DREAM KEEPER

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I'm Moving!

     
     
 

dreamkeepercover.jpg
ISBN: 158571366X

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 

 
 

 Chapter One

 

“There she is!”

Walking fast, Marissa Yarborough Traylor swung into lobby of the Hanover Building.  Her dark glasses and long, sleekly tailored black wool coat fooled none of the waiting reporters.  They knew her the second she pushed through the cold glass doors.  Balancing her briefcase and purse, she plucked black leather gloves from her hands.  Her pace never faltered as she held her head high and her smile in place.  She had no words for the gentlemen of the media.

“Is it true?  Is it true?  Is Kadeem Gregg staying in Atlanta?  Did you really broker the deal for Gregg and Sawyer?” someone yelled as she passed. 

“Word is, Traylor is moving back here as a Defense coach.  Is the ink dry on the contract?”  Ben Thomas was sweating as he jockeyed for position, trying to keep pace with her.  “You shopping runners for your old man these days?  Is that why you latched onto those boys out of Tech?”  Rissa spared him a sidelong glance and a half-smile as she stepped a little faster.

“Yeah, we know they both play strong ‘d’, and that’s gonna be Traylor’s place on the team, right?  Right?  Coachin’ ‘d’, right?” 

She brought a slim, honey-colored finger to her lips, raised her brows, and held her smile.

“Come on, Rissa, give us something!  It’s three days before Christmas and you’re acting like Scrooge!  We know you know sports and we know you know the players.  Hell, you did a great job of agenting for AJ.  But you know we know you’re married to the new Defense coach, too.  Is this going to shape up as a conflict of interest for you?  For him?  You pullin’ a team together for Atlanta to keep your husband on the job?”

“And don’t forget, you got James Clarence, too,” José Christopher called.  “Middleweight contender going pro, gonna be champ.  You’re either living right, or you’re a witch!”  He grinned when Rissa tossed her head and her hand went to her hip.  But not a word passed her lips. 

“She’s too damned good lookin’ to be so smart,” another man whispered.

“You didn’t give us an answer, Rissa.”  Thomas got louder.  ”How you gonna leave us hangin’?” 

She pivoted, looked him in the eye, and winked.  “Wait and see, boys.  You’ll get a press release when the deals are done, and then you’ll know what I know.”  Rissa laughed, cutting across the marble-floored lobby and heading for the security stairs.  Just steps ahead of dark, panther-like Adrian Kessler and his network cameraman, she managed to slip her cardkey free and into the reader.  The door clicked and she eased inside, pulling the door closed behind her.  Kessler would have caught the door edge and pulled if the beefy security guard trailing Rissa had been looking the other way, but he wasn’t.

“Don’t tell me she’s taking the stairs,” Christopher groaned.  “She’s a woman in heels, for Pete’s sake.” 

“A woman in heels, with legs like a racehorse,” Ben Thomas commiserated, watching the security guard.  “Elevator’s over there.”

“Might be better to wait for the statement.  She’s got my number.”  Kessler watched two other reporters leave.

“Mine, too,” Thomas said, nodding to his cameraman.  “Come on, I’ll treat you to Starbucks.”  Assuming inclusion, Kessler followed.

“I got Christmas shopping to finish, anyway.”  Christopher jammed his hands into his coat pocket and slunk off with a final glance at the still guarded stairwell door.

Listening for trailing footsteps, Rissa stopped climbing stairs on the fourth floor.  Stepping out of the stairwell, she looked left and right, scanning the modern polished steel and glass-walled corridor.  Seeing no one, she headed for the ladies’ room.   Once inside, her back to the door, she listened again – nothing.  Good.  She tucked her briefcase under her arm and dipped her other hand deep into her red leather tote bag.  Her fingers searched the contents and stopped when they found the small white CVS bag.  Content that she was alone, she pulled the bag free as she hurried past the mirrored walls and polished marble vanity. 

A woman was entitled to privacy, but it was hard to come by these days.  Darned reporters were already suspicious of a woman handling the lives and careers of big million-dollar men.  That she had just scored fantastic deals for two young players who might have otherwise managed second-round NFL draft status was front page news, as far as they were concerned, so they were following her.   But right now, for Rissa, the placement, the money, those kids’ careers, all took a backseat to the small package she’d picked up at the drugstore. 

Taking a deep breath, she brushed back her long coat and walked the line of stalls.  “Okay, now this is just damned creepy,” she admitted, pushing doors to make sure they were empty – they were.  Mentally apologizing, she hip-checked the door to the handicapped stall and pushed it closed behind her.  She needed space for what she was about to do.

Her heartbeat was hard and fast when she jerked her purse, briefcase, and coat to the hook on the back of the door, and she was almost panting when she dumped the contents of the CVS bag into her hand.  Opening the small box, Rissa read the instructions on the back.  “Good, it’s exactly like the other one,” she muttered, taking a deep breath and hiking up her skirt.

The box was open and the little wand was in her hand when she realized something was missing – Dench.  “He needs to be a part of this,” she whispered, reaching for her purse and knowing that she was not about to call him on her cell phone.  If what she suspected was true, he didn’t need to hear it over the phone.  And if it wasn’t true, he didn’t deserve the hurt and disappointment.  But if she was right… 

She dug for her wallet, realized that she was holding her breath, and inhaled, gulping lavender and Lysol-scented air when she found their picture.  Just looking at him in the photo and remembering almost stopped her heart – it had been taken on their honeymoon.  Standing in front of a low and impossibly full moon on the sugar-white sand of Seven Mile Beach in Negril, he’d kissed her and promised that there was nothing in this life that he wouldn’t give her.

“And I believed you, baby, then and now.”  Rissa Yarborough Traylor couldn’t have cared less who heard her as she stood with her skirt bunched up around her hips in a public bathroom holding her honeymoon photo and a home pregnancy kit, whispering to her husband’s image.  “Baby, you’ve been nothing but luck for me, and I want to give that back to you.   Maybe this time,” she sighed.  “It’s Christmastime, a season for miracles, for children, and maybe good luck for… us.”  She kissed the photo and set it on top of her purse where she could see it.   Opening the box, she looked at her smiling husband again.   “Bring me luck now, baby.  Please.” 

After that, everything went quickly and when she opened her eyes, she saw the tiny plus sign and nearly fainted.  Her breathing was shallow as she stood staring at the little wand.  “Pregnant.”

Four years of trying, and now this.  “Pregnant.”

And right here at Christmas.  Now she had something to really celebrate.  She’d only agreed to put up the big tree at the last minute, trying to get over the disappointment of having it just for herself and Dench – again.  Even when her brother’s children worried about the tree, she’d almost refused, but now there was something to celebrate, a reason to anticipate. 

The single word felt good as it crossed her lips and she couldn’t stop herself – she said it again and loved each syllable.  “Pregnant.”

Righting her clothes, collecting her things, flushing the toilet, washing her hands, leaving the restroom – all mechanical things she would never remember doing.  There was no room in her head or her heart for more than the one thought she nursed all the way back to the elevator:  I’m pregnant!

She pressed the button and when the elevator arrived, she stepped on board, the very image of a dignified business woman.  The doors whispered shut and she couldn’t help herself.  “Baby,” she shouted to the empty car.  The word was out and she felt better for it, but she needed just a little bit more.  Digging into her personal boogie groove, she broke down and did her funky little dance until she felt the car slow. When it stopped, so did she.   

Stepping off the elevator in front of MYT, Unlimited, Marissa Yarborough Traylor took a deep breath and promised herself that she would not skip through the doors and do a repeat of her happy dance in the lobby – that just wouldn’t be dignified.  She and her partner earned their elegant seventeenth floor offices in the prestigious Hanover Building in Buckhead’s Tower Place complex.  Being women, relatively young women at that, they’d worked hard to establish themselves as more than pretty faces with law degrees and a knowledge of sports.  Rissa had no intention of sullying that reputation. 

It was hard, though, especially when she was carrying the kind of news that she had.  Rissa had to stop herself from biting her lip as it occurred to her why her brother, her husband, her sister-in-law, and even her mother always said the same thing about her:  “That girl’s mouth won’t hold water!”  And it was pretty much true, she had to admit.  Keeping secrets had never been her forté, but this one was for Dench. 

“Of course, after I tell him…”  The list of people she would tell was a long one.  Rolling her shoulders back, she stood taller, lengthening her long frame as she made a mental list of the first people she would tell after Dench.  Mom first, then there was Marlea, her sister-in-law, and Marlea would tell AJ if Dench didn’t beat her to it. 

And Yvette, her friend and partner, who would have a happy dance of her own.  Yvette had been listening to Rissa’s baby blues almost from the first time they’d met back in law school.  Over the years, she’d listened to Rissa coo over babies every time they went out for lunch, shopping, a movie, or… pretty much always, and she wanted nothing more for Rissa than motherhood.  

Rissa felt the nervous flutter in her belly.  It mirrored the flutter of happiness in her heart and she pressed her lips together, reaching for composure.  I need to calm my happy self down.  This little test could be wrong; it happens sometimes.  I need a confirmation, so I can’t say anything until I talk to my doctor.  A big breath and the narrow shot of logic did a little to calm her nerves.  But the damned smile on her lips just wouldn’t die. 

Doing the best she could, determined to hold onto her secret, Rissa shifted her coat to the other arm and raked fingers through the short, razored thickness of her hair.  She pushed through the door of her office suite, where the countdown to Christmas was in full swing.

“Looks like Santa Claus exploded up in this camp,” Rissa said, looking around.

Eggnog seemed to be the drink of choice and was available from a crystal punchbowl perched on a corner of the receptionist’s light and tinsel-edged desk.  Lifting her cup in salute, Karee, the receptionist, licked her lips and seemed to be enjoying it.  Somewhere along the hall to the left, Rissa heard the Temptations singing about Rudolph, and one of the paralegals was handing out something wrapped in red and green paper.  A ten-foot tall, brightly sparkling pine tree held a place of honor near the door, and the mound of wrapped gifts for the Toys For Tots campaign had doubled in the time she’d been gone. 

“Yvette, you and Helen have driven these people Christmas crazy in less than three hours.  That’s got to be some kind of record – even for you two.”

Helen, passing by with a clutch of color-coded folders and wearing twinkling reindeer antlers, raised a hand and kept walking.  Even in the spirit of the season, she had an office to manage.

 Yvette Trask was another story.  “Pump up the spirit, girl, ‘tis the season.  Cookie?”  Wearing a fetching red and white Santa’s cap, she strolled up and held out a festive, fully-laden tray.  “Eat up, girl, eat up,” Yvette urged, taking a cookie for herself.  “I was up all night baking these, my grandmother’s recipe.  They’re totally delicious and if I could, I would eat them by the dozen.”

“You do anyway,” Rissa grinned, taking a cookie.  She pressed her cheek to her partner’s, then bit into her cookie.  “Oh, my God, this is delicious,” she said, chewing behind her hand.  “I can taste the butter and eggs.  I feel my arteries clogging.  I swear, if these things weren’t so good, I would just slap them on my hips and lick my fingers, like you do.”

“Don’t hate, I didn’t get all this just from cookies.”  Yvette accepted the air kiss, took another cookie and handed the tray off to one of the interns.  Chewing, she said, “If you worked at it, you too could be the bearer of similarly luxurious amplitude.  But no, you’re just too lazy to eat wrong and ignore exercise.” 

“Right, sensei, ‘cause I know you know what you’re talking about.”

At a shade over five feet in height, and looking up at her taller friend, Yvette sleeked a hand over her full hip and shook her head.  “I would say something, but we have guests.  Your four o’clock is here and he brought his mama with him.”

“Four?  It’s only a little after three.”  Rissa’s eyes followed her partner’s pointing finger to James and Brenda Clarence.

“Well, they’re here now, and they’re waiting for you, so don’t shoot the messenger.  Now, where did those cookies go?”  Yvette turned, gave her red sweater a tug in the right place, and marched off, following her nose.

Seated in a soft taupe colored, corner-angled suede chair, beneath a giant wreath, Rissa’s newest client looked scared.  At average height and weighing in at about one-fifty, James was all muscle and wound tight as a spring.  Maybe it had something to do with the fact that she would be his first professional agent, or maybe because he was about to sign a major representation contract.  But Rissa figured the truth was that his mother, Mrs. Brenda Clarence, was seated next to him, and Mrs. Brenda Clarence was a formidable woman – I’d be scared of her, too. 

Pasting on a professional smile, Rissa started toward James Clarence and his mama.  Mrs. Clarence sighed, lifting her full bosom and the plump hands she held folded across her stomach.  On his own, James was a handsome, charismatic, talented boxer.  In the company of his short, heavyset, low-voiced mother, he was little more than a kid.  Brenda Clarence had raised her boy alone, and she had taken the job seriously.  She had raised him to be strong and honest, and her own integrity radiated from his bright brown eyes – when he raised them from the floor to meet Rissa’s.

“I, uh, we’re early,” he said softly when Rissa stopped in front of him.  His mother nudged him and narrowed her eyes.  He blinked rapidly, then tried again.  “Miz Traylor.  I know we’re early, Miz Yarborough Traylor.  Sorry.”

“Not a problem.”  Rissa shifted her coat, tote, and briefcase again as she reached for Mrs. Clarence’s hand.  Closing her fingers over the other woman’s warm hand, she smiled.  “If you can give me a moment to make a phone call, I’ll be ready for you.”

“Sure, sure.”  Mrs. Clarence gave Rissa’s hand a final pat as she settled her hips further back in her chair.  She watched Rissa turn and head for her office, admiring her trim figure and neat suit, then leaned close to her son.  “Now that’s a lady.  You want to get married,” she whispered, “you get yourself one like that.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  James lifted the little cup of now warm eggnog to his lips, swallowed hard, and hoped Rissa’s call would be brief.

In her office, Rissa dropped her things in the chair nearest the door and headed for her desk.  Lifting the phone, she stood for a moment fighting the urge to call Dench and scream into the phone.  “Too early,” she breathed, wishing that it wasn’t.  Instead, she pulled her directory closer and dialed her doctor.

Joyce Ashton was a Morehouse Medical School graduate and alone in her Collier Road office.  It seemed that everyone else on her staff was still trying to finish Christmas shopping.  Pushing back the heavy flow of her locked hair, she refused to be judgmental, though she thought procrastination deserved a place on the list of deadly sins.  She would never understand why people put shopping off until the last minute, but it was nice to have this quiet time to herself.  Sitting at her desk, reviewing files, she didn’t hesitate to answer when the phone rang.

“Rissa, good to hear from you!  How is everything?”

“Fine.”  Suddenly shaky, Rissa clutched the phone in both hands and sucked in a big breath.  “Joyce, I know that so close to Christmas this is short notice, but I need a favor.  I need an appointment.”

“An appointment?”  On her end, Ashton wrinkled her forehead.  “Well, sure.  May I ask why?”

“I know I just saw you three months ago, but…” Air sizzled past Rissa’s teeth.  “I think, uh, I could be…pregnant.”

“Oh, Rissa!  When?”

“Today.  I was, you know, late.  So I figured…  I took a home test today.  But I need to be sure before I tell so I’m calling you.”

 “Confirmation, of course.  I understand.”  Dr. Ashton smiled. 

On her end of the line, Rissa blinked and leaned against the desk.  “Joyce…  Am I asking too much?  Am I hoping too much?  Am I just wanting too much?”

“Rissa, I’m only a doctor, but the way I see it, you and Dench have pretty much got everything going for you that any couple could ask for.  You’ve got a hot career and he’s coming into the new Defensive coach slot for Atlanta. You’ve built and furnished that beautiful home off Cascade, and even better, you’re both blessed with good health and you were born for each other.”

“But a baby, Joyce.  We both want a baby so much.  And after all this time and all those fertility tests…”  Rissa’s chest rose and fell when she closed her eyes on the sigh.  “If I am, I mean, if the test is right and I am pregnant…”  Swallowing hope, she opened her eyes.  “Well, I won’t know if I don’t check, right?  When can I take a test?” 

The doctor flipped her calendar.  “I can see you first thing in the morning, say seven?”

“Fine, I’ll be there at seven on the dot.”  Rissa could almost hear Joyce smile into the phone and it warmed her.  “I’m taking the test, but I’m telling you, I already know the result.”  Joyce’s light laughter echoed Rissa’s as the call disconnected.  Dropping the phone into the cradle, unable to move for fear of singing like somebody in a crazy musical, Rissa tried not to think too far ahead and found herself doing it anyway. 

“Baby, baby, baby,” she sang softly, then caught herself imagining… a boy first and then a girl, just like for AJ and Marlea.  Tall, of course.  How could our children be anything else?   Dench was a couple of inches over six feet, and though her own five-nine hadn’t counted for much when she tried out for the WNBA, she was fairly tall for the average woman.  So, yes, the children would be tall, and cinnamon-skinned like Dench, Rissa decided.  And they would have Dench’s eyes, deep and brown with wildly emotional flecks of gold and green. 

She was still imagining when the phone buzzed beneath her fingertips, and Karee’s voice came from the intercom.  “Rissa?  Its ten minutes ‘til four and Mrs. Clarence wants to know if you’re ready for them?”

“Yes, certainly.  Send them right in.”  Lord, Rissa wondered, rising, is this what it’s going to be like working with James Clarence?  Pulling his file from a drawer, she placed it on the small table in the center of a three chair conversational area facing away from her desk.  She added three Mont Blanc pens – already guessing that Mrs. Clarence would need a souvenir of the signing.  Smoothing her skirt, she crossed the room and opened her office door.

With all the grace of a small yacht, Mrs. Clarence flowed into the room, her sharp dark eyes calmly taking in Rissa’s framed degrees, signed photos of her brother and other clients, and the subtly feminine lamps and artwork.  Leaning, she inspected a photo of Rissa in action. 

“That’s you back in 2000, the finals.”  She nodded at the photo of the young woman who had rushed the camera and taken to the air with a hook shot.  “I remember that.  I saw that game on ESPN.  I never played, but I know class when I see it, and you were really something.”  Clutching her purse, Mrs. Clarence’s dark face dimpled when she followed Rissa’s offering hand and sat in one of the bright red chairs with a solid thump.  “You should have gone to the WNBA, but I guess we can’t all be Lisa Leslie, can we?” 

“No, ma’am, we can’t, and it’s too bad because at six-five, she can dunk.” Rissa smiled. “But that’s okay because she’s an awesome player and an awfully nice woman.”  She looked back at her client and indicated a chair.  Looking like he’d rather be anywhere else, James sat facing his mother and his agent.

Mrs. Clarence looked at her son and realized his lips were still.  Drawing herself up in her chair, she sniffed delicately as she pointed at the file on the table.  “Are those the contracts?”

Rissa nodded and opened the file, setting three sets of contracts in front of her client.  Brenda Clarence reached for one set and read it quickly.  James turned the pages and let his eyes slide across the pages. 

 Brenda tapped the edges of the pages together when she finished reading and looked squarely at Rissa.  “We’re here because you strike me as smart, and because you believe in my boy.  You took good care of your brother, and I believe you’ll take care of my son.”

Rissa nodded at the mother and smiled at the son.  James looked up and smiled back.  “My husband says that you’re easily the most exciting fighter in the game today, James.  I watched you fight and I agree.  If I didn’t, we wouldn’t be here today.  As a boxer, you have your flaws, but you seem consistently able to overcome them with sheer offensive might, and you sure as heck are getting hit a lot less often.  You’re a good, potentially great, fighter, and I am going to take very good care of your career.”

“That’s what I’m talking about.”  Brenda Clarence flapped her large leather bag at her son.  “That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”

“Mrs. Clarence,” turning slightly, Rissa faced the older woman, “I appreciate what it must have taken for you to turn your son’s career over to me but I need you to realize that once he signs these contracts, the job is mine, all mine – and I will be working for him, not you.  Are we all clear?”

Shifting in her seat, Brenda Clarence looked annoyed, concerned, then resigned.  Her lips pushed together and she took a deep breath before nodding slowly.  Across from her, her son almost sagged with relief.  He reached for one of the Mont Blanc pens and began signing the contracts in front of him.

His mother watched in silence, finally turning her narrowed gaze to Rissa.  Her eyes were hard and appraising when James passed the signed documents back.  “You’ll take responsibility for my boy?”

“Yes, I will.”  Rissa never blinked.  “Full responsibility.”

“Good.  Well, now that that’s done, I guess I’m satisfied.”  Brenda Clarence was satisfied enough that she stood and offered her hand to Rissa.  Nodding, she gripped Rissa’s tightly and smiled when Rissa neither flinched nor grimaced. 

James stood beside his mother and offered his hand, as well.  “Thank you, Miz Yarborough Traylor.  I never really saw this coming, this agent thing, but I’m glad it did and I’m glad to be working with you.  Thanks.  Can I keep this pen?  For a souvenir?”  His mother cleared her throat loudly.  “And one for my mother, too?”  On Rissa’s nod, James smiled and tucked the pens into his jacket pocket.

“James, let me know if there’s anything I can do for you, any questions I can answer for you, okay?”  The boxer nodded and Rissa walked the Clarences to her office door.  Walking behind his mother, James’s feet suddenly slowed.   

“Uh, did you mean it?  I can ask you anything?”  Whispering, the boxer’s face was tense, almost like when he stood facing an opponent across the ring.  His mother kept walking.

“Well, sure.  I’m your agent.”  Rissa wasn’t sure why she was whispering, but he’d started it.

“Can I come talk to you?  In the morning?  Early?”  He cast a furtive glance over his shoulder; his mother was sampling cookies.

“Early, sure, but…”

“I just have something to… to talk to you about.  It won’t take long, but it’s important.  Really.”

“No problem, I’ll be here.”

The boxer’s fisted hands pumped air and he grinned.  “Great.  Thanks, again.”

Rissa watched his back when he hurried toward his mother.  His shoulders and spine seemed straighter and stronger, as though a weight had been lifted.  “Whatever it is, at least he has faith in me.”

She would have watched longer, but the phone on her desk rang.  Turning, she noticed that it was her direct line, the number that only her family used.  Picking up the phone, she waited a beat before saying anything, then before she could, Dench’s warm tenor filled her ear, “Hey, baby, how’s it going?”

“Good, and guess what…”  She caught herself just in time. 

“What?”

Damn!  Didn’t mean to say that!  Pushing her chair away from the desk, she dropped into it and turned to face the window.  “I made a run to Macy’s and picked up the tablecloths today.  I’m so excited about doing Christmas Eve at our house, and…you will be here, won’t you?”

“Dude, that is so not what I called to say,” her husband laughed.  “I was just sitting here closing out some paperwork and you were on my mind.”  He laughed again.  “You must be real tired, ‘cause you’ve been running through my mind all day.”

“Oh, I am not nearly as tired as that joke.”

“Come on, give a brother a break.  I worked hard on that.”

She shook her head.  “And for that I got you the big bucks?”

“Naw, baby.  You got me the big bucks ‘cause I’m sexy.”

“Yeah,” Rissa sighed into the phone.  “There is that.”

His voice dropped, the growl making her cross her legs tightly, “And because you know I love you like…”

“Jesus loved the church,” she finished with him.  The biblical words from Ephesians had been a part of his marriage vow to her – he claimed that he remembered them from childhood Sunday school. Now, every time he said the words, she felt bound to him by a wash of love so deep that it defied passion and defined him as the only man she would ever love.  “Nice to know you love me.”

“I do, Rissa.  I always have.  I always will.”

“I know,” she whispered into the phone.  Turning her chair to the Buckhead skyline, she bit her tongue and closed her eyes.  Don’t tell him.  Not yet.  “I know.”

  “I just wanted to let you know that I found something for your mother.”  Dench cleared his throat proudly.  “I found the perfect thing.”

“What?  You found about a million flashbulbs for that old camera of hers?”  Rissa laughed, thinking about her mother’s old Kodak Brownie Hawkeye.  “Goodness knows, she needs them, because she’s never going to use the digital camera we gave her.”

Dench laughed, too, and the sound made Rissa hold the phone closer to her ear.  “Okay, so I didn’t find a million, but do you think she’d go for a gross?  That’s a hundred and forty-four, babe.  I got two gross, and a case of one-ten film to go with it.”

“Oh, see?  That’s just one more reason I love you.   And, AJ’d better watch out because you know that you’re going to be Mom’s favorite now.”

“I know, I know,” Dench crowed.  “But I also know you’re at the office, so I’m going to go now.  I just couldn’t wait to tell you.”  His voice slowed, longing evident.  “Maybe you’re rubbing off on me.”

“I’ll have to check on that when you get home.”  Rissa heard her own longing surface.  “And just so you know, I’m planning a very close inspection.”

“I’m looking forward to it.  Love you, babe.”

“Love you more,” she whispered as the call disconnected.  She sat for a long moment with her hand resting on the phone. 

“He’s going to call back tonight.”  He always did when he was away, and those late night calls were always interesting.  Nobody told me about those calls when I got married.  She smiled.  Nobody told me how interesting phone sex with my husband could be.  Imagining made her blush with anticipation.  Then she sat up in her chair, remembering.  “I just have to figure out a way to keep my mouth shut until he gets here.”   

 Back To The Fitwryter?

 

 

 Chapter Two

 

“James?”  Stepping off the elevator, Rissa almost tripped over her own feet when the boxer grinned up at her from the floor.  “What the hell are you doing down there?”

He gathered his compact body and got to his feet.  “I don’t like being late, so I left home early and then traffic was pretty light, so I got here even earlier than I planned.  Nobody was in when I got here, so I waited.”  His grin slipped a little bit and he held a small Starbucks bag and two large cups of coffee forward.  “I brought coffee, not too light and one sugar. Will it help?”

“Couldn’t hurt.”  Rissa shrugged and reached for one of the cups.  A quick glance at the container showed steam, and the smell was inviting, not that she needed the caffeine jolt to wake her up.  Not after last night – after Dench’s call and all the crazy things he promised, she couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, didn’t dare call anyone, and after hours of tossing and turning in the empty bed, she was afraid of oversleeping.  She knew from the clock at her bedside that she had gotten exactly three hours of sleep the night before. 

And then there was the test.  I swear, I haven’t been this nervous since I took the LSAT, she’d told the doctor and it was true.  Now, waiting for the results and facing a client who looked as antsy as she felt, Rissa was so wide awake that her nerves shimmered and jangled.  “A woman working on three hours of sleep deserves coffee,” she muttered, bringing the cup to her lips.  It was perfect and better than standing out in the hallway deserved.  “Where’s Karee?”

James’s shoulders rose and fell.  “Not here yet.”

Behind them, the elevator chimed and Karee rushed off, keys and knit hat in hand.  “I took the train this morning, and you know how it can be some days, but I’m here now.”  Breathless, she eyed the cups Rissa and James held.  “Smells good, only two cups, huh?”

Rissa raised an eyebrow and sipped deliberately.  “That we’ll probably finish before you get some made.”

“I’m on it, boss.”  Karee pressed her full lips into a thin line and unlocked the door.  She waited for Rissa and James to enter, then followed.  “Should I order up a box of pastries?”

James lifted his small bag.  “I brought muffins: cranberry and blueberry.”

Karee stopped, gave Rissa a quick glance, then peered into the bag.  “I love cranberry,” she said, taking a muffin and hurrying to her desk.  “Thanks.”

“Welcome,” James mumbled, following Rissa back to her office.  Crossing the threshold, he headed for the bright red chair he’d sat in on his last visit.  He put the bag of muffins in the center of the small table and set his cup down beside it.  Unzipping his jacket, he pulled it off and laid it across the back of the chair.  Then he sat in silence, expectantly watching Rissa remove her coat and hang it up.  When she brought her cup to the table and sat across from him, he leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees and waited.

“James?”  His eyes found hers and their brightness softened.  Rissa tried again.  “James, you said you had something important to talk about.  You want to tell me what it is?”

“You don’t have to keep calling me James,” he said.  His eyes went back to his coffee and he picked up the cup, turning it between his palms.  “That sounds too formal.  Could you call me Jimmy?  I’d like it if you did.”

“Okay, Jimmy it is.”

He passed one hand over his close cut hair and nodded.  Rissa could see the creeping path of an almost too youthful blush climbing his bronzed throat and clean-shaven cheeks.  Opening and closing his mouth, he made a couple of false starts.  “Okay,” he finally said.  “You met my mother.  She’s all about support, doing things right, you know?”

Now, where, Rissa wondered, is this going?

“Well, she doesn’t take, uh, disappointment too well.  Right now, she’s kinda disappointed in me.  She doesn’t think I’m ready to take on marriage.”  His shoulders pulled up around his ears and he sat a little lower in his chair.  “That and Sierra.”

“Sierra?”  Rissa knew that the obvious question was all over her face.

The name infused Jimmy with new energy and he set the coffee on the table and shifted to pull his wallet from his pocket.  “Here,” he said, pulling a small photo free and offering it to Rissa.  “This is Sierra.  She’s pretty, huh?”

“Very,” Rissa agreed, looking down.  A young and beautiful oval face remarkable for its knife sharp cheekbones, almost feline long-lashed eyes, and red-touched ebony skin smiled up at her.  “Your girlfriend?”

Smiling, the boxer nodded as he passed his hand over his head again.  “Yeah, my girlfriend and my problem – part of it anyway.  The other part is my mother – she thinks Sierra is good enough for a girlfriend, but not a wife.  Especially not for my wife.”

Rissa passed the photo back.  Now it was beginning to make sense.  “You want to marry her, in spite of what your mother has to say.”  He nodded, just as she’d known he would, and she straightened in her seat.  “Jimmy, look, I’m your agent and my job is to do what’s good for your career – not your love life.  You’ve got looks, talent, a very defensive and supportive mother, and a problem that I can’t fix.  Who you marry is entirely up to you.”

“See, I know that, but there’s more.  Sierra’s pregnant.”

“Does your mother know?”  Rissa folded her fingers in her lap and waited.  When Jimmy’s eyes darted away, she knew the answer.  “You haven’t told her yet.  Why not?”

“Because… I don’t know.  Maybe I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”  He shrugged and slid lower in his chair.  “She already thinks I’m too young to be a husband.  I don’t know what she’ll say about my being a father, but it won’t be good.  I’m all, maybe not all, she’s got, but she’s invested so much of herself in me.  I don’t want to hurt her.  And Sierra, she says she won’t marry me.  We’ve been together since we were sixteen, just kids, and I thought she loved me enough.”  He finally let his eyes find Rissa’s and shrugged.  “I know I sure do love her enough to last me for a lifetime.” 

“You look miserable.”  Rissa scooted into the chair next to him and softened her voice.  “Why did she say she wouldn’t marry you?”

“Because she’s pregnant.  Does that make sense?  She said I waited too long.  What does that mean?”

“It means that she doesn’t want you to marry her because she’s pregnant.  Tickled, Rissa tapped Jimmy’s knee and smiled.  “Jimmy, honey, are you really that young?  Don’t you see, she wants you to want her.  She wants you to marry her because you love her, because you want to build a life with her, because she’s the only woman in the world you can see as being the mother of your child.  You should definitely love the baby, too, but she doesn’t want her only identity to be as the mother of your child.”  Something that would never happen with Dench, she didn’t say.

Confusion was deep and swirling in the boxer’s brown eyes.  “But ma’am, I do love her.  I bought her this to show her how much.”  He pulled a jeweler’s box from his pocket and flipped it open.  Glittering against dark velvet, the diamond shone like a small star and Rissa sighed. 

Rising, she walked around her chair to stand behind her new client.  “Jimmy, you’re going to have to do more than just show her the pretty ring.  You’re going to have to do music and candlelight, and get down on one knee.  If she’s old-fashioned, you’re going to have to go see her father and ask for her hand in marriage.  You’re going to have to share finances and life insurance, and make a home for her if you want a wife. You’re going to have to promise this girl a lifetime of love, for better or for worse, even if it ticks your mama off – and then you’re going to have to be a man of your word.  You’re going to have to commit all that you are to her and make her see it.”

“Aww, that’s lame.”

Rissa’s nut brown eyes narrowed and the corner of her mouth ticked. “You’ve been your mother’s boy all your life.  You want to be this woman’s man, you’re going to have to man up.”

“So lame.”

He jumped when Rissa swatted the back of his head.  “That’s why she won’t marry you, boy.” 

“Ow.”  Jimmy slid a slow hand over the smarting spot her palm left behind.  He looked at her, started to speak, then thought better of it.

Seating herself, Rissa looked into his face.  “Now Jimmy, I’ve gotten you the contract you wanted because that’s my job.  I’ve gotten you the endorsements you wanted – hell, baby, you’re going to be an action figure.  And now you want a wife.  I’ve told you what to do, it’ll work, and you’d better treat her right because I am not going to do a press cleanup for you.  Clear?”

“Yes, ma’am.” 

“And your mama?  Buy her something nice for Christmas.  You can afford it.  Then introduce her new daughter-in-law as the woman you love and intend to spend your life with.”

The boxer looked queasy.  “She’s not going to like it…”  Rissa’s lips pushed together, a charming pout, but James read seriousness in the look she gave him.  “Maybe I could just…”

“Boy, don’t make me slap you again.”  Rissa leaned forward with narrowed eyes and Jimmy reflexively sat a little farther back in his chair.  “Man up.  Don’t debate it, just do it.  Tell your mother where your life is headed, because once you get to the part about the pretty grandbabies, I can assure you, she’ll get over it.”

“Pretty babies,” he muttered, then brightened.  “They will be pretty, won’t they?  Like Sierra and maybe a little like mom.  She’d like that.”

Rissa turned palms to the sky and looked wise.

“Merry Christmas, Miz Traylor.  And thanks.”  Standing, he dug deep into the pocket of his jacket and slid a small red ribboned box across the small table.  “This is for you.  Thanks for, you know, everything.”  He turned and hurried from her office.

Shaking her head, she watched him leave with the ring in his other pocket.  “He’s going to be fine,” she promised herself.

Lost in thought, Rissa almost missed the ring of her cellphone.  Shifting professional gears, she put James Clarence out of her thoughts.  Flipping the phone open, she barely got her name out. 

“Merry Christmas, the test is back,” Joyce Ashton, fairly sang.  “Back and positive.”

“Positive?  Really?”

“Did I stutter?”

Clapping a hand over her phone, Rissa squeezed her eyes shut and blew out hard.  Reaching for composure, she took a deep breath and opened her eyes.  “I’m really pregnant.”

“Yep.  I want to talk to you about it, but it’s a definite positive.”

“Holy…”  Without thinking, Rissa clicked the call off.  “Finally,” she breathed.  Folding the phone between her palms, she squinted, thinking.  “Now, who can I tell?”

Forgetting her earlier list, her thoughts raced, checking and discarding.  Call my mother, and I might as well call the Journal-Constitution.  Could tell Yvette, but she’s not in yet and knowing her, she wouldn’t be able to keep it to herself either; she’d be on the phone to Dench in a New York minute. 

Connie and Jeannette?  Anxious fingers tapped the phone.  They’re nurses and they have had my back right from the very first fertility test.  I know they’ll be excited for Dench and me. They’ve always been great, even from the first time they reached out to Marlea in Grady Hospital’s Emergency Room after her accident.  They’re a part of our lives now, but as much as I love them, they’re friends, not family.  I want to share this with my family.  I could tell AJ, though… but he would knock Marlea over, running to Dench, and I want to tell Dench myself – in person, not over the phone.

“But Marlea…”  Now, there’s a thought.  Goodness knows, she can keep a secret.  Humph, I would run out of fingers and toes if I tried to count the things she’s kept her mouth shut about just since I’ve known her.  Besides, she loves me.  I’m the sister she never had. 

Rissa flipped the phone open and hit speed-dial. 

“Hello?”

Rissa congratulated herself; this had to be fate.  Marlea picked up the phone and answered on the first ring.  “What are you doing?”

“What do you mean, what am I doing?”  Marlea screwed the lid onto the small pink sippy cup and passed it to Mrs. Baldwin who in turn passed it into Nia’s eager little hands.  “I’m trying to get breakfast into my children, and then… hold on.”

“Apple, please.”  Jabari swung his feet and watched Marlea juggle the phone, his apple, and a paring knife.  When Mrs. Baldwin moved to collect the apple and the knife from his mother, the little boy grinned.  “I like apple in my oatmeal,” he informed the housekeeper as his mother made good her escape.

Easing her hip onto a high stool at the granite counter, Marlea moved the phone to her other ear.  “Now, I can talk.  What’s going on?”

“I need to talk, but not on the phone.  Can you get away?  I don’t have any other appointments this morning, and I’ll meet you wherever you say.  Just make it somewhere nice, okay?”

“Rissa, it’s not even ten in the morning on Christmas Eve, and my two little hooligans are up and in full effect.”  Marlea paused when her children began to shout greetings at the sound of their adored aunt’s name.  “They’re saying good morning, Merry Christmas, and… something special in Nia-speak.  Oh, it’s ‘love you,’ I think.  Anyway, what’s up?”

“I already told you that I couldn’t tell you over the phone, and it’s important.  Really important.  Mrs. Baldwin is there, she’ll watch the kids.  How soon can we meet and where?”

Aware of the housekeeper listening, Marlea tucked stray hairs back into her ponytail and lowered her voice.  “I need to change, but give me an hour.  I’ll meet you at Starbucks around the corner from your office.”

Rissa sucked her teeth.  “You most certainly will not!  I said somewhere nice.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers, but since it’s you, how about Arcadia?  I think that it qualifies as nice, by your terms, beautiful restaurant, good food and great service.  They open early.”

Arcadia’s good.  Eleven-thirty?” 

Marlea agreed, dropping the phone when she bent to pick up her free-roaming toddler.

The phone clicked in her ear and if anyone had asked, Rissa would have sworn that she felt some of the pressure of secrecy rise from her shoulders.  Pocketing her phone, she walked around her desk to gaze out of her broad window.  She was only vaguely aware of the hand she slipped across the flatness of her belly.  “Well, baby,” she whispered, “it won’t be long now.”

*   *   *

The woman in the slate gray suit and kente shawl looked irritable and the tight line of her mouth made Rissa lay the spoon carefully on the china saucer and fold her hands into her lap.  She offered a small smile of apology.  Wonder if it would make a difference if I told her that I was tapping the spoon because I was nervous.  If I told her it was because I’m pregnant?  The woman gave Rissa a final evil glance before turning back to her companion.

“Well, maybe not but dang, I didn’t even realize I was doing it until she looked at me like that,” Rissa muttered into her delicately curved teacup.

“Talking to yourself, just like your brother,” Marlea said, making Rissa jump.  “I’m going to have to watch Nia and Jabari.”  She shook her head and sat across from her sister-in-law. 

“You weren’t here.  You don’t know…”

“Whatever.”  Marlea waved a dismissive hand as she jammed her gloves into her coat pocket and pulled the scarf from her neck.  Unbuttoning her coat, she flipped it over the back of her seat and looked at Rissa.  “So, what’s going on?”

“Have some coffee first, catch your breath and relax.”

“Relax?  Now, that’s a word I don’t think I’ve ever heard from you.”  Marlea accepted the menu from the waitress and squinted across the table.  “Who are you, and what did you do with Rissa?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”  Rissa sipped tea before smiling up at the waitress.  “She’d like coffee, I’d like another pot of tea, and we’ll both have the Cobb salad, please.  We’ll decide on dessert later.”  She turned her attention to the woman across from her.  “You look good, for a woman in a hurry.”

“Which is a minor miracle, considering I had to sneak past a toddler to get here.  Thank goodness our tree was trimmed weeks ago, because the kids are so excited, I don’t know how we could ever manage to do it now.”  Marlea fingered the soft collar of her blue sweater, a gift from Rissa.  The woman might be crazy, but she did have good taste.  “What’s up with the madonna act?  Why are you so serene, all of a sudden?”  The waitress left the table and Marlea narrowed her eyes.  “The pod people got to you, didn’t they?”

“Don’t talk crazy.”  Rissa sipped again.

“What’s really in that tea?”  Marlea leaned across the table to inspect the small teapot.  Lifting the lid, she sniffed, then turned the tags on the teabags.  “And since when do you drink herbal tea?”

“Since I found out I was pregnant.”

“Since you… what?”  Suddenly frozen, Marlea’s eyes rose and locked on Rissa’s. 

“Just this morning,” Rissa said.  “Nine weeks.”

Marlea fumbled the glass of water the waitress set in front of her.  Eyes still on Rissa, she finally found her mouth and drank deeply.  When the glass was empty, she set it on the table and stared.  “After all this time?”

And all those tests and false alarms.  

“Can you believe that finally your kids are going to have a cousin?  Maybe even the first of many?”

“Have you told Dench yet?”

“No, I have not yet told my husband,” Rissa said carefully, even as his name made her grin like a fool.  Dench:  Big hands, big feet, long limbs, sheets of muscle, warm lips, and a heartbeat like music.   “Not yet.  I’m thinking that this will make the best possible Christmas present for him.”  She hugged herself, almost feeling the heat and warmth of him course through her. 

“And you.”

“And me,” she agreed.  “Dench has always wanted a family, growing up the way he did, just him and his Aunt Linda.”  She stopped and looked at Marlea.  “I didn’t mean …”

“I know,” Marlea said.  Losing parents, being raised by their aunts was something Marlea and Dench shared.  Marlea had lost both parents almost before birth.  Dench had been left behind first by his father and then his mother, and his aunt had never been able to tell him any more about them before her death; but she’d always loved him and he’d always known that.  “I know exactly what you mean, no harm, no foul.” 

“I want him to have a family, Marlea.  I want it for him as much as he wants it for himself.  Maybe more.” 

“Definitely more.”

Rissa’s fingers framed her plate and she sat looking down at it for a moment.  “Nobody ever told me that it would be this hard, getting pregnant, you know?  I thought I would be like you, find Mr. Right, have a beautiful wedding, a sexy honeymoon, and a gorgeous baby nine months later.  Besides, I’m black.  Black women are fertile, everybody knows that.  They don’t have trouble getting pregnant, right?  Unless they’re me.”

“Aw, Rissa …”

Rissa shrugged, a wry smile on her lips.  “I have a new client and he came to me with a problem today.  His girlfriend is pregnant.  Just like that, and it was a problem because neither of them was sure of what to do next.  And would you believe that even though I know that in the same circumstances, Dench and I would never have that problem, I was jealous – just a little?  And I was jealous because there was a baby in the equation.”  She shook her head.

“Aw, Rissa …”  Marlea reached for her hand and settled for linking her fingers with Rissa’s.

“No, I’m over it now.  Really, I’m okay, it’s just that I always dreamed of having children of my own, of having my babies growing up with a lot of love, the way AJ and I did.  After you married AJ and got pregnant, I was thrilled.  I married Dench and couldn’t stop dreaming of all the vacations and stuff my kids would share with yours and then when I couldn’t … didn’t …”  She almost choked when the hurt ambushed her.  But it’s okay, because now …” 

“Now we’ve got to plan a baby shower, and you haven’t even told him yet.  Maybe we should cancel the tree trimming tonight.”  Marlea lifted her fork and pushed at her salad.  Looking up, she tried a smile. 

“And have us face Christmas morning alone with a big old naked tree?  No, thank you.  We’ll see you at seven tonight.  Bring the babies.”

  “I can’t get over your not telling him yet.  I mean, I understand your wanting to tell him face-to-face, but you know that you of all people can’t keep a secret, Rissa, especially not a secret like this.  When are you going to tell Dench?”

“I was thinking that I could tell him Christmas morning – kind of a gift, you know?”

“Uh-huh, yes.  I can see that happening.”  Marlea’s eyes shifted to the ceiling and she snorted laughter.  “You keeping a secret, especially one this big?  And overnight, too?  Bet you can’t do it.”

“Oh, yeah?”  Rissa leaned toward her sister-in-law.  “How much you want to lose?”

“Invest, you mean?  Let me see.”  Fork on her plate, Marlea snorted again and reached for her purse.  “I’ve got a fifty, and here’s another.  That’s a hundred dollars I’m betting that Dench won’t make it through your front door tonight before you tell him, and definitely that you can’t hold out until Christmas morning.  And I’ll even trust you to tell me the truth, ‘cause you know I’m right.”

“Honey please, you’re an evil woman and I don’t know why I chose you to be the first one I told.”

“I can tell you why you chose me,” Marlea drawled.  “You chose me because you couldn’t keep it to yourself, and you love me, and you know I won’t tell AJ until you say I can.  Now, what about that bet?  A hundred dollars?”  She stuck out her hand.  “Shake on it.” 

Rissa made a face as she reached to shake hands, but her eyes were bright when her fingers closed on Marlea’s.  “I’ve waited all my life to share this with the right man.  Besides, I only have to keep it from him until Christmas morning, right?”

“Christmas morning, and then all bets are off.”

 

Back To The Fitwryter?

  Chapter Three

 

The heavy thump beyond her kitchen made her heart lurch.  “Garage door,” Rissa whispered, her eyes going to the clock on the kitchen wall.  He’s home and I only have to make it to midnight.  Marlea thought she was funny making me promise to hold out ‘til Christmas morning, thought I couldn’t make it.  Well, the joke is on her.  I get through the next six hours and its midnight.  One minute past and its Christmas morning, and I can tell Dench over and over again.

His car door slammed, and she looked around her kitchen.  “Marlea didn’t say I couldn’t give him any hints.”  She took a quick look at the steamer.  Tender baby asparagus and new potatoes were ready, with baby carrots on the side.  In the oven, baby back ribs were done to perfection, and baby Bibb lettuce leaves topped the salad cooling in the refrigerator.

“Whatever is clever, and clever would be me,” Rissa congratulated herself.  “If he guesses, it’s not my fault.”  Placing the arrangement of red rose buds, fern, and pine in the center of the table, she knew she’d certainly set the scene for revelation. 

Beyond her table, a wall of windows set along a stone terrace looked out onto a hilly expanse of pine and fern, the trees visible even in the dark because of the miles of tiny white lights strung through their branches.  Centered on a slight rise, a pool, beautiful in wintry stillness, reflected a small waterfall and the starry winter sky, cold and breathtaking. 

Indoors, Rissa had lined the dozen windows with red and silver ribboned poinsettia plants.  Across the room, the fire she’d lit burned brightly and filled the room with warmth.  Pine boughs, punctuated by tall red candles in pewter holders, draped the mantle, adding softness to the light and scenting the air around her, making the rooms homey and romantic at the same time.  Around her home, comfortable furniture in shades of blue, green, and chocolate brown, rested in pooling shadows created by the moving light.  And it all feels so wrong.  Looks pretty, but this is not where I want to tell him.  It has to be perfect, a memory for our children, she shivered, for our grandchildren.   

But if I feed him, maybe he’ll figure it out on his own and that will be a memory worth keeping.  Rissa loved the sight of the small candlelit wrought iron table by the windows. Small and intimate, just the two of us for dinner and a memory, she approved. 

His key turned in the lock.  I get to greet my husband and welcome him home.  AJ, Marlea and the kids will come by to trim the tree, stay for a couple of hours, and then I’m home free.  The door handle turned and she blew out hard.  I’m as ready as I’m going to get, and maybe” she smiled, since we started this in bed, that might be the perfect place to tell him – after midnight.

A second later, he stood framed in the doorway.  “Hey, baby.”  When he walked toward her, his stride careless and long, she memorized every move.  Three steps into the room, her resolve broke and the squeal that escaped her as she launched herself into his arms made him laugh.  The arms that caught her made her want to cry – she’d missed him that much. 

“Welcome back.”  She pushed her weight against him, throwing him back against the wall and pressing her lips to his, drawing away only a hair’s breadth when his hands pulled her closer, and she found herself against the wall, clutching his jacket, holding him in return.  His mouth on hers and his hands moving beneath her shirt claimed her.

His breath was hot and moist against the column of her throat.  His voice, striped with low, growling hunger, tightened her core.  “Girl, you don’t know how much I missed you, ‘cause you know I love you like …”

“Jesus loved the church,” she whispered, crushing her mouth to his, her long leg wrapping his and binding him close.  The taste and feel of him was everything she remembered, wanted, and craved.  “Dench,” she whispered, needing to say his name. 

“Tell me you missed me.”

“I did, I do.  Always and endlessly.”  Clarity reared its silly head when his hand slipped past her waistband.  “We’re in the kitchen, Dench.”

“It’s paid for.”  He grinned and hummed when his tongue licked at her ear.  “And we’re grown.” 

“And we’ve got company coming.  Later.”  Her teeth closed lightly on his lower lip.

He hummed again and felt his hunger surge when her hand found skin beneath his shirt.  “Bedroom might be better.”

Rissa didn’t know whether to scream or swoon when he swept her up and over his shoulder.  She settled for looping an arm around him as he carried her through the house, and she tangled herself with him when her feet hit the floor at the side of their bed.  Pulling him with her, she enjoyed the tumble as they fell together.  “This is the bedroom.”  Her voice was low and husky.  “Show me how it’s better.”

Desire fanned her words and heat licked at his soul.  She could feel it steaming from him in waves, from his hands as they touched her, from his skin against hers.  She felt it burn and strain when he kissed her, and her urgency aroused him, made him more than he’d ever meant to be for anyone.  A wisecrack died on his tongue.  In her arms, captured by desire, he found himself linked to her by more than passion-flavored sex when her long legs climbed his back.

He felt himself fall away when the taste of her filled him and the lean curving length of her entranced him.  Going deeper, he plundered all that she held for him.  A tender cry passed her lips, creasing the night around them, and buried in her, he knew he was home.  His lips, hands, and body stoked her yearnings and their cries became a shared moan as he met her call to parts of him that no other woman would ever touch in the same way.

“Rissa.” 

She heard her name, distant as the stars, and as close as his heartbeat. 

“Rissa.” 

Her fingers gliding along the planes of his back tattooed him.  Her eyes soft, her smile languid, her fingers held his face.  Tracing his eyes, the bridge of his nose, his lips, she sighed softly.  The hell with Marlea.  Looking up into his face, feeling the rise and fall of his chest against her breast, Rissa took a deep breath, her lips parted – and her words were stopped by the distant sound of door chimes.

“Dude, is that the door?”  Dench moved, switching on a bedside lamp.

“Crap!”  Rissa sat straight up and glared at the bedside clock – seven on the dot.  “AJ and Marlea,” she growled.  “Damn her prompt little heart.  They’re here to trim the tree.  You let them in while I grab a shower.”

“What?”  Propped on an elbow, his chest bare, Dench raised an eyebrow at his wife.  “And I should just walk around smelling like sex all night?”

“Now, Dennis Charles Traylor, is that really what you think I would have you do?”  The eyebrow dropped and he looked sheepish.  “I’m going to grab a quick shower and then you can have one.  I’d offer to share, but I know how you are and we can’t just ignore them – as much as I might want to.”  She scooted from the bed and headed for the bathroom.  At the door she turned slightly, suggestion in her eyes.  “We’ll finish this a little later, okay?”

“I’ll meet you right here.”  Admiring his wife’s rear view, Dench nodded and swung his legs off the bed.  Grabbing, he pulled on jeans and a shirt and headed for the front door.  Still buttoning his shirt, he looked out to find Marlea and AJ.  Standing slightly behind them, Mrs. Baldwin stood patiently holding Nia and Jabari’s hands.  Opening the door, he saw Connie in the driveway, climbing out of her car.  Jeannette emerged from the other door with a shopping bag.

Wouldn’t be a party without them.  “Looks like a full house,” he grinned.  “Come on in!”

“House this big will never be full.”  Connie squeezed Marlea and AJ into a hug.

“Y’all hungry?  I know Rissa’s got some …”

“I’m saving my appetite for those cookies I know Mrs. Baldwin’s baking!”

“Thought you were on a diet.”  Connie looked critical.

“That’s why I saved my appetite,” Jeannette explained patiently.

“Mebby Kismas!”  Nia and Jabari waved frantically up at their godmothers.  Connie and Jeannette returned the enthusiastic greetings and bent to kiss cold cheeks before the children were hustled through the door, barely managing to keep up with Mrs. Baldwin’s longer stride.  The housekeeper smiled, nodded, muttered something about cookies, and aimed the children toward the kitchen.  Seconds later, the house sound system came up and the air was filled with Christmas carols.

“Come on in, it’s cold out there.”  Dench ignored the look on AJ’s face and waved them all in.  Marlea took two steps past him and looked back at AJ, who grinned.

 “I take it you just got home?”  Marlea didn’t try to hide her smirk.  “Catching up on things with Rissa?  All the news?” 

 “He just got here,” Rissa insisted, appearing at the end of the hall.  “We didn’t have time for dinner, let alone current events.”

“Or shoes,” Marlea teased.  Dench shoved one bare foot behind the other and looked more than a little guilty when she passed her family’s coats to him.  She watched him walk away, then turned to Rissa.  “What did you do, jump on the man the second he got through the door?”

“He was gone for two weeks.”

“So you tried to cripple him when he got back?”

Before Rissa could answer, Nia threw herself against her mother’s legs, nearly buckling her knees, and clung there with tears glazing her cheeks.  About the time Marlea hoisted the little girl to her hip, Jabari burst from the kitchen.  Seeing his mother’s occupation, he headed for his father and promptly climbed into his arms.

“What in the world?”

“See what you have to look forward to?” Marlea whispered, producing a tissue and soft words for her daughter.  Her palm pressed against her daughter’s back and smoothed away the hiccups and sniffing.  “Nia?  Jabari?”

Needing little urging, Jabari blurted, “I’m good, Mommy.  Nia, too.  Real good.”  His balled fist scrubbed at his runny nose before he burrowed his face into AJ’s shoulder, and Rissa’s heart nearly broke – he just looked too damned much like AJ. 

Rissa’s hand flattened over her stomach.  My baby’s going to look just like Dench.

Connie came quickly around the corner from the kitchen, waving her finger.  “It’s Jeannette’s fault.  She was in there talking bad about Santa Claus.”

“All we did was walk through the door.”  Hands raised in defense, Jeannette followed.  “Then all I said was that Santa only visits good girls and boys.  I never said a word about…”  She hunched her shoulders and looked innocent.

“Fine co-godmother you are, scaring the babies like that,” Connie sniffed. 

“I’m a good godmother and they love me.”  Jeannette tossed her head as she reached to lay a hand on Nia’s head.  At her touch, the little girl sighed and Jeannette smirked.  “See?”

Connie’s hands went to her hips.  “She’s young yet.”

“I swear.”  Mrs. Baldwin brought up the rear, shaking her head and dusting her hands on her apron.  “They have three godmothers and these are the two who always show up.”  She held out her arms to Nia, who pushed her face against her mother’s before going into the other woman’s arms. 

“You are two quick little monkeys, but you’re my little monkeys,”  Mrs. Baldwin said softly, holding out a hand to Jabari who looked at his father, then slid to the floor and walked over to take the housekeeper’s hand.  “Now, let’s go finish those cookies before Santa Claus gets here, because he is coming and he’ll be hungry.  And you two,” her nod was for Connie and Jeannette, “stay out here and share your Christmas spirit.”

She huffed and for a heartbeat, no one said anything. 

Jeannette watched her leave the room with the children.  “Guess I know where we’re not wanted.”

Connie looked around, the expression on her face clear:  Is it just me?

Rissa caught her head shaking when she looked at Marlea and AJ.  They stood with eyes on each other and lips pressed together, trying not to laugh, but when Dench walked into the room fresh from his shower, they couldn’t help themselves. 

“What’s up?”  Freshly showered, his eyes were heavy lidded and his smile was slow when he looked at them, but it grew wider and more inviting when his eyes fell on his wife.  Shifting his hips and broad shoulders, he shoved a hand into his pocket and waited. 

Marlea pressed two fingers to her lip and AJ’s smile grew casual and sexy.  “Kids.”

“You didn’t hear them?”  Jeannette grunted when Connie’s elbow nudged her.

“It’s Christmas, you’re supposed to hear kids,” Dench said, his eyes collecting a suddenly blushing Rissa.  “I guess they’re excited.”

“And they’re not the only ones,” Marlea muttered.  Connie and Jeannette watched Dench watch his wife and hid smiles behind their hands.  “Yeah,” Marlea finished.  “Kids.”

Dench nodded as if the one word answered all his questions.  “You want to help me grab the tree, AJ?”  Opening the French doors leading to the terrace, Dench led the way into the cold night and between them, Dench and AJ hauled the twelve-foot spruce into the house while Rissa signaled the other three women to follow her down the hall.

“Guess you’re glad to have Dench home, huh?”

“Always.  This big house is lonely when he’s away.”  Rissa’s hand seemed to tremble slightly when she reached for the wall panel.

“How about that big bed?”  Jeannette danced away from Connie’s swatting hand.

“You need to stay out of grown folks’ business.”  A quick and delicate flush blossomed along the column of Rissa’s throat and climbed to her cheeks.

“Guess she told you.”  Connie folded her arms and looked totally self-righteous. 

Turning, Rissa opened a closet door and hauled out a series of marked boxes.  “Okay, now these are the special decorations, the ones my mother gave me from when AJ and I were growing up, so we have to be careful.”

“Yeah, ‘cause they’re old,” Marlea whispered a little too loudly.  The nurses snickered.

Rissa didn’t miss a beat.  “No, those were the ones she gave to you and AJ – from his childhood.  These are newer—from my childhood.”  She cheerfully placed a box in Marlea’s hands and ignored her when she stuck out her tongue.  Connie and Jeannette looked at each other, snickered again and stepped back as Rissa led the way back down the hall.

Humming “Jingle Bells”, Jeannette set her box down and looked toward the kitchen, sniffing.  “Those cookies sure smell good.”

“Forget about ‘em, you’ve tortured those children enough for one night.”  Connie opened a box labeled, LIGHTS.  “What you need to do is sit your Santa slandering, cookie lovin’ self down and help me untangle these lights.”

Chastened, Jeannette dropped her chubby body to the floor beside her friend.

“So that leaves you to help me grab the other stuff from the library.”  Rissa gave Marlea a nudge with her hip when the door to the garage opened and closed again.  Dench and AJ emerged with ladders over their shoulders.

Turning quickly, Marlea managed to hook her arm through Rissa’s, towing her down the hall.  “So, what did he say when you told him?”

“I haven’t told him yet, so you haven’t won.”

“Uh-huh, I saw how he looked at you, how he keeps looking at you.  What happened?  He got through the door, you got him in bed, and then you told him, didn’t you?  I mean, you have every right… but we had a bet.”

“I didn’t tell him, okay?”  Refusing to face her, Rissa grabbed bags and loaded Marlea’s arms.  “Take them and go,” she ordered, relieved when Marlea went.   Following, trying to hum along with the music filling her house, Rissa prayed for an interruption, something to get Marlea off her trail.

“Raydeer claw!”  Nia charged into the living room with Mrs. Baldwin in pursuit.  “Raydeer claw!” 

High on ladders, Dench and AJ looked down.  “What is she saying?”

“Dude, that’s your daughter.”

AJ sent a dark look at Dench, then watched his happy daughter wade through a swath of tinsel toward her mother.  “Raydeer claw, Mama!”  Holding a frosted cookie in each hand, she graciously offered one to her mother.

Marlea looked from her daughter to Mrs.  Baldwin.  “Raydeer claw?” 

Taking a second to straighten her snowflake etched sweater, Mrs. Baldwin laced her fingers in front of her and nodded.  “Reindeer claws,” she enunciated clearly.  “The cookies are called reindeer claws.  See the shape right there?  Jabari fell asleep and I made those for her.”  Near her knees, Nia jogged in place and held onto her cookies.

“Did you say thank you to Mrs. Baldwin?”  Nia nodded happily.  Marlea bent to inspect the cookie Nia was trying to fit into her mouth.  Smiling, she broke the treat in two, gave the child the smaller portion and folded the rest into a napkin.  Aware of the reduction in size, Nia stopped jogging, but was more than ready to follow Mrs. Baldwin back to the kitchen.  Connie and Jeannette tagged along, promising to bring a plate back.

“Bet they won’t.  They’ll get in my kitchen, start sampling those cookies, and it’ll be all over for the rest of us.” 

“Speaking of bets …”  Marlea stuffed the napkin into her pocket and faced Rissa over an open bag.  “The night is young, and I’m going to keep my eye on you.”

“Over a silly bet?  Girl, it is not that serious.” 

“Silly or not, you made the bet and I intend to collect on it.”

“I know you’re a teacher and they don’t make a mint, but I thought my brother made a little bit of money.  Why are you trying to hold me up for a hundred bucks?”

“You told.”  Marlea looked wise.  “I knew you would.”

“Did not,” Rissa hissed back. 

“Told what?”  Climbing down from their ladders, AJ and Dench looked curious.

“Nothing,” Marlea and Rissa said together.

“And you’ve just got to know that that means something,” Dench said softly.

“I actually forgot to tell,” Rissa said quickly.  Marlea’s neck gave a satisfying snap when she twisted to face her.  Calmly, Rissa dug deep into one of the bags and pulled out a red beaded garland.  “Mom called as I was coming in this afternoon.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, AJ.  She’s fine, loving Greece, but she’s not going to make it tonight or tomorrow.  Something about missing a plane and being stranded on Mykonos and not getting home for another week.”

“Sounds like ‘something’ means ‘someone.’”  AJ grabbed a bundle of lights and handed one to Dench.  “Does ‘something’ have a name?” 

Dench slung his lights over his shoulder and swung a long leg onto the ladder.  Climbing, he looked over at AJ.  “Dude, you’re wrong for that.”

“Maybe.”  AJ stepped up on his own ladder and began to anchor the lights on the tree.  “But I’m not the one sitting on an island in the Aegean sipping drinks with ‘something.’”

“Hey, your mother is an attractive woman.”  Dench reached around the tree, exchanged light bundles with AJ, and moved down a step on the ladder.  “She’s done all she needs to do with you and Rissa, she’s a widow, and in good health.  She deserves some fun.”

“Even if it is with ‘something.’”  Boxes of glass bulbs came out of Rissa’s bags.  She stole a glance at her watch.  Dang.  Only eight-fifteen and I can feel Marlea watching me like a hawk, just lying in wait, trying to make me confess.

Marlea looped small wire hangers into a dozen glass ornaments.  “I’ll know if you cheat.” 

“I’m married to the sexy man on the ladder over there, I don’t have to cheat,” Rissa hissed, trying to keep her voice low.  “What do you think of these?”

“Love them.”  Marlea reached to hold a pair of the beautifully crafted African kings in her hand.  Turning one, admiring the real silk of his purple and gold robes and turban, she sighed.  “Maybe next year, when Nia is a little older, something like this will stand a chance at our house.”

“A little problem I can’t wait to have.”

Marlea looked up.  “You really didn’t tell him?”  

“Cross my heart.”

“Hmm.  AJ said …”

You told,” Rissa gasped.  Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped.  “All that about me telling, and you told!”

Marlea dropped the tiny king and clapped her hands over her mouth.  Horrified, her eyes went to AJ and Dench – both apparently oblivious.  “He guessed, sort of, but I never confirmed it!  Rissa, I didn’t think …”

“Damned straight, you didn’t think.”  She eyed her brother closely, then snapped her attention back to Marlea.  “No wonder he’s been watching me since he came through the door.”

“He was watching to see if you two could survive what you’d obviously started – him being half naked, and you looking like you needed a cigarette.” 

“Don’t try to change the subject.”  Rissa struggled to keep her low voice from growing shrill.  “What if he said something to Dench while we were out of the room?”

“He didn’t.  I just know he wouldn’t.  Besides you’re the one who can’t keep a secret.  That’s why we made the bet, remember?”

“Don’t you talk to me about bets and secrets, you old blabbermouth!” 

Marlea’s skin sizzled beneath the scathing look Rissa sent her way. 

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking.  When he said, wouldn’t it be nice,” Marlea shrugged helplessly, “I think I said something like this Christmas would be the nicest, and he said if you were pregnant, that’s all.  I wasn’t thinking, and I said …” 

“I guess we should have bet on whether or not you could keep your mouth shut.”

Looking meek, Marlea tried again.  “He’s happy for you and Dench.”

“What’s not to be happy about?”  Rissa folded her arms.  The bright strains of “Joy To The World” rang through the air around them and it was hard to hold onto her anger.  “He’s my brother.  He loves me.”

“What he’s really happy about is that you’ll both have what you want so much, and even if he was sure of it, he would never tell, Rissa.  Not until you told him that it was okay.”

“I know.”

“Forgive me?”

“Not yet.”  Rissa sucked in her cheeks and looked away.  “I want to savor this moment of sanctimony first.” 

“And then you’ll tell.”

“Will not.”  Rissa’s lips twitched and her resolve cracked.  She tried to glare, but it washed away when she smiled.  “You sure know how to suck the fun out of savoring.”

Folding the ladders, AJ looked at his wife and sister, then across at Dench.  “What do you think they’re over there talking about?”

Dench shouldered his ladder and headed for the garage.  “Dude, you know those two as well as I do, and I don’t have a clue.” 

Following, AJ moved the ladder on his strong shoulder.  “Then I guess time will tell.”

An hour later, the tree was decorated, gifts were opened, cookies had been eaten, and carols sung.  Two sleepy children were dreaming of Santa, their laughing parents were ready to assemble and play with the toys, and two grateful ER nurses were glad to have the weekend off.  Mrs. Baldwin had plans of her own and nothing more was said about that as the front door closed behind everyone.

“Hungry?”  Rissa watched Dench turn off lights.  “I could warm up dinner, if you like.”

“I’m not starving.”  Dropping onto the sofa beside her, his arm stretched long, and he gathered her close, his fingers stroking her shoulder.  “What did we have?”

“Baby back ribs, baby carrots, baby asparagus, and baby …”  He looked at her and she could see the question before he asked.  Her stomach lifted and fluttered, but she couldn’t look away.  Forget you, Marlea!

“Are we eating on a theme?”

Pulling her knees up, tucking her legs beneath her, Rissa settled deeper into his embrace.  “You could say that.”

Pulling her close, Dench leaned back against the cushions and listened for her heartbeat against his own.  “Baby back ribs, baby carrots,” he repeated, “baby asparagus, and baby… baby …  Baby?”  He sat up carefully, large hands cradling Rissa’s shoulders, and blinked at her.  “Baby?”  She nodded and his brown eyes misted, the gold and green flecks swimming in a sudden wash of emotion. 

“Dench?” 

He sniffed and turned his gaze to the ceiling, the fire, over her left shoulder, anywhere but her face as he struggled for control.  Tough guy, Rissa thought. My big old soft tough guy.  She let herself be folded into his embrace and waited.

 “When did you find out?” 

“Just this morning.”  She could feel his smile, his acceptance and grace as his chest rose and fell against her. 

He pulled back and looked at her.  “And you kept it to yourself?  All day?”

“Yes, I did.  Mostly.” 

He blinked and the green and gold flecks settled in his eyes.  “Mostly?”

“Mostly...”  Rissa scooted her hips into his lap and accepted the tiny kisses he placed along her cheek.  “I can tell you that our little bundle of joy will be making an appearance in mid-July, Big Poppa.”

“Big Poppa,” he grinned.  “Is that what you plan to call me?”

“Oh, yeah.”  Her hand slipped between them and squeezed.

“Dude!”  He jumped and shifted, almost spilling her from his lap, but she held on.  “You can’t be doing that, not knowing that it will be a whole nine months before we can …”

“Now who told you that?”  She squeezed again and laughed when he moaned.  “We can have pre-baby sex.”  Rissa tightened her arms around his neck and brought her lips to his ear.  “We can have really great pre-baby sex,” she whispered.  His mouth opened in wonder and closed in anticipation when she let her teeth close along his jaw line.  Really great,” she whispered again, nudging his knees apart so that she fit between them.

“But what about …”

“The baby and my body?”  She gripped his hands and led them beneath her shirt – no bra.  “Yeah, well, these will change some.”

“I can live with that,” he said, easing his mouth along her neck, finding the spot she swore had a direct connection to her very core as his fingers danced over the fullness of her breasts.

“You should stop that…in a few minutes.”

“Because I’m so good at it, right?” 

She wanted to answer him, but his voice was part of the sensual haze drifting over her.  Pressed against his chest, offering her mouth to him, her brain began to fog.  The taste of him, already coded into her very DNA, came alive and she wanted more.  Her heart hammered and she knew it had nothing to do with pregnancy.  When she rose, holding his hand, he followed. 

In their bedroom, cast in ambient light, she was warm and naked, and he didn’t remember or care how she’d gotten that way.  On their bed, she moved into his arms, as close as a dream, all scent and touch and shadow.  His muscles tensed under her impatient hands, fueling them both, making them greedy for each other.  Flesh pressed and she took him inside her, holding tight as the thrill rushed after him.

He moved and even from the beginning, she was hot, wet and trembling.  With the first lift of her hips, his body quivered against her, fighting for control, until it shattered under need and pleasure.  Blood pounded in his ears as he gathered for her, again and again.  In his world, there was spinning and there was Rissa, color and scent gone mad, until the storm inside him was spent.

On his back, feeling his body cool, his desperate heartbeat slow, he smiled.  Turning his head, he looked at his wife.  On her back, the molten gold of her skin still warm and flushed, she used the back of her hand to brush hair back from her eyes.  She smiled and Dench swore he would walk through fire for her.

“Does AJ know?”

“Not unless he guessed.”  Hoping her sister-in-law was right, Rissa’s smile broadened, showing the bright white of perfect teeth.  She linked her fingers with her husband’s. 

Dench looked at their fingers, then back up into her eyes.  “Bet it killed you to hold out on him.” 

“Yeah, it did but, you know me …”  She kicked at the top sheet until it was close enough to reach, then pulled it high enough to cover them.

“Yeah, baby – you’re a rock.  You told Marlea, didn’t you? 

“Yes…” 

“So I got it secondhand?”  He pulled her close and the pat he gave her was anything but brotherly.  It made her shiver.  “It’s okay, baby.  I know that it must have killed you to hold it in for as long as you did, and you had to tell somebody.” 

“But Marlea…”

“Is pretty tight-lipped, so you trusted her.”

“Yeah, because… well, can you think of anyone better?  I wouldn’t have stood a chance of telling you if Connie and Jeannette had known.   And I didn’t want to tell Mrs. Baldwin, or Jabari and Nia.  But just think, Big Poppa, we’re having a baby.”

“Funny.  I never thought about a baby for Christmas.  I was going to ask if you wanted a kitten, just so there would be something small and cuddly in the house.” 

“I have you for cuddly, I don’t need a kitten.”  She pushed her hips against him.  “Just think, this will be the last time we have that great big beautiful tree just for us.”

“And I guess I’d better buy a Santa Claus suit.  You know, so that Big Poppa can make the kids smile – the kids and the grandkids.  Grandkids, baby.”  He sighed.  “From now on, everything… it’s for our family.”  Rolling toward her, his face close, his fingers drifted over her skin.  “Sure you don’t want a kitten? 

“No way.  I want a baby.  Our baby.” 

“Good, and when it gets here, that’s what we’ll call it – Ours.”

She punched his arm and made a face.  “That’s a horrible name for a little girl.” 

His lips were soft when he kissed her.  “Or boy.” 

“Or boy,” she agreed.  Settled in his arms, her breath grew even and Rissa fell asleep dreaming of decorating their family Christmas tree, putting toys together for their children, baking cookies for Girl and Boy Scout meetings.  She curled closer to Dench and inhaled deeply. 

Her breath was a sigh.  He watched her lashes drop, fall softly against the roundness of her cheek, and wondered what she’d begun to dream about when her lips curved into a graceful smile.  The baby, it has to be the baby, he thought.  My son – or daughter, perfect and healthy.  Is it too early to wonder about the baby’s sex?  What he, maybe she, will look like?  Big Poppa, she called me.  Yeah, that’s me, Big Poppa. 

It’s been a long time coming.  Watching her sleep, Dench thought about all the stuff he’d heard about pregnant women.  They get fat and cranky and have strange cravings.  That’s what they say.  They say that they have this glow, that they’re beautiful.  Rissa had always been beautiful to him.  And we’ve waited four years for this baby – all that testing.  Dude, when I think of all the tests we endured, how sick some of them made her – such a strong woman.  Pregnant now, though.  Finally. 

She moved in his arms and Dench was struck again by the miracle of this woman he loved more than he’d ever thought he could love any one human on the planet, and he was grateful.  With her I get everything a man is entitled to ask of this life – love, hope, and family.  Sure wish Aunt Linda was here for this baby.  

Something thrummed in his chest and for a minute he missed his Aunt Linda so deeply that it hurt.  Linda Traylor had been his mother, his conscience, and his pep squad, all rolled into one.  She’d been there for him from childhood, right up until eight years ago when she’d passed in her sleep.  Depression might have claimed him, if not for his friendship with AJ and his love for Rissa. 

I know you’re up there on a cloud, just watching.  You always liked Rissa, he thought.  Now look what she’s done for us.  The ache eased, went away, and he smiled.  Yeah.

 His hand slipped from Rissa’s breast to her belly and he held his breath, wondering at the miracle of life.  AJ said there was nothing like being a father – and dude, AJ never lied when it came to Marlea and his babies.  Rissa stirred gently, shifting in his arms.  She deserves children and she’s gonna be the Mother of Life. 

Drifting, he closed his eyes.  The phone rang, sounding far away.  Recognizing the sound on the second ring, he struggled to pull himself up from sleep when Rissa made a purring sound.  Fingers closing over the receiver, he had to smile.  She might hate to miss out on a good secret, but his woman was a seriously sound sleeper.  Almost as though she heard his thoughts, Rissa smiled, purred again and snuggled closer to his body.

“Hello?” 

The man’s voice on the other end was agitated when he asked to speak to Rissa, “Please.”

“Who are you, and why are you calling my house at,” Dench glared at the clock, “at eleven at night, and asking for my wife?”

“Maybe what I really need,” the man said, “is to talk to you.” 

“To talk to me?  What do you need to talk to me about?” Dench whispered into the phone, cupping a hand around the mouthpiece when Rissa moved against him.  “Who is this?” 

“It’s … I’m …  My name is James Clarence, sir.  I’m one of your wife’s clients and …”

“Clarence?  The boxer?”

“Yes, sir, and see … I’ve got sort of a situation.”

Dench passed a hand over the warm silky leg Rissa suddenly swept over him.  “Do you need me to get her for you?”

“No!  No, sir.  Please don’t.  You answered, that’s a good thing.  I need to talk to you.”

“About what?”  Dench let toughness creep into his voice.  “Dude, I’m football and you’re boxing.  What do we have to talk about?” 

 “Come on, man.” James was pleading.  “I need a man’s opinion.” 

Not ready to give in, Dench could almost hear the younger man shrug and blink innocent eyes.  “Dude,” he finally said, “I am not your father and I’m not a priest.” 

“But you are a man, and what I need to hear right now is what a man has to say.  I need your help.  It’s about a woman.  My woman.”

“So you thought you would just call here in the middle of the night and wake mine up?”

“Naw, man, it ain’t like that.  See, she gave me some advice and I’m going to take it.  At least I think I’m going to take it.”  His voice dropped to a whisper.  “I guess I just wanted to hear somebody say everything was going to be all right.”

So this is going to take a minute, right?  Moving carefully, Dench separated himself from the warmth of his wife and eased from the bed, taking the phone with him.  Grabbing his robe, he pulled it over his arms and headed for the kitchen.  Flicking on a light, he made a stop at the refrigerator for juice and poured a tall glass.  “Tell me about it.”

“Where do you want me to start?”  James Clarence sounded about as miserable as one man could be.

Dench sipped juice.  “Start at the beginning.”

James did, spinning his tale of woe, confusion, and fractured love.  When he got to the part where he would have reiterated his blues chorus, Dench stopped him.

“Look, dude.  You love her, she loves you.  You trusted each other enough to share your bodies and you trust her enough to want to entwine your life with hers.  You’re about to have a baby.  If you don’t man up now, when do you think would be a better time?  I’ve seen you take some bad dudes out in the ring and you looked fearless.  Why would you wimp out now, with so much at stake?”

“See …”

“Naw, dude.  I don’t see nothing but you blowin’ smoke about how you don’t want to hurt your mother’s feelings.  You need to talk to your woman and be done with it.”

James blew out hard and it carried across the line.  “Man, all that talking stuff, it ain’t for me.  I’m a boxer and I’m used to lettin’ my hands do the talking for me.”

“And now you want to be a husband.”

“Uh.  Yeah.”

“Suck it up, dude – husbands talk.  The truth of the matter is that if you love Sierra, your mother will love her better, especially when that baby gets here.  Damn, when that baby gets here, your mother is going to forget all about you, and marrying Sierra will suddenly be her idea.  Wait and see.”

James laughed.  “You’re right.  I guess it’s just jitters.  Nerves, you know, and it’s not like I’ve got a dad or big brother around.  But … thanks for steppin’ in.”

Dench rose, set his empty glass in the sink and looked out into the cold darkness beyond his cozy kitchen.  “A man’s got to know where his heart is,” he said as much to himself as to the young man on the other end of the line.  “A man, a husband, and a father have to know where that is, and then you’ve got to do everything you can to protect that.  Good luck on the proposal, and let us know where to send the wedding and baby gifts.”

“Will do.  And just so you know I was listening, James Clarence does not need luck.  I’m going to be marrying the right woman.”

“Way to go, dude.”  Dench grinned and disconnected the call. He couldn’t help feeling a little heroic when he turned off the light and went back to his bedroom.  At his bedside, he paused to watch his wife.  Rissa was still sound asleep, trusting him to be with her no matter what.  Sliding into bed beside her, he touched her cheek and smiled, knowing one thing for certain:  I’m going to be here, no matter what.

 

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