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Broken Mirrors

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Broken Mirrors

Chapter 11: Songs of Summers Lost

 

And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

-- Sonnet XLIII- Edna St. Vincent Millay

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

They had all tried to pretend that it didn't matter - that time had not shifted into a new dimension at that one critical juncture - but they hadn't quite managed to pull it off.

Even Paige, still glowing and pristine, wrapped up within the innocent splendor of childhood, could not avoid that brutal truth.

They had all been deprived of the gift of not knowing.

Scotty had a son - a child of his own loins; the child that should have been the living embodiment of a beautiful union, a marriage that should have bound two souls into eternity, but was now nothing more than a shattered memory. A child shared by two parents. Just not . . . the right parents.

"How long have you known?"

Strangely, it was neither Sarah nor Nora who asked the question. It was Saul, and, somehow, it was even more painful for the origin of the inquiry.

"Just a few days," Scotty answered, bracing his back against the serving bar in the newly-converted private salon - the one he almost never entered. He had, however, entered voluntarily this time, knowing that this was the right place to have this conversation, whether he liked it or not. There was no comfort to be found - anywhere - and that seemed appropriate, to both the place and the moment.

The brunch participants had all departed quickly, having thoroughly enjoyed the food and the camaraderie, but all sensing - somehow - that lingering would not be a good idea. The looks on the faces of the Walker family members had been cordial enough, but just slightly off, somehow; just slightly perturbed - perturbed enough to discourage curiosity or questions.

Nora, in particular, seemed almost spellbound, as she continued to stare at the face of the little boy who was now happily seated in a high chair, being fed spoonfuls of luscious pancakes dripping with amber syrup by a girl who would have been - should have been - familiar to him; his cousin, in a different reality.

"I never agreed to this." That was Michelle, protesting, but too little, too late at this point, who had looked as if she were on the verge of bolting as the Walkers had first approached, their eyes riveted to the child braced against her body. Scotty had almost been surprised that she had not actually done so, but then he'd realized the truth. No way could she have run far enough or fast enough to escape the focus of this relentless group; even if she'd managed to evade the rest, Sarah would have run her down, pursuing with the determination of a dreadnought.

Strangely, though each family member appeared devastated, it was Sarah that seemed most affected, most horror-stricken.

She had said very little, but her eyes shouted volumes. Still, she'd spoken only once - uttered only seven words.

"How could you do this to them?"

She did not, of course, alter the words - did not actually substitute "to him" for "to them", but everyone in the room heard it anyway.

Michelle - wisely - had attempted no answer, correctly identifying the emotion flaring in Sarah's eyes as rage, rapidly evolving into something even more frightening.

"He has your eyes, Scotty," said Nora, almost managing to control the tremor in her voice. Then she looked up, and there was no way he could avoid identifying the terrible pain in her eyes. "Obviously, there's a story here - one that we haven't heard. Which raises another issue, greater even than our ignorance."

"Nora . . ."

But the matriarch of the Walker clan was not going to be sidetracked by an apology, no matter how sincere. "Did he know?" Her words were rimed with pure ice. "Is that what really drove him away?"

Scotty felt his strength fail him as he staggered and dropped into a chair. "How could you think that?" he gasped.

"How could I not?" she retorted, and even Saul, who had known his sister all her life, had never imagined that she could express such outrage, thick with menace, with such a simple question. "My son is gone," she continued relentlessly, "and yet, here sits yours - the one who was meant to complete your family, his family. What else am I supposed to think?"

"Nora, I didn't . . ."

"Scotty didn't know," said Michelle abruptly, as she stepped forward and moved to lift the little boy, who was the focus of every eye, from his place in the high chair.

But it was not going to be that easy, and she took a deep breath as she realized that she should have known better. Both Sarah and Saul moved to intervene, but it was Nora's voice that actually caused her to go cold and still.

"Stop right there, young woman," snapped the family matriarch. "If you think I won't call in the law, in order to get this sorted, think again. And if you think the Walker family name doesn't carry enough political clout around here to give you more trouble than you can imagine, then you're not nearly as smart as you think you are." She paused then, and looked up to study Scotty's face. "As for what Scotty did or did not know . . . that's a question that will bear discussion, later. But for now, I want to know how this happened. What did you do?"

Michelle turned to Scotty, looking for - hoping to find - some kind of reprieve, but understood immediately that there was none to be had. His affection for her - whatever might be left of it - wouldn't save her now.

"I need a drink," she said, as she settled into a chair across the table from her old friend, but when he moved as if to grab a pitcher of the fruity libation which had been served to the brunch guests, she shook her head sharply. "A real drink," she snapped.

After a brief hesitation Scotty nodded to Saul, who went to the bar to retrieve a bottle of Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 whiskey, along with a tray of glasses. When he returned, he didn't ask; he simply poured and distributed to everyone around the table, except Paige, of course.

It was an accurate measure of Nora's distress that she tossed back the generous shot in one gulp. Then she set the glass down with a hard thud and studied Michelle's face with a hard glare. "What did you do?" she repeated.

Michelle finished her drink quickly and grabbed the bottle to pour another before speaking. "You have to understand," she said finally. "I never meant to . . . to hurt anyone. I never meant to take advantage. It was just . . . I just couldn't do it. I found . . . he meant too much to me."

"Um, hmm." That was Sarah, also grateful for the emotional boost of the bourbon. "And when - exactly - did you discover this maternal devotion? I mean, it had to be before he was born, didn't it? Very early in the pregnancy, in fact, because you managed to disappear before you were even showing. That's pretty quick to develop such an attachment, isn't it?"

"You've got kids," Michelle retorted. "When did you?"

Sarah's smile was cold and smug. "Ah, but I didn't have to develop those feelings, did I? I had them from the beginning, because they were my children, my flesh and blood growing inside me. But for you? Correct me if I'm wrong, but this was a business deal, wasn't it? From the beginning, it was a way for you to earn money - to make a big profit by doing a favor for a friend. Right?'

"Yeah, okay, it was, but . . ."

"And yet . . ." That was Nora, inserting herself into the conversation. "Somehow, between one day and the next, you decided that you'd fallen in love with the child growing inside you and simply couldn't part with it. One day, when you'd already been compensated - generously. Did you suddenly realize that there might be other ways for you to use the situation to your advantage, Michelle? That maybe a real baby, fully formed and beautiful, would give you terrific leverage to use against . . ."

"No! No, I didn't. I just wanted . . . I just . . ."

"Wanted what?"

Michelle, who had - until that moment - managed to maintain some degree of control and exude some small expression of impatience, was suddenly stark white and immobile. There was no mistaking the cold menace in Scotty's voice. "They're right, you know. You don't just fall in love with an unborn child between one breath and the next and decide that you just can't live without it. You were barely three months pregnant when we got the call - the call that . . . " He paused and fought to swallow around the lump in his throat. "The call that destroyed us." The note of finality in his voice was unmistakable, and when he looked up and met her eyes, she could hardly bare to read the malice she saw there. "You planned this, didn't you? All along, you planned . . ."

"No! Why would I do that? You think I wanted a child? Why would I . . ."

"Not a child," said Sarah suddenly, suspicion blossoming into certainty. "It wasn't a child you wanted. It was Scotty."

"Don't be ridiculous," Michelle replied. "I know what Scotty is. Who better? I've always known. So why would I . . ."

"Leverage." Again, no mistaking that voice, or the complete certainty it carried. Scotty leaned forward, almost invading her personal space. Almost, but not quite. "Tell me something, Old Friend. Did I ever know you at all? Did you . . ."

Michelle stood quickly. "I'm not going to sit here and listen to this shit. If you . . ."

"Yes. You are."

And, once more, there was no mistaking that voice. It was, after all, known around the world, on every news network or political broadcast channel; it also carried an unmistakable note of authority. Kitty Walker spoke with confidence, in the certainty that she wielded the political clout to back it up.

She had been unable to attend Paige's brunch, choosing instead to offer up a generous pledge of support. She had, in fact, been scheduled to be on a plane back to DC earlier in the day, but a minor local political snafu had delayed her, and now she was glad she had not departed on time. This was her place for now, here in the midst of primary Walker family business, and she would not willingly give up her part in it. Having rushed over after receiving Sarah's frantic call, she took a place beside her mother, spared a moment to meet Scotty's gaze with a look that promised discussion - and possible consequences - later, before turning to regard the pseudo-mother of her brother-in-law's son with no effort to disguise the raw contempt simmering in her eyes.

There was no trace of hesitation or uncertainty in her tone when she spoke. "Let's hear it, Michelle. The truth, now - without embroidery this time. Apparently, things didn't quite work out the way you planned in New York. That is why you're here, isn't it? And please don't insult us by pretending that you don't know what I'm talking about. It took one phone call to my resources to find out about your current circumstances, so don't bother with the act. You're in debt up to your eyeballs, and you're scrambling to avoid bankruptcy, so you come running back to LA, where you can use the leverage you obtained by breaking my brother's heart. Otherwise, you wouldn't be here."

"No. That's not true. I wouldn't do that. I . . . I didn't know how I'd feel about the baby, when I agreed to be the surrogate. I didn't realize . . . Scotty, tell them. You know me. You know I wouldn't . . ."

"No." Scotty's response was harsh and sharp. "The person I knew . . . the person I thought I knew wouldn't have done this to me." His eyes met hers, and she flinched away from the despair she read there. "Do you understand what you did . . . to us? To him?"

Kitty was not going to allow any digression or emotional appeal. "And this . . . passionate attachment formed in . . . what? A matter of a few days, wasn't it, between the last time you spent an evening with Scotty and Kevin, when they were still recovering from the accident and trying to come to terms with what happened, and the night when you called to tell them how devastated you were to have lost the baby. So devastated that you just couldn't stand to face them, so you were going to New York. To grieve, and to put the past behind you. That was what you told them, wasn't it?'

Michelle didn't answer, but Scotty did. "That was it - almost verbatim." He dropped his face into his hands, refusing to meet the eyes of his oldest friend. "You walked away and left us to believe that our child . . . our baby was lost. You took away . . ." He paused, struggling for breath - and words. "You took away our hope - our last chance to salvage something from our lives."

Michelle stood quickly. "I don't have to sit here and take this," she snapped. "The law isn't going to force me to . . ."

"Do you really want to go there?" That was Kitty again, with no trace of doubt in her tone. "You might assume that Scotty - out of the goodness of his heart and because of your history - would let you walk away, without consequences." Then she stood and moved deliberately into Michelle's personal space. "But you're not dealing with Scotty any more, little girl. I move in circles that revolve around political power you can't even imagine, and I have absolutely no compunctions about using my resources. With one phone call, I can change your life - forever - and not for the better. Trust me when I tell you that your best bet - and your only chance for salvaging anything of your life - is to sit down and be very careful that you answer our questions truthfully, hiding nothing. Make no mistake about it, Honey. For what you did to my brother, I could ruin you. Now - sit down, and choose your words wisely."

Scotty sat in his chair and stared at his sister-in-law - the one who had always been his least favorite of the family, except maybe for Tommy, who sometimes didn't seem to qualify as family at all. He swallowed around the lump in his throat as he realized something - something, he was pretty sure, he should have known a long time ago, but had never really stopped to understand. Whatever else Kitty Walker might be - political pundit, ultra-conservative extremist, right-wing mover and shaker, and yes, even self-centered egotist - she was one thing more, and it was, at this moment, the most important thing of all. She was the loving, protective big sister of Kevin Walker, and she was in the process of proving it, beyond all doubt.

Michelle would have had a better chance of surviving an encounter with a hungry Bengal tiger than coming out of this face-off intact.

Sitting as directed, clinching her hands in front of her, and pausing just long enough to direct a wistful glance toward the little boy who was still enjoying his pancakes and the attention of the cousin he'd never known, she did as she was told. She began to talk.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Despite her attempts to twist the facts and manipulate her listeners, it was not a complicated tale. Though she continued to claim that her actions were driven by an unexpected attachment to the baby growing within her - an attachment that seemed to form spontaneously, almost instantly, between one breath and the next - it was quickly obvious that a dawning awareness of how she might benefit from an association with the little boy and his biological parent had played a substantial role in her decision-making process.

Michelle was not a romantic; she was, in fact, remarkably pragmatic in her life's philosophy; comfort and financial security were her keys to happiness, and her goals started and ended with being able to live where and as she pleased and do whatever she wanted. She had gone through a phase of allowing herself to believe in the happily-ever-after premise of romantic relationships, but too many affairs, ending too quickly and badly, had fostered a growing cynicism in her personal aspirations; she had, finally, concluded that marriage - in a happily-ever-after sense - was not a part of her future. Her own history and that of her family had convinced her that any belief in enduring, romantic love was foolish. Thus, she'd decided, what was true for her would also prove true for her oldest, best friend.

Scotty and Kevin's marriage would fail, like everyone else's, and, when it did, she would be waiting in the wings, providing a perfect refuge and sufficient motivation for him to welcome her back into his life and give her the place and position she deserved.

Their reunion would not, of course, be sexual, but that hardly mattered. Sex was always available, whenever and wherever one required it.

Scotty, in the process of evaluating the truthfulness - or lack thereof - of her story slowly grew to believe that she had, in fact, grown to love Daniel, but that had not been a part of the initial decision process.

Michelle had seen an opportunity to better her circumstances, and she had taken it. The baby had been an insurance policy, an adjunct to the generous payment she'd already received for surrogacy - a perfect example of having her cake, and eating it too.

It was the perfect definition of complete betrayal.

In the end, it was one salient fact that saved her from suffering the most rigorous consequences - legal and otherwise - for her treachery; one fact that no one could deny. No matter how specious the origin of the bond between her and the child who was the son of Scotty Wandell, the bond was quite real, as evidenced by the fact that the little boy, on growing tired and sleepy, cried for the woman he knew as his mother and, in his weariness, refused to be comforted by anyone else.

Even so, it was a near thing. Both Kitty and Sarah were angry enough and outraged enough to advocate removing the child from her life completely. But it was Scotty - with Nora's support - who ultimately stepped in to prevent that. Not for Michelle's sake. Even Scotty, regardless of the depth and duration of their relationship, would have been willing to see her suffer for her sins, but for Daniel's sake, he could not allow it, and neither could Nora.

This child - this beautiful child - was his son and her grandson, no matter what complications there might be concerning the legality of the relationship; this was the son that Kevin should have had, and Nora would not allow him to be hurt, no matter how much she believed that depriving the conniving bitch of her connection to the child would be a demonstration of justice in its most perfect form.

Thus, when the initial confrontation was finished, it was Saul, at Nora's suggestion, who stepped forward and escorted Michelle to a semi-private table in the rear corner of the restaurant, with little Daniel asleep against her shoulder, as the Walker family stood aside and watched them settle there.

Watched - but not idly, or complacently. It might be Sunday - the American day of rest - but there were no closed doors to those who wielded the kind of political power instantly available to the widow of a powerful U. S. senator, especially one as knowledgeable and politically active as Kitty Walker, who might have dropped the McAllister from her official name but had relinquished nothing of her status.

In addition, there were many in the legal community who had counted Kevin Walker among their best friends and closest associates, just as there were many prominent social leaders with intimate connections to charitable organizations that owed huge debts of gratitude to the matriarch of the Walker clan. Given the influence of those groups, there was very little that couldn't be accomplished, no matter how many offices might be closed and unmanned on any given day. Thus, discussions among the various family members - some that included Scotty and some that, rather pointedly, did not - were followed by telephone calls to a number of valuable contacts and helpful sources.

At the same time, Sara settled alone at the bar, nursing a glass of wine and idly folding and refolding a napkin, trying to realign a world gone suddenly out of kilter, and wondering what it was - aside from the obvious - that was tugging at her sub-conscious mind, insisting that something - again, beyond the obvious - was not as it should be. Something was here that didn't belong here, but she couldn't quite figure out what it might be.

How does existence shatter and reform into a completely new shape in a matter of minutes?

She ultimately gave up on trying to make order out of chaos and poured herself another glass of wine.

In the space of a few hours, the prospects of life had shifted dramatically for Michelle McGregor, who had walked into the cafe that morning, believing that she held the trump card in any negotiations that might take place between herself and the father of the little boy to whom she had given birth.

She sat at her secluded table, trying to appear composed, with Daniel nestled against her, and waited while Scotty spent a few minutes conferring with his in-laws. The conference did not take long, and no one who participated in it suffered any illusion that anything was settled. The confrontations had barely begun, and Scotty did not even try to delude himself. The road ahead would not be an easy one, and he could not be sure that he would retain his current place within the family or the loyalty of its members. But, for the moment, that issue was secondary.

It was time to resolve a more immediate question, and it took only a few words - mostly from Kitty, but with Nora chiming in as well - to provide him with the information he needed in order to decide how to proceed.

He hesitated briefly, allowing himself a few moments to collect his scattered thoughts, and felt a brief frisson of unease, as something - something ephemeral, not quite noticed - imposed on his concentration; something he could not quite place; something peripheral, trying to interrupt his focus, but not quite solid enough to succeed; an image, a silhouette, a face barely glimpsed. Something . . .

Finally, he had to let it go. Whatever it was that was attempting to interrupt his train of thought would simply have to wait. What demanded his immediate attention was much more important than any stray detail.

When he arrived to take a seat at the table, he paused for a moment to gaze down into the beautiful face of his son, while Michelle tried to steady her breathing and summon up sufficient strength to endure what lay ahead.

"You can't do this to me," she said as he settled across from her. "I won't let you . . ."

"Don't!" he interrupted. "Just don't. We're way past that, and if you think you're not going to have to face the consequences for your actions, you're wrong." His voice was hard and cold. "If I were the only one you had to deal with, you probably think you could use our friendship to manipulate me into letting you have everything your own way. And you might even have been right - once. But that was before your actions had consequences, Michelle. While it's true that the blame for the collapse of my marriage falls squarely on me, the truth is that losing . . . " He paused to take a deep breath. "Losing our baby was one of the things that turned our world upside down. I don't know for sure that the same thing wouldn't have happened, even if you'd lived up to our agreement, but I . . ."

"You can't be serious," she snapped. "You're going to blame me for your fuck up? You're going to . . ."

"No. I'm fully responsible for what I did. But what you did - or rather what you failed to do - created chaos in our lives. Everything that had been so right, so beautiful, just . . . collapsed around our ears. And we . . . we lost our way. But none of that is what matters right now. What does matter is that you picked the wrong family to fuck with." It was not lost on her that Scotty had just used a word that she had never heard him use before, not once in all the years she'd known him. When he continued, she couldn't fail to recognize the sheer determination in his voice. "I might qualify as a perfect pushover, but the Walkers are not going to stand by while you waltz away with our son. With Kevin's son."

"He's not . . ."

"He is."

Michelle recoiled in shock, stunned by the intensity of his anger.

He paused briefly, and when he went on, he was calmer, but no less cold. "So here's the bottom line, Old Friend. If Daniel is as important to you as you claim, and if you want to have any part in his life from now on, you'll choose your words and your actions very carefully. Or you'll wind up in court, from now until forever, and possibly even in jail."

"You can't . . ."

"Maybe I can't," he interrupted, "but it won't be me you'll be dealing with. Not on my own anyway. Do you really want to face off with the Walker family, and the retinue of legal officials, power-brokers, and financial major leaguers that they can call on?"

She managed a lopsided smile. "That won't happen. I know you too well, and . . ."

"You don't know me at all." Again, there was no arguing with the absolute certainty in his tone. "You did - once. But everything is different now, Michelle. Losing Kevin . . ." He paused, struggling to find the words. "Losing Kevin cost me everything that was important in my life - everything that I ever loved. And you don't live through that without changing, becoming a different person. And now - now this beautiful little boy is the only thing in the world that still matters to me. Both because he is my son - no matter how you define it - and because he's a part of the man who was the heart of me. Now, you tell me you love him, and you want to be a part of his life, and I'm prepared to allow that. But only on my terms."

"I won't agree . . ."

"I don't care whether you agree or not," he continued. "You are not his mother."

"Yes, I . . ."

"No." He said, his voice soft but deadly. "You're not. In clinical terms, you're simply the incubator that sustained him until he was capable of surviving on his own, and if you persist in fighting this, that's all you'll ever be."

"But he loves me. He needs me."

Scotty poured himself a hefty portion of Scotch and drained it quickly. Then he looked her squarely in the eye and spoke four words that she wanted to dispute - but couldn't. "He'll get over it."

"But . . ."

"At his age," Scotty continued, ignoring her attempt to interrupt, "it'll be a matter of days. Maybe even hours. Do you really think you can compete against the kind of mothering he'll enjoy under the care of Nora Walker?"

Finally, ultimately, when he fell silent and waited for her response, she found that she couldn't think of anything to say, any argument to offer on her own behalf. After a wordless interlude, she took a deep breath. "Then tell me what you want - what's going to happen."

"Tomorrow," he replied, "we're going to a judge, and I will get full custody of my son, and, if you're prepared to accept that, I'll agree to reasonable visitation rights for you, but only - only in my presence. Given your history, I don't think it's unreasonable to require that you to agree to that condition. Right?"

"But . . ."

"No buts. Agree, or prepare to fight, and understand this, up front. You - will - lose!"

Finally, she nodded. "And then? What will happen to me? Things are . . . rough, and I . . . "

But she fell silent as she read his reaction in eyes flecked with blue ice. Whatever her situation might be, whatever hardships she might endure, Scotty - Scotty of the soft heart, who had always been the most generous, charitable person she'd ever known - did not care; would never care again.

That's what her treachery had done for her.

Michelle clinched her fists tightly in her lap and looked up, apparently seeking some escape route, some way to avoid what was becoming inevitable. But all she saw when she raised her eyes was a crowd of strangers, many trying not to betray their avid interest in matters which should have remained private, inspiring her to wonder what tabloid headlines might be screaming in days to follow. Beyond that, there were only the faces of the Walker women, each more determined than the last, with Kitty Walker bringing up the rear, completely indomitable.

"All right," she agreed finally. "Tomorrow, I'll bring him to . . ."

"No. He stays with me. Today."

"But he'll be scared, Scotty. He'll . . ."

Scotty's only response was to lift one hand in a gesture to signal Nora to approach. When she did, he greeted her with a gentle smile - a smile that asked forgiveness - and help. "Would you like to take your newest grandson home for a visit, Nora? I'll send someone to pick up a suitable car seat, and then you and he can take some time to get acquainted."

Nora didn't hesitate, as she leaned forward to gaze down at the beautiful child sleeping with his head tucked against Michelle's body. "I'd love to. That sounds like a perfect Sunday to me. Or even better, perhaps an afternoon at Disneyland. Justin's already on his way, so he'll be delighted to tag along." She paused and deliberately met Michelle's gaze with a cold, implacable stare. "To get to know his nephew, and to make certain that no one bothers us."

"You're a mother," whispered Michelle, struggling to control the tears rising in her eyes. "How can you . . ."

"Because," Nora replied steadily, "I'm a mother, and I will never forgive what you did - to my child - or let anything bad happen to this one."

Ultimately, it was Saul who escorted the shaky young woman to her car, in order to retrieve the diaper bag that contained everything Daniel would need for the day and to watch and make sure that Michelle actually drove away, after a futile attempt to get the older man to listen to her pleas for sympathy. She was weeping openly as she pulled out of the parking lot, and Saul spent a moment - a very quick moment - hoping that she'd gain enough control of herself to avoid an accident. That, however, was the only semi-humane feeling he managed to dredge up for her, as he remembered everything she had cost the people he loved.

Meanwhile, Scotty dispatched a café staff member to the local Target to purchase an appropriate car seat, while Sara and Kitty organized a shopping trip to a nearby mall where Baby Gap, OshKosh B'Gosh, and Gymboree had shops.

It was a hectic hour, but Scotty was semi-grateful for the hubbub as it allowed him to avoid indulging in bouts of anxiety.

He was a father. Just days earlier, he had believed he would never have that privilege, that his last chance for parenting had vanished, along with the man who should have been there to share the adventure.

And now - he looked down at the child who was snuggled tight in his lap, his tiny face filled with uncertainty, but slowly relaxing under the gentle stroking of his father's hands and the loving, running commentary of his grandmother who was entertaining him with a game of pat-a-cake.

In the ultra-technical, super-sophisticated, stratospheric culture of southern California, there were many fields of expertise which would remain forever beyond the scope of Nora Walker, but winning the heart and mind of a child would never be one of them. She had known her new grandson for less than two hours, but she was already becoming a major focal point of his existence.

Thus, while Sara, Kitty, and Paige prepared to indulge themselves in a no-holds-barred shopping spree, to furnish a new personal environment for their newest family member, Nora got him ready for an afternoon of pure joy - the kind that only happens in a Disney-style playground, as Scotty looked on with a wistful smile, longing to be a part of the celebration, but not sure of his place in it.

Until his mother-in-law turned to him and reached out to touch his face. "Why are you just standing there?" she asked softly. "You can't go to Disneyland wearing a chef's apron and a toque. Get your jacket."

Scotty drew a deep, shaky breath. "I wasn't sure you'd want . . ."

But Nora was not in the frame of mind for a deep discussion of guilt and regrets. "Don't be silly, Scotty. He's my grandson, and you're his father, and whatever obstacles we may yet face, nothing changes that. So stop wasting time, and let's go. It's November, you know, and even Disneyland has an occasional chilly moment."

"But I can't just walk out, you know. I have work to do, respon . . ."

"And what am I?" demanded Saul. "Last time I looked, I was a partner here, and fully capable of running the show for a while."

"But, but what about later? I have to fix up a place for him, and . . ."

Nora smiled. "If you're lucky, you might manage get in a word or two on how to prepare a home for him. But I know my daughters, and so do you. How much help do you think they're going to need - or accept - in furnishing a room for him, and making sure he has every toy available from Toys R Us? Meanwhile, we take him out so we can get better acquainted. You have the right to find out if he prefers ice cream or cotton candy. If he likes chocolate or strawberry, grapes or apples, Coke or Pepsi, or . . . whatever. You need to get to know him, and, more importantly, he needs to get to know you. You're going to be his anchor, Scotty. We'll all help, of course, but it's you he's going to need most. For now anyway."

Scotty looked down, and tried to suppress the tears rising in his eyes. "But it's not right, Nora. Not like this. Not without . . ."

"I know," she said quickly, lifting one hand to touch his face and sparing him the necessity of speaking the name that was now so painful for him. "And you're right; it's not. But we can't fix that right now. We won't give up - ever. But for this moment, all we can do is make sure this child is cared for and happy and healthy - and ready to meet his other dad when he comes home."

Neither was prepared to contemplate the possibility that the homecoming might prove to be nothing more than wishful thinking. Not yet anyway.

Scotty looked down then and found his baby boy looking up at him, his lower lip trembling slightly as he tried to navigate through the changes happening around him. And that was that - all he needed to make him fall to his knees and gather his son to his chest. Nora, he thought, was right, but she was also wrong. It wasn't Scotty who would be the anchorage; it was Daniel who would provide the safe port in the storm, where they could be together and await the return of the only other person in the world who belonged there with them.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Contrary to Saul's fleeting - though relatively sincere - wishes, Michelle found that she could not make it very far from the café before finding a place to pull over and allow herself time to recover.

How had it gone so wrong, so quickly?

The small parking lot she'd chosen fronted on a sporting goods store, closed on Sunday, so she was alone and felt no need to resist the urge to let the tears flow as they would.

She was absolutely alone - for the first time in a very long time - with no one to comfort her. No tiny, warm hand to clasp in her own; no small voice to call her, "Mama". No little body to snuggle against her and remind her that she had a purpose in life, that she was loved and needed.

She drew a deep breath, and tried to calm her thoughts.

Yes. In the beginning, she had failed to live up to the terms of her agreement with Scotty and his husband because . . . because she'd seen an opportunity for her own advancement. As much as she'd wanted to deny that - and actually had denied it in her own mind - there was ultimately no way to avoid the truth of it. But . . . but it had only been true in the beginning, before Daniel had become a part of her life. Whatever her original motives had been, she had come to love the child intensely, as much as if he had been biologically her own.

And that should have counted for something, she told herself. She had loved and cared for Scotty's son, as if he'd been her son too, and, when she would have come forward to offer her oldest friend a new reason for existing, a purpose to replace the man he'd lost, he had cast her aside and left her with this gaping hole in her life. Not to mention the fact that she was in dire financial straights, with no prospects for building any kind of security for herself, all of which could have been avoided if he'd only been willing to listen to reason.

They could have built a good life together; Scotty and his spectacularly successful café and his exploding gastronomic reputation; Daniel, his biological son and her chosen child; and her, with all her untapped and so-far unrecognized potential. It would not have mattered at all that the two principals were not in love with each other; they would have both loved Daniel, and that would have been enough. And, of course, they'd both have been free to indulge any sexual desires, with anyone they might choose in any way they might want, discretion being the only requirement.

An ideal existence, until Scotty had to go and fuck it up - him and Kevin's God-damned family!

Suddenly, her sadness faded, to be replaced with something much stronger. If he thought he was going to get away with this . . .

So intent was she on the resentment rising in her mind and stirring intimations of retaliatory actions that she momentarily forgot her surroundings and was startled by a knock on her window.

Warily, she turned and looked up into a young face, winsome and blond, almost pretty and vaguely familiar, regarding her with a smile that contained just a nuance of conspiracy and more than a trace of sympathy, which was as welcome as the promise of water in a desert setting.

Now, who was this? And what could he possibly want?

She debated ignoring the knock and simply driving away, but . . . it was a marvelously lovely face, with limpid blue eyes, framed by long, golden lashes, and it wasn't as if she was alone on some dark deserted road in the middle of the night. It was Sunday morning, and the sunlight was bright. And that smile was . . . intriguing.

Slowly, cautiously, she cracked her window - just enough to speak through.

"Can I help you?" she asked, skeptical but curious.

"I don't know," said the young blond, "but I think maybe I can help you. My name is Marcus Richter, and we have something in common, vis a vis a certain chef and his extended family. Want to have a little chat?"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

He thought it was probably a beautiful morning, so far as he could tell, judging by the subliminal signals to his senses. Or at least, it would have been beautiful, if he hadn't been suffering from the hangover of the century.

He groaned as he tried to roll over - tried being the operative word. Even his shoulders seemed loathe to obey the simplest commands, and the elementary action of opening his eyes and focusing on anything other than the pounding in his head seemed permanently beyond the realm of possibility.

So he remained still and silent and allowed his mind to wander where it would.

How long had it been? he asked himself.

As a member of the Walker clan, it went without saying that he was a drinker - classifiable as more than moderate, but less than heavy. Mostly. Still, he had gone through the normal, typical late teen, early twenties, college-student stages, where a 24-hour binge was not all that uncommon. Mostly.

But that had been almost two decades in the past. He had, of course, been drunk since then, although only rarely to the stumbling, bumbling, unbalanced, falling-on-the-nearest-flat-surface-and-passing-out degree. And, for the most part, when he had drunk himself into that kind of stupor, it had been in celebration of something - a graduation, a new job, a promotion, a successful seduction.

A proposal accepted.

But this was not the same; this was not a celebration.

This was devastation unlike anything he had ever known before.

Never assume that nothing can hurt more than what you've already experienced, because life is always prepared to grab you by the balls and teach you better.

The thought was not a new one, was - in fact - old and familiar, but the lesson was one that had to be relearned on a regular basis. Apparently.

Wincing in anticipation of resurgent pain, he managed to open one eye and noted that the view was not what usually awaited him when he finally, reluctantly accepted the inevitability of morning.

Where was . . .

Oh!

A sudden shift of weight and a not-so-subtle warmth at his back answered one question, while raising another.

What had he done?

"Good morning, Sunshine."

Kevin closed his eye again and buried his head under a pillow, wondering how a voice that had seduced and charmed movie-goers and television watchers around the world could abrade so roughly against his eardrums. "You don't have to shout," he managed to mumble. "M' head is . . ."

"Still there," the voice continued, gentle but still rumbling. "Despite your best efforts to detach brain from body - chemically. Jesus, Kev! I haven't been that drunk since . . . Hell, I don't think I've ever been that drunk."

Kevin remained still, loathe to move. Afraid to move. Afraid to acknowledge where he was, and what might have happened.

When strong, beautifully muscled arms wrapped around him and pulled him back against a perfect, sculpted torso, he thought he should probably resist. But he didn't - couldn't - and the soft touch of moist lips against the nape of his neck, which should have offered comfort, only served to make him more certain that he was somewhere he shouldn't be, probably having done something he was sure to regret, once he was certain he'd actually done it.

"Stop!" It was only a whisper, but it had the desired - or not - result.

The arms relaxed, and the body behind him retreated slightly. But not very far.

"Chad," he said, finding it suddenly difficult to draw breath. "Did we . . ."

It wasn't often that Chad Barry found himself at a loss for words, but, for a moment, he hardly knew how to respond. "You don't remember?"

Kevin frowned, wondering if what he heard in that soft voice was really heartbreak, or simply a product of his own imagination. "I'm sorry. I . . ."

"Don't be!" Chad moved quickly, tossing back a welter of blankets and rising with easy grace, pausing in a pool of sunlight to light a cigarette. "There's nothing to remember . . . or regret."

"So we didn't . . ."

Chad walked around the bed and sank to his knees to gaze into eyes that always startled him with the intensity of their color and the degree of emotion they could display. "Do you really think you wouldn't know it if I'd fucked you through the mattress? It stands to reason that, if your ass doesn't feel plundered, it wasn't."

Kevin mustered a small smile, noting how the morning light gilded perfect skin on a perfect body without a tan line anywhere in evidence. "Who's to say I was the one getting fucked?"

The actor's eyes widened as he sought - without success - to stifle a grin. "Yeah. Who's to say?"

"Hey!" Kevin said gently, one hand reaching out to caress morning stubble that served to enhance a sculpted jaw-line. "I'm sorry if I disappointed you. I just . . ."

Chad shrugged. "It's still early. Plenty of time to change your mind."

Kevin shifted, and glanced toward the window. "What time is it?"

"Almost ten, I think."

"Shit! I should be at work."

"No, you shouldn't. You called your boss yesterday and told her you'd be away for a couple of days. Remember?"

Kevin sighed. "Yesterday? What day is it?"

"It's Sunday, Baby. You're not shitting me, are you? You really don't remember."

Kevin sat up, noting absently that he was not quite as naked as his companion and wondering then if that was something he should be happy about. "I hardly remember anything at all," he answered. "Not since your big announcement."

Chad spent a moment studying the look on his old friend's face. "We haven't really talked about it, you know. And I'm willing to listen, if you want discuss it."

"What's to discuss? You wouldn't have told me if you weren't sure, so . . . nothing I say is going to change anything." He shifted then, and got to his feet, moving with great care to avoid detaching his throbbing head from his shoulders. As he managed to walk to the window, he noted the crisp beauty of the morning and wondered why it wasn't dark and dreary, as his heart insisted it should be. "My husband has a child - the child that should have been ours. What else is there to say?"

Chad stood and walked up behind his old friend and wrapped him in a gentle embrace. "Still, we don't know the whole story, do we? Maybe . . ."

"You said you gave him a chance to come clean, and he dodged the question. Sounds pretty conclusive to me."

The actor watched as his companion winced against the purity of the morning sunlight. Dropping a kiss against the dark hair curling against the nape of that familiar neck, he raised his hands to apply gentle pressure to Kevin's temples, needing to do something - anything - to ease such obvious pain. "To be honest, I was pretty pissed off at him, so I wasn't very patient. I just . . . I wanted to deck him, Kevin. I wanted to make him bleed, and understand what a fool he'd been - what he'd sacrificed." He paused, and gently turned Kevin to face him. "I wanted him to realize that he'd given up something that a lot of people would die to have."

Kevin braced his hands against that perfect chest and couldn't help but notice - once more - that the body nestled against him was gloriously bare . . . and obviously eager and ready. "Chad," he whispered, "this is . . . it's not fair. To you. I can't . . ."

"Don't you dare!" The response was immediate and with no nuance of uncertainty. "I want you, Kevin. No point in denying that, given the degree of my . . . interest is impossible to hide. But I'm not going to let you apologize - for anything. I want you. I want to fuck you into next week, to remind you of what we once shared. I want to make love to you, and don't insult me by using your so-called marriage as an excuse. If you don't want me, then say so. I'm not fragile, you know. I can handle the rejection. But if you deny this, you deny it for yourself, because it's something you don't want. Not for Scotty or any notion that you don't have the right. He forfeited any claim to your loyalty - first when he cheated on you, and second, when he made a new life for himself, with the child who was supposed to be yours."

"Don't, please!"

Chad wanted to say more, to offer more reasons, point out more rational thoughts and comfort, but couldn't ignore the broken quality of that beloved voice. Thus, he fell silent and stared for a moment into incredibly blue eyes, before turning to walk away. "Okay, then. I'll order breakfast, shall I?"

Kevin stood at the window, watching as a couple of squirrels played tag in the foliage of the towering birch tree that shaded the brick walkway, and wondered if anyone on staff had tumbled to the fact that Chad was not alone in his luxury cottage. Then he wondered if he should be alarmed at the possibility, but found that he just couldn't muster up enough energy to care.

So someone might catch a glimpse of him, or notice that his bike had been parked in the club's lot since Friday night. So what? What difference did it make? What difference did anything make?

He closed his eyes, and was immediately assailed by flickering images - imagined but no less painful for being the products of a fevered mind, rather than actual memory.

Scotty and Michelle - a couple - parents of the child that should have been . . .

"Chad!" he said suddenly, lifting one hand to indicate that he wasn't quite ready to have their morning interrupted; that breakfast could wait.

"What?"

Kevin's lips trembled as he tried on a tiny, tentative smile. "Just . . . stop. I don't want breakfast. First, I think . . . I want to work up an appetite."

Chad went very still, wondering if the soft note of seduction he detected in that velvet voice was real or nothing more than a reflection of his own desire. Thus, when he began to move back across the room, it was a slow, almost tentative process. Tentative, that is until Kevin bent abruptly to divest himself of the briefs which were the last article of clothing he wore.

At that point, Chad leapt forward and caught that familiar, freshly-bared body in strong, eager arms, and leaned forward to claim a mouth which had long been the focus of treasured memory. Then, abruptly, he laughed, enjoying the taste of Kevin too much to bother moving away in order to speak. "You know what, Stud Muffin? Much as I want to fuck you into tomorrow, the plain truth is that we both stink of booze and God only knows what else. I vote that we take this to the shower. Care to join me?"

Kevin offered no verbal response. Instead, he lifted his face to renew their kiss, hungry for the lips that sought to devour him, as he pushed himself forward against the body that was molded to his own, hot flesh against flesh, as he maneuvered to move them together toward the luxury bath. He did not think about what he was doing; did not want to think about anything, beyond the incredible flood of desire rising within him and a need too long denied - a need for new memories to replace those he could no longer bear to recall.

For Chad's part, he spared a thought to what this would do to his old friend - but it was very brief. He would not worry about consequences beyond the immediate now. Here, in this fragment of time, it only mattered that Kevin needed - needed to be held and cherished and desired, needed to be reassured and reminded that he was wanted and treasured. Needed someone to make love to him, to hold him, to claim him.

They would live in this moment, and let tomorrow, next week, next year . . . and forever take care of itself.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Despite the brilliance of the sunlight, the wind was cold as it swept down from the mountains and across the sculpted perfection of the golf club, and Greg Rowland wished that he'd taken the time to grab his jacket as he'd gone tearing out of the clubhouse when Mr. Ashe - golf pro, club manager, and all-around-pain-in-the-ass - had sent him to "see to the problem".

Not that he minded taking care of the task at hand. Any excuse to pay a visit to the occupant of Bungalow 16 was welcome. Only he would prefer not to do so as the bearer of bad news.

On the other hand, since he was prepared to offer to repair what was broken - a task that would ordinarily fall to other staffers, if this little disaster had happened at any other time of the week - this might turn out to be a golden opportunity. Because it was Sunday morning, and most of the regular staff would not report in for several hours yet, it was up to him. He did not particularly relish the prospect of performing manual labor, but if it gained the attention and, possibly, the gratitude of Chad Barry, he thought he could deal with it, and smile in the process.

Of course, the actor would not be happy to learn that his classic Porsche had suffered a small mishap, but there was no help for it. Someone had to tell him that his left rear tire had gone flat, and someone had to step up and offer to change it for him. Then, perhaps that same someone might rate a few moments of private conversation, or even an invitation to come in and have a drink and visit for a while.

Or something.

It might prove to be a lovely morning after all.

Of course, there was another small issue, which would need investigating once his present task was completed. He wasn't sure that anyone else among the club's staff had recognized the Harley that had been parked in the public lot for a couple of days, but he had. He had not mentioned it to anyone, of course, being fairly sure that doing so would raise the question of why he was so sure he could identify the owner.

Greg was very young, but he was neither naive nor stupid. He was well acquainted with the prevailing local attitude toward homosexuality - the so-called "gay agenda". This was certainly California, but it was a somewhat unique portion of the great liberal state, and anyone with something to hide moved cautiously beneath its radar. In most areas, the need for closets had become obsolete, but not here.

Thus, he would bide his time and limit any inquiry to personal phone calls or - perhaps - a casual visit to the pub, in his spare time.

Meanwhile . . .

He paused to adjust his collar and check his hair in his reflection in the beveled glass door-window before ringing the doorbell.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Chad Barry was busy remembering how much he'd always enjoyed the taste of Kevin's skin and devising new ways of expressing his appreciation as one hand explored the contours of a luscious backside while the other reached for the shower controls . . . when the doorbell rang.

"Fuck me!" he muttered, frustration and need making his voice hoarse, almost guttural.

Soft laughter erupted against his throat. "I thought that's what I was doing."

"Ignore it," replied the actor, finally managing to find the right handle and start a thick flow of water splashing against the marbled emerald tile of the over-sized shower enclosure.

Then the bell rang again, as Kevin lifted lips already swollen with passion to accept a more powerful kiss, which Chad was glad to initiate.

And the bell rang again.

The two men sighed together. "I think someone knows you're here," said Kevin, obviously reluctant to allow the interruption but forced to accept that there was probably no getting around it.

"They'll go away." Kiss resumed, deeper and harder than before.

And the bell rang again.

Chad went very still, both hands now firmly gripped around the sweet globes of Kevin's butt. "You wouldn't happen to have a gun in your pocket."

Kevin's laugh was rough. "What's a pocket?"

The actor reluctantly stepped back, grabbing a towel to wrap around his waist as he moved toward the door. "Stay right there. Don't move."

Kevin stood for a moment under the wonderful warmth of the cascading water, debating whether to stay there and enjoy the lush sensation or step back and check out who had interrupted their romantic tryst. It was a near thing; the sluice of the water was seductive, but, in the end, curiosity got the better of him, and he moved to the door, taking care to be very quiet and discreet as he took a quick peek toward the front of the cottage.

And that was all it took. He could see nothing of the person who was standing outside the front door except a clearly defined shadow, solidly framed against a flutter of wind-tossed foliage - a masculine silhouette, tall, spiky hair, long graceful neck, slightly upturned nose . . .

Kevin suddenly discovered that his knees would not support him, as he braced himself against the mosaic tiled wall and slid to the floor.

He could hear faint scraps of conversation - not enough to identify the new arrival, but sufficient to let him understand that the shadow he'd glimpsed was not the person he'd initially believed it to be. But he found that it didn't matter.

The fleeting reminder had been enough - or too much.

What the hell was this? What had he almost done - and why? Rebellion, revenge . . . payback? Was that what his life had become?

When Chad came rushing back into the room, it was obvious that his intention was to make up for lost time, to resume what had been so rudely interrupted. But one look at the face of his old friend was enough to tell him that any hope of that had been irretrievably lost.

Like so much else of late.

He realized immediately that any nuance of sexual arousal was suddenly immaterial.

With a mental note to make sure that a certain club staff member would later have certain rigorous and very personal tasks to perform - to make up for opportunities lost - he knelt and wrapped his arms around Kevin and tried to find a way to repair what was broken. He had been friends with Kevin Walker for a long time and had always believed him to be the strongest man he'd ever known. Now, he thought, it was time for him to step up and help his companion to find that strength within himself - to refind what was lost.

"Kevin," he said gently, using his thumb to wipe away the tears that welled in storm-blue eyes, "you can't go on like this. You can't just sit back and take it. You have to . . ."

"I know!" It was a desperate admission - an unwanted truth. Then the voice grew softer, more resigned. "I have to go back. I have to see . . . for myself."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

tbc