The Grand Old Lady
by Lois Kay
#5 in the Reef Series
Jody McDonnell-Stevens hid a yawn behind her hand, while raking her fingers through hair that desperately needed a cut, something she had been putting off for a couple of weeks now. First, her partner Sam had to leave town unexpectedly for a few days and the idea of taking two toddlers with her to the hair salon wasn’t exactly Jody’s idea of a fun time. The second time she had cancelled her appointment had been due to a rainstorm dumping so much water that the creek running across their land had flooded, cutting them off from the main road to town. It had been secretly welcome, because the twins had been plagued by a cold and the four of them had spent a wonderful day just hanging out on the verandah, reading books and playing games.
Jody smiled at the memory and for a brief moment her green eyes had a faraway look in them. If, ten years ago, someone had predicted where she would be today and with whom, she would have laughed.
“And look at me now,” Jody softly told herself, smiling. “I’m such a lucky woman.”
“No, honey, that would be me,” a familiar voice sounded behind her and a pair of warm hands brushed aside the hair that covered the side of her neck so soft lips could kiss the sensitive skin, instantly sending goose bumps across Jody’s skin.
“It’s not nice to eavesdrop, love.” Jody mumbled, letting out a soft gasp when strong teeth gently bit her.
“I wasn’t. You are the one talking to yourself.” A tall body landed next to Jody on the padded bench and a hand landed on her knee, giving it a loving squeeze. “Am I driving you crazy?”
“Only in a good way,” Jody smiled, covering the hand on her knee with her own.
“I wouldn’t blame you, you know,” Sam sighed. “Lately, I’ve been leaving you to your own devices a lot. T-one and T-two are enough to drive a saint crazy sometimes. If only I could bottle their energy, wouldn’t that be great?”
“Awesome,” Jody sighed, snuggling closer to the warm body next to her. “It would be environmentally friendly energy, although too much of it could leave a trail of destruction.”
Sam laughed and dropped a kiss on the red haired head that was tucked underneath her chin.
“That’s so true. But I can already picture the label: ‘Double-T, for all your energy needs.’
“I hope there’s a warning on the label as well,” Jody sighed. “It should only be used in small amounts and only by those who know what they’re doing.”
“Were you very attached to that vase?” Sam asked, smiling when she heard Jody’s soft chuckle.
“The one Tim ran into in his endeavor to catch that praying mantis? No, not really, although that’s not what I told young Master Stevens when the thing went crashing down, mind you. You should have seen his face, Sam. He looked just as horrified as you do when you do something reckless. It was so funny.”
“I never do anything reckless,” Sam deadpanned.
“Sure, honey,” Jody responded, patting the warm hand underneath her own. “I’ll grant you your delusion, but we both know it’s far from the truth.”
“Are you ever going to let me forget that day I took Fiona to the top of Mount Warning? Thousands of people go there every year.”
“Thousands of people don’t climb that mountain just before dark,” Jody answered in a calm voice. “And thousands of people don’t have to spend the night up there, in the dark, fighting off all the creepy crawlers that live in the rainforest.”
“It was just one night,” Sam sighed. “Besides, Fiona had a blast.”
“Until she got bitten by a green ant,” Jody laughed.
“Yes, ouch,” Sam winced, having been up close and personal to the tiny insects with their painful bite as well. “That hurt.” The blonde let out an exasperated sigh and pulled the woman next to her a little closer.
“Aside from that adventure, I’m pretty good, right?”
“You’re a star,” Jody nodded lazily, which caused her companion to chuckle.
“You are so good for my ego,” Sam sighed.
“I try,” Jody yawned, feeling her body relax even more and realizing it wouldn’t take much for her to fall asleep.
The redhead’s words were followed by a long, comfortable silence in which both women simply enjoyed sharing a quiet peaceful moment together. Sam’s blue eyes stared at the line of trees where the forest began. It stretched out all the way to the bottom of the mountain, enclosing their property with a solid, live wall of green. Every day the blonde realized how lucky she was to be able to live in a place that was incredibly beautiful, with a partner and children she loved so much it sometimes took her breath away.
“I must be the luckiest woman on the planet,” she mumbled while her eyes followed a colorful bird that was heading for the trees, getting ready to settle in for the approaching night.
“I’m glad you feel that way,” Jody answered and although Sam could not see her face, she could easily detect the smile in her voice.
“I am too,” Sam nodded. “Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day.”
“So it is,” Jody nodded, moving so she could glance up at her partner’s face. “I don’t have to ask if you have any plans,” she smiled. “You always do.”
“That’s right,” Sam nodded.
“Great,” Jody sighed kissing Sam’s cheek. “As long as it doesn’t involve singing, we’re good.”
“Is that an insult?” Sam asked, but she was laughing.
“Nope, I’m just stating a fact, honey. No matter how I love the idea of you serenading me, the kids and Kurt clearly didn’t like it last time you tried it.”
“Well, it’s a good thing then that my plans do not involve me singing,” Sam answered, wrapping her partner in her arms and pulling her closer. “Although I do believe our children and dog could use a little more cultural refinement.”
“I’ll make sure to make all three of them watch Sesame Street in the morning,” Jody promised, laughing when Sam growled in her ear.
The sun had just started to make its ascent, coloring the sky in different shades of orange, yellow and blue when Jody woke up because someone, or something was gently patting her face. Without opening her eyes she tried to identify whose warm but slightly sticky hands rested on her cheeks.
“Good morning, Taryn, sweetie,” she smiled without opening her eyes.
“Mommy, wake up,” was the immediate response and Jody’s smile widened, knowing she had been right about her daughter.
“I am awake, sweet pea,” she answered with a yawn, stretching out a hand to feel the space in the bed next to her was empty. It was a pity Sam apparently was already up, but that also meant that Taryn has probably acquired her sticky hands under supervision, which was a lot better than the alternative.
“Mommy, wake up,” Taryn insisted, trying to pry open one of her mother’s eyelids. Jody quickly grabbed the offending hand and opened her eyes, chuckling when she saw her daughter’s face so close it almost made her cross-eyed.
“Hello, sweetie,” Jody smiled, opening her arms for a welcoming hug.
“Mommy,” Taryn sighed happily. “Bweakfast is weady.” Taryn was two-and-a-half years old and still had trouble pronouncing the letter ‘r’.
“Did you make breakfast?” Jody inquired, immediately seeing the little girl nod with pride.
“And Timmy,” Taryn answered. “And Mama.”
“And is everybody as sticky as you are”? Jody wanted to know, laughing when Taryn shook her head. Where Taryn could be incredibly messy, Timothy was very neat and tidy. It was amazing how their twins often were on the opposite ends of the spectrum in some things.
“So, now you want me to get up and have breakfast, huh?”
“I’m hungwy, Mommy,” Taryn nodded.
“Well, I’d better not let you wait then,” Jody smiled, kissing her daughter’s sticky cheek. It tasted like sugar and cinnamon and Jody wondered what kind of breakfast was awaiting her. She slid out of bed and into a pair of shorts. Her daughter grabbed her hand and pulled her toward the kitchen, chatting about ‘pancakes’ and ‘fwuit’.
Jody had half expected the kitchen to be a mess, but to her surprise it looked very tidy and organized and Jody made a mental note to ask Sam how she did that, being surrounded by two year old twins.
“Outside, Mommy,” Taryn insisted, pulling Jody toward the door to the veranda.
“Breakfast outside. How lovely,” Jody smiled, letting herself being pulled in the direction of her son’s chattering voice.
When she stepped outside Jody was greeted by Timothy’s enthusiastic ‘Mommy!’ Kurt’s loud bark and Sam’s: ‘Morning, love.’
“Wow, look at this,” Jody said with genuine surprise, accepting the kiss her partner gave her with a warm smile. “You guys have been busy.”
“Gwamma helped,” Taryn explained with a beaming smile, effectively cutting off Sam who was about to say something.
“Oh, did she now?” Jody drawled, glancing at Sam with a raised eyebrow. Her partner sighed and buried her face in her hands for a moment.
“Nothing’s ever secret,” she complained.
“Not with a double-dose of two year olds, honey. You should know that by now,” Jody grinned, reaching out a hand and patting Sam’s shoulder.”I still love the surprise though, ”she continued with a smile. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Sam replied, removing her hands from in front of her face and leaning over to kiss her partner. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
“And happy it is,” Jody smiled, returning Sam’s kiss. “So, where is my mother?”
“She’ll be up in a minute,” Sam answered. “She went down to the apartment to wake up Fiona and Robin.”
Jody’s eyes went wide and she looked so surprised Sam started laughing.
“And they are alright with that?” she inquired.
“Completely,” Sam nodded, enjoying her partner’s stunned look.
“How much did it cost you to bribe my sister?” Jody wanted to know, reaching out a hand to stop Taryn who was trying to stick her whole hand in her glass of milk to fish out a piece of bread she had dropped in it.
“It wasn’t too bad,” Sam shrugged, making Jody laugh. “I knew how much you’d love to have your family here on holidays, so I appealed to Fiona’s sense of family.”
“Which must have been a challenge, seeing this is Fiona’s and Robin’s first Valentine’s together,” Jody chuckled. “How much, honey?”
“Valentine’s Dinner for two at “Butter flies”,” Sam confessed sheepishly.
“Oh, you must have planned this a while ago then,” Jody smiled, knowing that the popular, classy restaurant Sam was sending Fiona and Robin to had been completely booked for months. The redhead stood up from her chair and unceremoniously sat herself on Sam’s lap. She wrapped her arms around the blonde’s neck and leaned in to kiss her.
“Thank you,” she whispered against her lips.
“Keep kissing me like this and I’ll ask Fiona and Robin to move in with us,” Sam whispered, smiling when Jody chuckled.
“Mmm, I love my sister dearly, but I’d rather keep kissing you like this knowing they won’ t move in.”
“Gwamma,” Taryn’s happy voice interrupted their intimate intermezzo and after giving Sam another quick kiss, Jody moved back to her own chair, well aware of her mother’s twinkling eyes.
“Hi, Mom,” Jody waved as Joan McDonnell stepped on the veranda.
“Morning, Jody,” Joan answered. “How was your wakeup call?”
“Sticky, but adorable” Jody confessed with a smile. “Thank you for helping with breakfast. It looks great. I should have known you were here when I walked through the kitchen and noticed how clean it was.”
“No comment from me,” Sam replied. “I know I’m a messy cook. “So, are the girls coming up for breakfast?”
“They’ll be here in a minute,” Joan nodded, accepting a cup of coffee from Jody. “I was amazed, because they were awake and dressed and ready to go.”
“They have a good incentive,” Jody said, sipping from her coffee. Her green eyes took in the four other people at the table and a warm feeling spread through her body. Sam had been right: the biggest gift for Jody was having her family close, especially on holidays. The years she had been apart from them had been the hardest in her life. Having lost Sam and not having any contact with her parents and siblings, except for Lucy, had been incredibly painful. It was impossible to turn back time, but one thing she did have some control over was the present and her family was very much a part of that.
“Mommy, look,” Timothy interrupted Jody’s musings by pulling the sleeve of her shirt. She looked down at the little blonde boy who was looking up at her with serious blue eyes. He was holding up a piece of paper with a colorful drawing in front of her. “For you,” he said with obvious pride.
“Thank you, sweetie,” Jody smiled, wrapping her arms around his sturdy little frame and pulling him onto her lap. “That is a beautiful picture.”
“It’s you and Mama,” Timothy pointed at two stick figures, one tall with yellow hair and the other one shorter with bright red hair. “Taryn. Timmy,” he pointed out his sister and himself. “Kurt.” The dog was standing next to Sam in the drawing and Jody chuckled. It was obvious Timothy had already figured out who Kurt’s favorite human was.
In the background Jody could make out a whole row of people and intrigued she cast her son a look.
“And who are all those people?” she asked
“Gramma,” Timothy answered pointing at the first one of the row of figures. “Fiona, Robin, Mike, Alice, Yarra, Trisha, Lucy, baby,” he pointed to a stick figure with a very big, round belly. Inside he had drawn a tiny figure. “Famly,” he added with a nod.
“That’s right, family,” Jody whispered, holding her son close. “Our ever growing family.”
“Mommy, pwesent,” Taryn demanded her share of the attention and thrust her hand in Jody’s direction. The little girl’s drawing consisted of colorful hand and foot prints and Jody laughed heartily. Taryn was not a child who could sit still and draw for a very long time. There were always more interesting things to do, but not being someone who wanted to be left out, she always insisted in participating in art projects. The most successful ones were the fast ones.
“This is beautiful, sweet pea. Thank you so much. I love it.”
The sound of a car driving up the road made Jody look up and with a frown she shot Sam a questioning glance.
“I’d hardly think Fiona and Robin would use the car to drive up here from the apartment,” she muttered.
“Things are not always what they seem, my love,” Sam teased, getting up from her chair and stepping off the veranda so she could open the door on the passenger’s side of the car that had just pulled up in front of the house. As soon as Jody noticed who the driver was, she jumped up, shifted Timothy to her hip and stepped closer to the stairs. Her smile was so wide that Trisha Waters laughed when she saw her.
“Surprised?” she asked warmly.
“Yes,” Jody sighed, putting down a squirming Timothy. He and Taryn had noticed their aunt and playmate getting out of the back of the car and they threw themselves at Fiona, who laughed and immediately started a tickle fest.
“Hi, Jody,” Robin Adams greeted, trying not to trip over her lover who was sitting on her knees, wrestling with the two toddlers.
“Hello, Robin,” Jody smiled. “Welcome to what looks like to become another memorable McDonnell-Stevens family gathering,” she added pointing to Sam who was gallantly helping Lucy McDonnell out of the car. Jody’s younger sister was eight months pregnant and could barely make it in and out of the car by herself anymore.
“It would be truly memorable if she’d start delivering today,” Fiona joked from her spot on the grass.
“Please, don’t say that,” Trisha responded in horror, visibly turning pale.
“Yeah, really, what’s wrong with you, Red?” Lucy groaned, giving Sam a grateful pat on her arm for helping her. “We already went through that once with the twins. I promised myself and Trisha that our child will be born in a hospital bed.”
“Come on, Freckles, where’s your sense of adventure?” Fiona continued with a grin.
Lucy walked around the car and towered over Fiona, one hand in the small of her back and the other one grasping Trisha’s arm for support.
“All sense of adventure disappears the moment a woman realizes she waddles like a duck, her feet swell up like balloons and her bladder has shrunk to the size of a lima bean. Trust me,” Lucy spoke with as much dignity she could muster, which wasn’t easy because Sam and Jody were laughing heartily.
“Come here, mama duck,” Jody invited, extending a hand so she could help her slightly unbalanced sister up the stairs. “I have a chair that will be perfect for you.”
“I know. That’s the only reason I agreed to come here today. That and mom’s sticky cinnamon buns,” Lucy added with a grin.
“I’m glad your pregnancy has not affected your capability of prioritizing,” Jody laughed, giving her sister a quick hug. “It’s good to see you, Luce.”
“It’s awesome to be out of the house,” Lucy admitted, sinking down in an oversized chair that was stuffed with pillows. Sam had bought the chair for Jody when she was pregnant with their twins and the redhead had spent many afternoons and evenings in it, grateful for its soft support.
“Oh, this feels good,” the pregnant woman groaned, putting her feet on the padded bench Jody had pushed closer. “Can I please stay here until my due date?”
“Sure, we’ll feed and water you every now and then,” Sam winked at Trisha who was looking at her partner with something that resembled helplessness. The tall police woman who had been through life-and-death situations and always kept a cool head in times of stress was at a loss when it came to the woman she loved. Lucy McDonnell noticed the look and she patted the chair next to her.
“Sit down, Senior-Sergeant Waters,” she smiled. “I know I complain a lot when I’m around my family, but that’s the only way to get their sympathy, you know that,” she chuckled.
“And the only way to get out of having to help with the dishes,” Fiona joked, snatching a piece of pineapple off a fruit platter, which earned her a disapproving look from her mother. She blew her mother a kiss and laughed when Joan McDonnell just shook her head.
“Well, Happy Valentine everyone,” she spoke, looking around at her family. “Can we eat now? I’m starving.”
“Some things never change,” Lucy muttered, absentmindedly rubbing her swollen belly. “You’re awfully perky this early in the morning. Have you been up long?”
Fiona shot Robin a look and winked at her. Even though Robin had experienced numerous family gatherings, the continuous bantering between Lucy and Fiona was something she was still getting accustomed to. Robin only had a younger brother, Joshua and wasn’t used to the verbal sparring sessions between the McDonnell sisters.
“Hours,” Fiona answered, picking Taryn up off the ground and putting her in her high chair. It seemed such a natural, familiar gesture that Sam and Jody exchanged a look in amusement.
“Really? Your first Valentine together and you’re up early?” Lucy continued skeptical, but there was a sparkle in her eyes.
“Well, yes, of course,” Fiona nodded. “We want to make the best of our day filled with love and family. Besides, I wouldn’t want to miss a second of your inflated company,” she added with a grin.
“I don’t have the energy to get up and whack you,” Lucy sighed. “So you’ll have to take a rain check.”
“I’d be happy to,” Fiona nodded, snatching a warm sweet roll off a platter and handing it to her sister.
“Here you go, something to feed you and the little one.”
“Thank you, Red. No matter what people say about you, it’s not all true.”
Fiona laughed and took a seat next to Taryn, letting the toddler pull her closer for a sloppy kiss.
“Has Sam given you your Valentine present yet?” Lucy wanted to know, sinking her healthy teeth in the sticky bun.
“We stopped buying each other Valentine gifts years ago,” Jody answered, cutting up a pancake for Timothy. “I really don’t need her to buy me anything,” she added with a smile to her partner.
“Who said anything about buying?” Sam wanted to know, handing Taryn a plastic plate with fruit. “Sometimes the best gifts are not sold in stores.”
“I don’t think we need to hear more,” Lucy sighed. “I really don’t need to hear about Jody dancing for you in…mpf.”
Lucy was silenced by Trisha’s hand covering her mouth and she playfully bit her partner, who quickly pulled away from the strong teeth.
“Sam’s right, though,” Fiona said with a nod. “I don’t want to sound sappy or anything, but I really like this getting together for breakfast on a day like today. Even if we had to get up early,” she added with a wink in Lucy’s direction.
“I’m glad you feel that way, Red,” Jody smiled at her youngest sister.
“Yes, there’s hope for you yet, Fi,” Sam teased. “Make sure to take notes, Robin,” the blonde addressed Fiona’s partner. “Just in case she denies this statement later on, when she’s tired and ready to take a nap.”
“I won’t,” Fiona promised. “I am a changed woman.”
“You actually are,” Joan McDonnell spoke, patting her daughter on the head before she sat down on the other side of Taryn. “And, just to make sure you’re not the only sounding sappy, I’d like to state I like you this way. Love becomes you.”
“Thank you, Mom. It feels good,” Fiona confessed, sending Robin a warm smile. “Sometimes it makes me wonder why I didn’t give into it before.”
“Because you hadn’t met me yet,” Robin quipped and everyone laughed.
“Okay, Sam, fess up,” Lucy sighed, sipping from a glass of orange juice. “Since last year the twins were sick on Valentine’s and the year before that they were only a few months old, what’s the plan this year? I’m sure you have a plan, since you got off cheap two years in a row,” Lucy teased.
“In Sam’s defense I need to put it out there that the first Valentine’s Day after the twins were born, Sam did try to surprise me with a wonderful dinner,” Jody spoke.
“Did try?” Robin echoed. “What happened?”
“While the twins were actually sleeping, Sam made went into the kitchen to cook dinner. When it was all done and she came back outside to get me, I was fast asleep.”
“And she didn’t wake you up?” Robin wanted to know.
“I meant to,” Sam confessed with a grin. “But I decided to let Jody sleep for a while longer and sat down myself. I woke up hours later and dinner was ruined.”
“The crackers and cheese were pretty good, honey,” Jody said, while everyone laughed.
“This year though, I have something else,” Sam said, reaching underneath her chair and pulling out a small, tastefully wrapped package. She held it in her hands and the look she sent Jody was a mixture of shyness and pride, which made her partner lean forward with a curious expression on her face.
“You look like you’ve accomplished something,” she spoke with a smile.
“I have,” Sam nodded. “Remember what you told me, a very long time ago, not long after we had become friends and we were stargazing one evening?”
Jody’s green eyes locked with Sam’s blue ones and the skin around her eyes wrinkled in a smile that showed the blonde she was remembering that evening.
“That was a magical night,” she whispered, while reaching out a hand and touching Sam’s cheek. “It was a very clear night and we were lying in the grass, talking. You were telling me stories,” Jody remembered with a wistful smile.
Sam nodded and her eyes shone.
“I told you those stories deserved to be written down, but you just laughed at me and said you weren’t good at writing.” Jody paused and her eyes slide to the package in Sam’s hand. When she looked up again her eyes were sparkling.
“Did you write me a story?” she asked and there was so much joy and eagerness in her voice, the last trace of Sam’s nervousness disappeared.
“I did,” Sam answered, handing her partner the package. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
With quick fingers Jody undid the bow and pulled the paper off the manuscript she was holding. Her eyes drank in the neatly bound stack of paper and without saying a word she got up out of her chair to hug her smiling partner.
“Oh, honey, this is such a great gift. I can’t wait to read it,” Jody spoke before kissing the blonde. “Thank you.”
“Of course now we’re all dying of curiosity,” Lucy spoke, craning her neck in an effort to try and read the title page. “What’s the story about, Sam?”
“It’s a murder mystery,” Sam answered, laughing when she saw Fiona’s grin “Since I’ve unwillingly been pulled into several police investigations, I thought I’d try to capture some of that expertise in a story that is a mix of adventure, romance and humor.”
“The story of our life,” Lucy nodded. “Good idea. I can’t wait to read it. What’s the title?”
Jody held up the manuscript, away from Timothy’s eager little hands, so the rest of the family could read it.
“Bless you,” Joan McDonnell read. “Care to share a synopsis?”
“A very brief one,” Sam chuckled. “I don’t want to give away too much. It’s about a pastor in a small town in New Hampshire, in the United States. She becomes the unwilling participant in a murder investigation and gets help from three elderly ladies who volunteer in the church.”
There was a brief silence after Sam’s words and Trisha laughed.
“Is that all you’re going to share?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” Sam nodded.
“Is there a heroine who saves the pastor in any of it?” Fiona wanted to know.
“Maybe,” Sam shrugged, laughing when both Fiona and Lucy threw a grape at her.
“Well, Sam, I can see my sister can’t wait for us to leave now, so she can read,” Lucy said with a sigh.
“But we’re not,” Fiona spoke. “Jody will leave.”
“I will?” the redhead asked absentmindedly. When she noticed her partner’s blonde head nod, she frowned. “I will?” she repeated.
“You and I are driving down to the beach, where we will lounge around for the day, while this lot here,” Sam gestured at the group of laughing women. “will stay here and keep our offspring out of trouble.” Sam brought her head closer to Jody’s and spoke in a stage whisper: “Now you know why your mother is here.”
“Really?” Jody asked, looking from her partner to her mother and back again.
“We’re doing all this for you, sis,” Fiona added. “I guess we decided that this year, you’d be all of our Valentine.”
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