Valentine's Day

Hand in Hand Part 5: Valentine's Day

Note: the following story is part 5 and the conclusion of the mini series. A different part is included under each holiday story list in the bard's challenge. The parts are: Part 1 Christmas, Part 2 Easter, Part 3 Thanksgiving, Part 4 Halloween, and Part 5 Valentine's Day. You don't necessarily have to read the parts in order, but it might help. Feel free to read one, all, some, or none.

February 2, 1981

"You're not going to school dressed like that."

Gin glared disapprovingly at her daughter. Ella wore a tight, short-sleeved t-shirt, tighter black pants, and a studded black leather belt with a thick silver buckle. The only color in her clothing came from a red bandana, which was tied around her neck.

"Everyone dresses like this, Mom," Ella protested.

"She thinks she's Joan Jett," Lou mumbled through a mouthful of Frosted Flakes. Ella glared at her sister, and Lou wisely chose to concentrate once again on her cereal.

"Go up and change right now," Gin instructed.

"No." Ella's brown eyes flashed and she lifted her jaw defiantly.

Gin took a deep breath and counted to ten. Ella had just turned thirteen and Gin wondered how many years she'd have to put up with her daughter's rebellious behavior.

"If you don't change into normal clothes and get down here before the bus comes, you won't get to listen to Joan Jett or any other music until you're hard of hearing."

"Mom!" Ella cried in protest, but Gin turned her back to signal the end of the discussion, pouring herself a cup of coffee.

After a few moments of irritated huffing, angry footsteps stomped out of the room and up the stairs. Gin sighed and turned to her unusually quiet younger daughter.

"Weez is going to pick you up from soccer practice today. OK, munchkin?"

"Couch Sinclair says it's called 'football ' in the rest of the world, so we should call it that as well," Lou replied pedantically.

The Scottish emigrant actually called the game something that sounded more like "fitba" to Gin. She had a little trouble understanding his thick Scottish accent, but the kids loved him. He was a history teacher at the high school, and Gin looked forward to the upcoming year, when Ella would start her freshman year. She felt suddenly old, thinking of Ella starting high school.

Thirty, she groaned internally. I'm going to be thirty in two weeks.

"Hey," Gin said, thoughts of her birthday reminding her of other things related to February fourteenth, "we need to get your Valentine's Day cards. Remind me and we'll get some on Saturday."

"They don't do that in sixth grade, Mom." Lou shook her head as if her mother had just suggested that the tooth fairy was real.

"They don't?" Gin seemed to recall Ella doing it two years before. But times were changing.

"I don't want to go to school today," Lou suddenly announced.

Ah, that explains why she's so quiet and moody. Gin placed a hand on her daughter's forehead. "Are you feeling sick, sweetheart?"

"No." Lou scowled and yanked her head away. "I just don't want to go to school."

"Well, I have to go to work today."

Gin worked part time for a local law firm. Once Ella and Lou had started school, she had concentrated on catching up on her education, completing her GED, and then studying to become a paralegal. She was proud of her accomplishments and loved her job. Her employers, a man and his son, were wonderful to work for. They were very accommodating when it came to her hours. But she didn't like to take advantage of the situation.

"What about Weez?" Lou asked.

"She and Nana went to Madison to get Nana a new hearing aid." Gin pulled out her calendar from her purse to see what she had scheduled.

"I can stay by myself. I am eleven."

"Not if you're sick. You need someone to take care of you." Gin looked again at her daughter, trying to determine what exactly was troubling her.

"I told you, I'm not sick." Lou scowled again, and then threw her spoon into the cereal bowl, splashing milk and soggy flakes onto the tabletop. "Never mind, I'll go." She stood up and grabbed her school bag, running through the mudroom and out the back door.

"My children are going to drive me insane," Gin growled to the empty kitchen. She walked through the hallway and called from the bottom of the stairs, "Ella, you're running out of time!"

She heard a closet door slam and soon her daughter appeared and descended down the stairs toward her.

"Does this meet with your approval?" Ella asked sarcastically.

Gin examined Ella's jeans and sweater. The russet color of the pullover brought out the highlights in her daughter's curly brown hair.

"Beautiful," Gin said, smiling at her eldest daughter.

Ella scowled and rolled her eyes, but her features seemed to soften slightly.

"Where's the munchkin?" she asked, picking up her backpack from the foot of the stairs.

"Already outside." Gin placed a hand on her daughter's elbow, stopping her. "Ella, do you know if there's something going on with your sister? She seems really quiet and she didn't want to go to school."

"Does anyone ever want to go to school?" Ella paused, seeing the worried look in her mom's eyes. "OK, I'll try to find out what's going on with her."

"Thanks, El. You're my favorite brown-eyed daughter."

Ella rolled those particular brown eyes at the old joke. "I'm your only brown-eyed daughter."

"Love you, jelly bean." Gin kissed her daughter quickly before she could move out of reach.

"Mom!" Ella squawked. "I'm too old for kisses."

"Sorry. I couldn't help myself. Love you."

"Love you too, Mom," Ella replied grudgingly. A little smile managed to sneak across her face as she waved good-bye to her mother.


February 5, 1981

Louise found herself trying to think of a word that meant "bad". When her mind failed to come up with a suitable synonym, she realized she needed to call it a night. She saved her work on the hard drive and then backed it up on her zip drive. She checked her e-mail quickly, deleting the spam, and pulled up her hamsters. She watched them parade across the screen, and listened to their little song. It always made her laugh. After thirty seconds of her hamsters, their song was firmly ingrained in her memory, and she closed the files and shut down her computer.

As the system powered down, she stretched, listening to the quiet house. Gone were the sounds of TVs and stereos, of arguments and phone conversations, of dishes being washed and put away. It wasn't the sound of loneliness and abandonment, but the sound of rest and recharging. It was the sound of peace, but a peace that would be broken with the sunrise. The thought of her four favorite females laughing and loving and living made her smile.

And speaking of favorite females, she mused, I have one waiting upstairs in bed. What the hell am I doing staring at a dark computer screen?

She got up from her chair, grabbed her empty mug, and went across the house into the kitchen. She rinsed her mug and placed it in the sink, then headed upstairs. The fifth stair creaked, so she skipped it, and then decided to step up the stairs two at a time to give herself a late night workout.

Gin was asleep when she entered the room. Her red hair, which she now wore short, was mussed and already sticking out from her head at odd angles. Louise could just make out Gin's eyes; the rest of her partner was covered in their thick comforter. It was an unusually cold night, and Louise quickly stripped down to her boxers, and then jumped into the warm bed.

"If you touch me with those ice cube hands, I will murder you," Gin mumbled, not moving or opening her eyes.

Louise chuckled quietly. "I'll be careful. Sorry I woke you up, sweetheart."

"Didn't," Gin replied. "Still sleeping."

"Good," Louise murmured. "You go back to sleep."

Gin rolled away from Louise and then pushed her back against the taller woman. Louise cuddled her, being very careful not to let her hands touch warm flesh. She moved her head to share Gin's pillow, burying her nose in Gin's hair. She began to quickly drift toward sleep, the smell of Gin's raspberry shampoo tickling her nose.

"Damn," Gin mumbled.


"Gotta pee." Gin groaned and pulled away from Louise. Uttering inarticulate muttered curses, she crossed the bedroom and went into the master bathroom.

A few minutes later, she returned, still muttering, and crawled back into bed. Louise waited until Gin was settled, then cuddled up close again.



"I'm worried about Lou."

Louise's brain had been skipping down the path to Sleepsville. She paused, forcing it to stop and make a hasty U-turn.

"What's going on?" she asked.

"I don't know," Gin replied, suddenly sounding wide-awake. "She just acts like something is bothering her. She seems quiet and moody. Have you noticed?"

Louise thought for a moment. "Now that you mention it, she did seem a little less talkative than normal at dinner. Does Ella know what could be going on?"

"I asked her to keep an eye out, ask around." Gin smiled. "I think the responsibility is doing her good. It makes her feel important. But so far, she hasn't found out anything."

"I'm sure it's just normal kid stuff," Louise murmured. She felt a shudder ripple through Gin, and she squeezed her.

"Do you think they're teasing her? Making fun of her because of us?" Gin's mind went back to her childhood and the children's taunting that preceded her hellish teenage years.

"People in this town have had twelve years to get used to us being together," Louise said, rubbing her hand down Gin's arm in a comforting gesture. "You know most people don't seem to give it a second thought."

"Kids are something else, though," Gin replied.

"Yeah," Louise agreed. "They're all nasty little brats. Except ours, of course. How did we manage that?"

"Because we are perfect parents." Gin chuckled.

"Listen, I'll try to talk to Lou." Louise yawned. "I'll take her somewhere on our own this weekend and feed her so much ice cream she'll tell me everything."

"Oh no. You did that when she was six and there's still a stain on the sofa."

"OK, no ice cream." Louise moved her head back onto Gin's pillow. "Maybe I'll take her birthday present buying. A little bird told me that someone is going to be thirty in a little over a week."

Gin groaned dramatically. "Don't remind me."

Louise chuckled. "Well, since you were wisely born on Valentine's Day, I'm thinking romantic dinner, wine, candlelight. How does that sound?"

Gin was silent, and Louise wondered whether the proposal really sounded that bad. Then she heard her partner's soft snores. She marveled at how quickly Gin could fall asleep before setting her feet back on the path, skipping happily toward her dreams.


February 7, 1981

Verna picked up the remote control and turned off Donohue. She usually liked the show, but the man sometimes just grated on her nerves. Sighing, she pulled out her cross-stitch. It was a design of a cornucopia filled with various fall fruits and vegetables and colored leaves. She'd started it well before Thanksgiving, and at the rate she was going, she might actually finish it by the upcoming Thanksgiving. Maybe.

Just as she re-threaded her needle, the phone rang. She knew Louise was working in her office, a lovely room that she had added on to the house. Her daughter didn't like to be disturbed when she was writing, so Verna tried to rise quickly to pick up the phone. She groaned as the arthritis stabbed at her hip joint, nearly sending her back into her chair. She sighed, and struggled up, then limped to the other side of the room and picked up the phone.


"Mrs. Atkins, this is Nancy Reynolds at the clinic." Although Nancy had known Verna all her life, the young nurse kept her voice businesslike. "I'm trying to reach Ms. Steadman. I called her at work, but her boss said she'd just left."

"She isn't home now," Verna said, feeling a creeping panic begin to chill her. "She did mention something about going grocery shopping on her way home."

"If you can find her, Mrs. Atkins, have her call or come here right away."

Nancy sounded more urgent, and the chill began to wash through Verna.

"What's happening, Nancy?"

"It's her daughter Lou. There's been an accident."


Gin slowed her shopping cart and eyed the TV dinners. It was her turn to cook and cooking was certainly not her forte. The TV dinners were not only easy to prepare, they were actually quite tasty - especially the one with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and apple-cranberry sauce. OK, maybe "tasty" was stretching it a bit. But the easy part was certainly true.

She sighed, deciding that her family needed something a little more nutritious. She could buy turkey breast and the boxed stuffing mix. Mashed potatoes were actually one of her specialties, and she could throw in a can of cranberry sauce. Lou liked the jellied kind, even though it reminded Gin of something out of a tide pool.

She collected the items for her mini feast, and then headed toward the checkout stand. At the end of the aisle, she saw that apple cider was on sale, nearly running her wobbly cart into the display of the large jugs.

Obviously bought a little too much of that last year, huh? She mused.

The sale was good, and the cool weather of February was still perfect for sipping hot cider in front of a roaring fire, but she wanted to look forward to spring, not backward to autumn. She sighed and looked in her cart.

I should have bought something more spring-like, Gin thought. Like ham or lamb or something.

"I'd be happy to suggest a very nice Chardonnay to go with that."

Gin groaned when she recognized the sarcastic voice of her former sister-in-law. Holly had been a spoiled child, an evil teenager, and a vindictive, horrible woman. She seemed to blame Gin for her brother's death, holding a grudge over the years. Gin had continued to maintain contact with the Perkins family, for her daughters' sakes, but it was always a struggle, especially with Holly and her mother.

"Thank you, Holly, that would be wonderful." Gin purposefully wheeled her cart in the direction of the wine. She looked behind her inquiringly when the other woman didn't follow.

"Actually, I've just remembered that I have to pick up Johnny from his violin lessons."

Gin winced at the name of Holly's ten-year-old son. They just had to name him after John, didn't they?

"Well, maybe next time," Gin said with a phony smile.

Holly sniffed imperiously and moved toward the checkout. Gin decided to carry on toward the wine to give herself something to do until the woman left the store.

"Evil bitch." Gin turned to see her friend Patty stocking the shelves. Patty had apparently seen and heard her exchange with Holly.

"You know, I have a lot of blessings in my life - Weez, my girls, a great job." Gin shook her head with a smile. "But my biggest blessing is that I wasn't born with a giant stick up my butt like Holly Perkins."

Patty snorted. "She thinks she's all high and mighty because her mom's family was descended from the Pilgrims that came over on the Mayflower. Well, those same people were too dumb to figure out what they could eat. Indians had to save their asses and show them how to plant corn, for goodness sake. In my book, that's not anything to be proud of."

"Indians should have let them starve." Gin agreed with a nod.

"I thought she'd have an attitude adjustment when her husband left her high and dry with four kids and ran off with that aerobics instructor from Centerville. But she still acts like her poo poo doesn't smell."

"She's got ice in her veins instead of blood," Gin said.

"She's definitely not human." Patty shook her head. "Shame about the kids though."

Gin just shrugged. She'd had less involvement with her nieces and nephews than she had with Holly.

"Speaking of kids, how's your Lou?"

"Fine." Gin felt suddenly apprehensive. "Why?"

"My Jeanie came home early from soccer practice with a sore foot. She said Lou wasn't there, even though she was at school and seemed OK." Patty saw the concerned look in Gin's eyes. "I'm sure it's nothing. You know how kids are - especially at that age."

"Yeah." Gin thought about her daughter. The one thing she was passionate about was her "football". She wouldn't miss it for anything. A queasy feeling of unease hit her stomach. "Verna and Weez are home, but I better get home and see if she's OK."

"All right." Patty was beginning to pick up on Gin's bad vibes. "Give me a call later and let me know if there's anything I can do. I'll talk to Jeanie again and find out if something happened at school today."

"Thanks, pal." Gin smiled at her friend. "I'll talk to you later."


Gin couldn't remember driving to the little clinic downtown, or finding a place to park, or walking into the waiting room. Once through the automatic doors, she found Louise holding a crying Ella, and Verna sitting on the other side of her daughter, running a soothing hand through the girl's brown curls.

She stopped at the sight. For the first time since she'd read Louise's hastily scribbled note telling her there'd been an accident, she ceased moving. Now, she couldn't seem to make her legs move forward, couldn't open her mouth to ask what had happened - afraid of what she would be told. That her baby was hurt·or dead.

She must have made some kind of sound, because Louise looked up sharply, then quickly let go of Ella and ran toward her. Just as Gin started to sway, she felt strong arms wrap around her.

"She's OK," Louise said quickly. "Just a broken arm, they think."

"She's OK?" Gin doubted her hearing. Had Louise really said her baby was going to be all right?

"Yes," Louise said firmly. She put her hands on Gin's face and tilted her head up so she could look into her eyes. "She's going to be fine."

Gin could only nod as tears of relief began to fall down her face.

"Come on." Louise put her arm around Gin's shoulders and led her to a chair. "Doc Perkins said he'd be out in a minute to tell us what's happening."

Gin stumbled to the chair, her legs feeling like they were made of Playdough. She sat down next to Ella and pulled the girl into her arms.

"I was trying to keep track of her, Mom." Ella sniffed and wiped at her tear-stained face with the back of her hand. "I followed her to Old Man Wilkinson's farm."

Gin nodded, remembering the harvest festivals when she was a kid. Mr. Wilkinson always gave hayrides for a nickel. "What was she doing there?"

"She went into the barn," Ella replied. "I was trying to peak in when I heard a yell. I guess they fell from the hayloft·" She started to cry again and Gin held her tighter. "It was horrible mom. I thought they were dead at first. Then Lou started crying really hard."

"Shh·it's going to be OK." She rocked her distraught daughter, wishing Doc Perkins would come out and tell them what was going on. "Ella, what do you mean by 'they'? Who was Lou with?"

"Johnny!" Holly Perkins-Malone screamed her son's name as she ran into the clinic. "Where is he? Where's my baby?"

Nancy nearly vaulted over the reception desk to reach the frantic woman.

"Your father is in with him right now," Nancy said, raising her arms to head off Holly's forward progress. "Your dad said you should wait out here and he'll be out as soon as possible to tell you what's going on."

"I want to see my son!" Holly cried angrily. "I need to be with him."

The distraught woman looked around her, as if looking for support from somewhere. For the first time, she noticed who else was occupying the waiting room.

"You?" She glared at Gin. "What have you done to my son?"

"Our daughter and your son were in an accident," Louise replied icily. She stood slowly as blue fire shot from her eyes. Holly flinched slightly, but stood her ground.

"What were they doing together?" Holly asked.

"If your son hurt my little girl·" Gin let go of Ella and stood beside Louise, adding green fire to blue.

"They're always together," Ella said. "They're best friends."

"What?" All of the women spoke at once, and then Ella felt four pairs of surprised eyes turn to her.

"That's impossible," Holly stated.

"Totally impossible," Gin agreed.

"Whatever." Ella shrugged, deciding once and for all that adults were the must confusing species on the planet. She sighed with relief when her grandfather's entrance distracted everyone's attention.

"Well, ladies, I think there are two children who are about ready to see their moms."

Doc Perkins' smile and twinkling eyes reassured everyone that the kids were going to be OK. He held up his hands as everyone began to pepper him with questions.

"Hold on, hold on. Johnny has a concussion, but its mild and he's already asking if he can have a chocolate milk shake." Holly let out a small, relieved sob and Gin felt a momentary pang of empathy.

"Lou has a broken arm," the doctor continued, "and I've set it and put it in a cast. She apparently wants a milk shake as well, although her preference is strawberry." He flashed a smile, and then grew serious as he looked at his daughter and former daughter-in-law. "I'd like them to both stay over night, though. Just to be on the safe side. And you'll have to break the news to them that milk shakes are out."

The entire group began to step toward the doors, but was stopped by the doctor. "Only two in with Lou. She needs to get some rest."

"Ella and I will wait out here." Verna led the girl back to the uncomfortable waiting room chairs.

Gin nodded and took Louise's hand. She held it tight and squeezed even harder when she entered the little room, seeing her daughter dwarfed by the large bed, her arm wrapped in a huge cast. Memories of breaking her own arm swamped her mind. She felt as if she was drowning, but then Louise hugged her, and as always, Gin felt instantly grounded and safe.

"She's all right," Louise whispered in her ear. Her partner's breath warmed the chill that had crept into Gin's heart.

"Hi, Mom!" Lou had been dozing and still sounded a little out of it. "I fell out of the hayloft." She smiled, as if she'd been on an exciting adventure, but then frowned. "Are you mad at me?"

"Depends," Gin said, sitting carefully on the edge of the bed. "Did you do it on purpose?"

"No." Lou giggled. "I didn't think I could fly or something dumb like that."

"Well, that's a relief." Gin smiled at her daughter and brushed red bangs out of the little girl's green eyes. "But I'm not too pleased with you being in the hayloft in the first place. What were you doing with Johnny Malone?"

"He was ditching violin lessons," Lou replied. "We were playing with his Star Wars toys. He has a Millennium Falcon that flies and we were shooting if out of the hayloft into a big pile of hay. But Johnny slipped and I tried to catch him and·well, I guess you can figure out the rest."

"Yeah, you can spare us the details," Louise said, sitting behind Gin. "Your Mom might lose her lunch."

Lou giggled again.

"I still don't understand why you were with Johnny," Gin said. "Did he force you up there?"

"No." Lou looked confused at the question, and then shrugged. "He's my best friend. He lets me play with his Star Wars stuff and I get to be Han Solo. He's Luke."

Gin seemed to have lost the power of speech, so Louise picked up the conversation. "It's just that you've never told us that you played with him, munchkin. Why not?"

Lou shrugged again. "Mom doesn't like Aunt Holly." She looked to her mother. "I thought you'd be mad at me for playing with him."

Jeez, Gin mused, and I thought Holly was the bitch. No wonder she's been so quiet, she thinks I hate her best friend.

"I'm sorry if you thought that, sweetie," Gin said. "If he's nice to you and lets you play with his Star Wars toys, then I'm glad he's your best friend."

"Cool!" Lou's eyes sparkled with pleasure. "So can he come over to play soon?"

"Of course he can," Gin replied, trying very hard to sound positive about the idea. She wondered just how nice she would have to be to Holly. Maybe it's time we let bygones be bygones.

"You are not to play with that girl, and that's final!" Holly's voice drifted to them from the adjoining room.

Lou looked crushed, and Gin reached out to pat her knee. "Don't worry, sweetheart, we'll sort it out."

"You need to get some sleep now," Louise said. She hated to be the bad guy, but she knew that Gin didn't want to leave her daughter's side, and the little girl wouldn't be able to rest until she was left alone. "I'm beginning to suspect that your mom paid you to fall so she could get out of fixing dinner."

"Maybe she fell to get out of eating my dinner," Gin suggested with a smile. She stood slowly, keeping her hand on her daughter, reluctant to give up the contact. "You try to get some sleep."

"OK, I will," Lou replied. Her eyes were already beginning to droop as the pain medication began to take effect. She blinked a few times and then frowned. "But Charlie's Angels is on tonight."

"You'll just have to wait for the reruns."

Lou opened her mouth to protest, but yawned instead. "'K," she murmured as she finally drifted off to sleep.

Gin felt all of her pent up emotions release, and tears began to drip in a steady stream down her cheeks. Louise pulled her in for a hug.

"It's OK. She's fine." Louise repeated the words until Gin's crying slowed.

"Sorry," Gin whispered.

"'S all right."

"Weez?" Gin sniffled.


"Can I have a milk shake?"


February 14, 1981

"You guys just sit down," Lou instructed. "Ella and me are doing everything."

"Ella and I," Gin corrected automatically. She sat at the dining room table and smiled at her daughter.

Lou tried to light the red candles, having a little trouble with only one hand.

"Why don't you let me take care of that," Louise said, reaching across the table. "Then I promise I'll sit still and let you guys serve me."

"OK, but you have to promise not to do anything else," Lou commanded.

"This is the best birthday ever." Gin chuckled. "I get a wonderful dinner prepared by my beautiful children, and I get to watch Weez be bossed around."

"Watch it, short stuff, or I'll take back your present," Louise warned. Her low, rumbling tone was meant to be threatening, but it sent a shiver of something other than fear up Gin's spine.

"Here it comes," Ella announced, walking through the swinging doors from the kitchen into the dining room. She carried a large bowl of spaghetti.

"I'll get the salad," Lou said, rushing out of the room and narrowly missing hitting Verna, who was coming through the door with garlic bread and a bottle of wine.

Ella placed the spaghetti noodles in the middle of the table, and then rushed back to the kitchen. The girls both returned, Lou with her salad and Ella with a bowl of spaghetti sauce.

"There's enough food here to feed an army!" Gin exclaimed, eyeing the feast before her.

"Or a very hungry redhead that I know," Louise replied, raising her eyebrows suggestively at Gin.

"Well, we'll just leave you two to your romantic dinner," Verna said, pouring the wine for Gin and Louise.

Verna and the girls had planned to go out to a movie, but a heavy snowstorm had forced them to cancel those plans. They'd decided instead to watch a movie together upstairs in Verna's room, trying to keep as far away from the love birds as possible.

"OK, but come back down for cake," Gin said. She chuckled as her daughters both licked their lips.

Verna collected the girls and herded them out of the room and up the stairs.

"Cheers, sweetheart." Gin raised her glass, nodding to Louise sitting across the table.

Louise smiled and did the same, then took a sip of the smooth red wine.

"Look, I want to give you your present before we eat. I know that breaks with tradition, but·" Louise trailed off, trying to hide her nervousness.

"Oh, go on, twist my arm." Gin smiled and then clapped her hands when Louise reached under the table and pulled out a small package. She hopped in her chair with excitement. Louise walked around the table and handed Gin the brightly wrapped box, smiling as Gin tore open the paper.

"They're beautiful." Gin reached out a finger and stroked the red mittens. They were made of the softest wool she'd ever felt.

"Well, I gave you mine, and then you gave me a pair. I just figured it was my turn again."

"I love them." Gin whispered, knowing the significance of the gift.

"Try them on," Louise urged, and then watched as Gin took out first the left mitten and then the right. Gin's hand paused as she pulled on the second mitten.

Gin felt something hard in the mitten, and shook it out into her palm. When a diamond ring landed in her hand, she froze. She actually felt her heart beat once - a loud, shuddering thud - and then stop completely.

"I·um·" Louise had practiced what she was going to say, but the words wouldn't come. She swallowed and then took a deep breath and started again. "I've loved you all of my life, though I didn't always show it. Didn't always treat you right. Didn't always put you first. I lived with you for six years before I actually showed you my love, and that was probably one of the stupidest in a long line of stupid things that I've done."

Gin tried to protest, but Louise put a finger on her lips.

"No, let me finish." Louise removed her fingers and placed a quick kiss on the lips, then continued. "I love you, Gin. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want to continue to help raise your daughters and then help raise your grandkids if we're blessed with any. I can't begin to explain to you how much you mean to me, because it's impossible to measure. But this ring is intended to show my commitment to you. I know the state won't recognize it, and it's hopelessly old fashioned, but - "

"Yes." Gin interrupted her partner, crying and laughing at the same time.

"You're supposed to wait for me to finish, runt," Louise said, smiling so wide her face hurt.

"Sorry." Gin didn't look repentant.

Louise sighed theatrically.

"Let me try again." She took Gin's hand and slipped the ring onto her finger. "Will you marry me?"

Gin didn't say yes this time. The tears had won out over the laughter, and she threw herself at Louise, crying her happy tears into her partner's shoulder.

"Hopefully that was the question you were answering yes to." Louise hugged Gin and smiled when the love of her life nodded vigorously against her shoulder.

"Mom, is it time for cake yet?" Lou shouted from the top of the stairs.

"Can I let them come down?" Gin asked Louise. "I know we haven't even begun to eat yet, but·"

"Come on down," Louise yelled, hearing Lou's feet pounding down the stairs before she'd finished speaking.

"Hey, didn't you guys like the food?" Ella looked at her crying mom and her eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"Weez gave me a birthday present." Gin showed the girls and Verna the mittens. As they neared the table, she held out her hand, letting the ring catch and reflect the candlelight.

"Oh my!" Verna exclaimed.

"Holy cow!" Ella cried, pulling on her mom's hand to get a better look at the ring.

"These are really soft," Lou said, rubbing the mittens against her face.

"Freak," Ella said. "Look at this ring!"

"I saw it," Lou replied. "But you've gotta feel these mittens."

Ella rolled her eyes and the grown ups laughed.

"Speaking of mittens," Louise said, getting up and returning to her chair, "did I ever tell you the story of the day your mom lost her mitten?"

"No, tell us," Lou said, pulling up a chair and grabbing a piece of garlic bread.

"Well," Louise began, "it all started with a haunted house·"

The End

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