A Rock for Remembrance

Part 2

Ali Vali

By Monday it was like something in Julian had died. The rest of the weekend had passed with Rudy and Rebecca entertaining Summer while Julian spent the time either at the office or the shipyard where their new vessel was being built. In the end she had no one but herself to blame for the loss she was feeling. It wasn’t like Kiki had ever made any promises to her.

She just paid attention to your pathetic ass and you thought it was true love. Julian, you’re an asshole pure and simple. I bet I was the butt of the joke in Katherine and Rhonda’s household Friday night. The same line of thought had haunted her since the moment she laid eyes on Katherine’s partner. When she wasn’t thinking about them, Julian’s thoughts turned to Cassandra and the way she had just left her that night. The woman’s going to think I’m insane if I keep dropping her like she’s plague ridden.

“Bernie?”

Julian stopped gazing out the window and turned her attention to Summer. “What, sweetheart?”

“Was I bad?”

The question caused Julian to turn a little in the car seat and look closer at her fellow passenger. “Why would you say that?”

“Cause you won’t talk to me anymore. If I was bad I promise I’ll try better.” The rabbit Julian had gotten her at the pizza place was crushed against the little girl’s chest since her beloved Binky was at home with a cold, or at least that’s what Summer had declared before they left.

“I’m sorry, it’s not you, Summer.” She pulled the little girl into her lap when the car came to a stop in the parking garage and wiped away the few tears that had escaped Summer’s eyes. “I promise I’m not mad at you, it’s just that sometimes things happen to make people sad and that’s why I haven’t talked much.”

“I could give you Izzy and he could make you feel better.”

“Who’s Izzy?”

“Binky’s brother, silly,” said Summer holding up the rabbit for Julian to see. “When you hug him you won’t feel sad anymore.”

Julian did just that before giving it back to Summer. “Thanks, I do feel better but I think he should stay with you today so you won’t get lonely.”

“No, you take him. I have Tiger to not be lonely and you need somebody.”

You ain’t kidding, preferably someone with some sort of counseling experience. “Are you sure?”

“You take him.” Summer put Izzy in Julian’s arm with a smile and scooted down after Rudy opened the door. “Will you come eat with me?”

“Not today, buddy, and Rudy’s going to go and drop you off at school.” Julian held her hand as far as the elevator.

“Why?”

“Because Julian can’t this morning, sweetie, so don’t give her a hard time about it, ok? I’ll come by and pick you up this afternoon too so we can go and get an ice cream. How does that sound?” Instead of answering Summer let go of Julian’s hand and started clapping.

“Makes you wish for the days a double chocolate cone was all it took to make you feel better, huh?” Julian asked Rudy.

“Hey, kid, don’t knock it, sometimes it still does. Go on up to your office and I’ll take care of the little one for you.”

Julian got her usual kiss on the cheek from Summer and an extra one from Rudy before getting in an elevator alone. If there was one thing she was sure of, it was that she would never step foot on the fourth floor again while Katherine still worked for her.

“Good morning, guys, how are y’all doing?” asked Chris when Rudy and Summer arrived. Kiki had looked like shit that morning and refused to say why no matter how persistent she had been in her questioning.

“We’re doing great, and glad to be back,” answered Rudy for both of them. “She talked about this place all weekend.”

“We give good service and have the best games in town, so what’s not to talk about? Go on in, Summer, Tiger’s waiting for you.” They watched her run off after kissing Rudy goodbye, smiling when she and Tiger gave each other a bone-crushing hug. “Did something happen this weekend that I should know about?”

“We went to the zoo, but what does that have to do with anything?”

“Not with the kid, with Kiki and Julian? She came in this morning and looks like her dog died, and now I see Julian’s missing.”

“What would make you think Julian is the cause of her problems?” asked Rudy with a little heat in his voice.

“Because she said the only reason to go and disturb her in her office was if tall, dark and owner of the company waltzed in here this morning.”

“All I can say is that your fellow employee saw Julian on Friday at the museum opening, where I might add she met someone named Rhonda for the first time.”

“Oh, no.”

“Oh yes, and I think it came as quite a surprise to Julian after the last couple of weeks. I’m not blaming anyone, ma’am, but I think Julian got the wrong impression here and it’ll just take some time for her to get over any hurt feelings. It would’ve really helped if Katherine had mentioned a spouse way before Friday.”

Chris nodded her head and looked around them to make sure they had a little privacy. “I’d tell you a story, Rudy, but it’s not mine to tell. Rhonda isn’t really the museum opening type, but Friday was a potential client meeting place and she couldn’t say no. The woman will put up with a little culture if there’s something in it for her. Add the fact the function was being hosted by the same woman her child has been going on and on about, she couldn’t resist. I just hope Julian doesn’t give up on friendship too easily.”

“Julian Lowe is fiercely loyal to those people she cares about,” Rudy defended just as fiercely. “But to get that from her, you first have to treat her with the same respect.”

“Understood, and I’ll try my best to get Kiki to talk to her.”

Behind them, two four-year-olds enjoyed their morning snack with their heads together. “My mama was so sad at home,” started Tiger.

“Bernie was sad too.”

The little boy leaned further in and cupped his hands around Summer’s ear. “I told her that she wouldn’t be sad if you and Bernie were there.”

“I know.” Summer whispered back and then a plan came to her. When Chris stepped back in all she noticed was how fast Tiger’s head was nodding.

************************************************************************

“Any luck on finding our quarry?”

“I’ve tried all the different hotels in the towns around there but still no luck, but don’t worry, I’m fanning out in ten mile increments,” answered Darlene. With no clues as to where Deanne was heading it was like trying to find a dry shirt outside in a hurricane.

“Find her.” Darlene just looked at the intercom for a moment wondering what had brought on Julian’s bad mood. “I’m sorry, Darlene, that was rude of me. Thank you for all the time you’re putting in on this.”

“We’re all entitled to a bad morning, boss, so don’t worry about it.” The phone rang and she answered it before continuing on with Julian. “I’ll see if she’s in,” Julian heard as Darlene put the person on hold. “That’s Cassandra Jarvis on line one.”

“Thanks, I’ll take it,” it’s the least I owe her after Friday. “Cassandra, hi, how are you?”

“Confused.”

“I’ll bet, but I promise I’m not crazy, and it wasn’t anything you did before you think that.”

Cassandra ran her finger over the rim of her coffee mug as she listened to the half assed excuses coming out of Julian. “It had to be something to make you run out of my place like your ass was on fire, or in this case like it wasn’t.”

It took her a second to get Cassandra’s meaning but Julian laughed long and hard when she did. “Trust me, honey, you have nothing to be ashamed of in that department. I’ll be a bastard and admit I had something else on my mind, but if you give me the chance, I’ll make it up to you.”

“No running out this time?”

“You’ll have my undivided attention for the whole evening I promise. If I don’t, you don’t have to give me a discount on my engines.”

“I know how you love your discounts, Julian, so this must be serious. When can I see you again?”

“How about tomorrow night at seven? I’ll come by and pick you up.”

“It’s a date, which I don’t want to end until at least eleven so start working on your small talk,” teased Cassandra.

“I’m looking forward to it.”

************************************************************************

The month of May started with still no sign of Deanne and Julian wondered if the woman even remembered she had a child she’d left behind. It had been weeks with all of them getting more and more attached to Summer, and Julian getting more comfortable with the idea of seeing Cassandra whenever she had the opportunity. The sex was always good, but Julian didn’t want to rock the boat by admitting to herself that there was something missing. Whenever it crossed her mind, she blamed it on her own inability to commit, so she just promised herself to try harder.

The one person who was never mentioned in her presence was Katherine. Even Summer tried to limit her conversation to Tiger and the other kids she spent her time with at the daycare. It escaped no one’s notice that Summer also hardly mentioned her mother anymore, and Julian worried about what was going to happen when Deanne finally did decide to come back.

“Julian?” Darlene’s voice filtered through the intercom causing the dark head to look up from the paperwork scattered in front of her.

“What can I do you for?”

“There’s someone here to see you without an appointment, and she won’t leave until you talk to her.”

“Is it someone I want to see, or is it someone security will be happy to meet?”

“I don’t know, why not give me a few minutes then we’ll decide.” The smart-ass comment was delivered from the door with a smirk. Over a month of moping was all Chris was willing to put up with from all parties involved. “Come on, you know you miss me, so talk to me a few minutes.”

“You have five. What can I do for you?”

“I come to ask favors of you, Miss all powerful Lowe,” Chris put her arms out and bowed at the waist like a harem girl saluting her master.

“Get in here and sit down before Darlene beats me to the punch and calls security.” Julian’s voice was gruff but Chris accepted her good fortune and closed the door. “Is something wrong?”

“Lots of things,” Chris started ticking off things on her fingers. “There’s a war in Iraq, but no weapons of mass destruction, there’s famine in Africa and global warming.”

“And you want me to do what about all that exactly?”

“When you look at the big picture, there’s nothing one person can do about all that, but there is something you can do to make life better right here in this building.” Chris tapped the top of the desk, liking the solid feel of the piece of furniture.

Across from her Julian rested her chin on her fist and waited, looking a little wary of whatever would come out of the woman’s mouth next. But nothing did. “Well?”

“Come down today and talk to her.”

“Talk to who?” Julian knew the answer but wasn’t going to give in so easily.

“You know damn well who, and you know why. Julian, you never gave her the chance to explain and now her life has changed so much I don’t think Kiki recognizes herself anymore. She needs a friend right now and she needs to make peace with you, but like you, she’s too stubborn to see it.”

Julian twirled her letter opener in her fingers and stayed quiet until the pleading look on Chris’ face got to be too much. “I didn’t stop being Katherine’s friend, so don’t come up here and try to guilt me into fixing something I’m not responsible for.”

“Then why haven’t we seen you again? There’s even more parents coming down now after they heard you liked it so much and then you just decide to never come back.” She stood up and leaned over the desk as far as she could. “Tell me your absence has nothing to do with Kiki and I’ll leave right now and never bother you again.”

“My absence has nothing to do with Katherine.”

Her small hands slammed down on Julian’s desk. “You’re lying, I know you are. No one looks at a woman like that without having some feelings for her. She poured milk on my head every time you did so don’t tell me you don’t think it wasn’t mutual. All I’m asking is that you talk to her.”

Feeling like she had to, Julian stood as well and leaned in until she was inches from Chris’ face. “I’ll think about it if you tell me one thing.”

“Name it.”

“Why do you care so much?”

“You promise not to tell our boss?” Chris laughed when Julian made an x over her heart with her index finger. “She’s my sister, and I don’t like seeing her so unhappy.”

The cushion of Julian’s chair let out a stream of air as if someone had stuck a needle in it and deflated it when she fell back. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

“What?” asked Chris offering her a smile.

“Your sister’s married. I know she is since I met the woman at the museum opening. I stayed away from her because…” started Julian, not knowing how to finish.

“Because you didn’t want to add to her burden. You’re doing just that by staying away, so just think about it, but not too long. You don’t want me to come back up here because then you really will have to call security.” Chris waved over her shoulder and kept walking.

Her private line rang before Julian could think too hard on the bizarre meeting with the extremely outspoken woman. “Julian Lowe.”

“Is an extremely sexy person,” said Cassandra from her end. “I’m not bothering you am I?”

“What are you up to?”

“I have to go out of town this afternoon so I was wondering if we could put off our date until tomorrow night? I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon around two so it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“How about you come over for dinner tomorrow? I’ll have Rebecca make one of her world famous pot roasts.”

She hadn’t been invited over very often but Cassandra was already mentally picking out new wallpaper since things were going so well. “I’ll have to think of something special to make it up to you.”

“Sounds interesting. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

The next afternoon Julian had Rudy pick Summer up and bring them both home early. She wanted to spend time with the little girl, not wanting her to feel left out once Cassandra came over. They walked around the pool and through the garden that took up a good part of the backyard. The block the house was located on only had one other house to the left and none behind it so the yards were a good size for being in town. Enough room that the previous owner had built a pool/guest house that butted up against the back fence.

“You won’t mind letting Miss Rebecca tuck you in tonight?”

“Why?”

Having a four-year-old in her life had taught Julian that the word why was in the top three of their favorites. “Because I have a friend coming over tonight and I wanted to spend time with her.”

“Is it Miss Kiki?”

Julian stopped walking and looked down at the kid as if trying to figure out where that question had come from. “No, it’s Miss Cassandra. Remember, she’s the one who got you the Barbie corvette for your dolls.”

“She sure likes to kiss ya a lot.”

“Maybe she likes me.”

Summer understood that since her mother had a lot of people who liked her, but she wanted Julian to like Miss Kiki. If that happened she’d get to see Tiger all the time. “Okay. Can we go inside?”

When Cassandra arrived, Summer just gave her a halfhearted wave and walked up the stairs, headed to her room like her best friend had moved to the moon. “Was it something I said?” she asked Julian after they kissed hello.

“Everyone in my life is acting a little weird today so don’t worry about it. I haven’t noticed, but maybe it’s the moon.”

They sat in the den having drinks until dinner was ready; telling each other what was going on in their perspective businesses when Rebecca called them to dinner. She had set up the table on the patio and had soft music playing through the outside speakers. Rebecca didn’t think the romance would last but Julian looked like she was having a good enough time, so it was her way of helping out.

“Want to retire to that comfortable sofa and finish this?” asked Cassandra holding up the half full bottle of wine.

It was kind of strange to be making out on her couch, but Julian figured she had never done it in high school so she had some catching up to do. Cassandra was slowly turning up the heat with long kisses and a gentle massage of her shoulders. When the woman straddled her lap, Julian took the opportunity to wrap her hand around one of Cassandra’s breasts. The squeeze earned her a moan that seemed to just pour into her mouth and down into her groin.

“What time does your grandmother get home?” teased Cassandra.

Julian was about to respond with something witty when Summer screamed her name from the bottom of the stairs. Both of Julian’s hands shot out as if Cassandra was now radioactive and she stood so fast she dumped the smaller woman on the floor. The blood-curdling scream had scared the hell out of her.

“What?”

“I miss Binky, Bernie.”

God, say that five times real fast. “You’re holding Binky, sweetheart,” Julian pointed to the rabbit thinking Summer was having a nightmare or something.

“That’s Izzy, not Binky. I want my Binky. I can’t sleep without Binky, Bernie.” With every silly sounding sentence, Summer was getting more hysterical until by the time she was done, she was inconsolable.

Julian helped Cassandra back on the sofa and pointed her index finger in the air. “Give me just one minute. Keep my place until I figure this out.” She moved to the foyer and picked Summer up to comfort her. “Calm down, pumpkin, or you’re going to get sick.” Summer took deep breaths, but her crying continued and now she had the hiccups. “Where’s Binky?”

“Ti…Ti…Tiger’s got him.”

“Ok, what’s Tiger doing with Binky?”

“He said he wanted to take him home and I said ok.” It wasn’t your usual date night conversation, but they were making headway so Julian could get back to the sofa.

“Then you’ll see Binky tomorrow. I’m sure Tiger’s taking real good care of him.”

“No!” The pitch of the word screamed right into her ear left Julian light headed. “I have ta have him right now.” Summer was getting hot she was crying so much. “Please, Bernie, I have ta have him right now.”

“Let’s call Rudy and he can drive you over there to get him, how’s that?”

“No!” the pitch got louder and higher. “I want you to come.”

There was nothing she could think of to calm the little girl down, so Julian walked back into the den with her remora and talked to Cassandra. “I have to run out for a few minutes to retrieve an errant rabbit, so do you mind waiting?”

“Now?”

“Well I could go get the rabbit so Summer can go to sleep or you can sit here and listen to her cry all night that Binky’s missing, your choice.”

“Hurry back.”

The car keys were on the kitchen counter where Rudy always left them, so Julian just grabbed them and headed out to the garage. “I’m sorry, Bernie.”

“It’s ok, but why did you let Tiger take Binky if you can’t sleep without him?” Julian belted her into the backseat trying to sound understanding.

“He was sad like you and I wanted him to be happy.”

It had been awhile, but Julian still remembered where the house was. When they stopped there was only one light on in the front of the house, and like before, there were a slew of toys in the front yard. Julian’s palms started to get damp at the anticipation of seeing Katherine again. She hadn’t lied to Chris, she’d stayed away not because of what Kiki had done or failed to do, but because Julian didn’t want to pressure her. She stayed away for Kiki’s peace of mind, but it hadn’t been easy. More than once the petite blonde with her dancing green eyes had crossed her mind, and it made her heart clench.

“Lets go get Binky so we can go home.” Julian picked Summer out of the car and carried her to the front door, hesitating before knocking. She looked at her watch and it was already after ten. Was it rude to knock on someone’s door this late and demand a stuffed animal back? “Summer, if I have to get into a fist fight tonight, you’re going to be in big trouble, young lady,” Julian mumbled so the kid wouldn’t understand her. If it had been her though and someone came with this lame excuse to see her girlfriend, a black eye was the least she would do for them.

“Who is it?” asked what sounded like Kiki’s voice.

“It’s Julian and Summer.” The sound of a latch, lock and chain were heard being undone before the door swung open revealing Kiki in a robe and pajamas. “I know it’s late and I apologize for coming, but we’re having a Binky crisis.”

“Come in,” Kiki said trying to get over her shock.

“No really, all we need is the rabbit and we’ll leave you alone. We don’t want to intrude.”

“You’re not intruding. Please, Julian, it’s been weeks since I’ve seen you.” The green eyes crumbled her resolve and Julian found her feet moving without her permission into the house.

When she ran out of floor, Julian stopped and put Summer down not really knowing what to do next. “Miss Kiki, can I see Tiger?” asked Summer saving her caretaker from making conversation.

“He’s sleeping, but there’s room in there if you want to join him while Bernie and I talk.” She took her by the hand and tucked the little girl in next to her son, Binky the rabbit between them. “Can I get you anything?” Kiki asked Julian when she walked back in.

“Listen, Katherine, I really didn’t mean to bother you and if you want just hand over the rabbit and we’ll get out of here and leave you all in peace.”

“It’s just me and Tiger, and since he’s sleeping and you’re not bothering me, there’s no harm done. Please sit, I really do want to talk to you.”

“Where’s Rhonda?” the question sounded bitter even to Julian.

“We’re on what she’s defining as a cooling off period, so she’s not here. Is that why you’ve stayed away?”

Julian sat on the very edge of the sofa as if not committing fully to sitting down. “Will you answer something for me before I answer that?” Kiki nodded. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because I was afraid you’d stop coming around if you thought I was taken.”

The taller woman laughed but it had nothing to do with humor. “Excuse me if that sounds a little, uhm, I’m not really sure what word to use to make you sound good.”

“It makes me sound slutty I guess, but you shouldn’t judge me until you have the whole story, Bernie.” Kiki moved to the front window and looked out, thinking she couldn’t tell Julian the story if she had to look at her.

“It’s none of my business, so don’t feel like you owe me anything.”

“I met Rhonda right when I got to college. She was like no one I’d ever met before. Sounds cliché, but she was a little edgy and a lot romantic so I never stood a chance.”

“You don’t owe me this,” Julian tried again.

Kiki went on as if she was in a trance. “We graduated and I started teaching and she went into sales. A couple of years later we were comfortable, we bought this place and decided to start a family. Tiger was born a year later and that’s when it started to change. The romantic died and was replaced by someone who didn’t believe in anything we’d built together. Turns out I was just an idiot and didn’t see that’s how Rhonda was all the time, and the women had begun long before Tiger was even an idea.”

Shit! I can take anything but the tears. Julian watched as the shoulders started to shake as the story got worse and she was stuck. If there was something she had never been able to resist, it was a crying woman. “If that’s how it was maybe you’re better off with just you and Tiger. No kid deserves to be raised in a home where his parents are going at it constantly.”

“When I saw you, on the first day you came in, you made me forget my life for just a little while. When you kept on coming and talking to me and making me feel like you wanted to see me, I couldn’t help but want more. I’m so sorry, Bernie, if I led you on, but I was raised to honor my commitments and I made one to Rhonda. I just didn’t factor you in.”

“I’m sorry too, Kiki. You’re a beautiful woman who deserves to have someone who sees that every minute of the day. Is there anything I can do to make it better?”

Katherine turned and buried her face in Julian’s chest. “Please don’t stay away from me anymore. I’m sorry for not telling you but I need our friendship.”

Julian silently pondered the situation and then sighed. “What’s on the menu for tomorrow?”

“You’re favorite, peanut butter and jelly.” Kiki tamely followed as Julian pulled her toward the kitchen and grabbed a paper towel and wet it. With a gentle hand, Julian washed her face of her tears and hugged her one more time.

“I missed you.”

“Oh, Bernie, not as much as I missed you. Do you want something to drink while we’re in here?”

“No, I really have to get going, so let me grab my kid and rabbit.”

For Kiki it was like living out a fantasy she’d spun more than once. She stood in front of Julian as they looked in on two sleeping children, neither of them saying anything so as not to wake them.

“You could just leave her,” Kiki whispered.

“I couldn’t do that to you. I’ll just wait a little while and I’m sure she’ll wake up.” Julian sat on the sofa again, this time getting comfortable and accepting the remote from Kiki. “Any requests before I start surfing?”

“You’re only allowed to go around once before I take it away from you,” warned Kiki. After two go-rounds they settled for an old movie neither of them had seen.

Julian took her boots off and propped her socked feet on the coffee table after asking if it was all right. As the movie spun a story of intrigue, with lots of build up music in the background, she forgot about everything except the smell of Kiki’s coconut shampoo.

It was the persistent tapping on her shoulder and the pain in her back from sleeping on the lumpy surface that woke Julian up. The tapping was coming from Summer and the lumpiness was Kiki’s foot that she was lying on. Her head felt surprisingly great where it was resting on the blonde’s stomach.

“Bernie, we’re hungry.”

The door swung open before the children could put in their breakfast orders, and woke Kiki up. “Well isn’t this cozy. You accuse me of cheating and you’re in here with the big payday acting like a bitch in heat.” Rhonda looked unkempt and tired as she stood in the doorway.

“Hey if you want we can take this outside, but don’t curse like that in front of the children.”

“If I want to fucking curse in front of my kid I will, and since you and your kid are in my house you got nothing fucking to say about it.”

“Rhonda, don’t please,” said Kiki. She hung on to the back of Julian’s shirt trying to keep her on the sofa.

Rhonda swayed on her feet as she stuck her finger out and pointed it at Kiki. “Don’t give me that shit. I make a couple of little mistakes and all of a sudden I’ve got to go, but you get to sleep with her and I’m supposed to just take it?”

“It was more like dozens of mistakes and what Julian’s doing here is just being my friend.”

“Wake up, idiot, your friend has the hots for you and you’re too stupid to figure it out,” added Rhonda as she moved to close the door. It hadn’t swung half way when she found herself being carried to the front lawn but a tall angry woman.

“I’m sorry I fell asleep on your sofa, but it doesn’t give you the right to come in there and talk to Katherine that way. Get out of here and get cleaned up and then she’ll maybe want to talk to you,” said Julian.

Julian never saw it coming so she didn’t have the foresight to do anything about it. And that’s why they call it a sucker punch. For a slightly bigger shrimp than Kiki, the woman packed a hell of a wallop. When Julian recovered she grabbed Rhonda by the collar and cocked her fist back to retaliate, only to be stopped by Kiki’s voice.

“Bernie, she’s not worth it.” The fist didn’t come down so instead Kiki did; down the stairs until she was standing next to Julian. “Let her go and come inside.” To her partner she said, “Rhonda, I don’t want to see you, so leave.”

“This house is half mine, Kiki, so you have no right to keep me out of it.”

“Just go.”

“Does this happen often?” asked Julian as they watched the aggressive woman go.

“A couple of times. She comes and screams at me and it somehow makes her feel better. I don’t like it but she’s right, the house is half hers and I don’t have the cash to buy her out.” Kiki put her hand up to stop whatever was going to come out of Julian’s mouth. “I want you to be my friend, Bernie, not my banker so don’t even try it.”

“I could have wanted to say I wanted pancakes for breakfast.”

“I thought you didn’t like sugar?”

Julian laughed trying to forget the pain in her eye. “It’s starting to grow on me.”

They stayed for breakfast and coffee, Summer and Tiger carrying the brunt of the conversation since Kiki was too busy watching Julian’s right eye turn black. On the drive home to get ready for work was when Julian remembered Cassandra, but she waited until she was in the office to call. She was already contending with a rapidly growing shiner, so the thought of some other woman being upset with her wasn’t on her agenda first thing that morning.

“I can explain,” was how she started when Cassandra answered her phone. Julian wondered how long she’d stayed before she figured out that Julian and Summer weren’t coming home.

“You invited me for dinner, then left to pick up a stuffed animal in Tibet?”

“Close, so close. I’m really sorry but time got away from me. I want to make it up to you.”

Cassandra tapped her nail on her front teeth in an effort to calm her anger. “I’m free for lunch at Armand’s.”

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and promises popped into her head and Julian had no choice but to say no. “I can’t, I’m sorry. How about dinner at Armand’s tonight instead?”

“I’m leaving for Houston for the rest of the week, remember?”

The large leather portfolio Julian kept her calendar in opened, and she had penciled in the trip Cassandra was talking about. “I have it right here. You get back Sunday night right?”

“You planning to surprise me?” It sounded like more of a statement of what Julian should do than a question.

“If I tell you now it wouldn’t be too much fun, so I’ll keep you guessing. Have a good flight and I’ll see you when you get back.”

“I’ll miss you,” Cassandra tried something in an attempt to get something out of Julian’s mouth aside from business and the weather. They had been seeing each other for weeks, and in all that time she noticed Julian didn’t use pet names or expound anything remotely touchy feely sounding.

“Uh huh, have a good trip.”

“Bernie,” yelled Summer and Tiger from the door, surprising her as she put down the phone.

“Hey, guys, what are you doing roaming around up here?” There was no answer to Julian’s question as the two took turns playing with the ship’s wheel in the corner.

“They wanted to come and get you so you didn’t have to go to lunch by yourself,” said Kiki as she strolled in. She kept walking until she was on the other side of the desk where Julian was still sitting. “How do you feel?” A delicate finger traced the outer part of the bruise.

“Like you should’ve let me hit back.”

“Aside from the blood lust, does it hurt much?” Kiki’s finger never fell away from her face and Julian had to smile.

“I’m actually more… I don’t know… astonished that I’ve lived this long and never had a black eye. Stop beating yourself up over this, Kiki, it wasn’t your fault. I think you’re in more pain than I am.”

She had never felt someone’s hands so warm as when Julian reached up and took hold of her fingers. “I just didn’t think she’d get violent.”

“No one ever sees it coming, but it still isn’t your fault. Why not just move until you get things settled and know where and what you want to do?”

Kiki squeezed Julian’s hand and laughed. “What I want to do? Why are you planning on getting rid of me?”

“And miss out on your sterling personality so close by? Never, I just meant in your immediate personal life and future.”

“Even with your great raise, I can’t afford to buy her out and finding a new place just seems like a pain in the ass, so we’ll just tough it out.”

Tiger turned from touching all Julian’s things within reach and put his fist on his hips. “Mama, you said ass. That’s a bad word.”

“What’s ass, Bernie?” added Summer.

“A donkey, buttercup. Who wants peanut butter?”

Kiki laughed and pulled Julian out of her seat. “You’re learning, Bernie. Make a mistake and the old change of attention is a great way to get out of it.”

They spent such a relaxed afternoon that Kiki felt comfortable enough to bring Summer up to Julian at the end of the day. She noticed a change in her friend in that Julian wasn’t as flirty as she was before, but Julian still exuded a sense of caring. In the state her life was in at the moment, Kiki appreciated the port in the storm.

“Are you two busy tonight?” asked Julian.

“We’re going out to see the new Disney movie, but I’m sure they’ll sell you and Summer a ticket if you want to come with us. It’ll be my treat to pay you back for the pizza you sprung for.”

“How about if you get the movie tickets and I get dinner?” Julian started toward the bathroom to change, leaving a humming Kiki behind.

The movie turned out to be good, since there were enough adult lines in it to keep Julian interested, and action filled enough to keep the kids riveted. But the most interesting part of the evening was dinner. Two adults and two four-year-olds in Armand’s was not something seen every night.

“Are you sure?” asked Kiki, looking down at the way she was dressed. Julian was in jeans as well, but she looked more put together.

“Kiki, the reason kids misbehave in restaurants is they’re never taught any better.”

“And you know this from your years of experience in the child rearing field?”

“I know this because Nanna took me to every restaurant in this city worth dining in by the time I was five. If I got out of hand she smacked me with a piece of bread.”

Kiki stopped walking forcing Julian to take her hand and drag her the last couple of feet. “Please tell me your grandmother didn’t beat you with bread?”

“My grandmother didn’t beat me with bread,” said Julian causing Kiki to relax again, “She smacked me with it, is what I said.”

“Stop it,” Kiki slapped her arm. “You’re making this all up.”

“See you’re doing it right now, so why was it wrong when Nanna did it?”

Considering the way people were dressed and the look of the place, Kiki was surprised when the waiter brought out two entrees with two hamburgers with fries. In the end Julian had been right. Tiger and Summer and taken their cues from them and the people around them, earning them a few compliments on their behavior on the way out from the other patrons.

“I might have the solution to your problem if you’re interested,” said Julian from Kiki’s sofa. It was early enough to let the kids play a while longer before she had to take Summer home for bed.

“I have a problem?”

“Your living arrangement problem.”

Kiki folded her legs under her and sat facing Julian. “We’ll be fine.”

“Kiki, don’t lie because you think there isn’t anything you can do but grin and bear it. Why don’t you hear me out before you turn me down?”

Her hands went up as if to accentuate something she was going to say and then just as quickly they dropped. “A couple of weeks ago you didn’t want to know me, so why do you care what happens to me now?”

“Because a couple of weeks ago I was a donkey, but I’ve come to my senses and figured out I like having you as a friend. I care about what happens to you, Kiki, but I also care about what happens to your son. Tiger doesn’t deserve to live in a war zone until you and Rhonda work things out.”

The blonde head dropped until Kiki’s chin hit her chest. She was tired of crying but the tears were about to spill again. “Thank you, that’s nice to hear.”

“Ah, don’t worry about it, besides your sister promised to blacken my other eye if I wasn’t nice to you.”

“She told you.”

“Looking at this blonde hair,” Julian reached over and pulled a bit of Kiki’s hair, “And her brown hair, I’d have said one of you is adopted.”

“And now?” Kiki’s eyes were still watery but she was laughing.

“I got a taste of the attitude and my conclusion is you’re related.” Without thought Kiki fell forward and hugged Julian, happy beyond belief when it was returned.

“Bernie,” yelled Summer from the hallway. This time it didn’t make her drop the girl in her arms on the floor.

“That pitch is going to drive me to an early grave,” she told Kiki. “Summer, if you need something could you come in here and not scream please.” Her summons got two kids looking like there would be some negotiating going on before the night was over.

“I want to stay here with Tiger.”

“No, and before you think about starting all that crying, forget it. We have to go home and get ready for when Tiger and Miss Kiki come over tomorrow.”

“Really, mama?” asked Tiger. “But tomorrow’s a school day.”

“We’re taking the day off tomorrow to do some important stuff, buddy,” said Julian.

“You heard the boss, we’re going to Summer’s house tomorrow.”

They both laughed at the squealing that caused and Julian wasn’t able to get Summer to leave until she fell asleep. “Just come by whenever,” said Julian with the little girl slumped against her shoulder. She had written down the address and number for Kiki after the kids had settled down a little. “There’s something I want to show you.”

“I’ll just bet,” said Kiki before she could sensor it.

A dark brow went up but Julian resisted the urge to tease her. “Good night, and call me if you need anything.”

Kiki locked the door and watched from the window as the two walked to the car. “Even if it’s you I need?”

************************************************************************

“You have a pool?” asked Tiger so that the whole neighborhood could hear him.

“We have a pool,” said Julian as they all looked at it. A couple of more weeks and the water would be warm enough to swim. “And more importantly we have a pool house.”

Julian led them the long way around so the kids wouldn’t get too close to the water, opening the door to the cottage looking structure. “It’s got two bedrooms, a full sized kitchen and it’s got a gate to the street so you don’t have to come through the front if you don’t want to. But most importantly, it’s empty and not used.

The kids ran through the place like a fast moving wind while Kiki took her time. She looked at the furniture and the fixtures as if adding the rent in her mind. “It’s beautiful, but we can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Bernie, you pay me a great wage but I can’t afford this place and I’m sure you don’t want Tiger and me underfoot all the time.”

Julian held her hand out and waited to see if Kiki would take it. When she did, she led her outside. “Tell me if you can see the house from here. I’m not doing this to brag, but there’s a reason the pool’s way back here.”

The trees and garden made it impossible to make out the large structure except for the roofline. “I can’t really.”

“That means you and Tiger won’t be underfoot. I think about this place every so often but I hardly ever come out here, so you’ll have privacy. It also has been empty since we moved in so why not put it to good use for a friend who needs a place to plan her next step?”

Kiki leaned against her as if thinking about what she was going to do. “What do I do with all my stuff?”

“If you want I’ll have the things in there put in storage, and have your stuff brought in, or you can leave them at your place until you decide where you go from here.”

Julian felt the head nodding against her shoulder. “How much a month?” asked Kiki.

“You let Tiger come up to the house every so often to play and we’ll call it even.”

“No way, you have to let me pay something.”

“I’ll have Rudy draw you up a lease if it makes you feel better.” They turned when two sets of running feet could be heard headed in their direction.

“Mama, come see this,” said Tiger waving his arms toward the back of the house.

One of the bedrooms had been done in a nautical theme, perfect for a little boy. Throughout the bookshelves in the room and on the desk against one corner were boats, ships and navigational tools Julian had collected through the years. It wasn’t for Tiger’s benefit, but Julian wasn’t about to tell him that now.

“Isn’t this the best?” he asked the two adults.

“How would you like to come here and live for awhile, buddy?” asked Julian.

“Really?” He turned to his mother and pressed his hands together ready to drop to his knees if that’s what it took. “Please, mama, can we?”

“You play dirty, Lowe,” said Kiki out of the side of her mouth.

“You forgot low.”

“I was getting to that.” She laughed and threw her hands up. “Sure we can if you want to,” she told her son.

By late that afternoon Rudy and Rebecca along with some of the household staff had taken care of moving all of Kiki and Tiger’s personal items from their home. When they handed her a set of keys, the blonde felt almost liberated. She laughed when Rudy made her sign a lease agreement that stated she had to pay five dollars a month or five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which ever came first.

“Enjoy,” said Julian as she headed to the front door of Kiki’s new place.

“I don’t know how to thank you for all this.”

“Five bucks will do it,” teased Julian. “Can I ask you something that’s been running around in my head?”

“After all you’ve done for us, you can ask me anything.”

The tall brunette closed the door and leaned against it, Summer was already in bed up at the house and she had just wanted to come by and see if Kiki and the boy were settled in. “Won’t Tiger miss Rhonda?”

“You can’t miss something or someone who wasn’t around much, Bernie. To tell you the truth, if I told him we couldn’t see you and Summer anymore, that would upset him more.”

“But you planned a family together.”

Kiki patted the sofa cushion next to her, thinking her answer would take more than a minute of Julian’s time. “We did, but a family to some people is what you do as a progression of things to be done in your life. But just because you do that, doesn’t mean you’re going to be any good at it. Tiger isn’t a work project or something you tinker with on the weekends and she could never understand that.”

“Wow that’s got to be tough on him.”

“I think it was at first, but because he’s so young, he didn’t understand so he just learned to depend on me. I carried him for nine months and he’s my son, but I didn’t want to raise him alone. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but I feel for a child to be well rounded they need two people bringing different things to the table. In the classroom I saw what a boost it was for children who had that.”

Julian reached over and rubbed Kiki’s knee in sympathy. “Don’t knock the job you’ve done, sweetheart. When I was growing up all I had was Nanna. You remind me a lot of her when I see you with Tiger, and my opinion is that extraordinary women raise extraordinary children.”

“You think you’re extraordinary?” asked Kiki in a joking way.

“Tell me you don’t think so.” Julian laughed and stood up ready to go. If she stayed any longer she felt as if leaving wasn’t going to be an option her heart would comply with. “You know where to find me if something goes wrong,” she pointed in the direction of the house.

“Good night, Bernie, and thank you again.”

Kiki watched until Julian stood at the edge of the garden. Before the foliage swallowed her up, she turned and waved making the blonde blush. They both laid down about three hundred feet apart and stayed awake for a long time. For Kiki it was from excitement, what seemed like a bleak immediate future had changed because of Julian. And for Julian, her future seemed splintered in so many different directions that it was hard to tell which way to head.

It was the first time she felt like opening the safe and pulling out her father’s letter. After receiving it and waiting to open it, she had come to the conclusion he would let her know when the right time was as she considered it, she realized that the time still wasn’t right.

“Good night, Kiki. I hope you find what you’re looking for,” whispered Julian looking toward her window.

************************************************************************

By Sunday night they had gone to the zoo, City Park to ride the train, the aquarium and to another movie to round out their weekend. Summer was having so much fun it was getting harder to get her to go to bed. After all the whining she fell asleep instantly when Julian got her to lie down.

“I love you, Bernie.”

“Thanks, princess, I love you too, but you have to go to sleep so you won’t be tired at school tomorrow.”

A big yawn stopped Summer from saying she wasn’t tired, but she wanted to talk to Julian about something important now that Tiger and Miss Kiki were so close by. “Bernie, I gotta tell you something.”

“Is it something important?” Julian leaned over and turned her new Barbie lamp back on. It had been a gift from Nanna, along with the new bedspread, sheets, towels, bike and battery operated car.

“I don’t ever want to leave here.”

Julian sat frozen not knowing how to respond to that. Darlene was still looking for Deanne but it was as if the European countryside had opened up and swallowed her whole. “Don’t you think your mom would be lonely if you stayed here with me.” As much as she loved having Summer around, Julian had to keep reminding herself the little girl didn’t belong to her.

“She went away and I’m glad. I love you, Bernie.”

The choked up adult pulled the blankets back and pulled Summer into her arms to make her stop crying. She had made her admission with such conviction that Summer came close to yelling it. “It’s ok, Summer. Remember what I promised you when you got here?”

“You said I don’t have ta leave.”

“That’s right, and even if your mother comes home, I’ll talk to her and see if she’ll let you come visit us.”

Summer clung tightly to her like something had frightened her. “Can you ask if I can stay here with you?”

“If that’s what you want sure, but we don’t have to worry about that right this minute.” Julian laid her back down and pulled the covers back over the girl and Binky. “Right now I want you to have sweet dreams and get some rest.”

The window in the study upstairs faced the street and Julian sat with the chair cocked back a little looking at the full moon. Her journal lay unopened on the desk and her pen was in her hand uncapped. Summer’s worries were starting to concern Julian and she didn’t know how to put the child at ease.

“Maybe Kiki will know what to do,” she said to no one but the walls.

“I thought I’d surprise you even though you don’t exactly deserve it after standing me up yet again.” Cassandra’s voice cut through her daydreams, and Julian’s feet dropped to the floor.

“Hey, what are you doing here?”

“Lover, for once maybe your response should be, ‘Hey it’s great to see you, I missed you so much.’” When Julian’s mouth opened, Cassandra put her hand up to stop her. “Is it too much to ask for?”

“Sorry I’m such a disappointment in the correct response category, but I have a lot on my mind tonight. How was your trip?”

“Great, we picked up a new client who’s close to being in your league but not quite. Are you going to invite me in?”

“I’m sorry,” Julian stood up and waved to one of the chairs across from the desk, “Have a seat.”

Cassandra didn’t take her up on her offer and instead walked around and pushed Julian back into her seat so she could sit on her lap. “I can’t do this from way over there.” Soft lips moved up Julian’s neck until she got to her lips. “Want to move this somewhere more private?” asked Cassandra when they parted.

“Tempting offer, but not tonight.”

“It’s been days, you don’t know what you’re missing.” Cassandra moved her mouth back to Julian’s neck trying to change her mind.

Before things got out of hand, Julian pulled her away and moved to get them both on their feet. “Let’s head downstairs and have a drink.”

“Is something wrong?”

“Summer just had a rough time of it before she fell asleep and I want to be there for her if she wakes up is all.” Julian waved her hand toward the door and waited for Cassandra to move.

“Could I use your restroom first?”

“There’s one through there,” Julian pointed to the door that connected to her bedroom. “I’ll meet you in the den.”

Twenty minutes later Julian was sitting in a reading chair with an empty glass in her hand, and still Cassandra hadn’t come down. The only thing she could think of was the woman was waiting for her on the bed. Not that she was in the habit of dragging beautiful naked women out of her bedroom, but it didn’t feel right to sleep with Cassandra with Kiki and the kids so close by.

Julian moved quietly down the hall in bare feet surprising the woman sitting at her desk reading her journal. Unaware, Cassandra turned the page and continued reading as if it were a good book she couldn’t put down. She wanted to know more about the woman now living so close that Julian had written so eloquently about.

“Close it and get out.”

The dark head whipped up at the menace in Julian’s tone. “I didn’t mean to,” started Cassandra.

“Those are my thoughts and not meant for you or anyone to read.” Julian’s hands clenched to fists. “Now close the book and get out of here.”

“Let’s talk about this, Julian.”

“Get out!” Julian screamed loud enough to wake Summer and bring Rudy and Rebecca out of their rooms.

Cassandra dropped the leather bound diary and moved to touch Julian. “Please, Julian, it’s not worth throwing away what we have over something so trivial.”

“Rudy, show Ms. Jarvis to the door, I have to go see about Summer.”

It took her another hour to get the little girl back to sleep and in the morning everyone was cranky from the bad night. The only thing that cheered Summer up was seeing Tiger when they arrived at the daycare center.

“Bad night, Bernie?” asked Kiki noticing they were running late.

“Bad night, bad morning – let’s just hope the trend doesn’t continue,” grumbled Julian, smiling when Summer hugged her goodbye.

Before she could straighten up fully, Kiki moved closer and kissed Julian on the cheek. “Something to cheer you up.”

Like a schoolgirl with her first crush, Julian put her fingers over the spot and smiled like an idiot. “Thanks.”

After lunch Julian took a walk down to J.J.’s place and ordered a beer. “Hey there, I was beginning to think you were avoiding me, buddy,” her old friend told her.

“My life is complicated with children lately and you won’t let them in here to drink, so we all suffer.”

J.J. stopped cleaning glasses long enough to take a swig of her bottle. She rarely drank at work, but found it strange to talk to Julian without joining her. “Don’t tell me more trashy women have left children on your doorstep to take care of,” teased J.J. “Seriously, how’s life treating you?”

“Like a bad rash. Another one bit the dust last night.”

The bartender let out a long whistle. “She lasted longer than Nanna and I thought she would, so that means something, right? What happened, you get bored?”

“She was reading my journal,” Julian started her story.

“Man, you won’t even let me read that thing,” whined J.J.

“If you’d learn to let me finish, rock head,” joked Julian with more enthusiasm than she felt. “I didn’t say I gave her permission to read the damned thing.”

“Ooh that sucks,” J.J. reached over and patted Julian on the shoulder. “Now that I have you alone, what’s the story with the cute blonde at the opening?”

Julian explained the situation ending with the reason she had a black eye and Kiki was living in her guesthouse. The one thing she loved most about J.J. was no matter what the subject was, or what you did, she never judged. She just warned a little.

“Is this asshole Rhonda out of the picture?”

“I’m not in the picture so what’s it matter?”

With her elbows on the bar, J.J. looked at her for a long time before answering. “We’ve known each other forever right?” Julian nodded. “In all those years I’ve never once seen you look at a woman like you did that night. I thought my wish had been granted when I saw her looking at you. What I’m trying to say is, I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Julian nodded and finished her beer. “Thanks, buddy. It’s good to have someone looking out for me.”

As Julian’s hand closed around the knob on the way out, J.J. yelled one more thing. “Don’t be afraid to at least try.”

************************************************************************

The summer came and went, as did the fall with the four of them getting closer. Julian used the pool for the first time at the kids’ instance and Kiki took care of feeding them all. For a week, Julian took them all to Disney World so the children had something good to tell their friends at school when asked what they did on their summer vacation.

More than one night in all those months found Julian falling asleep with Kiki on the sofa in the guesthouse. It would be the giggles of two small children that would get them to stop snoring. And it was the same tykes who encouraged them to get closer. With Kiki and Julian getting more comfortable around each other, it gave Summer and Tiger something they’d craved in their short lives – a happy family.

From the beginning they included Nanna in most of their outings and once she got over the disappointment of Kiki not being Jewish, she befriended the young woman who made Julian smile so much.

In the fall they celebrated both Summer and Tiger’s fifth birthdays, which turned out to be a couple of days apart. Not finding Deanne sent Darlene in search of information about the little girl who was now a fixture in their offices.

“Did you finish your Christmas shopping?” asked Kiki as she dropped next to Julian. She’d left the kids playing a video game Summer had gotten for Hanukah in the little girl’s bedroom, and was anxious to get back to Julian and the fire she’d built.

“I’ve never been Christmas shopping in my life, so, no.”

Kiki tried to hide the smile on her face as she looked at the decorated tree in the corner. They had argued over the size all afternoon the day they’d gone shopping for it, finally deciding on a medium sized one. The blonde had almost busted a gut laughing after she figured out why. After spotting Eugenia’s car in the drive, Julian grabbed the whole thing and shoved it in a closet.

“It’s not hard, honey, and I offered to help you with the wrapping. Though, I think the kids are enjoying the many nights of Hanukah and all the gifts and candle lighting it involves.” Kiki lifted Julian’s arm and put it around her shoulders.

“Be honest with me, if you found a big fat guy dressed in red velvet in your house with a big bag – wouldn’t’ you call the police?”

“Tsk, you’re so bad, and don’t ask the kids that question. I have a hard enough time getting them not to play poker with the go fish cards during the day after you taught them to gamble with Lego pieces.” Kiki turned so she was almost lying across Julian’s lap. “I bet I can introduce you to a holiday tradition you’ll like.”

“Heavily spiked eggnog?”

From her pocket Kiki pulled a fresh sprig of mistletoe. “Whenever you find yourself standing under this, whoever’s standing with you has to kiss you.”

“Whenever that happens, huh?” Kiki nodded and started to lift her arm only to have Julian stop her. She thought she’d screwed up her chance to get closer to Julian, when a long arm reached behind them. “Rebecca told me about that particular tradition so I had her make me something.”

Kiki laughed and held on to Julian as the object of her affection put on a wire halo with another wire going up so the mistletoe attached to the end would hang over Julian’s head. “Oh, Bernie, I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“So?” Julian pointed up. Kiki pulled the dark head down by two fists full of hair.

The kiss was gentle at first, with two sets of lips just pressed together to get acquainted. Julian held Kiki close and opened her mouth when the blonde’s tongue ran across her lips. She felt her hair being pulled tighter as the intensity grew, but it only served to turn Julian on.

“Merry Christmas, Bernie,” said Kiki when they pulled apart from lack of air.

“Happy Hanukah.” Kiki laughed and took the funny contraption Rebecca had made off of Julian’s head. “I was that bad?”

Kiki pulled her closer again. “You were that good, I just don’t want anything in my way.” Their second kiss was a little more intense, that was until the door opened.

“Julian Bernstein Lowe, what in the world is that?” asked Eugenia pointing at the tree with white twinkling lights.

Their lips almost made a popping noise when they came apart. “I’ve never seen it before, Nanna,” responded Julian with a straight face. She looked down at a smiling Kiki and asked, “You?”

“Elves brought it in while we weren’t looking, Eugenia.”

“Elves my ass,” teased Eugenia. She moved closer to the Christmas tree as if she’d never seen one before.

“Nanna, please, we have young impressionable children in the house.”

“I’m sure coming down here and finding the two of you groping each other won’t make an impression.”

Kiki laughed at both Eugenia’s bluntness and the blush now running up Julian’s neck. “It wasn’t groping, it was kissing and you have really bad timing,” said Kiki, moving to straighten up.

“I have perfect timing, dear, you still have all your clothes on.” Julian laughed at her grandmother’s teasing as Kiki’s neck started to show a creeping red blush of its own. “Now don’t stop on my account, I came to see the kids.” The verbal menace took her bag full of goodies and started up the stairs. A few minutes later Julian and Kiki heard the screaming from whatever treat Nanna had brought with her this time.

“Are you ok?” asked Julian. She was used to Nanna’s weird sense of humor but newbies sometimes didn’t know how to respond.

Kiki moved back to her prior position and cupped Julian’s face with her hands. “I was about to ask you the same thing before we got interrupted. Are you ok with this?” She indicated the position they were in and kissed Julian again.

“I just have one question.”

“Let’s just hope it’s something we can fix because I don’t want to give this up if I don’t have to.”

“You’ll still kiss me without this plant on my head, right?”

“Your lips have been claimed, Ms. Lowe. Even Nanna walking in on us won’t stop me from enjoying as many of these as you’re willing to give me.”

There was no reason for heavy talks about their futures and commitment since both of them knew they wanted the same things, and had built their relationship slowly and solidly for weeks. Kiki and Tiger spent the night on Christmas Eve and Julian got a crash course in putting together dozens of toys for the morning’s excitement. For a second, on the morning of the twenty-fifth, she thought the house alarm was going off when Summer and Tiger reacted simultaneously to their pile of gifts from the bottom of the stairs.

“Thanks, Bernie,” Summer told her later after they’d had their Christmas lunch. Rebecca had spent quite a while explaining to Kiki why ham wasn’t going to be on her menu that year so get used to having turkey.

“Did you like all your stuff?”

“I never had a Christmas like this, and I loved all my stuff. Look at my Barbie watch Nanna got me.” She put her wrist about a half an inch from Julian’s face and let her watch the crown on the second hand reach Barbie’s head. “What’d you get?”

“I got to watch you and Tiger open all that stuff, and that’s the best present I got this year. The other thing is I got to celebrate my first Christmas with you.”

“You never had Christmas?”

“I had Hanukah, remember I told you about that?” When Kiki made it back from the kitchen with dessert, she leaned against the wall and watched Julian with both kids now in her lap. She was telling them a story and both little faces were looking up at her like Julian was telling them the secrets of the universe.

When Kiki had dreamed of having a family this was the type of person she dreamed of having one with. Over the summer she had sat in awe as Tiger took the field in little league with Julian hanging on the fence at every game giving him advice. She was sure he’d had more than one accident in the pool from over excitement when his tall playmate held him tight and taught him to swim. Julian had managed to do with Tiger what Rhonda never could in all the years she’d been with him. She had managed to plant in his mind what another loving parent could be, and he idolized her for it.

“Will you help me with my track later, Bernie?” asked Tiger. He had whispered to Julian on one of their trips to the mall how he wanted Santa to bring it to him, and had been thrilled he hadn’t forgotten to add it to his sleigh.

“We’ll carry it to your room as soon as your mama gets in here with that pie and stops staring at us,” teased Julian, tickling the two blondes. “Go get her, guys.”

“Bernie, don’t you dare,” warned Kiki. She was holding a coconut cream pie she’d made after Julian had said it was her favorite. Kiki put it down in time to take off from the three troublemakers chasing her. It was the way they spent the afternoon and evening, and when it was time for bed neither of the children complained after Julian had run them ragged.

“Thanks for today and all the stuff you got Tiger,” said Kiki as they put away the rest of the dishes giving Rebecca and the rest of the staff the day off. “Promise me you won’t let him go near the water by himself with that remote control boat you got him.”

“I’ll take care of him don’t worry.”

“And what about his mom?”

Julian turned Kiki and pressed her up against the counter, dipping her head to initiate a slow kiss. “His mom’s in good hands too, don’t worry about that one.”

The festive mood continued as New Year’s rolled around, only this time, the kids were glad to stay home with Rudy, Rebecca and Nanna while Julian escorted Kiki out to dinner. For the occasion Julian chose Galatoire’s. It was one of the older establishments in New Orleans but it was a nice way to spend a night wrapped in old traditions, as you were setout to make some new ones of your own.

“Happy New Year,” Julian said as she held up her glass.

“It’s certainly starting out that way,” Kiki returned the toast. “Can you do something for me?”

“Name it.”

“That’s what I love about being with you, Bernie, I actually believe you when you say that to me.”

Julian reached across the small table and took her hand. “If it’s within my power to give you whatever you desire, then I’ll do it. If it’s something I have to work for, then I’ll spend a lifetime getting it done.”

“God, I could melt when you talk to me like that.” Kiki tangled their fingers together wanting not to lose contact with Julian and wanting to memorize everything about the night. “Will you take me back to the museum?”

“That’s an easy enough request, but can I ask why?”

“Because it’s important to you and you’re important to me. I think of everything we’ve been through since we met, it’s the one thing that’s a not so pleasant memory and I want to change that.”

“Good thing for you that you know the owner.”

They finished dinner and decided to walk to the museum. They held hands the whole way, sharing more than one kiss as they waited for traffic to pass at the intersections. Julian waved to the few guards posted for the nightshift before disengaging the alarm system.

“Will you tell me about them?” asked Kiki.

“Who?”

“Your parents, I want to know why all this came to be,” Kiki held her hand up to indicate the museum.

They were on the first floor and it was so different empty and deathly quiet. It was as if the canvases were screaming at you to look. “The way Nanna tells it, they were two very different people who were fated to collide and fuse together like metal.”

“She’s a pain in the ass, but Nanna has a wonderful way with words when she applies herself.”

Julian laughed at the description since it was so apt. “My father, Sebastian, was the thinker, the planner and the pragmatist of the two. Nanna said he didn’t have an artistic bone in his body, but he could park the QE II on a dime given the opportunity. There wasn’t a vessel in our fleet at the time that he didn’t have a license for.”

“Sounds like a ship enthusiast I know,” teased Kiki as she looked at the Jackson Pollock in front of them.

“My mother, Birdie, was the artist, the dreamer and the teacher. I’ve heard people tell me all my life that my dad would love saying that she was his creative side. She never drove anything in her life, or sailed anything either, but I have some of her sketches at home and it’s a good thing she never wasted time learning the more mechanical things in life. There is a depth to her stuff that would have surpassed some of these with time.”

Kiki looked up at her with tears in her eyes at the words Julian had used. “I’ll be blessed if Tiger speaks so highly of me one day.”

“I’m lucky that way, I never knew them so to me, they’ll always be perfect. For Tiger though, he’ll be the blessed one because he’ll speak from experience.”

Their conversation continued as they made their way to the third floor and the Monets. “What happened to them?” Kiki sat next to Julian hanging on to her arm as tightly as to her words. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

“When my mom was eight months pregnant, they went to a friend’s wedding. On the way there a drunk driver crossed the centerline and hit them head on. My father died instantly but my mother hung on just long enough to give birth. She died at five after midnight on February 14th without ever hearing my first cry.”

“That’s such a sad story, but for Eugenia you were like a gift of love. How appropriate that you were born on the day of the year that honors it most.” Julian pulled her arm up and looked at her watch. “Am I boring you?”

“I just wanted to kiss you at midnight and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity.” She put the timepiece where Kiki could see it. “See less than a minute left to go.” When it came time they both counted down from ten, missing the one when their lips found each other.

“Can I ask you for one more thing?” asked Kiki.

“You can ask for anything.”

“Take me home, Bernie.”

With the kids asleep in the main house, Julian parked the car and walked Kiki to the guesthouse. She was hoping the reason Kiki wanted to come home was so they could start the year off right and in each other’s arms. When the door opened, the petite blonde took her by the hand and walked Julian to the bedroom.

“I want to be with you more than anything,” Kiki confessed putting her hands under Julian’s coat, on her chest.

Before they went any further, Julian kissed her then started taking Kiki’s clothes off. She threw Kiki’s coat across the chair by the window, followed by her own. A laugh escaped her chest when Kiki slipped out of her heels and shrunk a few inches. “One short joke and you ain’t getting any,” she warned, jabbing a finger in Julian’s chest.

“The more I look at you, touch you and feel you pressed against me, the more I think you’re just perfect. So I promise, no short jokes.”

Julian held Kiki close as she worked on the row of small buttons on the back of her dress. The fingers that brushed her skin every time Julian moved to the next button were hot, but the tall woman was so gentle they felt like butterfly wings. As Julian busied herself with that, Kiki returned the favor and popped the pearl flat buttons on the heavy cotton shirt Julian was wearing.

The dress fell to the floor and Kiki was left standing in nothing but a smile. “My, Katherine, I don’t think my heart would’ve held out through dinner if I’d known there was so little between me and all this skin.” Julian stood back long enough for one good look before scooping Kiki off her feet.

“Bernie, have I told you how much I love this bed?” Julian shook her head and finished with her clothes with an attentive audience watching. Blue eyes followed the red finger nails as they scraped over the sheets. “The first time I got in this thing I just wanted to take my clothes off and roll around in here, this bedding feels so good. There was only one thing that I could think of that would feel better than this.”

“What’s that?” Julian’s pants went flying over her shoulder along with her underwear.

“Being naked with these sheets under me and a naked Bernie on top.”

Julian finished by stripping off her socks and crawled over Kiki until she was in the position the blonde wanted her in. The smaller woman felt so good under her that Julian came close to just collapsing all her weight on top of her. She felt Kiki flattened her hands then slide them down to the small of her back.

“Baby, I’ve waited long enough,” said Kiki reaching up and sucking on Julian’s neck. “I’ve wanted you from the first day you walked into my life and now I want more than anything for you to touch me.”

The mattress dipped a little when Julian rolled half off Kiki so she could run her hands down her body but still keep as much of their skin touching as possible. Kiki was one of the most feminine looking women she’d ever seen. The body lying bare before her was compact but the breasts were full with dark pink nipples that hardened just from Julian’s staring at them. Her stomach wasn’t completely flat but the little bit of a flair was incredibly sexy to Julian as was the roundness of her butt. More than once she’d had to remind her eyes to stay above Kiki’s waist as she watched her walk away. There was a roll to her hips when she walked that made Kiki look like she had all the time in the world to get to where she was going. To Julian, it was the definition of womanly swagger and it was mesmerizing to watch.

Julian ran just her fingertips along Kiki’s collarbone, and up her neck; fascinated by the trail of goose bumps she left in her wake. The pink lips parted slightly when Julian’s index finger ran a circuit around them. A small plea from Kiki got her to move down again bypassing the nipples in want of attention.

“You’re so beautiful,” whispered Julian as she moved back to cover more of Kiki’s body with her own. Wanting a small taste, she dipped her head and sucked one of the rosy buds into her mouth getting Kiki to plaster her hand to the back of Julian’s head. Without letting go of the nipple, Julian’s hips came up a little so she could squeeze her hand between them.

Without looking, she ran her fingers on the outer part of Kiki’s sex feeling the moan it caused through the young woman’s chest. “Touch me, honey,” Kiki’s sounded almost desperate.

The soft blonde hair felt slicker as Julian made the return trip up to the top of Kiki’s mound. Slowly she dipped her index and middle finger into the copious amounts of natural lubricant and fanned them out. Julian could feel Kiki’s hips starting to move and her hands tightening on the back of her hair to encourage Julian to suck harder. Her fingers were coated with Kiki’s excitement when Julian stopped her stroking and squeezed the hard bundle in need of attention.

Their hips slapped together when Kiki’s shot off the bed trying to chase the fingers that were trying to let up on the delicious pressure. “No, don’t stop.”

“Just a taste, then I promise to take care of you.” Kiki took Julian’s statement to mean she was going to lick her own fingers to appease her curiosity. The blonde almost came when it was her lips Julian painted with her wetness then moved to kiss them clean. True to her word, as Julian’s lips covered her own in a kiss of possession, two fingers slid in slowly and her thumb concentrated on the point of her pleasure.

“Oh god, oh god, oh god,” chanted Kiki as Julian drove her higher. She felt like the brunette had stripped her of all her inhibitions and gave her the freedom to claim her pleasure. As she began to feel the edges of the orgasm starting, Kiki clawed Julian’s back and felt her emotions build with the fabulous feeling. When she reached the peak, Kiki didn’t know why, but she was crying and couldn’t stop. Instead of asking questions, Julian just rolled to her back and wrapped Kiki in her arms and held her.

Kiki didn’t try to hold any weight up on her own and just slumped against Julian’s chest enjoying the hand running from her shoulder blade to her butt with a steady stroke. “I’m not sure what you did, but I’ve never felt like that before.” Her head finally felt strong enough to pick up and Kiki pulled her shoulder length hair back so she could look into Julian’s eyes. “There’s only one way to thank you for that.”

Instinct told her Julian was the type of person who enjoyed sex, the way she’d touched her clued Kiki into that fact, but what she couldn’t figure out, considering Julian’s normal demeanor, was how she expressed that enjoyment. Are you a screamer, my love, or does that strong silent type spill over into all aspects of your life? She moved her legs up so she could straddle Julian’s waist. Kiki pulled herself up into a sitting position and looked down as if trying to decide on where to start.

“And here I thought you looked good in your clothes.” Kiki laughed at the smile the compliment got her.

Julian was the tallest person she’d ever seen naked, but tall in Julian’s case didn’t mean bulky. Over the weeks she’d seen the CEO coming back from her morning runs and three times a week she hit the gym at the office. The result was a body that was fit without being overly muscular, except for her arms and shoulders. Julian worked harder on her upper body so she would feel comfortable with the controls of any ship they owned.

Lowering her head, Kiki kissed her, long and softly. “Let me love you,” she said as she rose up on her knees so she was inches above Julian’s body. Going down slowly, Kiki moved so that just her nipples dragged along Julian’s body. She smiled when the blue eyes never left her chest and Julian’s nose flared.

We can do better than that, thought Kiki as she ran out of real estate. Kneeling between Julian’s legs she ran her hands up her own body until she reached the undersides of her breasts. Cupping them, Kiki leaned down and ran first one nipple then the other through Julian’s sex, then just as slowly moved back to the head of the bed.

“Like you said, just a taste,” whispered Kiki as she offered the glistening part of her body. When Julian had sucked Kiki’s nipples of her own excitement, the blonde moved back down. The loud moan she was waiting for came when she clamped down and sucked in Julian’s clitoris without warning. Kiki almost came again when Julian grabbed the top of her head and ground her center into Kiki’s face. The long body tensed then slumped back to the damp sheets with a long exhale.

Kiki stretched out on top of Julian again and kissed her before resting her head on a broad shoulder. “Happy New Year, Bernie.”

“It certainly is,” said Julian, causing her bedmate to laugh.

************************************************************************

A few weeks later, Julian sat in her study at home and looked out the window at the violet night sky letting her mind wander from subject to subject at random. Fear had kept her from analyzing her good fortune of late when it came to her personal life, not wanting to jinx any part of it. The wonder she had found with Kiki was something Julian hadn’t planned on, but Nanna had always told her love was something no one ever planned for. Love just happened to you when the person who completes you falls into your life. Now she felt like she had to make some decisions or watch as the things she wanted slipped through her fingers like sand.

January 30, 2003

A year has almost passed since I first saw her, and I find myself thinking of a time when I felt like I didn’t love her. When I make love to her I see her heart in those green eyes and it makes me want to be a poet so I can adequately express what’s in my own. Months ago I complained about the sentimental asshole I’d become and now I’ve found someone who wouldn’t want me any other way.

The dilemma I find myself with tonight, and from the first night I felt her touch, is making a leap of faith. Up to this point in my life I’ve planned every step and agonized over the major decisions because the lives of so many people who depend on what I do hung in the balance. Delivering jobs and paying good wages is easy compared to giving someone your heart.

Love. It’s a small word that doesn’t begin to cover how it makes you feel. I look at Kiki and I see myself fifty years down the line. If I’m lucky to be gifted such a long life, the one thing I’m sure of is that I’ll love her even more then I do now. All that’s left is to give voice to what’s in my heart and tell her how I feel. Maybe by taking the first step, it will give her the courage to do the same. If I’m wrong, then I’ll at least feel better having tried.

For once I don’t look toward another birthday as a time to remember loss, but as a time to celebrate new beginnings. My father once had the courage to fly across the world to get the woman he loved to marry him. How lucky am I that all I have to do is walk across a lawn?

What do you know, the sentimental asshole fell in love and found that it’s worth more than the sum of all the great days I’ve had so far.

“What cha doing, Bernie?”

“Writing some stuff down. I thought you were asleep.” Julian looked at the rumpled looking child standing in the doorway and held her hand out. The invitation was always accepted in a hurry and Summer found herself in her favorite spot in Julian’s lap.

“I wanted to talk to you some more.”

“What’s the matter, sweet girl?” The blonde hair was mussed so Julian started to put some order to it with her fingers. The repetitive motion usually put the little girl to sleep.

“I miss Tiger and Miss Kiki.”

“I miss them too but they promised to be back soon. Miss Kiki’s sister is sick and she’s almost well enough so they can come home and play with you.”

As was her habit, Summer snuggled closer to Julian’s body and played with her stuffed rabbit’s ears. She loved listening to the tall woman’s voice because it rumbled in her chest so you could feel it too. “Can we go to the zoo tomorrow?”

“Don’t you want to go to school?”

Julian felt the blonde head shake against her neck. “It’s not the same without them there.”

“I guess we can go to the zoo after I go to someplace I was planning on in the morning.”

“Can I come with you?”

Julian didn’t really know if she wanted to explain the cemetery to the child, but she wanted to go and sit someplace quiet and finalize the plans that would completely change her life. There she felt like there was someone looking over her and guiding her in the right direction.

“I was going to see my mom and dad, but they aren’t alive anymore.” It wasn’t great but it was the best she could do without her child expert Kiki around.

“My grandma’s not alive either.”

“Did you love her?”

“She used to take care of me when my mom went away but then she got sick and went away too. She used to make me noodles and cheese.”

“Sounds like she love you a lot, sweetheart.”

“Can I go with you and see your mom and dad?”

“If you want, sure.”

The next morning Rudy waited by the car as Julian took Summer’s hand and walked to the Lowe family graves. A year older still left Summer at five, but even at such a young age she still managed to floor Julian with questions beyond her years. “Didn’t you bring a flower, Bernie?”

They stopped at a bench close to where they were headed and Julian pulled Summer into her lap. “The way I was raised we don’t bring flowers to people who have died.”

“Why, didn’t you like them?”

“I loved them very much.”

“So you don’t bring nothing?”

“Flowers are for the living, Summer, but for people who have come into our lives and are now gone it’s best to bring a stone and leave that as a remembrance.”

“Stone?” The word sounded like something she should know, but Summer’s brow scrunched up.

“A rock.”

“A rock is silly, Bernie.”

“Think of it this way, if you left a flower how long do you think it would last?” Summer’s shoulders shrugged not knowing the answer. “Not very long before it got all wilted, and in my family buying flowers for someone who cannot enjoy them is seen as wasteful. What did your grandmother like doing?”

“She liked going to this place with other really old people and playing games.”

“Don’t you think she’d like for someone to buy her friends a new game instead of spending the money on flowers?”

“I don’t have money.”

“Not now, but when you get older you will. My mom and dad liked different things too, and that’s what I give my money to so they’ll be happy.”

“In heaven?”

Little white lies never hurt anyone especially when it saved you from a circular conversation with a five-year-old that was guaranteed to end in a headache. “Yes, in heaven.”

“But why do we leave a rock?”

“The stone is our calling card that we were here. When we come back we’ll see it and know that we took the time to come for a visit and remember how special the person is to us.”

“So a flower is for a little while and a rock is for a really long time.”

“For eternity if we’re lucky.” Julian pulled two smooth small stones out of her pocket and handed them to Summer. “You want to leave some so you can remember that you were here?”

Julian watched as Summer stood on her toes to reach the top of the marble markers. If she needed a sign that her life would be all right, it came in the form of a small child who only wanted to be loved and love her in return. Summer didn’t care about her money, she cared about Julian reading her stories and holding her hand after a bad dream. It was the same with Tiger and Kiki, and it cemented Julian’s resolve.

************************************************************************

“Welcome back, guys. How’s the patient?” asked Julian as she headed for the trunk of Kiki’s car to get their bags. Chris had gotten a flu that had almost landed her in the hospital after she couldn’t keep anything down for a few days.

“She started bitching about everything a couple of days ago. That’s when I was sure she was on her way to a speedy recovery. Did you miss me?” Kiki whispered as she leaned into the trunk with Julian.

Julian kissed the cute nose and couldn’t wait for some privacy. “I must’ve not done a good job in all those phone calls if you don’t know if I missed you or not.”

“The ones that left me quivering and wanting to go put a pillow over Chris’ head to put her out of her misery so I could come home calls?” The teasing blonde pushed Julian to sit on the bumper so she could stand between her legs. “You did a great job, Bernie, but they were equally cruel as well. Think you can talk dirty to me tonight while we’re in the same room?”

“I’m counting on it.”

A trip to the kids’ favorite pizza place and a couple of hours of play later they were ready for bed. “Thanks for letting me stay with Tiger, Miss Kiki,” said Summer from the twin bed next to the little boy’s.

“He missed you so much that I didn’t think it was fair to make you spend the night apart. You have to promise to get some sleep though.” Kiki kissed Summer’s forehead like she had Tiger’s and left only a small nightlight on in the room.

“It’s just you and me now, Bernie,” whispered Kiki to the woman standing in the hall looking in at the two kids. “Got any ideas?”

Julian picked her up and carried her into the bedroom. “I’m sure I’ll think of something.”

************************************************************************

“Thank you for joining me for lunch,” Julian stood and held out her hand to the shorter man with wisps of white coloring the temples of his blonde head. “I’m Julian Lowe.”

“It’s nice to put a face to the name my kid’s talked about incessantly for months now.” The man took her hand in a strong grip then pointed for her to take a seat. “I’m Arthur Breaux.”

“Can I get you something to drink?” asked the waiter.

“Scotch neat,” answered Arthur.

“Make that two, thanks.” Julian smiled up at the young man before turning her attention back to the retired cop who looked like he’d rip her arm off and beat her with it if she said one wrong thing. “I wanted to talk to you before I talked to Kiki about something important.”

“Did you know Rhonda?”

“Yes, sir, we met a couple of times.”

“That girl never wanted to talk to me about anything. Let me tell you something, I don’t know how it happened that I ended up with a son who’s married and has some kids, and two daughters who chased more skirts than that boy ever thought about. Happened and there’s no sense talking it to death why, but what I do know is that it don’t matter if they’re gay or not, I don’t like people treating them like dirt.” He finished his drink in one gulp and pointed to the glass. “So what’s it you want to talk to me about?”

“I wanted to ask you for Katherine’s hand, sir.”

“You serious?”

“Dead.”

He cocked his head to the side and studied the whole picture Julian painted. “You know you got to take the kid too right?”

“Yes, sir, I assumed they came as a package deal. I love your daughter, Mr. Breaux, and I know you don’t know me but I want your blessing before I ask her to share her life with me.”

Arthur let out a laugh as he tore off a piece of bread the busboy had dropped off. “Hell, girl, now you sound like a fancy card. Can you take care of them?”

“What exactly do you mean by that?”

“You got a job? Kiki deserves a partner not some do nothing she’s got to drag along.”

Julian pointed to her own glass and sent up a prayer Kiki didn’t turn into her father with the passage of time. “What exactly did Kiki tell you about me?”

“She said your were tall, good looking, had blue eyes and liked boats. She also said you liked to play golf and would take me whenever I wanted.” He took a bite of bread and almost choked from the expression on Julian’s face. “I’m sorry I just couldn’t help messing with you. I thought it would loosen you up a little.” The pat on her shoulder was as surprising as the change in his face.

“I’m sorry, I don’t follow.”

“From what my little girl tells me, no you don’t, you’re more of a leader. You know what I see when I look at you?”

“A thoroughly confused person?”

“I see someone who makes my daughter happy, and someone who makes my grandson smile and that’s good enough for me. Now let’s eat and make plans for you to come over for dinner. Kiki’s mom would kill me if I didn’t offer, and since they took my gun when I retired I take her threats more seriously than ever.”

The rest of their talk went pretty much like the one she’d had with Nanna. Not that she needed her grandmother’s permission, but Julian wanted to share her good news with her so Eugenia could start planning the ceremony she’d imagined for years. Julian was sure she probably had Alice ironing the canopy already.

“So, Julian, when are you going to pop the question?”

“Everyone expects things like that on Valentine’s Day, but since that’s also the anniversary of a lot of other things in my life, I thought I ask a day early and really surprise her. I’m thinking after the sun goes down tonight I’ll take her out in the garden and see if she’s willing to spend a lifetime putting up with me.”

“Good luck, and thanks for asking me. I know it’s old fashioned but a father likes to be involved in his little girl’s future. It’s nice to know she has such a good one to look forward to.”

“Thank you, sir, that means a lot to me.”

“She was serious about the golf though, right?”

“Any Saturday morning you want.”

Julian left lunch and went to the jewelers to pick up the purchase she’d made a couple of days before. When she’d told Eugenia of her plan, she’d offered Birdie’s ring that she’d kept for safekeeping, but Julian had turned her down. It was a nice gesture, but Julian wanted something Kiki could call her own and not have to share a past with.

“Now all I need is for the girl to say yes,” Julian said as she snapped the black velvet box closed.

************************************************************************

“Kiki? Can I talk to you?”

The blonde just looked at her like she couldn’t believe she was standing there holding flowers. “What are those for?”

“They’re for you, just because. I wanted to come by and tell you something. What we have is something special, something I can’t live without. I’m sorry if this isn’t coming out right,” the speech continued when Kiki didn’t say anything. “I love you so much, and I have for so long. I know I made mistakes, but if we have love we can get past those.”

“What does that mean?” asked Kiki.

“It means you deserve all those things you never had before,” the box came out and snapped open with nervous hands. “It means I can’t live another day without you. Please say yes?” When there was still no answer she took the ring out and slipped it on Kiki’s limp finger and moved to kiss her.

Julian stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of Kiki’s in Rhonda’s embrace. It wasn’t like the kisses they has shared over the month they’d been together, and Julian couldn’t believe she was standing there comparing their experiences as she watched Rhonda deepen the kiss as Kiki’s hand came up and flattened against the other woman’s chest. She had sent the kids to the movie with Rudy and Rebecca wanting to the time to propose.

All afternoon, Julian had practiced what she was going to say and had finally given up, hoping the words would just come when she needed them. The walk to the guesthouse had been short since she’d almost run from the anticipation, stopping at the edge of some evergreen bushes when she heard voices.

Not wanting to listen and making yourself move were two different things and Julian felt like her feet had rooted in the grass. She waited for Kiki to tell her ex-lover to leave and for her to push her away when Rhonda kissed her but it didn’t happen. What did happen was Kiki led her into the house and closed the door shattering Julian’s heart with the click of the latch.

The ring she’d spent hours picking out fell from her hand and Julian just left it as she turned for the main house. She was looking for a place to go and hide from the pain, but all she found at the end of the drive was Deanne, Summer’s mother.

“Not tonight, God, please!” she whispered. After all the time Summer had been with her, Julian had hoped Deanne had forgotten about her.

“Are you all right?”

“Why are you here?” asked Julian, pulling herself together as much as possible.

The off the wall blonde came and hugged her like she was there to borrow a cup of sugar. “You know why I’m here, goof ball. Where is she?” Deanne looked around her like she expected Summer to pop out of Julian’s pocket.

“She’s at a movie.”

“Well I have a car waiting, so can you call and have her brought back? I got a good lead on some stuff in Florida in a couple of months so we’ll be crashing in the city until then with my friend.” Deanne pointed to the guy behind the wheel of an old Chevy.

It seemed surreal to her as Julian dialed the phone. One night was all it took to lose all that you care about. Summer and Julian shared tears as they helped Rebecca pack the little girl’s things. There was so much Julian wanted to say but no words would squeeze past the lump in her throat.

Summer turned at the last minute and ran back into Julian’s arms. “I wanted to give you something.” She reached into the Barbie backpack Nanna had given her and pulled out a small stone. “I found it in the park and I thought it was pretty.” Summer pressed it into Julian’s hand. “I want you to have it so you won’t forget me. Promise you’ll remember?”

“Forever, sweetheart.”

“Can I come back to see you, Bernie?”

“Whenever you want,” Julian pulled out a card from her wallet and put it in Summer’s pack. “If you need me, you call me ok? I’ll come get you any time you need me.”

“I love you, Bernie.”

“I love you too,” was all Julian was able to get out.

“Where’s she going, Bernie?” asked Tiger, confused as to what was happening.

Rudy picked the boy up and started toward the garden intent on taking him to Kiki. “Don’t,” Julian’s voice stopped him. “She has company and I doubt they want to be disturbed. Just get the boy something to eat and put him to bed.”

There was something else wrong but Rudy and Rebecca didn’t want to add to the moment with questions. They did as they were asked and took Tiger into the kitchen and fixed him dinner. When they walked back toward the den and sat the boy in front of the television, Rudy went in search of Julian. On the desk in her study there were two letters. One addressed to them and the other for Eugenia.

With his heart pounding with fear, Rudy used the heavy letter opener and sliced open the envelope for he and his wife, terrified Julian was planning something crazy. When he finished he ran toward the bedroom finding her bag missing along with some of her gear.

Julian was gone.

************************************************************************

February 13, 2003

Despite the cruelties of life, the coming of another day proves that time marches on whether you are ready for it or not. Out here the only worry is the wind and the water, but I can’t help but dwell on the things lost.

I wish I was one of those people who could say, I wish them well if they belong together, but I’ve learned something new about myself – I’m selfish. Is it wrong to want someone to love me and share their true self with me? I guess there’s no real answer to that and if there is it’s hidden so well I’ll never find it.

Another year and I have survived another birthday. That’s all there is to say except what I had I lost and all I have to remember it by is a stone given to me by a child. I won’t forget her no matter how many of these days I celebrate, but from now on that’s all I want to do, just remember. I shall leave love to others who are better suited for it.

Kiki, I wish you well. Take care and may you find happiness. I love you. I have no stone from you so I’ll carry you in my heart. There is no other choice since I can’t bear the thought of letting you go completely, but keeping you so close means I will never have room for another in my life.

Well it seems I can be selfless if I really try. With months ahead of me I think I’ll do something out of character. I’m going to re-read these volumes I’ve packed and hopefully I’ll find the person I wrote about. I’ll find myself.

The pen went into the top of the desk in the captain’s cabin and Julian left the journal open so the ink would dry. By the window she had set up her Yartzeit candles. The match sounded loud as she struck it, but the rather strange surroundings didn’t dim the importance of the moment. Below her the new engines of the Sea Dragon were set to quarter speed, and the crew was taking the first watch as they slowly cruised down the Mississippi, but Julian felt better having gone through the yearly ritual.

With a cup of coffee, Julian stepped onto the deck and looked up at the night sky before concentrating on the passing shoreline. They were on their way to the Middle East for a pickup of crude for some of the islands in the Caribbean, then on to South America to make another pickup. The trip there would make them good time since the holds of the ship were empty. With every mile they traveled further from New Orleans, the more she tried to put the events of the past year out of her mind. It didn’t work when she felt the weight in her pocket.

The small stone with red specks made tears run down her face. “Promise you’ll remember,” Summer had said before Deanne took her away. Even without the physical reminder Julian would never forget.

When she returned to her cabin Julian added one last thing to the opened journal.

Love, even if for a day in the span of a lifetime, is worth the effort.

She closed the journal and placed Summer’s rock on the top. Even if she never found the same kind of love with anyone else, the memory of what she’d shared for a very short time would live in those pages and it would have to be enough.

The End

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