Trace And Shannon Series by JW Heart

Summer of Need
By J.W. Heart

Summary: In part 1, Summer Of Need, The need for a summer job leads Trace home. What she finds will alter two lives. What she loses may change her forever. In part 2, Meanwhile Back At The Ranch, it’s four years later and Trace returns home. Part 3 is The Winter Of Discontent, and it has strong holiday themes with altercations with vicious elves and children in the thrall of Santa’s arrival. The final story, part 4, is The Last Hurrah. Trace and her friends, as well as a few new additions to the “family” end the series with a bang.

Chapter 1

I was sure those ole boys in town were pulling my leg when they told me about the Evening Star. Last I knew, that ranch hadn’t seen an owner in near 5 years. I could just imagine the shape it was in. But I needed the work. School would start back up in the fall; I needed the cash from a summer job. So there I was, headed out to the ranch.

I drove my old truck up the dusty road, seeing the rusty gate across the private drive, made me question the boys yet again. I thought about the last time someone took up the reigns at the Evening Star. That would have been old man Crowley. He was a mean son of a bitch. Him and that son…what was his name…Tim…Tom…something like that. The son had taken off a few years before the ranch went belly up. Funny that it was never sold.

I pulled up the drive and took note of the condition of the barn and fences. In its day the Evening Star must have really been something. A thousand acres of prime grazing land with a stream running along the western border. Tall stands of trees littered the property on that side. The barn was huge and I did notice that for as long as it had supposedly sat empty, the roof was new. And the fencing of the paddock had been replaced recently as well. Guess someone had taken an interest in the old place after all.

The house came into view as I pulled past the barn. The usual style farmhouse for these parts, two stories and a wrap around porch. Needed a coat of paint but otherwise looked sound, at least from the outside. I still wasn’t sure about any occupants. I hadn’t seen any sign of life. Parking my truck, I climbed out and went in search of the new owner.

Knocking on the door didn’t garner a response, so I headed into the barn. I didn’t get ten feet inside the door when I felt the barrel of a shot gun pressed to my back. Now I don’t consider myself a stupid woman and I don’t know anyone that would call me weak. I stood almost 6 feet and had worked a ranch all my life so I thought I was pretty fit. But there’s something about being on the business end of a shotgun that will make even the strongest weak in the knees. Needless to say…I stopped dead in my tracks and my hands went into the air faster then you could say, “stick ‘em up,”

“Whoa!…don’t shoot,”

“Who are you and what are you doing in here?” Came a low voice behind me.

I was taken aback by that voice. It caressed me, low and soft and…definitely feminine. I was about to turn to see its owner when I was reminded of my rather precarious situation. She jabbed me with the gun barrel. OK so I didn’t turn, call me chicken but I didn’t think I would like my back air-conditioned.

“Ma’am?”

I didn’t get an answer.

I tried again. “Well ma’am I was looking for work and the boys in town said there might be something out here for me to do. If you would just put that down and take me to the owner I’d be much obliged,” Mama always said…be polite. And Daddy always said…be polite, specially when you aren’t holding the gun.

“There’s no work here. Get back in your truck and go,” She ordered.

It’s been said that I can be a tad bit dense and often times more reckless then is good for me. This was one of those times. Having a gun pointed at me when I really hadn’t done anything was wearing on my nerves. I’m kind of funny that way. Quick as I could, I reached behind me and grabbed the gun barrel, twisting it out of her hands as I came around to face her.

Now I don’t know what I was expecting when I saw her for the first time. But whatever it was, it sure wasn’t what I got. I know this because I don’t think I could be struck dumb by a vicious, gun toting, knuckle dragging, neanderthal woman. Ok, voice or no voice, I did have a picture in my mind. Like I said, that image and the reality didn’t match up.

Standing there was the most beautiful woman I think I’d ever seen. And let me tell you right now. I’ve seen some beautiful woman and yes I’ve slept with my share of them, if you were wondering. She couldn’t have been no more then 5’4, short gold hair framed her angelic face. She didn’t look to be more then a girl, at least till you looked into those eyes. God Himself must have made those eyes special just for her. They were the color of sweet grass in the summer. So green you would swear they couldn’t be real.

But it was what was behind the amazing color that drew me. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul and if that was true, this woman’s soul had seen it’s fair share of pain and anguish. But there was a spark there, a certain fire that intrigued me, held me. I saw passion, determination, intelligence and even the slightest bit of fear. Oh she tried to cover those emotions but I saw them. I saw it all looking into her eyes and in a matter of just a few seconds I knew. My past, present and future was standing right in front of me.

At this point I should probably tell you that the woman of my dreams was not at all happy about being so easily disarmed. In fact I’d say she was down right pissed. And I know this because those beautiful eyes had turned as cold and hard as emerald ice. Quite frankly…I was pretty sure she didn’t really need a gun to take me apart. If looks could kill I’d have been six feet under.

So I did what I always did when faced with an angry woman. I put on my biggest, cheesiest, most charming grin that I could muster. Hey…it works, women find it adorable. My future wife and mother of our children however, was not as easily impressed.

“I asked you who you were,” She shouted, stepping closer making it impossible for me to raise the rifle I now held in my hand. Oh she’s so smart too.

“Umm…I’m,” I tried to answer but she cut me off.

“Never mind it doesn’t matter because you are leaving,” She ordered again. This time holding out her hand expecting me to turn over the gun.

I have no excuse for what happened next. It could have been the stress of being held at gunpoint or the fact that I was face to face with a real live angel. I plead insanity in any case. But I stepped up to her, so close I could feel the heat of her body against my own. Leaned down close to her ear and…

“You know…you’re beautiful when you’re angry. But if you think I’m just going to hand over the same weapon you just held at my back, then you better think again darlin’ ,” I purred in the sexiest voice I could manage.

‘CRACK’.

My answer was a resounding slap to the side of my face. I saw stars. I hadn’t expected that. And when I recovered…she had indeed, taken the gun back.

“Leave!”Was the last thing she said before she stormed out of the barn leaving me there staring after her? Not a bad sight really…she had a great ass.

Feeling completely dejected and oddly, slightly aroused, I know, I’m just sick. But I left, just like she asked me too. However…she didn’t say…that I couldn’t come back.
Chapter 2
My trip back to town was a blur; my mind was on the little spitfire back at the Evening Star. I knew I had to see her again. I know it was just asking for trouble, but then…I like trouble. By the time I pulled up to the hardware I had a plan. Well the start of a plan anyway.

The boys sitting in front of the store just laughed when they saw me. The red mark on my cheek hadn’t faded none.

“Little bit of nothing got the jump on ya huh Trace?”

“Laugh it up boys.” I chuckled. It was pretty funny when you thought about it. Not many could sneak up on me let alone get a good whack like that in. I had to admire her for that one. I rubbed my jaw. “Who is that anyway?”

Old Bob Tyler spoke up. “Not rightly sure. She came to town ‘bout 4 months ago with the deed to the ranch, placed an order for supplies and no ones seen her since. Pretty little thing though,”

Seemed strange to me that no one would have gone out to greet the new owner. People in this town tended to be…friendly. Ok they were down right nosey. My curiosity got the best of me.

“Boys there isn’t anything that goes on here that isn’t all over town in a matter of seconds. You mean to tell me not one soul went out there to see who this woman was, where she came from, what she was doing? Come on…I know y’all better than that.”

They all suddenly found the ground of great interest. I knew the old coots were hiding something.

“She chased Maggie of the property when she took a pie over as a welcoming. None of us thought it would be wise to try and be neighborly again.”Old Bob told me.

“Let me guess…she made her point with the barrel of a gun,” I was shocked actually. Maggie Darrel ran the local diner and was probably the sweetest woman you could hope to meet. She was also the most stubborn woman you could ever have the displeasure of coming up against. That she had been run off like that had me intrigued. I left the boys staring at their shoes and went to order some things for my return to the Evening Star.

My next stop was the diner. I had to know what had spooked Maggie. If my future lover had secrets, I needed to know what they were. Besides Maggie did make the best pie in the state.

I stepped into the diner and was greeted with a bone-crushing hug.

“Trace O’Dell, welcome home girl,”

“Maggie, you’re crushing me,” I whimpered. Maggie was a very sturdy woman, not as tall as me but twice as broad.

“Well its no wonder you can’t take a little hug Trace. Look at you, nothing but skin and bones. Don’t you eat when you’re out there in that school?” She laughed pushing me into a booth.

I didn’t get a chance to answer and Maggie was gone. Yelling out orders about needing to feed the returning waif. She came back minutes later with the biggest plate of food I’d seen in awhile.

“Eat girl,”

So I did. Not one to turn down a meal. I also asked Maggie to join me which of course she did. Like I said, women like me.

We chatted about the goings on in town. And I thought this would be the right time to talk about the Evening Star. So I told her about my trip out there today. Thought she was going to laugh herself sick. Personally I don’t think my being held at gunpoint was all that amusing but then…Maggie’s strange.

“That girl is as jumpy as a fox being chased by hounds. You’d be wise to stay away from there. Billy Jackson went out there a month ago to offer some help and got the same thing. A rifle in his face.”Maggie told me sadly.

“Who is she Maggie,” I thought it best to get right to the point.

Maggie looked at me in that way she has. The one that says ‘I know what you’re thinking before you think it’. Which was only right she had known me all my life and nothing was a secret from Maggie for long. She let out an aggrieved sigh…”She’s Tom Crowely’s wife,”

I think for a moment the world ended or at least went black and I was sure I’d heard an apocalyptic boom. The mother of my future children was married. This news did not sit well with me. Then it struck me. Where was Tom Crowley? If his wife was here, where was he? Surely he didn’t leave her there to do all the work alone. What kind of man would…

Then I remembered Tom Crowley. He was a greasy two-bit hood. His father owned the Evening Star for years and as I said before…he was a son of a bitch. The son wasn’t much better. Surely my angel didn’t marry a man like that. Took me a minute to realize that Maggie was talking again.

“Don’t know where Tom is, leaving that little thing out there to fend for herself,” She tsked. “Not that the girl needs any protection. She seems to have that all handled,”

I laughed. She did have a knack for making her wishes known. “What’s her name Mag?” Ok I had to know…couldn’t keep calling my new love…her.

“Shannon,”

Maggie wouldn’t let me pay for lunch and I had to promise to visit again. Which I would anyway so it wasn’t a hardship. But I left there with more information about my true love and now she had a name…Shannon. I liked the way it sounded.
Chapter 3
The sun was bright in the early morning sky as I headed back out that dusty road. I knew I was taking my life in my hands by going back out to the Evening Star. But I had to see her again. And I knew my Shannon needed me. She just didn’t know it yet. Besides I had questions and in truth…the ranch needed more work than one small woman could handle.

My first order of business was to start on the corral. I notice yesterday that it was in bad shape. My order at the hardware was for lumber and nails. Which I now had in my truck. I had been working pretty steady for about 2 hours, with no sign of the golden haired princess or her rifle. The sun was high and it was going to be a hot day. I had strip down to my tank and pull my hair back off my neck.

I was kneeling, putting the bottom board up with a tack so I could set it straight. When I felt the cold press of metal against my neck. I figured I had two options at this point. One…I could do like we did yesterday and raise my hands but we all know how that turned out. My second option was to trust that my sweet angel wouldn’t really shoot me and ignore the gun poised to blow my head off. I went with the second. Besides I needed to set that board.

“What are you doing here?” She hissed.

“Working,”

“I told you there wasn’t any work for you,”

“Well looks like I found some. Could you hand me that can of nails?” Yes I know I was taking a major risk. And I know that while I sounded calm as could be…inside I was praying that gun didn’t have a hair trigger.

The cold metal left my neck and for a fleeting moment I thought she might relent. Like I said…fleeting.

“I don’t know who you are but I want you to leave. I don’t need any help,” God her voice was like a balm to my soul. Even when she was angry. We already know I’m sick…shut up.

“Ma’am. I’ve worked on a ranch all my life and I know that what you have to do here is to much for one person.”I finished the tack and stood, turning to face her. I’ll be damned if she wasn’t even more beautiful today. The sun shone through her hair making it glow. I should probably tell you that while she was a beauty, she was also built like nothing I’d ever seen. Small but powerful. And…stacked. Hey I’m not blind.

She looked tired today though. My poor angel probably hadn’t been sleeping very well anyway. Being out here all alone. Something I would remedy if given the chance. We’ll deal with that husband thing another time.

She looked a little uncertain and raised the gun again as I reached for my nails. I just grinned and went back to work.

“Are you stupid?” She shouted now clearly exasperated. The fact that she hadn’t shot me didn’t escape my notice. I took it as a good sign.

I couldn’t resist the opening, looking over my shoulder at her I smiled; “Stupid is as stupid does,”

She threw up her hands and stormed back into the house. Guess round 2 goes to me. I kept right on working with the biggest dumb ass grin you had ever seen.

It was long after noon when I stopped, my determination derailed by hunger. Grabbing my cooler from the truck I decided I hadn’t tempted fate enough for one day and headed to the porch to eat.

Setting my self up real nice I leaned back against the step and stared out over the ranch. In truth I was listening to the sounds coming from the house. There wasn’t any. At least not till I heard the door squeak. I made a mental note to oil that door later.

She didn’t say a word just walked up behind me and tossed wad of cash in my lap.

“That’s all I have. Take it and go,”

“Shannon?” I called to her as she headed back in.

The sound of her name or maybe the fact that I knew her name stopped her. I looked up at her from my step. Catching the defeated look on her sweet face.

All I wanted at that moment was to comfort her. Hold her in my arms and take away that look. Replace it with rapturous joy and laughter. Ok I’m a romantic…sue me. Instead I decided to stay on safer ground. I asked her what she planned to do with the ranch.

I couldn’t have asked her a better question. Her face lit up and for the first time…she smiled. I thought my heart was going to jump right out of my chest. My angel had a smile that could light up the blackest night.

She seemed, for the moment, to forget that I was there as an unwanted guest and told me her plans for the Evening Star. My Shannon was a sharp little businesswoman. That was my opinion as I listened intently to her lay out the plan. She had already acquired a breeding stock and had them boarded until the barn and fence on the main pastures where finished. When she was finished telling me about her plans to breed and sell horses she was flushed with excitement.

“Going to take a lot of work to get those things in shape for horses. Even as determined as you are it can’t be done alone. Not in one summer anyway.”

My soon to be lover then shocked me. She came over and sat on the step next to me. I almost lost my breath with her being so close. A familiar ache started low in my stomach. Oh boy…I knew I was in trouble now.

“What’s your name anyway?” She asked me while staring out over the pasture.

“Trace…Trace O’Dell. My Dad ran the Triple D until he passed on a few years ago.”I offered her a hand, which she ignored.

“Sorry,” My little golden angel whispered. “I can’t afford any help and to be honest…I really like being alone out here,”

My poor brain was scrambling to find an answer to this. I refuse to believe that she was still married. She didn’t wear a ring and she never once said “we” when she was describing her plans for the ranch. I think I went into overload at least that will be my excuse to the men in the white coats when they question why I did what I was about to do. Hmm…maybe I’m already insane, I’m pretty sure I didn’t even understand that.

“You know if you had help, you could get these fences fixed at least get enough to start on your plan. I’ll make you a deal,” I gave her my patented grin. She was just staring into the empty field. But she hadn’t stopped me so I continued. “Well, I’ll work the summer. I have enough saved to support myself but I’ll need to crash in the barn. When we have the stock here and you get the first colts in this fall you can pay me from the sales,” Yes, it’s official…I’m nuts. I barely had enough to support myself and without the cash from the summer I would never be able to pay for my books. But my beloved had a dream and I’ll be damned if I don’t do everything I can to make it happen.

She turned and looked at me like I had grown an extra head. “Why would you do that? You don’t even know me…and did you miss the part where I said…I like being alone?”

“Well you would still be alone. I’ll fix up the bunkhouse. You won’t even see me but to tell me what you want done,” I was hopeful and I still held my ever so charming grin.

“Suit yourself,” And with that…she was gone.

I was thrilled. Ok so it wasn’t much but at least I got in the door and I didn’t get shot. In my book that’s success. So I gathered my lunch and headed back out to the corral.
Chapter 4
The next morning came and to my surprise…I couldn’t move. I may have overestimated my body’s fitness. It’s been awhile since I had done anything as strenuous as ranch work. In fact I’ve been in school for the last 3 years. The most physical thing I’ve had to do is carry my books. I was immediately grateful that I had kept up with my jogging otherwise I may have remained crippled. Probably hadn’t helped that I sacked out in the barn on a couple bails of hay. Not exactly a serta sleep if you know what I mean.

I managed, after much groaning and promising to God and all other deities, to get my ass up and moving. First chance I got I really had to work on the bunkhouse. And thus my day began.

I figured since I had yet to see my new boss that I should just finish the fence. So long about noon I was putting the last board in place when she showed up.

“Hey!”

I jumped about a mile and in the process smacked my thumb with the hammer.

“Shit!…do you think you could make some noise when you come up behind me like that?” I hated being surprised.

“Sorry,”

I turned to see what the woman who haunted my dreams wanted from me today. I must have been staring because she got really nervous.

“Do I have something on my face?” She questioned.

Damn…caught. I couldn’t really help it, the staring I mean. She really was gorgeous. Need to come up with something. I’m quick, really I am, she just makes me forget things. Like my name, how to breathe, and stuff like that.

“I see you decided to go naked today,” I quipped.

“Wh…what? She stammered…You know I’ve never seen anyone blush that shade of red before but on her is was very appealing.

I thought it would be nice of me to relieve her discomfort. “You aren’t holding a gun on me today,” Then I took stock of her actual attire. Is it really possible to swallow your tongue? I was sure that’s what I did. She had on the shortest shorts I had ever seen. And damn…she looked good. God I wasn’t to far off with the naked comment. Hell in my perverted mind it was a short step to undress her completely. Which of course I had done. That ache came back with a vengeance.

“Well it wouldn’t do for people to think I was using forced labor,” She smiled shyly.

I had to laugh. My dream lover had a sense of humor. I didn’t bother to tell her she wouldn’t have to force me to do anything. I didn’t think that would go over real well at this stage in our relationship. But still, I have a wicked side and sometimes it comes out before I have brains enough to control it. I moved a step closer.

“Oh I don’t know…maybe a little domination would get you some respect out here,” I purred and winked. And quick as that…there was that blush again. Gosh I love that color.

“Ah…well…”She was stuttering…how adorable is that. Yes I know, I’m gone. I knew I had to save her before she actually went up in flames.

“So boss you have something you need me for?” All right it wasn’t flirting…not really. Well…maybe a little.

She recovered herself and shoved a list at me. “I need you to get supplies,”

“Sure Boss, I’ll get right on it,”

“Shannon”She said as I walked away. “You know my name, use it,”

I grinned like a fool all the way to town.
Chapter 5
In those first couple weeks we established a routine of sorts. I worked like a dog and admired her from afar and she stayed…as afar as she could get. If I were working the back fences she stayed near the house. If I were in the barn she was out in the pastures. You get the idea. I was starting to get a complex.

I had done as much as I could to make myself at home. The bunkhouse was as fixed as my meager budget would allow. In fact, the money I had thought would last me the summer was fast becoming a thing of the past. At this rate I was going to need a second job to support my first one.

It didn’t take long to get real broke real fast. After those first couple weeks I actually had taken to going into town in the evening and having dinner with Maggie. I ate for free so I helped clean up.

“Trace you need to get a job that pays,” Maggie was harping on me again. She didn’t understand the nature of true love.

“Mag’s Shannon needs the help. She’ll pay me when she can,” I justified.

“When’s that gonna be Trace? You told me yourself that money was for school what are you going to live on when you go back?”

I didn’t have an answer for that. It was true. The money I was spending this summer was my support cash. I was just going to have to bite the bullet and get a second job.

“I’ll find another job,”

“Good. That woman’s just using your free labor you deserve better then that Trace,” Maggie was on a roll. She did tend to get a bit over protective. I thought it best not to tell her I would still work on the ranch for Shannon.

Before I left town that night I had a job with Mr. Griggs at the feed and grain, loading grain in the evening.

My angel actually appeared a few days later. Talking to me and everything. I know she was talking but all I could do was stare. She looked better every time I saw her. Did you know it’s possible to fall in love with someone who hasn’t said more then a handful of words to you? But I digress…my future wife was speaking.

“I have them delivering the horse at the end of the week. I know it’s kind of quick but I think we can finish the last fence.”

Oh damn!…finishing that quick meant I had to put in some extra time. And with working at the feed and grain that was going to be rough. Then I made the mistake of looking into those brilliant green eyes and knew…I would deny her nothing. “Ok,” I’ll sleep when I’m dead, right now she needed me.

She rewarded me with a smile, all was right with my world. We’ve established that I’m not right in the head…just let it rest.

I worked like the devil himself was after my ass, the rest of the week. I never got home before Midnight and was back up at 5am. Coffee was my best friend. Shannon had taken to working along side me. She didn’t say much but I was comforted by her presence. Besides I talked enough for both of us, and it kept me from falling asleep and whacking myself with a hammer.

Thursday evening we finally finished that last bit of fence. She walked along side me as we came up from the field. I knew she had something on her mind. She kept looking over at me like she wanted to say something.

“Trace…”

“Yea,”

“Would you umm…like to have dinner tonight? Nothing fancy but you’ve worked so hard I thought well…you deserve something.”

I stopped walking as the realization of all my hopes and dreams finally came true. Until…Damn!…I had to work at the feed and grain. She finally asked me to dinner, something more than a little wave or smile was being handed to me and I had to fulfill another responsibility. Being a grown up truly sucks at times. .

“You don’t have to,” She said when she noticed I had stopped walking. “I guess why would you want to have dinner with a woman who has held you at gun point and hasn’t done anything but grunt and order you around since the day you arrived,” She sounded so dejected I thought it was going to break my heart. Could she really believe that I didn’t want to be around her? Hell I’d given up a real paying job and all my school money just to be close enough to drool at a distance.

“No…No…that’s not it at all. I just have…ummmm…other plans tonight,” There that wasn’t so hard.

“Oh…big date huh?,” She said not looking at me.

I snorted. I hadn’t even thought of dating once I saw her. Why would I…she was it for me. Well, she didn’t know that but still…

“Not a date. I just have something I can’t get out of,” She didn’t know I had taken to working another job and I didn’t want her to know. I was desperately trying to think of a way to do both. Then it hit me. Or maybe someone should have hit me. But in either case my mouth took off without my brain and left me standing there.

“I should be done in a few hours why don’t you meet me in town at the diner and we can celebrate?”

I could see the fear on her face. She hadn’t left this ranch in all the time she had been here. I didn’t know the reason but I knew the thought of it made her uncomfortable. I didn’t want to push her but damn I wanted to be with her tonight and this was all I could think of. I was about to retract my offer and tell her we could have dinner tomorrow.

“Ok”She said.

I was floored. My future wife had agreed to an almost date. My life was complete.
Chapter 6
You ever have one of those nights that should have been the greatest in your life but…wasn’t? This was that night. I worked like a beaver building a damn in flood, at the grain. Tryin to get it all done before our agreed meeting time. It would just figure that tonight would be the big delivery night.

I finish a half-hour late. I just knew that Shannon was waiting on me. I hate keeping a lady waiting it isn’t polite. If I had known, when I showed up at the diner that I wasn’t going to get fed. I would have had a bigger lunch.

When I walked in I saw it. Maggie had my precious Shannon backed into a corner tearing into her like a dog with a bone. Mind you I only caught the tail end of the conversation but if that was any indication…the whole thing was bad. Maggie was confronting her over my working two jobs. So much for her not finding out.

The look on that angelic face was enough to stall my heart forever. Her emerald eyes shone bright with tears. I tried to stop her as she tore out of there. But she ran past me leaving me in a cloud of dust as she took of down the road.

I was so pissed I could have taken Maggie apart with my bare hands. “What the fuck were you doing!”

“I was telling that girl…,” Maggie had started but I didn’t give her a chance to finish.

“Maggie I love you like a mother but you had no right to come down on her. She didn’t know I was working 2 jobs. I never told her about school or what it was costing me to live out there. She knew nothing. She didn’t do anything. I offered it.”

“I’m sorry Trace I didn’t know. I thought she was taking advantage of your kindness,”

“Well thanks Mag’s now weeks of work are down the tube. Do you know what it took for her to come out here tonight? You’ll be lucky to ever see her again,” Hell I’ll be lucky to see her again and I live there.

Leaving the diner I had only one thought. Had to get to Shannon. She didn’t deserve that treatment and I wanted her to know I was sorry.

When I pulled up to the house the lights were all off. Not a good sign. I pulled myself together and beat on the door. She had to answer at some point right. Who can sleep through all the noise? It took awhile and my knuckles were raw, but she finally did answer the door. God…my poor little angel. She looked so sad. Her face still wet with tears and little nose was all red. Ok shut up, I still think she’s cute.

“I’m sorry,” Was all I got out of my mouth, then she attacked. She flew out the door and beat on my chest till she had me back against the porch rail. I wondered briefly why all of a sudden any of this was my fault.

“You let me go into that place…you knew she was going to do that. If you were so unhappy working here why didn’t you just say so!”She was screaming and crying. I thought for a minute that breathing might be an idea. I was wrong…she went right back at me. “I never asked for your help and you wouldn’t go away. Why?…why wouldn’t you just leave me alone? It was better that they didn’t know me at all now they all think I’m using you,”

I don’t think I’m an unreasonable sort. But faced with the accusation that I had set her up made me angry. Now, its not often I let my temper show. And I would certainly never hurt the woman I loved more then life, but I wouldn’t let her go on believing that I was the bad guy here.

“I did not set you up,” I was calm at first, as I stepped forward backing her up. “I didn’t know that Maggie would jump you for any reason. In fact I didn’t even know she was aware I still worked out here,” I backed her up even further my voice getting louder as I went on. . Her eyes were wide now and she looked at me in shock. I had never raised my voice at her before. I’m sure she was a little frightened. “I wanted to work here for you…with you. If I hadn’t I wouldn’t be here, so don’t you dare tell me I set it up so I could get out of doing that. I knew the day you held a gun to my back that I would be out here helping whether you liked it or not. Gods be damned stubborn woman. I want to see you succeed out here is that so wrong? I wanted to help. All I get from all sides is grief.”

I was on a roll now. No sleep, no food and no sex had finally made my brain snap. I hope they had a room ready at the funny farm I was going to need it. “You know what…screw it…I’m going to bed,” And with that I left her standing on the porch as I marched myself off the to bunkhouse.

I flopped down on my bed, amazed that so much could go wrong in so little time. I just wanted to sleep. My stomach was sure my throat had been cut it was protesting so loud. And to top it all off I had yelled at the woman of my dreams probably ending any chance I might have had at a future with her.

I had just about convinced myself that I wouldn’t starve to death by morning when a quiet knock on my door drew me out of my mental ranting.

“What?” Ok I still wasn’t in the best of moods.

She came into my little room looking all shy and remorseful. “You didn’t get anything to eat. I thought you might be hungry,” She said holding out a basket.

Taking it from her hand I reached out and lifted her face to mine.

“Thanks,” I smiled at her and she returned it. And yes…I fell all over again. A truce had been reached and life was good.
Chapter 7
Something changed between us that night. I’m not complaining mind you. She spent a lot more time with me. Wouldn’t let me work long hours on the ranch anymore and insisted that I have dinner at the house most evenings. That was by far the best change. We would sit together and eat. Damn but the woman could cook too. See she was just perfect. Shut up I’m in love.

We didn’t talk much at first but slowly over the following week or so she started opening up. I had hoped that she would eventually tell me about the missing husband. She told me about her childhood. Or at least some parts of it. Her father was a military man, so they moved around a lot. This ranch was the first permanent home she’d ever had. She told me about the different places they lived. About her sister, who she hasn’t seen in 5 years. Both her parents were gone, her mom having passed when she was a teen. These evening I spent in awe, just listening to her talk. I loved the sound of her voice. She could have been reading a grocery list and I would have still been entranced.

The horses had been settled and we worked together to repair the other fences. She really was gifted when it came to the stock. I have never seen anyone so good with horses. It’s like they all knew she would do anything and everything for them. She was never happier then when she was working with them. I almost envied the beasts the time she spent with them, the obvious love she had for them.

Other things changed as well, as she got more comfortable with me I noticed she touched me more. Now I’m really not complaining about that. But…well lets say the more she touched me the more I wanted her to touch me. Needless to say I became very friendly with my own hands. The woman could light me on fire without even trying. Just the thought of her made me go up in flames. I think I’d probably combust if she actually ever tried to seduce me.

The weeks passed slowly and I was beginning to think I might never get the story about the ranch or the husband. I’m the curious sort and well…the need to know if the mother of my future children had a husband that might try to blow my brains out, was kind of a pressing issue with me. Call me crazy but I like to know these things. So in my infinite wisdom I decided that we were close enough that I could just ask.

We had finished dinner and as had become our custom, we took our coffee to the porch. She was sitting on the swing and I leaned against the rail. I gathered my courage I had to know.

“Where’s your husband?,” ..Ok not the smoothest segue.

She was surprised I had asked. She looked up at me like a deer caught in headlights. Then her expression changed, softened, and for the longest time she just stared, looking right into my eyes. I couldn’t look away, she held me there with those amazing eyes. She stood and walked right up to me. Standing so close I could feel her. She reached up and caressed my face. And I couldn’t help but lean into her touch.

“Does it matter?”

That was all she said before she dropped her hand and walked into the house.

Did it matter? My brain screamed that it did. But my body had another answer. No! It didn’t matter. I had her now and he wasn’t here. My heart settled the matter…She was mine. For this moment in time, I knew she was mine.

I didn’t, however, follow her into the house that night. Which is what I really wanted to do. I wanted to climb the stairs to her bedroom and show her everything I felt for her. But I didn’t. No I’m not chicken. I needed to think… that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. So I went out to my little bunk and spent the rest of that night tossing and turning. Lost in dreams of deep green eyes and heated touches. It wasn’t a very restful night.

The next few days were a bitch for me. I was frustrated and in desperate need of relief. And all the while the object of my lust and love had turned up her unwitting torture. Oh she didn’t know what she was doing to me, at least I don’t think she did. . But the little touches had become lingering caresses. Her gentle smiles became more intimate and more frequent. God I needed that woman. I started to avoid contact. It hurt physically, to be near her and not being able to touch her or hold her.

I’m not sure what happened. Ok…that’s not true. It was the storm. We had a huge storm that night. Storms in the summer were dangerous, violent and wild. We had just gotten the horses safely into the barn and made a mad dash for the house as the rain started beating down, soaking us to the skin.

I stood in the entryway dripping on the floor staring at her. Her thin t-shirt stuck to her body like a second skin. The chill in the air brought her nipples to hard points pressing against the wet material. My breath quickened and I felt the heated flush of arousal spread over my body. I didn’t even feel the cold, I was on fire. I needed her. If she touched me now I knew I couldn’t stop, I wouldn’t stop. It scared me to want her so badly. I had to take the chance, looking into her eyes praying for some sign that she felt the same for me. What I saw took my breath completely away. Her eyes were dark, intense and filled with desire. Laid out there for me to see in all its naked glory. She wanted me…
Chapter 8
Without a word passing between us, we came together. The storm outside dimmed as our bodies met and our own passionate storm raged between us. I leaned down and captured her lips with mine. Oh God, she was so soft. Her arms came up and she drew me in closer. Her hands slide through my hair, her mouth opened in invitation and I took that first kiss deeper. Exploring her, tasting her, drowning in her. One of us moaned, I’m not sure who. It didn’t matter…I was lost.

I found myself pressed against the door, surprised for an instant that she had taken the initiative, but then all thought was gone. Her hands were everywhere. Burning me wherever she touched. Her mouth was against my neck. Kissing, sucking…leaving a scorched trail as she moved down my body. Somehow my shirt had been removed. I don’t remember helping but she had gotten it off. Her hands, callused but gentle, cupping my breasts as she devoured my mouth again.

She pressed tighter against me our legs entwined, her thigh pushing against my center. I know I moaned this time. I had to gain some control here or I was going to burn up. I finally gathered myself enough to explore a little on my own. Running my hands under her shirt. Over her tight stomach until I could feel her beasts pressed into my palms. She arched into my hands. From that point on it became a blur. Over come by my hungry and need for this woman I lost control. Not that I ever had it. Clothing disappeared in a flourish. The first touch of her naked body against mine is etched into my memory. So hot and soft. I touched every single inch of exposed flesh. Drive her need higher. She was not idle in this time. Her hands burn their own path along my body. I thought I had died when those sweet lips found my nipple and she pulled it into her mouth.

We never made it out of that entryway as we rode out our passion. We simply slide to the floor moving against each other. She lay atop my body sliding her wetness against my thigh, desperate for the contact. I capture her nipple in my mouth and bit down gently. She arched and moaned loudly. I had taken about as much torture as I could. I need to feel her; I need to taste her. Turning and sliding her under me I moved down her body. She writhed under my touch.

I slipped between her thighs opened and ready for me. Placing my hands on her hips I pulled her to me and took her in my mouth. My tongue running wildly over her sex. She cried out…breathless, begging me not to stop. Like there was a chance I would. I flicked my tongue hard over her clit…then sucked her into my mouth. Her fingers slide through my hair pulling closer, holding me tight against her. Moving up to meet my mouth. God she was sweet. I needed to have all of her. I took more of her into my mouth and sucked harder as I slipped my fingers deep into her wet core. She screamed driving herself against me. I could have spent eternity right there and been happy.

We moved in a fevered rhythm. I took her higher…flicking my tongue over her hard clit. Pushing deeper inside her. She was lost…Chanting my name…begging me to take her. I knew she was close, I pulled her into my mouth once again, sucking her over my lips and sent her over the edge. I rode out her climax as if it were my own. I felt her all the way into my soul. Her body racked with spasms; shaking and spent I drew her into my arms. Cradling my beautiful love, I whispered to her. Soothing her, rocking, as she wept. I kissed away the tears.

When she recovered she looked up into my eyes, caressed my face, leaned up and kissed me and…the storm of passion began again.
Chapter 9
I noticed two things that morning when I opened my eyes. First…there were birds chirping…loudly in the tree outside the window. Note to self…cut down that tree. The second was much more pleasant. I was pinned to a soft bed by an even softer body. Some time in the night Shannon and I had finally made our way to the bedroom. And here I was my eyes gritty from to little sleep, sore in places that hadn’t been used in quite awhile, and so deliriously happy.

I pulled her closer, not wanting to wake my new lover but needing to feel her. The thought hit me that…maybe she would wake and realize this was a mistake. I was in a panic. What if she didn’t want anymore than what we had last night? Could I live with that? Would that be enough to sustain my existence? I had worked myself into a good old fashion tizzy; it took a moment for my brain to register that the love of my life was awake. Oh! What was she doing with that hand? Ok…crisis over. The rest of the morning passed much the same way the night had gone. Sometimes life doesn’t suck.

To say life on the ranch changed would be a gross under statement. It was drastic and quick. We still worked side by side. But the soft touches had turned into heated, lingering caresses and much of the time we abandon our work for more pleasurable pursuits. And it didn’t matter where we were. Shannon who had seemed so reserved and shy turned out to be a wildcat when she wanted me. Which, lucky for me, was often. I know…poor me.

Our evenings were spent the same as they had been. I would get home to have dinner waiting for me. The difference was that we would both sit on that porch swing, my arms wrapped tightly around her, and the golden head leaning against my chest. We spoke of everything and nothing. Learning all we could about each other, as lovers do. We shared our dreams, our hopes, needs and wants. The last two, often lead us back to the bedroom.

Each day that passed found me losing more of my heart to this woman. By the end of August, she had it all. My heart, my soul, everything. She owned me. If she smiled, I was happy. If she laughed I felt the joy. If she cried my heart broke. Her kisses seared my soul and her touch inflamed my passions. Alright …get the picture?…I was way gone.

School would begin soon and I knew it was on my mind if not hers. We needed to talk. I really didn’t want to leave her to return to my studies but I had put so much into my degree I felt I needed to complete it. I guess you could say I was a bit insecure. Ok a lot insecure. I needed to know she would still be mine when I returned. So I broached the subject one evening after dinner. She was curled contentedly in my arms.

“Shan?”

“Mmmm…yes babe,” I love when she calls me babe.

“Schools going to start in a few weeks…,” I started. She must have known then what would happen. She turned in my arms and silenced me with a kiss.

“Let’s think about that later,” I would have pressed the issue but my little angel had slipped her hand down the waistband of my shorts. Needless to say…all conversation was stalled. We would talk about…later. Much later.
Chapter 10
As it happened, that conversation never was addressed. But it didn’t matter. I loved her, heart and soul and if she would have me, I would stay with her. Right there on the ranch. That was where my home was, that’s where she would be and I wanted nothing more than to be there with her. I had made that decision in the truck bouncing down that long dusty driveway. She had sent me out for supplies.

While in town I stopped in to see Maggie. Yes I had forgiven her. Besides I did mention the best pie in the state right? She had shoved me into a booth as usual.

“Well that little girl must be feeding you right you look healthy,”

I had to laugh, for some reason Maggie was always trying to feed me, for someone else to be doing it must have chapped her ass.

“We’re doing fine Maggie,” I told her barely able to suppress my grin.

“It’s ‘We’ now it is?” She was smirking at me. I hate that. And besides that…I blushed. Not something I like to do either. Gives people ammunition to tease you.

“Oh Trace. Love looks good on you girl,”

I had to agree with her there. I was in love and I couldn’t feel better if I were twins. I spent the afternoon talking to her about my decision to leave school. She wasn’t happy but she did understand why I wanted to do it. At least until we had the ranch operating out of the red. Then I would think about finishing up.

My ride home was filled with plans for our future. I wanted to get started right away fixing up our house. I thought I could get the roof done and have it painted before it got to cold. Then I would need to make sure the barn heaters were working come time for foaling. My mind was racing a mile a minute. I was overjoyed at the prospects of our life together. I couldn’t wait to get back to Evening Star and tell Shannon about my plans.

I pulled up the driveway and practically jumped out of the truck before it stopped moving. Shannon was racing down the steps towards me. I scooped her up and swung her around kissing her the whole time. I set her down gently and cupped her beautiful face in my hands. “I love you,”

There I’d said. It was the first time and I meant it with everything in me. She looked at me with those brilliant eyes shining with tears.

“I love you too,” She whispered. My heart soared.

I tried to pull her to me but she stepped back out of my arms.

“Trace…”

The door to the house squeaked and heavy footsteps came down the stairs.

“Who’s this baby?” A man said as he pulled my Shannon to his side.

She looked at me. Her eyes pleading, begging me not to say anything. I couldn’t have anyway.

“Tom…”

That’s all I heard. The blood pounding in my ears drown out most of what was being said. The rest of the introduction was lost in a haze. I know he shook my hand, if he noticed I was shaking he never mentioned it. I know he thanked me for helping his wife out with the ranch. Thanked me…can you believe it? Yes, thank you for all those passionate, wild nights you spent in our bed. Thank you for making her scream your name. Thank you for loving her so deeply that you never bothered to question anything. I couldn’t move I was so stunned. How stupid I had been. Her words came back to me. “Does it matter?”

It should have mattered. It should have been a lot of things but not this. This was too much. I needed to get away. I don’t remember how I got to the bunkhouse. I think I was in some sort of fugue state. I vaguely remember getting into the truck. Everything I owned piled up in the back. I remember driving out of town, going where I didn’t know. Away was my only destination. Away from the Evening Star. Away from the man who held the love of my life. Away from Shannon stood there while my heart shattered at her feet.

So that’s where I went…away.
The End

————
Story #2 Meanwhile Back At The Ranch
4 years later…
Chapter 1
If anyone would have told me a week ago that today, I would be on my way back home, I would have punched them squarely in the face. I hadn’t been back there since that day. Driving away from the Evening Star, away from Her, away from the pain, I promised myself I would never again set foot in that town. Well that idea was shot to hell. A letter from Maggie derailed my carefully laid plan of becoming a bitter, cynical recluse.

Things have changed though. I’m not the same wide-eyed innocent. Ok stop laughing, for all intent and purpose, I was innocent that summer. A few years in an emotional prison will fix that. So just when life started looking like it might not suck eternally, Maggie had to write and say she really needed me. Now here I am cruising down familiar roads, with all those memories becoming clearer with each passing mile.

I suppose I should clarify a few things about life since Her. Hey I could say her name if I were so inclined…but I’m not ,so deal. Ok so maybe I did manage the bitter part of my plan. All right where was I? Oh yeah the past 4 years…

I ran my truck into the ground. I don’t know where I ended up really. All I know is…I was broke , the truck was broke and there was flashing neon in the distance. So that’s where I headed. Now I’m not one to drink really. At least I wasn’t then. But at that moment it didn’t sound like a bad idea. Of course…at that point driving off a bridge didn’t sound like a bad idea either.

You know, bar tabs are a bad thing. But the drink now pay later plan works when you’re broke. And so I did…drink I mean. A lot! At least I think it was a lot, I don’t really remember that either. I know that the table kept creeping closer to my face until eventually…it was dark.

Like all good things…the darkness had to end as well, much to my misery. I laid there, trying to figure out what animal had crawled into my mouth and died. My stomach was trying to climb back up my throat. There was a heavy metal band playing in my head. And it wasn’t a good song.

I was contemplating my imminent death, thinking things couldn’t possibly get worse. A very loud bang to the side of what I was assuming was my truck echoed through my head. I pried open my bloodshot eyes, temporarily blinded by the sunlight beating down on my already sweaty face. When I was finally able to focus my vision was filled with the first sight of the person who is now my best friend. Looking over the side of my truck was a woman. Dark brown eyes, a wicked grin and a cowboy hat tipped back on her head.

“Hey there sunshine.”

Oh God…and she was cheerful too.

“You look like hammered shit.”

“Who are you?” Figured it was a good thing to ask since she didn’t seem to be going away. She surprised me by jumping into the bed of my truck, which of course rocked and made my stomach rebel. All in all it was very unpleasant.

“I’m the one who managed to drag your ass out of the bar last night. By the way you owe me twenty bucks for your bar tab,” She looked at me with those dark eyes, studying me. It was very disturbing. “Don’t have twenty bucks do you?”

“I don’t have twenty cents. How did I get in my truck?”

She laughed…and it hurt my poor booze soaked brain.

“Well, I stopped in here looking for a little…entertainment,” She said wiggling her eyebrows suggestively. I got the point. “Watched the bar for about an hour, the only thing of interest in there was you and your fascination with the table. I wondered how long it would take you to pass out. When you did they were talking about having you tossed into the county lock up. Well I didn’t figure that you wanted to go there so I spoke up and told them I knew you and paid the tab. This was the only truck in the lot that wasn’t from this state, besides mine of course. So I tossed you in the back and…here we are,”

“Thanks…I think,” I still wasn’t sure who she was so I wanted to be a bit cautious. Besides I wasn’t certain that it was the booze or the tossing of my body into the truck that had given me what I was sure was a concussion.

“Name’s Cam. Guess I’ll be on my way. I suggest you head out as well, before the bar owner comes back and sees you’re still parked here. They hate that you know,”

“Can’t…truck’s broke,” Oh it was coming back to me now.

“Well that figures. Jesus woman you get drunk without any money. Look like you haven’t slept nor changed your clothes in days and you have no wheels. What the fuck were you thinking?”

“Wasn’t”

“Well that’s obvious,” She sighed and reached for my hand. “Come on sunshine, let’s get you cleaned up and I’ll give you a lift. Where you headed?”

“Away,” I didn’t know what else to say. I couldn’t go back.

“Well you’re in luck. I’m headed that way myself,” Cam pulled me to my feet and that was that.

Ok that wasn’t all but it’s the start. I did finally get around to introducing myself. Found out she was a wildcatter. You know…worked on the oil rigs. Maybe this would be a good time to tell you more about my buddy Cam.

Cameron Todd was from a family of 7. All boys except herself guess she had no choice but to be a lesbian. It was almost self-defense. Cam grew up on an oil rig. All her brothers worked in the business in one way or another. Now as I’ve said in the past, I am not a small woman. I stand almost six feet and I know I’m fit. I had nothing on Cam. She is a good two inches taller and had more muscles then I would ever hope to have.

Cam is that perfect butch all good femmes hope to meet and takes home to momma. Or just take home. And in the first couple years of our friendship that’s exactly what happened. There wasn’t a town we stopped in, a bar we visited when Cam didn’t have some sort of company…If you know what I mean. Which earned her the nickname…dawg. I know…I gave it to her.

Dawg took me in. Saved me if you will. She taught me to work the rigs just like she did. She was my best friend and she never asked for anything…ever. I asked her once why she took on someone she didn’t even know like that. She just smiled…said. “Sometimes you gotta take a risk to get the big pay off,” I wasn’t sure what that meant but it made me feel good.
Chapter 2
By now you’ve probably figured out that I never did go back to school. It didn’t seem important anymore. Dawg tried to get me to go back once. When I told her to shove the idea up her ass sideways…she dropped the subject.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you and say that I was a perfect saint these last four year. I know you were wondering. I worked hard, made good money and played equally as hard. There have been women over the last couple years. Ok lots of women. A few even wanted more than just a couple nights of decent sex. But I couldn’t give it to them. My heart was still back at the Evening Star , laying shattered in the dust. I’m still working on the bitter thing ok…give me a break.

Dawg was a different story though. She still had her heart and she actually wanted to find someone to love. And no it wasn’t me. I know what you were thinking but Dawg and I are just friends. They say that you can find love is the most unexpected places. Hell I’m living proof of that. But I know Dawg wasn’t expecting to find her match where she did.

We had hired on to a new company drilling off the coast of Australia. We changed jobs a lot in that couple years and the last one we left well…lets say the boss didn’t take to well to Dawg hanging him over the rail , by his ankles. He was a slimy little shit anyway. OK so we were on a new rig and as had become our custom we had to check out the nearby drinking establishments. Don’t make that face, two years with Dawg had taught me to hold my liquor. To say that the nearest town was a dump would have been an insult to dumps worldwide. This place should have been condemned but Dawg and I were fearless. Thus we ventured forth in search of booze…and women.

We were sitting in this hovel they called the Flying Dingo. I don’t know why don’t ask me. But Dawg thought…dingo…dog…And there we were. She said it was a sign. I thought she had finally cracked. But I digress. The beer was cold and the people were friendly, I know I was shocked too. We had been sitting there while the waitress flirted with both of us, drinking and being loud. When this woman stepped through the door. And I kid you not; she had a whip attached to her belt. Now my first thought was the whip. I know…we’ve established that I’m not well.

Dawg didn’t see the whip. I don’t think Dawg got past her face. Which is saying something because this woman could make the dead rise again. She had long golden brown hair hanging in a riot of curls down her back. Stood about 5’7, built like a brick…well you get the idea. Now it took me a minute to pull myself together and I thought she might due for an evening of entertainment. That is till I looked at Dawg. I’d seen that look before. That’s the same look I had on my face when I first saw Her. I knew then…Dawg was gone.

Gone isn’t exactly the right word for what happened to my buddy Cam. She was love struck. Which wouldn’t have been a bad thing if the object of her affection had given her the time of day. But she didn’t. Seems that whatever all those other women saw in Cam, this one wasn’t as impressed. But did that detour my friend…no. For the next 3 months Dawg dragged me back to that bar. I swear she talked to every living soul in that place gathering as much information as she could about this woman. Who’s name turned out to be Sydney. Don’t laugh Syd’s parents weren’t right in the head.

Anyway, like I said it went on like that for three months. I watched my friend suffer. She would get this dreamy look on her face whenever she saw Sydney and God if the woman spoke to her she would get this dumb ass, goofy grin. I kept thinking…if that’s what I looked like when I was around, Her, someone should have just shot me to put me out of my misery.

I was at the end of my rope with Cam. She was doing stupid things on the rig because her mind was elsewhere. I couldn’t take it anymore this woman needed to either come around or tell Cam to get lost because this was going to end up killing her. Or me. Out of frustration I devised a plan. It was simple really. Syd just needed to get to know my buddy away from the bar.

So the next time we were all in town together I asked Cam to go to our room and pick up my wallet. She wasn’t pleased but she agreed it was my turn to pay for drinks and Dawg didn’t turn down free drinks. Then I ran into the bar and asked Syd if she would help me. I told her Dawg was real sick and I didn’t know what to do. I have an honest face…She believed me. Besides as much as she tried to deny it …She liked Dawg. OK so you see where this is leading. I locked them in our room together. Slept in the bar, the owner of the Flying Dingo was apparently as weary of seeing those two not get together as I was.

A month later we stopped working the rigs. See Sydney owned a sheep station out there. Hence the whip. I didn’t find that out till later. My skills with horses came in handy at the station even though I knew nothing about sheep. And leaving the rigs was worth it just to see Dawg learn to ride.

Oh I resisted at first when they asked me to move out there with them and work. But not for long. I loved ranching and I missed home . So it wasn’t a big loss, well the money was a big loss. You make some damn good money working the rigs and Dawg and I had quite a little savings.

The next two years of my life were spent on the station. Working with my friends and getting over some of the pain of the past. I had even written to Maggie giving her my address. That was Syd’s idea. She has a way of making you do things even when you don’t want to. Then I got that damn letter. Again it was Syd who made me see it was time to go home.

“Damn it Trace! This woman is like your mother. You told me that yourself. And she needs you now,”

“I can’t Syd,” I was whining …I knew that.

“Why? Because Shannon might be there? So what Trace. You need to get over it and move on. Maybe going back and seeing her is just what you need to do. Get it out of your system. Four years is to damn long to hide away,” Syd stood over me with her hands on her hips. She’s scary when she wants to be. And that whip is always there as a reminder of just how scary. My backside stings just thinking about it.

“It still hurts…I’m not ready,” I was desperate and grabbing at straws really. I already knew I was going back.

“I know it hurts Trace but you owe yourself a chance to heal and go on. You need to make your peace honey,”

There it was. I did need to make peace with the past, with Shannon. So after four years of running away…I was heading back.
Chapter 3
You know something about small, nowhere towns, they never change. Doesn’t matter how long you’re gone. The boys still hang around the hardware. The one stoplight still doesn’t work. The only grocery is and has always been the A&P. And the diner is still the busiest place in town. I took all that in while I was pulling through town. Parking my new truck, a gift to myself for my bravery, outside the diner.

When I walked in I had expected to be greeted by Maggie. That was not the case. I guess some things do change, because this place was busier then I had ever seen. I had to take a seat at the counter. When Maggie wrote to tell me she needed help, she didn’t really say what kind of help. I just hoped she didn’t want me to cook or wait tables. I don’t think I would make a good waitress and I, for sure, can’t cook.

It took a few minutes of watching Maggie rush around for me to catch her eye. When she saw me I thought she was going to pass out. She shoved a tray full of food at a passing customer, who was shocked to say the least. Then she launched her large frame across the diner headed right for me. For a second I considered running for my life. But I braced myself and sure enough, she grabbed me up in a huge bear hug, crushing the life out of me.

“Maggie…”I gasped.

She stepped back from me not letting go. I saw then what my disappearing had done to the woman who had practically raised me. Never once in all my years had I ever seen Maggie cry. The tears streaming down her face touched me deeper then I thought possible. I did the only thing you can do when faced with a crying woman. I wrapped my arms around her and let her cry it out. Truth be told, I had shed a few tears of my own.

When she finally gathered herself she stepped away.

“Damn girl…you look great,”

I guess all the hard work on the rigs and at the station had put a bit more muscle on my body. And the Australian sun will give you an unbelievable tan.

“Thanks Mags. You look good yourself…tired though,” She did look a bit haggard.

“Oh you don’t know the half of it. Sit down Trace there’s a lot we need to talk about,” Finally I was going to get to the reason she had urgently summoned me home.

The next half-hour was spent with her filling me in on things that had happened after I took off. I sat waiting patiently. I figured she’d get to a point eventually. I waited…and waited. And still she didn’t mention Her. And to my surprise or maybe not, but that’s what I wanted to hear about. I was about to ask for myself when she said her name. I zeroed in on the conversation then.

“Shannon had to take care of a pressing family matter,” I think that’s what I heard. I remembered everything about Shannon. The only family she had was a sister, whom she hadn’t seen in years.

“I just can’t take care of the ranch and her business with all I’ve got going on here. I need you to take over at the ranch until she gets back,”

“That’s why you demanded I come back here? Where the hell is her husband?” I snarled. Yea the bitter thing was working well for me now.

“Tom’s gone. He died about three months after you left,”

“Oh,” What else could I say? I wasn’t sure how I felt about that information.

“Good riddance to bad rubbish I say,” Maggie spat. I have to say…I was shock at her vehemence. And confused. When I left she and Shannon weren’t exactly good friends. But somehow over the last four years they had apparently gotten close enough that Shannon left Maggie in charge of the Evening Star.

“So Shannon took off to do whatever and left you to take care of things and now you want me to take over,” I was still confused and now for some reason, I felt betrayed. Maggie wasn’t supposed to befriend the woman who broke my heart.

“There are a lot of things you don’t know Trace. Don’t go judging until you have the whole story,” She sighed.

“Then tell me the story Maggie. Make me understand why she broke my heart,” I know I was over reacting. I couldn’t help it. The whole thing had me off balance.

“I can’t Trace. It’s Shannon’s story to tell,”

I snorted indignantly. I highly doubted Shannon would ever tell me the story and God only knew if it would be the truth if she did. Maggie must have seen my walls go up.

“Don’t you dare Trace O’Dell. You don’t know what’s happened here. You took off before anything could be resolved. You left us all here to pick up the pieces. Some of us had to sit here and watch what happened to that girl after you left. And yes I took her under my wing. Best thing I’ve ever done next to taking care of your sorry little ass.”She stood over me, making me feel like a properly chastised child. “I need your help. If you can’t see your way clear to help Shannon fine. But the way I see it, you owe me.”

She was right…I did owe her. And that’s the only reason I would stay..

“OK Maggie…what do you need me to do?”

“That’s my girl. I knew you would help Trace you always were a good sort,”

“For you Maggie…only for you,” She had to know that this wasn’t for Shannon.

“Whatever you say Trace. Stay here while I get…Well just stay here,” And she took off to the back. Now what the hell was that about.

I sat there for another twenty minutes trying to figure out exactly when I had become soft in the head. I should have known coming back here would lead me right back out to the Evening Star. I didn’t count on Maggie handing me over to the wolves though. I was lost in my misery when she came back and didn’t pay attention. I should have…I would have run.

I felt it before I saw it. There was someone bouncing into the seat across from me. I pulled my head off the table and staring back at me…were Shannon’s eyes. Ok they weren’t attached to Shannon herself. But rather…to a small human with blonde hair and dimples. But they were the same eyes. I knew in an instant who this child belonged to. Shannon couldn’t have denied her if she wanted to. It was mini me, truly freaky.

I know I must have looked stupid sitting there with my mouth hanging open. But hell…as if it weren’t shock enough to know that Maggie was Shannon’s friend and savior. Now I had to find out she had a kid. My stomach hit bottom. I know I groaned. It all became clear as to what Maggie really wanted me to do. She wasn’t sending me out to take care of the ranch…

“I want you to take this little angel home and watch over her,”

I looked at Maggie like she had grown another head.

“I…I…hell no!”

“Watch your mouth! You said you would help and this is where I need you,” I was stuck. I was truly stuck because she just left. Took off leaving me with a tiny version of Shannon staring at me.

“Hi”It finally said.

“Hi,”

“Are you a friend of Mommy’s? Aunt Mag said you was,”

“Ummm…,” What do you say to little humans? I had never been around kids. And I really didn’t think telling her that I thought her Mother should take a long walk off a very short pier would be the right response.

I was saved from my discomfort by Maggie’s return. But only momentarily as she ushered both the kid and I out of the diner. Explaining to me the things I should know about the care and feeding of said kid. I caught only a fraction of what she said. I tried to watch as she put this odd looking seat into my truck and strapped the little person into it. Then she shoved me into my side and told me to go.

So for the first time in four years I was bouncing down that dusty road going back to the Evening Star. Not alone though, as I looked over at Shannon’s kid. My head was still spinning with that one. There was no way in hell this was going to work. I knew nothing about kids and…hell I cant even cook. Hope the kid likes frozen dinners.

I watch the little blonde head bouncing around as she looked out the window. Bet she was as lost as I was here. Tossed aside and left with someone she didn’t know. Suddenly I felt a bit more kinship with the little tyke. I figured since we seemed to be stuck together for the time being I should at least give her a name.

“I’m Trace,” There that wasn’t hard.

The little green eyes turned to me and she had this surprised look on her face.

“What?” I asked.

“Th…that’s my name. I’m Jaden Trace Chilson but everyone calls me JT.”

All right I was stunned. My brain froze. What the hell did I miss in those years I was gone. And why had Shannon named her daughter after me?
Chapter 4
I was still trying to recover from my shock when we pulled up to the house. It looked different now. A new coat of paint and new shutters. I saw the old swing was still there and had to close my eyes against the rush of emotion. Oh this was not going to be easy. I got out of the truck and headed to the house. Took me a minute to notice I was missing something.

I went back and opened the door looking at the little blonde sitting there.

“Well were home aren’t you getting out?”

“I can’t get out silly,” Then she pointed to the contraption that held her into the seat.

“Oh,” Well duh Trace. Nope this wasn’t going to be easy on either of us I decided.

Took me five minutes to figure out how to unleash the child. I would have felt bad but the little beast just laughed at my failings.

“You don’t gots kids huh?” She said still laughing at me as we finally made it into the house.

“No,”

“It’s ok I’ll show you what to do,”

It’s a good thing one of us has a clue. Because I’m at a total loss here.

“How old are you anyway?” Seemed a reasonable question.

“I’m three,” She said holding up three little fingers smiling.

Oldest damn three-year-old I’ve ever seen. Smart little kid, and against my wishes, I found myself liking the little tot a bit.

“Trace? I’m gonna go play k?” She said looking up at me with those beautiful eyes. Damn…she would have to inherit those. Ok so she wants to go play …kids play right? Ok so no big deal.

“Um…yea sure kid,”

“Cool…call me for dinner,” She said as she ran up the stairs.

Dinner? Oh boy…

I’ve worked on oilrigs in the middle of the ocean. Seen some storms that would make grown men weep with fear. Been in bar fights that ended with a trip to the hospital. None of that scared me as much as the small blonde bundle of energy that just ran up the steps. I flopped down on the couch. I had no idea what to do here. So…I did the only thing that made any sense.…I called Dawg.

“You can stop laughing any time Dawg,” The witch found my situation funny and I had spent the last 15 minutes listening to her chuckle. It was getting annoying.

“Ok Wait. Now…you went back there just to find out that Shannon has a kid. And…”More laughing.

“Let me talk to your wife”I snarled. Sick wench anyway. I did not see the humor here.

“Trace…why is Cam rolling on the floor?,”

“She’s a psycho Syd I tried to warn you,” I gave Sydney a brief explanation of my situation. And to my dismay…she laughed too. They were both on my list now. Lucky for me Syd has some control and she recovered herself. She wasn’t a lot of help but when I hung up the phone I at least felt like I might make it through the night. I had a plan. Feed the kid…give it a bath…put it to bed. It can’t be that hard right?

Ok so maybe fruit loops isn’t really dinner but we covered the, I cant cook thing alright. Let it go. The bath thing…who knew. I ran the bath just like Syd told me too. Did you know little kids don’t like hot water? I was informed of this after the fact. Ok so that was easy enough…add cold water. Then I got to wondering…should I leave her to do this alone? Is three a good age to start letting them discover their independence? Oh what the hell. She’s a smart kid. So I left her on her own.

Umm…for all those out there who don’t have kids. Never leave a child under the age of at least 10, alone in the bathroom. I was gone 10 minutes. When I got back …well…I would bet the Titanic took on less water when it sank then what was covering the bathroom floor. I waded in hoping that under all those bubbles was a small human. As it would happen…she was there. Of course I found that out when she jumped up and splashed more water over the tub and all over me. It dawned on me then that while leaving her alone might have led to this mess she really was to little to be unattended. I vowed never to do that again. Lesson learned.

Two more things I learned about bathing pint size people that first night. One…they are slippery when wet and soapy. Two…you have to dry them really well because putting pajamas on a small, wiggly, wet body is a Herculean feat.

With the bath ordeal over we retired to the living room to watch some television. Truthfully I had no idea what time a little kid needed to be put to bed. Seeing as it was only 7:30 and she didn’t look tired we would stay up and see what happened.

Long about eight, the phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Who is this?” I knew the voice. It was her. I should have expected she would call right? I was still stunned. After all this time she sounded just the same. Her voice still sent chills down my spine.

“Did you want to talk to JT?” I asked in what I hoped was a steady tone.

“I want to know who the fuck you are and where is Maggie? Why are you there with my daughter?” I could hear the panic in her voice. I’m guessing our friend Maggie didn’t tell her that she had contacted me. I wanted to rage at her, I wanted to let out all the anger I felt …all the pain. But hearing her almost sob into the phone, the fear in her voice. I just couldn’t do that to her. This was different. This was a mother’s concern for her child. I could respect that.

“Take it easy Shannon,”

“Trace?…Oh My God. Trace what are you doing there. Where’s Maggie? Is everything ok? Where is JT?” Well at least she remembers my voice. But she was still freaking out. Needed to fix that.

“She’s right here, Maggie’s fine and I’m guessing she didn’t tell you she wrote and begged me to help her out here. Of course she never said how she wanted me to help. Guess I’m your official babysitter for the time being,”

“Trace I…,” I cut her off. I couldn’t handle hearing her voice anymore. It made me ache.

“Here talk to JT,” I handed the phone to the little one and leaned back hoping that I could control the onslaught of emotions just talking to her had brought on.
Chapter 5
As luck would have it my new little friend isn’t up on phone etiquette, she hung up before I was forced to speak to her Mother again. I’m really starting to like this kid. Anyway, after being traumatized by the phone call the rest of the evening went pretty well. The kid dropped off long about 11. Hey don’t look at me…I know nothing about kids. Besides who goes to bed at 9, really. I must say that the following morning taught me a lesson about bedtimes though. A cranky three year old is worse than a PMSing woman…hands down. By noon we were both ready for a nap.

My peaceful little rest was brought an abrupt end when all 40 pounds of demon child decided to pounce on my stomach. Laughing mind you.

“I’m hungry,” She said leaning close to my face looking into my half open eyes as I gasped for breath.

It shouldn’t have been hungry I just fed the thing this morning. How many times a day do kids really have to eat anyway? Ok I know they need food and I’m not a total moron but I really didn’t want to get up and cook. And I didn’t figure another bowl of cereal wasn’t going to cut it for dinner. So my mind went over the options. In the refrigerator we had milk, and some stuff I’m sure was food but would require my knowing how to use a stove. There was the diner but I’m not talking to Maggie right now. Or finally we could go get pizza. You guessed it…pizza it was.

I should have paid closer attention when Maggie strapped the kid into the car seat thing. I think you need an aerospace engineering degree to operate one of these things. I gave up after fighting with it for 20 minutes. You know…there are many uses for duct tape.

So we headed out to get dinner. My little blonde buddy was secured in her seat and I made sure none of the tape touched her skin. Even I know that hurts when you pull it off. Actually dinner was fun. We ate food I didn’t have to cook. Drank root beer, which prompted a burping contest. The kid’s good. And we played video games. My kind of night. We were out later than I had expected and when we pulled into the drive the little tyke was already asleep.

Subconsciously I think I was really trying to avoid the evening phone call. I wasn’t that lucky. I got the tiny human tucked into bed, and had settled down to pass out. Kids can be very tiring you know. I just started to drift off and…

“Hello?”

“Trace where the hell have you been?” Oh hell…

“Town…pizza…dinner,” I wasn’t really with it yet.

“It’s past 10 ,” Now what the hell that had to do with anything was beyond me. Duh…I can tell time.

“Uh huh…but we needed to stay and finish the beer and JT was working on getting the waitresses phone number,” Ok I knew I was pushing her but damn…I had to have a little joy in my life.

“Trace! What the hell are you doing with my kid. Oh my God,”

I couldn’t help it tormenting her this way seemed to be my best shot at revenge at the moment. Besides if she really thought I was that irresponsible she deserved it. I may be an over grown child myself but I’m not stupid.

“Relax Shannon…I told her she couldn’t date till she was 12. And she only had two shots of bourbon. …kid can’t hold her liquor. We’ll have to work on that.”

I waited for the explosion. It didn’t come. Instead she started chuckling. Hearing her laugh went right through my heart. I had forgotten what that sound did to me. And to my surprise…I started laughing along with her.

“Oh Trace…I needed that. Thank you. So other than corrupting my three year old daughter how are things going?”

I swallowed hard. Her voice washed over my soul. I hate myself for still having this reaction to her. I couldn’t control it even if I had wanted to I don’t think I would have anyway. That piece of me that’s been missing all this time just found its way back home. But I was still hurt and I wasn’t going to give in that easy.

“Things are fine. You cant talk to the kid right now unless you want me to wake her up in which case you can be the one to deal with her in the morning,” I had learned that lesson.

“She is a bit umm…temperamental without enough sleep,” She chuckled.

“Yea laugh it up blondie. And I thought you were bad in the morning,” The memories of Shannon’s sleepy face in the morning hit me hard…right square in the chest. I had always loved that sleep-tousled look she had in the morning. So much so it usually led us right back to bed. Oh great…now another familiar ache. I so don’t need this.

We both went silent for a minute lost in our thoughts.

“Trace…,” She finally choked out.

I had a choice to make here. I could cut her off. I knew she was going to want to talk about that time. I wasn’t ready. Not yet. Yes I wanted to know what happened. But not yet.

“Don’t Shannon…not yet. Just…talk about something else,” I begged her. “Why are you…wherever you are?”

I could tell she really wanted to talk about this but she respected my wishes. For the next half-hour she explained her absence. Her sister had gotten ill and she was their taking care of her. I thought it was odd because last I knew she didn’t even talk to her sister. But hey …families are strange things. I did ask why she didn’t take the munchkin with her though.

“My sister doesn’t know about JT. And if she did well…it would cause problems. She has a lot of power and doesn’t agree at all with my…life choices. Believe me Trace…leaving JT was the second hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,”

Now we know my mouth takes off before I can engage my brain at times…

“What was the first?” I held my breath waiting for an answer that took a long time coming.

“Letting you go,”
Chapter 6
Shannon’s quiet admission left me more than a bit confused. Letting me go was a far cry from what happened. The damn woman broke my heart. That’s what happened…right? Well yes my heart was broken but…she did it on purpose…didn’t she? I didn’t know anything anymore. Maggie’s words haunted me. Shannon’s emotion filled voice made me doubt everything I thought I knew.

I pushed it all away, there were other things more important than the past at the moment. Like getting a sleepy little human dressed and ready for the day. JT is really quite a kid. I never thought I’d have these kinds of feelings for a kid…any kid. But the little scamp was like her mother…she got to you before you knew what was happening. Maybe I just have a thing for small blondes.

Today’s big adventure was to go out riding the fences. I wanted to check out the ranch. Since I had left, Shannon’s operation had grown and she had hired people to take care of most of the day to day stuff. But I still thought I should look things over.

“Hey little bit want to go for a ride today?”

“Do I gots to be taped in the seat?” She looked at me warily.

“Ride on the horses kid,” I snorted, thinking that maybe I should take the tape just in case.

“I can’t ride a horse Trace I’m to little,” She looked so disappointed. I hate that look, makes me do stupid things.

“Hmm…Guess you’ll have to learn. Or…you can ride with me,”

“I can?” Her little face lit up.

“Sure…we can make some sandwiches and ride out to the river,”

She flew out of her chair and launched herself into my arms. Now I’ve never really held a small child. But…I could get used to it.

We packed ourselves a good lunch and within an hour we were riding along the fence line. Her little body settled in front of me. We laughed and talked the whole time. She really is a smart kid. Or maybe I just relate to the very young. In any case I was actually enjoying myself. Around noon we stopped by the river for lunch.

We lay there on the bank eating and talking about what we were going to do the rest of the day. Both agreeing that we had to find a way to feed ourselves. I may not know how to use the stove but I am the queen of the microwave dinner. And JT loved the idea of TV dinners. I’m guessing Shannon didn’t let her have much packaged and processed food. Oh well…she’s not here. I figured while we were in town we should stop in and see Maggie. She had to be wondering about us by now. Of course if she was really worried she could have called.

Somehow we ended up lying on the grass looking up at the passing clouds. Her little golden head lying on my stomach.

“Are you mad at Aunt Maggie?”

“Not really. She just surprised me is all,” That was a gross understatement.

“‘Cuz of me?”

“Well you were a surprise,”

“Aunt Maggie said you left a long, long time ago. Why’d you leave Trace?” She turned looking up at me with those achingly familiar eyes.

“Bad things happened little one,” What the hell do you say to that? Your Mother broke my heart. She’s a bit young to get that one.

“Does it still make you sad?”

“Sometimes,” I had to swallow back the tears.

Little arms came around me, hugging me tight. “Don’t be sad Trace,”

Oh hell…

We packed up our little picnic and made our way back to the house. Making a quick list of the things we needed. Like cereal and milk. You know…the staples. We jumped into the truck. JT smart little squirt that she is, managed to figure out the car seat thing this time. Kind of like child proof caps…takes a kid to get them off.

The trip to the A&P was a riot. Well I thought so anyway. We played racecar drivers down the aisles. I’m sure the other customers were not as amused but then…who really gives a damn. I let JT push the cart. She got to pick out her own dinners too. Funny that something so small could make her so happy. By the time we left I figured we had enough food to carry us through for about a week.

We walked into the diner and Little Bit ran up jumping into Maggie’s waiting arms.

“Well you’re still alive I see,”

“Trace taked good care of me Maggie,” I grinned at Maggie’s shocked look. Ha take that you old busy body.

She just smiled at me. “I knew she would sugar,”

We ate a great home cooked meal. And topped it off with ice cream. Hey you can’t go wrong with ice cream. Maggie only smacked me in the head once. Ok here’s the thing. Since I was a kid I have always blown bubbles in my chocolate milk. It’s a tradition. Well my new shadow thought it was cool and so she copied me. It was a completion then. We were minding our own business having a good time and…SMACK.

“Stop that you’re teaching her bad habits,”

“Yes ma’am,” Maggie seemed placated and left us be. When she was out of sight…we started all over again.

Once dinner was finished Maggie took me aside and the inquisition began. I had to relate all the things that had happened the last two days. Like I was some sort of child.

“Trace, Shannon put JT in daycare half of the day. You may want to think about doing that. It’ll give you some time to yourself,”

Truthfully, I wasn’t really keen on that idea. The idea of leaving JT with people I didn’t know for some reason didn’t set real well with me.

“I’ll talk to the kid about it Mags”I promised.

“Trace you don’t ask a three year old that kind of stuff,” Well that was dumb. Why not? She should have some say as to where she wanted to be. I just shook my head and the kid and I left for home.

That night after Shannon’s nightly call I tucked the little one into bed. I thought it would be a good idea to bring up the whole daycare thing.

“Hey kid Mags says you usually go to some daycare thing. Did you umm…want to do that?” If I had known what the reaction would have been. I’d have slapped Maggie.

Her little green eyes filled up with tears. Little kids don’t cry like normal people ya know. They get these real big alligator tears. It’s heartbreaking.

“Don’t you like being with me Trace?” Her slender little shoulders were shaking as she tried really hard not to just break down and sob. I felt about an inch tall.

I gathered the little body into my arms holding her against my chest. “Hey now…it was just a question. I like having you around,”

“Don’t make me go Trace. I’ll be good I promise,” She pleaded.

“You’ve been great JT and you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to sweetheart,” I said, rocking her. Fuck you Maggie. The kid has already been dumped on a stranger once. I’ll be damned if I do that to her again. I held her until she fell asleep, stroking that soft blonde hair, remembering her Mother liked that as well. It always made Shannon relax and fall asleep I see the apple really didn’t fall far from the tree.
Chapter 7
During the next couple days Little Bit, JT’s new nickname, and I established a routine. We got up , got dressed had breakfast, cleaned the house. Neither of us fond of that last task. I won’t even go into the laundry horror. Suffice it to say…not all clothes can be washed together. Oh well, what’s a few pink towels. Who was going to see them anyway.

We went for rides and I even let her hold the reigns. She’s got potential. She helped me fix a few loose boards. Carrying nails is a big deal to a three-year-old. Even the nightly phone calls were getting easier. Shannon would talk with JT and then speak to me.

It still hurt to hear her voice. Not as bad but the ache was always there. We talked about the kid mostly. But she did fill me in on her own life to a point. I still wasn’t ready to hear the whole story and she didn’t offer to tell it. I told her about my life as well. Well pieces of it anyway. All in all we had clipped conversations with long pauses. Very uncomfortable. Both feeling the need to say more but never getting there.

By the end of the week I was really getting the hang of this kid thing. Well…I was doing better how about that. Give me a break.

We had come down stairs both looking for some breakfast when a knock at the door brought us both out of our morning stupor. The kid being more energetic ran to answer. I was standing over the coffeepot patiently awaiting the elixir of life. A scream from the other room brought me out of my trance in a hurry. A child’s scream can send a wave of terror through you like nothing you will ever experience. I tore out of the kitchen, my heart lodge in my throat expecting to see the kid lying in a pool of blood.

Skidding to a stop in front of said child who was staring at the front door like she had seen the boogieman.

“What!” I said rather loudly. Ok she freaked me out…fear will do that to you.

“There’s a bear out there Trace,” She yelled back. Guess she was freaked herself.

“A bear?” Now a lot of things can wander up to houses out here but a bear. I don’t think so. I reached for the door and she wrapped her little arms around my leg.

“Don’t let it in. It’ll get you,”

“It’s alright little bit,” I tried to calm her. “Bears don’t knock JT,” Reasoning with a small child is useless…just thought you should know that. She wasn’t letting go of my leg for love nor money.

I opened the door and…Screamed myself. JT just grabbed on tighter.

“That’s not a bear kid…it’s a Dawg,” I grinned at my friend who stood there with a very bewildered expression.

“Jesus Christ Trace!”Dawg shouted. Guess all the screaming got her too. Only she got smacked in the head.

“Don’t swear in front of the baby,” Syd’s admonishment came from behind.

By this time I had picked up my little cling-on. She had her head buried in my shoulder peeking out shyly at my two friends.

Syd stepped forward around wrapped us both up in a huge hug. God I needed that. And JT seemed to relax a bit. But when Dawg reach out to hug me JT stiffened and pointed her tiny finger.

“NO!”She commanded. Syd cracked up. Dawg looked dejected and JT had taken a possessive demeanor. It really was funny.

Took ten minutes to convince the kid that Dawg was really ok. My friend really does intimidate people. I guess to a very small child she would look like a bear standing there in the shadows. Syd was still laughing…she’s a sick bitch.

We got things calmed down and retired to the kitchen for breakfast and my long awaited coffee. Not to mention a few explanations as to why they were there to begin with. JT wouldn’t let go though. So Syd pushed me into a chair and went about fixing breakfast. Who was I to argue?

“Trace where is the food?” Syd asked bent over searching the contents of the refrigerator.

“Freezer,” JT directed.

She turned and stared at me. You know that look that says “if I open this there better not be pizza and frozen dinners up here.”Groan…I was screwed.

She just shook her head and pulled out the cereal. Which is what we were going to have anyway.

We sat there and demolished the last of the cereal and milk, while my friends explained why they had come. That they came all this way just to help me out made me tear up. I’ve been doing that a lot lately. Truth be told I was thrilled that they were there. While I did have things under control with JT I was still feeling a bit shaken about the whole situation.

JT just got real quiet and when we were done eating she asked to be excused. Now I’m not normally in tune with people. But I knew something was bothering the kid. I watched her walk out the door with her head hung down, hands shoved in her pockets.

I excused myself as well and went in search of my little friend. I found her sitting on the steps, staring out across the pasture. God she looked just like her Mother sitting there like that. That first time I ever talked to her. I mean really talked to her.

“Hey Little Bit,” I sat down next to her.

“Hey,”

“What’s up?”

She shrugged her little shoulders. “Nothin,”

“Come on now,” I pulled her onto my lap. “What’s going on in that pretty blonde head?”

“I’m not pretty Trace,”

“Nope you’re right…you’re beautiful. Just like your Momma,” I whispered.

“I miss Momma,” She sighed.

“She’ll be home soon little one. Until then…you’ve got me,” I said giving her my patented grin.

“No I don’t gots you. You gots new friends now.”

Ah ha…now we get to it. I picked her up, turning her so she could see me.

“Now you listen here my little one. I do have friends here now. But they aren’t you. Come on JT do you think Syd looks like she blows bubbles in her chocolate milk. Does Dawg look like she…well never mind that, Dawg would do just about anything. Point is JT they didn’t come here for me. They came here for us,”

“Us?”

“Uh huh…you and me…us,” I smiled at her.

She wrapped her little arms around me holding me as tight as she could. “I love you Trace,”

I swallowed hard against the lump in my throat. Catching sight of Dawg standing behind the screen seeing the tears in those brown eyes.

“I love you too little bit,”

And I really did.
Chapter 8
The day was great. JT was my constant companion , she was still a little insecure so I made sure she was included in everything. I didn’t mind…ok so I really do relate to small children. The only time she left me was when Syd convinced her to go help get real food. She really took to Syd must have been that femme thing. She still had doubts about Dawg though.

Syd might just be my hero. Of course anyone who could operate a stove was high on my list. I didn’t know that frozen chicken was that different than fresh but…it is. Hey, we know my cooking skills end with how much time does it take to nuke a Swansons. After dinner she sent us all outside muttering something about pink towels and damage control. Oh well.

I heard the phone ring and I knew I should probably get off my ass and go explain this newest development to Shannon. But I was full and drinking a much deserved cup of coffee. So I let Syd deal with it. I know…I was going to owe Syd big time. I just hope she didn’t want something like a kidney.

JT knew who was on the phone as well as I did so she took off. Oh to have that kind of energy. I leaned back and listened to the conversation coming through the screen door.

JT’s little voice reached my ears and I had to laugh…

“And she looked like a bear Momma. But Trace said it was just Dawg,”

Little kids tell the greatest stories.

“Then Syd taked me to the store to get real food. Momma did you know that pizza isn’t real food?,”

“I like Syd Momma, she’s really pretty,” The little flirt was really scoring points with Syd now. Kid’s going to be a heartbreaker.

Now when JT told me Shannon wanted to talk to me I was still laughing about the flirting thing. If I had known I was about to face the inquisition of a raging maniac, I would have been better prepared.

“Hey”

“Trace who the hell do you have in my house? If you brought some slut out there to take care of my child I’m going to kill you. If you wanted that kind of…company you should have let her stay with Maggie. I don’t want her exposed to that sort of thing. And I don’t want it in my house…period!,”

I was stunned. She really was on a roll , flying off the handle about nothing and to say the least it pissed me off. How dare she! There aren’t many things that will make me all that angry anymore but an attack on my character and an attack on of all people Syd , well that put me over the top. All the anger I had kept inside…well..

“Exposed to what Shannon? Love? People who care about me?” It was a low shot but I was angry.

“I don’t want your whore around my child!”

I went off the deep end…I’ll freely admit that.

“Listen to me you self righteous, heartless, cold, stuck up wench! Before you go off half cocked as usual let me tell you a few things. First , you gave up any rights to who I sleep with a long time ago. And Shannon…none of them has ever been a whore…well…,” I know that was mean…sue me. “Second, and this is just so you know what a huge mistake you made here. But Syd and Dawg, Syd’s wife of the last 2 years , are my very best friends and they came all the way from Australia to help me with JT. I didn’t ask they just came. So shove your attitude up your ass. You know what really pisses me off? I’ll tell you…never once in all the time I was here with you did I ever lie. That was your department. I gave you all I was. I would think you should know me well enough to know I would never…never Shannon…bring anyone home as a casual fuck, with JT in the same house.”I know I blew up…I didn’t care.

“Trace I…,”

“No Shannon…I’ve been hurt by you enough for one lifetime. I loved you so much I ached with it. You broke my heart Shannon, shattered me and left me in pieces. Now here I am again but this time wont be so easy. I’m here because JT needs me, not you,” I slammed the phone down. Damn woman.

I will be eternally grateful to Syd for having the foresight to take JT for a walk while I was on the phone. I didn’t want the kid to hear that. I looked over at Dawg who was leaning against the wall.

“Feel better now?”

“No,” I really didn’t . you know sometimes you think ‘ if I could only tell them off , let out all the anger and pain , I would be fine’. That’s not the case. I felt like shit.

“You know Trace, seems to me that maybe she was angry about another woman being here. But I think it might have had less to do with JT and more to do with you,”

“What’s that supposed to mean?,” Damn I have a headache coming on and Dawg was getting logical.

“Well, I know if Syd had another woman staying at the house and I wasn’t there, I might get a little bit…upset,” That would be an understatement, Dawg would have kittens…little white ones.

“That’s different Dawg. You love Syd it would be normal for you to be jealous of another woman in your house,”

“Yup,” She got that Gods be damned smirk on her face and walked out. I hate that.

My headache was full blown now. What the fuck was that supposed to mean? You have to have feelings for someone to be jealous…right? Of course you do. Shannon didn’t have feelings for me therefore she couldn’t be jealous. Alright so she cried when she heard my voice that first night. And she did say she missed me. And maybe she did say she was looking forward to seeing me when she got home. So what if Maggie says she asked about me all the time. And there are a million reasons she named the kid after me…right? Oh hell…she is jealous.

For some reason that thought made me happy. I’m not well …we all know this.
Chapter 9
The next couple of days were agony. The evening phone calls still came but she only talked to JT. Ok so I was avoiding them myself. And if that weren’t bad enough I started thinking about her…again. You know…really thinking about her. Four years is a long time to hurt. And I was beginning to wonder if I spent all those years away for nothing. Things weren’t adding up. Between Maggie’s cryptic description of the past four years and Dawg’s inference that she might still care…in a more than friendly way. Well I was a mess.

Syd and Dawg took JT into town , something about clothes. I don’t do shopping. So it was fine by me. But it left me alone in the house. Being in there had been tough at first. Everywhere I looked I saw her. Us. But I got over it. Well…to a point. I had never gone into her bedroom. That idea just seemed like it would hurt to damn much. Today , however, I was feeling a need to be closer to her. So that’s where I went.

I stood in the doorway for a long time . The memories washing over me. If I closed my eyes I could see us in that bed. I could almost reach out and touch her. Gods the room even smelled like her. I wandered around the room , a book on the nightstand still open to the last page she read. Pictures of JT as a baby. The kid was damn cute. A photo album on the shelf caught my eye. I wondered if there were any pictures of Shannon in there. I missed her face.

I sat down on the bed with the book in lap. Flipping open the cover I glanced down at the page. To say I was shocked wouldn’t even come close to covering what I felt. Staring back at me off that page…was me. Each page of that book held another image of me during that summer. She had written under each one…Trace fixing the fence . Trace on the porch. I never saw her take these pictures. Not once did I see a camera. But there they were…from the very first day she had photographed our entire time together. There were even a few pictures from my childhood that could only have come from Maggie.

Yes I know…I’m not stupid. She really did love me. No one keeps stuff like this if they don’t care. When I left here that day I ran because of my pain and my anger. I never once gave a thought to her. I never thought about what was going on with her. The Shannon I knew, the one my heart knew, would never have ripped me apart like that. Not without reason. And not once in all this time have I given her the chance to explain. Ok now I really feel like a heel.

I laid back on the bed , my heart was in my throat. Gods what have I done. I was pulled from my misery by the phone.

“Hello”I managed to choke out.

“Trace?…Are you ok? …is JT alright?” I must have sounded really bad she was panicked.

“I…we’re ok,” I paused. “I found the pictures,” I whispered.

“Oh,”

“Shannon?…Why?” It was all I could get out. I know its lame but you try talking when you’re swallowing your heart.

“Damn Trace which why do you want answered? Why do I have all those pictures? I love you…that’s why,” She sighed. “The rest is a long story,”

“I have time…I…I’m ready to listen,” Ok the ‘I love you thing’ did not escape my notice. I just wasn’t sure how I felt about it yet.

For the next hour I listened. I heard the story of a fifteen year old girl with no mother and an over bearing father, struggling to belong. Discovering her sexuality. She told me about being caught with her girlfriend in her bedroom . And how her father had beaten her senseless. Daddy couldn’t have a queer daughter it just didn’t look right for the General. His political career meant more than his own child’s happiness.

She told me about being forced to go out with men her father thought were “appropriate,” About the abuse suffered at the hands of both her father and sister. Seems sis was following in Daddy’s political footsteps. She told me about Tom. How her father demanded she marry him. He was his personal secretary and her father wanted his loyalty.

In my mind I could see Shannon , the frightened teen cowering before her Father. Taking the beatings…losing her sense of self. Being told she was nothing, worthless. I could see her walking down the aisle entering into a loveless marriage. Being used to only further other peoples dreams and goals. If the man had been alive I would have killed him myself.

I listened to her tell me about Tom and his…problems. He was a useless little shit when I knew him and it seems he hadn’t gotten any better. He spent their money on whatever he wanted…gambling mostly. And when that wasn’t enough he had taken money from her father’s campaign fund. That was Shannon’s way out. She had found out about his dealings. And when she confronted him with it, scared witless he would kill her, but still needing to take a stand. He caved. Pleaded with her made a deal with her. Giving her the ranch for her silence. With the paper’s signed she had every intention of moving and divorcing him. But her father’s death had stalled all that.

She went on to tell me about coming out here finally. Taking the little bit of money her father had left and making her dream happen. And it did. She just hadn’t counted on me. She told me about her fear. The fear of letting herself be close to me. But still feeling the connection. She fought so hard against her want…need. She struggled with her growing attraction. She told me about the nights she would lay awake restless…aching. I had to laugh. I had many of those nights myself.

Her voice grew husky as she recalled our first night together. Finally able to fulfill her need to touch , taste…experience the love she felt for me. That night for me was everything , I’ve relived it a thousand times. To hear her voice filled with passion and emotion…it struck me. She poured her love into me that night. What she couldn’t say with words she showed me in her touch.

When I came home that day. Finding Tom there…well we all know what happened. If I had stayed I could have prevented the rest.

Tom showed up all full of himself. Her bitch of a sister was going to run for office and paid him to bring Shannon back. Seems she wanted a united family image. I left her there with that man. I let her go through month’s of him threatening her and the ranch ,alone. I left and she had to defend her dreams and suffer her own broken heart. I left and the bastard, forced himself on her. Raped her , the whole time telling her it was her fault. That she deserved it. The night it happened he left her crying and battered, took off drunk . She found out later that night he wrapped the truck around a tree. Three months later…she discovered she was pregnant.

I understood now why Maggie hated that man. I did too. I hate myself more though. To selfish to even think about her . To involved in my own pain to see hers. We were both crying. I ached to reach through the phone and hold her. I wanted to make the whole thing go away. But I couldn’t.

“You should hate me Shannon…for leaving you alone like that,” I told her.

“I could never hate you Trace…I loved you then…and I love you now. There was nothing you could have done,” Her voice was soft.

“I could have…”

“No!…its over. I got JT out of the whole mess and I would do it all over again for just that reason. I just want to move forward. I want…”

“What do you want Shannon?”

“You Trace…one more chance with you,”

“Ok,”
Chapter 10
Did I give in to easily? I still had doubts and questions but I’m a sucker for that woman and I probably always will be. And for the first time in four years I could breath again. The crippling ache had eased. I felt…whole. So…Bite Me.

My renewed view of life did not go unnoticed by my friends. Was probably the dumb ass grin I couldn’t keep off my face. I knew Dawg would have something to say but lucky for me , Syd holds her leash. I was let off the hook with a simple.

“Just be happy Trace,”

I was happy. Life on the ranch was sweet. Long summer days filled with laughter, joy and…hope. That’s not to say I didn’t have my fears. There are some things that just don’t go away over night. I also found that some things never go away…like lust. Oh we kept it all really cool when she called to talk to JT but late at night that phone would ring again. More often than not forcing me into a cold shower before I could relax enough to find any sleep. And she laughed. I did not find it at all amusing.

Oh we hadn’t started out trying to make each other insane. But the comfort and passion slowly crept back in and from there it was just a short jump to the…”Let’s make Trace implode”game. I’m not easy , not really…it’s her fault. Stop it…it is.

“You know Trace, I miss your hands.”Uh oh…she had that seductive purr thing going on.

“My hands huh?” I swallowed hard.

“Uh huh. I miss the way they feel against my skin. Hot and soft…brushing over me like a whisper,” The woman should have been a poet. Or a phone sex operator…I would have gladly handed over my paycheck.

“I love the feel over your large hands covering my breasts, feeling my nipples harden against your palms,” Her voice was husky, filled with passion.

I groaned. The woman was going to kill me. We had spent a week playing this game I needed relief soon.

“If you keep this up I’m going to have to take matters into those hands you miss so much,” I knew that image would get to her. Ha…two can play this game.

She chuckled. “Well baby my hands aren’t as good as yours but they’ve been working very well for me lately,”

Oh God…she was good. The evil little witch. I think I’m jealous.

“Of course , I would much rather be the one to touch you. Run my hands down your body. Feeling you move under me. Tasting you…mmmmm…,” She’s mean…see.

“Ok stop…you’re going to kill me,” I was begging for the torture to end.

“Ok ok…I’ll be nice,” She laughed. Laughed…that’s just cruel.

“Thank you…I think,” Hell who could think. All the blood in my body had rushed southward.

I’m not saying all over our conversations revolved around sex. They just ended that way. We spent a lot of time talking about our lives. Relating stories. Hers about JT and the ranch. Mine about all the places I had been and about Dawg and Syd. Yes she settled down about Syd being there. In fact she was anxious to meet them.

With my days filled with the ranch and JT and my nights filled with Shannon you could say I was flying pretty high. Of course my nights of suffering were taking a toll. I wasn’t getting much sleep which as we know makes Trace cranky. I knew it was getting bad but I couldn’t help it. I just didn’t realize how bad till…

I was laying on the bed in my room…having been sent there by Syd who told me she didn’t want to see me the rest of the day. JT came in carrying a book and her favorite blanket.

“Whatcha doin little bit.”I watched as she climbed up on the bed. Settling the blanket over me she snuggled up to my side.

“I’m gonna read you a story Trace,”

“Ok..umm..why?”

“You needs a nap,” Ok …that’s bad. When a three year old tells you to take a nap you know somethings got to give.

I needed a lot of things but I didn’t think a nap was going to help. But I let her read to me anyway. Ok so the kids a bit young to read but hey she makes up good stories. Much to my surprise I woke up a couple hours later. JT’s little blonde head resting on my shoulder.

I laid there for the longest time. Just feeling that little body snuggled against my side. So trusting and innocent. I realized two things. One…I would never ever let anyone hurt this child. It would be over my cold, dead body if they did. And Two…I had fallen hopelessly in love with another small blonde. I’m telling you I have a thing for them.

The nap had helped my disposition but this was getting ridicules. People were starting to avoid me. I think to preserve sanity ,namely my own and to ensure that JT didn’t decide to move out , it was time Shannon came home. I couldn’t understand why she was there in the first place. Some bullshit about family and mending fences. Ha…she wanted to mend fences we lived on a ranch…hello. Alright I’m being unreasonable …sue me. I’m tired and frustrated.

That night I vowed to get this settled.
Chapter 11
“It won’t be much longer Trace I promise,”

“Shan it’s been long enough. Never mind that I have a three year old sending me off for naps… Shannon its not that funny,” She really has an odd sense of humor.

“I’m sorry,” She chuckled.

“Uh huh…look you said yourself the bi…I mean that your sister’s better. Come home…we need you ,” I knew it was hitting below the belt to pout like that. But damn…did I mention the frustration thing.

“We do huh? And who is we Trace?”

“You remember “we”don’t ya? Little blonde, looks a whole lot like you. Even has your appetite.”

“Hey!”She also did get indignant when you razzed her about her appetite.

“What? It’s true the kid eats more then you do. And Shan…that’s an accomplishment.”Ok I’m mean.

“She’s healthy,”

“She’s got a tape worm. But that’s niether here nor there the important thing is we need you to come home. Please, please, please…I‘ll make it worth your while.,” When all else fails…whine, and promise sexual favors.

“Trace…”The rest of her words were lost. Mother nature picked that very moment to unleash hell. A huge clap of thunder followed by an even louder screamed effectively ended our conversation.

I jumped out of the bed and ran down the hall. Passing a very dishevled Syd as I hauled ass to JT’s door. I tossed the phone to her and headed into the room. Syd right on my heels, followed up by a half naked Dawg.

JT launched herself at me , holding on with a death grip. Syd came around the other side of the bed , shoving the phone at Dawg. Who looked at like it like she had never seen one before. Slowly raising to her ear.

“Hello?”

“Oh hi Shannon,”

“Umm…well…big thunder …small child screaming…three adults killing themselves to see what was wrong,”

Obviously she was explaining the commotion to Shannon…Dawg style.

“No ? You don’t say? We would never have guessed she didn’t like thunder storms,” Dawg said rolling her eyes. Which earned her an evil look from her wife.

“Well…JT has a death grip on Trace. I’m kind of concerned actually…I’ve never seen Trace that shade of blue before,” My friend deadpanned.

“That’s probably not funny Shannon,”

“Ok …I’ll tell them. Uh huh..bye,” She hung up the phone.

“She said she would call later,”

I looked at my friend and for the first time noticed she only had on a pair of boxers. I would have laughed but JT really did have a death grip on me. Syd noticed however and sent her to their room.

I couldn’t blame the kid about the storm thing. I remember being afraid when I was young. But my father had fixed that. I wondered if that trick might work here. I told Syd I would handle it and set her after Dawg. Not all of us needed to suffer here.

“Hey kid? Do you trust me?,”

She nodded her little head which was still buried against my chest.

“Ok you’ve been to the fireworks right?” Trust me I had a point.

Again she nodded.

I gathered her up and pulled the blanket off the bed. Wrapping it around us I took us downstairs. I was just about to the door when she raised her head.

“No Trace we cant…the storm will get us,” She panicked.

“I wont let it get us little bit,” I stepped out onto the porch and settled us both into the large wicker chair beside the door.

“Ok now you have to think of thunder storms like fireworks,”

She looked at me. I could see in her eyes she was contemplating my sanity.

“You know…first there’s a big flash of light and then…BOOM!. Just like the fireworks. Only these are special fireworks,”

“Why?” You gotta love kids and the why thing.

“Because Mother Nature made these ones,” I pulled her back against me with the blanket wrapped firmly around us. And waited.

First came the flash and I felt her stiffen in my arms.

“One, two, three…”

“Why you counting Trace?”

Then came the loud, crashing thunder. She jumped.

“To see how far away the storm is,” Hey its an old trick but it works.

“Oh”

We waited and with the next flash, she counted with me. We sat together watching the storm play out. Until I felt her little body go limp in my arms. Lulled to sleep by the sounds of the passing storm. Thanks Dad.
Chapter 12
I had tried to talk to Shannon again about coming home, but we never really had the time. Or rather she didn’t. Tonight was just a quick call to JT and that was it. So there I was, laying in bed trying to settle my mind. I closed my eyes; the image of her sweet face and flashing green eyes comforting me.

The images grew more focused, more intense. I felt her hands brush over me.. Blazing a trail over sensitive flesh. I could feel her soft lips, warm and moist against my neck. I’ve had this dream for four years. Vivid flashes, hot, wild, erotic. I would look up into her eyes darkened by desire. Feel her hands caress my breasts…teasing me. Watch her strong body as she moved over me. Straddling my hips, rocking against me . In my dream she would slowly slide down my body. I could feel her wet center as she would glide over my thigh. I would raise my knee allowing her the contact she sought. She would moan…low…soft…seductive, the sound tickling my ears , heightening my arousal. I could feel the evidence of her passion coat my thigh.

Sometimes the fantasy would get so real that I could hear the pounding of her heart. I could smell vanilla and a heady spice that I knew was her scent , unique to her passion. I would get breathless when , in my dream , she would lean down , taking my nipple into her mouth. I could feel myself arch into her. She would suck me between demanding lips, graze me with her teeth. All the while her fingers sliding up and down through my moist curls. Sliding deeper through slick , sensitive folds…seeking, caressing. I felt her finger tip run over my swollen clit. I would moan louder as she stroked me. Soft , gentle, taking her time. In my dreams she always knew when my need had reached its height. Her touch become more demanding, harder. She would lean down pressing her hot mouth against me ear. Whispering to me as she brought me closer , took me higher. I could feel the soft tickle of her hair against me cheek…

Whoa…my eyes flew open. The tickle thing never happened, not in that dream. In the shadows I could see her , moving . Shocked but to far gone to stop I moved against her , willing her to take me. She felt me respond and answered my needs . Filling me…her fingers driving into my core. I cried out…I know it was loud but I couldn’t help myself. I chanted her name as she pushed deeper inside me. I felt my body tighten, the flood of my climax coating her hand. White hot sparks shooting behind my eyes as I crashed over the edge. I heard her whisper…”I love you,”

When my brain and body united I looked up into her face. If there was ever a more beautiful sight in this world I hadn’t seen it. The past four years had only made her more beautiful and I felt my heart skip. She looked down at me with such love and such devotion it was all I could do not to cry. She brushed the hair back from my face and kissed me. Soft, sweet, tender.

“Hi honey, I’m home,” Ok so she’s a smart ass.

Have you ever had one of those moments. Where past and present meet in an all encompassing, life defining moment. Where for one second you have absolute clarity.? As I lay there beneath her looking into her amazing eyes, I had that moment. It all became clear. I figured out that I…was an idiot.

When I had first laid eyes on this woman I knew that she was the one. I knew without a doubt that this woman would be mine. She would be my heart and soul. But instead of trusting myself or her for that matter, at the first sign of trouble, I ran. Gods…sometimes I am a complete asshole. Hey..I didn’t say it was a good defining moment.

Well all that was going to change. Starting right now. I wrapped my arms around the woman of my dreams and the mother of my child, yes my child. And for the rest of the night I poured myself into her. I showed her with my touch and my words what she meant to me. How I felt about her. I left no part of her body unloved. When morning came…she was mine. We belonged to each other.

Ok so we didn’t just belong to each other, which became very apparent at about 6:30am. When a little blonde tornado came flying into the bedroom and leapt on my chest.

“Morning Trace,” The child is far to cheerful for it not even being daylight.

“Shhhh…”I didn’t want her to wake her Mother. I looked over at my sleeping lover and saw one green eyes peeking up at us. Too late.

“Momma!,” She lunged for her mother. Have to give Shannon credit, she caught all forty pounds of flying three year old deftly in her arms. It’s got to be a Mom thing.

I leaned back against the headboard and watched the two great loves of my life get reacquainted. The matching blonde heads huddled together as they talked and giggled. They say happiness doesn’t find you, you have to look for it. Well…I wasn’t looking but it found me anyway. I was lost in this glow and didn’t notice that the giggles had stopped until I looked up and saw two pairs of green eyes staring at me expectantly.

“What?”

“We’re hungry,” Well that’s a surprise. I wasn’t kidding about the matching appetites. And well…Shannon should be starved after our evening.

JT was the first one off the bed. She took off out the door and I heard her little feet pounding down the steps. Shannon turned to me, I was still in awe of the love I saw in her eyes. She leaned up and kissed me. “I love you,”

“I love you too,” I had told her that over and over again in the night but here in the morning light made it seem more real. I pulled her back against me. My mouth finding hers. Lips parted tongues dancing. My heart was thundering in my chest and other parts had started to throb. I rolled her under me and was well on my way to renewing our passion when she drew back from me.

“Trace,” She whispered breathlessly.

“Yes baby,” I said while attacking the tender flesh across her throat.

“I’m really hungry,” I was hungry too and I continued my assult on her beautiful body.

“For food Trace,” For the record… I do not pout. No matter what she says. She slide out of bed , naked. Which did not help my already over charged libido.

“Come on baby. I’ll make it up to you later,” She leaned over and kissed me again. I watched her get dressed and walk out of the room. She still had a great ass.

****

When I got to the kitchen the scene before me brought me to a stop. Syd was already there leaning against the counter. Shannon had something cooking on the stove. Not sure what it was but it smelled wonderful. JT was sitting up on the counter between both of them. They were all laughing . Looks like Shannon and Syd were going to do just fine. I knew that they would.

I just stood there, watching my girls with my friend. My family , I thought. The family thing brought back that dumb ass cheesy grin. Dawg picked that moment to nudge me.

I looked over to see my buddy smiling at me.

“What made you change your mind Trace?”

“About Shannon?,” So much had changed lately the question did need definition.

She shrugged her broad shoulders. “About Shannon , about love?,”

I threw my arm around her .”Well a good friend of mine once said. “Sometimes you need to take a risk to get the big pay off,” Yea I finally figured out what that meant…
The End

————-
Story #3 The Winter of Discontent
Chapter 1
Shannon and I made it through our first year on the ranch together. It was a learning experience to say the least. First you should know that little kids…really do believe the sun rises and sets on them. That was hard for me as I had been lead to believe it rose and set on me. My mistake. It’s all right, I got over it. I think the hardest part was finding time away from little prying eyes, if you know what I mean. Lucky for me, the woman of my dreams, is brilliant. Just last week…

I pulled my truck into the drive; I knew my family was home. So really the sight of a trail of clothing leading from the drive to the barn peaked my interest. My curiosity getting the better of me, well that and I’m not totally stupid, I followed the trail.

I stopped occasionally to pick up the articles of clothing. First, a pair of red socks. Much to big for a four year old. Next there was one of my flannel shirts. Not surprising really, the women in my life tended to take my clothes a lot. Which reminds me…I need to get new shirts. A very feminine pair of panties followed the shirt. God bless VS. A little further up was its matching bra. Well you get the idea right.

I grabbed the remaining article, yes jeans, and walked into the barn. Now you have to understand a couple things here. First being that Shannon and I while we love our daughter more than life. Well, we get very little alone time. And second, its December and damn cold. Thankfully the barn is heated for foaling.

The sight that greeted me was breath taking. All 5’4 inches of gloriously naked Shannon spread across a soft blanket on a bed of sweet hay. We’ve been together now for just over a year and the woman still knocks me senseless. Well, not that senseless, I was out of my clothes faster then you can say go.

We didn’t say a word to each other, knowing time was of the essence. I slid over her body, feeling her wrap around me. Our lips meeting, passionate and hot. There would be no time for preliminaries this time. But it didn’t seem that Shannon needed them anyway, she was more than ready. We spent the next half-hour driving each other insane until we both flew off that edge. God I love that woman.

So you see my little vixen can be very creative about getting us alone together. I know you’re wondering where JT was. Let’s say Mother’s everywhere know the value of naptime.

Now as you may have noticed, I said it was December. Which means snow and most importantly…Christmas. I was excited about this holiday. Ok I love Christmas, can blame me? Presents. It’s the one time of the year when I actually don’t mind shopping. And I discovered something last year that made it even better. Little kids like toys. And I love the toy store. Of course Shannon vowed she’d never go in one with me again. Hey, I swear that little boy started the whole thing. It’s not my fault.

This year was going to be great. We were going to get our tree, hang our lights and the best part was that Syd and Dawg were going to come across the pond for the holidays. I hadn’t seen my friends since last summer. This year was going to be special the whole family together. Including the new member, well, the new one on the way. Oh yea, should tell you that Syd’s pregnant. And no matter what Dawg says that’s not my fault either.

My loving wife took the little one to see Santa. I wanted to go but someone needed to hold this couch down. You never know when the furniture will get up and move itself around. That’s a big problem in our house. And the frequency has increased of late. Seems every time I leave the house, when I walk back in everything is changed around. Nothing worse then furniture that can’t make up its mind where it wants to be. Frankly I’m tired of running into it, there’s just so much my shins can take. So I thought I’d keep an eye on it. Shannon just rolled her eyes when I told her that. You should follow her lead with that one. Just let it go.
Chapter 2
I wasn’t really sleeping I was just resting my eyes. It’s important to do that now and again, they get tired too. So I didn’t hear the truck pull up the drive. Nor did I hear the door open. I did hear it slam closed however. But I’m not nearly as quick as a four-year-old on a mission. So I wasn’t able to get out of the way of the little body that flung itself across my stomach. As I lay there sucking wind. …

“Hi Trace! I seen Santa!”She was just so cute. Santa is a big deal to a four-year-old.

I pulled the little body closer and whispered. “Did you tell him?”

“Uh huh…A Harley, a black one. Just like you telled me,” Hey…don’t look at me like that. So it’s really for me but I thought it best to have all my bases covered. Maybe Santa can pull some strings with the other blonde.

Speaking of the other blonde, she was leaning against the door jam. Looking very annoyed. For those not in a relationship. That’s not a good thing. Usually means someone, me, is in trouble.

“Hi Honey,” I smiled hoping that it would charm her into a better mood. It didn’t work.

“Don’t honey me. I can’t believe you had a four year old ask Santa for a Harley,” Now I’ve lived with this woman long enough that she should know…this is exactly something I would do. And she did, so there was something else going on but I didn’t get the chance to ask. She just walked off.

So I did what I always do when I’m left clueless. I asked the kid.

“Why is Momma upset?”

She shrugged her little shoulders. “I dunno, I think its cuz she had a fight with Santa’s elf. I’m gonna go play,” And she left me there. Still clueless.

Now my sweet gentle Shannon doesn’t fight. Well not with people in public. That’s something she reserves for me…at home. Where the making up can be held in some sort of privacy. And so the idea of her getting into it with anyone was disturbing. Not as disturbing as the image I had of my fiery blonde going after one of Santa’s elves. I mean…it’s an elf. What can they possibly do to piss off a full grow woman.

So with that picture in my mind I went in search of my beloved wife. Hoping to find an answer to the maddening question. I knew when I walked into the kitchen and saw her slamming the cupboard doors; I should have just left it alone. But no one has ever said I had a lot of sense.

“Honey? What’s wrong”? Not an original opener but hey we had a mystery to solve.

She turned to me; jaw clenched tight, green eyes burning. “I want you to go to the mall,” She said stalking up to me, wrapping her hands in my shirt. “And kill that elf!”She yelled pulling me down to her face.

Ok so obviously the little Christmas elf had committed some grievous error. But I can’t just go around executing elves. Not without reason. And it must have been really bad because Shannon isn’t one prone to violence. Forget about her holding a gun on me, she didn’t shoot so it doesn’t count. So either the elf in question really screwed up or my wife was in the throws of PMS. Now here’s a tip…never …and I do mean never, ask a woman if she just might be over reacting because it’s that time of the month. Just assume the world is wrong and she’s the only sane one left in it. Trust me, it’s just easier.

“Umm..honey?” I choked. “Let go…you’re cutting off the blood flow to my face,”

She did release my shirt, but then buried herself in my arms. Hold tight to my waist. The tell tale sniffing against my shirt told me she was crying. Ok now the evil elf made my Shannon cry; I might just have to kill it anyway.

“Oh Trace she was awful,” She sobbed. It’s a pitiful sight really. Her green eyes all watery, nose all red. Still absolutely gorgeous. We have discussed in the past that I’m not well; you should know this by now.

I sat down on the chair pulling her onto my lap. Amazing but both Mother and child seem to feel better when I can hold them like this. She settled down and sat there laying her head on my shoulder.

“What happened?”

“Oh JT was waiting for her turn with Santa and this woman was talking to me,” Finally were getting to the reason behind all this.

“The elf woman?,” Ok so I needed to clear up some points. Frankly I was still confused.

“Yea. She said it was nice to see all the families coming out this year. And then asked where JT’s father was and why he didn’t come with us,” She sniffed. Personally I thought it was kind of nosy, but then its nowhere USA…enough said.

“Well you know JT nothing phases her,” Ha! That’s the truth. Kid’s far too honest for my own good. “She tells this bitch that she doesn’t have a Daddy, but she has a Trace and that she was home making sure the furniture didn’t move,” See little bit understands too. I knew it wasn’t just me having problems the furniture.

“Uh oh,”

“No kidding. The woman glared at me like I was something evil and disgusting. Started talking under her breath about homos and crap. I just lost it Trace,” She looked up at me with those big green eyes, horrified. “There I was in the middle of the mall yelling at one of Santa’s elves about intolerance and bigots. And she was screaming at me about family and decent folks. Her stupid bells ringing. It was a terrible scene,” She snuggled deeper into my arms.

Now I swear I didn’t mean to but damn…I just couldn’t help myself. I got this vision of Shannon shaking the hell out of the elf, bells jingling, words flying and JT calm as could be sitting on Santa’s lap relating her Christmas list. I had to laugh.

Shannon looked at me totally disbelieving my reaction. And I laughed harder. I tried to hold it in I really did. But the tears burned my eyes. I finally gave up and just went with it.

“Trace it isn’t funny. Her pointed hat flew off. People were standing around staring. Some even took pictures. The candy canes she was holding fell all over the floor. Kids from all over the mall were scrambling to get them. I almost caused a riot. I was so embarrassed,” She pouted, jumping off my lap and stalking to the counter.

Which was bad for me because by this time I had lost all control and fell right on the floor. To hell with dignity, that was just too funny. They say laughter is contagious, and it’s a good thing for me its true. Eventually Shannon started chuckling, and then lost her own composure.

It took ten minutes to get ourselves back under control. Both of us with tears streaming down our faces. I wrapped my arms around her sweet body and kissed her blonde head.

“Well…I’m not sure my killing her can top what’s already been done baby,”

“I guess you’re right,” She giggled.

I was pleased that the situation was diffused. The idea of committing elf homicide just wasn’t very festive. I mean…killing an elf at Christmas time most likely holds some pretty stiff penalties. That’s probably where they got the guy to play Santa. He’s last year’s elf killer.
Chapter 3
Ok I know they’re my friends but Shannon has become close with them as well. So I didn’t see why it was my duty to pick them up at the airport. I did have other things to do. But…here I am because as we know…I like being able to sleep in my own bed at night; JT kicks in her sleep. So I’m waiting in a crowded airport having left the child to the ever-important furniture-sitting job.

Have you ever noticed that people in an airport at holiday time are really not all there? I know that’s quite an observation coming from me. But really, you have young couples standing at the luggage carousel waiting for their bags. And you just know that she’s taking him home for the first time to meet the folks. You can tell that because he’s fidgeting and she’s going over the names of all the relatives he’s going to meet. And the poor guy is becoming increasingly pale. A cold sweat has broken out on his forehead. And his eyes started darting around looking for an escape route.

Then you have other couples, the more established ones, with children in tow. The kids are screaming because they didn’t get any sleep on the flight. Mom looks worn to a frazzle and Dad is carrying 3 bags all filled with gifts and has a carrier strapped to his shoulder dragging another three bags behind him. He is also looking for an escape route. Watching them I decided that we were never flying anywhere, at least until JT was far into her teens. That thought brings home a whole other kind of horror but we aren’t going to think about that right now.

I think my favorite people to watch were the businessmen. You know the guys in rumpled suits carrying a single overnight bad and a briefcase. They dodge the around the crying kids, avoid Mom like the plague and barely scrape by Dad and his luggage train. They duck out of the way of the young man who is a sickly shade of green. These are they guys who find the escape route.

I was pretty lost in my people watching so I didn’t notice my friend’s arrival. Well not until Dawg picked me up from behind and swung me like a child in circles. It’s totally embarrassing that she can do that. She only put me down when Syd smacked her and ordered it. Never argue with a pregnant woman who has been on an airplane for over 20 hours.

“Damn Dawg people are staring here,” I never blush just put that thought right out of your minds.

“It’s good to see you too sunshine,”

They looked great. Well Dawg looked great, Syd was kind of green…like the kid by the baggage. And huge!…ok even I know you don’t tell a pregnant woman that. Give me some credit.

“Syd you look fantastic,” I wasn’t lying she really did, once you got past the green thing.

“Thanks Trace you lie well, Shannon would be proud,” She laughed hugging me tight.

“Where is your other and better looking half?” Dawg asked grinning.

“Home, she had some last minute things to take care of,”

“Why didn’t you bring the little darling?” Syd questioned. Syd loved JT, fell in love with that little blonde tornado on day one and it was a mutual affection. It was also why Dawg blamed me for Syd’s current condition. She reasoned that if I had never met Shannon and Shannon had never had a kid. Then of course Syd would never have fallen in love with the little beast and hence…she wouldn’t have wanted one of her own. I didn’t say it was a logical reason.

“She’s at home watching the furniture,” Ok so yes they too looked at me like I had suddenly sprouted a second head. “You’ll see what I mean. Just pay attention when you walk back into the house for any reason,” I warned.

We made quick work of getting the bags and getting out of the congested airport. I had been paying close attention to the businessmen, just followed their lead. The ride home was smooth. Well…if you don’t count the 5 times we had to stop so Syd could use a restroom.

“Does this happen all the time?” I questioned Dawg who was sitting in the back seat as we waited yet again for Syd to do her thing.

“Yea…more lately. I actually was concerned until the Doc told me it was normal. Didn’t seem normal to me. A grown woman shouldn’t have a bladder the size of a walnut,” She sighed.

I just agreed, what else could I do. I wasn’t there for Shannon’s pregnancy, something that still hurt to think about. So really I knew nothing about the phenomenon.

We finally managed to make it home. JT was out the door like a shot, racing out to the truck to see the other woman she worshipped. Besides Shannon and me. No matter what we tried she was still leery of Dawg. She skidded to a halt when she saw Syd.

“Whoa…Syd you got fat!”Ok so no one told the kid the rule about that.

Shannon luckily came up behind. “No honey Syd’s going to have a baby, remember?” She explained to our bewildered child.

“How’d it get inside?” She question looking at Syd’s protruding tummy.

Shannon gave me a beseeching look. Yea right!

“No way…I’ll teach her to drive. This ones all yours,” I picked up the bags and headed for the house, Dawg right on my heels. Neither of us willing to venture into that one.
Chapter 4
Now I’m not prone to sudden bouts of sentiment or anything like that. But that evening after we had tucked our little one into bed and it was just the four of us sitting in the living room. The scene struck me. Dawg was leaning back against the arm of the sofa; Syd was settled back against her chest. My big, butch friend had her arms around the rounded belly of her lover. Softly stroking, circling. Like she was comforting the baby within.

The room was lit with just the glow of the fire and few candles. The light flickered in Syd’s gentle hazel eyes. It cast a warm shadow over her features. They say that pregnant women glow. I thought they really meant sweat but that’s not it. Syd had this look of absolute serenity about her. There was something in her eyes, in her smile, something beyond what us mere mortals have. I found myself wondering if she knew a secret that the rest of us could only guess at. She looked at peace. For the first time in our friendship…I envied Dawg. I would have given anything to see that same look on Shannon’s face. I missed that part; I wasn’t there for the miracle of bringing JT into the world. There are just some things you can never get back.

Dawg was a study in contrasts. See on the outside, the part that she showed the world, all you saw was this butch woman. No fear, no insecurities, all dry wit and sarcasm. Her demeanor made you think that Syd’s pregnancy was just another event in life. But sitting there watching the two, I saw something in her as well. Her soft brown eyes had a spark that was never there before. She looked at Syd with adoration and awe. Holding her partner like she was the most precious thing in the universe. The unconscious stroking of Syd’s tummy, well…I took it as a sort of silent communication. Her connection to the life growing there. No matter what Dawg said. This baby meant as much to her as it did to Syd, if not more.

Anyway it was one of those moments you put away and pull out to look at later, when you need to find a peaceful minute or a reason to push harder. However, later I discovered I should have been paying closer attention to Shannon. I would have been prepared for the conversation then…Maybe.

I lay there wrapped around my lover, slowly drifting off to sleep. The room was dark and the house quiet. Snow falling gently outside. A true Hallmark moment.

“Trace?”

“Huh?” I tried to economize my words hoping this would be short and I could go back to sleep.

“Syd looked beautiful tonight huh?”

“Uh huh,” Sleep…sleep…sleep.

“What do you think about having another baby?”

“What?!”Ok wide-awake now.

She turned her body over in my arms, still snuggled against me. “Another baby Trace. You know like JT only smaller,”

“What’s wrong with the one we have?” Smaller? Geezz the kids a shrimp do they get smaller?

“There’s nothing wrong with her,” She stated.

“Well then why replace her? We just got this model broken in,” For those out there who have never dealt with the ticking of a woman’s biological clock. This argument does not work.

She rose up and smacked me in the shoulder. “Not replacing her you duffus. Having another baby, a little brother or sister for her to play with,”

“Ummm… And when, where, how?” I wondered if this wasn’t just a by productive of having Syd around. Or if maybe she really was in the throws of PMS. In either case I felt it best to indulge her for the moment.

“Well.”She began, moving over to her back facing up to the ceiling. Something she does when in thought. “I had the last one…”She let the statement hang.

No Fucking way! “No fucking way!”At least my mind and mouth were in sync this time.

“I was kidding honey,” She laughed. Thank the Goddess. “Having a little Trace would be great but…I don’t think the world is ready for two of you. But I wouldn’t mind having another,” Her voice hopeful.

Now I really wasn’t ready for this conversation. And while the idea of a pregnant Shannon appealed to me in some ways. The thought of a tiny little life, all new and helpless…well…that terrified me.

“Lets get through the holidays Shan. Then maybe we can think about it. But I’m not sure I really want to have another,”

“Promise you’ll think about it Trace.”She pleaded.

“Sure babe,” Like I had a choice. You never spring something like that on a person who is laying in the dark, with hours to just contemplate things. Needless to say…I didn’t get much sleep. And for some reason had an over whelming urge to wake Dawg and tell her this…was her fault.
Chapter 5
“Trace the trees not straight,” My ever so observant wife offered. Of course she did that from over in the corner, while Dawg and I wrestled the huge pine into the stand.

“Honey, neither are we. It fits right in,”

“Trace it needs to be straight or it won’t look right,” Ok …I’ve had it with holiday stuff. I just wanted toys, but did I get that…no. Here I am fighting with a tree, a tree mind you.

“JT! Get the secret weapon,” I sent the child after the one thing that would fix this problem quickly and allow me to have dinner before I starve to death. See we had already cut, folded, spindled and mutilated…it still didn’t fit right in the stand.

JT came barreling back into the living room narrowly missing the coffee table, which had move across the room once again while we were out getting the stupid tree to begin with.

“Here Trace,” She said handing me…the duct tape. Hey…it has many uses.

“Aright!”Dawg shouted. See…she knows the many uses as well.

We just went about our tree fixing, ignoring the concerned looks our wives were giving us. I was right; in record time we had that puppy up sitting there as pretty as you please. Never mind that the back was taped to the wall. Hey at least that way I was assured it wouldn’t be getting up and wandering around.

“Well…what do you think little bit?” I asked my buddy, picking her up so she could get the full effect. She wrapped her slender arms around my neck and laid her golden head on my shoulder.

“It’ll be better with presents,”

Hey you can’t argue that logic. And with that all settled we went off to raid the kitchen. Of course would we be allowed to eat in peace? Hell no…we have el Prego and her side kick…she demon…the hormone twins, to deal with.

“Trace!”

“Dawg!”Oh simultaneous screeching.

“Yes”We answered in unison. Neither of us brave enough to actually go out there and see what they wanted. We’re not stupid…that most likely will lead to more work. And I already smell like a car air freshener.

You know when they yell like that you should just go out there, because if you don’t..they come and get you. We were making our sandwiches when JT looked up.

“Uh oh…Momma I just did like Trace ask me to,” The little traitor. You know if I were 3 feet tall and had those dimples I could get away with murder too.

“Its all right baby, Momma knows you were just influenced by the big dumb barbarians,” My once sweet wife cooed as she picked our child up off the counter. “Why don’t you go play in your room,”

“Oh sure, she gets sent to play and I get to hear about the evils of duct tape. Life’s not fair.”Ok whining probably isn’t going to help but it was worth a try.

“Trace she’s four,”

“Ha! She might only be four but who do you think gave us the idea to tape the tree to the wall in the first place?”

“Oh no,” She whimpered. “You’ve turned her into one of you,” She moaned, burying herself in my arms. Guess I’m not in that much trouble.

“Well…at least its straight now,” Dawg offered shrugging her broad shoulders. Ever so helpful she is. Syd smacked her in the head.

“Hey, honey don’t do that, you might give me brain damage,” She complained rubbing her head.

“To late”Her wife shot back at her. Then reached over and took her sandwich.

I laughed at the shocked look on Dawg’s face, until Shannon snatched mine as well and took off with it.

“Fine! I’m going to take a shower.”I had enough of hormonal, sandwich stealing women. Ok so I was cranky, I had pine pitch in places it shouldn’t be and there was an obvious lack of appreciation for my fix it skills.

You know, truth be told, I’m being unreasonable. I know shocked me too. But its true, I think I still have the baby conversation stuck in my tiny mind. Well, and when I had finally fallen asleep last night. I was awakened by a nightmare of a thirty-foot infant chasing me around the ranch. And it needed a diaper change.

So that’s what led me to the shower. And standing there I realized that…hot water is good for many things. Like washing away pine pitch and bad dreams. Of course the compact, tight body naked and pressed against my back was helpful as well. She washed away all my worries with her small hands. Caressing my breasts, teasing nipples to stiff peaks. Slick and wet sliding over my hips and down my thighs. She ran her tongue down my spine and chased away all other forms of thought.

Her tongue continued its torturous path. Down the back of my thighs and then retracing its journey adding a tender bite to my cheek. The lower one. I had to place my hands on the wall, I only have two legs and neither was working well. She gently nudged my legs apart and slid, without a word, to her knees. I felt the sharp nip to my hip and gasped, looking down to see her blond head poised at my sex. She ran that sweet tongue through the slick folds, a shock ripping through my body forcing my eyes closed and a long moan to escape me.

Her hungry mouth tasted, explored, devoured. She was relentless and I was helpless against her. Like I was going to make her stop. Ha! She drove her tongue deeper, stroking me harder, as she slipped her hands up over my taut stomach finally resting on my breasts. Fingers used to torture hardened nipples as she sucked me into her mouth and I felt myself throb against her tongue. It could have been an eternity or just a second, time had lost meaning. I moved against her begging her to take me higher.

My knees grew weaker, breath harsher, I knew I wouldn’t last much longer and I pleaded with her to take me over. I heard her moan, my words exciting her as well. And she gently bit down on my swollen nub. I screamed her name as the world shattered. Shards of light speeding through the darkness behind my eyes. I felt her release me and help me slide to the floor unable to stand on my own anymore. We lay there with the water beating down on us. Wrapped in each other’s arms.

“I love you Trace,” She whispered against my chest. If I could have spoken I would have, but I couldn’t so I kissed her instead. And damned if I could remember why I had been so upset in the first place.
Chapter 6
The next few days progressed well. Well, they went as could be expected when you have mysterious moving furniture, a pregnant woman and a four-year-old filled with the excitement of Santa’s arrival. Truth is…it was the last one that gave the most trouble.

You ever see a four-year-old child waiting for Christmas? It’s not pretty. Kind of like a junkie waiting for its next fix. She didn’t sit still, she couldn’t sleep, she worried and wondered constantly about whether Santa would find the house and leave the right stuff. The kid must have inspected our chimney ten times in one day. She had to make sure it was clear so Santa could get down. I just hoped Santa could get my Harley under the tree.

Finally, just to give us all a break, Shannon took JT to the day care center for the afternoon. Which was a great idea because it gave us all a much-needed nap and some time to finish putting together some of her gifts. Anyone want to tell me why someone would box up three hundred loose pieces, toss in some instructions in Greek and call it a toy? Dawg and I spent our naptime putting that monstrosity together. And when we finished it was either a dollhouse or a missile silo. We just weren’t sure. In either case we hid it in the spare room and awaited the return of small, blonde and holiday demented.

What greeted us was not the same child we sent out into the world. It was quiet, and for JT that’s not normal. She immediately went up to her room to play and never once checked the chimney. When dinner rolled around she was still sullen. Her little green eyes look a touch glassy and I could see her nose was red; I thought she had been crying. Having seen the same adorable signs on her Mother. But Shannon was convinced it was a cold.

“Can I be ‘scuzed?” The little one asked quietly. I had been watching her push her dinner around on her plate for fifteen minutes.

Shannon gave her permission and we all watched the tiny form go back up the stairs to her room.

“Shan?”

“I’m going Trace,” By now we all knew something was up. This is the tough part of parenting. You feel helpless when they hurt or get sick. When she had the flu last year I was a wreck.

I waited about all I could stand before I mounted those steps myself, followed by Dawg and Syd who were just as worried. When we got to the bedroom door we stopped and surveyed the scene. There was Shannon holding a tiny, quivering body, tears streaming down her beautiful face. Let me tell you that nothing moves you faster then both of the loves in your life in tears.

I sat on the bed and wrapped them both in my arms. “Ok what’s going on?”

JT looked up at me with huge tear filled eyes. It was pitiful.

“Bobby sez Santa’s not real,” She sobbed. I glanced at Shannon whose face mirrored her daughters. Her tears, I knew were for the loss of some of JT’s innocence. It hurt me to think that someone was going to spoil our little girl’s childhood dreams so quickly.

“Bobby’s an idiot,” I told her.

“His big brother telled him Trace. Said only babies think Santa brings presents,”

“Well then his brother is an idiot too. Didn’t I just have you ask Santa for my…umm well…you know”? I winked.

“You was just teasin,” She sighed dejectedly.

Oh boy. I was at a loss this time. Usually what I say..she agrees with. I was faced with two heart breaking situations. One…JT’s way to young to stop believing in Santa. Hell I’m, not entirely sure I’ve stopped believing yet. And two, her Mother was crushed. She was nowhere near ready to let JT grow up this fast. Believe it or not, help came from a very unlikely source.

“Trace…come talk to me for a sec.”Dawg called from the door. I didn’t miss the wink she gave her wife as we passed.

She took me into their room and pushed me down on the bed. Get the idea out of your head. We’re friends. Anyway, she reached into the closet and pulled out a brightly wrapped box and handed it to me.

“I think you might need this before Christmas,” She stated.

I was bewildered. Not an uncommon thing but what this and the situation in the other room had to do with one another was beyond me. But like any good present receiver…I ripped it open.

Ok there’s some explanation that I need to give here. I collect things. Not heads or anything but well, I collect books, letters, old stuff. I always have. They gave me a sense of history. Really I didn’t think anyone noticed that, expect Shannon. Seems my buddy Dawg knew that little fact as well.

I sat there staring at the perfect answer to our little problem. I told Dawg to take it down stairs and I would get the kid. Of course that was after I grabbed the big lug up in a hug and kissed her blushing cheek.

Once I had my little family gathered in the living room and JT settled on my lap. I had Dawg hand me the large framed gift. Pressed behind glass, framed in oak, was an original copy of the editorial page of the New York Sun. Dated…1897

“Do you know what this is little bit?” I asked the little blonde on my lap.

“A really old paper,”

“Yup a very old newspaper. But this ones special you see. Because once there was a little girl, who ask the same questions about Santa you did,”

“She asked who?”

“The people who wrote the paper, you know, the grown ups who know all about the news and stuff,” She nodded her little head in understanding.

“Ok so do you want to know what they said about Santa all those years ago?” Again she nodded.

Editor: Francis P. Church

We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:
Dear Editor— I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.”Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O’Hanlon

“She really ask that Trace?”

“Yes she did. You want to hear the answer?” She snuggled closer to me as I read the famous reply.

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except what they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

JT looked at me slightly bewildered.

“That means even grown ups sometimes can be stupid and not believe in things just because we can’t see them,” I explained. Receiving a nod, I continued.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to have men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

“Just ‘cuz you don’t see it, don’t mean it’s not there,” She whispered. Her understanding of the piece of literature was amazing.

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world, which neither the strongest men, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernatural beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else more real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

When I finished I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes. Dawg had her arms wrapped around her wife and child, both crying quietly. Shannon stared at me with her green eyes glistening, a look of complete love and adoration on her face. A look that meant I had done well. The best sight to greet me as I gazed at my little family was JT’s smile. Her little dimples on her little cheeks letting me know that she understood and accepted the words written so long ago.

“I love you Trace,” She said her tiny arms secure around my neck. “Bobby’s an idiot,”

“Yup,” I had to agree. Bobby was going to grow up one of those narrow-minded people, who hate their jobs and only live life from the outside. But maybe, just maybe, my little bit here will keep that innocence, that thing that makes great things happen, that spark of childhood.
Chapter 7
We were finally 4 days out from the big one. JT was once again in hyper mode. Only this time…it didn’t matter. Personally I would have climbed up the chimney myself if she had asked. I was just thrilled she still believed. And just as a reminder, I hung that old bit of newsprint in her room. It seemed like the right place for it.

You know life never goes according to plan. Especially around the holidays. So it came as no shock when Shannon announced she needed to go to the mall again. I was truly blessed when Dawg agreed to go with her. I think she’d had enough of her wife. Syd hadn’t been feeling really well the last day or so and it was taking its toll.

So I sent them off. If I had known it was going to be into a blizzard I probably would have insisted they stay. But hell…I’m not a weather forecaster. But it was really starting to pile up out there and they had only been gone a couple hours. I really hoped they made it home before it got to deep. Living in the sticks it isn’t like the roads are going to get plowed anytime soon.

I sat there in the chair watching the snowfall, lost in my worries. And I heard it.

“Trace!”

Hmm…not JT it was to low and Shannon was still gone so…it had to be Syd. I was contemplating answering when JT ran into the room arms flailing…

“You gotta come quick,” She yelled and then ran back out. You have got to love the way little kids display panic.

I ran up the steps and found Syd in the bathroom sitting there in a pool of what I can only describe as primordial ooze.

“Eww gross,” Well it was.

“My water broke Trace, it’s not gross,” That was her opinion. It took a second for the ‘water breaking’ thing to sink in.

“Oh no way Syd! You have to wait till Dawg gets back,” I was emphatic about that. Unfortunately…she wasn’t listening.

“Trace God Damn it! Help me up,” So I waded in through the ooze and helped her stand. I had just gotten her to her feet when a contraction hit and she latched onto my arm. I don’t know which of us screamed louder but she took flesh with her, I know she did.

“Syd it’s to early to have this baby. So stop it!”I ordered. Even JT looked at me like I was stupid.

“Get the phone little bit,” I sent JT out of the room and scooped Syd up and stumbled to the nearest bed. Which unfortunately was mine. But hey…you try carrying a pregnant woman.

I had her settled as best I could for all her screaming and cussing. She said words I never knew existed and named off things I could do with myself that I know are not anatomically possible. For some reason I thought birth would take longer. And in between contractions I stated that fact to Syd. Who kicked me in the head and told me her mother and sisters had all delivered quickly. Now’s a good time to let me know that.

JT came back with the phone and to her credit my smart little angel also brought the phone book. And leaving the little one to Syd, I quickly looked up and dialed a Doc near town. Who promptly told me that we needed to call 911. Well…duh. And the way this was going the kid would be walking before the ambulance got there. I would have bent his ear a little more but Syd’s screaming made it hard to concentrate.

JT is a little trooper; she stood at Syd’s head telling her it would be ok. Now if she would come over here and tell me that things would be fine. But no …I had to talk to Doris the 911 operator, who by the way had been through four births of her own and had the gall to tell me…I needed to calm down.

“I can’t calm down..didn’t you hear me?! She’s having a baby!”The woman was insufferable. Probably because she just kept laughing.

“Yes I know women have babies everyday. But not on my bed they don’t!”

“Hey this baby is not my fault!”Damn woman must have talked to Dawg.

“Fine …yes I can do that,”

I looked to Syd who was grimacing; I guessed that wasn’t a good thing. It didn’t look like a good thing. But at least she wasn’t screaming.

“Trace! I need to push,” Oh no.

“No no pushing. Pushing makes the baby come. No baby coming out, you have to wait,” Yes I was panicking.

And so…she pushed anyway. And to my utter dismay and against my will I was forced to look in a place that I shouldn’t be looking. Well not on anyone but Shannon. You know there are some things best left private between friends.

“Jesus Trace its not like you haven’t seen it all before,” Oh she was trying to be logical but she wasn’t the one down here.

“Syd it’s not the same. Well’ its kind of the same but..”I whined.

“Trace…shut up,” Just then she drew in a long breath and. …screamed…at the top of her lungs. JT covered her ears. The paint on the house peeled. Dogs from 20 miles away hid under their porches. Then the most amazing thing happened…something the size of a grapefruit was peeking out of that place I was trying not to look at.

“Hey I think I see the head,” I know…duh. Shut up.

“I’m going to kill Dawg!”She yelled. And at this moment I was more then happy to agree to help her. We went on like this for what I was sure was an eternity. Which I later found out was fifteen minutes. But still the longest fifteen minutes of my life. Syd would scream and push, JT would cover her ears and look at me like I should fix it. I didn’t think duct tape was the answer here. Well…in any case it was to late to just tape her shut.

Finally the head popped out. I know that sounds strange but it did. Just pop! Kind of cool if you could ignore all the gore. Now through this all I still had the Mother of four on the phone telling me what to do. You didn’t really think I was flying solo here did you? Ha! And the woman wanted me to support the baby’s head. Which meant getting even closer to the forbidden place. So I turned my head and just slipped my hand under the little dark grapefruit.

You know, it’s very lucky that childbirth is a natural thing. The body says push and you do. And so Syd just followed what her body told her. Which at this point I’m sure it was screaming. “Get this damn thing out of me!,” ..At least that’s what Syd was screaming as she pushed again.

To my surprise little tiny shoulders slipped right out, followed by the rest of a long body. And Syd fell back on the bed with a huge relieved sigh. JT was there, her job to place cool rags on Syd’s head. She was doing a great job.

I had the rough part I had to pick up the baby and place it on Syd’s tummy until the paramedics got there to cut the cord. Well…had to pinch the damn thing off first. Easy enough…we used the string from JT’s yoyo. And I laid the screaming child on her…yes her…Mother’s belly.

I sat back and gazed at the miracle of life. JT looking on in awe. Syd smiling sweetly. The baby…well…have you ever seen a newborn child? They look something like a cross between a hairless Sharpei and a lizard with a skin condition, and multi-colored. This one was bluish with a little pink and purple thrown in for good measure. It was slimy and yet had scales. At the same time. And the darkest head of hair you had ever seen. And lots of it.

You know timing is everything and neither my wife nor Dawg had any. As we sat there watching the little critter turn colors…mostly pinkish now, they finally arrived. Well, they got there at the same time the ambulance pulled up.

I heard the door bust open and JT took off to tell her Mother what had happened. I stood up and got the hell out of the way, more then ready to let professionals take over this little exercise in terror. Dawg was in the room first though. Stopping dead in her tracks when she spotted Syd lying there with the baby on her stomach.

“Congratulations! It’s a puppy-lizard,” I said smacking her on the back and moving off to find my wife and just pass out in her arms.

That wasn’t meant to be however, as JT dragged her Mother into the room to show her the newborn. I don’t see the big deal here. Ok…yes the miracle of birth was not lost on me and I’m sure later, when I’ve had a chance to processes everything I’ll break down and ball like a baby. But its fuzzy, wrinkled and has scales. And my wife, who I’m sure has 20/20 vision, calls it beautiful.

I gave up. I left and went down to the living room and waited for the madness to end. I watched and waved as the paramedics took Syd and the baby out on a stretcher. Dawg following behind them talking to Shannon. JT climbed onto my lap and snuggled me. Which is what I needed.

When they had all gone, with the exception of Shannon who stayed to care for me during my soon to be nervous breakdown. She sat next to me and laid her head on my shoulder.

“Isn’t it wonderful Trace?”

Was she insane? “Yea sure,” If she was insane I thought it best not to provoke her. And she leaned up and kissed me. Long and deep. The kind that leaves you breathless and wanting more.

“I love you…you did great,” She whispered against my lips.

“I helped”JT said, making sure we knew I wasn’t alone in this.

“Yup you did little bit,”

“They’re naming her Allison. I told Dawg we would go up tonight and see them,”

She might have said more, I don’t know. I drifted off there. JT nestled against my chest and my beautiful Shannon wrapped around me. And for now…life was peaceful.
Chapter 8
By the time we made it home from seeing Syd and the puppy, it was way past my bedtime. I have to tell you, the baby wasn’t looking much better. I was really beginning to think the kid was doomed to look like a squished, scaly puppy. Shannon assures me they get better looking. I really hope so. I can’t think of a good way to tell Dawg her kid is ugly.

I followed my wife into the house, watching her little butt in front of me. Hey I may have been tired but I’m not blind. Besides, it really is worth looking at. So anyway she was carrying the kid, who was doing her best imitation being boneless. Little kids become boneless when they’re asleep. It’s a scientific fact. She took the sleeping blonde upstairs and left me standing there.

It was quiet now. You would never know that just hours before we had delivered a baby and had people all over, yelling and screaming. The bags from Shannon’s shopping trip were still in the hall. As was a newspaper one of them must have picked up while they were out. I grabbed the paper and headed to the living room. Kicked off my boots and settled back to enjoy the quiet.

I flipped open the paper and staring right back at me from the front page…was Shannon. Not just Shannon, but Shannon and an elf. My sweet wife had a hold of the elf’s collar, shaking the hell out of the woman. There were indeed candy canes all over the floor. And the kids really did scramble to get them. And in the back of this chaos…sat our daughter on Santa’s knee. The headline read…Mother Manhandles Nosy Elf…

Oh it wasn’t just artwork, they had an article to go along with it. Some bull about how Christmas has become so commercial so on and so on. In any case, there was my family…front page news. Now I could have just ignored this. I could have kept it from Shannon. But…where’s the fun in that. We all know I’m not right…let it go.

So my beautiful, blonde, goddess like wife, headed back down the stairs and promptly snuggled against me. I smiled at her. She smiled back. I Grinned. She smacked me.

“What’s the grin for? Did you get into the gifts again?” She’s so suspicious. Geezz…one time I got into them.

“No,” I just kept grinning.

“Trace you’re making me nervous. What’s the matter with you?”

“Nothing,” I said innocently. Hey I can look innocent when I have to.

“Uh huh,” She just kept eyeing me.

I reached over to the coffee table and picked up a pen. Then pulling the paper out from under the couch. Still grinning I handed both items to her.

“Can I have your autograph?”

She looked down at the paper and it took a full minute for the picture to register. Her face went from a look of complete confusion to shock to out right full-blown red embarrassment. She looked up at me, her eyes filled with abject horror.

“Oh God Trace,” She gasped. Her complexion reddening further. I was pretty sure she was going to go up in flames soon.

“It’s a good picture honey. I think they really caught you in a good light. See they even got that little vein in your forehead that throbs when you get mad,” I said pointing out the aforementioned. “And JT looks awesome back there on Santa’s lap,” She was not amused. I could tell this because she rolled the paper up and started beating me with it.

“Trace…this is not funny,” She said in-between smacking me. “I. Am. Not. A. Violent. Person!”She enunciated each word, driving it home with another whack with the paper. Oh yea I was convinced. Not!

“Honey…umm?” She looked completely devastated when she realized what she was doing. Her green eyes filled with tears and I felt like a heel for being mean about the whole thing. Well…except the part where she beat me with the paper. I just pulled her onto my lap and held her while she cried. I’ve said it before. It’s the only thing to do when faced with an emotional woman.

It took some time but she regained herself but stayed snuggled in my arms. Like I minded. I loved the feel of her against me.

“Better?”

“Uh huh”

“It’s not so bad Shan. No one is going to care about some stupid article in a back woods paper,” I tried to reassure her.

“I hope not. I wouldn’t be able to face people if they all saw it,” She sniffed.

“What people? The people here? Come on Shan, the people here would probably pat you on the back for doing what they wish they could do. Do you know how many Mother’s out there probably wish they could take a whack at one of those Mall elves?” She chuckled, a good sign.

“You’re right. It’s no big deal,” She finally agreed.

“Good. Let’s go to bed bruiser,” That earned me one last whack but she followed me anyway.

I was pretty sure things were back to normal when I went to bed. That’ll teach me to think. I woke up in the night to the sounds of scraping coming from downstairs. I reached over to wake Shannon but found her already gone. So I was forced to get up and check the noise out myself.

I stumbled downstairs in my Taz boxers and bunny slippers. I peeked around the corner of the hall into the living room and there before me was the solution to a mystery that had plagued me for weeks.

Shannon was moving the furniture. I watched as she totally rearranged the room. All but the Christmas tree, which was still taped to the wall. I had suspected for some time that my wife was doing this. But I thought it was something she was doing just to torture me. As I stood there in the dim light I realized that when Shannon has something on her mind, she finds something to keep herself busy while she works it out. I do that too. But for me it’s more like taking a drive or going for a run.

I left her there, lost in her thoughts as she uprooted the furniture from its current home and relocated it. Best not to get involved in that.
Chapter 9
Christmas Eve should be the one time you are legally allowed to drug your children. If you’ve never seen a small child the day before Santa makes his visit…you’re lucky. I said before it’s a lot like looking at a little crack addict; it gets worse. Little eyes glaze over, nothing you say to them seems to register, they literally vibrate. I mean it…it would be a fantastic phenomenon if it weren’t happening in your house.

Luckily my wife’s a genius. Well, and she’s been through this before. So she had our little darling in the kitchen making cookies to leave for the big guy. My job was to do the last minute wrapping. Now let me tell you, my wrapping skills are right up there with my cooking skills, non-existent. But I was doing my best and had only managed to tape myself to the bed once. Hey…that’s good for me. Of course that would be the time Shannon had come up to check on me.

“Trace, what are you doing?” A silly question I thought, considering she’s the one who sent me up here to do this. Perhaps she was just questioning the twelve feet of red and silver paper I had rolled out on the floor. Or the bows I had stuck to it.

“I’m wrapping Shan,” I was fairly proud of my progress. I’d only been up here an hour and I was more then half way through the remaining pile of gifts.

“Trace you don’t need that much paper to wrap a Barbie Doll. And the bow goes on after you have it wrapped,”

“Who’s doing this?” It was my project; she needed to go back to her cookies. I picked up the pink box containing the doll and placed it in the middle of my paper.

“Okay…it’s all yours,” Finally!

“Why are we giving her a Barbie Doll anyway? Isn’t this just going to damage her psychologically? I mean…no one can live up to this ideal,” It was a question that had plagued me when we bought the little frilly, way to perfect toy. I had wanted to give her the WWF Chyna action figure. Shannon was not amuse.

“All little girls need to have at least one Barbie. Didn’t you have one when you were little?,”

“Yes. But she met with an untimely demise when the jeep she was driving struck a land mind and blew up. She had inadvertently driven into a war zone. Took both my G.I. Joes and a whole team of little green army men to find all the pieces,” It’s true. The perky blonde should have stayed in the mansion but you know Babs, she thinks she can do it all. Ha! That little M-80 fixed her.

Shannon just shook her head and left me there in my sea of ribbons and paper. Which was fine, and I took out the little pink Harley and wrapped it up with the doll. Hey…if JT was going to play with Barbie, it was going to be Butch Barbie.

Putting a child to bed on Christmas Eve is a lot like a war. You need an act of congress and full senate approval. And a threat or two doesn’t hurt either. JT may only be four, but she’s a smart four. I swear the kid can come up with more reasons not to do something than…well than me. But after checking the cookies 3 times, and 2 trips to the bathroom, and a glass of water she was finally all snug in her bed.

It took another 3 hours to get all the gifts under the tree and Shannon and I to get into bed. But we made it there. Now all we had to do was wait for JT to come in and wake us up. I wondered for a minute if Shannon had told her that we weren’t opening gifts until Dawg and Syd got there. They would be coming by right after Syd and the puppy was released from the hospital. Oh well…she’ll get over it…right?
Chapter 10
Bright sunlight filtered in through the window, waking me. Two things struck me as odd right off the bat. The first being, that JT wasn’t up before the dawn trying to force us out of bed. The second, and by far the most disconcerting, was Dawg standing at the end of the bed staring at us.

“Merry Christmas!”Oh she always was far too cheerful in the morning.

“Yup,”

“Come on sunshine you’ve gotta see this,” She said pulling the covers off our warm, nude bodies.

“Hey!”Shannon screamed when the cool air hit her naked butt. Dawg, being Dawg, just leered. I finally had to smack her with a pillow.

“You have one of your own,” She did, Syd was right downstairs. At least I hoped she was.

“Yea but mine hasn’t looked like that for a few months,” She commented, still ogling my wife’s behind.

Shannon pulled the sheet off the bed and wrapped it around herself. Then marched up to my tall friend and poked her in the chest. “I’m going to tell her you said that,”

Dawg isn’t stupid; she knew enough to be afraid. I watched her pale slightly and swallow hard. “Umm…Sorry?” She offered sheepishly.

“Yea yea…what is it we need to see?”

“Oh yea! Come on…this is just to cute,” And she took off out the door like we were supposed to follow. I felt like we were in an episode of Lassie.

It took a few more minutes but we managed to get dressed. Well Shannon made us get dressed; I was just going to go down in my slippers and boxers. When we got down the steps I just stood there. The tree was lit and the fire was going. Snow was falling gently out side; visible from the front window. Syd was sitting in the old rocker beside the fireplace with the puppy wrapped in a blanket, tucked into her arms. She was radiant.

I looked around the room and felt…content. And then I saw it…the reason Dawg had dragged us out of bed. Under the tree, among the gifts, was a little lump. Wrapped in her blanket JT had crawled under there and was fast asleep. The little imp must have gotten up sometime in the night. One of our demented friends had stuck a bow on her tiny butt. The sight had Shannon running for the camera.

After the pictures were taken, you need those things to torture them with later; I decided to wake the sleeping gift.

“Hey little bit,” I shook her gently. Her sleepy green eyes opened and she struggled to focus.

“M’rry Chris’mas Trace,” She yawned.

I picked her up and cradled her little body in my arms. Kissing the blonde head. “What were you doing under there?”

“I forgot your present,” She said holding up folded sheet of construction paper.

“Is this for me?” She nodded as I sat with her in my lap. I opened the gift gently. You had to it was taped up tight…with duct tape. Once I managed to get it open I unfolded it. And there drawn on this paper was something that was akin to a stick figure horse only it had sort of lopsided circles where the legs should be and antlers. But I knew what it was. It was black and silver and I knew. She had given me my Harley.

“My bike!”I said smiling at her. She was thrilled I knew what it was. Her little eyes lit up and she nodded. I hugged her tight. “Thank you,”

“Welcome. I didn’t think Santa would get a real one in his sleigh,” She explained.

“Well…this one is better,” And it was…my gift from…my gift.

Shannon leaned over and kissed my cheek. Tears shimmering in her eyes. I guess I wasn’t dry-eyed either. You know sometimes the things we think we want are nothing when you compare them to the things you already have.

But the peaceful moment didn’t last long and before you knew it the gifts were shredded. Paper was everywhere. JT had bows stuck to her entire body. Quite frankly…it was a great morning. Shannon got to hold the puppy while Syd opened her own gifts. I’m not sure that was a good thing. She got this far-away look on her face. I knew that “baby”talk was going to happen again.

I looked over at the bundle in my wife’s arms. The kid had gotten better looking over the last few days. Not as scaly. Her tiny fist was in her sweet, little, bowed mouth. And she was looking up at Shannon with the most intense gaze I think I’d ever seen. Her little cloudy eyes trying to focus and I noticed they were turning. The blue eyes were slowly being replaced with brown. Coupled with the full head of almost black hair you would swear Dawg really did have something to do with this kid’s parentage.

“Hey Dawg? Do you have a talent we don’t know about? This kid looks just like you,” I had to ask.

She smiled at me. “I have six brothers Trace. Who do you think the donor was?”

“Eww…too much information,” There are some things you just don’t want to think about. That’s one of them.

Things that morning were great. As I knew they would be. I had my bike and my girls. JT had her Barbie who was popping wheelies on her own bike. Much to Shannon’s dismay. Syd and little Ally were wrapped in Dawg’s arms. And my wife was snuggled against my side playing with her new laptop. Everything couldn’t have been more perfect. And then…

When the knock on the door came I knew it wasn’t going to be good. No one is out on Christmas day at this time just for a social call. And Maggie wasn’t due for dinner for another hour. Shannon had gotten up to answer and when she came back in the room I could tell something was wrong.

In her hands she held manila envelope. Like the ones they send you “do not fold, spindle or mutilate”papers in. The look on her face was one of sheer terror. I got up immediately and went to her.

“Shan, baby…what’s wrong?” She let out a sharp sob and handed me the envelope.

I wrapped my arm around her trembling shoulders and took the papers out. Inside was a newspaper clipping of Shannon and the elf, with JT in the background. A neatly written note accompanied.

Hello Sis

Now I wonder why my own sister

never told me she had a child? I’ll be

Seeing you and my niece very soon.

M.

Oh god!… And so it begins…
The End

————
Story #4 The Last Hurrah!

Chapter 1

“Trace, I don’t think those coals are hot enough?”

“Well…how hot is hot enough?” As we know my cooking skills begin and end with the microwave. So when Shannon sent me out to watch this new grill, I of course had to drag Dawg with me.

“Hotter than that,” she said pointing to the little white briquettes. My buddy Dawg stuck around after Christmas…I know you were wondering. It’s been an interesting 8 months…I’ll get back to that…just relax.

Now as I said I know nothing about grills but I did think you needed flames in order to char something. So silly me…I listened to Dawg. I should have known something wasn’t right when I saw JT backing away from us.

“Trace, that’s not a good idea,” little bit warned. You know the world would be a better place if we listened to our children more. At least I would have been in a better place.

But did I listen…no! I picked up the lighter fluid and headed to that grill like I knew what I was doing…which I didn’t. It was then that I saw JT take off in a dead run towards the house.

“That’s it Trace, pour it on, let’s get this fire burning!”Dawg, the pyromaniac, had this wicked gleam in her eyes.

I popped open the bottle of lighter fluid and pointed the nozzle at the white coals. It registered somewhere in my pea-sized brain that JT was yelling for her Mother but I didn’t let that stop me. With a quick squeeze I sent a stream of fluid all over those coals…That’s the last thing I remembered.

I woke up sometime later when I heard someone say…

“Don’t worry her eyebrows will grow back.”These are not comforting words especially to someone just waking from a coma. I don’t care that I was only out for a couple of minutes…it was a coma damn it!

I managed after a time to focus on my surroundings. What I saw made me want to slip back into my dreamless little coma world. First, I was still in the yard. I knew that because I was pretty sure no matter how much I wished it…the after-life probably didn’t look like the Evening Star. My other clue that it was still my yard was the grill. That evil, gas-pumping piece of iron that was used to sear raw flesh, was now a mangled, smoking, grotesquely twisted piece of lawn art.

The other sights that cause me to cringe were that of the people standing around. There was Syd, who was smacking the prone figure of my friend Dawg and yelling some very unlady-like things. Then there was Shannon… Oh boy! By the look on her face I’d be better off if I’d been killed. She was standing with Rudy. Now Rudy I should probably explain…

Ok where to begin? Rudy is Dr. Rudy Todd, she’s Dawg’s cousin. She’s also the one responsible for my wife’s current condition. I like having someone to blame…beside myself. You see I lost the baby war. Of course…I was double-teamed and hounded until I gave up just out of the need to preserve my own sanity. Had I known what living with a pregnant woman was like…I would have opted to go insane. It would have been quicker.

Anyway, Shannon won and we’re pregnant. I love the way they say, “we’re”pregnant. They mean that you know… it truly is a shared experience. The only problem was…Shannon got all the hormone excuses for being a stark raving lunatic and I got…Morning sickness, swollen feet, bad skin and a bladder the size of a walnut. The last one… we shared.

We also got our very own baby Doc. Pretty cool huh? Well it would be if Rudy weren’t such a pain in the ass. Personally I think the woman needs to get laid…seriously. I know it’s her personality that keeps all the women she dates from coming back a second time. I mean, the woman is gorgeous…don’t tell Shannon I said that. Those hormones have given her a serious case of MPD. In any case Rudy really is something to look at… from a distance. Her long dark hair and those deep brown eyes have woman falling at her feet. And then she opens her mouth. But hey…Shannon likes her and more importantly trusts her…so I live with it.

Now where was I? Grill…mangled, Syd beating Dawg, Shannon pissed, Rudy, Oh Yea! I was coming out of my coma and heard the eyebrow thing. Well naturally I reached for my eyebrows to see if, in fact, they were gone as I had heard…mine were still in place, much to my relief.

No one was paying attention to me as I lie there with possible internal injuries recovering from my coma. Well…the puppy was there. Ah… the puppy, I still call her that; Syd hates it…I don’t care. Puppy is now 8 months old and she did grow out of the naked Sharpei thing. She has these big dark innocent eyes and a sweet, always drooling, face. But the thing that gets me is her hair. It’s dark like Dawg’s but…well…have you ever seen one of those static electricity things they make you touch in school? You know the ones where your hair stands on end while you have your hand on the thing. Puppy’s hair looks like that…all the time. I’ve seen Syd wet it down only to have it pop right back up there the minute it dries. It’s sad really. I often worry about having her in the house during thunderstorms. I mean…if the kid has that much static electricity running through her…she’s a lightening rod in the making.

So I wasn’t alone in my suffering, I had the puppy sitting next to my head. Of course I would have been much more comfortable if she hadn’t been poking me in the face.

“Up,” give her a break, she’s only 8 months her vocabulary is somewhat limited.

Of course this alerted my already upset, pregnant, hormonal wife that I had risen into consciousness. I groaned…I know she heard me groan. She ignored it…and grabbed me up by my somewhat singed shirt, her green eyes filled with tears. I would have been moved by her concern if she hadn’t started choking the life out me.

“Of all the stupid, moronic, asinine, brainless…”Okay yes they all amount to the same thing but do you want to point that out to her? I didn’t think so.

“I’m ok Shan,” I was hoping this would calm her obvious fear. I’m going with her being afraid rather than her wanting to actually kill me…call it denial but it helped me sleep at night.

“What were you thinking?”

“Well Dawg said…”I tried to answer, I really did.

“I should have known this was your fault!”Syd screeched as she smacked Dawg again. Dawg for her part was sitting on the ground looking completely dazed and rubbing her forehead, where her eyebrows used to be.

“No flames…need flames to cook,” Dawg must have been hit in the head with a piece of flying grill shrapnel because she had reverted to Neanderthal sentence structures.

“What she said,” I had to agree, basically because I really don’t understand what happened.

“It was a GAS grill idiot!”

Ohhh…now it makes sense… well sort of.

Rudy checked me over and said it was ok for me to stand. She’s a quack…I had just come out of a coma and she wanted me to walk it off. Is she a Doctor or a football coach? But I had little choice as Shannon jerked me to my feet. For having a grill explode in my face…I wasn’t feeling to bad, but I would never let Rudy know that. She might think she was right or something.

So there I stood, my arm draped across the shoulders of my pregnant wife, our daughter staring at me like I was officially insane and the puppy drooling on the grass. I looked at my eyebrow-less friend, ok that’s enough to crack you up right there. Here’s the picture…6’2 inches of solid Dawg, that’s not the funny part…her dark eyebrows were gone…totally as were her bangs. In fact…she had no hair in the front. She wasn’t bald…just looked like JT got a hold of the sheers and gave her a hair cut…a really close one.

Rudy stood back from us taking in the whole scene. She had become a part of these gatherings 6 months ago when we went to her about this baby thing and she and Shannon had become friends. I didn’t know then that she would become a permanent fixture in our lives.

“This is the worst case of Anal-Cranial Inversion I have ever seen,” I would have been offended…if I knew what the hell she was talking about.

“Huh?” Ok not my wittiest comeback but hey…coma…remember.

“You two,” Rudy pointed at Dawg and I, “Have your heads up your asses.”

I would have hurt her then, I swear I would have. But honestly…I just wanted to lie down. So Shannon, being the sweet kind woman that she is, never mind that she was choking the living hell out of me earlier… took me in the house. As I walked through the door I heard Syd and Dawg talking over the somewhat distressing ringing in my ears…

“Grill…BOOM!”

“I know Dawg…I know.”
Chapter 2
You know the worst part about being “pregnant”? Well I’m not so sure Shannon finds this as tragic as I do but still… The pregnant woman’s body, while beautiful in it’s own right… does not fit into the VS underwear anymore. It’s important for you to know that under no circumstances should you let your wife know that you miss her in the sexy black teddy with the garters. Nononono… this earns you a one way ticket to the couch.

Yes that was from personal experience. How her white baby doll nightie got into my sock drawer I’ll never know but there I was holding it up staring longingly, thinking of a more erotic time, when she walked in.

“Trace what are you doing with MY lingerie?”

You ever have one of those times when you knew whatever you said was going to get you in trouble? So there you are trying to decide on an answer that would lead to the least amount of possible destruction… or nights on the couch. Let me tell you something, “Thinking of another time,” is NOT the correct response.

“Another time? Another TIME!”

…Obviously not the time for honesty. “Well you know Shan,” I smiled at her hoping that my charm would diffuse this situation. I held up the article of clothing for her inspection and wiggled my eyebrows hoping she was thinking about the same night I was… she wasn’t.

Instead of a stroll down memory lane with me as I had hoped she burst out in tears. “Trace, I can’t believe you’re so insensitive.”

“Oh honey,” I came towards her trying to console the woman although I had no idea what I had done wrong, but I vowed to shred that damn thing the second I had a chance.

A woman’s hormones are tricky on a good day, which we’ve discussed in the past. This whole pregnant thing adds to them an entire retinue of possible irritants and disasters that will of course be… your fault. However, there are days that make the whole thing worth the insanity and pain. That first ultrasound picture with the little hands and feet is one of those days. Hearing the baby’s heartbeat is another good day as is the first time it moves and you just happen to be close enough to feel it. I had my head on Shannon’s lap that first time so our little “angel”actually kicked me in the head. I just hoped it wasn’t a sign of things to come.

Okay so hormones make women do some pretty odd things and this occasion was no different. One minute I was trying to hold my distraught wife, afraid that seeing the small piece of lace and silk she had worn only months ago had been her undoing. The next… she was undoing, the buttons on my shirt that is.

“Off!”My still sobbing wife demanded.

“Umm Shan?” I admit I was confused by the sudden change but then again, I’m not stupid. I stripped and am not ashamed to say I let her have her way with my body… twice. Yup, some days those hormones are a good thing.

****

Things had been running pretty smoothly in our lives since Christmas. Dawg and Syd decided to spend the next couple of years in the states and let Syd’s family run the sheep station. Dawg wanted to be closer to her own family for awhile so there they were. Now if you remember Dawg has a large family of which she is the only female and Syd refused to live to close to the brood so… they live with us. It was Shannon’s idea and as we know, Shannon gets whatever Shannon wants. Shut up! It works for us and I’m NOT whipped.

I kind of like having my friends with us actually. With Dawg around I’m not the only one in trouble. Dawg is the first true friend I’ve ever had outside of my wife that is. Unfortunately or fortunately depending on your outlook that can be both good and bad. And by true friend I don’t mean the kind you can call at 4 AM to get bail money. I mean the kind that is sitting right there with you in the cell while you try to figure out where to get the bail money, that’s a true friend. We haven’t had to do the whole bail thing yet… it was close but we were released to our wives so it doesn’t count. All in all I would have rather stayed in jail that time.

Syd and Shannon decided to go shopping, something Dawg and I would rather not do. So we were left to our devises for the afternoon and the kid was in school. The phone rang about 1:30…

“Oh hello Mrs. Kline.”JT’s teacher sounded slightly exasperated. “Shannon’s not here.”Thought I should deter her from asking for anything to do with the much-dreaded PTA. I’ll do anything but sit with a bunch of whining women and talk about unsafe playground equipment.

“She what?” I was stunned as JT’s teacher explained to me that my darlin, little angel had taken a whack at one of the other students and was now asking me to come and pick up my little violent offender. “Umm… ok sure, I’ll be right there,” I said as I hung up the phone staring at nothing.

“What?” Dawg finally asked pulling me from my confused stupor.

“JT clocked some kid at school and we need to go pick her up,” I explained in a rush as I moved to the door with Dawg right on my heels.

“Oh Shit!”

No kidding! Shannon was going to go ballistic and I’m sure it’s going to be… my fault.

By the time we reached the school I was more than a little worked up. I know my kid and she wouldn’t just go off and pop someone for no reason. I was sure there was a story behind all this and I was going to get to the bottom of it! Grr… Protective? Yeah just a bit.

We ran into the Principle’s office and sitting in those little plastic chairs along the wall was my little slugger. I stopped dead in my tracks. Her blonde head was down but I could see her holding an ice pack to her face and I saw red. They didn’t tell me she had been hurt and I was ready to rip people apart. It was only Dawg’s steadying hand on my shoulder that backed me down a bit. I calmly walked to JT’s side and knelt down.

“Hey little bit.”

She looked up at me with big green eyes brimming with tears, her nose was still running and what I was certain would soon become a big ole black eye had started to form. She looked terrified, like I was going to go off her or something. Which I guess you can’t blame her for really. No kid likes to have a parent called by a teacher.

“What happened?” I asked her softly hoping that it would ease her fear. That little bit of gentleness was all it took and my little one threw herself into my arms. By now I’m pretty good at catching small flying bodies so I was prepared. She wrapped herself around me and started crying so hard that I could feel her tears soaking through my shirt. Not much you can do at times like this so I do what I always do… I held on and rocked her.

Dawg however, was not as complacent about things. In fact if I had to hazard a guess I would say she was down right pissed. That’s a guess mind you but it was accurate considering she had the principle pinned against the wall, standing on his tip toes so he could meet her eye to eye.

“What the fuck happened here?” I heard my very large friend growl. “No one said she’d been hurt.”Ahh… being a parent does some strange things to you. I see Dawg was starting to feel that Momma Bear thing as well. I pity the puppy’s future teachers, friends, boyfriends… anyone really.

“Put me down,” the man demanded his face turning bright red. Whether that was from Dawg choking him or his embarrassment I don’t know.

“You better talk little man,” I told him not wanting to feel left out of the whole threatening his life thing. “She’s got a hair trigger and you can never tell when she might go off.”Okay that was mean but what the hell, he deserved it. For her part Dawg just growled.

It was about then that Mrs. Kline came in carrying another bag of ice. “Oh My!”

I stood up taking JT with me and marched over to the woman hoping she had a reasonable explanation for all of this. “What the hell is the matter with you people?” I demanded. “You call to tell me she hit someone yet she’s the one in here holding ice to her little face. Did you forget that fact?” I was not a happy camper besides this bitch wasn’t going to have to go home and explain this all to MY wife.

“She did hit someone Trace he got in a lucky punch after I called you. I had to take him to another room to keep them apart,” she explained quickly. Probably hoping to get it all out there before she got herself clocked.

“Why JT?” I mean damn, we were good parents, and we taught her hitting isn’t right. Okay so we’ll forget that Shannon likes to beat on me for the moment.

“In JT’s defense Trace you should know that she was defending her friend at the time.”Mrs. Kline offered.

Okay now I’m confused, I know… duh. JT saved me from the headache forming behind my eyes.

“He pushed Kalea down and hurt her knee real bad,” my little tearstained, blacked girl explained. “I got so mad Trace,” she continued, her little body shaking with what I assumed was outrage. “He’s a big kid and big kids ain’t ‘posed to push little kids,” JT finished emphatically.

Okay here’s where this whole parent thing gets kind of blurry. The almost adult in me says that no matter what there is a better way to handle things than with violence. The other and usually more predominant part of me, is jumping up and down and applauding my tiny bruiser for her stand against the bully. As is usually the case when I’m about to make a very bad choice I hear the voice of my brilliant and beautiful wife ringing in my ears. I’ve learned to listen to that voice.

“I know you were trying to help your friend little bit but hitting is never the answer,” I explained, still not totally convinced myself. I knew it was the right thing to say because Mrs. Kline smiled at me. You know that “hey that’s pretty good for a moron”smile.

“I know,” JT sighed. “I’m sorry.”

Mrs. Kline was about to say more when the door of the office flew open and in charged a man whom was not at all pleased.

“Who the hell beat my kid up?” He screeched. His rather round face was red and if you looked close you would swear he actually had steam coming from his ears.

By now Dawg had released the principle and was standing off to the side watching the whole thing.

I know what happened next is going to sound strange but I swear it’s the truth. My little girl raised her head up off my shoulder and looked the angry man right in the face. “I did sir,” she stated in all her nobility.

Now I don’t know about how other parents would feel right then but I was proud of my kid. The man however must have been insane because he flipped.

“Come here you little brat I’m going to beat your little ass but good,” he yelled reaching for JT who was still in my arms.

I freely admit that it was at this moment that I lost all control of my higher brain functions. Dawg had come up behind me and I pushed JT into her arms. I then turned back to the man who had just seconds before threatened to harm my child and with everything I had in my body I hauled off and… hit him square in the face.

I’m not a weak woman nor am I that small so the impact of that punch rocked the man back onto his heels, just before he crumpled and fell to the floor.

Still kind of lost in my haze I could just barely hear Dawg behind me. “That’s why we don’t hit JT, people can get really hurt.”
Chapter 3
When the police took us in they were rather leery about putting the cuffs on Dawg but they didn’t seem to have the same trouble with me. So there we sat in the little office, all three of us lined up like common criminals. I was lost in thoughts about whether or not Shannon would kill me or just cut me off, which by the way, would have been worse.

“Trace?” Dawg whispered pulling me out of my misery.

“Yeah?”

“We need to get bail, do you have any cash on you?” She looked at me pleadingly.

“Umm… no.”I hadn’t thought I would need enough cash on me for bail, silly me.

We both sat in silence and I know we were thinking the same thing. How to get out of here and NOT have the wives find out. Calling Maggie was out; she would have Shannon on the phone as soon as I got the words “in jail”out of my mouth. Rudy would have the same affect so she was a “no”as well. The painful truth hit us as the same time.

“We have to call the girls,” we said in unison. Maybe they should just lock me up, I’m pretty sure Shannon wouldn’t be able to get through the bars to murder me. It was then that I had a flash of brilliance. Okay so maybe that was a bit strong but I had an idea at least.

“JT, call your Mom,” I told her. Both she and Dawg looked at me like I’d lost my mind. Which… might have been true.

“Huh?” they responded together.

“She won’t yell at JT,” I explained like I meant it. What I figured was, if JT called then I would be granted a reprieve until she actually got here. Which was all right by me. Dawg picked up on it right away and agreed, JT just stared. Finally she shrugged her little shoulders in resignation and had me dial the cell phone.

“Mom? Umm… Me, Trace and Dawg need you to come to the police station,” the little blonde told my wife, repeating things just as we had worked out. “And bring money.”She listened for a minute and I wondered what was being said but being the coward that I am I didn’t ask. JT pulled the phone away and said the Shannon wanted to talk to me. I shook my head and told her I couldn’t because I was cuffed to the chair and couldn’t hold the phone. What? Well it was true… and we did go over the whole “coward”thing right?

“She cant Mom the cops have her handcuffed to a chair.”I just groaned… I was going to be so dead.

JT finished her call and sat down, “Mom’s comin,” she sighed. The kid knew we were all screwed. Maybe they would let us all share a cell.

Have you ever seen a pregnant woman on a tear? I knew when she came through the door, not because I could see her but rather because I saw grown men with guns and body armor dive for cover.

When I finally did catch sight of her well… I was terrified actually. She stood in the middle of the room with her hands on her hips; her little belly rounded with the gentle swell from our child growing within and a glare that would have stopped my heart if it hadn’t been pumping furiously. Her face was red, as were her eyes coincidentally. All in all… she was beautiful. We have covered the “I’m not right”thing in the past just let it go.

“Hi baby,” I said smiling brightly hoping my charm would soften her a bit… it didn’t.

She started to advance on me taking slow purposeful steps, her nostrils flared, I saw that little vein throbbing in her forehead and I started to look for a place to hide. Unfortunately I was still cuffed to the chair so basically I was a captive target. I just closed my eyes and waited for the inevitable… and waited… and waited. It never happened. The explosion, the destruction, the mayhem, none of it occurred. I gathered enough courage to open one eye and take a peek at what was going on. Shannon had JT sitting on one of the desks checking out her newly forming shiner; Syd was standing beside them with the puppy on her hip, listening intently as JT talked to them.

“Do you think we could get a cell together?” Dawg whispered. See; she knew that’s the only place we’d be safe too.

“Shut up!”Shannon yelled at us and… we did.

Now as I sat there speculating on my would-be demise the man that was pressing charges against me walked into the station. In his wake was a boy, if you could him that. This kid was huge, by no means should he have been still in grade school, I think the beast was old enough to shave. It might have been the stress or my impending death but in any case I looked at that kid and I busted out laughing. That grade school gorilla was sporting a brand new black eye and a split lip. Yes I know it was inappropriate but hell…

The man, whom I assumed to be the little thug’s Father, was not looking so good himself. My punch had at the very least bent his nose if not broken it. Unfortunately he did not find any humor in this situation and in his embarrassment he lunged at me.

I’m not exactly sure what happened after that, one minute I thought I was going to be beaten to a pulp and the next my vision was filled with an absolutely gorgeous sight. My wife’s ass. I’m guessing that the man in question was familiar with pregnant hormonal woman because when I did see him he looked more terrified than I did.

“You will not touch a hair on her head,” Shannon growled as she poked the man in the chest effectively backing him up with each jab. “After what I’ve heard from my little girl about you and your bully of a son, I‘m half tempted to let her free to finish that redecorating job on your ugly face,” she threatened.

Then my little wife did something I didn’t think possible, she grabbed the man by his nearly broken nose and dragged… dragged the whimpering man to JT. “You see the size of this child,” she stated. “Now do you see the size of that beast you call a son,” the poor guy just nodded through the tears in his eyes. I knew her hold on him had to sting like hell. “You’re going to drop the charges and then go home taking that brut with you and teach him why he shouldn’t beat up on little kids,” Shannon finished with a final yank on the man’s nose.

By this time the officers moved to rescue the whining man, a bit to late if you ask me. The guy was on his knees holding his nose and all but crying for his Momma. As they approached my wonderful wife she growled at them, backing them all up yet again. “Let her out of those cuffs,” she demanded.

I just smirked as they all rushed to do her bidding. It was nice to see I wasn’t the only one that she could order around. I sat there rubbing my wrists and waiting for her next edict to be issued forth. But none came. In fact she just picked up our kid and… left, taking Syd with her.

Dawg and I got off our collective asses and ran out after them but all we saw was taillights as they headed out of town. Two things hit me right then. One, this was by no means the end of my pain for my involvement in all of this. Two, we didn’t have a truck to drive home. It was still parked over at the school. Dawg just shrugged and we started walking… what else could we do?

****

The mind is a funny thing. Not funny ha ha but its funny how many things it can come up with in a relatively short period of time. By the time got back to the ranch my mind had run through several imagined scenarios, each one worse than the last. In my wildest dreams I wouldn’t have guessed what happened in reality. Nothing! That’s right, not a Gods be damned thing and it scared the hell out of me.

I was on pins and needles for three days waiting for the bottom to fall out but it was just business as usual around our house. I just knew when I least expected it, probably when I was in the shower, naked and defenseless, I would be faced with a fully outraged Shannon. I started taking JT’s little ducky with me. Don’t laugh, have you ever been squirted in the eye with soapy water? It was the only weapon I had. But Shannon never said a word, not a peep, an utterance.

On the third day I was running on pure paranoia. The stress got me and I cracked under the pressure.

“Shannon I think we need to talk about what happened,” I felt the best way to end my suffering was a direct approach. Okay so I was talking to her from the other side of the room… near the back door… and I had the truck keys in hand.

“What are you talking about honey? Nothing’s happened,” she stated sitting calmly at the table sipping her decaf.

I eyed her curiously, either she’s slipped a cog or she’s in denial. Maybe all the baby hormones finally fried her brain. So I continued with caution. “You know, JT fighting, me fighting, jail. Tell me if any of this is ringing any bells.”

She looked up at me with those luminous green eyes burning a hole straight through my heart and scorching my soul. Okay so she’s already marked my heart and soul but it sounded good. I could see nothing to give away her real feelings about any of this. “Umm honey? You do remember what happened right? I mean JT still has that black eye,” I hoped that would jar her from her obvious abnegation. It didn’t, she just continued to stare at me.

“Come on Shan I‘m dyin here. I know you’re pissed the least you could do is yell or something,” I know that’s stupid, begging to be yelled at… duh.

She stood and walked to me slowly, “Been driving yourself crazy waiting for me to explode about this huh baby?”

“Uh huh,” I answered, it was true.

“Not able to sleep, relax, eat?” She asked while slipping her arms around my neck. I just hoped she wasn’t planning on choking me to death.

“Nope,” I sighed wrapping her in my arms.

She pulled my head to her shoulder, running her fingers through my hair, soothing my tired brain. I love when she does that. “Then I think I’ve proven my point,” she whispered in my ear and with a sharp nip to my earlobe she left me standing in the kitchen… alone and a little aroused. Sick remember.

Damn but she got me and she didn’t even have try hard. But she was right; I got the point I worry her she worries me. Evil little thing isn’t she.
Chapter 4
I don’t know how it happened or why I was elected but somehow I was roped into teaching JT how to operate her first moving vehicle. In other words, Shannon told me to teach her how to ride a bike. We had gotten the little blonde carbon copy of my wife, a bike for her birthday and had yet to even attempt to teach her to ride it. Personally I think she was trying to find ways to keep Dawg and I out of trouble while she and Syd went to the mall. Never the less I took up the challenge, after all I did promise to teach her to drive if Shannon handled all the personal girl talk stuff.

I know JT’s is a bit young for all this and it might be my influence but she hated the whole training wheel thing. So always being one to help the ladies in my life I set out to teach her to ride the bike, sans training wheels. I mean how tough can it be to teach a 5 year old to ride a bike right? Besides I had Dawg to help me. I know what you’re thinking… so stop laughing already.

So there we were in the driveway…

“I dunno Trace she’s kinda little for this don’t you think?”

“Hey she’s the one who says only babies use training wheels, I’m just helping her along. Besides I took precautions.”See you need to think these kinds of things through, like if the kid gets broken during some such activity well… it does not bode well for familial harmony if you know what I mean. And… Wife… pregnant…hormones…enough said.

I looked down the driveway where JT’s brand new bike was parked in the bright sun and I called for the kid. She stepped out the door, ok she waddled out the door. I told you I took precautions. There stood my kid, her little blonde head covered by my motorcycle helmet. Yes I got the motorcycle. It doesn’t have an engine but it makes me feel good to think that one-day I might get to actually ride it. But my preparations did not end there oh no… I, in my infinite need to not sleep on the couch, had wrapped strategic parts of the child’s fragile small body in… bubble wrap. Secured of course by about a roll of duct tape.

Ok I am not insane, if they can send you something as breakable as a hand-blown, antique oil lamp globe through the US mail, wrapped in this stuff, it can damn well protect from things like skinned knees, broken bones and me… from sleeping on the couch.

“Trace I think I changed my mind,” JT stated nervously. Why do the women in my life get so nervous about my ideas?

“Come on kid it’ll be fine,” I said trying to convince her. She wasn’t buying it. I think the mangled grill lawn art was disrupting her confidence. “How about if I show you how to ride first?”

“You don’t gots a bike,” she reasoned. She was right I didn’t have a bike but I couldn’t let her chicken out here. It was then that lightening flashed through my brain and I was struck by an absolutely awesome thought.

“Dawg get the truck,” I told my big friend before I took off towards the barn.

We met up about ten minutes later with all we would need to show JT how easy it was to ride. I pushed my motorcycle carcass out of the barn and grabbed a rope. Dawg backed the truck up and I tied the bike to the bumper.

“Ok now watch how easy this is,” I told my little girl. “Let’s go Dawg!”

I jumped on the motorcycle and with a hard jolt we were off and running. Dawg was doing her best to take it easy as we road around the field, Dawg at the wheel of the truck and me on the bike. JT was standing there in awe, of the actual event or the real live display of stupidity, I don’t know.

“Faster,” I yelled feeling confident and reckless. And Dawg put the pedal to the floor.

I don’t know what possessed her or me for that matter but we decided this activity was nearly daring enough so we started pulling figure eight’s in the drive. You can probably guess where all of this is going to end up but I’ll tell you anyway.

I actually saw it before it happened, on one turn at the bottom of the eight when I was nearest to the barn I saw the rope let go. Unfortunately that was the exact time that Dawg jerked the wheel to make the sharp turn and all I could do is close my eyes and let go hoping the grass would either soften the impact or I would die instantly.

What they say is true you know, you do see your life flash before your eyes. Mine was kinda short. One minute I was air born the next I was laying on my back looking at the sky for the second time in as many weeks. I don’t really recall the impact but according to JT it was awesome, I’ll take her word for it. I do remember seeing the barn flying towards my body at really high rate of speed.

I wasn’t alone for very long JT and Dawg ran to my side. Such loyal friends I have.

“Trace? Are you dead?” I heard JT ask.

I groaned; it was the best I could do.

Then Dawg’s big head was filling my field of vision. “Hey, do ya know who ya are?” she asked.

“I’m Batman,” I knew who I was but I love that commercial.

“You need to go to the hospital.”Dawg, the master of the obvious, stated before she took of towards the house leaving me with JT.

“You’re bleedin trace,” JT sobbed. I hate to scare the kid like that, not exactly one of my more stellar moments.

I took stock of my body and found that everything seemed to be in semi working order so I wrapped the kid in my arms trying to comfort the little one. “I’ll be alright…hard head… ask your Mom.”

I saw my motorcycle as we pulled out of the drive on the way to the emergency room. It hadn’t even got a chance at new life before it was so cruelly ripped away from its future. So sad… now it sat in the yard along side the grill. Just another piece of twisted metal with no purpose or reason.

****

We were fast tracked through the ER, not that my injuries were that serious really but I think I’m a preferred customer. In any case it got us home in just over two hours, still not fast enough to beat my wife back.

I walked in the back door as JT raced past me into the living room where Shannon and Syd were. I looked down at the table as I stumbled by and caught sight of the note Dawg left just in case we didn’t get here first.

Hey,

Motorcycle… rope… Trace… barn… concussion… ER.

Be back soon

D

I’m sure it was a great comfort to my wife.

I wandered into the living room where obviously everyone was congregated, sure enough there was Syd sitting next to Dawg… beating her in the head. JT and puppy were on the floor watching the whole scene with interest. Now on the couch was my wonderful wife and kneeling at her feet holding her wrist was Rudy.

I know I had a concussion but at that moment I thought it was having a heart attack as well. Shannon was pale and looked a little pained as Rudy sat quietly taking her pulse. It was another life defining moment for me. In the last few weeks I had blown up a grill, been in jail and now I’ve crashed into the barn resulting in a head injury. My wife is pregnant and here I am pulling stupid stunts like I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ve got everything to lose and so do they. The people who depend on me, Shannon, JT and our new baby. What would they do if something happened to me? The shame I felt was overwhelming, I was selfish and irresponsible and now I may have pushed Shannon into losing the baby. That was the only thought in my head.

I rushed to her side with tears streaming down my face. “Baby?” I questioned. I knew my voice was cracking under the strain of emotion but I didn’t care. Nor did I care that everyone was watching me have a breakdown.

Sometimes there just aren’t words enough to express things and understanding is reached through the heart rather than the head, this was one of those times. Shannon must have seen the look of absolute panic, remorse and shame clearly written on my face. Our eyes locked and in that moment we both understood that thing’s would be different. She didn’t need to get upset and I didn’t need to beg for forgiveness we just knew.

She reached for me past a disgruntled Rudy and I held her in my arms.

“I’m so sorry angel,” I cried into her blonde hair.

“I’m ok Trace just feeling a bit… tired,” she explained stroking my face lightly.

“I love you,” you can never say that enough, you should remember that.

“Love you too,” she whispered and then smacked me on the ass. “Don’t you ever do anything that stupid ever again.”

Okay so maybe it wasn’t a total understanding…
Chapter 5
I helped my wife up the stairs to our room and settled her in for the night while our friends took care of the kid. Shannon had fallen asleep almost immediately and after tucking the covers in around her I returned to the kitchen for food. I found Rudy sitting at the table drinking a beer when I entered.

“Don’t you have a home of your own?” Hey give me a break! I have a head injury and my wife is sick, I was grumpy.

“No beer there,” she shrugged.

“Then buy some,” I sighed. Usually Rudy and I would do this round and round again thing but right now I just wanted to eat and go cuddle with Shannon.

Rudy was unusually quiet and when I sat down she just stared at me, it was unnerving.

“What?”

“Why are you and Shannon having another baby when you don’t really want one?” She asked me while pinning me with those damned dark eyes.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” I’ll admit that I might have been reluctant about all this baby stuff at first but well… umm… I want that child as much as Shannon does. There I said it. I love the little critter growing inside my wife and… I was pissed. Secretly I knew that Rudy had a big crush on Shannon, not that I could blame her but… Mine!

“You don’t deserve her you know,” she said quietly. I don’t know how many beers she had drank or if she had just lost her little mind, I think it was the crush thing talking.

“I know,” I smiled. It was true in a sense in my opinion no one deserved her but she was mine… I intended to keep it that way. “But make no mistake she’s mine Rudy and contrary to what you want to believe, I love her and the baby.”I hoped that would shut her up because the next step was to kill the doctor and I was pretty sure Dawg might get a bit miffed if I shot her cousin.

Rudy snorted indignantly and I know she was about to say more but a large hand on the back of her neck stopped the words.

“Think you’ve had enough Rudy,” Dawg drawled. I don’t know where she came from or how long she’d been listening but I was glad it wasn’t me that would be tossing the good doctor out of the house tonight.

With my head pounding I returned to my dinner and let Dawg handle her cousin. I didn’t even look up when I heard the back door slam. In fact I didn’t looked up until I heard the chair scrape across the floor and Dawg sit down heavily.

“Sorry bout that Trace. She didn’t have any right talking to you like that,” Dawg apologized for her cousin.

I shrugged; I knew where Rudy was coming from which is why I didn’t argue. “She thinks she’s in love with Shannon Dawg. Can’t blame her really,” I smiled at my friend.

“She’s just lonely and I think she sees what you and I have, it makes her want it for herself,” Dawg reasoned, it was good reasoning really, quite insightful.

“Just wish she would direct that energy into finding one not already attached,” I mumbled. I may have understood, didn’t mean I liked it.

“Well you know Rudy, if there’s a short cut to be had… she’ll take it,” Dawg laughed.

“To true.”

I left Dawg sitting at the table as I stumbled up the stairs to our room. I was tired and the Rudy drama had added to my already pounding head. I slipped into bed beside my sleeping wife but much to my dismay, I couldn’t close my eyes. Between my own revelations that evening and Rudy’s words my mind was spinning.

I had found recently that when sleep was elusive if I read it tended to calm me. So I reached into our nightstand and pulled out the book. If you tell anyone this I swear I’ll hunt you down and break your legs. I flipped on the little light beside the bed and opened the book to the mark I left the last time, right there in the J’s of the “Baby Names Book,”

Often times late at night I would take this book out and read through the names. I would flash on the future with each name read. What the child would be like, what kind of person would she be. I was positive it was a girl. A small blonde with laughing green eyes just like the other two beauties in my life. It comforted me… yeah I really did want this baby, no matter what Rudy thought.

“Jadzia,” I whispered in the dark thinking I was alone in my thoughts.

“We’re not naming our baby after a Star Trek character,” Shannon murmured beside me.

“Then I guess seven of nine is really out,” I laughed which earned me a gentle slap on my arm.

Shannon turned to me, taking the book from my hands she tossed it onto the nightstand.

“Hey I was reading that,” I exclaimed.

“I have a craving,” she whispered against my neck.

I was used to midnight craving even though it usually meant a trip downstairs or heavens forbid a drive to the local “stop and rob,” I threw the covers off and started to rise when a small hand stopped me.

“Not that kind of craving,” Shannon purred seductively.

Oh! Well not one to refuse my wife anything I returned to our bed and wrapped my arms around her. “Are you sure we should be doing this?” I asked as her hand slid up my stomach.

“I’m fine baby, I just need you,” her words spoken softly against my bare skin.

I’ve discovered over the last few months that you should take what’s being offered when it’s offered because honestly… it might be weeks in between. Another revelation that I’ve recently uncovered is that making love to a woman who is with child can prove to be somewhat tricky. Breasts that were before an erogenous zone are now off limits for the most part. They’ve become tender and swollen; the later was not something I complain about. Positions you once found it easy to get into are limited due to the addition of another yet unseen person sharing your bed. Luckily, I’m adaptable.

Leaning over, I kissed Shannon softly at first. Taking the time to revel in the softness of her lips before slipping into her mouth to taste the sweet interior. My tongue stroked hers slow and thoroughly, swallowing her low moans.

I reached for the hem of the thin cotton gown she wore and eased it up her beautiful body. My wife has always been a sexy woman but her pregnant state with her rounded tummy and full breasts ignited by passion in a way unlike any other. I ran my finger tips along her heated flesh as I inched the material higher. I felt her shiver from my delicate touches and when I reached her breasts I cupped her gently, causing a sharp hiss of pleasure to escape her.

“Yes,” she gasped.

I lowered my mouth to the hard tip and sucked it greedily into my mouth feeling her arch into me. Never releasing my prize I removed the gown leaving her gloriously naked before me. Her hands raking down my back as she started to rock against my body. I continued my ministration to her tender breasts, lovingly sucking and licking each nipple in turn as she tried to find solid purchase against me. I could feel the evidence of her passion coating my thigh as I slipped between her legs.

“Oh Gods yes,” she rasped, her movement becoming more frantic.

I pressed against her wet center holding her hips and moving with her. Unfortunately our child had taken up much more space and it made the contact, while exciting, not quite enough to reach the release she was looking for.

Shannon sighed in frustration and stopped her movements, going lax beneath me. “Damn!”she cried into the dark the frustration clear in her voice.

“Roll over baby,” I urged. When she was on her side I curled up behind her pressing myself to her exposed posterior making sure she felt the hot, wet evidence of my own arousal. I knew she had gotten the point when I heard her groan and grind her hips back against me. “That’s it baby just let me drive,” I assured, determined to give her the pleasure she sought.

From this new position I had full access to the front of her body and I didn’t lose a second as I began my explorations. My large hands covering her breasts as I moved in time with her hips, sliding over her. I gently kissed her neck, nibbling on the tender flesh I heard her moan and push harder against me.

“Please,” she begged. Her breaths ragged as she panted in her excitement.

Releasing her breast I traveled over her tummy moving lower until I found my hand in the damp nest of curls at her apex. I carefully slipped my fingers between the sodden folds of her sex causing her to arch into my hand.

“Oh Gods! That feels so good,” she panted.

I took my time exploring her, coating my fingers with her essence, and finally I brushed my fingertip over the hard throbbing bundle and she gasped before beginning a rhythmic thrust with her hips. I continued to stroke her gently, never speeding up or slowing down. Keeping the pressure light and even as I rocked my own hips against her backside.

I knew she was getting close but I wanted to hear her say it, I wanted to hear her ask for it. I didn’t have to wait long. She reached up with both arms pulling my head to her neck pushing her ass back against me hard. “Gods woman!”she cried.

“What do you want Shan?” I asked innocently knowing full well what she needed.

“Go inside me Trace, I need you,” that was what I was looking for and I slipped my fingers deep into her core.

She tightened around my fingers effectively trapping my inside her slick channel and began to drive down on my fingers. I moved into her deep and hard, stroking her in time with her own thrusts rocking with each move of her hips. Our passion raced higher leading us both to the ultimate pleasure and when I knew I wouldn’t last much longer, I moved my thumb up over her extended clit and pressed against her.

I felt her close in around my fingers as the first waves of her climax tore through her body. She screamed out my name as she drove herself down on my fingers and I felt hot, wet flood of her release as it covered my hand. Hearing her, feeling her like this, seeing her head thrown back and her breasts standing proudly in the moonlight was all it took to bring my own climax crashing down around us and I groaned into the back of her neck.

Once our bodies had stilled and the harsh breathing had been brought under control I released her, moving from her slowly and wrapped her in my arms. “I love you,” I whispered in the dark.

“Mmm… love you too,” she slurred as she succumbed to the call of Morpheus.

Yup gotta love those hormones!
Chapter 6
So I was feeling pretty good in the morning I had all my needs met. Granted I have few real needs but they are as follows. Sex, sleep, shower and food. They don’t have to be filled in any particular order but if I get all 4 in the same 24-hour period I’m good to go.

I wrapped my arms around my wife as she stood at the sink, kissing her exposed neck. “Morning sexy.”

“Feeling pretty full of yourself,” she laughed bumping me with her hip.

“Glad someone is feeling good this morning,” Syd growled as she walked into the kitchen, dropping into the closest chair.

It wasn’t a pretty sight. Her normally wild hair looked like a small animal had taken up residence. She had dark circles under her eyes and I think she slept in her clothes.

“You look umm… tired,” I said striving for a diplomatic way of telling her she looked like hammered shit. She just glared. Obviously she didn’t appreciate my good mood.

“Trace leave her alone,” Shannon demanded as she took the chair next to Syd. She wrapped her arm around our friends’ shoulders and with her other hand attempted to smooth her rat-infested hair. If critters run out of there I’m gone. “What’s the matter Syd?” My wife asked gently.

Syd sighed deeply and dropped her head to the table with a rather loud thump. I’m not sure what she said but it sounded like… teething.

Shannon must have understood the whole concept because she sat there rubbing the woman’s back telling her it was going to be all right. I thought it best to leave them to whatever it was they were talking about, I obviously had no clue. I did have a sneaking suspicion that I would be learning about the topic at some date in the near future. I would rather it be a surprise.

What shouldn’t have come as a surprise was that we, meaning Shannon and I, were babysitting the puppy that night. Shannon decided that our friends needed a night alone, I agreed to this for one reason only… paybacks.

So there we were watching the 8-month-old monster as she gnawed on anything that got close enough to her mouth. In one little fist she had one of those teething biscuits, which Shannon swears by and I think are a satanic plot created so that infants everywhere learn the joys of cement. Don’t laugh… have you ever come across one of those things after its been gummed and left to dry on a flat surface? I’ve made my point.

By 10 PM I was ready to throw in the towel. We had tried everything from that teething gel which by the way, doesn’t work. To the old carrot from the freezer trick. Well Shannon tells me its an old trick I personally do not remember my teething days so I couldn’t tell you.

I was sitting there holding the whimpering, snot nosed child, as she drooled cookie cement down my neck and decided enough was enough. Shannon had pleaded exhaustion due to her condition and went to bed an hour before. Personally I think she just abandon me using that as an excuse. Like I said she got all the excuses I got all the bull. In any case I was done with this whole fiasco and took the puppy into the kitchen.

Now what I’m going to tell you can go no farther because if Shannon, or Syd for that matter, ever finds out about this I’ll be killed. I’m not proud and I was desperate so I called Maggie and when I was done with our conversation I knew I either had a really good cure for this or a one way ticket to jail for child endangerment. But I was desperate like I said.

I rummaged through the cupboards until I found the bottle hidden in the back still about half full of amber liquid. I looked around to make sure that no one would be walking in and without shame I spiked the kids’ bottle. Not a lot… just a small shot in some juice. And then a bigger shot for me; hey I deserved it after tonight.

I resettled the teething child in my arms and popped the whiskey-laced bottle into her cute little mouth and know what? She dropped off to sleep in about a half an hour. Her little brown eyes grew heavier and heavier until she just… passed out. I picked up her limp body and carried her to the crib in Syd and Dawg’s room. No! I do NOT feel any shame so just drop it.

I grabbed the baby monitor and headed to our room where I intended to sleep until noon. That was not to be the case. At about 3 AM I heard sounds coming from downstairs and in my fog I thought the puppy needed help. So I got up not even bothering to throw on a robe. Hey she’s 8 months old even if she knew what she was looking at she would just think it was lunchtime.

What I found as I descended the stairs may have just scarred me for life. In the soft glow of the fireplace was Syd spread… naked… over a chair. One which I will never be sitting in again. And Dawg was between her open thighs. Now I tried not to look as soon as I realized what was happening and that scene in itself would not be my source of nightmares in the future, no. It was Dawg’s naked ass hanging out there that was going to destroy my psyche. That is just not something you should see your friends doing. Especially when you have to live with them and you eat over the same table in the morning. The whole table thought sent another shiver through my body… nope not even going to go there.

I headed back up the stairs with two thoughts. One, I would never again be going downstairs in the middle of the night. If someone broke in they could have whatever they wanted. Two, I think the whole thing just might have made me impotent.
Chapter 7
So with harmony restored to the household life seemed to be running smoothly. The nightmares only lasted a couple of days and Shannon proved to me I wasn’t impotent, she’s such a good woman. Of course with our lives and my luck we all know it was to good to last. And it didn’t…

I never understood about that whole soul mates thing before. You know how some people just know when their partner is in trouble across town they suddenly get a flash or some such thing. Anyway, I was riding the fence in the south pasture with Dawg. Shannon being on the home stretch of this whole pregnancy thing wasn’t able to do this stuff so she was at home… nesting or something. Syd had taken the puppy to the doctors’ office. I swear it wasn’t because of the liquor laced bottle… Geezz give me a break.

I’m riding along minding my own business, my mind on nothing, I know not much new there. And it hits me! I suddenly have this overwhelming panic attack. My heart is thundering in my chest, there’s a ringing in my ears, I started to sweat and shake and I just knew… Shannon was in trouble. Without word or reason I took off towards the house like a herd of Avon ladies were after me. I know it freaked Dawg out but being the true friend she is she just chased after me.

When I got to the house I noted the dark blue sedan parked in the drive but didn’t think much of it. I jumped off the horse and headed for the door when I heard JT scream. Now, several things happened all at once here and it gets a bit confusing. It shouldn’t surprise you that something like that would happen, especially around me.

I heard a car door slam behind me and that must have been Syd arriving with Rudy in tow. I’m guessing here because I didn’t see them I was rather intent on finding out why my kid was screaming. I threw open the door and rushed into the house yelling for Shannon. She wasn’t in the living room so I made my way to the kitchen. Now again, I don’t really know how this all happens this is just my part. But I came into the kitchen to find MY wife wrapped in the arms of another woman. A woman I didn’t know and Shannon was crying.

“She made Mom cry,” JT yelled from her corner of the room. Well that’s good enough for me; make Shannon cry, die a horrible death.

I stalked up to the pair and was about to tear the woman away from my wife when I was pushed to the side by what I can only describe as a speeding train. From out of nowhere Rudy appeared and in seconds had the woman in a headlock, dragging her from the room. I made no move to follow figuring Dawg and Rudy would handle it and my job was to see to my wife. Who by the way was just standing there… mute.

“Shannon?” I questioned softly not knowing if she had been hurt or what. She said nothing. “Honey are you ok?” she finally looked at me with those big green eyes filled with unshed tears.

“She loves me,” she whispered.

Now I don’t know who she was talking about, whether it was the woman or Rudy but in either case I was not amused. And I was about to say something to that effect when Shannon grabbed my arm practically pulling it from the socket as she yanked me to the door following Rudy and the unidentified female offender.

“Shan?” I tried to question met again with silence as we continued to the porch.

Now there in the yard was Rudy. She had the woman on her stomach spread eagle on the ground while she straddled her hips basically pinning the woman down. Who was by the way putting up a valiant effort to get away from the good doctor.

“Trace make them stop!”Shannon yelled looking horrified.

I really hadn’t seen any proof that it should stop and so long as they were both fighting it out in the yard they were no where near my wife, which made me happy.

Shannon grabbed the front of my shirt as she has a tendency to do when she’s upset. “That’s my sister,” she hissed. “Make them stop!”

It was then that Dawg joined us on the porch and she heard the declaration. To say we were stunned would be a gross understatement. Besides I was still not convinced that she shouldn’t be beaten to death for all the things she had done to Shannon in the past.

Dawg smiled, never one to resist a good jibe, she turned to the scene in the yard. “Rudy its no wonder you can’t keep a woman,” she yelled. “You should have pinned her on her back.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Shannon was appalled.

“She couldn’t keep a woman if she had her pinned, tied down and rendered unconscious,” I heard Shannon’s sister yell from her imprisonment between Rudy’s thighs. Damn! Being a smart-ass must run in the family. She was still fighting for all she was worth but Rudy had size on her.

“Hey good idea! Do you want some rope Rudy?” Dawg yelled back being her ever-so helpful self.

“Don’t you dare!”The blonde pinned beneath Rudy growled.

“I don’t know Dawg. That one seems pretty wild, maybe handcuffs and a whip would work better,” I added finally joining the game.

“Ooooo… now there’s an idea I can get behind,” Rudy replied almost a bit to excited.

“You would,” the woman on the ground snorted.

Now until this point my lovely wife had just been beating me on the arm trying to get my help. I think seeing that her sister wasn’t actually being hurt kind of broke the tension.

“I don’t know guys, she might actually enjoy that,” my wicked wife rejoined. I love that evil woman… just thought I’d add that.

“Oh God Shan! Not you too,” the captive sister moaned.

“What can I say,” Shannon shrugged still chuckling. “I’ve been with the barbarians to long.”I think we would have taken offence but we were all laughing too hard.

I watched the scene in the yard. Rudy straddling the woman known as Shannon’s sister, while the woman in question bucked beneath her. What had been a rather comical situation started to look a little well… erotic actually. I know; I’m not well.

By the look on Rudy’s face I would say that all that wiggling was starting to ignite a brush fire… if you know what I mean. I figured it would best to relieve them both of the obvious discomfort.

“Hey Rudy, I think Shannon wants her SISTER to live another day. You might want to let her up,” I hollered, hoping she got the point.

“Sister?” Rudy croaked.

“Rudy meet Macy, the woman you’re umm…”Shannon supplied not very helpfully.

“Sister?” Rudy said again trying to grasp the vastness of the potential disaster that lay ahead.

“That’s right you jackass,” Macy cried once again trying to dislodge Rudy’s larger body.

“Hey! Stop that…”Rudy gave a pained moan, although I suspected it had less to do with pain and more to do with the woman’s shapely ass pressing against her.

“Quit playin with the straight chicks Rudy,” Dawg laughed. “How many time do I have to tell you that.”

It was then that Macy snorted and Shannon busted out laughing. Ok I know something was going on and I missed it. So… I looked at my little wife hoping for clarification. She looked up at me and raised one blonde eyebrow in challenge. Ok I get the point… guess being a smart-ass isn’t the only thing running in the family.

“Time to let her up Rudy,” Dawg called trying to end the game.

“I cant,” Rudy stated still trying to hold the wildcat down. “If I let her up now she’s going to kill me.”It was a blaring statement of the obvious.

“You’re damn right I’m going to kill you! Get the fuck off me!”Macy screamed struggling even harder. Yup… Rudy was going to die.

“Stop moving,” Rudy moaned. “And don’t swear there are children here.”

It was Syd, the voice of reason that finally ended the whole affair. She marched up to the struggling pair and latched onto Rudy’s neck dragging her off Shannon’s sister. She placed herself in between the two women so that when Shannon’s sister spun around to attack Rudy she couldn’t get to her.

“I’m going to kill you, what the hell did you do that for?” The woman demanded.

It was then that I took stock of the fuming woman. You know if I had been paying attention earlier I would have seen the resemblance. She was a bit taller than my wife but they had the same blonde hair only hers was longer. It was the eyes though that gave it all away. Twin chips of green fire sparkling in the mid day sun. Actually it was more like deadly lasers trying to cut through Rudy’s flesh but you get the point.

This is where Shannon turned to me and said “Trace, this is my sister… Macy.”

****

Once Macy had calmed down and we had placed Rudy under protective custody, things became a little more reasonable. Syd had brought out beverages and we were all seated on the porch waiting for some sort of explanation, which by the way, didn’t come. I did notice that Shannon seemed to be a little more relaxed around her sister than I had thought she would be. I would have to ask her about that later.

Macy just sat there staring at our little group of miscreants. She swept over us one by one, her eyes landing on Rudy, she growled, sending Rudy to hide behind Dawg and I. Like I was going to protect her… Ha!

Her gaze finally came to rest on Shannon and I saw her face soften as she stared at her little sister. “Who knocked you up?” she asked.

“She did,” Rudy and I said at the same time pointing at one another.

“Please tell me its really blue eyes there?” Macy pleaded with Shannon looking a little sick. I guess the idea of Rudy and Shannon made her stomach turn. Come to think of it, made mine turn as well.

I wrapped my arms around my wife and child as Shannon leaned back into me. I figured if Macy had any issues with our relationship we should get it all out now. She didn’t. To her credit she smiled softly and nodded.

“Who are you?” JT demanded. I forgot the kid was there.

Macy seemed a bit taken aback by the sudden appearance of our oldest. Shannon being the ultimate Mother came to the rescue with an explanation.

As my wife explained Macy’s relationship to our child, said child just glared at her Aunt.

“I think you’re in trouble,” I whispered to Macy.

“She’s what? 5? How much trouble can I really be in?” she whispered back.

I snorted; the woman had no idea. This would be fun.
Chapter 8
As it happened Shannon’s explanation seemed to placate our child a bit. She still seemed leery of her Aunt but didn’t protest much. The rest of our evening was relatively calm except that we now needed a place for Shannon’s sister to sleep. Dawg suggested we send her home with Rudy. For which she got punched in the arm by Rudy, smacked in the head by her own wife and a deadly glare from Macy. Seemed like a good idea to me… what do know. Shannon settled it all by declaring the nursery the new guestroom.

I guess I was too tired to even close my eyes and still a bit shaken by the days’ events. Rather than taking out my book I left the bedroom and headed to the kitchen for a glass of milk. Sitting there in the soft glow of the stove light was Macy. I wasn’t so sure I really wanted that milk after all but it was to late, she had seen me.

“Have a seat Trace,” Macy said kicking a chair out for me.

I got my milk and resigned myself to having a conversation with a woman I wasn’t too sure I liked yet. I sat down and stared at the table occasionally taking sips of my milk.

“You don’t like me do you?” she whispered.

“Cant say if I do or don’t. I know what Shannon has told me and to be honest… it doesn’t look good for you,” I told her. I figured honesty was the best way to go here. I didn’t want her to think I was going to be an easy mark or that I was going to allow her to treat Shannon badly.

“I guess it wouldn’t look good,” she sighed. “I came here to see if I could change that.”

I was a little surprised because my first thought was that she was here to carry through her threats about JT. Remember the letter with the newspaper picture? Yeah I knew that’s what you all were thinking too.

I told her as much too. She just stared at me like I’d sprouted wings out of my ass and then I saw a dawning of recognition in her eyes and she started to laugh. “Oh my God! That picture was just to funny,” she chuckled.

I have to take a second here to say a few things. This was NOT the woman I expected Shannon’s sister to be. In my mind I had her depicted as this 10 foot tall, fire breathing bitch from hell. With claws for hands and red, glowing eyes and horns sprouting from her head. In other words she looked just like my second grade teach Mrs. Bloom. Damn that woman was scary.

That wasn’t the case. Macy in all truth looks a hell of a lot like my wife, especially as we sat there in the dim light of the stove. Her laughter was genuine and her eyes were clear and steady as she held my gaze, which indicated to me that there were no untruths there. Basically I was just very confused.

“But I thought you wanted…”I started hoping to shed some light on my confusion.

“That I wanted to take my niece away from my sister?” Macy questioned.

“Well… Yeah.”

“No,” the woman sighed. “I was hurt and maybe a little bit angry, but I wouldn’t do that,” the woman explained looking like she had been struck. I was still confused and it must have shown because she continued. “See trace, Shannon had spent weeks with me and while I’ll be the first to admit it wasn’t when I was at my best I still thought she knew that I had changed. When I saw that picture I couldn’t believe that she kept something like that from me especially after…”She stopped, tears filling her eyes.

I had a sudden urge to comfort her but well… not my wife. Instead I reached out taking her hand in my own. “After what?”

“Did Shannon tell you why she spent that time with me?” Macy asked wiping the tears from her eyes.

“You were sick,” I told her, which is what I’d been told.

“Ovarian cancer,” she whispered. Pain still evident in her voice.

“Oh,” well what the hell would you say? Geezz.

“Yeah, so I can’t have children of my own. Finding out Shannon had JT hurt, not because I wanted her for myself but it would have been nice to be around to spoil her.”

I settled down at the table and spent 2 hours talking to my sister-in-law. I asked about their childhood and why she acted the way she had. To which I got a story not unlike Shannon’s really. Macy, being the oldest, felt it was her job to please Daddy after their Mother had died. She admitted to me that she idolized the man when they were young. She wanted to be just like him. However, the General had always let her know that she would never be good enough. He took the fact that both of his children were girls as a personal affront.

When Shannon had suffered because their Father found out about her sexual preferences Macy, who also felt the same yearnings, shut herself off. She freely admitted as well that somewhere along the way she lost sight of herself. She was the dutiful daughter and on the career fast track, Daddy still wasn’t happy. Even after he died she kept up the front, striving for some self-imposed perfection that she would never reach. I asked her when that changed and she told me.

“8 weeks of chemo and radiation; spending days over the toilet expecting at any moment to see a lung come up. Losing weight and hair, watching people who claimed to be friends walk out of your life. The only person who stood by me through the whole horrible thing was my baby sister. I had turned on her, abused her by ignoring her pain, I abandon her to a man that wasn’t worth the spit it took to say his name but she was there. You want to know what finally made me WANT to change… Shannon,” Macy finished leaving no doubt about her devotion to the sister she had hurt so long ago. And I believed her, I knew Shannon’s power to change the world, it didn’t surprise me in the least.

****

The following morning found me at that same table watching Syd make breakfast when Rudy came through the door in the same clothes she wore the day before.

Syd turned and smirked. “Hot date?” she asked as Rudy slid into a chair.

“Yeah with twin boys at about 4 this morning,” Rudy yawned.

“Tell me the truth Rudy, you only became a baby doc so you could have a legitimate reason to be between a woman’s legs huh?” I teased.

“Oh yeah right, that always the best time to see a woman spread out before you,” she chuckled. “It’s a true test of my lesbianism at times.”

I had to agree, after seeing the puppy born I didn’t know how Rudy could go through that time and time again.

“What’s for breakfast?” the dark headed doctor asked Syd as she got up and grabbed herself a cup of coffee.

“Whatever you can find to cook at the hole you call an apartment,” Syd replied.

“There isn’t any food there,” Rudy said, sighing over her coffee. “Besides, you have to know how to cook and I went to the Trace school of cooking.”

That’s right, Rudy and I share a trait, neither of us can boil water. Kind of scary when you think that she can deliver a breach child and perform surgery yet she’s blown up two microwaves in the last 4 months.

“Well you’re not going to just sit there and watch then, get up here and help me,” Syd demanded.

I just chuckled thinking I was the privileged one. I was wrong.

“Trace! You too! Get me some flour out of the pantry,” the mean woman ordered. Damn! When did I lose control in my own house? Shut up! I like to pretend I had it at one time.

I wandered into the pantry still grumbling about the entire situation, deciding it was all Rudy’s fault. I heard the puppy cry from the other room and Syd tell Rudy to keep stirring. I just assumed she was off to fix whatever the problem was. I was about to step out of the pantry when I saw Macy enter the kitchen, wearing a T-shirt… only a T-shirt. It was one of those long sleep shirt ones but it still left a lot of leg.

“Well, well seems the brute is domesticated,” Macy laughed her voice dripping with sarcasm.

I saw Rudy flinch when she heard the woman’s voice. Now Rudy is never one to just let things go, she likes having the upper hand in all situations so I figured she was going to let loose with her usual brand of paybacks. When she turned I saw her dark eyes open wide in surprise as she took in Macy’s attire and she promptly… dropped the bowl of eggs she was stirring. It shattered on the floor but the big dumb doctor just stood there staring at the smaller woman.

“Way to go grace,” Macy chuckled.

Rudy pulled herself from her stupor and finally noticed what happened and then did something I’ve never seen her do… she blushed. “Oh sorry,” she whispered.

Oh my God, pod people had taken Rudy and left us with a subdued, stammering, klutz. The transformation was just short of amazing. I knew that look she had on her face. I’d seen it on Dawg when she first saw Syd and I had seen it in the mirror many times since.

Rudy dropped to the floor trying to clean up the mess which unfortunately put Macy’s shapely legs right in her, face and the blush deepened.

Now Macy might have been oblivious I don’t know but for some reason she took pity on the stumbling doctor and bent to help her with the clean up. This of course only fueled an already burning fire for poor Rudy. Macys’ t-shirt had a rather loose V-neck and when she bent it gave Rudy a clear shot of her breasts. I saw the dark haired woman bite down on her lip… hard.

It was then that Syd came back into the room with the puppy on her hip. “What the hell?” she exclaimed.

Macy stood; much to Rudy’s relief I’m sure and excused herself to go dress. Rudy watched from her crouch on the floor as the woman walked out of the kitchen, not missing a single twitch of Macy’s hips.

I finally left my little hiding spot and reentered the kitchen. Rudy stayed on the floor staring at the doorway and I felt it my responsibility to well… torture her mercilessly.

“Rudy you’re drooling,” I said reaching down to close her mouth, which was still hanging open. Then she looked up at me with those eyes, those big, damn brown, puppy dog eyes. Damn! Damn! Again just because. My torture was going to have to be set aside as I realized that the poor doctor had just been bowled over by a small blonde with a big attitude and a great ass. I knew exactly how she felt.
Chapter 9
Here’s a little known fact; the 7th month of pregnancy is when you can officially have your wife declared insane. I’m sure other pregnant women have displayed this newfound insanity in various ways. My wife revealed hers by insisting that we buy a new grill. That’s not the insane part, she wanted Dawg and I to “learn”to use it. I had neither the inclination nor the guts to go near one of those gas pumping, flesh burning, eyebrow stealing pieces of iron again. However, I also didn’t have a death wish, which is what would have happened if I had told Shannon… no.

So there we were in the yard with the new grill and I was thinking it might not be too late to declare my vegetarian conversion. Oh Shannon isn’t stupid; she was running the grill. Dawg and I were on either side… watching. Shannon kept slapping me with a spatula for not paying attention to her running commentary about the joys of grill cooking. Frankly, I just didn’t care that much. I can only take so much droning about a subject I have no interest in anyway and this was just too much like cooking so my attention wandered.

On the large wrap around porch of our home was Syd. She was sitting in the rocker holding the puppy as JT sat at her feet playing with the new puzzle that Aunt Macy had gotten her. I‘ve got to say our oldest is going to be a great big sister, Lord knows the kids’ had enough practice with the puppy being around. Every time she picked up another piece of the puzzle the puppy reached for it doing that baby grunt thing that I’ve learned is actually a command. JT without even thinking just handed her each piece for inspection and then carefully pried it out of a slimy little fist before it made it into the drooling, still toothless cavern we call her mouth. The kid has patience I’ll give her that.

Macy sat on the steps watching her niece with a definite pride. I was happy to see her starting to fit into our little group; Shannon needed her family around. Macy looked at peace sitting there watching the kids, well she did until the big, black Suburban pulled into the drive signifying Rudy’s arrival. I could have sworn I saw her roll her eyes when the long, lean doctor jumped out of the jacked up SUV.

Rudy didn’t look half bad today, she’d actually managed to go home and change her clothes after her early shift and her long dark hair still wet from her shower hung down her back. The brilliant white shirt she wore accentuated her naturally golden skin. Which left nothing to the imagination as far as her other assets went. The whole look was topped of by a pair of Ray Bans. She was dressed to impressed and seeing Macy’s reaction… I really couldn’t tell if it had worked or not. Looked like Rudy had her work cut out for her with that one.

I love Sunday afternoons with my family especially when Shannon gives up and lets me play with my friends. Oh don’t look that way she gets me back for it later, trust me. Now after the food had been cooked and eaten and we had the usual water fight during the clean up, we were all settled on the porch.

Shannon had taken a cushion from one of the chaise and lay down next to me with her head on my lap. This was just a ploy to get me to rub her back, I knew that and… I obliged. Dawg was spread out in the other chaise, sound asleep, complete with drool. I think that’s where the puppy gets it. The puppy in question had her little head resting against her Mother’s chest as Syd rocked the sleepy child and JT surprisingly had her head on Macy’s thigh, much to her Aunt’s delight. Although I think it shocked her when my kid pulled up her shirt and asked her Aunt o tickle her back. She does that when she’s tired, don’t look at me I didn’t started… no matter

Shannon says. Rudy, for her part, just leaned against the rail trying hard to look cool. All in all it was a very peaceful scene.

Until the phone rang. Syd stood and transferred the puppy to Rudy who took her place in the rocker. Now Rudy might be an abysmal failure with women but kids loved her. I think they saw through that rough, brash exterior and saw the giant, insecure child within. I know, pretty damned insightful of me huh? The puppy raised her head at the hand off but seeing who had her she just smiled that goofy baby grin and snuggled into the doctor’s arms. I watched the scene thinking that our new little one was going to be in very good hands when it was time. And if you tell her I said that I’ll hurt you. We can’t have Rudy thinking I might like her. That would just never do.

I wasn’t the only one taking in the scene with interest. Macy had noticed the hand off as well and now sat there contemplating the obvious contradiction of what she knew of the doctor and what she was seeing here. I saw her green eyes soften as Rudy cooed at the sleepy child and smile when the baby snuggled deeper into the safe embrace.

“You’re good with her,” I heard Macy say quietly. She almost seemed surprised.

Rudy just shrugged and started stroking the puppy’s fine hair. Her tough girl image cracked a bit more. “I like kids,” she finally responded. “Of course I better since I’m with them all the time.”

“Please don’t tell me you’re a teacher or something because I don’t think I can handle the thought of you teaching the next generation,” Macy quipped.

Rudy looked a bit hurt but she covered it quickly. “No, I just bring them into the world. I leave the rest to people who have the compassion to love, even when it gets tough,” she shot back, staring right at Macy.

Ouch! I didn’t know how much Rudy knew about Shannon and Macy’s past but that barb was meant to hurt and she scored a direct hit.

Macy flinched at the doctors’ words “Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that,” she apologized softly. “What do you mean you “bring them into the world”?” she asked looking totally bewildered. Didn’t we tell her who Rudy was? Guess not.

“Rudy’s a baby doc,” I explained from my position on the porch. “As a matter of fact she’s going to be delivering your new niece,” I added suddenly and inexplicably feeling the need to defend Rudy. I know, freaked me out too.

“You’re DOCTOR Rudy?” Macy questioned.

Rudy gave her the patented Todd smart-ass grin; the same one Dawg uses when she’s right and the rest of the world can go to hell. “That’s right,” she drawled wiggling her dark brows comically. “Got me a diploma and everything.”

Macy for her part just looked a bit stunned. I don’t think her image of Rudy included her to be an educated woman with the ability to bring life into the world. “Wow.”

With the situation somewhat diffused I sat back and again observed. Dawg was now snoring as was my wife and oldest child. The puppy was drooling on Rudy’s shirt, who didn’t seem to notice or care. And there was a sudden change in Macy’s demeanor. She relaxed a bit and really started to talk to the good doctor. In words with meaning rather than the sharp barbs and hurtful comments. As a matter of fact the two spent the rest of the afternoon in conversation.

When Dawg woke she tried to join the conversation but was ignored which she wasn’t used to so she looked to me; all I could do was shrug. This continued into the evening even after dusk had given way to full on night and Rudy had been relieved of the puppy. They sat on the porch side by side still deep in conversation even when Shannon grabbed my hand and led me upstairs, not before she flipped on the porch light. When I was getting ready for bed about an hour later I peeked out the window and saw that Rudy’s truck was still in the drive. Guess that attraction Rudy felt wasn’t just one sided.

****

If I felt like the doctor lived with us before I was wrong. Rudy started showing up for breakfast and dinner… everyday. And sometimes lunch when she had the time. It wouldn’t have been bad but the poor woman was making no progress with Shannon’s sister, at least to me it didn’t look like it. They hadn’t even progressed to the hand holding stage yet. So much for Rudy’s big reputation. I think she had finally met her match.

Our wives had demanded the night before that they be left to sleep in, not that it was a big deal but they also wanted Dawg and I to watch the children, which meant… feed them. It would also happen that Rudy would be stopping by for breakfast so we figured between the three of us we could manage to feed two small children. Ok so I was wrong. The sum of our cooking skills was making coffee and toast, and the later was iffy.

It was Rudy’s brilliant idea to make oatmeal. Lucky for us it came in little packets with directions and everything, including that it could be done in a microwave which worked for me. So we agreed. Oatmeal should never be cooked 10 packets at a time. You need to use a bowl that left enough room for it to expand and you should never and I do mean ever put it in there for 20 minutes. It was a messy lesson but one well learned.

So we finally got the oatmeal cleaned off the front of the microwave, the inside didn’t look good either but you can close the door so no one would ever know that. We all had our rubbery little oats and sat to eat. Now the puppy has taken to trying to feed herself lately which is her way of asserting her independence I guess… so we let her. When breakfast was over there were oats on the table, floor, ceiling, overhead light, refrigerator and believe it or not smeared across the bathroom mirror. I think that was what first tipped off the girls that some major disaster had struck the kitchen.

In any case, when they came in, the proverbial shit hit the fan. By the end of the whole breakfast tirade Dawg, Rudy and myself were grounded from the house for the rest of the day.

****

So as we stood in the yard staring back at the house we were just banished from it struck us all that we really had… no place to go.

“Why did I get kicked out of the house?” Rudy whined. “They aren’t even my kids.”

“Guilt by association,” I told her.

“So now what are we going to do?” Dawg questioned. It was a good question. What would three grown women do for an entire day as they were banished from their home and left to fend for themselves in the world? The answer was simple really…

“Road trip!”
Chapter 10
The details get a bit sketchy here and I’m afraid they may be lost forever but I’ll do my best. Now we drove around for a while, stopping at Rudy’s so she could change out of her formal doctor clothes as Dawg called them and that’s where we drank the first beer… it was 11 AM.

Now when you have three women stuffed into the cab of a pickup truck, especially women the size we are you can only ride around for so long. We lasted in the cramped space until about 5 PM and that was after a trip to the diner for lunch and… another 6 pack. About 10 miles out of town there’s this little wooden shack with an old neon sign hanging on a post by the road, it read “The Dew Drop Inn,”

Yes! Of course we stopped. Dawg and I had been in many bars like this all over the world, small, dingy back woods bars in the middle of nowhere. This one was no different right down to the John Deer tractor in the gravel parking lot. All in all, your basic rednecks place.

It would be just our luck or maybe not, that on this particular night the little drinking establishment touted a karaoke contest. Yeah I know, Yeehaaa! But hell after 3 pitchers of almost cold beer and a shot or two of whiskey we just knew we could sing better than most of these cowboy wannabes. And don’t look at me that way; I’ll give you even odds that you’ve felt the same way at one time or another.

I can’t say that I’m a good vocalist but then again I’ve never been booed off a stage before. Not that I’ve been on any recently but Shannon likes it when I sing occasionally. So we joined the little contest. I have to say here in my defense, that I should never have drunk that third shot of whiskey. We took the stage when our turn came up and this was well… Not sure really but it was dark outside and the music had gotten louder so it had to be around 10 PM.

We had chosen our song not because we were being jerks or even insensitive but rather because it was the only one all of us knew the words to. Had I known how things would turn out I would have done a solo. Now Dawg and Rudy make a pretty good back up and we were going along all right but for some reason the locals seemed to take offence at our choice of music… you see we had chosen… “The Asshole Song”by David Allen Coe.

I agree that it probably hadn’t helped that Rudy had not so politely turned away about 4 men, telling them they were the reason she dated their wives. I will also say that Dawg’s domination of the pool table and humiliation of another 3 men didn’t help either. I will not say that I was innocent in all of this; some biker took offence because his woman was trying to feel up my ass and I told her if she wanted a woman that bad she should look into having that sex change finished. I believe that all of these things probably aided in what happened.

We had finished singing and we hadn’t done a bad job either, but the room was deadly silent.

“That cant be a good sign,” Dawg slurred. I agreed and it was then that I tried, I swear I did, I tried to get the other two out of the bar as fast as I could. Not fast enough as it turns out.

After a quick stop at the table so Rudy could finish her beer, and yes I blame her for this whole thing, we had gotten to the door when a chair came flying by my head and crashed into the wall. And the games began!

The last I saw of Dawg before I took a ride over the bar, she had the biker up against the wall doing some major redecorating on his face while his half female bitch jumped up and down on her back. I lost Rudy right from the start when one guy grabbed her arm and she gave him a spinning kick sending him flying into his buddies.

I cant say how long the meelay lasted, all I know is that eventually I crawled through the blood and broken glass to the door and finally made it to the parking lot. It didn’t take Dawg and Rudy long after that to stumble out either. Actually they came out running, well, they thought they were running in any case. We knew it was time to cut our losses here so we piled into the truck and headed home, provided we still had a home.

I wont say that driving drunk is a good thing for any reason and I feel shame for doing it that night but… I was the only one who could figure out how the pedals worked. It was a slow paranoid ride home for me; I kept it to what I thought was a reasonable speed. Which was probably about 10 mph. And just to be on the safe side I drove with the door open, don’t laugh in my mind it was the best way to make sure I stayed between the lines.

When we pulled into the driveway at home I was never so relieved in my life. Mostly because I had to piss like a racehorse. We all piled out of the truck with me trying to shush the drunken fools, ever notice how loud drunk people are? I didn’t want them to wake my wife. Ha!

I started for the porch when I noticed we were one person short of our trio and dragged Dawg back to find Rudy, who was crawling in the dirt saying she couldn’t feel her feet. When I finally got them both moving in the same direction the sight that met me in the glow of the porch light made me think we should go back and look for Rudy’s missing appendages.

My wife stood there wearing a long cotton gown back lit by the porch light, hands on her hips and fire shooting from her nose. Okay so not really but you get the point. Beside her was Syd and she really did have the whole fire thing happening and filling out the trio was Macy in the back just shaking her head.

We must have been a pretty sight with our ripped up, blood stained clothes. Both Rudy and Dawg sporting split lips and I had a nice shiner starting. Not to mention my jaw hurt like hell. But I tried to straighten myself out and without missing a beat flashed Shannon my best charming grin “Honey, I’m home,” I slurred.

She was not amused. I think she flew down the steps because I never saw her take a step and before I knew it she had a hold of my ear yanking my up to the porch.

“Syd, you take yours and Macy you take the left-overs,” she commanded… and they did.

Syd latched onto Dawg and all I heard was a painful yelp from my large friend. Macy sighed as she passed me to gather Rudy, who was still crawling. I heard the doctor as I was pulled into the house still held by my ear.

“You are soo beau… beau… pretty.”

****

The morning after found Dawg in back in our own kitchen, without wives or children. They left early that morning saying under no circumstances were we to leave the house. I hadn’t planned to anyway so no big loss there. I hate hangovers; the older I get the worse they get. It just doesn’t seem fair. So I sat at the table with my head hung over a cup of steaming coffee, quite sure my eyes were going to bleed from my head and I looked to Dawg. She looked worse.

Finding it to difficult to speak we just sat in silence wishing that it would all end either in relief or death, I don’t think it mattered.

The kitchen door swung open but… no one entered. At least I didn’t think anyone did until I looked at the floor where I saw Rudy crawling on hands and knees to the chair. I glanced up at Dawg and she grinned, it was a silent agreement to put aside our own pain and… exploit Rudy’s.

“Hey there sunshine!”Dawg said smiling brightly. Oh god that must hurt, I admired her control.

Rudy just glared and grunted.

I got up and fetched the miserable doctor a cup of coffee; placing it in front of her I patted her head… hard. “What’s the matter?” I questioned innocently. In reality I was doing all I could not to heave my cookies on the table.

“You two aren’t human,” she grumbled.

It was then that Macy walked in on the scene; she stopped taking stock of the three of us. I wondered briefly what she had done with the good doctor the night before as far as where she bedded her down.

“Well if it isn’t the prisoners,” she laughed. “I’m your warden today and the girls left a list of things they want you to do. Starting with the stalls,” the blonde said a bit to cheerfully. Rudy just looked up and smirked. It didn’t last long…

“Oh don’t think you’re getting out of things Doc,” Macy continued running her fingers through Rudy’s hair. She grabbed a hand full and pulled Rudy’s dark head back, “you’re helping them,” she said kissing the woman on the cheek.

I didn’t get any kisses this morning, Damn! Hell I’d be lucky to get a kiss in the next 6 months. Yes I’m pouting, shut up!

I think it was then that it hit Rudy. Cleaning stalls in the barn, in the heat, with no ventilation I heard her groan and she looked a little green. Actually I wasn’t feeling so good myself.

Rudy just rolled out of the chair and stumbled out the door saying something about needing the bathroom.

“Is she gone?” I asked Dawg, she nodded, and I dropped my head to the table as Dawg just fell from her chair and collapsed on the floor.

Macy stepped over us both as she left the room. “Better get to work,” she said laughing all the way out the door.
Chapter 11
It was just as horrible as I had imagined cleaning out those stalls. Between the smell and the heat it was a really good thing I hadn’t eaten any breakfast. On a good note, by the time the girls got back I had sweated all the alcohol from my system and was feeling a damn sight better than I had.

Dinner was a quiet affair both Dawg and I were still in well… the doghouse so to speak. I just kept my head down thinking it best to try to fly under the radar for now. Unfortunately my wife and I share a room. I know… duh. It was there that I expected Shannon to unleash on me but she again surprised me.

“Don’t go off like that again and not call me ok?” my small wife said once we were tucked into our bed.

“Okay,” I agreed and that was that.

She reached for me and I went willingly into her arms, holding her tightly under the covers. I kissed her blonde head and she hugged me tighter.

“Trace?”

“Yes?” I knew that had gone to smoothly, damn!

“We really need to come up with a name for this baby,” she sighed.

Huh? Okay maybe I missed a turn here. You know women talk in left turns. One minute you’re cruising along and all of a sudden they are two states away on an entirely different road. “Name?”

“Yes, you know, they give them to children so they don’t go though life as ‘hey you‘,” she laughed the little smart-ass.

I started to reach for my book when she stopped me. “I actually have an idea about that, I just want to know how you feel about it,” Shannon told me. She had risen up on one elbow staring down at me biting her lip as she does when she’s nervous. It made me wonder if we were about to name our child Iccabod or something. Frankly I didn’t think Iccabod Crane O’Dell had a very good ring to it.

When she told me her idea it confirmed for me that my wife is as brilliant as I give her credit for being. I loved the name and I loved her for thinking of it. And no I’m not telling.

****

A few days after our drunken night Shannon approached me about a payback of sorts. Seems our ladies wanted their own night out, with us, much to my surprise. Shannon reasoned that it might be the last chance we get for some time and since she was right, again, I agreed. So after having convinced Maggie to watch over our little darlings we all piled into Rudy’s suburban and headed to the nearest… lesbian bar. Which by the way was an hour out of town.

“I don’t see why I have to drive,” Rudy whined. She was just pissed because Dawg was in the front instead of Macy don’t feel sorry for her.

“Because you have the biggest vehicle,” Dawg shot back.

“Well you could go buy one. Trace is going to need a bigger one anyway for that brood she’s breeding,” Rudy commented. She was right; my truck just wasn’t going to accommodate two car seats and still leave room for a driver. It was something Shannon and I had planned on remedying over the weekend.

Dawg just smacked her cousin in the back of the head and the matter was settled. The rest of the ride was peaceful, well… except having to stop three times so Shannon could go to the bathroom. Bladder… walnut… baby… you get it.

I was a bit reluctant about going back out to any bar with my “friends”after our last little outing but with the girls along I didn’t figure there would be too much trouble. As it turned out we had a good time. No one drank much and I didn’t touch a drop. Shannon couldn’t because of the baby so I joined her in abstaining.

You ever have one of those nights you know you will never forget? The music is perfect, the conversation is good and your lady looks like an angel. This was that night for me.

Shannon may have been 7 months pregnant but it didn’t detract from her beauty, it added to it in my eyes. Her blonde hair glowed like a halo. Her green eyes glittered with her good humor and held the adoration she felt for me. I know, I’m a lucky bitch. I held my girl and danced with her all night. We laughed and sang to each other, we cuddled and made plans for the future. It was definitely going to be one of my best memories.

The evening ended much better than it had started. When we all climbed back into Rudy’s SUV the tensions were gone, the laughter continued and Rudy, wasn’t whining. Mainly because she got to sit in back with Macy while Dawg drove. I had my arms wrapped around my wife as we listen to soft jazz on the radio and watched the light rain that had begun to fall. I was at peace, fulfilled and happy and looking forward to my tomorrows.

And then I saw the headlights coming at us over the yellow line…
Chapter 12
I heard Syd scream and felt the truck turn as Dawg yanked the wheel trying in vane to avoid the collision, I felt the impact on the drivers side and heard the sounds of crunching metal and breaking glass. The rest is cloudy.

I must have hit my head but on what I don’t know, I came to finding myself on the grass in the median. It took a second to understand what had happened and then one thought echoed in my mind… Shannon!

I jumped up and felt suddenly dizzy but I took a gasping breath then went in search of my wife. The scene was a mess. A big blue pickup full of teenagers had run the light and crossed the line, I think Dawg’s first thoughts were to make sure the truck didn’t hit on Syd’s side so when she turned that wheel it brought the drivers side around and she took the full impact. Unfortunately it was also the side my wife had been closest to. It must have been Rudy that pulled me from the SUV because I could see her in the dark, through the rain as she helped Syd to the ground. Macy was standing to the side pale and obviously in shock. I could hear Syd calling for Dawg and it was then that I looked at the Suburban.

It was nothing but mangled sheet metal from the front quarter panel to the back of the passenger door and both Dawg and Shannon were still inside. I headed for the wreckage determined to get my wife out of there when a strong hand stopped me.

“You can’t get her out Trace,” Rudy shouted.

“I can’t just stand here,” I shouted back. Was the woman stupid? That was my wife and child in that mess.

“She needs a back board and neck brace. I don’t want to move her until EMS gets here,” the doctor tried to explain.

I didn’t really care what she wanted I needed to get to Shannon so I grabbed her shoulders and started to move her myself. Two strong arms came around my waist and I jerk around ready to lay into whoever it was but I found Syd, holding me against her. She had tears in her eyes and I realized that she felt the same as I did… useless.

“Let Rudy make the calls here Trace,” she pleaded. Sometimes logic and reason are the best way to go even though it doesn’t seem to be the fastest route.

I held onto Syd as we stood there along side of the accident in the rain, watching as the EMS and Fire Dept. used the Jaws of Life to cut the doors off the Suburban. It seemed to me to take forever; each second that ticked by lasted an eternity. Finally they had gotten Dawg free from the wreck and loaded her still form onto a stretcher. Syd went to her side, sobbing as the put my friend in the ambulance.

“Go with her Syd,” I heard Rudy say. “I’ll meet you at the hospital.”

It took another 15 minutes to get Shannon out of the twisted carnage. I couldn’t get close to her for all of the EMS workers and Rudy getting her stabilized. After they had her loaded and ready to transport Rudy ran up to me…

“You better ride with us,” she said taking my hand, as I moved toward the ambulance. “Trace, its not good,” she sighed and then I saw the tears in the doctors eyes. I got the meaning; it might be my last chance with my wife. I climbed into the back numb from the shock.

I held it together pretty well until I saw my beautiful wife lying there on that stretcher. She was covered in blood, her clothing had been cut away, she had tubes running into her. I gently took her hand and even though she was unconscious I talked to her all the way to the hospital.

We pulled up to the ambulance bay of ER and 4 people rushed out to help and I was again pushed aside. It wasn’t until I heard Shannon cry out for me that I even moved from the spot. I raced to her side listening to Rudy say we had to make it quick.

I knelt beside her and kissed her hand, “Its going to be okay baby,” I assured her.

She looked to me with those bright green eyes filled with tears. “Promise me,” she whispered.

“It’s going to be alright, you’ll see,” I repeated.

“No, promise me Trace,” she said again in a stronger more demanding tone.

I didn’t want to make this promise, I never wanted to make it, not now not ever and certainly not without her. But she pleaded to me and I couldn’t refuse. “I promise baby, I’ll never leave them alone and I will always be there for them for the rest of my life,” even now her thoughts were for her children.

I watched as they took her away, rolling her down the long antiseptic hallway toward the trauma rooms. It was another hour before I saw Rudy again. In the mean time I had paced every inch of the ER threatened several nurses and scared a few orderlies.

Rudy came out of the trauma room covered in blood and I felt sick at the sight.

“Dawg is up in surgery but it looks like she’s going to be alright. She needs a lot of work done to her knee and she has a broken collar bone but it could have been worse,” she told Syd and I as she ran a shaky hand through her hair.

I opened my mouth to ask about my wife, almost afraid to know. She turned to me and gave me a trembling smile. “It’s a girl Trace. She’s small but healthy, considering. They took her to neo-natal,” she explained. “Shannon has to go up to surgery, she’s lost a lot of blood and we need to get in there and see what the damage is,” she squeezed my hand for reassurance. “I’m going to be right there with her, I promise.”

I nodded knowing that if I couldn’t watch over my brave little wife that Rudy certainly would.

****

That was three hours ago and I still hadn’t gotten any news. I was sitting in the nursery holding my newborn daughter marveling at the miracle. She was so tiny having made her entrance into the world at a whopping 5 pounds. The nurses tell me that if she had been full term the kid would have come out walking. I was amazed by the tiny infant in my arms, her perfect little hands and cute little nose and… red hair. Yeah I don’t know where that came from either.

They, meaning the nurses, gave me a bottle put me in a gown and sat me in a rocking chair to feed the infant. They all seem to think her eyes will be blue, like mine. I would have preferred green. They had come to me with the forms we needed to fill out to name the child and I just stared at them. This wasn’t the plan. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Shannon should have been filling these out, I was supposed to bragging and handing out cigars.

“What are you going to name her?” the nurse asked softly.

I thought for a minute about the conversation Shannon and I had just a few nights before and I smiled. “Cameron… Cameron Sydney O’Dell,” I told her. That’s the name Shannon had picked out.

The woman grinned and filled in the name making it all official and I went back to rocking my lifeline, my little piece of Shannon. I sat that way for what seemed an eternity before I saw Rudy come through the double doors at the end of the hall outside the nursery. She looked exhausted, her face was drawn tight and her eyes were red.

She came first to Macy who had been looking in on me and her new niece from time to time and I watched them in the hall under the harsh lights. I knew when I saw Macy crumple to the floor; tears filled my eyes and splashed down onto the soft red hair of my new daughter… I just knew.
Epilogue…

13 months later…
“Trace God damn it! It’s been long enough. You need to get out and join the world,” Dawg yelled as she drug me from the house and tossed my ass into the back of the car.

“I need to stay home and take care of my family,” I shouted back still struggling in vane.

“Shut up! You’re going,” she huffed as she slammed the door trapping me in the car. Its sad that a woman who still walks with a limp can basically pick me up and put me where SHE wants me. I hate that.

“Fine! I’ll go but I don’t have to like it,” I pouted.

“Whatever.”

I really didn’t want to go. I hadn’t gone anywhere but to the store and home since… that night. It was there I felt the safest and that’s where I wanted to be. I didn’t think my so-called friends had any right to yank me from my own little haven.

We drove for about 30 minutes and then… stopped. I had to groan, the sign by the road said “The Dew Drop Inn”, Oh God not again. And much to my dismay it was, karaoke night. I grumbled all the way through the front door and glared at the bartender when I ordered a shot.

Syd tossed one of those damn songbooks in front of me and I just eyed her evilly. She laughed… the sadistic bitch. All in all I was miserable; okay it wasn’t that bad but I wasn’t going to tell them that. After listening to several people mangle some, what used to be, good songs and of course about a pitcher of beer opened the book.

I surreptitiously glanced at my “friends”before writing down my selection thinking if I changed a word it would express things perfectly. I got up quietly and handed it to the guy running the show. Then sat back down to drink yet another shot of liquid courage. When my name was called I took the stage and began…

The only ground I ever owned was sticking to my shoes

Now I look out my front porch at this panoramic view,

I can sit and watch the fields fill up with rays of golden sun

Or watch the moon lay on the fences like that’s where it was hung,

My blessings aren’t in front of me; it’s not about the land

I’ll never beat the view from my front porch looking in.

There’s a carrot top that can barely walk with a sippy cup of milk,

A little green-eyed blonde with shoes on wrong cuz she likes to dress herself

And the most beautiful girl holdin both of them

Yeah the view I love the most… is my front porch looking in.

I sang the words while looking directly at the face of the most wonderful woman in the world, my wife. Shannon smiled back and then laughed all of her love and devotion shining in her eyes. That really is the most beautiful view in my world… Gotcha didn’t I!

The End

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