~ A WOMAN IN LOVE ~


The Woman I Love Series

Story #4


written by


G. S. Binkley


xxgsb@hotmail.com



Synopsis:  A Woman In Love is the fourth story in the Woman I Love series and continues on with the lives of Lacy and Gage a couple years later as the writer finally confronts all of her past.  A previous relationship is revealed that threatens Lacy and Gage's union and one of their children experiences behavioral problems.   The first story 'The Woman I Love', is followed by 'A Woman Like You', then 'Here Comes My Woman' along with an epilogue to that story 'Here Comes My Woman - Epilogue'.

Sexual Content:  F/F partners
Code:
L:  Love between two people with kisses, embraces and tender moments.
LS: Love scenes described in more detail, involving scenes of lovemaking.
ES: Explicit love scenes.
1. This story is rated: ES
1. Fiction (Alternative)

LanguageCaution  - some language used may be offensive, however, it is only used in the context of the situation or the character's personality.  Overall - minimal usage.

This is copyrighted material, ã 2004 Binkley … all rights reserved. It may be reproduced, duplicated or printed for personal use only. For all other uses, please contact xxgsb@hotmail.com
 

Chapter One

     Lacy Levine woke from a deep sleep after hearing several tiny whimpers in the early morning air.  Groggy, she untangled her legs from her partner, ready to check on their youngest child in the adjacent room.  When Lacy swung her long legs over the side of the bed, a small cry escaped from her partner.

     Lacy's head snapped around to see her lover's restless body fight with the covers.  Concerned, Lacy shook her lover lightly. "Sweetheart?"

     Gage Ballant twisted and turned, yanking the covers up over her blonde head.  "No!"

     Scooting closer in order to pull the blonde into her comforting arms, Lacy tried to wake her partner of six years.  "Gage?  Sweetheart, what is it?"  Over the last couple of weeks, Lacy had awakened nearly every night to the tossing and turning of her lover.

     Gage curled around, burying herself deeper in her covers as Lacy tried to untangle the blonde.  The haunting dream that had disturbed Gage over the last ten days seemed to grow in its intensity.  The more Gage fought against the demons that entered her sleeping state, the more real it seemed to her.  In the dream, she was fighting against long forgotten memories that were now insisting upon revealing themselves.  She struggled but was unable to escape the magnetic hold they had on her.  It was when a sharp, vivid picture of an unhappy Derek snapped into focus in her mind that she jumped up, coming to a full waken state.  Breathing heavily, Gage clawed at her covers in a desperate bid to unwrap herself from her self-inflicted mummy cocoon.

     "Hold on, Gage."  Lacy fought against her lover's persistent hands that were insistently pushing the covers off. Finally, unveiling her lover's blonde head, Lacy pulled her close.  Stroking her partner's cheek, Lacy tried to calm Gage.  "Sweetheart, it's okay.  Everything's okay."

     But it wasn't and both women knew it.

     The dreams were getting worse and the more the younger woman attempted to get Gage to talk about it, the more Gage retreated to her writing and on several occasions she asked to be left alone.  At first, Lacy thought it was because three of their children were off in Los Angeles visiting their father since the nightly dreams started shortly after they left.  But then that didn't make sense because in their years together, there were several times that Lacy and Gage were left alone while their children were gone.

     When Gage finally took stock of her emotional wrecked state, she eased herself from Lacy's arms only to get out of bed.  With one forlorn look at Lacy, Gage dropped her head.  "I'll see if Hayley is up yet."

     Gage knew she was driving her devoted partner away with her silence and reasoned that Lacy deserved much better but, at present, she was unable to give anymore.  Guilt grew inside the blonde with each retreating step.  Thank God, Hayley's still here.  Upon entering the adjoining room, Gage winked at her smiling daughter.  As she reached down to pick Hayley up, the taller blonde said. "I hope I didn't wake you up too."

     The two year old stretched then crunched her face before producing another smile.  "Hold me."

     "Okay."  Gage lifted Hayley up.  "I guess you wanna see your momma."

     "Momma? Hi!"

     "Uh huh, I know that means yes."  Gage laughed.

     Upon hearing her partner's welcomed laughter, Lacy allowed a momentary smile.  She remained in bed, hoping for a few quiet moments with Gage before the start of their day which for the last week seemed to be filled with Gage writing while Lacy occupied her time painting. They did spend the occasional walk or quiet evening together at Hayley's insistence.  Thank God, Hayley's still here.

     When Gage stepped back in the master bedroom, the telephone rang causing her to jerk from the unexpected early morning ring.

     Lacy astutely noticed Gage's startled reaction to the telephone ringing.  She motioned for Gage to bring their daughter to the bed.  Picking up the telephone from the side table, Lacy patted the spot on the bed next to her.  "Hello."  She smiled at the sound of the voice on the other end.  "Hi, mom."

     Gage sat Hayley between them and the little girl immediately crawled on to her mother's lap.

     Brushing her lips against her daughter's head, Lacy listened to her mother on the telephone.  She sighed.  "No.  Not today.  I think we'll just hang around the house."

     Gage tried to get her partner's attention but Lacy ignored her.  When Gage heard Lacy say goodbye to her mother, the blonde asked.  "Why didn't you go with her today?  She's been after you all week to go shopping."

     Lacy's blue eyes turned downcast.  Reluctant to answer, Lacy drew in a deep breath but still refused to say a word.

     Sensing the tension between her parents, Hayley crawled toward the foot of the bed intent on dispersing the anxiety in the air.

     Neither Lacy nor Gage took note of their daughter undressing herself since they were locked in a wordless battle of wills.  Gage scratched her ear and sighed, hoping for a reprieve from the prodding questions her partner was sure to have.  Lacy closed her eyes, offering a silent pray that Gage would find the courage to open up and share the torments of her past.  All the while, Hayley was putting her plan into action.

     When the young impish naked blonde stood up and bounced on the bed several times, she waited just long enough to get her parents attention before scrambling off the bed onto the floor. "Momma?  Catch me."

     Hayley ran around the room as Lacy and Gage chased the speedy toddler.  Hayley giggled as she slipped past Gage's grappling hands, missing her again.  "Momma help me!"  Hayley ran from Gage to her mother but ducked between Lacy's long legs, alluding capture.  The tiny blonde climbed upon the hope chest Lacy's grandmother had given her.  Balancing herself first, Hayley then bounced a couple of times and clapped her hands in victory.

     "I thought you wanted me to help you?"  Lacy shook her head at her daughter's antics.

     Propping her hands on her hips, Gage let out a genuine laugh.  "Look at her.  She's just like her mother."

     A petulant eyebrow rose in question.  "What do you mean?"

     Nodding at their daughter, Gage said. "Running around naked as the day she was born."  Then Gage smirked before she continued.  "And I've got pictures to prove it."

     "Oh, no, you don't.  I was never naked."  Lacy tilted her head, referring to her many photo shoots for magazines.  "Only nearly naked."

     "I'm not talking about that…not those pictures."  Gage countered.

     The same eyebrow hiked even higher.

     "You know… the Polaroids."  Gage's twinkling green eyes shifted towards where Hayley was standing.  "The ones we took here… in the bedroom."

     Lacy stepped closer to her partner.  "Oh, those.  By the way, where'd you put them?"

     "In the hope chest."  Gage winked.

     Taking a leap of faith, Lacy wrapped her arm around Gage, embracing her.  Pulling Gage close, Lacy whispered.  "Maybe tonight we could look at them and……"  She left her lascivious suggestion dangle in mid-air.

     Gage squeezed her partner before offering her lover a sweet and gentle kiss then with a silly grin said.  "You hope."

     There were no truer words that Lacy could of heard in that moment.  The couple relished the closeness they shared only briefly before one set of blue and another set of green eyes zeroed in on their mischievous daughter.

     Hayley's greenish blue eyes widened.  "Uh oh!"  Seeing her parents embrace, the young child knew her mission had been accomplished.  A small smile beamed brightly at Lacy and Gage before she quickly turned and jumped onto their bed, wrapping the covers around her.

***********************

     What promised to be a sensual morning of intimacy between the couple, turned out to be another day just like the rest of the week.  After a quiet breakfast, the couple went their separate ways.  Gage sequestered herself in her writing room working on her newest screenplay, 'Angel In Disguise' while Lacy took Hayley with her and reluctantly lost herself in the unfinished painting on the canvas.

     With each stroke of the brush, Lacy felt the distance between her and Gage grow wider.  She turned to see her daughter playing with some Mardi Gras beads.  "What color is that one, Hayley?"

     Having gotten her distant mother's attention, Hayley jumped up.  "Blue."  She slung it over her neck and selected another one.  "Purple."  She held the long string of beads out toward Lacy.

     "That's right, honey."  Lacy stooped down next to her tiny daughter.  "And this one.  What color is this one?"

     Smiling, Hayley answered without hesitation.  "Green."

     Lacy selected several more strings of beads.  "How many do I have, Hayley?"

     The small child scrunched her face and pointed.  "One, two, thwee…. four."

     "That's right."  Lacy kissed her daughter's head.  "You are so precious.  You know that?"

     "Gimme."  Hayley grabbed each set of beads and placed them over her head.

     "You look so cute."  An idea popped in her head.  "It's such a beautiful day.  You want to go outside?"

     Hayley's eyes brightened considerably.  "Outside?  Hi."

     Lacy laughed.  "I'll take that as a yes."  She scooped her young daughter up in her arms.  "Why don't we see if we can get Gage to go outside with us?"

     Hayley bounced in her mother's arms.  "Outside!"

************************

     Gage was reluctant to admit it but being dragged out into the fresh air by her partner and daughter was exactly what she needed.  "I have work to do, you know."

     "Push me."  Hayley guided the stroller up to Gage.  When the taller blonde squinted her eyes at Hayley, the toddler produced an endearing smile. "Pwease."

     That was Gage's undoing.  "Oh, okay."  Gage secured Hayley in the stroller before grabbing the handle.   "Which way?"

     "Water!"  Hayley yelled.  "Want water."

     "Big surprise there."  Gage glanced up at Lacy.  "She gets that from Dani."

     Shyly, Lacy slipped her hand around Gage's elbow and when the blonde didn't protest, the dark haired woman sighed in relief.  "Well, I'm sure Dani would much rather be here than in LA at the moment."

     "Mmmm…"  Gage guided the stroller along the concrete path to the lake's shore.

     "Which is kinda unusual since she's always enjoyed being with her dad."  Lacy's thoughts turned to her oldest son.  "But what's really weird is how much Derek seems to be enjoying this visit with his father."  She was jolted from her musings when she felt Gage tense up.  "Sweetheart?"  Sensing she had hit a nerve in her partner, Lacy tentatively asked.  "Something on your mind?"

     "No.  Nuthin."  Gage shrugged and wished Lacy would drop the subject.

     It seemed like forever to reach the dock where she was sure Hayley would insist on getting into the water.  While Gage complied with their daughter's wishes, Lacy pondered the reason for her already reticent lover to become even more distant.

     The warm, sunny day offered a beautiful backdrop as Hayley splashed in the water.  Gage had undressed Hayley down to her diaper and remaining beads but when the diaper was soaked, she disposed of it and declared their private beach a nude one.  "But only for you, Hayley.  No one else can gallivant around here naked."  Gage cast a quick look at her partner who seemed to be distracted. Again, Gage felt a ton of guilt fall on her shoulders as she kept Lacy at arm's distance.  I should just leave before…..

     A speeding boat brought several pounding waves to the shoreline as Lacy gazed across the lake to the distant shore.  She had always enjoyed the lake and the kids had such a wonderful time here with all the laughter and fun shared by all.  It was then an idea popped into her head.  I'll talk with Gage about it later.  Lacy tapped her finger to her lips.  But first I've got to figure out what's bothering her.  Lacy knew the answer to that question was there floating around in her head but she couldn't quite put her finger on it.

     Gage nudged her partner.  "Hey, what you thinking?"

     Surprised, Lacy smiled at her partner then leaned over to give Gage a kiss. "You."

     Not at all surprised by Lacy's answer, Gage remained silent.  A long moment passed and Gage was on the verge of saying something when Hayley waddled up to them.

     Demanding, she yanked at Gage.  "Pway with me."  Cocking her head, she added. "Pwease."

     Lacy bumped her lover. "She misses the rest of the kids."

     "Me, too."  A sad look covered Gage's face.

     "Me, three."  Leaning against Gage, Lacy grabbed their daughter.  "Come here, Hayley."  Sitting next to her lover, Lacy sat Hayley partially on her lap and Gage's.

     Hayley would be content to sit with her parents and be a very patient little girl.  Somehow she sensed the much needed connection she offered her parents.

**********************

     With each stroke of the key on her laptop, Gage knew the distance between her and Lacy was growing wider.  Finishing her sentence, Gage saved the document before turning the computer off.  She relaxed back in her chair and stretched.

     "Hard day?"

     Gage shrugged.  "Long day.  You?"

     "Bout the same."  Lacy's shifted uncomfortably in the doorway, unsure if she should go in.  "I put Hayley to bed.  She said she'd go to sleep only after you came up and said goodnight."

     Gage chuckled on her way toward the door.  "Demanding little thing, isn't she?"

     Lacy placed a gentle touch on Gage's arm.  "Yeah, just like some other blonde I know."

     Green eyes closed before Gage rubbed her temple.  "I'm sorry."

     "Gage?"  Lacy turned her lover around to face her. "I was just kidding."

     Slowly, Gage's guilty green eyes lifted to meet Lacy.  "But it's true."

     Pulling Gage into her arms, Lacy felt her body shudder under all the pressure the couple had been putting on themselves.  "Go on.  Tuck Hayley in and say goodnight.  Then come to bed."

     Gage pulled back from her lover and could only simply shake her head.

************************

     For the longest time, Lacy just lay there in their big lonely bed waiting for the love of her life.  Tears started to fill her eyes at the thought of losing Gage.  I don't know what I would do.  Grasping the silky sheet below her, Lacy grunted loudly in frustration.  "I don't even know what's going on."

     Upon hearing her lover's cry, Gage stood frozen at the doorway.  Sucking in a deep breath, the writer made a forced entrance.  "Well, she's off to sleep."  Gage offered Lacy a hard-pressed smile.

     Trying to wipe her nearly overflowing watery eyes, Lacy sat up.  She watched Gage take off her clothes and deliberately put them away.  Chewing on the inside skin of her mouth, Lacy pondered her next move.  "Gage?"

     The blonde turned to look at Lacy.

     "Sweetheart.  We should talk."  Lacy held her breath for what seemed an eternity before the woman she loved finally spoke.

     "Okay."  Gage knew Lacy had every right to ask even demand from her an explanation for her behavior of late.  She just didn't know how to explain it without risking the one thing she held most dear in her life.  Lacy.  But then again, if she didn't summon the courage to face the torments of her past and share them with her lover, Gage knew it would be a forgone conclusion that Lacy would leave her like all the rest did.  The blonde's unexamined thought was playing havoc with her decisions of late and without realizing it, with her silence, Gage was bringing about the one thing she feared most.  Slipping down on the bed, Gage asked. "What's on your mind?"

     "It's what's on your mind that interest me."  Lacy's words cut a bit sharper than she intended.  "I'm sorry."

     Holding up her hand, Gage said. "No.  I'm the one that should be sorry.  And I am."

     Lacy scooted closer. "Why don't we forget about that for now?"  She wanted her lover to relax before Lacy ventured into sensitive territory so she offered another tact.  Rubbing her lover's arm, Lacy asked.  "Are you anxious about the book tour?"

     "A little."  Gage was surprised about Lacy's choice of subject.  She thought for sure Lacy would ask about the dreams.  More like nightmares.  "I'm not big on crowds."

     "And getting all that attention?"  Gage nodded. "You deserve it.  Your last novel is excellent.  Are you upset that Mark asked you to go on this tour?"

     "No, not really.  I know that's part of the promotion thing.  He just wants the book to do well."  Gage scratched the back of her neck.  "Besides, it's only a couple of places here and New York City.  I couldn't say no."

     "Yes, you could have and you know it.  But that's not you.  I think you'd do anything Mark asked of you."  Lacy said.

     Pursing her lips together, Gage agreed.  "Nearly."  Sad green eyes searched out and found Lacy's caring blue ones.  I should be able to do anything you ask of me.  "You deserve more."

     "Oh, Gage.  I have you and our children.  I have exactly what I've always wanted.  It's just that…"  Lacy was finding it hard to express her feelings since so many emotions were waging a war inside of her.  She had been unwearied with Gage for years and now her patience was wearing dangerously thin.

     Resigned to failing her lover's needs, Gage asked.  "What do you want to do?"  Hoping against hope that Lacy would not tell her to leave.  Again, the irrational thought plagued her mind, running rampant.

     "You've been shutting me out… more and more.  I don't know what to do.  I don't even know why."  Grabbing her lover's hand, Lacy pleaded.  "I want to be there for you…. like you've been there for us."

     "Lacy, you have…."

     "No!"  Lacy halted her partner's words.  "You won't let me.  You won't even talk to me."  More tears spilled out unheeded.

     Gage wrapped her arms around her distraught lover. "It's not that I don't want to tell you.  I never have… not even with Mark.  Not really.  It's something I've always had to sort out myself.  The only time…." A distant hurtful memory flooded the blonde's mind.  "Besides you have too much to worry about."

     A dark glare torpedoed through Gage's core when Lacy turned toward her.  "Yes, I do.  Us."

     Gage pulled Lacy down next to her, offering gentle strokes of soothing comfort as her hand trailed up and down Lacy's arm.  What words could be said that would turn this unheeded devastating stampede hurling between them. Even the whispered words of love and comfort did nothing to chase away the ever-growing doubt that was eroding their relationship.
 

Chapter Two

     Impatiently waiting by the front door, Gage fidgeted with her watch.  Lacy returned to their bedroom at the last minute after Hayley gave her the look indicating she needed a diaper change.  It gave Gage just enough time to allow her nerves to spin out of control again about the upcoming book signing.  Glancing at her watch once more, Gage mumbled.  "Come on, I want to get this over with."

     In her career as a writer, Gage had only done a couple dozen book signings and each one brought with it anxiety.  She had coaxed Lacy in attending the book signing with her.  Gage figured with Lacy there the fans would be more interested in meeting the popular movie star.  Less attention on me. Just when she allowed that comforting thought to ease some of her self-inflicted stress, the telephone rang out.  Startled, Gage jumped.  After the telephone rang a couple more times, Gage relented and answered it.  "Hello."  She was somewhat relieved to hear the male voice on the other end of the line.

     "Gage.  Is Lacy around?"  Art Graham asked.

     "She'll be down in a minute.  She's changing Hayley then we've got that book thing to go to."

     "Okay.  When you get back, have her give me a call.  It's nothing important."  Lacy's agent shrugged.

     For some reason that last statement struck an emotional wired cord in Gage and being stressed already didn't help her mood.  "Not important, huh?  Tell me, Art.  How come Lacy's only got a pittance of parts offered to her over the last year or so?"

     Art recognized the hostility in Gage's voice and being a good agent, he tried to diffuse it.  "Good parts are hard to come by….."

     The fuming writer interrupted the agent. "She won the fuckin' Oscar!"

     "…for someone with Lacy's acting caliber."  Art finished.  "Gage… Lacy's indicated she's pretty okay with the way her career is going."

     The blonde bit her bottom lip before asking the real the question at the heart of her concern.  "It's because of me, isn't it?"

     Not wanting to reveal his client's confidentiality, Art assured the insecure writer with a very laconic answer.  "No."

     "That's it? That's all you're going to say."  Gage paused only briefly.  "Then what is it?"

     Art Graham pushed back in his wooden office chair and scratched the back of his neck.  "That's all I can say."  He didn't want to get between his client and her partner.  "Have her give me a call, okay?"

     Sucking in a frustrated breath, Gage made another vain attempt at controlling her spiraling emotions.  "Okay. And…. Art?"

     "Yeah?"

     "I'm sorry."

     Shifting forward in this chair, Art assured the blonde.  "No problem.  Good luck at the book signing."

     With that Gage hung the telephone up.  She was just about to turn when Lacy arrived with Hayley in her arms. "You ready?"

     "Mmmm… hmmm.  Was that the kids?"  Lacy asked as Hayley reached for Gage.

     The older blonde took her daughter.  "No. Art wants you to call him back later."  Gage walked to the door with Hayley in her arms.  Without looking back, Gage said dismissively.  "Said it was nothing important."

     Her agent's message wasn't what produced the concerned look on Lacy's face.  Again at a loss as to what was going on in Gage's mind, the dark haired woman quietly followed her partner and daughter to the car.

***********************

     At the bookstore located in the city's mall, Gage ran her hand for the hundredth time through her short blonde hair as the storeowner went over some minor details.   Several sideway glances ensured the nervous writer that Lacy was still close by as she talked with a couple of the stores clerks.  "I'm sorry. What did you….."

     Lightly touching the writer's shoulder the storeowner assured Gage.  "Ms. Ballant, it's quite…."

     "Gage.  Please call me Gage."

     Smiling, the older woman continued. "There's no reason to be nervous.  Trust me, everyone coming is already a huge fan of yours or they wouldn't be here."  Pointing at the large placard of Gage's latest book, Cast of Suspicious Characters, the storeowner asked.  "Looks great, doesn't it?"

     A genuine smile crossed Gage's face when she noticed the credit given to the designer of the book cover.  "Yes, it does.  Thanks."

     Gage loosened up a bit when she felt the calming hand of her lover rub the small of her back.  Lacy noticed Gage relax as well.  "You're going to do great."  Lacy brushed her lips against her lover's head and whispered. "I love you."

     "I'm glad you're here."  Seeing the growing crowd fill the bookstore from the small back office, Gage sighed.

     "Don't worry about it.  They'll love you like we do."  Tapping her blonde daughter's nose, Lacy asked. "Hayley, don't we love Gage?"

     Smiling, Hayley agreed. "Hi."  But her attention soon turned to all the excitement and noise being produced as more people strolled into the store, crowding around the lectern.

     Gage had requested the taller stand instead of the usual table because she wanted to be on eye level with the people requesting autographs.  The storeowner thoughtfully added the high stool behind the stand in case the writer needed a reprieve from standing for the next few hours.

     When the storeowner waved toward Gage, the writer turned to Lacy.  "It's time.  You ready?"

     "Gage, sweetheart?"  Gage easily recognized the hesitation in Lacy's voice would not bode well for her.  "This is your moment."  Lacy continued to gently stroke Gage's back. "I thought Hayley and I would go next door and visit with Nate."

     "Can I go too?"  Gage pleaded.

     Embracing her reluctant writer, the dark haired woman assured Gage.  "Go on now.  You don't want your daughter to see you chicken out?"

     Gage knew Lacy was teasing her.  "Lacy, it's not because I'm… afraid or anything but you're the one who designed the book jacket and that's the only reason anyone bought the darn book in the first place and…"

     A lone finger on the blonde's lips halted Gage's rambling.  "Sweetheart.  Go!  Hayley and I will stop back by and check on you later.  Then I'll let you take us out to dinner.  Deal?"

     Resigned to the fact that she was going to have to fly solo, Gage agreed.  "Deal.  But Hayley and I get to pick the place."

     With one quick kiss, Lacy ushered her reluctant partner out on center stage.  She watched Gage slowly walk toward the podium.  The blonde's gait was at first unsteady but with each step, Lacy could tell her partner's confidence grew.

     Several times it crossed the writer's mind to make a hasty escape until one fan yelled above the din.  "Is Lacy Levine really here?"

     Relieved, Gage smiled.  Good… they want to hear about my favorite subject.

************************

     Nathan Lewis stuffed the merchandise in the bag and handed it to the young woman, flashing her a friendly smile.  "If you have any questions installing this program, give me a call.  I'll be here till five."

     The pretty girl hesitated as if she wanted to say something but with Lacy hovering nearby, she offered the handsome young man a smile then dashed off.

     "Another one fallen under your charm?"  Nate's oldest sister teased.

     "Mmmm…… I hardly think so."  Nate stepped from behind the counter.  "Come here, squirt."

     Hayley jumped in his arms.  As her uncle lifted her up, the fearless toddler demanded.  "Higher!"

     Nate tossed his niece in the air several times much to the delight of Hayley and several passing customers.  "Come on, I've been waiting to take my break."  With Hayley tucked in one arm, Nate grabbed his sister's hand and guided them out into the mall's small courtyard.

     After settling down and ordering a couple of soft drinks, Lacy asked.  "Is it always this crowded?"

     Without looking around, Nate answered his sister, still intent on playing with his niece.  "The usual Saturday fare."

     Lacy couldn't help but notice all the teens and even younger kids running around the mall together.  "I'm surprised to see all the young ones hanging out here.  Where are their parents?"

     "Come on, Lacy.  You're not that old."  Nate winked.

     "Very funny. I've been to the mall many times before… guess I just never really noticed."  Lacy said seriously.

     "Well…."  Nate bounced Hayley on his knee.  "Stick around till tonight, it'll be packed with kids.  Same goes for Friday night.  A lot of the kids go to the movie theater then head over here till the mall closes."

     "No, thank you.  Gage's taking us out to dinner when she's done."  A bright smile beamed on Lacy's face.  "We pick the kids up early in the morning.  It's been two long weeks."

     "Why didn't you go out to LA?"

     "David."  Lacy sipped her soda pop.  "Gage and I wanted to go."

     "Me…me?"  Hayley scrunched her tiny eyebrows together.

     "Yes, you, too, honey."  Lacy sighed.  "David wanted time with the kids. Without us there, so he could make a real connection with them... again.  Especially Derek."

     Nate raised a questioning eyebrow that Hayley duplicated and that made Lacy laugh.

     "Actually, I think he's serious.  He seems to be trying."  Lacy was convinced that her ex-husband's attitude had changed for the better where their children were concerned.  It appeared that David was sincerely focused on establishing his parental role in the lives of his children.

     Touching his sister's knee, Nate nodded.  "I'm glad then."

     "By the way, you finished that computer class?"

     Insistent hands reached for Nate's drink.  "Gimme."

     Nate held onto the cup even though Hayley wanted to hold it all by herself.  When his niece finally conceded that he wouldn't let go, she sucked on the straw.  "Yeah, and I really enjoyed it.  The graphics were cool. It's amazing what you can do."

     "Mom showed me some of your work.  You have a real talent."  Every once in a while, Lacy's mind wandered toward the bookstore.

     Nate noticed his sister was pre-occupied.  "Why don't you go see how things are going?  I'll watch this little pip squeak."

     Tempted, Lacy finally asked. "Are you sure?  You won't get in trouble?"

     "Are you kidding?"  Nate sat the empty cup on the table.  "She'll be my little chick magnet."

     "Nate!  My daughter is not a chick magnet."  Lacy scolded her brother with a mock glare.

     Nate and Hayley looked at Lacy innocently before the handsome man said.  "She can't help it.  Her mother is."

     Shaking her head, Lacy wasn't sure to whom her brother was referring to her or Gage. "Just stay out of trouble."  She warned him.

     "Okay."  Hayley smiled.
 

***********************

     When Lacy overheard one customer wishing the dark haired movie star would return, she nearly turned and left, not wanting to take any attention away from her deserving partner.  But something forced her to remain.

     Gage held the same wish as the customer.  You and me both.  Gage finished signing the book then offered.  "Why don't I go look for her?"  Happy at the prospect of getting out from under the limelight, the writer slipped off the stool.

     "Looking for me?"  Lacy draped her arm over her partner's shoulder.

     Smiling brightly, Gage slipped her arm around Lacy's waist.  "Well everybody.  Here she is.  Did everyone see the artwork on the book cover?  Lacy did it."  Gage spouted proudly.

     Through the years, Lacy and Gage received some very unwelcome receptions to their relationship but it seemed that people tended to overlook that aspect of their life together when they were able to relate to them on personal level.  In this case, many of the people present had come to love Lacy's work in her roles and many others enjoyed Gage's stories.

     Yet, the uncertainty of how people would react in this very public arena was one cause of Gage's stress.  The blonde was willing to deal with those unfriendly encounters but felt guilty when Lacy had to do the same.

     As it was though, the remaining hour was spent with many well-wishers and questions about what the couple were going to do next.  When the line finally dwindled down, Lacy noticed a familiar young woman and her son approach.

     Extending her hand, the beautiful blonde woman greeted Lacy and Gage.  "Lacy?"

     Lacy pulled Alexus McKenna Grayson in for a warm hug.  "How are you?"

     "Just great." Lexi turned to Gage, handing her a copy of her recently purchased book.  "I don't suppose you have time for one more autograph?"

     "I think I can get my cramped fingers to etch out one more."  Gage opened the front cover and signed it.  She looked back up at Lexi who was about the same age as Lacy.  "You'll want Lacy's, too.  She did the cover."

     "Gaaaage."  Lacy warned her partner upon hearing the suggestion.

     "Yes, I know."  Lexi handed the book to Lacy.  "Would you mind?"

     Taking the book, Lacy squinted her blue eyes at Gage but said to Lexi.  "She thinks she's my agent."

     That statement produced a frown on the writer's face.

     After Lacy gave the book back to Lexi, she turned to the young man standing next to his mother.  "Hi, Lane."

     "Hello."  Normally, Lane Grayson wasn't shy but facing the mother of the girl he liked prompted his reticent response.  However, he did summon up the courage to ask about the girl in question.  "Dani's coming home tomorrow?"

     "Yes.  We should be home by the afternoon.  Why don't you give her a call?  I'm sure she'd love to hear from you."  Lacy encouraged the nearly sixteen year old.

     Pensive, Lane shifted his weight from one foot to the next.  "Maybe."

     The blonde Lexi wrapped her arm around her son.  "I guess we should get going.  Thanks for the autographs."

     "Hey! Thank you for buying the book."  With a kidding grin, Gage added.  "That one put me over a hundred."

     After Lexi and her son left, Gage shot her partner a 'you're gonna be trouble' look.

     "What?"

     "Lacy.  Dani's not gonna like that.  You know the two of them have been playing cat and mouse with each other.  Liking each other but pretending not to."  Gage shook her head.  "Someone's in big trouble."

     Lacy mused a long moment in silence before she mumbled.  "Yeah, she's not been too keen lately when I butted in.  Oh, well."

     "Come on.  Let's go get something to eat."  Gage yanked at her lover's arm.

     "Then we need to go by the grocery store and stock up."  Lacy added as an afterthought, knowing their food supplies needed replenishing.

     Remembering she had eaten the last of Lacy's favorite cookies and received a good tongue lashing over that misdeed, Gage insisted. "First thing we get is… oatmeal cookies."

     Lacy countered. "No. First, we go get our daughter."
 

Chapter Three

     Sunday started out to be a long day filled with stories of the children's adventures at their father's home in Los Angeles and ended with increasing tension.  The first word out of Dani's mouth when the children arrived at the airport was a request for her own cell phone.  And that prompted her nine-year-old brother to demand a cell phone of his own if his sister got one.  Derek didn't really want a cell phone but reasoned that he could get something if Dani got one.  After all, he hadn't been around his older sister all his life without learning a trick or two.

     "We'll talk about it when we get home."  Lacy hugged each of her children tightly.  Sammy was the only one who kept hold of his mother and wouldn't let go so she carried him all the way to the waiting car.

     On the ride home from the airport, Dani only had one thing on her mind and whined.  "But mom…. all my friends have one."

     "Dani, I said we'd talk about it later."

     The fourteen year old crossed her arms in frustration before she mumbled.  "Dad let me use his. Maybe he'll get me one."

     Lacy turned in her seat to face her daughter.  "I'm glad to see you, too."

     "Oh, mom."  Dani rolled her baby blue eyes then quickly offered her mom a sincere smile.  "Me, too."

     Gage caught a glimpse of Derek through the rearview mirror.  "Hey, sport.  You have fun in California?"  The blonde was reluctant to ask after the conversation she had with him over the telephone more than a week ago.  What started out to be the usual conversation between the two best buddies suddenly turned for the worse.  Gage wanted to make sure Derek was having a good time so she asked him several questions about how he was getting along with his father.  Derek's demeanor turned chilly on several occasions during the conversation causing Gage to prod further with her questions.  Before the talk ended, both of them felt a sharp chill strike through their warm and loving relationship.

     "Yeah.  I guess."  Derek politely answered before he turned his attention to Hayley who was buckled in her car seat next to him.  "Hayley?  Would you stop grabbing at me?"

     "She's just happy to see you.  Hayley missed all of you so much."  Lacy informed her children.

     Derek pushed his youngest sister's hand away.  "Well, let her be happy to see Sammy or Dani."

     "Stella?  How about you?  You have a good time?"  Lacy asked.

     The sixty-four year old nanny turned grandmother nodded.  "With these three, I always have a good time if not interesting."  She reached for Hayley's outstretched hand.  "And I missed you very much."

     This produced a genuine smile from the two year old.  With outstretched hands, Hayley begged.  "Memaw.  Hold me."

     "Wait till we get home, honey.  And I'll carry you around with me the rest of the day."  Stella kissed her youngest grandchild.

     "Okay."  Hayley agreed.

     "Mom?  Can I come up there with you?"  The five-year-old Sammy asked.  The trip to Los Angeles was rough on him.  Even though he loved his father, Sammy never wanted to stray too far from his mother.  The first few days out in LA he clung to either Stella or Dani.  Lacy called and talked with him at least a half dozen times each day until she was assured he was doing reasonably well.  She fought numerous urges to charter a plane for her, Gage and Hayley after talking with her youngest son.

     Smiling sweetly at Sammy, Lacy suggested.  "When we get home and get something to eat, how bout I tell you a story.  Would you like that?"

     His blue eyes brightened as he happily agreed because he always got to sit on his mother's lap when she told him a story.  "Okay."

     "I want story."  Hayley chimed in.

     "What about you, Derek?"  The very much-relieved mother at having all of her children home asked.

     "I'm too big for a story."  Derek replied.

     Once again, Gage caught sight of the young boy in her rearview mirror.  "Oh, come on, Derek.  Your mom came up with a great new story about Devlin and Gentry." These were two of Derek's all time favorite cartoon characters.

     He propped a fist under his chin and frowned.  "They're just cartoons.  I'm nine, you know."

     The connection between Derek and his former personal hero was slowly eroding and with it brought very real fears that were summoning up demons from Gage's past.  She knew this demise in their relationship had triggered the dreams she had been having of late.

     His response reminded Lacy of another time at the lake after David's visit and Dani suddenly decided she needed to be all grown up in order to get her father's approval.  Lacy shifted her concerned blue eyes between Gage and her son.  For the first time, the caring woman sensed the reason for her partner's distant demeanor.  Life sure has a circular nature to it.

     Later that day as promised, Lacy told several stories to her willing audience while Derek played on the floor with his race cars and Dani wanted to get caught up with calls to her friends via the telephone.  All in all, it was a good day but one Lacy realized was a turning point in her family's dynamics.  She sucked in a deep breath and prayed she would have the strength to see it through.

**********************

     The next morning after breakfast, Gage took the three youngest children down to the beach while Lacy, Dani and Stella lingered in the kitchen.  They worked together cleaning the dishes and table.

     "Mom?"  Dani said tentatively.  When she recognized the arched eyebrow of her mother pointing in her direction, Dani continued.  "You said we could talk about it now."

     Lacy put away the dish she had just finished drying.  "I suspect you have a list of reasons why you should get one."  But before Dani could confirm that assumption.  "You know when school starts in the fall, you can't take it with you to classes."

     "Like I know that mom."  The other eyebrow of her mother's hiked up upon her response.  Uh oh, that was a little bit too sharp.  She reeled in her sarcastic tone.  "I was thinking that it would come in handy when I go to the mall with my friends."

     Remembering all the young kids she'd seen at the mall milling about, Lacy braced herself for a lively debate with her daughter.  Several red flags shot up in her mind regarding her child's safety versus Dani's journey on her way to becoming a young independent woman.  She wanted Dani to be self-reliant, strong and self-sufficient but letting go of her maternal safety net link to her daughter would have to slowly loosen over time.

     "All my friends go there all the time."

     Lacy's mind drifted back to the point at hand.  "So?"

     Stella took the dishtowel from Lacy's hand to dry the pan.  "It's all the rage."  Both mother and daughter looked at Stella who shrugged. "That's what Dani tells me."

     "Summer's just beginning, mom.  Hanging out at the mall with my friends is what everyone does." She pleaded.  "And I was hoping to have a fun time this summer.  I've already missed two parties."

     "You can have a get together here.  Anytime. You know that.  Your friends are always welcome."  Lacy wanted to keep her children close and out of harm's way.

     Dani decided on another tact.  "Well, I was going to have a swim party one weekend."

     Lacy walked over to her daughter and wrapped her arms around Dani.  "That would be great.  Just remember this next week we're flying to New York.  Gage has that book signing."

     "Do I have to go?"  Dani didn't want another trip keeping her from her friends.

     "You had a good time in LA and you didn't want to go there to start with it."  Lacy pointed out.

     Dani broke away from her mother's embrace then flopped down on the chair.  "Yeah, but that was to see dad.  And most of the time, all he did was try and make Derek and Sammy like him."  She blew a frustrated puff of air up at her bangs.

     Lacy sought Stella's silent confirmation regarding Dani's assessment and got it before she asked.  "I thought you enjoyed your visit?"

     "I did but that was because dad let me use his cell phone."  Dani seized another chance to get a cell phone of her own.

     "And you were on the internet most of the time… when you weren't swimming."  Stella added.

     This latest news concerned Lacy and she decided to talk with Stella privately but first she had to deal with her daughter.  "Dani?  This week we'll go to the mall… you and me… and look for one.  I'm not saying we'll get one but we can look."

     That brought a smile to the young girl's face.

     Lacy had another reason for wanting some time alone with Dani and she figured she would accomplish that goal along with checking the mall out again.  Nate works there.  Maybe I'll see when he's working and then maybe…. Lacy refused to finish that thought.

     When Dani heard the telephone ring, she rushed off assured that it was for her.  Her friend, Katie, was due to call so she could get updated on all the latest happenings that went on while she was gone.  It didn't matter that they had talked nearly every day on the phone and spent hours instant messaging each other on the internet.

     Lacy turned to Stella and asked seriously.  "Could we talk a moment?"

     The older woman pulled up a chair but not before asking Lacy if she wanted something to drink.  When Lacy declined, Stella crossed her hands together and waited.

***********************

     While watching the children play, Gage sat back against the six-foot log at the edge of the bank.  It had drifted up to shore one day and the kids declared it their own personal floatation device for when they wanted Gage to give them rides on it.

     Derek was splashing Sammy and the younger boy was holding his own in the water fight.  They were playing well together until Hayley grabbed a handful of mud and threw it at her oldest brother.  "Hey!  Stop it."

     Both Hayley and Sammy laughed at Derek trying to wash off the mud from his swim shorts.

     This further irritated him and before Gage knew what was happening, Derek splashed Hayley then pushed a still giggling Sammy down into the water.  "Shut up!"

     Gage jumped up.  "Derek!"  Gage lifted Sammy up with one hand while reaching for her daughter.  She wiped the excess water from Hayley's eyes then ensured that Sammy was okay.  Gage gathered both children up in her arms then headed to the grassy area where their towels waited.  As she was drying the two youngest kids, Gage asked Derek.  "What was that all about?  It was just a little bit of mud."  When the young boy refused to answer, Gage tried to get his attention.  "Derek?"

     "What?"  The scowl on his face spoke volumes.

     "That's what I was asking."  The blonde was at a loss as to what caused Derek's unusual behavior.  "What happened?"

     His only answer was a long hard glare before he turned away.  Gage wasn't quite sure who that wicked look was meant for.

     Without looking back, Derek stomped off toward the house.

***********************

     Once they returned from the lake, Lacy was only too happy to change the kids from their wet clothes while Gage headed off to her writing room.  She sensed her partner needed some time alone after Gage filled Lacy in on what happened while they were swimming.  I'll talk to her later about what Stella told me.

     After sitting her three youngest kids at the table, Lacy poured them some milk to go along with their cookies.  Derek and Sammy were already munching on a cookie but Hayley couldn't quite reach them.  "Cook!"

     "Derek? Get Hayley a cookie."

     He snatched one from the container then tossed it at her like a Frisbee.  It bounced in front of the little blonde a couple of times before she grabbed it and stuffed it in her mouth.

     Having caught sight of the cookie flying through the air, Lacy lightly scolded her son.  "Derek.  Next time, just hand it to her please."

     His only response was a grunt but he grew more agitated when Sammy giggled.  As his mother returned the milk carton to the refrigerator, in a low and menacing voice Derek threatened Sammy.  "Stop it… or else."  Which only caused Sammy to giggle even harder so Derek kicked him under the table.

     "Hey!"  Sammy complained.

     "What is it, Sammy? Mmmm?"  Turning back toward the table, Lacy sat down and reached for one of the last cookies.   Just as Lacy was about to savor the first bite of her oatmeal cookie, she heard.

     "Stop it. Damn it!"  Derek yelled, after Sammy kicked him in retaliation.

     The cookie's journey screeched to a halt within a nano width of her lips.  Turning slowly toward her son, she put the cookie down on the table where Hayley immediately snatched it up.  "Excuse me, Derek.  What did you say?"

     With his head hung low, he mumbled.  "Nuthin'."

     "He said 'damn it'."  The happy younger boy claimed as he took another bite of his cookie.

     Searing blues eyes bounced toward Sammy briefly before returning to her oldest son.

     Sammy ignored his mother's seemingly irritated look while Derek tried to escape her intense glare of dissatisfaction.   In an attempt to avoid answering her, he slipped from his chair and dug in his pockets, pretending to look for something.

     "Derek?"

     Finally, he turned to face his mother.  "I didn't say 'damn it'.  I said 'darn it'."

     With crumbs falling from his mouth, Sammy corrected his brother.  "No, you didn't. You said…"

     "Sammy!  That's enough.  I know what he said. And that's not something I want repeated. Okay?"

     The dark haired young boy scrunched his face in sorrow.  He wiped the crumbs from his mouth with his arm and hurried around the table to his mother.  Hugging her, he apologized.  "I'm sorry."

     Lacy ran her hands through his short hair and returned the hug.  "It's okay."  She pulled him up on her lap but spoke to Derek, stopping him from his attempted covert retreat.  "Derek?  If you're finished with your milk and cookies, clean up your mess then go up to your room."  He rolled his gray eyes.  "I'll be up in a minute."

     Derek did as his mother requested and took a welcomed opportunity to shoot his younger brother a disapproving look.

     Lacy cleared the table with Sammy's help then she brushed off the crumbs on Hayley's face.  The toddler stuck her face out; happy with all the attention her mother was giving her.  "Momma?"

     "Yes?"

     "More…. pwease."

     "Me…me, too. I want more."  Sammy added, not wanting to be left out.

     There was only one cookie left and Lacy had yet to have one.  "Can mommy have the last one?"  Both of her children frowned but finally gave their approval when their mother added.  "Please."  But Lacy wasn't in the mood for eating at the moment so she put it away until later.

************************

     Lacy handed over baby sitting duties to Gage before she headed up to see Derek and have a little chat.  "Sweetheart, could you watch her a minute?  I want to talk with Derek."

     Gage nodded and took her daughter. "Where's Sammy?"

     "He's in his room.  That's where I'm heading right now." Frustrated, Lacy hesitated at the doorway.

     "What's wrong?" The writer sat Hayley down in front of her at her laptop.  And it didn't take long for her tiny fingers to run across the keys.

     "Derek said his first cuss word."

     "Well, don't be too hard on him."  A few memories came barreling to the forefront of her mind as she recalled a few choice words she'd learned around that age. "Nine's a time when kids start expanding their vocabulary. It's only natural."

     Not quite buying into that theory, Lacy felt there was something more driving her son's recent erratic behavior.  Before Lacy left the room, she overheard Gage bartering with their daughter.

     "Hayley?  Let me save that last scene first and then I'll let you type anything you want for a while.  Okay?"

     Slowly, Lacy climbed the staircase trying to analyze her son's mood change and how it was related to Gage's restless nights. She knew deep down inside that there was a connection.  However, with both Gage and Derek in full reticent mood, she knew it would be a task for a master detective.  But there was one thing she was sure of about herself.  I'm not one to give up…. especially when it comes to the ones I love.  Then she heard a loud crash.
 

Chapter Four

     The next day Lacy and Gage along with their two sons moved Sammy's things to another room.  When Lacy had arrived the day before to talk with Derek about his cussing, she found Sammy crying because Derek was yelling at him.  As it turned out, Derek was trying to get his younger brother to clean his side of the room.  Stella had asked Derek to pick up all his toys at the start of the day and he kept putting it off.  But since his mom was on her way up, the nine year old didn't want to get into more trouble.  When Sammy wasn't working fast enough, Derek nudged him, causing the younger boy to trip over the racecar track and that's when Derek lost it.

     At his mother's directive, Derek remained in his room most of the day while the rest of the Ballant clan was struggling with the disharmony everyone felt.  When Lacy started to read Hayley and Sammy a story that evening, the youngest child complained. "More.  I want more."

     Sitting nearby, Gage waited to see what Lacy would decide as did Stella and Dani.  Seeing that her partner was a crossroads as what to do, Gage suggested.  "It probably wouldn't hurt for him to come out of his room.  After all, he did say he was sorry."

     Lacy knew exactly what her daughter was demanding.  Hayley was happiest when everyone in the family was together especially at story time. Her mind was made up after Sammy asked.  "Can he please, mom?"

     When Lacy nodded, Gage jumped up, as did Sammy.  "I'm going with you."  Sammy scrambled right behind.

     Hayley's bright eyes beamed while clapping her hands together.  "More for me."

     Stella laughed when her daughter-in-law quickly succumbed to her children's wishes.  "You just can't say no, can you?"

     With a pouting fist propping up her chin, Dani mumbled.  "Wanna bet?"  She still hadn't convinced her mom to buy her a new cell phone.

     "Dani?"  Lacy shot her daughter a hard glare.  "You still want to go to the Mall tomorrow?"  Dani nodded quickly. "Then I suggest you drop the attitude."

     "Okay. I'm sorry."  The fourteen year old was increasingly becoming less patient.

     While waiting for Sammy and Gage to return with Derek, again Lacy mulled over the brewing frustrations inside her.  Everything seemed to be out of sorts.  She hoped their trip to New York would alleviate some of the tension.

***********************

     The next morning while Derek and Sammy were playing nicely in the living room with their racecars, Dani was playing some music for Hayley.  The little show off danced by bouncing up and down as she clapped to the beat of the music.

     "Come here, Hayley."  Dani called.  "I got your beads."

     Hayley scampered toward her sister.  "Gimme beads."  The blonde named the color of the beads before she strung them around her neck.

     Dani counted them one by one.  "That's enough, Hayley."

     "No!"  The little girl ran away from her oldest sibling, giggling all the way.  "Help me. Help me."  She tromped across the boys' racetrack, bringing their contest to a screeching halt.

     "Hayley, stop it!"  Derek sighed before he fell back on the floor in frustration with his sister's antics.

     Sammy jumped up to join in on the fun.  "I wanna play.  Catch me if you can."  He said even as he chased after his oldest sister who was hot on the heels of Hayley.

     "Sammy, are you gonna come back and play or not?"  Derek repositioned the two racecars.  "Mom, said we had to play nice.  You want me to tell on you?"

     When Dani finally corralled her little runaway sister, she finally coaxed Hayley back down next to her CD player.  Sammy flopped down next to them.

     "You wanna sing a song?"  Hayley shook her head.  "But it's your favorite one."

     Sammy started to sing.  "Old McDonald had a farm.  Eeee…Ii… Eee… I… oh."

     Hayley clapped as Dani continued the song.  "And on his farm he had a….." She waited for Hayley to fill in the line.

     "Beads!"  Hayley exclaimed.

     From the distance, Derek rolled his eyes and corrected her sharply.  "He had a cow."

     "You're gonna have a cow if you don't drop your attitude." Dani's words to Derek echoed that of the same ones her mother treated her to the night before.

     "Like I care."  Derek shot back.

     With the song interrupted, Sammy chimed in.  "Me, either."  Now bored with his sisters, the five year old returned to play with his brother.

     Ignoring them, Dani continued the song.  "Okay, Hayley.  Old McDonald had a farm.  Eee.. Ii…Eee.. I.. Oh! And on his farm he had a….."

     Hayley smiled then said. "Jesus."

     When both Derek and Sammy laughed at her attempt to get Hayley to sing along with the right words, Dani glared at them before she returned her attention to her sister. "Hayley.  That's your other favorite song."

     That prompted the young girl to sing it. "Jesus loves me…."

     "Yes I know, Hayley.  But Jesus isn't here right now." It seemed the little blonde girl always broke out in that song whenever she would see of picture of Jesus around the house or in church.

     "Oh, I don't know about that, Dani."  Gage had dropped by the living room to check on the children then reminded Dani.  "When you were telling me about Jesus, you said He was everywhere."

     "That was God."  She corrected Gage.

     "You also told me that God and Jesus were one in the same… along with that other fella."  Gage recited from the religion lessons Dani had taught her.

     "You mean the Holy Spirit."  Dani glared at her seemingly smart aleck student.

     "Right….. Him."  Over the last couple of years, Gage tagged along with Lacy and kids to church nearly every Sunday.  Turning her attention to Hayley, Gage asked. "Hayley?  What kind of animal did old McDonald have on his farm?"

     The tiny blonde was about to respond when Dani interrupted her.  "And don't say Jesus."

     "Did he have a frog?" Gage prompted Hayley much to Dani's dismay.

     As soon as she heard that, Hayley immediately got on all fours and lunged forward.  "Ribbit…. ribbit."

     Gage burst out laughing as did Derek and his brother.  Even Dani couldn't help but join in.

     The little girl lunged forward again and again.  "Ribbit… ribbit."  She paused only long enough to ensure that she was getting everyone's attention.  "Ribbit… ribbet."

     Sammy couldn't resist joining in on the fun.  Before long he was on all fours chasing after his little sister as he croaked out the animal's sound.  When Lacy entered, she smiled at seeing her two frog jumping children along side each other.  She gleefully added to the laughter in the room.

     Sammy was the first to see his mother.  "Mom."  He jumped up on two feet and ran into her arms.

     "Hey, there.  Having a good time, huh?"  Sammy eagerly nodded.

     Seeing her mom, Hayley raced toward her on all fours.

     Gage shook her head at her daughter as she came barreling across the floor.  "She can walk.  Why is she crawling around on all fours?"

     Lacy looked at Gage.  "She gets that from you."

     "I don't do that."  Gage protested.

     Lacy nudged her lover. "Then what is it you do in the bedroom?"

     Gage playfully slapped her hand over her partner's mouth.  "Hey!  The kids are here."

     "Mom? Are we going to the Mall today?"  Dani asked.

     This prompted Derek to stand up and hurry over to his mother.  "I'm going to."

     "Me, too. Me, me."  Sammy bounced in her arms. "I get to go with you."

     Pulling Hayley up from the floor, Gage was a bit surprised when her daughter kissed her on the cheek and said. "Mimi."

     Dani busted out laughing.  "She called you Mimi."

     Gage frowned at the laughing young teen.

     "Don't worry." Dani touched Gage's arm.  "I'll teach her how to say your name."

     For the longest time, both Lacy and Gage figured that every time Hayley wanted the blonde, the little girl would say 'me, me' like Sammy did when he wanted to be included in on something.  Recently, it had become clear that Hayley had given Gage that as a name.  "Mimi!  Great."  Again, Gage frowned.

     Lacy knew her partner didn't mind the nickname because Gage loved everything their young daughter did.  No matter what kind of trouble she had gotten into.

************************

     After Lacy and Dani headed off to the Mall, Gage left Stella with the three youngest kids while she worked on her screenplay.  She wanted to finish it before she met with Mark in New York.  Gage heard the doorbell ring just before her telephone did the same.

     "Hello?"

     "Gage? Hi!"  Mark greeted his best friend.  "Did you get the papers I sent?"

     The writer relaxed back in her wooden swivel chair.  "Nope.  But I'm glad you called."

     "Something on your mind?"  Mark adjusted the picture of his wife that was sitting on his antique desk.

     Feeling a little pensive, she replied.  "Maybe.  What'd you send me?"

     "Couple of contracts I want you to look over before we have that conference call with Ryan on Sunday."

     "Okay."

     "By the way, he says the movie's right on schedule and they should be leaving for Africa to finish filming it early July.  What'd you say we jump on a plane and head down there?  I'm so tired all of these negotiations lately."  Mark shuffled some papers in his briefcase.  "Matter of fact, I've got another meeting to finalize the deal.  Thank God Mitch's the one who's really got a handle on it.  He hammered out the details and we came out ahead."

     "Him and his wife still together?"

     "Yes.  He even mentioned that his stepson and him are actually getting along fairly well.  By the way, I've planned a small get together when you and Lacy get here.  Julie can't wait to see all of you again."  Clicking his briefcase shut, Mark finished.  "Listen, I've got to get going.  Look over the contracts when they get there and we'll talk Sunday."

     "Bye."  Gage wasn't too anxious about the trip to New York but it would be good to see Mark and Julie along with her children.  She was somewhat ambivalent about seeing Mitch again.  They had talked a few times over the last two years but Gage never did think Lacy was very comfortable with it.  "Oh, well, back to my story."

***********************

     After Stella left the living room to answer the doorbell, Derek marched his younger siblings off to the kitchen.  He was thirsty and their grandmother left him in charge.  "Want something to eat?"  He asked to two nodding heads.

     "Cook!"  Hayley announced her choice.

     "Me. I want one." Sammy ran over to the stool when his brother stopped him. "I can get it."

     "No."  Instead, Derek used the step stool to check on their supply.  When he only found one oatmeal cookie left, Derek informed the hungry party of two.  "No cookies.  How bout some crackers?"

     "Want cook."  Hayley insisted.

     "Me, too."  Sammy echoed, propping his fist under his chin.

     "I said there's no more cookies."  Derek retrieved the graham crackers, giving them each one.  "Here.  Now go back in the living room."  After they left, Derek hastily climbed the step stool again and grabbed the last cookie.  He quickly ate it before rejoining his siblings in the living room.  Since Stella had not returned, Derek announced that they were going to play tag.  "You're it."

     Sammy immediately didn't like the game since Derek punched his arm and ran off.  He turned to Hayley. "You're it."

     "Okay."  Hayley was happy with the attention.

     Derek whined to his brother. "She doesn't know how to play. You have to chase me."

     Dutifully, Sammy whizzed past his sister in hopes of catching Derek.

**********************

     "Gage?" Stella slipped her head through her daughter's study.

     Looking up, Gage acknowledged the older woman.  "Hi, mom.  Come on in.  I need a break."

     Holding out the package, Stella said. "This is for you."

     Gage shot up from her chair.  "Oh, that must be from Mark." The writer took it then tore it open.  "Yep.  Contracts.  Maybe I'll wait till Lacy gets home.  She can cipher through all that legal mumbo jumbo."

     "Alright then.  I didn't want to disturb you."  Before Stella could retreat, Gage stopped her.

     "Wait a minute."  Gage motioned toward the couch.  "We haven't really talked since you got back from LA.  You like it?"

     Stella made herself comfortable on the couch. "I just enjoy being with the kids but I must admit I missed Hayley."  The older woman smiled when her thoughts turned to her granddaughter and how much she reminded Stella of Gage when she was around that age.  Stella hadn't actually seen Gage at age two but the blonde's caseworker, Grace Davidson, had some pictures of her small daughter.

     "And I missed the other three.  Lacy and I both did."  Gage sat down next to her mother.  "And you know what?"

     "Mmmm?"

     "We missed you, too."

     When her heart skipped a beat, Stella also felt a lump form in her throat.  She treasured moments like this especially since Stella never thought she would ever see her daughter again.  Placing a hand on Gage's knee, Stella smiled then kissed her daughter cheek.  "Thank you.  I missed you and Lacy as well."

     It surprised Gage, not the kiss, but the fact that she so easily revealed her feelings to her mother.  Guess Lacy is rubbing off on me.

     When a loud thud echoed into Gage's study, she sighed.  "Uh, oh!"

     With Gage in the lead, Stella followed her daughter to the living room where they found three innocent faces staring up at them.

     "I didn't do it."  Derek declared.

     When his older brother nudged him, Sammy chimed in.  "Me, either."

     Hayley felt no pressure under her brother's two sets of eyes, accusing her of the misdeed.  She innocently smiled at Gage.  "Uh, oh."

***********************

     Lacy and Dani walked through the mall checking out numerous outfits in the windows.  The dark haired woman astutely observed the surrounding area, noticing that there weren't as many unescorted teens running about.  Well, it is the middle of the week.

     Dani tugged on her mom's arm.  "In here, mom."  The young girl bounced across the floor toward her uncle.  "Nate!"

     Hugging his niece, Nate asked.  "Where have you been?"

     Dani jerked her thumb over her shoulder at her mom.  "She's had her mind on other things.  Where are the cell phones?"

     Nate directed his niece to the colorful display before turning his attention to his oldest sister.

     "Wow!" Dani's blue eyes widened at the array of styles and colors.  She rushed over to the counter and grabbed a cell phone.

     Lacy brushed a quick kiss on her brother's cheek.  "Dani informed me you'd give us a good deal since you work here."

     "Really?  She only called me and asked if we sold them."  Nate sensed his sister's frustration with something.  "You know, you don't have to get them everything they want."

     "Spoken from someone who doesn't have kids."  Lacy smiled at him.

     "But I was one."  Nate chuckled before he added. "Mom still says I act like one sometimes.  Lacy?"  The tall man wrapped a loving arm around his sister.  "Mom and dad didn't get us everything we wanted and we turned out pretty good.  If I do say so myself."

     "True."  Lacy mused over the differences between her years growing up and that of her children.  "It's just that there are some things I'm reluctant…  when I was younger, it wasn't a big deal staying overnights with my friends or hanging out with them but…"

     "Being the child of a famous movie star puts them in danger." Nate understood his sister's dilemma.  "But you can't shield them forever, Lacy."

     "I know. I know."  Lacy glanced at her excited daughter who was checking out the phones.  "She wants to hang out with her friends here."

     "I see."  The very astute young man squeezed Lacy.  "I work this Friday and Saturday night.  Why don't you give it a trial run?  I promise I'll keep an eye out on her even if it means tailing her around the mall for awhile."

     "But what about your work here?"

     Nate shrugged.  "If they fire me, they fire me.  Besides, I have a very rich sister I could bum off of for a while."

     Reluctant to even consider the idea of her daughter alone on a Friday night out with her friends scraped hard against her parental protectiveness but she realized Nate was right.  Sooner or later Dani would demand her independence.  I wish it would be later.  Maybe we can ease into it.  With a forced smile, Lacy looked at her salesman brother.  "All right, just how much of a commission are you going to get off of the incredible savings you're giving my daughter?"

     Rubbing his hands together mischievously, Nate wiggled his eyebrows.  "For you my dear sister, I have a special deal."

     "Uh huh."  Lacy walked with him over to where Dani had a phone to each ear pretending to talk on them.  "Just remember who your rich sister is and that she could cut you off like that."

     When Lacy snapped her fingers together, Nate pretended to come to full military attention. "Why Lacy I would never take advantage of you."

************************

     "Yeah, that's right … 'uh oh'."  Gage stared at the broken lamp then to her daughter.  "Do I have to ask who did this?"

     When Derek pointed at Hayley, Sammy hesitated to point the finger at her until his brother nudged him then the older brother claimed.  "She did it."

     Dropping down on her knee, Gage took Hayley's small hands.  "Hayley.  Did you break the lamp? Mmmmm?"

     "Hi."  The innocence little girl agreed that the lamp was broken as she pointed at it.  "It fall down."

     "Well, okay.  I guess we'll just clean it up before your mom gets home."  Gage announced.

     "Momma?"  The bright eyed little girl beamed.

     "Yeah, momma."  Gage agreed then suddenly laughed when she saw a frown form on Sammy's face.  "Don't worry, she won't be mad."

     Surprised, Derek perked up. "She won't?"

     Stella stepped around the two boys.  "Of course not.  It was an accident, right?"

     Derek nodded.

     "Come here you two.  Take Hayley and sit over there while I clean it up."  Gage turned her daughter over to her brothers.  Gage started picking up the broken shards while Stella retrieved a small broom and dustpan.  Dusting off her hands after the last piece was disposed of, Gage glanced at the quiet trio.  "Guess we'll need to go shopping and get your mom a new one.  That is if we can find one that matches."

     When Stella returned to the living room, she overheard her daughter.  "That won't be easy.  I thought Lacy said those were one of a kind… the only two left."

     Remembering where they had bought the matched set, Gage rubbed her temple.  "Uh oh."

     Suddenly, Derek was very concerned. "What do you mean 'uh oh'?"
 

Chapter Five

     "Gage."

     "Gay."

     "No, it's Gage." Derek repeated.

     Smiling, Hayley repeated.  "Gay."

     "That's pretty close." Sammy assured his older brother. "Better than  'Mimi'."

     "Yeah, I guess so."  Derek sighed.  The young boy had worked for the last half an hour trying to get his sister to pronounce Gage's name correctly.  "Maybe Dani can help us?"

     "Want me to get her?"  Sammy poised, ready to take off and find his older sister.

     "Not yet."  Derek mused over the dilemma before him.  His mother wasn't very happy to find out that her lamp was broken but what made matters worse was when Sammy apologized to her about breaking the lamp.  Of course, that brought surprised looks to not only his mom but Gage and Stella as well.  Then it was just a matter of time before the whole story came out.  While Sammy and his brother played tag, Derek had tripped and bumped into the coffee table that resulted in the lamp toppling over.

     Derek wanted to make amends for lying to Gage by getting Hayley to say her name.  He had already offered to clean up the paints and brushes his mom used in order to pay for the lamp.

     "Well?"  Sammy propped his hand on his hips.  "Do I get her or not?"

     "Not."  Derek turned back to his sister.  "We have to do this on our own."  He didn't want Dani getting the credit for this seemingly impossible challenge. "Now, Hayley, one more time say Gage."

     "Gay!" Hayley shouted then clapped.

     Frustrated, Derek sighed.  "Okay, it's back to Mimi."

     "Mimi!" Hayley yelled and promptly spun around, leaving her brother's room. "Go get Mimi."

     "Oh, boy."  Sammy followed his sister out the door.

***********************

     Gage placed a comforting hand over Lacy's. "She'll be okay. Nate said he'd watch out for her and you got her that phone.  We can call her later if you want."

     "Oh, that'll buy me points.  Checking up on her while she's out with her friends."  Lacy frowned.

     Stella got up from the kitchen table.  "You need something to drink."

     "Scotch and soda."  Lacy ordered.

     The grandmother retrieved a bottle from the refrigerator, placing in it front of Lacy. "Here. Start with some milk."  Stella took her place at the table again.  "Lacy, you're going to pick her up at ten, right?"  Lacy nodded. "The movie started at seven and by the time they get out, she'll only have about an hour to walk around the mall."

     "Yeah, and besides, they'll probably get something to eat at the food court.  So how much running around could she do?"  Gage tried to be helpful.  "And did I mention that Nate will be there."

     "Yes, you did.  Thank you." Lacy offered a tentative smile.  "Both of you.  To tell you the truth, I'm worried about Dani, yes, but right now I'm more concerned about Derek."

     "His lying?"  Stella asked.

     Gage added. "And cussing."

     "His general attitude since he's been back." Lacy sipped her milk.  "Gage, sweetheart, would you get me a cookie?"

     The blonde jumped up and headed toward the cabinet.  "Absolutely."

     Just then, Derek, followed by his two siblings entered the kitchen only to hear Gage proclaim. "Ahh, Lacy.  The carton's here but there's not one cookie left."  Gage held up the empty tray.

     "Uh oh!"  Derek did a one-eighty quickly heading out of the room while his two followers followed suit.

     When Sammy turned, he mimicked his brother. "Uh oh."

     With Hayley bringing up the rear, she echoed.  "Uh oh."

***********************

     As Gage had predicted, Dani and her friends headed to the food court in order to get something to drink along with fries and onion rings.  But before she did, Dani stopped by the computer store where her uncle worked and said 'hi' as her mother requested.

     With food and drinks on the table, the girls surveyed the area looking for anyone they knew.  "I hope he comes tonight.  Troy said he would." The blonde haired girl, Katie, had a new boyfriend named Drake and her friend, Troy, assured her that he would be there.  "I don't see him."

     "There's Troy."  Dani pointed.

     Katie motioned for him to come over to their table.  "I'll see if he knows if Drake is here."

     The curly haired red headed girl sitting next to Katie shook her head. "Katie, Troy's the one that likes you."

     Dani sipped her soda, trying to ignore Cindy's proclamation.

     "Is that true, Dani?"  Katie demanded.

     "Everybody likes you."  Dani gave an attempt at being a diplomat.

     "Here he comes.  Let's ask him."  Cindy announced.

     As Troy approached, Katie's brown eyes flared.  "Don't you dare!  I don't want him to think I like him… not that way."

     The tall, slim boy ambled over to the girl's table.  Troy pushed back his glasses.  "Hi."

     "Sit down." Cindy ordered.

     A sharp glare from Katie challenged Cindy to say more.  When she was assured her friend would remain quiet at least for the moment, Katie asked Troy. "See Drake tonight?"

     "Earlier."  Troy scooted up to the table in his chair.

     "Want something?"  Dani asked.

     Shaking his head, Troy asked.  "You guys go to the movie?"

     Cindy felt safe in answering that question.  "It was cool. I've seen it twice now.  I love Reese Witherspoon."

     "When earlier?"  Katie wasn't satisfied with his laconic response about Drake.

     Feeling like he wouldn't lose anything, Troy declared.  "I don't know why you're so interested in him anyway.  He's not really your boyfriend."

     That made Katie fume since she had told both Dani and Cindy he was very much her new boyfriend.  "That's not true.  What do you know?"  Katie attempted to dismiss his declaration as a matter left to the green-eyed monster.

     Troy stood up.  "Do you know how old he is?  Nineteen.  And just because he buys you a few things doesn't mean he's like you… not like that anyway."  Frustrated, Troy ran his fingers through his short dark hair. "He's just trying to get to you… to do things… oh, never mind."  Troy stormed off.

     Katie totally dismissed his warning words.  "He's just jealous."

     "Is he really nineteen?"  Dani asked.

     Katie sipped her drink and admitted.  "He is older."

     Cindy munched on a fry but had to ask.  "What's he want you to do?"

     "Will you two stop it?"  Katie was upset with this line of questioning so she searched for a diversion.  "Isn't that your uncle?"

     When Nate showed up at the food court, he headed straight for the burger counter, pretending not to notice Dani and her friends.  After he received his food, Nate turned around looking in his niece's direction.  When he saw her wave at him, Nate hurried over to her table.  "Just getting something to eat."

     Dani picked at her fries. "We did, too."  Her mind was still on this nineteen year old that Katie insisted was her boyfriend.

     "You girls having fun?"  Nate bit into his hamburger.

     "Totally." Cindy smiled at him.  "When do you get off work?"

     The way she asked it put Nate on high alert, realizing the young girl may have a crush on him.  "When the mall closes at ten.  But then we have to straighten up before we leave."  Turning to his niece, he asked. "Dani, instead of your mom or Gage picking you up why don't you stop by the store and I'll drive you home."

     "Ah…."  Dani glanced at her two friends.

     "I'll call Lacy and let her know."  Nate suggested.

     Katie rolled her eyes, trying to get Dani's attention. She knew that Drake hung around outside the mall after it closed and hoped to introduce her friends to him.

     "I guess so."  Dani reluctantly agreed.  "But don't worry about calling mom.  I've got my own phone now."  She held up her new light blue cell phone.  For some reason, Dani wasn't too enthusiastic about meeting Katie's nineteen year old friend.  Since she knew Troy all through school, she reasoned that if Troy was concerned about this fellow named Drake so should she be and Dani was smart enough to know that it wasn't just because he liked Katie.  "I'll come by when we're through here."

     Nate stopped himself from hugging and kissing his niece but just barely.  "See you at ten then.  Anybody want the rest of my fries?"

     "I do."  Smiling, Cindy reached for them.  "Thank you."

     Nate winked at the young red headed teen then said to Dani.  "See you at ten."

     Upset, Katie practically yelled. "Why'd you go and do that? I wanted you to meet Drake."  As much as the young blonde was attracted to Drake, she didn't really want to be alone with him at least not outside in the dark.  She was counting on Dani supplying the necessary element to the theory that there was safety in numbers.  Besides Katie thought one of Drake's friends was scary.

     "Oh, who cares about Drake? Drake this, Drake that.  That's all I've heard about this past month."  Cindy had never actually seen him and was beginning to believe he was just her friend's fictitious boyfriend.  But then again, Katie did show me those cool clothes he bought her.  "You should stick to Troy.  I like him."

     "Then you go after him like you were doing with her uncle, flirting with him."  Katie accused the red headed friend.

     Stunned, Dani asked.  "You were flirting with my uncle?"

     "I think he's cute."  Cindy declared before she grabbed her purse and left.  "I gotta go. Mom's probably outside waiting already."

     Dani gathered her things as well.  "Maybe we should go, too."

     "Hold on.  Let's walk around a few times more.  Please."  Katie begged.

     Looking at her watch, Dani reluctantly agreed.  "Okay.  Just once."

************************

     "What was that all about?"  Stella asked.

     Gage flopped the empty cookie container on the table. "I think it had to do with no more cookies left."

     Lacy licked her lips.  "There aren't even any crumbs."

     Gage sat down.  "Well, I don't think Sammy would have been able to climb up there and get them."

     "Hayley either." Stella added.

     Scrunching her eyebrows together, Gage entertained another notion regarding her rambunctious daughter. "I don't know about that.  She's a little climber."

     "There was only one left. I'm betting it was Derek."  Suddenly, Lacy smiled. "I guess I'll have to teach them a valuable lesson my mom taught us kids."

     Gage and Stella waited patiently for Lacy to reveal that said lesson.

     "I quickly learned never be the first one to open anything and you never took the last one either."  Lacy said then further explained.  "Mom always asked who opened it or who took the last one.  She never asked who ate all the middle ones.  I remember Nate took the brunt of it most of the time."

     "You mean after you or your brothers coaxed him into opening the package of cookies?"  Gage grinned.

     "Not me… it was Lisa."  Finally, Lacy acknowledged. "Oh, okay, we got her to get him to open them."

     "Like mother, like son."  Gage declared.

     "Stella? Would you add another package of oatmeal cookies to the list?"  While the older woman nodded, Lacy rethought her request.  "Better make that two."

     "And we'll hide one of them."  Gage said to a smiling Lacy.

*************************

     The next afternoon as Lacy stood before a nearly empty canvas with paintbrush in hand, she ran over and over in her mind what she could do about the recent developments in her family.  Absent-mindedly she applied the red tipped brush to the canvas.

     "Interesting color for grass."  Lynn Lewis noted.

     Surprised, Lacy almost dropped the brush.  "What are you doing here?"

     "You sound like you don't want to see me."  Lynn teased her daughter.  "Come here."

     Lacy hugged her mother. "I'm always glad to see you."

     Moving back from Lacy, Lynn jested toward Stella who stood a few feet away and was the one who let Lynn in. "You're in the clear, Stella."

     Stella chuckled then sat down to rest her tired feet.  "You don't know how glad I am.  Although if I would have been in trouble, it may have gotten me a few days off."

     Concerned, Lacy stepped forward.  "Stella, if you need some time to yourself."  Lacy slapped her head.  "What am I saying?  Of course, you would.  After all you were the one that went to LA…."

     "Lacy, I was just kidding."  Stella assured her daughter-in-law.

     Lynn touched her daughter's arm.  "Honey, what's wrong?  Here come sit over here with us."

     Lacy allowed her mother to guide her to the couch.  "What isn't?  Dani, Derek…"

     "Stella told me."  Lynn scooted a little closer to Lacy. "When I raised you kids, I guess life was simpler then.  I didn't have to worry much about the kids playing outside or spending the night with their friends. And I know you've got that added concern…"  Lynn sucked in a deep breath before suggesting. "Maybe you should get a full time bodyguard."

     Lacy glanced at her mother then looked away.  "That's not going to solve everything.  More and more Dani will need her space.  I can't keep her fourteen forever.  And not only that, I don't want her to feel trapped or like a prisoner."

     Stella felt comfortable enough to add her two cents.  "Why don't you talk to her?  Explain how things are.  Dani's the brightest fourteen year old I've ever known."  Stella looked down and nervously rubbed her hands together before she admitted. "Of course, other than Julie's daughter, Jessie, I don't have much experience with teenage girls."

     Sensing Stella's remorse over her decision to give Gage up for adoption, Lacy reached over to the older woman and placed a comforting hand on Stella's knee.  "I think that's a wonderful idea."  Lacy's comment brought a smile to Stella's face.  "Now you got any ideas about how to handle Derek?"

     "I do." A voice from the doorway claimed.

     The trio of women turned to see Dani enter the room.  The youngest woman in the room asked.  "Okay, Dani, what should I do?"

     The fourteen year old flopped on the couch next to her grandmother.  "I'd send him to his room until he dropped his attitude." Then a mischievous smile crossed her face.  "Or swat him on the bottom a couple of times."

     "Do you think that last suggestion of yours should apply to a fourteen girl we know?"  Lacy asked.

     "Oh, mom!"  Dani was aghast at her mother's question.  "I'm way too old to be spanked."

     Lynn laughed. "I don't think anyone every laid a hand on that bottom of yours."

     Seriously, Dani proclaimed. "That's because I was always good."

     "Uh…huh."  Lacy spoke for the threesome.

     "Okay, fine."  Dani pulled her leg up under her and leaned forward.  "I didn't want to say this… because you know I like dad and all but…."

     Lacy waited for the confirmation to what she assumed and Stella had hinted at in their conversation.  "Go on."

     "You know how dad used to be… well, kinda hard on Derek?"  Lacy nodded. "This last time I think he went overboard."

     Shocked by her daughter's words, Lacy shot a look toward Stella, thinking that David was harsh toward their son.  "Overboard?"

     "Not that way, mom.  The other way overboard."  Dani explained.  "Anytime Derek did anything, dad was all like 'you're so wonderful' every time Derek caught a ball. Things like that."

     Lynn rubbed her chin before asking.  "So Derek finally got his dad's approval."

     "Yeah, even when he did things that weren't…"

     "Weren't what?"  Lacy inquired.

     "Nice."

     Lacy turned toward Gage's mother.  "Stella?"

     "I already told you what I saw, Lacy.  I think he was just trying to build Derek's self-esteem."  But Stella did admit. "It got playful sometimes… with Derek and the staff."

     "How do you mean playful, Stella?"  Lynn was very interested in getting some examples.

     But it was Dani who provided the telltale evidence.  "Like playing jokes on dad's staff especially… Mason.

     Lynn hiked an eyebrow in question.

     "The butler."  Lacy informed her.  "What else did your father encourage Derek to do?"

     Dani let out a small giggle.  "It was with Hayston.  And I shouldn't be telling because she'd kill me but…."

     The older women leaned in closer toward their informant.

************************

     From the window of her study, Gage watched Daniel Lewis play with her three youngest kids outside in the yard.  She turned back to stare for a brief moment at her laptop. "I need to get that done before next week but…"

************************

     "More!"  Derek screamed.

     Sammy echoed his brother's request. "Come on, grandpa.  One more time."

     Daniel Lewis leaned up against the lawn tractor he had just slipped off of.  "So, you want another ride?"

     "Yes!"  The brothers yelled simultaneously.

     "More ride."  Hayley' bounced up and down in the trailer that was attached to the tractor.

     "Just when am I gonna get this lawn mowed then?"  Daniel pretended to be frustrated with the trio.  "Huh?"

     "Who cares?"  Derek frowned.

     When it appeared that their grandfather wasn't too happy with Derek's response, Sammy prompted his sister.  "Say please, Hayley."

     Bright eyes shined at her grandfather. "Pwease Haywee."

     Derek rolled his gray eyes.  "She can't even say her own name right."

     "No, Hayley.  Say please grandpa."

     "Okay."  The little blonde said then paused until Sammy nudged her.  "Pwease pawpaw."

     Daniel grabbed the toddler under her arms and lifted her up high into the air.  "You want your pawpaw to take you on another ride, do you?"

     "Me… me, too, grandpa."  Sammy stood in the trailer.  "I wanna fly, too."

     "Uh… oh."  Instead of his mock attempt at discouraging the kids from one more ride so he could finish the lawn, Daniel had inadvertently now put himself in a position that required him to give his youngest grandson a flying ride.  I hope Derek doesn't want to fly.  Don't think my back could take it.  Oh, well.  Daniel placed Hayley gently back in the trailer.  "Come here, Sammy."

     When his grandfather was finished giving Derek's siblings several flying rides, the young boy demanded in a very impatient voice.  "Now for the ride please."

     Daniel tapped his oldest grandson on the nose.  "Not with that attitude."

     Derek scrunched his eyebrows together then said through tight lips.  "I said please."

     Daniel stooped down. "It wasn't what you said but the way you said it."

     The young boy wasn't happy at being called on the carpet and hearing the giggles from his siblings sent him in an even fouler mood.  "That's the way dad does it."

     "I see." Daniel sat back on his heels when he heard his knee creak. It was the one he had surgery on a while back.

     Sammy and Hayley laughed again at their brother's grimacing face.

     "Shut up!"  The young boy yelled at his siblings.

     "Derek!" A firm voice came from behind the young boy.  "I think that's enough son."

     Derek's angry gray eyes swung around and glared hard at Gage. "I am not your son."  He jumped out of the trailer and ran off toward the lakeshore.

     Stunned, Gage's connection with the young boy crumbled under Derek's verbal accusation.  A dark cloud shadowed her memories, spiraling around in a vortex that forced Gage to relive in her mind numerous other insensitive, hurtful accusations directed toward her when she was a kid.  She felt the same abrasive tone she had taken with Derek beat up against her as it lashed back into her consciousness.

     Daniel stood silent as Gage, without a word, simply turned and walked in the other direction.  Both Sammy and Hayley felt the tension in the air as they, too, remained quiet.

***********************

     "Hayston was upset that day because…" Dani shot a quick look toward her mother. "Well, she was just upset and Derek snuck into her dressing room and…"

     The three women leaned in even closer.

     "…Derek decided that he would help rearrange some of her make-up and things. Dad was always frustrated because it took her so long to get ready. Anyway, Derek switched a few items around and loosened some caps…."  Dani finished, pausing only briefly in order to look at both her grandmothers and her mom before adding.  "…with dad's help."

     When Lacy's cocked a questioning eyebrow, the young girl clarified.  "Hayston had been on him about his… drinking so…."

     Lacy simply nodded as another clue fell into place.
 

Chapter Six

     After the third attempt that evening, David Levine finally answered his telephone.  "Hello."

     "Where have you been?"  Lacy demanded.

     "Hold on there."  David loosened his tie then picked up his drink.  "We're not married anymore."

     With anger in her voice, she asked. "Just what have you been telling my son?"

     "Our son."  David corrected her.  "You didn't forget that little detail, did you?"

     With pursed lips, Lacy spat back at him.  "How could I?"  Lacy determined to steady her teetering emotions.  In a calmer voice, she continued.  "David? I thought we agreed.  I wouldn't come out there so you could bond with our children and yet ever since Derek's been back, he's been…"  She sucked in another calming breath.  "…lying, cussing and just exactly what have you been saying to him about Gage?" The last question related to what Stella had overheard between father and son.

     "So you think you've got me in the crosshairs?"  David plopped down in one of his living room chairs.  He wasn't in the mood for a confrontation with his ex-wife.  "Why don't you ask the nanny or should I say spy you sent along with the kids?"

     "You know as well as I do that Stella came along so you and Hayston wouldn't have to find a sitter whenever the two of you wanted to go out."  Lacy fumed at his accusation.

     "Fine.  Listen, Lacy. I did try to get to know my sons and you may not like it but Derek and I did get along.  I thought you wanted that."  He taunted her.

     "I do… but not at the expense of putting someone else down in the process."

     "You mean your precious Gage."  The very tired man slurred the blonde's name.

     "And I suppose Hayston was thrilled when you encouraged our son to sabotage her make-up kit?"  Lacy shot back at him.

     "Yeah, well, she deserved that."  David remembered the incident clearly.  "You know, I don't think she likes kids."

     "You just now finding that out?"  When Lacy realized what she had said, she recanted somewhat. "Perhaps it's because she lost a child of her own."

     "Mmmm…"  David was spent and didn't want to expend the energy it would take to continue with the bickering back and forth between them so he acquiesced to Lacy's accusations.  "Maybe I did correct our son about who his real parents are."

     "Whether you like it or not Gage is a real parent to him.  She loves him dearly and with her help Derek has come out of his shell and become more sure of himself."

     "Yeah, I thought for sure he'd grow up to be…"  David remembered, thinking that his son was a scardy cat.

     "Don't you dare say it." Lacy sternly warned him.

     "Actually, I'm quite proud of him.  He can hold his own."  David declared before he shook his empty glass in the air at Mason.  The butler took the glass and refilled it.

     David's smug compliment about Derek in one way did please her.  "I'm glad you do.  But no more talking about Gage. She doesn't say anything bad about you to him."

     This piqued David's interest since he had overheard the conversation between his son and Gage.  "Really? Then why was she grilling him on the phone about how I was treating him?"

     Since Lacy was in the room part of the time when Gage talked with Derek, she was somewhat aware of what transpired between the two during that phone call.  It was shortly after that when Gage… Oh my God, that's when the restless dreams began. "She just wanted Derek to have fun while he was there."

     "Sure, Lacy.  Did she convince you of that during one of your little bedroom chats?"

     "David! You're obviously drunk.  When you sober up, maybe we can talk about this civilly. Until then you're not going to see any of our children unless I'm present."  Lacy slammed the phone down before he could even take a breath.

***********************

     Dejected, Lacy walked into their bedroom where she saw Gage meticulously stuffing the pillows exactly the way she liked them.  Lacy didn't have the energy to say a word so she continued on to the bathroom in order to get ready for bed.  While she brushed her teeth, over and over in her mind she kept asking herself 'where do I start?'

     Summoning up her courage, Lacy hesitantly shut the bathroom door and looked steadily at her lover on the bed. Lacy Levine Ballant does not give up!  I just have to handle this… delicately.

     Lacy decided to start this conversation off gently as she dropped her silky robe to the floor.  "How's your screenplay going?"

     Gage rolled over.  "It's coming along."

     The dark haired woman climbed on the bed and crawled over to her lover.  "Is there a part in it for me?"

     "Hmmmm…"  Gage mused.  "I always write a part for you."

     Lacy laid her head on Gage's shoulder.  "I'm glad."

     The blonde wrapped her arm around Lacy, pulling her closer. "I know you want to talk about it."

     Lacy's head popped up.  This is a good sign. "Do you mind?  I think we should."

     Resigned to the inevitable, Gage agreed. "I know we should."

     "But?"

     Gage's green eyes glanced at her lover.  "No buts… you start though."

     "You already overheard the last part of what I said to David."  When Gage heard Lacy yell at one point in her conversation with her ex-husband, Gage quickly put the kids to bed then made her way back to Lacy who was in her study.  Gage arrived just in time to hear her partner accuse David of being drunk.

     "Do you think he's drinking that much?" Gage asked sincerely.

     Lacy shrugged. "I don't know for sure.  David was always a social drinker but nothing to excess."  When a quick memory flashed through her mind, she remembered.   "There was one time when things weren't going so well in his career."

     "You think that's it?"  Gage ran her fingers up and down Lacy's arm.

     "Ryan might know something or Ron Griffen."  Lacy referred to two of David's former business associates.

     Gage twisted slightly so she could look directly at her partner. "Mark and I are going to have Ryan on a conference call tomorrow.  We could ask, you know, in a casual way."

     "I guess so."  Lacy turned to the real question at hand. "How are we going to handle Derek?"

     "Maybe he needs time to sort it out… what he's feeling."

     Lacy propped herself up on her elbow. "Gage?  He's nine.  You don't just let him sort it out by himself."

     The blonde turned away.  "I did."

     Realizing she had struck a very sensitive cord, Lacy hooked her lover's chin with her finger.  "Yes, but you didn't have us."

     Sad green eyes turned down.  "You're right.  You don't want him to turn out like me."

     "Stop that." Lacy steadied her last bit of patience.  "Look at me."

     When green eyes lifted to meet loving blue, Gage offered a tentative smile.  "Then what do you suggest?"

     Lacy steeled her resolve.  "I think we need to establish some firm expectations for his behavior and the consequences if he doesn't comply."

     Upset, Gage pushed back.  "God, Lacy, you sound like some psycho-analyst in some clinical setting.  Not at all like a mother.  It's not like he committed a felony."  That thought produced some very unpleasant memories to rise up and grate against the blonde.

     Taken aback by her partner's unexpected response, Lacy sat up.  "I know what he's done.  I know exactly what's going on with him. Even though there's always been a strained relationship between him and David, Derek for the first time in his life wants his father's approval.  He's confused and David isn't helping much."

     "I guess I'm not either."  Gage's sharp tone cut through the air.

     On her last nerve, Lacy heaved a heavy sigh.  "Not like this you're not."

     The blonde flopped back down on the bed, jerked the covers up over her and turned away from Lacy.

     A deep shudder vibrated through the emotionally taxed woman.  She eased herself down on the bed next to Gage as she longed for the contact with her soulmate even though she could feel the tension between them.  Lacy was glad she had decided not to tell her lover that she had a short discussion about their relationship with her mom and Stella.  Nope, this isn't the time.

**********************

     As usual on Sunday morning, Lacy gathered the children along with her partner and headed off to Mass.  She was glad Gage didn't renege on her pledge about going along with them.  Even though the writer was not Catholic, Gage felt it was important to support Lacy and her choice in raising their children in that religion and she wanted to learn all she could about it.

     Most of the day while Dani was on the phone, the other children played quietly sometimes together and sometimes alone.  When Mark Calico called, Stella decided to take the three youngest ones for a walk.

     Gage pushed the speakerphone button so Lacy could hear the conversation.  "Mark, you gonna get Ryan on the phone now?"

     "In a minute. Did you have time to look over those contracts?"  Mark asked from his Long Island home.

     The writer picked them up from her desk. "Mark, they look fine to me but I don't know much about all this stuff about the party of the first part and the party of the…."

     Rolling her eyes, Lacy cut her partner off.  "Mark, I read over them this morning.  Anything specific you wanted to know?"

     "Not really.  Just want to keep you both in the loop."  The contracts established legal ties with their company, Shadow Productions, and Julie Grant's production company, Primrose Pictures.  "Oh, by the way, the merger we were working on came through.  Picked up a some TV stations in it."

     Gage and Lacy were aware that Mark's communication corporation had through the years bought up other companies and now with his latest acquisition was breaking into another arena.  "Television?  Wow.  Do you think you could get one of them to put Cagney and Lacey back on?" Crunching her eyebrows together, Lacy nudged her partner, prompting Gage to request her partner's recent TV show.  "Of course, only after you have reruns of 'Crackdown' playing."

     Slapping Gage's arm lightly, Lacy shook her head.  "That's not what I meant silly."

     You could hear the smile on Mark's face in his words. "How bout a marathon of Lacy's old shows?"

     Surprised, Gage asked.  "Can you do that?"

     "It appears so."  Mark marveled at the business savvy his Vice-President Mitch Stone had used in securing the lucrative properties for Calico Corporation.  "It's more like a television network."

     "Wow!"

     Lacy added her congratulations then asked.  "Mark, you know, Shanti and the others have been doing lots of work on their documentaries.  Is it the kind of station where they could run those kinds of shows?"

     "Anything's possible.  Right now, it's mostly old shows in reruns but we could change that.  Update."  Mark paused a moment before adding.  "As a matter of fact, Gage, when you come up this week, why don't you sit down with Mitch and see what kinds of things we could do with it."

     With a hesitant glance toward Lacy first, Gage reluctantly said. "Maybe… I don't know much about it."

     Perched on the edge of her partner's desk, Lacy reached over, touching Gage on the shoulder and smiled.  "I think she'd do a wonderful job. Good idea, Mark."

     "It's settled then."  The executive shifted gears.  "Is your screenplay finished yet?"

     "If you mean finished in its rough form then yes."  For some reason, Gage had a hard time focusing on the story.  'Angel in Disguise' was about a heavenly guide sent to protect a young detective who was in hot pursuit of a master criminal.  And Gage had yet to work out an intricate part of the plot.

     "I read it and it's perfect."  Lacy declared.

     Surprised, Gage asked.  "You did?"

     Lacy shrugged. "I couldn't sleep last night."

     This statement caused a frown on Gage's face.

     Even through the phone line, Mark sensed the tension between Gage and Lacy.  I'll have to talk to her about it when she gets here. "How bout I get Ryan on the line now?  Hold on."

     While Mark made the connection, Gage's sad expression prompted Lacy to step closer to her partner.  Lacy leaned down and kissed Gage on the head while she massaged her lover's strained neck muscles.

     "Ryan, I've got Gage and Lacy on the line.  How are things going out there in Hollywood?"  Mark inquired.

     The busy director relaxed in his home overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  "Surprisingly quite well.  Couple of more weeks here then we're off to Africa."

     "You're not having any problems with the shooting schedule?"  Mark was interested in every aspect of their new business and disappointed that his other business took him away from the filming of 'Heart of Africa'.

     "Like I said great.  Shanti's been fantastic."  Ryan White alluded to the actress that had a part in the last movie he directed with Lacy who now starred in the leading role. "Michael's been great and believe it or not Griff's been… well, she's quite enthused about this film."

     "Like that's a surprise."  Gage said in a very deadpan voice.

     "Mmmmm…"  Lacy moved around to sit on her lover's lap.  "It couldn't be because of the way you're filming this story, could it?"

     "It is rather unique."  Ryan admitted.

     "That's because it was Gage's idea." Lacy said proudly.

     "I just have to say again that Shanti's doing a wonderful job.  She's perfect for this part and is very convincing in her dual role."  Ryan wanted his partners to know the exceptional job the young actress was turning in for the part.  "Lacy?  Thanks for recommending her."

     "You're quite welcome."  Lacy said then she asked with mock sarcasm.  "Is there anything else I can help you with?"

     "Marta." The one word from Ryan mouth made Lacy roll her eyes.  "Still haven't been able to cast that one yet.  Interested?"

     Anxious green eyes stared straight into tempting blue ones. Gage had written the small role specifically for Lacy.  In the writer's mind, her partner was the only one to play this pivotal part.  But Gage remained mute about encouraging Lacy to take the role.

     Well aware of her partner's silent wishes, Lacy asked.  "Can you give me time to think about it?"  The actress had much more important issues to attend to before taking another role in a movie even if the screenplay was written by her partner.

     "Sure.  We won't even be heading down there till after the 4th of July and then we can shoot around your part."  Ryan was encouraged about the prospects of Lacy's participation.

     "Okay then.  I'll let you know."  Content to put that issue on the back burner, Lacy had a request for the director.  "By the way, would you mind telling Shanti that my brother has the movie studio equipped now and they can do all their editing on their documentaries here?  There's a small stage ready, too, in case they have some promos to film."

     "Consider it done.  When can we get in there and start filming Gage's next movie?"  The anxious director asked, happy to hear the news about the progress of Gage and Mark's new movie studio just outside of St. Troy.

     "Hold on, Ryan. The script's still got a few bugs to work out and…"

     "Don't believe her. It's perfect. But Hank's says there's about couple of months before we could use it for the kind of production you're talking about."  Lacy advised him.

     Feeling left out, Mark announced.  "Did you hear I got a new TV network to play with?"

     Gage had to smile.  "I thought you said I could play with it?"

     Mark sighed.  "Everybody gets all the fun except me.  Ryan's shooting a movie, Gage, you're writing one and Lacy… well, you get to do whatever you want…"

     "You got that right."  Lacy assured him while she pressed her lips to her lover's neck, sucking lightly.

     "…and I'm stuck here in business negotiations."  Mark finished.

     "I'm sure Julie would like to hear all about you not having any fun."  Ryan kidded his business partner.

     Mark quickly corrected his friend. "I didn't say that.  Julie, the kids and I are having a great time… when I'm not working."

     Gage hugged her lover and said to her old friend.  "Well, put on your party hat on, Mark, cause we're coming to town."
 

Chapter Seven

     Gage opened the newspaper and saw the full-page ad announcing the book signing of G.S. Ballantine's new murder/mystery, 'Cast of Suspicious Characters'.  "Damn that, Mark."

     Lacy lightly touched her partner's shoulder. "Sweetheart, the kids."

     Her green eyes tracked the whereabouts of their children in their New York City hotel suite. Gage saw the location of three of them but completely missed the alert boy hanging around the corner. "Sorry."

     Lacy grabbed the paper.  "Here. Let me see."  She perused the ad and it met with her approval.  "I like it."

     Taking it back from her partner, Gage folded the paper then placed it on the table.  "I like the part about you.  You're coming Saturday, right?"

     Lacy leaned in as she passed the blonde, kissing her and said.  "Absolutely."

     That brought a sigh of relief from the anxious writer.  "Hey, who wants to check out the pool?"  Four screaming kids stampeded toward her.  "Okay then.  Lacy?  You wanna go to?"

     "Nah, you go ahead. Maybe Stella will keep me company and we'll unpack."  When the older woman nodded, Lacy walked to the front door. She kissed all of them one by one then said. "Don't be too long. I was going to order room service in a little while."

     "Can I do that, mom?"  Derek asked excitedly.

     His mother ran a loving hand along his face.  "Maybe another time."

     Satisfied, Derek commanded the rest of them.  "Let's go."  And he led them out the door and down the long elaborate corridor to the elevator.

     The grand and expensive hotel was fancy.  Too fancy, Gage thought.  However, since they declined an offer to stay at Mark's home because Lacy and Gage promised the kids they would take them to the huge toy store across the street and to the park, it was more convenient to stay in Manhattan. The other reason for choosing this hotel was that it provided adequate security for their children.

     Stella grabbed a suitcase, looked around the huge three-bedroom suite and asked.  "Where do we start?"

     Smiling, Lacy yanked up two bags of her own.  "Does it matter?  Which room do you want?"

     "The smallest one.  Less to clean." Stella laughed.  She wasn't used to maid service and was the kind of person who made her own bed and tidied up a bit before she allowed the service to come in.

     In short order, the two women had unpacked the clothes for their five-day stay.  Lacy insisted that Stella sit down while she served them some drinks from the suite's refrigerator.  "I don't mind telling you this but this is kinda exciting being back in the big city."

     Their hometown, St. Troy, was large but nothing compared to New York City.  And somehow with where they lived, St. Troy seemed homier rather than the excitement that accompanied the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple.

     "Do you miss it?"  Stella asked seriously.

     Lacy thought for a moment before declaring.  "No.  Not really. I like home.  I enjoy the visiting but it's not something I would want all the time."

     "Well then… what's next on the agenda?"  The grandmother asked.

     "I thought we'd hang out here today and get a good night's rest. Then tomorrow, we promised to take the kids around."  Lacy sat forward in her seat and gave Stella a conniving wink before she said.  "I figure after that we could talk Gage into watching the three littlest ones while you, me and Dani go shopping."

     "Ah… a conspiracy.  Count me in." Stella lifted her glass to Lacy's.  "Here's to Gage never knowing what hit her."

     They clicked their glasses together and took a sip.  "Even if she did, hands down she would rather play with the kids than go shopping."

     Stella smiled. "Lucky us."

     A pensive look came over Lacy's face.  Yes, lucky me that she loves our children so much.  "I think I'll order something to eat for when they come back.  The food on the plane wasn't very appetizing." And Lacy usually didn't eat much when she traveled.

     "Except the peanuts. I liked them.  By the way…."  Stella got up to search the cabinets next to the refrigerator.  "I'm still hungry. I had to fight with Derek over Sammy's peanuts."

     As Lacy punched the numbers on the phone, she recalled the near war over said peanuts.  Sammy didn't want his and both her mother-in-law and son were vying for them, offering the young boy compensation. Gage was ready to buy all the peanuts on the plane so the two would stop but as it was they enjoyed the game more than really wanting the peanuts.  "Hello. Room service?"  Before Lacy placed her order she yelled over at Stella.  "I have a bag left."

     "Where'd you get it?"

     Lacy shrugged. "From Gage.  She had me save it for later."

     Rubbing her hands together, an evil look crossed Stella's face.  "Where is it?"

     Lacy pointed her purse out to Stella then placed the dinner order for her family.

***********************

     "Can we go swimming now?"  Dani asked.  She was very reluctant to come to New York because she was going to miss another big party back in St. Troy. If mom would have let me go in the first place.

     "Me…me, too. I wanna swim."  Sammy echoed.

     Hayley zipped over to the water's edge, ready to jump.  She was fearless. However, Dani's snatched the back of her pants and pulled her back into the safety of her arms. "I know what you mean but first you have to put on your arm floating thingies."

     "Okay."  Hayley agreed.  She spun around looking for them.

     While Gage was trying to calm her racing heart after her daughter took off toward the deep end of the huge pool, Derek snuck around behind all of them. He lay down near the edge of the pool and with his cupped hand started splashing water at the foursome and a few other swimmers.

     "Hey!"  Gage frowned.  "Knock it off, Derek."

     The young boy jumped up then took off, whizzing around the lounge chairs and other hotel guests.  He ducked behind the towel cart then pushed off when Gage approached.  The blonde barely kept the wobbly cart upright.

     "Derek!"  Dani commanded her brother's full attention as he passed near her and his two other siblings. "I'm going tell."

     The young boy stopped dead in his tracks and glared at his older sister.

     "Mom's not going to like it."

     Derek rolled his eyes then flopped on the lounge chair, mumbling.  "Who cares?  I wanna have some fun."  He didn't like being ordered around especially after he had full run at his dad's home in LA.

     When Gage caught up with the boy, she glanced between him and Dani.  "It's okay. It was really my fault. It was just a little water."  The blonde was being very sensitive to anything Derek did since their relationship sprung a leak.  She didn't want to push him away any further but was at a loss as what to do in order to get things back the way they were. "Come on, I bet your mom's got food for us."

     Gage picked up Hayley and grabbed Sammy's hand.  Dani took up the position on the other side of Gage while Derek hung back a few paces.

***********************

     The next day Lacy and Gage took the kids to the huge toy store across the street and what promised to be a delightful morning turned into a near catastrophe. At first, all four children stood in silent amazement upon seeing an array of toys and things throughout the big store.  Hayley insisted on touching everything she pointed to and Sammy ran from toy to toy in hopes of playing with everything there.

     Dani was more reserved in her method of exploring the store's contents separating herself from what she considered her sibling's childish behavior.  "They act like they've never been in a place like this before."

     "They haven't." Lacy reminded her now seemingly sophisticated daughter. "And Derek was too little to remember."  Years ago, Lacy and David had brought their two oldest children to this very same store on a visit to New York.

     "Lacy?"  Gage reached for Hayley.  "Why don't I take her? And I'll watch Sammy.  Derek wants to go upstairs."

     Lacy astutely realized that once again Gage withdrew from her interaction with Derek and knew the reason why.  Before they left for New York, Lacy had suggested to Gage for her and Derek to do something together like they did on their float trip.  The dark haired mother thought it would help mend their shaky relationship.  But Gage ignored Lacy's suggestion and the younger woman suspected that her partner was afraid.  She just didn't know of what.  "Okay.  Let's meet back here in an hour at the big grandfather's clock.  Dani?  You wanna come with us?"

     When it seemed as if Gage had shown her two charges everything on the first floor of the store, she heard a thundering crash overhead.  "Uh oh."

     "Uh oh." Hayley echoed as she looked up.  Smiling, the little girl pointed.  "Dewek!"

     It felt like slow motion as Gage's head lifted upward and when her green eyes came to rest, she saw her son dangling from a net attached to the underside of the second floor as stuffed animals rained down upon them.  "Oh, my God!"

     Dani screamed as Lacy rushed to her son.  "Derek! Hold on."

     Scrambling up the staircase with both Hayley and Sammy in her arms, Gage pushed through several customers to get to the rest of her family. "Lacy? Here, Dani."  Gage handed the two youngest kids over to their sister.

     "Where's Derek?"  Sammy asked because he could no longer see his brother hanging from the underbelly of the railing.  He crouched down between the legs of the tall guy in front of him in order to see.

     "Momma?"  Hayley heard her mother yelling.

     "Shhh…. Hayley."  Dani reached for her younger brother who had started to crawl through the man's legs.  "Hold on there, buster."

     Shoving her long arm through the railing, Lacy struggled to reach the net's edge so she could pull it up.  "Derek hold on!"

     When Gage arrived, she immediately hiked a leg up over the railing but Lacy stopped her. "Wait Gage. Let me."

     "Mom?"  In a small fearful voice, Derek called to his mother. He ventured to look down at the floor below and saw several people milling around with the heads tilted up toward him.  He looked back up at his mother.  "Mom!"

     "I'm coming."  Lacy assured her son.  "Gage?"  She turned toward her partner and said.  "Make sure we don't fall."

     "You won't."  Gage vowed to Lacy.  The blonde wasn't sure of her partner's plan but there wasn't time to talk about it as Lacy hiked a long leg up and over the railing, Gage steadied her partner.  Noticing the tall young man behind her, Gage ordered.  "Go downstairs and see if they have one of those tall ladders."

     He dashed off without a word.

     When Lacy inserted her legs between the spindles of the railing, she hooked them securely.  Letting go of Gage's hand, Lacy was now dangling over the side of the banister.  The blonde had reached through the railing, holding on to Lacy's legs.

     "Mom?"  Derek called in a very timid voice.

     Memories flooded back to the forefront of Lacy's mind to when she was on the set of Crackdown and the wire she was hanging from slipped.  The mother knew exactly what must be going through her son's mind.  She had to steel her nerves for her son.  Leaning downward, Lacy stretched her long arms for her son.  "Derek?  You need to swing toward me. Okay?"

     Afraid, Derek shook his head as he hung on for dear life.

     "You can do it. Just a little bit.  I can almost reach you."  The net was just out of her reach.  With his mother's coaxing, Derek did as requested and it was just enough for Lacy to snag the net.  She slowly pulled it toward her. Now that Derek was positioned directly below her, Lacy pulled hard.  It was difficult and she feared the net would tear.  "Honey, can you…."  The scared mother sorted through her alternatives.  "…can you climb up just a little bit."  The net wasn't long enough for the boy to climb down and perhaps jump to safety.  She reasoned her only option was for him to climb up it.

     "Mom, I can't…"

     Green eyes slammed shut when Gage heard the fear in Derek's voice. Please God, please do something. Not being very religious Gage didn't know what to ask for but Dani had once assured her that God would do anything you asked if you did it in His name. Okay, God, Jesus, Holy Spirit… all of you.  Please get Derek back up here safely.

     "Come on, Derek. Just look at me."  When he focused his scared gray eyes fully on his mother, she continued.  "You can do it.  Take one hand and reach up. Grab the next loop.  Go ahead."  The young boy did as requested and his right foot automatically slid up to find another secure loop in the net.

     Lacy saw all the commotion below as someone pushed a tall wheeled ladder through the crowd below but she didn't know if the net would hold long enough for them to reach him.  She decided to have him climb even further up. "Derek.  Everything's going to be fine.  One more.  Take your other hand and grab the loop above that."

     Sucking in a deep breath, Derek stared hard into his mother's reassuring eyes.  "Okay."  When he did, Lacy stretched her long body as far as she could and clutched her hand around his wrist.

     "I've got you."  Lacy steadied her breathing.  Now what?  "Gage?"

     The blonde stared over the side and saw that Lacy had their son temporarily secured. "Lacy, hold on.  Can you hold on?"  The blonde saw the tall ladder being cranked higher toward Derek.  "They're lifting the ladder."

     In her concentration to reach her son, Lacy had forgot about the ladder.  She could see it below and it was now within a few feet of Derek.  "Okay, Derek.  Now listen to me.  Right below you…"  Her son started to look. "Derek look at me."  She said sharply then softened her voice when he did as instructed. "There's a man on a ladder right below you.  When he gets closer and gets hold of you, I'm going to let go.  Okay?"

     Nodding quickly, the frightened boy agreed.  "Okay."

     Lacy waited what seemed like forever for the ladder to ascend those last few feet to her son.  When the guy on the ladder was even with Derek, she spoke with gentle words to her son.  "You're all right now. I'm going to let go.  Okay?"

     Nodding again, Derek allowed his mother to release him as he fell into the tall stranger's arms.  The dark haired teenager winked at Derek.  "You're cool now."

     Lacy hung there until the ladder had fully descended and her son was safe on the ground.  Lifting up, Lacy utilized every stomach muscle she had in order to reach the poles of the banister.  Carefully, she untangled her legs from the poles and lifted herself up and over the railing.  Barely feeling the hug Gage gave her, Lacy flew down the stairs.

     With her son safe in her arms, the distraught mother was able to allow the floodgate of emotions to break free.  Tears ran down her face in joy at holding her son. "Thank God, you're safe."  She kissed him mercilessly over and over again.

     Gage guided the rest of the kids down the stairs to where Lacy was holding Derek.  She thanked the men responsible for getting the ladder.  The blonde turned to Derek's tall savior. "Thank you."

     "Sure, no problem."  The eighteen year old didn't look much like a savior with his short spiked hair, earrings in both ears and some kind of metal thing pierced through his eyebrow but Gage was eternally grateful to him.

     Gage shook the tall stranger's hand before suggesting to Lacy that they go back to the hotel.

************************

     Lacy was reluctant to leave her son when Dani suggested that they go on their planned shopping trip but Derek insisted that he was okay.  Even though the nine-year-old boy admitted to himself that he was totally scared hanging from that net, he was unwilling to let on about it.  He knew his dad wouldn't be happy with him if he heard that Derek was afraid.  Lacy only at the last minute succumbed to the shopping spree after Gage insisted that she go and get her mind off of what happened.  Being held by her lover reassured her enough to reveal one of her worst fears. "I'm always so conscious of someone else hurting our children and… I forget that… that…"

     "Things happens, Lacy."  Gage supplied.  "You have every reason to put their safety first but when you're a kid sometimes you do what Derek did today.  I admit I never jumped from a banister onto a net before but I did do some very stupid things in my life."

     "What are you going to do while we're gone?"

     Gage escorted Lacy to the door where Stella and Dani were patiently waiting.  "To the pool."  She said to the cheers from the three youngest kids.
 

Chapter Eight

     Late Friday afternoon, the Ballant clan arrived at Mark and Julie's home on Long Island.  Mark planned a barbeque for his old friend and had invited Mitchell Stone and his wife, Bev, along. He was surprised when Jett, Beverly's son accompanied them.  Julie Grant was less surprised informing Mark that she suspected Jett liked Jessie.

     "But she's got a boyfriend."  Mark said of his wife's daughter.

     Julie cupped his face with her hand.  "Darling, sometimes things like that just don't matter."

     He noticed Jett make a beeline for Jessie's room telling everyone that he wanted to say 'hi'.  If it was up to Mark, he wouldn't allow Jessie to date until she was twenty-five. When he had shared that with Julie, she laughed.  "I can't believe how parental you can be."  Julie kissed him soundly in appreciation of how much Mark had come to love her children.

     Mark wrapped his arm around Julie as he introduced his guests to each other.  "Lacy, Gage, you already know Mitch and this is his wife, Beverly."

     "It's nice to meet you."  Bev smiled at Gage.  I wonder if I should be jealous. She chanced a glance at her husband before turning to Lacy. "And I feel like I already know you from your show."

     Lacy extended her hand, smiling.  "Don't believe everything you see.  It's nice to meet you."

     Holding Hayley, Gage introduced the rest of their family to Mitch and his wife.  "This is Stella, my mom."

     "Hello."  Stella smiled.

     Nodding, Gage continued the introductions. "Our children Dani and Derek…" The blonde searched a moment then saw her youngest son.  "Sammy, come here."

     The small boy peeked out from behind his mother.  He shot his small hand up for a quick wave before taking refuge behind Lacy again.

     "That's Sammy and this…" Gage propped Hayley up a little higher.  "…is our littlest, Hayley."

     With a generous smile, Mitch beamed at seeing Gage with her child.  It warmed his heart to see such love between parent and child.  She deserves it.

     Gage turned slightly.  "Hayley, you remember Julie and Mark."

     Julie took a step forward and took hold of her tiny hand.  "Hello, Hayley."  The child giggled.  "Mark, look how she's grown."

     Proudly, Mark said.  "And she's so pretty.  Just like her mother."

     "Then you mean beautiful."  Gage corrected her friend.  "Cause Lacy's the most beautiful woman in the world."

     "Yes, she is." Mark agreed then astutely pointed out.  "Right behind Julie here."

     Lacy laughed. "Good save there, Mark."

     Julie nudged her husband.  "Yeah, ya big lug."

     "Mark?"  Gage moved closer.  "Why don't you hold her?"

     Panic held court briefly in his blue eyes. "I… I don't…"

     "Here."  Gage slipped Hayley into her biological father's arms.

     Nervous, Mark marveled at the tiny girl he was holding.  This wasn't the first time he had held Hayley or had spent time with her but it never ceased to amaze him that he was part of her creation. Instinctively, Mark bounced Hayley in his arms.

     "Hayley, say hi to Mark."  Gage prompted her daughter.

     "Hi."  Her eyes studied the man holding her for a moment before she reached up and tugged on his nose.

     When Gage laughed, so did Hayley.  "Do you think that's funny, Hayley?"

     "Hi."  The little girl agreed with Gage and did it again.  This time when Mark offered a slight frown in response the small child said.  "Uh oh."

     "Uh ohs right."  Mark smiled.  "Why don't you pull her nose?"  Mark leaned Hayley toward Gage.  "Go ahead. Get her. Get Gage."

     Hayley reached forward and said quite clearly.  "Gay."

     That word coming from the little girl's mouth shocked the room in complete silence.  Only Derek uttered a soft. "Uh oh."  Then promptly hid behind his mother right along side Sammy.

     Silence reigned until Gage spoke.  "Great.  My own daughter outs me in front of my family and friends."

     Nearly everyone else joined Gage's laughter except for the two conspirators still hiding behind Lacy.

     "Come here."  After Mark returned Hayley to Gage, the blonde asked.  "Now just where… who taught you that?"

     Sensing that Gage was not the happiest camper in the world, Hayley popped her small hand over her mouth and said.  "Uh oh."

     Dani was getting rather bored with all of the introductions so she asked.  "Where's Jessie?"

     Julie stepped through the crowd toward the young girl.  "She's up in her room.  Come on, I'll show you where it is."  Over her shoulder, the hostess called to Mark.  "Why don't you get our guests something to drink?"

************************

     After Jessie yelled for Dani to come in, the young girl opened the bedroom door and was completely surprised. "What are you doing here?"

     "I live here."  Jessie shot back teasingly.

     "No. Him."  Dani pointed to the tall boy sitting on the edge of Jessie's bed.

     "Dani, this is Jett. Bev's son, Mitch's…."  The nineteen-year-old girl started to explain.

     "You're Jett? But…"

     When the tall boy saw that both girls were confused, he explained to Jessie.  "I saw Dani at the toy store yesterday."

     "You're the one that came up the ladder to get Derek."

     "What?"  Jessie was thoroughly confused now.

     After Jett explained the whole situation, Jessie heard her mother calling them to come down and join the rest of the group.  "We'll be down in a minute."  She looked at Jett.  "We need to freshen up, would you mind?"

     "That's my clue."  Jett straightened up.  "Later."

     When he was gone, Jessie asked Dani.  "Well, what you do you think?"

     "He's gorgeous." Dani gushed.

     Jessie smiled. "I think so, too."

***********************

     The lanky teen ambled down the long staircase glad he rode his motorcycle here.  He only came to see Jessie and when he found out that she had a date later, he figured he would stay and check out her boyfriend.  Competition. The smug adolescent reasoned that he would bide his time. The light haired girl with chocolate brown eyes was the first girl Jett was really smitten with.  He wasn't paying much attention when he bumped into the kid at the bottom of the stairs.  "Hey!"

     Mesmerized by the teen's appearance in a black leather vest, black jeans with several chains hanging from the loops, the young child just stood there.

     "Oh, it's you."  Jett gave the little guy a crooked smile then mused his short hair.  "Haven't been hanging around again, have ya?"

     Derek shook his head and finally found his voice.  "What's that on your arm?"

     Jett swung his shoulder around.  "This? It's a snake eye.  See it? Right there in the middle."

     "What's it for?"  Derek stared at the colorful tattoo.

     "Nothing you need to know about." Jett glanced around the huge hall.  "Hey, where's your mom? She was kinda cute."

     Pointing to a sliding door that led to the outside courtyard, Derek continued his questioning.  "Where'd ya get it?"

     Jett strutted toward the door. "Little shop in the village."

     "Oh." Derek followed him not having a clue as to what village he was referring to.  "Do you have anymore?"

     The tall teen swung around and stooped down.  "Yep."  He winked at Derek before saying. "But none that I can show ya."

     "Oh."  Derek wasn't sure what that meant but he also wasn't going to let on.

     Jett stood at the doorway, whipped out a cigarette from his vest and lit it.  He inhaled a couple of times.  Glancing at Derek, he shoved the lit cigarette toward the young boy. "Wanna drag?"

     Quickly, Derek shook his head.  But secretly he couldn't help but think how cool Jett looked and wondered what it would taste like.

     Sucking on the death stick again, Jett mumbled.  "Ah, hell." Impatient, he looked at Derek. "Should I wait?  See what this jokers got to offer."

     Clueless, Derek nodded but only because he didn't want Jett to leave yet.  "You wanna go outside?"

     Jett dropped down next to Derek.  "First rule… when they…" Jett pointed to the group of adults outside. "…are outside, you stay inside.  When they come in, you go out.  Saves you lots of hassles in the long run."

     "Right."  The impressionable nine-year-old eagerly agreed.

***********************

     Jett along with Derek finally did make their presence known among the adults when Jessie and Dani showed up outside.  Both Lacy and Gage heralded their appreciation to him and his parents about what he done the day before.  Derek was a quick study on how cool Jett was and began to idolize him even more after all the praise and thanks Lacy and Gage showered on the young man.

     Bev wrapped her arm around his lean waist. "I'm proud of him."

     Mitch inserted his feelings.  "We both are."  The strain between Mitch and the teen had lessened but there was still a long way to go. While his mother's idealist view of her son was blurry, Mitch had a clearer picture of exactly what Jett was still into these days.

     After everyone ate, Jett lingered for a while talking with Jessie and Dani with Derek close by.  The young boy didn't say much but hung on Jett's every word.  When Sammy and his younger sister wanted him to play for a while, Derek turned them down flat. He was much too interested in what Jett had to say.

     "Come on, Jessie.  Forget about him." Jett referred to her boyfriend. "I'll take you for a ride on my bike."

     "I'll go for a ride." Derek popped up.

     Musing the young boy's hair, Jett dismissed him. "Later."

     Secretly, Dani was hoping for a ride on his bike.

     "Come on."  Jett glanced over toward the group of adults in the distance.  "Just a quick ride up and down the street."  When Jessie shook her head, he turned to Dani.  "You wanna ride, don't ya?"

     "Yes."  Dani about jumped out her shoes when he asked.

     "No." Jessie countered. "She's too young.  Besides, I don't think her mom would let her."

     Before Dani could speak for herself, Jett spat. "Oh, fuck this.  I'm outta here."  Jett made a half-hearted wave toward his mother before he took his leave.

     Frowning at Jessie, Derek walked away. The young boy was convinced that Jett would take him for a ride later like he promised.

     "You wanna go back up to my room before my date comes?"  Jessie asked Dani.

     "Sure."  But only after a few steps, Dani pulled at the older girl's arm.  "Jessie?  Why didn't you want me to ride with him?  Is it because you like him?"

     Jessie motioned for her young friend to sit on the short stonewall leading back up to the house. "Yeah, I like him okay but that's not it.  Dani…"  Jessie took a minute to formulate her thoughts.  "I think deep down Jett's got a lot of good in him but it's like he's got a chip on his shoulder. I think it has something to do with his parents divorcing but I'm not sure."

     Dani nodded. She understood about parents divorcing.

     "And he's been into some things like drugs… I know he used to belong to a gang but in all fairness he says he's not into that anymore.  I don't know."  Jessie took a deep and thoughtful breath. "I think one day he'll get it all together but right now… he's confused and… dangerous."  When she saw Dani's blue eyes widen upon hearing that word, Jessie modified her statement. "I don't mean it that way.  More like out of control.  He's unpredictable."

     Tentatively, Dani asked.  "What if he wasn't?  Would you go out with him?"

     "Well, you know I have a boyfriend."  Dani nodded. "But… maybe.  He's so cute."

     They both smiled.

***********************

     Mark and Gage waited until Mitch and his wife left before sitting down to talk business about their production company.  "I slave hours over getting my screenplay finished and you don't even ask about it."

     "Hand it over."  Mark took the script.  "I'm sure Lacy's correct in her assessment of it."

     "Mmmmm… hmmm… I think she's a little biased."

     Mark smiled, knowing he held a certain bias when it came to his best friend.

     "By the way, Mitch and I talked briefly about his ideas for the TV network you've acquired.  He's got some great ideas."  Gage watched Mark flip through her script.  "I'm not sure I can add much to it."

     Mark tossed the script to the side.  "Nonsense.  There's always something percolating up there in that noggin of yours.  I'm glad you and Lacy could come and visit.  With all the negotiations going on here, I've not been able to get away."

     "You mean forced.  You forced me to come here setting up that book signing."  Gage kidded her partner and friend.

     "I had to get you here some way." Then Mark asked seriously. "You and Lacy okay?"

     "Yeah."  Gage dismissed the worried look in his blue eyes. "You know how it is… life, the kids. Things like that."

     Smiling, Mark turned reflective thinking about the tiny blonde girl.  "She looks just like you."

     "Actually, I think she looks more like Lacy and you.  Except for the blonde hair."  Gage sat up in her chair.  "Mark, I want her to know you… and not just as a friend to the family."

     Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, Mark advised Gage.  "I told you that's up to you and Lacy. I don't want to intrude."

     "Intrude?  Without you, Lacy and I wouldn't have her.  No. Lacy and I've talked about it.  I don't know when exactly but one day, she will know you're her father.  And I want you to think about something."

     His dark eyebrow rose in question.

     "What if she started calling you… 'daddy'?"  Gage offered a smile to her friend.

     "Spoken from someone whose daughter calls her 'gay'."

     "Hey, I don't know where she came up with that.  I have my suspicions about that one though."  Gage said then the blonde rolled her eyes and admitted.  "She calls me 'Mimi'.  It all started with Sammy."

     "Lacy told me or rather Julie then it finally got to me."  Mark folded his hands together.  "Why not 'mom'?"

     "That's what she calls Lacy."  When he remained silent, obviously not satisfied with her answer, Gage continued.  "Come on, Mark, do I look like a mom?"

     Smiling, Mark got up.  "You look fine to me.  Come on, let's go back outside before they miss us and…" Mark's blue eyes gazed at Gage.  "I'll think about the daddy thing.  I just don't want to confuse her."

     "Oh, trust me you won't.  That little kid is so smart.  Nothing gets past her."  Gage pulled him closer.  "She'll probably figure out you're her father long before we tell her.  Matter fact, I bet she already knows."

Chapter Nine

     Nervously, Gage stood at the back door of the New York bookstore.  She held Lacy's hand tightly.  "You're coming with me, right?"  When Lacy didn't answer, Gage turned around.  Lacy was still on her cell phone with Stella. I'm so keyed up I didn't hear the phone ring.

     "Stella, tell him we'll talk about it later.  But between you and me the answer is a definitive no!" Frustrated, Lacy blew a puff of air up that caused her bangs to fly.

     Looking back at the crowd gathering in the store, Gage asked. "No what?"

     Lacy ended her call and announced.  "He wants a tattoo."

     Distracted for a moment, Lacy's words finally penetrated the blonde's mind.  "He wants a what?"

     "You heard me.  A tattoo.  Like Jett's."

     A deep shudder vibrated through the blonde's whole body.

     Lacy wrapped her arm around Gage when she felt the nervousness in her partner.  "Sweetheart, I'll be right there by your side the whole time.  Okay?"

     Gage turned to meet her partner's concerned blue eyes. "Lacy?"  She hesitated before she proposed.  "Maybe we should think about it."

     Confused, Lacy asked.  "You don't want me with you?"

     "No!"  Trying to find a way to express her concerns regarding Derek, Gage closed her eyes for a brief moment.  "Derek… maybe we should think about, you know, a tattoo for him."  When the blonde saw her partner begin to protest, Gage rushed her next words.  "Nothing big… a little tiny one."

     "Gage?" The bookstore owner interrupted the couple.  "It's time."

     Baffled blue stared into anxious green eyes for a moment in time before, they both shook off their concerns and walked hand in hand out to the waiting crowd.

***********************

     The afternoon went well and true to her word Lacy stayed nearby the whole time.  Gage took every chance she could to make sure the people crowded around were well aware of Lacy's art design on the cover of her book.  As usual Lacy dismissed her contribution but received the praise with elegant grace, making all those gathered feel special.  When the last few autograph seekers had dwindled down, Lacy asked Gage if she wanted something to drink.

     The blonde smiled then nodded to Lacy as she signed one more book for one of the store's patrons.  "I hope you enjoy it."  Before the customer left, Gage glanced around quickly to look for her partner.

     That was when it happened.

     "Hello Gage."

     When the siren voice from the past entered Gage's consciousness, the blonde looked back around and standing before her was the woman that changed her life dramatically.  Swallowing hard, Gage croaked.  "Gail?"

     Warm green eyes greeted her old friend as Gail Randall walked around the podium and hugged Gage. "Oh, it's so nice to see you again."  The slightly shorter woman lingered in her hold on the writer.  It was as if she was trying to reclaim the past and perhaps even Gage's heart.  "I've missed you." Gail pulled Gage's chin down and placed a sweet kiss on the still stunned writer's lips.

     From a distance, Lacy stood in shock as a dark haired woman stroked her partner's face.

     Gage was so stunned she didn't realize that Gail still held her close and was taking liberties that in the past had been welcomed.  And we're in public, too.

     It further infuriated Lacy that her partner wasn't rebuking the offending intimate gestures from the stranger. Sitting the bottle of water aside, Lacy determinedly strolled across the room, prepared for battle if it came to that.  "Excuse me!"  Pulling Gage from her shocked state, Lacy got both of their attentions.  "I believe you're flirting with my woman."  Cold ice blue eyes shifted quickly to her lover before landing squarely on the dark headed stranger.

     "Oh!"  Gail withdrew from the blonde but held her ground still well within Gage's personal space.

     Lacy immediately cupped her arm through Gage's and jerked the blonde closer like a rag doll.  "I don't believe we've met.  Gage? You mind introducing us."

     "Uh…"  The blonde's voice stumbled.

     The shorter dark haired woman extended her hand. "I'm Gail Randall.  Gage and I were friends a long time ago." Smiling, the green-eyed woman added. "Very close friends."

     With a tight smile, Lacy shook her hand.  "I see."

     Gail tilted her head as if she was contemplating something then spat sarcastically.  "Why Gage you never told her about us?"

     There was only one other time Gage had witnessed that evil streak in her old friend and the thought of it brought back hoards of dark memories, threatening to overcome the shaken blonde. "Uh… no."

     "Secrets don't make friends." Gail said with a haunting laugh.

     This brought out an evil streak in Lacy to match that of the stranger.  "Gage and I have no secrets… there are just some things that are too trivial to even mention."

     "Touché."  Gail's green eyes examined her competition.  She's a formidable force but then again… so can I be… if necessary.

     Finally coming out of her stupor, Gage spoke.  "Gail, this is Lacy Levine…"

     "Ballant."  Lacy added without missing a beat.

     "Ballant."  Gage gulped then continued. "And Lacy, Gail."

     "Yes, we've already met." Lacy smiled at her partner but it didn't reach her cool blue eyes.

     Nervously, Gage shifted her green eyes between the two.  "So you have. Well…"

     When the three stood there for a long moment in silence, Lacy finally asked. "Gail, would you like to have dinner with us tonight?"  She believed in the theory of keeping your enemy close so you could keep an eye on them.

     Surprised, Gail composed herself and smiled.  "Actually, I just came to get my book signed."  She handed it to Gage. "Would you be so kind?  For old time's sake." Gail purred.

     "Sure."  Gage quickly signed her name and noted that Lacy was trying to see what she wrote.  Handing the book back to her old friend, Gage dismissed Lacy's idea of dinner.  "I'm afraid Lacy forgot that we have plans tonight so about dinner…"

     Touching Gage's face with the tips of her fingers, Gail stared deeply into the blonde's eyes. "I understand…" And as if stating a deeper meaning that only the blonde would understand, she continued.  "…about everything."

     Relieved and bewildered, Gage sighed but looked steadily into Gail's green eyes as she recalled their past together.  But I don't.

     Lacy recognized a sexual torrent undertone transpired between the two and she was not thrilled with her partner's silence.  "Perhaps another time?"

     Dragging her hungry eyes from Gage, the shorter woman looked at Lacy.  "Perhaps."  Turning back to the blonde, Gail smiled sweetly. "Thank you."  Then leaned in to kiss Gage on the cheek.  Before another word was spoken, Gail Randall had walked out of Gage's life for the second time.

**********************

     On the ride home, Lacy remained quiet much to Gage's chagrin.  "Lacy? Are you going to talk to me?" When her partner remained silent, Gage asked.  "Never?"

     Leaving a space between them in the back of the cab, Lacy turned to her partner and with a stone look on her face, she proclaimed.  "Oh, now you want to talk. How convenient."

***********************

       Without a word, Lacy crossed their huge suite entering her bedroom and slammed the door.  Stella watched with concerned green eyes as Gage dragged behind.

     Hearing the door slam, Derek ran out of his bedroom.  "Where's mom?"

     Stella held him back while an inpatient Gage said.  "Derek?  Can it wait?  Your mom…"  She stood there at loss of words barely noticing her son's new hairstyle.  Your mom what?  Your mom's gonna leave me. Your mom's mad at me.

     The grandmother interceded.  "Your mom's not feeling well. Let's give it a bit of time. Okay?"

     Derek crunched his eyebrows together, thinking heavily.  "Gage, would you ask mom about letting me have a tattoo?"  The little guy figured that if anyone could sway his mom than it would be Gage. He astutely pointed out the fact that Dani got her ears pierced.  When Gage didn't respond, Derek remembered that his dad was all for Dani getting her ears pierced even though his mom was against it.  Seeing that Gage wasn't paying attention to him, he shrugged. "Never mind."  Off he ran to his room searching for his older sister.

     Touching her daughter's arm, Stella asked.  "Are you okay?"

     With a blank look on her face, Gage felt her world about to collapse.  "I don't know."  She turned toward their bedroom.  "I guess I'm gonna be find."

     With that said, Stella watched her daughter slowly walk toward the door Lacy recently slammed shut.  "I guess I should ask the kids what they want to eat and call room service."  The family had plans to go out to eat but now it seemed like that was out of the question.

***********************

     "Derek, don't take too long."  Dani reluctantly handed her cell phone to her brother.  "I don't want to use up all of my minutes."

     "It's Saturday."  Derek rolled his eyes. Even he knew she had unlimited minutes on the weekend.  "I'm just calling dad."

     "I know but I'm expecting a call…"  Dani noticed something out the corner of her eye.  "Hayley!  What the heck are you up to now?"

     The tiny blonde was crawling up on the long cabinet where her younger brother was sitting while he applied Dani's purple lip gloss to the mirror.  When Dani saw Sammy, she ran across the room.  "Oh no you two… not again."

     Stella heard the commotion when she entered the kid's room.  Seeing that Dani was prying the various make-up items out of both Hayley and Sammy's hands, she had to laugh.  "Here let me help.  I was going to see what you guys wanted to eat but…"  The mirror was covered with markings.  "I guess we better clean this up first."

     Derek overheard his grandmother and since he couldn't reach his father decided he would help out.  He ran out of their room and straight to the suite's telephone. "Hello?  Room Service.  I'd like to order…"

************************

     Gage quietly shut the door to their bedroom.  Guilt overwhelmed her upon seeing Lacy lying on the bed.  She could tell her partner was crying yet tried to cover it.  The blonde stood there staring at Lacy not knowing what to say.  It was true.  Gage remembered the conversation she had with Lacy after it was revealed at Mark's bachelor party that the blonde was once involved with Mitchell Stone.

     Praying the conversation had ended, Gage released a heavy sigh and then it happened.  Lacy asked one more question.

     "Anyone else I should know about?"

     Gage shivered at the question her lover asked as an uneasy rumbling stirred in her in the darkest, deepest part of her memory.  A distant recollection tried to scratch its way to the surface bringing with it an overwhelming and crippling pain so great that Gage pushed the dark remembrance back.  Bolting the door to the secret that was so dark and profound, it had changed her life drastically.  The lock and chain she applied so many years ago to restrain this memory from ever reaching her conscious state now laid dormant again as Gage tossed the key away for good and prayed it would never return.   Her simple answer did not put to rest the uneasy feeling that still hung in the air between Gage and her lover.  "No."

     The blonde knew she had lied to her partner.  And the other thing that she realized was that she had lied to herself by suppressing that part of her life and now it was reaching from the far corner of her life, threatening to destroy everything she treasured.  No reasoning in the world could every justify this lie even though it was one that Gage herself pushed from her conscious mind so far back that even she hardly remembered it until it came barreling forward with the sudden appearance of Gail Randall.

***********************

     After Derek had ordered plenty of food for his family, he punched in hid dad's number again.  This time he was successful.  "Dad? Hi, this is Derek."

     Laughing, David said.  "I know son."

     Oh, the sound of that word warmed the little boy's heart. Derek could not honestly remember his dad ever calling him that before until he stayed with his father during the last month.  "How ya doing?"

     "You know me, top of the world.  Couldn't be better." David sipped his cocktail.  "So what'd you call for?  Time is money."  The not so busy man joked.

     "Remember you told me I need to…"  Derek tried to remember the big word 'assertive' his father used.  "…do things my own way."

     Nodding, David inserted the word his son had forgot.  "Assert yourself."

     "Yeah, right. I think I should assert myself.  Don't you think so?"  Derek asked in a very vague way.

     "Absolutely.  If there's something you want, you get it."  David was happy to supply his son with some sound advice. "Don't let anybody stand in your way.  You got to take what you want."  If the slightly inebriated man had heard himself, he would have realized that the advice he gave was really directed at himself and not his nine-year-old son.

     Determined, Derek vowed.  "I'm gonna do that."

     "Way to go boy. I'm proud of you."

     "Thanks dad."

     But before David could ask his son just exactly what Derek's plans were, the boy disconnected the line.  "Hmmm…"  Not giving anymore thought to the conversation, he added. "That's my boy."

************************

     The knock on the door brought room service and even Dani was surprised when seven trays of food arrived.  Stella stood in total disbelief.  "Where… I think you have the wrong room.  We didn't order this."

     One of the attendants supplied the older woman a slip.

     Stella just stared at it while Dani perused the dessert cart.  "Who wants cake?"

     "Me… me. I do." Sammy reached up and over the cart to grab a piece for him and his little sister.

     "Honey, wait."  Stella tried to deal the two youngest kids and at the same time get the attendant to take some of the food back.  "Dani, put them over at the table and get them something…"  She glanced at a couple of the carts. "Substantial to eat."

     Dani herded the two youngest kids to the table then headed back to check on what was available.

     "Just sign right there, ma'am."  The tall attendant pointed at the slip.

     "Where's Derek?"  Running her eyes around the room to find him since his name was on the order slip, Stella was at a loss. "Dani?  Is Derek in his room?"

     "Uh uhh…"  Dani placed some food on a couple of plates then sat them down in front of Sammy and Hayley.

     "We want cake."  Sammy declared after seeing the dessert cart before.

     "Cake! Cake..."  Hayley echoed.

     The hotel attendant frowned a bit before asking Stella.  "Little guy about this high…" He motioned with his hand.  "… with dark hair… kinda spiked?"

     Twisting around quickly, Stella confirmed. "Yes, that's him."

     The hotel attendant jerked his thumb over his shoulder and said. "He was asking the concierge about some place in the village."

     Stella swallowed hard.  "A tattoo place?"

     "Yeah, I think so."

     "Gage! Lacy!"  Stella yelled.

     When Dani's eyes popped open, she expelled. "Uh oh."  Sammy and Hayley echoed the same sentiment as Lacy and Gage ran from their room.

***********************

     Fortunately, the concierge was smart enough to sidetrack the young boy who wanted directions to the village until he could get word to the boy's parents.  When Lacy and Gage arrived in the lobby, the concierge pointed at Derek, happily playing with the pinball machine.  Derek thought he was waiting for the concierge to hail him a cab.  He was quite surprised when a determined tap came hard down on his shoulder.

     "Derek!"  Grabbing his hand, Lacy was barely able to control her over taxed emotional state.  "Come with me!"

     The young gray-eyed boy shot an evil glare at the concierge at being ratted out and mumbled.  "Fuck this!"

     That brought his mother to a standstill.  Seizing, Lacy grasped her son's hand tighter, pulling him closer.  Without looking back, she steadfastly led him as she walked to the elevator.

     Gage followed behind knowing that she had added to her partner's overwrought state.  Right before her mother screamed their names, Gage's fingers were a mere millimeter from Lacy's arm.  Determined, she vowed to expel every demon inside her and face her fears before Lacy even if it meant the woman she loved would leave her.  Now with this latest development with Derek, Gage withdrew, bundling back up the hidden past she was about to release to the only woman who would ever understand.  Gage felt she had missed her chance but dealing with Derek was much more important right now.  And so it was, the time for her cleansing was put on hold, another strain in their already precarious relationship.

Chapter Ten

     The long plane ride home didn't soothe the aching distance between Lacy and Gage.  As a matter of fact, Lacy had Derek sitting next to her the whole trip while Gage was content to be sandwiched between Sammy and Hayley.  Sparing glances between the two partners only seemed to make each of them ponder their future together.

     When Lacy readily agreed to Dani's request of having her friends over for a swimming party the very next day after they arrived back home, doubt in Gage's mind plagued her and caused her to feel even guiltier.  She contemplated several times writing a letter to Lacy and just leaving.  She'd be better off without me.

     As for Lacy, she felt alone.  Alone in having to handle Derek's behavior since Gage continued to withdraw from any interaction with him.  Alone in the fact that Lacy was very open with her partner about her past and Gage refused to allow her any entrance into much of the blonde's history.  And now with this new revelation of a former love that she distinctly remembered asking Gage about and her partner lying to her, Lacy was at a loss as what to do.  Derek needs me now as do the rest of my children.  But I need Gage…all of her.

     So the day after they arrived home, they set out that afternoon for some fun in the sun even though the two grown-ups knew for them it would be more like torture.  Gage and Dani picked up her two close friends, Katie and Cindy.  When they arrived back home, Lacy was at the beach with the rest of the children.  Stella was in the kitchen preparing some snacks.  Gage sent the trio on down to the beach while she talked to her mother.

     "Need some help?"  Gage asked.

     Stella meticulously cut the sandwiches in front of her but paid careful attention to her forlorn daughter.  "No.  But I guess I could use some company."

     Gage plopped down on the chair and grabbed a sandwich.  "Where's the banana? You know I like peanut butter and banana sandwiches."

     "I do.  And those aren't for you." Stella smiled, and then reached around to get another tray with several sandwiches prepared the way her daughter liked them.  "Here."

     Having already bit into the plain peanut butter sandwich, Gage shrugged. "Save one of those for me later."  The blonde winked.

     "I can do that."  Stella watched her daughter chew diligently on her sandwich.  "You wanna tell me what's going on in that head of yours?"

     "Hmmm…."

     Stella sat down next to her daughter.  "Don't hmmm… me.  Gage, listen, I know something's going on between you and Lacy.  That's obvious." She reached out her hand and laid it over her daughter's hand. "I'm here… if you need to someone to talk to."  Then a dark memory shot to the forefront of her mind. "I know I haven't been there in the…"

     "Stop it."  Gage turned her hand over, now holding her mother's hand.  "I understand. I really do.  We've already resolved that.  Lacy told me once that a person at some point in their lives has to stop blaming their parents or others for what their lives have become and it's really about time that I do that but…"

     "But what?"

     Gage released a heavy sigh.  "Now she won't talk to me."

     Stella got up and pulled her daughter into her arms.  She savored the feel of Gage being so close to her. "Honey, Lacy loves you more than life itself. And I'd bet everything I have that she's the woman… the only one that can help you with whatever it is that you're struggling with."  The older woman realized that the remnants of her daughter's childhood and everything that happened to her was the impenetrable wall blocking Gage from fully opening up. And she blamed herself even after Gage forgave her but this was something her daughter had to face and she would only traverse that minefield with Lacy.  The only thing Stella could do was to step back and assure her daughter that she would be there for her.

     Gage kissed her mother's cheek. "Thank you." Releasing her mom, the blonde smiled.  "You coming swimming?"

     Stella slapped her daughter's arm slightly.  "Me?  In a bathing suit? I don't think so. But I tell you what, I'll bring some food down later and find me a nice big shade tree to sit under."

     "Deal."  Gage gave her mother a quick hug before she headed to the shore to join the rest of her family.

************************

     "Derek? Wait for Gage to get here."  Lacy said for the third time to her rambunctious child who was playing on one of the jet skis.

     Scrunching his eyebrows together, he glared straight forward so his mother couldn't see him.  "I can ride by myself you know."

     Lacy waded further in the water pushing the large net covered inner tube that held her two youngest children.  "Be careful. I don't want you to get wet."  She called to Derek before turning around to watch Dani play with her two friends near the shoreline.

     Bored now that he couldn't ride the Jet Ski by himself, Derek ran over to where his older sister was playing with her friends.  They had pulled the six-foot log in the water and were talking while they alternated trying to sit on the log.

     "Wanna go to the mall tonight?"  Katie asked her two friends.

     Cindy balanced herself on the log while Dani and Katie held it.  "Okay.  Can you go Dani?"

     "Hmm… I guess so. I have to ask mom first though."  Dani cast a quick glance at her mother then asked Cindy.  "You ready?"

     "Yep. Give it all you got."  The redheaded girl squeezed her legs together while her friends jostled the log up and down in the water.  "Hey… okay, okay… that's en…."  She splashed into the three-foot deep water.

     Dani waited for Cindy to surface. "You okay?"

     "Yep."  She answered, wiping the water from her eyes.  "Your turn."

     "I wanna do it."  Derek splashed the three girls as he tried to climb on the log.

     "No."  Dani yanked the log from him. She usually didn't mind Derek hanging around but today she was just not in the mood. "You go play with mom."

     Derek grabbed for the log again.  "I wanna play. You can't knock me off."

     "I said no."  When her brother tried again to grab the log, Dani yelled for her mother. "Mom? Will you tell Derek to leave us alone?"

     "Yeah, Derek.  Go away."  Katie slapped the surface of the water, causing some of it to hit him.

     Squinting his gray eyes together, Derek spat.  "I hate you."

     Katie acted hurt but said sarcastically.  "Oh, yeah, who cares?"

     Before Dani could say a word, Cindy cut the blonde off.  "Knock it off, Katie."  Cindy remembered all too well how she always wanted to play or hang around with her older sister but was rebuked time and time again.

     "Derek, come on. Why don't you go play with Hayley and Sammy?"  Dani tried to coax her brother into leaving them alone for the moment. When Derek refused to leave, Dani started to call to her mom once again but saw Gage approach and directed Derek to her.  "Here's Gage. She'll take you a ride on the jet ski."

     Although Derek wanted to ride alone, he reasoned that going with Gage might be his only chance so he went along reluctantly.  "Fine."  The nine year old headed for the dock.

     When Gage arrived at the beach, she sucked in a deep breath then smiled.  "Hayley, Sammy, are you two having fun?" The blonde wanted to tread the water where Lacy was standing with the kids but decided against it.

     Hayley slapped her hands together while Sammy bounced on the inner tube.  Shyly, Lacy ventured a look at her partner.  "I think that's a yes. Gage, sweet…" Lacy stopped herself not knowing if the endearment would be welcome.  "Would you mind giving Derek a ride on the jet ski?  He's getting mad not being able to get ride it."

     The blonde saw Derek already perched on the Jet Ski wearing his life vest. "Sure."  Gage ambled over the wooden deck to the large shed that housed some of their swimming stuff.  She grabbed a swim vest, put it on then headed toward Derek.  "I can see you're ready."

     "Vroommm…"  Derek pretended to ride the jet ski.  "Let's go."

     "Okay, scoot up."  Gage requested of the boy so she could get behind him.

     "Uh uhn…"  He jumped off the ski.  "I wanna ride on the back."

     "Derek, you always ride in front."  Gage said.

     Shaking his head, Derek insisted. "I'm big enough."  He held his ground, refusing to get on the jet ski until Gage did.

     When Gage glanced at Lacy for her approval, the dark haired mother shrugged leaving the decision up to the blonde.  "Well, okay, but you have to hold on tight."

     Having won that battle of wills, he assured her.  "I will."  Now positioned behind the blonde, Derek wrapped his arms around her. "Let's go."

     Gage fired up the engine and took off.  She eased the sleek machine on, getting a feel for it especially with Derek riding behind her now.  As she twisted the throttle more, they went faster and faster.  The squeals from Derek proved it met with his approval.  "You having fun?"

     "Uh huh…"  When they hit one of their own waves, Derek squeezed Gage tighter. "Faster."

     Circling around several times, Gage caught several more of their own waves.  The cove was relatively quiet with only an odd boat or two that decided to venture down the long cove for a look.  It was usually on the weekend when the water in and around the cove got rougher due to the high traffic from boaters.  Gage felt relatively safe weaving in and around the water and started to enjoy the ride herself.  She was careful not to make too sharp a turn since she didn't want Derek fall off.  The blonde noticed a small ski boat approach then make a sharp turn at the end of the cove.  She figured she could catch the tail end of its waves. "You ready for some more waves."  She could feel Derek nod his head against her.  "Here goes."

     It was then that it happened.

     As Gage hit the two foot wave head on with the jet ski, she knew Derek would squeeze tighter but when they landed, the blonde was suddenly aware that she couldn't feel Derek behind her.  Gage quickly twisted the jet ski around and let off of the throttle.  She didn't see the ski boat make another sharp turn back toward them. Apparently the driver of the boat wanted to catch come of his own waves.

     From a distance, Lacy watched Gage hit the wave and to her complete surprise she watched helplessly as if in slow motion when her son jumped high up in the air off of the jet ski and came splashing down in the water.  Suddenly, the small ski boat came into focus as it seemingly was heading for the exact place where her son had landed in the water.

     Seeing the ski boat now, Gage gunned the throttle for where she saw Derek's head bob up and down several times.  The small boy was oblivious to what was happening around him.  Gage tried to wave the ski boat off with her horn but it appeared as if the driver of the boat wasn't paying attention.

     Gage heard Lacy scream in the distance as she sped toward Derek.  Knowing that she had one chance, Gage reached down with one arm, barely catching the shoulder edge of Derek's vest.  The blonde swooped him up and shoved him down in front of her.

     When the driver of the boat realized what was happening, he swung left and killed his engine, narrowly missing the woman and small boy on the jet ski.  "Damn… that was close."  Shaking, the driver fell back in the captain's chair and just stared at the sky for a long time before deciding to face the two he almost ran down.

     Gage headed straight back to the dock and she could see Lacy safely placing their two youngest kids in the hands of Stella who had witnessed the very end of the dramatic scene on the water.

     Lacy ran across the dock and even before Gage was able to secure the jet ski to the side, the mother grabbed her son in her arms. "Derek?  Are you alright?"

     The blonde secured the jet ski and slowly got off of it.  Feeling that it was all her fault, Gage again wondered if she should leave.  But suddenly she felt Lacy's arm around her even as she continued to hold Derek.

     "I'm fine.  Mom?"  Derek tried to squeeze out of her death grip.

      Lacy smothered him with several kisses before she did the same to her partner.  "Thank God both of you are alright."

     Gage held on for dear life to both of them, thankful that Lacy wasn't mad at her.  When the blonde saw the driver of the both approach, she gently withdrew from Lacy's grasp.  "Lacy, why don't you and Derek go on?  I'll talk to him."  She nodded toward the boat.

     Lacy was only too glad to get to dry land.  When she stepped back on the shoreline from the dock, Stella had a towel handy.  The mother dried her son while several others watched curiously.

     Feeling bold, Dani said.  "Wow, Derek.  That was cool."  She thought she could help by trying to ease the tension filled moment.

     Excited, Derek asked.  "You think so?  I can do it again. Only higher."

     A sharp glance from her mother caused Dani to rethink her comment.

     Hayley was the second person to notice her mother's dark look at her sister and said.  "Uh oh."

     That caused Lacy to smile.  "Uh ohs right."  Lacy tapped her daughter on the nose, which produced a giggle. Turning to Sammy, she teased.  "And you buster… I don't want you laughing, too."  Which, of course, extracted a smile and giggle from him.  Her children's laughter helped Lacy calm down.  "I think it's time to call it a day."

     Stella agreed as she grabbed the picnic basket and picked up Hayley. "We'll eat at the house."

     Lacy grabbed Derek's hand and took her other son's hand.  "Let's go."

     The three girls followed reluctantly as Katie complained.  "I hope your mom's not too mad that you can't go to the mall tonight."

     With a sharp jab to Katie's side, Dani glared at her. "Is that all you think about?"

     Katie nodded.

     Then Cindy added.  "And boys."

     That statement caused all three teens to giggle.

     Meanwhile back at the dock, Gage kept her calm as the driver of the boat apologized profusely.  "It's a new boat… actually I bought it used but new to me and I when I turned, my drink slid off the dash and so I reached for it…it's was just a soda…" He explained quickly."  ".. well, that's… next thing I know when I look up…"  His head dropped.  "I'm so sorry.  It happened so fast."

     Thankful that Derek was safe, Gage sighed.  "It's okay… really.  I should've anticipated that you might turn back around.  I saw you do that at the end of the cove."  Gage tried to ease the boater's mind.  "Out on the water you have to eyes in the back of your head.  You have to be looking everywhere… 360."

     "I won't be so careless next time." With remorse the boater asked.  "Is there anything I can do?"

     "Drive careful.  Okay?"  The boater nodded then spun his boat around, heading back out of the cove.  Gage shed her swim vest, putting in back in the dock's shack. She paused for a brief moment before heading back up to the house.

************************

     Even with the day's stressful events, Lacy allowed Dani to go along with her friends to the mall for a couple of hours.  Gage was the deciding influence on Lacy's decision when she offered to take them there and pick them up and with the added fact that Nate would be working at the mall that evening, Lacy relented.

     Katie strained her neck, looking for a certain nineteen year old.  Although it was Monday night, the blonde hoped he would show up.  She let him know that she might be there with her two friends after seeing Drake over the weekend.   Katie noticed Drake's interest pique when she mentioned Dani and Cindy.  "Let's just sit here.  He knows this is my usual table."

     They had been sitting there for over an hour and Cindy was getting restless.  "Why can't we walk around some?  I wanted to do some window shopping and there's this new CD…."

     "Oh…" Katie pointed at a tall good-looking dark headed young man approach.  "There he is."

     His suave demeanor and cool arrival at the girl's table made all of their heads turn and take notice.  "God, he is cute." Cindy exclaimed.

     Dani was dumbstruck when he flashed his pearly whites producing the cutest dimples she had ever seen.  "You can say that again."

     Katie jumped up to hug Drake.  "Hey, I'm glad you came."

     Drake squeezed the young girl. "I can see that." As he hugged Katie, his grazing brown eyes took stock of the other two teens at the table, coming to rest on Dani.  "Hi."

     Katie felt him pushing her back before he walked around the table and sat down next to Dani.  "Drake, this is Cindy…"  The blonde waited for Drake to pull his eyes off of Dani.

     He nodded.  "Hello."

     "Hi!"  The redhead gave a short wave.

     "And Dani."  That lackluster introduction by Katie warned others of her disapproval about the way Drake was paying attention to Dani.

     But Drake dismissed her completely as he grabbed Dani's hand.  "Katie's told me all about you.  You're beautiful."

     Dani gulped since this was the first time any boy other than her uncle Nate that had referred to her that way.  "Really?"

     Katie yanked on his short T-shirt sleeve.  "Drake?  Over here."

     Turning around, he winked at her and asked.  "Yeah, what do ya want babe?"

     A little attention directed my way would be nice.  Smiling, she scooted her chair closer.  "You wanna go look at a couple of tops I saw earlier?"  Katie was eager to show off to her friends that Drake would buy her anything she requested.

     "Mmmm…not tonight babe."  He relaxed back in his chair, glancing around the table. "Listen, what do you girls say about a little party?  I've got some friends getting together later."

     Although that offer excited all of the girls, Dani was the first to refuse.  "We can't.  Gage is picking us up in an half hour."

     "Gage?"  Drake asked curiously.

     Dani nodded but Cindy answered.  "That's her mom's girlfriend."

     "They're married." Dani waited for any kind of negative reaction from him.

     That news pleasantly surprised the tall young man.  "Cool."  He sat up in his chair. "Listen, if you can't come tonight then perhaps Friday night.  We'll meet here say around seven and I'll drive all of us to a friend's house."  When Dani started to protest, he continued.  "You can tell your parents you're going to a movie.  I'll get you back before the mall closes."

     Katie readily agreed. "Sounds good.  Dani, Cindy?  What do you say?"

     "Hey guys."  A strong arm touched Dani's shoulder.  "How ya'll doin' tonight?"

     Katie rolled her chocolate brown eyes at the interfering and unwelcome guest.  "Hey, Troy."

     He sat on the other side of Dani.  "I had to stop off at the computer store…" He turned to Dani.  "Your uncle's there.  He gave me a real sweet deal on a laptop.  Mom said that if my grades…"

     "Troy!" Katie interrupted him.

     The news about Dani's uncle produced a concerned look on Drake's otherwise charming face.  "Listen girls… think about it?"  He leaned over and kissed Katie on the cheek, whispering. "See you Friday night."

     After the taller boy left, Troy frowned.  "What are you guys suppose to think about?"

     All three girls remained silent.

************************

     After Gage picked up and dropped off Dani's friends, she checked on all the children before heading off to bed.  When she arrived in her bedroom, Hayley was sitting in the middle of her and Lacy's bed with a huge frown on her face.  "What's the matter with her?"

     Lacy pulled the tiny blonde in her arms. "She's not happy with us."

     The older blonde stripped off her clothes before heading to the adjoining bathroom.  "You mean, she's not happy with me."  Gage knew she was the real culprit in the problems between her and Lacy.  And their daughter was keenly aware of the tension between them.

     Lacy brushed her lips against Hayley's temple. "Come on, honey. Smile for your mommy."  The toddler refused.  "Gage, would you hurry up and get back in here.  She's not going to be happy until we're all together."

     "Hi! Want more."  Hayley indicated clearly that she would only be satisfied when Gage joined them on the bed.

     "Okay, okay."  Gage finished brushing her teeth then headed off to bed. The blonde jumped on the bed, making Hayley laugh for the first time.  "You wanna play?"

     "Hi!"  Hayley lunged toward Gage.

     "Sweetheart…"  That word made Gage smile. "The idea is to get her to go to sleep not wired up."

     Gage fell back on the bed with Hayley hanging over her, held up by the blonde's arms.  "Okay, how bout we play in the morning?"

     Hayley shook her head. "No."

     "Yes."  Gage countered.

     "No."  Hayley determinedly shot back.

     "Hi."  Gage said the word Hayley used for yes to affirm her decision.

     "Okay."  Hayley acquiesced quickly.  "Pway later.  More now."

     Lacy eased down next to Gage, taking Hayley in her arms and resting their daughter on top of them.  "Alright, honey.  This is what you want."

     The couple lay there with their daughter and somehow the tension eased and for a moment in time all seemed right and peaceful in their world.  As Hayley's sleepy eyes fought to stay awake, Gage patted the toddler's back.

     "Did Dani have fun?"

     "Yep." Gage turned to look directly at Lacy.  "Although the three of them whispered about something all the way home."

     "Probably just boys… the usual teenage stuff."  Lacy dismissed any other thoughts regarding her daughter for the moment.

     That statement made Gage recall some of her days as a teenager and none of it was usual.  She had seen the seedier side of being a teenager and it was far from pleasant or innocent.  "Maybe." The blonde wasn't really worried about Dani.  The young girl was mature beyond her age and had always been upfront and honest with them.  "How's Derek?"

     "Hmmm…" Lacy kissed her daughter's head.  "He was sorry later. I'm not sure if he said it because he thought I wanted him to or he realized the whole situation."

     Sensing Lacy was still aggravated about the near disastrous event on the lake, Gage tried to ease her mind. "Kids do a lot of crazy things. They don't think ahead."  The blonde propped herself up on her elbow and uncharacteristically asked.  "Did I ever tell you about the time I hid in a ditch and tried to scare my friend?"

     That question certainly got Lacy's attention.  "No."  Lacy waited patiently for the small nugget of her partner's past that she was now willing to share for some unknown reason and Lacy wasn't about to stop her.

     Gage chuckled.  "I was trying to get Johnnie back for jumping at me in the barn.  Scared the… anyway… Oh, Johnnie was at the same foster home as I was when we were…"  Gage calculated the time frame in her mind.  "Ten, I think.  The foster parents lived on a farm and they had a couple of horses as well as the usual animals." She turned a serious eye at Lacy. "I think they had us kids to work the farm for them.  But every once in a while, we'd have some fun.  Anyway, Johnnie decided to ride the old mare down the gravel road when I saw him.  So I high tailed it across the field through the corn so he couldn't see me and hid in the ditch.  All I wanted to do was scare him back like he did me in the barn.  Well, just when he was about ten feet in front of me, I jumped up and yelled as loud as I could."

     "What happened then?"  Lacy encouraged Gage to continue.

     "Funny thing is I never once thought that in scaring Johnnie the horse would be scared, too.  She reared up and off went Johnnie.  Plopped right on the gravel road."

     "And?"

     "Oh, I didn't wait to see if he was hurt.  I just took off running to the house."   The scene of Gage dashing back across the field played havoc in her mind as it related to another event later in her teen years that involved Johnnie as well.  "Of course that was a mistake."

     "Why?"

     Gage slipped back down on the bed. "I got whupped bad.  I think they were more upset that I scared the horse cause it took them a couple of hours to round her up.  Johnnie was okay. We both kinda laughed it off later.  Course I couldn't sit down for the next couple of days."

     Lacy ran her fingers along her partner's jaw.  "I'm sorry.  I wish I would have been there for you."

     Gage fell into the seductive touch of her lover.  "Thanks but I wouldn't want you there.  It was too bad a place for someone as nice and special as you."

     Lacy rewarded the blonde with a soft kiss.

     "Is she sleeping?"  When Lacy nodded, Gage slipped her daughter into her arms. "I'll be right back."

     When Gage got back into bed, Lacy easily slipped into her partner's arms.  "I love it when you hold me like this."

     "Me, too."  Gage savored the precious moment between them.  "Lacy?"

     "Hmm…"  The dark haired woman lounged her body alongside her lover.

     Gage ran her hand up and down her partner's arm.  "About Gail?" She felt Lacy stiffen slightly but determined to say what was on her mind.  "It's not that I wanted to lie to you… it's just that…"  The blonde sucked in a deep breath. "I wanted to forget, never to remember the hurt I felt and…"

     Lacy lifted up even though she was tired from the last few days upsetting events.  "Sweetheart, I just have one question."  The dark haired woman prepared herself for the response. "Do you still love her?"

     Shaking her head, Gage adamantly confirmed her feelings. "No!  I have so much more with you. Sometimes it's almost too much that I don't know how to…"

     Lacy wiped the tears forming in Gage's eyes.  Even Lacy realized her partner was dangling perilously close to an emotional edge so she assured her lover. "Gage, sweetheart, it's okay.  Everything will be okay."  Lacy guided her lover's head to her shoulder and they stayed like that for the rest of the night.
 

Chapter Eleven

     Even with the tensions of the last few weeks still unresolved the whole Ballant clan was excited about the Lewis family barbeque.  It fell on Thursday this year making Dani happy since she got approval to go out Friday night to the mall.  She was still feeling dubious about Katie's plan to skip their usual routine of seeing a movie and opt for meeting Drake so he could take them to a party.  Dani had never lied to her mother and she vacillated against that and the pressure her friend was asserting on her. The fourteen year old was relieved when she had talked with Cindy the day before because the redhead had doubts about Drake even though all of them agreed he was like an Adonis.

     As Dani sat on the steps in the hallway contemplating exactly what she should do, the telephone rang.  Happy for a short reprieve, she answered it.  "Hello?"  Pausing only for a moment she then greeted the caller.  "Oh, hi, Mark.  You wanna talk with Gage, right? Hold on."  Dani held the phone away from her then yelled.  "Gage!  Mark's on the phone."

     Lacy took the last step down the stairs right behind her daughter.  "Can you yell a little louder? I don't think she heard you."

     Dani rolled her eyes.  "Oh, mom."

     "Who is it?"

     "Mark."

     Taking the phone from Dani's hand, she directed her daughter.  "Go find Gage."  As Dani took off back up the stairs, Lacy said. "Hello, Mark.  How's Julie?"

     "Absolutely wonderful like always."  Lacy could hear Mark's smile through the phone line.  "And you?  How are you and Gage doing?"

     Momentarily lost in her own private musings, Lacy finally answered.  "Considering everything… fine."

     "Lacy, if there's anything Julie or I can do, please let us know."  Mark offered sincerely.

     "Thank you."  Feeling her partner's hand on her shoulder, Lacy said.  "Oh, here she is.  Don't keep her too long. We're heading over to my mom's for a barbeque."

     Realizing that Lacy was just teasing, Mark agreed. "I won't. Just want her to know that Julie and I are leaving tomorrow to visit my grandfather."

     "Say hi for me. Here's Gage."

     The blonde dropped her hand down Lacy's shoulder then wrapped her arm around her partner's waist.  She kissed Lacy on the cheek before taking the telephone.  "I won't be long."

     Lacy slid out of the blonde's embrace, allowing her some privacy on the phone but couldn't resist wrapping her arms around Gage from behind.

     "Hold on, Mark."  Gage turned serious green eyes to meet Lacy.  "You okay?"

     Smiling, Lacy nodded as she squeezed one more time before letting go.

     "Hey, Mark. What's up?"  The blonde watched her partner ascend the staircase. Her green eyes were mesmerized on the sway of her lover's hips.  "What?"

     "I said we're leaving tomorrow for a couple of weeks.  It would be great if you, Lacy and the kids could come over."  Mark overtly hinted.

     "Mmm…."  Gage thought about that appealing idea for a brief moment. "I'll talk to Lacy about it later today or tonight.  Make sure you tell our grandfather hi for me."

     "Better yet, Gage. Why don't you do it yourself?"  Mark suggested.

     Accepting the idea eagerly, Gage cut their conversation short as she looked at her watch.  Six hours difference.  It'll be late afternoon for him. "Mark, I've gotta go.  Call me when you get there okay?"

     The astute friend had a fair idea that Gage would be making a phone call overseas.  "Sure will.  Bye."

     Gage punched in a whole bunch of numbers in order to make the international call. She was surprised when she heard her grandfather's voice.  "Hey, Samuel.  I didn't think you'd be answering the phone."

     "Why not?  It's mine."  The ninety-five year old man teased his granddaughter.  "I'm glad you called.  There's nothing wrong is there?"

     "Nope.  I just talked to Mark and thought I'd call.  How are you doing?"

     Samuel Calico slipped back in his easy chair and pulled a long breath in before he spoke.  "More importantly… I want to know how you're doing.  You and that beautiful woman of yours."  He could hear in the breath Gage took that she was going to protest so Samuel continued.  "Doesn't matter how I found out.  I have my ways you know." Then his voice turned steely offering some stern and very sage advice along with a warning.  "You better do whatever it takes to keep her or… or I'll put on my top hat and tails and steal her away from you."

     "You always cut right to the heart of it, don't you?"

     "Don't have time to pussy foot around these days.  When you get my age, you realize that you have to make the most of it."

     Gage countered.  "You've always done that."

     "Yes, well, more so these days.  And let me tell you that a young whipper snapper like you should heed my words." Samuel advised with a hint of playfulness.

     "I'm forty-eight.  Not many people use that phrasing to describe me anymore."  Gage laughed. "But you're right as always.  Listen, I'm going to talk with Lacy about maybe coming over soon."

     "I'd love it." Samuel smiled.  "Should I dust off my tux?"

     "No.  You keep that thing in the closet. I don't want you as competition.  As dashing as you are in that thing… Lacy just might choose you."

     "Never."  The wise man knew love when he saw it and the bond between Lacy and Gage was eternal. "That woman loves you and even as charming as I am… I could never pry her away from you… nor anyone else.  Got it?"

     I hope so.  "Yeah, I got it."  Seeing her family descend the staircase, Gage ended the call.  "Listen, I've got to get going but I'll talk with Lacy later and let you know."

     "You do that.  Before you go, let me talk to Lacy."  Samuel requested.

     Gage traded the phone for Hayley.  "Some old coot wants to talk with you."

     Knowing exactly whom Gage was talking about, Lacy greeted him.  "Grandfather, how are you? I've missed you so much."

     "Then you tell that woman of yours to get her butt in gear and all of you come on over."  Samuel smiled.

     As much as Lacy would have loved to gather her family and jump on a plane, she hesitated.  "That sounds very tempting."

     "What can I do to convince you, beautiful?"  He flirted mercilessly with her.

     "Mmmm…. let me think about it."  Lacy twisted around and winked at Gage.  "Your granddaughter and I will talk about it.  Okay?"

     "I guess I'll have to be satisfied with that.  Lacy?" Samuel got her attention with the way he said her name.  "You take good care of her.  She needs you.  Gage would be lost without you."

     Loving blue eyes fell on the blonde holding their young daughter.  "I will."  She vowed.  "Bye now and take care."  After Lacy hung up the phone, she turned to her family. "Ready?"

************************

     It was a bright warm summer afternoon and all the family members gathered were having a great time together. Gage treasured these family get-togethers. The whole family was thrilled when Lacy's sister, Lisa and Jason announced they were having a baby.  Hank groaned when his wife, Jen, poked him in the stomach and his best friend and construction partner, Jason teased him.  "Looks like someone has some catching up to do."

     Nate slapped Hank on the back of the head then marked an invisible score card in the air.  "Jason one, Hank zero."

     He shot an evil glare at his youngest brother.  "This is not a competition."

     The whole family laughed at that statement before Daniel puffed out his chest and shared his thoughts. "Except for Lacy, the rest of you have a long way to go to catch up to me."  The proud older man held up four fingers and a thumb. "Five."

     Slapping his belly with the back of her hand, Lynn Lewis teasingly chastised him.  "You act like you did all on your own."

     Sheepishly, Daniel admitted.  "Okay, your mother did most of the work but I was there through all the feedings and diaper changes."  Hank chuckled.  "Go ahead and laugh Hank.  Your turn will come soon enough."

     Lynn leaned in toward Hank's wife and whispered loudly. "Jen? Is there something you were going to tell your husband?"

     Shocked blue eyes widened as Hank stared at his wife.  "You're not… or you?"

     Jen smiled but remained silent.

     "Honey?"  The anxious tall man waited with baited breath.

     Jen stepped closer to her husband and said.  "Let's just say that I threw out my birth control pills."  The short woman placed a quick peck on her husband's cheek before leaving him standing alone.

     Hank gulped. "Honey?  Maybe we should talk about this.  Honey!" He chased after his wife.

     Jason stopped his best friend. "Forget it. You might as well give in. I'll take you shopping next week for some baby clothes.  Oh, and some diapers."

     "Oh, shut up."  Hank yelled, hurrying up to catch his wife.

     With a full belly laugh, Jason was cracking up until Lisa wrapped her arm in his.  "Darling, that's a great idea. We can go shopping tomorrow."

     With a shocked smile on his face, Jason knew he was trapped.  Oh, well, for her… I'd do anything.

***********************

     "Tell me again, Derek. Why'd you jump over the railing?" Nate was amazed at the story of his nephew's brush with death in the toy store.

     Derek sighed, wondering why everyone including his mother couldn't understand his reasoning for the daredevil rescue. "They're extinct and they had them trapped in the net."

     Both Nate and his father were still confused until Gage clarified the young boy's reasoning.  "There was this huge display attached to the underside of the ceiling.  The net was filled with all sorts of stuff animals.  And a couple of them… well, Derek had just seen a documentary on the animals that are near extinction."

     "But they're not real animals."  His grandfather quizzed the young boy for more of an explanation.

     Derek rolled his gray eyes. "It's the principal of the thing."

     Guiltily, Gage admitted.  "He got that from me."  The blonde had explained to Derek the many ways of helping save the planet and the animals on this earth.  She shared with him the various ways that anyone could help and used the same phrase Derek had just used with his grandfather.

     "I was trying to rescue them."  Derek pouted, now tired of the subject.  He didn't want to be reminded of the whole event as he was in enough trouble.  Pursing his lips together, Derek asked. "Where's Jonathan?"

     Nodding toward his rose garden, Daniel said.  "I saw him and Dani playing down by the gazebo."

     In a flash, the young child was gone heading toward his sister and cousin.

     "He's becoming quite the adventurer.  Lacy told me about the jet ski incident."  Nate said.

     "Hmm."  Gage watched Derek leave. "I don't know exactly what's gotten into him."

     That was when Daniel asked.  "You ever talk with him?"

     Immediately, Gage knew that Daniel was referring to the day Derek declared that he was not her son.  "No."  She sucked in a deep breath.  "Lacy thinks I should but…"

     Daniel stared directly at the blonde.  "So Derek's following your lead?"

     Curious, Gage asked. "What do you mean?"

     Daniel placed his hand on her arm.  "Avoiding the issue."

     Nate's blue eyes shifted quickly between his father and Gage, sensing the tension that now filled the air.

     Pensive, Gage finally spoke. "I don't think Derek's avoiding anything.  He stated very plainly what he thought."

     "On the surface, it may seem that way." Daniel wouldn't let Gage voice her objection.  "He's confused that's for sure.  His way of avoiding things are different than yours.  He finally gets his dad's approval…Lynn talked with Lacy."  Daniel revealed how he knew the situation regarding his young grandson. "And his feelings for you… don't seem to mesh with that newfound acceptance by his father."

     "I don't understand."

     Nate intervened.  "Maybe I can help.  When I was little, I had a cute puppy that I loved.  He wasn't even a year old when he was hit by a car.  As a ten year old I was devastated so mom and dad got me another one.  He was sure cute but…"

     "Nate was torn between the new puppy and the one that had died.  He didn't want to feel like he was betraying the first one."  Daniel placed a caring hand on his son's knee.

     Nate nodded.

     "So it's like Derek's got two puppies and he doesn't know which one to choose?"  Gage surmised.

     "Something like that.  He doesn't realize that he can have both of them.  Especially when one of the puppies is jealous."  Daniel explained.

     "Me?"

     "I think he means David."  Nate clarified.

     "We all have different reasons for putting off things, Gage." Daniel stood up.  "Just think about it.  Now…"  Daniel rubbed his belly.  "You think the food's ready?"

***********************

     As it was dinner went smoothly with only a few more jabs between Jason and Hank about the baby issue.  Denny, the oldest brother, even joked a couple of times with his younger brother.  For Denny's part, his wife, Crystal had him on his best behavior.  She had read him the riot act about his refusal to accept Lacy and Gage's relationship.  Yet, even Denny couldn't deny the love he saw in his sister's eyes when she gazed at her partner.

     Before dinner, Stella and Lynn shared their thoughts about their children and had decided that Lacy and Gage needed some time alone.  They conspired to get Lacy alone and make a few suggestions.

     When Daniel praised the great tasting meal, that was the sign for the kids to request fireworks.  "That's up to Nate."  Daniel told his grandchildren.  "He's the man in charge this year."

     Four of the five grandkids ran toward their uncle, firing a multitude of questions at him.  "Nate?  Can we?  I want to set off the firecrackers. Please?"

     Nate ran off with the four trailing behind as Daniel grabbed his youngest grandchild.  "Hayley, why don't you come to grandpa for awhile?"

     "Hi." The tiny blonde agreed.

     "Isn't she cute?" The proud grandfather smiled.  "You wanna go see your uncle Nate get bombarded by the other kids?"

     When Hayley pointed toward the garden, she said.  "Purple."

     Lacy interpreted her request.  "Dad, I think she wants to see your flowers."

     Hayley jumped in his arms.  "Hi. Purple, green."

     "Finally, someone who can appreciate all the hard work I've done.  Come on, Hayley.  Let me show you what your grandpa's been up to." He wanted to take advantage of the remaining ambient light before it turned dark enough to set off the fireworks display.

     Lynn laughed.  "He is mush in her hands."

     Stella placed a gentle hand on her friend's arm.  "Aren't we all?"

     Even Denny smiled a time or two at the young girl's antics.  "Guess I'll go help Nate.  I'm sure he'll have his hands full."

     "Thanks, honey."  Crystal kissed her husband.

     When the well-behaved Denny left, Lacy leaned over the table and asked.  "Got him on a leash this year?"

     "Oh!"  Crystal waved a dismissive hand. "It's just hard for him to admit when he's wrong."

     For some reason when Crystal revealed that about her husband, Gage had for the first time a real understanding of her brother-in-law.  After all, she, too, had a hard time admitting that her past was a part of her.  A dark past she would rather soon forget.  Guess I'm still running away.  And Denny and Derek are doing the same in their own way.

************************

     After a while, Stella and Lynn seized their chance, cornering Lacy while the rest of the family were intently interested in the firecrackers and sparklers.  "Honey, you have a minute?"

     "Sure mom."  Lacy helped clear the table before sitting down at the table in the kitchen.  It didn't take long for the smart woman to realize she was being set up.  "Okay, what gives?"

     "Nothing."  Stella affirmed.

     "Uh huh."  Lacy had her doubts.

     "Nothing." Lynn reasserted then offered a small smile. "That we're not going to share with you."

     Preparing for the worse, Lacy propped her hands on her hips.  "Okay shoot."

     "Stella and I…"  The older woman nodded.  "Think that you and Gage need to get away.  Have some time to yourselves."

     Stella scooted forward. "And we'll watch the kids.  So you don't have an excuse to say no."

     Glancing between her mother and Stella, Lacy took only a moment to collect her thoughts.  "Gage and I would appreciate that very much but I'm afraid simply having time alone won't solve… everything."

     Lynn looked confused.

     "She means Gage won't open up and that's my fault."  Stella admitted.  "If I was a better mother… what am I saying?  Any kind of a mother."

     "Stella, stop that.  Gage knows perfectly well she has to take responsibility for herself."

     "Honey." Lynn took her daughter's hand.  "Maybe she needs time."

     "Mom!"  Lacy was thoroughly frustrated now.  "She's had six years. I've been patient and…"

     "She's right, Lynn.  Lacy has been more than patient with my daughter."  Stella agreed with her daughter-in-law.

     "Well, are you going to leave her?" Lynn asked to shock her daughter into realizing the depth of her commitment to Gage.

     "No!" Lacy shot her mom an aggravated look.  "It's just other things, too.  Derek and Dani."  Both women looked curiously at Lacy. "She's growing up, wanting to be more on her own."

     "Dan and I faced those same issues with you kids."  Lynn turned Lacy's face so her daughter was looking directly at her. "In the beginning your father thought that all the decision about you kids should be left up to me.  But that just doesn't work."

     "Gage doesn't feel that way. She's always been there… the two of us talking about what was best for our children."  But Lacy had to admit.  "Although lately she's withdrawing… especially with Derek.  It's like he's a piece of delicate china that might break if she says the wrong thing."

     "Lacy?" Stella got her attention.  "I know Gage never hesitated before with Derek until his visit with his father this summer.  Maybe that has something to do with."

     "I'm afraid it has everything to do with it."  Lacy admitted.

     "Not everything."  Lynn countered. When both Stella and Lacy looked curiously at the Lynn, she continued. "There's something in Gage's past that is obviously affecting the way she's reacting to Derek…maybe she sees herself in Derek.  Whatever it is…she has to face it."

     Lacy blew a puff of air up that made her bangs fly.  "You're not telling me something I don't already know. The question is how."

     The rest of the night was filled with laughter, fun and plenty of fireworks that blazed through the sky.  The only incident that disrupted the evening festivities was when Derek stole a small box of firecrackers and shoved them under Denny's metal patio chair, lighting them.  He refused to acknowledge that his cousin Jonathan put him up to it.

     All in all, the whole family had a great day together but the shared moments gave many of them pause to ponder an uncertain future.
 

Chapter Twelve

     While Gage dropped Dani off at the movie theater located right next to the mall, Lacy took their youngest children on a walk through their estate.  The weather was perfect as Derek pushed his sister in the stroller.  "Faster."

     "I wanna ride."  Sammy voiced his desire.

     "You can't."  Derek insisted.

     "Can to."  The five year old scooted behind the stroller, trying to step on the rear axle while he held on to the long handles.

     Derek rolled his eyes.  "You're not going to last long."

     "Am to."  Sammy was sure of himself. He had done it lots of times with Stella pushing the stroller.

     "Really?"  A mischievous glint in Derek's gray eyes forecast his intentions.

     "Derek!"  His mother warned him.  "Walk don't run."

     "What's the fun in that?"  The dejected boy mumbled.

     Lacy mused his short spiked hair then asked.  "Why don't we do something fun tomorrow?  Just you and me."

     Derek was suspicious of his mother's motives.  Although she had on many occasions spent time alone with each child doing something special, the last few times he had to face his mother he got in trouble.  He remembered all too well the firecracker incident the day before with his uncle. "Maybe."

     Cocking her head down toward him, she asked.  "Don't you want to spend some time together?"

     "Doing what?"  He had to be sure.

     "We could go to the zoo."

     That piqued his interest. "Can we let them all out?"  If the driver of the stroller had his way, he would plaster a 'save the animals' sticker on it.

     Uh oh! Bad idea. "How bout the Magic House?"

     "Me… me, too, momma.  I wanna go."  Sammy jumped off the stroller.  He held up his tiny hand, taking his mother's larger one.  "And Hayley, too?"

     She remembered their last visit to the Magic House.  Her kids got such a kick out of the way her hair sprang out from static electricity when she touched the large globe.  "Okay, we can all go."

***********************

     Dani was relieved when Cindy showed up first at the movie theater.  "Well? What'd you decide?"

     "I'll go if you do."  Cindy said.

     Dani's shoulder's slumped.  "Cindy, I was hoping you'd be the one to… I can't."

     Relieved, Cindy agreed.  "Me, neither.  You tell Katie when she gets here."

     It was useless to ask 'why me' so Dani posed another hard questions.  "What if Katie says she's going anyway?"

     "I never thought of that."  Cindy acknowledged.  "Maybe he won't show up and then we can go to the movie and by the time we get out…"

     "What if he does?"  Dani reasoned they had to be prepared for every possible scenario.

     "But what if he doesn't?"  Cindy liked that option better.

     When Dani twisted around, Katie got out of her mother's car.  "Follow my lead… no matter what."

     Nodding, Cindy decided silence would serve her the best.

     "Hi, guys!"  Excited, Katie ran up to them.  "You guys ready?"

     "Yep. I've already bought the tickets."  Dani declared.  "My treat."

     Put out, Katie asked.  "What are you talking about?  We're going to the party. Right?"

     "Oh, I forgot."  Dani pretended with all the acting skills she had learned from her mother.  "Don't know how that slipped my mind.  Oh, well, I've already spent the money on the tickets and…"

     "So? Drake said he'd meet us at the mall.  Come on."  Katie insisted.

     "I can't go." Cindy yelled.

     "Of course not." Katie spat sarcastically at the redhead.  "What about you, Dani? Can't go either?"

     Dani shifted her feet restlessly.  "It's just that I already bought the tickets…"

     "What's the matter with the two of you?"  Katie jabbed a hand on her hip.

     Dani debated for a long time over the decision before her.  On the one hand, she really would like to go to the party but then again, the thought of her mother being upset or disappointed in her weighed heavily on her mind.

     "Well?"  Katie insisted her friends make a decision.

     Finally, Dani simply said.  "No."

     "That's it? No."  Katie was livid for the moment.  "He's going to think we're real losers."

     "Katie?"  Dani objected to her friend's last statement.  "If he really likes you, he'll understand."

     "Oh, I'm going." Katie announced.

     "You can't." Cindy said supporting Dani's lie. "We already have the tickets."

     "You think a couple of tickets are going to stop me from doing what I want to do?"  The blonde glared at Cindy.

     When a blue mini-van swung back through the parking lot of the movie theater, Dani nodded toward it. "Katie, your mom."

     Twisting around sharply, Katie was surprised to see her mom pull up to the curb.  "Mom, what is it?"

     "Honey, your aunt Susan just called and she wants me to come over so I called your dad.  He's going to pick you up as soon as the movie's over."  Ellen smiled at her daughter.

     "But why can't he pick me up when the mall closes like always?"  Katie protested.

     "Honey, he has to work tonight.  He's going to drop you off at your aunt's house before he goes to work.  We'll go home from there."  Ellen took her daughter's silence as acceptance of the change in plans.  "Bye girls."

     Two girls were much relieved while the other one fumed.  "Fine. I guess we're going to the movie."  Thinking that two hours was not enough time to spend at the party, Katie pouted then reached her hand out.   "Where's my ticket?"

     Shocked blue eyes met the redhead who immediately squinted one of her eyes closed.  "Ouch.  I think I have something in my eye.  Katie, come with me to the restroom."  Cindy led Katie to the restroom while Dani rushed off to buy the tickets.

**********************

     Later that night, Dani and Lacy were lying on the floor listening to a new CD Dani had bought at the mall.  After Katie's father picked her up, Cindy and Dani dashed off to the mall's music store.  After selecting a few CDs, they decided to spend the rest of their time at the mall with Nate since they didn't want to run into Drake.

     "You like that song, mom?"

     "I do.  Who's it by?"  Dani flipped the case to her mother. "The groups have such weird names these days."

     "Sure, mom.  Not weird like the Monkeys or the Beatles."  Dani laughed.

     "That was a little bit before my time but… they had great songs."  Lacy insisted.  With the laughter and easygoing being shared by the two while listening to the music, Lacy decided to bring up the subject that had been on her mind for a while.  "You have fun at the mall?"

     "Yes.  The movie was good, too."  Dani was vague in her response.

     "Good. I really want you to have as normal life as you can."

     Dani assured her mother for the hundredth.  "I do.  Thanks for letting me go." When her mother remained silent, Dani added the knowing.  "But?"

     Sighing, Lacy admitted there was a 'but' on her mind.  "It's just that with my job…"

     "I know, mom. You're worried about us."

     "That and… sometimes people will take advantage of you kids in order to get to me because of my… celebrity."  Lacy voiced her concern as she lay on her back, staring at the ceiling.

     The very intelligent young girl asked.  "You mean for the money, right?"

     Lacy nodded.  "There are other reasons than money. Some people can get obsessed… and when you're out there alone with your friends… I'm afraid…"

     Dani turned on her side, propping her arm under her head and asked.  "What are you going to do about it?"

     Shifting her eyes toward her daughter, Lacy acknowledged her plans for the present.  "First, I want you to be very vigilant in your surroundings.  If you notice anything or anyone that seems out of place or not right…"

     The image of Drake immediately popped in Dani's mind.

     "…then you call me right away.  Or if you're at the mall since Nate works there, you can go to him about your concerns."

     Dani smiled. "Is that why uncle Nate has been hanging around the food court whenever I'm there?"

     "Oh, you…"  Lacy tapped her daughter's nose.  "Maybe."

     "It's okay, mom."  On several occasions, Dani was relieved to know her uncle worked at the mall especially when she worried about running into Drake the night before.  "Mom?"

     "Yes, honey."

     "What do you think… theoretically…"  Dani slyly slanted her eyes toward her mother.  "… about a girl my age dating an older boy?"

     Red flags flew up in the mother's mind. "How older?"

     Dani turned away from her mother's gaze.  "Oh, I don't know five…six years older."

     Concern flushed across Lacy's face. "Is there something you want to tell me?"

     "It's not me."  Dani assured her mother.  "Katie's got this friend… sorta and he asked us to go to a party that they had last night."

     When her daughter refused to meet her squarely in the eyes, Lacy sat up. "Did you…go?"

     Shaking her head rapidly, Dani assured her mom.  "No. We went to the movies.  I have the ticket stub."

     Lacy placed a comforting hand on her daughter's shoulder.  "Honey, I believe you. You've never lied to me."

     Dani gulped. And I hope I never do.  "I sorta wanted to and Katie for sure did."

     "I see."  Lacy realized just how grown up her daughter was and just what kind of decisions that she was going to have to face.  "Who is this older boy?  Where'd you meet him?"

     "At the mall.  Katie knew him first.  He buys her clothes and things."

     Two eyebrows shot up. "So this eighteen?"

     "Nineteen."

     "Nineteen year old boy is buying things for Katie…and what does he expect in return?"  Lacy tried to ask the question in delicate but direct manner.

     Dani shrugged.  "I don't know. He wanted her to go to a few parties and meet some of his friends.  I don't think he's asked her anything."

     "Dani.  To be honest, I'm very concerned about what a nineteen year old boy wants with someone your age."  I can only imagine what he wants. Dani noticed the dark look that crossed her mother's face.  "Does Katie's mom know about this guy?"

     "No! I'm sure Katie hasn't told her about Drake."

     "Drake?"

     "I don't know his last name."  Dani admitted. "Mom? You're not going to tell Ellen, are you?"

     Very tempted to, Lacy agreed that for now she wouldn't. "No. I want to find out more about this Drake character."

     In a way, Dani was relieved that her mother was going to investigate the matter but she couldn't let her know that she approved of it.  "If you have to."

     "I do."

***********************

     Before Lacy headed off to the Magic House with her three youngest kids, she placed a call to her brother.  Lacy managed to get a vague description of Drake from Dani and relayed that to Nate.  Once he assured her he would find out what he could, Lacy gathered the children up and headed out the door. She had forgot all about mentioning to Dani regarding her idea of hiring a bodyguard for the children.

     Gage stayed home since this was one of Lacy's special outings with her children but she whined to her mother about it.  "When she does this, usually she leaves a couple of them with me."

     "She asked if you wanted to go."  Stella offered her daughter a grilled cheese.

     "I don't think she really meant it."  Gage took a big bite of the sandwich.  "Besides, the kids laughed at me the last time when they saw me in those weird mirrors."

     "Uh huh."  Stella joined her daughter at the table.  "Dani's upstairs.  Why don't you spend some time with her?"

     Gage frowned at her mother.  "I don't like typing with one hand while I have the other one holding a cell phone plastered to my ear."

     Shaking her head, Stella chuckled. "You're just not hip, are you?"

     "I believe the word is cool."  Gage perched her chin on the heel of her hand and frowned even harder.

*************************

     Gage had a restless night after Lacy filled her in on that Drake character.  She suspected exactly what that type of guy was up to hanging around the mall buying gifts for young girls. In the past, Gage had run into people offering gifts only to want something for it in the end.

     "Lacy?" Gage shook her sleeping partner in the early hours of the morning.  "Lacy?"

     "Mmm…"  Lacy's blue eyes remained closed.   "What is it? Hayley?"

     "No. Do you think Nate found out anything yet?"

     Lacy kissed her partner's cheek and said.  "Go back to sleep. He said he'd call when he did."

     "Maybe I should go down there next time.  I have some binoculars, you know."

     Lacy dragged her sleepy eyes open and yawned. "Sweetheart, before we let her go again, we'll make sure we know all about Drake."  When she had told Gage about the invitation to the party and the gift buying, Lacy noticed a very dark and sinister glare from Gage. She knew something was swirling around in the blonde's head, dredging up dark memories from Gage's past.

     Gage sat up.  "Let her go again?"  The blonde twisted in the bed, facing her partner. "I've been thinking, Lacy. And I don't think she should be allowed out of the house without us until she's…"

     "Twenty-one."  Lacy offered teasingly.

     "Well, I was going to say twenty-five but I guess we can give a little."  Gage found no fault in her reasoning.

     "We'll be lucky if we can keep her in the house till she's sixteen."

     Gage protested.  "We're her parents. We can make her stay here till she's seventeen… maybe even eighteen.  I should check the law on that."

     "Gage, sweetheart…"  Lacy caught her lover's chin, pulling it back around to meet her eyes.  "Do we have to talk about it right now?  We have a few years." Although even Lacy wasn't convinced of that statement.

     "Fine."  Gage plopped back down on the bed.  "What are you going to do today with the kids?"

     Sensing her partner's jealous tone, Lacy asked. "Is there something wrong?"

     "No."  Then Gage mumbled. "Just don't have any time for me lately."

     "What?"  Lacy turned on her side, facing her partner.

     "I said 'when will I get my time alone with you'?"  The blonde wore a definite pout.

     "Oh…"  The dark haired woman crawled on top of her partner.  "Am I neglecting you?"

     With a bottom lip pushed out, Gage shrugged.  "Maybe."

     "We can't have that now, can we?"  Lacy dropped her head lower, pressing her lips against that of her lover.  She fell into the softness, allowing the passion inside to rise unheeded.  "Mmmm…. I've missed you."

     "Me, too."  Gage ran the edge of her tongue along her lover's lips requesting entrance and soon found their tongues waging a war of dominance.

     Four hands covered every inch of naked skin that could be found as the two lovers engaged in some passionate early morning lovemaking.  It seemed like forever since they'd made love and determinedly decided to make up for it.

     But when the telephone rang, Gage reluctantly answered it.  The news she and Lacy heard quickly fizzled the rising fire of passion inside each overheated body.

     "Okay, Mark. We'll get the next plane out."
 

Chapter Thirteen

     On the long ride to Stonewood Manor, Lacy voiced her opinion once again.  "I still think we should have brought the kids with us."

     "Lacy, if Samuel gets through this then we'll fly the kids over but if he doesn't… I don't want them to see him die."  Suddenly, a dark memory conjured up in her mind about the time another person was bleeding to death in her arms.

************************

     Since Samuel Calico refused to remain in the hospital, Mark enlisted a private doctor and full time nurse to be on hand. "Grandfather, Gage should be here anytime now."

     Julie held onto Mark's left hand for support while her husband desperately held on to his grandfather's hand.

     "Don't worry.  I won't die till she gets here."  The ninety-five year old man still full of humor winked at his only grandson.

     "I wish you wouldn't say that."

     "Why?  It's true." Caring blue eyes connected with his grandson's blue eyes, mirrored back at him.  "A person has to know when its time and accept it gracefully. Your grandmother did.  Besides, Mark, I want to see her again. And that goes for your mom and dad."

     Tears filled Mark's eyes at the mention of his grandmother and parents.  Julie scooted closer, wrapping her arm around her husband.

     "And I'll say hi to Sharon and that you still love her. If you want."  Samuel asked his son's permission.

     "I'd appreciate that."  Mark and his grandfather hadn't spoken of Mark's first wife for years and it still conjured up a bevy of emotions inside to hear her name again.

     Sparing a look at Julie before glancing back at his grandson, Samuel said. "I'll tell her how happy you are with your new wife. She'd approve wholeheartedly."  Samuel reached his other hand out toward Julie.  "Sharon would want him to be as happy as you've made my grandson.  And I can't thank you enough."

     "Thank you, Samuel."

     The old man made a face. "Gull darn it.  Is she always that stubborn?  I've yet to get her to call me grandfather."

     Julie stood up and leaned over the prone man. "I love you, too, grandfather."  Then she kissed him.

     Smiling, Samuel said.  "Been trying to get her to do that all along.  Better watch it, Mark.  I may just decide to hang around and give you a run for your money with that one.  She kisses good."

     "First you're after Lacy and now you're going after Julie.  What's wrong grandfather one woman not enough for you?"  Gage walked around the bed leading Lacy.  "Hmmm?"

     "Come here you."  When Gage leaned down, he kissed her.  He waited patiently to receive a kiss from Lacy before he spoke again.  "Now your grandmother… that was some woman."  He wiggled his bushy eyebrows.

     "What's this I hear about you pretending to be sick just to get us here?"  Gage teased her grandfather.

     "I do what I have to."  He winked at her.  Then he turned to the matter at hand that he knew both of his grandchildren would balk at.  "I want to talk to you about the estate."

     "Maybe we should leave." Julie considerately said.

     "No…no.  It involves all of you. You're all family."  Samuel assured them.  "By the way, how's those grandkids of mine? Ornery as ever?"

     "Ornery?  Sometimes, I guess. Mostly sweet." Gage grinned.

     With an impish twinkle in his eyes, he smiled. "They get that from me."

     "They sure do."  Gage admitted.

     "Now about the estate."

*************************

     The next few days were a blur as Samuel gave a general overview of his estate regarding his wishes for Gage and Mark's families.  Resigned to their grandfather's stubborn insistence that it was time for him to go, the two took refuge in their partner's support.

     As the four gathered around Samuel, tears waxed and waned the night their grandfather smiled for the last time.

     Gage was glad Mark took care of the funeral arrangements while he was grateful for the blonde who offered endless support in his decisions.  Actually, there were very few decisions to be made since Samuel had planned everything out to the last detail.  It was just a matter of notification.

     Once again, Lacy and Gage discussed bringing the children over from the States and once again Gage opposed the idea.  Ultimately, Lacy caved still fearing that their children and Gage would regret that decision.

     Gage, for her part, wanted their children to remember their grandfather as they had last seen him, full of vibrant life.  A picture of a dead person lying in a casket haunted her to this day.  That vivid image was not one she wished to carry with her the rest of her life but she had and Gage had hoped to spare her children from that same burden.

     There were times during that week that it seemed as if everything was in slow motion.  Samuel wanted a private ceremony and his grandchildren held true to his wishes.

     Several lawyers met with Mark and Gage regarding the estate and unless it was something that needed immediate attention, the two decided that they needed time to get over the loss of their grandfather and put those issues on hold.

     Mark and Julie left first for the States while Lacy longed for a few days alone with Gage.  She was anxious to return home to their children but felt they needed some time alone to reconnect.  Lying in each other's arms, Lacy relaxed as they fell blissfully into the quiet tranquility that both of them desperately needed.

     However, it was another phone call that disturbed their peace.

     This time Lacy answered it and said.  "Okay, Stella. We'll get the next plane out."

     A hiked eyebrow posed the unspoken question to her partner.

     Lacy sighed. "David showed up at home."

************************

     After a long and tiring flight, Gage and Lacy walked in their home to meet a syrupy smile from a very relaxed David.  "Welcome home, Lacy."  He leaned in, kissing his ex-wife on the cheek before turning toward Gage.  "You, too." He spat sarcastically.

     "David." Gage offered him her best scrowl as her jealous green eyes tracked his hand brushing along Lacy's arm.  The blonde deliberately stepped between them.  With a counterfeit smile, she said.  "Can't say it's nice to see you again."

     Lacy rubbed the small of Gage's back, comforting her partner.  "Gage."

     David looked past the blonde to Lacy.  "You feel the same… about my presence?"

     "The jury's still out on that one." Lacy sighed, moving closer to the blonde. "Seriously, why are you here?"

     David's hazy gray eyes bounced off of Gage before he answered.  "Maybe we could talk alone."

     Leading the pack, Hayley wobbled into the large open entrance with Dani right behind. "Momma?"

     On a direct path to his mother, Derek whipped past his younger brother, bumping Sammy out of the way.  "Mom? You bring me anything?"

     With a steadying hand, Dani prevented Sammy from losing his balance.  "He's gonna get it." The little boy huffed.

     His older sister paused long enough to assure Sammy.  "Yes, he will but don't you want to say hello to mom and Gage first?"

     That statement brightened Sammy's blue eyes.  Nodding, Sammy smiled before resuming his trek to his mom.

     After a quick kiss and a long hug, Lacy passed Hayley to Gage.  She leaned down and hugged Derek, which was interrupted by Sammy's arrival.  "Move."  Sammy shoved at Derek.

     "Hey now."  Lacy picked up her youngest son.

     Sammy rubbed his eye and frowned.  "He started it."  The angry look on his face turned into a bright smile when his mother kissed him.

     "You shouldn't have got in my way."  Derek announced smugly.

     Before Lacy could respond, David stepped up, placing his hands on Derek's shoulders.  "I'll talk to the boy."

     "Hi, mom."  Dani welcomed her mother before she shot off her all-important question. "Katie invited me to a sleep over this Friday.  Can I go?"

     It took the tall dark headed mother a moment to process everything that had transpired in the midst of her arrival back home.  David's showing up unexpectantly and Lacy could tell he had been drinking. Gage's jealousy when David got a little too friendly.  The mother also sensed the conflict between her sons and now Dani was asking permission to go to a sleep over at her friend's house. The same friend that was seeing an older boy. Needing time to address all the issues at hand, Lacy put her daughter off. "We'll talk about that later."

     Sammy turned to Gage, pulling at her shirt.  "What did you get me? Dani said you got all of us something."

     Gage winked at the youngster and nodded toward the nearby bag on the floor.  She hoped the presents would off-set the news of their grandfather's death.

     Sammy wiggled free from his mother's arms, trying to get to the bag before Derek did.  He was too late but his sister decided to help him.  Dani grabbed the bag from Derek.  "Over here."  They followed obediently.

     David laughed with a smirk as he shifted his accusing eyes toward Gage.  "Buying their loyalty?"

     The blonde rolled her eyes and moved away before she lost control of her emotions and hauled off and hit him.  Lacy provided a safe barrier between them.

     David leaned in closer to Lacy and whispered. "Now that the kids are busy why don't we talk?"

     The astute two year old couldn't hear what the tall stranger said to her mother but she didn't like his closeness to Lacy.  Reaching for her mom, she called.  "Momma?"

     As Lacy pulled Hayley into her arms again, the small girl grilled David with a searing glare of her green eyes.  She only wanted Gage or one of her siblings to get close to her mother, not some stranger that had recently showed up and acted like he owned the place.  Hayley leaned her head up against Lacy's neck.  "Love you."

     "Oh, honey, I love you, too."  Lacy brushed her lips against her daughter's blonde hair.

     David couldn't resist.  "It wasn't too long ago you said the same thing to me."

     Great! I don't need this. Lacy hoped Gage wouldn't fall into David's trap and respond. Her world was spinning out of control and more than anything she needed the support of her partner.

     Sucking in a very deep breath, Gage stifled the several smart retorts that came instantly to mind.  She took her daughter from Lacy. "Come on, Hayley.  I've got something for you, too."  Gage kissed a very relieved Lacy before the blonde whispered.  "Go ahead, talk to him.  The sooner you do the sooner he'll leave."

     Lacy welcomed her lover's kiss.  Nodding toward the study door, Lacy commanded David to follow.  "You coming?"

     David caught Gage's warning glare so he stifled the sexual comment that danced on the tip of his tongue, not entirely sure why.

************************

     "Want me to get you a drink?" David placed his hand on Lacy's shoulder. "You look like you could use it." He walked to the sparsely stocked bar that housed only a few bottles of wine and one bottle of bourbon.

     "What I need you can't provide." Lacy quipped smartly.  Upon hearing her own words, she let out a deep sigh.  "David, no games please."  Lacy moved away from her ex-husband, taking a seat behind Gage's desk. "Well?  What's on your mind?"

     Rebuffed by the beautiful woman that he had once held in his arms, David walked toward the large window.  Taking a long sip from his glass of bourbon, he attempted to buy himself a few more seconds before he laid out his plans.

************************

     "You didn't forget me?" Stella lifted her green eyes, trying to see if there were other presents in the bag.

     Sitting on the floor in the middle of four happy kids, Gage chuckled. "Me forget?  Are you kidding?"

     Stella accepted a small package from her daughter.  "Lacy remembered right?"

     "Oh ye of little faith."  Gage smiled, remembering their hurried gift buying at the airport while they waited for their plane.  "Okay she picked it out."

     Stella stooped down to give her daughter a hug. "Thank you and don't worry.  She loves you very much."

     The blonde smiled, knowing that her mother was referring to Lacy and to the fact that she shouldn't be upset that Lacy was in the other room alone talking with her ex-husband with whom she had had three children. Feeling reassured at least for the moment, Gage jumped up and gave her mother a kiss on the cheek.  "I'm hungry.  You kids hungry?"

     Grabbing their gifts, the three youngest children followed Gage to the kitchen, leaving Stella and Dani behind.  "Okay, I'll fix you all something but Derek no more cookies for you."

     Without turning around, Derek mumbled. "Damn it that sucks."

     Surprised, Gage paused but decided to remain silent.  She didn't want a confrontation with the young boy after just getting back and having to give him bad news about their grandfather.

     Dani gently touched Stella's arm.  "Don't worry about him.  He's just in a mood."

     "Oh, I know."  Stella wrapped her arm around Dani.  "You want something to eat?"

     Dani hesitated.  "I don't… I think I'll wait to talk with mom about this weekend."

     "Honey." Stella offered her grandchild some sage advice.  "Lacy just got back and she's got a lot on her mind right now.  You've got plenty of time to ask her…. when she's in a better mood."

     "Yeah, I guess you're right."  Dani looked over her shoulder at the closed study door. "Somehow I don't think dad has good news."

************************

     David swallowed the last of his drink before slowly moving over next to Lacy.  Still standing, he shrugged and said off-handedly.  "I talked with Ted Connolly.  He's got a wonderful script.  Should make a great movie."

     Lacy leaned back in her partner's chair.  Rubbing her forehead, once again she pondered several looming predicaments.  She dreaded dealing with David right now.  Running through her mind was the debate… well argument… she had with Gage on the plane ride home.  After Samuel died, Lacy wanted to tell their children over the telephone about his death since they had originally planned to stay on for a few more days.  Gage argued against it saying they should wait till they got home.  Her partner didn't offer any reason for the delay. However, Lacy suspected Gage was trying to avoid it completely.  Something was bothering the blonde and that weighed heavily on her mind.

     "Lacy? Did you hear me?"

     "Is that why you're here?"  Lacy straightened, sparks flying from her ice blue eyes.  "Because David if that is the only reason I cut short our…"  Calming herself, she continued.  "That could have waited or a phone call would have sufficed." The frustrated brunette redirected the conversation.  "Just tell me why you're here."

     The tone in Lacy's voice forced David to reconsider his original approach.  He slumped down in the chair in front of the desk and sighed, barely in a whisper.  "I think Hayston's leaving me."

     "What?"  Lacy stood, walking around the desk.  As she sat on the edge of the desk, Lacy grinned.  "She finally wised up, huh?"

     The beaten man shot her a disgruntled hateful and somewhat hurtful glare.

     "Sorry David.  I couldn't help it."  Lacy crossed her arms, having seen David look this way only a few times in her life.  "I'm sorry about you and Hayston and I'm sure you'll work it out but what's that got to do with me?"

     Angrily, David shouted.  "We did have a life together once.  I thought you'd care." He grunted. "You're so wrapped up in that… blonde bitch…"

     Springing off the edge of the desk, Lacy leaned down with deadly blue eyes glaring at him.  "Stop right there.  You so much as utter one more even slightly bad word about Gage and you will never be welcome in our home again.  I mean it, David."

     On the few occasions Lacy had issued an ultimatum to him during their marriage, David easily recognized the strength of her warning.  "Fine."  He was antsy inside and needed to move.

     Lacy watched David come up out of the chair and pace around the room.  David desperately wanted another drink to steady his nerves but refused to face Lacy's disapproving look. He had seen it several times before during the last year.  It was a look that grated against his fragile superego's foundation, one that he had cultivated for many years at the expense of others.  He realized, far too much to his own dissatisfaction that Lacy's approval meant a great deal to him.

     He paused briefly before sharing his fears.  "Lacy, you know I'm been all about my work… maybe too much but… well, things aren't going like I planned."

     "You're not blaming me because I quit the show."  Lacy could tolerate hearing her ex-husband's woos but refused to be his escape goat.

     Waving his hand about, he denied it.  "No, no.  That's not it.  I know I made a couple of mistakes." He admitted, chancing a glance at his ex-wife.  "Hayston's got a new show and it's promising but…"

     Lacy sat down on the edge of the desk again.  "Is that the one with Griffen? My agent mentioned something about it.  It's a sitcom, right?"

     That name grated against David.  He didn't want to think of his old boss.  Ron Griffen was the man David had tried to weasel out of a deal they were working on together.  Even though they were still amicable, Griffen refused to work with David on some key projects.  "Yeah.  Ron's still a little touchy about that, you know, thing that happened."

     Lacy did know and was well aware of the lucrative projects that dried up after David's nearly unforgivable betrayal.  "I see.  David, I've read Connolly's script and you're right. It will be a great part for someone but not me."

     Nearly pleading, David moved toward her, too close.  "Why not? You're perfect for it."  He was almost licking his lips.  "If I could bring you to the project…"

     "That's your ticket in."  Lacy surmised, pushing off the desk and slipping back around the desk. "I'm sorry David. I can't."

     Standing straighter, David collected himself and demanded.  "You want to tell me why? Is it something or someone?"

     "You can get that accusing tone out of your voice. It's not because of Gage. As a matter of fact, she doesn't even know it was offered to me."

     David's eyes brightened.  "Lacy!  That's terrific."

     With one look, Lacy effectively killed his enthusiasm.  "Did you hear me?  I turned it down."

     Slamming his eyes shut for a brief moment, David ran over his options and rifled through several strategies that might work.  "You said you didn't tell Gage?"

     The actress hesitated then took her turn at the window, staring out.  "There's been so much going on lately with the kids, Derek…" Lacy thought briefly about her partner. "…and besides what's the point. I'm not doing it."

     "Hold on a second."  David rushed to her side, grasping her arm lightly. "We can work around this whatever it is."

     Turning briskly around to face him, Lacy asked.  "I see. You came to be a shining example to your son and help with his… unusual behavior."

     "Sure."  David piped up.  What his ex-wife hadn't informed him about regarding Derek's behaviors, Dani did upon his arrival in St. Troy two days ago. "I'll have a talk with him."

     Frustrated that David didn't comprehend the gravity of the situation, she taunted him with a smart comment.  "Great. Why don't you spin your magic words and make everything all right."

     "I thought you wanted me to have a better relationship with him."  David accused her. He saw the debate in Lacy's eyes and claimed a small victory.

     Lacy jerked her arm away from his touch as the weight of the world pounded down on the brunette's shoulders, she sighed in deep despair.

Chapter Fourteen

     Rubbing his hands together, David strolled into the kitchen with a smile on his face.  "Hey guys.  What's for lunch?"

     Glancing at her daughter first and seeing the frown on Gage's face, Stella walked past the blonde placing a reassuring hand on the writer's shoulder but directed her comment to David.  "I've got some grilled cheese.  You want one?"

     "Uh? Sure. Why not?" David scooted up to the table between his two sons.  Bumping Derek lightly, he asked.  "You like this stuff?"

     Still chomping on his grilled cheese, Derek shook his head. "Uh huh."

     Stella placed a sandwich in front of David.  "Thanks."  He studied it for a moment. Noticing that the older woman was eyeing him closely, David tentatively took a bite.  "Good." He munched on the sandwich although it was not his usual culinary fare.

     Wondering where Lacy was, Gage made a beeline in search of her partner.

     "Ah, Derek."  David turned toward his son.  "What do you say we… uh, go outside and I don't know… throw a ball around later?"

     "Yeah." Derek was excited.  "Can we go down by the lake?  There's these little baby ducks and one of the raccoons was chasing them and I wanna see if he came back because…"

     "Hold on there son."  Derek's enthusiasm was a good sign but none of what his son proposed appealed to the city man. "We can go to the lake… just maybe talk about a few things.  You know, man to man."

     "Me… me, too. I wanna go." Sammy insisted. "I can talk, too."

     "No. You can't go.  It's just me and dad."  Derek taunted his younger brother.

     Stella waited to see how David would handle the situation.  Awkwardly, David touched his youngest son's shoulder. "Sam, how about when I get back you and I can do something together?"

     Crunching his eyebrows together, Sammy wasn't too keen on the idea until Stella got his attention.  "That sounds like a good idea, Sammy.  In the meantime, you can show me and Hayley your new car."

     "Okay." The little boy happily agreed. He looked at his little sister; eyes shined brightly and assured her.  "It can go real fast."

************************

     Crossing her arms across her chest, the blonde fumed. "Why does he have to stay here?"

     The dark headed woman wrapped her arms around her partner as Gage looked out the window.  "He's having some problems and he wants to help with Derek." Lacy paused then added sincerely.  "He is trying."

     "Yeah, I know what he's trying to do."  The unfounded jealous thought swept crossed the blonde's mind. Reluctantly, the blonde uncrossed her arms and let them drop.

     Lacy held Gage tighter. "Gage, sweetheart, I think he's serious about being a better father. Trying to be more hands on."

     "Yeah, well, he better kept his hands off you." Gage huffed, once again crossing her arms tightly.

     Lacy leaned in placing gentle kiss on the blonde's neck.  Nuzzling the sweet nectar of her lover's skin, Lacy moaned. "Yours are the only hands I want on me."

     Quickly, turning into her lover's embrace, Gage pulled Lacy tighter.  "We've got our own… things to work out."

     Relishing the closeness of her partner, Lacy sighed.  "Yes, I know. And we need to tell the kids about Samuel."

     Dreading the thought, Gage reluctantly agreed.

************************

     "Go ahead, dad."  Derek handed his father a flat rock.  "You can do it."

     David stepped carefully toward the soggy shore.  Taking careful aim, he threw the rock side arm as his son instructed.

     "See?"  Derek pointed at the two ripples in the water.  "That was pretty good for a beginner."

     David dusted his hands off, refusing another rock from his son.  "That's okay.  You go ahead."  He watched his son throw a couple more rocks skipping them along the water's surface. "That was a good one."

     "Yeah."  Derek agreed brightly upon seeing his rock skip the surface four times. "Gage taught me.  She can do…"  The young boy let his words fall upon seeing the slight frown on his father's face.  Changing the subject, Derek suggested. "You wanna go look at the jet ski.  I can drive it and everything."

     Holding onto his son's shoulder, David eyed a nearby bench about twenty-five from the lake's edge.  "Why don't we sit and talk a minute?"

     Happy to do as his dad suggested, Derek plopped down next to the older man.  "What do you want to talk about?"

     "Straight to the point, huh?" David mussed his son's hair. "I like that."

     Derek smiled, happy to have his dad's approval.

     Contemplating briefly on how to start, David sucked in a shallow breath.  "Your mom is… concerned about your behavior lately."  David twisted toward Derek.  "And, frankly, I am too."

     "Oh."  Derek pursed his lips, not liking the direction of the conversation.  In his defense, Derek offered.  "You said I should think for myself."

     "That I did."  David was temporarily at a loss.  Now what did Lacy suggest I say. "Let's see. You should be an independent thinker.  That's a good thing. It's just that… well, you have to listen to your mom."  Happy with his reply, David thought.  That should do it.

     "But I do."  Derek countered then reluctantly added.  "Mostly."

     "Then it's the 'mostly' we should talk about.  You need to listen to your mom and do what she says all the time." David lightly tapped his son's arm. "She only wants what's good for you."

     "What about doing what Gage tells me?"  Derek asked, waiting curiously to see what his father would say.

     "Well… I don't know if…"

     "Mom said I should." Derek inserted, adding to his father's dilemma.

     Damn. Thinking quickly, David conceded. "I'm sure your mom has a good reason for that… like when she's not there… maybe you should then."

     "Okay."  Derek thought back to something his father said when he visited him in Los Angeles.  "What about being more adversertive?"

     "Ad… what?"  Derek's father asked before he remembered his own words to his son. "Oh, you mean, assertive." He vaguely remembered having a similar conversation with his son.

     "Yeah."

     "Absolutely."

     Smiling, Derek took advantage of the opportunity that presented itself.  "Can I get a tattoo? Dani got her ear pierced and you said it was okay even though mom didn't like it."

     Hmmm…. Lacy did warn me that one was going to come back and bite me.  "Maybe I should talk with your mom about that first."

     "She isn't gonna like it."  Derek assured his father.  "But I don't think Gage cares if I do."

     Surprised upon hearing his son's last comment, David referred to what Derek said about his mother not agreeing to a tattoo for their son. "Maybe." David offered but knew exactly what Lacy would say to that conversation.

     "Maybe… dad?" Derek treaded smartly with his next suggestion.  "You should be more… assertive."

     David chuckled, wrapping his arm around his son.  "Maybe."  Yet, he knew very well that was not the tact to take with his formidable ex-wife. "I'll talk to her but no promises."  He stood up, wondering for the first time what kind of tattoo his son wanted and where that idea first came about.  "And besides what kind of tattoo would you want anyway?"
 

**************************

     "A lion?  Well, that figures. He loves animals and yellow is his favorite color."  Gage surmised as she leaned back in her chair wondering how exactly she ended up in a room alone with David.

     Realizing the blonde was correct about Derek's favorite color, David cautiously tried to gain Gage's favor.  "So?  What do you think?"

     Sighing heavily, Gage offered a tight smile.  "I think Lacy will go through the roof if we both gang up on her about this tattoo thing."

     "Derek indicated that you might be okay with it." David tried to be civil in accomplishing his goal.

     "I'm not as opposed to it as Lacy but then again, I have my own reasons for that." Gage admitted, yet even she was not thrilled about a nine year old getting a tattoo.

     "That's a start."

     Getting up from her chair, Gage leaned forward on her desk. "David, Lacy believes you're here to help and… you really do care about your children."

     "I do."  David agreed adamantly.

     Holding up her hand, Gage confirmed.  "I believe you. But I am not getting in between you and Lacy on this.  I want what's best for Derek no matter what you think."

     David nodded.  He wasn't willing to argue that point with Gage and besides it would disrupt his original plan so he remained quiet.

     Gage walked around the desk. "I'm not exactly happy that you're staying here… with us.  But… I think Derek could really use your help. He has always wanted your approval and, well, I want Derek, Sammy and Dani to have a good healthy relationship with their father."

     Pointing to himself, David smiled.  "That would be me."

     "Yes, that would be you." Sneering, Gage leaned toward David.  "But a word of warning.  If it looks like even for one second that you are trying to undermine Lacy with the kids…."

     "Okay, okay." David stood up.  "I get the picture."  He turned to leave Gage's office.  At the door, David swung his head around.  "Believe it or not, I do want what's best for my children, too."

     Gage watched David walk out of the room. On the one hand she believed him but on the other, Gage wasn't quite up to trusting him completely. He may want what's best but does he know what's best for them. Of course, Gage had her own doubts about if she knew what was best for their children. Considering my past.

************************

     After Nathan picked up Dani, giving her a ride to the mall, Lacy closed the front door leaning against it. She was glad her brother would be working that Friday evening and offered some semblance of a protective eye over her daughter but the worried mother could not keep away a nagging doubt about her decision to allow her daughter to stay over at Katie's house.  Lacy was nudged from her dark musings when the doorbell rang.

     When the dark haired woman opened the door, Hayston Rawlings greeted a surprised Lacy.  "I don't suppose you have a clue as to the whereabouts of my wayward boyfriend?"

     "As a matter of fact, I do."  Lacy's shoulders dropped in a visible sigh.  "It's good to see you again, Hayston."

     "Yes, well, I wonder if that will go for David."  When Lacy raised her eyebrows in confusion, Hayston added.  "If he's happy to see me here."

     Just then, with drink in hand, David stepped into the entranceway and upon seeing his girlfriend, he muttered.  "Oh, fuck."  Upon his quick retreat, David didn't see his son standing close by nor did he hear Derek mimic him.

     Seeing Hayston at the doorway, Derek echoed his father's sentiments. "Oh fuck."  The young boy found refuge before his mother noticed him.

     Smiling tightly, Lacy swung her arm down the hallway.  "We're going to have dinner in a few moments.  Would you like to join us?"

     The manicured Hayston swept by her former co-worker.  "Why I'd be delighted."

     Lacy stood alone near the doorway for the longest time, trying to maintain a civil composure.  The pressure was building, cascading around her like a swirling tornado.  Under stress and ready to explode, Lacy sucked in a deep, calming breath in an attempt to traverse the inevitable emotional minefield that was begging to detonate.

************************

     Nathan dropped Dani, Katie and Cindy at the mall's food court to grab a bite before they were set to see a movie.  Dani assured her uncle that once the movie was over she would stop by his store before Dani and her friends left the mall.

     Katie's mom was going to pick up her daughter and her friends when the mall closed.  But the young girl convinced her mother that Dani's uncle would drop them off at her house before midnight after he got off work.  And since Nathan had picked all the girls up to take them to the mall, the unsuspecting Ellen believed her daughter.

     When Lane Grayson, the tall blonde sixteen-year-old boy who Dani liked, showed up at the mall, both Dani and Cindy could not be swayed by Katie to forego the movie and instead meet her elusive Drake. It didn't help that Troy, another school friend, showed up.

     "This just bites."  Katie pulled Dani back behind the group.  "We had plans. Remember?"

     "About that… I don't think that's a good idea.  Besides…" Dani started to explain.

     "Besides what?"  Katie fumed.  "I can see Cindy being a big baby.  But I thought you were more… cool with it." The brown-eyed blonde glared at her reluctant friend.

     "It's not that… my mother trusts me."  Katie rolled her eyes.  "And besides… I don't want to go to a party.  Not that kind anyway." The talk her mother had with her planted a logical seed of doubt about what a nineteen-year-old male wanted with a fourteen-year-old girl. Dani liked to think of herself as mature beyond her years and many would agree but even Dani admitted to herself that something wasn't right in the rose color scenario that Katie tried to paint about Drake and his intentions.

     Hiking her hands on her hips, Katie announced.  "Well, I'm going with or without you."

     Panic reigned briefly before Dani hastily collected the group's attention.  "Hey guys?"

     Cindy, Troy and Lane turned around.

     Grabbing Katie's arm, Dani announced to the group.  "Katie says she doesn't want to go with us."

     "Oh, come on."  Troy begged.  "You can sit by me."

     Katie rolled her brown eyes.  "Great."

     Even though Dani liked Lane, she knew that at one time Katie vied for the cute boy's attention.  "Lane? You want her to go with us, right?"

     "Sure. It will be cool.  Come on."  Being pushed by Dani to stand next to her friend, the young man was confused.  He thought Dani liked him and he definitely liked the pretty dark haired fourteen year old.

     "Grab her hand and bring her along."  Dani insisted to Lane before whispering in Katie's ear.  "You sit next to him.  He likes you."

     That perked Katie's attention but that didn't stop brown eyes from searching the parking lot even as her friends pulled the reluctant blonde along.

     When a dark van slowed in front of the movie theater, the driver saw Katie go inside with her friends.  Pissed, he sped off.

*************************

     When Stella sat down at the dinner table, she looked at Hayston and asked politely.  "So, will you be staying with us, too?"

     Silence dominated the room as everyone froze, waiting on baited breath to hear the latest visitor's answer. Realizing that she had garnered the attention of everyone present and now knew that David was staying there, Hayston allowed a small smirk to prop upon her face. "What a wonderful idea."  She reached over, touching Lacy's hand.  "That is if you don't mind."

     Gage prayed that Lacy would scream out a deafening 'you can't stay and David has to leave, too' but in her heart she knew her partner would be congenial and agree to another unwelcome visitor in their home.

     "Of course."  Lacy said before offering a guilty looking Stella reassurance that her innocent question did not cause a problem.

     It took a reassuring touch from Gage to make her mom allow her remorse regarding the question to ease fully.  In support of her partner, Gage added her agreement.  "Absolutely, no problem.  The more the merrier."  The blonde was surprised to see that David had not warmed up to the idea.

     Hayston saddled up next to David, purring.  "Looks like you have a roommate."

     Seeing that his dad wasn't too keen with the idea of Hayston's arrival, Derek protested.  "Why don't you stay at a hotel?"

     My thoughts exactly. The blonde nodded her head slightly.

     Lacy was about to correct her son's outburst but his dad laughed it off.  "Now, now Derek.  I'm sure Hayston won't scream as loud as she did when you scared her back in L.A."

     "David!"  Glaring dark eyes warned her boyfriend. She wanted desperately to forget that incident and went about fluffing her hair and straightened her pristine white top.

     David played innocent, ignoring the dark daggers sent his way.  "Well, it was funny dear."

     Hearing his dad laugh, Derek burst out in laughter.  That started a chain reaction as Sammy and Hayley joined in. Remembering the incident, Stella, to her credit, stifled a small giggle while both Lacy and Gage turned their heads hoping to stay out of the fray.

     Realizing that she was the butt of the joke, uncharacteristically Hayston allowed her anger to dissolve and joined in with a small smile of her own.  "Yes, I guess it was quite funny." She refused to allow anyone to know the anger she felt.

     When she squeezed David's arm, he tensed. Seeing the evil glint in his girlfriend's eyes, the man knew that he would never hear the end of it but for now he was safe.  Changing the subject, he complimented Stella on the dinner.  "Your grilled cheese was great… really.  But this…"  David nodded toward the remaining food on the table. "…was spectacular.  I don't think I could eat another bite."

     Standing to clear the table, Stella thanked him.  "Now let me just get this while all of you go in the other room."

     Lacy stopped Stella from proceeding with her offer.  "No, you go. I've got it.  Gage can help me."

     "Me… I get to help, too."  Sammy offered happily. He jumped down off his chair and looked at Gage. "Give me a little help, will ya?"

     Gage winked at the cute five year old. "I'm at your command."

     "Here momma." Hayley held up her small plate.  "Take it."

     Derek grabbed his father's arm.  "Come on, dad.  Let's let the women clean up."

     When Lacy turned toward her son, David intervened again.  "I already know what you're thinking, Lacy.  I'll take care of it." Much to Derek's dismay, Hayston followed them out of the kitchen.

     "Well, that was interesting." Stella said to break the tension.  "Are you sure you don't want me to help?"

     "No, thanks.  Gage and the kids will take care of it."  Lacy assured her mother-in-law before seeing if her partner agreed. "If that's alright with you, sweetheart?"

     "Oh, let's see."  Gage picked up Hayley from her highchair and put her down.  "Washing dishes with you and two of my favorite people."  Gage winked at Hayley and Sammy.  "Or entertaining David and Hayston."  Shaking her head, Gage teased. "Hard choice."  The blonde leaned over and kissed Lacy on the cheek. "I'll always choose you."

     Smiling, Lacy tossed the dishtowel at her partner.  "Good decision."  As Lacy happily cleaned the kitchen with her helpers, she temporarily forgot her worries regarding what Dani was doing about now.

Chapter Fifteen

     Earlier in the evening Nathan had watched his niece enter the movie theater along with her friends and now stood near the mall waiting for the group to come out of the theater. From what his sister had told him and the little he found out about Drake, the protective uncle's gut feeling was demanding this extra bit of precaution.  Nathan noticed now for the second time the same dark van pass slowly through the parking lot.

     When a large crowd crossed the lot, Nathan watched the van slow to a stop near a darken area where they collected the mall's trash. He then saw his niece and her friends break from the larger crowd and head toward the mall.

     It was then a tall young man slipped from the van, heading toward the small group.  The man watched the small group enter the mall while one of them hung back.  Swinging his head around a few times to case the surrounding area and finding nothing out of the ordinary, he approached the lone figure. "Hey."

     With a bit of hesitation in her voice, Katie greeted her friend.  "Hi. I was looking for you. Sorry about tonight. My friends insisted on going to the movie."

     "It's alright but you owe me." Drake smiled, wagging his eyebrows and reached for her.

     Being led by her arm, Katie reluctantly followed Drake. "I should get back to my friends. Maybe you could come with me."

     "Nope." He yanked at her. "We've got a party to hit."

     "But…"  Katie stumbled as he led her along toward the van.  "I shouldn't… maybe next time."

     Twisting around sharply, Drake glared at the blonde. "You don't get it, do you?"

     Shaking her head, she was unable to verbalize any response. Katie felt the pressure he was exerting on her arm.

     "You owe me." Drake demanded.

     Nathan used his cell phone to call the mall's security before rushing up behind the man.  Tapping the man on the shoulder, Nathan asked.  "Excuse me.  What do you think you're doing? Let go of her."

     "Huh?" The dark haired man jerked around.  "Who the hell are you?"

     Cruel blue eyes glared at Katie's evil friend.    "I said let go of her." Nathan inserted himself between Katie and the tall aggressor.

     "Yeah. Says who?" The young man shoved at Nathan, primed for a fight. But when the security vehicle rounded the corner, the angry young man lost interest in an altercation.  He sneered at Nathan then Katie before he hurried back to his van.  There will be other opportunities.

     Nathan listened to the security officer radio the police, requesting they run the plates on the van. And not to his surprise a certain young man by the name of Drake Henson was listed as the owner.  "Mike, thanks for your help."

     Nodding, the security man said.  "No problem.  I'll keep an eye out for the van and pass the word along."

     Nathan walked back to the mall doors with a shaken Katie by his side, gently holding her arm.   Nearing tears, she turned away from Dani's uncle.

     "Hey, you alright?"

     Katie refused to answer.

************************

     Since Dani was preoccupied with saying her goodbyes to Lane and Troy, she hadn't notice Katie leaving the group.  "Where's Katie?"

     Cindy shrugged her shoulder.  "I don't know. Maybe at your uncle's store."

     Sighing, Dani grabbed the redhead's arm. "Come on."

     They arrived to see Nathan embrace their upset friend.  "Uh oh." Cindy was worried about Katie.

     Dani touched her friend's arm. "You okay, Katie?"

     She sniffled a bit before answering.  "I guess."

************************

     After settling the kids to sleep, Lacy headed to bed.  It had been an exhausting day and she was more than ready to fall into her partner's arm and find some comforting peace.

     "Come here."  Gage held the cover up so Lacy could slip under them and snuggled up against her.

     Lacy laid her head on the blonde's shoulder, bending her long leg up and over Gage.  She draped her arm across her lover before inhaling a deep breath.  "At last."

     Gage brushed her lips against her dark haired lover just before a searing scream echoed through the house.  "What the…"  Gage jumped out of bed with Lacy close behind.

     In the hallway, they met a white powdered covered ranting female yelling at the top of her lungs.  "You little bastard.  Where are you? When I get my hands on…"

     Gage slapped a hand over the upset woman's mouth.  "Hayston, just calm down."

     Struggling to get away, the heated woman spat in a voice now slightly less than a roar.  "That's the last time that little…"

     Again a hand cupped her foul mouth but this time it was Lacy who stopped her. "Not one word.  Do you hear me?"

     The sun-streaked blonde's glaring brown eyes that were shooting daggers barely controlled her rage.  Pursing her lips tightly together, she gestured wildly as her fisted hands sought something to hit.

     Calmly, Lacy spoke.  "Tell us what happened."

     "That… he…"  Hayston was losing all control and nearly erupted again when she saw the smirk on David's face. "You bastard.  That stupid son of…"

     When David saw Lacy's hand cocked and ready to slap his girlfriend, he stepped between them.  "Hayston, calm down.  It's just a little powder."

     "Just a little… oh, you son of a bitch."  Hayston pushed him away.  Wiping the white stuff from her face and trying to shake the powdery substance from her hair, she gave David an ultimatum. "If I find out you put him up to this.  Oh!"  She grunted in anger.  "That's it. I'm leaving. I'm tired of your drinking, feeling sorry for yourself because you can't get a job and fucking up my life."  The venting woman turned quickly, leaving a dejected David standing behind with Lacy and Gage nearby.

     David jerked when he heard the door slam.

     Gage placed a hand on Lacy's shoulder. "I'll check on the kids."

     Lacy placed her hand on Gage's before the blonde hurried off.  When David turned toward her, Lacy sighed again for what now seemed like the twentieth time that day. "One question, David.  Did you?"

     "No!"  But David did have to admit his part in what happened.  "When Derek was in L.A., he had found a small spider.  It wasn't harmful.  At least that's what he told me and Mason agreed."  David was referring to his butler.  "Well, Hayston uses this special face powder.  You know the kind that comes in that round case and… well…"

     "You encouraged our son to put it in the case." Lacy concluded.

     "And we sorta mixed and matched some of her make-up." Reluctantly he admitted but David couldn't contain a small chuckle.  "It was funny."

     "Now Derek thinks it's okay to toy with her because you in effect gave him your approval and…"  Lacy sat down at the top of the staircase. "You're supposed to be a good example instead of using him for your kicks."

     "Come on, Lacy.  She'd been bugging me about my drinking and lack of work.  Accusing me of not being able to provide for her. I didn't mean to use the boy.  He found the spider and there was the case and the next thing you know… scared the hell out of her."  He attempted some humor as he plopped down next to her.  "Come on." He nudged Lacy.  "She did look funny, didn't she?"

     With her hair drowned in the white powdery substance and white face, the ever perfectly made up woman was a sight for sore eyes.  Lacy found herself laughing even though she knew she should maintain a mature composure.

     "See."  Laughing harder, he bumped the dark haired woman. "I told you it was funny."

     "David stop.  We shouldn't."  However, Lacy could no longer contain herself.  The unnerving stress she had been holding came bellowing out with a hardy laugh.

     "I wonder how he did it?"

     "That's a good question and you can be the one to find out." He offered her a questioning look. "And I'll be there to make sure he knows what he did was wrong."

     The seriousness of Lacy's statement hadn't stifled the small chuckles from them.

     Gage walked up just in time to see Hayston with a small bag march deliberately down the hallway.  She glared at the two laughing hyenas sitting at the top of the staircase then she stepped past them.  After descending a few steps, Hayston twisted around.  "David! When you get your act together, you know where to find me." Sneering at him, she added.  "Or maybe not."

     Even as his world was crumbling down around him, David couldn't keep the smile off his face.  He watched the woman he truly did care about walk out the front door and maybe out of his life forever. It was then a sudden sadness covered him.  The only thing that kept David's fragile world together was Lacy's comforting hand, rubbing his back.

     Standing behind Lacy and David, the blonde scratched her neck as she watched her partner comfort the confused man.  "Ah… the kids are still asleep… considering.  Except Derek.  He's pretending but I know he's awake."

     Getting up, Lacy hugged Gage.  "I'll go talk to him."

     "You want me to go with you?" David asked.

     Shaking her head, Lacy sucked in a deep breath.  "No, I'm just going to tell him we'll talk with him tomorrow." And that I love him no matter what.

     Left alone with David, Gage wondered what to do next.  Finally, she asked. "You want to help me clean up the mess?"

     "Nah."  David stood. Without looking at Gage, he admitted.  "It's my fault.  I'll do it."  He took a few slow steps then turned back around.  "Don't let Lacy be too hard on Derek."

     The near pleading in his gray eyes that matched Derek's was nearly the blonde's undoing. She saw sincere remorse in them and a sense of something lost perhaps forever.  "Right."

     When Gage arrived at Derek's room, Lacy was talking gently to her son.  She overheard him admit he had perpetrated the stunt.  "I was just having a bit of fun."

     "What if it had happened to you?"  Lacy reasoned with her son. The concerned mother hadn't intended to discuss the incident tonight, however, Derek knew he was in trouble and didn't want to wait till the morning.

     Derek shrugged his shoulders.  "I don't mind getting messy."

     "Okay."  Lacy thought a moment before she continued. "What about your racetrack and cars?"

     "What about it?  Did Sammy do something to it?"  Derek started to get out of bed, pushing back the covers.

     Gently pushing him down again, Lacy assured him.  "No, but what if he did? How would you like that?"  He frowned.  "You wouldn't because it's one of your favorite things and Hayston's make-up, her personal things are her favorite things."

     "And she doesn't like to get messy."  Derek added, remembering the ghastly look on her face all too vividly when she found the spider.

     "No. She doesn't."  The tired mother confirmed.

     "But you don't mind, do you mom?" Derek stated assuredly.

     Tapping him on the nose, Lacy smiled. "Most of the time, no."

     Gage wanted to join Lacy but was reluctant, not knowing if their son would be receptive to her suggestions.  The blonde hung just outside the door being as supportive to her partner as she could at the moment.

     Rubbing her temple, the concerned mother advised Derek.  "Honey, I know that there's been a lot going on and I guess you think I haven't been open to some of the things you want or have done lately but…"

     "It's okay, mom.  I still love you."  Derek assured her, patting her hand.

     Lacy smiled.  "Oh, I never doubted that for a moment."

     "Mom?"

     "Hmmm?"

     "Can I go to sleep now?"  His gray eyes drooped.

     Tucking him in, Lacy agreed. "Sure."  Lacy kissed him on the cheek and brushed her fingers through his short brown hair.  "Goodnight."

     Gage met Lacy at the door.  "Come on."  The blonde wrapped her arm around her distressed partner.  "There's always tomorrow. Things will be better.  I promise."

     Leaning against her partner, Lacy reluctantly nodded.  "I hope."

*************************

     The next morning after breakfast Gage drove over to Katie's house to pick up Dani.  Hayley and Sammy insisted on riding along in hopes of their blonde buddy stopping by the ice cream place.

     The first thing out of Dani's mouth was the whole story about Drake and what happened between him and her uncle.  After hearing the story, Gage hesitated about telling Lacy since she knew her partner was near an emotional perilous edge with everything else going on.  But the blonde reasoned that Lacy would be more upset finding out about it later rather than sooner.  I just gotta figure out some way of telling her without adding to her already overtaxed emotional state.

     When Gage drove up to their house, she saw Stella and Lacy's mom putting a few bags in Lynn's car.  Derek was helping them.  Pulling the car to a stop, Gage opened the backseat door to get Hayley out while Dani assisted her younger brother.  "Hey, what's going on?"

     Lynn pulled Gage aside as Stella gathered the children around the car.  "Nate told me about last night and I came over to see how Lacy was doing.  When I called earlier, she was pretty shaken up."

     "Why? What happened?"  Gage moved toward the house in search of her partner.

     "Hold on a minute."  Lynn stopped the blonde.  "When I called, Stella answered and I guess Lacy picked up the phone right when I was telling your mom about last night with what happened."

     "Where is she?  Where's Lacy?"  Gage demanded.

     "David's inside with her."  Lynn turned the blonde's head back around.  "Stella and I thought it would be a good idea to take the kids over to my house for a few days.  Stella will come too.  That will give you and Lacy time alone together."

     Gage stared at Lynn with a puzzled look on her face.

     "Gage.  I love you like my own. And you've brought so much happiness to Lacy and the kids."  Lynn said sincerely.

     Waiting for the hammer to drop, Gage now looked petrified, fearing Lacy was about to leave her.

     "I've known my daughter longer than I have you but I can tell with Lacy and even with you something's… not right."  Lynn wrapped her arm around the woman her daughter pledged her life to and smiled.  "Whatever it is I know you two can work it out."

     "Did she say anything… about me?"

     "No. She needs you."  Lynn pulled Gage closer. "So be there for her. I think you know what I'm talking about."

     Gage did know exactly what her mother-in-law was referring to and the blonde so much wanted to open the floodgate and unleash all of the pent up dark memories from her past but fear was the key that held them in check.  "Okay."  The blonde walked slowly toward the house.  She stopped to kiss each of her children goodbye and told them she loved them.  Gage nearly broke into tears when even Derek hugged her back, squeezing tightly and proclaimed he loved her too.

     Dani wanted to assure her mother that she wasn't going to go to any parties without Lacy knowing about it and that they only went to a movie.  Gage consoled the young girl when she let her know that her mother knew Dani had never lied to them. And I never will. Reluctantly, Dani climbed in their grandmother's car with the rest of her siblings.

     Stella kissed her daughter on the cheek and whispered.  "You are the strongest person I know."  She kissed Gage again then added.  "Besides Lacy that is."

     That made Gage smile.  "That she is." I only pray she's strong enough to love me even after she knows the truth about me.  In that moment, Gage steeled her will to demand entrance to all of her buried past and open the curtain for Lacy to see everything about her.

*************************

     Lacy paced across the floor finding some comfort in Gage's writing room.  Several times she slid her hand lovingly over her partner's leather chair.  Wishing that Gage were home, Lacy looked up when David walked in.

     "Your mom and Stella just left with the kids."  David announced.

     "Good."  Lacy crossed her arms, pacing the floor like a wild caged animal. "I don't want them to see me like this."  At first Lacy refused to accept her mother's plans because she desperately wanted to ensure that Dani was okay.  After hearing her mother tell Stella about that Drake character, she went into emotional overload.  When her mother heard the strain in her voice, Lynn announced she was coming right over.  Stella and her mother insisted on taking the kids for a few days. The frantic mother finally agreed when Lynn pointed out how shaken her daughter was at the moment. "Did you see Gage?"

     "No.  Her car's outside but…"  Lacy rushed past him but he stopped her. "Wait a minute."

     "What?"  Lacy practically shouted.  "I need to see Gage." The determined woman had every intention of scarfing up her partner and going over to her mother's house.

     Turning the shaken woman toward him, David tried to calm her.  "Take a few deep breaths first.  Okay?"

     Wanting to collect her thoughts, Lacy reluctantly did as instructed.

     "Why don't we sit down over here?"  David steered her toward the couch but Lacy refused.

     Instead, she compromised by leaned up against Gage's desk.

     It was David's turn to pace.  "Lacy, I know this isn't the right time but…"

     "David? What is it?"  His fidgeting temporarily took her mind off of her own troubles. But she was losing patience with him fast.

     He stopped directly in front of her.  "What should I do about Hayston?"

     Lacy just glared at him. I can't believe this.

     David wrongly thought that by getting Lacy to help him with Hayston, he could take some burden off the already over stressed woman.  "Really.  I could use your advice."

     Exhaling a frustrated breath, Lacy lit into him.  "I am so fucking fed up with having to deal with your problems when I have problems of my own.  Derek acting out.  Lots of help you've been there.  And some oversexed man
stalking my daughter and her friends. Then Gage won't… "  Lacy grabbed his arm when he turned away, forcing him to face her.  "David, stop drinking so much.  Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Get a job and for heavens sake…"

     "You could help with the job part." David insisted, standing straighter.  "If you only took that role in Ted Connolly's new movie."

     Neither David nor Lacy saw Gage at the cracked door.

     "I already told you. I turned it down." She forced herself to steady her overwrought nerves.

     "It's because of Gage. She's selfish, right? And you are putting her feelings first like always." David truly didn't want his talented ex-wife to give up her lucrative career.

     "Oh, David.  Come here."  Lacy wrapped her arms around the man she had once loved.  Shaking her head against his, she said calmly. "You are amazing."

     Seeing Lacy embrace David was the blonde's undoing. From the center of her core like an erupting volcano that refused to stay contained, Gage shook as tremors of emotional fragments overflowed unrelenting through her shattering veneer. She could no longer function yet somehow her feet did as they had done many years ago, running as fast as they could in order to get away from the haunting scene that had just played out before her.

     Holding him close, Lacy's whispered words spewed pure venom, countering his accusation.  "So fucking amazing that you think you're always right. Yes, it's because of Gage that I want a life more than just making movies. It's because of Gage that my life is now complete and even at my worst… even now with everything going on… I am the happiest I've ever been in my life.  And, yes, it's because of Gage that I am free to be me, do what I want, when I want and how I want.  And Gage is everything I want."  An evil smile formed on Lacy's face before she finished.  "And it's because of Gage and the mean words you've spoken about her that I'm going to do this." Lacy cocked her leg back and kneed him.

     "Oh fuck Lacy."  Grabbing his crotch, David fell down.  "Was that necessary?"

     Slapping her hands together, Lacy grinned.  "Apparently."  She deliberately headed toward the door but turned briefly and ordered. "Pack your bags and go home, David.  Now!"

     With the slamming of the door, the man was still on the floor, squirming with pain.  "I'm gonna need a minute." He moaned loudly.
 

Chapter Sixteen

     When Lacy entered their bedroom, Gage looked up with scared green eyes. Quickly turning away, the nervous blonde fidgeted with some clothes in her hands before she determinedly marched to the closet and pulled out a travel bag.

     Confused and exceptionally concerned, Lacy demanded.  "What are you doing?"

     Gage refused to look at Lacy as she stuffed a shirt into the bag.  Torn as what to do, the blonde paced back and forth wanting to speak but unable to find the words.  A million turbulent thoughts bombarded her mind vacillating over staying or leaving. The blonde chanced a hastily look toward Lacy before heading to the dresser.

     "Gage." Lacy chased after her anxious partner. Grabbing Gage's shoulder, Lacy yanked her around and pulled the bag from the blonde's hand. Lacy tossed it behind her. "What's going on?"

     Breathing heavily, Gage's green eyes looked everywhere except at her partner. Backing away, the blonde tried to pull loose.  "I… I…"  Gage glanced around Lacy, trying to see where her bag landed.  She pushed past the upset dark haired woman, picked up the bag and threw it on the bed.

     Drawing in a deep breath, Lacy saw Gage stuff a pillow in her bag. It was obvious the blonde wasn't paying any attention to what she was doing. Lacy stepped up next to Gage. "I don't think you need that." Lacy retrieved the pillow and threw it on the bed but it fell off the other side.  When Gage jolted across the bed, Lacy grabbed her.  "Oh, no, you don't."  Lacy flipped the blonde over, effectively holding Gage in place. "Now you're going to talk to me."

     Gage refused to meet her partner's concerned eyes.

     Brimming with such emotional upheaval, Lacy demanded.  "Gage, talk to me. Damn it."

     The blonde's breath quickened when Gage fought against Lacy's hold. "Why?"  Gage nearly screamed.

     "Because this can't go on any longer."  Lacy held the twisting blonde by her wrists.  "We need to talk and this time I'm not letting you go until we do."

     "Why?" Gage insisted again.  "What the fuck difference does it make?"

     Shocked, Lacy leaned back but she was still perched over Gage. "What difference does it make?" She repeated softly. "I don't matter to you anymore?  We don't matter?  Is that what you're saying?"

     Green eyes squinted.  "You lied to me."

     "I lied to you? You lied to me."  Lacy accused her lover.

     "You want me to leave?  Is that it?"  Gage pushed up against Lacy.  "Well, that's what I was doing until you stopped me."

     Lacy let the blonde up and watched Gage begin to pace the room again, running her hands through her short hair.  "Is that what you want?  I mean so little to you?  The kids… that you would leave us?"

     Gage was so close to opening up and taking that final step by revealing her past to Lacy but that all changed when she saw the woman she loved embrace David.  There wasn't one rational thought in the overwrought blonde's head at the moment.  "You want him? Go ahead. Then you can accept that part in the movie that you so…"  Gage glared at Lacy. "…conveniently forgot to tell me they offered to you."

     "The same way you so conveniently forgot to tell me about your ex-lover Gail?"  Lacy shot back.  "I know I asked you about that and don't you dare deny it."

     "There are some things a person fights to forget."  Gage mumbled, glancing at the door then she searched for something, anything to grab hold of but instead paced the room.  "Ohgrrrr… damn it."

     Trying desperately to collect herself, Lacy fought against the angry words fighting to lash out against her partner in retaliation for the times Gage retreated when Lacy needed her most.

     Scrambling off the bed, Lacy confronted Gage. "I'm not going to let you leave."  Lacy pressed Gage's face between her hands. "It's time to stop running."

     But that's exactly what Gage wanted to do.  However, the determined touch of her lover's hands held the blonde in place.  Gage sucked in several deep breaths as if building up a head of steam, waiting to be unleashed against an onslaught of dark memories that flooded against the long held gate.  In a small voice, Gage simply acquiesced.  "Fine." Gage knew that the only chance she had of holding on to what she treasured most, Lacy and their children, then she would have to let go. Let go of every fucking thing that happened in my fucking life.

     Lacy gently caressed her lover's face.  "Do you want to sit on the bed… with me?"

     Shaking her head, the blonde eased away from her partner. Breathing hard, she summoned every wonderful memory she had shared with Lacy as an anchor to steady her resolve.

     Sensing Gage needed some space, Lacy backed away and calmly sat on the edge of the bed.  Though she had the foresight to place herself in a position between Gage and the door.  "Will you tell me now?"

     Rifling her hand though her hair, Gage stretched her neck and closed her eyes as if to say a silent prayer. The immediate future popped into the blonde's head and she was sure once Lacy knew about her Gage would be left alone. Like I've been most of my life. Facing away from Lacy, Gage admitted.  "You deserve to know. And I won't blame you if… you want me to leave after…"

     Lacy jumped off the bed, embracing her lover from behind. "I will never leave you." The dark haired woman whispered then brushed her lips against Gage's head. She could feel the blonde trembling.  Lacy wanted desperately to continue to hold Gage but knew her lover expressed herself best when she was moving.  It was the same when Gage was coming up with ideas for her stories. She was constantly on the move, walking around, pacing the room until the idea percolated out. Hugging Gage tightly once more, Lacy stepped back. "Go ahead."

     It seemed like hours before Gage turned around and faced Lacy.  "You want to know why I backed away when Derek started acting out?" The blonde asked and Lacy nodded. "Because I am Derek. That was me years ago." Unfocused green eyes stared off into space recalling a very unhappy memory.

     "Gage, sweetheart, I know we have problems with Derek but we can work them out… together. They're not that major. Don't you think?"  Lacy assured her lover.

     "Oh, I started out innocently, too.  Just little things just like Derek… that turned into a nightmare."  Gage started to turn away but instead chose to remain facing Lacy.  "That's why I'm the last person to help Derek."

     "You're wrong." Lacy insisted, nervously grinding her hands together. "I think you're exactly the person to help him."

     "Lacy, you don't know." Gage began pacing through the room again. "Like I said in the beginning it was small things.  Cussing. Playing tricks on the other kids or the foster parents.  You know hiding things.  Doing things to scare the other kids."  A dark memory crashed against the forefront of her mind.  "Did I tell you about Johnnie?" Lacy recognized the name of her partner's childhood friend, Gage laughed. "Not everything." I've kept so much from you.

     "Will you tell me now?" Lacy coaxed her reluctant lover.

     Nodding, Gage leaned against the dresser.  "He was… my best friend.  I remember the first time I scared him."  Gage chuckled, relieving some of the tension.  "I told you about that."
 

"Gage, sweetheart, what happened wasn't so bad.  My brothers and
tried to scare each other all the time and sometimes it doesn't turn out the way we planned."  She briefly recalled the cave incident.

     Sadly, Gage revealed. "That was the first time I ran."

     Lacy walked over to Gage and rubbed her arm.  "They sent you away, didn't they?"

     "And Johnnie, too. We didn't get to see each other until a few years later.  By then we were… fourteen, fifteen.  And hell raisers."  Gage glanced at Lacy.  "We smoked a little… drank a lot." The blonde squeezed Lacy's arm then moved away, needing some distance as she prepared to tell the rest of the story.  "We got into all sorts of trouble.  Fighting, stealing.  At first, it was a pack of cigarettes, beer, food… things like that then it… well, got worse."

     "Gage, I can't say I understand completely but considering the kind of life you had, I'm not surprised you had problems."  Lacy wanted to be as understanding as she possible could but she had to admit that her childhood was much different.

     "With Derek, Lacy."  Gage took a quick breath when she started to explain the connection between her and their son.  "When our foster parents… anybody told me I couldn't do something.  Well, that made me want to do it all the more.  It was my little way of being free from them. It just pushed me further away. Not that we were close but… I began hating them, resenting them."

     "And that's why you distanced yourself from Derek. You thought he would want to do whatever it was even more and end up hating you."  Lacy surmised.  She could never believe that would ever be the case but knew that was what weighed heavily on her partner's mind.

     "After the things I did, who was I to try and tell him what to do?"

     "His parent."  Lacy stared directly at Gage.

     "Yes, but…"

     "Gage, I know you had a hard childhood and I wish things would have been different for you but… Derek has us, parents that love him and would do anything for him."

     "That's not true, Lacy. I didn't."  Gage took full responsibility for her failure as a parent.

     Shaking her head, Lacy marched over to Gage. "You have shown our little boy so much love and dedication. You, Gage…" Lacy lifted the blonde's head so she could look into Gage's green eyes. "When Derek was shy and afraid, you were the one that got through to him.  Not me and certainly not David. It was you."  Lacy wrapped her arms around Gage. "We are so lucky to have you."

     Gage welcomed the embrace but felt she didn't deserve it.  "There's more."

     "Okay." Lacy backed up and assured her partner. "But it won't change the way I… we feel about you."

     Gage had her doubts as she proceeded.  "Johnnie and I pretty much lived on the streets by that time.  We ran away from every home they put us in. We were our own little gang.  Nobody messed with us. We each had a knife but…  we liked to use our hands. We fought a lot." Gage paused as if to consider whether she should proceed.

     "I'm here.  Go on, sweetheart."  Again, Lacy struggled to stay in place, allowing Gage the room she needed.

     "We needed some money and… there was this little store." Gage ran a hand through her hair, dropping it down to scratch her neck. "We waited till just the clerk was inside. I figured we go in and demand the money or beat him up.  Maybe brandish a knife just to let him know we meant business…"  Gage chanced a glance at Lacy.  "Like we had before when we needed money."

     Lacy shifted on the edge of the bed but offered her partner a reassuring smile.

     "We went in, demanded the money.  Johnnie was behind me watching for anybody coming in.  I flashed my knife. The clerk just stood there for a minute and I thought he had froze but… all of a sudden I got this bad feeling. Then out of nowhere there was this shotgun in my face." The blonde's body squirmed a bit as she remembered the details.  "From that point, it was all a blur and I wanted Johnnie and I to get out of there as fast as we could.  And I swear to God I don't even remember hearing the shot but…" Gage swallowed hard. "The clerk… his eyes just stared off in space and that's when I saw the blood."

     Lacy's hands covered her face in shock.  "Gage." Lacy raced toward her lover but Gage pushed her away, not wanting any sympathy from her partner that she knew she didn't deserve.

     "Johnnie had a gun.  I didn't know it."  In her mind, Gage was reliving the horror of moment.  "There was bleeding all over the place and I… when I turned around Johnnie was covered with blood, too.  Both of them must have fired their weapons at the same time."

     Lacy stood firm, holding an unwavering small smile on her face to ensure her partner knew she would always be there for Gage. But the blonde refused to look at Lacy.

     "I looked back at the clerk and he was holding his chest.  That's when I heard the door slam.  When I turned back around, Johnnie was gone, leaving a trail of blood. And the gun was lying on the floor.  I… for the longest time I couldn't move." Gage backed herself up in the corner of the room, leaning against the wall from the bloody images stampeding in her mind.  Her voice trembling, Gage continued to relay the horrific story. "The man tried to say something but blood was gurgling out of his mouth and I just stood there. I knew he needed help, Lacy.  But I just stood there… watching him bleed to death."

     Lacy watched a shaken Gage slide to the flour as tears flooded the blonde's eyes.  The dark haired woman had tears of her own.

     As the memories of that day relentlessly bombarded the stunned Gage, she crawled up in the corner, tucking her legs up close to her chest in the fetal position as waves of emotion welled up inside pouring out in streams of tears. The blonde's body shuddered with each expelled breath.

     Lacy rushed to her partner and cradled the blonde in her arms. Brushing her short hair, Lacy soothed Gage as tremors shook the blonde's body.  "Oh, Gage, sweetheart.  Please, it's okay.  Everything will be all right."

     The crashing onslaught of memories pounded at the fragile emotional wall, breaking it, shattering and penetrating through until it came crumbing down around the broken woman in Lacy's arms.  With tears draining from her eyes, Gage conceded to what she knew was true.  "I'm evil. I don't deserve you or the kids.  Don't you see, I'm not good enough.  I knew it all along but I was selfish." Gage pounded her fist against the floor.  "Selfish because I wanted so much to… if just for a little while know what it was really like to be loved.  But now you know… you know what I did… what I was.  Who I am."

     Lacy hugged Gage even tighter.  "I know who you are.  You're the woman I love."

     Gage tried to push Lacy away.  She knew the truth and she didn't want Lacy to feel sorry for her either. "How can you love someone who left her best friend to bleed to death?"

     Lacy was confused. "Johnnie? What happened to him?"

     "After I ran out of the store, I… I don't know I don't remember where I was running to. I ran till I couldn't run anymore.  Later, I went back to where Johnnie and I were staying… and he had managed to get back there somehow." Gage tried to pull away from Lacy but she would not relinquish her hold. "I was afraid but found myself holding him in my arms after he called my name. He was smiling at me.  Smiling? Can you believe it? Blood all over his body and he's smiling."  Gage wiped the tears from her face. "We were like that for a long time. I knew he needed help but… I was scared."  The blonde sucked in a deep breath. "When I heard the sirens, I looked at Johnnie one last time.  His eyes were closed and his body limp but I knew he was still alive. Barely."

     "Sweetheart, it's okay. I'm here."

     "I left him and ran." Gage chanced a quick glance toward her partner. "Lacy, I left him there to die. Just to save my own butt." The blonde let out a harsh laugh. "They caught up with me before morning and locked me up."

     Lacy brushed her lips against her lover's blonde head.

     Trying desperately to collect herself, Gage wanted to simply evaporate from the loving arms of her partner that encased her. "You should leave me. David wants you back anyway and that would be better for your career… and the kids."

     Seething from hearing the ugliest words Lacy had ever heard, she twisted Gage around to look squarely at the crying woman. "Damn it, Gage." Lacy said with determination. "I'm a woman in love. You are the one.  The only one. You just don't give up on the other half of your soul.  I can't walk away. Do you hear me?"  Lacy shook Gage. "I have to have you. You're everything to me. I… I would die without you."

     "But I saw you with David downstairs…" The blonde whimpered, trying to erase the memory of that embrace.

     "No!"  Lacy commanded the blonde to be quiet.  "You're what's best for the kids and me. You're what's best for all of us."

     Trying to hold back the tears, Gage argued.  "Lacy, didn't you hear me?  What I've done? I left Johnnie bleeding to death and the clerk, too.  I could… should have helped them. No, I ran and I've never stopped running."

     "None of that matters. I love you Gage Ballant."  Lacy brushed back a tear of her own.  "And all I want to hear from you now is that you love me, too."

     "I…"  When Lacy glared at the blonde, Gage relented, speaking the absolute truth. "You know I do."

     "Then say it."  The heaving brunette demanded, needing to hear the words herself.

     "I love you Lacy Levine Ballant."  Gage mustered a small smile on her tear stained face.  "And I love all of our children."  Still feeling unworthy, Gage took comfort that the women she loved was still there by her side.

     "You better."  Lacy insisted, pulling Gage even closer.  "Because you have us and you have to keep us… forever."

     Nodding, Gage relished her partner's touch.  "Lacy?"

     "Hmmm…."  The dark haired woman brushed her lips against Gage's blonde hair.

     "About Gail…"

     "You don't have to explain."

     "I think I want, too.  And I didn't lie on purpose.  I just never wanted to remember."  The hurt was too much for the blonde to bear so she had buried that part of her life forever or so she thought.

     Lacy shifted Gage in her arms.  "Okay but first let me tell you about that movie role."

     Finding comfort in her lover's arms, Gage waited.

     "Art did call me about the part and yes I turned it down.  I've turned down a few other parts as well.  Not because of you… well, not entirely and not because of what you think."  Lacy assured her lover, sweeping her hand over Gage's arm. "It would have taken me away on location and I didn't want that.  Derek had been acting out and you were…"

     "I'm sorry."  Gage knew she had contributed to the problem by distancing herself from Derek.

     "I know and I can understand why now."  Lacy kissed Gage lightly on the lips. "And Dani wanting to be more independent… when Art asked about the role, I didn't even consider it. My family… you and the kids are my world and besides, I've decided that I only want to do projects with you and Mark.  So we can be together."

     "Lacy, you'll pass up some wonderful roles."

     "I thought about that and you know what?" Gage shook her head. "My greatest role is being your wife and mother to our children.  Now I ask you what can be better than that?"

     Gage smiled, happy to feel some of the tension ease.  "You, me and the kids piled in bed watching a movie on a rainy morning."

     Lacy laughed. "Well, there is that."  The younger woman leaned her head against the blonde.  "So tell me about this Gail."

     For a moment, Gage didn't know if she was strong enough to traverse that emotional minefield.  But Lacy deserved to know everything.  "We met when we were both nineteen. We were working at the same place and became friends. I had no idea I was attracted to women… anybody actually.  Johnnie and I were close but there was never any romantic attraction. Gail had an apartment and asked me to be her roommate."

     "So you were friends first?"

     "Yes. I think we lived together five or six months before anything happened.  We just got closer and closer.  I didn't have any family and she sorta became mine."

     "What about Johnnie?"  Lacy asked, wondering what happened to him.

     Gage dropped her head. "He died."

     "I'm sorry."

     "I should have tried to help him more."  Gage confessed.

     Sensing that the memory of her best friend's death was too much for Gage to talk about, Lacy returned to the subject of the woman she knew hurt the woman in her arms.  "So you and Gail became lovers?"  Even saying that word left an ugly taste in her mouth as she thought of Gage with someone else.

     Lacy was surprised when Gage laughed.  "If you can call it that.  You see, neither one of us knew what we were doing.  It was more fumbling than lovemaking."

     "What happened then?"  Lacy didn't want to hear the intimate details between her lover and the woman that she was very jealous of at the moment.

     "We were together about a year and half when her sister came to visit.  Well, it was hard not being together… you know while she was there.  And I thought we hid our feelings pretty well but…"  Gage let out a heavy breath.  "It wasn't two days after her sister left that Gail's parents called demanding that she come home for a visit.  They lived a couple of hours away."

     "I take it they didn't approve."  Lacy said, happy to have such loving and caring family that accepted Gage and their love from the start.

     "It was a long time ago and things were different.  I know that there are people who don't accept two women loving each other even today but back then it was harder.  So Gail went home and when she came back, everything had changed."  Gage rubbed her temple, remembering the distance Gail put between them.  "She announced she was moving back home and that was the end of our relationship."

     "You must have loved her a lot." Lacy really didn't want to hear the answer to that question but she was trying to be understanding to her partner's needs.

     Gage scooted up to look directly into Lacy's beautiful blue eyes and decided to be totally honest.  "She meant the world to me…" Seeing Lacy drop her head, Gage propped it back up.  "…back when my world was small.  The love I had for her was like… a river.  What we have…" Gage pointed between herself and Lacy.  "…this between you and me, our love is an ocean.  With Gail, it never meant nearly as much as what we have.  You and me."  Gage leaned in, kissing Lacy tenderly with as much love as she could show in that one kiss.

     It must have conveyed all the love Gage held for Lacy because the younger woman shed a few tears of joy.  "Thank you."

     "No, thank you, Lacy."  Gage wiped her partner's tears away. "The unconditional love and support you give me still to this day shakes my very core.  I never thought I deserved it but craved it all the same."

     Lacy sprayed a few sweet, delicate kisses along Gage's cheek and her lips found their way to the blonde's neck. "I don't deserve you."

     "No, I don't deserve you." Gage countered.

     "Gage, sweetheart…"  Lacy moaned, still placing small kisses on Gage's neck.  "Let's call it a stalemate and accept that we both deserve each other."

     Feeling slightly faint from the tantalizing lips staking their territory, Gage acquiesced easily.  "Oh, God yes." Wanting nothing more than to take her woman to bed, Lacy reluctantly halted her sexual assault on her lover when Gage suggested.  "I should tell you the rest." She wanted Lacy to know exactly why she tried so desperately to bury that part of her life forever.

     Fanning her overheated body, Lacy relented for now.  "Okay."

     "The one thing Gail did say to me before she left was that…"  The blonde nearly broke into tears again. "…that if we were on a deserted island then she could be with me."

     Thinking that Gail's love only existed when no one else knew about it and that Gage's ex-lover was not proud of the blonde, Lacy fumed. "Why that…"

     Gage cut Lacy off, placing a single finger to her lover's lips.  "I was in love and took that statement at face value then.  I never thought she meant it any other way than in a good way.  I knew how hard it was for her to face her parents about our relationship. It was probably the most difficult thing she ever had to do up until that point.  I didn't want to think that she meant it in a bad way."

     "Uh huh." Was all Lacy could come up with but a silent thought ran though her mind.  If I ever see her again, I'm going to strangle that bitch.

     "A year later we happened to run into each other at a party.  Well, actually I saw her first and went over to talk with her.  Just as I had approached, a friend of hers said she had seen me come in and asked about the rumors about Gail and I. Gail laughed and said that I was after her but she had no interest in me at all and as a matter of fact Gail told her friend that she had told me about maybe if we were on an island, she would think about it but basically I would be the last person on earth she would be with. She laughed again saying that I was foolish enough to believe her and that her being with me would never happen."

     Oh, I am going to hunt you down and with my bare hands…

     "Lacy?"  That brought the younger woman out of her vindictive musing.  "I was devastated.  I thought no one could ever love me or want me.  That I wasn't worthy enough to be loved. But you did."

     "And I still do… always."  Lacy kissed the blonde.  "And not that I really want to bring him up but Mitch was very interested in you."

     Gage shrugged that comment off.  "It was always friendship between us.  Even Mitch would admit that.  We were both lonely and needed to feel like somebody cared.  But you, you were different. The unwavering love and devotion you so easily give to me.  It's hard to believe I could have gotten so lucky. Even though I don't deserve…"

     "Not that again." Lacy moved up over Gage. "I am going to kiss you so hard that you will never again think that way."  And true to her word, Lacy did just that. The younger woman's hands traced the contours of the blonde's body as Lacy deepened the kiss.

     "Lacy?"  Gage gulped for air.  "Can we take this to the bed?"

     Lacy paused momentarily, winked then kissed the blonde hard once again.  "Gladly." She stood up, pulling a dazed Gage with her.

     The next thing Gage knew she was on the bed under a determined woman, having her way with the blonde.  But Gage stopped Lacy if only for a moment because there was one vow she wanted to make to the woman she loved. "I will never, ever withhold anything from you again."

     "Mmmm…"  Lacy growled.  "I'm going to hold you to that."

     Gage smiled at the woman on top of her. "Hold me to anything you want… just hold me."

     Lacy wrapped her arms around Gage, turning them over so that now the blonde was on top.  "You've been there for me and the children all these years, Gage, and I wanted to be there for you, too.  I need to be there for you."  Lacy kissed her lover. "Thank you for sharing your story with me."

     In between heated kisses, Gage barely got out the nagging thought. "What about David?" The blonde wanted to know why Lacy was hugging David.

     "Fuck David." Lacy pulled back her hungry lips reluctantly before gazing sensually into Gage's concerned eyes. "Not that way." She assured her lover then smiled. "And I don't think he'll be doing that kind of thing for a while anyway."

     "Uh oh." Something told Gage that her protective lover ambushed the poor man and the distant sound of a slamming door echoed David's departure.
 

Chapter Seventeen

     Upon having cleansed her soul to her mate, Gage needed reassurance from Lacy that the woman belonged to her completely. Lacy was only too happy to convey the depth of her love for Gage.

     Gage took advantage of her position, leaving a trail of kisses down Lacy's sensitive neck. She paused briefly sucking the luscious skin that eagerly invited the blonde to feast upon. "God, Lacy. I want you."

     The brunette moaned.

     With a sense of great urgency, Gage felt an overwhelming desire to take her woman and savor every touch, caress and moan from her lover. "Lacy?"

     "Mmmm…." The younger woman relished her lover's touch and soft lips, devouring her.

     "I need you."

     "You have me."

     "Always?"

     "Forever."

     The blonde's hand drifted up and down Lacy's arm before coming to rest on her lover's cheek.

     Lacy reached around her lover and pulled her close. Blue eyes stared into green, each melting with desire. When Lacy kissed her lover, Gage responded with desperation as their tongues battled in harmony. The torrid kisses shared fueled the hunger between them.

     Breaking from the heated kiss, Gage slid her tongue down Lacy's neck, pausing at the necklace her lover proudly wore. "I love you."

     "Me, too." Lacy responded breathlessly under her lover's careful and tender caresses she was receiving on her neck from Gage's soft lips.

     Gage's hand slowly traveled down Lacy's body, coming to rest on her lover's left breast. "Beautiful." She murmured between the tiny kisses she gave Lacy.

     "Don't stop."

     "Never." Gage eased her body up against Lacy, forcing her lover's legs to spread. The blonde found a familiar home between the long legs of her partner. Gage thrust her hips against Lacy several times, causing the brunette to let out a long hungry moan. I love it when I make her moan like that.

     Lacy ran her hands over Gage's backside, producing the predicted and erotic moan from her lover. I love it when I make her moan like that.

     Both women needed the lovemaking they were embarking on.  They needed to reconnect and share the depth of the love they had for each other. The needy craving both women shared for each other overtook every emotion in their overheated bodies.

     Gage lifted up and hurriedly pulled off Lacy's top.  "I have to have you… now!"

     Lacy assisted her lover then immediately clawed at Gage's shirt, ripping it off. There would be no denying the need they had for each other and nothing was going to stand in there way. "Lift up."  Lacy had already unbuttoned her lover's jeans and pushed them down.

     Gage finished taking them off before dropping down on her lover who noticed that the blonde was not wearing panties. The kiss was intense and filled with a fiery passion that nearly forced both women to come together.

     Barely conscious from the dizzying kiss, Lacy shoved her pants down and her lover was astute enough to give them one final yank and pitch them across the room along with her lover's panties. "I need to feel you."

     The blonde sank down again on her lover as Lacy wrapped her long legs around Gage and automatically thrust her hips forward. That elicited another languid moan from the blonde. "Again."

     Both women moved in tandem, moving in a rushed rhythm against each other.  When Gage devoured the nipple before her, Lacy again squeezed her lover's backside. They shared another groan that only served to heighten the burning hunger, demanding to be quenched.

     Gage suckled feverously at her lover's breast and her hands moved unimpeded across the sensitive body of her partner. Breathing heavy, Gage begged.  "Lacy, I want… I need… all of you." There was no denying the intensity of the need the blonde had for Lacy. Gage poured all of her love into every kiss, every touch and every breath they shared.

     Lacy had not been wearing a brassiere but Gage was and the dark haired woman wanted no more of it.  She unhooked the bra and ripped it off of Gage. The quick move did not halt her lover as she continued to suckle Lacy's breast.

     Gage's tongue swirled around the tasty nipple several times then she nipped at it before swallowing the breast greedily. Her hand found favor with Lacy's left breast ensuring that it was not left unattended.

     Lacy for her part was delirious with a starving yearning to be taken completely by her lover and she encouraged Gage to consume her. "Gage, sweetheart."  When the blonde sucked hard on Lacy's breast, the younger woman under sensual assault yelled.  "Oh God, sweetheart…"

     "Yesss…."  The blonde looked up only briefly to see what her lover needed.  Her busy hands never paused as they traversed her lover's beautiful body.  Gage ran her hand over Lacy's hip and down her thigh then slipped between her partner's legs. Feeling the heavy dew of moisture pooling between her lover's legs, Gage nipped at Lacy's nipple once more before she kissed her lover on the mouth again.

     With Gage's hand firmly placed between her legs, Lacy fell into a vortex of need as Gage played mercilessly with the most sensitive part of her body.

     "God, sweetheart, that feels so good."  Lacy husked, moving her hips against the insistent hand.

     "You feel good."  Gage moved back to Lacy's breast. This time suckling on the left one that tasted like heaven.

     Lacy's breath labored under the continued hot and heavy sexual attack that rained down on her and she wanted to touch her lover.  "Gage, let me…"  Lacy's own insistent hand found her way to Gage's center, refusing to be denied the savoring silky feeling that her fingers enjoyed every time they found themselves playing between the blonde's legs.

     Feeling her own breathing increase rapidly, Gage continued to devour Lacy and still wanted, needed, no, craved more. "Baby, I want to taste you."

     Reluctant to lose contact with the fire she felt burning between the blonde's legs, Lacy allowed Gage to scoot lower. The younger woman's hands found their way to the soft, supple skin of her lover's strong back. "Yes."

     Gage savored every taste of her lover's skin as she moved lower. She kissed and licked and sucked every inch within reach of her mouth as her hands ran slowly up and down the shapely curves of Lacy's body. When Gage's tongue dipped into the brunette's navel and ran her hands over Lacy's highly sensitive breasts, the younger woman moaned loudly. "Gage, sweetheart, God that really sends me."

     The blonde was well aware of how that maneuver affected her lover and used it often.  As she wanted to linger there longer drawing more delicious moans from her lover, Gage was selfish since she could no longer deny what she craved.  Moving lower, Gage stopped at the apex of her lover's legs. Green eyes looked up to meet dazed blue and in a knowing silence, she asked permission.

     "God yes!"

     With an urgency that equaled no other, Gage dropped down and partook of the delicious treasure that was being offered up to her without reservation. She greedily licked, sucked, kissed and smoldered her lover's beauty with her tongue, lips and mouth.

     Lacy pushed her lover's head deeper between her legs.  She spread her legs and looped one over Gage's shoulder, falling to rest on the blonde's back.

     Gage wrapped her arms around her lover's hips as she continued to consume what she couldn't ever get enough of. God, I need this. Baby, please… please let me have you. Gage begged silently since her mouth, lips and tongue were much too busy enjoying the feast before her.

     Lacy thrust her hips into the blonde's face, demanding satisfaction. "Gage, oh God baby… I need you.  Make me…"  When Gage used her tongue to swipe the length of Lacy's center, she screamed.  "Oh, God, yes!"

     The older woman buried her face deeper in the nether valley and  explored the depths of each silky fold and cavern.  Gage slipped her tongue inside Lacy which brought of series of hurried thrusts from her lover's hips. Gage could feel the wetness spring from her overheated body and pool between her own legs. God, baby, I'm going to come. The pleasure the blonde delivered to her lover always brought on this desired response. Lacy's moans and eagerness for her lover's attention served up such emotions within Gage that she inevitably shared the climax of their lovemaking time and time again even without direct stimulation.

     Lacy wanted to touch more of her lover but knew Gage would not relinquish the reserved spot between Lacy's legs that was meant only for her. She instinctively knew her lover needed to take her, body and soul. And Lacy was letting her and enjoying it immensely. Gage continued her highly arousing assault with such strength and passion that Lacy's felt a deep crescendo building that would not go unheeded before she burst into a powerful and earth shattering climax.

     With wild abandon, Gage again devoured her lover's gift and she worshiped the taste, feel and wetness that Lacy offered her in return. Only pausing long enough to suck in a deep breath, Gage dove back in. She had to possess the woman below her completely and meld the rift between them once and for all.  When Gage felt she was near the edge herself, there was no stopping the fevered blissful offering that she greedily tasted.

     Finding that very sensitive spot of her lover, Gage's tongue flicked, teased and sucked until the woman below her exploded over the pinnacle and sailed beyond anything they had ever experienced before. Both women shared the magnitude of this moment as they held each other desperately.

     Long moments passed as each woman fought to regain an even breath.  Gage used the last of her strength to crawl back up her lover's body. When the frenzied climatic blast dissolved back to some sense of normalcy, their bodies molded together in each other's arms.

     "I love you." Gage barely whispered.

     "Sweetheart, I've never known such love." Lacy lounged back; weary from their exhaustive lovemaking. Closing her eyes, Lacy bask in the love her partner gave to her and she would only rest a few long moments before the younger woman turned the tables and devoured Gage… all night long.
 

************************

     "Oh God, Lacy.  I don't think I can move."

     Wrapped over her lover, Lacy smiled in contentment.  "Good. I don't want you to."

     Gage ran her fingers over Lacy's bare back.  "I love to touch you.  You are so beautiful."

     "Mmm…. thank you.  So are you."

     "Ha. You need your eyes checked."  When Lacy popped her head up to stare at Gage, the blonde added.  "As beautiful as they are."

     "If I say you are beautiful then you are."  Lacy leaned over and kissed the blonde. She lay her head back down on Gage's shoulder.

     "Lacy?"

     "Mmmm?"

     "What you said about only working on movie projects with Mark and I?"  The blonde brushed her lips against her lover's temple.  "I don't guess you'd considered playing the part of Marta in our movie."

     "Ryan put you up to that?"  Lacy reached up and kissed her lover's neck.

     "No, well not lately."  Gage fessed up. "But I was thinking that we could… it would be nice to get away.  Just the two of us."  When Lacy looked up at Gage, the blonde continued.  "That is after we've talked with Derek and Dani and… are we having any problems with Sammy or Hayley?" Gage added as an afterthought.

     "Thank goodness no."  She smiled and considered Gage's proposal.  "I think that's a great idea. And you know what?"

     "What?"  Happy that Lacy was receptive to her plan.

     "I meant it when I said that you were the one that could help Derek most now. Especially after what you told me about your teen years.  You can relate to him about what he's going through."  Lacy explained, hoping Gage would agree.  She desperately wanted the two to reconnect.

     "Yeah, I think you're right."  Gage thought for a minute.  "As a matter of fact, there's this guy I know.  Fred MacKavey.  After the robbery and the clerk… I thought the guy died. I got locked up and Fred was a youth specialist at the place I was at.  He kinda took me under his wings and when I got out, gave me a place to stay.  Later when I was old enough he gave me a job at a youth facility for young males.  He was my group leader. Now he heads up the Division.  Maybe I could talk to him about Derek and I visiting the place.  You know, if that's okay…"

     "Whatever you think is best.  Why don't we both talk with Derek and then you can share with him what you want about your past.   Okay?"  Lacy was happy when Gage nodded. She rubbed her hand along her lover's bare side, hesitating on broaching the thought that came to her mind.  "Gage, sweetheart?"

     "Hmmm?"  Gage fell easily into the soothing hand of her lover that had free reign to explore any and all parts of her body and the blonde hoped that same hand would do exactly what she had in mind.

     "I think, too, that you should talk to Gail."

     The blonde's eyes popped open.  "What? Why?"

     "Trust me, I'm even surprising myself at this suggestion but I think it would be good for you.  To get some kind of closure or understanding between the two of you.  My guess is that Gail didn't show up at the book signing accidentally.  Maybe she wants to make amends."  Lacy hoped this idea wouldn't backfire in her face. "We could stop by New York on our way to Africa."

     "I don't know, Lacy."  Gage puffed out a breath of frustrated air.  "Don't you think I've been though enough emotional turmoil?  Both of us?"

     "You're probably right." Lacy let it drop.

     Squeezing tightly the woman draped over her, Gage shook her head.  "I'll think about it."  Gage realized she would like to resolve that whole affair once and for all.

     "Now that just leaves dealing with Dani."

     "Come here."  Gage ordered her lover.

     So Lacy scooted up closer so they were face to face.

     "I never got to tell you but after I picked up Dani from Katie's house that morning. It was yesterday, right?"  It seemed like such a long time ago and after their nightlong ravishing of each other, both women had lost complete track of time. "Anyway, she went on and on about how she was glad she listened to you about what Drake might be after and how wise you were." When Lacy hiked a questioning eyebrow at that last statement, Gage assured her partner. "That was her word.  She said you were one wise woman."

     "Uh, huh." Lacy wasn't convinced.

     "Believe me or not, she did." Gage pecked Lacy on the lips.  "I think you are her hero.  And she was glad she had the kind of relationship where she could talk with her mother not like Katie and her mom."

     "You think I should talk with Ellen?"

     Gage shrugged.  "Ask Dani.  See what she thinks."

     "Good idea."

     Gage waggled her eyebrows.  "I've got another good idea."

     "Really?" Lacy dropped her lips close to the blonde's mouth. "Is it the same great idea you had last night?  Five times."

     "Only if you want it to be."  Gage was hopeful of her lover's answer.

     The only answer Gage received was a hungry kiss from her lover that threatened to devour the blonde. Happily, Gage was prepared to be her lover's breakfast.

Chapter Eighteen

     By Sunday evening, Gage was eager to pick up their children who were staying with Lacy's mom. She reasoned that since they were going to New York then Africa by the end of the coming week, the blonde wanted her family back together. And it seemed that Lacy couldn't wait another minute to talk with Dani about what happened Friday night at the mall.

     Even though Lacy rolled her eyes when Gage asked the children if they wanted to stop and get some ice cream before heading home, the blonde reasoned that their children deserved a treat for being such wonderful kids.

     Stella decided to stay another night with Lynn and her husband, giving Lacy and Gage some alone time with their children.  Lacy protested, assuring her mother-in-law that that wasn't necessary. Yet, the wise woman knew it would be better since Lacy told Stella and Lynn about Gage finally opening up.  Stella still felt responsible for what happened to Gage and needed time alone to resolve her own issues. Lynn assured Lacy that she would help Gage's mother.

     Lacy and Gage sat close together on the couch as the Disney movie ended.  When the blonde tossed a kernel of popped corn at Hayley's open mouth, Lacy nudged her partner. "Didn't you get on Derek about doing that to Sammy earlier?"

     "Yeah, but that was during the movie.  Now it's over." Gage argued with a smile on her face.

     "Yeah, mom. We can play now." Derek chimed in and grabbed a handful of corn.

     "Give me some." Sammy grabbed at the bowl of popcorn Dani held in her hands. "I've got some popcorn."

     Dani jumped up from the floor, shoving the bowl at Gage.  "You started it."

     Lacy placed a quick kiss on her partner's cheek.  "And you can handle it."  She stood. "Dani? Why don't we have our girl talk now?"

     Ready to escape the brewing popcorn battle, Dani hesitated when she looked at Hayley.  "Should we take her along with us?" After all, technically she is one of us although she acts like Gage sometimes.

     Watching Hayley crawl up on Gage's lap, trying to pick up the pieces of corn off the blonde, Lacy shook her head.  "No. Gage is going to need all the help she can get."  Lacy didn't miss Derek sneaking around the back of the couch with both hands full of popcorn as he headed for her partner.  Lacy held out her hand to Dani.  "Let's go."

     In the meantime, Derek hit his target behind as Sammy pounded Gage with popcorn from the front.  Hayley smiled happily, picking up the pieces and stuffing them in her mouth.

     "Hayley?" Gage grabbed her little hands, removing some of the popcorn. "That's enough."

     The tiny blonde's mouth was full.  "No!" Hayley turned her head away, clamping her mouth shut.

     "Okay, guys.  That's enough I said." Gage announced, knowing she was the instigator.  "Hayley, open up."

     Shaking her head wildly, the stubborn little girl refused.

     Derek climbed over the couch and commanded his little sister.  "Hayley, do as you're told."

     Gage shot the young boy an inquisitive look. Like you do all the time?

     "What?"  Derek asked innocently as if he always obeyed his parents.

     It was Sammy who finally coaxed his sister to open her mouth.  Gage barely caught the expended munched up popcorn after Hayley spit it out.

     Holding the clump of chewed popcorn in her hand, Gage looked around the room.  "Okay, guys. End of playtime." Gage looked for a place to dispose of the gob of food.

     When the blonde put Hayley down, the little girl surveyed the room and spread her arms out wide proclaiming in a clear voice.  "Dis is a mess."

     Sammy, Derek and Gage looked around and agreed.  Derek was the first to move.  "I'll get the vacuum cleaner."

     "Me, too."  Sammy offered his help. "I can vacuum."

     But Gage stopped him. "Sammy, why don't you go get the dustpan and brush."

     He crunched his eyes together thoughtfully.  "The little broom?"

     "That be the one."  Gage patted his head.  "Hayley, come here." She sat her on the couch. "I want you to sit here while we clean up."

     But once again, Hayley protested.  "No!"

     "She wants to clean, too."  Derek said as he unwound the cord to the vacuum clearer.

     Jacking her hands on her hips, Gage relented.  "Fine. What do you want to do?"

     Hayley pointed at the vacuum cleaner.

     "It's too big for you."  Gage attempted reason with the two year old.

     "Gage?"  Derek got the blonde's attention.  "She can hold the cord for me.  Right Hayley?"

     The small blonde bounced off the couch and made a beeline for her brother.

     "Fine." Gage wasn't going to protest.

     When Sammy came back from the kitchen, he started sweeping the floor with the brush.

     "Sammy, why don't you use that to get the popcorn off the couch instead of the floor?  Derek can get that."

     But the five year old kept working diligently, brushing up the popcorn into the dustpan from the floor.

     Realizing she had lost all control of the situation, Gage shook her head as she spoke to Sammy. "Or you can keep doing that."  The blonde chuckled, knowing full well it would take twice as long to clean up than if she did it alone.  However, as Gage looked around the room at her three children, she knew she wouldn't change a thing. Without another word, the blonde dropped to the floor and happily began picking up the popcorn pieces.

***********************

     In Dani's room, Lacy sat on the bed as she watched her daughter change into her pajamas then begin to comb her hair. "You're growing up so fast." Lacy didn't realize she had said it out loud.

     Concerned, Dani replaced her brush on her dresser. The fourteen year old placed her hand on her mother's shoulder.  "You okay?"

     Running her hand over Dani's arm, Lacy smiled.  "I should be asking you that."

     "Oh, sure. I'm perfectly fine." Dani sat down next to her mother.

     "Really?"

     "Really." Dani confirmed then pursed her lips in quiet reflection before speaking again.  "I wasn't going to go with Katie, mom."

     Relieved to hear that, Lacy hugged her daughter.

     "I will admit… I've been a bit of a pain about hanging out with my friends."  Dani wanted her mother to know she never meant to cause her mom any worry or hurt her.  After Dani heard how upset Lacy was from her grandmother with regard to what happened at the mall, the young girl felt bad.

     "No. Never a pain." Lacy winked, kissing the top of Dani's head.

     That made Dani smile. "And I did think about it but…" The young girl let out a deep breath.  "Even before you talked with me about Drake, I kinda felt something wasn't right."

     "You have good instincts."

     "And I'm glad Uncle Nate was there to help Katie." Dani pursed her lips in thoughtful repose.  Finally, looking at her mother, Dani admitted.  "You have good instincts, too.  You were right about him."

     "Dani… it's natural to want to do things with your friends more and more. You'll want to start making decisions on your own and wanting to be independent.  It's a part of growing up."  The mother hesitated before she added.  "I just don't want you to stop wanting to be around your family."

     "Never." Dani perished the idea that would never ever happen.  She loved them way too much.

     Making sure Dani was looking directly at her, Lacy made it clear her intentions.  "I want you to always feel like you can talk with me about anything and know this… I'll do my best to listen and understand.  Okay?"

     "Okay, mom."  It was what Dani wanted to.  "Besides, we have to set an example for the rest of them.  You know, Derek is already causing more problems than I ever did."

     "Well…"  Lacy couldn't argue that point but with Gage's help, she had definite plans to rectify that problem. "Yep, you were always a perfect angel."  Lacy teased her daughter.

     "I do try." Dani said seriously. She rose off the bed and grabbed her robe.  "I think Derek will straighten up and Sammy listens to me pretty well but Hayley…" Shaking her head, Dani turned toward her mother  "…she's something else.  Just like Gage."

     Smiling, Lacy agreed. "Yep, just like Gage."  And I wouldn't want her any other way.

*************************

     Lacy crawled over her lover and snuggled up close. "Did you get the room cleaned up?"  Gage nodded.  "Really clean?"

     "Oh ye of little faith."  Gage frowned.  "Of course, we did.  Did you and Dani get things settled?"

     Lacy's hand ran up under her partner's sleeping shirt to caress the smooth skin underneath. "Yes."

     "Then I guess Derek's next." Gage enjoyed the attention her lover was giving her.

     The dark haired woman placed a kiss on the blonde's cheek.  "What's the plan?"

     "I'll call Fred and see if he can arrange a visit for me and Derek.  If that's okay with you?"  Lacy agreed.  "But I thought maybe that both of us should talk with Derek first and… I was thinking that maybe Dani should be there, too."

     "Any particular reason?"

     "Well, if I tell Derek about some of my past, he'll just tell Dani anyway and… she deserves to know about me, too."  Gage was already beginning to fear what Derek and Dani would think of her but if she were to be any kind of a parent then it had to be done. Her past could no longer hold her hostage and perhaps one day sacrifice the ones she loved by not being there for them.

     "Okay if you think so." Lacy pulled Gage's face around to meet her own.  "I'll call mom and ask if she can watch Sammy and Hayley for a while tomorrow.  What about your mom?"  Lacy knew Stella was placing all the guilt on herself with what Gage had to deal with growing up.

     Gage shrugged. "It wasn't her fault. Parents make decisions that they think at the time are best for their children.  Just like I thought that avoiding Derek's behavior, letting you take care of all of it and backing away was better for him.  We're not perfect."

     "Then you should tell her that." Lacy suggested.

     Gage kissed Lacy.  "Yes, dear.  Anything else you want me to take care of?"

     "Well…"  Lacy wrapped her hand around the blonde's wrist.  When she guided Gage's hand between her own legs, Lacy purred. "There is one thing."

     Happily, Gage acquiesced to her lover's request.

***********************

     With Sammy and Hayley in Lynn's care, the very reluctant blonde cleared her throat as she began another painful journey into her past.  Lacy placed a comforting hand on Gage's leg. Dani and Derek had been listening carefully as Gage recounted the story from her past.

     "Like I said, I was locked up and Johnnie was too after he got out of the hospital. We were sent to different facilities because of us robbing that place but at least…" Gage swallowed hard, glad she wasn't responsible for a man's death. "But this guy at the facility decided that one way for me to face up to what I'd done was by going to see the guy Johnnie shot."

     "What kind of gun did he have?"

     "Dani!" Lacy scolded her daughter.

     "I only wanted to know because it could make a difference on how bad he was hurt."  When her mother glared at her again, Dani mumbled. "At least it did on your cop show."

     Gage blew out a breath, having a short reprieve from telling her story. "It was a small handgun which is more than enough to kill…" Gage didn't want to get into all the details about the blood and cold look in the man's eyes.  "Anyway, Fred, that's the guy I talked with about visiting the youth facility with you, Derek.  He drove me over to a rehab facility where the man… his name was Mr. Cooper.  Apparently, the bullet severed an artery and several nerves. He was having to relearn how to use his left arm again."

     "Was he mad at you?"  Derek asked seriously.

     Shaking her head, Gage looked down. "No.  I wish he had been though. I felt even worse when he was nice to me." Digging her fingers into her legs, Gage continued. "I found out he had two kids."  Gage looked up.  "One of them was about your age, Derek. A boy and a little girl about five."

     Leaning in to kiss her partner on the cheek, Lacy wrapped her arm around Gage and whispered. "It's okay. You don't have to go on."

     "Because of me those kids came close to not having a father." An unshed tear threatened to fall from the blonde's eye.  Quickly wiping it away, Gage forced herself to continue. "There I was so angry about not having my own mom or dad around. I almost took their father away from them… and I… I knew then and there I had to straighten myself up."

     Seeing Gage so vulnerable for the first time in her life, Dani wanted to cheer her up.  "You have. Look how good you are with us. You take real good care of all of us.  Right, Derek?"  Dani elbowed her brother.

     Lacy was proud of her daughter's caring words.

     "I can speak for myself." He glared at his sister before turning to Gage. The young boy knew he had been distant with Gage lately but never forgot how she had been there for him for the last six years.  And he remembered vividly how he felt when he first saw Gage on the shore near the lake where they were vacationing. He trusted her then. He loved her now and she would always be his hero. "Dani's right."

     Gage moved from the couch where she was sitting next to Lacy and dropped on her knees in front of her two children.  She wrapped her arms around them, pulling them close. "I thank God everyday to have you both in my life.  I love you." The tears that had threatened to fall throughout her relaying the story now dropped unheeded.

     Lacy joined her family in the hug, thankful to have them all in her life.

***********************

     Derek held Gage's hand tightly as they walked through the locked door of the Benton Treatment Facility.  He noticed the tall curved inward wire fence around the place and numerous cameras located in various places.  "Is this where you stayed?"

     "No. But a place like it."  Gage helped Derek pass through the metal detector and talked with the security officer about their visit. They waited until another one of the facility staff arrived to escort them.

     Derek and Gage followed the staff down the long hallway.  The man pointed to several rooms. "These are our classrooms. We have three cottages where the residents live and each cottage has about ten boys in them."

     After the man unlocked the door, Derek moved closer to Gage as they walked in the cottage.  There were ten young men ranging from the age of twelve to sixteen walking around the common area.  Derek saw a couple of the boys watching TV and was caught off guard when one of the resident's greeted them.

     "Hi." The shorthaired boy about sixteen said.  "Who are you here to see?"

     "They're just here for a visit.  Focus up!" The staff person yelled to the residents.  All ten boys stopped what they were doing and looked at the staff person standing a few feet in front of Gage and Derek.  "We have some visitors today."  The staff person introduced everyone before continuing. "Nick? Why don't you show them around?"

     "Okay."  The boy who had greeted them agreed eagerly. "Over here is my area."

     There were three individual rooms and two open areas where Derek could see several twin beds placed. He didn't see many pictures on the walls and noticed that beside each bunk was a wooden locker.

     "I've got a room of my own." Nick stated proudly.

     "Where's your door?" Derek asked, still holding on to Gage's hand.

     Looking at the staff person, Nick asked.  "Stepping in?"  When staff nodded, Nick walked in and dropped on his bunk.  "Don't have one. We don't have much privacy here but I do have a few personal things." Nick showed Derek his CD player and a couple of puzzles he had.

     "Derek, you're not allowed to have everything you want here. There are rules about what you can and can't have." Gage explained.

     "They have rules about everything." Nick said smartly. "Come here."  Again he addressed staff.  "Stepping out?" When he got the staff's approval, Nick walked out of his room and pointed to the wall outside his area.  "See.  Rules about what you can do in your areas, restroom expects, line expects…"

     Derek was confused until Gage explained.  "It's what staff expects you to do when you line up to go to eat or to school."

     "You have to get in a line all the time?" Derek asked Nick.

     "Sure do. Heck, sometimes we have to line up to take a stand up." Nick scratched his temple.

     "What's a stand up?"  Derek crunched his eyebrows.

     "Huh? Oh."  Nick pointed to the bathroom and said. "When you gotta go number one. That's what we call it here."

     "Oh." Derek pretended he understood fully.

     Nick led his small tour around to see some of the other areas when Derek noticed a familiar drawing posted on one of the lockers.

     "What's that?" Derek inquired.

     Nick looked to where Derek pointed. "Hmmm… Jason?" When a blonde resident turned his head, Nick nodded for him to come over where he was standing. "You better take that down."

     Unhappy with Nick's confront, the blonde boy glared at him.  Jason pulled off the drawing and placed it in the only drawer the locker had.  "Happy?" He said as he passed Nick on the way back to his chair in front of the TV. But the nasty young man spared the time to give Derek the once over.  "What you in for?" He sneered.

     "Go on, Jason." Nick glared at the blonde before returning his attention to Derek and Gage. "Don't bother with him. And back to your question. Jason was in a gang on the outside and that was a drawing of their sign."

     Remembering the same design on Jett's arm, Derek said. "I saw a tattoo of one before."

     Gage didn't like the way this conversation was going but decided to address the issue head on anyway. However, Nick spoke first.

     "I got one." Nick lifted his sleeve, revealing an unfinished tattoo.  "They fucked…"  Glancing at Gage when she cleared her throat, Nick apologized.  "Sorry." He pointed to the tattoo.  "I used to belong in a gang but not anymore."

     "Why'd you get out?" Gage asked. Back when she was locked up, they had gangs too but now the gangs seemed more violent.

     "What good are they doing me now?" Nick said off handedly. Deciding to share part of his story, the sixteen year old crossed his arms and looked directly at Derek. "I guess you want a tattoo."

     Not sure how to answer, Derek remained silent. He liked how cool Jett's was but didn't want to get in trouble from his mom about it.

     "My old gang… they didn't really care about me. Pretty much left me hanging to take the blame alone."  Nick remembered how quickly they ran when he hurt himself during the fight and was left behind to face the police. "Don't get me wrong I was… not a very nice guy.  When I joined the gang, they treated me like family but when it came down to them or me…. like I said…. they disappeared like a ghost. That's how I got tattoo being a part of the gang."

     "Can you get it off?"  Derek asked.

     Nick snorted.  "Not unless you got money and I don't. Since I've been here I realized that my family were the only ones that really care. They come to visit me and we got family therapy going.  Haven't heard from one of my old friends."  The dark haired boy dropped down to his knee so he could stare straight into Derek's eyes. "This ain't the place you want to end up. You get out of line here and they put leather restraints on you or stick you in the isolation room."

     With eyes wide open, Derek nodded his head in agreement. He stepped back against Gage and was comforted when she placed her hands on his shoulders.

     "Thanks for the tour, Nick."

     He winked at Gage.  "Sure thing."  Nick was only two weeks away from leaving the facility after a nine-month stay and had offered to talk with Derek when one of the staff mentioned the visitors coming.

     As Gage led Derek out of the cottage, Jason took one last opportunity to taunt the young nine year old and yelled.  "You can be my bitch."

     Without missing a beat, Nick called to the group.  "Circle up."  The rest of the group members stopped what they were doing and sat down on the couches that formed a circle in the middle of the common area. After Nick waved to Gage and Derek one last time, he turned his attention to the rude blonde and proceeded to give him some good information on how to change his ways or else Jason would be in for a long stay at the facility.

     Derek was glad to climb back in the car and buckle his seatbelt.

     Seeing that her son was somewhat shaken from the experience, Gage asked.  "How bout some ice cream?"

     Derek nodded and as he shifted in his seat, he said in a small voice. "Gage, I'm sorry."

     The blonde reached over and hugged Derek.  "Why are you sorry?"

     "Because I've been so mean." He held back the tears that were threatening to overflow. Derek realized his behavior was a way of proving himself and in the end he had hurt the ones he loved.

     "Hold on a second."  Gage fussed his hair.  "Compared to me, you're an angel… and that's the truth."

     "But…"

     "Derek." Gage lifted his down turned chin.  "I know that it's been hard on you.  And I know how much you love your dad… and me.  That's why you were acting out.  You see, if you get one puppy and then you get another puppy because you no longer have the first puppy then you…"  What did Nate say about the puppies?

     Derek scrunched he eyebrows not sure why Gage was talking about puppies. But he listened intently.

     "Anyway, I think you were having a hard time knowing that you could love both of us and not betray the other one. Me and your dad… not the puppies." Gage tenderly touched his cheek. "You have enough love in you to love many people in your life.  It's not a competition and I'm sorry if I ever made you feel that way."

     Derek wiped a tear that ran down his cheek.  "Mom's mad at me."

     Gage's chest fell in despair.  She blamed herself for Lacy having to take all the heat where Derek was concern as she distanced herself.  But never again. "First of all, your mother loves you and we both know that. And second, she's not mad at you. Neither am I. We both want what's best for you and, Derek, sometimes that means that if you act out or hit people or say mean things to others, there will be consequences."

     "What are consequences?" Even though he didn't know what that meant, it didn't sound good.

     "Disciplined…. like if you hit Sammy then you would have to apologize and go to your room for a while.  Or if you make a mess, you have to clean it up. Things like that." Gage smiled at Derek.  "Remember when you broke your mom's lamp."

     Derek frowned, recalling that he lied about it. "Yeah."

     "Derek, like everything in life there will be natural consequences to your actions. For every action, there is a reaction."

     "Like when I hit Kevin in school and he hit me back."

     "Yep. Just like that." Gage took the opportunity that presented itself. "Why'd you hit him anyway?"

     Derek shrugged.  "I don't know."

     "Well, tell me who does know and I'll talk to them." Gage grinned at the young boy.

     "Huh?"

     Sucking in a deep breath, the blonde continued. "If you don't know, who does? Derek, you have to take responsibility for what you do. I didn't and you know what happened to me. I lucked out though because someone cared and forced me to see that I was the only one who could make changes in myself."

     "That man you talked about… who let you stay with him after you got out of that place."  Derek's gray eyes shifted back to the fenced encircled facility as they sat in their car.

     "Yes, Fred. He told me once that it was natural to want to fit in but just don't get sucked in."  Sending a silent thank to the man who turned her life around at that time, Gage grinned.  "Use words instead of your fists.  If something is really worth fighting for although the sword may be mighty, the real power is with the one who wields the pen."

     "You want me to write it down?" Derek was perplexed as Gage reminisced a moment about her old mentor.

     "No. That's not exactly what I mean. You don't have to fight all the time, you can talk it out or walk away.  That's another option." Gage offered some more sage advice she learned from her former caretaker.

     Unexpectedly, Derek asked.  "How did Johnnie die?"

     That question brought back dark memories. I guess when the cleansing starts there's no turning back. "I told you he was locked up in another place.  They had the girls in one and boys the other. He didn't have to stay locked up as long as I did. I was really upset when I found out he was going home before me but… in the end that was what saved me. And I owe that to Fred. He wouldn't let me out because he knew I was just working the program… not really getting the message."

     Derek waited patiently for the rest of the story as Gage fidgeted with the steering wheel, obviously in deep thought.

     "He convinced the staff at his place he was ready to leave and within two weeks Johnnie was shot… trying to hold up another store."  Gage rubbed her eyes, recalling the moment she heard the news. "I was really angry. They had to restrain me because I charged at Fred.  I didn't care and I blamed him for keeping me there.  All I could think about was that if I was out then I could have stopped Johnnie."

     Derek reached over and placed his hand on her arm.

     "Fred did take me to his funeral though. I kept thinking about how it could have been me. It should have been me." Gage squeezed Derek's hand.

     "Not me. I'm glad you didn't get hurt."

     Gage took a few moments as she recalled seeing Johnnie's dead body in the casket. It was a memory she wished she could erase from her mind forever. It devastated her. It meant her only real friend when she was growing up was really gone from her life forever. That was the main reason Gage didn't want her children to go to Samuel's funeral.  When Lacy and Gage finally told their children about the death of their grandfather, they took it pretty well. Gage tried to concentrate on all the wonderful memories they had shared with him. "I'm glad I didn't get hurt, too."

     Thinking of never having Gage in his life, Derek was on the verge of crying again.

     Gage realized she had a few tears in her eyes, too. Mussing his hair, she grinned. "Boy, aren't we both a mess?"

     That made Derek smile. "Uh huh."

     "Well, to make the longest story in my life short…" Gage chuckled and Derek joined her. "I wouldn't do anything differently because it led me to Lacy and you… and Dani… and Sammy and Hayley."

     "And Stella." Derek added.

     "Yes, back to my mom."  Gage let out a relieved breath.  "Derek, we are the luckiest people alive, aren't we?"

     He nodded.  "Because we have each other, right?"

     "Right." Gage winked at the boy she proudly called her son.

     "Gage?" He looked at her with such love and devotion.

     "Yeah?" In that moment, the blonde was willing to answer anything he asked.

     "Did you say we could get a puppy?" Derek cocked his head, waiting patiently for the answer that would make him smile.

     The blonde's eyes popped open.  Uh oh.
 

Chapter Nineteen

     Prior to boarding a plane for New York City, Gage talked with her mother about her life and shared some of the same aspects she had previously revealed to Lacy. Their exchange helped both women to accept their past decisions and experiences.

     Lacy pulled her lover down on the their hotel bed. "Well, are you ready?"

     Smiling, Gage nodded in agreement but said. "No, not really."

     The younger woman quirked an eyebrow in question as she continued running her hand in a soothing motion over Gage's stomach.

     "But I will." Gage enjoyed her lover's ministrations. "Because to tell you the truth, Lacy." The blonde turned to her partner. "Coming to terms with my past gave me a sense of freedom.  And I owe that to you."

     Lacy kissed Gage. "You were the one that found the courage."

     Shaking her head adamantly, Gage countered.  "No, it was your strength that I drew from… having the patience to put up with me all these years. I would have kept running if it hadn't been for you."

     "Right into my arms." Lacy teased.

     "Yep, and you refused to let go." Gage pulled her lover's head down in order to share a tender kiss.

     The brunette sighed slightly after the kiss.

     "What's wrong?"

     "I wish we could laze around here the rest of the day in each other's arms but you have a date."

     "It's not a date." The blonde huffed. "And I would prefer that you came along with me to see her."

     Lacy laughed. "Yeah, I can see that.  She will really open up and talk with you about the past with me there staring her down if she even looks at you the wrong way… or comes too close to you."

     Her lover suddenly attacked Gage and the blonde enjoyed all of the attention. The blonde rasped. "I like your idea about staying in bed."

**********************

     After meeting Gail Randall at the restaurant both women agreed they weren't really that hungry so Gage suggested they take a walk in the park. "I'm surprised you live here now."

     The dark haired woman cast a glance at her former lover. "For the last five years but… I'm considering moving back home."

     "Really?" Gage felt awkward talking with Gail after so many years.

     Taking a moment before she answered, Gail briefly closed her eyes. "My husband's promotion brought us here but my… our children still live back home and I miss them."

     "How many kids do you have?"

     "Three. Two girls and a boy."

     "Lacy and I have two girls and two boys." Gage said quickly.

     "They're grown now. Our youngest is in college."

     Gage smiled at Gail. "I know what you mean about missing them. Lacy and I've only been gone a couple of days and well… we both miss them terribly."

     The other green-eyed woman looked away. "Sounds like you really love her."

     "More than I ever knew I could." Gage admitted.

     Spying a bench, Gail asked. "Do you mind if we sit down?"

     "Sure."  Taking Gail by the arm, the blonde directed the brunette to the closest bench. "It's beautiful here."

     They both sat there in silence for a long time until Gail finally said.  "I take it you asked to talk with me for a reason."

     Oh boy. Looking everywhere except at the dark haired woman sitting next to her, Gage summoned the courage within her as she thought about Lacy's words to her right before she left. You are the strongest person I know. "Yeah, right." The blonde said more to herself.

     "Excuse me?"

     "Oh, I… yes, I'm… I'm glad you stopped by that day in the bookstore."

     "Really?" Gail gathered from the reception she felt that day especially from the dark haired jealous actress that her appearance was not well received.

     Gage thought about it for a moment.  "Yes, I am. It brought back a lot of memories and… well, I'm just glad." Because I was able to traverse that part of my past with Lacy. Gage coughed. "Actually, there's been a question I've always wanted to ask you."

     Fearing what that question would be, Gail remained silent.

     The blonde twisted toward Gail. "You remember when you… Gail, did you ever love me?"

     Surprised by the question, Gail assured her former lover. "Yes." Gail turned away and sucked her bottom lip in thought before she reluctantly admitted.  "I think I still do."

     Uh oh. "I'm in love with Lacy. Absolutely and totally in love with her." Gage wanted Gail to know exactly how she felt.

     Gail placed her hand on the blonde's thigh. "Yes, I saw it in your eyes that day and that same love mirrored in hers."

     "Good. I mean I glad." Her words stumbled then Gage sucked in a deep breath. "What I mean is that I'm… relieved actually to know that you did."

     "Why do you ask?"

     Gage turned her eyes down to stare at the ground. "Because of something you said."

     When the blonde didn't say anymore, Gail prompted her. "What was it?"

     "You know… about being on a deserted island." The blonde admitted, feeling scared at the moment.

     Cocking her head to the side, Gail suddenly remembered.  "Oh, I know it wasn't what you wanted to hear but I meant it." When she saw the look of horror on the blonde's face, Gail felt the need to explain further. "Gage, when my sister found out about us and I went home. I don't know… my parents were upset and went on about how unnatural it was. I guess it was just easier to give in… give you up." There was a hitch in the brunette's voice upon remembering how her parents bombarded her with demands about coming back home. "But I did love you."

     Shaking her head, the blonde was very confused. "But I heard you… at the party telling your friend that you would never be with me."

     "What are you talking about?" Gail asked, confused herself now. "I told you that if it wasn't for my parents and society and… if it was just us, Gage, I wished it was just us and to hell with everyone else."

     "Speaking of that, Gail. It wasn't just us in the bookstore that day.  I was surprised to see you and even more surprised that you kissed me in public."  Gage admitted, knowing that when they were together Gail would never had done that.

     "Oh, that." Gail sighed. "Through the years I've learned to… not care as much about what other people think. It cost me too much."

     "I see." Understanding how Gail felt, Gage said. "About a year later after you left, I saw you at Mike Merrick's twenty-first birthday party." Gail nodded, remembering the party. Merrick worked with both Gage and Gail for a while.

     "I didn't see you there."

     "Well, I was… and I heard you talking to that blonde. You know the one who dated Mike for a couple of years."

     "Rhonda?"

     "That's the one. You told her you… I liked you but you would never had anything to do with me." Gage shrugged.  "I figured what was the use to stick around and left the party. But I was happy to see you there and wanted to talk with you again.  See how you were doing. Well, when I heard that I thought that you never really did care about me… not like I did you and that's why you left."

     Gail took the blonde's hand in her own. "No. I cared a great deal. Like I said… still do. I've realized that I gave up someone very special."

     "But why did you say that?"

     "Gage, after I moved back home, my parents had me on every blind date they could scrounge up. Not too long after that party, I became engaged to my husband and Rhonda was a distant relative of Larry… my husband." Gail explained. "She had heard the rumors about us and I just didn't want to go though all of that again. Besides, I thought I had lost you forever."

     "You did. But I still remember very fondly all the good times we had. You were the first person I loved that way." Gage held the brunette's hand. "I didn't know if I was capable of loving someone till I met you."

     "Guess I was good for something." Gail turned away, feeling depressed.

     Gage pulled the brunette's head back around. "You were the best thing in my life… back then." Hoping that would bring a smile to Gail's face but it didn't so Gage quietly asked.  "Are you happy?"

     "Yes, at first and my children have brought such joy to my life. I wouldn't trade them for anything." Gail finally smiled. "Now, since the children have grown and Larry is caught up in his work." That thought turned the smile into a dark frown. "I'm kinda at a loss right now."

     Gage hugged the woman she at one time cared so much about. "I don't know what exactly to say… but there's still a special place in my heart for you."

     Upon hearing those works, Gail let loose a deluge of tears.

     "Hey, it's okay." Gage was at a loss of what to do next. She didn't expect for this reaction.

     After gaining some semblance of composure, Gail mumbled. "Thank you."

     Gage suggested they walk back toward the restaurant. On the way back, the blonde felt Gail needed confronting and wrapped her arm around the brunette's shoulder, giving her a short hug.

     That's what Lacy saw as Gage returned with Gail by her side. Lacy smiled when her eyes met those of her lover. She turned to Gail when they approached. "So, how did your talk go?"

     Gail stepped from under Gage's strong arm toward Lacy. "You have a very special woman here."

     "I know."

     Even though things between Gage and Gail had not been discussed completely both women were happy to have spent this time together. "Gail, here's my business card. If you ever need anything or want to talk…"

     Gail chanced a look to Lacy requesting silent permission.  When Lacy nodded, Gail accepted the card. "Thank you."

     The next moment was awkward until Lacy offered. "I'm a little hungry but I imagine you two already…"

     Gage looked at Gail and then spoke for both of them. "Actually, we haven't eaten yet."

     "Good then let's go." Lacy took her partner's hand and led her and Gail into the restaurant.

**********************

     "Gage?"

     "Mmm….." The blonde eased back in her first class airplane seat.

     Lacy grabbed her lover's hand. "I like her."

     Gage plopped her head to the side, staring at Lacy. "Who?"

     "Gail." Lacy smiled. After Gage explained why Gail said what she did, Lacy could understand what the then nineteen old must have been going through. "But I like you." The dark haired women kissed the blonde and punctuated each word with a kiss. "A…" Kiss. "..lot…" Kiss. "..more."

     Gage scooted closer and waggled her eyebrows, giving her lover a 'come hither' look.  "Wanna join the mile high group?"

     It started from her core and quickly erupted into a hearty laugh.

     The blonde shot Lacy a counterfeit glare. "I didn't think it was that funny."
 

Chapter Twenty

     From the first moment the two love birds showed up on the movie set, Lacy and Gage could not keep their hands off of each other. Today, Lacy was dressed in a red dress with a slit up the side. The actress acquiesced to everyone's insistence that she play Marta in the movie.

     Happy eyes ran the length of her partner's seductive body. "God, Lacy, you look..." Gage sucked in a panting breath. "Gorgeous, sexy, beautiful. Come here."

     Lacy fell into her lover's embrace as the blonde's quick hands teased her partner by tugging on the zipper located on the back of the slinky dress.

     "Alright, break it up." The director yelled. "Can't you see we're shooting a movie here?"

     Gage winked at Ryan White. "Can't you see I'm working on something myself?"

     "Yeah, trying to get my dress off."  Lacy ducked in for a brief kiss.

     Shaking his head, Ryan laughed. "Ready for your scene?"

     "I suppose." Not really wanting to leave her lover's embrace.

     "Michael? We ready?" Ryan called to his assistant director. When the young man nodded, the director walked over to the camera with Lacy and Gage in tow. "Shanti, Richard. Let's take one." He turned to Lacy. "Ready?"

     The Oscar winning actress nodded, walked on set and slid in the booth next to Richard Long while Shanti James took her respective place on the set.

     When Ryan called action, Lacy saddled up to the lead male actor, Richard, who was playing Chas in the movie and delivered her line. After the scene concluded, the director yelled. "Cut.  Okay, that was great." He turned to another actor on the set and said. "Your turn."

     The new actor replaced Richard Long in the booth alongside Lacy as she took over the lead role of Chas.  Taya Jennings was excited to work with Lacy and a bit nervous. "I've never…played a love scene with another woman."

     "Just sit back and relax." Lacy encouraged her fellow actor. "Follow my lead."

     When Ryan yelled action, the actors replayed the same scene Shanti and Lacy had just played before with Richard Long except now Taya Jennings played the role Richard had.

     It was Gage's idea to shoot 'Heart of Africa' from two different perspectives. While Shanti played Ally Breedlove in both versions, Richard Long and Taya Jennings would play the other lead part. It would be the same movie but one version would have two females opposite each other and the other with a female and male acting out the lead romantic roles. They would distribute both versions, targeting their specific audiences. Gage hoped that this novel idea would go over well and she would structure her other screenplays to use the same format.

     "Cut!" Ryan moved forward and took Lacy's hand. "See. What did I tell you? Wouldn't take much of your time at all." He leaned in and whispered.  "Now you can get back to that blonde of yours and enjoy your second.. or is it third honeymoon?"

     "Very funny." Lacy was glad she had accepted the small part and was enjoying her time in Africa with Gage immensely.

     "Michael? That's a wrap for the day." Turning back to Lacy and Gage who had just joined them. "Can I take you two to dinner tonight?"

     Both women shrugged.  "Why not?" However, Gage was only willing to share a small part of their time together in the wilds of this dark continent as she had plans for her love that only included the two of them.

     "Great. I'll meet you at the hotel… say seven?" When Lacy nodded in agreement, Ryan headed off to take care of a few last minute things before the following day's shooting schedule.

     Lacy spotted Shanti heading their way. "You were wonderful. This film is really going to be great."

     "Thank you but it's the material that's great." Shanti smiled at Gage.

     "I agree." Lacy tugged at the writer's arm.

     Gage wanted to protest, at least make a show of it but the two women struck up another topic so she just relaxed and enjoyed the smile on Lacy's face.

     "The studio's ready whenever you and…" Lacy's eyes searched the set for Michael Jessop and Kathy Griffen.  "Your cohorts are ready."

     "Thanks. We've got lots of footage for the documentary and shooting some of it inside a studio will be perfect.  However…" Shanti pursed her lips. "It would be a lot better with graphics added because some of it might not make sense unless we use it."

     "Tell me when you guys are ready to shoot what you need and I think I can get you someone who would be perfect to help with the graphics." Lacy walked slowly back to the trailer with Shanti and Gage as they talked.

     "Nate?" Gage quizzed Lacy.

     "Who's Nate?" Shanti asked.

     "Lacy's brother." Gage grunted, thinking of how he would add fuel to the already volatile trio of Shanti, Griff and Michael.

     "Cool. Is he cute?" Shanti asked the rhetorical question, knowing that any brother of Lacy's would be absolutely gorgeous.

***********************

     When Gage relayed to Ryan White at dinner that Lacy wished to work exclusively with them on any further projects, the director proposed an idea. "Lacy, since your kids are still young and will be in school, how about doing a sitcom? It wouldn't take as much time to do."

     "That's a great idea, Ryan."  The writer was excited.

     Both Ryan and Gage waited to hear what Lacy thought of it.

     "Lacy, think about it. It would be on a set that doesn't have to be changed all the time. No location filming. St. Troy's big enough to bring in a live audience if you want and… the kids can have a permanent place at the studio to come and go when we work there. After they get out of school, I mean."

     When Lacy sighed, both the writer and director thought she would oppose the idea. "On one condition." Her two dinner companions waited patiently. Lacy turned to her partner. "You write it."

     "Done." Gage was happy.

     Lacy turned to Ryan. "Make that two conditions. You direct it."

     Both Gage and Ryan beamed at the prospect of all of them working together for hopefully several years on the same show. "You don't have to ask me twice. I'd love it."  While Ryan enjoyed many aspects of living and working in Hollywood along with the various location filming that was required, he thought it would be a good change of pace to settle down for a while.

     Each of them raised a glass and toasted their new venture together.

     "Who's going to tell Mark?"  Gage laughed.

***********************

     Over the next few days, Lacy and Gage found pleasure in the time they were able to spend alone. They took a two-day overland trip with White Elephant Safari and the blonde tour guide set them up with her uncle for an aerial view of the Moola River.

     That night under the Tanzania sky, Lacy and Gage sat on the ten-foot wide wooden deck at the White Elephant Safari compound. "It's beautiful." Lacy said after she stood and moved to the railing.

     "It's just a sky filled with stars, Lacy." The blonde walked up behind Lacy and wrapped her arms around the taller woman. "Now you on the other hand are beautiful."

     Lacy turned in her lover's arms and preceded to give Gage a tantalizing kiss that threatened to stop the blonde's heart.

     Recovering from the sensual assault, Gage sucked in a deep breath. "Wow."

     Lacy leaned in seductively. "There's more."

     "More?" Gage gulped.

     The younger woman's lips wandered down Gage's neck, sucking every inch of it as she sighed in delight.  Lacy's hand slid over the blonde's breast and after spending a few luxurious moments there, she slipped her hand lower, pulling at Gage's shirt.

     Gage grabbed Lacy's hand and moved it away, bringing her hand back to the blonde's breast. Gage moaned.

     The brunette mumbled between kisses. "I want to touch you." Lacy's hand returned on her original quest to feel her partner's skin.

     The blonde stepped back meeting the disapproving blue eyes of her lover. "Trust me. I want you too but… not out here."

     Lacy scanned the empty compound, seeing nothing except the land and trees blanketed by the moon's glow. "Why not?" The actress captured the blonde's lips again in a deep and probing savage kiss.

     Nearing a frenzied peak of sensual feelings that landed squarely at her center, Gage kissed her lover hard. "Take me."

     "Here?" Lacy's tongue and lips never halted their advance.

     Breathless, Gage begged. "Here… anywhere. Just take me."

     Moving back from her lover, Lacy easily guided the overheated blonde across the porch and to the front door. "Come with me."

     The blonde swallowed hard. After Lacy led her through the doorway, Gage took charge, whipping pass her partner and yanked Lacy to their bedroom. The writer pushed through the entrance to their room and shoved her lover on the bed. Gage perched her body over Lacy's and stared deeply into the bluest eyes on earth. "Mine."

     Nodding, Lacy agreed. "All yours."

     The blonde wagged her eyebrows and slowly dropped down to place a gentle, loving and affirming kiss to her lover that Gage belonged to Lacy and Lacy alone. No words were needed to state her claim. The kiss was filled with such intensity and passion that both women knew they would be together always throughout time.
 

Epilogue

     Back in St. Troy, a week after school started in September, Hayley looked sad because her siblings were sent to school during most of the day. "Oh, honey, come here." Lacy picked up her daughter. "Gage will be…"

     "Mimi?" The green eyed toddler gleamed.

     "Yes, Mimi." Lacy shook her head, knowing Gage wasn't all that keen on the name. "Will be back with your brothers and sister in a little bit.  You want to wait outside?"

     "Hi." The tiny blonde smiled.

     When Lacy took her youngest daughter outside, she saw her brother, Nathan drive up. "Hi." The dark haired woman waved to Nate.

     "Hi." Hayley echoed and this time it really meant 'hi' instead of 'yes'.

     Nathan slammed the door and walked over to his oldest sister, giving both Lacy and Hayley a kiss. When his niece held out her arms for Nate to hold her, the young man stalled. "Hold on a minute." He hurried back to his vehicle and reached through the front window and pulled out a bundle.

     Hayley bounded in her mother's arms, with outstretched arms.

     "Do you like her, Hayley?" Nate showed the young girl the ruby colored Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy.

     Shaking her head furiously as she grabbed for the puppy, Hayley exclaimed. "Hi."

     "I think she's happy." Lacy smiled as she laughed.

     "Happy!" Hayley echoed.

     Nate allowed Hayley to hold the puppy. "After Gage told me about her talk with Derek, I thought I would surprise him with the puppy."

     "He won't be the only one surprised." Lacy shook her head, wondering what her partner would think of this new addition to their family.

     Concerned crossed his face. "You're okay with it, aren't you?" Nate had given Lacy's children a puppy several years ago named Racuzzi but he died.

     "Not at all. Actually, I think it will make all the kids happy especially Derek." Lacy assured her brother.

     "Happy!" Hayley petted the puppy and the Cavalier in turned licked the little girl on the face.

     "So where are the rest of your gang?"

     "Gage went to pick them up and Sammy wanted to go along. This one would have gone too except that she was sleeping." Lacy studied the puppy for a moment. "They don't get very big, do they?"

     "Nope." Nate grinned. "You can keep her inside."

     "Great." Lacy nodded toward the puppy. "But you're the one that's going to tell Gage that."

     "Maybe I can just leave her here before they get home." He laughed but seriously asked. "I thought they'd be home by now."

     Lacy put Hayley down on the ground along with the puppy. "Dani had dancing practice and Derek had gymnastics today."

     The young man squatted when he saw the puppy move beyond his niece's reach. "Let me get her for you."

     Hayley frowned when the puppy took off and she was intent on following it but her uncle retrieved the puppy and handed her back to the toddler.

     Nathan looked back up when his sister thanked him. "Now Hayley won't be so lonely in the mornings since Sammy is in pre-school."

     When Gage drove down the driveway, she noticed Lacy gathered with her brother and looked intently at her daughter playing with some moving object. "Okay, guys, nobody gets out before I stop the car completely."

     Her children had observed the activities outside their home and were excited about something. "Hurry." Derek ordered.

     After turning off the motor, Dani jumped out and ran toward Hayley with Derek right behind. Gage was on the other side of the vehicle and had to help Sammy out of his seat. "Hold on there, little guy."  Gage was a bit concerned when she heard both Dani and Derek scream. Holding Sammy in her arms, Gage hurried around the jeep and that's when she saw it.

     The puppy and three happy kids eagerly playing together while the one in her arms kicked and demanded. "Let me down. I wanna see the puppy."

     Sammy plopped down next to Hayley and tried to pull it on his lap. The four children vied for the puppy's attention as it ran in and out around them.

     The blonde walked up to Nathan and offered a dismal grin. "You just had to go and do it, didn't you?"

     With the blonde glaring at him, Nate decided to remain silent and moved closer to his sister for protection.

     If the blonde was upset about Nathan getting the children a new puppy, any concern soon dissolved when Derek ran up to Gage and hugged her. "Thank you, Gage, for getting us the puppy."

     The happy glint in his eyes and the gleeful noises the other children were making sealed the decision that the puppy was here to stay.

     Lacy wrapped her arm over Gage's shoulder after Derek ran back to play with the puppy. "Sweetheart?"

     "Mmm…." Gage loved the touch of her woman.

     Lacy watched her children play then spared her brother an appreciative look before turning to her partner and brushed a kiss on Gage's temple. "Never a dull moment, huh?"

     Gage thought about the last few weeks after sharing her life story with Lacy and smiled. Those sleepless nights filled with nightmares that began at the start of the summer had turned to beautiful happy dreams as she lay each night in her lover's arms. The blonde's smile grew wider and Gage wrapped her arm around Lacy, pulling her closer. "Nope, and I wouldn't have it any other way."

The End



Thank you for taking the time to read this story.  Please be kind and drop me a line at xxgsb@hotmail.com.  Feedback is always appreciated.

The fifth story in the Woman I Love series is titled 'What A Woman'. With the movie studio finished, Lacy and Gage begin a TV show together and several former cast members drop in as guests on Lacy's new series. With the children a bit older, Lacy and Gage continue to meet the challenges and joys of being parents.

The WOMAN I LOVE Series is expected to have six installments where Lacy and Gage's lives span over ten years.   I hope you come along for the ride.  Thanks again, GSB

This is copyrighted material, ã2004 Binkley  … all rights reserved. It may be reproduced, duplicated or printed for personal use only. For all other uses, please contactxxgsb@hotmail.com


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