Exposure Season 3 by Xwpfanatic & TNovan

lindac

Exposure Season 3

EXPOSURE: Season Three

Episode One: The Kingsley Method
We sit in Patricia Radson’s waiting room. Waiting. It seems like forever we’ve been … waiting. These places would be better named torture rooms. Finally, after two weeks of looking like a bug-eyed spaced alien, I am going to be free of goggles, gauze pads and eye drops. And, perhaps, I will be able to see again.

I am not really counting on it. Even this morning when Kels administered the last of the drops, I saw nothing. I had hoped it would be different. I was disappointed. Kels knew how upset I was and she simply slid her arms around me and held me.

I know that no matter what happens, I have to hold it together. For Kels’ sake. For Brennan. For Shy Baby Roo. For myself. No matter the outcome, we have to make plans for the future. These babies aren’t going to wait for me to get my act together. In fact, if I don’t, they’re going to show up early. I’d prefer having them as a birthday present.

“Ms. Kingsley, will you come with me, please?”

Kels guides me as the nurse leads us into the examination room. Her hand covers mine on her upper arm, reaffirming our bond. I miss seeing my wedding ring.

“Take a seat and the doctor will be with you shortly.”

I back up against the exam chair and take a seat. I listen as Kels drags a chair over beside me and she takes hold of my hand again. The only good thing to come out of all of this is I get to hold my girl’s hand a helluva lot more than I used to.

“No matter what, Harper, I love you.”

I allow myself a small smile. “Thank you, darlin’. No matter what, you’re not getting rid of me.”

Before Kelsey can retort – and I know she wants to – the door opens and someone enters. “Harper, how are you feeling?”

I recognize Dr. Radson’s voice. “Pretty good.”

“How are your eyes feeling? Any more discomfort?” Her voice draws closer and I imagine her leaning down looking at me.

I shake my head. “No. That ended a few days ago.”

“Good,” she replies. She swings some piece of equipment around the side of the chair. I can feel the presence of the instrument just to my right. “Let’s take a look at them then.” Very gently she removes the goggles and gauze. With a cotton pad she wipes under my eyes cleaning me up a bit. My skin is always so happy to be exposed to air again. “Go ahead and open your eyes, Harper.”

I obey. Kels squeezes my hand a bit tighter.

Nothing.

Darkness.

Dr. Radson leans so close I can feel her breath on my cheek. She holds open my eyelid and examines my right eye. After a moment, she switches to my left eye. Pulling back, she says, “They look a lot better. The redness is almost entirely gone and the swelling is completely gone. There’s no sign of infection, which is always one of our biggest concerns with an injury such as you received. Kelsey, you did a good job taking care of Harper.”

“Yes, she did,” I affirm.

“I’m going to do another slit lamp exam. Once again, you’ll need to sit forward and rest your chin here.” She helps guide me into position. “You may see a bright light while I’m examining you. It may be uncomfortable, but please try to keep as still as possible.”

I could only hope to see a bright light.

When she looks at my left eye, I blink and pull back momentarily. “Doc?”

“Did you see something, Harper?”

I swallow hard, disbelieving. “I can see light,” I whisper.

I hear Kels swallow a gasp.

“Good,” Dr. Radson encourages. “Sit back for a moment.” She moves the slit lamp and pulls over another examination device. She settles it in front of my eyes. “What do you see?”

“Two bursts of light, followed by another one.”

“Good.” I hear her move some knobs on the device. “And now?”

I squint, trying to get a better look. God, how nice it is to do that. “It’s kinda a lighter blob on a dark blob.”

“All right.”

Hmm … guess I got that one wrong.

“What does this mean, Doctor?” Kels asks. I’m surprised she lasted this long.

“It’s a good sign,” Dr. Radson states unnecessarily. “While I am concerned that Harper’s vision hasn’t improved more significantly, this does indicate that there is some functionality in the eyes. Whether or not it continues to improve, only time will tell.”

I suppose being able to see that the light at the end of the tunnel is an on-coming train would be a good thing. Not quite the same as being able to see my spouse’s face again, but, I guess I should be grateful for even a little improvement. Being able to see light is better than a lifetime of darkness.

“I believe it will,” Kels whispers as she leans in to kiss my cheek.

“Set up an appointment for next week. If there are any significant changes before then, come in and see me immediately. Otherwise, Kelsey, you need to continue putting in the eye drops for Harper. There is still a good risk of an infection. If that were to take place, the impact could be devastating.”

“I will.”

Of course Kels will take good care of me. She’s ferocious about my eyes.

“Great.” Dr. Radson puts everything aside and pats me on my leg. “Don’t give up hope yet, Harper.”

* * *

I give Kels directions to Café du Monde. We park by the Natchetz and walk past Jackson Square. I’ve been here so many times in my lifetime, I can completely imagine the scene. I can see in my mind’s eye the young street performers, bottle caps on the soles of their shoes, tap dancing for tourist money. I see the mediums and psychics in various outfits enticing tourists to part with more of their cash. Rounding out the local entrepreneurs are the artists selling five minute portraits and oil and watercolor paintings some of which are actually quite good.

Café du Monde is packed as always. The tiny tables are put too close together making it difficult to navigate through them, especially for a woman pregnant with twins guiding a blind woman. I am wearing my darkest pair of sunglasses to both protect my eyes – at Dr. Radson’s insistence – as well as give a visual cue to others of my disability. I don’t have a white cane … yet. I am not quite ready to completely admit defeat.

But, we still need to prepare for the future. One that may not include my sight.

Kels leads us to a table in the far corner. She puts me in a chair where I can feel both sides of the tent canopy at my back. Here we should be less jostled. And not have as many people pay attention to us. We order beignets and café au lait. Well, at least, I do. Kels gets her standard decaffeinated Earl Gray.

I capture one of her smaller hands in mine. “How are you doing, baby?”

“Other than I have a heater strapped to my stomach, I’m doing okay.”

God, I am an idiot. I wanted to come here because beignets have always been my comfort food of choice. Of course, I forget to think about my wife’s well-being. “I’m sorry, Kels. Let’s get you home where you can be more comfortable.” I start trying to get to my feet, banging into both the bar behind me and the table in front of me. Damn, this place is small!

Kels grabs my wrist. “Honey, I’m sorry. Sit down. I’m fine. Once we sit down for a moment, I’ll be fine.”

“You sure?”

“Absolutely. These two just generate a lot of heat, that’s all. Must be warm-blooded, like their Mama. Let us not forget that it is August and I’m five and a half months pregnant. I wouldn’t be comfortable in an igloo right now.”

I smile. I really look forward to meeting these guys. “Are they active today?”

“Oh yes. Brennan is practicing for World Cup Soccer. And Shy Baby Roo is swimming laps. I can’t figure out how they can be so active in such a small space.” She takes my hand, placing it on her stomach, once again giving me that all-important connection to my children.

“Small?” I echo.

I receive a swat on my arm for my cheeky comment. “Careful, Stud, or you’ll be on the couch tonight.”

I mock shiver. Truth is, I would hate to separated from my family like that. Even though Kels and I haven’t been intimate since my accident, we have still managed to snuggle despite bulging bellies and busted arms. Some nights the only that has kept me from bolting – well, other than I couldn’t find my own way to bolt – has been the death grip Kels has had on me. Sometimes I think my wife should have been a pro wrestler. She knows how to pin me down to the mattress, that’s for sure. “Can’t have that.”

“Nope, because Mama would side with me.”

That’s true.

Our waitress returns with the small plate piled high with God’s gift to mankind. I can smell the powdered sugar and feel the heat radiating from the pastries. The waitress deposits my drink somewhere in front of me. Kels pays her and she disappears back into the crowd to wait on the next hungry table. The pattern here never varies.

“Coffee at nine o’clock, beignets at three.”

I aim high, knowing we ordered a half dozen of the treats, and my fingers are immediately coated with powdered sugar. I lift the beignet to my lips and bite in, mindless of the mess I am making. This is one advantage to being blind.

Kels laughs at me and leans over, dabbing at my lips and chin with a napkin. “I’m glad you’re enjoying those, Tabloid.”

“I plan on enjoying all of them,” I announce, knowing my girl won’t touch them. A few bites and the first one is history. I lick my fingertips, making loud smacking sounds designed to get a rise out of Kels.

I am not disappointed. “Forget about holding my hand now.”

“Liar,” I counter, reaching out for her hand again. She gives it to me willingly. “So, babe, are you ready to talk about what we’re going to do?”

“It’s still too early, Harper. Dr. Radson says …”

“I know what she said. I was there too. God knows, I hope she’s right and I do regain my sight. But, for right now, we need to plan on it not happening.” I continue on so that she doesn’t contradict me. “Obviously, I won’t be able to continue on as a producer with Exposure.”

“That’s not true, Harper. Your talent is in more than your eyes. It’s in your gut, knowing when there’s a story there. In your research, in setting up the story perfectly so that it captures audiences. It’s …”

I squeeze her hand to silence her. “I don’t want to do it sightless.” I shrug. “I would never feel confident. And, if I can’t be that, I can’t do the job. Fortunately, I happen to have long term disability insurance, so my income is assured, although at a discount.”

“We don’t lack for money.”

“I know, but I feel better knowing that I can contribute something. The main question is what do you want to do? Do you want to stay on with Exposure? I can stay home with the kids and the nanny. At least, for awhile. Or, we can move here to New Orleans. We have a house, family, but no jobs.”

“Harper, where would you be more comfortable? What would make you happy? You know I’ve been questioning if I even want to renew my contract.”

“You make me happy. I want to be where you are. And I want you to do whatever you want.” One of us should be able to keep our career, just because I can’t.

Kels begins chuckling and I am about to protest when she explains, “Hmm, I can see this is going to be a circular argument. Do you want to come home or stay in New York? Where do you think you will have more opportunities?”

“I think we’re back to the circular argument even with those questions. Maybe we shouldn’t decide anything at the moment. You have a contract. It’s only a few more months. I can keep myself busy.” It’ll probably take that long for me to learn to read Braille and use a guide dog. Kam is going to get a brother.

She leans over and kisses my cheek. “I think that’s a good plan, sweetheart. I think we’re putting the cart ahead of the horse anyhow.”

My wife. The eternal optimist. At least, where I am concerned. “We’ll see.”

No pun intended.

* * *

I wake up early. The stress of the prior few days finally caught up to me last night. I fell asleep on the couch downstairs, and Papa had to help me up. I hope it was Kels that undressed me.

Kels is still sound asleep, snoring softly. Good, she needs her rest. I can take care of myself. At least, I need to learn how to. I kiss her shoulder and roll over carefully. God, I want this cast off and I want it off now. How many more weeks to go? Four at a minimum, six more possible. Pain in the ass while dressing.

I find my way – very slowly and carefully – over to the dresser and open the top right drawer. I extract underwear and a bra, extremely grateful that Kels and I keep our stuff separate. I can put these on, not a problem.

I step into the underwear. See, not a problem.

I try figuring out how to put on the bra. I know how, of course, but putting on one minus one functional hand …

I go back to the dresser. I pull out a tank top and replace the bra. That’s better. I carefully thread my arm through it and then get it on. Next stop is the closet. I open the door and begin carefully feeling the clothing on the hangers. When I find a pair of jeans, I pull them off and hold them up beside me.

Hmm. It comes to my calf and has an elastic front. I’m guessing this is Kels’ preggers pants. I carefully put them back on the hanger and rehang them in the closet. The next pair I find has no elastic, so I think I hit pay dirt.

Next stop, a shirt. Just about any shirt I have goes with jeans, so I randomly reach in and pull one out. It’s the right size, so I got lucky. I slowly navigate my way over to the chair and sit down. Last thing I need is to try to put on my jeans, lose my balance and knock myself silly.

I decide to forego shoes for the moment. Kels won’t ball our socks up because she says it stretches out the elastic. So my chances of finding a matching pair are between bleak and infinitesimal. I am thrilled to be up, dressed and somewhat together.

Now if I don’t kill myself going down the stairs.

The smell of sausage cooking guides me unerringly to the kitchen.

“Well, there’s my baby girl!” Papa greets me, getting up from his seat at the table. He walks over to me and gives me a kiss on the cheek. He gently assists me to the table, holding my chair for me. “Where’s your little gal?”

“Sleeping.”

He squeezes my shoulder. “Good. I have to go in to the office for awhile. We’re having a little gathering here tonight. I hope you and Kels don’t have other plans.”

I laugh. “Yeah, our social calendar has been overflowing lately.”

“Good.” He kisses me again and then goes over and lays one on Mama. I remember being so scandalized as a kid at the affectionate exchanges between them. Hell, as a kid, try as an adult. That’s one thing I learned from my father, never be afraid to show the world who you love.

“Want breakfast?”

“Mais oui, Mama,” I reply eagerly. Someone who knows how to make sausage, eggs and cream gravy is a rare find. Especially in California or New York. I asked for gravy once with my breakfast and they brought me brown gravy. Brown gravy. My God, are people insane?

“You look good, mon Coeur.”

“Merci, Mama.”

After kissing me, she goes back to working at the stove. “I’m glad you’re letting Kelsey get some rest. She has needed it for herself, not to mention my grandbabies.”

I hang my head. This is Mama’s version of a sharp reprimand. “I know.”

“How are you two doing? This is a hard thing to deal with in a new marriage.”

I nod. “It is. But, fortunately, we have good examples all around us.”

Mama works quietly and efficiently, finishing up breakfast. She brings over a plate which has such good-smelling stuff on it, I nearly swoon. “I am glad to see you are over the self-pity.”

Good morning to you too, Mama. “Getting there.”

“Eggs at the bottom, sausage at the right, potatoes to the left,” Mama informs me. “I was about ready to smack you upside the head. Seeing you put your wife through that …” she trails off, obviously too irritated to continue. “You may be blind, but you are not disabled. You are one of the most talented people I know. You will find your way.”

“I will.”

“Good.”

Glad we got that settled.

“I am tired of the moping around. Your office needs to know how you are doing and when you will be going back to work,” she starts up again.

“Mama -” I begin to protest.

“No! I have been quiet for two weeks and that was long enough. You need to dig deep inside yourself and find the courage I had hoped your father and I instilled in you. You think you are the first blind person involved in the media? Hardly!”

I nod, mutely.

“Eat! Are you not hungry?”

I can’t keep from laughing. Only a mother can yell at you and then get mad you’re not eating while being yelled at. “Oui, Mama. I was just afraid.”

She snorts and I imagine the look which must be on her face right now. “You should have been.”

* * *

“Come on, Tabloid” She tugs on my hand. “Let’s go out and sit in the backyard. I have something I want to talk to you about.”

“Anywhere but the hammock. It’s too dangerous.” I nearly killed my damn self getting out of it last time. I certainly don’t want Kels getting into it again. I was stupid to let her the other day but I couldn’t see past my own nose then.

“Agreed,” she groans. “A hammock is no place for a pregnant woman. The birds who saw me struggle out of it the other day were so scared they still haven’t come back.”

I can’t help but snort a laugh at the image. It earns me a playful slap as we walk slowly out to the porch and down the steps. She holds onto my hand, guiding me out into the yard. “How about under a tree?” she inquires.

“Sure.”

She helps me settle down with my back against the trunk. Then she joins me, sitting between my legs, relaxing against my chest. Kels brings my hand to rest in the spot where our babies are most active.

“Brennan is really going at it today, isn’t she?” I ask, knowing I have no way of telling if it’s our daughter or Shy Baby Roo. I love the feeling of them playing and moving under my hand.

“I think she needs a sedative,” Kels offers, snuggling into me.

“What do you suggest?”

“I think a story might do the trick. I think it’s time for us to start reading to them, Tabloid.”

“I guess that’ll be up to you now, sweetheart.” That admission breaks my heart. I wanted to read them. I wanted to tell them bedtime stories. I have so many books already ordered for them. Now, I guess Kels and the nanny will get that privilege. Oh well, I will just have to make up better stories.

“Don’t be to sure about that.” She brings something up and places it in my hands.

Feeling it carefully, I can tell it’s a book of some kind. Upon further examination, I can tell it’s an early childhood book. They’re always made from cardboard and have thicker paper. Then my fingers graze across something I’m not familiar with. “Kels?”

“It’s ‘The Cat in the Hat,’ Harper. A special copy. Not only does it have the words in it, but it’s got Braille marks too.” She places my fingers over the marks. “If it should come to it – and I still don’t think it will -, I know you’re going to need formal training, but I thought this might be a good way to start. I’ll read it and help you follow along and you can learn how to read this book to them.”

God, I love this woman. I lean in and nuzzle the back of her neck. “Love you, Little Roo. Let’s read this book to our babies.”

* * *

At six o’clock, the house is full. All of Harper’s brothers and their wives have come over and are now seated in the living room. The kids are over at Gerrard’s house, being babysat by the elder grandchildren. Tonight is a special brand of Kingsley humor. I hope I’m ready for it. Papa told me to just relax and let the good times roll. Oh, and to bring Harper downstairs.

That I can do.

She’s in our bedroom listening to music, relaxing. Music does calm the savage beast. My savage beast, though. I think I’ll keep her. “Hi there, stud.”

Harper looks up and gives me quite the grin. She’s been on her best behavior all day. I wonder what’s up? “Hey, Little Roo.”

“Want to come downstairs with me? I was going sit in the living room and watch a video. I’d love to have your company.”

She pushes herself up to her feet and extends her hand. “Ohh, an excuse to neck on the couch,” she says happily.

” Like we’ve ever needed an excuse before.” I begin leading her downstairs, the whole time her free hand is tugging at the back of my shirt. It’s amazing how dexterous she is even with that cast. “Calm down, Tabloid.”

“Oh yeah,” she husks. “I’m gonna calm down. That’s not the only thing I’ll be going down, though.”

My darling spouse has to say that exactly at the moment we cross the threshold into the living room. As the laughter erupts, I turn beet red and Harper stands shock still.

“Oh my God,” she mutters.

“Perhaps, you should have gone to a podiatrist today, Harper Lee, to see about getting that foot removed,” Robie calls out, recovering first among the siblings.

I note that even the tips of Harper’s ears are red. “Umm, perhaps I should have mentioned …”

“It’s a family council meeting, eh?” she asks.

Papa puts a chair in the center of the living room. “Come on in and have a seat, baby girl.”

I lead Harper to the seat and she sits down. She tries to make a grab for me, but I dodge out of arm’s reach.

“You’ll be safe over here,” Rene calls out, patting the chair beside her. Robie slides out of it and onto the floor between her legs.

Papa smiles over at me benevolently. “We’re here to lend you a hand with this stubborn one, Kelsey, see if we can get a bit of sense drilled into her.” He touches Harper’s shoulder. “The Kitchen Conspiracy has been hard at work this week coming up on things to help you adjust to your current predicament. So, without further ado, let the game begin!”

“Harper,” I call out quickly, “my love, I swear to you, I didn’t have a clue.” Perhaps my laughter isn’t helping my case much.

She wags her finger in my direction. “I think thou dost protest too much. But I’ll get you later.”

“Perhaps I’ll just sit here and be quiet,” I mutter. Rene reaches around the back of my chair and squeezes my shoulders.

“All right,” Katherine says, rising from her seat. She motions for Gerrard to move one of the small tables over in front of Harper. “Since you seem convinced that your eyesight isn’t going to return -”

“A belief we don’t share,” Lucien calls out from his seat.

Go, Lucien. My brother-in-law gains several big points in my mind with that comment. I also notice that Rachel is now gracing her husband with more affectionate looks. I think Harper’s injuries and may have helped the healing process start for them. I’m sure everything we’re going through has made them take a second look at what could be taken away without any notice.

“We decided you would need some help transitioning. So, we’re here to have a feel-a-thon tonight.” A round of cackles meets her declaration.

“Sounds like that’s what she had planned for Kels,” Jean snickers from the couch.

“Something you should be good at,” Robie teases, “if you can live up to your reputation.” Oh no, the gauntlet has been more than thrown down. My beloved’s participation is assured.

“If you are successful, you win a pair of dark sunglasses and a cane,” Katherine continues.

Jean stops her. “Actually, it’s not really a cane. It’s Papa’s big umbrella. The best we could do in a pinch.”

Katherine runs her fingers through Harper’s hair. “The best we could do because we don’t think you’ll ever need them.”

My God, I love this family. Listen to them, Tabloid. Believe.

“So, how do we start this little game?” Harper asks, folding her good arm over her cast.

“We don’t need a blindfold,” Elaine notes.

“But, if we did, Harper and Kelsey would no doubt have one handy,” Mama offers.

I bury my face in my hands as the entire room erupts in laughter. I’m never going to live down her trip to New York.

“One of these days remind me to tell all of you what they consider art in New York,” Mama continues, sipping from a tall glass of iced tea.

“Mama!” Harper groans, blushing bright red. “I’ll have you know that thanks to that damn exhibit I can no longer enjoy a hot dog.”

All of the brothers are rolling with laughter. I know they don’t have a clue, but Harper’s indignation and the way Mama is laughing is too much and it’s contagious.

“Here are the rules, Harper. They’re simple. We hand you an object, you identify it. You get five right, and you can be blind. Less than that and it’s a no-go.”

“Bring it on,” is my spouse’s cocky reply. The first item they hand her is pretty simple. I figure it’s their way of breaking her in. Katherine places it in her hands and she makes a face. “It’s a shoe.”

“Which one – left or right?”

She feels it, noting the subtle curve of it. “Left.” Harper takes a sniff and makes a very dramatic face. “And it’s Robie’s.”

Another round of laughter as Robie’s shoe is returned to him. “You think you’re so smart,” he comments, sliding the loafer back on. Rene bends down and kisses Robie’s head in consolation.

“I know I am. Better than you would do.”

Robie snorts. “Mais non! I think not.”

I shake my head. Did he learn nothing in all the years of living with my girl? It’s about to get ugly.

Harper turns her head in Katherine’s direction. “Shouldn’t I be playing against someone, Kat? To make it fair?” A round of whistles, stomps and hollers meets her suggestion. I take that it is approved. “Kels, darlin’, can you run up to our room and get that blindfold you like to use on me? Seems we won’t be needing it any longer.”

I will kill her when this is through. Avoiding Mama’s eyes, I quickly excuse myself and make a dash upstairs. Note to self: never travel with these things.

A few moments later, Robie is seated across from Harper, wearing our blindfold. The Kitchen Conspiracy is in a quick huddle, adapting to this change. Rene and I are left out as our spouses are competing.

The next item handed over is an interesting choice. “Feel it first, Harper, but don’t say anything. You don’t want to help Robie out, do you?” She shakes her head vigorously and feels it.

Katherine passes the item over to Robie. “This is easy,” he declares.

“Then tell me,” Katherine says, leaning down to hear his whispered answer. Once she has his, she looks to Harper. “What was it?”

“The family Bible. Thing weighs a ton and has thin pages.”

Robie scoffs, “It’s a telephone book.”

“Fool, telephone books don’t come with leather covers,” Harper chastises him.

“Two for Harper Lee,” Papa says. “Zero for Robie.”

“Hey! I would have gotten the shoe one!”

Papa considers his protest for a moment. “One for Robie.”

“Next item,” Rachel announces drawing close with it. I shake my head. These people have no shame. She places it in Robie’s hands. He feels it and keeps tapping at the end. I fight the urge to lose it. Rene is shaking in the chair beside me, a hand firmly clamped over her mouth. “Time’s up,” Rachel says, removing the object and handing it to Harper.

Harper feels it and grins slyly. With one push, she extracts the contents and swings it around her finger. “I’m guessing I know what it is,” she says smugly.

“Sure do,” Rachel confirms. “Robie?”

He shifts in his chair, his cockiness diminishing. “I think it’s a mechanical pencil. You know, like they use at drafting tables.”

Everyone howls with laughter. Harper shouts over the noise, “Mon Dieu! Haven’t you ever seen a tampon before, older brother?” With amazing aim, or just sheer good luck, she launches the wad of cotton at her brother. It hits him square on the chest. Robie jumps as if struck by lightning. He grabs it and throws it away. It lands on Lucien. Lucien tosses it to the ground and steps on it, as if it might somehow bite him.

I am gasping for breath.

“Guess you never give Ren a chance to use those, eh?” Harper queries.

For that, Rene gets out of her chair and goes over to slap Harper’s arm. “You watch it, Harper Lee.”

“Three for Harper, one for Robie,” Papa confirms.

Elaine brings over the next item. I shake my head. I wonder how Tabloid will do with this one.

“I wanna make a side bet on this one!” Jean calls out. “Twenty says she can’t identify it.”

“You’re on,” Gerrard replies. Money begins exchanging hands.

Harper gets the item first. She takes it in her hands and feels it, rubbing it between her fingers. Next, she brings it to her nose and sniffs, carefully. She hands it back.

Robie takes it and immediately blushes. He certainly has identified it. Elaine bends down for his whispered reply. Turning to Harper, she says, “What is it?”

“A balloon?”

Oh my poor baby. She’s never seen one before, I guess. At least, not up close and personal. More raucous laughter. Gerrard hands a twenty over to Jean.

“No, this would be a condom,” Robie states. He turns his head to where Mama was last sitting. “I only saw these advertised once, Mama, I swear it.”

Gerrard laughs. “Well, that’s obvious, Robie. Otherwise, a lot of damn good it did you.”

“Hey! Enough! Asse!’” Rene reprimands, shooting Gerrard an evil look.

“Three for Harper, two for Robie.” Papa makes a mark on a piece of paper, as if any of us would ever doubt him.

Next thing I know, Mama is over by Rene and I and pulling us to our feet. She motions for us to lift our shirts up to expose our bellies. Okay, this is not anything I ever imagined doing in front of our entire family. Mama then leads us over to our spouses. “Which one belongs to you?” she asks.

She puts his hand on my stomach and allows him to do a quick survey. Then she puts me in front of Harper. Harper immediately zeros in on the babies’ activities, as Brennan chooses this moment to give a healthy kick. She knows who we are. She lifts her eyes to me and, as her fingertips continue to graze where Brennan seems to be playing tag with Harper, for just a moment, I know we can still see each other no matter what happens. Those blue eyes cause me to fall in love with her all over again.

Next Mama puts Rene in front of Robie. He feels for a moment, before she is placed in front of Harper. We are then allowed to go back to our seats.

Mama bends down to hear Harper’s answer and smiles. Robie is looking a bit stressed. Ooh, he better get this right. Rene would not like being mistaken for a woman carrying twins.

“I think the first one,” Robie ventures, “was Rene.”

Poor Rene.

“Hell, no, that was Kelsey,” Harper corrects, amid the laughter. “My little girl even gave me a hello.”

“Honey?” Robie calls out in a truly pitiful voice. He knows he is in deep trouble.

“Don’t talk to me.”

I lean over and hug Rene. “There’s a room free next door to us.” Of course, I am very proud of Harper.

“Four for Harper, two for Robie.”

Rachel approaches them once more. “Last chance to be blind, Harper. As you know, correct identification of people is essential. You will both get to feel the face of two people in this room. You will then have to correctly identify them. You can only feel their face, not their hair or anything else. Understand?” The two contestants both assent.

Elaine and Katherine walk over, their hair pulled back. They kneel down next to each chair and the feeling begins. I have to stifle a laugh when Robie nearly plunges his fingers up Elaine’s nose. She is not too thrilled either, but she manages to not make a sound and give away her identity. I wonder if that was his plan. Harper simply looks bewildered.

Elaine and Katherine switch places. Once again, Robie tries the finger plunge, now convincing me it was intentional. Harper doesn’t look any less confused.

Robie whispers his answer to Rachel. Harper makes a face. “I think the first one was Elaine, and the second one was Katherine.”

Not too bad. Just reversed.

Robie shakes his head. “No, the first was Mama. The second was Elaine.”

Ouch! Elaine was just called Mama. Okay, it helps that Mama is a stunning woman and I hope I look that good when I’m sixty and have five children and eleven grandchildren. But, I doubt if Elaine is liking that reply.

“Wrong,” Rachel replies not bothering to soften the blow for either of them. She looks over at Tabloid. “Too bad, Harper. I always thought you looked damn good in sunglasses.”

* * *

Kels and I head upstairs. All in all, it has been a great night. My family, in their own special way, has indeed shown me that I can and will overcome this hurdle too. I feel infused with a renewed sense of hope about my eyesight returning.

No matter what, I’m smart enough to know I wouldn’t be able to do anything without the love and the support of the woman walking beside me.

Where does she get her strength? First, the stuff in L.A. that would have driven most people right over the edge. Now this, and, through it all, she has never missed a step.

I tighten my hold on her arm. She has learned that’s my signal for ‘slow the hell down.’ I wonder how it is that she can still move so quickly given the expanse of her stomach. When she turns to me, I don’t really give her time to speak. My hand travels up her arm, past her shoulder and neck, to her cheek. “Harper?”

“Shh.” My thumb brushes her bottom lip, telling me where I need to be and I lean in. Bingo! Damn, I’m good. Oh, she does taste sweet. Like the first time I kissed her in that little room. This time, we don’t have to stop. Finally, I understand from her silent clues she would like to take a breath.

She gasps, her hands grasping my biceps. “My, my, Harper Lee. Where did that come from?”

“My heart,” I whisper, my thumb tracing her bottom lip again.

I swear I can hear the smile on her face. “You’re sweet,” she tells me, her own hand moving up to my cheek.

“Are you tired?”

“What do you have in mind, Tabloid?”

“Since I can’t play peek a boo right now, how about a game of slap and tickle?”

“Only if I get to slap,” Kels’ voice is low and dangerous in my ear. I feel her breath on my face. One of her hands is at my neck, tangled in my hair, and another on my back, gently grazing nails on the flesh under my shirt.

“Sure,” I manage to squeak. How does she do that? I started this. How did it get turned around on me? Not that I’m complaining or anything, but, Jesus, no other woman ever had this power over me.

“I may, just for kicks, add a tickle or two.” She takes me by the hand, leading me into the unknown.

You know, there may be something to not being able to see. It certainly forces me to utilize my other senses more. I can smell her perfume like never before, the subtle scent intoxicating to me. Her skin is much softer than I had ever really noticed, it plays like silk under my fingertips. I can hear her heart beating from a mile away, so it seems. I listen to her breathe, hearing every little change of pattern, gauging her responses that way.

I hear the door to our room close, very gently, softly. Then her hands travel up my back. “You suggested a game?”

I nod like an idiot.

“Hmm, I’ll bet,” she starts again, leading me further into the room, “that I can find lots of fun stuff to do with you.”

Well, quit talking about it, Little Roo, and get on with it. Talk is, as they say, cheap.

I am backed up against the bed, my legs hitting the edge. Under normal circumstances, I’d fight the feeling of falling back. However, the mere thought of what my darling spouse has planned for me simply knocks my legs out from under me and down I go.

I’m laying here trying to listen and figure out what she’s doing. This is fun in a very odd sort of way. Kind of like having on a blindfold I can’t take off. Even when we played around with a blindfold before, I tended to cheat and peek from time to time. There’s no peeking now.

As I feel her move in, standing between my legs, I’m really glad I can’t. Every nerve in my body is trying to escape, sending little jolts through me. I’m not even naked yet. Damn, she is good.

She’s gonna kill me tonight. What a way to go, though! They’ll never get the grin off my face. They’ll have to have a closed casket to avoid embarrassing questions.

Soon I hear the thud of my boots hitting the floor after being pulled from my feet. Her fingers travel to the buttons on my jeans, slowly working them free, the back of her hand grazing along the skin of my stomach when she undoes each one. She’s trying to kill me. Through it all, she’s not saying a damn word. I claw at the duvet on the bed. I can feel my nipples getting hard and I growl.

“Temper, temper,” she teases.

“Bite me,” I tease back.

“I will, don’t worry.”

Oh God.

She tugs on the waist of my jeans. “Lift.”

I can do that. When I do, everything I had on is suddenly stripped off. It hits the floor with a soft thump. Hmm, naked from the waist down, blind and trapped in a small room with a horny woman. I think I had this fantasy once.

Her hands travel lightly from my knees to where my legs meet my torso. Jesus, I never realized how many nerve endings I had in my body. They are all screaming Kelsey’s name. She’s got a fucking cheerleading squad in there. Suddenly, my shirt pushed up past my navel and her mouth lands there, offering wet, warm kisses.

“Kels…” I groan.

My good hand finds its way to her. Running my fingers through her hair, it’s all I can do to keep from getting demanding. The one thing I’ve learned about making love with my wife is one does not demand. She who demands, suffers.

I’ll try begging. In situations like this, it is the only reasonable response. “Please?”

I feel her nod and move down. She must be kneeling on the floor. I begin to wonder if she’s comfortable, but then all rational thought is torn from my mind.

“Holy Mother!”

* * *

Lying in her arms, I am very content to let her hand travel over my body again and again. She’s learning, once more, where everything is. Boy, is she learning. I definitely give her an A plus.

She’s gonna graduate with honors at this rate. Just think, once she has her eyesight back, and after the twins come and I get this body back in shape, she’ll have to take a refresher course. Oh, poor me. I guess I’ll have to tutor her.

I release a deep breath, wiping away a bit of perspiration that settled on my forehead. “Gee, Tabloid, now that I have found the top of my head…”

She chuckles. God, she’s so cocky. I love that about her. I’d missed that about her.

“As I was saying,” I give her a poke in the ribs, “I seem to remember you once told me, shortly after we got together, that you could make love to me blindfolded with one arm tied behind your back and it would be the best I ever had.”

“Uh huh,” she purrs, the smile widening on her face.

“You didn’t lie.”
Episode Two: Blinded by the Light
The sun feels warm on my back. I have always loved this room for that very reason – the morning sun spills directly through the French doors and lands on the bed. I am curled around Kels, my right hand resting on the swell of her belly. Our twins are awake too, if the activity level is any indication. I’m still amazed that Kels can sleep through them romping around like this. I guess it’s something you get used to. I’m not sure I could.

I roll over onto my back and take a deep breath. My eyes flutter open and I immediately flinch. The light is so bright.

The light.

Is so bright.

Because I can see it.

Thank you, God.

I turn my head, wanting Kels to be my first conscious sight. She’s covered in our wedding blanket, her hair glowing as if lit by a halo. Perhaps it is. She is certainly an angel in my life.

I study the slope of her neck and shoulders, the dip of her waist, less pronounced with the presence of our burgeoning children.

She’s a bit blurry though. I blink several times, but it doesn’t seem to help. I sit up and lean over her. There. Now I can see her face. God, she’s beautiful, even when she’s a bit out of focus.

I reach out and push back some hair from her eyes, tucking it behind her ear. She murmurs something unintelligible and keeps sleeping. So I bend down and kiss her cheek. “Good morning, chér.”

“Early. Sleep.”

I chuckle at her protest. She’s not a morning girl. “Nah, I’d rather watch you sleep.” I press my lips to her cheek once more. “But, you go right ahead.”

“‘kay,” she agrees, sleepily.

Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Cue Kelsey.

She flips over far more rapidly than a woman in her condition should. Her eyes are bright and alert and boring into mine. “Watch me sleep?”

I smile, cup her cheek. “Yeah. I always enjoy doing that. You look like you’re a little kid, having sweet dreams.”

Tears begin spilling out of her eyes, over her cheeks, mingling with my hand. “You can see me?”

“I always could,” I whisper as I lean in for a kiss. “Now my eyes can too.”

* * *

Long minutes later, Kels holds me an arm’s length away. I grouse. I preferred what we were just doing a hairbreadth’s apart. The expression on Kels’ face warns me to comply with her wishes right now. She holds up her hand. “How many fingers?”

“You had ten, last I took inventory.”

She slaps my upper arm. “Behave. How many?”

“Two.” She changes her configuration. “Four.” Again. “None.”

I am rewarded with a kiss for my correct answers. “You really can see.” Her fingertips trace the curve of my eyebrows.

“I really can. Things aren’t quite razor sharp, but … I can make out everything I need to. I’m able to see you. I’ll be able to see the babies.” I choke on my last words. I am so relieved to know that I will get to look at Brennan on the day she makes her appearance. And that I won’t have to rely on the doctor to tell me whether Shy Baby Roo is a boy or a girl. I will get to watch Kels nurse our children. Their first smiles. First steps. First everything.

“Yes, you will,” Kels assures me, her voice as choked up as mine.

I capture Kels’ lips once again. I know we should go share the good news. I know Mama and Papa and all the family will want to know as soon as possible. But, right now, I want to see a few of the sights I’ve been missing most. And, all of them are in this room.

* * *

One of the things I love most about Harper is her thorough attention to detail. She is meticulous about that sort of thing. This is to my benefit, I must admit. After making sure all my body parts were accounted for, we shower and dress for breakfast. It’s almost lunchtime. Mama will be having a fit.

We enter the kitchen and I watch the transformation of Harper. She goes from attentive and playful to very cautious and careful. What are you up to, sweetheart?

Mama looks up from her reading at the kitchen table. “I was wondering when you two would join the rest of us.”

Harper pauses. “Rest? Is the kitchen conspiracy here?” She makes a show of cocking her head, as if to hear the people she can clearly see aren’t in the room.

I keep myself from laughing. This will come back to bite you, Tabloid. I guarantee it.

“No, just Papa and I. He’s out back, in the garden.”

Holding her good hand out in front of her, Harper carefully steps toward the table and takes her seat, feeling her way. I go sit beside her. Though I make sure I am out of range for when Mama swats her.

Mama gets up and goes to the refrigerator, pulling out milk, eggs, bacon, and other food items I shouldn’t be eating. While her back is turned, Harper changes the page on her mama’s book and moves it to the right.

“Have you had breakfast, Mama?” Harper asks, knowing very well her mother ate long ago.

Mama turns and stares at her daughter, her eyebrow arching exactly the same way I’ve seen on Harper. “Mais oui. How long have you lived in my house, chér?”

“Well, on and off, twenty-six years.”

Mama cracks an egg and drops it in a bow, quickly adding several more. “Then I do not have to answer that question, do I?”

“No, ma’am.”

I snicker. God, I love being home.

As Mama begins preparing the bacon and eggs, Harper busies herself with the salt and pepper shakers on the table, switching their tops.

Tabloid, Tabloid, Tabloid.

She finishes this stealth maneuver seconds before Mama comes over and places glasses of juice in front of us. The smell of sizzling bacon at the stove is one of the most wonderful things in the world and one I have come to associate with home and family. I may have to break down and have a piece. Or two. For the children.

Yeah, right, they need bacon.

Harper quickly drains her juice and walks over to the refrigerator for a refill. Mama, intent on fixing breakfast, doesn’t pay her much mind. Harper refills her glass easily and then reaches over and steals Mama’s glass from the counter. She brings them both over to the table.

Why don’t you just tell her, sweetheart? It’ll be so much easier on you later.

Mama reaches for a drink, but her hands meets empty countertop. She mutters something in French, then looks over at the table. Harper has placed the glass at Mama’s seat. Mama walks over and picks it up, dropping a kiss on Harper’s hair as she does so. “You’re awful quiet today. Tous va bien?”

Ah, yes, everything is very all right. I say, “Yeah, I’m good, Mama.”

“You want some gravy with your biscuits?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mama picks up the salt and pepper and carries them over to the stove. As she begins preparing the gravy, Harper turns in her chair to watch the inevitable explosion.

It comes.

“Mon Dieu!” She exclaims as she watches far too much salt go into the gravy, instead of the anticipated pepper. Continuing on in sour French, Mama turns around and fixes her gaze on Harper. “Vache! Tu n’as pas fait ca depuis que tu etais enfant!”

Yes, Harper is a troublemaker. And I believe she has been that way since birth.

A pause.

A hitched breath.

“Tu peux me voir?”

Yes, Mama, she can see you.

Mama’s eyes spill large tears down her cheeks. She forgets about the bacon, the gravy, the eggs, everything and rushes over to embrace Harper.

I get up and go over to the stove. I don’t think Mama cares much about cooking right now.

* * *

“Very good, Harper,” Dr. Radson praises as she finishes up the eye exam. After we finished celebrating Harper’s recovery, we called her to schedule an appointment. Fortunately, the doctor had left word with her office to fit us in her schedule immediately should we call with news – one way or the other.

My spouse is barely able to sit still. She is completely high on the good news. So I am. I have to keep looking down to make sure my feet are still on the ground. This phase of our life cannot be over soon enough for me.

“I think you can expect gradual improvement of both eyes over the next few days. Right now you have 20/100 and 20/80 vision. There’s a strong possibility that both eyes will return to normal, or close to it.”

“I’m not going to go blind again, right?” Harper asks, warily. “I’m not going to wake up to lights out tomorrow, am I?”

Dr. Radson places a reassuring hand on Harper’s shoulder. “I very much doubt it. Your eyes needed time to heal and for the swelling to go down. Unless you suffer another injury, I think you have a lifetime of vision to look forward to.”

Harper’s gaze shifts to me and she looks at me hungrily. I know I am blushing. She’s never looked at me quite that way in front of another person before. “Harper,” I chastise, for propriety’s sake only.

“I want you to see a friend of mine up in New York,” Dr. Radson continues, seemingly oblivious. I think she just has good manners. “She’s an excellent ophthalmologist and she’ll make sure everything continues to go well.”

“Thanks, Doc, for everything.” Harper hops off the exam table and saunters over to me. She extends her hand and helps me to my feet. Soon I’ll need a crane to help. Of course Kingsley babies are big. Everything else about the Kingsleys is larger than life.

“Good luck to you both.”

I smile in reply. Things are looking better and better already.

* * *

Harper and I are at the breakfast table. She’s being quite silly this morning and I’ve nearly choked on my juice three times. The gradual improvement of her eyesight has made her just plain dippy these last few days.

“Okay, if you didn’t like that one,” she says, referring to her last bad joke, “how many fingers am I holding up?” She holds up one that Mama would snap off at the knuckle if she caught her.

“Harper!” I laugh, swatting her hand down. “Behave; before your Mama comes back in here.”

“What?” She puffs up a bit, wiggling her eyebrows at me. “I’m not afraid of my Mama.”

I bite my tongue to keep from bursting out laughing. Mama is now right standing behind her. For her little boast, Tabloid gets a playful slap to the back of the head.

“You’d better be. I can still turn you over my knee.”

Harper flinches with the slap, then levels her glare on me. “You set me up.”

“Nope. You did it to yourself, Tabloid.” I sip my juice.

“This came for you, Kelsey.” Mama passes me a large yellow envelope.

It’s from Langston. This can’t be good. Damn. What a way to ruin my day.

“What is it, Kels?” Harper’s tone is very serious.

I tear open the package and remove a videotape and a note. ‘Thought you would want to see this. We will discuss upon your return Monday.’

“Kels?” Harper intones again.

The tape distracts me. It definitely can’t be good. “It’s a video from Langston,” I inform her and then I read his note to her. Her eyesight isn’t still quite good enough for reading.

“Any label?” She means on the tape.

I swallow hard before answering. “Yeah, it says True TV.” Harper’s old show before joining me at KNBC. I really don’t like it.

“Let’s go see what it is.” Harper carefully gets to her feet, holding her hand out to me. Her vision is blurry enough for her to need a little help getting around without any problems. Together, we go to where the VCR is.

Once there, Harper and Mama take a seat on the couch as I slip the tape in and switch on the TV. I stand there wondering what could be on this tape that Langston would send it down here. The tape starts and I prepare for the worst.

“Celebrity moms-to-be: who is and who isn’t.” The male anchor gives a phony smile to the camera and I drop my head.

Oh God.

“Kels, come here.” Harper pats the couch. Without taking my eyes from the screen, I back over to where she is. The report ‘profiles’ various members of the media and Hollywood, everyone from Madonna to Rosie. Then it hits home in a big way.

“And let’s not forget the shocker of the new century.” The correspondent’s voiceover is way too chipper. I’m going to find out who he is and kill him. “In case you haven’t noticed, on CBS’ hot news show ‘Exposure,’ correspondent Kelsey Stanton has been shown in a lot of tight shots lately. Well, True TV found out why. It would seem that Miss Stanton, shown here leaving a posh NY eatery, has also decided to join the ranks of moms-to-be.”

I simply cover my mouth, hoping it’ll keep me from being sick long enough to finish watching the tape. Harper’s hand is on my back, alternating between rubbing it and giving me gentle scratches.

The shot on the screen clearly shows my pregnancy. No hiding that. I am as big as whale. I close my eyes. I know when they got that film. It was right before our vacation. Harper was working late. Brian and I had gone to dinner to make sure my schedule was clear before we came home.

“You might remember Kelsey lost longtime boyfriend Erik Collins in a personal tragedy earlier this year. But the engagement ring on her finger, and her obvious pregnancy indicates she has apparently managed to get on with her life.”

“Christ,” I mumble, dropping my head even further. They didn’t need to bring Erik into this. I open my eyes and stare back at the screen as they cut back to the two fools sitting behind their desk.

“Well, I, for one, think -” Well, there’s a great big shocker. I’m surprised the bleached blonde has the ability to do anything without a teleprompter. “It’s great Kelsey is recovering so well. I hope she’s happy.” Bite me, bitch. “We all wish her, her baby and whoever the lucky guy is, all the best.” Well, at least Langston should be happy I’m heterosexual.

Her dimwitted co-anchor continues, “Stay tuned to True TV. As further details – and stomachs – develop on these famous moms-to-be, we’ll keep you updated.” Please Lord, save me from more brainless banter between these two. I use the remote to stop the tape.

Leaning back, Harper slides her arm around me, pulling me into her shoulder. Her lips press against my forehead.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper. I don’t know if I should cry or be mad. I have a real feeling mad is going to win out very shortly. Right now, I only need to be with Harper.

Guess I better start polishing up my resume.

If anyone will have me.

* * *

“Can I ask you a question?”

I smirk. “You already did. Want to go for two?”

Kels shakes her head. “I always walk into that one.” She comes up behind me and slides her arms around my waist, resting her head on my shoulderblade. “It’s nice being here.”

I glance over my shoulder. “Is that a question?” We spent the night in our house last night. It seemed easier since we had been over celebrating my returned eyesight with Robie and Rene until late in the evening. I can’t wait until we live here full-time.

“No, silly, it’s not.” She scratches my stomach. “Why haven’t you gotten your Harley back from Robie yet? We have a garage now, too.”

I take a deep breath. “Nah, no need. Robie likes taking it out every now and then.” I try to step away, but Kels won’t let me.

“Wouldn’t you like to take it out? When your arm heals and your eyesight is back to normal, why don’t we come down here for a weekend road trip?” She chuckles. “For you, of course. I will be as big as a trailer tractor.”

I shrug. “I don’t know if I want to ride it anymore.” There. I said it.

“Why not, sweetheart?” She asks the question softly, still holding me.

I bite my lower lip. I really don’t want to get into this right now. Even thinking of it brings up far too many memories. Memories of when I almost lost Kelsey. I take a deep breath and force back tears which threaten to spill out. “I just don’t.”

“No good, Tabloid,” Kels whispers and she begins turning me around to face her. Her eyes turn a deeper shade of green when she sees my expression. “I want to talk about this. I think we need to.”

“It’s just a stupid motorcycle.”

“Right. A stupid motorcycle that was your baby up until the time I was kidnapped.” I flinch as she hits the nail on the head immediately. “Talk to me, sweetheart.”

I go over and sit down in the overstuffed chair, pulling Kels down onto my lap.

“Oh, baby, I’m too heavy.” She tries to squirm off me, but I won’t let her.

“I never should have left you.”

“Left me?” Then, “Oh. Sweetheart, there’s no way you could have known what was going to happen.”

“No way?” I shake my head vehemently. “That’s not true, Kels. You were being stalked, threatened, harassed. And what did I do?” Please God, don’t let her hate me for telling her this. “I went out for a ride.”

“And?” Kels is playing with my shirt collar, tugging it gently.

“I lost you.”

She kisses the tip of my nose. “No, you didn’t. I’m right here.”

Now is not the time for word games. “Well, I almost did. All because I loved that fuckin’ motorcycle.” I should take the Harley and toss it into Lake Pontchartrain. After dismantling it and setting the parts on fire.

“No. That’s not true, Harper.”

I am forced to look at her again. “I should have been there.”

“Do you realize that by not being there, you probably saved my life?” As always, Kels is sneaky and puts my hand on her stomach. She knows when I have it there, I can’t be quite so despondent.

And that last statement got my attention. “How so?”

“You were able to put the pieces together. You brought the police. He was armed and he was determined. He killed three people to get to me. Harper, if you had been there,” Kels’ voice gentles, “he would have killed you too.”

Ouch, goes my ego. “Do you really believe that?”

“Do I believe what? That you saved my life? Or that he would have killed you? I know you saved my life.” She rubs her hands over my shoulders. “But, yes, I know he would have killed you.” I can tell she’s back in that place. Remembering. “You didn’t see the look in his eyes. He struck quickly and quietly. He killed everyone in that apartment to get to me, including an armed police officer.”

“I’m so sorry, Kelsey.” I hug her tight to my body. “I’m so sorry you went through all of that. It sounds logical when you say it, but, my heart has a hard time believing that I couldn’t have stopped him.” I snort. “I am supposed to be your knight in shining armor and all that. And I can’t forgive myself for being out on a drive when you were going through hell.”

“Harper, I’ve had a hard time getting over what happened because I still believe, to some extent, it’s my fault all those other people had to die.” I start to protest, to bring up the old arguments, but Kels silences me with a look. “They died because they looked like me, or because they tried to protect me from him. He was determined to have me. Once someone finds a determination like that, there is nothing that will stop him.” She cocks her head to the side and regards me carefully. “Do you know what got me out of that hell?”

“What?” I sound like a child, but I think I can guess this answer.

“My love for you.” I guessed her answer correctly. Kels takes a deep breath and once again returns to that dark room where he held her prisoner. “He told me he killed you. He told me he cut your throat. I thought you were dead and I wanted revenge. I wanted to get out and make him pay for hurting you, but the truth is I don’t think I would have made it out. I was hurt. If you hadn’t brought help … if you hadn’t put it all together and brought me the help I needed …” Her voice breaks. She blinks and clears her mind of bad memories, or at least, I hope she does. “I probably would have died in that house. You saved my life.”

I lean forward and kiss her, wanting to make that sad expression go away. “You saved my life from the moment I met you. But, I still can’t ride my Harley. Not right now, at least.” I rub her stomach, smiling as Brennan or Shy Baby Roo gives my hand a kick. “Maybe I just need a little more time.”

“Well, of course not, you have that cast on your arm. I wouldn’t let you get on it right now anyhow.” My Little Roo is truly becoming a mother. All protective and fussy. I love it. “But I really think that after it comes off, we need to come back down here, and you and Robie need to take a road trip together. Get on the bike and go ride. Let the past go. Don’t give up something you love. Just make it a positive part of our future.”

Our future. I like the sound of that. I decide to tweak her a little. “Maybe I’ll get a little sidecar for you and the kids to ride in.”

I am rewarded with an emphatic shake of her head. “Umm, no. You and your brother can play all you want with the bike, but you’re not putting our children on that thing for quite some time.”

I chuckle. We’ll see about that, chér. “You’re right. We’ll start them out with a little 50 cc cycle when they’re in kindergarten.”

Kels groans and drops her head on my shoulder.

* * *

I miss New Orleans all ready. We’ve been back in New York less than twenty-four hours and I want to go home. I miss the family and I miss our house. I think it has something to do with this overwhelming feeling I’m starting to have about wanting to be settled. The baby books call it ‘nesting.’ They say it’ll get worse the closer I get to the due date, but it’s pretty bad now. If I need to nest, I want to nest in New Orleans. I’m having the babies there if all goes well, so let me go home and collect sticks.

I’m too grumpy for my own good today.

“Have I told you today how beautiful you are?” Harper smiles at me, while helping me on to the table.

I use the strength in her hands and arms to lay back. I’m getting to a point where I need her assistance more. “You may have mentioned it earlier this morning.” I try to stifle a groan as I begin to relax. I’m not very successful.

“Honey, are you all right?” She is sitting at the top of the table, running her fingers through my hair.

God, that feels good. I had always wanted to run away with my hairdresser for this very reason. “I’m fine. Just huge and tired.”

“You’re beautiful,” she whispers again, kissing the top of my head.

“Do you think I’m fired, Tabloid?” I can’t hold the question back any longer. We’re going back to work day after tomorrow and I’m dreading it. “If that’s what he’s planning, maybe I should go in and get it over with.”

“Kelsey, baby, don’t worry about it. They can’t fire you for getting pregnant. If they try, we’ll file the biggest lawsuit they’ve ever seen. I happen to know a couple good lawyers.”

“Harper, it may be for the best. We’ve only got a few months before the babies get here. I’d be taking my maternity leave in a few weeks anyhow and…”

Before I can continue, Dr. McGuire comes in. He stops briefly in the doorway, looks to my file, then to us, and back to my file again. “Is this the right room? I’m looking for the Kingsleys. They’re always necking when I come in.”

Harper lifts the arm in the cast and gives a wave. “Hi there, doc.”

“Ah, I see she finally got tired of your breathing,” he jokes, indicating the cast. “My wife used to smack me with a rolled up magazine, but she never actually broke anything.”

“I’m a grumpy, pregnant woman. I do not need this humor in my life at the moment.”

“Ooo, sorry.” Kevin takes his normal seat and begins my exam. “I received exam notes from Dr. Maxton about your last visit.” He seems to be taking a real interest in my hands at the moment. He holds them in his, pressing them and rubbing them with his thumbs. “Kelsey, I think you should take your wedding rings off until after the babies are born. You’re swelling up a bit and they could cause you problems. I’d hate to have to see them cut off your hand.”

“But…” I finger my rings and start to protest. Harper simply takes my hand and slips them from my finger.

“I’ll keep them safe for you, sweetheart.”

“But…” I am so angry with her for taking them. Those are mine. She gave them to me.

“Kels, you can argue with me all you want, but don’t argue with the doctor, okay?” She whispers, even as Kevin continues the exam. “You know I won’t let anything happen to your rings. I’ll have them on me all the time, so if you want to see them, you need only ask.”

“But…” I don’t want to have to ask. I want to look at my hand.

“Little Roo, it’s okay,” Harper soothes.

“Those are my wedding rings. I never planned to take them off.” This is upsetting me more than I can explain at the moment.

“I know, baby. Look,” she’s trying to calm me down, I can hear it in her voice, “we’ll figure out another solution, but, for right now, I’ll hang onto them.”

I grip her hand, realizing for the first time how upset I was getting. “All right, Tabloid. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, babe. I’m glad you’re so attached to them. Makes me feel good.”

Kevin has been very quiet, continuing with the exam and making notes in my chart. He finally gives me a grin and waves the wand of the ultrasound machine at me. I nod. I definitely want more baby pictures, especially now that Harper can enjoy them again. I still need to give her the ones I had Dr. Maxton take when we were home.

“I hear we ‘re having a girl,” he says, getting ready to do the exam.

“When you figure out how to give birth, we’re having a girl. Until then, I’m having a girl.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He gives his nod, then looks to Harper. “I think someone needs to go home and nap.”

I manage to refrain from biting his head off, mostly because he’s right. I’m tired and irritable and I feel like I’m on overload.

“We have our first Lamaze class tonight, but I’ll bet we can get in a nap before then.” Tabloid is eagerly waiting for Kevin to show her the babies. Her vision isn’t back to normal yet, but, she just moves closer to the monitor.

“Yup, let’s see, there’s your daughter.” He points to the screen.

“Brennan.” When I hear Harper breathe her name, I look over to the screen too. Our little girl is moving around and we can watch it on the monitor. “Look at her, Little Roo. There’s our baby girl.”

“Sounds like you’ve already picked a name for her.” Kevin moves the scope to show us Shy Baby Roo.

“Yeah,” Harper pipes up. “Brennan Grace Stanton Kingsley.”

“Very nice. Well, her buddy in there is still being modest. I can’t really tell anything about the gender.”

“Can you guess?” Harper really wants to know.

“Educated guess: I’d say another little girl, but I could be wrong.”

He finishes up, making prints for Harper, then he helps me sit up. “Kelsey, you haven’t had any symptoms of early labor, have you? No contractions or anything I need to note or chart?”

“No. Should we be concerned about that?”

“I’m afraid so. Your blood pressure is still a littler higher than I like and you’re starting to show signs of swelling. I want you to go home and rest today. I’m going to give you a scrip that I want you to take with your vitamins. And I want to see you next week. You’re starting to show signs of a condition known as Pre-eclampsia. But we found it early and we can treat it. We just need to stay with it and make sure we keep it in check. But, I will tell you right now, except for the final flight to New Orleans for the births, your flying days are over. Further, if I don’t see any improvement in your condition over the next week or so, I’ll put you on total bed rest until the end of this pregnancy.”

“Doc, what exactly is pre-eclampsia?” Harper swallows hard.

“It’s one of the leading causes of maternal mortality.”

“What about the babies?” I ask, gently caressing my stomach.

“It depends. Babies have been known to survive the mothers.”

I take a deep breath and look him square in the eye. “Worst case scenario.”

He does me the courtesy of being forthright. “You seizure, enter a comatose state, and we keep you on life support to try to save the babies.”

“Try?” I hear the fear in Harper’s voice. She is holding onto me for dear life.

“Look, guys,” Kevin sits back a bit, “we’re talking absolute worst case here. I’m confident we’ve caught anything that could become a problem before it actually has. Right now, Kelsey, you’re having fairly normal reactions to pregnancy. We’re going to make sure they stay that way and don’t get out of hand. Which means more rest for you and taking it easy. I know I can trust you to be good.” He pulls the pictures off the printer, handing them immediately to Harper. “Go ahead and get dressed. I’ll have my nurse set up your appointment and I’ll write that scrip. It’ll all be ready for you when you come out.”

“Thanks, Kevin.”

* * *

All right. I have a couple hours to get my girl calmed down. Kevin managed to scare the hell out of us. Nothing like being told you might die and never see your children. And she’s worried about her job. Ironic, since she’s been trying to convince me to not worry about mine. And then there’s the issue of her wedding and engagement rings. She only calmed down when I promised to buy her a necklace so she could wear them on around her neck.

The other issues remain, however.

I guide us into the living room, to our favorite place on the couch. I give Kam a cursory hello. I’m not in the mood to play. Not with my girl so upset. “Chér, you need to relax. You’re too upset.” I pull her back against me, wrapping her up in my arms.

“I know. I’m trying,” her voice trembles. “I’m sorry.”

I press my lips to her hair and rub her back gently. “No, no, darlin’. Nothing to be sorry about. Everything is okay. I promise you that. We just need to take a little nap here together.” I stretch out on the sofa, and settle my girl on top of me.

“Am I a bad person, Harper? I mean, everything that has happened this year … and now, the babies may be in danger. I tried to do everything right. … I thought I was …” She stops, unable to continue.

I lift my head up and meet her eyes. “You look at me.” I wait until her eyes meet mine. Her eyes are the color of Ireland – wet green. “You are my heart. You are the best thing in my life. There is nothing wrong with you. And you are the best damn mother around.” I stroke her cheek. “There is nothing to worry about. Brennan and her sibling are absolutely fine. And, so are you. I swear it.”

She nods and swallows hard. “I want to believe that, Harper. I want to believe everything is going to be all right and in a few months we are going to have a beautiful family.” She rests her forehead on my collarbone for a moment and draws in a deep breath. “But, I need you to promise me … you promise me, that if a choice needs to be made, you know the one I want you to make.”

I wonder if she can hear my heart stop beating in my chest. I don’t even want to think about that possibility. I have no desire to raise our children alone. They need her. “I promise,” I reply, “but I will never have to make that choice. Now, close your eyes and take a nap with me, baby.”

“I love you, Tabloid. No matter what happens, please don’t ever doubt or forget that,” Kels murmurs, her voice trailing off as sleep finally claims her.

“I never could, Little Roo.”

And, fortunately, I feel sleep tugging at my coattails, as well.

* * *

I found a class where Kels and I can be happy and comfortable. Specifically, a birthing class where all the participants are lesbian couples. The last thing my girl needs is more stress. I want her happy and relaxed right now. I want this to be the best time of our lives, not something we have to be afraid of. I nearly strangled Kevin for his so-called bedside manner this afternoon. I think I’ll be making a little call to his office tomorrow. I don’t mind him warning us, but no scaring the hell out of my girl. Not again.

We enter the classroom and it’s pretty much what I expected, except for the fact there are no chairs. Okay, I’m not stupid. I’ve seen movies and TV shows and I know how this works. We sit on a mat and learn to breathe.

And I thought breathing was like sex. It just comes naturally. Next thing you know, we’ll be taking classes in … nah, we pretty much know how to do that okay. Hell, we could give lessons. The in class demonstrations would be interesting, to say the least.

Kels is very cute tonight. She’s all dressed down in jeans and a baggy maternity shirt and her baseball cap. She seems more relaxed now that she got a little sleep this afternoon. It also helps that we found a solution to her stress over her wedding rings. We agreed the best place to put her engagement ring would be in our safety deposit box, but her wedding band is now on a chain around her neck.

There are about a half a dozen other couples in the room when we arrive. We slowly introduce ourselves and try to get comfortable in a crowd of strangers. I have a feeling over the course of the next few weeks, though, we will make some new friends.

There is one couple who, for some reason, seems distressed when Kelsey introduces herself as Kelsey Kingsley. They know her from Exposure. When she doesn’t introduce herself as Stanton, they obviously have a huge problem with it.

Then there is a couple who, I swear, remind me so much of Elaine and Rachel I’m having a hard time keeping the grin off my face. One look at Kels tells me she’s thinking the same thing. Leaning against a wall, I pull Kels into an embrace. “I don’t how I’m gonna get through the next six weeks without giggling.” I whisper in her ear while I give her a hug and a belly rub.

“It’s not going to be easy,” she agrees, clearing her throat and returning my embrace. “Eerie, isn’t it?”

“Very. Wait until Elaine and Rach hear about this.”

“They’ll never believe it.” She chuckles a bit.

A tall woman enters the room. Her arms are full of folders and she seems a little frazzled. Looking at my watch, I note she’s about five minutes late.

“Sorry everyone. I’m Dr. Weaver.” She juggles the files and I can tell she’s going to lose them. Kels lets go of me and I manage to give the doctor a hand before anything hits the floor. “Thanks,” she says to me.

“No problem.” I set the files on the desk next to me and our instructor does the same before she removes her jacket. She smiles at Kels and I, shaking her head. I can tell it’s one of those ‘I need one free moment in my life’ type of shakes. Kels and I do them a lot.

“Okay.” She rolls up her sleeves. “Like I said, I’m Dr. Anne Weaver. I’m really sorry I’m late, but I had a baby who decided he was going to come three weeks early. His moms kinda thought I should be there as well. Dunno why, this is their fourth baby. They’re better at this than I am. I’ve only had one myself.”

Her friendly demeanor and the joke relax the room immediately. I look at Kels and wink. She gives me a smile in return that is so sweet, I wish I could capture it forever.

“So, it looks like everyone is here, so let’s get started. Go ahead and take a seat on the mats there and we’ll dive right in, so to speak.”

Oh yeah. I like her. She even knows how to crack nearly dirty jokes. This may be fun after all. Looks like we’re all pretty much in the same boat. All the non-pregnant partners are assisting their better halves down and resting against them. I like holding Kels this way. I can reach the babies and have her close all at the same time. Kels relaxes into me and I wonder if she’ll be able to stay awake for class. Personally, I don’t care. She can sleep all she wants. I’ll learn whatever we need to know. But, nothing and no one is going to hurt my girl.

Once again, we all introduce ourselves like you do in kindergarten. Several of the women haven’t recognized Kels until our radical little friends make a comment about the Stanton-Kingsley thing.

I gather they are among the more radical of our community, who don’t like the idea of ‘traditional’ concepts from the heterosexual community creeping in to corrupt us. They’d no doubt keel over if they ever heard my family refer to Kels as my wife. You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time and I’m damn tired of trying. What Kels and I have works for us and that’s all that matters.

My main goal right now is to keep her happy and healthy and to welcome Brennan and Shy Baby Roo into the world in about fifteen weeks.

Fifteen weeks. That’s not very long is it? Oh God. We need a nursery and a nanny and…

“So now that we know each other here,” Dr. Weaver leans against her desk, “this is the first class in the course. We’ll be spending a lot of time together over the next few weeks to get you ready for the blessed event. Tonight we’re going to go over the basics and I’m going to show you a couple of movies to show you what you can expect.”

Very soon the lights are lowered and the first film starts. Glancing down, I see Kels is still with us. She’s rubbing a spot on her tummy with her right hand, the fingers of her left hand interlaced with mine. She moves my left hand over a bit and once again I feel the babies moving.

“See, everyone is fine,” I whisper in her ear. Watching the movie, I begin to get concerned about how much pain the woman seems to be in. God, I guess I didn’t realize how bad it can really be. My Little Roo will be going through this too. Not once, but twice.

And she wants to do it without drugs. What? Is she nuts? I’d tell ‘em to give me all the drugs they could find. Ship them in from out-of-state if they had to. Oh Kels, my love, you are a braver woman than I am.

The scene shifts to the birth. Okay, now that’s just plain messy. We need to find a method for making that a little neater. I feel Kels chuckle, she is obviously enjoying my discomfort. But I also notice that I’m not the only partner who is cringing a little.

* * *

When I roll over, reaching out, I find myself alone in the bed. Harper is already up. I’m torn between getting up to see if I can find her and simply going back to sleep. I’ve pretty much decided on sleep when the bedroom door opens. Looking over the top of the covers, I find I’m about to be served breakfast in bed.

Sitting up against the headboard, I grin a bit. “And what did I do to deserve this?

“Well, darlin’, I dunno. I think carrying our children is reason enough.” She places the tray on the bed, then feeds me a strawberry. I nibble on her fingertips because I can. “I, personally, think we should plan on camping out here today and relaxing. Except, we need to run around the corner and pick me out some glasses sometime this afternoon.”

A plan I can definitely get into. “How about we make camp in the living room and watch really old, sappy movies until then?”

“Perfect. Maybe we’ll get on line and start ordering baby furniture too.”

I sip my juice and give that some thought. I had hoped to do that shopping in person, but now I guess doing it online might be easier on the babies and me. “You have a deal, Tabloid.”

After breakfast in bed, I find myself carefully moved and tucked into a nest which has been prepared for me on the couch. Kam is curled up on his bed watching the whole thing, tail thumping against the floor. “I’m not made of glass, Harper.”

“You are now,” she states simply. She leaves the room to get her laptop so we can start shopping. I can’t help but laugh at how final that sounded. Most definitely a ‘don’t argue with me, woman’ tone. I look at my hands. They are still slightly swollen, but the pounding in my ears and behind my eyes has stopped. I hope that means my blood pressure is coming down.

I could die. I might never get to hold my babies. I run my hand over my stomach.

Your Mama will take such good care of you. And there will be Grandmere Cecile and your grandpas, aunts, uncles and cousins to make sure you never lack for anything. No matter what happens to me, my little ones, I love you. And if I can’t be with you here, I’ll be watching over you. I will be with you always, no matter what. Even if you don’t know I’m here, I will be. I promise you that.

* * *

We finally wander out of the house at Kam’s insistence. The poor thing nearly had yellow eyes. I don’t know why he doesn’t like going on our terrace. Strange dog.

We walk slowly down the avenue, heading to an eyeglass shop Harper spotted earlier. We’re still hopeful her eyesight will return completely to normal, but, in the interim, she has a prescription for eyeglasses. She’s so cute, all nervous about wearing them. It’s almost as if she’s afraid she’ll look like a nerd with them. I hope to control my libido with her wearing them. I’ve always been a sucker for glasses. So damn sexy.

The boutique is gracious and allows us to bring Kam in. New Yorkers are funny. They worship their dogs. Never seen anything like it. And, this is a very expensive boutique and we look like we have money. That also buys a lot of tolerance. At least for our canine.

A European woman is behind the counter. She begins showing Harper a selection of frames that are very stylish. I settle myself on a chair next to her and watch as she tries on the various frames.

When she puts on a rectangular-shaped tortoise shell pair, I feel myself flush. Oh yeah. Those are the ones. God, yes. Can we take them now?

“What do you think, Kels?” she asks the question and then bursts out laughing, reading my reply from the expression on my face. She hands the frames over to the sales clerk. “I’ll take these.”

* * *

Harper won’t even look at me. She’s sitting across from me with her hand over her eyes, and a silly grin on her face. She only moves her left hand from her eyes long enough to sip her beer. “You sure you don’t want a bite?” I offer a piece of the sushi.

“Quite. Thanks, but no…” she mumbles, sipping her beer again. “And just keep your comments about other things to yourself, Little Roo.”

“Would I make any comments about your sudden aversion to fish?” I laugh a little, turning the roll over in the soy sauce and preparing a nice piece of wasabi.

Harper glances up for the briefest second to try to give me ‘the look’, but the food on my plate causes her to abandon that thought. “Dunno how you can eat that stuff. And don’t blame MY children. They’d never even consider it.”

“Maybe not, but MINE would.” I pop the sushi roll in my mouth, enjoying it immensely. Oh yeah, this is good. Cravings are temperamental, I have discovered. Almost as much as I am lately, I think. “I should probably apologize now.”

This causes her to look up, although she’s looking directly at me, still ignoring the food in front of me. “For what?

“For the fact I’m going to be a raging witch during labor.”

This causes her to laugh out loud. “Well, after that film we saw tonight, I can’t say I’ll blame you. It doesn’t look like a pleasant process.”

“No, but think about it, Tabloid, when it’s over, we’re going to have a beautiful family.” I smile at the thought of seeing Harper hold Brennan for the first time. I am so looking forward to that. I can imagine it now, but I know the reality of it will no doubt reduce me to tears.

“Of course we are.” She takes a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “Kels, if something should happen and the network should release you from your contract early…”

“Oh, now, that’s a diplomatic way of saying ‘fired’.”

“Regardless.” She rolls her eyes. That’s really a very cute, endearing, little quirk of hers. Not that I’ll ever tell her that. “I will ask to be released from mine as well.”

“Harper!”

“No.” She takes my hand, giving it a squeeze. “Kels, listen to me. We both want to go home. I feel it, and I know you feel it. We can both find jobs in New Orleans and I think we should just go home if push comes to shove.”

You can’t argue with logic like that.

“So,” she gestures at my plate, “what is all that?”

Hmm, oh boy, here’s my chance. “Well, this is Kappa Maki, rice, cucumber, a hint of wasabi, rolled in nori.”

“Rice and cucumber I understood.”

“Nori is a form of lettuce.” I avoid the word seaweed like the plague. I know if it leaves my lips I’ll never get her to try it. “And wasabi is a spice that makes Cajun spices seem like they should go in Girl Scout cookies.”

She rolls her eyes. “Un-huh.”

She hates it whenever I do this. The part of her that can’t resist a challenge is having a terrible argument with the part of her that can’t tolerate the thought of trying the sushi.

I take a small piece of ginger from the tray, chewing it slowly as I watch her. “Come on, Tabloid. There’s no fish in this. How bad can it be?” I offer her a pair of chopsticks and pour a small dish of soy sauce for her. “I’ll talk you through it.”

She eyes me, taking the utensils. She growls a little, adjusting her chair, waiting for my instructions. “Let’s get this over with, or you’ll never let me live it down. I only want it made very clear I’m doing this under protest.”

“Fair. Okay, there are several ways to do this. You have to find the way you like the best.”

“Kels, I don’t need to give it that much thought. It’s not like I’m going to start eating it on a regular basis.”

I snort and nod. “That’s fair too. I consider getting you to try it a major victory.”

“You should. So now what?”

“Take the Kappa Maki and place it in the soy sauce.” I watch as she does so, now for the interesting part. “Now take a very small serving of the wasabi and either spread it in the top of the sushi or mix it with the soy sauce.”

“What’s the difference?”

“If you mix it with the soy sauce, it flavors the sushi. If you spread it on top, it clears the sinuses and sometime leaves first degree burns in your mouth.” I tease. It’s not much of a joke though. I watch as she takes a very healthy amount of the green spice. “Ah, Harper, you don’t want that much of it. You should put about half of that back.”

“Can I put it all back?” She grins before she puts about a fourth of it back then proceeds to spread the rest on top of the sushi.

It’s been nice knowing you, Tabloid.

I move my juice and her beer closer to her hand as she takes the sushi and pops it in her mouth. She chews, her eyes grow wide. After swallowing quickly, the search begins while her eyes water. She finds my juice first, draining it, then she goes for the beer.

The best part about sushi bars is that they know this happens a lot. With a slight chuckle, our chef hands her a glass of milk. She nods and takes it, drinking it straight down. Amazing. She didn’t even require chocolate. I’ll have to tell Mama the secret. Once the fire is contained, she turns to me.

“That was mean.”

“I tried to warn you.” I wave her off with my chopsticks as I prepare another piece of my dinner. “One of these days you’ll learn to listen to me. I figure I should have you properly trained in, oh, say, sixty or seventy years.”
Episode Three: Promotional Material
I take one last look at myself in the mirror. Okay, I’ve gained a lot of weight carrying the babies, but I had to. For them, and because of them. Overall, I think I still look pretty good. There’s not much gain in my face… ah to hell with it. If he wants to fire me, then so be it. I don’t need his damn job anyhow.

He’d better not have any designs on Harper’s job. Because if he does, he’ll have a fight on his hands. She didn’t do anything except agree to have a family with me.

I return to the bed and pick up my blazer. Slipping it on, I’m straightening my sleeves and collar when Harper appears in the doorway of our room. She lets loose a low, appreciative whistle.

“Oh, you look great. Why so dressed up? Why the power suit?”

“Langston. I have a meeting with him first thing this morning.”

She chuckles. “He getting a second tour of hell today?”

“That’ll cost you a buck, even though it was used in the proper context. And, don’t think I didn’t notice that you kept referring to the Hoover Dam while we were in New Orleans. You and Robie weren’t fooling anyone.” I tug on my sleeves. “I don’t want Langston to think he’s dealing with an emotional, pregnant woman. I want him to know he’s still dealing with the best damn correspondent he’s got on Exposure.”

“Best damn correspondent ever. And we both owe the babies a buck.”

“And I’m sure,” I give her a kiss on the cheek as I move past her into the living room to get my briefcase, “you’ll be happy to pick up my tab.”

“I always do,” she comments from behind me, following me.

I finish packing up my case, only to have it snatched from my hand. “I can carry my own…” My words are cut off by a finger in my face warning me to be quiet and accept it. I do, with a little sigh. “Glass,” I mumble. Then I give the finger and its owner a kiss. “Love you, Tabloid. You do realize that in less than an hour I could be unemployed?”

“So, if that’s the case, we’ll go home to New Orleans. I fail to see the problem.”

I put my hands on my hips, assuming a motherly position. “Hmm, and what about your job, oh Senior Producer?”

“What’s that delightful phrase? ‘Take this job and shove it, I ain’t working here no more.’”

Now my own finger goes up, wrapping around hers and bending it back slightly. “Oh no! No way! Don’t you even go there. I will not let you sacrifice your own career, even if mine does go down the tubes. You’re far too talented to even think like that.”

She smiles, indulging me. “Ok, sweetie. I won’t do that, I promise. But, I don’t think you need to worry about your job.” She’s stroking my arms and looking deeply into my eyes, knowing that direct eye contact with her almost always calms me down. But does she have to be so damn sexy in those new glasses? I wanted to go to work mad, not horny.

Too late.

* * *

Brian meets Kels and I as soon as we step off the elevator. I hope it’s not bad news. We don’t need any more of that right now and I’d hate to have to kill him. Despite him just being the messenger and all. My girl loves the little nutcake.

“Welcome back, boss!” He throws his arms around Kels and gives her a warm hug, which she returns.

He stands back and gives me a big, old smile. “Hi ya, Stud! Looking good!” He winks, nudging me with his elbow.

“Behave.” I hand him Kels’ briefcase. “She’s not allowed to lift a finger. If she needs something done and you can’t do it, you come get me.”

“You got it.” He shoulders her case.

“I swear…” Kels starts to protest.

“You do and it’ll cost you a buck,” I tell her, even as I give the small of her back a rub.

As we all head back to her office, Langston meets us in the hall. “Kingsley.” He extends his hand. “It’s nice to have you recovered and back. I’ve needed some competence in my life.”

“Thank you.” I manage to shake his hand even though the cast makes it difficult. He doesn’t even seem to notice.

When he releases my hand, he turns to Kels. “Stanton, are you ready to go upstairs?”

Oh shit. Upstairs isn’t good. They usually only hire and fire upstairs.

Kels, always the professional, doesn’t even show a hint of the anxiety I know she’s feeling. “Sure.”

“Kingsley, I need you to get with Bruce. He’s got an assignment that has him completely baffled.”

Not hard given the fact this is Bruce we’re talking about. “I’m on it.” I take a moment to reassure Kels. Langston can yell at me later. “I’ll see you later.” I give her a smile and a wink.

* * *

Well, this must be it. I’m fired. I didn’t mind the thought of leaving my job when it was something I wanted to do, but I’ve never been fired from a job. I’m not wild about it now either. I watch the boss, trying to get a feel for how painful this process is going to be. He’s got a great poker face.

“How’s Harper?”

How’s Harper? How’s Harper? You insensitive bastard, Harper is fine. You just saw her in the hall. You really enjoy this little cat and mouse game, don’t you? Trying to make me sweat and squirm. Well, forget it. I’m not going to give you the satisfaction. “She’s fine. Her eyesight has returned almost to normal and she’s really glad to be back to work.”

“And we’re glad to have her back. A good producer is hard to find,” he drones while watching the numbers light up as we pass floors.

Guess her job is secure. That’s something I don’t have to worry about anymore. Thank God.

Entering the conference room, I’m surprised to see it’s a breakfast meeting. I guess I’m being given a last meal. Funny, I had never considered myself a Christ-like figure before. Four places are set at the table. Langston moves to a chair and holds it for me. “Kelsey?”

“Thank you.” I take my seat. I hate waiting. Get the axe and take my head off, will you?

“Kevin and Mr. Roth will be down in a few minutes,” Langston tells me as he reaches over and pours a cup of coffee for himself, then gestures to me with the carafe.

“No, thank you.” I clear my throat and decide to get it over with. “The head of the news department and the head of the network are coming down to fire me?”

He nearly chokes of his coffee, catching most of it with his napkin. “Fire you? Kelsey, we’re not going to fire you.”

* * *

“Come on,” I say to Brian, “let’s go wait in Kels’ office for the outcome.” It’s gonna be interesting, to say the least. We can stay up here for a month or so until we can get some jobs sorted out down in New Orleans. Or, if Kels wants to stay in New York, I’m sure another network will snatch her up.

“Don’t you need to see Bruce?” he asks automatically, then stops when he sees my expression.

I shrug. “Bruce can wait. I want to find out what happens with Kelsey.”

“You think Langston is mad at her?”

“He sent us a videotape while we were at home. Her pregnancy isn’t quite the secret we hoped it would stay.”

“Sorry.”

I settle down on Kels’ couch and stretch out. I may as well relax. “C’est la vie. It was silly to think it wouldn’t have leaked out at some point.”

“Hey, I may be out of line here, but …” Brian gets up and shuts the door to Kels’ office. “Look, if for some reason something happens and Kels is out of here …”

“Yeah?”

“I want to go with her. She’s wonderful. Of course, I don’t have to tell you that, stud.” He sobers and rubs his hands on his thighs. “It was pretty hard here before she came. Being quite so out doesn’t go over so well in corporate America. Even in the performing arts.”

“I’m sorry.” I genuinely am.

“So, if she goes, I go.”

And I get an idea. “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

Brian looks confused at the complete change of topic. “Uh, yeah. Three sisters.”

“Nieces, nephews?” This is my form of a nanny interview. At least, I am assured that Brian will not be coming on to me.

He nods, happily. “A baker’s dozen. Catholic. No birth control.” He rolls his eyes.

I laugh. I know that type of family. I have it. “They love you?”

Brian’s jaw drops open and he stares at me for several heartbeats. He starts to speak, stops again and then shakes his head. “Of course!”

This would certainly help Kels’ anxiety about Brennan and Shy Baby Roo. Of course, she’d be ticked at losing her amazing assistant, but our children are more important. Now to go for the jugular. “You still living in that horrible Hell’s Kitchen apartment?”

“Yes!” He blows out a deep breath and crosses his legs. “The hot water was out again this morning. Last week, three times.”

“How would you like to live on the Upper East Side?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure. You think Langston is really going to give me that big a raise?”

“No, I don’t. But …” Kels, honey, I hope you don’t mind about this. “How would you like to come live with Kels and I?”

He squints, trying to decide if I have lost it or not. “You want to adopt me? I mean, I’m flattered and all. Let’s see, Brian Dixon Kingsley. I wouldn’t be Brian Stanton, would I? I’d want to fit in with the rest of the family. Harper, Kelsey and Brian Kingsley. Has kind of a ring to it.”

Lord save me. “Hardly. I think you’d be too damn expensive for us.”

“Stud, I know you only want the best for your kids, of which I would be the eldest, and, fortunately, I only want the best.”

“You only want the expensive. Look, I want to hire you as our nanny.”

“Huh?”

Don’t make me repeat this, Brian. “Having a hearing problem?”

“I get to be an au pair!” He claps his hands excitedly. “Can I wear a French maid’s uniform?”

I fold my arms across my chest. “Do you plan on doing any cleaning?”

“No.”

“Then no.”

“Damn.”

“Oh, and no swearing in our household. Kels will fine your ass. And there will go your salary.” We’ll negotiate the rest out later. I think I just did good. It’ll be nice to see a big smile on my girl’s face.

* * *

This is so completely not what I was expecting. I’m still reading through the paperwork given to me upstairs when the elevator doors slide open. A secretary who works on this floor with me gives my elbow a little nudge. “Ms. Stanton, are you going to your office?”

“Hmm?” I look up and she gestures. “Oh yeah, thanks.” I stick my nose back into the paperwork and step off the elevator. I stop by the community kitchen and make myself a cup of tea. I could go back to my office with this, but I know Harper is there and I’m not yet quite ready to explain this to her. Leaning against the counter, I continue to read and sip my tea.

I think Brennan misses her Mama. I was given a kick that was a little less than comfortable. “Behave.” I massage my side, trying to get her calmed down. “Mommy needs to get a grip on this.”

I continue reading and Brennan continues her little tantrum. “So much like your Mama.” I finally take a deep breath and decide to go fill my loving spouse in on the news.

When I enter my office, I find both my assistant and my spouse grinning like idiots. This scares me. It can only mean something bad. “What’s up, children?” My eyes shift back and forth between them, waiting for one of them to spill whatever it is they’ve cooked up.

“I’ll go make some coffee.” Brian chuckles, then leaves us alone, closing the door on his way out.

I put my hands on my hips and tap my foot. “Well?”

“I’m about to make you a very happy woman.”

“Harper, darling, Langston would have a stroke if he caught you making me a very happy woman. So why don’t you tell me what’s going on between you and Brian.”

She bursts out laughing, pulling me into her arms. “I guarantee you nothing is going on between Brian and me. And Langston can bite my ass. But, sweetie, I solved our nanny problem.”

“Our nanny problem? The way I see it. We have no nanny, therefore, we have no problem.” I look at her and lift a brow. “Unless you hired the slut.”

“I did. But not the one you’re thinking of.”

Now I’m really confused. “Start from the top.”

“Well, I started thinking … I know, always the first problem … and I realized that the person we are looking for needs to be someone we trust. And, I realized that the person we trust the most is – God help us – Brian.”

“Brian? My Brian? You hired Brian to be our nanny?” I can’t help but pull away from her laughing. “Oh, well, that figures.” I lean against my desk trying to control my laughter. “Now I’m going to have to break in a new assistant. They didn’t fire me, Tabloid. They want to promote me.”

“Promote you? The only thing higher is … They want to make you anchor, chér?”

I wave the new contract at her. “That would be the case, yes. They want me to take the desk.”

Suddenly, I’m in her arms and the room is spinning. “Yes!” She then proceeds to kiss me quite soundly. The room is still spinning and I need to make it stop.

I gently pull back. “Harper, darling, put us down. Shy Baby Roo does not like this ride.”

As my feet find solid ground, I also find Harper on her knees in front of me. She has pushed up my blouse and her lips are against my skin. “Do you know how great this is? Your Mommy is going to be an anchor of…”

I reach down and pull her to her feet. “Tabloid, I haven’t said yes yet.”

“Why the hell not?” I give her the look. “Oops,” she bends down and kisses my stomach, “sorry, kids.”

“Because I wanted to discuss it with you first.”

“Oh, ok. What do you want to discuss, baby?”

“My new contract will be for three years. Of course, I’ll make them give me the option of buying out, if I decide I want to retire. Big raise, big bonuses, but it’ll end our ability to work together exclusively. They’ll be presenting you with a new contract. You won’t be ‘my’ producer any more.”

She sobers and nods. “What do you want to do?”

I take a deep, deep breath. “Well, I would finally have the job I always wanted. This is a huge deal. My new contract is, well, amazing, really.” I can’t help but smile. “You wouldn’t believe the kind of perks you get when they give you ‘the chair’ around here. But I don’t want you to feel like I’m jumping ship on the contract we signed. I know that your new contract will be very lucrative. Roth is impressed as hell with your Peabody.”

Harper gives me a huge smile. “Honey, this is what you’ve dreamed of and worked your whole professional life for. Do it. Take it. I am right behind you all the way. And proud as hell of you too.”

“You’re sure?” I run my fingers under the lapel of her jacket. “This means we can’t move home anytime soon.”

“You and our children are my home. Besides, I don’t see our house in New Orleans going anywhere. And Grandpa Stanton is up here.”

“True.” Now I’m in her arms leaning against her. “But so is my mother.”

* * *

I hustle Harper out of my office, remembering that she has things she should be doing and I have people I need to call. Namely my agent and lawyer. Foster is going to stroke out when she sees the new salary. My commission alone will support her in style.

Before she leaves, she takes a moment to promise me a celebration I won’t soon forget. I glance at my watch. Damn, it’s only ten thirty in the morning. I’ll never make it.

I stare at the contract while I pick up the phone and dial. Time to make Foster and Beth earn the big bucks.

* * *

Returning the phone to the cradle, both of my calls complete, I buzz Brian.

“You rang?” He sounds positively giddy.

“Do you still work for me here?”

“Oh, I think I can finish out the week,” he teases.

“Gee, thanks. In that case, can you fax a few things to my agent and my attorney? And, Brian, these are highly confidential documents. Don’t leave them for a second, okay?”

“You got it.” My door opens. He smiles at me. “Tell me, Mrs. Kingsley, what does Stud wear around the house when she’s relaxing?”

“Not much.” Oh God, I really won’t make it through today.

“Ooo, that should be fun. Neither do I.”

My head drops. What have I gotten myself into?

* * *

Kels has sent me on my merry way. And what a day it’s going to be. It’s amazing the things that can get fucked up when you’re out on injury leave.

Larry is leaving the show it would seem because of personal problems. I’m betting the gambling thing has finally caught up with him. But I’m going to do some digging until I find out for sure. Call me curious.

I knock on Bruce’s office door. Wonder how he’s going to handle the news that Kels is getting Larry’s spot? Don’t see that going over real big. And, don’t think I won’t enjoy every moment of it. Might even see if I can tape his reaction. Just so I have something to replay whenever I get sad.

“Come in!” He growls.

When I enter, I see immediately the problem. He’s positively buried in research materials. “Langston sent me over to give you a hand in helping you find the story he assigned you.”

He looks up, wanting to be pissy with me, but knowing better. I can make or break his piece and he knows it. “Thanks.”

“No problem. That’s why they pay me the big bucks.” I can be nice to him today. We’ve got the world on a string.

* * *

I stretch, sorting another pile of research material on the floor.

“So, you hear Larry’s leaving?” Bruce asks casually, making notes on a legal pad. He’s trying to feign disinterest and pump me for information. Fortunately, I know all the reporter tricks.

“That’s what I hear.” I’m noncommittal as hell on this one. Until Kels signs on the dotted line, everything is very top secret.

“Hope Kelsey isn’t too upset when they pass her up for anchor.”

Now he has my attention. “What makes you think they’ll pass her up?”

“Come on, Harper, girlfriend or not, you know they don’t give females the desk. Especially not pregnant females.”

She’s my wife, not my girlfriend, asshole. “Yes, but you never know. You see, that particular female has two Emmys and a Peabody under her belt.” Unlike you.

“Yeah and, from what I hear, twins, too.” He leans back in his chair, folding his hands on his stomach. “Harper, I’m not trying to give you grief, but I think you’d better be prepared to take her out and buy her something expensive to make her feel better in a few weeks.”

Now, he’s truly pissing me off. Let’s see if I can answer him and not kill him in the process. Or give his body another outlet. “First off, Bruce, I don’t have to buy off my girl. Ever. She’s a professional through and through. I respect the hell out of her and you would be wise to do so, too. Second, I don’t discuss my private life with you. Ever. But, let me clarify that she isn’t my girlfriend. She’s my wife and the mother-to-be of my kids. Don’t ever lose sight of that. And, third, it ain’t over until the fat lady sings. I’ve found that it’s best to never count Kels out of anything.” I stop and breathe. I picture a beautiful forest, a bubbling brook, and Bruce’s head underwater as I drown him. A lovely pastoral scene. “Now, are you ready to talk about the fucking story? Or do you want me to come back some other time?”

“Easy, Harper. Hey, I think it’s great you’ve got that much enthusiasm for Kels. Maybe they’ll change the format and offer her second chair. As a matter of fact, maybe I’ll recommend it.”

Yeah, right, when pigs fly. “I think it might be best if we all concentrate on doing our own jobs. Langston will do what’s best for the show.”

“Yeah, I’m sure of it.” He scratches out some more notes.

He already has, you bastard.

* * *

I am back in my office, going through several production notebooks, and trying to get caught up, when I hear a knock on my door. I glance at my watch. Geez. It’s already three-thirty. I bet it’s Kels with a sandwich for me. “Come on in.”

The door opens and I find myself wrong. It’s Kendra and she isn’t bearing food. That’s too bad. Unfortunately, my appetite is now aware of what time it is. “Hi, do you have a moment?”

“Sure.”

She steps back out the door and I wonder for a moment if she misunderstood my answer. Then Kendra steps back instead dragging a gangly teenager behind her. He’s a little taller than she is, and is beginning to fill out a bit. He has the same coffee colored skin as Kendra and gentle eyes. “This is my nephew, Frank. Frankie, this is Harper Kingsley, the producer I was telling you about.”

He removes his hand from his jeans’ pocket and extends it to me. He has a firm handshake. That’s a good sign. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Kingsley.”

I laugh. “Harper is fine. Pleasure to meet you, Frank. Your aunt was bragging on you to me earlier.”

He blushes. “Ah, she’s biased.”

“With good reason, I hear. So, what brings you down here?”

Kendra answers, “He’s going to intern with us for awhile.”

Good. I’m glad things are working out for the young man. I assume this means he’s living with Kendra too. “Excellent. Who have you been assigned to?”

Frank glances at me and then at his aunt. “You.”

Guess that’s in one of the memos I haven’t read yet. “Great. You any good at organizing things? And how are your computer skills?”

“Oh, Harper, this boy can organize. You should see CD collection. Not only is it in alphabetical order on the bookcase, but he has it indexed about a thousand different ways.”

He shrugs. “I like computers.”

“Good. Well, come on, let me introduce you to the other half of this team.” This should be fun. Kendra said he was a bit in love with my girl.

“You mean Miss Stanton?” He pronounces her name with reverence.

I laugh. “That’s Mrs. Kingsley to you, Frank.” It takes him a second, but he understands what I am telling him.

Welcome to the family, Frank. I have a feeling we’ll be adopting you too.

* * *

With Frank trailing behind me, we make our way toward Kels’ office. I glance back and can tell by his body language that he’s nervous as hell. “She doesn’t bite.” That’s not exactly true, but he doesn’t need to know that. Besides, I like it when she bites.

He gives me a stiff nod. I stop and turn toward the young man, who is eyeing her office door. It’s all I can do to keep from laughing. I sort of feel sorry for him.

“Frank, it’s really gonna be okay. Kels is easy to talk to and she’s very friendly. She is, however, pregnant and she might be a tad bit grumpy, but it’s not her normal state of being. And it would have nothing to do with you.” It’s all my fault, she says.

“Okay,” he croaks, sounding a lot like you would expect a teenager to sound in this situation.

Her office door is open. I pause for a moment and listen before knocking on the doorframe. She’s in a meeting with a scriptwriter.

“I think if we move this section to the next page, right before the wrap up, it’ll work better. We don’t want to lose the section, but it doesn’t seem to work there.” I hear her tell the young man she’s working with.

I stick my head inside her office. The scriptwriter is standing at her side, leaning against her desk. They both look up. “Kelsey, when you have a minute, I have someone I want you to meet.”

“Actually, Ms. Kingsley,” Aaron closes the script, “we’re done here.” He glances down to Kels. “I’ll make those changes and send it back up in a couple of hours.”

“Take your time, Aaron. I probably won’t get to it until tomorrow morning.” He nods, then slips out past us.

I look to Frank. “Ready?” I bite back a laugh. He looks like death warmed over right now. Poor thing.

“Harper, what’s going on?” Kels asks from her desk, starting to rise.

I motion her to sit back down, which she does, resting her face in the palm of her hand. “This,” I tug him into the office, “is Frank. He’s Kendra’s nephew and my new intern.”

“It’s nice to meet you Frank.” Kels stands up and offers him her hand.

She looks at me from over her desk as I kneel down and pat Frank on the face. “Is he okay?” She’s torn between real concern and laughter. Neither one of us expected him to faint.

* * *

I pull the Range Rover up in front of the network, stopping in a bus lane in rush hour. I am the driver every New York hates. Oh well. I have a hugely pregnant wife who just got a big-time promotion and we’re going to celebrate. The rest of New York can bite me.

I hop out and open the passenger door for my girl, giving her a hand up into the seat. The SUV is great for having a commanding view of the road, but bad for loading a woman carrying twins. I hustle back around, hop in and throw the vehicle in gear. This, at least, stops the honking. The swearing continues, however.

“Making friends again, Tabloid?” Kels teases.

“That’s me. Friendly.”

“So …” she draws out the word and grabs up my little pal from the dashboard, “what’s the plan, Stan?”

“We have a lot to celebrate.” I take him back, and put him where he belongs.

“Oh, yeah, like what?”

I cut off a cab. God, I love doing that. “We have a nanny hired.”

“I should hurt you for that one.” Kels reaches over and pats my knee, taking the sting out of her words. “I don’t even want to think about having to replace Brian.”

Oh, I hope I didn’t mess up. “Did I …”

Before I can complete my thought, Kels interrupts. “He’s the perfect choice, sweetheart. I’m just messing with you.” She grasps my hand and leans over toward me. “So, where are we going?”

“One of your favorite places.”

“Oh yeah? Hmm … hints?”

I laugh. I hope she likes my surprise. “It has a great view.”

“Windows on the World?”

“Not that great.” Hard to top being over one hundred stories up. “It has great music.”

“Ooh, the Rainbow Room?”

I chuckle. “But not live.”

Kels pouts. She doesn’t like not guessing immediately. She thinks she knows me so well. “What else?”

“It serves amazing pasta with baby lobster tails.” I can hear her stomach growl from where I sit. Bingo. That was a good order I placed.

“I know – Tavern on the Green.”

“Nope. You’ll never guess. Just give up now.”

“Hmpf.” Kels folds her arms over her ample stomach. I bet I could rest my coffee mug on it nowadays.

I sure as hell better not try.

“Give?”

“The Tribeca Grill?”

“Nope, nope, nope.” I pick her hand up and place a kiss on the back of it. “I thought you might like a nice, quiet, catered dinner at home. I have it all arranged. All we have to do is go home, get comfy, eat to our heart’s content and then … celebrate.” I draw the last word out.

“Isn’t that what the dinner is about?” My girl is playing with me.

I turn her hand over and press my lips against her wrist, noting how her pulse picks up as I do so. “No. Dinner is about eating.”

“Isn’t that what you were talking about?”

I kiss her palm. “In a manner of speaking.”

* * *

I knew there was a reason I loved Harper, other than the fact that she’s beautiful beyond words and so damn sexy it should be illegal. I am now sitting in the living room, allowing that wonderful meal to digest and relaxing while she prepares something she swears will make me happy beyond words. Little does she know, I already am.

Taking the TV remote in hand I flip on the set. Switching channels, I stop when I catch a very familiar pair of eyes.

Erik.

I haven’t been able to watch any of his movies since he was killed. The shock of seeing his face takes my breath away for a brief moment. Then he delivers a line, and the sound of his voice brings tears to my eyes. “I miss you, you little shit.”

I know I should probably turn the channel, but I can’t bring myself to do it. In an odd sort of way, I’m enjoying seeing him again. It’s almost as if he isn’t gone, like I could pick up the phone and call him.

“Hey, Little Roo.” Harper comes into the living room with two mugs of Mama’s special tea. She stops when she notices the movie. “I thought we could take these to bed and relax.” Her expression is worried, as if seeing Erik might have spoiled our perfect evening together. Perhaps a few months ago that would have been true. But not now.

“Actually, could we watch this?” I pat the couch, inviting her to join me.

“Sure.” She comes to me, placing the mugs on the coffee table, then settles in behind me.

I lean back against her, placing her hands where Brennan is being the most active. Automatically she begins rubbing the spot and Brennan seems to calm down. I swear, this child knows the difference between Harper and I already. And is playing favorites.

She holds me, allowing me to watch the movie. She’s quiet and respectful even though this has to be one of the worst movies ever made. I laugh and look back at her.

“It’s bad, isn’t it?”

Harper is diplomatic in her response. “It’s not good, but Erik is. I can see why he was about to break out. He did a good job with a lousy vehicle.”

“He always did his best, no matter what kind of crap they handed him.”

We watch in silence for a few more minutes. “Kels?” Harper’s tone is tentative, very unusual for her.

“Yeah?” I hope this isn’t upsetting her.

She gives my tummy another rub. “If Shy Baby Roo is a boy, let’s name him Collin, as tribute to Erik.”

I turn in her embrace. Behind her new glasses, her eyes are gentle and searching mine. “Really?” It’s more than I ever would have asked of her.

“Yeah,” she nods, “I can’t think of anyone I’d rather name a son after than your best friend.”

I think that’s a slight exaggeration given her father and brothers, especially Robie, but I am touched at her concern for me. I lean up and give her a soft kiss, caressing her cheek when I pull away. “Thank you. I know if he had lived, you and Erik would have been the best of friends as well. So I suggest, should Shy Baby Roo be a boy, that we name him Collin Lee.”

Harper’s smile is wondrous. “Collin Lee Stanton Kingsley?” She tries out the name, seeing if it fits. “I like it. Collin Kingsley. Sounds like a movie star.”

I brush her hair back from her face. “If he looks anything like his Mama, he will be. I hope they get your eyes.”

She laughs gently. “Nah, I want them to look exactly like you.”

“Let’s compromise and do a mixture,” I suggest.

“I love you, Little Roo. Heart and soul.”

I get up from my spot on the couch, tugging her along with me. “Come on, lover,” I click off the TV then turn back and give her a grin, “let’s add ‘body’ to that list.”

She’s up so fast I’m afraid she’s gonna hurt herself. As we make our way to our room, she drapes her good arm around my shoulders, nuzzling my neck a bit. “You know, Tabloid, we really should think of another name for a little girl, just in case.”

“Nargretris Triffle…” she mumbles against my neck.

“Another suggestion like that and you’re sleeping on the couch.”

* * *

We’re lying in bed together, sated in two of the basic needs of all mankind. Kels is lying on her back, the sheet now resting over her lower body. The ample belly which contains our children is bare. Now very relaxed and very happy, I curl up beside her stomach. “This is Harper Kingsley, coming to you live from outside your mommy’s stomach,” I say, in my best anchor voice.

Kels laughs and swats at my head. “They were just getting calmed down in there.”

I ignore her. I am talking with my kids. “Today CBS announced that Kelsey Stanton Kingsley had accepted the position of anchor on their premiere video news magazine, Exposure. Ms. Kingsley, an Emmy and Peabody winner, has been on the show since the beginning of the year. About the promotion Ms. Kingsley said,” I pause and look up at Kels for comment.

She gives me a very indulgent smile. “I am honored to be given this responsibility. Exposure is staffed by the best correspondents in the industry. Together we will continue to bring the people the insightful news analysis they have come to expect from us.”

I kiss her belly. “Industry insiders report that Ms. Kingsley is also working on a project of her own. Recently, rumors have surfaced that she is expecting a child by the end of the year. When asked about this, Ms. Kingsley had this to say.”

Kels barely keeps herself from laughing at me. “Yes, it’s true. I am expecting twins in time for Christmas.”

I nod gravely. “Yes, in time for Christmas. It seems that Kingsley children know when to show up to get the gifts. Also, since they were conceived with a turkey baster, the children chose the holidays as the perfect time to meet their other parent. For dinner.”

No longer able to contain herself, Kels begins laughing.

“In other news, the Kingsley household hired a nanny today. Brian Dixon, also known as Aunt Brian,” this earns me another playful swat, “will begin his duties sometime in October. Brian, best known for his outrageous performance as Ms. Kingsley’s office assistant will be assuming the role of nanny to our precious Brennan Grace and Shy Baby Roo.”

I am out to spout out more nonsense, when Kels interrupts. “Say that again,” Kels whispers, pulling my hand onto her stomach.

Okay. What did I say? Oh, yeah, the nutflake. “Brian …”

“No, her name.”

“Brennan?”

Thump.

Was that what I think it was?

“Brennan Grace?”

Thump, thump.

“Is that you, baby girl?” No response. “Brennan?”

Thump.

My little girl is using Morse Code to communicate with me. Damn, I knew these kids would be smart. “Shy Baby Roo?”

Nothing.

“Brennan Grace?”

Thump, thump.

Kelsey has never looked more radiant than when I gaze up at her now. “She knows her name,” I whisper, more than a bit in awe.

“Even better,” she replies, “she knows you.”
Episode Four: Anchors Aweigh
“Kingsley, Stanton, my office.” Langston’s voice carries across the room as we step off the elevator.

“What did you do, Tabloid?” my lovely wife asks.

“Me? Why does it have to be me? Could be you, you know?”

“Could be, but I doubt it. It’s a well known fact, you’re the troublemaker in this relationship.”

I look at Kels, and she’s wearing a really ornery grin generally reserved for more quiet, playful times at home. “No. I seem to remember a time when you were the problem child.” I pause for a moment to drop her briefcase in her office.

When I turn back to her, she is pointing to herself. “Me? Little old innocent me? I never gave you an ounce of trouble.”

I snort. It’s all I can do to keep from laughing in her face on this one. “Oh, and how many times did you have to come bail me out of jail? And who cussed a blue streak during a live shot?”

“All right,” Kels concedes, “I may have had my moments, but you weren’t exactly an angel either.”

“I never claimed to be. I was very proud of my ‘bad girl’ reputation.” I wiggle my eyebrows at her, an add a leer for good measure. “It certainly got your attention.”

“Hmm.” She sighs a bit and gets a rather dreamy look on her face. “Yes, it did. Too bad I’ll have to tell everyone the truth when I’m old and write my memoirs.” She pats my hand. “Until then, Stud, your secret is safe with me.”

“Hey! What secret?” I must admit that I am curious.

“That you were a teddy bear in wolves’ clothing.”

“Was not.”

“Was too. I knew more about you than you think, Tabloid.” And with that said my darling wife moves ahead of me, opening the boss’ door and shutting the one on this conversation. For now.

* * *

A cruise. Oh yeah, I can get into going on a cruise. Oh, it’s a rough life, but someone has to live it.

Now, all I have to do is get Doogie to okay it. He said I couldn’t fly. He didn’t say I couldn’t sit my pregnant behind in a deck chair and get waited on hand and foot. If this doesn’t bring my blood pressure down, nothing will.

It’s an interesting assignment. My last one before planting myself behind the desk. Langston heard about this group called ‘Marital Bliss’. Apparently, they offer marriage-counseling services and claim to have a ninety-eight percent success rate. I’d be interested in how they define success.

Since Harper and I are ‘the closest thing he has to a married couple’, (I thought Harper was going to choke him for that; we certainly consider ourselves married), he decided to send us in to check them out and see if it’s true. We won’t be participating in the sessions, but we will be observing and doing a story.

The organizers are allowing Harper and I to join them on the cruise. When we returns from our run up to Canada, they will sit down with us after and do interviews. However, in the interest of privacy, we won’t be allowed to do any filming while on board. After the fact, however, we can do interviews with anyone who would like to speak with us about their experiences with the group. So, while we will be technically working on the cruise, we’ll also get a chance to relax.

After leaving a message for Kevin, I turn my attention to the file Langston gave me on the organizers. Before I’m halfway through the first page, Brian comes in.

“Morning, Boss.” He’s been very chipper since Harper offered him the job as our nanny.

I hate the thought of losing him here, but, at least, now I can come to work in the morning and know my children are being well cared for. On the upside, I know Brian will bring them by to show them off, and I’ll get to spend time with them here too. Assuming I can get them away from Harper.

“My, aren’t we in a good mood this morning?”

“Oh yeah. I checked my lease and it is up in the middle of October, so if you and Stud don’t mind me moving in a couple of weeks early, everything is working out great.”

“I don’t think it’ll be a problem. It will give you time to get settled and you can help me with the last minute details in the nursery.”

“Like Stud will leave any last minute details.”

“True.” I close the folder and lean back in my chair. “You should see her at home, Brian. She is truly adorable. She spent the other weekend painting the nursery. The walls are now sky blue, with clouds. As soon as she has time we’re going to have all kinds of storybook characters with balloons floating in the air and sitting on the clouds. I didn’t have a clue that she has so much artistic talent. It’s going to be beautiful when she’s finished.”

“She’s very excited about these babies.”

“Yeah.” I nod in total agreement with his understatement. “She’s going to be a great mom.”

“So what did you spend the weekend doing?”

I smile. I don’t want to admit it, but since I told on Harper, I may as well tell on myself too. “I umm, well, I spent the weekend, you know, preparing baby clothes and blankets. Things like that. Harper wouldn’t let me in the nursery for any amount of time because of the paint fumes. So I occupied myself with the clothes and the blankets.”

“Little sleepers?”

“Yeah, the ones with the little feet in them. They’re so cute.”

He smiles, indulging my motherly moment, then we get back to business. “So I’m supposed to book you and Stud on a cruise, huh?”

“If you don’t mind.” I return to the folder and retrieve a page that has all the information on it.

He takes the paper and gives it a look. “Nope, it’s still my job for the next few weeks anyhow.”

“Brian?”

“Yeah?”

“Harper told my what you said about leaving with me if I got fired. I just wanted to say thanks. It’s nice to have such a good friend. Our babies are going to be lucky to have Uncle Brian in their lives.” We can’t call him Aunt Brian, sweetheart, no matter how much you want to.

* * *

After a quick trip to Doogie for Kels’ exam, he gives her the go ahead for the cruise, agreeing with us that it was the perfect chance for her to relax. He gave us a copy of her medical record in case something did happen and the ship’s doctor needed to be called. We have orders to see to it that he gets it immediately upon our boarding so he would have time to review it.

Kels is so excited about this. It’s nice to see her so happy. It occurred to me that we haven’t had a vacation just for us. We had our honeymoon, but that is somehow different than packing up and leaving for a cruise. I’ve also discovered my darling spouse adores these things. I’m guessing we’ll be taking a lot of them in our future together. I can’t wait until the twins are old enough; we’ll take them on a Disney cruise.

A sigh from near the dresser catches my attention. “What’s up, Little Roo?”

“Guess I won’t be needing this, huh?” She holds up a very small, black, thong bikini. I think I might swallow my tongue as a vision of my Kels in that bikini take form in my mind. Oh my God. May next summer come quickly.

“Un…” Oh this does hurt to admit, because the mere fantasy of my girl in that thing is making me ache, “Not this time, sweetie, but next… oh, definitely next year!” I growl, trying to force that image out of my mind. “Put that thing away before I have a stroke.”

She laughs at me and puts the thong away. Now it’s all I can do to concentrate on packing. My entire body is tingling. Every nerve I have is telling me to take Kels and kiss her senseless. I have never been known to ignore that many voices yelling at me.

She melts into me, moaning when our lips meet. Oh yeah, this is where I belong. The rest of my days will be spent loving this woman and our children. Every time we are together like this, taking our time, playing slowly and deliberately with each other, I give her a little more of my heart and soul. The funny thing of it is, I thought she had it all anyhow, but every time I touch her, I find myself digging a little deeper to find a little more to give to her. I want her to have every ounce I have to offer.

When I look at her, when I listen to her voice, kiss her lips, and touch her skin, I understand what I needed in my life to be whole and complete. I needed her. I needed her to bring me back to Earth, to ground me, to give me what every Kingsley truly needs to be happy: a home and a family. I may make a lot of money and I may even win awards for doing a job I love, but nothing compares to how I feel when I am near this woman like this.

All of my cares and worries melt away, and all I feel is love and desire. I feel Kels wrap her love around me like our wedding blanket. And our desire for each other physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually blends together so perfectly it is almost painful when we are apart from each other.

These moments, these kisses that are so slow, deep, soft, warm, kind and tender, they are perfect. They are the most perfect thing we do. And because the perfection is so sweet and sensual, I get lost in it every time. My world becomes a mystic place shrouded in every essence that is Kelsey.

Finally, taking many, many, tiny kisses, I pull back and look into her eyes. She smiles at me and clears her throat a little. “Should I pack our little …”

“Oh yeah.” I nod enthusiastically.

* * *

There is something plain wrong with needing help out of a limousine, but Harper’s hand is there to help me. Once I take a deep breath and get a look at the ship, which will be our temporary home for the next week, some of my frustration is vanquished.

“Oh, yeah, I’m a very happy camper.” I slide my sunglasses into place and give my spouse a grin.

“I’m glad to hear that, sweetheart. It’s nice to see you so relaxed and happy.”

“You’ll be lucky if you can get me out of bed, Tabloid.”

Harper manages a discreet pat on my rear. “Music to my ears, chér. So why is that a problem?”

I laugh as the driver unloads our luggage and a porter carries it up the gangplank for us. Beside me, as we board, Harper begins singing the theme from ‘The Love Boat’. God, the bad memories that conjures up. I’ll scream if I see Julie, Doc or Gopher here. Something is wrong with America when Gopher can get elected to Congress.

A purser who checks the passenger list and sends us off with a steward and the porter to show us to our cabin.

“This has got to be a joke,” Harper says when the steward stops at the door of a small inside cabin, and indicates that it’s hers.

The young man checks the paper in his hand. “No, ma’am, Ms. Kingsley. This is your cabin.”

Harper lifts a brow. “My cabin? Where is Ms. Stanton’s cabin?”

“She has a suite on the Navigation Deck.”

Ooo, someone screwed up. I bite my lip to keep from laughing. She would not appreciate it at this moment.

“Okay,” Harper pockets her key, then turns and smiles at me, “I’ll walk up to your cabin with you.”

“Dunno, Tabloid. Do they allow steerage passengers up in first class?” I tease.

She wags a playful finger in my face. “Don’t start with me.”

“This way, ladies.” The steward and porter head back the way we came. The porter has the good grace to not ask what of the luggage is Harper’s and whether he should leave it in the small cabin.

We follow the young man to an elevator and go up three decks. When we step off, he leads us to my cabin. Opening the door, I find myself in a suite, complete with bedroom, bathroom, living room, dining room, kitchen and balcony. Oh yeah, life is good.

As I’m taking a moment to get my bearings, Harper tips the steward and the porter and sends them on their way. I hear the door close and turn to find Harper leaning on the knob. “You’re very amused, aren’t you?” she accuses.

“Yeah, yeah, I am.” I nod. “But if you ask real nice, I might let you stay up here with me.”

She stalks playfully across the room. “Oh is that so? I have to ask real nice, huh?”

“Absolutely.” I’m playing with her because I can.

“Maybe we should get the rest of the family in on this little vote.”

“I didn’t say it was a vote. Besides, I get to cast their votes by proxy, right now.”

“Why?”

I level a stare at her. Please don’t make me state the obvious, Tabloid.

“I think my little girl will side with me on this one.” Harper tells me even as she wraps her arm around me, pulling me close.

“Ya think?”

“I do, I really do.”

The sad part is, I think she’s right. Brennan always seems to be more active when her Mama talks to them. And she knows when Harper reads them a bedtime story that it’s time to calm down. They seem particularly fond of ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ in French at the moment.

“So, what do you say, in the interest of family harmony,” she chooses this moment to kiss me on the neck, before continuing, “you let me stay up here with you.”

“You can stay, if you take me to bed and make love to me right now.”

It’s amazing really, how quickly two people can get undressed and in bed.

* * *

That was a nice way to start our cruise. Especially since it’s a marital happiness cruise. I know how to keep my girl happy. And, I left her in bed very happy, if I do say so myself.

I have been sent to find food and bring it to the cabin. We tried to call for room service but was told it didn’t start until we set sail. Oh well, it’s good for me to stretch my legs a bit.

“My God! I’d know that swagger anywhere!”

Oh my God, I’d know that voice anywhere. Of all the ships in all the world, she has to be on this one. I slowly turn and smile. “Hello, Rachel.” I see my brother standing behind her, talking to the steward. “What brings you here?”

She shrugs and smiles. “Mama read about it and suggested we try it out.”

I recover from my initial shock and lean forward to kiss her cheek in greeting. “Good, I’m glad. I’ve heard only good things about this group.”

“So why are you here? You and Kels are poster children for marital bliss.”

This is true. I never thought I’d be involved in a serious relationship, but I am thankful for Kels every single day. “We’re here on a story. We’re going to observe the main speeches and some of the counseling sessions as background material for our piece. It’s also a little perk thrown our way.”

“Congratulations, Harper. You must have the Midas touch.”

I laugh. “I hope not. He didn’t come to a good end.” I step around Rachel and behind my brother. Tapping his shoulder, I ask, “Do you need help with your bags, Mr. Kingsley?”

“Nah, I’m fine,” he drawls, turning around. “Son of a bitch!”

I embrace Lucien. “Good to see you too, brother.”

“What in the hell are you doing here?”

I explain it to him as well. He shakes his head. “We were gonna call you guys when we returned to New York after the cruise to see if you minded visitors for a few days.”

“You’re always welcome in our house, Luc. You know that.” I give him a light tap on his shoulder. “You wanna come to our cabin and say hello to Kels?”

He nods. I can tell he wants to ask if we brought our dog with us, but he refrains. Kam is very happy with his Aunt Brian. In our apartment. Brian insisted he stay there for Kam’s benefit. I’ll be lucky if he hasn’t moved out my office by the time we get back.

“That’d be great.” He reaches over and takes Rachel’s hand in his, pulling her close to him. “Let us get settled in our cabin and then we’ll stop by.”

I give him our information and hurry off in search of food and a phone. I’d hate for my girl to get surprised with visitors. Especially when I left her in such a good mood.

And I plan to keep her that way for the duration.

* * *

We enjoy our visit with Rachel and Lucien. It was surprisingly relaxed and friendly, all of us quickly getting over our initial shock at being here together. We promise to not sit in on any of their group sessions, not wanting them to feel the least bit encroached upon. We also agree to have dinner together tomorrow night.

I look forward to spending time with my brother. He can be a jackass at times, but he’s still blood.

The program says that our first night is spent in the main ballroom. First, there’s a speech by one of the organizers and then a mix and mingle time. Tomorrow starts off with individual sessions. We won’t be allowed into any of those, but we will have breakfast with the founders and get a feel for what will go on. In the afternoon, there will be group sessions, which we can observe. And then another speech at night. The rest of the days follow the same pattern.

This means we get to sleep in and get sun every day.

I love my job.

We wander up to the ballroom in time for the main speech, taking seats in the front to the side. It gives us a good vantage point, able to watch both the speaker and the audience. Kels has her notebook open on her protruding stomach. I lean over and rest my pen on the ledge.

“Hey!” she protests, slapping my hand away.

I frown. “Well, you use it.” I mean, what happened to share and share alike?

“I grew it. I can use it.”

How do I fight that logic? “Okay,” I remove my pen and concentrate on the speaker.

He’s an older gentleman, with receding white hair and a neatly trimmed beard. He looks like he was a championship swimmer earlier in life – broad shouldered, lean waist, tan seared into his skin. He manages to look formal even though he’s wearing chinos and a polo shirt.

“Good evening, couples. I’m Edward Connery, cofounder of Marital Bliss. My wife, Janice, and I welcome you here to our retreat. We believe that there is hope for your marriage, because there was hope for ours. You see, Janice and I have just celebrated our fortieth wedding anniversary. But we almost didn’t see our sixteenth. Janice brought me to my senses the morning I woke up and didn’t find her there. She was gone. Our children were gone. Even our dog was gone.”

I chuckle. “That’s harsh.”

Kels shrugs and flashes me a smile. “Just remember, Kam is my dog.”

“Ouch,” I tease back.

Connery continues, “I realized that morning that I was alone, just as I had been alone in our marriage for a long time. Just as Janice had been alone. We had created children together, but we had not created a relationship together. There was no ‘us’.

“That’s what marriage is. We all know marriage isn’t a piece of paper. Guess what? Neither is divorce. You aren’t here to avoid divorce, couples. You are here to avoid being in an emotionally dead relationship. We will spend this week reawakening emotion. It will be hard, especially for those of you who dislike emotional vulnerability. It will be challenging, especially for those of you who value privacy, even with your spouse. It will be scary, especially for those of you who prefer silence to speech. But, I guarantee you, if you are willing to do this, you will be closer at the end of the week than you were before.

“This isn’t a spiritually based program, but I do want to reference two Biblical concepts. I think these – regardless of your religious persuasion or lack thereof – are things anyone can relate to. The Old Testament refers to couples becoming one, and knowing one another. This oneness is not a subversion of individuality, but a creating of a marriage identity, one that both of you create, protect, mold. Knowing one another is the Biblical expression for sexual relations, and a perfect one at that. It is in our sexual intimacy that we let barriers down and embrace our spouse in a deeper manner.”

I lean over and place my lips by Kels’ ear. “Getting to know you, getting to know all about you,” I sing softly. I love watching the blush steal over her features.

“Stop it,” she warns.

Edward leans against the podium and strokes his beard thoughtfully. “Every night, we will be giving out homework assignments. We ask that you and your spouse take the time needed to finish them and to make them the top priority of your evening. Tonight’s activity is to begin opening up the lines of communication. Together, you need to share five things you like about the ‘us’ you’ve created and five things you would like to change about the ‘us’ you’ve created. Of course, some of you will find out that you have not created an ‘us’. But that’s okay. You can begin tonight.”

“I’d rather just get to know you better.”

Kels gives me ‘the look’. “You know me pretty well, Tabloid. Now behave and pay attention.”

Okay, that’s going on my list of things I want to change about ‘us’.

* * *

We’re in bed, reading through the literature Connery gave us when we spoke to him after his welcoming speech. A lot of it makes sense, but, to be honest, I sure hope we never need marital counseling.

I know it’s helped a lot of other couples. And I definitely want it to help Luc and Rachel get back on track. I simply would prefer never to need it. I never want Kels to feel like we need a third party to patch things up between us.

I lean over and kiss her hair.

“What’s that for, Tabloid?”

“Just because.”

“So,” she lays down the papers she’s been reading, “you want to do the homework assignment?”

I fight to keep from rolling my eyes. “Five things we like about us and five things we want to change?”

“That would be the one.”

I frown. I am not here to participate. Oh, well, I can play along. “Things I like: great sex.”

Kels laughs, one of her throaty sexy ones. Do we have to do this now? “Of course. Okay, we can agree on that one. I’m amazing in bed.”

I growl and reach over and rub her belly. “Takes two to tango, baby. So, what’s something you like?”

“I like the fact that we can talk about any subject.”

I like that too. Whether it be art history, or politics, or whatever, we have plenty to talk about it. “I like that we have a lot of fun together. I love laughing with you.”

“That’s another of the major perks. I also like the fact that we seem to know when we each need our own space. You never seem to crowd me when I’m having one of my ‘moments’.”

I assume this isn’t one of them and I snuggle closer, slipping my arm around her shoulders and resting my head on her breast, listening to her heartbeat. “I like being quiet with you, too. The fact that we don’t have to talk to express what we feel.” As proof, I stroke her skin, enjoying our silent communication..

“Okay, now, what don’t you like?”

I continue rubbing her stomach, laughing as little Brennan, I assume, chases my hand around. “I can’t think of anything.”

“Coward.”

I lift my head up and meet her eyes. “I am not a coward. I happen to happy.” Though I am about to get grumpy.

“And you can’t think of one thing you’d change about us if you could? Okay, let me modify the assignment a bit. What’s one thing you’d change about me?”

“Nothing.” I kiss the tip of her nose. “You’re my girl. I love you.”

Kels begins lifting up my T-shirt and I smile. Much better. Let’s focus on the things we like. I lean up for a kiss, but she stops me. Twisting around, she examines my back. “Excuse me while I look for feathers.”

I narrow my eyes. “I dislike when we overanalyze things that don’t need to be analyzed to begin with.”

“Ah ha!” she exclaims and wags her finger at me. “I knew there was something! See now, that wasn’t hard. Just proves that no relationship is perfect.”

“They never will be as long as two people are in them,” I agree. “However, my philosophy is to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” I sing this line to her, knowing she loves it when I do that. “So, let’s modify the assignment again. Let’s go back and reinforce all the things we like about us.”

Kels laughs once more and begins tugging on my T-shirt over again, this time not stopping to check for feathers, thank God. She pulls it over my head and tosses it aside. “You know what?”

Like I care at this moment. “What?”

“I always was lousy at doing my homework.”

* * *

Harper and I settle down with our production notebooks. We’re comparing notes while waiting for Edward and Janice to arrive for breakfast.

“Are you going to be able to line up interviews with participants?” I wonder why the twins ordered grape juice. We hate grape juice. I consider my glass while Harper flips through her notebook.

“Yeah, I have two lined up now. However, I think others will be more likely to agree if the talented and wonderful Ms. Stanton invites them personally.”

“If I see her, I’ll give her the message. In the meantime, you’re stuck with the irritable and grumpy Ms. Stanton who’s not getting enough sleep because your children are keeping her awake at night.”

“It’s a training issue. They’re only trying to prepare you for what’s to come.” She continues to read through her notebook even as her left hand reaches over to play tag with Brennan and Collin. Harper insisted we start calling Baby Roo by a name too. She has now convinced herself it’s going to be a boy. I hope she’s right, otherwise we’re going to have one confused little girl.

“Well, then, consider yourself in training too, Tabloid, because every time they wake me up,” I give her a playful poke to accent my point, “I’m waking you up.”

“Is that a fact?” She looks at me over the tops of her glasses. Oh, damn, she had to learn that hooded eyes, looking over the rim trick. Add a cocky smirk and an arched eyebrow and I’ll slide right out of my chair and down between…

My line of thought, which was getting more X-rated by the second, comes to a slow halt when our hosts join us. It takes a nudge from Harper to bring me back completely. Ooo, Tabloid, if you knew what I was thinking, you would have let me finish. You were having a great time.

I offer a halfhearted smile to the happy couple who join us. I give Harper a ‘let’s make this fast and I’ll take you back to the cabin and undress you with my teeth’ look. She glances at her watch, trying to figure out how long this will take.

“It’s certainly nice to meet you, Ms. Stanton.” Janice gives me a polite smile. We didn’t get much of a chance to talk last night after their opening speech. They spent the rest of the evening with the couples signed up for the retreat.

“Thank you,” I reply, uncapping my pen and preparing to take some notes during our meeting. “It’s nice to be here. We’ve been very impressed with what we’ve seen so far.”

“Well, Edward and I, and our staff of counselors, hope that we can help most of these couples.” She pauses for a moment. “If you don’t mind my asking,” she glances down at my stomach, “when are you due?”

“Technically, Christmas, but I’m carrying twins so they could come anytime between Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

“Your husband must be thrilled to death,” Edward gushes.

I give a glance to Harper and see the last of a twinge leave her face. “My spouse and I are absolutely overjoyed.”

“Are there other children already?”

“No, these two are our first, but we have a tribe of nieces and nephews. So my better half has a lot of experience with little ones.”

“What about you? Is it Mrs. Kingsley?” Edward questions.

Harper smiles one of her ‘what an idiot’ smiles. “Yeah, I guess it is.” She twists her wedding ring.

“Any children?”

“Not yet. But someday, very soon, I’m sure there will be.”

“Good luck to you,” Edward says, adding two packets of Equal to his coffee.

Stick with real sugar, fella, that stuff will kill you. “So tell us more about your program.” I make the fast inquiry to get them off subjects that they might not want totally honest answers to.

* * *

I have to get my laughter under control or she’s never going to come out. I take a deep breath and knock on the bathroom door. “Harper, honey, it’s gonna be all right.”

“Yeah!” she growls back through the door. “I know it is.”

“Please, don’t do anything silly.” I cover my mouth trying desperately to dampen the laughter I can feel creeping up on me.

“Oh, I won’t.” Her voice turns whiny. “Kels, you could have said something sooner.”

“Sweetheart, I’m sorry. It didn’t occur to me until I saw you roll over. I was reading my book and…”

“Why in the hell were you reading a book when I was laying in front of you wearing a swimsuit?” she grumbles from the other side of the bathroom door.

Good question.

“Come on now, Tabloid, it’s not going to be that bad.”

“Not going to be that bad? Kelsey Diane Stanton Kingsley, my arms are going to be two damn different colors.”

I listen and hear a cracking. “Harper Lee! Don’t you dare!”

“Stop me.”

I jiggle the knob once again to find the door locked like it was ten minutes ago.

“Harper, don’t do this! You could hurt yourself. Come on now, be reasonable!”

“I am being reasonable. I have to even up my tan.”

If only my darling spouse could hear what she was saying, she’d recognize the irony in that statement. Good God. I let my forehead drop against the door. “Harper, you can even up the tan in a tanning booth after the cast comes off.”

“Uh-huh. I’m not risking it.”

There’s more cracking and I know it’s a lost cause. I sigh deeply, running my hand over my tummy. “Promise me you’ll never be this stubborn.”

* * *

“I…”

She won’t even let me finish my sentence. She merely puts her hand up and turns her head from me as we wait in the doctor’s office.

Ooo, she’s pissed.

I wish they’d hurry up with those damn X-rays of my arm. Then I’ll have photographic evidence that I’m fine. Not that it’ll help. “Honey…”

I reach out with my newly freed right hand and place it on her knee. She looks at it disdainfully. I know the only thing that’s keeping it from getting smacked is the fact she’s afraid she might hurt me. The look she gives it, however, is more than enough to make me move it. It might wilt otherwise.

“I’m sorry,” I murmur, wishing like hell the doc would come out and tell me everything is okay and I didn’t do any damage. I’m not particularly wild about being in the doghouse.

She was so damn mad when I came out of the bathroom all she could do was sputter, “Doctor’s office. Now.” And she hasn’t said two words to me since. I haven’t seen that vein in the center of her forehead stand up like that since the day she told off Langston in the hallway. She was mad at him for days after.

“I’ll buy you dinner,” I offer with puppy dog eyes. Aww, come on, Kels, it’s cold out here. Let me back in the house.

“You don’t buy dinner on a cruise,” she grumbles, picking up a magazine without looking at me.

I refrain from pointing out that the magazine is ‘Home Remodeling’ and is dated 1997. “Hey, with two free hands I can really massage your back.”

This almost gets her. She actually looks up for a moment before looking back down at her magazine. Who knew kitchen grouting could be such a fascinating topic? But I found her weak spot. Now all I need to do is work it in my favor.

Before I get the chance, the ship’s doctor steps out into the waiting room. He’s a tall, good looking guy. Nothing like the scrawny, ugly, old Doc on ‘The Love Boat’. This guy is exactly what you’d expect to find on a cruise ship. I lean over and whisper to my loving wife, “Please note how even his tan is.”

Kels bristles. One of these days I’m going to learn to stop when I’m ahead.

“Ms. Kingsley?”

“Yes.” I stand up meeting him halfway across the room. I notice it’s a lot warmer over here.

“I looked at your X-rays. You didn’t re-injure your arm by removing the cast.”

I glance back at Kels who is sitting quietly and listening. She gives me a look that clearly states, “I don’t care, you’re still in trouble.”

“I would still recommend you let me put you in a brace to help keep it immobile. You can take it off if you want to get some sun,” a hint of a smile graces his lips, but he wisely holds back, “but you should wear it the rest of the time you’re onboard. You should also definitely see your family physician as soon as you get home.”

“All right.”

“Right this way.” He motions me into an exam room.

“Kels?” I lift my brow, cocking my head to invite her along with us. She gets up and comes with me, taking my left hand. Maybe I’m going to get let back in the house soon.

It doesn’t take the doc long to put me in a brace. As he makes sure the fit is good, he glances to Kels. “You’re Ms. Stanton?”

“Kingsley,” Kels corrects. At least, she’s not thinking about divorce.

“How are you feeling? I read your file. Are you having any problems?”

“I feel fine, doctor. I’m not having any problems that living with a reasonable human being wouldn’t cure.”

Ouch.

He chuckles, smoothing out a strap on my brace. “Before you leave, I’d like to do a quick exam, if you don’t mind. Nothing serious. Just BP, weight, and I’d like to check fetal position.”

Wow, he’s right on top of things. I’ll give him that. And he’s ready to take care of my girls and Collin. I like him. Even tan and all.

After taking care of me, he motions for Kels and I to swap seats. I help Kels up onto the exam table. She finally gives me a little smile. Then she turns her head to watch the doc take her blood pressure.

It’s starting to feel like spring thaw.

“Good.” The doc takes the stethoscope from his ears. “130 over 85. Very close to normal.” He offers her his hands. “Can you lay back for me?”

He’s very careful with her. I like that. He also does his exam of her stomach carefully. At one point, he stops, cocking his head. His brows come together as a small smile crosses his lips. “Are you having any pain?”

“No.” Kels looks at him, her eyes on alert.

Her takes her right hand, placing it on her stomach. “Feel that?”

“Yes.”

“Contractions.”

“What!?” Contractions? Holy Shit! Can we get a helicopter out to this thing? No way, no how, are my kids getting born on this floating trap. It’s too damn soon. Oh God. Please protect my babies. I’m up and beside Kels. “Contractions? It’s too early…”

“Relax.” He puts his hand up to calm me. “These are perfectly normal Braxton-Hicks contractions. They happen to all moms-to-be. They’re simply a way for Ms. Kingsley’s body to get ready for the real birth. Think of them as pushups, an exercise to strengthen the muscles.”

“Oh God.” I slump back into the chair, willing my heart rate back to normal. “Thanks for scaring the hell out of me, doc.” I look to Kels who is laying there with a little smirk on her face. “You knew, didn’t you, Little Roo? You knew what they were?”

She nods.

“And you let him scare the hell out of me on purpose?”

She looks at me, nodding to my wrist. “Now you know how I felt.”

* * *

We join Lucien and Rachel for dinner. I am still a bit hesitant around Lucien, my memory of our wedding day too fresh. I certainly hope that he won’t be drinking tonight, I don’t like him when he’s had too much. I am also trying to resolve my relationship with Rachel. I trust that she’s not after Harper, and, more importantly, I trust that Harper isn’t the least bit interested in her anymore.

I hate that we’re on a marriage cruise and I can’t show any affection toward my own spouse. Everywhere I look, people are hugging, kissing, snuggling and holding hands. I have to settle for Harper’s hand on the small of my back as she leads us through the dining room to our table. We’re seated before Lucien and Rachel, so we have a few moments alone.

“Everything all right, sweetheart?” Harper asks softly, reading my expression far too well.

I give her a smile, wanting to reassure her. “Just fine.”

“Feel okay?”

I reach over and pat her hand. “Everybody’s fine,” I reply, knowing that the question wasn’t directly only at me. In the last week, since recovering her sight, Harper has gone into full attack-dog mode. I swear she seems larger when she’s around me. She walks closer, she stands taller, she’s more vigilant. If my hormones are high, Harper’s are off the chart. It took me a little while to get her calmed down this morning after our visit to the doctor.

I was bad. But I was so angry with her. Normal people do not crack open their casts in the bathroom of a cruise ship because they want to even up their tan line.

Harper is not normal.

And that’s what I love about her. I love that she is everything I thought I would never have. I love her whole family, even when some of them annoy me a bit. A glance to the entrance confirms that Lucien and Rachel are headed over to the table. Harper stands up and hugs them both. We all exchange greetings and place our orders with the waiter.

“How’s it gone so far?” Harper asks. What we’ve seen has been pretty good. The organizers are focusing a great deal on teamwork and creating open communication., rebuilding trust. Over the next few days, specific topics that cause stress in marriage – sex, finances, kids – are going to be addressed.

Rachel smiles, a bit uneasily. “So far, so good. The counselor we have been assigned is pretty funny.”

Luc smiles broadly. “He’s a good ol’ boy, from Mississippi originally.”

Hmm. I wonder if that’s the best thing for Lucien, actually. I think an uptight Northeastern therapist with an attitude might be the way to go. “Easy to talk to?” I inquire, mildly.

“I think so.” Luc glances over at Rachel and takes her hand in his.

“Good,” Harper takes charge of the conversation, “because the homework nearly did Kels and I in last night.”

I laugh, remembering our compromise. “Tonight’s looks better, though.”

“Sensual full-body massages always sound good, chér.”

Rachel’s nose scrunches up. “I don’t recall that assignment.” She glances at her husband for confirmation. “Was that announced tonight?”

“Nah, we’re making up our own.”

Lucien leans back in his chair and scratches his stomach. It’s a common Kingsley habit, I’ve noticed over time. Harper does the same thing at home. Fortunately, never in public. “Damn, Harper, you’ve never followed the rules in your whole life.”

She laughs easily and reaches over to touch my stomach without thinking. “I know that, Luc, but it’s worked out pretty well for me so far.”

Now it’s Rachel’s turn to change the subject. “How is your eyesight, Harper? Has it returned to normal yet?”

She pushes back her glasses. “I don’t think it ever will. But it isn’t too bad and with glasses it’s perfect. I can’t ask for much more.”

“It won’t get worse, right?”

“The doctors don’t think so. Fortunately, Katherine did everything right when I got hurt. And,” she spares me a smile, “I had a lot of inspiration.”

* * *

The next day I’m sitting in our cabin relaxing while waiting for the afternoon activities to begin. A glance at my watch confirms that the individual sessions are wrapping up about now. That means lunch and Harper will be returning in the not too distant future. She went out to lay on a bench and tan the lower part of her arm. I keep trying to explain that she should use a self-tanning lotion, but she doesn’t want to hear about it. I’ve given up discussing this topic with her.

There’s a knock on the door. My beloved must be carrying a tray full of food. I set my book down and manage to push myself out of the plump chair. That gets harder and harder each time. Two months to go.

I open the door and am surprised to see Rachel standing there. I would have thought she and Luc would be meeting with their counselor right now. I hope something new hasn’t gone wrong. “Hi,” I manage.

“Hi,” she smiles, a little bit nervously. This is the most common trait I’ve noticed in Rachel. I wonder if she has always been this skittish or if she’s become this way recently given her marriage problems.

“Come on in.”

She steps through and goes over to the couch, taking a seat. “Thanks. Is this a bad time? Am I interrupting your work?”

“No, I was just reading and waiting for Harper to show up with our lunch.”

She nods and glances at the doorway. “I won’t be long.”

I frown. No matter what Rachel is my sister-in-law, a fellow member of the Kitchen Conspiracy. I don’t want her to feel like she can’t come see us. Family is too important to my spouse. And to me now. “Don’t be silly, Rachel. You’re welcome to stay as long as you want.”

“I hate feeling awkward around you, Kelsey. I really like you and I want us to be friends.” Rachel stares at her hands. “And I know it’s my fault that we’re not.”

I shrug slightly. Okay, it’s time to extend an olive branch. “No, it’s not your fault. I don’t think there’s really an issue of blame.”

“At your wedding, I told Harper I was wrong to let her go. God, I was so upset that day.” Rachel reaches up and angrily wipes away a tear from her eye. “I felt like I was watching my life pass me by. I kept thinking: that should have been me. I should be the one happy, having babies, celebrating. I was so jealous I couldn’t see straight.” She takes a deep breath and has a faraway look in her eye. “I was mad at Lucien too. He was acting like an ass, getting drunk and out of hand. I should never have said what I did to Harper, Kelsey. It was wrong. It was your day to celebrate. She didn’t need my baggage. I’m sorry.”

“Apology accepted,” I reply. It felt good to hear that. “Is the cruise helping? Are the sessions working?”

“I think so. At least, I realize that I’m not jealous of you having Harper anymore.” She laughs a little. “I mean, Harper’s great, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t love her. Not the way you do. God help me, but I do love Lucien. I just get jealous of how she treats you. My God, when you burp she acts like it was the cutest thing in the world.”

I can’t help but smile. Harper is so adoringly overprotective right now, it’s quite funny.

“I want Luc to look at me that way. And I want to not be the only Kingsley daughter-in-law without children. I hate feeling pitied.”

I shake my head. “No one pities you, Rachel.”

She shrugs. “I don’t know if pity is the right word, but there’s an obvious lack in my life. There’s nothing like being surrounded by a thousand and one Kingsley grandkids and know that I have contributed none of them.”

I can understand wanting children, even as Brennan and Collin do a tumble in my stomach. “It’ll happen. I know it will. Life does the most unexpected things.” I reach over and pat her hand. “I know it sounds trite, but it’s true.”

“I could use another friend in the family, Kelsey. I would love for it to be you.”

“You got it,” I reply, even as I hear Harper approaching down the hallway. She’s talking someone’s ear off.

“Thanks.”

We both turn and watch the door open. Harper steps in and is followed by a steward pushing a table piled high with food. So much for a simple lunch. “Hey, Rach, I didn’t know you were here.” I laugh and climb out of the chair, wandering over to the food. Harper tips the steward and sends him on his way. Once he is gone, she leans over and kisses me softly. “Hey, sweetheart.” She rubs my stomach next. “Hello, little ones. Did you let mommy rest this morning?”

I stroke her arm, noting it is still a bit warm to the touch. “Did you get your tan evened up?”

She studies her arm critically. “It’s better, that’s for sure.”

“Rach, we have plenty of food. Do you want to stay for lunch?”

She shakes her head. “I need to go find Lucien. But thanks for asking.” Rachel comes over and gives us both a kiss on the cheek. “I’ll see you later. Thanks, Kelsey, for hearing me out.”

“Bye, sis,” I call out after her.

Harper drops down to her knees and is shoving my shirt out of the way. “Hey, babies, how are you? Did you miss me?”

“Harper?” I ask, scratching her back gently. She kisses my stomach and doesn’t reply.

“Do you realize you talk to my stomach more than you talk to me?”

I am ignored as she presses another kiss to my stomach. “Do you hear your mommy exaggerating, Brennan and Collin? She tends to do that kind of thing, just so you know. Sometimes, she says things like ‘Harper, you never eat your vegetables’. But, it’s an exaggeration, because I do. I always eat my French fries and my tater tots.”

I start laughing. “Your food habits will be changing soon, sweetheart.”

“See, kids, another exaggeration.”

As much as I am able, I bend over and place a kiss on the top of Harper’s head. “I love you.”

Her arms tighten around me, pulling me and the children closer to her body. “Now, that, my little ones,” she whispers, “is just the God’s honest truth.”
Episode Five: Stormy Seas
I wake up early. I normally get up around this time to walk Kam. Of course, Kam is a few hundred nautical miles away, but I am still up. I kiss Kels gently and go out onto the deck. I may as well get a run in while I can.

I take off at a slow jog, warming my muscles up slowly. Morning on the ocean is nice. The salt air is tangy on my lips and the breeze cool on my skin. We’re fortunate to have good weather for our cruise. So far summer in New York has stunk. This cruise is making up for it.

As I round the corner, I recognize my brother’s form as he jogs along ahead of me. I speed up and fall into step beside him. “Morning, Luc.”

He glances over and reaches up to wipe sweat off his forehead. “Hey, Harper.”

“Remember when we were kids? And how you never beat me in a foot race?” I taunt. I am feeling good this morning.

He snorts out a laugh. “I think you have a selective memory, Harper Lee.”

“Last one to the breakfast buffet buys.” With that, I take off.

We go running along the deck, jumping over stray lounge chairs and dodging inadvertent wanderers in our path. When we reach a stairway, we look at each other and then slide down the banisters.

If Kelsey saw me right now, she’d kill me. I’m not even wearing my arm brace. I better not slip and hurt my ass right now. My concern for my arm, causes me to lose ground to Luc. This cannot happen. I sprint and catch up with Luc and together we slide into the breakfast bar.

Tied.

Hmpf. We look at each other and burst out laughing. I think we’re both secretly relieved to not be informing one or both of our wives that were injured being stupid.

Stupidity works up an appetite however. “Wanna grab something to eat?” I ask.

“I need it after that.” We go through the buffet and pile up on eggs, bacon, hash browns, fruit, toast and juice. You would think we hadn’t eaten in a week by looking at our plates.

“Is everything okay between you and Kels?” Luc asks, rather unexpectedly, as we settle down to the business of eating.

The fork stops in midair. “What are you talking about?” We don’t look like we have problems, do we?

He shrugs. “You are here on this cruise -”

I interrupt, “It’s an assignment, Luc.”

“I know, but was it assigned for a reason?” He takes a nervous sip of juice. “You guys aren’t acting normally, you know?”

“How so?” This intrigues me.

“You seem distant, formal.” He butters his toast more. “Believe me, I know distant and formal.”

Ah, I get it now. “Lucien, we’re a homosexual couple. While our dear family is remarkably open-minded about such things, the majority of the population isn’t. Believe me, it’s the hardest thing in the world to not hold her hand during those speeches, or lean over and kiss her, or put my ear down on her stomach and listen to my kids. When Connery asked me about my wedding ring, I had to skirt the issue. And listen to him talk about how excited Kels’ husband must be about the twins. You know me, Luc, I want to puff up and say, ‘We did this. These are our babies and, yes, I’m excited. Thanks for asking.’ But I can’t.”

“Why not just tell him?”

I put down my fork. “Luc, it doesn’t work that way. First off, we have a morals clause. We can do what we want in private, but in public we’re just colleagues. Second, people like us, get our asses kicked or, worse, killed. Do you think I would honestly expose Kels and our children to any danger whatsoever?”

“I’d never want to see anything happen to Kelsey, Harper. She’s been the best thing to happen to you.”

I relax, the adrenaline no longer surging. “That she is, Luc. Kinda like Rachel for you.”

He studies his eggs, swirling them around on his plate. “She doesn’t think I love her anymore. She says all that stuff about being just roommates, applies to us. We talked for hours last night and didn’t even begin to get through stuff.”

“At least you’re talking again, Luc. That’s a start.”

“How do I get beyond her anger? She’s so mad at me.”

I hold up my right arm. “Notice something missing here?” When he answers correctly, I continue. “I cut it off yesterday in the bathroom.” Lucien bursts out laughing at the absurdity of it and I must join him. God knows what came over me yesterday. It must have been the heat from the sun baking my brain. “Yeah, well, Kels was less than amused. I thought I would be sleeping in the piss-poor cabin they assigned me rather than her palatial suite. All couples argue, Luc. All couples get angry. The key is talking about it. And a helluva lot of groveling.”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Time to admit you were wrong, Lucien. Be a man, suck it up. Stop making your wife take the blame for everything.” He starts to protest, but stops almost as quickly. “And go make wild, passionate love to her. Like the first time.” I reach over and chuck him on the shoulder. “The first time was good, wasn’t it?”

“Bite me,” he growls.

“Nah, but I think I’ll go take my own advice.”

“Was the first time any good for you?”

I stop and think back to Thanksgiving. That was the first time I truly made love to someone, rather than merely having sex. “Luc, it was like coming home for the very first time.”

* * *

Kels is awake when I get back to the cabin. This is good. I step in, shut the door, being careful to first hang a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the outside knob, and smile at my girl. “Good morning.”

She looks over from couch and the third book she’s devoured since we’ve been onboard, recognizing the tenor of my tone. “Hello. Have a nice run?”

I remove my sweaty tank top and throw it somewhere in the living room. I don’t particularly notice where it lands. Throw it overboard, for all I care right now. “Sure did.”

“Are you hot, sweetheart?”

“You could say that.” I reach down and push my running shorts down off my hips, kicking them and my shoes in the opposite direction of my shirt.

My girl laughs at me. “I just had a nice shower. I think one might do you some good too, Stinky.”

I stop, lift my arm and take a sniff. “Nah, I’m good to go.” In every way possible, baby. “Besides, you can shower again.”

“You’re always good to go,” she teases me, her chin resting in the palm of her hand. So, where would you like to go now? Here? The bedroom? Out on the balcony? Maybe you’d like to give a lifeboat a try.”

Oh, she’s funny, all right. I resume my advance and drop to my knees in front of her, placing myself between her legs. “Oh, chér, you turning nasty on me? A lifeboat? The balcony? Ooo la la. You wanting to scare the seagulls?” I lean into her and kiss her, letting her know exactly all of my intentions for this morning. My hands travel up her arms. One slides into the hair at the nape of her neck, the other continues up to her cheek, the backs of my fingers stroking it lazily. I hear a moan and gloat, before realizing it was me.

We break apart for air and Kels’ eyes are sparkling. “You think you’re so good.”

“Think? Darlin’, I know it.” I capture her lips again, delving deep inside her mouth, playing with her. God, she’s a good kisser. Our tongues meet, chasing one another back and forth, tasting, exploring, mapping out previously conquered territory. She tastes so sweet.

I pull back slightly and take in a deep breath, inhaling the scent of her. It’s a heady mixture of Kels, her favorite perfume, Arpege, and the ocean breeze drifting in through the open window. I nuzzle behind her ear and slide my arms around, gently lifting the edge of her shirt, coming into contact with her warm skin. Our twins press into my stomach as I lean into her. I feel one of them give me a kick, as if to say ‘hands off’.

I ignore the child.

I roll Kels’ shirt up, which is actually one of my football jerseys, exposing more skin to my caresses, then release the clasp of her bra. She rolls her shoulders, loosening the material around her, giving me freer access. I love how she gives herself over to my attentions. She trusts me. It is her second greatest gift to me, after her love.

I remove her clothing reverently, bestowing newly exposed skin with light kisses. I tenderly trace the swell of her breast and stomach. I don’t understand why some people don’t find pregnant women attractive. It’s all I can do to keep my hands off Kels. She glows, radiating this essence which I can’t define but which draws me to her like a moth to a flame.

My lips cover her left breast. I swirl my tongue languidly around her nipple, enjoying the taste of her skin. I suck gently, tasting the tangy fluid her body is already producing. A slight whimper that is more pain than pleasure quickly reminds me to be gentle with her. Lately, she’s told me her breasts are tender, becoming engorged with the liquid which will sustain our children in their first months of life. Lord knows, they sustain my life.

I lean up for another lazy kiss. Kels combs her fingers through my hair, scratching my scalp gently. She knows this increases my libido tenfold. I moan again. So much for my seduction of my girl. “I love you so much,” I groan. I reach down and help Kels divest herself of her shorts and underwear. She’s been so self-conscious lately. And there’s absolutely no need. “You take my breath away,” I whisper, leaning back on my heels and raking my eyes over her. She starts to protest, but I put my finger on her lips. “Stay here.”

I push myself to my feet, willing my legs to be steady, and I go into our bedroom. I quickly discard my sports bra and underwear while I look for our favorite toy. Finding it, I secure it on my body with a growl.

I find Kels in place on the couch as directed. She looks over at me and a light blush dusts her cheek. It’s funny, really. My girl has certainly played with toys before, and we have our fun with them, but she still gets this shy look whenever we do.

It makes me even more conscious of needing to be gentle with her now. I join her and lean back against the arm rest. I reach out and help her move up the length of my body, as I stretch out beneath her. She sits on my stomach, at first, her warmth pressing against my skin. I arch up and kiss her again.

Kels’ hands on my shoulders steady her as she repositions herself. We both groan at the change in sensations. I close my eyes and enjoy it for a long moment. I love having her this way, giving her this pleasure. Prior to her pregnancy, I loved it because it allows me to be right there with her, watching her as I love her, holding her close when she falls over the edge. Now, I love the connection we have despite her burgeoning stomach. My hands go to her hips. Her skin is incredibly soft under my hands. “You okay, darlin’?” I pant.

“I’m good,” she breathes. With that admission, she begins moving slowly against me.

I help her find a deliberate rhythm, not wanting this time to be over too soon. With one hand, I stroke her from calf to thigh to waist to neck, stopping at every interesting point in between. “You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” I assure her. I curl upward and press a kiss to her belly. “You become more beautiful to me every single day.”

I must have said something right because Kels takes hold of my hand and draws it up to her mouth. She covers it with gentle kisses. When she nibbles on the inside of my wrist, I begin moving my hips a bit faster. Kels grins down at me. She planned that.

Two can play at that game, darling. Moving carefully, I slide back on the couch, getting better support behind my back. Kels groans at the change in position. A good groan. “Like that, do you?” God knows, I do. The pressure of her weight and the speed of her movements are … just right.

An enthusiastic nod is my reply. Speech is highly overrated anyhow. I am now in a much better position to enjoy the many attributes I like about my girl. Keeping my hands on her hips, guiding her, helping her, I nuzzle between her breasts. I plant kisses between them, under them, around them, but carefully avoid her nipples. I watch them grow tight and stand erect, a rosy pink against creamy flesh.

She digs her fingers into my shoulders, letting me know I should stay where I am. I kiss under her jaw and pick up the pace a bit, drawing my knees up behind her for leverage. I enjoy watching the sway of her breasts as her body writhes in pleasure.

I do this to her. I bring her this.

On my next thrust, I hold her still against me. I want her to feel our connection deep inside. I swirl my hips and watch her reaction.

I don’t get to see much, because Kels wraps me up tightly in her arms, pressing herself completely against me. Our bodies are molded together, the moisture of our exertion slicking our skin. I listen to the rasp of her breath, knowing she is close to her release. She bites my earlobe and growls.

Another thrust, another swirl.

Okay, I just felt one or both of the kids moving against me. Roughly torn from the moment, I focus again on my wife. It is her pleasure that matters now. I only want her to feel completely loved by me.

Kels expels a long breath. She begins moving faster. I match her movement and slide one hand around between our bodies.

“Kels?” I whisper, pausing, teasing her.

She bites my neck, not appreciating humor at the moment. Ooh, I’ve been marked. That’ll be fun to explain at dinner.

“I love you,” I finish as I carry her over.

She cries out in release, her body shaking. Her mouth lets go of my neck. Her back arches and her breasts sway. She is never more beautiful to me than at the moment of her surrender. I watch the various expressions which overtake her features.

She comes to rest against me, finally. Her breathing is erratic. I stroke her sweat-slicked back, calming her. I whisper words of love and devotion, promising her everything I am.

A few, long moments later, Kels kisses me with abandon. “I love you too, Stud.”

I can’t help but laugh. If only Brian could see me now.

* * *

I can only smile as Harper and I make our way through the dining room to meet Rachel and Luc for dinner. Harper is very proud of herself at the moment and that’s very clear by the way she carries herself into the room.

I pause for a moment, allowing Brennan and Collin to maneuver to where they want to be this evening. I’ve discovered in the last few days that from time to time I have to stop and let them have the right of way. If I do, my back and hips tend to hurt less. I lean against an empty chair, taking a deep breath, waiting for them to settle down.

“Are you okay, sweetheart?”

“I’m fine. Your children are being unruly again.” I take another deep breath then continue toward the table where Rachel and Luc are waiting for us.

“My children? I see how this is going to go for the next eighteen years,” I hear her mumble, joining me at the table. I can’t help but laugh a little even as we greet our family.

“Something funny?” Rach asks when we take our seats.

“Yeah, Tabloid here, seems to think we’re only going to be parents for eighteen years.”

“Mama and Papa would disagree with you, Harper Lee,” Luc tells her, before sipping from his water.

She slowly looks back and forth between Luc and I. “I’m sorry, Kels, it looks like I have a lifetime of abuse to look forward to.”

“It’s not abuse, sweetheart. It’s simple fact. When they’re good, they’re mine. When they’re bad, they’re yours,” I tease her, giving her hand a little pat to make her feel better. “That is the first lesson Mama teaches in the kitchen. Isn’t it, Rach?”

I burst out laughing when she sticks her fingers in her ears and growls, “I’m not allowed to hear about what happens in the kitchen.”

Luc doesn’t fare as well and grabs his napkin to catch the mouthful of water that is nearly delivered all over our dinner table.

Rachel looks at me shaking her head. “You’re a very brave woman, Kelsey.”

“I’m not sure it’s all bravery. I think, at some point, I may have experienced the death of several brain cells due to lack of oxygen.” Let’s see if she heard that.

“That’s because you can’t stop kissing me.” She leers at me, winking.

Oh, sure, that she heard. “That may be true, Tabloid, but it doesn’t change the facts…”

“No,” Rach snickers a bit before I can finish, “but it’s quite clear she’s right. Nice hickey, Harper.”

Even though she sits up straighter in her chair, she still blushes a bit. “Why, thank you. I earned every broken blood vessel. I’d have Kels show you hers, but …”

Giving Harper an elbow in the ribs to shut her up, I notice that Luc shifts a bit in his chair and blushes as well. Time for a closer look at my brother-in-law. “Why, Rach, actual teeth marks. Nice technique.” I laugh, gesturing toward Luc. Harper’s eyes fall on her brother immediately.

She bursts out laughing at him even as his face drops behind his hand and he groans. “We married wicked women, Harper.”

“Thank God,” she agrees, giving my hand a squeeze. “So I’m guessing you’re finding this cruise,” she clears her throat a little, smiling at Rachel, “beneficial?”

Now it’s Rachel’s turning to blush a bit. “Yeah, it’s, ah,” she gives her husband a very sweet look, “been good.”

“Why are we talking about this?” Luc shakes his head. I think he’s trying to clear his face of the red, much like a child clears an Etch-a-Sketch.

“Because the waiter hasn’t come to take our orders yet. And because it’s fun, Luc,” Harper offers.

“I can fix that,” Luc says, raising his arm to get the waiter’s attention. “Now stop having so damn much fun, Harper Lee.”

“Impossible. I’m with my girl and my family.”

We take a moment to give our orders the waiter. Now I’m curious about the counseling group. “So, do you two think that these sessions are helpful?” I can’t help it. It’s the reporter in me.

“Yeah.” Rachel takes Luc’s hand. “It’s been great. We’re talking and…”

“You’re doing more than talking these days,” Harper chuckles. This earns her a kick under the table from all three of us. “Perhaps, I’ll just sit here and be quiet,” she groans, rubbing her leg.

“Fat chance,” Luc comments.

She signals that she is zipping her lips, then leans her cheek on her fist, looking properly chastised. And absolutely adorable.

“I think the session last night on intimacy lessons was a good one.” Rach once again blushes a bit.

“Ah, there’s a session I could afford to miss,” Harper says, the zipping not quite taking. “I don’t need lessons. I’ve been intimate with lots of people.” Harper laughs as she puts cream in her coffee.

I don’t know why, but that particular comment sliced through me like a very dull knife, hitting every nerve it could find. My stomach absolutely turns to knots and I feel like I’m going to be sick. “Excuse me.” It’s all I can say before bolting from the table.

* *

Oh shit.

I watch Kels hurry away from the table and I swear my heart implodes in my chest. What did I say exactly? And why the hell did I say that? Very funny, Harper. You’re just a laugh a minute.

I look over at Luc and Rachel who are shocked silent.

“Excuse me,” I whisper, placing my napkin down on the tablecloth.

I can barely keep from running through the dining room to find her. Stepping out of the hall, I try to figure out where my beloved went. I highly doubt she went back to our suite. And certainly not the casino or disco or bar. I’m betting up on deck.

The sun is finishing setting on the Atlantic. It would be a beautiful scene, if it weren’t for the fact my wife is trying to blend into a corner. And she’s crying. I have no idea if she even wants to see me or have me touch her, but I can’t stand the fact that she’s hurting. It’s even worse knowing that I caused it.

“I’m so sorry, sweetheart.” I whisper, stepping closer, but don’t invade her personal space completely. “I am a complete and utter ass.”

My girl doesn’t reply. She’s brushing tears off her cheeks, trying to get herself under control.

“If I could go back and erase what I said, I would,” I continue. It’s true. God, I want the last ten minutes back for a do over. “But, chér, you are the love of my life. To be honest, I’ve never been intimate with anyone but you. No one else has ever known me heart and soul.” I am on the verge of tears myself. “I’m so sorry, darlin’.”

Kels clears her throat, trying to find her voice. “It’s okay. I just … oh I don’t know … I mean, I knew … I don’t know why it bothered me so much. I didn’t mean to overreact.”

I very slowly reach out to take Kels’ hand, giving her plenty of time to let me know if this is not a good idea. I am relieved when she allows me to tangle our fingers together. My heartbeat resumes with her touch. “My fault entirely. But is there anything else bothering you? Normally, you seem to tolerate my stupidity better.”

“You mean other than the fact I’m six months pregnant, the size of this ship and my emotions could put any roller coaster in the world to shame? Nope. Not a thing.”

Gently, I reach out and wipe the remaining tears from Kels’ downy cheeks. “I think I owe you another apology.”

“No, you don’t. I’m the one being emotional and unreasonable …”

“Shh,” I place a finger on her lips. “If you’re having any insecurity about how absolutely stunning you are, how beautiful you are to me, how you make pregnancy look totally gorgeous, then I owe you an apology. Because, obviously, I have not been telling you it enough.” I step closer, drawing her into the circle of my arms. “You aren’t big, you’re carrying two lives within you. If you were your usual, tiny self, I’d be upset with you because our children need you to take care of them right now. I’m so proud of you, Kels.”

“Harper, I know all that. Deep in my heart, I know it. And I know that’s why this is all so unreasonable. I just wonder if maybe from time to time you don’t want someone who’s … well, what you’re used to. There are lots of attractive women out there, Harper. Women who aren’t laughing with you one moment, then tearing you away from dinner with your family over a silly comment the next.”

“We can still have dinner with our family,” I correct, emphasizing ‘our’. “And I don’t want anyone but you. I love you, emotions and all. I made you promises, Kels. I plan on keeping every single one of them.”

“Ah, to be honest, Tabloid, I don’t think I’m in any condition to go back to the dining room. Why don’t you go back and have dinner with Luc and Rach, and I’ll meet you in the cabin later?”

My heart stops beating again. Apparently, I’m not forgiven. I’m being sent away. I let my arms fall lifeless down from around her. “Okay. If that’s what you want.” I swear, I might cry now.

“I love you, Tabloid. Go and enjoy dinner. Everything is okay with us. I’m just too embarrassed to face Rach and Luc right now. Okay?”

No, it’s not okay. “I want to be with you.” I know I sound like I’m four, but I don’t care.

“Harper, I really can’t face them right now. And it would be bad form to leave them in the lurch like that. It’s okay, really.”

I’m being sent away. Suck it up, Harper. She needs space. You can go sit with Luc and Rachel for awhile. Lord knows, you won’t be able to eat a bite. “I’ll see you later then.” I turn around and walk away, willing my legs to move.

* * *

There’s a knock on the door. I move across the room, from the balcony, and I open the door. It’s not room service. It’s six feet of producer hiding behind a dozen roses. I laugh, pulling her into the room. “Get in here.”

She hands me the roses. “I really am sorry. Do I have to go to steerage tonight?”

“Nah. The roses got you the couch at the very least,” I tease, taking the flowers to find something to put them in. “Did you eat dinner yet?”

She avoids my eyes and mumbles something I can’t quite hear. Before I can ask again there’s another knock on the door. “Harper, can you get that? It’ll be room service with our dinner. Hope you’re in the mood for steak.” I know she didn’t eat. I don’t know why she has to be so damn stubborn.

She gives me a smile and takes care of the door while I finish taking care of the roses. They are beautiful. By the time I’m finished the waiter is done setting our table in the dining room and Harper is showing him to the door. I take a seat at the table and wait for Harper to join me.

Once she settles down across from me, I give her a moment before I inquire, “Am I gonna get the silent treatment all night long?”

“No. I don’t know what to say, Kels, that’s all.”

“Harper, I told you. We’re okay. I overreacted. I know you’ve had lots of lovers and I accepted that when I fell in love with you and married you. I’m so out of whack right now that particular comment kinda hit me the wrong way tonight. Any other time I would have simply cuffed you on the back of the head for being a jerk and it would have been over with.”

She pours a cup of coffee and speaks quietly, “It’s not that.”

“What is it then?”

“Nothing.” She sounds so sad and is fidgeting with her napkin.

“What happened to those great lines of communication? What happened to being able to talk about anything?” I ask, pouring a glass of juice.

She chuckles a bit. “Normally I don’t feel hurt, I guess.”

This is interesting. She makes an insensitive comment, I get upset and she feels hurt. Very interesting. I must have missed something. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, Harper. I was upset and mad at myself. I couldn’t face Rach and Luc after that. I needed time to calm down.”

“I know. But I wanted to stay with you.”

“Luc and Rach are finally getting it together. I felt like a complete ass, ruining their evening. I had hoped you would go back and celebrate with them.”

“I did.” She pauses. “Kinda. Besides, their evening wasn’t ruined.”

“I promise to apologize to them tomorrow. I’m sorry I reacted the way I did.”

“Let’s just forget about it, ok?” She places her napkin in her lap and graces me with a smile. “So, do you think this will make a good piece?”

“I think it’s going to be a very interesting piece. I’ve talked to several couples who have agreed to sit down with us and do interviews when it’s all over and they say that they feel rejuvenated after coming here. This group certainly seems to deliver what it promises, but for what they charge, they should.”

“This is true.”

I give her a long look. Something is still not right here. There’s far too much steak on that plate. “Give.”

She clears her throat a little. “What?”

“What’s wrong? It’s more than what happened tonight.”

“It’s … I felt like you didn’t want me anymore. I was being sent away.”

I forget that she’s never been in a real relationship before. I reach across the table and take her hand. “Never. You are mine, Stud, and I’m keeping you forever. I felt bad and needed a little space. I was having one of my moments.” I squeeze her hand tightly. “Harper, I’ve had four other people in my life and I’ve never cared for or loved them the way I love you. I intend to raise children with you, spoil grandchildren with you, and grow old with you.”

“Good. Me too. Can I ask you a question?”

I decide to let the obvious comeback slide. I can see she’s in need of serious conversation here. “You know you can.”

“I know I am in no position to ask given my background, but … who was your fourth lover? I mean, I know about Beth and Susan and CJ. But … ”

I smile at how shy she’s being about this subject. “Actually not my fourth, but my first, Bennett McKinley. He and I dated during my freshman year in college. My mother thought we were destined to be married. So did Bennett, I’m afraid.”

“Bennett?” I can see her reconciling this information in her mind as she tries out his name. “Did he hurt you?”

“Hurt me? No. I discovered very quickly that Bennett, or any man for that matter, was never going to be able to give me what I needed. In reality, I probably hurt him far worse than he’d ever admit.”

“Good. So that’s when you realized you were gay?”

“Bennett and I were seeing each other ,” I sip my juice and nearly choke on it when I think back to my college days. “He introduced me to Beth, now that I think about it. She was when I realized I was gay.” I grin a bit.

“Oh yeah? Tell me about it.” She smiles and cuts into her steak.

This is more like the Harper I know and love. “What exactly do you want to know, Tabloid, the first place I ever made love to another woman?” I tease her, offering her a bite of the mushrooms from her plate. God, I’m turning into such a mother.

She chokes a little as she swallows. “Depends. Was it hanging upside down from a shower curtain or something fun?”

“Kinda. It was great until the chem lab blew up.”

She looks at me for a moment then starts laughing. “You’re joking.”

“No, I’m dead serious. We destroyed a chem lab. Something about two vials getting knocked over and when the contents came in contact with each other…”

“You are joking. Playing me for a fool.” My darling doesn’t believe me. But it’s the honest to God truth. She changes the subject, “So how did Bennett take the news? Did you tell him why? Or just break up with him?”

I have to giggle at her refusal to believe me. “Harper, I swear to you, I’m telling you the truth. You know that little scar I’ve got on my butt? That came from a half inch piece of glass that had to be plucked out in the emergency room. As for Ben, well, I broke it off with him. Since he was studying law, and he and Beth had classes together, it didn’t take him long to figure it out.”

“That’s where that scar came from? Remind me to kiss it and make it better tonight.”

“That’s where it came from. And you can start there.” I give her a wink.

* * *

I meet Lucien again for breakfast, beating him on another run around deck. This time we didn’t slide down the banister. I feel very mature. Although I wish I felt less mature. This cruise, on which I thought we’d observe everyone else working on their marriage, has ended up being a marriage workshop for Kels and I as well.

What have I learned so far? For one, I need to be telling my girl how gorgeous she is on a daily basis. No insecurity that I can help prevent. For another, I need to watch my damn mouth around a certain hormonal, pregnant woman I happen to be in love with. Jesus. Nothing like being a totally ignorant asshole, Harper. Finally, I got the answer to my long delayed question. Bennett McKinley. Could the name be any more WASPy? Milquetoast, I bet. My girl needed some ethnicity in her life. No more boring vanilla types in her life. I glance over at my brother. No, it’s the ragin’ Cajuns for Kels now.

“How’s everything this morning?” he asks with feigned casualness.

“Things are good.” I wait and see if he follows up the question with another. I don’t have to wait long, I bet.

“Was everything okay with Kelsey? I’ve never seen her upset like that before.”

I nod. Neither had I. At least, not quite that way. Of course, I’m not normally a complete and utter jackass. “I wasn’t very sensitive, Luc.”

“That must happen a lot,” he mutters, taking a bite of eggs.

Hmm. Are we going to take ‘em out and measure ‘em, Luc? “Actually, it doesn’t. I was being stupid last night, not thinking. You can relate to that, right?” Two can play at this game.

He waves his fork at me. “Touché.”

“Besides, I simply begged Kels’ forgiveness until she gave in. That’s the secret of conflict resolution: be willing to be wrong. And often. Roses help.”

“You ever notice how Mama always seemed to have fresh flowers around the house?”

I think back to my childhood. Our house was a veritable florist’s shop. “You think those were from Papa? And not from the garden?” That completely changes my perspective on Mama and Papa, that’s for damn sure.

“Did Mama grow Birds of Paradise?” No. “Or sunflowers?” No. “Or lilacs?” No. Okay, Luc, you can stop now.

“I guess I learned more from Papa than I realized.”

We both chuckle and continue eating. Mopping up his egg yolk with his toast, Luc takes a big bite. In between chews, he says, “I don’t think there are enough flowers in the world for me and Rachel, though.”

That disturbs me. “I thought things were going better.” I gesture toward the love bite still prominent on his neck.

“That’s part of the problem, actually.”

“The hickey is part of the problem?” I repeat, for clarity’s sake.

“Sex.”

I so do not want to discuss sex with Rachel with Lucien. The whole been there, done that quality is no damn good. I certainly don’t want to give him any tips.

He must sense my hesitation so he continues. “Having kids. Rachel really wants kids and, well, you know …”

“You’re shooting blanks. You still haven’t told her?” God, how long ago did we discuss this, Luc?

“No. So, see why there aren’t enough flowers in the world for us? I tell her now and we’ll be going to marriage counseling for the rest of our lives.”

I don’t know if that would be so bad for you, bro. “A marriage that is maintained on a lie won’t last. You don’t tell her and you’re doomed.”

Luc’s expression darkens as he considers my words. He pushes his plate away from his body and leans back in his chair. Despite his laid-back posture, his tone is quite aggressive. “Since when did you become Little Miss Expert on Marriage? Last I recall, you were fucking your way across the country. What was your longest relationship before Kelsey? Twenty-four hours? Or did it only last until you showered?”

Ouch.

But true. “You’re right. Before Kels, I was absolutely clueless about relationships. Other than what I saw at home, I didn’t know what a decent marriage looked like or how to even try to have one. Fortunately, Kels seems to have a clue and I follow her lead quite often. I might only have one relationship under my belt, Luc, but I’d match it against anyone’s anytime.”

“Especially mine, eh?”

I shrug. He said it, not me. “I don’t really want to compete with you in this arena. I’d rather we both be married to the women of our dreams and be very happy. Both of us need help in being successful in a relationship. I admit it. Will you?”

“She’ll hate me.”

“Better to know now. It’s a helluva lot fairer for her to know now, rather than when she’s nearing forty and wondering what’s wrong with her, why she can’t have kids. Talk about resentment, Luc.” I think I’m done with breakfast. “Don’t blow this opportunity. We don’t all get second chances.”

I will always be grateful that I have been given more than that.

* * *

During one of our port calls, I manage to convince Harper to go shopping with me. Of course, now my shopping agenda is for baby clothes. Tabloid seems to be willing to do this with me, getting an almost evil gleam in her eye when we enter the shop. I can smell the credit card burning a hole in her pocket.

I pull the little sleeper from the rack and hold it up. “What do you think, Tabloid?”

She looks up from her side. Dark brows dance a bit as she considers the item in my hand. “It screams, my moms went on a cruise and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”

I don’t know why that strikes me funny, but it does. I’m gasping for air while trying to get the laughter under control. “Anyone ever tell you you’re a goof?”

“Ooo, Kels, I’m hurt. You mean I don’t even rank ‘absolute goof’ or a ‘royal goof’? And is goof a technical term you news industry types use? Or is it something the women of the SSOTKC teach you?”

“What is SSOTKC?” I continue laughing at her. I can’t seem to get it in check.

She puts her finger to her lips, motioning for me to be quiet. She looks around quickly, then, leaning my way, she whispers, “Secret Society of the Kitchen Conspiracy.” She looks around again, signaling for me to be quiet before she ducks down behind the rack.

If she doesn’t stop, men in white coats are going to come take me away. I’m pretty sure some of the other patrons in the shop think I’m nuts.

Suddenly she pops up holding an item in her hand. “How about this?”

I clear my throat before taking a deep breath. “Harper, it’s a leather jacket.”

“Yeah, ain’t it cute?”

I give my forehead a little scratch as I try to find a polite way of saying, ‘there is no fucking way you’re putting my children in leather jackets’. “Ummm…no.”

“No? What do you mean no?”

“Sweetheart, you can buy them any type of baby clothes you want, as long as they are not made from leather.”

“Oh, come on, Kels, this is really cute. Look, it’s even got little fringe on it.”

“Harper, these children are future class valedictorians. I would prefer they not be graduating from reform school.”

“A leather jacket does not a criminal make. I wear one.”

“You haven’t worn that leather jacket since you shipped it to New Orleans with the bike.”

“I’ll have to give it a good treatment before Robie and I hit the road.”

I look up and smile. “You’re gonna do it?”

“Yup. As soon as we go home next time, if it’s okay with you. Robie and I figured we’d go that first weekend. You’ll still be two weeks from your due date. We thought we might ride up to the cabin for the weekend.”

I take a moment and go around the rack to give her a hug. I don’t care if every pair of eyes in the place and every camera in the world are trained on us right now. “I think it’s wonderful.” I pull back from my hug and look into her eyes. “Thank you.”

“Why are you thanking me?”

I caress her cheek. “I don’t know. I can’t explain it, but I feel like once you take a ride on that bike all the demons will be gone.”

She takes my hand, giving it a soft kiss. “You’re welcome then.”

“So,” I move back and begin looking through the clothes again. “You gonna get a sidecar for Robie?”

“Nah, he’s going to rent a bike.”

“You gonna be good?” I tease a bit.

“I’ll have to. You’re not gonna be there for me to be bad with.”

“Oh good answer, Tabloid.”

She looks very proud of herself. “Thanks.”

“Now, this is cute.” I hold up my latest discovery.

“Kels, it’s a rabbit suit. No way, no how are you putting my kids in a rabbit suit.”

Or roughly translated, ‘there’s no fucking way you’re putting my kids in a rabbit suit.’ I bet she sings a different tune around Easter.

* * *

My girl looks beautiful tonight as we head for the bar to have drinks with Rach and Luc. God, how I’d love to take her into my arms and dance the night away. Sometimes real life sucks.

As we join them, I can’t believe how happy and relaxed they look. I’m truly shocked when Luc leans over and gives her a kiss. Damn, Sam, don’t know what you did today but it worked.

Kels pulls on my arm, stopping our progress. “Maybe we should make this quick. I think they’d rather be alone.”

“They need to get a room,” I chuckle. Christ, Luc, let the girl get some air.

I clear my throat to announce our arrival. They finally separate and wave us to the table. “Harper, Kels, get over here.” Who is this and what have they done with my brother? This is not the Luc Kingsley I grew up with.

Kels gives me her hand and I help her settle into a chair near the small corner table Luc and Rachel picked. “You two certainly seem happy tonight.”

“We are, little sister.” Luc grins at me. “We had a very long talk today. Everything is out in the open.” He emphasizes the word everything. “And I have come to a conclusion.”

“And that is?”

“The Kingsleys are damn good at choosing the right women to spend their lives with. They seem to always love us, despite our faults and our big mouths.”

“Amen,” both Kels and Rach intone at the same time.

“And now that we’ve cleared the air, we’re going to start looking at our options.”

Thank God. Forward progress.

* * *

Lying in bed, I can see through the picture window in our suite and watch the moonlight dancing on the water. This truly is wonderful. Now I understand why Kels loves these things. It’s almost as if you have no choice but to relax.

Relax. I chuckle quietly at the thought. Kels has relaxation down to a science. I’ve never seen her so happy. Unless, of course, I do something silly. Then she goes from to happy to pissed off in two-point-seven seconds. I look at my brace. Well, it was a pretty silly thing to do. And it’s going to be a while before I quit smarting over that really stupid comment I made at dinner.

The fact that Kels is turning into the Mom of the Millennium doesn’t help my case either. Boy, she’s gonna be as bad as Mama before it’s over with. That’s good for our babies. Might not be so good for me. I’ve seen Papa duck a wooden spoon or two in his day.

I roll over and watch her sleep. She moves slightly, revealing the side of her tummy to me from under the covers. Reaching out with my fingertips, I can feel the babies. Watching carefully, I can see them moving under her skin.

Oh God. How amazing is this? I grab my glasses from the nightstand and slide them on then, moving as close as I can to Kels without waking her. I can see the outline of a tiny little fist or foot or something pressing against her side.

I reach out and give it a little push. It pushes back. Wow.

I lean over and give that little extremity a kiss and get popped right in the mouth for my effort. “Not nice, Brennan Grace,” I mumble, then kiss her again. You just wait until you get here.

“Harper…”

Oh boy. I’m in trouble again. I’m stepping into one mess after another with her these last few days. “Yeah,” I answer quietly.

“It’s bad enough,” Kels continues, her voice is rough and sleepy and she never opens her eyes, “that they poke me in the side all night long. Do you have to do it, too?”

“I saw a little foot or something…”

“Un-huh.” She rolls over to face me. “I feel four little feet and four little hands, two little heads and two little backsides constantly in motion these days.”

I run my hand under the blanket, resting my hand where I know Collin is. I can feel them still moving around. “Do you know how in awe of you, and this whole thing, I really am? I mean, you are doing the most amazing thing in the universe here. Nothing can compare to this.”

“I’m not curing cancer, Tabloid. I’m pregnant. Lots of women do it.”

“Yeah but,” I pull back the blanket and kiss Collin too, “they aren’t carrying my babies. Are they, little man? Nope. And they aren’t gonna be the best mommy in the world, ‘cause you got the best mommy in the world. And who knows, Kels? You might not be curing cancer, but maybe our boy will grow up to be the doctor who does. I’m pretty sure Brennan has that first female president thing all locked up.”

Kels pulls me up and cuddles into me, laughing a bit. “You’re insane, Tabloid.”

I hug her close. One of the twins gives a kick. I might be insane, but I’m the luckiest nut alive.
Episode Six: Correspondence Courses
The nurse has taken Kels to a lab to do some extra tests. This makes me nervous and jumpy, but Doogie ordered them, so he must feel they are necessary.

I’m pacing the hallway watching the door to the lab, when I see Doogie go into his office. I’ve been meaning to have a talk with him after our last visit here. I wander down the hall and listen at the door to determine if he’s speaking to anyone. When all I hear are papers rattling, I knock on the door.

“Come in,” he calls.

I push open the door and step inside. His office is pristine. Everything is lined up at right angles, the files are clearly labeled, even his paper clip cup looks organized. An office I can respect. He looks up, retrieving a file from the top of a stack. “Hi, Harper. I was getting ready to see Kelsey.” He’s surprised to see me, I can tell.

“I know, but your nurse took her to the lab.” I lean against the wall, the empty chair having not been offered to me. “Kevin, what’s going on? Why the extra tests?”

“Just precautionary, Harper, I assure you.” He waves me into the chair. “I’m very pleased with the way Kelsey is responding to the meds.”

“She’s trying really hard to do everything right.”

“I know she is.” He gives me what I suppose is meant to be a reassuring smile. It doesn’t work.

“Listen, I know it’s your job to be honest with your patients and to answer their questions, but the next time Kels asks you a question, how about trying to be a little more gentle? You scared the hell out of her. It took me the whole afternoon to calm her down. To be honest, you scared the hell out of us both.”

“You both have reason to be frightened,” he counters, setting aside the file. For someone who looks at young as Doogie does, he manages to still convey a sense of authority with ease. “I’m sorry if I upset Kelsey, but you both needed to understand the magnitude of what could go wrong.”

“I understand it all too well. After that discussion, Kels was terrified she was going to die and not see our babies. Granted, I’m not a doctor, but it seems to me that by tossing that out there, you’ve made it nearly impossible for her to relax and…”

“Harper,” he interrupts, just as I am getting going, “Kelsey needed to be told so that we could take care of this and keep it from getting that serious and advancing to the point of being problematic.”

I sigh. “I know that. Just do me a favor, reassure her everything is all right. She listens to everything you say and takes every syllable to heart.”

“I promise you, I will let her know that everything is looking real good. For her and the babies.”

“Thank you. Those three are my life, Kevin.”

He smiles gently and glances over at the framed photograph of his wife and daughter. “I know what you mean.”

* * *

I meet Harper in the exam room. She’s sitting in a chair, flipping through a magazine idly. I had wondered where she had wandered off to. I was surprised when she wasn’t waiting for me outside the lab. It was nearly impossible getting her to not come in with me. The nurse leaves us and Harper reaches out and pulls me close, lifting my shirt. “Salut, ma biche, les petites. Vous avez bien manquez Maman.” Hello, my sweet, little ones. Mama missed you.

I smile, running my fingers through her hair. She’s decided the children need to be taught French beginning now. Apparently she read in one of our baby books that kids do better learning two languages from birth if each parent speaks to them exclusively in one. So, she gets French/Cajun and I get English. I hope she doesn’t find out Brian speaks Spanish. I love Brian, and he’s a good friend, but I don’t want him talking to my stomach. “Missed them? How about the carrier?” I tease a bit. “Hmm, did you miss me, Tabloid?”

“Absolutely.” She’s not very convincing considering she’s still kissing my tummy and not even looking at me.

“Sure.” I give her neck a scratch. “I don’t believe you for a second, Tabloid. Let me get undressed here.”

“Oh yeah.” She leers and leans back to enjoy the show.

“I swear, you are the only person in the world who can have lewd thoughts in a doctor’s office.”

“Nah, there’s a whole club of us.” She wiggles her brows at me. “There’s even a support group dedicated to us.”

Once I’m settled back on the table, she leans over to rub my tummy with one hand while the other combs through my hair. Oh yeah, she definitely knows how to relax me. Then she leans over and kisses me. Okay, that’s not relaxing me, but I do like it.

Kevin enters the room and clears his throat. “That’s more the Kingsleys I know,” he says with a huge smile on his face. We manage to disentangle for the exam. “Hi ya, guys! How was your cruise?”

“Absolutely delightful.” I sigh. “I want another please.”

He laughs, beginning the exam. “I’m glad you had a good time. Everything looks really good, Kels. Your blood pressure is down and you certainly seem very relaxed.” He gives Harper a significant stare.

“If I get anymore relaxed at the moment, I’m going to be a lump for the next two or three months.”

“That would not be a bad thing, Kelsey.” Kevin finishes up then prepares the ultrasound.

Harper chuckles when I jump as the gel is applied. “Laugh it up, Tabloid, and I won’t let him take any pictures.”

“Be nice, Little Roo.” She leans over to look at the monitor, pushing her glasses up slightly. She’s so damn cute about these babies. I don’t know anyone in the world who’s going to be a better mother.

“Huh, well, what do you know?” Kevin says after a moment.

Harper’s whole body tenses. Don’t worry, baby, he’s playing with you. I can tell. “What?” she asks, unable to resist.

“Just look at this,” he instructs and points to the screen.

“What is it?” Harper’s tone is worried. Come on, Kevin, don’t make me get involved here.

“Your son is not quite so modest today.” He moves the wand on my stomach and highlights more of our baby. “Say hello to your boy.”

“A boy?” The smile on Harper’s face is brilliant as she moves closer to see him. She traces his outline on the screen. Then she turns and kisses my cheek. “We’re having a son too, Little Roo.”

I reach over and caress her cheek. “I heard, Tabloid. Brennan and Collin Kingsley. Now we can add their names to the mailbox in New Orleans.”

* * *

I take a cup of tea into the meeting with me. This is not going to be pretty. Several people are going to come out of the conference room very pissed off. I, however, don’t intend to be one of them. No, I will be the object of their hatred.

Langston gives me a grin when I enter. He asked me to come a little early so we could talk. “Good afternoon, Kelsey. How was your doctor’s appointment?”

“It was great! Harper and I found out that our second baby is indeed a little boy.”

He laughs. Langston pours a cup of coffee and then settles on to the couch with me. “Yes, I know. As a matter of fact, everyone on the floor knows. Kingsley’s very excited. Last time I saw her she was mumbling something about ordering a football jersey.”

I have to join him in his laughter. “Yes, she seems to think that we now have a future star quarterback for the Tulane football team. And watch out, our daughter is apparently going to be the first female president.”

He nods. “Sounds like a typical new parent.”

“I just want healthy, happy babies.”

He sobers for a moment. “Is everything all right there, too? You know how rumors get around the news room. I’ve heard some pretty disturbing things about your health. Are you ready to take the desk?”

I take a deep breath, reminding myself this isn’t a threat. I have a signed contract. This is genuine concern. “Yeah, I’m fine. The babies are fine. I have about six to eight weeks I can give the show before I have to take my maternity leave. I think being behind the desk will be a big help.”

“I had hoped so. One of the many reasons I recommended you for the spot.” He sips his coffee. “Kelsey, I don’t normally share my private life with my staff, but I know what it’s like to lose a child. My wife and I lost our son in her fifth month. I wouldn’t wish that kind of pain on anyone. I certainly wouldn’t want to see what would happen to Harper if anything were to happen to you or those children.”

I look at him seeing for the first time a real human being and not only the boss. “Thank you for sharing that with me. I’m sorry about your son.” My hand caresses my side where my own son’s movements once again remind me of his precious life and how fragile it still is. I don’t know what I’d do if something were to happen to either Collin or Brennan now.

“He would have been sixteen this year, and it still hurts. You never get over it.” He takes a deep breath and takes my hand. “So, you take care of yourself and those babies.”

“I will. Thank you, again.”

“Now,” he releases my hand and becomes the executive producer again, “let’s figure out the best way to watch Bruce swallow his tongue.”

“I just want a front row seat.” Now how Fire Breathing Dragon Bitch was that? Old habits die hard.

“As anchor of the show, you get all the best seats.” He winks at me and stands as the rest of the staff comes filing in.

* * *

This should be interesting. I position myself near the front of the room where I can have a wonderful view of everyone’s reactions. No matter what I want to see Bruce’s dumbfounded expression when the son of a bitch learns he didn’t get the job.

The talent has taken the best seats in the room. Kels is on the couch, next to Langston. Kendra and Sam place themselves at the conference table, nestled in the high back leather chairs. Bruce plops down in an overstuffed chair near Langston. The rest of the producers are disbursed around the room. We’ve seen this type of meeting any number of times. All it means is that some of the talent is going to be pissed and we’re going to have to deal with them that way for awhile. They don’t really pay us enough for all the ego crap we have to put up with.

I look over at my girl and give her a ghost of a wink. Enjoy your moment, sweetheart.

Langston crosses his legs and taps his folder against his knee. “As you all know, Larry has left the show due to personal reasons. I have chosen his successor and I want all of you to give her your full support.”

I watch Bruce blanch. Yup, it’s either Kels or Kendra. Not you, asshole. I look over at him and give him my best shit-eating grin.

“Just about any of you could have taken the desk. We have a top notch news team here and we’re number one for a reason. I don’t want this transition to slow down our momentum, or send us in any direction but forward. There will be a few logistical issues as Kelsey will be taking maternity leave a few weeks after she assumes the desk.”

He says it so nonchalantly that people almost miss the announcement. Bruce doesn’t. He looks like he might pass out. I now give him my full, unadulterated, fat cat grin. Bite me, buddy.

“While she’s out, we’ll rotate the desk. But, until then, the helm is hers. Congratulations, Kelsey. This is a well-deserved promotion.”

Kels smiles her thanks to Langston and looks around at the others. Bruce won’t meet her eye, but Sam and Kendra utter their good wishes. Jac Daniels and the other senior producers leaves the room quietly.

Oh, boy, it’s gonna be fun around here for awhile.

* * *

I kiss the new anchor, in the privacy of her office, and head over toward Langston’s. He asked me to stop by after the meeting to go over the upcoming shooting schedule. My assignments have altered now that Kels has taken the desk. Of course, I, too, had a new contract to sign. Foster worked hard on my behalf. I received a nice raise and a healthy bonus.

I already miss working exclusively with Kels though.

I laugh, amazed at myself. For goodness’ sake, Harper, you gonna have her hold your hand when you cross the street next? I am still chuckling when I approach Langston’s office and hear Bruce screaming at the big guy.

“Jesus H. Christ, Richard! First, you side with the powers that be when they want to hire the dykenamic duo. Then, after Stanton gets up close and personal with a turkey baster and gets knocked up, she gets promoted to anchor? What in the hell is going on here? And let’s not even go into the fact Kingsley’s so fucking deluded she actually thinks the little lab rats are hers. I’ve given four years of my life to this damn show! I deserved the anchor spot.”

I step into Langston’s office and close the door behind me, carefully putting myself in front of it. There’s no escape for you, asshole. Your ass is mine. “Would you care to say that to my face?”

Bruce turns around and folds his arms across his chest, trying to increase his size. He doesn’t intimidate me. Not by far. “Sure. Not a problem. I deserved that damn promotion based on seniority.”

“I don’t give a fuck about the job. I want to see if you’re man enough to insult my wife and my children to my face. Or if you’re just a sniveling, little, whiny-assed, jerk off who can only get it up when no one else is around? Personally, I’ve heard it’s the latter.”

Langston steps around his desk. “Listen, you two -”

Bruce and I ignore the interruption. “Kiss my ass, Kingsley. You and your girlfriend, or wife, or whatever the hell you want to call her, can both go to hell. She doesn’t deserve that promotion and the only reason she got it is because the network wants to use the pregnancy thing to their advantage. Too bad the world thinks she’s fucking some guy.”

“Oh, really? I thought it was because she has more awards than you can count, Brucey-boy. Having floppy hair isn’t really a compelling reason to award you the desk.” I take a step closer. “For the record, she’s my wife. They are my children. And I’ll rip your tongue out and feed it back to you if you insult any of them again, you self-righteous prick.” My hand curls into a fist. I will hate to break my wrist again, but it’ll be worth it.

“Fuck you, Butch. I don’t care how many awards she’s won. And I don’t give a rat’s ass about the parentage of those kids, although I’m sure it was an adventure for Stanton. As far as you’re concerned, I think you’re full of shit. She’s got you so whipped you can’t breathe without her fucking permission.”

I am about to crush his nuts – being raised in a family of boys taught me to fight dirty – when Langston interposes himself. “Enough!” he shouts, putting a hand on Bruce’s chest. “Kingsley, get out of here. Go cool down.”

“At least, I have a woman. One I don’t have to pay for. Or get high or blind drunk.” I take a step back and breathe deeply. “Sorry, Langston.”

I ignore the epitaphs Bruce is hurling at me as I leave.

I step out into the hallway and gulp down air. I came so close to losing it. God, I wanted to kill him. I wanted to rip his throat out and let him fall to the ground, gasping for breath.

My kids will have to put up with this shit. All their lives. Because of my decision to love their mother. Brennan, Collin, I’m so sorry. I never meant for you to have a hard row because of me. I never wanted you to have anything but the best the world has to offer.

Of course, your mommy is the best. And your Nonny and Grandpere. And all your uncles and cousins. At least, you will know the love of family in your life. I can’t give you everything, but I can give you that.

I discover myself heading to Kels’ office instinctively. I want to make sure they’re all right. Even though I know nothing has happened to them.

I knock on the door frame and wait for Kels to look over at me.

She cocks her head to the side and studies me. “Hey, get in here and close the door,” she says, her voice light, but her expression worried. “Since when do you knock?”

I manage a smile. “Just checking in on my favorite anchor.” I do step in the room and close the door, giving Brian a look that communicates no interruptions.

“Well,” Kels sighs, “I’m up to my ears in paperwork at the moment.” She tries to get out of her chair, but can’t quite manage. I watch her struggle briefly and then reach out to her, even as she reaches to me for help. It feels so good to hold her hand, if even for a moment. I pull her to her feet, wondering where it is she is going. “Remind me to order a new chair,” she says wryly, then slides into my arms. “Now, tell me the truth, what’s wrong?”

I hold her as tightly against me as I dare. When I feel the majority of the poison siphon off of me, I answer. “A bad dose of reality, I guess.”

“Harper, sweetheart,” she guides us to the couch, “tell me what happened. You’re shaking.”

We sit, but I don’t let Kels get away from me. “I scared myself. Bruce was his typical fucking, asshole self and I nearly went loose on him. I almost hit him, Kels. And I know that fucker would have had me arrested on assault and battery.”

“I knew he was going to go to Langston and complain.” She reaches out and strokes my arm gently, leaving goosebumps in her wake. “I’m sorry you got caught in the middle of it. You know he’s an idiot. And I’m glad you kept control.” I am rewarded with a kiss on the cheek. “However, I am going to have to fine you big time.”

My girl gets me to smile. “Only three bucks.”

“Ooo, not for that word, Tabloid. That word is a ten spot per use.” Kels nudges me in the side and holds out an imperious hand. “Pay up.”

“Hmm … that wasn’t your opinion the other night.”

I count the different shades of red that dance across her features. I still got it. I may be getting older, and married, and about to be a parent, but I can flirt with my girl. “Yeah, well,” Kels stammers, “there is a difference between the heat of passion and the heat of anger. You keep it up, and I’ll cut you off until our children are born.”

Now that’s a real threat. “How much did you say? Twenty-one dollars?” I reach for my wallet and peel off the bills, handing them over. “Kels, I can’t stand the thought of anyone ever hurting you or Brennan and Collin. The mere idea nearly sends me over the edge. I don’t know how I’m going to handle all of this. Without landing in jail, that is.”

“Did he threaten the babies?”

Ooh, I have awakened the lioness. I meet her serious gaze. “Not really. Just said a lot of hateful things. If he had threatened them, chér, I would be in police custody, because he would be dead.”

“Harper.” I focus in on the feel of her hand on mine. “People are always going to say hurtful and hateful things. We know that from experience. We just have to let Brennan and Collin know that we love them. It doesn’t matter what the rest of the world thinks. We have to teach our children to rise above it.”

I feel my chest tighten with fear. “Never leave me, Kels. Promise me that.”

“I’m not planning on going anywhere. You wanted me, you’re stuck with me.” Kels squeezes my hands.

“Did you ever notice the inscription in your wedding band?” I ask, surprising even myself with the shy tone in it.

“Of course I did. I notice every little thing you do. Haven’t you figured that out yet?” She sighs and shakes her head. “Like I said before, Harper, I know more about you than you think.”

“You think you’re so smart.” I lean over and kiss her forehead.

“I had to figure you out, Tabloid. I had to get past all that bluster and bravado to see your heart.” She once again snuggles against me. I don’t know if I will ever want to leave this office today. This is too nice. “It was the night you came into my room in Los Angeles that you really told on yourself.” She pats my chest gently.

“You heard that?” I remember that night. It was during the time Kels was being stalked and she was so scared. We were new friends then, certainly not lovers. I was sleeping on her couch, providing bodyguard services, of sorts. I went into her room, noticing the light was on much to late, and I found her curled up on her bed. She had looked so small and fragile. I knew right then I would never want to be without her. I had touched her hair, briefly, and whispered my promise to protect her forever.

“Uh huh. Every sweet word.”

I groan. “You never said.”

“There are some things that a woman knows to keep to herself. The fact that I had found your heart was one of those things.”

“Tout mon coeur pour toute ma vie,” I whisper, echoing the words of her ring inscription. That is so true. She has my whole heart for my whole life.

* * *

I finally tear myself away from Kels and go do my job. A job which has changed considerably now that she has the helm. Gone is my exclusive arrangement working with her. I am back in the pool of producers and can be assigned out on any story with any correspondent. Though I’m doubting if Langston will be teaming me up with Bruce anytime soon.

Frank appears in my doorway. He smiles broadly. “You must be excited.”

“Sure am. I’d take you over to congratulate her, but I don’t want to have to call the paramedics again.”

He has the good grace to blush. Since that incident, he won’t go anywhere near my girl. I don’t quite understand it. You’d think he was straight with the reaction he has to her. I suppose it’s not much different from Erik and Brian fawning all over her. I am married to a fag hag. Go figure.

“I hear you’re having a boy.”

I beam. Collin Lee. I gotta go pick up one of those mini-footballs for him soon. It’s never too early to get him prepared for Tulane. “That we are. We got lucky with a complete set on the first try.”

“First? Planning on more?” he asks, genuinely interested and not just nosey.

I give him an enigmatic grin. “I don’t know if I want to bring that up with Kels at this particular moment. I think she’s getting a little tired of this whole pregnancy thing. But, I am from a family of five, if that gives you any idea of my preference.”

He snickers. He’s imagining my girl’s response to that idea.

“Frank, you ever do any on-camera work?” I have an brainchild.

“Yeah, in class. They made us rotate assignments, so we each took turns broadcasting, copywriting, editing, producing,
directing … and Aunt Kendra has shown me a trick or two.”

“You any good?”

“I …” He looks at a complete loss for how to reply. “I guess.”

I narrow my eyes. “Frank, no bullshit here. You know what being good means – it means your Aunt Kendra. Now, give me the story. Are you any good? Or should you be behind the camera for a reason?” I give him a direct appraisal. He’s a good looking kid, sharing Kendra’s genetic lottery winnings. His voice is vibrant, not given to adolescent squeaking or breaks. His teeth are perfect. This is an important concern for racehorses and correspondents.

“I’m good.”

I smile. “That’s what I wanted to hear. I have an idea, Frankie. And you’re the man.”

He laughs. “I’m the man?”

“Oh, yeah. I’m think you’re the Voice of the New Generation.”

“I’m gonna do a Pepsi ad?”

Hmm, I better work on that tag line.

* * *

During a break in class, after finishing a lesson in how to breathe, I lean back into Harper and tilt my head back to look at her. “Tell you what, Tabloid, why don’t you take over now?”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning I’m not wild about this whole labor, pain thing. I think you’d handle it much better.”

She laughs and kisses my forehead. “No, I don’t think so, sweetheart. I’m afraid of that kind of pain and the whole process looks far too messy for my tastes.”

“This from the woman who leaves clothes and towels on the bathroom floor?”

“I’m getting better. I hung up my towel this morning,” she defends. I refrain from mentioning the fact she left her T-shirt and shorts on the floor.

I pat her thigh. “It’s okay, Tabloid. You’re a slob, but I love you.”

“Okay, little miss cap off the toothpaste, toast crumbs in the butter, I
love you too.”

So she has a point. I close my eyes, feeling Brennan and Collin squirming around. I know they’re trying to get ready for their imminent appearance in a few weeks. The way they move around, I figure they’ll come out walking, maybe even running.

“Are you okay?”

I look up at Harper again. “Everything is fine. Collin is having tackling practice again. I think Brennan is swinging from my rib cage by her toes.”

For some reason my dear spouse finds this humorous and begins laughing, ending in a snort. This gets a few strange looks from our classmates. Stranger than normal, that is. What a group we’re with. At least the militant ones are leaving us alone. Could it be because my spouse looks like something out of soldier of fortune tonight? She’s wearing camouflage pants, a black T-shirt which is one size too small, and biker boots. I don’t know what’s up with this whole intimidation thing she’s got going, but it’s on full force whenever we’re not in the studio.

“You think it’s funny now, but I know, for a fact, I’m allowed to be mean to you during labor and there’s not a thing you can do about it.”

“Are not.”

“Are too.”

“Are not.”

We’re in fourth grade. “Want to bet?”

“Sure.”

“Okay, how much?”

She grins at me, when she realizes I’m serious. “Hmm, how about five freebies from the cuss jar verses breakfast in bed for a week?”

“I get breakfast in bed for a week if I win?”

“Yup.”

“Okay.” I straighten up and get the attention of our classmates. “I have a question for everyone. Tabloid and I have a bet on the answer.” They all smile and a few chuckles can be heard around the room. Harper is known for her rambunctious nature here in class. “I say I’m allowed to be mean to her during labor and there’s nothing she can do about it. Am I right or not?”

The responses vary from “Oh yeah” to “Absolutely” to “No hiding from it, Harper” and the like. She drops her head and groans.

I settle back into her again, pulling her arms around me. “We’ll have ham and eggs, wheat toast and juice in the morning, Tabloid.”

* * *

Several days later, Langston and I are having lunch in the tower. Interestingly enough, with Kels’ promotion, my stock has gone up too. Perhaps we both needed a bit more independence at work. Though I’ll never regret the deal we came here under. Kels and I needed the time together.

“How is the transition going from your perspective?” he asks. I can tell from the tone of his question that he’s already had this conversation with other members of the crew.

“It’s good. Kels is ready for it.”

He shrugs, unimpressed with that analysis. “Of course, she is. I wouldn’t have chosen her otherwise. Now, tell me how the transition is going for the rest of the crew?”

“Kendra and Sam are fine. Both have privately conveyed good wishes to Kelsey. You know the ones who are unhappy. My crew is set and ready to go on any new piece. I, personally, am looking forward to working more with Kendra and Sam. The stories we’ve already done together were damn good, if I do say so myself.”

Langston nods approvingly. “We’ll be needing to hire another correspondent, you know, to fill out the complement. Who would be on your short list?”

“I’d be looking for someone to balance the show.” He waves his fork, indicating I should continue my analysis. “We have a good ethnic blend already. We’re a bit skewed in the age category, however. I’d be looking for a young correspondent, someone in her early twenties.”

“Her?” Langston queries.

“Keep the balance of correspondents – two women, two men.”

“And her look?”

“I’d go All-American.” God, Kels is going to hate me.

He takes another bite of his pasta primavera. “Names, Kingsley, give me names.”

I’m glad I thought about this earlier. “My top three would be: Anna Huber, currently at an affiliate in Dallas; Emma Weller, currently at a ABC affiliate in Philadelphia; and Brenda Lawson, currently on a cable news program in New York.”

He nods, thinking through my suggestions. “I agree with you on Brenda and Anna. Emma is still too green.”

I shrug. “She is, but she has nice hair.”

He looks up at me and laughs. “That’s all that matters with a meat puppet, eh?”

I give him a baleful look. Thank you, God, that Kelsey is not here right now. “I think sometimes inexperience gives you the chance to mold talent the way you want them to be. Of course, too much success, too early, gives them additional hubris, which certainly isn’t needed.” I shrug. “All I want is someone who wants to tell the story. I can package it for them.”

“Who would you hire?”

“Brenda. Young, good Q rating, from the south originally, and she has several good hard news pieces under her belt. After her, I’d pick Emma. She’s trainable.”

Langston wipes his mouth and sets the napkin down on the table. “Okay, now tell me about your idea for young Frank.”

* * *

“Hey, Stud.” I give her a little poke in the ribs as she unlocks the door to the apartment. “I have a surprise for you in the apartment.”

This causes her to move a little quicker to get inside. I have to laugh. “Relax, it’s not a new toy or anything that exciting.”

She mumbles something that I bet I could fine her for. Since I didn’t quite hear it, I’m gonna let her slide. “It’s in the living room. I put it there before we left this morning.”

“You’re a sneak.” She dashes down the hall for the living room.

“I’m about to be a mom. It comes naturally after the fifth month,” I call. I hang up my jacket and pick hers up from the table to hang it up as well. Better get used to picking up clothes now.

I follow her to the living room. She has found the box and is wasting no time in getting it open. She takes a moment and then pulls the snuggle pack from the box. She looks to me then moves across the room to lay it over my stomach.

“What are you doing?”

“Checking it for fit. There’s not enough room for them both, Little Roo.”

I actually laugh. “It’s for you, silly, and it’s only designed to hold one. I have a matching one. Like it or not, Harper Lee, you have to share them.”

She picks up the snuggle pack and notices the two little kangaroos I had embroidered on it. “Ah, God, that’s so sweet.” I am the recipient of a very nice kiss. “Why do I have to share? You got to carry them for the last nine months.”

“Because I said so and I’m the mom, that’s why,” I tease her as I leave the room to get changed.

She calls after me, following me to our room, “You’re the mom? What am I? Chopped liver?”

“No, not at all, sweetheart.” I kick off my shoes first, then proceed to take off my blouse. Sweats, here I come. “You’re the mama. The babies listen to you. You listen to me.” I emphasize the last line and offer a smile.

“You think you have me wrapped around your little finger, don’t you?” She menaces across the room playfully.

I turn my back and undo the hooks, letting my bra slip to the floor. “You mean, I don’t?” I pull a T-shirt from the dresser, and turn around as I unfold it.

She snatches the T-shirt and ogles me. She is so damn good for my ego. “You don’t need to gloat about it.”

I slide up next to her and take my T-shirt back while I distract her with a kiss. I go into the bathroom. “I wasn’t gloating. I was clarifying the facts. That’s what a good anchor does, love.”

I can hear her laughing at me now. God, life is good.

* * *

The wardrobe mistress tugs on the sleeve of the jacket one more time. “I think I got it now.”

“Yeah, it’s hard to get a good fit now that I’m more stomach than anything else. I’ve given up trying.”

“Well, we got the jacket thing whipped. Now we need to get you to make up.”

I groan. I hate make-up. Always have, always will. Don’t know why, can’t explain it. I just do.

I head to make up and I find the chair empty and ready for me. I take my seat and close my eyes, waiting for it to be over. Maybe I’ll catch a nap. You learn to do that after so many years. I can sleep about anywhere.

Yup, I dozed off.

I glance at my watch when I feel the apron being removed from my chest. Forty minutes to go before we know if the network mad a huge mistake. I’ll be interested to see my overnight numbers in the morning.

“All set.” The make-up artist holds my jacket and I slip into it.

The script editor sticks his head in the door. “You got a second, Kels?”

“Aaron, for you I have all the time in the world. What’s up?”

We start for the studio and he hands me some new pages. “We made some changes.”

“Of course, you did,” I say, taking a bottle of water from a cooler. “Life wouldn’t be right if I didn’t get new pages a half hour before air time.”

The sound tech comes over with my body mike to wire me up. I sip my water and study the script changes while he puts it on me. He better not try any of the nonsense Harper used to while wiring me. Aaron sticks close by in case I have any questions.

Speaking of Harper, I feel her looking at me and I glance up. Standing right behind camera number one is my better half. She’s grinning from ear to ear. She should be home in bed. She’s been here since about seven this morning. Fifteen hour days make for very long ones and she’s been putting in her fair share of them. But I had a feeling she’d be sticking around tonight. It’s my first night on the desk.

Hope I don’t fall on my face and embarrass the hell out of us both.

I stretch a bit trying to relax. Even Brennan and Collin must know this is big. They’re behaving and not distracting me too much.

I walk over and take my seat and the set comes alive with crew taking light measurements and checking equipment. I place the transceiver in my ear, which allows me to hear direction from the production booth.

God, I hope Harper isn’t wired for sound tonight. I look up to her and she grins at me again. If she stands any taller, her head is going to go through the ceiling.

“Thirty seconds,” I hear them say and I adjust in my chair. Why do I always want to run my hand through my hair right before we go live?

“Five.”

Okay, it’s now or never.

“Four.”

This is what you’ve worked your entire career for.

“Three.”

Breathe.

“Two.”

I love you, Tabloid.

“One. Cue Kelsey. Camera one.”

I turn. “Good evening. I’m Kelsey Stanton. Welcome to Exposure…”
Episode Seven: The Naked Truth
I take the final step and lean against the doorframe with a cold drink for Harper. I can’t help but smile while I watch her. She’s tackling the cribs today. They’re the last of the baby furniture to be put together.

“I went to college…” she mumbles, her back to me, unaware I’m at the door. “I have a degree. I can put together a crib.”

“Who are you trying to convince, Tabloid? Yourself or the crib.” I chuckle, moving into the room and handing her the drink.

“Thanks, sweetheart.” I’m rewarded with a kiss on the forehead. “I’m not sure who, to be honest. I think I’m just trying to intimidate it.” She hands me the instructions. “Would you look at this? It’s ridiculous. Please note that the instructions are printed in German, Spanish and Japanese, but not English.”

That’s true. Very weird. “How many parts to this thing are there?”

“I’m not sure.” She digs her hand in her jeans, rocking back and forth, surveying the scattered debris and sipping her tea. “But I’m sure it’s going to be a case of, as I start it, it’ll look like there’s too many, and as I get close to the end, it’ll look like there aren’t enough.”

“Just as long as there aren’t any left over,” I tease, with a wink.

“Oh, don’t worry, there won’t be.” She grins and nudges me with her elbow. “Even if I have to throw them away before you come do the inspection.”

“Very funny.” I take a deep breath and look at the room that will eventually be our babies’. I know they’ll spend the first few weeks in our bedroom due to all the feedings they’ll need. Even when it gets a little easier, though, it’ll be a real battle to get Harper to move them in here. You’d think we were moving them to another state to hear her tell the story.

She has done a beautiful job of decorating the nursery and putting all the furniture together. I suggested we hire someone to do it, but she completely refused, letting me know there was no room for argument. She wants to do it. She doesn’t want a stranger preparing a room for our children. That’s one of the things I love about her: family first and always.

What scares me is the realization that my own mother probably hired people to do my nursery. Mistake number one, Kels. Never use your family as a standard for normal.

What Harper and I have done in this room is really beautiful. Though my participation has been limited due to Doogie’s orders for me not to lift anything. Our babies will love it here. There are so many bright and vibrant colors for them to look at, and I think Harper has found about every soft toy on the planet for them to play with.

I tried to explain that toys wouldn’t be on the top of their priority list for a few months, but it didn’t matter. If another stuffed animal finds its way in here, the floor may collapse.

“Kels, can you hand me that screwdriver?”

I retrieve the tool in question, then take a seat in the rocker my darling spouse bought for me. It’s very comfortable; she has great taste in furniture. I foresee spending a lot of time in here with them. “Harper?”

“Hmm?” She’s studying the instructions, moving the parts into place while holding the screwdriver in her mouth by the handle.

“I know it’s a little late to worry about it, but what if I totally stink at this?”

“At what, hon?”

“Being a mom.” I let my hands travel gently over the babies. “I mean, you’ve got lots of experience to draw from, but what have I got? Not much, except for random memories of all the nannies and nurses that floated in and out of my life.”

She looks at me, dropping the screwdriver to the floor and leaning the headboard against the wall. She comes over and kneels down in front of me, taking my hands in hers. “Sweetheart, being a mom isn’t about following some memory, but following your heart. I trust your heart implicitly. Brennan and Collin are lucky to have you.”

“You know I love them, right? And I only want what is best for them? You won’t let me make stupid mistakes, will you?”

“Chér, we’re going to make lots of stupid mistakes, together. It’s okay. They aren’t fatal. What we will be consistent on is loving them. Everything else will come out in the wash. No matter what, I’ve got your back, just as you have mine.”

I take a deep breath and nod. “I guess I’m getting a little nervous, Tabloid. I mean, we may only have a couple of months until they get here. Every day I feel them moving more, and I know very soon two tiny lives are going to depend on us.”

“I know.” She gets a wistful expression on her face. “I can’t wait to see you with them.”

I laugh a little. “Like you’ll let me hold them.” I lean forward, caressing her cheek. “Aren’t you even a little scared?”

“Terrified, but I figure we’re in this together. And if Robie can be a parent…”

I smile and shake my head. “Be nice. Robie is the father of my first Kingsley love,” I tease. “I fell in love with Christian the moment I laid eyes on him.”

She clutches her heart and falls over backward at my feet. The ham bone. If she keeps it up, Kam will start chewing on her. She lifts her head. “Even before me?”

I give her a little shove with my foot. “Yup, even before you.”

There’s a loud thud when she drops her head back to the floor. “I’m so wounded. Here I thought I was your first true love in the Kingsley family and now I find out I actually came in second. Oh, the shame of it all,” she adds for good measure before throwing her arm over her eyes. I hear a loud sniffling noise to indicate the crocodile tears I’m sure she’s shedding.

“You are a total goof.”

She lifts her head, smiling broadly. “Hey, I’m moving up in the world. Last week I was merely a Goof. Now I am a Total Goof. By the time the babies arrive, I’ll be Emperor Goof.”

I’m sure of it.

* * *

Looking around our own bedroom, I’m almost satisfied with it. I know I’ve done this a hundred times since we put the bassinets and the changing table in here, but the need to nest, as Harper and the pregnancy books call it, is driving me nuts. I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not doing something I should be.

I run my hand over the pile of blankets on the changing table and then turn to the bassinets. Very soon, they will hold our babies. I can’t help but smile. Our son and daughter. Who would have thought?

This time last year, I couldn’t decide on whether to kill Harper or kiss her. I’m glad I went with the kissing option.

I settle down in the recliner and get comfortable. I focus on my children. “You wouldn’t believe the things we’ve gone through to get here. Someday when you’re old enough, I’ll tell you the whole story. But let’s just say, for right now at least, that we are the three luckiest people in the world. Your Mama really is something special. Of course, you’ll get to figure that out for yourself.”

Kam trots in and, as usual, he inspects the bassinets, sniffing the air around them and apparently making sure everything is prepared to his liking as well. Then he wanders over to his bed, gives a great, big, dog yawn, turns a few circles, and flops down, curling into a tight ball.

“Oh, of course, she’s as stubborn as any mule that your great grandpa Stanton used to keep on his farm. And she can be down right scary when she’s good and mad, but luckily this is something we won’t see a lot of. And I’ll save you the embarrassment of telling you how very special she makes me feel. But you have to know: it’s because of the way that she made me feel that you guys even came along. Once she showed me how much family meant, there was no way I could deny the fact I wanted one of my own. So, here we are.”

I glance out the window, wishing we were in New Orleans.

“Let me tell you, the closer your arrival time gets, the more scared I get. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I love you both with all my heart and I’ll die to protect you, but I’m scared witless. The only thing that keeps me grounded and focused and believing I may stand a chance of being a mom for you is your Mama. She seems to have some deep seated belief that I have a clue as to what I’m doing.” I chuckle a bit. “Boy, do I have her fooled, but let’s keep that our little secret.”

* * *

“I’ve got a couple of friends to help me, boss. This shouldn’t take too long.”

“Take your time, Brian. Harper and I aren’t doing anything but hanging out and relaxing.” I pour myself a glass of juice while conversing with our soon to be moved in nanny. Then I hear a crash from the nursery and I’m really glad the twins aren’t close enough to hear the French their Mama is spouting now. “Well, that’s not quite true. But I’m hanging out and relaxing.”

“Is today a bad day?”

“No. Just make sure you have your key. If things get to out of hand, I may have to take her into our room for a little chat.” I snicker a bit, wondering how Harper will handle making love in a house where another person will soon be.

“You can’t chat with your mouth…”

“Hush!” I warn him, a laugh slipping into my admonition.

“Well, I should know,” he teases back.

I lean against the counter and give Kam a dog biscuit. “Brian, that was far more information than I needed to know, thanks.” I watch Kam trot out of the kitchen. I’m sure he is taking the biscuit to show Harper. Ever since the day she tormented him by eating one, he has taken great pleasure in showing them to her before he chomps them down. He’s too smart for his own good.

I made Harper brush her teeth for twenty minutes before I’d let her kiss me again. It didn’t really bother me she’d eaten a dog biscuit. The part that grossed me out was she had taken it from Kam.

There are just some things you shouldn’t do with your mouth.

“So, we’ll be there in a couple of hours. I really don’t have a lot of stuff. I put some of it in storage and the rest of it my friendly, neighborhood, pack rats have made off with.”

I glance at my watch. “So you’ll be here around three?”

“Yeah, I think that’s about right. I have to feed these queens,” I hear a round of catcalls and tormenting in the background, “before they’ll finish helping.”

Okay, that gives me time to mellow out the Lord of the Manor.

“All right, we’ll see you then.”

“Bye, boss.”

“Bye, Brian.”

I hang up the phone and move through the apartment to the bottom of the stairs. “Harper?” I lean with my hands resting on the side rails, waiting for her to answer.

“Yes?”

“What are you doing?”

“Trying not to lose any vital body parts while creating living space for my offspring.”

I laugh again. She is losing her ever-loving mind.

“I don’t suppose you’d like to take a break?”

“For what?”

“Three words, Tabloid: You, me, chocolate.”

* * *

Lying on my stomach across the bed, near the foot, I watch Kels lean back against the headboard, pulling the sheet over her body, obstructing my view. She gives me a very happy, little grin. I can tell she’s quite pleased with herself. She always enjoys it when she leaves me a quivering mass of putty.

“Nothing like being a Saturday afternoon sundae.” I reach out and flick the now empty chocolate container off the bed. “We need to get more of that stuff.”

I watch as she uses the nail of her little finger to remove a trace of chocolate from the corner of her mouth and I groan. She smirks at me as she puts her finger in her mouth. I groan again. “Stop teasing me, Little Roo.”

“I’m not teasing you, Tabloid.” She motions me up next to her and I crawl slowly up the bed.

Crawling is about all I can manage at this point. My legs are still pretty weak and I feel the muscles in my thighs threaten to give out. As I reach my pillow, they do just that and I collapse next to my girl. She takes the time to stroke my back, massaging muscles that were working really hard a few minutes ago. “Oh, that feels good.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a moan come out of my own body quite that low or quite that satisfied before.

Kels may have only had four people in her life before me, but that doesn’t seem to matter, she certainly seems to have honed her craft. I’m about to slip into a content little nap when I hear something from the front of the apartment. My head snaps up and I’m about to get up when Kels rubs my back again.

“Relax, sweetheart. That’s only Brian and a few of his friends.”

I groan, pulling a pillow over my head. I forgot the little nutcake was moving in this weekend. “I’m never gonna survive this.”

“Harper, it was your idea to…”

“I know.” I bring my head out and roll over to face Kels. “I know. I’ve got to get used to the idea of there being a third adult in the house with us.”

My wife snuggles down next to me. “I suggest we stay here and let them get him moved in.”

“Them?”

“Yeah, he has a few friends helping him.”

“Oh, this I’ve got to see.” I laugh, getting out of bed and pulling on clothes.

“You want to watch? That’s certainly kinky, sweetheart.” Kels laughs with me, sitting up and reaching for her robe.

“Ah, Mrs. Kingsley?”

Kels smiles at me. That’s not a phrase I use very often, but she certainly does seem to enjoy it when I do. “Yes?”

“If you’re planning on going out there, put on more than a robe, please.”

“Harper, these are gay men. They’re less interested in me than…”

I put up a hand to forestall her argument. “Please?”

“All right. Actually, I think I’ll have a shower first.” Kels decides, then give me a lingering kiss before heading to the bathroom.

A shower? I give going out to see Brian and his little friends about a half-second of consideration before I decide a shower would be a good idea for me too.

* * *

Brian and his friends are having far too much fun. People shouldn’t enjoy moving this much. Then again, if I were moving out of that rat hole he was living in to an apartment like this, I’d be delirious too.

Kels gives me an amused smile and heads for the kitchen as I watch one of the guys pack another box up the stairs. I thought they passed a law against shorts that short or that shade of pink. If they haven’t, they should.

I feel something lick my hand and look down, hoping it’s my dog and not one of Brian’s weird, little friends. Thank you, God! “Hi ya, buddy.” I give Kam a good scratch. “What’s up?”

He turns and looks up the steps. “Don’t worry, boy. They’re not all staying.” I give him another scratch. “Come on, let’s find your Mommy.”

He takes off so fast, his nails scrape against the floor, and he looks like a dog out of a cartoon with his legs falling out from under him. I follow him to the kitchen, where I find Kels staring into the fridge.

“Why don’t we have any food in here?” she grumbles as I lay my chin on her shoulder, peeking in from behind her.

“Sweetheart, it’s full of food.” We can feed a small third world nation with what we have in here.

“Okay.” She closes the door, then turns in my arms. “There’s nothing in there we want to eat.”

Ooo, I feel a walk coming on for Kam. The wife is about to send me out to satisfy some sick, little craving. Wonder what it’ll be this time?

“How about one of those pizzas you’re so fond of?” She nuzzles my neck. “Hmm? Sound good?”

God, yes. She normally gives me hell for my pizza. To get her to eat it is a major victory, one I need to thank my children for. “Sure, we could order in.” I hear cackles coming from the upstairs. God, it sounds like the Kitchen Conspiracy. “I think we’d better get couple.”

* * *

Kels seems satisfied now, having eaten more pizza than I have ever seen her eat before. At least the kids aren’t totally being denied good food. She’s content laying here with her head in my lap. I’m amazed at how relaxed she can be even though we have new people in the house with us. This however is what makes her a good reporter, her ease with people in general.

Brian and his friends are scattered around the floor of the living room. He’s all moved in now and they’re taking advantage of our generosity. Well, I have to be nice. He is the one I trust enough to let care for my kids when Kels and I can’t be here to do it.

“You know, just when you think things can’t get any stranger,” Steve, a good looking redhead, says as leans back on his elbows, “your best friend ends up moving in with two high profile lesbians to be nanny to their children.”

“Well,” I offer, sipping from my beer, having decided to indulge a bit tonight. There’s a law against eating a pizza this good and not enjoying a cold one with it. “We’re pretty sure Brian can handle it. If not, I’ll toss him off the balcony.”

“Won’t work,” Mark, the one in the pink shorts pipes up, “fairies fly.”

The entire room bursts into laughter.

Brian shoves his friend. “Bitch!”

“Pay up!” Kels snaps her fingers and hold her hand out to our nanny.

“Oh, shit, I forgot.”

“Run that man a tab!” I lift my beer to Brian. It’s nice to know my kids will be able to go to any college they want.

* * *

There’s a knock on my door. If it’s not important, I’m gonna kill someone. I’m buried up to my neck in work right now. “Come in!” I yell, closing one file and opening another, as I turn to make a note on a storyboard behind my desk.

“You Harper Kingsley?”

I swing around to find a man in an ugly brown suit standing in my office. “Yeah, who the hell are you?” How the hell did this putz get in here? Talk about security.

“That doesn’t matter. I’m merely a delivery boy.” He drops a thick, yellow envelope on my desk. “Enjoy those,” he pauses and grins at me, “I did.”

I’m so taken aback for a moment by the whole encounter, he manages to get out of my office without further questioning. I shake my head and pick up the envelope. Slicing it open with a letter opener, I empty it to find pictures of Kels. There are about two dozen pictures here.

I cock my head slightly. I look at pictures of my wife and she’s mostly nude in all of them. She has a sheet draped around her body, but a lot of the important parts are still showing. Several of my favorite parts, in fact.

This must be a joke. They’re fakes. They have to be. Kels wouldn’t pose nude … or even mostly nude. I dig through a drawer for my magnifying glass. Studying them carefully, I don’t think they’re fakes. But you can do anything with computers nowadays.

Well, that’s interesting. I sort through the stack. Now, that’s a nice one. Hmm, my wife has a way of making a sheet look good. This one’s a keeper even if they are fakes. Lying back like that, all stretched out, back arched, with the sheet just barely draped over her…

Oh, boy! I’d better put these away before I have to go lock Kels and I in her office for an hour or so. We’ve never had to have a closed-door conference before. Now would not be a good time to start.

I gather up the pictures and tuck them back in the envelope. I have no desire for anyone else to get a gander at these. I’d have to gouge their eyes out. Those assets belong to me now. Next stop, Kels’ office. Right after I find something really cold to drink and maybe a bucket of ice water for my head.

* * *

I hate computers, and the fact that they do what I tell them to do and not what I want them to do. I growl at the computer again when I hear my door close. I look up to find Harper standing in front of my desk. For the first time, I can’t really read the expression on her face. “Hi?” I prompt, waiting for her to say something.

“Hi, Sweetie. Got a minute? I have something you need to look at.” She’s cracks the cap on a bottle of water and drains it in almost one long drink.

“Sure.” She hands me an envelope that is tucked under her arm. I take the contents out. “Oh my God! Where did these come from?” Oh boy. I glance up, checking to see if she’s going to go off the deep end. So far, she looks pretty calm. That water must have been laced with a sedative.

“Are they legit, Kels? Or is someone trying to pull a fast one?”

“Unnn…well…” I stammer a bit. Oh shit. “They’re real.” Why do I feel my marriage is about to take a major hit?

She taps one of the photos of my nude torso. “I know they’re real, but are the pictures real?” I can hear a hint of amusement in her voice. That’s a good sign.

“Yes, Harper. The pictures and everything in them are real. I did them for a friend.”

Her face clouds with anger. Oops, my big, bad protector has arrived. “Not that good a friend for him to be screwing you over now. Who is this jerk so I can go deal with him?”

“Harper, I did these for Erik. When he was in college, he took a photographic art class. He needed a model and I did it. I had forgotten all about them, to be honest. Where did they come from?”

“Shit.” She glances at the pictures again, her voice now carries a worried tone. “Some guy came in and gave them to me. That’s all I know.”

“Ah, wonderful. So, somewhere out there, someone has the negatives for these things and decided you needed a set? Hmm, wonder how fast I can kiss my career good-bye if they decide to go public with them?”

“I dunno, chér. You might get quite a few work offers with these.” She smirks a bit, picking one of them up and studying it. “And, don’t be silly. These scream heterosexuality. Langston might demand we air them.”

I drop my head and groan. “God, I hope not.” I look at one of them again. “Sure would like to get that body back after the babies are born. Or at least something close to it.”

“Oh, darlin’, I have no worries about that at all. I’ll help you work it off.” She leers at me and I feel myself blush. “I’m going to hire someone to find out who sent these. I don’t want anything to bite us in the ass, so to speak.”

I look at the pictures again. “It’s my ass I put out there. If it gets bit, I have no one to blame but myself.”

“Sweetheart,” Harper takes one of the pictures, “ain’t no one biting this ass but me. So let me make a few calls and see what we can come up with. I’ll start with that sorry excuse for a security desk and see if they at least made the guy sign in.”

“Good idea. I’ll also put in a call to Patrick and see if he knows if the negatives were in the apartment when he packed up Erik’s things.” Now here’s a suggestion that might not go over big, but I need to make it. “I could put in a call to CJ and have her check into who handled the crime scene.”

“Or, ah, Bear could do it.” She gestures around a little, refusing to meet my eyes. She keeps looking at the picture.

I grin, and scratch my neck. Me thinks someone is still a little jealous of CJ. No need, sweetheart. “Ah, well, there’s a good compromise. Why don’t you give him a call?”

“I will. I needed to call him anyway.”

“Okay.” I gather up the pictures, including the one Tabloid is very nearly drooling over. I want to offer her a bib but refrain, tucking them back in the envelope, putting them in my desk drawer and locking it. “We’ll burn those when we get home tonight.”

She follows my hand from desk drawer to my purse. “Burn them? Darlin’, one of them is going in my wallet. I especially liked that one when you were leaning back. Ooo la la. Mais, sa c’est fort quand même.”

“Yeah, it’s really something all right, but not something to go in your wallet.” I laugh at her and put my keys away in my purse.

“Ooh, I know so.”

“Only if you can come up with a really good bribe between now and the time I get the fireplace going tonight.” I look at her and give her my best smile. “And food and sex aren’t gonna cut it for these.”

“Uh huh… we’ll see about that, darlin’.”

* * *

I take the time to head down to the street vendors and grab a hot dog. I can’t bring Kels with me anymore. She either eats my sandwiches or torments me until I can’t enjoy them.

I settle down on the steps with two perfect creations and a cold soda. I’m about to take my first bite when the sun is suddenly blocked. I look up and see my worst nightmare.

“Miss Kingsley, did you get my gift to you?” Why it’s Mother Stanton and she has a completely wicked sneer on her face. Where is my cross, garlic and silver bullet when I need them?

“Gift? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” You old shriveled up hag. Shouldn’t you be in your coffin until the sun goes down?

Bad manners or not, I take a bite of my sandwich. I know this is going nowhere but downhill and, dammit, I want my hot dog! What is it with the Stanton women not letting me enjoy my lunch?

“Of course you do. I know my man dropped off those perfectly wonderful photos of my daughter this morning. What would your mother think if she knew you had taken up with someone capable of such a thing? Certainly this is something that wouldn’t be condoned in your circles. I know they aren’t in mine.”

I roll my eyes. “Lady, you don’t know a damn thing about my family, so I’d appreciate it if you’d refrain from bringing them into this conversation. They love Kelsey, no matter what. I love Kelsey, no matter what. So, I suggest you take the negatives and shove them up your ass, because no one cares, Mother.” I watch her bristle when I call her that. Ooo, Kels you’d be so proud on me.

“Love is never that unconditional, Miss Kingsley. Has Kelsey told you about her past? Has she told you about Bennett? Did she tell you they had a wedding date set?”

No, you harpy, she told me you and the idiot boyfriend had a wedding date set.

“Has she told you how she threw him over for that roommate of hers in college?”

Yeah, she mentioned that. I really should send Beth a thank you note. No, that’d probably be in bad taste. I’m betting Hallmark doesn’t print a ‘Thank you for turning my wife onto lesbianism’ card.

“My daughter really is nothing but a common whore and I can’t believe that you’ve decided to spend your life with her.”

Keep it up, you old bat, and we’re going to see what the braking time for a New York City bus driver is. I’m betting it’s not good.

“You know, it would probably be best for you if you took these children after they are born and left her as fast as you can, getting as far way from her as possible.”

Like hell that will happen, you bitch. I’m going to hold tight onto her and our children and pray to God they never leave me. “Let’s cut the crap. What do you want? You’ve gone to a lot of trouble here. You don’t strike me as a woman who does something without a plan. So, cut to the chase, you’re interrupting my lunch.”

I take another bite of my hot dog before it gets any colder. One of the hazards of being around Mother Stanton is everything within fifteen feet slowly freezes to death.

“No chase. I wanted to give you fair warning, to give you the opportunity to salvage your life. I mean, look what becomes of the people my daughter gets involved with. She either sheds them when she’s done with them. Or in the case of that poor, unfortunate boy in California, dead.”

I finish my hot dog deliberately, crumble up the paper that held it and toss it into a trash can. Slowly, I rise to my feet and stand as close to her as I can stand to be. I speak softly, slowly, wanting her to understand everything I am saying to her. “His name was Erik Collins. He was Kels’ best friend and he died trying to protect her, which is more than you’ve ever done. You couldn’t even be bothered to come be with her when she was so close to dying. Don’t you get it? Your daughter nearly died … she was…” I can’t continue, not if I do I’m going to keep my lunch down. I take a deep, calming breath. “So now you can consider me warned. And let me return the favor: stay the hell away from me and my family or you will regret it. I don’t play fair when it comes to them. I guarantee that you will lose.” I start to walk away but turn to add so it’s perfectly clear. “For the record, there’s absolutely nothing in the world that could ever make me stop loving Kels or our children.”

“We’ll see, Miss Kingsley, we’ll see.” She slides on her sunglasses and turns to walk away.

“Bitch,” I growl before heading back into the building, taking the steps to the door two at a time.

* * *

My first call is to my father-in-law. He married the viper, he is the best person to get advice from on how to handle her. Matt seems like a pretty nice guy, now, at least. Too bad he wasn’t there for my Little Roo while she was growing up. Hopefully he will do better for little Claire.

I call his office and am pleased when he comes on the line quickly. “Harper? To what do I owe the pleasure of this surprise?”

“I need some advice.”

I hear him lean back in his chair and I imagine him in his office, king of the financial domain. “I’ll do my best.”

“Your ex-wife paid me a visit today. She’s going after Kelsey and I want to know how to stop her.”

“A silver bullet.”

I laugh. “I already considered that. Believe me.” If it wouldn’t mean a likely jail sentence and missing my children, I would do it in a heartbeat. Hell, I should be given a Nobel Peace Prize for such an act of kindness to the world.

“What is she doing to Kelsey?”

I hope you don’t mind me telling him, hon. “Apparently Kels did some artsy poses for Erik while he was in a photography class.” I leave it to Matt to understand what I mean. “Somehow those negatives have walked over and put themselves into her hands. She made some pretty copies of them and sent them to me.”

“Bitch.”

“She said I should take the twins and leave Kels.”

I hear him take a deep breath. “What did you say?”

“I told her to fuck off. Matthew, Kels won’t get rid of me even in death. I’ll haunt her if I have to.” No need to have any confusion on this point. “So, I need to know how to take your ex down without any harm to my wife or children.”

“My guess is this is about money. It always is with her. Would you prefer I handle it? I have attorneys who are accustomed to dealing with the Ice Queen. They know all her vulnerable spots.”

That’s what I want, someone who knows her soft belly. So they can drag the knife through it, spill her intestines out for all the world to see. “What’s your advice, Matt? Will that get her more worked up? I don’t want any of this to come bite Kels in the ass. She just took the desk, she’s due in a few weeks. This is so not a good time for this.”

“My bet is this was an attempt to break you and Kels up. Or for one of you to make an offer for the purchase of the negatives.” I hear him tapping his fountain pen on his desk. I do the same thing when I’m thinking. The rhythm helps. “I can have my people make the offer and I’ll bet she snaps it up. You just concentrate on keeping my little girl happy and content until the babies come. I have a granddaughter and a grandson depending on you.” He pauses for a long moment. “And, Harper, we might want to keep this between us. Do you see any sense in upsetting Kels? You know how she gets about her mother.”

Hmm. I don’t quite buy that line of reasoning. “I don’t know if I can agree to that, Matt. I don’t want to keep secrets from Kels. That’s a bad habit to start. But I don’t mind telling her it’s taken care of already.” I think I’ll tell Kels when we’re in the relaxing on the balcony or laying on the couch together. “I appreciate the help, Matt. And I guarantee you that I won’t let anything happen to Brennan or Collin. Just tell me what figure she comes up with and I’ll wire the money to you.”

“Okay, I’ll trust your judgment in dealing with Kels. You’re married to her, I’m not. But I’ll pick up the tab on this one. I have a few choice things to say to the old witch.” Go, Dad. “While I have you on the phone, is there anything Kels or the babies need? Amanda is wracking her brain trying to come up with a gift.”

“There’s not a blessed thing these kids lack. Tell her to not worry about it. Kels is feeling very sentimental nowadays. If there’s anything that communicates being a Stanton, that would be great.”

“I’ll have to give that some thought, but I bet I can come up with something. If you need anything else, or if you hear from my ex again, let me know. I’ll let you know how we do with her in a few days.”

“Matt, be careful. It’s Kels who can get hurt here. I’d die if that happens.”

“Oh, I won’t let anything happen to Kelsey. I’ll bury the bitch first. I know low people in high places.”

“I’ll bring the shovel. Thanks, Matt. I’ll talk to you later.” Gotta like having a father-in-law who is willing to crush the evil mother like the bug she is. I figure the one person in the world who must hate her more than Kels and I is the man who shared her bed. I wonder if he has frostbite on his privates?

My second call is to my eldest brother. He’s in chambers, which is unusual. His secretary puts me through to him immediately. Normally, I have to leave a message and wait a few hours. A glance at my watch tells me the reason – it’s lunchtime. I bet he’s eating something good too.

“Is that my little sister?”

“Younger,” I correct automatically. “What are you eatin’?”

I hear his fork clink against his plate as he sets it down. “Oh, don’t torture yourself, Harper Lee.”

Dammit, I knew it. Why can’t anyone cook here in New York City? I sigh. “It’s so not fair. I had a hot dog.”

“I’m sorry.”

I sigh again at my brother’s patent insincerity. “Oh well, I will survive, I suppose. How is your family?”

“Running me ragged, as usual. Never have teenagers, Harper. You tell your children to go straight from twelve to twenty, it’s your only hope. Joseph is only one year into his teenage years and I swear I have one year less on my life expectancy. Laurent is a teen next year. Will I survive until Danielle and T-Jean are that age?”

“You’ll make it and love it. Fortunately, you have Katherine.”

“Ainsi soit-il.” I picture Gerrard crossing himself after his amen. “So, I am willing to bet that you did not call to hear about my heart palpitations. What’s going on?”

“I want to make someone’s life miserable.”

“Haven’t you then already achieved your life’s ambition, hein?”

We share a hearty laugh. I love Gerrard. “Kels’ mother has reared her ugly head and is threatening my wife.”

“What type of threats?”

“She has some pictures of Kels that it would be better if they weren’t released.”

“Le Bon Dieu, nudie baby pics?”

“Art house pics from a few years ago. Nothing ‘Hustler’ worthy, but something our network might not be thrilled to see of their new anchor.” It sure sounds nice to say that. My girl is wonderful. I am so proud of her.

“Has she made any demands?”

“Not explicitly.” I blow out a deep breath, clearing my lungs of the stench that lingers of Mother Stanton. “I know right now I don’t have shit. But there are certain agencies in the U.S. which can make people’s lives miserable. I would like them to become interested in her. I know that you have friends at the federal level, that’s all.”

Gerrard begins laughing. “Subtle as a sledge hammer, Harper. What do you have in mind for your mother-in-law? Maybe an ouanga?”

“Nah, I don’t know if a magic spell works against the undead. Well, the IRS would be a good start. The only thing in this world she loves is money. I’d like her to lose every last bit of it. Besides, the IRS are mean fuckers.”

“Ah, well, my friend Jack is a pretty good guy.”

I smile. This is Gerrard’s way of telling me that Jack will put the screws on Mother Stanton. Now, for my next request. “Yeah, I think both the IRS and the INS will be interested in her household help arrangements. I don’t think there’s anyone who is supposed to be in the country working there.” Actually, I have no idea, but I am willing to make an educated guess on this one.

“I thought that was the case for anyone with household staff,” he chuckles.

Okay, I can count on the INS as well. “Also, I heard that she has a weekend home on the Jersey shore. New Jersey is notorious for the environmental waste …”

Gerrard begins howling with laughter. I hear him nearly choke on his food. “Que diablo, Harper! I hope you never get mad at me!”

“As long as you never threaten my wife and kids, you’re safe.” It’s amazing what being married and having kids has done to me. I never thought it would ever be possible for anything to separate me from my brothers. But, if I had to choose between them and Kels, they would lose each and every time.

“Whew! I’m glad that’ll never happen. I mean, I’d hate to think that I was living on top of a leaking oil tank, or something awful like that.”

“Or growing pot for medicinal purposes in the herb garden.”

Gerrard begins laughing again. “‘A ca oui!”

I won’t cut it out … unless it’s her heart. So now Gerrard is going to sic the IRS, INS, EPA and DEA on Mother Stanton. One last federal agency to go, for now. “I hear Mother Stanton has been sleeping with the head of an investment bank and that her portfolio has been doing better ever since.” Go, SEC!

“Is her dog unlicensed?” Gerrard snickers.

I join him. “Well, if it is, I’ll report it to the NY authorities.”

“You take care of yourself up there, Harper Lee. When you poke a sleeping cocodrie, you get trouble.”

“Yes, my mother-in-law is about to find that out.” Because I am the biggest gator in this here pond.

One more call to make.

An old buddy of mine from Tulane has always operated a little bit to the left of the law. He’s a hacker by trade. Of course, his day job is internet security for a New York firm, but his real love is the type of stuff I want him to do. I look up his number on my Palm Vx and punch it into my cell phone.

“Hayward.”

“Isn’t it Hayseed?” I tease. We always gave him a hard time for being from Alabama.

“Well, slap my mama! Is that Harper Kingsley?”

“That it is.”

“How the hell are you? I haven’t heard from you since the last time you needed a favor.” I hear him click away on his keyboard.

“Yeah, well, remember who sent you a big ass gift and tickets to the Bahamas for that favor?”

“Hmm, and let’s remember that little pest known as Hurricane Floyd.”

“You got out in time,” I protest. So I won’t mention that it was the last flight out. And he did throw up on it the entire time. Hayward hates flying to begin with, this nearly sent him to an early grave. Literally.

“Europe this time.”

If he can make Mother Stanton’s life miserable, Europe is the least I can do for him. “Deal. In fact, pick three cities.”

“Ooh, you must have something big you want me to do. Out with it, Kingsley.”

Hayward makes it sound like he might refuse, but I know him. He lives for this stuff. I’m about to make his day. “You see that movie ‘The Net’ with Sandra Bullock?”

I hold the phone away from my ear as Hayward nearly passes out from laughter. I yawn and roll my eyes. “Okay, knock it off,” I growl. “I know … I know -” I repeat “that it wasn’t very realistic. But I am trying to convey a concept here.”

“Do tell,” he chortles.

I’m gonna kill him, making fun of me. “I want someone’s life to disappear. I want their credit cards, club memberships, driver’s license, passport, utilities to all go poof in cyberspace. I want her to not be able to gas up her car or check out a library book.”

“Her? What happened, Harper? I thought you were always good with the ladies and none of them ever got under your skin.”

Oh, that’s right, Hayward doesn’t know about my recent life changes. “This is my mother-in-law.”

“I thought you were gay!” Hayward explodes. “I mean, shit, Harper, you had more girls than I did in college.”

“Coeds, not girls,” I correct. I would hate to get arrested for something he said.

“You got married? Does your husband know?”

Are all men this stupid? “Hayward, I married a girl.”

“That’s not a marriage.”

“Don’t tell my wife that.” Or Mama, for that matter.

“Does she know you are going after her mother?”

That is, of course, the million dollar question. Do I tell her all the joy I have planned for her mother? About my plans to cancel her country club membership, post fake personal ads on her behalf, list her homes for sale, and file a change of address form with the post office? Or do I allow her to enjoy the fun as it unfolds? I wonder if she would be upset about all the shit I am hoping to rain down on her own mother. “I take the Fifth.”
Episode Eight: Mind Games
Kels wasn’t in a particularly good mood when she got home from the studio tonight. I’m betting Bruce had something to do with that. I’m going to have to have another little chat with him.

I glance over to the bathroom door. It’s closed. She’s been in there an awful long time. Well, longer than normal even for her. I crawl off the bed and make my way over to it, giving a soft knock.

“Kels, honey, are you all right?”

There’s no verbal answer to my inquiry. I hear what sounds like a glass crashing to the floor though. I try the knob. Locked. Damn! One of Kels’ little security phobias. “Kels!” I pound on the door. “Baby, open the door or answer me!”

I study the door and remember what Bear told me about kicking one in. Always next to the knob, since it’s the weakest part. Taking a step back and gauging the distance, I place a solid kick to the door. It gives but doesn’t break away completely.

“Kels!” Another kick and the door finally bursts open.

Oh my God!

I rush in. She’s laying on the floor, doubled over, whimpering. “Kels!” I pull her into my arms and her eyes meet mine. Tears are streaming down her cheeks.

“Har-” She can’t even finish before her body is gripped by another pain and she cries out.

“Brian! Brian!” I scream, as I pick her up in my arms and carry her into our bedroom. As I lay her on the bed and reach for the phone, he comes into the room.

“Oh shit! What’s wrong?”

I toss him the phone so I can focus on Kels. “Call an ambulance, then call Dr. McGuire. His number…”

“I got it!” He bolts from the room.

I return my attention to Kels. “Kels, baby, come on, talk to me.”

She simply cries out with yet more pain. I pull her into my arms, trying to comfort her.

“The babies…” Kels manages to say through sucking gasps for air. “Something’s wrong…”

“Hold on, baby. We’ve got help coming.” I try to soothe her.

She shakes her head against me. “Harper… don’t let our… babies die.”

I answer fiercely, willing it to be so. “Our babies aren’t going to die. Everything is going to be fine. Just relax, Kels.”

“Oh God!” she screams and doubles over in my arms. I notice a stream of bloody fluid running down the inside of her legs.

Brian comes back into the room and drops to his knees next to the bed. “Ambulance is on the way and I called the doctor’s emergency number. They said he’d meet us at the hospital. Anything else I can do?”

I give myself a quick look and realize I might not need more than the shorts and T-shirt I’ve got on, but I will at least need my sneakers.

“Shoes,” I tell him, holding Kels close to me as she clutches my shirt, continuing to cry and whimper. “Get my sneakers from the hall.”

“Done.” He darts from the room once again.

Where in the hell is that ambulance?

Kels takes a deep breath and looks up at me. “You remember?”

I place a soft kiss to her forehead. “Remember what, baby?”

“Your promise.” She bites her lip, holding back the cry of agony I know she’s feeling right now.

“Kels, everything…”

“Promise!” she demands, taking several deep breaths.

My heart simply shatters and the mere thought of what she’s talking about, but I don’t want to upset her anymore. “I promise,” I answer simply, feeling the first tear slide down my cheek. “But you’re gonna be okay and our Baby Roos are gonna be okay, too.” Please God, make this so.

She’s shaking now and can’t seem to speak past the pain. I can feel a chill setting in on her skin already. No, Kels, please, don’t leave me. Come on, baby, hold on. Help is coming.

“Talk to me, Kels. Come on, Little Roo, talk to me,” I beg her through my own tears. I can feel her body relaxing in my arms. No, no, no, no, no! “Come on, Kels. Please! Talk to me!”

I look into her face and her eyes open a little, tears creeping steadily down her cheeks. She gives me a very weak smile. “Love you, Tabloid.”

“I love you too, Kels. You are the best thing in my life. See everything is going to be okay!” She spoke to me, so that has to be true, right?

Her hand slowly crawls up my chest and settles on my neck. I feel a fragile attempt to guide me closer. I pull her closer to me. “What, baby?”

“Give them kisses for me,” she whispers before her hand falls away, her eyes close and her body goes completely lifeless in my arms.

“NO!”

I gasp and jerk awake, my body covered in sweat, my face covered in tears. My heart is pounding, I swear people can hear it a few blocks away. I reach out and turn on the lamp.

Kels isn’t in bed with me.

Oh God! Tell me that was just a nightmare. Please. I can’t lose them.

I jump out of bed and rush to the bathroom, but she isn’t there. “Kels!” I scream, mindless of the neighbors. “Kels!”

Where is she? Is she all right? I begin to race through the apartment. I nearly collide with her as she is moving toward the bedroom. “Kelsey!”

“Harper, honey, I was in the living room!”

I grasp her by her upper arms and inspect her carefully, then I gather her against me, burying my face in her hair. “Merci Dieu.” I begin crying shamelessly.

I feel Kels’ arms slide around me and she begins rocking me gently. “Shh, honey, it’s okay. Whatever it is, it’s fine.” She begins tugging me over to the couch. “Come sit down with me.”

We move toward the couch awkwardly, mainly because I won’t loosen my grip on her. We sit down and I pull her tight against me.

“Is everything okay?” I hear Brian ask from the archway.

Kels detaches herself from my death grip momentarily. “Yeah, everything is fine. I think Harper had a nightmare.” She caresses my cheek. “She’s okay.”

“I’ll make some hot chocolate,” Brian offers and he has the good grace to leave us alone.

I grasp Kels’ hand and press a kiss to her palm. I still can’t bring myself to speak. I don’t think I even have the ability right now.

“It’s okay. Whatever it was, Harper, it was only a dream. We’re all here and we’re intact.” She guides my hands and places them on her belly.

I suck in a deep breath and caress her skin. “It was horrible. You died … in our bed … the babies … I thought I would go insane. And then I woke up and you weren’t there.”

“We’re all right here, very much alive and well. I had a bout of insomnia. I didn’t want to wake you by reading in bed.”

“Read in bed from now on,” I mumble. “I love you.” I lean over and kiss her long and hard.

“Here’s some hot chocolate, good for whatever ails you!” Brian says loudly, entering the room. “Oh … excuse me.” I hear him put a tray down on the coffee table.

I realize I am sitting buck naked on the couch, kissing my girl with serious intent, and Brian is watching. Some things you just can’t plan on. Oh well. I continue on with the kiss, feeling more grounded each second I am connected to Kels. Kels must have the same realization about my state of undress as I do, because I feel her pull up a blanket around me. It’s our wedding blanket. She always uses it when reading on the couch.

“I’m gonna leave,” Brian says needlessly and he exits, stage left.

“Come to bed with me,” I whisper against Kels’ lips. She nods and I lead her back into the bedroom, holding her hand the entire way.

Kels takes a look at the bed sheets, completely twisted due to my nightmare, and reaches out to touch them. “Harper, honey, these are soaked with sweat. Let me change these real fast. So we can be comfortable.”

“I’ll do it, I don’t want you straining yourself.” I go over to the closet and pull out a fresh set. Within a few minutes, I have the task complete. I help Kels into bed and I pull her against me.

This is much better. I feel her breath against my chest, her heartbeat next to mine. Brennan and Collin appear to have awakened and are kicking me. God, I love them.

After a few minutes, I hear Kels’ breathing slow and deepen. She has fallen asleep against me. The twins tumble about for a little longer, but then they settle down as well.

I reach over and turn off the bedside lamp, but I know sleep won’t come to me any time soon. I think I’ll just stay awake and keep watch over my family for awhile.

Say, for the rest of their lives.

* * *

I glance down at my watch as we step off the elevator. Seven a.m. I’m sure Kevin is as thrilled about this as I am. I look to Harper.

“Humor me,” she mumbles. “Kevin is.”

“Un-huh.” I yawn. God, it’s gonna be a long day.

Kevin is leaning against the wall of the waiting room, sipping from a cup of coffee when we arrive. “Which one of you had the bad dream?”

“How did you know?” I ask, pointing at Tabloid to confirm her as the culprit for our early morning invasion of his office.

“Happens a lot.” He chuckles a bit. “I’ve got room two ready to go.”

“Good. Thanks for seeing us, Kevin,” Harper says over my shoulder. “My family is big on intuition. I don’t want to be right on this one.” She grips my hand so tightly I feel the bones grinding together. Easy, sweetheart. Everything is fine.

“No problem. Go on in. Kels, you know the drill. I’ll be right in. Harper, would you like some coffee?” Boy, he’s good natured about this whole thing.

I’m not nearly as amused. Must be the hormones. “I’ll pass on the coffee, but if you can find a bottle of juice, that’d be great. Thanks for asking,” I torment him a bit moving to the exam room door.

He laughs. “Of course, Kels. No problem. Harper, coffee?”

“Please. Straight up. Extra caffeine,” she answers before following me into the exam room.

“If you’d like I can start an IV drip for you,” Kevin offers as he moves past the door. Oh, don’t make promises you can’t keep. My spouse would love nothing more than that. From what I can tell, she didn’t sleep at all last night.

As I get undressed and ready for the exam, I notice Harper’s eyes never leave me. It’s not her normal lecherous stare. It’s a far more concerned, critical eye. I don’t know whether to be flattered or insulted.

She’s by my side the instant I’m ready to get on the table, helping me. Boy, I’m not sure how I’m gonna handle another eight weeks of this. I hope this visit will calm her and reassure her that everyone is all right.

Kevin enters and hands Harper her coffee. He sets my juice down on the counter, for afterwards. “You know, I hate to tell you, but bad dreams like this are pretty common close to the due date. It’s usually the birth mother who has them.” He takes his seat and puts gloves on. Harper is standing unusually close to him, almost looking over his shoulder. He grins at me before turning to her. “You wanna do this?”

She takes a step back, blushing. “No, but I wouldn’t mind a tour.”

“Harper!” I chastise her. “Come over here and sit with me. The last thing you need is a tour.”

Kevin starts laughing so hard I’m afraid he’s going to hurt himself. Tabloid takes a seat next to me, glaring at him. “Very funny, Doc,” she grumbles, but runs her fingers through my hair.

“I’m sorry, Harper. I really am.” He takes a deep breath, beginning the exam. “Everything is fine from this perspective. No discharge, no dilation, nothing out of the ordinary. Everything is perfect.”

“How are the kids?” she asks.

“Let’s see, shall we?” Kevin strips off his gloves and moves to the ultra sound machine. He applies the gel, then hands Harper the wand. “Go ahead. I’ll tell you where to move it.”

She carefully places it on my stomach.

“Little more pressure than that, Harper, and move it to your left a bit.” Kevin watches the screen, glancing at her from time to time. “That’s good.” He points to the screen. “Brennan is sucking her thumb.”

“Is she all right?”

“She looks pretty happy to me. Let’s see if we can get her to move for you.” With that said, Kevin gives my stomach a little scratch and Brennan obliges by squirming a bit. “Yup, she’s pretty pleased with life at the moment.”

“Good. And Collin?”

“Move the wand to the right and down towards Kels’ hip a bit. Stop. That’s good.” He leans over and looks at the screen, then he turns and smiles at Harper. “Your son has learned what’s important to most men already.”

She bursts out laughing. “Oh God. He’s a Kingsley for sure.”

I just cover my eyes and shake my head. I take Harper’s free hand and give it a little kiss. “Do you feel better now?”

“A little. Kev, does Kels need to start bed rest now? Is there anything else we need to be doing?”

Kevin looks to me and shakes his head. “Uh… Harper, Kels would kill us both if I tried to confine her to bed right now. The only thing I’m going to say is the same thing I’ve said before,” he turns to me, being a little more serious, “stay on the meds I gave you. Get plenty of rest. And watch for any unusual signs: swelling, discharge, intense pain, contractions that come faster that four per hour. No flying, except home for the birth. And generally be careful. How’s your love life?”

I blink a couple of time at that unexpected question. “Ah…just fine, thanks, and yours?”

He laughs again, giving my shoulder a rub. “The only reason I’m asking is, since Harper is so concerned, I’ll warn you now that as you get closer to the due date, orgasm has been known to start labor. Just a friendly reminder.” He gives me what he must think is a cute grin.

I look to Harper. She looks like she’s swallowed a trout. I’ve never seen her this pale and so unhappy looking.

Well, life was great until now. Bet my sex life takes a huge hit. I’m gonna smack him after the babies are born.

* *

I escort Kels to her office. I hate having to leave her for even a minute, even though Kevin has assured me all three of them are fine. I tap my cell phone which is clipped on my belt. “If you have the slightest bit of pain, the smallest twinge, a touch of gas, you call me.” Kels starts to object but I press a finger against her lips. “Immediately.”

Her fair eyebrows draw together, but she nods. “I will, but, Harper, I am not made of glass.”

“Yes, you are. Imported, hand blown glass, my dear.” I kiss her nose. “Please, humor me, okay?”

“I will.”

“I’ll come by with lunch, okay?” Kels smiles at me indulgently. I kiss her again, because I hate the thought being apart from her. “I’ll see you later.”

When I come out of her office, I find Brian seated at his desk. He and I exchange glances, trying to decide if either of us are or should be embarrassed. “Thanks for the hot chocolate.” He turns red. Guess he is embarrassed. I wonder if he’s ever seen a naked woman before. Should I ask? What am I thinking? He has sisters, of course he has.

“You’re welcome,” he stutters. “Feel better?”

“I won’t feel better until I hold those kids. Actually, I won’t feel better until I see Kels hold our kids.” That’s the God’s honest truth. “You keep a close eye on her, Brian.”

“I will.”

I give him a ghost of a smile. “You better.”

* * *

My phone buzzes and I snatch it up, afraid it is Kels. “Kingsley!” I bark.

Langston chuckles. “You always this earnest?” he asks. Ever since the change, my working relationship with him has improved dramatically. It wasn’t bad before, but, now without being as closely associated with the talent, I can be his right hand and confidant. At least, that’s what I think he’s grooming me to be. Or what I hope we’re doing here.

“Of course, I love my job,” I reply, with a light touch of sarcasm.

“Glad to hear it,” he replies. “Come on up to my office. I have an assignment for you.”

I jog over to Langston’s office and bound through the open door. I find him not behind his desk, typing into his computer, as expected, but sitting on his couch talking to a very attractive, young blonde.

“Harper Kingsley, have you met Brenda Lawson?”

I extend my hand to her, trying to ignore the cleavage shot I get while leaning over to shake her hand. “Sure, we’ve met a few times.”

Brenda smiles. “Nice to see you again.”

Langston gestures to the chair. “Harper, I want you to produce Brenda’s first segment for us. And, I’d like you to take her around today and introduce her to the rest of the staff.”

Oh, that’ll go over well with my very pregnant, hormonal spouse.

* * *

First stop, Kels’ office. It’s good show politics, because Kels is top dog now. It also is good for marital politics, because I want it to be known I didn’t volunteer for this assignment. And I don’t want to be exiled to a third world nation, like sleeping on the balcony.

I knock on the frame, and wait until Kels asks us to enter. “Langston asked me to introduce our new correspondent around. This is Brenda Lawson. Brenda, this is Kelsey Stanton, our anchor.”

Kels stands up and offers her hand. “It’s a pleasure, Miss Lawson. Welcome aboard.”

“I am so glad to be here. Especially given the support I already have here.” For some inexplicable reason, she gives me a bright smile.

I give Kels a very confused look.

Brenda looks around the office and her eyes linger on the photos on the bookcase. Ah, yes, our wedding photos. Thank you, Jesus. I want this little girl to know the score real soon.

Kels gives me a look that can only be described as predatory and possessive. “Beautiful, aren’t they?” The question is directed at Lawson, the stare remains on me.

I refrain from making cat noises. “Of course, they are. You’re in them,” I say in my most flirtatious tone. Brenda is noticeably more subdued. For which, I am very grateful. “I’m going to take Brenda around to the other correspondents. I’ll see you for lunch, sweetheart.”

Kels gives a nice low chuckle. “You betcha, Stud.”

I lean over and place a gentle kiss on Kels’ cheek and rub her belly. Hell, I can do possessive too. This woman is mine. These children are mine. There is absolutely nothing in this world that’s going to come between us.

We leave the office and make our way toward Sam’s office. “How long have you two been together?” Brenda asks finally.

“The best of my lifetime.”

And we repeat the meet and greet with Sam.

* * *

If I could avoid this office, I would. I’ve already put him last, after Kendra and even Frankie. Actually, if I could spit on the carpet in here, I would. “And, finally, we have Bruce Bartlett. This is our new correspondent, Brenda Lawson.”

The prick rises, smoothing down his tie, and offers his hand. “Welcome aboard, Brenda. If there’s anything I can do to help you out, let me know.” He looks over at me. “But I bet you got her covered, huh, Kingsley?”

I give him a big smile, deciding to ignore his asinine comment. “I want that piece by the end of the day, Bruce. We’re on a tight deadline here.” Bite me.

“Hmm, whatever you say, boss. I know you’ve got your hands full. I’ll handle it for you.”

“No, Bruce, just do your damn job. I’ll produce.”

“Bet the wife will be glad to hear that.” He picks up a file and a tape. “I’m off to the editing bay. Have fun, you two.”

I smile. I like chasing him out of his own damn office. “Come on, Brenda, I’ll show you to your new digs.”

And I’ll be damn certain to make sure the door is open.

* * *

“Oh, don’t ask me, I’m just the talent.” I grin, sipping my tea.

The two segment producers and Aaron laugh with me. “Come on, Kels. It’s pretty much your call.”

“Nope. I’m not gonna do it. That’s why you three are underpaid and overworked.”

“Boy, ain’t that the truth?” One of the producers laughs, swallowing his coffee.

There’s a knock on my door. It only takes a moment before Harper sticks her head in. “Any chance of breaking you away for lunch?”

I look to my coworkers with a raised brow.

“Sure.” Aaron gets up, giving me a wink. “But don’t blame us when you don’t remember what order those pieces are airing,” he muses as the other two follow him out.

“Blame you? Buddy, I’ll hold you personally responsible,” I joke with him as they leave.

Harper comes in carrying a cardboard box. She kicks the door closed with her foot.

“Trying to make sure I get my fill of fiber?” I gesture to the box.

“Nope.” She sets the box on the table and heads to my closet where she retrieves a blanket I keep handy for my legs when they crank the AC to ‘is it cold in here or are you just glad to see me’. She spreads the blanket on the floor then extends her hand to me, helping me sit down and get settled.

She joins me and begins unpacking the box. “Didn’t know what you and the kids would want for lunch so I decided a variety of things were in order.”

“Don’t suppose you happen to have any sushi in there?”

She smiles broadly. “Oh, you betcha.” She hands me a white carton.

“Oh, you are a goddess.” I can’t wait to dig into this. I am taking the time to appreciate my lunch when she hands me a pair of chopsticks. “Thanks, you remembered everything.”

“Figured there was some kind of rule.”

“Hmm, yeah there is.” I take my first bite. Oh, that’s good. “Like the ‘keep your eyes off my wife’ rule that went into effect this morning.”

“Noticed that, did you?” she asks.

“Notice it? Notice it? Tabloid, she was practically drooling.”

“I’m sure it was over you, baby. You’re the looker in the family.”

“Yeah, at the moment I look like a hot air balloon. No, sweetheart, she was most definitely making eyes at you. Those great big, come fuck me, bedroom eyes.”

“That’s a ten spot, sweetie. And she’s looking at the wrong person then. Because I am a one Stud kinda gal. I am very spoken for.” She waves her wedding ring in front of my eyes.

“You better believe it. I’ll be happy to remind her, if need be. Your wife has an ugly, jealous streak a mile wide right now.” I grin, giving her a little shove.

“Ooh, I like that. I’ve never had anyone fight for me before.”

“Please! You mean to tell me that none of your little barflies ever got into it over who would get to go home with you? I find that hard to believe. I’d think that you would have been the subject of several cat fights.”

She leans over and gives me a kiss on the temple. “That’s fighting over me. Not fighting for me. Big difference, babe. That’s what makes you the love of my life.”

“Well, dear, if it makes you feel any better, I have an appointment to have my nails filed into points later today. Figure they’ll be good for clawing her eyes out, and drawing blood during labor too. Dual purpose.” I make a little clawing action.

She nearly chokes on her lunch when she begins laughing.

“Yeah, you think it’s funny now. You just wait.” I lean over and give her a little kiss then I offer her up a piece of wusabi. “Wanna try it again, Tabloid?”

She takes the tiny piece of hot mustard and eats it. Those nasty hotdogs she eats, must have finally killed her taste buds. She proceeds to nibble my fingers, moving slowly up my wrist. Oh, that’s nice.

I lean over and kiss her, letting her know we could tell Brian we’re gonna be in conference. She gets my message and I’m about to announce that little plan when she pulls back.

Harper takes a deep breath and shakes her head. “No.”

“No? No? What do you mean no?”

“No. You heard what Doogie said.”

Oh, yeah, I’m gonna kill him. “Kevin said, ‘may cause’ and closer to the due date. I’m eight weeks – minimum – from then. Eight weeks, Tabloid. You mean to tell me we’re going without for eight weeks?”

She groans and drops her head. “Kels, do you know what I went through last night? I thought I had lost you, lost Brennan, lost Collin. I have never felt that kind of pain before in my life. Do I want to make love to you right now? More than you know. But am I terrified of anything happening to the three of you? More than you know.”

I take a deep breath, smile and caress her cheek. How can I argue with that? “Thank you for loving us so much.” I lean in and nuzzle her ear before giving it a little nip. “But you’ll never last eight weeks.”

* * *

I get another summons to Langston’s office. I look in warily, lest I find another voluptuous blonde who views me as life size catnip. He waves me in and points to the chair across from him. “Sit down, Harper, I have an opportunity for you.”

This could be good, this could be bad. I sit. And wait.

“I got a call from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. They want one of us to come join a panel they are hosting on ‘Sensationalism in Journalism and in Violence in the U.S.’ next week. I think you, especially given your background, would be the perfect choice for this discussion. It’s next Tuesday night. Care to go?”

Hell, yes. I’m probably the same age as the average student at the school, but I happen to actually be doing what they dream of doing. Not only am I in the industry, I’m closing in on the top of my game. I smile. “I’d be happy to.”

Langston leans back in his chair and rubs his jaw. “I figured. It’s always nice to be a success, eh?”

I share an easy laugh with him. He reads me well. “I’ve worked my ass off to get here, I work my ass off to stay here -”

My executive producer interrupts, “And you’ll work your ass off to leave here one day. Being a talking head is a good way to up the resume, that’s for sure. Professor Lowes is hosting the forum, here’s her number.” He hands me a piece of paper with the information written on it. “Enjoy yourself.”

“Thanks, boss.”

* * *

“Yeah, I like these. It’s more fluid. The pacing is better.” I turn the page to see what other changes have been made in the script.

“Just seemed to make sense to put Kendra’s new piece before Bruce’s. They sort of compliment each other.” Tom Anderson, a freshman producer, leans on a desk.

“Don’t let Kendra hear you say that,” I joke with the young producer. He laughs with me for a moment then stops suddenly, looking over my shoulder.

I turn to find Bruce. It’s all I can do to stifle a groan. He has been nothing but a pain in my ass since I took the desk. “Hiya, Kels.”

“Bruce.” I look to Tom and roll my eyes. He quickly bites back a grin.

“So, Kels,” Bruce moves forward, “you gonna make me look good this week?”

“Well, Bruce.” I turn, giving him my most insincere smile. “Someone has to.”

“Oh, Kelsey, I’m wounded.” His sarcasm is running at full stream today.

“I hope it’s a head wound.” I can be sarcastic too.

“You should save your claws for those who deserve it.”

I take a deep breath. “Meaning what, Bruce?” If I sound tired of him, it’s because I am.

“Have you met Lawson?” He looks like the cat that swallowed the canary. I hope he chokes on the bones.

“Yes. Harper brought her to my office first thing, since I am the anchor of the show and all.”

“She’s got eyes for…”

“For anyone she thinks can advance her career. You play your cards right and she might do you. She looks like she might be dumb enough to fall for your horse shit.”

“If she doesn’t find a producer who’s willing to do her first.” He adjusts his tie.

It’s such a nice tie too. Why a person could almost reach out and choke him with it. “I doubt Jac could stay sober long enough to take care of business. And if you’re even thinking of implying that Harper is interested in her, I’ll warn you now, shut the fuck up or I’ll make your life miserable. How’d you like to cover the National Spelling Bee for the rest of your career? Or maybe the garbage barges on the East River? You’re certainly accustomed to being surrounded by trash. I’ve seen the women you date.”

He smirks at me.

Don’t do that Bruce. I don’t like it when you do that. “I mean it, Bruce. Don’t even think of trying to cause trouble for Harper, because, if you do, I’ll cut you into little pieces myself. You see, I’ve been in the business a long time. I’m rich, I’m powerful and I’ll make sure they never find your body. My father was the last person to see Jimmy Hoffa alive.”

“Bite me, bitch.”

“Not even with someone else’s teeth, Bruce. Now make a life choice and blow.”

God, Brian will never forgive me if Bruce decides to go there.

* * *

Harper gives me a huge grin when I stuff the fifty into the cuss jar in the kitchen. I do so while still cussing and pouring a glass of juice.

“Who set you off?” she snickers.

I turn to glare at her. “Your favorite correspondent.”

“How did he become mine? And what did Bruce do now?”

“He was being his usual stupid self. I offered to send him to the bottom of the Hudson via concrete loafers if he keeps running his mouth.”

“You know people who can do that?” I notice she has a certain gleam in her eye.

“Sure.” I take my juice and head for the living room. She grabs something to drink and follows me. “You mean you don’t? You’re falling down on the job, Tabloid.”

“Well, excuse me. I prefer to go for the slow kill.”

We settle on the couch. I kick off my shoes and put my feet up on the coffee table. “Me. I prefer instant gratification.” I glance over at her. “Speaking of which, tell me something sexual you’ve never tried.”

I wonder if cran-raspberry juice stings when it comes out your nose? She coughs and chokes a bit before looking at me. “What bought that up?”

“I want to know. So I asked. Well?”

“I’ve never slept with a man.”

“You didn’t miss much.”

“Really?” She leans forward, interested. “Tell me about it.”

I look over and decide she’s sincere. “Okay, you know how you and I never fail at our ultimate goal?”

Ooo, there’s that arrogant chuckle. “Oh yeah”

“Sometimes men only have one goal in mind and it’s not generally their female partners. When that happens, you are then forced to ‘fake it’. I hate faking it.”

“Chér, you’ll never fake it with me. I guarantee it.”

“Oh, I know, Stud. You’ve proven yourself. Time and time again.” I sip my juice. “But the one thing I found, with Ben at least, was that his ego got all hurt if he didn’t think he was wonderful every time. I got tired of it. I’m sure all men aren’t that way, but there was something else missing, a tenderness and a caring.”

With that, she leans over and places a very tender kiss to my lips.

“Yup, that’s what I’m talking about,” I tease a bit, taking her hand. “So, you didn’t answer my question.”

“Yes, I did. I haven’t slept with a man. Or a sheep. Just FYI.”

I laugh. “Glad to hear it. Okay, livestock aside, what else haven’t you done?”
.
“You know I don’t do bondage. But, if you’re asking what I haven’t done, that I would do … well …”

“Yes?” Oh, I can’t wait to hear this. She’s blushing.

“Well … you know … it’s kinda silly.”

“Come on, Harper, I never thought of you as the shy type. How can you be shy with me? I know every part of your body, several of which I’ve left teeth marks on.”

“All of which, I think,” Harper corrects. “But role playing … I’ve never done that with anyone.”

Well, now, that’s interesting. “Why not?”

“I guess because I was already playacting with them. It seemed redundant. And it would have involved trust. I never trusted any of the women I slept with, until you.”

I nod. It’s true. It does involve total trust to do that. “You trust me? Totally trust me?”

“Why do I feel like I’m being set up?” she’s joking with me, I can tell. “I trust you with my life, Kels. And my heart.”

I reach over and run my hand under her shirt, making sure to graze all the interesting locales in the process. “And your body?” I get a feeling if her body could answer for her I know what the answer would be.

She groans, closing her eyes and not asking me to move my hand. “God, yes.”

“Good. I’ll keep that in mind.” I take my hand back and grab the remote. “So, Tabloid, what do you want to do tonight? Since we’re not having sex for the next eight to ten weeks, we’re going to have to find something else to do with our free time.”

“Screw Parcheesi. And you are an evil woman.” She looks up at me hopefully. “So, you think we’re safe for tonight?”

“Oh, I’m sure of it. You’re the one who said you didn’t want to take any chances after what Kevin said.” I sip my juice and take a very dramatic deep breath, releasing it slowly. “It was your choice, but I can respect that.”

Her eyes narrow in on me. “Don’t start what you don’t intend to finish.”

“I didn’t start anything. I merely asked you a question.”

“You must certainly did start something. And – seriously, if you think everything is all right – you know what I want to do tonight.”

“Oh, I did not,” I tease. “And everything is fine, but you’re not getting any tonight.” I give her an evil grin.

“Oh, really? That’s unfortunate for you then.”

I laugh a little. “I’m willing to risk it. Besides, I have a plan and I need time to make it work.”

She leans over and whispers something in my ear, then proceeds to give it a nibble.

I chuckle and remove my ear from her mouth. I have great willpower when I need it. Luckily I don’t need it for very long or very often. “Nope, Tabloid, forget it.”

She grumbles a bit, but can tell I’m quite serious. “All right, then how about a video and cuddling on the couch?

“Cuddling we can do.”

And you just wait until tomorrow, Tabloid. If you were gonna have socks on, they’d get blown off.

* * *

I stand, looking at myself in the mirror. I feel totally ridiculous, but the outfit is, shall we say, intriguing. I look like someone out of an old Errol Flynn movie. It’s a pirate kinda look. As I give the thigh high black boots another tug, I’m not sure I want to know where in the hell Kels got this costume or exactly what she has planned for it.

Wait, I take that back. I don’t want to know where she got it. I do want to know what she has planned for it. And me.

I was sent out of the house very early this morning and told to amuse myself with a couple of pick up games in the park. Things that sound dirty but aren’t. Well, at least, not anymore. I knew she was talking about basketball.

When I got home, curtains had blocked off the living room entryway, and I was given orders not to go in there. I was handed then this box and told to go shower and change.

This is almost scary. Almost.

Brian has even taken Kam and gone to Doug’s, so there will be no interruptions. I have a feeling my lovely wife intends to do evil things to me.

God, I hope so.

It’s funny really. Before Kels, I had sex because I enjoyed it. A lot. It’s fun, there’s no denying that fact. With Kels, though, I want more. And I’m never disappointed. I think it’s because I know Kels wants and expects more from me than the women I slept with before. She expects me to be there in the morning when she wakes up. She expects me to be there in fifty years. No one else ever expected me to stay past catching my breath. And I very rarely ever did.

Even now as I adjust the wide black belt that cuts across my midsection, separating the very tight, crème colored pants and white silk pirate’s shirt, I know that no matter what kind of little game she has prepared for us tonight, I’ll be here in the morning and everyday for the rest of my life. It’s a nice feeling. She wants me for more than the physical pleasure I bring her. I’m definitely a lucky woman considering everything that has happened. A lot of women like Kels never would have taken a chance on someone like me.

I was given explicit instructions about what not to wear under the costume and I wonder if I should tighten the ties in the front that hold the shirt somewhat closed. No, I think that would be a bad move. I think Kels wants it open just the way it is. The shirt is pretty much split to my navel, with the ties holding it closed enough to be enticing.

What am I saying? Enticing? This outfit, when you get right down to it, is almost pornographic. It’s the kind of outfit you wear when you know you’re gonna get laid.

Thank you, God!

Okay, so now the finishing touches. The single earring. Guess you can’t be a good pirate without that. A black leather tie for my hair, allowing it to flow freely down my back. And, of course, black leather gloves with attached gauntlets that go to my elbows. Boy, Kels, you do know how to put a look together. You’ve done this before.

Don’t go there, Harper. It’ll make you nuts.

I am a mature adult. And I won, I won, I won.

I think I’m ready. Wonder when I’ll be summoned? Maybe I should go have a look for myself? Kels said I couldn’t go in the living room, she didn’t say I couldn’t come out of the bedroom.

As I step out into the hallway, part of me feels really silly and part of me feels really turned on. Turned on beats out silly every day in my world.

Yeah, okay, so there was no rule about walking very slowly past the living room and trying to figure out what is going on behind the curtain.

“You can come in.”

How can four words cause chills to run up and down my spine? My hand slowly travels the curtains until my fingers find a slit in the fabric and I step forward.

Our living room has been transformed. It looks like a pirate hideout. Oil lamps and candles give it a soft orange glow and the fireplace provides a majority of the light. I look for a chest with gold spilling out and the parrot. Fortunately, the bird isn’t here.

In front of the fireplace is a bed made on the floor from thick blankets and large fluffy pillows. Trays of food are lined up next to it on one side.

I know I have a huge, silly grin on my face as I tuck my thumbs in the belt and take it all in. Right in the center of the bed on the floor is Kels, wearing barely more than a smile.

Listening carefully, I can hear what must be a sound effects CD playing very softly in the background. I can hear the very understated sounds of gulls, the crash of the surf and breezes blowing through trees. It’s the sound of a tranquil tropical beach.

If I close my eyes, I can almost feel the breeze coming in through the window. Now I can smell the incense Kels has lit. It causes another shiver to run down my spine so hard I have to physically shake it off.

I continue to listen, because now I can also hear what sounds like a tribal drum and chanting in the distance. These sounds are a little lower than those of the surf, indicating that our hideout must be some distance from whatever small village we’re near.

My, my, my Kels, but you are imaginative.

She’s managed to bring all my senses alive. My skin is ready to crawl right off my body and run right over there so she’ll play with it. I open my eyes. I may as well take the rest of me over there so it can have a good time too.

“Kels…” I say softly, not wanting to spoil the mood.

She sits up a bit, shifts her head to the side slightly and with the most sincere look I’ve ever seen, says, “Who?”

Oh, I get it now. She has said five words, has barely made eye contact with me, and hasn’t touched me once, and I’m so horny I can barely think.

I take a couple of steps closer and Kels rises to her knees, bowing her head, then raises it enough to give me a rather coy smile and wink. “Mistress…”

Oh yeah the second she lays a hand on me I’m gonna simply combust. Phoof! Into a little ball of flame.

Suddenly, my mouth is very dry. She must see me struggling because she reaches over and hands me a silver goblet full of wine. I swear she thinks of everything. I notice that her hands are very loosely bound together with a red ribbon. I do what any good pirate would do and hook the pinkie of my free hand through it and tug her toward me. “What’s this?”

“The ties you must remove if you wish to free me, Mistress.”

“And if I don’t?”

“I think I would serve you better if I were free.”

She moves slightly and runs her body and her hands up and down my leg, her hand grazing the inside of my thigh. She stays there, letting me come to my own conclusion. This is most definitely better than any drug I ever tried.

I reach down and pull the ribbon, letting it fall to the floor. One hand remains tucked between my legs and the other one travels up to my ass and gives it a scratch before traveling around to the front and the buckle of my belt.

“May I, Mistress?”

“Please do.” I brush my hand through her hair, sip my wine and watch her remove the belt very slowly.

She’s trying to kill me.

Wait until she finds out my life insurance won’t pay off if I’m found with a huge smile on my face and most of a pirate costume spread around my body.

I watch as she drops the belt away. Then she takes my hand and tugs me down onto the bedding with her.

“You must be hungry.” She offers me a strawberry before I can even answer.

Never breaking eye contact with her, I take it and her fingertips into my mouth. I see the shiver. She slowly withdraws her fingers and offers me another berry.

After eating it, I place my hand gently on her neck and pull her to me for a kiss. I’m assuming this is all right in the game we’re playing. She seems to have given me the role of the master here.

Good thing we both really know who is in control here. And she’s damn good at it.

The kiss is slow and deep and one of the most erotic experiences I have ever had. She’s not the least bit resistant even as I become more demanding and insistent. She only follows me. This causes my desire to rush further, faster and hotter through my body. She moans into our kiss and joins me in the intensity of it.

Her hands slide up and down the front of my shirt. One stops on the fabric right over the hardened nipple which has been begging for her attention for the last ten minutes. The other begins scratching the flesh which is available to her through the ties.

I finally have to break for air. Does she know how to breathe through her ears? My head drops back and I gasp for air. “God…”

“How,” she slowly begins nibbling my neck even as she continues her massage of my torso, “may I serve you, Mistress?”

Other than ripping this outfit off my body and having your way with me? “Un… I’m… I’m…” I’m having a hard time talking and breathing at the same time apparently. “Boots,” I manage to stammer.

She smiles, placing a tender kiss on my lips before moving to get me out of the boots. It takes her less time to get them off me than it took me to get them on. Her hands are hot even through the fabric of the pants I’m wearing.

Her nails scratch back up my legs, then land on my thighs. She begins a massage, slowly up and down. “You’re pleased?”

“Oh very.” I nod slowly, watching the light of the fireplace dance off her skin.

“Perhaps a massage?” she suggests even as she reaches for a bottle of oil. I watch as she pours it in a small bowl, pushing it next to the fire so it will warm up before she applies it to my skin. She then turns back to me. “Of course, we’ll have to get you out of these clothes.”

I swallow hard. “Of course.” I start to undo the button on the pants but she pushes my hands away.

“My job, Mistress.”

She actually chuckles when the long, deep groan leaves my chest and I simply drop back to the pillows. If I watch her do this, I’ll die. I know I will.

She tugs each button loose, letting her hand slip between the fabric and my skin with each one. She caresses my hip, moving slowly from one side to the other. I feel her fingers move very close to the point of no return.

Keep it up, chér, and we’re going to forget about the massage.

I try to keep my hips on the floor and I fail. Like the horny beast I am, if I don’t get satisfaction soon I’m going to scream.

She takes hold of the pants, pulls them down, and then tosses them away. I’ve noticed she seems to get turned on with me dressed from the waist up. It’s an odd little quirk, but, hey, if it works for her, who am I to argue?

My body is conspiring against me and I’m surprised and shocked when I feel my hand on the top of her head, guiding her to the place I need her most. Generally, I try not to be this demanding, but tonight is different. She has given me permission to go there and go there I will.

“Oh yeah…” I gasp when she takes my gentle request to heart and begins a slow exploration between my legs with her mouth.

First, I feel the softness of her lips on the inside of my thighs. Then teeth and lips nip tenderly at my skin.

I want, no retract that, I need to be naked. I pull the shirt off over my head and it flies across the room. While trying to concentrate and catch my breath, I catch a glance of her and it’s game over. Once again, I am simply a mass of quivering flesh.

I wonder if I sound as helpless as I feel, when I come crashing down from where she takes me. I know she’s always right there to cool and comfort me and this time is no different. Soon I’m wrapped in her arms, with her kissing my brow and the top of my head. She is whispering to me, most of which I can barely hear. One thing always come through loud and clear though and this time is no different.

“Love you,” she whispers.

I can’t reply, but she knows why and understands. That’s the best part of her love for me.

She understands.
Episode Nine: Stuck on the Way to the Top
“Kingsley,” I grumble into the phone. I don’t even bother to pick up the receiver. I need both my hands to finish looking at these tapes. I’m gonna kill Bruce. I swear he’s screwing up just to make me crazy.

“And how is my favorite daughter-in-law today?”

My head swings around and I stare at the phone. “Matt?”

“You have more than one father-in-law?”

“Umm … no …” But I also didn’t have one that referred to me as a daughter-in-law until now either. “What’s up?”

“My blood pressure. Guess who just left my office?”

I can feel the chill from here. I shiver. “The Ice Queen?”

“In all her frosty glory. The good news is I have in my hands the negatives for the pictures. Well, I hope they’re the pictures. I ah…had my secretary take a quick look to confirm they were pictures of Kels. I really need you to confirm that they’re ‘the’ pictures of Kels. I’d rather not look at them. There are some things a father would rather not know about his daughter.”

I have to laugh. “I’m sure I’ll find that out in a few years.”

“Oh, yeah. So can you and Kels come out to the house for the weekend? Amanda and Claire would love to see you. Claire is crawling around now and she’s keeping us hopping. You could come hop with us. It’ll be good practice for you. We’ll even get in a round or two of golf. You owe me a chance to get even.”

Hmm, I’ll bet Kels wouldn’t mind a nice weekend in the Hamptons. “I’ll have to ask the wife, but as far as I’m concerned we’ll be there.”

“Great.”

“Matt, how much do I owe you for the negatives?”

“That’s the funny part of it. They didn’t cost me near as much as I figured. Seems she’s desperate for cash. You wouldn’t by any chance know how it happened that her bank accounts are frozen, would you?”

“Who me?” I can play innocent when I want to. “I’m a news producer. You’re the banker with low friends in high places, remember?”

“Right.” He clears his throat a bit. “Well, whoever is responsible has really put her panties in a bunch.”

“Oh, thanks so much for that mental image.”

“How are my daughter and grandkids?”

“Your grandkids are great. Your daughter is a cranky, moody woman who craves really odd food at the worst possible times of the night. But I love her and wouldn’t trade her for the world.”

* * *

It’s time to come clean with Kels about my campaign of terror against her mother. Especially given Matt’s call today. I will admit to not just a little glee upon hearing that her bank accounts were mysteriously frozen. A quick call to Hayward confirmed that he was the man behind that inconvenience. Of course, in a day or two, it will be all cleared up for her. But, until then, she had to degrade herself and ask Matt for help. I bet my father-in-law enjoyed giving her a reaming when she came begging for dollars.

I find Kels working on the script for the upcoming broadcast. “Got a few minutes?”

She kooks up at me and smiles in what I can only describe as complete adoration. My knees feel a bit weak in her presence. My God, I never knew this is what love could do to someone. “For you? Always.”

With that invitation, I enter, close the door behind me and beckon her to the couch. We snuggle, as per our usual policy on couches. My hand slides under her blouse and onto her stomach. I feel Collin or Brennan give me a high five in welcome. “I have somewhat of a confession to make.”

I am heartened when this does not provoke any type of response other than a contented hum. “What?” she finally asks.

“Your mother visited the station last week. The same day we received those lovely photos of you.” I stroke Kels’ arm lightly, idly playing with the downy hair that covers her forearm. “Seems she’s the source behind them. I don’t know how she got hold of them, Bear is looking into that for us, but she has them.”

“My mother? Guess there goes her attendance at the mother-daughter broadcasters’ luncheon.”

I laugh at the absurdity of that notion. One day, when I’m doing my philanthropic work, I’m going to donate an animal to the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans in Mother Stanton’s name. I just need to figure out what species eat their young. “This is probably a good thing. In fact, I’m betting she won’t want to attend with you.”

“Really? Why?” Kels leans back in my arms and studies me. “Is this where the confession part comes in?”

I nod. “Yup. You know how your hormones have been a tad out of control lately?” I am being gracious in that assessment, and I think my girl knows that. She nods meekly, her green eyes conveying a bit of mirth. “Well, mine seem to have been off the chart, as well. As I know you’ve noticed. I seem to be a big, walking and talking attitude, intent on protecting you and the children at all costs at all times. In fact, Bruce is damn lucky to still be breathing oxygen on his own.”

Kels snorts. “This is true. But back to the subject at hand.”

“So, after your mother paid me a little visit, I decided that it was best to fight fire with fire.”

“Oh no.” She shakes her head ruefully. “What have you done?”

“Let’s just say that the next time Mother Stanton returns from a trip to Europe, I can pretty much guarantee her being strip searched.”

Kels explodes with laughter. She is gasping for breath, doubled over, holding her stomach. For a moment, I am concerned as I see tears stream down her cheeks. However, her expression of utter delight keeps me from calling the paramedics. “Oh my God!” she finally manages. “Tell me you’re kidding?”

“Nope. It seems her name has found its way onto a list of suspected smugglers.”

“Drugs?”

I smile. “Nah, nothing so bad. Just plants and exotic animals. Still have to search her though. You know they found a guy in customs just last week who had ten reptiles in his shorts. Literally.”

“People are completely nuts.”

“This is true and it keeps our job security.”

Kels rubs her belly, I assume to calm down the twins after her last outburst. “What else did you do to her?”

Oh, I like that out. What did I do? Not much. Between Gerrard, Matt, Hayward and I, though, we’re making Mother Stanton’s life a slow trip to hell. “It seems her properties are listed as for sale. And she’s ‘desperately seeking Susan’ in the Village Voice personals.”

“You did not!”

“Single White Older Female seeks Younger White Female for a fling, possibly more. Do you like fine dining, opera and the museums? Are you wanting someone who knows how to be discreet but treat her woman well? If so, call me.”

“You gave her home number?”

“Nah, her business number. I thought her assistant might enjoy hearing some of the responses as well.”

“What else?”

“That isn’t enough?”

Kels leans up and kisses my jaw. “Tabloid, I know you. You never do anything halfway. I’m guessing that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Am I right?”

My girl knows me, that’s for damn sure. “How much do you want to know?”

She closes her eyes. “That answered the question.”

“Let’s simply say that if your mother is the Titanic, I’m the piece of ice that’s gonna bring her down.”

“Why, Harper? I mean, she’s the alpha bitch of the universe but why take time out of your life to make hers miserable?”

She deserves to know, I suppose. Deserves the truth more than a convenient or considerate lie. Deserves to know the type of woman who dares to call herself family to my girl. “She stepped way over the line with me, Kels. During her little visit to me, she told me to take the twins and leave you.”

There is stunned, pained silence. I imagine Kels’ question regarding my response.

“I told her to go fuck herself. I also told her that every day I pray that you never leave me. And that I bless the day you came into my life. If I have one dream come true in my lifetime, I am so grateful it’s you, Kelsey Diane.” I kiss her hair and hold her close to my heart.

* * *

“Welcome to the Columbia University School of Journalism. I am Professor Sharon Lowes, Bernstein Professor of Applied Journalism. Tonight we have a very distinguished panel here to discuss with us Sensationalism in Journalism and Violence in the U.S. From my right, our panel members are: Benjamin Kaplan, metropolitan editor for the New York Times; Duncan Weiss, senior producer of the television newsmagazine True TV; Harper Kingsley, senior producer of the newsmagazine Exposure; and Carolyn Roberts, chief correspondent for the media watchdog FAIR.

“The old adage in television news is: if it bleeds, it leads. It is estimated that nearly fifty percent of all events portrayed on news broadcasts, both local and national, are ones of violence. Nearly seventy-five percent of all Americans use the television as their primary source of news. This means the average American is fed a continual diet of depictions of murder, rape, assault and other violent behavior.

“Numerous studies have shown the casual relationship between watching violent content on television and behaving in an aggressive manner afterwards. This is especially true of teenagers. A report released less than a month ago by the FTC shows that, despite the fact they are underage to watch R rated movies and to purchase M rated videogames, eighty-five percent of all marketing of such products is directed precisely at the under eighteen population.

“Other studies have shown that the single most significant factor in decreasing the likelihood that teenagers will use violence as the first choice in problem solving is the input of their parents. Yet, we are a nation whose children are being raised by the television.

“Further complicating this landscape is the fact that there are no ethical guidelines in place for the depiction of violence in news programs. We routinely show children being gunned down in their schools, families being held hostage in their homes, and police beatings in the local neighborhoods.

“So, let me ask our distinguished panel, when we look for the suspects in the next school shooting, should we simply be looking in the mirror?”

Note to self: the twins don’t get to watch television until they go to college. Until then, Disney movies are the worst things they get to watch. Even thought I read that the house that Mickey built shows drinking, smoking and carousing in their movies. Oh well.

Duncan Weiss, of my old show, leans toward his microphone. “I think before we even begin to condemn the news agencies for depicting life as it really is, we should be looking to Hollywood and their depiction of violence as a form of entertainment. We present reality; they create it. I think we are in far less a position of having inculcated this behavior than the major studios.”

“But,” I interject, “is what we are showing the way things really are? FBI statistics indicate that violent crime is, in fact, down in almost all major metropolitan areas. Yet, what leads the six p.m. news broadcast? It’s not that New York is such a safe city to live in. Though Rudy would like for it to be.”

“Well, of course not,” Duncan replies. “The news is to inform. People know that things are better. What they don’t know is that their neighbor was gunned down earlier this morning.”

Carolyn Roberts of FAIR snorts. “I don’t know if that’s quite true. I think if you asked the average person after watching the six o’clock news, or one of the weekly newsmagazines, that you would hear a much higher degree of pessimism than you would expect for a country that is enjoying record peace and prosperity.”

“Of course,” Benjamin Kaplan of the New York Times counters, “others would argue that this depiction of violence and its aftermath is cathartic and it actually keeps people from doing the same. That people watch the news for a release and an affirmation that they themselves are not as bad as their neighbors.”

“I think there needs to be some intellectual honesty about what is fueling the phenomenon. Like it or not, the news is a business. And, like all businesses, we are expected to return a profit for the investment our networks make in us. That’s commercial revenues. The more sensational the program, the higher the fee we can charge for them. It’s that simple,” I say, knowing this will not necessarily make me popular on the panel.

Professor Lowes nods. “It’s that simple, but is it that ethical?”

I smile. “I don’t think it’s wrong to engage in business for a profit. However, I believe there are steps that we as an industry can take to minimize the impact of the violence we do show. The first is that we should do a bit more moralizing about the violence than we do. We shouldn’t be quite so objective in our reporting. Our horror, our revulsion, our indignation at these events should be clearly portrayed. Yes, it takes away from the neutrality of the news, but it safeguards our humanity.”

“Was this your position while working on True TV?” Duncan asks, wanting to get a dig in at me.

“Hardly, Duncan, you know that. We worked together. However, life changes everyone. I am about to become a parent for the first time, and I can tell you that has significantly altered my worldview.”

Carolyn Roberts, seated beside me, examines my stomach. “You look awful good for a pregnant woman.”

“I’m adopting.” Wow, that’s the best explanation I could ever think of. I gotta remember to use that one more often.

“Congratulations,” she replies.

“Thanks. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

* * *

I think I might like living in New York in the fall. This is a beautiful season. Up here on our balcony, overlooking Central Park, my girl in my arms and there’s not much that I lack. Nina Simone is singing in the background ‘The Folks Who Live On The Hill’ and we are snuggling in our hammock. Even though it’s suspended between two poles, instead of two trees, it is still wonderful. I have pushed Kels blouse up to reveal her tummy and I am playing with a penlight over her skin.

Wherever I shine the light, one of the two twins gives a kick or a jab. I watch little fists and feet stretch the skin of her belly. It’s like playing tag with them. How fun is this?

I shine it on the left side and one of them gives me a high five. I go to the lower right and the other says hello. I blink it twice and get two jabs.

“Enough,” I am warned.

I flick the light again.

“Harper.”

“Hmm?” Flick.

“Do you really want to have me light up one of your extremities?”

I smile rakishly. “Darlin’, you light up my extremities all the time.”

Kels laughs and very carefully takes my penlight from me. “It’s a good thing I love you, Tabloid.”

I steal a kiss and then kiss the twins. “I know. I’m the best thing that ever happened to you, chér.”

I am rewarded with the light being shined directly in my eyes. “That may be but if you keep annoying me with this … you’ll be able to turn it on and off in ways you never imagined.”

“I do have many talents,” is my smug reply. I love playing with Kels.

“You better hope fantastic muscle control is among them if I have to take this away from you again.” When Kels is teasing me, the corners of her eyes crinkle in the cutest fashion.

I reach for the penlight, stretching over her stomach, feeling a kick for my effort. “Does that mean I’m getting it back?”

“Do you promise to behave and let them go to sleep now?” Mommy Kelsey reporting for duty.

“Five more minutes?” I bargain. She should get used to this type of pleading early. In a few years, we’re gonna be double teamed.

“Harper,” she explains patiently, “for me there is no such thing as five more minutes. God knows, I love the three of you more than my own life, but if you don’t behave and let them settle down now, I’m going to ground you until you’re thirty-five. Now, be nice to your wife and put the toy away.”

“You wanna play with other toys?” I have to ask. I have a reputation to maintain.

Kels pauses and a slow, sexy smile emerges. “Only if I get to use them on you.”

“Sure you know how? Or do I need to show you first?” I am, of course, teasing. My girl knows her way around the bedroom. And the living room. And dining room. And bathroom. And balcony. And …

“Oh, trust me, Tabloid, I know how.”

I carefully climb out of the hammock and then help my wife up. We share a slow kiss, full of promise. “All right, but
remember … you have to share.”

* * *

Harper is going to absolutely flip out.

I reach out and open the door to the emergency phone, glancing over my shoulder at Frankie who is going to hit the floor any second. It’s going to be a long day.

“Hello?” Great, the phone is dead. It’s going to be a very long day.

It’s not that I haven’t been stuck in an elevator before. I have. Just not while I was seven months pregnant, with a young man who’s going to hyperventilate at any given moment.

Still, I’d rather be here than anywhere near Harper when they tell her. Fortunately, Kendra is out of town on assignment. She’ll just get to hear about it later.

“Frankie?”

“Yes… Ms. Stanton… eh… Mrs. Kings… eh …” he stammers, looking at everything but me.

“Kelsey, just call me Kelsey.” I sigh. “Look, we could be here awhile so you need to relax. Can you do that?”

“Sure.” He nods, but I don’t believe him for a second.

“Franki… umm, can I call you Frank?” Let’s make the kid feel like an adult. That will probably help things along quite a bit.

He finally gives me something that sort of looks like a smile. “Yeah, sure. I’d like that.”

“Okay. Frank, this really isn’t a big deal, as long as we don’t panic. We need to stay calm. They’ll get us out. It may take awhile, but they’ll get us out.” Let’s hope Harper doesn’t kill everyone before they get the chance. I reach over and hit the emergency button. Hopefully it’s working. “Well, Frank, we may as well get comfortable. It could be a while. Could you give me a hand here?”

He looks at me for a moment, like he’s afraid to touch me when I hold my hand out to him.

“I want to sit down. I need a hand,” I explain.

“Oh, yeah! Sure.” He takes my arm and helps me to the floor of the elevator. “Sorry.”

“No problem.” I pat the floor. “Join me.”

He strips off his jacket and sits down next to me but not too close. He hands me his jacket. “For your back. I know my Mom was awful uncomfortable when she was pregnant with my sister.”

I tuck his jacket behind me. That is better. “Thanks, Frank. How many brothers and sisters do you have?”

“Just a younger sister. She’s six now.”

“If she looks like you, I’ll bet she’s cute as a bug.”

He blushes and looks at his shoes. Just as I’m about to try and make his life a little more uncomfortable I hear her.

“Kels!”

I’d recognize that pounding anywhere.

* * *

I am walking into the editing bay when I hear Brian’s familiar pitter patter. It’s terrifying that I can now identify him by his step. I pause and wait for him to call to me. Who else could he be visiting? I turn, fold my arms across my chest and give him an intimidating look. “What?”

“Uh …”

I shake my head. I didn’t mean to scare him that much. He’s gotta learn to lighten up since he’s … living … Oh God … with us. “What, Brian?”

“Everything’s fine,” he says, holding his hands up.

That’s not good. “What do you mean by that?” I bark, taking a step forward.

He stumbles backward. “Jeez! I said everything was fine! At least, for the moment.” Brian looks around for support. He finds none. “There’s been a little complication.”

Complication? The twins! I toss the tapes on a file cabinet and begin running for Kels’ office.

“She’s not there!” Brian calls after me.

The hospital. Oh my God. I head for the elevator bay. I find Langston standing there talking to one of the building’s superintendents. Before I can push the down button, Langston puts his hand on my arm.

“We’ll get her out of there soon,” he assures me. My puzzled look must be plain. “Kelsey and Frankie are stuck in Elevator 4.”

Brian slides to a stop behind me. “You are in good shape.” He bends over at the waist and blows out several deep breaths. “Do you run every day?”

I give Brian a look that conveys more than annoyance. “What’s happening?”

The super shrugs. “We’ve been having some problems with number four. It seems to be stuck between floors. We have someone from SafeT Elevators coming to help us get it moving again.”

“My wife is pregnant,” I blurt out, forgetting that not everyone in the building knows about our relationship. The super gives me a look indicating he is a bit shocked I have a wife. “With twins. I need her out of there. Immediately.”

“I understand. She’s perfectly safe right now. It shouldn’t be much longer.”

I refrain from rolling my eyes and banging my head against the wall. “Can I talk to her? Don’t all the elevators have phones in them?”

Brian cringes. “Theirs isn’t working, apparently.”

“It seems that nothing is working,” I growl, stepping toward the super.

Langston reels me back in. “Kingsley, she’s fine. Let’s not add to the stress level here.”

I pull my cell phone off my belt and punch in the speed dial for Kels’ phone.

Brian holds up the ringing phone. “She didn’t have it with her, Harper. She was just going between floors for a minute.”

“Next time,” I poke Brian in the chest, “you hang it around her neck if you have to.”

“It’s hard to plan for situations like this. It is a unique circumstance.” Our nanny protests. He better not try some lame ass excuse like this about something with the kids.

I glare at him.

“Next time, I promise.” He crosses his heart with his index finger.

“Can we get the phone to her?” I ask the super.

He shakes his head and sighs. “Damn movies. I mean, all of them show a trap door at the top of the elevator and how easy it is to climb in and out of them. Reality doesn’t work that way. It’s a side panel. It take at least an hour for us to pop it from another elevator and we do that only as a last resort. After the SafeT guys come, if they can’t get it working, we’ll call in the fire department.”

“Let’s cut to the chase and call the fire department right now.”

Langston shakes his head. “Harper, we play by the rules unless we have reason to believe Kelsey is in any danger.”

“How do we know that if we can’t speak to her?” I pronounce each word very carefully as if speaking to a child.

“Actually, down on eight, if you call out, they can hear you there. Seems they’re stuck between seven and eight.”

“Why didn’t you say this before, Brian?” I take off for the stairwell. “Call me with news.”

I bolt down the five flights and count off the elevators. I stand in front of the one I think must be number four and I bang on the doors. “Kels!”

Muffled, through the metal and space and stress, I hear, “Harper?”

“Are you okay?” God, I wish I was in there instead.

“I’m fine,” she calls back. “Frank and I are just hanging out.”

“How are the twins?”

The answer comes in a tone I recognize as almost condescending despite the metal. “Well, since they could care less about the situation, they’re fine.” I have been duly chastised. Doesn’t make me feel any better whatsoever, though.

“Do you need anything?” I ask, out of force of habit.

“Let’s see … yeah, a catered lunch would be nice. Something from the Russian Tea Room, I think.” She pauses and I can hear Frankie laughing in the background. Just wait until I get my hands on him. “Come on, sweetheart, it’s not like you could actually get anything in here, but thanks for asking. Just try to find out how long it’s going to be, okay?”

Several people walking past me snicker. All right. I’ve made enough of an ass of myself, I suppose. My girl is okay. My kids are okay. Deep breath. Calming thoughts. I will have Robie sue SafeT Elevators for everything they’re worth. “Okay,” I call back. “Give me a few.”

“Well, Tabloid, I’ve got nothing else better to do at the moment but wait.”

My wife, the comedian. “Love you,” I call to Kels and then I call Brian. There better be some good news for me. That’s all I can say.

“Love you too. Just get me out of here.”

* * *

I look at my watch. It’s been about an hour and a half. An hour or so ago it started getting really warm in here. I notice I’m having a harder time breathing. I’m taking slow, easy breaths, as I don’t want to send poor Frank over the edge. He’s been doing a really good job of not panicking.

Harper isn’t helping. She’s been calling down every fifteen minutes or so and I don’t want to tell her I’m having problems here. Not only will that scare the hell out of Frank, but it’ll make the life miserable of anyone who has to deal with Harper. I feel the sweat trickle down my back and I glance over to my cell mate. The poor kid is simply melting. “We’re gonna be out soon.” I offer giving him a pat on the leg.

He nods. “Are you okay?”

“I’m as good as can be expected. Remind me to suggest they put a bathroom in these things.”

He laughs a little. “Ms. Kingsley’s gonna be real mad, isn’t she?”

“I’m betting yes. But not at you, this isn’t your fault.”

“Yeah, I’ve been sitting here thanking God for that.”

I have to laugh. My darling spouse’s reputation is firmly intact. Come on, get us out of here.

* * *

Mr. SafeT Elevator Man decides that he is unable to fix things. I could have told him that almost two hours ago. Finally, the NYFD, a.k.a. New York’s Bravest, are called.

It appears that they are stuck in traffic.

I am down in the lobby waiting, along with Langston who is trying to keep me calm. It’s not working. I can tell by Kels’ tone that she is not feeling great. All I can say is she’s going straight to Doogie’s when we get her out. No ifs, ands or buts.

When they do come in, the SafeT guy gives them the low down quickly. A few of them take off toward the stairwell, another to the room where the controls are located. SafeT comes over to give us the update. “It’ll be just a little while longer. They’re going to take elevator three out of commission and go up and get them out.”

“How long?”

“Half hour. Max.”

“This has been completely unacceptable,” I inform him. “If anything is wrong,” I don’t have to finish my threat.

Langston claps me on the shoulder. “Let’s wait over here, Kingsley.”

We do.

I call Doogie’s office and let them know we’ll be paying an unexpected visit this afternoon. I send Brian home to make sure the house is fine and stress free for when I take my girl home in a bit. Langston seems to understand I am taking the rest of the day off. Maybe tomorrow too.

My heart leaps when I see the elevator door open and one of the firemen steps out, calling for a stretcher. Behind him, I see Kels sitting on the floor of the elevator, resting against another fireman. Frankie steps out of the small space, taking deep breaths of air.

I rush in and kneel by my girl. Her hair is damp with sweat and she is breathing shallowly. “Hi, chér. How are you?”

Kels gives me a smile. “A little underdone. If you’d given me another half hour or so …”

I kiss her forehead. “I’ll check your pop up thermometer later then.” I place my hand on her belly. “The kids give you any trouble?”

“No, they were really good. Not a peep out of them. And you know how cranky kids can get in situations like this.”

I hear them bring a gurney in the building. “Not to mention senior producers.” I reach around and gently help her to her feet. “Come on, let’s go see Doogie. He’s been lonely today and asked if we could drop by.”

“Right.” Sarcasm full on. “I’m betting he was sitting in his office just hoping for another visit from us. I don’t know who’s going to be more relieved when Brennan and Collin come, me or Doogie.”

I lift her onto the gurney and step to the side, allowing the paramedic to get her settled. I don’t leave her side or release my hold on her hand, however. “Me. I will be the most relieved. The rest of you seem to enjoy scaring the hell out of me on a daily basis.”

“Someone has to keep you on your toes, Tabloid. We know what a slacker you can be.”

I laugh. “That’s me.”

“We’re ready to go,” the paramedic informs us.

Good. I want my family somewhere safe.

* * *

“Here drink this.” Doogie hands me a bottle of juice after my exam. I’m glad to accept. After my little ordeal today, I am craving liquids. I had to beg to keep him from doing an IV. Those hurt.

“Is everything okay, Doc?” Harper is practically towering over the both of us.

“Yes, Harper. As to be expected, Kels’ BP is up a bit and so is her temperature, but they’ve both come down steadily. She’s fine, but…”

“But what?” We both ask at the same time.

Doogie sighs. “I think it’s time for you to stay home, Kels. This could have been deadly. It’s time for you to stay home, rest and relax.”

“But…” I start to protest.

Before I can get out another word, Harper is next to me. “No argument, Kels. None.”

“Harper, I just took the desk…”

She puts up her hand and pulls out her cell phone. Pressing a button, she waits for a moment. Who in the hell is she calling?

“Hi, boss. Yeah, listen…”

She’s telling on me? She’s tattling back to the boss? I know my mouth is hanging open, but I can’t help it. I can’t believe she called Langston. She smirks and hands me the phone.

“Hello?”

“Kelsey, do what the doctor says and don’t argue. And don’t make me order security to keep you out of the building.”

I can’t win. I’m simply outnumbered. “All right.” I sigh and hand her phone back to her.

Then I remember the ice cream place that’s open twenty-four/seven about fifteen blocks from the house. I think I’ll be craving ice cream at three am for the next week or so.

* * *

I decide to go in to work today, despite wanting to stay home with my girl. I left Brian behind in my stead. Though I hardly consider that a fair trade off.

Last night, my Little Roo wouldn’t admit that her ordeal took a lot out of her, but I could tell it did. She only moved from the couch to the bedroom when prompted. The rest of the night she leaned against me, when I wasn’t being sent to the kitchen for more juice.

She’s definitely unhappy. This promotion to the desk is a big deal. To have to go off it so soon is not good. And I need to do something about that. An unhappy Little Roo means unhappy Baby Roos which means a very unhappy Harper.

I gotta fix this.

But, first, I have to deal with Bruce. He’s late with a piece and I get the pleasure of kicking his ass and getting him to work on it. I would give anything for Langston to not make me work with him. Kendra, Sam, I like them both a lot. I might even deal with working with Brenda, as long as we don’t have any overnight stays for awhile. Somehow I bet she picks locks on hotel bedrooms.

I grab the latest version of the piece and head over to Bruce’s office. God, I hope he’s not there. I can leave it on his desk, write a quick note of instructions and hopefully not interact with him. Can I do this the rest of my career here?

I knock on his office door and, not hearing a response, open it up.

And stop.

“Shit,” I mutter.

I may be struck blind because I see Bruce’s naked ass as it pumps up and down and … God help me … into Jac.

How drunk is she?

I mean, there’s not enough alcohol in the world for me … but, I suppose that was true to begin with.

“Fuck it! Kingsley!” Bruce screams.

I step back outside and shut the door. “Lock it next time!” I call back. It’s not that hard, buddy. I take off my glasses and for the first time wish I had remained blind after the little accident.

If I stop at St. Patrick’s tonight, will the new Cardinal sprinkle holy water on my eyes and purify them from this horrific sight?

I hustle down the hallway, anxious to be as far away from that scene as possible. Oh, Kels, is gonna enjoy this little bit of information tonight. And I don’t even want to think of Brian’s reaction. I might want to bring home ear plugs. The boy squeals like a stuck pig when he hears something particularly funny.

* * *

I stop on the way home for the essentials: a fresh bouquet of Freesia and a wonderful dinner prepared by Marco at Rino Trattoria. Kels and I discovered this little gem the other day at lunch. I practically had to drag Kels back to the office. Seems the twins have a huge pasta craving lately. Guess they’re not on the Atkin’s Diet.

So I am returning as the conquering hero tonight. My girl will be thrilled with me by the time I’m done.

What to share first?

* * *

Looking up from the computer screen, I reach out for the phone without looking at the caller ID. It’s probably Harper anyway. She hasn’t called in the last twenty minutes. She’s overdue.

“Hello?”

“Kelsey, it’s Rachel.”

“Hi ya, Sis.” God, I’m glad I resisted the urge to start the conversation with some remark about phone sex. “How are things?”

“Things are great here, Kels. That’s why I’m calling. I wanted to let you and Harper know, Luc and I are making application to adopt.”

“Rach, that’s great! I’m so excited for you.” I lean back in the chair, ready to relax and hear all about it. “What’s going on? Give me all the details.”

“You have time? I’m shocked to find you at home actually. I figured I’d leave a message.”

“Yeah, well,” I sigh a little, “that’s another story. Let’s just say I have all the time in the world.”

“Is everything all right? You and the babies…”

“We’re okay. We had a little incident and we got put on house arrest. I’ll tell you later, right now you tell me about the adoption.”

“Okay, well after the cruise things really got back on track for Luc and I. We started talking, and after that it was easy.” We share a laugh. “All right, all right as easy as communication with any Kingsley can be.”

“Thank you,” I tease. The one thing my sisters and I agree on is that sometimes the Kingsleys are plain hard headed.

“So, anyhow, we decided that there are lots of children out there who need a home and a family and we’ve got lots of love to give.”

“Oh, this is so cool. You guys are gonna be great parents. So what is the agency saying?”

“Well, we decided that we don’t have to have an infant. The agency said that since we don’t have any qualms about age or race or anything else for that matter, hopefully within a few weeks we should see some results. They showed us a file on two little boys, ages two and four, Luc just fell in love with their pictures.”

“What about you?”

“Oh, I think they’re wonderful. I was just surprised at the way Luc reacted. They’re all he talks about.”

“Any chance of you fostering them?”

“We’re checking into that too.”

“Rach, this is great. You’ve got to keep us updated.”

“We will. So now tell me about the ‘incident’.”

I groan. “Well, there was this elevator, you see.”

* * *

I step out of the elevator in our building, grateful that I did not suffer Kels’ fate of yesterday. Although, I would have been set. I have plenty of food and drink to last for days, months even. I can’t quite phrase it that way with Kels though. She’s a wee bit sensitive about how much she’s been choking down lately. Eating for three … hundred.

Somehow I manage to get the front door open and step inside, calling out for my girl. “Honey, I’m home.” God, I love saying that.

Kels appears at the end of the hallway. “So you are.” She comes over and tries to help with the sacks. I pull them out of her grasp.

“Uh huh. These,” I produce the flowers from the top and hand them to her with a flourish, “you can carry. Nothing else.”

She gives me a look and a kiss on the cheek. “Have a good day?” Before I can answer, she continues. “Want to hear about mine? Know how many tan tiles there are on the splash board on the bathroom sink. Tabloid? Plenty of time to count them now that I can’t leave the house.”

I ignore this little gripe as I continue on the kitchen. I put the bags down on the counter and then turn around to face my spouse. I get down on my knees and push up my football jersey which has become Kels’ top of choice lately. “Hi, Brennan. Hi, Collin. It’s Mama. I am so glad you two can’t talk back yet.” I kiss her belly and wait for the swat to my head.

There it is.

“I have news from home.”

I glance up and wait for it to be shared. “Yeah? Tell me about it, chér. Did you little boyfriend call and flirt with you?” I still can’t believe she loved Christian before she loved me.

“Oh, nothing that good.” She tugs me to my feet and I oblige. “No, Rachel called today.” Kels takes a couple plates down from the cabinet. “She and Luc are trying to adopt.”

“A dog or a kid?”

“Children, Tabloid.”

“As in more than one?” I am impressed. Seems like Luc might be getting his act together. At long last. “That’s wonderful.”

“They don’t know for sure, but, apparently, there are two little boys they’re both crazy over. You’re going to be an aunt again. Rach is so excited.”

I laugh. “Just what our family needs – more boys. Poor little Brennan … how will she ever survive surrounded by so many of them?”

Kels gives me a fond look. “You somehow managed all right. We’ll just teach her to take no guff.”

I kiss Kels’ nose. “Like her Mommy.” I carry the plates over to the dining table. “Wanna hear my news? Though it might cause you to lose your appetite.” I mock shiver.

“My mother is pregnant again?”

The comment is so unexpected, I howl with laughter, nearly dropping the food I am now carrying. “Hardly! I hear Immaculate Conceptions went out of style a couple thousand years ago. But, you are on the right track. Guess who’s getting some office nookie?”

“I better know who’s not getting office nookie,” I am teased. Kels taps her foot and gives me an arch look.

“Ah, my green-eyed monster … er … girl.” I wave my wedding ring in front of her eyes. “I thought we were the only hot couple on the show, but I was wr … wron … not exactly right.” I do my best Fonzie imitation.

“Yeah? Lawson on her knees already? I figured she’d last at least a month.”

Ooo, meow. I refrain from the hiss, knowing it wouldn’t be received well. “No, she hasn’t bought her knee pads yet. And, let’s just say, there’s a certain couch I’ll never be sitting my ass on ever again.”

I pull out Kels’ chair as she sits down. She gives me a playful look and cracks her knuckles, ready for Twenty Questions. “Okay, let’s see. Heterosexual couple, I’m assuming, right?”

“You assume correctly.”

“Hmm … okay, it’s not Sam. He’s a family man. And Kendra is seeing someone fairly steady, I think. So that leaves …” Her faces screws up in distaste. “Oh gross! Bruce and someone. Please tell me it’s not Bruce.”

“Sorry, babe. Believe me, I wished I were still blind for that brief moment. Now, what type of person would consent to let him get anywhere near her?”

“Okay, I know who it is. You know what we need when people like Jac and Bruce get together?”

“Birth control?”

“That’s a start, but I’m thinking chlorine in the gene pool.”

Okay, I nearly snort my iced tea out my nose. “God, I love you.”

“I love you too.” My girl is indulging me, I can tell. “So, how’s the outside world, Tabloid? By the way, for your information, there are twenty-seven and a half tan tiles in the bathroom.”

I smirk. “Just think of how well you’ll be doing on your counting by then, sweetheart. Oh, and guess what I have in my wallet.”

“It had better not be a picture of me without my clothes.”

“It’s not.” I lie. Kinda.

“Well, what is it?”

“A condom,” I tease. Just to see her reaction.

Now Kels nearly snorts her juice out her nose. I have had my revenge. “You grow something I’m not aware of?”

“Nah.” I reach into my pocket and pull out my wallet, withdrawing the key card to our floor at Exposure. “This is for you. On Thursday night, from seven to eleven, it works.”

“Oh, Tabloid, what have you done? Did you threaten Langston? Did you kill Doogie?”

“No. I just promised them that you would be absolutely good the rest of the week. So you get a four hour reprieve every week.”

“Ooo, I am so keeping you!” Kels launches herself at me and lays a big one on me. Oh yeah, that’s nice. “Thank you! So I get to do the show?”

“Every week until our little munchkins arrive.”

“Let’s hope I don’t go into labor on the air.”

I wave my fork at my wife. “Uh huh. You are going to calmly inform me some beautiful winter morning that I need to drive you to the hospital. We’ll call Mama and Papa, and Robie and Rene, and grab your bag and go. I want absolutely no theatrics out of you. Understand?”

“Got this all planned out in your head, do you? You know I could go into labor anywhere at anytime.”

I reach over and place my finger on her lips. “Not in my world, babe. Not in mine.” I then reopen my wallet and pull out a series of pictures. “And I don’t have one naked picture of you … I have a bunch.”

“Hmm, so you do.” She looks them over. “You’ll have to tell me how the couch is for sleeping.”

I wince. That is the equivalent of being banished to Siberia in our household. “How about I trade these for the real thing?”

“You could if I looked like that, but since I don’t …” One perfectly manicured fingernail taps the portraits. “Where did you get these anyhow? My mother show up again?”

“In a manner of speaking. We have back the negatives now. Nothing to worry about.” I clasp her hand. “And, sweetheart, you are the most beautiful woman in the world to me. Pregnant. Not. Clothed. Not.” I leer.

“You’re sweet. You’re deluded, but you’re sweet. I’ll keep you for the next seventy years or so.”
Episode Ten: Peace and Quiet
Harper, bless her heart, is doing everything she can to keep me occupied and happy despite my house arrest. She’s trying to keep me in touch and grounded with the show even though I’m not allowed near the studio.

Today, it’s How To Be An On Air Personality 101.

I look over at Frank who is sitting very studiously at our dining room table, pen poised over his notebook.

I grin, setting a glass of juice down in front if him. “First off, relax.”

“Huh?” He gives me a anxious glance.

“Frank, why do I make you so nervous?”

He shrugs. It’s cute.

“Okay.” I take a seat at the table with him. “Surely you’ve known Harper and I long enough to see that we’re just as human as you are.” I pause. “Well, I am, sometimes I wonder about Harper.”

He laughs and seems to ease up a bit. “She can be very intense.”

“Harper is a very passionate woman. She believes that if a job is worth doing it’s worth doing well.” I refrain from telling him I mean it in every aspect of our lives. He’d die if he had that much information. “And if you give her half a chance, she’ll make you the best at what you do, but you have to trust her.” Even as the words leave my lips I can’t help but smile. She did the same thing for me.

“How does she know I can do it?” He taps his pen against his notebook, just like Harper.

“Because Frank, she’s a producer. That’s what she does. She takes the talent and makes them look good. Remember that fact, it’ll serve you well in years to come. If you make it big, you’ve made it big because of the people who do the hard work. And you can snipe and play office politics with your colleagues and in some cases it’ll be the only way to safeguard your job, but you should do your best by your producer. It’ll make your life lots easier.”

“Aunt Kendra said when you came to the show you brought Harper. Sounds to me like you have the power.”

I nod. “I did at the time. I already had an established career with awards on my resume. I had the power to bring Harper with me. But it was her hard work that kept us here and established her as a rising star in the production field. She’s a hot property. You’re lucky to be working with her. Don’t blow it.”

“Oh, I won’t. She threatened to toss me off the roof of the building if I make her look bad.”

I laugh, rising to my feet and heading for my recliner. “Come on, Frank, I’m a pregnant woman with a backache. Let’s go to the living room so I can get comfortable.”

He follows me and we settle in. “So tell me the story,” I say to him even as I pull our wedding blanket over my lap and recline back into the chair.

* * *

This should be interesting.

We just finished setting up the board for a game of Monopoly. I am the race car, of course. Kels fought me for it, but I won. She’s the horse. Brian is the thimble and Doug chose the top hat. How stereotypical. The both of them.

Kels distributes the last of the money and adjusts this little green visor she insisted on wearing as the banker. I didn’t know real people had them. But it helps with the ambiance, I suppose.

Brian rolls the dice and merrily hops his piece down the game board.

This is going to be a long night. The things I do to keep the wife happy.

* * *

I land on Ventnor Avenue and smirk at my wife. She has Atlantic Avenue and Marvin Gardens. I just busted up her monopoly. Ha, ha, ha! Take that, sweetie. I hand over the money for the property and smile.

Kels mutters something I should fine her for, but gives me the deed.

“I’ll name my hotel after you, sweetheart,” I promise.

“It’s gotta get built first, Tabloid.”

Ooh, someone’s unhappy. I smirk and kiss her nose.

Doug laughs and rolls. He lands on Pennsylvania Railroad. He claps excitedly. The lucky SOB already has B&O and the Short Line. “I’ll buy it.”

“I wish we could build on the railroads,” Brian grouses. “I mean, Penn Station is soo ugly. Yuck. The color scheme. And it’s so dark there. I won’t go there. I refuse.”

“They’re going to move it to the Post Office,” Doug placates his lover.

“Great. Then they’ll put the postal workers someplace that will really tick them off and they’ll start rampaging again. Can’t New York do anything right?”

Kels reluctantly hands over the deed to Doug.

Brian rolls. Income Tax. It’s the fourth time he’s landed on it tonight. Sometimes the IRS is just out to get your ass.

My darling spouse picks up the dice, blows on them, and rolls.

I fall off of my chair laughing.

Kels is going to the pokey.

She takes a very deep, calming breath. I recognize it from Lamaze classes. “Laugh it up there, Stud. I bought fitted sheets for the couch today.”

Brian laughs and snaps his fingers three times. “Oh, Stud, I think you’re in trouble.” I give him a warning look. “I understand your position, Kels,” Brian continues.

“You’ve been in jail?” Doug teases.

Our nanny slaps his boyfriend playfully. “Quiet! They don’t know!”

I knew I should have run a background check on him. Kels wouldn’t let me. “Baby,” I say to my girl, “you’d miss me too much to kick me out of bed.”

Here comes the big, dramatic sigh. I love my girl. She’s so funny. “I’m changing your nickname from Stud to Ego.” The boys howl. “And, you’re right, I probably would miss you. Wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have to fight for the covers every night.”

“Oh, but you put up some fight, chér.” I give her my best leer. And when she returns it, I nearly melt in my chair. Can we end the game now?

“Get on with it, Tabloid,” Kels chides me, tapping the board with her fingernail. God, I love that fingernail. “I have money to make.”

I roll. Seven! Yes! I make engine noises as I drive my car on over to Pennsylvania Avenue. This was another property Kels wanted. “Oh, so sorry, chér. But, I tell you what, I’ll trade you Pennsylvania for Illinois Avenue.”

“Guys, I really think she’s cheating. Time to bring out the big guns.” Fortunately, my girl is laughing so I know the accusation isn’t real. She hands me Pennsylvania Avenue and my change. Guess my proposed swap wasn’t accepted. “I will give you each a thousand bucks to form a partnership with me.”

“Hey! That’s so not fair!”

“Yes, it is,” Brian counters. He holds out his hand to Kels. “In hundreds, please.”

“No, it’s not,” I repeat.

“I’m in, too.” Doug accepts his bribe money as well.

Traitors.

“Fine,” I say, “I’ll beat you all.”

Kels wags her finger at me. “You don’t stand a chance, Tabloid. An ace with a pair of queens wins a great deal of the time.”

The phone rings, saving me from their laughter. “I’ll get it,” I say needlessly. None of them are in any condition to answer a phone. I push away from the table and walk over to the counter. “Hello.”

“Hey, baby sister.”

“Younger,” I reply automatically. “Comment ca va, Robie?”

“Worn out. Ren has had me working like a dog all day.”

“Good. I shouldn’t be the only overworked spouse in the family.” Kels hears that and shakes her head at me. “But our nursery is all set up. How’s it going for you?”

“Almost done. I had hoped we could use Clark’s crib but Rene informs me that he’s not ready for a big boy bed yet.”

“He’s only a little over a year old! Mon Dieu, Robie, even I know that. Why are you trying to be cheap? You make more than enough money in your fancy pants law firm.”

“Did Rene call earlier?” he jokes. “Hold on a sec.” I hear him put his hand over the phone and I listen to the muffled silence. “Harper?”

“Still here.”

“Christian is asking if he can speak to his favorite aunt.”

“Sure, put my buddy on.” Then it hits me. “He means Kels, doesn’t he?”

Robie laughs. “I’m afraid so.”

“Well, at least he has good taste. Hold on.” I walk back over to the table and extend the phone to Kels. “It’s for you.”

“Well, hello, Christian. How’s my favorite Kingsley?” Kels sticks her tongue out at me. If the boys weren’t here, I’d do something with that tongue. While she makes small talk with my small nephew, I notice that my money pile looks smaller, as well.

Hmm.

“Here’s your Tante Harper,” Kels hands me the phone.

“Hi, Christian!”

“Am I really Aunt Kels’ favorite?”

This is his first question to me. Christian is going to be gay. I can just feel it. “Mais oui, chér, you are. She talks about you all the time.”

“She does?”

“Would I tell you stories?”

“Thanks!” He drops the phone. I am no longer useful to him.

“Sorry about that, Harper,” Robie says as he retrieves the handset from the floor. “If it makes you feel any better, Clark always grabs for the phone when he hears us talk about you.”

“At least someone loves me. By the way, Robie, did you know that your sister-in-law cheats at Monopoly?”

“I do not cheat!” Kels has a completely indignant look on her angelic face. “It’s creative financing.”

Oh, I know some other things we’re going to be creative with later, darlin’. “Uh huh, I’m still going to win.”

* * *

“Brian, come here.”

My dutiful assistant joins me in the living room. I motion him to the couch where I’ve been laying and reading a book. He drops down on the floor next to me and grins. “Yes?”

“I wanna try something.”

“Why, Mrs. Kingsley, I’m not that kinda girl and neither are you.” He slaps my wrist playfully.

“Very funny.” I grab his hand and place it on my stomach. “Say her name.”

He gives me a puzzled look.

“You know… her name.”

“Oh, you mean Harper?” He looks down at my stomach and then back up at me with wide eyes. “That did not just happen.”

“Yeah, I think it did. Say it again.”

“Harper.”

Sure enough, there is a solid kick from Brennan. She knows her Mama’s name. How sweet is that?

“I don’t believe this.” Brian grins. “This is very cool. Harper,” I get kicked again, “must be very excited.”

“She doesn’t know and don’t you tell her. One, her ego is big enough as it is, and two, I’ll never get any rest.”

Brian gives me a good hard look. “You had insomnia again last night, didn’t you?”

“Hmm.” I nod, my whole body feels tired from lack of sleep.

His hand comes to rest on my forehead. “You have a fever.”

“Only a little one.”

“Okay, we’ve got about an hour to lunch. You are taking a nap. I’ll wake you when lunch is ready.” He stands and proceeds to take my book away from me and hands me another pillow. “And don’t even think about arguing with me, or the first call I’ll make is to Dr. McGuire about the fever, and the second to Stud about the whole situation.”

“Boy, you sure do know how to hurt a girl.” I snuggle down into the couch and the blanket, more than ready to nap really. I’m very tired. But I have to bitch. It’s a matter of principle.

“Nah, I just know where all your weak spots are.”

* * *

I get home late. It’s been a helluva day at work. It was Murphy’s Law and the Peter Principle all wrapped in one. I am so looking forward to a nice, quiet evening at home.

“High on a hill was a lonely goatherd…”

What in the hell?

I drop my briefcase by the door, hang up my jacket and wander down toward the living room. The surround sound stereo television is blasting and I am sure our neighbors love us right now.

Perhaps even more disturbing is what is going on in front of the television. Kels and Brian are acting out a scene from ‘The Sound of Music’ and, God help me, the song is not my favorite one. Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo, indeed!

As I stand there, shaking my head in wonder, Kels approaches me, singing loudly. “One little girl in a pale pink coat heard -” She looks to Brian.

“Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hoo hoo.” He sounds like a billy goat in abject pain.

“She yodeled back to the lonely goatherd: lay ee odl lay ee odl oo.”

“Soon her mama with a gleaming gloat heard,” Brian sings and holds out an imaginary microphone to me.

Ah, what the hell. “Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hmm hmm.” I growl out the last two words, causing Kels to blush.

“What a duet for a girl and goatherd, lay ee odl lay ee odl oo,” Brian covers for her.

“Happy are they, lay dee olay dee lee o,” and Kels rips out with a yodel that will haunt me until my dying day.

Forcing myself not to laugh, I remember the next lyric. “Soon the duet will become a trio … plus one!”

“Lay ee odl lay ee odl oo.”

Mercifully, Kels reaches for the remote and turns off the movie. “Hi ya, goatherd,” she whispers and kisses me.

I suppose I’ve been called worse things in my life. I return the kiss and then kneel down to talk to my kids. “Hi there, champs. It’s Mama. Have you been good for Mommy today?”

Kels giggles and puts my hand on a high spot of her stomach. One of the kids is playing the drums in there. “Someone’s happy to have you home.”

I scratch the surface in question. “I missed you three today. I hate not having you nearby all day.”

“Well, it’s been an exciting day here, Tabloid. Brian and I decided to do ‘Sing-along Sound of Music’ here since I am under lock and key.”

“Yes, and I’m sure everyone in the neighborhood enjoyed it as well.”

“Free entertainment is not a bad thing.”

“Sometimes,” I smirk, “free is just cheap.”

I get swatted for my cheekiness. It’s nice to be home.

* * *

It’s been a long day. So long.

I doesn’t help that I miss my girl so badly I could die. This her being at home and me being here sucks big time.

Especially when everyone seems afflicted with rampant stupidity. It’s passing around the office faster than the flu. I can’t even count the number of crises I’ve headed off this week. Even Langston felt a need to mention the death of brain cells at our production meeting. One look at Jac at the table was enough to know she was drowning more than few of hers.

Hell, if I was screwing Bruce, I’d be doing the same. But I’m not.

I won, I won, I won.

So I’m working here late trying to salvage a story out of a mess handed to me by Bruce. How the hell he’s survived here this long is beyond me. This piece is so biased, I can hardly believe it. We’re not doing op-ed here. I am trying to go through it and see what can be salvaged. I’ll make Bruce go back and reshoot part of it until it’s something we can use.

I sigh. Almost eight o’clock. I should be home.

There’s a knock on my door and I get excited for a moment, until I realize that it can’t be Kels because she’s at home, and she’d never knock anyhow. I wonder who else is still here. “Come in.”

The other blonde on the show leans her head in my office. Brenda flashes me a winning smile. “You’re here late too.” She runs her hand through her hair, rearranging the already perfect coif. “Do you have a few minutes you can spare?”

No, all I want to do is go home. But that’s not the right reply, especially since I’m producing her first segment. I motion to the chair opposite my desk. “Sure. What’s up?”

Brenda takes me up on my offer, sitting down in the leather chair gracefully. She’s wearing jeans and a V-necked T-shirt. Both are one size too small. She leans forward, elbows on knees, and smiles. “How do you think my first piece is?”

Yup, those are big breasts. “It’s looking pretty good, so far. I think you need to develop your narrative voice in it, though.”

She purrs. “Hmm and as my producer you’d be willing to help me find it, right?” She smiles and I don’t know whether to cross myself or not.

Okay, Harper, you’ve been in situations like this before. Relax. It’s okay. “As your producer,” I emphasize those three words, “I will. Why don’t we schedule some time tomorrow and we can go over the piece so far?”

“Or,” she counters, moving to sit on the corner of my desk, “we could discuss it now. My career is important to me. I’ll do anything to help it along.”

I feel a bead of sweat trickle down my spine. I can smell her perfume from where I sit and I shake my head to clear the scent. “It’s getting late. There’s nothing we can do tonight to help your career.”

“Now I wouldn’t say that. We’re two very creative people. I’ll bet there are all kinds of things we could come up with.”

I push my chair back and stand behind it. I feel the need for another piece of furniture between us. “Brenda, we need to get something clear here. I’m married and I don’t fuck around. So if your subtle offer is one of that kind, I need to pass. If you want to talk work, I’m very happy to do so. But tomorrow. It’s late.”

She laughs at me. “Aww, now, come on, Harper. You’re here late. I’m here late. The wife is home. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.” She shrugs. “I know your rep in the business. Don’t be so shy. Besides, it’s only a little after eight. You could still be home to the little woman by nine-thirty or ten.”

“It doesn’t matter if Kels would know, Brenda. I would know. And that’s more than enough.”

“Are you saying I’m not attractive?” She slides off the desk and approaches me. I spin to keep the chair between us.

I roll my eyes. “Brenda, you know you’re attractive. You wouldn’t be on television otherwise. But let me repeat, I don’t fuck around. Consider yourself turned down.”

“Harper!” She sounds exasperated with me. “I promise you a ride that will leave you totally breathless and wanting more.” She tries to advance again, grabbing hold of the chair so I can’t move it again. “Your lips are saying no, but your eyes are saying something entirely different. And that little trickle of sweat running down the side of your face speaks for itself.”

It’s hot in here. That’s what it’s saying. It’s also saying ‘get the hell out of my office’. I walk briskly over to my door and open it wide. “Time to go, Brenda.”

I am pleased with my escape from her, the nearly eight feet of open space between us, and all would be well … except for my phone ringing. I am all set to ignore it, when Brenda offers to answer it for me. Hell, no! I rush back over to my desk and pick it up. “Kingsley.”

“Hi ya, gorgeous. Your daughter was just kicking me in the side because you’re not home yet. I thought I’d call to see when we can expect you.”

Of course it’s my wife. Any other moment in my life I would be thrilled to be talking to Kels. Not right now. Not with Brenda giving me a look that says she wants to screw up my happy home. “Hi, chér. I’m packing up my stuff as we speak. I’ll be home in less than a half hour. Do you need me to pick up anything on the way?”

“No, just bring your wonderful self home. We miss our pillow.”

Brenda pokes her finger in her mouth, pretending to gag herself. Of course, she does this loud enough that people three blocks away can hear.

Shit, damn. “I miss you three too.” Okay, the best defense is a strong offense. “Brenda just stopped in my office with a couple questions, but we’re done here.”

“Ah, Miss Lawson, yes …” Oh, my girl is pissed. “Harper, put me on speakerphone.” I obey. It seems best. “Brenda?”

“Yes, Kelsey?” Brenda is undressing me in her mind. I can almost feel a draft from my lack of clothing in her mind.

“I hope Harper has given you everything you needed this evening.”

“Well …”

“Because if she hasn’t I’d be happy to come down there and help you out.”

Now that would be a sight. I’d prefer to not have to bail my wife out of jail again, however. “No need for that, sweetheart. I’m coming home. Now.”

“You do that, Tabloid. We’ll see you in a few minutes.” Click.

So much for a joyful homecoming as I had hoped. Thank you, Brenda. I glare at my young reporter. “You’ve accomplished what you came here for. Now get out.”

She scratches the corner of her mouth. “No,” she sighs. “Had I accomplished what I came here for, you wouldn’t be in trouble at home.” She reaches out and straightens my collar, a gesture far too intimate for my tastes.

I reach over, pick up my Palm Vx, my cell phone, and my briefcase. If she won’t leave, I will. “Time to go,” I repeat, holding the door open. I’d just leave but for the fact I don’t want her alone in my office. God knows what she would do.

Reluctantly, she leaves.

And now I go home to face a hormonal, pregnant woman.

* * *

I’m standing in the hallway with a T-shirt draped over my crossed arms. I watch as the door unlocks slowly, very slowly. This is a woman trying to sneak in. Too funny. She practically backs into the foyer and closes the door very quietly.

“Hiya, Stud!”

She nearly jumps out of her skin. “Don’t sneak up on me like that. Trying to give me a heart attack?”

I can’t help but laugh as I step forward and begin unbuttoning her shirt. “You’re the one who was sneaking in. Any particular reason?”

She slides her arms around me. “Prisoners don’t run to the firing squad, my dear. How much trouble am I in?”

I finish unbuttoning her shirt and slide it off her shoulders leisurely. I give her collarbone a kiss, and a couple points south quick nips, before I disengage and hand her the T-shirt and head for the kitchen. “Why would you be in trouble?”

She follows me, slipping the T-shirt on over her head. “Because I’m home late.”

“If you got in trouble every time you came home late, this marriage never would have happened. You’re not in trouble, Tabloid.” I take cleanser and a small brush and scrub away the lipstick. “Amateur,” I grumble at a very futile attempt to get Harper in trouble.

“That bitch!” Harper must notice what I am scrubbing off. “I’m gonna fucking kill her tomorrow! Kels, honey …” Ooo, I think my darling spouse has bought a clue.

“Harper, come over her and say good night to your children so they’ll settle down, then we’ll talk about it. Did she scratch her lip with her nail or rub it with her finger?”

She gives it a moment’s thought. “Scratched it. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. Dammit!” She puts a couple of bucks in the jar and flashes me a charming smile. “Think Brennan and Collin will still talk to me?

“Don’t see why not. I didn’t tell them about the slut’s feeble attempt to set you up. Lord, you can tell she hasn’t been in the business very long.” I finish cleaning the shirt. “Well, that’ll do until we send it to the cleaners.” Laying the shirt down, I turn and give her access. “Come on, say good night. I’m tired and I want to go sit down.”

“Why don’t we go to the couch and I’ll talk to them there?” Harper suggests.

“Ah, there’s a woman with a well thought out plan.” I give her my hand and we head for the living room.

* * *

I am very glad we put Kels on house arrest. I can tell she’s tired and her ankles are slightly swollen. I will have a little talk with Brian tonight. Make sure we both agree on what Kels is not to be doing.

I lean over and nuzzle Kels’ stomach. “Hi, my sweet, little ones. It’s time to sleep and let your mommy rest. Can you two do that for me?” I get a kick in my nose as a reply, but Kels makes up for it by scratching my scalp. If I were a cat, I’d be purring. “I love you both so much. We’re looking forward to seeing you both soon.”

Kels sighs. “Amen.”

I crawl up her body, laying beside her on the couch. “I miss you at work, you know.” I trace her jaw with my fingers, noting how soft her skin is. I kiss the corner of her mouth, because it’s there. “How did you know to have a T-shirt for me at the door?” It suddenly hits me what Kels did.

“Because it was pretty apparent you were being set up. I wasn’t sure if it would be lipstick or perfume, but I knew it would be one or the other.”

“Thanks for that, sweetie.” I kiss under her jaw. “How should I handle her? I wanted to kick her scrawny ass, but I need to have a good working relationship with her. Suggestions?”

“Ignore her. When she figures out she can’t get between us, she’ll lose interest in you.”

I push up and give her a mock outraged look. “Lose interest in me? As if that were possible!”

Kels begins laughing and pushes at my shoulders. “You better hope for the sake of your wife, children and marriage that she does. Otherwise, I’m headed to prison right after the babies are born because I’ll come over there and kill the wench. With time off for good behavior, I should be out by the time the twins are five.”

I join her laughter. “You get out on good behavior? Tell me another.”

“Okay. How about the one where the pregnant wife sends the long suffering spouse out for ice cream at three in the morning? I’m kinda fond of that one, really.”

“Yes, I know that. I am thinking of buying a little freezer and stocking up here. But Kam really enjoys the late night walks, I’d hate to deprive him.” I kiss her nose and then her chin. “Wanna fool around?”

“Do I want to? Yes. Do I have the energy? No. Sorry, Tabloid, you’re stuck with cuddling tonight.”

“Stuck? Hardly. You’re the best cuddler I know.” I catch myself. “You are, of course, the only cuddler I know.” I climb off the couch and extend my hand to her. “Let’s get you tucked in. I’ll be there in a minute.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Check on our ice cream supply.”

* * *

I troop upstairs and find myself drawn to the nursery. It is so perfect, so ready for our children. I don’t know how I’ll be able to stand having them up here and I’ll be so very far away. It’s been hard enough having them skin depth away.

How can I be so in love with two little people I’ve never even laid eyes on?

“You two have done a great job with the room,” Brian says behind me.

“I can’t wait for them to get here.”

“Yeah, I’m looking forward to it too.” He folds his arms across his chest and leans against the doorjamb. “Being with you and Kels is kinda like being with family. I’m excited.” He leans over toward me. “Besides, these are two little people who can be trained to shop.”

I groan. Our poor credit cards. “You’re …” I have to force myself to say the correct designation “they’re Uncle Brian. You’ll have a lot to teach them. Especially since I don’t think they sell Garanimals anymore.”

Brian laughs. “Yeah. Since Kels has her hands full keeping you coordinated, I guess I’ll train them early.”

I scowl, trying to intimidate him a little. “I coordinate. Black goes with black.”

He plucks at my black T-shirt. “You are soo unaware of the different shades of black, aren’t you? You should be a straight man; you are so sad some days, Stud.”

“I may be sad, but I caught the best girl around.” Beat that, buddy.

“You sure did. If she were straight, I’d have to give some serious thought about switching teams.”

My girl does inspire life altering acts. “Why was she so tired today, Brian? Anything happen I should know about?”

“No. She just seems to be getting tired much easier these days. She’s not sleeping well at night. She had insomnia again. I think it’s good she’s staying home now.”

“Yeah, me too. Let me know if something happens, Brian. I am trusting you with my life, you know?”

“I know. I promise I’m taking good care of them. I even made her lay down and take a short nap today.” He puts a friendly hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure everything is okay until you guys go to New Orleans.”

“Oh, you’re coming with us, Brian. Mama specifically invited you.”

“Ooo, I love your Mama. How come you didn’t inherit her good taste in fashion? She’s divine! If you and Kels want me there, I’ll be there. But it’s time for family when the babies come. So I can hang out here … have a couple wild parties …”

I know he’s joking but my blood pressure does rise. “Look, Brian, I know I can tease you a little bit.” He gives me a look. “Okay, a lot. But the thing is, Kels and I, we consider you family. We want you with us. Kels would be very disappointed if you weren’t in New Orleans. Plus, God forbid, I bring the kids home in non-matching outfits.”

“Can’t have that, can we?” He takes on a more serious tone. “Thanks, Harper. It means a lot to me. I love you guys. Besides, Mama said something about a Conspiracy I’m dying to check out. What is that by the way?”

“Something I’m not allowed in. Well, my girl is waiting for me. I’ll see you tomorrow. Pleasant dreams.” I head back downstairs.

I can’t believe Mama told him about the Kitchen Conspiracy.

* * *

I wake up in the middle of the night, cold. I reach out for my bed warmer and find only empty space where she should be. My heart does a flip flop while I chase away lingering memories of my prior nightmare. The door to the family room is open slightly and I see light spilling through it. She must not be able to sleep again. I roll out of bed, grab a pillow and trudge out.

Kels looks up from her book. “What are you doing up, Stud?”

I keep my eyes partially closed so as not to be blinded. “I thought I told you to read in bed from now on.”

“Honey,” she holds out her hand to me, “I don’t want to bother you. You work too hard as it is.”

“If I can’t be with you during the day, I want you all night. I don’t care if you turn the lights on, play disco music or eat crackers in bed. I want you with me.” I walk over to the couch and motion for her to make room for me. She does so, and I slide behind her, pulling her and our wedding blanket snugly against her.

Now I can sleep.

* * *

Let’s see if I can do this without waking her up. She’s so cute. She pouts in her sleep, her bottom lips sticking out. She looks exactly like Christian. Wonder if either of our babies will inherit that trait.

I take the stethoscope out of the box and try it on myself first, listening to make sure I know where to place it. Okay, got it. Now let’s see here. I take the ear pieces and slip them on her and then place the disc on my belly.

She jostles her head trying to rid her head of the annoyance, but not hard enough to do so. Come on, Tabloid, you know what that noise is.

Yeah, that’s it, wake up and listen to them. I smile as her eyelids flutter and she gives a little jolt until the recognition of what she’s hearing settles in. Then she just smiles.

I love that smile.

She lies there with her eyes closed and continues to listen. This is the look of pure peace. This is a happy, happy woman.

This is not the woman who only a little more than a year ago was practically having sex on the street with a mostly total stranger right in front of her place of work.

No, this is a woman who enjoys coming home at night, lighting a fire in the fireplace and snuggling with me and playing tag with our babies.

This is a woman who is so in love with these babies she mumbles their names in her sleep more than she mumbles mine.

This is not the woman who thinks to be sexy you have to be a total cad with a lady killer attitude.

This woman gets heart arrhythmia if I sneeze too hard. She’s afraid they’re coming earlier than we thought.

This is a woman who had her brother fax her a map from our house in New Orleans to the hospital where I’m going to deliver these babies so she could memorize it. She knows every way on the planet to get me to the hospital when I go into labor. I think a few of them bend most of the traffic laws in the city of New Orleans, but I’ll get there.

That has to be the biggest, goofiest grin I have ever seen on anyone’s face.

“Having fun, Tabloid?” I whisper. She nods without opening her eyes.

Okay, now that was rude. I take the disc and give it a good, hard flick with my fingernail. The thump in her ears gets her attention.

“Hey!” She pulls out the ear pieces and scowls at me.

“Is for horses, Tabloid. Do you even remember me? Or am I merely a shell for your favorite people now?”

“Sweetheart, I could never forget you. You just happen to be the one holding on to them for the time being.”

“Good answer.” I put the ear pieces back on her and replace the disc against my stomach.

That’s a great smile.

* * *

It’s Saturday morning and the five of us are having breakfast. My little sister is a complete mess, covered in what she should be eating. She looks remarkably happy, though, and Amanda seems nonplussed. My father, on the other hand, still seems a bit disconcerted about how messy childhood can be. Claire reaches for his neatly pressed Polo shirt.

He laughs and catches her hand in a napkin. “Ah, ah, ah … I saw you, young lady!”

“Kids,” Harper says with a smirk. She rubs my belly. She can’t wait to get her hands on ours.

“That reminds me, Harper,” my father says in far too friendly a tone to be good, “I set out a couple photos I figure you should add the twins’ baby album.”

“Dad,” I warn.

Amanda shakes her head. “There’s no stopping this, Kels. He was in his study all yesterday trying to find these pictures.”

My father goes over to the counter and picks up an envelope and hands it to my spouse. She dodges my rather lame attempt to grab it. Inside the envelope is what I feared most: buck naked photos of me on a bearskin rug.

I will not do this to Brennan and Collin.

Harper is laughing so hard her face is turning red. I kick her under the table. Serves her right.

She turns the picture around and points to my butt. “The more things change the more they remain the same.”

I give her a look. “You’ll never be able to compare it again.”

“Oh, darlin’, there’s no need to get that way.”

“What way?” I counter.

She is about to answer and thinks better of it. “You know I love you.”

“Not going to help you this time, Tabloid.”

Dad refills his mug and comes back over to table. Traitor. I’ll have to deal with him later. “Well, since you’re already sleeping in the guest room,” he teases Harper, “I have a story to tell you.”

Oh, God, not a story. “Dad.”

He winks at me. “Kelsey was always a bit precocious.”

Harper chuckles and takes my hand in hers. “Tell me about it.”

“This happened when she was five and attending ‘The Little Red Schoolhouse’, a private school in Manhattan. They had a program where the second graders would come into the kindergarten class once a week to do an assignment together. The youngsters would draw a picture and describe it to the older student. The second grader would write down the story that went with the picture.”

“Dad,” I try again to get this to stop.

“Hush,” he replies. “So Kels drew quite the picture.”

Harper kisses the back of my hand. “Do tell.”

“This drawing had me hitting her mother with a broom, with Kels cowering at her legs, and our cook and nanny hiding behind a door, watching.”

Amanda gives me a shocked glance, and then one for her husband. “What was that about?”

“I’m telling the story,” he replies. “So, naturally, when the teacher looks at the picture and reads the accompanying story which says something about me coming home mad and hitting them all, she takes it to the principal. I get a phone call at work telling me to come to the school immediately.”

“I bet,” Harper agrees, loving every moment of this story, I can tell.

“We’re sitting on the couch in the principal’s office, chatting briefly, when the teacher brings Kels in. She smiles and bounds over to us, sitting between her mother and I, and resting her hand on my knee. The principal is watching us very carefully, trying to pick up if anything is happening at home.

“The principal asks Kelsey a couple questions about school, to get her to be relaxed and talking. Then she asks Kels why she drew the picture she did.”

“This ought to be good,” Harper mutters.

Dad smiles at me fondly. “Kels let out a huge sigh and shrugged her tiny little shoulders. ‘Because,’ she said, ‘I am so tired of drawing rainbows.’”

I close my eyes and try to ignore the burst of laughter coming from Harper and Amanda. My beloved is once again laughing so hard tears are streaming down her face.

I look over at Claire who is staring at us adults in bewilderment. “One day, this will be you, sis.”

* * *

I’m almost asleep on the couch. Almost. Between being able to relax completely here at Dad’s place, and the fact I only had about three hours of sleep last night, I’m good and ready for my nap.

But then it starts up again and I’m compelled to roll on my side so I can watch them.

“Look at you!” Harper grins at Claire from her spot on the floor. My little sister is sitting up in the middle of the carpet, playing with her new toy: my wife. I don’t think they’ve been apart for five minutes since we got here.

Claire’s nanny isn’t sure what to do with herself this weekend and my Dad is even a little miffed that he hasn’t been able to get his hands on his daughter for any length of time. Amanda is merely amused by it all.

I watch as Claire gives Harper one of those adorable baby grins, clapping her hands and reaching out for her. She ends up rocking forward and lurching for Harper, laughing.

My spouse, of course, is more than happy to stretch out on the floor to allow the baby to crawl all over her, which Claire thinks is simply wonderful. Now she can touch and chew on her new toy.

Yup, we Stanton women know a good thing when we see it.

Harper is simply in heaven. She beat my father at golf again this morning and now she has Claire all to herself on the floor.

This woman is going to be a fantastic mom.

I feel Brennan and Collin shifting around. I already know these babies are attached to Harper, I wonder if they’re jealous. Between the laughing and squealing coming from across the coffee table here, I think they can hear her and they’re envious. Ooo, watch out, Tabloid looks like they may have inherited something from me.

Brennan gives me a good solid kick which doesn’t feel good and I groan.

“Kels?” Harper wraps Claire up in her arms and they move over to the edge of the couch.

“Your daughter is jealous,” I whisper, taking Claire’s little hand and giving it a kiss.

Harper leans over and lifts my blouse, then presses her lips to my belly. “I’m practicing, little one. Your Aunt Claire is only helping me out.”

Claire reaches out and Harper places her hand on my stomach where the babies are most active. She squeals and throws her head into Harper’s shoulder to chew on it.

She’s gonna be a great mom.

Episode Eleven: No Fear
“That is really the way to fly!” Frankie exclaims, bounding off my plane. “That was awesome! It was like … like …” he pauses, not knowing how to express all he’s feeling. “Thanks, Harper!”

I smile at his enthusiasm. I had talked to the pilot and made sure that Frankie could be up in the cockpit with him for the flight. Seventeen year old males and large flying objects are a dangerous combination.

Especially considering our current assignment. We’re in Atlanta, Georgia and here to hook up with The Suicide Boys. The moniker was enough to bring them to the attention of their college president. Kendra read about them on the wire services and here we are.

The Suicide Boys is the nickname of a fraternity at Emory University. Their main joy in life is participating in extreme sports. All of the members skydive, rock climb, mountain bike and snow board together. Their initiation ceremony brings new meaning to the word hazing. Only six weeks into the semester and already one of the fraternity members is in the hospital with broken vertebrae. He’s not expected to walk again.

We have an interview with him scheduled for tomorrow, and one with the dean of students. He’s investigating whether to remove recognized status from the fraternity. It seems a bit of a moot point to me, but I suppose the bureaucracy has to work its way through the problem. We also have interviews scheduled with psychologists, students and parents.

Kendra’s angle on the story is the addiction of fear. We live in a nation of peace and prosperity, where young people who hunger for excitement have to search it out. Extreme sports is easy outlet. Unfortunately, one that can have tragic consequences.

Needless to say, Kels was not exactly thrilled with this assignment. She knows me. She knows I share their addiction. I love fast cars, fast food and … well, that’s all anymore. Once you get the brass ring, you hold the hell onto it. So while I know she trusts me with the girls down here, she doesn’t trust me with the boys and their toys.

I can’t wait to go skydiving with them.

Purely for research purposes, of course.

* * *

The fraternity house is, to put it nicely, a real fixer-upper. If they wanted to do something really extreme, they could try cleaning. Hell, they could start with taking out the garbage. Even Frankie is put off by the state of the residence. To offend a teenage male is bad. All right, he’s gay, and so he’s a bit more clued in, but still …

One of the frat brothers meets us at the door. He takes a long look at Kendra, letting more than a few lecherous thoughts go through his mind, all of which are reflected on his face. And other parts of his anatomy. I take a deep breath and square my shoulders. “I’m Harper Kingsley,” I say, holding out my hand, getting attention back on me.

“Noah.” He reluctantly drags his eyes over to me.

Now I get appraised. Joy. He likes me too. “We’re here to meet with Rick Bryant.”

“Oh, yeah, he’s here.” Noah steps aside and pushes the door open with his butt. “Want a brew?”

Kendra gives him a smile which is either condescending or flirtatious, I can’t tell which. “Perhaps later.”

“I’ll keep it cold for you.”

I refrain from sighing like Al Gore in the debates.

We follow Noah through a pile of wood which must have resembled furniture earlier in its life. In what I suppose is the game room sits our appointment, Rick, president of the fraternity. Upon seeing us, he hops to his feet. “Hi! Great to have you!” He holds his hand out to Kendra, after wiping it on the seat of his jeans first.

“Hello, Rick. I’m Kendra Hayes. This is my producer, Harper Kingsley, and her assistant Frankie Hayes, and our cameraman Jacob Wilson.” Kendra is always smooth. One of the things I enjoy most about working with her is her even keel in all settings. It doesn’t hurt that she’s breathtakingly beautiful and intelligent to boot.

“We’re so excited you’ve come down here. We really need your help to keep our fraternity.”

I give Jacob the signal to begin shooting.

“One of your brothers is in the hospital, it appears he will never walk again, and yet you want to prevent being shut down?” Kendra asks the question softly, but it carries a wallop nonetheless.

Rick blinks once, twice. “Mitch is a great guy. But he’d be the first to agree with me. Being able to do these things, feeling that rush, knowing you’re alive in every way that matters … it’s worth it. Bad things happen. I hate like hell that it happened to Mitch. That doesn’t mean I’m willing to never go skydiving again because he can’t.” Recovering from her question, he gestures to the ramshackle furniture. “Please, have a seat.”

“Why did you choose the nickname ‘The Suicide Boys’?”

He shrugs. “Like most nicknames, we didn’t choose it, we were given it. A lot of the other Greeks are jealous of what we do. Hey, we get all the best girls because of it.”

“Really? Why?”

Rick looks at Kendra in wonderment. “Because we live on the edge. The other fraternities all boast and shit, saying they’re all cool. We live it. We go out there and put our asses on the line. We jump out of planes and climb up Stone Mountain and do these big tricks while snow boarding and mountain biking. We’re in shape. And, well, most of us are loaded.”

Ah, yes, there’s the main attraction: money. Men. Always so quick to first attribute it to their personality. Or other prominent features.

Kendra nods. “Those are all expensive sports. How do you afford to play?”

“Our parents. Kappa Tau Omega has the highest income level on campus. Need to pay to play.”

Oh, wonderful. If Collin or Brennan ever want to get involved with a group like this in the future … I might just join them. Admit it, Harper. You’re an adrenaline junkie, just like this kid. Kid. He’s what? Five years younger than you are.

I hope my brain doesn’t explode with that realization.

“Why do you do these sports? Why not be involved on the college’s football, baseball or basketball teams?”

“Those are all team sports,” Rick replies. “We’re into pushing ourselves to our own limits. I played football in high school. I know how great it is to be a part of a play that scores a touchdown. But I didn’t know how great I was until I did a free climb for the first time.”

“Free climb?”

“No ropes.”

“Why push yourself? Why risk injury? Or death?” Kendra glances at the back of her chair and decides it’s safe to lean against it.

His eyes flick over to me. “You mean you’ve never done anything a little crazy to experience the moment?”

I hold up my hands and laugh. “Hey, I’m not the one being interviewed here.”

He gestures to my boots. “You ride. What do you have?”

“A Fat Boy.” I am so looking forward to riding it again in a couple weeks. Robie had better kept it safe and sound for me. Otherwise, I’ll kick his ass all the way down St. Charles.

He nods, impressed. “Sweet. You ski?”

I shrug. “Sure. Water and snow.”

“Snow board?”

“Once or twice.”

“Sky dive?”

“Not yet.”

“We’re going up tomorrow. Want to join us? It’s like amazing sex, strong coffee and warm brandy all at once.”

I let out a slow smile. “You mean, you can only get that in the air?”

We all share a laugh.

Married. About to have twins. I still got it.

* * *

“Thanks for coming over, Beth.” I meet her at the door and we exchange kisses on the cheek.

“Glad to finally get the invitation,” she replies, removing her wrap from around her shoulders and hanging it on our coat rack.

Oh, that’s right. I wouldn’t let her come to the apartment when we first got it. It was all so new, we were new, I didn’t want my past intruding. Now that I’m as big as a house and Harper and I are old married folks, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal anymore.

And we have a chaperone. Brian is in the kitchen making tea for us. Since Harper left, he hasn’t left my side for a minute. I think he’s terrified something might happen while he’s gone and then he’d have my dear spouse to face.

“This place is gorgeous!” Beth exclaims as I lead her down the hallway, into the living room. “I hate to admit it, but you look great. Being settled down really agrees with you.”

We sit on the couch. “Why, thank you. Although to tell the truth, I’ll be a very happy camper once Brennan and Collin actually get here. I want to wear my jeans again.”

“I’ll bet. It’s not going to be much longer, is it?”

“No.”

“How do you feel about that?”

“Obviously, I’m excited about the babies coming, but at the same time I’m scared senseless. Everything sort of makes me nervous if I think about it too long. The thing that scares me the most is that something will go wrong during delivery. I’ve had a fairly healthy pregnancy, but I’m high risk, and a lot could still happen. That’s why I want to get this settled as best we can now.”

Brian comes in with a tray that has our tea on it. “Do you need anything else, Kels?”

“I’m fine, thanks. Brian, you remember Beth, my attorney.”

Beth gives Brian a thorough once over. “Good to see you again, Brian. You look different off the dance floor.”

He smiles. Brian loves getting checked out, by either sex. It does his ego good. “Of course, nice to see you again. If you want, I can dance around for you here.” He winks and trots out of the room.

I pour us both a cup of tea and add a drizzle of honey to mine. Thank God for decaffeinated Earl Gray. “I appreciate your help in this, Beth.”

Her blue eyes register surprise. “You know I’d do anything for you, Kels. We’ve been friends forever.” She pulls her briefcase onto her lap and pulls out a sheaf of papers. “So you know the good news – New York law would permit Harper to adopt both of the twins without any termination of your parental rights. In fact, New York is only one of four states where the highest court of that state has affirmed this basic right; although more than twenty states have permitted same sex adoptions.

“As with any other unmarried partner adoption, the court will look to the best interests of the child for whether or not to permit the adoption. Factors in your favor are your good relationship with Harper, the relationship she already has with the twins, her biological link to the twins as their aunt, her family and their link to the twins, the family structure you and Harper have created between yourselves for the twins to come into, and Harper’s career and income.”

“How long will it take?”

“Typically, these things take a couple months to go through.” I am about to object but Beth holds up a hand to forestall my comment. “However, one of the partners at my firm was recently made a judge here in Manhattan. When you, Harper and the kids return from maternity leave in New Orleans, he’ll see you and make the adoption final.”

That’s what I wanted to hear. I don’t want any delay between their birth and the official recognition of who Harper is to our children. It infuriates me that social conservatives refuse to let us get married and, thus, prevent our children from having proper protection from birth. It would be just so threatening to heterosexuals everywhere for us to be equally protected under the law. Special rights, my ass, as my dear spouse would say. Let’s start with equal and go from there.

“Thank you, Beth.”

“Hey what are ex-lovers-turned-friends-who-happen-to-be-attorneys for?”

* * *

“How are things going down there?” Kels asks me as I stretch out on the hotel bed.

Why do all hotel rooms look the same? There’s the standard armoire with the television in the top, and a local Yellow Pages in the top drawer. The desk is in the corner, complete with a two line phone and a notebook with the hotel’s in room dining menu. Finally, the nightstand by the bed, which has another phone and the Bible from the Gideons. “Pretty good so far. We met with the president of the fraternity today.”

“The president?” Kels teases. “Sounds so official for someone so young.”

I chuckle. “True enough. How are you doing, chér? You taking care of yourself?”

“Always. Brian has been hovering over me all day. I can’t lift a thing …”

“Good.” I make a mental note to give Brian a bonus.

“You’re remembering not to do anything stupid down there, right?”

Mommy Kels is on duty. “Yes, darlin’.”

“Don’t you ‘yes, darlin’ ’ me, Harper Lee Kingsley. I expect you to come back here safe and sound, and in one piece. Do you understand?”

I have to bite my lower lip to keep from laughing. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Don’t you ‘ma’am’ me either.”

Now I do laugh. “Well, what should I call you?”

Kelsey harrumphs and changes the subject. “I spoke with Mama today. She said the rest of the baby furniture was delivered to our home. She and Papa put it in the babies’ room.”

“Perfect.” I know Kels has been worried about our New Orleans preparations. While our New York apartment is set, we, obviously, haven’t been down there and able to get our house ready. Kels is going through a huge nesting phase and it’s been driving her batty.

“Oh, I spoke with Langston today.”

“Yeah?”

“And Brenda is going to be out of town for the next couple weeks. She’s going to be our special election correspondent.”

Oh boy. “I thought we had decided to not have one of those.”

“I was able to convince Langston that it would be good to do a piece on the marginalization of the third parties.” I can hear the gloating in her voice over the phone.

“Let me guess …”

Kels lets loose with an evil laugh. “Oh yeah, Brenda is currently hanging out with the Buchanan camp.”

Truly a fate worse than death. And not just because it’s Buchanan. Reporters traditionally hate covering the candidates. The days are full of horrible food, cramped buses and airplanes, and endless, repetitive sound bites. I am completely proud of my girl for banishing Brenda to the reporter’s equivalent of Siberia. “How are my babies?”

“I’ll have you know they’re partially mine, too,” Kels teases. “And they miss you almost as much as I do.”

“I was thinking back to last Thanksgiving today.” I prop another pillow behind my head. “And remembering introducing you to the family and seeing you hold Clark for the first time.” I can’t help but chuckle a little. “You were so pitiful, but I can’t wait to see you hold our children, sweetheart. They are so lucky to have you. Almost as lucky as I am.” I intentionally echo her phrasing from before.

“Come home soon, Harper.”

* * *

Frankie pauses just outside the doors to the hospital. He looks a little pale. “What’s wrong, Frankie?”

“I don’t like hospitals.”

Who does? “I can understand that. Any particular reason?”

“Germs.”

I laugh, and then try to cover it up. “I’m sorry, man. Germs are everywhere. Not just in the hospital.”

“I know,” he says in a plaintive voice. “It’s just they’re so concentrated here.”

“You want to wait to in the truck?”

He shakes his head emphatically. “No.” A deep breath. “I’m set.”

I toss my arm around his shoulders as we walk in through the doors. “I could get you one of those doctor masks. You could look like Michael Jackson.”

“Or a doctor,” he counters.

I like this kid.

* * *

Mitch Robinson is not looking very good right now. He’s laid out on a Stryker bed. Stryker beds are used for severe spinal injuries and burn patients. It allows the patient to remain immobile but have varying pressure on their body to avoid bed sores. It looks like a piece of gym equipment from hell.

To keep Mitch from moving they have drilled a couple holes in his head and inserted big, metal rods in the holes and attached them to the bed. The doctors are uncertain about his chances of walking again. Things will be much clearer in the next few weeks, they say, once the swelling around the spinal cord has gone down.

His mother is sitting at his bedside. It’s been a long week for her. It’s very clear that she hasn’t eaten, slept or bathed regularly since his accident. I almost start to put myself in her place, but stop. I don’t want to even imagine either Brennan or Collin in Mitch’s place. My heart speeds up even beginning to think about it.

My hand drifts to my cell phone on my hip. I have an overwhelming urge to phone home and check on everyone.

No time to do so. Not as Kendra and Jacob walk through the door and begin setting up for the interview. Kendra is speaking softly with the mother, prepping her. Mitch is lying quietly, apparently still groggy from his most recent medication. I wonder if we’ll be able to do the interview today.

I almost hope we can’t.

* * *

“It’s really quite remarkable.” Kendra tears the top of an Equal packet and dumps its contents into her iced tea. “Kappa Tau Omega has had two severe injuries and one fatal accident in the last five years and the school has let them continue on without any adverse action. This doesn’t even take into account all the multiple broken bones, which as we heard from Mitch, were kinda like a rite of initiation into the fraternity. These kids were going broken, bloodied and bruised to their classes and no one did a damn thing.”

“They are legal adults,” I reply, playing Devil’s Advocate more than anything. If it were my kids … don’t even go there.

“Men are never really legal adults.” She pats her nephew on the arm. “Sorry, Frankie.”

He shakes his head and sips his shake. He learned to keep his cool from his aunt, I suspect.

“Do you think the administration didn’t care because of their parents?”

“You mean, because they’re wealthy?”

Kendra chews on her salad thoughtfully. “Exactly. Forget the first angle, the addiction to fear. How about incompetence of the administration?”

“How about we go where the story leads us? And try to stay objective?” She’s about to protest my not-so-subtle admonition, but I wave her off. “It’s infuriating, believe me, I know. If I stop and think about it too long, and if I let it get at all personal, I’m ready to go tear down the frat house brick by brick myself.”

Frankie blows a bubble into his shake. “That wouldn’t take long, Harper. That place was a rat hole.”

“True enough. I still think there’s merit in the first take, Kendra. Why do these kids feel a need to continually tempt fate?”

“You going to join them on their jump tomorrow?” she asks, a note of disapproval evident in her tone.

I have always wanted to go parachuting. The idea of leaping out of a plane and falling to earth … and living to tell about it … just sounds completely cool. Since I know my beloved won’t let me do this after the twins are born, this is most likely my one and only shot here.

Of course, she’ll never forgive me if anything bad happens.

“Well, one of us should go with them.”

Frankie turns liquid brown eyes on me. “Do you think Kelsey will let you?”

Let me? Let me?

Will Kelsey let me?

I am married, not dead.

She is not my mother, last I checked.

Let me?

Kendra swats her nephew once again. “Frankie,” she chastises. She knows exactly what I am thinking.

“Oh, I think I will be jumping tomorrow.”

* * *

We’re almost at ten thousand feet. Two miles above the earth. Sitting in an airplane with an open door and we’re planning on jumping out of it here in a few moments. I am attached to a jump instructor. It’s called a tandem freefall. All the thrill of a freefall with none of the danger. Or so the jump school brochure says.

I picked up an extra copy for Kels.

Seated by me is Rick. Since Kendra isn’t with us, he has decided to be extremely flirtatious with me. “I love the rush, the way the air massages my body while I’m going down.”

There’s something about the words ‘going down’ coming from his lips that is especially unattractive to me.

“It’s so cool. And, afterwards, you either want a cigarette or to do it again. You know?”

Yes, I know, Rick. You’re as subtle as a sledgehammer.

“I gotta tell you, Harper, this is better than sex!” These are his parting words to me as he jumps out of the airplane.

My instructor and I stand up and walk over to the doorway. He does one final check of our harness and we are ready to go. He taps me on the shoulder.

I grin, thrilled beyond measure at this moment. “Shut up and jump!” I take a deep breath, pray that Kels will never hear about this, and leap.

Oh yeah!

Oh yeah! This is great!

We’re falling at over one hundred miles an hour. Our free fall will last all of forty seconds before I will pull the parachute cord. Then we’ll have five minutes of floating down to earth. All of this cost two hundred dollars. I gotta invest in one of these schools.

Kels, honey, you’d love this.

Of course, I somehow doubt you’ll ever do this. Even if I survive this leap.

I look over at Rick and the other frat brothers who joined us on this jump. They are all doing flips and turns and generally showing off. They are shouting at one another, but I can’t make out a thing they are saying. Doesn’t matter. I’m having too much fun on my own.

The altimeter strapped to my jumpsuit beeps and it’s time to pull the cord. There is a built in buffer of ten seconds, so in case I forget to pull it, or get too scared, my instructor will. I pull it and I hear the very reassuring sound of the fabric unfolding. In a few moments, I feel the pull upwards.

Whoa!

That’s cool. I think I left my stomach about three hundred feet below me just now. Better than any roller coaster I’ve ever been on.

“What did you think?” my instructor shouts in my ear.

“Awesome!” I call back. But, I do have say one thing. “Rick says this is better than sex but I think that’s because he hasn’t been doing it right.”

We laugh all the way to our landing.

* * *

I lay on my side and try to get some sleep. It is not working. The twins are upset that their Mama isn’t around to read to them. They are completely not fooled by the tape recording of her voice I have been piping in to them today, either. So, to protest missing their favorite toy, they have been doing advanced gymnastics tonight.

“Shh, it’s okay. She’s coming home soon,” I soothe, rubbing my belly. “I know you miss her.” I sigh. “I miss her too.” One of them gives me a solid kick. “Easy now. Be nice to me. I’m all you have right now.” Another kick. “Hey! Settle down.”

I am so tired of sleeping on my side. I cannot wait until I can sprawl out on my back and sink into this wonderful featherbed. As much as I love these two, and as healthy a pregnancy as I have had so far, I am also thrilled at the prospect of not being pregnant in the near future. Having a huge stomach is completely wrong for my self-image. I hate not being able to see my toes or do sit ups or hug Harper as tightly as I want.

It’ll all be over soon. I’ll be thin again and I’ll have two wonderful children to show for it all.

And with these happy thoughts, I drift off to sleep.

I can smell magnolia.

There is a soft breeze coming in from the open windows.

I feel a caress on my skin. It’s Harper’s gentle touch. I would know it anywhere. I roll over and snuggle close to her, tossing my leg across her thighs. Her hand strokes my back, tracing gentle patterns on my skin.

I press myself close against her, molding my body to hers, my stomach flat against side, reveling in our skin on skin contact. We will never again buy pajamas. Flannel has nothing on the softness of her skin.

My hand travels up her side and moves to cover her left breast. I love the feel of her breasts, the mixture of firm and soft. I rub my thumb over her nipple, enjoying watching it come to attention. My mouth covers her right breast as it is so conveniently located for me.

“Kels,” Harper groans, turning toward me.

My tongue swirls around her nipple, tasting her slightly salty skin. I take a gentle bite and am rewarded with a loud groan and her arm tightening around me, keeping me in place. I had no intention of going anywhere as it was.

Harper is now stroking my hair, murmuring words of encouragement.

I climb on top of her, still suckling her breast and settle between her legs. I can tell immediately how turned on she is and I sigh at the discovery. This release of her nipple causes her to guide my mouth up to hers for a long and probing kiss.

She tastes good. Everywhere, I have discovered. We exchange slow, moist kisses for long minutes. Harper’s hands travel down to my buttocks and she kneads them, while pulling me tight against her. Her legs wrap around my calves and I groan. She knows I love feeling her curled around me.

She uses my distraction to her advantage. She rolls us over so that I am on my back and she is on top of me. I slide my arm around her neck and pull her full weight down on me.

I groan. This is nice. I love this. I feel so safe, secure, loved, when she is like this with me. Her hand finds my center and I gasp at the first touch.

“Like that, eh?” she whispers, nipping my earlobe.

“You know it,” I answer, opening myself up to her more fully. I slide two of my fingers into her mouth, and she takes them readily, rolling her tongue around them. Her mouth soon matches the rhythm set by her fingers. Her entire body is moving with mine, our breasts pressing against each other. The feel of her hard nipples scraping against mine causes a new flood of wetness from my body.

She groans at this discovery and begins moving faster, her thrusts stronger. I wrap my left leg around her hips, increasing the contact. I am overwhelmed with sensation, not able to concentrate solely on her mouth or hand or body.

As I feel my release building, I arch up into Harper, trying to merge us into one. We truly are one, in so many ways. This moment is just another expression of it. The pressure inside me mounts, and Harper can feel it with me because she changes her strokes, finding that place inside which she knows brings me over.

I fall, clutching her shoulders, digging into her soft skin, pulling her down on top of me completely.

We come to rest, sated.

And I wake up, frustrated.

* * *

I have to come clean. There’s no way around it. Shit. All this openness and honesty is gonna bite me in the ass. I know it will.

Is there any way I can make this sound accidental? ‘Hi, sweetheart, I went up in the plane with them, for purely work purposes, and … well, they required that I wear a parachute and be strapped onto a jump instructor just in case I accidentally fell out the open door.’

Somehow, I don’t think that’ll fly.

I could try the ‘Kendra made me do it’ line, but Kendra, the little truth-telling wench, won’t back me up with Kels.

The truth is that it’s all Frankie’s fault. He dared me. He’s the one who said Kels wouldn’t allow me to jump. So I had to. Of course, being coerced by a seventeen year old won’t really make me look good to my spouse either.

Shit.

Okay, how to play this? Am I penitent? Recognizing the error of my ways and promising not to do it again? Uck. Don’t really like that plan. Plus, who knows what else Kels might decide to ban?

Okay, so I am cocky about it? More informing the little woman what I did and not caring if she likes it or not? I check my knuckles. With that type of attitude they should either be scraping the ground as I walk or have a ton of hair on the back of them.

All right. So what approach is left? Should I go for honesty with a hint of contrition? I mean, she has admitted to loving my wild child side. Maybe loving is too strong a word, but she wasn’t repulsed by it. I’m married, not dead, dammit.

I pick up my cell phone and hit speed dial.

“Hi there, Stud.”

I love it when she calls me that, especially in that timbre of voice. Darlin’, if I were home, the things we’d be doing right now. Even my Mama would blush. “Chér,” I reply, in a lower register.

“I miss you.”

God, tell me about it. Parts of my anatomy are aching right now. And she’s only said six words to me so far. “I’m coming home soon. Only another day. We have an interview with a psychologist set up. The rest of the piece we can do in New York.”

“Good,” she purrs.

Can I go home early? “Miss me?” I tease.

She laughs. “A little. So how was sky diving?”

“Oh, God, Kels, it was so amazing! I mean, you leap out there and it feels like …” I stop. She got me. “How did you know?”

“I know you, Tabloid.”

Uh oh. We’ve switched nicknames. I preferred Stud in this conversation. “It was really very safe, sweetheart.”

“I’m sure it was.” She still doesn’t sound quite convinced or very happy. “You are talking to me right now. Are you in one piece?”

I nod. “I am.”

“Good.”

“I love you,” I try.

“I love you too,” comes the automatic response. Fortunately, I know she’s sincere, it’s just … her reply holds none of the promise our earlier discussion did.

Maybe this is why Rick says sky diving is better than sex. Once you jump, you don’t get any ever again.

* * *

Brian has taken Kam up to his room for the evening, promising to take him out for his walk later so Harper and I can enjoy our time together when she gets home. I glance at my watch. It should be any minute.

We prepared dinner and I’m so glad she’s coming home. Too bad she’s sleeping on the couch for a couple of nights. It was damned silly of her to take that chance. I left one relationship because I couldn’t stand watching someone I loved take her life into her own hands every night. I shiver as the very vivid memory of watching CJ put on a bullet proof vest and gun come flooding back.

Not that I plan on ever leaving Harper. She’s young and sometimes she doesn’t use all the active brain cells in her skull. I did some pretty damned silly things when I was her age too. All I can hope is that she’ll grow out of it.

Just as I finish lighting the candles, I hear the front door open and close.

“I’m home!” Boy, does she sound happy.

I meet her about halfway and the smile that breaks across her face is brilliant. “Miss me?”

“You know it, Stud. Come over her and give me a kiss.”

She grins and moves faster than I’ve seen her move in a while. She almost makes a mistake by saying hello to the babies first, but a firm finger under her chin reminds her differently. “Me first.” She obliges her demanding wife and gives me a kiss, slightly reminiscent of my dream the other night.

Once the kiss is complete, she gives me the look.

“Go ahead.” I chuckle. She’s on her knees before the word ‘ahead’ is out of my mouth.

“Hi, my sweet, little babies…”

She’s so cute. “Dinner is ready.”

“Give me a minute.” She kisses my belly then looks up. “What are we having?”

“Blackened steak, among other things.”

“Ooo, I love you.” She returns to my stomach. “And I love you both too, but your mommy made me dinner so I’m gonna go for a bit. I’ll be back.”

She gets up and we go to the dining room.

Settled at the table, I look over and grin. “So did you enjoy your little adventure, Tabloid?”

She pales slightly. “Umm, well, yeah, Kels, I did. I mean, come on. You knew when you married me I was an adrenaline junkie. That’s why I got into this business to begin with.”

I nod. It’s true, I did, but things have changed a bit now. “Point taken. I did know you were crazy. And you know, normally, I would never deny you anything that makes you happy, right?”

She looks up at me a bit surprised. “Right.”

“Okay. Will you at least admit that what you did this week was stupid and dangerous?”

“Stupid and dangerous? I don’t know, sweetheart. I mean, it’s a safe sport, really. More kids have been sent to the hospital this year because of those new scooters than from skydiving accidents.”

“You’re not a kid. You’re an adult, married, with two children on the way, and a wife you knew would not want you to do it.”

“Honey.” She looks down at the table then back to me. “It was something I had to do.”

“All right. I can respect that. Doesn’t mean I have to like it. But think about this: you could have been killed. What would have happened if you had been seriously injured? Maybe paralyzed from the neck down and never able to hold our babies.”

I can feel tears welling in my eyes. Vivid pictures of Christopher Reeve flashing in my mind and for one, brief, second see Harper in that state. I blink them back, determined not to make this an emotional outburst.

“Kels, don’t say anything like that.” I watch as she crosses herself. “Sweetheart, I wouldn’t have done it if I thought there was any serious danger. I’m sorry to have upset you, though, chér. I didn’t mean to. And I would never do anything to jeopardize our family.”

“See, there’s the problem I have with this. You didn’t think. Harper, we have far more responsibilities here now. We can’t go and do these things without thinking about what if. It seems to me that purposely putting yourself two miles into the air, attached only to a large sheet of nylon, is just damned silly. Whether you see it or not, or whether you admit it or not, you did jeopardize our family. You know, if you’d been hurt and someone had to call me with that news…” I pause, I know I’m getting emotional. I take a deep breath. “Can you say early labor?”

She takes my hand. “I am sorry. You are right. We have a lot more responsibilities. I knew you wouldn’t like it. I disagree with you about how safe it is, but, I should have factored in your feelings about it all. Forgive me?”

“Harper, you’re an adult. There’s nothing for me to forgive. You have free will to do what you want. All I ask is that from now on, you take a look past your ego and the need for an adrenaline fix and consider other factors. Okay?”

“I don’t think it’s about my ego, sweetheart. Or being an adrenaline junkie. It’s just I should have been more considerate of your feelings and concerns. For that, I apologize and will do things differently. But you knew going into this that I like to play. I can’t – and don’t want to – change that part of me.”

I chuckle and nod. I’m too upset to continue this conversation. I understand what she’s saying but she doesn’t seem to be getting my point so I’ll stop. Maybe another time. In the meantime, I’ll simply try to keep her on the ground. Besides, I can see that taking the time to point out the only reason someone does this is for the danger factor isn’t going to work right now. She enjoyed it and will find a way to justify it, no matter what I say. It is, after all, an addiction to fear that calls my spouse and those college kids and others to do these wild stunts.

The most important thing I can do right now is stay calm. Getting upset isn’t good for the babies or me. And I won’t risk them over a silly argument. “So other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” I grin. “Did you get a good story?”

“We did. Frankie did a good job, Kels. You’d be proud of him. I want to give him a piece of his own soon.”

“How about the Halloween piece we were scheduled to do before I got the desk? It was supposed to be a fluff piece. Something soft. I’ll bet you could find something there.”

“That’s a great idea. I’ll do that. He might pass out when I tell him the good news.”

I groan. “We need to attach an oxygen tank to that boy.”

With dinner done, it’s late and I’m tired. Time for Mommy and babies to go to bed. We head toward the bedroom. I stop at the entrance to the living room.

“Here’s where you get off, Tabloid.” I point to the couch that has been made up for her.

She looks at it, then back to me and groans. “You’re kidding me.”

“Do I look like I’m kidding?”

“Unfortunately, you don’t. I’m banished because of one free fall?”

I tuck her bottom lip back in. “Yup.” I lean up and give her a little kiss. “You play, you pay. Good night, Tabloid.”

“Can I come into our,” she emphasizes ‘our’, “bedroom and get my pajamas, at least? Maybe brush my teeth, stuff like that?”

“Darling, you can do all that stuff, if you like. It is our room. But one of us is sleeping on the couch so if you even try to get into our,” now it’s my turn to emphasize ‘our’, “bed, I’ll be the one on the couch.”

She gives me a heavy sigh. “How long is my being cast out into utter darkness lasting?”

“Until I’m not mad anymore.” I head into our room.

* * *

What the hell happened?

Why am I sleeping here on this couch instead of in my own goddamned bed?

I apologized.

I said I was sorry for not taking Kels’ concerns more into consideration before I jumped. But, Jesus, this is over the top. It’s not like I fucked around. And, Lord knows, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to do just that.

No. I took one little free fall and now I’m banished.

Fine.

I push myself up from the couch and start to head toward the door. And stop myself.

You’re mad. You’re hurt. But you are not stupid and insane. Walking out would be the most asinine thing you could ever, ever do. So get yourself back into the living room.

I go back, pick up my cell phone and head out onto our balcony. I punch in Gerrard’s phone number and will him to be home. “Tante Harper!” Danielle squeals into the phone, recognizing my number from caller ID.

“Hello, sweetheart. How are you?” I force myself to sound happy, despite my mood. I half listen as Danielle goes off on a five minute dissertation about her day. I make appropriate listening noises. Come on, Harper, pay attention. This is family. I follow the end of the story and congratulate her on getting first chair in the flute section of the school orchestra. “Is your Papa around?”

“Sure. We can’t wait for you and Aunt Kelsey to come down for the babies to be born! Can I hold them?”

“Mais, oui. You’re their older cousin. We’re counting on you to be there for them growing up.”

“I will, Tante Harper, I will.” She places the phone gently on the table and runs off to find my brother.

“What did you do this time?”

I sigh and suddenly find myself on the brink of tears. Pull it together, Harper. This is not the end of the world. “Hey, Gerrard.”

He can tell I’m upset. “What’s wrong, little sister? Is Kelsey okay? The twins?”

“They’re fine.”

His tone is gentle. “What’s wrong, chér?”

“She threw me out of the bedroom! She even had the stupid couch made up before I came home! She threw me out, Gerrard,” I finish quietly. What if she never lets me back in? Well done, Harper. You managed to fuck up the best thing in your life. You’ll never get to see your kids grow up. Hell, they won’t even be your kids. I suck in a deep breath.

“What happened, Harper? Start from the top.”

I tell him about the piece, my sky dive, my homecoming and Kels’ irrational response to my apology. He listens like the judge he is and then he clucks at me. What the hell? “Sit down, Harper.”

“I don’t want to,” I protest.

“Harper,” he says in his best big brother tone.

“Fine, fine.” I wander over to the hammock and flop down in it. “I’m sitting.”

“Let’s think about this piece you just did.” I groan. I could have seen that coming. “Why do those kids like doing those sports?”

“To prove they’re not afraid. To prove they’re alive. At least, that’s the angle we’re taking on the story.”

“Ah,” he says softly. “Alive. At the end of the day, they did this crazy thing and they’re still alive, right? Feels wonderful.”

“Sure does.” It did. I rocked when I came down.

“These kids you interviewed, what do they have to lose if something goes wrong?”

“Their lives, their health.” Thoughts of Mitch in that hospital bed hit me.

“Exactly. Who else do they belong to?”

I frown, not quite understanding what he’s getting at. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, if something happens to them, who is affected?”

Mitch’s mom. “Their parents.”

“Right. These kids don’t have wives or kids, do they?” He pauses for a moment to let that sink in. “They do all these wild stunts because they don’t have much to lose. They only have themselves, really, at the end of the day.”

Shit.

“Now, if I went and hopped out of an airplane, knowing that Katherine wouldn’t be thrilled with that idea, what am I telling her that I think of her opinion?”

Shit.

“What am I saying about how I value our family? And my role in it?”

Shit.

“Or, to put it in a way you might understand better, what if you came home and found out that Kelsey had been going to work while you were down in Atlanta? And that every night to relieve the stress, she was drinking down a bottle of wine?”

I feel myself getting mad at the mere idea of it. “I’d be pissed.”

“There you go. Harper, this woman just stood by you after you were blinded less than three months ago. She was so stressed, so worried about you. You repay her by jumping out of an airplane, even when you know she won’t like it? Even when she is pregnant with your children?”

Shit.

“Suck it up. Take your punishment. And crawl to her on your hands and knees and beg her forgiveness.”

Way to go, Harper Lee. “You ever have to do that with Katherine?”

He laughs, long and hard. “The only way you get wisdom is from completely screwing up. Over and over again.”

“Thanks, Gerrard. But I don’t recall saying you were wise.”

“You will, little sister. You will.”
Episode Twelve: The Spirit is Willing
I wake up very well aware of where I am. I was finally readmitted into our bedroom after two and a half long, lonely nights on the couch. I tighten my arms around Kels and pull her back against me. I am rewarded with a firm kick from one of the twins for disrupting their slumber.

Tough luck, kiddo. I didn’t sleep for two nights. You can handle a little jostling.

Kels runs her hands over my forearms, finally playing with my fingers, pulling them back from her stomach and then letting them fall. “Go back to sleep,” she whispers.

I snuggle as close to her as possible. “You talking to me or the kids?”

“Both.” She reaches down and tugs the blanket up around her stomach.

I prop myself up on my left elbow and look down at my girl.

“Tabloid,” she says sleepily.

“Yes?”

“Something on your mind?”

“Why’d you come get me from the couch last night?” I was inordinately grateful, but rather surprised. Kels wandered out around midnight, tapped me on the shoulder, extended her hand, and led me back to our bed.

“Those were beautiful flowers you sent yesterday afternoon.”

I chuckle. “I had hoped you would like them.” I lean down and kiss her cheek. “So this is all about wild flowers?”

“There was also your pitiful expression for the last couple days.”

“I was hoping it would finally arouse your sympathy.”

One green eye opens to study me. “It’s the only thing it aroused, so don’t get any funny ideas, Tabloid.”

“Just happy to be here with my family, Kels.” I play with her hair, eliciting a soft sigh from my girl. “You three are my whole world. I am so glad to be a part of your life. Thank you for letting me in.”

“You’re welcome, Tabloid.” She tugs me back down behind her and snuggles into my arms. “I love you,” she manages through her yawn. “I just need to rest.”

“Relax. I’m here.” I nuzzle her neck, inhaling the scent of her shampoo, lotion and skin. It is a heady mixture.

“Hmm, I know. That’s the best part.”

* * *

We’re on our way upstate to a little B&B Matt is thinking about investing in. Not only will it be a nice getaway for Kels and me, but also it’s perfect for Frankie’s first piece. The whole draw of this place is that it’s supposed to be haunted.

Should be fun.

I glance into my rearview mirror. Kels is dozing with her head resting on a pillow we brought, our wedding blanket tucked around her from the belly down. Kam has his head in her lap. What little there is left of it.

I glance over at Brian, who is riding shotgun. He’s reading a book. I don’t know how people do that in a moving car, makes me queasy. “Brian?”

“Yeah, Stud.”

I refrain from rolling my eyes. “You and Kels talk a lot, right?”

“Yeah, since we’re together so much, we talk a lot.”

“Will you give me a straight up answer to a question? No bullshit?”

He takes a deep breath. “As long as it doesn’t require me to betray any confidence, sure.”

I look at him. I’m not sure how to take that. Is Kels keeping secrets from me? Or is he just such a well-trained reporter’s assistant that he knows the rules and the ropes?

“Okay. That’s fair.” That took a lot for me to say. “How is Kels doing? I get the feeling sometimes she’s putting up a huge front right now and…”

I stop, noticing he’s shaking his head. “She’s okay, Harper. She’s just a little stressed.” He stops and grins at me. “And totally pissed she had to give up her Series tickets. She keeps bitching about the fact that Barbara Walters is getting to go to the games and she’s not.”

Like he needed to tell me that. Jesus, you’d think the world had come to an end because Kels can’t go to the World Series. I think I almost got my ass tossed back to the couch for not understanding how colossally big this Subway Series thing is. The stress alone of the first two games nearly sent my beloved into pre-term labor. “Anything else? Besides the Mets-Yankees tragedy of 2000?”

He shrugs. “It’s the last few weeks before the babies come. She’s scared.”

“Scared?”

“Yeah.” He twists in his seat to make sure she’s still sleeping. Satisfied that she is, he turns back around. “She seems to think something is gonna go wrong. She’s had two or three meetings with her attorney to make sure everything is in order.”

“Damn.” I tap my fingers against the wheel. “Yeah, I know about the stuff with Beth, but what kind of something is she worried about?”

“She says it’s not anything she can put her finger on. She has a feeling. I think it’s a natural reaction to becoming a parent for the first time. Plus, she’s headed into real unfamiliar territory.”

“We both are.”

“Not as much for you, though, coming from a big family. Plus, you’re not the one giving birth. I know you’re planning on being there,” he says quickly to forestall my objection. “Let’s face it, Harper, Kels is the one who’s going to be in pain and the one who is ultimately going to have to be fully committed to having the babies. That’s gotta be totally scary.”

Hmm, good point, Brian. I glance back at my sleeping beauty in the rear view mirror. She looks so young when she’s asleep. I wish I could be back there and snuggle with her.

The cell phone in the truck rings and I hit the hands free button. Nothing I hate worse that people who try to drive while hanging onto a cell phone. “Kingsley.”

“Harper, it’s Frankie.”

“Hi there, kid. What’s up?”

“We’re getting ready to leave the studio and meet you at the B&B, but someone from wardrobe left a note in your office asking if they needed to fit me for anything.”

“Nah, kid, you got nice casuals packed, right?”

He laughs. “Don’t I always?” It’s true, he always looks good, even dressed down.

“That’ll be good for this piece. Don’t sweat it. And if we find we need something when we get there, I’ll show you how to use an expense account.”

“Great.” He pauses for a second. “Umm, is Kelsey with you?”

“Yeah.” I grin. I can hear the blush.

“Think if I get stuck she’ll give me some pointers?”

I glance back at my slumbering wife. “Just try to stop her.”

* * *

This is a truly lovely little place. If Dad doesn’t invest in it, I might. If we didn’t have our place in New Orleans, this is the kind of home I would want for us here: in the country, lots of trees, fresh air, with a lake close by.

Kam is running around, getting up close and personal with all the trees. He looks like a very happy pup. Harper and Brian are unloading our luggage and I’m trying to figure out how to make my backstop aching. I know what’ll do it. Giving birth, yup, that’s the ticket.

I notice that Frank and the crew haven’t arrived yet. The para-psychologist team hasn’t made it either. Well, maybe, Harper, Brian, Kam and I will have to spend a night in this spooky old house by ourselves. I make the mistake of mentioning this though to my assistant.

Brian pauses at the front door, setting down the bags he is carrying. Turning around delicately, he walks back over to me. “Gay men do not stay in houses that talk to them. It’s in our handbook.”

“The Fairy Tales?” Harper calls over from the Range Rover.

“Oh, hardy har har,” he replies, smirking. He’s just mad he didn’t get to make the joke himself. “When the walls start bleeding, don’t come running to me, Stud.”

“Yeah, you were going to be my first line of defense.”

He sticks out his tongue and marches back to the house, opening the door dramatically. I didn’t know that was possible, but it is. Deciding to play with my spouse a little, I call out, “Brian, if you get too scared, you can always come sleep between Harper and me.”

“Hey!” I get the response I was aiming for.

“Oh, goody! Sleeping with Mommy and Dad!” Brian claps excitedly. “I’ll bring the popcorn.”

I do my best to keep from laughing.

I fail.

“It’s a good thing I love you, Kels.” She takes the rest of the luggage and heads inside.

I wander in after her. The place is really charming. Very rustic. The background file says it’s set up as a retreat. The house only has six bedrooms. A small group can rent the entire house if they wish and have maid and cooking service, or they can choose to do that for themselves. It simply depends on their needs.

It has electricity, but no TV, no radio, no phone, no computer lines, nothing. You come here to rest and relax, and commune with nature and – according to legend – at least six different ghosts.

Needless to say… we are on our own.

* * *

Harper and I take the master suite on the first floor. Very nice. Lovely, large room with eighteenth century décor. The bed is a large, four poster reproduction, all the other furnishings are complimentary. The fact that the bedroom has been redone to include an outsized sliding glass door to a deck overlooking the lake doesn’t detract from it at all. I notice a huge wood burning fireplace on the far wall. Very nice indeed.

I reach to the floor for my overnight bag only to get my hand swatted away by my darling spouse. I grin at her as she puts it on the bed for me. “Thank you, Tabloid.”

“I’m still not sure why you unpack when we do these things.”

“Hate living out of a suitcase,” I tell her as I scoop my clothes out of the bag and put them in the dresser.

“You certainly got in a desirable line of work for that particular little dislike,” she teases. She unzips her suitcase on a luggage stand and that’s where it and all of its contents will stay while we’re here.

“I’m not living out of it.” I point to the dresser. “See? It’s there and I’m here.”

“Semantics.”

“Umm hmm.” I nod, moving to her and wrapping my arms around her. “Have I told you lately I love you?”

She makes a show of looking at her watch. “Not since about seven fifteen this morning.”

“What is wrong with me?” I lean up and give her a long, deep kiss. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

“Wanna take your favorite girl for a walk by the lake?”

“Absolutely.” She removes my arms from her waist and moves to the door of the bedroom. “Brian, wanna go for a walk by the lake?” she calls down the hallway.

I don’t bother to wait for him to answer her. “Oh very funny, Tabloid.” I step out on the deck and take in a breath of cool, crisp air. It’s not long before I feel her arms slip around me. “Settling for second best?”

“Afraid so,” her comment is tempered by a sparkle in her blue eyes. “Anyway, Brian is busy nailing up crosses, sharpening wooden stakes, getting his holy water rounded up…”

“Did you tell him we’re looking for ghosts, not vampires?” I chuckle, rubbing her hands that rest against my belly.

Funny how aware I am becoming of every sensation. I can feel the fine hairs on the back of Harper’s hands. I swear I can hear her heartbeat from twenty feet away. I constantly must have something that holds her essence on or near my body, just so I can take a deep breath and have her close to me. Even when she isn’t. And kissing her now is as sweet as the honey I put in my tea. I think it’s mainly because I’m at a point now where I’m not feeling particularly sexy and we’re down to cuddling and nuzzling.

We both knew this would happen eventually so we make the best of it. Harper’s being a real trooper about the whole thing. She holds me in her arms and uses that damn penlight to play with the babies. We talk about the twins and all the things we want to do with them. I simply like to look at her hands, play with her fingers and listen to her.

“So you gonna build a fire in the fireplace for me tonight before I go to bed?” I give her a little nudge. “Since you’re going to be running around looking for ghosts.”

“Anything you want.”

“Right now, I want to take a walk by the lake.”

“Let’s go.” She bounds off the deck by jumping over the rail. Then she offers me her hand from the bottom of the steps.

“I can use the steps, right?”

“I’d prefer it, actually.”

“Good. So would I. I don’t much feel like a flying squirrel right now.”

Harper laughs, giving my hand a squeeze. “Now that’s a cute mental picture. I bet you’d be a cute squirrel.” She reaches up and pinches my cheek, for which I nearly swat her. “My own little Rocky.”

“My own little Bullwinkle.”

* * *

Once the rest of the production crew arrive, I leave Harper to do her job, getting everyone settled and giving the crew their production sheets for the next couple of nights.

I get the feeling everyone is going to have a really good time with this piece. I can tell Frank is dying to get started. I remember having energy and enthusiasm like that once.

Then I got pregnant. Now I am a slug. A fat slug.

I grab Kam’s leash and let Harper know we’re going for a little walk and we’ll be back in a half hour or so. She raises her hand to acknowledge me without disrupting her duties to the crew. I take a deep, satisfying breath. I do love watching her work, but I’m not allowed to, so I’m going for a walk.

As I head outside another car pulls up. Two women and a man climb out and Kam is immediately on the alert. I know this dog is capable of tearing a man apart, but I have to admit he’s kinda cute when he gets all protective and the fur on his neck stands up. I reach down and give him a pat and a scratch. “Easy, boy, it’s okay.”

One of the women approach, keeping a careful eye on my puppy. I extend my hand. “It’s okay, he won’t bite. I’m…”

“Kelsey Stanton. I know. I’m actually a big fan.” She takes my hand and gives me a very charming smile. It’s still odd to hear someone tell me she’s a fan of mine. It also sends a certain shiver down my spine. “Thanks. And you are?”

“I’m sorry. I’m Dr. Andrea Silverman. I’m your para- psychologist, a.ka. ghost hunter.” She shrugs her shoulders. Then she gives me a good, hard look. “Do you believe in the spirit world, Miss Stanton?”

Ooo, I really want to correct her but I can’t. That’s really frustrating.

“Yes, yes, I do.” I think back to the piece I did early on with Exposure. “Well, I’m glad you’re here, but I’m not here in an official capacity this weekend. I’m just enjoying the country. The person you need is inside. She’s the producer of the piece, Harper Kingsley. You can’t miss her.”

Boy, isn’t that the truth?

“Great. Thanks. I hope maybe we can talk a bit more later?” She releases my hand very slowly.

“Sure, I’ll be around. I’m just taking my boy here for a walk.” I give Kam another scratch and he licks my hand.

“Terrific. I look forward to it.” She gives me a smile and a little wink before turning to give her own team their orders and heading inside to find Harper. I look to my pup. “She wasn’t flirting with me, was she?”

Kam cocks his head and seems to lift his brow, as if to say ‘Well, duh’. Oh boy, I so do not need this. Note to self: Keep clear of Dr. Silverman. Wouldn’t want Harper to kill Frank’s expert even before he gets the chance to do his first piece.

Besides, what in the hell is she thinking? I’m obviously very pregnant. I reach under Harper’s jersey and take my wedding band out and let it dangle on its chain on the outside for the entire world to see. There lady, now buy a clue.

* * *

Frank is off with the ghost hunters watching them rig the house with all their equipment. I looked it over while they were unpacking. They do have some really cool toys. If I give up broadcasting, I may go into ghostbusting if only to play with the neat stuff.

My crew is all set and they’re in the kitchen fixing lunch so I’m off in search of my girl. I need to take a nap in order to be up tonight and help Frankie get started. Naturally, I want to see if I can talk my wife into a nice, little cuddle with me. I’ll bet I can, reading and napping are her two favorite pastimes these days.

Stopping by the kitchen I watch my crew, which consists of four guys from the studio, devour lunchmeat sandwiches like they haven’t eaten for a week. Looks like Mama feeding the boys. I open the fridge and lean in to get water and juice before going to look for Kels. Suddenly I jerk up, hitting my head on the door.

Oh, that just didn’t happen.

I turn around slowly, trying to get a grip on my anger so I won’t kill the wrong one. “Okay, who’s the smart ass?” They all stop mid-chew and look at me like I’m nuts. I slowly lick my lips then grit my teeth before continuing. “Which one of you pinched my ass?”

Their eyes grow huge and they all deny it, even putting down sandwiches so they can make futile gestures of innocence.

I glare. “Do it again and die.” I take my stuff and stalk out of the kitchen.

Stepping outside, I find Kels playing with Kam. She’s tossing around his favorite toy. It’s this big hard rubber chew toy that kind of looks like a snowman, it’s called a Kong. We had to start buying him these because he was chewing all his other toys up within days. Those are some mean teeth in his head. He likes this one because it will bounce like a ball. So Kels bounces it off the ground and he jumps up and catches it, then he runs back and drops it at Kels’ feet. When she doesn’t bend over to pick it up, he picks it up and nudges her hand until she takes it.

Kam loves his mommy.

“Hey, beautiful.” I stroll down into their playground and offer the juice to her. “Wanna take a nap with me?”

“We are talking a real nap and not the kind of nap your parents take, right?”

“Aww, Kels.” I grimace and take a sip of my water. “Did you have to go and say that?”

She smiles and wrinkles her nose at me, then tosses Kam’s toy for him again. “I might be persuaded.”

I take her wedding ring between my fingers and give the chain a little tug. “What’s this? You should keep it tucked in your shirt so you don’t lose it.”

I start to put it back for her when Kels captures my hand. “Leave it, Tabloid.” She gives my hand a little kiss. “You said something about a nap?”

“Yeah, then you mentioned my parents. Thanks so much.”

“Sorry.”

Kam brings his toy back and drops it, then nudges me in the butt. What is it with my rear end today? I bend over and get his toy, giving it a good toss into the edge of the woods. “So, did you enjoy your little excursion?”

“Yeah, I did. It was nice. Come on, let me show you something.”

She takes my hand and leads me behind the house into an old barn. It doesn’t stable horses anymore but they store the grounds keeping equipment in here and keep fresh straw. The pile already looks like it’s been nested in by a certain spouse and her dog.

“It’s like the barn my Pa used to have when I was a kid.” She tells me as we make for the pile of straw. “Of course, when I was a kid,” she slowly lowers herself into the pile and invites me to join her, “I used to climb into the loft. Got my first kiss in a hayloft.” She gives me a little grin.

“Oh yeah?” I drop down next to her and she automatically snuggles in and we get comfortable. “And who was the lucky recipient of your first kiss?”

Kam trots in. He looks at us, realizes his playtime is over, and lays down at the entrance to the barn on guard duty.

I give my girl a little poke. “Fess up, who did you smooch first?”

“Actually, it was my best friend, Rebecca. She lived on the next ranch over and we used to go horseback riding together. One day, after we brushed down our horses, we climbed up in the hayloft…”

“Hey, I thought Beth…”

“Beth was my first as far as sex went. This was only a kiss. You know the first ‘Never done it, what’s it like’ childhood kiss. God, Harper, I think I was all of ten or eleven at the time. Don’t tell me you didn’t have one of those.”

“No, I was fifteen or sixteen and I pretty much went right for the gusto.” I take a drink of my water and realize that this is really comfortable, snuggled down in the straw.

“Really? Tell me.”

“Not much to tell, really. I was captain of the softball team…”

“Of course, you were.” She rolls her eyes and plays with the buttons on my shirt.

“Do you want to hear this story, or not?”

“Sorry.”

“One night after a late game, I went out with some friends and we met up with the cheerleaders for the team we had played earlier in the day. Well, their captain and I…”

“Have you no shame?” She chuckles, unbuttoning the first three buttons of my shirt and allowing her hand to sneak in there.

“About as much as you do.” I glance down at her hand.

“I’m your wife. That was the rival cheerleading captain . So what happened?”

“Well, let’s just say my team won twice that night.”

* * *

Okay, it’s about ten o’clock, Kels is sound asleep in our room and the ghostbusting has begun. The research team has been monitoring the house all day, watching for changes of any type in the temperature or electromagnetic field. I look at the bank of monitors and notice for the first time there is a camera in our room.

Oh, shit. Gonna have to make sure there’s no tape of that kiss I gave Kels when I tucked her in. Well, I had to thank her for what she did for me in the barn. Got to love a woman who remembers I still have needs, and who takes care of them so very nicely.

I watch as Frankie follows the ghoul crew around as they take measurements in the house and try to find one of these six ghosts who supposedly live here. I hope they find something or poor kid will be devastated. He doesn’t understand that I can make a story out of crap. I have a lot of experience working with Bruce.

I listen in and watch with some amusement as they stop and take pictures and find spots in the house that are supposedly cooler than others. Well, no shit, this house is over a hundred years old. It’s gonna have cold spots.

I want to see a guy coming down the steps holding his head in his hands. Something else that sounds dirty but isn’t, since I’m referring to the one that should be on his shoulders. Ah, I think it’s time for a beer. I leave the scream team to do their thing and head for the kitchen.

Dr. Silverman is at the kitchen table looking over some of the data they’ve collected. “What’s up, Doc?” She gives me a smile and looks back down at her papers. I twist the cap off my beer and take a seat on a stool near one of the counters. “You find anything interesting around here?”

“A couple of things. There’s definitely some unusual activity in the house. We’ll know more in the morning.”

“Great. Can you sit down tomorrow and do an interview with Frankie?”

“Absolutely.” She looks up and takes sip of her coffee. “What’s the deal with Kelsey Stanton?”

“Excuse me?” I nearly choke on my beer.

“Kelsey Stanton, you know, the cute blonde one? I hear there’s no man in her life. Thought maybe you could tell me what the deal was. She’s quite an attractive woman.”

“She’s also quite the private woman. I’d leave her alone if I were you.”

“Yeah, well, she can be a private person. I’m a private person, and you’re not me. Thanks. That’s all I needed to know.”

“No, it’s not all you needed to know. Stay away from her.”

She looks up from her papers. “You have a vested interest in the good Ms. Stanton, I take it? Is it serious?”

I force myself to keep from growling. “Her name is Kingsley. Those are my kids she’s having. My ring is – well, currently – around her neck. Yes, I’m thinking it’s serious.”

She nods slowly. “Gotcha. Sorry. I didn’t realize.” She closes up her folder. “I really am sorry. I’ll just go crawl under a rock now.” She chuckles a bit as she heads for the door.

Good. Stay there.

* * *

I hear the voice saying my name and I roll over, assuming Harper is waking me up for some reason. My breath catches in my throat when I see him.

“Erik?” I sit up and rub my eyes. I must be dreaming. But even when I shake my head and am sure I’m awake, he’s still standing there by the sliding glass door looking at me.

“Hi, Kels.” He gives me a shy, little wave.

“I…I…I…” I swing my legs over the side of the bed and he motions for me to stay put.

“Don’t get up. You need your rest.” He walks across the room and kneels before me. His hands travel to my stomach. His hands are warm, surprising me. “Collin, huh?” A smile crosses his lips. “I’m honored.”

“I miss you.” I want to cry. I realize this must be a dream, but I can’t seem to wake up from it. I run my hand through his hair. Yeah, it’s got to be a dream. Ghosts aren’t this solid, are they?

“Don’t miss me, Kels. I’m always near and keeping an eye on things.”

“I’m so sor…”

“Oh no, sweetheart, don’t apologize. I did what I had to do. I don’t regret it.” His eyes are still that soft shade of blue. “I’m glad you’re happy and finding everything you always wanted. Remember, I told you, that one of these days you’d find the one.” He chuckles. “I didn’t think it’d be Harper Kingsley, but, hey, it works. Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken.”

“I love her, Erik.”

“Yup, we know.” He nods.

“We?”

“Ah, there are a few of us keeping an eye on you. We’re glad you finally found your happiness, Kels. Your grandmother wanted me to tell you she thinks Grace is a fitting name for your little girl.”

I smile. “Yeah, I bet she does. Tell her I love her, will you?”

He stands up and takes a step back. “She knows, Kels. We all know.” He gives me a little gesture. “Don’t worry about a thing. Everything is going to be perfectly fine.”

I watch as he simply vanishes.

Okay, I won’t be mentioning this to anyone or they’re going to think I’ve totally cracked up.

I need tea. Or a good psychiatrist. Glad I know a couple.

* * *

It’s nearly four in the morning. My girl couldn’t sleep again and so we’re awake together. The family that doesn’t sleep
together … is grumpy together, or something like that.

Kels is so uncomfortable lately. She is, for lack of a better word, huge. Having twins will do that to you, I suppose. It seems that lately she can’t get comfortable in any position for long. One of the two kids always seems to be sitting on her bladder, the other against the small of her back, or some other painful combination. They also seem to like karate practice between the two of them.

I am trying to be the supportive partner I want to be. So, when Kels is up and uncomfortable, I am up and trying to make her comfortable. Thus, we are sitting outside, near the lake, bundled up in a ton of blankets, drinking hot chocolate, and looking out at the water. Kels is in the circle of my arms, leaning against me. She’s even allowing me to rest my mug on her stomach. One of the twins is kicking it, of course, so I am careful to drink it down so it won’t slosh over onto Kels.

“What do you think they’ll be like?” I ask, kissing Kels’ cheek and then doing a little ear nibble.

She leans into me more. “Hmm … I am betting that Brennan takes after you.”

“Oh really? And why is that?”

“She loves you already. I think you’re her favorite.”

I laugh softly. “Hardly, sweetheart. Besides, I hope she’s exactly like you.” I do. I want her to have blonde hair and green eyes and the cutest smile in the world. I want her to be perfect like her Mommy, so that some other lucky man or woman can have all the joy I do.

“She certainly knows when you’re talking to her. The little stinker does flips whenever you’re around.”

“Do you really think it’s her? How can you be sure? It’s not like you have a little window in there.” I tickle her stomach. “Or do you?”

She captures my hand in hers and squeezes my fingers. “No, the hood hasn’t been installed yet. But if they take much longer in coming, I might have it put in.”

“No, you keep them for a little yet, chér. But, really, can you tell the difference between the two of them?” That would be amazing, if she could.

“I don’t know for sure. But when I use their names, I think Brennan is on the right and Collin is on the left. I could be totally wrong, but … that’s how is feels. We’ll have to see if Doogie can tell us this week. I’ll be he can. It’s not like they have a lot of room to move around.”

“Either that or we’ll have two totally confused kids on our hands in a few weeks.”

We settle into silence together, simply enjoying our togetherness. I wonder how much of this we’ll be able to do once the twins get here. Although, the mere thought of holding Kels as she holds our children sends a bolt of joy through me like I’ve never known before.

I press my cheek against Kels’ and let my mind simply drift. I look out at the lake and watch the moonlight sparkle on the water like scattered diamonds. I can hear the gentle lapping of the water against the dock and, strangely enough, what sounds like the rhythmic stroking of a paddle in the water.

“Harper,” Kels breathes out softly, tugging on my hand.

I follow her gaze out to the center of the lake. “Oh,” is all I can manage in reply. Moving out of the mist, gliding across the water, is a canoe. It is piloted by a young Native American brave. Seated opposite from him is his woman, wrapped in garments with designs similar to our wedding blanket.

“You see that, right?” Kels asks.

“I sure do,” I answer, trying to remember if there are any reservations near this area. Hoping there are.

We watch the young couple move across the lake, disappearing into the fog on the far side.

“Care to go back inside?” I hope I get the right answer from my girl.

“I think that would be good.”

Thank you, God.

* * *

I leave Harper sleeping and crawl out of bed. It’s very early, but I can hear people moving around. Or I should say, I can hear Brian in the kitchen, singing. Ah, it’s Saturday morning. He always makes me a wonderful western omelet on Saturday mornings. I slip on my robe and head for the kitchen. Besides, I need time to consider the fact I’m apparently the only one around here seeing things.

My faithful assistant is bent over getting a pan from under the cabinet. I know I shouldn’t but I can’t resist. I get as close as I dare and…

“Boo!”

He screams, jerking backward, then skids before falling to his butt. I step over him and pour a glass of juice.

“You bitch!” He is quick to offer as he scrambles from the floor. “It’s a good thing I love you.”

“You scream like a girl,” I tell him, watching him dust his backside as he gets up.

“You expected something else? Of course, I scream like a girl. That’s in the handbook, too.”

“Why do you get a handbook, by the way?”

“Because lesbians get toasters.”

“Cute.” I take a seat at the breakfast table. “What’s for breakfast?”

“You don’t deserve breakfast after that little stunt.” He puts his hands on his hips and taps his foot impatiently.

I point to my belly. “You want to tell them or should I?”

“That’s blackmail.”

“Yeah, cool, isn’t it?” I tease. “The one thing I’ll miss about being pregnant.”

Before Brian can say anything, Frank comes bouncing into the kitchen. Showered, shaved, dressed and ready to go. Apparently he doesn’t know gay men are supposed to spend the first part of the morning in a dingy gray T-shirt and boxers or sweats. I mean, doesn’t this guy watch Will and Grace?

“Good morning.” He takes a seat next to me. “Umm, Kels, …I was wondering if you’d give me a hand later with my interview questions?”

“You do them and I’ll look them over. I can offer suggestions, but ultimately it’s your segment. You have to take the responsibility for its content, good, bad or indifferent. And I don’t expect you to let my comments influence what you want to do or what you plan on doing. If you do that, then you’re already compromising yourself and a great reporter never does that under any circumstance.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“God, Kels, you sound like such a mom,” Brian chirps from the counter.

“Comes with the territory. But you need to get this man a handbook. Look at him, he’s far too chipper for this hour of the morning.”

“What handbook?” Frank looks at us both like we’ve lost our minds. I’m thinking maybe we have. I believe it’s a good thing Harper brought us to the country. We needed some fresh air.

The rest of our guys come in and the kitchen fills up pretty quickly. We’re all having a great time until Tabloid comes in, giving us all dirty looks.

“Ooo, lemme get you a caffeine IV in your arm, Boss.”

Harper simply thrusts her arm at Brian. “Hook me up.”

* * *

I watch for a few minutes while Frank gets set to shoot his stand ups. Then I realize my presence is making him nervous. I decide on another walk. God, I’m gonna miss this place. For a place that’s supposed to be haunted, I do get a sense of peace here.

Kam and I head for the lake and I stand there wondering what it was that Harper and I saw last night. I know what we think we saw but we haven’t talked about it since.

It was a little creepy. Okay, who in the hell am I trying to kid? It was a lot creepy. Then there’s whatever the hell that was I had with Erik.

I’m not losing my mind.

I’m not losing my mind.

As Kam and I round a corner leading back up to the barn I see an older gentleman unlocking the door. This must be Jim, the groundskeeper. The owners told us he’d be around.

“Excuse me!” I call and make my way over.

He turns and smiles at me. “Yes, Missus?”

I have to smile. Given his age and my condition, he’s bound to automatically think I’m married. Thank God, some people still have a brain.

“Hi.” I offer him my hand which he accepts, giving me a very gentle greeting in return. “I was wondering if I could ask you a question?”

“Of course, Ma’am. I hope I have an answer for ya.”

“Do you know anything about local legends?”

“Most of them. Spent my whole life around here.”

“Do you know anything about the lake?”

He nods. “There’s a story about two Indians in a canoe. That one?”

“Yes, sir. What do you know about that one?”

“Local legend says that this newly married Indian couple were traveling back to their tribe after a day out. Before they could make it they got ambushed by a group of white men traveling through the area. They were both killed and their bodies were dumped in the lake. Legend also says that only couples who are supposed to be together for eternity ever get to see them. The local tribe says it’s a sign of good luck for any couple who does.”

“You ever see them?”

“Oh no, Ma’am.”

“You ever want to see them?”

“No, Ma’am.” His answer is firm.

“Why not?”

“You’ve never met my wife.”

I chuckle. “Thanks, Jim, I appreciate the information.”

“You’re welcome, Ma’am, but I’m not Jim. I’m Harold. Jim’s out sick today.”

“Well, thank you, anyway. If you’d like to, come down to the house and join us for lunch later.”

“Thank ya, Ma’am. If I get the chores done, I may just do that.”

* * *

Apparently, sleeping is not something I am to do while up here.

Scooby Doo and Shaggy have pulled me out of bed to look for ghosts. All we’ve managed to find is each other. When I find out which one of them keeps pinching my ass, I’m going to kick his.

So, a fruitless hour later, we are huddled up in the kitchen, sitting on the stools around the butcher’s block. Why does the term ‘butcher’s block’ suddenly sound so ominous?

We make coffee and popcorn, and Frankie decides that what we really need to do is tell ghost stories. Yeah, that’s what we were missing here. Why the hell should I stay here when I could be snuggled next to my beautiful wife? I am about to excuse myself, when Brian begins telling another lame version of the ‘Woman in White’ ghost story. I mean, how many times can people pick up a hitchhiking girl in white, drop her off at a cemetery and not realize the chick’s been dead for fifty years?

I mean, really.

I suffer through it, stifling a yawn. Brian gives me an arch look. “Think you can do better, Miss Thing?”

I assume he’s speaking to me and not Frankie. “Think? Hell, I know.”

“Oh yeah?” Brian takes a sip of his coffee and leans forward. “Let’s hear it, Stud.”

Ah, well, so much for snuggling with my honey. I settle back down on the stool and make myself comfortable. “All right, but I ain’t telling no ghost story. This is a true story. I know it, because it’s part of New Orleans history. When you come down for the birth of the twins, I’ll take you to Rue Royale and you can see the place I’m talking about.”

“Can I come visit you guys?” Frankie asks, the uncensored seventeen-year-old.

I smile. “I insist. Now, New Orleans was going through a terrible summer in eighteen thirty-two. New Orleans’ summers are always hot, moist and unbearably long, but this one was particularly fierce. In addition, there was an epidemic of the cholera going through the city, and many of the commoners were dying in the streets daily.

“Of course, Doctor Louis LaLaurie, his wife, Delphine, and their two daughters, were not affected by all this. Their daughters were coach driven to the local Catholic school and they only wore the best clothes imported from France. The doctor and madam LaLaurie gave gala balls at their house on Rue Royale. Their home’s architecture was exquisite and its furnishings were all direct from the old country. Further, they had a large staff of slaves who would prepare elaborate feasts of seafood and freshly baked pastries.

“There were a few things, though, that didn’t seem quite right in the household. Sometimes, during these galas, moans could be heard, seemingly coming from nowhere. Also, the guests noticed that the slaves serving at these parties were never the same. This was unusual. It was quite common for a slave to stay with a family throughout his entire life. Whenever anyone was quite so rude to inquire about it, Madam Delphine always replied that the slave had run away or committed suicide. While questionable, no one ever dared question her replies.

“One day, Madam Delphine chased one of the younger slaves throughout the house. She was planning on punishing her with a cat of nine tails for some minor infraction. The young girl, trying to escape, ran out onto the third floor balcony. Unfortunately, it had been raining that day, and so the balcony edge was slippery. The young girl slipped and held onto the ledge with one hand, her small fingers grasping at the slick marble.

“Once, twice, Madam Delphine snapped the nine straps over the girl’s bare knuckles. With a cry, the girl let go and fell to her death on the pavement below, before her knuckles even had a chance to bleed.

“One of their neighbors saw this horrific act and told the authorities. The police came and impounded the other slaves, because New Orleans had an ordinance prohibiting their cruel treatment.

“But, in New Orleans, the rich and powerful can get away with almost anything, and routinely do. Madam LaLaurie was tried for the murder of the slave girl, and found guilty. Her sentence? To not be allowed to own any more slaves. And the slaves that had been taken away from the household? The LaLauries had friends and relatives buy them back and return them to the household.

“Life returned to normal.

“Two years went by before a fire broke out in the house. The kitchen was separate from the main house, but the fire quickly spread. The firemen found the cook chained to the stove. She was hysterical, but kept muttering about the roof. They released her, and ran over to the main house to save it. The firemen rushed through the house, eventually going up to the attic. There they encountered a horrible, foul odor. They attacked the attic door with their axes and it finally gave away.

“What they saw, caused all of them to be ill. Inside the small, cramped, hot, attic room were seven slaves, some in pieces, all of them part of medical ‘experiments’ gone awry. Some were strapped to torture devices, others shoved in cages like animals. Two had their eyes and mouths sewn shut. One girl had her arms and legs broken and reset at odd angles, so as to resemble a crab. Another had his internal organs laid outside his body, so that the LaLauries could see physiology at work. Still another had a very primitive sex change. Another had been subjected to a lobotomy.

“The firefighters rescued the seven, but they died within days of their release.

“When the town heard about what had gone on, they formed a mob and went to the house, intent on bringing the LaLauries to justice. But, they discovered after ransacking the house that the family had escaped. Some say they only went as far as the other side of Lake Ponchatrain. But, most say they moved back to France.

“It’s further rumored that Delphine died a few years after moving back to Paris. Apparently, she was thrown from her horse. It’s not clear what spooked the mare, but several onlookers reported seeing a small, black girl run out in front of it and startle it. Of course, no one ever saw the child after that, nor was she known to any of the locals.

“In the years since the LaLauries, the house has been owned by a number of different people. At first, it was left to New Orleans’ homeless. Some vagrants went into the house, never to be seen again. Others reported hearing screams throughout the house at night.

“Then a new owner opened up a girls’ school in the old mansion. But attendance dropped off as the girls told stories of a woman chasing them through the hallways with a whip.

“Later still, the house was split up into apartments. One man said he was greeted at the doorway to his apartment by a black man, his shackled hands holding his severed head.

“It was a furniture store for awhile. But the owner would often come to work in the morning and find the furniture doused with some kind of rank, putrid liquid. Another man opened up a ‘Haunted Saloon’ on the premises. But business never went well.

“Now, a wealthy attorney has remodeled the house. While doing so, the skulls of several more slaves were found in the walls, more victims of the LaLauries. The new owner says that the only thing out of the ordinary is the smell of French perfume in the master bedroom.”

I take a final sip of coffee and give the boys a small smile. “Good night.” I have someone waiting for me in bed. I don’t intend to disappoint her.

* * *

All in all, a very successful weekend. Harper and Frank got a good story and I had a lot of good feelings take over some of the bad ones I’ve been having. I pick up the cell phone and dial my Dad’s number.

“Stanton residence.” It’s Amanda. I love the fact she answers her own phone.

“Amanda, Kels. Is Dad home?”

“No, Kels, I’m sorry, he’s not. He got called to the Middle East on an emergency. He’ll be gone for about two weeks. Anything I can do for you?”

“I wanted to give him an update on the inn. If the draw of the place is the fact it’s supposed to be haunted, there’s something up there. He should go for it.”

She laughs a little. “I’ll tell him. So what did you think of Jim? Isn’t he a character?”

“I didn’t get to meet Jim. He was out sick. The keeper this weekend was named Harold.”

“Harold? Kels, Harold was Jim’s father. He’s been dead for about thirteen years.”

Oh boy.
Episode Thirteen: Out of the Mouth of Babes
“Move over.”

“You move over.”

“I’m cramped as it is.”

“Brennan, you never move over. I’m gonna tell Mommy.”

I roll my eyes, unimpressed with Collin’s threat. “The last time you ‘told’ Mommy something, you kicked her in the back. It made her unhappy. I don’t like it when she’s unhappy. Stop being a brat and move over.”

Collin moves slightly more to the left. “That’s it, though. I can’t go any further.”

“Yeah, yeah.” I lean back and stretch out a little. It is really cramped in here. And hot. I don’t see how we can stay in here much longer. Not unless Mommy makes the room grow bigger, but she doesn’t like how big it is already. At least, that’s what she says.

Collin rubs his hands together. “So what do you think we’re going to do today?”

That’s a good question. Things have been very different lately. Mommy and Mama aren’t together all the time. Mama leaves for awhile; sometimes she takes Puppy. And Mommy and Aunt Brian play during the day. They sing a lot. Mama has a better voice than Aunt Brian though. He’s just loud. “I dunno, Collin. But the only way to find out is if we get Mommy up.”

He laughs. “I like waking Mommy up, because then Mama wakes up too.”

Yeah, Mama is fun. “Okay, you know the drill.”

Together we begin moving our arms and legs in every direction. Sometimes I accidentally hit Collin.

“Hey, watch it!”

“It’s dark in here,” I tease.

“Uh huh.”

We continue until Mommy jostles us. Our task is complete.

“Go back to sleep,” Mommy says and rubs Collin’s back. Lucky guy. Mommy has a gentle touch.

He leans into her hand. “Let’s sleep some more,” Collin says, yawning. He’s so easy.

“Hey, you two,” Mama says, her voice nearby. “It’s too early to be awake. Give your Mommy another hour or so, okay?” She rubs my head.

“Okay, sounds good to me, Collin.”

* * *

“Harper,” Mommy says as we lay down in the swaying thing. “Aren’t those batteries dead yet?”

“Hmm, chér, my battery never stops,” Mama says in the Puppy voice she sometimes uses. “I was the model for the Energizer Bunny.”

Brennan scratches her head. “I don’t get that. Why is that funny? Why is Mommy laughing?”

I shrug. “I don’t know. What’s a battery?” Suddenly Mommy’s tummy becomes brighter. A bright red, round spot appears over my head. “Oh, yeah! Brennan! It’s tag time.” I push off Mommy’s bony thing and propel myself up toward the light. “Whee!”

Suddenly, my sister is more awake. “Cool! My turn, my turn!”

The light appears next to her arm. Brennan jabs her elbow at it. “I got it!”

It blinks twice above me. “Mine, mine!” I do a combo head and fist jab.

“Harper!” Mommy says.

“Hello, my sweet, little ones,” Mama says, pressing into us.

I laugh and tap her.

“Hey!” She likes that. I know she does because she always taps me back.

I laugh again. She’s fun.

“Harper!” Mommy says again.

She’s always saying this to Mama. I think it means stop ‘cause the second time she says it, the red spot always disappears

* * *

Mommy and Mama have taken us to get our pictures taken again. Whatever that means. All I know is going to see Doogie can make Mommy’s heart race. I like to be quiet because when Mommy’s heart races that means something is wrong with her. I don’t much like it when it does that.

“It’s gonna make Mommy jump. She says it’s cold.”

“But it’s only for a second,” Brennan argues with me. She likes to argue.

“Brennan?”

“What?”

“What’s cold?”

“I don’t know.”

“It must be really bad,” I say.

“Why?”

“Well, think about it. Mommy jumps and says it’s cold. If it makes Mommy jump, that means she doesn’t like it. So if she doesn’t like it, it must be bad.”

“But sometimes Mama makes Mommy jump and that’s not bad.” Brennan tugs at her ear.

“Mama must not be cold.”

“I don’t think I ever want to be cold.”

“Don’t worry. Mama and Mommy won’t ever let us be. They said so. They even bought us special blankets to keep us from it, remember?”

“Un-huh.” I turn over a little because I feel Mommy shift. That means she’s not comfortable. “What’s a blanket?”

“I’m not sure, but it’s important, because Mommy always seems to have hers.”

I listen now, because when Dr. Doogie takes the picture he always tells Mama and Mommy what we’re doing. Sometimes he’s says I’m doing things I’m not.

“Kevin.” Ah, there’s Mommy’s voice. I love her voice. It makes me feel all warm. “Can you tell who’s who?”

“Sure.” Dr. Doogie seems to be nice. Mommy relaxes when he talks to her, most of the time. One time he said something and her heart went so fast I thought it was gonna break. But Mama took her home and made it better. Mama always is able to make her better. “Seems that Brennan is on your right and Collin is on the left.”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Mama says.

Oh, boy, that gonna cost her a dollar. Wonder what a dollar is? I know there’s a whole list of words that Mommy charges a dollar for. I’m gonna have to be careful what I say because I don’t have any dollars.

* * *

I gotta go.

I gotta go.

I gotta go.

I look over at the Dark One. Look at me! My eyes are yellow. A little trip to the woods would be in order here.

I gotta go. Have a heart!

Alpha says something and points to me. Thank you, thank you. I go over and lick her hand in gratitude. At least someone understands me.

Dark One comes over and puts her lead on my neck. She always needs my help when we go out. Though, sometimes, she takes it off so I can run fast. As a two leg, she’s pretty slow. Except when she wears the round, slippery paws. Then she can almost keep up with me.

Let’s go.

“Okay, Kam, we’re going. Calm down.”

She barks weird. The only thing she ever manages to get right is my name. I don’t know why Alpha can’t teach her better.

We go to the moving room where we meet up with another two legs and Fritz. He’s my pal. “Hi ya, Fritz.” I take a sniff of him. Can’t be too careful. Just because it looks like Fritz doesn’t mean it is.

“Hi ya, Kam.” He sniffs me too.

“You look yellow, man.”

I nod and jerk my head toward Dark One. “She didn’t want to go out. She doesn’t like to leave now that Alpha is so close to having the litter.”

Fritz sits on his two legs’ paw. “Tell me about it. My two legs didn’t want to leave the two legs in the box.”

“That box is bad. The little two legs seem to hypnotize the big two legs.” The moving room’s door opens. Dark One tugs on her lead, asking me to find the way for her. “Gotta go, Fritz. Good seeing you.”

“Later.”

We go outside and Dark One scratches me behind my ears. “You were awful friendly with Fritz in the elevator. You two have a good talk?”

I take a look around. I don’t see Fritz. I tug on her lead. Come on, Dark One, let’s go to the grass. I have needs.

* * *

I like the big grass place. Every day I take Dark One here and we see our friends. All the two legs stand at one end and bark at each other. Sometimes they drink black water out of small, paw bowls. I don’t like the dark water. One time, I tried to get some from Dark One and she accidentally poured it on my nose. It burned and made me sneeze. Why would two legs drink hot water? It doesn’t make any sense. Alpha drinks something made with hot water, but she puts the golden sweet in it. Sometimes she gives me some of that. I like the golden sweet. Even though it makes my tongue sticky. It’s a special treat that only Alpha gives me.

I race Chloe to the far tree. I like Chloe. She’s really cute. She has soft coat that’s always clean, and she has the prettiest necklace. It sparkles.

“Kam, has your Alpha had her litter yet?”

Girls always like to talk about litters. “Not yet. Soon. I bet she’ll be finding someplace warm before long.”

“You’ll let her use your bed, right?”

I scratch my nose. “I don’t think she’ll fit.”

“She’s that big?”

“No, my Dark One is bigger. But Alpha is having a big litter.”

Chloe looks over at Dark One. She’s baring her teeth at another one of the two legs. It doesn’t mean the same thing from them as it does for us. “It’s pretty neat that your Alpha brought home Dark One to play with you.”

“Yeah, she came a couple days after me. I think it was because Alpha knew she was going to have a litter for me to protect. So she wanted me to have some fun, too. I can’t complain. Dark One is pretty good for a two legs.” Of all the two legs in the big grass place, I have the best one. Chloe knows it, so I don’t have to rub it in.

Both Chloe and I look at her two legs. He needs to spend more time here and run with us. Those box two legs really have him hypnotized. “Can she get the ball yet?” Chloe asks.

I shake my head sadly. I am a little ashamed of our lack of progress in this area. “She keeps throwing it away. I bring it to her to chew on, and she tosses it again. Sometimes I have to bring it to her several times before she keeps it.”

“She’ll learn one day.”

Our two legs all begin barking at us. “They must want to go home.”

Chloe sighs. “You’d think they could find their own way by now. We bring them here and back every day.”

I don’t reply. When you’re right, you’re right.

* * *

It’s been a pretty quiet day. Mommy has been really tired, so Collin and I have been trying to be good. Mostly Mommy has been laying down and rubbing us. She keeps talking about wanting to go to New Orleans. I asked Collin if that meant we were in Old Orleans, but he didn’t know.

Mommy has been telling us funny stories today. There’s one that’s particularly strange. It’s called ‘Green Eggs and Ham’. Mama normally tells it to us, but Mommy has been telling it today.

“I like it.”

Collin looks over from his side of our room. “It’s funny. I like when Mommy laughs.”

When Mommy laughs, it makes us bounce around. One time, she laughed so hard at something Mama did, that Collin and I nearly switched positions. “What’s funny about green eggs?”

“I don’t know. What are eggs?”

Beats me. “What’s a Sam?”

“Hey!”

“What?” I jump a little. He scared me, yelling like that.

“How do we know you’re Brennan and I’m Collin?”

“Because Doogie said so.”

My brother scratches his behind. “He did?”

“Yeah, remember that time you were tugging on your third leg?”

“I was not!” Collin looks down at it. “It hasn’t grown much more. I’m getting worried.”

“I don’t have one at all.”

He turns big eyes on me. “Aren’t you scared? What if it’s important?”

“How important can it be if I don’t have it?”

“Huh, I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

Of course not.

* * *

All right!

Two walks in one day!

I am living large! I pull on Dark One’s lead and she quickly catches up. She’s wearing her round, slippery paws so we don’t have to go so slowly. We race beside the wood trail, passing lots of two legs.

We are nearing a two legs with a shiny box when Dark One pulls on her lead, asking to stop. She must be tired already. Two legs don’t have very much stamina. I stop and go back to check on her.

Dark One goes over and barks at the two legs with the shiny box. She likes this two legs.

So do I.

He gives her rolled meat. I watch as she smothers the meat in a sauce and puts very stinky things on top of it. Maybe the meat is bad?

I sniff.

Seems okay to me.

Dark One looks down at me and bares her teeth. “Would you like one too, Kam? Kels doesn’t let us have hot dogs at home, so we have to get them when we can, right? And what she doesn’t know, won’t hurt her.”

I figure out what Dark One is barking about when she gets me some rolled meat as well. She must not be worried about mine, because she doesn’t treat it the way she did hers.

We sit on the grass and have our snack.

I like taking Dark One out for walks. Alpha is great, but with her litter, she moves even more slowly than before. I am so excited about the puppies. I have been wanting some brothers or sisters to play with. I hope they like to roughhouse like Dark One does. Sometimes we each hold the end of a rope and tug it back and forth for hours. One time, she was pulling it so hard, she was swinging me back and forth on the floor. It was fun.

Alpha barked at her for that.

Dark One is looking forward to the puppies too. She is almost as protective of Alpha as I am. Sometimes, she even scares me.

She doesn’t scare Alpha though. It’s funny. When Dark One is near Alpha, she’s not quite so fierce. She bares her teeth a lot, but she then licks Alpha and grooms her. Alpha likes it. Sometimes, Dark One gets so distracted by her licking, that I have to do guard duty alone.

Dark One wasn’t trained very well as a puppy, I’m afraid.

Alpha doesn’t like me grooming her as much. I guess that’s why Dark One is her mate. Sometimes it makes me sad that I don’t have one.

Maybe one day.

* * *

“Heaven, I’m in heaven,” Mama is singing. She likes to sing to Mommy. And to us. Most of the time when she does, Collin and I fall asleep. I sometimes think that’s what she’s trying to do. “And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak.”

Mommy is moving around, more than usual, tonight. Sometimes she moves so quickly, I bump into Collin.

“Stop touching me,” he warns.

“I’m not touching you.”

“You were.”

“Was not.”

“Were too.”

“And I seem to find the happiness I seek,” Mama croons. “When we’re out together, dancing cheek to cheek.”

Suddenly, both of us are tossed around as Mommy falls backwards. Collin and I both scream and grab for anything to hold on to. Unfortunately, all we have in here is each other and the ropes attached to our tummys.

Mama catches Mommy, who begins laughing. “Harper! You can’t dip a pregnant woman.”

Collin and I are still spinning. I nearly turned upside down. “Get your foot out of my face.” I push at it.

“Where else can I put it?”

“Where it was before.”

He glances down. “Your leg is there.”

Huh, what do you know? It is. “Okay, let’s work together on this.” I put my hand on his shoulder and push, shrugging my shoulders, trying to get Mommy to give us just a little more room. It’s really much too cramped in here.

“Ow!” Collin protests, as he moves back over to his side.

“Tell me about it.”

“I need to sit for a minute, Harper,” Mommy says.

Good, please sit down.

“Everything alright, chér?”

“Yeah. It’s just I don’t think the twins cared much for that.” She begins rubbing where I am pressing into her.

“No?” Mama’s voice comes closer. How come she can do that, but Mommy can’t? “I’m sorry, my little ones. Everyone all right in there?”

“We’re okay, Mama,” Collin answers. To prove it, he thumps on Mommy’s side.

“Ooo!” Mommy exclaims. “Here, Harper, give me your hand. And say something.”

“Something.”

Mommy laughs. “Brat! To the twins.”

“Hello in there.”

“Hello!” we call back. Collin gives Mama a tap where she’s pressing in on him.

Now it’s Mama’s turn to laugh. “They sure are active. I can’t wait to see them, Kels, and hold them.”

Collin kicks. “I want to see Mama too!”

He’s such a Mama’s boy. “And Mommy!” I agree.

“What do you think they look like?” Collin asks.

“I dunno.”

“I bet they’re big. Huge!” Collin holds his hands far apart from each other.

I hadn’t thought about that. “Why?”

“Because they’re so loud.”

* * *

I wake up and stretch. What woke me up? I yawn and listen. Mommy and Mama are talking. They do that a lot. I like to listen to them. Their voices are warm and soft and make me feel all happy.

I close my eyes.

“I am a huge, beached whale.”

“Hardly, darlin’. You are a beautiful woman pregnant with twins … and about to give birth.”

“So you agree?”

I open an eye. I want her hear how Mama gets out of this.

“I’m taking the Fifth.”

They both laugh. I need to remember that ‘fifth’ thing. I might need it in the future when I have a wife of my own. I really think I should have one. They seem pretty great.

“Sweetheart, you are almost done. You’re in the home stretch. In a couple weeks, we’ll have two beautiful children to love and spoil. All because you brought them into this world.”

“You’re sweet.”

“I know.”

They laugh again. They laugh a lot together. Maybe that’s why we’re all so happy.

“I’ve been thinking about Collin,” Mama says.

Okay, now they have my full attention. What about me?

“Yeah? His future football career?”

What’s football? What’s a career?

“I have a little jersey for him already,” Mama says, “but that’s not the point. I was thinking about after he’s born.”

“Yes?”

“And you know that little procedure they do on most boys.”

Mommy laughs, low and deep, sounding a bit like Puppy. “You can say it, Harper.”

“Fine, fine. Circumcision.” She sounds like Puppy now.

“See, that wasn’t so hard? Now, what about it?”

“I don’t want it done to Collin.”

Done to me? I don’t like the sound of that.

“Hmm. Okay. Why not?”

“It’s not necessary. And, well, sometimes bad things happen.”

Like what, Mama?

I’m scared.

Should I wake up Brennan?

“Harper!”

“They do! Come on, our own network did a story about that poor kid who got his whole one cut off accidentally. The family raised him as a girl and he was completely messed up. I don’t want any chance of that happening.”

Raised as a girl! No!

What’s a girl?

“It’s a one in a million chance.”

“Once is bad enough. Besides, uh, well …”

“What?”

“I happen to know that none of the Kingsley men are, either.”

“Oh. I won’t need to verify that.”

“I would hope not. I had a little discussion with Robie about this issue. I mean, you wouldn’t want him teased by his cousins Clark and Christian, would you?”

Who are Clark and Christian?

“My Christian is too sweet to do that. Besides, I’m fine with the decision not to, Harper. I’ve been doing some research on it as well.”

“Yeah? Wonderful. Thanks.”

Okay, so they’re not going to do something to me.

I think that’s good.

I wish I knew. I think things will be clearer when Brennan and I are born. I don’t know quite what that means, but Mama and Mommy seem excited about it. If they think it’s a good thing, then it must be.

Yawn.

I think I need more sleep.

Good night, Mama. Good night, Mommy. Good night, Brennan.

* * *

Fresh air! Finally!

Alpha didn’t seem to want to go out today. Squeaky kept making her lay down. If she’s about to have a litter, she needs to start finding her warm place to have them. She needs someplace safe, where no one can find them while she’s having the puppies.

I think I saw a good place. I pull on Alpha’s lead. She’ll never find it without me. Two legs don’t have very good sight or smell. Sometimes I’m surprised that they’re able to find food to eat and recognize friends and foes.

“Kam, slow down,” Alpha barks at me, pulling on her lead to get my attention. I glance back. She’s breathing hard. I hope she doesn’t have the litter here right now. I look at Squeaky.

“Let me take him for you, Kels.”

“Thanks, Brian.”

He takes Alpha’s lead and puts his paw under hers. “Why don’t you sit down for a moment? I’ll let Kam get some of his energy out. And I’ll get you some water. Okay?”

Alpha goes to some wood and sits down. I press my nose against her stomach and sniff. No. The litter seems intact. I lick Alpha’s paw.

“I love you too, Kam.” Alpha scratches behind my ears and my tail thumps hard against the ground. She always knows the right spot to hit.

“Come on, Kam.” Squeaky wants to run.

I look to Alpha for permission.

She bares her teeth at me and waves her paw at Squeaky. “Go on. Have fun!”

Squeaky and I leave Alpha and go out onto the big grassy place. None of my usual friends are here right now. It’s not our meeting time. Squeaky gets tired quickly and takes his lead off me.

“Get the ball, Kam, get the ball!” He takes a bright, red ball and throws it far away.

I stare at him. Why do two legs keep losing their chew toys?

“Go get it, Kam!”

I look across the field where the ball sits in the grass. Can’t he see it? Why doesn’t he go get it?

“Go on!” Squeaky begins waving his paws.

I trot off and go for the toy. I hope he doesn’t lose it again. Maybe I’ll carry it for him until I take Alpha home.

When I pick up the ball, I glance over at Alpha. What I see causes me to drop Squeaky’s ball. My fur stands on edge and I bristle in anger.

A two legs is trying to scare my Alpha. I sniff. And doing it too.

“Get away from her! Get away from Alpha! Go! Go! Go!” I yell, running across the field. I leap over the wood she’s sitting on and land at her feet.

The big two legs stumbles back, losing his balance. He smells like the yellow water Dark One sometimes drinks. I hate that smell.

“Get away!” I warn him again.

“Nice puppy!”

I bare my teeth and snap at him when he tries to touch my head. I put my body between him and Alpha. No one hurts my Alpha or my little brothers and sisters.

“Go!” I show him even more of my teeth.

“Brian!” Alpha barks.

The smelly two legs backs up, as another two leg starts to run over, hearing my barking. He barks at a two legs, on top of a snorter, to come here too.

“You better go! Coward! Go!” I continue to yell.

He listens to my advice and leaves as quickly as he can.

Just because one threat is over, it doesn’t mean Alpha is safe yet. I can still smell her fear. I back against her, so she’ll feel better. Carefully, I watch the on-coming two legs. I bare my teeth at him. The snorter keeps the other two legs a good distance away.

They can stay where they are. Alpha is safe with me.

“Down, Kam,” Alpha barks at me. “Brian, hand me his leash.”

I hear a snap and realize that Alpha has clipped her lead to me again. Good. Now I’ll be able to keep her with me if we have to run away.

The snorter looks over at the grassy field where the bad two legs ran. “He smelled.”

“He wanted to hurt my Alpha.”

“It’s okay, boy.” Alpha begins stroking my fur, grooming me. “You did great! You’re such a brave dog!”

I relax a little, sensing that Alpha is feeling better. I sniff. She is.

The two legs steps forward, I give him a warning look.

“Ma’am, can you make sure your dog won’t bite me?”

I growl softly, warning him. The look didn’t work if he’s barking at Alpha.

“It’s okay, Kam. This is a police officer. He’s here to help us. Be a good boy.” Alpha grooms me even more. She finds that spot behind my ear again.

“I know him,” Snorter says, swinging his large head toward the two legs. “He won’t hurt your Alpha.”

“He better not try.”

“Kam,” Alpha barks.

I sit quietly and watch. Anyone makes a wrong move and they’ll find out I may be young, but my teeth are full grown.

Alpha presses her cheek against my fur, rubbing my chest. “You are absolutely wonderful, Kam.”

I smell like Alpha now.

I like that.

* * *

Dark One comes into where Alpha and I are sitting. Ever since earlier today, Alpha has been staying close to me. It’s okay. I don’t want her far from me, either. I don’t like it when anyone scares my Alpha.

What smells good?

I look over at Dark One’s paws.

Oh boy.

My mouth waters

That smells good.

Dark One holds up the strip of meat. “You want it, Kam? For being such a good boy with Kels today?”

To take it would mean leaving Alpha’s side.

I lick my chops.

And stay where I am.

Dark One looks over at Alpha, baring her teeth. “I think someone is reluctant to leave you, Kels.”

Alpha scratches my head. “My hero.”

“Hey! What about me?”

Alpha pulls me back against her. I lay my head on her belly, and listen to her litter. They’re always busy in there.

“You weren’t in the park with me today when some drunk guy started getting a little too aggressive. You didn’t leap over the bench and land in front of me scaring him half to death. And you weren’t the one holding off the police force when they came to help.” Alpha puts her mouth against my fur. “Kam was. My hero.”

Dark One looks at me strangely. I don’t think she likes her mate putting her paws on me like this. She holds out the meat to me again. “Yeah, he’s your hero.”

I realize I have a choice. I decide to have the best of both worlds, and not anger Dark One. I turn my head and take a quick lick of Alpha’s face. Then I trot over, snatch the meat from Dark One’s hand and go to my bed.

Dark One takes my place in Alpha’s paws. “I hate to say this, Kels, but your hero just gave you up for a strip of steak.”

Alpha puts her mouth against Dark One’s. “You would never do that, right?”

“Not for steak, no. But maybe for some of Mama’s shrimp Creole.”

* * *

“I like it when Mommy does this.” Collin laughs.

“Me too,” I agree. I concentrate. I want milk. I know Mommy won’t disappoint me. She never does. Whatever we want, she give us.

“Mon Dieu, Kels! How can you eat that and drink milk?” Mama asks.

A better question is why Collin wanted lima beans and ice cream.

“And what am I supposed to drink at this hour, Tabloid?”

“True. At three a.m. one cannot be too picky.”

“No, because if one gets too picky, one will be going out for something else.”

“Milk is good for you, sweetheart. Drink up.” Mama laughs. She must like milk too.

“I can’t wait to get home.” Mommy rubs my back while she talks to Mama. Oh, that’s nice, and it’s making me sleepy. “I’m really looking forward to seeing everyone.”

There must be lots of people in this New Orleans place Mama and Mommy keep talking about. I know we’re going there soon to get born. Why we can’t do that where we are now?

“Hey, Collin?”

“Yeah?” He looks over at me and burps.

“You think since Mama says we’re two new, little lives, that’s why we gotta go to this New Orleans to get born?”

“Could be. Maybe it’s a rule.”

I think about it for a moment and then put in my order for spaghetti. Why is Mama growling like Puppy now?

“Oh, Kels, darlin’, I love you, but that is just sick!”

* * *

“Brennan, what do you think it’s going to be like after we’re born?”

“It’s going to be good.”

“Why do you think so?”

Brennan shrugs. “Because Mommy and Mama say it is.”

“I look forward to seeing them. Mommy is really pretty.”

“How do you know that?”

I sigh. “Because Mama always says she is.”

“That’s true.” Brennan lifts her arms above her head and stretches. “I’m looking forward to having more room to move around. Mama says we’ll have our own room that she’s been working on.”

“It’s gotta be bigger than this then,” I agree, “if Mama can fit in it. I want to see Puppy.”

“And Aunt Brian!”

“How much longer do you think we’ll be here?”

Brennan shifts position. “I don’t think it can be much longer, Collin. We’re running out of space here.”

“We’ll be together, though, won’t we? I don’t want to be alone.”

“Absolutely. We’re family. Family stays together.”

Episode Fourteen: Home, Sweet Home
I stare at the chessboard. Who knew Brian played so well? Guess I should have expected it. I mean, any game with a queen, right?

I look up at my worthy opponent who is sipping from a bottle of water and enjoying watching me contemplate my next move. I move my knight and then look to Kels.

She has fallen asleep on the couch while reading a book. My, my, how things have changed as far as flying goes for my darling spouse. There are benefits to having your own jet. I’m glad she’s not stressed. I’m not sure we would have been able to fly home if we had been forced to fly commercial.

I get up, gingerly remove her book from her chest, and pull the blanket up so she won’t catch a chill. I notice the cabin temperature is a little cooler than she likes it. Leaning over, I give her a kiss on the forehead, then brush her bangs back. We’re on our way home. Home so she can give birth. My God, it’s really going to happen, and soon too.

Suddenly, I feel a little lightheaded. I retake my seat, continuing to stare at Kels.

“Harper?” Brian reaches across the table and tugs my shirtsleeve. “Are you all right?

I look at him. “I’m gonna be a Mama.”

“I hope that was the plan, because if it wasn’t, you need to tell Kels she made a huge mistake when she ordered all that baby stuff,” he teases.

I turn to face him and lick my lips. “No, I mean I’m going to be a Mama. I’m going to have these two incredible little people who are going to expect me to be there and take care of them and make everything okay when they think it isn’t and… Oh man!” I run my hand through my hair.

Brian gets up and goes to the fridge, retrieving a bottle of water for me. “You okay, Stud?”

“Yeah, yeah.” I crack the cap and take a long drink. “I’m good.”

* * *

It’s so nice to be home.

I look at our beautiful home and consider that less than a year ago Danielle was ratting us out for sharing our first real kiss on the back porch of Mama and Papa’s. My how things can change in a year.

I rub my belly and tell them. “We’re home, little ones. Not much longer now.”

Harper opens the back door of our leased car and Kam bounds out, running immediately into our yard to inspect everything. He’s so much fun to watch. He seems to take everything almost as seriously as Harper does.

Brian motions to Harper that he’ll unload the luggage and that she should help me.

“So,” Harper comes over and gives me a kiss, “how is everyone doing over here?”

“I’m good. Brennan is good. Collin has the hiccups.”

She laughs and bestows on me a slightly skeptical expression. “How do you know?”

I take her hand and put it where our son it having his little fits. “Feel that?”

“Yeah.”

“Give it a second.” Very soon, it’s followed by another spasm.

“Do you think I should scare him?” She grins.

I give her a kiss on the chin. “I’d rather you didn’t. I can live with the hiccups. You scare him and he’ll kick me some place unpleasant.”

“That would be bad. Poor little guy.”

I have to laugh as she helps me to the house. “Poor little guy, indeed. Just hanging out. Not a care in the world. All safe and happy. While old Mom here does all the work. I feel for him, Tabloid.”

She gives me a kiss on the top of the head as we navigate the steps up. “You’re doing a great job, chér. I look forward to helping out here in the near future, and letting you take a little break.”

“Good, because I’m going to the Bahamas,” I tease as Harper unlocks the door. “I’ll be back in, oh, say, August. The next nine months, they’re all yours.”

She laughs at me, pushing the door open. “I’ll bring two little dish towels and the twins, and the three of us will lay out on the beach with you. You can run, Kelsey Diane, but you can’t hide.”

We step inside. Our home is beautiful, even if we do need to do some serious rearranging of the furniture that has been delivered. It was nice of the family to take care of seeing that it all got here all right, though.

I wrap my arm around Harper’s waist. “We’ve got a lot of work to do here.”

“That’s what brothers are for. I should know. I have four of them.”

“And I’m sure they can be bribed if we offer to cook for them.”

Harper gives me a very smug grin. “I have Mama coming over to handle that.”

I nod. “I see. And what exactly am I supposed to do while everyone else is cooking and cleaning in my house?”

“Talk with the damn Conspiracy. I’m sure they’ll be coming over too. Besides, you need to manage the work.”

I smile. I’ve learned. ‘Manage the work’ is Kingsley-speak for sit on my butt and tell everyone else what to do.

* * *

Our home has really come together in the last few days. A steady parade of workers have come in, both hired and voluntary. Each of Harper’s brothers has come by and helped out. The backyard has been mowed and raked. Kam’s outdoor condominium has been built. The twins’ playground has been established, complete with sandbox. I tried to explain that they might be a bit young for it while we’re here this time, but Harper wouldn’t listen.

Even though we have several extra bedrooms in this house, we have the nursery set up for the two of them in one room. After nine months together, there’s no need to separate them immediately. Plenty of time for them to grow up together.

I sigh. My babies are going to grow up on me. I suppose I have to accept that fact. Even before they’re here.

We’ve leased a car while we’re in town, a Lexus LS 430. I must admit, I like it. Given my girth, it’s a lot easier to get into it than our Range Rover. The reason why Harper wanted this particular car is because it has a voice activated navigational control feature. This woman grew up in New Orleans, knows every single side street, and she’s worried she might get lost taking me to the hospital. Of course, my hospital suitcase is nestled in the trunk. As well as the twins’ blankets, a change of clothes for Harper, and several toys. We all know how interested newborns are in toys.

I think my spouse is stressing.

It’s pretty adorable.

I am now just waiting. I’m not allowed to lift a finger or carry anything heavier than a loaf of bread.

I’m bored.

The doorbell rings. Thank you! Something to do. I push myself up from my spot on the couch and waddle – there’s no other word for it, I’m afraid – to the front door, beating Harper.

“Chér,” she says, leaning forward to grab the doorknob.

“I have to be allowed to move occasionally, Harper.” We both pull on the door and discover Robie, Rene, Clark and Christian on the other side. “I’m so glad to see you!” I exclaim. Rene is under almost the same amount of restrictions as I am. Apparently over-protectiveness runs in the Kingsley family. Now, at last, I have someone to sit with.

“Aunt Kels!” Christian attaches himself to my leg.

I tousle his hair. “Hi, Christian.”

Harper reaches and takes Clark from her brother’s arms. “There’s my fella!” We step out of the way and let them come in. “Since when did you ring the doorbell to my home, Robie?”

“Since you got married, and got a house instead of mooching off Mama and Papa when you come home,” he replies, kissing my cheek instead of his sister.

We all wander into the living room, Harper plopping herself on the floor with the two boys. We have a corner already dedicated to toys, including an assortment especially picked out for our two young visitors. Soon, they are content.

“How did you doctor’s appointment go, Ren?” I ask, knowing that she saw our obstetrician yesterday.

Robie and Rene exchange glances. He gestures for her to reply. “It went great, actually.”

“What happened?” Something is up.

“We found out what we’re having.”

Harper glances up from her playing with Christian. “An alien?”

Robie leans down and flicks her head. “Brat!”

When my spouse looks over to me for support, I simply wag my finger at her, smiling. “Be good. Go on, Rene. Tell us, is it a boy or a girl?” I, of course, have my own guess.

“A girl!”

“Congratulations!” I am secretly relieved. I really wanted Brennan to have a female cousin her age. Collin will fit right in with Christian and Clark, and Geoffrey, Jean’s youngest. Everything is working out perfectly.

“You’re going to have a younger sister, eh?” Harper asks Christian.

He looks up and fixes his blue eyes on hers. “Baby sister.”

God, it starts young in the Kingsley family.

“We have a question to ask you, though.”

Robie sounds very serious, immediately capturing my attention. “What’s up?”

“We’ve,” Rene picks up the request, “been going through names for little girls and we found one we like. We want to know if you approve.”

“Sure.” We had the best time, and easiest, coming up with names for Brennan and Collin.

“We’re thinking Kelsey.”

I think my breath just escaped me.

Harper looks over, her face beaming. “I think it’s a beautiful name.”

“What about you, Kels?” Rene asks gently.

If I could think, I would. I certainly can’t speak. But I can cry. Tears are slipping down my cheeks and I am absolutely helpless to stop them.

Christian looks over and is immediately distressed by my crying. “Aunt Kels!” He rushes over and places both hands on my cheeks, grasping my face. “No cry!”

I am caught between crying and laughing at his response. “I’m all right, Christian. Thank you.” He kisses my nose and then wanders back to his toys, apparently my assurance is good enough for him. Harper pats him on the head and then joins me on the couch, taking my hand in hers. “I’m honored, but …”

“But what?” Robie replies.

“I … I … won’t it get confusing? Having two Kelseys in the family?”

Rene smiles at me smugly. “We figured we’d call her Kelly, around family.”

“Although I find it hard to believe we’d have a hard time telling the two of you apart for awhile.” Robie reaches over and grabs my hand. “So you don’t mind sharing your name?”

“No. Not at all. I’m honored.” I brush away still more tears. “I love you all, even if you are nuts.”

* * *

We’re ready to go.

Robie and I have our bikes out on the driveway, washed, and ready to eat asphalt. We have each packed a small duffle bag with the bare necessities – my spouse insisted that clean underwear and a toothbrush counted as such – and they are strapped down on the backs of our seats.

We’re both decked out in our riding gear. Robie has on his favorite pair of jeans, a black T-shirt, riding boots and leather jacket. I went for all leather. Cows are frightened of me right now. Well, except for my white V-necked T-shirt. God, it feels good to be wearing this stuff again.

I look over at my girl. If she weren’t pregnant right now, Robie and I would be getting a late start on this little jaunt. I leer at her and wait until the blush steals over her features.

Robie notices what I’m doing and he slaps me in the arm. “Knock it off!”

I resist giving him the finger. I don’t know what Kels would charge me for that infraction. “Say goodbye to your girl, and let’s get going.” Instruction given, I swagger over to Kels. “You sure about this?”

Kels smiles, and runs her hands down my arms. Her touch burns my skin, despite the leather between us. “It’s only one night. You and Robie will be back in time for dinner tomorrow.”

“Hardly have time to even miss me, eh?” I must admit to being a bit disappointed.

Kels cocks her head. “I didn’t say that. I miss you already. But, you and your brother need a little bonding time. Rene and I will look after each other until you come back.”

“I’ll have my cell phone and beeper.”

“I know. But I talked to Brennan and Collin and they agreed that this wasn’t the weekend they’re coming. So, go and don’t worry.”

This sounded like such a good idea at first, but I already miss my family. I’m also terrified that, despite my wife’s chat with our children, they might decide otherwise. “I always worry. It’s my job.”

“I know. Now, go. You’ll come back sooner that way.”

I lean down and give Kels a kiss intended to keep me on her mind until I return. Her hand slips under my jacket and tugs up my T-shirt until she encounters my skin. I feel my knees go weak.

Why the hell am I going away?

So much for me leaving her breathless.

* * *

We stop for lunch in Pierre Part at this wonderful, old Cajun restaurant called Barry D’s kitchen . We’re deep in Bayou La Fourche traveling on LA1. I miss the bayou when I’m in New York. The primal, pulsing energy of it. The absolute certainty that only the strong will survive. The beauty and danger coexisting as gators, egrets, and Spanish moss all vie for space. And there’s the tranquility that overlays the battle for survival. Quiet in the bayou isn’t akin to silence. Rather it is the absence of extraneous noise.

I think even our motorcycles’ engines are running softer here in deference to our surroundings. My Fat Boy and Robie’s BMW R 1200 C are parked in front, looking out of place alongside the three half-broken-down pickups belong to the other patrons.

Crawfish are finally back in season. We’re enjoying one of the first batches served up. Between us are two plates – one has about five pounds of crawfish waiting to be eaten, the other has the shells of their previously eaten brothers. We have a bowl of dipping sauce, and a bottle of beer each.

Life is good.

Robie twists the head of a crawfish and sucks the meat and juice out of it. “How are you holding up, Harper? Ready to become a parent?”

“Sure enough. I look at you for inspiration.” I pause a beat as he smiles and is about to say something sweet. “I mean, hell, if you can do it …” I get a crawfish head thrown at me for my trouble.

We both take a sip of beer. Robie tries again to make pleasant conversation. “That’s pretty cool about your award.”

I shrug and try to play it off. We received word a few weeks ago that Tulane wanted to acknowledge me for the work I’m doing in my field. Apparently, they’re having a fancy dinner honoring their young alums who are making significant contributions in their specialties. I am one of five people receiving recognition. Life is coming together. “Yeah, I’m pretty happy about it.”

He elbows me in the ribs. “Happy? You’re ecstatic. I know you.”

I pull the meat out of the tail of a crawfish and dip it into the sauce, struggling to still act nonchalant. “You think you know everything.” I chew on the bite for a long moment. “Of course, I am. I can hardly stand it.”

“Who gets to sit there and clap like seals when you and your big head get this latest laurel?”

“Kelsey. Mama and Papa, of course. And, if you and Ren can stand it, I have tickets for you.”

He clinks his beer bottle against mine. “We’ll be there.”

I run my hand through my hair. I look around the room at the various other patrons. “I swear I’m living a dream, Robie. I keep wondering when I’m going to wake up. I mean a year ago today I was completely fucked up. Today? In love. Married. About to become a parent. With a thriving career. Homes. Cars. A dog.” My thumb rubs against my wedding band. “Everything I never thought I’d have. I keep wondering when the devil will show up and demand my soul.”

“You do realize that the devil doesn’t really look like Elizabeth Hurley, right?”

Leave it to Robie to keep me from getting all maudlin. “Damn. Well, then, I’m hoping he doesn’t show up.”

“It’s great to see you so happy, Harper. I can’t tell you how much I like Kelsey. She fits you.”

“Yeah, she does. I can’t imagine life without her now. In fact, sometimes I have a hard time remembering what it was like before her. Isn’t that weird?”

My brother gives me a gentle smile. “Nah, I felt the same way after my first date with Rene. I felt like I had just started my life and, at the same time, I couldn’t remember a moment without her in it. Wait until you hold your kids for the first time.”

“Intense?”

“When Christian was born and I held him there in the delivery room, it was as close to a religious experience as I’ve ever had. I finally knew what Mama talks about all the time.”

“You sure it wasn’t lack of sleep?” My turn to keep us from crying in our beer.

He laughs. “Could have been. But, let me give you a little free advice, Harper Lee, don’t try to take a nap while the wife is in labor. She won’t take that well.”

No, I don’t see Kels lying still for that.

* * *

I check my beeper again. Nothing. A quick flip of my Motorola StarTAC cell phone confirms no calls.

That means Kels and the twins are fine.

They’re at home. Resting. Waiting. For me.

And, well, to be born.

I laugh at my own hubris. Yes, Harper, everything revolves around you. Brennan and Collin are just waiting for you to say the word before they show up.

I need to admit it to myself.

I want to go home.

This has been fun. Riding my Fat Boy. Breathing fresh air. Viewing pretty scenery. Enjoying good time with Robie. But every fiber of my body wants to be in our house, with my wife, and waiting with her. I don’t want to sleep in some motor lodge and listen to Robie’s snoring. I want to curl up next to Kels and put my ear on her stomach and listen to my children.

This is too close to their birth for me to feel great about sleeping away from my family. I’ll never give up the open road.

It’s just I’ve learned one thing … all roads lead to home.

* * *

Robie only gives me minor shit for insisting we head back. He understands though. However, I will be made to pay at our next poker game. I’ll bring a lot of beer. It’ll make it better.

We pull into our respective driveways a little after two in the morning. Robie and I exchange good nights and wander sleepily inside.

I am met by almost a hundred pounds of fur and muscle. Kam growls for a moment, but then recognizes me. “Hi there, Kam.” I bend down to one knee and ruffle his fur. “It’s only me. Everything’s okay. But you’re a very good guard dog. Yes, you are.” He licks my face. “Everything all right here?” Another swipe of his rough tongue. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

I shrug off my jacket and hang it near the door. I also take off my boots and set them at the bottom of the stairs. Quietly, I head up to our bedroom, but deliberately decide to make a little more noise once I reach our bedroom suite. I certainly don’t want to frighten her.

Stepping into our bathroom, I turn on the light and begin shedding the rest of my clothes. A quick sniff convinces me that a shower would be in order, as well. Years of being on the road have taught me the art of cleaning up in less than two minutes. Freshly showered and towel dried, I pull on a T-shirt and pair of boxers.

Lifting up the comforter, I slip into bed behind Kels. “Hi, honey, I’m home,” I whisper.

Kels takes my hand and places it where Brennan is thumping around. “And we’re very glad you are.” She yawns. “Now maybe they will let me sleep.”

I rub my hand over her stomach, amazed at the amount of activity in there. “Come on, little ones, time to rest. Mama is home. And Mommy is tired.” I kiss behind Kels’ ear. “Everything else okay?”

Kels sighs deeply and snuggles back further in my arms. “Is now.”

That’s what I wanted to hear. “Anything happen?”

“Hmm … no, I don’t think much happened in the whole sixteen hours you were gone. We managed to keep the house and New Orleans intact.”

I bite her earlobe. Gently. “Smart ass.”

“So,” Kels rolls over in my arms to face me, “why are you home?”

My hand unconsciously begins tracing a path from the swell of her breast to the swell of her belly. “It was too embarrassing being out there with Robie on his foreign motorcycle.”

She laughs at me, reading my lie easily. “Oh, well, as long as it was something important that brought you back. It’s not like you missed us or anything.”

“Only with every breath.” It occurs to me that I haven’t kissed my wife yet and I do so, taking my time of it. “That was certainly what you intended with your sweet, little, chaste goodbye kiss to me this morning.”

The look of complete innocence that meets my accusation is priceless. God, I hope our children don’t inherit this particular trait of their mommy’s. “Me? Are you trying to say I set you up? I’m just laying here, being all innocent. You’re the one sneaking in at two in the morning. I did nothing.” She even has the audacity to bat her lashes at me.

“Yeah, right. You did nothing. Has anyone ever bought your little innocent act before?”

Kels’ hand sneaks under my T-shirt. Why did I even put the damn thing on? “Once or twice. You mean, you don’t?”

“Not by a long shot, Little Roo.”

“Hmm, okay.” Oh, no. I’m in for it now, I can tell by that tone of voice. “I’ll just have to prove how good I can be.” With that, she removes her hand, rolls over and snuggles down under the blanket. “I’m sure you’re tired.”

I pounce. I’m sure I shouldn’t really pounce on a hugely pregnant woman, but I can’t help myself. I straddle her thighs and lean down over her. “You are a tease!” I accuse, laughing, knowing she’s not.

She joins in the laughter. “Not me. I’m simply being good.”

“Wanna be bad together?” Come on, baby, say yes.

“Well, now,” Kels pushes me gently back into my place and she rolls back over, “are you willing to risk inducing labor?”

“Oh yeah. See, I’m on such a winning streak lately, there’s no way those two would interrupt us.”

“It has been awhile,” Kels sighs. “I think I could be led down the path of temptation tonight.”

Hot damn and hallelujah. Or something like that. I feel my libido kick into overdrive at her mere consent. “Well, then, chér, prepare to be ravished.”

* * *

Settled comfortably in my place at the table, I am forced to watch as lunch is prepared for Papa, Harper and Robie. They’ve been digging out the holiday decorations all day, sorting, cleaning and preparing to put them up over the next few weeks.

The rest of the family will arrive in the evening for a dinner to welcome the two newest additions to the Kingsley family. Luc and Rachel are going to adopt the two boys they told us about. Today is the first day they’ve had them on a permanent basis. I haven’t met them yet, but I hear Luc is every bit as bad as Harper with the pictures of his boys.

Brian is picking up both mine and Rene’s slack in the kitchen. Mama has even made him an honorary member of the Kitchen Conspiracy. He’s got his own spot in the kitchen by the counter. I have to smile and shake my head. It’s pretty clear only official members get a seat at the table, but regardless he’s having a ball. He and Mama are a riot together. I think he wants to be her when he grows up.

The twins are thumping around, apparently roused by the wonderful aroma of lunch. I’m glad they’re not asking for some awful combination of foods today. I’ve come to miss Mama’s cooking almost as much as Harper does when we don’t get home regularly. Mama’s given me most of her recipes but I don’t do them justice.

Mama brings soup to Rene and I, leaning over and placing kisses to both our foreheads. “Not much longer now. By the New Year I will have three new grandbabies. And with Lucien and Rachel taking in those two wonderful, little boys, I am truly blessed.”

“How many grandchildren will that make, Mama?” Brian asks as he rinses some vegetables.

“Sixteen.” Mama smiles happily, returning to the stove.

“Sixteen! Lord Almighty! Christmas is going to cost you a fortune this year.”

Brian is such a suck up.

Rene looks to me and shakes her head. “You’d probably disown me if Robie and I tried to hire him away, wouldn’t you?”

“There are some things that can never be forgiven, and that would be one of them.” I blow on my soup. “Besides, I wouldn’t give him up without a fight.”

Brian pipes up. “I’ll open the bidding at five hundred…” He laughs even as he approaches the table and pours us each a fresh glass of juice. “Please, ladies, let me know if you want to examine the merchandise. I’ll even wear one of those little Chippendale numbers, if you like.”

“Figures,” Rene reaches for a basket of rolls, “I finally find a man who’s willing to get naked and clean my house, and he’s more turned on by my husband.”

“Well, they say all the good ones are either gay or married,” Mama offers from her spot by the stove.

“Or,” I reach for the rolls, adding with a chuckle, “in my case, both.”

* * *

With our early dinner cleaned up, the Kitchen Conspiracy is in full swing. Harper and the boys are off roughhousing with the older kids outside. The younger ones are all settled in the playroom off the kitchen.

But the Conspiracy has two guests tonight, Jake and Stevie, Luc and Rachel’s two boys. They’re brothers, and have been in the foster system for two years. The Children’s Services Agency hoped not to split them up and, of course, that what was scared everyone else off. Further with Jake five years old and Stevie four, the chances of them getting adopted was becoming slimmer and slimmer.

They are both little balls of energy too. They’ll fit right in with the rest of the Kingsley clan. Right now, they’re bonding with Luc and Rachel and don’t want to be separated from them. Stevie is hanging on to Rachel with everything he’s got. Brian has finally coxed Jake into playing with him a few feet away. Watching him sooth Jake’s fears and get him to relax has reassured me. He is going to be a great nanny.

Brennan, however, is having a fit, kicking and carrying on. I know what her problem is. “Brian, could you call Harper in here, please?” All my sisters look at me as if I’ve grown a second head. “What?” I protest.

“You’re inviting in the enemy?” Rachel teases.

“Yes, since the enemy got me pregnant, I’m inviting her in here to do her motherly duties.”

“Ooo, you won’t feel that way when you go into labor,” Katherine snickers as she gets up for more coffee. “You’re going to want to kill her.”

“Oh, I’ve had moments just being pregnant when I wanted to kill her.”

Harper sticks her head in the door. “Did I hear my master’s voice?”

“See how nice and obedient she is?” I tease as I wave Harper in. She comes over and gives me a sweet, very chaste kiss. I know it’s only because Mama is in the room. “Please talk to your daughter. She’s having fits here.”

She kneels immediately and the Conspiracy breaks into hysterical laughter. I give them as evil a glare as I can manage with this bunch. Harper pushes up my blouse, then put her hand on my tummy, gently rubbing where Brennan is rumbling about. “Hey there, little one, Mama’s here. Are you driving your mommy nuts?”

Brennan calms down almost right away. Not that I can blame her. I run my hands through Harper’s hair and have to restrain myself from touching her more. “Thank you, sweetheart.”

“You really expect us to believe that the baby calmed down when she hear Harper’s voice?” Elaine crosses her arms as she looks over from the counter.

“Absolutely.” Harper gives Brennan a kiss, then stands and gives me one too. “My girls love me. Even if my sisters don’t.” I laugh as Harper and her great indignation leave the kitchen. Everyone bursts out laughing the second she’s out the door.

Such a martyr. I can hear the violins playing all the way.

* * *

“Hey, Harper!” Jean calls from across the porch. He’s seated on the swing where Kels and I had our first kiss. Sitting next to him is Charles, his eldest son at eight years of age. They are both putting peanuts in their Coke bottles.

I wander over and grab a handful of nuts as well, dropping them into the neck of the bottle I’m holding. Do this in New York, people think you’re insane. Down home, it’s normal. Well, at least to Papa’s people, Mama’s think we’re insane. I take a swig. Lovely. “Yeah?”

“We were just wondering …” Oh God. It’s never good when any of my brothers start thinking. I take another swallow and wait for the other shoe to drop. “How come your male nanny gets to be in the Kitchen Conspiracy and you’re out here with us?”

I shrug and hitch my thumb in my jeans. “He’s the nanny. It’s his job to be with the kids.”

Charles begins laughing, nearly choking on one of the peanuts. Jean thumps him on the back and says, “Do you really expect us to believe that? Face facts, Harper Lee, you’ll never be admitted into the Conspiracy.”

“What makes you think I want to?” I know, that was lame, but I had to protest. “You ever stop to think that maybe I’m their spy out here? That late at night I tell Kels all the horrible things you boys do – the belching, the farting, the swearing – knowing that she will report all of it the next time they gather around the table?”

Charles looks scared. Yeah, I bet Elaine would like to know a couple things, like how exactly his tooth was chipped last year. Maybe I will have to divulge a secret or two to Kels. If I get lucky, it’ll be a quid pro quo transaction.

Ooo, things that sound dirty, but aren’t.

Well, actually, that one could be dirty.

I am lost in these happy thoughts when Anthony, Jean’s second child, comes over and tugs on my jeans. “Tante Harper?”

I bend down onto one knee and meet his gaze. “Oui, petit fille, what’s up?”

“Can you help me?”

“Mais oui, what do you need?”

He points over to his larger cousins, Joseph and Laurent who are kicking a soccer ball back and forth, and asks, “Will you be on my team?”

“I’d be happy to. Do we want to ask your Papa, see if he wants to join us?”

Anthony looks over at his father for a long moment, cocking his head to one side. “He’s too old.”

I smile. I love kids. I glance over at Jean who is struggling to not react. “You’re right. And see how big he’s getting lately? Do you think your Mama feeds him too much?”

He giggles, understand we’re teasing his daddy. “Yeah, too much.” Anthony studies me very seriously for a moment. “Are you feeding Aunt Kelsey too much?”

I laugh and clasp my hand over his mouth, glancing over at the kitchen door. “Shh … don’t let Aunt Kelsey hear you say that.” I remove my hand when he licks the palm. I, of course, taught him that trick. “She’s just pregnant. She’ll be back to normal real soon, and you’ll have two more cousins to play with.”

He pats my flat stomach. “Doesn’t she feed you, Tante Harper?”

I pick him up and carry him out onto the yard. “Let me tell you how things are with wives, Anthony …”

* * *

The one drawback to having our own house is I can’t sneak down late at night and eat Mama’s leftovers. I have to go in and fix a plate to take with me prior to our leaving.

I leave Kels sleeping on the couch. She passed out an hour or so ago, despite the fact the Conspiracy was sitting around her, gabbing like there was no tomorrow. I don’t know what they talk about all the time. Half the time I’m with my brothers, we’re just hanging out, not really talking about stuff. Well, that’s not quite true. Typically we’re playing games or entertaining the kids. We certainly don’t have four hour heart to heart conversations. We’re lucky if ours last five minutes.

Women.

Mama follows me into the kitchen and begins putting things out on the counter for me. “How are you doing, mon Coeur?”

“I’m good, Mama. Nervous, excited, anxious, but good.”

She rubs my arm. “It’ll be soon. I can tell.”

“Not too soon. I told Kels to keep them until the last minute. I can’t wait to get my hands on them, but I want them healthy.”

“I remember the night before you were born.” Mama cuts a piece of chocolate pecan pie for both of us and then goes over to the table. “Let’s see, Gerrard was ten, so that would make Jean eight, Lucien five, and Robie two. It was this time of year -”

I take a bite of the pie and swoon. “The day before Thanksgiving. Papa always says I caused you to burn the pies that year.”

Mama laughs, remembering. “Yes, you did. I knew, of course, what was happening. I had had four babies before, so I knew what labor felt like. I knew I wouldn’t be eating Thanksgiving dinner at home, but I wanted the boys to have something to eat while I was in the hospital for a few days.”

I shake my head. “So you started preparing everything a day early?”

“I figured they could reheat it. And Jonathan could fry up the turkey without any help from me. As labor progressed, I kept working until finally my water broke.” Mama points over to the floor in front of the sink. “Right there. I felt it and looked down and then Luc walked in.”

Now that I would have liked to have seen. “What did he do?”

“He asked me if I had spilled my apple juice.” Mama smiles at the memory. “I told him that I had and asked him to get Jonathan to help me clean up.”

“Let me guess, you mopped it up before Papa came in.”

“He has a squeamish stomach about things like this. I was lucky he came into the delivery room at all with me.”

“Really?” That surprises me. My father is the most devoted husband and dad I’ve ever encountered.

“It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be there, he merely found the entire process too messy.”

“Yes!” I exclaim, waving my fork. “Exactly! That’s what I think! I wondered where I got that from. At first, before we knew we were having twins, Kels wanted to have the baby at home.” I shudder. “I would have had to burn the mattress.”

Mama simply laughs at me. “At least you don’t have to worry about it this time around.”

“This time around?” I glance over my shoulder, in the direction of the living room. “Whatever you do, don’t let Kelsey hear you say that.”

“Don’t you two want more?”

“Mama! Enough! Let us have these two first before you go expanding our family.” I finish up my pie and barely restrain myself from licking my plate. “Besides, you don’t know that I’ll be a good Mama to these two.”

Hmm. I’m surprised that slipped out.

Mama seems surprised as well. “What are you talking about, Harper Lee?”

I shrug. “I mean, how can you know I’m going to be any good at this?”

Mama reaches across the table and takes my hand in hers. “Because I know you, mon Coeur. Do you love Kelsey?”

“You know I do.”

“And these children – do you love them?”

I nod. “Certainly.”

“Then you’ll be fine. Harper, you will make a thousand mistakes. Lord knows, your Papa and I weren’t perfect parents. Oftentimes we would sit in bed at night and try to figure out what we needed to do. And pray we came up with the right answer.”

“You always seemed so sure of yourself.”

Mama crooks her finger at me and I lean in. “Sweetheart, that’s one of the secrets. Just act like you know what you’re doing. Your kids won’t know the difference, that’s for sure. As long as you love Kelsey first and foremost, and then Brennan and
Collin … you’ll be set. But, Harper, I have every confidence in you.”

“You do?”

“I’ve watched you grow up into a tremendous woman. I’m so proud of you because you’ve finally found your way.”

“Speaking of that, I better take my light at the end of the tunnel home and get her in bed where she’s comfy.”

* * *

Dr. Maxton hands Harper the pictures of Brennan and Collin. She looks at them and then gets this huge smile on her face. “Look, sweetheart, Brennan is sucking her thumb.” She thrusts the picture at me and points, this from the woman who couldn’t even see them in early ultrasounds and called the pictures inkblot tests.

She’s stressing.

Dr. Maxton helps me sit up and looks at my chart. “Well, Miss Kelsey,” he gives me a very fatherly smile, “we’re nearly there. It won’t be much longer now.”

I hear a gulp. “When?!” Harper pipes up.

“Easy, Harper,” he tries to soothe her. It’s not gonna work. “It could be any time, but I think we’ve got a week or two to go yet.”

“Any time? But they’re not ready. They’re not done yet. They need to cook…”

Oh, yeah, she’s stressed. “Harper, honey,” I take her hand. “Relax. Take a deep breath. And try to remember I’m not an easy bake oven.” When she relaxes a bit, I look to my doctor. “If they were to come right now, what could we expect?”

“Well, I think we’d see a little extra time spent with them to encourage active response such as muscle reflex and lung development, but I think they’d be all right. Kelsey, you’ve taken very good care of yourself. You’ve done exactly what you were told to do. You didn’t smoke, drink or do drugs while you were pregnant and you maintained a healthy diet -”

“Most of the time,” Harper teases.

“You have already been an excellent mother and I believe that very soon we’re going to have two healthy babies to show for it.” He makes a couple marks in my chart. “Now you know they are going to be smaller than a single baby, so don’t let their smaller birth weight scare you. That doesn’t mean they aren’t healthy.”

“But technically we still have a couple of weeks?” I ask, taking my own deep breath.

“We do, but I see signs of good strong braxton hicks too. You can feel them, can’t you?”

“Un-huh. I’ve been having those for weeks now.”

“Good. That means your body is responding well. Trust me, all that will make true labor easier.”

“I’m not even going to deluded myself into believing it’s going to be easy.” I shake my head.

He gives me a little laugh. “You are a smart woman. You are aware that C-sections are not uncommon, right?”

“Right. One or both,” I state, hoping I won’t have to go that route.

“So you’re prepared for that. If I see a problem…”

I jump in. “If you see a problem, you do whatever you have to do to save the lives of my babies. Harper knows how I feel about this subject. There is no question.”

I feel her grip tighten on my hand. I return the gesture, but it’s to comfort her. I give her a smile. I can tell she’s not happy with me. She’s hates that I made her make that promise. But what else was I supposed to do? Our babies come first.

“Everyone is going to come through this just fine.” Dr. Maxton rubs our joined hands. “Although I would imagine, Harper, you’re going to carry bruises around on your hands and arms for a week.”

“Fine by me, as long as my family goes home together.”

“It will.” He scratches his neck and considers my folder again. “Okay, Kelsey, if labor starts, I want you to come to the hospital once the contraction are about eight minutes apart.”

“Hey, how about as soon as they start?” Harper jumps in.

“Harper,” the doctor sighs, showing infinite patience for yet another anxious partner, “Kelsey could spend hours in first stage labor. My orders are for her to be put directly to bed when she arrives at the hospital. Trust me, you do not want to spend that much time with a woman who is in labor and not allowed to move. Kelsey’s natural instinct will kick in and she’ll know when it’s time to come.”

“But…”

He holds up his hand to stop further argument on this. “I’m sorry, Harper, you are going to have to trust the pregnant woman and the doctor on this one.”

I bite back the grin. Dr. Maxton knows how to stop a famous Harper Kingsley rant dead in its tracks. My spouse doesn’t like it, but she lives with it.

He finish making our plans with Dr. Maxton calling the hospital to double check I’m on his active patient list. He nods to us, thanks whoever he’s speaking to, and hangs up. “Well, we are all set. We’re only waiting for you and the babies now, Kelsey. I’m going to schedule you another appointment for next week, in case they decide to hang on a bit longer.”

Harper mutters something in French, that I can’t quite make out and crosses herself. She’s so cute when she’s scared senseless.
Episode Fifteen: Planes, Trains & Automobiles
The phone is ringing.

I reach out from under the comforter and snag the phone from its base. I drag it over to me. “Yes?” Kels groans behind me and hooks her arm around my waist, snuggling as close as her stomach will allow.

“Kingsley,” it’s Langston, “I need you.”

Smart ass retorts roll through my brain. I ignore them all. “What’s up, boss?”

“There’s a prison riot just outside Memphis. You’re my closest resource, and the only one available -”

“I’m not available. I’m out on family medical,” I protest, knowing it will do me little good.

“I need you there. This fits in the piece you and Stanton did earlier this year on the death penalty. The riots are over jail conditions with inmates claiming they’re inhumane. They’ve taken over the majority of the prison, holding guards hostage, and threatening to kill them if their demands aren’t met. I’m sending Kendra down there, and I need you to produce. I doubt if it will last long, you’ll be back home in a day or two.”

I roll onto my back and stretch. “You realize Kels is due at any moment? That I am on leave? That I should tell you there’s no way in hell I’ll do it?”

“I wouldn’t call you if I didn’t need you, Kingsley. Besides, you have your damn private jet. You can go home at any moment if Stanton goes into labor.”

I groan and rub Kels’ belly, feeling the twins waking up. “Fine, fine. I expect a good bonus for this, though.”

Langston grunts. “Meet Kendra at the airport. She’s flying in at noon.”

I glance at the bedside clock. I have a couple hours to get a pilot and get up there. It’ll be a short flight, under two hours. “Fine. Give me the info.”

I sit up and write down all the pertinent items and say good-bye. Now I get to break the bad news to Kels.

* * *

I am packing lightly. Langston said a day or two. I’m giving him exactly forty-eight hours. No more. And possibly less. I’m going to hold the pilot in Memphis, so we’re ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Why the hell am I doing this?

I slam a change of clothing into my duffle bag. “This is so not right,” I mutter.

“Harper, honey, calm down. Everything is fine.”

“Everything is not fine,” I growl back. Quickly, I rein in my anger. It’s not Kels’ fault, that’s for damn sure. “I am supposed to be on leave with you. It’s too close to the due date for me to go traipsing off. This ‘I don’t have anyone else’ is only so much bullshit.” I make a mental note to drop by Robie’s and have a chat with him before leaving. Brian may be here, but Robie is blood. I expect him to look after Kelsey in my absence. I’d do the same for Rene.

Kelsey sighs. “Okay, how about he doesn’t have anyone else he can trust to do the job right? He called you because it’s a huge story, Tabloid, and he needs it handled properly.”

“You trying to make me feel better, Little Roo?”

“You know I am.” Kelsey slides her arms around me, knowing I can’t stay angry when I feel her touch. “But I am also telling you the truth. Face it. You and Kendra are the best team he’s got. He knows it. You don’t see him sending Bruce and Jac down there, do you? Bruce is single, and there’s an off change he might catch Jac sober. But he’s not sending them, is he?”

It helps my ego, but not my heart. “No.” I bend down and speak to my children. “Listen up, you two. Absolutely under no circumstances are you to be born while I am gone. You’ve been very happy there for eight months, there’s no need to rush to come into the world. Do you understand?”

Kels laughs and combs her fingers through my hair. “I’m sure they’ll be good for you, Tabloid. I feel fine. I’m not feeling anything unusual. I think we can wait until you get back.”

“Promise?”

“Oh, that’s a trick question. I can’t and won’t promise, but we will do our very best. I promise you that. Okay?”

I stand up straight and shake my head. “No, that’s not good enough. But I suppose it will have to do. I will have my beeper and my cell phone. You are to have yours on you at all times, understand? If you get a twinge, a pang, a tiny little inkling of a contraction, we are to call me immediately. I will come home. I don’t care how big the story is. You are the most important thing in my life, understand?”

“Is this the part where I play the part of the good little wifey and say ‘Yes, dear’?”

I smile and consider the offer. “That would be very nice.” I can’t imagine my wife saying that, it would be fun to hear.

“Yes, dear.”

I double over laughing. “Can I get you to agree to anything else?”

“Don’t push it, Tabloid.”

“That goes double for you, sweetheart.” I lean down and kiss her.

* * *

I glance out the window of the kitchen. Oh, that looks like a nasty storm blowing in. “Brian!” I retrieve a flashlight from the kitchen drawer, trying to remember where we put that box of storm supplies.

“Yes, ma’am.” He gives me a silly grin as he comes into to kitchen.

“Look.” I gesture out the window.

“What in the hell is that?” He gulps a little, taking in the sight of the ugly, gray clouds swirling around.

“That is a fall storm about to break loose on us. Is Kam in?”

“Yeah, last time I saw him he was laying in the hallway chewing on a rawhide.”

“Okay. We need to find the storm supplies. I don’t suppose you know where the box is?”

“Of course, I do.” He grins at me again and moves to the storage closet off the kitchen. “Jonathan explained to me, several times in fact, to keep this handy.” He pulls the box down and removes the lid. “We’ve got everything we need if it gets bad.”

“The only thing I’m really worried about it losing power. I really don’t want to be stumbling around in the dark.”

“You think it’s going to be bad?”

I glance out the window again. “I think it has the potential.”

* * *

I meet up with Kendra at the airport without any trouble, a little before noon. We pile our overnight bags into the rental car, a ‘sea mist’ Ford Taurus, and head for the Broward County Prison. As Kendra fills me in on the details she knows, I flip on the radio, to see what the local coverage is saying.

I filter out what the announcer is saying until it comes to the weather. “In the Gulf, it appears that Tropical Storm Oliver is picking up momentum. Oliver has sustained winds of fifty miles per hour. It is currently on route to an expected landfall in Lafayette, Louisiana.”

“Holy shit!” I exclaim.

Kendra looks over at me, alarmed. “What’s wrong, Harper?”

“That’s just a little over a hundred miles from home. Shit! Damn!”

I got a bad feeling about this.

I pick up my cell phone and punch in the speed dial for our home phone. After two rings, Kels picks up. “Hello, Harper, I was expecting your call.” Gotta love caller ID.

“How are you?”

“I’m fine. And you?”

She’s using her teasing tone with me. She knows I’m about to turn around and get on the plane back home. “The storm supplies are in the storage closet near the kitchen. I’d prefer it, though, if you went over and stayed with Robie and Rene.”

“We’ve already gotten them out. Kam has been walked. Wood has been brought in for the fireplace and I’m not going to impose myself on Robie and Rene because it’s going to rain.”

I count to ten.

Then I count again.

“Chér, this is a tropical storm and it could get worse. It is not a little rain. You are pregnant. I don’t like you being home alone.”

“I’m not alone. Brian is here with me.” I fight to keep from rolling my eyes, despite the fact she can’t see me. Brian is great, but he’s not me. “And it’s a tropical storm in Layette. Here, it’s rain.”

“I hate like hell not being there, baby.”

“Sweetheart, I promise you, everything is fine. I feel great. We’re all set for the storm, just in case it does get bad. Brian and I are going to settle down in the living room, watch an old movie and drink some cocoa. You go get the story, Tabloid, and try to relax.”

I snort. Like that is going to happen. “Have Brian close the storm windows around the house. You two stay inside, okay? We have plenty of supplies, right?”

“The windows are closed. We have plenty of supplies and I have no desire to go play in the rain.”

I can hear a hint of reproach in my wife’s voice. “Am I being overbearing?” From beside me, Kendra chuckles.

“No. You’re being sweet and you’re being overprotective, but not overbearing. I know you hate being away from home. But trust me, darling, we have everything in hand here.”

“I’ll call back later. You call me if the storm picks up, all right?” It’s not like I can do anything about it, but at least I’ll know why I am totally stressed.

Kels begins laughing. “Yes, dear.” Imagine that, twice in one day. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

* * *

I sit in the truck and drink coffee by the gallon. It’s midnight. The crisis is still going on, but looks like it might end before the morning. Kendra and I have been doing a number of interviews with prison officials, former inmates, Tennessee legislators over the conditions inside Broward County prison. Apparently, a small minority of prisoners had begun world wrestling style matches in recent months, coercing other inmates to participate. Despite a multitude of complaints, the authorities did not intervene. The riot was caused by those unwilling to continue suffering the abuse. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that this method was the best choice for their cause.

So far, no one has been killed. There are only minimal injuries. Property destruction is high, however, and the voters won’t like that. Several of the legislators were happy for this development, believing it will help their special ballot initiatives for stripping yet more privileges from inmates.

Kendra is in the truck with me, working on the piece, rewriting her script.

“How’s Frankie?” I ask.

She smiles. “He’s doing great. Thanks for taking him under your wing, Harper. It means a lot to me.”

“He’s a super kid. We want him to come down and visit once the twins arrive.”

“He’d love that.” She looks over at me and correctly reads my tension. “Kelsey is fine, Harper. You would have heard otherwise.”

I let out a deep breath and stretch out my legs as best I can. “Thanks.” I reach over and turn on the weather station. “I don’t like having a tropical storm blowing in right now.”

That is, of course, the biggest understatement of my life.

I like even less when I hear that Tropical Storm Oliver has been upgraded to Hurricane Oliver, although it is barely a level one storm at seventy-four miles per hour winds. It’s still on course for Lafayette. And I am out of here. No damn way my wife and kids are facing that without me, should it veer toward New Orleans, that is.

I call my pilot, waking him at the Sheraton where I left him earlier today. “I want the airplane ready to go in an hour. I need to get home.”

I hear him turn on the light. “All right. I have to check the weather, though, there was a big blow happening down there earlier today.”

I wince. “It’s been upgraded to a hurricane. Still headed for Lafayette.”

“Uh, Ms. Kingsley, we won’t be flying out tonight then. There are strict regulations for private aircraft in that type of weather. I understand your desire to get home, but you do want to make it, right?”

Son of a bitch. Son of a fucking bitch. “Yes.”

“As soon as the storm clears, I’ll get you home, Ms. Kingsley.”

“Thanks.”

I hang up. Langston so owes me for this one.

* * *

I’m not sure what woke me. It must have been the thunder from the storm. It started a couple of hours ago. Then I notice that the temperature seems to have dropped considerably.

I roll away from Harper’s pillow, which I had clutched to my chest to retrieve the quilt at the bottom of the bed. As I’m about to pull it up, there’s a knock on the door. “Yeah?”

“Kels.” Brian pops his head in, lighting up his face with a flashlight. He looks totally silly. “Listen, the power went out about an hour ago and the temperature is really dropping. I’ve started a fire in the fireplace and made you a bed on the sofa hide away. I don’t suppose you’d consider using it?”

I shake my head and fling Harper’s pillow at Brian. He’s as bad as she is. “Yeah, come help me here and we’ll go downstairs.”

He gives me his hand and I pull myself up, feeling a slight pain when I do. “Whoa.” I take a deep breath and rub my stomach.

“What!?”

“Nothing. Just a little pain.”

“No, no, no, no. You can’t do that. Pain is bad.”

I chuckle. I would offer him my personal ending for that statement, but he’s already stressed. “Brian, it’s okay. I’ve been having miscellaneous pains for weeks.”

“So it’s not labor?”

“Not yet,” I tease him and we head downstairs.

* * *

After moving downstairs, I find that I’m a little too uncomfortable to go back to sleep. Somehow this pain is different. So now I’m wide awake in the middle of the night in a house with no power. Outside there is a raging storm that the weather service has said has the potential to go hurricane status at any moment.

Harper isn’t home.

And I think I’m going into labor.

Somehow I get the feeling it’s going to be a very long night. I reach for the flashlight and check my watch.

Yeah, new and interesting pains…fifteen minutes apart.

Aww, hell. Could things get any worse? I decide not to tell Brian yet. He’ll go crackers and this could very well stop.

* * *

The hurricane is still moving toward Lafayette, expected to hit in a couple hours. This means that the rainstorm will be picking up in New Orleans. Somehow, I get the feeling that I need to phone home. Me and ET.

The phone rings and rings and rings.

The damn answering machine doesn’t even pick up.

Shit. I bet the power’s out. I try Kels’ cell phone. It rings a couple times and I am about to go insane when Kels answers. “Hello. Harper, is that you?”

I frown. My girl sounds worried. “Yes, chér, it’s me. How are things down there?”

“Wet, windy and dark.” Her voice crackles along with thunder in the background.

“Dark because it’s the middle of the night? Or dark for some other reason?”

Kelsey lets out a very deep sigh. “Dark because it’s the middle of the night and the power is out.” For a moment, she cuts out. “Otherwise, I’d have a damn light on.”

Ooo, my girl is a little grumpy. That’s not a good sign. She only gets that way when I’ve done something incredibly stupid – and I’m not home so that can’t be it – or when she’s sick or in pain. Oh shit. “What’s wrong, sweetheart? Besides the obvious?”

She’s answering me, but I can’t understand her.

“Chér, can you repeat that?”

More static, but then I hear her voice. “Nothing is wrong, Harper. I’m just a little uncomfortable and we’ve got a really nasty storm down here.”

I don’t think I’m being told the whole story here. “What do you mean by uncomfortable?”

“You don’t want to know.” She takes a deep breath.

I recognize that type of breath. From our Lamaze classes. “You’re in labor?!”

“Well, I’m having pain that could lead one to believe I’m headed in that direction, yes. But,” she’s quick to add, and I can barely hear her over the thunder, “it’s first stage labor and it could stop. So don’t get excited, Harper.”

One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.

That didn’t work.

Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

Nope, not any better that way.

“How many minutes apart?”

“About fifteen, Tabloid. You know we shouldn’t worry until I’m having more than four in an hour.”

“I’m coming home.”

“Harper …” Then silence.

I stare at my cell phone. It says ‘in use’. But it’s not any use to me right now. “Kels?” I ask even though I know the signal is gone.

I hit redial, but only get voice mail. I bet Kels’ cell battery died.

New Orleans is only four hundred miles from here. That’s what? A four hour drive. Yeah, right, Harper. In your dreams. Maybe I can be home before the twins arrive.

I’m gonna kill Langston.

* * *

I say goodbye to Kendra and climb into the rental car. A quick check with the airport confirms that there are no flights going into New Orleans right now. I suppose that’s for the best. I don’t even want to think about how many nights I’d be sleeping on the couch if Kels found out I flew into a hurricane.

That brings a smile to my lips. Be okay, Little Roo, and don’t give birth yet.

I put the car in gear and head for the highway. I didn’t bring any CDs, which is annoying, now that I am taking a road trip. A quick flip of the radio yields me country, country and more country music. So many choices in Tennessee. Fortunately, the Mississippi border isn’t all that far away.

Of course, then I’ll be down to two country stations.

I need coffee. It’s nearly one in the morning and I have four hundred miles to drive. I pull off the highway and stop at a gas station for a cup of coffee. What I buy, of course, can’t really be called one. It is a gallon. Easily. I doubt if it’ll fit in the cup holder. This should help.

My fear and concern for my family, though, is more than sufficient to keep me awake. I wish I could talk to Kels. That would make me feel better.

Robie. Robie has a cell phone. Robie lives next door. Robie can get his ass over to check on my wife. I punch in the speed dial for his number.

“Hello?” Robie sounds more awake than I expected. The reception, however, sounds worse.

“It’s Harper,” I yell, trying to be heard over the noise.

“I know who it is,” he laughs. “Calling for a weather report?”

“How bad is it?”

“Hold on one second,” he says, barely discernable over the crack of thunder. “It’s all right, Clark. There’s nothing to be upset about. Papa’s here.” My nephew sniffles a bit more, sounding distraught.

The connection appears to cut out. “Robie!”

After a moment, I hear him again. “It’s blowing bad. Electricity and phones are down, but, hell, that happens here with a good rainfall.”

“What are the forecasters saying?”

“Hurricane is expected to touch down in Lafayette.” This is followed by so much garble. “That always slows them down; in fact, they’re already predicting it will just be a tropical storm when it hits Lafayette … It can go any direction from there, you know. They don’t expect it here, but …” he trails off. We both know that no one can dictate to Mother Nature.

While I still have a connection, I ask, “Can you go over and check on Kelsey?”

“Sure. Is she up?”

“She’s up and having contractions.”

“Mon Dieu! Harper! How many minutes apart?”

“Fifteen. I’m heading home. Can you go over and check on her? And can you call me from your cell phone there? I think her battery died.”

Silence.

“Robie?” I can hear him, but only in the distance. “Robie, come again.”

“No problem,” he says when I can finally hear him. “Let me get over there right now.”

“Thanks, Robie.”

We hang up. And I wait.

* * *

I don’t have to wait too long before my cell phone is ringing. I snatch it up off the seat beside me. I am glad the road is clear and I can speed without worry. I really need a teleport machine. ‘Beam me up, Scotty.’ Or little red slippers. Not that I can picture myself wearing them. But Kels would look very hot in them. God, Harper don’t go there. Focus. Drive. And speak. “Hello?”

“Harper, are you out of your mind?” These are the first beautiful words my wife chooses to speak to me. “Sending your brother out in this storm!” My God, she is becoming a mother.

“Uh …” I stammer, the connection cuts out momentarily. “He’s all right. How are you, chér?”

“I’m okay … considering. Brian is here. We’re being careful keeping track …” Kels takes a deep breath.

I can tell my girl is a bit scared. I wish I was home with her. “How far apart are the contractions?” I shout over the static.

“Still almost fifteen minutes.”

Thank God. I wish I had a free hand to cross myself. “Are the twins okay?”

“They’re peachy.”

There’s a crack of thunder in the background. I think I hear Brian give a startled yelp. “I’m on my way home. I should be there by the morning. Keep your legs crossed until then, chér.”

“Don’t be a smart ass, Harper. I’m so very not in the mood. But, please, please, be careful. If you can’t make it because of the weather, don’t come home. This all may be a false alarm.”

“I’m sorry -” I say, even as the signal begins to cut in and out. “I’ll be home soon. I love you all.”

“We love you too. Be careful.”

And before I can even hang up, the line goes dead.

* * *

I look at Robie. He’s soaked. All in the one minute it took him to get from his house to our house. Brian hands him several towels.

“I’m sorry your sister is crazy,” I offer, trying to get comfortable. Well as comfortable as I can expect to get.

He laughs, even as he takes a seat on the sofa bed next to me and runs a towel over his head. “This is something new to me?” Once his hair is sufficiently dry, he looks to me, taking my hand. “How are you, sweetheart?”

I give his hand a squeeze. “I’m okay, Robie. Nervous, scared, but okay.”

“You’re very calm. Is that a woman thing? Rene was so calm when she went into labor for Christian. It’s amazing.”

I laugh a bit. I hadn’t thought about it. “It just seems like the natural thing to do. Won’t do a bit of good for me to get all upset, now will it?”

He laughs again. “That’s exactly what Rene said. It must be universal.”

“Mother Nature taking her course, Robie.”

“I’m so glad we have women like you to share our lives with.” He leans in and gives my forehead a kiss.

I grimace as another pain starts. I take a deep breath and let it out slowly, rubbing my side. I can feel the babies shifting and moving.

Robie looks to his watch. “Still fifteen minutes?”

“Pretty close.” I nod.

“Okay. Tell you what,” he hands me his cell phone. “You keep this here and keep it on. I’ll go home and get Rene’s. She’s programmed in on number one. If you need us, you call.”

“Robie, we’ve got Brian’s…”

He raises his hand. “Save it and the battery, in case the storm doesn’t let up. We may need it.”

“If things get that bad, we can use the car adapter…”

“Kels, you’ve obviously never been here during a real storm. If things get that bad, you may not be able to make it to the car.”

“Well, I know I won’t.” I joke with him.

“You may need Brian’s phone to call for an ambulance.”

“Nah,” I shake my head. “This is going to stop. Brennan and Collin wouldn’t do that to Harper.”

My brother in law eyes me warily. “Just keep the phone.”

* * *

The miles are melting away as I zip down the highway. It’s been nearly an hour since I spoke to Kels. Everything in me wants to call her again, just to listen to her breathing. Kels’ breath and associated other body parts are on my mind when I hear the siren and see the flashing lights in my rear view mirror.

Shit. Damn.

I slow down and pull over, off the side of the highway. I needed this like I need a hole in the head.

I pull out the registration for the rental car and fish my driver’s license. Sitting in the car, I wait for the cop to come to my window. He’s not in any rush, though. He talks on the radio for a moment, then directs a spotlight attached to his side view mirror at my rear view mirror. I squint and glance away. That’s bright.

I hear him approach. I roll down the window and wait for him to arrive. He’s about medium height and build, with the standard police haircut and look. He stands just behind my left shoulder. “Good morning, ma’am. I’m Trooper Wilson. The reason I stopped you is because I clocked you doing ninety-two miles per hour. Is there an emergency I should be aware of?”

“My wife is …” I stop. I don’t have a wife to Officer Wilson. “My brother’s wife,” I start over, hoping he won’t notice it too much, “is in labor.”

“Hmm,” he clears his throat and tries not to meet my eyes. Guess he picked up on that little slip. Wonder how big my fine is going to be? Or, God forbid, he be some homophobic guy who decides that now is a good time for a strip search. “License and registration, please.”

I hand him the documents and wait. I make a conscious effort to not drum my fingers on the steering wheel. I don’t want to piss this guy off in the least. Last thing I need is to be put in jail for any reason whatsoever.

He looks over everything carefully, comparing my picture on the license with me, live and in person. He also glances into the back seat. “Have you had anything to drink tonight, Ms. Kingsley?”

“Nothing other than coffee, officer.”

“Ms. Kingsley, do you know how fast you were going?”

I frown. “I believe you just said ninety-two.”

He nods and hands back my paperwork. He retrieves his pen from his shirt pocket. Next thing I know he’s shining the light in my face, not blinding me, but it’s definitely annoying. “Can you see the tip of my pen?”

“Yes, officer.”

“Okay, I want you to follow the tip of my pen with your eyes without moving your head. Do you understand?”

“Yes, officer.” Best to play by the rules. If I start to complain, as every living cell within my body wants to, I’ll be here until the twins are five.

He moves the pen back and forth a few times. “So who is having this baby?”

“Kelsey.” There, that’s a nice safe answer.

“And you’re headed where? Your driver’s license says you’re from New York.”

Shit. I hadn’t thought of that. “New Orleans, sir.”

“New Orleans?” He takes a deep breath and shifts his weight from one foot to another. “Your ‘sister in law’ is in New Orleans? You rented the car in Tennessee.”

I also take a deep breath. Every moment I am here is another moment I am not heading toward home. “Yes, I am aware of that. I was on business in Memphis. I had flown up here. I received a call from home and am now headed there. None of the airports are open because of the weather. That’s why I’m driving.”

“Ah, okay. Well, Ms. Kingsley, I’m going to go back and write you a citation for speeding. I could write you for a couple of other offenses as well but I’m not going to. But I want a promise from you that you’re going to slow down. It won’t do your family any good if you get killed going home and we have lots of construction going on.”

I am duly chastised. I can hear Kels’ voice in his with the lecture. “Yes, officer. Thank you and I will.”

“This will take about five minutes. You think you can wait that long?”

I smile my most charming smile. “I’ll do my best, officer.”

So, now I wait for my ticket.

Hope the fine isn’t too much. And how can I avoid telling Kels about this?

* * *

Brian brings me a nice cup of tea, which I’m careful just to sip as needed. I wish I could sleep, but I’m just uncomfortable enough that it isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

We have a few candles and hurricane lamps lit. With the glow of the fireplace, it’s actually quite peaceful looking. If it weren’t for the storm and the labor pains this could almost be nice.

Kam is pacing back and forth now. The storm has him wound up and he can tell I’m not feeling well. He settles down for a few minutes but very soon is back to pacing. I’m sure if Harper were here, they’d be pacing back and forth together.

Brian settles down on the foot of the bed, sipping his tea.

“So how would you feel about delivering the babies?” I tease, giving him a little shove with my foot.

On cue, he does a perfect Butterfly McQueen from Gone With The Wind. “I don’t know nothing about birtin’ no babies, Miss Scarlett.”

I can’t help but laugh. “Okay, okay. I get it. I’m on my own here.”

He rubs my leg. “Never. I’m right here with you.”

“I know.”

“Ooo, I know. Let’s play six degrees of separation. I’ll name a person and you have to link yourself to them by six different people or less.”

“You don’t want to play that game with me Brain.” I warn him.

“Oh come on, Kels.”

“Okay, you asked for it. Go ahead.”

He thinks for a moment and then looks to me. “Brad Pitt.”

“Know him. Interviewed him two years ago. Went to dinner with him twice.”

“I hate you,” he grumbles. He takes a deep breath and narrows his gaze. “George Clooney.”

I shake my head. “Brian, you really don’t…”

“Come on!” he chides, pushing on my foot.

“Okay. Know him. Met him right after he started working on ER.” I take a deep breath as I think about old George. Yeah, I almost went back over to the other side for him. “Nearly slept with him.”

Brian falls over with a groan.

“I told you that you didn’t want to play this game with me.”

* * *

At four-thirty in the morning, I pull over at a highway rest stop to stretch my legs and use the rest room. I’m exhausted, worried, hyper and achy. I’m sure the Taurus is a perfectly lovely car, but not for long drives. I roll my shoulders and hear the satisfying pop. Next is my neck and I let out a moan. God, that’s wonderful.

It’s raining lightly here in Jackson, Mississippi. Home of John Grisham, or at least it was. I suppose after getting a lot of money, he got the hell out of Mississippi. I’m about halfway home. I want to get the hell out of Mississippi as well.

The rest area has a Denny’s and I am grateful they are ‘Always Open’. The waitress behind the counter eyes me warily since the restaurant is otherwise empty. I give her a reassuring smile and wander into the bathroom. After splashing water on my face, I get a good look at my reflection. Great, Harper, you’ll scare your kids to death when they get here.

My kids. Here. Please, God, keep them safe. And, if possible, I’d love to be there for their birth. But safe is most important.

I use the bathroom, wash my hands and go back out into the restaurant. The waitress is a bleached blonde who looks older when I get closer to the counter. “I need caffeine.”

She nods. “Everyone needs caffeine at this hour. What’s your poison?”

“You have Dr. Pepper?” If I have more coffee, I’ll have a hole eaten in my stomach, but Dr. Pepper cures all problems.

The waitress frowns as if I have insulted her. “Of course. Extra large?”

Now it’s my turn to give her that look. “Of course.”

She wanders over to the fountain, scoops ice into a cup and fills it. “Anything to eat?”

On cue, my stomach begins rumbling. “What do you have that’s fast?” I look over at the prep station and see bread and peanut butter there. “Ooh, can you make a fluffer nutter?”

“Coming right up, sugar.”

As she prepares my sandwich, I go over to the payphone and call Robie’s cell phone. I listen as it rings three times and then Brian answers the phone. “Stud?”

I gotta get him to stop calling me that. “How’s Kels?”

“She’s doing pretty good.” I am surprised, the connection isn’t too terrible. “Scared though.”

“God, I wish I was there.”

“So does she. Let me put her on.” I hear a shuffling and the sound of heavy rain. The phone is handed off.

“You’re crazy, you know that?”

Hearing her voice makes me feel immediately better. “Only about you, chér. How are you?”

“I’m good. A little cranky, but good. You know what, Harper?”

“What?”

“This is gonna hurt like a son of a -” my wife catches herself before she owes the jar a dollar. “This is going to hurt. A lot.”

I wish I was home holding her, going through this together. “I guess saying to look forward to the outcome won’t help much?”

Fortunately, I get my girl to laugh. I was worried. I can’t quite navigate my way through this. My comment earlier to keep her legs crossed was not perceived as funny as I intended it to be. “It’s the only thing that does help.” She does another deep Lamaze breath. “Harper, the contractions are still about thirteen minutes apart. Why don’t you get a room and get some sleep before you come on home? I’m sure this is nothing.”

“Nah, I’m halfway home. I’ll be fine. I’d rather get home to you three. How’s the storm?” I’m loving this clear connection. There’s something to be said for not having cell phone to cell phone communication.

“There’s a storm?” she teases.

“I see.” I glance over at the counter and see that my sandwich is ready for me. I’d love to stay and talk to Kels all night, but I’d rather do it face to face. “I’ll be there soon, sweetheart. I’m gonna get back on the road so I can get home. I love you so much. Tout mon coeur pour toute ma vie.”

“Love you too, Tabloid. Be careful.”

We both linger, neither one of us being willing the one to hang up. The need we have for each other is palpable, despite distance, storms, too much caffeine and labor pains. “You going to hang up?”

“I will if you will.”

I laugh. “Nah, you first.”

“Quit being hardheaded, Harper Lee. Hang up and come home.”

She called me hardheaded. I am in love. “Yes, ma’am.” That’s an order I can happily obey. “See you soon.” Without further pause, I put the handset on the receiver, lest I am tempted to continue lingering.

I pay the waitress and I am on my way once more.

* * *

I am standing in the rain. Literally, drenched to the bone. If there is a dry spot on my body, I don’t know where it is. The wind whips the rain around so that it feels like it is coming from all directions. It’s cold and stinging like a thousand tiny needles.

The only good thing is that Hurricane Oliver was only a tropical storm again when it hit Lafayette. It’s now bounced back out to sea and appears to be headed toward Houston. Much better. What we have left is a son of a bitch storm, but I’ll take that any day.

I am about forty miles from home. The reason I am standing out in the rain is because the goddamn tire blew out. And, surprise, surprise, the fucking spare is missing. How can it be missing? How can the rental car people forget a tiny little item like that? I look forward to Robie suing their asses off for me.

I call the toll free reservation number for the agency and let them know where they can find their car. The agent isn’t thrilled I’m leaving it on the side of the highway, but she can bite me. I don’t say that to her, however.

I sling my duffle bag over my shoulder, lock up the car and begin walking.

I’m coming, sweetheart.

* * *

The pain is picking up and I’m far more uncomfortable. I take a deep breath and let it out with a painful cry. “Brian!”

He bolts into the living room, nearly tripping over Kam in the process. “Kels?”

“Call Robie. The pains are getting worse and are about ten minutes apart. It’s hard telling how long it’ll take to get to the hospital…”

“I got it. You just relax.”

“You have the labor pains and I’ll relax!”

He dashes back into the kitchen to get his phone.

I lay back now and try to keep calm. God, I wish Harper were here. I need her. The babies need her.

How am I gonna do this alone?

I’ve got a great back up team in Brian, Rene and Robie, but without Harper I am alone. We should be sharing this together, like we’ve shared everything else.

Another pain starts and I’m afraid there’s no turning back. I hear the back door slam with the storm. I know it’s Robie.

I wish it were Harper.

I’m sorry, Tabloid.

* * *

Livestock stink.

It’s an unfortunate fact of life. Farms are beautiful. Mama grew up on one, and Nonny still lives there, along with Uncle Ambroise and his clan. They grow mostly sugar cane, but they do have the requisite chicken, hogs and such. While I love nature, I prefer to be upwind of it.

This is impossible in my current situation. A farmer took pity on me as I walked along I-55 and offered me a seat up in the cab of his truck. I am seated next to his dog that smells like a wet blanket and every now and then a whiff of pig shit assails me. Apparently, the little porkers he’s hauling are being taken to a place ‘Babe’ would not approve of.

At least I’m not in the rain.

“Yup, Fords break down all the time. Gotta buy Chevys,” the farmer tells me. “I have a Caprice Classic that I still drive and the odometer has turned over twice.” He looks me over. “You look like you don’t normally drive a Ford.”

I laugh. “Nope. Have a Range Rover at home. This was a rental.”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know what’s wrong with people today. No pride in their work. Just slap things together and say it’s done.” He picks up an empty tin can from the floor of the cab, brings it up to his mouth, spits tobacco juice into it and sets it back down. “What do you do for a living?”

“I do television news.”

He rolls his eyes, unimpressed. “All a bunch of poppycock. Tell things in thirty second segments that deserve longer. Always talking about how bad things are. How’d a nice girl like you get into that?”

I can’t remember the last time I’ve been described as a nice girl. “Just kinda fell into it.”

“Well, fall out. Before it warps you. Look at all those Hollywood types. Screwed up the whole lot of them. Sleeping with everyone. Leaving their kids. So high on all that crap they can’t see straight. You don’t take drugs, do you?” He turns sharp eyes on me. For a moment I believe that he could see it if I did.

“No, sir.”

“Good. Don’t start. They mess you up but good. My nephew got himself killed on that crap. The stuff you shoot up. What’s it called?”

I wince. “Heroin?”

“That’s it. Good looking kid before he got messed up in it. Barely recognized him at his funeral.”

“I’m sorry.”

He nods, accepting my condolences. “So what were you doing out there? Just getting home from a late night out?” He gives me a disapproving look.

“No, sir. Trying to get home. My family needs me.”

“Good. Glad to hear you’re taking care of family.” He glances down at my left hand and sees my wedding ring. “You and your husband have any children?”

I figure my kind rescuer isn’t really into alternative relationships. I let any explanation pass. “Two. A boy and girl.”

This meets with his approval. We drive along in silence, the dog deciding that my thigh is the perfect resting place for his muzzle. I find myself petting him, the rhythm soothing.

At the I-10 interchange, he pulls off the highway and drives over to a gas station. “Sorry, I’m headed the other way.”

“No, sir, thank you. You were a life saver. I appreciate the ride this far.”

He shakes my hand and I slide out of the cab and back into the rain.

* * *

I’m not far now. I pull out my cell phone, noting that the battery is almost exhausted, and punch in the number. It’s still early for a Saturday morning, but I know my Papa will be awake. He rises every day at the same time, weekday, weekend, holiday, doesn’t matter.

“Bon jour, Papa.”

“Good morning, Harper. What has you up so early?” He knows I don’t share his trait on weekends.

“I was wondering if you could come pick me up,” and I give him my location.

“Sure. I’ll head right out. What are you doing there?”

“It’s a long story, Papa. I’ll tell you when you get here.”

* * *

I am sitting on garbage bags. When Papa saw me, and smelled me, he immediately went into the convenience store and bought a bag of Hefty trash bags. These he spread over the passenger seat of the Beemer before letting me in.

He also cracked all the windows, letting in a few stray drops of the rain. Although it’s considerably slowed down and I can see the pink of a clearing sky on the horizon. I made it home.

Papa finds my tale of woe quite funny. “I’m proud of you, Harper Lee. You made it back in one piece.” He chuckles. “Of course, you don’t have your plane. Or your rental car. And you stink. But otherwise you did a damn fine job.”

All the retorts I think of, I can’t say to my father. I settle for a sarcastic, “Thanks, Papa.”

He starts to reach over to pat my knee, but stops himself. “Ah, don’t be grumpy. We’re only two blocks from your home.”

This perks me up.

We drive quickly and pull into the driveway beside the house. Before Papa puts the car in park, I am leaping out of the car and running for the door. I find it unlocked and burst into the house, calling for Kels.

I am met by Rene, Christian and Clark. “Harper, glad you made it!” she exclaims.

“How’s Kels?” I start to move around her for the stairs to go up to our bedroom.

“She’s good, but,” Rene reaches out and grabs hold of my wrist, “Robie just drove her and Brian to the hospital.”
Episode Sixteen: Thanksgiving
I get up early, leaving Kels to sleep and later start fussing around the house, as Mama would call it. Between Kels’ little scare last week and the awards ceremony tonight, I’m a walking ball of energy with nothing to do.

Basketball.

That’s the ticket.

Oh, Robie.

I pull on my sneakers and head over to my brother’s house. As I approach the back door, I hear the kitchen is alive with voices. Seems everyone is up. I give a knock, and the door is pulled open by Christian.

“Tante Harper!” He throws himself at my legs. Well, what do you know, he still loves me too.

I scoop him up. “Hi there, little man.”

He gives me a hug and looks behind me. Then he looks to me with raised brows. “Aunt Kels?”

“Is still sleeping.”

“Is the babies still sleeping?”

“They must be or Aunt Kels wouldn’t be.” Ain’t that the truth?

“You want some cereal?”

“Yes, Harper, come in and have some cereal,” Rene growls. “We have at least three different types; two of which are on the floor.”

Ooo, my sister is feeling a little grumpy.

“I’m getting it, sweetheart.” I hear Robie mumble. I kneel down to find him mopping up Cheerios from under the breakfast table.

I burst out laughing.

“You think it’s funny now.” He glares at me. “Christian, get back to the table and eat your breakfast.”

I put him down.

“Yes, Papa.” My nephew has been duly chastised and he knows it.

Through my laughter I manage to offer, “Want some help?”

“Nah, I got it.” He finishes up, then backs out from under the table.

I watch him move to the sink and rinse the towel. “Coffee, Harper?”

“I’ll get it.” I pour myself a mug and watch as Rene tries to get Clark to eat his breakfast.

Robie dries his hands on a towel and moves over to her. He rubs her shoulders and she moans in relief. “All cleaned up, sweetheart.”

“Tell me again why I’m having another baby?” she asks, spooning some cereal into her youngest son.

“’Cause there are too many boys here,” Christian pipes up between mouthfuls of Cheerios.

It’s all I can do to choke back another laugh. I’m guessing that’s been a mantra around the household. Poor Rene. Majorly outnumbered.

Robie turns, crossing his arms over his chest. “You want something or did you just come over here to laugh at me and drink my coffee?”

“Well, hell, Robie, it’s good coffee.” I make a show of taking a long sip.

“By the way, happy birthday,” he says gruffly, but I know he means it.

“Oh, yes!” Rene stands up and comes over to me, giving me a huge hug and a kiss. “Happy birthday, Harper!”

“Thanks, Ren.”

“Christian, go get Tante Harper’s gift.” Rene prompts her eldest. He slides off the chair and runs toward the living room. He comes back carrying three small boxes that are tied together.

I bend down and accept the gifts from him. “Merci, petit homme.”

I open the top box and find a pair of Fossil sunglasses. Oh yeah. I’ll look good in these. I pull them out and try them on, noticing immediately that they have prescription lenses. “These are great!” I exclaim.

Robie nods. “I noticed while we were out on our bikes that you didn’t have sunglasses with your new eye stuff. So I made a call to Kels.”

A light bulb goes off. “That’s why she asked the name of my optometrist the other day. Thanks, guys.”

“Open the others,” Christian urges me.

I do. Inside are two tiny little pairs of sunglasses, obviously for the twins. I crack up imagining them wearing them, looking too cool for school. Or daycare.

“I picked them out.”

I smile at Christian. “Thank you. They’ll love them.”

“I’m gonna have a Kels too.” He tells me proudly.

“I know.”

“She’s ours. You can’t have her.”

I nod solemnly. “All right. But you have to take care of her. You know that everyone named Kelsey is very, very special.”

“I will,” Christian vows.

“So, other than to collect presents, why did you come over here, Harper?” Robie teases. “Is everything all right at home with Kels?”

“Actually, I came over to see if you could come out and shoot some hoops, but I can see…”

“No, no, actually, Harper, that’s a great idea.” Rene smiles at me. “Take him,” she points to Robie, “and him.” She gestures to Christian. “And go over to your house to play.”

* * *

Kam and Christian are romping and playing in the yard while Robie and I shoot hoops in my driveway. It’s not our regular court at the park, but this is good too.

“What I don’t get,” I bounce the ball, “is how a woman can have labor pains that get to ten minutes apart and then they simply stop. It’s like: commit; or don’t start it at all.” I say things to Robie that I could never say to Kels. She’d kick my ass for that comment.

“Don’t try to understand it, Harper. Just be glad you got here in time.”

“Just barely.” I shoot, the ball rolls around the rim once then falls in. I shoot, I score. “Especially after Rene made me take a shower before heading to the hospital.”

He grabs the ball. “Yeah, but you did make it. Plus, Rene said you stank to high heaven when you came in the door.”

Gotta love pigs. “I never should have gone away…” I’m still pissed at Langston. I can’t believe he called me. I can’t believe I went.

“Okay, don’t start beating yourself up over that. You’ve got to face the fact: with your job you’re gonna miss things.”

“Huh?” I hadn’t even thought of that.

“I’m sorry, Harper. But you’re not going to be able to be with them all the time. What are you gonna do when they’re about six months and you call home and Kels tells you Brennan sat up or Collin started crawling?”

Oh, God. That simply can’t happen. “No. I’ll be there for those things.” I snatch the ball back.

“I work twenty minutes from home. The day Rene called me at my office so Christian could say Pa to me for the first time my heart nearly broke. He had said it to her a half hour before.”

* * *

I take a moment from applying my makeup to watch Harper pace back and forth past the bathroom door as she silently rehearses her speech. She looks great, wearing a gorgeous Armani suit. The drape of it on her body is perfect, highlighting her natural beauty. “Relax,” I call to her.

“Easy for you to say. You’re accustomed to being in front of a crowd. You’re used to people looking at you, waiting for you to say something. I’m a producer for a reason.”

“Right,” I reply, carefully applying my mascara. Nothing I hate worse than poking myself in the eye. “And the reason you’re a producer?”

“I don’t like being the center of attention.”

“Yeah, right.” I snort. I’m surprised she managed to keep a straight face while telling me that blatant lie. “Tell me another one, Tabloid.”

She comes in and leans her butt against the bathroom counter with her back to the mirror. “Okay, I like being the center of your attention.”

I love it when she looks at me that way. I love that she looks at me that way when I am almost nine months pregnant. Somehow I know it’ll be the same in fifty years. “Kiss me quick, Stud, before I put the lipstick on.”

She leans over and indulges my request with a nice kiss. Dinner? Award? We’re supposed to do something tonight other than snuggle down in front of the fireplace? “Air…” I manage to choke and pull back a bit. “Be good, brat.” I give her a jab and reach for my makeup once more.

“I thought that was good.” She wiggles her brows at me.

“It was and if you keep it up we won’t make it to the awards dinner.”

* * *

We meet Mama and Papa at the Ritz Carlton on Canal Street where Tulane is having its award banquet. I feel a rush of excitement. It’s my birthday. I’m getting an award from my alma mater. It’s great to be out at an event like this. I have my girl on my arm, and she looks fabulous. I don’t know how she manages to find these incredible outfits that still make her look exceptional even when pregnant. I note the way her hair curls behind her ear, landing gracefully on her neck. God, I love that neck. Her green eyes seem to sparkle, highlighted by the emerald and diamond earrings and matching necklace she wears.

Robie and Rene drove over with us. I insisted on bringing the Lexus. Never can tell when I might need that map feature. I have asked Brennan and Collin, very nicely, to stay put for the evening. It won’t be very long. We have a reception to do first. This will entail the honorees, the trustees of the university, the administration and various department heads, and our family members mingling over cocktails and appetizers. Then we will go into the ballroom for dinner and remarks, followed by dessert. During which I and the other honorees will give short speeches telling how wonderful we are and how smart they were to honor us. Not in so many words, of course.

I have given the twins permission to come tomorrow. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. While not technically my birthday, it is symbolically my birthday as I arrived along with the turkey. It’d be fun to share that with the kids.

So, if everything goes well … mingle, eat, speak, and, in the morning, head to Mama’s for good food. After the fried turkey, I will take Kels to the hospital and we will greet our two new children.

I put it in my Palm Vx. That’s how it’s gonna be.

Papa interrupts my planning when he comes over and nudges me. “What are you looking so happy about, Harper Lee?”

“Life is sweet, Papa. Isn’t it?”

He gives me a knowing smile. “I’ve always thought so.” He reaches over and takes a proffered glass of wine from an attendant and hands it to me, then takes one for himself. He raises his glass. “To my baby girl who has always made me the proudest papa anywhere. Happy birthday and congratulations!”

I swallow the lump in my throat. “Thanks, Papa.”

“Is your speech ready?”

I shrug, trying to appear nonchalant, despite the fact I’ve spent hours on a five minute talk. “I think so. I attribute everything I am to you and Mama and then get off the dais.” That wouldn’t be far from the actual truth.

“Harper Lee, the greatest thing your Mama and I ever did with our children is get the hell out of their way. We loved you, we gave you opportunities, and the like, but, when it came time for you to make your way in the world, we stepped aside. Not one of you has disappointed us.”

“Really? Even me?” Especially how I was living before.

“Especially you.” We sip our wine and Papa spies Mama across the crowd. He smiles the way I have only seen directed toward her. “Excuse me, Cecile seems to need me over there.” Thirty-eight years of marriage later, they’re still on their honeymoon.

I look across the room for my significant other and I see her conversing with Rene. I will be forever grateful for the friendship they have. Robie has been my best friend and confidant since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I love Rene like no other. And Christian and Clark could be mine if parenthood was awarded on strength of emotion. To see Kels so fully integrated into my family is a joy I had never expected to know.

“Harper Kingsley,” a deep baritone rumbles near my ear, “I am so glad you left that tabloid sensationalism nonsense and have gone legitimate.”

I turn and find my first journalism professor. Oh well, time to face the music.

* * *

I grip my sister’s arm and take Rene over to the corner, away from the crowd in the lobby. “Sister, dear?”

“Yes?” She studies me for a moment, reading my expression effortlessly. She lifts a knowing brow. “How far apart, Kels?”

“About ten minutes.”

“Hard?”

“Lot harder than the last time,” I manage to admit. “I had thought I was in labor for a couple hours. It wasn’t too bad before, but it’s picking up speed and intensity.”

“We need to get Harper and get you to the hospital.”

“No. I don’t want to ruin this for her. She’s nervous enough and this is a big deal. Come on, she’s just turned twenty-seven and she’s being honored by her alma mater for her accomplishments in her field. All I have to do is make it through this cocktail hour, push some rubber chicken around my plate, listen to her speech and then we can go to the hospital. No big deal.”

“Kels!”

“Rene,” I grip her hand. “Please. I need you to help me over to our table. We’ve got a couple of hours. Hopefully, that’ll be enough time.”

“I don’t know which of the two of you is more stubborn.” She raises her hand and waves Robie over.

He has a smile on his face until he get a look at me, then it fades. “Oh boy, here we go again.”

“This time it’s not gonna stop, Robie,” Rene assures him. “Help her go sit at our table. I need to find Mama and Papa.” Rene hurries in the last direction we saw them.

Robie offers me his arm. I grip it, not willing to let the one lifeline I have leave me at the moment.

He leans over and whispers to me, “Come on, Kels, deep, easy breaths.”

I do as he says, and turn to him. “You done this before haven’t you, big boy?” I tease, blowing out a breath.

“A couple.” He gives me a patented Kingsley smile. “But Rene would say I merely helped.”

“I’m glad one of us has experience of some kind.”

“You’re doing great, Kels.” He gently rubs my hand. “As soon as Rene gets back, I’ll find Harper and we’ll get you to the hospital.”

“Robie, please. We both know this can take hours. Let’s see if I can get through this dinner. This is huge for Harper.”

“So is the birth of the babies. My goodness, she’s been bouncing off the walls since Mardi Gras.”

“I know but there’s no reason she can’t have both. I’m uncomfortable but other than that I’m doing okay. Dr. Maxton himself said not to come until the contractions were eight minutes apart. I promise you, the moment I time one at eight minutes, we’re out of here.”

* * *

The honorees are spread out at tables in the center of the ballroom. Each of us were allowed to bring five guests, and the table occupants are completed with people from the university. Since Mama and Papa have donated a significant amount of money to the university, the chancellor, his wife and daughter are seated with us.

The cocktail hour was fun. After Professor Reilly gave me a hard time, we had a very interesting discussion about the media. I never imagined myself speaking to him as a professional in the area. And when he asked my opinion on the whole media coverage of the presidential election, I nearly fell over. He found it humorous that one of my colleagues in Northern Ireland offered to send over election monitors in 2004.

Dinner isn’t too bad, surprisingly. We each have a choice of filet mignon, roasted Cornish hen, or lobster. I had to explain to Kels that there are no vegetarians in New Orleans. She’s been picking at her salad for most of the dinner hour.

“You not hungry, chér?” I ask, leaning close. I didn’t need to lean close for this question, I just wanted to smell her perfume.

She tilts her head closer to my lips. “Not really. I think one of the twins is sitting on my stomach.”

“Soon, sweetheart. Soon it’ll all be over.”

Kels gives me an enigmatic smile. “This is true. Are you having a happy birthday?”

I nod vigorously. “Absolutely. I only wish a couple of the nuns from my parochial school were here for this. According to one, I am supposed to be burning in the unquenchable fires of hell right about now.”

Under the table, Kels reaches over and clasps my hand. “You really should be nicer to nuns, Harper.” Her grip on my hand intensifies momentarily.

“You talking about Sister Clarice?” Robie asks, leaning across Rene to join our conversation.

“Mais oui, she hated me.”

“And you did nothing to deserve that.” His voice is heavy with sarcasm. He knows what I did to deserve it. To this day, I still don’t see what was so bad about putting a small flock of chickens in the choir balcony. They sounded better than the nuns did. I couldn’t go see Sister Act for that very reason. Too great a call for suspension of disbelief. Singing nuns, my ass.

Mama looks over at us and focuses on Kelsey. “How are you doing, ma petit?”

“I’m fine, Mama.”

Mama resumes her conversation with the chancellor’s wife.

Huh. Wonder what’s up with that.

* * *

“News and entertainment are becoming almost indistinguishable.” I adjust my glasses slightly as I glance down at my speech. I wrote it down, in case I got up here and had a brain freeze. I’m doing okay so far, but that was only my opening line. “The rise of sensationalism is obvious to even a casual watcher of the evening news. All to often, journalists aspire to be both celebrity-makers and celebrities themselves.”

I look out at the audience and smile at Kels. I don’t seem to catch her eye, however, which is a bit upsetting. I was kind of hoping she would be gazing at me adoringly. Instead she is whispering to Rene.

“Further clouding the picture is the corporate ownership of the news organizations. When Disney owns ABC and Time Warner owns CNN, the fear of corporate creativity extending to the news room is not necessarily misplaced.”

Now Kels is talking to Mama. Hello! Is anyone paying attention to me?

I clear my throat, hoping they’ll get the hint.

“I have certainly participated in this degradation of the news profession in my own career, for which I have already been duly chastised by Professor Reilly.” I pause for the laughter due to my humorous, impromptu comment. It comes.

But not from my family’s table. They now all seem to be in a bit of a heated discussion. What in the world could be more important than me right now? This lack of interest rattles me, and I am forced to scan down my notes once more.

“So I am extremely honored and humbled by this recognition from the alma mater I hold so dear to my heart. We hear talk of ‘self made men’, but I am pleased that many have had their hand in shaping me. Of course, my family …” I continue my tribute to my family, but rather mindlessly because I am distracted. Robie is now looking directly at me and twitching his head about.

What the hell? Is he trying to get me to screw up my speech?

I pause again, removing my glasses and folding them up. I slide them in my coat pocket, hoping that if I can’t see my family so clearly, they won’t annoy me as much. There. That’s better. I fall back into the easy cadence of my comments.

“… promoting the responsible reporting of events as they take place, and not as we imagine them.”

Robie gets up and walks around the table and helps Kels climb to her feet.

Oh shit.

Listen to your own advice, Harper. See the event taking place, not what you imagine it to be.

You’re going to become a Mama. Of course, you’ll still be standing up here droning on and on while Kels is in the hospital.

Mama and Rene follow Robie and Kels as they head out of the ballroom. Papa stands up and crooks his finger at me.

“I have to go,” I tell the audience. “I’m having my babies now.”

* * *

As soon as the car door closes, I slide into Harper’s arms, resting my head on her shoulder. Her arms wrap around me and she holds me close. “You should have told me,” she grumbles at me. “How are you, chér?” She rubs my belly very tenderly.

Taking a deep breath, I manage to answer her. “Didn’t want to ruin…” I grip her jacket as the pain increases. “Sorry.”

“Are you kidding? This is the perfect birthday present to me, chér.” I feel her kiss the top of my head and pull me closer. “How far apart?”

“Eight minutes. It’s going to happen this time. You ready?”

“No. Are you?”

“No, but I don’t have much choice now.” I glance up to the front seat. Robie and Rene have everything under control. Somehow I’m grateful Harper’s not driving. Being back here in her arms is much more satisfying.

I grip her hand and take a deep breath, holding it against the pain.

“No. Now, come on, Little Roo. Breathe. You know, let it out slowly. Come on.”

I nod and do it. I knew she was here for a reason. Motherhood and childbirth may be a natural process, but this whole breathing through it thing is a real gray area.

* * *

I look at the IV in the back of my hand. I watch the progress of the saline from the bag hung by the bed and down to my hand. Funny the things you notice between contractions.

“More ice?” I glance over to Harper and simply shake my head at her question.

She’s trying so hard to be helpful, but I’m not much of a conversationalist right now. I think she’s feeling like I’m upset with her.

The contractions are six minutes apart. The nurses are continually checking on me and all is going well. Dr. Maxton arrived a little after midnight, came in gave me an exam, made sure all his orders were being carried out, and then announced he was going to his office to take a nap.

What I wouldn’t give to be able to nap right now. I’m already feeling tired and we haven’t even begun to get serious here yet.

Harper combs her fingers through my hair. “Is there anything I can do for you, sweetheart?”

“My back.” She knows immediately what I want and she moves to the other side of the bed and begins rubbing my lower back.

“Better?”

All I can do is nod, and breathe through yet another contraction. “Time.” This is Harper’s cue to keep track of the duration and how far apart they’re coming now.

The door opens and I glance up to find Rene. She comes over to the bed and takes my hand. “How are you doing?”

“’Kay,” I manage. I don’t need to try to explain what it feels like to be in constant pain to Rene. She understands all ready.

“Five minutes,” Harper says quietly. She’s still dutifully rubbing my back. “How’d you get in here?”

Rene laughs, rubbing her belly. “Seems I have the perfect disguise for moving around a maternity ward. The rest of the family would come back but they don’t want to overwhelm Kels.” She smiles at me. “But I wanted to know how you were doing. I’ll take a report back.”

“Tell ‘em I’m fine.” I manage a smile now that the pain has passed. “But this is all Harper’s fault.”

Rene laughs. “That’s it, now you’ve truly got a grasp of what labor is all about. You can now blame her for everything from the Kennedy assassination to taxes.”

I hear Harper groan. Rene smiles at her, pointing a finger. “You just hush and sit there and take it. It’s the least you can do,” she teases.

I imagine Harper meekly nodding and resigning herself to her fate for the night. God, please, don’t let me be too mean to her.

When I can only whimper with the next, far more painful contraction, Harper’s hand on my back increases pressure, trying to rub away the pain.

Rene leans in and gives my forehead a kiss. “Good job, Kels. I’m gonna go now. We’ll see you all later.”

I am barely aware of Harper talking to me, but I know it’s her voice and it’s soothing. I automatically do whatever it is she tells me to do.

* * *

This is it.

I swallow hard and focus, holding Kels up so she can push. I hear her panting next to my ear, feel the sweat of her hair against my cheek, and smell on her breath the last traces of the mints I gave her before we were moved to the delivery room.

This is really it.

Soon, I will hold a little life in my hands and it will be a part of me. A part of us. A part of our family. And then, after that, another.

Two.

A son and a daughter both looking to me for guidance, for love, for nurturing, for protection. For all the things my parents provided so unselfishly while I was growing up. And still do.

Two more forevers.

Kels is one to me. Forever such a part of me that I can’t tell where I end and she begins. Forever the best of my dreams, the champion of my hope.

Now Brennan and Collin join her in that rarefied space of my heart. Flesh giving birth to kindred flesh, joyously embracing its own. From the first touch here in this tear-stained room, to the final moments in another, they are mine.

And, more importantly, I am theirs.

“Oh!” Kels gasps, bearing down both on our children and on my hand. “Hurts.”

I kiss her hair, right behind her ear. “You’re doing great, chér. Just a little more for this one.” The strong heartbeats we hear on the fetal monitors comfort me.

No chance of going back now. Just as Kels is fully committed to giving birth, I have to be fully committed to parenting. No more bad ass days. No more living for myself and my own needs and wants.

And yet I gain the world.

“I see the crown,” Dr. Maxton informs us from the foot of the table. “Next contraction, I want you to push hard, Kelsey.”

“Gladly,” she grunts.

“You’ve always been pushy,” I tease.

“Watch it, Tabloid,” I am warned.

I follow her command and watch in the rear view mirror as the contraction starts and we count it off. When we hit ten, Kels relaxes a bit. I can see the top of our firstborn’s head now, covered with the same wheat colored hair as Kels.

“Great job, Kelsey. Give me another push like that and the head will be out. We’re well on our way here.”

Another contraction, as Kels leans into it, I support her and we count once again. She’s got a lot of strength in those little hands. I’m going to be bruised for weeks.

Doctor Maxton carefully guides our child as Kels groans and pushes yet again.

“Very good, Kelsey,” he praises. “The head is out. One more push for the shoulders and you’re done.”

“Halfway,” comes the correction. Never tell a woman having twins that she’s almost done when even the first one isn’t out yet.

We wait for the final contraction so Kels can bring our first child fully into the world. We see it coming on the monitor even before she feels it, although she feels it soon enough. She pushes and a tiny life escapes from her body into the doctor’s hands.

We both pause, hunched over, trying to see everything going on. Waiting, of course, for the scream which signals new life. We don’t hear one.

I may be sick.

The doctor moves the umbilical cord aside and announces, “It’s your daughter.” He begins cleaning her and suctioning her mouth and nose with a small blue device.

Come on, Brennan. Say hello to mama. Give those old Kingsley lungs a workout.

On cue, Brennan opens her mouth and greets all of us with a healthy cry. This is followed by a hiccup and her little eyes fluttering open, wanting to examine the light which is bothering her sleep.

“She’s okay?” Kels asks for both of us. I am still too afraid to voice the question.

Doctor Maxton smiles. “She’s perfect. Harper, come cut the cord.”

I obey. I kiss Kels’ head and walk to the end of the table. He places Brennan on Kels’ stomach and my spouse is immediately touching our daughter, like I want to. Maxton hands me a pair of surgical scissors and holds up the cord.

“Cut between the two clamps.”

I do so. “Can I hold her?” I ask.

Maxton nods. “Absolutely.” He is careful to examine Kels and make sure she’s still stable after the first delivery. “You did great, Kelsey. One more and we can both get some sleep.” He looks up and gives her a wink.

I move to the side and stare at Brennan, trying to come up with the best strategy for picking her up. She’s tiny. She’s maybe as long as my forearm and bright red. But I guess I would be too if I had to squeeze though such a tiny exit. She gurgles in my direction. She seems very content with the fact that Kels is holding onto her.

“Hi, Brennan Grace,” I whisper, reaching out and stroking her tiny head with my fingertips. “Let me introduce you to your Mommy.” Very carefully, I slide my hands under her and gently transport her up Kels’ torso, to rest her against Kels’ chest.

Kels presses a kiss to Brennan’s head and I try to memorize this moment. I never want to forget it. Ever.

Everything else in the room has receded and we are the only three people here. I put my hand on top of the one Kels has resting on Brennan’s back, holding my family. “Great work, chér.” I lean over and give Kels a gentle kiss.

Kelsey is crying. I assume from joy and not pain; although, it’s probably a combination of both. “Is she all right?”

I look down at Brennan who seems fully content to sleep where she is. “Imagine that, a quiet Kingsley. She’s perfect, but we can take inventory.” I roll Brennan over eliciting another cry, reassuring me more than I care to admit. On her back, we count fingers and toes, making sure all essential body parts are present and accounted for.

“She has your chin,” I point out, touching the little body part in question. “And your hair.”

“She’s tiny.” Kels’ voice is full of wonder and choked emotion.

“Like her Mommy.”

Kels winces, and I see on the monitor that her contractions have resumed. “Soon,” she grits.

Sue, our OB nurse, touches my back. “We need to take her for a few minutes.”

I almost growl. The thought of someone else touching my child right now is highly offensive. But I need to help my spouse bring our other child to us. I give the nurse a look meant to intimidate, then I gather Brennan up in my arms, holding her close for a long moment. “You’ll be back soon, Brennan Grace. Mama loves you.” I kiss her again, reluctant to let her go.

“Harper!” Kels calls.

I hand my child over and resume my position behind Kels, supporting her. “Just one more, sweetheart. Almost done now.”

“I’m so tired.” She whimpers a bit. “I can’t, Harper, I just…”

“Yes, you can, Kels. We’re almost done, Little Roo. You’re doing great! Come on, darlin’”

“God, it hurts so much!”

I look over at Maxton. Throughout the whole labor Kels hasn’t complained – in a serious manner – of pain. This concerns me.

What truly terrifies me is when I hear an alarm go off.

“What’s going on?” Kels asks, gripping my forearms so hard I know I’ll have more bruises.

Maxton looks up from his position at the end of the table. “We have a posterior presentation.” This comment is made to his staff rather than to us. The people around us start preparing to move at a second’s notice on his word.

“Huh?” Kels asks, the pain and fear not letting his message get through.

“He’s coming out butt first.” I actually understood that, despite the stress of the moment. “What do you need to do, doc?” I ask. I suspect I know the answer.

“We may have to do a C-section, but I’m going to try to turn him first.”

“Is everything all right?” Kels groans as another contraction hits her.

“I need you to not push anymore, Kelsey. I know it’s hard, but relax, and let me do all the work for a second.”

I watch as he tries to move Collin around inside Kels. He doesn’t try for very long. His brows come together and he shakes his head. “No good. Prolapse. Let’s get the tent up.”

Sue comes over to our side. “Everything is going to be fine. We just need to take him. He’s coming out backwards and it appears that he has a prolapsed cord.”

“What does that mean?” I ask.

“He’s not getting enough oxygen.”

“Oh God!” Kels cries, gripping my hand tighter.

“It’s going to be fine, Kels.” Lord, make it so. I couldn’t handle losing our son. Come on, Collin, you just get yourself here. Stop scaring your mother. And me.

I get pushed back to stand behind Kels’ head as she is laid down on the table. I watch as the nurses spring into action. One hooks up a fresh IV on Kels’ arm, another is setting up a surgical tent around her stomach. Sue comes over with a shot for Kels. “Just relax. We’re going to get him out just fine.”

Kels nods and her eyes flutter shut. I am told to stay where I am to not contaminate the surgical area.

I am alone.

Kels is under anesthesia now, her body given over to the ministrations of the medical staff. Our son is in their care, his life bound up in their ability to work quickly. Our daughter is somewhere being weighed, measured, footprinted, and cared for. I wish I could hold her right now. Perhaps I wouldn’t be so scared.

My hand goes to Kels’ hair and I stroke it gently. Hopefully she will feel me. This is what she feared for months. I fight the tears as I finally understand it. I pray to God I don’t have to make that awful decision. I don’t want to lose either one of them.

I am tall, but not tall enough to see what’s happening directly. I have to rely on the mirror positioned above. I watch, a bit queasily, as they make a slice across Kels’ stomach. It’s not as big as I expected to be.

I look away as blood comes out of the woman I love. We knew she’d probably have to deliver at least one child by C-section, but I still hate seeing it. After a moment, I glance up again to watch Maxton’s hands disappear inside Kels to retrieve our boy. Come on, buddy, you be okay.

I get my first glimpse of Collin and I am terrified. He’s gray, not like Brennan who was an angry red, annoyed at having to leave her warm and comfy home. He’s not moving, which is even scarier. I’m glad Kels is asleep for this. I will have nightmares for years.

He hands Collin to Sue who immediately takes him over to a warmer bed. I want to go right there, as well, but am rooted where I am.

Please, let me hear a cry, Collin. It’s too early in your life to be giving me gray hair.

I watch as they clean him up, rubbing his tiny body to help the circulation and use a big suction catheter to clear his airway and remove any excess fluid. I gag watching it. Once they remove it, they turn him toward an oxygen source. All the while, they are talking to him, encouraging him to give them a reaction.

Speak up, son.

One of the nurses is beside Kels, trying to wake her up. Don’t wake her up for this. Let her sleep through it. If anything happens to Collin, I don’t want her to remember anything. It’s bad enough I will.

An angry cry breaks through the tense silence in the room.

“Merci, Bon Dieu,” I whisper. My knees give out and I sink down behind Kels. I catch myself on the table and discover that I am crying as I watch tears fall down on the metal. Collin continues to cry in the background. I will never complain hearing that noise again. He is safe. He is here.

I need to go to him. He needs to be welcomed to the family.

I push myself up and walk unsteadily over to the warmer. Sue looks up at me compassionately, having seen too many parents go through this type of scare, others with a far worse ending. He’s getting color and squirming around. He objects as Sue attaches a band around his ankle and then wraps him in a blanket.

“May I?” I ask, barely loud enough to be heard over my boy’s screaming.

In reply, Sue picks him up and places him in my arms.

Five pounds never felt this good. I hold him as tightly as I dare, kissing every inch of his face and head. Where Brennan is fair, he has thick, dark hair, which, I now notice, is standing up Don King style. I smooth it down and begin talking to him. “Bon jour, little man. I am so happy to see you.”

He sucks in a deep breath, about to scream again, but doesn’t. Instead, he yawns.

“That’s right. It’s okay. You have nothing to be scared about. Mama is here.” He frowns, as if considering my worthiness. “Yeah, it’s me. The one with the penlight. The one who reads you ‘Green Eggs and Ham’. You know me.”

Collin’s mouth forms a small ‘o’.

“Don’t you ever scare me like that again, okay? My heart can’t take it. Your poor Mommy was frightened too.” I turn around and look over. The doctor has finished removing the placenta, being sure to save the cord blood from both twins as we had requested, and sewing Kels up. She’s coming to. I hear her groggily ask for me and Collin. “We’re right here, chér.”

“Collin?” she asks.

I hold him down where she can see him. “Present and accounted for.”

Her eyes flutter as she looks at him. “Okay?”

“He’s fine. You know the Kingsley men, always ass backwards. He fits right in.” A little humor never hurt a situation I’ve found. I am rewarded with a small smile. “You relax, sweetie. You’ve done a lot of hard work tonight. And these two are going to give us a run for our money here soon. Get some sleep. We’ll be here when you wake up.”

“Promise?”

“Absolutely.”

* * *

I am allowed to carry Collin up to the nursery where he too will be weighed, measured, footprinted and examined. He is now looking much better, a robust pink, and he is as alert as someone less than an hour old can be. There we find his sister who is now sleeping contentedly in a little bassinet. She is wrapped in a pink blanket and has a little pink cap on her head, obscuring most of her blonde hair. I lay Collin down where Sue directs me, and I bend over to drop a kiss on Brennan’s cheek.

“She’s yours too?” another nurse asks. I nod my reply, for some reason I am a bit too choked up to verbalize my response. “She’s beautiful.”

“She is,” I whisper, finding my voice.

Sue looks over from where she is tending to my son. “Have you told the rest of your family?”

Oh.

Right.

I bet Mama is crawling the walls about now.

“I should do that.” Soon. Before Mama can do damage to either people or facilities.

The nurse gives me a very kind smile, recognizing me to be in a haze. “Yes, that would be good. By the time you’ve told them, we’ll have moved the twins back down to Kelsey’s room. They’ll be there when you get back.”

“Wonderful.” I wander over to the doorway, reluctant to leave them, even though I need to. “Thanks for all your help.”

I am amazed that I am able to navigate the hospital corridors well enough to find the maternity waiting room. There I find Mama, awake, alert and annoyed. I think even if I had been coming out to the family with hourly updates, it wouldn’t have been enough.

I memorize this moment as well. Mama nudges Papa awake; Robie continues stroking Rene’s hair, as her head rests in his lap and she is fast asleep. “They’re absolutely beautiful and perfect.” I can’t really use the traditional ‘It’s a boy!’ line, since we already knew what we were having.

Mama lets out a whoop and suddenly all is forgiven. She rushes over and throws her arms around me. She hugs me so tightly, I feel my breath squeezed out. “A gift from God,” she whispers.

“So they don’t look like you, eh?” Robie asks.

Rene slaps his thigh. Mama’s cry awakened her it seems. She rubs a hand over her own burgeoning stomach wherein another Kelsey is taking form and substance. I wonder what lucky man or woman will get to love her one day.

“How is Kelsey?” Mama asks.

“She’s all right, sleeping.” I look at my watch. Five-thirty in the morning. She deserves sleep after all she’s done tonight.

“How was the delivery?” This is Rene’s question.

“Brennan came out easy as can be. But Collin gave us a little trouble. He tried to come out the wrong end first, so Dr. Maxton had to go in and give him a little help.”

“She had to have a C-section?” Papa clarifies.

“Yeah. For a moment, I was sure we had lost him.” I feel my heart and throat clutch at the thought. I force myself to take a deep breath and to recall his solid weight in my arms only a few moments ago. He is here. Alive and well. “But he’s fine now. I think he simply wanted attention since Brennan had stolen first place.”

“Kelsey is fine?”

I squeeze Mama’s hand in reassurance. “Absolutely, Mama. She’s sleeping right now. The twins are being looked at and then they’ll be brought into the room.” I am suddenly exhausted. “In fact, I’m going to go join them for a little while.”

Mama is now appeased. “We will come back later in the day after you’ve all had a chance to rest. Then we can do the proper introductions. What a happy Thanksgiving this is!”

* * *

Every muscle in my body hurts. That’s the first thing I’m aware of. I have muscles hurting that I didn’t even know existed.

Then I remember. I’m a mom.

I turn my head and open my eyes. I smile. There they are, all three of them. Harper is settled into a rocking chair and has two tiny bundles cuddled close to her. She rocking gently and speaking to them very quietly.

“Hey, Tabloid.” I smile and reach out. “Who do you have there?”

“Ooo, my little ones, look who has decided to join the party. It’s your Mommy. Let’s go meet her, shall we? She’s pretty wonderful. I think we’ll keep her.”

She carefully gets out of the chair and joins me on the bed. Moving slowly, I use the control to bring the back of it up a little more. I like this bed. It’s wide, so there’s plenty of room for all of us.

Harper is extra careful when she climbs in next to me. The first thing I see, cuddled deep in a blanket in the crook of her left arm, is a tiny head with thick, dark hair peeking out at me from under a very silly, little, blue cap. I reach out and push the blanket back a bit to look into the most serene face I’ve ever seen.

“Say hello to our son, Little Roo.” She shifts to make it possible for me to take him in my arms.

The tears begin now. I let them fall unabated as I bring his tiny hand to my lips and kiss it. My God, I’m holding my son in my arms. I bring him close and whisper, “Welcome, Collin, I love you.”

“And this,” she has now moved his sister so I can see her as well, “is his big sister.”

“Older,” I correct with a little laugh, knowing how she is with her brothers.

“Right,” she says dryly. “Brennan, say hi to your Mommy.” She pulls the blanket back. “She’s a little smart-aleckie, but we love her.”

My daughter flails a little hand at me and yawns as if she’s completely bored with the whole situation already. Then her hand returns to her mouth and she begins sucking on it.

I wipe the tears from my cheeks. “They’re beautiful, Harper. Absolutely beautiful.” I look back to my son again. I can’t believe they’re really here and seem so content. “Have they eaten yet?”

“Yeah. You were pretty out of it, sweetheart. I had to give them the bottles we prepared earlier. I hope that’s okay.”

I smile at her. “Of course, it is. They had to eat.” I’m glad she got to do it. I know she enjoyed every moment of it.

“You know,” I address my son, “you had me pretty scared.” I look to my daughter. “You both did. So let’s make a deal to cut that out right now.”

“Ah, we’ve already had this chat, Little Roo. They promised to be good from now on.”

“Good.” I lean up and give her a kiss. “Thank you.”

“Oh no, chér, thank you. You have truly made my life complete today. You did good.”

“We did good, Harper Lee. Think we can keep it up for another twenty years or so?”

“Twenty? Fifty, fifty-five, sixty. You name it. Plus, I don’t think we have much choice.” She places a kiss to Brennan’s forehead.

“They’re so tiny.” I am amazed when Collin wraps a small hand around my little finger. “Are they really okay?” I can’t help but marvel at the tiny little fingernails. He looks like he recently had a manicure.

“They are perfect, Kels. Absolutely perfect.”

“So which one is the troublemaker?”

“You have to ask?” She chuckles a bit, lifting her chin at our son. “A true male Kingsley. He came into the world backwards, and has been complaining about it like it’s my fault since he got here. He’s exactly like his uncles.”

I laugh then force myself to stop. It hurts too much. “Oh, don’t do that. I’m way too sore for that.”

“You had quite the workout today.”

“The best one ever.”

* * *

I reluctantly left Kels and the children early this morning. I needed a shower, Kels politely told me. I also needed to change out of my suit, and pick up a few things for my girl. I couldn’t sleep. I was too excited.

It’s nearly eleven in the morning when I finally arrive at the hospital, my arms loaded with packages. One of the nurses takes pity on me and opens the door to Kels’ room. Kels is awake and sitting up in bed, absolutely glowing. “Good morning, chér.”

Kels laughs at me. “Morning, Tabloid. You mug Santa?”

I carefully wind my way over to the empty chair and put the stack of boxes down. “Nah, just a little elf. You ain’t seen nothing yet, darlin’.” Once my arms are free, I go over to the bed and lean down to give my wife a proper greeting. Oh yeah, she’s good at this. “How are you feeling?” I ask when we break apart.

“I’m good. Sore. A little tired.” She glances over at Collin’s bassinet. “Your son decided he needed to be fed about four times last night.”

“Is everything all right?” The little guy concerns me. “Is he getting enough? Or has he just found a good thing?” I say the last with a little leer, hoping to inject some levity despite my concern.

“Everything is fine. He’s simply got a very healthy appetite.” She reaches out and rubs my hand. It soothes me immediately. “The nurses tell me it’s normal for them to want a little extra at first. Give him a few days and it’ll settle down.”

“Okay.” I squeeze Kels’ hand and go over to the chair, grabbing the huge bouquet of flowers on top. It has an abundance of freesia, her favorite flower, in it. The scent is amazing. “For you.” I present them to her.

“Thank you, Tabloid. You’re sweet.”

I reach over and grab one of the boxes. I hand it to her. “For you.”

“Ah, I see you thought of everything,” she says as she pulls out a crystal vase. “You want to do the honors?” I dutifully take the vase and go into the bathroom, filling it up with water. I come back and arrange the flowers in it, as Kels continues. “By the way, did you call Kendra and tell her about the babies? I know there are a few people at work who were waiting for word.”

“I left a voicemail. One for her, one for Langston and one for Frankie. Although, I bet it was rather incomprehensible. I was a little tired.” I retrieve another box from the chair and press it into Kels’ hands.

“You’re a case. You keep this up and you’re gonna go broke.” She begins unwrapping the next present.

“I like spoiling you.” I watch, enjoying this quiet time with my girl.

“Ooo, well, now, I must admit I like being spoiled. And just as soon as I can get some help getting clean up, I’m changing into these.” She drapes the top of the new fleece sweat suit across her chest. The dark green color brings out shade of her eyes. “It’s gonna feel so good to wear my regular clothes again.”

“Darlin’, you know if you need help getting cleaned up, I’m your gal.” I steal a quick kiss and then hand the last of the presents over. It goes with the theme right now. This package has the sheerest, sexiest, damn nightgown I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait to see it on Kels. For a brief moment. After that, it’ll be more the thought that counts kinda thing.

Kels holds it up by its straps and shakes her head, amused at me. “It’s … umm … well, it’s probably going to be awhile, you know? I’m gonna need some time. But, I promise you, the minute I’m ready.” She stops and returns my leer. “You’ll know it.”

“See, that was my plan. You know how I feel about you. So rather than bugging you about it, when you’re ready, just show up in the bedroom in that. I guarantee you, you’ll get a warm reception.”

I enjoy watching the blush steal across her cheeks. “Well, Stud, I’m not sure the body is quite ready for this yet, but I guarantee you two things. One, when I’m ready, there will be no doubt in your mind. And, two, as soon as the body is ready for this, it’ll get put to good use.”

I close the distance between us, setting aside the box. “I want you to know that I love you more than anyone or anything else in this world. So I’m going to ask for your indulgence and forgiveness ahead of time.” At my wife’s quizzical look, I continue. “I figure I’m going to be slightly insane over our children. I know, it’s hard to believe.” We both laugh at this obvious exaggeration. “But I want you to know that I know none of this would be possible if it weren’t for you.”

“We did this together.” I lean into her hand as it caresses my cheek. “I couldn’t have done it without you and the family.” She shakes her head, her expression wistful. “I don’t think I would have made it this far without you.”

I capture her hand and press a kiss to her palm. “You’ll never be alone ever again, chér. I swear it.”

A loud cry pierces through our intimate moment. We both look over to see who the offending child is. “And right on cue, your daughter proves your point.”

I join in Kels’ laughter, leaning over to scoop up a very cranky girl. Barely one day old and the kid has a championship set of lungs on her. I hold her and am mesmerized by her form. She turns to my chest, obviously seeking something I don’t have. Well, I do have, but my tank is empty. I hand her over. “I think she wants you.”

Kels exchanges the nightgown for our daughter. She begins feeding her and I simply watch yet another miracle in my life.

* * *

“Oh, he does not!” Harper argues even as she places Brennan in the bassinet so she can sleep.

“Yes, he does.” I stroke Collin’s cheek and he does it again. His little, bottom lip pokes out. “He pouts the same way you do.”

“I don’t pout.”

“Tell me another one, Tabloid.” I open my gown and bring him to my breast for his first feeding. Brennan’s went very well and I’m a little more confident with my ability to do it now. “Ouch! Was he born with teeth?” He’s got a strong suckling instinct. He gets that naturally from his Mama. “Whoa!”

Harper finds this amusing, nearly spitting her coffee halfway across the room.

“Yeah, laugh it up, lady. You won’t think it’s so funny while you’re banished.”

“Don’t even tease about that.” She settles on the edge of the bed to watch our son eat. “How about I go find you some food?”

“Yes, please. I’m starved.”

“I’ll bet you are. You gonna be okay with them while I’m gone?”

“Yeah, we’ll be fine. Can you bring his bassinet closer, and bring Brennan closer too?”

“I can do that.” She takes a moment to do so. “You know, when I get back we should try to get you up for a walk.”

“I know, but you have to promise to take it slow and easy on me.”

“You have my word.” She leans over and gives me a kiss. Then she smiles at our son and runs her finger over his cheek.

I can tell by the look on her face that her offer of getting me breakfast is a thought long forgotten.

“Harper?”

“Yeah.”

“Wife. Food. Remember me?”

She gives me a sheepish grin. “Right. I’ll be back soon.”

I can tell she doesn’t want to leave but she does.

Slowly.

Very slowly.

“I promise, Tabloid, we’ll be here when you get back.”

* * *

With Collin fed and settled, both babies are now sleeping peacefully. I find myself hard pressed to tear my eyes away, but I do so in order to call my Dad. I’m sure someone has already called him with the news, but I want to talk to him.

The phone rings two or three times before Amanda answers. I laugh before I can even say the words. “Hi, Grandma.”

“Oh, Kelsey, you are an evil woman.” She laughs back.

“You’re the one who married my father. You set yourself up for this.”

“True. How are you?” Amanda’s voice is warm and friendly, a genuine concern evident.

“I’m so very good. You should see them. They are perfect.”

“We wanted to come down, but your father is tied up here.”

This news does not surprise me in the least, but at least now I have a better understanding of it. “Is he home today?” It is after all Thanksgiving.

“Yeah, but, he’s on a conference call to Paris. Hold on a second. Let me tell him you’re on the phone.”

“Okay.” Normally, I wouldn’t let her interrupt him, but it’s a holiday and I just spent more than twelve hours giving birth to his grandchildren. He can take time out to talk to me.

“Hey, sweetheart! How’s my girl?” He sounds very happy.

“I’m good, Dad. You’re a grandfather.”

“I know. I got a very short but excited call from your better half about six this morning. How are my grandchildren?”

“Perfect.” I laugh at myself. I all ready sound like a typical parent. “Are you going to be able to come down at all? Harper and I probably won’t come back to New York until after the first of the year.”

“We thought we’d come down next week. That’ll give me time to get this mess cleaned up and you’ll have time to get home and get settled.”

“Sounds great. I can’t wait for you to see them. They’re absolutely beautiful, the both of them. Brennan has blonde hair and Collin has a pile of thick dark hair.”

“Well, don’t be surprised if that changes. When you were born your hair was red. Then it all fell out and came back in blonde.”

“I don’t care if it falls out and never comes back. I love them.”

“Spoken like I true mother.”

Mother.

That word sends a chill down my spine.

“No, I’m better than that. I’m going to be a mom.”

* * *

When I return with breakfast for Kels, I find Gerrard and Katherine in the room with her. Each are holding one of the twins and cooing at them. I put the tray on the small table next to Kels and pull it in front of her.

“They’re beautiful, Harper,” Katherine says over Brennan’s head.

“Thanks.” I kiss their mother and then wander over to look at my kids. I run my fingertip across Collin’s cheek and he smacks his lips.

Gerrard smirks up at me. “Of course, you’re lucky to see them, aren’t you, Harper Lee? I mean, the way Kels here tells it, you might still be at the Ritz giving your speech.”

So that’s how it’s gonna be, huh? “In all fairness, someone didn’t tell me she was in labor. I had to be told through charades. At first, I thought it was some prank of Robie’s, but …”

“Oh, admit it, Tabloid, you were so caught up in the moment we nearly needed flares to get your attention.” She raises a playful eyebrow at me. “It’s nice to be the center of attention, your children just decided to outclass you.”

Gerrard begins laughing, little Collin bobbing on his chest as he does so. “Ooo la la, Harper. You’re in for it now.”

“Don’t feel too bad,” Katherine chimes in. “Gerrard was almost as bad when T-Jean was born.”

“Now, let’s not start telling tales, Katie,” Gerrard warns.

“Oh, let’s,” I urge.

Katherine kisses Brennan’s head and places her back in the bassinet. “Perhaps I’ll share it with the Kitchen Conspiracy when Kels is able to rejoin us.”

“Ooo, I’m all for that.” Kels has already devoured about half of her breakfast. She smiles over at me. For a moment, I mistake it for sweetness, but then she says, “I’m sure I have some new Harper stories you haven’t heard yet.”

Gerrard hands over Collin to me. “Maybe we better have another poker night soon.”

I nod. “I believe we are past due.”

Katherine goes over to Kels and gives her a gentle hug. “Congratulations, Kels. You make sure Harper takes good care of you.”

“She has no choice. I know where she lives.”

Gerrard laughs at me. “Welcome to parenthood, Harper Lee.” He kisses Kels’ temple. “Good luck.”

I shrug and take one of Kels’ hands in mine. “I’m gonna need it, that’s for sure.”

* * *

Later in the afternoon, Mama and Papa sneak into our hospital room with enough food to feed a small army. Apparently, the traditional Thanksgiving feast has continued unabated, despite mine and Harper’s absence. It doesn’t bother me in the least. Next year we’ll be there. And the twins will get their first taste of fried turkey.

Mama places a huge picnic basket down on the chair and comes over to the bassinets. She smiles down at Collin and Brennan, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. Harper is standing there, beaming. She looks like a kid who just won the most fantastic prize and wants to show it off to her parents. She reaches into a bassinet and picks up Brennan. Gently, she hands her over to Mama.

“This is your granddaughter, Brennan Grace Stanton Kingsley.”

Mama places a kiss on her forehead and whispers a prayer in French. “Jonathan,” she calls Papa over, and hands Brennan over to him. He takes her and begins rocking her gently.

“And this is your grandson, Collin Lee Stanton Kingsley.” Harper now hands Collin over to his grandmother. Our son’s hair never fails to amuse me. Where Brennan’s is so light, it looks like she’s bald, Collin looks like a Chia pet. Mama is saying the same prayer over him, kissing his eyelids.

Mama looks over at me. “Thank you, Kelsey.”

Three words that speak volumes to me.

Harper sits down on the bed beside me and wraps her arms around me. “Yes, thank you, Kelsey.”

Papa carries Brennan over to the picnic basket and I notice, for the first time, the two presents wrapped and on top of it. He picks up the packages and brings them over to me. “A little something, from us.”

Harper and I work together to unwrap the first present. Inside is an infant-sized Tulane football jersey with Kingsley written on the back. I guess I better get used to have a football player in the family. Or rather, Collin better get used to the idea. The second package is an infant-sized Tulane basketball jersey with Kingsley written on the back of it. Guess I now know what sport Brennan will be playing when she grows up.

“They’re wonderful! Thanks, Papa! Mama!” Harper exclaims, beaming. She turns to me and I can read the question in her eyes easily.

“No, you have to wait until they’re home before putting them on. They’re still too little.” She pouts exactly like Collin does. I push her lower lip back in and then kiss her. “Soon, darlin’. They’ll grow up soon enough.”

* * *

Not long after Mama and Papa leave, Lucien and Rachel and Jean and Elaine stop by to meet the newest family members. They stayed for almost an hour, subjecting me to further teasing, but they were appropriately adoring toward Collin and Brennan.

Everyone is almost all settled down for a nap when the door to the room bursts open. I am on my feet instantly, ready to protect my family, when I realize I am about to attack a stuffed bear. An enormous stuffed bear. Held by our very happy nanny. “It’s Uncle Brian!” he trills.

Brennan immediately begins crying, less scared than annoyed her sleep was disturbed. Or so I surmise from her expression. I pick her up and hold her close as Kels does the same for Collin. We both give Brian a perturbed glare.

“Say hello to your Uncle Brian,” I whisper to Brennan, barely able to be heard about her cries. I kiss her downy hair and rock her in my arms. My little girl does not like having her sleep interrupted.

“Oops,” Brian says, covering his mouth. “Did I wake them up?”

Kels shakes her head. “It’s all right, Brian. But next time a less … dramatic … entrance might be nice.”

“Look at that head of hair!” Brian walks over and takes a closer look at my son. He begins cracking up as he examines Collin’s thick head of hair which has a propensity to stick out in every direction despite the little cap. “What’s up with the yarmulke?”

“We’re Jewish.”

“You are?” Brian buys my comment hook, line and sinker. “I didn’t know that. ‘Sunrise, sunset; sunrise, sunset; swiftly flow the days!’” His singing voice leaves a bit to be desired. He holds out his hands and Kels hands Collin over, a bit reluctantly.

“Have you held children before?” I ask from across the room, now moving to be closer in case my boy needs me.

“Sure.” Brian takes Collin and holds him up Kunte Kinte-style. Somehow we’ve moved from Jewish to African traditions. “‘Let the river run,’” he warbles.

“Brian,” I interrupt, “that’s from Working Girl. And get him down from there. Don’t scare my son.”

Brian immediately complies and hands Collin back to Kels. I relax. He looks over and gives me a winning smile. “Hi there, Stud. They’re gorgeous. Must take after Kelsey.”

I bite my lip. It’s true. I certainly won’t argue that point.

“How are you, Kels?” he asks gently. No matter what, Brian adores my girl.

“I’m good, thanks. Much better now that they’re here.” She kisses Collin’s forehead. He’s already asleep in her arms.

Brennan yawns in mine. I lay her back down in her bassinet. Kelsey told me I can’t hold them while they sleep. I don’t think it’s because she doesn’t want to spoil them, but she doesn’t want to spoil me.

I sit down on the chair between the two bassinets and gaze at my babies while Kels catches up with Brian. They’re only one day old and already I am sad about them growing up and moving away.

Sunrise, sunset, indeed.

* * *

“Harper Lee?” I hang my head, listening to her re-buckle the seat belts for the fifth or sixth time.

“Yes, sweetheart?”

“If you don’t get in this car and take us home…”

“I’m checking the car seats.”

I take a deep breath, trying to remember she’s only being careful. She’s doing this because she loves them. Not because she is purposefully trying to drive me insane. “Harper, you’ve checked the car seats at least two dozen times.” I turn and point to the babies. “Look at them. They’re sound asleep. Perfectly happy. Very content. Your wife, on the other hand…”

She looks up at me, easily reading my expression. “Gotcha. You want to go home?”

“In such a big way.”

“Okay, okay, you don’t have to hit me in the head with a brick.”

No, but I better not try blocking her view of the babies. I sigh as she finally closes the car door and gets in behind the wheel. She then spends another minute or so making sure there are no bombs planted anywhere and that the rearview mirror is perfectly positioned.

“Harper?”

“Yes?”

“Do you love me at all?”

“Little Roo, you are the love of my life.”

“Then for God’s sake, please, take us home now.” I’m not above begging at this point.

She turns over the engine and puts the car in drive. Finally! My Ma moved and drove faster than her even when she had rheumatoid arthritis. I shake my head and refrain from telling her it’s illegal to drive under the speed limit. At least, we’re moving. And we’re even headed in the right direction. For this kindness, I am grateful.

I lean back in the seat and close my eyes, willing the babies to sleep all the way home. God only knows what Harper would do if they started fussing right now.

“Tired?” Harper takes my hand.

I open my eyes and turn to face the happiest person on the planet. “Yeah. A little. I’m looking forward to getting home.”

“What’s the first thing you’re going to do?”

“Well.” I look into the back seat. My babies. Our babies. Our beautiful family has finally come together. “After making sure everyone is happy and settled, I’m going to take a marathon hot shower. Then I’m going to find my baggiest, most comfortable sweats, a big, thick pair of socks and have you build a fire in the fireplace. I will then make myself a nice hot cup of tea, settle down and appreciate the fact that I can see my feet.” I look down at them again. It seems I’ve been doing that a lot since the babies were born. I have beautiful toes, if I do say so myself.

* * *

This is total bliss.

My first shower at home. The water is hot and the pressure is perfect. I turn my back to it and simply allow it to massage my back and shoulders. Three days in the hospital with the babies was more than enough for me. I’m very happy to be home with my family.

I smile. Harper is absolutely adorable. I simply don’t exist in her world at the moment. She’s far too occupied with the babies. Even as I was getting ready to take my shower, she was stretched out on the bed, her head resting in her palm. Lying next to her were both twins, content and sound asleep. She merely wanted to watch them sleep.

I knew she was a lost cause when I announced I was headed for a shower and she didn’t even bother to look at me. She waved her hand and mumbled something in my general direction, her eyes never leaving the babies.

I let the water run for a few minutes longer before I shut it off and step out. I’m almost afraid to really look, but as the steam filters out of the bathroom I finally face the mirror.

Okay, I can work with this. Give a few days more to let the C-section incision heal and I’ll start with a light exercise program. I’m definitely better all ready. I slip into my robe and toss a towel over my head. I hear someone fussing as I towel my hair dry and head for the bedroom. It’s not Harper.

“Who’s being grumpy?”

“Your son,” she tells me happily as she scoops him up.

“Ah, I get it now. I see how it’s gonna be. When they’re good, they’re ours, and when they’re bad, they’re mine.”

“No, not at all, Little Roo,” she assures me with a smile. “When they’re good, they’re mine. When they’re bad, they’re yours.”

I tuck my towel in the neck of my robe and extend my hands. “Then give me my son.”

“Un…well…” She certainly didn’t expect that.

“Well?” I extend my hands again. “Come on, Tabloid. Give him up.” My son’s fussing becomes nearly a full blown fit before Harper finally concedes, realizing I have what he wants at the moment.

With a sigh, she makes room for me on the bed, and hands Collin to me so I can nurse. Somehow she manages to keep one hand on Brennan and allow me to lean against her on the other side while I cradle Collin.

We are home. We are getting settled.

I was wrong about the shower.

This is bliss.

* * *

I am sitting on the floor in the living room watching our children. They are five days old. Already they are the smartest, most beautiful children ever born. I know it. Kels knows it. Everyone who sees them knows it. It’s just the way things are.

Our bright, beautiful children have three main activities: sleeping, eating and pooping. I am surprised at how non-fussy they are. When they cry, it makes sense. They’re either tired, hungry or wet. How come other parents are unable to understand these basic signals?

Collin is currently asleep, chewing on his tiny fist. Brennan is drifting in and out of sleep. I watch her tiny eyelids flutter open every few moments. Both babies have blue eyes right now, but there’s no way to know for certain if they’ll stay that color. We know they’ll be light, though.

I’m trying to help Kelsey as much as possible. We have the twins in our bedroom, sleeping right beside our bed. When they need their nighttime feeding, I get up and take care of one of them. Kels fixes up bottles of breast milk so that I can participate in this aspect of their care. I am also a world class diaper changer. I can get them clean, powder their butts, and diaper them up in record time.

Today we gave both twins a bath. Oh, boy, was Collin unhappy with that turn of events. He was cold and scared and more than pleased when we dried him off and put him back in his sleeper. Brennan, on the other hand, sighed when we rubbed the little washcloth over her. She’s a hedonist. I can tell. I think a few too many of my genes ended up in her.

Kelsey is absolutely perfect with the twins. Her fears of being a bad mother are only that – ungrounded fears. She makes fun of me for being captivated by these two little lives, but she’s just as bad. Maybe worse. I woke up in the middle of the night to find her watching them and me. She tried to make some excuse but I had caught her fair and square.

The first time I watched her breastfeed our children, in the hospital, I felt this primitive possessiveness wash over me. Seeing her connected in such a fundamental way to Brennan, I was ready to fight and die defending them. If Kels thought I was over the top when she was pregnant, she ain’t seen nothing yet. Every noise, every strange event is heightened to me. These two children have no one to protect them in this world but us. I will die before I let them down.

My feelings for Kelsey have managed to grow stronger as well. I didn’t think it was possible, but apparently it was. To know that she can create life in her is staggering to me. Last night I lay in bed beside her massaging her now flat stomach. It feels to good to have her tucked up close to me, to have her hold my hand and snuggle it between her breasts.

Otherwise, she won’t let me near them. I tried joking about having a taste and that went over like a lead balloon. She doesn’t know that I tried some from one of the bottles she filled. It was sweet, like condensed milk from a can. But I am not allowed near the source.

I’ll live. As long as Brennan and Collin are allowed, then life is good. They are putting on weight, and filling out. It’s interesting how clear the difference is between Brennan who was born the natural way and Collin who was given some help. She has only recently stopped looking smooshed. I’ve been keeping a careful eye on Collin, since his dramatic start in life. He’s a little smaller than Brennan and feels more fragile to me. Of course, Brennan’s headstrong personality makes her not seem like an infant, but a very, small adult. A very, small determined adult.

Kels walks into the room and gives me an indulgent smile. “Having fun there, Tabloid?”

I smile and pat the floor beside me, beckoning her to join me. “Absolutely.”

She drops down and leans against me. “We have an hour or so before they will want to be fed.”

I glance at my watch. “Yup.” I lean over and rub the bottom of Collin’s foot. He gurgles and moves his foot away from my annoyance.

Kelsey laughs. “You are such a lost case.”

I frown. Hmm. I wonder what’s up with that. I pull back and look at her. “How so?”

She turns and faces me, pushing back my hair, letting her fingers graze my cheekbone, then throat and neck. “Our children are asleep. For the moment, they are warm, well fed and dry.” I glance over her shoulder and confirm each of those descriptions. She turns my chin to face her again. “Basically, Harper, I’m propositioning you. And, yet, you only have eyes for those two.”

“Propositioning me? Isn’t it too soon?”

She smiles sweetly. “Well, yes. But I thought you wouldn’t mind making out with me on the couch.”

“Mind?” I have to laugh at that thought. I think not. “Let me put them in their bassinets.”

Kels winks. “That was the plan, stud.”

Their beds are never too far from wherever I have the twins. I pick them up carefully and transport them there. Kels drops their blankets on top of them along with a kiss. I’d leave them on the floor if I wasn’t worried that Kam might come barreling through whenever Brian brings him back from his walk.

Kam is so funny with the twins. When Kels breastfeeds them, he licks their feet. He is exceedingly gentle with them. He just wants a taste. He seems to understand that they are ours and he has appointed himself their guardian and protector as well.

Kelsey welcomes me into her arms on the couch. I lay down on it, and she flops on top of me. She sighs, her breath spilling over my shirt and skin. “God, I missed this.”

“What?”

“Laying on my stomach.” She rubs herself against me.

“Actually, you’re laying on mine.” I start laughing. “That tickles.” I squirm underneath her. It feels better than I realized to get to hold her this way. It’s been too long. I wrap my arms around her, holding her tight against me. She burrows her head under my chin and we rest together for awhile. I inhale the kiwi scent of her shampoo. “Hey, I thought you wanted to make out.”

She looks up at me, folding her hands on my collarbone and resting her chin there. “Well …”

I lean forward and capture her lips. I don’t like my girl having second thoughts about kissing me – even if she is teasing. My hands slide up and down her body, reacquainting themselves with her normal physique.

She pulls back, breathing hard. “It takes you awhile, but you do come around.”

I lift a quizzical brow. “Huh?”

“Harper, Harper, Harper,” she chides me. “You are so funny lately. Those babies have you wrapped around their itty-bitty fingers.”

Well, that’s true. “Isn’t that good?” Perhaps I’m doing something wrong here.

“Of course, that’s good. It’s just it’s not very flattering to me.”

I let that wash over me. “I’m sorry, chér. It’s only because I’ve waited so long to see them and now … I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Kels smiles. “You didn’t hurt me, sweetheart. I know you too well for that. And I am thrilled by your love for Brennan and Collin. I just want you to look at me the way you used to, that’s all.”

“I didn’t think I stopped.” I am totally confused now.

“You don’t notice me when I’m in the room right now.”

I let a lazy smile spread across my lips. “Oh, chér, that’s where you’re wrong. I notice everything about you.”

“Uh huh. Tell me another one.”

“Nah, I’d rather kiss you.”

“Then shut up and jump, stud.”

Okay.

Episode Seventeen: Clash of the Titans
I’ve found that I wake up automatically now, generally about the same time as Collin. This gives me time to get awake and slip out of bed. Collin doesn’t sleep in solid four hour blocks like his sister does most of the time. I think it’s because he’s a little smaller still and had a rougher entrance.

Or it could be my son is simply gonna be a Mommy’s boy. Which suits me just fine.

I turn on the small lamp next to the bassinets and look at them both. Brennan is still sleeping, and my theory is if she’s sleeping peacefully, to let her continue. But Collin is awake, looking for me. He doesn’t cry out most nights. He knows I’m coming.

“Good morning, Fuzzy.” I chuckle when I lift him out of the bassinet. His hair is too much. Once again, I smooth it back as I cradle him in my arms and move to our lounger. After we are settled down, I begin his feeding. He seems to be better at this too. He’s not as rough on me as he was those first few days. Guess we’re both learning.

Looking at the bed, I see Harper shift and roll over. She’s learning to sleep through her son’s middle of the night snacks. This is good because then she’s better rested to get up and deal with a very cranky Brennan first thing in the morning. Yet another trait Brennan shares with Harper.

Brennan seems not to care one way or the other where her food comes from as long as she gets it. Collin on the other hand is reluctant to take a bottle. He will, but he requires more coaxing to do it. So I’m happy and content to be up with him now.

I want the babies to accept both, breast and bottle, in case, for some reason, I’m not available to feed them. Thus far it’s working. It certainly is a learning experience. I’ve also discovered that, for me at least, baby books are a crock. Some of the stuff they put in those books is plain stupid.

“Come on now. No going back to sleep yet. I know you’re not done.” I stroke his cheek to get him to nurse a little longer. He tends to do this. He’d sleep here if I’d let him. He reaches up and finds my finger and pulls it away from his cheek. Am I bothering you, Fuzzy? A smile tugs at the corner of my lips.

I’m still amazed at how tiny they both are, but how perfect. And how far I’ve come in a year. God, I can still remember Harper putting Clark in my arms for the first time. I was terrified I’d hurt him somehow. But now, holding my own children comes so naturally and so easy.

I can tell by watching my son that he’s not really into eating right now. He wants to sleep. I readjust gently and cradle him. He makes a few, small sucking noises and is content. He’s still holding my finger and I know I should tuck him back in and go back to bed myself, but I can’t bring myself to do it. The realization of how close we came to losing him is still very fresh in my mind and Harper’s. I know it’s silly now that he’s here, happy and healthy, but I can’t help it.

The fact that Dr. Maxton told me not to have any more children has also made me very protective of my babies. I’d be lost without them. Watching this sweet, little boy who is so trusting, slumbering in my arms, is the greatest feeling in the world. It helps offset the feelings I had when the doctor said I couldn’t take another pregnancy, even a single one. I wanted a big family. After becoming a part of Harper’s, how could I not?

Harper has been great about the whole thing. She was worried about me and my health first and foremost. Once the doctor reassured us I was fine, it helped a lot. Still, I think she is a little disappointed. But, as I told her, and she readily agreed, when we’re ready to expand our family, there are lots of kids waiting to be adopted. Jake and Stevie are perfect examples.

My son sighs and I know it’s time to put him back down and go back to bed myself. I give him a kiss, then check Brennan and give her one as well. When I settle back down next to Harper, she rolls over and wraps her arm around my waist.

“Is he full?” she mumbles.

I turn and face her. “You are such a faker!” I give her a swat to the arm.

She opens one eye and peeks at me. “It’s a beautiful sight, you know?”

“What?”

“Seeing you with them like that. I must admit, I’m a little jealous of how much they need you.”

“Don’t be, Stud. They love and need you just as much as they love and need me.”

* * *

Brian and I stare at each other over the top of the Lexus. “Now, remember, no one holds the twins but us. Anyone sneezes or coughs, we retreat immediately. Check the diapers regularly, because it’s about that time for both of them. The bottles are in the warmer packs and should be good for the next hour. We can feed them in the food court.”

Brian nods and yawns. “Gotcha, Stud. Do we need to synchronize watches?” He holds up his wrist and points to his watch.

“No. Because we aren’t going to be separated. We’re just going to be here for an hour or so, then we’ll go over to Mama’s. This is all about giving Kels a little break. Nothing more.” I give Brian a very intense gaze meant to convey my seriousness in this matter.

“All righty then!” He reaches to open the backdoor to retrieve Brennan. It doesn’t open. “Uh, Stud?”

“What?”

He flashes me a huge smile and points down to the car door. “You locked the twins in.”

Shit! I immediately try my door and discover it’s true. Shit! I pat down my jeans and am more than relieved to discover the keys in the pocket and not the ignition as I had feared. I immediately open the driver’s door and hit the door lock button. As Brian and I retrieve the twins, I warn, “Not one word.”

* * *

The mall is packed, reminding me why I hate holiday shopping. Brian and I are using the Roo snuggle packs. I did not want to have to navigate a double stroller through this crowd. Before we left the car, I double checked Brian’s pack. He’s carrying my little girl, after all. Once I was convinced of her safety, the four of us headed indoors.

Even with all the hustle and bustle, the twins are a magnet to harried shoppers. “Oh look! How cute!” one woman cries, seeing us. “Twins?”

I sigh. So it begins. “Yes. Fraternal.” This should be obvious given Collin’s spiky black hair and Brennan’s near transparent blonde hair, but people aren’t very smart, I’ve noticed.

“How sweet.” The woman pulls back and looks at me for a moment. “You look really good. It took me months to lose the weight from my first child.”

I realize she thinks Brian and I are the parents. I am about to protest when Brian throws his arm around my shoulders. “Doesn’t she though? But that’s my little sugarplum. Ever since her weight problem in the early nineties, she’s been real self-conscious about her figure.”

I don’t know whether to hit him or laugh. Ah, what the hell? “That’s right, twinkle toes.”

The woman looks at the two of us and decides that she has better things to be doing. “Well, happy holidays and congratulations!”

When she is out of earshot, Brian begins guffawing. “God, I love Louisianans. Or whatever you call yourselves. Louisippians? Louisters?”

Before I can retort, Brennan lets her displeasure be known at her sleep interruption.

I scowl at our nanny. “You. Behave.”

He nods solemnly. “Yes, Stud.” He begins rocking gently and cooing to my daughter. I lean over and peer down at her.

“Sweetheart, it’s all right. Aunt Brian is sorry for scaring you.” She hiccups. God, she’s beautiful.

Oh yeah.

That’s a winning idea.

“Come on, Brian. I have a plan.”

* * *

We go into a craft store and quickly find what I’m looking for. Little reindeer antler caps. With a little altering, they will fit on the twins. Next, I lead Brian to the center of the mall where Santa is entertaining the wish lists of multiple children.

As we’re standing in line, the woman behind us takes interest in the twins. “Ooo, their first Christmas, eh?”

No, their second. They’re just small. I fight to keep from rolling my eyes. “They came in time for the presents,” I reply. Be polite, Harper. She’s trying to be nice. “They were our Thanksgiving treats.”

“How sweet!”

Brian warms to the discussion once more. “They seem to have a thing for turkey basters.”

I will kill him later.

When we get to the front of the line, the little elf directs us over to Santa. “Actually, I don’t to get their picture with him.”

She looks at me quizzically. “You realize this is the line for Santa, right?”

“I just want a picture of them in his chair.”

“His chair?” she repeats.

I nod. “Yup.” Kels would kill me if I took them to Santa without her. But she can’t object to reindeer caps in a big, red chair, can she?

* * *

I wipe the perspiration from my face and neck with a thick towel and head to the kitchen to find a bottle of water. I worked out regularly before I got pregnant and continued to exercise as much as I could while I was pregnant, but this was my first ‘real’ workout since the babies were born. Of course, by ‘real’ workout I mean a slow walk on the treadmill.

I quit.

I chuckle at my lack of determination, knowing I’ll be right back at it in a day or so. Not that I look too bad for a woman who gave birth to twins, but I had a body here somewhere and I’d like to get it back. The house is very quiet today. With Harper, Brian and the twins out shopping I can have some quiet time.

Of course, I don’t know what to do with myself. Funny how you can adjust to having little, tiny people gain control of your life and feel so lost when they’re not around to do it.

I miss Harper, too. I look down at my left hand. At least my wedding ring fits again.

I look at my watch and know they won’t be back for hours. A visit to Mama and Papa will be required, just because. Mama will dote on her grandbabies, and Harper and Brian will eat. I grab the phone from the wall and crack the cap on my water.

I dial and wait for Harper to pick up. Takes a little longer these days. She has to juggle a baby first.

“Hello, chér,” she says, recognizing the number from caller ID.

“Hiya, Stud. Listen, you planning on stopping by Mama’s?”

“But, of course. Mama would be disappointed otherwise.”

“I figured. So, you’ll be raiding the fridge?”

“But, of course. Mama would be disappointed otherwise. Why? What can I bring you, darlin’?”

“Something good.” I drop my head, realizing I had better clarify that right now. “A food product from my mother-in-law who loves me dearly. Preferably something chocolate if she’s got it.”

“Chocolate? Is this Kelsey Stanton I’m talking to?” I hear her tapping on the phone. The smart ass.

“Kingsley, thank you very much. And yes, something chocolate.”

“Ooookay. And, Kelsey Kingsley, I am very proud of you. You waited almost an entire hour before calling to check on us.”

“I am not checking on you.”

She’s laughing at me. “All right. We’ll bring you back chocolate from Mama’s house.”

“Thank you. I swear I’m not checking on you. I’m checking on my babies. You’re big enough to take care of yourself. How are they doing?”

As she answers me, the doorbell rings and I head for the door. I roll my eyes as Harper’s laughter increases. “They are doing great. We just fed them and now Brennan is sound asleep. Collin is burping. They miss you, but they’re fine.”

I open the door to find my father and Amanda. “Hold on a second, Tabloid.” I cover the phone and wave my father and his wife in. Once they’re inside, I speak to Harper again. “Ooo, you’re in for it now, Stud. Grandpa and Grandma just got here from New York.” I hand my father the phone.

“Harper?” he says, a bit confused but willing to play along. I help Amanda by relieving her of Claire right away. “Thank you,” my father says, smiling at me as I press a kiss to my little sister’s forehead. I lead them to the kitchen so we can put Harper on speakerphone. “So why are you in trouble?” he asks my better half.

“There’s absolutely no reason that I know of, sir. Ask your daughter.”

“Kels, why is Harper in trouble?”

“She was laughing at me, for one. Two, she has your grandchildren with her.”

He nods. “Gotcha. Harper, did you get all that?”

“Yes.”

“I’d like to see my grandson and granddaughter. We’ll deal with the fact you were laughing at my daughter when you get here.”

“Yes, sir. Does your daughter still want chocolate?”

“Yes, I do, Harper Lee.”

“You might want to make sure that is your daughter, Matthew. Okay, we’ll stop by Mama’s and be back in a little less than an hour.”

“Great, we’ll see you then.”

* * *

I settle Dad and Amanda into the guest room. While Amanda unpacks their bags, Dad and I take Claire to the nursery to put her down in one of the cribs. It’s not like Brennan or Collin will be using it anytime soon.

“You have a beautiful home here, Kelsey.” He places a blanket over Claire, stroking her head for a moment to ease her back into her sleep.

“Thanks. I can’t wait until Harper and I can come home permanently.”

He looks up to me. “Are you planning on leaving New York?”

We take the intercom receiver with us as we leave Claire and head downstairs. “Not right away, but eventually, yes. I would think so. It’ll be nice to be close to Harper’s family as the twins grow up.”

“Oh, I see.” I catch the almost disappointed tone in my father’s voice.

I take him to the kitchen and motion for him to take a seat. I prepare us something to drink and join him at the table. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that you and I have gotten past our problems and that you’re back in my life. I’m thrilled you’re married and happy, and that I have a little sister. But Harper and her family,” I pause, I don’t want to hurt his feelings but he deserves the truth. “Well, they gave me a family. They accepted me. They made me understand what family can be.”

“Yeah, I guess I really messed that up, didn’t I?”

“Dad, you did what you had to do. I didn’t understand and I held that against you for a long time. I thought you hated me as much as she does. I thought you both hated me. It was hard growing up that way. To feel unwanted and unloved.”

I watch as a tear slides down his cheek. “I’m sorry, Kelsey. I didn’t know.”

I reach out and wipe it away. “I know. You and I have come a long way. A lot of that is because of the love and support I’ve found here. I want my children to have that and never have any doubts about it.”

He nods again. “I understand that. You’ll come visit, right?”

“You better believe it. The time I spent with Ma and Pa in the summer were some of the happiest in my life. Brennan and Collin will know all that with you and Amanda. Of course, you’re welcome here anytime.”

“We’ll take advantage of that, sweetheart. I promise.”

“Glad to hear it.”

* * *

We pull into Mama’s driveway and are immediately met by Mama. She’s not here to meet me. She’s here to get hold of her grandbabies. I am merely the one who transports them. She’s clearly torn as she stands by the car. Which one should she pick up? Decisions, decisions.

I have the same problem most of the time myself.

She finally decides on Brennan, since she’s the closest. Mama leans into the car and takes her out of her car seat, showering kisses on my eldest the entire time.

“Hi, Mama!” Brian chirps.

“Bon jour, Brian.” She kisses him on the cheek. She looks over at me. “Bon jour, mon Coeur. Where is ma petit?”

I nestle Collin against my chest and try to smooth down his hair. It’s so adorable. I love this little boy so much. My heart constricts when I picture his birth. I press my lips to his hair. “You’re my boy forever and ever, Collin,” I whisper. I smile over at Mama. “She’s at home. We’re giving her a little break.”

“Very good, Harper.” Mama is proud of me.

“She sent us here for chocolate.”

“Tch,” Mama chides me. “Your girl doesn’t eat chocolate. If you want some, you say so. Don’t blame her.”

I start to protest, but stop. It won’t do me any good. No one will believe it. Hell, even I have a hard time. I wonder what’s up? “Oui, Mama.” Mama leads the way back inside telling my daughter about the importance of telling the truth. Brian follows, laughing at me. “You love me, don’t you, Collin?”

Once inside, we settle around the kitchen table. “They’re getting so big already.” Mama places Brennan in the baby seat she keeps on hand for visiting grandchildren. After securing her in it, she relieves me of Collin. “This hair!” she exclaims, smoothing it out.

“Did any of us have hair like that as babies?”

She laughs. “All of the boys. He’s just one of the family.”

There’s my cue. “Speaking of family, I can’t stay here long, Mama. Kelsey’s father came down from New York a few minutes ago. I need to be getting these two precious bundles of joy back home so he can meet them.”

“Matthew’s here?”

I nod. “And Amanda and Claire.”

“Jonathan!” Mama leaves the room. I listen as she wanders through the house until she finds Papa. I can’t make out what they’re saying, but I hear their voices coming closer.

“There is my granddaughter!” he booms, entering the kitchen, his arms full with Collin. “There’s your sister, Collin. She’s so pretty, isn’t she?”

Mama has gone over to the phone and is dialing. “Ma petit!” she exclaims.

Hmm … I wonder what this is about?

“No, I did not dial the wrong number. I have your Harper here and my babies and we have a question for you.” I wait for Mama to ask the question but instead she starts laughing. When she catches her breath, she says, “Wonderful! It is settled! Then we will see all of you over here soon for dinner.”

I shake my head and sigh. What Mama wants, Mama gets.

“Mais oui, come now. We are all waiting for you!” She brings the phone over to me. “Here, Kels wants to talk to you.”

“Chér?”

“Yes, dear. Don’t give the babies another bottle. I need to feed them.”

I have learned not to question this directive. “No problem. They’re pretty content right now. I hope your Dad doesn’t mind. You know how things are over here.” This earns me a glare from Mama.

“No, I’m sure he’ll be pleased as punch to see Mama and Papa again.”

“We’ll see you soon then.” We say our goodbyes and I give my parents a look. “They’re coming over. Looks like we’re having a big family reunion.”

* * *

Papa pats Collin on the back. He took my boy from me midway through the meal so I could eat. Matthew has Brennan and Mama has Claire. It’s been a fun meal, Papa and Matthew getting caught up with each other. It, of course, degraded into a ‘who can embarrass their child the most’ time, with both Papa and Matt telling stories Kels and I will kill them for later. Gotta love family.

“I don’t know how you’re able to do it, Matt. I can’t imagine having a little one like Claire at my age.”

Matthew puts his arm around the back of Amanda’s chair. “I have good incentive. Besides, Jonathan, you have a posse of grandchildren to keep you young. How many is it now?”

Before Papa can reply, Mama does. “Fifteen, and one more due by Christmas.”

Amanda smiles over at Mama. “That’s a houseful. I can barely keep up with one. I can’t imagine raising five. If they’re all as active as Harper …”

Great, now Amanda is in on the act. I flick a piece of bread at my mother-in-law. Who is younger than my wife. Boy, does fate have a sense of humor. “Hey, watch it now.”

Kels pats my leg. “Down, Tabloid.”

Brennan chooses that moment to make her needs known. Matthew kisses the top of her head and hands her over. “She wants you, I think, Kels.”

“I know. It’s that time. I can tell.” She cuddles Brennan close and I lean closer to become a part of this moment. I nuzzle Brennan and then Kels, kissing behind her ear. “Let me take her into the living room.”

“Are you tired?”

She nods. “A little.”

I get up and pull out her chair for her and follow them into the other room, making sure they are both comfortable before I return to the table.

“Are you enjoying parenthood, Harper?” Matthew asks though I suspect he guesses my answer.

Brian starts laughing so hard I’m afraid a piece of shrimp is going to get stuck in his lungs. No, I’m not afraid. I’m hopeful. “Are you kidding? Enjoying? I don’t know why they have a nanny. I’m rarely allowed to do anything for the twins.”

“Why am I paying you then?”

“Because your wife adores me.”

Well, I can’t argue with that.

“Dessert anyone?” Mama pushes up from the table and looks around for orders. No one is so stupid as to reject Mama’s offer.

“I’ll help you, Mama,” Brian offers. Such a suck up.

The doorbell rings. Two can play at this game. “I’ll get it.” I bound over to the front door, stealing a glance at my girls. They both seem to be all right. I know whenever I’ve been in Brennan’s position that all was pretty damn right in my world.

Snap out of it, Harper.

I open the door. And have to refrain from slamming it shut immediately.

Mother Stanton.

How the hell did she find us?

“Katherine,” I say, forcing myself to be polite. “This is unexpected.”

She takes off her gloves and tucks them into her jacket pocket. Stepping forward, past me and into the foyer, she says, “I’m sure it is. I’ve come to see my grandchildren.”

I have to bite my tongue to keep from replying as I would like. “I didn’t know you cared.”

“May I see my daughter, please?” Her eyes roam around the entry to the family home. It’s clear that she’s impressed.

We’re being civilized. I’m rather proud of us. Although, I’m not so stupid as to suspect that it will last. “One moment, please. Let me see if she is available.”

I leave her in the foyer and enter the living room. I hate to ruin this beautiful moment. Forgive me, Kels. “Chér, your mother is at the door.” There’s no way to sugarcoat this so I don’t even try.

Kels looks up at me with a blank expression. Brennan, on the other hand, suckles away, happy and content. “My mother? My mother? Why is my mother here?”

I don’t know the answer to that question. When the devil shows up, it’s generally a bad sign. “She says she wants to see her grandchildren.” I brace myself for the reaction I expect from my wife.

“Like he … umm.” She stops herself before she owes money to the jar. Now that the babies are here, Kels raised the penalty to two dollars a swear word. Harvard, here they come. She gently disengages Brennan from her breast, closing her shirt and preparing for battle. Our daughter is not pleased with this change of events. She smacks milky lips together and gazes at her mother in outrage. “You take her and I’ll take the witch. I’ll get rid of her.” She starts to hand off our daughter who begins crying.

“Are you sure, darlin’? I’m happy to show her the door myself.”

“Oh, I’m sure. Can you give her a bottle?”

I nod mutely. That means I will take Brennan back in the rest of the family. Time to rally the troops. “Sure enough. Holler if you need me.” I take Brennan and walk with Kels to the hallway.

We are met by Mother Stanton.

“Kelsey,” Katherine intones, her attention captured by the infant I hold in my arms. I snuggle Brennan closer to me and begin rubbing her back gently. “Is that one of the children?”

I keep walking. Hurrying into the dining room, I hand Brennan over to Mama. “Can you give her a bottle?”

“What’s wrong, Harper Lee? Who was at the door?” Papa asks.

“Katherine Stanton. I need to get back to Kelsey.”

Matthew pushes back his chair, tossing his napkin onto the table. “I’ll take care of her.”

I put a hand on his arm. Nothing would give me more pleasure than to let him rip her apart. But, my girl deserves her opportunity. With me there for back up. “Give us a moment, Matt. If we need the cavalry, we’ll call. I promise.”

I hurry back to the hallway. I stay back, out of Kels’ eyesight, but clearly in Katherine’s. I fold my arms across my chest and watch. One wrong move, lady, and I don’t care if you are her mother. Your ass will be mine.

“Kelsey,” Mother Stanton is saying, “I came here to see my grandchildren. You didn’t bother to tell me they had arrived. The least you can do is let me see them.”

“The least I can do?” Kels gives a bitter laugh. “They aren’t your grandchildren, Mother. Remember? You disowned me. They aren’t yours any more than I am.”

“You don’t want to open that issue back up. Just let me see them and I’ll be on my way.”

“Or what?”

I am interested in that answer as well. I can hear the blood pumping in my ears and my entire body is ready for a fight.

“I am perfectly aware of the things you so-called ‘wife’ and your father tried to do to make my life miserable. Some of them were amusing. Trust me, my dear, I can make your life far more miserable than you can make mine. I don’t have any secrets to hide from an adoring public, now do I?”

If I kill her here in New Orleans, no one would know. I have a judge as a brother and three more who are lawyers. Hell, they might put up a monument to me at the end of it.

Kelsey leans forward. I can see her shoulders trembling. My girl is hot. “Don’t ever threaten me or mine. You haven’t begun to see what I might do. I’m sure Father and Harper took it far too easy on you. Now, get out.”

“So being caught up in all of this and this lifestyle has apparently changed you. All I asked was to see my grandchildren. If you can’t see your way fit to allow me that one little concession, then I’ll take other measures to see it happen.”

Fucking bitch! I am incensed by this clear threat to our new family. No longer concerned about Kelsey seeing me in the room, I walk up directly behind my girl. I put my hands on her shoulders. We’re in this together, sweetheart. I am about to suggest a time out, when I hear Matthew behind me.

“Katherine, this is unexpected.”

“Well, well, Matthew.” His appearance seems to have thrown her off her stride. With multiple targets, her poison is less potent. “I see you’ve been welcomed into this little fold. You approve of this?”

“Of what?” Matthew comes up beside us. His bulk is welcome. I can feel Mama and Papa nearby. Mama’s Cajun anger is boiling over. I assume Brian and Amanda are taking care of the kids.

I rub Kels’ shoulders, trying to drain the tension out of her. “It’s all right, chér. Let’s have Katherine sit down in the living room and we can discuss this privately.”

Before my girl can reply to my suggestion, her mother speaks. “Of this … relationship that your daughter has forged. The fact that she has brought innocent children into something so distasteful and unnatural …”

“Enough!” Mama says, stepping into the fray. “You do not come into my house and say such things. You do not come into my house and make demands. In this house, in our house, Kelsey is afforded respect and love. And in this house my daughter’s marriage to Kelsey is something sacred and worthy of respect.” Mama pauses and pats her chest, apparently trying to tamp down her anger before she says something she might regret. “If you have a request, make it. But do not threaten here.”

We all wait her reply.

“All I asked was to see my grandchildren.”

Mama looks at the two of us and I feel like a guilty schoolchild. “Jonathan, please show Kelsey’s mother into the living room, as Harper suggested. Give us a few moments to discuss this as a family, Mrs. Stanton.”

Score one for Mama. Even when she’s being diplomatic she gets a little dig in.

Papa does as requested, and I turn Kels around in my arms, pulling her toward me.

“Harper, I don’t want her near our babies.”

I tighten my hold on her and kiss her hair. She’s trembling in my arms. “Shh, it’s going to be fine. I swear it, darlin’.” Please make it so, God. Don’t make me a liar to my girl.

Mama touches us both. “Let’s go into the dining room and discuss this.”

Slowly, we all move in that direction. Once there, Kels breaks away from me and goes to our babies, kissing them both repeatedly.

“What do you think, Matt?”

“I think I should hire a -” he takes a deep breath “-for right now, until I can call my attorneys, it might be best to let her see them.”

“No!” Kels replies sharply, scaring Brennan who is continuing to feed on her bottle.

There are too many people in here, too much going on. I bend down beside Kels and take her hand. “Come with me for a moment, chér. Let’s talk, you and I, and decide what we want to do.”

* * *

This is what I get for not packing my wooden stakes and holy water. I feel sick at my stomach. I can’t believe she followed us here. Harper settles me at the kitchen table and gets me a glass of water before joining me. She takes one hand while leaving the other free so I can sip my water. “I don’t want her near them, Harper.”

“I know, chér. I understand; believe me, I do.”

“Okay, then it’s settled. We show her to the door.”

She laughs softly, shaking her head. “No, chér. We don’t.”

All right, now, I’m mad. “Don’t you laugh at me, Harper Lee. And if you agree with me, then why aren’t you going out there and throwing that miserable bitch out of this house?”

“I’m not laughing at you, Kels. And there’s nothing I’d like better to do exactly what you suggest. But -” she reaches out and caresses my cheek, turning those blue eyes on me, “we need to think long term and not short term. We give her a few minutes with them, with Mama and I in the room, then we show her the door. Next we talk to our lawyers. I’m afraid of what she might try to pull. The more pissed off we make her, the more likely it is to happen.”

“I don’t want her to think she has any claim or right to our children. To let her see them will only encourage her.”

“Maybe. Or it might appease her. Do you want to risk it? Let’s let cooler heads prevail here, darlin’. Then we’ll nail her worthless hide to the wall. I promise.”

I lean back and cross my arms. “You’re trying to tell me I’m being less that reasonable, aren’t you?”

She smiles at me. “No. I’m telling you that you are a wonderful mom. I am so happy that Brennan and Collin have you in their lives.”

“Un-huh.” I don’t believe her for a minute. “All right. Fine. Looks like I’m out-numbered here. You and Mama can let her see them. I’ll stay here and call Beth.”

“I love you, Kels. Heart and soul. I swear, I’ll never let anything happen to our children.”

“Neither will I, Tabloid. Even if I have to kill the bitch myself before this is over.” I feel the anger rising up in my chest just like one other time. “I did it once, I can do it again. And to protect my children, I will. I swear I will.”

She reaches her hand out to me and I lean forward and take it. “I know. That’s another reason why I love you. Let me get this over with, and you get Beth on the phone. Okay?”

“Okay.”

* * *

Seeing my wife in this state makes me furious. I kiss her head and leave the kitchen. Anxious faces look up at me from the dining room table. “Mama, you and I will sit with Katherine for fifteen minutes, with Brennan and Collin. After that, she needs to leave.”

Mama nods. She takes Brennan into her arms, straightening out her sleeper. Brennan lets out a huge burp and we all laugh, glad for the distraction. I take Collin from Amanda and we head toward the living room.

To her credit, Katherine is sitting quietly and not searching the room, as I expected. She looks up and smiles when she sees we have the babies.

“This is Collin Kingsley, and that is Brennan Kingsley.” Mama and I sit down on the couch and turn the twins so that she can see them.

“They are beautiful. Brennan looks exactly like Kelsey did when she was born.”

I smile at my little girl. She is precious. No wonder I love her. “She is gorgeous. She has a healthy appetite and gives us time to sleep.”

“Kelsey was a quiet baby. She slept through the night in just a few weeks.” She takes a deep breath, as if debating what to do. “May I?”

Oh God. I wished she hadn’t asked. Mama looks to me for permission. I nod, reluctantly.

“Hello there, little girl. You look just like your mother. She was a beautiful baby too.” She looks up at me. “Did Kelsey have any problems?”

I don’t know how much Kels would want me to tell her. “Nothing too bad. Collin had to come by C-section, but otherwise, things went well.” I kiss my boy’s fuzzy head.

“Was she in labor long?”

“No, she had it pretty easy, only about thirteen hours.” I chuckle at my statement. “Of course, that’s easy for me to say. Kels was doing all the hard work, I was just the cheering section.”

Katherine seems to realize that her time here is at an end. She gently transfers Brennan back to Mama and stands over me, getting a better look at Collin. “I should be going.”

Mama hands me Brennan and my arms are full of babies suddenly. “I’ll see you out.”

* * *

I feel a little better after talking with Beth. There’s nothing better than a pissed off lawyer who’s on your side. Beth takes this affront personally, she’s known my mother for a long time. They have a mutual hatred society going. There is no sneaky, low-down lawyer trick that she won’t use on Mother. God, I love Beth.

I take a long drink of cold water, pleased to see that my hands aren’t shaking anymore. I hate that when I get angry I shake and want to cry. I’m only crying because I know I can’t kill the person who’s pissing me off. Unfortunately, the other person doesn’t know that.

I go out into the hallway and head toward the living room. I want to make sure the bitch isn’t torturing them or sprinkling goat’s blood on them, or something like that. I am more than surprised when I see Harper all alone in the living room cooing at our children. Wandering over to the front door, I see Mama and Mother Stanton talking out front. Don’t look in her eyes, Mama. You’ll turn to stone.

Intrigued, I eavesdrop. You say one wrong thing to Mama and I’ll go to jail tonight. Straight to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred dollars.

“Thank you for convincing Kelsey to let me see them.”

“I had nothing to do with it. It was Harper and Kelsey’s decision to make. Can I ask you a question, Katherine?”

And I was simply out numbered, you old bat, or it never would have happened.

“Of course.”

“You seemed very gentle with Brennan, and had fond recollections of Kelsey as an infant, what went wrong? Ever since Harper brought her home, Kelsey has captured the hearts of my entire family. We have all fallen in love with her. It amazes me that her own mother doesn’t feel that way about her.”

She was what? She had what? I shake my head. I certainly didn’t hear that right. This woman and I haven’t been able to have a civil conversation since I was eighteen. That was when I realized I didn’t have to take it anymore.

“Things have happened between Kelsey and I since she reached adulthood. Things that make it impossible for us to be civil to each other apparently. She has decided I am evil incarnate.” Your face is on wanted posters in churches lady, they depict you with horns and a tail. Mother shakes in anger. That’s where I get it. “I won’t be treated badly by anyone. Including my own child.”

You treated badly? What about me? What about the way I was treated? You get as good as you give, Mother.

Mama nods, taking it in. “Things happen in families. That’s why extra love is always needed. Lord knows, my five children didn’t all turn out exactly as I expected them to, nor do I agree with everything they do. But blood is thicker than circumstance. And if you have so many problems with Kelsey, why were you asking about her labor and delivery? Why did you travel down here to see her children? Why did you take the time and effort it must have taken to discover she had given birth and was here in New Orleans?”

Yeah, come up with a good answer for why you chose to climb out of your coffin and come down here. I’ll bet you travel with it. Must cost a fortune.

“To be honest, I’m not sure. I remember a time in my life when I was happy. It was right after Kelsey was born. I guess I wanted to see if she was happy as well.”

She wanted to see if I was happy? Why? Why does my happiness matter now? It never did before.

“She is. I’d hate to see anything change that.”

“So would I. Good evening, Mrs. Kingsley.”

I draw back when she makes that last comment. She seemed so sincere, but my head is telling me not to trust her. She never means what she says and she always has an agenda.

“Good evening, Mrs. Stanton.”

My mother leaves, walking over to her rental car parked street side. Mama turns around and sees me standing in the doorway. “Comment ca va, ma petit?”

How am I? How am I? I wish I knew. Confused. That word echoes through my mind as I run my hands through my hair. “You know, just when I’m really sure I hate her more than anything, she does something almost decent. Is she trying to drive me insane?”

Mama shrugs. “It’s hard to read the heart of someone who has hidden hers for many years. I think you’re right not to give your trust. But you shouldn’t hate her. In the end, that only diminishes you. And you, ma petit, are far too precious to lose even a tiny bit of.”

This is the type of mom I want to be. I throw my arms around Mama and hug her tightly. “Thank you.”

* * *

I can’t sleep now. I know the witch is up to something. I can feel it.

I’m in the living room, curled up on the couch with a cup of hot tea, a book and our wedding blanket. The twins are sleeping peacefully a few feet away and Kam is lying right between their bassinets.

He was so funny when we came home tonight. He sensed that something was wrong and I was upset about the babies. So he needed to see the babies first, sitting quite still beside the bassinets, watching us put them down before he was satisfied. Only once he was sure Brennan and Collin were safe and sound, then he demanded his walk.

Harper said he went out, made a quick trip into the yard and then wanted to come right back in. When he did, he lay down between our children and he’s been there ever since. He’s trying to protect them for me. You’re a good doggie Kam, but if anyone is gonna bite her, I am.

I look down to the other end of the couch where Harper is sound asleep. I smile and shake my head. She absolutely refused to go to bed without us and now she’s laying here on her stomach, one arm falling off the couch, the other wrapped under her pillow, her feet pressed up against my leg. She’s really out too, snoring softly. I reach out and run my finger over the bottom of her sock covered foot, the same way she does to Collin, and she jerks it away from me, grumbling.

My wife and my children share a lot of the same traits. No doubt about it, the babies are all Kingsley. Thank God.

A few feet away I catch the flutter of a little foot out of the corner of my eye. It’s Collin. Now that had to be a coincidence. I look between his Mama and my son’s bed. Still it’s weird no matter how you cut it.

Collin’s thrashing quickly becomes verbal and he begins crying. Loudly. Oh, my son is in need of a diaper change. The only time he really seems to throw a full blown fit is when he needs changing. Before I can get to my feet, the entire room is awake. Collin’s tantrum has awakened his sister, his Mama and his dog. He’s almost as good as I am.

Harper is running a hand across her face rubbing the sleep away. I discovered last week that this is a Kingsley trait. I was over at Robie and Rene’s helping Rene with a few things and he came down to the kitchen. He scratched his face all the way across the room and headed straight for the coffeepot. Must be in the genes. The only two things that keep people from confusing them entirely are Harper has long hair and Robie doesn’t have breasts.

Harper is standing over the bassinets trying to decide who to help first. She’s blinking rapidly and shaking her head, trying to get rid of the cobwebs. I pick Brennan up and hand our daughter to her. “I think she’s only miffed at her brother. Take her and lay down. I bet you’ll both go back to sleep.”

She takes our daughter, cuddling her tight and goes back to the couch. She lays down, holding Brennan close to her chest and rubbing her back. I take Collin from his bed. He’s kicking and yelling and throwing a fit very worthy of me. A future celebrity here if I ever saw one.

“It’s okay, Fuzzy, I’m on it. I swear I am. We’ll get you all cleaned up and dry. You’re going to bust something if you keep this up.”

He finally starts to calm down when he realizes he’s in my arms. It doesn’t take me long to make what was wrong in his world right. When he’s dry and in a fresh sleeper, we spend a few minutes playing. He’s holding the index finger of each of my hands and I’m giving his cheeks little kisses. His tiny body jerks and he makes soft mewing sounds, smacking his lips together. Now he’s going to want his midnight snack.

I pick him up and head for the kitchen. “Guess what, mighty mouth. Mommy needs a little time off here. You’re getting a bottle.” He kicks, his entire body stretching out in the crook of my arm. “Yeah, well, tough. Trust me, Fuzzy, it’s not the end of the world.”

“Yes, it is,” Harper intones when she enters the kitchen right behind us. “Make that for two, will you, please?” She drops a kiss to Brennan’s head. “I knew something was up when I got bit.”

I chuckle and take out another bottle.

Settled back down on the couch, the twins are taking the bottles without hesitation. Kam is satisfied that we’ve done our job as parents and he’s sleeping again. Harper is yawning, but I’m still wondering what my mother has up her sleeve.

But, for right now, everyone is happy, warm and safe.

And I’ll do anything I have to in order to keep it that way.
Episode Eighteen: Kingsley v Kingsley
“I have the extra sleepers here in the top drawer. Diapers are here, on the shelf at the end of the table, and there are a dozen bottles in the fridge for when they get hungry. If you need us, I’ll have my cell phone, the number is on the -”

Harper wraps her arms around me, laughing. “Chér, Brian knows where everything is. He does live here. And he has your number more than memorized.”

I tilt my head back to look at her. “Sure, laugh it up, Tabloid. You’re far worse than I am and you know it.”

“Mais non!” Innocent blue eyes meet mine. “Brian knows I’ll simply kill him if anything happens to the kids while we’re out.”

Brian brings his watch dramatically up to his eyes and points to it. “Hey! Look at the time! Shouldn’t you be going to not miss your reservations?”

Harper’s response is to lean down and kiss me. Not quite the one Brian was looking for, but I certainly won’t complain.

I start to pull away but Harper’s hand comes up and cups my neck. She continues kissing me, leisurely, deeply, not caring that Brian is in the room. I hear the kitchen door close and I assume Brian has left. I hope he didn’t go for the camera.

Ooo, nice.

Harper knows how to kiss, that’s for sure. No wonder I married her. Before things go too far, and it’s still too soon for me to do anything else, I begin easing back. I give her a series of little kisses, taking us back from the brink. When I pull away this time, Harper is breathing hard, her eyes a shade darker. I smile. “Ready to go out?”

“Oh, chér, what you do to me.”

* * *

I take Kels downtown, to the French Quarter. No big adventure planned for tonight. We have a lifetime to get her acquainted with this wonderful area. Tonight we’re just barely entering the Quarter to go to the Red Fish Grill. I don’t want my girl to have to walk too much. She says she’s doing better after the C-section, but I don’t take chances with her.

We are seated in the rear of the restaurant, in a separate room, that is quiet and private. The maître d’ knows my family well and he recognizes Kels from television. Lining the walls are black and white photographs taken by the proprietor’s mother, showing New Orleans and Louisiana when things were simpler. Our booth is surrounded by old shutters, recovered from mansions that were being torn down. It gives us the feeling of privacy. We order and relax before our dinner is brought out.

“Motherhood agrees with you, chér. You are more breathtaking than ever before.” I enjoy the smile which breaks across Kels’ lips at the compliments. “I’m so glad our family is together now.”

“We have a lot to be proud of. We’ve come a long way.”

I think back to last Thanksgiving and Christmas, how different it all was. How different we were. “So when do you think we can take the twins to DisneyWorld?”

“Well, we can take them when they’re six or seven and old enough to enjoy it, but I’ll take you anytime you want to go.”

“Really?” Cool! All right! I wanna go! It’s probably too early to leave the twins right now. Maybe in January. “Thanks, chér.” I reach across the table and take her hand in mine. “How are you doing, sweetheart?”

She heaves a sigh, which I feel in my chest. “I’m having my moments. Everyone tells me it’s normal. You know. You’ve been with me.”

I rub my thumb across the back of her hand. “You’ve been terrific. What can I do to help you?”

“You’re doing everything you should. It’s not you, it’s me. It’s all those nasty little leftover baby hormones. I’ve got the hormones, just no babies anymore. Even though those last few weeks were uncomfortable, now I feel like a part of me is missing. I miss feeling them move, you know? It’s weird, but true.”

It’s weird, because I’m the complete opposite. I’m so happy they’re out here where I can see them and feel them move. Yet, it does make sense. I tell her so. “Is there anything I can do for you? If it helps, you can lay down on the couch wearing a big T-shirt, and I’ll slip the twins under it for you.”

This earns me a genuine laugh from my girl. “Somehow I don’t think they’d like that much. They like being outside.” She turns her hand over in mine and tickles my palm. “They love being with you.”

They do. Almost as much I love being with them. “I can’t argue with that, chér,” I say this in my best tongue-in-cheek manner.

“No, I didn’t figure you would, Tabloid.” She pats my hand in as condescending a manner as her tone.

“I still think the T-shirt thing might work.”

“Trust me on that one. We’ll all three pass.”

“How about me in there tonight?” I leer.

“Behave.” This is said as our food is presented. Kels ordered hickory-grilled yellowfin and I ordered sweet potato catfish. This is almost as good as Mama’s cooking. Almost.

“For now. So what do you want for Christmas?”

“I have everything I want, Tabloid. Don’t worry about me. You have two other people you can spoil now.”

“I already ordered the custom Harleys.” I say this only to get her reaction. Three – two – one –

“Uh huh, sure.” Hmm, my girl didn’t buy it. I must be slipping.

“Do you want to talk about it?” I may as well bring up the subject. I feel like it’s a pink elephant at the table with us. And there sure as hell ain’t enough room for the three of us.

“Talk about what?”

“Your mother.”

Kels stops eating and regards me solemnly. “Why ruin a perfectly good evening by doing that?”

Okay, I guess it’ll remain the pink elephant. I’ll just scoot over here a bit to give it some more room. “No reason whatsoever, chér. I just thought since we didn’t have any distractions, we could talk. But I am just as happy – I take that back – I am much happier to simply sit here and make goo-goo eyes at you all evening.”

I get another laugh. “Well, please, continue to enjoy your evening.”

Given permission, I rub my leg against hers under the table. “Will do.”

“Glad to hear it.”

I feel a jolt of electricity when she rubs back.

* * *

“Yes, that’s my sweet, little girl.” Funny how being with a baby will turn the most mature adult into a blithering idiot.

I am no different.

I put on her little socks and she kicks at me, curling tiny toes to try to keep me from succeeding. This child does not like to wear clothes. We are going to have our hands full keeping her dressed when she gets older. I decide for the moment that socks, her diaper and a blanket will be warm enough while I feed her. She’ll be more relaxed that way.

“Come on now. Time for lunch. By the time you’re done your Mama and your brother should be back from walking the dog.”

I settle down with Brennan and hold her close. She immediately begins searching and turning for my breast. “You’re as bad as your Mama,” I tease her.

God, she’s beautiful. Feisty and determined. Well, at least she comes by it honestly. I’ve noticed when Collin nurses he likes to fold up and get as close to me as he can. Brennan, on the other hand, likes to stretch out and seems to relax immediately.

“We’re going to go to see your Grandma and Grandpa Kingsley tomorrow. Yeah, we’re gonna spend the whole day there. It’ll be your first official day in the Kitchen Conspiracy. All your aunts will be there. We’ll fix dinner and talk about your Mama and your uncles. But you have to promise not to tell anything you hear. Not that we ever say anything bad about them, but they don’t know that and it drives them nuts.”

* * *

“Would you please just go outside with your father!” Kels snipes at me as I settle the diaper bag in the corner of the kitchen.

“Kels…”

“Don’t Kels me. Just go.”

I look to my Mama who gives me a disapproving look as she picks Collin up out of the carrier. “I didn’t do anything.” I defend myself. It’s the truth. I didn’t do anything. It’s not my fault that Kelsey has turned into hormone woman from hell.

“I know,” my Mama says softly. “It’s the way things are after a baby comes. It won’t last forever.”

I glance over and see Kels is tending to Brennan and completely ignoring me. “How long will it last?” I ask out the side of my mouth, praying to God that crazy lady doesn’t hear me.

“Until it’s over.” Thanks a lot, Mama, that was a big help. “Go outside and help your Papa with those Christmas lights. He scares me when he gets up on that ladder and starts swinging things around.”

I sigh and give my boy a kiss on the head. I venture over to no woman’s land and hope to do the same with Brennan. Kels let’s me kiss my daughter, but I’m not even gonna venture a kiss from her. I like my head right where it is, thank you very much.

Leaving the kitchen, Mama presses a thermos and two mugs into my hand. “For you and your Papa. He’ll explain everything to you. Go talk to him before your brothers get here. I’ll take care of Kelsey.”

Thank God, someone needs to. Or I’ll be forced to slip valium in her juice.

* * *

Papa glances down from the ladder, a string of lights slung over his shoulder, nails in his mouth and a hammer in his right hand. He once swallowed a nail and we spent the start of the holiday season in the emergency room. Mama was not very happy about it. Papa was less happy when the doctor said to let things work their way out naturally. He still does things his own way, though.

I open up the thermos and pour a mug of Mama’s wonderful coffee. Oh, that’s nice. “Morning, Papa.”

He looks down and smiles. He starts to speak, but realizes what he holds between his teeth. I hold up the mug and he climbs down the ladder. Mama’s coffee always makes us Kingsleys come running.

Carefully, he puts the nails into his tool belt pouch. I don’t know why he doesn’t keep them there to begin with. All of us have given up asking him that little question though. I hand him the empty mug and fill it for him. He takes a long drink. “Now that’s good coffee,” he jokes pointing to the mug in imitation of the old Folgers commercial.

“How are you, Papa?”

“Doing good. Trying to get these lights strung. Every year it seems to get a little bit more elaborate.”

I laugh. “That’s because you indulge your grandchildren. You have Santa standing near the chimney, gators doubling for reindeers on the roof, lights outlining the frame of the house, wreaths hung in every window and lights strung on every branch on our old oak tree. No wonder it takes forever to get it set up each year.”

“You know the best thing about it, Harper? I mean, other than the way the kids love it?”

I shove one hand into my jeans pocket. It’s cold out here without my gloves on. “No, Papa. What?”

“It really drives Madam DuBois down the street wild. I don’t think that old biddy has a happy bone in her body. It makes her crazy to see this many lights on one house.” Papa breaks into a dead-on imitation of her. “‘It cheapens the neighborhood. Don’t you realize you live in the Garden District?’” He drinks more of his coffee. “No need to not enjoy life. Besides, it makes my kids happy.”

“It’s all about keeping the kids happy, isn’t it?”

He claps me on the back, nearly causing me to choke on my coffee. “You’re finding that out, eh? Paybacks, Harper Lee.”

God, I hope not. I’ll die if my kids are too much like me. “Question, Papa. How do I keep the wife happy?”

“What’s going on?”

I shrug and shake my head. “I wish I knew. She’s a woman possessed. She ordered me out of the kitchen and the Conspiracy wasn’t even there yet. She was completely pissy with me on the way over here. And, Papa, I hadn’t done anything. I swear it. It’s like living with Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde.”

“You are, sweetheart.”

“I am?” Damn.

He sets down his mug and starts climbing back up the ladder. “Yeah. It’s called Post-partum depression and it’s a bitch.”

“That’s an understatement.” I climb up behind him joining him on the roof. I love the gators. Of course, I’ve always had a fondness for wild critters. Speaking of them. “So care to explain it?”

“Your Mama and I went through it together five times. It typically showed up about two weeks after one of you were born. She’d get tired, depressed and more cranky than a Cajun woman should ever be.” My father sits down on one of the gators. “Some days, I was very happy that my French isn’t so good. Or, at least, I’d pretend I couldn’t understand what she was saying.”

“How long does this last?”

“Depends. Couple weeks, typically. Just ride it out with Kels. Be good-natured. Help with the kids. And, whatever you do, Harper Lee, don’t explain it to Kels.”

“Is this said from experience, Papa?”

He nods, his expression self- proving. “With Gerrard, I didn’t know what was happening. But with Jean, I had it figured out. So I told Cecile why she was being so evil to me. I told her about the medical information I had found out and how it was merely her hormones out of control.”

I close my eyes, imagining the scene. It’s not a pretty one. “What happened?”

“Let’s say I had to pretend I didn’t know a lot of French. I was lucky to get to hold my son for about a week. And, while I wasn’t tossed out of our bedroom, it was mighty chilly in there.”

“I got it. No telling Kels I got her number.”

“Not if you want to live to see the twins’ first birthday.”

* * *

I tuck the blanket around Collin as he settles down for his nap. “Sleep tight, Fuzzy.”

I wander back into the kitchen where the rest of the KC has finally gathered. Taking my juice, I drop into my chair and watch as Katherine cuddles Brennan. “This is the best part about this family: now the younger members are having babies.”

“Do tell,” Rene grumbles, running her hand over her stomach. Oh, I feel for her.

“Katherine and I get all the pleasure of hugging and cuddling new babies without having to have any more,” Elaine pipes up, taking her place at the table. “We can now leave that to the younger, more energetic of our sisters.”

“I’m as about as energetic as a slug these days.” I allow my head to fall to the table, which gets a round of laughter.

I raise it when I feel Mama’s hand in my hair. “Is Harper not helping you the way she should?”

“Oh no! Harper’s being great, most of the time. Until she says something stupid then I want to kill her.”

“Uh-oh.” I hear all my sisters and Mama say at the same time.

“What? It’s true. The other day I asked her how I looked and she said, ‘Great for a woman who recently had twins’. I mean, come on, why didn’t she just say, ‘Kelsey, you look like a Guernsey cow?’”

Now they all burst out laughing at me. Elaine is laughing so hard, she has tears in her eyes.

“What!?”

“Kels, Harper was being sincere. You do look great for a woman who recently had twins,” Rachel offers. “You simply took it wrong. It happens a lot after you have a baby. Trust me.” She waves her hand over the table. “I’ve seen it a lot with these three.”

“Absolutely.” Mama takes Brennan from Katherine and gives her a bottle she’s finished warming. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of and you can’t control it. Jonathan and I went through it five times and I’ve seen it in each and every one of you girls.” She kisses Brennan’s head before shaking her own slightly. “Katherine here nearly had poor Gerrard in tears one time after Joseph was born. You all can be a mean brood of vipers when you want to be.”

“I don’t mean to grump at her like I do,” I reply solemnly. “It simply seems to slip out.”

“We know, Kels. Trust us, we know.” Katherine pats my hand. “And it’ll pass. Just try not to be too hard on her. She means well.”

“I know. And she’s totally great with the babies. So why does the fact she’s breathing seem to bug me so much? And if I hear the word hormones come out of your mouths, I’ll scream.”

They all remain silent. But they snicker at me.

I love my family.

“It will pass. Though, try not to kill Harper in the process.” Mama gives me a smile and a wink. “I’m too old to replace her and I wouldn’t go through what you’re going through again for all the gold in Fort Knox. I’ve got mine all raised and now I get to spoil my grandbabies. Besides, I don’t think Jonathan could take the strain of me being the – let’s see, what was it he called me again? – Demon Cajun Woman, I think was his favorite.” She checks Brennan’s bottle. “My, what an appetite you have, little one. Which of your Mamas do you get that from?”

* * *

“Oh the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful, and since we’ve no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!” I belt along with Natalie Cole. We’re on our way to purchase our first Christmas tree as a family. The twins are sleeping contentedly in the backseat. They like my singing.

Kels reaches over and turns off the car stereo.

Apparently, my wife doesn’t.

Internally I begin singing my new favorite song, to the tune of ‘Rawhide’: Hormones, hormones, hormones. Oh those nasty hormones. Hormones make my wife nuts. Hormones. Oh how I hope they soon will leave her body. And we’ll all be happy once more. Hormones. Head ‘em up. Move ‘em out. Hormones!

I save my life by not singing that out loud.

I smile at Kels and pull into the parking lot of the nursery. “We’re here,” I announce unnecessarily. I hop out of the car, careful to not lock the doors and trap the twins inside. Somehow I’m thinking in Kels’ present state it won’t be readily laughed off. Reaching in, I release Brennan from her car seat and put her in the Roo pack. She lets out a little cry, annoyed that her slumber has been interrupted, but I quickly get her quieted down. Kels is staring at me over the car, looking as if she might take the kid away from me if I’m not careful.

Hormones, hormones, hormones. Oh those nasty hormones.

“Let’s go!” I say, a bit too happily, but, what the hell.

She puts a little cap on Collin’s hairy head and follows Brennan and I as we head into the nursery. I wander over to where the trees are lined up against a wall, divided by type of tree. I head immediately over to the Eastern Red Cedar section. It’s my favorite. It’s a beautiful tree, very dense, a deep green, and it has a wonderful aroma. I begin looking for the best one of the bunch.

There it is.

“Look at that, Brennan,” I whisper to my slumbering baby. “That is the perfect Christmas tree.” I turn and look for my girl. She’s over looking at a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. No, no, no. That will never do. I walk over and extend my hand to her. I’m taking a risk in doing so. She’s as likely to slap it as take it. “Come see the one I found.”

She takes my hand reluctantly. “Okay.”

Once there, Kels stares at it for a long time.

I’m so sure that’s not a good sign.

“It’s rather big.”

“I know! Isn’t it awesome? It’ll touch the ceiling in the family room. And we’ll have so much room for the ornaments!”

“Do we have ornaments?” Kels asks dubiously, still sizing up the tree.

Hmm. I shrug and offer a charming smile. “We will.”

“I see.” She points back to the Charlie Brown tree. “I like that one better.”

“Chér, you’re yanking my chain, right?”

The angry green eyes looking back at me are screaming no. “Harper, I see no reason to bring a forest into our home. It will just die in there and leave a thousand needles in the carpet.” She reaches out and touches the tree, pulling her hand back sharply. “The needles are very prickly.” She gives me a glare, like I made the tree that way. “The twins could get hurt.”

“Right. When they get up, walk across the room and climb up it.” Even as the words come out of my mouth I realize I have made a huge tactical error.

Kels scratches her forehead, probably trying to keep her horns from sprouting out. “Harper, no. We do not need that monster in the house. Good Lord, how tall is that thing? Think: small babies, small tree. As they get bigger, the tree can get bigger.” She jerks her thumb over her shoulder. “That is a perfectly lovely tree.”

“It’s a shrub,” I counter. “Sweetheart, my family has always had good-sized trees. Robie will laugh me out of my own home if he saw that in the family room.”

“Harper, that tree is six feet tall. It’s very full and respectable. That thing,” she gestures toward my tree, “is a redwood in comparison.”

“I’ve always liked redwoods. Kels, sweetheart, my family always had these types of trees while I was growing up. I really wanted to get one for my family this Christmas.” I give my best puppy dog eyes. Let’s see if the monster likes puppies. Or if she eats them for breakfast.

Kels takes a deep breath. “First time I find a needle on the floor, you and your tree are spending Christmas with Mama and Papa.”

I impulsively lean forward and kiss her forehead. “So I’d have to make like Santa Claus and leave your presence?”

Kels doesn’t reply.

I try again. My girl must smile. I know she’s physically capable of it. “I’d have to make like Michael Jackson and beat it?”

“Harper, don’t make me hurt you.”

This is a threat I consider serious.

“I’ll go pay for the tree.”

She nods and hugs Collin. At least my little boy is safe with her. “Good plan.”

When we get home, I’m going to have a long talk with Brian about hourly vacuuming. I’d prefer to spend Christmas with my family.

* * *

We get the tree home without any fuss. I paid to have it delivered. The look in Kels’ eyes when I suggested strapping it to the top of the leased Lexus was priceless. And incendiary. Now that it’s here, I have recruited Robie into helping me get it into the house and set up in the family room. I had first asked Brian without thinking. He was afraid it would rough up his hands.

To mark the occasion of our first Christmas tree, Robie brings over the whole clan. One of the first smiles I’ve seen from my wife’s face comes when Christian rushes over to her. He throws him arms around her with abandon, not caring about wild hare hormones or the like. “Aunt Kels!” he cries out.

Kels hugs him back. I haven’t been hugged like that for a few days. I consider shoving Christian out of the way, but restrain myself. “There’s my big boy! How are you today?”

“I’m three and a half!” he exclaims, holding up his fingers.

“Why, yes you are. That’s why you’re my big boy.”

Robie chuckles and nudges me. “He asked the other day if Christmas would interfere with his birthday presents. Ren explained that his birthday was half a year away. He’s been quoting his age ever since, to make sure no one confuses the two.”

I shake my head. God. All us Kingsleys are greedy little cusses.

Christian turns his eyes to our tree. “That’s a big tree!”

Kels gives me the eye. “Yes, it is.”

I flash a smile. “Mais, oui!”

Rene goes over to the couch and plops down beside Kels. She rubs her belly, my niece obviously giving her a couple swift kicks from her expression. “How did she talk you into that?”

“It was easier than arguing with her. I had a headache.”

“You realize that I now have to let a tree at least that big come into our house, don’t you?”

Robie overhears this comment and he rushes over to Kels. “Thanks, chér!” He gives my very surprised wife a quick kiss on the lips.

My girl turns to Rene. “Or, we could both just move into your house with the kids and leave the little children here with the tree.” She gives a full wattage smile along with the offer.

“Nah, I have this one changing diapers daily. I can’t give up the service,” Rene declines.

Whew. I was afraid for a moment. “Stop kissing my wife and get over here, Robie.”

We work on the base of the tree for awhile. It barely fits in it. Thank God it does. If it didn’t, my ass would be grass. I can’t imagine ever hearing the end of it. For the rest of our married life.

Once the stand is attached, we stand the tree up again.

Oh shit.

It doesn’t fit.

The top six inches are bent over.

Kels heaves a dramatic sigh. She’s getting good with them lately. “Rene, I pay Brian good money to change diapers. Are you sure you don’t want to take me up on that? Otherwise, Harper will be coming over to repaint your ceiling too.”

“It’s fine. No permanent damage. Let’s lay the tree down and I’ll get the saw.”

We start to lower it when Rene calls out. “Clark!”

Her youngest son has maneuvered himself exactly where the tree is heading. Brian scoops him up, eliciting a hearty yell. This awakens Brennan and Collin from their naps. And Kam begins barking, just to get in the act.

I know I’m gonna be blamed for all this.

“Harper Lee, get your backside over here!” I turn around and see Kels moving toward the bassinets. “Kam, hush!”

Great, now she’s yelling at the dog too. I am so doomed. “Yes, dear?”

“Put your dog outside.” She points to Kam whose tail droops at the word ‘outside’. “Then come help me with your children. You can play with your tree after that.”

Ooo, things that sound dirty but aren’t. But damn if I’m going to mention that right now.

“Harper’s in trouble, Harper’s in trouble!” Robie begins singing. I’m gonna kick his ass later. I put the dog out and pick up my boy. The women in the family seem to be against me right now. Robie, in order to save his life, goes into the kitchen to find the toolbox.

“It’s all right, Collin.” I kiss his fuzzy little head. I look over at my wife. She still looks annoyed.

Rene moves over and puts an arm around Kels’ shoulders. “How are you doing, Kels?”

“Is Mama absolutely sure I can’t kill her?”

Rene nods solemnly. “The dog would miss her.”

Fortunately, Kels laughs. “Yes, well, so would I. I guess.” She gives me the look. “Eventually.”

“I suppose that’s better than never,” I drawl.

Kels smirks. “If I were you, I’d go with it for the moment.”

This is the nicest Kels has been to me today. I take the chance and approach her. Rene steps back so I can hug my entire family. God, this feels nice. “Okay,” I whisper.

“If you’re good, I might let you apologize later.”

Robie begins sawing at that very moment, breaking up the modicum of peace we were enjoying. But he does get me closer to getting the tree up.

I kiss Kels’ temple. “I look forward to it, sweetheart.”

* * *

On Sunday morning, the doorbell rings about twenty times before I decide to stick my head out the window. I plan on throwing something at whoever is out there. “What?” I growl, trying not to wake up the babies.

Robie steps back from the door and looks up. “Harper Lee! Get down here! I got skybox seats for the Saints game today. And we’re going!”

Yes! It’s been so damn long since the Saints had a season worth going to. Skybox seats in the SuperDome for a home game. Oh yeah. “They’re playing Denver, right?”

“Sure enough.”

Hot damn! I haven’t liked the Broncos since Elway went there. He might have been a good quarterback, but I still am upset with his prima donna attitude. He was drafted fair and square by Baltimore. He just didn’t want to play with a terrible team. So anytime I can watch Denver and root against them, I do.

Now the question is … will Kels let me go?

“I’ll come over in a minute, Robie.” I shut the window and turn back to face my awake wife. I walk back over to the bed and crawl under the comforter with her. “Good morning, chér.” I lean in for a kiss. I’m hoping to get one this morning. I apologized well last night.

I am rewarded with one. That was nice. Brief, but nice. “Your feet are cold,” Kels complains, so I rub them up and down her warm legs. She slaps my shoulder playfully. “Why is your brother waking us up at this hour on a Sunday? I was up with Collin four times last night.”

I wince. I know. “You know how Robie is. Doesn’t think. He has tickets for the Saints today. Wants me to go to the game with him. Would you mind? It’s the first time in a long damn time we’ve had a team worth watching.”

“Oh, sure, go ahead. Take off. After all, I was up most of the night last night.” The sweet moment we were sharing is gone. My wife continues, “I totally understand how you’d need a break from your wife and babies after that.”

Oh shit. “Darlin’, I don’t need or want a break from you or the babies. Honest, I don’t. It’s just, it’s skybox seats at the SuperDome. We’re 8-4 this season, the top of our division.”

“Hey, I understand totally.” Kels slides out of bed and pulls on her robe, cinching it about her waist a bit too tightly. “I know football tickets are far more important than time with your babies. I mean, hey, they’re three weeks old. They’ll stay this way forever. I wouldn’t worry about missing time with them.” She walks over to the bassinets and checks on Collin and Brennan, both of whom are blessedly still sleeping. Next she stomps into the bathroom.

I follow. It’s not particularly the wisest choice, but it’s the one I elect. “We’re talking about six hours, Kelsey, hardly a lifetime. I don’t see why you’re acting like I’m leaving the three of you.”

Kels takes a deep breath and I prepare myself for the next outburst. Instead, she says, “You’re right. I’m sorry, Harper.” Next thing I know, my arms are full of Kels and she squeezes me tight. Startled, but happy, my arms close around her. I don’t want her to feel unwelcome. “You go ahead and go to the game. Have a good time with Robie. You deserve a break too.”

I kiss her hair. “I don’t need a break from you or the twins ever. I just want to cheer on the Saints and see Fetch Monster.”

“Well, then, give me a break from you,” she teases. “I’m not even going to ask what a Fetch Monster is.”

“I’ll tell you anyway.” I hate hormones but am glad we got through this little outburst without much trouble. “Fetch Monster is a big, old Australian Shepherd that retrieves the kicking tee for us at all the home games. His real name is Bleu, by the way. He has his own fan club.”

“Of which I’m sure you’re a card carrying member.” She pats my chest gently. “Go. Get dressed and go have a good time with Robie.”

I capture her lips for a long moment, while I have her in a good mood. Or while she has me in one. When we finally break apart, I wink. “Thanks, chér. I’ll bring home souvenirs.”

* * *

I look over at Collin who is in his little sling chair, chewing on his fist. “Yes, Fuzzy, you’re next.” He flails his hand and kicks little feet. “You can protest all you want, but a bath is in order, so you’re getting one.”

Brennan slaps and water spills over from the tub onto the counter. “And you, little girl, well, you enjoy this way too much.” She latches onto the washcloth and tries to bring it to her mouth. She always wants something in her mouth. “How can you look so much like me and act so much like your Mama?” When I rub the cloth over her tiny body, she really seems to enjoy it. I merely shake my head.

Reaching over, I grab a big, thick purple towel and unfold it before lifting Brennan onto my shoulder and wrapping her up, all snug and warm. She really loves this part. She has been known to fall asleep curled up in her towel while I dry her off.

I lay her on the table and get her diapered and dressed quickly to ward off any chill. Snapping up her sleeper, she looks up at me and for a brief moment I realize this is where my future is.

My future is lying here, trusting me to take care of them, to always be there for them. It doesn’t end when they turn eighteen. It doesn’t end until I close my eyes for the last time. They will always be my babies. No matter how big they get.

No matter what they do in their lives. My love for them has to be more than I have ever given to anyone. Tears spring to my eyes when I realize that it is. They have me now. Forever.

I blink back the tears and smile at my little girl. A tiny pink tongue pokes out from between red lips. “Well, that’s your opinion,” I tell her as I snap the last closure on her sleeper.

When I kiss her cheeks, she squirms and wiggles around, making soft baby sounds. “Okay, it’s your brother’s turn now.” I lift her into her chair and place a blanket over her, fastening the safety belt into place. She turns her head to her left looking for her pacifier which is attached to the chair by a string. A brilliant answer to a problem encountered by Brian last week when he was bathing them. Brennan kept spitting out her pacifier while he was trying to bathe Collin. He finally tied it to the chair so he wouldn’t have to search for it and be distracted while he had Collin in the tub.

I give it to her and watch her eyes close. She is bathed, fed, warm and happy, and ready to sleep. And this little girl is exactly like me in that respect, she loves to sleep. Boy, waking her up is a crime punishable by the best fit she can throw, and she can have a real tantrum when she decides one is needed.

Collin looks positively terrified. He really hates bath time. I know if he could speak, I’d be hearing my first, “Awww, Mom, do I have to?” “Yes, Fuzzy, you have to.” I chuckle.

While I undress him, Brian comes into the bathroom. “Ooo, the princess is asleep. Do you want me to take her to your room?”

Looking at her brother, I nod. “Yeah, I think he’s gonna have a fit.”

“Kels, he’s like every other man I’ve ever known. If you’re not doing what he thinks you should be doing when you got him naked, he’s gonna have a fit.”

I laugh and finish stripping Collin. “You are truly evil.”

“No, realistic.” He carefully scoops Brennan up without waking her. He is so very tender with them, it’s sweet. He’s going to be a great father someday, if he chooses. “Hey, Boss. How are you doing? Are you okay?”

I wrap Collin in a blanket and put him back in his chair while I get clean bath water for him. “Yeah, I’m fine. I’m just adjusting to being a mom. There are always a million little things to consider, and I find that I’m constantly trying to think three steps ahead now. God, Brian,” I return to the counter with the baby tub, “I love them so much. But it’s not only physically tiring, but mentally tiring too.” I smile at Collin as I reach for him. “Come’re, Fuzzy, let’s get that hair washed.”

“Is there anything more I can do to help you? Sometimes I feel like I’m taking money for nothing. You and Harper are always right there.”

“Yeah, well.” I loosen Collin’s diaper but don’t remove it. It didn’t take me long to learn that first lesson of being a mommy to a little boy. “You’ll more than earn your money when we get back to New York and Harper and I go back to work. For right now, though, I just want to be here with them.”

Placing Collin in the water, I slip his diaper out from under him and place a wash cloth over him. “Not gonna get me today, Squirt,” I tease, reaching for another washcloth. He gives me a long, loud groan in protest. “You should learn to relax and enjoy these as much as your sister does.” I am rewarded for my words of wisdom by getting splashed squarely in the face when his fists and feet come down in the water. “Okay, don’t.”

Brian kisses the top of Brennan’s head. “Ooo, little girl, you smell good. All powder fresh. Let’s take you in and tuck you under your special blankie, huh?”

It doesn’t take him long to put her down and come back. I’m about to wash Collin’s hair and get him all done. He actually hasn’t done too bad today. He’s been pretty calm about this whole thing, although I need to change my clothes because I have been given a thorough bath myself.

“I should get the camera and get a picture of him while his hair is wet and laying down.” Brian grins down at Collin, who has grasped his nanny’s finger while I dress him.

“Go ahead.” I take a brush to his hair and smooth it over, being careful of his soft spot. “Your Uncle Brian is gonna take your picture, Fuzzy. Try to at least look happy. Because in twenty-five years, when I pull these out to show your significant other, I don’t want them to think you were abused as a baby. And a bath simply doesn’t count as abuse. No matter what you think.”

* * *

Finally.

Peace and quiet.

The twins are sleeping. Brian is out exploring the French Quarter. And Kels and I are snuggled in front of fireplace next to our newly decorated tree. The lights are twinkling on and off. It was a struggle to get lights put on the tree. Kels was convinced they would start a fire. I had to show her the underwriter laboratories’ warranty before she would relent. Even then, it was touch and go for awhile.

But now, with the glow of the fireplace and the lights from the tree, we are bathed in romantic light. Kels is in my arms, for the moment in a good mood. I intended to keep her in one. We have mugs of hot chocolate beside us, a tray of pastries from Haydel’s bakery and Christmas carols on in the background. In fact, it’s one of my favorites.

“In the meadow we can build a snowman,” I sing along softly in Kels’ ear. “And pretend that he is Parson Brown. He’ll say are you married, we’ll say ‘No, man, but you can do the job when you’re in town.’ Later on, we’ll conspire, as we dream by the fire, to face unafraid, the plans that we made, walking in a winter wonderland.”

Kels snuggles in closer to me. If it were possible, we’d be sharing the same skin right now.

I kiss behind her ear. It’s one of my many favorite spots to kiss on her. “We’ve done pretty well with the plans we’ve made, right, chér?”

“We’ve done very well with the plans we’ve made, Tabloid. Why?”

I kiss the spot again, spending a few long moments simply nuzzling against her skin. “No real reason. It’s just been a bumpy couple days. Wanted to make sure we were on track.”

“Well, you’re on track. But I think I’ve got a spoke or two loose at the moment. I’m sorry I’ve been so hard to live with.”

I tilt her jaw so that she faces me. “You’re never hard to live with, chér.” I caress her cheek, once again marveling at the softness of her skin. “I’m lucky to have you in my life. On even the worst days, my life is a thousand times better with you in it. Plus, I love that I have the most beautiful of all the Kingsley wives.” I kiss her nose.

“Suck up.” She rolls her head and pops her neck. I feel it in mine. “I’m so tired. I don’t know why. But this is really nice, relaxing like this.”

“You’re tired because you’re raising the two most beautiful and intelligent babies in the world. Takes a lot out of you.”

“You’re raising them with me. Why aren’t you tired?”

I decide it’s probably safe to play. I wait a moment and then smirk. “I am younger than you.”

“You know, that’s a really good point.” Kels gives me a gentle poke in the ribs. “So just for that, you get to do all the feedings tonight. I’m sleeping. You can burn up some of that young energy.”

“Deal. Seeing how I can’t burn up some of that energy in other ways.” I smile to take the sting out of the words. I am more than happy to wait until she is ready, willing and able to resume other activities. “But, seriously, darlin’, I think that’s a great idea. Why don’t we set you up in the guest room, so you aren’t disturbed at all?”

“No. I don’t want that. I just want to know I don’t have to get up tonight.”

“You don’t have to get up. In fact, I want you to sleep in as late as you can. Brian and I will take the twins out in the morning.” I lean forward and indulge myself in another kiss with my girl. “Right now, it’s your turn to be pampered. Okay?”

“I’ll agree to it now. Maybe I’ll feel more human in the morning and we’ll all go out for a nice breakfast or something. Brian’s been working really hard too. By the way, we need diapers.”

I don’t know why but that strikes me as incredibly funny. Here we are, enjoying a nice romantic moment, loving up on each other, and she’s discussing diapers. I think I might be losing my touch. I keep laughing, unable to stop.

“And the funny part of that statement was what, Tabloid?”

I choke back another laugh. “Well, chér, we’re sitting here necking by the fire and you’re talking to me about diapers. Have I lost my touch?”

Now that she understands she joins my laughter. “No, of course not. It just popped into my mind and I’m so tired, I thought I should mention it before I forgot. Because, let me tell you, it won’t be nearly as funny if I have to use your Tulane sweatshirt to wrap your boy’s backside in.”

“Don’t even joke that way.” I cross myself. I will remember to get diapers first thing. And hide my sweatshirt.
Episode Nineteen: Adoption
I am sitting in the living room nursing Collin when the phone rings. Harper, Brian, Brennan and Kam are romping in the backyard. I hope Brennan is all right. Harper has her in the Roo pack, with the Navajo blanket tucked around her, so I think she’s warm enough. They tried to go outside with a Frisbee and a football. I stopped them at the door and confiscated the toys. Hurt the child and die, Harper Lee.

I reach over to the end table and pick up the phone. Bringing it to my ear, Collin kicks my arm. For someone so small, he’s surprisingly strong. He is also very possessive. He hates it if my attention is at all divided from him. “It’s okay, Fuzzy. I won’t be on long, I promise.” I press ‘talk’. “Hello?”

“Hi there, beautiful!” Beth chimes happily. “How’s motherhood and apple pie?”

“Just fine, thank you very much.” I hug Collin a little tighter in fact. “It’s all very sweet, if you must know. I’m feeding my son even as we speak.” Collin makes a big slurping sound on cue. “Wait until you see him, Beth. He’s beautiful. He has thick, dark hair just like Harper.”

“They are her children, after all. Makes sense that they look like her.”

“Actually, Brennan favors me.” I let out a small laugh as I think about my next statement. “But she acts like Harper.”

Beth pauses and tries again. “They are her children, after all.” Her tone is teasing, as if I’ve missed the joke.

Are they? “When did the judge sign off?”

“Not five minutes ago. I have the order right here. So you can tell tall, dark and gorgeous that she is now officially required to attend all PTA meetings.”

“That’s wonderful! Although I fear for the twins’ teachers. Harper is the most involved parent on the planet already.” I close my eyes and take a deep breath, feeling a peace settle over me that had been missing for the last week or so. “It’s gonna make her breathe easier. I know, I feel better already too.”

“It’s signed, sealed and delivered, Kelsey. You have nothing to worry about. I told you I’d take care of it. I almost hope your mother tries something. I’d enjoy ripping her apart in court.”

“Let me tell you, Beth, I hope she’s going to behave. But I’ve got a bad feeling.” In fact, every time I hear my mother’s name spoken, I hear evil organ music in the background.

“I’ll worry about her, honey. That’s what you pay me for.” Right, Beth. Other than a retainer, you’ve not taken a dollar from me in this matter. “You enjoy your babies. When do I get to meet them, by the way?”

“We should be back in New York right after the first of the year.”

“Perfect. Will they have stopped that whole spitting up and needing diapers thing by then?”

I shake my head. Beth doesn’t have a maternal bone in her body. She is pure killer shark. I can’t wait to put one of the babies in her arms and watch what happens.

I’ll make sure she’s sitting, of course. And I am nearby.

“Umm, no. They’re going to be doing that for quite some time to come.” I look down at my little boy with milky lips. I tickle his stomach and he kicks in protest.

“That sounds messy.” I hear the other line on her phone ring and she puts me on hold for a moment. When she comes back, she sounds pissed. “I need to run, dearie. I have some lawyer ass to kick. Congratulations! Your family is legal tender.”

“Go get ‘em, Shark. I have a Mama to tell the good news to. See you soon.”

* * *

We’re outside, enjoying the fresh air, keeping out of Kels’ hair. She’s better lately, but still a bit touchy. I find getting out to be one of the best solutions. Kels took away our toys, but we’re managing. I am sitting on the swing and rocking back and forth. Brennan completely loves this. When we first came outside she was a little fussy. She’s asleep now. Brian is wrestling with Kam, holding the end of a piece of rope in his mouth and playing tug of war with the dog.

“You’re going to lose some teeth doing that,” I warn. God, I sound like Kels.

On cue, Kam pulls hard and Brian collapses on the ground. “Ow!”

“It’s your own damn fault.”

Brian rolls over onto his back and points at me. “Two dollars, Stud!” I flip him the bird while pretending to scratch my nose. He laughs even harder. “Oh, subtle!”

We both crack up.

And then I notice Kels and Collin standing by the back door. I wonder how much she saw and heard.

“Harper Lee, come in here, please.” Hmm, I’m thinking she heard something. “Like now!”

Yup, she heard and saw something.

“Harper’s in trouble, Harper’s in trouble!” Brian sings.

I’d tell Kam to bite him, but Kels’ wonderful guard dog would actually do it and it wouldn’t be a pretty sight. Nevertheless, I obey my wife. “Come on, Brennan, let’s go inside. Maybe you can protect your Mama.”

Inside, Kels is giving me the look of death. I smile valiantly, figuring she won’t kill me holding the baby.

“Put Brennan in her chair.”

That’s so not a good sign. I kiss Brennan’s fine blonde hair. “Remember me, sweetheart.”

Once she’s strapped in, I turn and face my wife. She points to the couch. I sit. “Yes?”

“You have to learn to be more careful with your children, Harper.”

Huh? “What? I was sitting on a swing, Kels,” I protest. “I didn’t do anything. God, I swear, Kels, I’d never let anything happen to Brennan or Collin. Ever.” Hormones, hormones, hormones. I hope they go away very, very soon.

Kels shakes her head and wags her finger at me. “Yeah, well, be that as it may, your babies are very fragile right now …”

Is she serious? What did I do? I look over at Collin, wondering if I broke him somehow when I handed him off for his feeding. He seems all right to me. Brennan chooses this moment to chew on her fist. She seems okay. “What did I do?”

“I just want you to be more careful with your kids, Tabloid.”

Kels is chewing her bottom lip.

She never does that except when she’s trying to keep from smiling.

I go over her statement again in my mind. Be more careful with my kids.

My kids.

My. Kids.

The adoption?

“You saying what I think you’re saying, chér?”

“What do you think I’m trying to say, Stud?”

Stud. That’s me. My chest puffs out a little at the assessment.

I leap to my feet, and gather both twins in my arms, kissing them repeatedly. “Mama’s here.”

Kels joins us, sliding her arms around us. “She certainly is. It became official a half hour ago. Beth called with the good news.”

I turn my head and give Kels a kiss. “We’re a family, sweetheart.”

“We’ve always been a family in every way that counts,” Kels counters, tapping my nose. “Now we have the paperwork to prove it.”

* * *

The twins are finally down for the night. Or part of the night, as the case most often is. Thank God for naps. I take them almost as often as the twins do. I don’t know how I’m going to survive when I have to go back to work.

I crawl into bed and snuggle up next to Kels. Ever since the twins arrived, she falls asleep immediately after laying down. This is not a good development, in my opinion. Right now is only interferes with our conversations. Later it will interfere with more important activities.

No, no, no. That’s no good.

I wrap my arm around her waist and pull her back tight against me. I kiss her neck, nuzzling my way through her hair. “How are you, sweetheart?”

She manages to mumble, “Sleeping.”

I chuckle. “No, you aren’t. You answered me.” I kiss her neck again. “You’re okay with us christening the babies this weekend, aren’t you?”

“Of course.”

I nod, not surprised by the answer. “I guess, I mean, we’ve never really discussed what we believe, or don’t believe. In a religious kind of way.” I suppose some would think we should have had this conversation a long time ago.

“I know,” she replies, caressing my forearm and top of my hand. “But it’s very important to Mama and Papa, so there’s nothing wrong with it. Our children will make their own decisions in these matters when they’re old enough. Who knows? Collin may want to be a Buddhist monk.” Kels rolls onto her back and I observe the sway of her breasts in the moonlight. Not that I can do anything about that right now. I content myself with scratching her belly.

Back to the topic at hand. “True. He might. Though I don’t know what they’d do with his fuzzy head. Personally, I’d miss his hair.” My handsome boy. I wonder, “What do you believe in, Kels?” I prop myself up on my elbow to look at her.

“Hmm …” Kels is momentarily thrown by my abrupt change in topic. “I guess I never really thought about it.”

“Never?”

“No, not really.” She does a combo shrug and yawn. “I’ve been exposed to more religion since I met and married you than I have my entire life.”

I settle down next to her again. “Does it bother you, chér?”

“No, not at all. I know that a lot of families have deep beliefs and your family is one of them. Does it bother you that I don’t?”

I lean over and kiss her. “Not at all. If you hadn’t noticed, darlin’, I’m not a practicing Catholic.”

She chuckles. “I noticed. We’ll make sure the children are taught to respect the beliefs of the family, as well as those different from the family’s. When they’re old enough, they can choose their own path.”

“Sounds like a good plan. I didn’t want us to be doing something against your conscience. Because you, my dear, are more important to me than anything else in this world.”

“Except for maybe those two little someones.” My girl points to the bassinets where Brennan and Collin are still sleeping soundly. “And that’s the way it should be. No matter whatever comes to pass between us now or in the future, Tabloid, we have to promise to always do what is best for them.”

I take her hand in mine, bringing it to my lips. I kiss it gently, just above her wedding ring. “I promise. As long as you understand, I believe that getting to love you, and being loved by you, is what is best for them. For the rest of my life, for all of your life, for their lives. Get the picture?”

“I got it.” She seems to consider everything I’ve been telling her. “I married you, I’m stuck with ya, huh? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”

“Yes, exactly. I tried to buy diamond studded handcuffs instead of a wedding ring, but Mama convinced me that was tacky.”

Kels laughs and I worry she might wake the babies. “Mama is a wise woman, Stud. Pay attention and you might learn a thing or two. I certainly know I have.”

I was going to suggest we get some sleep while we can, but now I am intrigued. “What have you learned?”

“I can’t explain it really. It’s a way of thinking and reacting. It’s being a mother.”

I nod. It’s late anyway to be having this type of discussion. “You’ve learned beautifully, Kels. You’re a fantastic mom. And I’m not the least bit biased.”

“Hmm, sure. But you can be biased all you want.” Kels curls into me, sliding her arms around me and placing her head under my chin. That feels nice. So nice. “I just know I’m gonna get comfortable and someone will wake up. Collin knows these things, I swear he does.”

“It’s because he has a little periscope over the top of his bassinet. It tells him when we’re comfortable.” I massage her back lightly. “I’ll get him if he does. You sleep.”

“Deal. Since you took that nice, long nap today. You rat.” Kels bites me where she won’t let me bite her nowadays.

“Hey!” I mock protest. That was nice. “Love you. G’night, babe.”

* * *

“Mama, you are a guest in our house. You shouldn’t be making breakfast for us,” I protest, but it is half-hearted. No one makes biscuits and gravy like my Mama. Add to that sausage and eggs and it’s a heart attack on a plate. But what a way to go.

Mama looks at me from in front of the stove, clad in the apron I bought Brian as a joke. Underneath the apron she is wearing a Channel suit. I worry that grease might ruin it. “Don’t you insult me by calling me a guest,” she chides. “Last I checked, I was your mother. That doesn’t stop because I am in your home.”

Never try to tell a Cajun woman her position in your life. “I’m sorry, Mama. I simply meant I didn’t want you to have to work.”

She is mollified. “I know, mon Coeur. Now, you go finish getting ready. After we eat, we’ll dress the twins.”

I obey. This morning Mama brought over my christening gown which is a little big on Brennan, but still workable. With Kelsey, she took it to a dressmaker earlier this week and had a matching gown made for Collin. I will never understand why little boys don’t wearing christening suits, but I have bucked enough traditions in the family to leave this one alone.

I pass Papa and Brian in the family room. They are playing chess and drinking Mama’s famous coffee. I take in a deep breath and enjoy the scent of the Christmas tree. I automatically do a scan for stray needles, still taking Hormone Girl’s threat seriously. I bought a Dustbuster simply for this job. I check the twins, both are content in their sling chairs.

Upstairs Kels is slipping on her dress when I enter our bedroom. I enjoy the view of the expanse of her back and she reaches around to zip it up. “Let me,” I offer, startling her.

She jumps and, turning, wags a finger at me. “Don’t sneak up on me.”

I give a mock glare. “Don’t turn your back on me.”

Kels bats her eyelashes at me. “Then how can you zip me up?”

“Oh, chér,” I purr, stepping forward and sliding my arms around her lithe body. “I can think of lots of ways.” One hand slips inside her emerald colored dress, caressing the bare skin of her back, sliding under her bra clasp, to rest between her two shoulder blades. “The question really is: why would I want to?” I don’t bother letting her answer, instead, I kiss her. Her mouth opens willingly under me and she surrenders to my kiss, allowing me inside her, letting me explore. Of course, this is previously conquered territory, but I enjoy visiting as often as possible. When I feel her slide her hand inside the back of my jeans, I know I’ve been had once again. So much for my conquest.

She scratches my skin lightly with her fingernails sending currents of pleasure through my body. At the same time, she rubs like a cat against me, the texture of her dress intoxicating, along with her kiss. I feel the swell of her breasts under mine, the fullness of them from the life she gives to our children. Her other arm hooks around my neck, drawing me closer, as if I had any other plans.

When it is clear we breathe the same air, I back away slightly. “How can you expect me to go into a church after a kiss like that?”

Kels’ eyes twinkle. “You started it.”

I nod. So I did. “I’m going to take a quick shower.” I had planned on just putting on my pantsuit, but now I need to bring down my body temperature to a manageable level.

“You do that, Stud.”

* * *

We take our places to eat Mama’s feast. Papa holds Brennan and is giving her a bottle. He’s always loved feeding the grandbabies. My father, despite his reputation as a no-nonsense investment banker, is one of the most gentle men I have ever known. Brennan already responds to his voice, knowing it to be a special one. Collin is having breakfast from his favorite source, Kelsey. He pitched a fit at taking a bottle, so Kels had to do some quick changing so he could breastfeed. I can’t watch, as I normally like to, because Kels has a blanket over her shoulder as a bit of modesty at the table.

“So do you think your daughter will be able to keep her baptismal gown on through the whole ceremony?” Papa asks lightly. Brennan’s dislike of clothing is already becoming the stuff of legend in our family.

“Well, if Rene can hold her tight enough, we’ll be okay.” Naturally, we asked Robie and Rene to serve as godparents to the twins. In Catholic tradition, the godparents are responsible for the spiritual upbringing of children. This special bond is to transcend place and time, allowing the child another pair of adults concerned about him or her throughout life. While, for many, it simply means another present at Christmas and at birthdays, our family takes being a godparent seriously. I am godmother to Christian and Clark, even though I wasn’t able to be at Clark’s christening. As such, I feel a bone deep connection with my nephews. I know that no matter what happens in life, they will always have me. That is the vow I made.

“Mama, how long does the ceremony last usually?” Kels asks. All our traditions are new to my girl. Although, I admit to needing a refresher on most of them myself.

“A half hour, at most. The priest is very good at these things. He knows that little babies don’t need a long sermon.”

“Or even big babies,” I chime in. Brennan lets out a big burp as Papa taps her gently on the back. We all laugh at her innate sense of timing.

* * *

We arrive at the church exactly on time. The parking lot is full of cars. Not only will the immediate family be here, but all of Mama’s relatives too. They take weddings, christenings and funerals seriously. I am thrilled to be able to present my children to Nonny. I had been afraid she wouldn’t live to see them. It’s a rational fear based on her age, but not on her health. Papa insists that Boudreaux women are too stubborn to die. Miss Marguerite, as he calls Nonny, will always be around.

Mama, Papa and Brian hurry into the church to take their seats. Kels and I linger back at the doorway, holding our children and awaiting Robie and Rene. It is custom for the godparents to greet the babies at the door and carry them inside. This is the one thing I don’t like about christenings, I don’t get to hold my children.

Robie and Rene walk down the center aisle and meet us outside. I let out a low whistle, which, at first, Rene thinks is for her. She is about to accept my compliment, when I say, “Robie, looking sharp.”

He gives me the mental finger. Not nice for someone about to become the godfather to my children. “I see you managed to do the buttons right on your shirt,” he replies.

I smile at Kels. “I had help.”

Rene slaps my arm playfully. “We are at church, Harper Lee.”

I extend Brennan to her. “Stop hitting me and take my daughter.”

We hand off the kids and follow Robie and Rene inside the church. We walk about halfway down the aisle when the priest meets us. Robie says, “Father, Brennan and Collin Kingsley come to ask for faith in the Church of God.”

The priest makes the sign of the cross and leads all of us to in front of the altar. I marvel as we stand up there, behind Robie and Rene, how long it’s been since I’ve been inside a church. Normally, when I go, it’s with my family to a sunrise service at Lake Pontchartrain. I guess the last time I was inside was two years ago, at the midnight mass for Christmas. God tends to scare me in confined spaces.

I glance over my brother’s shoulder and am pleased to see that both of the twins are still snoozing. It was our plan. We made sure they ate right before the ceremony so they’d go down for their naps. Nothing worse than a christening where the kid screams the whole time.

Not my kids. They are perfect angels.

I was a little hesitant about the christening. As Kels and I discussed last night, I am not exactly considered a practicing Catholic. The fact that Mama was able to get my children christened in the church at all is a testament to her faith and our priest’s progressive attitudes. Although I can’t quite imagine my children in a church which condemns their mother and I. But, at the same time, I can’t imagine them not sharing the faith that resides in my parents.

The thing that always gets me about christenings is the concept that the child has original sin and would, if left unbaptized, go to hell. The thought that there is anything staining the soul of my children makes no sense to me. I have never encountered more innocent creatures in my life. Collin, my sweet little boy, and Brennan, my determined daughter, are completely unsullied by all the bad things in the world, including my own shortcomings. They are perfect. We shouldn’t be baptizing them, but ourselves. Somehow, I recall the Bible saying we were to become like little children.

I’d like to be like Collin. He’s happy and he clings to the good things in life. His mother. And I’d like to be like Brennan. She believes in making her way in the world – naked. She is her own woman. Already. They also both know that Kelsey is the best thing alive.

A simple life they have. They love and are loved. I pray that is the case forever.

I watch as the priest performs the rite of baptism on our children. The sign of the cross. The placing of the stole. The profession of faith. The pouring of water over their heads.

This does not please Fuzzy. His eyes fly open and he begins to protest this messing of his hairdo. The priest and Robie chuckle at his consternation. Robie smoothes down his hair and this seems to calm him. Vanity, thy name is Collin. Brennan, on the other hand, sleeps through her baptism.

As the priest speaks, I reach out and hold Kels’ hand. If anything were to happen to us, God forbid, I am glad our children would have Robie and Rene to look after them. Robie is my best friend and my brother. Sometimes I think we’re the same person. Except for that lawyer thing he has going. It’s a family affliction. And Rene, next to Kels, is the most spectacular woman in the world. If the twins couldn’t have us, they could do no better than their new godparents.

In the audience, Mama and Papa are beaming with pride. I am glad to do this for them, and for the twins to have another community to look after them as they grow up.

Thinking of adoption, I find Jake and Stevie sitting on their new parents’ laps. The boys seem to be doing pretty well getting used to our big, loud, Cajun family. Their older cousins, especially, have made their transition pretty easy. Joseph, being the eldest of the grandchildren, has decided to take them under his wing. He’s just like his father, a natural leader. Jake and Stevie now adore him and trail him like puppies around Mama and Papa’s house. Laurent is playing mother to them as well.

I suspect we’ll be here celebrating their christening as soon as their adoption is finalized. Gerrard confided to me earlier that he hopes to help expedite it before the beginning of the year. I hope so. Everyone deserves a family for the holidays.

I am startled out of my thoughts when I feel Robie hand me Collin. His head is still wet as I press my lips to his hair. He blinks sleepy blue eyes at me. “It’s okay, buddy. I’ll get the blow dryer out of the car.”

* * *

An hour later, we are all assembled in a restaurant for the reception. It’s the twins’ first public appearance and all the relatives have joined us. For their part, Brennan and Collin are doing well. They are handling being poked and prodded and examined by all sorts of people. Fortunately, all the pokers and prodders adore our kids. As they should. They are, simply, the best.

I’ve been watching for one particular family member to arrive. When she does, I gently extract Brennan from Tante Madeline’s arms. I catch Kels’ eyes and she and Collin head over to me.

Kels smiles at me. “Yes? Is it that time?”

I nod. “Nonny arrived.”

We walk over to the matriarch of the Boudreaux family and sit down next to her. I look at the lines on her face and the gray in her hair and see Mama’s future. While Nonny may have shrunk with age, her spirit has not. She fixes startlingly clear blue eyes on us and then at the twins. Her hand, though shaky, reaches out and strokes Collin’s hair. “Exactly like you, Leone.”

I nod ruefully. “Let’s hope not exactly, Nonny.”

Nonny grins at my humor and then pats Kels’ knee. “You have your hands full, do you not?”

“Yes, Ma’am, I do, but I adore it. They are simply my life.” I am not sure if she means the babies or me, or both, but it works for me.

Nonny leans back and gives my girl the eye. “Did you marry my Leone?”

“Yes, Ma’am, I did. I love her very much.” That was directed at me. I lean over and kiss her cheek.

“Then you shouldn’t call me ‘Ma’am’. I am your Nonny.”

A beautiful blush graces my girl’s cheeks and she smiles. “Yes, Nonny.”

“Much better,” Nonny praises. She reaches out her hands for Brennan, and I help settle our daughter in Nonny’s lap. “Did Leone tell you about the time she was eight and Jonathan was in a play?”

Uh oh.

Kels glances at me. “No, Nonny, she didn’t.” She looks at me again and winks. “Imagine that.”

Nonny chuckles and smoothes back the tiny amount of hair Brennan has. “At the firm Jonathan had at the time, they had a tradition of performing a play at the holidays to raise money for charity. None of them could act, of course. They were all investment bankers and others with no sense of imagination.” She grins, enjoying teasing my father even though he isn’t around to hear it. “Well, this particular year, Jonathan was playing some part that involved him having to kiss a woman other than Cecile. For whatever reason, at that point in the play, Cecile was not in the theatre. When he did, Leone stood up in the middle of row and screamed, ‘Mama, Papa is kissing some other woman!’ She then ran as fast as her eight year old legs would carry her and reported his infraction.”

Kels begins laughing at me. “So that’s where Danielle gets that from.” Was it only just over a year ago I first kissed this wonderful woman?

Nonny holds out her other hand for Collin. Kels places him beside his sister. At first, Collin is not appreciative of the change of scenery. He starts to protest, but quickly stops when Nonny begins singing to them.

“Couvres-toi bien, ne prends pas froid. Toi, mon enfant, toi qui t’en vas passer. Quelque temps chez celui qui t’ a aussi donner
la vie.”

Nonny used to sing this to me. My love, my child.

Kels snuggles into my arms and we watch Nonny bless our children.

Yes, this was a good decision.

* * *

I reach out and take the phone from its cradle. “Someone had better be dead,” I mumble.

“I’m gonna be if I don’t get Ren to the hospital, Kels. She’s gonna kill me.” Robie laughs. “Can you and Harper come get the boys?”

I sit up immediately and turn on the light. “Of course!” I slap Harper’s ass. “We’ll be right over. Is Ren okay?”

“Great, for someone in labor.” He laughs again. He’s trying to cover it, but I can hear that nervous father-to-be timbre in his voice. “See you in a minute.” He hangs up and I jump out of bed, pulling on my robe. “Come on, Harper, get up! You have to go get Christian and Clark. Robie is taking Rene to the hospital. Little Kelsey is ready to join the family.”

Harper is up and pulling her sweats on without a word. I go to Brian’s room, knocking on his door before opening it and sticking my head in. “Brian?”

“Kels? Something wrong?”

“No, everything is great. I need you to go next door and help Harper with Christian and Clark.”

“Ooo, another baby joins the Kingsley rabbit farm.” He chuckles as he gets up and scratches his head. “Let me grab my jeans and sneakers.”

I return to our room hearing from the hallway Brennan’s fit. I smile. I’m very proud of the fact I can tell them apart by their cries now. Harper is leaning over the bassinet trying to get her quieted down. I go over and scratch Harper’s back. “You get going, sweetheart. I’ll take care of her. It’s about her feeding time anyhow.”

“Okay. We’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“You can put Clark in one of the cribs when you return. And we’ll put Christian in here for the rest of the night. I’ll make up the lounger for him.”

“Got it.” She pauses and smiles at me. “Mom,” she teases before leaving the room.

She’s right. Lord, who would have thought it was possible? I manage to get Brennan content enough that I have enough time to make up a bed for Christian. Then, little Miss Harper the Second, refuses to be ignored any longer. I scoop her up in my arms. “Good morning, Grumpy. Is that time?” I settle down in the chair to feed her when Collin decides to join us. I pull his bassinet closer to me and give him his pacifier, leaving my hand on his tummy. “You’re just gonna have to wait your turn, Fuzzy. Brennan beat you to it.”

Within a few minutes, I hear Harper and Brian return. Brian takes Clark, who is apparently still sound asleep to the nursery and Harper hauls a half-conscious Christian into our room. She has him against one shoulder and Elmo is tucked under her arm. She lays our nephew down and tucks him in, giving him Elmo. He seems content enough and rolls over.

His sleepy eyes open at me. “Hi, Aunt Kels.” He slurs his words.

“Hello, sweetheart. It’s late, go back to sleep,” I tell him even as Harper covers him.

“Yes, Ma’am.” He snuggles into Elmo and is sound asleep in seconds.

“I wish I could sleep like that.” Harper yawns, pulling her sneakers off from her spot on the floor. “Clark didn’t even so much as wake up when we were picking him up and wrapping him in blankets. Slept through the whole thing. Not a peep.”

“Well, it’s hard work playing all day. Really takes it out of you.”

Harper falls dramatically back to the floor with her arms flung out from her sides. “Don’t I know it.”

Collin fusses more angrily than before. I don’t think he wants to wait any longer. Either that, or he heard his Mama and is pitching a fit to get her attention. Whichever it was, it worked. Harper rolls over and crawls to him.

“What’s the problem, Fuzzy? Is Mommy taking too long?”

“Not me, it’s his sister.”

“Think he’ll take a bottle?”

“You can try.” I sigh. He seems to be getting much more difficult about it, but it’s late. He might be convinced.

“’Kay.” She scrambles to her feet to go get him a bottle. I’m not sure exactly how she seems to warm them so quickly. It never seems to take her as long as it does me. Could be because I’m half asleep when I do it and she always seems to be wide awake. The moment the babies make a noise, and she knows she has night duty, she’s up and ready to go.

She brings it back in and scoops him up, settling down at my feet. She attempts to give him the bottle. He takes it, then spits it out. I hear Harper sigh and try again. Again with the same result.

She shakes her head. “Kels, he’s not liking this.”

“Trade me.” We make the switch. Brennan happily accepts the bottle and Collin happily accepts me. This concerns me. I need to remember to talk to his pediatrician about this.

I look down at the two favorite women in my life. They’re having a grand old time. When Harper holds her, Brennan spends more time playing than eating. People have tried to tell me babies don’t smile this young. They are so full of it. If they could see Brennan in Harper’s arms, they’d see a baby with a big old smile on her face. This little girl adores her Mama. Which only makes sense, since her Mama adores her as well.

Christian yawn and blinks again. He seems to be waking up on us. I’m sure having his night totally interrupted is the problem. “Tante Harper?”

“Yes, Christian?”

“Where are Mama and Papa?”

“They’ve gone to the hospital. Your Mama is going to have the baby.”

He pops up, suddenly wide awake and very alert. “My Kelsey?”

We both laugh. “Yes, your Kelsey.”

“Oh boy!” He claps his hands, startling Collin, who momentarily forgets what he was doing. “When?”

“Oh, sweetheart, these things take time,” Harper tells him. “But someone will call us and tell us just as soon as she gets here. Until then, you need to lay down and try to get some sleep. That way you’ll be rested and ready to go see your baby sister when she gets here.”

“Yes, ma’am!” He snuggles back down and closes his eyes. We both look at each other and roll our eyes. He is so adorable in his determination to try and sleep.

* * *

The call doesn’t come until almost three in the afternoon. Ooo, will Rene be unhappy with Robie for awhile. It doesn’t matter that he had nothing to do with how long her labor was, he got her pregnant. I told Harper the same thing, and mine was pretty quick for a first pregnancy.

I put Christian on the phone with his father to hear the good news directly. “She’s here? My Kelsey?”

“That she is, my boy,” Robie booms over the speakerphone. “She’s very pretty, just like your Mama.”

Christian nods, rubbing his hands together. He can’t wait to get his hands on her. I must admit that I am anxious to see her, as well. No one has ever named a child after me. No one has ever wanted to name one after me. My, my, how things change.

“Can I see her, Papa?”

“Sure enough, chér. I’ll come get you in an hour. Think you can convince your Aunt Kels and Tante Harper to tag along?”

He turns his eyes on me. I, of course, readily agree. “We’ll be ready, Robie. Just need to tell Brian he’s on babysitting duty with the twins.”

“Wonderful. Let me make a couple more calls and then I’ll come get you, son.”

“Give our love to Rene.”

“Bye, Papa.”

As I hang up, Christian throws himself into my arms. “She’s here!”

“Yes, she is, sweetheart.”

* * *

When we enter the hospital room, Clark dives from Harper’s arms for Rene, while Christian bypasses her completely. He nearly collides with the bassinet in his enthusiasm to reach his sister. He stares at her for a long moment and then turns to his father. “Why is she so old?”

Hmm. I’ve never thought of an infant as old. Neither has Robie as he peers over Christian’s shoulder. “Why do you say that, son?”

He points to her face. “She’s all wrinkly. Like Nonny.”

We all burst into laughter, including Rene. She immediately regrets it, wincing and twitching on her hospital bed. Clark tightens his hold on his mother, burying his face in the crook of her neck.

The noise startles little Kelsey and she lets her displeasure be known. Just like me. We need our beauty rest. Christian jumps about three feet backward. We start laughing again and Robie scoops up his daughter. “It’s all right, boy. She is just saying hi to you.”

“To me?”

Robie nods and walks over to the chair. He sits down and invites Christian up onto his lap as well. Carefully, he settles Kelly into her brother’s arms.

I walk over to Harper and slide my arm around her waist. “I wish I had a camera.”

My smug spouse pulls a small digital camera out of her jacket pocket. “Like this?”

I give her the eye. “Just take the picture, Tabloid.” She does so immediately.

“You have her well-trained,” Rene comments.

I go over and give my sister a well-deserved hug which includes Clark sandwiched between us. “How are you, Ren?”

“Tired and achy.”

Been there, done that. “Well, I happen to know first hand that the Kingsley clan tends to feed its new mothers well. We still have a couple meals in the freezer.”

“I can’t eat Jean’s special chili either.”

That’s exactly the dish I refused to thaw out. It might be his specialty, but it’s deadly. “She’s beautiful.”

Rene pats my back. “She has quite the name to live up to.”

* * *

We are playing poker in the family room. I promised Kelsey we would keep it to a dull roar so as to not disturb the twins. Also all of us have been given rather strict curfews by our spouses. With three of the five of us having new kids at home, the wives seem to think we should be there as well. Imagine that.

Robie studies his hand intently. This means it’s pretty good. He’s trying to figure out a way to bluff us. “I’ll see your bet, Jean. My luck has to change sometime.”

Yup. It’s a bluff. I glance at my cards. Three of a kind. Not good enough, most likely. “I fold,” I lay my cards face down on the table.

“How are your boys, Luc?” Gerrard asks. “They looked very handsome at church yesterday.”

He laughs and shakes his head. “You should have seen what Rach had to go through to get them cleaned up. I swear Jake is like Pig Pen from Peanuts. Wherever he goes, dirt follows.”

I’ve seen evidence of that at Mama’s. It is a unique skill he possesses. “Did you consider helping her?” I tease.

He tosses a pretzel at my head. “Bite me.”

Gerrard picks up the pretzel so I don’t get in trouble with the boss. “That sounds like a ‘no’, Lucien.”

“You should have seen what Rachel looked like when she finally got out of the bathroom with them. She was soaked from head to foot. I had already showered.” Luc smirks, seeming to realize he should have helped. I’ll let him off the hook for now. I can’t imagine getting away with that with Kels. Or wanting to.

“You looking forward to getting back to New York?” Gerrard asks me as he pulls the poker chips in his direction. Robie’s bluff couldn’t beat his full house.

“Yes and no. I love the job, but I don’t like being away from the family. Though why I miss you four is beyond me.”

Jean stops chewing on his unlit cigar long enough to reply. “It’s my scintillating conversation.”

“Yeah, right. How ever do I live without your constant presence?”

He shrugs his broad shoulders and picks up the cards dealt to him. “I’ll buy you a locket to wear.” We all guffaw.

Gerrard lifts up his beer mug. “A toast.”

Okay, that’s unexpected, but we all go along with it. “To parenthood. As a wise man once described it, sometimes it seems like it’s nothing but feeding the mouth that bites you -”

“Kels would agree there,” I snicker. Glad Kels isn’t in the room to hear that. I’d get seriously thumped for that.

Gerrard shakes his head at me. “But there is nothing more rewarding in your life. I am so glad we all get to experience it together. To our children.”

We clink our glasses and drink.
Episode Twenty: It’s A Wonderful Life
It’s almost time to be leaving for the Christmas Eve midnight Mass. I pull on my jacket, and head into the bedroom, expecting to find Kelsey ready to go. She’s not. In any way, shape or form. The twins, however, are dressed in their warm jumpers. “What’s going on, chér?”

“Harper … I can’t … I … ah …” she breaks off, shaking her head.

I step forward and run my hands down her arms. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah. I am just tired and don’t feel like going out. I’m sorry.”

I lean forward and take her temperature by putting my lips to her forehead. It’s not quite accurate, but it is normally pleasant. Pulling back, I ask, “Do you need us to stay home with you?”

“No. You go. I’m going to go to bed. Mama will never forgive you if the twins miss their first Christmas Mass. I’ll be all right.”

I study her face for a long moment, noting the worry lines and the slight down turn of her lips. “I don’t want you to just be all right, sweetheart. I want you to be good. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“No, Harper. You’ve done everything you can do. You’ve been wonderful. It’s up to me now. I’m just a little depressed. I need to rest.” My girl tries to smile to reassure me, but it doesn’t work. Her eyes hold unshed tears, and her lips are quivering. “Go to Mass.”

“I love you.” I don’t know of anything else to say. “If it’s anything I’ve done …”

“It’s not you. It’s me.” She gives me a brief hug, patting my back. “I love you too, you know that. I’m just tired. I need to rest. Now,” she releases me, “take the babies and go. You’re going to be late.”

I reluctantly step away. “Get good sleep, darlin’. We’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

* * *

I arrive at the church and am glad to see Gerrard in the parking lot. I wave him down, and he follows me as I park the Lexus. I hop out of the car and give him a hug. “Merry Christmas, Gerrard.”

“Same to you, little sister.”

“Younger,” I automatically correct. “Can you give me a hand with the twins?”

He peers in the window at Collin. “Sure. Always glad to hold my nephew. Where’s Kels? And Brian?”

I wander over to the passenger side door. “She was feeling bad. And Brian isn’t quite the religious type.” We both reach into the car and remove a baby. I cuddle Brennan close to my chest, so she stays warm in the night breeze.

“I’m sorry to hear that about Kels,” Gerrard remarks. He picks up Collin, and we begin walking toward the church.

“Did Katherine go through this too?”

“A little bit.” He adjusts Collin’s hood on his fuzzy head. “With Katie, it was mostly her being quiet for a couple of days. Nothing too bad.”

I open the door to the vestibule, and we step inside where the heat is more than welcome. “Do you think that I’ve made it worse somehow?”

“What? How?”

“She seemed so unhappy tonight. Should I have stayed home with her? Should I have talked to her about it? I don’t know. Maybe she’s sad because I’m not doing a good job with the kids …”

My brother’s warm hand settles on my shoulder. “Don’t get all worried, Harper Lee. Kels loves you.”

“Is that enough? I mean, what if she isn’t happy with the choices we’ve made this year? What if she regrets getting married, having the twins, moving to New York?”

Gerrard regards me seriously, rubbing Collin’s back to keep him content. “I don’t think that’s the case at all. I’ve seen her with you and Brennan and Collin. She looks like a very happy woman.”

“But what about everything she gave up for this? Because of us, because of the babies, she’s pulled back on her career. That was always the most important thing to her.”

“Harper, all of life is a series of choices. In order to grab the brass ring, you have to take one hand off the reins. So maybe you don’t have as much control anymore of where you end up. But you still have that brass ring in your hand.”

I snort. “I’m not real good at metaphors right now, Gerrard.”

“I’m saying you and Kels have the brass ring. Don’t worry about where life takes you right now. Enjoy the ride.”

* * *

After Harper leaves for church, I make a cup of tea and head to our room. I’m tired, but I’m too tired to sleep. I stand, sipping my tea and looking out the window into the clear night sky. I watch the stars glimmer like little diamonds. I wish I knew why I felt this way. I have everything I want. A wonderful partner, two beautiful children, I’m surrounded by family and friends. What is wrong with me? I have everything I want.

Then it hits me. I have everything ‘I’ want. Does Harper? God, I practically pushed her into this. We had just started getting to know each other when I decided I needed to have children. How have I changed her life? What could she have become without me?

“I can answer that for you, Kels.”

I spin around to find Erik standing behind me. He looks relaxed, dressed in khakis and a royal blue turtleneck. For someone who’s dead, he has a way of maintaining his good looks. I lose my grip on the mug when he steps forward and extends his hand.

“I can show you, Kels. Take my hand. I can show you what she would have become had you not found each other.” He gestures for me to do as he says. “Come on. Take my hand.”

I don’t know why, but I do.
* *

Inside the church, I am promptly relieved of Brennan. Her Tante Katherine takes her from my arms. “Ooo, look at this beautiful baby!” she coos at my daughter. “Merry Christmas, sweetie. You’re getting so big, you are!” She leans forward and rubs her nose against Brennan’s. “Let’s go sit down by your Grandmere. She’ll be so happy to see you.”

I watch the two move toward the front of the church. We follow behind. My arms feel empty without one of the babies. I waited so long to see them. And then I was almost assured of never seeing them after the fireworks accident. I would have missed seeing Fuzzy’s hair, and Brennan’s magnificent eyes. I can’t imagine not having seen them in their mother’s arms.

Does Kels feel the same way?

I squeeze into one of the pews with my family. Before Mama can ask, I explain to her about Kels feeling sick. Mama is naturally disappointed; we are otherwise complete, save Rene who gave birth only a few days ago. I lean down and look at the other twins in the family, Thomas and Caitlin. Barely three, they are sleepy and slumped in their parents’ laps. A few of the older kids, however, are thrilled to be up so late past their bedtime. Danielle waves at me, her smile displaying the latest of her baby teeth to be lost.

The service begins, and I fight to focus on it. My mind keeps wandering back to home. To Kelsey. To how sad she is.

Would she be better off without me?

As the question crosses my mind, I notice a chill in the sanctuary. It’s always a little cool in the stone edifice, but this is unnatural. I look around and everything seems frozen in time.

Am I having a seizure?

“Don’t be alarmed,” Shadow says, coming up beside my spot in the pew.

“Shadow?” What in the world is she doing here? The last time I saw her was our wedding in New Mexico.

The Navajo shaman smiles at me. “Harper, come with me.”

I rise to my feet, but glance back at my family. “What’s going on?”

“Let’s do a spirit walk together.”

I step out into the aisle, pulled along by something inside me that I can’t explain. We walk toward the massive doors leading to the outside. “Where are we going?”

As Shadow begins to push open the door, she spares me a glance over her shoulder. “To see where other choices would have led.”

* * *

Erik and I appear in the center of a bar. I recognize the place right away. It’s that club Harper used to hang out at in Los Angeles. I remember the time I came here with her and took all of Bear and Gary’s money from them. I recognize Bear across the room. Even in civilian clothes, it’s clear he’s a cop.

“She never quite stopped chasing down her next conquest,” Erik tells me. As he points, Harper walks through the door.

God, she was so cocky. Look at that swagger. Even our hammock doesn’t have that kind of swing to it.

I enter The Rio and amble over to the bar. Bear looks up from his beer and gives me a nod. “How are you, Harper?”

I toss my leg over the stool and take a seat. I gesture for a beer and take a long drink when it arrives. Oh, yeah, that’s good. “Better now.”

“Saw your piece.” He jerks his head toward the television. “Are you completely insane?”

“The fucker’s gun had the safety on. He couldn’t hurt anyone.” I turn around on the stool to look at tonight’s offerings. A blonde in the far booth smiles at me. I think I had her last week. I can’t remember. That’s not a point in her favor either. “The network eats that shit up. My executive producer nearly had an orgasm when he saw the footage.”

Bear shakes his head. “You’re gonna end up dead one day, pal. And I won’t come to your funeral.”

I roll my eyes. “Yeah, yeah. Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse. That’s what they say, right?” That brunette looks good. I don’t think I’ve had her before.

How in the hell would you remember, Harper Lee? You’ve bedded more people than all the major mattress manufacturers put together. “Don’t do this. You’re a better person than this, Harper.”

“Kels?” I look to Erik, and he shakes his head. “Don’t bother. She can’t hear or see you. This is what she would be without you.”

“Bull. Even without me she had potential…”

“Potential, yes. But with no one to believe in her and give her something real to strive for … well, very few people live up to it. You taught me that, Kels.”

“But I believe in her! I know what she can be.”

“Could have been. If she had met you; she didn’t.”

“That’s what stupid people say, Harper. If it’s not you, you’ll take down someone else.”

I chuck him on the arm. “Bear, you cops worry too much. Now, let’s see what’s on the menu for tonight.”

“Don’t you mean ‘who’?”

We both laugh. He knows me well.

I’ve seen and heard enough. I certainly don’t need to watch her pick up her toy for the evening. My stomach twists into little knots as I take Erik’s hand. “Let’s go.”

* * *

” I’m afraid you won’t like this much better, Kels. Harper’s started drinking to the point of blackouts. She’s waking up in places and not remembering how she came to be there.”

I watch her scrub her face against the pillow, trying to get awake. She looks like hell: dark circles under her eyes, her face a bit swollen from too much booze and not enough sleep. I won’t even mention the woman she’s lying next to.

“Oh, Harper! Please don’t do this!”

“Kelsey, she has no reason not to. She’s young, rich and talented. She’s living large.”

“She’s living dangerously.”

“She doesn’t know that. And, if she did, she wouldn’t care.”

A couple of days later I wake up early, like I always do. Even without an alarm. I look around to see where I am. Don’t recognize this apartment.

I lift my head. Don’t recognize the girl either. What was her name? Jeri? Carrie? Lari? Something like that. Oh, well. I won’t be sticking around for breakfast and chatter.

I slide out of the bed and look around for my clothing. I gotta start remembering to put it in one pile and not just toss random pieces off. I finally find my jeans in the hallway. My shirt is in the bathroom. It’s a little damp, pissing me off. Now I gotta stop at a store on the way to work. I don’t want to be uncomfortable all day.

I go back into the bedroom for my boots, which somehow made it in here. I don’t even want to know how that happened. I catch a better glimpse of last night’s conquest.

Oh, my God.

How drunk was I?

Bow wow. Damn, I hope Bear or Gary didn’t see me leave with her. It’d take me years to repair my reputation.

Oh, that’s right. I wasn’t at The Rio last night. It was some high tech bar that had mirrors everywhere. God, I was trashed. I was leaning against the bar and looking around for someone to spend the night with. I saw, in the mirror, the most gorgeous set of legs I’d seen in quite awhile. Traveling up the lean body, I saw a perfect ass. Oh yeah, I had wanted to get my hands on it. I turned to find this lovely creature, and I saw her legs turn at just the same moment.

Then I recognized my boots.

I hang my head. Pitiful, Harper, simply pitiful. I look to Erik and wipe my eyes, surprised I can cry in this personal tour of hell. I would have thought crying would be against the rules. “She’s always had a huge ego.” I shrug. “But it was kind of fun.”

That explains how I came home with Rover. I was so upset from checking myself out, I grabbed the first available woman and left.

I gotta get to work.

* * *

Oh, God, I hate this already. I take Erik’s hand in mine. It is surprisingly warm, exactly as I remember it.

“Just watch, Kels.”

“We have to stop!”

“We can’t,” he stresses to me again.

“Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not shout, I’m telling you why,” I sing at the top of my lungs in order to be heard over my Harley’s engine.

“Santa Claus is coming to town!” Robie shouts back. He still rides his wimpy ass BMW bike. If it ain’t a Harley, why bother?

“You can’t sing for shit,” I call out.

He flips me the bird. “Why do we get you presents and encourage you to come home for the holidays?”

“Because I’m so damn charming.”

He snorts and shakes his head. “Oh, yeah, I forgot.”

“Did you also forget how to ride?” I challenge. I hate going the speed limit with this much power between my legs. I pretty much feel that way all the damn time.

Robie guns his engine and streaks away from me.

Oh, yeah, the chase is on.

* * *

I slide to a stop and jump off my bike, not caring that I let it drop to the ground. I race over to where Robie is laying. He’s well off the road, thrown off his bike when the semi hit him. Robie went a little too fast around that turn, crossed the middle line, and paid for it.

Please, God, let him be all right.

I push the driver of the semi aside to get to my brother’s side. Jesus. There’s so much blood. Even with his helmet, his face is trashed. It looks like he skidded across the pavement on his left side.

I reach under his leather jacket and put my hand on his chest, bending down to see if I can feel him breathing.

He’s not.

“I think he’s dead,” the truck driver says. “I didn’t see him. He was going too fast. He was on my side of the road. It wasn’t my fault. I swear it.” He’s babbling, in shock.

I begin performing CPR, but stop when I feel Robie’s ribs collapse under my hands. His chest is caved in.

I feel bile rise in my throat, and I barely turn my head before I puke all over.

He’s dead. My brother is dead.

The tears are streaming down my cheeks as I rush over. Not Robie! No. I look to Erik. “Help him! Do something for God’s sake! Don’t let Robie die!”

Erik just shakes his head. “There’s nothing I can do, Kels. In this reality, Robie is killed.”

“What about Rene and Christian and Clark?”

“You’ll see.”

I rush back to Erik and grab him by the shirt. “Take me there then! Show me them. I want to know that they’re all right!”

“In time. There are other things to see first.”

“I’m not sure I want to.” I wipe tears from my cheeks, but they are replaced by more. I can’t believe Robie is dead.

“This was your request, Kels. Now that we’ve started we have to finish.” He extends his hand. “Let’s go.”

* * *

I’m sitting in the hospital waiting room. I could be anywhere. I wish I were dead. Robie’s gone.

I move and kneel next to her, trying to touch her, not caring that I can’t. “Don’t say that, Harper. It was an accident. Come on, baby, be strong. The family will need you to be strong. You know how to do that. You saved my life more than once.”

“Well, maybe you gave her a reason to learn to be strong.” He lifts his brow at me. “She doesn’t know you here.”

“Stop this! Take me home! Take me back to my family!”

“When it’s time, and it’s not time yet.”

Angrily, I wipe away the tears that are streaking down my cheeks. Life is fucking unfair. That was my brother! My brother, God! Do you hear me?! No wonder I don’t believe in you. And I never will.

I hug my knees to my chest. If I curl up in a ball, maybe the pain will be smaller. Otherwise, it’s going to grow and consume me.

Dammit, Robie! You never did take curves well. What the fuck were you doing? Trying to show off? And now Christian and Clark don’t have a Papa. Just great. Just fucking great.

“Harper?” Mama asks from the archway.

Mama, oh, poor Mama. She must certainly be devastated. I want to go give her a hug.

I look up. Grateful someone else from the family is here now. “Mama?” I stand up, ready to receive the hug I desperately need.

“What were you doing out there?” she asks, not moving.

I stay where I am standing. “Riding.”

“Why was he going so fast?”

I shrug. “I don’t know, Mama.”

“Harper, how can you stand there and lie to your Mama like that? You’ve never lied to her! ”

“Kels, this is not the Harper you know. This is a Harper consumed by her own demons. She drinks too much, carouses too much, and she’d lie to the devil himself to save her own neck.”

“Not my Harper. Harper has a lot of shortcomings, but she’s not a liar!”

“Exactly. This isn’t your Harper. Remember, you wanted to see what she would be like without you in her life.”

She advances a step, raising her finger to me. “You don’t know. I don’t believe you, Harper Lee. You were racing him, weren’t you?”

“We were riding, Mama. That’s all.” I start crying again. We always raced, it never was a problem before. God, I never thought this would happen.

“You killed him.”

My head snaps back as surely as if she had slapped me. “Mama,” I protest, barely able to speak. I loved him. He was my best friend. All my life.

“Don’t.” She holds up her hand to me. “Don’t speak to me. You killed your brother.”

* * *

I walk into Mama’s house. I haven’t been there since Robie’s accident, almost eight months ago. I’m only here for Clark’s first birthday celebration. I don’t know if I’ll even be let in.

I knock on the backdoor, and Rene opens it. “Harper,” she whispers. I don’t know if that means she’s glad to see me or not. “I was hoping you would come.” Next thing I know, Rene is in my arms, hugging me tightly.

We both begin crying.

Thank God, Rene doesn’t seem to blame her. It was an accident. A horrible accident, but an accident.

Lucien comes up behind Rene. “Are you okay, Ren?” When she pulls away from me, he recognizes me. “Harper! This is a surprise.”

I shrug. “I hope a good one.”

“Come on in.” He steps back and allows me to enter.

Both Rene and I wipe our eyes and I step inside, feeling a stranger in the family house. I find myself immediately looking for Robie. Damn. Even after all this time I can’t accept that he’s gone.

“It wouldn’t be the same place without Robie,” I mumble.

“It’s not. But not only because of Robie. They’ve lost Harper too. She doesn’t come home much anymore.”

“Harper goes home a lot.”

He shakes his head. “Not anymore. The guilt from what happened has torn her from the family. The entire Kingsley family is different from the one you know.”

Gerrard comes over and embraces me, initiating a round of hugs from various members of the family. I notice two people are missing – Mama and Rachel. I ask the easy question first. “Where’s Rach?”

Luc blushes and glances down, studying his shoes.

Katherine comes to his rescue. “Harper, Luc and Rach divorced in June.”

I feel fresh tears well in my eyes. “They fix things. It gets better. They adopt two little boys.”

Erik sighs; I’m not getting the point. “In the life you led with Harper, yes, but not here, Kels. Here the family wasn’t strong enough to help them.”

Oh. “I’m sorry, man.” I really am. I liked Rachel. For more than the obvious reasons of having sampled the merchandise. She was sweet.

In answer to my unspoken question, Gerrard whispers, “Mama is in the kitchen.”

I excuse myself and wander to the back of the house. Mama is at the counter, putting the icing on Clark’s cake. She doesn’t turn around when I enter the room. “Hi, Mama.”

She glances over her shoulder at me. “Harper. We didn’t expect you.” She turns around and wipes her hands on her apron. We stare at each other for a long moment before I decide to throw caution to the winds and hug her.

She pats my back for a few moments and we awkwardly pull apart. “I wanted to see the family.” I plunge my hands into my pockets to keep them still. “I miss everyone.”

“We all miss Robie.”

Ouch. “There’s not a moment I don’t miss him. Not a moment …”

“Enough. Words cannot change the past, Harper. Robie is dead. My son will never see his children grow up, never be at another family event, never be a part of our lives.”

“Mama, if I could do anything to turn back time, I would. I wish it had been me.” I do.

“I don’t,” she whispers. “As horrible as it is, I could never choose between any of you.” She wipes her hands again, more to give them something to do than anything else. “I just can’t believe he’s gone. And I can’t get over how he died. You had no business being out on those death machines! Not when he had such young children at home! No business, Harper!”

“I know.” I sold my bike immediately after the accident. I now drive an SUV. I will never ride a motorcycle again in my life. “I’d like to come home again, Mama.”

She nods. “Soon.”

* * *

I spend the night at Rene’s. Christian and Clark are happy to see me. As their godmother, I feel an even stronger obligation to them. That’s made staying away these last few months even harder. Rene lets me read them bedtime stories and tuck them in. I kiss each of them, trying not to cry. I’ve missed them so.

I look at my little Christian. “I love you. I wish I could be here for you.”

“They don’t know you, Kels. Harper never met you. Never brought you home. Never introduced you to the family. Clark and Christian don’t have an Aunt Kels who loves them.”

“I know.” I turn to him and wipe my eyes. “And I hate it! And I hate this!”

“You’re supposed to hate it. You wanted to know what Harper’s life would have been like. This is it.”

“I don’t make that much of a difference in her life!”

“Apparently, you do. You, your marriage, your children, together, you complete Harper Kingsley. Without you…” He gestures at Harper and Rene.

I join Rene in the living room, flopping down on the couch. “They’re wonderful.” I reach out and touch her shoulder, giving it a light massage. “You’ve done a terrific job with them, Ren. They’re amazing.”

She leans into my touch and smiles. “They’ve missed you, Harper. Christian especially. He always asks about you.”

“I miss Robie.”

Rene’s breath hitches, and she nods tightly. “I know, Harper. He loved you so much.”

My eyes fill with tears. “I loved him, Ren. I never meant for him to be hurt. Never.”

“Harper, don’t you think I know that? Don’t you think he knew that?” She turns on the couch and takes both of my hands in hers, squeezing them tightly. “You both loved to ride. It’s what you did together. It was a horrible accident.”

I nod, my throat too tight to even get words past. Instead, I reach out for Rene and pull her against me. This releases the floodgates and we both begin weeping together again.

A half hour later, we are finally cried out. I pull back and look into her watery eyes. I reach out and wipe the tears from her cheek. My hand lingers there a moment too long, then two.

Before I realize what is happening, we are kissing. Deep, hungry kisses. We’re two people drowning in emotion, clinging to one another in desperation. But she feels so good. So right. As I push her back on the couch, she goes willingly. Perhaps I can make it up to her and the children somehow.

When she reaches for the buttons on my shirt, I stop thinking.

I can’t watch this. I shake my head, closing my eyes to block out the sight. I’ve known they were a little in love with each other, but I don’t need to see it. “Erik…” Thankfully, he takes me away from there.

* * *

And puts me here? “Thanks so much.” I glare at him. He shrugs his broad shoulders at me.

The next morning, I wake up alone in the bed. I take a deep breath, feeling alive for the first time in months. I can recreate a life for myself, by taking over my brother’s. I owe it to him, to his kids, to his wife.

His wife. I wonder where she is.

I get up and pull on a pair of boxers and a T-shirt. I wander through the house, surprised the boys aren’t up yet, and find her in the kitchen. She’s drinking a cup of coffee and staring out the window. I pour myself a mug and join her, kissing her temple. “Good morning.”

She nods, sipping again.

“Sleep well?” I ask.

“We can’t do this, Harper.” She steps away from me, putting more space between us. “I don’t … we can’t.”

I feel my heart drop to my feet. “Ren, did I hurt you? Did I do something wrong?”

“No.” She shakes her head. “It’s just … I love you so much. I really do. But, I can’t. Not right now. And not when it feels like a substitute for Robie.”

I put my mug down on the table. She’s saying that to make me feel better; I know Rene better than that. “I’ll leave. I’m sorry, Ren. I never meant for this to happen. I swear it. I just wanted to wish Clark a happy birthday.”

“I know.” She spins around and before I can react, she throws her arms around me, squeezing me tight.

I return the embrace gently and then excuse myself.

I know I will never come here again.

“Oh, Harper,” I sigh, closing my eyes and letting my head drop.

“She never comes home again, Kels. She never sees her family. This was her final mistake.”

“What happens to her? What happens to the rest of the family?!”

He shakes his head, giving me a profoundly sad look. “You don’t want to know. Let’s just say that after Robie died, nothing could really hold together the family.”

I look to Rene, sick to my stomach now and wishing I could throw up. “You’re right. I don’t want to know. I want to go home. I want my life back. I want to be with Harper and our family!”

He takes my hand. “That I can do. Let’s go. You’ve seen enough.”

* * *

When Shadow opens the door, we step – not outside – but into a hospital room. I think of Frankie and his dislike for hospitals. They are filled with sick people. The person on the bed near me is certainly in a world of hurt. From her size and build, I can tell she’s a woman, though it’s hard to make out anything more. Her face is swathed in bandages, her legs in casts, in traction, one arm in a cast and taped down to keep her from moving it. Someone did their very best to kill her. And nearly succeeded from the looks of things.

“What are we doing here?” I ask.

The door opens, and in walks someone I recognize – CJ. I wonder what she’s doing here, unless …

“Oh, my God. Shadow, tell me that’s not …”

I hurt all over. I wish he had killed me. Certainly death would have been preferable to leading what will be left of my life now. He took everything I had. Everything. I can’t even open my eyes. I wonder how mangled my face is. Between the beatings and the fact that he kept cutting me with that knife, I would imagine that it’s pretty far gone.

I can’t stop the groan of pain which escapes my lips. Someone takes my hand. “Kels,” her soft voice whispers in my ear.

I whimper. CJ. Thank God, she’s here with me.

I rush over to her bedside, opposite CJ. My hand reaches out to stroke her hair, but it passes through her. “I’m here, chér. I’m here,” I reassure her.

“She can’t hear you, Harper.”

“Why the hell not? Why bring me here then?” I look down at her hand in CJ’s. It should be mine holding hers.

“This is her life without you. If you hadn’t seen her on television in the Rio, if you hadn’t taken the job with KNBC.”

“What happened to her?” I choke out.

“The stalker was still there. Only this time, you weren’t there to figure out where he had her.”

I begin weeping.

“Don’t try to talk, Angel. Your jaw is broken. Your mouth is wired shut. Just squeeze my hand.”

I do so just as tightly as I can. Wondering if she understands my sense of panic, and my plea behind it.

“I’m not going anywhere, Angel. I’ll be right here. Keeping you safe and sound.”

The tension leaves my body, and my breath breaks free in short raspy bursts. I wish I could cry, but the bandages over my eyes keep that from happening.

I feel her lips on my cheek, soft and tender. “I’ve got you, Angel. I love you. Rest now. I’ll be right here next to you.”

I calm my breathing and allow the knowledge that I’m not entirely alone lull me back to sleep.

“You’re not alone, chér. I’m here.” I turn to Shadow. “Stop this crap. I don’t want any of it.”

“I can’t, Harper. You set the wheel of fate in motion when you wanted to know what Kelsey’s life would be like without you. Now you have to watch until the wheel stops spinning.”

“When will that be?” I’ve got to get back to my girl.

Shadow regards me solemnly. “Sometimes it never does.”

* * *

“I don’t want anymore of this bullshit. I want to go home to my family!”

The shaman motions for me to sit down. Since I can tell she won’t speak until I do so, I comply. “You don’t have a family, Harper. Not here. Not now.”

“Then fuck here and fuck now!” I start to climb to my feet, but am stopped by a surprisingly strong hand.

“The Spirits are wanting to see what is in you and your heart. You do not want to fail the test.”

I grind my teeth, wanting to curse the gods, the spirits, Father Christmas, anyone, for this horror show. “What do I do?” I finally am able to ask.

“Walk with me.”

* * *

We walk back into that damned hospital room. Kels appears to be doing better. I immediately go to her side even though she can’t see or feel me. To stay distant would be to break my heart.

After many days of being unable to move much on my own, I’m finally allowed to sit up. The bandages are coming off my eyes today. I’m anxious to find out if I can see, but sick at what I might find in the mirror. I’ve managed to communicate with CJ, and she has, for the time being, covered or removed all the mirrors in the room. I can’t imagine looking into one right now.

“Okay, Kelsey,” my doctor has a very soft voice, very soothing. But, then again, everyone has been talking to me as if they are walking on eggshells. “I’m going to take the gauze off. Open your eyes very slowly.”

I do as he says, and the first thing I see is CJ. She is there, smiling at me, holding a small bouquet of Freesia. I knew I smelled them. She takes a seat on the bed next to me, carefully wiping away the tears that are now free to fall from my eyes.

It should be me there. I should be wiping away your tears. Not CJ. She let you go before. You weren’t in love with her then. You’re only clinging to her now because I’m not there. How I wish I were there.

I swallow hard and try to speak through my clenched teeth. “Hiya, Tough Stuff. Is it horrible?”

“Absolutely not, Angel. You always were, and always will be, the most beautiful thing in my life.” She runs her thumb over my cheek.

I close my eyes and lean into her hand. She always had the warmest hands. “Thanks.”

Warm hands, cold heart, Mama always said.

“I mean it. We’re gonna get you outta here in a few days. We’re going to get you home and start our life over. Together, the way it was meant to be. I was a fool to let you out of my life. I won’t make that mistake twice. I’ll do whatever it takes to keep you by my side this time. We’re not often given a second chance to be with the one we love most in the world. I’m not letting you get away again, Kelsey Diane.”

I take the time to look myself over. Right hand in a cast. Both legs so broken and bruised the doctors are concerned I may never walk properly again. And then there is the other issue; I know we’ll have to deal with it, but I just can’t. Not yet.

I turn to Shadow. “What other issue?”

“You’ll see.”

I hate those words. It never portends anything good.

* * *

I follow Shadow out of that room and into another. I find Kels in a bedroom, but clearly not at the hospital. It’s obviously been several weeks, if not months, since we last saw her. Her casts are off her legs and arm. The scars are still prominent on her face, but she is radiant to me.

I jump out of the way when CJ comes barreling in.

CJ brings in that chair, and I groan. “No!” I growl at her through the restriction of my wired jaw.

She simply lifts a brow and crosses her arms. “Yes. Come on, Kels. The doctors have said it’s time to get up and move.”

“Hurts.”

“I know it does, Angel, but it’s the only way you’re gonna get better. You’ve been out of the casts for three days. I’m not asking you to run a marathon. I’m asking you to walk from the bed to the chair so we can go out on the deck. You know you love mornings on the deck. And it’s warm and beautiful this morning.” She extends her hands to me. “Come on, you know I’m not gonna let you fall.”

I sigh, knowing she’s so damn stubborn, she’s not going to drop this. She’s not going to go away and leave me alone. Since she brought me back to our old beach house, she has been the most tender of caregivers. She’s gone so far as to allow me my own space by putting me in a guest room and telling me that she doesn’t expect me to move back into our bedroom until I’m ready.

Why did I walk away from her so many years ago? Not one of my better moves.

You left her, chér, because you were on your way to me. Because no matter what you had with CJ, with me you have a home, a family, and a love …

I love you, Kelsey Diane. I can’t imagine my life without you now. God only knows what it would be like. **

I nod and extend my hand to her. She pulls me up slowly and holds on good and tight. I take five, very painful steps to the wheelchair. Once I am settled, she wraps a warm blanket around my lap and legs. I run my hand through her hair. She’s let it grow out a little. I like it this way.

She looks up and gives me a sweet smile. “Ready, Angel?”

“Yeah.” I don’t know why she stays with me like this. I’ve been mean and evil and horrible to her over the last few weeks. I’ve thrown things at her and cursed her and called her horrible names, but she never has left my side. Not for a single moment. I know she must be using all her available leave time from the department. And in this many weeks, I’ve never heard a complaint pass her lips, and she hasn’t so much as raised her voice to me.

She’s careful to set the brake on the wheelchair before opening the door from the living room onto the deck. “Too much,” I tell her, shaking my head when I see the table set up on the back deck.

“Not for you, sweetheart. I fixed you a nice shake this morning.”

“Joy.” I’m not enjoying taking my meals through a straw. Can’t wait to be out of this rig. I want a hamburger, damn it.

“I know, baby, I know.” She pushes the chair out on the deck and places me at the table. “Only a couple of more days. Then I’ll fix you whatever you want.”

“CJ Burger?” I smile and raise my brows.

She takes a seat next to me and pours us both a shake. Damn, she has been doing that, hasn’t she? Drinking a lot of the same things I’ve been forced to endure these last few weeks. I never noticed until now.

“Yeah, I think I could manage to grill us up a couple of my famous hamburgers.” She slips a very silly looking little straw into my shake. It’s got a teddy bear clinging to it. “Drink. It’s a strawberry-banana shake.”

“No chocolate?”

“Hmm, maybe just a touch.”

I watch the surf roll in and out. The waves alternately sweeping in gently and then crashing against the shore as they build up. What a wonderful metaphor for my raging emotions. I know what I need. I need a little human companionship. “CJ?”

“Yes, Angel?”

“Can I move into our room?”

”No!”

Shadow says from behind me, “She’s not your wife here, Harper.”

“This is all such bullshit! I stopped that bastard from doing these things to her. I found her. I took her home with me. This is all just … just made up. It’s not real.”

Gesturing to the couple in front of us, Shadow says, “It looks real to me.”

The smile I am given tells me the answer before she ever takes my hand and speaks. “Of course you can. Are you sure you want to?”

I nod. “I’m not sleeping well. I think it’s ‘cause I’m alone. I always slept better with you. Maybe I won’t be so horrible to you if I get more sleep.”

“Sweetheart, you’ve been through an awful ordeal. You haven’t been horrible to me. You’ve been reacting exactly the way I would expect you to. Anything less and I’d be worried.”

I squeeze her hand. “You are so good to me, Tough Stuff. You’re stuck with me now, you know?”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” She winks and takes a drink of her shake. “You know this isn’t bad, but a burger will be good.”

“No kiddin’.”

* * *

Shadow finally forces me into this other room. I didn’t want to go, afraid of what I might see. As much as I want Kels to be happy, in this life or any other, I don’t particularly want to see her in anyone else’s arms. I am relieved when I find her alone in the bathroom.

I look in the mirror at my face. No wonder KNBC dropped me like a hot rock when it was all over. My ‘million dollar’ looks have been reduced to nothing. The long red scar reaching down the left side of my face from my forehead, over my eye, and to my chin certainly did the job. Not to mention all the other smaller ones that have been left in the wake. The plastic surgeon said some of the damaged tissue could be repaired, but I’ll never look like I did before.

I run my hand through my hair. It’s finally starting to grow back out after having been cut and burnt from my head. I touch the raw, red spot behind my left ear and wonder if it’ll ever fully come back where they had to do the skin graft. Basically, I’m hideous. I dunno how CJ can stand to look at me.

Unable to resist, I step up behind Kels and try to rest my hands on her shoulders once again. Knowing they’ll pass right through, I let them linger just above her skin, wishing I could touch her. I’d kiss away every fear, chér, hold you tight and love you forever. How you look means nothing to me.

I hear her in our room. She’s lifting weights and working out. I open my robe and examine my body which is now covered in small scars that are still an angry red. My legs are never going to look right again, and I’ll always walk with a limp because the right leg was so badly damaged. The fact that I’m even walking with the aid of a walker is amazing. I have to give my physical therapist and CJ all the credit for that. If it weren’t for their determination, I’d still be in the wheelchair.

At least now I can open and close my mouth. My jaw healed properly, surprisingly enough. For that I am grateful. I didn’t realize how good solid food could be. And CJ has been spoiling me rotten. I had forgotten what a wonderful cook she was.

I close my robe and, taking my walker, start my slow journey into our room. I watch her place the weight bar back into its place on the bench. She takes a deep breath and sits up. “How you feeling, Angel?”

“Well, I smell better.”

“Glad to hear it,” she teases. She towels her neck and arms. “Now I should probably take a shower so I don’t offend you tonight.”

I watch her get up and move toward me. I reach out and stop her trek to the bathroom, pulling her down and giving her a kiss on the cheek. “Thank you for loving me so much.”

“Trust me, Angel, it’s easy.” She winks. “I’ll be back in a flash.”

“Okay.”

While she’s gone, I slip into a nice comfy set of pajamas and climb into bed. Within a few minutes, CJ joins me, carefully getting in so as not to jostle me around too much. We’ve been sharing a bed for a month now, and she’s not made one move to make feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. She settles in and pulls a book from her table and opens it to the bookmark.

“Hey?” I roll over to face her.

“Hmm?” She turns her head slightly.

“We need to talk about it.”

Finally.

She closes the book and rolls over to face me. “Okay.”

“I can’t.”

“Okay.”

“No matter how this baby was conceived, I can’t kill it.”

Oh, my God. I hit my knees next to the bed and stare at Kels’ stomach. A baby? “He raped her?”

Shadow nods, a compassionate look on her face. “Since you weren’t with her, no one got to her in time.”

“The bastard!”

“And, if in the time you knew, had he raped Kelsey, would you accept the child conceived?” Shadow asks.

“Of course!” I study her stomach, where a new life is forming, and think of Brennan and Collin. “I only wish … it could have been different.”

CJ smiles and runs her fingers through my hair. “I know that. So we’ll build a nursery in the new house.”

“New house? What new house?”

“You know that cabin you always wanted on that land we owned in Oregon?”

“Yeah.” I wonder what she’s up to.

“I’m resigning, Kels. I’m turning in my gun and shield, and we’re going to go build that house, and we’re going to get a fresh start. You, me and the baby.”

I can’t believe this. I feel the tears and the smile both coming and I can’t stop either. “You don’t need…”

“Oh, yes, I do. If we’re going to have a family, then I need to find something a little less…” she hesitates.

“Dramatic.”

“We’ll go with it.” She smiles. “I’ve found a position teaching at a community college. Wanna be with a plain, old, boring teacher, Angel?”

I move closer and settle into her arms. “You betcha, Tough Stuff.”

* * *

Shadow and I walk through time until we arrive in their house, filled with boxes. I note the swell of Kels’ stomach, and I long to press my ear to it, to hear the sound of her child inside. “What happens to Collin and Brennan?”

“They’re never born.”

My children don’t exist. A world without Brennan and Collin?

“I want to go back! Right now!”

Shadow shakes her head. “We can’t, Harper. Once in motion, there is no turning back.”

“I want my life and my family.”

The shaman seems to consider my request for a moment, but then says, “The wheel is still in motion.” **

Just another two weeks and it’s good-bye, Los Angeles; hello, Oregon. I’ll be halfway through the second trimester. It’s no wonder I was so mean to CJ in those first few weeks. I thought all the illness I was feeling was because of my injuries, but no. Boy, morning sickness with a jaw that’s wired shut was no damn fun.

I look around at the house and all the boxes that are sitting around waiting to be filled. I really should try to get some of the smaller stuff done while CJ is at work. She’s been busy trying to get all her cases squared away and then coming home to pack and take care of me. It’s time I started pulling my weight again. Which will be considerable very shortly I’m sure. I look down at my stomach. I’m not really showing yet, but the doctors assure us the baby is healthy. I have to believe that with CJ and me raising this baby, it will be a happy well adjusted child. Even if its father was … a madman.

The doorbell rings, and I slowly make my way to the door. Opening it, I find the Captain of CJ’s unit and a man I immediately recognize as a chaplain. No! No! Not now! No!

I back away as best I can. I know I look like I’m crazy, but I don’t want to hear what they’re going to say to me.

“No!” I shake my head at the Captain.

He steps forward and gives me a mournful expression. “I’m sorry, Kelsey.”

“NO!”

* * *

“I don’t want to see anymore. I can’t.” My heart feels like it will burst. I want to go back to Mass. I want to hold my babies and kiss them. I want to go home and kiss my wife, never to let her go.

Shadow pushes me forward down the path. “You must.”

“Why?”

“Because there can be no doubts.” **

Once again I find myself in a hospital. But I know I’ll never get out of here. I watch as the nurse injects the needle into my arm. Slowly, I reach out and touch the spot. Just enough to keep me calm. Keep me from thinking too clearly.

I look up and see her, my Mother, and the doctors talking quietly in the corner of the room.

“Don’t worry about anything, Mrs. Stanton. We’ll keep Kelsey quite happy here.”

“Does she know she lost that child?”

“I’m sure she does. But she hasn’t said much since you brought her to us last month.”

“So there won’t be any way for her to contest my suit for guardianship?”

“No. I’ll testify for you, and I have the medical evidence to back up your claims that the trauma of the last few months have driven her mad.”

I look down at my feet. Am I mad? I don’t think I am. I rub the spot on my arm again. Where’s CJ? CJ? “CJ?”

My mother crosses the room and leans over me. “She’s dead. That vile woman is dead. You’re safe from her now. Everyone here will take care of you.” She leans in closer as if to give me a kiss on the cheek. “For the rest of your life.” She backs up. There was no kiss.

I watch them leave the room.

And I