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Grace winced as she was given yet another kiss. To show her discontent, she wiped it off. “Mommy!”
Ignoring her daughter’s protests, Braxton stood to face Alec, Grace between them. “Are you sure it’s not a problem? You’re not going to be out on the prowl to find a new man, are you?”
Alec didn’t even bother to respond, instead his brow raised, arms crossed over his chest.
“I know, I know. I’m being ridiculous. I just hate to leave her.” Braxton sighed, reaching down and caressing the girl’s head. “I better go.” She fell to her knees. “Give Mommy a hug, honey.”
Grace indulged her mother, again, and hugged her. She was soon giggling and squealing as her mother laid dozens of tiny kisses on her neck with a growl.
Braxton pulled back and smiled at the four year old. “I love you, honey. I’ll be back day after tomorrow, okay?”
“Why can’t I go?” the girl pouted.
“Because Mommy has to do something, sweetheart. But,” she said, playfully tapping Grace’s nose. “I’ll bring Grandma back. Okay?”
Grace nodded. She didn’t like it, but it would have to do. Her mother stood as her father placed a protective hand on her shoulders.
“Thanks so much, Alec. I’ll call.” Braxton leaned forward, kissing her ex on the lips, then turned and left his house. Her mind was already spinning as she climbed into her car, thinking of all the things she needed to do. Her flight was set to leave the following morning out of LAX, landing in COS in Colorado Springs. From there, she’d grab her rental car and drive the forty-five minutes to Canon City and the home of her mother for the past eight years.
As Braxton headed to the airport, she thought for not the first time, that she had asked Becca to go with her. She hadn’t because it just didn’t seem appropriate, somehow. A family dinner and tour of Becca’s warehouse didn’t exactly make them close friends again. But, she craved the safety and stability that she felt around Becca. This was an exciting thing to do, picking up Margot from prison, but also a scary thing. She hadn’t seen her mother in almost five years, having visited when she was pregnant. What would she see? How would her mother react? Would she be the same woman she’d seen in that courtroom so long ago?
With a sigh, Braxton found a place to park in long-term parking, and gathered her bags.
Was it bad to get bored during sex? Was it bad to wish to be anywhere else, doing anything but? Becca tried to keep her sigh in, feeling Jae’s tongue on her, and unable to feel it. She could tell Jae was getting frustrated, so she threw herself into ‘orgasm mode’ just to get it over with. She hated lying, faking the whole thing, but it was sometimes – all too often lately – a necessity.
Jae climbed back up her body, kissing random spots before settling next to her. “You bothered by something tonight?” she asked, holding her head up in the palm of her hand.
“Just have a lot on my mind,” Becca said, glancing over at her. “Sorry. Had a hard time concentrating.”
“I could tell.” She wiped her chin and cheeks with her hand, wiping the slick wetness on her own naked thigh. “I could bottle this stuff, sell it as the ultimate lotion.”
Becca grimaced. “That’s gross.”
“Alec has Grace for a couple days,” Jae said conversationally, running a finger along the delicate line of Becca’s collarbone.
“Yeah. Guess she didn’t take her with her to Colorado.” Becca hadn’t realized she’d spoken her thoughts until she saw a stab of jealousy flicker through Jae’s eyes. “Uh, Braxton dropped by B&B the other day.” She immediately groaned internally as Jae sat up in the bed, the moonlight illuminating her skin as she did.
“Jae, stop. It was nothing. She wanted to see the warehouse.”
“That’s cool,” Jae said with a feigned shrug of indifference. “Why did she go back to Colorado?”
Becca thought for a moment, wondering if Braxton would want her mother’s story to be revealed to a perfect stranger. She yet again settled on a half-truth. “She went to get her mother and bring her here.”
“So, I was thinking about the 4th of July,” Jae began. “Are you going to go with me to my parents’ house again?”
“Jae, why are you thinking about July when we’re barely in April?”
Jae didn’t want to admit that she was asking about an event in the future because she wasn’t so sure she and Becca would still be together. Perhaps if she were able to nail her girlfriend down to something that was three months down the line, somehow they’d still be together for that day. She knew it was childish and sighed. “I guess I just want to make myself believe we’ll still be together, Becca. If you agree to go with me, that means you think we have a future. At least three months down the road, anyway.”
Becca met the pained gaze of the makeup artist and felt a pang of guilt. She was obviously putting that uncertainty in her eyes, yet she knew she couldn’t give her the certainty that she needed. “Do you want me to be totally honest with you?”
“I’d appreciate it.” Jae’s eyes were on her fingers, which now played in her lap.
“I can’t give you an answer to your question. Things inside me have changed over the past six months, and I really just don’t know what I want.”
“You mean since that blonde came back into the picture.”
“No, Jae, I mean in the last six months.” Becca sat up, mirroring Jae’s pose. “I don’t enjoy the partying, the drinking, the constant socializing. I’m not a carefree spirit like you.”
“I can stop,” Jae protested. “I can be what you need-“
“Stop.” Becca held a finger to Jae’s lips briefly before dropping her hand to her own lap. “That’s not fair to you and it’s not fair to me. Why would you ever want to change yourself for someone? If you have to do that, and if they ask that of you, then it’s not the right situation, Jae. Don’t ever do that. You’re a beautiful, young, vibrant woman who deserves someone who can appreciate that and revel in that.” She paused, sighing deeply. “I just don’t think I’m that woman.”
Jae echoed the sigh, trying to keep the tears behind her eyes at bay. She knew Becca was right, had known it for a long time. Their relationship probably shouldn’t have gone on as long as it had; neither of them were happy or content, no matter how much she tried to convince herself that she was. “Okay.” She finally said. She climbed off the bed, no longer wanting to be in the same room with Becca. She needed to think and process, and amazingly enough, wanted to do it alone.
Becca sat there long after she’d heard the front door slam. She sighed heavily, relieved, but she also felt bad. She didn’t want to hurt Jae, as Jae wasn’t a bad person. She knew she had hurt her, had been hurting her because something for Becca was off, but she hadn’t been entirely sure what it was, or what to do about it. Or, maybe she just hadn’t wanted to take the time to do anything about it.
Glancing over at the bedside clock, she saw that it was after midnight. Running a hand through her hair, she fought the urge to call Braxton. It was a crazy thought to call her, especially since she didn’t have her number. But more than that. What would she say? What was her motive? What could Braxton possibly to do make her feel better?
As Braxton drove down Granview Avenue in Canon City, she admired the scenery around her. On either side of the narrow, two-lane road were trees of varying types, shapes and colors. Straight ahead was the blue of the far-off Colorado Rockies. She’d taken this drive once during the fall, and the view had reminded her of a scene in New England.
Her stomach had been all over the place since landing the night before and getting her hotel in Colorado Springs. She’d decided to drive the 115, or Ribbon of Death, highway in the light of day. The 115 was to be avoided at all costs, the two-laned highway wound its way through mountainous twists and turns, which people took at ridiculous speeds.
The facility came into view on the left side of the road, and Braxton took a deep breath. She told the guard who she was and what her business was, and was allowed to head on into the parking lot. The sallyport stood tall, the double fencing intimidating. She had been instructed to wait, as Margot would have to go through processing before she’d be escorted out of the facility.
A glance at her watch told Braxton that she was early, and would be waiting for more than thirty minutes. She chewed on her lower lip, glancing over at her cell phone. She flipped it open and dialed for information. “Los Angeles, California. B&B Prop Shop. Thanks.”
Becca nearly fell off the third-floor landing as the little gizmo in her pocket began to buzz and vibrate, letting her know Brian needed her in the office. She trotted down the long flights of stairs and then hurried to see what her brother needed.
“Yo?” she asked, leaning in through the open doorway.
“Call,” he said, never taking his eyes off the screen of his computer, his hand holding out the cell phone that was used for their business.
Becca took the phone as she headed back towards the stairs. She had an order to put together. “Becca Steiner,” she said into the tiny phone.
“Hey. Sorry to bother you at work, but do you have a few minutes?”
“Braxton?” Becca paused, her foot on the bottom step of the stairs, hand freezing on the rail.
“Of course I’ve got a few minutes. Are you in Colorado?” Becca turned and sat on the third stair.
“Yeah, I got in last night. I’m sitting in the parking lot of the prison right now. She won’t be released for another twenty-seven minutes.”
“How do you feel?” Becca asked quietly. Hell, she was nervous for Braxton!
“I feel like I want to throw up,” Braxton laughed. She smiled at the soft laughter she heard on the other end of the line. “I’m going to make an admission. I wanted to ask you to come with me today.”
“Why didn’t you? I would have. This is a tough, confusing time right now for your mom, Braxton, and I imagine you, too. I would have come.”
“Now you tell me,” Braxton said, trying to laugh off her sudden emotion.
Becca’s heart nearly broke at the soft sob she heard. “Hey. You okay?”
“Yeah,” Braxton nodded. “I’m just… emotional right now. I’m so happy, but really afraid for her, too. Will she be able to function, Becca?”
“Sure.” Becca caressed the rail next to her, wishing it were Braxton’s hair. “She’ll be okay. She has you and Grace. I think Grace will probably help her more than anyone or anything. She’s so innocent, and has no idea where her grandma’s been or what she’s done. She can love Margot unconditionally and without bias or prejudice.”
Braxton was silent for a long time, imagining the older and youngest Crowley together. “I think you’re right. I hope I didn’t make a mistake by selling her house in Ivanwood.”
“Do you think she’d want to go back there? Not exactly the best of memories.”
“No, but it was her home.” Braxton sighed, her gaze never leaving the front of the building behind two rows of razor-topped fencing. “I just hope she likes California. That is, if she wants to stay there.”
“Sure she will,” Becca said, scooting to the side as Brian hurried past her up the stairs.
“How do you know that?”
Becca could hear the uncertainty in the blonde’s voice. She smiled, making sure it entered into her own voice. “Because you’re there. Because Grace is there. You’re her life, Braxton. Undoubtedly you’re what got her through the past eight years. You’re the reason she likely stayed with your father. She’s shaped her life around you, and now she has her granddaughter to love, too.”
“Thank you, Becca. I’m glad I called you. You make me feel better.”
“Anytime. It’ll all be okay. Just you wait and see.”
Braxton smiled, blowing out a breath. She did indeed feel better. On impulse she said, “Would you come to a celebration dinner when I get back? You can bring Jae, too, if you want,” she added, though nearly through gritted teeth.
“Well, I’d love to come. Jae won’t be coming.” Becca ran a hand through her hair before tucking it behind her ear.
“Oh?” Braxton tried to sound nonchalant, but failed miserably.
“Yep. We broke up last night.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” Braxton felt bad for her evil thoughts about Jae.
“Don’t. It was long in coming. Trust me, it’s a relief.” Brian motioned to her that they were in a hurry. She nodded understanding, but didn’t get off the phone. She’d stay as long as Braxton needed her to, which wasn’t long.
“I better go, Becca. She’ll be out soon, and I need to get myself ready.”
“Okay. I’m here if you need me. Hey, you got something to write with? I’ll give you my cell number.”
Braxton wrote down the number she was given then tucked it into her coat pocket. “Okay. I’ll give you a call later and tell you how it all went. Thanks again, Becca.”
“You’re welcome. My thoughts are with you.”
Braxton took several deep breaths as she waited. Her watch said she had only two minutes. Rotating her head on her shoulders, she winced as her neck popped. A loud motorized clanging sound got her attention. She sat up straighter in her seat, eyes glued to the front of the building. Two uniformed correctional officers flanked a small woman, dressed in the jeans and sweater that Braxton had sent her last week.
Braxton gasped when she realized the small woman was her mother. The nearly-gray hair gleamed in the sunlight. Margot looked pale and fragile. As the trio got closer to the opening gates of the sallyport, Braxton could see her eyes, which were filled with such joy and near giddiness. Taking a deep breath, Braxton climbed out of the car, walking over to where her mother was being led.
Margot felt overjoyed to see her daughter again, and not when sitting at that awful, scarred table surrounded by guards and other inmates. Her two escorts wished her luck, then headed back the way they’d come, leaving her and Braxton and the camera above their heads.
“Hi, Mom,” Braxton said just before the tears came and she took her mother in a crushing hut. Margot returned it with just as much vigor, gently rocking her little one as she cried. Margot had no more tears left to cry. Now was a time for happiness and smiles.
“It’s okay, baby,” she murmured, stroking Braxton’s hair. “Momma’s here.”
Braxton felt like she was thirteen again, and needing the warmth of her mother, needing to know it would all be okay. It was amazing how quickly she could revert when she had a child of her own!
After a long moment she got herself together, chuckling nervously at her own outburst. She was finally able to really look at her mother and was shocked at what she saw. Margot had aged greatly during her time inside. She looked ten years older than her fifty-one years. “I’m so glad you’re out, Mom.”
“Me, too, honey. Thank you for coming.”
“Are you kidding?! I wouldn’t miss it for the world!” They smiled as Braxton led her to her rental car. Getting settled and buckled in, Braxton glanced over at Margot. “Are you hungry? Do you need anything? To go anywhere?”
Margot thought for a moment, then her mouth began to water. “Oh, honey, I’d really love to go eat somewhere.” She turned pleading eyes to her daughter.
Laughing, Braxton got the car started and headed back into the small town of Canon City.
The room was plain- bed, dresser, empty closet and a bedside table. Braxton had said she wanted Margot to be able to decorate as she wanted to. In fact, they were going shopping next week to allow her to pick out things she’d like.
Margot sat on the edge of the bed, bouncing slightly. She marveled at the softness, and couldn’t wait to sleep that night. She looked around the small room, which she’d been told had been her daughter’s spare bedroom this time last week. Braxton had quickly quieted Margot protestations, claiming she was happy to relinquish it for her.
It had been an emotionally and physically exhausting day. Margot had never flown before, and never believed it when people said it was tiring to travel. Boy, they were right. She wasn’t sure what to do with herself as she sat on that bed, her hands resting in her lap. The clothing Braxton had sent her to wear out were too big on her. She looked down at herself, far thinner than she had been upon entering. Braxton threatened to fatten her up.
Margot smiled at the day she’d spent with her baby girl, who was out getting her own baby girl. Margot couldn’t wait to take her granddaughter into her arms and hugging her tight. She had been given a second chance and just prayed that she could make the most of it, and do right the second time.
Pushing off the bed, she walked across the thick, soft carpeting, which made her sore joints groan in pleasure. The house beyond her new sanctuary was so quiet. Grace’s bedroom was directly across the hall, so Margot walked to it, standing in the center of the room and looking around. The twin bed was butted up against two walls, only one side and the foot free. The comforter was some cartoon character that Margot wasn’t familiar with, as were the pillow shams and bed skirt. Toys were neatly tucked into a colorful toy box in the corner, and dolls lines low shelving that the girl could easily reach. It was neat and orderly, just like the rest of the house. Even so, the washable crayon and chalk the filled the walls were testament to a little girl who was allowed to use the room as a play land for a growing imagination.
Margot grabbed a well-loved teddy bear from the bed and hugged it to her as she sat on the mattress of the small bed. She inhaled the fragrance of a child from it, her eyes closing as her smile grew. That had been one of the things she’d loved the most about the days when Braxton was a baby and then toddler and then small child. The smell of her innocence. Very much the same scent as what clung to Grace’s bear.
Putting the bear back where she’d found it, she headed into Braxton’s room, noting the colorful design scheme that made clear an artist inhabited the room while the décor wasn’t too flashy or obnoxious. She ran a finger along the highly polished cherry wood of the furniture, peeking her head into the luxuriously appointed bathroom, including a large tub and separate shower. She would love nothing more than to soak in a tub of hot water. It was a luxury she hadn’t had in far too long.
Margot scurried out of the room when she heard movement downstairs, and Braxton calling, “Mom! We’re home!” Followed by, “Gramma! We’re home!” She nearly melted at the sweet voice of the little girl. She hurried down the stairs just in time to see the two leave the kitchen and cross into the living room. Margot stopped, catching her breath as the beautiful child she saw before her.
“Oh, sweet, sweet Grace,” she whispered, slowly falling to her knees. She wasn’t sure if she should send up a prayer of thanks or hug the girl first.
Grace wasn’t sure what to do. She’d been excited to see her grandmother for days, but now that the woman was there before her, her shyness began to take over. She leaned back into her mother’s body, a finger dangling from between her lips.
“Go on, sweetie,” Braxton urged, gently nudging her daughter toward Margot.
“Grace, it is so wonderful to finally meet you,” Margot said softly. She held out her arms for the small girl who slowly walked over to her. At contact, Margot’s eyes fell closed, and she wrapped her arms around the frail body. “I love you, little Grace.” She nearly wept when she felt a tentative embrace become a full-on squeeze.
Braxton stood back, watching one of the most beautiful sights she’d ever seen. She slowly slid away back into the kitchen as Grace and her grandmother began to chatter incessantly about Grace’s adventure with her father for two days, and Margot told Grace all about flying in the big, metal bird. Neither one heard when they were called for dinner.
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