See disclaimers in Chapter One
Chapter Seven, Part 1
The nearer they got to the Mackenzie's house, the more morose Deven seemed to become, and Rhian couldn't quite figure out why. Occasionally during the drive, she would peek over at her lover. The slight crinkles at the corners of Deven's eyes and the occasional furrowing of her brow clearly indicated that something was amiss. But it was the faint waves of emotion rolling off of Deven that really gave Rhian pause. They were easy for the landscaper to discern and she wondered at the fact that she didn't remember a time when she hadn't been able to pick up on the martial artist's feelings, both good and bad. "Hey."
"What?" Deven responded absently.
"Why so glum all of the sudden? You were certainly in a good mood when we woke up this morning."
"I'm not glum."
"Uh huh," Rhian said. "Try again."
You know that tone, Masterson. She's not going to just let it go. Keeping her vision on the road ahead, she sighed heavily. "I just don't see why I had to come along. You could have picked up the kids without me."
"True, but it's like this. It's one thing to tell everyone that we're all right. It's something completely different for them to see that for themselves. Especially the children."
"I suppose," Deven replied, her voice sounding strangely subdued.
Reaching across the physical distance between them, Rhian lightly caressed the martial artist's thigh. "What really has you so bothered?"
"Deven," she said reproachfully. "We're supposed to be working on communicating better, and we sure can't do that if you refuse to talk."
The landscaper's lips twitched into a small smile of victory as Deven sighed again, this time in resignation. "I'm not looking forward to this. What if the kids are mad at me? What if they don't want to or can't forgive me? What if they're afraid of me? I don't want them to be afraid of me," she answered in a rush.
Wow. She's really concerned about this. Rhian gave the solid thigh beneath her palm a gentle squeeze. "Then we deal with it. Whatever it is. Besides, I wouldn't worry about them so much. If I were you, I'd be more nervous about seeing my parents, though my father should be at work now. Still in a situation like this, I'd rather face my father than my mother."
"Why?" Deven asked with some consternation.
Her companion's continued reserve when interacting with the Mackenzie family was understandable but disheartening at times for Rhian. "My mother? Well, let's just say that when she's unhappy with you about something, you know it. Growing up I used to hear all those jokes about waiting until your father got home. Not in my house. I wanted my father to come home to diffuse my mother. He had the ability to calm her down, but even then, they were a real team when it came to raising Michael and me."
Deven's face had become almost unreadable, and Rhian worried that she might have given the wrong impression. "Don't get me wrong. I love my parents and they aren't abusers. It was just that my mother was more the disciplinarian in our house. Probably because she was around us more than my father was." Rhian watched the martial artist's brow furrow. "Don't tell me you're afraid of my mother."
"No," Deven snorted. "Give me break."
"Yes, you are," Rhian countered with apparent glee. "She intimidates you."
"She does not. Intimidate me? As if." Silence descended in the vehicle for several seconds before Deven spoke again. "Well, she intimidates you, too. I've seen her in action. I've never seen anyone cover their butt as fast as you did the last time."
Rhian laughed. "Well, duh. She's my mother. Of course she intimidates me. But I'm not the one she's got her sites on today, so I'm free and clear."
"And just what is that supposed to mean?" Deven asked cautiously.
"Let's just say that if you see her coming at you with any kind of soap or a wooden spoon, you have two choices. Take it like the woman you are or run like hell. I'd personally run," she replied smugly.
The landscaper lightly brushed her thumb across the soft skin her hand was resting on, fully enjoying the opportunity to tease her friend. It wasn't often she got the upper hand, and she made sure she took advantage of it. "Relax," she said. "My mother likes you. I doubt she'd punish you too badly."
Deven frowned and her eyes narrowed. "Punish me? For what?"
"Tsk, Deven. My mother is not fond of a foul mouth. And well, after what she heard about yesterday, you're probably right up there on the top of her list."
"You told her all of that? What I said?"
Rhian grinned wickedly. "Hey, it wasn't just me. The kids heard it, and I know they had their own take on what happened. I'm sure that Seana, with her ingrained theatrics, told my mother everything. She may have even acted parts of it out. And, oh Lord, when Nicole got there, she told all about what you said to Jay on the phone. So, triple whammy, babe. Three strikes and you're out."
"Babe?" Deven realized that to some extent Rhian was messing with her, but it did little to dispel her overall discomfort at the idea of facing Kate. Dealing with Rhian's relatives was hard under normal circumstances because she had so little experience with family dynamics. She knew how to be polite and how to make conversation, but she didn't understand the various nuances between the relationships.
"What about when you were growing up?" Rhian asked. "Were your parents the disciplinarian types?"
The martial artist shrugged. "Like I told you before, I don't remember my father ever laying a finger on me until I was sixteen. My mother on the other hand," her voice trailed off.
The woman's tone pricked something inside of Rhian, and she turned in her seat to better see Deven's face. "You're mother what?"
"Nothing really," Deven replied. She avoided speaking of her childhood. The one exception had been Dr. Martin, if the woman prodded hard enough, and it was always uncomfortable. Most times when she did speak of the events of her youth she did so without emotion, keeping the feelings of the little girl she'd once been locked up deep inside. But Rhian was different. Perhaps it was the emotional commitment she'd made to the woman that didn't allow her that safety net. The emotions of the past and present seemed to coil around each other, her love for this woman wrapping around the memories of unwelcome hurt.
Trying to keep her voice noncommittal, she continued softly. "My mother seemed to think that she could spank anything out of me. I've always had an innate knack for pissing her off, and she'd grab whatever was handy at the time and lay into me."
A flicker of pain crossed Deven's face, and then a small smile edged up the corners of her mouth. "I remember the first time she spanked me in front of Jay. I must have been six or seven. I think we were just hanging out until my father got home to take us to the martial arts school, and if I recall correctly, we got into a wrestling match. My mother went off on my backside. I kept thinking that I didn't want Jay to see me cry, and I tried so hard not to in front of him but damn it hurt.
"Anyway, afterwards, we went outside to wait for my father and Jay put an arm across my shoulders. I almost punched him, but I guess I felt that I needed a friend," she shrugged dismissively. "He told me it was okay and that he'd never tell anyone. And as far as know, he kept his word."
Rhian absorbed the story. Deven had managed to speak volumes about her childhood in just that brief tale, and the younger woman felt a rising rage at Patricia. Pushing the anger to the side for the moment, she reflected on the relationship between her lover and Jay. It had always been as it now was. From the very beginning they'd been competitive, and yet, they'd forged a strong foundation of support and friendship that would carry over the years. Well, that explains to some extent why Deven felt so betrayed when he talked to Nicole. Steering her thoughts back to Patricia's callous treatment of her child, she asked, "Didn't anyone try to stop her?
All traces of the martial artist's smile faded, and her expression turned grim. "Who? She never punished me like that in front of my father and only did it once in front of my grandparents. My mother's public displays were limited to slapping me across the face. God, I really hated that. It was just so damn humiliating. It didn't matter where we were. She'd get mad at something I said or did and wham. And I knew people were staring. When I was real young I'd avoid looking at them, but as I got a little older I'd stare back until they looked away."
The landscaper closed her eyes, and then popped them open again as a vision of the hurt child Deven might have been filled her mind. God, it isn't any wonder she was so close to her father. He gave her a sort of sanctuary. That is until he took it all away from her. What a screwed up group of people. It's a miracle she isn't a complete wacko. Rhian quietly studied her lover's profile. Deven's fears of hurting their children made more sense to her now, misguided as they were. "Deven, I'm sorry."
"Why are you sorry?"
"I'm sorry that your mother treated you so atrociously. And I'm so sorry for the night I slapped you."
Deven looked at her blankly. "What?" Her mind worked to figure out what Rhian was talking about, and then it came to her. "I completely forgot about that," she muttered as she shook her head. "Rhian, that was no big deal. I understood where you were coming from though I have to admit it did take me by surprise."
"Is that why you didn't block it?"
The martial artist bit her lip while shaking her head. "No. I saw it coming. I was just surprised that you had it in you to hit me, but I understood. I deserved it under the circumstances."
"No, you didn't," Rhian said.
"Yes, I did." Deven felt that her friend was somehow equating what she'd done that night to what Patricia had done to her over the years. That is not acceptable. "Sweetheart, you didn't know what I was doing. From your perspective, I was going to leave you with Mace. I would have hit me, too." She shrugged again. "As for my mother, it was what it was. When I got to be eleven or twelve, she went to slap me one day, and I reacted by blocking it. Oh man, was she livid. She swore I hit her back. Thank goodness Jay and Laura were in the room at the time, otherwise, she'd have convinced my father I had struck her on purpose. I'm sure I never would have been allowed to step foot in the martial arts school again. The good thing that came out of that day was that she didn't slap me again."
"I can't comprehend how it was that no one knew what was happening to you, and that no one did anything to stop her," Rhian said in disbelief.
Glancing over to her friend, Deven saw the aggrieved expression on Rhian's face, and her hand covered the smaller one on her thigh. "It was a long time ago. And let's be a little fair here. I was an extremely active child. I never sat still for long, and I was into everything. That's why my father got me into the martial arts in the first place. To teach me some self-discipline. I know I drove my mother crazy. I mean, here she was with a child she couldn't control and certainly not the little lady she wanted or expected."
"How can you even think of defending her?" Rhian snapped.
"I'm not." Deven was a little startled by the vehemence in the woman's voice. "I'm just pointing out that I was a handful for anyone."
"That doesn't make what she did right!"
"Easy, tiger," Deven soothed. "Are you going to sit there and tell me your parents never spanked you?"
Rhian took a deep breath and released it slowly. "No. I mean I'm not going to say that. But Deven, it was pretty rare and never cruel. Most times it didn't really hurt so much as it hurt my feelings. I hated disappointing them."
This is getting way too serious. They'd started off the day in good moods, cuddling and making love throughout much of the morning. Deven hated to see if slipping away under the barrage of old history. "Well, no one has spanked me since I was about ten. Though I have to say, I've had the pleasure of administering a few." She looked at the younger woman and winked.
"Huh?" Puzzled, Rhian stared at her until finally realizing her companion was implying. "Oh."
Her lover's delayed reaction caused Deven to smile wickedly. "I could make it hurt so good for you, baby."
A blush raced up Rhian's neck to her cheeks, and she looked away. "Bite me."
The truck filled with the sound of Deven's rich laughter. "I can do that, too. In fact, I think I have."
Freeing her hand from beneath Deven's, Rhian brought it down on the bare thigh with a resounding smack. "Stop it. We're almost to my parents' house, you demented sex fiend."
"You didn't mind my demented sex last night," the martial artist purred.
Rhian turned away from the woman to hide the smile as her skin warmed from the memories they'd created. Unhooking her seatbelt, she slid across the seat until she was pressed up next to her lover. "You were something else last night. But then, you're always something," she whispered.
Wrapping an arm around the landscaper's shoulders, Deven hugged her gently and then turning her head, she placed a kiss on the woman's temple. "Can we just go home?"
The good humor restored, Rhian laughed easily. "Nope. We've got those darn kids to pick up."
"I'll make a deal with you though."
"Oh yeah? Does it involve spanking?" Deven asked as her hand slid down Rhian's back and into the waistband of her shorts.
"You're so bad."
"And you love it," Deven murmured as she nuzzled the woman's ear.
Goose bumps rose up on her flesh, and Rhian allowed herself to embrace the sensation. She felt alive and desired, and basked in the feeling. Glancing out the windshield, she realized that they were only a block from their destination. "Down, champ. Save it for later."
"Do I have to?"
"Yes." Rhian took a deep breath and concentrated on overriding her libido. "Listen, if you behave yourself while we're there, I'll make it up to you."
"Oh, yeah? How is that?" Deven asked in a low and seductive tone.
"I'll spring for ice cream on the way home."
Deven chuckled as she turned into the driveway. "Hmm, not what I was thinking, but you, my love, have a deal."
Deven turned off the ignition but made no move to actually exit the vehicle. Instead she sat immobile, scanning the Mackenzie house from one end to the other. The pale eyes slowly inspected the exterior, pausing briefly at each window, and Rhian became engrossed by the transition her lover was undergoing. Deven's chin lifted and her shoulders squared at the same time as her eyes took on a piercing quality. The last time Rhian had seen the martial artist like this had been at the tournament right before she'd fought Karen. "Sweetheart?"
"Yes?" Deven replied, her focus never leaving the house.
"We're not going in there to do battle."
Turning her head, Deven regarded her companion. "What?"
"You look like you're getting ready to lay siege to the place. No one in that house is our enemy."
"I know that," she retorted. But that's exactly what you're doing, isn't it? Psyching yourself up to go in that house. Jesus, Deven, what is wrong with you! They both sat silently, Rhian lightly running her fingertips along the skin of the martial artist's thigh, and Deven trying to decide what to do next. Her shoulders sagged slightly as she started to speak. "Okay, look. I feel like a complete idiot about yesterday, and I can't for the life of me figure out why I care what your family thinks of me. They're you're family not mine. So, why should I care if they don't like me?"
"Good question," Rhian answered. "Why do you think you care?"
"Well, the most obvious reason is because I don't want them to give you a hard time because of me."
The blonde head nodded. "That makes sense. Anything else?"
"No. Not that I can put my finger on."
Rhian stilled her hand and placed the palm flat against the warm flesh. "I can assure you that you don't have to worry about me. I know how they feel about me, and I know how they feel about you. They actually like you, honey. And so, everything is fine."
It was Deven's turn to nod. "Okay, then. Let's go get our children. I've got ice cream waiting for me." Stepping out of the truck, she pushed her emotions to retreat behind a veneer of self-assurance. She'd given up caring what people thought of her and her actions a long time ago. Until this woman walked into my life. Everyday with her is a...a what? Masterson, just let it be. She's a gift that you never expected, and instead of whining all the time about the confusion and chaos, you should be grateful for it. Oh, shut up already! Sometimes you sound like such a sentimental ass! You're a fighter, Masterson. Stop acting like such a chicken shit!
Coming around the front of the truck, she found Rhian waiting for her, and reaching out she took hold of the younger woman's hand. They walked up the front path together, and she felt the familiar warmth in her belly as she stilled the voice in her head and donned the more formidable part of her personality.
The house was quiet, and for an instant Deven thought she'd get in and get out without having to actually speak to anyone. That was until they met Kate in the hallway. She started to release Rhian's hand but felt the smaller fingers tighten slightly around her own.
"Hi, Mom. How are the younguns?"
Kate noted the clasped hands and smiled. "They're fine. They're playing in the sandbox out back at the moment." She looked at her daughter's tall dark haired companion. "Hello, Deven."
"Hi, Kate." The martial artist became perturbed when her bearing slipped slightly under the older woman's direct gaze. What is it about this woman? She's nothing more than a middle-aged housewife. So how in the hell does she do that? She mentally shook her head. "Thank you for taking care of the rugrats. And for dinner. It was delicious."
"You're most welcome." Kate looked at both of the women in turn. "So, things seem more pleasant today."
Deven cocked her head as she responded. "Yes, well, I haven't lost my mind yet today."
The older woman studied her daughter's friend for several seconds more. The uneasiness she glimpsed was at odds with the woman's self-possessed persona, and she found the contradiction bordering on bizarre. "Would you like some iced coffee? I was just about to get myself some."
"That would be great, Mom. Thank you," Rhian answered for them both.
"Deven, why don't you go on out to the deck, and Rhian and I'll bring out the drinks?"
The martial artist looked at her companion and saw nothing in her friend's expression to indicate that she was ill at ease. "All right." Stepping past Kate, she walked through the living room and out onto the deck while Rhian followed her mother into the kitchen.
"What's going on?" Kate queried her daughter.
"Nothing. We're good. It's just," Rhian paused while trying to reason how to explain the situation. "Deven has such a hard time understanding her emotions. She's spent so much of her life trying not to feel anything that now, she's uncertain about what's she's doing. And being uncertain about anything drives her crazy."
"Why doesn't she want to feel anything?" Kate asked.
"It's complicated, Mom. Part of it's the martial arts training, I think. You can't let your emotions get in the way of what you're doing, and she's spent her whole life fine-tuning that focus. I know that part of it was her home life." Her voice took on a definite edge. "Her mother is Satan or at least a close relative of his. Mom, I just found out on the way over here today that her mother used to beat her. And Deven? She acts like it was no big deal."
Kate took a step closer to her riled woman. "I'm sure that's not the case. Most likely she's convinced herself it wasn't anything significant."
"I know. I just. Sometimes I just want to shake her!" Rhian lifted her hands and shook them in the air. "It's so damn frustrating! She downplays everything that was ever done to her or says it was her fault. And then, everything she's ever done in her life she carries around her neck like an albatross."
Reaching out, Kate gripped her daughter's wrists firmly but gently. "Calm down," she said.
Looking at her mother's face, Rhian tried to imagine what it would have been like to be so unloved by this woman. What it would have been like to have been treated so cruelly and found that she couldn't imagine it. Without another thought she stepped forward, wrapping her arms around her mother and sighing as the woman returned the hug. They stood in silence as Rhian relaxed in the comfort her mother always provided.
She wasn't naïve. While growing up, she'd known several of her peers had endured various types and levels of abuse at home, Nicole being one. Her best friend had been raised in an environment that had been totally indifferent to her one moment and verbally abusive the next. Unlike Deven though, who had faced her childhood mostly by herself, Nicole had grown up with the support of the Mackenzie family. I wish I'd known you then, Deven. Stepping back, she wiped at her damp eyes with the heel of her hand.
"Better?" her mother asked.
"Always," Rhian said as she smiled fondly at the woman. But then her smile faded as her thoughts returned to her lover. "I think my coming into Deven's life has disrupted so much. It's forced her to deal with a lot of things within herself that she thought were long gone or buried forever."
She folded her arms across her chest and leaned back against the counter. "I think she wants you to like her but she prepares herself for you not to. She's convinced there's no way you'll accept her, so she convinces herself that she doesn't care. At the same time, she can't understand why she cares in the first place. Does that make sense?"
Kate filled three glasses with ice and then poured the sweetened coffee into them while considering the question. "Yes and no. I understand what you're saying, but I don't understand why we make her feel that way."
"You don't. She does. I guess it's sort of a defensive mechanism."
Kate stepped up to her daughter and looked her straight in the eyes. "You love this woman."
"Yes. With all that I am."
"Do you think she's capable of hurting you or the children?"
"No," Rhian answered while shaking her head emphatically. "I know that she wouldn't physically. Emotionally? Not on purpose. But then, we're just as capable, if not more so, of hurting her."
"And she's worth all this trouble?"
"Yes!" The landscaper returned her mother's steady gaze. "Mom, Deven has been through hell and back again. Much of which was her doing but not all of it. Things have happened to her that she didn't deserve. That no one deserves and she's managed to still be a person capable of deep emotion." Rhian swallowed against the tightening of her throat. "She just doesn't know how to deal with all the feelings. Not yet anyway, but everyday I see changes in her."
"You aren't blinded by your love for her?" Kate prodded. "You aren't seeing things you want to see, not things as they really are?"
Rhian considered her answer carefully. "Deven hurt a lot of people a long time ago, and she bears the pain and guilt for everything she ever did. I firmly believe that she's always accepted responsibility for her actions, and she's never lied to me about them." Her eyes brimmed with tears. "It's so painful to watch how she berates herself about things she's done, and all that guilt she carries is like a living thing between us sometimes."
"Why did she give up her son?"
The younger woman sighed. "Because she believed it was the best thing for him. That if he stayed with her, she'd hurt him. So, she put him where she thought he'd be safe and happy."
"Doesn't she realize that he is hurting? That all he wants is to be with her?" Kate asked. "She's all he talks about."
"I know and yes, she realizes that now." Rhian replied. "She's slowly coming to understand that she's capable of giving him what he needs." Kate lifted a dishtowel and gently wiped away her daughter's tears. "She loves him, Mom. She just doesn't believe she's the best option for him."
Throughout the conversation, Kate had listened attentively to her daughter. The force with which she defended Deven and the depth of emotion behind everything she said about the woman spoke more of the truth in her heart than any words could. She had to rely on her daughter's good sense.
Kate's thoughts turned to the woman waiting out on the deck. Deven was such a mystery. So incredibly solid and confident, and yet there seemed an unbelievable depth of pain buried beneath the surface. She'd glimpsed it herself and had felt a need to comfort the woman. But that would be like trying to provide comfort to a porcupine. Not a pleasant experience by any means. "All right," she said while passing Rhian a glass. "Let's go see what she's up to."
Deven sat on the deck watching the children play in a shaded area of the back yard. They seemed oblivious to the summer heat, their attention completely on whatever it was they were designing in the sand box. They hadn't noticed her yet and that was fine. It gave her time to think because the earlier conversation with Rhian about her childhood was gnawing away at her.
She took a deep breath and released it slowly. Growing up she'd been unable to understand why it was that her mother couldn't love her. What it was about her that was so basely wrong to bring forth such contempt from the woman that had brought her into the world. Her father had loved her. At one time, he truly had loved her and she hadn't been able to comprehend why he did and her mother wouldn't. She could never understand what it was about her that was so abhorrent to one parent and not the other.
Eventually, she convinced herself that it didn't matter and she just didn't care. Eventually, she grew to hate them both with such intensity that the hurt and sorrow had faded into the background - never really gone, just subjugated by the rage and enmity. That is until she'd made a huge mistake resulting in a child of her own, and the sins of her past precluded her from opening her heart to him. And a heavy dose of fear you'll repeat the pattern and become your mother.
Her gaze settled on her son, and she wondered yet again how it was she could have produced him. When she looked at him, she didn't feel anger or resentment because of his presence. She never had. Her problem had always been that despite everything, she did love him.
She hadn't really felt anything about her child at first. All her energy had been taken up with disdain at herself for getting pregnant in the first place. It really wasn't until she'd felt him move within her that she'd been struck with the realization that he was truly alive and something in her perception of the whole ordeal had shifted.
Her pregnancy hadn't been difficult, and she'd found herself drawn more into the development of her unborn child, captivated by the process. She never would have chosen to conceive a child. It had been a stupid mistake, but when everything was said and done, it was one she'd not been sorry to have experienced.
She blinked rapidly to clear the moisture filling her eyes. Enough of this bullshit, Deven! You're a grown up, not some child! And it's about time you started acting like it! The sliding glass door opened and she quickly pulled her reserve back in place.
"Here you go," Kate said as she handed Deven her drink.
The older woman sat directly across from the martial artist. "Deven, has my daughter explained to you that next weekend your presence is required for our annual Labor Day celebration?"
Deven had been looking closely at her lover, trying to gauge if there was any reason for her to be concerned. "Yes," she answered without thought.
"Don't sound so enthusiastic," Rhian teased.
"Oh, no. I'm sorry. I was thinking about something else." She took a sip of her coffee to stop herself from rambling and then glanced at her lover's mother. "I'm looking forward to it."
"That, my dear, is a bold faced lie," Kate responded with a smile.
Deven's mouth opened to retort but closed again without uttering a sound.
"Relax, will you?" Kate asked. "I haven't seen anything so wound up since the kids had those little gliders powered by rubber bands. They used to have contests to see who could wind theirs up the tightest."
Rhian laughed at the memory. "Until Michael wound his way too tight. When that rubber band broke and snapped his hand, he screamed like a banshee."
Deven smiled politely but without humor, and the landscaper grew concerned. Reaching out, she placed a hand on her friend's forearm. "Hey. You okay?"
The sound of the children bounding up the deck stairs gave the reticent woman a reprieve from having to respond.
"Mama!" Seana squealed in delight.
"Hi, baby girl." Rhian opened her arms, capturing her child and pulling her into a hug. "I missed you," she said as she kissed the tot's forehead. Looking over at Tiernan, she smiled at him. "Hi, little man."
"Hi, Rhian. Hi, Mommy," he said timidly.
"Hey, buddy. Come here," Deven said. He eagerly accepted her invitation, happily settling on her lap. With her son securely in place, she looked over at Seana. The little girl's expression was one of wariness, and it hit Deven harder than she would have expected. "Hi, princess."
"Hi," the child replied in a voice barely more than a whisper.
Kate's presence at that moment was extremely discomforting for the martial artist, and she wished the woman would go in the house. I suppose it would be rude to ask her to leave her own deck. Taking a deep breath, she faced the daunting task of trying to smooth things over with the children. "Listen, guys, I'm really sorry about yesterday."
Held safely in her mother's arms, Seana glared at the woman. "You scared me," she said bluntly.
I should have known she wouldn't make this easy. Releasing her breath slowly, Deven tried to determine a way to close the distance that now lay between them. "I know," she finally said. "I behaved badly."
Remembering her mother's outburst at this woman the day before and sensing she was now the center of attention, Seana took advantage of the opportunity. "You said bad things."
Deven peeked at Kate and then returned her gaze to the little girl. "You're right. I did."
Pointing an accusing finger at Deven, the little child proclaimed, "You're bad!"
Unexpectedly, Tiernan shifted in his mother's lap and swung his arm, slapping Seana's hand. "She is not!" he shouted at her.
"Whoa!" Deven tightened her hold on the boy.
Without hesitation, Seana leaned forward and hit the boy back on the arm, forcing Rhian out of her stunned silence. "Stop! No more hitting," she said as she pinned her daughters hands down. "Either of you."
Tiernan's lower lip trembled and tears welled in his eyes. "She isn't bad," he cried.
Rhian freed one hand while keeping her grip on her daughter with the other. She reached out and tenderly caressed his flushed cheek. "Of course, she isn't. We wouldn't love her so much if she were."
"But she yelled, Mama. She said bad words and scared me!" Seana lamented, trying to regain center stage.
Rhian rolled her eyes at her daughter's theatrics. "Yes, Seana, we know. But she has already apologized for that and said she's going to work on not doing it again. Now it's your turn."
The girl craned her head and eyed her mother suspiciously. Shifting her daughter on her lap so she could clearly see the child's face, Rhian addressed her in a firm but gentle tone. "You owe Deven an apology."
"Rhian, she doesn't." Deven was silenced by a look from her lover, and Kate almost burst out laughing as the martial artist's cool façade slipped further.
The youngster appeared shocked at the premise of having to apologize to the woman. "You took those papers even though you knew they didn't belong to you," Rhian explained. "You know better then that. You know you're supposed to ask first. And because you drew all over them, Deven has to do all that work all over again. So, what do you have to say?"
The child remained silent, her stubborn streak firmly in place. Lifting her head, she jutted out her chin in defiance, a gesture remarkably similar to one of Deven's. "Seana, we're waiting." Still, the little girl refused to back down. "Okay, let's go downstairs," Rhian said as she stood up while setting her daughter down.
"No!" Seana wailed as she tried to free herself from her mother's grasp.
Kate observed that Deven seemed horrified by the sudden turn of events, and she felt compassion for the woman, who now appeared totally unsettled by what was going on.
"Rhian, I," Deven started to say before her lover cut her off.
"Keep interrupting me, Deven and you'll get a time out, too."
Kate covered her mouth with a hand to hide her amusement at the look of absolute bewilderment that now covered the martial artist's face.
"Seana, if you don't want to go downstairs then apologize. Now!"
The little girl cried harder as she turned towards the dark haired woman, though her eyes remained on the deck floor. "Sorry," she managed to say between sobs and then quickly buried her face against her mother's leg.
The whole scene had lasted only a couple of minutes, and yet, to Deven it had seemed interminable. She had no trouble disciplining her students as the methods she employed were all within the bounds of the martial arts. Giving them a dozen pushups or squats to do was not a big deal but went a long way to getting their attention. But disciplining these two children was something else completely, and the whole idea was distressing to her.
Rhian saw the conflict on her friend's face. "Go give Deven a hug," she said to her daughter as she smoothed her hand across the child's head. "She's very sad about what happened yesterday." The child only cried harder, but Rhian urged her forward. "Go on."
Cautiously shifting away from her mother, Seana reached out to the other woman. As if afraid she might break something, Deven tentatively wrapped an arm around the tot. She placed a gentle kiss on the little girl's head and then tried to retreat only to find the child clung to her.
"I'm sorry," Seana cried against her neck.
"Me, too." Deven kissed her again and released the breath she'd been holding. "It's okay, princess. Everything's going to be okay."
Kate watched her granddaughter clinging to the somewhat discomposed woman. How is it that someone who is supposedly so untouchable can bring out such love? She sipped her coffee while reflecting on the interpersonal relationships between these four very unique individuals. She concluded that whether she chose to be or not, Deven always seemed to end up at the core of whatever was going on.
From the older woman's perspective, the martial artist had an inherent ability to draw people to her on various levels despite her gruffness and distancing, and Kate wondered if the woman was capable of producing indifference in anyone who crossed her path. And how is that someone who has a reputation for being so indomitable, can be so easily manipulated by my daughter? Glancing up, her eyes met Rhian's, and she smiled.
Seana's grip eased as her cries subsided to small hiccups, and Deven slowly released her. Damn, Deven, you just got your ass kicked by a tiny tyke. Well, more like a tiny tyke and her mother. She could feel Kate's speculative gaze and fought the urge to snarl at the older woman.
Deven was used to being the center of attention, and she was used to people trying to mentally take her apart as if they might gain some enlightenment into her personality. That wasn't really bothersome to her. In fact, it had often been a point of amusement for the martial artist, but there was nothing entertaining about what was happening here.
The current situation was arduous for her. She still wasn't comfortable expressing her feelings and even though it was getting easier to do with Rhian and their children, it remained difficult for her, especially when there were other people around.
It didn't help that from the moment they'd walked into this house today, she'd felt that she was the object of Kate's scrutiny. Normally, she'd have just shut everything off producing nothing more then an unemotional shell to be interpreted. But for some reason that remained beyond her cognitive grasp, she couldn't pull up the indifferent part of her personality and maintain it for long. No sooner would she believe she'd regained control of herself than something would happen to overcome it.
I have to get out of here. She took in a lungful of air and released it slowly while trying to regain the elusive reserve. Just chill out, Masterson. The worst is over now that you've made peace with the kids. Taking in another calming breath, she closed her eyes for several seconds. Okay. No problem. I mean, what else could happen? Time to grab the kids and Rhian and high tail it home. Well, after my ice cream, of course.
"All right," Kate said as she stood. "Now that we've got that settled, Deven please come with me."
The martial artist gave her lover a look that was somewhere between disbelief and misery before standing and placing Tiernan on his feet. Now what? Damn it all to hell and back again! Can't I just get one freaken little break? This is what I get for not standing up to Rhian and telling her I was just going to wait at home.
"I'll come, too," Rhian quickly interjected.
Oh, you're much too transparent, my child. Kate patted her daughter on the shoulder as she walked past her. "That won't be necessary. I'll be sure to call you if a need you."
Deven followed the older woman back into the house and to the kitchen. "Have a seat," Kate said.
Uncertain why she'd been summoned, Deven sat in a chair at the table and watched in silence as Rhian's mother tidied up a few things. Her mind wanted to travel off in multiple directions all at once, and she was having a hard time directing it. The majority of her thoughts were inclined to revisit what had happened on the deck, trying to make sense of the whole thing. But before she could reach any conclusions, her mental wandering was brought to an abrupt halt when Kate began to speak.
"You know, Deven, those children love you. They look up to you and you really need to work on what you say and do around them. They're like sponges. They'll pick up everything and throw it back at you down the road."
Yeahİyeahİyeah. Here it comes. You're a bad person, Deven. You really aren't a good role model for the children. No shit! I could have told you that. The martial artist wasn't certain if she was expected to respond, and before she could think of something to say that was less sarcastic than her contemplations, Kate continued. "I must say that I was rather astounded and disappointed to hear about what happened yesterday, and it concerns me. I personally find the whole thing very offensive and would prefer you not do that in front of my granddaughter again."
Huh. That stung a little. But why, damn it? Why do I let this woman get to me? Deven cleared her throat and opened her mouth to acknowledge the request but snapped it shut when Kate picked up the bottle of dish soap by the sink and turned around. Before she could stop it, Deven's brain derailed into the way station of her imagination, and her only salient thought was Rhian's earlier warning. Oh, this is not happening! She cannot be serious! I mean, come on, I'm not actually supposed to sit here and let her use that on me. Am I? No fucking way!
The anxious expression on the younger woman's face caused Kate to pause. "Deven?"
"Huh?" She couldn't seem to stop her irrational thoughts. Her reasoning capabilities had taken a detour and refused to get back on track.
"Did you hear me?" Worried, Kate took a step towards the seated woman and was stunned when Deven leaned away from her.
I could just get up and walk out of here. Take it or run is what Rhian said. Okay, so which will it be, Deven? You've never run away from confrontation of any kind. True, but how in the hell can I fight my lover's mother?' She inhaled and held her breath while purposefully slowing her heart rate. I know. I'll just nonchalantly call for Rhian.
You are acting like an idiot. Snap out of it! She strained to focus her mind on what Kate was saying. "I need to watch what I say around the children."
Baffled by the martial artist's intent countenance, Kate followed the woman's line of vision to the soap bottle she held in her hand. Slowly raising the object, she watched the eyes track it. Repeating the motion up and down and then side to side a few times, she observed that Deven didn't take her eyes off the container. Weird. "Deven, look at me?"
Gradually the pale eyes lifted. "What?"
The situation was so bizarre that Kate was becoming alarmed enough to consider calling Rhian in. "Are you okay?"
"Um, sure." She cleared her throat again. "My mind, uh, just went south on me for a moment. Sorry."
Still considering the woman's odd behavior while bending down to put the soap under the sink, Kate noticed that Deven's focus had returned to the object. Glancing at the bottle, a thought occurred to her, and she suppressed a smile. Standing up suddenly, she took two steps closer to the woman, watching in amusement as the martial artist nearly fell out of the chair in an effort to gain her feet. Unable to stop herself, Kate began to laugh. "Deven, you didn't think I was going to use this on you?"
"No!" Deven felt the flush and prayed her complexion hid it. "Well, not really. It's just that."
"You didn't!" Kate chortled.
"I mean, Rhian said that you'd probably not be pleased about my language and she gave the impression that you might, you know." She tried to shake off the feeling of discomfort and indicated the bottle with a slight flick of her wrist. "You know?"
Kate laughed even harder and Deven groaned, "Oh, God." Her head lowered as she sat back down, and keeping her eyes on the tabletop, she tried to come up with a way of escaping this nightmare. And you thought it couldn't get any worse? Idiot!
"Oh, Deven, you are wonderful!" Crossing over to the table before she collapsed from the hilarity of the situation, Kate sat down next to the woman. "That was too funny."
"Glad you're amused," Deven mumbled, clearly embarrassed by what had just transpired.
"I'm sorry, honey. It was just. The look on your face was priceless." Kate dabbed at her eyes and studied the silent woman's profile. "Would it make you stop swearing if I wash your mouth out?"
"Not likely," Deven replied without looking up.
"I didn't think so," Kate remarked. "But I'm willing to give it a shot if you'd like."
The martial artist did smile as she was struck with the absurdity of her behavior. "No thank you."
"Rhian was right."
"About what?" Deven asked as her head lifted.
"She said that you have a nice smile and should use it more. She was right."
"Oh." As if things couldn't get more awkward, the martial artist felt her skin warming again.
Kate sat back and regarded her daughter's companion. "Deven, I just wanted to talk to you. That's all. I didn't bring you in here with some hidden agenda. And I'll let you in on a little secret. I knew that by excluding Rhian, she'd be going nuts."
A dark eyebrow lifted. "What?"
The older woman leaned forward conspiratorially. "She's out there right now trying to come up with a way to eavesdrop on us, and it's making her nuts that she can't hear much."
Deven could imagine Rhian doing exactly what Kate suggested and the image caused her to smile again. She relaxed, grateful that her composure was returning. "Mrs. Mackenzie, I do believe that you have a mean streak."
"Well, I guess that's one way of looking at it. I prefer to consider it paybacks for all the times she drove me nearly insane. A mother's prerogative, if you will." Kate sat back again. "So, she painted a picture of some ogre who was going to chew you up and spit you out."
Deven's eyes widened. "No! It wasn't anything like that at all. I guess she was just jerking my chain, and I fell for it hook, line, and sinker." She paused as her thoughts drifted back to the conversation in the car. "We were talking about our childhoods and whether or not our parents were disciplinarians."
"Ah," Kate nodded. "We rarely had to punish the kids. Usually I'd just look at Rhian or Michael a certain way and they'd start to cry. It made me feel pretty awful when I did have to punish either one of them. Thankfully, they were both good kids and hardly ever got into any real trouble."
She debated asking Deven about her own childhood but something about the woman's demeanor warned it wasn't a good idea. Rhian had already told her enough about Patricia Masterson to know that the witch had apparently never treated her child well. Resting her elbow on the table, she propped up her chin with her hand. "I know that things have been difficult for you two lately."
"They're better," Deven replied with a slight shrug of her shoulders.
Kate smiled warmly at her daughter's friend. "That's obvious." She took a deep breath while gathering her thoughts. "This whole thing has been a shock for us, and it takes some getting used to. Rhian never gave any indication that she was." She paused as if contemplating the word before actually saying it. "That she was gay. And before we could even ease into that idea, she's in love."
Deven's jaw tensed. "With me."
"Oh, honey, I didn't mean that, though I have to say that you're most certainly an enigma to me."
The martial artist's eyes lifted and she stared out the window. The look of dejection on her face nearly broke Kate's heart. "Deven, Mac and I are truly trying to understand. We've already accepted the situation, but I have to tell you, it isn't always easy."
Deven's eyes dropped, and she traced the wood grain in the tabletop with her thumbnail. Reaching out, Kate lifted the woman's hand and studied the bruised knuckles.
Seeing the obvious concern, the martial artist debated leaving it and letting Kate think whatever she wanted. But for whatever reason, she found herself speaking. "I worked out on the heavy bag yesterday and didn't protect myself. Not a very bright thing to do."
Kate nodded and squeezed the hand gently. "I've never seen my daughter so happy. I haven't seen her alive like this in years. She was never this happy with Sean, and it's interesting to me that in all the years he was around, I knew less about her feelings and their relationship than I know about yours."
The martial artist didn't understand what Kate was trying to say. Is that good? Is it bad? And why in the hell, do I care what she thinks? Even as she scolded herself, a part of her refused to be silent. "I tried to warn her."
"Warn her about what?"
"Me." Oh God, Deven, shut up! You sound so damn pathetic. "I never lied to her. I told her everything about me and about my past. She was supposed to hear the truth and leave."
"I see. Well, from everything she's told me, she's not going anywhere."
Just keep your mouth shut, Masterson! She tried to bite back the words but couldn't stop them. "I'm sorry."
"Why, Deven? What have you got to be sorry about?"
The older woman's hand felt warm and the connection was awkward, but Deven didn't find it unpleasant. "I know that I'm not the person you would have chosen for her. I wouldn't have chosen me for her either. But for what's its worth, I do love her."
Kate squeezed her hand reassuringly. "I know that. It's clear as can be in the way you look at her. I understand this can't be easy for you either. To suddenly have someone in your life and a family on top of that. You haven't had much of an opportunity to adapt to any of the changes."
"Mommy?" Tiernan called out as he bounded into the kitchen. "Can I have a drink?"
"The spy has arrived," Kate said and chuckled at the quizzical look she got from the other woman. "Rhian sent him in here under the pretense of getting something and as soon as he goes back, she's going to pump him for information."
"Ah." Deven grinned. She's pretty smart. "Well, we can't have that."
"No, we can't. Both of you wait here." Kate left the kitchen and returned a moment later with a large album. "Have you ever seen Rhian's baby pictures?"
Uh oh. "Uh, no I haven't."
Kate opened the book and set it on the table in front of Deven, and Tiernan climbed up on his mother's lap to get a better look. "Mommy, is that Rhian?"
"Yep. She was a beautiful little thing."
He giggled. "She doesn't have any clothes on!"
"Yes, she was beautiful," Kate concurred. "And we had a heck of a time keeping clothes on her. That child would have run around naked all the time if we'd let her. We referred to her as our nature girl." She took in the martial artist's rich laughter and smiled.
"Nature girl, huh? I'll have to remember that."
"How about you, Deven? Have any baby pictures lying around?" Kate inquired.
The woman's good humor faded rapidly, and her voice hardened. "I'm sure that if there were any, my mother threw them out a long time ago."
"No, she didn't," Tiernan said as he looked over his shoulder at his mother.
"How do you know?" Deven asked the boy skeptically.
"I've seen them," he replied. "Aunt Laura said when your daddy died, all that stuff came to her house. She hid them in the attic. She said she saved them for me."
"Huh." Deven slowly shook her head. I'll be damned. "I'm sure if my mother knew they were there, she'd have burned them."
Kate was touched by the sorrow that flitted across the woman's face and had to dismiss the urge to comfort the woman. She placed a hand on the boy's head and said, "Okay, go tell Rhian that we're fine. We're just looking at her baby pictures."
He hopped down and ran out of the room and it was only a matter of seconds before an indignant blonde was standing in the doorway. "Mom! How could you?"
"Now, honey. You were so cute. Deven even thinks you were beautiful," Kate commented.
"And you know what, nature girl? You still have those dimples on your butt," Deven added with a smirk.
Rhian turned a bright shade of red and groaned. "I don't like either one of you right now."
Reaching out, the martial artist snagged the landscaper's wrist and tugged her forward until she could wrap an arm around the woman's waist. "You may not like me, but you love me."
"Huh! You think?" Rhian huffed.
Deven pulled Rhian down onto her lap and held her in place. "Say it," she growled.
Dark eyebrows lifted. "All right. You asked for it."
"No!" Rhian tried to flee but found she couldn't escape her friend's grasp. "Deven, please don't," she pleaded. Long fingers found the most ticklish spots with unerring accuracy, and she wriggled, trying to evade the assault. "Stop!" she finally managed to gasp out and was grateful when the fingers stilled. "You better stop or I'll pee all over you."
Deven glanced up to see Kate and both children laughing helplessly. Returning her attention to the woman in her arms she lowered her voice and purred, "Say it."
"I love you," Rhian replied as she stared into her lover's eyes.
The look on the martial artist's face was something akin to joy and her smile broadened as she eased her hold on the woman. Her sight then settled on the giggling children. "Okay, which one of you is next?"
"No," they both squealed as they ran from the room.
"You ready to go?" Rhian asked.
"Uh huh. Got a sundae calling my name," Deven replied.
"Okie dokie." The landscaper looked at her mother. "I'll talk to you later?"
"Maybe. Your father and I are going out to dinner tonight."
"Oh? Something casual or something romantic?"
Kate smiled contentedly. "Romantic, I think."
"Good for you." Reluctantly, Rhian left her lover's embrace and stood up. "I was thinking we'd probably cook out and maybe invite Nicole and Jay over." There was no disputing the look of displeasure she received from the martial artist. "Come on, Champ, we need to smooth things over with them, too. Especially Jay. He's your best friend after all. So, let's gather the kids and go get some ice cream."
Kate watched Deven stand up. "Don't be strangers," she directed at them both.
"We won't." Rhian placed a kiss on her mother's cheek and then left the room to get the children.
"Deven?" Kate gazed at the martial artist. "Don't forget to share that smile every now and then."
As if on cue, the woman's mouth twitched. "Yes, ma'am." She started to move towards the door and paused. Turning back around, she faced the older woman. "Thank you."
"For what?" Kate asked.
"Well for starters, for not washing my mouth out. But besides that, for giving me, us, a chance. It means a lot to Rhian." As if reaching a decision, she nodded her head. "And to me."
Turning abruptly, she strode out of the room leaving an astounded Kate staring at where the Deven had just been standing. "Huh. I'll be. That woman is just full of surprises."
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