CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE Sunday morning, 6:30 AM
Jill tapped on Mike and Val’s door. When no one answered, she knocked. Naked, Mike jerked open the door just as her hand moved to pounded on it. She thumped him on the sternum.
Mike nodded and swung the door closed.
“WAIT,” Jill said. She held the door open with her hand. “There’s a bunch of people here for you. They’re in the kitchen. They came through the tunnels. Alex said she knew the codes because she set them up?”
“It’s Alex Hargreaves and her twin Max and a bunch of people speaking French….”
“OH CRAP. Val! You have to get up!”
Mike moved into the hallway.
“Clothing?” Jill asked.
“Right,” he said.
He went back into the apartment. Jill stood in the doorway until he came out pushing Valerie in front of him. Valerie was wearing one of his dress shirts and his boxer shorts. Her hair was tied in a loose knot. In this unguarded moment, Valerie was stunningly beautiful. Mike pulled a t-shirt over his head as they started down the hall.
“Pants?” Jill asked.
“Oh crap. Keep her here.”
Mike jogged back into the apartment for a pair of jeans.
“Why are they here, Mike?” Val said.
The sleeves to his dress shirt hung over her hands. She rubbed her large hazel eyes with the shirt’s cuffs. The moment he was near her, she clung to him. He lifted her into his arms.
“Sorry, we just fell asleep,” Mike said. “She’s like this when she doesn’t sleep. She’ll snap out of it when she sees people.”
Jill grinned when she heard them kissing behind her. Jill jogged down the stairs to give them some privacy. When she entered the main kitchen, Alex was making coffee. Jill could see a crowd of people laughing and talking in the main Castle living area.
“Are they awake?” Alex asked.
“Barely. They are a little….”
Alex raised her eyebrows. She nodded her head toward the stairwell where Mike held Valerie in his arms. Mike was clearly trying to talk Val into meeting their guests; Valerie was only interested in kissing him.
“They’re always like that,” Alex said.
“I never knew there was a ‘they’,” Jill said.
“They have all this drama about whether they are together or not. But get them in the same room?”
“ROPER.” Alex commanded.
Mike’s head jerked up. Alex pointed toward the Castle living room. He carried Val through the kitchen and into the living room.
Jill had to step out of the way as Valerie ran past her. Val took the stairs two at a time. Valerie’s footstep pounded overhead. Wham. Their apartment door slammed closed.
“What was that?” Jill asked.
Mike poked his head into the kitchen. He looked at Jill then Alex.
“She’s a little excited,” Mike said.
Alex and Jill laughed.
Aden woke alone on the cramped twin guest bed.
And certain he had never felt so very alone.
Jill told him to go slow. He had tried to go slow. But last night….
He lost her.
Standing from the bed, he stretched his sore body. He smirked at himself in the guest bathroom. His neck, chest and back bore the unmistakable marks of passion created by Sandy’s teeth and nails.
And his heart ached with loss.
Sandy was gone, probably forever.
How could one man experience so much wonder and so much loss at the same time?
Hearing the water run, he remembered that the kids were home. He slipped downstairs to his bedroom, showered and dressed then went to find the kids. They weren’t in their rooms. Standing in the hallway, he heard Nash’s voice then Noelle’s voice coming from the kitchen. He went down the hall to find them.
“Oh, don’t worry, Sandy, we know all about sex,” Noelle said. “I haven’t had any sex. I don’t think Nash has had any sex either.”
“Nope,” Nash said. “But we saw a bunch this weekend.”
“Yeah,” Noelle said. “I didn’t like it. It wasn’t like Daddy said it was.”
“What do you mean?” Sandy asked.
“Well, Daddy says that sex is how adults play with each other. Like Nash plays soccer and I play gymnastics.”
“It didn’t look very fun,” Nash said.
“Why did you see sex?” Sandy asked.
“Because Nuala was doing drugs and having sex with men,” Nash said. “I told her that we couldn’t be around drugs. But she just laughed at me.”
“What do you mean?” Sandy asked.
“Daddy says that we have addict parents,” Noelle said. “Do you know what an addict is?”
“Dad says that because we have addict parents, we are more sensitive to drugs and alcohol. We can’t be around it,” Nash said. “That’s why I locked us in the closet.”
“That was a very smart and brave thing to do, Nash,” Sandy said.
“My brother was amazing,” Noelle said. “You should have seen him. He wouldn’t let them take me or….”
“Into the other room,” Noelle said. “They wanted to have sex with me. But I told them that I was NOT a grown up and I did NOT want to play with them. Then Nash locked us in the closet.”
Aden’s heart seized with rage. No wonder Nuala was so adamant that she wanted the kids this weekend. Nuala’s party plans included his daughter. He rushed forward to comfort his kids but stopped in his tracks. Sandy’s neutral kindness was helping the kids. He paced back and forth to cool his rage.
“That’s why you called the police?” Sandy asked.
“Yeah,” Nash said. “Dad gave me a phone and told me to call him if I needed him. I was going to call but then I hoped he was with you… on a date. Dad said he was going to see you when we talked. So I called the police.”
“I think you both are very brave,” Sandy said. “Muffin?”
Aden heard the kids move forward. Blowing out the last of his rage, he walked forward into the kitchen. Noelle sitting on a bar stool at the kitchen median while Nash was sitting in front of the kitchen computer. They were both eating muffins.
“DADDY!!” Noelle said.
She jumped off the stool to hug Aden. Nash joined them.
“We were just talking to Sandy,” Noelle said. “We like her a lot. Plus, she made blueberry muffins. Don’t they smell great? She made coffee too. Do you want some? I can get it.”
Aden kissed Noelle’s head, then Nash’s.
“It’s great to have you here” Aden said. “I need to steal Sandy from you.”
“Ok Daddy,” Noelle said. “She has to go anyway. But she said she would come back to see us.”
“Can we go to splash fountain today?” Nash asked.
“And the zoo?” Noelle asked.
Taking Sandy’s hand, Aden led her into his basement bedroom. He wrapped her in his arms and she giggled.
“Last night was….”
“Incredible,” Sandy said. “Yeah.”
He brushed her lips with his lips.
“I thought you’d gone… that I’d blown it… that….”
Sandy put her finger over his lips.
“I heard Noelle crying. She was standing in the hall looking for you. She didn’t want to disturb you… us…. She seemed to know who I was - which was weird….”
“We don’t have a lot of secrets around here.”
“I’m glad. I told her I would make her some blueberry muffins. She woke Nash. We talked. That’s all that happened. They had an awful time at their Mom’s.”
“Sounded like you’re really good with kids.”
“I took care of my little sister and brother a lot.” Sandy shrugged. “I think they need you. Can you take Monday off?”
“I can but keeping to the schedule helps them feel more normal than hanging around with me.”
“Jill’s baby Katy is like that.”
He tugged her toward him and she rested her head on this chest.
“I have to get going,” Sandy said. “I meet Jill for breakfast and church every week. We’re hanging out today. Val said she would let us go through her old dresses since we didn’t find anything at the mall. Plus, it’s the one week anniversary of the non-date. Delphie told Katy she would make a cake.”
“Quite a week.”
Sandy stepped back a bit to look at him. “Thanks for… last night.”
“When do I get to see you again?”
“Sandy… what did you decide?”
“After last night?” Sandy smiled. “Oh yeah.”
“I’m Frederic,” a young man said in heavily accented English.
“Nice to meet you, Frederic. I’m Mike.”
“Yes. I need you to take your clothing off.”
“Why?” Mike asked.
“I have to see what your body looks like in order to make sure we get something that looks right…um… right for you.” The man touched his arm. “I can’t tell with this on.”
“But…” Mike said.
The young man cocked his head and laughed. He said something in French and they all laughed.
“Why don’t you hit the showers?” Alex asked. She pointed to his unbuttoned 501s.
“He’s not coming into my shower,” Mike said.
“You’re such a homophobe,” Alex said. “Chill out. I’ve had to take my clothes off in front of everyone too. Scared them with my scars. Frederic? You want him in underwear.”
The young man said something in French. Everyone laughed.
“Do you have any briefs?” Alex said. “He won’t like your boxers.”
Mike looked at Alex then nodded.
“Great. Wear those,” Alex said. She whispered to him, “They’re very particular about undergarments. They usually just buy mine but they know my sizes and stuff.”
Mike nodded to Alex and started walking toward the kitchen. When he turned into the stairwell, he foundValerie peeking around a corner. Valerie was dressed with full make up and her hair was curled. She looked every bit the movie star.
“Do you know who that is?” Val whispered. “That’s Claire Martins. She’s a world famous designer. Designs for the Queen and…. No one in Hollywood has worn her dresses… and they’ve tried. I….”
“I mean real ‘A-list’ stars have begged to wear her gowns. Remember that vintage Dior gown that Reese wore? Her stylist camped out in Paris for a week to see if he could get a Martins’ gown. He found the other gown while he killing time between begging. He though that beautiful dress was a good second. A second to a Claire Martins gown! And…”
“She wants to talk to you, Val.”
“Where are you going?” Val asked.
“Alex said shower. Just following orders.” Mike shrugged. “Honey, just go talk to them.”
He gave her a little push toward the living room.
Val stood in the doorway to the main Castle living room watching Mike’s guests. Alex and Max were clearly a part of this little group. Claire Martins had a long black braid down her back and was carrying a baby in a bjorn across her chest. There was a young man stretched out on the couch. They seemed so happy together…and so French. Val’s heart raced with panic.
Max saw her from across the room. She couldn’t escape now. She raised her hand to say ‘hello.’
“This is my dear friend, Claire,” Alex said. She came over to give Val a hug. Leaning in, she said, “She speaks English but she’s impossible to understand when she’s excited. Do you speak French?”
Val shook her head.
“No problem, I’ll translate,” Alex said. “Claire brought a few dresses for you to look at. I guess you’re having a party next week?”
Val nodded her head.
Alex puzzled at Val’s timidity then shrugged, “Claire has a line of clothing coming out in the Fall. She wanted to know if you might take a look. She thinks the clothing will look great on you.”
Val nodded. Smoothing her hair, Val glanced at Claire just as Claire’s baby peeked over at her. Val’s heart melted. Her anxiety slipped away in the dark eyes of the six month old baby.
“Meet Gerard,” Claire said. “Would you like to hold him?”
“I… I’m a little baby crazy right now,” Val said.
“I’ve always been baby crazy,” Claire said. “Why don’t you hold Gerard and I will take some measurements. Ok?”
Val nodded. She took the baby from Claire. Enraptured by the warm bundle in her arms, she didn’t notice Claire buzzing around her.
When Mike returned to the Castle living room, Val was singing to the baby. His heart stood still at the sight. She looked up at him and smiled.
He jerked back to the present when the young man touched him. Frederic was holding a couple pieces of fabric up to him.
“What are you doing?” Mike asked.
“I need to know what colors work on you and get your measurements,” Frederic said. “Don’t worry man, you’re not my type.”
“You’re not gay? I mean, I don’t care if you’re gay, I just don’t want….”
“My girlfriend would hate it if I was gay,” Frederic said.
“How come you do this?” Mike asked.
“We don’t choose our gifts,” Frederic laughed. “My mother is a great designer. You’ll see when your wife tries the off the rack. Maman also brought a couple of her gowns.”
Mike nodded his head as if he understood. He mostly hoped the young man would stop touching him. Mike didn’t like to be touched very much. In fact, outside of a quick hug from people close to him, the only person who touched him was Val.
“What are you comfortable wearing?” Frederic asked.
“Your legs are too big for these Levis,” Frederic said. “They can’t fit well.”
“They don’t. But I like them.”
Frederic shook his head, “Bring me what you have.”
Mike went off to the apartment for his jeans. When he returned, Valerie was wearing a brown pencil skirt with a jacket. The brown was just a shade lighter than her dark hair. She was so beautiful that he had to stop to catch his breath.
“Wait until you see the gowns,” Frederic said. “This is our first attempt at an off the rack line. It’s nice. Yes?”
“Yes,” Mike said. “What does that mean? ‘Off the rack’?”
“It’s a line that can be sold off a rack in a store,” Frederic said. “My father retired and needed something to do. This was his idea. So, we’re trying women’s clothing in the fall and men’s in the spring. Maman wants to create children’s clothing as well.”
Mike nodded again as if he understood.
“These are the jeans?” Frederic asked. “Can you put them on?”
One after another Mike put on his jeans while Frederic watched. Finally, he shook his head. He said something in French and Max came over.
“He wants to know if we can get you some other jeans,” Max said to Mike. “Where did you get these?”
Mike shrugged. “What’s wrong with them?”
“They’re too small,” Max said.
“They fit the waist,” Mike said. “I just deal with the leg thing.”
“That’s why they rip right here.” Max pointed to rips near the crotch of each of Mike’s jeans. “I’ll keep a list. We already have undergarments. Jeans are easy. Levis?”
“Yeah. But they can’t be too big. They fall off me.”
Speaking very slowly, Max said, “Frederic will tailor them. That’s what he does.”
“Oh,” Mike said. “Sorry this is all….”
Mike stopped talking when Valerie turned around in the gown. He put his hand over his heart certain it had stopped beating. Valerie caught his look and smiled.
Max tapped his arm.
“Frederic brought a tux for you. He had to guess at the size. He thinks it’s too small. Do you have a tux you wear when you drive?”
Mike nodded. Frederic made a motion with his hand.
“We’d go back there but you were….” He said a word in French.
“Frightened,” Max translated.
“Oh, come on,” he said.
One by one, Mike tried on his clothing while Frederic shook his head and spoke in French to Max. To Mike’s surprise, Frederic liked some of his favorite shirts and pants. Before he could figure a pattern, they had exhausted his closet.
When they returned to the living room, Val was wearing a pant suit. Claire was speaking in very rapid French with Alex was translating. Val looked over at him in desperation. He slipped his arm over her shoulder.
“What’s going on?” He asked.
“Claire just asked Val to be her exclusive media representative,” Alex said.
“Exclusive…. What?” Mike asked.
“That’s spokesmodel to you! I think Val’s a little overwhelmed. She looks great in the clothing. But there’s a Ramon…?”
“You look so much better than in anything he’s put you in,” Mike said. “Let’s ask Jen. She’s still in town right?”
Val nodded, “She’s setting up Oprah.”
“Oprah?” Claire said. She nodded. “That would be very good for us. This line is not expensive but well-made. For the every day woman who wants to look….”
“Classy,” Alex finished Claire’s sentence. “Where’s Jill? Claire thought Jill would be perfect too but she disappeared.”
“She went back upstairs,” Mike said. “She’s painting and wanted to finish the trim before Mass.”
Alex and Claire spoke in rapid fire French for a moment.
“Can you get Jill, Mike? We think she would look great too.”
At the mention of Jill, Valerie lit up.
“We could both be spokesmodels?” Val asked.
“Two exclusive media representatives?” Alex frowned.
“Oui,” Claire said as if it was obvious.
While Valerie hesitated to hurt someone’s feelings, in this case Ramon’s tender designer feelings, she loved to spread good fortune. And Val loved Jill. Mike smiled at the change in her and kissed her nose.
“Call Jen and I’ll get Jill.”
Denver Cereal continues next week….
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