otalia fan fiction
An Otalia Wedding
It's 2029 and there's an Otalia wedding brewing that features siblings Emma, Rafe, Ava, Francesca and Elena. 
Violating the Rules
Blis (Blake/Doris) tale that mirrors the Otalia story set during the '1 year later' timeframe of Guiding Light with Olivia and Natalia trying to play matchmaker to the couple. 
Best Man Speech
Olivia tries to get to the heart of why Rafe dislikes her so much. 
Carino
Nothing but some NC-17 sexy smut. 
First Kiss... Revised
Story from Natalia's POV as she confesses sleeping with Frank.  
Frienemies
Upset that Natalia left her without a word, Olivia heads to ladies night to pick someone up only to find Doris who saves her from a mistake...or does she?  
Funny Shapes or Rounds
Two lovers enjoy the 'morning after' until a daughter demands breakfast. 
Girls Night Out
Natalia returns from the retreat but Olivia wants nothing to do with her. So Doris offers to take Olivia on a buddy adventure.
I Get By With a Little Help From My... Enemies
Doris offers a little bit of friendly advice and prodding to help Olivia and Natalia jump start their relationship.
I'll Be Home For Christmas
Olivia's closing a major deal in the Northeast but bad weather keeps her from getting to Springfield.
Like I Always Am
This was an altered reality/ what if story I wrote for my friend Dragonwriter who proposed, "What if Olivia didn't 'wake up' after her heart test & Natalia kissed her?"
Loving You Both
Olivia finds a way to help Natalia balance their love and her lovers' faith in God. 
Lunch Counter Confessions
Olivia gossips with Doris and Blake about Natalia and the wonders of lesbian sex.
Matt? Really?
This story was written on a daily/weekly basis and used spoilers following Natalia's return from the retreat. 
It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Natalia reflects on a Christmas past and their first Christmas with newborn Francesca. 
Merry Christmas Baby
A sexy NC-17 sequel to my Christmas 2009 story, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” 
One Kiss
Otalia’s first kiss told from one of the character’s perspective. ‘Nuff said.
Pass The Potato Salad
In this tale, pregnant Natalia goes to the BBQ, not the retreat. 
Promises Promises
Set a year after the infamous Bauer Barbecue, Natalia tells Olivia she'll 'meet her there' when she ends up running late and it stirs up old feelings. 
Road Trip 
Story based on spoilers that Doris and Olivia were going on a road trip to find Natalia. 
Score One for Natalia Rivera
Olivia's ex's gossip about her prowess as a lover and a drunken Natalia joins the conversation.
This isn't Supposed to Happen
Our gals late night musings as they lie in bed. 
Tonight It Feels Like Home
Olivia is back in the farmhouse again and trying to find a comfort level she once had before Natalia's bolt to the retreat. 
Two Mommies (Take Two)
Rafe examines the relationship of his mother and Olivia. 
Supply & Demand
Olivia and Natalia take Francesca trick or treating and the youngster learns a lesson in marketing. 
Dimples
A collection of short stories about Francesca Spencer told from various family members point of view with each chapter representing a year from her life. 
Until Death
Dark tale of what might have happened if Natalia went through with the wedding.
 

Title: An Otalia Wedding

Author: CN Winters

Rating: PG

Genre: Romance

Pairing: Otalia

Summary: It's 2029 and there's an Otalia wedding brewing…

Author Note: Just many thanks in advance to everyone who reads and takes a few moments to reply – it really means a lot and inspires writers – not just myself but others – to continue.

Standard Disclaimer Ahead: Guiding Light is a product of Proctor & Gamble (like Mr. Clean, Duracell and Old Spice), and appears on CBS at the time of writing this. The characters are the creative property of the show and its producers – I'm just borrowing them for my amusement, and hopefully for those few souls who read this.

Word Count: Too many to count

Chapter Fifty-Four

Saturday Afternoon, 4:03 PM, June 9th, 2029

As the bridesmaids walked down the aisle in the packed church to ‘Canon in D Major’ by Pachelbel, the gatherers were all smiles.

Frank and Blake grinned from ear-to-ear and she took pictures as they watched the girls walking by. When Francesca saw Buzz sitting in his wheelchair in the handicapped pew behind her father and step-mom, she gave him a wink of acknowledgement, which he returned. The gesture made her smile even more.

In the foyer, Maureen and Emma were finally able to see each other for the first time.

"She’s beautiful, Sweetheart," Phillip whispered to Emma who could only nod mutely in response.

Maureen wore an A-line, sheer, deep-V halter neckline dress that enhanced her smaller bust line, giving her more of a buxomly appearance. Hand-beaded lace appliqués adorned the bodice and trailed down the skirt into a chapel-length train, which sat below a corset back.

Matt patted Maureen’s arm and told her, "You’re one lucky lady, Dear." Likewise, she could only nod too upon seeing Emma.

Graced with an ample bosom like her mother, Emma’s column dress was made of flowing satin that looked almost fluid; reminiscent of classical Hollywood glamour. The strapless bodice, with a dipped almost-sweetheart neckline was accented by heavy beadwork in moonstone and diamante. As for the rest of the dress, knife pleats all around it created a body/hip hugging design, which was further accented with beading to one side. The back, with its button and loop fastening design, was connected to the skirt that flowed into a fluted base with a fishtail train at the back.

In short, while Maureen looked like royalty, Emma looked like a scarlet… but they both fit together perfectly.

Maureen cleared her throat to speak as they approached each other.

"You’re stunning, Em’. You’re just…" Maureen giggled slightly. "Just stunning," she managed to finish.

Emma opened her mouth, but no words came out. She tried again to no avail. Philip had to grin.

"You’ve left her speechless, Maureen. Not too many people can say that."

"Beautiful," Emma muttered, sounding rather brainless. But just as quickly she cleared her throat and shook her head to regain her composure. "You showed up and-and you’re beautiful."

Maureen gave her a bashful grin and then turned to her father.

"Can I kiss her now?" she asked him hopefully.

Both men chuckled slightly.

"Be patient, Sweetie," Matt told her. "In a little while – I promise."

As Jodi and Clarrisa took their places in the formation at the front of the church, the music faded out. Soon after, the ‘dum-dum-de-dum’ of Wagner’s ‘Bridal Chorus (Here Comes The Bride)’ filled the church. On the cue, everyone moved to his or her feet.

Phillip and Matt were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, but Maureen motioned Emma toward her so they were standing side-by-side with their respective father’s on their other arm.

Once more, Jacque looked like he might have a heart attack at the last second change. Maureen took Emma’s hand in hers and locked her other arm with her father, Matt. Taking the signal, Emma did the same and locked her arm around Phillip’s.

"No touching," Jacque warned the couple. "Not until the ceremony is over."

"It’s this or I start kissing her now," Maureen shushed him. "What’s it going to be?"

"You people," he sighed. "You’ll be the death of me," he added before he scurried away.

Emma and Maureen both giggled and put their foreheads against each other.

"I might say screw it all together and kiss you now," Maureen said as she pulled back slightly and then began to descend toward Emma’s lips.

Emma smiled, and approached too, but then at the last second she pulled away with an even more devious grin.

"What kind of girl do you take me for?" she asked Maureen.

Maureen giggled. "Ohh, you are such a tease," she said happily.

Emma squeezed Maureen’s hand.

"If you want some sugar today it’s not gonna be until after that ring’s on my finger."

"You certainly are your mother’s daughter."

"Which mom?"

Maureen paused. "I’d say both." Then she muttered above a whisper, "God have mercy on me."

Emma giggled.

Maureen looked out to see the gathers still watching them and they appeared to be wonder if the women were ever going to start walking down the aisle.

"Everyone’s waiting on us," she pointed out to Emma.

Emma shrugged.

"Who cares? It’s our day. It’s one of the few times in our lives when we’ll make an entire room stop what they’re doing and wait on us. We can make them wait a little while longer."

At the front of the church, Rafe wore a curious expression.

"They’re not moving yet," he noted concerned.

"She’s trying to kill me, isn’t she?" Olivia asked no one in particular.

"Oh, please," Doris replied. "She’s like her mother. She’s just trying to…make an entrance. You guys didn’t invent dyke drama, but you do take it to new heights. Relax. She’s yankin’ everyone’s chain for theatrics."

"How can you say that?" Natalia asked.

Doris held up the program. "How? It’s right here in black and white. See? Spaulding Spencer Rivera," she said reading as she pointed at the paper. "The name says it all."

That made both Brenda and Ashlee let out a chuckle. Her daughter, however, had to quickly cover her mouth to quiet herself. Olivia, Natalia and Rafe didn’t seem to find the humor though.

"Nana," Leo chastised his grandmother upon seeing the people in front of him scowling. "They don’t think that’s very funny."

"It’s a little funny and a bit of a relief," Ashlee remarked.

"Relief?" Brenda asked.

"Yeah." Ashlee nodded. "It’s nice to see Doris still being a little wicked now and then."

"Should we go see what’s wrong?" Natalia asked Olivia.

"Noooo, no," Doris said reaching out and patting Natalia’s hand that was holding the back of the pew. "Give them their moment. And if it’s not meant to be, don’t worry. She’ll just run right back up the aisle again, apologizing as she goes. After all," Doris said as she taped the program again. "The name’s Rivera."

Doris smiled devilishly and Olivia let out a humorous snort that she tried to mask as a cough with no luck. Even Natalia had to turn away to keep from smiling.

"I don’t know what you see in that woman," Natalia muttered to her wife.

Doris leaned over the pew. "Psst…" When Natalia turned to face her she replied, "I’m fun," and then moved back.

Natalia looked to Olivia, who shrugged and then nodded in agreement.

At the back of the church, the two young lovers were still smiling at each other.

"Having this kinda power is cool, isn’t it?" Maureen grinned before she looked at the well-wishers. She then turned back to Emma. "What’s cooler though?….Making you Mrs. Reardon. Are you up for it?"

Emma tightened her hand. "Yeah, I think my moms have suffered enough. Lead the way."

She smiled up at Maureen as they began to walk toward the waiting crowd.

Chapter Fifty-Five

Saturday Afternoon, 4:05 PM, June 9th, 2029

Philip and Matt brought their daughters to stop in front of the small podium where Josh Lewis stood awaiting their arrival. Smiling from ear-to-ear, Josh asked, "Who gives this woman to be wed?"

A few snickers, and nervous laughter, floated through the audience. From the second row, Doris teased him by saying, "You'll need to be a bit more specific for THIS ceremony, Pastor Lewis."

"Right you are, Madam Mayor," he replied with a nod of acknowledgment to Doris. "And you should know since you've probably married more people than all the churches in Springfield combined." Once the second round of giggles settle down, Josh became serious and he turned to Maureen and Matt.

"Who gives Maureen to be wed?"

"Her stepmother and I do," he replied.

Josh gave Matt a nod and then turned to Phillip and asked, "Who gives Emma to be wed?"

He smirked at Emma for a moment and then turned to Josh.

"Her two mommies and I do," he replied firmly.

A few people in the church, mostly Emma's side, chuckled at the remark. Rafe gave a little clap while, Buzz complimented him.

"Good one, Phillip!"

Phillip didn't turn around, but he did put his thumb up in the air to let Buzz know the compliment was received.

Emma rolled her eyes. "Oh, Dad. Two mommies? Really?"

"Yes, really."

"You couldn't just say 'her mothers and I,' huh?"

He considered it a moment and said, "Nope." Then he broke out his Cheshire cat grin. He leaned over and kissed her on the check. "We love you, Em."

Emma grinned. "I love you too. You embarrass me to no end sometimes, but…yeah, I love you too."

Upon releasing their daughters, both men walked over to their perspective church pew. Matt took his place next to Charlotte. Phillip smiled at Rafe, who was grinning already, as he walked passed him. Before reaching his destination, Phillip reached down and squeezed Natalia's hand. He then settled himself between Beth, who was on his left side, and Olivia, who was seated next to Natalia, on his right. As he leaned back, Beth took his left hand into hers. He reached out his right hand and Olivia grasped it, just as she was grasping Natalia on her other side. All four parents, and Rafe, sat together, hands joined in solitary over their love for their girl.

"First," Josh began, "I'd like to take this time to welcome everyone on Maureen and Emma's behalf. They both know how fortunate they are to have so many loving faces here today…Now this is the point where, as the spiritual advisor, I led our gathering in prayer. And when I was asked if I would officiate this ceremony, I happily agreed. I've known both these young women their entire lives and I'd be hard pressed to find two souls more affection and compassionate as these two women. So again, when Emma and Maureen asked for my help, I was happy to oblige. Emma, however, well, she had one condition."

The congregation gave a few chuckled and snickers.

"Judging by that wave of giggles, obviously some of you know what I know - when a Spencer woman makes her mind up it's useless to resist."

Once again, the crowd chuckled.

"But Emma's request was a welcomed one. She wanted her mother, Natalia, to begin the opening prayer… so, Natalia, will you please join me here and do the honors?"

Natalia took a deep breath. She turned to Olivia, who gave her a slow kiss on the cheek. The younger woman looked nervous and happy at the same time as she moved to her feet and began walking toward the podium.

Chapter Fifty-Six

Saturday Afternoon, June 9th, 2029

Josh moved to the side, allowing Natalia to step in front of him at the podium.

She cleared her throat.

"For those of you who've attended a few weddings in the past you know that one of the more popular scriptures to quote is Corinthians 13:4-8. In fact, Emma's said it more than any other resident because she's been in more weddings than we can count." A slight wave of laughter passed. "She has it completely memorized, I'm sure. So with that in mind...Emma? Would you like to recite it one more time to someone who's the most deserving of all?" Natalia waved her hand toward Maureen and Emma turned and faced her future wife as she spoke.

"Love is patient; love is kind," Emma began. "It is not rude, it is not self-seeking. It is not easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in sin, but rejoices with truth. It always protects, always hopes, always trusts, always perseveres… Love never fails."

Maureen smiled broadly, just as Emma did, and she started to move forward slightly, but caught herself and stopped.

"Sorry," Maureen apologized softly. "I keep trying to kiss her, but it's not time yet."

The gathers give a small chuckle as Emma blushed.

"Funny you should mention kissing her," Natalia said, which only deepened the red hue on Emma's cheeks. "Because it brings up a point I wanted to make here. So many people note Corinthians 13:4-8 because it's rather simple and succinct…Love is patient; love is kind…"

Olivia watched Natalia proudly and felt Phillip squeeze her hand. She turned to him briefly to see him smiling and she squeezed back.

"But it's not the only part of the bible that talks about love," Natalia went on. "There are many parts, but two in particular really stand out for me when I think of Maureen and Emma and what marriage should mean for all of us. The first is John 3:18 that says, 'Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. We should start focusing on showing our love to others as we say what we feel.' What that means is we need to communicate with those we cherish. It also means love is pointless, unless you truly mean it and back it up with action; like with a kiss, or a kind word, or being selfless to help the one you love."

Brenda glanced at Doris with a smile and then rested her temple on her shoulder as she snuggled in closer.

"The second scripture I'd like to mention is Romans 8:28 – 'And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. We know good things happen to those who know God and live according to His way.'

For a brief moment, Natalia's mind flashed to another time and another church.

 

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

Olivia, Emma and a very pregnant Natalia were filing out of Father Ray's church. At the back of the room, Natalia and Olivia stepped aside to let others pass so they could help Emma button her wool petticoat, which wasn't being very co-operative. A few seconds later, the priest walked toward to the trio as the last of the gathers left.

"Natalia?" he called when he was a few feet away. "Can I speak with you a moment?"

His face was unreadable. Natalia nodded and turned to Olivia. Before she could say anything, Olivia asked, "Do you want me to stay?" as if sensing something was wrong.

"No, I'll meet you outside in the car."

Olivia paused and looked at the priest. Her eyes hardened slightly for a moment and then she looked back at Natalia, with a gentle expression. She stroked her cheek and gave her a nod before she took Emma's hand and led her from the church.

"What can I do for you, Father?" Natalia asked as she approached him.

"I have a question that… I know the answer to, yet I must ask since other parishioners are asking."

"If it's a question about whether I've had sex outside of wedlock, the answer is yes," Natalia said stroking her large stomach.

Father Ray grinned nervously. "No, this is about Olivia. There are parishioners here that feel if you and Olivia are in a homosexual relationship that involves…intimacy… you shouldn't be given communion."

"I don't care about what they say," Natalia replied shortly. "What do you say?"

"Please answer the question."

"You didn't ask me a question yet."

"Are you having sexual relations with Ms. Spencer?"

Natalia grinned and bit her bottom lip for a moment. Then she squared her shoulders and cleared her throat.

"Have you asked Mr. Wilkens if he bomps his secretary when Mrs. Wilkens is away? Or if Reggie Stevens and Mary Wagner are getting between the sheets? It's common knowledge to everyone the answer is yes – well, except poor Mrs. Wilkens, she's clueless."

"Natalia, I’m not here to discuss anyone else."

"My point is I don't recall you denying them today, and I don't see them standing here now."

"I understand this is hard for you and-."

"Excuse me, Father, but you don't understand a thing."

"Natalia, you need-."

"Don't tell me what I need! My relationship is a blessing! Do you hear me?!? Olivia, Emma, this child…" she said rubbing her stomach again, "They're all gifts that God has bestowed upon me for years of toil and suffering."

Father Ray held up his finger. "Leviticus 18:22 - 'Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.'"

Natalia held up hers. "Romans 8:28 – 'We know good things happen to those who know God and live according to His way.' God made me spend years alone so that I would realize once Olivia and Emma came along how precious they are. I'm not going to throw away His gift for any mortal or his interpretation of the Holy Bible."

"But you're not living according to His way if you're with Olivia," the father argued.

"Ruth 1:14 mentions that Ruth clave onto her, 'her' meaning Naomi. The same Hebrew word "clave" is used in the description of a heterosexual marriage - 'Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.'"

Father Ray looked surprised by Natalia's ability to quote the scripture back to him.

"I've given all of this a lot of soul searching and thoughtful consideration, Father," Natalia continued. "I went away this summer seeking answers and I found them. And for the record, I haven't had 'sexual relations' with Olivia Spencer. What we have is much deeper and much more profound – we bring each other to physical heights neither of us have ever experienced. She brings me closer to God nearly every night. It's not sex; it's the true definition of making love."

Father Ray was quiet for a moment.

"I'm sorry, but I'm not going to be able to give you communion any longer."

Natalia was quiet and simply looked at him. "I know you have the power to decide communion, so I'll ask… is this your decision then?"

"It is," he said firmly. "I don't want this to take away your faith in God. You're a good person, Natalia. The devil has a way of disguising sin and I honestly believe you need to find your way back from a life of sin."

Natalia began to smile. "Don't worry Father Ray. My faith in God is stronger than ever. It's my faith in this church that's gone."

Natalia turned away as Father Ray called out her name. She stopped and turned around.

"My family and I won't bother you any longer. We'll find a new house of worship."

And with that, Natalia Rivera walked out of the Catholic Church and didn't look back.

Chapter Fifty-Seven

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

Natalia walked out of the church to see Olivia standing outside the Nissan as Emma sat in the backseat. Upon seeing Natalia approach, Olivia motioned for Emma to stay put by holding up a finger. She then walked the short distance to meet her lover.

"What did he want?" Olivia asked, as if fearing the answer.

Natalia shrugged. "Father Ray tried to make me choose -- you or God." Olivia looked away, concern etched on her lovely features. "I picked both of you and he didn't like that." Olivia wore a look of surprise as Natalia grinned. "What? Why the shocked look? Lots of other married people love both. Why can't I?"

"The church... it means so much to you."

"It’s God who means so much to me. The church is a building of people. These people don't want us around. I won’t lie and say this doesn't hurt -- it does… tremendously. For years, the church was the only thing I knew I could count on. But it turns out that, well, like my parents, that love was conditional."

"I’m so sorry, Sweetie," Olivia replied.

"The truth is, Olivia…I've outgrown this church – the way they treat gays, the way they treat abusers within the church, its stance on celibacy…The point is it’s not just one thing that’s made me examine my faith in the church – and not my faith in God mind you. Like I told Father Ray my belief in God is stronger than ever. He’s testing me right now to live up to his ideal of love and I know there are other churches, other people, which will let me worship Him and leave judgment to Him. Besides, now that I have a daughter, and another one on the way, maybe someday one of them might want to preach to a congregation. Here," she motioned to the church, "they can’t because they have no strong voice. Women aren’t ‘worthy’ enough for such a high task so I want to go some place a little less misogynistic and a lot more inclusive."

"You know," Olivia said, "I’m not a biblical scholar by any means."

"You don’t say," Natalia muttered.

"But why is that?"

"Why is what?" Natalia asked.

"Why aren’t women more respected in many Christian churches? The last two people to stand by Christ as he died were women – his mother and his, well, depending on who you ask, his ‘girlfriend’. All the guys? They left!"

Natalia chuckled. "You know you’re right, but I don’t have an answer." She began to look serious again for a moment. "I want Emma to know the power and the glory of God that I know exists. If she chooses to believe or not believe, well, I hope she would, but that’s her decision. I want her to see that being a Christian doesn’t give you the right to judge – that truly is God’s job."

"What about God's judgment; do you fear it?"

"I've done some pretty sinful things in my life, things I deeply regret, but loving you is not one of them. It never has been and it never will be." Natalia kissed Olivia gently on the lips. "I'll even show you tonight," she added suggestively. Olivia smiled widely as she took her hand. "But let's go home. It's colder than normal today."

Olivia tightened her hold on Natalia's hand. "Walking away from this," she said, motioning back toward the church with her freehand, "it’s…well… when you promise a grand gesture you don't disappoint, my dear."

Natalia smiled. "Does this mean I have to forgo the ‘I love Olivia’ dance I had planned for after Francesca was born?"

"A dance, huh?"

"Yup, pasties and a G-string too." Olivia dropped her purse and Natalia giggled, but kept walking. "Come on, Sweetheart," she told of her shoulder. "Our daughter is waiting."

Back in the present time, Emma stood next to Maureen at the altar, smiling at her Ma.

"The best advice I can give," Natalia continued, "is never lose sight of how much you value each other. Try to remember why you fell in love. There was a time between your mother and I when we both began to take each other for granted, but we found our way back to one another."

Reva smiled up at Josh from her spot next to Jonathan.

"But don't take my word for it," Natalia continued, "Ask anyone here and they'll tell you the same. The giddy feeling you have in this moment won’t last." When the gathering murmured an agreement, Natalia pointed to the crowd and said, "See? Some of us know. But the great thing is – and this is important - when you realize that love needs constant care, tenderness and attentiveness that feeling, well, it can grow and it can last a lifetime."

From his seat, Buzz nodded his head in agreement to no one in particular.

"Of course," Natalia went on, "help from God is always a wonderful thing too, so with that in mind, let us pray…"

The congregation bowed their heads as Natalia continued.

"Lord God, we thank you for the union of hearts of our dear Emma and Maureen.

On this special day, their wedding day heaven sings in triumph,

For a new love shall unveil the glory of your name.

Dear Father, we sincerely pray that you bless this couple with a love to last forever.

In sickness and in health may they find your strength.

In doubts and troubles may they see your light.

In hurts and failures may they find your pardon.

In loneliness and desperation may they find your joy.

Also we pray, that you bless them with a family so blissful, prosperous and ever healthy, and above all, filled with love, faith and hope that is founded on you. Amen."

When the congregation issued their ‘amens,’ Natalia reached out and cupped both of women's cheeks, and they both smiled at the gesture. Then Natalia gave Josh a brief nod so he could continue. As she took her place next to Olivia, the older woman gently kissed her on the lips.

"You are fantastic," she complemented.

Natalia shrugged nonchalantly as she settled next to her wife. "It was easy. She’s our Jellybean."

With tears threatening to escape, Olivia could only squeeze her partner’s hand and nod.

Back at the altar, Maureen whined to Josh, "Can I kiss her now?"

Josh smiled wide. "You really want to get this done, don’t you?" he replied as the crowd chuckled.

"Absolutely," Maureen answered and smiled at Emma who was already smiling herself.

"Okay," Josh relented. "Since Maureen is in a hurry," he teased, which made a few folks chuckle. "Now comes the standard, ‘if there is anyone here that feels these two should not be wed let them speak now or forever hold their peace.’"

Josh looked around the room for a few seconds and opened his mouth to continue when a voice from the back shouted out.

"No! Emma! Don’t do this!"

The entire party gasped and turned around to the back of the room. Doris, however, turned back around to face Olivia.

"Gee, what do you know?" she started sarcastically. "A Spencer-Rivera wedding in Springfield that’s not going as planned. That’s a shock."

Chapter Fifty-Eight

Saturday Afternoon, June 9th, 2029

"Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me," Natalia sighed as the gatherers watched the young man walking toward the altar where Emma and Maureen were standing.

Rafe stood up and motioned to James who was only a few rows back and closest to the intruder. James took the hint and moved to his feet. He grabbed the approaching man by the arm as Rafe closed the distance between them.

"Emma!" the young man called out. "I still love you. I was wrong. Please don’t do this."

"Uhhhhh, who is that?" Maureen pointed.

Emma was ten shades of red.

"Stephen – the high school sweetheart that dumped me," she answered before facing him. "What are you doing here, Steve?"

"Stopping you from making a mistake," he continued to talk even as Rafe and James pulled him toward the door. "We were meant to be together. I see that now. You’re the one for me. I know it."

Olivia was fuming. "He left her," she whispered hotly. "That lil piss ant. I’ll kill him."

Natalia grabbed Olivia’s arm and held on to prevent her from jumping out of the seat.

"Stephen?" Emma said as she handed her flowers to Maureen and walked toward him. Rafe and James stopped moving him to the door, but they didn’t let go. "A decade ago you thought it was best if we saw other people."

"I know; I was wrong."

"But you weren’t wrong," Emma told him firmly. "I took your advice and I found the love of my life. She’s beautiful and she’s smart and she adores me to no end. She wants to spend her life with me and she’s up there right now, waiting for me."

"Emma, you don’t want to do this."

"Yes, I do."

"Remember the heart, the one with the butterfly. You said I give you butterflies, remember?"

Emma seemed to draw a blank and then she recalled. Her face then contorted into confusion. "Steve, I was eight and we were in the third grade."

"You loved me even then," he replied.

Emma blinked twice. "I was eight."

"But we knew it was true love. That’s why when we got to high school being each other’s first was so perfect."

Emma’s jaw dropped and she turned to James who was now smirking.

"Get him out of here," she said in a tone that showed she was done with sparing his feelings. She then turned to her former lover.

"Goodbye Stephen. I hope you find someone you can devote yourself to who loves you. Just realize, it’s not me."

"Come on, Pal," Rafe told him as he and James dragged the younger man away while he protested.

Emma ignored the pleas and walked swiftly back to Maureen taking her flowers.

"You okay?" Maureen asked concerned.

"I’m fine," Emma chortled. "Embarrassed beyond belief, but other than that, I’m okay."

Maureen stroked Emma’s arm. "You could always run off with him now you know?"

"Like I said, I’ve got the love of my life right here. I never have to run again."

A few people in the front that heard them gave an ‘aww’ in response.

At the back of the room, once Stephen was out the door, the wedding planner and his staff scuffled with the young man.

"Don’t let this guy back in," Rafe warned the planner as he and James closed the door.

"Go on," James motioned to Rafe to return to his seat. "I’ll hang back here."

Rafe nodded and quickly made his way down the side of the church to return to the front row.

Josh cleared his throat. "Okay, well…Anyone else have a reason why these two ladies shouldn’t be wed? Perhaps an ex of Maureen’s now? Going once, going twice…" After the small chuckle subsided Josh continued. "Let’s get to the vows then…"

Chapter Fifty-Nine

Saturday Afternoon, June 9th, 2029

"We are gathered here in the presence of witnesses for the purpose of uniting in matrimony Maureen Reardon and Emma Spaulding Spencer-Rivera," Josh told the gathering.

"The contract of marriage is most solemn and is not to be entered into lightly, but thoughtfully and seriously with a deep realization of its obligations and responsibilities.

Please remember that love, loyalty and understanding are the foundations of a happy and enduring home. And no other human ties are tenderer and no other vows more important than those you are about to pledge."

He then turned to the two ladies.

"Do you Maureen, take Emma, to be your spouse for life? Do you promise to love and comfort each other, honor and keep each other in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, for better or for worse and be faithful to each other as long as you both shall live? If so, declare it here before God and these witnesses by saying, ‘I do’."

"I do," Maureen said firmly.

"Do you Emma, take Maureen, to be your spouse for life? Do you promise to love and comfort each other, honor and keep each other in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, for better or for worse and be faithful to each other as long as you both shall live? If so, declare it here before God and these witnesses by saying, ‘I do’."

"I do," Emma said just as certainly.

"May we have the rings?" Josh asked.

Clarissa and Jodi handed the rings to their brides as they took their bouquets.

"Maureen," Josh continued, "please repeat after me…I give you this ring…"

"I give you this ring…"

"…in pledge of my constant faith and abiding love."

"…in pledge of my constant faith and abiding love."

"With this ring, I thee wed."

"With this ring, I thee wed," she said as she slipped it on Emma’s finger.

"Emma?" Josh said, "Please repeat after me… I give you this ring…"

"I give you this ring…"

"…in pledge of my constant faith and abiding love."

"…in pledge of my constant faith and abiding love."

"With this ring, I thee wed."

"With this ring, I thee wed," Emma finished as she placed Maureen’s ring.

"Now that you have joined yourselves in matrimony, may you strive all your lives to meet this commitment with the same love and devotion that you now possess," Josh told them.

"By virtue of the authority vested in me by the State of Illinois, I now pronounce you, spouses for life. And finally, Maureen, you can kiss your bride."

The group chuckled and clamped as Maureen lifted Emma’s veil over her head and brought her face to hers gently. She kissed her slowly and with great care.

"I love you," Maureen said after she pulled back.

"I love you too," Emma told her, but then got a mischievous look in her eye. "Now let’s go party."

Maureen smiled.

When the trumpets of Mendelssohn's The Wedding March began, the gathers rose to their feet again and applauded the couple as they made their way to the receiving line.

Chapter Sixty

Saturday Afternoon, June 9th, 2029

The maids-of-honor took the ladies bouquets so they could greet the wedding attendees as they exited.

Matt and his wife Charlotte arrived first to greet the new couple with Bill and Lizzie Lewis following right behind.

Bill leaned down and kissed Maureen on the cheek. "Our mom and Billy's smilin' down on you today, Sweetie. I know they're as proud as we are."

"Thanks, Bill. That means a lot," she replied, her voice cracking slightly.

While Bill was talking to Maureen, Lizzie was offering her congratulations to her half-sister, Emma.

"And you know Granddad hated to miss a party," Lizzie said. "If he could, he'd be here too."

"I know. But I'm glad you could make it," Emma replied.

Bill leaned over and kissed Emma on the forehead. "We wouldn't miss it for the world, Kiddo," he told her. "We'll see you at the reception."

Behind them came Josh and Reva, who got hugs. Following them was Rafe. He kissed Maureen first and then opened his arms to Emma.

"Come here, Munchkin," he told her.

"I'm a married woman now. I'm a bit old for munchkin, don't you think?" she pointed out.

"You'll always be my munchkin; even if you have your own munchkin someday. Speaking of…?"

"No. No baby plans…well, not yet."

"No rush, but I wanna be an uncle again soon," he told her.

Emma giggled. "Then you better ask one of them," she said as she pointed to their sisters.

He leaned over and whispered. "Ava is done and I wouldn't trust the others with a puppy, let alone a baby."

Emma smacked him on the shoulder as he smiled and gave her a kiss.

"I love you, Bean."

"I love you too, Rafe."

As Rafe moved away, Emma looked back to see Natalia standing there, tears streaming down her face as she tried to smile. Seeing her Ma so emotional tugged on Emma's heart.

"You promised you wouldn't cry," Emma whined.

"I said I wouldn't cry BEFORE the wedding, so I'm allowed to cry now," she told her as she chuckled slightly, tears still welled up in her eyes.

They wrapped each other in a tight embrace.

"We love you Em – both of you. You need anything…" Natalia gave up trying to talk, overcome by her emotions.

"I know Ma," she said, her voice full of love and devotion. "I love you too."

Natalia just nodded as she compose herself and she stepped aside slightly to let Olivia move up, but the older woman was hugging Maureen.

"I know you're good to her," Olivia told Maureen, "so I'll ditch the scary mother-in-law speech and just say keep being good to her; keep being good to each other."

"We will," Maureen promised.

Olivia nodded and then turned to Emma, who still had tears in her eyes.

"You know," Emma began, trying to sound carefree as she wiped her cheeks. "There's lots of people that'll come through this line, and I'll tell them, "I'm so glad you could make it." But you, well, having you here today is a blessing from the Lord – one of His gifts I have NOT taken for granted. Mother," she began trying to sound formal. "I am soooo glad you could be here today," she concluded, her conviction evident in every word, although her voice was shaking.

Olivia tried to be carefree too, but she began to tear up like her daughter.

"You know the reason, don't you? I'm still here because Heaven doesn't want me and Hell's afraid I'll take over."

Natalia slapped Olivia's arm playfully while Emma and Maureen chuckled softly.

"Say what you will," Emma replied and then cleared her throat. "But I'm certain God will welcome you into His kingdom someday – just not someday soon, okay?" she added.

"I'll try my best to stick around," Olivia replied as she pulled Emma into a hug. "Love you, Jellybean," she barely managed to croak out before she gave her a kiss on the cheek.

"I love you too, Mom."

Moments later, as more people filed out of the church, Frank worked his way over to Olivia and Natalia, who were talking to James, Daisy and Rafe on the church steps.

"Hello everyone," he greeted them in a gentlemanly fashion. He then turned to Olivia and Natalia. "You don't have to worry about Stephen. I called a black and white to the church as soon as he walked in. They picked him up on a disturbing the peace charge and arrested him a little while ago."

Olivia grinned. "Is that really necessary, Frank?" she asked. "Don't get me wrong - I was ready to strangle the kid myself for interrupting the wedding, but it's not like he's public enemy number one, ya know?"

"Chances are you're right," he replied. "But love makes people do crazy things, and I didn't want Emma, or anyone else here, put in harm's way."

"That's a good idea, Uncle Frank," Daisy replied.

"Yeah," James agreed, "This guy was gone, for what? Almost a decade? He might not be the same guy you guys knew back then."

Frank nodded. "True, but if it turns out that he didn't have any ill intentions; that he's just a love sick kid," he continued, "then we can drop the charges against him if Emma wants. Right now though, it's best he cools off in a cell for awhile. It's Maureen and Emma's night, so no more interruptions."

"At least from Stephen," Rafe commented. "Like Josh said maybe one of Maureen's ex's will be here next."

Frank grinned. "Here's hoping that doesn't happen."

"Thank you for looking out for Emma," Natalia told him sincerely.

He smiled larger. "Always."

Frank's mind flashed back to the interrogation room where he sat across from 17-year-old Emma who was in handcuffs. He slammed his hand down on the table with such force it spilled the small foam cup of water that sat there. The noise and quick motion scared Emma, and she jumped while her eyes grew as large as saucers. She'd never seen Frank quite so mad before.

"Damn it Emma!" he swore. "I'm trying to look out for you! But you gotta talk to me!"

Emma visibly quaked in fear.

Chapter Sixty-One

Monday night, Oct. 31st, 2016

Frank continued to shake his head in disbelieve as a teenage Emma sat across from him in handcuffs in the interrogation room. He stood up and began to pace.

"Two weeks ago, it was shoplifting," he began, "Tonight, it's malicious mischief and destruction of property." Frank began to shake his head again. "What's going on with you, Em?"

Emma shrugged and said nothing.

"Are you having problems in school? Is someone bothering you?"

Once more, Emma said nothing.

"Are you having problems at home?"

"You'd like that, wouldn’t you?" Emma snorted sarcastically. "Let's face it. You always hated the thought of my mom being with Natalia."

Frank’s jaw slipped slightly, but the comment didn’t rattle him. "And the disrespectful attitude? What’s that about?"

Again, Emma said nothing.

"Emma," he tried again, "I’m concerned about what you've been doing. These people you’ve been hanging out with lately…" He sighed. "Tell me what happened to Jodi? You two were like peas and carrots, and now I always see you with this Annie girl."

Emma sat mute.

Frank cleared his throat. "Have your moms met Annie? Do they like her?"

"Are you saying my friends are a bad influence, McGruff?"

Frank’s jaw tightened. "I’m saying every time I see you now you’re in one jail cell and Annie’s in another. You keep this up and you’ll end up in juvie hall or perhaps prison." Emma was taking an unusual interest in her fingernails as a means to avoid eye contact with him. "I noticed you only say something when I mention home or the people who live there. Something is going on, isn’t it?"

Emma turned her head sideways, but didn’t speak.

"Why are you spray painting houses when you should be out trick or treating with your baby sisters?"

Yet again, Emma said nothing.

"Don’t you love them anymore?"

That got Emma’s attention and she turned and looked Frank dead in the eyes.

"Fuck you, Frank."

"Wooah," he chuckled. "That got you talking. We’ll let me ask you this-."

"Fuck you," Emma repeated. "I don’t have to answer a damn thing without my lawyer here, and I am entitled to a phone call, am I not?"

"You don’t have to answer me, but there’s nothing that says I can’t talk. I can talk and talk and talk."

"Believe me, I know," Emma said. "Do I get my phone call or not?"

"Who you gonna call? Your mom? Your Ma? Maybe Daddy? Who do you think is gonna bail your ass out, huh?"

"It’s none of your business who I call."

"Tell me this," Frank insisted. "Why were you spray painting the house of your classmate? Just tell me that." Emma still said nothing. "We know you did it. Annie’s already said it was your idea."

"What!?!"

"Yeah, I just wanna know why?"

"It wasn’t me, okay? I just drove. I don’t even have paint on my hands."

"Of course you don’t. You wore gloves according to Annie. But this sounds just like last time. You drove to the mall, and she just happened to slip that necklace into your purse without your knowledge."

"I was telling the truth!"

"Bullshit! You stole that necklace; you painted that house, but you don’t want to face up to it!"

"It wasn’t me! It was her!"

"That’s some friend you’ve got. She keeps ratting out your bad behavior. Is it because you’re a Spaulding that you do this? Do you think you’re above the law? Because let’s face it, Spaulding’s never get convicted, do they?"

"That’s not true."

Frank lowered his voice. "And your ma…Oh, boy. She’s got another kid she’s raised who’s heading on the way to another criminal record. Think about how awful she must feel right now. What a terrible mother she’ll think she’s been?"

Emma began to tear up, but Frank didn’t stop.

"Are you really going to call her to tell her you’re here at the station? Or are you going to call your mom so she can bail you out? Maybe it’ll be another little mother daughter secret like last time. How many lies do you expect your mom to keep from your ma, huh?"

"Did you just call my mom a liar, Frank?"

"She covered your ass last time, didn’t she? And how did you repay her for giving you a second chance? Less than a month and you’re in jail again."

Emma wiped away the tears and cleared her throat.

"I want my phone call now, please."

Frank stared at her a few moments longer. Then he nodded. "I’ll be right back."

He got up and left the interrogation room. When he got outside he took a deep breath and ran his fingers through his hair. Remy, who was now a detective, could see his distress and waved him over.

"Emma again?" he asked.

He nodded. "I tried to make her think Annie squealed on her. I know Emma’s not doing these things. I know it. But if she keeps up with the wrong crowd, Remy..."

"I know. These kids do some felony stuff and there’s no escape for her then."

"I wish I could keep her here. Let her experience life in an eight-by-eight cell for a little while. Maybe get her a ‘cellmate’ that’ll scare the ever lovin’ piss outta her, ya know?"

Remy grinned deviously. "Ya know…?"

"What?" Frank grinned.

"Christina knows someone who’s between jobs right now, but she does Community Theater. I’m sure for a small fee she’d be great as Emma’s ‘cellmate’ for a night or two."

Frank smiled wider and then got a discouraged look. "I’d need her dad and moms to agree to it, especially Natalia…she’s…she’s a great mom, but…"

"She’s a push over," Remy chuckled.

"Thank you." Frank remarked. "Yes, she is. A few sobs from Emma and she'll be running here."

"Let me call Christina and make the arrangement. You call the gals and Phillip to tell them what we’ve got cooking, okay?"

Frank patted him on the arm, "Thanks Remy."

"You know it’s our asses if we get caught?" Remy whispered.

"I know, but I think in this case we might get the backing from the mayor."

Several minutes later, Frank returned to see Remy hanging up the phone. He gave him a thumbs-up sign.

"She’ll be here at 11 PM," he said happily.

Frank nodded and walked back into the room. "Emma? Come with me and you can make your phone call." She got up and moved toward the door. "Have you decided who you’ll disappoint?" he jabbed.

"It’s none of your business, Frank," Emma said.

As she took the seat, he picked up the receiver and then pressed the number 9. "Here you go."

He walked over to Remy’s desk to give her some privacy as she dialed. She took a deep breath and swallowed.

"Hey Peanut, It’s Em; not your daddy," she said. "Can you-?" She paused as Francesca chatted on the other end. "I told you I had plans tonight, and I couldn’t take you out…That’s good. Look Chessie, I need you to get Ma, okay?" she said as her voice cracked. "Yeah, I know I sound funny, but I’m okay. Just get Ma, alright?"

From his angle, Frank couldn’t see Emma’s face, but he knew what she was doing. While still handcuffed, she was trying to wipe away her tears while balancing the phone at the same time.

"Ma? It’s Em. I’m, uh, I’m at the police station…No, I’m not hurt. I, uh, I need your help. I got arrested tonight…" Emma hung her head, and Frank looked down for a moment himself feeling both their pain. "No, Ma. It’s a mistake, okay?" Emma then started to ramble. "Annie and I were going to go to the party, but then she wanted to stop by the hardware store. So I stopped and she got spray paint and said she wanted to talk to Sammie Goldman, but it turns out, she didn’t want to talk. She started to spray paint her house, and then the cops came and…No, Ma, I didn’t-…So what am I supposed to do? Stay here?…You can’t do this?!…Wait! Ma!"

Emma then pulled the receiver away from her ear and looked at it. Frank took it as his cue that Natalia played along and did exactly as instructed. She hung up on her daughter and shattered Emma’s world.

Chapter Sixty-Two

Monday night, Oct. 31st, 2016

Frank sat in the security room and watched Emma pace in her cell. He let out a heavy sigh and then picked up the phone and dialed.

"Hey, Sweetie…Actually, that’s why I’m calling. I’m, uh, working late tonight. I won’t be home until morning…No, it’s actually pretty slow now, but, uh, the child of a friend, well, they got picked up tonight, so I’m going to hang out here." Frank paused and then gave a snort. "Yeah, trying to instill a little fear you could say. If you need me, you can call here or my cell…Thanks, Sweetheart…I love you too, Blake. I’ll see you in the morning."

Remy poked his head in. "She’s here. I gave her the low-down, and I’m having one of the uniforms put her in the cell so it doesn’t look suspicious to Emma."

"Good thinking," Frank told him.

"Why don’t you head home, Frank?" Remy offered.

"I’m not leaving her. I’m sure Christina’s friend is on the up and up, but I couldn’t live with myself if she harmed Emma. Please don’t be offended. It’s not that I don’t trust this woman or Christina, I just..."

"I get it and no offense taken," Remy replied. "You want me to pull up a chair and join you."

"Nah, go home. You’ve already helped a lot. I’ll just keep the coffee coming - I’ll be okay. But if you could stand watch tomorrow morning, so I can get some sleep that’d be great."

Remy nodded as the door to the surveillance room opened and a uniformed officer entered with Olivia and Natalia, who were apparently still in an argument.

"I can’t believe you kept this from me," Natalia said.

"I can’t believe she did it again," Olivia replied.

"And you," Natalia pointed at Frank. "You knew about the shoplifting, and you said nothing to me."

"Olivia and Emma asked that I keep it between us, and I did," he answered. "Emma also promised she’d keep her nose clean and, well, here we are."

Natalia looked over and noticed Remy standing there. "I’m sorry. How are you?" she asked.

He put his arm around her and gave a squeeze. "Doing better than you at the moment," he said sympathetically. "Who’s with the girls?"

"Jane’s there," Olivia offered.

Remy nodded. "Well, hopefully this will end up being the wake-up call Emma needs."

Olivia looked over at the monitor. "She’s in there, huh? Who’s the other woman?"

"That’s Christina’s actress friend," Remy explained. "She’s gonna give Emma a little taste of what the big house is like."

Natalia looked concerned. "Frank, no. You can’t do this. I thought you were just going to let her stew. You didn’t mention anything-."

"Really?" Olivia grinned wickedly after cutting off her wife. "You went all out guys," she said proudly.

"This is not funny," Natalia replied.

"No, it’s incredibly devious and necessary," Olivia remarked. "Whose idea was this?"

Frank and Remy both motioned back and forth. "It was a duo effort," Remy finally said.

"If this was Francesca-" Natalia began.

"I’d do the same thing," Frank said firmly. "Why do you think I’m doing this now? Emma needs to be someone who Chessie looks up to as a role model. And for many years, she has. Emma’s a little off track now, but I think together we can get her on the right path."

"You’re not her father!" Natalia countered.

"No, but she’s my daughter’s sister! And I’ll be damned if I stand by and watch Emma trash her life before it really starts!"

"Get her out now, Frank!" Natalia warned.

"No," Olivia countered, finally speaking up. "Leave her in there."

Natalia’s head shot toward Olivia, who watched the screen.

"What is this? Payback?" Natalia asked as her hands moved to her hips. "You’re mad that she lied to you about staying out of trouble, so she has to stay in there. But it’s okay for you to lie to me about her shoplifting? That’s a great example to set for our daughter. No wonder she’s back here again."

"I didn’t lie about her shoplifting. I just didn’t tell you."

"And what else might be going on that you aren’t you telling me, huh?" Natalia said accusatorial.

"Nothing," Olivia said through gritted teeth. "There’s nothing you don’t know. My life has been an open fucking book."

"Except for Emma’s arrest record apparently."

"In their defense," Frank piped in. "The charges did get dropped."

Olivia waved toward Frank in a ‘See?’ like fashion, but Natalia shut him down.

"You stay out of this," she pointed a finger at him. "And you," she said turning to Olivia, "how am I supposed to believe you, huh?"

Olivia cleared her throat. She didn’t look his way. She kept her eyes focused on Natalia the entire time.

"Frank, do you mind if I have a private word with my wife?"

"Not at all," he said as he motioned Remy to follow him.

Once the door was closed, Natalia looked ready for battle. Instead of a hardened look from her wife, she watched as Olivia collapsed into tears and fell into the chair behind her. It was a reaction Natalia wasn’t expecting at all.

"Olivia?" she asked as she crept closer.

"I screwed up. Not just the shoplifting thing…everything. We…we stopped talking…stopped caring and then…Maria and…God, it’s been months since the girls got along – since Marina’s funeral. And Emma…. she’s on the way to being a juvie hall bitch, and all of this has become just one more wall you’ll use to hide behind so you don’t have to let me in. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t Natalia…I think we seriously need to think about divorce…for everyone’s sake."

Chapter Sixty-Three

Monday night, Oct. 31st, 2016

Natalia couldn't believe what she just heard.

"You-you…you want a divorce?"

"No," Olivia replied. "I don't WANT one, but I think you NEED one. I've hurt you and the kids so much that maybe it's better if you...find someone else."

"But the counseling's been going well, hasn't it?" Natalia's voice sounded small; scared.

Olivia reached over and took her hands.

"Yes. I've learned things about myself; about us and I know how I feel about you - I love you more than life. But it seems like everything I do ends up hurting you. Like Emma - I didn't say anything because…honestly, why get you upset? I believed Emma would straighten up, so why worry you after everything you went through with Rafe? She's…She's Emma, ya know? She's a good kid."

Natalia simply nodded her head in agreement, wearing a slight grin, but then she looked sad again as she thought of the reality right now.

"And look at us," Olivia continued, "you've finally started to trust me again, enough to make love and…this happens…and I'm now a liar again in your eyes…You can't live with someone you'll always doubt; someone where...when one little incident happens it starts a...fear spiral...Yes, I've sinned. I own up to that, everyDAY I own up to that. But I'm not going to spend the rest of my life being a punching bag either. At the first sign of trouble I shouldn't be duck and covering…But it really comes down to just two things - one, you are a wonderful woman Natalia, and two, you deserve better than a life of fear."

"You're right. I do deserve better," Natalia answered. "But I deserve better from you. You'll fight for a lower yearly floral quote for the Beacon, but you won't fight for this? Is that what I'm hearing?"

"Love shouldn't be a fight."

"Yes, Olivia, sometimes it is. It's hard and it's rough and it hurts from time to time, but the reward can be so great. At other times, love's like a tug of war, both sides pulling until someone comes over to the other side. But you know what? If you're just going to drop the rope, then fine. I can't convince you to stay if you want to leave."

"I don't want to leave."

"Then don't say you think divorce is an option. That is totally off the table." Natalia's eyes filled with tears. "Like I told you in Dr. Midler's office. I broke promises here too. I also have regrets. I promised you, and I promised God, I'd never take you for granted, and I did. I assumed saying I loved you was enough, but I was wrong. You need more and the truth is, so do I. But I don't want to run away now, and I don't want to give up. We need to make this work. WE CAN make this work. We have to... for their sakes," she said pointing at the screen where Emma was now cowering in the corner away from the 'actress' who loomed over her.

The sound of Emma's yelling got both their attention, and they turned to see Emma running to the bars, screaming for the guard.

"She looks scared to death," Natalia said sadly.

"Good," Olivia said putting her hand on Natalia's shoulder. "Do you want her scared for one night or scared for weeks or months or even years in prison if she keeps going down this path?"

"I don't want her to go through what Rafe did," Natalia replied.

"Neither do I, so let's let Frank do his thing. He won't let anything bad happen to her."

"How can you be so sure?" Natalia asked.

"That's Francesca's sister down there. He recognizes that."

Natalia took a deep breath and turned away. "I can't watch this."

"Then go home. Let Jane stay in case you need her, but you go home. Frank and I'll watch her. Get some sleep."

"How can I sleep knowing you want a divorce?"

Olivia turned Natalia away from the monitors, so they stood face-to-face. "I don't want a divorce. I just want to get us back on track?" Olivia held up a finger. "No, I didn't like the track we were on. I want… more. I want what we once had, years ago when it was just the three of us verses the world. Remember? Remember how ... solid and ... affectionate we were?" Natalia nodded. "I want THAT back…. Do you?"

"Yes, I told you-."

"Then starting here, starting RIGHT now, we leave the ugly past in the past. I'll forgive and forget every time I came to you and got the cold shoulder. You forgive and forget I ran to someone else for validation. If we're going to get beyond this we have to - start from scratch, there's no other way. We'll keep up with the counseling and ask Dr. Midler for tips or exercises that'll help us put the pain behind us because I think it has been doing us good so far. But there is one rule though that we need to have right now if we've got any chance of rebuilding."

"What?"

"Please don't assume I'm lying about everything because of what's happened here. I won't lie to you ever again. And I'm not a fool - I know my word doesn't mean much to you now - but you do have my word."

"Will you promise me that in addition to being truthful, you'll tell me everything, even if you think it might upset me?"

"No," Olivia replied. Natalia looked surprised. "I'm being honest."

"Olivia," Natalia sighed.

"Hear me out, okay?" When Natalia didn't argue she continued. "I might have secrets between our daughters and son - things that are just between us. You might have secrets with them too someday. Secrets can make relationships special because it's something only the two of you share to the exclusion of the rest of the world. It pulls you closer. I will say this – when it comes to big things, important things like this, then yes, I'll tell you. And if it deals with the kids, then I'll let them know they can't hide behind me, or try to divide and conquer us. Agreed?"

Olivia stuck out her hand, and Natalia pushed it away. Olivia looked concerned, but her fears were laid to rest when Natalia instead took her face in her hands and pulled her down for a searing kiss. When she pulled away, Olivia was breathless and speechless.

"You said in counseling you need affirmation," Natalia explained, suddenly feeling nervous. "You know, you want to know that I find you attractive, and-and you missed me being…spontaneous. You- you looked very sexy just now, all confident and…game plan-ish…" Olivia had a growing grin as Natalia paused for a beat. "That was incredibly awkward, wasn't it?" she asked self-consciously.

Olivia cupped Natalia's cheek. "Yes, but you're trying. It's a bit like having a dance partner you haven't practiced with for awhile. Ya know?"

"No."

"Well, at first you might fumble a bit; step on each other's toes, but once you get back into the swing of things and back in step..." With that, Olivia brought her lips closer to Natalia's face. She paused to see if her wife would offer any resistance. Facing none, Olivia leaned in closer and gave Natalia a gentle kiss. When Olivia pulled back slowly Natalia's eyes were still closed, soaking up the stroking her fingertips were bestowing to her cheek. As Natalia opened her eyes she had a growing grin on her face. "Sweetheart," Olivia concluded, "you can have me anytime or anyplace you want …ever."

"You mean it?"

"Absolutely. That's my pledge to you," Olivia replied. "But for right now though, I think we BOTH should go home and go to sleep. Frank won't let anything genuinely bad happen to her. Then, tomorrow morning, we figure out TOGETHER what we'll do. We'll come here and talk to Emma as a united front, okay?"

Natalia considered it a moment and then nodded.

Back in the cellblock, Emma was yelling at the guard.

"You need to get me out of here," she told him. "This woman's saying things and I-I don't like it."

"What's she saying?"

"Stuff about me having a 'pretty mouth,' okay?!"

"Are you bothering this young lady?" the guard asked, fully aware of the situation transpiring.

"She's nuts," the woman replied. "Kid's probably on drugs and wiggin' out."

"Look," Emma said, "there's an empty cell right there. Just take me to that one."

"That's for men. This is for ladies. Sorry."

"There's nobody here right now."

"Sorry, that's the rules. If you don't want to be here maybe you shouldn't be breaking the law, Kid."

He started to walk away.

"Hey, I know my rights," Emma yelled. "I can call my attorney. I want to call my attorney."

He harrumphed. "You? You've got an attorney?"

"Yeah, let me out of here."

"Oh, please," he said sarcastically. "Who's your attorney?"

Emma smirked. "Doris Wolfe."

Chapter Sixty-Four

Monday night, Oct. 31st, 2016

The guard held up a hand. "Just stay put for now."

He walked out to see Frank talking to Olivia and Natalia, unseen by Emma who was in the other room.

"Sir, she’s asking to call her attorney, Doris Wolfe."

"That little snot," Olivia snorted and turned to Natalia. "Mom and Ma say ‘no,’ so she runs to ‘Aunty D.’ I swear that child…"

"You gotta give her props," Frank breathed out. "She’s pulling out all the stops."

"Get me the phone," Natalia sighed as she walked to a nearby desk. The guard followed and prepped the phone before handing it to her. She dialed and then waited. "Hey Doris, it’s Natalia…Oh, no-no! Liv’s fine! I’m sorry to call this late and worry you. I shoulda had Liv call… Yeah, I’m sorry. The reason I’m calling… it’s Emma. She’s okay, well, except for the fact she’s in jail."

Doris’s response of "What?!" was so loud that Olivia, Frank and the guard who were standing nearby could hear her.

Several minutes later, Natalia and Olivia went back to the observation room. They watched as Emma took the phone and dialed Doris’s number.

Emma looked over at the guard in the corner as she waited for the phone to ring.

"Hello?" Doris answered with a faux-sleepy voice.

"Aunt Doris? It’s Emma."

"Emma?" she said, acting alarm and suddenly awake. "What’s wrong? Where’re your moms?"

"They’re at home and I’m at the police station. I, uh, I need some legal help."

"Legal help?"

"I kinda got a little arrested tonight."

"Either you are or you aren’t."

"Okay," Emma sighed. "I am."

"Why didn’t you call your mom?"

"I used my call and talked to Ma, but…look, I really need someone to help me right now. There’s a woman in the cell with me tonight and…I’m really scared, okay? Will you help me?" Emma whimpered. "Please, I need someone to help me." For a long moment there was dead silence on the line. "Doris? Are you-?"

"I’m still here," she replied. There was another silence between them until Doris cleared her throat. "Fine. I’ll come down, but put the guard on the phone first. I’m going to have him put you in an interrogation room until I get there."

"Oh, thankyou-thankyou-thankyou," Emma repeated quickly and smiled from ear to ear.

"I’m not bailing you out," Doris told her firmly.

"What?"

"Your moms left you there for a reason. But I’m coming down because I DO want to have a few words with you. In fact, you might end up begging to see your current cellmate by the time I’m done. Now put the guard on the phone."

Natalia and Olivia watched the monitor to see Emma’s joyous expression vanish as quickly as it came as she held the phone up for the guard to take. They watched with hopeful apprehension - if Frank couldn’t reach her, then perhaps Doris could.

Chapter Sixty-Five

Early Tuesday Morning, Nov. 1st, 2016

Doris arrived just after midnight wearing sweats.

"Well, Doris, you’re looking quite…fashionable," Frank remarked with a grin as she approach him, Natalia and Olivia.

"Can the remarks, Cooper." She then turned to the couple. "What did she do now?"

Natalia looked at Olivia. "She knew, but I didn’t?" Olivia began to rub the back of her neck to ease the growing tension. "Forget it," she added abruptly. "Past in the past and all that jazz." She then turned to Doris and sincerely said, "I’m sorry you got dragged into this."

Doris just waved her off as if to say ‘don’t worry’ before she turned to Frank. "Which one?" she asked as she motioned to the interrogation rooms.

"Three," he replied.

She nodded and turned to Olivia and Natalia. "You two head home, we got this. Come get her tomorrow like you planned."

"Doris-," Olivia tried to say.

"Honestly, she wants a little lawyerly advice she’s going to get it, and then some."

"You can’t beat her, Doris," Olivia replied. "At this point, it’s not like I’m opposed – I just don’t think it’d do any good."

"Oh please, I’m more of a lover than a fighter." Doris paused. "Actually I’m more of a lover AND a fighter."

"And my dad has the claw marks to prove it."

"The mayoral election was a loooong time ago, Frank. Buzz has moved on. You should too."

"Did you think maybe the only reason you won is because you were in cahoots with the Spauldings?"

"And here I am, yet again, with another Spaulding, right?" She then motioned toward the examination area where Emma waited. "You know, Frank. Before you start passing judgment on heritages, take a look at your own daughter. She’s related to a Spaulding now too. That’s her sister down there."

"Emma’s not like the others," Frank defended.

"Of course not, which is why I agreed to go along with this." She turned to Olivia and Natalia. "And it’s why you two need to go. Get some sleep and come here tomorrow afternoon, no sooner than three."

"Three?" Olivia and Natalia both said and then immediately lowered their voices.

Doris nodded. "She needs to try at least two jail meals to realize how much she’ll miss her Mom and Ma’s cooking."

Frank snorted. "You know I always complained you were devious but somehow tonight it’s become one of your most wonderful traits."

Doris grinned proudly but then turned to Olivia and Natalia. "I mean it. Go home." She snatched the folder out of Frank’s hand. "I’ll meet you guys at Company for lunch at noon – your treat. Consider it a retainer fee."

Olivia grinned. "Thank you Doris."

"Don’t thank me yet," she replied. "Let’s see what happens first."

With that, Doris squared her shoulders and plastered on a scowl. With her game face on, she walked down the hall and briskly entered Interrogation Room Three and slammed the door behind her.

Chapter Sixty-Six

Tuesday Early Morning, Nov. 1st, 2016

Doris dropped the file on the table, and it made Emma jump slightly. The lawyer then motioned to her state of dress.

"Look at me, Em," she told Emma as she waved her hand up and down. "It’s freakin’ midnight. What am I doing here at the police station when I should be sleeping?"

Emma paused and then grinned slightly. "Helping your favorite niece?"

"You are far from my favorite right now," Doris said jabbing a finger at her before taking a seat across from here. "I can’t believe you did this to your Mom – you promised her, Emma."

"It wasn’t my fault."

"Then whose was it?"

"Annie, she-."

"Dump this Annie person. Now."

"She’s not a bad person. She just needs –."

Doris opened the file as she cut Emma off. "Yeah, this month it’s shoplifting, destruction of property. She’s a regular saint." Doris held up a finger as she read to silence Emma, who looked like she was going to say something. "And according to this, she’s already done time in juvie for assault." Doris looked up and put Emma between the cross hairs, pinning her with her eyes. "What the fuck, Emma?"

The vulgarity caught Emma off guard. She opened her mouth and closed it unsure of what to say. Doris, however, didn’t add more. She let Emma squirm under her gaze.

"I think Annie would stop this stuff if she had a friend who believed in her."

"And you’re gonna be that friend? Before or after she does something much worse, and you get sent to prison? Should we call Rafe and ask him what he thinks?"

"No," Emma said immediately. "That’s not going to happen to me."

"Did you steal a crystal ball recently to learn that?"

"I’m not a thief."

"That’s not what your mother said. Actually, I take that back. Your mother did say you weren’t a thief. She believed in you. And this is how you pay back that loyalty – by getting arrest again." Doris released a heavy sigh.

"It won’t happen again, Doris. I swear. Just get me out of here. And I’ll –."

"No."

Emma blinked. "Are you really going to make me stay here?"

"Yes."

"Why?!"

"If you can’t handle a night, then how are you going to handle a lifetime?"

"I told you I’m not going to get into trouble again."

"Why are you hanging out with this girl anyway?"

"She needs me."

"There are two other girls who need you now more than ever. Why aren’t you at home with your sisters? It hasn’t been six months since they lost Marina. They need an older female figure to look up to right now and for some reason you’re out 'n about with public enemy number one because..." Doris let the sentence hang. When the teen didn’t say anything Doris added, "Why Emma?"

She looked away. "You wouldn’t understand."

"Try me."

Emma fell silent again and didn’t look at Doris. Finally, she said, "Annie doesn’t have anyone to look out for her."

"Did you think maybe there’s a reason why? That perhaps she burned all her bridges, like you’re doing now?"

"I’m not burning any bridges now. I’m just –."

"I’ve seen your Mom pissed while she defended your Ma’s honor. I’ve seen her scared out of her mind, when she thought you went missing, and I’ve even seen her heartbroken when she thought the love of her life was gone forever. But I never heard her like I did tonight when I called..." Emma finally looked over at Doris when the older woman stopped talking. "Crushed… You crushed her Emma."

"She doesn’t even notice I’m there," the young woman muttered.

"What?" Doris asked, not catching what she said.

"It doesn’t matter, okay?"

"You don’t care that your mother is crushed?"

"I do, but what ‘I’ think doesn’t matter. Look, Auntie D, I’m not asking for the world here. I know I messed up. I just want…safety. I think that woman in my cell will…" Emma began to cry and hung her head. "I asked the guard to move me to another cell, and he wouldn’t. I…" Emma put her head down on the table and sobbed.

Doris closed her eyes and against her better judgment, she reached over and stroked Emma’s hair.

"Bean," she said softly, "You want my legal advice?"

Emma sniffed and nodded her head, although it never left the table.

Doris cleared her throat. "I’m saying this as your attorney, nothing more. You keep doing this crazy stuff, and this is how your life will be 24/7. You gotta realize some folks, as much as you want to help them, they need to change themselves. You can’t change them. If you want to be Annie’s friend, fine. But keep it at school; don’t see her after hours. Okay?"

Emma raised her head and Doris reached over to the tissue box and handed her one. She blew her nose and wiped her eyes as Doris opened the door and motioned for the guard.

When the guard arrived, she told him, "I want this girl moved to the cell next to the woman she’s currently with."

"Ma’am, that’s the male cell and I –."

"You will move her," Doris threatened. "Or I will have you removed. Understand?"

"Yes, ma’am."

"Thank you Aunt Doris," Emma replied.

"Here’s where I’d say, ‘Don’t do it again,’ but really Emma. At this point, your word doesn’t mean shit to me. If you’ll lie to your Mom, I know you’ll lie to me."

"What can I do then?"

"Start by staying out of trouble once you are out of here. I’ll see you at the arraignment."

With that, Doris walked out leaving Emma alone to think.

Chapter Sixty-Seven

Tuesday Afternoon, Nov. 1st, 2016

Doris was sitting in the large corner booth at Company when Olivia and Natalia entered walking hand-in-hand. Buzz was refilling her iced tea glass when he turned to see the pair enter.

"Hey ladies," he greeted as he moved aside for them to slide into the bench-seat. "I hear it was a long night." Natalia nodded sadly and he put a hand on her shoulder before she took her place next to Doris. "Emma will come around – you’ll see," he said optimistically. "Look at Frank. He’s the Chief of Police who used to chop cars. If you live in Springfield you gotta have some blemish to be a true resident." He turned to Olivia. "We got your favorite today - tuna noodle casserole," he offered cheerfully.

Olivia grinned. "Hit me."

Buzz nodded and turned to Natalia. "Buzz Burger, extra onions and fries?"

"Thank you, but let’s go cottage cheese instead." Buzz looked surprised. "I bug Olivia about her diet," Natalia explained, "so it’s only fair I wean myself to better foods - I'm not getting any younger."

"Are you knocking my cooking?" he said in a faux-threatening tone.

"No," Olivia piped up. "She’s saying I used to eat here all the time, and I ended up with a bad heart," she added teasingly.

He waved a finger. "You’re lucky I like you, or I wouldn’t let you in here."

Olivia reached out and gave the finger a squeeze, and Buzz smiled. A second later Frank entered the restaurant, yawning.

"Coffee?" Buzz asked him as he started to the kitchen.

"Thanks, Pop," he said as he took a seat next to Doris at the end of the booth.

"I’m surprised you’re here," Olivia told Frank. "I figured you’d be sleeping."

"Just woke up," Frank replied. "Remy came in early this morning around five to take over."

"That was good of him," Natalia said.

"Yeah, it was. So I got a few hours in already."

"So everything went okay last night?" she asked.

"Yeah," Frank replied. "We separated Emma and the actress, thanks to big-hearted, Doris, here."

"Bean was genuinely scared," Doris replied. "And if you tell ANYONE that I’m a softie, I swear Cooper-."

He held up a hand. "Your secret is safe with me." Buzz returned with Frank’s coffee. "Thanks, Pop."

"You hungry, Frankie?"

"No, caffeine is fine for now, thanks, Dad." Buzz simply nodded and returned to the kitchen as Frank turned to the three women at the table. "Even though she was in a different cell, the actress did keep the taunts up all night, so don’t be surprised if Em’s very sleepy today."

Natalia hung her head and closed her eyes.

"Don’t feel bad," Olivia said as she reached over and ran her hand over her head, stroking her hair. "Emma needs this right now."

"I know," Natalia agreed. "But it still hurts."

Olivia turned to Doris. "So did she tell you why she’s doing this stuff?"

"She mumbled something I thought was interesting…" Doris looked to the ceiling and paused as if trying to remember. "Let me make sure I say this right…You don’t care about-wait, no… you don’t notice she’s there," she added with great certainty.

"We don’t notice her?" Olivia replied. "What does that mean?"

Doris shrugged. "She wouldn’t elaborate. When I asked for clarification, she brushed me off and just said that her opinion about anything doesn’t matter. She’s feeling pretty isolated, for some reason. I know you’ve been busy with the new European franchise in Paris. Maybe Emma’s thinking you’re distracted by work and don’t care."

"Rafe is handling most of that now," Olivia answered.

"Well," Doris looked reluctant to say the next words with Frank there, but… "Maybe Emma is taking Marina’s death harder than anyone realized. I know the younger girls are still having some issues. And although Emma didn’t spend as much time as El and Chess, Marina's been a part of her life too for the last decade."

Olivia took a deep breath because she knew the truth. It wasn’t about the Beacon expansion. It wasn’t about Marina.

"It’s me…I…" Olivia started.

"No," Natalia replied. "It’s both of us. We’ve been, preoccupied, with lots of things lately. Emma’s always been so adult, you know?" The table nodded. "But she is still a kid, and she does need support; guidance, now and then." Natalia turned to Olivia. "We’ll talk to her today. Get some stuff cleared up?"

"Absolutely." Olivia replied. She reached down and squeezed Natalia's hand. "Absolutely," she added again in a firm voice.

Chapter Sixty-Eight

Tuesday Afternoon, Nov. 1st, 2016

Natalia and Olivia sat side-by-side as Remy escorted Emma to the visitation room. Wordless, he motioned for Emma to take a seat across from her parents. Upon taking her seat, Emma didn’t look at either mother. Olivia and Natalia looked at each other.

"Emma?" Olivia began. The young woman still didn’t move. "Em? Look at us." Finally, Emma lifted her head and made eye contact. "We talked to Aunt Doris today. She’ll get the D.A. to drop the case if you cooperate with the state on the vandalism charge against Annie. She said you didn’t know what was happening. She’s not sure she buys that excuse, but-."

"It’s true," Emma said, finally speaking. "I didn’t know what Annie was going to do until it was too late."

"Why’d you run then?" Natalia asked.

Emma looked away and didn’t answer.

"Your Ma asked you a question," Olivia pushed.

Emma’s head shot up to meet Olivia. "My MA left me here all night with a psycho," she spat.

"I happened to agree with the decision of letting you stew for awhile," Olivia countered growing angry herself. "Look at you. You’re stealing crap you could easily afford. And then you’re helping someone spray paint someone else’s house after you promised me you’d behave. You want our attention? Is that what this is all about? Well guess what, little lady, you got it! What’s your problem?"

"You!" she pointed and stood up from the table, starting to pace. "Both of you, you’re like…angry shadows!"

Emma wrapped her arms around herself as Olivia and Natalia looked at each other again.

"What does that mean?" Natalia asked in an even voice.

"Don’t play dumb. You know damn well what it means, Ma," Emma countered.

"Emma!" Olivia reprimanded her for the vulgarity, but that didn’t stop the teenager.

"You treat Mom like it’s an inconvenience to have her around," Emma told her. "And you!" she said pointing her finger at Olivia. "When you took the girls out trick or treating you should have been a ghost last night. Know why? Because even when you’re here, you’re not really HERE. Your mind is somewhere else. You don’t want to be with any of us." Emma barked out a melancholy laugh. "And honestly, who could blame you - two girls who fight all the time; a wife who scowls at you every chance she gets and then…me. Like I said…why should you care?"

"Emma," Natalia began.

"And don’t say that’s not true!" Emma said waving a finger at Natalia. "You know it’s the truth."

"Emma," Natalia tried again.

"It wasn’t always this way," Emma interrupted her again. Her voice was low and she sounded lost in her own inner ramblings she was vocalizing. It was almost as if she wasn't part of the conversation. "You loved walking into that house each night…Ma always had a smile for you…My sisters would each grab a leg…You’d always compliment the food I’d help Ma make for dinner." Emma smiled slightly at the memory and then shook it off. She took a seat again as she continued. "But these last couple of months…no." She shook her head. "The truth is these last couple of years things changed." Emma cleared her throat. "Lately…Ma stopped smiling altogether. You looked more tired than energized when you come home; probably, because the girls are fighting and me, well, my hair could be on fire and no one in that house would notice. So go on…tell me I’m all wrong. Tell me I’m crazy."

Olivia and Natalia spared a glance at each other. "No, you’re right," Olivia began, "Well, except for the hair on fire thing. THAT we WOULD notice." Everyone grinned slightly for the moment. "But your point is taken. In fact…" Olivia trailed off and looked over at Natalia.

"Your mom and I talked last night, and this morning, and this afternoon."

"And?" Emma prompted.

"Truth is, Emma, she and I have been seeing a marriage counselor. We didn’t say anything to any of you because we wanted to try to fix things on our own and to…shield you from the problems we’ve been having."

"Ma? News flash? It’s not working."

"Obviously," Natalia replied dryly. She and Emma shared a slight grin before she looked serious. "But the problems that your mother and I have... it's not about you."

"She’s right, Bean," Olivia chimed in. "This is not about you or the girls at all. And you’re right that this…trouble…well, it didn’t happen overnight. This drifting apart has been years in the making. And although I hate to see you doing this stuff, and we never want you to do it again, well…you actions have done it again Bean."

"Done what?"

"You're our love glue," Olivia replied, making Natalia snort. "Seriously, without your ‘two mommies’ report you might not have another two sisters right now. You brought us together way back then and…you’ve brought us together now."

"Right," Natalia answered. "Your mom and I…we realize that we had to start trusting each other with our emotions and stop shutting the other out. We had to be, well, a united front here with you. We…we had to step up and be parents to you, but more than that, we had to make a home we'd all be happy to be a part of again."

"I’m not a little kid, you know?" Emma countered.

"No, but you’ll always be our daughter," Olivia answered as Natalia nodded in agreement. "Heck, you’ll be 95 and we’ll be dead and buried, but you’ll still be our daughter, so get used to it."

Emma grinned slightly. "So what does all this mean?"

"It means we’re a family," Natalia replied. "Your mom and I both recognize that so things are gonna change. You’ll see."

Olivia reached over and took Natalia’s hand, and she willingly accepted it with a smile. "It’s going to be the home you recognize. I swear," Olivia promised.

Seeing the look on both her parent’s faces, and their physical proximity to each other was something she hadn’t seen in sometime. She smiled.

Over a decade later, Emma stood on the church steps with Maureen after greeting all the attendees. She looked down and saw her Ma smiling up at her with her Mom’s arms wrapped around her from behind. Her mom’s cheek rested comfortably on her Ma’s shoulder. She knew with enough care and attention, she could have that same thing with Maureen 20 years from now too. With that thought in mind, she turned to her bride and kissed her softly on the lips, lingering there for a moment, savoring the feel.

"I’m so in love with you," Maureen whispered in Emma’s ear as the gathering clapped for them.

"Life won’t always be easy, but I’ll always be in love with you. You have my word," Emma replied before kissing her again.

Chapter Sixty-Nine

Saturday, June 9th, 2029

Maureen escorted Emma through the catering tent to the applause of their family and friends, but before they could sit down at the banquet table forks were already clinking against the glassware on the table. Taking the cue, Maureen pulled Emma into a passionate kiss that made the crowd cheer in response.

The huge, white tent resembled a circus big top in size. It was filled with round, perfectly decorated tables with china, silver and crystal that seated ten people each. Table after table filled the large backyard, but near the pond sat a sound system and a dance floor that was created strictly for this one-time event. Emma resisted the dance floor at first. She couldn’t justify the ‘waste’ involved in building it, but Josh stepped in and said that the wood could be donated to the Habitat for Humanity so it could go to good use. Knowing it would serve a purpose later, Emma relented and allowed for its construction. Maureen agreed as well, but only under the stipulation that any of the extra food went to the church’s new soup kitchen.

Olivia teased Emma about trying to ‘save the world’, but she also mentioned she was very proud of her. Olivia was a woman who steamrolled so many people to get what she wanted; when she wanted it. Phillip, in truth, wasn’t much different. It was remarkable to her sometimes that they had a daughter who continually put others first. Olivia was certain Emma always had an innate goodness (or as she once told Phillip years after their reconciliation, ‘Two negatives make a positive, I guess.’).

But she couldn’t discount Natalia’s influence and she was grateful for it. She looked at Natalia to see her smiling at their daughter who was joking and laughing with her maid of honor, Jodi, a few feet away.

Quickly her mind flashed to a few years after the affair. Just as they promised Emma, they did make things right again. Even the girls seemed to be getting along sometimes, particularly since they were both on the middle school Junior Varsity basketball team. Things finally seemed to be falling into place. That’s when they hit the next brick wall.

One night while they were in bed roaming hands found a lump. After much prodding for the next 24 hours they finally walked into Cedars together. A mammogram was done and within the week Rick called and asked that they come to the hospital for the results.

Their worst fears were realized. It was cancer.

But Rick did offer a ray of hope. It was early - stage two. In fact, by using chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before surgery they might be able to a lumpectomy to remove the lump and keep the breast. If she didn’t want the lumpectomy they could take the entire breast in a mastectomy, and perhaps get breast reconstruction surgery, if she desired.

"Either way isn’t going to be easy," Rick told them. "If you decide on trying the lumpectomy, the chemotherapy is going to leave you feeling pretty drained and possibly sick. The surgery will leave you sore and you’ll have exercises you’ll need to do. The radiation to follow won’t make you sick like the chemo, but you will feel like you’ve had a bad sunburn for a few days after each treatment. If you do a mastectomy I’ll get the doctor on the phone to see you this week. You could have your breast removed within the next week after that."

"What’s the survival rate for this kind of cancer and these procedures, Dr. Rick?" Olivia asked.

"The eight-year rate is just over 70% with either operation. I won’t lie there’s a 30% chance there’s nothing medically we can do. There’s also a 30% chance we’ll get this cancer, but it might reoccur and be fatal within 8 years. But looking at the glass being half-full, I’d say chances of recovering are good."

"So stage two isn’t like…a death sentence?" Natalia asked.

"It’s not as good as zero or one," Rick told her honestly, "but yes, it’s not as bad as three or four. As for the better procedure, again, mortality rates are the same. The surgeon will have to see the state of the tumor and decide to go lumpectomy or mastectomy during surgery. So at this point, it’s up to you," he told them. "Try for the lumpectomy or go right to the mastectomy now."

Natalia and Olivia looked at each other and took an unsteady breath in unison.

Chapter Seventy

Tuesday Afternoon, March 4th, 2019

Natalia and Olivia looked at each other as they sat in hospital room with Dr. Rick. They took an unsteady breath in unison upon hearing the options for cancer treatment.

Rick cleared his throat. "If you go with the lumpectomy and the chemo treatment it wouldn’t be a bad idea to interview for some nurses. You could maybe see if Lillian Cooper would stay and-."

"No," Olivia said firmly, cutting him off. "Lillian great, but no outside nurses…Can you give us a minute, Rick?"

"Absolutely," he told her. "I might get called away, but have the desk page me when you’re ready."

Both women were silent until he left the room. Then Natalia turned to Olivia.

"And you thought I’d outlive you," she said softly.

"Stop. Just…stop…" Neither of them spoke for a long moment. "You said it yourself, and Rick confirmed it - this is not a death sentence, okay?"

"Can’t I have just one moment of doubt here?"

"Fine. You can have one. That was it. No more talk about you dying, alright? You’ll get through this and you’ll be okay." Natalia didn’t say anything for a full ten seconds. She sat still while her fingers played with the ends of the brochure Rick had handed her minutes before. "What are you thinking?" Olivia asked.

Natalia took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. "I don’t want to die…"

"Then…" Olivia shrugged as she paused. "…maybe you should go with the mastectomy."

Natalia finally turned and made eye contact with Olivia. "I’m not a vain woman, but…" She shrugged.

"You like your body." It wasn’t a question.

Natalia took another deep breath and nodded. "Yeah. And you like my body."

"No, I love your body," Olivia retorted. "But I love the person inside that body so much more. Whether you had five breasts or no breasts, I’d still love you. I just want you healthy and…here."

"What about desiring me though? You’re a passionate woman, Liv. You felt neglected once before and look what happened…" She took a ragged breath. "I don’t…" Natalia began to tear up. "I don’t know if I’ll be what you want now…I, just, I don’t want to ruin your life," she sniffled.

Olivia went over and knelt in front of Natalia. She took the frightened woman’s hands in hers.

"Ruin my life? You ARE my life. My desire for your transcends anything physical about you…" Natalia didn’t seem convinced, so Olivia added, "You mean if I changed physically in someway you’d stop loving me?"

"Never," Natalia answered with great certainty.

"Then you understand exactly how I feel. And yes, I’ve made mistakes, but that’s behind us. You’ve got enough to worry about right now, but this shouldn’t be one of your concerns because it’s pointless. I love you Natalia. Completely. Case closed."

Natalia was quite for a moment and then said, "Rick’s right - we’ll need a nurse."

"I’ll take care of you. After all, you took care of me. Now it’s my turn."

Natalia grinned for a moment and stroked Olivia’s face. "That was different."

"How so?"

"We were both about 15 years younger for one."

"You held down three jobs, looked after me, took care of Emma, found time to visit Rafe. You think I can’t do that?"

"Dated Frank too" Natalia grinned and held up a finger. "

"Ha. Ha," Olivia rebutted with no amusement as Natalia grinned.

The grin began to slip away though and she said, "Again, that was quite awhile ago and I didn’t have two extra kids and a heart condition like you."

"The kids? Yes, they’re a factor, but Emma will help. I’m sure. And Technically, I don’t have a heart condition. I got a clean bill of health on the last check up. You know that."

"It’s too much for you to handle – the kids, the Beacon…me."

"I need to take care of you, Natalia. I’ll be no good to anyone if I don’t look after you."

Natalia pitched the bridge of her nose. "Do you really have to fight with me right now? I’m getting a headache."

"There’s no fight here because I’m taking time off. Period."

"Olivia…" Natalia whined.

"Now if you’re saying you want a nurse because you don’t trust me, we’ll get a nurse."

"I trust you." Natalia stroked Olivia’s face. "I trust you, Sweetie. I just worry it’ll all be too much to handle alone. I know how much work it takes to run the house and I know how hard it is to manage the Beacon. You can’t do both."

"I won’t."

"Liar." Natalia grinned. "I know you. You’ll try to do it all."

"No, listen for just a moment. I’ve got a great staff that I’ve put in place for a reason. I’ll turn main operations in Europe over to Greg and bring Rafe back here to run the U.S. markets. I’m sure he’ll want to be back here anyway to be near you. And as for Greg he’s been dying to go to ‘gay Paree’ to find a sexy Frenchman." Natalia smiled for a moment. "Plus, between Ava handling the west coast and Kira on the east, I’ve got people on both coasts I trust completely. They won’t need me except for emergency situations."

"Got it all planned out, do you?" Natalia grinned slightly. Olivia just nodded.

"I can do this. I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on work anyway, so it makes sense for me to stay home. It’s time I trust in the people I’ve put in place."

"Fine, but one condition."

"There are conditions now?" her wife asked annoyed.

"If taking care of everyone – meaning me and the kids – if that gets to be too much, you get a nanny or maid to help out." It was Olivia’s turn to try to whine. "No, you listen. I won’t feel better knowing I’m making you sick. Understand?"

Olivia considered it and then nodded her head. "Sounds reasonable enough. Now…treatment? Any idea yet?"

Natalia took another breath.

Chapter Seventy-One

Tuesday Afternoon, March 4th, 2019

Natalia knew she had to make at least a tentative decision about her cancer treatment.

"Let’s speak to the surgeon and see what he thinks about a lumpectomy. We’ll decide from there." Olivia nodded in response, but Natalia began to tear up again. "I’m so scared, Liv."

"I know, Baby," Olivia said as she pulled Natalia to her feet and into a hug.

Once she was settled next to Olivia, Natalia spoke in a quite voice. "I get it now. I get why you were so scared for Emma when your heart was failing."

"It is scary," Olivia agreed.

"It’s more than that though," Natalia continued as she snuggled into Olivia’s shoulder as the older woman stroked her hair. "I’m not dumb or in denial. I know there’s a chance you might not live as long as most people. You may not get to dance at Emma’s wedding like I hoped. But I always thought I had a chance of being there for all the girls."

"And you still do," Olivia pointed out as she tightened her hold.

"But what if I don’t. I know I said no more doom and gloom talk, but I need to be practical here too. If I don’t make it-."

"Tali, don’t-."

"Liv, please listen ‘cause I’m only gonna say this once. If I don’t make it, you have to promise to be there for Chessie and El. Emma’s practically grown, like Rafe and Ava. But those girls are gonna need their Mom. You have to promise to do everything you can to stick around for them, okay? Just promise me, alright?"

Natalia was almost in tears again. "Shhh," Olivia coaxed. "Calm down. I promise, okay? I promise. But let’s look at this realistically for a moment. According to Rick the prognosis could be better but at least it’s not worse, right?" Natalia nodded against Olivia’s shoulder, but didn’t speak or raise her head. "You’ll see…we’ll get through it…I’ll take care of you and we’ll get through it."

And they did. Upon further testing, and speaking with the surgeon, a lumpectomy looked quite possible. But he wanted her to do four months of chemo first in the hopes of shrinking the tumor.

Olivia kept her word and focused solely on the Spencer-Rivera household, while Rafe and company ran the Beacon franchise. Doris wanted to help them, but didn’t know how she could. Olivia already had the best doctor treating Natalia and she herself was far from domestic. Doris’s wife Brenda had an idea though.

They contacted everyone in the Spencer-Rivera circle of friends and asked that they provide dinner on an assigned night. Brenda did a chart for five months that outlined who was bringing what items to the farmhouse and when to bring it. Doris made sure to check in weekly to remind everyone of what they promised.

One night was Reva’s Sweet Potatoe Cassorole; the next was Beth Spaulding’s Chicken Alfredo. The girls loved Friday’s the most - Grandpop Buzz brought Buzz Burgers. The list literally went on and on to include all the Spauldings, the Coopers and their family and friends. Everyone at the church lent a hand as well by run errands or dropping off supplies to Olivia.

It was a welcome relief for Olivia who spent her days taking care of Natalia physically and emotionally. The dinners that the well-wishers sent also allowed Olivia to spend time with Francesca and Elena (and Emma when she was home) so they didn’t feel neglected. On the days she felt well enough, Natalia would sit from the porch and watch as Olivia taught Francesca and Elena how to ‘pick and roll’ on the mock basketball court of their driveway. In fact, they got so good that Emma was no longer letting them win. They were doing it on their own.

One night Frank came by to see the girls and chatted with Natalia and Olivia on the back porch. As he was leaving, Natalia watched Frank slip something into Olivia’s jacket pocket. He gave a warning wag of his finger and then grinned playfully. She hugged him and kissed him on the cheek before she sent him on his way. After ordering the kids to get washed up for dinner, Natalia motioned Olivia to her.

"What did he give you?" she asked as she adjusted her red paisley pattern bandana.

Although she still had quite a bit of hair, some spots were becoming somewhat blotchy on top. The bandana, however, was effective in hiding those areas. In fact, given the thickness of her hair, to the outside observer, it looked as if she was just wearing a kerchief.

"You saw that, huh?" Olivia grinned.

"Yes, now what was it?"

Olivia looked over her shoulder to make sure the kids were gone for sure. Then she pulled out the bag of three hand-rolled cigarettes that rested in some loose herbs. She gave it a shake as she grinned slyly. "Newsflash: Frank wasn’t always a cop," she added.

"Is that…?" Natalia looked shocked.

"It helps with nausea and appetite loss from the chemo."

"Olivia, no."

"Listen, it might make you feel better and there’s some research that shows it helps stop the spread of cancer cells in breast cancer patients."

"Are you making that up?"

"I swear." She held up her hand.

"It’s illegal," Natalia whispered.

"Illinois is just one of the 19 states that still has its head up its ass on this."

Natalia snorted. "That’s not funny."

"Is too. You laughed."

Natalia pursed her lips. "How many times have we told the kids, ‘don’t do drugs’? I’d be a hypocrite."

"You give the girls drugs ALLLLL the time."

"I most certainly do not-!"

"Over the years how many pain relievers, fever reducers, antacids-?"

"That’s different."

"Not according to our neighbors in Michigan, Ohio or Kentucky, it’s not."

"Olivia."

"Tali, if we lived in any of those states this wouldn’t be an issue. Illinois is just taking a little longer to catch up." Natalia took the bag and looked at it. "The prescription drugs they’ve given you just aren’t working," Olivia added.

"I know," Natalia said sadly.

"Next time you feel really ill or you don’t want to eat, please try this…for me."

Natalia grinned.

"Talk about your peer pressure," she joked. Olivia just gave her puppy dog eyes. "Fine," she sighed. "But not in the house. I’m not smoking around the girls. I don’t want them to see that. I’ll… go down to the pond or something."

"Thank you," Olivia replied.

"What was Frank saying when he was doing his know-it-all finger wag at you."

Olivia chuckled softly. "Know-it-all finger wag – that’s good." Natalia shrugged deliberately. "He warned me I better not hog it all. Speaking of… I, uh, I might have to try it first. You know? Just make sure it’s okay and everything?" she said bumping shoulders with Natalia.

"So you wanna go to the pond and get stoned like a couple of teenagers, huh?" Both of them laughed. "Well, call Auntie D and see if she’ll take the kids tonight?"

"Natalia, I can’t do that," Olivia retorted.

"Just a toke or two? Besides, if the nausea goes away I’m sure I’ll probably feel pretty horny too, so a kid-free house might be a good thing."

Olivia sat perfectly still for three seconds digesting Natalia’s words before she began to search frantically for her phone. Natalia chuckle. Olivia stopped her antics and turned to Natalia.

"Honestly, you don’t have to do that," she told her.

"Have sex?" Natalia asked.

"Yeah, I don’t want you to think you have to."

"Oh, I get it," Natalia said sadly as she turned away.

"Get what?"

"I’m not very desirable anymore." Natalia began to play with her fingernail to avoid eye contact.

"What?! No! Of course I want you. Sweetie, you can have me anytime you want me."

"Anytime?"

"Yes."

"Forever?"

Olivia grinned. "Forever…It’s just that you’ve felt so sick. I’m not going to push."

She waved the bag slightly. "True, and if this helps with that then…Look, I just want to be close to you Olivia. The doctor said sex was okay if I was up for it."

"No pun intended?" Olivia smirked.

Natalia slapped her knee and ignored the comment as she continued.

"Besides, next month, when I have the operation, well, this might be the last chance we’ll enjoy spending time with both the ‘girls’ and I’m not talking about Francesca or Elena," she quipped as she pointed to her breast.

Olivia grinned slightly. "Okay, then. If you’re up to it, we will. And if not, how about we just cuddle on the sofa, kid-free, just you and me?"

Natalia nodded and then rested her head on Olivia’s shoulder.

"I’d like that."

Chapter Seventy-Two

"What time is it?"

Natalia simple giggled to Olivia’s question.

"Really? What time is it?" she asked again.

Once more, Natalia giggled.

They were both baked. The two of them sat on the small pier that rested over the pond. They each sat under a picnic blanket with a basket of food between them…the basket and a bag of weed Frank had given them to help with Natalia’s chemotherapy. One cigarette was gone and two remained.

"Why do you keep asking what time it is?" Natalia finally questioned.

Olivia didn’t reply at first. She stared vacantly and then said, "…I don’t know." They both began to giggle uncontrollably. "Oh! I remember now!" Olivia said. "I kinda spaced out. Like I didn’t know how much time had passed. I, uh…Damn where did Frank get this stuff?"

Again, Natalia giggled. She reached into the basket and pulled out a strawberry.

"Here, eat this." She placed it to Olivia’s mouth with slightly more force than she intended. The fruit smooshed slightly against Olivia’s face and they both began to chuckle.

"Never let a stoned woman feed you," Olivia said as she began to chew.

"I’m not stoned!" Natalia declared with a straight face and then began to laugh hysterically. Olivia began to join her. "Hey," Natalia said composing herself. "Tell me something."

"Something," Olivia said quickly and started to laugh. Natalia slapped her arm. "You said to tell you ‘something’ so I did."

Natalia’s permi-grin stayed in place. "Is it bad that this is the best time we’ve had together in…?"

"Months?"

"Years," Natalia countered as she laughed. "I’m serious. I’ve spent years telling the kids that drugs are bad, but this is the best time we’ve had since…well, I don’t really remember."

Olivia started to look serious again, but she did still keep her grin. "I know why," she replied.

"Why?"

"We’re relaxed," Olivia replied.

"Well, why can’t we relax… sober?"

"We’ve been dealing with a lot lately," Olivia replied. "But, you know, before the cancer... I thought we were getting along great. You think that we weren’t?"

"No, we were."

"Okay, good."

"It’s just. I feel so light right now."

"That’s why it’s called getting high," Olivia laughed.

Natalia began to laugh too. "Stop it. I’m trying to-to make a serious point here."

"Which is?"

"Right now it seems like I don’t have a care in the world; that everything’s going to be alright."

"It will," Olivia told her.

"We don’t know-."

"I do," Olivia cut her off. "So just shush and get me another strawberry, Woman."

Natalia laughed again. "You’re so bossy when you’re stoned."

Olivia grinned and then looked confused. "What time is it?"

Natalia laughed. "About five minutes longer than the last time you asked." She then took another strawberry and perched it to her lips and motioned Olivia to come get it. Olivia grinned and placed her lips over Natalia’s, stealing the fruit.

They both bit the berry and kissed at the same time. When they were done chewing Olivia asked, "So is this your first time?"

"You mean preparing to have sex outside? No, you know that."

"You want to do it out here? By the pond?" Olivia asked shocked.

"I told you I’d be hungry and horny and I’ve already eaten food. Now I wanna eat you."

Olivia burst out laughing. "Oh my god! It is true what they say about Catholic girls."

Natalia straddled Olivia’s lap. "You forget. The church tossed me out on my ear. I’m not Catholic anymore. Any place that says loving you is wrong isn’t the right place for me."

A small silence passed between them as Natalia stroked Olivia’s face.

"I love you soooo much," Olivia whispered as she rested her head on Natalia’s bosom, while the younger woman stroked her hair.

For a long moment, neither of them said anything until Natalia cleared her throat.

"What do you think it’ll be like?"

"You mean…" Olivia kissed the breast she’d been leaning against.

Natalia nodded. "Yeah, if he can’t do the lumpectomy and has to…what will it be like?"

Olivia raised her head and looked up at Natalia. "My love for you isn’t skin deep. You’ll be the same woman you’ve always been."

"No, I won’t," Natalia replied and looked away.

Olivia took her by the chin to make eye contact again.

"You’re right. You won’t," Olivia relented. "What you’ll be is stronger than you are now – emotionally, physically. Whether you choose to reconstruct or not, like I’ve said, I love YOU; not your ‘parts’ … so while it might be something we need to adjust to, I’ll do whatever it takes to make you feel comfortable…desired…For me…sex with you is much more than something physical…for me, it’s proof…"

"Proof of what?"

"That God truly does exist… And that’s why I’m certain you’ll be okay. He’s not gonna take this gift from me."

Natalia leaned down and kissed Olivia gently on the lips. "I love you so much."

Olivia began to slowly unbutton Natalia’s shirt.

"I love you too, Sweetie. And I intend to spend the rest of my life showing you."

 

Chapter Seventy-Three

Tuesday Afternoon, July 11th, 2019

On the day of Natalia’s breast cancer surgery the waiting room looked like a family reunion with a sea of familiar faces. As the surgeon immerged, Olivia walked swiftly over to him with Rafe on one side and Emma on the other. Pre-teens Francesca and Elena sat next to Frank and Buzz respectively. Further in the back Phillip, Doris and a host of other well-wishers leaned closer to see if they could hear the news.

"I need to get the labs back," the doctor began, "but it looks really good at this point," he said with a slight smile. "The chemotherapy did exactly what we needed it to do and we were able to remove the lump and not the entire breast."

Olivia released the breath she’d been holding. As the group began to talk quietly to one another Olivia asked, "So what does this mean?"

"If the test come back negative like I expect then that means she’s cancer-free."

"Just like that?" Olivia asked.

"Just like that," he said with certainty. "We have to follow up with radiation like we planned, as well we monitoring her with mammograms," the doctor added, "But right now, like I said, it looks very promising. It’s a good thing you got her in here when you did."

Rafe put his arm around Olivia’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

A little later that night Natalia opened her eyes in her hospital room. She looked up at the ceiling, not daring to look down just yet. Instead she took a fearful breath and slowly reached over and felt her breast still there. Upon feeling the soft flesh she released the breath she’d been holding.

"He did the lumpectomy," she heard Olivia say in a soft voice off to the side. She licked her dry lips and turned slightly. She watched as Olivia came into her range of sight to take her hand. "He said it looks good, real good actually, but we’ll know for sure tomorrow." Olivia looked at her watch. "Okay, technically, later today."

"I’m not going to die?" Natalia asked in a timid voice.

"Someday, but not anytime soon," Olivia told her as she ran her fingertips along Natalia’s jawbone. "Let’s get you a little bit of water, okay?" Olivia turned to get the glass, but she stopped when she heard Natalia cry. "What’s wrong? Are you in pain?"

Natalia shook her head, but her sobs didn’t let up. The tears continued to flow. It was as if the heavy weight that had been bearing down on them was finally lifted. It was as if the dam that had held all her fears and uncertainties had burst open and she couldn’t contain her emotions.

"You stayed. You didn’t leave me," Natalia wept. "Through all of this, you didn’t leave."

Olivia smiled as she sniffled and tried not to cry herself. "Of course I didn’t leave. I spent my life searching for you. I’d be crazy to go." She then started to wave a disapproving finger. "And don’t even accuse me of being crazy. I’m one of the sanest people in this mixed up town…" They both grinned. "…or, at least I am when I’ve got you." Finally, the tears began subsiding. "No, Tali, I’m not ever leaving. Now, let’s get that water."

Back in the present day, Olivia sat next to Natalia in the make-shift reception hall. Natalia’s hair was draped over one shoulder while the other hung to one side as she leaned over to watch the wedding party settle into their meal. She grinned wickedly as she watched Emma take her first bite of food. The woman then picked up her fork and began tapping it against the crystal glass, making a clanging noise. Others soon joined in and Emma tried to chew her food as quickly as possible so she could kiss Maureen and make the noise stop.

Olivia continued to examine her wife, who now wore a Cheshire Cat grin over the commotion she’d started. Olivia leaned over to whisper in her ear.

"I still love the devil in you, Rivera."

"I have no idea what you mean, Ms. Spencer." She fledged ignorance.

"Yeah, right. Waiting to do that tap until Emma took a bite?"

Natalia laughed deeply. "Oh, you saw that, huh?"

"Totally."

Natalia laughed again and looked up as the waiter arrived.

God I love this woman, Olivia though as she continued to admire her silently.

Chapter Seventy-Four

Saturday, June 9th, 2029

"Hello everyone," the DJ said into the microphone. "I’d like everybody’s attention for the moment." The gathering began to quiet down. "On behalf of Emma and Maureen, they’d like to thank everyone who made it here today to wish this beautiful couple a life of happiness. Now if you don’t mind, Maureen’s maid-of-honor, Clarissa Marler, and Emma’s maid-of-honor, Jodi Wernick, would like to issue their toast to the couple. So Clarissa? Go ahead and start us off."

With that, he handed her the microphone and stepped aside. She held it in one hand while she held her glass in her other.

"Hi everyone," Clarissa said nervously. She held the mic away as she cleared her throat. "I’m not sure what to say here. I, uh, I’ve pretty much known both of these ladies for most of my life. And to be totally honest…I never thought of them as a couple."

Clarissa hid her face behind her head for a moment as the gathering chuckled.

"Emma was the little hanger-on at every family function we had together. Sweet kid, but still…a kid." Again, the crowd chuckled. "Of course, I’d seen Emma over the years because of my mom and step-dad," she added as she motioned to Blake and Frank, "but it wasn’t until years had passed that Maureen saw Emma again. And when she did? Well, she wouldn't shut up about her."

Again, the crowd laughed as Maureen blushed.

"‘Have you seen Emma Spencer?!’ she yelled at me one day. My god! You'd think she'd won the lottery! And I said, ‘Yeah,’ in a bored voice. ‘I see little Emma all the time.’ But as Maureen pointed out, she wasn’t a little girl anymore - another point that’s abundantly clear when you look at that gorgeous wedding dress." As the crowd chuckled again, this time it was Emma who blushed and crossed her arms to cover her bosom self-consciously.

"I couldn't understand what the big deal was," Clarissa continued, "but Maury? Now she was smitten. And that's when I started to see Emma in a brand-new light. Maureen was right. She wasn't a little girl anymore…I could say that she had become a woman, but the truth is, she became much more. There are few people in this world, man or woman, who could match Maureen's intellect, compassion, beauty or loyalty. I came to realize that not only could they be a couple, they could be one of the few who survived the adversities that life throws at everyone…And that yes, perhaps Maureen really DID hit the lottery that day." Clarissa then raised her glass. "So congratulations to Emma and Maureen. May you overcome life's adversities side-by-side, in this life and the next. Cheers!"

The group offered their cheers and took a drink. As the gathering clamped their hands, Clarissa covered the microphone and handed it to Jodi. She leaned into the woman’s ear as a forced grin was plastered on both women’s faces.

"Top that," Clarissa said in a snide voice although she held her smile in place.

Jodi didn’t let her grin slip either, as she took the microphone and covered it.

"Up yours," she whispered with a friendly nod before turning to the gathering with a glowing smile.

Chapter Seventy-Five

Saturday, June 9th, 2029

"It’s not often that people happily spend three-fourths together," Jodi said into the microphone as she held her Champaign glass with her other hand. "But that’s true for Emma and I. I’ve known her since kindergarten, and although I’m an only child, I feel that God blessed me with a sister." A few people in the crowd ‘awwwed’ in the audience. "She’s been a happy person for most of that time, but I’ve never seen her happier than when she took me to meet Maureen for the first time after they began dating."

Friday, October 30th, 2020

Seven years earlier Jodi was looking for a parking space near Company as Emma practically bounced up and down in the passenger seat.

"Will you relax?" Jodi giggled. "You look like a bunny on crack for God’s sake."

"Hey!" Emma warned. "Don’t be throwing around the Lord’s name."

"Fine. I’m sorry." Jodi relented. "But serious…chill. You keep bouncing like that and I’m gonna need new shocks for the right side of my car."

"I can’t help it. I want you to like her. Well, not LIKE her since I LIKE her, but you know, like her because she’s likable," Emma rambled nervously.

"I have seen Maureen Reardon before, you know?"

"Recently?"

Jodi considered. "Not since we were kids, no."

"There you go! See? You haven’t really seen her then."

Jodi pulled into a vacant spot near the post office. "It’s only been like two weeks since you started to date."

"So?"

"Is she good to you?" she asked as she put the car in park.

"Yeah," Emma replied.

"Respects you?"

"Yeah."

"Respects the people you love?"

"Yeah."

"Listens to you?"

"Yes," she said getting irritated.

Jodi held up a single hand. "I’m asking for a reason."

"To drive me nuts?"

Jodi shook her head. "I might not get her humor. I might not enjoy the stuff she likes. I might have absolutely nothing in common with this woman."

"So you’ll hate her then?"

"No. As long as she’s good to you, then I’ll like her too."

"Thank you Jo-."

"And if she’s not good to you," Jodi said cutting her off. "She’ll quickly become an asshole in my book." Emma chuckled. "I’m serious," Jodi replied stern-faced. "You’re too good of a person to date an asshole and you seem pretty taken with her."

"Maybe I am."

"Exactly. And that’s why I don’t want you to fall too hard too fast."

"Why not?"

"Love’s blinding. You might fall in love with the illusion of what you think she is, rather than who she really is."

"Meaning?"

"People put their best foot forward when they start dating. And if you find out she is an ass, dump her. I don’t want you to settle for someone who’s a jerk. You deserve a person who treats you, and the people you love, with dignity."

"I don’t think you have to worry about Maureen."

"I hope you’re right. I don’t want you with an asshole - that’s all I’m saying."

"Do you think I would date an asshole?" Emma asked honestly.

"I really don’t know."

"What do you mean you don’t know? Have a little faith."

"You know I love you Em’, but she’s the first person I’ve seen you really excited about since Steven."

"Steven wasn’t a jerk."

"No, not at first."

"Jodi," she whined.

"Don’t ‘Jodi’ me, okay? You were faithful and attentive and he got distant. After stringing you along for months, he decided he wanted to ‘play the field’ and he ditched you. THAT was a dick move."

"I don’t need a recount of my history. That’s in the past."

"My point is you haven’t had tons of relationships, Em. You find people and you…"

"Form long-lasting, meaningful relationships? Oh. The horror."

Jodi chuckled. "Okay, while that’s not a horrible thing. It might also be something that lends itself to not spotting a jackass when you find one. That’s all I’m saying."

"Well, you do have your fair share of jackasses you’ve met over the years."

"Don’t remind me," Jodi sighed and then grinned. "I just don’t want you to make the mistakes I’ve made by trusting the wrong people."

"Hey, my mommas didn’t raise no fool," Emma countered with a funny accent.

Jodi laughed again. "Do you think they’d adopt me too?"

"Heck, you’re already at every Spencer-Rivera clan event and you’re interning at Spaulding. How much more do you want, Jodi?" she teased.

Jodi thought a moment by putting her finger on her chin and looking up to the car’s roof. "Your room at the farmhouse."

"You’re not getting my room."

"You’re not using it anymore. Come on," Jodi pleaded.

Emma opened the door with a grin. "Get out of the car."

Jodi just chuckled.

They made their way up the back steps of Company. Maureen was sitting on the porch at one of the tables. Upon seeing Emma approach she smiled and halted her conversation with Buzz. The man grinned after he looked over to see what had made Maureen light up so dramatically.

He leaned down to Maureen. "Spencer woman sure are a sight to see, aren’t they?" Maureen simply blushed as he patted her on the back. "I’ll get those drinks," he added.

As he walked back inside, Maureen began to walk toward Emma and Jodi who were approaching. She pulled Emma into an embrace and gently cupped her right cheek, bringing her in closer for a kiss.

"It’s great to see you," Maureen told her as she rested her forehead against Emma’s. The younger woman only hummed in the affirmative.

Jodi couldn’t help but notice how the two women seemed to lose sight of the world around them.

"Oh, I’m sorry." Emma said as she pulled back, "Jodi, you remember Maureen. Maureen, Jodi."

"It’s nice to officially meet you again," Maureen said as she extended her hand to Jodi. "I think the last time was about…oh, jeeze…five years ago, maybe. It was the Spencer-Rivera Independence Day BBQ, I think."

Jodi nodded. "Good memory. It’s nice to see you too. You’re all Emma talks about anymore."

Emma looked mortified and reached over and slapped Jodi’s arm while Maureen giggled.

At that moment, Clarissa walked on to the porch from inside Company. Jodi and Clarissa, both began shaking their heads upon seeing each other.

"What’s that bitch doing here?" Clarissa asked as she nodded to Jodi.

Jodi seethed.

Chapter Seventy-Six

Friday, October 30th, 2020

"I mean it," Clarissa stomped toward Emma, Maureen and the object of her hatred, Jodi. "What’s that bitch doing here?" she asked again.

"Woah," Maureen said as she released Emma and put a hand on Clarissa shoulder to prevent her from coming closer. "Take it down a notch, Clari. I don’t know what happened, but-."

"She’s the one!" Clarissa pointed. "She’s the one Andy was with that night!"

"Her?" Maureen asked, as she pitched a thumb over her shoulder and toward Jodi.

"I should have known," Jodi replied to Emma. "When you said Clarissa I should have made the connection. I mean how many Clarissa are there in town." Jodi began to grin and then turned back to her nemesis, "So…how is ole Andy this days?"

Jodi’s smirk didn’t fall in the slightest, even as Clarissa lunged toward her. She came up short though as Maureen hooked her around the arms and pulled her backward.

"She is WAYYY high strung." Jodi seemed unaffected as she watched Clarissa struggle with Maureen, trying to get free.

"Quit antagonizing her," Emma replied.

From a few feet away, Maureen let Clarissa go and gave her a slight shove. Clarissa asked, "Did you know she was going to be here?"

"I knew Emma was bringing her best friend, Jodi. But I didn’t know it was the same Jodi that knew Andy."

"You mean the same TRAMP?!" Clarissa shouted in Jodi’s direction.

Back on Emma and Jodi’s side of the porch, Jodi pulled Emma further away.

"Why is Clarissa here?"

Emma swallowed hard. "She’s Maureen best friend."

"That PSYCHO is Maureen’s best friend?"

"Don’t judge Maureen because of Clarissa, okay?"

At the same time, they heard Maureen and Clarissa start to raise their voices.

"Emma’s fine!" Clarissa shouted. "It’s that bitch who-!"

"Hey!" Maureen pointed at her friend. "Get over it Clarissa! Andy’s an asswipe! He played you both for suckers! She didn’t know about you anymore than you knew about her!"

"Andy-!" Clarissa tried to continue.

"-Was a two-timing snake! Period! I love you, Clari, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna stand by and watch you treat Emma’s friends like shit."

"So you’re taking her side?!"

"There are no sides here!" Maureen countered. "The only villain is that jackass who lied to you BOTH."

Clarissa threw her hands up in the air.

"I’m not staying," she said as she walked back to the table.

"Come on, don’t be like that."

Maureen tried, but failed to get Clarissa to stop. She watched her grab her purse and walk into Company. Maureen took a deep breath and blew it out slowly as she turned to face Emma and Jodi.

"So, uh, that was Clarissa," she said nervously. "Obviously, you know each other."

Back in the present, Jodi raised her glass, after telling the story a bit more vaguely for the guests, as not to embarrass Clarissa.

"I realized something that day," Jodi told the gathering. "Maureen was an honest woman...and any fears I had for Emma’s heart were laid to rest that day. I knew if she was willing to stand up to someone she considered a friend and speak the truth, even at the threat of losing that friendship, she would always be honest with Emma. So, as I consider Emma my sister, Maureen, I consider you my sister-in-law. If a time ever comes when I can help you, I swear I’ll always be there. You’re lucky to have Emma, but she’s lucky too. And for those of us who are still looking for the right one, well, you guys are sickeningly perfect for each other." She said in mock-exasperation that made the room giggle. "Plus, mookoo bucks - one’s a doctor; one’s a lawyer. I know whose couch I’m going to if I’m ever down on my luck." There was a mixture of laughs and claps at the comment. "Seriously, though, you two have found what some people search lifetimes for and never find. I could tell you to treasure it and take care of the love you’ve found, but you’re both smart. You realize what you have and that’s why you’re one of the few couples of this world who’ll make it. To Emma and Maureen, everyone."

She raised her glass and the group joined in a course of ‘Hear!Hear!, Cheers!" and other comments.

As the attendees went back to their meals, Clarissa walked over and leaned down to Jodi next to Ava.

"Why’d you do it?"

"Do what?" Jodi asked exasperated, not looking for a fight.

"Told that story and left my name out. Why?"

Jodi took a deep, frustrated breath.

"What purpose does possibly insulting you in a room full of people do? Besides, I’m not the one who has a problem. You hate ME, remember?"

"Well, thanks, I guess."

"You’re welcome, I guess." She couldn’t help, but be sarcastic. Jodi began to walk away but Jodi reached out to grab her wrist. "Hey, do you think it might be possible for us to get along enough so we can enjoy holidays with Emma and Maureen. I’d like to share special days without wondering if you’re going to light a firecracker in my ass on the 4th or stuff my face with pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving? I’m not even suggesting that you talk to me – let’s just try being…civil?"

Clarissa grinned slightly. "I can do civil."

Jodi nodded her thanks and with that, Clarissa walked back to Maureen’s side of the table.

Ava turned to Francesca.

"Isn’t that nice? They made their peace. Wink. Wink. Nudge. Nudge."

"Say no more. Say no more," Francesca finished in a monotone. "Ava, don’t hold your breath," she added as she pitched her thumb toward Elena seated next to her.

Ava sighed as she dug into her twice-baked potato. "Can’t blame me for trying," she muttered.

Maureen had her own fork perched at her mouth when a purple butterfly landed on the tip of the handle. She gently elbowed Emma, trying not to move her hand too much.

"My friend is back," she said after Emma turned her way.

"See, Jodi?" Emma leaned back to show her best friend the insect. "I told you - ever since we started setting up for the wedding, Maureen keeps getting followed around by purple butterflies."

The butterfly landed on the empty bread plate and floated up and down before a waiter came and collected the plate.

"Can I get you ladies anything else right now?" he asked politely.

"No thank you," Emma replied and he scurried away with a nod. She looked where the vacated plate had sat and she noticed something rather large and shinny. She picked it up and inspected it.

"What’s that?" Maureen asked.

"I think the waiter might have dropped it. It’s a half dollar."

"Do they even make those anymore?" Maureen asked.

"No," Emma replied. "Sir?" she called over to the waiter who was at her parents table a few feet away. He came over quickly.

"Did you think of something?" he asked.

"No. I believe you dropped this."

He looked at it. It was in fact a half dollar – a ‘walking liberty’ with the date 1940 emblazoned on it.

"No, Ma’am. That’s not mine. Where did you find it?"

"Under my plate," she replied.

"That’s rather odd," he remarked as he handed it back to her. "Now that I’ve seen it, I’ll ask the staff if anyone is missing a ‘coin’ and I’ll see if they can describe it. If not, perhaps you should just consider it a unique wedding gift," he teased.

He walked away, but his word’s stayed with Emma. She rolled the coin around in her hands.

Chapter Seventy-Seven

Saturday, June 9th, 2029

Doris smiled. She looked across the table and watched as Rafe and her grandson Leo played a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors while they waited for their next entrée. Rafe was losing horribly, much to the delight of Leo. Next to them, Ashley was talking to Phillip and Beth, who were seated next to Sam and his wife.

"Thank you," Doris said as she turned to Olivia.

"For what?"

"For inviting us to this table," she said as she also motioned toward her wife, Brenda, who was seated at her left.

"Why wouldn’t I?" Olivia asked.

"Well, this is the family table and Natalia’s siblings are here."

"Right, this is the family table. Bean knows you guys much more than any of them. Natalia understands that, and no, I’m not saying that to be spiteful. It’s the truth. In fact, she and Emma drew up the seating chart."

Doris leaned beyond Olivia. "Hey?" Natalia turned to her voice. "You sat us here?"

Natalia seemed unsure of how to answer. "Are you complaining?" She leaned over Olivia and motioned Doris closer. "Because, if you are, I can put you in the back with Reva and Josh, if you like," she whispered.

"No! God, no! I’m not complaining. I’m good right here. I just wanted to thank you for including us."

"Of course I did. Brenda is one of my best friends and you, well…" Natalia shrugged. "…you’re her wife," she added flatly and then slowly broke out into a grin.

"You weren’t complaining when you were kissing me at Frank and Blake’s wedding," Doris shot back. As soon as the words left her mouth, Doris snapped her mouth shut.

"Say whaaaaat?" Olivia asked.

Doris and Natalia both grinned nervously. The mayor played with the ends of her hair.

"I’m teasing," she replied. "Don’t get your knickers in a twist."

"You’re doing the hair thing you do when you’re lying," Olivia replied.

Doris paused a beat "Okay, yes, I’m lying," she confessed. "But it was meaningless. She even kissed Brenda too."

Just catching up the conversation, Brenda leaned over and asked, "Who’d I kiss?"

"Natalia," Doris whispered and motioned toward her.

"I never-."

"Blake and Frank’s wedding?"

Then the light bulb went off. "Ohhhh," Brenda said and then giggled. "Yeah, I did, Olivia. Doris did too."

Olivia slowly turned to Natalia who was now beet red and trying to hide in the crook of Olivia’s neck.

"You wanna explain this, Rivera?" Olivia asked sternly.

"Oh shit," Doris sighed.

Chapter Seventy-Eight

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

Doris, Brenda, Natalia and Olivia walked to the exit of the reception hall of Frank and Blake's wedding. It might be more accurate to say that Doris and Olivia walked while Brenda and Natalia staggered. They were both pretty drunk, but it didn't stop them from loudly singing off-key to the Beatles' 'Twist and Shout' that played from the hall they just left.

"Oh brother," Doris rolled her eyes as Olivia chuckled.

"You keep them here," she told Doris.

"Me?!"

"Yeah, I'll have 'em bring the car up."

"No, you keep them and I'LL get the car."

"It's my car."

"It's your drunk wife."

"And yours. Since I drove, I win by default. Here, take them."

Olivia walked away and Doris sighed, resigned to her fate - being sandwiched between two beautiful, albeit drunk women. She tried to keep all three of them steady and upright. Miraculously, so far, she was succeeding.

"I-I wanna tell you something, Doris," Natalia began.

"Don't tell me you think you're gonna puke."

Natalia giggled. "No, I'm-I'm fine. I-I wanna kiss you."

"What?!" she asked.

"Come onnnnnn," she whined. "I've never kissed another woman. I wanna know if they kiss the same. Brenda said, no, but I have no frame of reference. So kiss me!"

Doris turned to Brenda, who was smiling.

"She's got good taste in women," Brenda shrugged and giggled.

The mayor then turned back to Natalia. "Look" Doris started. "I'm tipsy. She's drunk and you are more plastered than that ceiling above us," she said pointing skyward.

That gesture was a mistake. Natalia looked up and started to stumble and Doris was forced to release Brenda to steady Natalia by the waist. The Latina took the opportunity and put her arms around Doris's shoulders and pulled her closer as Brenda laughed at her wife's misfortune.

"Kiss me," Natalia told her.

Doris licked her lips subconsciously and looked over at her wife who was now motioning her head toward Natalia.

"Kiss the desperate woman already," Brenda said softly.

Doris looked back at Natalia and sighed.

"Fine," she replied. Her lips lightly touched Natalia's and she pulled back. "There. I ki-."

She didn't finish the sentence as Natalia grabbed her by the back of the head and recaptured Doris's lips in a firm, penetrating lock. When they pulled back again this time Brenda was grinning from ear-to-ear as she gently squeezed between her wife and Natalia.

"Is she a good kisser, Dori?" Brenda asked.

"You wanna see for yourself?" Doris replied sarcastically as she stepped aside.

Brenda didn't back down from the invitation though. Moments later, Doris's jaw (and the jaw of the extra valet attendant standing nearby) dropped as Brenda and Natalia slid into a tender embrace and start to nip gently at each other's lips until Brenda deepened the kiss.

"Dammmnnn, that's hot," the attendant said, snapping Doris out of her distraction.

She turned in time to see him taking a picture of her wife with her best friend's wife. Instead of getting concerned, she plastered on a faux-smile and walked over to the attendant.

"That is pretty hot, isn't it?" she said conspiratorially. He nodded enthusiastically. "Can I see?" she asked as she held out her hand for his phone. He proudly handed her the camera to show her the shot he took.

"Damn is right, huh?" she said.

"Hell, yeah," he said as he examined it again over her shoulder.

Doris continued to smile and immediately hit erase.

"Oh, man!" he whined.

"I'll return this when we leave," she informed him. Doris then walked back to her wife, camera phone still in hand, and eased the two women apart.

Natalia swayed a bit. "She kisses better than you, Doris."

"Thanks," Doris said unimpressed.

"Maybe you'd be better if you had a few drinks," Natalia suggested. "You'd be more relaxed."

"Yeah," Doris said as she nodded, "because when you make out with your best friend's gal you need that extra push to get you over the edge."

Natalia and Brenda both erupted into drunken giggles.

"Still," Natalia said as she held up her hand. "Neither one of you is as good a kisser as Liv. My word that woman can kiss."

"Love matters," Brenda told her.

"Huh?" Natalia slurred.

"I told you, when you love someone they kiss better. Isn't that right, Baby?" she asked as she pulled Doris into a kiss. After a few seconds Doris began to giggle a little. "What?" Brenda asked as she pulled back.

"You taste like Latino," she teased.

Natalia and Brenda both giggled at the comment as Olivia walked back in.

"Olivia!" Natalia exclaimed. "You're the best kisser in the world! Kiss me, Sweetie."

Before Olivia could even protest, Natalia had her arms around Olivia and was kissing her with abandon.

"Hun?" Olivia said between attacks. "We gotta-" Natalia snagged her lips again. "….go. Car's…" Another kiss. "Car's waiting," she finally managed to say.

Finally, with much effort, Olivia had Natalia in the front seat with Doris and Brenda in the back.

In the present day, Doris still looked at Natalia and Olivia with growing dread and uncertainty at the confession.

"It was innocent," Doris stressed.

Olivia sat stone-faced.

"It didn't mean anything," her friend added.

Olivia continued to sit perfectly still. Finally, she started to grin.

"I know what happened," she snorted. "Tali told me about it the next day, or, at least, what she remembered about it."

Doris released the sigh she'd been holding.

"If anything," Olivia continued. "I'm jealous. You got to see our hot wives make out. I was busy trying to explain the word 'Nissan' to man who didn't speak English."

"Well," Brenda began with a grin, "…get me a few more drinks and we'll see how the night plays out."

All four of them laughed and Rafe sat across from them shaking his head.

"Oh please," Doris told him. "Don't be so judgmental. I saw you at Daisy and James wedding and you and Ashlee were three-no- ten sheets to the wind that night."

Rafe and Ashlee both looked away guiltily.

"See?" Doris pointed. "Don't even go there. If Brenda wants to get drunk then…this time I'll take the pictures instead of the valet," she laughed and the table joined in.

"You know," Phillip said, "James might kill me for saying this, but it was actually this very reason that the Spauldings began going to the Spencer-Rivera BBQ for the Fourth."

"What do you mean?" Sam asked. "He wanted to take some Girls Gone Wild videos?"

Phillip considered the question with a sly grin. "In a manor of speaking…"

The table looked at him curiously.

Chapter Seventy-Nine

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

James was putting on a pair of flip-flops when his father descended the stairs of Spaulding mansion.

"Gee, you're all set to go to Uncle Rick's already?" Phillip asked.

James nervously rubbed the back of his neck as Daisy popped around the corner.

"Hey, Phillip," she greeted and then turned to James. "You ready?"

"Yeah, I'll meet you outside," James said as he gave her a slight kiss and took his dad by the elbow leading him a bit deeper into the library. "Look, Dad, I'm not going to Rick's this year."

"What? It's a tradition," Phillip remarked. "Daisy is invited too you know?"

"I know, but Daisy and the Coopers are going to the Farmhouse."

"James-."

"Dad, seriously, think about it. If you had a choice between seeing incredibly hot women making out or listening to Uncle Rick talk about his big… wiener…where would you rather be?" Phillip tried to hide his smile, but failed. "Be honest: Emma's moms aside, Olivia and Natalia are smokin'. And Doris Wolfe's redhead is sure to be there too. Call me a dog, but I'll take hot chicks cuddling over Rick's 'juicy footlong' any day."

Phillip sighed. After a few moments of contemplation he said, "Have fun for me."

"Thanks, Dad!" James smiled as he leapt over the sofa and ran to the front door where Daisy waited.

Minutes later Rick, Mindy, Beth and Phillip sat in the Bauer's vacant backyard.

"It's awfully warm today," Rick mentioned.

Phillip took a drink from his bottle. "Yep," he finally replied.

Rick took a sip of his. "But there's a slight breeze."

Phillip nodded and took another drink as well. "Yep."

A few seconds passed in silence except for a tweeting bird in a nearby tree.

"This is ridiculous," Beth finally announced. "Let's go to the farmhouse."

Mindy nodded enthusiastically in agreement.

"No!" Rick insisted. "They are not high-jacking my holiday. It's called the BAUER BBQ – not the Spencer-Rivera lesbian hoe-down."

"Rick," Mindy plead as she giggle.

"No! This is MY holiday!"

Phillip smiled and motioned around them as Rick continued to pout.

"Look around, Buddy - it's just us."

"Blakie'll be here," Rick said.

"She's with Frank," Beth pointed out.

"Who's with Francesca," Mindy added.

"Who's at the farmhouse," Phillip replied.

"Fine. Lizzie and James are coming, right?" Rick tried again.

"James is with Daisy, who's with the other Coopers," Phillip pointed out.

"And Lizzie is with Bill," Beth provided.

"Who's with the other Lewis's," Mindy pointed out frustrated.

Phillip tried not to grin and finished again with, "…Who're at the farmhouse."

Rick stood up, waving his hands.

"Fine. If you guys want to bail and go over there…"

Even as he spoke Mindy, Beth and Phillip all leapt up and began to collect their belongings and grab their drinks.

"I'll get the cooler," Phillip offered.

"I'll get the food," Beth said.

"I'll get the drinks," Mindy added.

As the trio sprung into action, Rick plopped back down to sit in his chair, staring at the emptiness of his yard as he sipped his beer. Once the girls were out of earshot, Phillip leaned down.

"James did bring up a fine point," he whispered conspiratorially.

"Which is?"

"Over there, they've got hot chicks kissing."

Rick took a drink. "What kind of man do you take me for?"

"A horn dog?"

"Good point. I'll help pack the beer."

Back in the present day, the group all laughed around the table.

"So," Brenda remarked, "lesbianism actually ended the Bauer BBQ?"

"For our son, yes," Phillip said as he motioned toward him at a nearby table, "I will say this, it wasn't just the prospect of those two," he said as he pointed to Olivia and Natalia. "James was quite fond of you too," he said shifting his gaze to Brenda.

"Me?"

Phillip nodded. "The selling point was not one, but two, hot lesbian couples."

The group laughed as Beth smiled and shook her head saying, "Men. I swear."

"I can't blame James," Doris said as she looked over at Brenda. "She's irresistible."

"How'd you meet if you don't mind me asking?" Sam's wife, Sissy, asked.

Doris paused as she considered the question. "Which time?" she asked.

Brenda patted Doris's hand. "What she means is we meet in college originally. We had a psychology class together and became study buddies...and then more. But after about ten years, we…had a falling out."

"Because of me," Ashlee raised her hand.

"No," Brenda and Doris both said immediately.

"Because of me," Doris replied. "I had Ashlee, because I wanted a child."

"As did I," Brenda added.

"But I was afraid to come out of the closet," Doris continued.

"And I wasn't." Brenda smiled.

"Right," Doris said, "Brenda wanted to be viewed as a mom and not a nanny…But I was…scared…so we…" Doris trailed off. The subject seemed to be getting difficult to talk about so Brenda took Doris's hand in hers.

"Long story short," Brenda continued, "we took a twenty year hiatus, until Ashlee came looking for me. And here we are, twenty years later."

"On again, off again, on again," Beth said with a smile. "Sounds familiar."

"So did you know?" Sissy asked. "Was the spark still there after all that time or was it something you gradually came to realize again?"

Brenda and Doris both chuckled lightly. The table looked confused, except for Olivia and Natalia, who simply smiled.

Doris cleared her throat. "That first date didn't go the way we expected," she said with a giggle.

Chapter Eighty

Friday, June 18, 2010

Ashlee had returned home the week before to tell Doris she’d found Brenda. At first, Doris fumed and couldn’t believe how Ashlee overstepped her bounds when it came to her love life. But Ashlee refused to hear Doris rebuff the prospect of calling her former flame.

"She’s expecting you to call!" Ashlee stressed. "This is shot at happiness Mom; don’t pass it up!"

"I could kill you Ashlee," Doris told her as she pointed a finger at her. "I could kill you DEAD, and with my legal background, I’ll probably find a loophole to get away with it."

"Please, Mom. Just listen, okay? She wants YOU to call her and ask her out. She WANTS to meet you," Ashlee tried again.

Finally, after a half-hour of badgering, Doris relented. She took the number and Ashlee made her call right then and there, while she listened. So after a slightly awkward phone call, one filled with uncomfortable pauses and edgy giggles, Doris and Brenda had agreed to meet at The Beacon for dinner.

Towers was definitely out since Doris wasn’t sure if Jamanda still worked there or not. It’d been several months since they spoke, but still…having your old girlfriend serve drinks to a potential new girlfriend couldn’t be good. Besides, Doris did find the food at The Beacon was much better than what Towers served. Olivia’s friendship aside, The Beacon was just more upscale.

For now though, Doris was twisting her cloth napkin in her hand anxiously as she awaited Brenda.

"Not here yet, huh?" Olivia whispered in Doris’s ear, making the mayor jump. Doris’s features hardened as Olivia smiled. The hotelier took a seat across from her friend. She had a white shirt in her hand, which she then rested over one of her shoulders. "Nervous much?" she added.

"Petrified," Doris confessed. "Thanks for asking."

Olivia chuckled. Doris looked back over her shoulder at the entrance to make sure Brenda wasn’t there yet. Last thing she wanted was Brenda seeing her talking to a beautiful stranger. It wasn’t the way to make a good impression.

"What are you doing here?" Doris asked impatiently.

"I’m working," Olivia replied proudly.

Doris looked at her watch. "It’s six o’clock."

"I know. My regular chef is sick so I’m your chef this evening." She patted the garment over her shoulder for good measure.

Doris paused. "That’s a joke, right?"

Olivia giggled. "Why are people amazed to find out I can cook?"

"I asked if you were joking. I didn’t say you COULD cook. I’ve never ate your cooking."

"Well, that changes tonight."

Doris took Olivia’s hand. "Please don’t blow this for me, okay? No super salty soup o-or burnt chicken, alright?"

Olivia patted the hand on top of hers. "Relax. You and Brenda will have a fantastic meal - one of the best you’ve had in this one-horse town. I swear."

"You’re not gonna slip her a micky or anything, are you?"

Olivia leaned over conspiratorially.

"Do you want me to?" she teased.

"No!" Doris said more forcefully and louder than she intended, which made Olivia giggle again.

"Just relax," Olivia told her. "Be yourself. Not the big bad Wolfe, or mayor extraordinaire. Just…be you. Because if that’s not good enough for her then SHE’S not good enough for you."

Doris smiled her thanks. "You’re a good friend."

"And a great chef, but I’ll prove that tonight," Olivia said with a wink. Doris’s grin broadened even more.

"How’s Natalia?" Doris asked with a coy look.

Olivia began to wear a curious expression. "Uhh, okay. Do you know something I don’t?"

"Oh, no. I was just going to see if you were going to tell me."

Olivia was now thoroughly confused. "Tell you what?"

"That Natalia’s pregnant." Olivia jaw dropped and she moved closer to Doris. "She is, isn’t she?"

Olivia looked right and then left before facing Doris again. "Who told you?" she asked.

Doris’s grin widened. "You just did."

"Seriously, how did you even have a clue?"

Doris shrugged. "She just…glows."

"Well, I don’t think it’s joy you’re seeing. She’s been sick as a dog - even worse than with Francesca. But we’re not telling anyone until we get beyond that three-month hump. She’s less likely to miscarry then, so mum’s the word, okay?" Doris nodded and Olivia began to grin again. "I can’t believe you could tell. I wonder if Frank or other people can tell yet."

"Oh, please. To put it kindly, Frank’s not the most observant person in the world. I don’t think you have to worry there. Unless of course he’s the dad again?"

"No." Olivia smiled. "We thought about asking Sam, but then we’d run into a whole ‘my father is my uncle’ kinda thing. Besides, this screwed up town has enough family trees that are warped and intertwined; why contribute to the problem anymore than we have. I mean Emma and Rafe are cousins AND siblings. We decide to skip the drama and went to that bank you recommended."

"Good. I picked a winner over there," Doris said fondly.

"How is Ashlee?" Olivia asked.

"Home for the summer and interning at the station again for a few months. She seems happy and healthy, when she’s not playing matchmaker for her mother."

"Oh, speaking of daughters…!" Olivia said quickly as if she forgot something. "I wanted to tell you what happened yesterday!"

Doris leaned closer in anticipation since she could hear the excitement in Olivia’s voice.

"Frank came to get Chessie for the weekend and it was a little chilly so Natalia went to get her windbreaker. Chessie was on the floor chewing on the rubber yellow lion you got her." Doris grinned and nodded, knowing which toy she was talking about. "Well, Frank and I are talking at the door and Chessie starts doing the ‘Mum,mum,mum’ thing. She drops the toy and then pulls herself to her feet and takes three steps!"

"Uh oh, she’s in motion now," Doris warned playfully.

Olivia nodded enthusiastically. "Well," she added quickly, "she promptly fell face first after that. BUT she didn’t cry at all," Olivia added proudly. "After that, she started to crawl towards us."

"She crawled?" Doris giggled.

Olivia just nodded happily.

"Who did she go to first?" Doris asked, although she figured she knew the answer based on Olivia’s excitement.

The chef grinned smugly and pointed both of her thumbs toward herself.

"Ha!" Doris said triumphantly. "Good job Mum. How’d Frank take that?"

"Well…" Olivia grinned deviously. "…once she made it to me, I turned her and sent her in his direction."

"It’s nice to be the favorite, huh?" Doris asked. Olivia blushed and shrugged. "Oh, please. Of course she’s going to come to you. You spend much more time with her than he does. I’m willing to bet that even when he’s got her, it’s Blake doing most of the work."

"Maybe," Olivia said, "but I know that Frankie does love her. He lights up when he sees her and vice versa. He is a good dad."

"What’d Natalia say about it all?" Doris smiled.

Olivia continued to smirk. "Pretty much what you just said," she chuckled.

The pair giggled until Olivia looked over Doris’s shoulder to see a woman walk in who began to search around and scan the room.

"So did I take your mind off your anxiety about tonight?"

"Yes, thank you," Doris said sincerely.

"Good." Olivia motioned her head toward the door. "Because I think she’s here. Is that her?" she asked.

Doris turned around and Olivia heard her friend’s breath hitch in response.

"Yeah," Doris muttered, barely finding her voice.

"Well, then," Olivia said. "I’m off to the kitchen." Doris’s eyes were glued on the woman at the door. She smiled at how awestruck Doris seemed. "Good luck," she whispered before she moved from the table.

Doris didn’t notice that Olivia had left until she was already on her way back to the service area doors. Her eyes were focused far too much on Brenda who was now headed her way.

Chapter Eighty-One

Friday, June 18, 2010

"Here we go, ladies," the server announced as she and her assistant came to Doris and Brenda’s table. "Beef Wellington," she announced as she set the plate in front of Doris. "And Penne with Roasted Asparagus and Balsamic Sauce," she added as she placed Brenda’s plate down. "Would you like fresh parmesan?" she asked.

Brenda shook her head. "No thank you."

"So the vegan rejects cheese too, huh?" Doris teased.

Brenda snorted. "While I’m not a carnivore who enjoys the taste of flesh, unlike yourself, I do eat dairy products from time to time."

The server grinned at their banter. "Would you ladies care for some more water?"

"Yes, please," Doris replied.

With a nod, the server left and the pair dug into their dishes.

"Oh wow," Brenda said after the first bite. "We have to come back here again." The words were out of her mouth before she could capture them. "I, uh, I mean if you’d like to, maybe, meet again, that is?"

Doris found Brenda’s awkwardness and presumption endearing and she had to smile as she cut into her Wellington.

"As long as you don’t begrudge me for being an meat eater, the answer is yes," Doris replied, which made Brenda grin too.

Doris took a bite and began to chew as the server returned with the water. She swallowed quickly and then turned to their hostess.

"I demand to see the chef," she told her.

"Is there a problem?" the server asked nervously.

"You tell the chef that I’m the mayor of this town and if I don’t see them out here in the next five minutes there will be trouble. And use those words exactly, got it?" Doris said firmly.

The server nodded and then moved swiftly toward the kitchen.

"What’s wrong?" Brenda asked with growing concern.

"Let me try some of yours," Doris said as she motioned across the table. Brenda didn’t move at first, unnerved by what was happening. But then she quickly poked at her plate and put some food on the fork. She brought the utensil over and Doris took the offered bite. She chewed and then began to nod.

"Just as I thought," she said.

"I think it’s delicious," Brenda replied. "What’s the matter?"

By now, Olivia was making her way over. She couldn’t help but grin as she approached their table. When she arrived she put on a steely gaze as her hands went to rest defiantly on her hips.

"You gotta problem with my food, Bitch," Olivia said, trying to look angry.

Brenda’s jaw dropped at the exchange, but Doris just smiled.

"This food…"

"Yes?" Olivia said impatiently.

"… is fan-friggin-tastic," the mayor complimented.

Both women chuckled.

"Told ya," Olivia said smugly.

Brenda began to relax as she watched their banter.

"Seriously, Liv," Doris continued, "it’s some of the best I’ve had in the country, let alone Springfield. I’m-I’m in awe right now." She looked back at Brenda for a moment and then realized introductions were in order. "I’m sorry. Brenda, this is Olivia Spencer, my best friend. Olivia, this is Brenda Berit, my…date." Doris fumbled with the description since Brenda was much more than a casual acquaintance, but not cemented firmly in her life either.

"So you’re the chef here?" Brenda asked.

"No," Olivia replied. "I’m the owner, but with my regular chef out sick, and my back-up out of town, I have to use my culinary skills I acquired prior to becoming an entrepreneur. Our industrious mayor here thought I didn’t know how to cook."

"I’m not to big to admit when I’m wrong. And yes, Olivia, you’ve proved me wrong tonight," she said sincerely. "Anyway, I know you’re busy, but I just wanted to offer my personal compliments to the chef."

"Well, desert is on me ladies, so pick whatever you like," Olivia told them. "I’d stay and chat, but…" she motioned to the nearly full room.

"Thank you," Doris told her.

Olivia leaned down to Doris’s ear. "She’s a hottie, Doris. Don’t blow this."

As she rose up to leave, she extended her hand to Brenda, as Doris blushed slightly.

"It’s nice to meet you Brenda. Enjoy your meal."

"Thank you," Brenda said warmly before Olivia made her way back to the kitchen.

The rest of the meal was spent talking about their lives – Doris’s stint as protector through the D.A. and then the mayor’s office; Brenda’s goal of making the world better by educating young minds. As they feed each other pieces from a red velvet cake and drank café au lait, Brenda knew she had to bring up a touchy subject – one that led to the demise of their first relationship.

"So…?" Brenda began apprehensively.

"Go ahead," Doris coaxed, hearing the trepidation in Brenda’s voice.

"Have you officially come out?"

"You mean did I hold a press conference to ‘confess’ something ‘scandalous’ like so many other politicians?" she teased.

Brenda just nodded.

"No," Doris continued. "But I’m not hiding either. If someone asks then I’d tell them."

"Tell them what exactly?"

"I prefer the company of women…and possibly Brad Pitt." That comment made Brenda laugh. "Come on, as far as pretty boys go, you gotta admit, he’s one of the prettiest there is."

"Yes, I wouldn’t throw him out of bed on a cold night," Brenda admitted. They both giggled, but then a silence began to pass between them. "I just…I live my life openly," she explained. "I’m not afraid of who I am or loving who I want…I need someone who feels the same."

Brenda’s eyes fell to the coffee cup as her fingers nervously played with the rim. Doris watched Brenda for a moment and then looked at the small dance floor where a single couple was dancing. She then turned back to Brenda with a grin and dug into her purse, before she stood up. The movement forced Brenda to look up to see what Doris was doing. When she did, she watched Doris extend her hand and motion her head toward the lone couple.

"Dance with me."

It wasn’t a question, but it wasn’t spoken with forced authority either. It was more a statement of fact; something that Doris wanted, plain and simple. With an idyllic smile, Brenda took the offered appendage and let Doris lead her. When they got to the center of the floor, Doris held up a finger and left Brenda there for a moment as she talked to the quartet near the stage. She handed something to the keyboardist and he nodded.

As Doris made her way back to Brenda, they began playing ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’ by Foreigner. The professor put a hand over her blushing face for a moment before Doris snared her by the waist and began to sway.

"You remembered this song," Brenda whispered softly as she rested her head in the crook of Doris’s neck.

"Remembered? No, I didn’t remember…I never forgot," Doris said, her voice cracking slightly.

Brenda tightened her hold.

Chapter Eighty-Two

Friday, June 18, 2010

Doris and Brenda continued to dance as a fair share of the diners turned to look at them for a short while. Before long though, many of them went back to their meals and conversations as the pair continued to sway on the dance floor.

"You might remember the song, but do you remember the first time we heard it?" Brenda asked.

Doris nodded. "Yep, I took your hand while we were driving to the campus in that gold ’75 Plymouth Duster," she giggled and Brenda followed suit. "Remember it had the ‘decorative package’?"

"Right," she said, getting excited at the memory, "the white seats with that brown and red plaid design in the middle!"

"If that didn’t scream ‘lesbian’ I’m not sure what did," Doris joked.

Brenda bit her lip to keep from laughing too hard. "It was ever dependable too. I remember how you had to push the gas peddle three times, wait three seconds, pump three more times and THEN turn the key. Remember that?"

"And that only worked from time to time. It was hell being a broke college student, huh?"

"True," Brenda replied. "But it had it’s perks too as I recall."

"Like?"

"I don’t know… reading books to each other because we couldn’t afford going to the movies…"

Doris nodded in agreement with a smile of recollection.

"Trying to figure out how to make Cup O’Noodles into a different dish four times a week."

"I liked it when you used mushrooms."

"How about when we’d go to the party store. I’d buy a bottle of cheap wine at the counter while you’d sneak out with the good stuff under your coat."

"Oh, my god," Doris giggled. "I forgot about that."

"Two for the price of one," Brenda replied.

"You know I’d feel guilty if the guy running the store didn’t charge everyone two dollars more for a gallon of milk than anyone else in town."

"So he had it coming then?" Brenda teased.

"Damn right," Doris said trying to justify the action.

"Well, we weren’t poor for very long after you graduated. You went to work for that law firm downtown and spent your first bonus on something wonderful."

"Ashlee," Doris said fondly.

A short silence passed between them. "She seems like she’s a wonderful young woman, Doris. You-you did a good job. I just…wanted more."

"I know that," Doris replied. "And if I’d been braver I would have given you more. But I had goals; plans and I was scared; a coward."

Brenda nodded melancholy, but then she started to grin. "You don’t seem scared now," she remarked as she gestured to their close proximity to each other. "You’ve changed."

"In a good way, I hope," Doris replied.

"Yes," Brenda said as she reached up and stroked Doris’s cheek. She was rewarded when Doris didn’t turn away like in times past, but instead leaned into the embrace. "There is one thing that hasn’t changed, though."

"What’s that?"

"You still have the bluest eyes in the world." Doris bit her lip and blushed. For the moment, she couldn’t meet Brenda’s eyes and turned away slightly. "It’s true," Brenda went on. "Don’t be embarrassed."

"Well, those blue eyes are now surrounded by crow’s feet."

"No, just laugh lines that are hardly noticeable even close up," she countered as she kissed Doris on the temple.

"I have to disagree," Doris replied. "…but you on the other hand…You…I…You’re breathtaking," she stumbled.

"Stop."

"No, I mean it. I literally stopped breathing when I saw you walk in tonight."

"You’re making that up," Brenda giggled.

Doris wasn’t smiling. She cupped Brenda gently by the chin forcing them to look eye-to-eye. Slowly, Brenda’s grin began to fade and she studied Doris’s face as intensely as she was being studied.

"I’ve wasted 20 years. I’m not wasting another second," Doris said decisively.

With that, she lowered her head and captured Brenda’s lips with hers. She was both relieved and excited as Brenda returned the gesture. After a few moments, both women pulled back to find out the music had ended and they stood alone on the dance floor.

"You wanna get out of here?" Doris asked softly.

"I don’t want this night to end," Brenda replied. "Part of me feels like if I walk out that door I’m going to wake up and all of this is just going to be a dream. Ashlee coming to see me; you calling me; all of it…"

"The night doesn’t have to end just because we leave here. It could be a new beginning," Doris countered hopefully. "And you’re right - this is a dream, but it’s not one we have to wake up from. We can have this. We CAN."

"Doris," Brenda sighed. She couldn’t find the words at the moment, so she took Doris’s hand and led her back to their table.

"I…" Brenda tried to begin as they sat down. "I’m still…physically attracted to you."

"Likewise," Doris countered playfully.

"But we need to go slow here and make sure we…you know…fit."

"So I should have had them play "Nice and Easy’ by Frank Sinatra instead?" Doris teased.

Brenda smiled. "In a word…Yes. We’re on the road to romance; that’s safe to say, but let’s make all the stops along the way."

Doris smiled at her reciting the lyrics. "Nice and easy, huh?" she replied. "I can do nice and easy."

"Good, because I really do want to see you again…"

"I want to see you too, obviously."

Brenda nodded, but still looked nervous. "Plus, there’s something else that you don’t know." Doris looked at Brenda expectantly. "I’m seeing someone," she said in a rush.

Doris looked away, trying to mask her disappointment.

"Oh," she muttered. "That’s, ah…Oh…I mean, why wouldn’t you?" She finally said getting her bearings. "You’re absolutely gorgeous and funny and smart and…How could you NOT have someone in your life, right?"

"I don’t want to hurt her," Brenda replied.

"No, I-I get it. Besides, you didn’t come here with any other intention other than talking to me, right? I’m, uh, I’m not sure what to say right now so I’m just gonna shut up."

Doris snapped her mouth closed and Brenda smiled. "It’s not anyone who can make Doris Wolfe shut up."

"I’m not laughing here Brenda," Doris countered and looked like she might be on the verge of tears.

"Hey," Brenda said reaching for her hand only to have Doris pull it way slowly. Giving up, Brenda returned to her side of the table. "I just started seeing her, like two months ago, so it’s not serious."

"Really?" Doris said hopefully.

Brenda nodded. "But I still feel like I owe it to her to make a clean break before I start anything with you. Truth is, I’m not sure how serious I was about her before you called. She’s like half my age," Brenda chuckled, sounding slightly embarrassed. "But she says she likes older women so how can I blame her? I’m just glad you didn’t pick Towers tonight. She works over there." Doris began to rub the bridge of her nose. "Anyway, she said the last relationship left her feeling a little apprehensive about love and I don’t want to be another jackass that hurts her since we’re kinda sorta together. Know what I mean?"

Doris cleared her throat. "Reddish brown hair, curly, long, works at Towers…She’s not named Jamanda, is she?"

"You know her?"

Doris raised her hand. "Jackass in question." In a quieter voice she added, "Good lord that woman is the Frank Cooper of the lesbian world."

"The who of the what now?" Brenda asked confused.

Doris brushed off the question. "It doesn’t matter. The point is I completely understand. I don’t want to see Jamanda get hurt, particularly if you’re interested in dating me. Yes, she and I dated – okay, more than dated – but I wanted someone who’s more than a ‘trophy wife’ on my arm."

"So I’m not beautiful enough to be a ‘trophy wife,’ huh?"

"You got the beauty, Dear, but you’ve also got the brains. You’re like Michelle Obama – you’ve even got great biceps too."

Brenda nodded slowly. "So…you broke Jamanda’s heart, huh? Something else we have in common."

Doris cleared her throat. "She’ll get over losing you. Me, on the other hand, I’m not sure I can do it twice in a lifetime. Truth is…I know I can’t, but I’m brave enough to see where this might go…are you?"

Brenda reached over for Doris’s hand and this time the older woman let her take it.

"I am."

Chapter Eighty-Three

Friday, June 18, 2010

"That's sweet. So you and Doris waited then before you...?" Beth asked the duo about their sex life without saying the actual words since Doris and Brenda's grandson, Leo, was there.

"Yes," Brenda nodded. "For about all of twelve hours," she chuckled.

"Doris moves fast, huh?" Olivia teased.

"Yeah," the mayor agreed sarcastically. "I'm fast. Twelve hours and twenty years later."

"Well," Brenda continued, "Doris dropped me off at home around 9 P.M and by 9 A.M. I'd called Jamanda and broke up with her. And you came over around when exactly?" she asked as she turned to Doris.

"9:03," Doris replied dryly with a grin before taking a drink of her champaign.

The gatherers at the table chuckled.

"That sounds about right," Brenda giggled.

"I called in sick and spent two days in bed," Doris said raising her glass and taking another drink. "And here we are 20 years later."

"You musta been pretty sick to be in bed for two days, Nana," Leo said innocently.

"Let me tell ya, Kiddo. I wasn't gettin' out of that bed for nothin'," she replied.

The gatherers released the laughs they were trying to hold back. Leo looked confused, but Ashlee went to work distracting him with offering him a sip of her champaign. Doris looked at the frown on Leo's face that slowly turned into the grin at the prospect of partaking in a 'grown up' drink. She got up and walked over to Natalia and leaned down to her ear.

"Do you mind if I use the restroom in the house?"

"No, go ahead Doris."

"Thanks."

Doris walked by the wedding table and winked at Emma as she passed, making the young woman smile. The mayor continued on until she came to Francesca. She crooked her finger and the young lady leaned forward.

"Come with me. I need your help," she whispered.

Francesca scrunched her eyes in curiosity, but she got up and walked around the table as Doris led her toward the house.

The D.J. turned down the dinner music and began to speak.

"I'd like to have Emma and Maureen make their way up here for the first dance of the evening, so ladies if you would?" he asked politely as he motioned toward the make shift dance floor.

A love ballad by Lady Gaga from a few years prior began to play as Maureen led Emma to the floor, their hands locked together. Back toward the house, Doris turned to Francesca.

"Do you have to go dance as part of the wedding party?"

"Ha! That means that Clarissa and Jodi would have to dance together and that IS NOT happening. Trust me. You'd have a better chance of getting me and Elena on the floor together. Emma and Maureen both thought it'd be best to just do a dance for them and the parents."

"What is it with you two anyway? I think the only time I see you and El get along is on the basketball court."

"Ask her," Francesca replied with a shrug as they crossed the threshold of the house. "Anyway, why are we here, Auntie D? You gonna rob us?"

"In a way. I need old photo albums of the family, going as far back as possible. To when Ava and Rafe were kids if you got 'em."

"Why?"

"Because I asked nicely."

"I didn't hear a 'please' in there."

"Please." Doris sounded annoyed.

"Gee, can I get a little bit of sincerity?"

"Pretty please with sugar on top," she exaggerated.

"Now you're just being annoying." Francesca grinned and walked over to the coat closet in the living room. She pulled down two albums and handed one to Doris. "I think these are the ones that have Ava and Rafe's school pictures and stuff. Let's have a look."

Doris flipped through a few pages and then stopped. "Bingo," she muttered.

"Find something?" Francesca asked as she looked over Doris's shoulder.

They were looking at a picture of a young Natalia and Rafe that looked like it was taken at a Cubs game. Doris pulled the cellophane protector back and gently pulled the picture back from its place on the page.

"I'm stealing this," she told Francesca, "but you never saw it."

"Saw what?" She smiled.

"Good girl. Put these books back and let's get to the party."

Chapter Eighty-Four

 

Friday, June 18, 2010

Elena took a drink of her Champaign as she watched her girlfriend, Rachel, talking with James and Daisy and their eight-year-old daughter, Diantha, at a nearby table.

"She seems sweet," Elena heard someone say from behind her. She turned to see Ava standing there watching Rachel.

Elena gave a small grin. "She is. I should probably go over and rescue her from our crazy family. I think we're done with the formal stuff for now."

When Elena didn't move, Ava took a seat. "Why don't you bring her up here?" she asked. Elena shrugged in response. "Is the thrill gone?" Ava teased.

"No," Elena insisted. "She's...great. She's really...great. I'm just not sure if a wedding is the right place to bring her at this point."

"Meaning?"

"Wedding's are a big deal commitment and I'm not sure if she and I are really at that stage."

"I'm not sure I get it," Ava replied.

"Well," Elena paused as she thought about how to explain her feelings. "I mentioned I'd like to elope, but she loves...this..." Elena said as she waved her hands at all the decor.

"You feel like she's trying to plan a wedding for you two?"

"Kind of," Elena said after giving it a moments thought. "Told you it was stupid," she added.

"Not at all. You've been dating what? About six months now?" Elena nodded her answer. "It's not that uncommon to examine where you fit with each other. There's also another point here too – you're young." Elena sighed. "I didn't mean it as an insult. I'm saying you've got a lot of years ahead of you. You might want to...explore things a bit more a-and not 'settle down' just yet."

Elena seemed to think about what her sister was saying.

"Are you glad you got married, Ava?"

"Not every second of the day," she chuckled. "...but yes, by the end of the day I am glad," she answered. "But I found a good, honest man who's a great husband and an attentive father."

"How did you find him? How did you know he's the one?"

Ava grinned. "I took mom's advice. I did everything different than I'd done before when it came to love. I didn't follow my heart or my...nether regions..." They both chuckled. "I trusted my head, and the more I got to know about him, the more I loved him."

"So there wasn't a spark?"

"Yeah, there was. He pissed me off to no end," Ava laughed. "Even to this day we enjoy aggravating each other."

Elena just nodded and picked up her glass of champaign. "I think it's time to save her from the Spauling/Cooper clan."

On the dance floor, Emma and Maureen had finished their dance and the DJ asked for the parents to make their way to the dance floor. Natalia stood up and offered her hand to Olivia.

"M'lady, can I have this dance?"

"You can have every dance," she answered as she took her wife's hand.

Dimples blazing, Natalia led Olivia to the dance floor as Phillip and Beth and Matt and Charlotte followed behind them.

"You know this was one of my goals?" Natalia commented.

"What?" Olivia asked as Frank Sinatra's rendition of 'The Way You Look Tonight' began to play. They began to sway back and forth; hand in hand; hip to hip.

"When I was trying to help you with your surgery recovery, I wanted you to be able to dance at Emma's wedding."

Olivia giggled. "Remember that day I kissed you the first time?"

"After the spa?"

"No, the very first time, after Emma's 'Two Mommies' presentation."

Natalia buried her face in Olivia's neck. "Yes, when I was being...evasive."

"Dense is more like it," Olivia chuckled.

"Nah, I knew what you were trying to say."

"Ha!" Olivia pointed for a moment before retaking Natalia's hand. "So you weren't that naïve."

"No, I was just trying to aggravate you," she giggled.

"Thanks," Olivia sighed.

"It worked, but I didn't think you'd go as far as you did to prove your point."

"Neither did I."

"I should have kissed you back that day."

"I'm glad you didn't." Natalia's eyebrows went up in surprise. "Not that I didn't want you to kiss me - I think you weren't ready and since I'd had a few martini's it might not have stopped at a few kisses. I might have scared you away for good."

Natalia considered her words. "I loved you then. I know I did. I just..."

"You didn't know how to deal with it."

Natalia nodded. "And I ran to Frank...Come to think of it, he grabbed me and kissed me too that day." She chuckled.

"You didn't like it as much, huh?"

Natalia began to blush. "Not even close. Your impulsive kisses are much better."

Olivia smiled. "My original point here was you said something that day that I remember. You mentioned we might be dancing at Emma's wedding to Steve."

"If Stephen had his wish today that might have happened," Natalia said.

"Nah, I like Maureen much more," Olivia replied and Natalia grinned wider. "But, you know, that comment about us dancing?" Natalia nodded for her to continue. "I really did want to dance with you here - the two of us I mean...even though I'm sure you meant it another way back then."

Natalia smiled. "I'll tell you a secret after 20 years...You know, in that scenario in my head, I didn't even think about Frank being there with me. I was thinking of you. I was thinking of this moment right now. I should have known then, right?" Olivia grinned. "In my mind, it was just the four of us – you, me, Em' and Rafe," Natalia explained.

"So is this dance all you thought it'd be?"

"No. It's much more." Natalia said with great certainty. "Look at us. We've had some big hurdles over the years, but we're closer to Ava than we've ever been. We have a slew of friends who are closer than some families. We've got two more beautiful daughters along the way and two beautiful grandkids. Everything is just..."

"Beautiful?"

Natalia smiled. "Beautiful," she said with a nod. "But me, I've got the most beautiful woman of all right here."

Olivia pulled back and twirled Natalia around and brought her back so their bodies were snug against each other.

"That's impossible," Olivia whispered. "Because I've got the most stunning woman in my arms."

Natalia reached a hand up and stroked Olivia's face before kissing her softly on the lips. When she pulled back slightly she said, "Thank you for the best dance of my life."

Olivia smiled. "Thank you for giving me a life worth living."

Chapter Eighty-Five

Friday, June 18, 2010

As Emma and Maureen left the dance floor, they began to make their way around the tables to greet the well-wishers. Emma saw a flash of light at her feet and looked down. She noticed another half-dollar on the ground. Instead of a 'walking liberty' coin, like the one she found just after dinner, this one had a picture of Ben Franklin with the year 1963 on it. It appeared to be in fine condition too. She picked it up and examined it more closely.

"It's another one," she told her wife as she held it out.

Maureen rolled it around in her hand. "I have to admit this is kind of odd," Maureen replied.

A few tables away Buzz was nursing an Amaretto Sour when he felt a pair of elegant hands grip his shoulders. He didn't turn completely around, but he could tell by the size and shape it was an older female.

"Is there a beautiful woman back there who's going to wheel me away?" he asked before he turned more fully. "Why, yes, it’s my favorite stalker," he replied with a grin. "Have a seat, Nola," he told her.

"How's Company doing?" she asked.

"Good, Daisy's managing the chain while Zack and Jude are running the day-to-day stuff in Springfield."

"How're the Coopers doing on a whole?" she asked as she sat beside him.

"Good; the kids are good. Grandkids are great," he said pointing out Francesca who was laughing at the bar with Colin O’Neill. "But this busted hip comes at a bad time. I'm not able to whisk the lovely ladies off their feet."

"You could literally take them for a spin on the dance floor though," she teased.

"You know I might hold you to that," he said as he smiled. "How's the Reardon clan doing?"

"It's a day for celebration. Maureen is over the moon and Emma is just...she's gorgeous – inside and out."

"They're both great kids. Now if they get away from the insanity that's Springfield they might actually make it," he joked. He looked serious for a moment. "I heard about Quint. I'm sorry, Hun."

"Me too. I miss him...and likewise, I'm sorry to hear about Lillian. I talked to Beth earlier. She said Lillian searched a long time to find a good man, but she found him."

"I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked." He held back his tears.

"I think that's true for anyone left behind," she replied. "But they're with us, you know? Right now they're all watching over us."

"Does that mean I won't be able to take you for a spin then?" he asked trying to lighten the mood.

"I don't think Quinton or Lillian would mind," she replied sweetly.

"You'll have to get in line," Holly said as she came to lean between the pair. She gave Buzz a quick kiss on the cheek. "I've got dibs."

"You know you are my son's mother-in-law. Isn't that illegal or something?" Buzz teased.

"I won't tell if you don't," Holly retorted as she took a seat on the other side of Buzz.

"See?" he told them. "Now this is good. A beautiful gal on each arm." He smiled. "I could get used to this."

All three of them smiled.

Back at one of the family table’s Natalia was leaning over and chatting with her sister and brother.

"How are you guys doing?" she asked as she put a hand on each their shoulders and stood between them.

"Wonderful," Joseph answered, "and the food was just incredible."

"That’s true," Mary replied. "Usually wedding food is, I don’t know, kinda dried out. Not only is this edible, but it’s also delicious. My compliments to the chef."

"That would be my wife, well, her chefs that she’s trained. The Beacon does a lot of large functions so we need to cook for ‘many at once’ on a regular basis."

"Isabella and mom don’t know what they’re missing," Joe said, "On many levels actually, which is all the more reason I’m happy to be here."

"We’re happy to have you both," Natalia said sincerely.

"Do you ever wonder though?" Mary asked.

"About?" Natalia replied.

"Well, now that Dad’s gone, maybe…I don’t know, maybe they do feel like they’ve been missing out."

"I made my peace with all of that a long time ago," Natalia said. "I’ve got the ones that truly matter right here," she added as she squeezed their shoulders, making them both smile. "That’s all that counts."

In her mind though, she flashed back to 20 years before and a day that resolved her confidence.

Friday, March 5th, 2010

It had been a month since Natalia’s siblings, Mary and Joseph, appeared on her doorstep. After a few weeks of phone calls, emails and instant messages with her siblings Natalia agreed to meet with her parents, her older sister – Isabella and her two younger siblings, Ramon and Abigail, that she’d never met. They decided to gather at the house Natalia grew up in on the south side of Chicago.

Most of the row houses looked the same – they stood only a few feet apart, separated by worn chain link fencing with just a small patch of grass for a front yard. Although it had been years since she’d been there, Natalia remembered the house’s location. She pointed out the car window and Olivia brought Mercedes wagon to a stop in front.

"Think the car will be safe here?" Olivia teased.

Natalia grinned. "Probably not," she answered honestly with a slight giggle. "As long as it’s not on blocks and we can leave at a moment’s notice, it’ll be fine. Besides, I don’t think we’ll be here too long."

"It’s been 20 years Natalia – they might be different people today."

Natalia turned and faced her lover. "If your mother was alive, how do you think she’d receive the news that we’re a couple?"

"My mom’s dead. Yours isn’t," she said as she motioned her head toward the house.

"You didn’t answer the question."

"Not well, okay?" Olivia relented and ran her hand through her hair. "But my mother was a narrow-minded bigot and a religious zealot."

Natalia gave her a nervous grin. "Exactly, my folks aren’t much different so, really, chances are this car’s engine won’t even get cold. Just have your keys ready is all I’m saying."

"You know, we don’t have to do this, right? We can leave now."

Olivia closed her hand over Natalia’s.

"No, I have to do this," Natalia replied, locking their fingers together. "Just be prepared for anything in there and don’t take anything they say personally."

"Hey," Olivia said as she ran her fingertips over Natalia’s cheek. "I’m supposed to be the one comforting you, not the other way around."

"Promise me that no matter what’s said, by anyone, myself included, you’re the love of my life, okay?"

Olivia looked confused. "Uh, okay?"

"I might get flustered and say things that come out wrong is all. I just want you to know I love you more than life, Liv. I do."

"Me too and I’m here for you," Olivia replied softly and pulled Natalia toward her. She kissed her tenderly on the lips and when she pulled back she paused to rest her forehead on her lover’s. "Ready?"

Natalia just nodded.

They exited the vehicle and Olivia opened the rusty gate to allowed Natalia to enter first. When they got to the porch, Natalia raised her hand to knock, but the door opened.

Chapter Eight-Six

Friday, March 5th, 2010

Joseph was standing there in the doorway of his parent’s home with a wide grin.

"I’m glad you agreed to come," he told Natalia. "Nice to see you again, Olivia," he added as he opened the door wider and let them inside.

Olivia gave him a polite nod and a quiet, "You too."

Upon seeing them, Mary walked over and gave both women a hug. Olivia and Natalia both released a breath to calm their nerves. They knew at least someone in the family was willing to welcome them so far.

A few moments later an older woman entered the room and Olivia knew immediately it had to be Natalia’s mother. Although she was slightly overweight, gray haired and somewhat wrinkled, she could see how once upon a time she might have resembled Natalia. The old woman looked like she might cry and she started to make her way over toward the pair. She stopped abruptly though when a taller man, but not by much, entered the room. It was almost as if the temperature in the room dropped twenty degrees upon his arrival. All eyes fell to him, including the eyes of a woman around the same age as Natalia and Olivia, who sat in the corner, saying nothing.

When no one said anything, Mary took it upon herself to speak up.

"Olivia," she announced. "This is our sister Isabella," she said motioning to the woman in the corner chair. "And our mom, Yaira, and our dad, Julio," she finished in introduction. "Ramon and Abigail called. I guess Abigail's car broke down so Ramon is picking her up after he gets off his shift. They'll be on the way, shortly."

"Hello, everyone," Olivia said as she gave a short wave to everybody.

"Is it true?" Julio asked the pair.

Olivia and Natalia looked at each other; unsure of whom he was talking to, but Natalia faced him first.

"Is what true?" she asked her father.

"Eres una marica."

Olivia looked to Natalia, unsure of what he was saying.

"Yo sí soy maricóna, ¿y qué?"

He began to shake his head in disapproval and Yaira teared up.

"No," Natalia’s mother said as she began to weep and shake her head in despair. "Mi hija, no."

Olivia wasn’t sure what was happening, but she knew it wasn’t good.

"Two things," Natalia said pointing an angry finger at her parents. "One, I stopped being your daughter when you tossed me out so stop with the ‘mi hija’ crap. Honestly, what kind of parent throws out their kid and then lies to their other children? You cared more about appearances than being compassionate. How ‘Christ-like’ is that, huh?" Mary and Joseph looked on with growing concern. "Second, I love Olivia. I thought Mary and Joe made that clear to you, but obviously I was mistaken."

"Natalia, I did tell them-." Mary tried to say, but Natalia simply ignored her.

"For the record," Natalia continued, "I have a wonderful family and a wonderful life in Springfield. I don’t need a group of people who turned their backs on me. I came here because Mary and Joe asked." From the corner, Isabella smirked. "And you," she pointed at her. "Wipe that cocky ass grin off your face before I knock it off." Isabella stood up and looked angry, but Olivia moved slightly forward, putting herself between Natalia and Isabella. "I came here because we were invited, but that doesn’t mean we have to stay and be insulted. God! I should have known better!"

Natalia took Olivia by the arm and began to lead her to the door. Under his breath, Julio muttered, "Una marimacha."

Natalia turned around at the last moment and looked him square in the eyes.

"Vete a la chingada!" she shouted and then slammed the door behind her.

As they walked down the steps, Olivia asked, "What just happened?"

Natalia continued to walk briskly and Olivia raced to keep up. In the end, the hotelier arrived at the vehicle first and opened the car door to let her wife inside.

"Short version?" she asked.

Olivia nodded.

"He called us fags. I said I was gay and who cares. My mom cried. He muttered dyke and I basically told him to go fuck himself."

Olivia looked surprised. She knew the exchange wasn’t good, but the vulgarity was a bit alarming to her.

"So everything I expected would happen in there just happened," Natalia added as she climbed inside.

"Are you okay?" Olivia asked worriedly, although Natalia was starting to smile.

Natalia considered the question and bit her lip for a moment.

"Yeah, yeah I am," she said soundly, with no remorse. "It’s strangely liberating. I always wondered what would happen when I saw them again, or if I would even see them for that matter…"

"Now what?"

Natalia grinned wider. "Now I know. I never have to wonder again. I can leave it behind. I know it sounds odd, but I can be a real mother to Chessie without having to overcompensate. I did that with Rafe you know?"

"Overcompensate?"

Natalia nodded. "I didn’t want to be hard; heartless almost, like my parents and that’s how I ended up with a son who acted more like a spoiled brat than a man. I’m not making that mistake with Emma, or Chessie, or the next one. And as long as I have you and our family that’s all I need to be happy. This family walked away from me a long time ago. I’m just finally walking away from them."

Mary came running outside the house with Joseph hot on her heels. Behind them Julio was shouting from the porch in Spanish. Olivia couldn’t understand it, but she knew, once more, it wasn’t good.

"Oh, Natalia," Mary began apolitically. "Joe and I did tell them about you and Olivia. Dad shouldn’t have-."

"Stop right there. The man lied to you for years and told you I was dead, Mary. I don’t blame you." They looked up to the porch where Julio continued to rant and rave as Yaira stood in the background. The old woman continued to look out the doorway, almost longingly, as if she wished she could talk to Natalia for a few moments.

Yes, Natalia said she was finished with them, but a part of her still wished she had a few minutes alone with her mother. But she couldn’t do that though. She knew the hell that her mother would catch for ‘disobeying’ Julio, so instead she turned away. She knew her mother stayed with the man out of a sense of financial security he offered. Of course, thanks to Olivia, she had the means to help her mother live independently now. She knew though that her mother’s conformity went much deeper than just money. Divorce was a sin according to HER church and her mother would continue to stay – not out of a sense of duty to Julio, but more out of a sense of duty to God and the promise she made to Him. So all Natalia could do now was look away and focus on her sister and brother who didn’t have those implications hanging over their heads.

"He said he wanted to see you," Mary continued. "I thought it was to make amends; a new start. I honestly didn’t know he’d…"

"Look, you and Joe need to leave now." She spared a glance to Julio, who continued to rant. "You can go back after he cools off if you want, but you don’t want to be around him right now." Natalia released a long sigh. "It seems some things never do change, huh?"

"I’m sorry," Mary said sincerely.

"I know you are." Natalia cradled her face for a moment, but then got a look of inspiration. "Hey, why don’t you and Joe come with us? We’ll grab dinner at L2O. How’s that sound?"

"That fancy fish place?" Joseph asked.

Natalia nodded excitedly. Mary looked torn between the house and the car, unsure of where she should promise her loyalty. For Joseph, though, it wasn’t even a question. He already started to climb into the back seat.

"Come on," Natalia coaxed her sister as Joe waved her to follow him.

Mary looked back at the house one final time and then climbed into the backseat too. With the decisions made, Olivia reached to shut Natalia’s door, but she stopped when Natalia pulled her into an embrace. The dark haired woman snaked one leg out of the vehicle and hooked it around Olivia’s upper thighs as she kissed her soundly. Julio shouted a few more obscenities and then slammed his house door shut. Olivia pulled back after they heard the slam and she heard Joseph snickering from the back seat.

"That was really juvenile," Olivia said as she grinned at her lover.

"Shut him up, didn’t it?" Olivia had to giggle. "Admit it, you loved it."

Olivia had to smile at the coo of her girlfriend’s voice.

"Yeaaaah, I’m juvenile too," she laughed. She helped Natalia put her leg inside and then shut the door.

As they drove away, Natalia accepted that she’d never have all her blood kin around her, but she’d have the ones that mattered. And today, at Emma’s wedding, she had just that - her younger sister and baby brother, both of whom had the good sense and decency to remain a part of her life. In fact, along with Blake and Brenda, Mary stood up as maid of honor at her wedding to Olivia.

A few months after Olivia and Natalia nuptials though Mary had called to say that Julio had passed away. The medical examiner would most likely rule it a heart attack. Natalia offered her condolences because, in truth, she didn’t mourn the man. Out of the forty plus years she’d been alive, she only knew the man for sixteen of them. If anything, she mourned the time that ‘might have been’ if he hadn’t been so judgmental. But what was done was done. With his death that relationship was over for good. There was nothing she could do to change it now.

She debated about whether to go to the funeral, but she didn’t want to intrude or cause a ruckus. So instead she offered Mary and Joseph the chance to have dinner that night at the farmhouse so they could share a handful of Julio stories where he was a decent dad rather than an overbearing, sanctimonious father. But again, that was decades ago and although Natalia would never really associate with her mother, Isabella and the ‘unknown siblings’ she was happy.

Natalia was on the verge of saying just that to her brother and sister when a pair of arms snaked around her waist. She turned and smiled when she saw the familiar face that embraced her.

Chapter Eighty-Seven

Saturday, June 9th, 2029

Remy Boudreau leaned over and kissed Natalia on the cheek before he released her.

"Hey you," she greeted him before turning to her siblings. "This is our friend Remy. He’s one of the first people I met when I came to Springfield."

"And the first one she kissed."

"Until he found out I had a kid," Natalia countered playfully.

"Hey! That’s not true," Remy replied. "You were pretty distracted yourself at the time, if I remember correctly."

"I’ll give you that," she replied.

"But we’ve managed to stick together," he continued. "Us few minorities in Springfield have to." Natalia slapped him playfully on the chest. Remy looked around nervously and said in a suspicious voice, "I don’t know what you think, but if you ask me there’s an awful lot of white folks around here."

The trio of Latinos laughed although Natalia playfully slapped Remy again.

"Where’s Christine; Clayton?" she asked.

"Clay’s at the bar with Francesca and the crew," he said as he motioned toward them. "Christine? I have no idea. She’s somewhere here though. I think I saw her eyeing the desert table, which by the way has one of the most beautiful cakes I’ve ever seen, and no, I’m not gay by pointing out how fabulous it looks."

"Hey," Joseph said, "I’m man enough to admit that cake is gorgeous."

It had ten tiers, with white columns and was garnished with what appeared to be Victorian lace icing around the sides. At the very top it featured two brides on a lacy pedestal holding hands.

"I’d ask what it costs," he continued, "but I’m sure it’s worth more than my townhouse."

The group laughed and Natalia insisted, "It didn’t cost that much," and then muttered under her breath, "I don’t think." In a louder voice she said, "I didn’t ask either to be honest. I didn’t want to know."

"Out of sight, out of mind?" Remy asked.

"Exactly." Natalia nodded.

Up at the bar the wedding party was getting a few drinks.

"Rum and coke," Francesca said confidently.

"Sorry," the bartender told her. "Strict orders – no serving to minors."

"I’m 21," she replied.

"I have a list." He grinned. "And you’re not on it."

"Nice try," Olivia said as she passed and continued on her way.

"Fine," Francesca sighed. "A coke," she replied and the bartender went to work.

She turned toward the small circle that had gathered nearby that consisted of Colin O’ Neill, Clay Boudreau, Peyton Spaulding, Sarah Randall, Elena, her girlfriend Rachel.

"Make mine a rum and coke, please," Sarah called over.

He spared a glance to Francesca.

"Yes, Ms. Randall," he answered as he turned back to Sarah.

"I’m on the list," the older woman gloated.

"Ha. Ha," Francesca said deadpanned.

"So what are you studying, Rachel?" Peyton asked.

"Economics," she replied.

"Me too." She nodded. "I have to. I think it’s a law that one of the Spauldings know something about money," she teased.

"What about you, Colin?" Rachel asked.

"I’m not in college," he said. "I work for my brother, Shane, at Lewis Construction."

Peyton turned to Elena. "How about you?"

"NYU's philosophy program."

Francesca grinned. "I think; therefore I annoy my sister."

The group chuckled.

"And you, Chessie?" Clayton asked.

"Secondary Education and Teaching," Elena answered before Francesca. "She wants to control young minds."

"Mold. I want to mold young minds," Francesca corrected.

"Well if anyone could make someone’s mind moldy, it’s you," she giggled.

Francesca grinned and took her glass from the bar and raised it in a toasting fashion.

"Are you studying somewhere?" Rachel asked Clayton.

He nodded. "My grandparents had a trust fund put aside for me so I’m up at U of C - Psychology major."

"He’s made his granny so proud," Francesca teased. Rachel looked confused. "His grandmom’s a psychologist," she added.

"Ah." Rachel nodded.

"Psychology’s good. Maybe someday you can fix these two, Clay," Ava said as she slid up to the bar and pointed to Elena and Francesca.

"I’m studying to be a psychologist; not a miracle worker," he replied with a grin.

"Really though," Peyton said. "I’m not sure how to figure you two out."

"What do you mean?" Elena asked.

"At home you fight like cats and dogs, but on a basketball court you go together like peas and carrots. Why is that?"

"The ‘coach’ made us get along," Francesca replied.

"Coach?" Peyton asked.

"Our mom," Elena offered. "Welding us into the well-oiled machine we are today."

"And it’s one of the few places were we fit. And it still is," Francesca added. "That’s why I don’t mind her being at NYU with me." Even Elena had to nod in agreement. "Oh, god. Remember that time at Oakdale?" Francesca asked Elena.

"How could I forget," she laughed.

"What happened?" Peyton asked.

Francesca and Elena looked at each other and giggled.

"Mom was… how would you put it?" Elena asked Francesca.

"Sports parent. You know, one if them that REALLY gets into the game?"

Elena and Francesca both chuckled again.

Chapter Eighty-Eight

Friday, Dec. 10th, 2026

Springfield High’s girls basketball team was ‘away’ and taking on Oakdale.

Power forward Elena was always best at filling defensive spots and getting the ball back to her team. She was an excellent ‘picker’ who ‘rolled’ to her sister Francesca, the small forward (and often team leader). Chessie’s perimeter scoring moves, post scoring moves and fast breaks were some of the best in the league. However, when it came to rebounding and passing Elena was a queen on the court and quite often the unsung hero because she wasn’t a high scorer. For those that truly appreciated the game and understood it, they knew that without Elena’s effort there wouldn’t be any high scores and any possible championships wouldn't materialize.

In fact as they left the gym after one home game, Frank mentioned to Elena that it was a shame she didn’t get to score very much since she was a very good player.

Olivia rolled her eyes and told him in no uncertain terms, "She’s an excellent player, beyond good, but her job as a forward isn’t about shooting unless she’s got a good shot to take. Her role is to keep the ball moving to people who CAN get the shot. Look it up, Frank."

"Excuse me," he replied indignant at Olivia’s outburst.

"No, there’s no excuse," she replied. "Learn how the game is played before you start criticizing my dau-."

"Liv; Frank," Natalia jumped in before things could get more heated, "How about we all take the girls out to Cold Stone Creamery, huh? Celebrate this win? What do you say?"

"You’re buying?" Francesca asked.

"Yep!" Natalia nodded.

"We’re in!" Elena said as the pair took off running to the car.

Olivia began to grumble again, but Natalia took her by the elbow and leaned in close. "I know how much you love the game and the girls, but let it go," she said softly. Then she added the words that Olivia couldn’t resist. "…For me?" With that, Olivia relaxed. Besides, Frank looked properly ‘spanked’ enough for his ignorance Olivia figured.

So over the years the girls’ skills grew. Individually, Elena and Francesca had amazing dexterity as players. But as a team, they were unstoppable…and everyone in the league knew it. Many coaches over the past year would take their players aside and point out the two young women with ‘Spencer-Rivera’ on their jerseys. They’d jab a bony finger in their direction from across the court and issue what looked like a warning to their players. But despite the coaches best efforts of shutting down the ‘Spencer Sisters’ it was pointless…until the Oakdale game.

The center was a tall girl – at least six foot tall. Elena and Francesca by comparison were women of average stature coming in around 5’ 8’’ or so. What they lacked in height they made up for in skill and spirit. Besides, being smaller actually gave them an advantage because they could literally duck and drive better than their taller counterparts.

Of course, if Francesca didn’t have great jumping skills her basketball career would have never survived. But she could jump to great heights. In fact, many teammates affectionately called her 'Tigger' since they were convinced she had to be made of rubber and springs since she had the ability to get as much air as she did.

In the Oakdale game though the center was ignoring basketball' s no-contact principle. She was pretty much doing everything - holding, pushing, tripping, charging into and physically impeding the progress of several Springfield players and even laying a hand on her opponents.

Up in the stands, Olivia was irate as she stood next to Natalia and Frank, who remained seated.

"Who’s calling this game?! Stevie Wonder?"

That earned a few chuckles from other parents who were watching the bias officiating.

When the center, pushed Francesca in the back for the third time without the ref calling it, Olivia shot to her feet, for a better look. At the same time, Francesca stopped dribbling. She held the ball tightly under her arm as she turned to face the center.

"Keep your hands off me!" Francesca shouted at her.

The ref blew his whistle and took the ball from Francesca. He gave it to the center to line up for their free throw.

The Springfield side of the gym began to boo and Olivia cupped her hands around her mouth.

"Open your eyes, Ref!" she yelled. She wasn’t alone though. Other spectators were starting to get annoyed with the one-sided calling too.

Reluctantly, Francesca lined up with her teammates for Oakdale to take their shots.

"Calm down," Natalia told Olivia as she tugged on the older woman’s pant leg, trying to get her to sit back down.

"Hell no I won’t. Did you see that girl? She can’t push the other players." She then turned toward the court and yelled, "The ref is blind!"

Frank just grinned and shook his head at Olivia’s antics.

"You got something to say, Cooper?" Olivia grouted.

Frank put a hand up. "Not a word," he said.

"Wise move," Natalia commended quietly to him.

Olivia was already focusing on the game and the fact that Springfield had the ball back again, thanks to Elena. She passed to Francesca, who began driving toward the basket for a lay-up. That’s when the center’s foot ‘somehow’ appeared in Francesca’s path, sending the small forward sliding face first across the floor.

The crowd of both sides gave a resounding ‘oooh’ noise of pain as they watched Francesca slide to a stop. Once more Olivia shot to her feet in anger. Natalia and Frank did too, but it was also about concern to see if Francesca was all right.

This time Elena ran up to the ref. Almost in harmony Olivia and Elena both yelled at the same time, "That’s tripping!"

Francesca pulled herself to her feet while the ref blew his whistle and motioned for Elena to step away.

When he did nothing to call a penalty on the center, Elena lost it. She stayed only inches away from the ref’s face as she continued to rant.

"Open your eyes! Is Oakdale so shitty they need you to cheat for them! Is that it? Or are you just that ignorant and don’t know the rules?!"

The ref blew his whistle repeatedly this time. He pointed sternly at Elena and then to the bench, throwing her out of the game. The crowd, with Olivia leading them, was livid now. But unlike the other spectators, she was on her way over to the bench.

"Oh shit," Natalia sighed. She couldn’t hear that Francesca, who was watching Olivia, from the court, said the same thing upon seeing her mother march over to her coach.

"Coach Thomson!" Olivia told her, making her turn around. "How about speaking up for your players, huh? Don’t take this crap lying down!"

Thomson didn’t turn around, but the ref came over to where Olivia was standing.

"Take your seat Ma’ma," he ordered.

At this point, Francesca was making her way over with the basketball under her arm while Elena paced at the bench, seething.

"I have a question – are you blind or just dumb?" Olivia asked the ref.

The ref put the whistle in his mouth and blew it again as he motioned another shot for Oakdale.

"Maybe you just have a bet on Oakdale winning!" Olivia countered over the din.

The ref reached out to get the ball from Francesca, but she pulled it away. Her right knee and elbow were red and swollen from the fall, but her face was even redder. She was mad as hell. Rather than give the ball to him, she slammed it with such force that it bounced over the ref’s head and into the audience behind him.

Now his whistle was blowing dramatically and he motioned Francesca to leave the court. That did it. The people in the stands were cheering and booing simultaneously. Even some people on the Oakdale side appeared to be agreeing that the official was turning a blind eye to the fouls happening against Springfield in the game.

"I think our family just started a riot," Frank remarked dryly.

Natalia was growing annoyed and concerned.

"She’s going to give herself a heart attack," she said before excusing herself to walk over to where her wife was still rallying against the ref. Once she was there she roughly took Olivia by the elbow. "Watching you keel over because of a basketball game is not my idea of fun," she told her.

"That damn girl might have seriously hurt, Chessie," Olivia told her.

It then clicked for Natalia. Yes, Olivia was upset that her daughter’s team was being cheated, but her greatest concern was for their daughter’s well-being. She wanted to save their daughters. That fact made Natalia softened.

"I know, but she seems okay and we have to let them fight their own battles, Liv. We're not always going to be there to rescue them so they need to learn how to rescue themselves, Sweetie."

Olivia’s shoulders slumped. She knew Natalia was right and her rants weren’t helping the situation. With a nod of acceptance she made her way back to their seats.

Francesca took a seat next to Elena as Coach Thomson came over.

"We’ll talk about this after the game," the coach warned them before going back to her spot on the line.

Francesca turned to Elena.

"Why does trouble always seem to find us?"

"Maybe it’s more like we always find trouble," Elena countered.

There was a small silence between them when Francesca pointed out, "You got kicked out of the game for defending me." Elena just shrugged in response. Francesca grinned. "Thanks."

Back in the present day, the gathering of teens and young adults around Elena and Francesca smiled.

"So what did the coach say?" Clay asked.

"She pointed out something we hadn’t considered," Elena replied.

"Which was?" Payton asked.

"We were played," Francesca replied.

"Meaning?" Clay asked.

"Bad ref calling, aside, Oakdale got what they wanted – they wanted us out of the game. They were willing to sacrifice their center to do it. And Springfield almost lost," Elena explained.

"It was a good lesson in not letting your anger get the better of you or letting people work you up so much that you do something dumb," Francesca added.

"Like get kicked out of a game?" Ava teased.

"Exactly," Francesca replied with a smile.

"That’s a great lesson to learn," a man said from further down the bar. All eyes turned to him and he approached the wedding party. He slowly reached into his jacket for something. "This may not be the time or the place, but you’re a hard woman to reach."

Francesca turned to the stranger and nervously asked, "Who are you?" as she continued to see what he was going to pull from his coat.

Chapter Eighty-Nine

Saturday, June 9th, 2029

Francesca turned to the stranger who was reaching into his jacket and pulling out two business cards.

"Apologies," he began as he handed one to her. "My name is Reginald Washington. I’m with the Chicago Sky and I’ve tried for some time to reach you. I figured you’d both be here at this event." He then reached out and handed one to Elena. "We’ve had our eye on you - both of you," he added, "for quite a while now."

"What do you want?" Francesca asked as Elena took a step closer to her older sister.

"You; not to put to fine a point on it." He nodded toward the sisters. "We’ve watched you at NYU last year," he told Francesca. "And now with Elena there, this year I was finally able to see you both on a college court together and the Sky likes what it sees. Have you considered a career in the WNBA? We’d love it if you could start this year."

"I’m still in college," Francesca replied.

"With a salary of 2.1 million a season for five seasons, you won’t have to worry about school," he said smugly.

Elena was all smiles, as were the faces of their family and friends surrounding them. Francesca remained stone faced. She cleared her throat and handed the card back to Reginald.

"Mr. Washington, have you been invited to this gathering?" Francesca asked, her voice stony.

He grinned knowingly. "I have not."

"I’ll admit your offer to me intrigues me-."

"Not just you," Mr. Washington corrected her. "It’s an ‘all or nothing’ deal. We want the Spencer Sisters – not just one."

Elena looked to Francesca, unsure of what to say. Francesca, on the other hand, didn’t flinch or take her eyes off Mr. Washington.

"As I was going to say, Mr. Washington," Francesca continued sounding very formal. "I’m intrigued, but at the moment, my only concern is my sister’s wedding. This is her day. Not mine. Not Elena’s. Coming here with an offer simply isn’t the time or the place. Now, since you’re not an invited guest I suggest you go now or I’ll be forced to call security."

"I assure you that won’t be necessary Ms. Spencer. I only wanted a few minutes of your time to consider it."

"It’s Spencer-Rivera," she corrected him again. "And I will speak with Elena about your offer and if we’d like to learn more… tomorrow. As I said, today is Emma’s day, so I’ll say goodbye and drive safe."

Put in his place, Mr. Washington gave a nod of his head and walked away, toward the make shift parking valet at the front of the house. Once he was out of sight, and earshot, the gathering around them began to congratulate them on the offer.

"Sweetheart," Rachel said as she hugged Elena. "This is fantastic news."

Elena smiled like many of the other people in their circle. Francesca didn’t seem too overjoyed by the news.

"What’s wrong?" Collin asked. "Do you know how many people get asked to play pro, at anything, let alone basketball?"

"Yes, it is exciting," she said, her voice steady with no emotion.

"Gee," Ava teased. "Settle down there, Slick. Don’t want to strain yourself with all that jumping around."

The group chuckled.

"Ava, come on. You know this," Francesca chastised. "Rule one in a business transaction is never show your hand. Two, don’t let your emotions override your thought process. Three, know the deal."

"It’s a WNBA team and over 2 million a season!" Payton pointed out.

"And if we’re hurt and can’t play, then what?"

Payton motioned around the ordained yard. "You won’t starve either way."

"I’ll grant you that," Francesca conceded. "But we don’t even know if this guy really IS with the Sky. But even if he is, New York Liberty might be watching us with a deal for twice as much."

"Yeah, but-." Clay tried to say.

"And four, nothing is final until it’s signed," Francesca continued ignoring anything Clay might say, "That means 2.1 mill might be moot. And five, even when it’s signed you might have to fight for what’s in black and white."

"Boy, you know how to bring down a celebration," Collin remarked.

"First, you get your deal; THEN you celebrate," Francesca replied. "That business card," she said pointing to Elena’s in her hand, "It’s a pointless piece of paper and nothing more."

"Why are you such a cynic?" Payton asked.

Francesca tisked her finger. "No, I’m a realist – one who was raised by a business woman of a billion dollar corporation."

"So’s your sister and she looks pretty damn happy," Clay countered.

Francesca turned to Elena. "So you want to take the deal blindly, sight unseen?"

"No! But there’s nothing wrong with being happy for the offer," she added.

The group around them nodded.

"Well," Francesca said, turning back to the bar and grabbing her coke. "I’ll be happy when I know there’s something to be happy about."

Doris and Olivia walked up to the bar and Ava began to say, "Guess what just happened?!"

"Nothing that’s going to take away from EMMA’S DAY," Francesca intercepted. "But I did have a question to ask." Olivia motioned her to continue. "When’s the time to get excited when you think something might be a good deal?"

"You got a deal? On what?"

"A new business venture, let’s say."

Olivia shrugged. "Is it signed yet?"

"No."

"When it’s signed."

"THANK YOU," Francesca said proving her point.

"You’ve done lots of deals, Mom," Elena added. "Were you always excited only after the paperwork was signed?"

"Yes."

"No," Doris chimed in. Olivia scowled at her. "Remember the Schroeder’s Solar Manufacturing deal?" Doris prodded. "You were practically doing cartwheels after we left that meeting room; nothing was officially signed yet."

Olivia barked a laugh. "Okay, that was different. That was more about revenge than making a deal."

"Doesn’t matter," Doris countered. "I asked you to help me and the people of Springfield. And you helped. Sticking it to Decker was just the perk of a good deed." The younger kids looked confused. "I better explain, huh?"

"Do tell," Francesca replied.

Chapter Ninety

Saturday, June 9th, 2029

Francesca and her friends looked for Olivia and Doris to explain themselves.

"So you’ve had a few run-ins with Decker over the years?" Elena asked.

Olivia shrugged. "Yeah, but I retired too damn early. Your brother got the glory of buying Galaxy up."

Doris nodded, and added, "True, but you created the beginning of the end."

"I had help." Olivia smiled.

Monday, February 6th, 2017

"I need your help," Doris said as she entered Olivia’s office without knocking.

Olivia didn’t bother to raise her head as she examined the files in front of her.

"By all means Doris, just come on in," she said sarcastically as the mayor was already taking a seat.

"I need something to help me get re-elected. Something that impresses the voters and I thought ‘employment’ – jobs are always a winner, right?"

Olivia still continued to look at the papers in front of her without giving any real thought to her friend’s ramblings.

"Uh huh," she mumbled in agreement.

Noticing that Olivia wasn’t quite paying attention, she then said, "So I then thought how about I leave Brenda at home and take Tali to that great Italian restaurant for Valentine’s Day. You know, paint the town red?"

"Uh huh," Olivia mumbled again.

"I knew you weren’t listening!" Doris exclaimed, which finally made Olivia look up. "This is important because it involves you too so pay attention."

"This is payroll for the weekend. I don’t finish; the staff doesn’t get paid. The staff doesn’t get paid; they get cranky. They get cranky; and my guests get pissed and I lose my hotel in the end."

"How about if I gave you a chance to stick it to Decker at Galaxy while making me and Springfield look good at the same time?"

Olivia began to grin. "Tell me more."

"Ohhh, NOW I have your attention."

"Now you’re saying something interesting," Olivia shot back.

Doris moved forward conspiratorially. "Here’s the deal: Schroeder’s Solar Manufacturing wants to open a facility in the Midwest, preferably Illinois. I have it on good authority-."

"You mean gossip."

"Authority. Gossip. Whatever…The point is Oakdale is working on a deal with Galaxy Hotels to get the folks at Schroeder’s a deal on housing while the plant is being built. Schroeder’s needs their own crews to do some of the specific building requirements, so they’ll need a long-term place to stay – hence the need for Galaxy. But if Springfield had an attractive deal with a hotel, wink-wink-nudge-nudge…"

"They might bring the plant here," Olivia finished.

Doris nodded. "You’ll have rooms booked for at least four months, at a discount of course, but you’ll be helping Springfield for years to come; not to mention your best friend who wants to get re-elected by at least 300 newly-employed Springfielders working at Schroeder’s Solar Manufacturing."

"This sounds promising."

"I got us a meeting with Schroeder’s Solar Manufacturing."

"Fantastic!"

"Well, there is a catch."

Olivia rolled her eyes. "Gee, I’m shocked. Doris Wolfe has a plan that comes with complications. What’s the catch?"

"The meeting’s this Friday."

"That’s only four days."

Doris looked at her watch. "Three and a half…technically."

Olivia closed her eyes and rubbed her temples before she pushed the speakerphone.

"Keira?"

"Yes, Ms. Spencer."

"Can you come finish the payroll for me? I’ll sign them before five but I have something that came up that I need to address."

"Certainly. I’ll be right in."

As Olivia hung up, she pointed at Doris.

"Why do I put up with you?" she asked as she grinned.

"Because we’re stuck with each other. No one else is willing to put up with us."

Olivia paused and then nodded. "Good Point."

Chapter Ninety-One

Monday, February 6th, 2017

"Dis is da besdt burger in da whoole worlfd," Doris tried to say as she chewed.

"And you are the picture of elegance and decorum when you chow down," Olivia countered. She grinned and shook her head before she looked back at the brochure in her hand. "How does Brenda deal with you?" she muttered.

Doris took a large drink and washed down her mouthful of food. Then craned her neck to see what Olivia was looking at.

"That’s Galaxy’s Oakdale brochure?" the mayor asked.

"Yeah, I got it from that ‘area attractions’ rack. The Beacon rooms are nicer – we’re more expensive though."

"Can you match their room deal?" Doris asked.

Olivia shrugged. "We’ll see. I want to check out the competition first-hand though. That’s the purpose of this road trip."

"You know the last time we went on a road trip together," Doris said as she looked toward the ceiling in thought. It came to her and she buried her face back into her plate muttering, "I can’t remember when."

"It was during my ‘Stella!’ routine," Olivia replied. "You can mention it. Besides it wasn’t all bad, and in the end…"

"You got her back, and you’ve still got her." Doris smiled.

"Yeah," Olivia said with a certain lack of enthusiasm that Doris couldn’t quite place.

"What does that mean?"

"What? I said, ‘yeah’. Yeah, I still have her, so what?"

"You don’t seem real excited about that. Trouble in Paradise, Spencer?"

Olivia sighed in annoyance. "You ask a lot of questions, Wolfe."

"And you’re not answering any," she countered.

"Everything is fine," Olivia lied. "Natalia is a good woman and god only knows why she puts up with me. I know I’ll never know."

She said it in a self-depreciating tone with a slight grin to lighten the mood. Doris knew something was amiss, though. But it was also obvious Olivia didn’t want to talk about. At least, not now, so she let it go.

Back at home Brenda was in Natalia’s kitchen as the two of them continued baking cookies for Francesca’s bake sale for Band.

"So," Brenda said as she opened a bag of chocolate chips. "Liv taking you anywhere special for Valentine’s Day next week?"

Natalia continued to stir the batter in front of her. "Not that I know of," she replied. "Things are…" Natalia dropped the fork into the bowl and began to cry.

"Oh, honey," Brenda said immediately and came to her side. "I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Honest. I-I I mean Doris never said anything was wrong and usually she can’t keep quiet about anything," she teased to try to lighten the woman’s mood. "Hey, come here." Brenda opened her arms and hugged Natalia as the younger woman continued to cry.

Once Natalia settled down Brenda asked, "You want to talk about it?"

"You really don’t know?" Natalia asked. Brenda just shook her head to Natalia’s question. "I guess Liv kept her word about keeping quiet."

"About what?" Brenda asked.

Natalia pulled away and took an unsteady breath.

"Liv," she began and then looked over her shoulder to make sure the kids hadn’t unexpectedly come home. "She had an affair. One of the hotel maids." Brenda’s jaw dropped. "Better close that or you’ll catch flies," Natalia teased.

Brenda shook off her shocked expression. "I had no idea. I mean…Olivia cheated on you?"

Natalia nodded. "In some ways I think maybe I had it coming."

"How so?"

"Gus, Rafe’s dad, he and I cheated on his wife Harley when I got to Springfield. What comes around goes around, I guess, huh?"

"I-I-I don’t know what to say," Brenda replied. "Regardless of what happened in the past Natalia, I-I don’t think this is some kind of karmic revenge. Do you really think that?"

"I didn’t know what to think at first," she confessed. "I just felt so devastated…We’ve been seeing a counselor, and it has helped, but there are still moments when I remember and I…I feel trapped. I’m so angry and I’m so hurt and…I still love her. Then I think that makes me dumb, right? I should just walk away and leave her, but…God help me Brenda I love her…still."

For a few seconds no one said anything until Brenda uttered, "Wow…If Doris did something like this…"

"I bet you’d leave her."

"Kneejerk reaction, yes. Truthfully… I don’t know. I don’t think anyone really knows what they would do until they’re faced with it. I always believed that Doris wasn’t capable of something like that, but honestly, I thought the same thing about Liv and now…Wow."

"You said ‘wow’ already." Natalia grinned.

"When did this happen?"

"Late summer; early fall. Liv swears it was only once. I don’t know if that’s true. She says she loves me and wants to be with me and I think she does, but then again sometimes I think that’s not true."

"Why?"

"Maybe she’s not staying for me. Maybe she’s staying for the kids or the money… and not me, but then again, I see her trying to make an effort and I just…I don’t know what’s real anymore. You know? I don’t know what to believe. I’m trying. I am. I just don’t know if I’ll ever get that trust back again."

"You want my unsolicited opinion?" Brenda asked. Natalia just nodded. "If love is there – real love – trust returns with time. And from what you said, Liv still wants you."

"But does she want me for the right reasons? One day I’m certain she does then the next day I wonder. And it’s nothing that she’s done or hasn’t done. I just…I feel like I’m on this roller coaster and I can’t get off it."

"You love her and honestly, I think she loves you. And when that’s the case, the rest will work itself out."

"That’s what I think the Lord’s been telling me in little ways."

Brenda smiled. "How exactly?"

"Well, Olivia makes it a point to always tell me where she’s at. She picks up the phone at the first or second ring when it’s me. I know because she always answers me fast but if it’s Josh or even Greg, she takes her time and tells me who it is before she answers. Plus, there’s been times when I’ve thought about her – not paranoid ‘what’s she doing now?’ thoughts, which I admit I do get sometimes – anyway, when I think about her suddenly she’s calling me out of the blue, asking if I needed anything from the store on the way home or just to tell me some news about the franchising. I think it’s God’s way of saying she’s trying and to give her a chance. But then…there’s the other side."

"The other side?"

"The side that said she fucked another woman so I should dump her. That side is more direct and to the point," Natalia said and then snorted before she giggled slightly. "Sometimes I just need to chuckle at the ridiculousness of it all, you know? If I didn’t, I think I’d be completely crazy."

"I don’t blame you one bit, Honey," Brenda agreed.

"So, Doris really didn’t tell you?"

"No."

"Then Liv really has kept her word. I told her if I didn’t have a friend I could talk to about this, then she had better keep her mouth shut."

"Honestly, if Liv told Doris, I’m sure Doris – promise to Liv or not – would have told me. If nothing else Doris would need someone to bitch to about it all."

"You think Doris would be mad?"

"Yeah, I do….Because I’m mad."

Natalia took Brenda’s hands. "Look, you can’t say anything, Brenda. Not to Liv; not to Doris. Please. Just keep it between us, okay? No one else, alright?"

"Fine," Brenda sighed. "Can a scowl at Liv a little instead?" she teased.

Natalia grinned. "Not so much as a raised eyebrow. Please. She and I, we’re dealing with it. I don’t want any setbacks."

"You have my word then."

"You’re a good friend Brenda," Natalia replied. "Thanks for listening to me rant."

"Anytime. And I promise, Mum’s the word."

Chapter Ninety-Two

Friday, February 10th, 2017

Doris seemed to be a nervous wreck as she walked down the hallway of the Beacon, heading to the meeting space for the pow-wow with Schroeder’s Solar Manufacturing. Olivia, who was beside her, was completely totally cool and collected.

"How can you be this calm?" Doris asked.

"I’m not running for re-election. Although," Olivia teased. "If I decided to run putting this deal together would be a nice feather in my cap."

"You wouldn’t," Doris said firmly. When Olivia said nothing she added, "would you?"

"No," Olivia replied. "I’ll leave the public service to you and I’ll focus on customer service. It pays more."

"I can’t believe you agreed to let Decker and the Oakdale mayor come to this meeting. Are you sure that was a wise idea?"

Olivia grinned. "We’ll find out soon enough."

After walking a few more yards they entered the meeting room to see Larry Decker and Mayor Ottis Tomlin seated on one side of the rectangle table. Both gentlemen rose as the two women walked in.

"Olivia," Decker said as he extended his hand. "It’s been awhile."

"Yes, it has," she remarked politely as she shook it.

"I love what you’ve done with the place," he said. Even though the comment sounded sincere it still held that backhanded compliment sound.

"Thank you," she answered and turned to Doris, "Doris, this is Larry Decker, owner of Galaxy Properties and Mayor Tomlin, which I’m sure you’ve met."

"Yes," Doris nodded to them. "Nice to see you both."

Olivia was amazed. She could tell that Doris was nervous because she knew Doris, but to the outsider, including these two men, she was the picture of confidence and poise.

"Ms. Spencer," Greg’s voice cut in over the PA. "Mr. Schroeder from Schroeder’s Solar Manufacturing has arrived in the lobby."

"Let him know we’re on our way and make sure breakfast platter arrives immediately," Olivia replied.

"Yes, Ms. Spencer," Greg replied.

Olivia then turned to the trio. "Shall we meet them then?"

A short time later, after introductions were made all around to Mr. Graham Schroeder and his assistant Chet, they returned to the meeting room. Olivia had a lovely spread of bagels, croissants, English muffins, fruit, yogurts and a host of breakfast delights including various juices and milk.

"Since we’re hosting this venue," Olivia began and motioned to the treats. "Help yourself to whatever you like. Then we’ll let Mr. Decker and Mayor Tomlin give their presentation first."

"That’s okay," Larry said. "Ladies first."

"Oh no," Olivia said trying to sound polite. "I insist. What kind of guest would I be if I didn’t let you gentlemen go first." Decker took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. "That’s not a problem, is it Larry? I mean you do have a presentation prepared, right?"

"Of course," he began with a bit of a raised voice and then quieted his volume. "I just thought you’d be anxious to let Mr. Schroeder what the Beacon offered."

"In due time," Olivia said with a smile. "For now though, everyone dig in."

Mr. Schroeder took a bite of his croissants and his eyes rolled back into his head. "This is delicious. Where do you get these?"

"We make them," Olivia replied. "Our morning chef studied in France for several years."

"It shows," he complimented. "Would it be too much to take a few to my wife. She’d love these."

"No trouble at all. In fact, you gentlemen eat and, I’ll have Greg put something together for her. We’ll be right back."

Olivia lightly pulled Doris along, who was in the process of buttering her bagel. Olivia walked a few feet to a house phone and dialed.

"Greg," she began, "Listen close, okay? I need a dozen FRESH croissants, neatly packaged for Mr. Schroeder in 45 minutes and be sure to include a small fruit bowl too. Keep it at the lobby and make sure to give it to him before he leaves, got it? I don't want you to do anything else until this meeting is over, got it?...Then have Cindy do it. You do this right and you can run Chicago...I said, I will give you the GM spot at Chicago if you want it. Understand?....Greg?...Stop crying, Greg, and get to work... Good. Thank you."

Olivia hung up and turned to Doris who had half her bagel gone already.

"Are you starving?" Olivia teased.

"I eat when I'm nervous, okay? Why on earth did you leave them alone and let them go first?" Doris asked in a whisper before taking another bite of her food.

Olivia grinned. "All part of the plan. Decker already knows I've got him on the ropes."

Doris shook her head slightly. "Did I miss something in there?"

"Perhaps, but you’ll see soon enough my friend."

Doris wasn’t sure what the twinkle in Olivia’s eye meant, but she liked it.

Chapter Ninety-Three

Friday, February 10th, 2017

Doris and Olivia turned to see Greg headed their way with two men following behind him.

"I thought you were at the lobby," Olivia said to her operations manager. To the outsider, it might seem like an observation spoken out loud, but that look in her eye told Greg a different story. He was in trouble for not following her directions of staying put.

"I was," Greg began, not showing the least bit of being rattled. "These are Mr. Schroeder’s fellow board members. I thought I’d escort them here personally."

"Oh!" Olivia said and extended her hand. She gave Greg a silent, ‘good job’ grin, which he understood and returned with a slight nod.

"I’m Olivia Spencer, co-owner of the Beacon. This is our Mayor," she said stepping aside slightly to allow Doris to come up. "…Doris Wolfe."

"Mr. Charles," one of the men said, extending his hand. "I’m CFO of Schroeder’s Solar Manufacturing. This here is Mr. Yoas, our COO."

"Not that I’m complaining," Olivia began, "I thought it was just Mr. Schroeder who’d be attending today?"

"It was," Mr. Charles replied. "But we wanted to wrap this up today if possible. When we heard that both you and Mr. Decker, as well as the mayors of both cities, were attending we decided to come along to speed up the process."

"So you’ll make a decision today then?" Doris asked.

"That’s the plan," Mr. Yoas said with a nod. "I figured Graham would have told you."

"In his defense," Olivia teased. "I did distract him with flaky pastries," she added.

Doris and Olivia looked at each other. Doris appeared unsure, but Olivia smiled widely.

"Believe it or not, that doesn’t sound surprising," Mr. Charles snorted.

The door to the conference room opened and everyone turned to see Mr. Schroeder there.

"You made it after all!" he said happily. "Come on inside," he added as he waved them over. "You guys have to try the treats the Beacon has provided."

"Yes," Olivia said waving them inside, "By all means, come in."

As they entered, Olivia turned to Decker and Oakdale Mayor Ottis Tomlin.

"Mr. Decker and Mr. Tomlin? This is Mr. Charles and Mr. Yoas, the chief financial officer and chief operations officer of Schroeder’s Solar Manufacturing." As they all shook hands, Olivia was sure to add, "You haven’t missed anything since Mr. Decker here," she said, pointing to Larry, "…was about to give his presentation on Galaxy Oakdale."

Decker tried again. "I really think you should go first, Olivia. After all, you ARE the host."

"And again, what kind of host would I be if I hog the spotlight? Go right ahead, Larry. I’m interested myself to see what you’ve prepared."

"Very well," he answered resigned to his fate.

As Decker began to get his items in order, and while the folks at SSM ate their breakfast treats, Doris leaned toward Olivia’s ear.

"Decker’s smooth," Doris whispered. Then she grinned. "But you’re better."

Olivia grinned.

"Yes I am."

They both settled back to watch Decker’s presentation. Olivia’s squared shoulders and raised chin was the picture of confidence, rather than cockiness. By extension Doris felt herself sit a little straighter and she released a soft sigh assured that this deal would happen. Today they would be helping Springfield, and of course, themselves. Doris was perfectly happy with both.

After Decker finished his slideshow that highlighted the community of Oakdale and his hotel property he asked, "Are there any questions?"

Olivia raised her hand up. "I have a question, if you don’t mind."

Decker grinned slightly. "I was asking SSC, but go on."

Olivia was undaunted by his sarcastic response.

"How old are those photos?"

"I believe they were taken last year."

"Regular room or suite?"

"Regular rooms – the kind the workers of SSC will be using during the construction period, of course," he said acting confident, as if they had the plant.

"Are you sure they’re of the Oakdale property?" Olivia asked.

"Olivia," Decker replied starting to grow short with his tone. "I have to admit I find your behavior and these questions a bit childish. I know Springfield needs this new manufacturing facility, but I don’t think you need to-."

"Are you sure these photos are of your property in Oakdale, Larry?" Olivia said more forcefully. "There is a legitimate reason I ask, so again, yes or no?"

"Yes," he replied. "… and furthermore, I can offer them a rate of $60 per night for the duration of the construction," he added. "That’s less than half off the normal rate."

The three men from Schroeder looked impressed. The CFO, Mr. Charles, turned to Olivia.

"Can the Beacon match that price?" he asked.

Olivia looked dead serious.

"No. We can’t match $60 a night."

Decker and Mayor Tomlin gave each other a congratulatory nod to each other as Doris quickly snapped her dropping jaw shut again. At the same time all three men from Schroeder’s looked at each other before turning back to Olivia.

The hotelier knew at that point all eyes were on her…and she loved having the full attention of the room.

Chapter Ninety-Four

Friday, February 10th, 2017

Doris turned to Olivia and tried to hide her desperation.

"I can’t match $60 a night because it’s comparing fresh apples to month-old oranges," Olivia told Schroeder’s Solar Manufacturing top executives in the small boardroom. "I know first-hand because Ms. Wolfe and I visited Galaxy-Oakdale just this week."

Olivia motioned to the far wall and the projector. She punched in something on the remote and gave it a click.

"This is a picture of the room that’s in Mr. Decker’s brochure." She clicked it again. "This is an average room there now." The contrast between the brochure and the slideshow were distinctive – wallpaper appeared to be torn in places; drapes appeared worn. It was a far cry from the brochure SSM was given.

"So perhaps one room was different," Decker remarked. "We have various room types and-."

Olivia cut him off.

"Good point," she said as she began to click the slides repeatedly to show numerous shots of rooms in disarray.

"I didn’t want to base the discrepancy on a single room." Click. "That’s why Mayor Wolfe and I spent a few hours there." Click. "We took pictures of other rooms on each floor as the maids were doing their cleaning. We wanted to make sure it wasn’t just one floor in need of renovations." As Olivia hit the last image of a bathroom missing some floor tile she turned to the men of SSM.

"So as I said gentleman," she went on. "I can’t offer you $60 a night at the Beacon because here…" She clicked again to show a picture of the Beacon room with a king bed ordained with pillows and a fluffy comforter, "…this is what I’m offering." She clicked again to show a small, but artful looking bathroom. "…and this." She clicked once more and showed the restaurant that had a gorgeous array of foods. "…and this. In fact, after we’re done here I suggest you pick a floor and a number, any number. We’ll go there, as long as that’s not a room that’s occupied. I’m confident that what I’m advertising is what you’ll find."

Olivia stood up. "So while I can’t offer you $60 a night, I can offer you $80 a night – that’s actually 70% off the normal rate, which is actually more than Galaxy is offering for a sub-par room."

Decker cleared his throat.

"It’s true there are some renovations we need to address," he said. "With that in mind, we could perhaps go lower. We could offer 70% off our rates too," he added as he fiddled with his tie.

Doris smiled at his nervous demeanor.

"Gentlemen, going cheaper now, doesn’t mean you’ll save money in the end," she said not even bothering to look at Decker.

"How do you figure?" Mr. Charles, the Chief Financial Officer, asked.

"A rested staff is a productive staff. While staying at the Beacon your men and women completing the plant’s construction will be better rested. That means they’ll have more energy to get the job done quicker, and quite frankly, they’ll be happier in the process. A well-trained, well-rested staff gets things done efficiently. I mean honestly…if you had to choose between this," she said as she showed a shot of one of Decker’s room. "Or THIS," she said showing a well-ordained Beacon room. "…What would you pick?"

Decker opened his mouth, but before he could mutter a word Olivia held up a finger.

"You and Mayor Tomlin have given your presentation Mr. Decker, and we respected you by remaining quiet until the end. Do you think you could extend Springfield the same courtesy, please?"

He moved back into his seat.

"You will be allowed to ask any questions when I’m done," she said politely, but vehemently. Olivia cleared her throat and then looked back at the SSM board members. "As I was saying gentlemen, Springfield offers something beyond the possibility of a more productive staff, which means your construction phase will end quicker. We also have close connections with one of the major contractors in the Mid-west – Lewis Construction." Olivia then turned to Mr. Tomlin. "Mayor Tomlin? Can you tell these fellows what options they have when it comes to sub-contracting in Oakdale?"

Mayor Tomlin sat slack jawed while Mayor Wolfe tried her best to reel in her growing grin.

He sat mutely at first and then gave an elongated, "Uhhhh…well, there’s, uh, Williams Construction. We’ve talked with them about contracting with SSM."

Olivia nodded and gave Doris a knowing look. Doris smiled. Olivia gave a little nod of her head to the SSM members. Doris read where Olivia was going so she spoke up to Mr. Schroeder.

"What kind of item might you need quickly on site?" Doris asked him.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"Well, let’s say something breaks and it’s something you might not be able to get at the local hardware store. What would something like that be?"

"Hmm," he thought a moment. "Ah! A welding kit!"

"Perfect," Olivia remarked.

"Let’s do a little experiment maybe?" Doris suggested as she looked to Olivia who just nodded for her to continue.

"What do you have in mind, Mayor Wolfe?" Mr. Schroeder asked.

"A race you might say," she offered.

"Yeah," Olivia offered, "Springfield’s contractors verses Oakdale’s – let’s see who’s quickest."

"We can’t do that," Decker argued.

"Why not?" Olivia and Doris both said in tandem.

"The distance factor. Oakdale is further away."

"How far is Williams Construction from Galaxy-Oakdale?" Doris asked.

"Thirty minutes," Mayor Tomlin answered.

"Okay," Olivia nodded. "That’s the same with Lewis Construction to the Beacon. Let’s say the first construction company to a hotel wins."

"This is ridiculous," Decker replied.

"No, far from it, actually," Olivia countered. "This is very productive in fact. Call your staff at the front desk of Galaxy-Oakdale and have them skype us as soon as the welder kit arrives there."

"Right," Doris agreed. "Schroeder’s needs more than just a hotel and a plot of land. They need to look at all the aspects that will make the job, and company, run efficiently. I’m confident Springfield can do it…but if you’re worried that Oakdale isn’t up to the task then-."

"You’re on," Mayor Tomlin snapped.

Doris just grinned as Decker roughly pulled Tomlin aside to whisper something in his ear.

Olivia turned to the SSM board members.


"Mr. Charles, would you be kind enough to keep track of the Beacon’s time. We’ll have you start counting when we get off the phone after placing the tool request. Agreed?" she asked the room.

Nods went around as Decker and Tomlin began to talk again in hushed tones. Doris grinned and turned the laptop she had open around and slid it over to Tomlin.

"Here you are Mr. Mayor," she told him. "Unless you know the number of Williams Construction, of course?"

Williams began to type on the keyboard to search for the number as Olivia reached over and picked up the phone.

"Speed-dial six," she muttered as she hit a single button and put the receiver to her ear. "Why, ‘hi there’ yourself, Lewis Construction," she said in a cheery tone.

Decker and Tomlin looked at each other with a growing sense of dread.

Chapter Ninety-Five

Friday, February 10th, 2017

"Well, I need you immediately at the Beacon for a demonstration, Josh," Olivia said into the phone. Decker and Tomlin still sat across from her and Doris. "I’m having a bit of a scavenger hunt and I need a welding kit… Actually, I’m here with them now. We’re trying to show them why Springfield is better, which is why we need a kit asap…You’re a prince…Okay, a king…Thanks handsome."

Olivia turned back to Mr. Schroeder of Schroeder Solar Manufacturing. "Mr. Lewis owns Lewis Construction. He said he’d be here in 20 minutes, gentlemen."

"So, Mr. Lewis is… handsome?" Mr. Schroeder asked. "Am I to understand you have a particular relationship with him?"

"He’s her ex-husband," Decker said as Olivia opened her mouth. "She’s married to a woman now." He said smugly.

Olivia stiffened slightly as Doris rose slightly in her seat. Olivia reached out and touched her hand, a silent request for her to not rock the boat. Yes, things had changed in the last few years, but there was still a fair amount of homophobia in the Midwest. She silently hoped that wasn’t a deal breaker for them. But even if it was, she wasn’t about to hide or lie about her relationship with Natalia and she didn’t need Doris going all Commando-Dyke and ripping off Decker’s head. He was baiting them. She knew it and she prayed that Doris could see through it.

"True," Olivia said proudly with a nod. "I love my wife very much. And despite the divorce, Mr. Lewis and I still managed to remain friends. I just hope my relationship with my wife won’t be a detriment to doing business."

"Not at all," Mr. Schroeder chuckled.

"So, this handsome Mr. Lewis, is he…?" Mr. Charles, the Chief Financial Officer, let the question hang in the air.

"Gay?" Olivia asked, unsure if that was his intended train of thought.

Mr. Charles nodded and Olivia and Doris chuckled softly. She turned to Doris and muttered, "What does Reva qualify as?"

Doris chuckled even harder but said, "Behave."

Olivia turned back to Mr. Charles. "No, he’s not. Besides, he’s in a relationship too so he’s not looking for anyone."

"I guess it’s true what you say," Mr. Schroeder said to Mr. Charles, "seems like all the handsome ones are either straight or taken."

"You’re…?" Decker asked Mr. Charles, without elaborating.

"A friend of Dorothy?" he teased. "Yes, we’re all around." He then turned to Olivia. "So again, Ms. Spencer, as Mr. Schroeder’s mentioned, your relationship won’t be a detriment, or a benefactor, in our decision."

Olivia nodded and a small silence filled the area, except for Mayor Tomlin who was still talking to Williams Construction in Oakdale.

Decker cleared his throat. "Speaking of ex-husbands…Just how many have you had Olivia?" Decker asked with a smile and a small chuckle.

"Larry, I see what you’re doing," she replied.

"I’m just making small talk," he retorted.

"With my failed marriages? You’ve tried the gay angle. Since that didn’t work now you’re trying to come up with a way to crack my credibility, but let me save you the trouble." She turned to the members of SSM. "Technically, I have five prior husbands, including Mr. Lewis. Two unfortunately are deceased now, but I have solid relationship with the remaining three, one of which is the father of my second oldest daughter. But enough of the ‘small talk’ – let’s get back to business.. If it’s okay with you, Mr. Schroeder, I’d like you to pick a number – one through sixteen."

"Twelve," he said.

Olivia pressed the intercom. "Greg?"

"Yes, Ms. Spencer?"

"Is room 1112 open and available for Mr. Schroeder and his associates to see?"

"One moment, Ms. Spencer. I’ll check." After a few seconds he came back. "It is. Should I hold it until you tell me you’re finished."

"Yes, please. Thank you Greg."

"No problem ma’am," he replied.

"You know, Mr. Charles," Olivia said with a tone of realization. "Greg is rather cute and I do believe he’s still single. If you like I’ll introduce you on the way out today."

"Sure why not?" he shrugged.

"Olivia, can I speak to you for a moment?" Decker asked. He didn’t wait for a reply. He simply got up from his seat and left the room.

"Excuse us Gentlemen," she said. "This will just take a moment I’m sure."

Once Olivia was outside and the door was shut she saw Decker several feet away, waving her over.

"What is it Larry?" she asked impatiently.

"Croissants!" he began in an angry whisper. "Scavenger hunts! Playing matchmaker! Trashing my hotel!"

"No, no, no!" Olivia tisked him with her finger. "In all fairness, that hotel was already trashed. You can’t blame me for that."

"You bitch! You took pictures! You went and you took pictures! I could sue your ass, you know that?!"

"For what?" she snorted, which only fueled his anger more.

He paused a moment. "Intellectual property theft!"

Olivia laughed outright now.

"If I was taking your ideas, sure. But believe me there’s NOTHING you’re doing that I’d want to recreate. See? Here’s the bar," she said as she drew an imaginary line in the air. "Galaxy is down here," she said motioning far under the line. "And way up here, this is the Beacon."

"Harpy!" he said, still talking in a heated whisper.

"Numbskull!"

"Conniving Dyke!"

"Whiny Blowhard!"

The door of the conference room opened and Olivia and Decker both put on smiles as they turned to the sound. Mr. Schroeder and his associates stepped out, followed by Doris and Mayor Tomlin.

Doris gave Tomlin a small pat on the back. "Williams Construction now has orders to go Galaxy-Oakdale so the race is officially on. Everything okay out here?"

"Perfect," Olivia answered. "Are you folks ready to see the rooms we’re offering?"

The group collectively nodded and made noises of approval. "Right down the hallway there," she pointed.

As everyone started forward, Olivia cast a glance over her shoulder at Decker, her faux-smile still firmly in place.

"Kiss your ass goodbye, Dipshit."

Decker tried to say something in response, but Olivia picked up the pace before he could utter a syllable.

Chapter Ninety-Six

Friday, February 10th, 2017

"As you can see," Olivia said as they began to leave the hotel room, "the images that you saw in our brochure are the same as the rooms."

Olivia planned to continue her statement once everyone had cleared the threshold, however, the elevator pinged and the doors open to reveal Josh Lewis holding a welding kit.

"Just the man we want to see," Olivia remarked as she waved her hand toward him. "Gentlemen, I’d like you to meet Josh Lewis, one of the owners of Lewis Construction here in Springfield." She then turned to Mr. Charles and asked, "So what's this time?"

Mr. Charles grinned and looked at his watch. "22 minutes and... 39 seconds."

"Well done," Doris commended him, as the associates of SSM nodded their heads in agreement.

"I would've been here sooner," Josh said. "But I got stopped by a train."

"Now keep in mind," Olivia said, "this kit is just one of the items we can bring you on a moment’s notice -- would you say that's correct, Josh?"

"Absolutely. Of course, any unusual construction items may take us slightly longer to procure, but not impossible. Most of things that manufacturing companies would need are things we have on-hand, like this welding kit." He raised the tool box slightly.

"I’m Mr. Yoas, Chief Operations Officer," he said he extended his hand to Josh, "Although our goal is to be completely solar within the next five years, we do rely on electricity to run the plant. What happens if we have an electrical issue?"

"Lewis can help you," Josh answered, "but if something is a bit advanced we outsource to Arrowhead Electronics, who we've worked with for years."

"Yes," Doris added, "that's one of the great things about Springfield. It's not a booming metropolis like Chicago so someone always seems to know someone on a first name basis who can help. That way you get more personalized attention. But it's also not so small that you're unable to get the resources you need quickly. Springfield is truly is the best of both worlds."

"That's true," Josh replied. "I've been to many different places around the country, and even around the world, but I still call Springfield home."

"So," Olivia said turning to Mayor Tomlin, "Any messages yet from Galaxy Oakdale?"

He held up his finger and started to dial his phone as they walked toward the elevator.

"If you gentlemen have time," Olivia offered, "I'd like to show you the common areas of the hotel. Chances are some of your associates and employees might be into physical fitness or have particular communication needs. I’d like to take a few moments to show you our fitness center and business center... if you have time that is?"

"We'd love that," Mr. Schroeder told her. "Why don't the five of you take the first elevator? The four of us catch the next one and meet up with you in the lobby?"

Olivia paused and then smiled. Decker paused too but instead he frowned. They both knew why. They were seriously considering Springfield and wanted to speak privately.

"Absolutely," Olivia replied as the doors opened.

As Tomlin was hanging up, Doris asked, "Anything yet?"

"Not yet," he muttered.

Once Olivia, Doris, Josh, Larry Decker and Mayor Tomlin were in the elevator car Olivia pressed the button. "We'll see you downstairs, so take your time."

As soon as the doors were closed, Larry stood face-to-face with Olivia.

"You set us up."

"What?"

"He was here the whole time," he said pitching his thumb towards Josh.

"Yeah," she answered sarcastically. "Him and every single tool that Lewis Construction owns." Olivia sighed. "Get real, Larry. How could I know what item SSM was going to pick for him to bring, huh? I left the choice up to them and if you want to check the Beacon ballroom to make sure that every single piece of equipment that Lewis Construction owns isn’t sitting downstairs, then you're more than welcome to do that. Just face it. Springfield's better. The Beacon is better. SSM is better with us - period."

"You know, if you weren’t a woman I’d..." Mr. Decker said taking a step closer.

Olivia’s eyebrow arched in challenge as Josh stepped in front of Olivia.

"You want to finish that sentence?" the contractor threatened.

"Still sticking up for your damsel in distress after all these years?" Mr. Decker replied. "How gallant of you, Mr. Lewis."

"Sticking up for her?" Josh retorted. "More like saving you FROM HER. You’re a polished momma’s boy and she could wipe these elevator walls with your greasy hide before you ever knew what hit you. I suggest you take a few steps back."

"Josh," Olivia said she placed a hand on this forearm and gave a chuckle. "Let it go. He’s all bullshit. I learned that years ago. He’s also a very sore loser," she added for good measure.

"We haven’t lost," Mayor Tomlin added.

"Where’s William’s Construction?" Doris threw out sharply.

Tomlin grit his teeth and immediately went back to his phone again and started to dial.

Several moments later, the management at SSM did catch up in the lobby and Olivia was proud to show off the exercise room, business center and dining area that served a hot breakfast in the mornings and free drinks and hors d'oeuvres in the evenings.

As they made their way back to the lobby Olivia was in the middle of a sentence when Josh tapped her on the shoulder and motioned toward the door. Olivia smiled broadly and motioned her hand.

Natalia and Brenda came over. Natalia gave Josh a hug while Brenda simply waved and slid up next to her wife.

"Gentlemen," Olivia told them proudly, "These are our wives, Brenda Berit-Wolfe and Natalia Rivera-Spencer. Ladies, this is Mr. Schroeder, Mr. Yoas and Mr. Charles and Mr. Schroeder’s assistant, Chet? Did I get that right?"

"Yes, ma’am, you remembered correctly," the quiet, younger man nodded.

"Nice to meet you," Natalia replied, her dimples blazing.

Olivia loved Natalia tremendously but her heart burst just a little more every time she watched her wife work a room. Straight men silently wanted to be with her and women wanted to be her. People gravitated toward her and today, with dimples blazing, today was no different. All Olivia could do was stand back and smile.

"Not that I’m complaining," Olivia said to her wife, "But what are you gals doing here?"

"You said to come for lunch," Natalia replied.

Olivia looked at her watch. "Oh, wow! It is around lunchtime, isn’t it?"

"It’s no problem," Natalia told her as she motioned toward Brenda. "We can come back later if you like. We didn’t mean to interrupt."

"Don’t be silly, Sweetheart," Mr. Schroeder replied.

Olivia grinned. He was captivated too.

"In any case," Olivia told the SSM members, "I’m sorry for keeping you folks later than we intended."

"Not at all," Mr. Schroeder said. "I think it’s safe to say we all are very grateful for being able to see the offerings of both Springfield and Oakdale." He then turned to Mr. Yoas. "Do you really think the resources being offered here will benefit your crews, Vic?"

He nodded. "Yeah, we could finish on time, or perhaps even ahead of schedule."

Mr. Schroeder then turned to Mr. Charles. "Money-wise, how’s Springfield look?"

"It’s stretching our budget, but like Vic says, if we can be running sooner it’ll save us money in the long run. Plus, Mayor Wolfe had laid out an attractive tax package that’s on par with Oakdale."

"So, Springfield?" he asked both men, who nodded their heads.

Mr. Schroeder then turned to Doris and offered his hand.

"Congratulations Madam Mayor. Schroeder Solar Manufacturing will be happy to call Springfield ‘home’ ... if you’ll have us that is."

Doris and her crew all smiled as she returned his handshake.

"Thank you very much," she said. "We’re totally looking forward to it and you won’t regret it, I’m sure."

As the group congratulated each other and celebrated Mr. Schroeder turned to Decker and Tomlin.

"Thank you both for taking time to be here today and as SSM continues to grow we would like to keep Oakdale in mind for future reference, if that’s alright."

Larry plastered on a faux-smile as best he could.

"No, thank you for giving us the chance to speak with you directly." He then turned to the room and in a loud voice said, "You all have a wonderful day!"

Before he turned to leave with Mayor Tomlin, Olivia could have sworn she saw the man snarl at her.

"Would you like to grab some lunch and celebrate? My treat?" Olivia offered the men from SSM.

"Thank you for the offer, but we’ll pass," Mr. Schroeder answered. "We have some other arrangements we have to handle back in Chicago, but I’ll have our secretary draw up the details to send to you both this week."

"Sounds wonderful," Doris replied and shook his hand again. "You gentleman have a good trip home."

At that moment, Greg walked over carrying three colorful bags with tissue paper sticking out of them.

"Gentlemen," he greeted them. "Ms. Spencer said you loved our delectables this morning so we put together a little something for you to take home and enjoy."

"Thank you, Greg." Olivia commended, "Oh! Greg, this is Mr. Charles. Mr. Charles this is my banquet manager Greg I told you about. In a few months, I’m going to have Greg moving up to Chicago to run our latest hotel up there, but until that time he’ll be the lead for anything you need here ‘in-house.’ Of course, any of you are welcome to contact me directly, but it might be quicker to get an answer from Greg some days."

"Nice to meet you Greg," Mr. Charles said as he shook Greg’s hand. "I planned to come down here next weekend actually, price a few locations out for supplies and such. If you’re not busy perhaps you could show me around and we could grab dinner some night."

"That’ll be lovely," Greg replied with a growing smile. "I look forward to it."

When the men from SSM started toward the door, Greg turned to Olivia and mouthed, "He’s cute!"

Olivia nodded in response and mouthed, "And Gay!"

Greg put his hand on his chest and dropped his jaw in mock-shock. Then he did a little, excited golf clap, making sure his hands didn’t completely touch so his excitement would be silent.

Before they left the building completely, Mr. Schroeder turned around and said, "We’ll be in touch ladies. Again, thank you all very much for your hospitality."

"Have a great day!" Olivia told him sincerely.

"You too."

Once the SSM members were out of sight, the entire group began to jump, dance, hoot and holler.

Doris pulled Olivia into a hug. "I love you sooo much."

Although there was a merriment in her voice there was also genuine sincerity.

"I love you too," Olivia replied. "And I gotta admit that look on Decker’s face...Priceless! Ha!" She then turned to everyone. "Hey, I’m taking everyone to lunch - my treat!"

A chorus of cheers went up.

"You really liked giving it to Decker, huh?" Natalia asked Olivia with a teasing grin.

"Immensely."

Natalia chuckled slightly. "It’s odd in a way."

"What’s odd?"

"You see Decker as maggot thieving off of a grieving widow who tossed you out on your ear because of an illness."

"Yeah, that’s about the size of it. What’s odd about that?"

"In a certain way...I owe Decker a slight debt of gratitude."

"Oh really?" Olivia chuckled.

"Yeah, although I didn’t quite realize what it was at the time, because I lived under a ROCK," Natalia giggled slightly. "...that’s the moment I began to fall in love with you. Rather than fight to save your career at Galaxy, you made a deal to secure my own future. And without that money, I wouldn’t have taken the leap of buying the farmhouse and if I hadn’t bought the farmhouse then...Well, you know the story." Natalia smiled. "No matter what, Olivia...I’m happy with the decisions I’ve made and in some small way Decker was a catalyst for that...So in someway, although he didn’t plan it, I owe him because his actions forced you to make a grand gesture for me."

Olivia wore a sad smile, but Natalia stroked her cheek and just shook her head.

"Don’t go there. I love you. Okay?"

The smile on Olivia’s face became more relaxed and she stroked Natalia’s hand.

Doris smiled as she watched the two of them. Brenda, however, watched for a moment, but she had to look away. It broke her heart a little to know what the two of them had been going through in recent months.

Doris caught how Brenda seemed to be averting her eyes and asked, "What’s wrong?"

"Nothing," she said with a smile and kissed Doris, distracting her. "I’m just hunger is all," she said as she pulled away.

"Okay," Doris told the room, "My lady is hungry. Let’s go eat, Gang. Olivia? Come on, let’s go."

Olivia held up her finger as she walked over to the front desk and opened one of the safes. She closed it and then walked back with some papers.

"I was waiting until Valentine’s to show you this," Olivia said to Natalia as she handed her an envelope. "But I really want to give this to you now. It just feels right."

"What’s this?" Natalia asked.

"Everything is arranged for this. Phillip and Beth will have the kids one week and Frank and Blake, the following week," Olivia told her. Natalia still didn’t move. "Open it up," Olivia prodded with excitement.

Natalia pulled out the papers and began to read, "Galapagos Islands... San Cristobal... Puerto Rico? What is this?"

"It’s a romantic ‘homeland’ getaway. I’ve always wanted to take you to San Cristobal or to find those places your abuela talked about in Puerto Rico. It’s a combination of cruises, land tours, private sightseeing, everything."

"Olivia...I don’t know what to say." Natalia looked stunned.

Olivia took her wife’s hands.

"I know this can’t make up..." Olivia trailed off and instead just uttered in a soft voice, "Say you’ll go, please. Just the two of us - no kids, no work, no worries... just us. I love you so much, Tali. It might not seem like it, but...you’re my world."

Natalia looked over her shoulder at Doris and Brenda -- more specifically Brenda. The professor smiled and nodded. It was a silent communication that spoke volumes. Natalia was unsure of what to do, or how to answer, since - as she told Brenda just days before - she wasn’t sure what was real and what was insincere in her relationship with Olivia. Her instinct was telling her to let go of her fear; to start trusting Olivia again. Her head was telling her to be cautious. So she did the one thing she could manage at the moment. She looked to Brenda and her slight nod, helped make her decision and finally put her fears to rest. Natalia turned back to Olivia.

"You mean the world to me too, so yes. Yes, we’ll go. And we’ll have fun and it will be great!"

Olivia pulled her into a kiss and then hugged her close.

"I love you," Olivia said with a smile as she pulled back. But that smile quickly vanished into a look of concern.

"What is it?" Natalia asked noticing Olivia’s mood shift.

Next, Olivia closed her eyes and began to gather the material of Natalia’s sleeve into her fist as she started to buckle.

"Olivia, what’s wrong?" Natalia yelled.

She helped Olivia’s decent to the ground as Doris and Brenda raced over along with Josh and Greg.

Natalia looked over her shoulder to Greg. "The Defibrillator?" she asked him.

"With the first aid kit!" he said and took off running behind the counter.

Josh leaned over her.

"Olivia?!" he yelled, not getting a reaction. He grabbed her wrist.

"Is she breathing?!" Doris asked while Brenda asked, "Is there anything we can do?"

Josh pulled back and positioned himself upright as he began chest compressions.

"Call 911," Josh told Doris. "Tell them we’ve got a transplant patient who’s not breathing." At first, the mayor looked shocked, rooted in her spot, but then she nodded quickly and went to the phone.

Natalia took Olivia’s hand in hers. "Please, God," she prayed in a whisper. "Please. Don’t take her from me yet. I promise you I’ll practice forgiveness. I swear. I’ll let her back into my heart completely. I swear I will...I swear it."

Chapter Ninety-Six

Saturday, June 9th, 2029

"So yes," Doris told the gathering of younger partygoers that included Francesca, Elena and Ava, "Your mother got cocky and died."

"Which is why I never celebrate until the deal is inked," Olivia added.

"See?" Francesca pointed to them. "Mr. Chicago Sky has nothing to offer at this time except words."

"I would just like to celebrate the offer," Elena replied. "I’m not a glass half-empty person, like you."

"I am not a glass half-empty person," Francesca started to raise her voice.

"Girls," Olivia cut her short. "I’m on my second heart now. Your Aunt Doris and Emma’s Dad had a hard enough time finding one the last time. Don’t make me go through a third, please?"

With reluctant sighs, they both relented.

Friday, February 10th, 2017

Josh, Natalia, Doris and Phillip all paced in the emergency waiting area when Brenda walked in with Emma.

"Ma?" Emma said as she raced over to Natalia for a hug. "Is Mom...?"

"She’s alive," Natalia replied. "I mean she was when they took her, but we haven’t heard anything."

Emma turned to her dad. "What about Uncle Rick? Can’t he tell us something?"

"He’s back there now," Phillip replied. As Emma came over to him, he opened his arms and hugged her too.

"Where’re the girls?" Natalia asked.

"At Company with Blake," Emma replied. "She said they can stay as long as it takes."

Rick came through the doors and saw everyone there. With a silent nod, he motioned the group to follow him. He walked a few feet and motioned the group into a meeting room off the E.R.

"Is she alive?" Natalia asked.

Rick took a deep breath. "Yes."

"But?" Phillip asked as he heard the reluctance in his friend’s voice.

"But her transplant is failing."

"But you can give her drugs right?" Josh asked hopefully. "Maybe another pace maker?"

"The problem isn’t something that can be fixed with a device," Rick answered. "She’s already on quite a bit of meds to keep the heart functioning, including a pace maker. To be honest..."

"What?" Natalia asked.

"I think he’s trying to say it’s a mystery she’s been alive this long," Doris offered sadly.

Rick nodded sadly in agreement. "Correct."

"Wait," Josh said, "There’re patients that have been alive for decades - yourself include, Rick."

"True, when it’s a male to male or female to female transplant, yes. But Olivia’s was a male to female and that lowers the life expectancy to around ten years. At this time, the area around the valves is...eroding...without some way to stop it there’s nothing we can do. It’s actually something that happens to both transplant and non-transplant patients."

"You have nothing?" Emma asked. "You can set the pace of her heart, but you have nothing that can...hold it together?"

"Unfortunately there’s nothing like that Em."

"Why not?" Emma challenged.

"It’s not as simple as it sounds."

"So any procedures?" Phillip said. "Heart surgery?"

"At this point, the operation could kill her and with the age of the heart..."

Natalia rubbed her forehead. "So what are our options here?"

Rick rolled his shoulders. "Make her comfortable. Avoid stress...If she doesn’t have arrangements yet...now might be a time to consider her wishes."

"Fuck this!" Emma spat.

"Emma!" Natalia and Phillip both reprimanded the teenager.

"No," she pointed and then turned to Rick. "You mean to tell me there’s nothing we can do? No meds? No device? Nothing?"

"That’s what I’m saying."

"What about a new heart? Another transplant?"

"At Olivia’s age, the chances of her getting another heart-."

Emma snorted. "Her best friend is one of the most well-connected women in the state. My father is a billionaire. Are you saying WE can’t find a donor? Really?"

"You think your mom will want a black market heart," Rick challenged. "Maybe one that came from someone having to die at the hands of another so she can live? Do you?"

"I’m not suggesting anyone be killed for my mother," Emma challenged. "I’m saying..."

"I know what you’re saying," Doris replied. She then turned to the doctor. "Is Olivia awake, Rick?"

"She is actually, and I’ve told her the situation. But we can only let in one person at a time right now."

Doris pointed to Josh, Phillip and Emma. "You three, with me." She turned to Brenda. "Will you stay here with Natalia?"

"Certainly," she replied. "But what are you going to do?"

Doris didn’t answer. She kissed Brenda on the cheek and walked over to Natalia. She took her hands in hers.

"You tell her we all love her and we’re not giving up so she damn well better not give up either...or we’re kicking her ass."

Doris and Natalia both grinned for a moment although they had tears in her eyes. All Natalia could do was nod. Knowing that was the only response she was going to get, Doris kissed Natalia on the cheek and touched Brenda gently on the arm as she motioned the trio to follow her.

"Aunt Doris," Emma started to say as they walked, "What are we going to do?"

"Save your Mom," she said in a tone that didn’t have any room for argument.

Once they were gone, Brenda rubbed Natalia’s back. "I’m going to go out to the waiting room, Sweetie. You come get me when you leave, okay?"

"You don’t have to stay," Natalia told her.

"Doris Wolfe ordered me here," she said playfully. "And you don’t mess with Doris, but even if she hadn’t...I still wouldn’t go. I’ll be here, alright?"

Natalia nodded as she pulled Brenda into a hug. "Thank you. I..."

"Go on," Brenda nodded her to follow Rick.

Chapter Ninety-Eight

Friday, February 10th, 2017

Olivia felt, rather than saw, Natalia enter the room. Her eyes were closed, but she knew the woman’s hand as soon as those fingers intertwined with hers. She recognized her scent from a few feet away too.

"Sorry to ruin the Valentine’s Day trip," Olivia muttered and then opened her eyes. Natalia’s eyes were moist. "I take it Rick gave you the news?" Natalia only nodded. "We’ve had a good run, Tali."

"Don’t talk like that."

"Like what? Like I’m dying? I am. This is exactly how I should talk." Olivia gave her a slight smile and Natalia lost it. She started to sob and buried her face in the blankets at Olivia’s side.

"You’re not funny," she mumbled into the covers.

"Shhh," Olivia continued as she stroked Natalia’s hair. "You know I’m funny. It’s either jokes or I become a blubbering mess too and we both can’t be blubbering messes, can we?"

Natalia just nodded, but she didn’t raise her head yet.

"I’m not ready, Liv. There’s too much undone yet."

"Yeah, but there’s so much we got ‘right,’ Sweetie. I’ve had more time than I would have thanks to your gift, and Gus’s, years ago. I’m grateful for what I have...and-and I’m ashamed for the hurt and pain I caused you. It’s ironic you know...?"

"What?"

"The last year I spent worrying about dying, looking for adventure and thrills...and now at the end, that’s the stuff I’d take back the most. Everything I really wanted was right here the whole time. If I’m lucky to get another donor, I swear I’ll make sure it’s always you - front and center. I don’t want a day to go by without an ‘I love you’ or a kiss...or if I’m really lucky...lots of kisses in naughty places."

Natalia snorted. She didn’t see it, but she could hear the eyebrow wiggle in Olivia’s voice.

"Speaking of irony," Natalia began. "I made a promise to God."

"You did, huh?"

"Yep," Natalia said as she finally raised her head. She took a firm hold on Olivia’s hand. "I promised if He gave me more time with you; if he found a way to heal you, I’d give my complete forgiveness and I’d forget everything so we could move on."

"A fresh start then?"

"Absolutely."

Olivia paused. "And what if that doesn’t happen," she started to whimper. "What if I never get out of this hospital? Would you still-?"

"I forgive you, Olivia. And I swear, it’s forgotten. I still want to go to therapy because I think it’s been helping both of us. God can’t fix all my doubts and I have to take measures to help myself."

"God helps those who help themselves?"

Natalia grinned. "Yeah, something like that..." She then turned serious. "I’m promising you, right here and now, I’ll never use...what happened...as a weapon against you. And I’ll take everything you tell me at faith, just like I did before. We’ve come so far already and I don’t want you to..." Natalia began to tear up, but she pushed it down. "...to die thinking I regret loving you because I don’t. You’re the best part of my life."

Olivia sniffled. "You’re losing us both, you know?"

"What?"

"Me and Gus - the last part of him will be gone too."

"Well, you’re not gone, but Gus as been gone, for years, Olivia. That heart’s yours." Natalia began to grin slightly. "And Doris did say she’s working on a solution so don’t give up. And if you do, she’s gonna kick your ass."

"Leave it to Doris to pick a fight with a sick woman in a hospital bed," Olivia chuckled.

"She loves you," Natalia said and began to tear up. "We all do."

"Just stop, Honey." Olivia paused then growled. "And the day started off so well for us, ya know? Doris and I put the screws to Decker and Tomlin and now there’s a chance I won’t be around to enjoy it. I bet when Decker finds out what’s going on he’ll be doing cartwheels. You gotta close the deal, Tali - they like you at SSM. You gotta do it for Doris, Springfield-."

"Revenge?"

Olivia paused and then grinned. "Yeah, that too."

Since the first time since Natalia entered the room, they chuckled.

"I got a better idea," Natalia replied. "You stick around while we find you a new heart and you do the deal yourself. How’s that sound? And I’m not taking no for an answer."

"You and Doris are SOOO demanding. How’d I end up with such bossy women around me?"

"Just lucky I guess," Natalia said softly as she stroked Olivia’s face.

"That must be it." Olivia captured Natalia’s hand and kissed the back of it. In a soft voice, just above a whisper, she said, "I love you Tali."

Natalia squeezed her hand. "I love you too, Liv."

"Whether it’s 20 seconds or 20 years...I’ll spend the rest of my life proving that. I know my word still might not mean much."

"It means everything." Natalia leaned over and kissed Olivia gently on the lips. "You mean everything."

Saturday, June 9th, 2029

Back in the present day, Doris recounted how she and Emma’s dad moved heaven and earth to find a donor who was a match. Francesca asked if she ‘bought’ her mom’s new heart.

"Of course not!" Doris replied. "That would carry a $50,000 fine and perhaps a five-year prison sentence. Plus, it’s only worth the risk if you’re rich enough to...I don’t know...buy a dying persons’ organs and perhaps pay off the judge who might be hearing a case like that - you know, someone like, say, a billionaire ex-husband. Of course, that’s only if you get caught. So, if you don’t get caught because, let’s say, the mayor, for example, promised the hospital doing the surgery a huuuuge tax break to keep quiet then you’d have nothing to worry about, right? Right! Now that’s all hypothetically and not rooted in any reality whatsoever, but I’m sure that goes without saying." She then waved her empty glass at bartender, getting his attention. "Barkeep? Another please."

"Wait a second! Are you saying-?" Francesca began.

"I thought your second heart was donated!" Elena interrupted her sister.

"It was," Olivia replied.

"Exactly." Doris nodded firmly. Then she muttered, "With a little coaxing of a family in New York."

Olivia rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Aunty D is just being theatrical...and a little drunk."

"I am not drunk," Doris chuckled. "Theatrical? Yes, but not drunk."

"What’s the real story?" Francesca asked.

Doris grinned.

"Whatever you want it to be, Sweetie," she replied evasively. "Your mom’s here, right?" Francesca nodded. "Then that’s all that matters, huh?"

Francesca nodded and then smiled.

At the other side of the makeshift reception hall, Emma was laughing with her cousin, Jonathan. She looked down at something shiny that caught her attention. She found another fifty-cent piece. This one was a Kennedy half-dollar with the date 2000.

"Are you pulling my leg?" Emma asked Jonathan as she played with the coin she just picked up.

"What?"

"Are you putting these things around for me to find? This makes the third one today," she said showing him.

He took the silver object from her hand.

"Not really my style of prank, Kiddo," he answered as he handed it back.

Unseen by any of the partygoers were four figures, which began to materialize, although they were undetected by human eyes.

"She’ll figure it out," one woman replied confidently.

"Of course she will! She’s a Spaulding!" a man boasted.

"You forget dear brother, it’s not very obvious," another older woman said.

"Right," another masculine voice added. "She might not put it all together."

"Ha," the older man harrumphed. "She invented a heart device before graduating from med school for God’s sake. You honestly think she won’t figure it out?"

"Perhaps?" the man countered

"You don’t sound very convinced. How much would you like to wager that she does figure it out, ummm?" he replied confidently.

Chapter Ninety-Nine

Saturday, June 9th, 2029

Emma sat at one of the tables and examined the three half-dollars she’d placed in front of her.

"Aside from half-dollars, what do they have in common?" she asked, thinking to herself out loud. "Think..." They all had different ‘faces.’ One was a ‘walking liberty.’ Another was Ben Franklin and the last one was JFK. "Those three ‘people’ have nothing in common except the location of the East Coast... Hmmm... Money. That’s something in common too, but who would leave me money to find...Wait a second...The dates - 2000, 1963 and 1940!"

Emma felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to see her dad there.

"You okay, Honey? You’re sitting here all alone."

"Quick - what year were you born?"

"Uhh," Phillip was slightly confused by her impatient question. "1963."

"And Granddad Alan?"

"Umm, 1940 I think."

Emma clapped her hands once and started to giggle.

"What’s got you so tickled?" Phillip asked with a growing smile.

"Remember when you said Granddad would be here and I’d know it when I see it?" Phillip just nodded. "All night I’ve been finding these. They’re half-dollars - money. Spaulding Money!"

"But half-dollars? He was a billionaire. Why not hundred dollar bills?"

Unseen by the duo, Alan walked behind Emma.

"Because that wouldn’t stand out enough, Phillip!" he criticized although the man didn’t hear him.

"Bills wouldn’t be as noticeable," Emma replied, which made Alan beam even more. "But fifty-cent pieces, on the other hand, they would because no one uses them. Plus, look at the years." She then pointed at the coins. "It’s our birth years - yours, Granddad’s and mine. This is more than a coincidence ...I think the Spauldings are here."

Still unseen by the pair, Alan clapped his hand and then turned to his right and held out his palm.

"You owe me $50, Gus," he said to his son.

"I never took the bet," he argued.

"Please," Alan replied and then pointed to Gus and his sister, Alex. "You two Doubting Thomas’s over there didn’t think she’d do it. Even the Cooper girl could see how smart Emma is?"

Marina snorted. "Could you NOT call me the ‘Cooper girl’?" she asked indignant.

Phillip cleared his throat. "You know I wouldn’t put it past him, Em. Sounds like something he’d do."

Alan took a seat next to his granddaughter as Emma picked up the half-dollar. Her eyes grew slightly moist as she played with the coin for a moment.

"Glad you made it," she whispered.

Alan too began to tear up and Gus patted him on the back.

"See, Dad? You were right...She knows."

Alan only nodded, unable to speak. He quickly straightened his tie and rose as he cleared his throat. "Let’s see who else is around, shall we?"

Alex hook her arm around his as they four of them began to walk around the grounds.

Across the makeshift hall in the backyard of the farmhouse, was Emma’s bride, Maureen. She was trying to have a conversation with Buzz, Nola and Holly, but each time she tried to speak her purple butterfly would flutter past her face, distracting her. After the third attempt to speak, she started to laugh.

"I might have to switch perfumes or something," Maureen said with a grin. "This little fellow has been following me around the last 24 hours."

"You don’t say," Nola replied with a smirk.

There was something in her voice that made her great-niece curious. "What makes you say that?" Maureen asked.

"You’ll probably think it’s far fetched," Nola began.

"From you?" Holly said sarcastically. "Really?"

Ignoring Holly, Nola continued and said, "Those we’ve lost, they sends clues that they’re still around. Coins or a particular, lingering smell are two ways. They also send butterflies to those they love."

"And you’re mom’s favorite color was purple," Buzz added.

The small butterfly now came to rest on Maureen’s shoulder.

Maureen grinned. "This is freaky."

"I think your mom and Billy are letting you know they’re here," Nola replied with a kind grin.

Unseen by the gathering, Billy put his arms around Vanessa.

"Thank you, Nola," Vanessa said softly.

"Maureen looks beautiful, doesn’t she?" Billy asked.

"She does," Vanessa replied as she reached up and interlocked their fingers. "I’m glad she found someone who loves her as much as she loves them."

"I didn’t always see eye to eye with her momma, but I gotta admit, Emma’s a good catch," Billy added.

Up at the bar, Rafe was ordering a drink when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

"Now, go easy there, Pal," James teased. "I know how you like to get loaded at weddings," he chuckled.

"Oh, for crying out loud," Rafe said. "I’ve been to several weddings since yours and I didn’t get loaded at any of those."

"So it’s just my nuptials then?"

"Dude, it was like ten years ago. Let it go."

James just laughed.

At a nearby table, Doris sat and intensely watched her grandson Leo dancing on the dance floor, and doing a pretty good job for only being nine years old. She began to grin.

"Doris!" she heard her name being called. She turned to look at Brenda. "What’s got you so distracted?" her wife asked.

"Nothing," Doris said sounding carefree; waving her off. "Just relaxed is all. I’m going to get a drink. Did you want something?"

"I’m good."

Doris nodded and picked up her purse as she made her way to the bar. She saw Elena standing there with her girlfriend, Rachel.

"Can you go get your Ma?" Doris asked.

Elena seemed confused by the request. "Uh, sure," she said as she took Rachel’s hand and the two walked a few tables over. She pointed at Doris and Natalia soon walked over.

"What’s up?" Natalia asked.

Doris dug into her clutch. She pulled out the picture of Natalia and a young Rafe at Wrigley Field that Francesca found for her earlier that night. Automatically, Natalia smiled.

"Aww, that was his first Cubs game. I managed to save up my tips that summer and-wait, where did you get this picture?"

"That’s not important."

"Yes, it is."

"No, it’s not. Look at Rafe in this picture." Natalia did and then she looked up at Doris questioningly. She started to open her mouth to reply, but before she could say anything Doris physically turned Natalia toward the dance floor and pointed to her grandson. "Now, look at Leo."

Leonardo looked nothing like Ashlee, but he did resemble...Natalia’s eyes widened and her jaw began to sag.

"Finally! I’m not the only one who sees it," Doris said relieved by Natalia’s reaction.

"You don’t think that...?"

"We share a grandson?" Doris whispered. Natalia just gave a stunned nod. "You bet I do!"

Chapter One Hundred

Saturday, June 9th, 2029

"Noooo. Really?" Natalia said as she watched Leo on the dance floor strutting around with James and Daisy’s daughter, Diantha.

"Yes, really. My grandson looks identical to your son from ‘way back when’," Doris whispered.

"What does Leo’s dad look like?" Natalia replied.

Doris pointed casually to Rafe and sarcastically said, "That’s him right there - his name’s Rafe."

Natalia slapped Doris’s arm. "Would you stop! Ashlee was dating someone who broke up with her not long after Leo was born, right?"

"Chester?" Doris asked. Natalia nodded. "The man who could pass for a Nordic god with his blonde hair and blue eyes?"

"Maybe Ashlee’s donor was-."

"Irish," Doris cut her off. "Strawberry blonde, blue eyes - not Latino...unlike my grandson."

"Oh, boy," Natalia muttered. "Does Rafe know?"

"Know what?"

Doris and Natalia froze as they heard Rafe’s voice behind them.

They turned to each other with paranoid looks and then to Rafe.

"That, uh, Emma wants you to give a toast," Doris said quickly.

"What?"

"Yeah," Natalia added. "...it’s uh, a little speech from the siblings to her and Maureen."

"She didn’t tell me I had to speak," Rafe said annoyed. "What am I gonna say?"

"Just speak from the heart," Doris said patting his arm and then slipping away. She got behind Rafe and faced Natalia. Pitching a thumb over to Emma, Doris she motioned that she was going to tell her about the ‘speech.’ Natalia nodded quickly, but Rafe caught the gesture and looked behind him to see who she was nodding at.

"Rafe?" Natalia said to get his attention back to her while Doris went to Emma. "Are you having fun tonight?"

While Rafe and Natalia chitchatted, Doris took Emma by the elbow.

"A moment please?"

"Sure, Auntie D," Emma said. She turned to the table she was speaking with and politely said, "Excuse us please," before she took a few steps away with Doris. "What is it?"

"Rafe is going to give you a speech tonight on behalf of the siblings."

"That’s sweet," Emma gushed.

"Yeah, he thinks it was your idea and you forgot to tell him."

"What?"

"I said-," Doris began.

"No, I heard you. Why is this my idea?"

"Long story short?" Emma just nodded at Doris, "Your mom and I needed a diversion when Rafe overheard us talking."

"You mean gossiping?" Emma teased.

"Noooo, talking. So just play along, okay?"

"What’s in it for me?" Emma smirked.

"What’s in it fo-?" Doris growled. "Be careful, Dear - you’re ‘Spaulding’ is showing right now."

Emma laughed. "Fine. I’ll play along."

A few tables over, Olivia sat looking at LeeAnn, the flower bitch, who sat another few tables away. The florist was eating her food and watching Natalia intensely. Sam made his way over and stood still for a moment. He watched his sister, who watched the woman, who was watching his sister-in-law, who in turn was watching Doris talk to Emma while trying to act like she was listening to Rafe.

Sam shook his head at the oddness of the situation.

"What’s, uh, going on Sis?"

"Huh?" Olivia looked up.

"You seem hypnotized on the florist. She’s fixed on Natty and Nat, well, she’s checking out Doris."

"What?" Olivia reacted and then followed Natalia’s line of sight. Her wife wasn’t ‘checking out’ Doris so much as looking at the woman every now and then over Rafe’s shoulder.

"Why the weird vibes? What gives?" Sam asked.

"Flower bitch over there wants my wife," Olivia replied.

Sam snorted. "Oh please," he sighed.

"Oh, please? What’s that supposed to mean? You think I’m crazy or that my wife isn’t desirable?"

Sam bit his lip for a moment before he said, "How do I answer this question so it doesn’t get me into trouble somehow?"

Olivia grinned. "Just be honest."

"You wife is sex on a stick," he said quickly, "BUT-!"

"There’s a but?"

"BUT, no matter what ‘Flower Bitch’ might say or do..." he continued, "...you’ve got Nat’s heart. Of that, I have NO doubt."

"Yes, but she likes this woman’s attention."

"She likes your attention more," Sam countered. "Besides, look at that woman she’s...ugly."

Olivia snorted. "She’s curvy; wavy hair; deep blue eyes...Ten years younger."

"More like fifteen," Sam teased.

Olivia scowled and Sam laughed out loud.

"You’re not helping," she grumbled.

"Come on, Liv. She looks like a female Frank Cooper. She’s even got the five o’clock shadow."

Olivia laughed and playfully swatted his leg.

"She does NOT," she replied with a giggle. But after a few moments, she turned serious. "But thank you for the reassurance."

"Any time," Sam smiled and then kissed his sister on the cheek.

TBC

Chapter 101

Version of the New Jack Swing Dance - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_IYeM4hMEI

If I Had No Loot - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLCxffb8cCk&feature=player_embedded

Saturday, June 9th, 2029

"I’m not ready to give a toast. What should I sa-?" Rafe was asking Natalia when he heard a song, "If I Had No Loot" by Tony! Toni! Toné!. His grin slowly turned into a smile. "Did you pick this one, Ma?"

She blushed.

"If the shoe fits, I want you to wear it and wear it gooood," she said along with the song, before pushing him toward the dance floor. "You know we love to see our babies New Jack Swing, so get ‘em out there!"

Rafe kissed his mom on the cheek and then started to bob his head with the beat. He headed toward the dance floor, but not before pointing to Elena and Francesca at the far end of the bar. He motioning them to Emma, who was still several tables away talking with Doris. They both nodded with knowing smiles and started toward their older sister. At this point though, Emma was already looking around for them. She watched them point to the dance floor and she nodded. Ava, and her husband Jerry, were talking with Sam and his wife Sissy when Rafe came behind her. He was still bobbing his head, but now he was taking off his suit jacket.

"Yes?" she asked when she saw him there.

Wordless, Rafe crooked his finger and then pulled Ava up by the arm.

"Ohhh nonononono," she said as he tossed his jacket on her vacant chair.

Hand-in-hand, ignoring her plea, he continued to groove while he led her to the middle of the dance floor where their younger sisters were all waiting.

Rafe nodded to them after they were in formation behind him with the exception of Emma, who was next to him.

"Think you can swing in that dress, Bean?" Rafe teased.

"Step aside," she said smugly and started to strut.

He chuckled and then nodded in approval as he joined her.

"This is your thing, guys. Leave me out," Ava laughed, trying to get out of dancing. She tried to walk away, but Elena snagged her arm.

"You promised to dance the next time," Emma said over her shoulder, looking back at her big sister.

"I meant the next ‘next time’," Ava chuckled.

"It’s easy once you get the hang of it. Watch," Elena encouraged her.

She, and the rest of the Spencer-Rivera clan, took four quick steps to the right then clapped and did the same to the left and turned. Then they did a sweep kick with their right foot forward while they turned their bodies to the side. Then they started the whole thing over again. Ava tried to keep up, and for the most part, she was doing pretty good. At least until the kicks came, but once the kick portion was over, she fell easily back into formation.

Rafe and his younger sisters, however, they looked like a regular well-timed dance troupe. No one was out of step and Rafe had trained them all well in the art of New Jack Swing.

"How you doing Chess?" Rafe asked without turning around.

"I don’t mean ta step on nobody’s foot ah," Francesca sang along with the song, making Elena chuckle.

At this point, the crowd stopped dancing and gathered around them instead. They clapped in time with the music, cheering them all as they watched.

Rafe then began to sing along: "When I need somebody there's nobody to ca-a-all..."

He motioned to Emma: "When they need me, my phone rings off the wall."

She passed back to Francesca: "But these are my friends and that so what they say-ay-ay."

She nodded to Elena: "Constantly takin' from me everyday, you say."

At the chorus, they all sang together in time with Ava and some others in the audience laughing joyfully...

"You ca-all me your friend, but you only want my gifts

And I'll never see you if I had no loot, I'll never see them

I'm just glad I know the truth and I'm payin' my own bills

And I'll never ever depe-end on you, some soul you are-aca."

Olivia and Natalia finally caught up to each other and watched with everyone else. They smiled, wrapped in each other’s embrace.

"Rafe danced to this all alone when he was a kid and now..." Natalia teared up.

"He’s got dance partners?" Olivia finished and hugged her a little tighter.

Natalia nodded. "I love it when they do this," she said as she turned back slightly to look at Olivia who was hugging her from behind.

"I know you do. Me too," she said as she kissed her on the cheek and they resumed watching.

Leo watched them all on the dance floor, happily mesmerized by what he was witnessing.

"Come here, Little Man!" Rafe called over. Without waiting for a response, he pulled Leo out with him. He then turned to Emma and Francesca. "Get your Poppa’s," he told them. He looked at Elena and Ava. "Get the Ma’s."

Doris leaned over to Natalia and nodded to Rafe and Leo. "They both deserve the truth," she whispered.

Natalia looked over to Doris for a moment, but didn’t say anything.

Rafe saw Frank and Phillip waving their hands in refusal to join their daughters, who were trying to tug them along.

"You men aren’t THAT old! Get out here!" he teased. "You too!" he said pointing to Olivia and Natalia, which made Doris chuckle.

"He’s gonna make us do this, isn’t he?" Olivia asked.

"Time to bite the bullet," her wife replied. She pulled her by the hand and started to join Ava and Elena.

Once the parents got to the floor, the song ended.

"Aw, that’s too bad, the song’s over," Frank said in mock sincerity and tried to leave.

"DJ? From the top!" Rafe shouted over to the make-shift booth.

The song began to play again.

As the, "Da-da-da-day, da-da-da-da-day-ay,’ started, Frank hung his head, resigned to his fate. But when Francesca kissed him on the cheek, well, it didn’t seem that bad after all.

"I vote for the electric slide," Olivia called out. "I can handle that and more people can join in."

A chorus of older voices agreed, including Ava.

"Fine," Rafe agreed. He pulled Ava closer and told her, "But know this...by the end of the night, you WILL know how to do a proper New Jack Swing."

"That’s an interesting term if you think about it."

"What?"

"How ‘new’ is New Jack Swing if you really think about it? It’s like 40 years old, right."

"True I guess," Rafe replied. "But no matter what you call it, tonight my dear Ava, you will be a pro."

Ava groaned and then chuckled.

Chapter 102

Saturday, June 9th, 2029

"Are you okay?" Elena’s girlfriend, Rachel, asked her as they sat along at a table together.

"Yes, why do you keep asking that?"

"You seem...distracted."

"I’m not."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

There was a brief silence.

"’Cause if there’s a problem-."

Elena stood up from the table with a heavy sigh. She leaned over and kissed her.

"I’m going to get a drink. You want something?"

"I’m good."

Elena didn’t wait for her to say more. She walked up to the bar to see Jonathan standing there with Sarah.

"Looks like you could use a drink," he said with a single nod of his head.

"Amaretto Sour," Elena replied flatly.

"Barkeep? One amaretto sour," he motioned to himself.

Elena looked surprised.

"Please," he said. "People your age can vote, go to war, see porn or fuck themselves up real good by getting married. A few drinks won’t hurt."

"I heard that," his wife, Hannah, said as she turned around from her conversation with Christina Boudreau. "So getting married means fucking up?"

"Not for us, just people in general. Half of marriages end in divorce and the other in death. You’re stuck with me until I’m dead, Sweetie." Jonathan winked.

The bartender put the drink in front of Jonathan who then slid it over to Elena.

"So what gives?" he asked.

Elena gave another heavy sigh. "Nothing really. Well...that’s not true. I...I have something to tell my Mom’s and I’m not sure how to do it."

"Owwhh, well, I’m not sure if I can be much help there," he said. "Maybe you should just jump in and let it all rip. I’ll tell you this - whatever it is, your moms love you. There’s nothing you could say that’ll change that."

"I hope you’re right," Elena replied. She looked over and saw Natalia talking with Uncle Rick and Aunt Mindy. "Thanks for the drink ‘Cuz," she said as she picked it up and headed toward her mother.

"I try to keep him out of trouble, but I’m not sure how much I succeed," Mindy was saying when Elena walked up.

"That looks good," Rick said. "What is it?"

"Amaretto Sour," Elena replied.

Natalia looked annoyed. "He served you?"

"No, he served Cousin Jonathan, who gave it to me."

"That little twerp," Natalia grumbled and reached for the drink, but Elena pulled it away.

"Mine," she said. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"

"Will you hand me that drink?"

"Not yet. But you might need it in a few minutes."

"Why?" Natalia asked concerned.

Elena didn’t immediately answer. She appeared reluctant to speak.

"And that’s our cue to look at that lovely cake," Rick said as he led Mindy away.

Natalia pulled Elena away slightly.

"I knew something was wrong with you. What is it?"

"This probably isn’t the time or the place. Look, just forget it. We’ll talk tomorrow."

"Elena Samantha Spencer-Rivera!" Natalia said quickly in a heated whisper.

Elena grinned slightly. "It still amazes me how fast you can say my name. How do you do that? Mom can’t do it."

Natalia just scowled.

"Fine," Elena sighed. "I’m not sure where to start. I... I’m not sure how to say this exactly. And I can’t help but think you’re gonna be disappointed in me."

The young woman began to tear up.

"Elena," Natalia said as she cupped her daughter’s face. "Are you...Are you pregnant? Because this wouldn’t be the first time we’ve gone through a ‘scare,’ you know?"

Elena looked confused. "No, I don’t know. Who was pregnant?"

Tuesday Afternoon, Nov. 1st, 2016

"I’m not a little kid, you know?" sixteen year old Emma said as she sat with Natalia and Olivia at the police station after her vandalism arrest.

"No, but you’ll always be our daughter," Olivia answered as Natalia nodded in agreement. "Heck, you’ll be 95 and we’ll be dead and buried, but you’ll still be our daughter, so get used to it."

Emma grinned slightly. "So what does all this mean?"

"It means we’re a family," Natalia replied. "Your mom and I both recognize that so things are gonna change. You’ll see."

Olivia reached over and took Natalia’s hand, and she willingly accepted it with a smile. "It’s going to be the home you recognize. I swear," Olivia promised.

Seeing the look on both her parent’s faces, and their physical proximity to each other was something she hadn’t seen in sometime. She smiled, but it didn’t last long.

"What’s the matter, Em?" Olivia asked.

"Yeah," Natalia added, "if there’s anything else we should know, let’s get it out right now and-."

"I’m late."

Emma looked nervous. Olivia and Natalia gave each other a worried glance.

"You mean for school, RIGHT?" Olivia asked in a worried tone.

Emma took a deep breath and blew it out slowly as she shook her head.

"You mean...?" Natalia didn’t finish the sentence.

Emma simply nodded and looked at the desk in front of her.

"Stephen?" Olivia asked.

Again, Emma only nodded. Olivia stood up and began to pace.

"You realize there IS a drug store on practically EVERY corner of this town, don’t you?" Olivia asked, her voice rising. "For God sakes, Ava doesn’t even have kids yet!"

Emma broke down and began to cry. Natalia rushed over to the other side of the desk and pulled the sobbing young woman into her arms.

"Shhh," Natalia said as she stroked her hair. "Settle down. It’s okay. It’ll be okay. You’ll see."

Olivia looked over and instantly felt horrible by her reaction.

"I’m sorry, Bean," she said. "It’s just...This is gonna..."

"Screw up my life?" Emma said through her tears. "You think I don’t know that."

"No," Natalia said, "You listen to me. You have certain advantages I didn’t have when I had Rafe. First, you’ve got a family that loves you no matter what. And while this’ll...make things like studying more... problematical... it’s not impossible to do both."

"It didn’t happen on purpose," Emma said. Then she looked at Olivia, "And before you go being all accusatory we did use protection, okay? But I’m still late."

"Does Stephen know?" Olivia asked. "Did you take a test or anything?"

"Not yet," Emma replied.

"Fine. We go to Cedar’s and get a blood test. How late are you?"

Emma was already shaking her head. "No. Not Cedar’s. What if Uncle Rick is there? You know how he’s got a big mouth. He’d probably say something to Dad."

"Fine. How late?"

"About three weeks."

Olivia and Natalia looked at each other. At the same time they both said, "Blood test."

"Mom-."

"Emma," Natalia cut her off. "You have to find out as soon as possible so you can get started on prenatal care."

"Like with Francesca?" Emma countered.

"Don’t even!" Olivia pointed at her daughter. "You are in no place to sit as judge."

"I’m not judging," Emma replied. "I’m saying you can have healthy kids without knowing."

"You’re not putting your head in the sand here, Em," Olivia countered.

"No sand. I swear. I’ll get a blood test. Just not at the hospital...Look, I’ll handle this myself."

Immediately Natalia said, "No. You’re not doing this alone."

Saturday, June 9th, 2029

"Ma? Who was pregnant?" Elena asked again, pulling Natalia from her memory.

"No one," Natalia said shaking her head. "Just... Ay Bendito," she sighed in frustration. "Tell me what’s wrong, mi hija."

Elena let out another long sigh. "Okay, I...I’m just going to come out and say it..."

Natalia exaggerated with her hands for her daughter to continue.

"I think I might be straight, Ma."

Natalia grabbed Elena's glass and took a long drink.

TBC

Chapter 103

Saturday, June 9th, 2029

"How’s construction going on the ‘dingy’?" Buzz teased Olivia.

"Done! She’s in the water now and waiting for us," she said proudly. Olivia’s smile was infectious.

"And why the hell are you here?"

"Bean was getting hitched. I couldn’t ditch Emma and miss all this," Olivia remarked.

"You bought a dingy?" Harley asked.

"Dad’s being ironic," Frank replied. "She built a ship as big as the Love Boat for Natalia."

"No. No. No. It’s not like the Love Boat," Olivia replied. She paused a beat and said, "Our captain has a full head of hair." Olivia, Holly and Buzz laughed while Frank managed a grin.

"And she has a full time crew of 10 people," Frank added.

"If you’re not on the boat, what do they do?" Harley asked.

"Maintenance," Olivia said. "They have to keep it clean, ship shape, secure. We’re going to be chartering it when we’re not on it. It should bring in enough cash to pay the crew each year."

"Maybe we’ll charter it sometime?" Harley suggested to Frank and Blake.

Blake snorted and looked at Olivia. "Family discount maybe?" she asked her and then laughed.

"Why? How much do you charge?" Holly asked.

"It’s four-hundred a week," Olivia replied.

"Well," Holly shrugged. "It doesn’t sound like four-hundred dollars is-."

"Oh, no, no, no," Blake stopped her. "Not four-hundred dollars. Four-hundred thousand dollars."

Jaws dropped all around the table.

"Who the hell would pay that kind of money?" Buzz asked.

"So far fifteen rich people this year," Olivia replied. "But yes, Blake, if you guys need it, just let me know. If it’s not booked, it’s yours. However, we have to christen it first and do a maiden voyage. That’s happening next week. I’m taking Natalia to the Caribbean and then Europe."

"Tell ‘em the name you picked for this ‘world class’ yacht." Buzz nodded to Olivia.

Olivia smiled. "Banana Nut Pancakes."

Everyone looked at each other confused but only Nola asked, "What?"

"Banana Nut Pancakes. It’s something Emma would say when she got flustered and didn’t know what to say next. I liked San Rico for the name. I’m San Cristobalan and Natalia is Puerto Rican - San Rico. So either that or Puerto Cristobal, but that’s a mouthful. We liked San Rico, but Emma brought up Banana Nut Pancakes and that was it. They both loved it and..."

"And they’ve got you whipped," Frank chuckled.

"Pretty much," Olivia laughed. "So now I have a huge Banana Nut Pancakes yacht."

"Yes?" Holly told them. "One that requires ten guys, who get paid to stand and wait. Do you all see now why I said she couldn’t have picked a more expensive hobby?"

Olivia shrugged. "It’s worth it. Natalia loves to sail."

"Well, that ends the discussion. What Natalia wants Natalia gets," Holly joked.

"And ‘I’ love to sail," Olivia stressed. "Plus, a boat this size can get us over to Europe. But no, it’s not a cruise ship. It’s not that big. It’s only thrhbhgt..." Olivia mumbled.

"What was that?" Frank asked. "The folks on the poor side of the table couldn’t hear you."

Nola and Harley chuckled.

"It’s 370 feet, Frank. And you’re not poor, okay?"

"My mistake. She doesn’t own the Love Boat," Frank teased. "It’s only HALF the size of the Pacific Princess," he laughed.

"Actually, more than half if you want to be accurate," Olivia chuckled. "But it’s not like it’s the largest yacht in the world either."

"Olivia, please. It’s got a sailboat and a helicopter pad on it," Frank snorted.

"You’re kidding," Harley said.

"You still got the picture handy?" Buzz asked. Olivia nodded. "Go get it! I want to see it again! Show them!"

"Is it stupid to ask why you have a boat on a boat?" Harley wondered.

"Because she’s Olivia Spencer," Frank replied. "And she does everything big."

"It’s for island hopping, right?" Buzz asked. "You dock and then can travel to other areas in bays and such?"

Olivia nodded. "You’re a smart man, Mr. Cooper."

"Why thank you my dear," he replied.

"I hate to show the pictures though because it feels like I’m...gloating or something," Olivia said.

"It’s a beautiful sea vessel," Buzz told her. "It’s your sixth baby so go get those photos.

Olivia gave Buzz a kiss on the check before she walked toward the house.

"She really has a boat with a boat on it?" Harley asked.

"You’ll see," Frank said with a smile and then took a drink.

Near the dance floor, Doris was following Ashlee, who looked annoyed.

"Just tell me why," Doris said.

"I told you. I was independent. I had my own money. I didn’t need his."

"No, I think there’s more of a reason why you never asked Chester for a dime of child support and why he’s never been around," Doris said.

Ashlee stopped and turned around. "This is crazy, Doris," she said, falling back into use her first name.

"Don’t shut me out here, please. I’m trying to help you. Just tell me the truth."

"What do you want to know?"

Doris paused. She had to word this carefully and diplomatically...at first.

"Is Leo Chester’s son? Yes or no?"

Ashlee didn’t say anything. She just closed her eyes and took a shaking breath. Doris closed the distance between them and gripped her daughter by the upper arms. Doris kissed Ashlee on the forehead and then rested her own forehead there, both of their eyes closed for a moment.

"I love you, Sweetie, but you’re as transparent as cellophane."

"I don’t... want to hurt... anybody," Ashlee half-sobbed, but quickly regained control of herself.

"You want my opinion? Hell, I know you don’t, but you’re going to get it anyway...Come clean, Ash. Yeah, it might hurt at first, but...It might cause a lot less pain over time. Think about us and all the years we wasted by carrying a big secret."

Ashlee shook her head. "You don’t understand Mom. I wish you could but..."

"Then talk to me. Make me understand. I’ll listen."

Ashlee opened her mouth to speak, but the microphone began to crackle and she looked over to the DJ area.

Continue to Part III of III

 

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