For disclaimers, see Part 1

Part 16

 

Chapter Sixteen

Regina stepped back out of her brotherís arms, content to let him stand there in their motherís embrace. It had been so long, she started to believe that she would never see the day her brother would come home and be part of the family again. Not, that things would be normal after this brief interaction; there was so much damage that had to be undone from all the years of separation.

She watched as Jeff pulled out of his motherís arms and cleared his throat, obviously uncomfortable with the parental display of affection that had been absent from his life for so many years. "Um, isnít there something you have to do with the roast before we eat? I already hear Reginaís stomach growling." He flashed an evil grin at his sister who smacked him in the arm in return.

Even after being apart for so long it was easy for them to fall back into their old habits of teasing each other mercilessly.

Alice sniffed and looked over at the counter. "I need to make the gravy. Regina tell your father to come help me in here."

In that single moment, the rare glimpse of the woman who her mother truly was slipped away. Her emotions efficiently reigned in and back under control.

Regina felt that if she breathed or blinked she would wake up and what she just experienced would be the quickly fading tendrils of a dream. Something she couldnít grasp or hold onto to prove to herself that it was real. She wasnít sure what she expected to happen but somehow this wasnít exactly it.

Quietly, she left the kitchen and went in search of her father. I should be really happy that Mom was finally willing to have Jeff come home. So why do I feel this way?

"Dad?" She found him standing in the living room with a glass of scotch in his hand.

He cleared his throat before he answered her in a gravelly voice. "What?"

"Mom wanted you to come into the kitchen and help her."

He nodded and set his unfinished drink down on the bar. "I guess weíll be eating soon. See if you can find Michael. Iím not sure where he went off to."

Regina sighed as her father walked out of the room. "Michael can find himself," she muttered irritably. She found herself suddenly miffed with him. Why didnít he tell Caroline we were going to be here? What is that all about?

She felt someone watching her and raised her eyes to look out into the hallway. Alex was standing in the foyer with both hands tucked into the pockets of her denim jeans. There was concern etched in those incandescent, blue eyes as they studied Regina intently.

For all they had been through over the past few months, it was simple moments like this when Regina would find herself tumbling deeper in love with this woman.

Questioning eyebrows arched beneath dark bangs and the taller woman tilted her head slightly in response to the quiet smile that graced Reginaís features. "Whatís happening?"

Regina had to shove her hands into her pockets to keep herself from wrapping her arms around Alex and indulging in a desperately needed hug. Her soul craved the contact but for now she let the gentle, reassuring voice fill the void.

"Everything and nothing." Regina tucked several strands of flaxen hair behind her ear, an unconscious gesture of her nervousness. "I think dinner is almost ready."

Alex stepped closer, watching the conflicting emotions warring in Reginaís eyes. She heard the angry voices before Regina left her fatherís study and wondered what battle lines were being drawn between the family members.

"Regina?" Her motherís voice coming from the kitchen broke the quiet reverie they shared.

"Yeah, Mom?" Reginaís eyes glanced nervously towards the kitchen.

"Come help Caroline carry these dishes out to the table."

"Be right there." Quickly, she stepped closer to Alex, took hold of her hand, and squeezed it. "Thank you for being here."

"Your welcome," the taller woman whispered back and brought the blondeís hand to her mouth, briefly brushing her lips against the soft skin before she let her go.

******

Regina and her sister-in-law brought out the garlic, mashed potatoes and green beans while Jeff uncorked two bottles of wine in the kitchen.

"Here, Alex." Jeff walked over and held out a bottle of red wine for the brunette to take. "Sit by me an I promise to keep your glass full all night."

Alex gave him a wry, sidelong glance and shook her head. "Who drinks red wine?"

"Dad and Mike do." Regina took the bottle of white wine from her brother and started to fill the wine glasses on the table.

"So is it really going that badly?" Alex tilted her head closer to Jeff as she poured the burgundy liquid into the two remaining glasses on the table.

He caught sight of his younger brother walking toward them, carrying Zachary in his arms. "Letís just say Mike would be just as happy if I fell off the face of the earth and died."

"Actually, it would have been fine if youíd stayed in California." Michael sauntered past his older brother and handed Zachary to his wife. He continued past her, pulled a highchair out of the corner, and set it down at the corner of the table.

Caroline set her mouth in a straight line of disapproval. "Michael itís your motherís birthday. Canít you set your feelings aside for one day?" She settled Zachary into his seat and buckled him in. She lowered herself into a chair next to where Alex was standing on the other side of the table.

With a frown, her husband walked over to where Alex was standing and gave her an expectant look.

"Alex stay there. Michael you can sit across from me," she spoke firmly, without looking up at her husband.

Alex traded surprised glances with Regina as Michael walked stiffly to the other side of the table and pulled the chair out to sit down. The blonde shrugged her shoulders slightly when Alex continued to hold her gaze.

"It might be nice if you sat with your brother and sister since they are here." Carolineís eyes bore steadily into his.

Michael started to retort but fell silent when Reginaís father carried the platter of meat into the dining room and set it in the middle of the table.

As if on cue, Zachary pounded his fists on the plastic tray in front of him and pointed at the food on the table.

"Spoken like a true Kingston," Jeff replied. It broke the tension in the room and even elicited a chuckle from his younger brother.

"Does mom need anymore help?" Regina offered quietly, stepping away from the table.

"No, sheíll be right here."

Jeff grabbed her sleeve and nudged his sister forward so that she was seated across from Alex and next to Michael. "I am not sitting next to him," he hissed fervently when Regina frowned up at him.

"Does everyoneÖhave everything they need?" Alice walked into the room and hesitated as she took in the seating arrangements.

"Sit down, Mom. Youíve done enough already. Itís your birthday," Michael urged her.

"Nonsense. You know I like to cook," she responded, sitting at the head of the table across from her husband. Hesitantly, she let her gaze settle on her three children and took a deep breath before she spoke. "Well, Iím not sure I ever believed I would see all three of my children back home again."

Michael gave his father a dark, sidelong glance before he stared back down at his plate. "I donít think any of us did, Mom."

Mercifully, the conversation faded as everyone filled their plates and began to eat. Only Zachary babbled on in blissful ignorance of the uneasiness in the room.

"So, Alex, do you watch any of those television shows about trauma or that one called ER?" Jeffrey asked in between mouthfuls of food.

The brunette swallowed and shook her head. "Not usually."

"How come?"

"Theyíre not entertaining to me." She sipped some wine and set her glass back down on the table.

She knew Jeff was trying to break the icy chill that seemed to have settled over the room and willingly obliged him in his efforts. "I see these people on the screen and my brain automatically starts to think about whatís wrong with them, the course of treatment and what is going to happen to them. Whether theyíll live or die." She gave him a wry smile. "I do that all day. I donít want to have to worry about it when I go home."

"I didnít think about that way."

Michael cleared his throat and looked at his sister. "So Regina, what happened with Derrick? Last I heard he was going to propose to you."

Regina almost spewed out the wine she just sipped from her glass and set her fork down on her plate. "Well, now thatís a quick way to kill my appetite, Michael. Thank you."

"Didnít you say Derrick was going to ask her to marry him, Dad?" Her brother leaned forward and looked at their father.

"Michael, stop it." His father glared at him from the head of the table.

"Christ, would you have more couth, Mike?" Caroline hissed from across the table.

"What? I just want to know what happened." He shrugged and looked at her with a hurt expression on his face.

Iím so glad you all knew his intentions before I did. Regina glanced over at Alex who fixed her steely gaze on the blondeís younger brother. "Derrick was a mistake," she stated.

"What do you mean a mistake?" Michael turned and put his hand on the back of her chair.

Reginaís father shook his head and stood up from the table. "Does anyone want more wine?"

Regina heard her mother sigh from her end of the table before she spoke firmly, trying to get him to back down. "Michael, I donít want to get into this now."

Michael started to protest and then jerked in his chair. "Hey! What did you do that for?" He glared at his wife and reached down to rub his smarting shin.

"I canít believe youíre behaving this way," Caroline stood up and unbuckled Zachary from his highchair.

"Where are you going?"

"He needs his diaper changed. I donít suppose you would want to help. Would you?"

Regina took advantage of the opportunity, shoved her chair back, and quickly stood up. "Iíll go with you."

Caroline laughed. "Oh good, Iíll pawn the job off on you or maybe, Alex." She smirked and bit back another snort as the brunette coughed loudly and stared up at her in unabashed horror.

Michael rolled his eyes and sighed. "I donít understand why women are so enthralled with this."

Regina smacked Michael in the arm. "Bite your tongue or Iíll tell Caroline how many times you woke up with a -"

She didnít get a chance to finish the sentence as her brotherís hand clamped over her mouth. "Donít you dare!"

Regina disengaged herself from her brother and stuck her tongue out at him. "You forget, I used to change your diaper."

Caroline smirked and then nudged Alex. "Come up with us."

Iím not getting out of this. Alex wiped her mouth with her napkin and shrugged as she looked across the table at Jeff. "Guess Iíll be back in a few minutes."

"No you wonít," Jeff sulked, knowing he was losing his one ally at the table.

"Lovely." Mike grumbled, as he watched the brunette saunter out of the room. "My son is up there with a couple of Lesbians."

"Michael, one of them happens to be your sister or doesnít that count for anything?" Jeff snapped.

"Caroline doesnít have a problem with it, but if it was just my decision I wouldnít have them near him."

"God, you are such a bigoted pig!"

Alice looked at her son gravely. "Michael, it would suit you well to display some more temperance around your brother and sister."

With a look of irritation, her youngest son slumped back against his chair. "How can you say that after all the pain Regina and Jeff caused you?"

Jeff poured himself another glass of wine and drained half the glass in one swallow. Oh and I guess you never did anything to disappoint them! Did you?

With a thoughtful expression on her face, Alice rested her forearms on the table. "Zachary is barely a year old. Right now, heís your ultimate joy and heíll be the source of your greatest pain during your life, but you wonít ever stop loving him; no matter what he does."

There was silence for a moment, followed by the sound of a chair scraping back on the hardwood floor. Aliceís eyes followed her eldest son as he abruptly stood up, grabbed the bottle of wine, and hastily retreated from the dining room.

After a moment she stood up and sighed. "One day youíll understand that, Michael. Hopefully, long before I did."

*******

Regina giggled as she stumbled up the stairs behind Caroline. "Oh, I think the wine went straight to my head."

Alex snorted and reached out a hand from behind to steady her lover. "Youíre a little, lightweight arenít you?" She straightened a picture the blonde had accidentally nudged out of place on her way up the stairs.

"I am not!" Regina declared as she turned around on the step and stared at Alex indignantly. "Actually, I think Iím just glad as hell to be out of that room," she continued in a softer voice as blue eyes widened slightly.

You can say that again. "Ditto," Alex whispered back.

She welcomed the brief respite from the turmoil that was brewing between Reginaís family members. Even though she knew Regina was quite capable of handling her brother, it still took a considerable amount of effort on her part not to reach across the table and smack Michael across the face for his obnoxious comments.

"Well, I have a rule," Caroline announced as she reached the top of the stairs with Zachary curled up in her arms.

"Rule?" Alex looked up at Reginaís sister-in-law. "Donít you know rules are made to be broken?"

"Not this one." A smirk crossed Carolineís face.

Alex arched one eyebrow and pursed her lips. "Why do I know that Iím not going to like this?"

"Regina youíre not changing Zacharyís diaper."

"BÖbut, hey!" the blonde complained loudly.

"I think Alex should do the honors." Caroline leaned against the wall and smiled cheekily at the taller woman.

"Oh no!" Alex pivoted and started back down the steps only to be grabbed from behind by Regina. "Youíre the pediatrician, not me," the brunette protested loudly.

"Whatís wrong, are you afraid of a little baby?" Regina teased her.

"Regina Kingston, you are in so much trouble." Alex twisted around to face her. " Do you know how long itís been since Iíve changed an infantís diaper? Itíll probably end up around the kidís neck!"

"Too bad." Regina leaned forward and kissed the tip of Alexís nose. "This, I have to see."

Alex tried one last ditch effort to plead for mercy. "Caroline, sheís not drunk. Honest. Besides, I do not do children."

"Well now, no time like the present to learn, is there doc?"

"Shit," Alex muttered in defeat as Caroline disappeared around the corner. With a resigned sigh, she trudged up the stairs, letting out a startled grunt as Regina smacked her playfully on her buttocks.

"Watch it." She turned and wagged a finger at the blonde.

"Oh, I am," Regina retorted and winked saucily at her.

Good thing your mother isnít around. You might just give her a heart attack, Reg. Alex smacked her forehead in mock exasperation before she trotted up the remaining stairs to escape Reginaís wandering hands.

She stopped short just inside the doorway to Reginaís bedroom as Caroline held a diaper up in front of her. Alex stepped back and then stopped as two hands pressed firmly against the small of her back.

With a groan, Alex stepped into the room and looked dubiously at the blonde haired boy sitting cross-legged on the floor.

Ten minutes later, Alex sat sprawled on the carpeted floor of Reginaís bedroom with both her long, muscular legs stretched leisurely out in front of her. A self-satisfied smile graced her features.

"I canít believe you did that!" Regina complained as she worked to undo the buttons on her shirt.

"Hey, youíre the one who leaned over when I was changing him." Alexís blue eyes twinkled while she watched her partner strip off her cotton shirt and then tug a green sweatshirt over her head. I am in so much trouble, but I have to admit, it was pretty funny. She failed miserably, trying to stifle a snicker.

Regina turned and glared at Alex with her hands firmly planted on her hips. "Not one word, either of you."

Unable to resist the temptation, Alex gave Regina her most innocent look and gestured at herself. "What did I do?"

The blonde snatched a pillow from her bed and threw it across the room at Alex who deflected it easily. "Brat!"

Caroline cackled as she lay on her back on Reginaís bed, with both knees bent and Zachary perched, in his freshly changed diaper, on her lap. "Guess she forgot about what cold air does to little boys. Right, Zachary?"

In response, he raised both of his hands over his head and squealed in delight when his mother tickled his stomach.

Caroline looked at both of them and sighed. "Iím sorry Michael is being such a schmuck to both of you."

Regina waved her off and sat down on the floor next to Alex. "You shouldnít be the one apologizing, Caroline. Heís known most of his life that Jeff and I were different. I guess I never realized how much of a problem he still has with us."

Her sister-in-law shrugged, her expression sobering. "Honestly, Regina, and I hate to say this because I love him to death. I think heís afraid that if your parents accept Jeff back heís going to lose the relationship heís had with them."

"Thatís insane. Why would he think that?"

Caroline crossed her legs and tilted her head back. "Regina you havenít been home since you went to college. Michael never left. We got married two years after he graduated high school. Heís had your parents to himself all these years."

"Doesnít he understand that after this weekend Jeff will go back to California? How much can change if heís all the way on the other side of the country?"

Caroline rolled onto her side and cradled her son in the crook of her arm as she slipped off the bed and joined them on the floor. "I donít know, Regina."

Zachary crawled over her legs and gurgled contentedly as he rocked back and forth on the floor as he decided what to do next. Intrigued by the shoelaces moving on Alexís sneakers as she jiggled her feet, he began to creep toward her.

"Ga!" He tried several other variations on the sound, announcing his intentions to his audience.

Alex arched an eyebrow as Zachary stopped in front of her and knelt at her feet. He swayed slightly when he tried to stand up. With his arms spread wide he teetered and then lurched forward as he lost his balance and landed in a tangled heap on her ankles.

Brown eyes gazed up at her seriously and his lower lip quivered slightly.

"Yes, that would be gravity at work." Alex leaned forward and carefully lifted him off her legs and set him on the floor between Regina and herself.

With a displeased look on his face, Zachary shook his head and promptly crawled back up onto Alexís lap.

"He likes you." Regina smiled as she watched her nephew climb over Alexís legs. Zachary watched the blonde-haired woman as she reached over, and walked her fingers up his leg and then tickled his belly. He tilted his head back and giggled.

The taller woman snorted and folded her arms as the boy straddled her thighs, peering up at her curiously.

It was rare for her to feel comfortable around people she just met but Caroline had made her feel at ease since she met her out in the driveway. Maybe it was just the simple fact, that Reginaís sister-in-law seemed to take her relationship with Regina in stride and was unaffected by their obvious affection for each other.

She glanced over at her lover, feeling guilty about being at least partly responsible for getting Reginaís shirt messed up. She leaned in closer and whispered in her ear. "Iím sorry about your shirt. Donít be mad at me. Please?"

Regina tilted her head back and arched an eyebrow as she gazed up at the sorrowful expression on her loverís face. "Keep groveling."

The blonde tried to ignore the slumped shoulders, focusing instead on Zachary. When Regina caught the pout from the corner of her eye she knew she was done for. Penitent blue eyes met hers and a smile twitched at the corner of her lips. "I couldnít stay mad at you even if I wanted to."

Alex gave her a relieved smile and draped one arm over Reginaís shoulders.

The three women looked up as the floorboards creaked outside the bedroom and Reginaís father peered into the room. He cleared his throat, his face coloring slightly as he took in the sight of his daughter leaning comfortably against Alex. "Ah, I thought this is where you all might be. Come downstairs so we can give Mom her presents."

"Okay, Dad weíll be right down."

Caroline stood up and gathered Zachary in her arms. "Come here, little man. Letís go get grandma her present."

Regina and Alex followed Caroline out of the room. At the landing of the stairwell, Regina hung back, waiting for her sister-in-law to disappear around the corner. When she did, Regina turned around and wrapped her arms snuggly around Alexís waist. Her eyes closed and a smile touched her lips as strong arms embraced her and she rested her head against Alexís chest.

"Mm, I needed that," she whispered, listening to the strong, rhythmic beating of Alexís heart.

"Anytime," Alex replied and pressed her lips against Reginaís hair. "We should get down there before someone comes looking for us."

Regina squeezed her tightly, eliciting a small grunt from the taller woman. "I canít wait until we go to Provincetown. I just want it to be you and me, Alex. No one else."

"That sounds wonderful," Alex replied and then ducked her head to kiss the blonde lightly on the lips.

Slowly, they released each other and walked down the stairs and into the living room where the rest of the family was already gathered.

"Whereís Jeff?" Regina asked, noting her brotherís absence.

"I think he went out for a walk after you girls went upstairs. I couldnít find him," her mother replied quietly from her seat on the couch.

"Iíll see if I can find him." Regina glanced over at Alex and motioned her to come with her.

She was halfway to the front door when it swung open and her brother stepped through into the hallway, carrying an empty wine bottle with him. "Hiya, Reg." He waved the green bottle in her direction.

"Jeff, are you all right?"

"Iím fine." He weaved slightly as he walked towards the kitchen. "Hey, Alex. Whereíd you go? I thought I was going to keep your wine glass filled all night."

"We went upstairs for a bit." Alex reached out and rescued the wine bottle before Jeff lost his grip on it as he staggered against Regina. "Whoa, easy there, Jeff. What did you have to drink?"

"Ah, letís see. I had some scotch and some wine. Lotís of wine." He squinted as he looked over at the brunette. "Wow, you have really beautiful, blue eyes."

Regina covered her eyes and groaned as her brother continued his best impression of a babbling idiot. "Jeff, youíre drunk."

"Well, I should hope so. I drank enough." He turned completely around, staggering against Alex as he lost his balance. "Did you get her the locket?"

"Shh, not so loud. Iím right here Jeff," Regina told him. Together the two women guided him into the kitchen.

Alex pulled out a chair and gently pushed Jeff into it. "Sit."

"Did you get Mom the locket?"

"Yes, I told you I was going to," Regina replied as she opened a cabinet. She pulled out a glass filled it with water, and handed it to her brother. "Drink this," she ordered, looking over her brotherís head at Alex, who was standing behind him with a wry expression on her face.

After a swallow he handed the glass back to Regina and pressed his head against her stomach. "Iím drunk," he slurred.

"No kidding, Jeff." Alex rolled her eyes and pulled Jeff against the back of the chair as he started to slump heavily against Regina.

"Jeff, are you going to be all right if I leave you for a few minutes?"

Her brother opened his eyes wide and then blinked several times, trying to focus on her. "Why wouldnít I be?"

"Iíll stay with him," Alex offered.

"Thanks." Regina smiled at her gratefully before she left the kitchen.

Jeff swayed and leaned back in the chair, oblivious to the fact that his sister left the room. "Shit, I didnít mean to get drunk. Iím sorry, Regina."

Alex patted his shoulder and pulled a chair out from the table so she could sit beside him. "Drink some more water."

Jeff took the glass that she held out to him and sipped the clear liquid. "Whereís Regina?"

"I think she went to give your mother her birthday present."

He frowned and struggled to stand up. "No, no she canít do that."

"Jeff, sit down." Alex reached out to steady him as he staggered away from the table.

"YouÖdonít understand." He licked his lips and wiped his mouth as he braced himself against the doorframe. "Mom didnít lose thatÖlocket. Michael stole it from her jewelry box and smashed it to pieces with a hammer."

Alex stood up and walked over to Reginaís brother. "When did that happen?"

"I found him in the basement trying to put it back together the night I left home." Jeff looked away from her as he sucked his lower lip in and scowled, trying to hold back the tears that brimmed in his eyes.

******

"Mikey?" Jeff slowly walked down the basement steps, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light, coming from the single light bulb attached to an overhead rafter. "What are you doing down here?"

"Leave me alone." His brothers snarled from over by his fatherís workbench.

"Mike, I justÖI came to say goodbye."

His brother didnít look up as he stepped closer. He could see him bent over the worktable trying to glue something back together. "What are you trying to do?"

"Nothing. Just go away, Jeff!" His brother whirled around and tried to push him back.

"Mike, isnít that Momís pendant?" Jeff asked, as he caught the glitter of shattered glass and gold pieces spread out on the table. "What did you do?"

"Go away! Itís all your fault."

"Jeff, hurry up your ride is here!" his father called down from upstairs. "What are you doing down there?"

"Iím just saying goodbye to Mike." He glanced down at the fearful look in his brotherís eyes and put a finger over his own lips to tell him to keep quiet. "Iíll be right up."

"Donít tell them. Please?" Michaelís eyes filled with tears. "I didnít mean to do it."

"Mom is going to be pissed off." Jeff shook his head and stepped up to the table, using a rag to wipe the pieces off into his hand. "Donít worry, Mike. I wonít tell them, ever."

He slipped the broken pendant and chain into his pants pocket. "Stay out of trouble and donít touch your sisterís stuff. Sheís still big enough to kick your butt." He punched his younger brother lightly in the shoulder before he turned away and slowly climbed back up the steps.

******

"Jeff that was years ago."

In frustration Jeff slammed his fist into the wall. "We all chipped in to get it for her as an anniversary present. Heís going to think Iím trying to get back at him for getting me kicked out of the house."

"Do you think heíd honestly remember after all these years?" Alex walked over to him and stood by the doorway.

"I donít know. I guess I should go in there." He looked sheepishly at Alex.

"Iím sure Regina would like you to be there with her." She clasped a hand on his shoulder as he turned and took several faltering steps toward living room. "Easy. Just lean against the wall."

In the doorway, they watched as Reginaís mother opened the rectangular box while Zachary sat cradled in her lap, playing contentedly with the wrapping paper.

"This is from both of you?" Alice asked in amazement as she removed the layer of white cotton and peered inside. "OhÖ" She lifted the delicate gold chain up, watching as the locket spun slowly around in the air. "Oh, my." Her eyes darted between Regina and Jeffrey as her face flushed red with excitement.

"Well, look at that." Robert leaned forward and peered at the necklace, obviously pleased for his wife. "We never did figure out what happened to that locket."

"Itís beautiful." Alice handed Zachary over to her husband and awkwardly stood up, reaching out to embrace Regina. "Thank you," she whispered in Reginaís ear as she hugged her.

Jeff stared down at the oriental carpet as his mother turned and walked over to him. "Thank you, Jeff. It means so much to me."

The dark look he received from his brother as their eyes briefly met, answered his question about Michaelís obvious recollection. He closed his eyes as his mother embraced him, offering a silent prayer that his brother would keep his temper in check at least while they were in their parentís house.

"Your welcome," he replied as he let her go and shoved his hands into his pockets. He leaned against the wall, fighting off a wave of lightheadedness, as his mother stepped away and walked back to her seat.

"What did you get Mom, Michael?" Reginaís question broke the awkward silence in the room.

"Theyíre going to stay at our place out on the Cape for a week in the fall."

"Thatís a great time to go," Alex offered. "The weather is still nice but itís not so crowded."

"Have you been out to there before, Alex?" Caroline asked, as she leaned over and picked up scraps of wrapping paper that Zachary had shredded.

"I own a small house out in Provincetown. Thatís where Regina and I are going tomorrow."

"Oh, I remember going out there a couple of times with some friends when I was still in school."

"You never told me that!" Michael exclaimed as he twisted in his seat to stare at her.

"Yes, I did. You just donít remember," Caroline laughed at his shocked expression. She reached over and squeezed his thigh. "Donít worry, I only looked Honey."

"Oh, thanks a lot, Caroline." Michael stood up abruptly and walked out of the room, rudely shouldering his way past Alex and Jeff.

Caroline sighed and shook her head. "I guess I should go apologize to him."

"Apologize for what, bruising his delicate ego?" Jeff asked as she walked toward him.

"Itís a touchy subject for him. I guess I pushed him too far, joking about it." She patted Jeffís arm as she walked past him to go find her husband.

Alice cleared her throat and stood up. "Does anyone want some coffee?"

"I donít." Regina glanced over at Alex who shook her head.

"What about you, Jeff?"

"Huh? He lifted his head when he heard his name through his alcohol-induced fog. "No, thatís all right. Iím going to get some fresh air."

Jeff walked over to the closet and retrieved his coat. He struggled to shrug into it as he fumbled to open the front door.

"Here, let me get that." Regina walked over and opened the door for him. "Are you okay?" She laid a hand on his back and peered up into his glazed over eyes.

"Fabulous, Reg." He gave her a sidelong glance. "I just need to go outside."

"Give me your keys."

"What? Iím not going to drive anywhere," Jeff protested.

Regina held her hand out. "Donít argue with me. Just give me your keys."

"Fine." Reluctantly, Jeff dug in his coat pocket and dropped them into her hand. "Feel better?" He pushed the outer door open and escaped outside.

Outside, he groped in his coat pocket for a pack of cigarettes. He found them, tapped one loose from the package, and captured it between his lips. He cursed softly at the nervous trembling in his hand as he tried and failed to get his lighter to work.

Behind him, Jeff heard the front door open and soft footsteps approached. "Need a light?" Alex asked as she walked toward him. She struck a match and cupped her hand around the fragile flame, protecting it from the wind that threatened to snuff it out.

"Thanks." Jeff sucked greedily on the end of his cigarette and inhaled deeply. "I keep trying to quit but I just canít do it." He glanced back over his shoulder. "Whereís Regina?"

"Sheís inside playing with Zachary."

"Iíd offer you one, but itís my last one," Jeff told her, as he crumpled the pack in his hand and shoved it into his jacket pocket.

"Itís all right. I used to smoke, but I try not to anymore."

"Lucky you. All this family stuff is making me crazy. You know?" He took a drag from the cigarette and puffed out two perfect rings. "I come home for the first time in seventeen years and they want to pretend like nothing happened."

Jeff held onto the railing as he made his way down the steps to the driveway.

"You think so? It seemed pretty awkward to me in there." Alex followed him and looked up at the dark expanse of sky.

Jeff swayed slightly as he stood, gazing out across the field. Alexís ears picked up the crunch of gravel as someone walked along the edge of the driveway, coming from the corner of the house.

"See, Regina still wants to be a part of this family and thatís great. Me -" he tossed his arm up and waved his hand dismissively. "I donít belong here. I havenít for a long time."

Alex raised her eyebrows as he turned and looked up at her with a sad expression on his face. "Do you want to?" She watched as he flicked ashes from his half burned cigarette onto the gravel.

Before Jeff could answer another voice spoke up. "Youíre right. You donít belong here, Jeff." His brother stepped out from the shadows and stood on the edge of the driveway, half-hidden in the shadows.

"Whereíd you come from?" Jeff frowned irritably at his brother.

Michael shrugged indifferently. "I didnít feel like listening to Caroline, so I went for a walk."

God, I like you less every time you open you open your mouth, Alex thought as she looked back and forth between the two brothers. "I imagine you want to talk. Iíll leave you guys alone."

"You do that," Michael sneered at the taller woman.

The doctor shot him a dangerous look before she turned and climbed back up the stairs.

Michael watched the door close and then walked over to Jeff. "So did coming home live up to your expectations, bro?"

"I didnít have any expectations, Michael." Jeff threw his cigarette on the ground and ground it out with the toe of his shoe.

"Sure you did. That was a nice touch with the pendant. I have to hand it to you, Jeff, you sure know how to manipulate Mom, even after all these years."

Jeff laughed caustically. "I knew youíd say that."

"Just go back to California. Nobody wants you here."

"No, youíre the one who doesnít want me here, Mike." Jeff drew himself up taller and glared down at his brother.

"Youíre right." Michael stepped closer and put his face inches from his brotherís. "I donít want some faggot around my son."

Jeff stepped back away from his brotherís intimidating glare. "Donít worry, we donít start recruiting that young."

The vicious punch came out of nowhere and doubled Jeff over. He coughed and clutched his side as he tried to catch his breath. "Ah, Jesus," he groaned. "What the hellÖdid you do that for?"

His answer was another searing, blast of pain in his face and the metallic taste of blood that filled his mouth. Tears blurred his vision and he was aware of everything fading away as he stumbled onto his knees.

"Thatís for coming back home." His brotherís words rang in his ears until he slumped forward in a heap on the cold ground.

 Chapter Seventeen

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