Chapter LIV

"So what did Mama say when you called?" Charisma asked as she snapped the last part of the harness in Adam's car seat into place, securing him comfortably. Then she handed him a book and closed the door of the SUV they used so rarely together before sliding into the passenger seat. She latched her seatbelt and shut her door, idly wondering when the last time she'd driven was. She heard Kent slam the back hatch, then he was climbing in beside her, fastening his own seatbelt and starting the vehicle in almost the same motion.

He checked his mirrors and eased out of the garage with a finger in his ear as he replied, "She was surprised, but genuinely glad to hear it. She cheered... loudly..." rubbing his ear again, "then said something about never getting enough time with her grandson."

"It's not like the road doesn't work both ways," Charisma muttered, conveniently ignoring the fact that her parents had been down just recently. "And we do have other responsibilities."

"I think Mama O is just a little spoiled," Kent said with a chuckle. "After all, the rest of her family is right there. She sees her sons and their families every week. And she knows we only have a few days before I have to be back at the theatre and you have to start your political rounds in the state."

Charisma blew out a frustrated breath. "It's just a little aggravating - they knew when I went into politics it was going to keep me away from home most of the time and be time consuming even when I was there."

"Maybe it's the whole retirement thing. I think even though she hasn't completely quit working, she's finding herself with more time than she knows how to fill. She's naturally going to turn her attention to her family."

Charisma snorted. "Maybe I should send Daddy to a travel agent."

"Charisma," Kent teased with a light laugh.

"What about your mother? Is she going to join us early as well?"

Now it was Kent's turn to snort. "She'll probably get there before we will." He cut his eyes in Charisma's direction. "Maybe we could send them on a world tour together."

Charisma laughed. "I'm not sure the world is ready for our parents to be traveling together."

"Mama GO!" Adam chimed in from the back seat. Kent and Charisma just laughed a little more.

For a little while after that it was quiet. Adam had dozed off and Charisma's attention was focused out the window at the passing scenery. Kent risked a quick glance before he tapped her softly on the arm. Charisma started, then turned towards him with a raised eyebrow. He motioned to a sign on the highway. "You need to stop?"

She looked at Adam and nodded. "I think we should. Besides, it'd be nice to stretch my legs for a few minutes." Kent nodded and signaled his intention, pulling the big truck off the road and into the rest area. Adam, feeling the change in speed, blinked his eyes open.

"Gramma?" he asked, looking around curiously.

"No, son," Charisma said as Kent parked the vehicle and she got out to open Adam's door. "We're not at Gramma's yet. Time to go potty," she added as she lifted him from his seat. He wrapped his arms around her neck, scrunching up his nose and laughing when Charisma took the invitation to tickle him.

"MAMA!" he squealed.

"C'mon, Little Man," she answered with a smile as she set him on his feet. "Let's go potty."

"You want me to take him, Charisma?" Kent offered.

"Sure," she accepted after a long moment looking between them. "Adam, go with Daddy." Adam looked seriously at his mother before taking Kent's hand. Then they went into the men's room, leaving Charisma alone to enter the ladies.

A few minutes later, they met up outside the restrooms and Adam took Charisma's hand, walking happily between his parents. Then he jerked from both handholds, cheering as he ran from them. "Mama, look - BR'ANNA!!" Charisma was running as soon as Adam pulled away, catching him after a mere step or two. He struggled, pointing to the blonde women he'd seen. "MAMA!!! BR'ANNA!!"

The woman, hearing the commotion behind her, turned and Charisma nodded while giving the woman an awkward smile. "See, son - that's not Brianna. She won't be at Gramma's for a few days yet." She glanced at the woman who was watching the tableau with interested eyes. "I'm sorry; my son mistook you for a friend."

The blonde woman smiled. "Not a problem. My granddaughter has done the same thing. You're just quicker than my daughter. Rebecca actually caught up to the woman she thought was her aunt."

Charisma shook her head. "Scary," watching the woman agree. "Well, I'm sorry to have troubled you."

"No trouble, dear," the blonde woman nodded, then continued on her way. Charisma walked around to her side of the SUV and opened Adam's door, setting him in the seat and strapping him in. Kent watched from the other side, waiting until Charisma was done with Adam and sliding into her own seat before opening his door and climbing in.

"Should I even ask?"

"Just a case of mistaken identity," Charisma said with a shrug.

"Someone I've met?" he asked slowly not giving anything away. "Because that woman didn't seem familiar to me," wondering how much Charisma would share with him.

She bit her lip. "I don't think so - a fellow Senator... Brianna Walker. She's an old family friend I'd lost touch with until just recently."

Kent nodded his head slowly... thoughtfully - considering the information he'd just been offered. "Walker... Walker - why does that name sound so familiar?"

Charisma sighed. This really wasn't something she wanted to be discussing with her husband at the moment, but she supposed he needed to be looped into the circle before they got to her parents house. Given what Brianna had told her, and knowing her brothers like she did, she was convinced Brianna would be treated more like a part of the family than Kent had a prayer of ever being. No fault of his own, of course, but even as Charisma's husband he couldn't compete with the more than twenty year head start Brianna had on him.

"She's the replacement Senator the Governor appointed a few months ago."

"Oh," he said as though a light had gone off. "Of course - I remember that. She made quite a big deal about only keeping the office until the election," glancing at Charisma who laughed and shook her head, letting her hair fall down around her face, concealing her expression.

"Yes, that would be the one."

Kent laughed. "I can't begin to imagine how that's gone over with your colleagues."

"Well, I'm pretty sure none of them quite know how to deal with her."

And you, Charisma? Do you know how to deal with her?he wanted to ask, but refrained. Instead, he queried, "So how did Adam meet her?"

"They ran into each other in the hallway of the Senate Building. Brianna was coming back from a meeting and Adam was wandering the hallway. Luke had taken him to the men's room and Adam got done before him, so he left. Brianna found him and brought him back to my office."

"Why was Adam at work with you?" Kent asked with a frown. He didn't remember hearing anything about Adam going to work with Charisma. "What happened to Ame?"

Charisma shook her head. "She never said exactly, but half of her face was a lurid shade of black and blue the next morning."

"Like someone had hit her?"

"More like some *thing*," Charisma corrected. "It was a really big bruise. But she recovered pretty quickly and she seemed uncomfortable talking about it, so I didn't push."

"So Adam likes her... this Brianna Walker?"

"Yes," Charisma answered but didn't speculate on how much or why. "She'll be at Mama's for the holiday."

Kent's eyebrows went into his hairline. That he hadn't expected to hear. "It'll be nice to meet her," he replied neutrally, then focused his attention back on the road. Charisma blew out a breath and looked back out her window, hoping for the best.


"Are you sure about this, Mama?" Patrick Tagherty asked as he helped Okasa make up the beds in the guest room Kent and Charisma always took when they visited. "This has the earmarking of a disaster written all over it," he added as they pulled the spread up and tucked it into place.

"What would you have me do, Paddy? They're gonna have to meet at some point; better it be here with family to support them than somewhere where things could turn ugly and quickly get out of hand."

"You really think they would?" Patrick asked dubiously as they finished the small bed that Adam used in their home. When he was a little older and they had fewer guests, he would be moved to a room of his own. But for this trip, he would be ensconced with his parents. Okasa gave the room a once over and nodded her head in satisfaction that everything was in readiness. Then she crossed to the door and went to the next guest room so they could prepare it for Kent's mother. They expected her to arrive before their daughter and son-in-law did. Paddy picked up the bedding and followed right behind her, waiting for an answer to her question.

Okasa sighed as she removed the dustcover, folding it carefully before setting it aside and taking the bottom sheet from the stack Patrick still held. "I think it could easily go beyond something manageable into something unrecoverable." She sighed again. "I don't want to lose any part of my family in the fallout."

"Including Kent?"

"Including Kent," she confirmed. "Patrick, I love Kent - he's a good man, and he's been a good father to Adam. He's just not the right mate for Charisma and never has been."

"And what of Kay and her family joining us for dinner? I know they have since she and Brianna were together; are they still coming as well?" waiting for Okasa's affirmation. He shook his head. "Seems to me things could get unpleasant regardless," Patrick said as he added the throw pillows to the bed.

"I think that depends on us," Okasa replied, cocking her head when she heard a car door slam. "Now c'mon. I think Margaret is here," snatching up the dustcover and stuffing it into the bedding bag. Together they headed downstairs to greet the first member of their extended family to join them for the holiday.


"So then Patrick looks at Adam who's looking at Patrick before they both turn to me and point fingers at each other," Okasa relayed through her laughter. "It was all I could do to keep the smile off my face long enough to send them upstairs to clean up!"

Margaret delicately wiped a tear from the corner of her eye even as she continued to chuckle silently. She only lifted her hand to accept the drink Patrick offered her once the tear had been removed. "I wish I could have seen that."

"I'm glad you didn't," Patrick grumped. "She threatened to scrub me with steel wool," making a face at Okasa who simply grinned back at him.

"Well really, Paddy - Adam's too young to know better. What was your excuse?"

"It was something the boy needed to learn," he replied with great dignity, turning his head away from them and lifting his nose into the air. Margaret and Okasa exchanged smirks. Then the slamming of a vehicle door caught their attention, and the sound of running footsteps took them both to the door... just as Adam reached it. Okasa opened it and he went right to her with a screech.

"GRAMMA!!" jumping into her arms and giving her a big kiss. Then he spotted his other grandmother and reached for her as well.

"GRA'MUVER!!" causing her to wince even as she wrapped her arms around him and Okasa and leaned in for her kiss. "WHERE'S POP POP??" looking around for Patrick and squealing again as he caught sight of the older man. Okasa lowered him to the floor and he took off running, arriving in Patrick's arms just as Charisma and Kent made it to the front stoop.

Greetings were made all the way around with Charisma apologizing for the volume of her offspring's voice. Both grandmothers just laughed and reminded her it was part of growing up.

"I'm actually a little glad to hear it," Margaret confessed, wiggling her finger over her ear. "Or I will be when I get my hearing back," she joked. "Adam's always been so quiet and reserved. It's nice to see the little boy coming out in him."

Charisma chuckled. "More than you know."

"Oh?" Margaret asked, cocking her head and pulling Charisma out of the pathway as Kent eased by them and headed for the stairs.

"Oh yes," Okasa agreed, then turned to meet Charisma's eyes. "If you are referring to...."

Charisma nodded and turned back to Margaret. "Have you heard about my friend Esmeralda? She's a custodian at the Senate Building."

"You're friends with a custodian?" Margaret asked in a disbelieving tone of voice, paling slightly when Charisma's expression hardened and her eyes went the color of ice. "I'm sorry, my dear," she apologized immediately. "I haven't heard of her. She must be quite an interesting individual."

"She's an amazing woman, Margaret. I'm so lucky to be able to call her my friend."

Now Margaret blinked in surprise. "I'd like to meet her."

"Well, you're in luck," Okasa broke in, giving Charisma a minute to collect herself. "She and her partner...."

"Her mate, Mama," Charisma corrected softly. Okasa looked at her with a frown and Charisma shrugged. "There's a big difference, and it's important to them."

"She and her mate will be here for the holiday," Okasa continued without missing a beat.

"I'll look forward to meeting them then... if only so I can know how they tie in to bringing out the little boy in my grandson."

The smile returned to Charisma's face and both Margaret and Okasa relaxed. "Esmeralda's mate Saphira let him go streaking through their house after a bath. It's become something of a nightly ritual." Charisma chuckled. "I think you're going to find Adam a lot different from the last time you saw him, Margaret."

Right at that moment, Adam ran into the back of Charisma's legs, nearly knocking her over. "Mama, come!" he demanded imperiously. She looked at Okasa who just smiled and nodded. She turned back to Adam. "Where's your Pop Pop?"

"Outside," tugging on her hand. "Mama, COME!"

"Guess we're going outside," seeing Okasa handing Margaret her coat before slipping into her own. Then they headed out to the backyard where Patrick waited beside a Big Wheel that had Adam's name stenciled on it. Charisma, of course knew that her parents had gotten one for each of the grandchildren as they got old enough. She just hadn't realized Adam had reached that age yet.

"Mama, SEE? Mine!" running his hands along the letters that spelled out his name.

"I see that, son. Are you going to ride it?"

He looked at the Big Wheel and at his appreciative audience, then firmly nodded his head. "YES!" he declared as he straddled the seat and sat down. The four adults took pictures and cheered appropriately as he slowly figured out the mechanics of moving the plastic trike. Kent stood by the window and watched the action from upstairs. Almost an hour later, Charisma thought to include him and called up for him to join them. Only then did he finally go downstairs and into the backyard with the rest of the family.

Chapter LV

"Good morning, Matilda," Esmeralda greeted as she and Brianna entered the diner behind Saphira. Matilda gave them a wave and motioned them towards the counter as she filled coffee cups. Joe poked his head in the window and grinned, then slid a couple platters onto the opening.

"Order up," he called, chuckling at the glare Matilda gave him. She shook her head and rounded the counter, only to stop as Saphira snatched them up and deposited them in front of the customers that had been waiting for them. Matilda grinned and nodded her thanks, blowing at the lock of hair that fell in her eyes. Then she chuckled when Esmeralda came around and gave her a hug.

"You must be feeling better," Matilda offered as she returned the embrace. "Thanks, Saphira; hi, Brianna," squeezing each of their hands briefly once she released Esmeralda.

"I am," Esmeralda confirmed. "But I've missed you both too," she said, waving at Joe.

"We've missed you too, Cutie. I guess you're headed out of town?"

"Yeah. We just stopped by to wish you both a good holiday and pick up the cakes Charisma ordered."

"Yes, of course," Matilda agreed. "Let me get them for you, so you can get on the road. You still have a bit of a trip ahead of you, don't you?"

"It won't be too bad, Matilda. I rented a nice big SUV - plenty of room for all those cakes and us beside," Brianna commented. "Should I pull around back... make it easier to load them in?"

"That's a great idea, Brianna. It'll save us a few steps." Matilda looked around the diner, satisfied that her customers were content for the moment. "Now, can I get you girls some breakfast before you go?" Saphira cocked an eyebrow, garnering her a smirk from Matilda before she yielded to her desire and laughed aloud. "All right... I get the hint. We'll miss you both, but enjoy yourselves, okay? You deserve some time off and a chance to share the holidays with friends. Just let us know when you get there and when you get home. You know I'll be worried otherwise."

Joe caught Saphira's eye and she headed back to the kitchen to help load up. Esmeralda nodded. "We will, Matilda. When are your kids supposed to be here?"

"Within the hour," she said excitedly. "Seems like it's been forever since their last visit."

Esmeralda smiled softly. "I think all parents feel that way - the good ones anyway."

"Well, I don't know about that. I just know I like having them home again for a little while."

"Hey, Old Woman. You wanna come show us which cakes are supposed to go with these girls before daylight's gone?" Joe called from the kitchen. A few of the customers, most of them regulars, chuckled quietly. Matilda glanced at the clock, realizing it wasn't that long past daybreak and just glared.

"One of these days," she muttered to Esmeralda. Then she stepped around the corner and into the kitchen. "You got a death wish, Old Man? What do you mean calling me 'Old Woman' in front of the clientele?"

Joe raised an eyebrow and guffawed. "Clientele? Since when did we get to be so high-falutin'? These folks are regular customers... almost family. Now, point out what these girls are supposed to take so they can get on the road. I want them to get there before the weather turns... preferably before dark."

Matilda scowled, but squeezed his bicep as she moved towards the refrigerator. "You old softy," she mumbled, then she opened the doors and pointed out the appropriate boxes. In just a few minutes, Saphira and Brianna had them loaded and Saphira motioned Esmeralda around to the back. Esmeralda gave Joe a hug and brushed a kiss over Matilda's cheek, then with a last wave, the three of them were on the road and headed for the Tagherty homestead.


"So tell us a little more about your friends, Charisma," Margaret asked as they sat at the breakfast table that same morning. "I have to admit to being more than a little intrigued."

Charisma had to wonder why Margaret was suddenly intrigued, but had to admit that she hadn't been around much in the past few days either. With three grandparents that didn't get to see Adam nearly as often as they'd like to, Charisma had taken advantage of the built-in, willing babysitting and already started her political glad-handing. So she hadn't been around much more than to say good morning before she left for the day, usually not making it back until just before dinner. That time was spent catching up on everyone's day, and then it was back to work for her for a few more hours before falling into bed beside Kent for a bit of sleep before waking up to start it all over again.

And wasn't that weird? She and Kent rarely shared a bed anymore - hadn't since Adam had been born if the truth were told... except when they were here in her mother's home. Still, since she had fought so hard to be allowed to sleep together at Okasa's before they were married, she wasn't about to tell her mother any differently. And since Kent didn't seem to mind nor did he demand anything from her, she was content to keep the status quo.

All this flashed through her mind briefly as she considered Margaret's request, which she had to admit was a valid one. After all, before Esmeralda had come into her life, she'd never given much thought to her friends - or the lack thereof - in Washington. There it was all about the movers and shakers - who you knew and who knew you. Meeting Esmeralda had changed that... at least in part.

"Charisma?" Okasa finally nudged her. "Margaret asked...."

"I know, Mama. I'm trying to decide what to say." Her words caused more than one set of eyebrows to go up.

"Are they that unusual?" Margaret asked curiously.

"In some ways, yes," Charisma replied honestly. "They're not like anyone I have ever met before."


Now Charisma's eyebrows jumped onto her forehead, but she considered the question before she spoke. "I'm not sure," she said slowly. "I don't think it's because of our different economic circumstances even though that is considerable; I think it's just them. They're *real* people, if you know what I mean... something I don't see a lot of in my line of work."

"How did you meet them? I mean, I know you said the one was a custodian in your building, but they don't come in until after you are long gone, do they?"

"You'd think so, wouldn't you?" Charisma said wryly. "But I pull a lot of late nights trying to finish the work I can't get to during the day with all the meetings and committees and whatnot constantly interrupting. So I did actually meet Es while I was working."

"Tell us about it."

Charisma let her eyes unfocus on the room around her and turned her sight inward, thinking back on the first day Esmeralda had walked into her office... and into her life.


A knock sounded on her door and Charisma glanced at the clock, frowning. Who on earth was left to disturb her this late at night? Before she could invite them in... or dismiss them, for that matter... the door opened and a honey gold head peeked around the frame.

"Oh, I'm so sorry, Senator. I didn't realize that anyone was still here. I can come back...."

"If you didn't know anyone was here, why did you knock?" Charisma asked sharply, blue eyes boring into green that met hers steadily.

"I always knock before entering any room here, Senator. It's considered polite and I never know if someone might be working late. My work is somewhat noisy. I don't just barge into any of the offices I clean in case I'm interrupting something."

Charisma blinked, wondering what kinds of things this woman might have interrupted in her line of work and realizing she'd just been thoroughly dressed down by the custodian in front of her who took such care of maintaining her office space. But instead of becoming angry, it made her thoughtful. "What's your name?"

"Esmeralda," the young woman answered.

"Well, Esmeralda - I think you've been doing a magnificent job here," motioning around the room. "Don't let me keep you from your work."

"Yes, Senator," Esmeralda nodded and pushed the door open further, pulling her cart in behind her. Charisma watched her for a few more minutes as she started her cleaning routine, recognizing a serenity about Esmeralda that she'd rarely seen outside of church on the odd occasion she went. Then Charisma went back to her own work, ready to wrap things up for the evening.


"This went on for several weeks before we actually spoke again. And when we did, we started talking... like friends do. Not at first, of course, but eventually we were talking about *real* things... important things. And then she fell ill."

"By fell ill, I'm assuming you don't mean she got a cold," Margaret commented, seeing an odd look in Charisma's expression. Charisma shook her head.

"No, it certainly wasn't a cold." She bit her lip thoughtfully and picked up her coffee cup. "I don't know what it was - my colleagues and I were never told. But I do know she was out for a long time; whatever it was almost killed her."

"Wait... she made friends with other Senators?"

"Esmeralda has made a friend of most of the people on our floor - Senators and aides alike. If you've worked late enough to be there when the cleaning staff comes in, you've probably made friends with Esmeralda. She's just the kind of person who attracts people to her."

"And she told you that this illness nearly killed her?"

"She did - but we also saw how wan and gaunt she was when she returned to work. Whatever it was, it took a lot out of her. She's still recovering, truth be told."

"And you're sure she was actually sick - that it wasn't drugs or something similar?"

Charisma's face flushed crimson with the anger that washed over her, but before she could speak, Kent answered Margaret's accusation. "Mother! That was completely uncalled for! Maybe you should try giving people the benefit of the doubt instead of judging them sight unseen. You might be happier and your life might be more than just an endless round of affairs. You might actually find some real friends," he finished before he rose and strode from the table. Margaret's jaw dropped in response to his tirade, but before she could recover to make a waspish reply, Charisma spoke calmly.

"Margaret, that was completely unfair and if you think about it... a somewhat stupid accusation of someone you've never even met. The government does random drug testing every week - they would have caught Esmeralda long before her illness if she'd been a user."

"I was thinking that she could be using her so-called illness to her advantage. After all, that building is full of people with secrets whose careers could be permanently destroyed if those secrets got out. And you know there are people who would pay a lot of money to know them."

"Margaret, Es is a custodian - despite 'National Security', she's privy to every government secret put on paper if she really wants to discover it. And God only knows what she's learned about the men and women she works for - people talk and she's a listener... besides which, garbage can be very telling. And yet nothing I've shared with her has ever even been whispered about in the hallways, and I've never heard anything about anyone else there... beyond the normal political crap which was there long before Es ever made an appearance in the building. Maybe you should consider your need to condemn a stranger like that. Now if you'll excuse me...." glancing at her mother before she rose and followed Kent's path out of the room.

Margaret looked at Okasa and Patrick plaintively. "I thought it a fair question. After all...."

"After all, Margaret, maybe you should wait until you meet her. Esmeralda might pleasantly surprise you. And I won't have you making her feel unwelcome here."

Okasa bit her lip to keep from showing the anger she felt. Charisma had finally found a friend outside the political arena she felt she could trust, and Margaret was doing her best to destroy that before she had even met the other woman. Instead, she rose and began to clear the table of the breakfast dishes Kent and Charisma had left behind. Patrick remained silent, eating the remainder of his food while allowing Margaret to wonder just what kind of boundaries she'd overstepped and how to go about repairing them.

Meanwhile, Charisma had followed Kent upstairs into their room where Adam was still soundly sleeping. The past few days' activities with his grandparents had worn him out and Charisma was thankful he'd been spared the little scene downstairs. She found Kent sitting on the floor by their son's bed just watching him sleep. Charisma took a seat beside him and lightly bumped his shoulder with hers.

"You all right?"

Kent glanced at her briefly before returning his attention to Adam. "Yeah. She just... she makes me so angry when she does things like that. Just because she got taken in once...."

"Your dad?" knowing it for the truth. Simon Rockwell had been a scoundrel - a charming scoundrel, but a scoundrel nonetheless. And his duplicity had colored every human interaction Margaret had had since his defection when Kent was still much younger.

"Yeah," he sighed. "I'm sorry she attacked your friend. I'm looking forward to meeting her... them."

"I think you'll like them, Kent. They're good people. I'm glad they weren't here to hear your mother's accusations, though. I get the feeling Saphira would have cleaned her clock one good time."

"She some kind of tough broad or something?" Kent joked with a twinkle in his eye.

Charisma smirked. "Well, she's a waitress in a diner, so I'm sure she can hold her own. But she's very protective of Esmeralda - they're very protective of one another. I'm pretty sure if Saphira had heard your mother's tirade, we'd be picking bits of her up from around the room for the next few days."

"That would be something to try and explain to an ER doctor," he quipped as Adam slowly blinked his eyes open. "Morning, Little Man," he greeted, chuckling when Adam leaped into his arms and snuggled into his neck. "You got a kiss for Mama before we go potty?"

Adam leaned over and nuzzled Charisma's cheek, then tucked himself back into Kent's body. Kent and Charisma exchanged looks, then Kent eased to his feet. "Guess that's my cue," he said as he moved into the connecting bathroom. "You going out today?"

Charisma leaned over and made up Adam's bed, then turned her attention to theirs. "No. I'm not sure what time the girls expect to arrive and I'd like to be here to meet them when they do."

"I can certainly understand that, especially after what happened downstairs."

"Thank you for that, by the way. You didn't have to say anything to your mother, but I appreciate you saying that to her."

She could hear the shrug in his voice when he answered. "It needed to be said."

Before Charisma could continue the conversation, Adam ran out of the bathroom, obviously much more awake than he had been scant minutes before. He latched on to Charisma's leg, and she reached down to tickle him. He squealed and tried to get away without actually losing his grip on her. Kent laughed at the picture they made as he leaned on the doorjamb of the bathroom.

"I've never seen a kid wake up like that boy does."

"Mama, bre'fas?" Adam asked, blue eyes looking at her adoringly. She touched her finger to the tip of his nose and smiled, watching his nose crinkle up in response.

"You hungry, son?" she queried, knowing the answer before his head started nodding vigorously. "Let's go downstairs and see what Gramma has for you to eat. How does that sound?"

"YUM!" causing Kent and Charisma both to laugh out loud.

"I guess that means yes," Kent said as he pushed off the doorway and moved to the bed. "I'll finish up here," gesturing to the partially made bed, "and meet you downstairs in a few minutes."

Charisma nodded, and laid a hand on his arm. "Are you all right?"

He patted her hand awkwardly and bent down to pick up the throw pillows. "I will be," he assured her. "Go on now, before Adam starts chewing on your leg."

Charisma smiled and took Adam's hand. They headed downstairs without a backwards glance.

Chapter LVI

Margaret had quietly apologized for her assumptions and was sitting in the living room when the SUV pulled up in front of the house. Adam had been sitting on her lap while she read to him, but the minute he heard the car door slam he struggled to get down.. "Mama?"

Charisma held out her hand. "Come on, son. It should be...."

"BR'ANNA!" he shouted, seeing the twinkle in Charisma's eyes. He rushed for the door. Outside, the three women exchanged glances and chuckled.

"Well, Brianna," Saphira offered with a smile. "It looks like at least your arrival is anticipated." Just then, Charisma opened the door and Adam ran out with a glad cry... right into Brianna's arms as she knelt to intercept him. He pulled back just enough to cup her face in his hands rubbing their noses together and giggling. Then he released her and ran straight for Saphira's kneecaps. She caught him just before he reached her and swung him up high into the air and into her arms.

"PHIRA!" he hollered, squealing in laughter when she blew raspberries over his belly. "ES!!" he added, screaming, reaching for her. Adam got his arms around Esmeralda's neck while Saphira held onto his bottom half. He looked at her in frustration.

"Where's my hug?" Adam pulled back from Esmeralda, who helped him lean back into Saphira to give her a hug and a wet kiss. Then he jumped at Esmeralda, and she just managed to catch him with Saphira stepping up beside her to help balance them. They didn't even realize the audience that had gathered at the doorway watching them until Adam turned around and cheered.


Charisma stepped out of the house and the rest spilled out behind her. Adam wiggled and Esmeralda put him on the ground, then he ran back to his family and took Charisma by the hand.

"Mama, come!" tugging until she followed him out onto the lawn where her guests were still standing where they'd stopped when Adam came running out. Only after she was standing in front of them did she realize everyone else was right behind her waiting for introductions. Charisma took a moment, giving each of them a hug before she turned back to her family.

"Ladies," she said to Brianna, Saphira and Esmeralda. "This is my family - my husband Kent, my mother-in-law Margaret, my mother Okasa and my father Patrick. My brothers and their families will be here tomorrow," she explained, then went on with the introductions. "Guys, this is Brianna, Saphira and Esmeralda... my friends."

There was a long moment of exchanged handshakes and greetings before Patrick turned to Kent. "What do you say we help these young ladies bring their things inside, and then you and me and Adam can go to town for some ice cream."

Kent smiled and nodded. "I think that's a fine plan, Paddy." He glanced between the three new arrivals. "Would one of you mind popping the hatch so we can get started?"

Brianna pressed the unlock button, then crossed to the back of the truck. Both men turned and looked at her with a questioning expression. Brianna rolled her eyes. "You fellas might need a little help - we brought the chocolate cakes Charisma ordered before we left DC."

They looked at her, then at the boxes stacked in front of the luggage. "Got it," Kent replied. "Good thinking."

Brianna chuckled. "Yes - I'm trying not to let my skills rust while I'm in Washington," causing the two men to laugh in sympathy with her attitude. Charisma just snorted.

"Good luck with that, lass," Patrick joked, placing a cake box into either hand. Then he reached around her to hand Charisma two and Saphira stepped up and took the last two and they followed Okasa into the house where Adam had already led Esmeralda inside, and Margaret had followed them more slowly.

Now they entered to find Adam comfortably ensconced on Esmeralda's lap, telling her a story from the book Margaret had been reading earlier. Margaret was watching them with a curious expression, but Esmeralda didn't even seem to notice. Charisma, Brianna and Saphira followed Okasa down the hall and into the kitchen, then to a walk-in pantry. She motioned them where to set the cakes, then turned to Saphira and Brianna.

"Have you girls eaten?"

"Yes ma'am." Saphira replied, causing Okasa's brows to fly into her hairline.

"Saphira, we don't stand on formality here. I'm Okasa or Mama, but not ma'am."

Saphira blushed and shook her head. "We'll try, Okasa, but you're going against a lifetime of habit."

"Something your mama taught you from a child?"

"Yes ma'am... something like that."

Okasa chuckled and shook her head. "All right. Let's go into the living room," turning to find Charisma behind her with a tray of assorted drinks. Okasa didn't ask - she just nodded her approval and led the way back to where Margaret and Esmeralda were now sharing a bit of quiet conversation. Obviously it hadn't taken Paddy and Kent long to unload the SUV and claim Adam.

Charisma played the dutiful hostess, handing out favorite drinks to each woman, then taking a seat beside Esmeralda on the couch. "It's so good to have you guys here," Charisma commented as she reached over and squeezed Esmeralda's hand. "I'm really glad you came."

"*We're* glad they came," Okasa corrected firmly. "I've heard so much about you both; it's wonderful to have you in my home." She turned to Brianna. "And I'm thrilled to have you back with us again," reaching out to the woman she considered a second daughter. "It's about time."

"Hear! Hear!" Charisma muttered under her breath, though everyone heard her. Her words caused a myriad of reactions around the room. Brianna blushed; Okasa smiled; Saphira's and Esmeralda's eyes met and they nodded slightly; and Margaret frowned.

Okasa noticed, and before Margaret could say anything, she looked at Charisma. "Do I want to know why there are six chocolate cakes sitting in my pantry?" chuckling at the flummoxed look on Margaret's face.

"Oh Mama - wait til you taste this cake. It is spectacular," seeing Brianna and Esmeralda nodding their heads in agreement. Margaret tilted her head at Saphira.

"You don't like it?"

"Oh... yes, ma'am, I do. But I prefer the banana pudding. Matilda serves an amazing banana pudding - her mama's recipe."


"My boss, and the woman who made the cakes. She and her husband Joe own a diner just outside the city. It's how we met Brianna."

Now Charisma's ears perked up. "I don't think I've heard this story. Share?"

"I'd like to hear how all of you met, actually," Margaret confessed. "I mean... Charisma told us how she and Esmeralda met, but you just seem like such an unlikely group of friends. It's almost like Fate stepped in and brought you together or something."

"Do you believe in Fate, Margaret?" Esmeralda questioned.

Margaret studied her a long moment, interested despite her unwillingness to be. Having actually met Esmeralda, she could understand Charisma's earlier words. There was something about the younger woman that drew people to her - that inspired confidence and trust. She found that she was curious... and more than that, she was concerned about this woman she had just met, yet seemed to know.

"You know - sometimes, I think I do. And then there are times that I wonder why we choose the outcomes we do." She smirked. "I think it depends on the kind of day I'm having."

Charisma chuckled. "I think we all have days like that, Margaret." She looked around the room. "So we were going to hear about how you three met." Saphira and Esmeralda turned to Brianna whose eyes widened comically.

"Why me?"

"Two reasons," Esmeralda said. "It started with you and you're the writer here," garnering a light laugh from Charisma. Brianna directed a glare towards her and Charisma held up her hands in surrender.

"Don't blame me - I didn't say a word. Professor Mac would be thrilled by the description though."

"Wait," Margaret pled, pinching the bridge of her nose before rubbing her forehead. "Am I missing something else?"

"Brianna and I were roommates in college. She had a double major - law and theatre."

"That's an... interesting choice," Margaret said slowly. "Though it does make a certain amount of sense. And let me guess - writing was one of the criteria for the theatre major."

"Yes," Brianna answered uneasily.

"Do you still practice?"

"Writing?" Brianna asked, waiting for Margaret to nod. "Um... not really. Practicing law has kept me pretty busy, and this whole political thing is just something else again." She looked at Charisma. "I have to admire your fortitude. I don't think I could make a career out of politics," raising her glass in salute.

Charisma returned the salute. "That's okay - I think it takes a special breed of animal to be a politician."

"Oh the things I can think of to say to that," Okasa quipped, drawing an irked stare from her daughter and laughter from the remainder of the women in the room. After a moment, Charisma yielded the field and stuck her tongue out at her mother before she smirked. Margaret turned back to Brianna.

"So how did you end up in politics? I apparently missed something... several somethings, it seems... while I was abroad and you're quite obviously un-enamored of the whole idea."

Thus the next little while was spent filling Margaret in on what she had missed, though no one went into too much detail, especially concerning their friendship. For one thing, Brianna and Charisma were on less than stable ground, and for another, Saphira and Esmeralda had no idea how this new variable factored into the equation they were already well into solving.

So they glossed over much of their history together and instead told funny little anecdotes about other things. Margaret and Okasa were both intrigued to hear Saphira's and Esmeralda's tale, and wondered aloud at what kind of Father would dismiss a child so heartlessly that he would leave them to suffer so badly.

"And have you recovered, my dear?" Margaret asked Esmeralda solicitously... in complete contrast to her strident accusations early that morning. Having met the woman in question, she understood Charisma's defense of her and now was concerned with the fact that Esmeralda's health did not appear to be retuning to her as it should. "Is there anything we can do to help speed the process for you?"

Esmeralda smiled shyly and briefly covered Margaret's hand with her own. "It's lovely of you to be so concerned with someone you don't even know Margaret. Thank you for that. But we have been assured it's gonna be a slow recovery - the only thing that will make this better is time."

"Would you do any less?" Margaret asked, causing Esmeralda to frown in confusion. "Wasn't it your care and concern for both Charisma and Brianna when they were mere strangers to you that created the friendship you share now?" Esmeralda nodded. "Then allow me the courtesy of the same. I have a feeling you and Saphira would make magnificent friends if given the chance. I'd like to give you that chance and perhaps have it offered in return."

"Quite a change from this morning," Okasa commented.

"I was wrong this morning," Margaret confessed. She looked first at Esmeralda, then Saphira. "I judged without knowing... without giving you the opportunity to speak for yourself. That was wrong of me and I'm sorry," flinching slightly at the fire she felt burning from Saphira's eyes. It was Esmeralda's touch and her compassion that caught her attention though.

"We would never have known if you hadn't told us, Margaret, and we've all been guilty of it for far less reason. Consider yourself forgiven."

"Thank you, Esmeralda. Now are you sure there's nothing we can do?"

"I'm getting as much rest as I can manage, which right now is a lot." She turned and looked at Charisma. "I love holiday break," she said with a smile.

"Are we having a break?" Charisma groaned theatrically. "I must have missed the memo. I am still working as hard as I was when we were in session."

A chorus of 'Awws' and 'Poor Baby's' rang out along with laughter at Charisma's response which was to maturely stick out her tongue, throw a pillow and crossed her arms over her chest. At that moment, the men of the group returned and decided it was time for dinner. Just the suggestion of food made a number of tummies rumble and the large group headed towards the kitchen to make pizza.


"So what do you think?" Saphira asked Esmeralda once they were settled into bed much later that evening. After pizza, they had adjourned to the living room once more, with the exception of Saphira and Adam. He had chosen her as his bath buddy, so with much adieu-ing and many goodnights, she had taken him upstairs for his bath, just managing to keep him from streaking downstairs and through the house. Once he was clean, she had tucked him in and read to him, staying with him until he fell asleep. So she missed quite a bit of the adult interaction that had taken place.

"Well, I think Margaret knows now that we're not mooching off anyone nor are we planning to take advantage of her family in any way." She held up a hand to halt Saphira's growl in its tracks. "Not sure where all her distrust and suspiciousness came from, but I'm pretty sure we were just residual damage. Hopefully, we have opened her heart just a little, but either way, I don't think she views us as a threat anymore.

As for the rest...." She closed her eyes thoughtfully and worked her way around the room. "Charisma and Brianna were... weird, for lack of a better word. Their whole vibe was off and I'm not sure which of the many factors in play were to blame for the change in their interaction. Okasa and Paddy were expectant, hopeful, and Kent...." She paused, then opened her eyes and met Saphira's which were patiently waiting for Esmeralda to finish her description. "Kent was watchful - it's the only way I can think to describe him. He didn't seem upset or anxious; he just seemed to be paying an extraordinary amount of attention to things going on around him without actually participating in them."

"And did I understand Brianna correctly on the drive up? Is her first lover joining us for dinner tomorrow?"

"You understood perfectly, my love. Apparently, when Brianna first came over for the holidays after she and Charisma split, Okasa told Brianna that if she ever found someone special, the family wanted to meet her - that the family still had an obligation to ensure that whoever Brianna chose was worthy of her. Brianna needed that feeling of belonging... of family, so on the first holiday after she and Kay got together, she brought Kay with her."

"The family approved?"

"The family was shocked, but they like Kay, and they loved the way Kay adored Brianna. So they gave her the Tagherty seal of approval. Kay has joined them on every holiday that Brianna was here since then. Even after they broke up and Kay and Lee married, they still joined the Tagherty's during whatever holiday time Brianna spent here with them."

"You do realize that this cluster just keeps getting bigger and bigger, don't you?"

Esmeralda snorted. "Yeah - I'm waiting for my hair to start falling out." She climbed into bed and Saphira reached over and turned out the light. "Tomorrow should be...."

"... something," Saphira filled in. "Tomorrow should be something. I just hope it's not on the Titanic scale of something."

Esmeralda moaned. "Me too."


Kent waited until Charisma was tucked in beside him before he spoke. "I like your friends."

Charisma stopped her roll away from him and lay on her back so they were side by side. "I'm glad. They're good people... all of them."

"I agree. And Esmeralda sure gave my mother a complete change of heart." He chuckled. "I'd like to know her secret. That'd be worth a fortune."

"I think it's just who Es is, Kent. There's just something about her...."

He nodded, even though Charisma couldn't see the action in the dark. "I think you're right. Your brothers are going to love her... her and Saphira both."

"Probably," Charisma agreed through a yawn. "Night, Kent."

"Goodnight, Charisma."


"Well, that was interesting," Patrick said, turning out the light as he crawled into bed.

"It was all right," Okasa stated. "And Esmeralda was able to bring Margaret to her side just by being herself."

"I wonder what their story is... really," Paddy said as he rolled onto his side. "I get the feeling that there's a lot more there than they're telling."

"Well, whatever it is, it's gonna have to wait until morning. And tomorrow should be enlightening, to say the least."

"I just hope it's not painful," Patrick muttered before he dropped off with a snore. Okasa lay quietly in the silent darkness for some time before finally allowing sleep to claim her.

Chapter LVII

"You're up early," Brianna commented as she passed Esmeralda on her way to the coffee pot. "Everything all right?" taking a cup from the cabinet and filling it with coffee. She inhaled deeply, and a beatific smile crossed her face before she gently sipped her first taste of the morning. "That is good coffee, Es."

Esmeralda chuckled and shook her head. "Not me. Okasa had it set; I just turned it on when I heard you stirring around upstairs."

Brianna frowned. "How long have you been down here?"

"A while," Esmeralda sighed. "I wasn't sleeping, so I figured it was better to come down here where I wouldn't disturb anyone with my reading," holding up her book. She glanced at the clock, wondering why Charisma had hesitated outside the kitchen door instead of joining them. "What are you doing up so early?"

Brianna took a seat and folded her hands around her cup, staring into it as though it held the answers to the secrets of life. "I couldn't sleep either," she said softly. "It's... weird being here like this. I don't belong here."

Esmeralda cocked her head. "Why do you say that, Brianna? I thought the Taghertys were like your family."

"They are, but not like this... not for years." She lifted the cup and took another sip, then sighed, relishing the warmth of the coffee as it reflected onto her face. "When I agreed to not lose contact with the family after I walked away from Charisma, I had my own place nearby... I didn't stay here. When I took a position in the DAs office, and was forced to travel to be here, I stayed somewhere else." Brianna took another deep breath. "This is the first time I've stayed here since college."


Brianna blinked and turned her head to meet Esmeralda's tired eyes. "Why what? Why didn't I stay here before or why am I staying here now?"

"Yes," Esmeralda stated firmly.

Brianna lifted her coffee cup again, taking a deep draught this time and only slightly wincing at the heat in her mouth. "It was habit as much as anything to stay somewhere else. At first it was because I lived close... relatively speaking - like the boys, I just came over to share the holiday... I didn't need to stay overnight. But once I moved, there was always a possibility of a casual tryst while I was here. I have a friend in town who...." She stopped explaining when Esmeralda held up a hand and nodded her understanding. "Aside from Kay, who I was with when I still lived in the area, I've never brought anyone with me when I came home. I was never serious about anyone, and it seemed presumptuous to bring someone who was merely a fu... a booty call into Okasa's home, especially for the holidays. So it was just easier to stay at a hotel."

"And she didn't mind?"

Brianna shrugged. "If she did, she never said. She asked me to stay with her after the first time we met at my hotel, but that was never really an option." She shrugged and studied her coffee intently. "It would have led to unwanted complications."

"What did she think of you staying here this trip... or didn't you tell her you were coming?"

Brianna cocked her head thoughtfully. "I didn't tell her. We haven't been together that way for a while."

Esmeralda heard their silent observer move away and nodded. "Okay - so staying here is weird because you've never done it before?"

"I haven't done it since college," Brianna corrected. "And it was different then. The boys were here off and on and if Charisma and I didn't share a room, we were at least back and forth in one room or the other constantly - we pretty much lived like we did in the dorms... in one another's back pockets."

"So why are you staying here now?"

Brianna visibly slumped in her chair. "Mama O insisted. We had quite a talk once Charisma and I agreed to try to be friends again. Okasa knew about...." gesturing vaguely with her hand and getting Esmeralda's nod of understanding. "She appreciated my discretion," Brianna stated drolly with a smirk, "but insisted that since THAT was no longer part of my visit here, it was time to come home where I belonged. Told me if she had to come to some hotel to find me and drag me home, she'd make sure it was in all the papers."

"Okasa sounds like a force of nature," Esmeralda offered with a smile.

"You have no idea, Es. Wait til she turns it on you."

Just then, they heard the clearing of a throat from the doorway and flinched in tandem when they saw Okasa standing there with her arms crossed over her chest. "The Force of Nature would like to know what the two of you are doing up in my kitchen at this hour of the day," she demanded gruffly, though she couldn't hide the concern present in her eyes. "It's not even daylight yet, and from the looks of it, you've been here a while," noting the coffee that was already in the pot and the empty glass of milk beside Esmeralda's book. "Is everything all right?" cupping Brianna's cheek briefly before checking Esmeralda for fever.

Brianna caught the hand resting on her face. "Everything's fine, Mama O. Just a little insomnia."

Okasa stared into Brianna's eyes and saw the unease. She wondered what she had missed of the conversation to put that look there, but decided not to pursue it with Esmeralda present. She had no way of knowing what Esmeralda knew about the truth between Charisma and Brianna, and she wasn't going to be the one to tell her either. It was different if her daughters wanted to share, but it wasn't her place to do so.

She nodded her acceptance of Brianna's words and turned to look at Esmeralda, shaking her head at the utter weariness in the green eyes that were so much like Brianna's. "Does this happen a lot?" she asked Esmeralda, gently gripping her wrist while she stared into her eyes.

"Insomnia?" Esmeralda questioned softly. "Thankfully, no. I think it's just being someplace new and strange to me... no offense. It's been a while since Saphira and I have gone anywhere that kept us away from home overnight."

Okasa smiled gently. "No offense taken, Esmeralda. I'm the same way when Paddy and I leave home. It takes me a few days to adjust - usually by the time I do, the trip's over and we're back home again." She smiled in sympathy when Esmeralda chuckled. "I have something that might help, but it may make you miss breakfast."

"I'd be grateful," Esmeralda confessed. "I'd be embarrassed to fall asleep in the gravy at the dinner table."

Okasa laughed. "I like you, Esmeralda...." pausing when Esmeralda shook her head.

"Please call me Es - all my friends do."

Okasa's smile was genuine and she nodded. "All right, Es. Let me get you something to help you get a little sleep. You," she said pointedly, eyeing Brianna with a glare. "I'll take care of in a minute. Don't move," she commanded. "And don't drink any more coffee."

Okasa slipped away, but returned a moment later. It only took a few minutes, and Esmeralda was yawing, barely able to keep her eyes open. Brianna had to wonder if it was Okasa's 'remedy' as much as it was Esmeralda's very real exhaustion. Whichever, they needed to get Esmeralda back to bed, so with one on each side of her, they slowly escorted her back upstairs.

They were halfway up when a whirlwind silently flew out of one of the guest rooms. They didn't even have time to recognize Saphira before Esmeralda was scooped from between them and settled safely in Saphira's arms. Okasa opened her mouth to offer their help, but Saphira had already moved up the remainder of the stairs and disappeared into their bedroom. Since she didn't close the door, Brianna and Okasa tentatively followed her to make certain everything was all right.

"What happened?" Saphira whispered, continuing to tuck Esmeralda back into their bed without turning around.

Brianna shrugged. "She was in the kitchen reading when I got up. Mama offered her something to help her get a little sleep - it didn't take long to work."

Saphira whirled at the mention of a remedy, but instead of becoming angry, she crept to the door and motioned them to follow. When they were out in the hallway, she pulled the door mostly closed and crossed her arms over her chest.

"Thank you - both of you - for looking out for her. It's been a long time since we've been away from home overnight, and her illness has made Es more sensitive to things like that." She squinted at both of them. "Why are you two up, anyway? It's like oh-dark-thirty in the morning."

"I got up to put the turkey on to cook," Okasa said. "This one has insomnia," jerking her thumb in Brianna's direction.

"Maybe you should give her some of whatever it was you gave to Es. It seems to work pretty well."

"I think she just needs some warm milk," chuckling at the face Brianna made.

"Ew - I'd rather go back to bed and try counting sheep," Brianna said as she slowly backed up towards the door just beyond the one they were standing out side of. "I'm sure that will do the trick nicely," she added as she scooted into the room and shut the door soundlessly behind her.

Okasa and Saphira exchanged glances and giggled for a brief moment. "Are all holidays around here this exciting?" Saphira asked with a twinkle.

"Usually, yes... but it doesn't generally start until later in the day. And speaking of... if I don't get that turkey in the oven soon, we won't be eating until much, much later in the day."

"Do you need some help?" Saphira offered.

Okasa smiled and patted Saphira's arm. "You're sweet, but no. I do this every year and it doesn't take but a few minutes... usually, anyway," she added with another soft laugh. "Besides, you've got more important things to take care of, I think," gesturing towards the door.

Saphira nodded. "Thank you, Okasa. I can't tell you...." She stopped speaking when Okasa held up a hand.

"I was glad to be able to help. As I told Es, I like you two, and I'm glad you came. My daughters could both do with more people like the two of you in their lives."

"Broke?" Saphira joked.

"Real," Okasa replied, then lightly patted Saphira's arm. "Goodnight, Saphira."

"Goodnight, Okasa."


Paddy and Kent were the first ones up when morning came the second time, though Okasa wasn't far behind them. Still, Patrick looked at her with concern when she eased into the kitchen in her bathrobe and poured herself a cup of coffee without saying a word. She squeezed his shoulder, then took a seat beside him, focusing on her cup as though to force herself to wakefulness a little faster.

"Everything all right?" he asked softly. Kent didn't look up from the paper he was reading, but they were acutely aware of his presence in the room. "You're usually the first person up."

"Hmm," Okasa offered noncommittally. "Putting the turkey on this morning took longer than expected. I think it threw my cycle off a little."

Before he could question further, a sleepy Charisma scuffed into the room carrying her wide-awake, wide-eyes son. She plopped him on Kent's lap, then she dropped into the seat beside him and let her head fall to the table. Okasa reached over and smacked the back of her head, causing Charisma to look up and glare at her mother. Okasa glared right back.

"Don't take that tone with me, young lady. I am still your mother and you know better than to behave like that at the table. What's wrong with you?" reaching a hand over and letting it rest on Charisma's forehead. "You're not coming down with something, are you?"

Charisma leaned into the touch and closed her eyes. "No, Mama. I just didn't sleep well last night."

Okasa nodded. "That seems to have gone around," she muttered, garnering her a questioning look from Patrick. "Brianna and Esmeralda were both up when I got up. I gave Es something to help her sleep, so she'll probably miss breakfast. I'm not sure about Brianna - she declined my offer of warm milk," her words causing all but Kent to laugh. He cocked his eyebrow in question.

"What'd I miss?"

Okasa looked at Charisma, who shrugged and nodded. Okasa turned back to Kent. "When Brianna first came to visit, she had trouble sleeping, so I offered her some warm milk. She didn't realize I meant just that, and not hot chocolate. Oh, the faces she made while she drank it."

"Not a fan, I take it," Kent guessed with a grin.

"Warm milk makes me want to cry," Brianna said from the doorway, pushing her hair away from her face and making a beeline for the coffeepot. "I mean seriously... there ought to be a law. If it wasn't so frivolous, I'd introduce one on the Senate floor just to outlaw it." She shivered. "Just thinking about it is... ew." She held up the coffee pot and four cups raised for refills. She looked at Okasa with a grin. "Now I understand why you're using the percolator."

Okasa nodded sagely. "I always do this time of year."

Kent turned to Adam. "You want some breakfast, Boy?" grinning when Adam nodded vigorously. "Let's see what we can find," rising from his chair and moving to the cabinet Okasa kept stocked with all manner of cereal for her visiting grandkids. Brianna took a seat beside Okasa, then looked at Kent.

"Are you done with the paper?"

He nodded. "Go ahead. I don't think I'll be getting back to it today."

It was quiet for a few minutes after that. Brianna and Patrick turned a page occasionally, and Adam ate his cereal, but otherwise, there was very little sound beyond the odd swallow of coffee and breathing. It was into this scenario that a fully-dressed Saphira walked a few minutes later.

It wasn't that she was loud - on the contrary, Saphira had an almost cat-like stealth. Still, her footsteps were louder than anything else going on in the kitchen, and every eye, including Adam's turned her way as she crossed the threshold. The scrutiny caused her to halt mid-step. She looked behind her and carefully around the entire room before she spoke in a whisper.

"Did I missing something or did I do something wrong?"

Okasa smiled and shook her head. "Neither," she confessed in a normal tone of voice. "We're all sitting here trying to get the old brain cells jump-started for the day. So far, it doesn't seem to be very successful - except for you, obviously," motioning to Saphira's fully clad state, then around the table where the rest of them were still wearing pajamas and robes.

"Hey!" Brianna protested. "Speak for yourself! My brain cells are working."

Charisma snorted. Saphira smirked. "But not really firing on all cylinders yet, are they? You haven't looked in a mirror yet this morning, have you?"

Brianna narrowed her eyes. "Noooo," she drawled. "I am sleepy, not brain dead. I never look in the mirror until *after* my shower."

Saphira scratched her nose and crooked a half-smile at her. "You may want to reconsider that practice while you're here."

Brianna scowled and stuck out her tongue. "You're picking on me!"

"I'm not trying to," Saphira replied honestly, though she didn't lose her smile. Then she turned to Okasa. "What can I do to help?"

"You know," Charisma said conversationally to Brianna as though Saphira wasn't sitting right there. "We should discover her secret. Think what our fellow Senators would pay to be able to come downstairs first thing in the morning completely put together without even needing a cup of coffee."

Brianna smirked. "We could rule the world."

"You wouldn't want to," Saphira said softly, seriously. "Not at this price," her tone draining all the teasing out of the room. Okasa laid a hand on her arm.

"How is she this morning?"

"Sleeping. Whatever you gave her did the trick." She looked around the room. "I'm sorry - I didn't mean to ruin the mood."

Charisma placed a hand on her other arm. "You didn't. We should have thought about it first."

"Yeah," Brianna agreed. "Especially me since I was up with her last night."

"You were up with whom?" Margaret asked as she crossed the threshold and headed straight for the coffee. "Am I the last?" looking around the room. "Where's Es?"

"Still sleeping," Okasa replied briefly, her eyes telling Margaret to let the subject go. Margaret acknowledged the directive with the barest nod of her head and then turned to Saphira as she stirred condiments into her coffee.

"Well, Saphira, I guess that means you and I will be starting the prep work while these three," motioning to the other women in the room, "go get ready for the day. You two," pointing to Kent and Patrick, "are assigned to keeping my grandson out from under foot."

Okasa chuckled. She sometimes forgot Margaret's tendency to become a drill sergeant in the kitchen, but what she'd said made a good deal of sense. "Sounds like a plan, Margaret. You know where things are," waiting for Margaret to nod. "All right, the rest of you - you heard the woman. Hop to!" Then she turned back to Saphira and Margaret. "I'll be back in a few."

"Go on," Margaret made shooing motions in Okasa's direction. "You know what happens if I'm left alone in the kitchen too long, and this time, I have a helper."

That alone was enough to spur reaction from almost everyone, and Brianna followed their example as a matter of course. When they were gone, Saphira turned to Margaret.

"Should I even ask?"

"No, my dear. Let's just say I learned a long time ago how to get things done to my satisfaction." Then she turned to the refrigerator and started pulling out the things they would need.

Chapter LVIII

It was some time later when Saphira stood in the doorway of their darkened room with a cup of steaming hot coffee clutched in her hands. Okasa has sent her upstairs to check on Esmeralda and waken her if possible, as the rest of the family was due to join them within the hour and she was anxious to introduce to her sons the friends her daughter had brought home.

Saphira stood still for several minutes, her eyes clearly seeing Esmeralda's sleeping form beneath the covers and her ears detecting the deep, steady breaths indicating her depth of sleep. "I talked to the Father this morning, Es," knowing her mate wouldn't hear her, but needing to say it anyway. "Everything's taken care of. You're gonna be all right."

She crossed to the side of the bed and set the coffee cup on the nightstand, then carefully seated herself on the bed. The motion was enough to paint a frown on Esmeralda's face, but otherwise, she gave no indication of waking. Saphira reached out a hand to soothe the lines created by Esmeralda's displeasure, then had to smile as they turned to a smile beneath her touch.

She kept up the light stroking, recognizing the signs of wakefulness as Esmeralda slowly made her way towards consciousness. Finally, green eyes blinked open and Saphira leaned down and pressed her lips to Esmeralda's. "Good morning," she whispered, blue eyes closing when Esmeralda gently scratched the base of her scalp.

"Good morning," Esmeralda replied throatily. "What time is it?" glancing at the clock and feeling her eyes widen in response. "Oh... wow."

Saphira chuckled, pulling one hand from the back of her neck and cradling it so she could brush a kiss over her palm. "Yeah - Okasa asked me to see if you felt like joining us. The boys and their families will be here in an hour or so and I think she's anxious to introduce us."

"What else?" Esmeralda asked when she felt Saphira's hesitation. Saphira shrugged.

"I'm not sure," she replied honestly. "I can't read this stuff like you do, but things are weird down there," handing Esmeralda the coffee cup as soon as she slid into a sitting position. Esmeralda inhaled deeply - Saphira didn't give her coffee often, so this was a nice treat... especially since Saphira had fixed it just the way she liked it. She arched an eyebrow, knowing Saphira would see it and understand.

Saphira sighed. "I'm not sure how to explain it," biting her lip thoughtfully. "Okasa was pretty cool - she kinda let me and Margaret take over in the kitchen until she could get her brain cells kick-started... her words. When she came back, though, she was right there with us. I don't think much fazes that woman."

"She's survived three boys, Charisma and Brianna. What could phase her at this point?"

"True," Saphira acknowledged, dropping her eyes to Esmeralda's hand on the coffee cup.

"However, except for letting you and Margaret 'kinda take over' for a bit, none of this sounds weird. So what's up with Charisma and Brianna?"

Saphira blew out a breath. "I'm not sure. Brianna reminds me a little of a porcupine and Charisma's acting like her feelings got hurt. But they haven't actually said anything to one another this morning besides 'could you pass...' or 'excuse me'." She met Esmeralda's eyes. "Now you see why I said it was weird?"

"Yep," Esmeralda said succinctly, nudging Esmeralda with her legs and waiting until she stood before turning so she was sitting on the edge of the bed. "I think I know what's going on." She accepted the hand Saphira offered and rose smoothly from the mattress. Then she tugged on the hand she still clasped and headed towards the bathroom. "C'mon," she invited. "You can keep me company and I'll fill you in on what happened last night... aside from my insomnia."

Saphira smiled and followed her into the bathroom, grateful to go where Esmeralda led. And thrilled that Esmeralda was obviously feeling better. Then she shut the door to give them some privacy and waited for Esmeralda to fill her in.


"Well, that explains a lot," Saphira commented slowly as Esmeralda finished drying off. "Sometimes I feel like those two are doing a dance that only they can hear the music to - one of those where they come close to one another but never really connect, ya know?"

"I do indeed," Esmeralda concurred as she started to dress. "At least with the rest of the family here today, it should make for an interesting day. Did Okasa tell the boys Brianna was going to be here?"

Saphira shrugged. "No one's mentioned it to me."

Esmeralda dried her hair as well as she could and neatly hung up her wet towel before extending her hand to Saphira. "C'mon. We should get downstairs before they send up a search party for us. Besides, I want to see for myself what's going on. With Charisma already having her feelings hurt about what Brianna told me this morning...."

Saphira blew out an aggravated breath even as she took Esmeralda's hand in her own. "Honestly," she muttered mostly to herself but loud enough that Esmeralda could clearly make out her words. "How much drama does a situation need before they figure it out?"

Esmeralda just smirked and shook her head, then led the way downstairs.


"Do you suppose everything's all right?" Margaret asked some time later as the four women sat around the table with fresh cups of coffee. Patrick and Kent had taken her at her word, and as soon as they'd gotten ready, they'd taken Adam outside to ride his Big Wheel. And since Saphira had gone upstairs and had yet to return with Esmeralda in tow, it was just Margaret, Okasa, Brianna and Charisma. Everything was as done as they could manage at the moment, and they were taking a well-deserved break before the house was overrun with family.

"I think we would've probably heard from Saphira if it wasn't," Okasa replied. "She's likely just waiting for Esmeralda to get ready so they can come downstairs together. I told her to take her time if she needed to… that the boys wouldn't be here for another half hour or so if they stay true to form."

Before Margaret could question further, the back door to the kitchen opened and Adam came rushing in, his rosy cheeks and bright smile bringing answering smiles to the women seated around the table. He ran straight to Okasa and leaned on her lap, grinning up at her mischievously.

"Gramma, Pop Pop says come in now - is damn cold," he repeated proudly, not seeing the glare Okasa and Charisma leveled at Patrick who stood sheepishly in the doorway with Kent behind him trying to muffle his chuckles.

"That's not what I told you to say, Boy," Patrick scolded, though the twinkle in his eyes and the smile on his lips belied anything other than affection in his gruff tone. Adam pushed off of Okasa's lap and ran back to wrap his arms around Patrick's legs. Paddy lifted him up and walked through the kitchen, studiously ignoring the stares he was getting. Kent followed, a hand over his mouth to keep from laughing aloud.

The women watched them go, then turned back to the table. It took less than five seconds and a single exchange of glances before they were cackling softly. Okasa covered her face with her hands to try and retrieve some semblance of control.

"I may have to kill my father," Charisma said dryly, though the smirk on her face told a story all its own. "If Adam does that at school, I'll be visiting the principal's office, you know," giving her mother a droll look.

"Wouldn't be the first time," Okasa quipped, chuckling when Charisma blushed.

"Should we ask what caused such a lovely shade of red, Charisma?" Esmeralda queried from the doorway. Saphira stood just behind her, hands resting lightly on Esmeralda's hips. Okasa stood and crossed to the doorway, taking Esmeralda by the elbow and peering at her carefully, placing a hand on her forehead and letting it linger on Esmeralda's cheek. Then Okasa nodded her head in satisfaction.

"You look like you feel better," she commented with a smile and noting that Saphira seemed more relaxed as a result. "Both of you," garnering her a small smile from Saphira.

"I do, Okasa; thank you," patting the hand still clutching her arm tenderly, and taking the hand from her face and squeezing it gently in her own. "I don't know what was in that remedy you gave me this morning, but it certainly seemed to do the trick. I don't even remember going upstairs."

"That's because we practically carried you partway," Brianna said softly. "And Saphira met us about halfway up and literally did carry you the rest of the way to your room." She smiled. "I'm glad you're feeling better though," offering her a hug that was immediately reciprocated.

"Hear! Hear!!" Charisma agreed, rising from her place and giving Esmeralda a hug of her own. "Maybe this will be a turning point in your recovery."

Margaret rose from her spot. "I don't want to be left out," she said with a smile, getting a brief squeeze. "Coffee?" she asked when the embrace ended.

"I've already had a cup, thank you. But maybe a glass of milk? Thank you, Charisma," she chuckled as she accepted the glass that appeared in her hand before the words were out of her mouth. She turned back to Margaret. "Saphira only allows me coffee sparingly, and rightly so," she added, seeing the disbelief writ large in Margaret's expression at the word 'allow'. "I really shouldn't have coffee at all. But milk - it does a body good, right?"

"Well, it's given you a beautiful complexion at any rate. You could be a model."

Esmeralda's eyes widened and she shook her head vehemently. "Oh no thank you. That kind of work would drive me crazy."

Margaret tilted her head. "Why do you say that? Have you modeled before?"

"No - but modeling strikes me as a lot like politics. You really have to put yourself out there for public consumption, but you're never allowed to be who you really are. Everything depends on other peoples' perception of what you should be."

"You're a very smart woman, Es," Margaret said into the stunned silence. "May I ask where you studied?"

"She's a student of human nature," Charisma and Brianna replied together - staring at one another fleetingly before turning their attention to Esmeralda who simply laughed and diffused the tension suddenly apparent in the room.

"Are you really?" Margaret inquired, watching Esmeralda nod. "Oh please. I'd like to hear about this. I consider myself to be as well, but I think you probably have a much different view of humanity than I do."

"I'd like to hear this as well," Okasa said, moving from the doorway and taking Esmeralda by the elbow to lead her back towards the table. "C'mon… we have a few minutes before everyone arrives."

Charisma and Brianna watched as Esmeralda was compelled to sit between the two older women, then they looked at Saphira who hadn't moved from her spot in the doorway. She seemed content to watch with adoring eyes as Esmeralda absorbed the love and attention currently being lavished on her.

"How are you doing, Saphira?" Brianna asked quietly.

"I'm all right," she said after a moment's hesitation. "It takes a load off my mind to see such a difference in Es. I think this break was something she really needed, and being here...."

"I'm glad you were able to come... especially if it makes a difference for her," Charisma confessed, then looked up when Okasa called her name. "Yes, Mama?"

"Are you three gonna hover in the doorway like co-conspirators of some sort, or would you like to join the rest of us at the table?" her eyebrow arching with a hint of rebuke as she turned her glance pointedly at each of them.

"Coming, Mama," Charisma and Brianna said in tandem. Saphira just shook her head and chuckled as she moved to claim a seat at the table. It was shaping up to be a memorable holiday.


They boys and their families arrived almost as a group. They had discovered several years prior - that is, when Charisma added Kent and subsequently Margaret to their number, that doing so compelled them to only make a single greeting instead of multiple ones. And though they liked Kent well enough of his own accord, especially after taking the opportunity to know him better, the fact of the matter was that they did resent him slightly. After all… he wasn't Brianna and never would be. And while they were actually angry at Charisma for letting Brianna get away, she was still their sister. So it was easier to direct their ire towards Kent... however unfair.

So generally a day or two before the holiday celebration that involved Charisma and Kent, the three of them would meet for lunch and decide what time they would show up at Mama's. Not that Okasa knew any of this - she just figured they had done it so long, they had it down to a science. In fairness, they did the same thing when Brianna visited, but then it was to maximize their time with her and Okasa had missed the difference in arrival times, mostly because they saw Brianna a lot less often than they did Charisma. And since she hadn't told them of the change in status between Brianna and Charisma, just as Okasa had expected, there was a knock at the door and Paddy was inviting the rest of the family into the house.

As one body, the women arose from their place at the table. Charisma rushed out first, anxious to see her brothers despite the awkwardness she still sometimes felt from them towards Kent even after several years of marriage and a child together.

Hunter stepped up first and lifted her off the ground before turning and offering his hand to Kent. Rocky followed suit as did Forrest while the children claimed Adam and headed off to the playroom that Okasa and Patrick had set up specifically for them.

Then of course the wives exchanged hugs as well before Maria turned to Charisma and asked, "Is Mama in the kitchen?"

Charisma nodded, but before anyone could move, Brianna emerged and everything and everyone stopped. There was dead silence... dead stillness before the boys looked at one another and whooped, then moved as a single entity in her direction. Brianna just grinned goofily at them and let them wrap her up in a single hug. Charisma stepped back and watched in confusion and not a little hurt as her family welcomed Brianna with an enthusiasm she hadn't seen since she'd first brought her home twenty plus years before. Kent simply watched Charisma.

Before Charisma could say or do anything that might make things awkward for everyone, Okasa slipped from the kitchen with an arm around Saphira and the other around Esmeralda. She had asked them to let Brianna precede them out of the kitchen, having a good idea of what might happen. Esmeralda and Saphira both agreed, instinctively understanding that Okasa wanted them to diffuse any kind of situation that might erupt.

So they stepped from the kitchen together and all eyes turned to them, though no one went still or silent, this time. Instead, the manners Okasa had worked so hard to instill in her children came to the fore and her three sons immediately moved towards them to meet and welcome the newcomers into the family circle, promising Brianna a talk with the boys later.

Esmeralda was her naturally gracious self, drawing everyone to her with her smiles and soft-spoken words. They were a little more in awe of Saphira, sensing in her a more kindred spirit despite her current occupation. Still, it was with much enthusiasm that they were brought into the family holiday. Then the men went to look after the children and the women headed for the kitchen where Margaret had returned after brief greetings in the living room. That to her was the hardest part of the holidays, and she was glad to have it be mostly over for this one.

The girls were a little noisier than usual - Brianna's unexpected return to the fold coupled with the introduction of Esmeralda and Saphira made for an exciting day. So they were quite chatty as they picked up the work where it had been left off.

Charisma deliberately stayed to the outer edges of the fray, content for the moment to be an observer... knowing it was unfair, but feeling a bit ostracized by her own family in favor of the newer members she herself had added to it.

Okasa noticed her odd behavior and crossed the room to stand beside her as she carefully wiped the plates that would soon be gracing the dining room table.

"Is something wrong, Charisma?" she asked bluntly, wondering if Charisma even recognized the issue she was having. Charisma bit her lip, but shook her head. She wasn't going to admit to something as petty as jealousy… especially when she was responsible for creating it.

"No, Mama," she replied softly. "I'm fine. Just trying to get the placesettings ready so we can set the table shortly." She met her mama's eyes squarely and Okasa wondered when Charisma had become such a proficient liar. Okasa decided not to call her on it immediately. There would be time enough for that later. Besides, it was almost time for the rest of her guests to arrive and Okasa was morbidly curious to see Charisma's reaction to that arrival.

As if on cue, the doorbell rang, and Okasa nodded at Brianna when she met her eyes. Brianna took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders, then headed out of the kitchen to answer the front door. The rest followed as a matter of course - anxious to greet the newcomers, but also a little nosy. They had all sensed Charisma's withdrawal from them like a tangible thing, and while they didn't realized their own actions were the cause, they expected Okasa would take care of that quickly... not wanting disharmony present at the dinner table.

"C'mon, Charisma," Okasa chided when Charisma made no move to go into the living room. The girls had already dragged Esmeralda and Saphira out, and Margaret had gone along out of curiosity. Whoever it was, they were new to her and if they were as pleasant and charming as Esmeralda and Saphira, Margaret certainly didn't want to miss out on making their acquaintance.

Charisma tried to protest, knowing everyone she expected had already arrived, but Okasa was having none of it. So she huffed and crossed her arms, stalking out of the kitchen to lean on the doorway to watch the proceedings with more interest than she would ever allow herself to admit to. A feeling in the pit of her belly told her who the new arrival was, but all that knowledge did was sour her stomach. She could only hope she was wrong. This holiday was turning out to be a disaster.

Chapter LIX

"Kay!" Brianna exclaimed happily as she opened the door and her arms to accept the embrace she knew was coming. Kay scooped her up and held her close for a long moment, brushing a kiss over her lips before settingher back on her feet. Then she moved onto greet the girls and Okasa while Lee repeated her actions with Brianna. The kids, hearing the commotion, scrambled from the playroom to welcome the newcomers to their midst. Before Brianna could even begin to perform introductions, the Tagherty kids had dragged Kay's children to the playroom, leaving the adults standing around the foyer.

"Well," Brianna said with a nervous smile, "I guess I'll introduce the kids later. Kay... Lee - you know Okasa and the sisters," waiting for them to them all to grin and nod. "These are my friends Charisma, Esmeralda, Saphira and Margaret. Ladies, these are my friends Kay and Lee."

Surprisingly, Kay and Margaret exchanged brief air kisses as did Lee and Margaret. "Margaret and I work together," Kay offered in explanation, "though I didn't know we'd see her here." She gave Margaret a questioning look.

"The Taghertys and I are in-laws," she offered breezily.

"Really? I never realized...."

"Probably because I never said," Margaret replied dryly. "Charisma is my daughter-in-law."

"Ah yes... the formidable Senator Tagherty," Kay said with a genuine smile. "You don't know how long I've waited to meet you."

"Oh really?" Charisma responded, though her smile was purely a political one. "Why is that?" taking Kay's proffered hand and squeezing briefly before releasing her hold. She was purely in political mode now and Brianna cocked her head and frowned, wondering what Kay could possibly have done in three minutes to bring that personality to the forefront of Charisma's mind.

"I admire your work for and legislation about victims. I think it's done a lot to raise awareness where there wasn't much before. And that's so important."

Charisma's eyebrows went into her hairline. Whatever she'd expected from this woman that she viewed as a rival for reasons she refused to voice to herself, it hadn't been genuine interest or sincerity about her work. "Thank you," she said genuinely. She turned to Kay's husband who was waiting patiently and Kay extended a hand to Esmeralda, then Saphira.

"So which of you is Esmeralda and which is Saphira?" she asked with a smile.

"I'm Esmeralda; this is my mate, Saphira," Esmeralda said with quiet confidence. Kay's eyes narrowed slightly.

"That's important to you, isn't it?" she asked without a hint of maliciousness in her tone. She saw the ire flame in Saphira's, Charisma's and Brianna's eyes and hastened to clarify herself. "I mean referring to yourselves as mates," she added, seeing the understanding in Esmeralda's eyes and relaxing just slightly. "You're more than partners... more than simply wives. You belong to one another."

Esmeralda smiled and nodded and Saphira visibly relaxed. "You understand."

"I do indeed," Kay stated firmly, but didn't offer any further edification. Before the silence could become awkward, Okasa spoke up.

"I hate to break up the conversation, especially as I would really like to understand why that whole 'mate' thing is so important. However, we have work to do in the kitchen and Lee...."

"Yes Mama - I know where to go." He brushed a kiss over Kay's cheek, then excused himself to the playroom with the rest of the men. The women naturally headed back into the kitchen for coffee and conversation as they finalized the preparations for dinner.


They separated into small groups as a matter of course as soon as they entered the kitchen. There were still a number of things that needed to be completed before they could sit down to the table, and they each took a task to make them go faster. Only Charisma returned to the edges - close enough to listen, but far enough away thatshe wouldn't be required to participate in any other way unless she chose to do so.

Theresa, Hunter's wife, turned to Esmeralda with a question. "Esmeralda, will you explain why you feel it is so important to be seen as Saphira's mate instead of her wife or her partner? I don't understand the difference."

Esmeralda looked around carefully finding only curiosity and a desire to understand... until she met Saphira's eyes. The love and adoration she found there made her smile and the rest of the world faded away for a long moment. Rocky's wife Danielle cleared her throat and shook her head, grinning at them both when they broke their stare to fix their eyes in her direction.

"I think that might explain a lot."

"What?" Esmeralda asked with a frown. Cindy, Forrest's wife wrapped an arm around Esmeralda's shoulders.

"Don't mind her," she offered with a smile. "Now tell us about the mate thing. Who knows - it may make our marriages stronger too."

Esmeralda met Saphira's eyes again and at her slight nod, she nodded her agreement to the rest of the group. Everyone brought their work with them and stepped closer to hear her words. Kay took the distraction that provided her with and moved up next to Brianna.

"You all right?" she asked, her eyes briefly darting in Charisma's direction before coming back to rest on Brianna's face. She didn't miss the twinge of anger that flitted over Charisma's expression before her political mask fell into place, concealing every thought and feeling.

"I'm fine, Kay," she said with a smile. "I love you for your concern though."

"I never stopped, you know."

"I know, and part of me will always love you as well." Brianna paused and sighed deeply. "Charisma actually invited me to be here."

"Okay, so why is she acting like you've got the plague?" Kay hesitated. "Or is it me? Does she know about me, Bri? Does she know about us?"

Brianna shrugged and shook her head. "Not as far as I know - at least I didn't tell her. Maybe Okasa...." Both women glanced at the family matriarch and shook their heads. "I don't think she would do that."

"Me either... not given the outcome she'd like to see between the two of you," Kay added, smirking when she noticed Brianna's raised eyebrows. "What? We talk," she confessed. "We've kept in touch since you and I broke up and I confided in her the reason why."

"You didn't." flatly.

"Sure I did."

"Kay... how could you? That could have...."

"Sweetie, I knew it wouldn't change anything. Okasa talked to me very frankly about things after you and I were no longer together. She never did anything to undermine us when we were a couple, but she made it clear to me what she hoped for once we split up."

"Oh, umm...."

"Take a deep breath, Bri," Kay said, putting a gentle arm around Brianna's waist when the color faded. "C'mon... sit down," easing her into a chair. Without warning, a glass appeared over her shoulder and Kay accepted it with a murmured thanks before offering it to Brianna. Brianna's hands shook slightly when she took it, so Kay held it steady and Brianna drank slowly for a moment. When she pushed the glass away, Kay set it on the counter and leaned down into Brianna's personal space. "You all right now?" running a hand lightly along her jaw before it was captured in Brianna's hand.

"Maybe if you'd give her a little space to breathe," Charisma snapped curtly. Kay rose to her full height - several inches more than Charisma's - her dark eyes meeting incensed blue ones and her lips tilting up in a smirk that made Charisma grit her teeth for a moment before she dropped her mask into place once more.

"I'm not the enemy, Senator Tagherty - yours or Brianna's," Kay informed Charisma softly. "I realize my friendship with Brianna isn't as old as the one between the two of you, but we have been friends for a very long time. I promise you I'm not trying to usurp your place in her heart," wincing when Brianna's nails dug into the hand she still held. "Or life," she added with a glare in Brianna's direction. "I just wanted to ensure she was all right when the color drained from her face."

Charisma nodded brusquely and turned back to move towards the corner she had been ensconced in before she saw Brianna drop shakily into the chair. Brianna dropped Kay's hand, and Kay stepped back so Brianna could clasp Charisma's hand instead. Charisma hesitated, then firmly closed her hand around Brianna's and waited.

"Thank you, Charisma."

Charisma gave Brianna a brief smile and nodded, then with a squeeze to her hand, she moved back to the stack of dishes which she picked up and walked into the dining room with. Kay patted Brianna's shoulder.

"I'll be right back," causing Brianna to open her mouth, then close and nod her agreement. Whatever was going on with Charisma, it apparently had something to do with Kay. Better that they get it taken care of before everyone was called to the table - no one wanted that kind of awkwardness today.

Saphira watched the tableau taking place to the obliviousness of everyone around her, though she suspected Esmeralda was far more aware of what was happening than her current conversation allowed her to show. Saphira saw everything, and when Kay made it a point to follow Charisma into the dining room, she moved over to Brianna.

"Everything all right?"

Brianna shook her head. "I don't think so, but I don't know how things went wrong or what to do to make them right."

"And you think that's a good idea?" inclining her head towards the dining room that remained silent.

"Not really," Brianna snorted. "But I think they need to work things out between them before I talk to Charisma. She took an instant dislike to Kay for some reason - I saw it and Kay, well... she can read people very well." She smirked at Saphira's raised brow. "It's her job."

"Lemme guess - shrink?"

Brianna's eyes widened. "How did you...? Nevermind - you're probably as much a student of human nature as Es is, aren't you?" chuckling when Saphira gave her a bashful shrug. "Obviously I did something to set her off as well, but for the life of me, I can't figure out what I did."

Saphira bit her lip, then blurted out softly, "Does she know about you and Kay?"

"I don't think so. I certainly didn't tell her."

"And none of the rest of the family would?"

Brianna shook her head. "No. Until a couple weeks ago, Charisma didn't even know I was still in contact with her family."

"Except that when they discovered you here, they treated you differently than they treated Charisma. If I hadn't known better, I'd have thought you were a long lost sister finally returned to the fold. And even though the boys didn't come out to say Hi when Kay and her family arrived, it was clear she was part of the family as well. You greeted Kay like the long-time friend and confidante she has been to you; Charisma's sisters-in-law acted like Kay was one of them; the Tagherty kids came and took Kay's kids back to the playroom as a matter of course; and Mama sent Lee to join the rest of the male contingent, and he made it clear he knew what was expected of him." She paused. "Brianna, Charisma's not a stupid woman. It wouldn't take a lot for her to come to the right conclusion about the two of you."

Brianna bit her lip thoughtfully, then shrugged as nonchalantly as she could manage. "Kay was never something I hid - not when we were together and not since we broke up. She was a wonderful lover, Saphira, and she's been an even better friend. I don't regret the time we had together. I'm sure we could have been very happy if things had worked out between us, but they didn't. They couldn't have - not with the way I felt about Charisma... still feel, truth be told. So I certainly don't begrudge the love and family Kay has with Lee. More than anything, I want her to be happy."

"And I am, Sweetie," Kay assured her as she caught the tail end of the conversation. "However, you may want to go talk to Charisma. She... well, I don't think she's angry at me."

"No, I'm sure she's not," Brianna replied tiredly.

"You want me to...?" Saphira started to offer, but stopped when Brianna shook her head.

"No. This is my problem to solve."

"Are you gonna tell her why you left?"

"Only if she asks the right question."


Kay picked up the silverware and followed Charisma into the dining room, feeling her stiffen though her motions to set the table never ceased. She laid the placemats slowly, taking her time to ensure each one was perfect before moving on to the next one. She made it all the way around the table before Kay cleared her throat.

"Is there something I can help you with?" Charisma offered stiffly, turning enough to see Kay in her periphery, but not enough to look her full in the face. Kay noticed the lack of any sort of address and wondered if Charisma felt better by not calling her by name.

"Can I help?" she said by way of starting a conversation, holding up the silverware she had carried in.

Kay could feel Charisma's struggle warring between good manners and her true desire. Charisma took a deep breath and good manners won, though Kay was curious how close the race had been. "Of course," she said after a long moment of silence. "Would you like to set the plates as well? I usually create some sort of napkin animal to decorate the table a little bit."

"I never could get the hang of that. I just fold mine and hope for the best."

Charisma finished folding and held it up with a flourish. "Stupid parlor tricks," she muttered. "I learned when the boys started having kids. It was something to amuse them at a grown-up table," gesturing to the myriad of silverware and dishes at each place. "Mama insisted that we and they learn to eat correctly from a very young age. I agree that it's important for a child to grow up learning proper etiquette - I'm just not certain they need to start quite so young."

"So no kids' table, huh?"

"No... but you already knew that, didn't you?" her voice bitter.

"Yes, I did. But you knew that as well," framed as a statement, garnering a jerky nod of agreement from Charisma. "May I ask what I did to earn your disdain?" Kay asked in a calm voice. "Please don't try to dissimulate for me. I read people for a living."

"Don't!" Charisma said harshly. "Don't read me or psychoanalyze me or whatever it is that you do. Just please leave me alone," she added resignedly.

"Then answer my question, please Charisma," bringing Charisma's head up with a snap when she dropped her title and addressed her familiarly. "I think I deserve to know what I've done to antagonize you. We've hardly been introduced for an hour."

Charisma sighed. "It's not you. It is any number of mitigating factors and you just happened to fall into the crosshairs. I apologize for making you feel uncomfortable."

Kay smirked. "I'm not the one who's uncomfortable here, Charisma - you are. And I do believe that any number of realizations have put me at the forefront of your issues today, but I still think you've chosen to dislike me on a personal level without even giving me a chance."

"I see. Should I ask what brought you to these conclusions?"

"I told you - I read people for a living. Ask your brothers... ask your mother-in-law. They know who I am and what I do. And Charisma... I'm very good at what I do, so let me tell you what I know just from having met you an hour ago. You're jealous - you're jealous of what you think is between Brianna and me, and you're jealous of what you've missed while she was out of your life. Maybe you ought to sit down and figure out why that is."

Charisma stared at her, neither acknowledging nor denying Kay's words. Kay saw the look of agonized confusion in Charisma's eyes and softened, understanding for the first time why Brianna had been forced to walk away from the woman she loved so much she had never forgotten.

"Senator... Charisma - Brianna is my friend, and she's been my friend for twenty years. She's a very special woman, and she's very dear to my heart. I would do a lot for her, and I'm asking you as her friend - be careful with her. She hasn't been truly happy in a long, long time." Charisma opened her mouth as though to interrupt and Kay shook her head. "You don't have to like me, but I want you to understand that I know her as well as you do... maybe better. Don't hurt her again."

"I didn't hurt her to begin with! She's the one who left me!!"

"Did you ever ask her why?"

"Yes! She refuses to tell me until I ask the right question. But I don't know what that is!"

"Then consider things carefully, Senator Tagherty.I think you do know, and when you're ready to be honest with yourself, you'll know what to ask," Kay said as she put the last piece of silverware into places and turned to leave the room.

"Why do you care?"

"I told you - Brianna is my friend. I just want to see her happy." This time when Kay turned to leave, Charisma let her go.

Chapter LX

Charisma watched Kay leave and took a deep breath, then she headed out the other door of the dining room and down the hall to the playroom where the men and the children were currently entertaining each other. She leaned against the doorjamb and simply watched the activity for a moment.

For the most part, the men were gathered around in a big circle talking - news, sports, jobs and occasionally making a comment directed to one child or another - while still keeping an eye on the various activities taking place throughout the room.

The kids had mostly broken down into groups by age and temperament, and Charisma was pleased to see that Adam fit in well with his cousins and their friends even though he was most definitely the youngest among them. Harley, Hunter's oldest, was keeping a special eye out for him, but the rest didn't just dismiss him because he was so young.

At the moment, he was sitting in front of Harley between his legs and playing some sort of racing game on the big screen television. Adam's squeals of excitement made Charisma smile and forget everything but his joy. When a girl she didn't recognize - obviously one of Kay's children - came and sat down next to them, Adam offered her the controller, but she smiled at him and shook her head. Instead she pointed out something on the screen, and Adam nodded his head frantically, before trying to do whatever it was that the older girl had shown him.

Renee, Rocky's middle child and one of the twins,got up from her place on the floor where several of the children were involved in building... something. When she saw Charisma lounging in the doorway, she squealed and ran over to hug her. Charisma smiled and returned the hug fervently, feeling better from the unabashed adoration in Renee's eyes.

"Hey, Sweetie," she said as she straightened, brushing a lock of hair from blue eyes. "What are you guys building?" motioning to the mass of blocks on the floor and ignoring the raised eyebrow looks she was getting from the other adults in the room. As a rule, the girls stayed in the kitchen until dinner was called - the boys went in after dinner to take care of the clean-up. Mostly they didn't cross paths too much until dinner was finished. So seeing Charisma here now set off more than one alarm bell.

"Everything all right, Princess?" Patrick asked when all the adult eyes turned to him. Charisma nodded her head, but kept her eyes on the Legos taking up one huge corner of the room that Renee had led her to.

"Everything's fine, Daddy. I got the table set and realized I hadn't even gotten a hello from some of my nieces and nephews, so I thought I'd come rectify that oversight posthaste."

"You talk funny," offered another kid she didn't know, and she raised an eyebrow at his outspokenness. Then Renee punched him in the arm, and the boy glared at her. "What'd ya do that for? She does talk funny... like a teacher or somethin'."

"Aunt Chari isn't a teacher - she's a Senator. She makes laws and stuff."

The boy's eyes widened and he looked at her with awe. "Do you really?"

Charisma smiled and nodded, liking the kid in spite of herself. "I do indeed... at least sometimes."

"Good!" the boy nodded fervently. "Can you make a law that says I don't always have to be nice to my sisters?"

Charisma took a seat on the floor and reached for a few of the blocks closest to her, carefully putting them together as she considered her answer. "Well, I don't know...." looking at him and then glancing at Renee with a raised eyebrow.

"This is Robert." Charisma nodded her thanks.

"I don't know, Robert. Wouldn't the world be a much better place if we were all nicer to each other?"

He sighed. "I s'pose so. But they drive me crazy," rolling his eyes and shaking his head wildly. Renee laughed and Charisma chuckled. "Always wanting to play my games and stuff," giving a long-suffering sigh. "And Mom makes me share."

"Well, I'll share a secret with you, Robert - brothers and sisters drive each other crazy. But you do learn to appreciate them as you get older. Who knows... you may even end up liking them at some point." Robert looked at Charisma like she'd just grown two heads. She simply smirked and tousled his hair before she handed Renee her completed Lego figure.

"Wow! Thanks, Aunt Chari."

"Anytime, Sweetie. Now I need to get back to the kitchen before Gramma decides I've absconded to warmer territory." Renee wrapped an arm around Charisma and got another hug before Charisma rose and moved away from them towards Harley and Adam.

"I'm telling you, Rennie - she talks funny... not like real people," Robert whispered loudly.

"Robert," Renee groaned dramatically, drawing snickers from the adults scattered around the room. Charisma stopped beside her oldest nephew and put a hand on his shoulder. "Everything all right, Harley? Adam's not too much trouble, is he?"

"Mama! Adam good boy!" Adam insisted, scowling at her. "Love Harley."

Harley blushed, but met Charisma's eyes squarely. "Adam's fine, Aunt Chari. Mich and I were just giving him some driving pointers."


The girl beside him turned to Charisma and held out her hand. "Hi, Senator Tagherty. I'm Michelle Williams."

"Charisma Tagherty," Charisma responded automatically, accepting the girl's hand and shaking it briefly. "It's nice to meet you, Ms Williams."

"You can call me Michelle, you know. I'm not a Senator yet."

"Do you have political aspirations, Michelle?"

"I would like to be the first female President," she stated unequivocally. "But for now I'm happy to be my class president." She shrugged. "We all have to start somewhere, right?"

Charisma smiled. "You're absolutely right - we do." She hesitated, then plunged ahead, hoping she wasn't cutting off her nose to spite her face. "Look, if you're really interested in politics, maybe you could come clerk for me one summer when you get a little older. It would give you a taste of what politics is really like."

Charisma watched Michelle's eyes light up with enthusiasm and wistfully remembered when she'd felt the same way. "Really? Oh, thank you Senator Tagherty. I'd like that... I'd like that a lot."

"Aunt Chari, if you've finished charming my girlfriend, could I have her back now? Adam and I need her to finish this race."

"Harley!" Michelle exclaimed with embarrassment, slapping him on the shoulder. Charisma just chuckled.

"Remind me to get you a card after dinner, all right, Michelle?"

"Thank you, Senator Tagherty. Thank you so much."

Charisma just smiled and nodded her head before moving over to where four more children were working on a huge puzzle from four different sides. Each child stopped for a moment to speak to her, but mostly, they were too engrossed in trying to fit pieces in to give her more than cursory attention. Instead of interrupting the ones who were reading, she walked around the room and checked on them, smiling when each of them at least paused to say 'hi'.

When she reached the door, Patrick's voice stopped her again. "Satisfied, Little Girl?"

She smirked. "Yes, Daddy. Now let me go see how long until dinner." Then she disappeared down the hallway in the direction of the kitchen. The boys watched her go and Hunter and Patrick exchanged a significant glance. The rest turned back to the discussion... all except Kent. He followed Charisma into the hallway, catching her hand and pulling her to a stop.

Charisma cocked her head in his direction and gave him a half smile, though she left her hand in his. Kent squeezed it lightly, before releasing his grip. "Are you all right, Charisma? You've seemed off-balance since you got up this morning."

"Yes... I'm sorry, Kent. Not sleeping last night really threw me off."

"Anything I can help with?" wondering what had kept her up... especially since he was confident she'd been sleeping well enough until then, even with them being forced to share a bed.

She smiled at him and cupped his cheek briefly. "No. I just need to keep a closer watch on my caffeine intake, I think," removing her hand from his face.

Kent nodded. "I did the same thing the other night," he confided, "when Mama served that molten chocolate cake." He paused, and the silence grew awkward. He cleared his throat. "Speaking of... you'd better get to the kitchen before Mama comes looking for you."

She nodded. "Thanks, Kent." Then she headed back to the kitchen without looking back. Kent watched her go, wondering again what had upset her badly enough to put the pensive look on her face. With a sigh, he resolved to keep an eye on her. Then he returned to the playroom to wait with the rest to be called to the dinner table.


"So there really is a difference," Danielle commented softly when Esmeralda was done. "In how you perceive your relationship and how you treat it."

"I believe there is, yes," Esmeralda said softly.

"I'd be tempted to agree with you," Margaret agreed. "Especially given your penchant for studying human nature," her words causing those who'd missed the conversation that morning to look at her. "Don't look at me like that - she's probably a better observer than Kay," causing every eye in the room to turn towards Kay as she straightened up from her quiet conversation with Brianna. She smiled and cocked an eyebrow, sauntering over to join the other women in their discussion.

"That's quite a compliment, Margaret." She focused on Esmeralda. "May I ask what it is you do for a living, Esmeralda?"

Esmeralda met Kay's dark eyes directly. "I'm a custodian in Charisma's and Brianna's Senate Building. I take care of their floor, in point of fact."

"Have you always been a custodian?"

"Since I started working, yes."

Kay smiled kindly and looked around the room with interest. "Margaret is right. I may have the schooling and the knowledge, but Esmeralda has the experience." She turned back to Esmeralda again. "You could probably write a book."

"Again... no thank you. I actually like what I do."

"Order out of chaos," Kay murmured.

"Oh," Theresa moaned. "You must be an angel... or a miracle worker. If you were a freelancer, I'd hire you in a New York minute. - I could use some order in the chaos that having three boys under one roof is." She turned to Okasa. "And can you believe Hunter is talking about wanting another?"

Okasa smirked. "I hope you don't think I wouldn't encourage him. It would be nice to have more babies around here again."

"Not from me!" Theresa exclaimed, garnering laughter from everyone in the room. "My boys are closer to being out of the house than they are to being in diapers. I would prefer to let them and their cousins have the next round of babies in a few years."

"I'm not gonna disagree with Theresa, Mama... sorry," Danielle offered.

"Me either," Cindy piped up. "Sorry, Mama. You're going to be one shy of a dozen in the grandkids department unless Charisma decides to have another baby."

"Or Brianna could," Charisma volunteered as she crossed the threshold into the kitchen, glancing Brianna's way briefly before looking around at the women seated around the table and counter bar. "Because Charisma isn't having any more children. One's enough, thanks."

Her sisters-in-law exchanged rolled-eye glances, but didn't bother to argue the point. Instead, Cindy looked at Brianna. "What about it, Bri? Have you ever wanted kids?"

Brianna blinked and removed her stare from Charisma, wondering what she had seen in those blue depths. She turned her attention to Cindy and her question. "No... no thank you. You've all been kind enough to let me play 'Auntie' to all of yours and that's enough for me. I don't want to be responsible for someone who depends on me for everything twenty-four hours a day until they're grown. It's selfish, but I like my life... even as a temporary politician," she added with a smile, hoping to lighten the atmosphere just a little.

Okasa snorted. "Until they're grown?? Brianna, in case you haven't noticed," motioning around the room, "they still come home when they're grown and they bring more with them when they come," garnering smiles from the girls and a chuckle from Margaret and Kay. "The biggest difference is that at some point they all go back to their own homes until the next visit - which I cherish, by the way... both parts. It's a shame you don't want to be a mother, though - I think you'd make a great one. After all, you've got years of 'Auntie' practice under your belt."

"I miss not having children," Esmeralda offered into the silence and feeling Saphira come up behind her and wrapping her in strong arms. She leaned into Saphira's body and turned to Okasa. "Thank you for inviting us into your home today and allowing us to be a part of your holiday celebration. I can't tell you what it means to both of us to be included like this."

"I suppose now would be a good time to tell you that this is like a lifetime commitment in this family," Charisma said with a smile in her voice. "Just ask the girls - they came home with the boys once and now they're expected here every holiday AND for weekly dinners."

"Yes, but they're family," Saphira said. "We're just...."

"... family," Okasa assured them, reaching over the table to squeeze one of Saphira's hands that was still wrapped around Esmeralda's body. "You may not have been born into it and you may not have married into it, but I like to think that we can choose parts of our family as well. We chose Brianna, we chose Kay and now we're choosing you."

Blue and green eyes widened; Esmeralda tilted her head backand Saphira angled her head down until their glances could meet. The women in the room watched their silent conversation in awe, not surprised when tear-filled green eyes looked back at Okasa a long moment later.

"Thank you, Okasa... all of you," as she met the eyes of each woman in the kitchen. "We can't tell you what this means...."

"You don't have to," Brianna assured them both with a smile. "We know."

Saphira chuckled. "Yeah, I guess you do."

"Well," Okasa said, clearing her throat and beaming. "I think one of you needs to go tell Paddy it's time to carve the turkey," looking pointedly at Esmeralda and Saphira. Saphira tapped lightly on Esmeralda's belly.

"You go get Patrick. I'll sharpen the knife and help Okasa start serving up. I'm the professional, remember?"

"Just be careful not to sharpen it too much," Esmeralda cautioned as she slipped from Saphira's grip. "You know what happened the last time...." Saphira flushed when all eyes turned her way.

"That wasn't my fault," she muttered.

"Be that as it may, please do not give the knife a razor's edge. Not everyone is as proficient wielding a blade as you are."

"I kinda like to hear that story," Brianna said as Esmeralda exited the room to fetch Patrick.

"Me too," Charisma and Kay agreed together. Then Charisma continued alone. "However, I'm not going to ask the knife wielder to tell it. Family or not, I'm not that brave... or that reckless."

Brianna and Kay snorted and it wasn't long before their chuckles caused Charisma to break into laughter as well. The rest started asking for the joke, but they couldn't stop laughing long enough to reply, and looking at one another or Saphira only made them laugh harder. Saphira, who had heard every word, maintained a straight face and just kept sharpening.

It was to this scene that Esmeralda returned with a grinning Patrick in tow. He was thrilled that Okasa had made them officially part of the family. He looked around the kitchen full of cackling women and shook his head. After all, the family could use more laughter, right?

Then he crossed over to where the turkey was resting on the counter and accepted the blade from Saphira. The sooner he was done cutting, the sooner they could eat. And judging by the sharpness of the knife, Saphira knew her business. He nodded his thanks and started slicing, only pausing when he realized everyone had stopped and was watching him intently.

"All right, the lot of you - find something else to do. You're giving me performance anxiety!"

This caused another round of laughter, but several of them took his words to heart and started moving food to the dining room, while the remainder went to round up husbands and children to wash up for the meal. It was finally time to eat.

Chapter LXI

Okasa took care of seating everyone, spacing everyone out so they were mixed together well. Only Adam was seated next to his mother - the rest of the children were interspaced among the adults they weren't related to parentally.

She had put Saphira on her right and Esmeralda with Patrick, which of course put them at opposite ends of the table. It also unintentionally gave them the best unobstructed views they could hope for short of being seated on the end.

Brianna and Kay were seated across from one another in the middle of the table, and Kent was across from Saphira on Okasa's left hand. Adam held that place of importance on the other end, putting him between Patrick and Charisma, sitting in a regular chair with several thick tomes beneath him as he felt he was too grown up to use the high chair any longer.

Francesca - Forrest's youngest child though she was still several years older than Adam - was seated next to Esmeralda. Esmeralda felt her stare all through grace, and as soon as the family repeated the 'Amen', she turned to the little girl, even as she reached for the dish in front of her.

"Is something wrong, Francesca?"

The little girl tilted her head and frowned. "Mommy said Aunt Theresa said you was an angel. You do kinda look like the picture of the angel that'sin my Catechism class," narrowing her eyes and peering at Esmeralda closely. She studied her face, then craned her neck to look behind her, then returned her gaze to Esmeralda's face once more. Esmeralda never lost her calm demeanor; she simply arched a questioning eyebrow in Francesca's direction. Francesca giggled.

"You look like Aunt Chari," pointing to the woman across the table. Charisma looked up with a cocked eyebrow and smirked. It was all Esmeralda could do to keep a straight face. Francesca looked behind Esmeralda once more and frowned again. "Where's your wings?" she asked loudly during a lull in the conversations going on around the table.

Cindy blushed and sighed. "Francesca!"

The little girl looked at her with an innocent expression. "Yes, Mommy?"

"Honey, are you bothering Esmeralda?"

"Oh no, Mommy. I just wanted to see her wings."

Every eye turned to Esmeralda who was trying not to squirm under the attention. Cindy just squeaked and covered her eyes with her hand. "Sweetie, why do you think Esmeralda has wings?"

"Because you said Aunt Theresa said she was an angel. And all angels have wings."

"Oh. My. God." Cindy groaned. "Honey, Aunt Theresa didn't mean literally. Angels live in Heaven... not here on Earth, so Esmeralda can't be a *real* angel. What your Aunt Theresa meant was that Esmeralda is *like* an angel... because of what she does."

Francesca looked back at Esmeralda thoughtfully. "You watch over people?" remembering her catechism lesson on the subject.

Esmeralda chuckled. "No, I clean up after them... I make everything neat and tidy."

"OH!" Francesca exclaimed, turning her head to meet Theresa's eyes. "You're silly, Aunt Theresa! That doesn't make her an angel - that makes her Mary Poppins!!!"

The entire table burst into laughter and Francesca looked mightily pleased with herself at the response she garnered. Then everyone turned back to the many smaller conversations they'd been having and Francesca's attention was taken by Lee Williams to give Esmeralda a moment to catch her breath.

She smiled her thanks and took a swallow of water, then looked over at Paddy who was chuckling softly. "That one's a pistol," he commented with a grin, getting a smile from Esmeralda and a vigorous nod from Charisma. He turned to Charisma and smirked. "Don't even try it," he instructed. "She's a lot like another little girl I remember growing up around this house."

Charisma's eyes widened. "I can't imagine what you mean, Daddy," but she couldn't hide the twinkle in her eyes either.

"I'll bet you can't," he said with a grin. Then he turned to Esmeralda to learn a little more about the newest addition to his family.


"So tell us a little about yourself, Saphira," Hunter invited as he passed the mashed potatoes to her. "What do you do for a living?"

"I'm a waitress," she offered without hesitation, scooping out a spoonful of potatoes and passing the bowl on to Okasa. Hunter frowned.

"Are you sure?" Eyes as blue as his own met his with a frown and a pointed stare, and he wondered if he and Saphira could possibly be related in some way. He didn't encounter many with eyes the same intense blue that he saw in the mirror every morning. Okasa gave him an incredulous snort, and caused him to turn her sight and his attention to Mama.

"Hunter - just because you're a detective doesn't mean you know better than Saphira what she does when she goes into work every day. If she says she's a waitress, you can be pretty sure she's a waitress." He opened his mouth to speak, and she held up a hand. "I get that people lie to you in your line of work, but Saphira has no reason to lie here. Besides, if she was going to lie, do you think she'd pick something like waitressing?? Most people who like to make an impression would choose something a little cushier... like an office manager or a broker or a model."

Hunter had the sense to look abashed, and turned back to Saphira. "I'm sorry - I didn't mean for that to sound the way it came out."

"Then what did you mean, exactly? I assure you I really am a waitress. Charisma, Brianna and Esmeralda can all vouch for me."

"I have really mucked this up," Hunter muttered, though not softly enough that Saphira couldn't hear him. She smirked and he gave her a wry smile and shook his head. "Let me restart this - a waitress, huh? Where do you work?"

"Angel's Diner. It's how we met Brianna, in fact. She stumbled in the doors just as we were closing one night. She was completely lost, so Es and I help her get to where she needed to be."

"Don't let her modesty fool you, Hunter. She and Es saved my life."

Hunter grinned broadly at Brianna's words and looked back at Saphira. "You fed her didn't you?"

Saphira cocked an eyebrow. "How'd you know?"

He nodded towards Okasa. "Mama did the same thing. Brianna's been part of the family ever since."

Saphira chuckled and Brianna stuck out her tongue, though she couldn't hide the sparkle in her eyes at the good-natured teasing. She had missed this since her last visit - which at the moment felt like it was a lifetime ago. And maybe it had been, she considered silently. There was a different atmosphere present than she had seen here in a long time, and the only difference was Charisma and her family. So maybe it had been a lifetime ago since the family had been complete.

Then Brianna felt a nudge on her ankle, and looked around to find Kay staring at her meaningfully. "Would you like to share?" she asked quietly, not allowing her voice to spill over into the other conversations going on around them.

"I was just thinking how full the table seems this year."

Kay frowned. "You mean like crowded?"

Brianna smiled and shook her head. "No. I mean like complete."

Kay didn't respond verbally. She just returned Brianna's smile and winked, then resumed eating her meal. Charisma couldn't hear what was being said between them, but she recognized the looks as intimacy, and it made her frown. She continued to eat, but while she paid enough attention to give cursory answers to those around her, her mind and her attention were split to keep track of Brianna's and Kay's interactions as well.

And on the other end of the table, Kent watched Charisma.


"So can I ask a question?" Saphira queried, turning the tables on Hunter. He shrugged and nodded.

"Sure - given the fubar this conversation could have easily become, I think I own you that much. Shoot - what's up?"

"Well, I was just wondering why you were so convinced I couldn't be a waitress."

"Your vibe is wrong."

"I beg your pardon??"

"Your vibe is wrong." He sighed. "Despite Mama's inference to the contrary, I'm a good detective. And I'm good at what I do because I have a gut instinct that I rely on - it rarely fails me."

"And what does your gut tell you about me?" Saphira asked, smiling when Hunter's brows flew into his hairline. "Just because I serve food all day long doesn't mean I'm stupid, Hunter. I have a mind, and sometimes I even know how to use it," she said with a chuckle, showing him that he hadn't really offended her.

"That's not what I meant at all," realizing he was getting in deeper and deeper, but unsure how to talk his way out of the crater he currently found himself burying himself in. He scrubbed a hand over his face and sighed deeply. "Your reaction just further cemented my gut feeling."

"How so?" she asked, cocking her head in a listening manner. He noticed their whole end of the table had focused their attention on the conversation and silently cursed himself for starting the discussion in the first place.

"You have an... aura for lack of a better word. Your whole presence is one of power and...." He let his voice peter out, at a loss on how to explain himself. "I want you to look around the table - aside from Charisma and Brianna and Esmeralda of course, do you know what any of them do for a living?"

"I know that Patrick and Okasa are both retired and that Kay reads people, which in my book makes her some sort of psych doctor."

Hunter nodded thoughtfully. "Close enough," he murmured. "All right, for everyone else here,having only spoken with them briefly, can you simply look at them, put that with what little you learned about them in talking to them and tell what they do?"

Saphira looked at him like he was crazy, then shrugged. "I can try." She wiped her mouth with her napkin and set it beside her plate, then turned her head to gaze down the long table, letting her eyes rest on every adult sitting around it for a long moment. She turned her attention back to Hunter. "Can I get them involved just a little?"

"How so?"

"I'd like each of them to stand and to smile."

Hunter blinked, not having expected that request. He nodded his head and stood up, tapping his glass to get the attention of everyone at the table. Rocky looked up from his meal and glared at his brother.

"Hunter, we don't do toasts until dessert and I'm not done with dinner, man."

Hunter chuckled. "You can keep eating, Rock. I only need your attention for a minute. I've asked Saphira if she can figure out what each of you do based solely on your appearance and the small bit of conversation she's had with you. She's asked if you would each...." He held up his hand and turned towards Saphira, listening to her request and nodding his compliance. "Saphira has asked if each of you would stand up for a moment - one at a time - and smile."

Forrest snorted. "What did you say to her, brother?"

Hunter held up his hand. "Do this, and I'll explain when she's done." The family looked at each other, and heads nodded their agreement. Then by tacit agreement, Cindy - who was to Hunter's right - stood first, and looked at Saphira and smiled. After a moment, she seated herself and Kay stood, and so it went on around the table until it was Kent's turn.

When he sat down, the room was silent, waiting for Saphira to tell what she'd discovered about them. She gazed at Esmeralda for a long minute, getting the slightest nod of approval before she blew out a breath and stood up.

"Well obviously I'm acquainted with Charisma and Brianna, which leaves them out. And since Esmeralda is my mate, I'm pretty sure that lets her out as well," smiling at the grins she got for that. "I already knew that Patrick and Okasa were retired... if I was going to guess, I'd say Patrick was some sort of blue collar man and Okasa was an office manager of some type."

"Patrick built roads for forty years and I work at the hospital," Okasa commented with amazement clearly heard in her voice. "That's amazing. How did you...?"

"Mama," Hunter cut in. "Let her finish first, please?"

Okasa wrinkled her nose at him, but motioned for Saphira to continue.

"Okay, um... I'm pretty sure Kay is some sort of psych doc and that Margaret has some sort of interest in fashion or modeling. I would guess she's probably pretty high up the corporate ladder in one of those industries. Lee and Danielle are both teachers, while Cindy is another sort of professional - nurse or realtor or something that keeps her busy and on her feet a lot."

Saphira looked around the table again, smiling when her eyes landed on Esmeralda and seeingthe pride that sparkled in her eyes. She lifted her glass to her lips and took a sip of water and then another before setting it down and turning her attention back to the table and the people staring at her in amazement.

"I think Theresa is probably a stay-at-home mom. Rocky is a fireman; Forrest is a police officer and Kent is a restaurateur." She turned her head and met Hunter's eyes. "How'd I do?"

"Before I answer that," Hunter said, holding up a hand to keep anyone from replying, "I have to ask - have you always been a waitress?"

Saphira met his eyes. "In this lifetime, yes," she said honestly.

"You're completely miscast. I just want you to know that." She arched an eyebrow at him and smirked. Hunter laughed and shook his head. "Take a seat, and I'll tell you how you did. Then you can tell us how you did it." Applause broke out around the table and Saphira curtsied neatly, then dropped into her chair with a laugh.


"You know," Charisma commented to Brianna after dinner was done, "if Saphira and Esmeralda ever decided to use their powers for evil, we'd be sunk."

Brianna nodded and wrapped her arms across her chest a little tighter. She'd come out to the garden area of the yard as soon as dessert was over, hoping a few minutes of peace would settle the weird sensations she could feel in the pit of her belly. She wanted to blame it on the food, but she knew in the depths of her soul that those strange nigglings could only be contributed to Charisma. She took a deep breath and turned to face Charisma. "Yes, we would," she agreed. "But imagine the book and movie deals they could get out of it," she added with a smirk.

Charisma nodded thoughtfully. "I'd have to go see it at least."

"Oh, so would I. I'd want to see whoever was playing me on the big screen." She paused thoughtfully. "Maybe we could play ourselves."

"Maybe you could ghostwrite the book with them."

"Still trying to get me to go back to writing, Charisma?" Brianna asked with a hint of a smile on her lips though it never reached her eyes. She turned and rubbed her hands up and down her arms. She hadn't intended to be out here this long.

Although Brianna couldn't see it, she heard the shrug in Charisma's voice. "It's something you were good at, Bri - and something you enjoyed doing... once you got past the idea of someone else reading it." Charisma hesitated when Brianna didn't acknowledge her words at all. "Why didn't you tell me?" She didn't move from her spot about an arm's length from Brianna, so she saw the stiffening in Brianna's spine as soon as the words left her lips.

It took a moment, but Brianna relaxed, then she turned to face Charisma. "Tell you what, Charisma? You've got to give me a little more than that."

"Why didn't you tell me about you and Kay? I would have understood, Bri. You were my best friend, and I'm not a homophobe - I never was."

Brianna met Charisma's eyes without flinching and Charisma had to bite her lip to keep from gasping at the pain she saw in those green depths. "Kay and I were a couple after you and I... I met Kay at Harvard - she was in her last year of residency when I entered law school."

"I see," Charisma said slowly, and Brianna wondered if she was putting the pieces together or trying desperately to keep them from reaching their inevitable conclusion. "And I guess you didn't know she would be here today?" the non-sequitor a little hard for Brianna to follow. Her mind had been on another train entirely.

"I wasn't sure," she replied honestly. "She and the family have always been here when I was, but today was a little different than normal. I really didn't know what Okasa was going to do."

She held Charisma's eyes, and blue eyes were the first to turn away. Charisma looked out across the yard that had been prepared for the coming winter and shivered a little at the deadness of it. She wrapped her arms around herself to ward off the chill she felt. Without turning her head to see Brianna, she asked softly, "Did she make you happy, Brianna? Did you cry for days when you broke up?"

"She did make me happy, Charisma - it just wasn't enough for either of us. And no, I didn't cry for days... but I did cry. Kay was very special to me - she still is. And I'm lucky... we stayed friends and I count her husband as a very dear friend as well."

"They sound... impossible," Charisma said on a choked breath.

"They're lovely people, Charisma... if you give them a chance."

Now Charisma turned and faced Brianna squarely. "Would that make you happy, Bri - for me to give them a chance?" Brianna nodded but didn't say a word. "All right - I'll give them a chance... for you." Charisma covered one hand briefly and squeezed, then turned and headed inside. Just before she reached the door, she looked back. "You need to come in soon - it's too cold to be out here without a jacket." Then she crossed the threshold and closed the door behind her.

Chapter LXII

It was coming on dark when families started gathering at the door preparing to leave. The children were reluctantly snugged into their outerwear by parents who knew that the chilly day had given way to a frigid evening. Most submitted to it with a long-suffering sigh, and parents exchanged eye rolls as each child was bundled up for the weather.

Esmeralda and Saphira had said their goodbyes earlier, when Esmeralda had started showing signs of exhaustion again. The girls had watched them go with concerned frowns, but Saphira and Esmeralda never noticed. Esmeralda had taken a good nap, and now she and Saphira snuck down to the staircase landing at her behest to watch the proceedings with interest.

The kids saw Okasa and Patrick emerge from the kitchen with containers of leftovers, and they cheered - the older ones stepped forward to relieve them of their burdens and receive a hug and kiss. As they bid their grandparents goodbye, they headed outside to escape the congestion and free up some space in the now overcrowded foyer.

Brianna walked out with them, not wanting them to be outside alone in the near darkness. Harley just rolled his eyes - knowing he was old enough and responsible enough to be left out here alone, but secretly glad Brianna cared enough to help him keep an eye on his siblings and cousins. For all his grumbling some days, he certainly didn't want anything to happen to any of them.

"I hope your friends are all right, Aunt Bri," he offered as he and Michelle came up to stand beside her next to the Williams van. Brianna turned and looked at him with a question in her eyes. He cocked an eyebrow and smirked. "No... no one said anything, but I've got eyes that can see. I saw how upset you and the rest were when they excused themselves and went upstairs early. I figure one of them must be pretty sick... maybe even terminal or something." He shrugged. "I just hope they're okay. They seem like really nice people, and it was funny to see Saphira blow Dad's sock off at dinner."

Brianna chuckled. "Yeah, she did kind of floor him, didn't she?"

"I'll say," Michelle agreed, waving her brother and sister over as her parents stepped from the house. "That was so much fun - and the look on his face...." She reached up and gave Brianna a hug that she gladly returned in equal measure. "I'm glad you were here, Aunt Bri. I've missed you since you went to Washington."

Brianna smirked. "You can still call me there, you know. The phone still works that far away." Michelle stuck out her tongue, causing the three of them to laugh and Kay to question as she walked up beside them.

"Should I even ask?" looking at the three of them. "Probably not," she added with a laugh when they gave her their cheesiest grins. Lee bumped by them with a smile as he started loading the two younger children into the vehicle. Harley held out his hand to Michelle and they made their way to stand at the back of the van to say a semi-private goodbye. Kay turned to Brianna and opened her arms; Brianna stepped right into them and wrapped Kay in a firm grip.

"I'm so glad you were here," Brianna offered somewhat muffled.

Kay returned the hug fervently. "Even with everything...?"

"Even with."

Kay smiled and pulled slightly out of the embrace, enough so she could look into Brianna's face half hidden in shadows. "I don't know what you said to her, but thanks. If Charisma didn't exactly warm up to me, at least she stopped resenting every breath I took."

Brianna chuckled. "That's progress - I'll take it."

Before Kay could reply, there was a commotion at the front door and Adam ran out. Without thought, Brianna released Kay and ran towards him, snatching him up and lifting him into her arms. He struggled for a moment.

"Hey, Little Man... where's the fire?"

Adam stopped trying to escape the moment he heard her voice. Instead he snuggled down into her hold and buried his nose in her neck. "Br'anna good," he murmured.

"ADAM ROCKWELL!!" came Charisma's shouted voice from the doorway as she exited on a run....

... only to discover him in the arms of her erstwhile best friend. She inhaled deeply, struggling to get her temper under control. Adam had scared the living daylights out of her when he'd jerked way from her and run pell-mell outside, and after everything else that had been thrown at her all day long, she had reached her breaking point. Brianna, having recognized the sheer terror in Charisma's eyes, headed her way immediately with Adam still nestled in her arms.

Kent, realizing that Charisma was torn between panic and fury, slid out the door and intercepted Brianna before she reached Charisma. Brianna understood that he wanted to remove Adam from what could quickly become a field of battle, and she moved to release Adam into Kent's arms. Unfortunately for Brianna, that just made Adam cling to her tighter.

She leaned back, tilting his head up until blue eyes met serious green. "Adam, you need to let go - you're hurting me, Little Man."

"Love Br'anna."

"I love you too, but you need to go with Daddy now. You scared him and Mama when you ran off like that. Do you remember the talk we had with Saphira, after you ran in front of my car?" He poked out his lip in a pout but nodded slowly. "This is the same thing."

"No go!" he commanded and frowned.

"Adam, I'm not going anywhere tonight, and you'll get to see your cousins again before you go home, all right?" He held her eyes for a long moment, then nodded, nuzzling back into her neck. "Okay, but for right now, you need to go with Daddy."

"C'mon, son. I think Gramma was getting out some leftovers for you to have a snack. Are you hungry?" smiling when Adam nodded and released his stranglehold on Brianna's neck. Kent lifted Adam into his arms and leaned forward to brush a kiss over Brianna's cheek. "Thank you," he whispered. "If anything had happened to him...."

"I'm glad I was there, Kent."

Kent nodded. "Seems like you've been there a lot for him. Maybe you're like his Guardian Angel."

"God, I hope not," Brianna said with a laugh. "I couldn't possibly keep up," breaking the tension of those around them. The motion that had frozen at Charisma's bellow resumed and Kent just chuckled in sympathy with her. Then he shook his head and walked back inside, pausing by Charisma a moment before returning indoors.

Brianna looked at Charisma, but when she moved to go to her, Charisma shook her head and turned to walk around the side of the house. Brianna watched her disappear into the darkness, not surprised to feel Kay's hand drop onto her shoulder.

"Talk to her, Bri. It's been a hard day for her, and this was her last straw, I think."

Brianna nodded and patted the hand on her shoulder, then turned to embrace Kay once more. "Thanks, Kay. It means so much to me that you guys came today."

Kay let go and Brianna found herself engulfed in Lee's arms. "We were happy to be here, Bri," he assured her."But don't you get yourself caught up in that whole political scene down in DC, all right? We're all counting the days until you come home."

Brianna chuckled. "Me too," she admitted. "But we'll be here for a couple more days, so let's make sure to put the time to good use. We'll get together again, right?" The rest of the family - brothers and their wives - cheered at that suggestion as they gathered around for their goodbyes, and then they were all leaving one full vehicle at a time.

Brianna moved to stand on the front steps, not seeing Okasa and Patrick come up behind her as she waved goodbye. Only when she turned did she realize they were there, and she was glad for their steadying hands when she nearly took a backwards header off the steps.

"You all right, Little Bri?" Paddy asked when she was steady again. Brianna nodded.

"Yes, Paddy. You and Mama just surprised me. I thought I was by myself."

"Would you prefer to be?" Okasa asked, searching green eyes carefully.

"No, Mama. I love knowing you and Paddy have my back. I just expected you two to be inside with Kent and Adam."

"Oh no," Okasa stated emphatically. "Aside from wanting to make sure everyone got away safely, Kent was going to give Adam a good talking to. Paddy and I would just be a distraction." She looked around the now dark and empty yard. "Speaking of distractions, where is my daughter? I know Adam nearly gave her heart failure when he ran out. I expected her to be the one to bring him in, reading the riot act or something similar."

Brianna smiled sadly. "I think it all got to be too much. But I have a good idea where she went. Do you think I could get a thermos of hot chocolate?"

Okasa smiled and nodded. "Sure. C'mon inside and we'll make it up. It won't take but a minute."

Together they entered the kitchen, only to find Esmeralda at the stove stirring what smelled like homemade hot chocolate. Saphira was busy shaving chocolate into the pot on the stove while Kent was cleaning up a nearly sleeping Adam. As Brianna, Okasa and Patrick entered the kitchen, he hefted Adam from the chair and into his arms.

"I'm just going to go give him a quick bath and put him to bed. I think all the excitement tuckered him out."

Patrick chuckled. "All the excitement tired me out too."

"We'll be up to say good night in a few minutes," Okasa volunteered. Kent nodded and left the room. The five remaining adults in the room looked at each other for a long, silent moment, before Esmeralda shrugged sheepishly.

"I hope you don't mind. It sounded like a good idea with everyone standing around outside in the cold... especially after Kent told us what happened with Adam."

Okasa marched over to the stove and took a spoon from the drawer beside it. She stirred it around in the hot liquid for a moment, then scooped up a portion, blowing on it lightly before letting it flow across her tongue and down her throat. She closed her eyes to savor the flavor, then opened them and stared at Esmeralda sternly. "If you think you're leaving here without giving me that recipe, young lady, you've certainly got another think coming," her face breaking into a smile. "That's amazing." She leaned over the pot and breathed in deeply. "You fixed enough for everyone, right?"

"Oh yes, ma'am. Always make enough to share with everyone - rule number one."

Okasa rolled her eyes at being called ma'am again; Patrick just laughed roundly. Brianna grabbed the thermos from the place it always was... always had been... and passed it to Mama to fill. Okasa did so without comment, then closed the lid and handed it back to Brianna with a small nod. Brianna smiled her thanks and left the kitchen without a word. The rest watched her go, and it wasn't until they heard the back door close solidly behind her that Saphira spoke.

"Is everything okay?"

"I hope so." Okasa replied slowly. "I truly hope so."


Brianna walked through the backyard by rote, glad Patrick and Okasa were such stable, reliable individuals. Not much had changed back here in years other than the bushes getting fuller and the trees growing taller. The gardens - even when the flowers changed with the seasons - were still laid out in the same place and fashion as they had always been. So she moved into the darkness with utter confidence in her steps even though she couldn't actually see much beyond her feet. The bare sliver of the moon offered very little light to her path.

Brianna slowed her approach as she reached the largest tree on the property - one that was guesstimated to be more than one hundred years old. It was in this tree that Patrick had built a tree house for his children. At first it had been Hunter's fortress, then as his brothers grew old enough to climb, it became a place for all of them to hide and play and get away from their parents for just a little while.

When Charisma was born, she was forbidden to join them for the longest time... being a girl and all - until Patrick put a stop to that nonsense by informing his male children that either their sister was allowed to play with them or their tree fort would become a tree castle that only Princesses were allowed to utilize.

So they begrudgingly invited Charisma to join them, and for years they shared the playhouse and it served any number of purposes - an army fort; a pirate ship; an airplane; a hideout and yes... even a castle once or twice.

But as the boys grew into adulthood, they visited the treehouse less and less, until only Charisma was left. And she continued to use it throughout high school and into college when she needed somewhere to go to think.

She had introduced Brianna to this place on their first college break - when she'd brought Brianna to meet the family. Brianna still remembered that trip with great affection, and she recalled how glad she was that there was a place she could go to get away from everyone when she felt overwhelmed - which in those days had been much more often than not. Finding a family like Charisma's - especially after her own solitary and broken household - was a lot to handle.

Now, as Brianna neared the place she knew instinctively where Charisma had escaped to, she stopped and took a deep breath, trying to center herself for whatever was yet to come.

Before she could try to tuck the thermos into her inside coat pocket, Charisma's tired voice sounded loud in the still darkness. "Brianna, why are you here?"

Brianna gasped at the pain both words and inflection cut through her. Still, she smiled up gamely in the direction she knew Charisma to be and held up the thermos. "I come bearing gifts, Fair Queen," she answered, much in the same manner as she had all those years ago. She felt Charisma's gasp as sharply as she heard it.

"Please don't call me that," Charisma whispered softly. "Just leave me alone."

Brianna's brow furrowed. What on earth had happened between the time Charisma had shown such concern for Brianna's wellbeing and now? Surely Charisma didn't think Brianna had coerced Adam from the house earlier. Brianna came to a decision and straightened, gripping the thermos handle firmly between her teeth before she started climbing the ladder.

Charisma pushed open one of the shutters and stuck her head out, growling when she saw Brianna making her way upwards. "What part of 'leave me alone' wasn't clear to you, Brianna? I've used up all my tolerance for today. So GO AWAY."

Brianna just glared in Charisma's direction, unable to speak until she reached the top. When she did, she set the thermos to one side of the carpeted floor until she could pull herself up the rest of the way and pulled the ladder up behind her. "I'm sure glad Paddy keeps this place in shape," she muttered to herself before turning to face Charisma with a glare in her eyes.

"First of all, Charisma Tagherty, if you'd really wanted to be alone, you'd have pulled the ladder up behind you so I couldn't follow you. And you KNEW that I would - don't even bother to try and deny it. And secondly, I think I have a right to know what I did to set you off, because I can't think of anything I've done to warrant that sort of reception from you... for any reason."

"Brianna," Charisma's voice so low, Brianna could scarcely hear her sitting mere feet away. "It's not you. It's not Kay. It's not Adam. It's not any one thing. It's everything, and I'm trying really hard to get a handle on things. I don't need you here for that."

Brianna tilted her head and reached for the thermos, opening it and letting the scent of hot chocolate waft through the small, enclosed room. She poured a serving into the cup and passed it to Charisma, who accepted it haltingly. Brianna smiled wryly.

"I'm not trying to kill you, Charisma. Es made it... from scratch. It got Mama's approval."

This got Charisma's attention and she raised her eyes to meet Brianna's. Then she took a small sip, closing her eyes when the taste hit her tongue. "Oh wow - we are so keeping her." She opened her eyes again. "Have you tasted?" offering Brianna the cup when she shook her head no. Brianna accepted the cup and blew briefly before sucking in a small swallow.

"Oh man... that is awesome!" She refilled the cup and passed it back to Charisma. "Now talk to me, Charisma," huffing a little when Charisma dropped her eyes to the cup in her hand. Brianna lifted Charisma's chin with her fingertips and waited for blue eyes to tack to hers. "Charisma, we're supposed to be on a path of friendship - learning one another again. How can we do that if you won't talk to me? That was always the most important part of our friendship to me."

Charisma's anger was clear in the fire that it in her eyes. "Really? Then why won't you tell me why you left me? Why won't you tell me why my family... why KAY...." said with a sneer, "has been part of your life for twenty years that we will never have together?? Why were they so much more important than I was??"

"Charisma, no one has ever been as important as you in my life... even when we were apart. I thought of you every single day and prayed for you every single night."

"Even when you were with Kay?"

"Can I ask you a question?" Brianna's sudden interruption disrupting Charisma's line of thought and she nodded almost automatically before she considered it. "If you take my relationship with Kay out of the equation, what did you think of her? And be honest - I know you talked to Michelle about working for you one summer. Try to be that fair to her mother in your response."

Charisma sighed. "I suppose she's a decent sort - the boys seem to love her and so does Mama. That says a lot about her, I guess."


"What do you want me to say, Brianna? She's nice enough, but I hate her for the time she got to have with you that I didn't. We were best friends!! It's like having to make nice with my replacement."

"Charisma, Kay never, ever replaced you - not in my life and not in your family." Brianna paused thoughtfully, reaching for the cup of hot chocolate, and wincing when the lukewarm beverage hit her mouth. She purposely took a large swallow then added some that was still hot to it, frowning when Charisma reclaimed it. "How did you find out about us anyway? No one who knows would have shared that information with you unless you had asked directly. And I know you didn't. So spill."

Charisma took a deep breath. They were so focused on their conversation, neither woman heard Kent arrive at the base of the tree.

Chapter LXIII

"So let me get this straight," Brianna said without even a blip of a smile crossing her face. "You overheard Esmeralda and I talking this morning? *That's* what started all this?"

"Pretty much, yes." Charisma sighed. "I got up last night to get a drink of water and I heard noise in the hall. When I looked out the door, I saw you headed downstairs, so I thought I'd join you - have a late-night snack and gab session like we used to, you know?" waiting for Brianna to nod. "But when I got to the kitchen, you and Es were already talking, so I decided to wait for a good time to break in."

"Only you didn't."

Charisma shook her head. "I couldn't. I didn't know what to say to you. So I went back upstairs and crawled in bed." She snorted softly. "I never did actually go back to sleep."

"I did," Brianna confessed. "As soon as Mama threatened me with warm milk, I was out like a light." Charisma chuckled and Brianna smiled briefly before her expression fell. "So what part of our conversation kept you awake, Charisma? Surely my orientation wasn't a surprise to you? It's not like I've ever attempted to keep it a secret."

"Not exactly, though having it confirmed so blatantly was something of a shock.It was a lot of things - finding out that you had a gay ex-lover that was so important to you she was considered part of the family; learning you preferred the casualness of a fuck buddy to a settled, stable relationship; understanding that you didn't really feel at home with my family despite the fact that they've never treated you as less than family to them."

Brianna bit her lip. Given what Charisma had overheard, it was easy to see where she could have drawn such conclusions, but it didn't keep the misconceptions from hurting. "You're wrong, you know. Oh… not about all of it," she added when Charisma opened her mouth to debate. "Kay is an ex-lover that I cared enough about to introduce to your family. I'll be forever grateful to the Tagherty clan for welcoming her and her family with the same open arms they showed me so many years ago."


"I'm not done yet." Brianna said a bit impatiently. "What I meant about the family is that it was odd... different for me to be here... in this house again - especially sharing the same roof with you when everything is so different between us. That doesn't make it bad - it just makes it unusual. Never assume that I don't love your family or that they don't hold a very special place in my heart and life like they always have. This just isn't what has been normal for any of us for a very long time and I was trying to explain to Es the difference it made... being here now with you like this."

Brianna took a deep breath and tried to tone down her anger and Charisma waited, recognizing the expression though she hadn't seen it in a number of years. "As for the other," Brianna said slowly, trying not to speak through clenched teeth, "I resent your assumption. Did you ever think that perhaps I hadn't found the person I was meant to be with? Or that I had fallen in love with someone who wasn't available to me? I'm not a home wrecker, Charisma. I would love to be part of a settled, stable relationship, and I'm pissed that you would believe otherwise."

"Now wait just a minute... before you get all sanctimonious with me - exactly how the hell was I supposed to know that??" holding up a hand when Brianna's lips parted. "No," Charisma said emphatically, point her finger at Brianna. "My turn now. It's not like you were particularly forthcoming, were you? All I know of you is what I knew in college, and you certainly didn't want to be tied down then. I didn't even know you were interested in women - I mean you dated your share of men when we double dated. The only other things I've learned I overheard you telling someone else."

"So you just assumed," Brianna accused flatly.

"What else am I supposed to do if you don't talk to me?!? You said talking together was the most important part of our friendship to you," waiting for Brianna to nod her agreement. "It is for me as well, but it's only going to work if we both do it."

"You're right."

"Naturally," Charisma snarked with a grin and the tension flowed out of the treehouse. "So we talk from now on??"

"Yes - no assumptions means no misunderstandings."

"And we be honestwith one another... no matter what."

"I can be if you can," Brianna replied seriously, catching Charisma off-guard. Charisma nodded slowly.

"My life is pretty much an open book, but I'll try to fill in any holes that are there." She shivered. "Not here, though. It's freezing, even with the blanket," gesturing with the one she had wrapped around her. "And we've got to be almost out of cocoa."

Brianna peeked into the thermos, but before she could confirm Charisma's words, they heard Kent calling out to both of them. They exchanged glances and Charisma responded even as she unwrapped the blanket from around her body and neatly put it back into the chest it came from.

"I'll be all over for the next few weeks," Charisma said as they prepared to leave the tree house. "I have to check in with all the local campaign offices around the state, but I'd like to continue this conversation soon."

"You still owe me a look at your album," Brianna reminded her.

"You're right I do. Let's find a time we can do that soon."

"I'll check my calendar as soon as we get in. I'm sure we can figure something out."

"Sounds like a plan," Charisma said with a smile as she lowered the ladder. "Now let's get back to the house before Kent sends out a search party. He sounded worried."

"Does he not know where you come to escape everything when you're here?"

Charisma shook her head. "No. You're the only person I've ever shared this spot with."

Brianna didn't quite know what to say to that, so she quickly slid down the ladder and waited for Charisma to drop the thermos into her outstretched hands. Then she stood aside so Charisma could climb down. When they were both on the ground, Charisma linked their elbows and headed for the back door.

"Mama O must have told him where you were... or something," Brianna offered as they reached the garden area. "I don't see him out here anywhere."

"I'm sure," Charisma concurred. "C'mon... let's go see if Es has any of that hot chocolate left."


Kent had put Adam to bed and his son had dropped off to sleep before he even realized Charisma was missing from their nightly ritual. When Okasa and Patrick came upstairs to kiss their grandson goodnight, Kent was already outside, wondering where his wife had disappeared to in the freezing cold temperatures. His first thought had been to check the garage, but their SUV sat in the same place they had parked it several days before. And the other vehicles were accounted for as well. That only left the backyard, and with determined steps, he headed around towards the back of the house.

His eyes caught movement ahead of him and he immediately recognized the wisps of blonde hair sticking out around the hat the covered the rest of her head. It sent a pang through him to realize this woman who had be missing from Charisma's life for twenty years knew better how to find his wife than he did. So he followed her at a distance, not wanting to be caught, but curious to know what the hell was going on.

He watched Brianna have a conversation with the air, though he couldn't hear the words exchanged, then he saw Brianna get angry and pull herself up the ladder. When the ladder disappeared up the hole in the bottom of the tree house, he slowly made his way towards it, hoping he could hear what was being said. However, his steps were slow and very measured, not wanting the two women to detect his presence. So he missed a bit of the conversation before he ended up close enough to hear them.

He listened carefully, hearing everything that was being said and a lot more that wasn't. Satisfied that he at least understood what Brianna refused to tell Charisma, he backed away from the tree much more swiftly than he'd approached it, getting back to the patio before he called out for Charisma, and after a second thought, Brianna as well.

Almost immediately, the back door to the kitchen opened and Okasa beckoned him inside. Esmeralda and Saphira were seated at the table and he had the passing thought to speculatewhere his mother and Patrick had gotten off to that they weren't in the kitchen as well. "Mama O?" he asked, wondering what she would say without betraying her daughter.

"They're all right," Okasa assured him, ladling him up a cup of hot chocolate and offering him a few marshmallows as well. Kent shook his head. "Sometimes they just need to do the 'girl talk' thing alone together."

"In this weather?" he cried in disbelief.

"I never said it was a good idea," Okasa countered. That killed the conversation for a minute or two until Charisma and Brianna came shivering into the room arm in arm. Okasa simply looked at the two of them and shook her head, giving a sigh and rising to pull two more cups from the cabinet before filling them with Esmeralda's hot chocolate.

Brianna unraveled her arm from Charisma's and moved over to rinse the thermos she then put in the sink. Charisma placed her hands on Kent's shoulders, giving them a brief squeeze before moving to take the mug Okasa offered her. She wrapped her hands around it, sighing at the warmth and breathing in the scented steam with a smile.

"This is good stuff, Es," Charisma complimented. "Mama did tell you we're keeping you forever, right?" she asked, bumping her elbow against Esmeralda's shoulder. "How're you feeling? You look better."

"I'm good - the nap helped. I'm just not used to quite so much excitement anymore I guess."

"Do you come from a large family, Esmeralda?" Kent asked. Esmeralda nodded.

"Not immediate, but there's a whole host of extended family... you know, aunts and uncles, cousins, in-laws, outlaws," getting a laugh from around the table. She turned back to answer Charisma's question. "As for keeping us forever, we just figured since Mama practically adopted us today, we could share the family recipe. There are a couple really nice adaptations as well."

"Like peppermint schnapps?" Brianna asked hopefully.

"And what's with this 'practically' nonsense?" Okasa grumbled. "I did adopt you - you ARE family."

"Yes ma'am!" they both snapped out as they straightened in their chairs, as though they were in the military.

"Good, now that we've got that settled," Okasa said with a brief glare trained at both of them before her face was wreathed in smiles. "Let's hear about those enhancements."

"If you ladies will excuse me," Kent said as he rose from his chair, "I think I'm going to go check on my son and then see if I can find my mother. Esmeralda, that was exceptional hot chocolate, and anytime you want to share it with me, I'll be happy to drink it."

"Thank you, Kent," she responded, and with a slight bow in their general direction, Kent left the kitchen. Okasa stood as well.

"I'm gonna go find Paddy. When he's been quiet for this long it usually doesn't bode well." She went around the table and kissed each younger woman on the forehead. She saved Esmeralda for last, knowing Charisma wouldn't talk to her with an audience and still seriously concerned about Esmeralda's general health issues. "I put some of my sleeping draught in a container in the pantry with your name on it - it's right by what little is left of those cakes you brought, okay? If you need it, you take it. I don't want to find you in my kitchen at oh-dark-thirty in the morning suffering from insomnia again - not when there is something I can do to help you get a little rest in my house, all right? It's there if you need it, so use it."

"I will Mama; thank you."

"Good girl." She looked around the table. "And the rest of you don't stay up too late either. It's been a busy day and even without shopping tomorrow, I'm pretty sure it's gonna be almost as busy...especially since I distinctly heard plans being made to get everyone together again."

"Yes, Mama," they replied in unison and Okasa smiled.

"That's what I like to hear!" And with a flourish, she left the four younger women alone in the kitchen. They waited until they figured she was out of earshot, then exchanged grins which quickly escalated into laughter. Then they froze when they heard Okasa shout from the hallway, "I heard that!"

Of course, that simply caused them to laugh louder and harder and Okasa smiled. It had been a long time since the house had been filled with laughter like it had today. It felt good.


Kent had done as he said - he looked in on his son, smiling at how peaceful Adam was in repose. He pulled the blankets up over him just a little, then closed the door softly behind him before he wandered down the hallway to his mother's room. He stood in front of her door a moment, then lifted his hand to knock when he saw the light on.

He had to wait a long moment, then he heard her crossing the room just before she swung the door open. Her eyes widened. "Kent? Is everything all right, son?"

"That was my question. You kind of disappeared."

"I just needed a little peace and quiet. Youknow I love visiting here, but it can get a little overwhelming after a while... especially for a woman who lives alone. Besides, I thought you and Charisma might need some time to fix whatever it is that seems to be bothering her." It was a statement, but Kent could see the question in her expression.

He leaned on the doorjamb and Margaret sighed and rolled her eyes at him. She tugged him into the room by his elbow and motioned him to the one chair while she sat in the edge of the bed. "Now talk to me, Kent! What's bothering Charisma?"

Now Kent was smart enough to know that Margaret wouldn't let him get by with claiming nothing - Charisma had been far enough off the grid today that she wouldn't buy that blatant of a lie. However, there was no way he was going to share with her what he suspected the real truth to be. So he decided to try and keep things simple.

"I think she's a little bit like you, Mother. I mean, I think she just needed a little peace and quiet. That's the second time in less than two weeks that Adam has run away from her and into a situation that could have been harmful to him. Imagine what could have happened to him if Brianna hadn't managed to catch him."

"Oh my."

"Yeah, and like I said - it's the second time he's done that to Charisma recently. I'm pretty sure that was her breaking point."

"So where is she now?"

"In the kitchen... drinking some of Es' homemade hot chocolate." He met her eyes. "Did you have some?"

"After that chocolate cake at dinner?" Margaret asked through her chuckles. "No - I'd like to sleep sometime tonight. I have a feeling tomorrow is going to be another busy day."

"Maybe," Kent agreed with a shrug, "but let me tell you, you're missing out. This stuff was fantastic. If she makes it again, you need to try it - I don't care what time of day it is."

Margaret's eyebrows went into her hairline. "That good, huh?"

"She could put Starbucks out of business."

"That's quite a testimony coming from you, son. I may have to give it a try. Maybe I can ask for some tomorrow since I missed out on it tonight."

"Just make sure I'm around to get my share," Kent said with a smile as he stood. "I'm going to go get comfortable," motioning to his trousers and dress shoes. "I've been proper long enough for one day. I'm glad you're all right, Mother. I was a little concerned."

"I'm good, Kent. Now go get some rest - you look tired." They exchanged a brief kiss, and Kent returned to his room. Margaret thoughtfully watched him go before she closed her own door, then she returned to her bed and her book.


"Everything all right, love?" Patrick asked when Okasa poked her head into his study. She nodded and entered, then shut the door softly behind her.

"Yeah... just a lot of emotion flying around out there today. I needed a break, and figured I'd find you here."

"Yeah - I needed the break as well. How's Charisma?"

"I think Brianna helped bring her back from whatever upset her."

"You *know* what upset her, Okasa."

"I don't think it was Kay... or at least not *just* Kay. But I'm not sure what else it could have been... although I'm sure Adam running off didn't help matters."

"She needs to put a leash on that boy," Patrick offered with a snort.

"I'm not gonna disagree right now - I'm too tired." She extended a hand to him. "C'mon, old man. There's a bed upstairs calling my name, and I want you there snuggled up beside me. The girls can figure things out tonight, and if that doesn't work, I'll see about fixing things tomorrow."

"Sounds like a plan, Mama. Lead the way."

Chapter LXIV

"Well this has to have been one of the more interesting weekends I've spent on the mortal plane since we were cast out together," Saphira said with a wry smile in her voice as she looked at Esmeralda who was currently curled around her pillow while Saphira packed up their bag in preparation for their departure the following day. Esmeralda smiled tiredly and tilted her head slightly.

"Why do you say that, love?" wondering what had brought about the change of heart that allowed Saphira to joke about their exile, however lightly, instead of grumble about it.

Saphira's eyes widened and her eyebrows jumped to her hairline. "You're kidding me, right?" she asked dryly.

"Not at all," Esmeralda assured her with a smile, then held up a hand before Saphira could protest. "On a surface level, I understand - this has been the first real time off we've had together in a very long time. That in and of itself would make it a good weekend for either of us. But I get the distinct feeling that it has as much to do with being here with these people in these circumstances as it does with our time together."

"You're a pretty smart cookie," Saphira commented with a laugh, causing Esmeralda to stick out her tongue. "You sure you're all right?" her tone turning to one of concern. Esmeralda clasped the hand that had covered her forehead and tugged Saphira closer until she was sitting on the bed. As a matter of course, Esmeralda shifted her body from the pillow to Saphira's lap and Saphira naturally obliged her by running long fingers through blonde hair to scratch lightly at the nape of Esmeralda's neck. Esmeralda purred like a pussycat and Saphira chuckled.

"What's so funny?" Esmeralda asked, twisting her body so she could comfortably look up Saphira's torso to meet her eyes.

"You are," Saphira said succinctly, then rolled her eyes when an arched brow and a poke in the belly prompted her to continue. "You're purring like a kitten." She smiled sadly. "You haven't done that in a long time. I've missed it."

"I feel good," Esmeralda offered with a smile. "I mean, I'm really tired after the last few days - even having Ruby and the girls living with us is nothing like this whole family activity thing the Tagherty's have had going on since we've been here. But it's a good kind of tired - the kind of tired that I earned from being busy and doing things instead of just feeling run down."

"That's about the best thing I've heard from you in a long time, Es. I can't tell you...." Saphira's words stopped when Esmeralda covered her lips with a finger.

"Sweetheart, you don't have to. I know, remember? Just like you do." She frowned a moment. "You said about the best thing - should I ask what the best thing is?"

Saphira's grin was broad. "That you love me - that will ALWAYS be the best thing I can hear from you. And I never get tired of hearing it either."

"Lucky for you then, that I never get tired of saying it. I do love you, Saphira."

"I know Es... I love you too."

"So tell me why you think this has been one of our more interesting weekends - aside from the obvious, I mean. I'd like to hear your impressions."

Saphira tapped Esmeralda's shoulder, causing her to lift her upper body enough that Saphira could shift into a more comfortable position against the headboard. When she was sure Saphira was settled, Esmeralda resumed her place on Saphira's lap, and Saphira continued to gently comb her fingers through Esmeralda's hair. Then she cleared her throat and let her eyes focus beyond the bedroom they were sitting in as she tried to put her observations into words.

"I think maybe Brianna and Charisma have finally reached a place where they are truly comfortable together again... a place where they can really jumpstart their friendship and actually move forward. I'm not really sure why it took a confrontation about Brianna's past to make that happen, but it was obviously something Charisma needed to know. I'd like to think that Charisma might finally be able to accept what is really between them, but quite frankly, I don't trust her to know what that is... much less acknowledge it," she said starkly, looking down to meet Esmeralda's eyes where she found nothing but calm acceptance of her words. Saphira nodded and moved her concentration back to the far wall as she thought.

"The boys and their wives are trying their very best not to be involved in the whole situation, beyond supporting both Charisma and Brianna. I know Charisma was thrilled to get some time alone with her brothers while the rest of us went shopping yesterday."

"I wonder if she knows that was Brianna's doing?"

"Excuse me?" Saphira tugged gently on Esmeralda's hair, forcing Esmeralda to open her eyes and look at Saphira. She butted Saphira's belly with her head and closed her eyes, scowling and peeking at Saphira until the gentle scalp massage resumed. She gave Saphira a satisfied smile and closed her eyes with a sigh. Before Saphira could prompt her again Esmeralda spoke.

"Charisma Tagherty may not know Brianna Walker as she is now, but Brianna Walker has a pretty good handle on Charisma Tagherty. In fairness, one reason is because Brianna never lost contact with the Tagherty family - she knows what makes them... and Charisma by extension... happy." She paused to clear her throat and Saphira offered her a sip of water that Esmeralda accepted gratefully before she lay back down and continued.

"Aside from the tension that Kay's presence caused for several reasons, Charisma was just discombobulated by the whole altered dynamic that this holiday was. Even though she wanted Brianna here - invited her even - actually having her here threwoff the whole relationship she's used to having with her brothers."

"Not following," Saphira offered tersely. Esmeralda sighed.

"When Charisma first brought Brianna home with her from college, she instructed the boys to treat her like family -Brianna was one of them, and as such, she was part of the sibling gathering at every get together. Brianna and Charisma splitting up didn't change anything as far as the boys were concerned; Brianna was still one of the family and they treated her as such... even welcoming Kay when Brianna brought her home - once Kay had been properly vetted, of course. But they always had time when it was just the siblings - no parents, no children and no significant others. And although they certainly considered Brianna to be Charisma's significant other, they understood that wasn't what Charisma had meant when she'd called Brianna family. So every holiday, there has always been a little while when it's just been the Tagherty's grown kids - the five of them, during Charisma's college years, then just the boys and Charisma or the boys and Brianna once the girls were no longer together. It was quite a shock when Charisma realized that Brianna really was still as much a part of the Tagherty family as she was, and Brianna recognized that. She spoke to Hunter about it before he left on Thursday night."

"You overheard?"

Esmeralda smirked. "Naturally."



"Trust me, Hunter. As much as I want to be included, Charisma *needs* it to be just the four of you."

"It's not right!" he stated adamantly, and she smiled at him sadly and shook her head in agreement. "You're still part of the family - that's never changed."

"I know... and you don't know what that means to me... what it's always meant. And no, it really isn't very fair, but life rarely is," she said softly. "Be that as it may, Charisma needs the surety of her brothers right now. I'm pretty sure meeting Kay rocked her world... and not in a good way - she wasn't ready for that." A beat. "It's little enough for me to do for her. And I'll come back around to see you guys again... promise."

"You still love her," he whispered, his smile growing as wistful as Brianna's.

"I never stopped, Hunter. You know that."

He nodded. "I did... I do. We all do. I just wish...."

"So do I," Brianna admitted. "But we both know it will never happen. She won't let it. Besides, Kent seems like a great guy... very stable and level-headed. He makes her happy and I would never do anything to jeopardize that for either of them... or Adam."

"No... no I don't think he does." Hunter held up his hands to keep Brianna from interrupting. "Don't get me wrong, Bri - even though we were shocked when Charisma brought him home as her fiancé, we all liked Kent once we got to know him. He is a good man and a great dad. But he doesn't make Charisma happy - he makes her content. There's a huge difference."

Brianna shrugged, knowing Hunter was right. "Maybe, but it's her call to make."

"What about you, Bri? When do you get to be happy?"

Brianna smiled wryly and patted his arm. "I'm happy enough. At least we're together as a whole family again for the first time in twenty years. And there are new friends to boot."

"I like them, Bri," Hunter commented, recognizing the change of topics for the ploy that it was and letting Brianna get away with it anyway."I really do. Though why Saphira is a waitress instead of a law enforcement officer of some kind...."


"No he didn't," Saphira said flatly in disbelief.

"Saphira, why would I make it up? Of course he did. He can't figure out why his instincts... instincts that he trusts on a daily basis to solve crimes and save his life if necessary... were so far off base. It's going to drive him crazy for a long, long time."

"That's a little bit funny," Saphira snickered.

"Yeah, but it's also a little mean. I mean, it's not like you can go around announcing that you were an Angel of Vengeance in another life. Well, I guess you could, but I'm pretty sure it would wind up with you making a one-way trip to the Looney bin."

"I could be the head toon!"

"You already are," came the snappy retort, causing Saphira to start tickling Esmeralda, and Esmeralda to start squealing. They didn't actually realize how their voices carried until Adam came rushing into the room, Charisma hot on his heels.


"MAMA!" he yelled right back, running towards the bed where Saphira and Esmeralda were now frozen in place, watching as the pajama clad little boy made a beeline towards them. Saphira reached down an arm and scooped him up onto the bed to sit beside her just as Charisma appeared in the door with Kent and Brianna following right behind her.

"Everything okay in here?" Brianna asked, peering around Charisma to one side so Kent could stand behindhis wife ifhe wanted. Instead, Charisma took that as her cue and moved into the room with Brianna beside her. Kent waited in the doorway, a little uncomfortable, but not wanting to leave in case there really was a problem and he was needed.

Before Esmeralda or Saphira could answer, Adam reached over and gently patted Esmeralda's flushed face. "Es 'kay?" he questioned seriously, a deep frown cutting lines between his eyes. Esmeralda caught his hand and squeezed it lightly.

"I'm fine, Sweetie. Why would you think otherwise?"

Adam tilted his head thoughtfully as he worked out what Esmeralda meant in his mind. Then he looked between her and Saphira. "Screamin'," he said perfunctorily.

Saphira chuckled and Esmeralda blushed, though she couldn't stop the smile that crossed her face. "Oh, honey... we're fine. Saphira was just tickling me. I forgot to be quiet. I'm sorry."


Esmeralda nodded. "Okay."

Adam leaned forward and gave her a sloppy kiss, then threw his arms around Saphira's neck before Kent finally entered the room and scooped him out of the bed and swung him into the air, making Adam squeal this time.

"C'mon, Boy - it's past your bedtime. What say you and me go find a good story to read and leave Mama and Brianna in here to visit with Esmeralda and Saphira for a little while before bed?" smiling when he saw Adam's face scrunch up to argue. "It's a girl thing - men like us don't get invited to girls sleepovers 'cause they do all kinds of girly things... like brush their hair and paint their nails and...." Kent's voice trailed off as he and Adam made their way down the hallway and into the bedroom. The four women left in the other room just looked at one another for a long moment, then burst into laughter.

"Oh he's good," Saphira commented. "I expected a fight." She turned to Esmeralda. "We should hire him - there are a few people I know who could use a handler like him."

"A handler?" Charisma asked distractedly.

"Someone who can manage people who are of an age to be considered legal adults," Saphira replied dryly. "But of a mindset to think that they are still children."

Brianna chuckled. "Hey! That sounds like a lot of people *I* know... most of them in the capital," she added with a smirk. Charisma laughed.

"I think I know some ofthem as well." She turned to Esmeralda and tilted her head. "How are you doing, Es? We've kept you pretty busy this weekend... especially for someone who's supposed to be resting and recovering."

"I'm good, Charisma... really good. Okasa has made sure I haven't overdone and...."

"Yeah - I probably should have warned you about that," smiling when two sets of eyebrows shot into dark and light hairlines even as Brianna nodded her agreement to Charisma's unfinished statement. "Mama has a tendency to mother everyone. Age doesn't matter in this house - you visit the Tagherty household, Mama keeps an eye on you. You become family. Well, now you have another Mama. And she will always treat you like you're her kid."

"Yeah... I figured that out when she threatened me with warm milk," chuckling at Brianna's automatic wince of disgust. "But it's... nice. It's nice to belong to a family who looks out for one another."

Saphira nodded. "This is a good family to belong to, and we're both glad you invited us to join you this weekend."

"We're glad you came," Charisma assured them both. "But ask Brianna - you're in now, so that means you're stuck with the lot of us for a very long time. Like the rest of your lives long."

"She's right," Brianna agreed with a firm nod of her head. "Holidays, birthdays, oddball get-togethersin the summer - you'll be expected to be here for every single one of them," watching their eyes widen in dismay and wracking her brain for what she could have said to achieved that particular response. Then she nearly slapped herself stupid as realization dawns. "Or as many as you can manage to get here for. We've all missed a few things because of work obligations - Mama understands. She doesn't like it, but she does understand." She sighed as she watched them visibly relax.

"We'll try," Esmeralda said softly. Saphira nodded but didn't say anything, knowing Esmeralda wasn't finished. "I can't tell you what this weekend has meant to both of us. And I really do feel... so much better. Not sure what it is that made the difference or if it has just been the whole experience, but it's amazing to feel... good again."

"So that means when I get back into town, we can have our girls' day, right?" Charisma asked, looking between Brianna, Esmeralda and Saphira. They exchanged glances and shrugged.

"Sure," Brianna said casually. "Why not? Do you know when you want to shoot for?"

"Let me check my calendar tonight and we can set it up in the morning before you three head back." She glanced at the clock. "And speaking of... does anyone want to come down to the kitchen with me for one of the last slices of chocolate cake before bed?"

Saphira nudged Esmeralda into a sitting position, then Charisma took one proffered arm while Brianna took the other. Soon the four of them were comfortably ensconced around the kitchen table with plates of cake and glasses of milk, laughing like nobody's business.

Okasa peeked in on them from the doorway, then headed upstairs with a smile on her face. Maybe everything will finally work out, she thought. She had no way of knowing what was headed their way.

Chapter LXV

Ruby and the others were waiting at the house for them when they returned home, so the next couple of weeks saw something of their normal routine return to Esmeralda's and Saphira's household. Saphira and Ruby went back to their scheduled shifts at the diner and everyone else except Esmeralda took one of the round-the-clock ethereal guardian shifts on Brianna and Charisma. To keep either mortal woman from 'feeling' the presence of someone known to them on the corporeal plane, Brianna's office staff kept tabs on Charisma, and Charisma's staff did the same for Brianna. All except for Ame - who had reported back to her job after the holiday was over and Kent returned to the City; and Mal - who like the rest had been called Home, but had yet to return to her assignment.

Esmeralda wondered what was up with that - she didn't have the staff necessary to keep up with Kent without Mal. She was hoping they would hear something from Mal sooner rather than later. She was getting more than a little antsy, despite what were becoming weekly calls from Brianna, Charisma and Okasa keeping her abreast of a lot of what was going on.

So she was thrilled when, as the third week approached, she opened the front door one afternoon to find Mal on the other side. She smiled when she noticed Mal had remembered her gloves, and when Mal followed her gaze, she chuckled lightly and shrugged. Then she allowed Esmeralda to pull her inside the house and close the door firmly behind her.

Mal stripped off her gloves and hung up her coat, then shadowed Esmeralda to the kitchen, gratefully accepting a mug of hot chocolate. She sniffed deeply before sipping, then met Esmeralda's eyes with a grin. "I have missed your hot chocolate, Es. You must be feeling better. But, um... where is everyone?"

"Saphira's already left for work; Ruby's not home yet; Jade went to pick up some groceries; Coral and Amber are both upstairs asleep; Ame's with Adam; Turq and Jas are out driving; and Indi and Opal are guarding Charisma and Brianna respectively. So it's just you and me here at the moment."

"Good... that's good."

"So what's up?" Esmeralda asked Mal directly, forcing green eyes to meet her own. Mal bit her lip and Esmeralda extended a hand, waiting until Mal accepted it before she pulled them towards the living room. Once they were seated, Esmeralda patted the hand she held. "Tell me."

"I have a question first," Mal stated and waited for Esmeralda to signal her continuance. When Esmeralda nodded, Mal nodded back and took a deep breath. "Have I missed anything... something important? Like something big happening between Charisma and Brianna?"

Esmeralda blinked. "You mean like them...?"

"I mean like them screwing around together or declaring their undying love for one another or something equally momentous."

Esmeralda cleared her throat. "No - not unless it's been within the last few hours. Amber and Coral didn't mention anything, and neither did either Charisma or Brianna when they called."

"Were they together?"

"Excuse me?" Esmeralda frowned.

"Charisma and Brianna - were they together when they called?"

"I'd have to go with no," Esmeralda replied slowly. "For one thing they didn't call at the same time, and for another, Charisma is still out of town as far as I know and Brianna's here." She angled her head slightly and cocked an eyebrow. "What's this about, Mal? What happened? And where is Kent?"

"Jade is keeping an eye on him for me - I caught her on her way to the store," she said in answer to Esmeralda's surprised look. "She's still gonna pick up the groceries; she's just gonna be a little later doing it than she planned."

"Okay - so why are you here, Mal? Something must have happened."

"It did. Give me a minute to explain - it will help you understand." Mal set her cup on the table and rose to pace, running a nervous hand through her hair before turning back to meet Esmeralda's eyes. "When Kent got back from his holiday, he seemed very thoughtful... almost pensive. He still went to work - his performances haven't suffered. He seems to be able to separate his character from his real life. Anyway," waving her hands, "he's going to work everyday and to the restaurant sporadically, but he's been spending a lot of time pacing his apartment and looking out the windows. He hasn't gone home to Washington or the Tagherty's since he returned to the City - no weekends away to spy or stalk or whatever it was he was doing to Charisma before they went to the Tagherty's for the holidays. With me so far?"

"Right beside you," Esmeralda confirmed.

"All right then - so imagine my surprise when today... out of the blue, Kent Rockwell met with his family's lawyer."

"He's getting his will in order because something's wrong?"

"Not exactly. He had separation papers drawn up."

"Excuse me?" Esmeralda blurted, then held up a hand to keep Mal from repeating herself. "I heard you. I'm just processing what you said."

"Trust me," Mal said wryly, "*I'm* still processing what I said. That's why I asked if anything big had happened between Charisma and Brianna."

"No," Esmeralda replied distractedly, pinching her lip between her fingers while she let her mind play over the things she did know and other things she suspected. "Nothing big has happened, but a lot of little things have." She turned and met Mal's eyes. "Did he sign them?"

Mal shook her head. "No. He only asked for them to be drawn up... by the lawyer personally - no secretaries, no paralegals - by the senior partner himself. The lawyer is supposed draw them up and to keep them until such time as Kent requests them."

"So it may be a pre-emptive strike," Esmeralda mused, mostly to herself. Mal recognized the tone and remained quiet while Esmeralda worked things out in her mind. "Then again...." She sighed. "Thanks, Mal. I'm not sure what this means yet, but I definitely needed to know."

Mal smiled. "It was worth it for the hot chocolate. But I better get back so Jade can finish with her shopping."

Esmeralda nodded and rose to walk her to the door. "Mal, if he decides to take another trip this way, make sure I know before he gets here, all right?"

"I'll do my best, Es. Promise."

"Thanks, Mal. That's all I can ask for." Mal donned her outerwear and headed back to the City so Jade could come home and finish the shopping. Esmeralda returned to the living room to think.


"Brianna? This is Charisma," the words causing Brianna to roll her eyes and chuckle. She was pretty certain she'd always recognize Charisma's voice, but she didn't see the need to enlighten Charisma to that fact.

Instead, she replied, "Hey Charisma! What's up?" In the days following their long talk at Okasa's, the two had spent a few minutes on the phone everyday... even if it was only to exchange a 'hi... how are you' before heading off again - for Charisma, to the next round of meetings and political gatherings; for Brianna, to reconnect with the friends she had missed during her time in Washington.

"Not much," Charisma replied. "I've got a few more sessions here, then I'm headed back to DC for the next few days. I've got some informal meetings with several different committee members, and then there's that party at Gypsum's."

"You're going to that?" Brianna asked in amazement.

"Yes, and so are you," Charisma asserted. "This is one of those political 'can't miss' things." Charisma heard Brianna's frustrated sigh and softened her tone. "You really don't want to miss this, Bri. Even though you don't plan to be here beyond the next election for that seat, there's no reason to snub the people you have to at least *pretend* to get along with for the next couple years."

"Dammit," Brianna groaned. "I had plans that night."

"Bring your plans with you; I'm sure she wouldn't mind," Charisma said lightly, glad Brianna couldn't see the grimace that crossed her face as the words left her mouth.

"Um... no. Not that kind of plans." Brianna sighed - she had really been looking forward to a night out with the girls. It was unfortunate that two of them were only available the night of Gypsum's party, but she figured she didn't need to go to the Senate soiree as she wasn't in Washington to make friends or influence people. Charisma's words, however, gave her pause. "Guess I need to make a few phone calls," she added dejectedly.

Charisma grimaced. She was dying to know, but refused to let her curiosity run away with her,hoping Brianna would choose to share of her own volition. Instead, she offered. "Well, maybe I can help make it better."


"We could go to Gypsum's together, then you could come back to the house... stay the night, maybe?" hating that she sounded so tentative. "We could have a slumber party - bring your album and we could look through our pictures... maybe share our memories. Then try to catch up on each other's lives a little bit? I mean, we do have nearly twenty years to fill one another in on."

Brianna's smile could be heard through her voice. "That sounds great, Ri," slipping back into their comfortable familiarity with the thought of spending the night at the forefront of her mind. It would be the most intimate situation they had been in since they'd traveled Europe after college. She felt the nervous fluttering in her stomach, but remembered Esmeralda's words of encouragement - if she wanted this... wanted Charisma's presence in her life... then she was going to step up and be a part of making it happen.

"Good... good," Charisma agreed hastily, battling her own nervousness. After all, it had been forever since she'd allow someone - allowed Brianna - close and she'd been devastated when Brianna had simply walked away. Charisma was taking a risk letting Brianna in again, but she felt good in her decision. "Come over Saturday and pack a bag for the weekend. I'm sure we can find something to do."

Brianna covered her eyes to keep the images caused by Charisma's words from running rampant through her mind. Only partially successful, she chuckled to clear her throat of its sudden huskiness. "I'm sure if we can't manage, Adam will keep us more than a little busy."

"If he was going to be there maybe," Charisma said with a laugh. "Mama is going to keep him. I think she just wants to give Ame a chance to rest a little."

"He running you crazy up there?"

"Well let's just say that if I could bottle and sell his energy, this country's dependency on foreign oil would disappear."

"Wow - you should probably look into that. I mean, it would probably go a long way towards your bid for the Presidency."

"Right?" Charisma agreed with another chuckle as she glanced at her watch. "So we're on for Saturday?"

"Yes. Just let me know when...."

"Whenever you can get there will be fine. I'll be back in town by Wednesday afternoon, so...."

"All right. I'll bring the donuts."

"I'll make sure the milk is cold," Charisma assured, knowing her part in the breakfast scenario. She looked at her watch again and sighed. "I've got to go. Turqis waiting to take me over to the state capital - meeting with the Governor this morning."

"Tell Michael I said hello and that I'm still waiting for him and Jenny to visit."

"Will do. Talk to you later."

"Bye, Ri."

"Bye, Brianna Brianna."


"Hey, Old Man," Doug greeted Kent hours later when he was done at the theatre for the evening. Together they walked over to Kent's table and took a seat. "How's it going? How was your holiday? We haven't seen you here much in the last couple weeks," his tone both lightly chiding and curiously concerned.

Kent smiled, more at peace than he had been in a long time. "It's going really well, actually. The show is standing room only and getting good reviews. The holiday was...." He paused. "It was good," he added after a moment. He didn't mention how enlightening it was - there were some things a man just didn't share with anyone else... even his best friend - and overhearing Brianna's conversation with Hunter had settled a number of things in his mind. "Met some new people."

"Anyone interesting?"

"No one famous, if that's what you're asking... aside from that new Senator - Brianna Walker. Charisma invited a lesbian couple from DC," watching Doug's eyebrow arch in interest. "Nice women - they seem to have had a rough time of things though. It was funny watching Saphira give Hunter the run around though. She's a waitress - he was convinced she was some sort of cop."

"How did he miss that so badly?" knowing from previous conversations with Kent that Hunter was a good detective.

"I dunno... maybe because she's got better observational skills than he does. At dinner he challenged her to name everyone's occupation. She didn't miss many and those that she did miss, she wasn't off by much. It was funny to watch Hunter's eyes pop out of his head."

"I would have loved to have seen that," Doug said honestly.

"I'm pretty sure one of the boys got it recorded. I know I saw a couple cameras come out," leaning back as the server set a full plate in front of him. Kent nodded his thanks and put his napkin on his lap before pickingup his fork. "I'll see if I can get a copy for you to see," he added as he put his first bite into his mouth. "Man, that's good. Ron in the kitchen?"


Kent nodded. "I can tell. That is *really* good."

Doug chuckled. "I know. I had the same earlier." He paused then pressed on. "So where ya been?"

"Honestly? I've been going home most nights. I had a couple workshops that were early morning deals, and they made for some very long days."

"So everything's okay then?"

"Everything's fine. Just had to take care of some things that cut my time here short. Sorry I didn't mention it beforehand - they came up kinda unexpectedly."

"Not a problem, Kent. Carolyn and I were just a little worried when we didn't see you. Speaking of... we were wondering if maybe you could come by this weekend."

Kent chewed thoughtfully as he considered. "I could probably come by for a while on Saturday morning. I've got some things to take care of on Sunday," having already decided to slip down to the DC house and pick up a few of his things that he wanted to have with him in Manhattan.

Doug nodded. "Saturday morning would be fine." He motioned to Kent's empty plate. "You want some more?"

"Oh God no - I think I'll explode if I eat another bite. It was excellent though. I'm gonna go thank Ron, then I'm gonna go get some sleep."

"Me too," Doug agreed as he rose and patted Kent on the back before heading towards his office. Kent stretched and stood as well, making his way to the kitchen before heading out the door. He saluted the maître d', knowing she would lock the doors behind him as soon as they closed.

He walked down the sidewalks, still busy even at the darkest part of the morning. He wondered if he was doing the right thing, and realized he hadn't really done much of anything yet. At least things were in place now, though, if it came down to it. And that gave him a measure of peace.

Kent nodded to the doorman who greeted him by name as he held the portal open and he passed through the lobby area of the apartment building, entering the elevator and pushing the button for his floor without pausing. It was time to get some sleep. Everything else would have to wait until tomorrow.


"He really filed for separation?" Saphira asked when she and Esmeralda were climbing into bed that evening.

"No - he didn't file for separation. He's just had the papers drawn; he can't file them until he signs them. And once he does that, they'll be served to Charisma."

Saphira nodded slowly. "I wonder what made him decide to have them drawn up."

"I think the weekend at the Tagherty's was enlightening - he had to have seen Charisma's jealousy of Kay; it was obvious to everyone though Kay is the only one that actually called her on it. And I know he overheard what Brianna said to Hunter. I saw him. Other than that...." Esmeralda shrugged. "I don't know, but honestly, that was enough."

"So what now?"

"Now we go to sleep. Things are in motion on every front - there's not a lot we can do except wait and watch and pray."

"Goodnight, Es. Love you."

"Love you, Phira."

Chapter LXVI

Esmeralda looked around the table late Saturday morning and realized the only angels missing were Mal, who was still in Manhattan with Kent; Turq who was currently driving Charisma and Brianna all over the city; and Jade. She looked at Opal and Indi. "I'm gonna just jump right in here and guess that Brianna and Charisma are already together this morning and that Jade is watching them both?"

Opal nodded. "Brianna actually got to Charisma's before Coral and Amber left. We let them know about this morning's meeting and Jade volunteered to keep an eye on both of them so we could all be here. Said she'd call if they split up, but the last word we had was that they were going shopping. That's why Turq is missing as well. Charisma refused to take the Metro if they were shopping."

"Well, with a little luck, this won't take long. I wanted to get each of your impressions on them. However, I would like your uncensored, unbiased opinions. So if you don't want to be unduly influenced by one another, I will speak with each of you privately. Otherwise, we'll do this as a group." Esmeralda waited a full sixty heartbeats, taking time to meet each pair of eyes in the room. Saphira was the last and when she nodded, Esmeralda nodded back.

"Very well. All I ask is that you don't interrupt one another. You can comment once each of you is done, but allow one another to finish before you break in, all right?"

Heads nodded their agreement around the table and Esmeralda took a deep breath, then looked at Coral. "Tell me how Brianna has been." She figured to start with her night crew for two reasons. One was they were much more familiar with their charges as they had not needed to change watch duties because of the holidays. The other, and more obvious, one was that they needed to get upstairs to sleep sooner rather than later. Coral sucked in a lungful of air and proceeded to speak.

"She's been... well, she'd been much like she's always been, I think. I mean, not much in her routine has changed. She's been talking to her friends back home a little more, but I think that is due in part to her recent visit, and also because she had to cancel their dinner together. She was really looking forward to that. Otherwise, it's been like it has since she got here mostly. She spends time looking over legislation - I think she's trying to do the best job she can while she's here and that means a lot of her 'free time' is spent trying to catch up and keep up." Esmeralda nodded, but didn't reply and Coral resumed her discourse.

"Most nights when she's done with her work, she'll take a few minutes to look at her album. She doesn't say anything, doesn't study one picture more than the others - she simply goes through each page slowly front to back until she reaches the end. Then she puts it away for the night and grabs her book to read for a few minutes before nodding off," Coral finished with a light shrug of her shoulders.

Esmeralda held her eyes a moment longer, then nodded in satisfaction and turned to Coral's counterpart. "Amber?"

Amber sighed loudly. "I need alcohol," she joked, looking into her coffee cup. "Charisma is driving me to drink."

"How so?"

"This thing with Brianna is making her nuts, and she's trying to share the love with me, I guess. I dunno!" Amber held up her hands, then raked them through her hair and sighed again. "When she was at her mother's house, it was a little different - she had appearances to maintain... even with Okasa. Here though... especially since she's been alone in the house for the last few days.... It's hard to describe, but she's seriously driving me up a tree."

Golden eyes met green, and Esmeralda encouraged Amber, "Let's hear the details."

"She's... restless, for lack of a better way to describe it. She goes out and does her political thing during the day and you'd never know it. But at night when she's home by herself...." Amber shrugged. "She's restless. She walks around a lot. Usually, she sits at her desk in her office and does her work. Even when that album has made an appearance, she's been sitting at the desk just studying a single picture for however long it takes her to be satisfied."

"This week's been different?"

"This week has been very different. Even when she's working on her political stuff, she's been pacing and prowling around the room. If she's reading, she keeps it in her hands while she walks; if she's thinking, she leaves the work on the desk and just paces. When she wants to make notes, she goes back to the desk to do so, then resumes patrolling the room."

"And does she pull the album out?"

Amber chuckled wryly. "Oh yes... but not in the office. The album has been moved to her bedside table, and every night she goes through it, studying each picture intently. She even squints at most of them, as though that will help bring into focus whatever it is that she needs to ask Brianna about."

"How long does this go on?"

"Until she falls asleep. Usually, she'll nod off, then jerk herself awake. Only then does she set the album aside and settle down to sleep properly... at least until she starts dreaming." Esmeralda's brows went into her hairline, and Amber chuckled again. "It wouldn't be so bad if I could understand her, but she talks and mumbles all night, and I'm not getting one word in ten. I'm pretty sure I'm missing the really good stuff," blowing a raspberry in frustration. Everyone laughed and Esmeralda shook her head at Amber's incorrigibleness.

After a moment, they settled down again and it was quiet while Esmeralda processed Amber's words. When she was done, Esmeralda turned to Indi.

"Talk to me, Indi."

"Well, Es... it's like Amber described. Charisma is perfectly normal in her everyday routine. When she's out in public, she's very conscious of her image and the fact that people could be watching her. She is very put together - if I didn't know she was anxious about something, I'd never guess it from her daytime demeanor."

"What do you see?" Esmeralda asked, tilting her head in question, then smiling when Indi frowned at her. "You said if you didn't know she was anxious, you'd never guess. Since you do know, what do you see?"

Indi sighed and let her gaze go inward thoughtfully before she spoke. "It's an uneasiness, like she's not comfortable in her skin. But I'm not sure if it's because she wants an answer from Brianna or because she doesn't."

"So you think she's finally figured out the right question?"

Indi shrugged. "I'm only guessing, but yeah... I think so. Maybe knowing the question is what's making her so antsy."

Esmeralda looked at Saphira, who nodded. "Either would make sense," Saphira offered, knowing Esmeralda was wordlessly asking for her opinion despite her previous request for silence. "But I'd go with the idea that she's figured out the question she needs to ask. I'd go so far as to say she's probably figured outthe answer and that's actually what's driving her crazy. Remember, Brianna's answer is going to change everything for Charisma - everything she knows and has believed for years... especially about herself."

"Do you think she'll ask this weekend?" Esmeralda asked Saphira, forgetting the rest of the room for the moment. The other angels simply watched and listened - rarely did they see the two interact officially as angels, and they were fascinated by the peek they were getting.

Saphira considered her reply, knowing Esmeralda was asking her to respond from a tactical stance. "Given Charisma's capacity for denial, I'd say no. Most of her wants to know because she feels like she's the only one not in on the secret and that's driving her crazy. But part of her isn't ready for the answer she's pretty sure she's gonna get, and deep down she knows that." Saphira sighed. "Considering how much time we've already spent waiting for them to get to this point, I'd be real surprised if we get a resolution today. They've turned procrastination into an art form and given the word a whole new meaning," giving Esmeralda a frustrated glare. Esmeralda chuckled.

"And that meaning is...?"

"Procrastination - how to piss off everyone around you while denying the obvious; making even the most tolerant angel want to pull their hair out, and the rest of us just go postal," Saphira replied with a smirk, garnering her a laugh from the others around the table.

Esmeralda smiled and shook her head. She'd be the first to admit that these two had been among the more challenging of her cases, but she wasn't sure if it was due to them exclusively or if it had more to do with the fact that they were working under so many restrictions. Shebriefly wondered what would happen ifthey weren't successful - would Charisma and Brianna be punished?

Esmeralda looked up when she realized that it had grown quiet again and every eye was focused on her. She cleared her throat. "Sorry," she said softly. "I was thinking." She turned to Opal. "So tell me about Brianna."

"Well, whatever happened at Okasa's seems to have helped her. She appears more... stable. No, not stable because I don't think she was ever unstable. But she does seem more confident... maybe a little resigned - like she knows what's coming and is ready for it."

Before Esmeralda could say anything, the phone rang and everyone froze except Saphira who stepped out of the room to take the call. In just a minute, she was returning. "That was Mal," she said without prelude. "Kent is coming down tomorrow." Esmeralda's eyes widened and she waited for Saphira to continue. Saphira just shrugged. "That's all she said."

"Seriously?" ignoring the look Saphira gave her. "That's really all she said?"

Saphira but her lip on the retort she wanted to make, knowing if Esmeralda was pressing for more, there was a reason for it. She closed her eyes in thought to give Esmeralda the message word for word. "Saphira, this is Mal. Es asked me to let her know if Kent was headed your way. He just bought a round trip ticket for tomorrow, so whatever he's got planned shouldn't take him long. I'll let you know if I figure out what he's doing before we get there, but don't count on it." Saphira opened her eyes and looked at Esmeralda who nodded her thanks.

"Does he know that Charisma is home this weekend?" Ruby asked. Esmeralda turned to her.

"I don't think so," looking around the table again. "Ladies?"

Indi and Amber exchanged glances and shook their heads in tandem. "She's only spoken to him twice on my watch since he went back to the city," Indi offered. "She didn't mention coming back to Washington either time."

"She hasn't talked to him at all on my shift," Amber added. "So I'd have to say he expects to find the house empty to do... whatever it is he's doing."

Esmeralda blew the bangs off her forehead. "This just gets better and better. All right, you two," motioning to Amber and Coral, "upstairs. You know how these political parties can get...."

"... and usually do once company manners wear off and the alcohol starts flowing," Coral snarked and turned to Jas. "Are you driving tonight since Turq is working today?"

"I'm not supposed to, but I'll be around to lend her a hand if she needs it."

"I don't think it'll be necessary," Esmeralda offered, "but I'm glad you'll be on standby."

"Right beside her," Jas assured.

"Good. You two," gesturing to Opal and Indi, "get back to Brianna and Charisma. I don't expect a lot to happen before tomorrow, but you never know. You know how to reach us if something does. I'll be here the rest of the day, okay?" waiting for heads to nod. "The rest of you... well, I'm sure you can find something to do to keep busy, right?" she added with a tired grin.

Saphira took the hint and rose, knowing everyone else would start moving if she did. "I need to get ready for work." Then she turned to Ruby as if just realizing she was there. "What are you doing here anyway? Aren't you supposed to be at work?"

"Normally, yes. But Matilda is training a new girl today and asked if I'd mind giving up my hours so she could learn the ropes."

"That's kind of like throwing her in the deep end without a life preserver, isn't it?" Amber asked as she stood and yawned, stretching the kinks out of her back.

"Yeah," Saphira confirmed, "but it's also the best and quickest way to learn. Sink or swim."

Amber made a face of distaste. "Yuck. Seems a little bit cruel. Glad it's not me." She yawned again. "I'm going to bed. Night, everyone." She headed upstairs with Coral right behind her. The rest followed her example and in a few minutes had scattered to whatever tasks were theirs to take care of. It wasn't long after Opal and Indi were gone that Jade came in the door, glad to shed her outerwear and pour herself a cup of coffee before taking a seat at the table beside Esmeralda.

"So how were they?"

Jade snorted. "They were a little bit like - you know what it's like when the putti want to attract the attention of the cherubim without seeming like they're trying to do so?" smiling when Esmeralda did the same as she nodded her understanding. "Right - it was a little bit like that. There was a weird little vibe going on though."

"Tell me."


"I haven't had this much fun shopping in ages," Brianna confessed as they seated themselves at a table inside a small café off the beaten path. The woman who had seated them returned immediately with a full coffee pot and waited for them both to nod before she poured. Then she left them alone to look at their menus. Charisma and Brianna both absently prepared their coffee as they settled their various bags around them.

"Oh, I agree. It's gotten to where I use a professional shopper most of the time."

Brianna's brows went into her hairline. "Really? I've never tried one of those."

Charisma shrugged. "I don't like shopping alone. And so often I don't have the time to spend just looking. So this has been a real treat."

"So we can plan to do this again?" Brianna asked, picking up her coffee cup and taking a satisfied sip. "Oh wow... that's good."

"Thank you, ma'am," the waitress replied as she returned. "What can I get for you ladies?"

They quickly turned their attention back to their menus, finally choosing the daily special. The waitress nodded her head and checked their cups, then scooted off towards the kitchen. They watched her go before turning their attention back to their conversation.

"I'd love to do this again," Charisma confessed. "I feel like...." She broke off, unwilling to finish that thought. Instead she said, "It reminds me of some of those weekends in college when we really didn't have money to spend, but we had all kinds of time to look."

"Oh yes - remember how that one store manager used to flinch when we walked into her store?"

Charisma laughed. "Yes - because we were always trying on but never buying. Then the designer asked if we'd be interested in modeling for charity? Did you know Hunter ran a background on the designer to make sure she was legit?"

Brianna's eyes widened. "Are you kidding me?"

"Not at all. Remember how excited I was - I called Mama," seeing Brianna nod. "Mama told Hunter and he had her checked out. I'm not sure what would have happened if he'd found out she was a fraud."

"I'm pretty sure I can imagine," Brianna replied. "C'mon, Ri... your brothers doted on you. Do you really think they'd let anything happen to you if they could prevent it?"

"You too," Charisma returned softly. At Brianna's puzzled expression, she elaborated. "They loved you too - still do, obviously. They looked out for you."

"They did," Brianna agreed. "They still do, sometimes to my dismay, but I wouldn't change it... or them. Thank you for sharing them with me, Ri. You'll never know the difference having them in my life made for me - though I never did try to take any of them shopping," she added, hoping to lighten things up before they got too serious. Though she knew that eventually they would have to talk, Brianna really didn't want anything that personal and private to take place in such a public venue. Charisma clearly agreed with her as she'd given a slightly strained laugh.

"Good choice there. According to each of my sisters-in-law, shopping with any of the boys is a chore beyond imagining. I much prefer to have an experience like we had today." They both sat back as the waitress approached with their food, and they waited for her to set it down and refill their cups before Brianna resumed the conversation.

"I'm just glad I found something to wear to this thing tonight. With any luck we can get in and out without anyone noticing." She took a bite and closed her eyes. "This is good."

"You didn't look in the mirror when you tried that dress on, did you? You looked fabulous, Bri. You're going to knock their socks off," Charisma said honestly. "Oh... no kidding - this *is* good."

"I hope not," returning to their discussion as she continued to enjoy her repast.

"Why not?" curious now.

"Because that would just complicate my life. And I don't need any more complications than I already have. Besides, alcohol makes people stupid, and you know how well I tolerate stupid."

Charisma smirked. "Did that ever get you into trouble in the DA's office?"

"Surprisingly, no," Brianna said with a laugh. "I had a reputation. It served me well. Besides, the cops felt like I did. The running joke was we needed a law against stupid to save ourselves a lot of time and paper work."

"At least we can limit our exposure to it tonight. I figure an hour or two and we can make a break for it."

"Sounds like a plan."

To be continued

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