now, sweetheart.”

The look of confusion on her face is priceless. Rene and Rachel come over to help me to my seat, and Mama pulls out my chair. Harper tries to follow, but Rene places a hand on her chest. “You’ve been dismissed, Harper. Go play with the boys.”

“Hey! Wait a…” she starts to protest.

“Nope,” Rene cuts her off. “Out! This is no place for you. Go see your brothers.”

Harper watches as I take my place and pull Christian into my lap, kissing his hair.

“How come he gets to stay?” she sputters.

Rene looks pointedly over at her son and then her sister-in-law. “Because he’s three years old, Harper.” She holds up her hand to forestall any further comment. “And, before you ask, acting like one doesn’t count. Scram!” With surprising strength, she shoves Harper out the door.

Mama puts a cup of hot tea in my good hand and Christian snuggles up against me.

It’s good to be home.
Episode Three: Start Spreading the News
“So? Come on, Kels, what do think of the place?” I raise my eyebrows in expectation, biting the inside of my lip, waiting for her answer.

“It’s,” she pauses, knowing she’s torturing me no end, “beautiful, Harper. Let’s do it. Let’s buy it.”

Yes! I do a mental happy dance. I fell in love with this place from the moment we walked in. It’s a beautiful three bedroom, three and half bath apartment located on Fifth Avenue, at the corner of Eightieth. The neighborhood is Central Park across the street, the Metropolitan Museum of Art three blocks to the right, and the rest of Museum Mile to the left. I love the Met. It’s my second favorite museum, after the Louvre. Just as New York is my second favorite city, after Paris. New Orleans as supreme, ultimate city in the world goes without saying. It’s home.

The apartment building is what New Yorkers call “Pre-War”, indicating it was built before World War Two. This translates into good construction and design. Our wonderful real estate agent brought us to this duplex on the sixteenth and seventeenth floors and we haven’t left since. I love the terrace that overlooks the Park especially.

Oh yeah, I could live here. “You’re sure?” I give her anther chance to bow out gracefully, before we can’t turn back.

She wraps her arms around my waist, running her hands up and down my back, and lays her head on my shoulder. “Absolutely sure. We will make a beautiful home here.”

Home. Who would have thought I’d be making a home with anyone but Trouble?

I found out the other day that Lucien had to give my other brothers new watches. Apparently, he bet against me and Kelsey lasting past Christmas. Glad to have proven him wrong. Bastard. And glad Gerrard, Jean and Robie believed in me a bit more.

To get Lucien in further hot water, I told Mama what he did. She’s still not speaking to him.

Holding her a bit tighter, I kiss her blonde hair. Kels is right. We will be very happy here. I personally like the working fireplace in the family room. I have fond memories of an evening in front of a fireplace with Kels.

Don’t go there, Harper. She’ll let you know when she’s ready for that again. God, I hope it’s soon.

Okay, I can’t continue to stand here, hold her and think sexual thoughts. Otherwise, our little real estate agent will see us christening one of the rooms of our new house. “Let’s go tell her she just made a helluva commission, babe.” I take Kels by the hand and lead her into the kitchen where Cindy has made herself inconspicuous. I like that about her. She gave us a brief tour, answered our questions, and then left us alone. I’d recommend her to all my friends. If I had any in New York.

I miss Bear, especially. Will I find a new Rio to hang out in? Will Kels even let me hang out at a bar? Or are these four walls be all I’m going to see here in New York?

“So, what do you think?” Cindy asks as we enter the kitchen. She closes her personal planner and slips it back into her purse.

“We’d like to make an offer on the apartment.”

She smiles, mentally calculating her commission. “Great! I knew you’d love this place! And, with your pre-approval, we should be able to go to contract in the next day or two.”

Before we came up here, Kels and I went to the bank where my father has our family accounts and were pre-approved for a mortgage up to four million dollars. That little piece of paper has made our house-hunting expedition quite easy. “I gave you my brother’s business card, right? Everything should be sent to him for review.”

“Let me get started on it, right now.” Cindy is excited, pulling out her cell phone and punching in the number of the owner of the apartment.

While she is occupied, Kelsey kisses the base of my throat, earning my full attention. “Welcome home, Harper.”

* * *

I am so glad that I no longer want to cry with every step. I still limp a bit, and need my cane to get around, but I can finally dress in a professional manner. I even have hose on today. Never before have I enjoyed putting on a pair of nylons more than I did this morning. I didn’t even mind trying to do it with the cast on my hand.

I drove Harper insane this morning while I got ready. I don’t think she’s ever had to wait so long for me before. I had to do my hair and makeup myself. That was a royal pain in the ass. I had to do it one handed, and with the wrong hand, to boot. But it has to be perfect. Today we’re signing our contracts.

If you’re an on-air personality, events like these are geared to the media. Whenever new talent is signed, the brass makes a big deal out of it. So some of the print media will be there – the Times, Post and Newsday, for sure – and so will ET, E! and Access Hollywood. Harper’s had to put up with me being nervous, anxious, and slightly bitchy about it. But, she’s being grumpily sweet about the whole thing.

Harper has it easy. New producers are announced in the Radio Television News Directors Association magazine, and may get a one line acknowledgment in the larger papers’ TV columns. Her contract signing will be done quietly in an office without flashing lights or nosy questions. I am not so lucky.

Foster, our agent, came to get us at The Stanhope and then the limousine brought us all over to the network. We are riding up the elevator to the thirtieth floor, the decision-makers’ floor, for the official signing.

Harper steps off the elevator first, holding the door open for me. She’s dressed in a black Armani pantsuit, a black turtleneck and a new long, black, wool coat. The only hint of color on her body is the maroon scarf I bought her. It really looks good.

She really looks good. Damn good. Good enough to… Oh, Kels, don’t go there.

Of course, the black outfit is her own personal strategy to make sure she doesn’t attract any attention at the press conference, even in the background. She knows how hard it is to shoot someone wearing black. If she’s a poor visual, they won’t get her in the frame and awaken some papparazzi’s suspicions about our relationship. Sneaky, she is.

When she’s sure I’m clear of the elevator door, she pulls off her gloves and stuffs them in her pocket. “Ready?” She gives me a huge grin. While she knows I hate this event, she really is excited about our new opportunity.

I nod, pausing in our walk long enough to remove my gloves as well, before reclaiming my cane. “Absolutely.”

Foster pipes up. “Me too.”

Harper rolls her eyes at Foster. “Of course you are.”

I gently tap Harper with my cane, teasing her. “Play nice with the agent, dear.”

As we approach the receptionist’s desk, Kevin Daly, the head of network news, walks over to us, hand outstretched. “Kelsey! Harper! It’s a pleasure to have you both here finally!” He shakes my left hand awkwardly, mindful of my cast. After greeting Harper, he smiles at Foster. “We put together a good deal, Foster, always enjoy working with you.”

“I was glad to see it work out as well, Kev.”

He turns his attention back to us. “We have everyone inside the conference room. We’ll do Kelsey’s contract signing, answer a couple questions, and then show you around the place. Later, we have style sitting planned for Kelsey and a production staff meeting for Harper after the tour. Today only Kendra and Bruce are here in New York. Larry and Sam are both out on assignment.”

“Sounds great,” Harper replies.

“But, first, let’s get you taken care of, Harper,” Kevin says as he leads us into a large corner office, where her contract is laid out on the desk. About 45 seconds of signing and passing papers back and forth and her contract is executed. I wish I were as lucky.

There’s something about starting a new job that always make you feel like you’re transferring to a new school. That’s one thing I guess I can thank my mother for: I’m never quite as nervous as most people.

Of course, that doesn’t stop my stomach from doing the rumba when Kevin ushers me into the conference room. Lucky Harper slips into the back of the room and stands in the shadows, leaning against the wall. The large mahogany conference room table is surrounded by men in suits and men with camera equipment. The suits rise from the table when we enter. I recognize the one at the head of the table, it’s John Lawson Roth III, the president of the network. John Lawson Roth II owns the network.

I join him, sitting down, as he makes a production of presenting the contract. Foster leans over and glances at it quickly, confirming the contents, and she pats my back in reassurance.

Lights turn on, cameras and microphones are trained on us, and the press conference begins.

John makes the most of his executive presence and deep voice. “Good morning. CBS is excited to be gaining one of the brightest talents in the news industry today with the signing of Kelsey Diane Stanton with Exposure, the lead weekly news magazine of this or any other network. Kelsey is the recipient of two Emmys for her live reporting, and she has been nominated for Peabody award for her live reporting during the Omaha siege. She has long been someone you can trust to tell you the truth and we are delighted to have her join our team. Joining us as Kelsey’s senior producer is Harper Kingsley. Harper has forged a career based on her fearless pursuit of a story. She has been nominated for a Peabody as the producer of the Omaha story, as well as the New Year’s Eve anthrax crisis which faced our fair city. We are delighted to have this formidable duo join our team. We wish them a long and successful career with us.”

There is polite applause in the room.

John hands me a gold plated fountain pen and I sign my name on the contract.

It’s a damn good thing I have so many witnesses to my signature, because that sure doesn’t look like it. I did the best I could considering the cast.

Signed, sealed and delivered, I’m theirs.

I pose for several still photographs and then begin taking questions. “What are the basic terms of the contract?”

Kevin replies on behalf of the network. “Standard terms and conditions. Compensation for Ms. Stanton is $2.5 million a year, with renewable options.”

Foster grins like a Cheshire cat. She did really well on our behalf and that means all her other clients can expect the same on the ever upward-spiraling pay scale.

“When will Kelsey begin appearing on ‘Exposure’?”

Kevin continues to handle the questions. “We expect Kelsey to begin appearing on the show starting on March 30 broadcast. However, she and Harper will be with us in production prior to that.”

“How are you feeling, Kelsey?”

Guess he can’t answer that one. “Much better, thank you. Ready to get back to work.” I keep my reply brief. I don’t want that to become the focus of this session.

“Ms. Stanton, how will your recent experience as the victim of a serial killer impact on your ability to report effectively and without bias?”

Oh shit, that one had to be expected. I just wish I didn’t even have to address this. Taking a deep breath, I reply, “Crimes of any type exact terrible prices from the victims. I have always been known for my ability to see the victim’s perspective. But, I am also a professional, able to present both sides, so that we can see how we as a society can better deal with these kinds of issues. I believe my personal experience will simply allow me greater insight into situations like these. I will be a better reporter because of it.”

That response was straight from the PR dweeb who prepped me for this little goat rope.

“Ms. Stanton, we understand that you knew your assailant and that you were the one who killed him. Would you tell us what happened?”

This is not an entertainment reporter. That question was asked by Mark Hellman, the top crime reporter from the LA Times. How the hell did he get in here?

I start to panic.

I scan the room. Yes. There. Found my favorite pair of blue eyes. Complete with one arched eyebrow.

“Mark, it’s good to see you again. I’m flattered that you’ve come all the way from LA to see me begin my new job. But, you must know that the case is still open in the courts and that I am not in a position to say anything about it. Nor is it germane to the work I will be doing for CBS as part of the “Exposure” team.”

I am worried my voice is going to crack as I answer him so I am shocked to hear myself speaking clearly and coolly.

The rest of the questions are typical. A few are about the differences between local and national news, although for us, that’s a moot point. We’ve been doing the same kind of stories for KNBC as we will be doing for Exposure. A few more are to my new boss about how he would use my skills. He evaded those neatly. The closing question is an easy one.

“How do you like New York so far?” someone else asks.

I answer that one with a wry smile. “I will always be eternally grateful to be out of LA.”

There is a round of laughter and, mercifully, the press conference is over.

Harper slips out the back door while the reporters mill around and collect their stuff. I do the meet and greet routine, shaking hands and saying a word or two politely to some of the big name reporters, then make my exit with the suits.

Harper got off easy.

* * *

We do the standard nickel and dime tour of the studio. Seen one, seen ’em all. Fortunately, Kevin doesn’t draw it out, he’s got better things to do with his time. He just walks us around, points out the bathrooms, shows us where our offices are, and now it’s time for our meetings. Heading toward the conference room, I go through the front offices of Exposure, past all the head shots of the Talent.

Ugh, I gotta stop doing that! Talent is not a nice word, Talent is not a nice word. You are living with one of the Talent.

The first photo is of Lawrence Booth, a good-looking man in his late forties. His hair is dark and graying only a little bit at the temples. He’s the senior correspondent of the show and the anchor of each broadcast. At one time, it was rumored he’d be the next network anchor, but something happened to derail that career track. I think I’ll do a little poking around and find out what happened. I’d hate for anything similar to impede Kels’ career.

Next on the wall is Bruce Bartlett, the ‘face’ on the show who’s not much older than I am. He’s an extremely good looking guy, designed to grab the demographic of females between birth and death. He supposedly appeals to everyone of the gender.

I don’t get it, he doesn’t do a damn thing for me.

I laugh at my own joke. It’s nice to be sleeping with the woman who’ll draw all the women old Bruce doesn’t. She certainly reeled me in hook, line and sinker.

Following his picture is one of Kendra Hayes, a very attractive African American woman who joined the show from Atlanta. She made a name for herself reporting on the church burnings in the South in the late nineties, winning several awards in the process. She’s touted as the next Oprah Winfrey. Wonder if she is in a book club?

The last photo is of Samuel Fuentes. I don’t know much about him other than his youngest son is deaf. I’ve seen him in several public service announcements about his son’s disability. He seems like a good guy. Of course, in this business, you never can tell.

The news industry is a place where they teach sharks how to bite.

Just no one better go after my ass. Or Kels’.

* * *

It’s a typical style sitting. Except that Exposure apparently does like to take care of the on air personalities and we have a relatively nice lunch buffet while we wait to be measured, poked, prodded and color matched. I’m betting Harper is getting cold coffee and stale doughnuts, if she’s lucky. I’ll have to make up a little plate and put it in my fridge for her. She gets cranky when she’s not well fed.

I hate these things. Besides, how damn hard can it be to figure out? We are the typical news rainbow, with a nice variety of skin pigmentation. We’re all above average in looks and below average in weight. And, once you’ve been typed one time, it doesn’t really ever change. I mean, a “fall” isn’t suddenly going to become a “winter”. I just want to take the make-up and wardrobe staffs, shake them all collectively, and say to them, ‘It’s not that difficult people!’

How to win friends and influence people on your first day on the job.

They’re taking a look at Bruce at the moment, holding up material swatches and color cards for hair and make up. He looks over and gives me a lecherous grin as they slip him into a suit jacket.

Oh boy, buddy, don’t go there. My senior producer will tie you in little knots for what you’re even thinking. Actually, she’ll drag you up every flight of stairs in the Empire State Building and toss your ass off it.

I break eye contact, not wanting to encourage his suicidal tendencies, and pour myself a cup of tea. I wander over and take a seat next to Kendra Hayes. She smiles at me from behind her water bottle. She offers me her left hand without any awkwardness to make shaking easier for me. “Hi. Welcome aboard.”

“Hi. Kelsey Sta….”

“Oh, we all know who you are.” She takes a long swallow of water.

I lift my brow. I shouldn’t be surprised. Same shit, different network I glance at my wristwatch. The honeymoon lasted exactly one hour forty-seven minutes. A new record. “Is that good or bad?”

“I guess that depends on you. I’m not here to make assumptions, Kelsey, or judgments.”

Yeah, right. So that wasn’t an assumption or judgment?

“Let’s just say that some of the crew is less than delighted.”

I snort a bit. “So what else is new? What seems to be the problem here? Am I still the fire-breathing bitch dragon from LA? Or is there a new one?”

“Nope, just the fire-breathing bitch dragon from LA stuff.” She settles back in her chair and winks. “You know how it is. Men move forward and they’re considered strategic, gutsy, career-minded. We move forward and we’re ball busters or screwing the head of network news. You know how the game is played.”

After ten years, I sure do. “I got ya. So they think I’m here to try and take over?”

She shrugs. “Well, there is some concern that you’re going to outdo everyone else.”

“If I do, it’ll only be because I work my ass off.” I smirk. “And because I am better than everyone.”

Kendra laughs, a low, warm sound. I wonder if she sings. “I gotcha. I feel the same way. Let me be honest, Kelsey, I’m not into the politics and the mind games. Doesn’t mean I don’t know how to protect myself, though. Nor does it mean I don’t care about my career. But, it would be nice to actually have a pleasant, professional relationship with another woman for once. I kind of hope we can be friends.”

I meet her eyes steadily and nod slowly. “I think we’re gonna be just fine, Kendra.”

“Good.”

They release Bruce and call Kendra over. She caps her water bottle and sets it aside, moving with natural grace. I give her a supportive little smile as she takes a seat in the make-up chair.

Bruce takes the seat she just vacated and winks at me.

Oh shit. I mentally shake my head as he offers me his hand. Be nice, Kels, he’s an idiot.

* * *

So, technically, it’s my first day on the job. Sign the contract and plunge into the deep end. It feels good to be back at work. Comfortable. And, believe it or not, a helluva lot less stress.

The past few weeks have been way out of my range of experience. The controlled chaos of a news room, the contention of a story meeting are much more my style. I know what I’m doing here.

The story meeting goes pretty much as I expect. We toss ideas around to see what we can come up with. The Executive Producer will come in later to add his comments. It’s a power thing. Make us wait. And make us do the work.

There’s quite an interesting assortment of people in the room.

First are the segment producers, who are an entirely mixed bag. I’ll worry about learning all their names later, when I have to interact with them more frequently. There are six of them.

Two are young and intense types, fresh out of Mizlou or Washington. They probably spent a couple of years at local stations in one of the top ten markets. They are ambitious and they want awards. I’ll have to show them the Peabody after I win it this year. I doubt if they have lives outside of the news room.

I smirk. I wouldn’t know a thing about that.

Another is a slightly squat, slightly rumpled looking, middle-aged woman. She’s probably at the peak of her career; this is as high as she’s ever going to go. But, most likely, she’s a sound workman, nothing earthshaking, but reliable as hell.

We have Joe Cool personified sitting at the end of the table. His ebony colored skin looks polished to a shine, just like his shoes. I bet the girls fall all over him.

The fifth is a slender Hispanic man. He looks very controlled. His shirt and pants are crisply pressed, his tie tight around his throat, his hair immaculately combed. I wonder what he’s like when he can’t get his way?

Finally, rounding out their bunch, is an older, nondescript white guy. He’s as interesting to look at as a bowl of corn flakes. I gotta remember never to have lunch with that guy. Unless I’m suffering from insomnia.

Now as for the other Senior Producers, I certainly know all their names. They are my peers on the show. Like me, and the correspondents, we all report into the Executive Producer. Each of us have several people on our staff, a production assistant and a researcher full-time, and segment and line producers as needed for our stories. While the Talent makes a lot more money than we do, we are the power behind the series. We don’t let them forget that either.

Now all I have to do is figure out my colleagues’ angles and I’m all set.

There’s Jaclyn Daniels, Jack for short. No, I’m not kidding. That really is her name. And it fits. I hear she drinks like a fish. Well, except that fish drink water. I don’t know when she’s last had that particular drink. She’s in her late thirties, but looks older. She’s got that nervous ‘I need a smoke’ twitch happening and I can smell the odor of cigarette smoke from five feet away. Fire marshals must cringe around her. It’s also rumored that she’ll sleep with anyone, male or female, she thinks can further her career. She apparently slept her way onto this show. I shudder at the thought. I’m so very glad I wasn’t a rung on that ladder.

Sitting beside me is Joshua Levy, mid-thirties and slightly balding. No doubt from pulling his hair out. That’ll happen to you in this business. I don’t know a lot about him personally. He’s been in the New York markets exclusively in his career. But I’ve seen his work. And it’s good.

Finally, there’s Doug Welsh. He’s the poster boy for WASP. Looks just like that guy who did the Irish Spring commercials in the seventies. Seems like a decent enough guy so far. At least, he hasn’t been spewing profanity every few seconds like some of the guys do. I wonder if he knows where there’s a good bar? He looks like the kinda guy who would have a neighborhood bar he’d hang out at.

And now in blows my new boss, Richard Langston. He’s in his late forties, maybe early fifties, short, medium brown hair with a sprinkle of gray, deep set, piercing, dark gray eyes, but enough energy in his 5’6″ package to light up the entire island of Manhattan. He thrives on stress and he is in his element here. He puts down his coffee mug on the table and I note that it’s filled with chocolate covered espresso beans.

Shit. Wonder if he’s able to sleep at night.

He takes his seat and barks, “All right, the Sunday rundown first. Where are we?”

He goes around the table, nodding and making notes. He occasionally dictates instructions or suggestions at the segment producers, curses once when a story he has planned for the kicker is clearly not panning out. We have a short discussion and identify a piece that has been sitting on the shelf as a viable alternative.

Then he gets to the interesting part: future story possibilities.

He runs around the table again. The Hispanic guy turns out to be the consumer reporter. He has a piece on the impact of rising oil prices on daily life. It gets immediate approval and absolutely no excitement.

The two eager beavers each have crime/sting style stories. One is on Medicare fraud. The other is on high priced hookers. The Medicare fraud story gets approved, the hookers turned down.

“We’ve had enough Hollywood madam stories, thank you,” Langston says acidly. “Try for something original.”

The middle-aged woman has a line on a personal interview with Tipper Gore. This is necessary during an election year, and possibly interesting because of Tipper’s commitment to mental health. It’s approved.

The stories ideas continue to hit the table, some get approved, some rejected. After he checks in with his established staff, he surprises me by asking what I am working on.

Put the new kid on the spot, I guess. The looks on the faces of the other Senior Producers tell me immediately that I have a problem. They all figure me for a hanger-on to the new Talent.

Screw you and the horses you rode in on.

“You know, we’ve been following cults now for a while. And two of our cult stories are up for awards. I’d like to take a look at some of the new age cults, Wiccans, pagans, American Zen, and see what is happening. Why are we turning away from traditional religions and beliefs?”

“Sounds interesting. Ok – follow it,” he grunts. He shuffles a few pieces of paper in front of him, deciding what to address first. “Now, let me fill you in on what I have. First, you will all be pleased to know that, this year, we will use one of the new kids in the Washington Bureau to cover the National Spelling Bee.”

This announcement is greeted with a round of applause and relieved laughter. Nobody wanted that dull as ditch water story, it’s worse than being assigned to do obits.

“Next, the Superfund Act comes up for renewal next year. I want to look at a series on waste management in America and other countries. This year is a green year. So I’ll put several of you on this one, each looking at various aspects of this problem.

“There’s an interesting case working its way through the courts right now, a man accused of brutally raping and killing several woman. He was convicted on the basis of DNA evidence alone, despite the fact he had several witnesses say he was somewhere else entirely when each of the murders took place. Based on the DNA, the jury gave him the death sentence. He maintains he’s innocent. I want to monitor the progress of his appeal, looking at justice issues and how the courts are adapting to new evidence techniques. His attorney is that Barry Scheck guy, from the OJ case, among others. This might be something up your alley, Kingsley.” He lifts his head to look me squarely in the eyes.

What’s that ad? Never let ‘em see you sweat.

I knew he’d test Kels and me. The money and risk were too great not to. Our award nominations themselves are enough to put us on the hard stuff first, if for no other reason than to confirm CBS has spent its money well. But this one is way too close to home.

Oh well, if either Little Roo or I fold under the strain of this one, it’s his head on the chopping block, not ours.

“Consider it done.” I nod, making a note on my legal pad. God, I’m glad we’re going home to New Orleans for Mardi Gras in a week. That’ll give me time to figure out how to break this news to Kels.

Langston turns back to the middle-aged woman. “In addition to the Tipper interview, I want interviews with all of the other potential first ladies. See to it. We will stay politically balanced on this program.

He continues, “We’re looking at the 30th anniversary of the trial of the Chicago 7. How about something on the changes in political involvement and protest in America , Generation X style?”

The nondescript guy nods. “I was in Chicago in ’68, and at the trial. I’ll take it.”

“Go for it. Oh, and about the holidays, start thinking now. I want something different for Memorial Day, not just the usual taps and flags. And maybe a look at new labor types instead of the usual union piece for Labor Day. Let’s do something interesting in history for the 4th – maybe what immigrants feel about Thanksgiving – and something quirky for Halloween. Maybe that’ll fit in with your cult thing, Kingsley. Think about it, troops. Now, lets go get this week’s show together.” He closes his portfolio with a snap, stands and strides out of the room.

I know I’m gonna like this man. He spoke in staccato dashes, but, by God, he knew his stuff.

* * *

We’re left alone after our meetings and allowed some time to settle into our offices. “Here you go, Miss Stanton.” Harper gives my nameplate a little polish with her sleeve before pushing the door to my office open.

I must say, it’s beautiful. I didn’t really appreciate how nice it was when Kevin pointed it out earlier this morning. It’s decorated in cherry wood and reproduction antiques, and it’s huge. I walk over to my desk and take a seat in the high back leather chair.

Harper is leaning on the doorway with a silly grin on her face. “You approve?”

“Oh yeah.”

Harper wanders over to an open door at the side of my office. She pokes her head in. “There’s a full bathroom here with a dressing area. There’s also a small fridge and a coffee pot.”

“I don’t drink coffee.” I remind her.

“Yeah, but I do, chér.” She wiggles her eyebrows at me. “And since we’ll be working closely together …”

“Uh huh,” I murmur. I begin poking through the desk drawers and come across a brightly wrapped box with a large, red ribbon tied around it. “Oh, shit!” I push back from the desk as if burned.

In a way, I was.

Harper kneels at my side in an instant. “What is it?” She takes my hands, and inspects them, thinking I’ve been injured.

I pull one free and point at the desk drawer, my finger shaking. I’m going to be sick. God, I thought I left this all behind. I thought he was dead. Not again. I can’t handle this again.

She looks in the drawer and sees the gift. Harper turns to me, a profoundly sad expression on her face. “Ah, damn, Kels, I’m so sorry.”

I throw my arms around her neck and hold her close, weeping on her shoulder. “I can’t do this again,” I sob. “Not again. I can’t see anyone else hurt because of me.”

“No, cher, it’s okay.” She rubs my back. “I’m an idiot and I’m so sorry. I asked Foster to put a gift in your office for me. I didn’t think she’d put it in a drawer. I wasn’t thinking. I only wanted to make this place a little homier for you.”

“It’s from you?” I manage between sobs.

“Uh huh, it is. I’m sorry, baby.”

She kisses below my ear, still holding me tight. I calm down, realizing this was only a mistake. After a few deep breaths, I give Harper’s shoulders a little squeeze and lean back in my chair, wiping at my eyes. “Do I look okay?” I ask, after a moment.

“Beautiful. I’m so sorry, Kels.”

I wave my hand. “It’s okay. I just wasn’t expecting that.”

“I should have been more explicit with Foster. I only wanted to surprise you.”

She has such a pained expression on her face, I can’t keep myself from stroking her cheek. “Don’t worry about it, Harper. I’m fine. And you’re very sweet. Can you hand me the box?”

“Sure,” she agrees, reaching into the drawer.

Finally composed, I unwrap the box to find two picture frames. The first one holds a picture of Erik and me, the same one I had in my office in Los Angeles. She put it in a new wooden frame that matches my new office décor. I get up and place it on the bookcase to my left, trailing my fingers over the glass for a moment, remembering my friend. I turn to Harper and smile. “Thank you.”

“There’s one more.” She gestures back to the box.

I remove another photo. Looking to Harper, she must see the confusion on my face.

“It was taken on Thanksgiving, in New Orleans.”

I look at it and try to remember when it was taken that weekend. Harper is standing beside me with one arm draped over my shoulders and I’m holding her hand, our fingers intertwined. We’re both laughing and obviously unaware anyone is taking our picture. It’s a wonderful shot. I didn’t even know it existed.

“Robie took it. He has a talent for this sort of thing. Most of the photos in the house, he took.”

“God, Harper, it’s beautiful.” I place the picture on my desk next to the phone. It looks perfect there. And, best yet, I’ll see it every time I sit down. “Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome. You want to hear the punch line?”

“Punch line?” I am confused.

“Yeah, that picture was taken on Thanksgiving, before the Celebration in the Oaks.”

“You mean before we…?” I wiggle my hand.

She laughs at my gesture. “Yes, before we … When Robie developed that roll of film on Friday morning, he and Rene decided we needed a well-placed kick in our butts.”

I remember our getting not-so-subtly ditched by them when we got to the carriage. “I’m glad they decided to do it.”

“So am I, chér, so am I.” She caresses my cheek and gives me a little kiss.

We are interrupted by a knock on my door. I jump back a bit. God, I’ve got to stop doing that. Things are different here. If I want to kiss my partner in the privacy of my office, anyone barging in does so at their own damn risk. “Sorry,” I whisper.

“It’s okay. At least you didn’t bite me.” She winks, knowing I’m really trying. Harper then moves away, taking a seat on the couch.

“Come in,” I call.

A young man enters my office, carrying a tray with three coffee mugs on it. Handing the first cup to Harper, he tilts his head back and forth a bit, grinning at her. “Coffee, black and strong, for you.” He then hands me a cup. “Earl Grey, with just a touch of honey.” He takes the third mug and tucks the tray under his arm. “Me? I’m a coffee man myself, cream and sugar. Just in case you’re ever doing the refills.”

Okay, you don’t need gaydar with this guy. They could never build a closet big enough to contain him. “And you are?”

“Brian Dixon, your executive assistant, Miss Stanton.” He sips his coffee, offering me his hand. “I hate the word secretary. Hope you don’t mind.”

I take his hand. “Well, you’ve already earned big points with me, Brian. So, no, I don’t mind. Though I am curious as to how you knew my preference.”

He glances meaningfully over at Harper. “A little birdie told me.”

“And call me Kelsey,” I add.

“Then you should call me Brian,” he replies. I watch with great amusement as he turns to appraise Harper from head to toe.

“And what should I call you, stud?” he asks her.

I laugh out loud. I can’t help it. I’m quick to cover my mouth when Harper gives me ‘the look’. God, I’m gonna like working with this guy after Gail. He’s gonna be fun.

“Harper will be just fine.”

“Fair enough.” He takes a seat on the edge of my desk. “Welcome to Exposure. If you need anything, just let me know. I know how to get everything and …” he leans in close to me and says in a mock whisper, “I know where all the bodies are buried.” He glances back and forth between us; for a moment, it looks as if he’s watching a tennis match. “How long have you two been together?”

Harper crosses her arms over her chest. “What makes you think we’re ‘together’?”

“Oh puuleease.” He rolls his eyes and then focuses on me. “Just looking at you two screams couple. Plus, tall, dark and brooding over there is wearing some of your lipstick. And, stud,” this he says to Harper, “it’s really not your shade.”

I laugh again as Harper angrily wipes off the offending makeup.

* * *

Harper excuses herself for a few minutes saying she needs to take care of some things and she doesn’t want me limping around the studio. It gives me the privacy to doing something that’s been on my mind for awhile.

“Brian, could you excuse me for a few? I have a personal call I need to make.”

“Absolutely, boss. If you need anything, just whistle.” He stops, puts his hands on his hips and strikes a pose. “And I know you know all about puckering up and blowing.” He laughs hysterically at his own joke and walks out the door, closing it behind him.

I look at the photo on my desk as I dial the number. God love Robie for taking that picture.

As the phone rings, I glance at my watch. I nearly forgot about the time change. Hmm, she should be home though. I’m about to hang up when she picks up.

“Hello?”

“Susan. Kelsey.”

It’s quiet for a moment. Then she clears her throat gently and speaks. “Hi ya, beautiful. How’s New York?”

“Cold as a well digger’s ass. Now, I remember why I moved to Los Angeles in the first place.” She laughs at the joke my Pa used whenever he and Ma would come rescue me during winter breaks at boarding school.

I hate this.

I continue, “I just wanted to call and uh, say uh well…”

“Yeah, yeah, Miss Big Network Newshow. I know. It’ been real and it’s been fun,” she jokes.

“Hey,” I interrupt softly. I am serious here. “It was real fun. Thank you.”

“Well, we on agreed casual. I make a great pull over.”

I’m not going to comment. I’m not going to think of her that way anymore. “Listen, I really like the fact that we parted as friends. I hope that we can always….”

“Oh yeah, absolutely!” she replies, a bit too brightly, but not insincere. “And the next time I’m in New York I’ll let you and Harper take me out for a really expensive dinner to prove it.”

“Deal.” I take a deep breath, tapping my cast very gently on the desk. “Could you make a professional recommendation for me?”

“I can try. I have several contacts and colleagues in the New York area. What do you need?”

* * *

Tabloid is headed for my office just as I am going out to find another cup of tea. Now that I have the information I need, I was going to have another cup of tea and give it some very serious thought.

Harper is carrying two black cases, grinning like a little kid.

“What?” I have to ask. She has that kind of grin.

“You ready to go?” she replies. “I’m all done for the day. How about you?”

“I’m all set. Just let me get my coat.”

Returning to my office, I tuck my badly scrawled notes in my desk drawer and lock it. I don’t know how thorough Brian is yet. Harper has set down the cases and picked up my coat from the couch where I had tossed it earlier. She helps me into my coat.

“Boy, don’t you look like the cat that swallowed the canary,” I tease.

“We’ve got a good thing going here, Little Roo.”

“So it would seem, sweetheart.” I gesture toward the bags. “What’s are those? You going somewhere?”

“Nope. Two brand new, top of the line laptops. Courtesy of Exposure.”

“I’m impressed.”

“You should be. I had to sell our first born to get them.” She jokes as we gather up our stuff and head for the elevator.

I take a deep breath as we wait and release it slowly.

“Tired, sweetheart?” she whispers, moving closer to me so I can discreetly lean against her.

“Yeah, a little. My knee is bothering me some. It’s not fond of this cold weather.”

“Why don’t we head back to the hotel and we can set you up with a sauna to take some of the ache out?”

“You know that’s just one of the many reasons I love you, Tabloid. You’re always so full of good ideas.”

She smiles at the praise, her blue eyes have simply been twinkling ever since we got to New York. That, in itself, is reason enough to make this move.

* * *

Back in our suite at The Stanhope, Kels is resting in the bedroom while I order up dinner. I think she’s forgotten that today is Valentine’s Day. But I didn’t. First off, Mama would never let me hear the end of it if I did. Second, it’s nice to have a Valentine.

She’s my first.

Imagine that. I actually still had a first left in my life.

I order up a romantic dinner, lots of finger foods, champagne, dessert. The restaurant here is Four Star, so I don’t feel deprived on our first Valentine’s together. Also, I know Kels is tired from the day. I don’t want to be dragging her around town unnecessarily. There will be plenty of time to explore later.

Waiting for the food to arrive, I glance at her lying on the bed. She’s wearing only a blue, silk robe. God, I want to go over there and just…

Don’t go there, Harper, you will only frustrate yourself more. She’ll let you know when she’s ready for that.

But, damn, it’s been a long six weeks.

Let’s see, when was the last time I didn’t have sex for a six week period?

Hmm …

Well …

I’m still thinking.

Okay, never. Once I discovered the joy of sex, pun intended, I never looked back.

My gaze lingers on Kels. She looks so beautiful. Ah, what the hell. We can cuddle at least. She doesn’t seem to mind that. I tighten my own robe, just to strengthen my resolve to be good, and I wander over to the bed. Lying down next to her, I take her hand, give it a little kiss, and tuck it under my cheek.

“Hi, there,” she whispers, sleepily. Her eyes flutter open and she turns her head to meet my gaze.

“Hi. Feel better?”

“Much. Thanks for being so good to me.” She turns partially toward me, careful of her knee, and runs her fingers through my hair. Her hand drops down to caress my cheek for a moment.

“That’s easy to do, sweetheart.” I capture her hand and kiss her palm.

“No, it’s not.” She is now fully awake. “Hell, Harper, I’m not blind. I know I haven’t been the easiest person to live with these past few weeks. You’ve been wonderful, so kind, so loving.” She pauses, her hand travels under my robe and her nails graze against my chest. “So patient.”

Okay, Kels, that is not helping. Well, I mean, it is helping. God, it helps a lot. If you mean to help. If not, damn, I’m gonna go sit on a couple ice buckets in a moment. And pray not to die.

She moves closer to me, kissing my neck. “I love you, Harper.” The kiss turns into a little nibble. She’s either hungry or horny. I’m hoping the latter.

Easy, Harper, let her lead. Don’t be upset if this doesn’t go anywhere. This is a major step for her. She tugs on the belt of my robe. God, I feel like a teenager getting laid for the first time. Hey, maybe there is something to being with an older woman.

She gently rolls over on top of me. We both are very careful with her knee, letting it rest gently against the mattress, between my legs. The majority of her weight is supported by my body. Which is just fine, she feels good covering me. “I’m going to make love to you, Tabloid.”

“Okay.” I sound like an idiot but I don’t know what else to say. Although, ‘thank you’ does spring to mind, as well. She can do damn whatever she wants to me right now. I am at her mercy.

Please let her be merciful. My whole body is going to explode at any second.

She gives my collarbone a little nip. “You like that idea, huh?”

I nod enthusiastically. The sound of her voice and the feel of her hands on my body are driving me insane. And I am terrified to do anything lest I scare her off.

“Good.” She ducks her head and kisses me long and slow.

Oh, God, that’s nice. She tastes sweet, like the honey she puts in her tea. Wonder if I can get room service to send some more up.

Oh, sweet Jesus, room service!

As delicately as I can, I end our kiss. She looks at me, confusion and hurt written all over her face, afraid I’ve rejected her. “It’s okay,” I whisper. I thrash around for the phone. I pick up the receiver, bounce it off my head, curse, grab it again, and push “0”. In five words or less, I tell them to bring our order up in an hour. We’re busy.

Kelsey laughs at me and hangs up the phone, leaning across my body to do so. All of my self-control is used to keep me from devouring her. She slides back into place and begins sliding my robe open, exposing me to her attentions. My nipples stand up and say hi.

She greets them back, ripping a moan out of me even I have never heard before. She makes sure both feel welcome and attended to before moving back up to kiss me again. I feel the softness of her robe rubbing against my heated skin.

I gently fold one arm around her, holding her loosely. I don’t want her to feel trapped, but I can’t stand to not touch her. I run my hand in long strokes up and down her body, guiding her against me, molding us together.

I’m rather grateful that her right hand, the one in the cast, is pinned against me. I don’t think I would survive if I got conked by her right now.

Her left hand begins a torturous exploration of my body, sliding between our bodies. She enters easily where I need her most. I sigh and tighten my hold on her ever so slightly. My other hand is not quite as kind to the sheet I am clutching onto for dear life.

I am in absolute heaven, she’s giving me everything I desire. Her breath is warm on my skin and I can make out a few endearments she is whispering. Our bodies have established a gentle rhythm together. This is not about heat, but about reconnecting. God, I missed this. Missed her.

My mind is swirling from the pleasure. My body is aching from the tension. It’s a wonderful combination. I may live here forever.

Or not, as Kels releases me, her mouth swallowing my cry as her tongue mimics her hand. My body arches into hers and then collapses back on the bed when the rush is over. Oh, that was intense. Abstinence does make the heart grow fonder. But, I think we’re fond enough now.

I try to get my breathing under control as she snuggles against me, her hand now calming my skin rather than inflaming it. “You’ll find it works better if you inhale and then exhale. Exhaling only leads to hyperventilation,” she teases, kissing the hollow of my throat.

I release the mangled sheet and tilt her jaw. I lean in and kiss her lips, nipping the bottom one gently. “Thanks,” I reply.

“You’re welcome.”

“I’ve missed this with you.”

“I know,” she looks away. “I’m sorry, Harper.”

“No, chér, don’t be sorry. I didn’t say that to hurt you. I said it because I wanted you to know this means something to me. It’s means the world to me,” I confess. I am heartened when her eyes return to mine. “God, I’ve been such a dog my entire life, you know that. I’ve never waited for anyone before, Kels. No one was ever worth the wait. But, you are.”

She gives me a slight smile and I feel the tension in her body ease. “Why were you that way, Harper?” she asks quietly. “I mean, I can’t reconcile it with the you I know from New Orleans. Or the family who raised you.”

“Well, that’s a million dollar question.”

“Can I have an answer?”

I shrug. “I’ll try. I like sex, no doubt about that. And I seem to have an aptitude for it.” I rock my hips, trying to get her to smile again, to not be so serious.

It doesn’t work. “That doesn’t explain much, Harper. And it only raises the question of why you didn’t pursue a career in Reno, rather than journalism.”

“Yeah, I know. I guess part of it is I didn’t have any real role models in that area. All the lesbians I knew growing up were a bit too domestic for my taste. You know the old joke … what do you get a lesbian on a second date?” I pause and Kels joins me for the punch line. “A U-Haul.”

“Too intense?” she asks.

“Too fast, that’s for sure.” I blow out a breath. This is hard to talk about. “You’ve seen my family. Do you know there has never been a divorce on my Mama’s side of the family? Not one. And we can trace our roots back to the 1600’s. Now, mind you, there were a couple of spousal murders along the way … but no divorce. I didn’t want to be the first.”

Kelsey gives me a quizzical look. “How could you be the first when gays can’t even get married?”

I snort. “They can in Mama’s world. And, I mean, how do you know you’ve met the right person? I would listen to all these women talk about finding their soulmate and nonsense like that and I would think: smell what you’re shoveling.”

“You don’t believe there’s one right person in the world for everyone?”

Tread carefully here, Harper. Remember who you’re talking to and what you just did. “I know I love you, Kels. I don’t label it or inspect it. And, quite frankly, I don’t know or care if it was destined to be. It just is.” I pull her tight against me, trying to convey the depth of my feelings in the best way I know how. “You fit with me, Kels, fit with my family, my life. You’re who I want.”

“Yeah?” Her voice is shy, an unusual tone coming from her.

“Yeah. And I can’t imagine being with another woman now. So, you’re stuck with me. If you want.”

Kelsey breaks into a dazzling smile. “I want.”

“Good.” I lean up and capture her lips with me. Enough damn talk. I’m not one for these sensitive chats. Not when there are more far more interesting sensitive things within my reach.

* * *

That was sweet. Harper has a romantic streak after all. I mean, I always knew she was physically demonstrative, but not verbally.

We fit.

I belong.

Jesus, if that isn’t what I’ve been waiting to hear for thirty-two years.

The tears begin flowing and I can’t help myself. Several fall on Harper’s skin and she breaks off our kiss.

Her large hands brush over my cheeks, pushing back my hair and drying my tears. “Chér, what’s wrong? Did I hurt you?”

I shake my head, but I can’t seem to speak, my throat is constricted. I collapse down on Harper’s soft, warm body and hold on while every emotion I have repressed for what feels like a lifetime comes flooding out.

It’s only when I begin to calm down that I hear what she’s whispering in my ear.

“L’odeur de son corps et du mien sont un

The smell of her body and mine are one
qu’elle la dévoile waxen des membres

she unfolds her waxen limbs
et mes rebelles d’utérus ont perdu ses parents

and my womb rebels orphaned
mes cris perçants de chair hors de sa perte

my flesh screams out its loss
pleurant son évadé

mourning its escape
“Combien plus de jours

How many more days
Frottant disant la succion du bout des lèvres

stroking mouthing sucking
à la recherche d e la nourriture remet

in search of food
griffé ou des yeux de caresse

hands clawed or caressing
fixés sur le mien

eyes fixed on mine
“Je suis gravé à l’eau-forte dans vous me suis

I am etched in you
mélangé avec les courants

mingled with the currents
qui coulent dans la mer.”

that flow to the sea.
I unbury my face from her neck and kiss the corner of her mouth. “I love Colette’s work. Thank you.”

She chuckles and taps the end of my nose with her finger. “I knew you could speak French. You fraud.” She mock frowns. “And I bet Mama knows, doesn’t she?”

I blush, caught. “Harper, sweetheart, you never asked. Again.”

“I didn’t know we had a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” she grumbles.

I know she’s teasing, but I don’t want her to ever be confused on this point. “We don’t,” I hasten to assure her. “Not on anything important, at least.” I wipe at my eyes, removing the last traces of my tears. “Make love to me, Harper?”

Her reply is a small kiss. “Are you sure?”

All I can do is nod.

With infinite tenderness, Harper does exactly that.

* * *

Standing on the terrace of our new apartment, overlooking the Park, I find myself taking inventory of my life. It’s the first time I’ve allowed myself to do this since the incident.

I nearly died. A lot of people did die. Including my best friend.

I am nearly thirty-three years old.

Granted, I have a great, new job.

A wonderful and beautiful, younger lover.

A fantastic new apartment. Even if the only furniture in it is a bed and a few pots and pans. The essentials, Harper says.

And I have to chuckle over that Range Rover Harper has her eye on. It’s definitely her style. It has every gadget and gizmo known to man in or on it. Her ‘stud’ status with Brian will be assured the first time he sees her in it.

Still … it feels like something is missing. I know what it is now, too. It became clear down in New Orleans, in the kitchen. I just wasn’t sure. I am now, though.

The question is: how do I bring it up?

Perhaps the better question is: am I asking too much?

As I lean against the ledge, I hear Harper join me on the terrace. Soon I feel her hands on my neck and shoulders, massaging gently. “You okay, Little Roo?”

I lean back against her tall frame. “Just thinking.”

“About what?”

“Life in general.”

“Good thoughts?” She nibbles my ear.

“I hope so.”

“You hope so? You mean you don’t know?” The nibbling stops.

I turn to face her, threading my fingers through the belt loops at the back of her jeans. “Well, I’ve been thinking about everything, you know? Everything that’s happened. And it’s kind of changed my perspective.”

“I’m sure it has. The question is: is it a good change or a bad change?”

“That depends.”

She tilts my head so we’re looking directly into each other’s eyes. I can see the stress growing around the corners of her eyes. Hold on, sweetheart. It’ll be okay, I hope.

“Tell me, Kels. Tell me what you’re thinking. Are you having second thoughts about the apartment? Or the job?” She hesitates, swallowing hard. “Or us?”

“Oh, good God, no!” I wrap myself around her as quickly and as tightly as I can. “No way! I love my life. I love you.”

I feel her relax and realize it’s now or never.

“Harper?”

“Yeah?” I can still hear a bit of nervousness in her voice.

“You said something on Monday when we were at the studio. It was a joke about trading our first born for the laptops.”

“They’re good laptops, Kels.”

“I know,” I chuckle. “Well, I was wondering, how many children do you want?”

“Little Roo, we’ve got a problem here. I have many skills, but not that one, I’m afraid.”

Oh, that was bad. Not the answer I had hoped for.

I give her my best smile. “True.” I feel myself tremble. I hope she didn’t feel it.

“Kels?”

Shit, she felt it. “Yeah?”

“Did I say something wrong?”

“No.” I’m trying to blow it off. Leave it alone, Tabloid.

“Yes, yes, I did.” She makes me look at her again. “You were being serious and I made a joke.”

“Harper, it was only a question. No big deal.”

“Kelsey Diane Stanton, don’t you lie to me. You’re really bad at it.” She takes my face in her hands. “Kels, do you want a baby?”

I nod, feeling the tears forming in my eyes. “Yeah, Harper, I do. I want to have a baby.”

“Okay. Do you mind if I ask why? I’m not against it, but I want to understand.”

“There’s been so much death. I feel like I’ve been surrounded by death for months now, those women who looked like me, then Erik and then nearly myself.” Oh, God, I start crying again. I cling onto her and soak another one of her shirts.

“It’s all right, sweetheart. Everything is fine.” She hugs me and rocks us back and forth gently in an effort to soothe my tears. She kisses the top of my head. “I can’t imagine anyone who would be a better mother.”
Episode Four: Brother, Will You Lend A Hand?
I slip out of bed, moving as quietly as I can. Taking a seat on the floor by the windows, I pull my laptop out of its case and boot it up. We have yet to buy furniture for the apartment other than the bed. I don’t think we need much more, except maybe a good gas barbecue for the terrace and I don’t know if that qualifies as furniture.

Kelsey didn’t want anything from her old apartment other than her clothing, jewelry and a few items of Erik’s. The rest of the apartment, lock, stock and barrel, has been sold. While my apartment in LA was comfortably furnished, it certainly wasn’t meant for anyone other than Trouble and myself. I told Bear to take what he wanted and sell the rest for me. We could have used some of the stuff here temporarily, I suppose, but I wanted to support Kels’ desire for a clean start. Besides, shopping makes my Little Roo happy.

For me, a good day of shopping is one avoided.

Kelsey didn’t think I was very funny when I suggested we try to completely furnish our apartment on-line. I thought it would be a fun challenge and an interesting conversation piece. Apparently, I am missing some of the joy of shopping as she understands it.

Maybe I can fly Rene and Mama up here to go with her.

I glance over to the bed where Kels has snuggled into the down comforter and curled around my pillow. The nightmares seem to have stopped. She’s sleeping through the night again. I know that’s doing her a world of good. And me, too.

Hmmm, it’s interesting. She’s been sleeping peacefully since the night we made love at the hotel. I must be good medicine.

I look down at the screen and dig around my directories until I find my secret stash. What to play? Hmm? Doom? Nah. Not in the mood for a shoot ’em up. Indy 500? Nah. Really need to have a steering wheel to hold on to for that one to be fun. Ah, there it is. Good, old fashioned solitaire.

I look over at Kels again who has grumbled and tossed my pillow away. Apparently, even in her sleep, she knows the difference. I chuckle a little, knowing she won’t wake up for another hour or so. I didn’t buy her a feather bed like the one at home for nothing.

A baby.

She wants a baby. A little bitty life to join ours. Wow. That means a real family. Real responsibility. Real commitment. No more fuckin’ around. Ever.

Man, when we jump, we jump from the highest damn spot we can find.

I need a friggen ace.

So now I have a new job, new house. Oh, yeah, a new car. I swear, I get horny thinking about my Ranger Rover. And not because I have feelings for it, but for the woman who’ll be in it with me. Wonder if there are any drive-in movie theaters around here. Do those even exist anymore? I know there aren’t any in Manhattan, but maybe in one of the boroughs. Or Jersey. God, I’d love to take Kels to a movie and not watch it. It’s hard to see through a fogged up windshield. And lying down in the backseat.

A baby. Our own little bundle of joy. A full-time bundle of joy. Eighteen years of joy. And then they move out and need college tuition money joy. Wow.

We have an appointment at the clinic this afternoon to discuss our options. This is really going to happen. We’re going to have a baby.

Wow.

What in God’s name have I gotten myself in to? I mean, I’ve gone from footloose and fancy free to settled. Really settled. In three months.

Oh my God.

Am I insane?

I mean, I can understand Kels’ reasoning. She needs to reaffirm life, to feel like it can go on despite all that has happened.

What do I need?

Her.

I need her. Just as much as I need air and water and sleep and sex.

“Tabloid?” Kelsey’s sleepy voice reaches me, startling me out of my thoughts. “Whatcha’ doing?”

Panicking. Thinking about you. Instead, I say, “Playing solitaire.”

“What time is it?” She lifts her head, her hair tousled from sleep, and squints at the clock.

“Five-thirty. Go back to sleep, sweetheart. We still have a little time before we need to start getting ready for work.”

I hear her sigh and watch with interest as she stretches. She’s like Trouble, arching her back in almost the same manner. I’d like to scratch her right behind her …

“You know, it’s silly to sit there playing with yourself, when you could come over here and play with me.”

I look down at the screen. Hell, I was never gonna get an ace anyhow. And, I like to go with the sure winner.

* * *

I finish dressing and step out into the waiting room. Harper is leaning against the wall reading the content label of a Coke can. She seems very intent on memorizing every ingredient.

I move over beside her and whisper, “Water, sugar, caffeine…”

She looks down at me and releases the breath she was apparently holding. “Kels,” she burrs. I can see the relief in her eyes. “How’d it go?”

“Well, it was like any other physical.” I shrug. “Don’t know what to tell you, Tabloid. It was entirely medical.” I grin at her, knowing that she hated letting me be in there alone. Truth is, I figured the doctor would be able to do her job a lot easier without six feet of overprotective girlfriend glaring at her from across the room.

“So now what?” she asks, shifting her weight from one side to the other.

She’s really nervous. It’s very cute. “The doctor wants to talk to us. She said it’d be a few minutes. So, why don’t we sit down?” I take hold of her hand and tug on it, trying to guide her to the nearby chairs.

“Don’t wanna sit down,” she mumbles.

I give her arm a pat, and drop myself down into one of the seats. It really feels good to sit with my legs crossed, if you know what I mean. “Okay, sweetheart. You stand there and hold up the wall.” I pick up a very old magazine and glance at her again. That Coke can is never going to survive.

* * *

Finally, the receptionist sends us back into the doctor’s office. We take a seat in there and wait for her to come see us. I try to distract myself by reading all the diplomas hung on the wall. Dr. Lillian Solomon got her MD from John Hopkins Medical School – not bad – and has a Board Certification in Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility.

Hell, Kels isn’t infertile. I am.

Well, at least, for our current purposes.

What else has our good doctor done? She’s a Fellow with the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. I snicker. ‘For she’s a jolly, good fellow …’ starts running through my mind.

I never will understand men who become gynecologists. Okay, that’s not exactly true. It is an intriguing area of a woman’s body. One I have enjoyed visiting frequently. Just I’d hate for it all to become routine. What a shame that would be.

Now, a woman gyn doesn’t have that same problem.

If she’s straight.

Shit, I didn’t ask Kels about that out in the waiting room. I have to wait and see. God, I hope the doc is married with six kids of her own and absolutely, positively heterosexual. I’ve had enough of lesbian doctors hanging around my Little Roo.

I glance over the Kels, who is watching me out of the corner of her eye with a smirk on her face. “What?” I ask, tossing up my hands in question as well.

“You’re nervous,” she accuses. I can hear the laughter on the edge of her voice.

“I am not!”

“Then why is your leg twitching?”

I drop my hand down to my knee to hold it still. Traitor. “Is not,” I pout.

She leans into me, caressing my cheek and giving me a little kiss. “Relax. I love you.”

My forehead meets hers. “I love you, too.”

The door opens and the good doctor steps in.

Thank you, sweet Jesus!

Dr. Solomon is in her mid- to late-fifties with graying hair and glasses, complete with a dope rope so she can’t lose them. She’s the perfect picture of what a mother should be. Well, not perfect. Only my Mama is perfect, but the doc will do.

“Well now,” Dr. Solomon starts, opening the folder she placed on her desk.

I reach over to take hold of Kels’ hand. I don’t know if it’s meant to comfort me or her more.

“Kelsey, I have good news and bad news.”

We grip each other’s hands instinctively. Oh God, please don’t let our hopes end right here. Kels has been so excited about this. So have I, truth be told. That and scared out of my ever-lovin’ mind.

Okay, if there’s a problem, what are our options here? We can adopt. There are lots of kids in this world who need what we can give them. Or I could …

My thoughts are interrupted by Kels’, soft, scared voice. “And?”

I rub my thumb on the back of her hand. It’s gonna be okay, Little Roo. I’ll make it okay.

Dr. Solomon removes her glasses and lets them dangle against her chest. “The good news is you are in perfect health and I see no reason why you can’t conceive.”

The sigh of relief from us both is audible. I know my heart and stomach are pleased to be back below my throat where they belong. Now if they’d only settle down. Who knew they could do the tango?

“So what’s the bad news?” I ask. I’m confused.

“Well, Harper, I don’t know how to tell you this,” Dr. Solomon pauses dramatically, making me want to strangle her, “but you can’t get Kelsey pregnant.” She grins and winks at me.

Oh, man, a doctor with a sense of humor. I’m never gonna survive this. I hear Kelsey laughing and suddenly, I feel better too.

“So,” Kels says, through her relieved laughter, “what are our options?”

“Basically, you need to find a sperm donor.”

It’s nonchalant answer, like she does this everyday. Hell, what am I thinking? She does do this everyday.

“You have two options: either an anonymous donor from a sperm bank or a friend or family member donating. With an anonymous donor you can still try for certain physical characteristics. Some places have you send in a picture of the person you’re trying to match – in this case, Harper – and they sort through the donors for one that looks similar. Of course, all donors have been screened for genetic disorders and transmittable diseases. Some couples prefer an anonymous donor because they feel the child is more their own that way. Others prefer a friend or family member being involved. Obviously, if a family member is chosen then the physical characteristics desired are more likely to be present. Also, some couples feel a closer connection to the child if there has been someone close to them involved. It really depends on each couple’s own comfort level.” She spreads her hands and leans back in her chair. “Have you two given thought yet about what type of donor you want?”

Kelsey looks at me for my opinion first. I hate going first. Biting the bullet, I say, “I kinda like the idea of the kid having 25% of my DNA. It’d make me feel more a part of it. But, I’ll do whatever Kels wants.”

She smiles at me sweetly. “I’d like to see if your brothers would be interested in helping out, too.”

“Brothers?” Dr. Solomon echoes.

“Yeah, I have four of them. Well, actually, I’m not counting Lucien lately.”

* * *

The news was good all the way around for us. I’d be walking on clouds if I didn’t still have to use my cane occasionally. I think it would poke through them. I’m not even going to attempt to hide the smile on my face.

This is a good day.

Wonderful news from the doctor, only a few things to clear up at work, and then we can head out and pack for our flight home in the morning. I feel so good, I’m not even stressed about flying.

Harper goes off to give her research assistant some job or the other to do while we’re gone. I think we have an assignment, but she hasn’t talked about it yet.

Brian meets me at my office door with a file and a mug of tea. He pushes my door open for me, handing me the cup as I pass through. “What do they call skydiving lawyers?”

“Huh?” What the hell was that?

He grins at me while I get settled behind my desk. One hand lands on his hip and he gestures with the file. “What do they call skydiving lawyers?” he says again slowly, clearly enunciating every word.

Ah, I get it now. A joke. “What?”

“Skeet.”

I laugh at his little joke and he drops the file down on my desk. Shaking my head, I flip the file open. “What do we have here?”

“Nothing earth shattering. They want you to get with the photographer for your publicity shots and that’s a schedule of the times she’s available.”

“Thanks.” Hmm. “That reminds me, Brian, is Langston around today?”

He chuckles and rolls his eyes. “The man is always around. In fact, I don’t think he’s been home in ten years. His wife put his face on a milk carton last month. None of us phoned in a sighting of him, though. You want me to get him on the phone for you?”

“Please.”

“Okey dokey. Two shakes then.” He leaves my office.

I look over at the picture of Erik. “You two would have made a fun couple, my friend. Though, he might have scared you a little a first.” I sigh, now looking at the picture of Harper and me. I owe Robie so big.

The intercom buzzes. Brian announces in a very professional manner that Langston is on the line. I pick up the phone. “Stanton here.”

“Kelsey, what can I do for you?”

“Do you have five minutes to spare? I’d like to talk to you.”

“Sure. You coming now?”

“Absolutely.”

* * *

“I really think I need a change. I’d like your permission to have it done.”

Richard settles back in his chair and gives me a long look. I definitely feel under the microscope. “Kelsey, we hired you for a certain look.” He shrugs, as if the conversation is over.

All right, I’m not going to say the first thing that came to mind and I’m going to try to be tactful. I clear my throat softly before making another attempt. “Do you look in the mirror every morning?”

“Why, doesn’t it look like it?” he jokes.

“Do you?” I persist. I have a point to make here.

He seems confused by my question, but nods. “Of course. My wife says I need to look a bit more. But, yeah, when I shave and get ready for work.”

God, this is so hard to say. “I do, too. And do you know what I see? I see the face of a woman who is responsible for the deaths of no less than nine people, including my best friend. All because some psycho was fixated on the way I look. Richard, I was nearly killed because of it.” I clench my jaw to allow the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach to pass before I continue. Swallowing the pain, and forcing back the tears, I repeat, “I’d very much like to change my look. I’m not asking to change my hair color, get a boob job or pierce my nose, I just want to cut my hair.”

He still doesn’t look convinced.

I take notice of the family photo on his desk, may as well use it in my favor. “If it were your wife or daughter, in the same situation, you wouldn’t deny her the opportunity.”

His eyes wander over to the photo as well. For a long moment he studies it, then nods. Leaning forward to rest his arms on his desk, he offers me a sincere smile. “I think we can accommodate your request, Kelsey. The staff stylist will take care of it for you. Vanessa does amazing work. I’m sure you’ll be pleased.”

“Thank you.” I stand, offering him my hand. When he takes it, I hold his hand a bit longer than necessary and give it a gentle squeeze. “Thank you, very much.”

“You’re welcome, Kelsey. For what it’s worth, I think you’re a very brave woman.”

I give him a small smile and shake my head. “I’m merely lucky.” When I get to his door, his voice stops me again.

“Hey, Kelsey?”

“Yeah?” I turn to face him.

“How’s Harper gonna take this change?” His smirk indicates how he thinks it’ll go over.

“Well, if I turn up on your doorstep asking to use your guest room, it didn’t go well.”

He laughs. “Deal.”

* * *

I lock up my office, finished for the day, and preparing to go get my Little Roo. I’m gonna take her out to the most expensive dinner I can find in the city. That shouldn’t be too hard. A damn deli sandwich around here costs eight dollars. Actually, I’m thinking Jean Georges for dinner tonight. It’s a fabulous French restaurant across the Park from our apartment.

Twirling my keys on my finger, I head for Kels’ office. Sticking my head in, I find she’s not there.

“Hi ya, stud,” Brian says, sticking his head in beside mine. He makes a show of examining the office. “Looking for someone?”

I take a step back. I like my personal space. Something Brian has no concept of, apparently. I’m not quite sure what to make of him but, Kels has always done well with gay guys. Hopefully, he’ll become a great friend to my girl. “Where’s Kels?”

“In make-up. She had a meeting with Langston. Then she came back to say she was going down to make-up and would be back in an hour.” He grabs ahold of my wrist and turns it over to look at my watch. “She should be back in twenty minutes or so. Nice watch, by the way, stud. Was it a gift?”

I glare at him and ignore his question. “Something must have been wrong with her style sitting that they need to get cleared up.”

“Could be. Want some coffee?”

Ugh. Coffee? My stomach has been so knotted up today I think coffee is the last thing it wants. It’d probably kill me. But, there is comfort food. “How about chocolate milk?”

“Surprisingly, that I can do. Cop a squat in the boss’ office and I’ll go get it.”

I move into Kels’ office and throw myself down on her nice leather couch, stretching out, feet dangling over one arm. It’s much nicer than the one she had in LA. Man, I didn’t realize how tired I was. Getting up early with Kels was invigorating, and certainly not conducive to extra sleep. Not that I minded it in the least.

I’m gonna close my eyes for a moment. Of course, if I lay here for very long I’ll be sound asleep. What will I do when Kels is pregnant and I’m fetch and carry gal for a nine long months?

“Here you go, stud.”

I open my eyes to find Brian placing a large glass of chocolate milk on the coffee table.

“Thanks.” I mumble, sitting up, rubbing my face with my hands.

“Mind if I ask you a question?”

“You already did.” It’s an old joke, I know, but I can’t resist. I never like it when people start off with that. Makes me feel like I’m being set up. Which I probably am. “I reserve the right to not answer.”

“Like I’ve never heard ‘no comment’ around here before,” Brian whines. He takes a seat next to me and crosses his legs. Spying a bit of lint on his thigh, he picks it off delicately.

I take a long drink of the milk. Damn, that’s cold. I lick off my milk moustache. Maybe in a few months, I’ll be licking off a different type of milk.

“I noticed the picture of Kelsey and Erik Collins.” He gestures to it, in case I don’t know which one he’s talking about.

“Uh huh.” I nod. I bet I know what’s coming next.

“Well, it’s obvious, because of you two, especially, that they were a sham. So, I was wondering was Erik…” His question trails off.

It’s an old reporter’s trick, and one I certainly won’t fall for. “He’s dead. Does it really matter now?”

“No,” Brian admits, but continues, “it’s only there were always rumors about him in the gay community. I was curious.”

Don’t kill him, Harper. He’s new. He doesn’t know what Erik meant to Kels. That their love for each other wasn’t a sham in any sense of the word. They just didn’t sleep together. “Erik was Kelsey’s best friend and his death nearly devastated her. Whether or not he was gay is no longer an issue. And it certainly doesn’t matter a good Goddamn to me.”

“Okay.” From the slump of his shoulders, I can tell he’s been duly chastised. He gets up from his chair and heads out of the office.

Jesus. It’s like I kicked his dog or something. “Brian?”

He stops and turns toward me, ready to be reprimanded again.

“Perhaps you can fill the spot in Kels’ heart left open by Erik’s death,” I admit quietly. Don’t make me spell it out for you, kid.

“I promise to do my best, stud.”

We gotta do something about my new nickname. Some other time, though.

I hear him give a wolf whistle as he walks out the door. My girl must be back. Or Bruce just walked down the hall. I snicker. Wonder how macho man would take that?

I enjoy another long swallow of the milk, letting in run slowly down my throat, when Kels walks in.

You ever snort chocolate milk out your nose?

* * *

“Tell me if you hate it and I’ll let it grow back.” I can’t help but run my fingers through it again. It feels too strange, stopping so abruptly on my neck. It’s amazing how losing a couple inches of hair can really change your entire look.

I leave the bathroom, showered and relaxed.

Harper pulls her garment bag out of the closet and tosses it on the bed. She shrugs and turns around to face me. “Babe, I don’t hate it. I was only a little shocked, that’s all.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m positive. Honey, it’s your hair, and if the boss said you can cut it, I got no problem with it.”

“But do you like it?” I have to know the answer to this question. I watch her give me a long look, scrutinizing every part of my being. I can almost feel her eyes touching me.

“I’d like you bald and in a gunny sack,” she finally pronounces.

Good answer, darling. “How about barefoot and pregnant?”

Harper laughs. It’s unusual, actually. Normally she chuckles, always seeming to hold back a little. But, this is the genuine article. “I’d settle for that.”

“Good. I figured if I was going to be making changes, I should go ahead and make a lot of them at once. Get it over with, so to speak.” I wink at her.

“Well, I should hope you’re coming to the end of your list by now.” She grabs a couple hangers of clothing and transfers them into her garment bag.

“Actually, there is one more.” I sit down on the mattress beside where she’s packing.

I hear her groan. She stands up straight, placing her hands on her hips. “And what would that be?”

“Open the bag.” I gesture to a shopping bag from Saks Fifth Avenue on the bed between us. I’m almost surprised that she hasn’t already taken a look in it. She’s typically very curious.

She gives me a quizzical look, but obeys. She opens the bag and removes my purchase, which has been wrapped in tissue paper. Peeling it back, she finds a black lace teddy. She holds it up in front of her by its thin straps. It obviously won’t fit her. She smiles broadly at me.

I reach out and take it from her hands. “I think we should see if we can prove the doctor wrong. See if maybe we can get lucky tonight. In more ways than one.” I toss the lingerie over my shoulder, and head toward the bathroom once again to change. After a few steps, I stop and turn back to her, finding her staring hungrily at me. “Unless, of course, you’d rather go ahead and pack. We do have an early morning flight.”

“Pack later. Change now,” she grunts, kicking off her boots and unfastening her belt.

So easy. I laugh, heading into the bathroom. “I thought so.”

* * *

I am standing in the dressing room of the Zapa boutique in New Orleans. I’m almost surprised to be here. Harper and I had to race to make the plane this morning, and only ran on during the final boarding call. We overslept.

That’s an exaggeration. We barely slept for an hour before we had to leave to make the flight home. The rest of the night had been spent trying to make Dr. Solomon a liar. I don’t think it worked, but, damn, it was fun trying. We slept the entire flight down. I think that might be one way to solve my flight anxiety.

Once we arrived in New Orleans, Robie came and kidnapped Harper. Apparently, the Kingsley brothers, and Harper, have their own equivalent of the Kitchen Conspiracy. It’s The Counterplot. Held at Gerrard’s house, in the finished room over the garage, the five are scheduled to play cards, drink beer and belch long into the evening. No wives, no children, or Mama allowed. Unless they’re dropping off more beer or food.

Well, except Clark. Harper insisted on keeping her little nephew over Robie’s objections. Robie brought Rene and Christian to the house to keep me company when he picked up Harper. We waited all of five minutes after they left before deciding to go shopping.

I shake my head, looking at the dress in the mirror. “I dunno, Rene, something doesn’t look right.”

The long, black evening gown is quite snug and slit up to my hip on one side. Harper should love it. I personally like the way it looks coming off one shoulder. Still, there’s something off that I can’t quite put my finger on.

“It’s because your hair is shorter, that’s all. I love your new look, by the way.” The woman I now regard as a sister gives me a little grin.

I sigh as I look at my reflection. “Yeah, I like it. I needed a change after everything that happened.” You know, now that she’s mentioned it, I think she’s right. It’s the hair. Boy, this is going to take some getting used to. I look down at my little boyfriend. “Do you like this dress, Christian?”

He beams up at me and nods shyly.

Of course, I could be wearing a flour sack and I’d still get the same response out of him. Huh, he and Harper are just alike. Wonder if I should mention that to her? Nah, better not. “Will Aunt Harper like it?” I ask.

Same reaction.

“C’mere and give me a hug, sweetheart.” I bend down and hold open my arms. I am still careful with my knee, but it seems to be holding up all right. Amazing what a month of recovery will do. I love that I’m able to go most of the day without needing the cane, too.

He wraps his arms around my neck, and gives me a sloppy kiss on the cheek. I watch as his cheeks flush with color.

Rene laughs at her son. “Boy, do you have him wrapped.”

“The feeling is mutual.” I wink and give him a gentle sendoff back to his mom. I give the dress another look, smoothing out the fabric.

“How does Harper like your hair?”

“Oh, I think she likes it, but she won’t admit it.” I run my hand over the spot of skin where my Christmas present from Harper will lie when we go to the awards. Visualizing it there helps me make a decision about the dress. I turn to the clerk. “It’s perfect. I’ll take it.”

She gives me a very broad smile. The commission on this dress will no doubt make her car payment this month.

* * *

“I can’t believe you kept Clark tonight, Robie,” Jean complains as he settles himself down at the table. “I thought we had a rule.”

“Don’t look at me, T-Jean. Talk to the one who snatched him out of Ren’s arms.” Robie gestures at me with his Frito. “We were almost safely out of there when suddenly Harper is buckling him into his car seat.”

I look down at my nephew who is asleep against my chest in his snuggle pack. Fuck ’em all. This little guy is my visual aid tonight. And, he’s my very best guy. I kiss his head, the dark hair getting thicker each time I see him. “Get over it. Besides, he’s wiped out. He won’t be a bother.”

Robie yawns. “True. Little Clark decided to stay up all last night. I don’t think I slept more than an hour or two.”

“Me either,” I inform him with a smug expression.

“Glad someone is getting some action,” Lucien mutters as he begins shuffling the deck.

Gerrard takes a long swallow of his beer before speaking. “Everything okay at home, Luc?”

While Robie has always been my best friend, Gerrard’s always been my hero. He’s a decade older than me. Since Mama married him off at an early age, I know him better as a married man and father than an older brother. Though he and Kate did live with us for the first year of their marriage. That was weird, having another girl in the house. Suddenly the boys started wearing clothing when they came out of the bathroom.

Gerrard insisted.

He’s always taken being the eldest very seriously, considering it his job to look out for all of us. I think we’re the ones who prepared him to be a judge. Lord knows he had practice not losing his temper and being impartial with this crew.

Lucien shrugs in response. “I guess so. Rachel’s been busy at her firm lately. When she comes home, she’s exhausted and cranky.” He begins dealing the first hand.

“So what are you doing to help her out?” Jean inquires, saving me the effort.

Silence is the reply.

Robie eats another Frito laden with bean dip. “Guess you know what you need to do.”

“Ante is a dollar. We’re playing five card draw,” Lucien announces, anxious to change the topic. “Jacks or better to open.” He hates it when he doesn’t get sympathy.

I look at my hand. Pair of fours, king high. “Pass.”

Robie snickers. “I’ll bet a dollar.” He tosses a poker chip into the middle.

“How are things going up in New York, Harper?” Gerrard inquires after calling Robie’s bet.

“Good, so far. We found a great apartment and are already moved in. Well, we have a bed.” Robie snorts with laughter, I elbow him, careful not to jostle little Clark too much. “I think the new show is gonna be great. The EP is a good guy. I could learn a lot from him.”

“Want cards?” Lucien inquires, all of us having now called the bet.

I put two cards down and get crap in return. I fold. “We did an interesting story the other night.” Okay, it wasn’t really the other night and I don’t even know if it was on Exposure, but, hell, I need a way to bring up what I need to bring up.

“Yeah, what about?” Gerrard also folds.

“It was about a family with three brothers. All of them were married and two had kids.” I watch as Lucien drags the chips over to his stack. He won with two pair, nines and jacks. “Same game,” I announce as I shuffle and deal. “The other one started having really bad health issues. Come to find out, he had testicular cancer.”

I watch with amusement as all my brothers shift uncomfortably in their seats, immediately feeling the pain. Men. What is it about those particular appendages that cause such universal reactions among them? I mean, when another woman tells me about breast cancer, I don’t clutch my boobs and writhe in sympathy. I think they have a bit too much invested below the belt.

Of course, I want some of it now, so I shouldn’t complain.

“Once all the operations and chemotherapy were complete, there was no way he and his wife could ever conceive.”

As the bets go around the table, with Gerrard and Jean immediately folding, I note that Gerrard seems to be clued in to where I’m going. The corners of his eyes are crinkled up in a smile. Hopefully, that’s a good sign. And not him getting ready to laugh in my face.

I have two queens. It seems somehow appropriate. “Because of his cancer, they couldn’t adopt. The state agencies were worried he’d have a relapse and die, leaving a wife and kid behind. So, they were kinda shit-outta-luck.” I interrupt my story to give both Robie and Jean more cards. I bet again. Only Robie calls.

I win the hand. Please let this be an omen.

“So, he went to his two brothers and asked for a hand … so to speak.”

“Huh,” Jean grunts. He picks up his cards recently dealt by Gerrard. “So did the story involve a custody battle or something?”

“Nope.”

“Was the kid born disabled? The infertile brother trying to claim damages from his donor brother?” Robie asks.

Why do all my damn brothers have to be attorneys? “No. Everything was just fine.” Everything isn’t fine with my new hand. I got a lot of nothing. This had better not be an omen. I don’t want Kels disappointed.

“So what was the point of the story?” Lucien asks, betting two dollars.

I fold. “It was human interest, a fluff piece, a feel good story.”

They aren’t impressed.

“Would you guys do that? I mean, what if Lucien here is impotent?” It feels good to get a free jab at him, especially since he’s the only brother without kids. “Would you pass the cup?”

“I’m not impotent! Jesus, Harper! We’re waiting to have ’em.”

Robie leans forward, putting his elbows on the table. “It was a hypothetical, Luc, calm down.”

I make a show of cuddling Clark. “Would you deny him the possibility of having a little guy as precious as this?”

“Sure, I’d give at the office.” Jean punches Lucien in the shoulder playfully. “It’d be for a good cause. Too bad I couldn’t claim the tax deduction though.”

Tax lawyers. “What about you two?” I ask Gerrard and Robie.

“Of course.”

Gerrard no longer can contain his smile. “I’d be happy to help out my infertile brother.”

Robie seems to have suddenly caught a clue. “Got something you want to talk about, Harper?”

“I’m asking to pass the cup.”

The poker game is now forgotten.

“You serious? You and Kelsey want a kid?” Robie stammers. “Seems a little fast, doesn’t it?”

“I seem to recall you and Ren having Christian eleven months after your wedding. Kels and I have been together three months. Even if she got pregnant tonight we’d have ours later than you had yours.” I conveniently leave off the fact that Robie and Rene dated for eight months prior to getting married. I hope everyone else does the math wrong too.

“Is she okay to have a kid? I mean, with all she went through …”

“She’s fine, Jean. The doc gave us a green light. All we need is sperm.”

“I bet this isn’t the first time you wished you were born a guy, eh?”

I turn and stare at Lucien. He should be grateful that I have Clark against my chest. Otherwise, I’d be kneeling on his and pounding his face hard. “Excuse me?”

Realizing he crossed a line, he holds up his hands. “Obviously, you can’t get her pregnant the way you are right now.”

“Well, Luc, even if I were a guy it wouldn’t mean shit.”

He frowns. “Why not?”

“Because Kels isn’t attracted to men, stupid. Even if I had the equipment, she wouldn’t be interested. It’s kinda a Catch-22 any way you look at it.”

“Maybe she just needs the right man.”

I can’t believe I’m getting this from a member of my own family. On a poker night. “You don’t just turn being a lesbian on and off, Luc.” Ignorant cuss. I take a deep breath. I need to be cool here. It’s not worth it. “Besides, I’m kinda hard to walk away from.”

“Damn straight!” Robie claps my back. “Sorta.”

Gerrard and Jean join in the laughter.

“Really? Rachel didn’t seem to have a problem.”

I don’t think even Lucien realizes what he has said until it is too late.

Well, every family has a skeleton in a closet. I meet Lucien’s gaze steadily. “I didn’t say it, Lucien. You did. I kept my word.”

“What the hell?” Robie asks. He looks at me incredulously. “You and Rachel?”

I shrug. “Why do you think she was over at the house the day she met Lucien?”

Jean slumps back in his seat, his jaw hanging open.

“How long?” Robie wants details.

Ah, what the hell? It’s out now. “Not long. Rachel was experimenting. It’s common. She quickly realized that it wasn’t the lifestyle she wanted.”

Lucien laughs and I have to bite back the urge to kick his ass around the room.

“The sex,” I emphasize, “was more than fine. It just wasn’t the right choice for her.”

“I thought you’ve always said it wasn’t a choice.”

Jesus, how did we get onto this old debate? “I don’t think it is, for me. Obviously, it was for Rachel.”

“How come you never told me?” Robie asks. He sounds a little hurt.

“Rachel asked me not to. She didn’t want things to be awkward.” I blow out a deep breath, wishing I was anywhere but here. “Like it will be now.” I glare at Lucien.

No one contradicts me.

And now I have to tell Kelsey. That’s one conversation I could have gone a lifetime without having. Oh, Little Roo … my past comes back to bite us in the ass at the most inconvenient moment.

“All of this is rather far afield of my request.” I owe Rachel this at least: to try to change the topic of conversation away from her. “Are you willing to help out your infertile brother? I really want our child to be a Kingsley. First off, we’re a damn good looking bunch. But, more importantly, if anything were to ever happen to me, I would want Kels and our child to still be a part of the family. I would want them to belong, in every sense of word. Kels has never had this before. I never want her to lose it.”

“Obviously, I have to talk about it with Kate, but I’m in.”

“Thanks, Gerrard.”

Robie nods vigorously. “I doubt if Ren will have a problem with it.”

“She’ll probably insist,” I agree.

Jean still looks a bit bewildered by the evening’s turn of events. “Let me talk it over with Elaine.”

“Thanks, Jean. I was thinking that after each of you donate, we’ll have the doc randomly choose the first sample to try. That way, only the doc will know paternity. And, I’m sure between all of you, you can come up with some good legal document about parental rights and waivers and such.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Robie offers. I was going to hit him up for it anyway. He just spared me the trouble.

“You in, Luc?” Gerrard asks, not referring to our long forgotten poker game.

He shrugs. “In a manner of speaking.”

* * *

“So,” I say as I drop my napkin in my lap, “would you and Robie really be okay with this?”

I glance over to my side where Christian is curled up on the seat of the booth, sound asleep. His dark head is pillowed on my coat and Rene’s jacket is his blanket. We have worn him out today. It was all he could do to eat his dinner before passing out in my lap.

“Absolutely. I think it’s a great idea, and you know Robie and Harper couldn’t be closer if they were twins. You two are going to be such terrific parents. I’m so glad to see her settled.”

“Do you think she’s happy?” I ask. Other than Mama, Rene is the woman closest to Harper.

Rene’s features gentle and her blue eyes, which remind me very much of Harper’s, look directly at me. “I know it. I’ve known Harper for five years. I’ve watched her go through a number of women. Not that we ever met any of them, mind you. It was just she would disappear on weekends and we knew she wasn’t at a Girl Scout camp.” She stops and laughs. “Well, actually, she might have been.”

We both laugh now. “No,” I assure her, “Harper likes older women.”

“Her taste has certainly improved with age, that’s for sure. She’s happy, Kels. Ever since Thanksgiving, she’s felt centered to me. Like up until then, she’d been off-balance somehow. I dunno. Does that make sense?”

I allow myself a small smile. “It does. I hope you’re right. It’s all still scary though. I mean, I know Harper will make a great parent. She’s so good with all the kids. Jeez, she practically rips Clark out of your hands every time we come here. But me, well, I’m different. I wasn’t raised with a lot of love. I hope I don’t make a real mess out of the whole thing.”

She takes my hand, running her thumb over the back of it. “You’ll be great, Kelsey. God, you’re all Christian talks about. Aunt Kelsey this and Aunt Kelsey that.”

“Well, he’s easy to please.”

“Most men are.” She fingers a necklace at her throat. “Isn’t Harper?” Her eyes twinkle with the question.

“Harper is … umm … well … overall, yeah, she’s pretty easy to please too.” I blush a bit, knowing I shouldn’t let conversations go in this direction with any member of her family. I was raised way Protestant. We don’t have sex. And we certainly don’t talk about it.

“Uh huh, thought so.” Rene takes another bite of the dessert we have treated ourselves to. We are being truly bad today: lots of expensive shopping and things we wouldn’t normally eat. “The Kingsleys are very easy to love, as long as you’re willing to put up with their stubborn streaks.”

“Which run a mile wide,” I concur, sipping my tea.

“And two miles deep. But, God bless them, they are loving, kind, caring, and good providers. They love their wives and children more than life itself.” She points her fork at me, the tip of it laden with whipped cream. “You know, it’s too bad Mama and Papa are out of children. There are going to be a lot of disappointed people out there now that Harper is out of the running as one of the top five eligible catches in the world.”

“Yeah, she may not know it, but she sure is. Especially if our plans to have a baby work out.”

Rene nearly chokes on her dessert laughing.

“What?”

She gives a little cough before trying to speak. “Look at all the children. Good, strong swimmers these Kingsley men produce.”

I can’t help but let my forehead sink into my hand. “I didn’t need the mental image, Ren.”

She laughs again. “Sorry. Be grateful that Harper isn’t a man, though. Otherwise, I have a feeling you’d be pregnant straight up through menopause.”

I blush bright red. God, we have a reputation already, eh?

“I do have one question for you, though. Do you mind?”

“Of course not.”

“I don’t want you take this wrong, Kels, but you and Harper have only been together for three months and you’ve been through so much …” she trails off, the implication clear.

I nod. “Yeah, I know. It was what I went through out in L.A. that made me decide to have a baby.” I shift in my chair, leaning in to rest my arms on the table. “Let’s see if I can make this make sense. What happened to me would have happened even if Harper wasn’t a part of my life. It was something that had been brewing for almost ten years. The only thing different because of Harper was my desire to live. I’m not sure I could have found the strength to … to … well …” I find I can’t continue with that line of thought. My throat is tight, unyielding to the words.

“I know, it’s okay,” she soothes, taking my hand again. “I understand.”

I nod crisply and compose myself. “Well, anyhow, let’s assume I had gotten out alive. I would have still made this decision. It’s just so much sweeter because I have Harper and the family to share it with. If it weren’t for all of you, I would probably have retired quietly from my job, gotten pregnant, and moved to a cabin in the woods to raise my child alone. Now, I don’t have to.”

“No, and you never will, Kels.”

* * *

The poker game broke up much earlier than usual. After Lucien’s stupid revelation, we were all left without a clue as to what to talk about. Normally our conversations are around the wives, the kids, the jobs. We were down to one topic – our jobs – and it was too closely related to the wives and kids to be comfortable.

I ended up leaving the game even. Though, I don’t feel the same as when I went in there. All I want is to get home to Kels. Before someone else tells her. It’s an irrational fear, I know. None of my brothers – even Lucien – would presume to do that.

I get to be the lucky one to remind her what a fuckin’ dog I am.

She’s propped up in bed, reading, when I walk in the door to our bedroom. She glances at her watch and tilts her head in question. “Hi, sweetheart. You’re home early. Don’t tell me you lost fifty dollars already?”

I try for a smile. I fail.

Kels closes her book and puts it on the nightstand. “Come over here. What’s wrong?” She holds out a hand to me.

I take a seat in the chair by the wall.

She’s hurt because I didn’t go to her. I can see it clearly on her face. “We need to talk.”

I watch her swallow hard. “What’s wrong, Harper? Did they not want to help out?”

I shake my head. “No, they will. If you still want to.” It suddenly occurs to me that I might lose everything over this.

No Kels.

No baby.

No home.

What was I ever thinking? I knew I’d fuck this up. This is exactly why I’ve never done anything like this before.

“Still want to?” She swings her legs out from under the comforter and sits on the edge of the bed. She’s wearing one of my T-shirts to sleep in. “What happened, sweetheart?”

“We need to talk,” I repeat. I can’t think of anything else to say. “Something happened and I …” I trail off. God, I don’t want to do this.

Her hand travels to her mouth. I don’t know if she’s trying to keep back a cry or to mask her expression. “Did something … take place … at the game?”

“Yes … no … not really.” I bury my face in my hands, slumping in the chair.

I hear Kels move off the bed and travel over to me. I feel her small hands land on my thighs, supporting her as she kneels in front of me. One of those hands travels up to my hair, brushing it back from my eyes and gently prying my hands away from my face. “It’s all right, whatever it is. We’ll make it all right.”

I look into her eyes and want to believe her. “I’m sorry, Kels.”

“Okay, you’re sorry. I believe you. Now tell me what you’re sorry about.”

I look away, studying the carpet which is suddenly very interesting to me. “At the game tonight, Lucien said something. Something he shouldn’t have, but he did. And now everyone knows. No one was ever supposed to know.” My hand grips the arm of the chair. I’m almost fearful I’ll break it.

“Did Lucien ever …” The tone of Kels’ voice lets me know exactly what she’s asking.

“God, no!”

She releases a held breath. Her hand covers mine. “Then what? You need to tell me, darlin’, because otherwise I just imagine horrible things.”

Stop being such a baby, Harper. Time to own up. “A long time ago, Rachel and I … well … we had an affair.”

“I see.” Kels sounds surprised.

That didn’t sound quite right. “It was before she was with Lucien, Kels. In fact, she left me for him, believe it or not. But, no one was supposed to know. Rachel asked, but Lucien he just blurted it out. He did it to hurt me. To hurt us.” It all comes out in a rush, as do, surprisingly enough, tears.

Kelsey’s hands are wiping them away as fast as they fall out. “When were you two together?”

“Four years ago. I was in college; Rachel was in law school. We had a class together, telecommunications law.” I unconsciously lean into her hand and risk a glance at her. I find a gentle smile on her lips.

“Were either of you seeing other people?”

I snort. “Kels, until I met you, I always saw other people.”

She chuckles and ruffles my hair, tucking a strand behind an ear. “Right. I meant, were you going behind anyone else’s back or were you seeing each other?”

“I don’t think she was with anyone. She was curious, I was willing. God,” I shake my head ruefully, “I was always willing.”

“Then, I hate to break this to you: that wasn’t an affair, that was dating.” She continues on, her voice stronger, but at the same time, lighter. “Hell, Harper, how do you think I made my lifestyle choice? I experimented in college.” Kelsey pushes herself up from the floor and transfers herself into my lap, her arms closing around my neck, cradling me against her chest.

“But, it was my brother’s wife. And we didn’t tell anyone. And now everyone knows …”

“No, she wasn’t your bother’s wife until she had broken it off with you and dated him. She made the wrong choice, but I’m grateful she did.” She presses her lips against my temple. “And no one knows. Just us, your brothers, and Rachel, and we aren’t saying anything, I’m sure.”

“You don’t hate me?” I have to know.

“Hate you?” She kisses the tip of my nose. “Why? Because you dated in college? Good Lord, Harper, I dated in college. Want me to tell you about the guy I went out with? He was a total math geek. I think he works for Bill Gates now.”

“Then you really must hate me. You could be stinkin’ rich, now.” I give her a weak smile. I still think I might be sick.

“Sweetheart, I hate to break this to you, but I am. Besides, I got the best end of this deal. I got you. I love your family, but, my God, a lifetime with Luc.” She shakes her head. “I feel for Rachel.”

I tighten my arms around Kels as much as I dare and I can’t stifle a short laugh. “I’m so sorry, chér. I love you. I really do.”

“Don’t be sorry. And don’t beat yourself up over this. I love you, too. Don’t you ever doubt that.”

I run my hands up and down her back, feeling her softness beneath the light fabric. “I don’t want you and Rachel to not get along, or be awkward around each other now. I didn’t say anything before because, well, I respect Rachel, if that makes sense. I wasn’t trying to hide something from you deliberately.”

“Sweetheart, trust me, Rachel will never hear a word from me about this, unless she feels like we need to talk and she comes to me with it. I think it was really very chivalrous of you to try to protect her. You made a promise, you kept it. I admire that. That kind of trust doesn’t grow on trees, Harper, and very few people are capable of it. I’m glad you are.”

“Okay, thanks. … So do you still want to try for a baby?” Having second thoughts about me yet, Kels? When will my past scare you away?

She doesn’t seem affected by it. “Every night until it happens. I’m not so sure we can’t make a liar out of Dr. Solomon.”

“Those damn doctors think they know everything.” Suddenly, I feel if every ounce of strength has been drained from my body. I feel like I ran a marathon or went fifteen rounds with Foreman, the way I feel. A huge yawn overtakes me. “Can we go to sleep now?”

“We can go to bed, Harper, but I’m not promising sleep.” Kelsey leans down and kisses me, making me forget about this whole terrible night.
Episode Five: Fat Tuesday
The sound of the saw dies down. There is a wonderful cracking and smashing sound, followed by a little cutting with scissors and I am free. Free at last, free at last, thank God, I’m free at last. My arm almost floats up in the air, it’s so light now.

“Yes!” I rub my sore wrist for the first time in eight weeks. “Hello, my friend, it’s good to have you back.” I rub the skin, which is going to require gallons of moisturizer to look healthy again. It’s still sore, but, in many ways, it is a truly delightful pain. I hear Harper chuckle and look across the room. “Something funny, Tabloid?” I give her a mock glare as the doctor examines my wrist, turning it gently.

“You’re funny.”

“Keep it up,” I threaten, narrowing my eyes. “I’m a well woman now.”

She shakes her head in amusement. “That’s always been up for debate.”

“How’s it feel, Kelsey?” the doctor asks, interrupting our banter.

“It’s sore, but it’s very happy.”

“Well, that’s good to hear. I’m going to give you some cream for the skin and a list of exercises to do to strengthen the muscles.” He takes a deep breath before pulling a small, light brace out of a drawer and tossing it to Tabloid. “She may need this if it starts hurting, but there’s no way I’m gonna try to put it on her now.”

“Smart move, doc.” I stand up, jumping off the exam table. It’s only the residual ache in my knee that keeps me from continuing to jump around the room. “Now, let me get out of here. Tabloid, over there, owes me a big lunch and some shopping.”

“Okay, Kelsey. You’re free to go. My nurse will give you the exercise list on the way out.” He laughs as he leaves the room. “Good luck, Harper.”

* * *

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Kels so happy to write a check in her life as when we left the doctor’s office. She then proceeded to spread her happiness all through the Riverwalk. More than a hundred and thirty stores and I’ve been dragged into most of them. Oh where, oh where, is Rene when I need her most?

We’re now sitting in a tiny café drinking coffee – well, I’m drinking coffee, Kels is drinking her favorite cup of tea. There is a pile of bags in the third chair at the table. Apparently my roles today have been that of pack mule and opinion giver. If I have to answer the question – “honey, how does this look on me?” – one more time I might scream. Truth be told, she looks fabulous in anything, or nothing, as the case may be. She attempted, once, to get me to try on clothes but when I insisted she join me in the dressing room …

Kels quickly understood I was not in the mood to shop for clothing.

So did the dressing room attendant.

We left the store pretty quickly and came here to cool down. By drinking hot beverages, go figure.

“You nervous?” I ask, figuring we might as well talk about the pink elephant at the table. It’s been lumbering along with us since we found out that all my brothers have gone and made a deposit at the bank on our behalf. And since Kels blithely informed me that her last period was eleven days ago, making this prime time for baby making.

She glances up from her mug, her fingertip tracing its edges. “A little. You?”

Truth or reassurance? “Oh yeah. It’s all big and scary. Being an aunt is easy. When I take one of them out, the only requirement is I bring them back alive. Being a parent … wow.”

Kelsey nods and sips. “Would you rather not go through with it?”

It takes me a moment to register what she’s just said. Great, Harper. You idiot. Make her feel insecure for no good reason. I reach across the table and take her hand in mine. “Chér, that’s not what I meant at all. Anything I’ve ever done that’s been worth a damn has scared the bejesus out of me.”

“Oh yeah?”

I nod vigorously. “Yeah. I don’t know if you saw that piece I did on the actor, Tyler Sagemore, where I talked him into giving me his gun. I thought I might pass out at the time, but it got me to KNBC and you. And then there was the whole Omaha incident, but I got to kiss you there. Let’s not forget New Year’s Eve and potential anthrax exposure. Hmm, I got to kiss you there, as well.”

“I’m seeing a pattern.”

I am quite pleased with myself. Kels no longer seems sad. “So, whenever it’s time for us to go in for the IUI, you have to let me kiss you.”

“So you won’t be frightened?” she teases.

“Exactly.”

“Do I need to remind you that you won’t be the one in the stirrups with a tube sticking up your …”

I press my hand over her lips. “Thank you for that lovely image.”

Kelsey kisses the palm of my hand, sending pleasurable little jolts all the way through my body.

“You ready for tomorrow?” I ask. It’ll be Kels’ first Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I can’t wait to show her what it’s like.

“As ready as I’ll ever be. Do we really have to wear masks all day?”

“Mais oui. Believe me, darlin’, we’ll be having so much fun, you won’t want people to know who you are.”

She narrows her eyes at me. “I expect you to behave yourself.”

“Ooo la la, you obviously don’t understand the whole point of the day.”

* * *

“Time to get up, Little Roo,” a soft voice whispers in my ear. “Come on, we need to get moving.”

“It’s too early. Wanna sleep,” I mutter and roll on my side, clutching a pillow to my chest. What is the point of a day of debauchery if I can’t even sleep in? Makes no sense to me whatsoever.

“Come on, we’re meeting Christian soon.”

And why are we taking the kids with us?

“Kels, sweetheart, the parade will start soon. Mama has breakfast waiting for us downstairs.”

Great, debauchery on a full stomach. I groan. Suddenly, my lips are otherwise occupied as Harper leans over and gives me a hard kiss.

See, this is a much better reason to wake up, the real breakfast of champions. I grab hold of her, disappointed to feel the fabric of her jeans under my hands. No fair denying access like that, Tabloid.

We kiss for what seems like forever. Every nerve, every cell of my body is awake and beating on drums. Snare drums, conga drums, bass drums, bongos … all of them are loudly going off in my brain.

Just as suddenly as it began, the kiss ends.

I open my eyes to see a very self-satisfied Harper hovering over me. “You’re awake now. Let’s get going.” She slaps my rear and hops off the bed, out of reach.

But not out of range. I nail her with the pillow.

“That might be your last kiss of the day, Tabloid,” I threaten. We both know it’s a lie.

* * *

A little later, I find myself showered, dressed and sitting at the table, eating an omelet and drinking a bloody Mary. I wouldn’t normally have one. In fact, I don’t care all that much for tomato juice, but Mama informs me it’s traditional.

So I drink.

The rest of the family is meeting us at the parade route. A good thing. If I see Lucien just yet, I might have to hurt him. I don’t think I’ll soon forget the image of Harper crying.

No one has told Mama what happened either. A good thing, I think. I don’t even want to imagine her reaction to the Rachel information, Lucien’s blurting out of it at a poker game, and Harper’s request of her brothers. While Mama may know everything, Mama doesn’t know everything.

Including that we’re going to try for a baby. Harper has sworn her brothers to secrecy.

Mama will have a fit when she finds out. So I’m going to make good and sure she knows it was Harper’s idea to keep it from her.

* * *

We’re somewhere in New Orleans. I have no idea where. I’m so turned around, at this point. We drove as far as we could and have now walked the last few blocks. It’s not even eight in the morning, but you couldn’t tell because the streets are so crowded. It’s like it’s Mardi Gras or something.

I chuckle at my own thought. Harper, who is leading me by the hand, glances down at me, the question in her eyes. “Nothing,” I reply, giving her hand a squeeze.

“We’re almost there,” she informs me, glancing over the tops of the heads in front of us.

“Tell me again what we’re doing now, Tabloid?”

“We’re gonna go watch the Indians.”

“Uh huh.” That helped a lot, Harper. “Why are there Indians in Mardi Gras?”

“Well, they’re not really Indians, babe. Just dressed up like them. For a long time, people of color weren’t allowed in the parade krewes. So, they made up their own traditions. One of them was to honor Native Americans in their parade. During the time of slavery, Native Americans were among the few who would accept runaway or freed slaves into their society as equals.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Yup. So, they dress up as Indians to honor that past. The fun thing about the Indians is most people never know where the parade is going to start.”

“Why not?”

“They don’t bother with permits. In New Orleans, a parade permit specifies all sorts of things, including the route, police escorts, beginning and ending times, even the number of bands you must have. Again, this comes from the past when they couldn’t get a permit, so they just marched. They keep that up today. If you don’t know someone in the krewe, you don’t know when and where to be. You have to get lucky and find them.”

“Let me guess, you know someone on the krewe?”

Harper laughs. “Nope, but Papa does. In fact, one year, Papa and Mama were second-liners. A huge honor, by the way.”

“What’s a second-liner?” My God, this really is another culture down here. I need to check my map and make sure New Orleans is still located within the fifty states.

“People who accompany the Indians on their parade. They dance, sing and play drums and tambourines as they go along. The Indians have songs composed for their parades. In fact, Jelly Roll Morton wrote one once.”

I try to picture Mama beating on a tambourine. Something isn’t computing.

“The cool thing about the parade is the competition they have with other Indian krewes,” Harper continues. “When they meet, the two Big Chiefs strut around each other, checking out his rival’s costume, and whooping and hollering. It’s all harmless now, but, in the past, there was a lot of violence associated with these parades. People would use the costumes and the mood of the city to get away with murder. Literally.”

I immediately think of my precious nephew. “The kids will be all right, won’t they?”

“Oh sure. It’s better now. None of that nonsense. In fact, most of the costumes cost thousands of dollars to create. No one wants to fight and damage them.” She releases my hand for a moment to wave at her brothers and their families who are all gathered together at the side of the road. “Come on, it looks like it’s about to begin.”

We join the rest of the family, exchanging hugs and greetings. I am pleased that Christian hops in my arms without hesitation. I lift him up so he can see better. He puts both hands on my cheeks to get my full attention. “Aunt Kels?”

“Yes, Christian?”

“I wanna dub-lun.”

I frown. “A what?”

Rene answers for him. “A doubloon. It’s one of the items the second-liners throw to the crowd, along with beads and medallions.”

“We still on, Harper?” Robie asks, handing Clark over to his wife.

“Oh yeah, we are.”

“On what?” I ask. I feel like a big question mark today.

Rene rolls her eyes. “Those two have a standing bet each year. The doubloons that are thrown are of five different colors – silver, gold, red, green and purple. It’s hard to get a full set, unless you know someone in the parade. These two compete to get all of them. Of course, it’s too hard to get five colors from one parade, so these two try to get all the colors from any of the parades throughout the day. The winner gets five hundred dollars.”

“Who won last year?”

“I did.” Harper pokes her brother’s arm. “Who won the year before? Hmm … me. And before that …?”

“Me,” Robie protests.

“I don’t think so.”

“Liar.” He pokes her back.

I give Christian a kiss on the forehead. “I’ll do my best to help you out, sweetie. Maybe we’ll beat your daddy and Aunt Harper, too.”

“Yeah, right,” the siblings snort at the same time.

Oh, Tabloid, tactical error there. I smile sweetly and exchange a meaningful look with Rene. Oh yeah.

A war cry startles me and I nearly drop Christian.

I look up and in the middle of the street now stands the most amazing looking person I’ve ever seen, dressed in an elaborate costume of beads, rhinestones and feathers. His headdress is nearly three foot high and cascades down his back. The beads of his costume form patterns of the buffalo, the phoenix, the elk and other animals. The dominant color is red, but splashes of white and blue and green are mixed in. Contrasting with his costume is the dark ebony skin of the wearer.

“Is that the Big Chief?”

Harper shakes her head. “Nope, that’s the Spy Boy. He walks at the front of the parade on the lookout for other Indian krewes. You have to earn the right to be a Spy Boy. Behind him,” she gestures to another Indian who has just emerged onto the street, “is Flag Boy.”

Flag Boy is almost as impressive as Spy Boy, but is dressed in yellow and is carrying a large staff decorated with feathers.

“The staff identifies their krewe and it also serves as a communication device. When Spy Boy sees another Indian krewe, he whoops and dances around. Flag Boy sends a signal to the Big Chief. Flag Boy then tells Spy Boy what the Big Chief wants to do.”

“Wow. It’s sounds complicated.”

“It is. But it’s fun.”

Spy Boy begins moving out, his march cocky and assured. I’ve seen that swagger before. So that’s where she gets it. I reach out and pat the butt in question, earning myself a roguish grin in reply.

The second-liners begin following, singing and throwing trinkets at us. We all strain to catch the beads. It’s funny, really; cheap, plastic beads and all of us are dying to get our hands on them.

I drape a strand around Christian’s neck.

We watch as Flag Boy passes as well, about a block behind Spy Boy. Then a whole crowd of Indians follow. There is one surrounded in the middle by several others. “Is that the Big Chief?”

“That he is.”

“What does he have bodyguards?”

“Status, for one thing. But, also because of cigarettes. Their costumes are highly flammable. Sometimes people try to get too close. There have been a few really bad accidents in the past.” Suddenly, Harper lunges to the right. “Yes!” she crows, pumping her arm. Triumphantly, she shows off the doubloon she just caught.

“Thanks, Aunt Harper,” Christian says, snagging it from her hand.

The look on her face is priceless.

I like Mardi Gras.

* * *

High noon finds us in the French Quarter, on the balcony of a beautiful building, looking down on the wildest costume contest I’ve ever seen. I’ve very glad we’re up here, out of the crowd. My claustrophobia is really getting a workout here on Bourbon Street, where everyone is pressing a bit too close for my comfort level. Of course, right now I’m pressed in Harper’s arms, leaning against her as we watch the display below, and I don’t mind a bit.

“Look at that guy!” I exclaim and point. One of the contestants is wearing a replica of the Taj Mahal on his head. It’s not a little one either. The building is at least four feet high and six feet wide. “That’s gotta hurt his neck.”

“Yup, I bet it does,” Harper agrees, nuzzling mine.

It’s nice to be out in public and be out in public. No one is paying the slightest bit of attention to us, and, even if they were, the majority of the audience here is gay. I’ve never felt much of a bond with the community, but I do right now.

“One year, a guy had a tiger with him.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“Nope, swear to God, he had a tiger. He, of course, won the contest. Now he’s one of the judges.”

“I would think so.” I point to another entrant. “Look at him.”

This one is dressed as a carousel, complete with a pony and organ music playing around him.

“I like that guy,” Harper indicates one dressed as an archangel, his wingspan over eight feet wide.

“Don’t women enter the contest?”

She shrugs. “A few do, but the men always look better.”

“Well, they don’t have hips to worry about.” God, what will she think of me when I’m pregnant and as big as the Goodyear blimp?

I feel her large hands slide over my belly and she pulls me even closer against her tall frame. “But, they have nothing on the glow of a pregnant woman.”

I place my hands on top of hers and tilt my head to look at her. “You a mind reader now, Tabloid?”

She strokes my tummy, hitching her thumb inside my jeans. “I can’t wait to see you pregnant with our child, sweetheart. You’re going to be the most beautiful woman around.”

I press up on my tiptoes and give her a brief kiss. “I think I might keep you.”

* * *

We come crashing into the house, being far too noisy. We’re not drunk, though we’ve had a couple beers in the Quarter. It’s more we’re happy, playing. I love New Orleans and I love being a part of this family.

At the Awards, we caught a bunch more beads, which are now draped around our necks. Harper explained that there is a value system to the beads as well. Apparently, the longer and heavier the strand, the more valuable they are. We saw two idiots get into a fist fight over a particularly good strand of beads. People amaze me.

Harper also caught eight more doubloons, but only of two colors. Three more to go. I wonder how Robie is doing so far.

I confiscated the extra doubloons for my little man, Christian.

“How were the Awards?” Papa calls from his seat in the living room. He’s reading the Wall Street Journal and smoking a cigar. I’m surprised Mama allows that.

“They were amazing. I’ve never seen such intricate costumes before. People must spend all year working on them.”

He nods. “They do. Oh, Harper, your brother called. He says to tell you ‘three’.”

“Dammit.”

I chuckle. “It’ll be all right, sweetie.”

“I wanna win,” she protests. “Well, Papa, we’re going to go take a nap before we get ready to go out tonight,” Harper tells her father as she wraps her arms around me, holding me close.

This is so nice today. I love all the snuggling and cuddling we’re doing. It’s helping in healing parts of me I didn’t know were still hurting from earlier this year.

“We’re a little tired from the parade and the festivities. And, a certain someone doesn’t like getting up very early.”

I give her a little poke in the ribs with my elbow.

“So, we’re off to nap now.”

“Is that what you kids call it these days?” he asks, causing me to flush bright red. He turns the page of his newspaper. “I’ll have to see if your Mama wants to take a nap with me later.”

“Ewwww, Papa, that was more than I needed to know,” Harper whines. I feel her head drop behind me. “I’m going to have extensive therapy bills,” she whispers in my ear.

I can’t help but laugh, taking her hand to get her out of there before her father can damage her any further.

“Have a nice ‘nap,'” he calls after us as we head up the stairs.

* * *

“Oh,” I groan, throwing myself down on the bed. “It’s going to take me days, weeks, years to get that image out of my mind.”

Kelsey calls to me from the bathroom. “Oh, get a grip, Tabloid. They’re a loving couple. Of course they have sex.”

“Kelsey! Don’t say that!” I pull a pillow over my head, trying to block out the images. I move it long enough to inform her, “My parents had sex exactly five times.”

I hear her laugh at me, but I don’t care. Yuck.

I feel a tugging on my boots. I move the pillow again. She’s removing my boots, giving me a very patronizing grin.

“What?” I growl, throwing the pillow at her.

She catches it easily, placing it on the end of the bed. “For someone who has had as much sex as you have…”

I cut her off. “It’s different when it’s your parents, Kels. Parents don’t have sex.”

“Right, sweetheart. So how do they become parents, eh?” She kicks her own shoes off and climbs up on the bed with me. She lays beside me, resting her head on my chest, just above my heart. My hand immediately travels to the base of her neck. I love the feel of her hair there. “Do you think that’s what our kids will think?”

Kids. Not kid. Hmm, that’s new. “No doubt.”

“But we’ll scandalize them like your father just did you, right?” Her left hand tugs my shirt out of my jeans and then slides against my skin.

That feels nice. “Oh yeah, every chance we get.” I kiss her hair, which somehow still manages to smell like apples and kiwi in the middle of the day. “So have you figured out how to use that little gizmo of yours?”

“What? You mean the ovulation tester?”

“Yeah.”

She laughs at me, giving my ribs a little tickle. “That little gizmo? Jesus, Harper, you sound like such a guy. I gotta get you to stop hanging around your brothers so much. Next thing I know, you’ll be scratching yourself in inappropriate places.”

I scratch her neck, in a very appropriate manner, I think. “All right,” I sigh. “Are you learning the proper way to utilize the ovulation tester?”

“Brat!” She slaps my stomach this time. I can’t win here. “I think so. If I read it right, it says I’m ready now.”

“Now?” I croak. I clear my throat, having sounded like Robie during puberty.

“Well, now as in today or tomorrow. That’s what Dr. Solomon said, there’s a window of a day or two.”

“So, we should call the clinic Dr. Solomon recommended and get an appointment for tomorrow then.” Wow. Tomorrow Kels might get pregnant.

Wow.

Kids.

Plural. Not kid, singular. She wants kids.

I mean, I can understand that. I can’t even conceive – no pun intended – of being an only child. I’d miss my brothers too badly. Well, maybe not Lucien. But, the others I would.

But how many does she mean? Two? Or more? God, what if she wants five? What would we do with all of them? Where would we put them?

“Hey? You there?” Kels’ voice reaches me.

“Huh?”

“You drifted off there. You feel okay?”

I nod. “Fine.” Just a momentary panic attack. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. “So, should we call the clinic?”

“Yeah.” Her reply is muffled a bit by a big yawn. “When we get up.” She snuggles close to me, wrapping her arm around my waist.

I guess we are going to take a nap. How ironic.

* * *

The Bourbon Pub is the hottest gay bar in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Located, as the name suggests, on Bourbon Street, we are in the heart of the madness. Fortunately, Robie and Harper know their way around and are very protective of Rene and me, getting us safely through the pressing and groping crowd.

The scene on the street is beyond belief. Despite the fact the cops said they were going to crack down on public nudity this year, I see women doing things for beads that would send my mother into a coma at the mere mention of.

Don’t these women realize they can walk into any of the stores along Bourbon Street and buy their own damn beads and keep their clothing on?

We stand out on the balcony for a long time, throwing beads down to the people below. Neither Robie nor Harper will part with their doubloons though. They’re tied now at four. Both need a green one.

After catching the siblings staring at one bare breast too many, Rene and I suggested we move inside, after conferring briefly. Things are a little less risqué there. Just barely.

We’ve commandeered a table in the corner and are drinking beer. Robie is being an absolute goof tonight, cracking one joke after another. At one point I was laughing so hard, I had tears streaming down my cheeks. Thank God I decided to do this little gig without makeup. What’s the point? No one can see my face behind the mask for the party anyhow.

Imagine that. I’m in a gay bar, having a good time. Funny, how things can change. It’s a damn good feeling, though, to finally know where I belong and to finally feel free enough to enjoy it. Okay, being masked and in a city filled with strangers certainly helps too.

I glance over to Harper and give her smile as I take her in again. God, she is gorgeous tonight. Hell, she gorgeous all the time, but this black thing she’s got going at the moment is the sexiest fucking thing I’ve seen in a long time. She’s in black from head to toe: starting with her basic, black mask, very Zorro like, the tightest black T-shirt I’ve ever seen, tailored black slacks, and motorcycle boots.

Yup, she’s getting laid tonight. She knows it, I know it, and the crowd around us knows it.

But not before Rene and I have some fun and a little payback for the balcony distractions. Oh, Tabloid, while you can look but not touch … sometimes it’s better to not even look. Paybacks are a proverbial bitch.

I watch as Robie comes back from the bar with another round of drinks. He looks great, too. He has on a tight, black, muscle shirt, jeans and boots. His own basic black mask is settled on top of his head at the moment. Walking in them can be a tad hazardous, even with the little ones. Since he’s balancing the drinks, I don’t blame him. In fact, I appreciate not getting drenched with beer.

He places our drinks down and settles into his seat with a huge grin on his face.

“What’s so funny?” I call to him, a necessary evil in order to get my question through the noise of the bar.

He leans over to me, then points to a hunky, blond man at the end of the bar. “You see that guy over there?”

I nod.

“He patted me on the ass as I walked by.”

“Slut!” Rene slaps her husband playfully on the arm.

“What can I say? I’m attractive to everyone.”

“Nah.” Harper sips her drink. “I saw that guy come in. He brought his seeing eye dog, checked it with his coat.”

“Bitch,” Robie grumbles from behind his glass.

This sends us into another chorus of laughter. Rene gets a truly evil smile on her face, giving me a wink. Showtime. We are truly bad. It’s probably a good thing we don’t live in New Orleans, Harper and Robie wouldn’t survive it.

Rene leans over to Harper and places one hand on a broad shoulder. Harper turns her head so they are nose to nose. “I got an idea, Harper.” Rene runs a fingernail down Harper’s cheek, causing her to flinch.

I snort and give Robie a nudge so he can enjoy this too. He was checking out the blond guy at the bar again. He better be careful. A lot of guys don’t deal well with rejection. And I don’t think Rene wants to be going home alone tonight.

“Wh…What?” Harper manages to stammer.

“Well, you know, if you and Kels are serious about this baby thing, the best way to do it is really the old fashioned way. We could swap partners for a night.”

“Huh?” Harper is totally thrown by the suggestion. She looks at me with big, blue eyes, terrified. I almost feel bad. Almost. My mind’s eye recalls her tossing a strand of beads to a pretty, topless gal from the balcony. Like I said, almost.

“Sure. Robie and Kels can go have some fun.” She traces a fingernail down the side of Harper’s neck. “And you and I can have even more fun.”

“What? I don’t think …” Harper looks directly at me, pleading with her eyes for me to save her. I grin and I lean into Robie, who has apparently decided to play along because he wraps an arm around me.

“Whaddya think, Harper?” Rene lifts her brows a couple of times with a mischievous grin.

“I think all three of you should go straight to hell,” Harper growls, realizing she being played with.

I get up and move over to her, cupping her face in my hands and giving her a soft kiss. “Good girl. Love you.”

“Do not,” she grumbles again.

“Uh huh.” I let my tongue travel lightly over her lips. That’s all the invitation she needs to pull me into a long, deep kiss. When we part, I wink. “See, I do too. And if you’re really good…” I whisper in her ear exactly where she can expect me to put my tongue later. Harper groans.

Suddenly, Rene perks up a bit, cocking her head slightly. I can tell she’s listening to the music. “Come on, lover, dance with me,” she says to her husband.

Robie frowns. “I dunno, baby.” He holds up his beer, as if it might disappear should he get up and dance. Men.

I tug on Harper’s hand to get her to dance with me and show her brother how to behave.

“I’ll keep Robie company,” she says ending her chance of receiving the Lesbian of the Year Award anytime soon.

“Okay, we can do it this way, too,” Rene says and takes my hand and leads me from the table. “They don’t learn, do they?” she mutters.

“No, they don’t. Sad, really.”

As we make our way to the dance floor, I glance back. Harper and Robie have moved their chairs so they can watch us. They’re both pigs. They won’t dance with us, but want to watch.

Well, enjoy the show.

As we hit the dance floor, I lean in and ask. “Want to take bets on how long it’ll take for us to get them out here?”

She laughs and begins moving to the beat of “Smooth” by Santana. “Oh, let’s torture them a bit first. Otherwise, it’ll be too easy.”

“True.”

So it begins.

We quite purposely turn toward the table. Rene is behind me with her hands very lightly perched on my hips. She’s so close to me I can feel her body heat as we begin moving together in rhythm with the music and each other.

The opening words to the song are so appropriate for what we are about to do to these two.

Man it’s a hot one

Like seven inches from the midday sun

The Kingsley contingent at the table looks very amused at the moment. Both of them are doing their level best to look totally disinterested, sitting back with their legs stretched out as much as possible, arms crossed against their chests. They could be twins.

You’re my reason for reason

Step in my groove

Robie breaks first, leaning forward first to take a huge drink from his glass when Rene’s left arm snakes around my waist, coming to rest directly under my right breast, pulling our bodies closer together.

Damn, she is good.

And if you said

This life ain’t good enough

I’d give my world to lift you up

I’d change my life to better suit your mood

Because you’re so smooth

As we continue to sway and move to the music, her hand begins moving in circles on my stomach. It keeps straying, like it’s just about to visit more northern territory, but always stops at the last moment.

Oooo … Harper actually twitched and pulled her legs in. She’s about to go for her drink too.

“Look at Harper,” Rene whispers. “Too funny. I’ve never seen her like this before.”

That’s nice to hear. I reach down and bring Rene’s other arm around my waist as well. Now we’re firmly fixed against each other. Our bodies are moving completely in sync with the Latin rhythm of the music.

I think it is the slow grind and the little nuzzle to my ear Rene gives me that causes Tabloid to go for her drink, nearly knocking it over before she can get her hand around the glass. She’s not shaking and she’s not out here yet.

Our work here is not done.

“We’re getting closer,” I say, turning to face my dance partner. We smile at each other with the most seductive bedroom eyes we can manage. We manage pretty well, to be honest. I have to admit to being a bit turned on. Rene’s a beautiful woman and I don’t generally rub my body against someone like this unless I mean business.

Come on, Tabloid. Get out here before I need to take a cold shower and move away from your brother’s wife.

Rene turns us so she can see the table. I feel her hand run up my back, causing not altogether unpleasant sensations to run up and down my spine. Her hand comes to rest on the back of my neck and she guides me to tilt it slightly to my right.

Oh shit! I can only imagine what Harper and Robie must be feeling at this moment as they watch her lick my neck. I know what I’m feeling.

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

“You can see them sweating from here,” she whispers.

“Good,” I croak. I am sweating here.

She pulls back a bit and smiles at me. “You okay?” Funny enough, Rene doesn’t seem worked up in the least. I don’t know whether to be relieved or insulted.

“They have more fortitude than expected,” I manage. This was such a good plan, it came back and bit me right in the ass.

She laughs. “The Kingsleys are a stubborn bunch, but they aren’t dead.” Rene reaches up and unbuttons her blouse to reveal a light silk tank top underneath, ostensibly because she’s hot.

Robie’s head drops to the table face-first. Harper licks her lips and takes another drink from her glass. She’s got the little shake going now.

“I think that did it,” I whisper, glancing over my shoulder. I close my eyes and wait for my rescue.

“That’s more than enough, you two,” Harper mutters, pulling us apart, handing Rene over to her brother.

I open my eyes to find Tabloid staring at me with eyes that clearly communicate her arousal. She’s taking deep, even breaths. She’s clenching her hands opened and closed. Her heart must be trying to pound its way out of her body.

The tempo of the music changes as “Genie In A Bottle” by Christina Aguilera starts up.

I feel like I’ve been locked up tight

For a century of lonely nights

Waiting for someone…to release me

Harper has a truly evil leer on her face. I could be in big trouble here. Good thing I like her brand of trouble. “Did you have fun, Little Roo?” she asks. “Did you get what you wanted?”

I nod, biting my lower lip.

“Now that I’m out here, we’re going to dance my way.”

You’re licking you lips

And blowing kisses my way

But that don’t mean I’m gonna give it away

Baby, baby, baby

My body’s saying let’s go

But my heart is saying no

She takes my hand and pulls me to her. Keeping a firm hold on my hips with her hands, she begins her own slow grind against me. Our eyes meet and I can see everything she’s thinking there.

Right now she’s having one lewd thought after another.

And I wholeheartedly approve of them.

I feel her tremble through the sleeves of her shirt as I run my hands up and down her biceps, admiring how strong she is. I rub my body against hers like a cat, arching my back and barely containing a purr.

If you wanna be with me

Baby, there’s a price to pay

I’m a genie in a bottle

You gotta rub me the right way

Harper’s hand travels to my back, sliding under my blouse. Her hand isn’t warm on my back, it’s hot. Very hot. I feel instant heat spread and settle through my entire body, centering mainly between my legs, which are now threatening to give out on me. She smiles at me and slowly shakes her head as her thigh finds its way between my legs.

Oh God!

If you wanna be with me

I can make you wish come true

You gotta make a big impression

I gotta like what you do

I have gone from teaser to teased in one great, big, old, rush of hormones. Her hands are everywhere on my body as we move with the music. She refuses to move her thigh or let me move from it. Every time I try, she pulls me back and increases the pressure against my center.

It occurs to me that this is the first time I’ve had sex in public.

Mardi Gras truly is another state of mind.

If she keeps it up, I’m gonna climax right here. She knows it too. The look on her face is quite clear: that is exactly what she intends to do to me. I’m helpless at this point to stop it, even if I wanted to. Which I emphatically don’t. My body simply has to be connected with hers in any way it can.

I’m a genie in a bottle, baby

You gotta rub me the right way, honey

I’m a genie in a bottle, baby

Come, come, come on and let me out

Her hand runs up the front of my shirt, pausing long enough to firmly stroke my breast and give my nipple a little pinch. She continues up to my neck, where she clasps it, drawing me to her. Harper lowers her head, planting her lips to my neck. Her breath is hot. Her tongue, warm and silky, her teeth and lips nipping gently. We’re still moving in sync to the music, but I can barely hear it over the pounding of my heart in my ears.

The music’s playing and

The lights down low

There’s one more lesson

And then we’re good to go

Waiting for someone…who needs me

Now her mouth is by my ear. She’s whispering to me. I feel the moan in my throat and I know I released it, but I don’t know if she heard it. Oh God. Those are the same things she says to me when we make love, the things she knows drive me over the edge every damn time.

I can feel my entire body starting to tingle.

Hormones racing at the speed of light

But that don’t mean it’s got to be tonight

Baby, baby, baby

My body’s saying let’s go

But my heart is saying no

I have to close my eyes. Just feel and let this happen. There is no turning back. I feel her against me. Holding me, touching me, enfolding me. Caressing me with her hands, her words, her love.

Our movements are in perfect rhythm with each other and the fading music. I can’t really hear it anymore. I only hear her, inviting me over, offering me release. Giving me everything I need to have it.

Biting my lip and holding firmly to her back, I go. Willingly. So very willingly. The tremors are small, but forceful as my body finally sinks into hers, sated. She holds me close, keeping me from collapsing to the floor as I recover, whispering that she loves me.

Taking a deep breath, I finally look up. I hate that cocky smirk. But, God, I love the woman attached to it.

If you wanna be with me

Baby, there’s a price to pay

I’m a genie in a bottle

You gotta rub me the right way

* * *

I don’t know what to do with my hands. Should they be in my pockets, out of my pockets, or behind my back? Jesus, why does this have to be so hard? I finally tuck my thumbs in the front pockets of my jeans. There. That’s better.

I look down at Kels. At least, she’s nervous too. She’s got a little bounce going in her right knee and she doing a scratch her neck as she clears her throat thing.

“Ms. Stanton?” The nurse smiles, her eyes darting back and forth between us. “Are you two ready?”

“Of course.” Kels stands, offering me her hand. There we go, that’s what I should be doing with my hands. I grasp it firmly as we make our way into the exam room.

The nurse follows us in, closing the door behind us. Yup it’s a room where … oh Lord. What am I doing here? I’m gonna be sick.

“Okay, Kelsey. Take everything off from the waist down. Lay down on the table and we’ll get you settled.”

I watch as she Kelsey obeys. She gives me a reassuring smile, kicking her shoes off her feet. The nurse gets out one of those little, blue, paper blankets and drapes it over the table.

I glance over to the metal tray attached to the table mainly to keep my mind off what’s happening around me. I don’t know why I’m so nervous and embarrassed by all of this. It’s not like I haven’t been there, done that myself. Well, not quite, but I’ve certainly had my yearly exams. And, I’ve definitely seen Kels naked a number of times.

I clasp my hands behind my back, now that I’m once again deprived of Kels’ hand, and lean over for a closer look at the tray. There’s a long flexible tube, a syringe filled with sperm, couple pairs of gloves and what looks like barbecue tongs. I don’t even wanna know what those might be used for.

Okay, a Kingsley husband has never failed to get his wife pregnant on their first try. At least, that’s what they’ve all bragged. Let’s hope the record holds.

I know for us the chances are really slim that Kels will get pregnant the first time out, or even the fourth time for that matter, but I can still hope. I look at this time as test run, a practice spin. To get us both used to the idea that we’re trying for a kid, and let Kelsey feel like we’re moving toward her desire.

I’m scared witless. I know this procedure is safe, but I worry nonetheless. And I’m terrified we might be successful today. What in the world will I do then? And what will I do if we don’t succeed? I don’t want to see the look of disappointment on my Little Roo’s face either.

I’m distracted from my own thoughts when I feel Kels tug on the back of my shirt. She’s settled on the table, in the stirrups, covered with the blue, paper blanket. “Hey, Tabloid. If you’re having seconds thoughts, now is the time to say so.”

Second thoughts? No. I want a family. And the only woman I’ve ever wanted one with is Kels. “Oh, baby, no!” I pull a stool over and sit down next to her. My right arm comes to rest above her head while the other comes to rest on her tummy, making small circles. “I’m here for you. We’re going to do this. We’re going to make a baby.” I chuckle and kiss her temple. “Well, you’re going to make a baby. I’m going to offer my support.” I wish we could make a baby.

She covers my hand on her stomach. “We are making a baby, Harper. In every way that counts.”

I nod, closing my eyes. She draws me down and we share a sweet kiss.

“Should I come back later?” the doctor’s voice interrupts us.

I straighten up, wiping my lips of Kels’ lipstick. “Ah, no, doc, we’re done here.” I wink at Kels and am rewarded with a smile. “For the moment, at least.”

Doctor Stern came highly recommended by Doctor Solomon. She’s a partner in the Infertility Institute here in New Orleans. We thought it would be easier to do the treatments here where the samples were given. Also, no one cares about us and who we are in New Orleans. In New York, we might be seen by someone we don’t want to see us.

We spoke with Dr. Stern by phone a couple times. Enough for me to ascertain she was married and had kids, making me feel better. Also long enough for Kels to feel comfortable with her credentials. I like both of our doctors. They’ve both been very good to us and very supportive.

The doc takes her seat at the business end of the table and puts a set of gloves on. “Are we ready to make a baby?”

“We are very ready to give it a shot,” Kels teases, winking at me. I can’t help but roll my eyes at the bad joke.

“Well, let’s take a look here.” For the next few minutes, the doc pokes and prods around there gently. “You’re definitely ovulating, Kels.”

“Whew, I was hoping I read that meter right.”

The doc’s head bobs. “It is hard to read the first couple times.”

“How can you tell, doc? I know you can’t see the little eggs floating around, right?” I ask, curiosity now winning over.

She motions me around to the end of the table. Holding up a penlight, she illuminates Kels’ cervix. “See the discharge there? It’s nice and thin. That’s a sign of ovulation. It means that the barrier to the cervix has lessened and the sperm have a better chance of gaining entry and fertilizing the egg.”

I nod, fascinated by this Discovery Channel tour of Kelsey. Normally, I go with the Playboy Channel tour.

“What I’m going to do next is insert this tube up into Kelsey’s cervix and get it as close to the fallopian tubes as possible. Fortunately, Kels’ cervix is nicely positioned so we don’t have to bring it closer.”

“Huh? You have to do that sometimes?”

The doc nods toward the metal tongs on the tray. “I use those if that’s the case. Some women have a cervix that tilts during ovulation and we have to move it back into place.”

I look up at Kels whose green eyes are wide at the thought. “You’re lucky, babe.”

“All right, Kelsey,” Dr. Stern says soothingly, “I’m going to insert the tube now. I want you to relax and take a deep breath and let it out slowly. You might feel a little bit of discomfort, but not much, I promise. You ready?” The doc has positioned the tube for insertion and does so as Kelsey takes a deep breath.

I wheel around and offer my hand to Kels, which she clutches on to for dear life. I bring her hand up to my mouth and place a kiss on her knuckles. “You’re doing great, baby.”

She smiles her thanks to me.

Dr. Stern picks up the syringe with the sperm and inserts it into the end of the tubing. “Harper, you ready?”

“Who me? Yeah, I’m fine. Not like I can do anything.”

“Actually, you can. Do you want to push the plunger?”

Kels releases my hands immediately. “Yes, she does. We’re making this baby together.” She gives me a little push. “Go on, Harper.”

I rub my hands together to warm them up. What am I doing? It’s not like I’m actually touching Kels, or that the syringe gives a shit. I look at the small amount of liquid in the syringe. “That’s it? That’s all of it?”

Dr. Stern nods. “A half cc contains about twenty-five to thirty million sperm on average. This one contained over forty-eight million. You chose your donors well,” she compliments.

I won’t tell my brothers this little fact. No need to inflate their egos any more than necessary. I am tempted to make sure she did not include Lucien’s contribution in the rotation, but it’s not really the right moment. I’m sure she did as I asked.

Dr. Stern hands me the tube and syringe. I hold it carefully, lest anything go wrong. I raise my eyes to meet Kels’ gaze and I try to convey everything I’m feeling with my smile. Gently, I press the plunger, releasing the sperm into her, wishing the little guys the best of luck.

Without looking away from Kels, I hand the implements back to Dr. Stern and return to Kels’ side. God, I know this isn’t the way most babies are made, but I’m feeling a lot of emotion right now. In fact, it’s the same exact feeling I get every time we make love. I have never felt more connected to her than at this moment. I want to tell her this, but I’m having trouble getting anything past the knot in my throat.

“I love you,” Kels says softly.

“I love you too.” I lean over and place a little kiss to her tummy. Please, God, let this work. “Love you, too.”

I feel her laugh softly, her hands coming to rest in my hair.

“We’re all finished. Kelsey, I want you to lie here for the next half hour, then you can get dressed. I recommend you go home and lay down for a couple more hours. You might feel a little cramping over the next day, and you might spot. Both are normal and no cause for concern.”

“Thank you so much, Dr. Stern.”

I’ve turned my head so I can listen to her stomach noises and watch her. I don’t want to move from this position. I hope Kels is comfortable.

Dr. Stern lowers the stirrups and allows her to rest more naturally on the table. “You’re welcome. Good luck, you two. Make sure you let us know how it turns out, okay?”

“Absolutely,” Kels agrees, her fingers now combing through my hair.

God, it’s nice to be home.

* * *

“I think two will be sufficient, Tabloid.” I pull the third pillow out from under my butt and toss it back against the headboard. “The doctor didn’t say we needed to do this, by the way. She just said I needed to lay down.”

“Well, gravity helps,” she mutters.

“I don’t think it can spill out, Harper. I mean, the female body is designed to hold on to that stuff.” She tries to stuff another pillow under me. “Hey! You keep that up and I’m going to be on my head.”

“That’s not a bad idea, Kels.” She takes my ankles in her hands and starts to raise them.

“Forget it! I am not a human pretzel.” I give a little kick, getting her to release me.

“True,” she snickers. “I forgot about the night I nearly broke you.”

“In your dreams, Tabloid. Now come up here and lie down with me.” I pat the bed.

She does as I request. Plopping down next to me, she rests her head in the palm of her hand while the other one rubs circles on my stomach.

“Are you glad we went through with it?” I don’t know why I’m asking now. It’s a little late if she’s not.

“You bet. A little, bitty Kingsley of our very own.”

“I’d like to take a moment to remind you that he or she will be half Stanton, too.”

Harper leans over and kisses me, pulling back to caress my face. “Chér, that’s the most important part.”
Episode Six: Penalty Phase
“Pay him.” I cross my arms and tap my foot. Harper looks at me, snorting, fidgeting and trying to figure out what to say.

“I am not going to pay him.”

“Yes, you are. He got all five; he won.”

“He had help! I’m not going to pay him.” She folds her arms across her chest, mimicking my posture.

I sigh. “Of course, he had help, Tabloid! He’s three! Now, pay him.”

She blows out an exasperated breath. Reaching into her pocket, she pulls out a wad of bills. From it, she peels off two hundreds and a fifty, handing them to Rene.

“Thank you very much, sister dear,” Rene says sweetly, tucking the money in her jeans pocket. “I’ll make sure this goes straight into his savings.”

“You do that,” Harper grumbles, flopping down in the deck chair. “So not fair,” she pouts as I place myself in her lap. Despite her grumpiness, her hands settle around my hips.

“There’s always next year,” I offer, giving her a little kiss to try to heal her damaged ego.

“Next year Christian can’t play,” Robie mumbles as he hands his half of the five hundred to Rene as well. “What I want to know is which one of you two,” he glares between his wife and I, “gave him the green one?”

“We’re not telling,” Rene answers, taking a position in Robie’s lap that matches my own in Harper’s.

“They’re working against us here, Harper,” Robie mutters.

“Yeah.” She smiles up at me, hugging me around the waist. She moves her hand to rub my stomach. She’s been doing that every chance she gets since we went to the clinic on Wednesday. “Ain’t it great?”

“Oh, I suppose it is. If we have to get shanghaied, I’m glad these two are doing it,” he agrees, giving Rene a kiss.

“Do you two really have to go back to New York so soon?” Rene asks. She reaches over to a small table on the porch and picks up her glass of iced tea. She takes a sip and offers the glass to Robie for a drink.

“Yeah. We’re leaving Saturday afternoon. We have to be ready to go to work on Monday morning and we have to rearrange all the furniture we’ve had delivered while we’ve been down here,” Harper states with a little sigh. “This is where real life starts for us.”

I don’t know about that last statement. This feels like real life to me and I like it. Don’t get me wrong, going back to New York means really getting to work and I love that idea too. But this is home. I hate leaving home.

* * *

I am about to enjoy another piece of sweet potato pie when Mama walks into the kitchen. I pause in mid-bite at her disapproving look and put the fork down slowly. “Hi, Mama.”

“Don’t you ‘hi, Mama’ me while you’re sneaking food in my kitchen in the middle of the night.” She picks up my fork and takes a bite. “Why are you down here eating when your girl is upstairs in your bed? You two have a fight, mon coeur?”

“Mais non. I was just hungry.”

“Worked up an appetite?”

I blanch. “Mama! Please!” I push the plate away from me. “You and Papa are trying to send me into therapy for years.”

“I’m sorry,” she says with only a touch of humor in her tone. She kisses my hair and sits down at the table with me. “It’s been good to have you two girls at home.”

She makes it sound like we’ve been having a slumber party. “It’s always good to be here. You know that.”

“I do.” She takes another bite of my pie and a sip of my coffee. “So, what are you trying to hide from your Mama?”

It takes all my self control to keep from reacting to her question. I push up from the table and go pour her a cup of coffee, fixing it the way she likes. “I don’t know what you’re referring to, Mama.”

She makes a disparaging sound. “Don’t use those lips to lie to your mama. Now, tell me what it is you’re trying to hide. You know I’ll find out anyway.”

“Nothing. There’s nothing.”

Mama begins the Lord’s Prayer in French. I know she’s annoyed now.

Okay. The best lie is always one with a bit of truth in it. “Lucien and I had a fight at the poker game.”

She stops her recitation. “What did he do?”

Ooh, she’s still burned about that bet he had with the boys. It was stupid of him. Mama has been after me to settle down and meet some nice girl for as long as she’s been on the Committee for Same Sex Marriages. How did he think she would react when she found out? But, nevertheless, he is still my brother, and I owe him some loyalty so I won’t tell her about Rachel. “Nothing. Just more of the same.”

“I should take him over my knee like I did when he was younger. I still have that spoon too.” She gestures toward the dreaded wooden spoon. My parents, for as liberal as they are, nonetheless used corporal punishment on us as kids. Of course, with us five I can’t really argue with that choice. The spoon was the worst threat we could ever have.

“Nah, there’s no need for that. We came to an understanding.”

“You tell me if I need to have Papa talk to him. I don’t know what’s wrong with Lucien. He’s never been like the rest of you.” She shakes her head and takes another sip. “You four have common sense, a sense of humor, but Luc has always been …”

I shrug. “I know, Mama, but it’s okay.” Whoops. I didn’t mean to get Mama all melancholy about her boy. “Don’t worry. Everything is fine. I love Lucien. Just sometimes I wish he would know when to stop talking.”

She wraps her hand around mine, giving it a gentle squeeze. “See, isn’t it better when you tell your Mama what’s on your mind?”

Oh, Mama, if you only knew.

* * *

Monday morning. 8 a.m. I’m in the office as a real-life, swear to God, senior producer for Exposure. Not like that courtesy trip through the pleasant side of television news we had before leaving for Mardi Gras. And what do I find this morning? A note from the boss himself. Short and concise, just like him.

“Report as soon as you get in.”

It’s 8:03 and I’m knocking on the frame of his office door.

“Kingsley, sit.” He points to the chair in front of his desk. The same staccato style he showed in the meeting seemingly carries over into his personal conversations. He continues on a phone call and pecks at his keyboard. As I sit, I note this chair is much lower than his. Too damn funny. I like this guy.

I look around at his office while I have the chance. There are piles of newspaper clippings, folders and videotapes all over the place. The man has a mind like a steel trap and an office that would make an entire generation of pack rats faint with envy. With a few terse instructions, he hangs up the phone.

“All right, Kingsley. Let’s get some stuff straight between us. As far as I know, you’re here for two reasons. One, you got lucky because some dumbass general manager got a hard on after watching you take a risk only a person with a suicidal tendency the size of the Pacific Ocean would have taken.”

I think that must be the longest sentence the man has ever uttered in his life.

He continues, “That stunt got you out of tabloid news and gave you a shred of respectability by getting you to KNBC. That is, if you can call working for an NBC affiliate respectable.”

I mask a smile. Seems the boss has a sense of humor. A small one, but it’s there.

“And two, your lover is now afraid to go out and do without you what she obviously did very well in Los Angeles without you for quite some time.”

“Well, I wouldn’t -” I try to protest but he runs right over me.

“So, let me spell it out for you: this story is your test, Kingsley. Yours and your girlfriend’s. We’ll see if you two can cut it here at the network level. Or if we just pissed away over three million dollars on the two of you.”

“You didn’t,” I counter.

He waves his hand. “That remains to be seen. The issues here are complicated. A man has been convicted of rape and murder of an all-American girl. He’s due to be executed this year. And, of course, he claims he’s innocent. There have been ninety-nine innocent men on death row set free since we restored the death penalty. I want to know, is this the hundredth man? Or is he just some sick fuck like the one who held your girlfriend?”

Kels is more than my girlfriend, buddy. She’s a damn good reporter and she’ll do this story and blow you on your ass.

“So, can you do a story that’s balanced? Can she face this? Because, if she can’t, and you don’t, I’ll see to it that you two get assigned to the presidential campaign. The republican nominee. And I’ll make sure your contracts aren’t renewed after I send you out on every shitty assignment for a year.”

Nothing like having it all nicely laid out in black and white.

“Oh, and keep on that cult story. It sounds like an interesting perspective on counterculture.”

With that, he turns back to his computer and starts typing again. Clearly, I am dismissed. I feel like I did back in 5th grade when Sister Ignatius called me into her office and told me I had to live up to the standards my brothers set before me. She made it real clear she didn’t expect me to measure up. Well, I proved her ass wrong and graduated valedictorian. Just like I’m gonna prove Langston wrong. I’m the best damn thing that’s walked in here in a long time. And he’s gonna know it.

Now, I just have to break the news to Kels. How in the world am I gonna do that?

* * *

As I slowly walk back to my office, Kels comes tripping down the hall. Literally. Her arms are full of suit jackets and the pile is slipping.

I look at her in amusement, then grab a couple of jackets from her arms as they start to slip to the floor. She smiles her thanks, clearly expecting me to carry them for her. I mean, I guess we are going steady by now.

Instead, I lift her chin from the remaining pile of clothing, replace the fallen items on the stack, and lower her head. Glancing down the hallway, I see we’re quite alone, so I give her nose a little kiss. “When you’re done pretending to be a worker in the garment district, drop by. We need to talk.”

“‘Kay,” comes a muffled response. “Though I thought I was doing an imitation of someone in Compulsive Over-shoppers Anonymous.” Her eyes belie her amusement. Shopping always does perk up my gal. I better commit this look to memory. Somehow I fear it’s gonna be the last time I see it for awhile.

Real life sucks sometimes.

In my office, I sit down at my desk. I look at the monitors, trying to figure out what is going on with the various morning shows, but I don’t give a damn. I find myself taking stock of my professional life:

Twenty-five years old.

Nominated for a Peabody, the most prestigious award in broadcast news.

Lucrative contract as a senior producer for the highest rated news magazine on the air.

A career that looks fast tracked.

An EP who is willing to derail me if I’m not good enough.

A shitty assignment meant to test my lover and me.

If we fail, I can kiss both of our careers goodbye.

And I get to break the news to her.

Just how in the hell am I gonna do that?

The door opens, interrupting my train of thought. Kels’ tousled head peaks around the door. “Hey, honey. What’s up?”

“Just had a meeting with the boss. We’ve got our first, major assignment.”

“Yeah? Great!” Her eyes flash with excitement and she bounds into my office, placing herself on the edge of my desk. “What story are we off after now?”

“Well, actually, we have two stories. The first you know about. He approved our continuing to look at cults and what they tell us about where our society is headed.” God, I’m such a chicken. I should check myself for feathers.

“Great! I’m starting to really get into it. I want to do more research on the Wicca and alternative religions aspect of the story.”

“Sounds good to me.” Okay, Kingsley, suck up and bear it. It’s time to pay or play, prove you’re worth three-quarter of a million dollars. “I have to head out to Ohio for the other story.”

“When do we leave?” she asks immediately.

“We don’t, sweetheart. I do. I want you to stay here and keep up with your research. I’m gonna go take a look at this other story, see if it has merit.” I find myself playing with my pen, spinning it around on the desk. Anything to avoid looking at her.

“All right, Tabloid.” Her hand comes to rest on my shoulder. “What’s the other story and why are you upset about it?”

I take a deep breath. I start to examine the grain of wood on my desk. Fuck. I do have feathers. I’m gonna start clucking any moment now. Grow a spine, Kingsley. I raise my gaze to meet hers. “It’s not a story either of us wants to do, chér, but it can’t be avoided. Langston just spelled it all out for me. We do this and do it right, or we’re fucked. He made it real clear.”

“We’ll blow his socks off, Harper. Tell me what the story is and we’ll make it great.”

I reach out and hold her hand gently, my thumb brushing the back of it. “It’s about the application of capital punishment in the U.S., the continuing debate – not over the morality of it – but the practicality of carrying it out in a fair manner. It seems he’s looking to see if this guy out in Ohio is another innocent man on death row.”

“Aren’t they all? If you listen to their stories.”

“You’re right. Very few admit to the crime they’re accused of.”

A hint of wariness appears around her eyes as Kels begins to suspect what our boy’s crime was. “What did he do?”

“He raped and murdered a young woman, and is believed to have raped several other women, although no additional charges were ever brought. The jury convicted him despite no evidence of his being in the victim’s house on the day of the murder and a couple witnesses who provided him with an alibi. It looks like he might have been framed. Or, if not framed, there was a rush to judgment by an incompetent police force.”

I watch as the blood drains from her face. Her hands start shaking. She looks down at me and whispers one word, “No.”

I release her hand long enough to go over and close my office door. Coming back to my desk, I take her in my arms, pulling her tight against me. “Sweetheart, I’m afraid we don’t have a choice.”

“I can’t do it, Harper. I won’t do it! It’s unreasonable!” She pushes herself away from me and stares at me angrily. “Tell him no.” Her eyes start to tear up. An angry swipe of her hand brushes them away but they’re still there in the corners, waiting to fall.

I can’t stand it when she cries, and she knows it. Every time she’s ever cried before, I’ve folded. But I can’t this time. It would be taking my whole career and balling it up like a used Kleenex and pitching it away. “Kels, you have to understand. He’s given us this assignment to see if we can cut it. Basically, we either do this right or we’re out of here.”

She jerks herself out of my arms and backs away till the back of her legs touch the edge of my sofa. “Fine.” She gives me a quick, jerky nod of her head. I can tell she’s mad. “You go do the story. You go face another psychopath, but I won’t. I’ve paid my dues already. I don’t need this shit. Not from him. And, certainly, not from you.”

I’m tempted to look down and see if I’m bleeding from that comment. Surely it drew blood. I bite back my reply, knowing it won’t help. Kels is already on the defensive, and getting madder by the moment. She stands in front of me, her anger making her seem taller. “You weren’t in that room for days, chained up like an animal! You weren’t beaten and tortured on his every whim! You didn’t have to listen to the foul things he said, the promises he made me of what he would do to me. You didn’t have your dignity, your courage, your self worth, your soul ripped away by a fucking freak.” With each accusation, she pokes me in the chest, a little harder each time.

God, I want to try to comfort her, but I know she won’t allow it right now. I stand and let her have at me.

“You don’t have to live with the fact that a group of women you never knew are dead because they sort of looked like you. You don’t have to live with being the cause of your best friend’s death.” Her voice catches with that accusation and we both think of Erik and his mangled corpse. Her voice is bitter and low, “So you go do the story, Tabloid! But leave me the fuck out of it. I never have to look at another sorry, sick bastard like that for the rest of my life. I have paid my fucking dues, you got it?” Suddenly she drops to the sofa like a sack of rocks, and sits there with her face buried in her hands. Her whole body is shaking.

I just stand here, with my hands hanging at my sides, stunned at the vitriol in her voice and feeling lost. This is a Kels I have never seen.

From behind her hands, muffled by her tears, she continues to speak in a cold, hard voice. She’s never directed it at me before, but I heard rumors of it at the affiliate. “As for that goddamned, little weasel, if he thinks this is good journalism – to assign the ones with ‘experience’ to this story – then he’s a sick, little bastard and I don’t want to work for him anyway. It’s not worth it.”

I stand there, watching her cry, frozen. I see our careers evaporating in front of my eyes. I think I might be sick. Hold it together, Harper. This job is too important, to both of us, to let it get pissed away in tears and anger.

I am pleased, but a little surprised, at my own voice as it comes out of my mouth solid, sure, firm, professional: “Kelsey, you have it all wrong. This isn’t about a sick sense of humor. He’s genuinely concerned that we’d let our personal lives and feelings get in the way of doing a story, any story. And since we were hired over his head, he’s got to test us. You can do this. You will do it because it’s what you do and it’s what makes you who you are.”

She looks at me like I’ve grown two heads and fangs. Apparently that was not the inspiring speech I meant it to be. Slowly, she rises from the sofa to face me. We stand there, locked in a stare down for what seems like centuries, but is only seconds. However, I believe I have just experienced the Ice Age.

Kels breaks eye contact first. She uses both hands to wipes the tears from her cheeks. In a small, tight voice, she says, “You’re right. I am a professional. I’ll do it because I’m a professional. But don’t expect anything more than that from me, ’cause you’re not gonna get it.”

Before I can respond, she leaves my office closing the door gently behind her.

That went well.

* * *

Well, the producer in Harper certainly came out in full force. She’s going to be a damn good one, it appears. I slam my office door and sink into my desk chair shaking. I’ve never been so damn mad.

“You will do this story.” Her words echo in the back of my mind right behind his words: “I killed the bitch. You’re next.”

I can’t do this story. I can’t help get a monster like him out of jail.

I glance over at the picture of Erik. Before I know it, I’m at the bookcase clutching his picture to my chest and fighting back the tears. “I can’t Erik. I can’t do it.” The tears slowly leak out, not so much because I’m sad, but because I’m mad.

I’m mad at Harper for telling me I will do it.

I’m mad at Langston for telling us to do it.

I’m mad at Erik for leaving me.

I’m mad at him for fucking up my life.

And I’m mad at myself for letting all this get to me.

You’re stronger than this, Kelsey Diane Stanton. Tabloid is right. This is what you do. So, push back the pain and the frustration, and do your damn job.

I wipe away my tears, looking at Erik once again. “I miss you, you little shit.”

“Kelsey?” Brian calls softly, sticking his head in the door. “You all right?”

I take a deep breath and put Erik’s picture back on the bookcase. “Yeah, I’m fine.” That’s a big, fat lie. I’m not fine at all. I’m fucking falling apart.

“Would some tea help?” he asks, raising his brows.

Apparently I didn’t lie very well. “Ye-” I stop, remembering something, or hopefully someone, more important than all of this bullshit. “Ah, how about some apple juice?”

He smiles kindly. “Back in two shakes.”

Sinking back down into my chair I rest my head in my hands. They tell me I was with him for four days. I don’t know for sure. Locked away in that little room, continuously tormented, time had no meaning for me. I remember lying there with my eyes closed, listening to him tell me how he killed those girls. He told me every detail of every rape and every murder. He told me how he killed Harper.

Harper.

Thank God, he didn’t take her from me, too.

Yet now I’m willing to not only throw away my own career, but hers as well? Oh yeah, that’s supportive. That’s being a real partner. If I fuck up, I take her with me. I ruin her life as well.

I can’t do that to her.

I won’t do that to her.

I feel his hand on my knee, but I look up to find Brian. He’s kneeling next to me, holding my juice in one hand and a Kleenex in the other. Hell, I’ve been crying and didn’t even know it.

“Here you go.” He offers both items to me. “Kelsey,” he squeezes my knee gently, “I don’t know what has you so upset, but if you need someone, I have two good shoulders.”

I find tears in his eyes which only cause more to fall from my own. I feel him take the glass out of my hand and, a moment later, wrap his arms around me. “Just like Erik,” I whisper to him.

“Only not as butch,” he makes a soft joke and I have to chuckle.

I pull back, wiping at my eyes, trying to smile at my new friend. “Right, not as butch. You would have liked him a lot.”

“Oh, I know that. To be honest, I went to his movies to drool over him. Those eyes,” he sighs dramatically.

I laugh a little while wiping at my face with the Kleenex. “They were beautiful. He would have been flattered you thought so.”

“Kelsey, I don’t know what’s wrong, and I’m not going to pry, believe it or not, but I’m guessing this is about more than missing Erik. I want you to know I was serious when I offered my shoulders. Free of charge.”

“Thanks.” I lean across my desk and pick up the glass of apple juice. I take a long drink, letting it soothe my nerves. “Brian, have you ever felt like you were coming apart at the seams, and everything and everyone in your life was pulling at you?”

“Sure.”

“What do you do to get through it?”

“I find one thing -” He takes another Kleenex from the box on the floor. He certainly comes prepared, must have been a Boy Scout. Well, actually, no, he wouldn’t have been. As I contemplate his Eagle Scout status, he wipes my face a little more. “- one thing that means the world to me and makes me happy and I tuck it away. Then I deal with each thing one at a time until the pressure lets up.” He tosses the Kleenex in the trash can and hands me another one. “Blow.”

I obey. I glance at the glass of juice on my desk. I have one thing. And if I let all this stress get to me I might lose it too. This is assuming, of course, that I even have it. I won’t know for another week, but I have to act right now like I do.

“You have something, right?” Brian asks gently.

“I sure hope so.”

* * *

I stare at the door she closed so quietly a few minutes ago. That controlled, hard edged, desolate voice was more painful than anything I’ve ever heard before. Given how she was when she left here, I suspect I better give her some time to cool down.

I turn to the file Langston gave me earlier. The first items in the files are the addys in our electronic morgue for the print materials and transcript files on the story. I log into the library server and start glancing through the files. I take it in, looking for anything that might make this case different from the hundreds of other rape/murder cases each year.

Clips from all of the major Ohio papers are here – from the Plain Dealer to the Akron Beacon Journal. From the looks of things, the Columbus Dispatch is the closest to being the on-the-site paper.

The first time my new story shows up is a short crime report on an inside page of the local section.

Jamestown Village. The bound and mutilated body of a young woman was found late last night in her two-family home. Police Chief Jason Clairmont stated that all appropriate steps were being taken by the Jamestown Village police to identify and apprehend the perpetrator. Motivation for the killing is unknown, but the victim was also raped, according to unnamed sources. The police are withholding additional information until the family of the victim has been notified. The body has been turned over to the Fairfield County Coroner’s office for an autopsy examination into the exact cause and time of death.

Later stories go on to detail the Jamestown Village Police Department’s apprehension of Frederick Johnstone, an itinerate laborer with a history of petty crimes, nothing rising above a misdemeanor.

The cops did their investigation and pieces of information were published accordingly. The perp broke into her house through a broken basement window. The woman was raped, vaginally and orally, then beaten about the face and killed, more or less in that same sequence.

The evidence was purely circumstantial. Johnstone had a history of being a bad drunk, of roughing up women occasionally, and being the neighborhood Casanova. He had been seen flirting with the victim a few weeks prior while doing some repair work in her next door neighbor’s home, raising the likelihood he knew about the broken window. There were several empty bottles of Rolling Rock at the scene, his known beer of choice, and one the victim was said to not favor. There was a belt at the site similar to one he had been seen wearing previously, but it was a common, brown leather one with a Harley Davidson buckle.

Interestingly enough, despite living in the same general neighborhood, there is no mention in any of the stories that the victim, Beverly Verrett, and Johnstone knew each other before he worked for her neighbors. The case doesn’t look like the depressingly common “pick up the girl, have sex, bang her around a bit too hard” story. In fact, Beverly Verrett was, according to all the newspaper articles, a modern day saint: kind to stray animals, caring for her elderly parents, and working on a nursing degree.

Nor does it look like he was a serial killer caught early. Johnstone doesn’t fit the typical profile in any way. He was a bad drunk, no question, but he was also a devoted churchgoer, attending one of those southern Baptist splinter churches devotedly with his pregnant second wife. He seemed to have normal relationships with his parents and his wife, and his children from his first marriage, wasn’t abused as a child, no history of cruelty to animals. No, this wasn’t another Ted Bundy caught early.

The coroner’s report provides a description of the injuries which seem to be far too specific and focused to be a drunken killing. This woman was tortured, methodically and systematically. Every bone in her face was broken. The coroner compared her injuries to being in a high-speed car accident.

Another thing bothers me. Jamestown Village is small. The Ohio register of municipalities puts the population at under four thousand people. The entire police force consists of one police chief, a sergeant, a corporal and four patrol officers, as listed in the news articles. Yet nowhere is there any mention of bringing in the state police, or receiving assistance from the nearby Columbus PD, or calling in the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Why not? The case doesn’t strike me as open and shut.

I push the folder away and run the story through my mind. While I was reading through the various clippings, transcripts and reports, I was able to put aside my feelings, treat it like any other story I’ve ever handled. But now it hits me.

This could have been Kels.

If he hadn’t made that one mistake and she hadn’t been looking for an opportunity.

If she had lost hope and the will to live.

I could be looking at her autopsy report.

I imagine Kels’ beautiful face shattered. Her skin turning blue as he strangles her to death. Leaving her exposed and defiled, lying in a pool of blood in her own house. A place where she was supposed to be safe.

Kels. Dead.

I grab my trash can and dry heave over it. The acid bites at the back of my tongue and sweat pores down from my temples.

Shit. What if Langston is right? What if I don’t have what it takes? What if I can’t get past this and be the professional I once was?

Don’t go there.

I put the trash can back under my desk and wipe my brow with my sleeve.

I am a professional. And I will prove it.

I pull the folder back towards me. There’s a story here. A good one, I think. I don’t know if Johnstone is guilty or not, but I do know that there are questions. And I haven’t even gotten to his trial yet. Defense counsel in capital trials tend to be overworked, overwhelmed and understaffed. Not to mention the number of plain old incompetent ones out there, forced to take the case by the courts.

There is a story. One we’re gonna tell.

As I make the decision, I hear a soft knock on my door. “Come in,” I call, setting the folder aside. Kels sticks her head in. Since when did she knock on my door? I study her, noting she’s been crying again.

“Are you ready to leave? Or does the new story have your exclusive focus?”

* * *

I glance at her while unlocking the apartment door. She’s leaning against the foyer wall, waiting. She barely said two words all the way home. They were both one word responses to the small talk I tried to make. I finally gave up and listened to 1010 WINS which the cabby had on. I know more about traffic and weather conditions than I cared to know. I’m glad we don’t have to take the GWB on our way home tonight.

I open the door and motion her inside. She goes in without a word. She’s not mad at me, I don’t think. She looks like a zombie, drained of life. God, I hate this. She hangs her coat up on the rack.

“I’m going to go take a bath.”

“Terrific idea, Little Roo. I’ll order us some dinner. Italian good for you, sweetheart?”

“Sure.” She leaves me standing at the door.

It’s my first time feeling alone in our apartment.

After dinner is ordered, I pour myself a drink and head for the sun room. It’s too damn cold to go out on the balcony. We get a good breeze up here. Something I hadn’t thought about, but I bet I’ll appreciate it come the summer. God, please let us make it to summer. Don’t take this away. Not now. Not when I know what it’s like.

I stare out over the park, sipping and thinking.

This is tearing her up. She has barely talked to me about everything that happened to her while she was with him. Her way of dealing with it, I guess. The big D of denial. It ain’t just a river anymore.

Of course, now we’re up that river without a paddle. Or a damn boat. Or a life preserver. And I should have fuckin’ learned how to swim.

I only know bits and pieces of what happened based on what Bear could piece together and the things Kels would blurt out when waking from a bad dream in the hospital.

But I found Erik. I saw the crime scene photos of what he did to those other women. I know what he was capable of.

A shiver runs down my spine. I take another sip, hoping the alcohol will bring needed warmth.

He had my Little Roo. He had her for four days. He hurt her in ways I can’t fathom. Ways I don’t want to think about.

Maybe I’m at fault too. I should have gotten her help. No matter how much she would have protested. She kept telling me she was doing okay. I helped her hide from it.

I should have gotten her help. And now it’s too late. We’re forced to deal with this story and if I push anything more, it’ll only make it worse.

Way to go, Kingsley.

I turn when I hear her join me in the room. She’s in sweats, with a towel wrapped around her head. She lowers it to her shoulders and begins drying her hair with it. She looks so young. I raise my glass. “Want one?”

She shakes her head. “No, I’ll get some milk or juice.” Quietly, without another word, she turns for the kitchen.

I follow her even though I know I should give her some space. But I can’t let her hurt like this and not try to help.

She caps off the milk and puts it back in the fridge. We’ve been shopping at a very expensive Upper East Side grocery store that sells milk in the old fashioned bottles. If only they sold it at the old fashioned prices. Kels leans against the counter sipping from her glass, staring at the floor.

“You sure you don’t want something a little stronger? It might help you relax,” I offer, moving over to the wine bottle I’d opened earlier.

She shakes her head. “Baby,” she says quietly.

Oh shit! Great, Harper. Of course, she’s thinking she might be pregnant. “Jesus, I’m sorry. I should have thought of that.” I dump my drink down the drain and join her by getting a glass of milk too. I add Hershey’s chocolate syrup to mine though.

I lean against the counter next to her, to be near her. I let our shoulders brush, wondering if she’ll even allow that much contact. I’m relieved when she doesn’t pull away as I half-expected. I don’t know what to say to make this any better. I go with the first thing that comes to mind. “I’m really sorry.”

“Not your fault.”

“I feel like it is.”

She shakes her head and surprises me by reaching over and taking my hand in hers. I almost faint in relief. “No, it’s my problem. I have to deal with it. I’ll do the story, Harper. I won’t -” her voice cracks and she takes another sip of her milk – “I won’t let you down.”

I squeeze her hand gently. “Sweetheart, that would be impossible.”

* * *

I’m sitting here, digging through the life and death of a young woman. By all accounts, Verrett was a beautiful, young woman, with auburn hair, laughing eyes, and a promising future. Some of the interviews almost read like poetry as people, men especially, talk about her. She was only twenty-four when she was murdered.

Of course, that begs the question. Was Johnstone her murderer? Through all the accounts, he’s never changed his story or his profession of innocence. Unlike others who later recant confessions, he’s never wavered. He says he was at a bar with a couple buddies early in the evening and then went to another one later that night. People had general recollections of him being there, but no one could speak to the exact times he was there. Drunks don’t make good witnesses.

No one saw Verrett with anyone that evening. She went over to visit her parents and make their meal, then came home around eight. She waved to her next door neighbor and exchanged a few words before going inside. That was the last time she was seen alive. Except by her murderer.

I place a call to Mama who is at home, fortunately. “Kingsley residence,” she answers.

“Bon jour, Mama, c’est Harper.”

“Harper? Is something wrong?”

Everything, but I can’t tell her that. Not without her hopping a flight up here to lecture me for a couple hours in person. “Oui, Mama. I need a contact.”

“For your eyes?”

I laugh. “No, for a story. I’m doing one on capital punishment. I need to know who I can talk to in Ohio, preferably in the Columbus area, about a case.”

“Hold on, let me get my organizer.”

My Mama has a rolodex CEOs of Fortune 500 companies would die for. All of the work she and Papa do with various causes has brought her into some very influential company. Mama also has an incredibly memory. Once she knows you, she never forgets you. Papa has long called her his ‘stealth weapon’. She looks sweet and people underestimate her because of the accent, but, she’ll nuke ya.

I hear her flip the pages of her address book. “Call Melanie Henley of Capital University Law School. She’s a professor of Constitutional Law and she advises the ACLU chapter at the law school.” She gives me Professor Henley’s phone number. “She’s worked with Papa and I on a number of committees. She’s good people, for someone who doesn’t speak French.” It’s Mama’s old joke.

“Well, I’m sure she wishes she did.” I play along.

We talk for a few more moments before she tells me to earn my living. I next punch in the Professor’s number and am surprised when she picks up the phone. “Henley.”

“Hello, Professor Henley, my name is Harper Kingsley and I’m with -”

“Kingsley? Are you related to Jonathan and Cecile Kingsley?”

“Yes, I’m their daughter. I’m a producer with Exposure in New York.”

The professor has a soft mid-western accent. “I thought I recognized your name. What can I do for you? And how are your parents? I haven’t talked to them since our last central committee meeting.”

“They’re doing well, thank you for asking. Mama ask me to send you her regards. I was calling because I’ve been assigned a story there in Ohio about one of the men on death row. Are you familiar with Frederick Johnstone’s case?”

The professor blows out an exasperated breath. “I am, but I’m one of a few. We’ve been trying to get him a retrial for the last two years. It’s only because he’s scheduled to die this summer that people are suddenly getting a little bit interested in the case.”

“I’m definitely interested. I’ve been looking at the newspaper articles and some of the file tapes here and I have questions. Can you share with me some of your concerns about the case?”

And she does just that. We talk for the next hour. Actually, she talks for the next hour, I take notes. Professor Henley and her students in the ACLU chapter began looking at the case as part of a special project on constitutional law. Over the last few semesters, they have put together a lot of information, most of which seems to indicate that Johnstone shouldn’t be sitting where he is today.

Around the time of Verrett’s death, a serial rapist was working her neighborhood and a few of those adjoining. In each instance, he would enter through a lower, unlocked window, rape the occupant of the house, and leave the same way. There was a substantial amount of community pressure on the small police force for someone to be brought in for questioning in the matter. Johnstone had been a suspect in that case, based on his Lothario status, but he had credible alibis for the majority of the attacks. He was released after questioning.

Evidence in the Verrett matter appears to not have been handled correctly, or lost altogether. The bed, sheets and towels found around the victim were disposed of by her landlord. Hair in the bathroom sink, where the police assumed the killer cleaned up after the murder, was gathered nearly two weeks later from the drain trap by one of the patrol officers with a pair of tweezers and a baggie. The basement window – the means of entry according to police – was never dusted for fingerprints. The footprints one cop reported in the basement were obliterated by subsequent visits to the room by other cops. The bathroom was not dusted for prints at any time. At least three other people had keys to Verrett’s apartment and there was no sign of forced entry onto the premises.

The main item linking Johnstone to the scene were several empty bottles of Rolling Rock found in the kitchen and several more in the fridge. Once the cops found out he had flirted with her earlier, he became their prime suspect. The empty bottles were never tested for his fingerprints or DNA during the trial.

We don’t even have time to get into the trial and what happened there before she has to leave for a class. I thank her for her time and assure her I’ll be visiting her in the near future.

Langston is right. There’s a story here. Maybe Johnstone is guilty, but there’s enough of a doubt to make me wonder if he isn’t the Hundredth Innocent Man Langston is looking for.

I gather up my notes and march over to Langston’s office. Here I am, just twenty-seven hours later, standing at his door, tapping on the frame. Just like yesterday, he is on the phone and pecking at his keyboard furiously. I swear he’s wearing the same clothing. I wonder if it’s true that he doesn’t go home.

He finishes his call and, without looking up, he orders, “Kingsley: sit!” I feel a bit like the family dog, but I obey. After a few more moments at the keyboard, he faces me. “Well?”

I hand him a synopsis of the story as I see it. “You may have your poster boy, Langston: evidence is flimsy, the crime is brutal, and Johnstone wasn’t all that bad-looking before he went to jail. I don’t know what the outcome of all the research will be, but it’s not looking like he had a fair trial. We have an incompetent police force, a hungry DA and God knows what type of lame defense. Also, there’s a law school club dying to prove this guy innocent as their semester project. So, we have a lot of free research coming our way.”

Langston looks over my notes while I talk. After I finish, he grunts. “When are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow morning. Or whenever the first flight to Columbus is. If they even have direct flights there.”

He snorts. “Nah, they’ll probably send you through somewhere convenient, like Raleigh-Durham. Get on it, Kingsley. And keep in touch.”

“Yes, sir.”

I walk back to my office feeling immensely better. One major hurdle has been cleared successfully.

I can do any damn story you send me on, Langston.

Arriving back in my office, Charleen, our shared secretary – or executive assistant as she prefers to be known – calls to me. “Ms. Kingsley, you’re needed in Ms. Stanton’s office right now.” Her tone is low and guarded, as if she knows something is wrong.

God, what if there is something wrong?

I run.

* * *

Brian sets a stack of books down on my desk. “Bitches, huh? I know a few of those. The stories I could tell.” He clucks and shakes his head.

“Witches, Brian, not bitches.” I smile back at him. I know he’s trying to stay cheerful and help me through this in his own way.

“Bitches, witches, whatever. Put a man in a pair of fishnets and six inches heels and you can’t tell the difference.”

I shake my head and try to get into another web site, if only to get that mental image out of my mind. If the information superhighway were moving any slower today, it would be going in reverse. “Hey, by any chance did you find that herbal tea I asked you about?”

“I sure did and hid it in your dressing room. Want me to make you a pot?”

“No, I’ll do it. Can you call research and have them send up anything they have on the Salem witch trials?”

“Absopositootly.” He turns, leaving to do my bidding. I don’t know how he stays so damn happy all the time. I wish I knew his secret.

I glance at the screen. Connection timed out. Of course. It figures. Nothing like trying to work and not be able to. Oh well, at least I can make my tea. Going into my dressing room, I fill the carafe and pour the water into the coffee maker.

Suddenly, I’m back there, in that little room.

Back there with him.

I look around, trying to get my bearings, but everything is clouding over. Like in the movies when the fog suddenly rolls in and sweeps over the heroine, nothing is clear. I can’t find my way home.

But I can see his face. Hear his voice. Feel his hands on my body.

I stumble backward.

I have to get away. I can’t go through this again.

I have to get away.

My heart is pounding and I worry it’ll come bursting out of my chest at any moment. I can’t catch my breath. The oxygen is being sucked out of the room.

By him.

He’s taking my life away.

Oh God!

“No!” I scream.

I fight against his hands on me. Not again.

“No!”

His grabs ahold of me, just above my wrist.

“No!” I struggle against him, clawing at him. I’m glad when I feel skin under my fingernails. “No!”

“Kelsey! Stop! Please!” he urges.

A gulp of air catches in my throat, causing the room to come back into focus momentarily.

I’m in my office. In New York. Far away from him. From that room.

I can hear the blood pounding in my ears. I can hear my breathing; I sound like I ran a marathon.

“Get Harper,” he says.

Yes, Harper. Get Harper. She’ll make this go away.

As the panic passes, I realize it’s Brian who has me in his arms. Looking down, I see blood and the shattered remains of the coffeepot on the carpet. I realize his grip on my arm is to try to stop the flow of blood.

I close my eyes.

“Where is she?” Harper calls. I lift my head from Brian’s chest and see her charging through the door, a woman right behind her. “What happened?” she demands of Brian, her tone hard.

He pauses just a moment before reply. “I think she tripped. The coffeepot shattered and she cut herself on it.”

I’m coming to my senses and I look at Brian quizzically. He knows I didn’t trip, but his eyes tell me he’s not giving up any details about what he found when he came in.

Harper steps into the bathroom and grabs a towel from the rack. She wraps my arm in it, pressing down against the gash there. Leading me carefully over to my couch, she settles us down on the soft leather, wrapping me up in her arms. “Brian, can you go get a first aid kit?” she asks softly.

“Sure.” Brian ushers the other woman out of my office and closes the door behind him.

I take a deep breath and look into worried, blue eyes. “I’m clumsy,” I offer with a little smile.

“Right.” Her voice sounds doubtful, but she’s not forcing it.

“I’m okay, really.” I try to get up but she won’t let me. Her embrace is strong, keeping me in place. Instead of causing me to panic, it does the opposite. I know I’m safe. He can’t get me here.

“Just relax until we get that cut cleaned up,” she requests, kissing the top of my head. “I haven’t been able to hold you all day.”

How can I deny her?

* * *

Sitting on the sofa at home, I watch her pace back and forth. I look down at the bandage above my wrist. It didn’t take stitches, but it was a nasty, little cut requiring two butterfly bandages and a gauze pad over it. It took quite some time for the bleeding to stop and a thin red line stains the gauze right now. My fingers trace over it lightly.

“Kelsey, chér, look at me.”

I look up to find her kneeling in front of me. She brings her hands to rest on my knees lightly. There are so many things I want to say to her. So many things I want to tell her, to make her understand. But, if I do, she’ll hate me. She’ll leave me for sure if I tell her the things I remember about my time with him.

“I love you. Every day I think I can’t love you more and I find I do. Finding you, having you fall in love with me … all of it … surprises the hell out of me. I didn’t think I’d get this lucky. But somehow or other, I won the cosmic lottery.”

I try to smile. “And you didn’t even have to pay taxes on me.”

“Nope, sure didn’t. And, sweetheart, I hope that one day we’ll be able to claim each other as deductions. If Mama has anything to do about it.”

We share a smile. Mama on a crusade is a scary thought.

“I know that the incident today in your office was no accident. You didn’t trip. You’re not clumsy.”

“No.” I admit quietly.

“I didn’t think so. What happened?”

“I was back there. In L.A. I felt it happening again.”

She nods. “I thought as much. The nightmares are back again, aren’t they?”

“Yes.”

“Hell, I hate it that I have to leave right now. I have to, though. You understand that, don’t you? You know why I have to go?”

“The story,” I whisper. God, I hate this story.

“It’s more than a story, Kels. It’s our careers here. I’ve got to – we’ve got to – do this story. Otherwise Langston is going to do everything he can to get rid of us.”

I reach out and touch Harper’s cheek with my fingertips. “I’ll be ready if you need me.”

She takes my hand, kissing my fingers. “I always need you, Little Roo. What I want is for you to be able to get through this without any more trauma. I’d like to see if we can’t find you someone to talk to, who can help you work through things.”

“I can handle it. I just need time.”

Harper shakes her head, dropping her eyes momentarily. “No, Kels, you can’t handle it. No one can alone. Today was a perfect example of that. These panic attacks, or flashbacks, or whatever you want to call them, are only going to get worse. I’m here for you, sweetheart, but I think you need someone professional, who can be objective.”

I nod, dropping my head, fighting more tears. She knows I’m really screwed up because of this. She doesn’t need this in her life. The best thing I can do for her is get through this story so that when I finally do snap and lose my mind, they won’t fire her too. If it’s the last decent thing I do, I have to make sure she’s okay.

I look up and all I see is a very concerned face watching me carefully, trying to determine what I’m thinking.

“Let’s go to bed. You have an early flight,” I needlessly remind her.

I get up from the couch and tug her hand gently to see if she’s coming with me. She rises and we slowly walk toward the bedroom. Harper pauses in the hallway, looking at the stairs near the front door. I wonder if she wants to go sleep in the guest room. I might die if she does.

“You know,” she starts, “it occurs to me that the money we put into the guest room was a total waste.”

“Huh?” I’m truly confused.

“Well,” she wraps her arms around me from behind, placing her hands over my stomach, “we’re gonna have to turn it into a nursery soon.”

These are the first happy tears I’ve cried in days, and I can’t stop the sob that leaves my throat at the thought. The one thing. That’s my one thing I have to hold onto. The one thing that’s going to keep me from losing it completely.

“Come on, let’s go to bed.” She nudges me down the hall towards our room.

Once we’re settled in bed, I roll over to face her in the dark. “Hold me?”

“Only for forever, darlin’.”

She opens her arms and I curl tight against her. I don’t know what I’m going to do tomorrow night when she’s not here.

* * *

I stay awake for awhile, keeping watch over Kels’ dreams. Once in my arms, she falls asleep rapidly, but her rest isn’t easy. In the moonlight, I can see her brow is still furrowed with worry. I reach a hand up and gently massage it, to get her to relax. Reluctantly, she does and the tension transfers to her hands which clutch at my jersey. I pry them off one at a time and massage them, placing kisses in her palm while doing so. I try to remember every bit of French poetry my mother or my professors made me memorize and I whisper it softly into the night air.

I hate leaving her in a few hours.

Jesus, the last time I left when I shouldn’t have is how we got into this mess to begin with. If I had been at her apartment, I could have prevented all of this. Erik would still be alive. Kels wouldn’t be hurting.

I did this to her.

I should trash that damn bike. I should tell Robie to keep the damn thing instead of just storing it for me. Or maybe I’ll go down to NOLA and burn it.

A fucking drive was more important than staying with Kelsey. Way to go on the priorities, Kingsley. You’re lucky she still lets you near her. Anything else is pure grace.

She’s hurting and I have to leave her.

Damn.

I’m hurting and I have to leave her.

Damn.
Episode Seven: Special Delivery
Okay, maybe I missed the damn place. I mean, it’s not all that big. Only four thousand people. And a couple sheep. Or whatever it is they raise around here. I’m driving down a two-lane highway, a designation which seems rather generous, and trying to find Jamestown. If I don’t find some sort of civilization soon, I’m gonna turn around.

Then I see the golden arches up ahead. Ah, McDonald’s. A sign of semi-intelligent life, at least. Coming over the slight rise in the highway, I see the restaurant and a scattering of buildings radiating out from it. Must be the place.

I turn down the volume on my new Glen Moore CD, Nude Bass Ascending. Radio signals don’t seem capable of getting this far out into the countryside. Mars, yes. Jamestown, no.

Hmm, it’s just about lunch time and a Big Mac, fries and chocolate shake would really hit the spot. I love MickeyD’s shakes. As a kid, T-Jean once told me that their shakes were made out of plastic. For the longest time I couldn’t have one without imagining I was swallowing a bunch of tiny plastic pellets, like packing material. Didn’t keep me from having them. Just made my imagination go off the deep end.

I pull into the lot and park my rental Explorer. Nowhere near as good a ride as my precious new Land Rover but not bad, overall. The restaurant is located in a small strip mall that holds a grocery store, a video rental store, a hardware store, an H&R Block and a couple empty store fronts. There are two competing car dealerships across the street, with an auto parts store next to the larger lot.

Another small town just like every other small town in the U.S.

I lock up the Explorer and head inside for food. My Little Roo would have a fit if she knew how I ate when I’m on the road alone.

Alone.

God, I hate being alone. I hate being here without her. Especially right now. How can four days seem like an eternity? I know how: four days of sitting in a law library reading up on the case, talking with Professor Henley and her group of advocates, getting stonewalled trying to reach people connected with the case on the phone.

I review the past four days of frustration in my mind one more time. This case has more holes in it than a sieve. For starters, the defense attorney refused to talk to me. The entire staff of the police department, all seven of them, uniformly responded with a resounding, “No comment.” The prosecuting attorney refused to talk. Hell, I can’t even get the coroner’s office to talk to me. There’s something very wrong with their report. Something was dicey in the material used in the DNA testing process. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what was wrong with it, but the records aren’t very clear. And nobody in the coroner’s office is talking. I have several calls into the DNA testing facility, but that seems a long shot right now.

Even more strange are the convoluted relationships I’ve discovered around here. There is some link between the Mayor, the Police Chief and someone way up in the state prosecutor’s office. I suspect that there are family relations all over the place but I haven’t been able to track it all down yet. I may spend some time in the registry looking up birth certificates trying to figure out who’s related to whom.

Finally, there is the issue of the other rapes. Johnstone doesn’t seem like a rapist; he doesn’t fit the typical profile at all. And he has several iron-clad alibis for some of the rapes, including one night when he was in jail for drunk and disorderly when the rape occurred. So the presumed link there is clearly not solid. The more I look at this, the more it stinks.

So here I am. Hoping that a face-to-face encounter will get people to talk to me. Because there’s a story here. I can smell it.

I get in line behind what must be the entire local high school class. Wonder if this is their cafeteria.

Little Roo, I miss you. Hell, Harper, call her, stop pining. I tug my cell phone off my belt and flip it open. No service. Crap. I should have known. This far out in the sticks I’ll be lucky if they have real phone service and not party lines.

I finally order and get my food, surprised any is left after the herd has come through. I carry my tray over to a booth where I can keep an eye on my rental. Too many high schoolers running around out in the lot for my comfort.

I notice a police cruiser pull into the car lot across the street. Nice to know they’re on top of things around here. Yeah, right. Like they were on top of it when that girl got killed. Like they were when they investigated her murder.

Maybe they were too busy watching teenagers hang out, eating junk food.

I finish my food, wishing Kels were here to go with me to a decent restaurant. I’m gonna be paying for eating this crap all night. Doesn’t keep me from taking my shake with me though.

I pull out onto the main road, heading further into the small town. My plan for the day is to have a look around and get to know the lay of the land … er, so to speak.

Speaking of lays, I need to either get my ass home or get my Little Roo out here soon. I didn’t think I’d ever enjoy sex with the same woman night after night. Day after day. Afternoon after afternoon. Morning after morning.

Ugh …

Snap out of it, Harper, or you’ll have to take matters into your own hands. And what fun is there in that?

I love the feel of her skin against mine, the taste of her, the smell of her hair, the sound of her voice and the sight of her perfect body. It is perfect, in every way. It fits against mine exactly right. And she has a delightful little birth mark immediately below her bottom left rib.

She has the softest skin, silky smooth. My hand glides over it so easily. And it feels so good against mine …

Jesus, Harper. Stop trying to kill yourself.

I’m so distracted it takes me a minute before I realize there are red and blue lights flashing behind me. I glance down at the speedometer. Oh shit. Forty-five in a thirty-five. Shit.

I pull into a gas station lot. I wait, leaving my hands right on top of the steering wheel. I wouldn’t want to give a gung-ho redneck cop a reason to shoot me.

Finally, he gets out of his car. Yup, pretty much what I expected from this place. He’s in his mid-fifties, graying and a good forty pounds overweight. Definitely a good ol’ boy. Fuck. ‘Cause I’m not a good ol’ girl.

I lower the window as he peers in the truck from back to front. “Afternoon, officer.”

“License and registration.”

I reach above the visor for the rental papers and then into my jacket for my wallet.

His free hand comes to rest on his gun.

Son of a bitch. These boys play mean out here.

I hand the items out the window. As I do, I notice another cruiser pull into an empty parking lot next to the station. All this over a simple speeding ticket? Damn.

He grunts something and goes back to his car. I watch him pick up his mike. The other car pulls out of the lot and comes behind the first one. Fuck me.

I will never fantasize about making love with Kelsey while driving again.

Well, at least in Ohio.

Okay, in Jamestown.

He gets out of his cruiser again and comes back to my window. “Your license says you’re from California but, funny enough, you claim to live in New York on your rental car papers. Now, which is it?”

“I recently moved. I haven’t had time to switch my license over yet.”

He shifts his weight and resettles his equipment belt, the squeak of leather not reassuring at this moment. “Would you get out of the vehicle, please?”

“Is there a problem?” I ask, unhappy with this turn of events.

He opens the door of the truck. “Please, step out, Ms. Kingsley.”

Okay. I can see the other cop approaching me from the passenger side. Let’s not get all upset here, fellas. I have too much to live for to get shot over a simple speeding citation. I unfasten my seatbelt and slide out of the truck.

The cop draws himself up to his full height, which is still shorter than mine. That’s what in-breeding does for ya.

The other officer brings over a sheet of paper. The heavyset one takes out a pen. “Ms. Kingsley, we get a lot of drug traffic through here. Is there anything in the truck I should be aware of?

Drugs. You must be kidding me. Do I look like a drug runner? “No.”

He shoves the paper toward me. “Then you won’t mind if we have a look?”

Ah, I get it. It’s a consent to search form. I take it without a word and sign it on the top of the truck. “Of course not, officer.” I hand it back to him.

“Thanks.” He hands the form to the other cop. “Will you step back to my car, please?”

I don’t like this. I wanted to watch and make sure nothing suddenly appeared in my ride that I didn’t put there. I follow him nonetheless. He has the gun, after all. “Place your hands on the car. For my safety, I’m going to place you in the back of my car. Before I do that, I need to pat you down. Do you have anything in your pockets I should be aware of? Weapons, needles?”

“No.” Jesus H. Christ. For ten miles over the speed limit, I’m being pulled out of my car, frisked, and placed in the back of a cruiser while they search my vehicle. The sad part of it is. It’s all legal. They can justify this shit. So there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it.

God, I’m glad Kels isn’t here to see me all cooped up in the back of this cruiser. I’d never hear the end of it.

* * *

I’m impatient. I admit it. If that damn clinic doesn’t call soon, I’m going to explode. I can’t think. I can’t work. I can’t sleep at night without Harper, unless I’m on the sofa with the TV on all night. Then it’s only for an hour or so at a time. Good thing I’m not actually going on the air until the thirtieth. I look like hell.

God, I miss her.

Even though this story has caused us several anxious moments, I know it’s not Harper’s fault. I really can’t be mad at her for going to protect our careers while I fell apart.

I fell apart. Some professional I turned out to be.

My phone rings. I snatch it from the cradle. “Yes?” I feel like a teenager waiting for a call after the first date.

Brian chuckles. “Hold your horses, it’s not Stud on the line.” Oh, Brian, if you only knew who I was hoping it was. “It’s a Dr. Lillian Solomon. Would you like to speak to her?”

It’s all I can do to keep from screaming ‘yes’ in his ear. I manage to say it professionally and calmly. I hear him transfer the call and suddenly I am mute.

“Kelsey? Are you there, dear?” Dr. Solomon asks, her voice gentle.

I nod.

Good going, stupid. She can’t hear your brains rattling. “Um … yes.”

She laughs a little. “I have your test results.”

“Uh huh.” Another intelligent comment, Kels. Can’t wait to see how you do on your first interview here. Geez.

“Congratulations, Kelsey. You’re pregnant.”

Pregnant? Me? A mother-to-be? “Really?” I whisper. Please don’t let this be a joke or a mistake. I couldn’t stand that. I can’t have my one thing taken away.

“Yes, ma’am, so it would seem. The test is positive. Now we’re going to have to do it again in two weeks, but right now it definitely registers positive.”

Nope, not a joke. Not a mistake. “That’s great! God, it’s wonderful.”

“I thought you’d be pleased. Listen, one word of advice. I know you’re going to want to share this with Harper, but I’m going to caution you against making a general announcement right now. A lot of things can still go wrong. A number of pregnancies end naturally without the woman being aware she’s even pregnant at all. It happens for any number of reasons and there’s not really anything you or I can do about it.”

“I read the literature you gave us. I know the odds.”

“Okay. See you in two weeks.” She pauses. “And congratulations!”

“You bet and thanks.” I hang up the phone. I pick it right back up and dial Harper’s cell.

I hang up the phone before there’s an answer.

Kels, you don’t just blurt out this type of news over the phone. Geez, get a grip. You need to find the right way to tell her. I feel a real smile cross my lips, the first one in a week.

I’m pregnant. We’re going to have a baby. My hand travels down to my stomach. Right underneath my hand is a little life. Amazing. I love you, little one. My mind flashes back on our time in the doctor’s office and Harper saying those same words as she kissed my stomach.

Harper, I wish you were here right now.

There’s a knock on my door and Brian sticks his head in. “Kelsey, is everything okay? I mean, with a doctor calling and all …?”

“Everything is great and I’m buying you lunch.” Who cares if it’s barely eleven in the morning? “Come on, let’s go.”

* * *

The cops were surprised to not find drugs in my rental car and only reluctantly gave me back my keys. My keys and a seventy-five dollar ticket. Wonder if I can write it off?

I drive to where Verrett was found murdered. Shitty neighborhood. Fits in well with the shitty town. Wonder if it was better or worst at the time of her death? Either way, I’m glad I dropped off my stuff at the hotel before coming out here.

The house next door looks occupied and I get out of my Explorer and cross the street. I pause at the mailbox and note the inscription: The Conners. Same family as when Verrett was killed. I straighten my shoulders and head to the door. Knocking twice, I am soon greeted by a harried looking woman. “Yes?”

“I’m Harper Kingsley. I’m a producer for CBS, with the news magazine Exposure. I’m working on a story about Beverly Verrett’s death. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions.”

Her eyes grow hard. “I have nothing to say; I thought you would get the hint when I didn’t return your phone calls. Bev was the sweetest person I ever knew. I don’t want to see her memory murdered as well.” She starts to close the door.

I put a hand on it, holding the door open. “Mrs. Conner, I have no intention of doing that. But I need the help of people like you – her friends – to make sure I present the truth as you knew it.”

Mrs. Conner studies me critically. “You’re writing for him. You’re trying to get him off.”

“Not at all. I’m trying to figure out what really happened that night. I’ve read the prior reports on the trial and the testimony given. Were you entirely happy with it?”

“Of course not. The justice system in this country is terrible. Damn lawyers. Kept me from testifying, even though I wanted to.”

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. “Please, Mrs. Conner, can you spare a few minutes to talk to me?”

She steps aside. “Come on in, I just made a fresh pot of coffee.”

The house is furnished simply, the only clutter coming from the entire stock of Toys-R-Us strewn about. I wonder if that’s what our home will look like soon. I really hope so.

“How do you take your coffee?” she calls from the kitchen.

“Black is fine, thanks.” Mrs. Conner returns with two mugs and hands me one. After taking a sip, I ask, “So what did you want to testify about, Mrs. Conner?”

“Please call me Emily. Bev was a sweet girl, always taking care of the people around her. She had a big heart, if you know what I mean. I was always afraid for her because of that. This isn’t the best neighborhood, or the best town, for someone like that. I told her a couple times that she needed to be more careful.”

“Why was that? Had someone hurt her or threatened to?”

“No, not that I knew of. But, I would see her with people – men – that I knew weren’t looking out for her best interests. She just didn’t know any better.”

“Was she seeing someone in particular?”

Emily stares into her mug, as if it might provide the answer. “She wouldn’t say. I knew she was, but she didn’t want me to know about it.”

“Why not?”

“I guess because she thought I wouldn’t approve.”

So Beverly had a boyfriend that Emily wouldn’t have liked. I wonder if the cops knew about him. “Any idea who he was?”

“I can only guess it was someone from her school, but I honestly don’t know. I’d see his car, and a man going in and out every so often. He looked kinda familiar, but I could never actually place him.”

“And that was what you wanted to testify about?”

Emily shifts and puts her mug down. “No. Who knows? Maybe they were right not to call me as a witness. It was late at night and I was tired, what with the kids and all.”

“What did you want to testify about?”

“I thought I saw someone leaving Bev’s apartment that night, a little after midnight.”

“Someone?”

“A man.”

“Johnstone?”

She shakes her head. “Definitely not.”

* * *

“How would you feel about taking a trip out to the kennels?” I ask, trying to sound casual.

Brian is having none of it. He puts his elbows on the table and leans toward me. “Oh, Kamali got to you, didn’t he?”

I blush and nod. The day after Harper left, Brian took me to see a friend of his upstate. It was a thinly veiled ploy to get my mind off of everything but I didn’t mind as I found myself buried in puppies, each eager to lick away any of my troubles.

Just like Harper.

Stop it, Kels. She’s not around. God, how long has it been? It feels like forever.

Brian’s friend, another impossibly handsome gay man, Doug Oberson, is a dog-breeder/trainer. He raises German Shepherds as companions and guard dogs. I never realized how beautiful the breed was until a couple days ago.

By the time we left several hours later, I had fallen in love with the most beautiful eighteen month old. Kamali is absolutely wonderful and the sweetest thing on four legs. The fact that Doug’s been training him as a guard dog certainly didn’t lessen the attraction either. We bonded instantly. He even ran the length of the fence following the Range Rover when we left. It was almost as if he were trying to get me to turn back for him.

“You going to get him?”

“I think so. Will Doug keep him for me until we get this thing in Ohio resolved?”

“Oh, hell, Kelsey, if you want to get him today, go ahead. If you have to go to Ohio, I’ll dog sit.”

“You wouldn’t mind?”

“I’ve helped train Kamali. We get along great. Although Kamali’s owner hasn’t yet succumbed to my charms,” he pouts.

“I didn’t know you had your sights set on Doug.” Not a bad place to set one’s sights. He’s incredibly handsome and a total charmer. I can understand why Brian is smitten.

“I meant you,” he deadpans and then bursts out laughing. “Not! Just kidding. Stud would kill me if I even were so inclined. Yeah, I’ve been trying to get Doug to see the light for awhile now.”

“Well, I think he’s stupid if he doesn’t,” I assure Brian, covering his hand with mine. “And thank you for your offer. I’d really like to get Kamali. I think I’d feel better in the apartment while Harper is out of town with him there.”

“And what is Stud going to have to say when she finds out you got a dog?”

I let a smile play on the corners of my mouth. “Oh, I guarantee you, Kamali will be a most welcome addition to the household.” Especially when I tell her I bought him so he and our baby could grow up together.

* * *

On our way out to the kennel we make one stop. It’s a small house at the end of Main Street in Nyack. The discreet sign hanging from the mailbox states that the occupant does tarot and psychic readings. No appointment necessary. I glance over at Brian who is giving me a confused look.

“Research on my alternative religions story.” I raise my brows, giving him a look I hope will convey my sincerity.

“Yeah, right. You call it that and then you can write the entire day off on your taxes. I should have become an on-air personality. You guys get to write off your clothes, dry cleaning, makeup, haircuts …”

“Jealous, jealous.” I pull the keys from the ignition. “Come on, it’ll be fun.”

“Kelsey,” he grasps the door handle, “we seriously need to redefine your definition of fun.”

The inside of the small house is decorated with various symbols and icons, some of which I recognize from my research. I try to memorize the ones I don’t so I can look them up later. Every one of them seems to hold an energy I can sense. It’s very odd indeed.

An older woman smiles at me, gently taking my hand and holding it rather than shaking it. “What’s your name, dear?”

“Shouldn’t you tell us?” Brian says from a chair across the room as he thumbs through a magazine.

“Behave,” I chastise my friend, then turn back to the woman. “Kelsey.”

“Won’t you come back into my room?”

I look to Brian, who holds up the magazine and shrugs. “I’ll sit here quietly and peruse Witches Weekly and Mediums Monthly.”

Shaking my head, I follow her room into the next room. She directs me into an extremely comfortable chair then takes her place across from me. She seems to be taking an inventory of me so intense is her gaze.

“Normally,” she states, crossing her legs and smoothing the gown she is wearing, “I take a moment to get to know a client a bit, but there is so much to you. Do you mind if I just express what I see, feel and hear? There are a lot of voices surrounding you. They all want to speak.”

“Sure.” Everyone wants to yell at me. Why should the spirit world be any different?

“You have recently experienced great pain.”

It’s a statement, not a question. But I’m not impressed. She may recognize me. Anyone who was paying attention to national news in January knows my face. I simply nod.

“You’ve also made some major changes in your life. Very major changes. Very quickly.”

Tell me something everyone in the Tri-State area doesn’t know from watching television when I signed my contract with CBS. I nod again.

“The one you love is far away from you.”

Hmm, could be a lucky guess. And it’s a pretty general statement. Once again, I nod.

“Kelsey, you’re angry and very frustrated.”

Sitting here in jeans, Harper’s sweatshirt, a baggy jacket and a baseball cap, I know I’m not looking my best at the moment. Lack of sleep will do that. She could just be reading my body language, making logical deductions from the way I look. But this comment has me leaning forward a bit and one word leaves my lips, “Yes.”

“You have a lot on your mind and your burden is a heavy one, Kelsey. This person you love,” she pauses and seems to be listening to someone, “this person is a woman?”

“Yes.” Okay, that’s creepy. I don’t think I look stereotypical. In fact, I know I don’t. Langston would deal with that.

“Ah, yes. She’s is one you never expected to fall in love with. He cautioned you, told you to be careful.”

“Who?” I force myself to ask. I feel like I am trapped in an X-Files episode.

“The one who left you. The one who speaks to you now.”

My stomach flips, then ties itself into knots. She couldn’t possibly mean Erik. Could she?

“The young man, your friend. Kelsey, he’s still your friend and he watches out for you. The way, he says, you watched out for him.”

Calling Mulder and Scully! They are bound to come charging through the door any second. “Go on.”

“In order to bring forth the new life you carry, you must heal the pain of the past.”

How could she know about my baby?

“You can save your child, Kelsey. Share your joy with the one you love and find the help you need to heal your wounds.”

I’m shaking. I struggle to my feet and feel in my pocket for my wallet. “I’ve got to be going. What do I owe you?”

“I didn’t mean to frighten you, dear,” she offers, getting to her feet and steadying me with her wrinkled hand. “There are just so many people looking out for you, from the tall woman to people who have departed this realm. You should listen to their advice. The life of your child may depend on it.”

Okay, I want to leave and I want to leave now. “How much do I owe you?” I ask again, opening my wallet.

“Normally I charge fifty dollars for a session, but you’ve barely been here for ten minutes, so whatever you feel is reasonable.”

I hand her a hundred.

* * *

“You want to tell me what she said?” Brian asks as we turn up the drive to the kennels.

“Later. I’m a little freaked out, to be honest. Let me think about it for a bit.”

“Okay.” He accepts my reply gracefully. He perks up and points out the window. “Hey, look, there’s your baby.”

I look over and Kamali is tearing across the field for us. We climb out of the Range Rover and walk over to the fence to await Kamali’s imminent arrival.

“I’ll go get Doug. See if he has the papers ready,” Brian says as he heads over to the house. We had called Doug on the drive up to let him know we were coming.

Kamali stops by the gate and sits down, his tail thumping hard against the frozen ground. I move to the gate and open it. He comes out and sits in front of me.

“Hi ya, baby.” I kneel down, giving him a good scratch and a hug. “You wanna go home with me today?”

I’m rewarded with a sloppy dog kiss. It’s kinda like a sloppy Harper kiss when she being playful, only it’s got a little more tongue behind it and it’s external.

God, I miss her.

* * *

“Harper, I’m pregnant.”

To the point, but really boring.

I look over at Kamali who is laying stretched out on the floor looking at me like I’m nuts. His tail thumps the floor when I smile at him. “You think it’s so easy, you tell me how to do it.”

He yawns and puts his head down.

“Yeah, I thought as much.”

I sit back with my juice, propping my legs up on the coffee table. “I could tell her about you first.”

He doesn’t raise his head, but his ears perk up.

“Nah, better tell her about the baby first.”

The phone rings. I am expecting Harper’s call, so I have it handy. Yeah, right, handy. I’ve practically had the thing Super Glued to my hand since entering the apartment. I didn’t want to risk missing her call.

“Stanton-Kingsley residence.”

“You have no idea how sweet that sounds.”

Her voice is low in my ear. “Oh, yeah, I do.” I tease a bit.

“How come you get top billing though?”

“One, I’m the person who answered the phone. Two, you’re not here. And three, the talent always does.”

She chuckles. “Hmm, good point.”

I want to choke on my next words but I have to ask. “How goes the story?”

“It goes well enough that I want you on a flight out here tomorrow morning.”

“Oh.” I’m not happy about that, but I made her a promise. One I won’t go back on. “Okay.”

“Hey, does it help at all that I’ll be here?”

I hear the disappointment in her voice. Good going, Kels. She’s been gone a week and you’re not helping matters. “Of course, Harper. Honey, I’m sorry. It’s just -” Hell, I’m not even going to offer an excuse. “I miss you.”

“I miss you, too, baby” she admits. “Every day and every night.”

Speaking of babies. Oh, there’s a lousy opening.

“So you willing to come to Ohio?” Harper asks.

“Only because it’s where you are.”

“That’s fair.”

“Harper?”

“Yeah.”

“I um … I’m … I …”

“Honey, what’s wrong?” Harper is instantly alert, concerned.

“I bought a dog.” Kelsey Diane, you are a chicken.

“A dog? We just got rid of the damn cat.”

I shake my head. “We didn’t get rid of Trouble; he was cat-napped by your Mama. Big mistake asking your Mama and Papa to take him to New Orleans for you. You know your mother spoils anything and everything she can get her hands on.”

“Trouble ain’t spoiled, he’s royalty. Kinda like that cat in the Fancy Feast commercials. You know the ones with Lauren Bacall doing the voiceovers?”

I know exactly the one she’s talking about. “That’s pretty close to accurate. Your Mama feeds him fresh salmon every day. Hell, Harper, Trouble wouldn’t come to New York now if we begged him.”

“So you bought a dog because you were missing our cat?”

“Well, he’s more for when you’re not home. He’s a sweetheart. You’re gonna love him.”

“Ah,” she pauses, I can hear her adjusting her position on the hotel bed, “glad to know I can be replaced by a dog. Any particular reason for getting one?”

“Company. He’s also a guard dog. I feel a lot safer with him here.”

“Then I’m sure I’ll love him. What type of dog is he? And does he have a name? Or are we gonna call him ‘dog’ forever?”

“He’s a German Shepherd and his name is Kamali.”

Thump, thump, goes Kamali’s tail when he hears his name.

“Interesting name,” Harper replies. “Well, I’m looking forward to meeting him.”

Especially since he’s going to be keeping an eye on your son or daughter. Come on, Kels, she needs the good news, too. “I um … I … love you, Harper.”

“Love you too, baby. Listen, I need to find some dinner here soon. Places close a helluva lot earlier here than they do in New York. Or even New Orleans. I went out last night and couldn’t find a decent restaurant open past nine o’clock.”

“So you’re eating junk food?”

She sighs, caught. “I’m afraid so. In fact, the girl at Taco Bell recognized me last night. I’m hoping to avoid that dining experience tonight, so I need to get going in a moment. I hope I can find a place still open at six.”

“Already a New York snob,” I tease. “Don’t worry, when I get there, I’ll make sure you eat properly.”

“You’re my favorite food group.”

Warmth spreads through my body at her words. “Same here.”

“Okay, I’m going to get going. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon sometime. Just call me with your flight plans. I’ll come pick you up at the airport.”

“Absolutely. Love you.” I hang up the phone. Kamali offers me another yawn. “Yeah, I know, I’m hopeless.”

I look at my watch, five to six. I wonder when the next flight to Columbus is.

* * *

I gather up my work notebook and head out of the hotel. I found a guide of Columbus that recommended various restaurants around the city. One caught my eye, The Grapevine. It was listed as the best place for drinks and eats for lesbians. Considering myself a card-carrying one at this point in my life, complete with a steady girl and a possible baby on the way, I figure I owe it a go. Besides, it’s on Gay Street. How can I turn it down?

The place is hopping with the dinner crowd when I arrive. I fight my way up to the hostess, a pretty girl with a pierced eyebrow. She gives me a warm smile. “Good evening. How many in your party?”

I shrug. “Me, myself and I, I’m afraid.”

“Party of three, then?” she teases.

I look to the left into the dining room which is filled to capacity. “Busy night?”

“They’re all like this. We have about a forty-five minute wait for a table, or I can seat you in the bar immediately.” She gestures to the right, to the other room, which is also full, but there are a few spaces at the bar available.

“Bar’s fine.” It’ll be kinda nice to not be all alone. I’m so tired of eating meals and not talking to anyone, it’s unreal.

“Follow me,” the hostess says as she gathers up a menu and leads me into the bar. She seats me at an empty place at the end where I can see everything going on around me. “Enjoy.”

A quick perusal of the menu leads me to my choice of blackened shrimp. The bartender comes over when I lay the menu down on the counter. She leans down on her elbows and gives me an engaging smile and a view of her ample bust. “What can I get you?”

“Becks and blackened shrimp.” I keep my eyes carefully raised to meet hers.

“You got it. Baked potato?”

“Extra sour cream,” I reply.

“Good choice,” she replies, leaning even closer. “Any appetizer? The stuffed mushrooms are especially good.”

I shrug, a bit uncomfortable with her attention. “Sure, thanks.”

She walks away to place the order and I blow out a breath. I open the binder and review the notes I’ve been making over the last week. It’s all starting to come together, making me believe it’s gonna be a kick ass story.

The neighbor saw a man, not Johnstone, leaving Verrett’s house on the night of her murder. She also knew that Verrett was seeing someone. Someone not mentioned in any other report, anywhere, even though she says she told the cops about him.

Professor Henley has walked me through the trial transcripts, giving me a point-by-point breakdown of legal irregularities, including what appears to be suppressed evidence. Johnstone had to rely on a court appointed attorney, who, unfortunately had other priorities. Such as drinking. And sleeping during the trial.

Then there’s the entire lack of physical evidence linking Johnstone to the crime. And the physical evidence that was there was so mishandled as to be worthless.

Of course, there are those who are convinced of his guilt. The police, the prosecutor, and several of his old acquaintances are all adamant that he did this. Even his now ex-wife believes him capable of the murder.

Everything keeps coming back to the police, I note.

The reason why I called Little Roo out here, besides my intense longing for her, is the Ohio Department of Corrections has finally agreed to an on-camera interview for Johnstone for the day after tomorrow.

I think I’ll tell Kels on the drive out to the prison.

Oh, yeah, that’ll go over well.

“Here you go, good looking,” the bartender says delivering the stuffed mushrooms and the beer. She lingers, glancing down at my notebook. “What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a producer.”

“Movies?” She perks up, flipping her hair.

I shake my head. “Nope. News. Nothing exciting,” I lie.

“You working on a story now?”

I casually close the binder, not wanting a chatty bartender to know what I’m here for. “Always.”

“You from Ohio?”

I shake my head. “Hardly. This is a whole new world to me.” One I look forward to leaving as soon as possible.

“Well, if you need someone to show you around …” She lets the question linger in the air.

“Thanks, but I’ve been doing pretty well on my own.”

“Hmm, it’s a shame to think of you doing anything on your own. What a waste.”

My God, it’s getting hot in here. I pick up my beer and drain about a third of it when she turns away to fill a glass for another customer. I’m glad the bar is busy tonight. I really don’t need this in my life right now.

I stab a helpless mushroom on the end of my fork and just when I get it to my lips, she returns. Oh Lord, help me. I take the food into my mouth, trying not to make eye contact with her.

Jesus. I’m getting that tingling in my stomach. The same one I used to get before I’d pick some woman up. The thrill of the chase. Oh shit. No. I don’t want to go there.

“Hey, beautiful.” Her voice is low and smooth as she refills my beer. “I’m outta here in about fifteen minutes. Maybe after you eat I could show you some of the night life?”

I clear my throat a little and try not to choke on the mushroom. “Actually, I’m spoken for.” There, that should clear that up. Now leave me alone.

“Umm-hmm, by someone who isn’t here, I take it?”

“She’s at home.”

“And you’re here. My motto is ‘what they don’t know, won’t hurt ’em.'” Her fingers ‘accidentally’ graze the back of my hand. “Come on, gorgeous, I’m sure we could have a great time together. If nothing else, just for the night.”

I’m about to comment when she gets called to the other end of the bar. Thank you, sweet Jesus! My Mama always said he looked out for those who behaved themselves. I should have listened to her sooner on that one.

I manage to eat in peace and finish my beer by the time she reappears. She places my shrimp down in front of me. Then she takes a seat on the stool beside mine. She signals the new bartender to give us both a refill.

“So? What do you think? You, me,” she lowers her voice, “hot, sweaty sex. You know, the kind that makes you want to bite the sheets?”

“No, I don’t think so.” I give her my best smug smile. “Like I said, I’m spoken for.” I wish I had a wedding band I could wiggle in front of her. That’s one of the advantages of being straight. Maybe the only one.

“Uh huh, sure. That’s why you’re sweating and shaking? Come on, get real. If someone’s got you, she hasn’t had you all that long. And are you sure you’re all that had?”

My stomach roils. I push my plate away from me, and fish into my pocket for my wallet, tossing a bill down on the counter. “You’re right,” I admit reluctantly. “She’s not had me all that long. But, by God, I hope she’ll keep me around forever. And that means no fucking around. Not now, not ever.” I slide off the stool and gather up my binder. I’m outta here.

“Okay, have it your way.” She laughs easily, not flustered by this exchange at all. “But when you go back to your hotel room alone tonight, you can’t deny you didn’t think about it. I know your type, been in the business too long not to. You thought about it, you wanted it. Don’t lie to yourself.” She picks up her beer and gestures with it to the end of the bar. “And if you change your mind, I’ll be over there until closing.”

“I wouldn’t wait around for me,” I mutter.

* * *

Come on, be home.

Be home.

Be home.

“Hello,” the deep voice rumbles.

Thank you, God. “Gerrard, it’s Harper.”

“Well, hey there, little sister! How are you? To what do I owe the pleasure of this phone call?”

I slump down in the chair in my hotel room. “I need help.” I wipe my brow, still damp with sweat from my flight from the bar.

“I’ve been telling you that for years. What makes you finally convinced?”

I love Gerrard. He always instictively knows when I need to not freak out. “Life. I’m out in Ohio on a story. It’s in this little pissant town where the cops make Louisiana graft look like amateur hour.”

“My, that’s no good at all. It takes a lot to do us one better in corruption.”

“And, on top of it all, I got a speeding ticket the other day.”

He laughs. “That reminds me of a story T-Jean told me the other day. Seems Boudreaux got a job in Golden Meadow as a traffic cop giving out tickets in the speed trap they have out there. Of course, Boudreaux wasn’t literate, so his tickets were made out ahead of time. All he had to do was write the speed the violator was going and have the speeder sign the ticket. Then Boudreaux put his X on it and gave a copy to the driver.”

Boudreaux jokes have long been a favorite pastime of Gerrard and Jean. They tell them to rile up Mama who was a Boudreaux before she married Papa.

“So one day Boudreaux catches his good friend Thibodaux speeding. Thibodaux isn’t worried, though; he knows his buddy Boudreaux won’t give him a ticket. But Boudreaux makes one out and asks Thibodaux to sign it. Thibodaux is mighty upset and says, ‘Boudreaux, you and me, we been friends since we was real little. Mais, why you give me a ticket? I wasn’t going so fast.’ Boudreaux replies, ‘Thibodaux, you know I gotta do my job. Besides, if I don’t turn in my quota I don’t get my cut.'”

Ah, the life of the crooked Louisiana cop.

Gerrard continues, “In a huff, Thibodaux takes the ticket book, puts his X on it, because he had the same fine education that Boudreaux did, and hands the book back to Boudreaux. Boudreaux takes the book, looks at it, and becomes angry himself. ‘Maudit, Thibodaux, I know you mad at me, but you didn’t have to sign my name to the ticket!'”

I laugh, in spite of my stress level.

“So, what’s so wrong that you’re calling your big brother?”

“I got hit on tonight.”

“I take it Kelsey wasn’t the person doing the hitting.”

I snort. I wish. I wish to hell she was here right now. “Nope. A bartender.”

“You drunk?”

“Hardly. Barely finished one beer. And didn’t finish dinner.” Hearing my comment, my stomach growls.

“Did you hit back?”

Another snort. “Mais non! I ran out of there like a scared jack rabbit with my tail on fire. Ran all the way back here to the hotel and am hiding in my goddamned room.”

“Sounds like you did fine, Harper.”

“You ever get tempted, Gerrard?”

He sighs. “Sure. It’s natural. It happens. I’d have to be blind and deaf to not notice other women. There are lots of beautiful women in the world.”

“I hope to hell you don’t tell Kate that.”

He laughs. “She’s here in the room with me, Harper. It’s not a secret any longer.”

“There are plenty of handsome men out there too!” I hear Kate call in the background.

“See. Nothing to worry about. Look, Harper, temptation happens, but infidelity shouldn’t. As long as you didn’t cheat, you didn’t do anything wrong.”

My heart rate slows down, my breathing calms. “Should I tell Kels about it?”

“I don’t believe in secrets. Kate and I talk about everything so nothing can come and bite us in the ass. Communication is key, Harper. You’ll find that to be true. And Kelsey seems like an easy person to talk to.”

I remember the night I told her about Rachel. “She is. Thanks, Gerrard.”

“What are big brothers for if not to give free advice?”

“See, that’s why I called you. Robie charges by the hour.”

“That’s because he’s still in private practice. When he becomes a judge one day, he’ll be free too.”

“Give my love to Kate and the kids. I’m going to call my own blonde.”

We exchange good-byes and I punch in our number.

And get no answer.

This is not my night.

* * *

It’s been almost two hours.

Where the fuck is she?

It’s nine o’clock in the city. Why isn’t she home?

What if something is wrong?

Jesus. She bought a guard dog because she was scared.

You left her alone again.

She didn’t want you to go. You knew that. And you still left. Career first. Last time it was your fucking Harley. When does Kels get to be first?

Or does she have to die to earn that ranking?

God. Don’t go there. Don’t think about that. She’s just out. Working late at the office. Of course, that doesn’t explain why she’s not answering her office phone. Or her cell phone.

Where are you?

Please call me, sweetheart. I’m going out of my mind here.

* * *

There’s a knock on my door. My heart nearly explodes out of my chest. Somehow I know it’s about Kels. They’ve come to tell me she’s been hurt. Or is dead.

I force myself to open the door.

A room service attendant is standing there, silver tray in hand. I didn’t order anything, despite not having dinner. I stare at him blankly.

“Special delivery,” he says, when I don’t say anything.

“Huh?” I grunt. My brain is trying to compute. What is that ugly thing he has on the tray?

“Special delivery,” he repeats. He’s looking a bit worried now, like he’s gone to the wrong room or something. He pushes the tray toward me.

I look down at it and study the thing. It’s a stuffed animal, I realize. A bird of some kind.

A stork.

What the fuck?

Then it hits me.

A stork. Special delivery. To me.

“Kels!” I call. Pushing past him, I step out into the hallway, looking left and right. My heart is racing still, but now for a much better reason. This explains why I can’t reach her on the phone.

She steps out of the snack alcove. Dressed in jeans, a loose knit sweater and carrying a garment bag, she’s never looked lovelier. She is glowing. Damn, that isn’t just a myth. I race the remaining distance to her and scoop her up in my arms, twirling her around.

She laughs and wraps her arms around my neck. “Hi, sweetheart. Glad to see me?”

“More than you know,” I whisper, kissing her, not caring that we’re in the middle of the hallway with an audience. I pull away, at last, reluctantly. “Is it true? Really?”

Kels’ nose crinkles. “Really, truly. You do good work.”

I feel myself puff up, like I actually had something to do with it. “You do good work, baby. Wow! Wow!” I whoop again and spin her around again.

We both look down the hallway and see the attendant staring at us slack jawed. I think we’ve enlarged his world a bit.

I pick up the garment bag from the floor and lead Kels by the hand to the room. I take out my wallet and give the kid a big tip, snagging the stork from the tray as we head into the room. If he stays outside our door, he’ll get an even bigger education.

I got my Little Roo.

And she’s gonna have a Baby Roo.

* * *

I’m lying in her arms. God, this is wonderful. She’s giddy. I feel her chuckle every few minutes. “I’m guessing you’re happy?”

“You couldn’t tell?” She kisses my hair, my cheeks, my nose.

“Yeah, well, I got that impression sometime between when you opened the door, the message sunk in, you picked me up in your arms, brought me over here and made love to me.”

She untangles from me and dives, literally, under the covers, stopping at my stomach. I feel her lips moving against my skin. I lift the blankets and peer down at her. “What are you doing?”

“I’m having a private conversation. Go away.” She pulls the blanket out of my hand, covering her head.

I can’t help it. I throw my head back and actually laugh for the first time in more than a week.

I think I’m gonna like being pregnant.
Episode Eight: The Eyes Have It
This feels nice. This is what I’ve been missing. A week without her in my arms was far too long. I don’t ever want to do that again, but I know it’s inevitable. Our jobs will demand it. But I hope the reunion is always this sweet.

Kels is tucked up against me, sleeping soundly. My right hand is splayed across her abdomen, covering our child. I imagine a slight swell to it already, but I doubt if that’s possible. And I certainly won’t tell Kels that. I don’t want her to get insecure about her weight and size so early in the pregnancy.

We’re going to have a baby. Inside her is a little life that will soon join us. It’s in there now, growing, developing, becoming. Soon it will be able to hear us, and we will be able to hear its heartbeat. And, by Christmas, we’ll have the best present ever.

Wow.

I nuzzle the back of her neck and pull Kels even closer against my body. She’s so petite compared to me. I slide my hand slowly over to her hip, caressing the skin there. She has such narrow hips, I hope giving birth won’t be a problem for her. I don’t want anything to hurt her. Ever.

I kiss her shoulder blade, unable to resist her skin for long.

She sighs in her sleep and rolls over onto her back. This affords me a wonderful view of her nude body, the sheet pooling around her waist. Yes, I’ve missed this, missed mornings with her.

I study her breasts, looking for any changes so far. They look good to me. If I were a baby, I’d be mightily pleased with these offerings. Hell, I’m not a baby and I’m mightily pleased. They’re perfect: soft but firm and the perfect size. My hand covers her left breast, of its own accord, to measure it for later comparison.

God, that feels nice.

“Good morning to you too,” Kels whispers, her voice rough with sleep. Her eyes barely open and all I can see is a hint of green.

I flush and withdraw my hand. “Oops, sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

She grabs my hand and resituates it. “I wasn’t complaining. What are you doing up?”

“Watching you sleep.”

She frowns and stretches, snaking an arm around my neck. “That mustn’t have been very interesting.” Her fingers tangle in the hair at the nape of my neck. With subtle pressure, she draws me closer to her.

We share a good morning kiss. “I missed you so much,” I confess. “It took everything in me to not fly home every night to be able to sleep beside you.”

She traces my lips with a fingernail, sending shivers down the length of my spine. “I wanted you home so badly, Harper. I couldn’t sleep without you.”

“I’m sorry, baby.”

“Not your fault.” She shakes her head. We both know she blames the story on Langston. Better him than me.

“Well, you’re stuck with me now. Although, remember the last time we were in a hotel room together?” New York City. Christmas morning.

She laughs. “My mother! I thought she’d pass out when she caught sight of you. That stretch you did too! My God! Delightful!”

“Well, I was pissed off.”

“Why?” her voice is cautious, as if I had been mad at her.

“If I recall correctly, we had just begun to make love when your mother demanded entrance.”

“Harper?”

“What?”

“I think I can safely guarantee my mother is nowhere near Columbus, Ohio right now.”

I roll and cover her body gently with mine, careful to keep most of my weight on my arms, very aware of our child beneath me as well. “Thank God for that.”

* * *

Stepping out of the shower, I hear the room door open and close. Then the bathroom door opens. “Breakfast is here,” Harper announces, sticking her head in, letting out all the nice steam I had built up.

“Hey!” I protest, squeaking. “You’re letting out my warmth, you brat! Go on, I’ll be out in a minute.” Please, close the door. The draft is killing me. “I swear you do that just so you can get a peek at me.” It’s the reason why I go into the bathroom when Harper is showering. Like I really can’t wait to brush my teeth, or hair, or put lotion on.

“I don’t need an excuse,” she chuckles, ducking as my towel flies at her head.

“Out!”

“I’m going, I’m going! Geez.”

Retrieving the towel, I dry off and pull on a robe. I rub the thick terry cloth through my hair, getting most of the moisture whisked away. My stomach rumbles. It’s nice to be hungry again, I haven’t been for the last week. But, then again, Harper always does manage to inspire my various appetites. I must keep up my strength for other activities.

Breakfast is served when I step out into our room. Harper, God love her, has ordered my usual, bagels and fresh fruit. That omelet she’s sitting down to eat looks awfully good, though. Is this what pregnancy is going to be like? I’m gonna be a boat by the time the baby comes.

I take my seat across from her, so happy to be back to our normal routine. I don’t like sleeping or eating without her. Among other things.

“I ordered decaf Earl Gray for you, sweetheart.”

She noticed I was off caffeine. I love this woman. “Thanks,” I say for both the decaf and the fact she is pouring me a cup right now.

I lean across the table and snitch a piece of her omelet with my fork. Wonderful. It’s a country omelet with cheddar cheese, potatoes, onions and ham. I wonder if she’d let me switch meals with her? Taking a sip of juice, I take her hand in mine. “You are going to be such a great mom.”

Harper gives me a totally blank look. “What are you talking about?”

I did tell her I’m pregnant, didn’t I?

“You’re going to be the mom,” she continues, waving her fork at me before taking another bite of her omelet.

I realize she’s totally clueless. Poor thing. I squeeze her hand gently. “Harper, honey?”

“Yeah?”

“You do understand I’m pregnant?”

“Yeah.” She takes a big drink of her coffee. Her hand shakes slightly.

“That means in nine months we are going to have a baby.” I place extra emphasis on the ‘we’ part of my sentence.

“Yeah.”

“That makes you a mom too, sweetheart. Think about it for a moment.” I chuckle a bit and sit back to watch. Damn, I wish I had a video camera right now.

The fork falls from her hand, clattering on the plate and splattering omelet on the tablecloth. Expressive blue eyes raise up to meet mine. “Oh shit. Wow. I …”

I see the blood draining from her face, and I’m afraid she’s going to pass out. I quickly move to kneel next to her chair. Patting the back of her hand, I fight to keep from laughing. She’s slumped back, completely slack jawed. “Honey, are you okay?”

One of her hands rubs her face briskly, bringing color back to her features. “Yeah, I am. I just … I just hadn’t thought of it that way.”

Obviously. “Why not? You’re gonna be a great mom.”

“You think?”

“Oh, I don’t have to think, I know.”

“I never thought I’d get to be one.”

“Well, get used to the thought, Tabloid. Because if we’re figuring this thing right, it’s all you’re getting for Christmas this year.” I stretch upward and give her a kiss on the jaw.

Harper cups my chin in her hand and our eyes meet. I can see unshed tears in her eyes, the kind that you get when you’re happy. “Best gift I’ll ever get,” she whispers. “After you.”

* * *

I’ve set up a lot of interviews for Kels to do this week, but today is Sunday. My Little Roo is here with me and we have the best reason in the world to celebrate: a Baby Roo. God, I still can’t believe it.

And, damn, I’m gonna be a parent – a mother – too. What a kick in the pants that was to realize. Don’t know where my head was on that before.

I asked Kels if she wanted to go out and see the sights, or more appropriately the sight, of Columbus, but she declined. She’s tired, between lack of sleep during the week and then her last minute dash to the airport. So we’re staying in. The last thing I want now is for her to be overtired. Too much can still go wrong and we can lose little Baby Roo.

I’m going to do my level best to make sure that doesn’t happen.

While Kels rests in our room, I’m off to get the Sunday editions of the New York and L.A. Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Miami Herald. We are going to stay in, cuddle up, order lots of expensive room service, and do the crosswords. A perfect Sunday, as far as I’m concerned, because there will be lots of sex interspersed with those other activities. I’ve missed her.

The hotel concierge was kind enough to direct me to a bookstore that should carry all the papers I want. As I pull into the lot, it suddenly occurs to me: we gotta tell Mama.

Ah shit.

I am up to my ass in alligators. And the biggest one of them all is named Mama. I know exactly what will have her knickers in a twist: Kels is pregnant and we’re not married.

Mama won’t care that it wasn’t really me that impregnated her. Nor will she care that we can’t legally get married. It’s the principle of the thing.

I gotta get Mama off that damn committee.

Oh well. Nothing I can or want to do about it now.

I lock up the Explorer and head inside. The bookstore is well stocked and I find everything I’m looking for, including a baby name book. We can’t call our little one Baby Roo forever, as much as I’d like to. While in the pregnancy and childbirth section I find a few other books that will come in handy.

Having never actually spent more than a few days around a pregnant woman at any given time, I’m sure I’m in for a few surprises. I’d like a little bit of warning and not get blindsided. My brothers have all told me horror stories about their wives’ hormones going totally amuck during pregnancy. If Kels’ hormones go amuck now, I may be doomed.

* * *

I’m tucked all snuggly in a big bed with lots of pillows – ordered by Tabloid from housekeeping before she left -, well fed, very satisfied in other ways, wearing one of Harper’s big, old, baggy T-shirts. I’m very content to curl up around her pillow and half watch, half sleep through whatever movie is on TV at the moment.

She’s gone out to get ‘survival supplies’. She’s referring to the major newspapers, a bag of potato chips and a six pack of Coke. I saw the corpses of the other fallen soldiers when I got in last night. I hate the way she eats when she’s not home. Too much junk food in her system. I can almost hear her arteries hardening when I lay my head on her chest. I have a very good reason to keep her around for the next sixty years so I have to do something about her eating habits.

Well, most of them anyway.

A loud thud against the door brings me out of my doze with a little jolt. Harper made me promise to lock up tight behind her, which was totally unnecessary because I was going to do that anyhow. I’m guessing the second thump on our door is her attempt to knock. Her arms are probably too full of junk food to do so properly.

“Kels, honey!”

I chuckle at the plea as I drag my groggy, tired body out of bed. I wonder if this is from lack of sleep alone or if it is a side effect of being pregnant. I didn’t think these things would start so soon. I lean against the doorframe and call out, “Who is it?”

“Land shark. Who do you think it is?” she answers with humor in her voice.

“Hmm … I dunno. I should warn you I have an overprotective girlfriend who’s due back at any moment.”

“Really? What does she look like? Maybe I’ve seen her.”

“Oh she’s tall, long, dark hair, piercing blue eyes, the most beautiful smile you’ve ever seen in your life.”

“Huh, you know, I resemble those remarks.”

“You do?”

“Yup. You might wanna take a look. I also come bearing gifts.”

I hear her rustle one of the bags she’s holding. “Well, now you’re talking.” I pull the door open to find her arms loaded with bags from a local bookstore and a 7/11. I knew she wouldn’t pass up the junk food.

I try to help her with the bags but she just grunts and stumbles past me to toss them down on the bed. She rubs her arms and turns around. “Glad you opened the door, I was losing the circulation in my arms.”

“Aww poor baby.” I move to her, taking over the rubbing, merely to help get the blood flowing, mind you. “You lose feeling anywhere else?”

She quirks a brow at me. “A couple of spots actually. You want to rub them too?”

“Oh, absolutely.” I nod, guiding her backwards toward the bed and giving her a little shove. She falls, missing most of the bags, but I think her chips bit the dust.

Too bad.

* * *

Kels is lying in my arms as we look through the baby name book together. I don’t ever intend to tell our child that we first gave consideration to his or her name stark naked, after making love in a hotel room in Columbus, Ohio. Well, maybe I’ll share that at his or her wedding rehearsal dinner.

“How about Cyril for a boy?” I offer, flipping past the name in the book. I’m not really serious, I just want to get a reaction out of her.

“Cyril Kingsley? My God, Harper, why don’t we put a sign on his back the first day of school that says, ‘Beat me up and take my lunch money’?”

“I’ll take that as a no.”

She gives me an indignant look. “Take that as a huge no.”

Suddenly what she said hits me. I glance down at her. “We’re going to give the baby my last name?”

Kelsey looks up at me, her fingers playing with the sheet a little. “I’d like to. I mean, we’re family. And your family is all our baby will have if something should happen to us. But, if you don’t …”

“No! I mean, of course, I want to. I’d be honored, Kels. I had only thought you’d want to use Stanton.”

“No real reason to use Stanton. This baby is a Kingsley through and through. Its birth mother only happens to be stuck with Stanton.”

“Okay, then.” I give her a kiss on the forehead to try to lighten her mood a bit. “We’ve got a last name. Let’s find a first name.”

“Not Cyril,” she protests, snuggling down again and taking the book from me.

“Not Cyril,” I promise, wrapping her up in my arms.

She wants our baby to have my last name. That’s a truly amazing feeling.

* * *

At our local affiliate, I’ve been given a small office to use to go over the case material and story notes. Harper is off with the remote crew, getting gear together and briefing them on the upcoming shoot.

You can tell Columbus and the surrounding communities don’t make national news often. They are even less frequently visited by producers and correspondents from national newsmagazines. Thus, the staff at the station are anxious to get involved in a big story like this. It looks good to the owners of the station, the general manager and the boys back at the network.

Harper’s briefing materials are extensive, as always. She’s smart in how she let me deal with them. She handed me her notebook with the summary sheet on top and didn’t say a word. She simply left me alone to read.

Now that I’ve finished, I have to admit her summary alone is almost enough to make me believe Johnstone is not the perpetrator of these disgusting crimes. It is certainly enough to make me consider that there is still another sick fuck out there who systematically raped, hurt and killed women in that small community.

Her summary made my gut clench, but it also makes me read the rest of the material.

1. In the eight months prior to Verrett’s death, there were five highly abusive rapes in and around the county. The victims were all young women between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-two. They were all students at the local community college. They all were well liked by their communities. They all lived alone. And none of them could, or would, identify their rapist. None of them would agree to talk to the press, now or at the time of their attacks.

2. Johnstone had iron clad alibis for three of the five rapes. Including one when he was sleeping off a drunk and disorderly charge in the town’s drunk tank.

3. Johnstone had been doing some handyman work at Verrett’s neighbor’s house the day before the rape. He had a couple of Rolling Rock beers toward the end of the day. The bottles had been placed in the trash which was not collected until two days after the murder. It is unknown if the bottles were still in the trash after the murders since the trash was not checked.

4. The only physical evidence placing Johnstone at the scene of the crime were those two Rolling Rock bottles which were not tested for fingerprints or DNA at the time of the first trial. They were, however, collected by the police when they first investigated the site.

5. Tissue and hair samples that were also used to place Johnstone at the scene of the crime were collected subsequent to the initial investigation, and after Johnstone was in custody, supposedly by cleaning the trap in the bathroom sink.

6. The Coroner’s report showed that Verrett’s hands had been handled at the scene. The police, rather than the coroner, scraped the nails which is not proper procedure. The hands should have been bagged for the coroner. These scrapings were what the prosecutor’s office provided as the basis for comparison in the DNA testing during the appeal.

7. In addition, the police, not the coroner, used the rape kit. This is highly unusual; police departments don’t do this type of exam. They found no semen which could have also been used by the lab to extract DNA evidence. It is unclear if this lack was because the police didn’t test for it or because there simply wasn’t any. There was no evidence presented whether she had been violated by a man’s sexual organ or if a phallic object had been used to produce the bruising, tearing and abrasion that was the primary evidence of rape.

8. The fingernail scrapings were “misplaced” and delivered to the lab for testing only during the appeals process. The case was already more than four years old at that time.

9. Verrett’s neighbor had seen a man, not Johnstone, leaving her residence around midnight of the night of the murder. She could not, or would not, identify the man.

10. Visiting the local restaurants and taverns in the county yielded some interesting information. All six women had at some point in the prior year dated the same group of men. Johnstone was not one of them. In fact, to the best of anyone’s memory, Johnstone had never met four of the six victims.

11. Three of the county’s more “eligible” bachelors had dated each of the victims. One was at law school in Wisconsin and was out of the area at the time of the murder. One had been in Columbus at the time of the murder attending training with his company. One had been in town the night of the murder. That one is the nephew of the Mayor.

Interestingly enough, he is also the nephew of the police sergeant who was the leader of the investigation team. His mother is the mayor’s wife’s sister. His father is the sergeant’s brother.

Harper has set up three interviews for me. The first is with Johnstone’s second wife. The second is with the lab technician who conducted the DNA testing for the appeal. The last one is with Johnstone.

I don’t know if Johnstone is the perpetrator or not. But, after reading Harper’s briefing, I think he’s innocent. There’s plenty of evidence here to suggest he was railroaded, irrespective of guilt.

If so, there’s a sick bastard out there who has literally gotten away with murder. I’m going to find him and stop him. I won’t let him get away with it. I know all too well from experience that if he did it once, he’ll do it again. Now that he believes he is beyond justice.

I take a deep breath and shake myself just as Harper enters the office. She kneels next to my chair and takes my hand. “Chér, you okay?”

I nod and look at her. “Yeah. You were right. You’ll be getting more than just ‘professional’ from me.”

Her smile is one of the most feral looks I’ve ever seen on her. “Good. Then let’s go nail the real bastard to the wall by his balls.”

Ah, yes, paybacks are a bitch. But I preferred to be called Kelsey.

* * *

Harper holds my hand during the drive to Jamestown. The affiliate truck follows behind us. “You okay, babe?”

I nod, taking a deep breath. “Yeah, I’m fine. I’m a little sick at my stomach, that’s all.”

She swivels her head to look at me, giving me a happy grin. “Morning sickness?”

Geez, don’t sound so excited about it, Harper. You’re not the one who can look forward to worshipping the porcelain goddess on a daily basis in the near future. “No, definitely not. I wish it were, but it isn’t.”

Her smile immediately fades. “I’m sorry.”

“Stop apologizing, sweetheart. It’s not your fault our new boss is twisted like a pretzel.”

She laughs, making me feel better. “Langston definitely is putting us through our paces with this story, darlin’, but you know what?”

“Yeah. We’re going to give him a story that’ll prove CBS spent its money well and hired the best damn team for the job.”

“That’s my girl.” She gives my hand a quick squeeze. “Now you want twisted? We’re about to drive right into it. Welcome to the booming metropolis of Jamestown, Ohio.”

She’s right. I understand immediately when I see the sign at the local gas station proclaiming proudly that it sells cappuccino and live bait.

God, I hope not together.

And, please, God, keep me from having a craving like that.

Alicia Johnstone opens the door to her home in one of the poorer parts of town. Of course, there’s really not much difference between neighborhoods. The entire area is depressed. As I would be, if I had to live here.

The furnishings are sparse and threadbare, but the place is immaculate. There’s a picture of Jesus on the wall. How they had cameras in 25 AD, I’ll never know. It’s the only decoration in the home other than a bunch of wildflowers in a jelly glass on the table. There is an old TV in the corner.

Alicia is also sparse and threadbare. She’s a little slip of a woman with washed out gray eyes, pale skin, and straight hair pulled back in a scraggy ponytail that could kindly be described as dishwater blonde. I can hear her child, born during Johnstone’s trial, crying in the back room.

“Come in and sit down. I need to see to my daughter real fast. I’ll be with you in a moment.” Her voice is a thin whisper with a hillbilly twang reflecting the relationship between some of Ohio’s country folks and their Appalachian cousins from West Virginia.

Harper directs the camera crew to set up for an intimate interview, trying to keep the crush of equipment down to a minimum, and choosing an angle that will play up the simple sparseness of this woman’s life.

Alicia comes back in from taking care of her child. She wipes her hands on the legs of her jeans, then sits down where Harper directs her. I’ve never seen Harper so gentle with an interview subject. She personally wires the microphone, all the while quietly murmuring a few words to explain what she is doing and what will happen next. I sit down across from Alicia, with the camera over my shoulder and the cameraman standing directly behind me, so we can get the tightest, most direct shot possible.

As usual, I start with a few general questions – things like where are you from originally, how did you meet your husband. It relaxes people, and helps them focus on what I’m asking instead of the camera.

Next comes the critical stuff: the night of the murder.

“You said your husband was here with you the night of the murder. Could you tell me what you two did that night?”

“Well, you see, I’d found out I was pregnant about three weeks before. So I went to Reverent Blackwell to talk about how to get Frederick to straighten up. I wanted him to be a good daddy for our baby.”

“Tell me more.”

“Well, Stoney – we call him Stoney because of his last name, you know? Anyway, Stoney has a little trouble with the beer bottle sometimes, if you know what I mean. He starts pulling on them and doesn’t always stop when he should. That makes him angry and he’s been know to get a little out of hand.”

“Yes. I understand he roughed a couple of women up when he’s been drinking, including his first wife. Has he ever hurt you?”

“A push, a slap. Nothing serious. That’s the point. We went to see Reverent Blackwell when I got pregnant to find a way for Stoney to get this demon under control.”

Now is not the time to explain that being pushed and slapped is serious. We have far more urgent matters to deal with first. “You weren’t with Reverend Blackwell that night, were you?”

“No, we were here, praying. See, Stoney promised to stop drinking when he found out I was pregnant. Reverend Blackwell said that he had to straighten up his life so he could be a good daddy. He also said Stoney should pray God would see he was trying and would forgive him for all the years he lived as a sinner. But that day, Stoney fell off the wagon and had a couple of beers after work. When he came home, around nine, I told him he had to pray for forgiveness. So, we were here praying together.” She waves her hand toward the dime store picture of Jesus on the wall.

“Why didn’t you testify at Stoney’s trial?”

She looks at me shocked that I could ask her this question. “I wanted to, Ms. Stanton. I asked to several times but I was told that a wife can’t testify in cases about her husband. Everyone said it’d be best if I let his attorney handle everything. Even Reverend Blackwell said it’d be best. Who am I to argue with the Reverend?”

I see Harper tense in my peripheral vision. She can’t believe it either. I continue on with the interview. “Was Stoney a bad man before you got pregnant?” I am very gentle as I ask her this; it’s critical as to establishing his character and credibility.

“He most certainly was, I am ashamed to admit.”

My heart sinks a bit. I thought I was getting a totally different slant on this man until she said that.

“Yup, he’d cuss and swear and take the Lord’s name in vain, and drink way too much. But he wasn’t as bad as some. He never stole nothing. He never hurt any body real bad. He took care of his momma until she died. So if you look at the Commandments, he only broke a couple of them. I figure there are lots worse folk out there.” She takes a deep breath and raises her eyes to meet mine. I see her pain. I can feel it and all most taste it. She’s hurting too, but for all kinds of different reasons.

“I gotta tell you, Ms. Stanton, I don’t understand why God is punishing us like this. I guess this is a trial ordained for us. Maybe God is taking Stoney early because he’s genuinely sorry for his sins. Maybe God doesn’t want any more temptation placed in front of him. I gotta find a way to deal with that and to bring his baby up as a God-fearing woman. Reverend Blackwell’s been so good about being there for Lil and me.”

Yeah, I’ll bet. I saw Harper’s notes on this Blackwell character. He’s a nearly illiterate, charismatic, born again, single minister whose congregation is mostly poor, illiterate women and children. I wonder how attentive he’s been to the prospective widow to be. Fortunately, I have what I need – a believable alibi for Johnstone. “So, can I see your daughter? Her name is Lil? When was she born?”

Smiling, Alicia gets up, nearly tripping over her mike cord. Harper moves quickly and catches her, pulling the wire off. She motions for the cameraman to keep shooting, off the shoulder, as we duly troop into the little bedroom where young Lil is now sleeping quietly.

For a moment, looking down at the small slumbering form, I can see our future, Harper’s and mine. I can see our child lying at peace, unaware of the turmoil of the world, happy to be fed and warm and loved. I can’t help but smile. When I look up and meet Harper’s eyes, I know she is thinking the same thing.

* * *

The next interview is easier. We make the trek back to Columbus. I have never been so glad to leave a place in my life. The atmosphere in that little, two bit town is oppressive. I swear, everywhere we went there was a cop somewhere nearby. Thugs with guns.

Ann Harcort is the technician at the lab that did the DNA identification. The real problem here is in the chain of custody for the evidence. We do the interview standing, camera on the shoulder of our shooter, and using the boom mike above her head. It’s gonna be short and hopefully sweet.

I begin, “Ms. Harcort, thank you for your time. Could you tell me, please, how certain you are that the material you received is, in fact, from Mr. Johnstone?”

“As you know, in science, there is always some room for question. Scientists hate to say anything is absolute. But so far, we have not found anyone except identical twins that have exactly the same DNA signature. I would say that there is a 1 in 2.3 billion chance of our conclusion being inaccurate. This is Mr. Johnstone’s DNA.”

“Your tests, however, do not go to the source of the DNA, do they? For example, if I give you nail clippings and say I found them at the scene of a crime, you have no way of verifying that, do you?”

She shakes her head. “No, of course not. I can only tell you whose nail clippings they are.”

“Could you tell us how you received the evidence that you tested?”

“The sample we tested for the appeal came directly from Mr. Johnstone while at the prison facility. It was harvested by the medical doctor there.”

“But the evidence used for comparison testing was submitted by the prosecutor’s office, and didn’t come directly from Mr. Johnstone, did it?”

“No.”

“Where did it come from? Do you recall?

“Well, as usual, it should have been brought over to us from the coroner’s office. There was some irregularity in this though, as I recall. Let me check the file.”

“Thank you.”

We keep the camera rolling as she goes to the file cabinets behind her desk and pulls out a file folder.

“Oh, yes. Here it is. The delivery was made by a Robert Oldive. Usually Josie Andrews – the chief tech over at the coroner’s office – makes the deliveries and signs over the evidence. This Oldive fellow was from the Jamestown Police Department, not from the coroner. That’s unusual. That’s why I made the note on the file. It struck me as odd, but I wasn’t called to testify. Only my lab notes and reports were subpoenaed. ”

“You never testified?”

“Never.” She shakes her head.

That’s unusual.

Damned unusual. Now it’s all starting to fall into place. It’s become more and more clear that Frederick Johnstone was railroaded directly into jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect any evidence that might exonerate him. And certainly don’t incriminate one of your own.

Robert Oldive is the nephew of both the Mayor and the police sergeant. Robert Oldive is also one of the men who dated each of the women who were assaulted. And Robert Oldive is not a member of the police force, an employee of the coroner’s office or of the prosecutor’s office. He works for his uncle, the Mayor. And Robert Oldive fits the description of the man that Verrett’s neighbor saw leaving that night.

Robert Oldive is our man.

* * *

It’s time.

Time to interview the man I have started to think of as Stoney. Time to face a man who a jury of twelve good men and women found guilty of a vicious rape and murder. Time to meet a man the courts said was another sick SOB like that beast who nearly killed my soul and who did kill my best friend as well as a series of women whose only crime was to look a little like me.

This interview should have me tied up in knots. But it doesn’t. Harper, bless her heart, has crafted this whole story so clearly that I know as I go into this great, gray, concrete and razor wire complex that I am on my way to talk to an innocent man.

Now, mention Robert Oldive to me, and I start sweating and shaking. I’m sure he’s the one. In my gut, I know. Harper and I only have to prove it.

The Warden is very cooperative. He greets us cordially, and smoothly expedites getting our crew and equipment into the complex, through security check, and to a small, bare room with a couple of tables and a few simple, wooden chairs. The camera crew sets up while Harper and I go over our notes together.

Soon they lead Johnstone in. Stoney is a little man, slender and wiry. His face is prematurely aged from time in the sun, harsh weather and too much beer. His whole presence is one of gentle resignation. He rarely looks up. He looks lost in the loose, orange jumpsuit that is common prison wear.

He sits quietly in the chair across the table from me and barely moves when the sound tech wires him up, except to murmur a soft “thank you” when he’s done. He sits there, hands folded in front of him, waiting for me. I think he’s praying.

I clear my throat to gently interrupt. “Good afternoon. I’m Kelsey Stanton. Can I call you Stoney?”

He looks up, straight into my eyes. “Pleased to meet you, Ms. Stanton. Everybody calls me Stoney. I understand you saw my wife and child. How are they?”

I draw a sharp breath. I hadn’t expected him to start off questioning me. The look on his face, the gentleness with which he asks about his child and his wife startles me. This is not the face of a killer, the dead eyes of madness. This is a sad, resigned man who loves his family.

“Yes, I saw them yesterday. Your daughter is beautiful, Stoney. And Alicia is doing as well as can be expected. I understand Rev. Blackwell and the congregation are helping her out with things.”

“Maybe that’s why God is doing this to me. The reverend is certainly better able to take care of Alicia and Lil than I am. I mean, look where I am. So there’s some good in that they won’t hurt because of me.”

“What do you mean, Stoney?”

“I figure this is God’s punishment for my sins, Ms. Stanton. I know I didn’t hurt that girl. Shoot, I don’t even remember meeting her. You know, when I work on somebody’s house, I always chat with the neighbors to try to drum up extra work. But the Lord works in mysterious ways, and the Lord’s justice is always fair. Even if we don’t agree. I was a wild boy and a wild man. I drank, cursed, and generally messed up. So I figure that since I saw the light, well, the good Lord wants to take me up quick-like, so I don’t backslide no more. I fell back that day the poor girl died. I had me some beers when I’d promised Alicia and God I wouldn’t drink no more. This is my punishment, I guess. When I went home that evening, Alicia and I prayed and prayed to give me the strength to never drink again. Seems a little harsh, but I guess this is his answer to our prayers.”

This man’s resignation stuns me.

And we have the story we need. The one hundredth innocent man on death row. An innocent man whose rigid born again faith thinks that an unjust death sentence is just punishment for falling off the wagon.

We go walk the rest of the questions Harper and I scripted, but I know that across from me is not the face or the heart of a murderer. This man is an innocent, in every meaning of the word.

As the guards lead him out of the room and the crew packs up, I remain seated for a few moments. Harper is at my side, her hand on my shoulder. I look to her and meet her smile. “He didn’t so it,” I tell her. “He doesn’t have the eyes of a madman.”

* * *

We take our notes and the tapes over to Harper’s friends at the law school. They start working feverishly, reviewing the latest information we’ve gathered. Phone calls are made, people come in and out. Papers are drawn up, printed. Professor Henley is practically glowing with excitement. Her students pick up her enthusiasm and echo it. Harper is in the thick of it with them, answering questions, talking about the work she’s done this week. It’s nice to see her getting some well deserved adoration.

I sit and think.

In my mind, all I can see is a madman going free and an innocent being deprived of his life, his wife, and his child. All because a corrupt, inbred family with control and standing in the community has protected one of their own. And I can’t stand the thought that some charismatic minister wants what a poor laborer has: the love of a gentle woman and an innocent child.

The conspiracy and complacency is sickening.

Because it is so different from my experience I can almost – almost – divorce myself from the emotions the story evokes in me.

I see his face again.

But now I can give him a new name: Robert Oldive.

And I remember what I experienced when faced with a man whose madness and insufficiency had to be proven on the bodies of women not strong enough to protect themselves.

I remember how it felt to pull that trigger and watch his face as the bullets entered his body and his blood drained out.

And I remember how he died.

I killed him.

I’ve killed and Robert Oldive has killed, but Frederick Johnstone hasn’t.

“Kels. Kels, chér. It’s time.” Harper’s voice breaks into my memories. She looks at me with the oddest expression on her face. “Chér – are you ok? Is this getting to you?” She takes my hand and draws me out of my chair, walking us to a private alcove. She pulls me into her arms.

I feel wooden, almost dead. I take a deep breath, shaking myself back to the here and now. “I’m okay, Harper. In fact, I may be more than okay. When this is over, we need to talk – really talk – about what happened. But right now, we need to get Robert Oldive and get Stoney out of there.”

She smoothes back some hair from my face. “That’s what’s about to happen, honey. The Governor has reviewed the case in the past hour. The Ohio State’s Attorney also reviewed it. The State Police are about to present subpoenas to most of the people we’ve interviewed in the last week. They’re also going to arrest Oldive on suspicion of murder, and arrest his uncles for being accessories after the fact, obstruction of justice, conspiracy, fraud, and perjury.”

“Good work, Tabloid.” I rub her back. I love the feel of her muscles under my hands.

“So here’s the plan. A couple of officers have been sent to bring Alicia and Lil to the prison. We’ll go there and shoot the release. Then we’ll leave to film the arrests. The timing is pretty tight, but all three of them should be at the police department which also doubles as the mayor’s office.”

“Balls to the walls?” I chuckle.

“Oh yeah.”

* * *

I’m standing in front of the mayor’s office. The arrests have been made. The turmoil over. The look Oldive gave us as they led him to the State Trooper’s car was enough for me. I’ll recognize that look for the rest of my life, the hatred of a sick man. I feel sick to my stomach, but I’ve got to do my stand up.

Harper is standing near the truck, arms across her chest. The wind is blowing gently through her hair. She smiles at me.

And then I know.

We survived.

We can go on with our life.

I know I have things to deal with and issues of my own to face, but getting through this story is a major step forward.

How lucky our baby will be to have Harper as its mother. How lucky I am to have her as my partner, both professionally and personally. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, centering myself. When I open them again, I turn to face the camera.

“Since the restoration of the death penalty, one hundred men have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die. Frederick Johnstone today joins a fortunate fraternity, the fraternity of the free. Based on an investigation led by Exposure and Professor Melanie Henley of Capital University Law School, the Governor of Ohio has pardoned Frederick Johnstone and ordered the arrest of the men who orchestrated his conviction to save one of their own. …”

* * *

“Well, Kingsley, I see where you get your nickname.” Langston is standing over my shoulder, watching me screen tape with the editor.

I didn’t hear him come up behind me. Gotta watch out for that. “Huh?” Still focused on the video in front of me, I merely grunt my lack of understanding.

“Yeah, I send you out to do a simple story on the application of the death penalty and you come back with a small town scandal, a conspiracy and an entire family under indictment. I’d say that’s tabloid material. You must have some kind of muck magnet in that body of yours.”

I turned around to stare at him in disbelief. With the files he gave me, it was obvious that some kind of cover up had occurred. Surely he had a hint as to what I’d find.

“Course, the hints were there,” he confirms, on cue, “so you just dug up the obvious. One of these days, I’m gonna send you on a story you actually have to work to develop.” With that, he turns and disappears leaving me frustrated as hell.

I did have to work for this story. I also had to suffer the indignity of being frisked by those idiots. That alone is worth my salary for the year.

I turn back to the tapes and give my editor a grumpy look. He chuckles and shrugs. “There’s a reason why we didn’t phone in a sighting of him when the milk carton came out.”

“I guess so,” I mutter.

I get back to work on our story. A real story, a significant one about the way small towns can become insulated and take the law in their own hands.

Then Kels and I are going to do that piece on alternative religions and anything else Langston cares to give us. Because we’re better than anyone or anything he can throw at us.

I start laughing.

Damn, he’s good. I knew I could learn something from him.

* * *

It’s so good to be home. Well, at least, back in New York. Home won’t be for another three weeks when we head to New Orleans for Easter. I can’t remember the last time I was with my family for Easter. We never dyed eggs because Mother didn’t want to risk getting any food coloring on her outfit. And forget about an egg hunt. Can’t risk leaving one outside where it might get stinky.

I bet Mama doesn’t feel that way.

I notice Harper seems a little edgy about going home this time. I wonder if it has anything to do with the baby. I would have thought she’d be thrilled.

Oh God, I hope she’s not having second thoughts about the whole thing now.

Don’t be silly, Kels. She’s thrilled. You’re thrilled. Everything’s fine.

I turn on my computer and start digging around on the net. I am a woman on a mission. I’m not doing another damn thing until I get the answer to my question. Today is the thirtieth of March. The day the Peabody Awards are announced on their web site. I’ve been checking the site all day with no luck.

Harper and I have barely seen each other here. I can’t wait until the day is over and we can go home, but dammit I’m not going home without the answer to this one, simple question. I mean, is that too much to ask?

I open the site again.

Oh my God!

There it is: KNBC for “Face-off in Omaha”.

That’s all it says. But it’s enough.

We won.

We won.

We won!

Okay, I’m completely stunned. Harper! Shit, I gotta find Harper!

I bound out of my office looking, yet again, like the cat that swallowed the canary. I kinda like feeling this way. I could get used to this.

I head directly for Harper’s office. I find her blinds drawn and her door closed. She might be in a meeting. Guess I better knock first.

“Come!”

Oh, what a grouch. Someone’s having a bad day. I bet I can make it better for her. I open the door slowly, sticking my head in to make sure she’s alone before I slip into her office.

“Since when do you knock?” she grumbles. She’s at her editing machine looking at recent footage.

“Since we’re at work and you might have been in a meeting, you grump.” I go over and sit on the arm of her chair, tilting her chin up to focus her attention fully on me. “Hey, Tabloid, you know what we’re going to be able to tell our baby?”

She frowns, clearly not in the mood to play. “What?”

“His or her Mama is a Peabody Award winning producer.”

Ah, there’s that smile I love so much.
Episode Nine: Picket Fences
“Come on, sleepy head,” comes a booming voice with far too much energy for this time of day. “Let’s take Kam to the park.”

You take Kam to the park. You don’t need me for that. Why’d you bother to buy me this big, wonderful bed if I never get to sleep late? Besides, I took him to the park last night when you were arguing with those idiot editors who lost the tape.

Harper had Kam so worked up with all her ranting and raving on the phone he was barking, growling and pacing around the house. The guard in my guard dog certainly came out in full force. I had to get him out of the apartment so they could both cool down. Kam’s trained to respond to my verbal commands to relax, Harper’s not.

Dog breath assails me as the object of my thoughts puts his snout near my face. At least, I really hope to hell that’s Kam and not Harper. Either way, someone needs a good brushing.

“Ungng,” I grumble and cover my head with my pillow. Does the woman not understand the concept of the weekend? Two days. Two days out of seven are all I ask to be able to sleep late. That’s not too much, is it? I’m not being unreasonable, am I?

“Kelsey Stanton, if you don’t drag that beautiful body of yours out of that bed, I’m gonna do it for you.”

I uncover my head and stick my tongue out at her.

“Oh, yeah, that was mature.” Harper bends down and gives Kam a good scratch behind his ears. “Come on, get up. You need your exercise and Kam and I want to go to the park to play.”

I look across the mattress at my furry companion. He’s now sitting with his front legs up on the edge of the bed, his tongue lolling out one side of his mouth looking back at me. Breathing stinky breath on me, to be more accurate. And I bought him to protect me. Traitor. “He has a fur coat. And you’re just crazy. Besides, the baby and I want to sleep.” I close my eyes and snuggle back down under the blankets. Damn, I can feel them both staring at me. I peek out one eye to see if she’s gonna buy it. She’s definitely thinking about it. Oh yeah, this pregnancy thing is gonna be sweet.

Harper drops down next to the bed and tears back the blankets. She pushes up my nightshirt, places her lips to my belly, and murmurs something. She turns her head, presses her ear to my stomach, and listens. After a moment, she raises up to smile at me. “Nope, afraid not. Baby Roo wants to come to the park and play too. Get up.”

I give in. Three against one isn’t fair.

Baby Roo and I will be having a chat. We need to work together for the next few months. This was not a good start.

* * *

It’s a crisp, clear morning with the smell of spring heavy in the air. It’s actually very nice out, much better than anticipated, but who the hell knew it was going to be so bright? Who knew the sun was up this early? I dig in my pocket for my sunglasses and slip them into place. I sip a very warm cup of tea, brought with me just to make my morning a little more bearable. I glance over at Harper who is sitting next to me on the bench, exchanging her sneakers for new roller blades.

“You’re gonna break your neck.” God, I sound like a mother already.

“I am not,” she huffs at me, slipping her blades on and snapping them closed.

“Harper, you’ve never been on roller blades in your life, and now your going to take Kam…” Ohmigod … maybe it’s hormonal. I can’t seem to help myself.

“Kels, chér, I know what I’m doing.” She tosses her shoes in a backpack and hands it to me. “Don’t you worry.”

I’m supposed to worry, I’m going to be a mother. I looked it up. It’s in the contract, Tabloid. I didn’t expect it would happen so soon.

“Okay.” I lie, climbing to my feet and glance down at Kamali. “You be careful with her. Don’t hurt her.”

Kamali thumps his tail twice on the ground then turns big brown eyes on his playmate. I know that look. I think I give it to her a couple times a day myself.

“Oh very funny.” She takes the leash from my hand, brushing her fingertips over the back of it as she does so.

This causes me to give her the same look Kamali is, but with different intent. I don’t want to go running with her, that’s for sure.

She smiles, knowing my thoughts exactly. “Later, I promise.” She scratches behind Kam’s ears. “Come on, boy, lets go!”

And they’re off, racing down a park path like maniacs. The dog is very nearly at a full run with Harper keeping up with him on the roller blades. Someone’s gonna lose an eye, I’m sure.

Me? I shoulder the backpack and begin a slow stroll behind them. I try to keep a pace that will allow me to keep them in sight. This isn’t really necessary, though, because they keep doubling back and charging at me like two overgrown kids. Which they are.

I watch them playing together, a smile playing at the edges of my mouth. It’s almost hard to believe both of them are capable of really hurting someone if they feel threatened. Or, even more so, if they feel I am threatened. I can only imagine how they’re going to be around the baby.

Right now Kamali is substituting as our firstborn. Harper bonded wit him instantly upon our return from Columbus. And, for the past week, they’ve had a mutual admiration society established. He greets her more effusively than he does me, licking her face repeatedly. That I can do without.

Harper, in turn, takes delight in teasing and roughhousing with him. The other night she used him as pillow when she stretched out on the floor to watch TV. Kamali just lay there, tail thumping on the floor, looking over at me with eyes that screamed, ‘Do something about this, would you? She’s your human.’ He finally escaped when she attempted to plump him up like a pillow.

My cell phone rings, taking me from my thoughts of my little family, such as it is at the moment. “Stanton,” I answer, hoping it’s not the studio. It’s the weekend, folks, can’t someone get that in their head?

“Hello, sweetheart.”

I nearly drop the phone when I hear his voice. “Hello, Father.” I stop walking, feeling a little dizzy. Glancing around I see an empty bench and sit right away. Harper would freak out if I fainted in the middle of Central Park.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch before now. I only got back into the States late last night.”

“It’s okay.” It’s always been okay. You have your big, important career and you let me fend for myself. Doesn’t matter if I am two or thirty-two. It’s all the same to you, father.

“No, sweetheart, it’s not okay. I should have been…”

“I understand,” I cut him off, not the least bit interested in any more of his excuses. Is a lifetime’s worth enough?

“Kelsey, please give me a chance here,” he replies. “I’ve been awfully worried about you, baby.”

I glance up to find Harper and Kamali headed back for me. Harper clearly looks worried. “I’m fine,” I manage to say in a neutral voice. “I’ve had some good fortune in my life recently.”

Very good fortune. More than you will ever know. You’d have to want more than the occasional phone call or court appearance to get filled in on stuff like that.

“I know. I’d like to hear more about it. Could we meet for lunch today?”

Shit. Well, hell, Kels, that’ll teach you to think too loudly.

“Hold on. Let me check.” I lower the phone as Harper skates over and takes a seat next to me.

“What’s up, sweetheart? Are you okay? Anything wrong?” she asks immediately, concern coloring her voice.

No, I’m not okay and something is wrong. But how do I say that to someone whose whole world is her family? “It’s my father.” I jiggle the phone a bit. “He wants to have lunch today.”

“Great!” she exclaims, then catches my expression. “Do you want to?”

“I dunno.” No, not at all. Never. I’d rather stick bamboo shoots under my fingernails. But, unfortunately, he is my father. “Would you go with me?”

“You know I will.”

I pick the phone back up and take a deep breath. “Lunch will be fine. I’ll be bringing someone with me, someone you should meet.”

“All right, honey, whatever you want.”

* * *

When we get back to the apartment, there is a message on the answering machine. I watch Kels flop down on the couch, stretch out and cover her eyes with her arm. When I take Kam’s collar off, he immediately crawls up on the couch and stretches out beside her. She rolls over and curls around him. Damn lucky dog.

The call from her dad really threw her. I don’t know how to make it better and I wish I did. I hit the playback button on the machine. “Kelsey, Harper, it’s Doctor Solomon. Sorry I couldn’t return your call yesterday. The lab was backed up. I’ll be in the office until about noon. Give me a call.”

Kels sits up immediately, scaring Kam off the couch, and I pick up the phone so fast I nearly drop it. God, we’re a pair. I put the good doctor’s number in the speed dialer earlier anticipating sudden brain death like I am currently experiencing. I initiate the call and then drop down between Kels’ legs, handing her the phone as it starts ringing. I take her hand and wait. Please, God, let our baby still be with us.

“Doctor Solomon? It’s Kelsey.”

I watch her face, gripping her hand as she listens to the doctor. Kelsey smiles at me and nods. Thank you, God!

“Thank you, Doctor Solomon. Yeah, she seems pretty pleased. She’s right here in front of me with a big, silly grin on her face.”

I do not have big, silly grin on my face, I have a huge, silly grin on my face. Get off the phone, Kels, we got some celebrating to do. As if reading my thoughts, she hangs up the phone and tosses it to the end of the couch.

“It’s officially official, Tabloid, we’re pregnant.”

Wow.

She continues, “We should still wait awhile before we make a general announcement, but family should be okay to know now.” She caresses my face. “That means Mama.”

Ah shit. “Kels, she’s gonna kill me.” I drop my head down in my hands. Soon it will be separated from my shoulders.

She laughs at me and scratches the back of my neck. “I promise I won’t let her hurt you. I’ll tell her I seduced you and you didn’t stand a chance.”

Well, hell, that’s pretty much true. But it won’t fly down at the old homestead. “Kels, you don’t understand. You’re pregnant and I haven’t married you, preferably in the reverse order. Forget all the legal issues for a moment, Mama doesn’t give a rat’s ass about them anyway.” I sigh. Can I go the rest of my life without facing my family again? No. But, damn … “And it won’t even matter to Mama that I didn’t get you pregnant.” I rest my chin on Kels’ knee, hugging her lower legs to my chest.

“What do you mean you didn’t get me pregnant?” Kels echoes, combing through my hair gently. “Of course you did.”

“Huh?” I tilt my head to see her face because I must be missing something here. I know I’m missing something somewhere else.

“You did the deed, darling. You pushed the plunger.” She taps my forehead. “You got me pregnant.” Then she kisses the tip of my nose.

Oh God. I did get her pregnant. And I knew what I was doing. And I didn’t marry her first. I’m so doomed.

Mama is gonna kill me.

* * *

I’ve decided that the shock of meeting Harper should kill my Father. I’m not going to tell him about the baby. That announcement should be made to the people who will love this child; not someone who barely knows his own. The Kingsleys should be the first to know. Mama and Papa and all Baby Roo’s aunts and uncles and cousins in New Orleans are our true family. Since Erik’s death, I have none.

I’m also not going to get dressed up for this meeting. The place we agreed on is casual so that’s how I’m going. I pull a pair of jeans out of the dresser and slip into them. Cool, they still fit. Wonder when that’s going to change?

Harper steps out of the bathroom, tucking in her denim shirt and buttoning up her jeans. She looks great, but, then again, she always does. Wonder what she’s gonna think of me in a few weeks?

“Hey, Tabloid, you still gonna love me when I get fat?” I tease a bit, pulling on my blouse.

“Sweetheart, it’s not fat, it’s pregnant,” she replies, sitting on the bed and pulling on her boots.

“Good answer.” I lean over and give her a kiss. “You’re very sweet.”

“One of the many services I offer.” She places her hands on my hips, drawing me closer so she can lift up my blouse and kiss my stomach. “Hey, Baby Roo. How’s it going in there? You all warm and comfy and growing, huh? We’re gonna go see your granddad in a little bit.”

“Umm, Harper.” I brush my hands through her hair. She lifts her head to look up at me. “I’m not going to tell him about the baby.”

“No?”

She looks hurt, like I’m ashamed of her and our life together. “No, sweetheart. Your family should be the first to know. He hasn’t earned the right to be this baby’s grandfather. He’s hardly even my father.”

“Kels, honey, are you sure?”

“I’m very sure. Please? I don’t want him to know, at least not yet. I know family is extremely important to you, but, well, I’m not sure he’s going to want to be a part of my life. Or that I even want him to be.”

“Why so?”

“Because he’s about to meet you, for one thing. I don’t intend to hide anything from him about us. If he can’t handle it, I don’t care to know him. It’s not like I’ll miss him or anything.”

“Ah, I got you. You think he’s gonna flip?”

“My father does not flip. The absolute worst that will happen is he’ll get up very quietly and leave. He’d never make a scene in a public place.”

“Well, that’s good. I’d hate to have to punch him in public.”

“Ah, my hero.” I kiss the top of her head. “So thank God for little miracles.”

“Amen to that.” She places another kiss to my stomach reminding me of the best miracle I’ve ever experienced.

* * *

Kelsey’s father isn’t exactly what I had pictured. For some reason I had in mind a Simon LaGree type: thin, willowy with a handlebar mustache for twirling. Instead, I find a tall, good-looking, broad-shouldered guy with a charming smile.

The minute Kels and I enter the restaurant he is on his feet waving us over to his table. Little Roo doesn’t even have time to say hello before he gives her a long, somewhat awkward hug. She looks uncomfortable but does her best to return the hug.

“Father, how have you been?” She backs away from him, extending her hand to me. I take it immediately. It’s gonna be all right, Little Roo. I won’t let him – or anyone for that matter – hurt you.

“Worried sick, sweetheart. Really, truly, worried sick.” He gestures to the booth for us to join him. “How are you?”

Kels has me slide in first then takes a seat across from her father, never releasing my hand. “I’ve had some rough times, but I’ve come through them.”

“That’s my girl. You’ve always been a fighter.”

“Yeah, well…” She smiles at me then turns to her dad. “I want you to meet Harper Kingsley.”

He smiles, extending his hand to me. “Nice to meet you. I believe we spoke on the phone once before.”

I have to wrench my hand free of Kelsey’s to take his. Easy there, Little Roo. We’ll get through this with flying colors. Even if your dad doesn’t. “That’s right, sir. While Kels was in the hospital.”

“Pleasure to meet you then. I appreciated your help before.”

“I was glad to help, sir.” Gotta be polite to Kelsey’s dad, no matter what the circumstances.

“Oh, please, ‘sir’ is way too formal for me. I’m Matt.”

I look over to Kels who is sipping her water, staring at her father in total disbelief. She places her glass on the table. “Since when?” Her tone has an icy edge.

“What?” he asks.

“Since when are you Matt?”

He looks dumbfounded by the question. He stammers about for a moment before being able to speak coherently. “Things change, Kelsey. People change.”

She looks rather unconvinced. “Actually, I’ve found people to be pretty consistent.”

Her father smiles sadly. “Yes, I’m afraid you have. Your mother and I have behaved very consistently with you. And, very poorly, I’m afraid.”

“There’s a newsflash,” Kels says bitterly. She catches herself, however, and makes her expression neutral.

He reaches across the table and wraps his large hand around her wrist. “I deserve that, you’re absolutely right. I’m glad you have fire in your belly, dear. I’m afraid I didn’t teach that to you. I rolled over and played dead with your mother for far too long. Then, when I left her, I left you as well. That’s a decision I will always regret.”

“Why? You got what you wanted.” She carefully disengages from his grasp.

He glances at his Rolex and diamond cufflinks as he pulls back his hand. “What I thought I wanted. I should have wanted you.”

I see tears threaten to race down Kels’ cheek, but she fights them back. Her grip on my hand intensifies.

“I should never have left you with her. I was wrong. And I can’t apologize enough for it, baby.”

One tear escapes and slides down her cheek.

Pressing his advantage, Matt continues, “I know I can’t change the past. But I would like to change the present. I don’t like not knowing you, not being a part of your life. I’d like to be let back in. If you’ll let me.”

I gently caress Kels’ hand, trying to get her to relax and to remind her that I’m here for her. She doesn’t need this stress. It’s not good for her and it’s certainly not good for our baby.

She takes a deep breath, smoothing the tablecloth with her free hand. “Well, before you commit to anything too drastic here, let me fill you in on a couple details of my present. The first, and most important, is that Harper is my partner.”

I definitely like being the most important.

I can tell by the look on his face, he doesn’t quite get it.

“My lover,” Kels explains. “I’m a lesbian, father. Harper and I live together.”

He narrows his eyes at me and sits back in the booth, his back straightening. This is not the look of a happy man.

Oh shit.

He looks back at Kelsey. “Are you sure about this?”

“Am I sure that Harper and I live together?” Kelsey asks, incredulous.

“Uh, no,” he stammers. He glances at me, then back at his daughter. “No, I mean about being a … a lesbian. Did she …? Was
she …?”

I resent the implication. I certainly didn’t get a toaster for Kels.

“I’m very sure. This isn’t a phase I’m going to grow out of, father. I passed through high school crushes a long time ago. Not that you would know.”

“You’re right. I wouldn’t know.” He takes a deep breath, followed by a long drink of the water in front of him.

Kels is right. He won’t make a scene. He’ll just leave quietly and hurt my girl again. Bastard.

He says softly, “Apparently, there’s a lot I don’t know. So, I’m going to have to ask for your patience while I catch up.”

Damn. He’s pulling through.

Kels is as shocked as I am, her jaw hanging open at his words.

“I can’t say that the idea thrills me, Kelsey.” He glances at me and offers a small smile. “No offense, Harper. The world is a very cruel place to people who are different. As a father, I don’t want anyone to hurt my child. For any reason. Does that make sense?”

For the first time, I can speak to someone parent-to-parent. Well, parent-to-be technically, but I’ll count it. “Yes, sir, it does. I don’t want anyone to hurt Kelsey either, if that helps any.”

He nods and waves off the waiter who is approaching for our order. “It does.” He appears to concentrate hard on something. Finally, he blurts out, “Do you love my daughter?”

“Sir?” I am completely taken off guard by his question.

His expression hardens toward me once more. He leans forward, placing his elbows on the table, his upper body crossing the halfway point of the table. “It’s an easy question, Harper. Do you love my daughter? Yes or no?”

Okay, I see why the Bulgarians wanted him to fix their economy. “Yes, sir, I do. More than anything.”

This appears to satisfy him. He settles back and fixes a very paternal gaze on Kelsey. “Are you happy?”

Kelsey turns and looks at me for a long moment. I am lost in her eyes. They’re the color of summer and I feel their warmth go through me to the bone. She answers her father, but never breaks eye contact with me. “I can honestly say I’ve never been happier in my life.” I see a world of truth in those eyes and behind the smile she graces me with.

Wonderful, chér. I promise that the best of our past will be the worst of our future together.

We get lost in one another for a long moment, imagining our future life together, complete with a child. I hope the baby looks just like her. Then I can lose my heart to them both every day.

Finally Matthew speaks, well aware that he is interrupting us. “Well, I guess that’s all that matters then. I can’t say I approve, Kelsey. But, I suppose you’re long past the stage where you need a judgmental father giving you advice.”

“Long,” she confirms.

“I asked to be a part of your present life. I meant it. I still do.” When Kelsey does not protest, he continues. “I’ve been a terrible father, but I’d like to be your friend. If you feel you have room in your life for another one.”

Matt and I wait for Kelsey’s response. I think it’ll be positive, but I’m not sure. Thirty-two years of history is a lot to ignore. Especially given the last few months in her life.

“I’d like that.”

“Thank you, Kels. I promise you won’t regret it.”

She better not, Matt. Or you’ll be answering to me.

***

“You think he’s gonna grow into these ears?” she calls to me from somewhere in the apartment as she and Kam chase each other around like little kids. Thank God the baby will be too small to join in for the first year or so.

I pour a glass of juice and replace the carafe in the fridge. “What?”

Harper and Kam join me in the kitchen, the dog pinning her up against the wall by standing on his hind legs. He’s panting hard from the romp they just had around the apartment. She’s waving her hand in front of her nose. “Bubba, we gotta get you some breath mints,” she admonishes him. “I said, do you think he’s gonna grow into these great, big, silly, goofy-looking ears.” She tugs on one of the ears in question.

They are a little big, I must admit. “Why not? You grew into yours,” I tease, sipping my juice. I pull out a bottle of vitamins and dump two into my hand. “Come here, stud, I need you.”

“Ooo, that’s what I like to hear. Kam, down.”

Our dog drops back to the floor immediately. You can tell by his expression though that he’s hurt at being discarded by his animated toy.

Harper crosses the kitchen and lifts me up onto the counter, standing between my legs. Her hands rub up and down my thighs. “What can I do for you? Hmm?”

That’s my girl, always ready to go. But not right now. “Break these in half for me.” I hand her the vitamins.

She looks at them, her brows knit together. “What the hell are these?”

“Prenatal vitamins. Aren’t they awful?”

“They’re huge,” she agrees, snapping them in half and giving them back.

“Thanks.” I take another drink of my juice and swallow the pills. I then wrap my legs around her waist. “While I got you here…”

“Yes.” She looks inordinately happy.

I reach back and grab an empty jar off the shelf. “Give me a dollar.”

“Huh?”

I hold out my hand. “A dollar, Tabloid. Give me a dollar.”

She chuckles and digs into her pocket. She retrieves the bill from her wallet but holds it slightly behind her body causing me to lean forward to get it from her. As I do so, she steals a kiss but gives up the dollar.

“Sneaky,” I chide with a wink. Like I didn’t see that coming. I pop the bill into the jar through a slot in its lid.

“You’re charging me for kisses now? Damn, Kels, I’ll be bankrupt in a week.”

“It’ll take you that long?” I tease. “Give me another dollar.”

We repeat the process.

“Actually, sweetheart, this is a swear jar. Every time one of us swears, we have to put a buck in the jar.”

Her eyes widen and she shakes her head. “Ah, Kels, come on!”

“Nope, Tabloid, the baby can hear everything we say. Do you really want the first thing our baby says to your Mama to be a swear word?”

“Hell, no.”

I hold my hand out for another dollar.

“Shit,” she grumbles, digging for two more singles and handing them to me.

“You want to just give me a twenty and get it out of your system?” I watch as she jams the wallet back into her pocket. Oh I think I’m in trouble now.

I jump and squeal when her fingers tickle my ribs. “Oh, you think you’re funny, do you?” She has an evil glint in her eye. It’s my favorite look on her because I know it means quite the predicament for me later. I love the weekends when we don’t have to work. I try not to drop the jar as I squirm on the countertop. I gotta put this thing down before it gets broken.

“Stop that!” I swat at her hands. I want her touching me, but not like this. Well, that’s not exactly true either, but it’s more fun to resist.

She ignores my plea and continues to tickle me. “Stop what?” With her right hand she grazes a rib. “This?” And then her left mimics the movement. “Or this?”

“Dammit, both!” I growl.

She stops immediately, picking up the swear jar and waving it in front of me. “Pay up, sweetheart.”

I was set up.

* * *

Brian hands me a glass of juice when I come back to my office from the studio. I’ve been doing publicity bits and voice-overs there most of the day. He spent most of the day with me, doing my errands and taking care of things from a small desk in the production booth. He’s a damn good assistant. I’m very lucky to have him. He smiles at me, giving me his best ‘hang in there, baby, Friday’s coming’ look. Too bad it’s only Monday.

I swear to God, if Bruce doesn’t stop hitting on me I’m going to turn Kam and Harper loose on him. Not necessarily in that order. That’s unfortunate for him because I have a feeling Kam would be a lot nicer about tearing him to shreds. At least, he’d be faster about it.

I take a seat at my desk and my computer beeps at me. Ah, I know that beep. I take a sip of my juice then swivel my chair around to find the message box.

KINGSLEY: Hi ya, babe!

STANTON: Boy, you’re chipper. Did you get to choke someone today? <g>

KINGSLEY: Not yet, but the day isn’t over. I’m still hopeful.

I can’t help but laugh. I can picture her sitting there rubbing her hands together. She’s not thrilled with her editor. He seems to be a bit more interested in leaving early rather than doing the best cut of the segment. Nothing infuriates her more than a shoddy work ethic.

STANTON: LOL. It’s nice to have a goal in life, sweetheart.

KINGSLEY: So it is. How’s your day going?

Even though she’s not in the room with me, I sigh as if she could hear me. Should I tell her about Bruce? Nope. Langston would be really pissed when she killed him.

STANTON: Well, it’s going. Thank God, it’s nearly over. I’m tired and I want a hot bath.

KINGSLEY: Hmm, yeah, that sounds nice. You need someone to wash your back?

Among other things.

STANTON: Always.

KINGSLEY: Hey, I had a great idea for a name for the baby if it’s a girl.

STANTON: Yeah? Let’s hear it.

KINGSLEY: Gertrude. We’ll call her Trudi.

I stare at my monitor in disbelief. I really hope she’s not serious. Please, dear God, don’t let her grandmother be named Gertrude or something like that. I can’t do that to our little one.

STANTON: Harper, when we get home you can put a buck in the jar for even thinking that name, let alone having the guts to type it.

KINGSLEY: LOL. All right, sweetheart, whatever you say.

Whew. Not her grandmother. I owe you one, God. Actually, I owe you several, I just owe you big for that one.

STANTON: Besides, I thought of a better name: Afrodille.

KINGSLEY: You don’t want my response.

STANTON: It means ‘daffodil’.

KINGSLEY: I’m allergic.

STANTON: LOL. Okay, what about Eglantina?

KINGSLEY: God bless you.

STANTON: You like that?

KINGSLEY: No. I thought you sneezed. <g>

STANTON: LOL. It means ‘wild rose’.

KINGSLEY: What do you have there? The Parent’s Guide to Truly Repulsive Flower Based Names for Children?

STANTON: It’s a rare book. Out of print.

KINGSLEY: Deservedly so. Okay, how about Clarabelle?

STANTON: The cow or the clown? You should be ashamed of yourself for suggesting it. <g>

KINGSLEY: Yeah, right. I’ve never been ashamed of myself. Well, there was that one time in the bayou, but that’s another story altogether. <GBEG> <Wiggling eyebrows>.

I shake my head. Some days she’s hopeless. Mental note to self: ask about the bayou story later when you have her in a compromising position. She’s always more willing to negotiate then.

STANTON: You’re such a brat.

KINGSLEY: And you love it. Hey, sweetheart, have you by any chance made the call?

I take a deep breath and dig a card out of my day planner. It’s worn from many other days of being pulled out and stared at and then shoved back into my pocket.

STANTON: Umm, not yet.<g>

KINGSLEY: You’re going to, right? I’m not pushing, I’m just reminding. <g>

Let’s call a spade a spade, Harper. You’re pushing. But you’re right to and I love you for it.

STANTON: Yeah, yeah, I’ll do it now.

KINGSLEY: Okay, babe, I’ll let you go. I love you.

That’s the only reason I’m calling at all. Well, that and our baby. I want him or her to have a mother who’s not on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

STANTON: Love you too. See you soon.

I turn the card over in my hand a few times before I pick up the phone and dial the number.

“Doctor Sherwin’s office,” a pleasant voice answers the phone.

“Hello. I need to make an appointment with the doctor. I need,” this is hard for me to admit, “I need someone to talk to about a trauma I recently went through.” I say it at all in a rush, knowing if I don’t get it out now, I never will.

The voice at the other end of the line is compassionate. “Dr. Sherwin will be glad to see you, miss. May I have your name?”

“Kelsey Stanton.”

* * *

I rap on the doorframe and wait until he looks up. He takes his sweet ass time about it. He’s a Very Important Person, after all. Everyone else can wait. I force myself to be patient when all I want to do is go flick him on the head.

Finally, Bruce graces me with his attention. He hesitates for a moment, then gives me his head shot smile. “Harper, to what do I owe this pleasure?”

We’re gonna talk about your pleasure all right, buddy. “Mind if I sit?” I don’t wait for his answer, I plop myself down in a chair opposite his desk. I also don’t bother asking if I can put my feet up on his desk. But I do.

He stares at my boots, shocked. I ignore it. “What can I do for you?”

“How long have you been on Exposure, Bruce?” I ask casually. I know the answer, but that’s beside the point.

“Four seasons now. I joined in our second season.”

Yup, he replaced the other young stud on the series. “You’ve enjoyed being the big man on the block, eh?”

“Huh?”

“You know what I mean, Bruce. You’re young, good looking, reasonably charming, rich …” We both share a knowing smile. He knows what I mean. It’s easy to get laid with those demographics. “And you’ve been ruling the roost here for four years.”

He smiles and spreads his hands on his desk. “Well, Larry really isn’t any competition. He’s too old, getting a little paunchy from going to too many network dinners.”

I smile in return. I don’t consider Larry competition either. “You know, I look at you, Bruce, and I see myself.”

“Really?” His tone is highly skeptical.

“Well, myself seven months ago.” I shrug. “I was a dog too.”

“Excuse me?”

I pick at my jeans. “I was a dog, just like you’re a dog. I’d go out sniffing around every single day to see what I could find. Didn’t matter whose yard I was in, either. If you get my drift.”

He folds his arms across his chest. “Uh huh.”

“I’m warning you to get out of my yard.”

“You’ve lost me.” He leans back in his leather chair. He’s trying to play it cool. But I know better.

“I don’t think so. If I hear you’ve been sniffing around Kelsey again, I’ll neuter you myself. Snip, snip,” I provide the vocals for my scissors movements.

Bruce sneers. It is an unattractive look. “Are you threatening me, Ms. Kingsley?”

“No, Mr. Bartlett, I’m making you a promise. So, in the future, picture Kelsey surrounded by a little white picket fence. Then we won’t have to have any more sensitive chats.”

* * *

I stop by Kels’ office on the way back to mine. Quietly, so that she doesn’t know I’m out here, I stop at Brian’s desk. I pull a hundred dollar bill out of my wallet. “Take your boyfriend out to dinner.”

“Ooo … green has always been my best color,” he sighs, slipping it into his pocket.

I chuckle and continue walking down the hallway.

“I don’t have a boyfriend right now, stud,” he calls out after me. “But you’ll do in a pinch.”

I need to have a talk with Brian, tell him to picture a white picket fence around me.
Episode Ten: Best Friends
Lying in front of the fireplace, stretched out on my stomach, looking through one of the baby books, I’m very content for the moment. Kels is dozing, using my bare backside as a pillow. It’s been a nice way to spend a Thursday evening, listening to jazz, making love to my girl, and, in between, reading up on how our Baby Roo is doing in there.

“Kels?”

“Hmm?” She rolls over, wrapping herself in a sheet and sliding up next to me. I feel her hand come to rest on my back, stroking up and down. It’s still a bit damp with sweat from our latest exertion. If she keeps that up, it may get worse before it gets better.

“Our baby is the size of a seed.”

“What kind of seed?” She is drawing some random pattern on my skin. It reminds me of when you’re a kid and your best friend writes on your back with her finger and you have to guess what she wrote. Kels’ nails are absolutely delightful against my flesh. If I was Trouble, I’d be purring.

“Huh?” I was distracted.

She chuckles, knowing me well enough by now to suspect what my problem is. “What kind of a seed? Kiwi, apple,orange, pumpkin?”

“Ah, hmm, let’s see.” I force myself to focus on the text. “Orange seed.”

“Good. I hate apples. Anything else I should know?” she teases. She’s enjoying the fact that I always seem to have my nose stuck in a pregnancy book. When it’s not otherwise engaged.

“Yeah, morning sickness is going to start soon,” I tease back, tossing the book to the side. I roll onto my back and pull her into my arms. Enough reading for now.

“Well, we’ll get to enjoy it together.” Kels curls up into me, tucking her head under my chin.

“Oh, darlin’, we will. I am a sympathetic barfer. Anyone else hurls and so do I. So, make room by the toilet.”

Kelsey bursts into laughter, her entire body shaking. “Deal, Tabloid. Thank you, sweetheart.”

I shake my head frowning. “I’m not doing it to be nice.” That’s the truth. Nothing I hate more than puking. Part of why I didn’t get drunk a lot in the past. I hated the morning after of alcohol. The morning after of other things I didn’t mind quite so much.

“You said this pregnancy was going to be a partnership. You just meant it more literally than you would have liked.” She taps my chin.

“Gee, thanks.”

“We’ll get to see more of each other this way,” Kels offers encouragingly.

“Oh, that’ll be fun.” I know I sound doubtful. Enough of that subject, I’m getting nauseous just worrying about it. I lower my head and nibble on her ear. God, she is so tasty.

“Oh, Tabloid,” she arches into my body, “you know, we might want to think about real, substantial food here shortly. Baby Roo and I are getting hungry.”

“It’s too early for envie,” I mumble against her neck. Reading provides useful information.

“I didn’t say we were craving anything. I said we were getting hungry.”

“Splitting hairs.” I kiss the hollow behind her ear, nuzzle her hair. “What do you want?” I am perfectly content with this meal.

“After you? Hmm, pizza, I think. Loaded.”

I laugh a little, pulling back to look at her, brushing some hair away from her face. “And you say you’re not having cravings.”

She opens the sheet, inviting me to get closer to her body. This is an invitation I do not – will not, could not – refuse. I sound like an adult Dr. Seuss book.

“Yeah, okay, I admit it,” Kels says between kisses. “You gonna tell me no?”

“Do I look crazy?”

“Nah. You look pretty good to me there, stud.”

Okay, I like that nickname a lot better coming from her than Brian. I pull her close. I can tell that her breasts have swelled recently. Looking forward to seeing where they end up. I place a kiss on the rise of one. “I could just eat you up.”

“Ooo that’s nice,” she whispers in my ear, her breath hot.

It certainly is. I groan and tighten my hold on her.

She winds her leg around mine, drawing us even closer together. This position reminds me of a bit earlier in the evening. I skipped ahead a few chapters in one of her pregnancy books and found some interesting line drawings. I convinced Kels that we needed to practice some of those positions so we don’t strain anything later.

Of course, we got a little excited and almost strained a few things now. I wouldn’t want to explain that type of injury at the emergency room.

Kels is licking my neck. I seem to recall something on page two-seventy that looked promising. Now, how do we do that without one of us being double-jointed?

Oh, please, tell me that wasn’t the doorbell I just heard. Kels stops what she was doing. Damn, she heard it too. I wasn’t imagining things.

“They’ll go away,” I assure her.

They probably would have had the damn dog not gone off and started barking. Jesus, Kam, next time open the door for whoever’s there. Nothing like telling them we’re home.

“Ah, shit!” I grouse. “Damn dog!”

She pushes away from me, her face flushed. “Go answer the door and drop two dollars in the jar.”

I get up, pulling on my robe, grumbling and cursing well under my breath. At this rate, I’m going to have the baby’s college education paid for by 2002.

* * *

When I hear Harper greet Robie and Rene, I dash into our bedroom for my robe. As I slip it on, I realize, God, I smell like sex. No, I reek of sex. And so does Harper. And she’s greeting her brother and sister-in-law.

Lord, take me now. I will hear about this forever from the Kitchen Conspiracy.

The Conspiracy. Our family. I pause, my hand covering my heart. I hope nothing’s wrong. We weren’t expecting Robie or Rene. I can’t imagine why they’d show up without warning.

I tie the robe around my waist, take a quick glance at the family room – nothing I can do about it now – and hustle to the front door.

Harper is helping Robie with their luggage, a small suitcase and two garment bags. Rene steps around them and looks at me. “Oh, Robie, I think we interrupted something.”

Robie blushes a bit when he looks at me. “Ah, gee, Kelsey, I’m sorry. We should have called first. But, we wanted to surprise you two, check out the new digs.”

I smile ruefully. “We’re surprised.” I step forward and embrace Rene. “It’s a wonderful one though. Everything is all right? The family? And where are the boys?”

“The boys are getting spoiled by their Grandmere and Grandpere.”

Robie laughs and cuffs Harper on the shoulder. “If we’re lucky, she’ll keep them like she did your cat.”

“Robie! Ca va!” Rene chastises. She turns her attention back to me. “Should we check ourselves into a hotel?”

“Don’t be silly. Come on. We’ll get you settled and then clean up a bit.”

Robie snorts.

Harper elbows him in the gut. “Danser comme un d’inde la cendre chaude,” she mutters.

I cock my head, my embarrassment momentarily set aside by confusion. “Robie is going to dance like an Indian and something about hot ashes?”

The three laugh. “It’s an old Cajun expression meaning Robie is in a big heap of trouble.” She touches my arm. “We’re so sorry,” Rene repeats.

“Hey! Why does she get an apology and I don’t. You two didn’t say nothing to me,” Harper grouses, scratching Kam behind the ears. She seems to have gotten over her annoyance with him.

“Because you’d just bitch anyhow,” Robie points out.

“Gimme a dollar.” Harper holds her hand out.

“What? I gotta give you a buck because you didn’t finish getting laid?”

Please, Lord, I beg you, take me now.

Rene smacks her husband on the back of his head. “Possedé! Je dois te passé une calotte, Robert Francis Kingsley! Your mama would have your head for speaking that way.”

I laugh at Rene’s threat to her husband. I bet she would smack him for talking that way.

She looks at me with infinite compassion I assume gained from being in the Kingsley clan for several years now. “Can you point the way to the guest room? I need to have a private chat with my husband for a few moments.”

“Yeah and Harper can finish up hers with Kels,” he snickers.

Harper pokes him in the chest. “Mine last longer than a few moments, Robie.”

“Mon Dieu! It’s like they’re three again.”

“Straight at the top of the stairs,” I mutter.

“Come, Robie, before we completely wear out our welcome.”

* * *

If I keep moving and don’t think about it, perhaps I won’t die of embarrassment. It’s not like her family didn’t know we were consenting adults but … I never expected them at the front door while we were consenting. I’m almost tempted to sleep in another bedroom tonight. Not that Harper would let me.

I begin straightening up the family room. I don’t want her family to see that I consented here and over there and then, most recently, here again. Not caring that it’s still a little cool out, I open all the French doors which lead to the sundeck. Then I open up one door to the patio. Gotta get some fresh air in here.

Harper is standing in the room laughing at me. “Chér, it’s all right. It’s just Robie and Rene.”

“Just Robie and Rene? Just your favorite brother and his wife. Just the parents of my little boyfriend -”

She cuts me off. “You have a boyfriend?”

“Christian, remember?”

“Well, darlin’, Christian is proof enough that Robie and Rene have behaved in the past exactly like we were behaving this evening. Don’t worry about it.” She comes and takes me in her arms. “Aren’t you the one who tried to get me to stop freaking out about my parents taking a nap together?”

“This is different,” I mutter against her robe.

“How?”

“It’s me.”

* * *

I am lathering up my hair again – having always followed the rules of lather, rinse, repeat – when I feel a cold draft hit my naked body. Standing in the doorway to the shower is an equally naked Harper. Her eyes are roaming proprietarily over my body and I can feel her as surely as if she were touching me right now.

“Need help?” She doesn’t wait for my reply. She steps into the shower with me, her hands going immediately into my newly shortened hair, massaging my scalp.

“Harper! I told you to … God, you’re good at that.” I am such a wimp when it comes to her. And things were just getting good when we were so rudely interrupted.

Her now soapy hands drift down my neck and shoulders, sliding over heated skin. Pulling me toward her, Harper kisses me.

I give in until I come to my senses. I tug on her navel ring, knowing that will get her attention. “No, Harper. We need to only shower right now.”

“Co faire?” she asks before attaching her mouth to my neck.

Why? That’s a very good question. “Harper,” I protest, “if you ever hope to get lucky again, you better behave yourself right now.”

I feel her laugh against me. Pulling back, her eyes are filled with mirth. “It’s not like it’s a secret anymore, Kels.”

“It wasn’t one before.”

“Oh really? Have we been an item of discussion for the Kitchen Conspiracy?”

Oh shit. Like her ego needs to know about what’s been said on this particular subject. I reach for the soap and begin scrubbing any body part I can reach right now. It’s unfortunate that it’s Harper’s chest. Scrubbing her there seems to take all the resolve out of me.

“What did you tell them, babe? You can tell me.”

I stick my head under the shower jet. Perhaps running water will drown out her words and my libido.

No such luck.

* * *

An hour later, we’re all seated in the living room. I led Robie and Rene on a grand tour of the apartment while Kels fixed up something to eat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her this flustered. Even when her mother broke in on us and she had me parade around in my birthday suit, she didn’t bat an eye. Or when Erik caught us on the couch that one time.

Oh, I get it. It was always about me before. This time, it was about her. My poor, sensitive, private Little Roo.

“So, what brings you up here?”

“Not that we aren’t glad to see you.” Kelsey immediately interjects.

I take her hand and pull it into my lap. “Yeah,” I add with absolutely no sincerity.

“We thought it’d be fun to take a long weekend and since we have a place to stay in New York …” Robie teases back, pulling Rene against him. “We figured you were the ideal romantic vacation spot.”

“You’ve always been a cheap couillon.” Oh, Mama would get me for calling my brother a bastard, even in jest.

Kelsey looks up at me. “Enough teasing, Tabloid, and you owe the jar another dollar. We’re glad you’re here. You two are always welcome in our home.”

“Though, you won’t get to have that room much longer,” I announce smugly. Hell, Kels, I hope you don’t mind if I let the cat out of the bag. I can’t help myself.

“Really? Why? Kels kicking you out of bedroom?”

“No,” I toss a nut from a nearby bowl at his head, “that’s gonna be the baby’s room.”

Robie shrugs, unconcerned. “So in a couple years we’ll have to sleep somewhere else.”

“No, in a couple months.” I bring Kels’ hand to my lips and kiss it. She doesn’t seem upset if the affectionate look she’s giving me is any indication.

Rene understands what I’m saying immediately. She squeals and leaps to her feet, cheering. Next thing I know, Kels is being ripped from my grasp and pulled into a hug. “Congratulations!”

It takes Robie a few seconds longer to get it. He smiles at me. “Well, good for you, Harper Lee! Seems like I’m batting a thousand lately.”

I can’t believe this guy. Talk about an ego. “Like we know it was yours.”

“It’s Harper’s,” Kels says from over Rene’s shoulder.

“Well, she can’t take credit for Rene. Or can she?”

“Robie!” both our girls warn at the same time.

“Rene?” Kels leans back from the embrace and looks down at my sister-in-law’s stomach. “You’re pregnant?”

“I am. And I blame you. The dirty dancing on Mardi Gras seems to have been quiet potent.”

* * *

I drop my head a bit, relax my neck then roll my head and shoulders to loosen them. While having Robie and Rene pop in last night was a great surprise, it did nothing for my ability to work today.

I had almost forgotten I was doing the Exposure news brief on the morning show today. This translates to me having to be at the studio at five a.m. which means I had to get up at four. I felt like an eight year old when I had to go to bed at ten last night, leaving the adults up and talking around the kitchen table. It was hard falling asleep without my favorite pillow. Kam simply doesn’t do as a substitute.

The only upside to the whole thing is that I got a ton of work done today and I’m going to get out of here early. Harper, on the other hand, is stuck in pre- and post-production meetings and we’ll be lucky to see her before eight tonight. Good thing I get along so well with her family.

The other downside – besides Harper having to work late – is our dog will be depressed because his playmate won’t be home to take him to the park tonight. I’ll have to make Robie substitute playmate for the evening. Hope he runs fast.

My phone rings, pulling me from my thoughts. I glance at the picture of Harper and me as I pick up the receiver. Oh yeah, I should take Robie and Rene out to dinner tonight to thank them for that.

“Stanton.”

“Hey boss.” Brian’s chipper voice is always nice to hear after a long day. There’s only one I like better. “Security has two people at the front desk downstairs asking for either you or Stud. They’re claiming to be her brother and sister-in-law.”

“Ah shit. I forgot to notify Security we were going to have guests in today. Damn. Listen, I still have a couple of things I need to tie up here. Can you go down and get them?”

“Sure. How will I recognize them? There’s always a million people in that lobby.”

“Well, if Security doesn’t have them seated somewhere waiting, look for the guy who looks just like Harper.”

“Ohmigod! Please, tell me you’re kidding. My little heart couldn’t take such teasing.”

“Nope. Swear to God. They could be twins.” I wait for him to answer. There is none. “Brian? Brian?” My connection dies and I go to my office door in time to see my ever so composed executive assistant dashing to the elevator. I chuckle, knowing by the time he gets to the lobby, he will be the total professional. He’s simply has to burn off that rush of lust he just had.

Boy, do I know that feeling. All the Kingsleys inspire that baser instinct. Harper sure as hell brings it out in me.

I go back into my office and dig my wallet out of my purse and drop a couple of singles in my work swear jar. I was bad. It happens. I went into Harper’s office the other day after she had come out of a production meeting and found a fifty in her jar. She said all the producers were in such a foul mood she felt the need to pay for the entire staff. She was sure the baby heard a lot of things it shouldn’t have while I moved around the building.

I manage to get finished up right as Brian leads Robie and Rene to my office door. As he hustles them in, he gives me a wide eyed look over Robie’s shoulder, biting down on his knuckle. I can only chuckle as I wave them in and shoo Brian away at the same time. I’ve got to get Robie out of here before my dear assistant jumps him.

“Hi, guys, give me just two ticks and I’ll give you the ten cent tour of the place. Have a seat for a minute. Harper’s tied up so you’re stuck with me today.”

I realize the phrase ‘tied up’ could lead to a teasing from these two that I don’t want to be a part of. I give them a quick glance out of the corner of my eye. They are either ignoring it or they missed it. Thank you, God!

“Kels, I’m impressed.” Robie tosses himself down on my couch, the exact same way Harper would if she were here. I swear the Kingsleys are interchangeable. Rene knocks his feet off the coffee table and sits beside him.

“Why, thank you, Robie.” I shut down a couple of items on my computer and prepare to leave.

“You know it occurred to me on the way up here that we have a celebrity in the family.”

“Hardly.” I roll my eyes. If I am one, it’s not for any reason I want right now.

“No, really. I saw your picture down there and then again as we came up here. They only do that for celebrities, I know that much about show business.”

“Robie, you’ve always had a celebrity in your family. Harper is a hell of a producer. With the Peabody win under her belt, her stock has gone through the roof around here. Langston won’t admit it, but he knows she’s a gold mine. CBS is going to do everything they can to hold on to her.”

“Yeah, but it’s not her face the viewing public sees every week.”

“True, but faces are a dime a dozen. They could replace mine with any other blonde and probably spend a lot less money doing so. Besides, I’m nearly thirty-three. My days are numbered and I know it.”

“Do you really think so?” Rene asks, her voice full of concern.

“Sure. Very few females achieve the status of a Barbara Walters in this business. I’ve already been in it for ten years. That’s a long time. Granted, my awards help too, but they don’t mean nearly as much as Harper’s. The producer makes the talent. The talent doesn’t make the producer. They’d be hard pressed to replace Harper and they know it. Give her a few more years and another award or two and she’ll be able to write her own ticket for the next twenty-five years if she wants.” I gather up my jacket and purse. “Ready?”

“Sure.” Rene gets up, finding Robie holding out his hand to be hauled off the couch. “Get your own lazy butt up, buddy.”

“Yeah,” I go to Rene and wrap my arm around her shoulders, turning her to the door, “pregnant ladies here.” I grin at Rene while Robie grumbles and gets up to follow us out. “I need to have Harper give him lessons in how to treat you.”

“Are you getting spoiled?” Her tone is wistful.

“Absolutely rotten.”

I try to break Harper out of a meeting to at least say hi, but she’s in with Langston. Enough said. So I figure we’re all better off if I just leave a note in her office. I let her know I’m with Robie and Rene and we’ll catch up to her later. We all have cell phones, it’s easy for us to find each other when she gets free.

After giving them the tour of the place, I give Brian a quick call to let him know I’m leaving for the day. I always hate it when either Harper or I have to leave work later than the other, but at least tonight I have great company. I can look forward to a nice evening that does not include going home and brushing the dog’s teeth and making sure he gets his breath mints. I take that back. I can look forward to a nice evening that does not just include going home and taking care of stinky breath. If we let that slide even one day, Kam’s breath is back to toxic levels.

* * *

Robie and I go down to Central Park early Saturday morning to shoot some hoops. This is how we passed the time through all of high school, college and Robie’s law school. Some days we wouldn’t say anything other than the score. Other days, we would debate anything and everything.

It was on a basketball court I told Robie I was gay. It was on one he asked for my help in proposing to Rene. We played a game after Christian was born. And threw up in the bushes because we had eaten far too much at IHOP.

We’ve worn out countless basketballs and a dozen pairs of shoes playing ball. So, it’s only natural we’re here now that he and Rene know Kels is pregnant.

Robie pushes past me and makes an easy lay up. I toss the ball back to him and attempt to impede his progress toward the basket this time.

“So, you’re gonna have a kid, huh?” he grunts, jumping up for a shot.

I swat it down. “That would be the case.” I move outside of the key.

Robie tosses me the ball. “You think that’s fair to Kelsey?” he asks.

I stop dribbling the ball. “Ain? What do you mean by that? It was her idea, for God’s sake.”

He shrugs. “No offense, Harper, but are you ready to become a parent? I mean, you’ve been screwing around for a long time now. You really ready to stop all that?”

I can’t believe this shit. “I have stopped all that. Since Thanksgiving. I haven’t so much as said ‘hello’ to another woman since I’ve been with Kels. Jesus, Robie, I can’t believe you’re giving me this attitude.”

“It’s not an attitude, Harper. It’s just …” he looks slightly embarrassed “well, as far as I can tell, Kelsey doesn’t have anyone looking out for her.”

I fold my arms across my chest. “I’m looking out for her.” I am getting extremely angry. I would have thought we’d be celebrating.

“Besides you. I mean like a father, or an older brother.”

“She and her dad aren’t very close. And she’s an only child.”

Robie leans against the basketball goalpost. “Okay, then let me be her older brother for a minute.”

“All right.” I don’t suppose now is a good time to point out that Kels is older than both of us.

“What are your intentions toward her? Besides sleeping with her and having a child with her?”

I throw the basketball to Robie. “Is that what this is all about? You want me to get married? What? You want to get back at me for that toast I gave you two?” I’m feeling a little better now. This I can handle. I was planning on bringing this up myself.

“I’m serious, Harper. You gonna marry her? Make her some promises before God and your family?” He’s starting to get angry with me now. “I think she deserves that. At least.”

I throw my arms around Robie and hug him tight. I kiss his cheek, noting that he needs to shave. “I love you, Robie.” I step back and smile. “But, damn, you really did steal my thunder. I was hoping to borrow Rene for awhile today and have her approve the ring I want to get Kels.”

I watch the anger drain from him. “Yeah? Why not me?”

“Because Rene barely escaped getting the ring you found in a Cracker Jack box.”

He snorts. “It would have saved us a helluva lot of money for the down payment on the house. So, when are you proposing?”

“Easter, in front of the family.” I dribble the ball a few times. I have to ask. “You guys still gonna make me sing that song?”

Robie laughs evilly. “Oh, yes … it’s perfect. You know the rules.”

“Yeah, well, it was always funnier when it was one of you guys.”

“Yup, c’est la vie.”

I suppose that’s the way life is. “Think Mama will be happy?”

Robie shakes his head at me. “Uh, yeah. I think she loves Kels as much as she does Rene, who has Cajun in her. She’s going to be thrilled. She’s finally filled her kitchen.”

“Hey,” it occurs to me to ask him, “does Rene ever tell you what they talk about?”

He snorts. “Hell, no. She loves to torment me instead.”

“You think they’re planning our future in there?”

“You know it, Harper. By the way, you lesbians get all the breaks.”

I look at my brother quizzically. It’s unusual to hear him give a name to my sexual preference. “How so?”

“Well, when you propose, Mama will be ecstatic and think it’s the best thing to happen.”

“It’s because she’s on that damn committee. But she was the same way about you and Ren.”

He gives me a highly skeptical look. “Well, if Ren had been knocked up when I proposed, Papa would have filled me with buckshot and -”

I give Robie a gentle punch to his chest. “A ca oui! Kels is not ‘knocked up’, you uncouth heathen. And you boys had something to do with it too.”

“Don’t tell Mama that!” he protests, holding up his hands. “I want her mad at you, not me.”

I sober. “Well, we’ll work out a way to make the announcement without any of us getting in trouble.” Before we start to play again, there’s something I need to say to Robie. “Look, I really hope the baby is yours. Kels is in love with Christian, and you know how I feel about Clark. And, well, hell, you’ve been my best friend for as long as I can remember. I could only hope our child would be a lot like you.”

He smiles. “I love you, too, Harper, but, this kid is all yours.”

* * *

“Oh, now this is too cool!” Robie exclaims as he enters the luxury suite at Yankee Stadium. He looks exactly like Christian when he grins.

I laugh at him, stripping off my team jacket and tossing it down on one of the many couches. “Glad you like it. I have season tickets in a field box behind home plate, but I’m only allowed to use those when I can get Harper to come to a game with me. Otherwise I try to get this box.”

He turns away from the window that overlooks the field. “Why?”

I shrug. “Harper prefers it that way and so do I, really. Being kidnapped changes your perspective about safety a bit, you know?”

“Yeah, well, thank God, I don’t, but I can sympathize. I’m sorry that happened to you, Kelsey.” He comes over to me and rubs my arms gently. “And you know our whole family is there for you if you need us.”

I nod, looking into a pair of eyes that mirror those of my partner. I find myself giving Robie a long hug. “You guys have no idea how much you’ve done for me already.”

“Well, you took Harper off our hands. We actually owe you,” he teases, releasing me from his embrace.

I slap his arm. “You are so bad. And very mean to your sister.”

“She started it.”

Yup, they’re still three years old. Probably always will be too.

I laugh as the door opens and the staff comes in. Waiters carry in trays which will be set up into a small buffet and a bartender begins setting up the corner. Robie looks like the world has been handed to him on a silver platter.

I’m enjoying my day out with Robie. Rene asked to borrow Harper today so she could get an opinion on a piece of jewelry she wants to buy Robie for their anniversary. I was amazed at how readily Harper agreed but I guess I shouldn’t have been. Harper loves her brother and she’d do anything for him. Even go shopping, the supreme sacrifice. I guess the next time I want to take her with me I’m gonna have to tell her it’s for Robie.

I will say that her timing was wonderful. Five minutes after she and Rene left the workmen showed up. They had to install Harper’s new grill on the terrace and deliver the furniture I ordered. I wanted it to be a surprise, but I had more or less resigned myself to the fact that it wouldn’t be. Now it is. And I get to enjoy a Yankees game to boot. All in all, not a bad day so far.

Then she comes in: Gixane, the studio photographer and the woman who handles all of the publicity shots for Exposure. She is one of the most talented artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, but she tends to be a tad odd. Not odd in a bad way, but odd in an artist sort of way. I’ve become accustomed to her and I really like her, but I’m worried about poor Robie. He doesn’t have an artistic bone in his body, God love him.

“Kelsey, Langston is going to do a release about you being a Yankees fan so we need a few shots of you at the game,” she informs me while she sets up her equipment.

Oh so he chose this game when I’m here with Harper’s brother and not Harper. Some fucking things never change, morals clause or not. I shake my head. I know there’s no sense in arguing. “Fine, but you’ll have to get Mr. Kingsley’s okay before you shoot any photos of him.”

“I have the standard release.” She digs one out of her bag and hands it and a pen to Robie.

I look to him and find him looking like the cat who ate the canary. Oh hell, that’s right, he’s an attorney. He has standard releases for lunch every day. This should be fun to watch. I’m betting Robie can keep Gixane from shooting any photos of him by finding enough loopholes in our ‘standard’ release. It’s not revenge against Langston for this little photo stunt, but it’s a start.

* * *

I am completely impressed by how easy it was to get out of the apartment this morning. Rene knows how to spin a yarn, that’s for sure. I’ll have to keep that in mind in the future.

Rene wants to walk down to Tiffany and Company but I won’t let her. It’s a little over a mile and she’s in a delicate condition. I almost feel as protective of her as I do of Kels. We hop a cab and travel the twenty-three blocks to the store.

Shopping at Tiffany’s is an experience. It screams money, old money, lots of old money. The sales consultants – is there anyone in the United States who is not a consultant nowadays? – are all extremely good-looking and well-dressed individuals. Oh, and they actually know something about whatever it is they’re selling.

“I hope you like it,” I say as I guide Rene over to the ring I’ve decided on. I think it’s pretty spectacular, but before I pay a small fortune for it, I want to get a second opinion. One not from a consultant looking for a commission.

We are greeted by Janet, the woman I’ve been working with on selecting a ring. “Ms. Kingsley, nice to see you again.”

“Hello, Janet.”

“Is this the lucky lady?”

Rene blushes and shakes her head. “No, I’m her sister-in-law.”

“Too bad, this is a beautiful ring.” She bends down behind the counter and pulls out a tray of rings. From it, she selects the one I’ve decided on. She handles it carefully and lays it down on a black velvet mat along with a jeweler’s loop.

Rene gasps. “Oh, Harper!” She reaches out and picks it up, examining it carefully. It’s a platinum band with nine diamonds, the center one being a round brilliant-cut diamond two carats in size.

“The center stone has a clarity of VVS1,” Janet supplies. “Other than Flawless, it’s the best you can buy. Only an expert can detect the flaws on this stone and only then when looking from the bottom.”

“Nice.”

“The color grade is E, which is considered colorless. That’s especially important when you have a platinum band. Only yellow gold is forgiving to a less than colorless stone.”

Rene nods and studies the eight surrounding diamonds. “What about these?”

“The four diamonds closest to the center stone are a princess cut. They are a half carat in weight, VVS2 in clarity, F in color. The four outer diamonds are the same except for being an oval cut.”

Rene looks at me with apprehension. “Dare I ask how much?”

I gesture for Janet to go ahead and say it. I can’t seem to yet. Amex is gonna love me. Thank God I get frequent flyer miles with every purchase at least.

“With tax, fifty-five thousand seven hundred and fifty dollars. We’ll do the engraving at no extra charge.”

Shaking her head, Rene laughs. “I would hope so!”

“So what do you think? Will she like it? Is it the right one for Kels?”

“Harper, it’s perfect. If Kels doesn’t love it, I’ll take it.”

I leer. “Only if I get you too.” I watch with much amusement as a blush graces my sister-in-law’s features.

“Harper, if you treated me near as well as you treat her, I’d agree in a heartbeat.”

Hmm, I don’t like the sound of that at all. Not that I’m not flattered and not that I don’t adore Rene. Hell, had I never met Kelsey, I would still be partially in love with my sister-in-law. But, I don’t like her being willing to go with me for any reason whatsoever. Which means I need to have a little chat with Robie. “Chér, is Robie not treating you right? You can tell me anything, you know that.”

I suddenly find my arms full as Rene launches herself at me. “Harper, you should have fallen in love long ago! You’re absolutely priceless nowadays.”

“I wasn’t before?” I grumble.

Rene starts to reply but laughter overwhelms her. Looking over her shoulder, I speak to Janet. “I’ll take it.”

“How do you want it sized?”

Disengaging Rene’s arms from around my neck, I began feeling each of her fingers, searching for the right one.

“What are you doing? That tickles!” Rene tries to squirm free.

“Stop it,” I chastise. My fingers circle her right ring finger. Yup. That’s it. I pull it toward Janet. “That’s the right size.”

Janet is a professional and she doesn’t laugh at me. Instead, she quickly measures Rene’s finger and writes down the measurement. “And how do you want it engraved?”

I reach into the pocket of my khakis and pull out the slip of paper I have the inscription written on. I hand it over and wait apprehensively while Janet reads it. I wonder if she reads French. She smiles at me. “We’ll have it ready next week.”

I hand her my Amex. “Thanks.”

“What did you write?” Rene strains to read through the back of the slip of paper.

“Rene is a very nosy person,” I lie.

“Brat.”

“Nope, not that either.”

* * *

Kels and Robie aren’t back from the game when we get arrive home. But I do find new furniture and the world’s most beautiful gas grill on the terrace. I love this woman. She knows me. We’ll be having steaks tonight. Gotta break in the new toy.

Rene lets out a whistle from the doorway. “You got a good thing going here, Harper.”

“You don’t need to tell me that, Ren. I got damn lucky.”

“I’d say you both did.” She steps out and comes to inspect my new plaything. “Is there anything you couldn’t cook on that thing? It’s immense.”

I sweep Rene up in my arms and hold her up beside the cooking rack. She’d almost fit all the way across it, probably would if I took her shoes off. “Nope, everything fits,” I tease.

Shrieking, she swats at my arms. “Put me down! I can’t believe you did that!”

I place her carefully back down and kiss her cheek. “You asked. So I was thinking we need to barbecue tonight. What do you think?”

She runs a hand over the hood of the grill. “I was kinda hoping that we could keep Robie from seeing this at all. He’s gonna want one now. He can’t let his little sister have a better new toy than the ones he has.”

“Well, I’ll always have had mine first.”

Rene gives me a playful shove. “You two and your competitiveness.”

“It’s a proud Kingsley tradition.” The ringing of my cell phone interrupts our banter. My heart speeds up, instantly worried about Kels. I wonder when – if ever – this phase will pass for me. Yet I know Robie is exactly like me and would die before he let something happen to Kels while they’re together. “Kingsley,” I answer.

“Hello, Harper? This is Matthew Stanton returning your phone call.”

“Ah, Mr. Stanton, thank you for getting back to me so quickly.”

“Call me Matt, remember? What can I do for you?”

I signal to Rene that I will be a minute and I wander over to a more private spot on the terrace. “Well, Matt, I have a question I want to ask you.”

Episode Eleven: My Defenses Are Down
Well, that was truly one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life. I crawl back into bed, burrowing as deep as I can, and cover my head with the blankets. I’m not getting up today. I don’t care how much Harper begs.

I know, from my walking baby book, that I can look forward to this for roughly the rest of the first trimester. It’s not going to be a fun six weeks.

“Okay, Baby Roo, it’s time for that chat. I love ya, little one, I really do,” I whisper as I caress my stomach, “more than you ever could imagine. But do you think you could take it easy on your old mom up here?”

I feel something join me on the bed. I uncover my head long enough to find Trouble sitting on the edge, giving himself a thorough bath and purring like there’s no tomorrow.

“Well, hello there, fat boy. It’s about time you came to see me. Did you get your salmon this morning, you little traitor?”

His purring intensifies and he turns small circles before he finally nests at the foot of the bed. “Yeah, I know the feeling.” I return to my spot tucked under the blankets. I am miserable following the experience of my first bout of morning sickness.

I hear the front door slam downstairs and I listen as she takes the steps two at a time, returning from her run with Papa. I also hear Mama calling from her kitchen.

“Couri pas dans la maison,” she scolds.

I uncover my head long enough to call out and do my duty as a future mother. “Yeah, no running in the house, Tabloid.” Then I duck back under the covers.

That was a huge mistake. My loving and very playful partner takes it as a sign I want to play and proceeds to jump onto the bed next to me.

“How about jumping up and down on the bed? Is that against the rules?” She continues bouncing on the mattress. I think I’m going to die.

“Stop! Oh, God, Harper, stop! Now!” I know I sound like I’m being attacked, but I have to get her to stop immediately.

She pulls back the blankets from my head, a worried expression on her face. “I’m sorry,” she says getting a good look at me. “Kels, you’re really, truly green around the gills.”

“Un-huh.” I pull the blankets back, the light makes me nauseous. “I have your son or daughter to thank for that.” I mutter from my cocoon.

She very slowly peels the blankets back, peering down at me. “It happened, huh?”

“Oh yeah.” I nod against my pillow, pressing my face into it.

“Anything I can do?”

I shake my head. “I don’t think so. You can’t carry this child for me, can you?”

She laughs softly. “I’m afraid not, sweetheart. You gonna get up?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I know you’re really going to hate this, but it’ll be better if you come down for a little tea and toast.”

I can only groan at the thought of food. “Tabloid, you said you didn’t want to tell Mama about the baby until Sunday. If I go down there now, the jig will be up.”

“How do you know?”

“She’s given birth five times and has eleven grandchildren. I’m surprised she hasn’t figured it out already. I mean, criminey, I’m already a cup size larger than I was last time we were here.”

She gives me a lascivious look. “Si bon!” Her hand moves and covers one of my breasts. “Definitely bigger.”

“And temporary, so don’t get too attached to this size, Tabloid. Boobs I can hide under baggy shirts. Puking in the kitchen will be a dead give away.”

“So it would. How about I bring you something?”

“That would be very nice.” That’s my girl.

“Mama will think I just wore you out from a long night of sex.”

I groan. This family is trying to embarrass me to death, I know it.

* * *

I bound downstairs and venture into the kitchen. Mama is, of course, in her domain, working on all the fixings for tomorrow’s Easter celebration. If she only knew how much she’ll be celebrating tomorrow – my engagement, Kels’ pregnancy, Rene’s pregnancy. We have been blessed as a family, that’s for sure.

Tonight’s the night.

I chuckle. I have musicals on the brain. It’s a family tradition, one that I never thought I’d participate in.

Papa took Mama to go see the musical ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ the night he proposed to her. It was only a regional theatre production, but they both said it was magical, even better than the Broadway revival four years later with Ethel Merman reprising her role. They, of course, flew up to New York City to see it.

Ever since that night, it has been Mama’s favorite musical. She sang it around the house when she wasn’t humming French lullabies to the five of us. So, it was only natural that when Gerrard proposed to Katherine he did so using a song from the musical, ‘The Girl That I Marry’. Gerrard has a decent voice, but, more importantly, he has a romantic streak a mile long. His enthusiastic performance sold it more than his singing ability.

Now Jean can’t sing to save his life. So, when it was his time to get engaged, we urged him to make it a duet. We convinced Elaine that our family often had singing nights and had her work on the song ‘Who Do You Love, I Hope’ with Jean. She never suspected a thing.

Robie came next. He chose ‘An Old Fashioned Wedding’, also opting to have his gal sing with him. It was a perfect song, especially given Rene’s rebellious streak. The two of them were precious. Though Ren admitted to me later that she suspected what was going to happen. Robie can’t hide a thing from her.

Lucien was assigned ‘Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly’ when he balked at singing at all. He tried to get out of it by arranging to meet Rachel somewhere else that night. We simply went and picked her up before he got there. Robie and I brought her back to the house where we all waited for him to show up and sing. God, Lucien hated being outwitted, but … it wasn’t that hard, I’m afraid.

The boys had always teased me that I would have to sing ‘You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun’. Until they realized that gun or not, I didn’t want a man. That left only one appropriate song.

I get to sing it tonight, in front of the entire family – Mama, Papa, the boys, their wives and all the kids – and then get on my knee and ask Kels to spend the rest of her life with me.

I don’t think Kels suspects anything. But, then again, other than Rene, Robie and Papa, who I told on our run this morning, no one else knows. The family is already going to be over here tonight, saving me the need to invite them. Rene plays the piano well enough to accompany me. I have the ring safely tucked upstairs in my garment bag, rolled up in a sock, in an interior pocket, enclosed in a plastic bag … just in case Kels should go snooping.

Everything is set.

As long as I don’t die of nerves before tonight.

“Où est Kelsey?” Mama asks not looking up from her work.

Where’s Kelsey? Nice to see you too, Mama. “Bon jour, Mama.” I lean down and give her a kiss on the cheek. “C’est une belle journee.” It’s going to be a good day.

“You wear that poor girl out again?”

“Mama! C’est assez!” That is more than enough. “Be nice to my girl. You don’t say things like that to Robie or the other boys.”

She shrugs. “I never worried about that with them.”

I look at her for a long moment, unsure as to how to take that comment. I decide to ignore it. “Mama, will you please not say that around Kels? She’s not used to being in a family quite as … open … as ours.”

Mama sighs heavily. “Bon, bon. There’s a tray of beignets already prepared for you two.”

“Merci, Mama.” I kiss her cheek a second time and grab the tray with the beignets, a bottle of juice, a carafe of tea for Kels and a carafe of coffee for me and head back upstairs.

Tonight, tonight, won’t be just any night.

* * *

I’m glad that my morning sickness seems to be just that, morning sickness. I know, despite its name, it hits whenever it pleases, but mine seems to be limited to morning. By the time Tabloid convinced me to accept the tea and beignets Mama had made, I was ready to get up and face the day.

Mama and I had a delightful time in the kitchen today, preparing dinner for everyone tonight. I love it when the entire conspiracy is over, but it was really nice to have the kitchen and Mama to myself today. It was like having a real mom of my own for a few hours.

We cooked, we talked, and we laughed – stopping immediately whenever Harper or Papa came in. Not that we were talking about them, but it makes them wonder and keeps them in line.

I also learned some of Harper’s favorite foods and got the recipes for them. God, I’m getting so domesticated. It’s almost scary.

The entire family came over for dinner. We have a grand time, like we always do. I notice Harper seems a bit off tonight. She seems really nervous. I think she stressed about telling Mama about the baby tomorrow. It’ll be all right, Tabloid. I won’t let her hurt you.

Harper and I decided that the news would be a fantastic Easter present for Mama. I’m pretty excited about telling the family. It’s nice to know that our baby will be loved and accepted in this wonderful clan.

Robie and Rene are a bit off tonight also but it makes sense because they have to make the same announcement tomorrow. You’d think after Christian and Clark this would be old hat for them, but I guess baby news is just plain big in this family and it doesn’t matter how many you already have.

I watch Harper from across the room as I cuddle Christian. Yup, she’s stressed. She keeps jamming her hands in her pockets and mumbling to herself. She only does that when she’s worked up about something. I can’t help but chuckle a bit. She was afraid I’d blow it to Mama in the kitchen today, but if she’s not careful she’s going to do it in front of everyone tonight.

Christian squirms around and straddles my lap facing me. “Aunt Kels?”

“Yes, little man?”

“I love you.”

I wrap him up in my arms and give him a great, big hug. “I love you too, sweetheart.”

“I got all the dub-luns.”

“I know.”

“Thank you for the green one.”

“Oh, you’re welcome, sweetheart. You know that’s our little secret, right? You can never tell Tante Harper I gave that to you.”

He grins at me, wrinkling his nose and giving me a kiss on the cheek.

Robie starts calling the entire family together into the living room. Wonder what’s up? Yet another Kingsley tradition, no doubt. This family’s got a ton of them and I may never learn them all, but I’m enjoying them.

“Here, Kels, let me take him off your hands, or your lap, as the case may be. I want to see my grandson.” Papa holds out his hands for Christian. I can’t wait to see him hold our baby. I’m quick to catch a happy tear with my hand. My child will have grandparents that love it the way my grandparents loved me.

God, Pa, thank you for that. I love you. Miss you.

Christian reluctantly transfers to his Grandpere, leaning over one last time to give me another somewhat sloppy kiss. I laugh as Papa also offers me his hand to help me out of my seat.

“What about the dishes?”

“Ah, darlin’,” Papa drawls. God, now I know where Harper gets it. “Don’t you worry about those. We’ll get to those later. That’s why Mama and I had five children. Someone to clean up for us. Come on, let’s go have some fun and dessert.”

“In this house? Is there any other way?”

* * *

Robie comes over and claps me on the shoulder. “You ready?” he asks, his tone very big-brotherly.

I nod. My throat is parched. There’s no way I can sing. No damn way. God. What am I going to do?

He presses a glass of water into my hand. “Here. I needed one of these right about now.”

I gulp it down in one swig. “Thanks.” Good. At least I can speak again.

Robie laughs at my discomfort. “Don’t worry, Harper. It’s gonna be fine. She’s crazy about you. I know it.”

I nod, mute. I gotta save my voice for this song. Why did I agree to do this?

Breathe.

In. Out.

“It’s time.” He gives me a little shove toward the living room where my future awaits. “You do have the ring, don’t you?”

My heart stops.

My hand slaps my thigh where it rests in the pocket of my jeans. Still there. “Yes,” I grit out. “Let’s go.”

We step into the living room to find the rest of the family, all twenty of them, not counting Kels yet, waiting for us. I note that Papa has made sure Kels is seated near the piano. Thank you, Papa. I lean against the archway and let Robie play M.C.

“It’s that time again,” he begins, smiling at the boys who know exactly what he means instantly. “Time for another family song night.” The room bursts out laughing, and several look none too subtly toward Kels. “In keeping with tradition, the baby of the family has to go first. So, without further ado, I give you Harper!”

The boys begin hooting and hollering. Gerrard calls out, “Do something from a musical, Harper Lee.”

The kids are bristling with excitement. Several of them are old enough to remember Luc and Robie’s proposals. Keep quiet, kids. I’ll strangle you if you spoil my surprise.

I look over at Kels. She looks completely dumbfounded. She keeps looking around the room trying to figure out the joke she’s clearly not in on. Soon, baby. Very soon you’ll know.

“What’s it going to be, Harper?” Papa calls out, bringing me back to why I’m here.

“I suppose I could do something from ‘Annie Get Your Gun’.”

This gives the boys full excuse to stomp, whoop and holler. You’d think they were the biggest group of queens if you didn’t know better.

I clear my throat, walk over and take a glass from Kels’ hand. “I can have that?” I ask, even as I drink the rest of her iced tea. “Thanks.”

Rene plays the intro to the song and looks over at me, waiting.

Now or never, Harper. This is why you were born.

“I’ve had my way with so many girls”

More whoops and hollers. Well, I guess it is true. Hence, the entire reason why the boys assigned me this song long ago.

“And it was lots of fun”

I shrug. That’s true too. It was fun. Unfulfilling and nothing compared to what I have with Kels, though.

“My system was to know many girls

To keep me safe from one.”

God, I swear Irving Berlin knew me when he wrote this.

“I find it can’t be done.”

Boy, ain’t that the truth? Okay, Harper, now focus on Kels. This is her night.

“My defenses are down

She’s broken my resistance

And I don’t know where I am

I went into the fight like a lion

But I came out like a lamb.”

I smile and shrug at the family. I see Christian seated on Papa’s lap. I go over and retrieve him into my arms and sing to him, as if I’m telling him a secret.

“My defenses are down

She’s got me where she wants me

And I can’t escape no how

I could speak to my heart when it weakened

But my heart won’t listen now.

“Like a toothless, clawless tiger”

Christian, God bless his little heart, makes a tiger sound at that line. It causes all of us in the room to burst out laughing, including me for a fraction of a second.

“Like an organ-grinder’s bear”

The little ham performs again.

“Like a knight without his armor”

Stumped him with that one.

“Like Sampson without his hair”

And that one too. I pass him over into Robie’s arms. I have a big finale coming up.

“My defenses are down”

I move back in front of Kels.

“I might as well surrender

Because the battle can’t be won”

I hit my knees in front of her. Her eyes widen slightly. I think she’s starting to get clued in.

“But I must confess that I like it

So there’s nothing to be done”

I reach into my jeans pocket. Yup, the ring is still there. And I even manage to pull it out without dropping it. I hold it up where Kels can get a good look at it. She turns green. Oh, baby, please don’t pass out or puke on me now.

“Yes, I must confess that I like it

Being miserable is gonna be fun.”

The piano stops playing, the family is cheering all around us, but I barely notice any of it. Instead, I am acutely aware of Kels and everything about her. The chandelier light is flitting through her hair, making it shine. Her eyes are a pale green, like the first blades of grass in spring. Her eyelashes kiss her downy cheeks softly. Overall, she is lovely, truly glowing.

And her mouth is hanging open in shock.

Bring it on home, Harper.

“I love you, Kelsey. And I want to spend the rest of my life making you happy. Would you do me that very great honor?”

And I wait.

Who knew that seconds could feel like an eternity?

Why is she crying? Oh, Jesus, I did something wrong. I feel my heart drop to my boots.

I am about to pocket the ring when I hear Kels whisper. “Yes.”

I think she just accepted my proposal. “Yes?” I repeat, wanting to be sure here.

Kelsey launches herself out of the chair and tackles me to the floor. “Yes!”

The room explodes with laughter.

Except for Kels and me. I’m too busy kissing her.

Somehow, miraculously, I manage to keep hold of the ring. When we finally break for air, I reach for her left hand. Carefully, I place the ring on her finger, marveling on how it is the perfect fit.

Just like she is mine.

But I must confess that I like it.

So there’s nothing to be done.

Being miserable is gonna be fun.

* * *

I can only wonder at the ring. It is the second most beautiful thing I have ever seen. The delight and pride in my partner’s eyes right now being first. Once we escape the grasp of Mama and the rest of the family, Harper ushers me out the back door for a walk.

We’re moving slowly through the garden arm and arm. The night air is heavy with the scent of blooming flowers. Between the scent of the air, the warmth of the body pressed against mine, and the events of the evening, it’s a heady experience.

“So how are you feeling?” Harper asks quietly.

“I’m not sure how to put it into words,” I say. It’s surprising since my livelihood is based on being able to put events into words for others. “I’m feeling so much right now. I’m not sure which emotion is actually first in line.” I stop our walk and turn to her, tugging her close. “I honestly never expected this. I know it’s perfectly logical, especially in your family. I just never thought about being married, I mean.”

She laughs a bit and nods. “Yeah, well, it’s total first for me, too, I assure you.”

“I know one thing for sure.” I slide my arms around her waist and snuggle close. I’m not sure which scent I like better, hers or the flowers. Oh, hell, I do too. Harper wins hands down.

“What’s that, babe?”

“I am the happiest woman in the world right now and I am very much in love with you.”

Her response is to lean down and very, very tenderly kiss me on the lips. It’s one of the most gentle kisses we have ever shared, and it is perfect for the moment, very romantic. She brings her hand to my cheek and I absorb its warmth.

“By the way, you’re only the second happiest woman. You’ve made me the happiest, ma cher. You’ve given me everything I’ve ever wanted in life and never believed I could have.” Her thumb strokes my cheek and she gives me another kiss. “Thank you for loving me.”

“We’ve given each other the same gift, Harper, because I feel the same way. God knows, I spent a lot of years looking for it too. Then I found you.”

“Glad we didn’t hide from each other.”

I laugh a little, remembering those first few months with her. I take her arm and our walk begins again. “No, we were pretty much in each other’s faces from the start. I think it was in the grand scheme of things for two very hard headed people to come together. Who else could handle us?”

“Oh, now don’t you start calling me hard headed, too,” she teases, wrapping her arm around my shoulders. “That right is reserved for my Mama.”

“And your wife,” I remind her by wiggling my finger out in front of us. Damn, this thing catches even the slightest light. “I’m going to need armed security for this.”

“You do like it, right?”

I stop again, and she pulls me into her arms immediately, assuming I want another kiss. I do, but I have something to say first. “You are joking? Of course, I like it. I love it. It’s beautiful. It’s huge, but it’s beautiful.” A devious grin steals over my lips. “How long do you think it’ll take them to notice at work?” I so can’t wait for Langston to get a load of this. Yup, I’m pregnant and getting married to my girlfriend, buddy. Bite me.

“I dunno. If you walk around with your hand out in front of you, probably not long.” She puffs up a little bit at the thought of me showing off her ring.

I hold my hand out to catch the moonlight in the diamonds. “Well, you can’t help but want to show it off. So,” I wrap my arm around her waist, resuming our stroll, “how long have you been planning this?”

“Hmm, let me see, since the night a certain stork visited me.”

“Wow. You do know how to keep a secret.”

“This is true. Comes from being raised with four other siblings who were always getting into trouble. Though you have no idea how glad I am it’s done. It was hell ducking you and Langston long enough to get out of the studio to go look at rings.”

I slap her stomach. “You rat! That’s where you were all those times I couldn’t find you. And you’d lie when I’d called you! ‘Oh, Kels, I’m off doing some very important research.’ You lying dog, you!”

“Hey, it was important research. The most important research I’ve ever done in my life.”

* * *

Easter is another big event in our household. Next to Christmas, it’s the most important religious holiday of the year. Mama and Papa are devout Catholics, though they differ with the church on a few key issues, and early Sunday morning is spent in Mass. We always go on Easter to the sunrise service at Lake Pontchartrain.

Kels isn’t thrilled when I wake her up extremely early in order to go. Baby Roo isn’t either. So Kels and I take turns losing our cookies in the bathroom before we stagger downstairs and join Mama and Papa in the car. I hope Mama assumes we look like hell because we celebrated too much last night.

The service is simple and, to me at least, a pleasant experience. Our family sits together, as one would expect, with all the kids sprinkled among the adults. Christian takes his new favorite place on Kels’ lap. I take Clark. Jean’s five kids abandon their parents – except for Geoffrey who’s too little do so on his own but is scooped up by his Aunt Katherine – and settle on the laps or at the side of their favorite aunt, uncle or grandparent. Gerrard’s four do the same. It’s humorous to watch the musical chairs as we settle down on the folding chairs facing east, overlooking the lake.

The priest leads a brief service focused on the new life one can have through faith. It’s an inspiring message and I understand why my parents enjoy participating in their parish. I also appreciate that he doesn’t routinely inform me or my family that I am bound straight for hell.

After the service, when I introduce Kels as my fiancée, he is genuinely happy to meet her. I’ve met him a few times and he knows Mama and Papa well enough to feel free to tease me a bit about settling down. He then shocks me when he offers to conduct our wedding ceremony.

I wonder what Mama said to him to get him to do that.

I mutter something noncommittal. I haven’t even started to think about our wedding, or whatever it is we’re gonna call it, joining ceremony, commitment ceremony, afternoon barbecue. I just know I want Kels for the rest of my lifetime. And I want her to know that. Anything beyond that is lagniappe, a little extra.

We come back to the house for the feast Mama and the Conspiracy will prepare. But, first, there is the Easter Egg hunt. Last night, after the proposal, the family dyed enough eggs to give Tyson Farms a heart attack for fear of lost product. Papa got up early this morning and hid them all over the backyard. I don’t know how it does that in the dark.

All the kids are running around collecting as many of them as they possibly can. Of course, the grand prize is the golden egg with cash in it. Typically, the money is put into savings right away for the little one, but finding it is always a kick. And Mama always slips the finder a twenty dollar bill to spend immediately.

I watch the antics in the yard with great amusement. Christian brings another egg to Kels and has her put it in the basket he has entrusted her with. It’s too big for him to carry while he searches for eggs. And he can’t leave it out in the yard because his cousins will poach from it.

He used to have me watch it for him.

I’ve been thrown over. But, hell, I don’t blame him.

He’s doing pretty well. He has about ten there so far. For a three year old, not bad. Of course, Robie is out there helping him. For a twenty-eight year old, not very good. I watch my brother beat at the ivy growing along the rear wall of the yard. He calls Christian over and my nephew reaches in for another egg.

Only a couple hundred more to go before this hunt is over.

I walk up behind Kels and slide my arms around her, hugging her to my body, but not taking her away from her guard duties. She leans against me and raises an inquiring eyebrow.

Yeah, it’s time to rock Mama’s world.

I look over and catch Rene’s eye. She goes and retrieves Robie from the yard. Okay, we’re set.

Suck up and bear it. Mama won’t kill me. She wouldn’t want my kid to grow up without me.

I hope.

“Guess ours will be too small to participate next year, huh?” I ask loud enough for Mama to hear. It’s not that hard, she’s only an arm’s length away. I glance over. Yup, she heard.

Kels, for her part, keeps her cool. “Yeah, but there’s always the year after.”

Now we wait.

Three … two … one …

“Ain?” Mama asks, her voice low.

What did I say? Oh boy, I have to repeat it. “Just that our baby will be too small next year to hunt for eggs. Unless we have Robie do it for him or her.”

Rene, God bless her, takes the hint. “Nope, he won’t be able to do that. He’ll be busy changing our newest one’s diapers. Seems three’s a charm.”

Mama’s head swivels around to inspect Rene’s stomach and glare at her son.

“T’a menti,” she accuses.

“Mais, non!” both Robie and I reply at the same time. We’re not lying.

“Mais, sa c’est fort quand même.” A slow smile spreads across her lips. Telling her about two grandchildren at once on a holy day was a good strategic move. I might live to see my child.

Yes, it is really something. I pat Kels’ stomach. “Mama, mon premier ne’.” It seems safe to be excited about it.

“Nos,” Kels corrects me, “our firstborn, Tabloid.”

“Comment?” This question she directs at Robie. She knows, as talented as I am, I didn’t pull this one off on my own. Of course, she suspects Robie. “Pas faire le fou.”

I laugh. Don’t play the fool. Let’s see how he handles this question.

“Mama, I shouldn’t have to explain it to you of all people.”

She slaps his arm. And then begins laughing. Laughing so hard I’m afraid she’s gonna hurt something.

“Mama?”

She’s hysterical. Doubled over. Tears are streaming down her cheeks.

“Mama?” I touch her back.

Gerrard and Katherine are hurrying over, afraid something is desperately wrong. “What happened?” Gerrard asks. “Papa!”

I watch in horror as all my siblings are soon gathered around us. Papa pushes his way into the melee, handing Geoffrey to Elaine as he passes her. “Cecile?”

“Jonathan,” she manages to gasp out, calming down somewhat. She straightens up and smiles. “Harper is going to make you a grandpere again.”

“I am not!” I protest as everyone stares at my stomach. “Kelsey is!”

“And so is Rene,” Kels adds, swiftly diverting attention from her midsection as well.

“And I thought all the bunnies were out in the yard today,” Gerrard mutters.

And we’re all doubled over.

* * *

I glance out the kitchen window while putting a few things down the garbage disposal. Harper is out back with the kids and her brothers. She’s got Clark in a snuggle pack, all cuddled up against her. God, I can’t wait to see her with our baby. I laugh when I realize I may never see my child after it’s born. I’ll never be able to pry him or her out of Harper’s arms. I’m going to have to breastfeed just so I can hold our baby. And even then I may have to wrestle it away from her.

“Kelsey come on over here and join us!” Katherine calls from the table, patting my seat. “It’s that time.”

I shake my head a bit. They want the scoop on everything. There are simply no secrets in this family. My eyes fall on Rachel. Well, maybe one. But I bet the boys told their wives what was said at the poker game. Mama is probably the only one in the dark still.

I turn around and lean against the counter, crossing my arms across my chest. Damn, they’re sore. I uncross my arms and the entire table bursts out laughing at me.

“All right knock it off!” I mutter, crossing the room. “Or you get nothing out of me this trip.”

“Un-huh, sure.” Rene smirks as I take my seat and pour myself a glass of juice.

“Rene, sister, dear,” I take hold of her hand and fix on her an evil grin, “hush, or I’ll tell them all about Mardi Gras.” I sweep my hand around the table. I end my comment with a little laugh that leaves her blushing.

Oh I’m learning. Maybe I wasn’t the only one feeling something on the dance floor.

“Mardi Gras!” Elaine pipes up. “I think we all know what happened during Mardi Gras. You all got drunk and got pregnant.”

“I was perfectly sober,” I defend, sipping my juice. “As you might suspect, with Harper and I, this was something best done with all brain synapses functional. Plus, one of us had to drive to the doctor’s office the next morning.”

“Oh God, I wasn’t,” Rene groans, her forehead hitting the table.

This sends the table into another round of laughter. Mama rubs her back soothingly. “It’s all right, sweetheart. I seem to remember being in the same situation when Robie was conceived.”

I nearly choke on my juice. I’m accustomed to all of us joking and discussing our sex lives while Mama sits back and listens quietly, shaking her head from time to time, occasionally offering advice. I’m not accustomed to her actually getting in on the conversation on a firsthand basis.

Mama turns to me while I’m wiping my mouth with a napkin. “Qui n’a?” She lifts her brow and leans toward me.

What’s the matter? She has to ask? I feel the blush creeping up on me already.

“Would you like to know where Harper was conceived?”

The entire table bursts out laughing. I drop my forehead against my fist. “If you must,” I mutter then look up with a grin. This might be interesting fodder to torment Harper with. Poor dear.

I realize I’m in trouble when a wicked gleam enters her eyes. “In that nice comfortable bed you two are sleeping in.”

Oh God. I laugh out loud knowing Tabloid would need to peel her skin from her own body if she knew that.

“We broke two of the supports on that bed that night.” The entire room simply howls with laughter with that revelation. “Umm-hmm.” Mama nods. “That’s a great bed.”

I’ve known that all along.

“Let’s see,” Mama taps her chin with her spoon, “Gerrard came along after a rather interesting encounter Papa and I had at the state fair.”

“Outside?” It’s Katherine’s turn to be shocked.

“You think you kids invented sex outdoors?”

Mama is in truly wicked form today.

“Jean was …” She lowers her head and shakes it back and forth a bit before she looks to Elaine. “Jean was conceived in the back seat of the car on the way home from Atlanta.” She smiles. “It had been a long drive. We needed to stretch.” Mama shrugs nonchalantly. Poor Elaine looks like she is going to slide under the table.

Rachel won’t even look up, she’s already blushing. “You know this might explain Luc’s disposition. He came about at home, in our own bed, in the missionary position.” She nods like that explains everything. “We didn’t give that child a sense of adventure.”

God, that comment makes me wonder exactly what they did in or on our bed. Harper definitely has a sense of adventure and Mama and Papa damn near broke the bed. It’s no wonder she’s the way she is.

I wonder what our baby will be like.

* * *

I am sitting on the porch, snuggling with the sleeping Clark. The Conspiracy has kidnapped my girl. The kids are out playing in the yard. I am happy to skip the egg toss this year. Robie pelted me something awful last time.

“You’re gonna have a little cousin soon, buddy. You’re not going to be the baby of the family for long. Especially not with your Papa around. No telling how many brothers and sisters you’ll end up with.”

“Ew, don’t scare him at such an early age,” Lucien says, sitting in the chair beside me.

“Hey, Luc.” I kiss Clark’s dark hair. “How are you?”

“Pretty good.” He clasps his hands together and stares at them. We sit together in silence for a few long moments. “Congratulations, Harper. You must be excited.”

I can’t contain my smile. “Yeah, quite a bit.”

“I was a jackass.”

I shrug. “It happens to all of us at times.” I give him a frank stare. “Lord knows, I’ve spent most of my adult life being one.”

“Well, you’ve pulled your shit together, that’s for sure, Harper.”

“Don’t swear around Kelsey. She’ll fine you a buck a word.”

“You must be bankrupt by now.”

“Da …” Whoops. Almost. I only owe you fifty cents for that one, Kels. “Very close.” I hear a round of laughter drift out from the kitchen. I wonder what they’re talking about. As if I can’t guess. “Luc, don’t hurt Rachel like that again. You ever have a problem with me, you take it out on me. Not on her. She’s a great lady. And, for some unknown reason, she loves you.”

“I know.” He leans over and kisses my cheek. “Happy Easter, Harper.”

* * *

With dinner well on its way to being complete, Mama sends Rene and I to rest. Boy, does she remember what it’s like to be pregnant. Rene is already out cold in one of the other guest rooms and I’m settled down in our room. I must admit I’m finding it a little difficult to sleep in this bed now. God, I hope I can keep a straight face when Harper and I go to bed tonight.

A soft knock on the door gets my attention. I look up to find Rachel peeking in. Oh shit.

“Kelsey? Umm, can I come in?”

I prop myself up against the headboard and wave her in. “Absolutely.”

She takes a step inside then pauses. “Mind if I close the door?”

Oh shit, this can’t be good. I’m betting we’re about to discuss the thing with Luc and Harper … and her and Harper. I don’t know if I want to hear about that. Especially not right now.

“Yeah, feel free.”

“Thanks.” She does so and takes a seat near the bed. It occurs to me it’s the same chair that Harper sat in after that poker game. “Kelsey, I want to apologize to you for any trouble Luc’s little outburst at the game might have caused you and Harper.”

I pat the bed inviting her to join me over here as I pull my legs up under me. “Rach, it didn’t cause us any problems.”

She lifts a brow, genuinely surprised. “Really?”

“Really. How could I be mad at Harper for something that happened when I didn’t even know her? You guys dated in college. No big deal.”

She seems relieved and lets loose a heavy sigh. “Thank God. I was afraid…” She takes me up on my invitation to join me on the bed. She studies her clasped hands. “I was afraid maybe you’d be mad at her for not telling you. I mean, I assume you didn’t know before.”

“No. She was keeping a promise to you. That was very important to her.”

Rachel smiles at me. “One of her best qualities is her loyalty.”

“That’s one of them,” I agree readily with a grin. Ooh, probably better not to go there given the situation.

“Congratulations, by the way. You must be thrilled. Engaged and pregnant.”

“Oh, yeah, I think the year 2000 is gonna be good to me, if this is any indication.”

“You deserve it.”

“I don’t know if I deserve it, but I’m enjoying it.”

“You must be living life right. Luc and I have been trying to have a baby for over a year now and…” Her hand comes up, catching a tear before it falls.

Oh God. I scoot over closer to her. I’m a bit unsure what to do next. I opt for simply resting my hand on her back. I don’t know how much to tell her about the things Harper told me about the game. But I know one thing for sure. Lucien Kingsley is lying through his teeth to his brothers and his sister.

“Hey,” I rub small circles on her back. “Harper and I had to do a lot of reading and research on getting pregnant and everything we read said it can take a long time to conceive.”

She nods, trying not to break down. “I know, but I’m really starting to lose hope. I went to my doctor and he said I’m fine. He said there’s no medical reason why I shouldn’t be able to get pregnant.”

“Has Luc gone to get tested?”

“No. He’s a stubborn cuss. He says if his brothers can produce eleven children between them then he most certainly should be able to make one.” She finishes with a little laugh but she clearly is anything but amused. “Hell, now even you and Harper have managed to do it.”

I feel really bad for Rach, but once again I’m not sure what to say. I try, “Rachel, if there’s anything Harper or I can do for you, you know you can call us any time.”

“Thanks. I’ve wanted to a couple of times, you know, just to talk. Harper and I have always been able to talk about everything. Sometimes being this close to the family all the time isn’t a good thing. But since my husband opened his big mouth, I didn’t want to cause trouble between you two.”

“Never. And if you ever want to call, do it. I don’t care what time of the day or night it is.”

She looks over at me with a smile. “You know, Harper is a very lucky lady. I’m glad she found you. She deserves the best.”

* * *

I watch her sleep. She’s lying on her stomach, keeping me from wrapping myself around her and laying my hand over her stomach. I like doing that. I feel so connected to her and the baby when we sleep like that.

Her left hand is curled up in a loose fist near her face. I wonder if this is what our little one will look like, a tiny version of her. Without the diamond ring, of course. If we have a girl, she can’t get one of those for a long time. A very long time. When she’s thirty or so. I hold back the chuckle, not wanting to disturb her peaceful sleep.

I’m very proud of Kels. Not only for the way survived her ordeal, but by the way she continues to handle it. She’s been good about going to her appointments with her new therapist. Dr. Sherwin and I haven’t talked much yet, but she had a short session with me earlier this week. Apparently, everything Kels is going through is pretty common. When someone is recovering from a trauma like hers, it takes time for the victim to open up, especially to those they are close to.

Dr. Sherwin assured me Kels is opening up to her and that I have been doing well by being patient and supportive. Who knew I was doing that? I just haven’t known how to make it better, so I’ve kept my mouth shut and listened. I gotta remember this technique.

Kels rolls over onto her left side. She sighs softly.

So do I.

But that’s because she takes my breath away.

* * *

There are some good leftovers waiting for me in the fridge, I know it. I watched Mama put that pecan pie in there. With my brothers all living in their own homes, it is mine, all mine.

“C’est ici,” Mama says when I step into the kitchen.

I look over to find her at her table eating a piece of my pie and drinking a glass of milk. Yes, it is over there. Mama is wearing the same robe I’ve seen her wear since I was a kid. Papa bought it for her when he was in Hong Kong for the first time. “Do you ever sleep?” I ask, rubbing my face. I’m only awake because Kels is getting up every twenty minutes to go pee. I hope this is just a very temporary phase.

“I have to stay awake to keep up with everything that goes on in this family.” She picks up a knife on the table and cuts a slice of pie for me. “Come on over and sit a spell.”

I obey. Mama and I have always specialized in late night heart-to-heart talks. Besides, when I left Kels, she had already fallen back asleep.

“You’re growing up on me, Harper Lee. Big steps – bringing home a girl, introducing her to the family, falling in love, proposing to her, starting a family. Mind you, not in quite the right order, but good enough.” Then she proceeds to pour me a glass of milk. That’s my Mama, always taking care of me, even when she’s giving me grief.

“Mama,” I warn. I take a bite of the pie. Oh Sweet Jesus, this is so good.

“The Committee will be so excited when I tell them the news. Mon Dieu! We will have such a turnout! So many of our members have been hoping you would do something like this. Now, unfortunately, there is no way the archbishop will allow us to use St. Louis Cathedral. Such a pity because we should use the wedding to highlight the need for legislation here like they passed in Vermont.”

“No,” I say in between bites.

“Excuse me?”

“No, Mama. This is not a project for your committee. In fact, I don’t know what type of ceremony we’ll have but it’s going to be very small and very private.”

“Harper,” she reaches out and covers my hand with hers, “this is an important event. One that needs to be celebrated, as much as the state will allow.”

I fight to keep my temper in check. “It will be celebrated, but I am not a cause, Mama. I will not let Kels be one either.”

“Mon Coeur, how can you say such a thing!”

“From the moment I came out, you’ve been on the bandwagon. You have a damn rainbow bumper sticker on your car, you joined this committee, you got elected chairperson. I am your very own gay child. I conveniently fit in with your anti-capital punishment, environmental-protecting, gun-controlling, church-state-separating, and pro-public school worldview.” I push the plate away, I’m not hungry anymore. “You know, especially for such a significant moment in my life, I would prefer to just be your daughter, and not your gay daughter.”

“Harper …”

“No! Listen, Kels and I are in a precarious position up in New York. We negotiated a good deal where the studio can know about us, but, we’re history if word gets out in the mainstream about our relationship. Pregnant lesbians are not ratings-grabbers. And producers who marry pregnant, lesbian anchors have a very short career lifespan. This is a family secret, Mama. Not even your committee can know about us.”

“Attitudes will never change as long as couples like you stay hidden.”

“Dammit, Mama! No! I will not risk Kelsey in any way, shape or form. If you don’t agree with me, at least respect that.”

“I didn’t know you felt that way,” Mama says softly, very subdued.

“About what?” My indignation is still not burned off yet. “About me being a token in a family that opposes tokenism? Or about me wanting to protect the woman I love? Or me being tired of being treated as different when I keep getting told I’m not. So which is it?”

“It’s not like that, Harper.”

“Really? Well, it sure feels like it.”

“You’re special, that’s all.”

I snort. “Great. Thanks, but I can do without it. I just want to be me. I want to be known not because I love women, but because I love Kels and our kid and this family. I’d like to be appreciated as a kick ass producer for a hit news magazine in New York City. I would prefer to be more than the sum of my sexuality.”

“You are, baby. But, I can’t help being the sum of my motherhood.”

“Huh?” I feel some anger drain out of my body at her soft words.

“It doesn’t matter how old your children are, mon Coeur, you always want to protect them.”

I take a drink of my milk. “You joined the committee to protect me?”

“Well, the state sure as hell wasn’t going to do it, Harper. Your Papa and I have been so happy together for almost forty years. We’ve had five beautiful children, eleven grandchildren, two more on the way, and who knows how many more. Jonathan and I have been through illnesses together, family emergencies, parent-teacher conferences, and so much more. The thought that my baby girl can’t experience all of that makes me so mad.”

“And a bit insane.”

She laughs. “And a bit insane.”

“It’s needs to be a nice, quiet ceremony, Mama. Just the family, very informal, and very soon.”

“It sounds beautiful.”

“And I’m not wearing a dress.”

She gives me a reproving look but acquiesces. “Of course not,” she says finally, “it’s an informal event.”

“I love you, Mama.”

“I love you too, mon Coeur.”
Episode Twelve: Two Are Better Than One
The sound of Kels crying out in her sleep wakes me immediately.

“No!” She thrashes around in the bed. I snap on the lamp and turn to pull her into my arms. She fights me, clawing at my neck and face. I feel one of her nails sink into my skin and tear it, but I don’t care. She needs me. God, she hasn’t had a bad dream in weeks.

I know she had a rough session with Dr. Sherwin today, but I didn’t realize how bad it was. She was quiet and moody at dinner earlier tonight, but she was clearly not in the mood to talk about it. Maybe I should have forced her to do so.

“Kels, baby, it’s Harper. I got you,” I whisper in her ear, trying to keep my voice calm so I don’t further frighten her. “You’re safe. It’s all over. You’re home safe with me.” I try to comfort her, rocking her gently, holding her close. She grips my jersey tightly, whimpering. She’s breaking my heart. “Come on baby, wake up. You’re safe.”

“I killed him, Harper.” She cries into my chest, holding onto me for dear life.

“Shh, chér. Everything’s okay.”

She shakes her head against me. “No, it’s not. Do you know why I killed him?”

How do I answer a question like that? So I opt for remaining silent. Instead, I nuzzle her hair and murmur nonsense words.

“He told me he killed you.” She gasps for air as if struck, then buries her head back in against my neck. “He told me he cut your throat. I thought you were dead.”

Oh God, tell me I haven’t done this to her. I couldn’t live with that. “Kels…”

“I wanted revenge, Harper. I wanted him dead for what I thought he had done. My baby has a murderer for a mother.” Her sobs are almost uncontrollable now.

“Kels, honey…oh darlin’…” Shit! “You are not a murderer, sweetheart. You got out of there alive. You came back to me. I would have given anything for you to come back to me, Kels. I would have done anything. And I am so grateful for you walking out of there.” I press my lips to her temple, wishing I could take her pain away.

“But, what I did, Harper,” she protests.

“The only thing you did was come home to me.” I think I’m in way over my head. “Honey, I’m gonna call Dr. Sherwin. I really think you need to talk to her, okay?” I don’t know if it’s better to acknowledge that she killed the rat bastard – because I sure am glad she did – or if I should minimize what happened. I don’t want to hurt Kels anymore.

She nods against my skin, but I have to move away from her to get to the phone. I try to disengage, but she clutches at me. It takes me a few minutes to calm her down so I can slip out of bed and get to the phone.

I’m shocked when the doc actually picks up her own phone, but with what she charges per hour she should. “Doc, I’m awful sorry to wake you, but it’s Harper Kingsley. Kels is having a real rough night. I think she needs to talk to you.”

“Can you put her on, Harper?”

I look back at Kels, who is still crying, curled up into a ball. “No, I don’t think so. Can I bring her to you? I know it’s late and all, but … God, I’m really at a loss here.”

“I’ll come to you. I doubt if you could coax her outside at this point.” I hear her move about on her bed, turning on a light, shoving back the covers. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes. Stay with her and try to keep her calm.”

“All right.” I hang up the phone and return to Little Roo. “Chér, the doctor is on her way.” I reach out and stroke her arms. “Kels … Little Roo … please, come on, darlin’.” I wrap myself around her slowly so as not to frighten her more than she already is.

Kels is trembling and I can hear her apologizing over and over again. When I finally hear her words clearly, my heart breaks. She’s apologizing to our baby.

I want to cry with her, but instead I take a deep breath and tighten my hold on her. “It’s okay, darlin’. I promise it is.”

* * *

I’m sitting on the floor outside the bedroom, head back against the wall, eyes closed, praying and waiting. I should be sitting in the living room, relaxing on the couch, but I can’t bear to be that far away from Kels. Even though the door is closed. Dr. Sherwin has been with Kels for almost two hours. It’s quiet now but I’ve heard her crying in there and it’s killing me to sit here and listen.

Finally, the door opens and Dr. Sherwin steps out, closing the door behind her. I stare at it, wishing I had X-ray vision. It’s taking all my willpower to not run over the psychiatrist and go to my gal.

“I gave her something to help her sleep,” she says.

“The baby …”

She holds up her hands to stall my objection. “It’s perfectly safe for the baby, but Kelsey needed to rest. Is there some place we can talk? Someplace you might be more comfortable?”

I give an embarrassed shrug. “Absolutely. Would you like some coffee?” I push myself up and begin leading her through the apartment.

She nods, shouldering her bag. “That’d be great, thanks.”

Once seated in the kitchen, I merely stare at my coffee, watching the swirl of the milk as I stir it.

“It’s been very hard on her,” Sherwin finally says.

“I know.” For this insightful analysis the good doctor gets paid over two hundred dollars an hour.

“You’ve been a great help to her. A supportive partner is a Godsend after something like she suffered.”

I shrug, not wanting praise but inordinately relieved to hear I’ve been of help. “I love her. I didn’t know what else to do. I still don’t.”

“I have her permission to tell you a few things she’s been afraid to tell you. Would you like to hear them?”

No.

“Yes.” I look up at her. “Please.”

“It’s not pleasant by any means. If, after we talk tonight, you find yourself having trouble dealing with it, please come see me. The support you’ve given Kelsey is something she can’t afford to lose.” Dr. Sherwin gives me a level stare, evaluating whether I can handle this or not.

“Never. Especially not now with our baby coming.”

She smiles gently at me. “That was a very brave move on your part. Coincidentally, it was also one of the best things you could have given Kelsey. This baby is what’s keeping her focused on getting better.”

“Like I said, I love her. I would never deny her anything.”

“I can tell. So,” she takes a deep breath and a sip of her coffee, “let me tell you what happened.”

* * *

After Dr. Sherwin leaves, I promptly go to the bathroom and throw up. Listening to the things my Little Roo went through at the hand of that sick son of a bitch turned my stomach. I’m surprised I held it down until she left; it certainly wasn’t easy.

I hang my toothbrush back up and head into our bedroom. Kam’s head comes up from his spot at the foot of the bed where he has been keeping vigil over Kels. I motion for him to get off, which he does immediately. He makes his way over to his doggie bed in the corner where he curls into a tight ball, never once taking his gaze off Kelsey. Good, doggie.

When I climb under the covers, Kels is immediately in my arms despite the fact she is sound asleep. Glancing at the clock, I see I only have an hour before I have to get up and get ready for work. It’s been a rough night. I hope to hell I have a better day at work. I kiss the top of Kels head and close my eyes. “Love you, Little Roo.” My hand comes to rest over our baby. “You too, little one.”

* * *

Harper is in rare form this morning. Cracking jokes and being her normal, ornery self while we get ready for work. She doesn’t say a word about what happened last night. Not a word about the things the doctor told her.

As we’re about to head out the door, Harper sweeps me up in her arms, almost crushing me to her chest. “I love you, Kels. Nothing and no one can ever change that. I don’t give a rat’s ass about the past and our future is anything we want to make it. Got it?”

I smile and rub my thumb over her lower lip. “I got it. And you owe me a buck.”

“For ass?” she asks, incredulous.

“Two, now.”

“Ass is not a swear word. It’s a part of the anatomy. And it’s an animal.”

“Three,” I amend. “You were not referring to a donkey, Harper Lee Kingsley.”

“Yes, I was. Rats are known to have pet donkeys. You know, out in the wild.”

“Three dollars,” I repeat. “I should charge you an extra two dollars for such a pathetic attempt at justifying your swearing.”

She growls at me, but it doesn’t work. Like she could intimidate me at this point. She talks to my stomach on a daily basis. “You do realize you’re bankrupting me, don’t you?”

I kiss her chin. “It’s going to a good cause, sweetheart.”

“Our kid is gonna be able to afford Harvard, undergrad and med school.”

“I didn’t know we were having a doctor. When did this get decided?”

“Well, we have too many damn lawyers in the family already.” She grimaces. “Shit, I owe you four now.”

“Actually, five.”

It hits her what she just said. “I may have to take a vow of silence, Kels.”

“Well, at long as that’s the only thing you stop doing with your mouth.” I snuggle closer in her arms.

She laughs, her whole body shaking as she holds me. “Darlin’, I insist you put a dollar in for that comment. Even the baby could understand what you meant.”

* * *

I am sitting in my office, my mind wandering as it is wont to do lately. I’m slowly becoming a morning person like my partner. Harper and I have both been walking Kam in the Park before we leave for work. It’s becoming my favorite time of the day. We relax and play with Kam, enjoying the outdoors. And we talk. Lately it’s been focused around the baby and our upcoming wedding. We need to decide on the date for the ceremony before I really start showing. I’m already sweating the Peabody Awards ceremony. I just know that damn dress isn’t going to fit now.

My intercom buzzes and Brian pipes up. “Dr. Solomon’s office is on line two for you, boss.”

“Thanks, Brian.” I know what this call is about and I grin as I pick up the phone. “Good morning, doctor.”

“Good morning, Kelsey. I wanted to call and let you know I referred you to Dr. Kevin McGuire. He’s the absolute best Ob in the business: top of the line, young, energetic and knows all the newest techniques. I really think you’ll like him.”

“Great. When can I see him?”

“Just call his office and set it up. I didn’t want to make the appointment because I didn’t know how full your schedule was.”

“For my baby, I’d clear my schedule one way or another.”

I hear her chuckle. “That’s my girl. Congratulations to you again, Kelsey. Give my best to Harper.”

“I will. Thanks for everything, Dr. Solomon.”

“My pleasure. You make sure you keep us updated. We like to know the outcome of our work here.”

“I will.”

As soon as I hang up, I pull out my day planner and beep my better half via the computer. This system is sure a fun way to communicate.

KINGSLEY: You rang? <g>

STANTON: Glad I caught you. Do you have a minute?

KINGSLEY: For you, always. What’s up?

STANTON: I’m about the call the Ob and make an appointment. What’s your best day?

KINGSLEY: Thursday. I’m free most of the afternoon.

STANTON: Oh good. Thursday it is, I hope. I’ll let you know.

KINGLSEY: Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you, chér. <GBEG>

Of course, I know what she means by that. So now I get to tease her a bit.

STANTON: Speaking of that, I want to discuss something with you.

KINGSLEY: Really? What? Is everything all right?

STANTON: Later.

KINGSLEY: Kels?

I watch the screen and reach for the phone.

KINGSLEY: Little Roo?

I punch in the number of the new doctor’s office. The line starts ringing.

KINGSLEY: Honey?

A pleasant voice answers the phone, “McGuire, Nelson and Adams.”

KINGSLEY: Don’t make me come over there!

I hold back the chuckle. “Hi, I was referred by Dr. Solomon. I need to make an appointment with Dr. McGuire for my first pregnancy exam?”

“Okay. Your name?”

“Kelsey Stanton.” Hmmm wonder how Tabloid would feel about me taking Kingsley as my last name after the wedding?

KINGSLEY: I mean it woman! You’re in big trouble if you make me come over there.

Yeah, yeah, Tabloid. Save it for someone who will buy it.

“How far along are you, Mrs. Stanton.”

“It’s Ms. Stanton and about seven weeks.”

“Okay. How’s Wednesday?”

“I’m booked solid on Wednesday. Do you have anything on Thursday afternoon?”

“Actually, yes. How’s two-thirty?”

My door bangs open on cue. I look at her and smile innocently. “Hi, Hon. How’s Thursday at two thirty?”

* * *

The scripting meeting couldn’t be more boring if they had called Al Gore in to give a speech. Even with his new Alpha Male persona. This is the one part of my job that I hate.

I wonder what Harper is doing. Last time I saw her she was headed for the editing bays. She didn’t look happy. She’s been having a lot of trouble with one of the editors here on staff. I hope he is carrying plenty of long term disability insurance. I have a feeling I’m going to be doing some new voiceover work later in the day.

Larry isn’t here because he’s on assignment at the White House this week, so they’re splitting anchor time up between Sam and Bruce. Sam seems pretty pleased to be getting more face time. Bruce is pissed that he didn’t get the desk alone.

Surprisingly, he hasn’t even looked at me this morning. I noticed he had a very pained look on his face when he crossed his legs. Wonder if someone finally kicked him where it counts. Of course, the only person I know around here who’s crazy enough to do that is my girl, but I would have heard about it from Brian if she did it.

I feel a nudge to my right arm and look over at Kendra. I notice that everyone else is getting up from the conference table. Oops, missed the end of the meeting. Thank God.

“My, my, are we preoccupied with something?” She gives me a huge smile with just a hint of leer.

“No. Well, not really. I’m just wondering who has put Harper in such a pissy mood today. I saw her storming into the editing bay a little bit ago.”

“My guess would be Silverman then. None of the producers like his work.” She takes a drink of water. “She does have a temper, doesn’t she?”

“Oh yeah. That she does. Harper does not suffer fools gladly. But, luckily, she’s good about killing the culprit and not the messenger.” It’s true. She is fair.

“Congratulation on the Peabody, by the way.”

I sigh, nodding, thinking back to Omaha. “Thanks. That was a spooky one.”

Kendra leans forward, in her interviewing posture. “How big was the gun that was shoved in your face?”

I laugh and hold my hands far enough apart to hold a grapefruit. “I don’t know about the gun, but the barrel was about that big. I thought for sure that was it.” I smile when I remember it now, but I wasn’t smiling then. “The next thing I know, I can’t see and I’m on the ground with Harper covering me, telling me to hold still.”

She’s lost interest in the story and grabs my hand, pulling it closer for inspection. “Good Lord, woman! Where did that come from?”

I feel a huge smile overtake my face, remembering Harper’s proposal. “The Easter Bunny.”

“Harper?”

Silly question. “Looked like her. Sure kissed like her. I hope it was her.”

“You two set a date yet?”

“No,” I sigh, getting up and collecting my notes. “I’m having a little trouble nailing her down on that one. I know we’ll go back to New Orleans for the ceremony, to be with our family. But when? I have no idea.” I give her a grin. “But I’ll get it out of her one way or another. I have ways.”

Kendra actually blushes. “Well, congratulations again. You’re having a wonderful month, aren’t you?”

“You have no idea.”

* * *

I don’t know why these exam rooms make me so uncomfortable, but they do. Kels is lying on the table in a hospital gown that opens in the front. That’s the first thing that makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like sharing. She’s prepared for the exam she’s about to receive, although she not in the stirrups yet, thank God. Okay, that’s the second thing. I think the exam table looks like a medieval torture apparatus. And my girl is on it. Don’t like that at all.

I’m seated on a stool next to Kels. To keep myself calm, I hold one of her hands in mine, gently massaging it. She tugs on it, bringing my attention to her.

“What’s wrong, Harper?”

“Nothing’s wrong, sweetheart. These rooms make me a little sick at my stomach, that’s all.” Maybe it’s the smell of all the antiseptic. Yeah, that must be it.

“Ooo, Tabloid, don’t say that loud enough for Baby Roo to hear you.” She looks up at me with a smile, trying to snap me out of my mood.

“Sorry.” I lean over and separate the folds of Kels’ hospital gown, placing my lips on her bare belly. “You didn’t hear that.”

She swats at my head. “Come up here, you.”

I sit back up, glad to make her laugh. “I was trying to be helpful.”

“You were being silly.”

I shrug. My right as a parent-to-be.

The door opens and an orderly enters. I wonder where Dr. McGuire is. We’ve been waiting almost fifteen minutes already. I suppose the kid will tell us what’s going on.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Stanton. I’m Dr. Kevin McGuire.”

Oh, this had better be a joke. He can’t be more than twelve. My God, he’s barely been walking for a couple years and he can’t have hit puberty yet. I stare at his jaw. He doesn’t even shave, I bet.

There is no fucking way he’s gonna be Kels and my kid’s doctor. No way, no how.

Am I in some Doogie Howser alternative universe?

The little boy takes a seat on the other side of Kels. He looks up from his file and smiles at me. “You must be Harper Kingsley.”

I nod, tightening my grip on Kels’ hand. How can I politely gather up my best gal and get out of here? I’m gonna kill Dr. Solomon too.

“Easy,” Kels whispers loosening my grasp on her hand.

I look to Kels and then to the so-called doctor.

He leans back and spreads his hands, seeming to know I am about to break us out of here. “Okay, I know, I look young.”

I snort. “You look twelve. No offense.” I lie.

“None taken. Trust me, I’m a doctor.” He laughs at the phrase, recognizing it for the pickup line that it is.

I am not amused. No comedians around my gal.

He composes himself. “Sorry. Look, I’m a doctor and I am thirty-three years old. I have the driver’s license to prove it too. All the men in my family have a real baby face. I assure you, though, that I graduated the top in my class at Harvard and am board certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology. I’ve delivered hundreds of babies and I am fully qualified.” He winks at Kels and looks at me.

I take a deep breath. Maybe he’ll be okay.

He must sense my giving in, because he gives the pitch that clinches it for me. “I assure you both that I have nothing but the best interests of this family and its newest member in mind.”

Family. He recognizes that’s what we are. Maybe that’s why Dr. Solomon sent us to the kid. I look to Kels and give a nod. “Okay.” I say finally. We’ll see how the first appointment goes. One wrong step, one look of confusion and we’re so out of here.

The tension in the room drops slightly and he comes back closer to Kelsey. “So, you want to have a baby, huh?”

Kels laughs a little. “Absolutely.”

“Well, good, because your blood work told me you’re pregnant. Now let’s make sure.”

He moves down to the end of the table and without breaking eye contact with either Kels or I, he positions her for the physical exam. “Kelsey, I need you to scoot down just a bit.” She does so and he smiles at me. “There you go, that’s good. So how long have you two been trying for a baby?” He asks this as he begins his exam. I suspect it’s meant as distraction, but I am grateful for it.

“We got lucky the first time we tried. I went in for a IUI and got pregnant.”

“You were fortunate. There’s normally only a twenty-five percent success rate with just one procedure.” He finishes his exam and gently helps her legs out of the stirrups.

Okay, I might be able to like this guy. He’s friendly, supportive and he doesn’t gawk at my girl when he has he in a compromising situation.

Stripping off the latex gloves he trashes them and washes his hands in the sink. He makes a note in to chart. “You’re definitely pregnant.” He grins retaking his seat. He looks at her file again. “Okay, so the biological father was a donor from your family, right, Harper?”

“Yes. One of my brothers but we don’t know which one.” Okay, a bit of a stretch there, but that’s between me and the clinic.

“Good. I noticed we had a pretty complete medical history on your side. That’s good. However,” he pauses and looks over at Kels, “on your side I see we’re not as lucky.”

“No. I’m estranged from my parents and I don’t have a lot of that information.”

“Okay. That’s not a huge problem and I like a challenge.” He winks at her again.

Normally, I would kill someone for that, but I can tell he’s doing it to be friendly and keep Kels relaxed. So he lives. For now.

“Kelsey, you’re thirty-two and will be thirty-three by the time the baby arrives, right?”

“Yes.”

“All right, now most pregnancies for women over thirty-five are considered high risk. Because you’re close to thirty-five and we have no medical history for your side of the family, I’m inclined to put you in a high risk category. I want to make sure we’re all ready when this baby comes.”

Kels gives me a very nervous look. “It’s okay…” I whisper, hoping to God it is.

“Oh, yeah, Kelsey, it’s fine.” He gives her shoulder a pat. “A higher risk notation in the chart doesn’t mean anything except that the hospital will be completely ready for you when you go into labor. I’m guessing this is going to be a very happy, healthy, easy pregnancy.” He reaches over to a table and retrieves a small tape measurer. He measures Kels stomach in a couple different directions. “Having any early symptoms yet?”

“My breasts are really tender and the morning sickness is just…oh God…” Kels cringes. “And I’m always in the bathroom.”

He nods, making a note in the chart. “Definitely pregnant. Harper, how are you handling the morning sickness, if you don’t mind my asking? I keep track of partners’ reactions to pregnancy as part of a study I’m doing.”

“Well, I’m getting kinda tired of throwing up in the morning myself.”

He leans against the counter and shakes his head at me. “You are involved, aren’t you? I’ve found that lesbian partners tend to make a stronger connection to their mate during the pregnancy. Going so far that they even feel a lot of the same things.” He smirks. “I’m guessing you’re gonna hate the backaches.”

I give Kels my sweetest look. “Sweetie, I love ya, but I can’t do back problems. Throwing up is a bitch as it is.” I pause and shake my head. I pull out a dollar out of my wallet and hand it to her. “Sorry, babe.”

She takes it from me but is at a loss for where to put it. She’s kinda out of pockets at this point. “That’s okay, I understand.”

“I’m not even gonna ask about the dollar.” Doogie … er … Dr. McGuire chuckles as he pulls a machine over next to Kels. “So would you like to have a look at your baby?”

“Yes!” Kels is quick with that answer and the smile on her face is priceless. He looks to me. “How bout you, Mom?”

“Mama,” I correct without even thinking about it. “And you bet.”

He turns on the device. “This is an ultrasound machine. It’s going to give us pictures of the baby. I’ll make sure you each get a couple of copies so you can show them off and put them in a baby book, if you’ve started one.” He picks up a bottle of gel. “Kelsey, this procedure isn’t going to hurt you or the baby, but the gel is really cold.”

He emphasizes the ‘really’ in his comment before he applies it to her stomach. It must be cold because she jumps a few inches off the table at first contact.

“What’s in that stuff? Liquid nitrogen?” She squirms a little.

“Could be. But never say I didn’t warn you. Now let’s see what we got here.” He takes the wand in his hand and slowly begins a path over Kels’ stomach. He looks at a monitor which is displaying an area filled with little spots that look like a really bad weather report.

“Hmm,” he murmurs. “Let’s start the grand tour.” He moves the wand and points to a patch. “There’s the placenta. Looks like it’s properly positioned and receiving plenty of nutrients from Mom here.” He moves the device again and points to another patch of cells. “And here’s the placenta.”

That’s a damn big placenta. Where’s our kid?

“I should tell you that ordinarily two placentas can only mean one thing.”

Oh my God.

“How do you two feel about twins?”

“Twins?” Kels’ eyes are the size of saucers when she looks to me.

“Yeah. Fraternal twins,” he confirms.

“Let me understand,” I manage to stammer, “are you asking how we feel about twins in the abstract or in the here and now? Perhaps meaning to imply that we’re having them.”

He points to the monitor. “As in, here’s baby number one.” He points to the first little spot. He moves his finger to the right just a bit. “And here’s baby number two.”

“Holy shit!” I hand Kels another dollar. “You did good, baby. Real good.” I lean over and give her a kiss, which she returns with a great amount of affection.

Doogie clears his throat interrupting us. “Doctor working here. Besides, you guys are already pregnant. No reason to keep trying.”

I refrain from explaining biology to him. I’m too happy at the moment. I brush back Kels’ hair from her eyes. “We’re having twins, Little Roo. No wonder we’ve been throwing up so much.”

“Oh yeah.” Doogie confirms. “Kelsey, you’ll find that with twins everything will be more intense.” He continues to scan and watch the monitor. “Okay, look at this.” He removes a pointer from his pocket and points to a small spot on one baby and then the other. “See those little flutters? Those are your babies’ hearts beating. Looks like good, strong heartbeats from both of your little ones. Everything here looks really good. At this stage, you have two perfect babies.”

“Of course we do.” I steal another kiss. “Look at their mother.”

He chuckles indulgently. “I’d say they’re pretty lucky to have you both.” He prints out four pictures and hands them to Kels. “There you go. Enjoy those.”

I watch as he cleans the gel off Kels’ belly and closes the gown. He retrieves the file from the nearby counter and writes down a few more notes. “If Kelsey wasn’t high risk before, she is now because all multiple pregnancies are considered high risk. Once again, that doesn’t mean you’re not going to have a healthy, happy pregnancy. It just means we will be extra-ready for the two new additions to your family.” He becomes the most serious I’ve seen since he walked through the door. “Okay, Mom, here’s the deal. Twins are going to be a lot more taxing on your body. I’m going to put you on a special diet. I’m also going to want to see you more often than I would if you were only having one baby. Any problems there?”

“Absolutely not,” Kels replies quickly, but then says, “Doctor, my job requires I travel a lot. Is that a problem?”

He sighs a bit. “No. But, if you can, you need to arrange your travel schedule so as to allow you to get plenty of rest. If you can’t do that, you may want to look at other options.”

He closes the folder, tapping it against Kels’ leg. “Go ahead and get dressed. I’ll have my nurse get together some information for you and set up your next appointment. I’m also going to give you something for the morning sickness.” He smiles at me. “I’ll make the scrip big enough so you can take them too, if you want.”

With one last wink he leaves us alone. I like Doogie. I think we’ll keep him.

* * *

I think Harper may be on crack.

She has been fairly bouncing since we left the doctor’s office. If I’m Little Roo, she’s acting like Tigger right now. Not that I’d ever say that to her.

She finishes up her call to the office. “It’s official. We’re playing hookey.”

“And what are we going to do?” I inquire, reaching out for her hand. If she keeps bouncing, I’m going to be sick.

“Celebrate! My God, baby, twins!” She picks me up and spins me around on the street, laughing. “I am so proud of you!”

I shake my head. I am in love with a strong three-year old. “Sweetheart, I don’t think I had much to do with it.”

“Not much to do with it?” She rubs my belly. “You did it all!” She drops to her knees and starts talking to my stomach. “Well, you two had a little to do with it too.”

“Harper,” I whisper, turning twelve shades of red on the sidewalk. I glance at the few people who are looking at us strangely. “Sweetheart, we are in public.”

She scowls and climbs to her feet. “Fine, fine. Let’s go home where we can celebrate in private.” She leans close and whispers in my ear, her breath hot but still managing to send chills down my spine. “And I do mean celebrate.”

* * *

Several hours later, we’re lying tangled together on the bed. If I ever had any doubts about how Harper feels about having children together, I don’t have them now. No one can fake this much happiness. I know. I used to try.

But not any longer.

I don’t know what I did right to have her in my life, but I’ll keep her.

She kisses my stomach where her head is resting. “I hope we didn’t jostle you two little guys around too much.”

I laugh and her head bounces a couple times.

She lifts it up and stares at me. “Stop it. Be a good pillow,” she chastises. “Where was I? Now, I want you two to be good and stop making your Mommy throw up all the time. It’s not very nice. And it makes your Mama very upset. And that’s never a good thing.”

I have to agree. “It is never a good thing to tick off your Mama, that’s for sure.”

“Mama!” Harper repeats, pushing herself up immediately. “We need to call Mama and Papa about the babies!” She leans down and whispers. “We’re about to call your Grandmere. She’s a bossy woman, but we love her.” Stretching across my body, she grabs the phone off the nightstand.

I cop a feel.

“Hey!” she squeaks and rolls back, nearly dropping the phone. “Play fair!” She moves back to her prior position. “You really don’t want to start that type of fight with me right now.” She punches in the automatic speed dial. “But, before we call your Grandmere, we’re going to call your uncle.”

I wonder which one she means. Oh hell, I know. Of course it’s Robie. Who else could it be?

When he answers the phone, Harper begins singing. “Anything you can do, I can do better.”

Kids. I have three of them.

* * *

“I really like the way this piece finally came together.”

I smile at the strain behind the word ‘finally’ from Tabloid as she slips the tape into the machine. It sounds exactly like the tone I hear when I’ve been teasing her for longer than I should in other matters. Oh, don’t go there, Kels. It wouldn’t be good for someone to walk into this editing bay and find you pinning your producer against the wall and …

Arrgggh! Do not go there, Kels.

Think cold.

Ice cream. Cold showers. Blizzards. Your mother.

Okay, that did it. In fact, I think I have frostbite on my ass. Back to work. “It did come out well. I’m amazed.”

She crosses her arms and continues to watch the tape. “Good news is we’ve only got to do a minor adjustment in your voiceover work. I think we can do that by overlaying it again at a different point.”

“Hmm, so what you’re saying is you don’t need me and I can take the rest of the day off?” It’s a hint and she knows it.

I want out of here so I can get to the jewelers. She makes setting up surprises for her so damn difficult it’s not even funny.

Harper snorts. “Yeah, get a grip. We’ve still got to do the reverses so we can get the story on the cults wrapped.”

Okay, that’s a no. “That was a fun piece. I enjoyed working on it. And I learned a lot.”

She rolls her eyes. “Uh huh.”

I give her a swat on the arm. “What? I did learn a lot.”

“Are you and Brian still seeing Madam What’s Her Name?”

“Not quite.” That little woman terrifies me. She’s got a direct feed from somewhere in the universe I’ve never been. I take a seat in the corner of the desk and watch the tape roll through our story. “I go see her and Brian uses it as an excuse to go see Doug.”

“You’re playing matchmaker.”

“I am not! How can you say such a thing?”

“It’s true.” Harper reaches over, advancing the cue on the tape a bit. “You’re getting as bad as Mama. Is that what she teaches you in that kitchen of hers?”

“Oh, sweetheart, you really don’t want to know what kind of things we talk about in the kitchen.” I think back to our bed at home.

The door bangs open and Langston steps in. He has a thick file in his hands. “I just got a look at the story board. Looks like the dynamic duo have finished up all their assignments early.” He looks back and forth between us.

Like we’re gonna argue with him. He wants to call us the dynamic duo, I’m gonna let him. Better than the Wonder Twins. He’s being snide, so basically I ignore him.

Harper straightens and gives him a professional smile. “We’re getting ready to wrap the last one this afternoon. We’re trying to decide if Kels need to do another voiceover for this piece first. All the kickers are done as well.”

I chuckle. I’ve become the queen of the touchy-feelies around here. I’ll bet I’ve canned fifteen pieces for the end of the show in the last two weeks. Gotta love those soft, feel good endings. I know I sure do.

Especially, Harper’s soft, feel-good ending.

Kelsey Diane Stanton, behave yourself!

I chuckle again.

Langston shoots me his best Executive Producer look. Buddy, I live with Harper Kingsley. You think that’s gonna work on me? Try again. “All right. Here’s the next thing you can sink your teeth into.” He slaps the file into Harper’s hands. “You’re my only clear team at the moment which means you buy it.”

“We’re on it,” she announces proudly, giving me a little wink.

“Good. It’s a hot issue. I’m sure you’ll like that aspect of it.”

“No briefing?” Harper inquires as he turns to leave.

Slowly, he faces her. “Read the file, Kingsley.” Then he glances at me. “Or have the Talent read it to you.”

With that little jibe he leaves us alone. “Prick,” I mumble.

Harper digs into her wallet and hands me two dollars. “That one is on me. I was thinking the same thing.”

* * *

Brian brings us the file and the copy I asked him to make. Harper and I are ensconced in my office about to go through the file and see what the new challenge is. “I was wondering,” Brian begins, not quite able to meet my eyes. My God, he looks shy. Who would have thought it possible? “Can I take a half day off on Friday? Doug asked me up to his place for the weekend and I want to try to beat rush hour out of the city.”

“Absolutely.” I lean back in my chair and enjoy this moment. “But you must promise to get Kam one of those rawhides he likes so much. He goes through those things like candy.”

“Consider it done. Thanks, boss.” He leaves Harper and I to work. When he’s gone I hear her humming “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” from “Fiddler on the Roof”. I throw a ball point pen at her which she blocks with the file.

“Oh, that’s a real good example for the twins, Little Roo. Teach ‘em how to put someone’s eye out. Put a buck in the jar for that.”

“They hear, Tabloid, but they can’t see out. My skin is in the way. So it doesn’t count.”

“Oh right! But you didn’t buy my rat’s a…” She stops and sticks out her tongue at me. “You didn’t get me that time.”

“See, it’s working. There’s hope for you yet.” I get up and go pour her a cup of coffee and retrieve a bottle of juice for me from the fridge. I gather up my copy of the file and join her on the couch. I make sure to keep a safe distance from her, but only because we’re working and I’ve been in such a mood lately.

I’m still trying to figure that one out. I know my libido will increase during the second trimester. But, no one said anything about the first. So far she’s not begging for mercy, but I have a feeling we’re just getting started.

“This is amazing,” she mumbles past her coffee cup.

Oh yeah, the story.

I look at the file and read the briefing notes. It takes a minute for it to sink in. I look to my partner. “This is a joke, right?”

She shakes her head. “Nope. GeoTech want to store nuclear waste on Native American reservations.”

* * *

I know I should let her sleep. I know I should let her sleep.

This is my new mantra.

Harper went to work early yesterday morning and didn’t get in until very late last night. Sometimes she gets engrossed in a story. And this one about the Navajo Nation’s woes looks to be a good one. I think she smells another Peabody.

She looks positively exhausted. For her to sleep through the twins early morning wake up call to me, she’s past exhausted.

The twins. We’re having twins. We made two little babies.

Ooo, making babies. That’s fun.

I should really let her sleep.

But I have a great, big, old problem.

I could try a very cold shower. Of course, I just got out of the shower. And it didn’t help. All that happened was I stepped out of it even more consumed by lust than when I stepped in it.

It is Saturday. She could go back to sleep after.

It doesn’t help that she’s laying in our bed, naked with the sheet pooled around her waist and her chest bare and just begging for an inspection. A very hands on inspection.

She’s practically inviting me to touch her.

No, I should let her sleep. She’s tired. She’s been working hard. Too hard. And she has to leave for New Mexico early Monday morning. She never takes care of herself on the road. If she doesn’t get her rest now, she won’t get it until we’re together again.

I look down at Kam. “I should let her sleep, huh?”

My faithful companion lowers his head and brings a paw up to cover his face. I swear he understands every word. I watch as he moves to lay down out in the hall where he is always relegated when Harper and I make love.

Well, that’s obviously one vote for not letting her sleep.

Smart doggie.

I move to the bed and lean over, my lips close to her ear. “Harper?” She groans a bit and shifts, the sheet falling a bit lower.

Oh God.

I scratch my neck. I should let her sleep. “Harper? Honey? Are you awake?”

She mumbles something that sounds like ‘no’ and rolls over onto her stomach, obstructing my view.

Well, hell’s bells. You know, she friggen woke me up to take the dog roller blading the other weekend. What I want to do would be a hell of a lot more fun than that.

Okay, what are my options here? I can take another cold shower and try to get some work done. I have some script revisions I could do.

I could take matters into my own hands. Now there’s a stupid suggestion. Scratch that. If I don’t get Harper, it isn’t happening.

She groans and snuggles down into the mattress. This does nothing for this battle I’m having. Jesus, Kels, get a grip and let the poor woman sleep. You’re horny. She’s tired. You’ll both survive.

I can’t believe I’m still standing here staring at her like she’s a piece of meat. I should be ashamed of myself for half the things I’m thinking about doing to her.

She shifts again, groaning and scratching at the sheets a bit. I think she’s looking for me. Either that or she’s dreaming about petting the dog. I certainly am hoping it’s not the latter.

You know, it couldn’t hurt to lay down next to her. I can maybe wake her up with a nice massage and see what happens from there. I’ll be able to tell if she’s too tired and I can stop.

Oh, yeah, smell what you’re shoveling, Kels. Phew.

I glance at Kam outside the door and he bestows me with a ‘get on with it because the floor is hard and I want to get back in my own bed’ look. Taking pity on Kam – I’ve always been an animal lover – I drag his bed into the hall and close the door. He won’t be coming in here any time soon.

I slide under the covers and snuggle in against her back, laying half on top of her. I reach around her to run my hand down her arm and lace our fingers together under her pillow. Kissing between her shoulder blades gently, I whisper, “Harper?”

“Hmm?” she groans, lifting her head slightly.

“I would very much like to do things to your body that would scare a normal human being.”

She stops breathing. Yup, I got her attention now. She opens one eye in my direction. “Such as?” She sounds amused, almost disbelieving.

“Well,” I move over and straddle her hips, lowering myself down on her lower back. That alone should make my intentions clear. I bend over and whisper in her ear. “I say we start with a massage. Am I too heavy?”

“Yes and no,” she groans, releasing my hand and resting her head on her folded hands. I reach for a jar of hand cream that I keep next to the bed and begin warming it in my hands before applying it to her back. When I do, I’m rewarded with a long, happy groan.

“So,” her voice sounds gravely and tight, very sexy, “where do we go from here?”

“Anywhere you want, lover.” I lean in close to her ear after I undo my robe and toss it from the bed. “I will do anything you want. I’m back here all naked and willing.”

“Oh God!” She buries her face in the mattress.

“Or,” I give her earlobe a little nip. “Would you like me to drive this morning?”

“Oh, that sounds nice.”

I am a bit surprised. I don’t get to do this very often, knowing Harper likes to be in control. Occasionally you have to take the bull by the horns, though, so to speak. “Then roll over.”

I lift up just enough to allow her to turn over onto her back. She is stretched out luxuriously beneath me, her eyes closed and a lazy smile etched on her lips. I lean over again, rubbing myself against her navel ring and bringing our torsos in contact. Oh God, that’s nice. Taking her hands, I wrap them around the spindle working of the bed. “Hold on and don’t let go. If you do, I’ll stop. Do you understand?”

She nods, swallows hard and grunts something out that sounds like agreement.

“Good.” I begin a very slow trail of tiny kisses down her body, starting on her forehead, making sure to cover her eyes and nose and chin. After that I move to her neck and start a campaign of small bites and nibbles designed to arouse and not leave a mark.

“Oh God, Kels.” I feel her body tighten under my hands, including both nipples that are more than begging for my attention at this point. I don’t disappoint them. The feeling of her body arching into mine is wonderful as I move back and forth between her breasts, enjoying them immensely. Colonel Sanders has nothing on these. I stretch out, my body covering hers, our legs entwining, drawing us closer together.

I lift my head for a long, deep kiss. I allow one hand to remain on a breast as the other takes a long slow tour of her skin, quickly becoming warm and damp with perspiration. Oh lover, it’s gonna be a long, sweaty day.

I take control of the kiss, even as my wandering hand finds it mark and works itself between our bodies. I feel her hips buck, urging me to give her more than the soft gentle stroking she is receiving right now.

“Kelsey Diane,” she growls at me after our kiss ends. She never calls me that unless I’m in trouble. “Stop teasing me.”

“But,” I give her earlobe another little bite, “that’s exactly what intend to do. All day, in a multitude of places and in a variety of positions.”

It’s a very satisfied growl I hear this time. Then a major gasp as I take serious control and give her exactly what she wants. Then I begin whispering a series of comments in her ear. Telling her exactly how much I enjoy what I’m doing to her and how badly she needs me to do it. She nods her agreement. She still hasn’t let go of the bed. Damn she’s good.

I can feel her body beginning to quake and shudder, so I slow my attentions. This earns me a frustrated moan our neighbors two floors down can hear. “Kels!”

“Ah, ah, ah, I’m driving and I intend to take the long, scenic route,” I remind her.

“Sunday driver,” she mutters, tightening her grip on the headboard.

* * *

I run the glass across my forehead hoping its sweat will cool my very overheated skin. I am sitting here on the couch trying to catch my breath while Kels is in the kitchen trying to find us some real food to munch on. I’ve been her smorgasbord since about eight a.m., but I’m not complaining.

God, who knew? Apparently my Little Roo also jumped ahead a little in that baby book. Note to self: buy a copy of the Kama Sutra tomorrow and see what that gets me. Other than hospitalized.

I’m not even bothering to close my robe because I just get into trouble every time I try. I finally got her to agree that I could have it on at least. I was getting cold. Damn, she can be demanding. I think I may have strained my calf muscle in the family room about two hours ago. Hell, you hold a position like that for too long, you’re bound to hurt something.

I think we scared the fish in the tank in the living room too. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen the dog since I was given a reprieve long enough to walk him. It was the fastest walk of his young life. Kels threatened me if I didn’t get back quickly. Poor Kam only got to hike his leg up once and then come right back in. Didn’t even get to sniff the light pole.

Looking up, I find her smiling at me from the doorway. She’s holding a tray of food, but looking at me like I’m the last meal she’s ever gonna consume. Her eyes never leave mine during her approach. She places the tray on the couch by my right hand and then kneels between my legs. “Aren’t you gonna eat?” The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them. That was a stupid comment given our morning’s activities.

Kels chuckles and bites me gently on the upper right thigh. “That’s for you.” She gestures toward the tray. “This is for me.” She gestures to me.

Oh, God.

Episode Thirteen: Reservations
I am heading toward Cuba.

Not Fidel’s Cuba and not on a story about Elián Gonzalez. The world does not need another story about that poor, little boy.

Nope, I’m headed toward Cuba, New Mexico.

Which, according to the map I have unfolded across the dashboard is eighty miles to the north and slightly west of Albuquerque. Approximately ten miles south of Cuba is the Coyote Lake Navajo Indian Reservation and the locale for our next story.

Encompassing thirty-five square miles, the reservation is the home to approximately sixty members of the Navajo Nation, with another one hundred who live in nearby Cuba. Most of those moved off the reservation for work and educational opportunities for their kids. Although Cuba is no bustling metropolis, its economy is in better shape than the reservation’s.

It’s for that very reason I’m headed there.

Geo-Tech has made the tribe an offer which has proven too good to turn down. Geo-Tech is one of the largest alternative energy companies in the United States, headquartered in Denver and with a presence throughout the entire Southwest. Its primary focus is nuclear energy and it runs several such power plants in Arizona, Nevada and Utah. While people like its relative inexpensiveness, no one wants the waste it generates. Seems no one is desperate enough to accept the large financial incentive to store the used rods except the Coyote Lake tribe.

This has led to claims of environmental racism. I’m here to try to sort this whole mess out and see what the story is.

I miss Kels already.

She was insatiable Saturday. God, I don’t know what got into her. Whatever it was, I like it. A lot. I just gotta remember to drink more fluids.

Oh, don’t go there, Harper. It’s gonna be a long week as it is. I hate being away from her and our babies.

Babies. Twins.

Wow.

Two of everything. Two first smiles. Two first steps. Two first words. Two first dates. And two first kisses.

Oh, Lord, please don’t let me have two daughters. I don’t know if my poor heart can stand it. Two boys would be more my speed. I could handle them. I understand them. I mean, really, what’s there to understand?

But then I’d miss getting to see a little one who reminds me of Kels. I want a little towheaded, green-eyed girl. That way one day some lucky girl – or boy –will get to feel about her the way I feel about her mother.

At least my swearing will fund both of their college educations.

* * *

The phone rings again in my ear. I glance over at the picture on my desk. “Miss you, Tabloid. Throwing up just isn’t the same without you.”

“Hill.”

I clear my throat and take a deep breath. “Beth, it’s Kels.”

“Well, hello, stranger! I’ve been wondering if you were ever gonna get around to giving me a call.”

“I’ve been so busy. You aren’t even going to believe it.” Now there’s an understatement. I have a feeling my dear friend it going to have a stroke when she hears why I’m calling her. I can tell by the tone in her voice it’s not for what she’s thinking it is.

“Yeah, actually, I would. I know how it is getting settled into a new job. The move from the coast must have been a real bitch.”

I smile, thinking about how nasty it would have been if Harper hadn’t been with me. I don’t think I would have taken the job if it had meant leaving her. “No, it was really nice to get out of L.A. The job came at a time when I really needed it.”

“I know, sweetheart. Everything okay now?”

I actually pull back the phone and stare at it. No everything is not ‘okay’ now. You don’t get over some like this as if it were the flu. Returning the phone to my ear I draw a deep breath. “I’m getting through it. Listen I need to make an appointment…”

“No, you don’t. Just tell me where you want me to take you to dinner.” Was Beth always this aggressive?

“No, Beth, this is a professional call.” There won’t be any more personal calls. “I need to change my will and set up some new trusts.”

A slight, surprised pause. “We can talk about it over dinner.”

“No. No, Beth, we can’t. There have been some serious changes in my life and, well, we aren’t going to be able to see each other any more.”

A definite surprised pause now. “Well, that is serious.”

“In fact, I’m getting married and I’m pregnant.” May as well tell her everything. It’ll help strengthen my argument for why we won’t be meeting together any more.

“Jesus Christ!” Beth explodes. “Kelsey, what in the hell…”

I wonder how well she would handle a swear jar. I bet, not as well as Harper. “Beth, don’t yell.”

“Sorry.” Her voice drops a bit. “What in the hell happened? Married? Pregnant? To whom and when are you due?”

“Harper Kingsley and December 14th.”

“Harper Kingsley? The Harper Kingsley whose name you didn’t want me to even mention? Damn, Kels, the last time I saw you…”

“Yeah,” I interrupt. I don’t want to hear about my past. There’s too much pain there. I want to focus on the future. My future with Harper. “I know but things change. I’m in love, Beth. Be happy for me.”

“I am, sweetheart.” Beth takes a deep breath and I can hear her shuffle some papers on her desk. “I am a little shocked. I guess I never saw you settling down with anyone. And I most certainly never pictured you having children.” She clears her throat and I can tell the next thing she’s planning on saying must be awkward. I know Beth though. She’ll go ahead and say it. We’ve never held much back from one another. “What happened? Did you get pregnant when that guy…”

“Do the math, Beth. If I’m due in December, it didn’t happen until March. So I wasn’t raped.” Thank God for that. “This was a planned pregnancy.”

“Well, good. Okay, now that my initial shock is over, why don’t we go out to dinner? As friends,” she amends quickly. “And we can talk over the changes you want done.”

The thought of going out with Beth doesn’t thrill me. I don’t want to risk someone seeing us and Harper getting an erroneous report about what was going on. Not that Harper doesn’t trust me, but why give her a reason to have to? “Hmm, I’m really swamped at work right now. The show keeps me extremely busy. Harper and I are getting started on a new story and I need to do a lot of research here right now.”

“I could come to your place,” Beth offers.

Oh no! No way, no how, am I letting her come to our home without Harper being there. “Tell you what, it’s easier to catch me at the office.”

“All right then. How’s tomorrow around two?”

“Works for me.”

“I’ll see you then.” I drop the receiver back onto the cradle. I rest my arms and head on my desk, staring at my picture with Harper. “Boy, do I miss you. Why don’t you give me a call? I’ll even put the phone on my stomach so you can talk to the babies.”

* * *

I climb out of the Blazer and stretch my legs. Flying eight hours to Albuquerque – three and half to Dallas, one and a half to Albuquerque, one hour layover and a two hour time change – and driving another hour sure makes them hurt. Even First Class doesn’t take the sting out of the trip. I walk around for a few minutes and take in a deep breath of New Mexico air. Fresh, unlike the air found in my new hometown, and flavored with more than a hint of pine. There are lots of evergreen trees around here, surprising me. I’d always pictured New Mexico as a desert. Seeing how I’m at an elevation of over seven thousand feet and surrounded by National Forests, I guess I was wrong.

I approach a small building by the roadside. It’s labeled “Navajo Cultural Center” and it is my entry point onto the reservation. A young woman is waiting for me out on the porch, I assume it’s Cora Bingil, the tribal spokesperson, whom I spoke to while flying out here. She pushes herself away from the beam she was leaning against and runs her hands over her jeans. She’s about Kelsey’s height, but has a fuller build, not heavy, just solid. Her long black hair is braided simply down her back. She is wearing blue jeans, a flannel shirt and a leather jacket. She smiles broadly and extends her hand to me. “Harper Kingsley?”

I take her hand. She has a firm grip and a strong shake. I like her. Nothing worse than dead fish handshakes, especially from women. “That’s right. Pleasure to meet you, Ms. Bingil.”

She laughs, her voice low. “That is much too formal. I am Cora. Welcome to our home. I trust you had no problem finding us.”

“Not at all. Your directions were very easy to follow. I appreciate your willingness to meet with me.” I only called her on Sunday afternoon, seeing how Kels kept me quite occupied on Saturday. All day.

“Meet with you? We want you to live here, Harper. We want anyone who is willing to learn and tell our side of this tragedy.”

I nod. “That’s what I’m here to do. I want to know everything about what’s been going on with the storage issue.”

She motions toward the sky. “Sun will set soon. Why don’t we take a quick tour and I’ll fill you in the background?”

“Sounds great. Do you want to take my Blazer?”

Cora shakes her head. “No. I bet my truck has better shocks. Or at least ones that are used to our land.” She points to a parking area behind the building. “You can park over there.”

Damn, I hate not driving.

* * *

Cora’s pickup is a battered ‘83 Ford filled with more dust than upholstery. She doesn’t seem to notice it, but I bet my black jeans will be brown by the time I get out. I guess the desert relocated to her truck, that’s why there’s none outside.

The truck rumbles to life and we start down a paved road into the heart of the reservation. “Our reservation is home to sixty Navajo, representing six of the clans; there are about a hundred of our nation living in the surrounding areas.”

“Clans?” I echo.

“The Diné are organized into clans based on the four original ones born to Changing Woman.” At my confused expression, she backs up. “We don’t refer to ourselves as Navajo. We are simply the Diné, the people. Clans are one of the most important aspects of our nation’s life. We are taught that Changing Woman believed there should be more people in the world so she rubbed some skin from her breast, her back and from under both arms. From each of those rubbings came one of the first four clans. Today there are over eighty clans in our Nation. They help us identify one another and maintain important relations.”

“What clan are you?”

“Let me qualify that the Navajo Nation follows a matriarchal lineage, much like, I believe, the Jewish people. So, the clan name I give is my mother’s clan, but it is said that I was born for my father’s clan. So, I am of the Bít’ahnii clan, which means the Folding Arms People, and I was born for the Tótsóhnii – or the Big Water – clan.”

“Interesting.” I remember that the votes were divided between those who live on the reservation and those who live in the nearby town. “Do those of your clan,” I struggle to remember how she pronounced it, “the Bítalani, oppose the waste storage?”

She smiles. “Very good for a non-Diné. It’s Bít’ahnii. And, yes, my family is against this desecration.”

“Are the clans divided by the issue? Is that part of the problem?”

Cora sighs. “Unfortunately, yes. It is stirring up a lot of bad blood and sometimes I worry about what will happen.”

“Do you think violence will take place?”

“Violence to our spirit. But, not, I believe, to our bodies.” We drive past several crumbling houses as we drive further out along the road. Cora must see me looking at them because she offers an explanation. “Those are hogans, our traditional homes.”

“You don’t have tornadoes here, do you?”

“No, why do you -” she catches herself. “You’re wondering why they’re falling down. Those were abandoned by their families, most likely because someone died in them. The Diné won’t live in a home touched by death that way. When a member of our nation dies, their personal possessions are burned. If they die in the house, the house is left to decay.”

“So where do people die?”

Cora smiles indulgently. “At a hospital. Just like your people.”

I shake my head. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound like an ass. Just happens sometimes.” I sigh. “At least, that’s what my future wife tells me.”

* * *

I told Brian I was expecting my attorney so he is quick to show Beth in when she arrives. He pulls my door closed behind her. I know we won’t be interrupted now. He has that look on his face. Somehow he always seems to know what’s really important to me.

Beth drops her coat and briefcase on the couch before turning around and facing me, hands on her hips. “Now, little missy, get over here and give me a hug.”

I rise from behind my desk and do just that. She has been my friend for too long to change that. When we part, we sit on the couch and get comfortable. Well, not too comfortable. We’re sitting at opposite ends of it and I deliberately put one of the pillows between us. Just a little blockade. A friendly reminder this is only a friendly visit.

There’s a knock on the door and Brian enters with a tray. I nod my thanks as he sets the coffee and my juice down.

“Anything else, boss?”

“No, thanks. Just…”

He holds up a hand, looking like one of the Supremes about to belt out ‘Stop In The Name of Love’. I fight to not burst out laughing as I imagine him in a tight sequin gown. “Hold all your calls unless they’re from St…Harper.” He makes a silly face at having nearly slipped with the nickname. “I’ve kept your calendar clear for the rest of the day.” He smiles at Beth and leaves us alone.

“Wow! He’s good.” Beth watches the door close. She, better than anyone, knows the value of a good assistant. She’s gone through a million of them.

“He’s mine. Hands off!” I tease, pouring her a cup of coffee.

“We’ll see,” she mock threatens. Beth pulls her briefcase onto her lap and retrieves a file. “What are we doing here?”

“Basically, I need to rewrite my will and set up trust funds for the kids.”

“Kids? Kelsey, how many are you planning on having?”

I chuckle. “I had hoped to have at least two before it became difficult to do so. But we got lucky and I’m having twins.”

Her jaw drops. “When you do something, you do it all the way, don’t you?”

“You’ve always known that about me, Beth.” I take a sip of my juice, trying to hide a grin behind it. I certainly went all the way for her in college. God, that seems like ages ago.

“True.” She sighs a bit. “Okay, God, let me get a grip on this.” She takes a cleansing breath. “I assume you’ll be removing Erik from your will as your only heir.”

I nod, my throat suddenly tight and constricted. I would give anything to have him still around, still healthy, still happy. Will it ever not hurt to think about him? Finally, I manage, “You got all the papers from his estate, I assume.”

She nods, pulling out another file. “He left the bulk of everything to you. There was a twenty thousand dollar endowment to an AIDS foundation and a twenty thousand dollar inheritance to his cousin Patrick.”

“Have my accountant cut Patrick a check for the rest. He needs it and I surely don’t. The only thing I want are the pictures, videos and his movie posters.” I blink back tears. “Even the bad ones.” I wish there were going to be more of them too. “Have him send a matching donation to the foundation from me in Erik’s memory, as well.”

She makes a note. “Done. Now what?”

“It’s pretty simple really. Harper is my heir. I’ll be leaving everything to her, except for some trusts set up for our children, and I want her to be my executor. I also want her to have my full power of attorney. We already drew up a health care proxy while I was in the hospital in California, but if that needs to be updated I want you to do that as well. Okay, the trusts should be set up
as ….”

“Whoa!” Beth reaches over and clasps my forearm tightly, bringing me to a halt. “Kels, you can’t just give Harper power of attorney.”

I stop in mid breath. “Excuse me?”

“It needs to be limited and shouldn’t include anything financial. You can set up a joint account for household expenditures easily enough. Otherwise she could clean you out if the relationship starts to go bad.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

“I know you hope it won’t and right now…”

“It’s not going to happen.” I state again, louder and more forcefully, trying to close the subject.

“Kelsey, you’re worth a small fortune.”

“Beth, I want no limitations on what Harper can get to. She has my absolute trust. I won’t have her told otherwise in any way, shape or form.”

Beth shuffles her papers several times. She is clearly annoyed right now. “Let me work with the accountant and set up the financials so this doesn’t keep me up nights.”

I am annoyed now. “It’s not keeping me up nights. I have no earthly idea why it bothers you.”

“When was the last time you sat down and looked at one of your financial statements? Out of curiosity, do you even read the reports I send you every quarter?”

I hang my head, chagrined. “I don’t know. A year, year and a half maybe.”

“God!” She groans and drops her head. “You’ve always been so damn bad when it comes to money.”

After two hours of listening to her groan and grumble, I finally make all of my requests very clear. She leaves with Robie’s number so she can confer with him and get all my personal papers in line with Harper’s. I also told her that I want to start adoption proceedings for Harper and the babies as soon as possible after their birth. We will be a family. In every sense of the word.

My one concession to her is she will be allowed to protect the trust fund my father set up for me when I was born. A trust fund I’ve never touched. I didn’t want his money growing up and I don’t foresee wanting it any time in the future. So she can protect that sucker all she wants. Makes no difference to me. Besides, Harper would want it to go to the children anyway.

* * *

“This is the site,” Cora announces, sweeping her hand toward a large, flat expanse of earth.

Once we cleared a rise on the road, we dropped several hundred feet in elevation and came to this place. While not desert, it is certainly not the wooded land we were just traveling through to get here. There is a flat expanse of land devoid of trees. Heavy equipment is scattered about, the foundation of the storage facility already begun.

“In 1990, the Office of Nuclear Waste approached the various nations, trying to find one to volunteer to temporarily store spent fuel rods. Most were wise enough to ignore the overtures. Bill Yates, our tribal president, submitted an application and he and the council members who sided with him began gathering information. When the federal government gave us a grant of one hundred thousand dollars to gather more data, suddenly, Bill had a lot more supporters. And his supporters had better homes.”

I nod. “Money does that.”

“We don’t believe that the site is safe. The geological survey conducted showed several earthquake fault lines running through it. And we’re only fifteen miles from the Rio Grande Rift Valley from this location, which leads to concerns about groundwater contamination. Now, Bill’s sock puppet scientist claims the faults are inactive. But, we had our own geologist study the surveys. Dana believes there is a credible claim that these faults are younger and larger than the government and Geo-Tech say. We are in the Rift Zone which is separating a bit more every year. Rifting is evidenced by high heat flow, that’s why New Mexico has so many hot springs. I mean,” she shakes her head sadly, “these rods are deadly for the next ten thousand years. One accident, one quake, one shift of the earth, and we can cause the death of those who will follow us in exchange for sixty jobs. Sixty jobs. Not to mention the destruction of holy ground.”

“Can I meet Dana? We’ll need to interview her for our story.”

“Of course. She’s close, in Los Alamos.”

I mentally smack my forehead. “That’s near here, isn’t it?” God, no wonder they’re worried about radiation poisoning. The goddamn nuclear age started right in their own backyard.

* * *

Cora is serious about wanting me to live on the reservation. Given how tired I am and how late it’s grown, I acquiesce. She and her family live in a small house not far from the highway. Her husband, Johnny, is a tall, slender man who wears more turquoise than I’ve ever seen on one human being before. It’s all set in silver and very carefully crafted. They have two children, both boys, with hair so dark it shines on the top of their heads. The boys are respectful and polite. The eldest shows me to the guest room, which, I realize upon entering, is their bedroom. I pick up a Pokémon card. “Which one is this?”

He looks at it briefly and then looks at me as if I must be stupid. “Mewtwo. Only one of the hardest cards to find.”

I am so glad that Clark and Christian don’t seem to care about this little craze. “You’re lucky to have it then, eh?”

He shrugs and plucks the card out of my hand. “I suppose. Do you play?”

I shake my head sadly. “No. Didn’t even see the movie.”

“There’ll be more.”

Why does that remind me of the line ‘they’re back’ from Poltergeist II? “This is true. Thanks for letting me use your room tonight.”

“You’re welcome. Good night.” And he and Mewtwo leave.

I pull my cell phone out of my bag. Come on, please let there be reception out here. I punch in the speed dial for our home and press send. It seems to be going through. Good sign. And fuck roaming charges. Langston will pay for them. I dial home and sigh when I hear her voice. “Hi, chér,” I whisper. I glance at my watch. It’s nearly ten o’clock her time.

“I love you and miss you,” Kels says in response.

I fold my hands over my stomach as I stretch out on the bed. “What? No hello?” I tease gently. Those are wonderful opening lines in my book.

“No, no hello.” She teases back a bit. “I knew it would be you. No one else would call me at this hour.”

That’s true. “Well, I miss you something fierce. I have a painful envie, as my Mama would say. It gets worse each time I have to leave you.” Who would have ever thought I would feel this way about anyone? Certainly not me. I picture Kels propped up in our bed. Her blonde hair slightly rumpled, her green eyes a shade darker in the evening. I wish I were there right now. “How are you feeling?”

“Pregnant. I miss our morning ritual. It’s not the same without you.”

I join in her laughter. “That’s the only thing I didn’t miss this morning.”

“So that’s how you are, eh? I send you out on the road and you conveniently forget your end of the barfing bargain? Tsk tsk.” She pauses and I hear her roll over on the bed. “I think I’m going to start showing early, Tabloid. You sure you’re gonna love me when I’m fat?”

Hmm. That was said with a laugh, but, somehow, I don’t think it was a joke. Let’s try to get this one right the first time out. “I find you to be the most incredibly desirable woman on the face of this planet, Little Roo. And, you are even more so because you’re having our babies. I can’t wait to see you grow with them, because it means that they are doing well, and are healthy, and they’re a part of you. My God, I was thinking how I wished I was home with you so we could have a repeat of Saturday.”

“Hmm …” she purrs, sending a thrill up my spine but down to other parts. “Saturday was inspiring, to say the least. I hope you had a good time. I wanted to keep you happy until I can get to wherever you are. By the way, where are you? And why are you whispering?”

“I’m whispering because Pikachu might hear me otherwise. And, I am in Ash’s headquarters, I think.”

“That’s as clear as mud, darling. Thanks.”

“Sorry. I’m on the reservation and being hosted by Cora and her family. Her boys are Pokémon addicts and I’m staying in their room. That’s why I’m whispering.” Though Cora’s silence when I mentioned ‘my future wife’ earlier today has me puzzled. I’m not sure if it was shocked silence or simple acceptance. Oh well, I’m sure I’ll find out later. Now, on to important matters. “How are the twins?”

Another throaty laugh. “So far, I’m not getting any complaints about the accommodations. They seem very content. But, I think they miss your talks with them.”

I’d be pleased with the accommodations too if I were them. Hell knows, I like to visit there often enough. Don’t go there, Harper. Well, I mean, go there. But, don’t go there now. Why be frustrated? “Put me on with them then.”

“Okay. You got a minute, Tabloid. I’m timing you.”

I hear the phone being moved and, I assume, settled on her tummy. “Hi, Baby Roos, it’s Mama. I want you to know how much I miss you both right now. I’d be at home with you, if I could. Now, I want you both to behave while I’m gone. You be nice to your Mom. Don’t make her throw up all the time. And let her get a little rest, ok? We’re gonna need all the sleep we can get before you both arrive. We love you. I want that to be the one thing you always know.”

I hear the phone get moved again. “Did you tell them to behave?” Kels asks.

“First thing.”

“Good. So when am I coming out?”

“Of the closet? Honey, you’re out to me.” Straight, my ass, echoes through my mind. Seems like a lifetime ago it first crossed my mind. “But, if you mean here, probably in a few days.”

She groans. “You’re so predictable, Tabloid. Good thing I love you.”

“It’s not a good thing, Little Roo, it’s the best thing.” Amen to that. “Now, you, my gorgeous, pregnant fiancée, need to get some sleep. I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know how things are going down here. You play nice with the other kids at work tomorrow, okay? Except with Bruce. You have my permission to kick him in the nuts. Ah, shit, do I owe you a buck for that?”

“No, not for ‘nuts’. But, yes for the other.”

“Can’t slip a thing past you.”

“No, you can’t and don’t even try.”

I won’t, baby. Don’t worry about that. “Goodnight and sweet dreams.”

“Goodnight, sweetheart. We miss you and we’re thinking of you. Be safe.”

We both linger on the phone, despite our goodbyes being said. Finally, reluctantly, I press ‘end’, mostly so Kels will get some sleep tonight. If I had my way, I’d sleep with the damn phone on just so I can hear her breathe through the night.

Langston would stroke out on that bill.

Why that’s almost enough incentive to try.

* * *

Morning finds me with Cora and the rest of the tribal representatives who are against the nuclear storage facility. The mood in the room is tense due to the continued construction taking place only a few miles away on their land.

Jason Shorthill, an elderly man whose hair is completely devoid of any gray, clutches his coffee mug tightly. He’s angry and the vein at his temple is throbbing in time with his emotion. “This is about a lack of respect. The federal government has never respected the people of this land. Every treaty has been broken, every trust has been violated. They took our land, killed our people, caged us on these reservations, used our men to dig out poisonous minerals from the land which they used to kill millions, and now they want to bury the poison on our sacred ground.”

Cora amends, “They are burying the poison here. They don’t just want to, they have a signed agreement.”

“A signed agreement with people who are not our own anymore. They show the greatest disrespect. They have no principles. Do you know where they voted to put the storage containers? To the east of our burial ground. To the east! Every morning the sun rises on the spirits of our ancestors through a poisonous haze.”

Martin Deggs shrugs. “The young are often that way.”

“Bill isn’t young,” Cora counters.

“But most of his clan is. The real problem with the facility is that it isn’t temporary. The agreement says it is only for twenty-five years, but, I believe when the term is over Geo-Tech and/or the government will find a reason for the rods to not be removed. No company will walk away from an investment of one hundred and twenty-five million dollars.”

“They’ll cite public safety or some crap like that,” Jason agrees, swallowing down another mouthful of coffee. “Of course, our safety means nothing to them. Poison the Navajo, kill us all. It’s an old pattern. How many of our men did we lose in the forties? My clan lost almost its entire generation. They used us as human canaries in mines with no ventilation, rotted out our men’s lungs. They had no safety concerns then. Not a damn one!”

I make a few notes to follow up on the history of the Navajo. The continuing abuse of the original people of our land is disgusting. Maybe I can change Mama’s focus from the Committee for Same Sex Marriages to Native American Rights. They’d never have a better advocate. “The agreement is that the tribe will store up to four thousand casks of spent nuclear rods for up to 25 years, right? How much compensation will the tribe receive, outside of the jobs created?”

“Two hundred fifty million.”

“Jesus,” I say before I can censor myself. No wonder the majority of the tribe agreed. Over one third of Native Americans live in poverty, compared to ten percent of the rest of the American population. How could two hundred impoverished people turn down ten million dollars a year in income? All they have to be is willing to die for the money.

* * *

I drive to Santa Fe. I made a call to Karen Landers, a New Mexico state senator, and she agreed to meet me. She has been working with Cora trying to somehow keep Geo-Tech off the reservation lands.

Santa Fe is a beautiful town, dominated by Pueblo and territorial style architecture. I recall reading on the plane that there is a law in the city that all buildings downtown must be designed that way. Prominent in the city is the state legislature, a round building which houses the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, the senate and house of representatives, as well as a rather impressive art gallery.

I am studying a Navajo rug hung in the gallery when a petite woman with curly hair approaches me. “Harper Kingsley?”

“Senator Landers, thanks for meeting with me.”

“I’m very happy to turn a spotlight onto this situation at the Coyote Lake Navajo reservation.” She gestures to the rug I’ve been studying. “It’s ironic. We honor their artistry, but are willing to kill off their way of life. The woman who wove that rug is Agueda Martinez. She’s a hundred and one years old, a living treasure. Come with me, my office is on the fourth floor.”

Once we’re settled in her office, she provides me with a briefing sheet on legislation she’s recently introduced. “Our state motto is Land of Enchantment. The governor and I, and a few of my fellow legislators, actually believe it. There’s not another state which can boast the diversity we can. We’re not about to let an out-of-state company harm it in any way. So, in the spirit of government bureaucracy and delay tactics, I have proposed a bill to create a multi-agency task force to review the permit granted for the storage facility.”

I laugh at her satisfied smirk. “If you can’t beat the system …”

“Exactly. New Mexico doesn’t want or need any new nuclear waste coming into our state. We have Los Alamos. We have all we can handle, believe me. In addition to the task force, I have also petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to intervene and deny the Geo-Tech application. The governor has vowed to oppose all licenses needed for the facility, but it’s still up for a vote in the main chamber. And the Department of the Interior for the state is about to announce an environmental impact statement will need to be prepared for the project to proceed.”

“Does it concern you to use the government in this manner?”

She leans back and chews on the earpiece of her glasses. “I suppose I could say that the end justifies the means. But, since the government has been shafting the Native Americans for years, I figure it’s okay to use it on their behalf this time. Don’t you?”

“I’ve never been much of a traditionalist, Senator.”

* * *

I pull Kam’s collar off and hang it on the hook by the door. My furry friend heads off for his water dish. We had a fun walk in the Park. Kam has become quite popular in a short amount of time. It surprises me still the whole dog culture they have going here in New York. I’m not Kelsey in the park, I’m Kam’s mom. I don’t know any of the other dog owners either. They’re either AJ’s mom or Val’s dad or MacD’s aunt. What their actual names are, I have no idea. We talk about our babies’ diets and exercise habits and favorite chew toys. It’s absolutely therapeutic. I think I enjoy it as much as Kam does.

I glance at my watch and make a mad dash for the phone, hoping to snag it before the machine picks it up. It’s too early for Harper to be calling, but I can hope.

“Hello?”

“Hello, ma petit.” Her voice is the last one I expect to hear, but I’m pleased none the less.

“Mama! Comment ca va?” I settle down on the sofa and kick my sneakers off.

A dramatic sigh meets my inquiry of how she’s doing. “Confused.”

“How so?” This ought to be interesting. I can’t imagine what Cecile Kingsley could be confused about.

Another sigh, less dramatic, but still there. “Has my daughter mentioned a wedding to you?”

I laugh a little. “Well, she said something about it when she proposed.” Oh God, Harper, I wish you were here to handle this call.

“Anything after that?” Mama persists like a dog on a bone.

Speaking of that, I hear a loud munching noise near the couch. I glance down to find Kam munching on the rawhide Brian brought back from Doug. A rather successful errand overall, in fact. But, back to my love life and not Brian’s. “We haven’t had much of a chance to talk about it. When we returned to New York, we were thrown into a new story. It’s been a bit time consuming.”

“So, what you’re trying to say is, no.”

“Mama, we’ve been busy.”

I barely hear Mama mutter something in sour French. I pull the receiver back and stare at the phone for a moment. Surely I didn’t hear that comment correctly. “Did you really just say that?”

She chuckles in my ear. “I love her more than life itself, but she is the most frustrating human being on the planet. She needs to get her backside in gear and get this wedding off the ground.”

I give my tummy a little rub. It’s true. I’d like to get married before I really start showing. I don’t know why. It’s just sort of stuck in the back of my mind that I should. Like this is a traditional wedding to begin with. Mother would die if she knew about it.

“And you!” I flinch, despite her teasing tone. “Why aren’t you doing something about making her pick a date and…”

I interrupt gently. “Well, she’s out of town at the moment. Like I said…”

“Out of town! Mon Dieu! What could take her out of town right now? You two should be making wedding plans. Elle a trop de fer au feu.”

“Yes, Mama.” Harper does have too many irons in the fire, but that’s the price of success. I hang my head, now knowing exactly how my partner feels when Mama is on a mission. And boy, is she on a mission. I promise never to laugh at you again, Tabloid.

“Have her call me. There are a lot of preparations to be done. Even if it is to be a small and informal family gathering.” The last words hold a trace of reproach. Harper is in trouble apparently.

Poor dear. I’ll have to figure out a way to make it up to her.

After we say our good-byes, I stare at the phone for a long moment. Then I hit speed dial.

I take a deep breath to focus myself. I make sure to keep the tone in my voice light, so Harper will know right away nothing is wrong. When her voicemail picks up, it’s all I can do to keep from laughing. I have now received my first official grilling from Mama. That’s almost as good as a wedding ceremony in the Kingsley clan. “Tabloid, sweetheart, you know I love you,” I tell her phone. “But if you don’t call me back as soon as you can, I’m going to buy your Mama a one way ticket to New Mexico so she can come talk to you about the wedding plans we apparently are failing to make. You can run, Harper Lee, but you can’t hide. Call me. I love you.”

I end the call and take the phone with me to the kitchen. As I prepare a nice salad, I glance at the phone, waiting for it to ring. I smile when it does even before I have put the lettuce into the bowl. I continue to prepare my dinner as I shoulder the phone. “Hello?”

“Kels, honey, what happened?”

I chuckle a bit, slicing up a cucumber. “Mama happened.”

“Damn.”

“Should I run a tab for you?” I tease, glancing at the jar. Gotta empty it out and put the cash in savings. There’s a tidy sum in it already.

“Please. What did she want?”

“She wanted to know why we haven’t set a date for the wedding. Among other things.”

Harper sighs exactly the same way her Mama did not fifteen minutes ago. “Did you tell her we’re working?”

“Has that ever mattered before?” I pop a piece of cucumber in my mouth and lean back against the counter.

“No.” I hear her sigh and mutter ‘damn’ again. “I really took my own earful of it this time too, for your information.”

“Why?” she growls.

Ooo, I roused the protective instinct of my lover. I like it. “Apparently I’m not doing my job in nailing you down on this issue.”

“Honey, I didn’t want to do this over the phone.”

Now I sigh, neither did I. I had thought curled up in front of the fireplace would have been nice, but I’d rather do it over the phone than deal with Mama again. “It’s only a date, Tabloid. I think if we pick one it will satisfy her for the moment.”

Harper snorts. “Like that’s possible. Sweetheart, when do you want to get married? It is our wedding, after all.”

Now, that’s funny. “Apparently Mama doesn’t think so.” I grin, knowing she’s going to hate this part. “She wants you to call her.”

“I think my cell phone battery is about to run out.”

“Oh no you don’t, Harper Lee Kingsley! Don’t you even think about it!”

“What?” Harper is laughing in my ear. “Are you afraid she’ll call you again?”

“I’ll fly her out there myself, I swear I will. I have the Amex card that can do it too. And, yes, as a matter of fact, I am scared. I’d rather not go through that again. I intend to keep Mama on my good side.”

“Welcome to the family, chér.”

I can hear the laughter in her voice. She is evil. “Stop laughing at me, Tabloid. I’ll send Mama on the next flight west.”

“God, stop! I’ll call her, I’ll call her. I promise. Now, answer my question: when will you marry me?”

A warmth spreads through me at her question. “Whenever you want me to. You tell me when to be there. I’ll all yours.” Truer words were never spoken.

“Damn straight,” Harper replies. She’s keeping that jar from getting empty, that’s for sure. “How about this weekend?”

“This weekend? Aren’t you gonna be in New Mexico this weekend? Kind of hard to get married when my partner is a couple thousand miles away.”

“Okay, maybe not this weekend. What’s our first free weekend? I don’t want to wait. Do you?”

“Not really.” I munch on another piece of cucumber. “There’s a trigger somewhere in my brain that says we should do this before I look like a boat. I want you to have pleasant memories of what I looked like the day you married me.” I do not want to look like the Good Ship Lollipop in our wedding photos, that’s for darn sure.

Harper’s voice is low and sexy when she replies. “I have pleasant memories of you every day, darlin’. But, it sounds like we should do this sooner rather than later. Oh, what the hell? Let’s be traditional and have a June wedding. That way, it’ll give Mama only four weeks to drive us insane.”

Now that’s a plan I can get behind. “June first then. I know that both our schedules are clear. It’s the week after the Peabodys.”

“Sure this weekend won’t work for you?”

She’s so bad. “You want to elope, Tabloid?”

“Well, they do have a Las Vegas, New Mexico. I have to admit, Kels, that a quiet, private ceremony with just me, you and the babies sounds really good to me.”

Just the four of us. I like it. “That sounds extremely sweet, decidedly romantic and very wonderful. Mama, however, will kill us if she ever finds out.”

“All the more reason to do it.”

“Ooo, now you’re being bad just because you can. And, God help me, I’m thinking of helping you..”

“We’re in it together, baby. Just the two of us. You’re my Mini Me.”

Bad visions of Austin Powers and his clone drift through my brain. Harper loves that movie. I don’t quite get the attraction. But, the love between Austin and Mini Me was undeniable. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. Even if you do get me into trouble.”

“Only the best kind.”

“But if Mama finds out, it was all your idea.”

Harper begins making a clucking sound.

“I’m not chicken. I’m smart. One of us has to be around to raise the babies.” God, I don’t even want to think about raising them alone. Don’t you ever leave me, Harper. We’re in this together.

“You’re not getting rid of me that easily. Now, listen, I want you to book a flight here for next Thursday.”

“It’ll be late. I see Dr. McGuire Thursday morning.”

“Wonderful! Bring pictures!”

I can’t help but laugh. She insisted on taking one of the pictures with her to New Mexico in her wallet. I wonder how many people she’s shown it to already. “I’ll see what I can do. I don’t know if he’s planning on taking any pictures, though. It’s just a check up.”

“Tell him I want pictures.”

“All right, all right. I’ll tell him.” Something tells me Harper will be indulged. “You’re pushy, you know that?”

“I consider it an endearing trait.”

“It’s something all right, Tabloid.” Okay, back to business for a moment. “So, is it a good story? And are you having any fun at all?”

“Yes and not without you here.”

“Well, I’ll be there Thursday night. I’ll get the first flight I can after my appointment.”

“Wonderful.”

I yawn loudly, surprised at how tired I am, even though it isn’t all that late. Being pregnant can really take it out of you sometimes. Lately, all I want to do is either throw up or sleep. Well, or molest Harper, but I consider that a good thing.

“I’ll let you get some sleep. I love you, chér.”

“Okay. I love you too, you rotten human being you. Now, be a good girl and call your Mama.”

Harper begins making static noises. “What? I think the phone is breaking up.”

“Harper!” I warn. I do not want another call. “I mean it! Call her!”

“I gotta go. The phone is breaking u-”

That little fink. She better call her.

Or I might just mention the history of our bed in New Orleans when I see her next.
Episode Fourteen: The Seventh Direction
I wake up early, the sunlight streaming in the window hitting my eyes. Also, I have no incentive to stay in bed because Kels isn’t here. I don’t know what it is about her, but she makes our bedroom, our bed, a special place. Not just because of the amazing sex and the way she makes my skin burst into fire by her slightest touch, but for the peace I find there.

Unfortunately, that peace is two thousand miles away right now.

I stretch and pull on a pair of shorts and my Tulane sweatshirt. Quietly, I walk through the house, careful to not wake Cora’s two sons who are sleeping on the living room floor. I pause and look at the small boys, curled up next to one another. They remind me of my family. We resembled gerbils growing up, always climbing all over one another. I pull the blanket up over their shoulders and let them continue to sleep.

Stepping outside I am greeted by a beautiful sunrise, the sun hanging low in the New Mexico sky. A deep breath confirms that I am free of the pervasive New York smell of urine. I stretch for a few minutes and then take off on my morning run.

I head up the hillside. As I make my way, I notice that a number of the large boulders have markings painted on top of them. I alter my path to follow them, noticing that they lead up to a plateau.

Cora is seated there. She smiles at my arrival and waves me over. “Good morning.”

I wipe my forehead off with my sleeve. “Good morning.”

“Good run?”

I plop down beside her and stretch, not wanting to cramp up. “Great. This is beautiful country.”

A wistful smiles crosses Cora’s lips. “It is. I like to believe that what we see here is little changed from what the Ancients saw. I know it isn’t quite true, but it makes me feel more connected to my ancestors.”

“Makes sense. I feel that way when I go home, especially to my mother’s home in the bayou. Lots of history there and a definite sense of belonging.”

She nods. “Exactly. When I come up here, I know who I am.”

That must be nice. I look over the path I just ran up and notice that the markings on rocks form an intricate spiral pattern. “Wow,” I whisper, without thinking.

“It’s to represent the flight path of an eagle. The only way you can see the design is from above.” She pushes her hair back over her shoulders. “Most people live life on only one plane – they only see what is before and behind them, the north, south, east and west. They never take a look above. Never recognize the spirits. Nor do they honor the earth below, the giver of life, the foundation of us all. The petroglyphs draw our attention upwards, where it belongs.”

I look up at the blue sky brightening above me.

“But, of course, the seventh direction is the one that most people never look in this lifetime.”

“The seventh direction? What’s that?”

“Within. It is the hardest place to look and to honor.” She climbs to her feet and begins walking back toward her home. “I’ll see you at breakfast, Harper.”

* * *

“Miss Kingsley?” a large gentleman asks, holding his hand out to greet me.

I stand up and shake his hand, both of us slightly testing the other with the act. “Harper is fine,” I murmur. I haven’t been called ‘Miss’ since I was I was in grammar school. And not often even then.

“You’ll call me Donald then,” he replies, leading the way back to his office.

I had planned on doing that anyway, Donald, but, thanks for the offer. We finally come to the corner office, which is his, and take our seats. His is behind a massive oak desk, mine is a smaller Queen Anne style chair in front of it. Oh, if only intimidation tactics worked with me. “Donald, as you know, I am a producer with Exposure. Currently, we are investigating the claims of racial eco-terrorism made against your company by the Coyote Lake Navajo Indians. I was wondering what Geo-Tech had to say in reply.”

He chuckles, holds his hands over his stomach and leans back in his leather chair. He is a man at ease, after all, both monetarily and in his conscience. “Racial eco-terrorism. That’s a new one. I hadn’t heard that before.”

“Genocide is another term used.”

“Well, I suppose using alarming words such as those helps their cause, in the short run. It certainly got your attention.”

I narrow my eyes, not liking what he’s insinuating.

“Geo-Tech is an international company with a presence throughout North and South America. We have an impeccable safety record, as anyone can discover by doing a simple search. We’re known as a good operation, one that brings jobs and money into depressed areas.”

“Depressed areas? Such as reservations and inner-city locales?”

This time he narrows his eyes at me, not liking my insinuation. “We have never been granted – nor would we seek – a permit to operate within a city, Miss Kingsley. Zoning ordinances simply do not permit it, and we do not see a need to challenge those ordinances when there are many viable alternatives.”

“Alternatives such as non-U.S. lands?”

“We don’t store …” he pauses “if you consider the reservations to not be U.S. land, then, yes.”

“The Navajos certainly do.” I lean back in my chair. I learned long ago how to fill up a room with my presence. “So, how do you reply to the charge that you deliberately choose those of the lowest socioeconomic station for living near radioactive materials?”

“We don’t choose them, Miss Kingsley -”

Okay, he’s doing that to piss me off now. And it’s working. “Ms. Kingsley, if you must, Mr. Hayes.”

“- but we simply search for sites that have the appropriate geological requirements, as well as population density. These sites are essentially self-chosen.”

Yeah, self-chosen because only a few poor people live on them. Makes perfectly good corporate sense to me. “How do you answer charges that the material is inherently unsafe?”

“Those charges are made by people who are not scientists or who ignore scientific facts. There are three factors involved in safety – time, shielding and distance. Regarding time, the rods which are being stored have been out of service ten years already, which leaves them in a state where essentially no heat is discharged. The entire complex will contain less than one millionth than that of Chernobyl. Since the rods are solid waste, they are more stable and easily contained. Accidents would take place slowly, if they took place at all, over time, during which they could be detected and corrected.

“Regarding shielding, the rods will be stored in lead casks. Not only does lead protect things from Superman’s X-ray vision, but it also blocks gamma rays. It is a governmentally accepted storage device. And, finally, the distance that the rods will be from the general population is such that even being within two miles of the facility for ten minutes a day for an entire year will result in no more exposure than the average citizen receives in the course of their day-to-day activities.” He drums his fingers on the desk. “I should point out that none of the Navajo families live closer than ten miles to the facility.”

“What about the concerns of the tribe about the transportation of the materials across their lands? A concern, I should say, the state of New Mexico shares.”

“Ms. Kingsley, in the fifty year history of nuclear power, there has never been a death resulting from the storage or transportation of nuclear rods. We’re a safer industry than construction, shipping or other manufacturing concerns. Those are facts. Not political rhetoric.”

“Is that what you consider the tribe’s objections?”

“It’s not really the tribe’s objections, is it? It’s a portion of the tribe who lost a free vote over this issue. To me, this is an issue of sour grapes. Nothing more, nothing less. Unfortunately, these sour grapes are costing my company hundreds of thousands of dollars to stomp out.” He smiles at his own use of analogy.

“And you’d be willing to sit down with one of our correspondents and discuss this issue?”

“Ms. Kingsley, I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight. I appreciate the plight of the Navajos, but, believe me, we’re the good guys here. We’re offering them economic advantage – cash for use of their land, jobs for their people. This is good for them. I’m happy to say that, on the record, off the record, any day.”

“Then you’ll get your chance.”

Ah, yes, Kels will just love this guy.

* * *

I drive back from Albuquerque and head for the reservation. Every Friday night is the scheduled meeting of the nation. It’s informal. They come together to have dinner, play games, talk, learn and – lately – debate. The issue of the storage facility has divided the nation. Cora told me that several clans won’t speak to one another civilly over the controversy. Bill Yates is of the Tl’aashchí’í, or Red Cheeked, clan. About fifty-five of the reservation’s members are in his clan, Cora’s being the next populous at thirty-seven.

Many of the young adult members of the clans are absent tonight, leaving the elders and young families with children the majority present. It’s a bit rowdy. It reminds me of my family. Growing up with four siblings taught me one thing – be the first to get to the food. Assorted casserole dishes are laid out on long tables and everyone is moving down the line, heaping food on their plates.

I note that one of Cora’s little boys is having a hard time reaching the banana pudding, his arms simply not long enough. I scoop him up in one arm and dangle him over the table. “There you go, bud. Go for it,” I instruct, motioning toward the spoon in the dessert. He flashes me a grateful smile then begins ladling it onto his plate.

That’s a helluva lot of pudding there, bud.

Cora walks over. “Willie!” She rolls her eyes. “That’s more than enough.” She shakes her head and takes the plate from him. Efficiently, she puts half of the pudding on her own plate. “Thanks, Harper.”

I shrug. “No problem. I have a nephew a little younger than him.” I put him back down on the ground and pat his rear, sending him on his way.

“Come over and join us. I would like you to meet my aunt. She is a shaman in our clan and very wise.”

I follow Cora over to a table in the middle of the community room. Seated there is an elderly woman, her back bent with age and her skin long seared by the sun. I put my plate down on the table, but don’t sit yet.

“Aunt Shadow, this is Harper Kingsley. She is the reporter here about the storage facility.”

Eyes that have seen more than I could possibly know move up to capture mine. “Sit. Join me.”

Cora looks over to the food line when she hears a loud crash. “Jesse!” she calls and begins moving quickly toward the line.

“The facility won’t be built,” Shadow informs me as I get settled.

I wonder at her confidence. Things certainly don’t seem to be pointing in that direction. I smile politely.

“It’s not good for the land or the spirit of the people. It cannot stand.”

“Do you think someone will try to sabotage the facility?” Is she trying to warn me about something?

She waves a dismissive hand. “There is no need.” Shadow returns to eating her meal serenely.

Okay. I dig into my food, finding the tamales to be particularly tasty. You can’t get good Mexican food in New York City, I’ve discovered. I am enjoying my companionable silence with Aunt Shadow when an argument breaks out a few tables over.

“My children’s health is worth less than a new pickup to you, Harry?” a woman shouts. “I saw that new Chevy in your driveway. It was bought with blood money. It is cursed!”

I look over and see a tiny woman leaning over a table challenging a broad-shouldered man. “Go to your family, Emma. The vote was taken. You lost.”

“The votes were bought! Don’t think that we don’t notice the only houses being repaired are Tl’aashchí’í. You have phones, you have electricity. But, we Dzi t’aadnii have neither. Bill bought you. And Bill has been bought by the outsiders. It is a shameful thing!”

“Go to your family, woman,” he repeats, dismissing her.

And she launches herself at him.

I start to get up, but Shadow places her hand over mine. “Sit. Eat.”

“But -” I start to protest.

“It’s better for your digestion. Sit. Emma’s heart is just full. It had to spill out.”

“But -” I repeat as I hear several plates clatter to the floor. Harry, to his credit, seems to be trying not to hurt Emma and merely trying to defend himself from her assault. Several other family members are hurrying over to intervene.

“It will be over soon. Eat.”

Who am I to argue? I take another bite. Damn, that is so good. I gotta get the recipe before I leave here.

* * *

I can’t help myself. I take it out of the box and look at it again. The bracelet I’ve had crafted for Harper is truly beautiful. It came out much better than I could have ever hoped. I hope she’ll wear it.

It’s a solid platinum band about three quarters of an inch wide. I think that increases my chances; it’s not a wimpy piece of jewelry. It’s inlaid with four diamonds in a row on either side leading to the center. In the center, at the top, I had three sapphires set in a small arc. Sapphires are the traditional stones of the zodiac for Sagittarius. My partner and our babies will share that trait. Based on what I’ve read, I don’t know if I’ll be able to live with three of them. Sagittarians are basically playful nuts.

I glance back at the bracelet. Under the sapphire arc are a stylized H and K. The K being formed as an offshoot of the H’s right side so they look like one letter. Just as how Harper and I are one person now. Directly under that is a black Tahitian pearl. Pearl is the traditional June birthstone but it’s to commemorate our wedding date. The inscription inside the band says it all for me. Harper Lee Kingsley, Kelsey Diane Stanton. June 1st, 2000. Our love has grown. Now our life begins.

God, I hope she likes it.

I’ve always preferred to have jewelry custom designed. I’ve only done it one other time for another person. I had a medallion made with the Archangel Michael and St. Sebastian, the patron saints for police officers.

Satisfied for the moment that she’ll like it, I tuck the bracelet back in its box. I put it away as the waiter approaches. I recognize Tony immediately. He’s a superb server who always takes very good care of Harper and I when we come here.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Stanton. It’s good to see you again. Dining alone today?” He looks a bit disappointed to not see Harper. I can empathize.

I sigh and nod. “Afraid so. Harper is in New Mexico on a story.”

“Well,” he pauses, smiling as he hands me a menu, “I’m sorry to hear that, but it’s always good to see you.”

That just earned him a good tip. “Thank you. What’s good today?”

“The Chicken Parmesan is always excellent, but today the Fettuccini Alfredo is particularly good.”

I glance down at my stomach. Okay, kiddos, what are we in the mood for today? What’s that? Chicken? All right. Chicken it is.

“The chicken, I think.” I tell him with a wink. “And soda water with a twist.”

“Excellent choice.” He retrieves the menu and disappears.

The quiet time gives me a chance to pull out my organizer and go over some notes I’ve made. Harper sent me a ton of information by email and asked that I do some research over the weekend. I guess she figured if she had to work last weekend, I did too.

Is it only Tuesday? It feels like forever since I’ve seen her. I would much prefer to be with her, but it’ll only be a few more days until we’ll be together. And we’ll be implementing another no clothes Saturday for Harper I think. If we can make it through Friday.

I grin as I go over my notes. Boy, that vision makes it hard for me to read. I sigh and take a sip of my newly delivered drink in an effort to cool my brain, dumping it in my lap is not an option I’m afraid.

Well, so far it looks like Geo-Tech is on the up and up here. It is their job to find a way to store the waste. Until they figure out a way to shoot it to the moon, they will pay to store it on empty land. The Good Lord knows the Native Americans have a lot of that. One of the last fine ideas by our government was to trap people on their own land and make it difficult as hell to survive there. Thus, the two hundred and fifty million payment looked really good to these people.

“Kelsey?”

No.

I close my eyes and reopen them slowly, looking up to see my mother. Jesus, does this woman have radar? Of all the restaurants in all the cities in all the world, she has to come into mine? Well, I’m not Humphrey and she’s not Ingrid, and this is certainly not the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

“Mother,” I say, closing my organizer. I look back up at her, folding my hands over the notebook.

“May I sit down?” she asks, even as she begins to sit.

Why don’t you do it way over there? On the other side of the city. In another restaurant. “Of course.”

She settles down in the booth across from me, settling her purse and jacket. “Why haven’t you called me?”

I bite my lip to keep from laughing. Gee, Mother, shall I start alphabetically or chronologically? “Now why would I do that? Do you have a court appearance you need me for?”

“Kelsey, I’ve been worried.”

“Please, save us both the embarrassment of that lie, Mother. You never called when I was in the hospital. Harper told me you refused to come to LA when she called you.”

Mother makes a face like she just encountered a very bad smell. “Ah, yes, Harper. How is Harper?”

Like you care. “She’s fine.”

“I take it you two are still …together?”

“Very.” I offer my hand with a satisfied smirk. “We’re getting married June first.”

Oh, she wants to be impressed by the ring, but I can see everything else forcing itself to the surface. She refuses to look at the ring or me any longer. Ha! You old witch, Dad never got you anything like this, did he?

Dad?

Where the hell did that come from?

Though, I kind of like it. I always wanted to have a Dad. I used to be so jealous of all the girls who did have one. I’ll have to try it out on him next time we talk.

Now as far as Mother goes, I’m being spiteful. Kelsey, stop it, you’re bigger than that.

Mother leans forward and whispers, fearful that someone in the restaurant might overhear us. “How can you do this, Kelsey? How can you do this to our family?”

I shake my head a little. I can’t believe she’s saying these things to me. “Family? What family? We’ve never been a family. And exactly what is it that I’m doing? I’m living my life and I’m happy for the first time in nearly thirty-three years.”

“With a woman.”

“Yes, with a kind, warm, loving woman who makes me feel like I am the most important thing in her life. With a woman who has made me a part of a real family.”

“Kelsey…”

I raise my hand to stop her. “Mother, I’m not interested. Don’t you get that? All of your complaining and conniving has worn very thin, even on a thick-skinned person like myself. Face it, you don’t love me and I don’t like you.”

“I … I …”

Well, for the first time in her life, my mother is speechless. I like it. Let’s drive it home, shall we? I lean forward and meet her eyes, making sure she won’t look away from me. I want to watch her face when she hears what I am about to say. “I am now in a relationship that has finally given me the things I have needed most in my life: love and understanding. Harper’s family loves me. They accept me. They ask nothing of me except that I love Harper, and I do, with all my heart.”

She takes a deep breath and straightens in her seat. Just the response I expected: cold and unfeeling.

“So, why don’t you tell me why you’re here? Then you can go and let my have my lunch in peace.”

Mother looks as if she’s been slapped. Truth is kinda like that sometimes. “I wanted to know if you had spoken to your father lately?”

“I don’t see why I should answer that question.”

“Because I’ve been trying to reach him for weeks and he’s not returning my calls.”

“You’ve been divorced for twenty years, Mother. You get twenty thousand a month in alimony. Leave the man alone.” I sip my water. Since when did I ever feel protective of my father? When did he become a human being to me and not just a faceless gene donor?

“I need a raise.”

I nearly choke on my drink. “Excuse me? You need a what? A raise? Are you out of your mind? Are you aware, Mother, that there are people in this country who make less in a year than what he gives you in one month?”

“They should have married better.” She can see I’m not going to be sympathetic to her plight so she gets up. “Good to see you, Kelsey. I’ll see you soon.”

Not if I see you first.

* * *

Back in my office I dig through my Rolodex to find his number. I can’t believe I’m doing this. When was the last time I called him? Willingly?

Before I have time to rethink what I’m doing, he answers. “Matthew Stanton here. Please tell me you have good news.”

I chuckle when I hear the strain in his voice. “Oh, Dad, I wish.”

Well, that just kinda slipped out.

“Kelsey! Sweetheart! Sorry about that. I thought you were someone else.”

“Apparently. Unfortunately, I don’t have good news for you.”

“So you don’t know where a twenty million dollar international money transfer has gone to either?” He laughs a little. I can almost picture him reclining back in his chair and loosening his tie.

“No, but, compared to that, this may be no big deal.”

“What’s up, honey?”

Honey? Dad? My, my … how things change. “Mother.” That never changes.

I hear him groan. I know the feeling. “She found me at lunch today. I swear she had a tracking device implanted in my skull when I was a baby.”

“I wouldn’t put it past her,” he mumbles. “What does the dragon … uh sorry. What does your mother want now?”

I can’t help but laugh at his slip. “The dragon lady wants more alimony so you may want to have your attorney head her off at the pass.”

“Thanks for the warning. I’ve been ignoring her for weeks now.”

Seems my father and I may indeed have some common ground after all dodging my mother.

I hear him take a deep, calming breath. “How’s Harper?” He seems genuinely interested.

“Too far from home.” I pick at the blotter on my desk, missing my partner more right now than I have since she left. “She’s in New Mexico on a story.”

“Sorry to hear that. Is she coming home soon?”

“No, but I’m supposed to fly out there Thursday. I’m trying to get an afternoon flight that won’t put me there at midnight or later.”

“Why don’t you use my jet to fly out?”

I pull back a bit, surprised by the comment. “Guess it never occurred to me that you had one.”

“Of course I have one. What kind of an investment banker would I be if I didn’t have a jet?”

“One that flies commercial like everyone else?” I joke.

“Please, I haven’t flown commercial in years. Why be cramped when you can stretch out on a couch and sleep? Besides, it’s all about getting the fun toys.”

Ooo now he sounds like Tabloid. That’s pretty much her plan too. Of course, Dad has a huge lead on her. God, by letting him back in my life I’m giving her someone else to compete with. The thing with Robie is bad enough.

“Now I’m jealous. I hate flying anyhow and…”

“Then take it. I’m not going anywhere for a few weeks. Tell you what, I’ll have a car pick you up and take you to the airport whenever you’re ready.”

“Now how can I refuse an offer like that?” It might be nice having a dad, especially a dad with a plane.

“By saying no. But you’re my daughter and I know you’re smarter than that. You know a good thing when you hear it.” He laughs in a very paternal fashion.

“Yeah, I do. I’d really like that. Thanks.”

“Anytime, sweetheart. Besides I owe you for the warning. Hey, when you get back, can you and Harper come up to the house for a few days? I have someone I want you to meet.”

“Really?” Now I’m curious. And he invited us both. This has to be a good thing. “Who?”

“Nope, not gonna tell you over the phone. You have to agree to come to the house.”

Well, now I’m very curious. “I’ll have to ask Harper, but if she’s up for it, I am too.”

“Great. When you get your schedule settled, give me a call. I’ll make sure the plane is ready to go.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome, honey. Now the old man needs to get back to work. People get cranky when twenty million dollars comes up missing.”

“I can imagine.”

“I can’t. It’s only money. And not much at that. Oh well, talk to you soon. Good-bye, baby.”

“Bye, Dad.”

I hang up and stare at the phone. Now I know where I get my lack of interest in my financial statements. And I definitely didn’t inherit it from my mother.

* * *

“You’ve never said anything,” I start.

Cora looks over at me as we walk along her prayer path, a pristine swath of land on the reservation. “About what?”

“When we first met, I kinda just blurted out something about my future wife. You didn’t even blink.”

She shrugs. “How should I react?”

That’s a very good question. “It doesn’t bother you? I mean, you’re a woman of obvious faith …”

“Don’t try to examine the Red Way through white eyes, Harper. It will never make sense.”

I shove my hands in my pockets, mostly because I don’t know what to do with them. “The Red Way?”

“The way of the Diné. The very first principle is respect for all things – living and non-living. So, I respect you and your choices. But, also, until the Black Robed Demons came, there was no shame in being a Two-Spirited Person.”

“A Two-Spirited Person?” If that means what I think it does, I am loving it. So much better than homo, lezzie, dyke or worse that I’ve heard in my life.

“It is the best explanation my people could up with. It means that the person has the soul of both the male and female. It is obvious to me that you have the body of a woman and that you enjoy having that body for love and sex. Yet, within you is also a male soul. That is what makes you want a woman and to provide for her. You are a Two-Spirited Person. Very rare. And to be honored, not abhorred.”

Why, that’s actually enlightened. “So, does the nation acknowledge marriages between two women?”

“It used to be that if you shared your blankets with someone, you were married. Had you lived back then, you would already be married.”

I allow myself a wistful smile. I already consider myself bound to Kelsey in every way that counts. She is as much a part of me as my own breath and flesh and blood. “I like that idea. I was telling my fiancée that we needed to elope.”

“Yes, your people can put too much emphasis on the ceremony and not enough on what is being said. This is about binding two lives together, not what type of waist the wedding gown has and how many people you can have in the bridal party. The BlessingWay is a simple ceremony, but very profound.”

“You know what I’m going to ask.”

She chuckles. “The BlessingWay is our sacred ceremony. It is used to celebrate many of life’s great passages – birth, marriage, the building of a new home. Of course, the particulars of the BlessingWay changes with event, but it’s essentially the same. We ask the spirit gods to look down favorably upon our new endeavor.”

“It sounds beautiful.”

Cora nods thoughtfully. “How did you know that your woman was the one for you?”

Geez, that’s a good question. In the bar, with Gary, looking at Kels up on the TV screen, I knew she would change my life. I knew, for sure, she wasn’t straight. I just didn’t have a clue as to how much I’d love her. And how my family would embrace her. And how spectacularly happy the mere thought of her would make me. “She fit.” It’s the best explanation I can come up with. One I have told Kels as well.

“It is always a great blessing to meet your soul’s companion.”

* * *

My cell phone rings and I pull it off my belt and flip it open. “Kingsley,” I bark.

“Kingsley,” Robie barks back.

We both laugh. “What’s up, Robie?” It’s good to hear his voice.

“How’s Kelsey doing?”

I sigh. “She’s good. The babies are good. But she’s in New York and I’m in New Mexico on a story. How’s Ren?”

“Freaked out. Her favorite pair of jeans was a bit snug this morning.”

“Tell me you were not your usual loutish self.” I can only imagine what sensitive, enlightened comment must have left his lips.

He begins laughing. “I mentioned that Mama could put some elastic in the waistband for her.”

“Robie!” I shake my head. I sure hope he’s joking. “You’re going to be sleeping outside with the gators if you’re not careful.”

“It’s been discussed. But, I’m counting on you to bail me out, little sister.”

“Younger.”

“Little,” he corrects. “Now, let me tell you my plan. We need to act fast. I don’t know how long we have.”

This sounds dangerous. But, hell, I always watch Robie’s back. And he mine.

* * *

As the attendant opens the door for me, I see her standing there. I can’t help but smile at the look of total confusion on her face. She gestures to the plane as I move down the steps and I don’t even need to hear the ‘What the hell is this’ she mutters.

I walk over slowly and she meets me halfway, holding her hand behind her back. I look up into deep blue eyes and smile. “Give me a dollar, Tabloid.”

“Heard that, did ya?”

“Loud and clear. Come on, give me a buck. We’ve got two college tuitions to pay now.” I hold out my hand and snap my fingers then wiggle them for the dollar.

“How about,” she brings her hand to her front, revealing a huge, beautiful bunch of fresh spring flowers, “you let me slide this once, because you love me and you missed me? Hmm? Think you can do that?”

The last part of her plea was delivered with that sexy little growl she has and I find myself with a silly grin, growling back a little. Taking the flowers, I smile at her again. “Just this once, Tabloid.”

“Good.” She takes my bags, shouldering the garment bag and picking up the duffel, which are brought over by the attendant. “So you want to explain this? Since when do you have a private jet?” she asks as we head for her rental car at the side of the building.

“Oh that. I slept with the head of the network.” I burst out laughing, turning around to find her stopped behind me. The look on her face is priceless. “I’m sorry, honey. I was only joking. It’s my dad’s. He loaned it to me.”

“You are so gonna pay for that, Kelsey Diane Stanton!” She charges me, picking me up and carrying me bodily to the side of the Blazer, managing to also still bring along the luggage. She puts me down, pinning me to the side of the truck. “That was mean,” she protests, nuzzling my neck.

I nod, with a slight smile and wrap my arms around her neck. Oh, this is nice. I can’t help it, being with her makes me want to play. I can see she wants to as well. “I know. I said I was sorry. What more do you want?”

“A kiss. A great big ‘I’m sorry and I’ll never do it again’ kind of kiss.”

“Oh, I can do that.”

* * *

She climbs in the driver’s side and starts the engine. Before pulling out, however, she turns to me and holds out her hand. “Give.”

“Give? Give what? I just gave you a kiss that cost us both a few brain cells from lack of oxygen.” God, it was good too. Practice really does make perfect. I can’t wait to kiss her when I’m eighty.

“Pictures.”

“What makes you think I brought you pictures of anything?” I tease, because I can.

“Because I told you to.”

There are so many replies to that comment. I’ll cut her a bit of slack right now. “Oh well then,” I open my purse and get out my wallet, “I guess that’s all that matters, huh?” Oh, I think I’ll start with this one. It’s a picture of Harper. Mama gave it to me when we were last home. “How’s this?”

She glances over at it and tries to snatch it out of my hand but misses when I pull it back. “Where in the he…” she pauses, catching herself, “heck did you get that?”

“My mother-in-law to-be loves me dearly and would give me anything. This includes, but is not limited to, pictures of my fiancée as a baby running buck naked down the hall.”

She groans as her forehead hits the wheel.

“It’s nothing I haven’t seen before, Tabloid. Just smaller.”

Another long groan emits from my partner. Her despair arouses some compassion within me since I know what she really wants. I don’t hold them back from her any longer. “Here you go, sweetheart,” I say, rubbing her back gently. “Our babies’ baby picture.”

She turns her head and takes it from my hand. “Thank you.” She sits up behind the wheel and looks at them, her brows coming together. “Looks like a Rorschach test. I see a rat riding a donkey.”

For that, she gets a firm smack to the arm. “Be nice or I’ll take it back.”

She turns the picture in my direction. “You show me a baby in this, let alone two babies.”

I lean over and point them out. “Right here and here.” Slowly, we look at each other and another kiss begins. She is too close to resist. And her lips are so inviting. And she smells too good to ignore. And … God, I’ve missed her.

Before pulling out of the lot, she takes the picture and props it up on the dash, right in front of the little stuffed stork that announced our babies to her in Ohio. How sweet, she travels with it. I reach over and take her hand. “Does your little friend have a name?”

She cocks her head a bit. I think she’s a little embarrassed, if the blush is any indication. “Stan.”

Stan the Stork. Oh, that’s priceless. The Kitchen Conspiracy would die to learn about that. Oh and wait ‘til she hears what Dr. McGuire told me this morning. “Harper?”

“Yeah?”

“There’s a good chance Stan will be arriving a little earlier that we thought.”

She turns to me, immediately concerned. “Kels, is there something wrong with you or the babies?” I can feel a slight tremor in her hand.

“No, no, not at all. Everything is fine. Dr. McGuire said twins tend to deliver around thirty-seven weeks instead of forty. They run out of room to grow and need to get out.” I laugh a little and try to soothe her, rubbing her hand gently in mine. “Everything is fine. I promise you that.”

She nods and exhales a long breath. “Good. That had me a little scared.”

“They’re perfect, growing very well. We get to go see Doctor Doogie again in another two weeks.”

“Well, at least I can go with you for that. Hopefully, I won’t be out of town again. I want to go to as many of the appointments with you as possible.” She pulls the Blazer onto the road. “I hate traveling now.”

“Don’t. Enjoy it now before I can’t do it anymore.”

“Will there be restrictions like that?”

“Could be. Dr. McGuire said that some multiple pregnancies end up on bed rest.”

“God, Kels, I don’t know what I’ll do if you’re on total bed rest and I have to leave town.”

I begin playing with her fingers, to distract her. Harper’s career is important to me, almost as important as the children, and definitely more important than my own. “You’ll go and do your job and show them what a damn fine producer you are, like always.”

“And run my cell phone bill through the ceiling.”

“Yup.”

She smiles at me triumphantly. “You owe a buck.”

“Aww can’t you let me slide this once?” I mimic her earlier statement. “Considering that you love me and you missed me?”

* * *

I didn’t expect to end up near a lake, especially such a beautiful lake. Harper shuts the engine off and turns to me with a grin. “Are you tired?”

“Not particularly. I slept most of the way here. The jet has a couch that I stretched out on. I tell you, it’s the only way to fly. I didn’t get claustrophobic once. What did you have in mind, Tabloid?” I hope she doesn’t want to go hiking or something else silly.

“You know what I had in mind but I brought dinner too.” She twists around and fetches a blanket and a basket from the backseat.

I take the blanket, laying it across my lap. “Let me see if I’ve got this right. You want to have dinner and make love here by the lake?” Oh my.

“Pretty much. Maybe not in that order.” She lifts her brow and leers at me. “I’ve missed you, Kels. If I don’t get to hold you and make love to you soon, I’m going to combust.”

“Hmm, is that so?”

“Oh, now don’t start teasing me. I’m serious here, darlin’. I need you.”

Yes, I can see that she does. I know that look by now. “And you thought outdoors would be a good reason, why?” I just can’t imagine what she’s suggesting we do.

“Because the cabin I’ve rented for us is still a little drive away. And it’s so beautiful here. It’s the perfect setting.” She leans over and nibbles on my earlobe. She knows all my weaknesses. “Do you have something against the great outdoors?”

“Not when it stays outdoors and I’m allowed to go indoors. And isn’t there a huge wildfire around here? We saw a ton of smoke while flying in.”

“It’s to the east, in Los Alamos. I had an interview set up for you there, but I suppose that’s canceled at this point. We’ll be just fine, baby.” She nuzzles my hair and kisses beneath my ear, right in the hollow. “The only heat you’re going to feel will be coming from me.”

“Okay, tell you what, let’s at least go have dinner down by the lake. It’s really beautiful here, Kels. I swear to you, you’ll love it. The air is fresh and clean and there’s a sense of peace here that’s unreal.”

* * *

Let’s have dinner by the lake.

I fell for that.

I should be slapped. God, that was almost as bad as every other pickup line I’ve ever heard and I fell for it. Hook, line and sinker.

I lift my head from Harper’s shoulder and look down into amused blue eyes. She brushes a strand of very damp hair behind my ear. “You are so bad for my willpower,” I whisper. I feel her laugh a bit and I give her a smack on a bare thigh. “Be nice! And hold still. You’re a lousy mattress. All lumpy and stuff.” I take the sting out of that comment by placing a moist kiss on one of my favorite lumps.

“Hey, a few minutes ago you thought I was the nicest person on the planet.”

Yes, I did. I think all the bird, fishes and critters in the near vicinity heard me too. I’ll never be able to look a deer in the eyes again. “Yeah, but now you’re being evil.”

“That must be why you were calling out to God. Trying to ward off evil spirits.”

Brat. She likes to show off. “Too bad it didn’t work.” I give her shoulder a little nip. She tastes so good. “I’ve never in my life made love outdoors.”

“Well, now you have. You can scratch it off your list.” She accompanies her comment with a scratch to my butt, eliciting a giggle.

“I don’t have a list like that, Tabloid.”

“Liar. Everyone has a list like that. Even if they won’t admit it.”

Okay, she got me there. But I refuse to have that conversation right now. It’s bad enough I’m bare ass naked outdoors right now. “And what do you have left on your list?”

“Hmm, waking up next to you everyday for the rest of my life.” She gently rolls me over and caresses my belly, which is starting to swell a little. I’m definitely getting heavier and Dr. McGuire told me I’d show earlier too, carrying twins. Harper gently cups her hand over it, covering our babies. “To raise our children together. To grow old with you and to enjoy our grandchildren together.”

How can I argue with that? I reach out for her and turn her eyes from my stomach and back to me. “Have I told you recently how much I love you?”

* * *

We finally make it to the cabin Harper has rented for us during our time in New Mexico. It’s a three room log cabin affair nestled in the woods abutting the Coyote Lake National Park. The mountains are highlighted by the red glow of the fire raging in Los Alamos. I know it’s horrible for the residents, but it does lend a strange beauty to the nighttime sky. The cabin is convenient to the reservation, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Of course, it’s also romantic as all get-out to, which I am sure also factored into Harper’s decision.

“So, you stayed at the reservation this past week?” I ask. I have settled down onto a wonderful rocking chair. I wonder if I can fit it on the plane going back to New York.

She makes a noncommittal grunt and wanders into the kitchen where she has started a pot of coffee for her and kettle of water for my tea.

“Harper, you know I’ll do the interviews as impartially as possible, but I’ve got to admit I’m a little uncomfortable with that.”

“What?”

“Your staying there. Honey, we don’t normally stay in the home of someone directly involved in the issue we’re reporting on. I can’t imagine that Langston would care for that much. It calls our impartiality into question too easily.”

“There was no place else to stay,” she answers returning with two mugs of our drinks.

I give her a look to convey my skepticism. “Albuquerque isn’t that far away. Neither is Cuba. Nor was Los Alamos, though I’m glad you didn’t stay there, actually. And we are here now.” I pat the chair next to me, asking her to come sit beside me. After a moment’s hesitation, she does. “Tell me what’s going on with you, Harper. This isn’t like you.”

She spreads her hands out, rubbing them over her jeans. “I feel at home there.”

I wasn’t expecting that answer. “What do you mean?”

“The first morning I stayed there, when I woke up, I went outside and took it all in. And, I realized, it fit. I fit. Does that make sense?”

“Go on,” I urge.

“It’s like a second home. A …” she pauses, clearly uncomfortable with what she’s about to say, “a spiritual one. I mean, I know New Orleans is my home. You are my home. My family is wonderful and I love them dearly. But, I guess, all my life I’ve always felt a bit adrift spiritually.” She picks up her mug and takes a long drink. “All my life I’ve watched my parents and their faith. Catholicism – even with its flaws – speaks to them. They can understand and follow the Judeo-Christian God.”

Okay, that I understand. Her parents’ faith, especially Mama’s, is clearly evident at home. “Go on,” I repeat.

“I’ve never understood it. I’ve never been able to fully embrace a religion that has to surreptitiously accept me and who I am. The priest who volunteered to do our wedding could be thrown out of the priesthood for doing so.” She blows out a deep breath. “I mean, it doesn’t make sense to me. A God who loves everyone but hates me? A God who would punish me for the way I was born? And then call it justice? I don’t understand it. I respect people of the Christian faith, but I’ve never shared it fully.”

“So what’s different here?”

“Their worldview is different. It speaks to me. Before the Native Americans were converted by the missionaries, they accepted all people. In fact, homosexuals were held in special regard. They believe things that I do: respect all things, be silent so you can learn, learn everything you hear, and then pass knowledge on to others. It’s a very holistic and spiritual approach to life. When I first stepped onto the Navajo land … it spoke to me. Shadow says that I am a HeartBlood.”

“Who’s Shadow and what’s a HeartBlood?”

“Shadow is a shaman and a HeartBlood is someone not born to the Red Way, but who embraces it. My heart has Navajo blood, even if my veins do not.”

Of all the times for Harper to have a religious revelation. Of course, it makes sense. We’re getting married, we’re having kids. Lots of life changes that require guidance. “Should we get another team to do this story?” I have to ask.

“Kels, honey, I’m scared senseless. I don’t know quite what to believe or do anymore. But, I promise you, I can still do a balanced story. When it’s in the can, though, I’d like to spend a couple days here and try to figure this out. I promise you the piece will not show favoritism to either side, no matter what. Do you trust me?”

“You know I do. I’m a little uncomfortable, that’s all.”

“So am I, but every once in a while you have to take a chance and hope it works out.”

“Shut up and jump, huh?” Seems to be our motto. Maybe I’ll get T-shirts made up for us.

She nods. “Shut up and jump.”

“All right, Tabloid, I’m right there with you. We go together.”

She leans over and kisses me gently. “Thank you, chér.”
Episode Fifteen: Blessings
My cell phone rings waking me up from a very happy place. I slap at my jacket draped on the chair. I pull out the offending appliance and flip it open. How can Kels sleep through this?

“Kingsley,” I growl, wanting whoever this idiot is to know they should not have called this early on a Sunday.

“Bonjour, mon Coeur,” Mama greets me happily.

I slide up the headboard, hoping that sitting upright might lead to consciousness on my part. Kels grumbles in protest and clutches at my waist, trying to pull me back down. I rub her back gently and she settles down.

“Le Jour Heureuse De la Mère,” I reply. “Comment ca va?” Happy Mother’s Day. How are things?

Kels lifts her head as I begin speaking. “What? Who is it?”

“Shh, baby. It’s Mama. Go back to sleep,” I soothe, gently stroking her hair.

“Wonderful!” Mother replies, oblivious to the morning hour. I confirm it is only six in the morning. Mama and I will be having a little chat soon. “It arrived yesterday! Je l’aime.”

“I’m glad you love it.” How could she not? All of us kids contributed and had a new kitchen table made for the Conspiracy. It’s a large cypress table with inlaid Italian tiles creating a colorful mosaic. It has all of our names in it, our spouse’s names, wedding dates, grandkids names and birthdates … with plenty of room for more.

“She liked it?” Kels echoes, still insisting on waking. She struggles to sit up, the blanket falling away, exposing luscious flesh to my view. She follows my line of sight, grinning at how easily I am distracted by her. She takes the phone from me. It’s for the best. I don’t even remember who I’m talking to. “Hi, Mama!”

Shit! Mama. I was thinking of doing things my Mama would not approve of while on the phone with her. That’s not quite true. She’d approve of them, but I really don’t want to think about that.

I listen while Kels chats with Mama. Thank God for her. I lean forward and kiss Kels’ shoulder before slipping out of bed. I pad to the bathroom and splash water on my face, getting rid of the last vestiges of sleep. I also brush my teeth and gargle. I have plans for my girl now that we’re up.

I come back into the bedroom, am instructed to say goodbye to Mama, and stretch out on the bed by Kels. “Good morning, sweetheart.”

She brushes her hand against my cheek. “Hi there. We should have bought Mama a clock.”

I laugh. “Next year,” I vow. I scoot down the bed and hover over Kels’ belly. Those are my babies in there. “Hi there, champs. First off, thank you for letting us sleep and for not making me sick.” They’ve earned a kiss for that. “Second, I want you to know that today is your very first Mother’s Day. This is a very good thing for you, because you have the best da … darn mother in the world.”

Kels begins running her fingers down my bare back. That’s nice. And distracting.

Focus, Harper. “Now, it’s traditional to give your mother a gift today. Since you two can’t really go shopping yet, I helped you out this year. But, next year, I won’t be cutting you any slack.” That said, I twist and reach into the nightstand and pull out the small box I hid there yesterday.

“Harper, you shouldn’t have.”

“I should have and, more importantly, I wanted to.” I put it in her hands. “Open it.”

She does and removes the cameo pendant necklace within. “Harper! It’s beautiful!” she exclaims.

“Let me,” I urge and I take it from her. I unclasp the necklace and put it around her neck. The cameo lands just at the rise of her breasts. “The three,” I angle the pendant so she can see the carving, “are the Graces, from Greek mythology. And that’s what you and the babies are to me: pure grace. Unexpected, joyous, grace.”

I watch as Kels struggles to say something. She finally gives up and instead pulls me down to kiss her.

I like Mother’s Day.

* * *

Well, at least the morning sickness seems to be history. Thank God. It’s so very nice to get up in the morning on my own, rather than that rude way my children choose to do it for me. Or how Mama chose to do it for me yesterday.

Sipping a cup of tea, I watch Harper work with the remote crew, framing shots and telling them what she wants. She obtained lots of good footage while she was here and all of my interviews have been very successful. So now we do the final stand up and head back to the affiliate to do the edit.

After that, it looks like we’ll be taking a few days off to stay here so Harper can explore this new philosophy that has caught her attention. Damn, if Langston finds out what’s going on here, my darling spouse-to-be will be in a lot of trouble. I’m just going to have to make good and sure that doesn’t happen.

There is something about being pregnant that turns you into a lioness. Right now, in her current state, Harper is another cub of mine and this lioness has serious claws.

I’ve watched her these last few days and she does seem to come to life when we are with the Diné. It’s amazing to watch a spark come to life in those eyes. It’s the same kind of spark I see when we talk about the babies. So, this must be a good thing. Right?

I take another sip of my tea and begin wandering around a little, taking in the fresh air and the beautiful land of the reservation. My thoughts are interrupted by my partner’s voice. “Kels, you ready?”

I turn with a smile and head to her. “Absolutely, boss. Which shot do you want first?”

She looks at me, giving me a good once-over. It’s like it’s the first time we’ve worked together. I wonder if I’ve grown another arm. I can’t help but examine myself for the problem. “What?”

“I think we’re going to use a tighter shot on this than I originally thought, Kels.” She says this as gently as she can.

I lift my brow. Great, now I look too pregnant to use in a long shot. Okay, fine. I knew this was going to happen. I didn’t expect it so soon, though. I nod. “Standard two thirds?”

“Yeah, a medium should do it.” She waits for the cameraman to signal he’s ready.

All in all, I’m not having a great time on this story. I’m stressed and I’m getting fat. I take a deep breath and set my cup down in the truck. “Let’s do it.”

Harper takes my arm and pulls me to the side. I’m sure to the crew it looks like she has to stroke the Talent’s ego before doing the shoot. “Are you okay, sweetheart?”

“I’m fine. I’m fine.” I smile reassuringly at her, patting her on the shoulder. “All those nasty hormones are starting to kick in. Watch your backside, Tabloid. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

* * *

“I think we need to use a little more footage of the Geo-Tech interview here. Hand me the tape, will you?”

I rummage through the pile and manage to find the one marked with the Geo-Tech label. “That guy was a jerk, but I hate to admit, he made sense.”

“Yeah, he did. The company is definitely looking to make the facility as safe as possible.” She pushes the tape into the reader. “Another complicated issue.”

I lean back in my chair and rub my eyes, yawning a bit, watching Harper cue the tape. “As safe as any storage facility can be. Let’s hope the contractors don’t use substandard materials.”

“Ooo, Kels.” Her eyes never waiver from the tapes she’s working with. “Spoken like a true reporter. Bet you believe in men in black and the silent helicopters, too.”

“You don’t? Okay, the wedding’s off.” I chuckle, getting to my feet to stretch a bit. If I don’t move, I’m gonna fall asleep on the equipment. Harper surprises me by unerringly finding and rubbing my stomach as I do so while never looking away from the monitor. “It is amazing what people will do for money though. Hey, speaking of which, my dad wants us to come up to his house when we get back.”

This does make her pause for a moment, but she still doesn’t look at me. “His house? Where is it?”

“Upstate. He said he has someone he wants me to meet. What do you think?”

“Do you want to?” This question is accompanied by a scratch to my belly.

I stretch a little more, giving it some thought. “Yeah, yeah, I think I do. You think we can manage it?”

“Don’t see why not? Who does he want you to meet?”

“Dunno.” I give her shoulders a rub. Damn, they’re tight. “He wouldn’t tell me over the phone.” I continue the massage, standing feels good to me, and I think Harper is enjoying the rubdown. Wait until I get her back to the cabin. I’ll show her what a rub down is meant to be.

“Well, he loaned you his plane. The least we can do is go up and say thanks in person.”

“That’s a good reason too. You do realize we’ll be taking that plane home.”

She barely nods, intent on the work she’s doing.

I lean over and whisper in her ear. “Think we’ll fly over Denver?”

Her groan is priceless.

* * *

It’s late when we finally finish the piece.

“Kels, come on, darlin’, wake up.” I give her a little shake. She grumbles a very grouchy ‘no’ and rolls over on the couch, away from me.

The editor who gave me a hand on the piece chuckles, sipping from his mug. “Sounds like my wife in the morning.”

Wonder if his wife is eleven weeks pregnant? “Come on, Kels. We’re done. It’s time to go.”

She finally rolls over and opens her eyes. Damn, they are beautiful when she’s first waking up. “Done, huh?” she mumbles, rubbing them.

“Yup, that voiceover you did before you crashed out was the thing we needed to pull it together.”

“Sorry, Tabloid. I didn’t mean to fall asleep on you like that. I just got really tired. It’s been a long day.”

“I know, but we can head out now. We’ve got a great story here.”

“Of course we do.” She gives me a little smile, sitting up on the couch. “Could we do anything less?”

“Not in this lifetime.” I laugh a little.

“Are you all set, Ms. Kingsley?” The editor finishes making some log notes, checking reference points on his copy.

“Yeah, John, we’re all set. Thanks for your help.”

“My pleasure.” He gets up, extending his hand first to me, then to Kels. “Always nice to help out the network. If you need anything else before you leave, let us know.” With a nod, he leaves us alone. He was a nice guy and he was intent on impressing us.

“Come on, sweetheart. Let’s get you back to the cabin so you can get some real rest.”

“Dunno, why I’m so tired,” she groans.

“I can think of two very good reasons.” I give her tummy a little rub. “And all three of you need a good night’s sleep.”

* * *

“Sweetheart,” Harper whispers far too early in the morning. We’re snuggled together in the cabin about to begin another No Clothes Day for Harper. It’s no longer confined to Saturdays. Especially since we’re taking a couple comp days. Langston wasn’t thrilled, but Harper didn’t give him a lot of choice when she promised to get some footage of the burn in Los Alamos.

Little did he know, she had already done it. The one thing you can count on with Harper is, when there’s a story she’s going to have a camera turned on it. We used a small segment in our story pointing out another potential hazard to the site, but there’s a lot of good footage left over. It’ll fit in well with a piece Sam is doing on expensive blunders by the government. Hard to believe someone in the Park Service actually set the fire despite the weather conditions.

It was fun listening to her argue with Langston on the phone. God, I love it when she gets all cranky. Every now and then I miss seeing the big, bad ass, leather clad biker I first met. But, I wouldn’t give up what we have now for anything. Rough and rumble is fun, but it doesn’t make for a relationship.

“Sweetheart,” she tries again. “I have something I need to ask you.”

“What?” I grumble and knead her skin like a kitten does its mama.

She begins twitching under my onslaught. “Stop that!” She slaps my hands gently. “You’re insane, you know that?” Harper pulls me tightly against her and kisses under my jaw, distracting me. “Now, I have a question.”

I remain silent, hoping it will elicit further kisses. No such luck.

“Cora asked me to do a sweat with her today. I’d like to do it, but, not if it makes you uncomfortable.”

The thought of Harper sweating with anyone other than me makes me more than a little bit uncomfortable. Now, how can I not sound like a completely jealous and controlling woman? “What happens in a sweat?”

“Other than we sweat?”

Her hand travels down my back and caresses a cheek which is slightly sunburned from our afternoon by the lake. I flinch. “Hey! Careful down there!”

“Sorry, baby.”

“Not everyone is as naturally dark-skinned as you. Now, answer my question.”

“It’s a spiritual thing, Kels. You go into a hut and get hot. Your body is cleansed of impurities and you are able to see to the other side.”

Oh boy. “This is important to you?”

She takes a deep breath under me. “It is. More than I would have thought before I came here.” Her eyes are puzzled, as is her tone. “I don’t understand it myself, Kels.”

“Then do it,” I say, shoving aside my own hesitation. “If it’s that important to you, it’s important to me.”

“You sure? Because you’re the most important thing in my life.”

That helps. “Absolutely. I want you to be happy. And I think this will make you happy.” I kiss her chest. “If it’s good for you, then it has to be good for us, right?” I will make that true.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Tabloid.”

Her hands cup both of my cheeks again, sending a mixture of tingles along my spine. “How would you like to work up a sweat with me right now, though?”

“Maybe you should save your strength. The sweat sounds pretty intense.” I’m only half kidding.

“Maybe you’re right,” she does an exaggerated stretch. “I’ll just sleep a little while longer then.”

I know she’s teasing, but, I kinda need a chance to get a grip on this concept. “Okay, honey,” I whisper and kiss the corner of her mouth before crawling out of her arms and heading for the bathroom.

I need a little time to myself to think.

* * *

I stand outside the hut with Cora. I’m a bit apprehensive. This is a new thing for me. A religious thing. I’ve never considered myself religious. I’ve never quite felt comfortable with God indoors.

I also know that Kels isn’t quite thrilled with this. I don’t know what exactly it is that’s bugging her. She’s never seemed opposed to other religions. I think she grew up Protestant, but not practicing. Is it the nudity? Cora told me I could go in wearing my skivvies, so, that’s what I’m doing. I can understand not wanting to share.

I would kill anyone who made a move on Kels. And, I’d die if I thought she wanted someone else.

But that’s just me.

We’re standing outside, wrapped in blankets for the moment, waiting to enter. Aunt Shadow is going to join us. She is making her way over to us, moving carefully over the uneven terrain.

Not far from the hut is a large fire that has provided the flame for the sweat. There are several women attending to it, and to the feast that is prepared for afterward. Kels is over there talking quietly with one of Cora’s relatives. She is carefully keeping her eyes from wandering over here.

I wish I knew what was going on inside her.

Should I even go through with this?

“Yes,” Shadow says, now at my side.

I look at her, wondering how she heard my thoughts. Of course, there is no way that she could have.

“It’s time,” she continues and drops her robe. She lights a braid of sweetgrass and runs her hand through the white smoke. She directs it over her head, then over each shoulder, down her chest, over each leg and then back over her head and face. Then, naked as the day she came into this world, the shaman lifts the flap and steps into the sweat.

Cora shakes her head. “It’s time,” she echoes, smirking. She folds her blanket, repeats her aunt’s movements with the sweetgrass and steps inside.

Alright Harper, stop being a baby. I take the smoldering braid and follow their example.

* * *

The first thing I notice is it is ungodly hot in the hut. The heat and steam are oppressive and I am immediately coated from head to toe in sweat. It is an aptly named practice, I suppose. The bra and underwear I am wearing are now a second skin, so I’m glad they’re a beige tone and not white.

Through the fog, I see Shadow and Cora stretched out on the floor on hides, taking deep breaths, eyes shut. I lay down and do the same.

“The sweat is a joyous time,” Shadow intones from her side of the fire. “There are many reasons to celebrate. Why are you here today?”

A very good question. But, if we want to talk about celebrating, “I’m getting married soon.”

“A good reason. She is very beautiful.”

I look over at Cora, wondering what she’s told her aunt about me. “She is.”

“But there’s more. What else are you celebrating?”

“Her. Her life. She nearly died at the beginning of the year.” God, it’s hard to talk about even now. Or maybe it’s just the effects of the heavy air.

Okay, something is burning on my body. Houston, we have a problem. I sit up and immediately cringe as I singe more of my stomach. It’s my goddamn navel ring. The metal has absorbed the heat of the hut and is radiating it through my abdomen.

I try to figure out a way to stand up that will not require me using my stomach muscles whatsoever. Cora and Shadow lay there peacefully unaware of my plight. This is going to be embarrassing having to leave so soon. Guess many Navajo don’t have navel rings where they would think to mention this particular hazard.

“In the sweat, you acknowledge the gifts of the spirits. The gift of your lifemate and her life. I celebrate your finding the Red Way, your willingness to respect and to listen.”

“I celebrate the voice you have given to the Navajo by coming here,” Cora adds.

To my surprise, and relief, they both now climb to their feet and head toward the exit. This was a bit short, I must admit.

We all step outside, and take huge gulps of air. I reach down and try to remove the ring from my bellybutton. The metal is still hot and I have to move quickly. “Yow!” I cry.

This immediately draws Kels’ attention from across the way. She hurries over to my side, carrying a glass of water. “You okay?”

I nod and hold out the hoop. “Can you hold on to this for me?”

She begins laughing at my plight. “And here I thought something was wrong.” She takes it and puts it in her pocket. “I’ll have fun putting that back on you later tonight,” she whispers.

I take her glass and dump it over my head. That’s better.

“Come,” Shadow commands and steps back inside.

“See you in a bit,” I whisper and, once Cora and her aunt are inside, I steal a kiss.

* * *

We all stretch out on the floor immediately. It seems a little more bearable now that I’ve had air not burning through my lungs for a few moments or metal trying to melt into my flesh.

It’s almost pleasant until Shadow reaches over and ladles water over the circle of heated rocks in the center of the hut. New steam fills the hut and I wonder if I am supposed to be able to breathe in here.

We repeat this process five more times, never staying inside the sweat hut for more than a few minutes at a time. On our seventh and, Shadow assures me, last trip into the hut, we all lay on the ground, silent.

I am hot and dehydrated and exhausted. All my energy has been sapped. I look and feel like the boneless chickens they sell in the grocery store and in that Gary Larson cartoon. I close my eyes and relax, wanting to complete the experience successfully.

I drift for what seems like forever.

“Holy mother!” I cry, jerking myself upright. I claw at my chest, trying to loosen my bra which must be suffocating me, the way I feel.

“You saw,” Shadow says.

I look at her through the mist. I try to speak, but I can’t. The air is too thick and my mind is reeling.

Cora stands up and offers me her hand, “Come, my sister, let’s rejoin our family.”

* * *

We exit the hut for the seventh and final time. I stagger out, a bit overwhelmed by what just happened.

I saw.

I saw Kels and our babies. Except, they weren’t quite babies. They were toddlers. They were happy and healthy and playing here. Well, not quite here. Playing where the storage facility is supposed to be built, but it’s not there.

I couldn’t really make out much. Kels looked beautiful, motherhood suiting her. The twins were too far away for me to tell much about them, other than one was fair-haired and the other dark.

I think I was there. I didn’t see me, though.

God, will I not be with them?

I nearly lose my balance, but sure hands are sliding around my waist. I recognize Kels’ touch instantly. I lean against her, grateful for her presence, and mindless of how messy I am.

She picks up on my fear and immediately begins leading me away from the others. I feel a bench against the back of my legs and she sits me down. She then drapes a blanket around my shoulders. “Relax, baby,” she coos and then she fetches me a glass of water. “Drink this,” she instructs, holding the glass before me.

I obey.

“Are you okay?”

“I love you.”

She rakes her fingers through my damp hair, rearranging the strands away from my face. “I know you do. I love you too.”

“Don’t ever leave me, Kels. Please don’t.”

Kelsey smiles and gently whisks away the sweat from my face. “Never.”

I close my arms around her waist and pull her tightly against me, burying my face into her stomach, wanting, needing to be close to her and our children.

Kels folds her arms around me.

This is home.

* * *

A little while later, we join Cora and her family at the dinner. I am happy to have my core body temperature back to normal. And I am happier still to have Kels’ hand securely in mine. It makes it a little difficult to dish out the food, but I don’t care. I pause when I encounter a huge pot of jambalaya. “Kels?”

She blushes. “Mama gave me her recipe. I thought you might like it.”

“Thanks, chér.”

A bit reluctantly, we join Cora and her aunt at their table. I am embarrassed at my behavior at the end of the sweat. Fortunately, neither of them mention it and instead welcome us warmly.

“You are a true HeartBlood, Harper,” Shadow congratulates me.

I am dumbfounded. I feel like a wannabe and a failure. I say as much.

“You had a glimpse, did you not? The spirits showed you something. They do not speak to everyone. They only speak to those who will listen.”

I feel Kels tense beside me. She clearly doesn’t like the idea of me having visions. I’m not overly thrilled with it either, to be honest. “I did,” I admit quietly. Can we change the subject now?

Fortunately, Cora does that for me. “I would like to invite you to be part of our people, Harper.”

“I don’t know if I can. I can’t stay here.”

“It’s not about a physical presence. It’s a spiritual one.” Shadow pulls out a pipe and lights it, drawing in the smoke deep into her lungs. If I didn’t know how sacred the tobacco was, I’d be fanning the smoke away from Kels and the babies. “You don’t have to be here to be a part of us. You already are practicing the four principles.”

“What does being a member of your clan entail?”

“Nothing,” Cora smiles gently, patient with me. “It’s not like joining a club. There aren’t any dues or membership forms. I’m inviting you to be a part of our family.” She turns her attention to Kelsey. “Members of our clan can celebrate many facets of life.”

I look at Kels, wondering if she caught the not so subtle hint. We could elope. I could wear shorts. I’ve been informed by both Mama and Kels that is not an option for our June wedding. Kels reaches over and takes my hand in silent response.

“I’d be honored.”

Shadow beams. “So, tonight, we celebrate an adoption and a BlessingWay.”

I rub my thumb over the back of Kels’ hand. Truth be told, being with Kels is like being born again every single day.

* * *

Less than two hours later, in the waning afternoon sunlight, there are four of us standing on a hilltop. I am wearing shorts, a loose linen shirt and topsiders, feeling very comfortable. Kels looks equally at ease, dressed in similar fashion, though her shirt is not tucked in and she’s wearing hiking boots. Maybe we’re relaxed because we’ve had no time to worry about this little ceremony, no one to put expectations on it.

Cora steps forward and extends her right hand toward me. “From this day forward, I will call you my sister, and one of the Bít’ahnii. You will have all the rights and privileges as a member of my family.”

I take her hand. Shadow steps forward and wraps a single piece of rawhide around each of our right wrists, binding our hands together. She begins an incantation over our wrists in the language of the Diné. When finished, she cuts the length between our wrists and bends down to the ground with it. Once it is buried in the earth, she rises and cuts the bands from our wrists.

Cora hands me the one from her wrist and I follow her example. We both put them in our medicine pouches, which hang about our necks. Cora gave me one prior to the ceremony. It now holds the band signifying my membership in the clan and will soon include several items representing Kels.

“Thank you,” I say, embracing Cora.

“Be true to your path, Harper.” She gestures to include Kels. “The spirits are leading you to a fulfilling land.” She steps back.

I look up at the sky, now streaked with red. On the horizon, the sun sits like a guest hesitant to leave. The wind brings the scent of sage and the hint of rain. The breeze feels good on my skin, lifting the back of my shirt gently.

Turning my gaze to my bride, I feel everything within me calm. Kels looks like she might lose her lunch, on the other hand.

I lean forward and whisper in her ear. “Remember, I’m a sympathetic barfer.”

She is able to keep from laughing for only a few moments. “Great, Tabloid, that’s gonna be what I will always remember about our wedding day.”

“Nah, you said you’d remember it was all my idea, at least if Mama ever finds out.”

That earns me the smile I was looking for. Our fingers tangle together and we wait for the shaman to begin our ceremony. I like this. Simple. Serene. Outdoors. Intimate.

Growing up and attending all of my brothers’ weddings, I never thought I would experience one myself. I still don’t. We’ll do the ceremony for our family, but it seems a bit out of place to me. The state doesn’t recognize it. The church absolutely won’t. It almost would be a waste of time, but for the symbolism. That and the fact I want Kelsey to never lack for anything for having chosen me, and that includes a wedding.

But, this is real. In the eyes of the Diné, we will be legitimately married. In their sovereign state, we are recognized. That has meaning to me. We have a place in this world.

“Harper, did you bring the items for your pouch?” Shadow asks.

I nod, my mouth suddenly dry. I swallow and find Kels smirking at my discomfort. I reach up and pull the pouch outside of my shirt and then I rummage in my pocket. I remove a handkerchief which has several items inside it.

“Kelsey, I asked Harper before the ceremony to bring some things that would symbolize you and your relationship together. Those she will put in her pouch, keeping it, and you, close to her heart always. As she puts each item in, she will say why she chose each.”

I pick up a wooden matchstick first. “This reminds me of the fire in your belly, the spark of life you have. That, and you set my skin on fire every time you touch me.”

Kelsey blushes.

“The rose petals remind me of how much beauty you bring into my life. They smell sweet and will always remind me of spring and our joining.” I drop the petals into the pouch and catch a hint of their perfume. I pick up one of the new gold dollars. “This is indicative of my promise to always provide for you and our children. In good or bad times, wherever we are, you will never lack for anything you need.”

Kels eyes hold mine, conveying more with a look than I seem to be able to with words.

“And, finally,” I carefully fold up one of our precious photos of our children, “a picture of our babies. We are family. You know how I feel about family, Kels. It is the one truly sacred thing in this world.”

That starts the tears. She held out longer than I expected. I sniff, to keep from joining her.

Cora steps forward and drapes a blanket around both of our shoulders. “The blanket symbolizes your being covered together, a willingness to share a bed and a life going forward.” Shadow then binds our wrists together exactly the same way she had bound mine and Cora’s.

Together they sing over us. I have absolutely no idea what the words are that they intone, but, even if it were in English, I doubt if I would understand any better. Under cover of the blanket, Kels snuggles up against me. Her eyes are closed and she rests her cheek against my breast.

I feel complete.

The singing ends and we reluctantly part. It’s almost physically painful. The shaman cuts the cord and buries the joining segment at our feet. The two bands from our wrists are placed into my pouch.

“Now -” Shadow begins but Kels clears her throat, interrupting her.

“I have something I’d like to give Harper.”

The shaman smiles kindly and nods. “Please.”

I watch her reach into her pocket and pull out a box which had been carefully concealed by her untucked blouse. “Harper, I love you. For the first time in my life, I’ve experienced love and understanding in ways I never thought possible, until you. You have taken care of me, loved me when I had no right to expect you to. You have stood by me in the darkness and led me into the light. Now you keep me safe and warm and have given me a family who makes me feel the same. As our family is about to grow, I want to give you this.” She presses the box into my hands. “Today is the perfect day for it. I hope you’ll wear it with the love intended.”

I open the box and find a bracelet, letting out a low whistle at its beauty. I can only begin to guess at all the time and effort Kels went to in finding it. I take it out and open the clasp, slipping it onto my wrist. It fits perfectly. “Thank you, Little Roo,” I whisper, unable to do much more.

We turn our attention back to the ceremony. Holding her hands up in benediction, Shadow says, “Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be shelter for the other. Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be warmth to the other. Now there will be no loneliness, for each of you will be companion to the other. Now you are two persons, but there is only one life before you. May beauty surround you both in the journey ahead and through all the years, may happiness be your companion and your days together be good and long upon the earth.”

I guess that’s it. We’re married.

“Now, you should kiss your bride. Hold the blanket up over your heads, concealing you both, for your marriage is a private thing between only the two of you.”

Ah, I get to kiss my girl. That’s what I wanted to hear. I readily pull the blanket over us and bend down to meet her lips with mine. The kiss is achingly sweet and tastes salty. It is then I realize I am crying. I gather Kels as tightly against me as I can, wishing I could make her a physical part of me. I feel the swell of her belly against me and it brings on a fresh flood of tears. Parting, I drop to my knees and press a kiss to her stomach, before she pulls me up to her mouth again.

“Thank you,” I whisper.

* * *

We have some time before the reception celebrating our BlessingWay. Now that the ceremony is complete, Harper and I are married in the eyes of the nation. This makes Harper happy and willing to let Mama have the ceremony she wants in New Orleans. So now Mama will be happy. As long as those two are taken care of, I’m thrilled.

Watching Cora, Shadow and Harper together I can see how much she fits in here. She has finally found a spiritual home. Cora smiles at Harper, hugging her and giving her the blanket we were married under.

“Thank you,” Harper says quietly, rubbing her hand over its surface. A tear threatens to slide down her cheek, but I reach up and wipe it away. Without missing a beat, she captures my hand and kisses the palm.

Cora and Shadow leave quietly, giving us some time alone. “Come on, sweetheart, there’s something we need to do.” She reaches into her pocket as we walk toward the Blazer. “Kels, would you mind driving?”

The surprise must show in my face when I take the keys. “Sure. Are you all right, honey?”

“I’m feeling a little overwhelmed at the moment.” She stops us by the truck and gives me a very tender kiss. “This is everything I need and want, but I’m still a little …” her voice trails off.

“You’re settling into it, Harper. Take your time. I’m right here beside you.”

“Ah, Little Roo, that’s the best part.”

* * *

With our purchases made at the reservation store, we return to Cora’s house for the celebration. It looks like a Kingsley get-together only with a few more bodies and a few more kids. No wonder Harper loves it here.

I take a seat at a table while Harper makes her presentations to those gathered. It’s traditional to give a blanket to each family in the clan. In the past, the number of blankets you had indicated your wealth and your ability to provide for your kin. As a new member, Harper now has family obligations. She gives one blanket to each family group in the clan, but presents Cora with four, one for each member of her family. This is because Cora is now her sister, so special honor is paid to her. The only other person to receive an individual blanket is Aunt Shadow, as a token for marrying us.

Aunt Shadow takes a seat next to me after receiving hers. She takes my hand and pats the back of it gently. “Welcome to you as well, Kelsey. You are a part of our clan too, you know.”

I smile at her gentle nature and nod. “I married well.”

“Yes, you did. Harper is fortunate to have found you. You are her center, her balance.”

Hmm, that’s very nearly the same thing Rene said to me.

“Without you, her life never would have balanced. She would always have been moving from place to place, never staying anywhere too long. Now she will settle and her life will become full in ways that she never was able to imagine.”

“I’m glad to know I make a difference.”

“You are the difference.” She pats my arm reassuringly. “Your babies are healthy and doing very well.” This she says with a distant look in her eyes. “You’re taking very good care of them, even now before they are born”

Did Harper tell them about the babies? I certainly haven’t mentioned them and I know I’m not that big yet.

The shaman laughs at me. “You glow. Only women who are with child glow like that. And, I saw Harper put a sonogram picture into her pouch. I am old, but not blind,” she chuckles at her own self-deprecation. “Your glow is for more than one, though. How many are there?”

“Two.”

“Hmm, two babies is truly a blessed thing. Four is a sacred number to the Navajo. Your family is now constituted of four people. You were meant to be a mother.”

“Do you think so? I’ve been…”

“I know. Don’t question and don’t doubt your ability to have children and raise them. You wouldn’t have been blessed if it wasn’t meant to be.”

The breath I release is a relieved one. I don’t know why, but lately I’ve been feeling a little scared. Oh, hell, I know why. I wasn’t kidding when I told Harper those nasty hormones were kicking in.

“Now,” she pats my hand, “go to your lifemate. She knows you’re not beside her and she is missing you.”

I rise and look into eyes that have seen more than I ever will, even given my line of work. “Thank you so much.”

“Thank you for bringing the HeartBlood to us.” She returns my smile, then shoos me toward Harper.

I don’t know how she could possibly be missing me. She surrounded by dozens of people, including of course every child in the clan. I can only laugh as I make my way to her and watch her cuddle a newborn. Yup, I’m gonna have to wrestle her for our children.

* * *

She looks at me like I’ve lost my mind when I take a left instead of a right at the fork in the road. The right would have taken us back to the cabin. “Kels.” Her head turns and she looks back at the road I didn’t take. “Are we not going back to the cabin? We have a honeymoon to get to, you know?”

I chuckle. “And I thought my hormones were out of control. No, we’re not going back to the cabin.”

“Why not?” This is said with a petulant whine. She sounded exactly like Christian. Too bad he’s only three.

“It’s going to be okay, Tabloid. Close your eyes and relax.”

“Kels…”

I hold up a finger and wag it at her. “No arguments. You know how inventive I can be. If you need a reminder, I have one word: Saturday.”

I glance over and watch her settle back into the seat and close her eyes. There’s a huge smile on her face.

I sigh. Sometimes it’s just too easy.

* * *

Leading her by hand to the clearing, I find everything has been arranged as planned.

Cora and I managed to pull this surprise together in a very short amount of time. I told her what I wanted to do for Harper and she suggested this beautiful spot. She then sent her husband and brother to the clearing by the lake to fix it up for us.

They prepared a fire which Cora guarantees me will provide us plenty of warmth and burn through the night. They have also provided us with food, sparkling grape juice, and a simple shelter, complete with a soft, makeshift bed. I have brought the blanket from the ceremony and there are three others on the bed already. I need to find my place here. I hope this will show Harper how much I support her decision. I have a feeling we’re going to be spending time here in the future.

The moon is rising above the mountains, silhouetting the trees, and illuminating the night gently. It’s more beautiful in the moonlight than in the day. There’s less chance of sunburn for what I have planned too.

“Okay, Tabloid, open your eyes.”

She does so. She stares at the camp for a moment before she turns to me. “Kels, I don’t know what to say.”

“Don’t say anything. Just kiss me.”

“Oh, sweetheart, I can do that.”

And then she proceeds to make good on her promise. Another batch of brain cells are choked out, but, damn, it’s for a good cause. “Whoa!” I take a deep breath and steady my legs, holding onto Harper for dear life. “You are so very good at that.”

“I’m good at a lot of things.” Her grin is truly evil.

“Yes, you are. Before I let you prove it, I have something I want to give to you.”

I lead her to the shelter and place the first blanket in her hands. “This is ours. Yours and mine, to keep us safe and warm for the rest of our lives together.” Harper smiles and takes it from me. I pick up the other two, which are much smaller. “These are for our babies. I would like for them to be brought home from the hospital wrapped in them. That way they’ll know we’ll always be there to keep them safe and warm.”

Harper nods tightly. “Sounds good to me.” She holds up her wrist. “Tell me about the bracelet. It’s so beautiful.”

I explain the symbolism of the sapphires, diamonds, black pearl and our intertwined initials. “Le coeur a ses raisons;” I whisper, echoing the inscription she put in my engagement ring

“De quelle raison sait rien,” she replies and then leans forward to kiss me.

Yes, the heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing. And I will always be grateful for that fact.

* * *

I can’t help but laugh as I make my way back up the long, horizontal body under me. She’s still groaning and, for some reason unknown to me, grasping at the top of the bedroll. It’s like she’s looking for something. “What are you doing?” I ask, giving her soft kisses on the chin.

“Looking for the top of my head.” She lifts her head and grins down at me, where I am happily nestled between her breasts. “How do you do that?”

“I’ll never tell.” I take a deep breath, placing a soft kiss to each breast. Well, it’s now or never. I need to know. “Harper?”

“Yeah?” Her hands stroke and massage my back, scratching me lightly.

That’s good. I like that. If I were Trouble, I’d be purring. Hell, I’m not Trouble and I still might, it just feels that good. “After the wedding in New Orleans, how would you feel if I took the name Kingsley?”

Her head comes up again, but she doesn’t say anything. Okay, that must have been over the line. I pushed too far. Damn it. I knew our good run couldn’t last forever.

She reaches down and pulls me up to her and kisses me. It’s a long, lingering, extremely passionate kiss. Then she cups my face in her hands. “I’d be honored, darlin’. Simply honored.”

Oh, thank God. “I, personally, think Kelsey Diane Kingsley has a really nice ring to it.”

“It does. It sounds beautiful, like you are.” She gives me another little kiss and a hug to go with it. “Do you not want Stanton at all, though? As a tribute to your grandpa?”

“Well, as far as work goes, I’ll have to keep Stanton. And on paper I can put in the dreaded hyphen.” I give her collarbone a kiss as I settle down in her embrace. “But privately, and among our family and friends I want it to be Kingsley.”

“Nah, no hyphen. Just have four names. Be unique.” She chuckles. “And, you already are a Kingsley, darlin’, in every way that counts. You see, you’re a HeartBlood in my clan. And, your adoption took place about seven months ago.”

I settle down in her arms and close my eyes, allowing my hand to caress her. As I let myself drift into a content sleep, I feel Harper pull our blankets over us. I realize then that this woman lying here next to me is now my wife. I smile against her shoulder, happy with that thought. I feel her tuck the blankets around us to ward off the night air, keeping us safe and warm.

I am complete too.

No matter where we are or what we are doing, in these arms, I am home.
Episode Sixteen: Every Heartbeat Bears Your Name
There is a reason why some people are in front of the camera and others of us remain behind it. As I watch Kels mingle with the celebrity types in the room, I know why my lovely spouse is part of the former group. She simply captivates everyone she comes in contact with. Her smile is contagious, her bearing more than regal, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s drop-dead gorgeous. Well, at least to me she is. And I’m the only one who counts.

The formal suit she had made for the Peabody Awards luncheon hides her pregnancy perfectly. Except to my eyes. I can see the swell which represents our children, our future together. I recognize the glow about her that is more than her alone. I know why she is wearing the cameo nestled against her skin.

I know her by heart.

Kels is at ease around the multitude of still and video cameras that are constantly turned on her and the other celebrities in the room. I know it helps her confidence that the awards aren’t broadcast. So there won’t be a lot of people studying the tapes who might discover our secret. The awards banquet is, however, documented and photographed like there is no tomorrow for the archives.

I also understand why Erik had her on his arm as often as possible. God, I wish I could have her on mine. She makes social interactions more pleasant. She knows how to flatter people without seeming false. She knows when to joke or flirt or offer an insightful comment. She’s great with people in these type of settings.

I am a producer. We’re not expected to have amazing social skills. We’re to havesuperior organizational skills, a competitive nature and a willingness to do anything to get the story. People don’t flock to us at parties. Except the executives. They know we’re the power behind the Talent.

I watch her laugh and nod at something said and I realize two things. One, I’m staring and I need to stop. And, two, I’ve barely heard a word our former boss from KNBC has said in the last ten minutes. I give my best professional smile to Chambers, like I have a clue as to what he’s talking about. It can’t be very interesting. He wasn’t before.

He takes another sip of his scotch, taking a moment’s break. “Just sorry we lost you two. Wish we could have kept you, but I knew it was only a matter of time until you got a better offer.”

“Well, at least we got you a Peabody before we left.” KNBC will receive the Peabody and Chambers will give the acceptance speech on our behalf since we don’t work there any longer. Even still, it’s a huge feather in my cap to have produced the segment. It’s what earned me the spot on Exposure. And it’s what will one day help get me a GM spot at a station.

“You most certainly did,” Chambers agrees. “You two are dynamite together. Does CBS realize how lucky they are?”

Okay, he wasn’t this friendly when we worked for him. I think the Peabody and the scotch are working in my favor right now. “They seem to. We get good stories. Our numbers are good. Kels’ Q rating is high. You and I both know that it’s the numbers that count.”

I sip my own drink, a merlot, and glance back over to where Kels is standing. She has her arm looped through Martin Sheen’s. His show, ‘The West Wing’ has garnered a Peabody this year. The place is swarming with lots of famous faces from L.A. Kels knows most of them already due to her relationship with Erik.

God, I really do wish she could be on my arm.

A chime sounds indicating the end of the cocktail hour and the beginning of lunch. This is good news. At least I get to sit with Kels at the table. I make my polite goodbye to Chambers and hustle over to our seats. My girl joins me soon.

“Hi. I am so glad to sit down. My lower back is killing me.”

“I’ll take care of it later for you,” I whisper before our tablemates join us. Even though we won for our work at KNBC, CBS has us at their table since we’re their property now. We’re joined by Langston, Kevin Daly – the head of the network news, John Lawson Roth III – the president of the network, and three people from the University of Georgia as the Peabodys are administered by the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication there.

The Peabody Awards are named after George Foster Peabody who was a banker and philanthropist. Sounds kinda like Papa to me. Hmm, I wonder if one day Kels and I might be overseeing the Jonathan and Cecile Kingsley Awards.

The Peabody is designed to recognize achievement and public service by those in the news industry. It’s not enough that the piece be well done, but it needs to have a meaningful impact on society as a whole. Ours was chosen, I believe, because it helped uncover the simmering discontent in an armed militia group. We were able to help bring about the mostly peaceful resolution of the situation. While Kels and I were nearly casualties, it did not turn into another Waco. Thank God.

For a moment, I am transported back to Omaha.

“Miss Stanton, do you believe that there are some things worth dying for?” Scamp asks, pulling a gun out even as Kels is replying. “Well, perhaps this might help you get in touch with those personal beliefs a bit more. Because your death will save the lives of those hundred and forty people. Too bad your government was willing to let you die.”

The government might be willing, but I’m not.

Then all hell breaks loose. The fuckin’ cavalry is here. I grab Kels about the waist and haul her to the ground, covering her body with mine. I hear gunfire and absently wonder if any of the bullets have hit me.

Kelsey struggles like a hellcat underneath me.

“Harper! I can’t see!”

“I know, baby, I know.” I don’t move from above her though. I continue whispering comforting words and tighten my hold on her. The Capstun I used on Scamp must have blown back and nailed her. Good going, Kingsley. “I have you, I have you.”

I feel her touch on my arm. “Harper?”

I look over and blink, clearing away the memories. “Yeah?”

“Where did you go?”

I shake my head. “I just zoned out.” No need to spoil our day with bad memories. “You know me and formal events.”

“Well, you have two weeks to get over that particular aversion,” she teases back. That’s my girl. She always brings me back to the important things in life.

Matt Lauer, the host for the ceremony today, steps up to the podium to a warm round of applause. I wonder if his morning show had to vote to send him here today. And where the hell is Katie? She’s a lot cuter. He does a short welcoming speech before the wait staff of the Waldorf Astoria spread through the ballroom, distributing the first course of the luncheon.

I look over to a nearby table and smile at Ken Burns. Another one of his documentaries has won a Peabody. He’s gotta have a closet full of them by now. Kels is lifting her glass in Peter Jennings’ direction.

Personally, I hope to meet Bill Cosby. He’s only a table over. How come we couldn’t sit with him instead of the suits from the network?

A huge laugh wells up from another table and I realize that the entire cast of the ‘Sopranos’ is having a grand old time together. Mandy Patinkin has wandered over to them and is returning their ribald teasing.

On the table are chocolate replicas of the Peabody Award medals. We won’t get an actual medal today – Chambers will get it. But, I’ve ordered a pair for Kels and I, and one for Jims too. I wonder how the orange-haired kid is doing these days? I should give him a call soon.

In the meantime, I think I’m gonna eat some chocolate. And wish I was holding my girl’s hand.

* * *

The phone rings and he barks in my ear. “Stanton! My office! Now!” Click.

I look at the phone. “Yes, boss,” I chuckle as I slip on my sweater. It helps conceal that which is becoming more and more evident everyday. Besides, Langston keeps his office like an icebox. He tries to make it as uncomfortable as possible for people to visit him there. It’s a strategy that works.

I rap on the door, then shove my hands in my pockets to keep them warm. My sweater is closed in front of me. I think I look presentable to the big boss.

“Come!” he barks again.

He really doesn’t sound happy and the hair stands up on the back of my neck. I have a feeling I’m about to get my hand slapped. Hard.

“Close the door.”

Yup. It’s gonna be a hard slap. I wait for him to look up from his computer and tell me to take a seat.

He doesn’t bother to look at me. “Sit.”

Like Kam, I obey.

He finally turns his attention to me after letting me get a slight chill first. You would think I’m a snake-haired Gorgon with the look I’m getting. Mama would warn him about his face freezing like that if he’s not careful.

He pulls out a file and tosses it to me. “These are various still shots of you since you’ve arrived.” He gives me a moment to examine them. “Am I not keeping you and Kingsley busy enough? Or is the food just that much better in New York?”

Oh shit. He’s noticed the weight gain. I didn’t think it was that bad. Sure, I’ve been leaving my jacket unbuttoned lately. But the rest of it has been concealed pretty easily, I thought. And I haven’t really gained anything in my face. “Well, I have been through a lot…” Damn, I didn’t think I’d have to deal with this yet.

“Save it.” He waves his hand, as if erasing my answer. “If I didn’t know better, based on all the signs, I’d say you’re pregnant. But since you’re sleeping with Kingsley, that’s not possible, is it?”

I bite my lip and watch him watch me. Finally, I smile. Perhaps if I’m happy about it, this will go a little better. “No. You’re right. I’m pregnant.”

“Son-of-a bitch!” He slams his hands down on his desk and pushes himself up behind it. He is now glowering down at me. I feel like a kindergartener. “Are you out of your ever-lovin’ mind? Are you trying to destroy your credibility entirely? I mean, fuck, Stanton, if you don’t want a career in broadcast journalism, just resign. Jesus H. Christ on a stick –

I need to stop this tirade before lightning comes through the roof and fries him. “Of course not, but Harper and I wanted a family.”

“Goddammit, Kelsey! Unmarried and pregnant! If anyone gets wind of this, you’re finished. Little white women in the Midwest don’t want to see some New York dyke anchor getting personal with a turkey baster!”

“I don’t see why it has to be an issue. I have the means and the ability to have children. There is no need for my sexuality to be mentioned. In fact, having children generally means one is heterosexual. The network should be loving this.”

He shakes his head angrily. He’s frothing a bit, in fact. “Did it ever occur to you two to adopt? Lots of couples like you do that. Hell, Rosie O’Donnell has adopted three children and she’s a single mother. We could work with that: save the world, provide a good home to kids who need it. It would be an easy angle.”

“We wanted our own children and I wanted to have a baby.” I get to my feet and stand behind the chair, resting my hands on it. “I wanted to give birth, to bring life into this world, and I’m going to do it.”

“Obviously!” he growls at me. He begins pacing behind his desk, running his hand through his close cropped hair. “All right, not one damn word about this. Or about your relationship with Kingsley. Do you hear me?” he warns. “And I want something for the PR department from you two by nine a.m. tomorrow. You had better find a damn good story here too. And you tell that stud of yours if I see anything other than tight head shots of you for the next what – six or seven months – I’ll kick both your asses.”

I draw a deep breath. “All right.” I nod. “Are we finished?”

“For now. We’ll talk about maternity leave when I cool down.”

* * *

Something’s wrong.

I’m not sure what it is. Kels certainly isn’t talking to me. She’s barely looking at me. And, normally, we pseudo-snuggle on the ride home from the studio – as much as the Range Rover allows. Tonight, she’s way over on her side of the car.

“Little Roo?” I call softly, turning up Madison Avenue. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Just a rough day.” She brushes back hair from her eyes. “I’m tired.”

I’m not buying that and Kels didn’t even try to sell it very hard. “Right. Now, sweetheart, tell me the truth. I can handle it. I have broad shoulders, you know?” I pat one as a visual reminder.

“Langston,” she sighs his name. “He really railed on me today about being pregnant. We have one very unhappy boss.”

No shit. I can’t see him being happy. Personally, I thought we’d tell him by sending him an invite to the baby shower, sometime near the end of the year. “You told him?”

“I didn’t exactly tell him, Tabloid. He was doing some photo comparisons and he noticed the weight gain. He called me on it.”

“Son of a bitch,” I mutter. “Run a tab for me, sweetie.” Hmm, that didn’t even earn me a smile. “What happened? Are you okay?” I would really hate to have to kill him, but I will if he hurt my girl.

“I’m okay. I just didn’t care for his tone. He made me feel like I was doing something wrong.”

The sadness in her voice breaks my heart. I reach over and take hold of her hand and pull it into my lap. “You’ve done everything right.”

“I know. And don’t you think for one moment I regret the choices we’ve made.”

Ah, thank you, sweetheart for saying that. I was a little worried there for a moment. I squeeze her hand in gratitude.

“It’s just…” Kels shakes her head and stares out the window, watching the Manhattan traffic. “Let’s say my hormones are out of control and call it even. The last thing I need right now is a war with the boss.”

“Darlin’, that’s why you have a producer. I am your big, bad assed champion. Even if I wasn’t madly in love with you, I’d never let the brass manhandle you this way. I just have extra incentive.” I bring her hand up to my lips and kiss her palm. “Here’s my idea for tonight. How about we go home and put on some Nina Simone? I’ll get the steaks out of the freezer and fire up the barbecue. Then you and I will sit outside and enjoy the last of this beautiful day. Later, I’ll carry you into our bedroom and make love to you like it was the first time all over again. How does that sound?”

“That sounds like the best offer I’ve had all day.”

“I hope – for their sake – it was the only offer you’ve had all day.”

There’s the smile I was hoping for.

* * *

I roll over and look at Harper. She’s sleeping soundly and she looks so relaxed. It’s nice to see her like this. It’s not often that she is able to completely rest. She’s usually working on something in her sleep. In fact, some of her best ideas come to her in her dreams.

I kiss her shoulder and slip out of bed. Glancing at the clock, I see I have time to have breakfast and relax a bit before I have to get ready for my doctor’s appointment.

Settling down in the kitchen with the paper and my breakfast, I’m about to take my first bite when something causes me to look up. In the doorway, I find one sleepy television news producer. She’s so very not awake, her hair is falling over her eyes, her T-shirt has been put on backwards, and she is swaying a bit.

“What are you doing up?” she grumbles, her voice thick with sleep. She staggers to the coffeepot and flips the switch. We prepare it the night before and set the timer, but we’re up two hours earlier than normal.

“Dunno.” I shrug, sipping my juice, paging through the Times.

Her head swings away from the coffee she’s watching drip into the pot. It never brews fast enough for her in the morning. Normally she snaps at it until it finishes. This morning, she doesn’t have the energy to do so. “Something wrong? Other than the fact Langston is an idiot?”

“No, sweetheart. I’m fine. I just couldn’t sleep. It’s a pregnant thing. Maybe the babies are training me early.”

She crosses over and drops to her knees. She gently positions me so that I am facing her, and then she lifts up my shirt. “Hey, didn’t we discuss this one other time?” I run my fingers through her hair as she continues. “I told you, you need to let your Mommy rest. She already works hard taking care of you. Besides when she doesn’t sleep, I don’t sleep.” She gives my belly little kisses and promptly dozes off with her head in my lap.

That can’t be comfortable. My poor baby. “Harper, honey.” I chuckle a bit when she wakes and looks at me, bleary-eyed. “Go back to bed. I’ll get you up in a couple of hours.

“No, no, I’m awake now,” she protests. I don’t have the heart to tell her how unconvincing she sounds. “I’ll have some coffee and take Kam for a run in the park.”

“He’ll love that. Maybe you should let him pull you on your roller blades.”

“That’s a good idea.” She climbs to her feet and heads for the coffee which has sputtered, signaling it’s finished brewing. “You want to go?”

“No. I have a PR piece to write.”

* * *

Glancing at my watch, I realize Dr. McGuire is running a bit late this morning. Not that it’s any big deal. If he takes care of all his patients the way he does my girl, I’ll wait for him all day. Besides, we’re doing okay here together.

I’m holding Kels’ hand, as is our standard operating procedure during the visits. I am so glad we have a doctor who is fine with our relationship. Not that we’d go to one that wasn’t. But, it makes it so much easier to be affectionate and not worry. I am gently rubbing her hand, trying to get her to relax. Langston really pissed her off yesterday and she’s now gone from despondent to infuriated.

I’ve got to get her in a better mood before we get to the office. Otherwise that violence in the workplace video they made us watch at orientation won’t hold a candle to what my girl might do. “Hey, Kels?”

“Hmm?”

“Did you hear about the guy who was stopped by the state trooper the other day?”

She looks at me, trying to determine if I’m making small talk or filling her in on a story. Racial profiling on the NJ freeways has been a hot topic lately. “No. What happened?”

“Well, this guy got stopped for speeding and not pulling over right away when the cop lit him up. So the trooper walks up to the car,” Kels is smiling now, realizing it’s a joke by my tone of voice, “and the guy rolls down the window. The trooper says ‘I turned on my lights quite a ways back there. Why didn’t you stop?'” Kels rolls her eyes but remains silent, waiting for me to finish. “And the guy says, ‘Well, you see, officer, my wife ran off with a trooper a few weeks ago. When I saw you, I thought you were trying to bring her back.'”

She bursts out laughing and I feel much better. I think she does too. That’s my girl.

“You tell the worst jokes.” She says it in such a sweet voice that it almost sounds like a compliment. Almost.

“Then why are you laughing?”

“I have no idea.” She strokes my cheek tenderly.

Kevin enters and finds us laughing and smiling. “You two having a good time?”

“We always seem to have a good time here.” Kels gives me a playful push from her spot on the table.

“That’s nice to know.” Doogie takes his seat next to Kels and begins his exam. As his hands move gently over her belly, he chuckles. “Maybe I should institute a cover charge then. How you feeling, Kelsey?”

“I dunno.” She shakes her head. “Should I feel pregnant? Because I don’t yet.”

“You will soon, especially with twins.”

“About the only thing I’ve felt is moody.”

“Hmm … hormones.” He looks at me for confirmation and I give a slight nod, which earns me a poke from my wife.

“I’ve been nice to you. Relatively.”

“Relatively,” I agree. This earns me her tongue stuck out at me. If Kevin weren’t in the room, I’d teach her a lesson about doing that.

“Well, Kelsey, right now the babies are growing and moving but you can’t feel them yet. That will change in short order. I suspect, though, you’re noticing the weight gain.”

“Me and a few other people,” Kelsey humphs. Great doc, I just got her in a good mood.

Kevin gives me a reproving look. “Harper, it’s very natural and necessary.”

I am insulted. “It’s not me, doc. I think she looks gorgeous, more beautiful than ever.” I kiss her forehead, as if to prove my sincerity.

“It’s true. Harper’s been great.”

“Oh, okay. Good to hear.” I give the doc a look meant to intimidate. It doesn’t seem to work. “Ignore everyone else. In this matter, only Harper and I count.” He gives her shoulder a gentle rub. “Welcome to your second trimester, Kels. Things are going to start getting better for you, I promise. You should be seeing the end of morning sickness soon, if not already. The bloated, cranky feeling should be ending too. You shouldn’t be as tired as before. And, the happy hormones will take over. Most women feel vitalized during their second trimester. But, I want you to be careful not to overdo it, okay?”

“She won’t,” I answer for her.

“Ready to add to your album?” He squirts some gel on Kels’ stomach, causing her to flinch. That stuff really is cold. But, we’re at my favorite part of the exam: more baby pictures.

He moves the wand over her stomach and studies the monitor. It still makes no damn sense to me, I don’t know how he can identify anything in there. Next he puts on his stethoscope on her stomach and listens intently for a few moments. He pockets it and then adjusts a knob on the ultrasound. Suddenly, there’s a noise which sounds like a cross between the roar of the ocean and horses running. “Those are your babies’ heartbeats.”

Oh my God.

Heartbeats. Little tiny heartbeats.

Kels is staring at the monitor and listening. The tears streaking down her cheeks tell me she’s feeling the same way I am.

“Listen to that, Little Roo. We did that.” I wipe her tears away and give her a kiss. “Oh God, Kels, listen to that.”

She can only nod, too overwhelmed with emotion to speak.

I close my eyes to concentrate on the sounds that confirm our babies are healthy and very real. This is the sound of family.

* * *

We enter the studio still on the adrenaline rush from hearing the heartbeats. I have the newest pictures and I can actually see little noses, chins, hands, feet and other things now. Our little ones are still tiny, only three inches long at this point, but they look human. Big improvement. I glance down at Kels’ stomach, amazed that she can carry two lives within her.

This is way too cool.

And I heard their hearts beating today. McGuire says that the chances of a miscarriage decrease dramatically now that we can hear them. Thank God.

Wow.

I am about to drop to my knees in front of Kels when she suddenly she takes off down the hall.

What the hell?

A glance confirms my suspicion. Langston is twenty paces ahead and Cruise Missile Stanton is aimed directly at him.

Oh shit.

I try to casually run after her. It’s not possible.

Kels, honey, I know you’re upset, but don’t do anything you’ll regret later. Like get us fired.

My girl is standing in front of Langston. Her anger makes her almost as tall as our executive producer. “Here’s your fucking press release,” she growls, slapping a file in his chest. “It’s short, simple and truthful. After my ordeal in Los Angeles, I decided to have children.”

He takes the folder a tad stunned she would speak to him like this.

So am I, quite frankly. Kels is normally the consummate professional. I stand here mute while she continues.

“I won’t turn my children into a story for you. But if I did, it would be totally honest! That means it would include Harper because I’m lucky to have her. Our children are very lucky to have her as their mother too. I won’t have you or anyone else tell them differently.” She turns on her heel and stalks away.

“Stanton!” Langston calls.

She stops, turns and glares. “After June third, it’ll be Kingsley! We’ll talk about my maternity leave when I’ve cooled down.” She snorts before turning once again and walking away.

Wow. That was a full-fledged diva Talent tantrum. She was good. I gotta remember to not piss her off.

Langston looks to me for commiseration. Not in this lifetime, bud. I know who I go home to. I give him a bewildered grin and a shrug as I fan myself with our new baby pictures. “Hormones,” I offer before walking away myself.

Wow, Kels.

* * *

I decide to give Kels a little space. Besides, if I go in now, she might rip all my clothes off and have her way with me on her couch.

What the hell am I doing in my office?

I’m about to pay her a visit when my cell phone rings. “Kingsley,” I give my standard greeting.

“Is that my little sister?”

“Bite me.”

Robie laughs heartily. “I think not.”

“What do you want? You’re interrupting all the important stuff I’m doing here.” I kick back in my chair, swinging my legs up onto my desk.

“You know how Mama feels about feet on the desk,” he teases.

Damn him. “So, did it work out?” I decide to take the proverbial bull by the horns.

“I have the papers all drawn up.”

I smile broadly. “You know, you’re not as bad as everyone says you are.”

“Bite me,” he echoes.

“I think not.”

* * *

“I saw that.” She looks up from her book and smiles at me. God, she’s adorable.

“You saw nothing,” I tell her. I give Kam a good scratch behind the ear as he chomps down the French fry I just gave him. For road food, French fries are the best. I know it and now Kam knows it too. Good doggie.

“I saw you feed him that stick of grease. You can poison yourself, Tabloid, but the dog and the babies are off limits.” She glances down at the map spread across her lap. “Take the next left.”

I do as I’m told and ten minutes later we’re pulling into the driveway. It takes another five minutes to drive to get to the house. “Whoa!” I look through the windshield at the house. House is a bit understated a word. Mansion fits.

She smirks. “Not quite the trailer you pictured is it?”

“Do you remember everything Ihave ever said to you?” This was the same statement I teased her with when I took her home for Thanksgiving. Our first time. I wonder if Matt has a porch swing. I like kissing my girl on those.

“Most of it,” she replies, interrupting my less than chaste thoughts.

“I could be in real trouble here.” I snicker. That statement fits both my thoughts and our conversation. I’m very proud of myself.

“You still owe me the bayou story.”

“Which one?” I shut off the ignition and climb out of the truck.

Over the roof, Kels replies, “One that involves you, another naked person and a shotgun.”

“I ask again: which one?” I slip Kam’s collar off over his head. I wave him out of the truck before collecting our luggage. I am not quite sure why Kels brought so many clothes for a weekend, but, I’m not about to argue with Hormone Girl. She can bring her whole damn closet and it’s okay by me. Me? I brought a duffle bag. It’s only half full.

Kam runs immediately to Kels and sits next to her, looking up at her, tail thumping the ground hard.

“Take a break.” She gives him the hand signal which releases him. He takes off to take care of business. Good idea, Kam. I need to do that soon too. It was a long two hour drive out to Matt’s place in the Hamptons.

Setting our bags on the ground, I lean against the truck. I watch the dog run around, stretching his legs and getting to know the lay of the land. Kels makes her way around the vehicle and leans against me. I hug her gently, glad we have a relaxing weekend to look forward to. This has been a bitch of a week.

Finally Kam returns and settles down. His tongue is lolling out the side of his mouth and he is looking ready for a drink of water. I guess it’s time to go in.

I grab our bags, slapping away Kels’ hands when she tries to pick up one. “Let me, baby. You’re carrying enough as it is.”

That earns me a kiss on the cheek.

When the door opens, Matt steps out and gives Kels a long hug which, to my great surprise, she returns. I’m really glad to see them getting along, even if he is having a hard time with us as a concept. He finally looks at me and smiles warmly. “Harper, how are you?” He takes one of the bags from me.

Years in corporate America have made him polite. I am grateful for that. “I’m fine, sir.” He lifts his brow to correct me. “Matt,” I amend softly. I shake his hand which he offers to me freely.

“Good. Glad to hear it.” He pushes back the door to make room for us to enter. “Come on in. We’ll get you two settled and then we’ll meet up in the family room.” Kam is being a very good boy and staying right by Kels’ side. She must have warned Matt we were bringing him because he doesn’t even blink when he see the dog.

When we enter the house, I decide immediately we’re gonna have to come out here as often as Kels wants. This is very nice. It’s everything you hear about mansions in the Hamptons. It’s huge, nestled on acres of private property, and has a guest house right behind it. We could make good use of that during the summer. I may as well admit it. “Nice place.” Okay, that was a cop out, but I don’t want to fawn too much.

Matt smiles conspiratorially. “It’s my little piece of paradise on earth. It’s got an indoor and outdoor pool, a tennis court, a gym, eight bedrooms, eleven baths, a library, a solarium, a guest house, a screening room, a formal garden and a nine hole golf course.”

“Like I said, nice place,” I say with a load of sarcasm in my tone.

He claps me on the back. “You’re welcome out here anytime, Harper.”

Kelsey clucks at me. “Stop drooling, sweetheart.”

Matt raises his hand and waves a young man over. The man takes the bag Matt is holding and then relieves me of mine as well. “This is Jeff. He’ll show you to your room and help you get settled in. When you’re ready, come on down to the family room.”

Jeff smiles pleasantly. “Ms. Kingsley, Ms. Stanton, if you will come with me.” He heads up the stairs and we follow him.

“How long have you worked for my father, Jeff?” Kels asks when he opens a bedroom door for us.

He places our bags on the trunk at the end of the bed. “Since I was in high school. My mother worked at Mr. Stanton’s firm and he found out I needed a job.” He takes the garment bag and hangs it in the closet. He also opens up the bathroom door. “If you need anything at all this weekend, please don’t hesitate to call on me. Can I get you anything now?”

“No. We’re fine. Thank you, Jeff,” Kels replies, sinking into one of the overstuffed chairs in the room.

Once he’s gone, Kels releases a deep breath. “What’s wrong, sweetheart?” I’m at her side right away.

She shakes her head. “No matter how much things change, they remain the same. He still has a house full of servants. I’ll bet most of them have the weekend off but there’s still enough staff on hand to spoil you rotten.”

“In my book, that’s not a bad thing.” I begin massaging her shoulders.

“I figured,” Kels glances up at me over her shoulder. “Well, do you want to unpack or shall we go down and see what Dad has planned?”

“Oh, let’s go down and see what’s up. I want to find out who the mystery person is.”

She sighs again. “I had almost forgotten about that.” She looks at Kam who is curled up next to the fireplace and soundly asleep. Like Kels, he can sleep anywhere. “Boy, I’d like to do that,” she says wistfully.

I hug her about the neck and kiss her cheek. “Come on, baby, let’s go down and see your dad.”

“You just want to see the golf course.”

“Hell, yes! I’m hoping to get a round or two in this weekend.”

“That’s a buck, babe.” She nuzzles my arms. “You’d like anyone with a private golf course.”

“Pretty much. But, it helps that he fathered my favorite person in the world.”

She kisses my forearm. “Sweet talker.”

“Oh yeah. That ain’t all of me that’s sweet, either.”

* * *

We wander around the first floor trying to locate the family room. We find a lot of other rooms, but, apparently, not the right one. Our conversation must alert Matt to our presence because he steps out of a room we haven’t reached yet and beckons to us. “Over here, girls.”

“Be nice,” Kels whispers.

Matt is oblivious to her comment. He comes over and wraps his arm around his daughter’s shoulders. “You look terrific, sweetheart. Harper must be good for you.”

“She’s all right,” Kels teases.

“Well, I’d hate to have to take her out back and give her a good talking to.”

“Dad, out back is a golf course. What are you going to do, putt her to death?”

“I’d like a good talking to, Matt.” Okay, not a very subtle hint, but, hell, I’ve never been subtle.

“Would you? Well, we might have to do that tomorrow morning.”

Hmm, that might interfere with No Clothes Saturday. But, in the name of family bonding, I’ll make the sacrifice. And get Kels up a little early tomorrow. “I think that would be for the best.”

“Or maybe even tonight before it gets too dark.” He leads us into the family room. Twelve foot ceilings and a fireplace are accented with more pieces of art than many museums have. Sitting on the sofa is a very attractive young woman. I can tell she’s tall, even seated, and she has an aristocratic face framed by long, curly brunette hair and offset by pale blue eyes. I’m quick to notice that she’s about my age and is holding a baby who appears to be around six months old.

Matt takes Kels over to them. “Kelsey, I want you to meet Amanda Stanton, my wife and this,” he pulls back the blanket from the baby’s face, “is your sister, Claire.”

* * *

Look up the word ‘stupid’ in the dictionary and you’ll find my picture. My inability to speak at the moment is not helping the situation either.

“Hello,” I manage to stammer.

“Kelsey,” Amanda smiles and offers me her hand. “It’s so nice to meet you, finally. Thanks for coming out this weekend.”

“Thanks for inviting us.” I turn to Harper and extend my hand. I need her next to me and I need her next to me now. I hope she takes the hint. I feel her hand slip into mine. Thank God. “This is Harper, my,” I glance up at her and smile when I realize I can say it out loud here, “wife.”

She extends her hand to Harper. “Nice to meet you. Matt has had nothing but good things to say about you.”

I feel like I’ve fallen into a bad episode of The Brady Bunch only to discover that Marcia and Dad Brady have eloped. This is surreal.

The baby in Amanda’s arms begins fussing, bringing me out of my dumbfounded state. I have a baby sister. A baby sister who is about to have some combination of nieces and nephews by her own first birthday. God, we’re a modern family: divorced parents, father remarried to woman his daughter’s age, children separated by more than thirty years in age, grandchildren on the way, and lesbians. Throw in my mother’s drinking problem and we’re a miniseries waiting to happen.

Oh God. I’m having a hard time wrapping my brain around all this.

“May I?” Harper releases my hand in order to extend both of hers toward the baby. Amanda smiles and passes … my sister … to her. Once in Harper’s arms, Claire immediately stops fussing. It must be a genetic trait we Stanton women share. We know a good thing when it’s offered to us.

Harper cuddles her carefully, not complaining when the baby begins chewing on her shoulder – depositing copious amounts of saliva on it – and a tiny hands wraps tightly in her hair.

No wonder I’m having twins. My spouse is a baby magnet. If I’m not careful, she’ll keep me pregnant through menopause. That’d really burn Langston’s butt.

I reach out and stroke Claire’s little head. My eyes meet Harper’s and for one brief moment we both see our future. What a wonderful feeling. God, I can’t wait to see her hold our children for the first time. Of course, once I let her hold them, I might never get them back. Good thing I’ll be breastfeeding. It might be the only way I can get hold of them. Harper is talented, but not that talented.

I turn to my father. “She’s beautiful.”

He beams as all new fathers do. “She looks like you did when you were a baby, except she has curly hair. That’s definitely from Amanda’s side of the family.”

Amanda has a side to our family? I didn’t even think of us as a family until recently. It’s still a concept that’s growing on me, truth be told.

“Hey!” Harper pipes up, startling Claire. “Do you have any baby pictures of Kels?”

“Actually, I think I have an album or two.”

Okay, this has got to stop right here and right now. It’s all right for me to have a naked baby picture of Harper, but not vice versa. She’ll put the damn thing up as her screen saver. Time to change the subject. “Well, Dad, I guess it’s time to let you in on our good news.”

He smiles pleasantly in my direction, not assuming I can beat his news of a wife and child. Well, dad, I have them too. Like father, like daughter, I guess.

“You’re gonna be a grandfather. I’m pregnant.”

He looks as stunned as I’m sure I did a moment ago.

“Well, now, Harper, that is talent!” he guffaws, before giving me a congratulatory hug. “Sweetheart, that’s wonderful! When are you due?” He looks down at my stomach as if it might answer for me.

“November.”

“Congratulations, Kelsey,” Amada adds.

It’s going to take some getting used to having a stepmother my age. “Wait, it gets better. I’m pregnant with twins.”
* *

I have Claire firmly ensconced in my own arms while Amanda and I watch Dad and Harper play golf in the twilight. It’s stupid and dangerous, but my father could see how excited Harper was to play. Who knew Harper played golf? And she’s good too. She’s giving the old man a real run for his money on his own damn course. And, I do mean a literal run for his money. Last I heard the bet on the round was $500, but individual shots are being bet on as well. If she wins, I’m making her donate it to the swear jar.

I give Claire a kiss on her forehead, taking in her sweet baby scent. A pleasant rush of memory comes to me. I will always remember that Thanksgiving in New Orleans for so many reasons. One is when I first held Clark and caught a whiff of what a new start smells like.

“So you work with my dad?” Oh, jeez, Kelsey, how stupid did that sound?

“I was in the CFO’s area for almost five years. Things just naturally developed between us. I thought he had a great sense of humor.” My father has a sense of humor? She holds a bottle up for Claire who bounces a little in my lap and reaches out for it, smacking her lips together. I can’t help but smile. God, I’m gonna love this in a few months.

Amanda’s being very good to me considering I’m trying to sound nonchalant about getting this information and failing miserably. Hard to believe CBS pays me more than two million dollars a year to talk.

I take the bottle and help my sister have a pre-dinner snack. She nestles close to me and I watch as her little eyes fall shut. “I’m sorry.” I shake my head. “I’m still a little shocked.”

“I know. It’s quite the change for all of us. I’m happy you’re working things out with Matthew, Kelsey. He really regrets the years he lost with you. After Claire was born, it was much easier for him to come to terms with all those emotions. He then decided he needed to try and reestablish contact with you.”

I watch Harper sink a putt and my dad shakes his head and hands over a bill. I’ll have to torture the amount she won out of Tabloid later tonight. “I’m glad he did. I never wanted to bother him.” It’s a soft admission, but it’s the truth. “I figured she had convinced him…”

Amanda seems to know immediately I’m speaking of my mother. “She did a number on the both of you. Keeping you two apart was the only chance she had for getting what she wanted.”

“Why would someone do that to their own family? I can’t imagine ever keeping our children from Harper, no matter what may come to pass between us through the years.” I say this even with a tightening in my stomach. I don’t want to imagine a future without Harper and I together. Not for me, not for our children. I want her lock, stock and barrel for the rest of our lives.

“You’re not the selfish woman she is. She only thinks of herself. She tried for almost two years to break Matthew and I up when she found out about us.”

Claire pushes the bottle away and simply cuddles into my arms continuing to sleep.

“Damn!” my dad growls when he misses a putt. Harper laughs at him.

“Hey, Tabloid, collect a dollar from that man!” I call to her, indicating Claire is now under our protection too.

She holds out her hand for the money. I see her begin to explain why to dad, so I do so with Amanda as well.

“That’s a grand idea.” She gets up and walks across the green to our golfers. “Oh Matt!”

Harper takes this opportunity to jog over and say hi to me. She drops down on her knees beside my chair. She softly touches the baby’s pudgy cheek with her fingertips then looks up at me. “I can’t wait.” She glances back and forth between Claire and me again. “I can’t wait to see you with our babies.”

Funny, I feel exactly the same way about her.

* * *

“Trust me on this sweetheart, you’ll never regret it.” My dad slips me the business card which I stick in my pocket before Tabloid catches me holding it. “Let my guy set you up. You’ll love it.”

“She’s going to be spoiled rotten by the time we leave here.” I watch Harper lounge around in the screening room. If all movie theatres were this plush, I’d go every week.

“Kels, can we have one of these?”

“As soon as you buy me a house like this one.”

“Deal.” She runs her hand over the back of a soft leather sofa.

“You two enjoy the movie. Amanda and I have a conference call to handle with the U.K. We’ll probably be a couple hours.”

I lift my brow. “She still works for you?”

“Works for me? Ha! Amanda’s my secret weapon. That woman can crunch numbers and run financials in her head faster than most computers. And she makes a lot fewer errors. I wouldn’t even consider doing the deals I do without her input.” He smiles proudly. “Amanda was third in her class at Harvard business school. She’s the real deal.” He gives me a kiss on the forehead. “Enjoy yourself, honey. We’ll figure out what we’ll do for dinner after the call.”

“And Claire?”

“Is asleep for the moment. If she wakes up, the nanny will bring her to us. You two don’t have to worry about anything.” With that he leaves us, closing the door.

I turn to find my spouse sauntering playfully across the room. “So you wanna go to a movie with me and neck in the balcony?” She gestures to the small balcony section above.

“Nah, let’s stay here and neck on the couch.”
Episode Seventeen: I’ll Take Manhattan
As I slip the key into the lock, I know what I want. I have one goal in mind and she’s somewhere in the apartment. If I’m lucky, she’s in bed and she’s naked. That’ll save a lot of time. Screw foreplay. I hate it when I have to work so late.

I drop my briefcase in the entryway, toss my keys on the table, and begin removing my clothes. There are far too many of them in my way. I hang up my jacket and take off my boots. “Kels?” Come here, baby, I have plans for us tonight. “Oh Kelsey Diane…” I pull my T-shirt up over my head and toss it somewhere in the direction of the laundry room.

Where is she?

Ah, there she is. A mad dash and she’s in my arms. She must want this too.

“Har…” she starts even as I scoop her up.

Nope, no time for talk. Sex now, talk later. I kiss her quite thoroughly to make my point crystal clear. Her moan only makes me more determined. God, I love that sound. I want to hear it again. To hell with the bedroom, we may start here in the foyer.

“Oh, woman, the things I intend to do to you tonight,” I inform her as she catches her breath. I head for the kitchen with her wrapped around me to grab a bottle of water from the fridge. Wherever we end up, we’re gonna need it.

“Har…”

I kiss her again. She’ll figure out the game plan eventually. I’m having a hard time holding on to her, getting the water and unbuttoning her blouse. I need a spare pair of hands right now. I may have to start biting buttons myself. I secretly love it when Kels does that.

I press her back against the refrigerator to gain some leverage while I fumble about for the water bottle. She squirms against me. The metal door must be cold on her skin. That’s why she’s being so difficult about this. “Kels,” I whisper in her ear. “Darlin’, I’m going to do things to you tonight that would make a pro blush.”

“Oh God…” she groans, her head slumping forward to my shoulder. That’s more like it. Just give in to temptation, baby.

Water in one hand, Kels firmly in my arms, her legs locked around my waist, and we’re off once more. I plant a warm kiss to the rise of her breast. Why is she trying to button up? I just got it open to something interesting.

“You know, we could go for the kitchen table again,” I tease, stepping into the hallway “I didn’t like the way it wobbled last time though.”

“Harper, we can’t…”

I give her another incendiary kiss. She’s not getting the message. Can’t is not in my vocabulary tonight. Lots of other words are, however, and I proceed to tell her a few of them while we head toward the bedroom. I’ll bet the neighbors two floors down are jealous now, if they weren’t before. “And then, my dear, I’m gonna plant myself firmly between your legs and…”

She puts her hand over my mouth and pulls back from me. Looking me directly in the eye, she growls, “Mama is in the family room!”

I frown. “Oh yeah, Kels. That’s funny. Sure.” I reach up and begin unbuttoning her blouse yet again. “Are you trying to kill the mood?”

She slaps my hand away. “Harper, I’m not joking,” she whispers. “I swear to God, Mama is in the family room.”

Is this some new kinky game Kels has thought up? “You are gonna be in a hell of a lot of trouble when I find out she’s not, Stanton. I’ll tie you to the bed and torture you for hours for this.” I carry her to the archway and glance around the corner.

Oh my God!

Mama is in the family room.

I glance down at my half naked self. My only cover is my smirking wife. I hold her close and I run for the bedroom.

“And to think,” I hear Mama call out from her perch on the couch, “you kiss your Mama with that mouth.

* * *

“Why didn’t you say something sooner?” she groans from the bed, pulling the comforter around her body like a tight cocoon. She covers her head with a pillow.

“I tried, you horndog. You wouldn’t let me get a word in edgewise with your little triple X tirade.”

She peeks out at me. “You could have resisted a little harder.”

“Oh yeah, like that would have gotten me anywhere. I was trying to figure out how to tell you without yelling to get you to stop.”

“Yelling was such a bad option?”

“Apparently not. You were doing enough of it anyway,” I can’t help but tease her. I can’t let this opportunity pass me by. “Now Mama knows what you had planned and I’ll bet half of Manhattan does too. We had all the French doors open, it being such a nice night and all.”

She groans and replaces the pillow over her head. I tug it away and toss it to the foot of the bed.

“Now, get your butt up and go see Mama.”

“No.” She sounds exactly like Christian.

“No? What do you mean no? Do you really want me to send her in here?” And I sound exactly like a mother. The hormones are kicking in.

“God, no! You go see her.” Now she sounds like that old “let’s get Mikey” commercial.

“See, sweetheart, you’re missing the point. I’ve been with her all evening. She wants to see us.”

“Well, she just saw a hell of a lot of us. What more could she want? Lord, take me now.”

“That’s a buck, babe. I’ll be nice and not charge you for all the words you said out in the hallway.” I listen with vast amusement as Harper lets out another long groan. “Anyway, I managed to keep most of my clothes on. No thanks to you, Fingers. But she’s here to make plans for the wedding next week.” I lean over and whisper, “She’s staying all weekend and into next week, just to make sure everything is set.”

She groans again, pulling the blanket over her head. “I always knew she hated me. I’m gonna lay here and die of embarrassment, okay?”

“No, it’s not okay.” Pulling away the blanket, I give her a slap on her exposed stomach. “And she does not hate you. You thought it was funny when Robie and Rene showed up and I was doing the dying. Why is it not so funny now, Tabloid?”

She uncovers her head. “It’s my Mama. The other was only Robie.”

“Hmm, sad excuse, sweetheart.” I tug on the blanket. “Now get up, get on some clothes, and go see Mama.”

“Can I shower first?”

It’s a delay tactic, I realize, but if it gets her moving, I’ll go along. “If you really think you need one.”

“Oh, I need one all right. A cold shower, lots of soap, two tubes of toothpaste and a gallon of mouthwash should just about do it.”

I leave my poor spouse on the bed and return to the family room. Mama is laughing so hard she literally has tears rolling down her cheeks. “She’ll be right out. She’s going to shower first.”

“Did you tell her to wash her mouth out?”

I grin, glancing back to the bedroom. “She figured that one out for herself.”

* * *

Perhaps this wasn’t the best idea.

Mama is standing, arms crossed, staring at an exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art. She gives me an arch look, as if it’s my fault it’s up on the wall. “Why is this here?”

Kels snickers beside me. I give her a look, but it is completely ineffectual.

We all take in the exhibit. It’s a toilet seat with a rubber penis attached to it.

“What is this supposed to be?”

I shrug. “I dunno, Mama.”

“This what you New Yorkers consider art?”

Kels laughs harder at my discomfort.

“First off, I am not a New Yorker. We happen to live in New York because of our jobs. Second, I hardly consider that art. My rule has always been if I can do it, it ain’t art.”

“I thought you didn’t work with that particular substance?” Mama teases, gesturing to the penis.

I am going to die now.

“I think it would be better if the attachment were bright orange,” Kels suggests. She is evil.

“Ma petit, you’re obviously unfamiliar with their natural color.”

Kels is now as red as I am.

Go, Mama!

Mama, feeling rather self-satisfied, smiles pleasantly. “I think we’re done here. Where are we having lunch?”

Thank God. I don’t think the MOMA is quite ready for Mama.

* * *

We walk the few blocks to the Plaza Hotel. It’s my favorite hotel in Manhattan. Located at the base of Central Park, it’s long been the standard by which elegant hotels in New York are measured. When first constructed at the turn of the century, it was a residential hotel. The Vanderbilts, the first to sign the guest register, had a suite of rooms which are now rented to presidents and royalty.

We have reservations in The Palm Court for lunch. The room is exquisite, designed to remind the visitor of the winter garden in London’s Hotel Carlton. Mama lets out a sound of approval. “At last, we can relax.”

The maître d’ comes over and welcomes us. Mama replies in French. The two of them strike up a conversation while he guides us to our table.

I turn to Kels as we follow them. “If we move, would we have to tell the family?”

“Yes, sweetheart. Now, be good,” she whispers back soothingly.

Once seated, we all sit back and relax. Mama straightens the silverware at her place setting and smoothes out the tablecloth. “I have been very patient.”

I start to object but Kels kicks me under the table. I shut up. It’s for the best.

“I have waited patiently for years for Harper to find you.” Mama turns on the charm and smiles brilliantly at Kelsey. “My heart is so full.”

Kels reaches out and takes hold of Mama’s hand. “Thank you.”

I am getting set up for something. I can feel it. Coming in three-two-one …

“So, you can only imagine how perplexed I have been at my baby girl’s reluctance to plan her own wedding.”

Houston, we have lift-off. “I am not reluctant, Mama,” I protest. “I just don’t want it to get out of hand. We talked about this.”

“Exactement! Talk, talk, talk but no planning. That is what we must do now. Mon Dieu! It is only a week away!”

A week away. How wonderful. But I’ve already been married to my girl for two weeks. Wouldn’t that get Mama’s panties in a wad? “Mama,” I say in my most patient tone of voice, “what is left to be done? I know you have already taken care of the flowers, the musicians and the caterer. What is there left to do?”

“What is there left to do?”

I smirk. “Is there an echo?” Based on the scowl I receive in return that was not the best reply. Kels confirms it with another swift kick in the shin. She covers it up with a quick squeeze of my hand. Yeah, keep up the sweet act in front of my mother, babe. I’ll get you later.

“Mama,” Kels begins, “what would you like to get settled now?”

“We need to discuss many things, the ceremony, for instance.”

“Simple would be good.”

Mama gives me the evil eye.

“What did you have in mind?” Kels asks. Suck up.

“Well, of course, it should be traditional. Our priest has offered to officiate, so that is taken care of, at least.”

“Mama, we are hardly having a traditional wedding.” I need to quickly explain, lest there be a terrible scene here in the Plaza. “We are, after all, two women.”

“And what is that supposed to mean? That you cannot stand before God and your family and declare your love for one another?”

“No -”

“That you are unwilling to allow your mother the privilege of hosting a celebration for you?”

“No -”

“Then what?”

I feel like I’m five years old again. Screwing up my courage, I take a deep breath and try to reason with my ragin’ Cajun mother. “What I mean is I don’t think of myself as a bride or a groom. And, it’s hard to picture a traditional wedding without those roles.”

Kels intercedes, “Sweetheart, we could walk in together. So neither of us are being given away or waiting at the altar.”

I smile at her. “I like walking in with you.” I could have her on my arm, like I wanted to at the Peabodys the other day.

Mama interrupts my pleasant thoughts. “And who is in the wedding party?”

“Wedding party?”

Narrowed eyes peer at me across the table.

“Actually, Harper and I thought we’d asked Robie and Rene to fill in as our wedding party. Robie can stand with Harper and Rene can stand with me.”

“And what about your other brothers?”

I glance at Kels, looking for guidance. I receive a meaningful look. If only I could discern the meaning. I hazard a guess, “I’d love to have them too.”

Kels adds, “And, of course, I’d want Katherine, Elaine and Rachel with me as well.”

Does my wife have any shame?

“Good. I am glad that is settled. What will you be wearing?”

“Clothing,” I say.

Wrong answer.

“Something that compliments whatever Harper is wearing.” Kels rests her chin on her hand and smiles at me. She is clearly having far too good a time here.

You are not being very helpful here, chér. Well, let’s try and put it back on Mama. “What did you have in mind?”

“Formal attire.”

“I am not wearing a tux, Mama.” I sigh and try to make this woman understand. “I don’t see myself as a man.”

“So you will wear a dress?”

“I definitely don’t see that happening either.”

“We’re out of choices here then.”

Kels, God bless her, jumps in. “Harper has a beautiful Armani pantsuit that would be perfect, I think. Very elegant, feminine and appropriate for a wedding.”

“And you, ma petit?”

Okay, I guess my outfit is decided on then.

“Hmm…”

Ha! Kels doesn’t know. This is wonderful! Now she can squirm. I lean back in my chair. “Yes, chér, what do you have planned?”

That doesn’t work well because Kels gives me a glare that matches Mama’s. “Doesn’t matter, Tabloid. You’re not allowed to see it until the wedding anyhow.” She turns and smiles at Mama. “And Harper will be spending the night before the wedding at Robie’s, right?”

Oh, yeah, I pissed off the wife.

“But, of course!” Mama wags her finger at me. “Don’t complain, either.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it. Anything else left for us to decide?” This is said with a touch of sarcasm since I haven’t actually helped decide anything. I have merely sat here and acquiesced.

“What we’re having for lunch, mon Coeur.”

* * *

I leave Harper sleeping and slide out of bed to get ready for my day out with Mama. We’re going shopping for my wedding outfit. Since Harper flatly refused to wear a dress, I offered to do it. This seemed to please Mama to no end. I know who to keep happy in the family.

As I shower, I think about the wedding. I know Harper and I can’t seem to picture ourselves in a traditional wedding. Mama certainly has a pretty clear picture in her head, though, and we both want Mama to be happy. Harper is, after all, the last of her children to get married. And her only daughter. That role comes with a lot of expectations.

Returning to the bedroom, I find Harper waking, rubbing her eyes and moving around in the bed. She’s not awake enough yet to know I’m gone, but the way she’s searching my side, she’s about to figure it out. I take a seat on the edge next to her and comb my fingers through her hair. “Why don’t you go back to sleep?” I whisper.

She opens her eyes and gives me a sleepy little smile. God, I love that. “Why are you up?”

“I’m shopping with Mama today, remember?”

“I’m sorry.” She lets her eyes flutter closed again.

“I’m not. Stop being a brat or I’ll make you come with us.”

Harper does a zipping motion across her mouth. “My lips are sealed. Not another word out of me.”

“Chicken.”

She flings back the covers. “Care to check the body for feathers?”

Kels get off the bed or you won’t make it shopping. “Nope.”

She snickers and clucks.

I go over to our closet to find something to wear. I hope Mama doesn’t mind causal because that’s how she’s getting me. “You aren’t going to trap me with that. I promised I’d go shopping with Mama and I’m going.”

She pulls the comforter off the bed and wraps it around her body, following me into the closet. Oh, Kels, don’t even go there. Too many bad jokes to be made.

“You are such a suck up by the way.”

“Me?”

“Oh, please, don’t play innocent with me, Kelsey Diane Stanton. Ever since she walked through the door you’ve been ‘Yes, Mama. No, Mama.’ You,” Harper leans in, her nose touching mine, “are a suck up.”

I ignore her and pull an outfit off a hanger. Placing a finger in her chest, I back Tabloid out of the closet. I gather my things to get dressed. Suck up, huh? I’ll show you sucking up. I’m going out with her all day, Tabloid. While you stay here. You don’t stand a chance.

As I remove my robe to get dressed, she drops to her knees in front of me. Oh, it’s time for her morning chat. I can’t help but smile. She hasn’t missed one morning since we found out I was pregnant. Even when she travels, she calls every day and makes me put the phone on my stomach. I do so, even though I am always tempted to listen in. We need to get a speakerphone.

“Good morning, sweeties.” She gives my belly a kiss. “How are my babies this morning? So you’re gonna go shopping with Mommy and your Grandmere today?”

“Not like they have a choice.”

She looks up at me, scowling. “Hush!”

I nod as she continues.

“I expect a full report. If you take good notes, there’s a reward in it for you.”

That earns her a playful slap to the arm. “Tabloid, you will not start bribing our children in the womb. Get up.” I tug her to her feet, giving her a soft kiss on the way. “Now let me get dressed or you’re going too.”

I laugh as she scampers back to the bed, tosses herself into it, and pulls the covers over her head.

* * *

Okay, with Harper in the black Armani suit, this dress should work nicely. It even fits well too. I smooth out the bottom of the dress and turn to Mama. “Well, what do you think?”

She moves forward, adjusting the bodice a bit and fussing with the sleeves. The way the top is cut, my cameo will be perfectly displayed.

“It’s beautiful, Kelsey. This is going to be a lovely ceremony. Even if my daughter is being less than helpful.”

I sigh, taking her hands in my own. “Mama, Harper isn’t trying to be difficult. She’s not, really. She simply can’t see herself standing at the end of an aisle waiting for me to walk down it.”

“And would that really be such a bad thing, Kelsey? I mean, what’s wrong with that type of wedding? Even for members of the same sex? Just because you want to create your own traditions, does that mean you have to give up some of the most beautiful ones? I remember looking at Jonathan as I walked down the aisle, thinking that I was walking away from my childhood and into a new life with the person I loved most in the world. He was so handsome. It was all I could do to keep from swooning before I got there.”

I know that feeling. “No, Mama, of course not.”

“Well, we solved that problem anyhow since you’ll be walking down the aisle with her.” There’s a bit of reproach in her voice. She’s not happy with the plan but she’s willing to go along with it. I wish there were some way to make her happy. I hate the thought of this not being what she wants it to be. I feel bad in a way for even suggesting the compromise, because I know Harper would have eventually given in and agreed to all her requests.

Except the dress thing. She wasn’t budging on that one.

* * *

I hold the wedding band in my hand and feel a tremor run through my body. This makes our upcoming wedding as real to me as our New Mexico wedding was for Harper. Not that it wasn’t real for me too, but I had never considered getting married in any fashion. I hadn’t even given the New Orleans wedding serious thought until the light caught the diamonds in this ring.

“Kelsey, are you all right?” Mama’s voice brings me back.

“Hmm? Oh yeah, I’m fine. Should I buy it? I mean, I don’t even know if Harper wants to wear a wedding band.” Although, if she were to wear one, this would be it. It’s a platinum band with four square diamonds in a channel setting. It’s very understated but elegant. Like my Harper.

“Ma petit, she loves you. Never doubt that.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt it. I only know some people prefer not to wear one and Harper’s not big on jewelry.”

“What does your heart tell you?”

I smile at my mother-in-law, then turn to the clerk. I remove my engagement ring and hand it to her. “I want the same inscription as on the inside of this one.”

She jots down the phrase and hands back my ring. “Beautiful choice, Ms. Stanton.”

“The perfect one,” I agree. The ring and the girl.

* * *

I step out on the balcony to find her relaxed, feet up, contentedly reading a book. She has a tall glass of iced tea beside her and looks very happy. I hope I’m not about to ruin that for her. I wander over and slide my arms around her neck, giving her ear a little nuzzle.

“Hi, lover.” I can’t help myself. The fact that Mama is here has her all kinds of stressed and teasing her is just so damn much fun.

“Kels, behave!” she growls, not unexpectedly. So predictable.

“Aww now, what kind of greeting is that?” I mock pout and come around to place myself firmly in her lap.

Her hands go around my waist automatically. “You are a tease, as well as a suck up. Where’s Mama?” She glances back toward the French doors. Once burned, twice shy.

“Napping.” I move in for another nuzzle and a little nip to her neck and ear.

I hear her breathing hitch. “Thank God for that.”

“Oh yeah.” I continue to explore the slightly salty skin under my lips. She’s starting to sweat a little despite the breeze. Oh yeah, the question. I better find out the answer before we get otherwise involved. Because I intend to get very otherwise involved very shortly. “Harper?”

“Yeah?” She lets her book drop to the tiles. I can tell she’s a bit miffed I changed horses in midstream. After the other night, my girl isn’t up for a lot of teasing. I’d better hurry up.

“I was wondering.” I give her neck another kiss and tug on the first button of her shirt, freeing it. “Do you,” I begin, as I undo the next button and scratch the top of her chest with my nails. “Do you want a wedding ring? I mean, do you want to wear a wedding band?”

Her head drops back, her eyes close, and she licks her lips. “What did you say, baby?” As my nails graze further down, she tries unsuccessfully to capture my hands.

“Do you want to wear a wedding band?”

She opens her eyes and looks at me as though I’ve lost my mind. “God, yes. If it were fashionable, I’d wear one through my nose. I want everyone to know.” She finally captures my hand and give it a little kiss. “I’m taken.” Another kiss to the back of my hand. “Off the market. Completely and happily settled.” She suddenly pulls back, her eyes puzzled. “Why? You don’t want to get me one?”

“Oh please, I want to find you the nicest one I can. I only wanted to make sure you wanted one. Some people don’t like the idea of wearing them, you know.”

“Are you kidding?” She straightens in her chair and pulls me close, her voice taking a serious tone. “When I was in Columbus, the night you came and told me about our Baby Roos, I was at a restaurant. The waitress there kept hitting on me and I kept telling her to back off. The whole time I kept wishing I was wearing a wedding band. I want everyone to know, I’m yours.”

“Well, I could have my name tattooed across your forehead.” I trace the skin there, smoothing away the worry lines. “And remind me to go to Columbus after the babies are born and have a word with that waitress.” I undo a third button on her shirt and allow my hand to travel under it once again.

“Nah, don’t bother. I already threw out the trash.” She releases another long groan as my hand continues of its own accord. “Besides, I think Langston might pass out if I got a tattoo.”

I head back to that wonderful column of neck. “Could be. You know Mama is napping way upstairs, on the second floor. I’m sure if we tread lightly we could make it to our room without waking her.” I’m hoping she’ll agree with this plan. Her nipples certainly seem ready to come with me.

“You think so? You think you can be quiet?”

“Me? I’m not the one who groans so loudly the dog growls, Harper Lee.”

“He’s afraid you’re hurting me. Not that I’m complaining, of course.”

“Yeah, right.” I get up and offer her my hand. “Let’s go. If I have to, I’ll give you something to bite down on.”

“Oh, chér, I can think of a couple things I’d like to bite down on, that’s for sure.” She gives my chest a most lascivious look.

“Prove it.” I proceed to take off my outer shirt and toss it in her lap. I know the tank top I’m wearing underneath isn’t much. The way my breasts have swollen I’m finding bras are too restricting for weekend wear. I’m generally going without them when we’re home. Much to Harper’s delight.

I look down at her. I know that look. It won’t be much longer now. The only remaining question is will we make it to the bedroom?

“Shall I take this off too?” I tug the tank top out from my pants, lifting it up enough to reveal an inch or two of skin. I lean over and whisper in her ear, “Right here and now?”

Another long groan.

I make the decision for her, considering it’s broad daylight and we have neighbors in taller buildings. “You have one second to get your backside out of that chair, Tabloid. Or I’m gonna go start without you.” I head for the bedroom.

Before I know it, she’s out of her chair and I’m in her arms. “I think not!”

Sometimes it’s just too easy.

* * *

Monday comes far too early. With the stress of my mother in town and the absence of a No Clothes Day, I do not feel relaxed. On top of it all, Mama wants to visit the studio today.

“Why can’t I call in sick?”

Kels laughs at me and rubs my back gently. “Because I’m not taking her alone.”

“You went out with her alone yesterday.”

My wonderful comforter gets removed and cold air hits my bare skin. “Up. Now.”

“You’re mean.”

“That’s what Langston says too. Get showered and meet Mama and me for breakfast.”

* * *

The moment we step off the elevator, Brian is waiting for us. His arms are full of balloons and stuffed animals. “Oh my God!” he shrieks, seeing Kels.

“What?”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” He stamps his foot and thrusts out a hip.

“Tell you what?”

“You’re pregnant! It’s all over the office after your little tete-a-tete with Langston. Oh my God! I’m going to be an uncle!” He shoves the presents at Kels. Then he focuses his attention on me. “How’d you do it, stud? You certainly are a great producer if you could pull that off.”

God, if my mother wasn’t here, I’d certainly have a reply to that. “This is Mama,” I say, quickly, before I forget.

Brian turns his attention to Mama. “Nice suit. Donna Karan? Spring collection?”

“You must be Brian,” she replies, offering her hand.

He kisses it. My God! Does everyone have to suck up to her? “Harper has mentioned me, eh?”

“No, Robie.”

Brian swoons at the mention of my brother’s name. “Do you have any more like him at home, Mrs. Kingsley? I am looking for one about six two, two hundred pounds, dark hair and light eyes.”

“I’m sorry, all of mine are taken. Surely a gentleman as handsome and charming as yourself must have many callers.”

“Ah, go on!” he protests.

She links her arm through his and they begin walking down the hallway. “Tell me what’s going wrong, let Mama fix it for you.”

Kels leans against me and gently closes my jaw which is hanging open. “I guess we’ll be inviting Brian to the wedding.”

“We’ll make him the flower girl.”

* * *

I don’t know why I’m so nervous. It’s not like anything bad can happen. He can’t refuse to let me marry Harper. He can’t send me away to another school, like was done throughout my childhood. Even if he and Mama hate each other, there is nothing anyone can do.

God, I hope that’s true.

Harper comes into the bedroom, no doubt to find me. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I lie.

“You can tell me,” she counters, not buying it.

“I’m a little stressed.”

“Ah, baby,” she wraps me up in her arms. “Why? You and your dad are getting along great. And it’s only Mama they’re meeting.”

“Our parents are meeting for the first time, Tabloid. Doesn’t that bug you even a little?”

“No. Why should it? It’s not like it can change anything. They can hate each other until hell freezes over and it won’t matter.” She smirks knowing I can’t technically charge her a dollar for that one. “Kels, honey, please don’t stress.” She lays her hands over my tummy. “It’s not good for you or the Baby Roos.”

I take a deep breath and nod. “You’re right, Tabloid. Let’s enjoy the evening and let the chips fall where they may.”

“Exactly. Besides, I think Mama will like your dad. It’s your mother she’d detest.”

“She has to get in line.”

* * *

I’m sipping my juice when the doorbell rings, nearly startling me out of my skin. No matter how much Harper tried to reassure me, I have a feeling tonight is going to be a huge disaster.

I hear Dad and Amanda enter. I smile when I hear Harper relieve Dad of Claire right away. Taking a deep breath, I steel myself for the inevitable. Mama, standing next to me, must sense my hesitation. She takes my hand and gives it a squeeze.

When they enter the family room a huge smile breaks across my father’s face. “Cecile Kingsley! My God, woman, how long has it been?”

Mama moves across the room to meet him and they embrace like long lost friends. “Matt Stanton! I don’t believe it! You’re Kelsey’s father?”

I look to Tabloid and I know the shock is as evident on my face as it is on hers.

“You two know each other?” I manage to stammer without sounding like a total idiot.

“Know her?” My father laughs. “My God, Jonathan, Cecile, and I have known each other since before you were born. I don’t get to see nearly enough of them.” He turns around and grins at Harper. “I must have sent them a gift when you were born. God, I didn’t put two and two together. I must be getting old!”

“Nonsense, Matt, you look wonderful.”

“It’s Amanda and Claire, they’re keeping me young. Let me introduce you to my wife and Kelsey’s little sister.” He guides her over to the people in question.

Oh, this is too weird. I need to sit down. I take a couple of steps back and find the couch. Harper, having been relieved of Claire by Mama, crosses and sits next to me, kissing me on the forehead. “And you were worried.”

* * *

I take a deep breath and refill my glass. I glance up to find my dad standing in the doorway of the kitchen. From the family room, I can hear the others laughing and talking like long lost friends. It’s been a good evening, despite my predictions.

“So, my little girl is getting married, huh?”

I nod. “Yeah. Would you like to come? Or is that a little too weird for you yet? Because, if it is, I do understand.” We’ve come a long way in a short time as it is. I can’t expect miracles.

“I wouldn’t miss it for all the world. I’ll be there.” He opens his arms to me and I step into his hug. “Can your father make a totally selfish request?” I feel his lips brush across the top of my hair.

I burrow deeper into his arms knowing for the first time in a long time what I missed as a child. “Sure.”

“Can I give my little girl away?”

I look at him, shocked this is even coming up. “Do you want to?” I manage to find my voice.

He nods, looking down at me. “There are some things a father dreams about, you know. That’s one of them. The day you were born, I told you some day I’d be giving you to a very lucky young man, but, until then, I’d take good care of you.” Tears form in his eyes but he blinks them away before they fall. “I really blew the first part of that promise. I’d like to hold up the second part of it and give you to that very lucky young woman.”

I feel tears forming in my own eyes as he continues.

“You’re my first born daughter and I’ve always loved you, Kelsey Diane, no matter what you were led to believe. I’d be honored if you’d let me do it.” He sobers for a moment, seemingly fearful of my rejection. “I understand if you don’t want me to. It’ll be a long time before Claire gets married and I’m not a stupid man. I know I’ll probably be long gone before that time and I won’t get to do it for her.”

I pull back from him and shake my head vehemently. “One, don’t even think like that. Claire and I need you to be around for a very long time. She needs her daddy and I need my dad. And two, I’d be honored if you’d give me away.”

We exchange a long, warm hug.

Now, I get to tell Tabloid she got bumped to playing the groom.

* * *

Everyone has finally left. Mama is upstairs asleep. The city is quiet beneath us. I am in Harper’s arms as we dance to very soft music on our balcony. It’s more like embracing to music, but it’s perfect for right now.

“Are you warm enough?” Harper breaths into my ear, sending shivers skittering down my spine.

I hug her closer, sliding my hands under her shirt, coming into contact with warm skin. “I’m perfect.”

“Yes, you are.” She holds me closer, as if that were possible.

“Are you okay with the changes to the wedding? I know you didn’t want to have stereotypical roles, but …” She silences me with a kiss.

“Chér, don’t worry about it. I’ll be fine. It’s more important to me that your father is there and that he has a role in the wedding.”

“Thank you.”

“Besides, I already married you the way I wanted to. I’m a happy camper.”

“I love you, Harper.”

“And, truth be told, I can’t wait to see you walk down that aisle.” She then chuckles and leans closer. “Besides, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it without fainting myself.”

* * *

I wander into the kitchen. I expect to find Mama and I am not disappointed. “Coffee is fresh,” she says, glancing up from her novel.

“If I didn’t see you in the daytime, I’d worry you were a vampire.”

She laughs softly. “I do have pale enough skin, I suppose.”

I fill my mug and stir the cream in. “You’re beautiful, Mama. Inside and out.”

“Come sit with me, baby girl. Tell me why you’re awake in the middle of the night.”

“Heredity.”

“Touché.”

“I wanted to talk to you, actually, about the wedding.” She looks a bit apprehensive. I hasten to reassure her. We finally ironed out the details of the wedding last night with Matt. Well, all except one. “I know we said we’d have the wedding at Robie’s place, but I don’t want to have it there.”

“All right,” she says, warily.

“I want to have it at the house I bought for us in New Orleans.”

“Tell me that again, baby.”

I allow a full smile to spread across my face. “The house next door to Robie’s was put up for bank auction a few weeks ago. Robie let me know about it and submitted a bid on my behalf. It was accepted and we closed on Monday.”

“Are you coming home?”

“Not for awhile, Mama. But I wanted us to have a place when we do. Kels has never had a real family. Her mother saw to that, doing a number on Matt and Kels. I want to give her one: a home, a family, a place to run to for safety when things get hard. Plus, I want the twins to have a house with a yard and cousins next door.”

Mama blinks back tears. “You’re growing up just fine, Harper.”

“I have great role models.”

“Do I recall correctly that your new house has a gazebo in the backyard?”

Mama is certainly focused. “What did you do? Peer over the fence?” I tease.

“Mais non!” She pushes back from the table, giving me an indignant look before it transforms to an impish smile. “I looked from an upstairs’ window in Robie’s house.”

“Now remember,” I warn, “this is a surprise for Kels. So, everyone has to pretend that it’s Robie’s home until after the wedding. It’s my wedding gift to her.”

“No, you’re the gift to her. The house is just a thing.”

* * *

“Nope. Tabloid, put it on, or we’re not moving from this spot,” Kels orders, dangling a blindfold off her index finger.

“Dare I ask why you have a blindfold so handy?” Mama asks. She’s standing on the other side of the limo Matt sent this morning to take us to the airport.

Oh God! Now my Mama thinks we play kinky sex games. Wait, we do. Aww hell. Where’s my blankie when I need it?

“I have the handcuffs in my carryon if I need them,” Kels shoots back, then smirks at me. “You know, the ones with the fur lining you’re so fond of?”

“Kels!” I growl taking the blindfold from her. “Stop it. Mama is going to think terrible things about us.”

“No, I’m not.” Mama chuckles before getting in the car.

I glare at my wife. “She thinks you’re a very strange person, you know.”

“She knows I’m a strange person. I agreed to marry you, didn’t I?”

“Watch it or I’ll turn you over my knee.”

“Promises, promises. Now put the blindfold on and get in the car.”

I slide it into place and Kels helps me into the car, giving me a kiss as she does. “It’ll be worth it, I promise.”

“It had better be,” I growl. This is humiliating, riding to the airport, blindfolded, in the back of a limo with my wife, and I can’t even attack her because my Mama is here too. I could loose my horndog license for this if the union ever finds out.

I hear them snickering during the drive. At least, Kam loves me. He has got his head in my lap, letting me scratch him behind his ears.

“He’s only hoping for some French fries,” Kels whispers. God, how does she read my thoughts like that? It’s creepy.

* * *

The limo finally stops and I can tell we’re at the airport. Big, hairy deal. For the airport I had to put on a blindfold? What’s the matter, Kels, is there a Playboy Bunny convention you want to get me through? I’ve been pretty damn good about not looking anyway. I know I’m living with a pregnant woman with raging hormones. I’m not stupid.

I sit tight until I feel Kels’ hand slip into mine, tugging and helping me out of the car. Without a word I allow myself to be led and, after a short walk, I feel Kels reach up and remove the blindfold.

I leave my eyes closed. Out of protest, you understand.

“Damn it, Harper, open your eyes!” my wife commands with a poke to the ribs.

I flinch. Keeping my eyes closed, I hold out my hand. “Give me a buck.”

I feel her slap it. “I’m gonna give you a swift kick in the seat of your pants if you don’t open your eyes.”

Finally, I do so and stand breathless when Kels whispers, “It’s all yours, baby.”

I glance at Mama who is holding Kam’s leash and she smiles. I swing my head back and refocus on the airplane. I’m speechless. I stare at the private jet with the name ‘Harper’s Baby’ painted on the side.

“It’s my wedding gift to you, Harper. I have to give it to you now. It’s not like I could hide it in my luggage.”

“Kels, I don’t know what say. It’s too much.”

“No.” She places her fingers over my lips. “It’s not. Between us there can never be too much. I wanted to do this for you, Harper. I’m afraid a little of my father has rubbed off on me,” she adds with a little laugh. “Besides, the babies and I really like the sleeping on the couch part. Plus, it will let us get home to New Orleans as often as we want now that we no longer fly commercial.”

I put my lips beside her ear. “If Mama weren’t here, you wouldn’t be sleeping on the couch, darlin’. Thank you. You take my breath away.”
Episode Eighteen: I Do, I Do
I’m holding on to Kels for dear life. Another fine Kingsley wedding tradition is about to come up and bite me in the ass. While Kels gets to go out for an evening with my brothers, I’m doomed to an evening with my sisters. I’m gonna get grilled and she’s gonna go party.

There is no damn justice in this life.

“You be good!” I tease her, tweaking her nose. It’s so cute. She’s so cute. “I know what happens when you go out. You either get arrested or you get pregnant.”

She laughs at the comment, running her hands up my arms, linking them behind my neck. “Well, I promise not to get pregnant again. Though I believe it’s biologically impossible considering my current condition. And I’ll do my best to keep from getting arrested.”

“I won’t come bail you out again.” I’ll never forget the distressed look on her face that night I bailed her out in Los Angeles. The joke was on Beth, though. I won, I won, I won. “I’ll let you stay there this time. I swear, I will.”

“Like I buy that for one minute.” She leans up and gives me a long kiss. I hear myself moan and I wonder again why I’m letting her go out. There are so many other better things we could be doing with our evening. I mean, we won’t be able to spend tomorrow night together thanks to my lovely bride-to-be’s irritation with me last week.

“Okay!” Robie’s voice booms in my ear. “Enough of the mushy stuff. Let go of the blonde there, Kingsley, and no one has to get hurt.”

“Bite me!” I snarl at him and cuddle Kels closer because I can.

“Nah, Kels told me you taste like chicken.”

It takes all of my self-control to not completely lose it with his comeback. My brother is a nut. God knows I love him for it. I look down at Kels, who has buried her face in my shoulder.

“I swear I said nothing,” she mutters.

I don’t believe her for a minute, but in the interest of marital bliss I’ll let it slide. “Well, you can go out and tell them anything you like.” I unwrap her arms from my neck and hand her off to Robie. “But don’t blame me if by morning our sisters know far more about you than you’d like.” I allow myself a smug grin. “Including, but not limited to, where you have a certain cute, little tattoo.”

“Kels!” Robie looks inordinately pleased at this thought. He’s always loved bad girls in good girls’ clothing. “You have a tattoo?”

“It’s a birthmark,” she protests, glaring at me. Tough nuts, baby, you started this with the chicken comment.

“Oh, sure it is,” Robie snickers. “Tattoo, birthmark, whatever it is, it sounds like it’s in a fun place.” He studies my girl’s ass. No doubt wishing he had X-ray vision to see through her jeans.

I smack him upside the head. “It is, but it’s not for you to see.” I cross my arms over my chest and give him my best intimidating look, leaving no doubt as to where said birthmark is located.

“Harper!” Kels is turning four shades of red, all at the same time. It’s an interesting effect.

“Come on, Kels,” Robie offers her his arm. “Let me take you out and show you a good time.” He winks at her. “The Conspiracy has quite the evening planned for your lady and it’s not gonna be pretty, so let’s get while the getting is good.”

“Good idea, Robie, my dear.” Kels wrinkles her nose at me and sticks her tongue out.

“Don’t make promises you won’t keep,” I tease, giving her a swat on the butt as she and Robie walk out the front door.

I stand there for a moment. It’s the calm before the storm. I know that instinctively. Then I hear Rene’s voice behind me. “Oh, Harper! Why don’t you come in here and join us?”

My head drops. The storm has begun.

The first time I’ve ever been invited into the kitchen and it’s for this. Oh God, I’ve lost my mind. Slowly, I turn and head into the lair of the Kitchen Conspiracy. I know how spies feel when they’re about to be interrogated. No, I take that back. I’d rather be a spy. It wouldn’t be as ruthless an inquisition awaiting me in that case.

From the doorway I see them. They’re all seated on one side of the table, hands folded in front of them, looking at me. They would make the perfect Senate subcommittee.

Mama and Papa went over to Gerrard and Katherine’s tonight to watch all the younger kids and leave the house empty for the Conspiracy to do their thing. I wonder if I can sue them for mental cruelty.

Rachel gestures to the solitary chair on the other side of the table. “Have a seat, Harper. This won’t hurt.”

“Much,” Katherine adds, sipping from a glass of wine.

* * *

Robie leads me out to the waiting Lincoln Navigator, Gerrard’s family car. Gerrard, Jean and Lucien are already inside and rocking out to a Zydeco band. Zydeco is an acquired taste, requiring an affinity for accordion music I don’t quite have yet. There is, however, something contagiously fun about the way the four Kingsley brothers croon their hearts out along with the tunes. This should be a fun night.

I climb into the back seat and am settled between Jean and Robie. Gerrard twists around in the front seat. “Chér ‘tit chou, are you ready?”

I’m being called a dear little darling. I doubt if I’m quite ready for that. Nor do I am think I’m quite ready for whatever these four have planned, but, hell, I’m game. Besides, this is only going to happen once in my lifetime. “Ready for what?” I may as well try to get information.

“Ooo la la, wouldn’t you like to know?” Robie replies, sliding his arm around my shoulders.

“Harper said if I get arrested she won’t bail me out.” I figure I should bring this up.

The brothers burst out laughing. “Chér, by the time the Conspiracy is finished with her, we might be bailing Harper Lee out. Now, laisse les bons temps rouler!”

With whoops and hollers, we pull out of the driveway and head toward the French Quarter to let the good times roll.

* * *

I know I am in big trouble the moment the tequila bottle is placed on the table.

None of my brothers bothered to mention to me that this is some sort of a twisted drinking game the sisters came up with. While they’re grilling you on your intentions, they’re giving you booze. A single shot for every right answer and a double for every wrong answer.

Tonight, they’ve decided to do this somewhat in the form of that friggen game show Regis Philbin has been hosting. So, I get asked asinine questions and have ‘lifelines’ I can use for help. Someone needs to kick Regis’ ass all the way down Broadway. As I look at the shot in my hand, I consider doing just that when I get back to New York.

“So, Harper.” Rene smirks at me, clearly enjoying herself far too much at my expense. “Drink up so we can move on to the mechanical skills portion of our quiz.”

I set the glass back down and take the lime out of my mouth. I grin at Rene in a way that is a bit inappropriate. It’s her own fault for getting me buzzed. “And what kind of mechanical skills would you like me to demonstrate for you, Rene?” I leer across the table at her.

I am quite proud of myself when she blushes and looks away. I still got it.

“This look familiar?” Elaine holds up the blindfold. Dammit, Kels. Whatever possessed you to give it to them, of all people?

“Oh shit!” I groan. “Now be nice.”

Rachel laughs, getting up and moving around the table. I watch her retrieve the blindfold as she comes around. “We are nice, Harper Lee. We’re the nicest bunch of women you’ll ever meet.” She slides the blindfold into place. “You will have to do this three times tonight. This is the first time. We expect you to get it right every time.”

Rachel takes over, I hear them moving around the room doing God knows what. Be strong, Harper. It’s just the Kitchen Conspiracy. “You got a nice buzz going, don’t you, Harper?”

“I’m stone cold sober.” Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch but I’ll never admit it.

“Sure.” Rene chuckles in my ear. Oh man. I shake my head, trying to dislodge the air she just deposited there. She takes my hands and places them on the table. I feel something being placed between them. What in the hell?

“Here’s the deal,” Katherine explains, clearly enjoying herself. “There’s a baby and a diaper on the table. Change it.”

“You’re joking, right?” Please, Lord, tell me they aren’t so insane as to put Geoffrey or Clark up here as a sacrificial lamb.

“Nope. It’s a scientific fact that being awakened from a sound sleep to change a baby’s diaper can be just like trying to do it drunk and blindfolded,” Elaine tells me, placing the diaper in my hand.

“We need to know your limits. We have to tell Kelsey when it’s not safe to let you deal with the babies.” Rene guides my other hand to the ‘baby’. I can tell from the first touch, it’s a doll. Thank God for that.

* * *

We park the Navigator and enter The Bistro at Maison de Ville. Gerrard is obviously well known here and we are immediately shown to a corner table. The Bistro is a small dining room with maroon leather banquets, dark woodwork and jewel-toned paintings. The effect is understated but not minimalist. I sink into the leather bench, still sandwiched between two Kingsleys.

Gerrard orders a bottle of Vieilles Vignes from the vineyards of Hubert Lignier Morey-Saint-Denis. The wine steward murmurs his approval and leaves to retrieve the bottle from the wine cellar. It sounds wonderful, but, I can’t imbibe for another six months or so.

“So, Kelsey, what makes a nice girl like you want to get involved with Harper?” Robie asks mildly. “I mean, surely you had better offers.”

I give him a look, trying to discern how serious he is. He’s just like my partner and can’t hide anything. Clearly, he’s playing with me. “She just looked so damn good on her bike.”

The brothers laugh. “I have a bike,” Lucien informs me.

Jean throws a wadded up napkin at his younger brother. “She doesn’t mean a mountain bike, Luc.” He runs a hand over his unshaven jaw. “Do you really know what you’re getting into by marrying Harper?”

“Other than a big clan of Cajuns?”

“And one wicked Kitchen Conspiracy,” Gerrard adds.

“Why don’t you tell me?” This should be interesting.

“Well, she’s grumpy in the morning,” Jean tells me unnecessarily.

“And she tends to have trouble follow her around. And I’m not talking about that damn, lazy cat she pawned off on Mama, either,” Luc supplies.

Robie shrugs. “The police have been involved in the past.”

“She was barred from every sorority at Tulane,” Gerrard tells me.

That I didn’t know. But, it’s understandable. Frat boys have nothing on her in the corrupting of innocents. Wish I had gone to Tulane. I would have liked that kind of education.

“Sounds like she fits right in with the rest of you.” I lean back and fold my arms over my chest, enjoying the looks of shock on their faces. I won’t bite. If they want to get me riled up, they’re gonna have to do a lot better than this.

* * *

I must have done okay with the first ‘diaper the doll’ drill because I only had to drink one shot, but they took the evidence away before I could see it.

“What’s Kels’ favorite color?” Elaine asks, looking up from a clipboard full of questions.

“What?”

“What’s Kels’ favorite color?” she repeats, pouring me another shot.

It occurs to me that I have no damn idea. This is bad on a multitude of levels.

Rachel hands me my cell phone. “Wanna use a lifeline?”

Yup, I’m gonna kick Regis’ ass.

I take the phone and flip it open, staring at it for a second. I realize I’m getting drunk. I try to hold back the laughter as I attempt to remember what Robie’s speed dial is on my phone. I only talk to him every damn day.

Rene leans over my shoulder and presses the button for me. I place the phone to my ear, turning my head to look at her. I grin stupidly, the alcohol doing a number of me. Her perfume is very nice. It’s definitely a good thing I’m …

“Stanton,” her voice rings in my ear.

Holy Shit! That’s not Robie.

“Hello?” she says again. I hear all my brothers laughing in the background. The bastards.

“Hi ya, baby. What’s your favorite color?” Hopefully she’ll just blurt it out and I can end this damn game sometime in this millennium.

“You mean you don’t know?” She laughs in my ear.

I drop my head. “Chér, please…” I am not above begging at this point. The rate I’m going, I’m gonna have a hangover for a week.

“Give the phone to Rene, Tabloid.”

“Kels, honey…”

“Give the phone to Rene.”

“Please don’t make me.”

“Now, Tabloid.” Well, at least she’s laughing.

I hand the phone over to Rene who walks away from the table, taking the call in the privacy of a corner. Oh man, I’m in trouble all ready.

I hear her snap the phone shut. She returns to me and pours a double, then a single on top of that. “Penalty shot.” She slides the third shot in front of me, then says, “Forrest Green. Try to remember that, Champ.”

Like I’ll remember anything considering how loaded I’m getting.

* * *

We have moved our little party from The Bistro over to Jackson Square. In the warmth of the summer evening, a number of the fortune tellers and artists remain outside. We wander around until we find one the boys want to patronize.

This medium is an extra extra large. A man of considerable girth, swathed in a purple robe, a gold turban and more jewelry than is tasteful. He is sitting behind a folding table on a folding chair that looks like it might collapse at any moment. Laid in front of him are an assortment of cards and crystals.

Gerrard pushes me down into the chair across from the seer. My brothers line up in a wall around me.

The medium looks at me and smiles pleasantly, ignoring the intimating force behind me. “Welcome. What would you like to know?”

“The future. What does it hold for me?”

“A question that all of us ponder.” He picks up the tarot deck and shuffles it. Once satisfied it is reordered, he deals out nine cards, in a cross and triangle pattern. He points to the card at the center of the cross. “This card is The Lovers, and it represents you. Right now, the prime energy in your life is directed toward love. This card,” he points to the one above The Lovers, “represents the influences on your thoughts. This is the card of Strength. You are a woman of courage.”

“Damn straight,” Robie agrees, squeezing my shoulders. “She’s marrying my sister.” The brothers guffaw.

The medium smiles, having just earned several free bits of information about me he can use. “This one,” he indicates the card to the right of the cross, “is The Hierophant. It tells me that marriage and alliance are impacting your emotions right now.” Well, I’ll be damned. Look at that. “And this one,” the card at the bottom of the cross, “is The Sun. It tells me that happiness and contentment are the dominant forces on your emotions right now. Finally, this card, the Empress tells me that you are taking charge and growing in your spiritual life.” Hmm, that sounds more like Harper at this point, but, I suppose it’s true.

My cell phone rings, startling me. I had forgotten I had it clipped on to my belt. Shit. I hope it’s not the station. I don’t want to deal with the real world. “Stanton.” I listen to silence. “Hello?”

“Bet it’s Harper using a lifeline,” Robie says, causing the boys to erupt into laughter again.

“Hi ya, baby,” Harper says, her voice a little full of liquor. “What’s your favorite color?”

I shake my head. Poor thing. She’s stumped on such an early question. My darlin’ spouse is going to be very drunk before the night is over. “You mean you don’t know?”

“Chér, please,” she whines.

I need to make sure they’re treating her all right. My girl normally doesn’t sound this desperate. Unless I’m doing things to her. No one better be touching her or they’ll have me to deal with. “Give the phone to Rene, Tabloid.”

“Kels, honey…”

“Give the phone to Rene.”

“Please don’t make me.”

I almost lose it with that plea. I want to go home and rescue her from the Conspiracy. I might have to start calling them the Coven after tonight. “Now, Tabloid.”

“Hi, Kels. Having fun with the boys?” Rene asks once she’s on the line.

“You be careful with Harper. I want her in one piece and able to stand for the wedding.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll return her intact. Mostly.”

The line goes dead. Hmm … we might have to go home early. I put the cell phone back in its place and smile apologetically at the medium. “I’m sorry. Please go on.”

* * *

We have progressed past the second ‘diaper the baby’ test and I’m definitely feeling the effects of the tequila. I know I screwed up because I had to do two shots.

“Okay, Harper Lee!” Elaine consults the clipboard once again. She shows the next question to Rachel who begins laughing and nodding. “Kelsey’s favorite sexual position.”

“What about it?” I puff up my chest a little on this one. This is an area I feel very confident in. Drunk or not. I’ve certainly never had any complaints.

“What is it?”

If it weren’t for the tequila courage coursing through my veins, I would slip under the table with that question. God damn, have they no shame? But all things being equal, I sit up straight in my chair. “Any one that involves me.”

Rachel looks down at a paper in front of her. “That’s not what it says here.”

“What!” I explode, getting up and leaning over the table, straining to get a glimpse of it.

She folds the paper over so I can’t see this answer. She shows me a previously asked question and answer. That’s my girl’s handwriting. Oh Kels, how could you do this to me?

Katherine slides the phone over to me again. “Wanna call her?”

You know somehow I think being dead ass drunk and wanting to discuss favorite sexual positions on a cell phone doesn’t sound like a good idea. Especially when she’s out with my brothers.

“Well?” Katherine prompts again.

“Can’t I just take a penalty shot?” Or four. Anything to avoid his call.

“Nope. You have to ask first, at least,” Rene tells me, flipping the phone open and dialing before handing it off to me.

“Stanton.”

“Baby, what are you trying to do to me?”

“Me? I’m not even there, Tabloid.” She sounds so innocent. I’m not fooled.

“You left notes.”

“No, they asked me questions and I answered them.”

“Well, there’s a particular question I wish you had left blank.”

“From the sound of you,” she observes, “there were several I should have left blank. Which one are we talking about right now, Tabloid?”

“The sex one.”

“Which sex question?”

I look at my sisters, sitting across from my with grins on their faces from ear to ear. “Mother of Christ, what’s wrong with you people?” I lower my voice for Kels. “Favorite position.”

She gives me the answer. I can’t say that to my sisters. I don’t care how drunk I am.

* * *

We are now settled in Preservation Hall. The cover is a ridiculously low five dollars a head. So, now it’s confirmed that the Kingsley men are cheap dates. I’m glad I’m marrying their sister. Harper knows how to show a girl a good time.

In every sense of the word.

I wish I were with her right now. And, I bet she wishes I were too.

The band is good, playing jazz, naturally. Robie leans over and hands me a list. “We’ve been coming up with some names that we think would be appropriate for the babies.”

I’m scared.

“I’m sure Harper explained that it’s traditional for the first born child to be named after one of our distinguished ancestors.”

No, she didn’t explain that. I glance down the list. For boy’s names, there are: Antoine, Pierre, Jean, Philonise, Herbert, and Xavier. For girl’s names, I find: Genevieve, Marie, Isabelle, Romain, Veronique, Desire and Marguerite. None are terrible. None will be chosen, however.

We haven’t even discussed names yet. I wonder if that’s normal.

“I don’t see Christian on this list.” I crumple it up and hand it back to Robie.

My phone rings again.

Gerrard checks his watch and holds out his hand. “Pay up,” he commands.

My poor dear had a bet made against her, I see.

I answer the phone and begin making my way through the benches to the far wall so as not to disturb people. I hate people who talk on their cell phones at concerts. “Stanton.”

“Baby, what are you trying to do to me?”

My girl is toasted. “Me? I’m not even there, Tabloid.”

“You left notes,” she accuses, her tone petulant.

God, they showed her them? I dodge, “No, they asked me questions and I answered them.”

“Well, there’s a particular question I wish you had left blank.”

There can only be one question she’s referring to. I was astounded that they asked me. And I’m still not quite sure what possessed me to answer it. Oh well, no time for recriminations right now. “From the sound of you, there were several I should have left blank. Which one are we talking about right now, Tabloid?” I know, but I want to make her say it.

“The sex one,” she whispers.

“Which sex question?” Come on, baby, say it. A little humility is good for the soul.

I hear her cup her hand over the phone and say something to the Conspiracy. She unmuffles it and comes back on the line with me. “Favorite position.”

I feel heat suffuse my face with the question, even though I was expecting it. God, even when she’s drunk, being badgered by her sisters, and utterly pitiful, she makes me hot. “Darlin’, remember what you promised to do to me last week? The night Mama surprised you? That’s my favorite.”

The line goes dead.

My poor baby. We should start heading back soon.

* * *

“I’m particularly fond of this position!” Kels laughs, bouncing on the middle of the bed. I don’t even remember how I got here last night. After that last question, which I refused to answer, I was forced to drink two penalty shots. Everything is a blur afterwards.

I uncover my very hungover head. The sun is way too bright this morning. Can we turn it down a notch or twenty? My darling wife is far too perky for me today. I see my brothers were far kinder to her than the Conspiracy was to me. I don’t think I’ll ever go into that kitchen ever again. They have effectively scared me out for life.

“Should I be worried, Tabloid?” Kels is holding up what must have been my third ‘diaper the baby’ attempt. Okay, so the doll has a diaper on its head. We were on the second bottle of tequila at that point. I’m lucky the damn diaper made it on the baby at all.

I groan and recover my head. “Go away,” I grumble.

“Nope. I have my orders from Mama. She says you’ve slept long enough and it’s time to get up. She says if you don’t get up willingly, she’s gonna come up here. She said to remind you of how she would get Robie up when this would happen to him.”

Oh, I remember that. She would run the vacuum cleaner and serve him a huge breakfast in bed, complete with very runny scrambled eggs ‘to make him feel better’. It wasn’t pretty.

I throw the covers back. “I’m up,” I mumble and head for the shower.

* * *

I miss her. And I’m so nervous about tomorrow, I can’t sleep. Making Harper stay at Robie’s was a really bad idea. I hated saying goodnight to her after the rehearsal dinner earlier this evening. I could tell she wasn’t thrilled either, but Mama was insistent.

Getting out of bed, I go out on the balcony and step into the night air. It’s warm, with a gentle breeze carrying all the wonderful aromas of this place. I remember our walk in the garden below not two months ago after she proposed to me. Don’t go there, Kels. It’ll just make you more miserable.

“God, I miss you, Tabloid. I wish you were here.” I lean on the railing and wonder if she’s feeling the same way.

“Be careful what you wish for, chér.” Her hand grabs hold of the beam and she pulls herself up, so her head pops over the edge. She gives me a brilliant smile, then begins hoisting herself over it.

I step back, offering a hand to steady her. “What are you doing here?” I whisper. I’m delighted, but I have to ask.

“Spending the night with you.”

“If Mama catches you…”

“You’re a widow. Why do you think I came in this way? I’m too damn big anymore to fit in the doggie door” She pulls me into her arms. “No way was I gonna spend the night away from you.”

“For once, I’m glad you’re stubborn. And that’s a buck, babe.” I sigh contentedly, snuggling into her embrace. “Harper, are you nervous about tomorrow?”

“Terrified.”

“Good. Glad to know it’s not just me.”

“Nope. This is what’s known as the Mama Effect.” She kisses the top of my head.

I’m so glad she’s here. “Let’s go to bed.” I tug her hand toward our room. “I don’t want to risk you being seen out here.”

* * *

Okay, I snuck in. So shoot me. We’re already married.

This is silly. It’s not like I’m some teenager sneaking around.

Nope, I’m a twenty-five year old sneaking around.

Still, this is nice. I’m holding Kels in my arms, laying here relaxing. We’re both so wound up about tomorrow, we can’t sleep. We agreed to behave since Mama has ears like a bat. I’d rather be making love to her as a means of stress relief, but, given the circumstances, this will do.

“Harper?”

“Yes?” My lips graze her forehead as I breathe in the scent of her shampoo and perfume. She used the apple scented one this morning.

“I have something I really want to give you.”

“Oh, Kels…” How can she give me more than what she has already? Hell, she already gave me a plane. Our own private outlet of the Mile High Club.

“Shhh. Go with it.” She gets out of bed, leaving my arms empty, and retrieves a box from the dresser. I don’t feel better until she returns to me and resumes her prior position. “All the things in the world don’t mean squat if you don’t have someone to share them with. Even still, they are just things that can be replaced. But to find the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, who you want to raise children with … Well, that’s a once in a lifetime thing. You, Harper, can never be replaced in my heart.”

“Kels…” I brush back the hair from her eyes and stare into the color of spring and new beginnings.

“Let me finish.” She places a gentle finger on my lips. “Once in a great while, there is a thing which actually can’t be replaced because it serves to symbolize more than the sum of its parts. I have something like that and I think you should have it.”

I can’t even imagine what she’s talking about, but I can tell it’s very important to her.

“Please take this. I want you to have it. I know when the time comes you’ll pass it on appropriately.”

I take the box in one hand, reluctant to lose contact with my girl, and open the lid. It’s her grandfather’s pocket watch. I remember when she was given it in Texas last year. I don’t know what to say to her.

She gently palms my cheek and kisses me. Sometimes you don’t need words.

* * *

Well, this is it. This is definitely it. No stopping this roller coaster. No getting off. Oh, I think I’m gonna be sick.

Rene must sense my distress. She’s at my side with a cold glass of water. “Kels, are you okay? You’re really a funny shade of green.”

“It’s not easy being green,” I warble and take the water. Suddenly, I feel a little better. Guess I just needed something to take my mind off of this. “Yeah, I’m fine. I didn’t think I’d be this nervous.”

She nods understandingly. “It’s perfectly normal.”

“How much longer do we have?”

“Just a few minutes. The limo should be here soon to take us to our place.”

“Good.” I take another sip of water.

“My God, Kelsey, you’re beautiful!” I look up to find my dad. He looks very handsome in his suit and is beaming. He moves across the room never taking his eyes off me. For the first time in my life, I really do feel like the proverbial apple of my father’s eye.

I smile when he stops in front of me. “I’m glad you approve.”

“Sweetheart, I always approved. I may not have always understood, but I always approved.” He loops my arm through his. “The car is here. Are you ready?”

“As ready as I can be.”

* * *

Papa claps me on the back as I stand to the side, waiting to make my appearance in the gazebo. I look out at the yard and see all of the Boudreaux family seated out there on my side. On Kels’ side are all of our friends who we invited. In the first row are Amanda and Claire. I gotta admit, Kels’ sister is cute as a bug. I’m trying to decide if it’ll be weird if I try to get her and Clark hooked up later in life. That might freak my dear Kels out though.

In the second row are the Furies. I laugh at my own description of CJ, Susan and Beth. You had your shot at her and you blew it. But I didn’t. Hell, no. I know a good thing when it comes along. And I’m not so stupid as to let it slip through my fingers. So, sit back and enjoy the show. Foster is seated with them as well. I wonder. Don’t go there, Harper. It doesn’t matter who the damn fifth lover was. Because there will never be a sixth in Kels’ life if you have anything to say about it.

Behind them are my Los Angeles pals: Bear, Jims and Conrad. Jims hair is now tipped red. Someone needs to have a talk with that boy. Maybe I’ll sic Brian on him. Brian and his date, Doug, are behind them. Kels’ assistant is nattily attired in a black suit and a vivid gold vest. It’s as if he watched Four Weddings And A Funeral one too many times.

The next row contains my oldest friends Terry and Beth. Terry and I tore up Tulane together. When my brothers mentioned my being banned from all the sororities they neglected to mention it was all her fault. God only knows what she might pull at the reception. Beth and her partner Caroline I’ve known since I was knee high to a gator. They are from the bayou as well. Our families go way back and technically Beth and I are related on some level.

I am pleased to see Drs. Solomon and Stern enter the backyard. I watch them get escorted to their seats by Gerrard and Lucien. Well, everyone we invited showed up. And, Mama was good and only invited family members for her part. I don’t see anyone from her committee here which eases my anxiety greatly.

“How are you holding up, Harper?” Papa asks.

I smile. “Is it over yet?”

“Nope. But, soon. Remember not to lock your knees while you’re up there. Otherwise, you’ll be flat on your face.”

“Thanks, Papa. I appreciate the advice.”

He shoves his hands into his pockets and leans back on his heels. “Can you stand a little more?” I nod and he continues. “Love her more than yourself every single day, no time off for good behavior. And tell her that fact daily. Never let anything become more important to you than her happiness, even your children. You keep the mother happy, the children will turn out just fine. Believe me, I speak from experience.”

“Thanks, Papa.”

“And don’t doubt yourself, Harper. You have good instincts. I’m very proud of you.”

“I love you, Papa.”

“Me too, baby girl. Are you ready to meet your future?”

I glance around looking for Robie. I see him round the corner, Kam at his heels. We’re set now. I bend down and adjust Kam’s bowtie. “You look even better than your Uncle Robie,” I say loud enough for Robie to hear.

“Yeah, laugh it up. Let’s go. It’s that time.”

* * *

Getting out of the car, the first thing I notice is how beautiful the house is. Damn, Rene, you should stop complaining about Robie. You’re doing all right. I sigh, straightening my dress and waiting for instructions. I basically told Rene I was turning my brain off and trusting her to point me in the right direction. Too much thought and I’ll pass out.

I feel my dad take my hand, giving it a little squeeze to get my attention. He hands me a bouquet of flowers. White roses and babies breath. Tasteful. “Ready, baby?”

I simply nod.

He leads me around the side of the house to the garden. We aren’t going in yet, but I can see the grounds. Oh God. All of Harper’s family and our friends are here. “Where’s Rene?” I stammer.

“She’s with the rest of the wedding party. We’re getting ready to start.” He pats my hand gently. “Relax, sweetheart, I’ve got you.”

I don’t know why but I keep looking down. I think I need to focus on the fact there really is solid ground under my feet.

The string quartet begins playing and I watch all the sisters leave our little holding area. After Rene leaves, the music changes and Dad tugs on my hand. “That’s our cue, honey. Let’s go.”

And the journey begins.

I manage somehow to hold my head up. The smile on my face is real. It’s there if for no other reason than I simply can’t help it. The garden is magnificent and a beautiful place to get married. It’s filled with new life and all the people we love and who love us.

Then my eyes lock on the gazebo. There. There they are, those blue eyes.

“Oh my God, she’s beautiful,” I whisper to my father, tightening my hold on his arm when I get a good look at Harper.

She is wearing the Armani with an ivory silk shell underneath which matches my dress. Her hair is loose but combed back. She is the most stunning creature I have ever laid my eyes on. My stomach slowly rises back from where it dropped when I first saw her.

I know this is important to my father so I hope he isn’t disappointed by the fact I simply can’t take my eyes off her. I’m barely aware of when he finally stops, gives me a kiss on the cheek and leaves me staring into her face.

* * *

I really hope no one ever asks me about the wedding. And I am suddenly grateful to Mama for hiring both a videographer and a photographer. I know for sure I won’t recall a single thing.

I’m standing in the gazebo, Robie on one side, Kam on the other. The family priest is here too. I watch as my brothers escort their wives down the aisle and take their places around us. I don’t pay any real attention to them. It registers somewhere in my brain that they all look nice. What they’re wearing, I have no idea. Clothing.

Kels is an entirely different matter. It’s like she stepped into a spill of sunlight, she is so illuminated in my eyes. I’ve never been one much for dresses or describing them but somehow I suddenly know. I know it’s an ivory silk taffeta floor length slim dress with a scoop neck top and three-quarter sleeves. I am a fashion Rain Man.

And now she’s here, looking at me with the sweetest expression on her face. You would think this is the first time I’m marrying her the way I feel. I’d be a total wreck if we hadn’t done the ceremony in New Mexico, I fear. I’m glad Papa told me not to lock my knees.

I think I just shook Matt’s hand and agreed to something. What it was, I have no idea. I offer my empty hand to Kels. She takes it and I lead her up the steps and to our spot in front of the priest. Kam settles down in front of her.

Kels gives me an amused look. “A very dapper dog.”

I shrug. “It’s a big day.”

The priest gives us our moment, knowing it is more to calm our raging hearts than anything else. Due to the church’s opposition to our lifestyle, he’s not doing the standard ceremony, but one the three of us agreed on earlier. “Harper and Kelsey, today you make a giant step of courage and commitment to communicate love, understanding and growth. When a commitment this strong is made by two people, the force of that commitment, of that love, of that courage, reaches out and touches all of us around you, so that our lives are changed and we share a part of your love. Like a stone dropped in a still pond, the ripples of the love from this celebration extend and change the world we live in for the better.”

I don’t think I’ve ever noticed before how many different shades of color there are in my girl’s eyes. There’s green and gold and a hint of blue.

“At this time, your family and your friends wish for you a home, not a place of stone and wood, but an island of peace, a place from which you will receive strength and support that stays and carries with you throughout your daily lives. It should never be said of either of you that you show more concern for a friend than you do for each other. More kindness, gentleness, and concern needs to be shown in the privacy of your own home than anywhere else. Indeed, your home should be a haven from all the confusion and craziness the world will create.”

Her hair is beautiful too. I like it better cut shorter. I don’t know quite why. It seems sexier, more mature. I like the way it pours through my hands when I caress it. The softness of it against my skin when we make love. The smell of it when I snuggle next to her in my sleep.

“You are now taking into your care and keeping the happiness of the one person in all the world whom you love best. You are adding to your life not only the affection of each other, but also the companionship and blessing of a deep trust as well. You are agreeing to share strength, responsibilities and to share love. I require and charge you both to remember that love and trust alone will be the foundation of a happy and enduring home. No other human ties are more tender, no other vows are more sacred than those you now assume.”

Kels’ thumb strokes the back of my hand, raising goose bumps along my arm. What she can do to me with a simple touch. I run mine across her palm and thoroughly enjoy the reaction is gets me. I listen to the priest for a moment to see if it’s possibly time for me to kiss her.

Doesn’t sound like it. Damn.

“For what greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined for life – to strengthen each other in all labor, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent, unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?”

Her lips are slightly parted and she is wearing a beautiful shade of lipstick. I want to kiss her. Wrap this up or I’m just gonna cut to the chase.

“So, I have a question to ask both of you: will you both love, comfort and honor, keeping each other forever more?”

We are so engrossed in one another that neither of us realize we’ve been asked a question until Robie snaps his fingers in front of my face.

The audience laughs. I think I even hear Mama laughing.

I blink and clear my thoughts for a moment. “Yes,” I reply, not knowing what I’m agreeing to. I hope it’s not giving up our firstborn or something awful like that.

The priest looks at Kels who readily agrees as well. I’ll have to ask her what we agreed to later. If she even knows.

I see Robie and Rene both hand something over to the priest and I figure it must be the ring part of the ceremony.

“Let these rings symbolize the devotion and commitment each holds for the other. These rings, given in love, are a testimony to all who bear witness that Harper and Kelsey are truly joined together on this day. Repeat after me: with this ring I pledge to you my deepest love and devotion.”

I take the simple platinum band I bought to go with her engagement ring and I slide it onto Kels’ hand, proud of myself for not dropping it. I then add the engagement ring to it, having been given it by Kels for safekeeping yesterday. Once both rings are safely on her hand, I kiss it.

I try to hold my hand steady while she slides my wedding band on. No big screw ups, Kingsley. Just a few more minutes and this is all over with. Remember to breathe. Passing out is not an option here.

“Harper and Kelsey, we have all heard you promise to share your lives together. We respect the covenant you have made. It is not the state or a minister standing before you that makes your commitment real, but rather the honesty and sincerity of your love for one another. On behalf of all present, I acknowledge that you are joined in the eyes of God and your families.” He pauses for a long moment, knowing what I want to hear and teasing me. “Vous pouvez embrasser la mariée.”

Does everyone suck up to Mama?

Well, it’s not going to stop me from kissing my bride. I slide my arms around Kels and pull her close. “You make my dreams come true,” I whisper and kiss her.

Okay, I understand now why Mama wanted a formal wedding.

* * *

I’m holding onto Harper, relaxing. We’re off in a corner, alone finally, for a moment before the party starts. When I open my eyes, I see Harper looking at her ring.

“Regrets?” I ask softly, rubbing my cheek against her shoulder.

“Oh no.” She gives me a kiss on top of my head. “I’ll never take it off, Kels. It’s a part of me now, just like you are and the babies. I’m very proud of it.”

“Hey, you two!” Robie finds our hiding space and comes charging in. “We can’t start this party without you.”

“Why not? You’ve started plenty of other parties without me.” Harper hugs me even closer as she teases Robie. I am perfectly content here myself.

“Because, you dork, you’re the guests of honor at this one.” He gestures to the garden. “Everyone is waiting for you.”

“Tell them we eloped.” I chuckle.

Harper snickers along with me, knowing the truth behind that comment.

“Come on, you two. If I go back without you, Mama will have my hide.” In another family, that would be an exaggeration. In ours, it’s the simple truth.

“Shall we take pity on the poor boy?” Harper looks down at me with an evil gleam in her eye.

“Sure.” But first I kiss her lingeringly, a promise for later. I don’t want her to get too involved with the reception. I have plans.

Once we’re back in the garden, people surround us. Thank God, we didn’t do this inside. My claustrophobia would definitely be getting to me. Papa stands on the gazebo steps and gets everyone’s attention with one of his piercing whistles. I don’t know how that man hits that note. It hurts my teeth to even think about it. “To get this party started properly the newly married couple will have the first dance together.”

I can live with that. Harper’s lips are close to my ear. “I chose the music for this. I hope you don’t mind.”

“I trust you, Tabloid.”

“Good.” Harper takes me by the hand and leads me to the center of the dance floor that’s been set up under a tent alongside the house. She nods to the DJ who’s been hired and the music starts up right away.

I sigh and sink into her when I hear the opening notes. She knows it’s one of my favorite songs. And it’s perfect for this day. As we begin to move with the music, I pull back so I can watch her face.

After your laughter like thunder

After you skin like coffee and cream

After it takes our bodies into the night

After we’ve come to the extreme

I want to lay down on your shoulder

Just inside your arm

I want to listen to your heart beat

And your breathing on and on

I want to lay down on your shoulder

Surrender to your peace

And go to sleep

God, she is beautiful, just like this song. It is everything I want in my life with her.

After we’ve gone a million miles

Made true our dreams with sweat and bone

After we’ve built it up with our bare hands

Made strong a place we can call home

I want to lay down on your shoulder

Just inside your arm

I want to listen to your heart beat

And your breathing on and on

I want to lay down on your shoulder

Surrender to your peace

And go to sleep

I want to build a home and a family and a life with this person. I want her forever and ever in my life.

And when the light in my eye is fading

When running water becomes too deep

Finally angels turn my fire to dust

And when my soul’s no longer mine to keep

I want to lay down on your shoulder

Just inside your arm

I want to listen to your heart beat

And your breathing on and on

I want to lay down on your shoulder

Surrender to your peace

And go to sleep

And just go to sleep

This is where I start crying every time. Even though I don’t ever want to think of us as being apart, when my time comes, I want her there. I want her to be the last thing I see, because she was the first thing in my life I ever really saw.

As the music ends, she pulls me close again and we stand there for a moment, lost in each other’s arms. The music starts up again and the party begins around us. Suddenly, I have a twinge and I pull back from her and run a hand across my stomach.

“Kels!” The concern is very clear in her voice and I know she thinks something is horribly wrong. “Honey, talk to me.”

I look up and smile, forcing the words from my lips. “I felt the babies move.”

* * *

The song ends and chaos erupts around us. I think about sixty of my relatives rush onto the dance floor. We go from a nice, slow romantic song to “Whatever Boils Your Crawfish” by Jimmy C. Newman. I am about to invite Kels to two step with me, when she clutches her stomach.

Oh God! The babies! “Kels, honey, talk to me!”

She looks up at me with wonder in her eyes. “I felt the babies move.”

“They’re okay, right? You’re okay?” Someone bumps into me as they dance by. I ignore them. We’re not moving from here until I know my family is all right.

Kels hastens to reassure me, her smile brightening by degrees. “We’re fine. They moved.” She clutches my hand tightly. “I felt them. I never felt them before.” She looks like she might cry at any moment. “They moved,” she whispers.

I have never been as jealous as I am right now. I drop to my knees and press my ear against her stomach, trying to hear them. I hear a gurgle, but I think it’s Kels’ breakfast and not my children.

Kels doubles over laughing, tugging me back up to my feet. “I said they moved, Tabloid, not spoke.”

I feel my face redden. “Yeah … well …”

Rene swoops in to my rescue. “You already got her on her knees, Kelsey. I’m proud of you. It only took,” she reaches over and grabs Robie’s wrist and looks at his watch, “fifteen minutes of matrimony. That’s a record even for the Kingsley women.”

“Whipped,” Robie mutters so only I can hear him.

I give him a look to convey my intense displeasure with him. “May I have this dance?” I ask Rene, holding out my hand.

“If Kels doesn’t mind sharing?”

“Oh no, please. Go right ahead. I’m sure my charming brother-in-law and I can find a little trouble to get into while you’re gone.”

“More than a little, chér, more than a little.” Robie sweeps Kels into his arms and twirls her away.

“It’s good to see you so happy, Harper.”

I pull my eyes back from where they have followed my girl. I kiss Rene’s cheek. “Thanks, Ren. I had to go find Kels because all the best girls were already taken. You know, it used to be, until Kels, that if anything had ever happened to Robie …”

She reaches up and covers my mouth. “I know, Harper. And I would have said yes.”

For some reason this admission allows the last of my crush on Rene to be put to rest. I will always adore her. She will always be my favorite sister. But, she will be forever my sister.

“I think you need to go rescue Kels before Robie spins her to death. Unless you’re used to it, it’s really nauseating.”

“I love you, Ren,” I agree, leaning in to give her a hug.

“Go get her, stud.” Rene whispers in my ear. When I pull away and give her an outraged look, she points over at the gyrating Brian in the middle of the dance floor. “Someone’s been telling tales.”

“I knew this was a mistake.”

* * *

Harper and I are enjoying another chance to dance with each other. It’s truly wonderful to be here, sharing this with our family and friends. I also love the silly little grin Harper’s been wearing all day. “Have I told you lately that you’re adorable?” I reach up and wipe away a small smear of lipstick from her cheek. Not my shade, but it’s hard telling where it came from today. She’s been kissed by nearly every woman here. No doubt that’s part of the reason for the silly little grin.

Speaking of adorable, Christian makes his way slowly across the dance floor, looking very shy as he approaches us. I glance over and see Robie, who has obviously sent his son into ‘no man’s land’, barely suppressing a smile.

“Heads up,” I whisper into Harper’s ear. “I think someone is going to want to cut in.”

She gazes down at the now-arrived Christian and quickly masks a smile when he tugs on her jacket. Harper bestows on him a very serious expression. “Yes, little man?”

He looks back and forth between us then motions her down with his hand, whispering something in her ear when she arrives at his level. I watch his face flush bright red as he speaks to her.

Harper nods and whispers something back. The next thing I know, she kneels down so that he can tap her on the shoulder. That is so sweet. She praises him and then gives my hand to Christian. With a wink, she climbs to her feet again and steps back to watch.

So, I have a dance with the one man in the Kingsley family who holds almost as much of my heart as his aunt. He’s so precious in his suit and tie, his hair all slicked back and his big blue eyes turned up at me.

“Are you having a good time?”

“Yes, Aunt Kels.”

“So do you want a little brother or sister?”

“Mama says a girl.” He shrugs his shoulders as if he is unconvinced on this topic.

“What about you? What do you want?”

Christian glances around, presumably for his mother. As softly as he can get away with saying it and me hearing him still, he says, “I want a brother.”

“Well,” I bend down to give him a hug as the song ends, “it’s okay for you to want another brother, you know.”

“Really?” This makes my nephew a very happy little boy.

“Absolutely, but don’t be disappointed if it is a girl. Girls can be fun too, you know.”

He hugs me around the neck, giving me a kiss on the cheek. “I know. Love you, Aunt Kels.”

“Love you too, little man.”

His face contorts and he looks over at Robie for guidance. I watch him mouth something to Christian who then says, “Congraduations, Aunt Kels.”

It’s all I can do to keep from laughing at his attempt to roll such a hard word over his little tongue. It was a good try. “Thank you, sweetheart.”

He looks over at his father again. Oh boy, Robie must have put him up to something. He looks back at me and takes a deep breath. “Good luck with her.”

I am absolutely astounded at what he has just said. I want to burst out laughing, but I know it would hurt his feelings. He delivered his wish with such sincerity.

Christian looks once more at his father and smiles, flashing him a thumbs-up signal. “Papa told me to say that. I love Tante Harper.”

I wrap him up in a tight hug and give him a big kiss on the cheek, complete with sound effects. “I know you do, Christian. Your Papa is ornery, isn’t he?”

“Mama says he’s the reason we need a girl.”

* * *

Harper and I take a moment to sit down and relax. Lord knows, we both need it. I watch the guests. Everyone seems to be having a really good time. I’m glad to see it too. I didn’t know how having my ex’s here would go over, but we all parted as friends. I couldn’t see excluding my friends from this, no matter what the circumstances.

When I hear it, I know what’s coming. Oh God. Harper, please don’t kill her, this is just CJ’s way of saying good-bye. Right on cue, I watch CJ ask Harper if it’s all right to dance with me. My darling spouse nods and I sigh a relieved breath. No bloodshed today. CJ offers me her hand and we head out on the dance floor. She is very careful to keep an appropriate distance from me as we dance.

“You had to pick this one, didn’t you?” I try to smile.

“It’s the truth. I’ve always told you that.”

“I know. You gave me a lot, Tough Stuff. Courage, strength…”

She cuts me off with a shake of or head. “You always had it, Angel, always.”

“You will always have a special place in my heart, you know that, right?” I run my hand under the lapel of her jacket, realizing I bought it for her.

“I know.” She draws in a deep breath. “Harper is a very lucky lady. I’m glad she wasn’t the fool I was. I’m delighted she found you and held on for dear life. You deserve all the good things life can bring, Kels. If it couldn’t be me, I’m glad you found someone who can give you that.”

I don’t know what to say. CJ always said no one would ever replace me in her life and apparently she means it. “Will you promise me you’ll always be careful?”

“I’ve never broken that promise to you. I don’t intend to start now.” As the music fades she leans in, giving my cheek a very soft kiss and singing the last lines to me. “But above all this I wish you love. I will always love you.” She steps back from me, palming my cheek and wiping away the tear with her thumb. “Goodbye, Angel.”

I stand there and watch her disappear into the crowd. “Goodbye, Tough Stuff.”

* * *

I am a mature adult. I am a mature adult. I keep repeating the phrase to keep my ass firmly rooted in this chair.

My bride is out there dancing with the one other person she has said she loved. It wouldn’t bother me if she were dancing with Susan. She was my stand-in. Or even Beth. Beth is convenient, not a love affair. CJ is a different story all together.

The song doesn’t help me much. ‘I Will Always Love You’ is not reassuring. Especially from someone who carries a gun for a living.

Keep your ass planted, Kingsley.

“How are you holding up?” Rachel asks, sliding onto the chair next to me.

“I’m good. Mama throws a nice wedding, eh?”

Rachel turns wistful. “She does.”

Oh no … wrong subject to take up with an ex-lover in a troubled marriage.

Does the entire lesbian population have to sleep with one another? I mean, is it written in the contract somewhere? I swear to God, there are seven lesbians in this world – three couples and the chick who keeps breaking them up.

“I was wrong,” Rachel says almost too softly for me to hear.

I wonder if I should ignore it. I don’t think this is really the time or the place. And, unlike Rene, it’s not like she has something better at this moment. No matter what, I know Robie worships the ground Rene walks on. And I trust him with my life and with Kels’. But, Lucien …

I am silent for so long, Rachel takes it as a dismissal. She starts to get up, but I reach out and grasp her wrist. “You can’t live with regret, chér. It’ll eat you up inside.”

She sits once more, crosses her legs, and angrily wipes at her cheeks. “I made my bed, now lie in it, eh?”

“I didn’t mean it that way.”

“I know.”

“You two need to talk. Lucien is a good man, underneath it all.” I see him dancing around with Laurent, our oldest niece, underneath the tent. “I think it’s been hard on him, being the middle child, to be honest.”

“He certainly got bookended, that’s for sure.” She picks up a champagne glass on the table and gestures toward Gerrard with it. “We have the judge with four kids and a beautiful wife. His best friend is the attorney with five kids and a beautiful wife.” She points to Jean and Elaine. “Luc’s little brother, the one who is supposed to look up to him, is bewitched instead by the baby of the family. Together they manage to seduce half the girls at Tulane. Robie grows up and runs his own law firm, marries a beautiful Cajun girl – making Mama happy, and has two kids and one in the oven. The prodigal child isn’t quite so prodigal and returns home one Thanksgiving with a famous television personality in tow. Within six months they’re married and have two kids on the way. And what does Lucien have? A law job in a non-profit and a wife his sister slept with first.”

“Rachel, I don’t know what to say.” Truer words were never spoken. I am in way over my head. I wish Kels were here. She’s much better with crying women than I am.

“There’s nothing to say, Harper. God, I shouldn’t have said anything. This is your wedding day. And I’m being selfish.” She stands up and puts a crushed napkin on the table. “Congratulations, Harper. And I do mean that. Kels is terrific.”

She leaves before I can think of anything to say.

* * *

“Hey, beautiful,” she whispers in my ear. This sends shivers down my spine that keep going to a destination a bit more south. I love it when she does that. I shiver and growl before turning around to face her. Her eyes tell me she knows what she did to me and she is very pleased with herself. “I’m so gonna hurt you later.” I lick my lips as I whisper this in her ear and give the lobe a nip.

Foreplay has begun. I wonder how much longer we’ll last here. Good thing the Kingsleys know how to continue a party without the guests of honor.

“Be good,” Harper replies, half-heartedly. “For now at least. You can bite my buttons later.”

I run my hand up the front of the shell under her jacket. “Tabloid, you aren’t wearing any buttons.” She merely gives me her evil smirk and I know what she’s thinking. “Oh yeah, I forgot about those.”

She removes my hand, patting it, to bring me out of what was slowly becoming a no turning back sexual thrall. “Just a little longer, Little Roo, I promise. Right now there is someone very important I want you to meet.”

She leads me by hand over to a table where her grandmother is seated. I find it hard to believe this woman is ninety-two. Must be something in the water down here. Damn, based on her mother and grandmother I’m gonna have my hands full with this one for a very long time. I like that thought.

“Nonny?” Harper takes a seat next to her. “I would like to introduce you to Kelsey.”

She looks up, appraising me before she smiles. “Cecile is right. You are a pretty little thing.” I can’t help but blush. Taking the seat indicated by Harper’s grandmother I allow myself to be sized up by the matriarch of the family. This is a job I’m sure Cecile will fill in another thirty years or so. “So you’re Leone’s companion?”

I look at Harper, who rolls her eyes with the use of her Cajun name, then back to her grandmother. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Well,” she straightens the napkin in her lap, then adds a touch more cream to her coffee before continuing, “I’m glad she decided to settle down and stop all that tom-catting around she was doing.”

Harper remains respectful and silent, but runs a hand over her face before resting her chin on her knuckles. She’s trying to hide a smirk.

“Have you managed to get her off that noisy motor bike?”

It suddenly occurs to me that Harper hasn’t been on the Harley since the day … That explains a lot, like why she is letting Robie store her baby down here. I swallow hard and reply, “Yes ma’am. I think she gave it up for Lent.”

“Well, good. See to it she stays off it.”

“Yes, ma’am, I will. I promise.” I somehow think that’s Harper’s intention anyway. I thought she was over the blaming herself for the attack. I guess not. I reach out and clasp her larger hand in mine.

“You take good care of my Leone, you hear me?”

“It’ll be my pleasure.”

“Good.” She takes her coffee in hand, taking a long sip, before turning to Harper. “And you,” she pats Harper’s cheek, “you be happy and live a long and wonderful life. Tous mes voeux de bonheur.”

We’ve now been blessed with happiness by the matriarch of the family.

Harper takes her grandmother’s hand before it can pinch her cheek and gives it a very tender kiss. “I will, Nonny, I promise.”

* * *

Sometimes life is totally wonderful. Take mine, for example. Twice in the last month or so I’ve married the woman I love. We’re expecting our first children in a few months. We have two new houses, a plane, a car … all the toys. We have a great career. We are surrounded by family, an ever-increasing one, in fact.

Life is good.

However, in every life a little rain must fall.

Hurricane Cecile is headed my way.

I see it in her eyes as she crosses through the celebration. She’s coming over here to gloat. I lean back in my chair and try to appear nonchalant.

“Having a good time?” The twinkle in her eyes tells me my enjoyment of the day is obvious.

Now I must swallow my pride and admit it out loud. “Yes, Mama, I’m having a wonderful time.”

She glances over at Kels who, at the moment, is sandwiched between Papa and Matt. Papa and Matt were delighted to see each other again and even happier to become related, in a manner of speaking. Who knows what type of other mergers and acquisitions will come out of mine and Kels’. Though, for the moment, it doesn’t appear they are discussing business. Instead, all three are laughing and smiling, at ease with each other.

I warm at the sight. For over twenty years the poor woman never felt like she had a father, now she has two of them.

“Kelsey is beautiful in that dress.”

“Kels is beautiful in sweatpants and a T-shirt, Mama. It’s not the clothes, it’s the person.”

“I know.” She sits next to me, running her hand over my arm. “You’re living proof of that fact.”

Oh, she’s still miffed I didn’t wear a dress. My theory is if dresses, nylons and high heels were so great, men would wear them. Until then, I’m staying in pants and close to the ground. “Thanks. I think.” I take a sip from my glass of champagne, enjoying the bubbly sensation on my tongue. “So are you going to say it, or not?”

“Say what, mon Coeur?”

“Don’t play innocent with me, Mama. You’re dying to say ‘I told you so.'”

“Well, for me to do that,” she gives me her infamous look, “you’d have to admit this was a good idea.” She gestures to the party.

Let’s see: band playing, people dancing, champagne pouring freely, family visiting, friends being entertained and enough food to feed a small country. Everyone here to celebrate a significant date in mine and Kels’ life. The happy expression my girl has on her face.

I bite my lip and drop my head. Sighing, I finally give it up. “Yes, Mama, it was a good idea.”

“I told you so.”

* * *

Everyone is banging their forks against their champagne glasses. I know what it means – they want me to kiss my girl. I am very happy to oblige. Apparently, the family approves of my technique because a loud cheer erupts from our on-lookers.

“If I could have everyone’s attention,” Papa says, stepping into the middle of the melee. “If everyone could please raise your glasses and join me in a toast to the newlywed couple.”

I pull Kels in front of me and wrap my arms around her, letting my hands rest of the swell of her stomach. Damn, I wish I could feel our little guys moving around. It’s so not fair. I went through morning sickness with her, and I’m not getting any benefit here. I lean down and rub my cheek against hers.

Papa reaches out and pulls Mama over to him. “When children find true love, parents find great joy. To your love and our joy!”

“Mais oui!” the crowd calls out. They bang their glasses again and I kiss the corner of Kels’ mouth.

Gerrard steps into the circle. “May your hearts beat as one from this day forward!”

More clinking, more kissing.

Next up is Jean. He rubs his hand over his jaw and stares at us for a long moment, as if trying to decide on his toast. Finally, he gives us his patented bad boy smile. “Harper, Kelsey, marriage can have a lot of ups and downs. May all yours be under the covers.”

“Jean!” Mama chastises. Elaine pulls him safely back into the crowd before Mama can flick his head.

Lucien’s turn. “I kept trying to figure out what to say for this toast. After a lot of thought, I finally came up with the perfect one but I’ve decided to save it for your next wedding.”

Whoops and laughter from the crowd, assuming his toast to be a joke. I watch as Rachel walks away from the festivities.

Robie shakes his head and steps out into the circle, coming to stand beside me. “Harper has been my best friend for as long as I can remember. I don’t recall any significant event in my life that didn’t involve her. Usually getting me in trouble.”

“Mais non! It was the other way, Robie, and you know it,” I chastise.

“Shh, I’m telling the story here. Harper and I have done everything together and been as close as two siblings can be. I love her with all my heart, and so does my wife, and our children think she hung the moon. Naturally, we were skeptical that anyone would be worthy of her. And, then she brought home Kelsey. We immediately knew she was a keeper. She bewitched our eldest son and made herself a part of our lives. So, now, I have the honor of introducing you all to my best friend’s new best friend.” Robie comes over and gives Kels a kiss on the cheek. “Vive les mariées!”

I’m gonna kill him later for making me cry at my own damn wedding.

“The cake!” someone calls out. “Time to cut the cake!”

Mama signals for the waiters to wheel it out. As it makes its way through the crowd, people begin laughing. Kels cranes her neck to look at me. “That’s odd.”

I shrug, trying to not give away this surprise.

It arrives. Kels stares at it for a long moment. “Oh my God,” she whispers.

The cake is a three foot long and one foot high replica of a Twinkie.

“I am so not going to explain that to your mother.”

* * *

I can only shake my head when Harper hands me the cake slicer. “Shall we, chér?”

Oh yes, Tabloid, we shall, and you are so gonna pay for this.

Together we slice off the end of the ‘cake’ and each take a small piece of it in our fingers. Now the standoff begins. We stare at each other for a moment, knowing this is where it could get messy. Very messy.

Being the one adult in this relationship at the moment, I give in first and gently offer her a piece, hoping she will be kind to me as well. She takes the cake into her mouth and manages to keep the tips of my fingers a few moments longer than need be. Well, than need be in front of an audience. Especially an audience containing our parents.

All right, Harper, dear, you started this. She places the cake to my lips. I take hold of her wrist to make sure she can’t get away from me. Then I take my time with the cake and the fingers holding it.

“Nice!” She half gasps, half growls. “Be nice.”

“Tabloid, I’m always nice.” I give one last kiss to her fingertips.

“You really do have an evil streak, Kelsey Diane Kingsley,” she growls in my ear, reaching for a napkin to clean her hands.

That really sounds nice. “I learned from the best, Harper Lee Kingsley.” I wipe my own mouth and hands, then offer my darling spouse a kiss as a peace offering.

“So,” someone pipes up from the crowd, ending our kiss earlier than we had planned. “Is Kelsey going to throw the bouquet?”

Harper looks to me for my consent. When I nod, she laughs, “Oh why not?” She hands me the roses. Once the waiter removes the cake to safety, we are surrounded by the single female members of our family and friends.

“Hold on just a minute,” I muse out loud. “If I’m going to throw the bouquet, I think Tabloid here should do the garter bit.” I turn to the crowd. “Don’t you?”

The laughing and the cat calls confirm my suspicions, I’ve married into a crazy family. I look back to Harper. “On your knees, Tabloid.”

The groan that roars through the crowd makes her a bit defiant. I lift a brow and motion with my hand. Very slowly, she drops to her knees. I rest my foot in front of her. “It’s up there. Go get it,” I tease.

I think she might pass out. She takes a deep breath and her hands begin a very slow climb under my dress and up my leg. I can only smile when one hand finds the garter and the other continues up the inside of my leg, heading toward places she should not visit in public. Danger, Will Robinson. “Behave,” I warn softly.

“You started this.” She gives my inner thigh a tickle and then slides the garter down my leg. With fluid grace, she rises to her feet, twirling the garter around her index finger.

“Yeah, but you get to finish it later,” I tell her quietly as we turn to the crowd.

I love that groan.

* * *

I have come to the conclusion that my wife is a very cruel woman. As I twirl the garter on my finger, I’m sure of it. She looks sweet enough, but under that innocent exterior beats the heart of a truly dangerous woman.

The crowd brings me back from my thoughts. Kels and I hold hands, turn our backs to the waiting crowd and toss the items over our shoulders. The laughter erupts even before we can turn around to find out who the lucky winners are.

“Always a bride’s maid and never a bride.” Brian laughs as he holds up Kels bouquet. He pulls one rose out of the bouquet and clamps it between his teeth. His date, Doug, hides his face in mock embarrassment.

I glance around and see Luc holding the garter. Oh God, he had to be the one to catch it, didn’t he?

“You know the rules, Harper!” Robie erupts into laughter as he gestures to Brian with his camera. “You and Kels have to dance the next dance with the winners.”

I drop my head. I knew having Brian here was gonna bite me in the ass. And now there’s gonna be photographic evidence that I might actually like him. “All right, all right.” I hold up my hands in surrender. “But after this dance Kels and I will be taking our leave of you.” People groan and begin protesting. “She needs to rest and I have to admit I’m a little tired too.”

“Yeah, you both need to go to bed,” Terry calls from her spot on the dance floor followed by more whoops, more hollers, more stomping. “I’m exhausted from all this dancing. Anyone here want to take a nap with me?” Her eyes land on Beth and I swear I can see sparks flying.

Another one bites the dust.

I’ll be glad to get Beth hooked up though. I don’t want her with any free time on her hands and frequent flyer miles at her disposal.

“But, we want to thank all of you for coming today and sharing in our happiness,” I continue. “So, please, stay and have a good time.” I lead Kels onto the dance floor and hand her off to Luc. He’s had a little too much to drink, I think. If Kels is lucky, she’ll be able to cut their dance short.

I will not be quite so lucky. Brian has put the rose he removed from the bouquet into the button hole of his suit jacket, completing his English dandy look. He hands the rest of them to Kam with instructions to return them to Kels. Kam trots off, flowers in mouth, seemingly understanding. What a good dog.

Brian now faces me and strikes a pose. “Come here, Stud!”

The crowd around me erupts into a hearty laughter. “You even try to kiss me and I’ll kick your ass,” I tell him as I approach.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

* * *

“What a good boy,” I praise Kam, taking the flowers from him. He still has on his bow tie and is just so damn cute. I hope there are lots of pictures of him.

“Ain’t this a kick in the ass?”

I look up to find Luc standing in front of me. I can tell he’s drunk. Something tells me this isn’t going to be one of the most comfortable moments in my life. Make the best of it, Kels. It’ll be over soon and then you and Tabloid can get out of here.

“What’s that, Luc?” Even as I ask the question, I realize that was a mistake. I never seem to be able to let anything go though.

“It seems,” he moves closer to me, the odor of the alcohol on his breath making me a little nauseous, “that there is some justice in this world.” His hand strokes my arm, giving me shivers. They are not good ones.

“Meaning?” There I go again.

“It’s only fair, don’t you think? Harper got to try mine. Seems fair I get to try hers.” He takes hold of my hand a little tighter than necessary.

“Wait a minute, Luc,” I say, making a little more distance between us, “one dance doesn’t mean anything. You’re my brother-in-law, for God’s sake. Let’s not get carried away.”

“Hey, Rachel gave her up. Maybe I could do the same thing for you.”

“That’s enough,” I warn softly, once again pulling away from him slowly. I really don’t want to attract any attention here. We don’t need any problems on our wedding day. It’s pretty obvious by his unsteadiness on his feet that Luc isn’t operating on all cylinders right now. “Why don’t you go sit down, Luc? We’ll talk later, if you want, but you’re not thinking straight right now.”

“Oh, I’m thinking straight. You’re not.” He seems inordinately pleased by his rather unimaginative pun. He gestures toward Harper. “What is it about her anyhow? Do you have any idea how many women she’s bedded? You are the last in a very long line.”

“The important word being last.” I give Kam a scratch behind the ears, letting Luc get this out of his system. He apparently needs to vent. I can let him do that. He’s not speaking loud enough to draw undue attention our way.

“You really don’t think she’s not gonna fuck around on you, do you?”

“I know she won’t. She’s already had the chance and passed it up.”

“Old habits die hard, Kelsey. She’ll slip. She’ll find some young thing somewhere and screw around on you. When she does, will you forgive her and take her back?”

“Luc, you have no idea what you’re talking about. Why don’t you go have a seat and I’ll have someone bring you a good strong cup of coffee. I think you’ve had enough to drink today.”

“Oh, I’m just getting started,” he growls and grabs me by the upper arm.

“Guard,” I say firmly, pulling away from Luc.

Kam comes to life in front of me. My dog stands there, snarling, growling, and barking at Luc who immediately backs away. Kam never moves from his spot. He just continues to snap and bark. My eyes meet my brother-in-law’s. He certainly wasn’t expecting my cute little bow-tied puppy to suddenly become a hundred pounds of hell’s fury on Earth.

When I see Harper coming, I call Kam off. Luc staggers backward into a table, still staring at me and the dog.

“Kels, what happened?” Harper asks, ignoring her brother for the moment.

“Luc stumbled and Kam must have thought he was going to hurt me,” I say this loud enough for everyone to hear. It’s important to save face for Luc. Nothing’s worse than a pissed off, embarrassed drunk with a score to settle. “It’s all right. Everyone is all right.” I give my dog a very nice scratching and bend down to praise him, quietly. No need for anyone to know that I intentionally set him on Luc.

* * *

I walk over to my brother and help him stand upright. I know better. If Kam went on guard, Kels gave the command. That means Luc did something to frighten or startle her. I won’t have my wedding day ruined by this incident. But, I guarantee we will be discussing this in the future.

I maintain my pretense of helping my brother. “Touch her again,” I whisper in his ear, “and I’ll let Kam rip you to shreds. And if the dog’s not here to do it, I’ll do it with my bare hands.” I give him this warning even as I brush imaginary dust from his clothes. “Are we clear on this, big brother?”

“Very.”

“Good. Go home.”

* * *

I lead my lovely bride around to the front of the home, which she still believes belongs to my brother. The crowd here is thinning some with the food eaten, the music played, the flowers and garter tossed. It’ll be awhile before the party is entirely over, but, at last, we’re free to make our escape.

“Where are we going?” Kels asks. I have to imagine she’s getting tired by now.

“To our honeymoon suite.”

She looks around and sees neither a limo nor carriage to whisk us away. “We’re walking?”

The question comes in such a pitiful voice that my heart breaks. “No, baby. I just want to show you something real fast.” I take her hand gently and lead her across the yard to the mailbox near the sidewalk. It’s a simple wooden one with a sign hanging below it reading ‘Kingsley’. There are two hooks underneath it where another sign should be, but is missing.

Kels stares at it. She looks at it as if I’ve lost my mind. “It’s a mailbox.”

“This is true, but not just any mailbox.” I open it and reach inside, removing the other sign which should be hanging there as well. Without letting her read it, I attach it to the hooks. Then I step away. “Our mailbox.” The sign reads: Harper & Kelsey. There is plenty of space for the twins’ names to be added as well.

“Oh my God!” Kels exclaims, looking from me to the house and back again. “This isn’t Robie’s house?”

I point to the house next door. “That one is.”

“This is ours?”

“Sure is.”

“We have a home?”

I sweep Kels up in my arms, amazed at how light she is despite being pregnant. She gasps in surprise and winds her arms around my neck. “Harper! I’m too heavy!”

The protest is weak. My girl is tired. “No, you’re just right.” I hold her tight, careful with my precious cargo. I carry her down the sidewalk, to the house, and across the threshold. Kissing her, I whisper against her lips, “You are my home.”

* * *

“How does it feel?” Harper asks. She’s resting with her ear against my stomach again.

“Kinda like butterflies.” I run my fingers through her hair, combing them completely through. We’re sprawled out on the one piece of furniture in the entire house – our bed. My girl is always focused on the essentials. We can still hear the sounds of the party going on outside, but it seems a world away. We’ve divested ourselves of our clothing, but right now we’re merely relaxing together.

“Then how do you know it wasn’t just butterflies from today?”

Aww, my poor Tabloid. It’s really bothering her she can’t feel them moving yet.

“Well, I can’t explain it. It’s just different. Besides the stressful part of the day was over when I first felt them.”

“Can you still?” She turns and gives my tummy a kiss.

“Yeah.” She runs her hand over my stomach like a diviner looking for water. I take hold of it and hold it in place. “You will be able to very soon, I promise.”

She sighs, giving me another kiss before moving up to the top of the bed with me. A huge smile breaks across her lips. “I can’t wait.”

“I know,” I whisper, kissing her chin. “In the mean time,” I wiggle my eyebrows at her, “this is technically another wedding night. Remember how much fun we had on the first one?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Wanna try for two?”

“At least. Paybacks are a…” She stops and grins at me. “Let’s just say I owe you for the questionnaire and letting the Conspiracy have their way with me like that.”

“Nah, you don’t owe me.” I reply, playfully. “It was my pleasure.”

She tucks her head into the curve of my neck, kissing me below my ear. “It can be, but you have to let me get my revenge for the position question.”

“That’s punishment?”

“Will be by the time I’m done with you.” She nips my ear then her hands begin a slow massage of my body.

“Oh yeah. Punish me. Go ahead,” I moan. “Please do. All night long.”
Episode Nineteen: I Love Paris in the Springtime
“Oh God, yes.”

Kels reaches down and clasps my buttocks, pulling me tight into her body. I lean down and capture her lips in a breath-stealing kiss. I stay motionless for a moment, letting Kels feel me, then I pick up our rhythm once again.

Her right hand begins a slow stroking motion up and down my spinal column, her touch light. It’s distracting, but then so is the feel of her breasts under mine. Our bodies glide easily against one another. Months of being lovers have well-acquainted us with each other’s form and the sweat from our exertion makes movement near effortless now. Her breath is coming hard and I am pleased at her response to my touch.

She moves her leg and winds it around my waist. “Harper …” she exhales. My girl has her eyes shut and her head thrown back. This arches her body and I slide my arm underneath her, holding her tight, the other I use to keep my weight from fully resting on her. I love being this close to her.

Who knew married sex was this good?

Kels brings me back to the moment when she cries out. I stop all movement immediately and start to pull out. “Baby, did I hurt you?”

She takes a deep breath and opens hazy eyes. “No …” She reaches up and wipes the sweat off my brow. “Feels so good. Just intense.”

“The babies?” I’m still not convinced.

“We’re all fine. But we won’t be if you stop now.” Her hand cups my breast and she pinches my nipple unexpectedly, causing me to fall down on her. “Much better,” she sighs as I slide back in.

I laugh against her skin, tasting the salt of her sweat. Peppering kisses on her chest and neck, I reach her mouth once more. “I love being married to you,” I whisper before cutting off her reply. Her response is obvious, though, when her hips begin moving once more.

We start again. I am very conscious of the changes in her body. Her breasts are heavier and completely appetizing. I might have to fight our children for a taste in a few months. But no one is competing with me now.

Her hands move to bury themselves in my hair, keeping me in place, not that I had any intention of moving. “I waited,” Kels pants, “so long for you.”

I groan against her breast.

“Nothing mattered until you,” she continues.

I pick up the pace, anxious to satisfy her desire. The flight here to Paris nearly did us both in with lust. When we finally checked onto La Vie en Rose, it was all we could do to make it to the bedroom. Now, the gentle sway of our boat-hotel, adds to our enjoyment of one another.

God, I’m glad her morning sickness is over and done with.

I start to chuckle, but this is no laughing matter. Her fingernails rake over my shoulder and I focus on the matter at hand. Moving fast and deep, listening to the changes in her breathing, all I want is to hear her cry out in pleasure. I love being with her this way, face to face, breast to breast, hip to hip. I love looking in her eyes and experiencing everything as she does.

She gives me that view into her heart. Her eyes wide and searching. She wants more. I can give it to her.

My hand slides from underneath her to her hip. I grasp it and begin guiding her movements, spreading her wider, lifting her up to meet my thrusts. Kels bites my neck in response. Yes, my baby is getting close. I swirl my hips. Once, twice and a third time.

“Harper! Please.”

“What do you want, chér?” I husk, knowing the answer full well.

“God …” she gasps. “Please.”

“What do you need?”

“You!”

I kiss her roughly. “You have me, chér.” I move again. “Heart, soul and …” I groan when she reaches between our bodies and touches me. “And body.” Two can play at that game. I grind down against her hand, causing her to gasp and bite her lower lip.

Like Kels, all of my attention is focused on a singular point in my body. I feel the sensation building, the overwhelming tide of release. It starts in my gut, a tightening and a tingling in my extremities and quickly overtaking all of my body.

I want to share this with her. I move forcefully against her and we both cry out at the same time. Her body tenses in my arms. Then trembling, she falls back against the mattress, bringing me down with her. I bury my face in her shoulder, breathing in the scent of her, of us.

Her arms wind around my neck and she holds me close. “I love you, Harper. So very much.”

I draw in deep breaths to calm my racing heart. Concerned about our children, I roll off of her and with a few quick motions, toss aside my accessory. Wrapping myself around her, I splay my hand on her right breast and massage it gently, rolling the nipple between my fingers. “You are my life.” I watch with interest as her body responds to me again.

She closes her eyes. “I like honeymoons.”

I nibble on her ear. “We’ve had two so far. I don’t know how many more we are going to be able to get away with.” Though God knows making love to her for the rest of my life sounds really good to me.

Kels turns to me and gives me a very satisfied smile. I put that there. I kiss her shoulder. Stroking my hair, Kels says, “We’ll always have Paris.”

I burst out laughing and gather her up in my arms. “You are insane.”

* * *

The next morning we disembark from our little haven. La Vie en Rose is docked just below the Pont de la Tournelle, on the Left Bank. I take a deep breath and draw in the scent of freshly baked bread and coffee from the multitude of small cafes we encounter on our walk. I take Kels’ hand firmly in mine, grateful for our anonymity in France. No one cares who the hell we are here. In my jeans and leather jacket, hair pulled back in a ponytail, and sunglasses, we could be any straight couple in love. Lord knows, Paris is full of lovers.

“Where are we at?” Kels asks, leaning against my arm.

I kiss her hair. My Little Roo was not exactly thrilled when I surprised her with our honeymoon trip. First, the Concorde is a bit too small for her claustrophobic tastes, even though it shaves off half the flying time. Second, for some reason, my French-speaking spouse doesn’t care much for Paris.

Who could not love Paris?

Unfortunately, the tickets were paid for and so was our floating hotel. Kels, being the eternal good-trooper, agreed to my plans. I think it helped that it was only for three days.

Point to remember: in the future, ask wife about travel plans before pulling out the credit card.

I am determined that Kels will fall in love with the City of Lights, as I did on my first trip here. “This is the Left Bank and we’re in the Latin Quarter. It’s called that because it used to be the center of Paris’ university life and only Latin was spoken.”

“I would have failed out.”

“You and me both, baby.”

“So,” she reaches over to stroke my arm with her free hand, “what are our plans for today?”

They’re rapidly changing with her touch. “I thought we’d head over to the Ile de la Cite and see Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle.”

“I know Notre Dame, but what is Sainte Chapelle?”

“Beautiful, like you.”

My answer causes her to blush and smile shyly. I may be married, but I still got it.

* * *

We cross the Seine and soon stand in front of Notre Dame. The edifice is gorgeous, a masterpiece of thirteenth century Gothic design. Stained glass, statuary, spiraling towers and gargoyles all combine to reflect the splendor of its craftsmen and the God they served. I admit to being a bit partial to the gargoyles, there to act as rain spouts and as symbols of souls trapped between heaven and hell.

“Amazing,” Kels whispers, despite the fact we are standing outside the sanctuary.

I point to the statue to the left of the door. It depicts a man holding his head in his hands. “That’s Saint Denis. He was the Bishop of Paris and was beheaded by the Romans. Legend has it that after being beheaded, he got up and tucked his head under his arm. He stopped at a fountain to wash it off and then went to find a better place to meet his maker.”

“People believed this?”

“So much so that Christianity gained ground. Notre Dame hasn’t always been a Christian cathedral, though. During the French Revolution it became the ‘Temple for the Cult of Reason’. A woman dressed like our Statue of Liberty sat on the altar as a symbol for the divinity of Man.”

“How do you know so much about Paris?”

“Darlin’, I am from Louisiana, which we purchased from the French. I can trace my ancestors back to the French countryside in the early sixteen hundreds.” I smile rakishly and put on an awful French accent, much like Pepe le Pew. “Besides, I wanted to be a fabulous lover when I grew up.”

Kels laughs at my humor. “That you managed to accomplish.”

“My little skunk of the fair sex,” I continue, grasping her hips and pulling her close to me. “You have found me!” I kiss her forehead. “Ho