Exposure Season 4 by Xwpfanatic & TNovan

lindac

Exposure Season 4

EXPOSURE: Season Four
Episode One: Into the Woods
I awake with a start. The babies are crying; they must be hungry. I stumble out of bed, dodging Kam who has taken to sleeping right beside us, and head toward the bedroom door. After I am halfway across the living room, I realize that there are no babies crying.

That was in my dream.

My babies are still somewhere else. Somewhere with Mother Stanton.

Four days. It’s been ninety-six nonstop hours of pure pain. We’ve managed to sleep maybe ten of those hours. Otherwise, this pattern takes place. We sleep fitfully and awaken hearing our children’s cries.

There’s been no word. Mother Stanton hasn’t called. No demands have been made. The social worker, Melanie James, was found yesterday, trying to board a plane for Los Angeles. She admitted to helping Mother Stanton kidnap the babies but didn’t know where they were headed. Nor could she provide any information about a vehicle. The two of them had simply taken our babies away in a cab. She’s under arrest now, and I hope she drops the soap repeatedly in the showers.

Mama is asleep on the couch; Robie and Rene are staying up in Brian’s room for the time being. Papa looks up from his book. “Hey, baby girl. Another nightmare?”

I nod and scrub my face, trying to wake up more fully. “I keep hearing them, Papa.”

“Go back to sleep. I’m sure Kelsey is missing you already.” He inclines his head toward the bedroom door. I follow his line of sight and find my girl standing there. She’s wearing a loose, white, cotton nightgown. It reminds me that I need to make sure she eats today. I don’t think she did more than pick at her food yesterday.

I walk back and gather her up in my arms, holding her gently. I kiss the hollow behind her ear. “Good morning, darlin’.”

Sleepy green eyes look up at me. “Did something happen?”

I shake my head. “Not at all. I was dreaming.”

“I was too,” she whispers. “I was holding Brennan, and you had Collin, and we were so happy -” she breaks off, unable to continue.

My heart breaks all over again. “We will be, chér.” God, make this true.

* * *

Neither of us can go back to sleep, so we start preparing breakfast for the clan. Brian is still up at Doug’s, though he came for a visit yesterday and left Kam with us. It was hard. Kels cried the entire time they were here, and I finally had to urge them to leave. It was killing us. Brian reminds us too much of our missing children.

The smell of food gets everyone up and moving. Mama comes in and tries to take over. I wave her out. This is good for us. A task, something we can do. Something to do together. So we’re not just sitting and worrying our minds out. I am in charge of the sausage and the gravy. Kels does the eggs and biscuits.

Robie walks in, clad only in boxers and a T-shirt. “Morning,” he mumbles, heading for the refrigerator. He pours a glass of orange juice and downs it in one gulp, a small amount of it trickling out of the side of his mouth. He wipes this off with the back of his hand. “That’s better.” He walks over and kisses Kels’ cheek, pats me on the back and disappears from the room.

I look over and see Kels crying. “Darlin’ …”

“I’m all right,” she protests, swiping at the wetness on her cheeks.

“They’re fine.”

She stirs the eggs angrily. “You don’t know that.”

“I do.” I reach out and capture her hand. She tries to twist away at first, but stops. I gently place her hand over my heart. “Because if they weren’t, this would have stopped beating. I’m sure of it.”

Tears engulf her again, but I pull her to me. To hell with the eggs. I reach over and turn the burner off under them. The sausages continue to cook in their own grease.

She is almost cried out when the intercom rings, announcing another visitor coming up. Papa pokes his head in the doorway. “It’s Special Agent Donovan.”

I try not to get my hopes up too much. It could be anything. It could be nothing. I’ve quickly learned in this game that expectations lead to disappointment.

Kels is taking the biscuits out of the oven when Kyle enters the kitchen. The FBI agent smiles and rubs his stomach. “God, that smells good.”

“You’re welcome to breakfast,” Kels says. “We made plenty.” She gives a small, bewildered shrug. “I don’t know why we made so much. It’s not like any of us have any appetite.”

“I might be able to help with that.”

The baking tray falls to the kitchen floor, but miraculously most of the biscuits stay on it. We both bend down to pick them up when Mama comes in. “I’ll take care of it. You two talk to Kyle.”

The three of us sit at the table and are immediately joined by Robie and Papa. “I have good news. As you know, we have been trying to discover where and what type of vehicle Mrs. Stanton used to take the twins away. Our initial search focused on rental car companies. We came up empty. We then broadened our search to include newly leased vehicles.”

“Oh, my God,” Kels whispers, sensing something important. She reaches out and grabs hold of my hand tightly.

“We now know what vehicle she’s driving.”

“What is it?” Papa asks, more out of curiosity than need to know.

“A Jeep Grand Cherokee.”

* * *

I finish expressing my breast milk yet again. If I don’t keep up with the twins’ regular feeding schedule, my milk will start to dry up. Also, my breasts ache when I don’t. So, six times a day, for a little under twenty minutes, I prepare two eight ounce bottles of milk.

After five days, our freezer now holds sixty bottles ready for my babies. Robie keeps getting sent out to the drug store to buy more. I made Harper throw out all the ice cream and frozen vegetables. I don’t care about any of that. My babies will be well fed when they come home.

Rene joins me in the room, holding Kelly in her arms. “She wanted to spend time with her favorite aunt.”

I take her carefully. She’s as big as Brennan and Collin despite being a month younger. The difference between twins and singles is amazing. “Where are the boys?”

“Still sleeping. They were up late last night. Tante Harper, the evil one, set up her PlayStation 2 on the TV in Brian’s room. The boys played until late. All three of them.”

Some things are just written in the Kingsleys’ genetic code. I wonder what our little munchkins will do to us one day.

God, please let me find out.

* * *

Day six. Langston called today. I could tell he wanted to ask when we’d be coming back to work. I never gave him the opportunity. Like I care about producing a damn thing while my children are gone. Some people bury themselves in work during a crisis. Not me. I bury myself in my family.

I try to tell myself that it’s not wrong to smile at Clark’s stumbling gait, or to go through a thousand knock-knock jokes with Christian, or to coo at little Kelsey. It still feels wrong. Like I’m betraying my two little ones.

Kendra and Frankie stopped by earlier today before going into the studio. It was good to see them, but painful. Everything is painful without Brennan and Collin.

I kiss Kels’ temple. She’s leaning against my chest, and we’re watching the fire. In fact, all the Kingsley couples are in this exact same position. If it were a happier situation, we’d be toasting s’mores for the hell of it.

The phone rings, and we all tense. I spring to my feet and rush to the kitchen. None of us have given up hope yet. If I did, I would die.

“Yes?” I answer the phone. Kels comes into the kitchen behind me. I cover the mouthpiece and tell her, “It’s Kyle.” This is either good news, bad news, or no news at all.

“We found her.”

My knees give out, and I barely catch myself on the counter. “The twins?” At my question, Kels clutches my arm.

“We believe they’re fine.”

“What do you mean you ‘believe’ they’re fine? Why don’t you know?” Kels’ grip on my arm tightens. I want to reassure her, but I can’t. I still don’t know.

“We found Katherine about an hour ago. We wanted to make sure she didn’t have anyone else with her and also that she didn’t have any weapons,” he explains. “We believe that she’s alone, and that the cabin is safe. We have seen her carrying one of the babies.”

Please, let them both be all right. “Where are you?”

“Vermont. Near Stowe.”

“We can be there in a few hours.” I love having my own plane. Especially if it takes me to my babies. Hell, I’d crawl.

“Fly into Burlington. We’ll have a car there to bring you where we are.”

“When are you going in?”

“It’s early yet. We want Katherine to put the twins down for the night before we do. That way they’re away from her. Obviously, we can’t go in with gas, so we want her to be in another room, if possible, to minimize any danger to them.”

That makes sense. “We’re leaving now.” I turn to find a sea of expectant faces. “They found the bitch. The babies are with her. They seem to be fine. The FBI is waiting for her to go to sleep before they go in.”

My wife is in tears, her shoulders shaking with her sobs. I take her in my arms and hold her tight against my breast. “We’re going to go get them, sweetheart. Our babies are coming home,” I whisper in her ear.

She grasps onto my shirt, pulling me closer still. “They’re coming home.”

Her words tear at my heart. Home. This will be a home with them here again. “That’s right, chér. How do you feel about a little trip?”

“Anytime. Anyplace.”

I tilt her jaw up and place a soft kiss on her mouth. “Let’s go then.”

* * *

The plane ride is the longest hour in our lives. We may need to replace the carpeting in the aisle. Kels and I wore it out pacing back and forth. Mama and Papa were only able to get us to sit during take off and landing.

Hustling off the plane, we rush to Special Agent Susan Sawyer, Kyle’s partner. “Do you have them yet?” Kels blurts out. It’s almost nine o’clock in the evening. Surely Brennan and Collin are asleep by now.

Agent Sawyer nods her head. “Yes, ma’am. After the suspect placed both of your children down for bed, we went in. Both appear to be fine. I’m here to take you to the hospital where they are being examined.”

Hospital. Safe. Away from the psycho bitch from hell.

Safe.

Safe.

“And we’re standing here talking about it, why?” Kels asks, her voice tight with emotion.

Sawyer smiles compassionately. “No reason that I know, Mrs. Kingsley. Let’s go.”

We all pile into the SUVs that are waiting for us. Mama and Papa get into the one behind us, leaving us alone with Sawyer and a local cop as our chauffeur.

I am stunned. This is all so sudden, if that makes any sense. Six days of hell. One hundred forty-four hours of hell. Eight thousand six hundred and forty minutes of hell. And, now, it’s all over.

Thank God for that.

My arms are full of Kelsey. We’re practically one skin now. My lips are moving against her cheek, kissing her and whispering words of gratitude. We’re almost complete once again.

“They’re okay, Tabloid,” she whispers against my skin. “Our babies are okay. We’ll soon be taking them home where they belong.”

“Damn straight.” I glance up at Sawyer. “How did you trace them up here?”

Sawyer blushes. “I hate to admit it, but it was that security firm your father hired.”

Kels cuts in, her voice laden with anxiety. “How much further?”

The driver answers, speaking for the first time. “About ten minutes, ma’am.” His voice is cigarette rough.

“Did they seem okay? Do you know anything?”

Before answering Kels, he leans forward and grabs the police radio. “Mike, it’s Roger. You over at the hospital?”

There’s a crackle of static, and then we hear Mike’s voice. “I am.”

“Can you give me the status on the Kingsley twins?”

“Give me a sec.” After a few long moments, Mike comes back to the radio. “I spoke with the doc. He says they’re fine. The boy is a little dehydrated, but, otherwise, they are unharmed.”

“Thank you, God.” Kels manages to squeeze me tighter.

“Amen.”

A few minutes later, we can see the hospital ahead. It’s a small, three story, brick building, but it’s the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen in my life. My children are inside there.

There are a swarm of official cars in the parking lot. It looks like the police, the FBI and press are all here. Nothing will stop us from getting to our babies quickly. “Ready to go see Fuzzy and Brennan?” I ask my wife softly. It’s a rhetorical question, of course.

She looks up at me with determined eyes that brook no questions. “You know it. I hope they are prepared for the fact that nothing will be taking me away from them.”

The car slows to a stop. Before Roger can put it in park, Kels and I are already out of the vehicle and running toward the entrance. A reporter makes the mistake of trying to step in front of my wife. Kels does a quick kick to his shin and shoves him aside when he lifts up his leg to rub it. I flash him an apologetic smile, but continue behind my girl.

We spot Kyle at the moment he sees us. He waves us over. “This way.” We go around the corner, step behind a curtain and there are the two most beautiful sights in the entire world.

“My babies. I want them. I want to hold them.” Kels hesitates, I assume from fear of possibly harming our angels.

Kyle smiles kindly. “They’re all yours. In every sense of the word.”

Without any remaining restraint or barrier, Kels swoops over to them. She first picks up Brennan and conducts a quick inventory, much as we did at her birth. Fingers, toes, all accounted for. She strips off the T-shirt Brennan is wearing and checks for cuts, bruises, anything abnormal. Convinced our daughter is fine, she hands her over to me. Next up is Fuzzy.

In my arms at last, I hold my first born. She’s bigger. Damn, she grew in the past week. And I missed it. I kiss her eyelids. “Mama loves you, baby girl. Mama loves you so very much.” I kiss her chubby cheek and am rewarded with a giggle.

My heart swells with joy. I look over her and see Kels finishing inspecting Collin. He too seems all right, but not as chubby as our girl. He begins fussing, but calms quickly when Kels pulls him close to her. “I want to talk to the doctor,” Kels says to Kyle. He nods and leaves.

I reach over with one hand and touch Fuzzy’s hair. “Hey, little man.”

“They’re okay. They’re home. It’s over,” Kels pronounces solemnly, like a benediction. She regards me seriously. “I’m going to be hard-pressed to leave them alone anytime soon. You know that, don’t you?”

“Darlin’, I don’t plan on going anywhere myself. The rest of the world can bite my ass. For all I care, the universe consists of you, me, Brennan and Collin.” That is so the truth. We’re camping out in the apartment until some of the pain subsides.

“Good evening. I’m Doctor Stevens.”

We look up and see a man who must have graduated med school in the early eighteen hundreds. The two surviving strands of hair on his head are pointing in different directions, though he does have ample ear hair, and he has age spots covering his hands. His thick glasses, however, highlight compassionate eyes. “How are they, doctor?” I ask.

He smiles and reaches out to touch Brennan’s small fist, snuggled against my shoulder. “They’re fine. This one has a little diaper rash,” he indicates Brennan, “but otherwise is in perfect health. Your son is good, but he’s a bit dehydrated. Are your breastfeeding?”

“Yes,” Kels answers. “When can I start again?”

His eyes crinkle when he smiles. “I think your boy would appreciate immediately. I believe he missed you.”

“Not half as much as I missed him.” Kels immediately finds a chair and unbuttons her shirt.

“I’ll sign the discharge papers, and you’re free to take your children home.” He shuffles out.

I drag a chair over and sit beside my wife and son. I put my arm around Kels’ shoulders and hold Brennan near her brother. This is how Mama and Papa find us when they enter.

“Look at that!” Mama exclaims, tears rimming her eyes.

I do as told and see Collin latched happily onto his mother’s breast. He makes contented sounds as he eats to his heart’s content for the first time in a week. Kels has a blissful smile on her face. Heaven.

“Beautiful,” Papa says, reaching out to touch my daughter’s hair.

* * *

I hold my little girl close to me as I feed her for the first time in nearly a week. I’m so relieved, I can’t even cry. I’m all cried out; there are no more tears.

I sigh.

But that’s all right, because there’s no reason to cry. Our babies are home with us. This part of the nightmare is over.

Now, of course, there will be a new nightmare in the form of the prosecution and trial of my own mother for abducting my children. Once the press gets a hold of that, they’ll hang on like bulldogs. There won’t be any easy outs now. No plausible deniability for the network. Harper and I will no doubt be completely outed now.

At this point, I don’t care. I look at my daughter, and I don’t care about anything but her and her brother. I can leave the air and be fine. I have lots of other things I can do. And Harper is a producer, not an on air personality. She’ll be fine. She’s too good at what she does for the network to get rid of her.

Brennan ceases in her nursing and turns her little head to look at me. Her green eyes seem to sparkle when she licks her lips. “Hiya, Sweetpea.” I stroke her cheek with my finger. “You all done?”

She blows a milky bubble at me then returns to my breast for more. “Hmm, somehow, I didn’t think so.” I stroke her head and realize her hair has gotten thicker. “Pretty soon you’re gonna have a fuzzy head like your little brother.”

She could care less. She’s perfectly happy right now, and so am I. “We’ll be okay, won’t we? Yup; you, me, Mama and Fuzzy. We’ll make it.”

* * *

I carry Collin with me while Kels nurses Brennan. Mama offered to hold him, but I can’t let my babies out of my arms just yet. I tuck a blanket around his small form and take him out into the hallway. We’re looking for Kyle. Collin yawns and begins chewing on his fist. “I love you, Collin Lee,” I whisper in his ear. He missed me saying that for almost a week. I have a lot of those comments to make up for. “You’re such a good boy.”

I see a cluster of cops at the end of the corridor. One of them notices me, and he nudges Kyle. He turns and sees me and my son, his mouth crinkling up in a smile. I know not all of his assignments go so well. He moves away from the others who are busy congratulating each other on the job well done, and approaches us. With a large hand, he reaches out and smoothes down Fuzzy’s hair. “He seems happy.”

“He’s well fed and in my arms.” Truth is, I don’t know which one of us is happier right now. “What happened to Katherine Stanton?” There, to the point.

“She’s in custody. Federal charges of kidnapping will be filed against her.”

I sigh. There’s no end to this. There will be a trial. More publicity. More of our private life exposed to the public’s eye. “You couldn’t have shot her?”

Kyle gives me a smile. “I’m afraid not, Harper. Not from lack of desire, though.”

“Where is she now?”

“In the Burlington police department’s jail. We’ll be transferring her to New York tomorrow. There will be the standard psych evaluation -”

“That bitch had better not get off on a fake insanity plea!” I growl. I can picture her at a country club prison, spending her days playing bridge and plotting how to harm my babies in the future. The image burns through me, leaving me angry, ready for a fight.

“No matter what, I think her visitation request is dead in the water. With any luck, she’ll be put away for a long time.”

I kiss my boy’s head. I drink in the smell of baby powder which clings to him. It soothes me. He makes a soft sound in his sleep, and a fierce surge of protectiveness courses through my veins. I hold him closer to me, my hand covering his back. So tiny. So fragile.

“We’ll need you and Kelsey to make a statement.”

“Not tonight.” Nothing will intrude upon our reunion. “Not tomorrow,” I add.

“Harper …”

“I’m serious, Kyle. We’ll cooperate fully. In two days. Right now, my babies and my wife and I need some time alone.” That even extends to my family. Tomorrow morning, I will gently ask if we can come visit them next weekend. Then I will snuggle down with the three I love best.

“It can’t go more than two days.”

I nod, satisfied with our bargain. “You know where we live. We’re going home now.”

* * *

We sleep the sleep of the righteous – and the reunited – on the flight home. Kels stretches out on the couch, and Collin sleeps on her chest. My baby girl and I are on the floor, laying beside them. For the first time in a week, I can totally relax. All is right with the world.

When we touch down in New York, Mama touches my shoulder gently. “We’re back,” she whispers.

Brennan wakes up, not too happy at the interruption in her sleep. She begins crying, awakening her brother and mother at the same time. Collin fusses for a moment, but then realizes who is holding him. That calms him almost instantly. It works for me too, son. My boy and I have a lot in common.

“Shush, baby girl,” I tell her. I bounce her gently.

Papa follows the pilot off the plane. I presume he’s going to get our car. Kels trades me Collin for Brennan. Silently, other than Brennan’s cries, the five of us make our way to the Range Rover.

Almost home.

* * *

I meet with Robert Bains, head of Executive Assurance. You would never pick this guy as the head of a worldwide security concern. He is slight of build, with almost delicate features. His hair is so blond it almost appears to not be there, his eyes a gentle hazel. There is a trace of a European accent; I can’t place it exactly. “I am most happy that our team contributed to the safe return of your children, Ms. Kingsley.”

“Thank you, Mr. Bains. I will be forever indebted.”

He brushes off my comment as if it were so much lint on his expensive suit. “Mr. Stanton is an old friend of our firm. We have been more than adequately compensated by him.”

I don’t doubt that. Matt was over here this morning showering gifts and affection on my babies and my girl. “I’d like to retain you as well. Naturally, Kelsey and I are concerned, even more than before. I would like to make sure our apartment and car are protected. I’d also like to arrange a bodyguard for when we go out.”

He inclines his head. “That is easily done. We would be most happy to provide those services.” He meets my eyes. “You will have complete peace of mind.”

I glance toward the living room and wonder if I will ever feel that way again.

* * *

This is the way life is supposed to be. I’m in my sweats, stretched out on the floor, laying on my stomach. I’m having a staring contest with my son. He’s blowing at me and reaching for my face, trying to get hold of my nose. He raises his head and pushes up on his hands, giving a frustrated little yell. He acts just like his Mama some days.

“Come get me, Fuzzy.” I place my hand out there for him. He knows he can’t reach for it without putting his head down, and that makes him mad too. His tiny brows come together in a scowl. That, I think, he got from me.

And joining us from the bathroom is a freshly showered Mama and older sister. They join us in front of the fire. Looking very happy and smelling good, Harper puts Brennan down next to her brother, then plops down next to me and starts rubbing my back.

“Oh, that’s nice.”

“I aim to please.”

Rolling over, I reach out and caress her face. “You succeed very nicely, my love.”

A loud yell from Brennan indicates that her Mama and I are paying far too much attention to each other, and not enough attention to her and her brother. “Well, I’m sorry, little miss cranky,” I tease, holding my hand out to her so she can grasp at my fingers. She immediately pulls them to her mouth and tries to use them as leverage to roll onto her side. She wants to so badly. It won’t be much longer. When this one starts crawling and walking, we are doomed.

I can feel her tugging on my hand. Harper stretches out and blows bubbles on Fuzzy’s tummy, causing him to squeal and giggle.

My family. God, having them back and being together – it doesn’t get better than this.

I know Harper was truly in hell when they were missing, but my soul was dying. These little people are a part of me. Flesh of my own flesh. I carried them. I nurse them. They are a part of me, and I am a part of them. I experienced a pain in my heart and soul like no other that I have ever felt before. Nothing I have ever felt compared to the way I hurt when my children were missing.

Harper was a rock, as I expected her to be, but I’m not sure how I would have survived if the outcome had been different.

Thank God, I’ll never know.

I smile when I find Harper once again at the mercy of a child who thinks her hair is for pulling and chewing. She untangles Collin from her head, garnering more protests from our boy.

They are so vocal since we got them back. I think they missed arguing with Harper. I’ve certainly missed listening to the three of them. There is no denying the bond they share; they all simply light up when they are together.

My guiding lights, my greatest gifts. I’m keeping them close to me and protecting them with everything I have now. No one had better try to get near my family for less than loving reasons.

Because next time I’ll be ready, and I’ll tear them apart.

* * *

Somehow, I’m not surprised. It’s the middle of the night. We should both be sleeping, but Harper and I are standing in the twins’ bedroom. Our little ones are fast asleep, snuggled under their blankets.

Harper took the clothes we brought Brennan and Collin back home in and burned them in the fireplace. Neither of us wants any remnant of my mother, though it galls me to even admit that association with her, in our house.Since she’s never given me anything, I didn’t have to purge my closets. I so hope she’s put in a cell with the biggest, meanest, hairiest butch that has ever graced the federal prison system.

I shake thoughts of the woman I hate out of my mind and focus on the woman I love. She’s not aware that I am in the room with her. Her back is to me as she looks over Brennan’s crib. Harper murmurs something in French that I can’t quite hear. When she turns to walk over to Collin’s crib, she sees me in the doorway.

I shrug and smile. We’re both hopeless. That’s part of what I love so much about Harper. She cares about family. Totally. Completely. Unconditionally.

Especially our family. She was insane with grief and worry while our children were gone, but she held it together because she knew I needed her. Need her. I do need her. She’s become as indispensable to me as air.

I remember my time with C.J., and it never felt like this. Of course it didn’t. I was able to walk away. I know, without a doubt, I could never turn my back on Harper. I had never believed in forever.

Until now.

I walk over to Harper and slide my arms around her, pressing my cheek against her breast, feeling the beat of her heart against my skin. “I love you,” I whisper, needing to speak my feelings out loud.

Harper’s hands are warm on my back, heating my skin through the thin cotton of my nightgown. Her touch is gentle. “And I love you.” Her hand slides up into my hair, and she tilts my head back so she can place a kiss on my lips.

“How are they?”

She glances down at Collin’s sleeping form. “Perfect.”

I laugh softly at her assessment. “Of course, they’re yours.”

Her arms tighten around me. “Exactly.” I am rewarded with a dazzling smile. I had missed it this past week.

“You want to go back to bed?” I suspect I know her answer.

“I’d rather stay here. Wouldn’t you?”

In reply, I tug her over to the rocking chair and push her down into it. I slide onto her lap, wrapping my arms around her neck. “I want to stay right here.”

“That can be arranged.” She kisses the tip of my nose. “How about for the rest of our lifetime?”

I chuckle. “You read my mind.”

* * *

I am laying on my back, Collin perched on my feet, dangling over my body. His mouth is open wide, and he is happily drooling all over me. I do some leg presses, moving him up and down, and he laughs. “You’re such a good boy,” I praise him, glad he’s not frightened or cranky.

Kam thinks I’m talking to him, and he pushes himself up from his doggy bed. He hangs his big snout over my face and starts drooling on me as well. As he bends over me, I notice that we need to get him to a doggy dentist and deal with that bad breath.

“Ack! Go sit down, Kam.”

Ever obedient, he bends down and begins licking my face industriously. His rough tongue tickles as it scrapes against my skin.Since my hands are holding onto Collin’s, I can’t swat him away. Ah, the joys of motherhood and dog ownership.

“Aaaa …” Collin vocalizes.

“Need a hand, Tabloid?” Kels’ voice is full of good humor.

I look over at the entryway and see her there, a freshly diapered Brennan in her arms. “My savior! Think you can get your dog off me?”

“Oh, I probably could,” my wife teases me, not moving from her spot. “What’s the magic word?”

I consider teasing back, but Kam’s tongue nearly slips into my mouth. Through clenched teeth, I reply, “Please.” It is the most pathetic cry for help I’ve ever heard.

“Kam, be nice,” Kels manages to say through her laughter. “Be a good boy; go lay down.”

He whimpers, clearly not wanting to leave his human lollipop. However, he’s well trained, and he obeys his master. “Thank you, darlin’. I was teaching Collin how to fly, and Kam decided to get involved.”

“Since Collin doesn’t have wings, I’m glad Kam is watching out for him.” My two girls sit down beside me, Brennan happily settled on her mother’s lap. Kels jerks her chin toward my happy son. “Could you get him down from there, please?”

I do one last leg press, eliciting happy gurgles and a fresh stream of drool, and then I lift him off. “You liked that, didn’t you, son?”

“Aaaa,” Collin replies.

“Harper, he likes to put his hand in his diaper and then put it in his mouth, but I don’t let him do that either.” She lifts Brennan’s clean hand and places a series of kisses on it.

I start laughing and shake my head. “You are such a mom.” I take Collin and place him in her lap, beside his sister. “It’s so wonderful.”

Kels is so busy pressing kisses on our children’s heads, she doesn’t hear my comment. “What is?”

“You are.” I notice that my voice is husky, sounding like scotch and cigarettes.

Kels now pays attention. She looks up at me from under pale eyelashes, giving me a smile which quickly warms me through and through. “You think maybe it’s time for our little darlings to go to bed?”

My stomach clenches, and I nod enthusiastically. “They look tired.”

“They do, huh?” She bounces them on her knees gently. “Let’s tuck them in, and then we’ll see what we can do for you. You look tired too.”

I’ve missed this. Missed her. My toes are tingling. “Chér, I need to go to bed.” I quickly add, lest she get the wrong idea, “And I need you to tuck me in.”

“I figured it was something like that. So let’s see if we can get these two down for the night, and see about putting you down for the night.”

“Mrs. Kingsley, the things you say.” I am on my knees in front of her, leaning in for a kiss.

* * *

The twins don’t need much encouragement to fall asleep. A couple of stories, a song, and quite a few kisses, and they are out like a light. Kels and I stand over their cribs for a few moments watching them sleep, eternally grateful to have them home, before, turning, I take Kels into my arms. She leans into me, her weight insubstantial. I hook my thumbs into the waistband of her jeans and pull her tight against me. Her hips are pressed against mine providing delicious contact.

She looks up at me, her eyes a shade darker than normal, her breathing more rapid. I press my lips to hers. My tongue traces the outline of her lips, requesting entrance. She opens up to me, and I eagerly taste her. She’s sweet, like the honey she puts in her tea. I explore her mouth with gentle strokes, touching her tongue and inviting her to play.

I feel, more than hear, her moan under my gentle offensive. She stretches her arms out, linking them behind my neck. This brings her up against me, her breasts pressed under mine. I can feel her nipples harden, and I imagine taking them in my mouth. My knees weaken.

Kels eases away from me and rests her forehead against my lips. “Nice …” So why did we stop? “But can we not do this in the twins’ room?”

Ah, okay. I can understand that. Best to not give our children any more reason to spend their lives in therapy. “I know of a soft bed calling our names.” Without waiting for her reply, I scoop her up in my arms and begin carrying her toward our room.

Arriving there, I gently lay my precious bundle down on the bed and follow her onto it. I settle over her, putting most of my weight on my elbows and knees. My fingertips stroke her cheeks, her neck, her collarbone, reacquainting myself with her soft skin. I kiss where my fingers travel.

Kels arches up under me, pressing herself more fully against my body. I slide one arm under her, supporting her lower back. Her hands go to tug my shirt out from the waistband of my jeans. She’s satisfied when she’s touching my skin. I, however, am not satisfied. I push myself up and, with her help, remove my shirt and bra entirely.

Kels surges upward and captures my breast in her mouth, her tongue swirling around the nipple teasingly. Under her delicious assault, I sit back on my heels, Kels attached to me. I cup the back of her neck with my hand, holding her in place, though I doubt she is planning on moving anytime soon. Since having the babies, she makes love to my breasts differently. Instead of a harsh suction, she now softens the pressure with the flat of her tongue pressed against my nipple. She takes more of me into her mouth, drawing me deeper into her. Thank you, Brennan and Collin. “Darlin’,” I groan.

Kels nips me. When she speaks, her breath is hot against my already feverish skin, “Yes?” Without waiting for my reply, she blows softly on my wet skin, and I feel my nipple tighten even more.

My reply is a deep groan. I feel every movement of her mouth between my legs. I stroke her cheek and neck, encouraging her to continue, and she switches breasts, her right hand coming up to massage my now neglected one. I curl over her, pressing my lips to her hair, breathing in the scent of strawberries and kiwi. My arms run up her back, disappointed at the feel of cotton and not skin.

I work a hand between us and begin unfastening the buttons holding the soft chambray shirt closed. Easing it off her shoulders, I lean my weight against her, lowering us both to the mattress.

I am surrounded by softness. Our featherbed is welcoming in its embrace, gently cradling our bodies. The Egyptian cotton of our duvet caresses our skin, and I want to feel more of it. And Kels is incredibly soft and welcoming. I press my thigh between her legs, parting them gently. I begin a slow grind against her, hoping to convince her that naked would be really good right now.

“Harper,” she breathes.

I push up, reluctantly breaking the delicious connection between my breast and her mouth. “I love you,” I whisper back. Holding myself up on one arm, I reach down and undo the top button of her jeans. I tickle the sensitive skin below her bellybutton, eliciting a low moan.

“Harper,” she says again.

I love it when she only knows my name. I bend down and taste the skin recently exposed. Her hands go to my shoulders, urging me down. “Patience,” I tell her, knowing it will do no good. I close my eyes and enjoy the sound of the zipper of her jeans sliding down. I tug at the denim, pulling it over her slim hips. She kicks her legs, helping me remove it, taking her socks along with it.

I drink in the sight of her. Luscious. Perfect. Sensual. Motherhood has only served to make her more beautiful, more desirable. I breathe in the scent of her arousal. And mine. I am filled with a need for her that defies expression.

She begins rocking against my leg, not caring we have yet to remove her underwear, anxious to begin. She pulls me down against her. My face is pressed in the hollow between her neck and shoulder, my lips against her hot skin, coated with a light sheen of sweat. She claws at my back, desperate to increase pressure, holding me close. Her hips are moving rhythmically against me, and her panting breaths indicate that she is getting closer to her release.

I grind my leg into her center, unable to suppress a moan at the wetness which permeates my jeans. I give her what she wants. I slide my left hand down the side of her body, under the thin band of fabric at her hip, moving under to cup her buttock. I use this leverage to bring her to the pleasure she now blindly seeks.

She arches up, her back and neck thrown back, and she exhales her release. She stays bowed for a long moment and then collapses back into the mattress, her breathing ragged in my ear. Her body is limp beneath mine, and the only pressure now is her arm hooked around my neck. She kisses me languorously, too tired to do much else.

I wait for her to catch her breath before I roll off her and remove the remainder of my clothing. I kick it off the bed and come back to rest on top of her. She welcomes me into her arms, now focused on meeting my very obvious need. Her leg bends, and I settle against it, moving slowly up and down.

Her hands cup my butt, guiding me. My weight rests on my forearms, and I pant in her ear. A groan escapes me when she turns her head and licks my bicep, following the outline of my muscle with her tongue. She gently bites the tender skin, and I feel the swirling heat increase in my gut.

“Come on, baby,” she encourages me. “Be mine.”

Hers. God, I am hers. Heart. Soul. And, as I fall over the edge, embracing the pleasure she so readily brings me, body. Our movements slow and then stop. I collapse partially on top of her, exhausted in my release.

Kels reaches over and folds the comforter over our intertwined bodies. The warm weight settles over us, and I fall asleep in her arms.
Episode Two: Sympathy for the Devil
“I think it’s just terrible,” a lady with a pinched face says into the camera, “what was done to those two little, innocent babies.” She sighs dramatically. “I can’t believe the police gave them back to those two lesbians,” she whispers the last word, as if speaking it would make her one.

I sit there seething. My fingers tighten around the handle of my mug. My fingers are turning white, and I can see the veins standing up under my skin. Bitch.

“It’s not right!” the witch continues. “I mean, those children deserved a chance to be raised right, in a Christian home, with someone who could provide them correct moral guidance.”

“Jesus H. Christ!” I hurl the porcelain mug against the wall, satisfied when I hear it shatter. I follow it across the room, enjoying the sound of the remnants being crushed under my boots.

“Harper,” Kels says softly, understanding my anger.

“That fucking bitch kidnapped our children in violation of a court order! She fucking took them out of the state, away from their mother! And that bitch has the audacity to say that our children – our children – were better off with her?” I look around for something to let my anger out on, but with the mug destroyed, all that is left is my wife, who looks a bit irritated by my outburst.

“Harper, I know why you’re angry, and I know why you’re upset, but we knew this would happen. We knew we would be outed; that there would be people who would come out against us, no matter how wrong what my mother did was.” She pushes herself up from the couch and comes over to me, taking my hand. “What we have to do is stay calm and face these people, not sink to their level. If we let them see our hurt and anger, it will give them more ammunition to use against us.”

I know she’s right, but it doesn’t make me like it. “Fuckers.” I glance over my shoulder at the television where another idiot is talking.

“It’s not like they’re a family or anything,” some bastard is saying.

“To hell with all of them,” I growl. “They don’t know a damn thing.”

“You’re right, they don’t.” Kels slides her arms around me, nestling close, immediately calming me. “So why does their opinion matter? It shouldn’t. We are a family.” She squeezes me tighter. “We have a huge family with more love and support than any of them has ever known; otherwise, they wouldn’t be spouting such stupidity.”

I shake my head. “It wouldn’t matter if it were just me. If the only person they hated was me. But when they say these things…” I take a deep breath, and fight back the tears I can feel threatening. “When they say you’re not their mother, or that our babies would be better off with anyone else …” I stop, unable, unwilling, to continue.

“Harper, honey, I was the one in labor for hours. Trust me, I know I’m their mother. I also know,” she adds gently, rubbing my back in soothing circles, “that you’re their Mama, and that they need and love us both. Only we can teach them what’s important, the rest doesn’t matter.”

I allow myself to be soothed by her words. Placing my lips by her ear, I tell her what is in my heart. “I swear to you, you and the children will never regret our life, our choices.”

Kels pulls back so she can look me in the eye. “I never have, and never will, regret the choices I made that put me in your life and in your arms.”

I close my eyes and hold her close to me again. If only we could stay like this forever and make the world go away.

* * *

The phone rings, and I pick it up. Robie is supposed to call today. “Kingsley,” I bark into the receiver. I’m already back at work, which doesn’t thrill me, but makes Langston happier than anything I’ve ever seen before. During my absence, a number of pieces have stalled or gone off track. Worse still, there are no headliner stories in the hopper. Not good during sweeps month. No wonder Langston was anxious to get me back.

“You filthy whore,” some woman whispers.

I roll my eyes and make a tick mark on my desk blotter. Up to eight already today. At this rate, I’ll beat yesterday’s thirteen. I would love to know how these idiots are getting around our supposedly secure screening system. “I think the word you’re looking for is lesbian, actually. Traditionally, a whore sleeps with multiple men.”

She is thrown off by my reply, not expecting me to react that way. “You bitch. You whoring bitch.”

Click.

Much better.

Back to work.

I look through the various pitches that have been made in the last couple of production meetings. Most are horrible. I separate them into two piles – the truly atrocious and the potentially workable. It’s a fast process. There are three pitches that have promise. One I especially like.

The phone rings again. “Whoring bitch,” I answer.

“I thought Kels had redeemed you,” Robie laughs.

I chuckle, relieved that it is Robie. I’ve put up with hate crap all my life, but it does get to be old. “Robie, how are you?”

“Apparently better than you.”

“That wouldn’t be hard, Robs. Between the shit hole I’ve found in place of my office, and my wife and children being at home while I’m here, and a ton of cranky phone calls, it’s been a day.”

“I can make it a little better. We’ve filed charges against the judge with the judicial ethics committee.”

“Prick.”

“Now, I’m insulted,” he teases, knowing my comment was directed at the judge and not him. “We’ve made a motion, obviously, to have the visitation case dismissed, seeing how the bitch is standing trial on kidnapping charges. How are the kids, by the way?”

I smile for the first time today. “Perfect. Collin laughed. A real, honest-to-goodness, deep, whole-hearted laugh. He had cooed happily before, but my boy laughed at me yesterday.”

“It won’t be the last time.”

“Bite me. And Brennan has discovered her hands and feet. When she’s not chewing on her toes like a Yoga master, she is shaking her rattle to wake the dead. We may have to rethink that particular toy.” It was driving Kels crazy last night since our girl wouldn’t stop shaking it.

“I hid all noisemakers when Clark was eleven months old. It was that or be committed to a mental institution.”

“How’s baby Kelly?”

“Lifting her head and smiling all day long. She’s completely doted upon by her older brother, Christian. And, before you ask, Rene is wonderful.”

He knows me well. “Good. Thanks for your help, older brother.” I wait for the automatic response.

“Big brother.”

“Uh huh. Bye.”

We hang up, and I feel one weight come off of my shoulders. I want that judge to pay for what he did to us.

There’s a knock on the doorframe of my office, and I glance up to find Langston there. He looks shorter than normal. His shirt sleeves are rolled up to the elbows, and his tie is askew. He rubs the face of his watch and then looks over at me. “Kels needs to come back this week. I can’t afford to not have my anchor back. Especially with all this in the news, we need her face on screen. The longer she’s off, the more likely the network is going to want to keep her off.”

I understand his reasoning, but I don’t know if my wife will. “I’ll talk to her about it tonight. Needless to say, it’s been a difficult time for our family.”

Langston rubs his jaw. I can tell he’s trying to carefully choose his next words. “I need to know quickly where I stand, Kingsley. Kelsey is top notch. I want her back, but if she’s not coming back, I need to make some decisions.”

“Understood.”

He comes in and sits down in my visitor’s chair, surprising me. I thought with that said we would be finished. “No matter what she decides, Harper, I need you here.”

I still my movements, understanding now the true meaning behind this visit. He’s here to negotiate. Too bad I’m not ready yet. “I can’t make any deals until after Kels and I talk.”

He frowns, suspecting what Kels reply might be. “You have a great career, Harper; don’t toss it away.”

“I don’t plan on doing that. I have a family to take care of, as well as a real passion for what I do. Having said that, there’s nothing I won’t do for my family.” That is bone deep true. I would walk away from everything for them. Nothing else would make sense without them. To have a career, but not the three I love best, would be a hellish existence. We have money, we have family, and we have no debts. I could – and would – walk away from everything to keep them next to me.

Langston senses that the conversation is over. “I’ll look forward to our conversation later.”

You probably won’t.

* * *

I glance at the speakerphone and wait for her to say something.

“Beth? Did you hear me?”

“I heard you. I don’t quite believe it, but I heard you. Are you sure you want me to do that?”

“I want you to be prepared for that possibility.” I lean back in my chair and sip my tea, watching as the computer slowly filters through my financial files. “How much will it cost me?”

“Does that really matter?”

“No. I only want to make sure I can get out if I want out.”

“Oh, you can. Don’t sweat that. It’ll take some fancy footwork, but that’s what Foster and I get paid the big bucks to do. You give us the word, Kels, and you’ll be unemployed in a matter of seconds.”

“Now, that’s a comforting thought. Thanks. And I don’t intend to be unemployed. Simply on to different things.”

I can hear Beth sigh. “Kels, can I give you my personal opinion?”

“Can I tell you to go to hell if I don’t like it?”

“Haven’t you always?

“Then feel free.”

“You’re making a huge mistake giving up your career now so you can stay home with the kids. Come on, Kels, that is so not you.”

“Go to hell.” I lean on my desk and click the mouse to open an email from my dad. “Don’t tell me what’s me and what’s not, Beth.”

“Kelsey, I’ve known you for a long time, and the change is…”

“Is the best damn thing that ever happened to me. If you, and the rest of the world, don’t like it, then you can all just…”

“Okay, okay.” She sighs again and begins tapping her pen. “Don’t you think that maybe you should give it a little more time? I know you’ve been through a lot and that your emotions are pretty raw right now.”

“Beth, are you my attorney or my fucking therapist?”

“I’m merely saying…”

“You’re trying to control my life like everyone else from my mother to the damned network. Well, guess what? I’m taking back control. In the last year of my life I’ve nearly been killed, seen my wife nearly blinded for life, given birth to the two most important people in my life, and had them kidnapped by that insane bitch who claims to be my mother. Excuse me if I’m a bit on edge!”

I clear my throat, forcing myself to relax. I know all this isn’t Beth’s fault, and I shouldn’t be taking it out on her. I really have no one to blame but myself. You live in a closet for too long, and you have to expect the air to get stale. Time to blow the damn door off the hinges.

“I’m sorry, Beth. Please get everything ready, will you?”

“Absolutely.”

* * *

I hang up from the call with Beth and lean back in my chair, closing my eyes for a minute before I hear a very familiar sound. It’s my son giving someone what for. That he gets from me.

I glance over and find Brian standing in the doorway with Collin. “He wants his Mommy.”

“I can hear that.” I get up and go get my son. “What’s got ya’ so grumpy, Fuzzy?” I run my hand over his head and watch as he brings his hand up to chew on it. “Do you miss Mama? Yeah, it stinks, doesn’t it, that she has to go off to work and we get to stay home?”

With the mere mention of Mama, he grins, drools and bounces. This boy knows his Mama. Then his eyes go wide, and he grabs my shirt, seeming to try and pull us closer together.

“Oh, no! You’re not biting my nose. I know that look.” I glance at my watch. Why not? “Brian?”

“Yeah?”

“Go get the babies ready, will you, and give our ‘escort’ a call. Tell them we want to go to the studio.”

“No problemo.” He takes Collin, retreating from the room, and I take a seat. I direct dial Harper’s office number.

“Kingsley.”

“Hmm, imagine that. I was dialing 1-900-HOT-BABE,” I tease.

“I can do that too. What do you need, Sexy?” Harper drops her voice to its lowest register.

Oh, yeah, that too. My mind begins to wander with all the possibilities. Okay, back to the subject at hand. “Your son just told me he would like to buy you lunch. You free?”

“I knew getting him that Amex would get us into trouble. And how soon can you three get here?”

“I think we can be there in about forty minutes or so. Uncle Brian is getting everyone ready. We only need to wait for the car to come. Hopefully, the press will have been chased out of the garage by this time. Did you have any problems leaving this morning?”

“Uh, don’t watch the six o’clock news today.”

I rest my head in my palm and lean on my desk. “You know, if you keep antagonizing them, they’ll keep bugging you. You need to learn not to tease the animals, Harper. God, how long have we been in the business? You should know this.”

She’s quiet for a moment. She knows I’m right, and she hates it. I can almost see her sticking her tongue out at the phone. She says, “My opinion of the Fourth Estate is slipping rapidly. I rather feel like a hypocrite these days.”

“You too, huh? Hard to be objective when the shoe is on the other foot, isn’t it?”

“I don’t think the shoe is on my foot, chér, I think it’s up my ass.”

“Hmm, sounds like a hard day.” I sigh and trace my finger across my desk. “How about we come take you for a little Cajun lunch and a couple of beers, and then you can decide if you want to call in sick this afternoon.”

“I’ll take you up on the lunch and some lovin’ from you and my kids. But I better show up here for the afternoon. Langston would pitch a fit if I don’t come back.”

“Okay, Stud, that’s your call. We’ll be there in a bit. Love you.”

“Love you tons, darlin’.”

* * *

The Delta Grill has become our favorite place for lunch lately. Good music, cute waitresses, and Cajun food. Not much more one could want in a place. The server greets us by name and leads the four of us to a round table. Our bodyguard discreetly goes to the bar and takes a seat there.

Our waitress then brings over two infant seats, and we get them set up for the twins. I am holding Brennan and Collin and don’t intend to let them go until I have to.

“They’re getting so big,” the pretty southern actress-to-be coos. She drops the menus off on the table, but they are unnecessary, we know what we like. “I’ll be back in a minute to get your order.”

“I missed you all this morning,” I confess.

Kels reaches over and takes Brennan into her arms. “We missed you too. Fuzzy was all kinds of bent that you weren’t home when he woke up.”

The comment stabs me to the heart. I wanted to be home. I kiss my son’s forehead. “I can relate. I was cranky too.” I pause and think back to my conversation with Langston. “Of course, I wasn’t the only person at the studio in a nasty mood.”

“We figured a mini Mama rescue was in order.” She deposits Brennan in her chair after we order lunch. Pan seared salmon and blackened steak. “So what else is new? Who was pitching a fit this morning?”

“Langston. He wants to know when you’re coming back.”

“Ah, that’s the million dollar question. Or, as Beth would tell me, that’s the four million dollar question, isn’t it?”

“What’s the four million dollar answer?”

Kels hands a rattle to Brennan and takes a deep breath. “I don’t know.”

“You’ve worked a long time, paid a lot of dues, fought hard to get to where you are. Do you want to walk away?” I see her about to object, so I quickly add, “It’s not that I don’t know you can do anything you want to, but do you really want to have to start over again?”

“I don’t see it as starting over, Harper. I see it as trying something new. How long do you think it’ll be before the network simply decides that they don’t want a dyke on the air and fires me anyhow? I may as well walk away on my own terms.”

Collin begins gumming on my shirt button. “I hate to see that happen, chér. That’s all.”

“I know, but with the trial coming up, you know what kinds of things are going to be said. It’s not like we can walk in there and deny any of it.” She rubs my arm gently. “They still frown on perjury the last time I checked. Besides, I’m tired of living in a closet. I’m sorry I drug you into it with me in the first place.”

“Darlin’, I enjoy small, enclosed spaces with you.” I reluctantly place Fuzzy in his chair, careful to strap him in tightly. “It’s your career, but it’s our family. What shall we do?”

“What did Langston say about you? Is there any indication that you’re in trouble? Because you know I want you to continue doing what you want, regardless of what I decide to do.”

“I don’t want to decide them separately, though, Kels. Personally, if you leave, I think I should leave. Then we can get out of this town and go back home. If you stay, I stay. And everyone who doesn’t like it can kiss my ass.”

“Harper, you are an award winning producer. You’re at the top of your game before the age of thirty. I don’t really want to be the one you look at in five years and say, ‘I gave it up for you.’ I’m openly admitting that I’m ready to give up my career because it feels right for me. To be honest, I don’t think it’s right for you. You’ll miss it too much. You’ll regret it, then you’ll resent it, and, in the end, you’ll resent me.”

I reach out and take her hand in mine, intertwining our fingers. “I am not thinking about retiring, chér. I know me too. I love adrenaline. I love a good story. And I can’t see me sitting home, as much as I would love to be with the kids. What I am saying is there are jobs in lots of cities. Who knows? Maybe a New Orleans station is looking for a news director.”

“When this whole ugly mess is over, I want to go home, Harper. I want to take our family and leave. But, in the meantime, you can tell Langston I’ll come back to work next week.”

I lean over and kiss her cheek. “Is New Orleans home?”

“You know it is.” She nudges me playfully.

I bump her back. “How’d I get this lucky? A woman who loves New Orleans, Cajun food, my family and me? Never thought I’d hit four for four.”

Kels grins. “New Orleans is beautiful, Cajun food is terrific, your family is wonderful, and, as far as you go,” she pauses dramatically, letting me anticipate her teasing remarks, “well, what’s not to love?”

I am surprised. I thought I was being set up here. I puff up a wee bit and enjoy my moment. “Exactly. That’s what I’ve always said.”

Kels snaps her fingers. “That’s where I heard it.”

* * *

Collin and I are on the living room floor together. I stand him up and watch as his feet flail around to discover the floor. Once they make contact, he briefly is able to bear his own weight, still supported by my hands. “Oh, good boy!” I praise him. “You’re such a big boy!”

Drools runs down his chin and onto his shirt.

“You are!” Mindless of the drool, I lean down and press kisses to his cheek and neck. He, of course, wraps his little hands in my hair.

“Will you never learn?” Kelsey asks from the couch.

I was thinking the same thing myself. “No,” I mutter, my voice muffled by my boy’s skin. He turns his head and begins gumming my hair.

“That’s attractive.” I hear Kels place Brennan on the floor and come over to us. “See, Brennan, this is why when you have babies, you will need to tie your hair back before you go near their grabby hands.”

“Little help, less lecture.”

Kels chuckles and comes to my rescue. Finally. He protests as she disengages his hands, and I escape from his grasp.

“Why is it they like my hair so much?” I pull a strand of it over my shoulder and grimace as I squeegee out a quart of slobber from it.

Kels reaches out and plays with a dry strand. “Because it’s beautiful.”

I actually blush. What the hell is wrong with me?

Kels presses her advantage. “Like you are.” Her fingertips reach out and trace my cheekbone. Her lips follow. Before anything else can happen, our son reasserts himself, flopping forward to gnaw on Kels’ thigh, and Brennan begins a series of loud vocal exercises.

“Just think, this only goes on for eighteen years.”

Kels groans.

* * *

The next morning, I wake up early with Kam’s wet nose pressed against my foot. I lift my head barely an inch off the pillow and look down at the German Shepherd. He licks my toe, and I jerk it back. Tickles.

“You want to go out, you big oaf?”

Another lick.

Great. I look over, and my girl is sleeping happily next to me. I tug the comforter up over her bare shoulder and swing my legs off the bed. I go over to the dresser and pull on underwear, sweatpants and a sweatshirt. Kam is right at my side, tail thumping happily on the floor.

“What? You think I’m taking you?”

Thump, thump, pant, lick.

“Uh huh, sure.”

“Hon,” a gentle voice calls from the bed.

“Sorry, baby; go back to sleep.”

Kels pushes herself up on one elbow, her hair lopsided from sleep. “You going to take one of the guards with you?”

I walk over to the bed and sit on the edge. Kels flops back down on the mattress and looks up at me with half-closed eyes. “Since Kam is a trained guard dog, I think I’ll be all right, sweetie.”

She gives a cute, embarrassed grin. “Oh, yeah; right.”

I drop a kiss on her mouth. “Thanks for worrying though. We’ll be back after we stretch our legs some.”

* * *

It’s early enough that only those of us who are insane people are jogging in the park. I had to put my roller blades away for the winter. Between the sand, slush, salt and snow, it’s impossible to not land on your can while blading.

Kam is so happy to be outside. He is practically leaping with joy, and running circles around me. With a loud bark, he begins pulling me along our usual trail. We settle into a comfortable rhythm. I hate running. I prefer almost any other type of exercise to running. Of course, Angelina Jolie recently said she got in shape for her upcoming movie by having sex with Billy Bob. I agree in principle, if not in practice.

I chuckle at the thought. I wonder if I could pass that by Kels as a new workout plan. I would be in such good shape. I would never miss a workout, that’s for damn sure.

There are a few other insane people out at this hour. We’re all bundled up and thinking warm thoughts. It was sixty degrees in New York last week. It ain’t that anymore. At home, they’re already running the air conditioning.

Home.

Kels wants to hang up her position here. She wants to start doing her own stories, work freelance, maybe consult. Basically, her main goal is to set her own schedule and be with the babies as much as possible. I can’t blame her.

But I can’t join her. She was right the other day. I do enjoy the pace of the office, the pursuit of a story, the fame and money possible. I love my children. I’d die for them without a moment’s hesitation. And I’d die without them now. The other week taught me that. Yet, I love my job.

If Kels quits, I need to decide what I’m going to do. We could continue living here in New York, with me working for ‘Exposure.’ It would make sense for Kels’ freelance work. This is the media capital of the world.

But if she’s not working full-time, wouldn’t she rather be around our family more? Why be two thousand miles away, when we can be two hundred paces? It requires, however, that I get the right job. Next on my career ladder is a news director position. New Orleans is number forty-one in the market. Immediately after Memphis, Tennessee, but a couple before Buffalo, New York. My seventh grade geography teacher, Sister Mary Thomas Catherine, always used to say ‘If you have a brother in jail and a brother in Buffalo, get the brother out of Buffalo first.’ It’s even funnier when you hear a nun deliver that line.

Not a bad market. Especially not for a twenty-six year old news director.

I shake my head. Am I really only twenty-six? Born in 1974. That’d make it so. Talk about a great birthday present last year. Not bad at all.

Kam growls low in his throat when another jogger pulls up beside me. It’s not unusual. A lot of us do that with a stronger runner, allow them to set the pace, push ourselves a little bit extra. I give a tiny tug on Kam’s leash, warning him to behave.

“Cold, isn’t it?” the guy grunts.

I glance over at him. He’s slight, but clearly not in shape. His breath is coming in ragged bursts, and he looks like he might pass out or puke at any moment. I don’t want to deal with either. I decide to ignore him.

“Bet it’s even colder in Vermont right now.”

Kam and I both growl at the same time; neither of us likes what we’re hearing. I take another look at my running companion. I notice the butt pack around his waist and the wire dangling from it.

Prick.

“Go away,” I reply.

“How are your twins doing?”

I take a quick step to the right and cut him off. He has to slow down to avoid a collision with me. I gain an easy few paces on him.

“How do you answer the charge that they were better off with their grandmother?”

I almost stop. Almost. Almost explain to him that sharing blood is not the same as being related. My children will have nothing in common with that sick, weasely bitch, who managed to do only one thing right in this life; have my Kelsey. Everything else in her miserable existence has been a tragic mistake. I sometimes think that Kels took the last drop of goodness out of her mother at birth. What else could explain a woman so devoid of it now?

I keep running, moving further and further away from the reporter wanna be.

When I’m news director down in New Orleans, I’m gonna make sure that my people take up long distance running, for those people who are hard to interview.

* * *

Kam and I arrive back at the apartment with no more altercations with life forms rising out of the primordial ooze. I think the ones that were camped outside of our apartment building have finally given up. Or our security group convinced them to move along. I love those guys.

We come into the house hot and sweaty, despite the cold outside. Immediately, we both head to the kitchen for a long, cool drink of water. I almost envy Kam thisthat; his is already out and waiting for him. As I chug down a glass, Brian enters the room.

Mornings are never kind to our nanny. His hair, normally a little punky already, is sticking out in every direction, and his face is puffy and red. He waves in my direction, heads for the icebox and sticks his head in.

“Rough night?”

He moans. When he starts to remove his head, he has to remove a package of frozen vegetables and toss them back in. “I think I’m getting a cold.”

If the sound of his voice is any indication, I’d say he’s already passed go. “So why are you sticking your head in the freezer?”

“So I can wake up.”

“Go back to sleep, Brian.”

He shakes his head, then clutches it, in obvious distress.

“Really. Go. Sleep. You can’t be around the kids like that.” I only realize too late that it doesn’t sound like the most compassionate way to urge him to take care of himself.

The look on his face tells me that it did hurt him. “Okay.” He turns to leave.

“Hey, Brian, sit for a minute. Let’s get you some breakfast. You know, feed a fever, feed a cold.” I tug the corner of his T-shirt. “You’ll feel better with a little fuel.”

He complies. I quickly pull together the ingredients and soon have two plates of scrambled eggs, bacon and toast ready to serve. I fill a large glass of orange juice and put it in front of Brian. “Drink. Eat.”

“You have a wonderful bedside manner,” he mutters.

“I know. I’m sorry for that, Brian.”

He looks up, hearing the sincerity in my voice. “It’s alright. I feel so crappy, I take everything personally.”

“What’s my excuse?” We both chuckle at my expense. Eating in companionable silence, I realize I need to be looking out for him more. He gave up his job, his apartment, in order to work for us. In a few months he’s become more than a nanny.

“This isn’t too bad, Harper.”

I snort. “Gee, thanks. I do a mean barbeque, too, as you well know.” At least he agrees with me. “Hey, Brian, I wanted to say thanks for what you did for us last week.”

He frowns. Last week he was at Doug’s while the kidnapping scheme of Mother Stanton played out. “I didn’t do anything.”

“Actually, you helped Kels and me more than you know. It’s funny, I kinda think of you as our third triplet; I think Kels does too. When the psycho bitch from hell – as I like to call her – took Collin and Brennan, I thought I might die. And, don’t take this wrong, every time I saw you, it felt worse.”

He gives me a wry smile. “How do I not take that wrong?”

“It’s a compliment, really. You’re such a part of our children’s lives, that seeing you was a constant reminder they weren’t around. We didn’t ask you to be with Doug because we didn’t need you, Brian; we asked you to be with Doug because it broke our hearts to see you without them.” Lest this conversation turn any more maudlin, I toss my napkin at him. “Now, get your infected and infectious ass out of here and into bed. We’ll see you in a day or two.”

“Thanks, Harper.”

I know what he’s referring to but decide to play dumb. “Just don’t expect eggs every morning. I don’t guarantee consistency.”

He snorts. “That’s not what you tell Kelsey.”

* * *

I look at the clock and it’s nearly nine thirty in the morning. Not that I’m complaining. I’m not; but I haven’t slept in until nine thirty for months. I stretch and realize that it felt really good.

Last night was the first night I’ve slept through without nightmares. The twins were so good last night too. They only got me and Harper up twice.

Now I’m more curious than worried. I know that Harper and Brian must have the twins and be up already. I don’t have to worry. Between my loving spouse, their Uncle Brian, the doormen of the building, the security in the lobby and our own security force no one is getting near my children without three forms of confirmed ID and a DNA sample.

Getting up and slipping into a robe, I run my hand through my hair, and head for the living room. I stop and smile immediately. Harper has both babies, and is crashed out on the floor with them both. They all three look very happy and content. Collin is sucking on his fingers, sound asleep. He must be dreaming of eating. Brennan is laying on her little back with her arms all stretched out to her sides. This is a child who believes in being comfortable. Harper is between them, out like a light, with a bottle clutched in her hand. It’s leaking all over her shirt. She’s such a mom.

I get a light blanket from the back of the couch and drape it over all three of my babies, and gently remove the bottle from Harper’s hand. “Sweet dreams.”

Heading to the kitchen to make a breakfast and heat up water for tea, I take the time to fetch the paper. I wonder if we’re still front page news for the entertainment section, or if the continuing coverage Tom and Nicole’s break-up is shoving us to page two. Maybe if someone big died, we may even hit page three. Dale Evans was even put behind coverage of us.

Toast, tea and the entertainment section, and we’ll see where we stand. I’m pleased to see we’ve been relegated to page four. Half of page four, but page four, nonetheless. What evil things are Harper and I doing to out children today? So far, about the only thing we haven’t been accused of is sacrificing them to some kind of voodoo cult. Wait until someone figures out Harper is from New Orleans. Then it’ll be next.

Oh, I see my mother’s defense team is putting together an insanity defense. Unfortunately, I can’t argue with them. She’s crazy, all right, but crazy like a fox. She knew exactly what she was doing, and now she’s trying for eighteen months in a cushy country club hospital.

Lady, you had better pray they put you away for a very long time because you’ll never be safe from me. I will have my revenge for this latest stunt. You can do to me what you like, mother, but you have crossed the line when you brought Harper and the children into it. You’re going to see something out of me that you could never be yourself: a protective spouse and mother. So pray, mother. Pray they put you away for a long, long time.

A sound draws my attention to the doorway. Harper is standing there, rubbing her eyes with the palm of her hand.

“Good morning, sweetheart, your coffee is ready.”

She grunts something in my general direction and heads directly for the coffee pot. After taking the time to down a cup of coffee, she joins me, automatically wanting the comics. “How do we rank today?”

“Oh, somewhere between the wicked witches of the East and West and Bonnie and Clyde.”

“Are you Bonnie or Clyde?”

“Since you’re the ‘butch’ in the relationship, I guess that make me Bonnie. We’ve slipped to page four.”

She sips her coffee. “Yea, page four.”

“My thoughts exactly.”
Episode Three: Callings
“I caught it! I caught it!” Christian exclaims, jumping up and down, his fist clenched in victory. “Aunt Kels!”

Kels nods and pats his head. “I saw, Christian! Way to go!”

“I saw it coming and I reached out and I caught it and Papa didn’t and so I won!”

That’s a mouthful. Robie is smiling benignly at his son, proud of the boy of catching the doubloon. It’s a silver one. Fortunately, I already have a silver one so I’m not tempted to steal it from my nephew. Kels wouldn’t understand.

I am a bit hampered this year in catching the little trinkets being tossed. Collin is nestled against me in his snuggle pack. I am very aware of his little form in front of me. Kels is wearing a similar rig with Brennan. I think she gave me Collin so I’d be extra cautious. Neither of us are still quite over the scare he gave us that first few minutes of life. Nevertheless, his pack is covered with beads and I do have two doubloons.

In order to keep the competition fair, we made Robie carry Kelly in the same manner. Rene is carrying Clark on her hip, holding Christian’s hand most of time. My God, we are a walking ad for pampers and Sesame Street products. Was it only five years ago that Robie and I stumbled around here, blind drunk, and giving women beads to show us their breasts?

My, my, how things change.

I lean over and kiss Kels.

She caresses my cheek and smiles. “What was that for?”

“Being here.” It’s not a long answer, but it covers just about everything.

The next float in the parade comes by and Christian is struggling to see it. “Daddy! Pick me up!”

Robie looks down. “Son, I can’t. I’m holding Kelly.”

“Daddy!” he pouts, stamping his foot. His little sister is important, but not more so than our competition.

Suddenly, Christian finds himself scooped up into the air and settled down on strong shoulders. He grabs the head he’s above and tilts it back, trying to see who has him. “Grandpa!”

“That’s right,” Papa assures him, holding tightly onto strong, kicking legs. “I got you. Let’s show your Papa and Tante Harper how to win this thing!”

Is there no one on my side?

* * *

“Pass the jambalaya, Harper,” Lucien requests.

I watch Harper. She’s trying to decide whether to take a big scoop of it before she passes it to him, or to be polite. I decide to help her dilemma, I take the bowl and pass it along. “There’s always more,” I whisper.

She blushes, having been caught. I kiss her cheek and nuzzle her for a moment. Long enough in this family to earn a couple cat calls.

“Get a room!” Robie says from across the table. He starts to fling a green bean our way, but Mama’s glare stops him.

Sunday dinner during Mardi Gras is a big deal here. We’ve all been out at the various parades. We’ve caught beads and doubloons. We’ve listened to jazz. We’ve walked for hours. Now, we’re home. Family.

What a family it is too. Since this time last year, we have five new additions. Jake and Stevie, Brennan and Collin, and Kelly are all new to the madness known as the Kingsleys. They are also all distributed among the family. I have Kelly, Katherine has Brennan, Mama has Collin, Papa has Stevie, and Elaine has Jake. The other eleven grandchildren are also sprinkled around the table.

The eldest, Joseph, is seated by his father and unconsciously imitating all of his habits. While he looks more like his mother in coloring, his mannerisms are all Gerrard. He also takes the same responsibility for the grandkids as his father does for the siblings. These two men were born to lead. I wasn’t teasing Gerrard when I told him I expected him to be a Supreme Court justice one day. We’d be a darn sight better off for it, too.

I so love being here.

It wasn’t hard, or even necessary, to convince Harper to come down for the Mardi Gras weekend. Have plane, will travel. We left Friday night and fly back in a couple hours.

“So what is everyone giving up for Lent?” Mama asks.

Suddenly, the table becomes silent. As a confirmed agnostic, I never did the whole Lent thing. I would always laugh at my friends in college who would give up premarital sex for Lent. Funny, I thought that was wrong all the time. I also don’t see how not eating Hershey’s or Häagen Dazs for a month will make me understand God any better. Though it would put me in touch with my inner bitch during PMS.

Gerrard smiles charmingly. He’s been asked this question the longest in the family. “Our family,” meaning himself, Katherine and their four kids, “will be doing to Mass on Wednesday morning as well.”

Mama seems pleased with that answer.

I must admire it too. All it requires is seven hours in Mass. No promises of good behavior or character change. Smart.

Jean is next. “We’ve decided to help several of the eldery couples in our neighborhood. I’ll be cutting their grass, with a little help from Charles, and Elaine and the other kids will help around the house.” He lifts Geoffrey, his youngest, onto his lap. “Though this one might be there more for entertainment.”

Mama nods, pleased with the response. “Lucien?”

He looks rather proud of himself. “Jake and Stevie really want to get some new toys for the children still in their previous group home. So we’re going to be talking to lots of businesses to see about donating things for the kids.”

That works for Mama. “Robie?”

“We’re giving up chocolate.”

Mama arches an eyebrow in disapproval. “And?”

Rene rolls her eyes and shakes her head. “Mama, we’re also going to be attending Mass on Wednesdays. We decided to go with Gerrard and Katherine, so we could do it together as a family.

That worked.

“Harper?”

Oh, boy. This should be interesting.

“Yes, Mama?”

Robie sing-songs, “Someone’s in trouble.”

Harper tosses a roll at him.

“How are we supposed to teach the kids not to do that, when you do?” Luc asks. The question is asked in a humorous tone, but the look in Mama’s eyes is not amused.

“Sorry, Mama,” my spouses murmurs. The only person to ever make her cower is her mama.

“So, mon Coeur?”

I decide to be nice and save her. “Mama, Harper has decided to give up swearing for Lent.”

“Tres bien!”

Outraged blue eyes turn to look at me. “Kels,” she growls.

“It’ll be cheaper this way, sweetheart.”

* * *

There are advantages to being woken in the middle of the night to take care of the little ones. Since I had a nice nap this afternoon during our flight back to New York, I was more than content to get up with them and let Harper sleep. Now, however, I have two problems. The first is, I’m wide-awake, and the second is Harper is sound asleep.

Lucky for Harper, I know how to fix that little problem. Wonder if she’ll remember this in the morning?

Slipping back into bed and curling up next to her, I find her all warm and naked. Yeah, this is good. She has her back to me at the moment. I’ll be able to tell how well my plans are going to be received in a minute or two.

Reaching around, I wrap my arm over her waist and tenderly rub her stomach with the palm of my hand, placing very soft kisses to her shoulder. She hums softly and scoots back into me.

I smile. Message received and accepted. She rolls over onto her back and smiles, never opening her eyes or making any other movement. Hmm, I love it when she simply surrenders.

* * *

“I’ve got you under my skin,” I croon. “I’ve got you, deep in the heart of me. So deep in my heart, you’re truly a part of me.” I bounce my babies in my arms, doing a slow twirl. “I’ve got you under my skin.”

Collin laughs and bangs Brennan’s nose with his fist. Brennan squawks in protest, then chews on her fingers, injury forgotten.

“I’d sacrifice anything, come what may, for the sake of having you near …” The lyric chokes me up and I can’t sing any more. I sniff, and swallow the lump in my throat. I kiss Fuzzy’s hair, and then Brennan’s, and tell myself not to cry. They are here, in my arms, safe, sound, happy.

And at least one of them is in need of a change.

“Mais poo poo!” I start heading for the stairs and run into Kels in the laundry room. We do several loads a day since the birth of our two angels. Kels hears us coming, not a hard thing to do with both babies vocalizing their little hearts out, and intercepts us.

“Harper,” she removes Brennan from my arms, “you know it makes me nervous when you walk around with both of them like that.”

I frown. My wife worries too much. These two were perfectly safe in my arms. They will be for life. “It’s okay, chér. Papa dropped me a few times, and I turned out okay.”

Kels raises her eyebrow. “For the most part.”

I lift Collin up and sniff his diaper. He’s clean. I smile smugly at Kels. She picked the wrong one. “Come on, little man, let’s go read a book.”

“I’ll remember this, Harper Lee.”

I chuckle and keep on walking.

* * *

I drum my fingers on my desk. In the VCR is running a piece that Jac produced. It’s horrible. I am trying to resist the urge to go down to her office and pour coffee into her until she sobers up slightly. Which actually wouldn’t give me anything but a wide-awake drunk. But even sober, I doubt if she’s very talented. It’ll take a lot of talent to salvage this piece.

Great. A late night. For me and for Dana. A good editor is a wonderful thing. Especially one who is straight, happily married, and not even slightly interested in a walk on the wild side.

Making matters worse, I still don’t have a great story in the works. There’s the usual springtime NCAA sports scandals, more Oscar fluff pieces than you can shake a stick at, and we’re bombing Iraq again, but nothing seems to stand out. Langston might stroke out if I don’t produce something soon.

My phone rings and I cringe. The hate calls have tapered down, but aren’t quite over. I’m really getting tired of it. I also made the mistake of doing a search of mine and Kels’ names on Google. That led me to a message board. And then I made an even worse mistake of reading the load of crap that was on there. My God, couldn’t people smell what they were shoveling? Some psycho even offered up an analysis of our marriage and pronounced us on the brink of a divorce. Didn’t matter that we had never met. People are assholes sometimes.

“Kingsley,” I manage to sound civil despite my sudden sour mood. Dealing with idiots always makes me unhappy. You would think people would have something better to do with their lives than spend it criticizing us. Apparently not.

“Harper?”

I recognize the voice, but don’t immediately place it. “Yes.”

“It’s Cora.”

Guilt washes over me. I should have contacted her and Shadow long ago. “It’s great to hear from you! Kels and I think of all of you daily. Our babies snuggle under the blankets we received from your family. So do Kelsey and I, for that matter.”

“It sounds very warm,” Cora teases.

She doesn’t know the half of it, but I refrain from providing too much information. “It is. How are Johnny and the boys?”

“Growing like weeds, all of them. Though Johnny seems to be growing wider and not taller.” She laughs at her own statement, but quickly sobers. “You need to come visit, Harper.”

More guilt. “I know. I want to bring the babies out to meet everyone soon …”

Cora interrupts me, surprising me. “It’s not that, Harper. You need to come visit.”

Okay, I’m guessing that there’s something wrong and she’s not going to tell me over the phone. “How urgent?”

“I hate to ask, Harper, but you are the only person I know we can trust. What are you doing tomorrow?”

Missing my wife and kids, I think. I hate to leave them, but I don’t think I can get them to come with me, not with Kels supposed to be back on the desk this week. We now have around-the-clock security, so I know I can leave them without worry. I tap my fingers on my desk again, knowing I need to answer quickly. Last time I went down there, we got a great story too. Langston would love me for that right now. Plus, I joined Cora’s tribe when I was last there. Damn, I don’t think there’s any graceful way to sidestep this request. “I’ll see you then. Probably be mid-afternoon before I reach the reservation.”

“We’ll have coffee waiting.”

* * *

“You have to trust her Richard,” I tell Langston, our Executive Producer, even as Brian and I finish putting things away in my new office. It’s amazing what the network was willing to pony up to keep me onboard for the time being. I hope my numbers are good when I go back on the air.

“I do trust her, Kelsey, that’s not the point. The point is she can’t pick up and leave like this every time she gets a bug up her ass.” He jams his hands in his trouser pockets as he leans against the doorframe.

“That’s gonna cost you,” Brian mumbles as he takes a diaper bag into the second inner office that has been converted in to a small nursery for the babies. They are very happily napping in there at the moment, giving Brian and I much need break.

I see the dirty look the E.P. gives Brian. That’s gonna cost him too.

“Actually, she can, and she will. You’ve known her long enough to know that.” I try to find my address book in the mound of crap piled on my desk waiting to be put away.

He blows a frustrated breath and then takes a seat on my couch. “Damn it, Stanton, don’t you have any control over her at all!”

I straighten from behind my desk and level a stare at him. “I have influence, Richard. Not control. I have no desire to control Harper. Anybody with brain stem activity would know that to try to control Harper Kingsley would be like trying to harness a tornado.”

“No kidding,” he mumbles staring at his hands. Finally, he looks up and me and I can tell it’s coming. “Are you going to quit?”

Finally! To the point of this little visit. “I’m considering it.”

“You have other offers?”

“Actually, yes. Lots of them.” It’s no lie. When to word hit the street that I might be retiring, I started getting offers from some of the most unexpected places. Some of them would be very lucrative and still allow me to do pretty much what I want, when I want.

“Anything we can do to keep you onboard? The network is behind you a hundred and ten percent here. They really don’t care that you and Harper were… umm… well…” he stammers not quite sure how to finish.

“Outed? Is that the word you’re looking for? Brought out of the closet to be seen by all the world as a lesbian couple?”

“Right,” he says, red-faced. “They figure at this point, what the hell? You do your jobs and you do them well.”

“Sure, they say that now. What happens if my numbers drop below dismal when I go back on the air and people don’t want to watch the dyke reporter?”

“They don’t think that’s going to happen. They conducted some polls and it didn’t seem to be a big issue.” He gives me a little grin. “Besides, you don’t look like a dyke.”

“You speak from experience? How many have you known up close and personal?”

He chews on the inside of his lip. “All right, you got me.” He gets up and stretches. “Do me a favor, and don’t do anything rash or stupid. We’ll accommodate you as much as we can.”

I sigh and rub my eyes. “I promise to do what is best for my family, me and Exposure. I won’t promise more than that.”

“That’s exactly what I expected you to promise. I wouldn’t have expected less from you.”

“I appreciate that. It means a lot to me. You know I won’t leave you or the show in the lurch.”

“That’s what I like about you, Kelsey. You are the consummate professional.” He shakes his head as he gets to his feet. “I don’t know how you do it.”

“It’s not as easy as it looks.”

“I’m sure of it.” He stops on his way out and gives me a final look. “No matter what you decide to do, I’m behind you and I respect you. Both.”

* * *

New Mexico looks the same. I suppose it has since the dawn of time, give or take a glacier or two cutting through the desert. I roll down the window and breathe in the chilled air. It smells different than in New York. In New York, I find a prevalent smell to be dog urine. Kam adds his fair share on any given day. I miss my dog.

I sigh and glance at Jeff, my bodyguard. He just smiles back and returns his attention to the book he’s been reading. He’s a nice enough guy, but not a great conversationalist.

They say Montana is big sky country, but New Mexico is a clear rival. Even as we make our way higher up in elevation, which in New Mexico means more trees, there is still no lack of clear blue sky above us. The drive out of Albuquerque was a bit slow due to far too much construction on the highway, but I am grateful for the seventy-five mile an hour speed limit. No way New York is getting that anytime soon.

As I pass yet another casino on reservation land, I wonder why my adopted family doesn’t have one. Whatever one thinks about gambling, it has certainly been a lucrative venture for many tribes. Although there are many horror stories of troubles arising out of the distribution – or non-distribution – of that income. It seems we never manage to do right by the First Peoples. I know the distribution is handled internally, but we put them in the situation of having to depend on casino income in the first place. It’s all shameful.

* * *

I pull up to the Navajo Cultural Center and I am struck by a sense of déjà vu. Cora Bingil, my adopted sister, is leaning against the railing. She’s dressed in nearly the identical outfit as I first saw her in – jeans, flannel shirt and leather jacket. It strikes me as slightly ironic that she wears cowboy boots. Despite the winter, her face and hands are tan. She uses one to brush her glossy black braid back over her shoulder. Then she waves at me.

I’m very happy to see her. I wish Kels and the babies were here too. Kels refused to fly out without knowing what was going on. She also has too much to do in New York to simply pick up and leave. I hope to hell there’s a good story, or Langston is going to have my head on a platter. I can only imagine what Kels must be putting up with due to my sudden departure. Sorry, sweetie. I’ll make it up to you. I shut down the engine and climb out of the truck, enjoying the satisfying pop my back makes after the long drive.

Cora comes off the steps to greet me. “Harper, it’s so good to see you again. Kelsey couldn’t join you?”

“No, not this time. But I brought a new friend with me.” I gesture to Jeff, who is climbing out of the truck.

At the comment, Jeff looks up and smiles. He looks nothing like the World Wrestling Federation guys. He looks like the Marlboro Man, and I’m sure that’s why the agency decided he would be the one to come to New Mexico with me. Of course, the Marlboro Man doesn’t have a shoulder holster with .40 Glock, a six inch knife on his belt and a .380 Bersa in an ankle holster. I don’t even want to know what he has in the small, black duffle bag he carries everywhere.

Cora is bright enough to know that is not quite accurate description, but has the good grace not to mention it. “Nice to have you here as well. I hope you don’t mind a cot to sleep on.”

Jeff shakes his head. “No, ma’am. In fact, it might be better than my usual.”

* * *

“So what’s all this about?” I ask Cora. We’re in the kitchen, her two boys climbing all over her, I really miss my little ones right now. My arms feel empty without them. At least, it’s not the sharp ache of a couple weeks ago when I wasn’t sure I would ever get to hold them again. My Collin and Brennan are only a plane ride away.

“I don’t want this to become an Indian problem.” Cora catches Ben Joseph as he tries to dive for the floor, headfirst. She pats his butt, and sets him down on the kitchen tile. “Careful, son. It hurt last time, remember?” Her voice holds that affectionate exasperated tone that only parents can have. Or dog owners.

“What do you mean?”

“I found out something about a member of our tribe. It needs to get out, to be told, but I don’t want it to be ‘Navajo Man …’ I want it to be ‘Man’ or ‘New Mexican Man does …’ You know what I mean?”

“I do, but, Cora, I have no control over what others will report. Nor can I hide the fact he is Navajo. I can only promise that I will do a balanced story. If you want someone to only report what you like, I’m not the person for that.”

She shakes her head. “I don’t want that, Harper. I just don’t want this to be an Indian problem. We don’t need any more of that.”

“I can understand wanting to protect family.”

“I don’t want to protect him. I want him to go to jail for a long time.” Cora reaches down and hands Ben Joseph a cracker to keep him from gnawing on the chair. She shakes her head and hugs John closer for being such a good boy. “There are good people here.”

“I know. You’ll take me to the story?”

“Early in the morning. You still wake up early?”

“Are you kidding I have twins now. I barely sleep.”

* * *

It’s been a very long day. It doesn’t look like it’s ending any time soon. I was about to leave when the most recent script revisions got dropped in my lap. So now Brian has gone in search of sandwiches for us.

Before I begin taking care of company business, I have a little personal business to tend to in the form of my very grumpy son, who is demanding his dinner now. I settle back on the couch and prepare to feed him. I keep a blanket close in case someone should drop in on us. I don’t mind doing this in front of Harper or Brian, but I’d never be able to shake the creepies if Langston were to stop by. Besides, I think a glimpse of a baby nursing would cause his head to explode.

Of course the phone rings the moment we’re both comfortable. “Isn’t that the way it always is, buddy?” My son doesn’t seem fazed by the fact that I have to get up to get the phone. “You just go right ahead, I’ll manage. Don’t worry about old Mom here.” I chuckle as we get up, with some difficulty, from the couch and move to my desk. Even as I take a seat in my chair there, I find that my boy never lost his place. I reach out and tap the speaker function.

“Hello?”

“Kels? Honey, is everything all right? I was getting worried.” Harper sounds a little tense.

“I’m fine, sweetheart. Fuzzy is having his dinner and he refused to let me go long enough to get to the phone. How’s New Mexico?”

“Lonely without you three.”

“So do you have a story there?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

“What do you mean You’re not sure yet? Harper, Langston is already pitching a fit about you leaving. You’d better find a story, and a damn good one, or don’t bother coming back to New York because he’ll kill you.”

“I’m sorry if he’s been giving you…”

“Harper, don’t worry about me. I’m a big girl, I can handle myself. Besides, the network is falling all over themselves to keep me happy right now.”

“Sweetheart, if my trip out here is a bust, then I’ll have you get me an executive pardon. Bill Clinton handed them out like candy on Halloween, so I don’t see why you couldn’t get one or two.”

“Very funny, but my party isn’t in the White House right now. Apparently, I gave money to the wrong party and lawyers. So what do you know?”

“I know, whatever it is, Cora doesn’t want it to reflect badly on the Navajo.”

I take a deep breath and sigh. I know Harper really feels like part of that world, which concerns me a great deal in some respects. I’m afraid for her ability to do a balanced story when it comes to her adoptive family. “What if it is a Navajo problem? Will you be able to do the story?” I voice my concern.

“What kind of question is that, Kels? Of course, I will.”

“Harper,” I take another deep breath, “I’m sorry. You know I worry when it comes to Cora and the family. It’s almost as bad as if someone sent you to New Orleans to do a story on corruption in the court system. You wouldn’t be able to do…”

“Spare me, Kels. I’ll be fine, I promise.” Her voice softens, making me think she might see my concern for what it is.

“I trust you, Harper.”

* * *

Finally getting home a little before eleven, Brian puts the twins in their beds while I make us some tea. It was definitely a long night, but I’m too damn tired to sleep at the moment.

There’s also the Harper factor. The factor of her not being home. I always hate trying to sleep in our bed without her. I’ll probably end up sleeping on the couch.

Settling down, I click on the TV to find my mother is making the news again tonight. Brian groans when he comes in, taking his normal position on the floor between the couch and the coffee table.

“What is super bitch getting face time for tonight?” he asks, sipping his tea and glaring at my mother’s image.

I scratch my forehead. “I’m not exactly sure, to be honest. Some nonsense about her trying to protect her grandchildren from the ills of society.”

“Oh, she must mean me.”

“You?”

“Yeah. I carry that gay bug you know,” he teases.

“Is that where I caught it? All this time I thought I was a lesbian before I met you.”

“Oh, you were. Lesbian cooties and the gay bug are two different things.”

I laugh, nearly causing tea to come out my nose. “Excuse me?”

“Sure. Didn’t you know? Lesbian cooties are passed back and forth between you guys when you touch. The gay bug, however, is airborne and we spread it by breathing. That’s why people are more intimidated by gay men than lesbians. You see, she was trying to protect the babies, and especially Collin, from the gay bug.”

I reach out and rub his shoulder. “You’re a nut.”

“Yeah, well, it’s a dirty job but someone has got to do it. Speaking of dirty jobs, you should have seen the mess your son made earlier.” I notice that Brian covertly reaches over and mutes the TV. “He managed to pull a bottle of baby powder down on us when I was getting him ready for bed.”

“Is he all right?”

“Oh, he’s fine, but he didn’t like that too much. It made him sneeze. You know he sounds like a mouse when he sneezes.”

“He’s three months old. Cut him some slack. He’s got a tiny nose.”

* * *

Cora and I drive in her beat up old pickup. I always feel like Pig Pen when I emerge from the cab, red New Mexico dirt clinging to all exposed skin. Did I take a shower only a few minutes ago? We left the reservation a half hour ago, heading north toward Cuba. It’s early morning and we both sip on our cups of coffee. Cora also made breakfast tortillas. These are especially wonderful. I want these every day.

I left Jeff on the reservation. For one thing, Cora wasn’t too keen to have him along. She trusts me with this story, but clearly no one else. Fortunately, I doubt I’ll need him here. These people have far more serious things to worry about than who I’m sleeping with. Besides, it was my family here that first recognized Kels and I as a married couple.

We turn east toward Taos, and wind further up into the mountains. There are small towns nestled along the two lane highway, hardly visible from the road, known only by the church bell towers peeking through the trees. I notice a lot of signs dotting the highway for stores selling pottery and blankets.

It is at one of those signs, we turn. Cora drives about a hundred feet down the road, before she pulls over and kills the engine. It’s an accurate description as the old truck sputters, trying to hang on to life until it finally falls silent. “We need to walk the rest of the way.”

I slide off the bench seat and step out. Pressing my hands to my back, I stretch out my muscles. “You going to tell me what’s going on?” I reach back in the truck and grab a small camera, like the ones I used to use on True TV.

“I found this out two days ago. I called you immediately.”

That doesn’t sound good. “What’s this, Cora? What is this guy doing?” I ask as we start walking alongside the road. I notice that Cora is careful to stay well out of sight in the trees.

“New Mexico has always had a problem with illegal immigration. Not just from Mexico, but from all of the Latin American countries. They just cross through Mexico. The border in Juarez isn’t very tight, and often people get through.”

“This is about illegal aliens?” I have to admit to being disappointed. Immigration is a hot issue, but with Bush and Fox being friends, I have hope that our borders will be more humane going forward.

“Yes, but even more. I came here this week to buy blankets. Peter Nighthorse is a member of our tribe, though he doesn’t live on the reservation. We like to support his business even still. When I stopped by, I didn’t find Peter in the shop. I went looking for him. I opened the door leading to the weaving factory and that’s where I saw them.”

“The illegals?”

“They were little children. Girls, mostly.”

That’s interesting. “Girls? No parents? No families?”

She shakes her head emphatically. “I saw what I saw.”

Around the next bend in the road, we can see the building in front of us. It’s large and L-shaped. The front of the building is used as a showroom/store and the back is where Cora tells me the weavers are located. We stay in the tree line and circle around to the back of the property, so we can approach it without being seen, hopefully. Once there, I pull out the camera and check it. I also check my cell phone – full power, but on roam. Doesn’t matter. If this is true, Langston will happily pay extra fees.

We sneak up to the building, and I am fairly confident we haven’t been seen. I note that the windows are all high, impossible for us to take a look in without climbing up on something. There are a pair of doors at the end, which I note are fastened with a chain. No matter what, Peter is in serious violation of some fire codes. I take a shot of the chain and the door.

We continue around the building, coming up the side. When I notice an empty wood crate a few feet away, I grab it and use it to get me high enough to see through the window.

Cora was right.

I bring the camera up and I use it to complete my visual inspection of the room. At the near end are a series of cots, a sink and a toilet. One that I would never use. At the other end, are a series of weaving machines. I count nineteen girls, and four boys. They are all intent on their jobs, making gorgeous blankets in bold patterns for wealthy tourists. Even Kathie Lee didn’t do this. I film the scene for a few more minutes. I then climb down to find an anxious Cora.

“Well?”

“I’m sure that violates a child labor law or two in there.”

“What should we do?”

“Let’s move back into the trees and talk.” Quickly and quietly, we go back into the cover of the trees. I pull out my cell phone. Before I can dial any number, my hand freezes when I hear the unmistakable sound of a shotgun being racked.

“Cora. What are you doing here?” a man asks, his voice rough from years of cigarette smoking.

We both turn around slowly, and come face to face with a tall man holding the biggest damn shot gun I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m sure that has something to do with the fact it’s pointed right at my face.

* * *

I roll over and slap at the phone, pulling the receiver to my ear under the blankets. “Hello?” God, what time is it? It feels far too early. Especially since Collin was up half the night sneezing out baby powder and fussing.

I hear muffled voices, but can’t make out a lot of what is being said. I try again. “Hello?”

Becoming more awake now, I look at the caller ID next to the phone. It’s Harper’s cell phone. “Harper?”

Still no answer, just raised, muffled voices. Something is wrong. Something is wrong in a big way. I listen carefully as I get out of bed and reach into my purse for my cell phone.

I hear a man yell ‘Drop it!’, then a gun blast, and then nothing.

“Harper!”
Episode Four: Bang, Bang! You’re Dead!
“Harper’s in trouble,” I tell Langston on the phone even as I pull on my shoes and lace them up.

“How do you know?”

“From years of experience I can tell you that hearing a gun shot right before your partner’s phone goes dead is generally not a good sign.” Jesus Christ, I will not spend my time justifying this to him. “Put whoever is available on a flight to Albuquerque. And get the local affiliate there ready to roll. I’m taking my jet. I’ll meet up with them as soon as I land and we’ll head out to the reservation.”

“Stanton…”

“Richard, you wanted a story, you got one. Let’s hope it’s not about the death of one of your Senior Producers.” I refuse to believe that. If Harper were dead, I’d know it. I know I’d know it. Part of me would die immediately.

Hold on, sweetheart. I’m coming. I’ll be there as soon as I can.

“So you’re just going…”

“You’re wasting time by arguing with me. If you want the story, get Kendra or Sam on the next flight out.”

I hang up with him and toss the phone on the bed, and pull out my travel bag from the closet. I’ve always kept one handy for those mad dashes to the airport. Now I’m glad old habits die hard. Brian sticks his head in the door as I do a last minute check to make sure I have everything I need.

“We’re all set to go. The agency called. They got hold of Jeff. Seems Harper and someone named Cora took off together early this morning and left him behind. Jeff is now in the process of notifying the local authorities in New Mexico and the agency is sending a car for us.”

“Okay.”

“Kels, why pay thousands of dollars to a protective agency and then leave your bodyguard behind?”

“Because Harper thinks she’s indestructible. She’s twenty-six years old and thinks nothing bad can happen to her. Because she hasn’t got the sense God gave a goat!” I yell this last part, then stop and rub my face with both hands. “I’m sorry, Brian. I’m scared and worried and…”

“I know.” He comes the rest of the way into the room and gives me a hug. “I know. You’re not exactly having a stellar year thus far.”

I shake my head against his shoulder but don’t reply. If I do, I’ll start crying and that’s the last thing I need to do right now. I take a deep breath, hold it in for a moment and then look up. “Let’s get going.”

* * *

I stare down at the splintered and charred remnants of my cell phone. The shotgun is now pointed at my gut once again. Sweat trickles down my back, stopping at the waistband of my jeans. One shot to the stomach is all it would take. No more kissing Brennan and Collin goodnight. No more singing to them. No more making love to Kels.

“Peter!” Cora exclaims. “What are you doing?”

I think it’s fairly clear what good ol’ Peter is doing. He’s preparing to shoot the hell out of us. I study him, looking for a sign of weakness. I don’t find many. He’s tall, broad shouldered, and obviously strong. His hair is dark and wavy, cut short. He smells of danger and sweat. The shotgun is held easily in his hands. It’s obvious he knows how to use it.

“You shouldn’t have come here, Cora. You shouldn’t have put your nose into someone else’s business.”

“We were just here to buy blankets,” I try to bluff. He looks skeptically around at the trees. “I am a travel writer. I saw some beautiful scenery. We just came here to take a look at it.”

“Drop the camera,” he orders.

I briefly consider resisting but quickly come to my senses when I see his finger twitch near the trigger. I let it fall to the ground and I can hear the lens crack. Oh well. We’ll get more and better footage when we arrest this guy’s ass.

Without further warning, he swings the gun down and blasts the camera to kingdom come. I am grateful for my heavy jeans, as they protect my legs from the splatter of metal and plastic.

“Peter, you need to reconsider what you’re doing here,” Cora tries again. She steps toward him, reaching out for his arm.

His left hand swings out and smashes into her jaw, staggering her back. “Stay the fuck where you are!” he snarls. “You shouldn’t have come here.”

I step back, hoping to find something I can use as a weapon. A twig snaps under my foot. Fuck!

Again, the gun is aimed at my belly. “Put your hands above your head. Lace your fingers together and face that tree.”

I sure don’t want to show him my back. “We’re cool here.”

“No, we’re not cool! You are fucking not cool!” He looks over at the building, and seems to decide something. “Come with me!” He grabs Cora by the upper arm, pressing the barrel of his gun into her ribs. “You!” He means me. “Walk in front of us. Try anything and she’s dead.”

I don’t this plan, but I have little negotiating room. We begin walking toward the building. I wonder how many tourists do come by during any given day.

He takes us the long way around the building, to a back door that isn’t chained closed. I step through first and find a second man with a gun in the room. Cora exclaims, “Wayne! You can’t be a part of this, too!”

I can’t quite share Cora’s surprise. If I had met Wayne anywhere, in any context, I’d figure he was up to no good. It’s not necessarily from his outward appearance, but from the look in his eye. I wouldn’t trust him in or out of sight. He ignores her and keeps his gun trained on me. I suppose I represent the unknown threat. “Sit down!”

A quick glance around the room reveals limited seating options. I choose a metal folding chair that is spotted with rust. Cora is shoved down on a wooden chair across from me.

“Hands under your ass,” he orders us. Then says to Wayne, “Start packing up.”

“What?” Wayne sputters. “Why?”

“She was on the phone when I caught them. Who knows who she was calling.”

God, I hope the call didn’t go through to Kels. She’d be worried sick if it did. Of course, she’d also send the fucking cavalry. Hard to know which one to choose.

Wayne goes over to a cabinet and begins unloading boxes of shotgun shells. I don’t take that as a good sign.

Peter comes over and presses his gun against my temple. “Who were you calling?”

I debate my answer. Finally, I settle on, “The police.”

“Fuck!”

“Get the money from the front, Wayne,” Peter prompts his partner. “Then put up the closed sign and lock the door.” He grabs a duffle bag from the floor and begins putting the shells in it. From a drawer, he removes two handguns and adds them to the bag.

Pointing the shotgun at Cora, he motions her up. “Both of you: hands on top of your heads and go through that door.”

He herds us roughly through the building, shoving Cora into me a few times. I try to keep focused, looking for anything to use as a weapon. Peter is smart though. He forces us to kneel on our hands until he gets the door open. He then steps back and watches us intently as we go through it.

We step into the workroom we filmed from outside. The score of child workers look up at us and Peter with the gun in silence. I am surprised that no one cries out, or attempts to move. They’re only children, after all, and must certainly be frightened. They’ve stopped all work on their weaving; their machines idle without manpower.

I look at the little girl closest to me. She can’t be more than eight years old. Her body is thin, too thin for a growing child. She looks at me with liquid brown eyes, her skin the color of moist earth. “Va a estar bien.” It’s going to be fine, I assure her.

No reaction.

I hear a noise behind me and I turn to see Peter removing a pair of handcuffs from one of the children. It had been used to fasten her tiny leg to her stool. Without warning, he slaps it on Cora’s wrists. He releases another child and comes toward me.

No good choice here either way. I can resist and possibly be shot, or let him put these on me and possibly be shot.

Peter reaches out and I pull my wrist away. Suddenly my head snaps back. Faster than I thought he could move, he smashes the butt of the shotgun into my eyebrow. A gash has opened up over my eye where the thin skin was separated. Fuck, that hurts. While I am momentarily distracted by the pain, he slaps the cuffs on me.

“Don’t make me more pissed off, lady.”

Wayne comes into the room and nods. “I have the cash. Let’s go.”

Surprising me, he motions for us to go out the door. “Ladies first.”

“Where are we going?” I demand, stalling for time, for some plan. Of course, I don’t know quite what I’d do, given that my hands are now secured behind my back.

“You’re our ticket out of this mess,” Peter growls and grabs me by the upper arm, dragging me with him out of the room. I glance back at the children. Not one of them has moved or said a word.

* * *

Climbing up a hill is difficult with your hands cuffed behind you. Arms are, I learn the hard way, extremely important for balance. I stumble up the hillside, falling hard on my right knee. There is still snow on the ground from the recent snowfall.

Peter prods me with the tip of the gun. “Get moving!”

I get up and start moving again. I wonder how many times I can fall and stall for time?

Cora bumps my shoulder with hers. “I’m sorry about this, Harper.”

I shake my head. “Eh, I’ve had worse.”

“Shut up!” Wayne warns from ahead of us.

I roll my eyes. Like there’s anyone out here to hear me. I risk a glance back at Peter. “Where are we going?”

“Up.”

I bite back a sarcastic comment. No need to further piss off the guy with the gun. But that doesn’t stop me from asking another question. “Why up? Why hike? Why not take your car?”

“I have another car where we’re going. If you called the police, they’ll come to the store. They’ll see Cora’s pickup -”

“How did you -?” Cora asks.

“Please, Cora, everyone in the tribe knows the sound of that relic’s motor. We heard you and then I saw you two sneaking around the building.” He smiles smugly. “When the cops come, they’ll see our cars and your truck and think we’re all still in there. They’ll hear the kids working, and know someone is inside. With any luck, they’ll sit out there for hours, in a standoff that isn’t.”

I make a disparaging sound. “The kids will talk. They’ll hear the police and cry for help.”

Peter begins laughing. “No, they won’t. Now, move.”

* * *

I doesn’t take long to settle Brian and the twins into the suite they’ll be staying in until I get back. I’m saying good-bye to my babies while I wait for Sam to arrive. He’s on his way from the airport.

“I’m going to go get your Mama,” I tell Brennan as I lay her in the carriage that will double as her bed until the hotel can deliver up a crib for them. “When I get back with her, I expect you both to spit up all over her to show her exactly what we think of this little scare.”

I can’t imagine trying to raise them alone. Harper Lee, you’d had better be all right. I’ll be forced to kick your butt if you’re not. Of course, you’d probably like that. I smile at the thought, as I watch Brennan fall into a peaceful slumber.

Now is not the time to fall apart, Kelsey. Get it together for your children, for Harper, and for yourself. Bite the bullet, and do what needs to be done. Once Harper is home safe and sound, you can have a good cry. Until then, ‘Buck up, Little Roo’.

* * *

I wish I could see my watch. I figure we’ve walked for an hour, but I’m not sure. Despite the walking, I’m a little cold. My jacket was unbuttoned when he attached the cuffs on my wrists. No one has bothered to help me with it, not surprisingly. My left eye is swollen from the blow I received earlier. The blood from the wound has coated part of my face, and my glasses are now lost on the floor at the factory. There’s a reason why I don’t wear them like I should.

Wayne is breathing hard, clearly unaccustomed to strenuous exercise. He’s sitting on a rock, resting. Peter is better off. Cora and I are leaning against a tree. I don’t know how much further we have to go, but I like the walking. It leaves a clear trail, and it wears down our captors. I hope Wayne has a heart attack.

“Have either of the babies laughed yet?” Cora asks, out of the blue.

I smile, thinking of my boy and his belly laughs. “Collin has. Great big laughs. Of course, Kels tells me it’s gas, but I know better.”

“Who caused him to first laugh?”

“I did,” I report proudly. “We were just goofing off together. He’s my little man.”

“We must have a ceremony soon. The first laugh is sacred to the Navajo. It tells of the child experiencing pleasure, the good things the Spirit provides.” Cora gets a far off look in her eyes.

“What happens in the ceremony?” I like this distraction. My babies always make me happy, no matter what the circumstances are. God, I’m so glad that Kels and the babies didn’t come along this trip. I’d be insane with worry if they were here.

This discussion seems to make Cora happy as well. “Whoever caused the child to laugh first gives a party in the child’s honor. There the child is taught generosity.”

“Generosity? How? That seems like a big concept and Collin is only three months old.”

Cora chuckles, “You help him by starting him down the right path. You help him give away little trinkets. It teaches him that true joy comes from giving to others, taking care of his clan.”

“Enough,” Peter grunts, interrupting our conversation. “Move.”

“I look forward to Fuzzy and I doing that soon, Cora.”

We start walking again. Fortunately, we’re starting to head downhill. Kels, don’t worry about me, chér. Just out for a little hike.

* * *

The agency had the good sense to send two bodyguards with me. I left the big guy with no neck at the hotel with Brian and the babies. I have Sam with me and a young woman named Sarah, who is very intense, and, I can tell, very capable. I’ve seen that look before.

Sarah is driving the rental car as the truck from the local affiliate follows us to our destination. I turn around and face Sam. “I’m not sure what we’re walking into here. You know that, right?”

He nods. “I know.” He looks at his hands and then at me. “Kelsey, Harper is fine. I know she is.”

“I keep telling myself that. My heart won’t believe anything else.”

“Then listen to it.”

“I am. It’s the only part of me that’s thinking clearly at the moment.”

He gives me a little laugh. “Damn, you sure seem like you’re holding it together pretty well.”

“It’s amazing what adrenaline and worry will do for you. You’re married with kids, Sam, you know what it’s like.”

“Sure, but, Kels, my wife is a teacher. I’ve never been worried about her being killed.”

I won’t mention Columbine or the other half dozen schools that have faced such tragedy. Let the man enjoy his security.

* * *

We head into a clearing and I see a small house nestled there. I guess this is where we’re picking up our vehicle. I see one in the driveway. It’s a station wagon from back in the days when they had fake wood side paneling. Does anyone in New Mexico have a new car?

Cora trips on a rock and falls down hard on her shoulder, since she has no way to brace herself. Wayne jerks her to her feet, compounding the injury and causing Cora to cry out in pain.

“Move! Or you’ll hurt a lot worse.”

We get down to the property and Peter opens the backdoor without any hesitation or barrier. I guess this far out in the country no one bothers to lock up. We are soon met by a young woman, in her early twenties, a baby in her arms and a toddler trailing behind her. “Dad? What are you doing here?” She then takes in the scene more fully, seeing the guns drawn, and our hands secured behind our backs. “What’s going on here?”

“Get back in the other room, Sandie. Get the kids out of here.”

“Pop-pop!” the toddler cries, throwing open his arms.

“Pop-pop’s busy,” Sandie says, pressing her hand on his small chest to keep him in place. “Let’s go play Candyland.”

“Yea!” the boys warbles and zips out of the room.

“I’m going to borrow your car for awhile.” Peter goes to the kitchen counter and dumps out the contents of her purse. Finding her keys amid a pile of wipes, mints, cigarettes and change, he holds them up. “Let’s go.”

Wayne looks like he’d rather stay here, but he gets up from the kitchen stool heavily. We step outside and take three paces toward the car when we hear it.

What a beautiful noise.

All four of us look up into the air to see a helicopter emerging over the line of trees. The cavalry. Even better than on a horse. I’d wave if I could move my arms.

“Stay where you are!” a voice from on high commands us. I doubt if it’s God, but it’ll do in a pinch.

“Inside! Inside!” Peter screams, disregarding the voice. Another reason he’s gonna burn in hell.

I fall to the ground when Peter pushes me. I’ll try some of those passive resistance moves Mama has used at thousand of marches.

Peter kicks me in the ribs.

Goddamn that hurts.

“Get up!” he screams. He kicks me again, his time connecting with my jaw. As the report of a shot rings in the clearing, he reaches down and grabs hold of me, dragging me behind him into the house.

That didn’t work.

* * *

As I figured it would be, things are pretty much a mad house when we arrive. It would seem we have several scenes to cover. First, would be the store and the factory where it all began. Okay, this is where Sam will stay with the affiliate truck to start the story.

The producer they sent with us joins me, as I try to figure out my next move. “Ms. Stanton?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve called and requested that the station send out our helicopter. It would seem there is a hostage situation a few miles from here. It’s stemming directly from whatever took place here this morning, although the authorities are still trying to piece that all together.”

I take a deep breath and have to ask. “Harper Kingsley is one of the hostages, isn’t she?”

“Yes.” He nods slowly. “It’s believed she is.”

“Call the station back. Tell them to have the helicopter land here first. They’re picking up a passenger.”

“With all due respect, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“I didn’t ask you if you thought it was a good idea,” I growl, closing the distance between us. “I told you to do it. My partner is in that situation and I intend to be as close as I can. Now, you can either help me, or you can spend the rest of your career producing B stories on sewer back-up and trash strikes. I’ve made people miserable for more than ten years. You wouldn’t be the first, and I’m sure you won’t be the last.”

“I’ll put in that call right now.”

“Good plan. Go with it.”

* * *

It’s been almost a half hour since we were forced back inside. We’re in the living room, along with Sandie and her two children. Both of whom are crying. The toddler is mad because he can’t run around and play freely, the baby is either tired, wet or hungry. I know Brennan and Collin’s cries, but not this one’s.

Wayne and Peter have gone through the house, pulling all the blinds and locking all the doors. Wayne is at one end of the living room, keeping an eye on the bedrooms and front door. He’s breathing hard and sweating like a pig. He takes off his jacket, and I can see his shirt is stained with sweat.

Peter is at the other side, watching the kitchen and back door. He’s not paying any attention to his partner, which is fine by me.

We can hear all the activity outside, even over the crying. I swear half of the New Mexico state police officers must have arrived. I’ve also counted at least two helicopters. One cop, one news. I wonder if it’s ours. I wonder if Kels is out there. If she is, she’s pissed at me. I should have brought Jeff along. Bet she handcuffs me to him the next time I go out.

“Can’t you do something about that baby?” Wayne growls from his post. “I can’t think over here.” He holding his left arm against his chest, hugging it to his body.

Sandie tosses him an exasperated look. “This isn’t what we had planned for our day, Wayne. My son wants to play and my daughter is tired.”

“I can help,” I offer.

“What?” Peter now focuses his attention on me.

“I can help with the baby. I’m good with babies. I have two of my own, in fact.”

Peter doesn’t look as if he believes me. He’s about to contradict me when Sandie asks, “Boys, girls or one of each?”

“One of each. Fraternal twins. Three months old.”

Sandie smiles, and glances at the baby in her arms. “Linda is six months old next week.”

“I can rock her, if you like? So you can play with your boy.”

She glances over at her father for permission. Wayne interjects, “Let her do it, Peter. So we can hear what’s going on out there.” Peter nods and Sandie comes over to deposit Linda in my arms.

Before she does, I clear my throat and once again get Peter’s attention. “I can’t help if I can’t hold her.”

Peter stalks over and hoists me to my feet. My ribs scream in agony, but I don’t let it show. I clench my jaw and regret that act too. I want ice packs all over. “Wayne, shoot Cora if this one tries anything.” Looking at Wayne, I don’t think he would hit anything he aimed at right now. I doubt if he can see with all the sweat pouring down his face.

Moving swiftly, Peter uncuffs my hand behind my back alnd reattaches them in front. “There. That’ll do.”

My shoulders are very happy for this change. “It’ll do,” I repeat and get pushed back on the couch.

“Peter, can you let me put my hands in front of me too?” Cora asks, emboldened by my success. “I hurt my shoulder real bad out there.”

He accedes to her request as well.

Sandie lays Linda in my arms and I begin rocking her back and forth, singing Brennan’s favorite lullaby. Now able to focus on her son, Sandie quickly gets him quiet and playing a game with her.

I feel the tension level in the room begin to drop.

Then the phone rings.

We all look at one another. None of us thinks it’s MCI calling about Sandie’s long distance service. We all know who is on the other end of the line. I wonder if Peter will shoot it too. He doesn’t seem to like phones too much.

“Should I get it, Dad?”

“No,” he grunts. He lets the phone continue to ring and he comes over to me. Removing Linda from my arms, he gives her to Cora. He then brings the phone over to me. “Tell them to go away before we kill you.”

God, I hope we’re not on speakerphone if Kels is out there. “Okay,” I take the phone and press the answer button. “Hello?”

He grabs the phone and twists it so he can hear the other end of the conversation. Leaning down next to me, I can smell his fear. And his anger. Not a good combination where I’m sitting. If these are the pheromones that men give off, no wonder I bat for the winning team.

“Cora?”

“No -” I start to reply, but Peter covers the mouthpiece and elbows me in my head wound, making me see stars momentarily.

“Don’t tell them anything I don’t tell you first, bitch. Now, tell them to go away before I kill you.”

I nod and he removes his hand. “Go away before he kills us.” I am pleased that my voice is steady. At least, it is to my ears.

The voice at the other end is calm, reassuring. “Tell him we can’t do that. We’re not going anywhere and he may as well come out of there. He’s only going to make things worse. Tell him we would like to talk to him.”

I look up at Peter, knowing he’s heard all of this firsthand. He covers the mouthpiece again. “Tell them, I’m not joking.” To impress the point upon me, he presses the barrel of his gun into the base of my neck. I take shallow breaths lest I move too much and startle him into shooting me.

“He says he’s not joking.” I need to disengage myself from this situation. Become a news producer, Harper. See the story. Ignore the personal aspect.

“We’re not going to back off. Coming out of there of his own free will and releasing the hostages unharmed is the only way he’s going to help himself. Anything else is only going to make it worse.”

“Fuck that!” he grunts, before covering the mouthpiece. “I want one of the helicopters. I want us out of here.”

You and me both, buddy. “He wants a helicopter.” I wonder if the cops will play some word game with him, like give him a helicopter but not the pilot. ‘But you only asked for a helicopter, Peter. How did we know you couldn’t fly it?’

“Tell him we can discuss it if he’s willing to let you go.”

He rolls his eyes and shakes his head emphatically.

“No.”

“Then there’s nothing to discuss. We’ll talk about helping him when he’s ready to help himself.”

Peter hangs up the phone.

That went well.

* * *

What is it in our genetic make up that seems to attract Harper and me into situations where there are either crazy, dangerous people with guns, or large numbers of police?

Whatever it is, we need to find a cure for it. I’m getting too old for this shit.

The helicopter I’m in is circling the house as the cameraman shoots his footage. I’m sure that between us, and the police helicopter that’s up, the people inside are thrilled.

I tap the pilot on the arm. “Any chance of getting me a radio link with anyone on the ground?”

“I can try.”

“Thanks.”

I try to see into the house as we slowly circle. The shades are drawn and there doesn’t appear to be any movement inside. I have to assume everyone is still alive since the police are out here sitting on their collective butts.

I have never felt so totally helpless in all my life.

The pilot glances my direction. “Put on that headset. I’ve got a radio link up to Deputy Sheriff Stone.”

I reach to the floor, and retrieve the headset to put it on. “Deputy Stone? This is Kelsey Stanton. Can you tell me if Harper Kingsley is in that house?”

The connection isn’t all that wonderful but through the static I can hear well enough. “We believe so, Ms. Stanton. We’re trying to get confirmation of that now.”

I swallow hard. I don’t need their confirmation. I know she’s in there. Now, let’s do something about getting her out and in one piece would be good. “Thank you, Deputy, if you could let me know as soon as you do, I would appreciate it.”

“We’ll do, Ms. Stanton.” The radio goes silent, and once again I’m forced to wait.

* * *

Peter is pacing the house, waiting for something to happen. Sandie’s son is playing quietly by himself and Sandie is rocking Linda. Cora is alert, watching me. I’m watching Wayne. I figure he has about five minutes before he has a heart attack. I begin counting to three hundred.

At one hundred forty-seven, Wayne keels over.

Peter’s in the kitchen, checking on the cops outside of the house. I see no need to alert him to what’s going on in the living room. Normally, my compassion level is a little higher, but not for someone who has threatened to permanently separate me from my family.

Sandie hears the thud behind her when he crumples to the floor. It takes her a moment to realize what has happened, but then she’s yelling for her father.

Oh, well, it was nice while the moment lasted.

Peter rushes in and sees Wayne on the floor, his chest still. He gives me an accusatory glare, but I ignore it. I’m not the one who took him on a two hour forced hike. Bite me, buddy.

“Damn!” Peter swears, and picks up Wayne’s fallen gun, tucking it into his belt. “Wayne!” he yells, as if that will help.

I watch as no one moves to help good ol’ Wayne. Not Sandie. Not Cora. Not Peter.

The phone rings, startling all of us.

Peter swings the shotgun in my direction. “Pick it up!”

I lift it, and bring it slowly to my mouth. “Hello?”

“Harper Kingsley?” the police officer asks.

“Yes.”

Peter steps forward aggressively. “What did they say?”

“He asked if my name was Harper Kingsley.”

My kidnapper, hostage-keeper, waves his shotgun at me, encouraging me to go on. “What can I do for you?” I ask politely. I sound like a customer service representative.

“Any change in there? Is he willing to negotiate?”

“One down, one to go,” I reply blithely, hoping by sounding casual that I can sneak it past Peter. Wayne is gone. It’s clear. “Let me ask.” I hold the phone out, letting the cops listen in. “They want to know if you are willing to negotiate with them.”

“I want my daughter out. My grandchildren.”

Finally, the idiot is thinking of others. “I’ll tell them.” I bring the phone back to me mouth. “He wants to send his family out. He has a daughter and two grandchildren in here.” I wonder if I have a wife and two kids out there.

“Have them come out the front door, slowly. They should walk in a straight line, directly toward us.” I repeat the instructions, for the benefit of those in the room.

Peter looks over at his daughter. “Take the kids and go.” She starts to object, for reasons I could never fathom. “Go. I shouldn’t have come here anyway.”

“Dad.” Sandie begins crying. She knows that when she leaves, this won’t end well. I worry about that too. Yet one look at her children and I don’t begrudge them getting out while they can. I only hope to join them shortly.

“Go!” He waves for her to move. “I’ll see you soon,” he lies, his voice shaking.

“Why don’t you come with us, Dad?” Sandie extends her hand to her father. “There’s no need to stay here. This can all work out for us. Let’s talk it over outside.”

He starts to object again, but then nods slowly. “All right. I’ll be out right after you.”

“You promise, Dad?”

“I promise. Go on.”

Sandie is clearly confused about whether to believe him or not. Finally, she lifts the sleeping infant into her arms and takes her son’s hand. “We’ll see you in a few minutes.” With several more glances back, she makes her way through the house and out the front door.

“Walk this way, miss,” the police officer directs through a bullhorn.

Peter watches through the curtain until he is assured the three of them are safe. With a heavy sigh, he turns his attention back to us. “Why, Cora?” A worn easy chair beckons him and he sinks into it. He looks so weary. “I never bothered you. Never hurt you or your family. Why did you do this to me?”

“I saw the children. I couldn’t let them stay there.”

“Why?” he growls. “I fed them, I gave them a roof over their heads.”

“You chained them to their chairs,” I mutter, unable to help myself.

He grips the arms of the chair tightly. “I was a helluva lot better to them than their parents were. They sold them to me. Most expensive one was fifty dollars. Fifty dollars to take a deaf kid off their hands.”

I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I feel physically sick. “You bought them?”

He shrugs, completely unremorseful. “I had a need. I gave them something better. I gave their families needed income. I taught them a skill.”

Earth to Peter, buying children does not equal a good thing. I keep my mouth shut, however. Kels would be proud of me.

He takes the gun out of his belt and points it at Cora. “How could you?”

Before she can reply, he fires.
Episode Five: Don’t Lose your head
Holy crap!

I look down at my chest and recoil. So much blood.

This is what death looks like?

I never expected it to be quite so messy. I always pictured those nice, clean deaths where you get a couple extra minutes to say goodbye to everyone and sneak a Sinner’s Prayer in there.

What is that on my shoe?

Probably more of Peter’s brain. It’s all over the place. That and his blood.

I hear gagging and find Cora hurling all of her breakfast on the rug. Great. The air is filled with the scent of sweat, blood, vomit and death. Wayne lays dead near the window, Peter’s head is spread over the living room. This is nasty.

It suddenly hits me. It’s over. I’m free.

I’m alive!

Hot damn and hallelujah!

I push myself up from my spot on the couch and walk over to Cora. “Let’s get out of here.”

She wipes her mouth as best she can on her shoulder. Cora gets up and we begin walking toward the kitchen door. “We should tell them we’re coming out. Keep your hands held out from your body. It’d be a damn shame to get shot by the cops.”

“I’m sorry about this, Harper.” She looks back at the room and the two dead men. “I never thought it’d be like this. I only wanted someone who wouldn’t hold our people up to contempt.” She blows out a deep breath, full of sorrow. “I messed that up.”

“No worries, Cora. But you have to explain it to my wife.”

* * *

“Look at me, ma’am,” the paramedic says, tilting my head up so he can examine the gash on my head better. He attaches a butterfly bandage to it, and swabs it with a betadine soaked gauze pad. I flinch back and consider smacking him. Seeming not to notice, he begins looking at my jaw and throat. I’m very tender from where Peter kicked me. “You’re lucky he didn’t crush your trachea, ma’am. One slip of his boot and …”

“I’ve got lots of lives,” I mutter, hoping I never use them up. I look around and wonder where Kels is, figuring she would be here. I notice it’s getting dark outside and I wonder how long we were held in there. I didn’t seem that long. “What time is it?”

He glances at his watch. How can he see it in this light? “It’s about two o’clock in the afternoon.”

Shit.

Oh, shit.

Even as the thought hits me, the dark closes in.

I’m blind.

* * *

I’m sitting in the back of the ambulance when I hear her call my name. “Harper!? Harper!?”

I want to jump out and run to her, but, with my current luck and lack of vision, I’d fall down and break my neck. I grip onto the gurney and lean forward. “Kels?”

I hear her making her way through the crowd, and then the truck dips as she climbs up into it with me. Suddenly, my arms are full of her as she body slams me. For some reason, it doesn’t hurt when it’s her. She kisses me ardently, completely oblivious to anyone else around us. “Thank God, you’re all right,” she murmurs against my lips.

“Hi, sweetheart,” I whisper. I wrap my arms around her tightly, using her as my anchor in this latest storm. “Sorry about this.”

She kisses me again and I feel her tears against my skin. “You’re okay, that’s all that matters.”

I lean forward and brush my lips against hers, wanting to pretend everything’s okay for another moment. “How are the kids?” Oh yeah, I can do denial.

“Fine. They’re in Albuquerque. I left them with Brian and a guy with no neck.” She pulls away, as I no longer feel her breath on my face. “What were you thinking, Harper? Why did you leave Jeff behind?”

“Cora asked me to.” God, I hope my girl doesn’t hate my adopted family. “She was concerned about the Diné. She didn’t want anyone else here who could talk about the story.”

Kels blows out an exasperated breath. “You can’t put other people’s interests in front of yours, Harper. You’re too important to me. To Brennan and Collin.” She rakes her fingers through my hair, and I try to refrain from flinching. “I don’t care what anyone else thinks. Or says. Or does. You’re mine, Harper Lee. First, last and always. Get it?”

I nod, recognizing the truth of her statement. “I’m sorry.”

“Now, where are you hurt? Besides the obvious.” She touches my jaw gently and tilts it so she can see the entire extent of the bruising. I know it looks horrible. Her thumb brushes near the gash on my forehead and I grunt. Her touch stills. “I’m sorry, Tabloid.” There is a long pause. “Why aren’t you looking at me, Harper?”

“I can’t.”

“What? Why?”

I take a deep breath. How should I tell her? Direct always seems to work best. “I can’t see, chér.”

“What?”

I am loathe to repeat the words, for fear of making them real. I shrug, and give what I hope is a brave smile. “It’s happening again.”

* * *

Ten hours later, I’m sitting in the chair next to Harper’s hospital bed. This is too fresh a scene for me. It’s only been a few months, less than a year, since I was previously in this position.

Harper is now asleep. Although, the doctor said the nurses would come in and wake her every couple hours to check on her condition.

Upon arriving at University Hospital, Harper was immediately taken in for a series of X-rays. The doctors were concerned about her spine, jaw and ribs. My spouse certainly tries to keep doctors employed. I need to examine her for a bull’s eye drawn somewhere on her body.

The doctor assures me that there is no injury to her spinal column, but she does have three cracked ribs. Her chest is wrapped and the gash above her eyebrow is covered by a white gauze. Fortunately, there was a good plastic surgeon on staff and he took care of stitching her up. He says it shouldn’t scar. I almost hope it does. Maybe it’ll teach her to be more careful.

I smooth out the tension in her forehead. She must be having a bad dream. Even though the doctor said he thinks the blindness is temporary, the result of swelling from her head injuries, she doesn’t believe him. She won’t until she opens her eyes and sees me. I feel the same way.

“I love you,” I whisper. My cell phone vibrates against my hip and I step out into the hallway to take the call. “Hi, Brian. How are the twins?”

“They’re fine. Sleeping like babies,” he jokes. Sobering quickly, he asks, “How’s Stud?”

“Same as her kids.”

“Good. You should get some sleep too, Kels. You’ve been running on adrenaline all day.”

I yawn at his suggestion. It has been a long day. I awakened to a gunshot over my cell phone, flew like a bat out of hell to New Mexico, arrived to find my partner held hostage and injured, supervised the coverage of the incident for the network, and then took my hurt spouse to the hospital. I miss my bed, my children, and my partner’s eyesight, most of all. “I will soon, Brian. Thanks for the concern.”

“Always. Can we come visit you both tomorrow?”

“Absolutely. We’ll figure out how to smuggle the babies in somehow. Or Harper will tear apart the hospital getting to them.” Blind or not, she’ll be a terror if they try to keep them away from her.

“All right. We’ll be there early.”

“Sounds good. Good night, Brian.”

I hang up and wander back into the room. A nurse is in there, awakening Harper, as prescribed. “Ms. Kingsley, wake up.” She takes Harper’s hand in hers and pats it gently.

I walk over to the other side of the bed and lift Harper’s other hand and kiss her knuckles. They’re scraped from falling during her forced march, but otherwise are fine. “Sweetheart, time to rise and shine.”

Harper’s eyes flutter open and she turns toward my voice. “I’ll rise but I refuse to shine,” comes the old joke.

“I can handle that right now,” I assure her. “How are you?”

“I hurt.” Since she doesn’t mention her eyesight, I assume it’s still not there. I squeeze her hand to communicate that I understand.

“I need you to answer a few questions, Ms. Kingsley.” The nurse releases her hand and steps back from the bed. “What day is it?”

“The day after I got my ass kicked.” I clear my throat in gentle reproach. It’s Lent after all, she’s not supposed to say words like that. She continues, “It was Thursday when we went to the blanket factory. Is it Friday yet?”

The nurse smiles. “Technically, but it’s early. What’s your name?”

“Harper Lee Kingsley.”

“Good. What year is it?”

“Two thousand one.”

“Who am I?” I join in and ask, a teasing note in my voice.

“The love of my life.”

I think I’ll keep her.

* * *

This is the second time I’ve woken up in a hospital bed with Kels snuggled next to me. I’m ignoring my screaming ribs, because I would feel worse without her near me. We really need to stop this. Of course, that would require me not getting into these situations, and where’s the fun in that?

The fun is just outside the door, if my hearing still works right. Eyes still aren’t back online, which terrifies me. Right now, though, I get to be strong. I can fall apart later. Hopefully, I won’t need to. No matter what, though, I’ve seen Collin and Brennan. They are written on my heart as clearly as Kels, and forever will be there.

Brian knocks and then enters, pushing our double-seater stroller into the room. I hear the bodyguard outside my room greet Mr. No Neck. “Morning!” Brian trills happily.

I kiss Kels on the forehead and squeeze her, trying to gently wake her up. “Chér, we have company.”

At the sound of my voice, Collin begins gurgling and flailing his arms, thumping them against his side of the stroller. I’d recognize my boy’s happy sound anywhere.

“Someone is glad to hear you,” Brian confirms. I hear him unstrap my son and bring him over to us. “Look who’s here, Collin!”

I hold out my free arm and Brian settles him down against me. Collin immediately begins gumming my arm. “Hi, buddy!” I chuckle. “Just don’t kick my side, okay?”

Kels presses herself to a sitting up position beside me. “Look who snuck in,” she coos, and leans over me to kiss Collin. “Good morning, handsome.”

“Morning, gorgeous,” Brian singsongs. “It was so easy to get back here with the bodyguard. No one wanted to mess with him. Doug would be so jealous to see me with such a stud.”

Kels chuckles and then leans over me, caressing my cheek. “How are you, Tabloid?”

“Status quo, but getting better by the moment.”

“Let me get Brennan and you can be perfect.”

* * *

I am still holding Brennan in my arms when someone enters the room. I’m okay with her as long as I take shallow breaths and don’t move much. Kels is in a nearby chair giving Collin his breakfast. It only took him a few minutes in the room to realize his Mommy was around and he was hungry. Brennan is happy in my arms, snuggling up under my chin.

“How are you, Harper?”

“I’m good. I feel a lot better today.”

“Good.” I hear him write some notes on my chart. “How do the ribs feel?” He sets the chart aside and reaches around Brennan to feel my sides.

I suck in a breath when he grazes a particularly sensitive spot. “Sore. I’m okay, if I don’t twist. Or breathe deeply. Or let anyone touch me.”

“Or sit up on your own,” Kels adds from her seat.

“True,” I allow and brush my lips against Brennan’s sparsely foliated head. “I need sleep and some TLC.”

“How are your eyes?” He tilts my jaw up and shines a light in my eye.

I know this because I can make out the pinprick of light. “I can see a dot.”

“You can?” Kels asks, her voice a little unsteady.

“I can.”

The doctor slides his hands around my neck and feels the back of my head. “Good, that means the swelling is going down. Your sight should soon be back to normal in that case.” He lifts the gauze from over my gash, now a well stitched up gash, and makes sure it is healing correctly. I assume he’s okay with it since he covers it back up. “You are suffering from, I presume, post-traumatic transient blindness, a result of your being struck on the head with the rifle butt. Over the next few days you might suffer from headaches, confusion, irritability, anxiety, nausea and vomiting. You need to take it easy for the next few days.”

“Does that mean I can leave here?”

“You don’t like our luxurious accommodations?” he chuckles. “I think if you promise to behave, we can let you out. However, Ms. Kingsley, you should know that traumatic brain injuries are cumulative, and they’re not pretty. It’s why Troy Aikman should retire while his brain isn’t pudding.”

Another reason why I love New Mexico. Everyone’s a Dallas Cowboy fan here. They don’t have any other real options. “It’d be hard to lose him though.”

“I know, but you don’t want to take something like this lightly. You need to be more careful, Ms. Kingsley. It looks like you have a lot of people depending on you.” He squeezes my shoulder and then leaves the room.

I tilt my head to kiss Brennan once more, at the exact moment she decides that I’m getting a little too close. Her fist, though tiny, connects with my nose with a solid thump. I blink and her precious face comes into view, full-colored and glorious. Her green eyes hold mine for long moments and we share a smile. “Hi, gorgeous.”

My eyes don’t leave my daughter’s, but I can see Kels and Collin rise from the chair in my peripheral vision. After settling Collin into the stroller, she moves over to me, cautious in her approach. “Harper? What’s going on over there?”

I kiss Brennan’s nose. “Nothing. Just making goo-goo eyes at my second best girl.”

“It’s amazing,” Kels voice is light and teasing. “I try for two years to knock some sense into you, and she does it in thirty seconds.” Kels sits on the bed beside me and tilts my face toward her. “I love those eyes. You keep playing with them like this and I’m going to take them away from you.”

I laugh at the absurdity of the comment. “I promise, chér. No more of this nonsense. Because these eyes love gazing at you.” I follow up the comment with a heartfelt kiss.

“Glad to hear it, Tabloid.”

Before I can reply, Brennan lets out a laugh. A real laugh.

Kels smiles, “Another country heard from.” She hands caresses our daughter’s head like a talisman. “You think we should take her home with us, Brennan? Even though she’s a big troublemaker?” Brennan coos at her Mommy. “Yeah? I think so too. I think we’ll keep her.”

“Whew!” I mock sigh. “I was worried for a moment there. And, congratulations, Kels, on making our daughter experience her first laugh.”

Kels joins our daughter. “Her first out-loud laugh, maybe. Harper, I have a feeling this baby has been laughing at me for weeks.”

“Really?” I’m intrigued. “What makes you say that?” God, I love this woman. I could easily spend a lifetime, and more, learning everything about her.

Now with our latest crisis seeming to have passed, Kels’ features relax into an easy smile. I realize upon seeing it, how long it’s been missing. “She’s been giving me the ‘Mommy, you’re silly’ look. Chewing on her fingers and playing with her feet while I get caught up in diaper tapes, and button up sleepers the wrong way, and bang my head on the changing table when I bend over to pick something up.”

“No wonder you made her laugh. And, I have a little favor to ask before we jet out of here.”

“Yes?”

“The Diné have a ceremony for their children, upon their first laugh. And seeing how you just now made Brennan laugh …”

“If the doctor says it’s all right, then we’ll stay.”

I smile. I can hardly imagine the doctor prescribing me to get the hell out of New Mexico.

* * *

I’m worried about Kels. Something’s not right. She agreed to this ceremony, I know, for me, and not because it means anything to her. Now that we’re staying, there’s no graceful way to change our minds and come back later. I wish we could. I think our family needs to steal away together for awhile. This year has sucked so far.

Our ride up here is short, especially since I’m not driving. No Neck, who appears to be our senior bodyguard, is behind the wheel. Kels very clearly explained to me that where we go from now on, our bodyguards go, and that there are to be absolutely no exceptions to this rule. I need to obey that dictate. I want my girl to feel better.

We climb out of the minivan and are greeted by Cora and Johnny. Cora’s arm is in a sling, having separated her shoulder during our little adventure. I see unshed tears glistening in her eyes and she wraps her good arm around my shoulders, hugging me tightly. “Harper, I’m glad you’re okay.”

I grit my teeth and ignore the screaming of my ribs. There’s no need to make her feel worse about this. Lord knows, she never intended what happened to happen. I make a fist and tap my forehead. “Hard stuff. Almost impossible to break.”

Cora turns to Kels and reaches out to take my wife’s hand. Holding it gently, Cora can’t even meet Kels’ eyes. “I owe you a profound apology, Kelsey. I am grateful that you would again come here to our home, knowing that I nearly caused you to lose part of yours. Please accept my apology and my promise that this will never happen again.”

“Cora, of course I accept your apology. Harper came here because she felt the need to help you. She is a part of your family too, and we will always support family.” My wife smiles and reaches out to curl her arm around mine. “I’d just prefer we do it with less bruising next time.”

“Absolutely. And, Kelsey, we consider you part of our family, as much as Harper. You are her second half, the second of her two spirits, without you, she would be incomplete. Please, consider this your home as much as hers. And as much as it belongs to your children.”

“Thank you. That’s very kind of you.”

Whew. We’ve gotten through the first hurdle of the evening. Okay, time to lighten this up a little bit. “Would you like to meet the two most amazing children in the entire world?” I turn around slowly and begin releasing the twins from the confinement. Brennan lunges into my hands, happy to be free. I hoist her up and kiss her chubby cheeks. “Ooo, you’re getting so big,” I gasp. I think it has more to do with my injury than her weight, if I am completely honest.

I present my daughter to a very appreciative audience. “This is Brennan Grace Stanton Kingsley.”

Cora ooos and aaas and nudges Johnny to hold out his hands to take my little girl. He takes her carefully and turns so Cora can inspect her. “She is absolutely beautiful.” Cora looks from mother to daughter. “She is a carbon copy of you, Kelsey.”

“Let’s hope not. I don’t think the world could stand two of me.”

Oh, honey, I don’t know about that.

“I hope she has a better temper.” I notice that Kels has edged a little closer to our baby and is keeping an eagle eye on her. Such a good mom, she is.

I lean in to get my boy. Instantly, his hands are wrapped in my hair. “Ow. Ow. Ow,” I chant. “I should know better than this by now.”

My wife takes pity on me and leaves her watch over Brennan to extract me from my captivity. “You won’t ever learn, Harper.” She kisses us both and hands him to me.

We all turn around, glad to find Brennan still in Johnny’s arms and safe, and I hold up Fuzzy. “This is Collin Lee Stanton Kingsley.”

Johnny chuckles. “That’s one hairy fellow.”

Kels joins him. “That’s our Fuzzy. I hold him personally responsible for all the heartburn I had while I was pregnant.”

“I think we can hold him responsible for mine as well,” Johnny continues good-naturedly. “He’ll be a good looking buck.”

I beam when Kels replies, “He’s got his Mama’s good looks.”

I hoist him up so we are cheek to cheek, the pain from the action is intense, but I am beyond caring. “Yup, nearly twins. Though my hair doesn’t stand on end so much.”

“No wonder you’re so proud of them,” Cora beams. “Come in, our clan is waiting for its newest members.”

Kels smiles and retrieves Brennan, and we head inside for the ceremony.

* * *

Shadow greets us when we come inside, placing her bony hands over their hands and saying an incantation over them. We wait in respectful silence while she blesses them. Upon finishing, she turns her sharp gaze, not at all diminished by time, on us. “Welcome.”

“Hello, Shad. You look good.”

She frowns and lifts a gray eyebrow. “I look like I will soon be with the spirits of my mothers and fathers before me.” Before I can object, she waves me off. “Your two are beginning their walks, and I am glad to see them start their journey.”

So am I. “Tell us about the ceremony, please. I only know that they are taught generosity.”

Shadow nods. “Before it begins, Harper, you will pass out salt to the guests, and, Kelsey, you will pass out fruit.” Before I can voice my question, it is answered. “The salt represents the Salt Woman; she was the first to perform this ceremony. The fruit is to show that Kelsey has been fruitful, and made you wealthy by the gift of the children.”

“That’s the truth,” I affirm.

“The reason why the ceremony takes place at this time is because your children have both laughed, and displayed delight in this world. They have learned this from you, by watching you both daily. It is a good sign that they have laughed so young. We worry about those children who do not.” She sighs, obviously caught in the memories of those children she has known. “Since they delight in the world, they need to learn not to horde it, but to care for others in their prosperity. Each of you will give a pinch of salt to the babies, some bread and some meat. Then you will take it away. This symbolizes their gift to you, a charitable nature.”

We nod, taking it all in.

“Typically, this is the time that the Diné child receives his or her name. It is a gift to them from their grandparents. Since neither of you come from Diné parents, with your permission, I will serve as the babies’ grandparent.”

“Of course it would be all right,” Kels says warmly.

“Just don’t name my boy Horace or something awful life that,” I tease, and then hope to hell her father’s name wasn’t Horace. Note to self, know that type of stuff before joking.

* * *

Our no neck bodyguard helps me settle down onto the couch. He saw I was in pain, broke into my conversation, and took control of the situation. No wonder Kels likes him. He then surprises me by going over to one of the clan and collects my son. “I thought you might like some company.”

Even as he says that, my girls appears behind him. “Mind if we join you then?” Knowing my ready answer, Kels and Brennan sit down.

Our little family. “So what do you think about all of this Maska?” I ask Collin. He frowns, a furrow forming between his tiny brows. God, that’s cute. Kels smoothes down his hair. It refuses to stay put, of course. “I like your new name, little man.” It means strong. He is. He made it through being born. Shadow also said that she can tell he will be good-natured and have a streak of originality in everything he does. It certainly exists in his hairstyle. I let him wrap his hand around my index finger and he pulls it into his mouth, chewing happily. “And how are you Manaba?” Brennan’s name means restless, and she is.

“She’s very happy,” Kels replies for our daughter. “Of course, she just ate. That always makes her happy.”

I leer at my wife. “Lord knows, it always makes me happy.” I lean over, ignoring the loud protests of my ribs and I nuzzle her neck. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Oh, now there’s a plan I can totally get behind.”

* * *

Pulling a blanket up over Harper’s shoulders, I watch her turn on her side and curl up into the couch as we fly for home. Glancing to my right, I find Brennan and Collin all settled down and sleeping quite soundly as well.

I take my seat across the table from Brian. He’s shuffling a deck of cards he’s been playing solitaire with. “Gin?”

“Sure, why not? I need to make a call though, so give me a minute.”

“No problem. I’ll stack the deck.”

I grin and pick up the phone. “You do, buddy, and it’ll be the last thing you stack.”

He looks at me and makes a clawing motion as he hisses and meows.

“You ain’t seen nothing yet.” I lean back and look at the keypad, punching the number in by rote. I hold the phone by tilting my head slightly, and I pick up the cards Brian has dealt. “Richard! Just the Executive Producer I was hoping to get a hold of. Hang on a minute, will you? Let me put you on speaker, I’m getting a kink in my neck.” I hang up the receiver and rearrange my hand.

“Yeah, I know how hard life can be on a private jet, Stanton.”

I roll my eyes at Brian, who has the good grace not to laugh out loud.

“Richard, let me cut to the chase here so I don’t waste your valuable time. I quit.”

“What!”

“Watch it. Harper and the kids are asleep here.” I glance over to confirm that is still the case. “Call my attorney. She and my agent have everything ready for the network bosses.”

“Kelsey…” he sputters for a moment, but I decide not to let him linger.

“It’s not you, Richard. It’s me. I need out. I need to quit. I’m going to combust if I don’t get my life under control. I assure you, it’s better this way. It wouldn’t do the network or the show any good if I had a breakdown on the air. And that’s exactly where I’m headed, if I don’t get out now.”

“Is there anything we can do?”

“Accept my resignation and let me buy out the contract. I can’t, and won’t, be coming back.”

“Are you heading back to New York now? Harper still has a job here, you know.”

“I know. I would imagine Harper will be back in a few days, but, right now, I’m flying to New Orleans. Harper took a pretty bad beating and needs a few days to heal. Then she’ll be back. In the meantime, Sam is on his way back in with a hell of a story. It’ll be a ratings grabber. Use it in good health.”

“Damn, you do know how to ruin a man’s day.”

“Didn’t mean to ruin your day. I thought you should know.”

“I do appreciate the heads up on this so it doesn’t blindside me later.” I hear him sigh. “Stanton, whatever happens, take care of yourself. You’re too talented for the industry to lose you. I hope to work with you again someday.”

“Thanks, boss. I’m sure our paths will cross again.”

“You tell Kingsley to get better and get her butt back up here. I’m going to need her to handle some fall out.”

“Will do. Take care of yourself, Richard, and umm… do me a favor?”

“Yeah?”

“Go home and see your wife and daughter. I’m sure they miss you.” I reach over and hang up the phone. I glance over at Brian. He looks totally shocked.

“Holy shit!” He raises both brows at me. “Can you do that? Quit like that?”

“I hope so, because I did.” I look at my hand again and rearrange it one more time. “Gin.”

Things are looking up already.

* * *

I kneel down and gently shake her. We’re about to land; I should probably clue her in so it’s not a complete shock. “Harper? Come on, sweetheart, wake up. We’re almost home and about to land.”

She rolls over and opens one eye completely and tries to open the other. She ends up squinting, letting it open as much as it can in its slightly swollen state. “Is it snowing?”

“I don’t know. Do we get much snow in New Orleans in March?”

“Heck, no. New Orleans in March is already heating up. Might even need the air conditioning on already. Not that we’ll have that trouble here.”

“Well, then I hope the air conditioning is functional at the house. I’m going to be busy enough without sweating and stinking the place up.” I grin, realizing she has no clue. She hasn’t caught on yet to the fact we’re in New Orleans. Give her time, she’s a bright girl. She’ll get it eventually. Brian is shaking his head and hiding his smile behind his hand.

“House? Our house?” she squeaks, the light breaking through. She sits up too rapidly, based on the pain that streaks across her face, and peers out the window with a long relieved sigh. “Home.”

“I said we were going home, Tabloid. I meant it.” I carefully turn her face so she’s looking at me. “I want us to spend a few days together, simply resting and relaxing. We need a break.”

“I’m all yours. We don’t even have to tell the Conspiracy we’re in town until you can’t stand the sight of me anymore.”

I have to laugh. “Honey, you should have given more thought to covert visits before you bought the house right next door the Robie and Rene. The entire family will know we’re home within ten minutes of our arrival. But I trust them to give us time to get settled before they all come over.”

“Thank God you love me even when I do silly things.”

I sigh. “Oh boy, isn’t that the truth?” I stretch and roll my shoulders. “Let’s get everyone home and settled in, shall we?”

* * *

With all of us fed and settled in for our first night home, Harper and I cuddle up together on the couch to watch a couple old movies and truly, totally relax. We’re thousands of miles away from anyone who will harm us, or who wants to make our lives miserable. Much like Scarlett O’Hara, I will think about that tomorrow. Tonight I’m perfectly comfortable snuggled up tight with Harper. She insists on holding me, despite her ribs, but I won’t argue with her. I need her close.

Brennan and Collin are fast asleep, and Brian decided to go see how the French Quarter survived Mardi Gras. I guess now would be a good time to fill Harper in on the fact I’m unemployed.

“Umm, sweetheart, I think there’s something you should know.”

She smirks. “You’re really a fifteen year old boy named Kevin?”

I take the time to peer down my shirt and confirm that is not the case. “No. Something you want to tell me?” I tease back.

She laughs hard and peeks down my shirt as well. “I thought those were real.”

I playfully slap her hands away. “They are very real.” I settle back against her and slowly let out a breath. “Before we landed today, I called Langston and quit my job.”

She gives the top of my head a kiss and whispers in my ear, “You let me miss all the fun?”

“There wasn’t that much to it, really. I think he knew it was coming. From your lack of reaction, you did too. Do I look like the totally stressed out whacko I feel I’m becoming, or what?”

“Not at all, chér. You look like a woman with new and improved priorities. I think you’ve made the right decision, if you care about my opinion on the matter.”

I raise her hand and kiss it, holding it tight under my chin as I nod. “You know I care about you opinion, but I had to get out. I had to get out of the business, and I had to get out of the city. It’s not me anymore.” I flick my eyes around this room, our house. “This is me. This is home now. I need to be here. I need to raise our children here. I need to be with our family.”

She smiles, her arms tightening around me. “How could I ever argue with that? All my life, all I hoped for was a woman who could love me and my family. I got you, babe,” she warbles in imitation of that old Sonny and Cher song. “I don’t plan on ever letting you go.”

“Yeah, well you know, Langston was pretty quick to remind me you still had a job and he expected you to come back to it.”

“What do you want me to do?” She pauses and then adds quickly, “And, I mean, want. Not what should I do. Or what would be best for my career. What do you, Kelsey Kingsley, want me to do?”

“I’m not going to reply that question, because the answer is obvious. I always have and always will want what’s best for you. You need to decide that is. I won’t be put in that position. It’s my job to decide what’s best for our children, not what’s best for you. I love and I’d love to have you home and close by. If you need to stay in New York a while longer, that’s fine too. You can come home on weekends. That’s why we have a jet.”

“Fuck the jet.” She grins and turns my head so I’ll look at her. “Can’t a girl get to hear, ‘Harper, I love you, I need you, I want you’ once in awhile?” Her thumb caresses my jaw line, sending pleasurable skitters down my body. “Plus, it’s our job, by the way, to decide what’s best for our children,” she emphasizes the word ‘our’ in her sentence. She pauses for a moment and adds, “I choose that both parents around on a daily basis is best. For me, for you and for them.”

“You see, there you go. You made that one on your own. And of course it’s ‘our’ job, but I meant I wanted you to do what was best. If you think being here is best, so be it.” I snuggle closer, feeling better with each passing moment. “By the way, I love you, I need you, and I want you. Don’t you ever doubt that. I wouldn’t have flown to New Mexico after your sorry butt if I didn’t love you.” I’d poke her in the ribs but I know I’d hurt her. “Once you’re all healed up, I’m sure we can find a way to show you how much I want and need you.”

* * *

“Ooo, Brennan, does Mommy want another red Mercedes?” I’m holding her on my lap. We’re kicked back in my big leather chair with our feet up on the desk, surfing the net and looking for a new car. “Or should we go for something else?” I look down at my daughter who is staring at the screen with wide eyes while she chews on my finger.

Her brother and her Mama have gone over to Uncle Robie’s to learn something very important about plumbing. Apparently her Uncle Robie flooded the downstairs bathroom and he required immediate assistance to bail him out before Rene got home.

Earlier today, Harper nearly had a coronary when I informed her I was buying a minivan and a Mercedes and calling it a life. She loves the fact I’m ready to be here and settled. It was the minivan option she was grumbling about. When I offered to buy the one with the TV, the DVD and video game system, she was happy as a clam.

“Sometimes I wonder who the bigger kid is,” I whisper to my daughter as I click on another color choice for the car. I cock my head looking at it and try to decide if I like that shade of blue. “What do you think, sweetheart?”

Brennan answers with a resounding raspberry, then proceeds to lengthen her response by drooling down her chin.

“Yeah, it’s not good, is it? Okay, next? How about green?”

We’re moving on to my next option when the announcement is made that we have mail. I kiss the top of my daughter’s head and click. It’s another job offer. I sigh. I know, I should be grateful they’re coming in, but, damn, I need time to rest. I hope everyone is still after me when I feel like going to back to work.

“Although this one could be fun, sweetheart. We’d get to go up to DC and nose around. We could see who King George intends to replace Richard ‘the lamb to the slaughter’ Cheney with after he shuts off the power to his heart altogether.”

Being home and unemployed could be bad. I could see becoming a major conspiracy theorist if left to my own devices.

Brennan blows another raspberry, reminding me we have far more important issues to attend to. We’re planning a virtual trip to the local virtual toy store as soon as I decide on the color of this car. There’s a teddy bear she’s got her eye on.

“Okay, but it’s coming out of your allowance.”

* * *

I stare out the window and consider the question. Why am I here? I turn around and face the doctor. He’s an older man with a kind smile. I think we’re going to get along just fine.

“I’m here, because I finally have everything I want in my life, but I feel like I’m losing control. I’m afraid I’m going to lose my mind. I can’t let that happen. Not now. So much has happened, and there are still so many things to deal with, and I feel overwhelmed….” I try to rush the words out so I don’t have a chance to stop or censor them. If I do, that’s a lie. He can’t help me if I lie to him.

“Seems to me that you have a pretty good feel for what’s going on inside.”

“Yeah,” I admit slowly. “but I can feel myself slipping away. I’m feeling the need to start clawing to stay where I am and I don’t want that. Ahead of me, I have my light, which is my own family and the family that has accepted me as their own. Behind me, there’s a darkness and I can feel the pull. I don’t like the feeling of it trying to pull me back. I don’t want to go back there. I didn’t like it there.”

“Don’t worry, Kelsey. We won’t let you go back there. You’re going to be fine.”
Episode Six: Don’t Worry, Be Happy
I like the way water runs over Kels’ body. It could have something to do with my viewing position. I am laying behind her, my back against the tub, our legs tangled together. I lift the sea sponge and squeeze it again, watching the rivulets travel down her chest. My other arm is wrapped around her, snuggled up under her breasts. I lean in and kiss her neck and behind her ear. “This is nice.” I breathe in the clean scent of her skin and hair.

“Umm,” Kels agrees languidly. She is totally relaxed against me.

I am not a bath person, in general. However, my wife is. And my job right now is to be with her. The twins are asleep in the other room. They are well fed, particularly Collin who has been a little pig lately, clean diapered and content. Once we had them settled down for their nap, I decided to focus my attention on their Mommy.

“Want to go curl up on the bed and watch some old movies?”

Kels opens one eye and regards me sleepily. “We have any Cary Grant ones?”

“We have, in fact, ‘Bringing Up Baby’, one of his best.”

“Ooo, with Kate Hepburn?”

I nod and drizzle more warm water over her. “You like her too?” I hum against her ear.

Kels hand comes up out of the water and covers mine, hugging my arm. “I have a thing for strong women.”

I flex my arms around her, and then nod to my bicep. “I’ve been working out.” I kiss her ear and nibble on it. “I love working out.”

Kels turns and kisses me softly. “I’ll be sure to buy you a gym membership here.”

* * *

Out of the bath, dried and in our pajamas, Kels and I lay on the bed, the television on in the background. Collin woke up a few minutes ago and is now on the bed too. He is between us, his feet in his mouth. My children could teach yoga. I think they do have baby yoga classes nowadays. I might have to check into that.

“Aaa,” Collin warbles happily around his toes.

“Yes, little man, we see you.” I give him a wet kiss on his forehead. I pick up the remote control and turn up the television over my son’s vocalizing, so I can figure out what’s on. It’s one of the multitude of cable news channels.

“In a surprise exit at the weekly news magazine Exposure, anchor Kelsey Stanton resigned citing personal reasons,” the perky blonde reads from the monitor.

I go to change the channel, but Kels takes the remote from me. “Leave it. I want to hear it.”

Okay.

“Earlier this year, Kelsey Stanton was outted as a lesbian when her mother, Katherine Stanton, kidnapped the twins Kelsey had late last year with her partner, Harper Kingsley. Harper Kingsley is a senior producer with Exposure Productions. No word yet on whether she will resign.”

“I will,” I yell and toss a pillow at the television.

“Kelsey Stanton,” the anchor continues, “came under fire, literally, last year when she was kidnapped by an obsessive fan. When the police came to her rescue, she shot her kidnapper multiple times. No charges were brought after the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office ruled it was self-defense.”

Kels scowls. “How kind of them to recap my year. What’s wrong? Hasn’t Robert Downey Junior done anything stupid this week?”

“Apparently not.” I lift up Collin and dangle him over his mother. “But we got Super Baby out of it, so they can all fuck off.”

“Harper Lee! That’s gonna cost you big!”

I smile. Mission accomplished. My wife is now worried about my foul language rather than the bitch on the television. “I know, I know,” I sigh. I zoom Collin toward his mommy. “Look, Super Baby wants a kiss!”

Kelsey starts laughing hard and gives her son a kiss. It’s a sloppy one, more drool than anything else. I lean in and join the fun.

We form a little bundle of happiness, alternating kissing our son and each other. This is the way life should be. Family.

Brennan squawks from her spot in the nearby bassinet. I settle Collin down comfortably on his mother’s chest, and roll off the bed. I pad over to Brennan and scoop her up. “What’s wrong, Miss Cranky? Huh? You want to kiss your Mommy too?” We come back over to the bed and plop down.

Kels lifts her head up and smiles affectionately at her daughter. “She gets this way if she thinks she’s missing something. She is a nosey child.” I lift Brennan and put her nose to nose with her mom. “She has the making of a fine reporter in her blood.”

I laugh at the thought of anyone trying to stonewall Brennan. “We might have to work with her on her interview technique.”

“Hey!” Kels protests on Brennan’s behalf. “She convinced you to get up and get her. I think she’s got it figured out.”

“True, except she lacks a certain subtlety.”

“That, my dear, she gets from you.”

My wife is smiling, looking happy and carefree for the moment. “No need to rub it in.” I lay on my side, looking at the two babies now flailing on their mommy. “We did good, chér.”

“We certainly did, and I dare anyone to say differently.”

* * *

I pull my legs up under me and inhale the slight scent if mint in the tea. No wonder I like my doctor. He definitely knows how to make a person relax.

“How do you feel today, Kels?”

“Overall, not bad. I already feel more relaxed simply being in New Orleans.”

“Even with the press your departure from Exposure has caused?” He sips from his own mug and prepares to make a note in my file.

“I’m a member of the press and part of the media. I have a certain celebrity I have to live with. You can do one of two things: deal with it or let it make you crazy.”

“And that’s why you came to me? To learn to deal with it?” He grins and winks.

“Actually, that’s probably a fair question.” I sigh and look into my mug, then back to him. “I don’t feel like I’ve handled some things very well.”

“Such as?”

“Like killing a man. Shouldn’t I feel more guilty over that?”

“It’s not my job to tell you what you should feel. It’s my job to help you accept how you feel.”

“Spoken like a true therapist.”

“Good, because I knew there was a reason I went to college for those degrees.” He grins again and gets up to refresh his tea. “Why do you think you should feel ‘more guilty’ for killing that man?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it has something to do with the whole ‘Thou shall not kill thing’.”

“You don’t strike me as being particularly religious.”

“I’m not. Let’s say, I’m comfortable with my own spiritual being.”

“Yet you quoted one of the Ten Commandments. Are you afraid you’re going to go to hell?”

“No.”

“Then why be worried about the Ten Commandments?”

“Good point.”

“It’s a socialized reaction. You’ve heard about them, listened to people refer to them all your life, it happens. Do you think you saved your own life by killing that man?”

“Yes. The one thing that does bother me, though, is was there some revenge factor when I killed him? I thought he had hurt Harper. I wanted him dead for that. Isn’t that wrong?”

“Kelsey, I can’t tell you what to feel. That man killed a lot of people, and hurt a lot of people. There were dozens of victims. From the people he murdered to the family that survived them. I’m sure to some of the parents and friends of the women he killed, you’re a hero.”

“Oh, don’t say that.” I really have to choke down a sick feeling. “I don’t want to be a hero for killing someone.”

“Okay, then, let me merely say, I personally think the way you’re feeling and are dealing with what you did is perfectly healthy and normal. It’s okay not to feel guilty for saving your own life.”

I nod and sip my tea. I’m not so sure about that, but I’ll go with it for the moment.

“How do you feel about leaving your job now that you’ve been away from the grind for a few days?”

“Actually, right now, I’m enjoying it. I’m reading and relaxing and being with the babies and Harper, and settling into the house. It’s wonderful. I know myself well enough to know that eventually I’ll have to find something to do here. I’ll go crackers if I don’t work. But I have lots of options. I’ve gotten lots of offers too.”

“That must make you feel good.”

“It does. It’s nice to know people are still interested in working with me despite the problems I’ve had, and the things that have come out.”

“Well, it seems to me it wouldn’t be a big deal.”

“You’d think that, but if numbers are lousy and advertisers threaten to pull their dollars, the powers that be get twitchy.”

He nods his understanding, taking his seat again. “What’s Harper going to do?”

“She’s quitting and coming back to New Orleans too.”

“Do you feel like you forced the issue?”

I sigh. “I’d like to think no, but deep down I know she’s giving up her career to be with me and the babies. Harper is an adult and sometimes adults have to do things they don’t like. I can’t let myself take the blame for a decision she made. She could have stayed in New York and finished out her contract. It wouldn’t have been fun to be separated, but we could have worked it out. You know what I mean?”

“I understand. My wife and I had to be separated for a time when she was getting her degree. She was going to school in Georgetown and I was setting up my practice here. You’re right, it wasn’t fun, but we managed.”

“Family is very important to Harper and she wants to be with us. She’s a very talented producer; it won’t take her long to pick up another job. It’s not as if we have to worry about money, so that helps a great deal too. It gives us both time.”

“You’re very fortunate in that area. Most people don’t have that luxury.”

“I know. We are also lucky to be surrounded by family.”

“Harper’s family. Correct?”

“Yeah. I’ve only recently started mending fences with my own father. He lives in New York. Besides, he’s remarried and has a baby of his own now. While I’m delighted we’re talking again, he has a new family and I’m not really a part of it. Or, at least, I don’t feel a part of it.”

“Do you feel like a part of Harper’s family?”

“I do. I always have. They made me feel welcome from the first time I was here.”

“You like that, don’t you? Feeling like you belong somewhere?”

“It’s the first time I’ve ever really felt like I belonged.”

“Mind if I play Devil’s Advocate for a moment?”

“I thought that was your job.”

He smiles and shakes his head. “I can see treating you is going to be a challenge.”

“Always.”

“Do you think there’s any chance you let yourself fall for Harper because you liked the feeling of belonging?”

Ouch. Wow. When he plays, he plays hard. “I… I don’t know. I suppose it’s possible. But I love Harper. I love her family and I feel complete. Isn’t that important?”

“It’s the most important thing. I know you love Harper; I have no doubt about that. I was just curious if you had ever examined that possibility.”

“No, and I’m not sure I need to. I love Harper. We have a wonderful family and a beautiful home. That is what matter’s in the here and now.”

“What about in fifteen years?”

I have to laugh. “In fifteen years, I’ll be too busy keeping Harper from killing whatever boy Brennan is trying to date to worry about it.”

He laughs with me. “I have a teen daughter and let me tell you, that first date is terrifying. You want to follow them around, hiding behind bushes and stuff.”

“I’m not sure Harper will survive it.”

“She’ll be fine. She’s got a few years to adjust to the concept.”

“True.”

* * *

I am waiting for Kels in the backyard. While she’s been with her new therapist since earlier this morning, Robie and I hung up a porch swing. I am now stretched across it, a book on my chest and the sun on my legs. The twins are over at their cousins’ house next door, so we can have a little quiet time together. If she ever gets home.

I lean over and pick up a glass of iced tea from the deck. Through a curtain of hair, I see a pair of sneakers.

“Hiya, Stud.” Kels’ voice is warm with affection. “Looks like you’ve been busy. Want some company?”

I straighten up, glass in hand, and smile. “If it’s yours, then absolutely.” I swing my legs around so she can join me. I hold out my hand and beckon to her. “How are you, gorgeous?”

“I’m good.” She glances around and lifts an inquiring eyebrow. “Where are the babies? Did you finally sell them off to the band of roaming gypsies?”

I shrug melodramatically. “They offered a good price. Until they come pick them up, Brennan, Collin and Aunt Brian are over at Robie and Rene’s.”

“At least you got more than a handful of magic beans for them.” She comes over and drops down on the swing beside me, then snatches my tea.

“Hey!” I mock protest. I follow my tea over to her lips and welcome her home.

“So what’s the plan for the rest of the day?”

I lean back and tug on her gently to rest against me. “I thought we could spend a little time together. Then we can go pick up a video, get the kids and snuggle on the couch.”

“Hmm … a woman with a plan. That’s good.” She settles against me, keeping hold of my glass. “My brain is mush. How about Chinese carry out for dinner?”

“You got it.” I take a deep breath and decide to wade into deeper waters. “How did it go today?”

“It went really well. I like him.” She hands me the glass so I can take a sip. “He makes me think, but he doesn’t push me. He also lets me know it’s okay not to be one hundred percent sure of how I’m feeling. I thought I was supposed to have it all worked out. I’m glad to find out that I don’t need to, and that I have time.”

I let my fingers gently caress the skin of her arm, trying to convey concern and affection. “What were you supposed to have all worked out, chér?”

“I don’t know. I had this feeling that I was somehow supposed to have all the answers. It’s nice to know I don’t have to.”

“Yeah, because then you’d really be showing me up,” I tease.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s not going to happen. I’m going to take things one day at a time. Work through the things that lurk in the shadows of my mind, and get on with my life.” My girl snuggles closer against me, wrapping an arm around my waist. “I’ve got to find something to do to keep us busy now that I’ve all but managed to unemploy both of us.”

“Don’t you want me here?” My throat is tight around the question.

“Of course, I do. But I know I need to keep you busy. Otherwise, it’ll be like living with Calvin when he’s hopped up on sugar covered cocobombs.”

I sigh, both in relief and in desire, “God, I wish they made those.” I kiss her temple and breathe in the clean scent of her shampoo. “Do you need anything from me? Is there any way I can help you, darlin’?”

“You’re doing just fine. This is about me, Harper. I’m learning to get a grip and not let everything build up until I feel like I can’t take it anymore. Therapy is good for me. It’s where I need to be right now.”

“You could take up boxing.”

“I may do that.” She thumps my stomach as a joke. “I need to start working out on a regular basis again. I may start taking kick boxing lessons or something. Who knows? We’ll see what happens.”

I give my best rakish grin. “We could have lots of sex. It’s a good workout. And it’d sure keep me happy.”

This time I receive a teasing elbow to the ribs. “Yeah, we could do that too.” Huh, given her tone of voice, I think not. “I’d like to see if I could get you to beg for mercy again.”

“Won’t it be fun trying?” I kiss her, but pull back, sobering, remembering why we’re having this conversation in the first place. “Look, I just want you to know that I am here for you, with you, by you. All of that, okay? You are not alone. And you mean the world to me, Fuzzy and our baby with no nickname.” I figure I may as well say everything I had in mind today. “If you need to talk, or a shoulder to cry on, I want to do that for you. We’re in this together. Got that?”

“I know that. I never doubted that for a moment, Harper. Of all the things I have been concerned about, the fact that you’ll support me in any way you can has never been one of them. I trust you’ve got my back, and if I stumble you’ll be there. But I want you to remember that you’ve got two others who need you more than I do. You need to put them before even me. I’m a big girl, but they depend on you for everything.”

“Speaking of them, want to go rescue Robie from a house full of six children?”

“Sure. Should we invite Clark and Christian over for a little Chinese and a movie? Maybe give Robie and Rene a little break too?”

I am disappointed. Kels didn’t get my joke. “I said six kids,” I prompt.

“You know, you should be nicer to Brian.” I chuckle, pleased she’s gotten it now. “Besides, it’s not like you have a lot of room to talk Miss Ooo Look At The Video Games We Can Play In The New Van.”

I laugh fully, recognizing the truth of her statement. “Ooo, burned. Do we take Kelly too? I don’t know if Christian will leave his Kelsey, truth be told.”

“Sure. Why not? Let’s see what it’d be like to have a house full. Then you’ll have a real feel for what you put Mama through all those years ago. You may even want to send her flowers and apologize by the time the evening is over.”

I tap her nose. “Tsk, tsk. I already do better than that. On my birthday every year, I send Mama a huge bouquet of flowers. They always have a balloon saying ‘It’s a girl!’ and a card congratulating her on newborn.”

“That’s very sweet, Tabloid.”

“I thought that was a real nice thing to do.”

“It is.” My girl is laughing a bit as she slides off the bench. She holds her hand out to me and tugs me to my feet as well. “Come on, Stud, let’s go get a herd of children.”

“I love you, Little Roo.”

* * *

We have a quiet moment in the household. Collin and Brennan are stretched out on the blanket, chewing on toys. I am laying beside them, in case either need attention. Resting on my stomach, in the meanwhile, are Kels’ feet. Apparently, I am a good footrest.

Kels is up on the couch, reading a thick ass book. I think that Kels is planning on reading all of the greatest books ever written now that she’s a free woman. I still need to get up to New York tomorrow so I can quit. I also need to start arranging for our household items to be moved down here.

Brian enters the room, humming happily. “I think I’m going to run down to the Quarter for the afternoon, if that’s okay with you guys.”

“Sure,” Kels replies readily, but frowns slightly. “Don’t you want to come over to Mama and Papa’s this afternoon?”

“Ooo, Mama does have impeccable taste.”

I snort.

He nudges me with his foot. “Your Mama does!”

Kels rubs her feet on my belly, tickling me. “You better watch it, Harper. He’ll rat you out to the Kitchen Conspiracy, and what he can’t find in the truth, he’ll make up.”

I sigh and raise my hands in mock surrender. “Fine, fine. Of course, Mama has impeccable taste. She had me.” Brian and Kels both erupt into laughing fits. Brats.

“Right,” Brian chortles. “I was just thinking that.” He smiles over at my girl. “I’ll stop by later in the afternoon.”

“Brian, before you go, do you have a minute? Harper and I want to talk with you.”

“Okay.” He looks nervous. “Is everything okay?”

Kels smiles. “Everything is fine.” She pats the cushion next to her. Brian plops down and puts his feet on my thigh. I barely refrain from slapping him off. “We want to know if you’ve given any thought as to whether we should be looking for a new nanny. Moving to New Orleans would be a big step for you.”

“I know. I am looking forward to it.” He looks over at my children fondly. “I have no intention of leaving until Brennan and Collin’s eighteenth birthday.”

Eighteenth birthday? They need a nanny until then? I’m going to be feeding and housing Brian for eighteen more years? At least if I pass out, I’m already stretched out on the floor. “That long?” I croak, forgetting to censor myself.

Kels’ heel digs into my tummy. “Be nice!”

I look at my wife, my eyes pleading my case. “Eighteen years, Kels. If our kids still need a nanny then, we’ll have huge problems. Huge.”

“Relax, sweetheart. I’m sure Brian is simply being nice.” She glances over at our nanny to confirm her statement. He gives a coy look which does not reassure me. “What he’s trying to say is he loves our babies and he’s not leaving them.”

I fan myself. “You sure?” I look over at Brian. “You’re being polite?”

“You know, Stud,” Brian replies, “sometimes you take things too literally. What would you say if I told you I was madly in love with your wife too?”

Oh, God, what a day! “You’re trying to kill me.”

“No, Stud.” He climbs off the couch and kneels beside me. Closely. Too close, actually. “If I were trying to kill you, I’d do this.”

Before I realize what is happening, Brian is kissing me.

On the lips.

I grab his lips between my thumb and forefinger, surprising him. “Don’t. Do. That. Again.”

Brian nods.

And I begin laughing helplessly. The next eighteen years will certainly be interesting.

* * *

The KC is in full attendance this weekend. Oh, it feels like it’s been forever since we were all together like this. I didn’t realize how much I missed this until now, sitting and laughing with my family. Rachel has us all in hysterics relaying Luc’s attempts at adjusting to fatherhood. In truth, he’s doing fine, but since Stevie is the one who walked around most of the morning with his sneakers on the wrong feet until Rach noticed, he might want to argue the point. Seems Luc has a bit of trouble telling where the arch is on the small sneakers his boys wear.

“How’s Harper with that kind of thing?” Katherine grins at me expecting that I’ll dish some dirt on my dear spouse.

“She is an absolute whiz.” I have to laugh though. “There are times, however, when I believe she thinks diapering is a rodeo type competition and it’s a matter of how fast she can get it done.” I sip my tea and look over at the twins sleeping so peacefully in their stroller despite the noise in the room. “Then again, it could be survival instinct. Some of the stuff they produce is truly toxic.”

“Speaking of Harper,” Mama says very seriously as she takes a seat. “I think it’s time we invite her to join us.”

You can hear a pin drop. Somehow, while that would be wonderful, it doesn’t seem right. It makes sense, though. In some weird, twisted way. Mama looks at us all in turn, lifting a brow when she comes to me.

“Hey, don’t ask me. I’m all for it. Ask Harper Lee. It’s her decision.”

Rene gets up from her seat and goes to the kitchen window. “Oh, Harper Lee, would you come in here, please?”

We hear the boys groaning and teasing her, and all the kids are singing that she must be in trouble. Robie yells, “Watch out for Mama’s wooden spoon.”

We have to laugh when she comes in and just barely sticks her head in the door.

“Collin giving y’all trouble?”

“No, Harper Lee.” Mama stands up and pats the back of her chair. “Collin Lee is sound asleep. Come in her and have a seat.”

“Why? What did I do?”

I snort and hide my grin behind my hand. I lower my eyes, but still manage to keep one on Harper. Man getting called to the kitchen is apparently not a good thing. Harper looks like she might burst into tears if we don’t let her off the hook soon.

“Come in here and sit down.” Mama’s voice is firm. Harper immediately takes her seat.

Poor thing. She looks like the puppy who got caught stealing dinner from the table. I’m not sure if I can take much more if it. I shoot daggers at my sisters who are chuckling like there is no tomorrow.

“Harper Lee, we think it’s time you came to join us here in the kitchen,” Mama tells her from her spot near the stove. She pours herself another cup of coffee and watches Harper’s reaction over the rim.

“What?”

I can tell be the look on Harper’s face, she thinks this is a joke. I reach out to take her hand to let her know it’s not.

“We think you should join us in the kitchen,” Mama says again, giving her youngest a knowing grin, waiting for her answer.

“Why? I thought the Conspiracy was to keep us in line.”

Rachel leans forward and rests her chin on her fist. “Who’s ‘us’, Harper?”

She scowls at Rachel and growls, “The kids.”

Katherine stretches back in her chair and tosses her napkin to the table. “Why, Harper, you know the Kingsley grandchildren are some of the best behaved in the state. Why would we need to keep them in line? Could you be talking about someone else?”

Man, the KC is in full viper mode today. It’s getting harder and harder to hide my grin.

“First generation kids,” Harper clarifies unnecessarily. We all understood. “Me and the boys. And you know darn well what I meant.”

She looks to me for help and it’s all I can do to keep from laughing. Poor thing is scared witless. “Harper, the offer is sincere. Mama thinks that since we now have Brennan and Collin, and you’ve become a full time Mama yourself, that it would be nice for you to join us.”

“Can I think about it?” she stammers.

Mama nods. “Absolutely, you have thirty seconds.”

This causes another round of the giggles. Jesus, Harper, don’t be stupid and challenge Mama on this. An invitation to the KC does not come lightly, you have to earn it.

She thinks for a long moment and then blows out a deep breath. “I think I should pass then. I feel a lot safer outside.” She says this glancing around at the other members of the Conspiracy. She knows they love her, but she knows her brothers do more. “Besides, in a couple years, Collin won’t be welcome in here. Someone will need to keep him company.”

With that, she snatches up our sleeping son and makes a rather hasty exit. She’s going to regret it when Collin wakes up hungry, and she finds out she forgot his bottle.

* * *

I check Robie and pass the ball to Luc. He goes up for the shot. Two points. I pat Robie on the butt teasingly. “Nice try, bro.”

I get a pat back. “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over, little sis.”

“Younger!” I shoot back and glance over at my son, safely ensconced in his Uncle Gerrard’s arms. He has Collin turned around so that he is facing the action; he can watch me win a basketball game. “I won’t let Brennan be this mean to you, Fuzzy!”

Gerrard waves his little fist at me.

Luc takes the basketball out of the circle and bounces it a few times. Jean lumbers over to guard him. I have to chuckle at the sight. Jean needs to work out a touch more. You’d think five kids would keep him in better shape than this. Lord knows, Elaine looks amazing.

I break free of Robie, get the pass from Luc and do my famous spin. Oh yeah, works like a charm. A step, a jump and two points! Luc and I exchange high-fives.

Robie and I go back to the line where I laugh at him. “You’re getting old and slow.”

“Bite me,” he growls, wiping sweat from his forehead.

“Nah,” I shake my head, getting my bangs out of my eyes, “I don’t like pork.”

Even as he protests, I toss the ball inside. Luc is on it, but goes for a lay up which even Jean can stop. Damn.

Robie snickers, even though he had nothing to do with his change in fortune. I guard him, being sure to get a couple extra bumps in than are needed. “Come on, ol’ man, get the ball.”

When Jean passes it to him, I easily steal it and pass it to Luc before Robie can even protest. I celebrate our next couple points until Robie says, “So what’s up, Harper Lee? Normally people put in change of address cards with the post office before they up and move.”

I know he’s teasing, but it cuts. Especially since I didn’t know we were moving until we landed in New Orleans. Or, at least, I didn’t know we were moving so soon. “We like to keep folks guessing.” I snatch the ball out of the air, pass it back to Luc, who’s easily broken free of Jean, and pump my arm wildly when we win.

Four sweat-soaked Kingsleys hug briefly, and wander off to check on kids, wives and food. Not necessarily in that order.

I do take Fuzzy back from Gerrard and nestle him against my damp chest. “Hi, Little Man. Did you see your Mama whip your Uncle Robie’s behind?”

“Phwft,” is my older brother’s only comment. He grabs a sports bottle and squirts the cold water on his head, sprinkling my son with his runoff.

“Hey!” I protest on my boy’s behalf.

“He’ll live. It’s water. Right, boy?” He tickles Collin’s cheek and my son smacks his lips. Don’t remind him it’s nearly suppertime, Robie.

Robie inclines his head and I follow him over to a bench as requested. “Everything okay, Harper?”

“Everything’s great. Why?” I bounce Collin causing him to gurgle happily.

He shrugs. “Coming home in the middle of the night, tail between your legs. That’s not you. Never has been. Are you all right? The kids? Kelsey?”

I sigh, not knowing how to really answer him. “I’m fine. The children are perfect. Kels will be fine. She merely needs a little time to regain her balance.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means she needs a little time to regain her balance.”

“My problem isn’t my hearing,” he mutters.

“Just your comprehension.” I feel all my protective instincts well up. I may have a slight issue with how things were done, but it’s not my brother’s place to have one. Except, I know he loves me. And Kelsey. “Let me recap Kels’ last eighteen months for you. She was held hostage in Omaha, threatened with death. Fell in love with me. Saved New York City from biological warfare. Was stalked. Was kidnapped. Had her best friend murdered. Had to kill her kidnapper to stay alive. Changed jobs. Moved across the country. Moved in with me. Got pregnant. With twins. Reconciled with her father. Found out she has a little sister, and a step mom. Gets married. I go blind. She goes into early labor. Nearly loses a child in birth. Is blackmailed. Has her children stolen from her. Both by her mother. And I get held hostage and temporarily blinded again.”

“Jesus.”

“Exactly. That’s off the top of my head. I’m sure there’s more.”

He rubs my shoulder. “It’ll be fine.”

“I know. Rob, I didn’t like how she did it. I didn’t like waking up in New Orleans and hearing that my wife and my children are moving here, and I can see them on weekends if I want. I didn’t like not being consulted on that major of a life choice.” I kiss my son, my heart hurting at the thought of even being away from him for a few days, as I need to be starting tomorrow. “God, that pissed me off. But what was I to do, Rob? Drag her back to New York? Force her to go to a place where her kids were kidnapped from her?” Now that I’m talking about this, I can’t seem to quit. “I wouldn’t have cared if she just quit. That wouldn’t have bothered me. It was the ‘I’m moving to New Orleans and you can see us on Saturday and Sunday’ which hurt.”

“At least, she came home to New Orleans. She could have decided they were living in Los Angeles or Bumfuck, Wyoming.”

“I know. Thank God she knows she’s family here. I am glad when she thought to run home, she thought of next door to you and less than a couple miles from Mama and Papa.”

He bumps shoulders with me. “We’re glad to have you home, Harper Lee. I’m glad. Rene is glad. Our kids are ecstatic.”

I snort, immediately disbelieving him. “Excuse me, but your children aren’t glad I am here; they’re glad she is.”

“Nah, Christian still loves his Tante Harper. And you are the bees’ knees to Clark. He worships you.”

“He has good taste.”

He smiles and glances across the yard to his son. Clark lifts up a pail of sand and dumps it on Geoffrey. “Elaine won’t like that. Oh well. Clark is my boy, and he and I think you are wonderful.”

Sometimes, all you need is one person to say that. “Thanks, Robie.”

“It’s easy, Harper. I’ve known you all your life. Kelsey is the best thing to happen in it. I know this will work out for the best of your entire family. You included. Sometimes spouses do unexpected things. It keeps you light on your feet.”

“No shit.” Collin burps and I am reminded of my transgression. “Sorry, bud. Harvard, here you come.”

* * *

I don’t want to leave tomorrow morning. With Kels in a fragile state, I don’t want to be away. Every protective instinct I have is aroused by her. Of course, almost everything about me is aroused by her. I wander out of the bathroom, rinsing out the toothpaste in my mouth, and find Kels stretched out on the bed, clad only in one of my T-shirts.

I move slowly, consciously drawing her attention to me, and join her there. “I love you,” I whisper and then kiss her passionately. My right hand travels up the side of her lithe body, stopping and caressing all the interesting spots along the way. As always, there are many. My hand slides along the back of her thigh, the skin silky smooth. I growl against her neck. “Sweet.”

Her back arches and she presses her breasts into mine. Nice. I take a nip at her throat, tasting the tender skin. More. I want more. My need for Kels is always insatiable.

“Come here,” she guides me with a gentle finger under my chin to kiss her mouth once again. Her tongue swirls against mine, tasting me, sharing herself. I groan into the sensation, which only encourages her. Her hands trace gentle patterns on my scalp and back. That’s nice.

Ooo, it just got nicer.
Episode Seven: PUNCH LINES
How I got here is a simple story. How I’m ever going to live it down may not be.

I look at my bruised knuckles. While I’ll probably regret what I did for a long time to come, it was very satisfying at the moment I did it.

I hear the door to the jail open, and the laughter of two of my sisters-in-law. Oh, God, take me now. I close my eyes and shake my head. When I open them again, I find Katherine and Rene.

Standing there.

Grinning at me.

“Get me out of here,” I mumble.

Rene taps on the bars. “Not exactly a look I would have picked for you, Kels.”

Katherine smirks. “You know there’s a sheriff in Arizona or someplace that issues pink underwear… maybe you could go there and pick a fight too.”

“If you love me, if you really love me, you will pay my bail so I can go home and take a shower.”

“No, if we really love you, we won’t take a copy of your mug shot and have it blown up into a twenty-six by thirty inch poster.” Rene giggles.

I get up and walk over to the bars. “Please, please, get me out of here.”

“Relax, jailbait. They’re processing the paperwork.” Katherine looks very close to laughing. “So are you going to tell Harper?”

“Not like I have a choice. I got arrested for punching an ex-girlfriend of hers in the face.”

“Should we go get you boxing gloves or will you continue with the bare knuckles thing?”

“Rene, I’ve already committed simple assault once today. What makes you think it’s not like potato chips?” I cross my arms and wait.

She looks to the door where the cops are, scratching her neck in an exaggerated manner. “Wonder what’s holding up that paperwork?”

I lean against the bars with my forehead and close my eyes. “I can’t believe I did that. I hit that woman.”

“Kels, you didn’t merely hit her. You knocked out two teeth and cracked her jaw. Robie is at the hospital right now trying to get her squared away so she won’t sue you.”

“Oh, God! Harper is never gonna forgive me for this.”

Katherine is rubbing my shoulders through the bars. “I know you’ve been stressed, but what did she say that made you hit her?”

I shake my head. “She said something about Harper and it made me mad.”

“So you punched her square in the face?” Rene shakes her head in amusement. “Damn, woman, I wish you were my girlfriend. I’ve never had anyone fight over me before.”

“Rene, bite me.”

“I don’t think so. I like my teeth where they are.”

* * *

Langston’s office is cold. Extremely cold, in fact. It’s because I have just handed him my resignation letter. He looks up at me, his eyes piercing. “What the fuck is this, Kingsley?”

“Paper.”

He crumples it up and tosses it away from his desk, as if it were an unclean thing. “Then it’ll burn easily.” He takes a deep breath and leans back in his chair. “I don’t accept it.”

I laugh at his bullheadedness. I cross my legs and pick imaginary lint off my wool trousers. “Seek therapy, Langston, because when I walk out the door, I’m heading to pack up our offices and go.”

“Why toss away your career simply because your wife wants to stay home and raise babies? It doesn’t make any damn sense to me.”

I fight back the need to say it doesn’t need to make any damn sense to anyone except Kelsey, but I don’t waste my breath. Someone like him will never understand making family a priority. It certainly consists of more than displaying your kids pictures on your desk and pretending you know them. “It is what it is. I don’t regret my decision, only the timing of it.”

This he latches on to. “So you do want to stay!”

“I had planned on finishing this season up with you, but then I was planning on leaving. Kels surprised me by moving before then. I won’t, however, be apart from my family for any length of time. While this is early, it isn’t unwanted.”

Langston’s face settles into a petulant look that I remember seeing on Lucien’s face all during childhood. “I don’t like it.”

“I don’t recall asking if you did.” We’re not going to get anywhere in this conversation. I uncross my legs and stand up, extending my hand across his desk. “Thanks for a good year. I learned a lot from you.”

He takes my hand and shakes it. “Who you going to work for now?”

I shrug. “I have no idea. When I land somewhere, I’ll be sure to give you a call, hit you up for a favor or two.”

“Like I’d help you now,” he teases. “Besides, the phone lines work both ways.”

“I’m sure we’ll work together in the future.” Wow. It feels weird to be closing this chapter of my life. I never thought I’d walk away from a position like this. Never thought I’d want to. “I’ll go get our things and head out.”

I am halfway out the door when he calls, “Be sure to leave the company stapler behind, Kingsley.”

* * *

Even though Mama places a cup of tea in front of me, and hands me an ice bag for my hand, I can tell she’s not pleased.

“I’m sorry.” It sounds meek and it’s supposed to.

“What could someone possibly say that would lead you to violence, Kelsey?”

“I’d rather not repeat it. It’ll only make me mad again.” I press the ice to the knuckles that are now swollen and an ugly shade of blue and purple. “I readily admit it was not one of my best moments.”

“Have you told Harper yet?” She busies herself by the stove with what I’m sure is going to be a wonderful dinner.

“Not yet. I’m going to wait until she gets back from New York. This is not something I want to tell her over the phone.” I sip my tea. “‘Hi, Honey, went to the gym this morning. Ran into an old girlfriend of yours. We got into an argument. She insulted you. I punched her. I got arrested.’” I shake my head. “No, I think that kind of thing is better told in person.”

I look over when I hear Brian in the doorway. He’s holding Collin up and waving his little hand at me. “And in this corner we have ‘Punch’ Kingsley weighing in at a hundred twenty pounds…”

I hold my good hand out for my boy. “Very funny. Are they being good today?” I kiss the top of Fuzzy’s head as Brian settles him in the crook of my arm.

“They’re not quite 4 months old, how bad could they be?” He straightens and heads for the stove to give Mama a kiss on the cheek, the little suck up. “Good afternoon, Mama.”

“Bon jour, Brian. Where’s my granddaughter?”

“Right over there in the carriage. Since Mommy chose to get arrested this morning, we had to have a bottled late lunch so now we’re having a late nap.” He gives me a saccharine grin as he pours himself a cup of coffee.

“You can be replaced,” I grumble, while rocking Collin. He looks up at me and gives me his silly smile. Even though I know I have to face the music when she gets here, I wish Harper was home. I miss her.

“So, Champ, you gonna tell me what happened?” Brian practically chirps as he jumps up on the counter and sips his coffee.

Mama turns the heat down under whatever she is cooking and leans on the counter next to Brian. Both of them give me expectant stares.

I feel so stupid. I’m going to call my therapist and see if he has any extra time this week.

“I went to the gym this morning. I ran into someone Harper apparently had a brief romance of some sort with. Words were exchanged. She finally said something I didn’t like and I hit her. It’s pretty simple really.”

Brian chuckles. “Guess that’s why they call it simple assault.”

I frown. “I let my temper get the best of me, and I shouldn’t have done that. Let’s hope I can get out of it with a lawsuit, a fine, and time served. I’d rather not go to jail. I don’t like jail.” I take another sip my tea hoping it might soothe my nerves. “You know, come to think of it, I’d never been in jail until I met Harper. Now I’ve been there twice. Very impressive charges too. Prostitution and assault.” I have to joke now or I swear I’m gonna cry.

I definitely need to call the doctor.

It helps when I look up and see the barely hidden smile Mama has on her face. She’s not as mad at me as she’s letting on and she’ll forgive me eventually.

* * *

Frankie helps me put the last of Kels’ office items into a box for shipping. He looks profoundly sad that she isn’t coming back. “Is there anything else you need, boss?” he asks me, almost for nostalgia’s sake.

“I think we’re good to go, Frankie.” I finish adhering the mailing label on the box. It’ll be home tomorrow before I am. Lucky box. “You’ve been terrific help, as usual.”

He nods. God, I think he might cry.

“Look, your Aunt Kendra might shoot me for saying this, but when I figure out what I’m doing, there will always be a job for you with me. You’re a good kid, and you’re going to be just fine. Kels and I think the world of you.”

“Thanks. Why wouldn’t Aunt Kendra want you to say that?”

I smile. “Because the job will be in New Orleans. I think she’d miss you. But, who knows, maybe we’ll steal her too.”

Next thing I know, he has thrown himself against me in a bear hug, squeezing me tightly. I hug him back. “We have a ton of extra rooms. Come down and visit us over the summer, okay?”

He nods and backs away fro me, wiping his eyes. “Okay.” Before I can say anything more, he dashes out of the office.

I stand there and feel sorry for him for a long moment. He’s a good kid who finally has a place to call home, a true parent in Kendra, and a bright future. I’ll miss having him around. And having to revive him around my girl.

My cell phone vibrates against my hip and I reach for it in hopes it’s Kels. Caller ID, however, tells me it’s not. “Hey, Matt.”

“Hello, Harper. You ready for lunch?”

“On my way down,” I confirm, shrugging on my jacket and walking toward the elevators. “Will you be in that big ass limo of yours in front of the building?”

He laughs softly. “It beats a cab.”

* * *

Damn, that hurts. The doctor tsks at me as he wraps my hand. “You should have known by the bruising it was more than a sprain, Mrs. Kingsley.”

“I felt so silly I simply wanted to go home.”

“A fractured hand is nothing to sneeze at. I think we got to it before you could do any more damage to it. You should be okay in two or three weeks.”

“Great. Thanks. Can I go home now?”

“Yup, you’re free to go,” He presents me with the clip board. “I need you to sign the release.

I raise my bandaged left hand. “You’re joking, right?”

“Ah, right.” He signs the paper in my stead and I stand up to leave.

As I clear the curtain, I see Robie, a tall drink of water in the desert that has been my life today.

“Kels, dear, I tried the house and Brian told me you came to get your hand checked out. What’s the word, Slugger?”

“Fractured.”

“Ouch.” He grimaces. “I have good news and bad news. What do you want first?”

We begin walking toward the exit. “Oh, hell, let’s throw caution to the wind. What’s the bad news?”

“This little incident is gonna cost you about ten thousand dollars a knuckle to keep out of the courts.”

“It goes to show if you punch a slut, you pay the price. Does that mean no charges too? Or only no lawsuit?”

“That’s the good news. No charges, no lawsuit. You cut a check. She goes away. You handle all reasonable and necessary medical bills too.”

I nod. “All right. Could have been worse.”

“Could have been much worse, given your celebrity and wealth. Fortunately, you have a wonderful attorney. I also negotiated a gag order into the settlement so when her jaw heals up, she won’t be able to talk about it.”

“I think I love you.”

“Glad to hear it, because there’s a little more bad news. There wasn’t anything I could do about it.”

“What?” I groan.

“They towed your car. Apparently you parked in a restricted zone.”

I resist the urge to go bang my head against the wall. “I should have stayed in bed today.” I look at my brother-in-law. “My brand new Mercedes in now in the city impound lot being chipped and dinged within an inch of it’s life, isn’t it?”

“Probably.”

“You wanna give me a lift home?”

“Don’t you want to go get your car?” his tone is incredulous.

“No. I want to go home and take a long hot bath before Harper gets home. I want to make sure the babies are bathed and ready for their Mama when she gets back from New York, and I want to pretend like this day never happened. I will get my car tomorrow, when I can pretend it ran away from home and was found by the local Mercedes catcher or something.”

“It isn’t just a river in Egypt anymore, is it?”

“Oh, no, it’s a very real part of my inner being at the moment.” I loop my arm through his and we make our way to the parking garage. “It will be for the next few hours, at least.”

* * *

I think it’s almost absurd that Matt and I are eating at this dive of a restaurant. Located on the Upper West Side, it’s a Mexican-Chinese food restaurant. I never even knew that combination existed. This is not the high class, elegant dining I expected from a man as wealthy as my father-in-law.

“This is our little secret, Harper,” he says, as if reading my mind. He drops the paper napkin in his lap and tosses his silk tie over his suit shoulder, to protect it from any dripping fillings. “Amanda would chew me out for days if she knew I was eating here.” He picks up a huge burrito and takes a bite.

I take a bite of my chicken and broccoli. It’s not bad. “How the hell did they come up with Mexican and Chinese food as a combo?”

Matt smiles; it’s obvious he had the same question. “The owner was raised in Mexico, the son of Chinese parents.”

Okay, that helps to explain it. “So Amanda is watching what you eat, eh?” I snicker.

He waves a fork in my direction. “Chuckle all you want, Harper. Kels will do the same to you in a few years and few pounds.”

“As if!” I am indignant. I have always been lean and mean.

He shakes his head. “You kids, always think you’ll be young forever. In my day, I was quite handsome.”

“In your day?” I echo. “Did they have electricity and running water?”

“Not on the ranch, actually, but everywhere else, yes.” His blue eyes sparkle. “I’m not that old, thank you.” We eat in companionable silence for a few minutes, clearing our plates. “How are my daughter and grandchildren?”

“The grandchildren are amazing. Every day one of them does something new. They’re learning so much. Their personalities are shining through too. I’m afraid that Brennan got Kels’ looks but my will. Collin the reverse.”

He smiles. “Claire is surprising us too. She started singing the other day. Didn’t make a damn bit of sense, mind you, but it was definitely singing. We found her in the morning, happy as can be.”

“Must be nice to wake up that way.”

He nods vigorously. “They sure understand things better than we do. She’s keeping me young. I want to see her grow up to be as fine a woman as Kelsey. This time, though, I’d like to be able to take some of the credit.”

It is true. No one at the end of their life wishes they had spent more time at the office. I intend to have no such regrets. My daughter and son will know me, warts and all. “You will.”

“Not if I eat this stuff too often,” he crumples up his napkin and tosses it onto his empty plate. “How is Kelsey doing?”

“She needs some TLC.”

“Which you will provide?”

I nod vigorously. “Absolutely. Thanks for letting your assistant oversee our house getting packed up and sent to New Orleans.”

“Glad to be of help.”

“I appreciate it more than you know. It lets me get home to my wife tonight. I don’t know of anything better.”

* * *

Brennan and I are on the phone with Grandpa Stanton, while she lays back against me and stares at the toy in her hands. She always seems to be studying the things around her. This is the child that will want to know why the sky is blue. I just know it.

“You’re not coming back to New York, are you, sweetheart?”

“Not my plan at the moment, Dad. No, I hate New York. Always have. That’s why I went to L.A. in the first place. Going back there merely reinforced that fact for me.”

“Not that I can blame you. It’s not as if you had a pleasant life here.”

“You and I are past that. Let’s not dig it up again. I don’t need more stress in my life at the moment. What I do need is to know if you think the financing is a possibility.”

“Don’t see why not. We’ll file articles of incorporate, form a board of directors and find investors. You need to do the hard work and find the talent.”

“Talent won’t be a problem. I just have to see if she’s interested, and then start making some other calls. I’ll be in touch in a few days. Hey, you think maybe you can break away for a long weekend and bring Amanda and Claire for a visit?”

“We’d love it, sweetheart. We’ll talk about it next week, after I check Amanda’s schedule, okay?”

“Wonderful. Thanks, Dad.”

“You’re welcome, baby. Talk to you soon. Make sure you kiss Brennan and Collin for me.”

I hang up the phone and kiss my little girl’s head. “Your Grandpa is a pretty good guy.”

Brennan looks up to me and offers me the soggy ear of the toy she’s been chewing on. “No, thanks sweetheart. Mommy has had her fill of baby spit today, but you go right ahead.”

She smiles at me and resumes chewing on the toy. I know good and well she didn’t understand a word I said, but it certainly seemed that way. Yup, she’s gonna be trouble. “You’re a little keg of TNT, Brennan Grace. You are so gonna keep your Mama and I on our toes all our life, aren’t you?”

* * *

Our apartment feels so empty without my family. I miss the constant activity that this house has known. I miss Kels, the twins. Hell, I even miss Brian. I gotta get home.

I am walking through, picking up any of our most personal items, things I don’t want my father-in-law’s employee to see. The toys, mine and Kels, are obviously first in the duffle bag. I really don’t want to ever explain them. Especially not the purple one.

I also pack up our photos and home videos. I won’t leave those to chance and the whims of moving men. Other than that, I don’t know of anything else I need to carry down. Our wedding blanket is already in New Orleans, it flew with Kels out to pick me up. The twins have more toys than any two kids can play with.

Nope, nothing more. Time to go home.

* * *

Robie and I unload the last of my bags from the trunk of his car. I was surprised to find him at the airport to pick me up. He’s been weird the whole ride home, chuckling for unexpected reasons. I can only attribute it to good sex with Rene lately. Same thing happens to me with Kels too.

I shoulder one of the duffle bags and grab the other up in my free hand. “I’ll see you tomorrow, older brother. Thanks for the ride.”

He laughs and pats me on the back. “No problem, little sis. Always glad to lend a helping hand.” This comment send him into a laughing fit, nearly doubling him over. “Night.” He heads merrily into his house and I walk to mine.

I unlock the door and step in, immediately resetting the security code. I drop the bags down and look around. Wonder where my girl is? It’s not that late. I head up the stairs and turn into our bedroom. Nope.

The next logical place is the nursery. I find all three of my loves in there, stretched out on a blanket, awake, happy and playing. Collin has his feet in his mouth, as usual. Brennan is gumming happily on a soaked toy. And Kels is massaging her fingers which stick out the tip of a cast.

Something happened.

“Mama’s home!” I announce.

Kels gets up from the floor and comes over to me. I notice her balance is a bit off getting up. Guess the cast is heavy. “Welcome home, Stud! I’ve missed you.”

I grab her around the waist and pull her up against me, kissing her so she knows I missed her too. “Hi, Little Roo. What happened, darlin’?” I hold her hand gently and examine it.

“Umm …” she flushes bright red, “I had a little … incident … at the gym.”

I arch an eyebrow. “Incident? Did a weight fall on you? I’ll have Robie sue their ass and we’ll own the gym when we’re done.” I lift her hand and kiss her exposed fingers.

“No, nothing like that, sweetie. This was my own fault.” She takes her hand back and gives me a squeeze around the waist. “It’s all squared away, but we need to talk.” My heart hits my foot, but, fortunately, I can see that the twins are fine, and Kels clearly isn’t upset with me. Everything is fine. “Why don’t you spend some time with the babies? After we put them down for the night, I’ll tell you the whole story.”

I kiss her forehead. “Okay. Sounds like it must be a good one.” I drop down on the floor and scoop up Brennan. “Hi, gorgeous!” I blow raspberries on her tummy, eliciting happy laughs. “Mama missed you today. I did.” I kiss her nose. I pick her up and hold her up next to her Mommy, looking between the two of them carefully. “She looks so much like you, Kels.”

“Double chin and all?” Kels teases.

I place Brennan in her Mother’s arms. “That’s why you’re hitting the gym. Literally,” I tease back. Leaning back, I take in the picture of my two favorite girls. “Ah, Little Roo and RooToo.”

Kels loses it. “RooToo? Oh, Tabloid, she’ll never forgive you for that one.”

I grin, pleased that we finally have a nickname for our baby girl. “It could be worse; it could be RooToo D2.”

“Don’t even go there, Tabloid.” Kels shakes her head at me.

I take Brennan back and snuggle her close. “You like that name, don’t you, my girl? RooToo? So you can grow up and be just like your Mommy?” Brennan bonks me on my nose. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

I lay her back down on the blanket and scoop up Collin. “Hey there, Fuzzy!” He slumps against me, trying to burrow under my skin. “How were they today?”

“They were great today. We went over and saw Mama and Papa. We had a nice lunch there.”

I groan. “What did you eat?”

“You don’t want to know. There isn’t any left.”

I stick out my lower lip in a pout. “You couldn’t even save your beloved wife a plate?” I mock sigh. “I guess we’ll have to stop by there tomorrow and get some more.”

“We can do that.”

I may grow to really like this unemployed stuff. “Thanks, darlin’.” I glance down and see that Collin is sound asleep against my chest, and drooling his little heart out. “Looks like it’s bedtime.” I move carefully so as not to wake him and lay him in his crib, tugging his blanket up over his torso.

“They were waiting up for you, you know.” Kels lays Brennan in her crib and then comes over to rub my back. “They missed you too.”

I turn around and embrace my girl. “I’m home now. Can’t get rid of me, you know. Langston nearly stroked out, but I managed to flee his evil empire and get back home to you.”

“We are more than glad you’re home. Kiss our girl goodnight, and let’s go have that talk.”

I do as directed and then take her hand. We walk down the hallway to our bedroom. I drop down in our large leather reading chair and pull her down onto my lap. “So tell me all about it.”

“Okay. Where to start? Does the name Krista McKinney mean anything to you?”

I think about it for a moment and come up blank. I’ve never been good with names though. “Nope. Should it?”

“Hmm, let’s just say that she remembers you.” Kels picks at the front of my shirt. It’s an obvious stall tactic and an attempt to appear innocent. I rub her back soothingly and get her to snuggle closer. “She felt the need to fill me in on exactly how she remembers you.”

Realization hits. I wince. “Little Roo, I’m so sorry.”

“Oh, Harper, don’t worry about it. I knew when we got involved this kind of thing could happen. I just didn’t expect to have the kind of reaction that I did.”

Realization slaps me once again upside the head. “You hit her?”

She nods shyly. “Yeah. She said some things, and well, I kinda …”

I tilt her face up, so that she’s looking at me. “You were defending my honor?”

“She shouldn’t have said what she did. If she had just let me leave like I was trying to do, I wouldn’t have had to pop her.” Kels grins triumphantly. “And I had to do it. I had to.”

“Did you feel better afterwards?”

“Yes and no. I felt better. Then I felt stupid for letting my anger get the better part of me. I gotta tell you, Tabloid, at the moment of impact, it was the most satisfying feeling in the world?”

I slide my hand under her shirt and caress the skin I find there. “The most satisfying?” I purr.

“Okay. The second most satisfying, but it was pretty damn good.”

I feel better now. “So what happened after you hit her? Did she apologize?”

Kels winces and ducks her head again. “I was afraid you were going to ask that. She pretty much called the cops and had me arrested.”

“I’m sorry. Run that by me again?”

She gets up and begins pacing around the room. “I may have gone to jail for a few hours.”

“You were in jail? They let you go, though, so it must not be so bad.”

“Rene and Katherine bailed me out, and Robie has it all squared away. There’s really no need to worry about it anymore. I’m just sorry it happened. I feel really silly.”

I push myself up out of the chair and walk over to her. “How are you? Otherwise, I mean.”

“I’m okay. Getting better. Feeling better. So very glad to be home. And terribly glad you’re home.” My girl looks over at me, a leer firmly intact, which sends a jolt of warmth through my body. “Want to take a shower with me and help me wash my back?”

I sense a diversionary tactic. There is so much for us to discuss, but I don’t think late Monday night is the time. Especially not when she wants us to be intimate, and is not pushing me away. “Your back, your front … anything of yours.”

* * *

My psychiatrist gestures toward my hand. “Wanna tell me how that happened?”

“Do I want to? No. Will I? Yes. I got stupid and punched a bitch in the face to the tune of fifty grand, plus expenses.” I grin. God, how butch did that sound?

“You didn’t really?” He smiles, arching a brow and drawing back a bit in disbelief.

“I did. I swear, I did.”

He crosses his legs and leans back in his wingback chair. He sets the cup and saucer on a low table at his side and settles his hand on his leg. “You want to explain how this came to pass?”

“Sure, why not?” I settle down on the couch and prepare to tell the whole story. “I was at the gym, working out, minding my own business. This woman, who I don’t know from Adam, walks up and asks if I’m Kelsey Stanton.” I gesture aimlessly. “Hell, I figured she was a process server or something, and it was from my mother’s attorneys so I said yes.” I lean forward. “The first thing she says to me is ‘My name is Krista and I used to fuck Harper Kingsley on a regular basis’.”

“Oh, my. What a way to open a conversation.”

“Exactly. I turned to her and I said, ‘Good for you. I’m Kelsey Kingsley. I married her and I still fuck her on a regular basis. Sorry about your luck.’”

He laughs. “Who pissed in your Wheaties, Kelsey?”

I shake my head. “I’ve gone over it a thousand times and I still have no idea what came over me.”

“Okay, but that still doesn’t tell me how that,” he gestures to my hand, firmly encased in a cast, “fits in.”

“It takes a while. Give me a minute.” I get up and cross over to his small fridge and get a bottle of water, cracking the cap. I take a long sip. “So, I walk away, hoping she’ll take the hint. I head into the locker room to change and leave.”

“You were thinking clearly at that point?”

I nod and retake my seat. “Right. Just walk away. Leave. I don’t need this. But guess what?”

“She followed you.”

“Give that man a cigar! She proceeded to tell me how she and Harper were, and these are her words, not mine, ‘fuck buddies.’”

He sucks air through his teeth and lets it out slowly. “Ouch.”

“Yeah.”

“Is that when you hit her?”

“No.”

“Congratulations. I probably would have smacked her already.”

I nearly snort water through my nose. It’s odd to hear your therapist admit they have a breaking point too. Clearing my throat, I continue, “You know, Harper makes me insane sometimes. I chalk it up to the fact that she’s so much younger than I am. I’ve always had to be the responsible person in my life. She’s allowed to make me insane, but, dammit, I don’t want other people talking trash about her.”

“Makes sense you’d be protective of your spouse.”

“Your children and your spouse. In that order. Had she said something about my children, I would have busted her right away.”

He nods his head and gives me a signal to wait a minute so he can get something to drink, his tea empty. “I’ve got a feeling, I’m going to need it.” After he gets a glass of juice and settles down, I continue.

“I go to my locker, still ignoring her, and she puts her hands on me like she going to spin me around and says, ‘So what’s it like, being married to a sleazy whore? You like the stuff everyone else in town has had?’”

“That’s when you hit her?”

“That’s when I hit her.”

“How many times?”

“Once I think, but it may have been twice. I’m not entirely clear on that point. However many it was, it was enough to get me arrested.”

“Wonderful. Exactly what you needed.”

“You know, in a weird sort of way, this is no big deal compared to all the other crap I’ve been through. Granted, I didn’t need it now and I’m sure I could have handled it better. Jesus Christ, how much is one person expected to take on before they go off the deep end?”

“Good question. Ranks right up there with ‘how many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie roll tootsie pop?’”

I laugh. “I wouldn’t know. I always bite into them.”

He shrugs. “I figured you did. You seem to be handling this with a good deal of humor.”

“I have to.” I sigh. “If I don’t, it’ll be another thing. I don’t need another thing. I already have more baggage than TWA.”

“Want to check a couple more pieces?”

“No, I want to go to the Bahamas and send it to Alaska.”

“So you want to run away?”

“I did that. I ran home. I snapped and I ran home. I ran to the one place I knew I’d be safe, where my children would be safe, and where Harper would be safe in case I couldn’t salvage myself.”

He leans back and takes a drink of his juice. “Salvage yourself?”

“I came to the one place in the world I knew Harper would be okay if I couldn’t handle it and something happened.” It’s a quiet admission.

“Are you afraid you’re going to hurt yourself, Kelsey?”

“No.” I deny it, but the knot is in the pit of my stomach. Then I look at him. I hate it when he looks at me like that. Six sessions and he already knows when I’m fibbing. “I don’t think so.” I take a deep breath. “Had I stayed in New York it might have been different but I feel safe here.”

“I see.” He scratches his cheek. “Do we need to do something a little more proactive? Do you need a hospital or a support group?”

I shake my head. “No. That’s the point. I have my support group. My family is my support.”

“Do you need more than that?”

“No, at least, not right now. I promise you, if I feel like I do, I’ll let you know. Okay?”

“Okay.” He sets his glass down and tosses his pad to the floor. “Kelsey, I think you’re an amazingly strong woman, who has had more than the lion’s share to contend with. I don’t want to see you take that way out because in the short time I’ve gotten to know you, even with all your trauma, I would have a hard time classifying you as a victim. You are a survivor.”

“Thanks. I needed that.”

“It’s the truth.”
Episode Eight: Happy Together
Rene sighs and leans back in her chair. Kelly is asleep in her stroller next to her, having cried herself to sleep. She was overtired and couldn’t handle life anymore. Harper and I have certainly experienced more than a few of those times with our two. Fortunately, Kelly’s cousins behaved themselves admirably during her time of distress. Collin occupied himself with a multicolored plastic key ring in his Aunt Elaine’s lap, and Brennan sucked on the ear of her stuffed bear in my lap. “Thank God, that’s over.”

Mama reaches over and brushes a strand of hair back from Rene’s face. “You’re a wonderful mama to my grandbabies. Do I need to speak to my youngest son about taking care of you better?”

Ohh, that’s the biggest threat that can ever be uttered at this table. All of us wait for Ren’s response. “Mama,” she smiles, “you know you raised him better than that. He’s doing great; we’re both just tired.”

“Maybe Christian and Clark would like to spend the rest of the weekend with their Grandmere and Grandpa?” Mama’s gaze turns sentimental. “I have a little experience keeping rowdy little boys at bay.”

Even as those words escape her lips, we hear a roar of noise from the living room area. It’s been raining nonstop today, and the boys, Harper, and the kids are trapped inside. We’ve heard running up and down hallways and stairs, doors slamming, little and big bodies bumping into things all afternoon. It’s only picked up steam since we finished dinner a little while ago. Never should have given them fuel it seems.

“I wonder what they’re getting into now,” Katherine sighs, knowing her husband tends to be one of the biggest troublemakers. Their eldest son, Joseph, is following closely in his father’s footsteps.

Rachel looks perplexed. “Last time I delivered the cookies, they were all settling down to watch a movie.”

“Uh oh,” Elaine grimaces. “That usually means trouble.”

I can only imagine. “What’s happened in the past?”

“There was that time they were on the Monty Python kick …”

Elaine starts the story but Kate quickly picks it up. “Oh, yes, I remember that! ‘Come back and fight like a man, you coward!’ They had the kids pretending to lose arms and legs and swordfight. Broke one of Mama’s vases, I believe.”

Mama crosses herself and whispers a prayer in French. “There are no such movies in this house.”

“I wonder what it could be then,” Ren murmurs, knowing full well her husband could get in trouble with ‘Lady and the Tramp.’ Let alone anything involves swords and gunfights.

I am about to tease her, when I realize my Harper could easily be, and most likely is, the cause of the current noise. She’s like our twins, restless and full of energy. No wonder I am crazy about her. “Should we go see?”

“I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough,” Mama says prophetically as Danielle steps into the kitchen.

“Tante Rene?” She comes over and peers down at the sleeping Kelly. “Can I borrow Kelly for a few minutes?”

“Uh, no, not right now, honey. I just now got her to stop crying. Why do you need her?”

Another round of noise drifts in, peels of laughter being the most dominant. Danielle glances over her slim shoulder as her older sister, Laurent, enters. “Uncle Robie asked me to come get her.” Denied Kelly, I expect the next question. “Can I take Brennan, Aunt Kels?”

I smile and nod. “Be careful with her.”

Danielle breaks into a huge smile and reaches for her cousin. I help Brennan get settled in her cousin’s arms and watch as they head back to the living room. We all turn expectant eyes on Laurent. “May I have Collin?”

I nod and Elaine does the transfer.

Kate snaps her fingers. “They need a Claudius and Brute!”

“Oh no!” all my sisters groan.

I’m intrigued. “Claudius and Brute? They’re reenacting Roman toga parties in there, or what?”

Mama stands up and freshens her coffee. “It is worse, ma petit. And my fault, I am afraid. When they were young, we would play a game together on rainy days. We would sing and act out the musicals I loved so much. Often, it was my only way of getting all five of them to do something together.”

“I’m still confused.”

“A favorite of the boys was ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.’”

Elaine begins laughing. “It has the world’s most outrageous lyrics. Positively medieval when it comes to gender equality.”

“And I bet they’re doing their favorite song right now.” Rene tugs me to my feet and we all wander toward the living room. “You’ve got to see this.”

Oh my God.

The TV has an old musical on, with the old guy from ‘Dallas’ as a young guy. He appears to be counseling his, presumably, brothers in a barn of some sorts. Standing next to the screen is Gerrard, acting out the scene with uncanny precision.

“Tell you ‘bout them sobbin’ women

“Who lived in the Roman days.

“It seems that they all went swimmin’

“While their men was off to graze.

“Well, a Roman troop was ridin’ by

“And saw them in their me-oh-my,

“So they took ‘em all back home to dry,

“‘Least that’s what Plutarch says.”

I shake my head. This explains a great deal.

All the kids begin singing with the chorus.

“Oh, yes!

“Them a’women were sobbin’, sobbin’, sobbin’,

“Fit to be tied,

“Every muscle was throbbin’, throbbin’,

“From that riotous ride,

“Oh, they cried and kissed and kissed and cried,

“All over that Roman countryside,

“So don’t forget that when you’re takin’ a bride,

“Sobbin’ fit to be tied,

“From that riotous ride.”

From his position on his father’s lap, Jake is coached to say, “Then what happened?”

Harper answers the question, taking the lead in singing. I note that she is seated beside Danielle and Laurent, who each hold one of our children.

“They never did return their plunder.

“The victor gets all the loot.

“They carried ‘em home, by thunder,

“To rotundas small, but cute.

“And you never seen, so they tell me,

“Such downright domesticity,

“With a Roman baby on each knee,

“Named Claudius and Brute.”

Little Brennan is dubbed Claudius, and Collin, poor dear, is chosen as Brute. It’s rather comical. As the kids do the next chorus, our spouses finally notice us in the doorway. Robie gets up and swaggers over to Rene. He slides his arms around her and positions her front and center.

“Now, when the menfolk went to fetch ‘em,

“Them women would not be fetched.

“It seems when the Romans ketch ‘em,

“That their lady friends stay ketched.

“Now let this be, because it’s true,

“A lesson to the likes of you,

“Grab ‘em up like them there Romans do,

“Or else they’ll think you’re tetched.”

Suddenly, he hoists her up in his arms and spins her around the room, narrowly missing the chandelier, Tiffany lamps, and assorted small heads. The kids continue singing happily, unconcerned about imminent danger to life, limb or property. Dodging her brother, my spouse comes over to me.

“Oh, they acted angry and annoyed,

“But secretly they was overjoyed,

“You might recall that when corrallin’ your steers.

“Oh, oh, oh, oh, them poor little dears.”

I’m going to ignore the ‘steers’ comment and simply concentrate on Harper holding me right now. I suppose the song is right. Love covers over a multitude of sins. Or stupidity, as the case may be.

I rest my head on Harper’s breast and hold her tightly, not caring we’re in front of everybody. I’ve been needing her presence all afternoon. I love my sisters dearly, but I need this. Need Harper.

Her hold changes from playful to tender. She relaxes against me, and hums softly, rubbing circles on my back. Everything else fades to the background. I’m safe here.

I don’t even realize I’m crying until Harper’s fingers gently brush tears off my cheek. “You all right, Little Roo?” she asks softly, her voice rough with concern.

“Can we go home?” I hate myself for asking, but I need to not share her or our children any longer today.

“Of course.” Her hand cups my cheek and I lean into it. “Let me get our things gathered up and we’ll go.”

I kiss her palm and immediately miss her warmth when she steps away to get us ready to leave. I stand alone until a slim arm slides around my waist. Mama kisses my cheek. “Ma petit, all will be well.”

* * *

I watch Kels carefully as we put the twins down on the floor to play. One of the best shower presents we received was this thick blanket which is perfect for growing babies to boink their heads on. It washes well, provides great padding, and is brightly colored. We put the entire Fischer-Price line of toys around them and lean back against the couch to watch over them.

I take my girl’s hand and lift it gently. I study the cast and read some of the inscriptions my dear family wrote. “The Winner and Still Champion.” “Careful, Harper, you could be next.” “The Thriller in Gym Shorts.” “One Round, Five Teeth.” “Do as I say, NOT as I do.” “Fifty Thousand Dollar Bracelet.” “Feather Weight Champion of the World.” “Winner Pee Wee Boxing.”

I point to the warning to me. “Should I be worried?”

“No, sweetheart. It’s only Rene’s warped sense of humor. I’ll get her when she least expects it.”

My girl lets out a low and evil chuckle. I grab a pen from a nearby table. I uncap it with my teeth, and begin writing without any hesitation. “My defender. I love you.”

“Oh, you are sweet.” She gives me a kiss. “I never should have let it get that far, but I had to let some of it go. Her face seemed as good a spot as any.”

I laugh, wishing I had been there for it. “What did your doctor have to say about it?” I tap her forehead gently, to indicate which doctor I am referring to.

“He said I held out a lot longer than he would have,” she gives me a triumphant grin, “that it was a pretty normal reaction and that I shouldn’t beat myself up over it.”

“No pun intended, eh?” I join in the joke. “Maybe I can find you a nice pacifist to go see instead?”

“No, I like him. He’s good. He makes me see the things I need to see, and face the things I need to face, without making me feel like he’s forcing me.”

I hope we can get to the heart of the matter tonight. I hate not being able to help her, like I want to so badly. “What do you need to face, chér? What do you need to see?” I hope she answers.

She sighs deeply. “Harper, so much has happened. I felt like I was coming apart. I felt like I was losing my grip. I was scared.” She takes another deep breath. “And I guess I owe you an apology for really putting you in a tight spot. I should have told you I wanted to come home, but at the moment of realization, I just had to get here. I kinda screwed that up, and I’m sorry.”

An enormous load lifts off my shoulders. “Thank you for saying that, and I wasn’t angry. Not after I thought about it,” I admit with a rueful smile. “In fact, I was glad that when you thought to run, you ran here. I could have had to follow you to some godawful place.” I reach up and trace her cheek with my fingers. “I am glad you came home.”

“This was the only place to come. This is home. You gave me this. My home, my family. A place to belong. A place where it’s okay not to be sure about everything, and still know we’ve got support.”

“I didn’t give you any of this,” I reply, my voice full of emotion. “You gave it back to me.” I try to organize my thoughts so I can communicate all that is inside. “God, Kels, I wouldn’t be here without you. And, to the extent I gave you my family, I have to admit they were eagerly awaiting you. You’d fit in with them with or without me.” I kiss her fingertips. “Now, what aren’t you sure about?”

“It’s hard to explain. We’ve been through so much, and I’ve had doubts about how I’ve handled things. Sometimes I worry that I’m not doing right by you, or I’m not a good mother.” I start to object, but she presses two fingers against my lips. “I know, it’s silly, but I can’t help but worry. I mean, come on, a year and a half ago my biggest concern was could I get a bigger contract. Then this locomotive with blue eyes ran me over,” I like that description and join her smile, “and I wanted so much more than that. Then I had both the contract and the girl. In the end, I realized first and foremost that what I wanted was a family.”

I nod. “It’s a good choice.” I let my gaze drift over to our little ones, who have snuggled next to one another and are happy. “We’ve done very well together, and you should never doubt it. You’ve handled things very well, too, darlin’. My God, I would have died under what you went through.” It’s true. She’s stronger than I am. Jesus, she went through childbirth.

“No, you wouldn’t have. You would have been fine.” She leans in closer to me. “You have a wonderful family that would have pulled you from the flames of hell, if need be. It’s nice to know I have that too.”

“Are you in the fires of hell, Kels?” It breaks my heart to think she might feel that way. I don’t take it personally, but I wish I had a magic wand to fix everything for her.

“I could have been, but I’m not anymore. I’m home. I’m safe. With you and the family to stand by me, I can make it through anything and I will.” Snapping out of the maudlin tone, she gives me an impish smile. “And, watch out, because one of these days, New Orleans may regret that Kelsey Kingsley adopted it as home.”

“Ooo la la,” I squeeze her. “You think you’re going to be painting the town red, huh?” I kiss her temple. “Mind if I tag along? To try to keep you from bopping anyone else?”

She laughs, music to my ears. “You can try.” She nudges me playfully. “Since you’re an unemployed bum at the moment, I have a question for you.”

I nod solemnly. “Yes, I am willing to be your sex slave for the next twenty or so years.”

“I knew that.” She laughs harder. “That goes without saying.”

“I’m still willing to interview, though.” I lean in and nuzzle her perfect neck, taking a nip when I pull away. “But what is your question?”

“Question? Did I have a question?”

I touch her cute nose with my fingertip, enjoying the glaze of lust I find in her eyes. I hope I always make her feel that way. “Yes, you did, chér. Especially since our children are laying not five feet from us right now.” Of course, Collin is sleeping and Brennan is chewing her bear’s ear.

“Right.” She calms herself and swallows. “Okay, how would you like,” she rolls her eyes, “and I can’t believe I’m giving you such a great set up,” I snort already, “a new position?”

I chuckle delightedly. “Sweetie, you know I’m all for trying out new positions.” I trace the swell of her breast. “Spice of life and all that.”

“I’m talking about a job, Tabloid,” she chastises without one hint of sincerity. “The pay stinks and it’s definitely a step backwards, but the perks could be pretty good.”

If they’re anything like what I’m imagining, I couldn’t agree more. “A job? We’ve been women of leisure, ladies who lunch, for a whole couple days. What scheme do you have cooking?”

“I’m thinking of starting up an independent production company. I’ll need an Executive Producer type I can kick … umm … work with.”

“Huh, Champ, I thought slugging was more your style.” Kels teasingly points to the warning message to me on her cast. “So what would this independent production company produce?”

“Oh, you know, the wonderful little things they use on The Learning Channel and the like. I’ll go spend a week in a women’s prison or something. I’m kinda getting used to the setting.”

“Just say no. Think we could get the Crocodile Hunter guy? He’s insane. I’d love to go traipsing about with him somewhere.” I know this will get Kels. “Maybe we could get Brennan an internship with him when she gets older.”

“We could try,” she concedes. “If you want to be gator bait, go for it, but leave my daughter out of it.”

“My daughter,” I correct. “Looks like you, acts like me.”

“Yeah, well, I hope to fix that eventually.” She leans forward and lays a blanket over our babies. “She’ll learn to appreciate her Mom’s sage advice. Especially when I point at you and whisper in her ear, ‘See her? She is the type of woman your Mom is warning you about.’”

I laugh. “Gee, thanks.”

“It’s not you I’m worried about. It’s the woman she may want to take up with that scares me.”

I make the sign of the cross. “So true. And, let’s please not talk about them dating yet. It scares me.” I mock shiver. Well, not all that mock. Back to business, “Is there anyone else associated with this production company yet? And do we have a name?”

“Nope, not yet. It’s pretty much us and my father who is looking into money for us. As for a name I was thinking B.C.H. Productions.” She smirks.

I can’t help it. I fall over laughing. “My God, Kels, you realize that people will pronounce that Bitch, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I know. Great, isn’t it?” Kels’ eyes sparkle with mischief. This is the best thing in the world she could be doing.

I can’t get over that. “It’s a hoot. Mama will die, but it sounds great to me. Where is the K, though?”

“No. Just the initials of my three favorite people. For good luck.”

I glance over. The babies are asleep. What the heck? “We don’t need luck, darlin’. We make our own.” I lean forward and kiss her meaningfully, slowly and deeply. My hand trails up her chest, tracing her collarbone through her light shirt, along her neck and circling under her ear.

When we pause to breathe, she nuzzles my ear. “This is one of the perks I was speaking of.” I growl and lean into her, guiding her to the floor. “So I take it you’re interested in the,” she pauses as I begin to unbutton her blouse, “position?”

I nod. “Yes, this position and many, many more.”

* * *

Rolling over, I watch Harper sleep. She’s very happy woman right now. Although, she wasn’t really happy with me when I made her stop long enough to put the babies to bed and move our plans to the bedroom. Last thing we needed was to have Brian walk in on that scene. He’d never let us live it down.

She seems very happy. I really think she like being home. Reaching out, I pull her hair back behind her ear to watch her fuss in her sleep. She whimpers and digs deeper into the pillow. This must be where Brennan gets her dislike for having her sleep interrupted. I admit, I don’t like getting up in the morning, but Harper really hates having her shut eye disturbed.

I reach out and rub her bare back. She sighs and pushes back into my hand. This she likes. I think she was a pet in a past life. Probably a cat. She enjoys this kind of thing too much.

Things finally feel like they’re coming together and settling down. I don’t feel like I’m being pulled in a thousand different directions. I finally have a handle on everything I have to take care of. My family, my home, myself and then my career, if I choose to do so.

I can handle everything. I simply hated the feeling of being out of control and getting ambushed. Now that everything is back under control and in focus, I have a much better chance of keeping it that way.

“Kels?” she mumbles, her face still buried in the pillow.

“Yeah, Stud, what can I do for you?”

“Either get serious about all that rubbing or keep your hands to yourself.”

“Grouch,” I tease and snuggle up, getting very serious about the rubbing I’m doing. “Better?”

“Ah, yeah. That’s,” she pauses briefly and swallows hard, then begins nodding as a smile spreads across her face. I notice she never opens her eyes. She merely rolls over to enjoy it. “That’s good.”

Yup. She was a cat.

* * *

I wake up to knocking on the front door. It better not be Robie again. I go to the window and lean out. It’s Papa. I hope everyone is all right.

I hustle down the stairs and fling open the door. Thank God, I remembered to pull on boxers and a T-shirt before I left the bedroom. “Papa!”

He smiles brightly, far too awake for this hour of the morning. The crickets are still chirping. “Harper, let’s go.”

I must have missed something.

Papa scowls. “Harper Lee, it is the start of the height of crawfish season. I have Robie, Clark, and Christian in the Suburban. You and Collin need to get out here as well.”

Oh, this’ll go over well. “Okay. Can I have five minutes to pack some milk and some diapers?”

My father looks at his watch and notes the time. “All right. I’ll make some coffee while we wait.”

* * *

Harper and Robie took ‘the boys’ fishing and Brian and Mama took ‘the girls’ shopping. Thus, Rene and I are childless in New Orleans. We’re enjoying it immensely at the moment as we sit on the back porch and relax. Kam is laying in the sunshine, on his back with his feet in the air. He looks totally silly, but he’s a very happy dog, with his tongue hanging out one side of his mouth.

“Should I be stressed over the fact that Harper took Collin with them? Doesn’t seem like fishing for crawfish is something easily done with a four month old along.”

“No. Don’t sweat it, Kels. They don’t use them as bait until they’re six months old.” She snickers and hides her smile behind her glass.

“Very funny.”

“Sweetheart, if you’re gonna stay in New Orleans on a permanent basis, you are going to have to learn to relax when it come to the Kingsleys and the kids. God, they’ll be dragging these babies off to do things you’d rather cut off your arm than let them do, but they always come back safe.” She sighs and sips her tea again. “I used to worry until I realized that Mama and Papa raised five without losing any. And between all the children and spouses we’ve managed sixteen grandchildren. We must be doing something right.”

“True.”

“Besides. I trust Papa to keep them from doing anything really silly or dangerous.”

“Rene, this is the same man Mama doesn’t like to trust with extension cords. She says it means trouble. Why are we trusting him with our babies?”

“Hmm, Kels, not our babies,” she nudges me, “Cecile’s grandbabies. He knows better than to let anything happen to one of them.”

I nod and laugh. This is true. There would be hell to pay for any adult member of this family who knowingly puts one of Mama’s grandchildren in harm’s way. She would be a woman possessed and there wouldn’t be a place you could hide from her.

“I have a proposition for you, Ren.”

“Okay, but we can’t tell Harper or Robie.” She grins.

I close my eyes and groan. Boy, I walked right into that one. “Be nice.”

She nearly snorts tea through her nose. “I’m sorry. What’s up?”

“Well, you know, I’m looking into starting up an independent production company?”

“Yeah.”

“I need an executive assistant. I’d like you to consider taking the job.”

She settles back and considers my offer. “I’m flattered, Kelsey, but I don’t know anything about news or the entertainment industry.”

“Trust me; it’s not that hard. What I really need is someone I can trust to keep me on track.”

“Wow. I’m honored. I’ll have to talk to Robie first, but I’m definitely interested. Can I have a couple of days?”

“Take all the time you need. I’m still working out the details.”

“Great. I’ll let you know soon.”

“Perfect. In the meantime, let’s go spend some money somewhere.” I pat her leg and stand up, stretching. “I feel the need to shop.”

* * *

I am not quite sure how I managed to get Collin out of the house. Kels must have still been half asleep and not quite understood what I was asking. I certainly didn’t stick around to explain it, that’s for sure. When you like the answer, leave. I stroke Fuzzy’s hair and tighten the straps on the snuggle pack. If this boy comes back with so much as a mosquito bite, my ass is grass.

“Tante Harper?” Christian tugs on my pants.

“Yes, Christian?”

“You gonna help me crawfish?”

I nod. “Sure enough. Your Papa never seems to catch much.”

“I heard that,” Robie calls from the back of the Suburban where he is unloading our gear with Papa.

Christian nods. “Thanks. Aunts Kels isn’t here to help me like she does with the dub … dub …”

“Doubloons?” He nods again. No wonder he’s won two years straight. Oh, Kels, honey, you’re mine now. “You got it, short stuff.” I tousle his hair affectionately. “Go check on your brother, okay?”

He runs over to the pile of stuff where Clark has parked himself. Papa, Robie and I like to gather crawfish the simple way – toss a line out with a piece of fish on it for bait, drag it along the bottom and slowly bring it to the surface. Typically, there will be a couple crawfish hanging on, which you scoop up in a big net. That is, when Papa and I do it. Robie can’t seem to catch a thing.

We also bring a couple wire mesh traps with us, to ensure plenty of success. The traps have a cube shape, with a funnel leading into it. We bait it with a fish head, and the crawfish swim in, but can’t swim out. We use carp for the bait. It’s an oily fish and seems to attract the little guys the best. After an hour or so, we’ll have plenty for dinner. Of course, we’ll stay here longer than that, shooting the breeze.

We have a cooler to fill up with the caught ones. They can live in there for a couple hours, long enough for us to bring them home for our crawfish boil. Ooo la la. I love Mama’s crawfish. I need to make sure Kels gets her recipe.

We’re at my Nonny’s farm. We drove almost an hour out of the city, to her property line, and as far back as you can go without hooking an outboard motor on the back of the truck. The cypress trees are huge, and full of Spanish moss. There are gators around, but mostly they stay where they belong and we do the same. To ensure no run ins, Papa has his shotgun. He’s never used it, but he’s never without it. It only takes one time to be sorry.

Clark cries out happily and points. “Bird! Bird!” The egret looks over from his perch and stares at my nephew. He seems to decide that he is far enough away to be safe.

“Very good, son,” Robie praises, scooping up his youngest boy. He kisses his cheek and settles him on his hip. “You ready to go fishing?” Thump, thump, go Clark’s hands on his father’s chest. That is an emphatic yes. With his free hand, Robie picks up a load of equipment and starts heading a little further into the swamp. I grab up some equipment too and carry it. Papa and Christian bring the rest behind us.

We have a favorite spot that over time we have made quite luxurious, as far as a swamp fishing hole goes. There’s a wooden platform we can sit on, and a bench made out of a fallen log and rocks. We have a place for our gear which stays dry and bug free, for the most part. It’s great.

There’s a strict rule on these trips – no Walkmans, Game Boys, comic books, or whatever floats for kid entertainment these days. It’s all about being together, talking a little, and fishing more.

I sit by Christian and pull my Swiss Army knife out of my pocket. Carefully, I cut pieces of carp off and lay them on a newspaper beside us. Once we have enough to last awhile, I clean the blade and put it back up. Christian holds the line and the hook up for me. “All right, this is how you tie it off,” I say, demonstrating.

“Can I put the bait on?”

“Absolutely.” Little boys love the squishy parts, Christian especially. I held guide his fingers, so he doesn’t accidentally use himself as bait. “Very good. Now throw it out there as far as you can and let it sink all the way to the bottom.” He obeys. And we wait.

Beside us, Robie and Clark have cast their lines. Papa wades back in from where he set the wire traps. I think Papa loves crawfish fishing just so he can wear his hip-waders. Mama hates the things and makes him store them in the garage. Out of sight.

“Harper, it’ll be good to have you around for Breaux Bridge this year.”

I nod enthusiastically. I love the Breaux Bridge festival. It’s one of the biggest crawfish celebrations in the area, just outside of Lafayette. One of my favorite parts is the crawfish races. That and the food. Growing up, I wouldn’t eat the day before so I’d have plenty of room.

“Pop pop?”

Papa looks over his mug of coffee. “Yes?”

“Grandmere grew up here, right?”

Papa nods and points to the north and west. “Over that way. She and her Mama and Papa and seven brothers and sisters.”

“Seven?”

“Seven. Ambroise, Jean, Pierre, Anne, Madeline, Remy, Jacques and then your Grandmere. She was the baby of them all.”

“Grandmere was a baby?”

Oh, Lord, never let Mama hear that question. Both Robie and I cross ourselves. Papa laughs and pats Christian’s knee. “Looked exactly like your baby sister, Kelly, in fact. Did I ever tell you about what Remy and Jack did to me when I was courting your Grandmere?” At Christian’s insistence, Papa goes on with his story. “I was invited over to Nonny’s for dinner one night. So I showed up, looking all nice in a suit, trying to impress them. Nonny looked over at me and then told Remy and Jack to take me out to fetch the food. I figured we’d just go out to the smoke house, but we kept walking. We went into a shack on the edge of the swamp, and then into a boat. Remy looked over at me and asked if I knew how to use a shotgun.”

“Did you?”

Papa nods. “Sure enough. So I said I did, and he handed me one. Remy then took this spear in one hand, and it had a long rope attached to the end. Jack poled us out into the swamp and we watched and waited. Soon, the biggest gator you’ve ever seen poked his eyes up out of the water.”

“How big, Grandpa?”

Papa holds his arms out wide. “Bigger than this.” Christian’s eyes go round. “Well, before I knew what happened, Remy took that spear and stuck it in the gator, right at the back of the neck.”

“Ow!”

“Yup. That’s what the gator thought. He tore off as fast as he could, taking Remy with him over the side. Remy was hanging onto the rope for dear life. I looked at Jack and he just shrugged and started taking the boat over to where Remy and that gator were. It took all three of us to wrestle that ol’ boy up into our boat and take him back to Nonny’s house.”

“Did you eat him, Grandpa?”

“Sure, we did. Not that night, though. I was invited back a couple days later.”

“Did you look pretty when you came back?”

“No. I think that was Nonny’s way of telling me not to wear suits.”

Robie shakes his head. “Nonny likes to get her point across in strange ways.”

“Strange, but effective,” I amend. I drop a kiss on Collin’s head. He’s beginning to squirm a little so I know he’s awake. He’ll be wanting food in a few minutes. Let’s see if Christian and I have had any success first. “All right, Christian, start drawing your line toward you real slowly. Don’t want to spook any of them crawfish.”

He obeys well, moving it at exactly the right speed. When he pulls it clear of the water, I hold the net out to capture the two hanging on. “Yea!” he exclaims, pumping a fist. Damn, that’s cute.

I look at the two in the net. The most common species of crawfish in the bayou is red swamp. Adults grow to about four inches in length, anything else is too young. “Looks like you caught one good one and one guy we need to let go back to his mama.” I dump the two beside us, into a baking pan of Mama’s Papa stole long ago for this very purpose of sorting out the young ones. I toss the one we’ll take into the cooler.

“How can you tell, Tante?”

I point to the one remaining. “Well, it’s little, to begin with. And see how it’s more green than red?” Christian nods. “Adults are dark red on the side and black on the back. What color is this one’s tail?”

Christian peers closely. “It’s brown with brown stripes.”

“That means it’s a baby. Let him go home. We’ll come visit him later.”

Christian takes the pan and dumps the little one back into the water. “When Collin is big enough to fish?”

I smile. “Nah, a bit before then, little man.”

* * *

I take another deep breath. I clear my throat, knowing it’s not me who smells like that, and Brennan hasn’t been rolling in any mud pits since she got back with Brian a little while ago. As a matter of fact, the last time I checked on them, they were both crashed out on the living room floor. Apparently, shopping with Grandmere Cecile is a very tiring experience.

I slowly close the door to the fridge and find Harper and my son both standing in the kitchen. Collin is bouncing up and down in his snuggle pack and Harper is standing there with a silly grin on her face. “Hi, honey, we’re home.”

As if I couldn’t tell. “And you brought half the swamp and most of the smell with you.”

“We wanted to share the experience with you.”

She tries to lean in and kiss me, but I put a finger directly in the middle of her forehead, stopping her. “Oh, no thanks. I’ve had enough experiences for this lifetime. If I wanted to go romp in the swamp, I would have gone with you.”

She snorts. “As if.”

“Exactly,” I tease, pointing to the nearest bathroom. “I prefer to keep my dirt in the newsroom and the bedroom, Tabloid. So if you intend to get even remotely close to me anytime soon, you will go and wash that body of yours, and make sure you scrub down the little thing I sort of recognize as my son, while you’re at it.”

She takes a moment to make Collin wave at me. “Hi, Mom! I’m in here. Wanna kiss me?”

“Not on your little stinky life, buddy. Tell your Mama to take you for a shower first.”

“Okay. Then you’ll kiss me?” I have to laugh as the conversation continues from him.

“Absolutely. Make sure she washes behind your ears.”

She hides his face behind his hands. He laughs and chews on her fingers. Harper says on Collin’s behalf, “Aww, Mom.”

My first official ‘Aww, Mom’ protest. “Go on. Get out before I send you out to sleep with Kam tonight. You’re making my eyes water. The milk’s gonna curdle next.”

She starts to head for the door, but then spins around and tries a quick lunge for a kiss. My finger finds its way back to her forehead. “Don’t make me hurt you, Stud.” I lift the cast. “I have the power. Go get clean.”

Harper laughs and gives up, reluctantly heading for the showers.

* * *

I can’t believe we haven’t done this already. Has it really been over four months since these two entered our lives? I feel like we’ve had them forever, and I feel like we’ve had them but a moment. Being a parent is weird that way.

I straighten Brennan’s outfit. She’s such a beautiful little girl. Decked out in a dark green satin dress, complete with bow, she is the picture of sugar and spice. Her hair is filling in now, giving her the same angelic look of her Mommy. Only yesterday she started trying to talk back to us. We were so excited. I doubt if we’ll feel the same way in sixteen years. But now whenever we talk to her, she begins babbling up a storm. It’s specific and it’s definitely conversation on her part. I wish we had a translator.

Collin is looking very dapper. He’s wearing a dark blue suit with cloth suspenders. Give the boy a briefcase, and he’s ready for the law firm. Robie claimed him as an associate, but Gerrard said he could be a legislative intern. Guess that answers the family’s question about whether Gerrard planned on running for the state senate next year. I don’t know which would be more corrupt in Louisiana, the politics or the law. It’s pretty much a toss up.

Kels finishes giving some instructions to the photographer. Once an anchor … I’d tease her about it, but I know whatever she told the guy is spot on. She knows lighting and angles, because she lived and died by them for years. I could do the shoot too, but I’m happy over here with the kids. Besides, this guy is terrific. He’s been doing private photography shoots for years, and has done all of the Kingsley family portraits. After we finish up here at our house, we are to take him, the kids, and ourselves over to Mama and Papa’s house for more of the same.

I look up when Kels walks over and I have to remind myself that we have company. She’s wearing a dark green colored dress that hugs every curve of her body absolutely perfectly.

Mine.

I won, I won, I won. The old refrain comes back easily.

She scoops up Brennan and settles her in her lap. RooToo is rightly nicknamed. No doubt who this kid belongs to. Brennan sits up easily. As long as she has a little support, she’s good to go. I pick up Collin and put him next to his sister. “Can you take a picture of the three of them for me?” I ask the photographer.

“Sweetheart, get over here,” Kels objects.

“I will. But this, I want.”

Looking at the three of them, I realize they are all I ever want.
Episode Nine: April’s Fools
“Be careful with my son,” I chastise Luc as he holds Collin a bit too much like a football. One that’s about to be fumbled.

He scowls, but adjusts his hold. “I have two of my own now, Harper Lee.”

“Two that don’t break when dropped. At least, not quite so badly,” I amend. I stir the infant cereal and sniff it. Nasty. But my boy loves it. Kels and I first tried it out on him yesterday, and after the initial shock, he clamored for more. He’s growing up so quickly. His sister is too; she loves this paste.

They’re not taking a lot of it right now, only enough that Kels has been able to cut back on one feeding a day. I think that’s helped her a lot. Yet part of me is afraid my darling wife may have a bit of trouble when it comes time to wean them entirely. I know she enjoys connecting with them like that and it’s going to be as hard on her as it will be for them.

Brennan is happily outside with her Mom. I stare over at the kitchen table, and find it disconcerting to see all my brothers sitting around it. This is like some episode of ‘The Twilight Zone.’ Everything is the opposite of what it should be. Gerrard is at Katherine’s spot, Jean at Elaine’s, Luc at Rachel’s, Robie at Rene’s, Papa at Mama’s, and I’m over fixing up dinner for my son. The only thing that’s constant in the kitchen is Brian. He’s at his usual spot at the counter, enjoying himself a bit too much for my taste.

“Harper, shouldn’t you be wearing your Mama’s apron?”

I wave a sloppy spoon in his direction. “Why aren’t you outside?”

He crosses his legs prissily. “Because I am an honorary member of the Kitchen Conspiracy, not an actual member. I can come and go as I please.”

“I think you’re a spy,” Jean grumbles. “But, let me tell you, after five kids, I know my way around a kitchen. And a diaper.” He pats his son’s, Geoffrey’s, bottom. Geoffrey, at eighteen months, is starting potty training, and is wearing ‘big boy diapers’ lately.

“No baby,” Geoffrey corrects his father very seriously.

Jean smiles proudly. “Not much longer, buddy.”

“So,” Brian smirks, “you were raised in this house, right?”

“We all were,” Gerrard replies. “Papa grew up here too.”

“Okay, then which cabinet does Mama keep her spices in?”

Papa gets up and walks over to the cabinet closest to the stove. He opens it up with a flourish. Unfortunately, it is bereft of spices. Coloring, he mutters, “She must have moved them.”

We all laugh, but none of us move to show him which cabinet they are in. We aren’t willing to admit we don’t know. It’s not our fault, though. Mama doesn’t allow anyone but the Conspiracy in here while she’s cooking. And she slaps our hands whenever we try to do something on our own. It’s quite understandable.

It is.

I take over the cereal and the tiniest spoon ever invented over to the table. I take Kels seat, and begin feeding my boy. He doesn’t need much of the cereal, but it’s darn fun to watch him gum away.

“Papa,” a small girl’s voice says from the doorway. Two heads swing in the direction, only Gerrard and Jean have little girls who can talk at this point. It’s Caitlin, part of the other set of fraternal twins in the family. She’s wearing a pretty sundress, sky blue with yellow dandelions. Her eyes are the color of her dress and she looks up at Jean. “Mama said that you would bake us some cookies.”

Jean glances out the window at the Conspiracy. “Did she?” He holds out his hand and she comes to him, climbing up in his lap readily.

Caitlin gives her little brother a big squeeze, causing him to lose focus on his coloring for a moment. Geoffrey squirms and refocuses on his task. Caitlin turns to her dad and says, “She said you could make us choca chip cookies.”

He nods. “Not a problem. Of course, we can make some.” By we, I assume, he means someone other than himself. He can’t boil water, let alone do something complex in the kitchen.

Her tiny hands reach up and frame his face, squishing his cheeks together comically. “Really, Papa? You promise?”

“I promise, squirt. Did Mama say anything else?”

We all await her answer eagerly. The Conspiracy can be plain mean sometimes. “No. She was too busy putting out the fire.”

All of us swing around to look out the window. I begin counting heads, more than glad when I see Kels and Brennan safe in the distance.

“There go our steaks, boys,” Papa sighs. “I better go check on the barbecue.”

We all cross ourselves, hoping nothing happened to it. That thing has been a proud member of our family for as long as we can remember.

* * *

I’m sitting off to the side with the smaller of the children, who aren’t quite old enough for the serious horseplay of the elder sibs and their Mamas. My broken wrist is keeping me out of is as well.

I learn pretty quickly that inside or outside, Mama rules the KC. I understood that the second she snatched the football out of my good hand and sent me off to the sidelines to tend to the little ones.

We have two playpens set up and a variety of toys to keep everyone happy. Everyone, that is, except my daughter, who has decided to be a right little witch today. Nothing makes her happy except sleeping in my arms. Not that her choice makes me unhappy, but the second I think she’s asleep and try to ease her down, she’s awake and crying again.

Glancing down, I watch her nurse. I’m hoping after a little midmorning meal she’ll feel a little better and take a nap in her carriage, so my good arm can have a rest.

“Jonathan Kingsley!” I look up to see Mama waving a barbecue fork in his face and backing him up toward the rear door of the house. “Don’t you dare come out here and try to tell me…”

I have to laugh as the scene unfolds. She said it would and she was right. She told us all that as soon as they heard the word ‘fire’ come out of Caitlin’s mouth, one of them would come out and it would most likely be Papa.

The ‘fire’ hadn’t been more than a flame up around the food cooking on the grill. It was never a fire and it was never out of control. Elaine merely told Caitlin to mention it to see what would happen. The boys love their grill.

I’m surprised they all didn’t rush out here with half the New Orleans fire department hot on their heels.

Slowly, Brennan falls asleep. She’s not quite willing to give me up, yet at the same time, is getting so relaxed she can’t help it. Rene comes over and gently takes her from my arms and places her in the carriage. My sister and I both share hopeful looks as we watch my girl snuggle down next to her favorite stuffed bear.

She really loves this bear because it smells like Harper. The child is no dummy. She uses the same method of keeping her Mama near that I do. And when they nap together, this bear is always tucked between them. So she uses the teddy bear the same way I use Harper’s pillow when she’s out of town. I don’t care why she’s sleeping. The point is: she is.

Okay, she is, until Jean comes out the backdoor with a tray of buns for hamburgers and hot-dogs and lets the screen door bang shut.

“I’m gonna kill him!” I grind out and start for my brother.

Rene’s hand shoots out and clutches my sweatshirt. “No, don’t do that. Elaine will only have to replace him and we’ve already spent so much time on his training.”

She manages to get Brennan quieted back down without picking her up. My baby snuffles back to sleep, with only one little tiny tear creeping down her cheek. I reach out and wipe it away. I hate to see her distressed. But now that she is finally sleeping, I may let Jean live. Ren’s right; it would be a waste to let all of Elaine’s hard work go down the drain like that.

That reminds me.

“Oh, Rene, dear?” I give my sister an evil grin. “Don’t you think you need to have that little chat with Harper?”

* * *

“How long do we have to boil these potatoes?” Robie asks, poking one with a knife.

“Until they’re done.”

Robie shoots our eldest brother a look. “Do you want to do these, your Honor?”

Gerrard pushes himself up from the table and saunters over to the stove. He stares over the edge of the pot at the mass of boiling water and the dozens of potatoes at the bottom. “I thought people normally cut these things up first.”

“Not Mama.”

“I’m kinda at a loss then.”

“Let Harper fix ‘em,” Luc mutters wandering in from the family room, having gone there to fetch playing cards. “She’s a girl. Or so Kelsey says.”

I reach over and smack him on the back of his head. “Keep it up, funny boy, and you’ll be one too.”

“Ooo,” the boys echo my threat.

I pick up a knife, give Luc the eye, and walk over to the boiling pot. I stick the knife in one of the potatoes and it slides in easily. “Done. That’s how you tell. Not that difficult, boys.” I had to feed myself for a number of years. I can do this. All the other boys went straight from Mama’s house to their own married household. Luc stayed home the longest, though Jean acts like it most of the time.

“Now what?”

I look at Robie incredulously. “You’re a smart one, I bet you can figure it out. What do you think you need to do to make mashed potatoes?”

“A masher?”

“Among other things.”

* * *

I scratch my cheek as I stand next to Mama and listen to the clatter coming from the kitchen. “Do you think they’re okay in there?”

“Oh, they’re fine.” Mama never takes her eyes from the food simmering on the grill. “I may have done a little rearranging of the utensils; that might have them a bit confused.” She looks up and gives me an ‘innocent’ smile.

“Harper’s right. We are evil.” I sip my tea and wince when I hear one of the boys yell something that Mama will get him for later.

“It’s the natural born right of every Southern wife, Kelsey. You marry them, you get to torture them. But you must always remember to love them too.”

“It’s a lesson I’m enjoying.”

“The torturing or the loving?”

“Yes.” I chuckle and refill her tea and mine. “Harper’s one of a kind and sometimes she can be so gullible.”

Mama laughs, shaking her head and grasping my forearm. “She’s exactly like Jonathan. When we were first married, he’d fall for almost anything. Unfortunately, I could never keep a straight face long enough to really pull anything off.”

“I know. There’s something about them. When you look at them, you can’t stand the thought of making it too horrible.”

“It’s the blue eyes,” Mama states with a certain finality. “The Kingsleys should be ashamed of the way they use those blue eyes to get what they want.”

“So,” Elaine chimes in as she steals a small piece of hot dog from the grill, getting her hand slapped by Mama in the process. She really should know better. Does coming outside into the boys’ domain make brain cells die faster or what? “What are we talking about?”

“Blue eyes.”

“Oh, then don’t forget the sad little way they tilt their heads too.” She laughs, immediately knowing we were talking about our respective spouses.

Katherine enters the conversation as she throws the football back to the older boys who are about to start a game on their own. They’ve been properly impressed today with their Mamas’ abilities when it comes to football. Katherine knows how to score a touchdown and never once let the boys forget it.

“Are we taking about the patented Kingsley pout?”

I nearly snort tea through my nose. I don’t know how many times I’ve thought that same thing when Harper turned hers on. “Yes, as a matter of fact, we are.”

“Gerard doesn’t even bother anymore. We’ve been married too long. After a few years, it loses some of its effectiveness. Now he snorts at me.”

Mama laughs again, finding that comment funny. She coughs when she accidentally breathes in some of the smoke from the grill. “Jonathan doesn’t pout anymore and he’s gone past snorting at me. He walks away grumbling to himself.”

Rachel joins us after being inside on a recon mission.

“How are they doin’ in there?” I ask, gesturing to the kitchen.

She takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “Well, they haven’t caught the kitchen on fire yet. Somehow I think they’d all be happier if Brian would leave them alone. He’s in there picking on them and teasing them. They may toss him out here on his backside before it’s over with.”

I roll my eyes, knowing what a snot our nanny can be when he chooses to be. “What’s he doing?”

She waves me off. “Nothing serious, merely calling their masculinity into question.”

Harper may kill him herself.

* * *

I deliver another round of drinks out to the kids and wives. You’d think it was the middle of summer the way they’re swilling the lemonade, iced tea, water and juice. I started out just bringing lemonade. Rachel casually mentioned she’d prefer iced tea. That was quickly amended to sun tea by Elaine. Mama insisted on water. A couple of the kids, I’m sure prompted by the Conspiracy, asked for juice. So now I nearly break my back each time I bring out more liquid refreshment.

Before going back inside, I collapse down onto the back porch swing. This is where I first kissed Kels, for real, at least. She tasted so sweet. I remember she was crying, overwhelmed by us. I chuckle. Who wouldn’t be? Overwhelmed by family, having never had one before. Forever, I will be grateful to them for adopting her so quickly.

I close my eyes and enjoy the memories of falling in love for the first time in my life.

God, my memory is great, because I feel her touching me. I groan as fingernails gently scrape over the back of my neck. Her breath is gentle on my cheek. I turn my face to kiss her, opening my eyes so I can see her gentle gaze.

“Holy shit!” I curse, jumping back, cracking my head against the back of the swing.

“Easy, Harper, don’t hurt yourself,” Rene coos, joining me on the swing, sitting a little too close.

“Robie is in the kitchen,” I manage, swallowing hard. I can’t imagine that she mistook me for him. We do have more than a few obvious differences. I glance over around the porch, hoping Slugger isn’t coming. She’d kill one or both of us, that’s for sure.

“Yeah? And your point would be what?” Ren moves closer, letting me catch a whiff of her perfume. “Since when am I not allowed to sit next to you?”

“Next, not on,” I mumble.

“What is wrong with you?” Rene asks, gently nudging me. “You act like I’m gonna bite you.”

I shake my head, my daydream must have messed with my mind. “Sorry. I was thinking about Kels when you came over.”

“Yeah, Kels is very lucky.”

There’s a sadness in her voice that I don’t ever recall hearing before. Seeing clearly now, I note that Rene has a worried expression on her face, marring her beautiful features. Getting over my initial shock, I reach out and take her hand in mine. “What’s wrong, darlin’?”

“Eh, I was just thinking.”

“About what?”

“About how lucky you and Kels are and how happy you seem to be. It’s been really noticeable since you moved home.” She looks up at me under thick lashes and smiles, teasingly. “You might want to make sure your bedroom window is closed from now on.”

Is it hot out here, or what? “Darlin’, I am merely trying to inspire my brother to greater heights.” I figure since I’m totally embarrassed already, I may as well embrace it.

“You might not inspire him, but you certainly inspire me.”

Oh, shit. Memories of Rachel assail me. I gently release Rene’s hand and place it back on her lap. “Ren …”

“Harper,” Rene leers at me.

“God, I love you, Ren. I do. But I could never …” I’m at a loss for words, surprised as hell to find myself in this situation. “I love Kels completely, and …”

“Yeah, well, I love Kels too. That doesn’t mean I can’t love you. I have to tell you, Harper, when I heard Kels yell your name the other night, my mouth started watering.”

I am in hell. And I am much too close to the flames. God knows, I find Rene incredibly sexy and attractive, but she’s my brother’s wife, and my wife’s best friend. I stand up, popping up like a cork held underwater too long. “I think you and Robie need to have a talk. Do you want me to go get him?” While I’m at it, I think I’ll take a step back. Or two.

I yelp when I feel two arms slide around my waist. Since one has a cast, I have a fairly good idea of who my captor is. “Hiya, Sexy. What’s up?”

How much as she heard? Can’t be much, since Rene and I are both still alive. “Nothing.”

“Ren, I thought you were going to come over and talk to her.”

“I did. She doesn’t seem to be interested.” Rene shrugs her shoulders appealingly.

Harper! Avert your damn eyes before you have to get the neighbors do another round of fireworks. “Huh?” I opt for stupidity. At the moment, it seems safest.

“Not interested? Did you explain it?”

“I was starting to when she jumped up.”

My eyes narrow when Kels begins stroking my stomach. She knows better than to do that when she’s not serious. It’s what she uses at night to let me know we could be doing better things than sleeping.

“Maybe I should go so you can finish talking to her. I’m sure she’s feeling a little shy about the thought of sharing.” Kels’ hand ‘accidentally’ brushes my breast.

And suddenly I see things with clarity. I catch her hand and hold it there. “Sharing?” I echo, keeping a touch of confusion in my voice.

“Yeah, sharing.” Kels slides around me so she can look at Rene. I wonder how they can keep from breaking into laughter. “Ren and I’ve talked about it. We think you’d make wonderful filling in a sandwich.”

“Really? You’d be okay with that?” I am the picture of utter sincerity. My expression, my tone of voice, my posture all convey my genuine surprise at the offer. And genuine interest.

“Sure. We think it’d be a great deal of fun. Don’t you?”

I hold my hand out to Rene, pulling her up from the swing and over to us. I wrap my arm around her waist, and stand between them. “It’s what I’ve dreamt of,” I whisper, leaning in to kiss Rene’s neck. Instead, I lick my sister, for being evil and trying to mess with my mind.

As she recoils with a shriek, Kels bursts out laughing. “Okay, lover, you caught us. Get your lips off that woman.”

I wag my finger in front of her face. “You are very bad.”

“Actually,” she manages between laughs, “I thought we were pretty good. We had you going.” My wife and my erstwhile girlfriend high five. “Happy April Fool’s Day.”

I wipe my forehead. “She scared me.” I point at Rene now. “It was a little too real for a moment.”

“Too real?” Rene stamps her foot indignantly. “I don’t play sexual frustration that well, thank you very much!”

“Apparently, you do.” Kels wipes my forehead, leaning into me enticingly. “Look at her, she’s sweating.”

“I’ll be right back,” Rene promises.

I am about to protest, to suggest that we play this game on Robie, but then I notice that Kels is still pressed against me, and we’re alone. “Wanna neck?” I whisper. “We can relive old times out here on the porch.”

“I’d love to.”

That’s my girl.

* * *

I don’t think I’ve managed to kiss my wife but a few times when I sense eyes on us. My thumb caresses Kels’ cheek as I pull back slowly. Maintaining eye contact with my girl, I ask the person behind us, “Something I can do for you?”

A giggle. Hmm, it’s one of the kids. I decide, after a brief moment of hesitation, to stay exactly where I am. Kels’ eyes are the color of summer, and I can’t seem to tear myself away from their promise.

“You two kiss a lot.”

It’s Danielle. Who should know exactly how much Kels and I kiss since she seems to keep track constantly.

Kels hums appreciatively. “Yes, we do.” Her fingers slide up my arm and shoulder to bury themselves in the hair at the nape of my neck. My body is electrified at her touch.

“Do you like it?”

What the hell kind of a question is that? I am about to blurt my thoughts out when Kels’ lips get in my way. She kisses me gently, but thoroughly. “Oh, yeah,” Kels replies later on our behalf. “She’s good.”

My face flushes and I’m glad that Danielle can’t see me.

Kels kisses me again, even longer this time, making me forget all about my niece. “This seat is magic, eh?”

I nod vigorously. “Absolutely. Thanks for coming home with me, chér.”

She pulls me back in for more. “Thanks for asking.”

* * *

“I don’t get it,” Luc sighs, folding his cards.

Robie gestures to his diminished pile of chips. Literal chips, by the way, since we don’t have our poker ones handy. Right now we’re using various versions of Lay’s potato chips for our score. Barbecue are worth a quarter, sour cream and chives a dime, and regular a penny. “Obviously, you don’t. You keep eating your damn money, Luc.”

Luc sighs and takes a bite of his ruffles. “What do they do in here all day long?”

I chuckle and shrug. I just finished changing Collin’s diapers and now he’s laying in the crook of my arm, having a snack. I should still be on the swing making out with my wife, but Danielle wouldn’t leave us alone, and Robie came and dragged me back in here. Apparently, I should have still been inside, as we were commanded to do so today. My son was happy to see me, his Uncle Gerrard was having a hard time keeping him entertained. Collin and I have bonded thoroughly, though, and simply being together is enough for us. Well, being together and a bottle. “They talk about us,” I say before brushing my lips against my son’s unruly hair.

“I still don’t get it. I mean, good Lord, what do we do that is that interesting?”

My other brothers begin laughing at Luc. “Damn, Luc, if you don’t know …” I leave the sentence unfinished. Given my history with Rachel, it’s best if I let it alone.

“Do I need to send you a package in a brown paper wrapper?” Jean asks over the top of his cards.

Lucien folds and eats another chip. “Bite me. It’s just … I mean, I look around and I see the same four people I grew up with. I know where you work, I know your wives, I know your kids. What else is there?”

“Our emotions.” Gerrard mock sniffles.

“Our inner beauty,” Robie joins in.

“Our every waking thought,” I mutter. Women.

“And why we looked the way we did when we said something we weren’t paying any attention to.” Jean is always getting in trouble for that.

“Do girls really do that when they’re together?” Luc asks me. Suddenly, I’m the resident expert.

I shrug. “I dunno. Kels and I will talk. And it’s great, because it’s at a deeper level than with you guys. I know all about her.” Oh, yeah. I sure do.

Gerrard nods but makes a quasi-disagreeing face. “Yeah, but I feel the same way with Katherine. I know her by heart, but we don’t sit around for hours talking all the time. We’ve done that, especially when we were dating, but since then … I can’t recall a time when we were doing the whole soul-baring thing. Except maybe after the kids were each born.”

“So what do you talk about?” Robie asks.

“Life, as it happens. Joseph’s grades, Laurent’s upcoming recital, Danielle’s reading club, T-Jean’s pee wee football. We’ll go over household things, and our upcoming plans.”

“How do you know she’s happy?” Luc asks. I wondered what was prompting all of his questioning. He must be worried about Rachel. If it were big enough, he’d say something. Until then, none of us will call him on it.

“She says she is. Plus, I watch her.”

Jean nods sagely. “Lainey normally tells me if she isn’t. Or gives me a cold dinner. That’s always a good clue.”

“Gerrard,” I am interested in learning more from him, as I strive to imitate him a great deal in my own marriage. “When you say you don’t do the soul-baring thing, what do you mean? Katherine’s real sensitive. How can you not?”

“I guess, I mean, I don’t. But I always listen to her. She’s great about keeping me up-to-date on how she’s feeling.”

“Of course, that’s all with our wives,” Robie says, dealing out another hand. “What do they talk about when they get together? Mama has them in here the whole time on Sundays. Every time one of us step in the kitchen, they all clam up tight. Meanwhile, we’re outside playing, sleeping, barbecuing, whatever, but we’ll do ten things and they’ll only sit and gab.”

“They seem to enjoy it.”

“No offense,” Luc says, preparing us for an offensive statement, no doubt, “but I can’t imagine being that interested in anything y’all had to say.”

“Same back, Luc,” all four of us seem to mutter at the same time.

I love my brothers.

* * *

It was a truly wonderful day with the family, but a little quiet time with Harper is now a must.

Brian is in his room with his new computer and CD burner, downloading God only knows what off the internet. Sometimes, I expect the men in black to show up on my doorstep and ask to see him.

Both babies are bathed, fed and with Uncle Brian, who has promised that their mamas will not be disturbed tonight unless someone ends up demon possessed and starts throwing up pea soup.

I’m stretched out on our big feather bed, tucked quite comfortably between the silk sheets I put on it for this evening.

Harper is still in the shower. When we got home, I made her head straight there. Someone at the poker game today was smoking cigars and the smell was clinging to her. I haven’t been able to tolerate the smell of cigars since the LA incident. But now I can ask her to wash it out and I’m okay.

I listen to her in the bathroom, singing in the shower. She really does have a beautiful voice. She should sing more, or, at least, not be embarrassed by the fact when she does.

Listening carefully, I hear the water stop, the shower door open, then close with a slight bang. Now she’s humming. She’s happy tonight. It was a good day with family, even though a good portion of the day was spent simply being rotten to each other. It was all done in fun, and with love, and that made all the difference.

I roll over to face the bathroom door when she exits, clicking off the light as she does. Her hair is still damp; I love it when it’s like that. Her skin is still pink from the hot water and I can already smell her soap and shampoo from here. She’s dressed in boxers and an old t-shirt that’s nearly worn out. It’s going to be time to throw it away soon, and that’ll be an argument. I’ll throw out the old rag, and she’ll rescue it. We’ll go on like that for weeks. It’s almost a game between us now.

“You,” I start with a little growl, stretching out, “have far too many clothes on.”

She stops and grins down at me. “I do, huh?”

I nod. “Uh huh. You are not getting on these silk sheets with,” I gesture to her outfit, “that on.”

She crosses her arms over her chest. “What do you suggest I wear?”

I lift the top sheet so she can see what I’m wearing. “Something like this.”

Slowly she wipes the corner of her mouth and clears her throat. “Not much there. I might catch cold.”

“You might,” I agree with a little pout. “Then again you might get so hot, you’ll sweat.”

She nods and wiggles her brows at me. “You really think that could happen?”

“I’m willing to bet good money on it, Stud.”

She pulls the T-shirt off quickly. “Then I’m going to have to risk it.”

As soon as she’s in bed, we are in each other’s arms. There is no doubt that it’s going to be a long sleepless night, but we’re going to have fun. “Harper?”

“Hmmm?” She nuzzles my neck, knowing exactly where to nibble to drive me crazy.

“Did you close the window?”

* * *

The next morning, I wander downstairs to get the paper. I’m impressed that I’m even up at this hour. I feel wonderfully relaxed and happy. Sated is another word that comes to mind. Oh, yeah. Sated.

I think fresh air is just the thing for the Conspiracy. We need to get them out more often. Let them run around and work up an appetite. She was voracious last night, that’s for sure. I’ll have to see if the boys found the same thing out.

I open the front door and find the baby monitor crushed on top of the Times-Picayune. I chuckle. Guess Robie and Ren found it in their bedroom last night. I hope Ren doesn’t choose to mention our little broadcast last night.

I also hope they didn’t listen too long before smashing it. I glance over at my brother’s house and see him walking toward his car. “Mornin’,” I call out sweetly.

He alters course to visit with me before heading off to work. “Care to explain?” He nudges the remains of the receiver with his toe.

I smile. “Oh, Ren mentioned something about wanting to be inspired.”

He folds his arms across his chest, puffing it out, and trying to look studly. It cracks me up. “I hardly think so. We do have three kids, Harper Lee.”

“Robie, you and I both know that reproduction has very little to do with finesse. I mean, come on, Jean has five rug rats.”

“True,” he admits. “Do you mind, however, in the future not broadcasting how happily married you and Kels are? I know you don’t suffer from it, but, well, some of us can have performance anxiety, if you know what I mean.”

I chuckle. “I gotcha.”

“Of course, Mama had a good laugh when she dropped off one of the toys we left behind yesterday.”

I feel my face flush. “You’re shitting me.”

Robie grins. “You hope I am.”

* * *

Ah, peace and quiet. Brian and the babies are still asleep. Kels is snuggled against me in the kitchen. She’s wearing a rather sheer robe, for which I’m grateful that Brian is so gay one could almost consider him a lesbian. I’m in my boxers and tank top. I found it in the trash this morning. Kels needs to learn to not do that. So I’m wearing it.

We’re lazily sharing bites of breakfast and kisses. We’re doing less well sharing the paper, but we’re managing.

Suddenly, our quiet morning is interrupted. Christian comes running in through the back door, the screen door banging closed in his wake. Next to rumble through is Clark, followed by Kelly in a stroller. Rene is at the stroller’s helm. She surveys our state of casual dress and rolls her eyes. “Good Lord.”

“Problem?” My girl gives my sister a huge, shit-eating grin that does me proud.

Christian looks up at his favorite aunt. “You’re all clear, Aunt Kels.”

Kels laughs, but, in an effort to not highlight the issue more, doesn’t bolt from the room. “Yes, dear, I know. Tante Harper is going to go get me a heavier robe, isn’t she?”

I reach over and snag the apron from the nearby stool. I drape it around my wife’s neck. “Does this warm you up, sweetheart?”

“No. And if you don’t go get me a proper robe, it’ll be awhile before I warm you up again.”

Christian snickers, able to recognize I’m in trouble, but not quite sure why. I tousle his hair as I hustle upstairs. I’m not stupid. I take that back. I’m not that stupid. I grab Kels’ heavier robe and head back to the kitchen. “Here you go, chér,” I try again, leaning down to kiss her cheek by way of apology.

Rene helps herself to a cup of coffee, and pours the boys some juice. They go over to the little plastic dining set we have in the kitchen. It’s so damn cute. I watch as Christian helps little Clark steady himself on the bench. He’s a good older brother. Of course, Christian then pats Clark’s head like a prize puppy before going to his side of the table.

“Thank you,” Kels sighs. She looks over at Rene. “Still so raw this one. Lots of material to work with here.”

“Oh, yes, I heard you working.”

“No, that was playing,” Kels replies.

Rene smirks. “Sounded like a lot of work to me. I mean, Harper had a lot of orders to follow all at once.”

“Yes, good thing for me she multitasks very well.”

My face is turning red, but neither Kels nor Rene looks bothered at all. Rene swirls more cream into her cup. “Hmm … I didn’t think you two were still in broadcasting though.”

“I told her to close the window.” I get a reproving look. I wonder when I get a reproving hit. “She just didn’t listen. I told you, I still have things to work on.”

“Uh huh.” Rene smiles maliciously in my direction. She reaches into the stroller and pulls out a baby monitor and places it on the table. “Recognize this?”

Shit, shit, shit. Hey, wait a minute. I carefully disposed of the remnant earlier. “I don’t,” I grumble. Rene ignores me.

“Why, yes; yes, I do. How in the world did you get that?”

“Since yours met an untimely end last night, Robie and I thought you might like ours for tonight. Seeing how there seems to be a competition …”

Oh God. I am burned.

“Harper?” my wife’s voice is still sweet for the moment. “You want to tell me why our monitor met an untimely demise?”

“No.”

“I really think you should.” Her eyes flick toward our sister. “Or maybe you’d like Rene to tell me?”

I try to quickly decide which would be worse. When Rene offers to tell, I make up my mind. “It seems that when I took out the trash last night, that somehow our baby receiver ended up in their bedroom.”

“Tell her where the monitor ended up,” Rene prompts, enjoying herself far too much.

“I’m getting to that,” I growl. “I think it might have been in our bedroom.”

“You think?”

I rub my nose and give Ren the bird. It’s straight from junior high, but it works. “Robs been needing some help.”

Kels turns to face Rene, and I figure that I am about to be completely roasted. “Robie needs help? How about Viagra? I hear it works wonders.” She glances over her shoulder at me. “I don’t think Robie needs our help, though, Harper Lee. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, ma’am. Loud and clear.”

“Good. Now apologize to Rene. And tonight, we’re gonna baby-sit so Robie and Rene can have some nice, quality time together.”

My sister looks triumphant and I suddenly realize this is why she came over here. She didn’t want to get even, she wanted to drop off the kids. My eyes narrow and I study her, wondering how exactly I will get even. Because, I will. “Sorry, Ren. And we’re looking forward to have the boys and Kelly over tonight.”
Episode TEN: Roll, Baby, Roll
“Hey!”

Brennan looks at me, her favorite bear in her mouth. She carries him around everywhere. He smells like Mama. “What?”

“Watch me!” I lift up my arm and push with my knees and I’m moving. Up, up, up, until I’m laying on my side, and then …

I’m back on my stomach. Darn.

“What was that?” Brennan asks. Before I can answer, she goes back gumming on her bear.

I chew on my fist for a few minutes. Okay, Mama showed me how to do this last night. She kept rolling all around, and making Mommy laugh. I like it when Mommy laughs so I’m gonna roll too. “Be nice.”

Brennan holds her bear with her feet. “I am nice.”

I dunno. She cried last night, and made Mama get up to see us. Mama said that wasn’t very nice. I try to keep quiet at night, unless I get hungry. Or wet. Or miss Mommy. Or miss Mama. Or get cold. Or scared.

Let me do this again.

Lift my head. Push up with my hands. Move my knees up a little. And, let’s see … I need to … I need to …

Darn, I forget.

Mama, come show me again. “Mama!”

“She’s making dinner.”

“Mama!”

“What’s wrong, sweetie?” Mommy asks from where she’s sitting. She puts down the paper she’s holding and comes over to me. Her hands slide around me and she lifts me up. Holding me close, she pats my back.

“That’s nice, Mommy.”

“What’s wrong, sweetie?”

“I want Mama to show me that rolling thing.”

“Are you hungry?” she asks, not understanding me. Mommy kisses me.

She and Mama kiss me a lot. So does Kam. He likes to kiss my feet. It tickles. “No, I’m not hungry yet, Mommy. I need to roll so I can make you laugh.”

“Harper!”

Ah, good, she finally understands. Sometimes I think she and Mama can’t talk very well. They don’t seem to know what Brennan and I say most of the time. “Mama!”

“Can you bring in the cereal? I think Collin is hungry already.”

Aww, Mom.

She gives my diaper a firm pat. This seems to be how she checks for problems. I bang her on the chin. “I’m fine, Mom.” Doesn’t she think I’d tell her if I was all sticky or wet?

Mama comes over and takes me from Mommy. She lifts me up in the air and for a moment I’m flying. “Yea! That’s fun!”

Mommy laughs. “He’s talking up quite a storm tonight. I think he has something on his mind.”

“I wanna roll.”

“Oh, really, little man?” Mama asks, kissing my cheek.

See, they kiss me a lot. “Yeah. Can you show me that rolling thing again? I want to do it; it looked like a lot of fun.”

“Well, then, let’s get you some food.” Mama puts me on the floor while she goes over to the table.

I’m not hungry. I’m just glad I’m back on the floor.

“They think you’re hungry,” Brennan laughs. “You don’t speak very well.”

I stick out my tongue at my sister.

Okay, let me try one more time. Lift head. Push with arms. Push with knees. Now, I need to slide my left arm over this way
and …

Mama picks me up.

“Mama! Mama! I was almost there! I was almost rolling!” I close my eyes and kick, wishing they’d leave me on the ground. How can I roll if they keep picking me up?

“Collin, chér, what’s wrong?”

“Put me down!” I kick again.

“I think he’s scared,” Mommy says, coming over. She scratches my back. “Honey, what’s wrong? Maybe he’s tired.”

I hear Brennan laughing on the floor.

“I’m not tired! I wanna roll!”

“You better just eat, Collin,” Brennan calls. “Otherwise, they’re gonna make you go to sleep. They’re gonna put you up in the room all alone.”

Alone.

I don’t wanna be alone. I want to stay here. Everyone’s here. Everyone but Aunt Brian. But he went out with that guy who came by the house. He smelled like dogs, and Kam really liked him, so I guess he’s okay.

I listen to Brennan and stop kicking. Mama tucks me under her chin and begins dancing with me. She and Mommy dance like this a lot. “That’s better, huh? What’s wrong, Collin Lee? Have we been ignoring you tonight?”

I shake my head. I don’t want to talk anymore right now. It doesn’t seem to help.

“You know you’re my best guy, right? Would my best guy like some yummy cereal?”

If it’s so yummy, how come Mommy and Mama don’t eat it? But it is good. It tastes different than Mommy. Though I like having Mommy. She holds me real tight and sings to me. She has a pretty voice, and she’s always real warm to snuggle against. Sometimes, when I’m with Mommy, Mama will come and hold us both. I like that.

I like being with them. And with Brennan.

But I really want to roll.

* * *

“Hey there, pretty girl.” Mommy leans over my bed and picks me up. I have to stop crying when she wraps me up in a blanket and holds me close. “What’s wrong? Hmm? You’ve been bathed, fed, you’ve got on nice, clean, warm jammies. What’s wrong?”

I don’t feel good.

“Ooo, you have a fever,” she says after pressing her cheek to my forehead.

I don’t know what you call it, but I don’t feel good.

“Let’s go downstairs so we don’t wake your brother.”

I lay my head against her shoulder and let her carry me downstairs. I like riding like this; she always kisses my head. My ear hurts too. Mommy make it stop. I want to cry but can’t quite bring myself to when she’s holding me.

“Harper?” Mommy calls to Mama even before we get downstairs. “We have a very cranky girl tonight.”

“What’s wrong?” Mama reaches us as we get to the first floor.

“She’s tugging on her ear again. I’m thinking another ear infection.”

Mama takes me and holds me close, kissing my cheek. “It’s gonna be a long night.” She kisses my sore ear and blows a little, warm air into it.

I like that.

“I’ll heat up the olive oil and call the doctor.” I sniffle as Mommy rubs my back before leaving us. I don’t want her to leave me!

“Whoa there, RooToo!” Mama takes over the rubbing. “Calm down.”

No! I want Mommy!

“She’ll be right back.”

Not soon enough.

“Come on, sweetheart.” Mama makes sure my head is covered and I’m warm, but I want Mommy to come back. I’m gonna cry until she does.

Mama settles down on the couch and rubs my sore ear. “Does it hurt, sweetie?”

Yes, Mama, it hurts. Please, make it stop hurting.

Mommy comes back in and they put the warm stuff in my ear. That’s better. Then I get a nice warm bottle. That’s much better.

I’ve got both my moms. My ear feels better already, and now I’m getting a bottle. I may survive.

“What did the doctor say?”

“He said we were probably right. We should keep her comfortable tonight, give her baby Tylenol, and he’ll see us at ten-thirty in the morning unless her fever skyrockets tonight.”

* * *

Oh, this will be fun! Mama tugs my favorite T-shirt on over my head and looks at me. “That’s a very handsome shirt you have on there, little man.”

I slap my chest and look down at the balloons which decorate it. I like balloons. I point to the blue one. It’s the best. It’s big. I like big balloons. Mama tied some on my bed one day and I was so sad when they went away. “Thanks. I like it.”

“Are you ready to go see your Uncle Robie?”

Oh, yeah! I like Uncle Robie. He’s funny. He’s always making silly faces and he holds me up in the air. He and Mama laugh and Tante Rene is really sweet. She smells good, like Mommy, and she’s real soft. Best of all, Christian and Clark will be there. “Let’s go, Mama!”

Mama laughs. “Come on, son.” She picks me up and we go over to Mommy and Brennan.

Mama leans down and holds me so I can kiss Mommy. I press my mouth against her and she turns and kisses my nose. “You two have fun, and be good!”

We both laugh. We know Mommy meant that for Mama and not for me. Both of them say I’m a good boy.

“Bye, Brennan,” I call out over Mama’s shoulder. She wasn’t feeling good last night, but she seems better today.

Brennan waves at me. “Say hi to Kelly for me.”

* * *

Kam sees us on our way over to Uncle Robie’s and he dances around Mama. He’s so silly. I clap my hands and he looks up at me. Before I can move, he kisses my feet. “Aww, Kam!”

Mama pats his head. “You can come too, boy,” she says. We both expected it. We always take him when we go over. The three of us head across the grass and knock on the door. I get to bang on it, which is real fun. I’m not very loud though and Mama has to help. She’s loud.

“It’s Collin!” Clark screams from the other side of the screen door. “Collin! Collin! Collin!”

“Clark!”

“Collin!”

“Clark!”

“Collin!”

Tante Rene walks over, wiping her hands off on a towel. “Excuse me, sweetie.” She looks down at my cousin who is bouncing up and down, happy to see me. I’m happy to see him too.

“Come in, Collin!”

“I can’t. You’re in the way.” I hate to point it out, but we could be outside for a long time.

He stops bouncing and looks up at his Mama. She smiles and gently helps him step back. He stays there while she opens the door for us. Kam rushes in the opening and heads straight for my cousin. Pushing his nose into Clark’s stomach, Kam knocks Clark over.

“Bad, dog!” Clark scolds.

Kam ignores him and kisses his face.

“Kam, get over here,” Mama says.

Uh oh. Kam’s in trouble. That’s the voice she used when I grabbed Mommy’s ear thing. I don’t know why Mommy wears bright, fun things on her ears if they’re not toys.

“I’m okay.” Clark gets up and wipes his hands on his jeans.

I have jeans too. I wanted to wear them today to show Clark, but Mama put on these shorts instead. At least, I got the balloons. “Kam wouldn’t hurt you. He’s a nice doggy.”

Clark pushes back some hair from his eyes. “You want to see my new toy?”

“You got a new toy?”

“Yeah. It’s big. It’s called a …” He scrunches up his nose. That means one of two things.

Tante Rene notices it too. “Clark, honey, do you need to go potty?”

He turns bright red. “No!”

Tante Rene and Mama laugh. “Okay.”

“He’s a real Kingsley,” Mama says, putting me on the floor by Clark. I can sit up pretty well now, if Mama sets me up and I keep my arms just right. Otherwise, Mama calls me a weasel. Or something like that. When she does, she makes Mommy laugh. Weasels must be funny.

Tante Rene hands me a block. I like blocks. “I’m surrounded by real Kingsleys, from his Papa to his older brother to his uncles to his Tante Harper to his Grandmere and Grandpa … everyone is a real Kingsley. Even your dog.”

Kam whines and lays down next to me. He’s close enough so he can kiss my feet in case he gets lonely.

“You’re a real Kingsley too, darlin’. There’s no denying us.” Mama goes over to a chair and sits down. “Where’s my brother and your eldest son and daughter?”

“He and Christian are having a time out; Kelly is enjoying a nap.”

Heh heh heh. Uncle Robie has a time out. I haven’t ever had a time out, but Christian and Clark have. They say it’s the worst. You have to be quiet and not do anything. I don’t like that. I like to talk and play.

“What did they do?”

“See anything missing?” Tante Rene looks around the room.

I look too. Ooo, I see what’s missing. “The lamp!”

“What’s up, little man?”

“The lamp, Mama. The lamp is missing.”

“You want a different block?” Mama tries to be nice and hands me a blue block.

I liked the green one better, but I take what she gives me. “Mama, the lamp is missing. That’s why Uncle Robie is having a time out.” I point over to where the lamp used to be. It was a pretty lamp, it had lots of colors and it was real nice when it was turned on. I wonder where it is.

Clark looks up from his new book. “Papa broke it.”

“Why’d he break it? It was a nice lamp.”

Clark bites his book. It’s a cloth book but it crackles when he bites it. I wonder why it does that. My books don’t crackle. Although one book has this big monster that pops up when I read it, and it scares me sometimes.

“Your brother and your nephew decided that since baseball season was starting, they should toss a ball around. Indoors.” Tante Rene must not like playing ball. That’s strange. Mommy and Brennan like it. Mommy is always giving Brennan a ball.

“It was funny,” Clark laughs. “The ball hit the lamp and it went ka-bow!” He throws his arms open wide. “Ka-bow!” he repeats, laughing more.

“Oops, eh?” Mama chuckles. She always sounds like that when Uncle Robie is in trouble.

“Something like that,” Rene sighs. “Clark, show Collin your new book.”

Clark removes it from his mouth and waves it in front of me. “This is it.”

“It makes noise.”

Clark nods and squeezes it. It beeps. “I like that noise best.” He squeezes it again and laughs.

I lean forward to squeeze it, but forget the rule about keeping at least one hand on the floor. “Ooo …” I call out as I fall, face forward, onto the ground. “Ow!” I hit my nose and chin hard. “Ow! Mama! Ow!”

Mama immediately scoops me up. “Hey, little man, did you lean too far?”

“Ow!” I try to answer her, but my lip hurts.

Mama kisses me and holds me tightly. “It’s okay, Collin. You only had a boo-boo. Everything’s fine.”

“I don’t like boo-boos.” I can feel my lower lip trembling and water running down my face. “I wanted to look at the new book.”

Clark holds the book out to Mama. “Here you go, Tante Harper.”

“Harper,” Tante Rene says to Mama. “Look down.”

“Oh, look, Collin, Clark wants to share.” Mama and I sit on the floor next to him. I get to stay on Mama’s lap so I don’t accidentally lean again. She takes the book from Clark and it crinkles. “Did you hear that?”

I nod, sniffing.

Tante Rene reaches for my nose with a tissue. I try to dodge it, but I’m not fast enough. Those things hurt. “No.” I swat at her hand, but miss.

“There, that’s better.” She takes the tissue away.

It feels a little better, but I didn’t like it. Mama puts the book in my hands and I stare down at it. It’s pretty. I like the bright colors.

“See the pretty bunny?” Mama asks in her baby voice. I wonder why she talks like that sometimes. “Where’s the bunny, Collin?”

“I don’t know, Mama.”

She takes my hand and guides it to the book. Ooo, that’s soft. I wonder what that is. I pet the book. “That’s a soft bunny, huh, bud?”

If it’s a bunny, it sure is.

“Think I should get Brennan and Collin bunnies for Easter?” Mama asks Tante Rene.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Harper Lee. I doubt if Kels would like them. They eat everything in sight. Besides, Kam might have an early Easter dinner if you did.”

Uh oh. That doesn’t sound good.

“We might need to pass then,” Mama agrees.

I look over at Kam. He’s smiling. I think he likes bunnies.

* * *

I feel much better today. Mommy and I went to the doctor this morning. He gave Mommy some drops for my ear and it doesn’t hurt anymore, but he said I had to keep my head warm and dry for a few days. So instead of going out, Mommy and I are going to work from the office she has in the house.

I like it when we do this. It’s fun and sometimes we call Grandpa Stanton. Mommy lets me talk to him now too and he laughs at me. He doesn’t seem to take anything seriously. I was trying to tell him about my bear the other day and he kept laughing at me.

My bear is a very serious subject.

My bear is not something to be toyed with, as Mommy would say.

Today we are sending faxes. Mommy lets me help put the papers in the machine but she hates it when I play with the buttons. She said something to Mama the other day about a call to Bombay. I don’t know anyone in Bombay. Why would I call there? I simply like the sounds the buttons make when I press them.

“So shall we send a fax up to Aunt Kendra and see if she’d like to do some guest spots for us down here?” Mommy asks even as the page goes through the machine.

I shrug. “Sure.” I’m laying here against Mommy watching what she’s doing and playing with my bear and I realize I’m kinda hungry. I tilt my head back and try to get her attention. “Mommy?”

Somehow, I get the feeling we’re speaking two different languages because she doesn’t seem to understand me very well right now. I’m hoping she improves soon. Mama too. It’s very frustrating. I grab her finger and bring it to my mouth and chew on it. That she understands every time.

“Lunch time, huh, sweetheart?”

Yup.

“Give me just a minute and let me finish what I’m doing here.”

Okay.

After she finishes what she was working on she turns me around and kisses my nose. “Straight milk, or milk and cereal for lunch?”

Straight milk, please, from the source. I’m sleepy, and I know I’ll go to sleep if I’m with you.

“Since I’m working, why don’t we do this the easy way?” She adjusts me and I’m settled right where I wanted to be. I love my Mommy. She’s very smart.

I hand her my bear. I know she’ll keep it safe while I eat.

* * *

“Mommy! Mommy!” I cry. I kick my blanket off me and flail my arms around. “Mommy!”

I hear the door open and I look over. Ah, Mommy.

Mommy leans over the crib and picks me up. “Shh, it’s okay, honey.”

I grab onto Mommy and hold her tight. “Mommy, I saw big bunnies while I was sleeping and they were trying to eat me. Mama said they eat everything in sight.”

She rubs my back gently and smoothes down my hair. It’s always sticking straight up. Brennan says it looks funny, but she doesn’t have much hair so she shouldn’t talk. “Shh, relax, sweetie.”

I take a big gulp of air. “Bunnies are scary. They have those noses. And that tail.” Mommy and I walk over to the rocker. I like the rocker. We sit down and she pulls a blanket over us. That’s better. It’s warm. I lay my head on Mommy’s shoulder. “I’m glad you came.”

Mommy checks to see if I’m wet. I’m a little wet because of when the bunny tried to eat me. But I’m okay. I just want to hold onto Mommy. “We’ll change you in a few minutes, okay, Collin?”

I nod my head. “Okay.”

“Did you have a bad dream? You don’t normally get so upset about a diaper.”

“There was this big, mean bunny.”

Sensing I’m about to get upset again, Mommy begins rubbing my back and rocking at the same time. “It’s okay, sweetie, Mommy is here.”

“Okay.”

“Mommy loves you very much.”

“I love you too, Mommy.” I feel sleepy already. Mommy is always good to sleep on. She’s so warm and friendly, and if I get hungry, there’s always something to eat. I take a deep breath. I can smell Mama on her. That’s nice.

Mommy begins singing and I close my eyes.

* * *

“All right, my little slobber mongers. Let’s take Kam for a walk, shall we?”

Uncle Brian pulls the hood up on our stroller and prepares us for our walk. Mama and Mommy are in very important meetings today and Uncle Brian says we’re going to be spending the whole day together. Which is actually okay because we go fun places like the park.

I make sure I have everything I need: bottle, bear, and blanket. I look over to Collin who is asleep already. He loves to ride in the stroller but never stays awake very long. He misses all the best stuff too.

Uncle Brian calls us ‘guy magnets.’ I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I have a feeling that if Mama ever finds out, she’s not gonna like it.

Kam walks right next to the stroller and keeps looking at me. He’s our puppy, but he always listens to Mama and Mommy. He’s a good boy, too. He doesn’t like it when strangers try to get too close to us. He always sits real close and growls real low until Uncle Brian tell him it’s okay.

At the park, Uncle Brian takes me out of the stroller because I’m still awake. He sits on the bench and throws a toy and Kam runs after it. They are so funny.

“Well, eww, Kam! Could you get a little more doggie slobber on it next time?” He holds it between two finders and tosses it away again. Kam’s only going to bring it back, so if he really wants to throw it away, he going to have to wait until we get home and do it when Kam isn’t around. That’s what Mommy does with Mama’s shirts.

“Ooo, look there, Brennan, he’s cute! Wave at the nice man!” He takes my hand and helps me wave at the man who is running past us. “Too bad Doug is sleeping in, huh?”

Yeah, I really don’t think Mama would approve of this, but it’s fun so I’m not going to tell.

* * *

This feels really good, Mama. I love bath time. Collin doesn’t like it, and he always has a fit, so Mama gives him his first then I get mine. I like it.

“You are such a good girl,” Mama tells me when she puts the stuff on my head and rubs it in my hair. I don’t have as much as Collin, but mine is the same color as Mommy’s. She’s has pretty hair. I hope I get as much as she has some day.

It’s a little cold tonight, and I shiver. Mama takes the stuff off my head and finishes up my bath, then wraps me up nice and tight in a fluffy, warm towel. This is very good.

“How’s my favorite girl doing?” Mama smiles at me and rubs my head with the corner of the towel. “Your ear feel all better?”

It sure does. It doesn’t hurt anymore. I knew you and Mommy would make it better. You always do.

We go into our room so I can get dressed. Mommy has Collin and he’s having dinner. It’s almost bedtime and pretty soon we’ll be all snuggled down and ready to sleep. You simply can’t help it after a warm bath and a warm bottle. It’s a rule.

I know it’s a rule, because Mama said it’s a rule, and Mama is always right.

* * *

I cling to Mama a little tighter than normal. We’re in the hammock in the backyard, and it always scares me. Mama gets in first, and Brennan and I lay on her, and then Mommy joins us. That’s always scary because we start swinging really high. Then Mommy takes either Brennan or me, and Mama puts her arms around Mommy, and …

I’m glad the swinging has stopped.

I hold onto Mama’s shirt. It’s warm outside, and it smells really good. Mama says it’s the magnolia tree, but I think it’s her and Mommy. Brennan and I agree that they smell best, of all the people we know.

Mama’s hand is on my back, making sure I don’t slip. “Ready for the Easter Egg hunt this year, chér?”

Mommy snuggles closer to us. I reach out with my foot and I touch Brennan. “It should be fun. Lots more kids to run around.”

“And a couple who don’t yet, but who will still be expected to participate.”

Mommy pats Brennan on the back. “I’m sure we can take ‘em all.”

“That’s my girls. Of course, it might be difficult, if you’re helping Christian and all.”

Mommy begins laughing. “Are you still put off that he asked me last year and not you?”

“I was always his favorite aunt until a certain blonde-haired, green-eyed lady came along. Ever since then, I’ve become invisible.”

Not to me, Mama.

“Not to me, sweetheart,” Mommy says what I’m thinking.

“Uh huh,” Mama whines. She sounds like Kam when she does that, all growly and funny.

“Next year should be really fun. The twins will be running around by then, Kelly too, and we’ll have eight kids under five years old.”

“Mon Dieu!” Mama says.

“I promised Mama that we’d dye some eggs for the hunt. When do you want to do that?”

Mama laughs and I bounce on her chest. “Whenever Brian’s around. He’ll do them all with flair.”

“I doubt if we’ll be seeing much of Brian with Doug here, but I’m sure if I leave them out, the egg fairy will see to them.”

For some reason both Mama and Mommy find this really funny and the hammock begins swinging far too much for my taste.

* * *

This is it. This will be the day. Today I will roll all the way over. Mama and Mommy are pretty quiet. They’re working around the house. I’m on the floor with Brennan. She’s still a little cranky with her ear thingy, but she’s feeling better. We’re all taking good care of her.

I lift my head and get a look around. All clear. No one is going to try to look at my diapers or lift me up or make me eat or nothing. I snuggle my legs up under me and push down hard, and I push with my arms. Up, up, up. Okay, now I need to put my left arm right about …

“Harper! Come quick!” Mommy yells, breaking my concentration.

Mama runs over. “Something happen?”

“Not yet,” Mommy says, “but it will. Watch Collin.”

Ooo, they’re watching me. Okay, I can do this.

“Don’t blow it,” Brennan warns.

“I won’t.” Okay, knees tucked up. Arms pressing down. Head lifts up, turn it. Now put my arm a little to the left and …

Ooo, I’m on my side. Yea! Almost there. I reach for the floor behind me. It’s a little scary, but I’m pretty sure it’s still there. As I reach, I fall over onto my back. “I did it!”

“Collin! Way to go!” Mommy begins clapping.

“You rolled over, little man!” Mama praises, dropping down beside me. “You just did it! Not long now before you’re crawling.”

Crawling? That sounds cool.

“Try that again, sweetie.” Mama lifts me up and puts me back down on my tummy.

Aww, Mama, I just got on my back, now I gotta do it all again? Okay, knees, arms, head, twist, and … roll!

Oh, yeah!

Mama leans over me and claps. “Who’s my favorite boy?”

“Me!”

“Show off,” Brennan says beside me.

I laugh and enjoy the ride as Mama picks me up and carries me over to Mommy. “Look at this big boy, Kels.”

“He’s all ours, too,” Mommy says sounding like she might cry.

“Mommy, don’t cry. Rolling makes you laugh.”

“Yeah, we’ll keep him.” Mama gives me a big kiss, and then she kisses Mommy.

Please keep me. I really like it here.

And I can roll.
Episode Eleven: The Things you’ll do for love
This has got to be the silliest thing I have ever done. Glancing down at my license, I still can’t believe I did it. The things you’ll do when you love someone. I tuck my license away in my hip pocket and take a deep breath trying to figure out what the next step should be.

I rub my wrist. It’s still tender even after being out of the cast for the past few days. What’s good for a sore wrist? Shopping for a new outfit to go with the other part of the silliest thing I’ve ever done.

Unclipping my cell phone, I can’t help but chuckle. I can’t wait to see the look on Tabloid’s face. Robie and Rene have been really good about helping hide this little surprise.

“Kingsley.”

“It’s nice to know I’ve got you properly programmed into my phone, Stud. Could be embarrassing to get you and the girlfriend mixed up,” I tease as I head for the Mercedes.

“Right.” I hear the smile on her face. “So where are you?”

“Out.”

“No! Really? I never would have guessed.”

“Where are you?”

“Mama’s.”

“Mooching lunch?”

“Of course. Mama would be disappointed if we didn’t.”

I have to laugh. It’s probably true. Mama is a very happy woman now that all her children and grandchildren are home ‘where they belong.’ She’ll cook for Harper every day to keep us here if she has too.

“Well, sweetheart, I’m going to be a bit longer than I had planned. I’ve got a little shopping I need to do.”

“That you need to do?” I can hear the doubt in her voice.

“That’s what I said,” I tease back.

“The world will end if you don’t go spend this money?”

“Yes.” I laugh as I unlock the car door and slide in. “It will just blow up.”

“Mama, you’ll be happy to know that Kels is on a one woman crusade to save the world from spontaneous combustion by utilizing her credit cards and checkbook.” I can hear Mama chuckling in the background. “Mama says it’s very kind of you to make that sacrifice on behalf of the whole world.”

“My pleasure. I really shouldn’t be more that a couple of hours. Can I bring you anything?”

“Hmm… Oh yeah, how about some beignets from that little bakery on Fourth Street? Those will be great with coffee and the crossword in the morning.”

“Perfect. A long morning in bed with the babies and the Sunday crossword?”

“Sounds like heaven to me.”

“Me, too, Stud. I love you. I’ll be home soon.”

“We’ll be there.”

* * *

“Who’s my man? Who’s my man?” I chant, on my hands and knees beside my new rolly-polly boy. Since he figured out how to do this a week or so ago, he hasn’t stopped. It’s almost funny. He’s also figured out how to lurch forward. He’s not crawling, but he’ll be here in a couple weeks.

Brennan hasn’t started rolling yet. I think she’s waiting until she can simply stand up and walk. She’s my girl. Whereas Collin is more sweet-natured like Kels, Brennan is all grit and determination like me. While Collin and I roll around, laughing, she watches us, clutching her favorite bear to her chest, plotting world domination, I’m sure.

“Huh? Who’s my man?”

“I didn’t know you had a man,” Brian murmurs behind me, patting my butt.

Faster than he expects, I fling my right hand back and grasp his wrist, catching him. “I’m betting you and this hand are well-acquainted.”

He chuckles. “We’ve met once or twice.”

“I’m sure you’d like to keep it around a substantial length …” I pause dramatically, “of time.”

“Definitely substantial.”

I crack up and release him. “Don’t touch my ass again, Brian.”

“Should I be worried about this scene?” a sonorous voice asks from our back door.

I groan and beat my forehead against the floor. Brennan begins giggling, seeming to get the joke. “It’s not funny,” I mutter.

“I don’t know, Harper. I think it’s pretty darn amusing.”

I look over at Rene and hope I’m not blushing as badly as I think I am. “You breathe one word of this to Kels and I swear …”

She sighs and rolls her eyes at me. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. What can you do to me, Harper? I’m mother to three of your Mama’s grandchildren, and a card-carrying member of the Kitchen Conspiracy. I am sacrosanct.” She sashays over, emphasizing the fullness of her hips. It reminds me of the woman of ‘I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan’ fame. “And, on top of it all, I’m Cajun. If your Mama ever found out you even threatened me …”

I bang my head again, causing Brennan to erupt in laughter once more. Women. They stick together. Even at five months.

“I give.”

“Good, then you won’t mind wearing this.”

From out of the pocket of her sun dress, Rene produces a blindfold. God, do all of us Kingsley couples have one? If she pulls out handcuffs next, I’m outta here. I straighten up and sit back on my heels. “What’s that for?” I have reason to be wary. This is Rene. And Robie, no doubt.

“A surprise.”

Brian claps his hands excitedly. “I love surprises!”

“I’m sure you’re not invited,” I growl.

“That hardly seems fair.” Our nanny can pout with the best of them. He’s been perfecting it especially now since Doug had to return to New York City. Those two have got to figure things out, one or the other has to move. I wonder if Kels will make me put Doug up too.

Better up our grocery allowance.

“Actually, Brian, I was hoping you could watch the twins for Miss Harper Lee while I borrow her.”

He pretends to think about it for a moment. “Are you videotaping whatever this is?”

She smiles, showing her pearly whites off to perfection. “Absolutely.”

“Okay. Have fun.”

With that, my world goes black. “Hey, not so tight,” I protest as Rene threatens to cut off the flow of blood to my brain.

“I don’t want you accidentally cheating.” Rene puts more than a slight emphasis on the word ‘accidentally.’

“I don’t want to accidentally stroke out.”

“Oh, you will, Harper Lee. You will.”

Where is Kels to save me? This latest shopping spree to save the world from destruction, which has now gone on for several days, seems even a bit much for my beloved spouse.

Rene guides me to my feet and takes my hand to lead me. “Make sure I don’t squish one of the kids, Ren. Kels would never forgive me.”

She chuckles. “I like them, Harper. Don’t worry.”

“Love them, love their mother.”

Rene turns around and pats my cheek, her breath warm against my skin. “I do love Kels, very much.”

“You know what I meant,” I mumble, but don’t press it. She leads me out the backdoor, down the short flight of stairs to the backyard. As we step out into the grass, I pause for a moment. “You didn’t leave any rakes lying around here, did you?”

“Tsk, tsk, Harper. What you think of me.”

“Hoes?”

Another clucking sound.

“Shovels?”

I get a pinch on the back of my hand for that one.

“Any unexpected holes I should know about?”

“Only the one in your head.”

I reach forward and goose her. I may be blindfolded, but I have good senses. She gives a startled yelp.

“Don’t make me put on the hood.”

I bet she has one too. “May I ask where we’re going?”

“Sure.” We keep walking, I think, in circles, but I could be mistaken. I’ve been a little distracted by the banter.

“So?” I press.

“A needle pulling thread.” Rene cracks up at her own joke.

At first, I don’t get it. Then it hits me, ‘The Sound of Music.’ God, I hope no one puts ‘The Lonely Goatherd’ in my head. It’s as bad as ‘Summer Lovin’’ from Grease. What was that old joke? John Revoltin’ and Olivia Neutron Bomb. Wonder what ever happened to her? Or that Debbie Boone chick? I was just in kindergarten when she sang that ‘You Light Up My Life’ song. I still remember Gerrard singing it around the house. I wonder if he was joking, or if he really liked it. I gotta remember to ask him that sometime soon. In public, of course. I snicker.

“What are you chuckling about?” Ren asks me suspiciously.

“Oh, nothing,” I say in as innocent a tone as I can muster. I haven’t paid a bit of attention to what we’re doing, truth be told, but I don’t need to let her know that.

Our feet touch pavement and after a few quick steps, Ren stops. “Is your medical insurance paid up?”

“You betcha.” I reply with more bravado than I feel, but the Kingsley motto is ‘never let them see you sweat.’ Well, it’s one of our mottos. We tend to make them up as we go along.

“Stand still.” Rene comes around behind me and raises her hands to the ties of the blindfold. Agonizingly slowly, she removes it from my eyes.

Oh, yeah.

I gulp and stagger. The song of the day is now officially ‘I got chills, they’re multiplying.’ I feel goosebumps raise all over my arms as I stare at what’s in Rene and Robie’s garage.

It’s a new Harley Davidson motorcycle, an Ultra Classic Electra Glide in Blue Pearl. It’s hot, it’s sexy, and it’s got gorgeous curves.

That exact description that could be applied to Kels, who sits astride it. I drink in the sight slowly: black biker boots, faded blue jeans covered with chaps, white broadcloth shirt – opened a little too much to be quite proper, a black leather vest hanging loose over ample breasts, a matching leather jacket slung over the back of the saddle, riding gloves tucked in the rear pocket of the jeans. “Hi ya, Stud.”

I nod, unable to do much more.

Rene thwacks the back of my head. “Where are your manners?”

“Hi,” I say softly, stepping forward. “Nice ride.”

She strokes the seat near her softly and I feel my blood pressure rise. “Ooo, it is.”

“Do you know how to use it?” I challenge, trying to get some semblance of an upper hand here. I doubt if it’s possible, especially if anyone forces me to walk long distances at this moment.

“I know how to stroke the engine. You know me, I never get on anything without knowing how to use it,” Kels coos.

I look around for help and am not surprised to find none. I’m on my own here. I swallow and gather the last bit of anything I might have. “You wanna go for a ride, little girl?”

“Well, maybe. Are you the one my mother always warned me about?” She leans forward, giving me an ample cleavage shot, and leers. “Are you the one who’s really bad for me? Who’ll lead me down the garden path and take advantage of my innocent nature?”

Innocent, my ass.

Kels traces a blood red fingernail down the length of the gas tank and up the center of her chest. “Because, if you’re not … blow. I’m not interested.”

“Oh, chér, I’m all that, and more.” Recovered, I swagger over to her. “I’ll show you what it’s like to have some power between your legs for a change.” I let my hand drift down to her thigh, touching it lightly.

Kels slaps my hand, breaking the electricity of the moment. She laughs and shakes her head. “I know what it’s like to have power between my legs. I’ve managed to keep you pretty occupied for nearly two years.” I puff my chest out at her assessment, glad that Rene heard it. Let that get back to Robie and the boys. Ha! “I’d say I’m pretty powerful where it counts. Now, shall we talk about the bike?”

I match her smile and trail my hand over its curves. “It’s gorgeous. Whose is it?”

“It’s mine.”

“Yours?” I reply. “As in … belonging to you?” She nods slowly, as if I’m a bit slow, which I am at the moment. “Since when do you know how to ride one of these?” I shake my head as a better question comes to mind. “Since when would you want to know how to ride one of these?”

“I’ve been taking lessons for a few weeks now. Got the endorsement to my license yesterday.” She takes it out and flashes it at me. “I wanted to learn because it’s something you enjoy doing, and I thought we might try doing it together.” She pauses for a moment, and then continues with a touch of insecurity coloring her voice, “Unless this is something you’d rather not share with me. If it is, I’d understand. I’ll just sell the bike and ditch the leathers.” She heaves a deep sigh, belying her earlier words. “I thought maybe we’d take a long weekend. Just the two of us. Hit the road, find a cheap motel, and do cheap – and dirty – things to each other.”

I reach out and circle her slim hips with my hands, enjoying the feel of the denim and leather intermingled. “First off, my little possum, there is nothing I don’t enjoy doing better with you than without you.” I kiss her nose because it’s there. “Second, you ever ditch those leathers and I don’t know what I’ll do. Third, darlin’, you are obviously not from Louisiana when you even suggest staying at a cheap motel. I swear to you, there are bugs in those places bigger than the gators in the swamps. We’ll go to an expensive hotel and do cheap things there. That’ll make it all the nastier.” I lean in and nuzzle her neck, drinking in the scent of Kels, leather and new Harley all at once. It’s a heady aroma. “How’s that for a deal?” I murmur against her skin.

Kels hands wind around me, one lodging in the hair at the nape of my neck, keeping me pinned where I am, as if I had any intention of moving. “Oh, that’s a deal, Stud. That’s a deal.”

* * *

It wasn’t easy for either of us, but we managed to do it; we’ve both left the babies for the first time since they were born.

I’m wondering which one of us will crack and call home first. Even though we both know that our children are fine and couldn’t be safer or happier. No one at home will let anything happen to them. The truth of the situation is that at just five months Brennan and Collin couldn’t care less. As long as Collin is rolling around like a little monkey, and Brennan has her bear to chew on, they’re both pretty content.

Their Mama and I, however, need some grown-up, non-mom time together. With everything that has happened, and all the changes that we’ve made, we need to get away for a couple of days to be together.

I think I’m having a mid-life crises. Either that or I’m slowly losing my mind. I think I’d rather go with the mid-life crises theory. My therapist called it ‘embracing the wild child.’ He explained to me that I had never really gotten to do that, to cut loose and do something I would never normally do.

Yeah, buying a motorcycle, learning to ride, and dragging Harper away for a weekend of basically smutty, hot sex is pretty much something I would never have pictured myself doing. Previously, I had not only not embraced my wild child, I pretty much grabbed hold of her and slammed her into a strait jacket. But she’s gonna have fun this weekend, that’s for sure.

Harper and I have stopped at a diner for lunch. I’m learning that riding a motorcycle has some interesting effects on the body. Basically, my ass hurts. And I hate the boots. I’m sure once they’re broken in, they’ll be fine, but, right now, they pinch. I hope Harper is in a mood to give me a good rubdown later tonight, because I’m going to need it.

I’m also glad she decided that an expensive hotel would be a better place for our lewd little plans. A place with a nice big whirlpool tub in the bathroom. Okay, I admit it, I’m not quite ready to go completely out of my area of comfort yet. A cheap motel wouldn’t have been good. I still need luxury. And room service.

Shutting down the bike, I take a deep breath as I pull the helmet off and scratch my scalp to free my hair. I hear Harper snicker. She knows this is a trial for me. We’ll see if she’s still laughing when I get her alone in the hotel room. I clear my throat and stow my helmet before I swing my leg over and slide off the bike.

As I approach her, I give her my best smirk. “Laugh it up, Tabloid. I’ll keep this in mind when it’s time to play with the toys I brought.” I tug off my gloves, stick them in my back pocket, and head into the diner.

* * *

My wife is an evil, evil woman.

I watch her walk in ahead of me. I do this because I can, and she has a great ass. Yeah, I do so like the way it looks in those jeans and those chaps. Wonder if I can get her to wear just the chaps in the suite this weekend?

Good Lord, I had better get inside before that thought and the sun melt me right into a puddle. Not to mention, I don’t want anyone inside to think that Kels is up for grabs. If there’s any grabbing to be done, I’ll be the one doing it.

Kels is seated at the counter when I go in and I take the stool next to her. She turns to me and grins. “Hiya, stranger, come here often?”

I fight to keep from smiling.

She licks her lips, leers, and then she glances over her shoulder at my bike, visible through the diner window. “Nice ride.”

I lift a shoulder, trying to not look too eager to be talking to this blonde stranger. I have a rep to protect. “Thanks. I’m pretty proud of it.”

“You should be. It’s hot.” She looks straight ahead and sips from a glass of iced tea the waitress has placed in front of her.

I signal for one of those, because my wife is trying to kill me. I need something to cool me down or it’s going to get ugly. It’s plain wrong to be horny for this long. I have been in this state since I first laid eyes on Kels in the garage two days ago. We – or rather Kels and Rene – decided to I had to wait until we got where we were going this weekend. It was supposed to be good for us, to let the charge build.

Well, chér, I’m charged!

“So.” She looks at me again with eyes that are stripping off every piece of clothing I’m wearing. I swear, she’s the only woman in my life that’s ever been able to make me feel so exposed … and enjoy it. “You got plans for the night?”

“Umm…” Shit, I know I had an active brain cell a minute ago. Okay, I’m a tall, dark, biker stranger being picked up by a hot, blonde, biker stranger in a diner where there are several interested truck drivers watching this show. “Well, beautiful, that depends on what you had in mind.” Come to think of it, the waitress looks awfully interested as well.

Kels leans toward me and stage whispers, “I have this deep, dark, dirty, little fantasy about taking some tall, dark, drink of water to a hotel and just fucking her senseless.”

Oh God!

One of the guys groans so I don’t have to.

I look at her. Who are you and what have you done with Kelsey? This is not my wife. I don’t know who this is, but this is not my wife.

But do I care?

Ha! Hardly not.

Kels purrs, “Is it difficult to breathe? You look like you swallowed your own tongue. Whole.”

Damn near.

“That’s a shame, too,” Kels continues blithely, as if discussing the weather. “I would have much preferred to be the one trying to do that later.”

I cross my legs, if only to help a little with the throbbing. I clear my throat and take another drink. Kels smirks, and sips from her tea again. I keep forgetting that she likes to play these games and is really good at it.

“So what’ll you have?” The waitress stands poised in front of us waiting for a reasonable answer, a faint grin on her lips. I’m almost afraid of what Kels might say at this point.

“Burger with everything and fries.” Oh, sure, she looks like the picture of innocence and light when there’s someone else around talking to us.

“Make it two and add a chocolate shake to mine.”

“One check?” The waitress looks between the two of us, wondering how this scenario is playing out.

Kels grins. “Yeah, and give it to her.” She jerks a thumb in my direction. “The least she can do is buy me lunch.”

I look at my girl again and wait for the little horns to pop up out of her head. I lean back on my stool and take another good look at her ass.

“What are you looking at?”

“I‘m looking for your tail. I think you must have left it with your pitchfork somewhere.”

“I admit, I’m a bad girl.” She takes a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “Question is, do you want to be bad with me, or am I too much for you?”

At this very moment, I’m not sure.

* * *

We pull up to the Briarwood Plantation, a little north of Baton Rogue. We’re only a couple hours away from home, should something happen there, but far enough removed for things to be different.

And, boy, are they ever. I appear to have married a dyke on a bike. I’m not complaining, but I think we caused a couple good ol’ boys injuries during lunch. I think the impromptu lap dance wasn’t quite what they expected. How I stayed on that stool, I sure as hell will never know.

Strong thighs.

I do know, I smirk.

And I’m going to put them to good use here tonight, I believe. Oh, yeah. Now I only have to get in there and register us.

My wife slaps my rear, then cops a longer feel. “What’s the matter, Stud? Getting too old to ride?”

“Oh, I guarantee, chér, that I am good to ride all night long.”

She shrugs, unconvinced. “We’ll see about that.” She leans over her bike and opens up the rear compartment and retrieves a small nylon bag. I reach out to take it for her, but she pulls it back, wagging a finger. “No, no, Stud, that’s mine.”

“All right,” I drawl, recognizing the shape of one of the items in there. “Where’s your overnight bag?”

She holds up the bag. “This is most of it.” She reaches into the other saddlebag and tosses me the bag located there. “That’s the rest. You can carry it.”

I heft it and notice it is remarkably light. That pleases me.

I pick up mine. It doesn’t weigh much more. I have a clean pair of underwear, another T-shirt – black and tight like my girl likes on me, another pair of socks, and my toothbrush and deodorant. And baby powder. It makes getting into these leather pants a wee bit easier. But, damn, they feel good.

We swagger up to the main house and enter its refined beauty. It’s Greek Revival mansion, surrounded by live oak, and filled with period furniture. Amidst the oaks are a scattering of smaller houses, built by the original owner for his daughters and their husbands. The most recent owners have renovated the houses, installing Jacuzzis in each, and other luxurious touches.

And I plan on luxuriating in touch tonight.

A patrician woman greets us, only lifting a delicately plucked eyebrow at our attire and attitude. “Welcome to Briarwood Plantation.”

“Thank you,” Kels responds on our behalf. “We’ve enjoyed the ride here.”

A blink and a smile. She must have heard our Harleys pull up. “Yes, I’m sure you did.”

“We’re the Kingsleys.”

“Of course.” She produces a key from the pocket of her dress and hands it over to my spouse. “You have the house in the back. Very private.”

“Good,” Kels purrs. That’s my girl. I smirk and watch the interchange.

Our host indicates a writing stand to her left. “If you could sign in and if I may have a credit card.”

“Stud, you wanna handle that?”

I try hard to refrain from laughing. I pull my wallet out of my leather jacket and find my Amex Platinum. That always makes folks feel better. Even when I’m being treated as a total sex slave.

Especially when.

Come on, chér, let’s get this over with. I’m ready for what’s in the bag. Really ready. Big time ready. Air out the leather pants overnight ready.

Our host disappears for a few moments. Kels signs us in and then comes over and cups my ass through the leather. “Ready to ride?”

If I wasn’t before, I sure as hell am now. “At your service.”

A slow, sexy smile spreads across my wife’s lips. “You will be.”

* * *

Oh yeah! This is good. I open my eyes and look at Harper, who is seated at the other end of the hot tub. She’s being very good at the moment, gently rubbing my feet and legs like I told her to.

She smiles at me when she sees me look at her. She carefully massages up and down my calves. “Like this?” She pauses for a moment stumbling on the title, she hates this part, but we’ll have to see how bad she wants to play. “Majesty.”

I take in a deep breath and twirl my finger in the water. “It’ll do.” I have to bite back the grin. The whole point of playing is the playing. We have roles. We are not the people that have to deal with the real world. Tonight, I am the master of this domain and she is merely a body servant. If she’s lucky, I’ll give her a name.

I crook my finger and beckon her to me. She cuts through the water slowly, trying not to smile.

“Eyes down,” I remind her. She drops her head and her eyes, but the smile slips out.

“Yes, Majesty, how may I serve you?” She positively purrs this as she gets as close to me as she dares, given the restriction of our roles. This question sends shivers right down my spine.

I cup her face tenderly and kiss her lips ever so slightly. “Dinner. I think you should go order dinner.” I kiss her again. “You know what I told you to order.”

“Yes, Majesty.” I expect her to get out of the tub but she doesn’t. She’s got a good memory for the rules.

“You may go.”

I watch her, slowly standing to leave the tub. She knows what she’s doing. She’s showing off six feet of the most perfect body in the world, and she’s in no hurry to cover it up. She takes a towel and very slowly begins drying her body. She starts at her shoulders and arms, making sure that when the towel is blocking my view of one locale, she turns her body so that I might see another. For example, I am now treated to a view of her perfectly toned ass, which I intend to have later.

So she wants to play, huh? Okay, we’ll play. “Come here.” I can see that surprised her, but she moves to my side readily. “Turn around.”

She gives me a curious look, but turns her back to me. She’s standing still with her towel hanging from her hand. I reach up and run my hand over her backside, eliciting a little whimper and noticing a slight parting of her legs.

Very slowly, I let my hand travel between them, finding warmth and wetness there that’s not a result of the hot tub. I also get a louder moan when I remain where I am and play gently.

A smile tugs at my lips when I see her head drop forward, embracing the moment. “You have something you want to say?” I can barely keep from laughing as I watch her shake her head. I know better. I know she has lots she wants to say, but know she doesn’t dare.

“Turn around.”

Taking a deep breath, she turns around to face me and I return to my previous playground. This time I can keep my eye on her face. She’s clenching her teeth and holding her breath. Naturally, I increase the pressure and the speed. She closes her eyes and licks her lips. Damn, that’s hot. I love that look on her.

But it’s going to be a long night. I drop my hand back into the water. “Dinner,” I remind her.

I chuckle as one of the longest, deepest growls I have ever heard from her trail her out the door. I cover my eyes with a warm cloth and sink down into the tub, enjoying the warm water.

* * *

I take a deep breath after putting down the phone. Food ordered, I can take a moment for myself. Kels, or should I say, Majesty, has ordered me to dress appropriately to receive dinner.

My version of appropriate and Kels version of appropriate are a wee bit different.

I hold up the thong and demi bra. The thong is white lace and won’t cover much real estate and even what it does cover won’t be left to the imagination. The bra is designed to lift and enhance, and, apparently, keep my nipples readily available should they need to be prevailed upon. Since I’m not nursing the bus boy, I don’t know why I need to be quite so available, but I simply assume we’ll never ever stay here again in our lives. Ever.

If only we could have given fake names when we checked in.

Oh well. At least, I’m not ashamed of how I look. Great metabolism, coupled with lots of hours running, blading, riding, romping with Kam, and now rolling with Collin, have paid off. I like how I look, and I know that both women and men find me attractive. And, if my wife is enjoying flaunting me, I can go along.

No one else sees her, though.

I don’t share well.

“Come!” Majesty beckons from her bath.

I intend on coming, but from the gleam in Kels’ eyes, I think it’ll be awhile yet tonight.

I enter the bathroom and keep my eyes averted, as I have been told.

“Dry me off.”

I’d much rather she stay wet.

* * *

I think the waiter who brought us our dinner nearly stroked out the moment he entered the room.

While I lounged in a nice, fluffy robe, in an overstuffed chair in the corner, Harper answered the door in that little number I provided her. And I do mean little number. But, damn, she does look good in white lace. I knew she would. She’s going to be the subject of that young man’s adolescent fantasies for weeks to come. That thought makes me chuckle too. His friends will never believe him.

I take a deep, relaxing breath and rise out of my chair to have a look at the table holding our food to see if anything there pleases me. I look at the food on the table and then at her. She pleases me, and so will this.

I reach down with one hand and take a plump strawberry from the table and dip it in a bowl of heavy cream. My other hand finds one of her full breasts and begins a firm massage, enjoying the sensation of the nipple growing hard against the palm of my hand.

I bite into the berry and continue my massage of her breast. “Oh, that’s nice.” I chew the berry very slowly and look to her. Her eyes are closed and she is, no doubt, concentrating on what I am doing to her.

I offer her the rest of the berry, pushing she fruit between her lips. As she eats it from my fingers, I lean over and whisper, “Can you take as good as you give?”

She nods quickly. “I hope so.”

“So do I.”

* * *

I’m awake early. I’m getting back in the habit. Between the babies and working out every morning, I’m finding that morning is becoming my favorite time of the day.

I look over at Harper’s sleeping form. She was a good girl last night. She took everything I threw at her very well. We were both pretty happy by the time we collapsed in each other’s arms and snuggled until we fell asleep.

We needed this. We needed to get away and pretend for a few hours.

I am damn proud to say that after our one phone call to let everyone know we had arrived safely and check on Collin and Brennan, we didn’t call back. We’re adjusting pretty well to having a real home. There’s something about a house and a yard – and family living next door – that makes it more real and infinitely safer. I can’t explain it. It simply is.

I brush my fingers through her hair, pushing it back behind her ear. One weary blue eye opens.

“Didn’t we just fall asleep?” she mumbles.

“Hmm, no, it’s been awhile.”

“I’m tired.”

“Ooo, poor baby. Did I wear you out?”

“Well, I got to tell you, Little Roo,” she groans as she rolls over, “I’ve been riding a motorcycle for a long time. I’m accustomed to having sore muscles, but I really don’t think I’ll be walking much today.”

“So, basically, your plans would be to stay in bed all day?”

“I don’t think I have a choice.” She laughs. “Who knew you could do so much damage having your legs apart like that? You, ah, certainly play for keeps, don’t you?”

“You know I do.” I lean over and kiss her. “Always have, always will.”

* * *

Our day is spent in bed, exactly as I hoped it would be. In the daylight, there are no games, just intimacy. We order in a huge breakfast, and manage to eat every morsel of it. This time the bus boy isn’t given a free look. I meet him at the door clothed in a bathrobe, and don’t even admit him into the suite.

We read the newspaper together, with Kels, at one point, tattooing the answers to the crossword puzzle on my stomach. In felt tip pen, no less. I’ll be scrubbing for awhile later tonight.

I can’t even begin to say how much it means to me that she learned how to ride. I love my Harley, and now I get to share it with Kels.

I like sharing things with her.

Especially that one special toy in the nylon bag.

Smiling, I lean over the side of the bed and retrieve it from wherever she tossed it last night.

Gotta love mornings.

* * *

I park my bike at the back of the driveway and kill the ignition. Unplugging the connection to our communication unit, I head into the house even as I tug my helmet off my head. I can hear Harper pulling into the driveway behind me. We would have arrived at the same time, but she got caught by a red light a block or so from the house.

I place my helmet on the kitchen table and start looking for my babies. I’ve missed them so much. “Brian?!”

“Nursery!” he calls back. “Welcome home.”

Heading upstairs to the nursery, I find Brian putting Brennan in her evening jammies and Collin is already changed and in his crib. Letting Brian finish with Brennan, I scoop Collin up. “Hi ya, monkey man,” I tease him, giving him a kiss on his cheek. Between his dark hair and that rolling thing he’s started doing, he reminds me of a little baby chimp before it can walk. Rolling is how they get around, and Collin’s doing a pretty good imitation.

Brian turns around and takes a good look at me. “I swear, of all things I would have bet money on for you, Kels,” he picks Brennan up and helps her wave at me, “Leather Queen wasn’t one of them.” I can hear Harper taking the steps two at a time.

“You’re jealous.”

“Heck, yeah! I wish I looked that good in leather chaps.” Harper come through the doorway and immediately relieves Brian of Brennan. He gives her an appraising look. “Well, you don’t look any worse for wear, Stud.”

She straightens up and gives him her famous glare. “Of course not!” The glare is diminished by her repeatedly kissing Brennan’s chubby cheeks.

I bite back the grin. I’ll keep her secret. She does, after all, have a reputation to protect. It wouldn’t do for him to know that I had her begging to rest at one point. Or that she nearly passed out at another.

He seems skeptical but kisses Brennan’s temple, then turns and kisses Collin before leaving us alone with our babies.

I lean up and kiss Harper gently. “Love you, Stud.”

“Love you too, Little Roo.”

“And we’ll have to do that again, but I got to tell you…”

“Yeah?” She lifts a brow and adjusts Brennan in her arms.

“I’m burning the boots.”
Episode Twelve: How Do I Love Thee
I’ve seen Kels happy before, but this is only the fourth time I’ve seen her smile like this. The first two were at our weddings. The third was the day the babies were born and then there’s today.

I cross my arms and lean against the van, watching as the real estate agent hands her the keys to the building. She so damn cute. Kels, that is, not the real estate agent.

“There you go, Ms. Stanton. It’s all yours, lock, stock and barrel.”

“And mortgage,” Kels adds, tossing the keys in the air and catching them.

I look down when Collin pipes up. The jingling of the keys must have caught his attention. He loves noisy, shiny things. He’s gonna be a natural for a motorcycle. Now that Kels is riding too, I don’t think I’ll have as hard a time convincing her to let him ride. They have miniature Harleys for kids as young as five years old. Just a couple more years to go, buddy.

I lift my boy out of the stroller and point to the warehouse. “So what do you think of your Mama’s new digs? You and your sister are going to have your own office. Okay, technically, it’ll be a nursery, but we’re gonna call it your office.”

Kels laughs and picks Brennan up. “We’ll even get you a little nameplate for the door,” she tells our daughter with a wink in my direction. “What are we going to make them Tabloid, Junior Producers?

“Sure, why not?” I kiss my boy’s head. His hair is finally starting to get some coarseness to it; his baby fine hair is being replaced by the patented Kingsley hair. “They produce all kinds of things.”

“Most of which are disgusting,” Kels teases, pinching Brennan’s belly. This causes our girl to giggle and fall onto her mom’s shoulder, chewing on it. We forgot her bear this morning so she has to have something to replace it.

The real estate agent finishes the remaining paperwork and then hands a folder to Kels. “This makes it completely official. The building is all yours. Good luck.” She extends her hand, shaking with Kels before turning to me. “Congratulations to you both, Ms. Kingsley.”

“Thank you.” I take a step back and take it all in. It’s a three-story warehouse, which very shortly will be known as the Kingsley Building and will house the offices and studios for BCH Productions.

Oh boy, what have we gotten ourselves into?

Shut up and jump.

* * *

Rene hands me a fax from a producer friend of mine at The Learning Channel. It’s good news. Seems they’ll be willing to consider using stories and/or hiring BCH Productions to produce independent pieces for them. I take a deep breath and lean back in my chair, reaching for my tea.

“It’s good news, isn’t it?” Rene crosses her arms, lifting a brow.

“Oh, it’s great news. I’m just really tired.”

“Yeah, it’s been a long day. Where’s Harper, by the way?”

I have to laugh. “Oh, Harper, went to go shopping for cameras and various other pieces of studio equipment today. New toys. It’ll be hours before we see her again. Then she’ll come in with this very glazed-over look in her eyes.” I stand up and head for the kitchen. “As long as she has fun, that’s all that matters.”

* * *

“Hey, RooToo, what a big girl you are!” I’m lying on my stomach on the floor with Brennan. I’m doing paperwork to get some of our new equipment delivered, and Brennan is giving me a sweet smile from the other side of my papers. A day or so ago, she started rolling over too and is very proud of herself. She pushes up and laughs at me as I tap the back of her hands with my pen. Her ability to hold herself up doesn’t last long yet, but she seems to enjoy it.

Kels and Collin are up in the nursery, I assume getting him ready for bed. Our boy got cranky a little while ago and started having a fit. He’s overly tired and refusing to sleep. He doesn’t like to miss anything. He was so cute rubbing his eyes and fighting to stay wake, but he was getting crankier by the minute. Kels decided a nice, quiet room and warm milk would no doubt put him right to sleep.

I watched her last night, as she sat in the rocking chair, feeding Brennan before putting her down for the night. She was singing to her and the look of love in her eyes bought tears to mine. She’s a great mom. I hope she knows that.

I look over my list again and then glance back at our girl. Shoving the papers aside, I stack my fists atop each other, rest my chin on them, and watch Brennan as she lies on her stomach, lifting her head, and turning it from side to side.

“Hey, beautiful.” I reach out and tug on her hand to get her attention. She lifts her head and smiles at me. It’s Kels’ smile, only a miniature version of it.

I roll over and look at the ceiling of my home. Not my house, my home.

My home. Where I live a happy and content life with my family. I know so many people who would never believe this would happen to me. I have this beautiful home and two gorgeous children. I have a wife who loves me, and I am surrounded by my family, immediate and extended. Life is good.

I sigh and roll back over to look at my girl. “Not to mention, no one but your Mommy ever took the time to learn to cook for me.” It’s true. The more Kels does it, the better she gets. “One of these days she’s gonna have her own KC and rule the roost. Your brother and I will be out in the backyard with your Uncle Robie and all your cousins. All your little boy cousins, that is. You and your aunts and your girl cousins will be inside plotting how to keep us all in line. It’s a proud Kingsley tradition.”

I watch as she wrinkles her nose and chews on my finger. “And someday you’ll do the same thing, won’t you? Of course, that’ll be when you take the weekend off from ruling the world. That’s your ultimate goal, isn’t it, RooToo?”

“What’s that?”

I glance up and find Kels rejoining us. “She’s going to rule the world someday.”

“She is, huh?” Kels laughs and drops down on the floor with us. “Guess we’d better stay on her good side then, so she doesn’t become one of those evil monarchs that practices matricide.” She runs her fingers through Brennan’s hair and tickles her ear causing a squeal from our girl.

“Guess that means raising her allowance, huh?”

“Probably.” Kels yawns and curls in close to me, lying on her back she traces my eyebrows and runs her finger down the side of my face. “I love you, Harper.”

“Love you too.” I lean in and give her a gentle kiss, which we hold a tick longer than Brennan thinks we should. She gives us a yell.

“Hmm.” Kels grins. “Another country heard from. What do you say we put her down and then take ourselves to bed? It’s been a long day and I’m wiped. I would very much like to curl up with you and spend the evening snuggling.”

* * *

Kels and Rene fixed a wonderful lunch for Robie and me, but it’s turned into an afternoon of storytelling and reminiscing about things that seem a lifetime ago now.

I snort when I think back at Rene’s urging. It really is amazing that Kels and me ended up together at all, giving the start we had.

* * *

I smile as I drop the kickstand on my baby and park her outside my favorite after-hours hangout. I love The Rio; it serves all of my purposes. I get to hang out with a lot of my friends and there is always someone who wants to go home with me. Quite a few news groupies gather here. Most of them all hope that one of us will be able to help them break into ‘The Business.’ I let them think that. I know, I’m awful. I laugh to myself as I hang my helmet on the handle bar and get off the bike.

I take a good look at myself in the reflection of the bar window before I go in. Black silk shirt open to the third button, small black leather vest to accent the chaps over my dark jeans and boots. I run my fingers through my hair to work out some of the kinks left by the helmet. Oh yeah, I look good and I’m ready for whatever the evening might hold.

As I open the door and step inside, I am immediately greeted by a loud round of applause with varied whistles and catcalls inserted liberally. I spread my arms to either side of my body and take a bow. “Thank you! Thank you! No applause, please, just throw money!”

* * *

Gail finally leaves me in peace and I can sip at my tea and glance at all the screens. She was right: Harper Kingsley adorns each one of them at some point. A two-shot shows her to be the same height as Channel 7’s Bruce Adams. And I know from experience the clean-cut man towers above me. She has raven black hair that’s pulled away from her angular face and I just can’t get over the color of those eyes. Despite myself, I find I’m cranking up the volume on the set. She’s answering the questions in a husky dark voice. She shows no emotion or any real interest in the proceedings but she’s dutifully plugging True TV along the way and I sneer.

Sensationalist television makes my blood boil. The ‘cutting edge’ camera shots and pure lack of decorum are media and not news. I hate that the business is a reaction to the ratings and not the events of the world. I hate more that my own station is pushing that direction. Our competition has stepped up to the battle, wielding flashy sets and expensive, form-fitting suits of pastels. The ratings show that audiences like this hip look and we’re losing to the competition. Change is afoot and I can smell it like rotten meat on a campout in June. I wrinkle my nose with distaste as I finish my tea and turn my attention to the stacks of files Gail handed me. I turn down the volume again, finding the tall woman distracting.

* * *

Glancing around, I’m relieved to see I’m not the only one staring. The show is quite amazing; I think the passenger may have actually orgasmed as her gyrations slow and the kisses lose steam. The taller woman is murmuring something, grinning rakishly, and she looks around to the growing crowd. It is Harper Kingsley and I am even more repulsed now. There’s something else inside me, maybe jealousy, that Harper has the ability to so freely display herself when I do not. It certainly isn’t jealousy for the Biker Bitch who is now stumbling to her feet and being steadied by large hands.

I am merely yards from them when, much to my amazement, Harper hails a cab. She gives the woman a last, long, lingering kiss and tucks her into the back seat. When the cab pulls away, she waves to the small audience without even a hint of shame, and she turns my way briefly.

* * *

My audience is still there. I recognize one of the women immediately, now that my focus isn’t otherwise distracted. Kelsey Stanton, the hot, young anchor for the network is staring at me, looking like a pickled fish. Obviously, she thinks I’m a cad of first order. I stand still for a long moment, taking her in. She’s shorter than I expected, but, damn, if the proportions aren’t all right. I wouldn’t mind giving her a ride on my bike. I might even use my hands, just to enjoy the feel of her. Knowing it will infuriate her, I smile and wink at her. I can’t believe she’s straight. Doesn’t seem right.

* * *

“What do you know about Kelsey Stanton?” the orange-haired kid asks, hating silences. He talks to hear himself talk; it was the first thing I learned about him.

“What about her?” I query. I don’t know a ton, but I sure do have my suspicions.

“I hear she’s a bitch on wheels,” Conrad speaks up. “The whole news room hates to work with her. They fight over who has to do her stories and promos. The makeup lady dreads that part of her day.”

“Yeah,” Jimmy agrees. “I hear the same. Why did we have to get the bitch, Harper? That Samantha woman seems like a better bet.”

“Every team needs a problem child.” I shrug. “And we all know it ain’t one of us,” I drawl softly, pleased with myself. It isn’t until that moment that I turn around to face the room.

Wouldn’t you know Kelsey Stanton is standing in the doorway? Her expression is frozen, her green eyes shuttered. She’s a woman used to hiding her emotions.

* * *

She stands before us and the room is filled with uneasy silence. She’s wearing a copper colored pantsuit with a light colored blouse, no skirt today. I’m glad for it since we’ll be doing some walking. She seems nervous, but determined not to show it. Her body also radiates anger.

“Queen Bitch reporting for duty,” she says slowly, taking a seat at the far end of the table, and I realize that our first meeting could have had a better start.

* * *

Kelsey Stanton is sitting in the seat beside me, fuming still. Her arms are folded tightly across her chest, her legs are crossed and everything about her is screaming ‘don’t fuck with me.’ If she were a porcupine, I’d be picking quills out of my ass right now.

* * *

I lean forward, once again making myself ignore her perfume. “And you’re jealous. You know that, right? I’ve got your number, Kelsey Stanton. And, one day, I’ll make the Ice Bitch thaw. And, you’ll thank me for it.” I smile warmly as I pat her butt, admiring its shape and feel under my hand. “Let’s wrap up.”

“Touch my ass again, Harper, and you’re dead. Now get your camera. I’ve had a hell of a long day.” She shoves me away without real vehemence and uses steady fingers to start combing through her hair and preparing for our final wrap.

I smirk. And I know she won’t be able to relieve any of that stress with Erik. I, however, plan on relieving as much stress as possible. I shoulder my camera again and glance at Kelsey. Unaware of my eyes focused on her, she is casually checking out Marion the librarian.

Straight, my ass.

* * *

“Yes, you do, Kelsey Stanton.” She leans in on both her arms very nearly coming clear across the table. “The ‘I’m straight’ game. It’s bullshit and we both know it. You don’t have any more of a relationship with Erik than I do with what’s-her-name. The only difference is I’m gonna get laid tonight and you’re not. You’re gonna go back to your fancy penthouse and get into your big old bed and curl up around your pillow. Must be getting awfully lonely there, Kels. I bet it’s been a long time since you’ve been held in the warm embrace of a lover. An even longer time since you fell asleep with your head resting on someone’s shoulder while they held you and caressed you, worshipping your body with their fingertips.”

I hope that the lust I’m feeling isn’t showing on my face as I smile at her. “My life with Erik is none of your goddamned business. We have a perfectly marvelous relationship and I would like to invite you to get the hell out of my bedroom.”

Harper leans back giving me her trademark smirk as she lifts her wineglass to her lips. “Yeah, I figured as much. Truth hurts doesn’t it, Kels?”

God, I hate this woman.

* * *

Robie howls with laughter as Kels and I relate to him the days prior to and just after our first meeting. I pitch my napkin at him. “It’s not funny.”

He nods vigorously. “Yes, it is.” He wipes his eyes with his own napkin and looks at me, after giving a glance toward the kitchen where Rene and Kels have wandered off to. “How in the hell did you change her mind? She thought you were the most disgusting things on two legs.”

I lean back in my chair and sip my wine. “I have many skills.”

“Apparently,” Robie agrees.

“Oh, brother.” I can almost hear Kels rolling her eyes as she comes back in to the room. She smiles at me and caresses my cheek. “You’re feeding him that many skills line of B.S., aren’t you?” She winks at me.

“Well, I was until you showed up.” I smile back and wrap my arm around her waist.

“The one thing I’ve always wanted to know,” Rene says as she pours coffee for us, “is where did Little Roo come from. I mean, Tabloid is pretty obvious, but Little Roo is a little weird.”

“Hmm, well, it was a weird story.” Kels sits down and adds honey to her tea. “It all started with a piece we were assigned to do…”

* * *

The woman is eyeing us warily. “I need to get the Principal for this. Would you two take a seat over there, please?” The registrar points to a wooden bench placed beneath a bulletin board.

I give a flourish with my arm. “After you, Miss …”

“Just shut the fuck up, Harper.”

I love life. Sometimes, I really, really do. “Hey, look, Kels, there’s a dance this weekend.”

All I get for my effort is a sullen stare.

“Come on, buck up, Little Roo.”

She turns her green eyes on me and I feel a little bit of my heart melt. Damn, she’s good. No wonder they made her an anchor. “Why probation officer?” she asks.

* * *

Harper and I look at each other and smile.

“I still don’t get it,” Robie complains. “Where did Little Roo come from?”

Harper shrugs. “You know that Mama used to read the ‘Winnie the Pooh’ books to us as kids. I always liked Roo. He was so cute and sweet and he had a Mama who loved him as much as ours loved us. So, when Kels was sitting there looking so sad, all I could think of was Roo. It just slipped out, and stuck.”

“We’ve come a long way,” I say, never taking my eyes off her. God, I do love this woman, in more ways than I can ever begin to count. Hard to believe, considering the start that we had. I look up and point to my loving spouse. “She ever tell you about the first time she kissed me?”

Robie bites his lip to keep from grinning. “No, do tell, Kels.”

“Well, you guys remember the mess in Omaha…”

* * *

It’s not really a question or a demand, more of an expectation. One we both don’t want to disappoint. I find myself opening my arms to her. She moves into them easily and snuggles in, laying her head on my shoulder. I can still feel the tension in her body as I enclose her in my arms. She is truly terrified. “I got you, Little Roo. Just relax.”

She nods, her chin brushing the cotton over my breast. I scratch the base of her neck instinctually. She looks up at me and our eyes truly meet for the first time.

Ah, what the hell. We may end up dead anyway, despite my assurances to Kelsey, so I may as well take the chance. I pull her close to me, molding our bodies together, noticing how her breasts fit under mine, how good she smells, how green her eyes are, and a thousand other small details. I duck my head closer to hers. Our lips barley brush against each other, as if it were almost an accident.

It isn’t.

* * *

“Aw, that’s really very sweet.” Rene flashes Harper a smile that makes her blush.

“Overall, it really was,” I affirm, taking Harper’s hand. “She took really good care of me.” Then I give it playful squeeze. “Right up to the point where she sprayed me with Mace.”

Harper groans and lets her head drop forward. “It’s was an accident.”

“That’s her story and she’s sticking to it.”

“So, Harper,” Robie wiggles his brows, “what’s your favorite first time story?”

“That’d have to be when Kels and I shared a Twinkie for the first time.”

“Hey!” I protest, but it doesn’t do any good. I can only bury my head in my arms and hide my face. “I can’t believe you’re going to tell them that story.”

* * *

I pick up the Twinkies, remembering her comment about licking out the cream. I open the package and wait until I’m sure we’re going to be left alone. Then her eyes meet mine.

She thinks she can beat me at this game? I invented sexual frustration and have honed it to perfection over the years. After taking a small bite, I lick my lips and then take my finger and insert it slowly into the creamy center. I swirl it around, letting her see the effect of my finger on the spongy texture.

When I withdraw it, it is coated with the sugary nectar. I look at it for a long moment. Then, slowly, while watching her, insert it in my mouth. She groans and I can’t help but grin.

“Get everything you need?” I ask as I remove my finger from my mouth. Is that a slight tremor I see?

“Oh, don’t go there right now, Little Roo, especially with what we need to do,” she growls at me as she steps forward.

I offer her a bite of the cake. “I’m sorry, Tabloid.” She takes hold of my wrist and my eyes as she takes a long, slow bite. Oh Lord, well, we just might be evenly matched. “I … I needed to play a little, to break up the tension,” I stammer.

“You call that breaking up the tension? Good God, woman, you’d kill a normal person in the bedroom.” She drops her backpack to the ground and begins unzipping it. “Good thing for you, I’m not a normal person.”

I chuckle as I pop the last of the cake into my mouth and bend down to see what she’s brought back. I recognize the transceiver, pinhead mike and receiver. “What are these for?”

She smiles. “Ah, thanks for finding those, baby.” Before I realize what is happening, she stands up and drops her jeans to the floor. I am now kneeling by her backpack staring at a mile’s worth of leg ending in a white thong.

“I … I …” I am going to pass out. “I always figured you for a boxer gal,” I manage finally.

She laughs, low in her throat. “I didn’t know you thought about me in my underwear, Kels.”

* * *

I reach over and run my hand through Kels’ hair, trying to get her lift her face to look at me. It’s not happening. “Then, of course, she copped a feel…”

“I did not!” She sits up now. “You imagined that.”

“Un huh.” I roll my eyes. “Sure I did.”

“You did. I was a perfect lady.”

“Right. Do you mean before or after the night you got drunk and bit the buttons off my shirt?.”

“Details! Details!” Rene gestures wildly at that one.

“Well, after surviving Omaha…”

* * *

“Did I do that?” she asks my shirt, as if it might answer her.

“Un-huh,” I answer on behalf of my shirt. This is one of the few things I recall from last night. “You bit the first two off, then you just ripped it open.” Surprised the hell out of me. Little tiger. I may have to change her nickname.

“Oh please. I have never in my life bitten off a button, let alone two.” The most precious blush is creeping up her neck and cheeks.

“Well, you did seem to find ripping them off far more satisfying.” Come on, Kels, this isn’t so bad, is it?

“Harper.” She sounds so weary. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Umm-hmm.”

“Will you answer it honestly?”

“Umm-hmm.”

“What happened?”

I smirk, a bit relieved that she doesn’t know either. At least, we have a level playing field. “You mean you don’t remember?”

“No,” she squeaks.

* * *

“So did you or didn’t you?” Rene looks confused.

Time to confess, I guess. “To be honest, Rene, I still don’t know if we did or not. What about you, Kels?”

She smiles and shakes her head, giving a little shrug. “I really to this day don’t have a clue.” She leans toward me. “But you know what?”

I lean toward her so we’re only a whisper apart. “What?”

“I’m glad I don’t remember because our first real time is the one that means the most to me.” She leans in and gives me a very sweet kiss, which is cut far too short by my brother making gagging noises.

“Get a room!”

I turn my head slowly to look at him. “Hush. This is your fault anyhow.”

“My fault.” He points to himself. “My fault. How in the hell is it my fault?”

* * *

Kelsey is still laughing when we reach Robie and Rene. “Ready to go?” he asks. He is standing by a red carriage drawn by a white horse.

“Sure enough.” I give Kels a boost into the carriage, resisting my urge to pat her on the rear. Somehow, I doubt if it would be appreciated. I climb up and sit beside her, spreading a blanket over our laps and legs. It can get a bit chilly during the ride.

I look down to see Robie and Rene engaged in a rather heated lip lock. Lucky bastard.

“Ahem.”

Reluctantly, my brother disengages. “Tell you what, little sister, why don’t you two go on in this one? I think my beautiful bride and I will find our own carriage.”

“Or, better yet, a room.”

Robie sweeps Rene up in his arms and spins around. “Now that is the best idea you’ve had yet tonight, Harper Lee! We’ll see you tomorrow!”

* * *

“You two,” I wave an accusing finger between them, “set us up. Dinner and then the ride through the park.”

“You both were being so pig-headed.” Rene stirs a little more cream into her coffee. “You two were the only ones who couldn’t see how well you fit together.”

I look to Kels and then take Rene’s hand and kiss it. “Thanks for stepping in.”

“We’re glad it worked so well. You should have heard what the rest of the KC and the boys had planned if it hadn’t.”

“Yeah, actually, we saved you.” Robie chuckles as he gets up and takes his plate to the kitchen. “It was ugly. Very ugly.”

“Then on behalf of the entire Harper Kingsley section of the Kingsley family, thank you.” Kels laughs a little, then glances at her watch. “Holy smoke, guys, if we’re going to make it to the party, we’d better start getting ready. Wouldn’t do for the hostesses to be late to their own party.”

“Very true.” Rene stand up and grabs me by the arm. “Can I borrow Harper for a few minutes? I need her and Robie to get a couple of boxes out of the attic?”

Kels looks to me and gives a confused little nod. “Sure.” She stands and places a kiss on my lips. “See you in a bit.”

“You know it.” I lean over and watch her go. I look back to Rene. “Are you sure about this?”

“I am very sure about this, Harper.”

I swallow hard. “Okay, let’s do it.”

* * *

I knew I was going to have to come over to the property early. I only wish Harper was here too. I have huge butterflies in my stomach. God, nearly everyone we know, both personally and professionally has been invited, and everyone is showing up. Good thing we’re hosting this in an ex-warehouse.

We’ve also managed to garner a good deal of media attention for our formal little soiree. Seems the folks at E! and ET think that two multi-award winning journalists starting their own production company might be worth taking a look at. They might get enough filler to give us a thirty second mention.

The guest list doesn’t hurt, either. Unless it’s a political gathering of some kind you don’t generally get this many faces that cross so many industry lines together in one place. There are actors, politicians, news industry folks. The black ties, evening gowns and limos keep showing up. And I’m in what will be my office on the third floor watching all of it, trying not to be sick.

My office door opens and I turn to face my father and my father-in-law. God, where’s Harper? I’m actually starting to shake from nerves. “Hi, guys,” I manage to squeak.

“Kelsey.” My dad approaches, his arms open wide. “Honey, you look great. Congratulations.”

I return his hug and pat him on the chest before offering my hand to Papa. “Thanks. Thank you both. None of this would have been possible without your support.”

“If anyone can make this work, Kels, it’s you and Harper,” Papa assures me with a wink.

“Speaking of Harper, where in the hell is she? We’ve got to be downstairs for the start of the party in about five minutes.”

“She just called, sweetheart. She’s on her way.” My father rubs my back trying to make me relax.

“Shall we go downstairs?” Papa offers me his arm and the three of us head into the fray.

* * *

The good news is I had to face the cameras. The bad news is I had to face them alone because Harper got caught in traffic. Rather than hold this thing up, when she called from the car, we decided I’d go ahead and make the announcement to get the party rolling.

Thank God, it’s over now, and I can relax. I’m accustomed to this sort of thing, but there’s always a nervousness right below the skin that you never get rid of. Any entertainer who says they do is either lying or on drugs.

Everyone is having a very good time from the looks of it. There are lots of interviews going on all around the room. I’m grateful to all our friends and family who have come out to get us started right and give us so much support.

Absolutely everyone is here. It’s amazing. Beth, Foster, Kendra and Frankie. Even Bear and Jimmy Olsen made it from L.A. I have to smile. Harper’s never gonna recognize the kid. His hair isn’t orange anymore. It’s more blonde with purple highlights now.

I look around the room and see so many of my friends and colleagues. George made it. I chuckle. I’m going to have to introduce him the Brian later just so Brian can drool.

Mama and the rest of the KC come over and hugs are shared all around. This is a wonderful evening. I can’t wait for my better half to get here. We’re going to have a great time tonight.

My conversation is interrupted by the sounds of a few gasps, then the room goes deathly quiet and everyone turns. I wonder if someone took a header while coming in. Thank God, our insurance has already been bound. But, still, I don’t want to get sued already.

I crane my head to see what, or who, everyone is looking at. When I finally do, my knees go weak. It’s Harper. Only it looks like she climbed right out of my fantasies for all the world to see. I swallow and hope nobody will notice my drool. Oh, who cares?

She’s wearing a tight-fitting black dress.

Yes, a dress.

It’s sleeveless, showing off broad shoulders and flawless skin. It’s fitted. Everywhere. I stifle a groan. The neckline scoops a little drawing my eye to her breasts, which are outlined perfectly. The material must be stretchy. Either that or it was custom made.

It hugs her hips, not even moving when she walks, and ends mid-thigh, giving a lovely view of legs that go on endlessly. Not just legs. Legs covered by sheer, black hose that end in the sexiest high heels I have ever seen. I’m drooling again.

I force my eyes up, allowing them to drink in every luscious curve. Harper may think like a man, but her body is all woman. Lucky me. Her hair is loose and slightly disheveled, sparking earrings glitter amidst the dark locks. She looks fabulous. And she’s all mine.

Air. I seem to recall that humans need air to survive, and thus I must start breathing again or I’m not going to be able to enjoy this. Oh, my God. She is positively spectacular.

She stops when the crowd has parted and she knows she has my full attention. She raises a perfectly sculpted brow, while shrugging slightly and giving me a come hither smile.

Every pair of eyes is on us and I don’t give a good Goddamn. I’m am simply drawn to her like a moth to a flame and no one is going to stop me until I reach my goal. My entire body is on fire. Simply looking at her makes me want her. I have nerves pulsing through my body threatening to break through my skin if she touches me just right.

She looks down at me when I’m less than two inches away from her. Her eyes are dark blue from desire and the look on her face is designed to make me gasp for air.

It does.

“You’re beautiful.” It’s all I can whisper almost reverently to her before I slide my arms around her neck and kiss her for all I’m worth. I feel her arms slide around me and we are lost in this kiss.

I hear applause in the background.

She’s definitely earned it.

* * *

We move through the crowd effortlessly together. My hand is engulfed in her larger one, and I swear I still need it to keep me steady. The heady scent of her perfume, the even headier plunge of her dress, and I can barely see straight. Harper acts completely natural, however. She moves with an easy grace, as if three inch heels are her normal choice for footwear, and turns heads everywhere we go.

Beth sidles up and smiles. “Damn, Harper, if I had realized you were this good-looking, I might have tried to steal you away from ol’ Kels here.”

Harper smiles, enjoying the compliment. “You might have tried, but I think at that point I was pretty well hooked.”

“Well, Kels was arrested as a hooker once,” Beth teases.

I flush and am so grateful that none of the reporters are anywhere near enough to overhear that little bit of trivia. “Be good,” I growl.

“One of my fondest memories,” Harper drawls, rubbing her thumb on the back of my hand.

“Congratulations on your latest venture together. I hope it’s as successful as your others.”

I’ll always be grateful to have Beth as a friend, and advisor. I lean forward and kiss her cheek. “Thanks.”

We head over to Bear next. He appraises Harper with the same scrutiny that Beth just employed. “Hubba hubba.”

She laughs and backhands him in the gut. “Good to see you too.” They embrace and he kisses my cheek.

“I had an interesting phone call the other day,” he informs us, sipping on his wine. “Seems an extremely high-priced, exclusive protection agency heard that I might be looking for a new job.”

Harper beams. “Really? I wonder where they got that idea.”

“I have an interview later this week. Thanks, Harper.”

“I’d like my kids to have a chance to get to know you, Bear. Won’t happen if you get shot on the job. I’d much prefer you to be an overpaid consultant.”

“I especially like the overpaid part,” he admits.

“You’ll do great, Bear,” I assure him. “And I hope we never need your services.”

“Amen,” he intones and both he and Harper cross themselves.

Frankie comes over to us at that moment and gapes at his former mentor. For a moment I’m afraid that he might faint. I should know, I’ve seen that look on him before. I reach over and, using my index finger, gently close his mouth. “Careful there, you’ll catch flies. And, down here, they’re huge.”

He blushes, his features darkening. “Umm, hi, Kelsey.”

. “I’m glad you remember my name, Frankie,” I tease him. Poor boy. I’ll bet he never considered Harper could look so incredible. “How are things going up at Exposure without us?”

He sighs dramatically. “I miss you both. Aunt Kendra says there are no good producers left now. And Bruce thinks he should be the new anchor.”

Harper shakes her head. “He won’t be. Don’t worry.”

“Really?”

“My money is on your aunt. But I’ll deny it, if you ever repeat it.” She pinches his arm, to emphasize her seriousness, but softens it with a wink.

“Why are you dressed like that?” Frankie asks without taking time to censor himself. God, I love teenagers.

Harper blushes. I watch it travel across her cheeks, down her neck, and toward her breasts.

“I thought it might make Kels happy.”

I am so lust-smitten, I almost miss her statement. When I realize what she said, I look up and smile at her, quickly becoming lost in the gentleness I see in her eyes. Boy, did I get lucky with her. “Thanks, darlin’.”

“And I thought it would be fun to shock my brothers.”

That’s more like her.

Kendra joins us at that moment, and kisses my cheek, then leans up to do the same to Harper. She looks stunning, as usual, wearing a blue silk dress that matches the shade of her eyes. “You two have outdone yourselves,” she announces. “I’m sure BCH productions will do wonderfully.” She carefully pronounces it ‘bitch’ and smiles at the joke.

“Thanks,” I say, sincerely. “Your opinion means a great deal to me.” It does, too. Kendra is one of the best in our profession. “We will want to steal you away soon.”

“That’ll make Langston happy,” Harper mutters.

Kendra laughs. “Can anything do that?”

“Other than an exclusive?” Harper asks rhetorically. “Nope. So I see no need to try to shield him from the hard knocks in life.”

“‘It’s a hard knock life, for us!’” Brian sings, overhearing her last comment. “‘Stead of treated, we get tricked.’” He cracks up at that, doubling over with laughter.

I can only shake my head and sigh.

Kendra rolls her eyes and pats his back. “We’ve missed you around the office, Brian. I hope they’re still treating you right.”

“Oh, sure. I get spit up on, pooped on so much it seems just like the network.”

We all laugh. It’s an accurate description of television life.

Thank God that’s all over.

* * *

Harper comes over to me when the last of our guests has departed and wraps me up in her long arms. “Have fun, chér?”

“Oh, yeah. It went great. I think everyone had a good time, and I’m sure we ended up with good publicity out of it, too.”

“I’m sure of it.”

I nuzzle between her breasts. “I think your dress is part of the reason why. You look,” I struggle to find the right word, “splendid, amazing, stunning, gorgeous.” I settle on a few when I can’t find one that will do.

Harper smiles indulgently. “It’s just a dress.”

“Oh, no, that’s where you’re wrong. It’s the woman in the dress.” I reluctantly step back so I can enjoy the view. Who knows when I’ll be able to again? “You need to wear this more often.”

“You don’t like how I normally look?”

I shake my head emphatically. “Not at all. You’re gorgeous no matter what you wear, or don’t wear.” I leer and trace the edge of the dress around her cleavage. “It’s simply nice to see you like this once in awhile. But, more than anything, I like you to be comfortable and who you are.”

This causes her to smile brightly. “Thanks, chér.” She takes my hand and kisses it gently. “Let’s go home, kiss our children goodnight, and make love all night long.”

This causes me to mirror her smile. Ooo, I like that idea a lot. “That’s why I keep you, Stud. You’re the idea man in this operation.”

“Why, thanks.” She leads me out of our studios, telling our cleaning foreman to be sure to lock up and set the alarm behind them. As we walk to the Mercedes, she leans over and whispers, “I can’t wait to get out of these heels.”
Episode Thirteen: The Last Dance
Forty years.

Forty years. Five kids.

Forty years. Five kids. Five spouses of kids.

Forty years. Five kids. Five spouses of kids. Sixteen grandkids.

I stand at the top of the second floor landing and look at the photographic journal of our family. There’s Gerrard’s baby picture. I swear he has the same slicked back hair that he had then.

My fingers drift over my smiling face, my arms thrown around Robie and Luc. We’re standing on the back porch, covered in mud, teeth and eyes really our only identifiable features. We had gone fishing with Papa that day, and spent more time in the mud than crawfish ever do. God, that was a good day.

Jean was slim in his wedding picture. Years of Elaine’s good cooking have plumped him up. Funny, five kids have kept her slim. Their latest family portrait is gorgeous, their kids spilling all over them in their backyard. It’s a sweet photograph.

I see an old photo of Kate, when she was in her late teens and dating Gerrard. She’s been in our family so long, it seems like she’s always been here. I was only nine when she married him. She’s my older sister, and her marriage with Gerrard has been a model for me since I was a kid. I hope to be as successful at it as they are.

Rachel and Lucien’s wedding photo always makes me laugh. She smeared as much cake as she possibly could over his face, and we caught the moment on film. Poor Luc looks so shocked, and her head is thrown back in glee. A photo a little further down the wall shows the same mirth in her eyes and she holds Jake and Stevie for the first time.

Mama protested, but the picture of Robie and Rene smoking cigars and looking like a gangster and his moll are displayed. That was a fun night. It was my twenty-first birthday and we went out to enjoy our seven deadly sins: pride, sloth, gluttony, alcohol, nicotine, dirty dancing and lust. So a few overlapped, we didn’t care. It was a great night.

There’s a great photo of Kels and I on the porch swing, snuggling and talking softly. We didn’t even realize the photo had been taken until it appeared on the wall. I have a lot of fond memories of that swing.

Of course, our family portrait is on the wall. I stand there smiling at it, loving my life. Are there things I’d like to change? Sure, but I suspect that’s true for everyone. Overall, I am loved, by so many, and get to love so many. I am blessed.

I feel slender arms wrap around my waist and a warm, soft body cuddle up behind me. I lay my hands on top of Kels’ and squeeze them.

“What are you looking at?”

“My family.”

“Good looking crew, too.” She kisses my shoulder blade and slides around in front of me. “Which brother is that?” She points to Robie as a toddler, his hair pointing in every direction uncontrollably.

“Can’t you guess? Robie, of course. We’ve only been able to get his hair to lay down flat for the last couple years.” I chuckle and bend down to kiss my girl. “You smell good.” I sniff her neck like a puppy does, moving up and around her ear, sniffing it too.

Kels laughs and struggles against me playfully. “Harper! That tickles!”

I, of course, continue, until I sniff around her throat, under her chin and up to her lips. Once I arrive there, I find better ways to spend my time. After a few heated moments, I pull back. “Did that tickle?”

Kels reaches up and removes a smudge of her lipstick from my lips. “Nah, I’m used to you by now.”

“Good,” I smile. I pull back and look at my girl. Wowza. She’s wearing a dress so deep green it’s almost black. It’s only when the light hits it just right that you can see the color in it. A long green, cream and burgundy patterned scarf winds its way around her neck and trails down her back. Her hair is beautifully arranged, framing her features softly. “You look gorgeous, baby.”

“You’re not bad yourself.”

I smile. I had this evening suit custom made and am inordinately pleased with it. Finally, something that perfectly fits my long arms and legs. My shirt is a crisp white linen and has French cuffs and black pearl studs for buttons. My girl bought me new cuff links to wear with it – nothing like a two carat diamond set in platinum to make me worry about my sleeves all night. Boy, do I feel snazzy. “Thanks. So where should we hold our fortieth wedding anniversary reception?”

Kels winds her arms around my neck and gently scratches me there. “Hmm … so many places to choose. Maybe that little plantation we stayed at last weekend.”

I laugh. “Chér, I don’t think we’ll be allowed back even by then. What about our house?”

She kisses my chin. “Think it’ll fit all our grandkids and nieces and nephews, and your brothers and the Conspiracy?”

I pretend to consider. “Probably not. I guess we’ll have to go to the Pontchartrain too.”

I get a kiss for the right answer. “Very good. It’s beautiful there, and I love the garden room.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“You kids ready?” Mama calls up the stairs. “We should be going.”

I steal another kiss, taking my time to enjoy it. “Okay, Mama,” I manage around Kels’ lips. “We’ll be right down.” I take one final sniff, earning myself a swat, and I give my girl my hand. “Come on, darlin’, let’s go. We have a party to go to.”

* * *

The Pontchartrain is a gorgeous hotel at the edge of the Garden District. Like the lake, it’s named in honor of Count de Pontchartrain from the court of King Louis XIV of France. The count was the minister of finance for the court, so it makes sense that the hotel named after him is expensive.

The interior ceiling is painted sky-blue, and the floors are marble. Exquisite chandeliers hang down like stars from the sky, and highlight works of art mounted on the walls. We’ve rented out the Caribbean, Fountain, Garden, and Patio rooms for the evening so that our family and two hundred of Mama and Papa’s closest friends can celebrate their anniversary in style. We have cocktails, dinner, dancing and more on the menu for tonight.

The Kingsleys know how to throw a good party.

Mama and Papa look terrific as we step into the room. Papa’s also in a tuxedo, as the evening called for formal wear, and he looks jaunty with his bright red bow tie. The tie, of course, perfectly matches Mama’s dress. The dress, of course, perfectly matches her nails and purse. I might have to get a picture of Papa holding that purse later tonight then see if I can get a picture of it in the Times-Picayune fashion section.

As they enter the ballroom, people stop speaking and applaud. Kels and I fade into the background, content to witness the good will and affection my parents have earned. They’ve been good friends, good neighbors, good citizens for a long time. From his early days as an election volunteer, going out into the Bayou to register voters of all races, Papa has been a crusader in an investment banker’s clothing. It was while registering Mama’s brothers to vote that he first met his bride-to-be. Mama, surprised at her sudden wealth by marrying into the Kingsley family, immediately took to social activism as a way of ensuring she never forgot where she came from. For the last forty years a number of causes have benefited from her spirit and fire to see the right thing done the first time.

I glance over at Gerrard and Katherine, who I notice are talking to the president of the Louisiana state senate. Go, Gerrard! I squeeze Kels’ hand. “Chér, I think my brother may be making an important announcement soon.”

Kels looks over and nods. “I think you’re right, Tabloid. Kate’s a little nervous about that. She doesn’t like politics much, and she’s never envied the spotlight.”

“It’ll be a change, that’s for sure. But Gerrard has the whole package – smart as hell, good-looking, gorgeous wife, photogenic kids, good judicial record, wealthy parents …”

“And gay sister,” Kels teases.

“Well, I hope I’m gay. Otherwise, I married the wrong girl.” We both laugh and I steal a kiss. “Besides, darlin’, we’re very trendy these days.”

“I couldn’t care less about being trendy,” Kels slides her arms around me, squeezing me tightly, “I only care about being with you.”

“That’s my girl.”

We stand there, and I am struck by how much life is different in two years. Not only do I have all the things I wanted – wife, family, home, two Harleys in the garage, but Kels is finally free to be herself. As much as I know she enjoyed being an anchor for Exposure, it was such a pain to not be free to express ourselves in public in New York. I understand the network being skittish about our being lovers, since television news is ruled by the almighty advertising dollar, but the pressure and limitations it put on us were ridiculous. As proud owners of our own production company, we can be as out as we want to be, and joyously turn away business that doesn’t like it. Even better, I get to roll on the floor with my kids whenever I damn well feel like it.

“Come on, let’s go mingle,” Kels says after a long moment, tugging on my hand.

“I’ll be right with you. I want to make sure that Jims got the camera set up right in the other room.” I kiss Kels on the cheek and hustle off. We’ve hired Jims to be our camera guy and his first assignment is to be a series of interviews with various people at the party. We have a small room off the ballroom where people can go in and sit down for a few minutes and talk about Mama and Papa. We’ll edit it all down to a reasonable length later and give it to them as a remembrance of this date.

The room is a small conference room, but Elaine, who has a natural flair for decorating, came in and helped Jims get it fixed up to look more homey than corporate. Jims did a great job on the lighting and I am confident everyone will look and sound good in the set up. He looks up from his snack and smiles. “Hi, boss.”

“How’s it going?”

“We’ve got about a dozen so far, mostly your father’s business partners and associates.” He looks at his track sheet at the names. “Your dad’s a real player, eh?”

I nod. “He’s the real thing.”

“He seems too nice.”

“He is.” I hear the band start up and I want to go dance with my best girl. “Do you need anything, Jims? You doing okay?”

“I’ll be fine. Thanks for asking,” he says around the food he’s just tossed in his mouth. Some things never change. The back of our truck at the network was always littered with junk food wrappers and crumbs. I’ll have to be sure the waiters keep bringing in more food and, more importantly, clearing the old stuff out throughout the night.

* * *

Gerrard crosses his legs as he considers Jims’ question. “The first thing I remember about Papa is him holding T-Jean. We had gone down to the gulf for the weekend and were playing on the beach. I was building a sand castle with Mama. I remember looking up over to the water and seeing this huge wave coming toward Papa and T-Jean. My mouth hung open and I remember bringing up my finger to point out what was happening to Mama. I swear, I’ve never seen a bigger wave in my lifetime even since. This thing came up and I thought that would be the last I’d see of either of them.

“Of course, the wave broke and soaked them. It even managed to get up high enough on the beach to erode some of my castle. I looked back up and saw Papa standing there, dripping wet, laughing, and T-Jean not very amused by it all.

“It was then I decided Papa had to be some kind of super hero. I have to admit, I’ve never been wrong about that.” Gerrard smiles for the camera.

“I think it’s safe to say that I’ve always wanted to be just like Papa. He’s a quiet man, but when he speaks it’s because he has something valuable to contribute. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard Papa waste words. Yet, I know that there’s never been a time that I didn’t know my father loved me. He always told us kids that. He made sure those words were spoken. I always knew he loved Mama, because he’d tell us that too. I guess that’s what I appreciate the most – security. Papa always made us feel that our house was the strongest in the world because we were in it together. Just like T-Jean was safe in his arms at the gulf. Big waves, little waves, none of that matters. We take it and laugh.”

* * *

I stand in the ballroom and soak this all in. I am now related by marriage to a quarter of the people at this little party. They’re the loud quarter. I gaze fondly at my brothers who are all laughing uproariously together. They are all so handsome in their tuxedos. Looking at them, I am overwhelmed with love for my family.

And they are mine. For better, for worse, I am now a Kingsley. Since I can’t imagine anything worse than growing up in my family, it can only be better. Although my father is coming around nicely. He’s here too, with Amanda. Little Claire is over at our house with the twins and her New York nanny. Dad was thoughtful enough to bring down their nanny so Brian could attend tonight’s party with Doug. It’s so weird to think that my sister is at home playing with my children. At least, she’s a cute kid. I wonder if I’ll ever feel like she’s a sibling. I highly doubt it. Kinda like how I’ll never consider Amanda another mother. My own is bad enough, thank you very much.

“Ma petit!” Mama calls to me, waving me over. Now this is a mother I want to be when I grow up.

“Oui, Mama?” I murmur as she takes my hand and pulls me over into the circle of friends she’s speaking to.

“I wanted to introduce you to Sister Clarice. She taught Harper when she was knee high to a grasshopper.”

I laugh at the thought of my tall spouse ever being quite that small. I hold out my hand to the nun. “Hello, Sister. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Harper told me she was quite a handful when she was at your school.”

The old nun’s eyes crinkle as she thinks back to Harper’s antics. “We often wondered if she would live past the twelfth grade. Rumor has it, she has.”

I smile, grateful beyond all measure that Harper is alive and well. I remember the events of last fourth of July all too clearly. “She has. She’s over there,” I point out my spouse who has now joined her brothers, “and she’ll be surprised to see you here.”

“No doubt. I think we finally managed to get all the chicken feathers cleaned out of the orchestra pit this year.” I smile, remembering that story very well. It was very funny. “Although the doorframes have never been quite right since the incident.”

Oh, this should be interesting. “What incident?”

“Harper had taken to carrying a lighter around. We never caught her smoking, but she would often pull out the lighter and light things.”

Uh oh. “Such as?” Oh, Tabloid, I’m gonna start writing down these stories so that when you rant and rave at our kids, they’ll have some ammunition against you.

“The attendance slips on the door. At the time, the teachers would mark absences on a sheet of note paper and post it on a clip on the doorframe. During the period, one of the office aides would come by and collect the slips. One day, Harper went down the hallway setting them all afire.”

I burst out laughing, and quickly cover my mouth to muffle the sound. I would have loved to have seen that. I can imagine it quite clearly. “Was anyone hurt?” I finally manage to ask.

“Oh no, she helpfully pulled the fire alarm at the end of the hallway.”

I definitely starting a journal. Collin, Brennan, you two are going to thank me for it later.

* * *

Lucien sits in the chair and rubs his jaw, thinking about the question. Fatherhood has recently aged him, for the better, giving him a maturity and substance previously lacking. “Some of my earliest memories are of us as a family at the dinner table. We never ate a meal anyplace other than the dining room table. No TV dinners on trays in our household. That’s something Raich and I are trying to do with our boys.

“I remember that we always had to say grace before every meal. Mama would make each of us boys say a prayer thanking God for our dinner. One night, Mama served red snapper, rice and green beans. There wasn’t one thing on his plate that Robie liked. He was only three at the time, and he wasn’t very good at hiding his feelings. Harper was just a baby and exempt from prayer time.

“So before we start eating, Mama makes us all pray. Gerrard prays and says, ‘Thank you, God, for this fish and rice.’ T-Jean goes next and says, ‘Thank you, God, for green beans.’ It was my turn then and I said, ‘Thank you, God, for the fish and beans.’ Robie was last and he prayed, ‘Thank you, God, for beignets.’” Lucien laughs, the moment still fresh in his mind.

“Mama wasn’t very happy. But I recall Papa was trying to keep from laughing. Robie has always had a lot of Papa in him. Papa always tells it like it is, no matter who might want to hear it differently. Over time, I think all us kids have come to respect the faith Mama has, and share it. I don’t know that I’d be considered a good Catholic, but I’d like to think that Mama’s ethics have spilled over on me. That’s something I’d like to impart to Jake and Stevie.”

* * *

I go to Nonny’s table and lean down to kiss her cheek. It feels as thin as parchment under my lips, and I worry that my kids might not remember her. She pats the cushion of the seat next to her and I drop down onto it.

“How are the beautiful babies?” she asks smiling, knowing how much new parents love to brag on their kids.

“Perfect. Both of them are rolling over and starting to try to crawl. Soon nothing in the house will be safe.”

Nonny laughs knowingly. “I remember. One day, when your Mama was very young, someone came to the door. It was Sister Agnes from the local parish. I went to talk to her and brought her back into the kitchen, where I had left your Mama. But when we came into the room, we couldn’t find her. I was so scared! She was just a baby, could only crawl, couldn’t speak but a few words. I looked at the backdoor, terrified a crocodile have come in and taken her back to the bayou. I was about to run out to the cane field to find your Grandpere when we heard a banging of pots. Your Mama had crawled into the lower cabinet with the pans and was sitting in one of them, playing happily.”

Go, Mama! “That’s partially why we bought locks for all our cabinet doors, Nonny.”

She pats my hand, her fingers cool on my skin. “You are a good mama, Harper.”

“I’m just trying to love them. That seems to be the most important thing.”

“That and feeding them.”

I have to laugh.

* * *

“What are my first memories of Mama and Papa?” Rene frowns and thinks back several years. Her family lived near Mama’s in the Bayou, and she was around our family a great deal before Robie had the sense to make her a part of it. “I remember Mama over at Nonny’s house. She was there to help with the harvest and Uncle Remy had asked her to drive the cart hauling it in. They had this huge horse, Antoine, who pulled the cart. Mama was sitting up there on the full load and yelled, ‘Pull, Herbert, pull!’ Antoine just stood there. She then yelled, ‘Pull, Pierre, pull!’ Antoine still stood there. Then she yelled, ‘Pull, Antoine, pull!’ Spitfire began pulling the cart, and took the harvest up to the barn.”

Rene shakes her head and chuckles at her memory. “I followed her up there and asked why she kept calling Antoine by the wrong name. Mama laughed and patted the horse affectionately. She said, ‘Ol’ Antoine here is blind. If he thought he was the only one pulling, he wouldn’t even try.’”

Crossing her legs, Rene smoothes out the fabric idly. “I think Mama used the same psychology raising her brood.”

* * *

My father comes over and extends his hand. I am impressed by how good he looks each time I see him. I think a happy home life agrees with him. I’m glad to see him get a second chance. “May I have the pleasure of this dance?”

I take his hand, noticing how small my hand still is in his. Suddenly, I feel like the little girl I never got to be with him. He leads me out onto the dance floor and I am almost tempted to place my feet on top of his, feeling as if I need to learn how to dance with him. “I’m so glad you were able to come down for the party, Dad.”

He glances over toward Mama and Papa, a wistful smile on his face. “Anyone who can stay together forty years deserves a party. I only wish I could be around for yours and Harper’s fortieth.”

My heart clenches at the mention of his mortality and I don’t want to think about it. “Dad,” I protest. Intellectually, I can’t argue with him, but for the first time in my life, I want my father around for as long as I can keep him.

“Sorry to get all maudlin on your, sweetheart.” He kisses my forehead. “Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if your mother and I … well, if we hadn’t made a mess of it all.”

I don’t think I can even imagine a normal childhood. What would it have been like to know my parents? to be around them for extended periods of time? to not be sent off to the next school that caught their fancy or impressed the right people? “We can’t change the past. But you have a good life now, Dad, with Amanda and Claire.”

“And with you, too. Right?”

I smile and hug him. “And me and Harper and Brennan and Collin.”

He lets out a long breath, and I realize how much it meant to him to hear those words. “I like being a grandfather better than I thought I would. I expected it to make me feel old, but instead I feel young.”

“Really? How so?”

“Everything’s new. Brennan and Collin don’t know what a terrible father I was to you. I’m just the guy who spoils them rotten. Plus, Claire has made me start looking at things from a new perspective. Everything’s fresh.”

“Good.”

“Shame though about your mother.”

I falter and nearly step on my Dad’s foot. “What do you mean?”

He flushes and looks away, uncomfortable. “Don’t you know about her plea bargain?”

I decide to stop dancing altogether. “What’s going on?”

“The Manhattan DA’s office accepted her plea bargain to a third degree felony. She’s been sentenced to four years at a minimum security prison. It happened last Friday.”

Great. My mother gets to work on her backhand for two years until she gets paroled. Somehow it isn’t surprising, but it is disappointing.

Warm hands settle on my shoulders and I recognize the feel of Harper’s body against mine. “You okay, chér?” she burrs. Her voice is calm, but I can hear the protectiveness right below the surface.

I lean back against her, grateful for her presence. “I am. Dad just gave me some bad news.”

“At a party?”

Dad hears the reproach. Harper wasn’t very subtle, I’ll admit. I love that across a crowded dance floor she could tell something was wrong and immediately came to my side.

“I’m sorry, Kels. Harper’s right, I shouldn’t have said anything right now. This is a celebration.” He holds his arms out from his side. “Forgive your old man?”

I give him a hug. “Of course, Dad.”

Dad squeezes me and then turns me around and places me in Harper’s arms. “Sorry, Harper,” he says, patting her on the back and exiting quickly.

“You okay, darlin’?” Harper’s arms tighten around me. We are still in the middle of the dance floor and aren’t even pretending to dance.

I start moving us gently to the music so we don’t continue to attract so much attention. I don’t want my dad to feel worse than he already does. I figured the bitch would get out of this somehow, but I didn’t want to really know about it. I just wanted to accidentally run her over with my car one day. And back up a few times. “Mother cut a deal. She’s at some country club prison.”

“Well, good,” Harper replies, surprising me. “Maybe someone will stick a golf club up her -”

I reach up and cover her mouth with my hand. “Shh, Mama will hear you. Or worse, Nonny.”

My spouse is unrepentant. She licks my palm.

It doesn’t phase me. I’m a mother now.

She changes tactics and tries a kiss and a nibble.

Better.

* * *

“I remember meeting the Kingsleys for the first time when they were a young family. In fact, their youngest, Harper Lee, had been born on a few months before. Had I been told then that the little one would grow up to steal my girl’s heart, I would have laughed. And I would have been terribly wrong to do so.” Matthew shakes his head.

“Jonathan was trying to convince me to sit on the board of directors for his investment firm. Part of his charm campaign was to invite me over for dinner at his house.

“So, on my next business trip to New Orleans, I went over to eat with Jonathan and Cecile and their five. During dinner, I happened to mention that my father had recently been admitted to the hospital. I was shocked when Jonathan’s youngest boy, Robie, began clapping at the news.

“Cecile was horrified and Jonathan looked like he might pass out. I was curious, though. The boy didn’t seem like a bad fella, so I figured something else was going on. I asked Robie why he was clapping. He smiled and pointed to little Harper, sleeping in a nearby bassinet, and said, ‘He’s going to have a baby too!’

“Fortunately, since then, Jonathan’s done a better job of managing his firm than explaining the birds and the bees to his kids.”

* * *

Kels and I stay out on the dance floor. The band is in a mellow mood at the moment, so I get to hug my girl close. “How you doing, sweetheart?” I ask, my lips near her perfect ear. I kiss behind it, drinking in the scent of her shampoo and a trace of her perfume.

“Never better. It’s a wonderful party. See, what we need to do is adopt two or three more so they can all get together and throw us a party like this in forty years.”

I spin us around and dip my girl, surprising her. Pulling her back up, I steal a kiss. “I like the way you think. Though, don’t you have any cousins we could get to help us out?”

I think I’ve managed to bewilder Kels. She blinks a few times and finally manages, “Huh? Cousins? Yeah, I’ve got two or three, but …”

“Are they boy cousins or girl cousins?” I try to ignore the grin tugging at the corners of my mouth.

“I’ve got a couple of each.”

I nod, considering the information. “Are they good-looking?”

“They’re from my Dad’s side of the family, so they’re not bad.”

I tighten my arm around Kels, bringing her closer. “Not bad as in they don’t have three heads? Or not bad if you like men?”

“Harper, okay, I’m totally confused. Are you saying you want to have a baby?”

I guess I am. Probably not the right time to raise this particular issue, but, what the hell? The cat’s out of the bag, so to speak. I nod tentatively. “I think so. I mean, yes, I do. I really wanted to experience what you did. God, some days I was so jealous as you felt Collin and Brennan growing inside you. To create life, with someone you love, I can’t imagine anything more amazing, more fulfilling.” Suddenly, I’m embarrassed to have brought this up at all, especially here and now. “But we don’t have to talk about this right now, if you don’t want to.” I start to step away from her and lead us back to the cocktail room.

“No! Now is good.” Kels holds me tightly, despite looking dazed by my admission. “If you really want to do that, I think it’s wonderful. We’ll find a way.”

“Really?” I stop trying to leave the dance floor as Kels has a death grip on me. “You wouldn’t mind?”

“Mind? No, I wouldn’t mind. I’d love to have other babies, and I would love to share that with you.” She gently rubs circles on the small of my back, comforting me. “I simply never got the impression that you would want to have a baby.”

“Too butch?” I chuckle.

Kels joins me. “Yeah, too butch.”

“I never wanted to, Kels, before now.” How to explain this? “I never thought of myself being pregnant. Didn’t quite fit with my bad biker and renegade journalist image. I didn’t think they make leather jackets that big, you know?” Kels smiles at my joke.
“I’ve always been great with kids, favorite Tante Harper, and all that. But I thought that would be it, that my nieces and nephews would be as close as I would ever get to having my own. Then I found you. When you said you wanted to have a baby, I was so happy. And now we have Brennan and Collin and I’m wild about them. I’d love for them to have a couple brothers and sisters, and I’d like to be the one to give that to them. I consider my brothers to be the best gift my parents ever gave me. I want Brennan and Collin to experience having a big family as well.”

If New Orleans were to suffer a power outage right now, we’d all still be able to see by the light of Kels’ smile. “Sweetheart, you tell me when and we’ll start trying to make a baby.”

I lean down and capture her lips, enjoying the sweetness of this moment. “Practice makes perfect,” I whisper against them when we finally part, not wanting to move very far away. Truthfully, I’d like to go home right now and start practicing.

“It certainly does. Harper, your Mama is never going to believe this. When are we going to make this grand announcement?”

I pretend to think this over for a long moment. “Sometime around the twins’ first birthday?” Kels slaps my arm playfully. “I don’t know, chér. I suppose we should talk to your cousins first and make sure they’re willing. I’d hate to raise everyone’s hopes if it won’t work out.”

“Harper, sweetheart, even if they aren’t, there are other methods. But we’ll wait, and I think Brennan and Collin’s first birthday is a wonderful plan.” Kels reaches up and caresses my cheek, and I lean into her tender touch. “Thank you so much.”

“For what, Little Roo?”

“For wanting this. I wanted a big family and I felt … well, I felt … like maybe I …” She gives up and smiles. “It doesn’t matter now because we’re going to have one. One way or the other.”

I bend my head down so that I capture her eyes. “Chér, what did you feel? Tell me, please.”

Kels pauses, closing her eyes, I assume to work up her courage to speak. “I felt like a failure,” she says at last, softly. “I wanted so much to give us lots of babies. When they said I couldn’t, I felt like I had done something wrong and that I wasn’t supposed to be a mother. I think that’s why I’m so protective of Collin and Brennan. After all we’ve been through, I couldn’t lose them. That’s why I ran home, why I came home to family.”

“Oh, chér,” I breathe, my heart breaking. How could I not have known this before now? What type of jerk am I? “Sweetheart, you are a fabulous mother. My God, you make it all look so easy. Our two babies love you so much. I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else.” Even the thought of that terrifies me. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”

She nods and sniffles. “I know that now, and I’m so happy. We have a wonderful family surrounding and supporting us, and we have the most beautiful babies.” She nudges me playfully. Even if none of my brothers will admit it, we do have the best looking kids. “For awhile there, I was scared, but look at this.” My girl gestures to the party which has continued around us unabated. Everyone on the dance floor has been gracious enough to let us have this talk in as much privacy as the forum allows. “This can be our future, Harper, and I am looking forward to walking every step of it with you.”

That declaration deserves another kiss. “Will you still feel that way if one of our kids wants to run for the Louisiana state senate and the rest of them are also,” I mock shudder, “lawyers?”

“The two things I’ve learned through all this, Harper Lee, are: one, you can always count on family to be there for you; and two, it never hurts to know several good lawyers. I’m telling you, though, I think you’ve correctly pegged Brennan ‘The Girl Who Wants To Rule The World’, and Collin is going to follow in my footsteps.” My girl’s eyes shine with fun.

“Oh, he is, is he? Did you play quarterback for the Tulane football team?”

“No, and neither did you,” Kels points out reasonably, forestalling any further argument from me. For the moment, at least. “But there is nothing better than being a multi-award-winning journalist who finds happiness and true love, and who gets to spend the rest of their life doing what pleases them.” She leans upward and whispers in my ear, her breath sending pleasurable chills down my spine, “Including, but not limited to, spending lots of time trying to create little brothers and sisters.”

Warmth infuses my body and it takes all my willpower to not take my girl home right now and work on this baby thing. Later tonight, however, we’ll have to make a few attempts. Maybe I’ll even buy a home pregnancy test to inspire us to greater heights. “So you’ll still love me when I’m big and fat, eh?”

“Sweetheart, I’ll even go out in the middle of the night and find whatever disgusting thing it is you’re going to want to eat when the baby starts getting all demanding. You’re going to be so spoiled no one will be able to stand to be around you. You’ll be like an old woman’s prized fat cat.”

“Now there’s a terrific side benefit. So, how many are you thinking? In total, I mean. Four, five, six?” Six sounds damn scary, to be honest, since that would mean four for me.

“Mama and Papa did all right with five, but I could live with four. It’s a nice, round number.”

“Think we’ll get lucky with another set of twins?”

This amuses my girl, and I’m so glad to see her so happy. “Anything is possible, Harper. I really think you’re going to be too cute for words when you’re pregnant.”

I scowl. “I don’t do cute.”

Kels ignores me and pats my flat stomach. “If you have twins the first time, we may just have to go for five.”

“Need I remind you, the fifth is sometimes the best of the whole lot?” I wag my finger in front of her. “Where would you be if Mama and Papa had thought four was a nice round number and quit at that?”

“Lost. And very alone.” Kels regards me seriously, looking into my very soul. “I love you, Harper. I refuse to think of my life in terms of you not being a part of it. There is a reason that the two most stubborn people on the planet were brought together and I intend to spend the next seventy years trying to figure it all out.”

“I’m going to hold you to that.” Whew. What a night. Who knew we’d be discussing my getting pregnant and us having a whole brood of kids at my parents’ anniversary party? “So do you want to go rejoin the party and mingle? Or do we go out on the balcony and neck for awhile?” I’m only half-teasing in my proposition.

“I think we should go out on the balcony and neck for awhile.”

We immediate leave the dance floor in search of a quiet and secluded spot. I lean down and whisper the only words that come to my mind right now, “My God, I love you.”

* * *

“I remember the first time I tried to pull something over on Mama.” Robie has to shake his head in amusement. None of us were ever able to get away with anything for very long. “My friend, Bobby, attended parochial school with me. His mama made the best lunches. To this day, I remember the taste of Mrs. Boudreaux’s po’boys. So ol’ Bobby would bring his lunch and he and I would eat it during recess.

“Since we lived near the school, all us kids would walk home for lunch. I would bring Bobby along because he never had anything left after we got done at recess. Mama would feed him with us, and send us all back to school.

“I guess having Bobby over every day for lunch made Mama worry about the Boudreaux family. One day, she goes over there to speak privately to Bobby’s Mama and see if they need anything. That’s when she found out about Bobby’s lunches.”

Robie laughs. “She must have figured out what we were doing, because the next day when we all came home for lunch, Mama made up her special jambalaya. I love that stuff. Ooo la la.” Robie looks hungry just thinking about it, in fact. “We all sat around the table and Mama gave big portions to Gerrard and T-Jean and Luc and even Harper, who was just a little thing at the time.

“Bobby and I were given a half a sandwich each.” He pats his trim waistline. “Thank God, Mama did that. I’d hate to see how big I’d be if I had continued that trend all the way through twelfth grade.

“Love you, Mama,” he blows a kiss at the camera. “And I love that it was your heart for people that led you to discover our little scam.”

* * *

Kels and I join my brothers at their table. Most of them have, by now, removed their ties and taken off their jackets. The majority of the guests have left, and only the core family remains. Mama is holding court with the Kitchen Conspiracy over at another table, but I want Kels with me. I don’t want to share her with my sisters, right now. I pull Kels down onto my lap and wrap my arms around her, nuzzling against her soft body.

“How goes the war?” I ask.

Robie sighs and takes a long drink from the bottle of beer in front of him. “It’s hard work being witty and charming all night.”

“Especially for you.” Luc winks.

“Yeah, yeah. At least, I was out there drumming up support for the Senator.”

“It’s not good to go calling me that before I win the election.”

Kels reaches out and fixes Gerrard’s lapel which has somehow managed to fold over wrong. “You decided to run?”

“I don’t know how I can turn it down gracefully at this point.”

T-Jean snorts and rolls his eyes. “Right, older brother, you’re only doing this to be polite. Not an ambitious bone in your body. Nope. Not a one.”

“To civic-mindedness,” Robie toasts.

All of us hoist glasses.

Gerrard has the good grace to blush. “All right, fine. Of course, I want to run and win.” He looks over at Katherine for a long moment. “I only hope the rest of the family doesn’t mind.”

I’m surprised Gerrard would consider doing anything like this without talking extensively to Katherine. It seems like a huge step to undertake without spousal support. Given that Gerrard’s always been my mentor in this area, I am surprised. “She didn’t agree to it?”

“Harper Lee! Bon Dieu! Naturally, Katherine and I, and the kids, talked about it. They all agreed to let me try to win. Naturally, Joseph thinks he’ll be able to use my position to pick up girls.” He smiles, knowing his eldest is a bit too much like himself at that age some days. “I just don’t want to walk into this with the wrong idea. It’s a lot of work, even at the state level. Gonna need to call upon my family to help out.”

“Sure enough,” Luc agrees amiably. “As long as we don’t have to build another deck off your house. My back hurts for weeks after last summer.”

“Poor baby,” T-Jean makes kissing noises in Luc’s direction.

“Maybe we can do a documentary about your campaign,” Kels offers. “The Man From the Garden District.” We all laugh. “Doesn’t quite have the right ring to it, does it?”

“Well,” Robie suggests, “if it were Brian running for office, it’d be perfect.” He ducks as Gerrard flings a cloth napkin his way.

“It doesn’t really make me sound like a man of the people, Kels,” Gerrard admits. “Perhaps we can come up with something better.”

“How about we name our house something sad like ‘Squalor?’ Then you could be ‘The Man From Squalor.’” Robie is trying to be funny. Really, he is.

Gerrard shakes his head. “Tell you what, we can do it, if you are the one to tell Mama that her beloved house is named that.”

“Or we could go with ‘Elect Judge Gerrard.’”

“I thought so.”

We all make clucking noises. No one wants to mess with Mama and her house.

* * *

I take my turn in front of the camera and try hard to remember this is family, not work.

“I’m not even sure where to start. I know that ‘thank you’ isn’t enough. You’ve both given me so much in such a short time. I’m always overwhelmed at your generosity and the love that seems so endless for all of your children.

“Never once have you ever made any of the spouses feel any less important in your lives than your own flesh and blood. For me, you’ve opened up a whole new world, for which I will be eternally grateful. You’ve given me the things I never thought I would have. And you opened your home and your hearts to me as if you had known me forever.

“I celebrate this day with you, my only regret being that I wasn’t around earlier, for your thirtieth. But, rest assured, I’ll be here for the rest, and I hope that when you are celebrating your seventy-fifth anniversary, we’re all surrounded by grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

“The only thing left to say is I love you both.”

* * *

I walk over to the band leader and speak to him for a moment. He’s tired, I can tell. His shirt is damp with sweat, and his group have the same slightly rumpled appearance. We’re a family that likes music and likes to dance. I don’t think they expected to work quite so long and hard tonight. I slip the leader a hundred dollar tip and am rewarded with one last song.

“Get your girls, brothers,” I admonish the boys, as I take Kels’ hand and lead her back to the dance floor. Forty years from now, when we’re dancing on this same floor, I’ll look around at all our kids and grandkids, and realize that we made decisions tonight that made a difference. And here I thought I was merely going to a party.

The lead singer begins singing the melody. His voice rough with the sound of whiskey and cigarettes and longing. I asked for an old Sammy Cahn tune. It seemed appropriate.

“It’s the last dance, we’ve come to the last dance.

“They’re dimming the lights down, they’re hoping we’ll go.

“It’s obvious they’re aware of us, the pair of us, alone on the floor.

“Still I want to hold you like this forever and more.

“It the last song, they’re playing the last song.

“The orchestra’s yawning, they’re sleepy I know.

“They’re wondering just when will we leave, but till we leave, keep holding me tight,

“Through the last dance, each beat of the last dance.

“Save me the first dance in your dreams tonight.”

* * *

“I remember singing.” It’s hard to try to think of a first time you remember your parents, I realize when Jims asks me the question. I also realize how much I enjoy producing and how I never wanted to be the talent in front of the camera.

“Mama was always singing around the house. She loved show tunes, and I think all us kids know more Broadway musicals than the Gay Men’s Choir. Mama sang because she was happy. We all were happy.

“I remember some nights waking up and sneaking downstairs. Most often, I was going for a snack, especially if there was any dessert left at dinner. All us kids would be sneaking down, in fact. Sometimes there’d nearly be a collision in the kitchen from all the activity.

“A few times, I’d hear Papa singing to Mama. I’d creep around and look out on the back porch and there they’d be, dancing and singing together.

“That’s why I sing to Kels all the time. Why I sing to Brennan and Collin. It reminds me of how well loved I was – and still am.”

* * *

Home and tired, but changed into comfortable sweats, I’m taking time to be with our babies while Harper showers and gets ready for bed. All three of us are sprawled on the bed, laughing and playing. Of course, they should already be asleep, but keeping them up a bit later will mean there is less chance of them interrupting my playtime with their Mama.

I laugh when Brennan’s head slips forward and she snuffles into the comforter, then sneezes. She still hasn’t learned that doing things like that will make her sneeze. Collin is content to lay on his back and play with his feet, watching the bathroom door. He’s waiting for his Mama. He knows where she is.

“So, my little ones.” I tug on Brennan’s foot and she laughs. Her face reminds me of a cherub. “What would you say to a little brother or sister?”

Brennan seems okay with the idea, but Collin opines with a loud raspberry.

“Ooo, you simply don’t want to share your Mama, you jealous thing, you.” I tickle his tummy and he curls his hand around mine, trying to pull it to his mouth to chew on it. “I hate to break this to you, but your Mama wants to have a baby. So, sometime, not too far off, I would imagine you’re going to have a little brother or sister.”

“Younger,” I am corrected as the bathroom light is clicked off and my loving spouse joins us on the bed. She scoops Collin up and snuggles him close. “You’re gonna be an older brother, buddy. So you’d better get a grip.” He does so, completely tangling himself in Harper’s hair. “Kels?”

She doesn’t even need to finish the request before I reach over and begin the process of untangling them. “You’re welcome,” I tell her with a quick kiss. Looking over at Brennan, I see her rub her eyes and I know it’s bedtime. “Come on, Tabloid, let’s put them down for the night and then come back here and work on that making a baby thing.”

“I really like the way you think.”

* * *

I remember once reading the book The Winds of War by Herman Wouk. I forget if I read it for fun or for a class. I liked it, though, and parts of it have always stuck with me.

I remember his description of the first kiss shared by Byron and Natalie: “The brown wool dress was scratchy in his hands. The perfume in her hair couldn’t be daydreamed, nor the moist warm sweet breath of her mouth. Above all gleamed the inconceivable wonder that all this was happening.”

I felt the same way in that carriage not two years ago. Inconceivable wonder.

In fact, I wake up every morning with that same feeling. Except now it extends beyond merely having Kels in my life. My two angels astound me daily, as I watch them grow up before my eyes, hoping they take the best qualities of the two of us and none of the worst, wondering what our next one or two or three or four will be like, and what they will add to our lives. And what I can add to theirs.

Safely home from my travels, I managed to somehow achieve my dreams. I snuggle closer to Kels who sleeps peacefully beside me. I trace the curve of her arm with my fingertips, watching the effect my touch has on her even in sleep. She curls against me, until we truly are one flesh. In her sleep, she reaches out for me, and I give her my hand willingly. Why not? She has everything else that is mine.

As I drift to sleep, I remember my other favorite passage by Wouk, glad to finally understand its meaning: “The human predicament sometimes seems a gloomy tapestry with an indistinct, baffling design that swirls around and inward to brilliant naked lovers. The Bible starts with this centerpiece. Most of the old stories end with the lovers married, retiring to their sacred nakedness. But for Byron and Natalie, their story was just beginning.”

That’s what they’ll say about us forty years from now: our story was just beginning.

 

<fade out>

Thanks to everyone for joining us on this fantastic ride! See you at the movies!

© 2001 Exposure Productions. All rights reserved. The Content is protected in the U.S. and internationally by a variety of laws, including, but not limited to, copyright laws and treat provisions, and other proprietary rights laws.

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