by J. ‘Harley’ Elmore, 2003 – 2005
See disclaimers in Chapter One
Chapter Twenty-Five, Part 1
“What was I thinking?” Deven asked the empty room. Falling back into the desk chair, her eyes closed and she listened to the din filtering through the closed office door. You were the one that wanted to experience all this stuff, Masterson. You know? Have a family and do all the holiday stuff. And now that I have it, why do I want to walk out into the garage, hop on the Harley and drive as far away as possible? Damn!
While Rhian and Nicole had spent that past few hours preparing for the pending party, Deven had been trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. The arrival of the Perez family, laden with Latin delicacies, had diverted attention sufficiently to allow the martial artist an opportunity to slip unnoticed into the relative quiet of her office.
Relative being the key word to my quiet. The sound of little girls squealing was especially grating at the moment, and Deven massaged her slightly throbbing temples. The children had been keyed up all day and now that Freddie and Star were there, they were all running around as if on a perpetual sugar high. Can’t blame them really. They’re excited and having a good time. And face it. It’s a hell of a lot better than if they were whining or crying.
The door began to gradually open, and Deven eyed it in annoyance. I just may have to kick whoever that is in the ass!
“Hi,” Rhian greeted while slipping into the room and closing the door softly. “I brought you something for your headache.”
“How did you know I have a headache?”
“Please. You’d think I’d have that one figured out by now,” Rhian answered good-naturedly and then handed over a couple of ibuprofen tablets and a bottle of water.
Deven swallowed the pills and drank half the water before setting the bottle down on the desktop. “Thanks.”
“Anything else going on?” the woman asked with obvious concern.
“I’m okay. It’s just,” Deven began but then faltered, apprehensive that to say what she was really feeling would only cause distress between them.
But instead of getting upset, Rhian interjected, “The kids are driving you nuts. Nicole and I are driving you nuts. Basically, the entire pre-party chaos is driving you nuts.”
“Yeah,” the martial artist admitted.
“Is it? I mean, I’d think you’d be mad I’m not helping much.”
“No, honey. I only want your help if I need it or if you’re up for it. Otherwise, you’ll just be underfoot, unhappy and that would make me unhappy.”
Taking hold of the landscaper’s hand, Deven raised it to her lips and delicately kissed the palm. “Come here.”
An invitation too good to pass up, Rhian sat down on her lover’s lap and wrapped an arm across the woman’s shoulders. “Is anything else bothering you?”
“Nothing in particular. I guess I never considered how disruptive this could all be. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. Just different.”
“Yes, I do, honey. It can be extremely disruptive. But I hope that when it’s over, you’ll be able to look back on these times and remember the good feelings.”
Despite the considerable amount of change the woman had already been through, Deven still tended to brood about what she was feeling or what she thought she was supposed to be feeling in certain situations. Dealing with someone who was frequently moody and unpredictable was sometimes just plain tiresome for the landscaper. And still, with everything else that was going on in the house at the moment, there was nothing as important as the woman who cradled her in pensive silence. “Do you remember the first time I sat like this in here?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” Deven replied with a grimace.
“It wasn’t that bad.”
“Any time I get to hold you is great, baby. It’s just that those particular circumstances were rather.”
“Yeah. I don’t know why you didn’t just run away as fast as possible.”
“When I thought about it later, I wondered that, too,” Rhian divulged. “There were several opportunities in those first few months to walk away, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. There’s always been something about you that speaks to my heart and I couldn’t turn away.”
She kissed Deven lightly on the temple before continuing. “When I met you that first night at the Pit, I was so out of my element. I hadn’t been out socially since Sean’s death and before that, only when he wanted. But after nearly two years of hounding, I finally relented and went out with Nicole.”
The memory of their first encounter remained crystal clear for the landscaper. Her gaze lifted to the far wall and her eyes unfocused as the vivid image of Deven from that night materialized in her mind. “You were so remarkable. Well, you still are, but that first sight of you standing next to the bar is by far one of my favorites.” With a happy sigh, Rhian returned to the present. “I kept watching you and told myself that it was purely as an artist that I was evaluating everything about you. And then when we actually spoke to each other, you intimidated me so much that it just pissed me off.”
“I was an idiot,” the martial artist acknowledged.
“Oh, I don’t know. I look back at it now, Deven, and smile. It’s a wonderful memory for me. You were so cocky and so beautiful. Arrogant and self-assured. And a part of me fell in love with you on the spot.”
“I kept making such an ass of myself whenever I was around you.”
“You sure did,” Rhian agreed.
“Hey!” Deven answered back with feigned offense.
“Well, it’s true. But then you saved me from Mace and the thing I remember the most about that was when you held me afterwards. I felt so safe.” Rhian hugged her companion for several seconds and then leaned back slightly, her free hand cupping the woman’s cheek. “But I think the biggest crossroads I’ve ever faced in my life was when you told me about your past.”
Though she easily read the hurt in Deven’s expression, Rhian didn’t hesitate. “I stood at the bottom of the steps and debated whether to leave and never come back, or come find you. I had a choice to make and it was hard because whichever path I took, it was going to change everything for me. I knew that I loved you, but I also knew that I was risking every relationship in my life if I followed my heart. And as I stood there weighing the pros and cons, as irrational as it seemed at the time, I knew that I had to find you.” Her eyes locked on the martial artist’s. “I chose you.”
“I didn’t know that,” Deven whispered.
“I guess I should have told you that a long time ago. But I will tell you now, that as difficult as things have been, I’d always choose you.”
“No thanks necessary because I come out the winner every time,” Rhian answered with conviction. “Now, why don’t you go upstairs, close the door, and lie down for a bit?”
“Because I’m not tired?”
“That may be true, but you do have a headache.”
“Just a little one.”
“Which we don’t want to grow into a big one,” Rhian countered.
Her lover’s admissions had reached inside of Deven, soothing some hurts and uncertainties while at the same time, nurturing the deepening love between them. “Why don’t you come with me?” Deven asked in a seductive tone.
“Because, unfortunately, I still have some stuff to do.”
“I could help.”
“I appreciate the offer, honey, but the best help you can be right now is to stay out of my way and relax.”
Though it was irrational, Deven couldn’t quite shake off the feeling of being rebuffed. “All right.”
Rhian stood up and then extended a hand. “Come on. I’ll even tuck you in if you want.”
Standing as well and wrapping the landscaper in her arms, Deven stepped forward until their bodies were pressed together. “You come with me, and you won’t be leaving that room for some time,” she purred and then kissed the woman.
Rhian’s hands tangled in the martial artist’s hair and held on as the kiss deepened, sending a pleasurable wave of desire throughout her body.
Easing back, Deven studied her lover’s face; the closed eyes, flushed cheeks, and slightly parted lips, and felt a sense of smugness. But the moment of self-satisfaction was short-lived as the fingers in her hair tightened and Rhian returned the kiss full force.
With their tongues dueling in passion, they reclined onto the sofa and came together in a tangle of limbs. Hands roamed freely and lips explored hungrily as they submerged themselves in pure longing. A soft knock on the office door went unnoticed until it recurred with a little more force. They stared at each other through a lustful haze, their breath coming out in short pants of unfulfilled desire.
“Rhian?” Lydia’s called through the door.
“Be right out,” Rhian managed to reply, never taking her eyes off her lover. Her thumb brushed over Deven’s lips and was caught in strong teeth. A warm moist tongue circled the end sending shivers of delight to that most sensitive spot between her legs.
Releasing the digit, Deven sighed. “I suppose it would be rude to finish this now, huh?”
“I suppose so.”
But neither woman moved away. As their lips met once again, the door swung open and Kate strolled into the room. “If you two don’t mind, I could use some help out here.”
“Mom?” Rhian squeaked.
“And if we do?” Deven challenged the older woman while keeping a firm grip on her lover.
“Tough,” Kate replied. “You’ll have all night to fool around after the party. Let’s go.” It quickly became obvious that Rhian’s mother wasn’t going to leave and so the two women reluctantly disentangled themselves and sat up. “Come on, ladies. I know you’re both capable of moving faster than that.”
Standing to her full height, Deven squared her shoulders and scowled at the woman.
Keeping a smile off her face was a challenge for Kate, but managing to remain expressionless she asked, “You have something to say, problem child?”
An indecorous retort perched on the tip of Deven’s tongue, but before she could bring it forth, Rhian’s hand covered her mouth. “Behave,” the landscaper said.
Eyes opening wider, Deven mumbled behind the palm before pulling it away. “Me? Why do I have to behave? She’s the one barging in here and telling me what to do.”
“If you’re going to fool around with a houseful of people and not lock the door, you deserve to get walked in on,” Kate stated.
“What? You can’t be serious.”
“You still don’t get it,” Rhian muttered with a shake of her head.
“Get what?” Deven blurted out in frustration.
“I’m the mom here,” Kate declared. “That outranks you.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Deven shot back. “I’m a mom, too.”
Undaunted, Kate laughed and then explained. “You are A mom. I am The mom. There is a difference.”
The martial artist looked to her friend for an explanation. “She’s the mom.”
“But.” Deven’s protest was cut off as Rhian’s fingers tangled in the fabric of her shirt and tugged.
”Come on, honey. It will be a lot less hassle and painful in the long run to just get on with it.”
The party had been underway for nearly two hours, and despite her earlier agitation, Deven found the festivities enjoyable. Conversations mingled with laughter in several rooms on the main level of the house, and as she walked leisurely from the kitchen into the entry way off the living room, she lingered there to take it all in.
From where she now stood, she could see most of the room and let her eyes move from one cluster of people to another, wondering at the impact they all had on her life. Each had touched her in some way over the past year, and she realized that their integration into her life had gone mostly unnoticed.
With the exception of what she had with Rhian, that is how the few but constant relationships in her life had always been – mostly unnoticed. Those who did remain in her life she managed through controlled companionship. Never had she bothered to consider why those few people she had carelessly considered friends stayed in her life.
And then, on an early spring evening some nine months ago, her life had been forever changed. Everything she did suddenly became a profusion of why or why not. An oft-frustrating series of questions of motive and thought that left her reeling and unsure about the person she’d always thought she was. The person you believed you were because that was the person you were always told you were.
Her gaze softened perceptively as it settled on her lover, who was having a rather lively discussion with Kate and Mac. Not the person she loves. Eyeing the senior Mackenzies, a small contented smile graced her lips. In that moment, Deven accepted that she’d been blessed in more ways then she could count with Rhian’s arrival into her life, which now included a family that had not only been accepting of her but one that she’d taken to heart.
“So,” Kelly said as she stepped up next to the martial artist.
“So,” Deven replied, making a concerted effort to keep her natural guardedness at bay.
“Rhian and Nicole really did an awesome job. And Kate, too,” Deven responded with a touch of pride in her voice. “But I think they all really like this stuff.”
“And you don’t?” the lawyer prodded.
“I don’t know yet. It’s still all pretty new. There are parts I enjoy very much, but then, there are other parts that I can skip completely.”
“The house looks beautiful.”
“Again, Rhian and Nicole.”
“Oh? I heard that you were running around on the roof,” Kelly chided.
“I wasn’t running around,” Deven said with a small chuckle. “I just put the lights up on the house.”
“Do you think that was wise? Given your condition and all.”
“And just what condition would that be?” Deven asked a bit defensively.
An elegant eyebrow lifted as Kelly regarded the woman. “A bit touchy, aren’t you?”
“This is getting tedious, Kelly. So, let’s quit walking around in circles.”
“All right,” the lawyer agreed. “I didn’t realize it until I got here this evening that I’m still not completely over that day. And that’s my problem. You’ve apologized and appear sincere about it, but there’s a part of me that just can’t seem to let it go.”
“I don’t know, Deven. Maybe it’s because there’s so much about you I don’t know. I thought I understood you and what I’ve learned over the past six months is that I don’t know you at all.”
“If it’s any consolation, I’ve found that I don’t know myself. This past year has been incredibly hard and not just because of the beating. In some ways that seems almost a cake walk compared to all the other changes I’ve faced.” An uncomfortable silence spread out between them. “What do you want, Kelly?”
The lawyer scanned the room, looking for the elusive answer to why she was so angry and hurt still. Deven had apologized and been honest about her feelings. All indications were that Deven and Rhian were doing quite well in their relationship, and the children appeared to be happy and adjusting to their new family dynamics. “What do I want?” Her gaze settled on Carl who was conversing with Jay and Nicole. “I want what you have,” she answered absently.
Deven, who had been watching the children do a poor job of sneaking into the kitchen, was jolted back to the conversation. “What?”
“Nothing,” Kelly said and held up her empty glass. “I would like another of these.”
“What did you say?” Deven asked, making no effort to accept the glass.
“I said I’d like another drink.”
“Nothing of import, my friend. Just feeling a little melancholy right now. I think that's something you’re well versed with.”
“What’s going on, Kelly? You know I don’t like games, so don’t bullshit me.”
“I’m sorry, Deven. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“Tell me, Kelly, or I’ll go over there and knock it out of your husband.”
“You are such a pain, Masterson.”
“You started it.”
“Okay, fine. Three months ago I found out I was pregnant.”
“That’s great!” Deven responded with delight. “I know you guys have been wanting to start a family for some.”
“I lost the baby,” the woman cut in. “Miscarried two weeks ago.”
Deven’s happiness faded rapidly and pained shock took its place. “Oh, Kelly,” she said while wrapping her arms around her friend.
Not wanting to admit how much she needed this, Kelly initially fought the urge to relax in the strong embrace. But the truth was, she had missed this friendship and understood now that it wasn’t what she thought was different that bothered her so much, but what she thought she’d lost. Theirs was a complicated relationship, carefully formed over the years as she’d chipped away at Deven’s austere demeanor to find glimpses of the complexly emotional person lurking beneath the blatant charm and solid hostility. And it was those rare peeks that had caused her to love this woman despite all the brashness and tempers.
As if afraid that in easing her grasp Kelly would pull completely away, Deven held tight. “You guys are going to keep trying, aren’t you?”
“Maybe. I just need some time,” the woman whispered. The loss of the child still felt raw, and she wasn’t certain at that moment whether or not she could face that challenge again. “It was such a disappointment.”
“I’m sorry about the baby, and I’m sorry that I haven’t been here for you.”
After everything Kelly had put up with over the years from this woman, the one time she could have used something in return, it hadn’t been there. Stepping back, she waved her hand dismissively despite the stirred resentment. “You had other things going on. Besides, not your problem.”
“Don’t do that, Kelly. We both know that I haven’t been much of a friend. I wish.” She leaned back slightly so she could look into her friend’s eyes. “I wish I could change that, but I’m finally learning that I can’t change the things that I’ve already done. But, hopefully, I can do better next time. For what it’s worth, I’m here now, and I’ll do everything I can for you.”
Kelly struggled to keep her emotions at bay. This wasn’t the time or place to mourn the loss of the baby, and she rapidly blinked away the tears.
But Deven understood and caressed her friend’s cheek. “Take as much time as you need, Kel. And if, or when, you need me for anything, I’ll be here. I promise. Okay?”
After several seconds, the lawyer produced a small nod.
“Good,” Deven replied. “Does Rhian know?”
“No. Just you, Carl, and me. It’s too hard still. Now, I think we better move out of the shadows before my husband and your lady start thinking we’re up to something.”
With her arm protectively across Kelly’s shoulders, Deven led them forward into the room. They stopped in the archway between the dining room and living room as the martial artist took in the jubilant chaos before her.
“Any particular reason you’re standing in this spot?” Kelly asked.
Kelly pointed upward and waited. Deven looked up to find a sprig of mistletoe directly over her head and laughed at the implication. “Well, I hadn’t planned on it but since you’re here in my arms.” Leaning closer, she placed a chaste kiss on her friend’s lips. “Happy holidays, Kel. I hope you get everything you want.”
“Thank you, my friend. I wish the same for you, but I think you’ve pretty much gotten there.”
“What’s the big idea, Deven? Honing in on my wife?”
The martial artist made a show of snarling at the man and then slapped him good-naturedly on the back. “Nah. She wouldn’t have me anyway. Besides I have my own bed warmer.”
“I wouldn’t let her hear that,” Carl replied with a shake of his head.
“Too late,” Rhian quipped. “Guess I’ll be nice and toasty in that big bed, and you’ll be chilly and lonely on the sofa.”
Deven grabbed Rhian and pulled her forward under the mistletoe. Holding her captive securely, she then kissed the landscaper soundly while their friends egged her on. She could feel the heat radiating off of her lover’s skin as Rhian blushed a deep crimson. “You were saying?”
“Not. Nothing,” Rhian stammered. “Nothing at all.”
Deven winked at Carl. “That’s what I thought.”
Squeals of laughter erupted from Tiernan and Seana as Deven wrestled with them both in what appeared to be nothing more than a tangle of bodies on the living room floor. “Okay, guys,” she said after several minutes of the raucous behavior. “Ease up.” Having already learned that if they didn’t obey, there would be no more playtime, they stilled immediately.
The three playmates lay on the floor, the children panting from the exertion and Deven taking a mental inventory of her body. Having been accidentally kicked in the ribs by Seana the last time they’d roughhoused, she was a little more protective of those areas that were still a bit tender.
Rolling over, Deven sat up and then leaned back against the sofa and the children quickly scrambled after her. Flanking the woman, they leaned against her and she placed an arm around both, pulling them closer and enjoying the moment of companionship.
“Mommy?” Tiernan said to get her attention.
“Yes?” she drawled.
“We were wondering something.”
“Okay,” she replied. “What were you wondering?”
“I don’t live at Aunt Laura’s and Seana doesn’t live with Granddad and Grandma anymore.”
“How is Santa going to find us?” Seana asked somberly.
“Oh, well, hmm. That’s a good question.” Deven tried to conjure up a memory of a time in her life where Santa had been a part of it and found it was nearly impossible. “How do you think he found you before?”
“He just knew,” Tiernan answered with a shrug.
“Yeah,” Seana agreed.
Looking at each child in turn, Deven realized that they were seriously concerned. Her first inclination was to tell them to go ask Rhian, but something far stronger reached out to her and she felt the need to relieve their anxiety. “Okay. Do you remember when Uncle Jay and I went shopping?” They both nodded and she continued. “Well, I made a stop and made sure that Santa knows where you both live now.”
Both of the kids looked at her skeptically. “Really,” she said.
“How?” Tiernan asked.
A memory tickled Deven’s mind. “Well, I met him a long, long time ago,” she answered while trying to bring the memory forward.
“You did?” Seana asked, her eyes wide with wonder.
“Yeah, I did. I was about your age, Tiernan. He was about my height now, but then he seemed really big. He had a round belly, white hair and beard and laughed a lot. Kind of a jolly guy.”
“Was he wearing a red suit?” the boy asked.
“Nope. As I recall, he was wearing brown corduroy pants with green suspenders and a red shirt. I think he only wears the red suit during the Christmas season.” She allowed the memory to play out in her mind and felt a sense of the joy she’d known at that moment in her young life. “Anyway, when Jay and I were at the mall, we stopped and talked to the Santa there.”
“He’s not the real Santa,” Tiernan said anxiously.
“I know. But he, uh, works for Santa. You know that the big man is really busy right now trying to get everything ready by Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have time to meet everybody. So, he has these helpers that talk to the children and then go back and tell Santa what they said. And sometimes, if he has the time, he’ll come do it himself.”
“Really?” the little girl asked.
“Really. And you want to know a little secret?” They both bobbed their heads eagerly. “When Mama took you guys to the mall and you saw Santa, it was the real one.”
Expressions of skepticism turned to elation, and they both smiled, causing happiness to bubble up in Deven’s chest. “So, I stopped and talked to his helper. And you know what? They called him on the special satellite phone they have and told him that both of you are with me now. So, you have nothing to worry about.”
“Are you sure, Mommy? What if they called a wrong number?”
Damn, Tiernan, why can’t you just take my word of it? Frowning, she pondered his question, eager to put an end to the conversation in as clear and concise a manner as possible. “I’ll tell you what. Why don’t we fax him a note just to make sure?”
“Can we?” Seana asked eagerly. “Can we tell him what we want?”
“Well, sure. I don’t see why not.” Deven looked up and saw Rhian leaning against the doorway, watching them with an expression of affection mixed with humor.
“Dinner’s ready,” the landscaper said. “Go get cleaned up and use soap when you wash your hands.” Taking cues from each other, the children both grumbled as they reluctantly stood up. It was a struggle, but Rhian managed to keep her expression serious. “Don’t make Mommy call the big guy and tell him you two haven’t been behaving.”
The prospect that their Christmas visit from Santa could be destroyed caused them both to quickly rush out of the room to do as they’d been told.
“So you met the big guy?”
Deven eased up and sat on the sofa. “It’s kind of weird. I suddenly remembered that when I was about Tiernan’s age, I did meet this guy who I swore was Santa Claus. He must have been a nice guy because he played along with it.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t?” Rhian asked.
“Come on. You don’t believe that.”
Rhian raised an eyebrow. “Why not?”
“It was wrong to tell them that, wasn’t it?” Deven asked with concern. “They just looked so worried.”
“Honey, it wasn’t wrong. You did meet a man who you believed was Santa. That wasn’t a lie.”
Deven still looked unconvinced and Rhian walked over and sat down next to her lover. “Consider this, okay? There’s a common thread to the stories all over the world about Saint Nicolas or Kris Kringle or Father Christmas or whatever he’s called. Maybe they were just mortals who had very giving natures and while they lived they tried to make things nicer for people, especially children.
“Maybe some were real and others were simply the product of over productive imaginations. It doesn’t matter. I know that you value honesty and I don’t think that believing in magic is dishonest. That would be like saying that you don’t believe in love, and I happen to know for a fact that you’ve finally decided it is magical after all. And that, my love, is all you did. You gave our children a little bit of magic because you love them. Besides, I believe there is a Santa Clause and I’m glad to have a personal in with him.”
“I’ll give you an in,” Deven said as she grappled her lover down onto the floor and began nibbling on her neck.
“Down girl!” Rhian squealed. “Our offspring will be back any second.”
Deven stopped her loving assault but didn’t release her hostage. Reaching up, Rhian lightly traced the woman’s face with the tip of her forefinger. For a second, the image of her lover’s battered face flashed before her eyes and she almost cried at the still painful memory.
“What’s wrong?” Deven asked.
Pushing the sorrow aside, Rhian placed her hand behind the martial artist’s head and pulled her forward into a tender kiss that turned into a slow exploration, effectively decimating the memory. “You are so beautiful, Deven Masterson,” she whispered when the kiss ended.
“Not nearly as much as you,” Deven replied. “And don’t argue with me. I’ll tell the big guy and you’ll get nothing for Christmas.”
“You’re mean,” Rhian said with a chuckle. “Now unfortunately, I think you better let me up.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then dinner won’t make it onto the table and you’ll have to deal with our ravenous munchkins.”
“I may be mean, but you play dirty,” Deven responded. Easing off the woman’s body, she stood up, pulling Rhian up as well.
“Where are you planning to send the fax?”
“I was just going to send it to the school. That should totally freak Jay out.”
“Why don’t you fax it to my folks?” Rhian suggested. “They’ll get a real kick out of it.”
“Sure. Now what about your letter to Santa?”
“I already have everything I want.”
After a few seconds, Deven’s expression softened into one of adoration, and lifting their joined hands, she kissed the back of Rhian’s. “Me, too.”
To Be Continued in Chapter Twenty Six