Lunch was delicious as always, but Lauren had trouble concentrating on the food. On the walk over, she and Brent had decided to tell the girls together. Of course, she was never certain exactly how much Elise understood of such things. But perhaps that was a mixed blessing since Megan took the news particularly hard. In the end, her older daughter had understood far better than most teenagers would. She had, though, extracted Lauren’s promise to come back to them as soon as she could.
She snuck a look at Brent as he talked with Elise about her pony. Of course, she was coming back here. Was it really less than seventy-two hours ago that she had stood in her office trying to memorize it? It all seemed so meaningless now. This was what mattered – her family. Grandmam. Her girls. And yes, him.
That had been the problem. Nothing was ever right without Brent by her side. Life was never complete. She was never truly whole. And tonight, she was going to tell and show him that.
She glanced over to the table where Simone and Jill were laughing and teasing their husbands. Though she could not hear what they said, the love they shared emanated from their faces.
She frowned as she pondered what Brent had said. She tried to think of even one couple among her friends who shared that bond. She could not. She knew that far too many of them were merely going through the motions. For the children. Financial reasons. Or only to avoid the ‘scandal’ of divorce.
Certainly she had never actually seen a couple like Simone and Samuel. Over a quarter of a century. And the happiness radiated in both their faces as they leaned towards one another, giggling like teenagers. Was part of that the depth of trust that Brent spoke about?
“Earth to Mom. Mum?”
Lauren turned back to Megan with a smile, “I’m sorry, sweetheart. Did you say something?”
Her daughter shook her head and rolled her eyes, “Dad asked if you wanted to join us in the barn for a while. We’re going to let Elise play with her pony.”
Lauren returned the smile but shook her head, “How about I join you all later?” She glanced back to see Jill kissing her husband as she rose from the table and headed back into the kitchen. Simone began to collect the dishes off their table as her husband gave her round butt a light tap. “I have some research I need to do, actually.”
Brent stared at her with his brows knitted together, but he just nodded as he bent to kiss her tenderly. “Alright, babygirl. Catch up with us when you finish your research.”
“If the two of you don’t mind, I’d like a bit of time,” Katie stammered as she looked down at her hands that seemed to be trembling on the table.
“Of course. Is everything all right?” Brent asked.
The young woman looked up and gave a slight nod, but Lauren saw the tears glistening in her eyes. “I just need some time to think about some things, that’s all.”
“Sure, Katie. Take all the time you need. Take the rest of the day off. I’d like the chance to spend some quality time with Elise before I leave,” Lauren answered. “Just know I am here if you need to talk.”
Katie nodded her head as she stood, “Thank you, Dr. Masters. I may take you up on the offer…later.” She walked over to Elise and used the picture cards and Makaton that the school had introduced to explain.
They had been lucky to find someone as dedicated and loyal as Katie. It was almost as if she loved her as much as they did. While she had not had any experience with young children, especially additional needs ones, Katie Alexander had impressed Lauren from the beginning. And when she came to the second interview in jeans and a t-shirt, immediately getting onto the floor with Elise, Lauren had known she had the right person for the job.
She frowned as she realized for the first time that as close as they had all become to Katie, she knew next to nothing about her background. Just that she was pursuing a Master’s in Education and that she came highly recommended by her professors.
But her affinity for their child spoke of something more profound than just book knowledge. Did she have a brother or sister on the spectrum, perhaps? Was that why she was so good with Elise? Lauren’s brows knit together more as she tried to think of a single time that Katie had mentioned her family. Or even her life before coming to Oxford. But she could not.
Katie rose and said her farewells with a solemnness that Lauren had not noticed before. She promised herself that even if the carer did not seek her out, she would take the time to do so herself. Lauren nodded her farewells as Brent collected their girls and disappeared into the bright sunlight with them, laughter echoing in their wake.
“I’m glad you have come to your senses, child,” smiled Grandmam, who had been surprisingly silent for much of lunch.
“I never could keep my secrets from you.” She reached across the table and covered her grandmother’s hand with her own.
“No, child,” the older woman smiled. “From the moment I held you, I knew that you were special. Perhaps the only good thing that Bridget ever did.” Lauren saw more unshed tears in her grandmother’s green eyes. “Promise me that you’ll hurry back here to those babies and that man?”
“Of course. Just as soon as I speak with my colleagues, I will be back on one of Brent’s planes one way or the other. You have my word on that,” Lauren squeezed the hand that seemed colder than usual. “But between Katie and now you, I’m beginning to worry.”
Her grandmother smiled and chuckled, “Nothing to worry about here, darling — just time. My old mind has been playing tricks on me. Thinking as us old people do of the past. My regrets. My failings. Most of all, your mother.”
Her grandmother looked down at their hands joined together on the table, “I know that my daughter made some wrong choices, dear. But she wasn’t a bad person. She loved you. In her own way. I’m not excusing what she did, child. I could never do that. But…”
Her grandmother paused, looking deep into her eyes. “She never meant to leave you with him permanently. It was just supposed to be a few months while she got settled. Built a new life for you. But things happened. Things that she had no control over. And months turned into years. Years into a lifetime.”
“Don’t let that be you, Lauren. Not now, not when true happiness is so close to hand. Promise me. Promise me that you will not allow that to happen to you.”
Lauren was surprised at the strength of her grandmother’s grasp as she clung to her. She studied the woman’s face that seemed to have aged in just the short time they had been here. There were dozens of questions racing through her mind. Things she had always wanted to know but been too afraid to ask. She knew that this was it — her chance.
But she was not sure if she had the courage, the strength to face the answers.
Still, she had to know. Had to put some of her demons to rest. Otherwise, how could she truly move forward into the trusting, loving relationship that Brent spoke of? “Tell me, Grandmam,” she barely managed to squeeze the words past the lump in her throat.
Tears spilled down the woman’s weathered cheeks as she nodded. “Maybe I should have long ago. Perhaps if I had, all of this would not have happened. I don’t know. I never will. But you’re right. It is time. Time for the truth to come out.”
Lauren did not push her as the tears tracked faster down her grandmother’s cheeks to fall onto the top of their hands entwined together on the table. Old…thin-skinned, bruised, prominent veins, and wrinkled.
Lauren noticed for the first time the deeper wrinkles beginning to form around her own knuckles. The tiny lines and creases that were multiplying with the years. Time was passing. She, too, was not as young as she once was. The years ahead stretched out and whizzed by her in an instant as she waited for words that she knew might forever change their course.
“I know that you were never close to your father. James Masters was not the kind of man that knew how to show his emotions. If he even had them,” Lauren saw her grandmother’s throat constrict. “I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead, but the truth is that people were never anything more to that man than his possessions. Just something to be owned and used.”
“Your mother was just another of those things,” she shook her gray-head. “I tried to tell Bridget. From the moment she brought that man home, I knew. What was a forty-two-year-old bachelor doing with an eighteen-year-old woman-child?”
“I don’t have to tell you how futile it is trying to tell a teenager anything, especially one as bright and headstrong as Megan and her grandmother. Or you, child. The only difference is that you and my grand-daughter have far better taste in men than your mother did.”
“But your mother was never anything more to James than a breeder. A sweet, young, virgin to bear his children and look good on his arm at the right sorts of events.” Lauren was shocked at the bitterness and vitriol she heard in her grandmother’s voice.
“In exchange, he gave your mother all the things that she had always wanted. And for a time, it was enough. She gave him you, and he gave her a diamond bracelet. He showed her a necklace and told her that she could have it when she gave him a son.”
She shook her head, “But that is where the trouble began. Bridget had trouble conceiving again. One year became two, then three. And when she finally became pregnant, she lost the baby.”
“Of course, to your father, it was his dynasty, nothing more. But to your mother, it was a baby. I don’t know how much you remember those early years, but your mother truly loved you. She did her best. Spending as much time as she could with you, even though James insisted a ‘lady’ did not raise her own children. That was the job of nannies.”
“Things began to fall apart then. Bridget was shattered by the miscarriage. She became depressed. Pulled away from you too, child.” Her Grandmam sighed and looked down as more tears fell, “But she did her best even then. She brought me down to London from Loch Lomond so you would have more than just a cold nanny.”
The woman’s voice cracked as she whispered, “She took some pills. Too many of them. But not even that mattered to James. When he found out, he merely said, ‘too bad the woman could not get even that right.’ At least then he could begin again, try for a son with another wife.” Lauren sucked in a deep breath. She could almost hear her father saying something like that.
“I tried my best, but I did not know how to reach her either, child. I tried,” she shook her white head. Her eyes pleaded for mercy, for forgiveness perhaps. Lauren squeezed her hand tighter and nodded.
“Then, she met Antonio. Your father had dressed her up, forced her to smile as he put her on display at some polo match with all the right people. Tony was there, playing for the other team. Young, even more, stunning than Brent, and he was smitten. Love at first sight. He pursued your mother like James had…at least until she married him anyway.”
“Your mother got pregnant again,” she explained in another of those whispers. “But she knew the baby was not James’s. It could not be. He had not touched her since the miscarriage. Damaged goods, he called her.”
Her eyes met Lauren’s, “Your father found out. He told her to abort it or get the hell out of his house. Bridget was more than happy to do the latter at that point. The problem was James would not allow her to take you. You were his child. His only child. Another of his possessions. And he did not allow anyone to take what belonged to him.”
“The rest, you know. Well, sort of. What you don’t know is how hard your mother and Tony fought for you. But James was sly. He played the wounded cuckold and loving father perfectly for the judges. He had lost his wife; he could not lose his only child. If they allowed her to take you to Brazil, he might never see you again, even for a visit. Oh, the man was as good an actor as he was a businessman.”
“Time had moved on for your mother too. Three babies in five years as the divorce dragged out. Your father took great pleasure in denying her visitation with you, safely ensconcing you in boarding schools, while doing all he could to cause trouble between her and Tony. Without a divorce, she could not marry the man she loved, the father of her other children.”
“In the end, they negotiated a compromise. James would sign the divorce papers if she granted him sole custody of you. But even then, Bridget fought for you, child. If she could not be there for you, then she demanded that I be allowed to be. It was not much, maybe, but it was the best she could do.” The tears were flowing from both their eyes then — pooling on the table between them.
“Oh, Grandmam, it was more than enough. More than.” Lauren choked on her tears as the depths of the truth finally was revealed to her. She could even sympathize with the woman, whom she had met only a handful of times before she and Tony had died in a car accident when Lauren was sixteen.
How many times had she felt torn between her daughters? Worried that she was shortchanging Megan’s childhood because of the demands of her autistic sister? How must her mother have felt facing such an impossible choice? The welfare of one child versus the happiness of her husband and four others?
This conversation certainly cast new light on old wounds. “Thank you, Grandmam. I know that must not have been easy for you. But you’re right; I did need to hear it.”
“I should have long ago, child. It was just that you were so different from Bridget. So smart, and it seemed you had it all together. I was afraid that the truth would only hurt you. Drive a deeper wedge between you and James. He was, after all, the only parent you had.”
“Then, of course, you married Brent and had the girls. I thought you were going to have the fairytale ending that your mother never did.” Her grandmother sighed as she looked across the table, “Then the divorce. You don’t know how many times I thought about telling you then. But I was afraid it was too late, that it might only hurt you worse.”
“But time is running out, child.” Lauren shook her head at her grandmother’s words. The woman might be fast approaching her eighth decade on the planet, but she had always seemed immortal to her. Like the ancient goddess Morrigan, whom she had taught her about.
“Time may be running out for all of us, Lauren. So, it is even more important that you make the right choices now. I don’t know if Bridget made the right one. I know that it weighed heavily on her for the rest of her life. That it marred even the happiness she had found with Tony and their sons.”
She shook her head as she made the sign of the cross, “Sometimes I think we don’t really get choices. That Fate forces us down paths. Sometimes hard ones. And all we can do is to make the best of it. But that is probably my stoic Scot speaking.”
“But Fate must have thought he owed my Bridget something because he certainly sent her baby girl a man worth having.” Her grandmother pulled her arthritic hand from hers and brushed tears from Lauren’s cheek. “I know she’d want you to be happy, just like I do, child. That man loves you. He always has. And he’s a good man too.”
“You know that was my only other comfort. That Tony was the good man your mother deserved. But she could never let go of the past. The pain. You. I don’t blame her for that. I can’t imagine how much losing not one but two children must have hurt her. But by letting that pain control her, she could never fully give herself to her husband or their sons.”
“I don’t want that for you, child. Don’t let your parents’ mistakes keep you from the happiness you deserve. That that man deserves. Those girls too. It’s time. Time to let go of the pain and hurt of a little girl — time to become a true woman. And embrace your destiny. Your calling.”
“Time to truly return that man’s love. The way he deserves.” Grandmam nodded her head towards the closed kitchen door, “So, go find your new friends and figure out how to meet that man halfway.”
There was so much more Lauren wanted to know – about her mother and parts of her past that she had blocked out. She had so many questions. For the first time, she also felt that time might be slipping through her fingers.
But, as always, Grandmam was right. She might not have all the puzzle neatly ordered into piles and the picture fully realized, but she had the pieces now. Well, part of them. More lay perhaps behind that door.
She wiped her eyes and went around the table to hug her grandmother tightly. “Thank you, Grandmam. Thank you for everything,” she kissed that wet, wrinkled cheek.
The old woman reached up and squeezed her arm, “If you truly want to thank me, child, then get in that kitchen and find out what you need to know to bring happiness to that boy and you.”
“I will, I promise. And we’ll talk more when I get back.”
Her grandmother smiled and shooed her towards her destiny, and hopefully, more pieces of that puzzle.
But Lauren froze just inside the large silvery and somewhat sterile-looking room. The two women that she had sought out were elbows deep in dishes and even deeper in conversation. Their laughter rang off the walls.
And she felt like an outsider. An intruder. It was not a new feeling, of course. Even growing up in those boarding schools, she had never fit in with the other girls. Being a science nerd had set her apart from peers more worried about fashion and gossip. She did not even fit in with the other ‘smart’ girls, whose interests ran towards the arts and languages.
Only her summers at science camp…with him…had ever felt right. Like she belonged. Lauren wanted to belong again. Wanted the picture of intimacy that Brent’s words had planted in her fertile imagination. And these women might hold that key.
She bit her lower lip and cleared her throat, “Excuse me.”
The women turned towards her, and she was relieved to see the warm smiles on their faces. “How can we help you, Mrs. Doc?” Simone challenged with friendly banter.
Lauren felt the heat rise to her face as she sought the right words to begin this conversation. But she could not seem to find them.
Jill smiled as she crossed the room to the shiny metal island that stood in the middle. She pulled three stools from the corner and arranged them around it. “I think a spot of tea might be nice, don’t you?”
Tea was always the correct answer in her book. Simone turned back and opened the fridge, pulling out what looked like the most decadent chocolate cake she had ever seen. “While I was at the store today, I thought if Doc was right, about the end of the world shit, it might be the last chance we get for a long time to enjoy one of my Mississippi Mud Cakes.”
Lauren had to agree as she took one of the stools, and the women finished preparing their desserts and drinks before joining her around the makeshift table. She moaned as she bit into the cake that Simone placed in front of her. “Ohhhhhhhhhhh.”
“Almost as good as loud, wet, kinky sex, ain’t it?” Simone teased.
Lauren inhaled deeply, grateful to the woman for opening the door to this challenging task. “It’s good, but I’m not so sure it’s ‘that’ good.”
“Oh, anything, in particular, you want to share, Mrs. Doc?” chuckled her new friend.
Lauren turned to Jill, knowing that after so long living in England, the other woman might understand her dilemma. Jill smiled reassuringly, “If you want, it’s really up to you. But trust me, what we say here, stays here. You have my word on it.”
Lauren tried to think of the words to ask the question that was burning in her mind. Had been for over an hour now? Her bottom still stung, and she found herself shifting uncomfortably on the hard stool. She felt more heat flooding her cheeks as she dropped her eyes back to the cake. She took another huge bite for courage. But she could only manage to pull the handcuffs from her back pocket and lay them on the table.
“Now that’s what I’m talking about, gurlfriend,” Simone laughed as she brought another bite of cake to her lips.
Jill was more reserved, “So, have you tried them yet? If you don’t mind me asking, that is.”
“Yes, and no.”
“What do you mean ‘yes and no’?” asked Simone as she finished her cake.
Lauren brought another bite to her mouth as she tried to figure out how to respond. “Brent used them earlier,” she managed to squeeze past the chocolate.
Jill nodded, “And what did you think? Like it?”
All she could do was nod her head, blush more, and eat cake as she concentrated on watching the spoon move closer to her lips.
“So, what’s the problem then?” asked Simone.
“It’s my turn tonight,” Lauren whispered. Hopefully low enough that they did not hear her.
“What?” laughed the woman. “Your turn for what?”
Jill smiled wider, “I think I know.”
Lauren looked up at her over the spoon and nodded her head just the tiniest bit.
“Then you want to talk to that one. I wouldn’t know what to do if Samuel did give me the damned things. And trust me, even Doc’s Ice Age would not be cold enough to freeze hell over, which is what it would take for dat to happen.”
“That’s the problem,” Lauren admitted even more reluctantly. “I don’t know what to do, either.”
Jill nodded as she poured more tea into Lauren’s cup. Lauren did not even remember drinking the first one. Or finishing off the whole piece of cake either. But somehow, she had.
“I might be able to help you out a bit with that one,” Jill smiled. “But the thing to remember is…not everyone is into the same things. Your kink is not my kink is the saying in the lifestyle. Permit yourself to admit that, then go into it with an open mind and give it your best shot.”
“So, how do I do that? Give it my best shot, that is. What do I do?”
Jill smiled even wider as she cut another piece of cake and put it on Lauren’s plate. “Oh, so much. So many good things.”
“I might have to make another cake,” Simone giggled.
“Just make sure there is some whipped cream and chocolate syrup leftover,” Jill winked at her.
Lauren was humming an old Dixie Chicks tune about cowboys as she emerged into the bright afternoon sunlight. Jill had been a virtual fountain of information about ‘switching’ as it was called. She and Simone had been full of information about everything to do with BDSM, which it turned out had more than one meaning. Bondage, discipline/domination, submission/sado, masochism.
Of course, they and their husbands were way deeper into it than she could ever see herself being comfortable going. The bondage thing had taken loads more trust than she had and the spanking too, the result of which forced her to scoot from side to side on the chair the whole time. But crops, clamps, paddles, and the rest was way more than she wanted or needed to know.
But she had gleaned a couple of workable ideas from Jill. A plan was coming together in her mind. Cumming together, she giggled as she lifted her face towards the warm sun. She did have to admit that the Texas weather in spring beat the British any day, every day.
But if Brent was right…hell, even if he was not totally correct, things were about to change. For everyone. And she had to do her best to make sure that word got out.
She headed towards the barn to meet up with her family. Hopefully, they were still there. She wanted to spend as much time as she could with the girls. A couple of days, four or five max, might not seem like much, but just like that afternoon in her office, she could not shake this feeling.
The sight? Or was she just spooked by Brent’s theories and her findings? Either way, it was not something she wanted to think about: being trapped thousands of miles from her family as the world fell apart around them. For the first time, she understood the desperation that must have driven Brent to do what he did – kidnapping her. Though those words were a bit strong.
As she approached the coral, she saw Katie sitting on a blanket while Jill and Simon’s children played nearby. The younger woman seemed to be fighting back the tears. Or perhaps it was the sun? But Lauren could not just walk past without checking on her, remembering her earlier promise to seek out the young woman without whose help these past few months would have been a disaster.
“Everything okay, Katie?” Lauren smiled as the woman shielded her eyes and looked up at her. There were definitely trails of tears running down her cheeks. Lauren did not wait for a reply, merely taking a seat next to her on the blanket and waiting as Katie seemed to collect her thoughts for a moment.
“What, did you miss Elise so much that you had to go and borrow other kids?” Lauren tried teasing to lighten the mood, but it only seemed to make things worse from the pained look on her friend’s face. “Want to talk about it?”
Katie shook her head, “No, not really. But I have to anyway.”
They sat in silence for a couple of moments as the children ran and played a game of tag in the open field. Lauren decided to wait the woman out. She understood how difficult it could be to find the right words sometimes. She had been mulling over the ones she would use with Brent tonight for hours. Maybe for seven years. At least in her fantasies.
“I need to go with you tomorrow,” Katie finally broke the silence.
“What, Katie? What do you mean ‘go with me’? To Washington?”
Katie nodded, staring off after the children. Lauren was not certain what to say. Katie was more friend than an employee, and while she would worry more about leaving Elise here with just Grandmam, Megan, and Brent, the look on the woman’s face told her this was important. She wanted to demand an explanation, but sometimes it was necessary simply to trust people.
Or so it seemed she was learning. The question was…was it too late? She certainly hoped not. But that was another matter.
“Alright, then. Pack and be ready. Brent says that the plane from Morocco and Jason’s will be ready by noon tomorrow. One will fly east to D.C. and the other west to California. Brent is hoping his brother will have made it to the extraction zone by then.”
Katie nodded as she wiped tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. “You aren’t going to ask me why?”
“No, if you want to tell me, you will. But you have always been more than just Elise’s carer. I like to think you are my friend. Maybe even the little sister I never had. Whatever your reason, if it upsets you this much, then I will do whatever I can to help. No questions asked,” she reached over and squeezed Katie’s hand on the quilt.
Katie’s eyes swam with tears as she looked up and whispered, “I need to go back there to try and find my children. Before it’s too late.”
Lauren shook her head. If Grandmam’s revelation had been shocking, it was nothing compared to this. Her mind raced with questions. Katie was so young. The very idea that she had a child, let alone children, left Lauren gobsmacked. But once more, she chose the path of silence, letting her friend’s story unfold when Katie was ready.
“They are about the same age as those babies. That is why I came here to watch them play as I made my decision.” Katie kept her eyes strictly on the playing children as more tears flowed unchecked down her cheeks.
“I am not who you think. What I seem,” she sighed heavily, and her shoulders slumped as if the weight of life was just too much to bear. “I cannot tell you more right now. Maybe never. For this, I am truly sorry,” she looked up at Lauren. “Just know that Katie Alexander cared very deeply for Elise, for all of you.”
“But I believe that your husband is right. And if he is, then my children are in mortal danger. If the western flank of La Palma does collapse into the ocean, then their families will not have the time to get them to safety. I cannot take that risk with my babies any more than Dr. Jacobs could with you and his girls. I have to get back there. I have to try at least to save them. Please understand?”
Lauren felt her throat tighten. She could not begin to imagine the pain this woman felt. To have given up her children as her mother had was hard enough. To believe their lives were at risk must be even more overwhelming. Perhaps that was why Katie had come with them, but that did not matter right now. Her friend’s pain did. “I do. I do understand.”
Her throat tightened around the words as she realized for the first time just what risks she was taking. The same ones that her mother had when she left England to be with her lover. The same ones that this woman did when she entrusted the lives of her babies to strangers.
The cold hard truth was: if Brent were truly right, as much as she might not want to think about it, she might never make it back to this place. She might never see him or her children again.
Her heart burst. Her lungs froze like the ice that might one day soon coat much of this continent. Not even the hot West Texas sun could warm her as the panic began to build.
Lauren stood up quickly. She did not want to be rude. She wanted to stay and comfort her friend. But she could not. Not when she needed comforting herself. And there was only one place she could ever turn in times like these. Him.
She did have the presence of mind to mumble, “We can talk more on the plane tomorrow, if you want, Katie. But I need to go right now. I need to find Brent.”
She fled as quickly as she could. She did not even have the will to look back to make sure that her friend was okay. She could not get to him fast enough.
Luckily, she found him in the barn just as he said they would be. Elise was still rubbing down the pony though she did not see Megan.
“What’s wrong, babygirl? You look like you have seen a ghost,” Brent said with a frown as she threw herself at him.
“Please, Brent, please just hold me. I need you right now,” she buried her tear-stained cheeks in his soft shirt. She inhaled his clean, fresh male scent as she held tightly to him, her arms wrapped about his waist as if he were a buoy, and she was drowning. Which if he were right, might be the case, she shuddered at the thought.
“It’s okay, sweetheart. I’ve got you. I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise,” he kissed the top of her head and held her even tighter.
She wanted so badly to believe him. But she knew, they had both learned that late December day: Mother Nature was more powerful than anything. Or anyone. Even their love.
But as scared as she was, she knew she would be on that plane in the morning. She had to be. She was the only one that could do this job. And she had to try. She had to give people the chance to keep their families safe, even if it put her own life and family at risk. That was what they did — their job.
One thing was for sure…she was not getting on that plane without telling this man everything. How she felt about him. The dreams she still held for them. Because if tomorrow never comes, she wanted him to know how much she loved him.