Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Crescent Bay

Chapter 3, Part 2


"Monsieur Colin Beckham et Mademoiselle Molly Gregory" the announcer at the door called as Colin and I stood by the door. They had gone all out this year for the Winter Ball as many alumni had returned this year for the affair.

I started toward the door, my arm hooked in Colin's but he pulled me back to the dismay of the announcer. "Molly, I love you." he said capturing my gaze instantly. It was the first time he'd said it, though we'd both implied it before and I stood transfixed by his eyes.

"I love you too Colin." I said without a doubt in my mind that it was true. I had certainly fallen head over heels for him before we started seeing each other but our relationship had grown beyond that.

The announcer glared at us and I could hear his foot tapping but I continued to look at Colin, unwilling to break the moment. "Okay now we can go in." Colin said with a smile. I laughed and gave him a gentle kiss as the announcer motioned us in clearly annoyed that we were entering so long after he'd done his job.

Deidree and her date, a local, were already dancing and Sean and Amelie were mingling near the buffet table. "Can I have this dance?" Colin asked offering me his hand. I took it and laughed as he spun me out into the small crowd of dancers. As we were dancing I noticed Amelie and and Sean join us on the floor as well.

The evening was a perfect way to end the semester and kick off the holiday break. Colin had gotten a part time internship at the branch office of a architecture firm in town so I found myself alone in the days leading up to Tony's visit. I got my Christmas shopping done though and sent a large box of gifts for everyone in Crescent Bay to Ruby's house where I understood they were spending Christmas Eve. Then spent a lot of time in the darkroom on campus just playing around and trying new things.

On Christmas Eve, Colin and Sean host a small dinner at their place. Colin cooked an incredible meal and Deidree even brought the same date as the one she'd brought to the ball - ten days and at least two dates had to be a record for her. We spent the night eating, laughing and exchanging gifts. I slid Colin's across the table to him and smiled. He picked it up and gave it a light shake with a laugh and then opened the small box. He pulled out a pocket watch. "I love it Molly." he said after looking it over. I waited a moment for him to open the front which he did eventually. Inside was a picture of us that I knew he liked even though my ear and our chins had been cropped due to holding the camera out in front on me at arms reach. "I love this picture." he said with a laugh. He leaned toward me and gave me a kiss. "Thank you. It's perfect. Now your turn." he said pulling out a long, thin box and handing it to me.

I pulled the paper off and pulled a necklace box out. I looked at him curiously and then opened the top. Inside was a small locket on a long chain. "Oh it's beautiful." I said running my finger along the chain and delicate engravings. I knew he was waiting for me to open it so I did and laughed when I looked inside. It was the same picture as in his watch only smaller. "How'd you get this picture?" I asked looking at it closely. He just winked at me and I could see the mirthful glint in his eyes.


"Tony!" I shouted happily as I saw him coming off the plane. Apparently the day after Christmas was a popular day to fly because the airport was crowded with travelers and families. I pushed my way through some of them so that he could see me. "It's so good to see you!" I said excitedly hugging him. We picked up his bags and headed for the parking lot. I didn't love the drive from Paris to our little village but I'd borrowed Sean's car in order to pick Tony up.

"New car?" Tony asked as he closed the trunk on his luggage.

"No it's Sean's. Cheaper than a cab at any rate." I said sliding into the driver's seat. We chatted about lots of little things as we drove but I tried no to mention Colin too much. I was thrilled Tony had decided to come but I knew this couldn't be easy for him. "I'll take you to the Inn first so you can check in and get settled, if you want to clean up I can swing back around for you if you like."

"Sounds great Molly." Tony said.

"I'll be back in a bit!" I said through the open window an hour or so later. "I'm gonna take Sean his car back, we can walk most anywhere around here." I watched him get inside and then drove away to return Sean's car. An hour later I met a refreshed looking Tony. "It's a long flight I know." I said with a laugh. "Deidree requested I bring you back to the house straight away - even before getting you food so you can see where I live first I guess."

"You're early!" a panicked voice came from the kitchen as the door closed.

"Really? Early for what?" I asked walking into the kitchen with Tony behind me.

"You're cooking...why are you cooking?" I asked.

"For you and your friend of course. I don't think making a salad is considered cooking." Deidree said putting the bowl down long enough to turn towards us. "You look just like your picture - a bit taller though." she said as a greeting to Tony. "And more muscles...." she said clearly checking him out.

"Tony this is Deidree, my roommate. Deidree this is Tony." I said carefully.

"Nice to meet you Deidree." Tony said offering his hand which she shook quickly.

"I'm gonna show him the house." I said pulling Tony out of the kitchen with me. "Living room" I said motioning to the room we'd enter into. "The picture in which she refers" I said pointing to the picture of Tony from our trip here before senior year.

"I remember this picture." Tony said looking over it. "Though I can't say I remember these" he said pointing to the other pictures on the wall alongside his.

"Ah well, I took those last semester. The river, the cemetery, the nectary and Colin." I said pointing to each in turn. I showed him the rest of the house just in time for Deidree to call us in for lunch. We made plans to meet up with Deidree and the rest of the group for an early dinner and then we walked back to town and strolled around the main market place just talking.

When it was time to meet the group, we were already near the cafe so it was a short trip over and didn't give me much time to work up my nerves about introducing Tony to Colin.

"Hey guys!" I said trying to sound and be excited. I really did want all my Crescent Bay friends to meet my university friends so it was exciting, just mixed with anxiety. "This is Tony. Tony this is Amelie and Sean; Deidree, who you already met is Sean's sister and that is....Peter..." I said after a moment, trying to remember Deidree's date's name. He was a three-peater which was impressive. "And that's Colin." I said pointing to Colin who was standing between Deidree and Peter.

They all nodded and said their hellos and nice to meet yous. The waitress came out, seeing that our party was complete and took the orders and then disappeared. Sean was his charismatic self and easily found things to talk with Tony about - Sean could be friends with anyone I thought as I watched the two of them talk about American football and rugby. Colin sat beside me and held my hand under the table. Deidree and Peter were the first to leave after dinner, followed soon by Sean and Amelie. They made their apologies that they wouldn't be around much during his visit but they were going to be spending time with Amelie's family. Colin stood to excuse himself as well. "It's nice to meet you Tony." he said extending his hand and shaking Tony's. "But I have a project for work I need to work on so I'll see you both later." he said giving me a quick kiss on the cheek before leaving. I walked Tony back to his Inn for the night then and told him I'd see him in the morning.

The next morning Tony and I had a late breakfast at the Cafe and made a few plans for the week including a day trip into Paris. Colin was swamped with his project at work which I think was sort of a blessing. I wanted to have time with just Tony and I and I knew he probably would as well. We went to the museum first, one of the few large things to see without a trip into Paris, it had a nice collection of various cultures and their new Chinese exhibit was supposed to be supurb.

"I think you'd look good wearing one of these hats" I said putting one of the gift shop hats on Tony's head. It was an old style hat, complete with a large feathery plume. I laughed. "It's very you." I said through giggles.

"Uh-huh, yeah right." Tony said with a laugh as he took it off and put it on my head. "Now on you, it looks good."

"Of course it does." I said with a laugh and put the hat back. "How about this one?" I said putting a French beret on his head and adjusting it.

"No thanks." he said with a chuckle and tossed the beret back in the pile of hats. "Come on, let's go back and look around the market place" he said taking my hand out of habit. We spent the rest of the day shopping and then stopped for a late dinner before walking back to the Inn.

"And this is wear I spend a lot of my time." I said ending the quick tour of the school at the darkroom. We'd spent most of the day sight seeing and Tony had asked to see the school as part of the tour - more than he'd seen the last time he was here at least.

"It's not strictly necessary I suppose but once I learned how, I've been having fun with it." I said.

"I'm glad." Tony said with a smile. "You're a good photographer."

"Thanks." I said running a finger along the edge of the counter. I closed the door behind us as we left. The next day was our planned trip to Paris so I dropped Tony off early since we'd be getting an early start the next morning. I stopped by Colin's on the way home and was happy to find him home - even if he was working. "I've missed you the last couple weeks." I said. "And I know you're busy, I wasn't gonna stay long."

"Never too busy for you." he said pulling me into a tight embrace. "I've missed you too, this project should be over by the new year though." he said. "What have you been up to?"

"Showing Tony around, it's been great seeing him again. Tomorrow we're going to Paris. Wanna come?" I asked with smile.

"I'd love to, but I can't." Colin said giving me a kiss.

"Okay" I said with a fake pout. "I better get going, need sleep!" I said and gave him another kiss. The day after tomorrow, we're going to the bar since Tony is leaving New Year's Eve, will you come?"

"Yes, I'll be there." Colin said. "Have a good time in Paris" he said walking me out.

The drive into Paris was a little quiet due to it being early in the morning. I felt sure that Tony was used to early wake up calls but I wasn't. I tried not to schedule my classes before 11AM if I could help it. There was far more to do in Paris than could be done in a single day but Tony and I had a great time seeing the sights and shopping. I found myself taking pictures of the Eiffel Tower from every angle in the city, some with Tony, some without. I made sure to get some with the two of us either by holding the camera out as far from myself as I could or by asking someone to take one for us. We ate lunch at a little Bistro and found ourselves talking about Crescent Bay and the group. Tony told me about Axel's return and his visit. It was easy for us to fall into comfortable conversation - like an old habit we'd just gotten away from. The drive home was more animated than morning drive in and recounted several moments from the day including some of the strange Parisians and tourists we'd seen while there. "I can't believe tomorrow is your last full day." I said sadly as I pulled up in front of his Inn. "It's gone by too fast."

"I know." Tony said looking at me with sadness across his face. "I'll see you tomorrow Molly." he said leaning across to give me a hug. The following morning I swung by to get Tony a little later in the morning so we grabbed brunch on the go from a vendor in the market. "Do you take that everywhere?" he asked as I stopped to take a picture of a little boy being helped by his mom.

"Hmm?" I said looking at him and then my camera. I laughed. "Yeah pretty much. Never know what you might find or see. I hate seeing the perfect shot and have nothing but my cell phone and memory to capture it with. I have a smaller one too for when this one isn't completely practical."

He nodded as I spoke. "Where to next? What else do you and your friends do during the day?"

"Well normally we have classes" I said with a laugh. I pointed across the market place. "Colin works over there, Deidree works over there" I said pointing to the currently closed, discreet bar on the other side. "Amelie works at the nectary sometimes - her family owns it. And Sean paints mostly. And I" I held up my camera. "Take pictures mostly." I said walking toward Colin's office.

"This is a branch office of a firm in Paris." I said pushing the door open. Colin was at one of the two computers. "Hey." I said.

"'Ello" he said smiling and standing to come around to meet us. "Good to see you again Tony." he said shaking hands with Tony again.

The room quickly became awkward and conversation stopped. "Well, you have work to do if you're gonna get this done before New Years." I said finally to break it up. I took Tony to the nectary next but Amelie wasn't working. We stayed a wandered through the orchard just talking and enjoying the scenery. "I think you have seen everything this village offers now" I said with a laugh as we walked back to the marketplace. "It's not a large tourist trap that's for sure."

"But it's a nice, quiet place." Tony said looking around. It was getting dark by then and we were suppose to stop by the bar tonight.

"Last stop, the bar where Deidree will pour you something wonderfully toxic - be warned." I said with a smirk.

"Consider me warned." he said smiling, when we walked in, the others were already there - including the local the Deidree had been seeing. What was his name again? "Peter right?" Tony said greeting him. Yeah that would be it - Peter.

"Okay who wants drinks?" Deidree asked as she began mixing one of her deliciously deceptive concotions. No one had a chance to reply before she'd put one in front of each of us.

"Oh lord Deidree!" I said after swallowing what I'm sure I would regret come morning. "What was in that?"

"Magician never tells" she said with a laugh. I looked around to see the others studying their glasses and apparently trying to figure out what was in the drink. It was good - no denying that - but I was sure there was more alcohol in it than any of us had warranted on. Before we could determine the contents, she swiped the glasses away and refilled them.

"It's been good having you here Tony!" Sean said loudly. "Sorry we didn't get to see you more but it's good meeting a bit of Mols before she came to us." he said happily. The others chimed in as well. Sean, Amelie and Colin left the refills untouched and went to the back room to dance. Peter started flirting with Deidree across the bar leaving Tony and I mostly alone. I sipped mine carefully, watching Tony. "I'm going to miss you." I said finally. We talked together for awhile before joining the others on the dance floor.

The next morning, exhausted and totally regretting Deidree's drinks - I drove Tony back to the airport. "I'm glad you came Tony." I said standing at the gate with him. "Be safe." I added giving him a hug. I felt sad as he walked away, turning to wave before boarding his plane.

Classes started back not long after he left and true to his word, Colin's project ended pretty soon after the new year. I'd loved the holiday and having Tony visit but it felt nice to get back to the normal routines of classes and spending time with Colin. In February, Sean and Amelie proposed we all go on a ski holiday for Spring Break which made the next month pass happily by as we made preparations. A couple weeks before the trip I sent a quick email back to Crescent Bay.

"Dear friends,

I hope everyone is well! I'm going skiing in a couple weeks! How great is that? I can't wait! Boris, in case I miss it because I've smashed into a tree or something (lol), happy birthday to Ning! I'll send lots of pictures when I get back!

Love~ Molly"

Classes ended early on the Friday before Spring Break and the five of us piled into a car together for the trip. Five people didn't exactly fit comfortably in the car but we arrived at the ski lodge after many pit stops to stretch. The actual name of the Lodge was something very French that I suspected I would butcher even after a year and a half in France so I simply called it the Lodge. There was a fresh snow fall on the mountains with a light sprinkling coming down as we climbed out of the car.

"Perfect!" Sean bellowed in a loud, booming voice that was simply his way. Colin, Deidree and I chuckled and exchanged looks. Sean put a large arm around Amelie and she naturally snuggled under the arm against him. They happily bounded into the Lodge together to check in. Deidree and I had reserved our room together so we followed as well with Colin behind us to check into his own suite. Less than ten minutes later, keys in hand, we returned for our bags and to scope out our room. Colin carried mine and Deidree's suitcases for us and kissed me quickly before going back to get his own. I sighed happily as he left which earned a smirk from Deidree. "Nice room." I said turning to my suitcase. Deidree 'mhmm'ed behind me but I could hear her laughing.

We'd barely arrived in time for dinner so we changed out of the grungy road-tripped clothes and met up in the dinning room with several other guests of the Lodge already assembling. Deidree fell into conversation quickly with a rugged looking man and I turned to Colin. He was holding out a key for me. "In case you need it." he said looking over my shoulder to Deidree.

I followed his line of sight and knew what he was thinking. I took the key from him and nodded. "Thanks. I might just." I said with a laugh.

I had only been skiing once before and it hadn't been my shining moment as any sort of an athlete so I was a little nervous as we rode the lift. Deidree, who had never been skiing and who was search of a man, signed up for ski lessons after checking out the instructors. I hadn't seen her all morning.

Amelie and Sean had had breakfast with us but then disappeared together off to a tougher slope. Colin stayed with me even though he was a more experienced skier.

The first run was bumpy and awkward for me but by the time I reached the bottom I felt a little more confident and flashed a smile at Colin. "Not so bad eh?" he asked smiling.

"No not so bad." I said. We spent the whole morning skiing together and I eventually graduated from the bunny slopes. We saw Amelie and Sean in passing around lunch time and then went back out for more skiing.

We finally decided to call it a day after one more run and were thrilled to find Amelie and Sean in the lift ahead of us as we climb the mountain. "Having fun Mols?" Sean called back to me with a jovial look on his face.

"Very much so!" I called back as Colin draped his arm around me. I smiled at him and he smiled back at me. We got off the lift behind Sean and Amelie and the four of us spread out to go down the slope. I could hear Sean booming laugh all the way back up as he went down first, followed by Amelie whose laugh was light and small like the tinging of a bell. We all met up at the bottom after a smooth run all around and laughed our way inside, telling each other about the day.

I spotted Deidree, the arm of her ski instructor was around her shoulder and I wondered if she'd gotten hurt. I didn't even have to ask as I surveyed her. While the four of us were damp and flushed from the stinging of the cold air, Deidree looked toasty warm. "Did you even ski today?" I asked with a laugh.

Deidree grinned at me like a cat with a toy. "I'm learning still." she said.

Colin, Sean and I exchange looks and bursts into a new round of laughter.

"Right..." I said looking at the tangled mass of Deidree and her ski instructor. We'd all eaten dinner together and then Sean and Amelie had gone outside and Deidree had disappeared with Mr. Ski Instructor while Colin and I snuggled by the downstairs fire talking.

To be fair, my bed was empty but I didn't want to be around if they went farther so I quickly backed out of the room.

Once the door closed I looked around the hall lost. It was getting late and I was just ready to change out of my ski clothes and relax after a long day on the slopes. I started moving in the direction of Colin's room and before I realized I'd made the decision, I was standing in front of his door. I knocked and waited a moment before realizing he'd given me a key earlier.

I'd finally fished it from my pocket when he swung the door open and awarded me with a winning smile. His hair was a little mussed. "What a charming surprise." he said, his British accent seemed thicker from sleep.

"Were you sleeping?" I asked as he moved aside to let me in.

"May have drifted off on the couch." Colin said.

I reached up and ran my fingers through his hair. "I can tell." I said with a grin. He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me close to him, kissing me. "Mhmm" I responded, wrapping my arms around his neck.

Finally Colin broke the kiss. "'Ello. To what do I owe the honor of your visit?" he asked with a smile.

"Hi to you too." I said with a laugh. "Deidree....and her ski instructor have taken over our room. Not wanting to be an intrusive peeping tom...I figured I'd leave them alone."

"I'll have to give him a tip." Colin said, the laughter reflected in his eyes. "Would you like something to drink? The lodge left a large array of hot drink mixes in the kitchenette."

"Sure, something warm." I said shivering just a bit. The snow from outside had seeped into my clothes and hair and in spite of many large fireplaces around the lodge and the heater going, I still felt chilly.

"Why don't you go take a hot bath, I'll get the fire going and make us some drinks." Colin suggested, giving me another quick kiss.

"Okay - sounds good." I said and moved toward the bathroom. "Hey, I left my suitcase in the other room, got a t-shirt I can borrow?"

Colin pointed to the dresser where he'd unpacked his clothes. "There are some sweats in there as well if you like - although they may be a bit big." he said as he moved to the small kitchenette.

"Thanks." I said pulling out a t-shirt and a pair of sweat pants and walking into the bathroom. There was a large corner tub that looked even bigger than the one in the room I shared with Deidree. I started the water running and while waiting for the tub to fill I looked through the assortment of scents and bubbles baths left by the Lodge staff. I turned off the water and slipped a toe into the hot water. It was hot but felt wonderful as I slid into the tub the rest of the way. It didn't take long for me to warm up and the idea of curling on the couch with a fire, Colin and a hot cup of cocoa was hard to resist for long. I drained the tub and dried off, pulling on the t-shirt without really looking at it. I grabbed the pants and pulled them on, the immediately fell to the floor - a bit big was an understatement. I looked in the mirror and saw the French, touristy t-shirt and the large sweat pants puddled at my feet and giggled.

Leaving the sweat pants behind, I stepped out into the suite and saw Colin sitting on the couch. "Where did you get this shirt?" I asked.

Colin turned to look at me and I smiled sweetly at him while watching his face go from questioning, to surprise, to some composure. "So that's a no on the sweat pants then?" he asked, although I heard a slight waver in his voice and noticed him looking me over once more.

"They didn't fit." I said as he stood up from the couch.

"Shame." Colin said approaching me slowly. We hadn't gone this far with our physical relationship, I hadn't been ready and Colin had always been very respectful of that so I suspected he was hesitating on my account.

"Yes, quite." I said, stepping closer to him and closing the distance between us. I put my arms around his neck and felt his hands gingerly touch my back. His touch, even though I'd felt it many times before, sent waves of electricity through me. I ran my fingers through his hair and leaned forward until our lips connected. The kiss, which started gentle, became fiery between us and was over too soon. "Love me." I whispered in his ear then pressed my lips to his neck.

"Utterly and completely." he whispered back before lifting me up. I wrapped my legs around him and let him carry me like that to the bed. He set me down on the edge gently before lavishing me with kisses to my lips, face, neck and ears. I slid my hands under his thick sweater and felt his defined stomach and chest. "Your hands are cold." he said softly against my neck.

"Then warm them up." I replied with a flirty smile.

He pulled back from kissing my face and studied my eyes for a moment and then grinned. "If you insist." he said. He removed his sweater and tossed it aside. He took my hands in his and started rubbing them gently then laid gentle kisses on them. "Now what else is cold?" he asked.

I laughed and leaned back against the pillows. "My legs." I said lifting a bare leg up for him.

"Yes, I can see how they would be cold." Colin said placing his hands on the offered foot and starting to rub it. He kissed his way up to my knee before repositioning himself and starting on my other leg. When he reached the other knee, he leaned forward so that our faces, our bodies, were only inches apart. "Anything else my love?"

"I can think of a few more places." I said as I pulled his lips down to meet mine. His hands found the hem of the borrowed shirt and slipped under, touching my stomach and making me shiver. He raised his eyebrows and lifted the shirt a bit, exposing my stomach and pulled back to kiss it. I shuddered as the feeling his lips sent electric pulses through me again.

He warmed up every part me and then some. As I lay snuggled in his arms afterward, I couldn't imagine ever feeling cold again. "I love this." I said softly.

"Hmm?" Colin said, we were both tired before and I could tell the sleep was in his voice, ready to take him.

"The feel of your arms around me like this." I said turning my head back to look at him.

He smiled and placed his hand on my cheek then kissed me softly. "I love it too." Colin said. "I love everything about you." he said, his eyes getting heavier.

I smiled and pulled his hand back down so it was resting over my stomach and closed my eyes, snuggling closer to him, as close as I could. "I love you Colin." I said.

"I love you too Molly." he replied, his voice groggy. "Utterly and completely" he repeated and I imagined a playful smile on his face as we both drifted off to sleep.

When I woke up the next morning I was disappointed to find that I was alone in the bed. The lights were on though which told me Colin had woken up before me. I sat up and stretched, my muscles feeling sore. The bed groaned slightly as I moved and slid my feet to the floor. I looked around for clothes and finally retrieved the silly French tourist shirt and slipped it over my head. I walked past the partition and saw Colin standing in the kitchenette, shirtless, brewing coffee with his back to me. 'Mmm.' I thought to myself, pausing to watch him. "You never did tell me where you got this shirt." I said finally.

Colin turned to me and smiled. "Well I got distracted." he said looking me over. "And you're well on your way to doing it again."

"Moi? I'm just standing here." I said feigning innocence.

"Mhmm." Colin said, clearly not believing my act. "Amelie gave it to Sean...who left it in my laundry to lose it I imagine." he said pouring a cup of coffee and offering it to me. "It's never looked that good on me." he added.

I laughed. "It doesn't seem to be your style...or Sean's for that matter." I said and sipped the coffee. We both leaned against the counters, watching each other as we drank. About halfway through my cup, I set it down and walked over to him. I carefully took his cup away from him and set it on the counter as well and then wrapped my arms around him. "Good morning." I said and then kissed him.

"Good morning." Colin said as the kiss slowly ended. He kissed me again lightly. "Very good morning." he said grinning.

"Yes, it certainly has potential." I gave him a flirty smile and then backed my way toward the bedroom area.

He watched me for a moment and then followed with the playful smile. "Oh yes, definitely distracting me again." he said as he closed the space between us in a few easy strides. The suite wasn't large so we fell back onto the bed together. "Not that I mind." he said, leaning over me.

The rest of the ski trip went by far too quickly, I eventually retrieved my suitcase from the room I was supposed to be sharing with Deidree and told her I'd be in Colin's room if she needed anything. She laughed and apologized for running me out of the room but I couldn't be mad at her as it had turned out so well.


In April, the school was preparing for graduations and hosting an annual charity auction where the students graduating were asked to submit their own work to be auctioned. Sean spent a lot of time painting, trying to get just the right piece for the auction but would never let any of us see it. As the weeks to the end of the year got shorter, Amelie seemed more and more down and I wondered if she and Sean had talked about what his plans were after he graduated this year.

The night of the auction was a formal affair, one we'd all skipped last year since none of us were graduating. This year one of us was though so we all agreed to glam up and attend in support of Sean - who had also been asked to be the MC for the event given his booming personality. I stifled a yawn as the evening wore on and I saw Colin smile, clearly having seen me. I looked over at Amelie who was flipping through her program absently.

"Our next piece was painted by myself and is entitled, "Will You Marry Me?"" Sean said. I looked up at the painting and tilted my head to the side - it was not one of his better works. I turned to look at Sean questioningly and saw he was on his knee holding a ring out. My eyes were like saucers and looked at Amelie who had only just looked up as well. She looked stunned for a moment and then jumped from her seat.

"Well?" Sean asked after she finished jumping around. "Will you marry me Amelie?" he asked.

"Oui! O yes!" she said running up to him and throwing her arms around him. He had to physically remove her from his neck so that he could slide the ring on her finger.

After the proposal, the enthusiasm of the auction picked up and Amelie turned to me and clutched my hand. "Will you be a bridesmaid?" she whispered quickly.

"What?" I asked stunned. Amelie and I were getting a long better since our early days but I didn't think it was bridesmaid better. "Yes of course." I finally added feeling ashamed of my initial response.

"Good! Very good!" she said with a huge smile and then turned her attention to Deidree. "And you will be my maid of honor, oui?"

If the proposal had shocked Deidree, this question flabbergasted her. "Um....yes?" Deidree said almost more as a question then an answer. "Oh wait! I might not be able to...." When Amelie and I both looked at her questioningly she tried to ignore us but finally she caved. "I'm leaving in October. To join a dance company."

"What?!" I hissed, several people turned to me and glared as the auction was still going on in spite of our hushed conversation. Deidree grimaced. "Later" she mouthed and turned her attention back to Sean and the auction.

When Sean heard his baby sister might not be able to attend the wedding he insisted they get married before she left - which pleased Amelie just fine except for the time crunch. So when I found myself bound to France for the summer to help plan the wedding, I had to see if Tony, Stormy, Ruby and Boris could come to me...I sat down at my computer and considered how to broach the subject, especially so close to our second meet up.

Finally my email came up and I opened a new email. I addressed to all of them and sighed as I considered my wording. They'd understand...I hope!

Dear friends,

How do you all feel about France in the summer? For our annual meet up? A friend of mine asked me a huge favor and while I could get away, it would be difficult (not that I mind trying it if France isn't good for everyone else). If you all think you can make it to France this summer, please let me know! Besides, I'd love for Boris and Ruby to meet my university friends.

Love and hugs,

PS: I miss you all and can't wait to see you!

PPS: Sorry for such short notice - last night was huge! More details later!

PPPS: Happy birthday to the triplets!! Wish I was there to see the fun!

I reread it twice and then hit send and sat back and hoped for a positive response.


Wow, the holidays are right around the corner. I have not even begun my shopping. Only twenty four days shopping days left. Unfortunately, it's going to have to wait a while longer. But I must make a point to do something special for Ning's first Christmas.

First things first. I must accompany Mao to China to settle Jing's estate. Arrangements must be made for flights and such. I heard Uncle Hector and Kale are going to be spending the holidays in China. Uncle Hector is performing at some New Year's celebration. Perhaps I'll get a chance to see them or attend his performance.

Having left my cell phone upstairs, I picked up the phone in the hall and began to dial. The phone rang a few times before finally being answered. "Hi, how are things going?"

"Hey, things are good. Well, as good as can be, I guess. How are you?"

"I'm doing good." I chuckled, "Why do we always say things are good, when they're really not as good as we'd like?"

I heard muffled giggling through the receiver. "Dang, Boris you really know how to make someone smile. Thanks."

"Anyway, part of the reason I called, I have Beau's number." I gave Stormy the number.

"Whoa! Hold on, I need to get a pen. So how is that little cutie, Ning?" She asked as she was obviously rummaging through papers searching for a pen. "Okay, give me the number again," she said without waiting for a response to her question.

I gave her the number again. "NIng is a good baby. He's been very easy to care for. It's helped like hell having Mao here. He's been a Godsend. I would have never made it without his help."

"You are really lucky to have Mao. We chatted a few times in Riverview. From what you've told us of Jing, and what Mao has told me of her, I can understand how you fell in love with her. She was truly blessed to have both of you."

"Thanks Stormy. I guess I have been lucky to have found Jing and now have Mao's friendship. Oh, hey, before I forget, I have a favor to ask."

"Uh, sure, what is it, Boris?" Stormy asked.

"I hate to impose, but I will be heading to China with Mao in a couple weeks, and both my dads are heading out on business. I was wondering if you would be able to watch Ning while we are gone. My first thought was Ruby and Axel, but, as you know, Axel has been away and hasn't returned yet and Ruby has enough to handle with the triplets. I don't think she needs another baby right now. You know how emotional she gets."

I heard muffled voices in the background as the mouthpiece on the other end was covered. Stormy was probably asking her father for permission to have Ning in the house. "Are you crazy? I'd love to watch the little guy. Sunny would love to have him here also," Stormy said after getting it okayed through her dad. I don't recall her ever sounding that excited before. "How long are you planning to be gone?"

"We're hoping it won't take more than a couple weeks. We need to tie up some loose ends with Jing's estate. Mao insisted I go along." Mao handed me my cell phone as he descended the stairs and passed by. What would I have done without him?

"Great Boris, When can I plan to get the little package of joy?"

"Uh, oh, we'll all be flying out in the 29th of December. We could drop him off on the way to the airport or on the 28th. Whichever will work better for you?"

"Yeah, Boris, that's not a problem. On your way to the airport is fine. I look forward to spoiling him rotten for you."

"Say, Stormy, while I have you on the phone, have you heard anything from Tony yet? He said he was going to be in town yesterday, but I haven't heard from him yet."

"No, I haven't heard from him yet, either. I'm sure he'll let us know when he's available."

"Thanks again, Stormy, I owe you big time for this one."

After hanging up, I immediately called Ruby to see if she'd heard anything from Axel. We're all worried about him. I'm sure my dads know what is going on, but like Ruby, I am being told everything is all right and not to worry. I don't know if Axel really screwed up this time or if someone or something else was the reason for his disappearance.

"Hi Ruby, are you holding up okay?"

"Hi Boris. What do you think?" Ruby began raising her voice, beginning to puddle up.

I took a deep breath in an attempt to remain calm. "I'm sorry, Ruby. This has got to be hell for you, on several fronts. If you need anything, please give me a call. I will be heading to China with Mao after Christmas. I suppose you already know that our dads will be out of the country for a few weeks as well."

"Boris, I don't know if I can take any more. The babies are draining me, and not knowing what has happened to Axel, it's too much." Ruby said, sobbing in heavy breaths.

"I know, Ruby, but you have to be strong for the babies. And for Axel. He's going to need all of you when he gets back. With luck he'll be home for the holidays.

"I wanted to let you know," I continued, "that I will be leaving Ning with Stormy while we are in China. You know you were my first choice, but with not knowing what is going on with Axel, I didn't want to add to your all ready full nursery. I hope you're not upset with me."

"Oh, Boris, I feel a little better now," Ruby said as she began to stifle the tears. "Yeah, I don't know if I could have handled another baby right now." Thank you for thinking of me and for saying I was your first choice. That really means a lot."

"Call me any time, Ruby. Wherever I am. If I don't answer right away, I will get back to you as soon as I can."

"Thanks again, Boris."

"Oh, and one more thing. Don't hesitate to call Grandma and get some time for yourself. Vanessa is the quintessential grandma, lovingly doting over her grandbabies. Spend a day at the spa. My treat. I'll leave word that your next visit is on me. Whatever you desire. Just take care of yourself. You'll be no good to Axel or the babies, if you let yourself get caught up and fall prey to your emotions."

"I know, but I can't help it. It's reflex. It happens."

"Ruby, please take care of yourself. For Axel; for the babies; and especially for us, Molly, Stormy, Tony and myself. We all love you and need you around."

"Boris..." Ruby began.

"Yea, Ruby?" I asked, as if requesting a response that I know was forthcoming anyway.

"Just...thank you." Ruby finally said letting out a sigh. "Oh, the babies. Boris I have to go. Bye and thanks again. You know I love you."

She hung up and I couldn't help but hope she would take me up on my offer to unwind at the spa. Lord knows, she could use the break away from the babies.

I finally heard from Tony and we made plans to have lunch one afternoon. As the holidays neared, free time became scarce. People were bustling about the streets downtown like ants in a farm. The Bistro was always a favorite place of mine. I love the open air atmosphere, more so than the stuffy, nauseating grease-trap smell of the diner. We had a good lunch and caught up on events since we last saw each other back in June. I had met with the others at his house in August to send him off, but we didn't get a chance to talk then. After our lunch I decided to get everyone a laptop for Christmas. Tony told me how he had thrown his laptop against the wall.

Tony, Stormy and I are planning to get together at Axel and Ruby's on Christmas Eve. I hope Axel is back, or it could be a somber occasion. Ruby agreed to her place - no matter what! We're going to hold her to it. If Axel is not back, she'll need us.

A few days later, I received a call from Emma Benoit. She and I were in choir together in high school. "Hi Boris. You probably don't remember me, but we were in a bunch of clubs and choir together. This is Emma Benoit," She said as if assuming I had forgotten everyone from high school.

"Hi Emma. Of course I remember you. It hasn't been that long." I quipped.

"Listen, the reason I'm calling, is that I'm contacting the old choir members to see if anyone would be interested in going caroling. I've already got affirmative answers from Bella Crosby, Rhea Montero and Leon Clements. You are the last on my list, but only because you were so hard to track down. I finally got your number from Martin, whom I called just before you. He said you two were in some of the same classes at the university."

"I'll have to have a talk with Martin about giving out my number. Seriously, I'm only joking. Caroling sounds like fun. I don't know if I remember how to sing, though," I laughed.

"Well, unless you've lost your vocal chords," Emma said as she laughed, "It's like riding a bicycle. You just get back on an go."

"You're probably correct," I chuckled. "So, what have you been up to since graduation?"

"Oh my goodness, Boris, you wouldn't believe it," she said in an excited voice. This was quite out of character for Emma. "Well, I don't know if you knew that I was pursuing a degree Mathematics upon graduation, but things have changed."

"Yes, I remember that you were going to pursue mathematics. How did that change?"

"Once I arrived at the university, I went through orientation and registration within the School of Mathematics. I was urged by my counselor to take an elective course each semester, as the mathematics program was going to be long and tedious for even the brightest of minds. After looking over the selection of elective courses, I chose choir. Mainly because I really loved singing in high school. I loved the choir there so much, I have decided on a double major in Theatre Arts, with an emphasis on choral voice. I truly love it. I am keeping a mathematics major, because you never know when you'll need to fall back on it. Sorry to have kept you so long, Boris. I really have to run. If you give me your email, I will send you the rest of the details about the caroling."

"Sounds good Emma." We exchanged email addresses and she hung up.

The next day, I received an email from Emma, outlining the caroling schedule. We were to sing beginning in the park just after lunch and then move through the residential area, winding up at the Hope Center in the evening.

The caroling was a lot of fun and a nice diversion from recent events. Emma had acquired some choir gowns from one of the local choral groups. Leon and I decided to try to break up all that royal purple with a little holiday cheer and donned scarves in traditional holiday colors. I think it was a wasted effort, at best. We spent several hours in the park caroling for the passersby. There was an unusually large number of tourists in town this year.

When we arrived at the Hope Center, we were treated to some welcomed refreshments before singing carols for the patients. I was surprised, and quite frankly, a little embarrassed, to see Stormy and Sunny there. We sang a couple carols before Sunny ran over to give me a hug and join the carolers.

On Christmas Eve, I stopped to shop on my way to Ruby’s. I wanted to get there early so I could make fresh eggnog. Everything looked perfect. When Tony arrived, he ran right to the tree to place gifts beneath it! He then hugged everyone. He is always so warm and genuine! He spreads peace and goodwill wherever he goes. I think I even saw Stormy sporting a big grin. Ruby received the best gift of all. Axel returned home! I took a cue from Tony's hasty departure and made my own excuses and left.

The next day, we all met to say our good-byes to Tony. I asked him if he would deliver a gift to Molly for me. I'm really bad about getting things mailed out on time. When it was time for Tony to leave, I drove him to the airport.

Mao and I got all of Ning's things together to take to Stormy's. Dad had ordered a crib and had it delivered to their house; that's one less thing I need to worry about. I would be completely lost without Dad and Mao picking up on the details I simply seem to forget. There is no way I could raise a child on my own. Not properly, anyway. The kids would have duct tape around their waist to keep their diapers on. Well, it may not be that bad, but I would overlook a lot of the small details. I never would have thought childrearing is a job in and of itself. Where was that representative on Career Day.

I can handle making travel arrangements without a second thought, but I cannot remember to pack the proper toys for a child. Most often, I end up buying toiletries upon reaching my destination, as I forget to pack them. Mao is already one step ahead of me there. He has purchased additional items and has them packed already. He really is a Godsend.

We arrived at the Riddle house and dropped off Ning for his fortnight "sleepover" at Stormy's. Mao handed Ning to Stormy, we said our quick good-byes, and were on our way to the airport.

My dads had gone on ahead, as their flight departed a couple hours before ours. We hurried through check-in with our bags and found the gate from which we would be departing. Mao had found some books on nectar making and had brought one along to read. I couldn't resign myself to reading, as I had too many thoughts and memories whirling about in my head.

Our flight was announced, "Flight 3174 to Beijing, now boarding," and Mao touched my shoulder to bring me out of my thoughts. We boarded, Mao ahead of me. I had to stop him as he turned toward the aft section of the plane, and redirect him to First Class. I will never forget the look on his face when we entered the First class cabin. I couldn't help but smile.

"Boris, I have never flown First Class before. This is so grand," he said in amazement.

"I'm sorry I hadn't told you earlier, Mao. For some reason, I assumed you knew we would be flying First Class."

"Oh, no, this is a nice surprise," he said as the attendant directed us to our seats.

Our flight continued without incident, landing in Beijing many long, sleepless hours later. My thoughts were of Jing, the life she never had; the life we never had. I couldn't stop the sadness that blanketed my mood. I was on the verge of tearing, when Mao can to my rescue once again, announcing we were landing and to buckle up.

After deplaning we moved through customs; rather quickly, I might add. We gathered our bags and sought out a taxi to take us to Jing's house in Shang Simla. The driver drove directly to the house and assisted in carrying the bags to the door. Mao tipped him and he was on his way.

"Boris, didn't you find it strange that the driver never asked for directions, yet brought us straight to the door?" Mao asked with a concerned look in his eyes.

"Oh, I didn't notice. I guess I was lost in my thoughts. I need to pay more attention to what is going on around me."

"Please be more careful, Boris. You should listen to your father when he says you must not let your guard down. He is only thinking of your safety."

"You're right, Mao. I will be more careful. For both our sakes. I suppose we should get the house in order if we're going to be entertaining guests.."

Mao and I began the arduous task of opening the house and making it livable, if even for a few weeks. Since it had been over a year since anyone had used the house, it was filled with cobwebs and stale air. Windows were opened and linens changed. Floors swept and cobwebs removed. An extra room was prepared for Uncle Hector and Kale, who would be arriving in a couple days. I can see and feel Jing in everything. In the paintings she has painted, now hanging on the walls; in the books, so carefully put away on the shelves; in the linens, neatly stacked, waiting for the next meal; everything here was a part of who Jing was.

Once the house was at least livable again, we took a break. Since we had not gone to the market yet, we strolled down into the Forbidden City and purchased a meal from the local restaurant. We stopped at the market and purchased enough foodstuffs and other goods to see us through the next couple days at least.

The government offices were not open for another few days as a celebration of the western New Year's was planned for December 31st. The offices wouldn't be open for another two days following the change to the new calendar year. We made plans to attend the new Year's concert that Uncle Hector would be performing at.

We attended the celebration on New Year's Eve in the Forbidden City. There was a large turnout of locals and even some from a distance away, had journeyed in to enjoy the festivities. Uncle Hector put on one of the best shows ever. I couldn't have been more proud.

The next day we spent in the garden, tending to the weeds. Mao had made arrangements for one of the neighbors to tend the garden in his absence, keeping the harvest as payment for his efforts. The garden was well maintained, so there wasn't much for us to do. I must find some additional compensation for our neighbor for taking so much care in a garden that he could have easily let go. My love for this town and its residents grows with each visit. I am so glad Dad brought me here back in high school.

Sleep was hard to come by these last few nights, staying in this house, and I found myself very tired as Monday morning made its entrance. I stumbled down to the kitchen to make myself some coffee, only to find Mao had beaten me to it, and had a pot brewing. We sat down and began to map out our strategy for taking care of the loose ends still left dangling on Jing's estate.

Mao rose to get the coffee that had just finished brewing. "We should start at the Magistrate's Office and finalize the paperwork on the house. he will also help us take care of anything else that needs closure. Jing was involved in many things in town."

"Then that's where we shall start. What time does the office open?"

"They open at ten o'clock. It we are there waiting when they open, we may be able to get everything taken care of quickly."

We savored our coffee as I slowly felt my body begin to respond to the gentle nudge of caffeine. I finished getting ready for the day's events ahead. We arrived at the Magistrate's Office a few minutes before opening. As the doors were unlocked, we made our way in. The receptionist greeted us and asked our business. We explained why we were there and she notified the magistrate that we were waiting.

A few minutes later, a man come out and greeted us, introducing himself as Mr. Chen Hong, the magistrate. He led us back to his office where we began examining documents and deeds from Jing's estate. I was shocked to find out that the house did not belong to Mao. It seems that since Jing had a son, the property falls to him, and since he is underage, to my guardianship. Of course Mao can stay there as long as he likes. He has become an adored member of the family. He did, however, receive a tidy sum in inheritance from Jing, with Ning receiving the bulk.

We were both emotionally drained and deeply saddened by the events of the morning and decided to just relax at home the rest of the day. A short while later, Uncle Hector and Kale arrived with their bags. We helped them get settled and had dinner. Uncle Hector is a superb cook in his own right and made egg rolls that rivaled Jing's delicious favorites. I savored every bite, all the while lost in my thoughts of the woman I loved. I could clearly imagine sitting at the dinner table with Jing, conversing lightly, enjoying her mouth-watering egg rolls. After dinner, Kale helped Mao clean up and Uncle Hector asked me to accompany him outside. We sat by the pool in the moonlight.

"Boris, I want to thank you for allowing Kale and myself to stay with you."

"It's no problem, Uncle Hector. I...we...are very happy you and Kale took us up on our offer. Your performance was great. You wowed the crowd. I could not have been any more proud," I said, with a grin from ear to ear.

"How are you holding up, Boris?" he asked with a slight raise to his left eyebrow.

"What do you mean?" I asked, clearly missing his meaning.

"Come, now, Boris. You've been in a daze since we got here. Don't think you can snowball your favorite uncle. You are thinking of Jing, am I correct?"

"Yes. I could never hide anything from you. You are everything your brother is not. He's not very intuitive, but you, you can probably tell what I ate for breakfast yesterday. It's always been kind of unnerving, you know," I said, more as a statement than a question.

"Well, to be completely honest, Achilles asked me to take you up on your offer. Not that I wasn't going to anyway, but he insisted I look after you and Mao. He's very concerned, you know. Not only for your safety, but also for your mental well-being. Although he doesn't show it outwardly, he loves you very much."

"I know he does, but sometimes it feels like he's smothering me. I had thought of moving to Riverview on several occasions. And each time I have talked myself out of it."

"Boris, I met with my friend Bao Louie yesterday and he is anxious to meet you."

"Oh? Isn't he the Special Merchant? Why would he want to meet me?" I asked, my curiosity now piqued.

"He didn't say, other than he would like you meet with you and Mao tomorrow. There is an old forgotten tomb under the marketplace. That's where he would like to meet."

"Why all the cloak and dagger stuff? What is it that could possibly warrant such actions?"

"I don't know, Boris. I am simply relaying his request. I will take you to the tomb, as I have been there before."

"Thanks, Uncle Hector. I think!" I said, shrugging my shoulders. I was truly curious as to why someone I did not know would want to meet with me. I will find out tomorrow.

I did not sleep very well, my thoughts returning to Jing and then to this Bao Louie and then back again. What could he possibly have to say that would concern both Mao and myself? I woke up less than well rested the next morning and immediately went into the shower, without even searching out that ever important first cup of coffee. Having showered and feeling a smidgeon more awake, I went down to the kitchen to seek out a cup of morning caffeine. Mao, Kale and Uncle Hector were already at the table, having breakfast. I gladly accepted a cup of coffee and a plate of Eggs Machiavelli when Kale offered, already on his way to the stove to get me a plate. Little was said while we tried to enjoy the meal with tension that was hanging in the air.

Later in the day, we made our way to the marketplace. Uncle Hector had sent Kale on to the Scholar's Garden to give him something to occupy his time. I was filled with apprehension as we made our way through the market. We located the alleyway behind the shops, found the stairs to the tomb and began the descent. My nerves were on edge and every little noise was making me jump. We eventually found Bao Louie deep in the tomb.

"Hello Mr. Louie. Can you please tell me what this is all about?" I asked, not wanting to drag this out. This cloak and dagger stuff would be right up Axel's alley, but not mine.

"Please call me Bao. Mao, it has been a long time, yes?"

"Please, Mr. L...uh...Bao, could we please get on with this?" I asked, my patience wearing thin.

"I'm sorry, Boris, of course. I will get right to the heart of the matter. I have some information that I'm sure will be of interest to you and Mao. Mao's sister, Jing, did not die in child birth as you would think. She was "taken" as a lesson to you, Boris," Bao stated without mincing words.

"WHAT? What exactly are you implying? I am not going to stand here and listen to this nonsense," I said as I turned and began to walk away.

"Boris, STOP!" Uncle Hector said in such a commanding voice, that I stopped dead in my tracks and spun around to look at him. "Bao is not one to spin yarns for the sake of storytelling. I strongly suggest you stay and listen to what he has to say. Please continue, Bao," Hector said as I returned and gave my attention to Bao once more.

"Evidently you meddled in some affair that had no direct bearing on you, concerning a Black Tongue, I believe it was called. I do not know who the people are, nor what this Black Tongue is. I'm sure you have some idea, though. I would caution you not to storm out of here and try to deal with this yourself. I believe your father can best deal with this situation, or at least tell you how to proceed."

"I thought my sister was stronger than the doctors indicated when I last visited the hospital," Mao finally spoke up. "Boris, what is this Black Tongue that Bao speaks of?"

"I, too, am curious to hear about this as well, Boris" interjected Uncle Hector.

I related the events that led to the hacking and decoding of the Black Tongue and how I happened to be there. Not a word was spoken by the others until I had clearly finished.

"Now I can understand why your father is so concerned for your safety, Boris," Uncle Hector said, breaking the silence. "I presume he is fully aware of all of this?"

"Yes, Dad knew about it before I returned home from the base."

"Boris, above all else, you must try to keep your wits about you and remain calm. I would suggest you not return home too suddenly, or it may arouse suspicions. Do not try to look into this on your own. Ask your father for assistance when you return," asserted Uncle Hector. I am so glad he is here to keep me from doing something rash. Although Mao may have tried to quell my anger, he may not have succeeded as easily. Uncle Hector has always been a pillar of reason I could turn to. On several occasions he has kept me from acting on impulse.

We stayed another week, tying up some last minute details with the estate. Mao also arranged for a memorial service for Jing, as I was not in attendance at the funeral. I am VERY fortunate to have so many guardian angels looking out for me.

We made arrangements for the neighbor to tend the garden once again, and also bought him a computer for his troubles. We made him aware that Hector and Kale were going to stay on for a while and would lock up the house as necessary upon their departure. The flight home was long and quiet. Mao seemed to be as lost in thought as I was.

Our plane landed on schedule. I called Stormy from the airport to let her know we were back and asked if she would mind if we took our bags home before coming to retrieve Ning. Of course she didn't mind at all. I don't think Stormy would have said so, even if it were an inconvenience to her. I have the best friends anyone could ever want. We went home, got cleaned up, then made arrangements to pick up Ning. It was a great feeling to hold him in my arms once again. Sunny came running through the house to see us. Mao took some of the things to the car, while I held Ning and thanked Stormy profusely for everything. Mao returned for more, but I instead handed Ning to him and took the rest of Ning's things to the car. We both gave Stormy and Sunny hugs before leaving.

We returned home and began to get settled once more. My dads came home shortly after we arrived, having just returned from their travels. After they were settled in, Mao and I told Dad of our stay in China and the disturbing news that we received from Bao Louie.

"We had received word of a cell that had been taking surveillance pictures of some of our operatives. Damon and I have just returned from checking into the guy. We have located him, and found many photos of our operations and our operatives, as well as other organizations who had been under surveillance. We have taken several men from this cell into custody and are questioning them, but we do not know if we have gotten them all. Here are a couple photographs of particular interest. Do you recognize them?"

"Oh, my God! Yes, that's the evening we spent together at the camp park last June. So my friends are possibly in danger as well? Is that what you're trying to say?" I was getting excited at the possibility of my friends being in danger because of me.

"Yes, Boris. Because you decided to help the military, you may have endangered your friends as well. They could all be under surveillance as we speak."

" I should warn them then," I said with panic in my voice.

"No, not just yet. We do not know for sure that they are in danger. We have contacts that will check on each of them. Please do not interfere, at least not yet."

Dad said not to worry (too much), that he would look in to the situation and see what he could find out. He said he was glad he had asked Uncle Hector to watch over us. Quite frankly, so am I. it will be difficult not to get lost in thoughts of recent events and to remain on my guard. Knowing my friends could be at risk was not a comforting feeling. I know Ruby is at risk being married to Axel, but Stormy, Tony and Molly. Ruby is close enough to be pretty well guarded. Stormy can be protected rather easily, also. But what of Tony and Molly? I would never forgive myself it anything were to happen to them. Remain calm. Easy for them to say. I am probably the most excitable person in town. I sure hope I can remain true to everyone.


I finally found time to take care of some correspondence. I checked my email, finding messages from Tony and Molly. They are both looking forward to our annual meeting this June. Tony wrote about his week in France with Molly and her friends. I wasn't quite sure how that would pan out, but it seems all went well. He has quite a busy schedule with the military, but I'm glad he still finds time to stay in touch with his friends and family. I've come to think of Tony as a brother, much the same as my cousin Kale.

Molly wrote about her studies and that she was going on a skiing trip with some friends over spring break. I wrote them both back, copying Ruby and Stormy.

Hey guys,

I wanted to say hi and thanks for all the great Christmas gifts. They were all perfect, especially the gifts for Ning.

Tony, it was great seeing you during the holidays. You need to tell the military to slow down and give you some time to breathe. lol But I know this isn't likely to happen. Sure would be nice if you had more time to yourself, though.

Molly, I hope you have a wonderful birthday. Sounds like you'll have a great time going on a ski trip. You'll have to tell us all about it - and send pictures. We know you'll take oodles, Miss Shutterbug.

Much love to you all,

March is here and Ning's first birthday is almost upon us. I have that terrible ache in my heart again. What would Jing do for her son's first birthday? Will I do her justice? I want this to be the best birthday a one year old can have. This is for Jing as much as it is for Ning.

Mao and I have decided to make sure Ning knows about his mother. That she was, and still is, loved. When he is old enough, he will know why his mother was taken from him. But now, we have to concentrate on celebrating his life; his first birthday.

We couldn't bring ourselves to invite many for Ning's big day. We have kept it to just family. This will be hard enough on Mao and myself, without having a house full of guests to tend to. Uncle Dante, Uncle Hector and Kale came.

Ning was happy and seemed to have fun with his presents. That's all that really matters. Tony sent him a toy rocket and panda bear stuffed toy. In an unmarked present, I found a Star Trek shirt. I'm guessing it was from Molly. I just had to put it on him. I don't know what Grandpa Damon was thinking, buying a bicycle for a one year old. Oh, well, he'll grow in to it. The rocket seemed to be his favorite toy.

April was the triplets' birthday. What an affair that was. I do not envy Ruby and Axel at all, having three toddlers on the loose. One is enough for me, thank you. Ruby and I got the kids together to play at the park. Mao had to return to China to tie up some loose ends, and was unable to see the dirty little munchkins. What dirty messes they all were. When I arrived home, Dad told me to take Ning out back and wash him down with the garden hose. I know he was only kidding. Well, at least I hope he was.

We received this intriguing email from Molly, asking to change the location of our annual get together.
Dear friends,

How do you all feel about France in the summer? For our annual meet up? A friend of my asked me a huge favor and while I could get away, it would be difficult (not that I mind trying it if France isn't good for everyone else). If you all think you can make it to France this summer, please let me know! Besides, I'd love for Boris and Ruby to meet my university friends.

Love and hugs,

PS: I miss you all and can't wait to see you!

PPS: Sorry for such short notice - last night was huge! More details later!

Whatever, do you suppose, could she be referring to? "Last night was huge!" Quite the mystery woman she has become since leaving Crescent Bay. "More details later! You bet your bottom dollar there'll be some details. I immediately composed a response.

Dear Molly and friends,

I would love to come to France. I haven't been back there since Dad took us that summer in high school. And a chance to meet your friends, who could pass that up. You sure have become a woman of mystery. Can't wait to hear all about "last night!"

If anyone has suggestions on accommodations, I would be glad to hear them. Hope to see you all in France

Much love to you all,


My flight arrived into Crescent Bay at six O’clock am; I picked up my luggage and stepped out side to hail a cab the ride home was uneventful.

I went inside to an empty house there was a note on the fridge.

Sorry I could not be here for Christmas and your return home but something has come up and I’m needed in China, without going into many details about the business there is a problem with the China division of the company.

I hope you under stand

Love Hank.

I know my dad cares about me, but I really wish he was here. This is not the first time he was away on business but this was the second Christmas in a row we were apart since my mother passed, I could not help but feel we were drifting further and further apart.

I went into his study room it was clean and organized not a peace of paper anywhere. I sat on the couch in his study and thought about my younger days and drifted to sleep.

Later that day I went outside I saw my car sitting there it was well kept and clean I guess dad was taking care of it for me. “Oh my Baby, Oh yes, where are my keys?” I said in excitement as I ran inside to find my keys sitting on the counter where I always kept them.

Time to take you for a spin; I drove to the electronics store; the first thing I grabbed was a laptop for me seeing I broke mine. “Christmas, I need to get Christmas gifts! Let’s see Boris and his son, Ruby’s and the three Angeles, Stormy and Sunny, Molly and I guess I should get something for Colin.” As I looked in my wallet; “man, I’m not making much in the service”, I looked at the credit card my dad have given me before I went to the service but I’ve never used it, I wanted him to see how responsible I was in managing my funds although I knew he would not mind if I used it, I decided not to; I would have to make do with what I had.

I placed the laptop back on the shelf and left, I went to the department store and purchased gifts instead, some clothing mostly for everyone but toys for Ning and the three Angeles’s of Ruby’s, a sports watch for Colin and a game for Sunny some gift boxes and wrapping paper. I had just enough left for my trip to France but it will be tight.

I went back home, there was a note on the door:
Hi Tony,
Sorry we missed you, came by to see you will call you later.
Love Ruby and Stormy.

I smiled folded the note gently and placed it in my shirt pocket. I had not checked my emails so I went to my dad’s computer in his study. I turned on the computer a box popped up “Please enter administrator’s password” “Crap”, I tried every thing I could think of; his birthday then mine, socials, names, nothing worked. I looked at the time it was five O’clock.

I still had a few minutes to run to the library, as I got ready to leave the phone rang, “Hello?” “Hey Son, how was your trip?” I was glad to hear from dad we talked about an hour before he had to get back to work, “Oh dad, what’s the pass word for your computer? I want to check my email.” He laughed the said “ Capital M, lowercase y, Capital S, lowercase o, Capital N, I have to go now son, love you.” “Love you too dad bye.” So I typed in the password MySoN and smiled.

Reading my emails there we a few, in such a short time but I see that Ruby has invited us all over to here house for Christmas Eve. Sound like fun, Boris and Stormy had replied they would be there, I sent an email to all that I would love to come.

Everyone was busy seeing the Holiday was upon us, so I knew I would be alone for the most part of my visit, however Boris and Stormy though busy with their holiday schedule; would stop by often to check on me knowing I was alone. Ruby would call to invite me over for dinner some days; she knew I could not cook well, but I did not mind a sandwich for dinner every now-and-then. I would go some days but I knew she was busy, so some nights I would say “I had things to do.”

December was kind of mild for the most part, although some days were very cold, but this day a warm front had moved in and it was raining most of the day so I stayed in.
I turned on the TV and sat on the couch; I was not planning on doing anything today then the door bell rang, then a knock on the door, I could hear Stormy shout through the door “Tony are you in there, are you still alive?” I got up to answer to door “I’m coming.”

Stormy and I talked most of the day about any and everything:
Stormy: “So I guess you have been to a lot of places and seen a lot while you are away”
Tony: “Some, not a lot, but I’ve been to the Middle East.”
Stormy: “Oh Tony, I would love to go to Egypt, Hmm, I wonder what kinds of fish can be caught there that are native to that country! I'll have to do some research. But that’s too far for me to go alone.”
Tony: “Really? Tell you what, if you decide to go, let me know and I will go with you.”
Stormy: “Really? Would you really go?”
Tony: “Sure, just let me know in advance, and I’ll try and get away.”
Stormy: “Okay Tony, I’m going to hold you to that.”

We laughed, and talked a few more hours, I was getting hungry, “would you like a TV dinner Stormy? I’m getting a little hungry.” We headed into the kitchen, Stormy told me to sit down at the table, and then she opened the fridge, “wow, have you been shopping today?” Stormy asked, “No, my dad stocked up before he left for China”

Stormy browsing through the fridge, “hmm, let’s see, I’m going to make dinner for you Tony.”
{Stormy in fridge}
I smiled “Okay, that sound good.”
Stormy started pulling items out of the fridge, the sounds of dicing, chopping, the clinging of pots and pans, she was getting down in the kitchen, “Wow, that smells good Stormy” "Thanks Tony, I don't know what you ate out there while on your missions! Probably grasshoppers or some other type of bug! Ugh" She shivered at the thought. Tony laughed at her strange assumptions.

Stormy: “Ok let’s go in the front room while this finishes cooking.”
I said “ok” we went back into the front Room and talked for hours, caught-up in our conversation, all of a sudden smoke started to fill the room, Stormy ran to the window, “I think there is a fire somewhere near by, no I don’t see a fire.”
I jumped up, “I think it’s coming from the kitchen” “No, not my dinner!” Stormy shouted.

We ran to the kitchen, Stormy opened the oven door, smoke filled the room.
Stormy: “I hope you like your food well done Tony.”
We looked at each other; there was a silent pause, and then we both started laughing uncontrollable and making jokes, as the smoke cleared, Stormy looked at me and said “So what kind of TV dinner do you want?” Then we started laughing all over again to the point tears were running from our eyes.

Well we ate our TV dinner, Stormy stayed to help me clean, and then she had to leave.

During One of Boris Visits, we sat and talked, about what we have been up to over the last few months while at lunch, it was great talking to Boris, seeing I had no brothers he was the closest thing I had to one, and he always treated me as though I were family.

Stormy came by one day and made me go shopping with her; this was one long day.

On Christmas Eve morning, I took all the presents into the bedroom to wrap them.
On all the name tags I wrote “I wish I could give more, love Tony” But I knew it was not about the gifts; more so they were happy that we were together, I just wish Axel was here for Ruby.

After wrapping the gifts I put Molly’s and Colin gifts in my duffel bag and grabbed a garbage bag from the kitchen cabinet and put all the others in. seeing everyone would be at Ruby’s I would drop them off there.

I arrived at Ruby’s; Stormy and Boris was already there, Boris was talking to Ruby while Stormy was playing with one of the kids. I sat the bag with the gifts down and started to pull them out and place them under the tree. I went over and gave Ruby a big hug and wished her a merry Christmas, then Boris and then the same to Stormy. Stormy smiled at me and said “this should be a better dinner than the one we had the other night,” we both started to laugh. Ruby asked “what so funny?” Stormy and I looked at each other and laughed more “it’s nothing Ruby, just something that happened while Stormy and I had dinner the other night” I explained.

Molly had the same ideal as I seeing she sent everyone gifts over to Ruby’s house. I collected everyone’s gift from Crescent Bay that was being sent to Molly.

Dinner was great! Everyone had brought over a dish or something, Ruby had out-done herself; as every one of us stated. As the night went on we were having a good time but still; it was not the same with out Axel, we all could see it in her eyes. I don’t really believe in miracles much any more, but Ruby must have been very good this year. As the door opened Axel was standing there, I felt a chill run down from my head through my spine. I could see Ruby and her husband needed some time alone so a little time later I was saying “good night I have to finish packing for France I’ll see you all tomorrow before I leave.”

I opened my gifts that night, I loved everything I received, but Boris gift a laptop brought a tear to my eyes it was much better than the one I was looking at for myself.
Boris said he would drive me to the airport.

Molly picked me up at the airport; I could hardly keep my eyes opened for the trip, but as soon as I saw Molly my eyes opened wide “how are you?” as we exchanged hugs, Molly could see I was a little tired so she took me to my hotel and said she would be back a little later.

I arrive at the hotel, and waved see ya later to Molly as I entered the hotel lobby.
Lugging my luggage to my hotel room, first thing I did was to pull out everyone’s gift from Crescent bay to give to Molly, and then jumped into the shower. After my shower I pulled out my new laptop I received from Boris, and connected to the internet, I wanted to try the web cam. But no one was on at the time so I sent a webcam email “hello everyone I made it safely to France, love you guys, Happy New Years seeing I will not be with you on New Years.” I then sent an email to my dad and logged of.

When Molly returned to pick me up I gave her all the Christmas gifts from everyone in Crescent Bay and thanked her for mine. The time arrived for me to Meet Molly’s friends the moment of truth.
As I met each of Molly’s friend a sense of calm came over me, they were quite friendly, it was strange at first hearing them speak with their accents but cool at the same time. Molly introduced them one at a time; she saved Colin for last.

We shook hands and said our nice to meet you, as I talked with her other friends; I could not help but to keep an eye on Colin, this guy was quite smooth in the way he walked, very polite, and mild mannered,
I was starting to see what Molly saw in Colin. I would be lying if I told you seeing them together did not hurt me at all, yet, they did not make me feel out of place, they were all quite friendly.

Later Molly and I had dinner, she informed me the Colin and her friends would be rather busy so we had plenty of time to ourselves. We made plans for the next few days of my visit.

What didn’t we do or see while I was in France,
The next day Molly picked me up from the hotel we stopped for brunch I was starving, then to the Museum, I must admit that was quite fun, Molly was a terrific host, explaining everything we saw.

Then we went sight seeing I must admit it was a little chilly out but Molly was so warm and friendly I hardly noticed the weather.

I knew Molly wanted to get back to see Colin so I said I was a little tired, she said I thought you army guys could go on for hours, I smiled and said I wish.

The next day we went to the Zoo, we really did a lot of walking that day, being cold; there were not a lot of animals out but we stopped to see the monkeys, as two of them were mating I turned towards molly and caught her blush. It’s natural I said with a smile on my face. Molly smiled and said I’ll be right back. I guess seeing the monkeys were too much for her I thought to myself.

All of a sudden I felt something small hit me in the top of my head, I felt the top of my head but there was nothing there, then again I felt it, I looked up but there were no birds or anything, then again I felt it again, I turned around and there were peanuts at my feet.

I look up to see Molly holding a bag of peanuts, “Hey, what are you doing?” I said with a smile. “I’m feeding the Monkeys” “What you calling me a Monkey? Your going to get it now come here!” I ran toward Molly, she dropped her bag of peanuts and started running away “Noooo get away form me.”

I forgot just how fast Molly could run but I caught up with Molly and grabbed her around her waist as we both fell to the ground laughing.

The next day we went to Paris, Molly was all over the place with her camera, no kidding I think she too a hundred pictures it was a lot of fun though,

Molly took me to see where everyone worked, to see her school and a lot more.
My last full day in France was just as much fun as the others. The last night we went to this club where I had the first drink of alcohol, all of Molly’s friends were there. Soon they all went over to the other room and started dancing, for a few minutes Molly and I were alone.

I took Molly’s hand and looked deeply into her eyes, I think she was getting nervous not knowing what I was about to do.
Tony: “Molly I must admit I had second thoughts about coming here, and this is not the drinks talking, I’m really glad I came. I Love you Molly and guess I always will. But I’m glad to see you are happy, that’s all I really want for you.”

Molly: “Thanks Tony, I’m really happy you came.”

Molly dropped me off at the airport the next day, although she was glad to see me I’m sure she wanted to get back to her daily life with her friends and Colin, and I could use a few days of sleep. We hugged and said our good byes. Now I need a vacation form my vacation, I’m going to take a week off form my workouts.

I did not have much time to reflect on my visit with my friends as I was summoned into the office upon my return to base. “Starks; I was just going over your service record.” I looked him in the eyes “Sir?” “Very impressive record you have here.” “Thank you Sir, I do my best.”

“The reason you were called here is; I see you have an interest in the Special Forces. How would you like to receive a personal letter of recommendation?” “That would be great Sir!” I said trying to maintain my cool.

“We have need of your services, you do not have to accept this mission however; if you do accept and complete the mission I will personally see to it that you will not need to participate in next years round, you have already shown the determination we are looking for but now I need to see and develop your skills.” “May I ask what this mission is Sir?”

I was informed that they needed information on the Khadra inside China; I received a new identity and was going to pose as a wealthy businessman I am to fly out tomorrow and meet my contact in China someone name Lee, Also I will not have to live on base they have a house setup for me. But I would be on my own, no backup form the military he also said:
“Starks, I would advise you to tell no one about this mission, If you are compromised in any way, you will be reported as MIA, there is no record of Tony Starks going to China, the record will show you went to the Middle East to fight the Khadra with a status of MIA, that is all the your family will know. There will be no one coming to rescue you, now is the time to change your mind.”
“I’m doing this Sir, I understand the risk,” “Very well, be here at O’ six hundred hours; to receive your passport, visa, your new identity and your brief of the mission. “Good luck soldier!”

The next day I went over my orders while on the plane; I was to me Lee at the airport and he would inform me more about the mission, It looks like Lee will also be my trainer in hand-to-than combat, “Lee must be a Master in the arts, I should learn a lot form him, wouldn’t Boris be surprised.” I thought to myself. Already tired from my flight from France, I fell asleep for the rest of the flight.

I arrived in china

I was greeted by some woman, “John?” I looked at her “no I’m not John” she smiled and said “Are you not John Smith?” Then I remembered my undercover name was John Smith. I laughed and said “Sorry, yes, I’m John” She shook her head in disappointment and said “I’m agent Lee Smith, I’ll be posing as your wife during this mission, we have a lot to cover and very little time to do it.”

Shocked I blurted out “You’re Lee, I was expecting …well.” She cut me off and said “let me guess a man right, you servicemen are all the same, I can handle myself in any situation, don’t worry your little mind about me, I’ll be fine!” “Whoa! Calm down, it was just the name Lee that threw me; I believe you can handle yourself.”

On the way home Lee informed me that we would be living together, and about many other thing concerning the Khadra and our inside contact.

We arrived at our house in China; Lee handed me a book, “Here memorize everything, study it, our lives depend on it!” “Wow! There is less pages in a dictionary.” I stated with a smirk on my face however; Lee did not find it amusing she just stated the facts:

“Why do they always send servicemen? John everything you need to know is in this booklet, from; where I grew up, my favorite color, what I like to eat, everything about your business, the people working there, how long you have been in business, ages, birthdates, where we met, where we were married, it covers just about everything, once you have it memorized destroy it!” “This may take a while,” I replied. “We don’t make a move into the Khadra until you know all of it”. That’s when it dawned on me; I could be in china for a very, very long time.

Lee: “I work for the Chinese government, tomorrow you have a business meeting; also you will meet agent Linda McKee, she is from the American FBI, and she is posing as your personal secretary, I don’t know if our contact inside the Khadra; Kim, will be there tomorrow or not, she will contact us when she is ready.”

So far my support for this mission consists of: (Real Names Unknown)
AKA: Lee Smith: wife, Chinese agent and Master of the Martial Arts

AKA: Linda McKee: American FBI

AKA: Kim: Inside contact on the Khadra

All was going well I was getting the hang of being a business man, guess I can thank my dad for that, Lee would drill me from time to time asking “so when and where did we meet?” “We met in china 7 years ago; as we studied martial Arts from Master Jing.”
So far I had all the answers correct, but I did not feel as though I could destroy the booklet yet, Lee also requested that I make a list of thing I like for here to memorize.

As time went by I let my hair grow out a bit, spent most of the day in the office, afternoons learning about the business, nights practicing hand-to-hand combat. On the weekends it was more of the same, but more working-out and martial arts.

While practicing it seem as I could do nothing right to Lee.
Lee: “No, no, picture it as another person, let your body move, you are too stiff, look do it this way,” she would say as if instructing a child.

Kim came to the company one day with a disturbed look upon her face and stated, “We have trouble.” “What’s the problem Kim?” Lee asked. “There is a small uprising within the Khadra, Abdule Karar is trying to rise into power inside the Khadra he already have about twenty followers, and he has decided to kidnap John.”

Lee: “Well, that’s no good.
Tony: “Well if they kidnap me then I’ll be on the inside.”
Kim: “If they kidnap you, you will be imprisoned, then tortured to get all your banking account info to take your money, once the have the money they have no need of you; its lights out!”
Tony: “Yeah, that’s no good!” laughingly.
Lee: “Kim, do you know where we could find this Abdule?” “Yes, he is on a small base with twenty followers.” Kim responded.
Lee: “Be at the house tomorrow Kim; first thing in the morning if you can, I will contact Linda and have her there, tomorrow the four of us will have to takeout Abdule and his followers before he can rise in power and kidnap John.”
We worked out most of the day.

We were ready!

We came up with a plan of attack the following morning; it was time to takeout Abdule and his followers. Kim and Linda attacked form the south while I attack form the west, and Lee attacked from the north.

It looked as if Lee was in trouble, as she had several men attacking her, seeing I was only fighting one at the time I ran to help her.

After defeating them Lee looked at me and asked “where is your man you were supposed to take out?” offended I answered “I’m not sure I came to help you.”

We looked around and spotted him running away, “Get him!” Lee shouted,” he’s too far away” I responded “You don’t understand, if he gets back to the Khadra its over, he can identify us” she said nervously, I took off as fast as I could, I don’t know if it was the thought of being caught, failing the mission or the fact that I screwed up, but I ran after him as fast as I could.

Upon my return back to the others they all looked upon me disgusted thinking he got away, I informed them in a calm voice “enemy has been liquidated” frustrated Lee looked me in the eyes “John next time stick with the plan! Don’t worry about me I can handle myself, you servicemen with your mucho macho attitude, you always think you have to save the day! Like some cowboy to the rescue! You are like a child! You need to grow up!”

I must admit that ticked me off to the point of no end, I did not say a word to Lee on the way home. As I sat in the car looking out the window I felt a smile grow upon my face as I thought to myself “I’m sitting here pouting like a child that just got scolded for not playing well with others.”

When we arrived home I apologized to Lee for endangering the mission then I asked her “why are you so hard on servicemen and why do you dislike me so much?”
Lee looked me in the eyes and with a tender voice stated “Because you servicemen are all the same, you care nothing about love and beauty, instead hatred and evil, nor do you care about unity and friendship, instead division and war, you come here to China; caring nothing for our land, our culture, our love of life, you come here to take and destroy, to kill and defile our lands.”

I could see she was hurting but I would not pry, instead I stated “Maybe it’s be cause of ignorance, how can I respect your culture and way of life if I don’t know them? You say I know nothing of love and friendship, but all I have are my friends, and I would like for you to be one of them. Yes, I was taught to kill or be killed, to fight or die, I would love to see the world the way that you do. Teach me to see, teach me of your culture, your language and way of life that I may understand them and respect them.”

Lee was surprised at my response; I guess she thought I was going to argue with her. With a low and soft spoken voice she replied “I can not teach you to see, you either see or you do not see, but If you really want me to, I will teach you of our ways, I will teach you to speak our language that you may understand, then we will see how much respect you truly have for my people and our land.”

We stayed up most of the night getting to know each other for the first time.
I don’t know what happened but soon Lee began to change toward me, during practice she was much kinder, she started to open up to me; telling me about her life, teaching me to speak her langue, a few times during training I would look out of the corner of my eyes to catch her smile my way.

Lee began to trust me more and more each day as she began to let me have my way in the office; stopping by only to visit, the business was doing well; although I would call my father from time to time to ask him what would he do if this or that. I think my father was starting to wonder what’s with all the questions about business decisions; but he never asked.

Over the next few months the four of us really started to get to know each other, Lee and I would sometimes talk for hours on end about our lives before the mission.

One day Lee asked me:
Lee: “So Tony is there anyone special in your life right now a girl friend fiancée?”
Tony: “Not at this time” smiling, I told her about Molly; seeing this was the only relationship I had. “What about you?” I asked.

Lee: “I’m promised; it was prearranged by our parents when we were children.”
Tony: “Really? Wow, so what’s he like?”
Lee: “To tell the truth we’ve never met, our parents made the arrangement long ago, soon we will meet; we have another year before we seal our union.” I had to ask “do you love him?”

Lee was quiet for a moment then answered: “long ago my father was a wealthy man, I grew up with everything I ever wanted in life, he loved my mother very much and she loved him with all her heart. The Man I’m to marry; his family is also very wealthy; our parents decided that our union would seal our fate for generations to come. They made the pack long ago.”

Lee: “About a six months ago my father was taken by the Khadra; and imprisoned, I know soon they will torture him to get his account information, if they succeed we will be removed from our land, they will take all his assets and he will be killed. This is why the marriage must take place, to make sure my mother has a home; it’s only a matter of time before they get to him.”

Lee: “Nothing must interfere with our union. You asked me if I loved him, I love my family, It is up to me now to make sure they are well taken of. This is why I hate men of war, and why I also joined to fight against the Khadra; I seek revenge for what they have done to my family.” I have grown very fond of you Tony, but I can’t let that interfere with my plans.”

Lee and I spent more and more time together, soon we could talk about anything and everything and I think we did. I was getting better at speaking the Chinese language but it was hard, some times she would playfully and gently smack me on the back of my head when I would miss-pronounce words that had a special meaning to her.

One day when we were alone sitting next to each other I told Lee “My real name is Anthony Starks, but my friends call me Tony.” “We should not tell our real names or use them, it may slip in front of others” Lee said out of concern. I smiled and said “it’s ok, I just wanted you to know my real name, I think of you as a friend.” Lee bowed her head and said “Laila, my name is Laila, nice to meet you Tony.” We both smile as she placed her hand over mine.

I opened my laptop to view my emails from my friends and family, Molly had sent an email requesting for us to hold the meeting in France this June as it would be harder for her to get away. I sent an email and replied to all.

Hello Everyone,
Sure France is good for me, glad to see everyone is doing well, I too am doing great!
All is well on this end, missed you all very much and looking forward to the meeting.
I should arrive on June 10th.

Miss you all

<3 Tony March I sent an email to Molly wishing her a happy birthday, although I knew it would be. and sent birthday gifts to Ning and Ruby’s kids, although Ruby's kids birthday was not till April. No clothing, I sent toys for everyone. I did not realize at the time we were being watched. About a week later there was a knock on the door. Lee answered the door to her surprise it was her family, her mother and brothers; they had come to take her home. They spoke in Chinese but I was able to make out most of what was said. They were offended that Lee and I was living together, and if her promised found out he would not marry her because she was living with another man, it was very disrespectful.

Lee and I tried very hard to make them understand there was nothing going on between us, but we could not tell them why we were living together, Lee was ordered to return home by her mother and her brother; who would not look in her eyes as she had disgraced the family name. Lee’s mother forbade her to ever see me again.

Lee looked at me and said “I’m very sorry Tony but I can not complete this mission, I must return home with my family.”
I tried to speak to her family, but they screamed at me saying “you are not Chinese, you don’t belong here, go home; back where you came from! You must never see her again!”
Her mother added I hate you, I hate your kind, never come to see my daughter again.”

I looked at Lee, she just bowed her head and said “just stay out of this Tony, you don’t understand, I can never see you again, then she left with them.

I ran to the phone and called Linda and Kim to come over.
When Linda and Kim arrived; I informed them of what happened.
Linda:” It’s over John, we can’t do this without Lee, Kim, I would advise you not to go back into the Khadra, John or whatever your real name is; I would advise you to call your reporting officer and return to base, I’ll make my report and tell them its over.”

Tony: “My Name is Anthony, I ask you not to abandon this mission yet, just give me a week, and if Lee is not back I’ll do what you said.”

Linda: “Ok Tony, but Kim still must not go into the Khadra, I’ll give you one week, and then I make my report!”
Tony: “Fine!”

I could not go to see Lee; I know her family would never allow it; to them I’m evil, a disgrace to their family. The mission was falling apart, I’m failing at everything. Whatever I do to pull this mission back together it would have to be big.

The way I see it, the Khadra prison was built to keep people from escaping, they would not be looking for someone to break-in. that’s what I was thinking anyway.

Two more days had pasted; Lee and her family was out side doing their daily chores taking care of the land as best they could, they did not have access to their fathers account so they could not withdraw money to buy food so they worked the land to provide for themselves.

The man Lee is promised to arrived, he was very upset, it was he that had sent a man to spy on Lee and he was the one that sent him to tell Lee’s family; he knew nothing happened between Lee and I. Lee was trying her best to explain to him that nothing happened between her and me. That she did not disrespect him in any way.

But he was very hard on Lee, telling her that he will still marry her, but in order for her family to live with him; they will have to serve him, cook his meals, clean his house and work his land.

The mother was sadden with the news, but was willing to accept the terms, when out of the Connor of her eyes she saw a familiar face, she could not believe her eyes, “Could it be? Yes it is!” as tears of joy ran down her face, she turned towards the man. It was her husband.

Lee’s brothers stood in disbelief; Lee was frozen and could not move as we approached the house everyone was over ecstatic to see their father, their mother could not stop crying. I stood back with a smile upon my face and watched them unite, then there was silence as everyone looked upon me, I took a step back and removed the smile from my face.

Then Lee’s father said “I want you all to meet my hero, he rescued us from the prison; you sir are welcome in my home any time.” Then he turned to the man who Lee was promised to “And as for you young man, I over heard everything you were telling my daughter just now, you would have my family serve you as if they were your slaves? This union is hear by null and void, I will speak to your family and inform them of my decision and why! As of now my daughter is free! Now get off my land!”

And with that he lowered his head and left.

Lee walked slowly toward me and said, “I don’t know how we could ever repay you.”
“Come back to the mission, we can’t complete it without you, I can’t do it without you.”

Lee looked at her mother and father; her father smiled and said “ go with him, he has told me everything about your mission, and asked me if you could return with him as we walked home, the Khadra needs to be stopped, Tony, I trust you to take care of my little girl.” “Yes sir, I will.”

Lee, looking into my eyes and softly said: “Yes, I will return with you Tony, I was afraid for my family, but I’m not afraid any more.”

“I know your heart is heavy and with a deep scar from love, I know you have been hurt before and I know you still care for Molly. I can not heal your scar, but I can help mend it and care for it, I can not erase the pain from your memories, but I can offer you new memories, I can not make you forget your sadness, But I can give you happiness, I give my heart to you Tony; but you have to want it.”

Tony: “You have opened my eyes to so much, I have little I can offer you, however; what I do have is yours, I accept your Heart, and I give mine in return.”

Lee: “Our hearts are now one, I feel you Tony, I feel your heart within me.”
Tony: “I feel you.”

Lee said her good-byes to her family, and we returned to the Mission.

On May the 20th Lee and I celebrated my 21st Birthday, 21! Go we did not do much just a small dinner. With the Mission back on track it was time to meet my friends again I decided to tell Lee I was leaving.

Tony: “I need to leave the mission for a few days to go to France However; I will return in two weeks.”
Lee: “I’m coming with you to France, I will stay in the hotel room if you wish, but I will be there for you, I will always be there for you, as long as I have breath in my body.”


Thanksgiving is just around the corner. I wasn’t really in the mood for a big ruckus seeing as my family wasn’t all accounted for. Mom wanted me to come over with the babies, but my heart wasn’t in it. They decided to come over to my place and celebrate there. Mom did all the cooking. Sam and Dean actually showed up as well.

I am glad they decided to come over. It wasn’t the same without Axel there, but it helped take some of the pain away.

I got phone calls from him every week. Always the same, “I am alright. I will be coming home soon. Don’t worry, Kiss the babies for me.” How soon is soon? I was beginning to think I’d be spending Christmas alone too.

I slipped into a bit of a slump. I took care of my kids, but everything else, I really couldn’t really give two figs for. My hair got crusty. The house could use a good cleaning. I stopped playing my music. Nothing held a glimmer of joy for me, only my kids. Without them, I don’t know what I would have done during this time.

Mom came over one day, uninvited, took one look at the house, another look at me and then laid into me.

“What the hell are you doing, Ruby? You think your whole life is over because Axel is gone.”

“Mom, what am I supposed to do? I feel like my heart has been ripped out of my chest. The babies are more than I can handle alone. I just want to curl up and die.” I began to sob.

“Ruby, I know this is hard for you, but you know Dad and I are always here for you. You only have to ask. Now stop! Oh, you and your over-dramatics.” She sighed and hugged me, “Life doesn’t end because your husband is gone. With your father being a cop, I was alone a lot with you kids. I think I held up all right. I expect the same from you, young lady. You need to be strong. I didn’t raise you to crawl up and die at the first sign of trouble. What you need to do is stop concentrating on Axel and start worrying about your kids. They need you more than he does right now.”

Mom was mad. I hadn’t seen her this mad before. Well once, when I snuck out after curfew with some of my friends to see this R rated movie she disapproved of.

“Now get up! Do you have somewhere you can go for a few hours?” She started straightening up some of the house, while she was “talking”.

My mind went back to the conversation I had with Boris last week. “Yeah, Boris gave me a day at the Spa. I guess now is as good a time as ever to use it.” I went upstairs to run a comb through my hair and throw some clean clothes on. “Thanks Mom, you really are the best Mom ever.” I gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek as I left the house.

The next few hours were the best I’ve had in a long time. I got a nice long massage, pedicure and a manicure. I left there feeling like a brand new woman. I made a mental note to call Boris and really thank him for the gift.

I drove back home and the house was immaculate. It had such a fresh, clean smell to it. I had to check to make sure I was at the right address.

“Mom! I’m home!” I called as I checked out my house. “The place looks great. You really outdid yourself.” I found her sitting outback with one of the kids. “Mom you really didn’t have to go through all this trouble. I could have managed.”

“No, Ruby. I was happy to do it. You have been through a lot the last couple months. I can understand all the stress you are under, but you don’t have to go it alone. You know that, don’t you?”

“Yeah I know, I just didn’t want to burden anyone else with my problems.” I felt ashamed that I had let myself get this depressed, but it felt good to be able to talk about it. I grabbed the chair next to her and we sat watching some birds that had migrated in a nearby tree. “I really needed this Mom, you don’t know how much. Thanks, so much, Mom.” I grabbed her hand and she gave mine a tight squeeze. “I love you.”

“I love you too, Ruby. Now don’t you ever let me catch you in this shape again! You can call me anytime.” She smiled. “Now, I have to get back to Dad. He’ll be wondering what became of me. Will you be alright?”

“Yeah, I will. Thanks again, Mom.” I gave her a hug and kiss and then walked her to her car. I waved as she drove down the street and out of sight.

With a renewed spirit I walked back in the house, grabbed my old guitar and started playing one of the chords I had learned on our honeymoon. It felt good to be playing again. I spent the day just creating fun little songs for the kids. They would smile and wave their pudgy little hands to the music. Soon the babies started to doze off, so I took a nice long nap myself. I woke up feeling refreshed and ready for the coming weeks.

Christmas was steadily creeping closer and I hadn’t started anything. I made a list of things to get done before Christmas. I needed to go Christmas shopping, send out cards to friends and neighbors, make dinner plans for Christmas Eve. I intended to make this the best ever with or without Axel.

I sent Christmas cards to Molly, Tony, Stormy and Boris. I sent some to Sam and Dean and Mom and dad of course. I sent some to Achilles and Damon. As soon as I finished the last card the phone rang. I checked Caller ID and saw it was Stormy. I quickly picked up.

“Hello Stormy!!”

“Hey Ruby, how are you doing?” she asked.

“I am hanging in there, Stormy. Mom came over last week and really laid into me. She forced me out of my house for a few hours. Best hours I’ve had in a long time. I don’t know what I would do without her or you guys.”

“Awww, Ruby. We love you and only want what’s best for you. Now, what are you doing this week?” she asked. Her voice had an air of excitement to it.

“Not much just sent out a bunch of Christmas cards and I took a nap. What an exciting life I lead. Axel gets to lead an exciting life of mystery and intrigue while I am stuck at home with three babies. Not that I mind. I love my kids, dearly. But I just wish I could get away some days and do my own thing. You know?”

“Speaking of getting out, Tony and I were just about to grab a bit of lunch, would you like to join us?”

“Would I? Of course I would. I’ll call Ma; I know she would love more time with the babies. Pick me up in about 20 minutes?” I asked.

“Sure thing Ruby, we’ll see you then.”

Lunch was fun. It was great to be out of the house with my friends again. I missed Axel and wondered what he was doing now. This has been the toughest year for me. And I thought giving birth was hard. That’s nothing.

Stormy, you got to love her, smeared BBQ sauce all over me. It struck us as so funny we laughed til our sides ached. Yeah, this was what I definitely needed; a good laugh and I can always count on my friends for that. I checked on Mom to see how she was holding up. We finished up our lunch and Stormy dropped me off at home.

The following weeks were spent preparing for Christmas Eve. I wanted this to be the best night, with or without Axel.

I figured the menu would consist of a Honey baked ham, Green bean Casserole and Sweet Potatoes and then whatever the gang decided to bring. I called the grocery store and asked them deliver some groceries to the house. Gotta love that! With the menu taken care of I was free to get some shopping done.

I thought about what each of my friends would like and decided for Stormy, she’s always wanted a tool, set designed for her. I saw the cutest set. It was Pink and it has the Black and White Zebra stripes. How cute is that? I snatched that right up. For Tony, I thought a set of weights would be good, can’t let him get too flabby while he is down here eating all this food. For Boris I agreed to pay for his plane ticket to France. It’s tough to buy stuff for him, the man has everything. I even got a present for little Ning. I saw this adorable Sing Along Sound Stage for toddlers and thought that would be perfect for any up and coming musician. For Molly, I sent her a gift card to a photography supply store. I know she has a darkroom set up in France, but since I don’t know much about photography, I couldn’t tell you what she needs. This would let her get whatever she requires. Mom, Dad and the rest I bought various gifts.

I dragged out a Christmas Tree Axel and I had bought to celebrate our first. I was sad he wouldn’t be able to spend it with me, but for the kids I wanted this to be a great first for them.

I set about decorating the whole house; I think I may have even gone a bit over board. I didn’t care, it looked very nice. I was quite proud of the work I had done. I took a nap and then it was off to tend to the kids.

The night finally arrived. I was so excited. Boris arrived early because he wanted to make some fresh Eggnog, I was glad to have the adult company for a while. Soon the others started to show up. Tony came in and gave his Christmas hugs for everyone. “Wow, Ruby! The place looks great! You really went all out.” He immediately placed his gifts under the tree. He had brought some that Molly had sent us as well. “Since Molly couldn’t be here, she sent these presents with her love and best wishes for a great new year.”

We spent the night enjoying the food that was prepared and the fellowship of each other. We played some video games. It was fun but it always brought me back to our first meeting when Axel was with all of us. I know the gang was here to support me, but I didn’t want to bring their night down so I kept a stiff upper lip.
We sat around the tree to open our gifts. Everyone was so generous to me and the babies, I broke down crying. “You guys really are the best friends ever. I want to thank you for being here tonight.” I grabbed Stormy’s hand because she was closest and gave it a little squeeze.

“Aww Ruby, we wouldn’t have missed this night for the world.” She replied with tears welling up. I sat there looking at each one of my friends, wondering what I had done to be blessed with such a great group.
We retired to the kitchen for some of Boris’ egg nog, when we heard a car pull up. I had wondered who it was because I was unaware that anyone else would be showing up. Dad had dragged Mom to the annual Christmas Eve party at headquarters. “Hmm, neighbors must be home. I heard a car door shut.” I said, casually.

The door suddenly opened up and he was there! At first I couldn’t believe it; I thought my eyes surely must be playing tricks on me. I think I even blinked a couple of times in disbelief, and when I saw the image of Axel still in the doorway bearing that mischievous grin I had always loved, I knew this wasn’t a dream. I ran to the door and leaped into his arms.

He held me there for what seemed like an eternity. He eventually placed me back on the floor and I covered his face in kisses. I was so happy, I was crying. I forgot about everyone else in the room. Until, I heard Boris, “Hey Axel! Merry Christmas! It’s good to see you man.” They hugged each other and then Axel made his rounds to greet the group. Everyone was clearly very happy he was home safe and sound. I didn’t want the night to end, but I wanted time with my husband as well. Tony must have sensed this as he took this time to mention he had to get going. Everyone thanked me for a wonderful evening.

“Well, Mister. What do you have to say for yourself?” I playfully smacked him on the arm.

“I love you honey! I missed you and the kids so much!” He pulled me into a passionate embrace and we stayed there for awhile. He smelled wonderful, he looked great. God! How I missed him. And now he was home. This really was the best present I could receive.

We went upstairs so he could see the girls and I brought Byron in the room as well. “Wow, they really are getting big aren’t they? I am sorry I was away so long, girls. Did you miss me?” They gurgled happily at the sight of their father. He kissed them both on their chubby cheeks and took Byron from my arms. “And how are you little man? Did you take care of Mommy while I was gone? You did a great job. I’m proud of you Son.” It was great to see him with his kids. Not many people see this side of him. I think they only see him as this evil criminal. But they don’t know him like I do. They don’t see the loving, doting father. They don’t realize he is more than that. He is a loving husband and son as well.

New Years was spent at Mom and dad’s house. Sam and Dean were there as well. They are doing well in college. Sam is studying Physics and Dean is unsure as to what he wants. Fireworks were great. Dad was called away early. He was called to the office. He didn’t say what it was about, but that is something the family and I have become used to.

February, Axel and I celebrated Valentine’s Day at a local resort. We asked the girls to watch the babies since Mom and Dad were having their own date night. It was a nice place with a giant pool, personal masseuses, Day Spa, Art Classes and Karaoke. I was thrilled. One, I could use a good massage. The last year has been rough what with triplets, parents, and husbands going MIA it was all very stressful. The first thing I wanted was to go to the spa and get “taken care of”. I said goodbye to Axel for a few hours. He said it was fine as he had calls to make. “What?! It’s our Valentine’s Day trip and you’re working?” I couldn’t believe it. “Ruby, it’s only a few calls. I promise they won’t take long. This is our time and I won’t take it up with work. Go enjoy yourself and we’ll have dinner and “dessert” later.” He gave me a sly wink and I replied, “They better be Mister. man, or no dessert.” I gave him a wink myself and went to the spa.

It was exhilarating! The massage, the mud bath, it felt so great to be away from all the stresses of life. I even got my hair cut. I went back to the hotel room and Axel was standing in the middle of the room with a dozen roses and a big grin on his face.

“I finished and I am all yours, baby.” He handed me the roses. They smelled great. I hugged him and asked about dinner. “There is a nice restaurant in the lobby. I had them set apart a small table for us overlooking the city. So, what are you waiting for, go get dressed, woman!” He gave me a playful smack on the bottom and I was off.

We ate a big dinner. They had a small band and a dance floor, as Axel led me we let the music take us. I felt his body press against mine as he pulled me close. We swayed to the rhythm for a few hours, until my feet started to hurt. “Dang these shoes.” I smiled as we went back to our table. Axel paid for the meal, tipped the waitress and we went back to our room. We spent the rest of the night in our room. We caught up on a lot of things we had missed, if you catch my meaning.

April was finally here…I was getting so excited for my babies’ birthdays. I couldn’t wait to throw them the biggest bash ever. The family was over, brothers and sisters. I was surprised they all could make it, but I was happy too. We bought three different cakes for each child. Each was decorated accordingly, Princesses for the girls and Army Men for Byron. There were balloons and music.

When the time came for blowing out the candles, I grabbed the camera that I got from Molly, “Ok kids…1-2-3! Go!” Oh my, what a mess. Byron tried to grab the flame, while Leliana and Celia looked at me, as if to say, “Yeah. Okay. Now what?” Axel and I pursed our lips and showed them how to do it. The girls just laughed at mommy and daddy making silly faces. So, it was left to Axel blowing out their candles for them. They each got their own cake and a giant bib that had one of those pockets to catch all the food. Not to mention the plastic sheets we put under their chairs. Byron took one look at the cake and then looked at the both of us. Reached into the center of his cake and pulled out the biggest handful of mushy cake I’ve ever seen. Then he proceeded to mash it into his face. I had never seen such a green faced child. He had green icing in his eyebrows, eyes nose. I looked over at Axel who was just laughing his butt off. The girls were feeding cake to each other. They had red icing smashed into their hair. I kept thinking, “How am I going to get these kids cleaned up? A garden hose seemed the only option. I took lots of pictures of their dirty little faces. Cake was everywhere, in their ears, nose and under fingernails. It was clear they were enjoying their first birthday. After I felt they had enough fun, we picked them up and carried them to the bath tubs. They got the longest baths of their lives. Ugh, the color of the water…it was like split pea soup mixed with cherry kool-aid and milk. Yum!

Later that week, Boris and I planned a play date between the triplets and Ning. I thought it’d be fun for them to play with other kids. We decided to meet at the park. They had a nice sandbox the kids could play in. I brought some of the triplet’s toys as well. It was nice to sit and watch them have fun with another child and Boris and I got a chance to talk.

We talked about their latest trip with Stormy and what we thought of Colin. I was intrigued to meet him, but saddened that Tony and Molly weren’t together. We reminisced about our old school days until Leliana started to cry. She had gotten sand in her eyes while eating mud cakes. Kids…I’ll never understand what makes them eat dirt, but they were covered with it. All of them were dirty little munchkins. I went to gather up my munchkins and wiped their faces. “Wow, you all need baths when we get home.” I hugged Boris as we parted ways. “I’ll see you soon, okay.” “Okay, Ruby. And don’t worry about Axel; Achilles and Damon will make sure no harm comes to him. You just keep loving these little angels, okay?” I sighed and said, “I know and thanks. You're a godsend.” I turned to my brood, “Come on guys, let’s go home.”

Later on that month, while checking my email I found one from Molly. She wouldn’t be able to come out this time for our meeting, but asked if we wanted to go to France. Wow…France. That would be so great. I had been wanting to meet her friends and this Colin character seemed interesting. I guess I wanted to see for myself if he was the one for Molly. I would need to figure out if Mom could watch the kids for a week. I am sure it would be no problem, but you never know these days.

I sent her a reply that we would love to go.

Dear Molly,
France! Wow. Axel and I would love to go and meet your friends. I hope they’ll take to him nicely. You know how he is. ?
I look forward to meeting all of your friends and this Mr. Colin man.

Thanks for the presents. It was extremely generous of you. We will bring your presents. Sorry they’ll be late, but better late than never, right?

Love you, lady. See you soon.

Early May, as we were sitting down to our dinner I asked Axel a question. “You think Hector would mind giving me some guitar lessons?” I love being a stay at home mom, but sometimes it does get rather tedious. “I figure I could take a couple days a week and do something for myself.”

“No Ruby, I don’t think he would mind at all. He is in town, why don’t you give him a call.”

We finished our dinner and I dialed their number. I don’t know why I was so nervous, Uncle Hector was a nice guy, I guess it’s my over emotional attitude kicking in. It seemed like the phone rang forever, when finally he answered, “Hello?”

“Hi Uncle Hector, it’s me Ruby.”

“Hello, Ruby, how are you?”

“I am doing well, thanks. I was just calling to see if you weren’t busy... umm… would you mind giving me some lessons. I know you must think me strange for calling you out of the blue.”

“No, Ruby I don’t mind at all, but I want you to know up front, that it’s going to be a lot of hard work. I love the fact that you have such a passion for music. When is a good time for you? I am free whenever you can make time.”

“Oh, thank you so much. I am always at home. Raising three babies, you know. I just feel like I need to do something for me. You know? Does that sound selfish?”

“Of course not, you are a wonderful wife and a terrific mother. Axel and the kids are lucky to have you. You won’t be any good to your husband or kids if you don’t take time out for yourself once in a while. If this is something that you truly want to pursue, I say go for it.” Chuckles, “I feel like I am preaching to Kale and Boris again.”

“Thanks. Well, actually anytime is good for me too. Do you mind meeting at my house? You can meet the triplets. They love music too. I’ve been playing some of my stuff for them since they were babies. Well, they still are… but...You know.”

He laughed,” Yeah I understand. I think it’s great you are already sharing your love of music with your children. So, how does Monday afternoon sound? I can be over around 11.”

“Yeah! That sounds great. I’ll let Axel know you are coming. I am sure he’ll be happy to see you as well. Thanks again Uncle Hector. I really appreciate this opportunity.”

“Ahh, you’re welcome Ruby. I’ll see you Monday at eleven.”

“Okay, goodbye.” I hung up feeling really good about this decision. Uncle Hector is a very talented musician. I am honored to be able to learn anything from him.

Achilles had Axel working some late nights, so I didn’t see much of him that week. I didn’t mind too much. I keep myself busy reading them books and playing music for them. They dance along to the music, which is too cute.

Hector came over as promised at 11. I had my old guitar out and some of the songs I had written. They weren’t anything spectacular but they were mine and I was proud of them. I had written a bunch of them while I was in high school, so some of them had a gloomy feel to them.

“Come on in. It’s good to see you again.” I gave him a friendly hug as he let himself into the living room. “You have a very beautiful home, Ruby.”

“Thanks, just some old stuff we got from our trips. I have loved China since my father took us there on vacation. I was in high school and I have been in love with it ever since.”

“Oh, these must be the little ones.” He bent down to pick up Byron who was sitting on the floor playing with some blocks Tony had sent. “How are you little fella?” Byron just smiled and played with Uncle Hector’s nose.

“I’m sorry about that. He’s just curious.”

“Hahaha, it’s no problem at all. You have gorgeous children, Ruby, you should be very proud.”

“Yes, I am. They are my world. I would do anything for them. Are you thirsty or hungry? I can make some lunch real quick. It’d be no trouble.”

“I am a bit hungry, thank you.”

“Go ahead and make yourself at home. I’ll just whip up some sandwiches.” I busied myself in the kitchen while he watched the girls playing with their coloring table. I could hear him commenting on how beautiful the cat was to whatever it was they were drawing. They seem to have taken a liking to him.

“Lunch is served. I hope it’s alright.”

“I’m sure it’s great, Ruby. Thank you.”

“That was good Ruby. Now, are you ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

“I want you to play for me. Just play whatever comes to your mind. I’d like to see where you stand and what we have to work with.”

I played a piece I had written in my teens. I was going through that stage in a teen’s life, when they don’t know where they fit in, IF they fit in anywhere. I think it captured my confusion and my fears. I played as if I was alone and no one was watching me. I felt the notes course through my very being. When I finished Hector looked very pleased.

“You have great talent Ruby. I am very impressed with the level of experience you have. How long have you been playing?”

“Well, Mom bought me the guitar when I was 17. She thought it’d be a great way for me to express myself since I wasn’t interested in much else.” I laughed, “I guess I was a bit of a problem child. Anyway, I never took any lessons. I guess I just taught myself.”

“Well, in my opinion I think you are very good. You play from the heart and you are very passionate about what you are doing. I could feel it just listening to you. You could really go places; if that is something you wanted to do.”

“I used to think that’s what I wanted. And while I still have a deep love of music, I think I would love to be able to teach others. Do you think that’s silly?”

“I think that’s very commendable. You have a great talent and you want to share your knowledge with others. You know, you could look into becoming a music teacher.”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that. Big groups of people freak me out. I start looking for the nearest exit. So, sadly I think my Rock Star days might be numbered.” I laughed at the silliness of it.

“Well, what about being a tutor. You could help students or anyone really, one on one.”

“Do you really think I could? I mean, I guess I could. I gave birth to triplets and am married to Axel. Anything is possible, right?” We laughed, but as I thought about this, I grew to realize this is something I could do. And it would be me doing it. Not Axel’s wife or the children’s mom, but me. “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to bring you out here for nothing and it seems I have.”

“Bah, don’t be silly, Ruby. You are family and I came here to help you. I think you’d be an excellent teacher as well. Kids need teachers or tutors who are passionate about what they are teaching or the lessons grow stale and boring.” He looked me in the eye and said, “I believe in you. I’ll say it again, if this is something that you want to do, then you should go for it. And who knows, maybe later on down the line, you can pursue that dream of yours. Never ever give up, because Rock Stars aren’t quitters.” He smiled at me. I felt relieved and a little scared about starting this endeavor.

“Thanks Uncle Hector, I appreciate you coming out here. You really have helped me so much.”
“Anytime Ruby, if you need anything don’t hesitate to call me.” He gave me a hug and left.

Axel came home later that night. I stayed up because I wanted to talk to him about my meeting with Hector. I explained my desire and waited to hear his opinions.

“Ruby, I think it’s a great idea. You are a very talented woman. I love the passion you have for music and the arts. I think if this is something you want to do we will make it happen.”

“Thanks honey. I love you.”

“I love you too, babe. Let’s get to bed. I wanna show you something.” He winked at me and we ran up the stairs.


I hate watching the news. Always something horrible on it. As I flipped through the channels with the remote in one hand, while eating a sandwich with the other in the dining room, I could hear Sunny yelling something.

"What?!" I asked, eyes still on the t.v.

"Your phone is ringing!" She replied, closer, but from down the hall, most likely in the office, where I left my cell and keys after today's catch.

"Could you please see who it is! But, DON"T answer it!"

"Okay!" Sunny replied. "Ooo! It's Boris! May I answer it?" Her feet pounding down the hall towards me. "Please.." She begged as she gave me the phone.

"Thank you. You need to go finish your math homework. Then call one of YOUR friends"

Sunny gave me the pouty face, turned and stomped her way back down the hall. I just shook my head at her and finally answered Boris' call. In between saying our helloes, small talk, and laughing, Boris gave me Beau's number, which made me feel a little excited inside. I haven't seen Beau in about six months and was curious about what he's been up to lately. All of a sudden, I felt a little down because he probably has a girlfriend by now. Well, I shouldn't really care... I just want to say hi anyway, right?

Before we ended the call, I asked how baby Ning was doing, which reminded Boris if I could care for him a few days after Christmas, for a couple weeks while he and Mao go to China to take care of Jing's affairs. I was more than happy to, and besides, I'd do anything for my friends, if in fact I could. So, I quickly OK'd it with dad, then told Boris everything was good to go. Having Ning here will bring extra joy to our home. I've always loved taking care of Sunny and giving her the affection I believe a child should have.

Two cold rainy days later after leaving Sanders with my small catch of the day, I took a hot shower when I got home, put on my comfortable sweats and sweater, then went to go read my email and to write a few. When I was done, I leaned back in the chair and looked up at mom's picture. I definitely had mixed feelings about her coming home for Christmas. First, I wondered if she will be happy the whole stay with us, or be distant, which is how she has been when I visited her. Actually, she has always been distant with me since childhood. I remember when I was about 10 yrs old, asking dad if she loved me. His response seemed honest when he said of course she does, followed by a few details about her crappy past. Now that I’m older, it's much easier to understand what she has gone through growing up, and perhaps what she’s going through now. But shouldn't I of "sensed" her love while growing up? Even a little? Thinking about this mess brings me down in the dumps and angry.


I didn't want to think about it anymore. I had about two hours to chill before I picked Sunny up from school. While spinning around in the chair like a little kid, in the far distance, I heard the siren of an ambulance, which put the image of Beau in my mind. Because nowadays, sirens makes me think of police cars, then, of police officers, thus giving me the image of Beau.

Next thing I know, I was upstairs in my room, grabbed his number from in my nightstand drawer and stared at it. I grabbed my cell from out my bag that was laying on my bed and dialed his number. I was a little nervous. He'd probably forgotten who I was. The phone rang for a good while until his voicemail picked up...

" Uhm.." I managed to say after the beep. I quickly ended the call and plopped myself on the bed staring up at the ceiling. It's been about 6 months anyway. I should have asked Boris if Beau had a girlfriend. I'm sure he would have given me that bit of information when I asked for his number.....

My phone vibrated in my hand causing me to flinch from the phone’s sudden movement. I looked down at the number seeing it was Beau..

Oh My Goodness, should I answer...?

"Hello" I croaked. I smacked my forehead with my other hand. Damn, I’ll bet he thinks he's called a frog or something.

"Yes, Hello, Someone just called my cell but didn't really leave a message. I'm wondering who you were trying to reach?" Came the the smooth, deep, rich voice.

I pictured his sea blue eyes and smiled. "Hi, I was calling.. Beau?" Hoping it was sounded like him. At least my voice was some what back to normal.

"This is Beau. May I ask who is calling." Yes!. I mouthed. Okay, I don't want to sound too excited while talking to him. I gotta keep this cool.

"Uhm, this is Stormy. Boris' friend....We had dinner toge-"

"Stormy! Yes, of course! How are you? So good to hear from you." he laughed a little. And it was cute. I could feel his smile through the phone.

"I'm doing fine. How are you? How's work? Arrested anyone lately?" Okay, that was a lame question...

Beau laughed again "Yes, I did have to apprehend a burglar the other night. She was a fighter! She wasn't going down easy! I had to man handle the woman!" We both laughed. Good, so the question wasn't too lame then.

"I am happy to hear you are doing fine, and things are going well here." He continued on "Wow, I am really glad you called. What have you been up to lately?"

"Oh, the usual." I shrugged my shoulders. "Hanging out with my sister, fishing, catching up with my buddies from time to time...and, more fishing" Hmm, what else do I do around this joint? I'm not going to tell him about mom. Not much anyway because I don't know him all that well. I haven't completely come to grips with our relationship. I only know that I feel sad and alone when I think of her.

"I think that's about it..." I said in a higher pitched voice as if everything was cool. "And you?"

"How nice Stormy. Seems like you live a nice quiet life." If he only knew, I thought to myself as I got off the bed and paced around my room. I try not to think about my childhood. It’s amazing how one’s past can affect their future, but it is up to us not to dwell on those horrors. And yes, it is so very hard to do, if unpleasant things were a part of your life, day in and day out. You can’t just whisk those emotions and thoughts away just like that. But I try. It's one of the reasons why I need to be outside. Because my senses takes over, grasping all the beautiful things nature has to offer, like the four seasons, the different kinds of weather, birds singing, and the sweet, colorful vegetation. It relieves me from my mind. “

“The guys and I shoot hoops, or we hang out at each other's house when there’s a game on TV. Maybe go to the movies." There was a quick pause. "I also love to read. I am reading this book called...."

Beau's voice was breaking up from some interference. After saying hello a few times without a response, I knew the connection was lost. I looked at my phone and noticed it was half past three. Oh shoot! Sunny! I threw my phone in my bag, slipped on my flip flops, grabbed my jacket and ran out of the house to go pick her up from school. I hope she won't be too mad at me. I couldn't believe Beau and I was on the phone for two hours! I smiled the entire length of our conversation. He seems to be so down to earth and just plain cool.

When I arrived at the school, there was no place to park. So I slowly drove in front of the school hoping to catch a glimpse of Sunny, that way, I could honk the horn to let her know I was here, and have her jump in the car.

Geez! All the kids literally look alike! That is why I sit on the half brick wall outside the main entrance of the school and have her find me. Knowing me, I'd probably grab any kid with light skin, blondish hair, shove them in the car, get home to finally realize, while eating dinner, the kid sitting across from me is not my sister. Anyway, I parked around the corner, across the street, and made my way to the front of the school. My phone buzzed in my bag, I took it out to see it was Beau.

"Hello Beau" I smiled....again. I don't really smile much unless I am around Sunny or my four friends. It's getting easier to accept the fact that they are a caring bunch. I'm not used to it, except for Molly. She accepted me and loved me for who I was since we were kids.

"I'm sorry about that, Stormy. My phone needed charging, then I went to go help my grandfather with something in his little garden. He spends a lot time in it. It keeps him busy."

"Sounds real nice. You know, being outdoors and all..." I trailed off, taking a deep breath, enjoying the cool fresh air. It stopped raining, for now.

My toes were cold, I didn't care, and people always look down at my exposed feet, then back up at me as if I was strange. But I love my flip flops and don't mind wearing them in all types of weather.

"Beau, may I call you some other time. I'm at my sister's school about to pick her up and take care of a few other things." I found Sunny talking to one of her friends as I got closer to the entrance.

"Sure thing Stormy. Call me anytime. I really enjoyed our talk earlier and look forward to speaking with you again. Bye for now."

"I lov-...uhh ...enjoyed our conversation as well. Byeee!" I hurriedly ended the call. Yikes. Saying I love anything between us right now is out of the question. Way too soon for that...

“Hi Sunny! Sorry I'm late. " She turned and gave me a hug.

"Stormy, this is my friend Eric" she looked up at me still hugging me but swinging one arm back towards her friend. He shyly waved at me. I smiled at him. He looked familiar to me. It was his purple eyes.

"Hi Eric, waiting on a ride?" I looked around and noticed, within the next ten minutes or so, everyone will be gone. I hate for him to be here by himself too much longer.

"Yes. I’m waiting for my mom.” He said, now looking a little sad. “She should have been here by now.”

“I don’t want you to wait alone, so Sunny and I will wait with you until your mother shows up. Okay?” I displayed a friendly smile for the young man. He nodded his head and Sunny went back to talking to him. She sure has a lot to say all the time. I wonder where she gets it from. Surely not from mom or dad! I sat on the half wall, looked down at my cell because I wanted to call Beau again. Instead, I text Molly and Tony, then text Ruby, to let her know she can reach me if she needs to talk or help with the babies while Axel was still away.

Finally, after twenty minutes had gone by, a car pulled up with some woman jumping out of it, running up the walk towards us.

“I’m soo very sorry Eric! There was an emergency at work and with your father being in the next town over, on business…” It was Molly’s mother! She embraced Eric and kissed him on the forehead.

“Hello Mrs. Gregory.” She was still attractive as when Molly and I were kids. “It’s been a while since I’ve last seen you. I couldn’t bring myself to leave Eric by himself and stayed with him until you showed up.” She came over and gave me hug and thanked me as Sunny started talking to Eric once again. Mrs. Gregory and I spoke briefly, exchanged numbers in case we needed a favor with picking up Sunny or Eric. We said good bye and went our separate ways. It was nice to see her again, even though she lives a few houses down the street from us.

With Tony being home for a few weeks during the holidays, I made it a point to visit him every chance I could. His father went to China on business and I couldn’t stand the thought of Tony being home alone. Not saying that he is, but I know what it feels like being lonely. I’ve gotten so used to it, I crave my time alone…now. But I also love spending time with my friends.

One day I went up to Tony’s house, and spent the time joking around, and talking about whatever popped in our mind. When he mentioned the Middle East, I casually mentioned wanting to go to Egypt for the mummy fish I researched online, and to explore a tomb or something. He is such a sweet and funny guy. I’m glad I took the time to visit because quality time spent with a friend, strengthens the relationship even more. Since after high school, I never really got to hang out with Tony much because he quickly left for the military, which was out of town. So, basically, I knew he was a sweetheart from the pleasant tales Molly has told me.

Later on that evening, I tried to get all fancy by cooking a tasty meal for us, but I freakin’ burned it! Being a sous chef is evidently out of the question, therefore I’ll stick to angling. Either I’ll burn down the house or likely to pluck someone’s eye out with a hook. The whole fiasco was very amusing, and I tell ya, I truly believe I am developing a sense of humor! No one laughed much in my house, but there was always merriment at the Gregory's. Then more smiles with Sunny and my friends.

Tony and I settled for t.v. dinners and I was ecstatic my dinner came with a little ol' brownie for dessert! I ate it first, then the rest of my meal. Before I went home, I gave Tony a quick hug and told him to be ready for a phone call.

A couple days later, I called Tony in the morning and told him to get dressed, because I thought it would be nice for him to get out the house, though early, to do some Christmas shopping with me before all the crazy people woke up. After picking Tony up, we first went to a cute little coffee shop that had big comfortable chairs, to enjoy some coffee and muffins.

I wasted no time going through the shops, because I wanted to hurry and get the shopping for everyone over with. Tony has already finished his Christmas shopping. Hopefully next time I will shop for gifts in October or November when there were less people about. Tony was very good company and kept the shopping experience fun by clowning around.

It was nearing lunch, so we quickly went through an arts and crafts supply store to purchase a few things for Sunny.

"Tony, are you tired?" I asked him when we left the shop, now walking towards the parking lot, with a few bags in tow. "I'm going to call Ruby to if she'd like some company. How are you feeling right now?"

"I think that's a great idea. We can grab some food to go on our way there if you'd like"

"Cool" I smiled, then called Ruby. She was happy we called and wanted out of the house, which was perfect, that way we could go somewhere and eat. Ruby said she was hankering for some good B-B-Q.

After picking Ruby up from her house, with her mother watching the children, we went to this hole in the wall restaurant called “Daddy’s Delicious B-B-Q” We ate very well. There was barbecue sauce all over our fingers, face and on the surface of my glass of soda. While eating, Ruby briefly mentioned missing Axel and without thinking, I put my arm around Ruby and squeezed her upper arm. Oh Crap! I accidently smeared barbecue all over her arm! I felt bad and tried to wipe it off, but managed to make things worse.

“Stormy, does one of your traits happen to be “ a walking disaster”? Tony cracked, throwing his head back, followed by a healthy belly laugh. Ruby and I laughed as well. My sides ended up hurting because my tummy was so full.

I was tired and too stuffed to shop anymore today. Ruby needed to relieve her mother of the babies anyway. She only wanted to get out long enough to enjoy a meal and to socialize with adults. She felt better and thanked us for getting her free of everything for a couple hours. After dropping her off I took Tony home and thanked him for hanging out in the shops with me.

The rest of the gifts will be ordered online. No more going out shopping, unless it’s for groceries.

The weekend before Christmas, Sunny and I spent mid-part of the day until a little after dinner with mom at Hope Center, with today’s visit being quite nice. The common room was comfortably warm and the walls were adorned with Christmas decorations. And the radio over in the corner of the room played Christmas songs. Once again, Sunny did most of the talking, causing me to giggle. She managed to grab mom’s attention while she excitedly babbled about what she did all week.

At times I would look at the other women who lived here and wondered what they were going through..and how they came to be mentally unstable. Some of them looked kinda creepy, like the chick with the unibrow and bluish complexion. Woah! Is all I can say about her! Interestingly enough, Hope Center’s atmosphere was not full of the depression these women were feeling. Perhaps it was the variety of activities available for them, to keep their thoughts focused on something else, instead of their troubles. Plus, all the rooms were nice and bright, while the staff were very professional, and pleasant, but firm when someone got out of hand.

After dinner, we heard singing coming from near the entrance of the center. One of the nurses turned the radio off in the corner just as some carolers walked in wearing royal purple choir robes singing Christmas Hymns. Their voices were beautiful. I paid more attention to mom to see how she would react to them. She seemed to like it. She slightly moved her body, from side to side to the singing.

Next thing I know, Sunny jumped up, with an excited grin on her face and ran towards the carolers. My mouth dropped when I saw her hugging one of them! My eyes quickly shot to their face, and lo and behold, it was Boris! I didn’t know he could sing, let alone come here! Why didn’t he tell me? He seemed a little embarrassed. Sunny then faced us and sang the last two carols with them. Towards the end of the last song, they slowly made their way out of clinic, Boris giving me a quick wink, while still singing, probably on their way to some other place. Ten minutes later we headed home after saying good bye to mom.

I checked in on Tony one more time this week since we will all get together on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve at Ruby’s was absolutely joyous! We all pitched in and brought a dish and or dessert to share. We played games, listened to Christmas songs and talked about everything. We tried to keep Ruby’s spirits up while Axel was away. How hard that must be to not have your own husband by your side. After a few hours of fun, the front door swung open with Axel standing there. We all went quiet. I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. Ruby put her hands over her mouth, tears streaming with relief and joy. We all looked from Axel, to Ruby and back to Axel again waiting to see what’ll happen next. At the same time they both ran into each other’s arms. It was a beautiful moment. An hour later we all went home to give them some time to reunite.

Early Christmas morning, dad held mom’s hand as they walked through the yard to get to the front door of the house. Sunny and I followed behind quietly, letting mom get reacquainted to her surroundings. Especially, since she hasn’t lived here for several years.

“Watch your step now…” Dad said as he led her up the stairs to our porch.

A little earlier, when we were on our way to pick mom up from Hope Center, I asked dad how did he feel about her coming home. He didn’t answer right away, and I couldn’t read his expression, for there was none. His face was without emotion. Eventually he told me it will be nice having her home, and that was that. . Dad was never the one to get too deep with his or anyone else’s feelings. When arguing, he’d just talk over you, say what needed to be said, and be done with it!

When Dad opened the front door for us, mom stopped for a second before walking completely through. She looked disgusted. I knew the mild scent of mildew assaulted her nose. Dad seriously needs to stop being so doggone cheap and do what needs to be done around this house. Our home is freaking beautiful. It can be, anyway. It just needs repairing here and there and landscaped. The quality of the furniture is excellent, but perhaps needs to be sanded and lacquered again. Oh, and maybe get the couch and chairs reupholstered. It all can be so frustrating. I would have found my own place last year if it wasn’t for Sunny.

For our Christmas breakfast, dad prepared mouth watering pancakes for us and we actually sat down at the table together as a family! We didn’t talk much. It was a little awkward because when I was a kid, I ate by myself most of the time, with Sunny sitting in the highchair. Dad would be off watching TV, and mom, well, she would either be cleaning the kitchen talking to herself, or off doing something else around the house.

After breakfast we all went into the living room to open gifts. The heat from the fireplace warmed us, as dad handed mom the first gift. It was a nice duvet in her favorite colors of white and light peach. Sunny received paints and toys from Santa, a game from Tony, and clothes from me and dad. I bought mom a pack of white socks, because you can never have too many and a plant for her room back at the center.

“You got mom socks?! What kinda present is that, Stormy?!” blurted Sunny, hands on hips.

I grinned at her. “You almost got a pack yourself.” Sunny’s jaw dropped. “But the store was out of stock of the ones that came in an assortment of colors with pretty little ruffles, so …” I shrugged my shoulders, as Sunny frowned and crossed her arms. She knows darn well she would have loved socks with ruffles. I’m going to get her a pack before school starts again anyway. “Give mom your gift to her.” I told Sunny, averting her attention to something else.

Sunny gave mom a heart shaped picture frame, made of wood, which she painted and decorated with cute little beads and things, and very little help from me. Inside, held a picture of the both of us. As mom stared at the picture, she ran her fingers over the glass, then laid it next to her on the couch, faced down. Sunny did not see exactly how mom set the frame down, because I quickly picked it up, and praised Sunny for her creativity. She would have been a little hurt if she'd seen the frame faced down like that, because she put a lot of effort into making the frame just right for mom.

After we finished going through the rest of the gifts, I told mom and dad I was going to quickly visit Tony to say good bye and wish him a safe flight to France.

Later in the day, Beau called, only to say Merry Christmas, because he was leaving in a few minutes to visit friends and family. We ended up talking on the phone for an hour. I had to tell him to get going when I realized how much time flew by. His friends and family will be expecting him. I think Beau was a smidge disappointed to end the call. But there’s always tomorrow.

I must say, Christmas at the Riddle’s was pleasant.

A few days later, Boris and Mao arrived at my door with Ning. They soon hurried off to the airport and I gave a silent prayer for their safe flight to and from China.

I had to blink my eyes several times during mom’s stay. I’m not so sure if her mental status has improved. One morning I caught mom outside choking herself with this wild look on her face. She didn’t see me, but it was a little eerie. She soon stopped, only to start talking to herself about.... wallpaper? What the hell? She went on and on about how ugly it was, only to talk some other gibberish. I sighed, walked over to her carefully, because I didn’t want to startle her.

“Hey, Mom? Let’s go back in the house..” I reached for her hand. She yanked her hand back out of my reach.

“No, the….too much darkness” she started to wring her hands, looked around the yard then squeaked or something. “So bad, so ugly….I don’t like it. I hate how it smells” I tilted my head trying to understand her gibberish.
She could be referring to our walls, which are very dark, and the house does indeed smell a little funky.

“What is ugly, Mom? What’s dark?” I asked gently. I tried reaching for her hand again….
“Everything!” she bellowed. “Everything!” Her eyes went wide, then she ran to the trash bin, threw the lid off to rummage through the garbage.

I stood there staring at her in shock. Through mid digging around, she looked back at me and said, “I want pizza.” In a child like voice. I think dad must have forgotten to give her her meds.

There also was a day when I walked into the kitchen to grab some juice, just as mom transferred noodles she'd just cooked from the pot onto a plate, only to dump the noodles in the trash. I asked mom why did she dump the food. She ignored me, then took the plate and pot over to to the sink to wash them. It's been years since I’ve witnessed her doing such things. Oh, and dad did not miss giving her, her meds. They’re just not working like they should. He will look into it.

I don't think she'll be coming home anytime soon....

After the stroke of midnight, in the living room, mom, dad, Sunny and I shouted Happy New Year while toasting with champagne and apple cider. Ning was fast asleep upstairs in my room. We had dance music playing and a variety of snacks to munch on. Fifteen minutes later, my cell phone rang, which I kept nearby because I wanted to text or call my friends when my New Years came.

“Hello! Happy New Year!” I said without first looking to see who called me.

Dad gave mom a kiss. Then she downed her glass of apple cider. Mom can not have any alcohol mixed with the medications she takes. The nurse that temporarily discharged mom from the center gave dad enough anti-depressants and medication for anxiety for her week long stay.

“ Happy New Year to you too, Stormy!” came the familiar voice of Beau. “I’m hanging out with my friends, but I had to call you. I hope you are having fun!”

My heart quickened slightly. “Oh, hi Beau! I’m hanging out with my family. Then I’m off to bed soon. Having fun?”

“Yes, I am. Thanks for asking. My partner from work is throwing a New Years Eve party. There’s good music here, and lots of family and friends. “

No guy has ever made my heart beat so fast from the mere sound of their voice. Sure, when I saw Cosmo during the beach party and the few times afterwards around town, he has never made my heart pitter patter, even though he was very attractive he was. But, Beau…there was something about him…..
We talked for another few minutes. Afterwards I kissed my family good night, went to go check on Ning, then slipped under the cool sheets, thinking about how sweet it was for Beau to of me tonight.

The day after tomorrow, mom goes back to Hope Center. She’ll be much safer there, that here, anyway.

The day arrived when it was time for the precious Ning to go home. He was a good baby, as Boris stated, and we’ll miss him. Even mom held him once, for like five minutes. I’m not sure what she was thinking at the time, but it was a quick beautiful moment.

At times I'd have Sunny sitting comfortably on the couch feeding Ning as she told him cute little stories, and about some of the fun video games he’ll be able to play when he gets older. She was very good with him and kept him entertained.

Sanders, though a business man, was more than okay that I took a couple weeks off of personal time. In the winter months, fish was scarce, therefore, difficult to catch in abundance. I always make it up in the spring and summer months.

In March, Ning celebrated his first birthday with his family. I heard he acquired lots of neat gifts. And Molly enjoyed her birthday with her friends in France.

In the following month, we all received an email from Molly, asking if it were okay to have our yearly meet up in France. After thinking it over, I replied to everyone the next evening saying anytime after Sunny's birthday would be awesome. Next, I called Ruby to wish her babies a happy first birthday on my way to visit Sanders at the market.

"Good afternoon, Sanders" He'd just finished weighing five pounds of red herring for a customer, and now ringing up the total.

"Ahh, Hello Dear. How are you?" His smile was always pleasant, but his demeanor was mostly business.

"Not bad. Not bad at all." I said, as I watched the customer walk away with his purchase. "I stopped by to tell you I am going to France in June,” Turning my attention back to Sanders, “and if you'd like for me to catch any more of those crazy frogs and snails for ya?"

Sanders eyes went wide as he came towards me from behind the glass counter, where the fresh seafood was kept. He grabbed my shoulders, got real close to my face only to breathe a stinky “Yes”.

I looked at him like "what the hell" as a wave of nausea came and went. When he released me, he told me to step inside his office to discuss exactly what he wanted me to catch, including the quantity, quality, and payment for this task. I hope I can deliver what he wants!

Tony's birthday came and went this May. I sent him an e-card wishing him a happy birthday and that I can't wait to see him and everyone else next month in France. Time to inspect my tent and fishing equipment!

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