For complete disclaimers see part 1.

If you’d like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am or that I royally suck, feel free at: XenaNut@hotmail.com

Control

by

Kim Pritekel & Alexa Hoffman

Part 14

I sat on the porch, my gloved hands wrapped around a Bubba Keg of coffee. The stainless steel and blue plastic travel mug was warm against my thigh as I stared out into the snow. The yard was white, a lopsided snowman in the front left corner, by the mailbox. One of my old scarves had been donated to the cause of dressing Frosty.

I watched as the flakes swirled around the yard, one daring enough to find it's way to the porch, and land on my denim-clad leg. I looked down at the bit of iced perfection, touching it with the fingertip of my fleece glove. The flake stuck to the material, and I brought it up close, studying it, watching as the light shone through the itty bitty prisms. Suddenly a strong gust of wind came up, taking my subject from me, and sending it back with its nearly identical sisters and brothers.

Sighing, I sipped some more coffee, feeling the warmth spread throughout my body, a wave of liquid fire, warming me from the outside in. That was good, because I sure felt numb.

My eyes kept straying to the driveway then down the street, waiting to see Keller's truck coming.

Ruby told me that she'd finally talked the janitor into seeking counseling for her and Parker. I'm sure, knowing Keller, that the kid was the only reason she'd do it at all. Either way, I was pleased that she agreed to go. Today was their first visit with Dr. Ashley Reynolds. I stayed out of it, trusting Keller to take care of all the details.

I knew that she was nervous about it. Last night she had been quiet and easy to piss off. It had been like walking on glass, so I'd stepped clear, giving her space and a really wide berth. Even Parker seemed to be stepping lightly.

About to get up for more coffee, I heard the loud rumble of dad's old truck, and spied it coming down the road. I stayed put, wanting to see how they were, and how things had gone. I was nervous for them.

The truck came to a stop and the passenger door swung open after a moment, and then the kid was plowing into my arms.

"Hey, you." I hugged her tight, then gave her a face-full of kisses. Over the blonde curls I watched Keller approach. Her face was as expressionless as usual, but I could sense an intensity about her that wasn't usually there. Her eyes were bright and watchful, as though she were waiting for any kind of false move from me. I stood, keeping Parker's small hand in my own, and smiled at the janitor. "Hi." I said, my voice soft.

"Hi." Her greeting was curt at best, her gaze never wavering, making me drop mine for a moment.

"How are you?" I pulled Parker against me, her back to my front, my arms lightly resting around her neck. Perhaps I was using her as a shield. I certainly felt like Keller could attack at any moment. I hadn't seen her so tense in months.

"Fine."

"Are you sure?" I eyed her, silently begging her to let me in. I'd do anything for her to fully trust me and know that she could lean on me whenever, for whatever reason. I'd be her rock, I'd be the one person she could know she could trust and never break against. Oh, if only.

"Of course I'm sure." Keller snapped, glaring at me.

"Okay, okay." I reached a hand out, resting it on her arm. She flinched, but I didn't move. "I didn't do it, sweetie." My eyes bored into hers, making her see the truth in my words. It was a battle of wills for a moment when she finally looked away, nodding.

"I'm cold." She said quietly, then walked past me, going inside. I sighed, smiling down at Parker, who was looking up at me with concerned eyes.

"Did you like Dr. Reynolds, sweetie?" I asked, picking up my Bubba Keg mug and herding the kid inside.

"She's nice." She said, unzipping her coat as we entered the warm foyer of the house. Keller was nowhere to be seen, her jacket hung up on the coat tree the only indication she'd even been there.

"Oh yeah? Tell me about her." We headed into the kitchen, I set about making hot cocoa for the kid and her big sister. I just happened to know that Swiss Miss with the mini marshmallows was one of Keller's few weaknesses.

"We went into this room, and there were lots and lots of toys. There was a huge Barbie doll house with a pink door. And there was this car thing that was pink, too. The Barbie's fit in it!" Blue eyes grinned up at me, little lights dancing in their depths, just a tad darker than those of her sister.

"How exciting, honey." I smiled at her, handing her a cup of hot cocoa, the milk not heated to the temperature of mine and Keller's. I took the can of Redi Whip out of the fridge and grinned at the look of utter joy on the kid's face. She loved playing with the can, making fun designs on the brown surface of her cocoa.

"She talks a lot," Parker wrinkled her nose in disdain, which made me chuckle.

"Did you talk back?" The kid shrugged.

"A little."

"She's supposed to talk a lot, Parker. That's her job. And you're supposed to talk, too." I sat with the kid, stirring my hot cocoa.

"Why?" The little blonde looked at me, truly perplexed.

"Well, see you tell her where it hurts and she helps to make it not hurt anymore."

"Like the nurse at school?" Parker's eyes lit up with recognition of a concept.

"Well, kind of." I thought for a moment, running my fingers through my hair. "She's like the nurse, but instead of dealing with an owie on your skin," I tapped my finger on the Band-Aid that covered a scratch on Parker's hand. "She helps owies that are inside." I tapped my own chest." I could tell the kid still wasn't fully understanding.

I looked around the kitchen, looking for inspiration of some sort. In the corner I spied Tut and Roy fighting over a raw hide.

"Okay. See the dogs there?" blonde curls bounced as Parker turned her head to look. They bounced again as she nodded up at me. "See how they're fighting?" Nod "Well, it's like when you fight with your friend Kayla at school. When you fight it makes you sad, right?" Nod "So then that's not an owie on your skin, but an owie in your heart. Understand?" Nod, nod, bounce, bounce. "Good."

"Can I watch Barbie?" The kid jumped up, nearly knocking her cocoa over.

"Careful, honey." I grabbed a paper towel, wiping up the bit that sloshed over the lip. "Sure thing." I mussed her hair and smiled at her. Grinning back up at me, she got down from the chair, grabbed her cup and very carefully headed into the living room to watch her new favorite DVD.

Smiling, I cleaned up my mess, let the boys out, then poured one last cup of cocoa. Adding whipped cream and a drizzle of Hershey's syrup, I headed upstairs. They creaked under my weight, and I tried to listen above the noise. I heard the quiet hum of music coming from the closed door.

Sighing, I raised my fist and knocked softly, just loud enough to be heard over the CDs that Keller seemed to love so much. The music was cut off, and the door suddenly jerked open. Keller stood there in a white tank top and jeans. I was amazed to see just how much she'd filled out- her shoulders and arms were nicely shaped, muscle just under the skin from all mopping she did down at the hangar. Her breasts were outlined by the slightly tight material of the shirt, her hair a nice contrast against the creamy skin.

Beautiful.

She looked down at me, obviously annoyed. Just for a moment I paused, unsure if I had done the right thing. Maybe I should have just left her alone? Maybe she needed this time to be alone. Maybe-

"What?"

Startled out of my thoughts by the hard tone of her question, I nearly dropped her mug of cocoa.

"Oh, uh, here." I thrust it toward her, a bit sloshing over the side onto my hand. Grimacing, I managed to smile weakly through it. She looked down at the proffered mug, then back into my eyes, one dark brow raised. "It's cold." I said as an explanation. She quirked a slight grin, taking the mug from me.

"Thanks." Her smile grew a bit. I knew she loved the stuff, and she knew I knew.

"How are you?" Remembering my original purpose, I pulled myself together. She eyed me, ever the suspicious one.

"I'm fine."

"Are you?" I crossed my arms over my chest, leaning against the doorframe. Her eyes narrowed slightly, looking into mine as she sipped from the cocoa. "I don't want to pry, Keller. I just want," I sighed, looking down the hall, then back at her. "I want you to know that I'm always here, and always willing to hear you out. Were you to ever need it. Or anything, for that matter. Okay?" She continued to stare at me, sizing me up, then finally nodded.

"Thank you."

"Anytime." Now she got a genuine smile from me. "Listen, Parker and I are watching some Barbie, and you're certainly welcome to join us." With one last smile, I turned and headed back toward the stairs. It was only after I'd mounted the third that I heard Keller's door close.

###

Parker sat on the floor, happily playing with blue bear and her other dolls, one eye on the escapades of Barbie, Ken, and Skipper. I had the newspaper spread out on my lap, reading about how my boys, the Cowboys, had done in their last game against the Broncos. I just knew that they could go all the way this year if they'd only listen to the advice I shouted out at them during the games I was able to catch.

With a sigh, I tossed the sports section aside, grabbing the classifieds. I was in the market for a new grill. Nothing better than a good steak grilled out back during the summer. Sighing as I scanned ads for various things, including a dog grooming kit, "slightly new" stationary bike and half bald tires, I noticed the ads for apartments and townhouses. Little red circles dotted the surface of the paper, and my heart stopped.

I brought the paper up, peering at the circled ads. One bedroom apartments. Two bedroom apartments. Lofts. In some cases I cringed at the neighborhoods, but then again, I cringed period.

Feeling sick to my stomach, I tossed the paper aside, grill all but forgotten. I took several deep breaths, not even seeing Barbie's blonde, plastic face grinning in the middle of the screen, Parker laughing at something that had happened.

My eyes jerked up when I heard someone enter into the room. Keller looked around, taking in her surroundings as she padded in. She sat on the couch, opposite side from where I was. I glanced over at her, trying my best to hide the hurt in my eyes. I had no reason to be hurt, and certainly no right. She was free to go. She was free to take her and Parker out of my life forever.

The thought broke my heart.

Gathering my composure and tossing the thought from my mind, I smiled at her.

"Welcome. You just missed Skipper's first date." I nodded toward the TV. She smirked.

"I'm heartbroken." We settled in, Tut jumping up onto the couch to cuddle up next to Keller's thigh. She absently ran her fingers through his short hair. My eyes followed the movement, hypnotized. I hadn't realized that I was being watched until Tut raised his head when the hand stopped petting him. My gaze traveled up until it met a pair of quizzical blue eyes. Feeling stupid, I quickly turned my attention back to the movie.

"Popcorn anyone?" I popped up myself from the couch, not looking at two very confused sisters.

I hurried to the kitchen, the door swinging shut behind me in just enough time for me to slap myself on the forehead. "Stupid, stupid, stupid." Sighing, I leaned my head against the coolness of the fridge door. What the hell was I doing, staring like that? God, freak the girl out of her damn mind, and then she will move out. She'll think I'm not damn better than that piece of shit sperm donor of hers.

Pulling myself together, I rummaged around the cabinets until I found some microwave popcorn. Tossing the flattened package onto the glass turntable, I heard the doorbell ring, and the dogs go nuts. The door was opened, and Gabe's voice could be heard greeting Keller.

Scurrying out of the kitchen, I saw that Keller had herself as far from Gabe as was politely possible. She looked at me with desperate eyes when the kitchen door swung open.

"Hey." I said to my friend, who was grinning at the janitor. His dark eyes swung to me.

"Hi. Thought I'd come bug you. See what you and your lovely houseguests were doing."

"Well, for starters," I indicated he should follow as I headed back into the kitchen. "They're not houseguests, but actually live here. Secondly, don't you have anyone else to bug?" For reasons unknown to me I felt irritated at his presence. He leaned against the counter as we both watched the countdown on the microwave.

"Jeesh. Someone's pissy tonight."

I glared at him over my shoulder, then turned to face him. "You know, Gabe. Maybe that's why you don't have a girlfriend. You need to learn not to say stupid shit to women." I was just as surprised as he looked at the harshness in my voice, and the bitchieness of my voice.

"Nice." He pushed off the counter. "Sorry I bothered you, damn." Headed for the door, I stopped him with a hand to his arm.

"I'm sorry, Gabe. Really." I searched his eyes until I saw he accepted my apology. With a small nod, he gently pulled away from me and leaned against the counter again.

"You okay?" He watched as I took the popcorn out of the beeping microwave, tearing the bag open, letting out yummy fragrances into the large room. Dumping the puffed kernels into a bowl, I offered him some. He took a handful, tossing them into the air only to catch them in his mouth. He eyed me, waiting for an answer or explanation.

"Yeah. I'm okay. Just bitchy, I guess. And it's not even that time of the month." I grinned, though it was weak. Gabe got a bit of Italian fire in his eyes.

"Maybe you need a little flight up to New York." He popped some more popcorn into his mouth. I grinned and nodded.

"Maybe not a bad idea." I also began to munch.

"So how are things?" He nodded his head toward the hall and the distant sound of Parker's movie.

"They're good, actually." I looked at him. "What?" Defensive brows rested just above my eyes.

"Look at that goofy grin on your face. What's up, dude?"

"Nothing." I turned away from him, opening the fridge door. "Do you want something to drink or not?" I asked from inside the cold contents. I heard a snicker behind me.

"Yeah. Got any beer?" He asked. I looked at him from around the door.

"Do you really think I'd keep that shit here after what those two have been through?"

"Fine, pain in the ass. What do you have?"

"Anything but beer. Make up your mind. And fast; it's cold in here."

"Apple juice."

I got out the bottle of Treetop and poured us both some. He drank half his glass down, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. I grinned. Just like old times.

"You seem really happy with them here." He said, broaching the subject again. I wished he'd just drop it.

"Yep. I am." I guzzled my drink, hoping that my lack of breath from such a drink would discourage him from continuing. No such luck.

"How long are they going to stay?"

"As long as they want to." I finally answered, setting my glass down. He looked at my glass, which was nearly empty.

"Damn! No wonder you were the beer chugging champion." He whistled through his teeth, impressed.

"Yeah, well I won't let it go to my head." I grinned at him, pouring some more juice. The kitchen door swung open and Parker stepped through, freezing when she saw Gabe. Her wide, blue eyes were glued to him. "Hey, honey." I said, walking over to her and putting my hand to her thick, golden curls. She absently stepped closer to me. "Did you need something, sweetie?" I ran my fingers through the strands, replacing misplaced curls. She nodded, pointing at the juice on the counter. Keller and I were trying to encourage the kid to talk, no matter who was in the room or how uncomfortable she felt. "What do you want, Parker? You need to tell me, honey."

She looked up at me, pointing again, her eyes never leaving mine. I shook my head with a shrug, as if I didn't understand. Dark blonde brows drew in frustration, her little jaw set. "Juice."

"You got it." I smiled down at her and headed toward the counter where the bottle sat. The kid slid across the wall to the door, her eyes never leaving my friend. I handed her the small juice glass. "He won't hurt you, sweetie." I whispered to her. She just looked up at me, then quickly left the room, the door swinging in her wake.

When I looked over at Gabe again, he was looking down at his hands, one ankle crossed over the other.

"Why does that kid hate me so bad?" He asked, looking up at me with the eyes of a rejected child. I sighed, putting the bottle of juice away.

"I don't know, Gabe. She's always been afraid of you. Maybe you remind her of somebody from her past. I really just don't know."

"So they're still acting like freaks, huh?"

"Gabe!" I was livid, my blood boiling through my body. "They are not freaks, and so help me God, if you ever say that or anything like it again, I'll kick your ass out. Got me?"

My old friend stared at me, stunned, eyes wide. I met his gaze, mine never wavering. He looked away first, nodding.

"Sorry."

Deciding to drop it, Gabe dully chastised, I tossed a piece of popcorn at him. Recognizing a reprieve for what it was, he caught it and threw it back.

"So what are you doing here, anyway?" I asked, hopping up onto the counter, gently banging my heels against the cabinets below. Gabe shrugged.

"Just came to see you. We really miss you down at the bar, you know. That cute little brunette keeps asking about you." He grinned, dimples winking at me.

"Yeah, well, that life isn't for me anymore."

"And Barney is?" He pointed toward the living room.

"Barbie. Not Barney."

"What's the friggin' difference?"

"Well, for one, Barbie is an extremely disproportionate blonde woman while Barney is a creepy purple dinosaur."

"And you like this shit?" He looked incredulous.

"No. But Parker does. It makes her happy, and that makes me happy."

"Dude, you are twenty-five years old. Why act fifty? I mean, sitting there watching some stupid kid's movie? That's nuts, and not you, Garrison. I've known you most my life. It's bullshit."

"Yeah, well people change. They grow up, Gabe. Maybe hanging out at Belch's every single night, getting drunk off my ass isn't fun for me anymore. I've got responsibilities , Gabe, and people who count on me." I could feel my anger beginning to boil again. "Don't compare me to you. We're different people now."

"Yeah, but-"

"Gabe, did you come here to see me or to lecture me?" I hopped down from the counter, feathers in a ruffle. Gabe sighed, looking away. He finally raised his hands in supplication.

"Okay. You're right. I'm sorry. Again." We were silent for a moment, both absorbing the words just spoken. "So is Keller seeing anyone?"

I rolled my eyes and Gabe grinned.

###

Thing of the craziest, most fucked up situation, and that is what the hangar was like over the next few days. Jerome had to get to his daughter as she was going to be giving birth to her first child. Like the proud grandpa he was, my lead mechanic was all grins and cigars.

However, this left us with Reggie and Keller.

"Come on, damn it!" I yelled at the top of my lungs from the office. The two were doing their best to get the Herc up and going. The large plane was having some issues, and the two, less experienced mechanics, were doing what they could to counsel her back into good health.

I had a flight up to Maine and New York tonight, and I wasn't about to miss it or be late. I was having issues of my own, one of which was acute frustration on many levels. It also didn't help for me to be on a long-distance call that came from my dime, and the bitch of a secretary on the other line kept putting me on hold.

Finally her ridiculously sugary voice came back on. "Sorry."

"Yeah, listen, lady, either you put me through to Tony Reeves or you guys lose my business. Got it? I don't have time to sit here and listen to that god awful elevator music you've got piped through there. So what do you say?" There was a steel edge tot my voice that I couldn't help.

"Excuse me, miz Davies, but Mr. Reeves said he sent those orders through two weeks ago, and that you should have received the proper paperwork before that."

"Okay. One more time." I put my hand to my forehead, trying to ease the oncoming stress headache with my palm. "We ... did ... not ... receive the supplies or the paperwork. Now my people are trying to piece this goddamn airplane together with some spit and shit for good measure. We need those seals, miz Ralston. This is not negotiable."

"Well, I'll check with Mr. Reeves again."

"You do that." With a roll of my eyes I slammed the receiver down. "Bitch!" I yelled, then yelled again, "Penny!" Within a few moments I heard the click of her heels on the cement floor.

"What?" She looked around the office, brown eyes huge, looking for god only knows what.

"Did we get paperwork from Reeves' Supply?" I eyed her, daring her to fuck with me right at that moment.

"Garrison, we've been through this. No." She widened her eyes to emphasize her point.

"Fuck! That bitch over there is trying to tell me that it was all sent when I may not get my fucking ass off the ground because of them!" I pointed toward Keller and Reggie, working in silence as they scurried around the plane, back and froth from wing to tool box.

"Whoa, chief." Penny put her hand up in front of her. "Calm yourself down. Gonna give yourself a damn ulcer or something."

"I already have one." Hand to my stomach, I felt the rumbling of stomach acid coming into contact with an open sore.

"Great. And sitting here bitching at me and dumbass over there in Atlanta," she pointed to the phone on my desk. "Is really going to make those parts get here any faster? Cause I mean, honey, if yelling and being an ass makes it any better, than sit there and scream your cute little head off at me." She leaned closer, over the desk, her breasts almost brushing my hand that rested on my desk calendar. "You can make it up to me later in the back seat of my car."

I stared up at her blinking. "You know, Penny, I'm almost horny enough to take you up on that."

"If you're willing I'm ready, sweet thing." Penny grinned, almost triumphantly, brows wiggling. She glanced behind her, then quickly moved aside, revealing Keller standing in the doorway. She had the strangest look on her face. Clearing my throat, I sat up straighter in the chair.

"Hey." I said, a bright smile on my face. Blue eyes switched from Penny to me, then back again. Finally her gaze stayed with me.

"Um, we're finished." Looking more than a little uncomfortable, she slipped away, heading back into the hub of the hangar.

"Shit." I stood, running a hand through my hair. Penny looked from me to where Keller had been standing, and then back again.

"Is she mad?" She asked, her voice a hush. I shrugged.

"I don't know. Guess I'll just not say anything. Let it go." I followed the janitor's progress through the hangar, watching her body language, and to make sure she wasn't going to bolt. She didn't, but did disappear for a bit in the janitor's closet.

###

Arching my back, I reached my hand down, caressing the silky hair that I found there, the head it belonged to moved under my touch, finding all my most sensitive places.

My eyes squeezed shut, mouth opening as I felt my body coming alive, responding to the knowing touches, forcing my legs to spread wider to grant even more access.

"Oh, yes," I breathed, gasping as I was suckled into a warm mouth. "Oh, baby, yes." My chest heaved as I felt my body rising along with my excitement. "Yes, oh god, yes." Mouth opening in a silent scream, my thighs clenched, trapping the head between them. "Oh, Keller!"

Time stopped. My body stopped. Celeste's tongue stopped.

I looked down between my legs, meeting two widely shocked eyes. My mouth opened to speak, but nothing came out but a pathetic squeak.

Slapping my legs closed, I turned over onto my side, curling m body up like a child. I felt the bed shift as Celeste moved somewhere. She was sitting behind me, but not touching me. Silence, heavy and pregnant.

"I'm so sorry." I finally managed. I heard her sigh, but she still said nothing. Gathering my courage, I tugged the sheet up to my chin, sitting as I hugged my knees to my body. I could only stare at the flowered print on the sheet, unable to meet Celeste's undoubtedly questioning eyes. Finally she spoke.

"Wow. I can't say I expected that." I felt horrible as I met the confused brown eyes.

"I'm so sorry, Celeste." I said weakly, praying that she'd see the sincerity in my own eyes. "I don't know what happened. I'm just as stunned as you are."

"I doubt that." She grabbed her sweatshirt from the nightstand, where it had gotten thrown, and pulled it on, lifting her hair out of the collar. The silence stretched on again. "Want to talk about it?" She finally asked, looking at her fidgeting hands. Reluctantly she met my gaze again.

"What's to talk about?" I stood, finding my own shirt and tugging it on. I sat on the edge of the bed, as far from my friend as possible, not wanting to invade her personal space. I felt like such a shit. She eyed me. "Okay. In all honesty I don't know what to say. I don't know what happened."

"You called another woman's name while I was fucking you, that's what happened." I grimaced at the vulgarity and truth of her statement. "I realize we're not exactly together, but Jesus, Garrison."

I ran a hand through my hair, trying to get it into some semblance of order.

"And not just any woman, but some kid that lives under your roof, that you went and played hero to and saved." She continued. I looked at her, brows drawn, but saw there was no menace behind her words, just honesty. "Is there something going on?"

"No." I looked her in the eye, wanting her to know I was telling the truth. There was no way I was going to let there be any bad light on Keller. She wasn't the fuck up. I had the sole copyright on that one.

"Then what gives?"

"I," I sighed, frustrated by my own lack of ability to verbalize what was going through my head. I tried not to laugh out loud as I realized how grateful I was that Celeste had already come. We didn't need two of us frustrated. I ran my hands through my hair again, slapping my mind back into seriousness. "I just don't know, Celeste. I think," It hit me, and I buried my face in my hands. "God, I think I'm attracted to her."

"What? Honey, I can't understand you." She pulled my hands away from my face. "You're attracted to Keller?"

"Fuck." I said in response. "I am such an asshole."

"Why?"

I looked at her like she was nuts. "What do you mean, why?" How could she not see it? "It makes me no better than that bastard who donated sperm for her creation, Celeste."

"Why?" This time I just growled. "Have you raped her?"

"What?!"

"Have you raped her?" She asked again, her voice just as calm.

"No!"

"Have you ogled her?"

"No."

"Have you made advances? Suggestions that were inappropriate?"

"No and no."

"Then how are you anything like Al Mitchum?" Celeste sat back against the headboard, looking so comfortable and sure. And there I sat, perched on the edge of her bed, hands balled into fists in my lap, unsure and ready to pounce.

I thought about what she said, and I knew she was right. All the same, it didn't stop the thoughts from swirling around my head that I was indeed, no better than Keller's father. I was beginning to gain her trust, beginning to make her, hopefully, feel like she had a home and safe place to go.

"I should go." Running my hand through my hair for a third time, I stood.

"Garrison, why don't you stay and talk to me about this?"

I looked back to the bed, seeing Celeste's concerned eyes, and I smiled, though it was sad. "Because I don't fully understand it myself, hon. I need to think." I pulled on my underwear and jeans, then my shoes. I felt a hand on my lower back as I laced the up. I glanced over my shoulder to see Celeste looking at me, her features tinged with sadness.

"Maybe we shouldn't see each other for a while." She held up a finger to hold off my protest which started immediately. "Just for a while. I think that this whole thing is confusing for you, and I'd be in the way." She leaned down and kissed me lightly on the lips. "I'm always here for you. You know that, right?" I nodded, closing my eyes as warm lips pressed against my forehead.

Standing, I reached my hand out for her. Celeste took it, allowing herself to be pulled to her feet and into a warm embrace. We stood like that for several minutes, neither of us speaking, rather allowing ourselves to get lost in familiar history.

###

My hand tapped to the drum beat of "Pretty When You Cry" by VAST. The scenery of Warwick passed by the windows of my truck, all snowy and white. Beautiful.

As I listened to the words of the song, all lust and not wanting to admit to something deeper, I again thought of my encounter with Celeste. What the hell had all that been about, anyway? Craziness. I felt horrible as I, once again, brought up the hurt and confusion on my sometime-lover's face. How had that happened? What the hell had I been thinking? And where the hell did Keller fit in all of this?

Purposefully passing the exit that would take me home, I drove around the city, letting my truck go where it would. I needed to figure all this out, and do it before I got home and had to face Keller. She had no idea what had happened, and nor would she. She'd be absolutely terrified, and everything I'd worked so hard with her would be all for naught. And what if she decided to leave for sure? And take Parker with her?

It had been almost a month since I had found those circled apartments in the newspaper, and nothing had come of it. I hadn't seen anything circled since, and Keller had said nothing about it. Christmas was just around the corner and I so hoped to have the sisters with me again. This year would be difficult as it was. Thanksgiving was a blur for me. My first holiday ever without dad, and I, again, felt lost, like a child.

I have to give credit where credit is due. Keller had gone out of her way to make it a good day. She had gotten herself and Parker up early that Thursday morning, let the dogs out to go to the bathroom and had them fed, all by time I got my ass out of bed. As I had made my way down the stairs, I had already been able to smell the delectable aroma of freshly baked rolls and could hear a quite banging. When I'd gotten to the kitchen, I'd seen Parker and Keller talking quietly amongst themselves as they'd been pounding peeled potatoes to a pulp. The kid was giggling, and Keller had been grinning.

Enchanted, I had watched the scene unfold, the smell of turkey wafting all around me, making my mouth water. I had started the bird the night before in my mom's ancient roaster- a big white monstrosity that saved the oven from burnt turkey death.

Parker glanced up and grinned, showing off the hole where once her baby tooth had been on top. She hopped down from the stool she'd been using, and ran over to me.

"Happy Thanksgiving!" She called out, wrapping potato-covered hands around my flannel pant-covered leg.

"Thanks, sweetie. Happy Thanksgiving to you, too." I leaned down and kissed the tousled blonde hair. I smiled at Keller who grinned back. "Happy Thanksgiving, Keller."

"Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, Garrison. It's about time you got up." I could see the teasing in her blue eyes, so stuck my tongue out at her. She chuckled, turning back to the milk she was pouring into the pan of mashed potato squares.

Padding into the kitchen, Parker ahead of me, I had quickly been assigned to stuffing duty.

Jerome had arrived later in the afternoon before we ate, all of us seated around the big dining room table. My eyes kept glancing over to the chair at the end of the table where dad had sat my entire life. I had begun to glance over there again when I heard my name. Looking over to my fellow diners, Jerome began to talk about my baby, and the improvements he and I had talked about doing to the Cessna. Another time Keller had begun talking about Parker's new teacher, which of course got the kid into the talking, too. Jerome and I listened with smiles on our faces as Parker talked about the Christmas play they were going to do in mid-December, just a couple weeks before Christmas break started for the second grader. I couldn't wait to see the little one up on that stage.

After dinner, I felt drawn to the den, where so many awards and newspaper articles hung. Dad's face smiled back at me as I looked at them, seeing him in his twenties, hometown boy makes good in the Korean War. Frank Davies delivers supplies to the starving in Africa, no money necessary.

"Garrison?"

Shaken from my memories, I turned to see Keller standing in the doorway, her shoulder resting against the dark, rich woodwork. "Do you want pie?" Her voice was quiet.

"Oh, uh, yeah. But you guys go on ahead." I smiled, trying to wave her off. She shook her head.

"Nope. We all ate dinner together, we're going to eat pie together." She pushed off the framework, nodding her head toward the dining room where I could hear giggling from the kid. Realizing she wasn't going to take no for an answer, I followed her and dished up the whipped cream as she sliced pumpkin pie.

Jerome left, me walking him out into the cold night. We stood by the side of his car and he opened his arms to me. I fell into them happily, laying my head against his chest.

"It was a nice dinner," he said, holding me close, making me feel safe and warm. I nodded, but said nothing. "That kid outdid herself, huh?" Again I nodded. "She's a good apple, Monk. Real good apple."

"Yeah, she is." I smiled up at him, stepping back from his embrace. He studied me for a moment, then with a small noise, opened the door, the doom light illuminating the snow piled on the grass.

"Happy Thanksgiving, kiddo." He smiled at me, about to get in. "And you be thankful for what you got, you hear me?" he pointed at me, salt and pepper brows raised. I smiled and nodded.

"I will. Good night, Jerry."

"Night, Monk." A flash of his white teeth, and he was gone. I watched his car go, the red taillights getting smaller and smaller, my arms wrapped around my body, staving off the cold. I sighed, breath coming out in a white puff. Glancing back at the house, I could see Keller had started a fire, the smoke wafting up into the night sky, mingling with the low-slung clouds.

The cold getting the better of me, I headed inside. I could hear the popping fire, and Parker giggling in the living room. Stepping into the archway, I was stunned to see three sleeping bags spread out before the fire, the kid's Dora the Explorer bag in the middle. She was sitting on top of it in Strawberry Shortcake pajamas and socks. Keller was struggling with re-stuffing a pillow into it's sack.

"What's all this?" I asked, finally my curiosity getting the better of me. Both looked at me, Keller looking a little sheepish. The kid spoke up.

"We're having a slumber party!" She bounced happily. My brows shot up.

"We are, are we?" I looked at Keller who was nodding.

"Yep." She said, pillow sliding to victory. She tossed it down, fluffing it as she, too, sat on her red bag, flannel pants, tank and bare feet.

"Come on, Garrison!" Parker nearly yelled, her excitement level nearly frightening proportions.

"Okay, okay. Hold your horses!" The kid giggled at my phrasing, and I headed upstairs, utterly baffled. I wondered just how the hell Parker had talked Keller into this.

Changing into my own pajamas, I joined the sisters downstairs, Tut and Roy making themselves quite comfortable atop all of our legs. Parker wiggled and giggled, with the help of two sets of tickling fingers, of course, until she finally conked.

As I lay there, listening to Parker and Keller's breathing, I stared up at the ceiling, shadows dancing upon it with the flames' help. I thought back over the night, and it dawned on me.

Glancing over across Parker's sleeping form, I saw Keller's back, dark hair splayed over that same difficult pillow. She had done this. She had kept me busy all day and night, never allowing me to be alone for too long. Snorting in surprise, I couldn't believe it. My chest hurt as my heart swelled, blood rushing through my body at the amazing thoughtfulness that went into that gesture. After all, who knew ore about that feeling of loss than Keller Mitchum?

Sighing, I turned on my side as well, Parker securely held between two women who loved her more than she'd ever know. I closed my eyes and fell into a deep, satisfied sleep.

I started as I heard the car behind me honk. Glancing in my rearview mirror I saw a very impatient old woman. Looking at the traffic light, I realized that it was green. With an apologetic wave, I pushed the gas and the truck started rolling again.

As I got closer and closer to home, I couldn't stop thinking about Keller, and wonder what I'd do about this. I had to stop it before it got any worse for me. She had to know that she was completely safe with me, and that I'd never do anything that was above reproach. I would never hurt her or Parker. I'd be devastated if she thought anything else.

As I turned onto my street, my brows dipped when I recognized Gabe's car parked out front. Feeling anger begin to boil up within my gut, I put the truck into park and swung the door open. Marching to the front door, I flung it open, looking around for him or Keller and Parker. The house was deadly silent, and I felt a sense of dread creep through my veins.

Waking in a little bit, I pushed the kitchen door open, and there I saw Gabe leaning against the counter, his hand to his mouth, blood seeping through his fingers. His eyes were open wide with shock and fear. My own eyes swung around, desperately looking for Keller. My heart nearly broke when I saw her. She was huddled in the corner where two sets of cabinets met, hunkered down like a five year old. She had her arms wrapped around herself, knees pulled up, chin resting on them.

"What the hell is going on?" I nearly growled. Gabe looked at me, taking his hand away from his bloodied mouth.

"She fucking hit me!" he said, nodding toward Keller.

"What did you do, Gabe?" My voice was quiet, dangerous, animalistic. He looked stunned all over again.

"Nothing. I came to see you, was trying to talk to her-"

"Did she ask you to leave? For that matter did she invite you in?"

"Well no, I mean yeah. I mean I figured it would be okay if we chatted and I could get to know her. I didn't know." He was scrambling for an explanation. I stood frozen where I was, my body beginning to tremble as I saw how utterly terrified Keller was, her eyes vacant and empty.

"Get out." I looked at Gabe, death in my eyes.

"What? Wait, I didn't do anything, she swung at me,"

"Get out!" My voice found its power. "I warned you to leave her alone. Go!" He just stared at me, jaw hung slack.

"You don't mean that, Garrison,"

"And don't come back." I met his gaze, green fire. "Ever."

Gabe stared at me for a full minute before with a slightly lowered head and slumped shoulders, he breezed by me, trying to stay out of my arm's width.

I felt sick as the front door slammed and a car engine was started. Shaking myself out of my funk, I hurried over to Keller.

"Oh, honey. Are you okay?" I knelt down next to her, carefully peeling her chin from her knees, looking at her face, making sure he hadn't touched her. She looked at me. "I'm so sorry, honey. I'll never let him hurt you. I promise. No one will hurt you again." I gathered her in my arms. At first she resisted, but I wouldn't let her. Finally she fell into me and I felt her body shake as the tears came. "I swear to you, Keller. I will protect you always. You and Parker." I felt her nod as she cried, and I rocked her gently, silently making it my quest to give my life for her and the kid.

My family.

Continued...

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