Chapter 49 – Preparations

Staring at her reflection Unity sighed “nothing looks good on me.” Turning to face her mom, “I’m a walking skeleton. Do I have to wear a dress?”

“Sweetie…”

“Mom please,” rolling her eyes “don’t say I’m pretty. I know I’m not.” Her fingers strayed to the tufts of thinning hair peeking out from beneath the hat she wore.

Walking over to her daughter “do you want to know what I see when I look at you?” She turned her daughter towards the mirror. “I see a beautiful young woman. Not only beautiful but strong and brave. A fighter.”

“Mom,” she wiped a tear from her cheek “you’re going to make me cry.”

“Then you’ll make me cry,” Charity sniffed. “You’re going to be the prettiest girl at the Summer Social.”

Rolling her eyes she stared at herself in the mirror trying to see the girl her mom saw. All she saw was … herself. “Mom do you think RIley will like this dress?”

“He’ll like any dress you wear,” Charity assured her. “Boys don’t pay much attention to what we wear.”

“Then why do you fuss so much when you and Daddy go out?”

“Because I want to look my best,” she smiled at her daughter in the mirror. “Do you like him?”

Nodding her cheeks turning pink. “I’ve liked him for like forever.”

“Then he’s a lucky boy,” she squeezed her shoulders.

“I don’t think he’s lucky…not if he likes me.” Her bottom lip trembled “Maybe I shouldn’t go. I’ll call him when I get home and say I changed my mind.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” Charity turned her daughter around so she could look her in the eyes.

“But he’ll only get hurt …”

Tilting  her chin upwards “is it him you’re worried about or yourself?”

“Unity’s eyes slid towards the floor. Her shoulders sagged as if she carried a heavy weight.

“That’s what I thought,” Charity sighed “you’re allowed to be happy. Enjoy what time you have. None of us are giving up and neither should you.”

“I’ll try,” she smiled up at her mom through her tears. “I really will.”

“That’s all I ask,” she pulled her close, hugging her tight. “Do you want the dress?” she asked, pulling away.

Turning to look at herself in the mirror once more “yes.” Grinning she added “with the wig Daddy got me I’ll look almost like I did before I got sick.”

***

“Dad, can we talk?” Justice asked, coming into the living room where his dad was reading.

Putting the book down Ryan sat back “of course, what’s up?”

Sitting on the couch Justice tried not to look as guilty as he felt. This was his dad not some stranger. “Um…” he inhaled deeply trying to settle his nerves and the rapid beating of his heart. 

Frowning Ryan leaned forward .”Is something wrong? I know your mom and I haven’t been around much this summer but we’re always here for you. You can tell us anything.”

Smiling at the concern he heard in the dad’s voice he shook his head. “Nothing’s wrong it’s just…” another deep intake of breath. “I got accepted into University…” He saw the relief and pride in his dad’s eyes “It’s on the mainland….” 

“Oh,” sighing he ran a hand through his hair. “Have you told your mom yet?”

Shaking his head, “not yet. I won’t be leaving right away. I’m planning on taking a gap year.”

“Are you sure you want to do that?” Ryan watched his son closely. He’d known for a while that Justice had wanted to leave the island. To do more than help run the resort. 

“It’s not that I want leave” sighing he toyed with this hair. “I love you guys. I just don’t see myself running a resort. It’s not what I want to do . Noble loves it. I don’t share that love.”

Snorting a little Ryan chuckled “it’s going to be difficult getting him to release control once Charity and I are able to dedicate more time to the resort.”

“Why not just let him have it?” Justice asked “retire early and take Mom on a second honeymoon or something.”

“That’s a good idea,” he nodded thinking about it “but you kids deserve some free time to enjoy yourselves while you can.”

“For Noble that’s running the resort,” he chuckled softly. “But I guess even he will want time to spend with this girlfriend.”

“True but you can’t change the subject that easily,” Ryan said “you need to tell your mom. She’s going to want her kids close by especially now.”

“I know,” sighing he leaned forward, “but I have to live my life too.”

“You do and your mom will realize that once she’s done crying,” he assured him. “You’ll be missed.”

“Thanks Dad,” he grinned “I’ll miss you too but I’ll be back to visit.”

“You better or your mom will hunt you down,” he warned.

“Don’t I know it,” and the both laughed.

***

“I don’t know…” Noble frowned at what his brother had spent hours doing.

“What?” Loyal demanded “I think it looks good.”

TIling this head to the side “it doesn’t look right.” He walked towards the proposed photo area for the guests at this year’s Summer Social.

“What’s wrong with it,” Loyal asked somewhat defensively. They’d been at this for hours and accomplished so little.

Graham looked up from the reception desk where he had been checking a guest. “Boys keep your voices down,” he admonished them. “The guests don’t want to hear you two argue.” Joining them he asked “what’s wrong with what you have?”

“That’s what I want to know,” Loyal huffed.

“Well,” Noble rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “It’s too…” he waved his hands around searching for the right word “promie.”

“Promie,” Graham and Loyal repeated together staring at him.

“Yeah,” crossing his arms “it’s the Summer Social not the prom. It’s semi formal, beachy.”

Nodding Loyal sighed “You’re right. It’s a little too much like prom.” Taking a step back surveying all his hard work “maybe if we took some of the balloons down.”

“All the balloons,” Graham said, remembering all the families that come with their young kids. “We don’t want kids fighting over the balloons and popping them.”

“Yeah let’s nix the balloons,” Noble said. “Let’s do flowers instead. Maybe an arch.”

“I don’t know…won’t that be a little elaborate,” Loyal said thinking of all the dried petals he’d have to clean up afterwards.

“Better than people screaming every time a balloon pops and kids fighting.” Graham pointed out.

“Alright you win,” he sighed, not looking forward to redoing everything. “What kind of flowers should we get?”

“Something bright and cheerful,” Noble suggested.

“I’ll see what I can find,” pulling out his phone hoping Belle will be more helpful.

***

Stacy watched her friend put her phone away “what did he want?”

“Ideas on flowers, bright and cheerful.” She giggled a little “I guess Noble didn’t like the balloons. I tried to tell him that balloons were a bad idea but would he listen?”

Shaking her head she led the way to the store she wanted to take Belle to. “Do you think we should have volunteered to help with the decorating?”

“Maybe tomorrow,” she looped an arm around Stacy’s “today we shop.”

“Good idea,” she agreed “there’s a cute dress I want your opinion on.”

Raising an eyebrow at her “for the dance or  a romantic dinner for two?”

Frowning “what’s the difference?”

“Well,” laughing she followed the girl into the store “not much if you ask my cousin but for me a little slinky dress that’s just waiting for some lucky guy to remove is perfect for a romantic night.”

“In that case it’s a dress for the dance,” Stacy said her cheeks burning at the images Belle had conjured in her mind.

“I take it you two haven’t gotten to that point yet…”

“Um no,” shaking her head “have you?”

“Well,” she idly started looking at the clothes on the rack “I’m not one to kiss and tell.”

Staring at her a moment Stacy wasn’t sure if she should believe the girl. “Well um this is the dress,” she pulled it out and held it up “what do you think?”

“It’s….nice,” she wrinkled her nose a little “it’s not really my taste though.”

“You don’t like it.”

“It’s not something I’d wear,” she tried to find something nice “it’s a pretty color.”

“Wow it must be bad if that’s the best you can say about it.” She put it back “the truth is I don’t know what to wear. Will you help me?”

“Of course,” she looked around the store before saying “first let’s find a different store. This one makes me think of menopausal women trying too hard to be appealing.”

“It does,” she giggled “I guess all that time I spent with my Nana has rubbed off on me.”

“Well by the time we’re done you’ll have Noble’s eyes popping out at how pretty you are,” Belle assured her.

Chapter 48 – Unpopular Decisions / Chapter 50 –

Chapter 48 – Unpopular Decisions

Groaning Coral rolled over reaching for the bedside lamp. “Where are you going,” she asked, seeing Mindy getting dressed.

“To work,” she napped “where else would I be going?”

“But I thought…” she stood up “it’s not even six in the morning yet.”

“I have a ton of stuff to do before we open,” she strode towards the door.

“That’s it? That’s all you have to say,” she frowned at her girlfriend.

“You know I have to go back to work some time,” irritation making her words terse and clipped. She shifted her weight from side to as if eager to be gone.

“It’s Sunday,” she moved closer to the door, “you promised. 

“I promised to work less not to take every day off.”

“I know that,” Coral snapped, “you worked until late last night. I thought we could have breakfast together since the store doesn’t open until afternoon.”

“I need to check the books. Inspect the store. The new girls are sloppy. Not to mention work on my next designs.” She reached for the door and said, “I’ll be back later.”

“When,” Coral asked.

“How should I know,” she huffed. “You knew this is the way I am. If you don’t like it you can leave.”

Gasping she blinked in shock “do you want me to leave?”

Shrugging “you can do what you want.”

The ticking of the alarm clock was the only sound in the room as Coral absorbed what her girlfriend just said. “Wait,” she cried as Mindy opened the door “aren’t you going to at least say goodbye? Give me a kiss. Something?”

Rolling her eyes “I don’t have time for this,” she grumbled taking a few steps towards her girlfriend. “There. Feel better?” she asked after her lips barely brushed the girl’s cheek.

“No actually,” she mumbled, turning away with her arms crossed.

“Whatever,” she mumbled walking away. “If I’m not good enough you know where the door is.”

“Yeah I know,” Coral wondered when she’d actually do as she said. The moment she was done hoping for change. If she wasn’t certain that Mindy loved her she’d have left already. She needed to help Mindy see there was more to life than working. She could show her those things. She knew she could. As Mindy walked out their bedroom door they both knew Coral would be there when she came back. Waiting for some hint that she was at least as important as her designs. 

***

Erika sat across from her eldest son. It was hard to imagine he’d be eighteen soon. Sipping her coffee she asked “so you’ve decided to keep the baby?”

Squirming a little beneath her stare he nodded. “I know it’s not going to be easy. I don’t care. I just want to keep my baby.” His cheeks burned beneath her scrutiny. Who would have thought he’d be a father? Somehow he always imagined himself to be like his own father. Leaving when the things go tough but maybe he was more like his mom than he knew.

Reaching across the table Erika squeezed her son’s hand. “You’ll be a good father and you’ll have help.”

“What about your plans?” he asked. “You can’t just forget about them. Not because of me.”

“Don’t worry about me,” she patted his hand smiling at him. “I’m proud of the man you’ve become. Besides I can always make new plans. I want to be around to help you and my first grandchild.”

“Do you think I should still take classes at the community college on the island?”

“I think it would be a good idea, yes,” she gave him a small smile “the decision is yours though.”

NOdding he sipped his lemonade “I signed up for a couple of classes in the afternoon. I don’t know how much I can do being pregnant. Most of the time I feel fine and other times I just want to curl up and cry.”

Nodding she gathered the dishes together. “I know the feeling well. I was a highschool senior when I was pregnant with you. My mom wouldn’t let me stay home. I had to go whether I felt like it or not.”

“I’m glad you’re my mom instead of her,” he stated. His grandmother was a formidable force not many, including him, wanted to tangle with. “How is she doing anyway?”

“Tough and ornery as ever,” she chuckled, winking at him “she wants the baby named after her.”

Shaking his head “there’s no way I’m naming my child Mildred Ruthina O’hare.”

“Just think about it,” she giggled “she’ll probably name you her heir if you do.”

“I’ll manage without her money,” he sighed “there’s no way I could turn that into a good boys name anyway.”

“Well Miller Ruth O’hare does have a nice ring to it.”

“Mom please,” he groaned walking from the room.

***

After his mom left for work there was a knock at the door. Thinking his mom had ordered something he answered the door. Gasping in shock when he came face to face with this ex boyfriend, Raven. “What do you want? He demanded crossing his arms in front of him.

“I um,” running his tongue across his bottom lip “we need to talk.”

“I think we’ve said all there is to be said.”

“I’m sorry,” he dragged a hand through his hair. “I’m not ready to have a kid.”

“Do you think I am?” tears of anger and  frustration shining in his eyes.

“You could always put it up for adoption or you know,” he stepped back at the murderous glare Aaron threw at him. “It’s your choice but this is mine.”

“Is that all you wanted to tell me?” he demanded glaring at him “if so you can leave.”

“No I um…” picking at his fingernails sighing “I came to tell you I’m moving. My parents got job offers on the mainland and…”

“And you won’t be around for the birth of your child.” It hurt to say. He had expected it but it still hurt. Still stung to know Raven didn’t even want to meet their child.”

“You’re the one who wants it. I’ve told you what I want,” he shrugged, glancing away.

“Yeah,” he mumbled feeling as if he’d been the one used and discarded. “Just leave and don’t come back.” He stepped back inside the house slamming the door behind him. Gratified at the short bark of surprise behind.

The whole encounter served to intensify his feelings. His decision. One of which was to keep Raven’s name off the birth certificate. He’d draft a will naming his brother Riley as the baby’s guardian in case something happened to him.

***

A few minutes later Riley came home. Looking over his shoulder “what’s that jerk doing here?”

“I told him to leave,” he said flatly “lock the door so he can’t come in. I don’t want to see him.”

“Want me to tell him to leave,” Riley asked.

Shrugging “doesn’t matter.”

“If you ask me it’s creepy,” he said joining Aaron on the couch. “What did he want?”

“Apparently to tell me he hasn’t changed his mind. That and he’s moving to the mainland.” He tried to get into the movie he was watching before Riley came home.

“Want me to call the police? They’ll make him leave then,” Riley offered knowing his brother was putting up an act.

Staring at his younger brother a moment he slowly shook his head. “No, I think he’ll leave on his own. He’s conflicted between what he wants and what his mom wants.”

Riley made an expression that said he thought his brother had lost his mind. “Whatever. He’s old enough to make a baby, he’s old enough to stand up to his mother.”

Aaron glanced towards the door “true.” Shrugging he turned the movie off then turned to his brother “did you ask her?”

“Yeah,” biting his lip “what do I do now?”

Chuckling “be yourself. The hard part is behind you. You asked. She obviously said yes.”

“What if I do or say something stupid?” his face felt uncomfortably warm.

“That’s a given,” Aaron ducked as Riley tossed a pillow at him. “Don’t worry so much. She likes you or she wouldn’t have said yes She’ll like you even if you say something stupid. Besides I bet she’s just as nervous as you are.”

“You think so,” he asked.

“Trust me everyone is nervous the first time they go out. Remember she was your friend first. Everything should be fine. Just have fun.”

“Thanks,” he smiled, relaxing at the idea of going on his first official date.

Chapter 47 – Forward Thinking / Chapter 49 – Preperations

Chapter 47 – Forward Thinking

Riley shoved his hands into his pocket as he glanced around the room before his eyes stopped on the frail girl by the window. “Um,” he licked his lips as his chest tightened “you’re looking good.”

A hint of a smile brightened her face then vanished. “I’m not,” turning from the window “but thanks anyway.”

Groaning he half turned towards the door he’d just come in through. “I’m such an idiot.”

“Why?” she asked, blinking up at him.

“For saying … you know…” he waved a hand around embarrassed to have to repeat himself.

Crossing her arms she tilted her head to the side “so I don’t look good?”

He saw the challenge in her eyes even though her words were soft. “That’s not what I meant,” he stammered feeling as if he’d fallen into quicksand.

“No,” sighing she looked out the window “I know I look like shit. You don’t have to pretend otherwise” She brought a hand up, her fingers pulled at the thin tufts of hair poking out from beneath her hat.

Taking a step forward “don’t say that. You’re still one of the prettiest girls I know.”

“Don’t lie to me,” she cried covering her face in her hands. “I’m ugly.”

“You’re not ugly,” he stepped towards her arms open wide. He was shocked when she ran into his arms, snuggling against him, trembling.

“Thank you,” she murmured, her lips moving against his neck “it’s nice of you to say even if it’s not true.”

His skin tingled at the softness of her lips touching his skin. He longed to gather her in his arms, to hold her tight. “I meant what I said,” almost unable to hear himself over the loudness of his heart beating in his chest. “Will you be my date?” he big his lip as she gazed up at him, her eyes large and alarmed. “To the summer social, I mean.”

She moved her head, shaking it a little “you should go with someone else. Someone you can have fun with.”

He took a tentative step forward, wrapping an arm around her breathing in her clean fresh scent beneath the slight medicinal smell she retained from her stay in the hospital. “There’s no one else I want to go with. You’re the only girl I want to go with.”

Resting her cheek against his shoulder sighing a little. “Alright I’ll go but you have to promise you’ll dance with someone.”

“I’ll dance with you,” he promised.

“Not with me,” she smiled up at him “someone I choose in my place.”

Raising an eyebrow at her unsure what to think about her proposal. “You win. I’ll dance with anyone you choose but you get the first dance.”

Giggling she nodded “you’re too sweet but it’s a deal.”

***

Stacy glanced over at the man sitting next to her. There was a distant far away look in his eyes. Switching the TV off she turned to him. “What’s wrong?” she asked, reaching over to him.

Blinking he gave her a slight smile “sorry,” he murmured, lifting her hand to his lips. “I guess I’m not very good company.”

Biting her bottom lip “is it your sister?” She held her breath, hoping she wasn’t being presumptuous in asking. They had a only been dating a few weeks and she knew Noble was a private person only letting a few people into his inner circle

Nodding he pulled her close, several tears rolling down his cheeks. “She’s home now. My parents brought her home to…”

“That’s good isn’t it?” she asked, watching him. 

Staring at his hands he slowly shook his head. “She’s dying,” his lips trembled as a sob forced it way up from deep inside him. “My baby sister is going to die and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.”

“Have they gotten a second opinion? Gone to a specialist? Explored all their options, like alternate medicine?” she rattled off all the things she heard people should do when faced with a medical prognosis.

“They’ve done all of that,” he cried wiping at his eyes “don’t you think we would have exhausted all our options. The only thing left is hoping they find a bone marrow donor.” Lifting his eyes to her “she’s only fifteen years old.”

“Yes … I … didn’t mean …” she stammered unable to take her eyes from his sorrowful gaze. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to help.”

“I feel so helpless,” he covered his face in his hands. “I keep expecting someone to wake me up. To tell me this is all some horrible dream. No one does and it just keeps getting worse.”

Moving towards him wanting to tell him it was all going to be okay but knew it would just be empty words. “I’m sorry,” she repeated the only words she knew to be true. She felt his arms envelop her. His chest heaving from his sobs.

Patting his back she held him close “what kind of things does your sister like?” she asked “flowers? Balloons?”

“Stuffed animals,” he wiped the back of his hands across his face “why?”

Taking his hand “let’s go shopping. Let’s find the biggest, plushiest, most snuggliest stuffed animal we can.”

Nodding he gave her a grin “I’ll get my keys.”

It wasn’t the answer. It wouldn’t solve anything. It may, however; make a young girl smile.

***

Squeezing Loyal’s hand Belle leaned into him “want to talk about it?”

A weary sigh escaped him as he stopped to watch the sunrise over the ocean. “What good will it do? It won’t change anything.”

“Hey,” she reached up touching his face “don’t be like that. It may not change what’s happening but it might make you feel better.”

“Humph,” he kept his head turned away “what if I don’t want to feel better? What if I feel guilty for being happy when my parents are miserable and my sister is dying?”

“There’s nothing wrong about you being happy. Nothing for you to feel guilty about.” Leaning her head on his shoulder “your parents want you to be happy just as much as they want your sister to get better.”

Silence fell between them. Only the sound of the waves crashing along the shore could be heard. Sniffing a little Loyal turned to her “I’m sorry. I’m not very good company…”

Stroking his face “you don’t have to be. I’m here for you, no matter what.”

“Thanks,” he murmured “Unity had so many plans and dreams…”

Belle listened to him as he started to talk about his little sister. She could tell he was to his family. “What was one of her dreams? Maybe we could make one of them come true?”

He stared blankly at her for a moment “do you mean that?”

“Of course I do,” she shook her head at him, her long hair swirling around her shoulders.

“She always liked helping out at the homeless shelter. She’d organize fundraisers for the local animal shelter. Cleaning up the beaches.” He listed a few of  her favorite charities.

“We could volunteer our time in her stead,” she suggested “I’ve always wanted to but never seemed to get around to it.” There was always something else she had to do “or we could donate money in her name.”

“I think she’d appreciate either or both,” he sighed “I wish I had been more active. She invited me but,” shrugging “I never made time for it. Unity always wanted to help people and she always said if it were important enough to me I’d find the time.”

“I bet she talked her friends into helping too,” she chuckled a little at the expression he gave her. “I’d like to meet her.”

“You will at the Summer Social,” he promised “we’re trying to keep her away from too many people until then. In her weakened condition she could get sick and the Summer Social means a lot to her.”

Touching his hand “then I’ll wait. It’s not that far away. Does she have a date?”

Nodding he grimaced at her “I should be playing the protective older brother and scaring the shit out of him but she’s so happy I don’t have the heart to do it.”

“Good. Let her have this moment,” she advised “she may not get many more opportunities…”

“I know,” he pulled her close “every moment counts. One of the many things I’ve learned from her.”

***

“Why such a long face?” Jenna asked joining Justice outside facing the ocean.

“This came today,” he waved a letter in front of him. “They want to know if I’ll be starting the fall term. I want to go but my sister…”

“I think you should,” she told him “Unity will understand.”

He gave her a small smile, “I know she will but I’m not sure the others will.”

“Of course they will…”

“No they won’t,” he shook his head “they’ll think I should stay here. Help with the resort. Be here for my parents. For Unity.” Sighing, he clutched the letter in his hand “i’m not entirely sure they’re wrong.”

Tilting her head to the side “why?”

“Because I should want to be here with my family especially now.” Crumpling the letter in his hand he shoved it into his pocket. “And all I want to do is run away like a little coward. I don’t want to watch her slowly fade away before my eyes.”

“It isn’t easier to have them ripped from your life either,” she said with a firmness that surprised both of them.

“You’ve lost someone…”

“Yeah,” she walked away from him hugging her arms around her. “My mom. She was killed when I was a little kid.”

Tentatively he joined her “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” There were a lot of things he didn’t know about her. She never spoke about herself. Always managed to change the topic away from herself.

Drying her eyes “it was a long time ago.” Shaking her head as if she could deny the tears shimmering in her eyes. “I know if given a choice I would have chosen to spend more time with her.” Putting a hand on his shoulder “don’t look back at this time regretting not spending every minute you could with your sister. It’s time you’ll never get again.”

“Thank you,” he pulled her close, kissing her forehead “It’s what I thought I should do but I needed someone to say it.”

“Well that’s me,” she gave him a tearful grin “a fountain of wisdom.”

“I still have to tell my parents I’m leaving though.” Sighing he looked towards the house, dreading doing it. “Will you come to the Summer Social with me?” he asked leaving them both stunned at the change of subject.

“I already said I’ll be working,”

“And I said I’d make sure you wouldn’t have to,” he gave her a stern look “does that mean you don’t want to go with me?”

“I need to pack…”

“You can do that later,” frowning, he wondered why she was pulling away from him. “I know that we may not see each other after summer is over but I don’t see why we can’t have this moment.” Smiling he pulled her closer “don’t let this be something you regret…”

“Who said I’d regret it?” she demanded “are you saying you’re the one I’ll regret not going for?”

“Someone will be, why not me?”

“Why indeed,” she leaned into him, “I expect flowers.” She whispered in his ear before waking away.

Chapter 46 – Hope / Chapter 48 – Unpopular Decisions

Chapter 46 – Hope

As Kade walked away he wondered if he had it in him to be someone’s knight. He wasn’t even sure if Grant was even interested. Was the risk of rejection worth the chance? He’d never felt like this before. He’d always known his targets were interested in him first.

Stopping, appalled with himself he wondered when he had started to call his potential dates targets? When did he care so much? Maybe Jonas had been right when he’d said there was more to him than he wanted anyone else to see.

Going to the pool he jumped in. The water muffling the sound of everyone else. His head broke the surface bringing the sounds into focus again. Gulping ai he plunged under again. His brain whirling with what he had to do but scared to take the step.

Pulling himself from the pool he sat on the edge. Movement on the second level by the door to his room drew his attention. Who was it? It couldn’t be who he thought it was. Standing on legs that felt like rubber he moved towards his room. “Grant?”

The man jumped a little at the sound of his voice. Turning around he smiled sheepishly “I hope you don’t mind me just showing up unannounced.”

“Nope. In fact I was just thinking about you” he shocked himself as the words flowed from his mouth. 

“You were” he stammered looking unsure of himself.

“What’s up” he asked, making his voice light and friendly.

“My brother and his girlfriend are having a party” he stared at his feet “I thought maybe you might want to come, that is if you’re not busy.” 

“I’d love to,” he enthused, maybe a little too enthusiastically judging by the retreat in Grant’s eyes. “What time?” he asked, clamping down on his excitement so as to not scare him anymore than he already had.

“Tonight around 8:00” he murmured “I know it’s short notice.” 

Sensing that Grant was regretting his impulsive invitation Kade decided to let him off the hook. “I’m sure you have other friends you could invite. A girl maybe?”

Shaking his head sadly “no um” he licked his lips. “I’ve never thought about asking a guy out before but um…” his cheeks flushed with color. “Since that night on the beach I can’t seem to get you out of mind. It’s like we shared this connection I’ve never experienced before.”

Nodding he sighed “I can understand that.” Stepping forward he pressed his lips to Grant’s ear whispering “we can try this but at any time you start feeling uncomfortable you have to tell me.”

Nodding he started to walk away. Stopping he turned back “so is that a yes? I’ll see you tonight right?”

“Yes” he assured him “I’ll be there as long as  you tell me where.”

“Oh I forgot” he stammered.

***

Rex slipped to his knees while Sandi had her back turned to him. When she turned around she frowned down at him “what are you doing on the floor?”

Swallowing hard he ignored her commanding tone as he produced a small black box from his pocket. Smiling at her surprised gasp “Sandi we’ve been dating for almost a year now. Living together for the past six months. I know any woman who can do that is extraordinary.”

Pausing slightly as she opened her mouth to interrupt him he shook his head. “I’m not finished yet. I know at times we’ve tried each other’s patience. We’ve said things the other didn’t like. Through it all I know you’re the only girl for me.”

Opening the box he held a ring up to the light “despite all of our combined shortcomings will you marry me?”

Holding her hand out squealing a little as the ring slipped around her finger. “I’ll marry you over and over again, even if your proposal still needs a little work.”

Lifting her in the air he twirled her around the kitchen. Coming to a stop he peered into her pretty blue eyes “I love you.” Leaning into her he pressed his lips to hers. This kiss was different from all the ones before it. It was a promise. It was the future and the past. It was the present. It was everything.

Clearing his throat Grant watched the happy couple jump upon hearing his voice. “Am I disturbing you” he asked “should I come back later.”

“Um” Sandi took a step backwards “no.”

Rex gave his brother a frown before grinning anxious to share the good news. “We’re engaged” he announced his excitement taking control.

“What” he asked as if he hadn’t heard what he thought he heard. Sandi waved her hand around showing off the glittering diamond on her ring finger. “Congratulations,” he said, giving his brother  a hug and slap on the back before giving his soon to be sister-in-law a hug. “I should go” he suggested “I’m sure you want to celebrate.”

“What do you mean?” Sandi asked.

“The party tonight” Grant reminded her “the one you wanted my help with.”

“Oh yeah” Rex gave his fiance a questioning look, “I forgot”

“So did I” she looked around the kitchen. “I suppose you already invited your friend?”

“I can cancel” he offered, trying to keep the disappointment he felt from showing in face and voice. He’d been looking forward to seeing Kade again. Although he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t somewhat relieved. “Don’t worry about it if you haven’t invited anyone else I’ll just call him. I should have asked if it was still on.”

Sandi hurried around the kitchen towards him. Her small hand on his arm stopping him from leaving “don’t. I’ll call Kyle and Douglas over. We’ll have an intimate dinner.”

Rex raised an eyebrow at that “is this friend a new girl you met? Someone you’re interested in?”

“No” shaking his head “he’s just a friend.”

“He” his eyebrows rose higher “since when have you been interested in guys?”

“I’m not” his face turned beet red even though he knew his twin was only teasing him.

“Rex stop” Sandi implored him “it’s not funny.”

“Yeah alright” he gave his brother a concerned look “it’s alright if you are. If this guy makes you happy I say go for it. I just want to see you happy.”

“Thanks,” he mumbled, letting his brother give him a hug. “I don’t know what I feel right now. All I know is he makes me feel good.”

“You have our support no matter what” Rex assured him.

“Yeah I know” he grinned “so what can I do to help?”

“Sandi will turn you into a right lil housewife in no time” Rex teased to their combined groans.

***

Douglas walked onto his boyfriend’s houseboat. His nose wrinkling in disgust the moment he opened the door. “Kyle,” he called listening for any sign he was home. It was obvious his boyfriend had fallen back into bad habits since Douglas had moved back in with this sister. Dishes were piled high in the sink. He was mildly surprised that flies and gnats weren’t yet flying around the putrid smelling kitchen.

Going outside, hoping to find the object of his search. “Kyle,” he called again. There was a loud clatter from the front of the boat. Cautiously he followed the sound to find him working beneath the steering column of the boat “did it break down again?”

HIs words were greeted with grunts punctuated with swear words. After a moment Kyle poked his head up, a cigarette drooping from his mouth. “Hi,” he smirked up at Douglas squinty into the sun.

“Do you have a death wish?” he plucked the cigarette from Kyle’s mouth tossing into the water.

“Hey,” he growled “that was my last one.”

“Good,” he leaned back, crossing his arms. “You don’t need to be smoking. We’re going over to my sister’s for supper.”

“Since when,” he whined, getting to his feet.

“Since now,” glaring at him a moment before adding “I tried calling.”

“Forgot to charge it last night,” shrugging unconcerned. 

“You need to hurry up and change.”

“I don’t want to go,” he grabbed a bottle on the steering column, taking a long drag on it before setting back down.

“It’s important,” he urged “please.”

Eyeing his boyfriend, eyes shimmering dangerously “what’s in it for me?”

“Well,” he thought for a moment recognizing the look in Kyle’s eyes. “After supper I’ll come back with you and you can do what you want with me.”

Moving in closer, smirking “how about we skip supper and go straight to dessert.” 

Before Douglas was able to move he found himself pinned against the wall “let me go before you get me all dirty.”

Grinning he ran his greasy hands through Douglas’s hair before smearing the grease over his face. “Now you’ll just have to take a shower too.”

“We don’t have time for us both to take showers,” he glared at him knowing what he’d say next.

“Then you’ll just have to take one with me,” his hands down to his belt.

Attempting to bat his hands away “you’re going to get my clothes all greasy.”

Undaunted he worked the zipper down “then you’ll just have to go in your birthday suit. Smirking he dropped to his knees pulling Douglas’s jeans down to the dock.

“Someone will see,” he protested groaning softly as Kyle took him in his mouth.

Smirking, he pulled Douglas close whispering in his ear “want me to stop?”

Groaning he pressed his body into him.

“I didn’t think so,” he went back down, stripping Douglas of his shirt as he did.

“We’re going to be so late,” he moaned giving into the moment.

***

“Isn’t it wonderful?” Unity smiled up at her parents “I’m going home.”

Charity exchanged worried looks with her husband. 

“Of course it is sweetie,” Ryan tried to smile as this throat tightened. He could see the tears in his wife’s eyes as she struggled to compose herself.

“I’ll be home in time for the summer social,” Unity chattered on about the highlight of the summer and seeing her friends again. Going back to school. Her part job. All the normal teenage things she missed being able to do that summer.

Listening to his daughter prattle on about these things made his chest tighten as if being squeezed by a giant vise grip. “Remember what the doctor told you. You still have to be careful and not over do it.”

“I know,” her voice rose “I don’t need to be reminded that I’m not like everyone else.”

There it was. The dark cloud hanging over all of them. The illness that was slowly taking their little girl away from them.

Rubbing a hand over his face moaning softly. At the slight touch on his shoulder turning to find his wife looking up at him, worry in her eyes. Nodding he moved towards the door letting Charity help his daughter as they prepared to leave the hospital where they’d been for the past three months. As the door closed behind him he let the tears fall. His little girl was dying. They were taking her home to say goodbye. It was the hardest, most loving thing they could do. Yet he couldn’t help but feel it was also the cruelest thing too. How could they admit defeat? Admit there wasn’t anything else they could do?  Their last best chance was to find a bone marrow donor before it was too late.

Slumping into a chair he dropped his head into his hands sobbing like a baby. Movement to his side alerted him that he wasn’t alone. Strong arms pulled him close. He resisted for a moment until he recognized his best friends after shave lotion. “I can’t believe this is happening. This is it. I’m losing my little girl. She’s dying.”

“It’s not over yet,” Donovan said patting his back “don’t give up. There’s still a chance they’ll find a donor.”

“I wish I could believe that,” he sniffed.

“I’ll hope for you,” he said, giving him another hug. “Now pull yourself together before the girls come out.”

Leaning into his best friend since college Ryan took several deep breaths. Hearing the door click to his daughter’s room he quickly dried his eyes. He couldn’t disguise the redness of his eyes but he could fake a smile. “Ready to go home?” He asked moving to take the bags from Charity’s arms.

He was rewarded for this effort by a soft kiss on his cheek and an angelic smile from his daughter. 

“Let’s go home Dad,” Unity said smiling from her wheelchair. “I’m ready to blow this popsicle stand.”

Chapter 45 – First Impressions / Chapter 47 – Forward Thinking

Chapter 45 – First Impressions

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Stepping inside the impressive house Talia instinctively smoothed her hair. “Mom” Will whispered leaning in close “you look fine.”

A nervous giggle escaped as she gazed around the home of his girlfriend. “I… thanks” she gave him a small stiff smile. “I’m just a little nervous.”

“No need to be” a pleasant female voice announced.

Glancing up Talia found herself staring at a beautiful green eyed blond a couple years older than her. “Thanks for inviting us to dinner” she held her hand out.

Taking it Hannah gave her an inviting smile. It’s the least we could do after what our daughter convinced your son to do for her.”

“From what I understand it was Will who did the convincing.” Talia gave her son a warm loving smile, her eyes shining with pride.

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“Mom please” Will’s cheeks burned uncomfortably beneath their combined gazes.

“Don’t worry young man” Donovan said as he came into the room “not all of us are entranced by your romantic gesture.” Turning to his wife “where’s Temperance?”

Laughing softly Hannah rolled her eyes upwards “she’s probably still making herself beautiful for a certain someone.”

“She’s always beautiful” Will enthused with such intensity that all the adults turned to look at him.

“If you keep that up she’ll be yours forever” Donovan gave him a glower.

Elbowing him in the side Hannah shook her head. “Don’t over do it” she warned “a girl knows when a compliment isn’t sincere.”

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“I’ll keep that in mind” Will assured her eyes scanning the room hoping that Temperance would be joining them soon.

“Dinner will be ready in a few minutes” Hannah informed them “you can wait in the living room. Make yourselves at home while you wait.”

“Would you like some help” Talia offered.

Glancing towards her husband Hannah grinned. “Of course I’d love some company.” Leaning towards her husband whispering “be nice.”

“I’m always nice” he objected.

“Uh huh” she gave him a piercing stare. “Remember your daughter may never forgive you if you chase him away.”

1130

“I’m hurt” he professed miming being shot in the heart.

Raising an eyebrow she shook her head. “I guess you’re on your own” she patted Donovan’s arm. “Remember what I said.”

“It’s been duly noted” he eyed the young man in front of him.

“And completely discarded” she observed as she turned to lead Talia to the kitchen. “I hope Will’s prepared.

“I’m sure he is” Talia said confidently “he’s a good kid most of the time.”

***

1132

“Let’s go outside” Temperance suggested taking Will’s hand.

Craning his neck looking around “shouldn’t we offer to help clean up?”

“If I did that both my parents would die from shock” she was half teasing. Sighing as she saw how her comment bothered him. “Sorry. You’re right we should help.”

Entering the kitchen where the adults were standing around talking and drinking coffee. “Need any help” she asked.

A flash of surprise lit up her dad’s eyes “no sweetie we can manage. Why don’t you take Will outside and show him around.”

“Thanks daddy” she gave him a peck on the cheek before giving her mom a hug.

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Will hesitated before following her from the room. He smiled when his mom nodded him to go. “Thanks” he said relieved following Temperance who was halfway down the hallway having assumed he was behind her. “Wait” he called afraid she’d get too far ahead.

“What’s taking you so long” she tapped her foot impatiently on the floor while she waited for him.

“Sorry” he panted somewhat out of breath “mom wanted to tell me something.”

“Oh” an eyebrow rose “did she tell you to behave?”

The way she said it was more like a challenge. Nodding afraid he was falling in her estimations if she knew he’d really waited for permission.

Taking his hand Temperance pulled him through a door leading onto a deck outside. Inhaling deeply of the cool island air “this is my favorite place” she spread her arms wide.

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Will grinned watching her unable to take his eyes away. The late evenings sun caught her hair bathing her in a halo of light. His eyes softened in appreciation. Taking a step forward, “your so beautiful.”

Temperance turned giggling “me?”

“Yes you” he shrugged, shuffling his feet beneath her gaze. Her perfume filled the air between them as she moved closer. He fought the urge to step back needing space yet desiring the closeness. The memory of how her body felt snuggled up against his inside the trunk of his friends car making him feel hot and tingling at once. “Um” he gulped, feeling as if he’d fallen into the deep end of the pool.

“You think I’m beautiful” the touch of her fingers of skin was like touching a live wire. Stepping closer her breath wafted across his face. He moaned when her lips pressed lightly into his.

Time seemed to have stopped. The kiss was everything he hoped it would be only disappointing him in how brief it was. Stepping back their eyes locking “wow” he murmured too flustered to form words.

***

1136

Sed entered the resort, eyes scanning his surroundings. Stepping to the side he watched Benjamin and Jonas stand to greet a man in a business suit. Ignoring the twisting of his stomach he watched their meeting begin. He had to find out what this was all about.

Inching out of his observation post he mingled with a large group checking into the resort. Drifting as close as he could to the tri he overheard snippets of conversation confirming his fears.

Jonas’s web design for the resort had been brilliant, something Sed would never admit aloud. He could barely admit it to himself. He was better than Jonas if only Benjamin had let him show him what he could do. He swallowed the groan building deep inside him.

It wasn’t fair. Suddenly having enough he turned formulating a plan as he walked briskly towards the exit. He’d make them see how good he is. All he had to do was show that business man who was better. A smile crept across his face. He knew exactly what had to be done. Digging through his backpack he retrieved this laptop. He doubted Jonas had set up enough firewalls to keep out a determined hacker. There was no one more determined than him.

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His fingers flew across the keyboard, eyes flicking to the screen as he overcame one obstacle after another. “Gotcha” he clapped his hand together when he broke the final firewall to his goal. “Now the fun begins” he chuckled a little. He knew what he was about to do was torpedo any hopes Jonas had of becoming a web designer. Probably ruin any chances Jonas may have entertained of getting with Benjamin.

A little creative photo editing and a boy and his dog became something so much worse. When he was done he wondered why he hadn’t done it before. He let out a satisfied grunt. He had never been more proud of his work.

Closing his laptop he put it away. Going back inside he waited for the real fun to begin. Smirking as the business man’s face twisted in disgust. Jonas’ bewildered wide eyed look as he attempted to explain.

1138

As soon as the business man stormed from the lobby in a huff Sed stepped forward. His business just beginning.

Jonas bent forward, face hiding behind his hands. Jerking at Benjamin’s hesitant touch on his shoulder. “How did those pictures get on there” he cried “I’d never do that.”

“I know” Benjamin said. He may not understand the need to have a pet but he knew Jonas was incapable of doing what those pictures implied. “The first thing you’re going to do is take these pictures down” sensing that Jonas needed someone to guide him through this. “Then you’re going to post that your account was hacked. Post an apology to your followers.”

Wiping his hands across his eyes he nodded “okay” he murmured. His fingers visibly trembled as he reached for his laptop. “Who’d do such an awful thing and why?”

“Don’t worry about that now” Benjamin encouraged. Scanning the lobby he had a feeling someone was watching them. He had an idea who…Sed. The only person who had it in for Jonas and who had the skill to pull off this kind of hack.

***

11391140

Kade walked from his room. Stretching as he went. A smile tugged at his lips recalling moments from a night not too far in the past. He hoped he’d been somewhat instrumental in alleviating some the sadness they guy seemed to be carrying around with him. So deep in thought he at first didn’t notice his phone ringing.

“Hello” he answered distracted from his thoughts and somewhat annoyed at the disruption.

“Hey,” Benjamin said, “I know we had plans for a picnic and it’s the second time I’ve cancelled….”

“Are you busy now?” he asked barely listening to the guys apology. “We could meet for coffee or something.”

“Um” he hesitated a moment before adding “yeah sure.”

“Then it’s a date” he said with more enthusiasm than he felt. Putting the phone away his thoughts drifted back to the guy from the beach. The way his eyes brightened when he saw him. He’d blown off a business meeting to be with him. It had been worth it.

1141

“If I had known it was ultra casual I wouldn’t have bothered getting dressed” Benjamin teased taking a chair across from him.

“Oh” he looked down at his attire. “I was going for a swim when you called.”

“Don’t worry about it” he waved his apology away. “Besides” he leaned forward eyes sparkling “haven’t you noticed all the appreciative glances you’re getting?”

“Do you think I should go change?” he asked looking uncomfortable. He worked with some of the people looking in their direction.

“You’re fine” Benjamin assured him “most of the business clientele have been up and gone an hour ago. Relax.”

“How did you know I was worried about that” he leaned back in his chair.

“I guessed” shrugging he waved a waitress over. “I know how important appearances and reputations are in the business world.”

1144

“Jonas” he said taking a sip of his coffee.

“You heard” Benjamin groaned “I was hoping it wasn’t up long enough.”

“I still follow his simstagram” Kade shook his head “tell him I’m sorry. He really torpedoed him.”

Benjamin sat forward rubbing his chin. “You think it was him too?”

“I’d bet good money on it” he took a sip. “Sed has a vendetta against Jonas. He wants to be the best and when you didn’t take him up on his offers I’m sure that’s when he decided to take action.”

“Damn” he leaned back “Jonas doesn’t deserve this. He worked hard and deserves this opportunity.”

Resting his hand over the one Benjamin had lying on the table “you like him don’t you?”

1146

“What” he voice cracked “he’s a good guy. We’re friends.”

“Uh huh” he gave him a knowing smile “Sed’s bad news. Jonas needs someone to be his knight.”

“Are you volunteering for the job” he asked, stomach churning at the prospect despite his proclamations that they were just friends.

Shaking his head he retracted his hand. “I’m not the one he needs. I’ve seen the way he looks at you.”

Benjamin felt his cheeks flush with heat. He turned to look out the nearby windows. He knew the look Kade referred to. He just hadn’t expected anyone else to have noticed it too.

Standing up Kade tossed a couple of dollars on the table to cover his coffee. “If you want my advice I’d say go for it. Jonas is a nice guy. I wish I had been the guy he needed to stand up to Sed. I wasn’t but you just might be.”

Benjamin nodded watching him walk away. His mind a million miles away. Did he want to play hero?

Chapter 44 – Slow and Easy / Chapter 46 – Hope

Chapter 44 – Slow and Easy

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Jason leaned into Damian like he was trying to hide. Glancing down at the younger man, Damian grinned “what’s wrong?”

“Nothing” he mumbled his toe tripping on a protruding stone as they strolled along the path towards the sandy beach. He gripped Damian’s arm to keep from falling.

“There is” Damian insisted standing still. “Tell me. Please.”

Jason tried to resist the pressure Damian was exerting to get him to look up. Looking into the kind concerned eyes he let out a small sigh. “They’re all gawking at me.”

A chuckle bubbled up from inside Damian “no they’re not.” He could tell by the anxious expression in the amber eyes gazing up at him that he was less than convincing. “What makes you think they’re looking at you? They could be looking at me. They’re all wishing they were me. I have the best looking guy on my arm.”

“Don’t laugh,” he mumbled, stepping back pushing Damian’s arm away.

Someone in the group they were joining chose that moment to whistle at them. Another called out “bring the talent over here” Yet another said “it’s about time we meet the guy who has you so captivated.”

1107

Jason wilted beneath their unwanted attention. Damian could see it in his eyes that he wanted to run. “Guys give it a rest” he shouted back turning a little away from him. It was just the opening Jason needed to retreat back the way they’d come. By the time Damian realized he wasn’t by his side he was already halfway to the car.

Hugging himself tight he stared at his feet. “They were staring at me like I was some freak show.”

“You’re not a freak” Damian reached out to him to have Jason shrink from this touch.

“You’re friends are probably wondering what you even see in me” he cried tears glistening on his cheeks. “I don’t fit in with them.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’m not” he snapped chin jerking upwards, anger blazing in his eyes. “If I did they wouldn’t have said the things they did. They think you’re only with me until you get inside my pants.”

“They just don’t….”

1108

“Don’t” he spit “it shouldn’t matter whether they know me or not. They’re behavior was insulting.”

“I admit they didn’t make a good first impression.” Taking a step forward the tentatively touched Jason’s hand “I’ll talk to them. I promise.”

Staring at his fingers rubbing the top of his hand Jason knew he was supposed to accept and follow him down to the beach. He knew that his brother and Natalia would be joining them later. He just couldn’t. Not after all the leering looks and snide comments. “I want to go home” he pulled his phone out.

“Alright” Damian agreed “I’ll take you home.”

“I’ll call a cab” he refused the offer “go have fun with your friends.”

“Get in the car,” he instructed, walking around the car.

Words failed him as he did as he was told. He knew he’d disappointed Damian. He hated thinking Damian was upset with him. “I’m sorry” he mumbled fastening his seatbelt.

1109

“For what” he asked, sounding surprised. “There’s nothing wrong with what you did. You don’t have to put yourself into uncomfortable situations because you think you should to please me. I’m sorry if I make you feel like you should.”

“They’re your friends” he cried.

“Not all of them” he started the car “most of them I just tolerate.”

“If you want” he gulped “we could go back down there.”

“No” he reached across the seat to take Jason’s hand. “I want you to feel comfortable. You’re feelings matter more to me than some beach party.”

“What do you want to do instead?” he asked, still feeling he had ruined their evening.

“I can think of a few things” the desire in his eyes took Jason’s breath away. “Let’s go to my place and see where the night takes us.”

***

1110

Natalia squeezed past a couple of guys busy chugging down beers like it was going out of style. She found Royce craning his neck scanning the beach. “Here” she tossed him a beer “relax.” Smiling at him she slipped into his lap.

Catching the can on reflex his mind elsewhere. “They’re not here” he had to raise his voice to be heard over the loud throbbing music.

Frowning Natalia had to think for a moment to remember who was supposed to be there and wasn’t. The list became smaller who Royce would know. “I heard Jason threw a fit and demanded to be taken home.

“That doesn’t sound like him,” a worried tone creeping into his voice.

Taking a long drag on the beer she shrugged her shoulders “if you say so.”

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“Jason doesn’t like to make scenes” he moved to get up. His twin was sensitive so he knew there was a reason why he didn’t want to be there.

“I guess you’ll have to ask him when you see him” she suggested. “Kit said he got upset over something someone said before they even got to the beach.”

“It had to have been pretty bad,” he insisted “it had to have been pretty bad. Jason wouldn’t have made a scene otherwise.”

Seeing how worried he was, Natalia nodded. “Knowing Kit he probably made some crude remarks about Damian finally getting some and offering to show Jason what a real man can do.”

“That’s disgusting” Royce made a disgusted face. If he had been there he would have punched Kit for saying something like that. “No wonder he was upset.”

1112

His thoughts must have shown on his face as Natalia gripped his arm. “Kit didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just the way he is.”

“That’s no excuse” he grumbled glaring in the man’s direction. He looked away when Kit turned and winked at him. Kit said something to cause the group he was in to laugh, slapping him on the back before he walked over to talk.

“Like what you see” he smirked thrusting his hips to display his package. “I can give you a better look then you can tell that adorable twin of yours what he’s missing.”

“Stay away from my brother” he growled standing to confront the insufferable man.

“Think you’re man enough to take me” he challenged.

1113

Royce stiffened, his hands bunching into fists. He looked down to see what tugged on his arm as he tensed to throw the first punch. “What the hell” he snarled finding Natalia glaring at him.

“Let’s go” she encouraged.

The look in her eyes drained the anger he felt. “Alright” he agreed.

“I guess your brother isn’t the only one who needs lessons in what a real man is” Kit laughed scornfully.

Moving fast Royce whirled around landing a single blow to his jaw sending Kit reeling backwards. Standing over him breathing hard “don’t ever come near me or my brother again. Neither he nor I need lessons from you. You however could use some. You’re no man.”

***

11141115

“Are you alright with the change in plans?” Jace askd for the millionth time. “We could still make it to the beach party if you want.” His voice shook a little. It wasn’t often he invited anyone to his home.

“You can just take me home” Christopher said hopefully. Going out had been the last thing he wanted to do.

“I guess” Jace sighed disappointed screaming from the slump in his shoulders. “This is your first night out. I’ll order pizza. We can watch a movie or something.” He had known Christopher hadn’t wanted to go to the beach party and if he was honest neither had he. He was more of a homebody so pizza and movie was more his style. Reaching for the door handle he got out of the car. He heard Christopher follow after a moment, thankful that he hadn’t requested to go home a second time.

Waving a hand towards his home he shrugged “it’s not much but it’s all I can afford.”

Looking around Christopher sighed “it’s not that bad.”

Sighing Jace felt a wave of relief wash over him. He gave his date a concerned look. His first instinct had been to invite him to his home but hadn’t wanted to dig up any bad memories. Opening the door “make yourself at home.” His voice quivered in his attempt to sound casual. “What would you like on your pizza?”

11161117

Christopher gingerly sat on the edge of the couch. “Um” he closed his eyes as unwelcome feelings and vague memories came back. “I uh” getting to his feet “I can’t do this. I’m sorry.” He made a dash for the door.

“Chris wait,” Jace called after him. forgetting about the pizza on the counter. Running after Chris he watched as he stopped in front of the spot he’d found him that night. Slowly Jace approached him. “Chris” he spoke softly afraid to startle him.

Chris stood rigid, chest heaving as memories of the past invaded him. A scream shattered the night as he fell to his knees shaking. Jace jumped back unsure what he should do. He wanted to run. He wanted to wrap his arms around him. Overall he wished someone else was there to help. Gulping he reached a hand out squeezing the other man’s shoulder.

The next moment two strong arms were wrapped around him. Christopher’s head burrowed into his inadequate shoulder, uncertainty washed over him. Raising his arms rubbing the broad shoulders. He could feel tremors course through Christopher’s body as he sobbed on his shoulder. There were no words he could say to assuage the pain.

Sniffing Christopher stepped back wiping his eyes. “Thanks” he mumbled gruffly.

Shrugging Jace nodded “want to go back and have some pizza.”

11181119

“Yeah” he grunted “I think I’d like that.”

“You never did say what you wanted on your pizza” he pointed out as they walked back.

“Anything and everything” he said “doesn’t matter. I’m not picky.”

“I think I took out a supreme pizza” he said remembering the frozen pizza he left on the counter.

“Sounds good” he grinned “I’m actually hungry.”

The way he said it made Jace wonder if he’d been eating. He did look thinner. “What movie do you want to watch?” he asked more to keep the conversation going, enjoying the sound of the other man’s voice.

***

11201121

Benjamin sat the bottle of wine next to him on the deck. Leaning against the wall he waited. He should have called first but it would have ruined the surprise. Closing his eyes he hoped Jonas would be back soon.

A wet sloppy tongue licked across his face. The stench of doggy breath filling his nostrils. Groaning he opened his eyes to find Jonas shaking his head at him. “Get your mangy mutt off me” he raised his hand to ward off the dogs licking tongue.

“Don’t blame me for putting yourself within easy reach” he chuckled enjoying Benjamin and his dog bond.

Getting up despite the dogs continued efforts to lick him. “I came by to congratulate you on the awesome work you did on the resorts website. Everyone loves it.”

“Wow” he stepped back overwhelmed by the compliments. “You worked on it too.”

“Oh no” shaking his head “I only listened to your suggestions. You’re the genius behind its success.” Bending down to grab the wine he had to fend off the dogs licking tongue. “Go you mangy mutt.”

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“He likes you” Jonas said “if he didn’t he wouldn’t be giving you kisses.”

“What about his owner” Benjamin asked with a twinkle in his eyes “would he like to give me kisses too?”

Jonas went white as the blood drained from his face. His fingers brushed across Benjamin’s as he took the wine. “Um” he licked his lips flushing with heat. His eyes dropped to Ben’s lips, lingered a moment longer than usual. He couldn’t deny the thought hadn’t crossed his mind before. It had more than once but he’d brushed it aside as something that would never happen.

“I’ll take that as a yes” Benjamin smirked stepping closer.

“In your dreams” he stammered, wishing his cheeks weren’t burning.

“If you say so” shrugging as if he didn’t care. Nodding towards the wine “let’s have a drink. A toast to our continued success.”

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“Continued” he asked fumbling to unlock his door with shaking hands and wine.

“Let me help,” Benjamin said reaching for his hand. Smiling when Jonas’s hand jerked upon his touch. Letting Jonas and his dog enter first he followed “do you have any wine glasses?”

“Um” frowning he looked vaguely at his cabinets “not real wine glasses.”

“Please tell me you don’t use red solo cups” he teased moving around Jonas to search for glasses. “These will do” he announced, taking a couple of glasses out.

Handing a glass to Jonas who gulped half its contents down in one gulp. “Take it easy” he admonished “Good wine should be savored not gulped.”

“Sorry” he mumbled “what are we toasting?”

11261127

“To our success” he explained “a hotel guest liked the web design so much he wants to hire you to design a website for his start up business.”

“Really” he gasped “that’s awesome.”

“He was impressed with your work” he continued “I told him I’d talk to you first since you did most of the work.”

“This is fantastic. More than I ever expected” he looked shocked gulping the rest of the wine. “When does he want to meet with us? What does he want in his design?” The questions flowed from his mouth.

“Day after tomorrow,” Benjamin said, “until then you can celebrate a job well done.”

Chapter 43 – New Beginnings /

Chapter 43 – New Beginnings

1102

“You should ask her out” Kaia encouraged as they walked back to Aubrey’s house.

“Who” she asked looking up confused.

“London” she cried “she’d be perfect for you.”

“Oh no” shaking her head her blond curls bouncing. “We’re just friends.”

“So” raising an eyebrow at her.

“So we don’t see each other like that” Aubrey said turning and walking away.

“Liar” Kaia hissed running after her. “I’ve see the way you look at her when you think no one else was looking.”

“You’re just guessing,” she objected.

“I’m not blind” Kaia insisted “i’ve seen you. I’ve never seen you look so dreamy eyed over anyone.”

1103

“I have not” she protested as color darkened her cheeks.

“Ask her out and find out” she urged ignoring her friends’ protests.

“This is ridiculous” she huffed crossing her arms and walking away. “She isn’t interested in me.”

“I think you protest too much” Kaia said causing Aubrey to stop and stare at her.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“If you didn’t have feelings for her this wouldn’t be so hard. You’d just ask her out to prove me wrong.” Crossing her arms she stared down her friend.

“Alright I will” she snapped “if only to get you to shut up.”

Smirking “how much do you bet she’ll say yes?”

1104

“I’m not betting anything” she walked faster “we’ll go out as friends and that’s it.” Pulling her phone out she found London’s number. “Hey” she greeted breathlessly as her heart tried to push from her chest. “I was wondering if you’d like to meet up tomorrow for lunch?”

“Yeah okay” London’s voice was subdued in her ear “the resort?”

“It’s the only place I can afford” Aubrey giggled nervously.

“It’s a plan then” London agreed “I have to be home by five though. Mom goes to work at six and I have to be here for Dad.”

“I’ll have you home in plenty of time” Aubrey assured her. “You need help sitting with him?”

There was a pause while London thought about the offer. “No I don’t think so. Dad and I will just watch a movie or something. I haven’t been spending enough time with him.”

“Alright I’ll meet you in the lobby at 2 o’clock.”

“Um” London cried before Aubrey could disconnect “tell Kaia she’s invited too.”

1105

“Okay” Aubrey agreed watching her friend standing nearby “I’ll tell her.”

“Good” London her growing excitement could be heard in her voice “I know how much you like her.”

“I do not” she cried turning red as Kaia raised an eyebrow at her.

“but I thought you were friends” London cried.

“She is. We are. I thought you meant….” she squeezed her eyes shut “Never mind.”

“I’m sorry if I offended you” London was quick to apologize.

“You didn’t” she assured her “I misunderstood. See you tomorrow.”

“What did you misunderstand” Kaia asked was she put her phone away.

“Nothing” she mumbled wishing she could crawl under a rock somewhere.

***

1100

“How was lunch?” Phoenix asked London as she sat down in a chair beside him.

“It was…okay” she sighed face crinkling into a frown.

“Did something happen?” he asked quick to see the frown and hear the hesitancy in her voice.

“Well…not exactly” shaking her head as if that would clear her thoughts.

“Why don’t you tell me about it” he suggested.

Pulling at her fingers nodding “it’s kind of embarrassing.”

1099

“If it’s bothering you I’d like a chance to help.” He waited watching her, hoping he wasn’t putting too much pressure on her.

“Well um” biting her bottom lip she hesitated. Drawing in a breath she continued “what do you do if you think a friend likes you?”

“Likes you as a girlfriend” he asked.

“Yeah I guess” she squirmed beneath his scrutiny.

“Do you like them back?”

“I don’t know” she slumped forward resting her elbows on her knees. “I never considered it before. They were just my friend. I knew she was into girls but I thought she liked someone else.”

1098

“Does it make a difference” he asked hoping to draw her out. “Do you like girls?”

Turning to glanced out the window. The ocean was a calm serene blue. A sharp contrast to the feelings churning inside her head causing her stomach to somersault. “I don’t know. I liked Micah. I liked holding his hand and kissing him was fun. I also find girls attractive and sometimes I wonder what it would be like to kiss them.” She turned to look at her dad “shouldn’t I be attracted to one or the other? I’m so confused.”

He watched her a moment giving her question the consideration it deserved. “Not necessarily” he began noticing her shoulders sag “I’m sorry if that confuses you even more. It’s not easy trying to figure things out sometimes. My suggestion is not get hung up on trying to put a label to your feelings but to allow yourself to feel.”

“But all my friends seem to know what they are. Why am I so different?”

“Have you ever considered you might be bi” he asked.

A tiny crease formed between her eyes “that’s someone who likes both boys and girls right? I never thought about it before. I guess I could be.”

1097

“You don’t have to figure it out all tonight” he reached over taking her hand “you have plenty of time.”

“All my friends are pairing off and I…” she leaned into him “It was nice going out but after everything that’s happened I don’t know if I’m ready. I don’t even know who I am anymore.”

Kissing the top of her head “sweetie take all the time you need. There’s no race or time limit. There’s nothing that says you have to have all the answers right now.”

“Thanks Daddy” she smiled up at him. “What movie do you want to watch?”

“Me” he winked at her “I thought it was your turn to pick the movie.”

“I said…” laughing she picked up the remote “let’s see what Netflix has to offer.”

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“Or we could watch our favorite” he grinned at her “Tangled.”

“Dad” she smacked his arm playfully “you already had it picked out.”

“Of course” he chuckled “I was hoping you’d want to watch it with me like you used to before you got too old for it.”

“I’ll never be too old for it” she assured him giving him a peck on the cheek. “I hope you and mom know how sorry I am for everything.”

“We know” he draped an arm around her shoulders “we love you very much. We hope in the future you’ll come to us when you’re feeling too much pressure.”

“I will. I promise” she snuggled into him “I love you both so much.”

***

10871088

“I think that went well” Tanner mused as Montana walked with him to his car.

Looking over her shoulder, she saw her parents watching from the porch. “I hope so” sighing she looked up at him.

Lifting his hand he brushed her hair back. Gently looking into her eyes “what makes you think otherwise?”

Shrugging she looked away. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s nothing but….” she bit down on her bottom lip.

“But what” he pressed “I’m not going to stop asking until you tell me.”

“My dad’s have never been this accepting of any of my boyfriends before. They had all been the typical preppy good boy type.”

1089

“And I’m none of those things” his lips quirked up.

“I think you’re a good guy” she stood on her toes placing a soft kiss on his lips. “I’m not so sure my dad’s think so.”

“Would that be a deal breaker” he asked twirling a strand of her bright red hair around his finger.

Leaning forward she rested her forehead on his chest. Closing her eyes she listened to the sound of his heartbeat. Lifting her chin up “I’d like to say no. I just don’t know until I’m faced with it.”

“You’ve never gone against their wishes before” he stated peering into her troubled blue eyes.

Shaking her head sighing “I’ve always been careful not to upset Daddy. He’s…fragile.”

1090

“I got that impression” he wrapped his arms around her “I’m sure he’ll understand. He wants you to be happy.”

“Oh he does” she nodded against his chest “more than anything.”

Squeezing her tight he lifted her chin upwards “then you have nothing to worry about. You don’t have to be like this.”

“Like what” she demanded.

“You don’t have to be afraid of how I’ll react . I know your family is important.” Gently he cradled her face between his hands “if you decide you can’t be with me I’ll go away. You’ll never have to see me again. I promise I won’t pressure you to choose me over them.”

“It isn’t fair” she cried blinking at him surprise “why can’t I have both?”

10911092

“I don’t know. Why can’t you” the question startled both of them.

“Daddy” she gasped eyes shifting between the two most important men in her life.

“Sir” Tanner nodded towards the older man half expecting to be told to never come back. Despite what he’d just promised he wasn’t sure he’d be able to neve see her again.

“Relax” Zach admonished him his voice shaking a little reminding him how much he wished people didn’t scare him the way they did. Turning to his daughter “sweetie I’d never make you choose between me and someone you love. You’re old enough to make those decisions without me. If Tanner is who you want to be with I’ll accept that. I thought I had made that clear already.”

“I know but…”

“You don’t have to worry about me” looking to Tanner he inhaled deeply. “Don’t hurt my little girl. She and her sister are my two most precious treasures in the world.”

“I won’t sir” he vowed thinking it would be worse confronting the almost fragile timid man than it would be Waylon if he ever failed to keep his promise.

***

1093

“Looks like disaster has been averted” Dakota announced turning from the window.

“We’ll see” Waylon grumbled watching as the young couple and his husband stood talking.

“Dad” shaking her head at him “it’s going to be okay. Daddy didn’t faint upon sight of him. It’s a good thing. Tanner’s a good guy.”

Somewhat nullified Waylon turned from the window. “What do you girls have planned for the rest of the day?”

Macy took Dakota’s hand. “We’re going for a walk along the beach.”

The look in the girls eyes had Dakota giggling. “Yeah don’t wait up for us.”

Raising an eyebrow Waylon thought better of asking what she meant by that. It wasn’t so long ago that he and Zach were young and in love. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do” he admonished them knowing they would.

“Daddy” she protested “I already know what you did when you thought we were asleep.”

“Don’t embarrass him,” Macy pleaded.

1094

As she made to reply the door opened and Zach stepped inside. Slapping her mouth shut she let Macy pull her outside onto the deck. She could never say what she was about to say in front of Zach not if she ever wanted him to be able to look her in the eye again. Holding hands they walked towards the waters edge waving at Tanner as he left and Montana made her way inside the house.

“That went better than I thought it would” Macy said turning to look at her girlfriend.

“I’m glad it all worked out” she agreed looking over her shoulder “daddy seems to be accepting it better than Dad is.”

“You spend a lot of time shielding him don’t you?”

“We do” she sighed turning to face her “it’s habit. He’s been through so much. People in general scare him.”

“That’s understandable from what you’ve told me” she tugged on her hand “let’s talk about something else.”

10951096

“Like what” she asked following her along the beach.

“Us” turning to peered into the blonds crystal blue eyes that always reminded her of a China doll. Grinning she bent down the sand cushioning her knee “I love you Dakota. I hope you feel the same way about me and agree to be my wife.” She held a ring that caught the late afternoon sunlight.

“What no declarations of rainbows and sunshine” she teased holding her hand out for Macy to slip the ring over her finger.

“Can’t promise what I can’t deliver” she pointed out. “I love you. I promise to do my best to keep that love alive. To always be there to help and comfort you.”

“Sounds good to me” she smiled holding her hand up. “Love is a difficult thing to hold onto. My parents told me that once. I believed them. I’ve seen them struggle and cry on each other’s shoulders.” Giving Macy a penetrating stare “I want that with you. Come what may.”

Macy slipped an arm around her “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

Chapter 42 – Disaster Averted /

Chapter 42 – Disaster Averted

1072

Peter leaned against the door leading into the room where Francesca was. Every time he tried to turn the knob his heart raced and a cold sweat drenched his body. Inside the small emergency center the lights flickered as the storm raged outside.

Taking a deep breath he forced his leaden arm towards the door knob. His hand visibly shaking making it difficult to turn. An audible click as the door opened made him swallow hard, his Adam’s apple bouncing. His eyes took in her form curled up on the bed, her back towards him.

“Francesca” his voice cracked as he timidly approached her. Shoving his hands inside his pockets he stood still shifting his weight from side to side.

Wiping her eyes dry, sniffing loudly she slowly turned to face him. His whispered apology almost brought tears to her eyes again. Silently she held her arms out to him, beckoning him to her.

Blinking back the hot tears that threatened to burst free at her gesture he stepped forward. A feeling of foreboding swept through him like he’d fallen into quicksand. Stumbling forward he fell into her arms sobbing “I’m sorry. You could have died and it would have been my fault.”

“Shh” her hands soothed his hair rubbing circles on his back. “You couldn’t have known how bad the storm would be. The weather man said we had clear skies. It wasn’t your fault.”

1073

“I should have double checked” gulping he fought to draw air into his lungs. “Should have made sure you were all wearing life jackets.”

Placing a finger beneath his chin she lifted his face up. Shaking her head she gazed into his eyes. “It wasn’t your fault. They’re called freak storms for a reason. Bad things happen. It’s not your fault.”

A tear rolled down his cheek, “I love you so much” he buried his face in her shoulder “the thought of losing you scares me to death.”

Tears made her eyes sparkle in the dim light of the room. Her fingers trailed across is cheeks drying the tears from his face. “I love you too. That’s why I don’t want you blaming yourself. It wasn’t your fault. It was awful and scary but you kept us alive. You saved us.”

His lips quirked at the edges “if it weren’t for Lee we might have all drowned.”

“Okay” she half chuckled “you had a little help. You’re still my hero.”

1074

“Some hero” he grunted “I put you in danger.”

“Happens all the time,” she grinned at him, her fingers trailing through his hair “in the movies.”

“This wasn’t a movie” he sighed looking away “things could have been so much worse.”

“Let’s not dwell on what could have happened” she leaned forward placing a tender kiss on his forehead “let’s be thankful for what did happen. We’re alive. The boat is mostly intact.”

Lifting is head eyes twinkling with amusement at the mention of his boat. “I don’t care about my boat. The only thing I care about is you.”

***

1075

“Can I see her” Lee asked jumping to his feet stopping one of the doctor’s walking past.

Glancing at him “she’s resting” he informed him before continuing on his way.

Grabbing his arm he demanded “can you tell me how she is?” It took every ounce of self control he had not to shake the man. Everything inside him was screaming at him to walk through the door the doctor had just exited. He wanted to respect her wishes but he also needed to know she was alright.

The doctor stared at the hand gripping his arm than looked into Lee’s face. “She’ll be fine. She needs rest.”

Nodding Lee forced his fingers to release their hold on the man’s arm. Slumping into his chair he resumed his vigil in front of her door.

1076

Nurses came and went, smiling at him as they shook their heads at his request to see her. Minutes turned into hours as it slowly seeped into his tired brain that she didn’t want to see him. It didn’t matter if he had saved her life by jumping into the ocean after her or that he’d nearly drowned trying to save her. Stiffly he pulled his legs beneath as he stood and hobbled a few steps towards the exit. His feet had pins and needles shooting through them as blood rushed down to the extremities.

Walking past the receptionist desk he pushed the doors open. Wind and rain lashed at his clothes and body. Within seconds he was drenched. He staggered forward, past the parking lot towards a cliff that looked out over the ocean. Tears rolled down his cheeks becoming lost in the rain.

1077

“Is he still out there” Fawn asked nodding towards the door and the hall beyond.

Turning the nurse shook her head, “I’m sorry.” Patting the girls shoulder “isn’t that what you wanted?”

“I thought so” she sighed her thoughts turned inward. Her thoughts as chaotic as the raging storm outside her windows. “I didn’t want to see him” she muttered shoving the blankets to the side. “Didn’t” she muttered aloud knowing that he was gone made her regret having not seen him.

Slipping from the bed shivering as the cold bit into her bare feet. “He deserved to have the silent treatment” she muttered to herself. Pulling back the curtain she stared out the window.

A scream rose inside her as the scene that greeted her. She could see him standing at the edge of the cliff. He seemed to be staring down into an abyss. Fumbling with the latch she tried to force the window open. “Lee” she shouted into the wind drowning in the thunder. “Lee” she shouted again hoping he’d hear her.

Staring into the angry white capped waves he wondered how many hours it had been since he’d been in that very same ocean fighting for his life. For her life. It didn’t matter. She didn’t want to see him. He never see her eyes brightened as he walked into a room. He’d ruined that. Inching towards the edge, careful to not slip on the rain slicked slope. He had no desire to test his endurance a second time falling into the ocean; although it might solve all his problems. He could just let the water pull him under. He didn’t have to fight. No one would miss him…

His head jerked up as his ears caught the faint sound of someone calling his name. Squinting in the rain he thought he could see someone standing in a window beckoning to him. “Fawn” he cried stepping forward. His arms pin wheeled as his slipped from beneath him sending him closer to the edge and to the demise he’d be imagining just a few minutes before.

Slowly he managed to stop and inch away from the edge. Once he was on firmer ground he ran from the edge heart hammering inside his chest at how close he’d come to ending it all. Now that he was closer to the open window he could see Fawn waving her arms to him. Approaching the window he timidly said her name unsure what to expect. Air whooshed from his lungs as she threw her arms around him, pulling him to her. “I’m sorry” he sobbed into her shoulder “I never meant to hurt you. I never wanted to push you away.”

“I know” she hugged him tight her body trembling as cold water from his clothes were soaking into the light gown she was wearing. “I thought I never wanted to see you again. I wanted you to hurt the way I was hurting. Then I saw you and I thought you were going to jump…”

“I wouldn’t have done it,” he cried “I wouldn’t have done that to you. You’re my everything.” He brushed her wet hair from her face. “I’m sorry I ever made you feel like you weren’t important because of my obsession. No amount of money could ever replace you I know that now. I’m going to get help. I know that doesn’t make up for what I’ve done but I want to be a better person.”

“Do you mean that” she asked pulling back enough to look in his eyes.

“More than anything” he smiled into her eyes before pulling her into a kiss.

***

1081

“Hey” Edelle smiled down at Castel. She watched as his eyes crinkled in the corners as he focused on her face. “Don’t get up” she pressed gently on his shoulders. “You took a hit to the head and broke your arm.”

Confusion filled his eyes as her words worked their way through his brain. “What happened” he pressed a hand to his head.

“Well” pushing him gently to the pillow “you tried to steer the boat” she snorted pressing a hand over her mouth “it didn’t go well.”

“I’ve never driven a boat before” he mumbled.

“Steer” she corrected “you steer a boat not drive.”

“Whatever” he mumbled “I did the best I could when Lee dove into the water.”

1082

“Yes you did” patting his shoulder “it just too bad Peter’s boat got in the way.”

“I’m always going to be known as the guy who drove into a boat aren’t I?”

“Probably” laughing at the face he gave her. “It could be worse.”

“How” he demanded moving to cross his arms but finding he couldn’t when his arm was stopped by the sling. “I hate this.”

“Then you shouldn’t have steered into an immovable object” she teased.

“Is everyone alright?”

1083

“Yes” she adjusted his sling “a little wet but okay.”

“What about the boats” he asked “I’ll for for the damages.”

“I’m sure they’re insured” she sat in a nearby chair “don’t worry about it.”

“I have to” he protested “they live in those boats. Insurance will only pay so much and maybe none of the damages to Lee’s boat. It may not cover unauthorized drivers.”

Taking his hand she rubbed it against her cheek. “That’s why I like you” grinning down at him “you’re always thinking about others.”

“I wish that were true” he laid back closing his eyes wincing a little. “Blair would certainly disagree with you. Back then all I did was think about myself.”

1084

“I’m sure you had some good qualities” she countered. “She liked you once for reason’s you’ve forgotten.” Entwining her fingers with his “it’s time you forgive yourself for the mistakes you made in the past. You’re not the same person anymore. Blair would see that if she were here.”

“You think so” he asked in a wondering tone.

“Of course” leaning over him “but it’s too late for her.”

“Too late” he frowned “for what?”

“To see what a wonderful man you turned out to be” grinning she pressed a kiss to his forehead “you’re mine now and I’m not letting you go.”

***

1068

It was late in the evening when Prisha head a loud knock on their door. Exchanging looks with her husband he shrugged. “At least it’s not as last as it was the night before.”

“That’s true” she agreed hoping this time two officers wouldn’t be there to greet them. “Edelle” she cried somewhat shocked. “I thought you weren’t going to be back until tomorrow night.”

“I couldn’t wait to see my boy” she cried eyes darting around the small entrance.

“Ajay’s just put them down for the night” she explained.

“Oh I’m sorry. I should have realized” Edelle stammered “I was just so anxious to see him again.”

“Don’t worry about it” Prisha assured her “I’d have been the same.”

1085

“Are you sure” she blinked trying to keep the tears at bay.”

“Come with me” she said leading the way up the stairs.

Hesitantly Edelle followed “I don’t want to be a bother.”

“You’re not” assured her “stop apologizing.”

“Okay” she sighed following her into Neel’s room. Her son’s blond hair sticking out from the blankets. “Hey buddy” she whispered hoping he would wake up on his own “mama’s here.”

Shifting he opened his eyes “mama” he smiled up at her lifting his arms up to her.

1086

“Have you been a good boy” he asked picking him up.

“Yes” he affirmed hugging her.

“Mama loves you so so much” she pressed a million kisses all over him. “Let’s go home baby.” For a moment it looked like he might protest “you can come back to play with Neel later or he can come over to play.”

“Otay” he yawned nestling into her eyes closing.

Taking the bag in her free hand that Ajay held out to her she smiled. “Thank you so much for watching him. I hope he wasn’t too much trouble.”

“He was better than own little monster” Prisha assured her.

“Anytime” Ajay added as they followed he out.

Chapter 41 – Babysitting /

Chapter 41 – Babysitting

1054

“You know I’m not supposed to be here” Kaia hissed following her up to the familiar houseboat.

“Relax” Aubrey turned giving her a reassuring smile. “Your parents will never know.”

“Famous last words” Kaia mumbled before turning to smile at the girl opening the door to greet them.

“Aubrey” London cried throwing her arms around her oldest friend. “I’ve missed you so much.”

“We missed you” she laughed nodding towards Kaia. “We’re glad you weren’t hurt.”

“Yeah” sighing she picked at her nails “that was a dumb thing to do. I should have known better.”

“We get it” Aubrey squeezed her tight. “You wanted to be normal, part of the in crowd.”

1056

“She was already part of a group” Kaia grumbled beside them “our group.”

“I know” she mumbled head hanging low, here long hair covering her face. “I’m sorry. I’ll understand if you don’t want to be friends anymore.”

“That would suit my parents just fine” she glanced over shoulder as if expecting them to appear.

“I thought you didn’t agree with them” Aubrey reminded her putting an arm around London’s shoulders.

“I don’t know” she crossed her arms in front of her “I’ve never actively defied my parents before.”

Reaching for the girl’s hand “please don’t do anything to upset them because of me. I don’t want to get you into trouble.”

Biting her lip Kaia nodded “you’re my friend. I’m sorry you got caught up with those losers.”

1057

“I should have known better” she sobbed covering her face with her hands. “I wanted to have fun. No worries. No responsibilities.”

“You went about it the wrong way” Aubrey ran her hands through her long hair smoothing it. “We all make mistakes. You don’t have to keep beating yourself up for it.”

“I should have asked for help. Talked to my parents. Something.”

“Let’s not talk about it anymore” Aubrey suggested “let’s do something fun.”

“Like what” Kaia asked.

“Let’s give each other makeovers” she clapped her hands together.

“I get dibs on straightening all those curls” Kaia laughed warming to the idea. “I’ve always wanted to see how you’d look with straight hair.”

***

1058

“Are we babysitting” Ajay asked as he entered the kitchen where is wife was humming softly in front of the stove.

“I hope you don’t mind” she smiled as he nibbled on her neck.

“When will she be by to pick him up” he wrapped his arms around her waist despite her protest otherwise.

“Not until Sunday night” giggling when he groaned when she pulled away from him. “Sorry to ruin your plans.”

“I wish we did have plans then maybe we’d be the ones needing a babysitter.”

“We did promise” she reminded him.

“I thought it’d be fro a few hours,” sighing he flopped into a chair “not the weekend.”

1059

“It’s not the end of the world” chiding him as she turned back to what she was cooking. “Besides as many times as we asked her to babysit this makes us even.”

“Have we really asked her to babysit that much” he got up sniffing the air. “That smells good, what is it?”

“Can’t you tell? It’s your favorite” she smirked at him enjoying the way his head was inclined towards her taking in the aroma of her cooking.

“Trying to bribe me” he teased.

“Possibly” she held a spoon out to him “does it taste alright?”

“Mmm it’s perfect” he purred.

“Good” she went back to stirring. “Do me a favor and check on the boys.”

1060

“Where are they” he asked getting up.

“In Neel’s room I think” she said somewhat distracted “started a movie for them to watch.”

Crossing the small boat house Ajay didn’t need to go far to see the boys weren’t watching a movie. Their giggles coming from the outside dock giving their location away. “What are you doing out here” he demanded causing both boys to freeze starting up at him with identical deer in headlights expressions.

Avery’s eyes filled with tears “we playing.”

“I can see that” hands on hips he regarded both boys. “What have mommy and I told you about playing on the dock?”

Looking own Neel raised his shoulders letting them slump a moment later. “You or mommy has to be with me.”

Gazing sternly down at his young son he asked “why did you come out here to play?”

Pointing towards Avery “he was with me.”

Lips twitching as he fought to maintain a straight face. “Avery is not an adult. You should have asked for permission.”

“Sorry” Avery said without prompting and moved quickly towards the door leading to the inside of the houseboat.

Neel watched him crossing his arms his chin jutting out “we play airopwanes.” Opening his arms he demonstrated what they were doing.

“Next time you ask before coming out here” Ajay repeated “it’s time to come inside.”

Neel’s mouth formed a single word protest that got no further than a thought. “Alright” he sighed defeated as he followed his friend inside under the watchful gaze of his father.

***

1064

A half an hour later, Ajay and Prisha were eating alone at the table while the boys were munching happily on hot dogs in front of the TV. Glancing at his wife Ajay asked “where’s Kaia?”

“She’s spending the weekend with Aubrey” she gave him a look that almost challenged him to say something.

His hand halted on its way to his mouth. “Is that a good thing?”

“I don’t see why not” she shrugged “they’re friends.”

“Are you sure they’re just friends” he tone showing he’d switched to protective dad mode.

“Doesn’t matter” one of her eyebrows rose daring him to say otherwise.

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“It does matter” he spluttered “we wouldn’t let her spend the weekend with a boy.”

Laughing so hard Neel from the living room turned asking “mama what funny?” Avery was nearby watching eyes alive with curiosity.

“Your father is funny” she said lips quivering as she tried to control her merriment. “Watch your movie.” When the boys were sufficiently diverted she turned back to Ajay. “I understand your concerns. I don’t think they’re justified. They are just friends.”

“You’re sure” he demanded.

“I’m positive” she patted his hand “don’t worry so much.”

“I try not to but it’s so difficult.”

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“You sound like the typical protective dad” she leaned over giving him a quick peck on the cheek. She got up gathering the dirty dishes “what i’m more concerned about is her other friend, London.”

“Isn’t she the one who was at that party” he asked. “Didn’t we forbid her to see her?”

“We did” she nodded “but how many friends did we have that our parents didn’t approve of?”

“I don’t recall any of them doing drugs” he protested.

“No but I married one of those friends they didn’t like” she laughed again at his expression.

“So you think she’s with that girl” she asked.

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“I think that maybe we might have been too harsh,” she sighed leaning into him. “I’ve met London. She always seemed to be a sweet girl. I think Kaia would be a good influence on her.”

“That’s true” he agreed grabbing a towel to help dry the dishes as she washed them.

“Then we’re agreed” she asked.

“Agreed about what” he gave he a confused frown

“That’s it’s alright for her to remain friends with London” she looked up at him wondering if he’d been listening to anything she’d been saying.

“Yeah sure” he gave her a smile his mind clearly on other things.

***

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Prisha and Ajay sat on the couch snuggling together once they had put the boy’s down for the night. A firm knock on their door interrupted whatever plans they had for the evening.

Glancing at the time he frowned. “I wonder who that could be.”

“Whoever it is has some nerve” she complained “it’s almost eleven o’clock.”

“There used to be a time when we thought that was early” he teased going to answer the door.

“Yeah that was before kids” she reminded him.

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Opening the door he was caught his breath at the sight of two uniformed officers. “Mr Tovar” the older officer asked in a deep baritone voice.

“Yes can I help you” he said looking over at his wife who joined him.

“Did something happen” she asked. The sound of her voice leaving no doubt she was thinking something had happened to her daughter.

“There’s been an accident,” the officer continued.

“Is she alright” Prisha demanded “is my daughter alright?”

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Frowning the officers looked at each other. “We understood you were watching Avery Bennett.”

“That’s correct” Ajay nodded “he’s asleep.”

“His mother hopes he can remain here until she is able to come get him” the officer informed them.

“Is Edelle alright” Prisha asked once she realized her daughter was alright.

“The boat she was on has been damaged in a freak storm. It almost had to abandon ship. They are currently recovering and expected to return tomorrow night.”

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Putting a hand to her chest Prisha took several deep breaths. “Tell her Avery will be fine. We’ll keep him safe.”

“Very well” the officer nodded stepping back. “Have a good evening.”

Closing the door Ajay mumbled “I would have thought a simple phone call would have been sufficient.”

“I suppose they came in person in case we couldn’t keep Avery the entire time.” Leaning into her husband “I don’t care. Everyone is alright. That’s all that matters.”

“I doubt the island could handle anymore tragedies” he sighed pulling her tight.

Chapter 40 – Meeting the Family  /

Chapter 40 – Meeting the Family

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“Oh Shit” Royce mumbled stumbling backwards causing Natalia to bump into him as she followed him inside. His eyes were round at what he’d just seen. His brother’s shirt tossed on the floor, Damian’s hands roaming across his body both oblivious.

Laughing softly Natalia tugged on his hand “come on” she urged.

“Shit” the word exploded from his lips once more as he followed her.

“You’re reacting worse than some parents” she teased. “Haven’t you ever seen him making out before?”

“I didn’t even know he knew how to kiss” he ran a hand through his hair. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for him. It was just….wow.”

“Kind of a shock I see” she slipped her around his. “It’s a beautiful night” she observed looking skyward.

Glancing upwards Royce sighed looking down he found her looking up. Her chin tilted gracefully upwards “it pales in comparison to you.” Gently he stroked a finger over her smooth cheek.

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Turning she smiled up at him, eyes sparkling in the moonlight. “You say the sweetest things.”

They leaned towards each other like they were drawn to each other. Royce’s arms wrapped around her slim waist pulling her into an embrace. “I wish I could invite you inside” he whispered in her ear as his body reacted to her’s pressed against him.

“I have a better idea” she grinned pulling him with her.

Groaning in protest he followed her towards the beach. Stopping he didn’t have a chance to wonder what they were doing as he watched her pull her shirt up and over her head. His breathing quickened as he took in her curves in the moonlight “are you sure about this” he asked his voice sounding thick as her only answer was to run her hands under his shirt.

“Want me to stop” she asked her fingers sliding between him and his jeans.

“No” he squeaked” what if someone sees us?”

Running her tongue across her bottom lip as her fingers released the button on his jeans. She followed them down. Gazing up at him she grinned “let them watch.” He gasped as her mouth was busy doing things to him that her words had hinted at.

***

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Pushing Damian’s hands away as he struggled to sit up. Hugging his arms around himself he looked for his shirt.

“What’s wrong” Damian asked with a groan.

“I thought I heard my brother come in” he sounded a bit out of breath. “He may have saw us, you know” he waved a hand to indicate the two of them.

“Kissing” Damian smirked laughing softly.

“Yeah,” he choked pulling his knees into his chest.

“Doesn’t he approve…”

Shaking his head Jason added, “it’s not that. He’s very supportive. It’s just that I’ve never…you know.” He covered his face in his hands “I probably gave him a heart attack.”

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“I’m sure he’s fine” he assured him patting the top of Jason’s head. “But we should probably cool it anyway.” He smiled as Jason pulled his hands away from his face, his golden eyes full of disappointment that was quickly replaced with sadness.

“I wasn’t any good” he mumbled chewing on his nails.

“What” Damian blinked frowning slightly. Pulling the younger man closer to him he explained “it has nothing to do with your performance.” Tilting Jason’s chin up he gazed into his eyes “what did you think was going to happen tonight?”

“That we’d…you know” his eyes darted away from Damian’s face. “I was wrong, wasn’t I?”

Smiling softly he shook his head. He could read disappointment, relief and hurt in his eyes. Bringing his hands up to cup his face he leaned forward kissing his forehead. “No baby you weren’t wrong. I wanted it as much as you did.”

“Then why….”

Placing his fingers over Jason’s lips he shushed him “This isn’t the way you’re first time should be like. It shouldn’t be a quickie on the couch. It should be special.”

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“Oh” he sighed leaning into the older man.

“When you give me that look it takes everything I have not to take you right here right now” he groaned lightly running his fingers through the blue locks. Scooting over on the couch he put some space between them.”What do you have in here to eat?”

“There’s probably some hamburgers in the fridge” Jason said. “Royce was going to grill them up…” Getting up he moved towards the door “I should tell him it’s okay to come inside.” Opening the door he looked around “he’s not out here.”

“He probably went over to Natalia’s” Damian said heading into the kitchen for the hamburgers. Gathering what he needed he carried out to the grill. “It’s a beautiful night” he said when he heard the sliding glass door open.

Jason moved to join him standing close watching him flip hamburgers. “What’s that?” he asked as the sounds of groaning could be heard and what sounded suspiciously like someone calling his brother’s name.

Damian caught his arm before Jason could go check it out. Lips twitching “they’re fine.” Forgetting the hamburgers he wrapped his arms around Jason’s slim body “one day you’ll be doing the same except you’ll be calling my name.”

“Oh” his eyes grew large as his cheeks flamed with heat. Pushing away from Damian he fled inside before his body betrayed his need and desire.

***

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“Dad” Dakota shouted running towards her parents as they stepped onto the dock.

Waylon squeezed her tight “it’s so good to see you.” Shaking his head as she went from him to Zack.

“There’s so much I need to tell you,” she grinned at them eyes sparkling.

“You’ve met someone” Zach surmised leaning into Waylon who could hear the effort it was taking him to be happy for their daughter. Waylon could see the pain and realization that their little girl was growing up in his light blue eyes.

“Wait till you meet here” she enthused without noticing her dad’s discomfort or the way Waylon whispered words of comfort in his ear.

Taking one of their bags she lead the way inside. “I’m sure you tired from the trip but you’ve got to meet here.” Setting down the bag she walked over to a young woman standing nibbling on her nails. “This is Macy, my girlfriend.” Turning she beamed at her parents as she introduced her girlfriend to them.

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“It’s nice to meet you” Waylon smiled extending his hand.

Taking it Macy gave him a nervous grin. Her eyes moving towards the silent man beside him who looked unsure how to handle the news. “I’m looking forward to getting to know. I’m sure you both would like a chance to rest.” Her eyes moved towards Zach in concern “Dakota tells me you lie to knit.” She waited patiently for him to nod before adding “I’ve always wanted to learn. Perhaps you could teach me? My nan tried but all I accomplished was a giant tangled mess.”

“It’s not as hard as people think” Zach said in a soft hesitant voice like he were afraid someone was going to yell at him for speaking. “It takes patience though.”

“As long as Dakota leaves me alone I think I can manage” she laughed at the disgruntled look Dakota gave her.

“In that case Dad and I will go for a walk” she informed her giving Waylon a look he knew meant they needed to talk.

“Sounds like a plan” Waylon agreed “if we can get a little nap first.”

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They turned to follow Dakota to their room Zach asked what she’d been dreading since they got there. “Where’s Montana? I thought she’d be here to greet us.”

Macy and Dakota exchanged worried looks before Dakota smiled taking her dad’s hand. “She had to work. One of the instructors called in sick and she had to cover for him.”

Waylon waited until Dakota had Zach distracted enough before he leaned in close to Macy “what are you two not telling us?”

Jumping a little she shook her head. “I’ll let Dakota explain. It’s nothing bad” she assured him which only deepened his frown. “It’s just not what you’ll expect and you might not like it.”

An hour later Waylon was walking beside his daughter while her dog sniffed around. “You wanted to talk, let’s talk.”

“I wanted to warn you that daddy might not react well to Montana’s boyfriend.” Biting her lip she watched the emotions flit across his face. As a family they all knew how difficult it was for Zach to accept change and he didn’t react well to certain types of people.

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Blowing through his nose he seemed to be starting out across the ocean. “Is he good to her” he asked he of all people knew you couldn’t always judge a person by what you saw on the outside. Zach understood that but he couldn’t always control that initial rush of fear that came over him.

“I think so” she nodded “he’s a surfer and gives lessons to anyone who wants them.” She followed his gaze “he just looks kind of rough, long hair, tattoos.”

“Oh” he nodded a muscle ticking in his jaw. “Not the pretty boy type we’re used to Montana dating.”

“He might freak daddy out” Dakota sighed “I’ve never seen him be anything but nice and he’s always gentle with her. He reminds me of you and the way you are with Daddy.”

“I’ll be the judge of that” Waylon his tone gruff after spending decades protecting his husband from things that would potentially give him an anxiety attack.

***

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“Daddy” Montana cried rushing into the house to give Zach a hug. Turning to Waylon her smile faltered as she notices his stiff manner towards her. “She told you didn’t she?”

“Where’s my hug” he asked holding his arms out to her. “Now tell us about him” he invited sitting down and crossing his legs.

“I was going to tell you” she gave her sister a scowl as she walked by. “It just never seemed to be the right time.”

“Why don’t you invite him over so we can meet him.” Zach suggested shocking them all into silence. “He does want to meet us I hope.”

“Of course he does” she gave Waylon a look silently asking him for help. Shrugging he nodded. “Tanner’s not like the other boys I’ve dated before.”

“What does that mean” Zach asked his blue eyes full of concern.

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“Nothing bad Daddy” she paused, searching for the right words. “He just doesn’t look like the typical preppy pretty boy I’ve dated in the past. He’s a surfer.” She could see from their expressions that they were imagining the worst movies and TV had type caste most surfers. “I promise he’s not like that. He’s really sweet. Dakota can vouch for that.”

“Don’t get me involved in this” she shook her head “you’re on your own with this.”

“That’s not very helpful” she cried wishing could wipe the knowing I told you so look from her sisters face. Yes she should have told them before they came to visit but how could she?

“I don’t know him well enough to vouch for him,” she said. “He did seem nice the few times we’ve met.”

Montana looked at her phone as a message came through. “You don’t have to wait to meet him. He’s coming over. I forgot my purse and he’s bringing it over.” She looked over at Zach hearing his gasp as he fought to control his breathing. “Daddy, you don’t have to worry. He’s really nice to me. You always said you can’t judge a book by it’s cover.”

“I know baby” he swallowed audibly closing his eyes as he fought to control his rising anxiety.

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Twenty minutes later Montana jumped from the couch to answer the door. Opening the door Tanner stood holding her purse out to her a silly grin on his face. Throwing her arms around him she whispered her thanks. Looking over her shoulder he asked “is everything alright?”

“Why wouldn’t it be” she asked her voice too loud and chipper for the solemn faces starting back at her. “Come in” she took his hand “my dad’s want to meet you.”

Tanner stood by her side squeezing her hand as they moved to meet her parents. Coming to a stop he whispered in her ear “it’s going to be alright.”

“I hope so” she briefly smiled up at him. “Dad’s this is Tanner. Tanner this is Zach and Waylon my dads.”

Waylon studied the young man from head to toe. If he’d formed any opinions he kept them to himself. It was Zach who timidly stretched his hand out first “it’s nice to meet you” he stammered voice quivering from nervous stretched vocal chords.

Taking the outstretched hand Tanner sensed this was the parent he needed to win over more so than the sterner looking man at the blond’s side. “It’s a pleasure to meet you” glancing down at Montana “you’re daughter has told me so much about you.”

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“She has” he asked sounding surprised.

“Of course daddy” she enthused “you and dad are important to me. I wanted Tanner to know all about you.” Taking Zach’s arm “I should have told you about him too. I’m sorry Daddy I just didn’t know how to tell you.”

“Nodding he hugged her “all I care about is your happiness and knowing he’s treating you right. I don’t care how long his hair is or what he does for a living.”

“I give surfing lessons to spoiled rich kids” Tanner elaborated with a chuckle.

“Do you have any goals for the future” Waylon asked still gruff and unyielding. “I doubt surfing lessons is all that lucrative. How do you expect to care for a wife and family?”

“You’re right it’s not” he shrugged unphased by the questions. “I’m hoping to open my own shop someday. Selling surfboards. I design them on my off days.”

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“We’ve discussed building a gym onto the shop as well where I could give yoga classes” Montana added.

“Those are certainly good goals” he acknowledged “do you have a plan on how you’re going to accomplish them?”

“Waylon” Zach warned “don’t interrogate him.”

“I’m not” he protested.

“You are and you know it” Zach took his hand “give him a chance.”

“Aren’t I supposed to be telling you that” he huffed grinning down into his husbands face.

“Not this time” he shook his head “I have a good feeling about him.”

Chapter 39 – First Dates /