Saturday morning — 4:25 A.M.
Sandy opened her eyes. Rolling over, she jerked back.
Where was she? Where were the kids?
Moving to get up, she realized she was naked. Aden was naked.
Ah crap. She grimaced to herself. She’d really fucked this up.
Last night, Aden said he would look after the kids when she’d had a wedding party request a special Friday night appointment. With Pete living at the shop, she’d felt safe enough to take evening clients. And wedding parties were great money which she sorely needed right now.
She knew Nash wanted to talk to his Dad about starting at Park Hill Elementary on Monday and Noelle just wanted to spent time with him. But Social Services hadn’t granted him any time with the kids. Yet. Last night was just a chance for the kids to see their father without Social Services knowing.
She’d insisted they eat dinner with the rest of the Castle family. After a month and a half of whole, real food, she wasn’t going to risk the kids reverting back to their chicken nuggets diet. Plus Jill would keep an eye on them.
“Yes, yes, sure,” Aden had said.
The wedding party’s infectious cloud of excitement had drifted into Sandy. She’d returned from work a little after eight. She smiled her way through a quick shower then went to find the kids. She’d looked all over the Castle for them and finally knocked on Aden’s apartment door.
Aden had opened the door wearing only his jeans. His twice-a-day prison workouts had enhanced his washboard stomach and wide shoulders. He’d gone from fit to incredibly hot. She had to gulp back the primal feelings generated by his body.
“Are the kids here?” she’d said.
“We try to settle down around eight,” Sandy said. “But they’re usually awake until nine.”
“They crashed,” he said. “I let them take my bed. They seem so grown up. It’s nice they can still share a bed.”
“They’re not supposed to spend the night away from me.”
“I’ll wake them,” he said. He turned to get the kids.
“What is it with Social Services?” Sandy asked. “They really don’t like you. I’ve never heard of a case where a parent lost custody like you have. And all this struggle to get it back!”
“They don’t like fathers.” Aden turned back to the door.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” Aden said. “Maybe they don’t like people who’ve made mistakes. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I only had the custody I had before because Nuala didn’t want the custody she was awarded.”
“Do you want the kids back?”
Aden sighed. He held the door open for her to come in.
That was her first mistake. She should have said good night and gone back to her apartment.
But he’d opened the door and she’d walked into the one bedroom apartment. Aden had been watching hockey on television with the sound off. He gestured to the couch. She sat down in a nearby armchair. He sat down on the couch. After a long look at the television, he shut it off.
“Do I want the kids back?” Aden asked. “I want my life back. Yes, I want the kids back. I want my best friend and lover back. The only thing I have is my job and with the new owner employee structure, I’ll have to fight for that. Thank God, I have my sobriety.”
“I didn’t come here to argue with you.” Sandy moved to get up.
“When are we going to talk about this, Sandy? The kids are asleep. You can go check on them yourself. You’re not working. I’m not working. No one is around. Why not talk about us, our life?”
“What’s left to say?” Sandy asked.
“Outside of the basic details of the kids, you don’t talk to me. I’ve been your friend for seven years. For the first time in all that time, I have no idea what’s going on with you. How do you like owning your own studio? How is it working out with Pete? Do you see the same people? How are you feeling? Are you still working out? I don’t know anything. I’ve seen you every day this week and I miss you more then when I was in prison.”
“I can’t afford you,” Sandy said. “I’m exhausted. My feelings are hurt. Everywhere I turn there are three or four things I forgot to do. I can’t afford the mental and emotional drama that goes along with you.”
“What if there’s no drama?” Aden smiled. “I’ll rub your feet.”
Not really believing him, she lifted her right foot.
Second mistake. She should have left, walked out. Said she was tired and gone back to the apartment. But she didn’t.
He slipped off her shoe and began to rub her feet.
“I bet these are sore,” he said. “Have you gained weight?”
“Not a lot,” Sandy said. “The doctor thinks I’ve lost weight even though I’m about fifteen pounds heavier. I was always kind of soft. I’m not anymore.”
Aden’s fingers were sheer bliss for her tired feet. She felt waves of tension release from her legs. She leaned back into the chair.
“How do you like owning your own studio?” he asked.
“I like it. Pete’s working out well. I think he and Molly are going to go on a date tomorrow night. God, Molly. She’s one brave woman. But then they have three kids. She told me she’s hanging in there with Pete for the kids.”
“I think she really loves him,” Aden said. “Like I used to think you loved me.”
“That’s so unfair.” Sandy jerked her foot out of his lap and slipped on her shoe. “I’ve been here cleaning up the wreckage you left behind and you expect everything to be hunky dory. Just say ‘I’m sorry’ and it’s all over. That’s not how it works, Aden.”
Jumping to her feet, she moved toward the door. He reached the door before she could open it.
“Don’t leave.” Aden stood with his hand holding the door closed.
“You’re standing in the middle of how much I love you and you refuse to see it,” Sandy said. “I take care of your children. I’ve paid your bills. I’ve negotiated with Social Services. All of this crap doesn’t have anything to do with me. My entire life has turned upside down because of you. And you want more. What more can you possibly want from me?”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m being selfish and ungrateful.”
“I cannot afford you,” Sandy said.
She tried to get out the door. He held it closed.
“I’ve started going to therapy,” Aden said.
She stopped moving. Facing the door, she worked to catch her breath.
“I realized that I created all this chaos because I don’t like myself very much. I don’t. That’s true,” Aden said. “I’ve always put the kids in therapy. They don’t need therapy. I do. I’m on a whole life program. Mind, body, spirit. I’ve been going to meetings. I’ve got a new trainer. You’d laugh but I even went to confession.”
“You’re not Catholic,” she said.
“Actually, I am,” he said. “I was raised Catholic. I figured you would baptize my son, so I should get back up to speed.”
“Your son is already baptized.”
His large hands touched her belly.
And that was it.
She didn’t remember who made the first move. Probably Aden.
They were naked in moments. His hands moved over her body then his mouth. Pressed against the door, she rushed to climax. He lifted her from where she stood and carried her to the couch.
He’d left her for a moment and returned with condoms. He hadn’t been tested since prison. While he was sure there wasn’t an issue, he didn’t want her to worry since he bled in prison. She’d laughed.
Yet in that deep place which keeps track of things, she counted this in his favor.
He was insatiable. He wanted every piece of her. They made love for hours. At some point, he went to his kitchen. He and the kids had made her chocolate chip cookies.
And that place that keeps track of things scored him another point for making her favorite cookies.
They ate cookies and milk until he was ready to go again. And go they did.
Sandy looked at the clock. She’d been asleep for about three hours. She groaned. The kids would be up soon.
“Regrets?” Aden asked.
“I love you Sandy.”
She sat up. He touched her back.
“There’s no reason for us to be apart,” he said.
“There are some reasons.”
“Yes, I fucked up. Yes, I betrayed you. Yes, I didn’t believe that I deserved my great life so I messed it up and left you to pick up the pieces. That’s a shitty selfish thing to do,” Aden said. “I’m not perfect. I don’t do things perfectly. All I can do is try to be the best man I know how to be. Every day.”
He wrapped his arms around her so that his hands held the baby.
“I can’t live in the dog house forever. Help me be the person you need. Teach me how to be your partner.”
“I have to think,” she said.
Sandy pulled on her clothing while Aden watched. She was almost done when he pulled his pants on.
“I still feel stupid.”
She moved to leave. He grabbed her hand and she looked up at him.
“Why not feel brave?” Aden said. “Sandy the lion hearted. You are incredibly brave.”
“Sandy the lion hearted?” she laughed.
“When you think of us, Sandy, think of this,” Aden said. “No one is going to try harder than I will. I want to be the very best person I can be – for you, my children, but more than anything for myself. You’ve suffered because of me. You have a right to be angry. But no man will ever love you more than I do, fight harder to be your friend and partner. No man.”
Unable to stop herself, Sandy’s eyes filled with tears. Aden held her. When she was able to push her sorrow away, he let go. He kissed her nose.
“I have to get to work,” he said. “Do you want to take some time?”
She nodded then turned to go. Slipping around her, he caught her at the door. He kissed her in a way that consumed her mind and ignited her body. She smiled.
“Come back in about forty minutes,” he said. “You can stay here until the kids get up.”
“They need to be up soon. Nash has a soccer tournament today and tomorrow. Then we go to a birthday party at one of those nasty cute girl’s houses,” Sandy said. “Her mom invited both kids.”
“I can’t tell you how much I love hearing you mother Nash and Noelle.”
“Sandy, the keeper of schedules,” she smiled.
“Thank you,” he said.
“For giving me a chance,” he said. “I will prove myself to you. You’ll see.”
Sandy gave him a soft smile then left the apartment. Climbing the stairs to her apartment, she was overcome with sorrow. She had to grit her teeth to keep from weeping in the stairwell. She moved through the apartment to her shower. Under the warm water, she wept.
Saturday afternoon — 4:25 P.M.
Honey spun her wheelchair in place. Delphie hadn’t spoken to her since she’d ‘died.’ It had been a week since Johansen was killed, the Castle destroyed and Delphie had a stroke. In the week, Honey had taken over planning the meals. Right now, Honey was setting up for a family bar-be-que.
“Delphie?” Honey asked.
“I wanted to ask you something,” Delphie said.
Honey wondered if she should say something about the ‘being dead’ thing or just let it go. She decided to just smile. Delphie’s warm welcome into this life was one of the reasons she’d moved in. Honey could return the favor.
“I guess we haven’t spoken in a while,” Delphie said.
“I always like talking with you, Delphie,” Honey said. “It’s one of the things I like about living here.”
“Is MJ home?”
Honey brightened at her husband’s name.
“He’s home all week for the sentencing.” She nodded. “Plus Alex wants to take care of her bees. So they aren’t going anywhere.”
“I’ve learned that when you ask a question, you already know the answer,” Honey said. She turned back into the refrigerator. “So you know that we’re staying home this weekend. MJ is working with Jake on the Castle today. Jill, Sandy and I have been working in the garden. Alex is coming over on Sunday to teach me and Sandy how to take care of the bees.”
“I guess I knew that,” Delphie said.
“Tonight, we’re having a bar-be-que,” Honey said. “Everyone’s coming: some of Val’s Denver friends; my Mom and little sisters; Blane and Heather and little Mack; Jill’s sister Meg and her kids; Steve and Leslie and their brand new baby, Elisa; Jill’s other sister, Candy, and her Mom. I guess Candy is living with Anjelika now. Anyway, everyone will be here. We’re celebrating our lives, your survival, and Mike and Val’s return to Prague.”
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” Delphie said.
Honey found the steaks Jill was marinating in the refrigerator. Jill was always great about putting things low enough for Honey to find them. Honey set the steaks on the counter and turned back to the refrigerator to look for the chicken.
“I wanted to talk to you about being dead,” Delphie said.
Honey backed out of the refrigerator to look at Delphie.
“You and MJ… You both died,” Delphie said.
“I… Oh never mind,” Delphie said. Delphie began walking out of the kitchen.
“MJ says that Celia saved his life,” Honey said.
Delphie stopped walking.
“He says Celia made him tourniquet his leg. He doesn’t know how he did it,” Honey said. “No one’s really sure how he did it. But he did. If Celia hadn’t helped him, he wouldn’t be my husband.”
Delphie stood still. She nodded then moved toward the door. Honey wasn’t going to give up. Delphie wanted something.
“I remember dying,” Honey said.
Standing in the doorframe, Delphie stopped walking again.
“Do you?” Honey asked.
“It’s confusing, isn’t it?” Honey asked. “I bet it’s really confusing for you. MJ and I, we’re just people. No special powers, no sixth sense. We had this experience and it’s like the deepest thing that’s ever happened to us. But you have all these skills and powers. You’ve lived in both planes for all your life. It would be really weird, I think.”
When Delphie turned, Honey saw her lips pursed. Delphie opened her mouth and closed it.
“When I was first injured, it was really hard to adjust,” Honey said. “It was like I walked through this long hidden tunnel. Then whaa la, I’m on the other side. But to everyone else, it was like a minute or two. At least I looked like something happened.”
Honey gestured to her wheelchair.
“Outside of your great new haircut and the stitches your leg, which no one can really see because you wear those flowing dresses, you look the same,” Honey said. “Even to yourself.”
Honey turned back to the refrigerator to look for the chicken.
“I see the change every day. So does everyone else. That’s hard because I want to be me. Just me. MJ struggles with that too because of his leg,” Honey said. “But in some ways, it’s a lot easier. Everyone knows something happened to me. Of course, with the trial everyone knows a lot about me. There’s the chicken!”
Honey pulled the marinating chicken from the refrigerator.
“You look like you went to a good hairdresser, not through death and back.”
When Honey set the chicken on the counter, she saw that Delphie was crying. She wheeled over to Delphie and held her arms out. Delphie dropped to her knees to hug Honey.
“I bet Jake could talk to you about this,” Honey said. “He has amazing gifts and he almost died.”
“Jake’s…” Delphie shrugged.
“Yeah, Jake’s a rock. He doesn’t count,” Honey said.
Honey hugged Delphie until she sighed and shifted back.
“What was it like for you?” Delphie asked.
“It happened twice for me. Once just over there.” Honey pointed to the spot near the long stairwell where her sister had attacked her. “That time it was just like bang. One minute I’m fighting with my sister and the next minute I’m floating away. I saw MJ battling for my life and… I came back to watch…mostly. I don’t think I knew I wasn’t dead until later… like at Craig.”
“And the other time?”
“Well, it wasn’t like they say in the movies. No white light. No dramatic speeches or anything. I remember being so, so sad. I’d just married MJ. Jake, Sam and everybody were becoming my first real family. I felt like I had just gotten everything I’d ever wanted and it was taken from me. Mostly, I didn’t want to leave the people I love. The first time was so fast. But the second time… Man, I just have to think of it and I feel that desperate sorrow again.”
Honey shook her head. Her eyes filled with tears.
“What sorrow?” MJ said as he walked into the room. “What’s wrong?”
“Dying,” Honey said.
“Oh hell, I felt that,” MJ said. “God, I kept thinking about my sister and brother and how screwed they would be. I felt so much regret for all the things I hadn’t done… like make up with Honey or have a child or…”
Rather than fumble through the rest of the sentence, MJ shook his head.
“Did you feel that sad?” Honey asked.
Delphie nodded. MJ put his hand on Delphie’s shoulder.
“Jake,” MJ said to Jacob as he walked in the door. “Did you feel sad when you almost died?”
“Sad? No. Horrible grief? Yes. Why?”
“I don’t know,” MJ said. “Honey and Delphie were talking about it.”
Honey, Jacob and MJ looked at Delphie. Delphie shook her head and stood up. She was about to walk out of the room when Jacob reached her. He held her to him.
“Thank you for staying. I would have missed you so very much,” Jacob said.
Delphie began to cry.
“What happened?” Valerie asked. “Jacob Marlowe, what did you do?”
Without waiting for an answer, she hugged Delphie. MJ lifted Honey from her chair so they could hug Delphie. Coming into the kitchen, Sam saw the hug and without hesitation joined. Jill and Sandy hugged Delphie. Katy squirmed her way through the adults to hold on to Delphie’s legs. Noelle, Nash and Aden held on. Even though Mike laughed when he saw the group, he couldn’t help but hug Delphie too.
They held onto the woman they loved.
For the first time since her stroke, Delphie held on too. After a moment, she sighed and they let go.
“Now get out of my kitchen,” Delphie said. “If it’s a celebration, I have some cheesecake to make.”
And they laughed.
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