morganashbury.com

Pen Pals

An original short story copyright 2011 Morgan Ashbury

IT HAD BEEN one a bitch of a week.

Eyes closed and head back, Amy listened to the tick-tick-tick from the engine of her now silent car. It was a short distance from where she sat to inside her house, but she needed this moment of absolute stillness. Too many more weeks like this one and I’ll be ready for retirement.

She was barley into middle age, but today she felt old.

“Hormones.”

The sound of her own voice roused her. Exhaling deeply, she pulled the keys from the ignition, grabbed her satchel, and got out of the car. Critical eyes scanned her house and yard. Both needed work before winter arrived. The forest green trim accenting her white house was now a fading mint. The grass needed mowing and fallen leaves had become embedded in the long green strands. Painting the house would likely have to wait another couple of weeks. It wasn’t a job she felt comfortable tackling on her own, in any event. She’d scan the classifieds in the paper and see if there were any promising ads. But the grass she could manage herself tomorrow, if the threatening rain held off.

As she strolled toward the porch, her thoughts settled on her state of mind. She hated like hell to blame the way she felt—tired, listless, and edgy—on the tired cliché of hormones. But the truth was clichés had basis in fact. Like it or not, at forty-eight her life as a woman was changing.

Everything had changed in the last year.

Ted left in January, before the needles were off the Christmas tree. After more than a quarter century of marriage, he’d declared their life together boring, moved out and filed for divorce. Shock and anger, though they had eased, never gave way to a broken heart. She let him have his way, and resisted the urge to make him pay through the nose, settling instead for keeping the house in lieu of alimony. Once everything was finalized, Amy realized that it was her pride, and not her heart, that had been wounded the most. Somewhere along the way, love had faded worse than the trim on the house. Ted was remarried to a woman less than half his age. By all accounts the two lovebirds were blissfully happy.

And Amy was—well, if not happy, at least content. Certainly, now that it was just her and Shamus, the family cat, life was a lot less stressful.

Life at home is less stressful, she mentally amended. Work, on the other hand, was promising to become a real ulcer-maker.

Amy stopped by the mailbox and crossed the fingers of her left hand even as she reached inside it with her right and pulled out the envelops waiting there. If ever there had been a day when she really needed… she quickly flipped through the mail: one sealed advertisement from Peaceful Meadows Cemetery (Amy snorted. She wasn’t dead yet, thank you very much), an update from her Member of Parliament, the gas bill, and yes, thank you God, a plain white envelope post marked Billings, Montana.

The one thing on earth guaranteed to lift her spirits was a letter from her pen pal. Clutching the correspondence like the lifeline it was, she unlocked the door and entered the house.

It was more than two hours later before she was able to sit in her favourite chair and take up her letter. Shower, coffee, and then of course the cat needed to be fed, poor neglected, little kitty that he was. The normal end-of-day rituals took no more than an hour, tops. But the phone calls from her children – her son, followed by her eldest daughter had eaten up another hour. She had no idea if daughter number two had called or not, because she’d unplugged the phone. It had taken nearly all her remaining energy to convince her grown children – Lord, she hoped they were convinced – that she really, really did not want to meet either of the latest candidates who were, each believed, simply perfect for her.

She’d nearly lost patience with Dina. Just thinking about their conversation was getting her riled all over again.

“But mom, you haven’t dated once since the divorce!”

“Noticed that, did you?”

“Yes, and I feel just awful about it! You’re still a reasonably young, reasonably attractive woman!”

At that point Amy became more than reasonably irked.

“I just hate to think that while the rest of us are living our lives, there you are stuck at home, day after day, all alone!

Like the cat, Amy mouthed. It was time to seize control of the conversation.

“Honey, if we take a moment to review this conversation so far, we will see that you feel awful, you hate to think of me being alone. You’ve not once asked how I feel. Trust me, if I wanted to date, I would.” Lord forgive the lies I tell to my children in a good cause. “Honey, I don’t need, nor do I want my kids to hunt up dates for me. As for you and your feelings, you can stop feeling guilty because you like and are getting along with Denise. I want you to remain close with your dad. I want you to get along with his wife. And I want you to leave my sex life to me.”

“Sex! I never said anything about your having sex!

“Sweetheart, the last time I played the dating game, sex was saved for the wedding night. At my age, trust me, if there’s a date, there’s gonna be sex.”

Even now Amy chuckled as she imagined the expression on her daughter’s face. That ‘sex’ line had been a nice touch, flustering Dina just long enough for Amy to end the conversation.

Finally, snuggled in her chair, cup of coffee by her elbow and the phone silenced, Amy picked up her letter. First, she simply held it, letting anticipation lighten her mood. No one knew she had a pen pal. This secret was hers, and hers alone. He was hers. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Her fingers strayed to the postmark. He was at the ranch, where she knew he was happiest. He also owned a ‘cabin’ near Aspen, and a very large home in Beverly Hills.

When she thought back to the beginning, to the first letter she had written him, she shook her head in wonder. It was the first time in her life she had ever done anything daring, or unusual. The first time she had ever undertaken to communicate with someone she’d never met, let alone with a celebrity.

Funny, but at the time, she hadn’t been thinking of him that way – as a celebrity - even though she’d seen every movie Richard Crandall had ever made. She’d always thought of him as a talented actor and filmmaker, when she’d thought of him at all. She would admit under duress that she had occasionally wondered if his eyes were really as blue as the camera portrayed. Turn the thumbscrews tighter and she might acknowledge a slight fondness for his mischief-incarnate smile.

But she had never considered writing him a ‘fan letter’.

Then one evening, while watching the nightly news, she saw a clip of his testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on the plight of the homeless. This was one of her own hot-button issues. His words had been so eloquent and heart-felt, his anger with the pig-headedness of elected officials so fiery, that she’d been compelled to write him.

She couldn’t now, over a year and a half later, remember exactly what she had written. She recalled sharing some of her own experiences as a volunteer at a local shelter and as a member of a political action committee. What she did remember was writing it the same way she would any letter, including her address with her name at the bottom.

Of course she hadn’t expected a reply. When one came, she thought it must be a standard ‘thanks for writing’ form letter, signed by a secretary. Instead it had been three pages, personally hand written, and contained a different return address and the invitation to write back.

So she had. They had been exchanging letters ever since. Turning the envelope over in her hand, she considered how just taking this out of the mailbox calmed her, put everything else into perspective. In an age where all gratification seemed instant and all information and communication immediate, it was comforting to have this old-fashioned, almost intimate ritual. They had discussed, near the beginning, changing from snail to e-mail. But they had been of one accord in this. The exercise of committing thoughts on paper, and the anticipation of a response yet to come held an appeal that answered a need for both of them.

Using her letter opener to carefully slit the envelope, she pulled out the neatly folded pages within and began to read:

Dear Amy,

I was never so glad to get a letter from you, as I was this week. I probably have never mentioned this, but there are many times when I feel your letters are the only sane things in my otherwise insane life. I’ve begun to think of them as a life-line.”

“Know the feeling well,” Amy murmured.

“If you get the chance to watch any entertainment news in the next week or so, you may be fascinated to learn that Lauren Markie and I are no longer a ‘couple’. Finally. I am not sure what the details of how we ended our ‘relationship’ will turn out to be, and quite frankly I don’t give a rip. My lawyer told her lawyer that the details of this last fabrication were up to them, within reason. Ah, but I can hear the critics now. I’m just a real heart-breaker, aren’t I?”

Amy was laughing so hard she had to take a minute before reading on. Richard had been fit to be tied when stories surfaced after he’d posed for some publicity shots with his young co-star in Freefall. The bimbo had even appeared as a guest on one of the most popular entertainment news shows and gave a credible performance as a woman involved in a torrid, if secret, affair.

“Plans for the conference are progressing well.”

Amy nodded her head in unconscious encouragement, as she would if Richard were sitting across from her with his own cup of coffee, telling her about his plans for this event.

“We’re calling the event ‘Living Space’, and I’m feeling pretty up beat about our progress all in all. The only thing that’s sort of bothering me is that some of the people I’ve invited to participate in order to give the event higher prominence and media appeal are people with whom I wouldn’t, otherwise, associate. They’re agreeing to become involved for the publicity, pure and simple. They know squat about the plight of the homeless, and wouldn’t stop to help a street person if their lives depended on it.

“The world in which I live is screwed up, big time.”

Amy read on as he told her about the movie, based on a best-selling novel, he was hoping to produce and direct. There were the usual entanglements between the lawyers for the party of the first part – Richard – and the party of the second part – the author. He was hoping, he said, to give acting a rest for a time. Despite his decades of success with his craft, he was beginning to see it more as a means to an end.

“In this, I suppose, I’m not much better than the people I’ve criticized in this letter. I need to accept roles and stay prominent in order to be able to do the things that are closest to my heart.

“On a family note, Jenna and Trace are expecting their first baby in April. This will be my third grandchild, and as you know I just turned fifty. Yeah, yeah, you became a granny at the much more tender age of thirty-nine, so what am I complaining about? Actually, I’m not. In my seasoned experience, as a father and as a grandfather, I can attest that the latter role is much more fun than the former.”

“Amen to that, friend,” Amy agreed softly. The rest of the letter was about other family incidents and comical moments. He wrote of running into his ex-wife, Victoria, and her husband and feeling nothing but pleasure that they were so obviously happy. He asked after Amy’s kids, and for news, and signed it, as always, ‘write soon’, and his first name. Amy set the letter aside. She would grab something to eat, watch a bit of the news. Then she would read the letter again, maybe even reply tonight. There was something she wanted to say to him, and she wanted to get it right.

Richard Crandall stood with his arms folded and braced along the top rail of the corral. He’d worked hard today, needing the long hours in the saddle and the tough physical work out in the high country to diffuse some of his frustration.

The damnable thing was, he couldn’t put his finger on why, exactly, he felt so frustrated. He’d managed to get that piranha, Lauren, to give an interview clarifying that all they had ever been to each other was co-stars. The supposed romance, she had gone on to explain, had been her agent’s idea, as a way to boost interest in the movie. Richard shook his head just thinking about it. Now the entire world knew she was a twit, because Freefall had been a damn good movie and didn’t need that kind of gimmickry.

His kids were well, happy, and a few blessed states away. The plans for the conference he was hosting in New York next June were coming together well. He’d secured the rights to Bartolomeo’s Journey and production would begin as soon as he finished the screenplay – and the writing of that was going very well.

His daughter had suggested during their phone conversation the other night that he was becoming a recluse. When he’d asked her why she thought that, she replied that he hadn’t been on a date, or even been seen out and about, for months. Although on the surface her comments were accurate, he was quick to point out that he’d not been out because he’d been busy, he was not a hermit, he was perfectly happy and his life was just wonderful.

And it was except for the frustrating presence of this…frustration. He felt restless and edgy and had no idea why. He refused to believe he was having a mid-life crisis. That was just so clichéd. Perhaps, like Amy, he was simply experiencing some sort of change of life.

Thoughts of Amy had him straightening away from the corral fence and heading for the house. He smiled when he found the letter waiting for him in his study. He briefly considered saving it to read until after he had showered and eaten. Then he simply ripped open the envelope.

He needed this more than he needed anything else.

“Dear Richard,

  Brace yourself; I’m getting out my soap box.

 Do you remember when we were younger, leaving the teen years behind, entering adulthood? I don’t know for certain if things were the same where you lived, but back then and around here, kids would think nothing of having a few beers then climbing behind the wheel of a car. Hell, it wasn’t even just kids doing it. Middle-aged people did it too. It was no big deal, and nobody’s business. Most people really didn’t think about the consequences of drinking and driving much. Of course, people were from time to time charged with impaired driving. But the sentences handed down by the courts in those days weren’t very tough. The attitude of the judiciary truly reflected the attitude of the society it served.

And then a mother lost her child, and in her grief a cause, and a passion, were born.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving was the rallying force that began to change not only the laws and the penalties, but also the attitude of an entire society. It is no longer considered socially acceptable to drink and drive. Anyone who does, not only risks severe punitive measures, but becoming a social outcast.

In other words, there was an injustice thriving within our midst. One person’s passion fired publicity and public education. These elements worked together to awaken the social conscience. Change happened.

There are more injustices in this world than any of us like to admit. We need people of passion and commitment to right them. We cannot expect others to always match or even understand our passions. Not everyone is given to the same cause.

I believe that it takes but one righteous person to begin a journey, the end of which is the change of society’s attitudes, and ultimately, the righting of a terrible wrong.

Please welcome every jerk with a name who wants to jump on board for your conference. The best-case scenario is that they might not be complete jerks, might catch the fire, and do amazing things. Worst case? They increase publicity and awareness and perhaps inspire others who will care and work hard to see justice begin to get done.”

Richard stopped reading for a moment. He needed a bit of time for the lump in his throat to go down. He would never know why, over a year and a half before, it had been Amy’s letter he had picked out of the reams of mail that had come in that day. But he thanked God, with each new missive received, that he had.

They’d never met face to face, and he didn’t even know what she looked like, physically. But he did know this: she was the most beautiful woman he had ever encountered.

She never failed to impress him with her depth of understanding, especially with regard to things that mattered to him. She was unfailingly supportive, always there with the words he needed to hear when he needed to hear them. A smile crossed his face as he admitted that once or twice the words she’d given him were not the ones he’d wanted to hear. But upon reflection he’d known they were the right words.  He didn’t realize, until they developed this friendship, how much he craved having someone who understood and accepted him for what was in the heart of him, without his celebrity being a factor.

He turned his attention back to the letter.

“Congrats on shaking the floozy. Gave her an ultimatum, did you? Hmmm, think that will work with my kids? I don’t know how many ways I can tell them I do not want them to fix me up on blind dates. If I believed for one minute that concern for my happiness was their prime motivation, I’d be touched. But I suspect that what lies behind this newest campaign is guilt. They all feel guilty because they like their father’s new wife. I have told them they don’t need to feel guilty. Their liking Denise is not disloyalty to me. If I have enough love in my heart for them and their spouses and their children, do they not think I can believe they have enough love in their hearts for their stepmother, and me too? And before you play devil’s advocate with me and insist that they do care for my happiness first and foremost, please be advised that all of my children agree most adamantly that my dating should be without prospect of sex or marriage.”

Richard’s laughter almost made him drop the letter. He tried to think of his own kids even attempting to give him orders like that.

He’d kill them.

His laughter faded and he looked down at the letter, unaware that a frown marred his brow. The idea of Amy dating – or bedding – anyone twisted something inside him. He set that reaction aside for later thought and continued reading.

“Dina told me that I was reasonably young and reasonably attractive. I was tempted, but didn’t ask her if she’d ever heard the expression ‘damned by faint praise’. Upon reflection, however, I have to admit the truth is she was being more than reasonably charitable. I’m forty-eight, overweight, myopic, and my hair colour (the part that isn’t grey) comes out of a bottle. Yes, I know that I am basically a good and worthwhile person. But I also know that it’s highly unlikely at this point in my life that any man will look beyond the surface to what lies within.”

Richard paused for another moment, his heart beating hard. He was amazed to realize that he was angry. If Amy were there with him right now he’d be tempted to give her a good shake.

Then it hit him. Since his divorce six years before, he had dated several women. They had all been younger than he, and physically beautiful. None of those liaisons had evolved into a deep and lasting relationship. And if he were to be completely honest, the only reason he had dated those women was because they were young and beautiful.

He knew that Amy’s ex-husband, fool that he was for divorcing her, had married a much younger, beautiful woman. Amy had never said, but he suspected the two had been carrying on an affair before he got up the nerve to leave her.

Amy was right. There were more injustices in the world than he cared to think about. And more people who claimed to be fair minded but failed to demonstrate that with their actions.

“Your words in your last letter – about my letters to you being a life-line – is the exact same thought I had before opening it. For two people who have led vastly different lives, we often eerily share the same thoughts.

“It’s late, and I’m tired. There’s been a flu bug making the rounds at work lately and I am hoping I won’t get it. To ward it off I’m popping vitamin C and drinking orange juice. Write soon, friend. Your letters mean a lot to me.

Amy.

Richard sat back in his chair, set the letter gently on his desk. The daylight had begun to fade, but he made no move to turn on a light. He could smell dinner, knew his housekeeper would hold it until he went into the kitchen, but although he was hungry he made no move to be fed.

Instead with Amy’s words still fresh in his thoughts, he let his mind wander. He thought about life, the vagaries of fate, and the frustration that seemed unwilling to leave him alone.

The taxi came to a stop in front of the white house with mint trim. Tipping the driver, Richard hooked his bag over his shoulder and stood looking at the house for a long moment. It was pretty much as he’d imagined it. He wasn’t surprised. Amy had a way of describing things that made visualization a snap.

It had been just a week since he’d received her last letter. After sitting in the dark for a long time an inner light had come on, and everything slipped into place.

He was in love with her. It didn’t matter that he’d never laid eyes on her. He knew her more surely than he knew anyone, including his ex-wife.

He hadn’t called, nor told her he was coming. He remembered the time he asked her to send him a picture of herself. She’d put him off rather skilfully. He understood her self-confidence as a woman was lacking. She’d revealed that in a number of small, but telling ways. There was only one thing for him to do: surprise her and surround her with so much love she couldn’t possibly deny the truth.

He smiled as he headed for the porch. Her car was in the drive, so she was home. She was about to receive the surprise of her life.

He pushed the bell and waited. And waited. Frowning, he pushed the doorbell for the second time. He could hear it echoing inside so he knew it was working. He left his bag on the porch and trotted around the house. The backyard was empty. Retracing his steps, Richard mentally paged through a year and a half worth of letters, grateful for his photographic memory. When he regained the porch he moved quickly to the middle flowerpot on the rail. Lifting it, he scooped up the key hidden there, and unlocked the front door.

The house was tidy, filled with sunlight, and quiet as a library. Unabashedly, he went exploring. Upstairs, through the first door on the right, he found her.

A pitcher of water on the bedside table was nearly empty of ice. It had been there for a while. A bottle of aspirin was within easy reach, as was a washcloth that on touch was only slightly damp. He gently pulled the sheet back from the lump on the bed. Sitting beside her he brushed the hair off her face. She was feverish and deeply asleep. Even sick, she was more attractive than she’d led him to believe.

Stoking her hair gently he smiled when she began to mumble and stir. Then her eyes blinked uncertainly.

“Hi there, sleepyhead. Have the flu?”

“No thanks,” her words were slightly slurred, “got it.”

When he chuckled she blinked and narrowed her eyes, focusing on him. “Hallucinations. Doc never said hallucinations. Fever, check. Achy- weepy, check. Having hallucinations since last night and they’re getting more real.”

“Mmmm. They’re contagious, too. I’m in the middle of one where I fly my plane into Hamilton, take a cab all the way here, walk in on a woman who is insightful enough to be in bed waiting for me, and she’s sick.”

A timid female hand reached out and touched a denim-covered male knee. “I’m…not hallucinating you this time, am I?”

“No,” his smile was wide as he continued stroking her hair, “but I’m happy as hell you did. Can I get you anything, Amy?”

Fully awake now, Amy groaned, and yanked the sheet back over her head. “A gun to shoot myself would be nice. This is not how I imagined meeting you.”

Laughing softly, he uncovered her again and placed a kiss on her forehead. “Sweetheart, we met ages ago through pen and paper. This is just a formality.”

When she closed her eyes, he rested a palm on her face. His voice was soft when he asked, “Should I call your doctor?”

“No, thanks.” She opened her eyes and focused on him. “This will pass. Soon, I hope. But you shouldn’t be here. You’ll catch it. Trust me. It’s not fun.”

“I’ll take my chances. Why isn’t one of your kids here taking care of you?”

“I’m a mom. Moms don’t get taken care of, they do the caretaking. Besides, I can’t blame them. They don’t want their own families sick, too.” She yawned hugely and let her eyes drift shut. “Sorry…just give me a minute…”

Richard watched her sleep for a long time. This was different than he imagined their meeting would be, too. The one thing that didn’t surprise him was that even under the circumstances there was a level of comfort between them.

He left her only long enough to fetch his bag from the entrance hall. He was smiling hugely as he brought it into the bedroom and began to unpack it. If asked, he would swear that he had moved into her room right in front of her and she’d not protested at all. He stored his empty bag in the bedroom closet then picked up the pitcher of water. He took it to the kitchen, emptied then refilled it with fresh water. He snooped around, locating coffee, coffeemaker and filters. While that beverage was brewing, he poured a glass of apple juice from the bottle in the fridge, located a straw.

Amy barely roused when he gave her the juice, but she drank it all. He let her rest while he went back to the kitchen, and poured some coffee for himself. Sipping it, he perused the cupboards, fridge, and freezer. She had plenty of food on hand for the next few days, which was good. He had no intention of leaving her, not even long enough to fetch groceries.

In her en suite bathroom he located a thermometer, and chuckled when she grumbled around it. He frowned as he read it. Her temperature was higher than he would have liked. He coaxed her into drinking more water and fed her a couple of aspirin. Then he went exploring for what else he would need.

Amy felt coolness on her forehead and sighed. The indulgent laugh she heard in response opened her eyes.

“You’re still here.”

“Yep.”

“Taking care of me.”

“Yep.”

“You talk too much.”

“Yep.” He pulled the blankets down to her waist. “I’ll let my actions speak for me.”

It took her a few moments to realize that he was unbuttoning her nightgown. She opened her mouth to protest.

“Hush, honey.”

He used the washcloth to cool her from neck to waist. As he cooled her breasts she blushed. He looked into her eyes, whispered one word, “Sweet”. For a long moment their gazes locked. Here was eloquence, she thought. The tenderness of his gaze, in eyes bluer than should be lawful, brought tears to her own.

He noted Amy’s tears, but more, he understood them. Bending down, he placed a gentle kiss on her lips. Then he went back to the business of bringing her fever down. His eyes never left her face as he pulled the blankets off her completely and finished opening her nightgown. He applied the cool, damp cloth everywhere, rinsing it in the basin when it heated from her body. He helped her turn over, tossing her nightgown on the floor before cooling her back. After nearly half an hour, when she was once more facing him, he pulled up only the sheet to cover her. He gave her some more water to drink, and then carried the basin to the bathroom.

When he came back into the bedroom, he turned off the overhead light and moved to the other side of the bed. As she watched, eyes wide, he stripped to the skin and crawled into bed with her. When he pulled her into his arms she stiffened in shock for one moment before melting against him. His tender stroking of her back wrung a quiet sob from her. He kissed her hair and held her more securely. He absorbed the trembling of her body and knew that it was not all caused by illness.

“I’ve got you, Amy. Go to sleep, love. I’ve got you.”

As Amy awakened her first thought was that she had never before had such a vivid, nor such a wonderfully comforting yet arousing dream. Then she stretched and felt strong male arms pulling her closer. A heavy hair-dusted leg pinned her thighs to the bed. Her bare breasts were snuggled against a naked male chest.

“Good morning.”

Amy opened her eyes. He was there, all right. No dream or hallucination. The smile he wore was the one she loved and she wondered what mischief he was up to, as he certainly was up.

“Good morning,” she whispered.

Embarrassment and panic never had a chance. What would she have done, she wondered, if he had come to her when she was well? She very much suspected she would have shrieked, slammed the door in his face, and run in the opposite direction. Not because she didn’t want him, but because she’d been convinced that if he saw her, he’d reject her.

None of that had happened, because he had come to her when she had been at her most vulnerable and her most unappealing. He had stayed and cared for her, not only in her illness but also in her vulnerability. He held her through the night as she slept, giving her a simple acceptance she had never truly known. She reached up and caressed his face tenderly, enjoying the feel of his morning beard scratching against her sensitive palm.

“I’ll shave.”

“Not yet.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Better. The fever’s gone.”

“Good.”

“But I feel weak. Washed out.”

“We can work around weak.”

For a long moment he simply looked into her eyes, ensuring she understood that he was very serious. When he knew she read his mood, his words softly caressed her. “Getting to know your mind and your heart, your morals and your wit over the last year and a half, through your letters, has made me give you my heart, Amy. Lying in bed naked with you all night proves you’ve got my body too.” He smiled his wicked smile and drew her closer. “And then some.”

Amy was speechless at first. The heart being offered to her was so much more than she’d ever hoped to have.

Richard was ready to convince her. But then her smile blossomed, more beautiful to him than the most perfect flower.

“I’ve done all that, have I?”

“No one else. What I’d like to know is what you’re going to do about it?”

“Not much I can do. I’m weak, remember?”

He smiled in spite of feeling like he was about to go off like a randy teenager with his first girl. It wasn’t just in appreciation of her quick wit. It was what he read in her eyes: acceptance of the words he’d given her, and her love for him.

“I remember. But you don’t have to do anything, Amy. Except say yes.”

“I don’t know when I realized that I’d fallen in love with you, Richard. It wasn’t something I let myself think about. I believed you were way out of my reach.”

“Honey, move your other hand a couple of inches and you’ll find out I’m very much within your reach.”

She did.

Richard hissed as he became harder under her gentle stroking. The need to take her surged through him.

For the first time in years, Amy felt the thrill of wielding her feminine powers. She lifted up just enough to brush her mouth against his.

“Yes.”

Richard’s lips devoured hers as he laid her flat, moved over and then into her. The mating of their tongues was an echo of their bodies’ mating. Neither of them gave consideration to the fact that this was, in reality, their first kiss.

They were one, and it was right.

Amy felt a rush of strength and wrapped herself completely around him. He cupped her bottom, thrust hard, and they climaxed together.

The storm had come fast, hard and had left them breathless.

“No one has ever done that to me, sweetheart,” Richard whispered as he placed a kiss on her forehead. He turned them so that they were on their sides, facing each other, but still joined.

“Me, neither. Is there still a world or did we just demolish it?”

“The only things that got demolished was our baggage and our walls. The former is only right and the latter – well, we don’t need them. You all right?”

“Mmmm,” she sighed as he caressed her face and kissed her once more, lightly. “I’m better than all right. But now I really am weak. And sleepy.”

“Then sleep, darling.”

Richard dozed lightly. When the phone rang, he grabbed it up quickly.

“Hello?”

“Who the hell are you?”

“Richard. Is this Dina, or Maggie?”

“Dina. Where’s my mother?”

“Right here. She’s sleeping.”

“What are you doing there?”

“At the moment? Holding your mother and talking to you.”

“Don’t move! No, no, I mean, move! Get away from her! I’m coming right over!”

The slam of the receiver and the sudden, strident sound of the dial tone had Richard chuckling. He hung up the phone quietly, then leaned over and gave Amy a light kiss. He smiled when she murmured in response.

He knew from past letters that Dina lived only ten minutes away. Judging by her reaction, he expected to see her in five. Stealthily, he slid out from under the blankets and eased out of bed. Amy’s fever was down, and he knew she was beginning to feel better, but she still needed her sleep.

Her eyelids fluttered just as he pulled his sweater over his head.

“Going?”

“Just to make coffee and bait your eldest daughter.”

“Coffee. Yum.”

Richard laughed. “I’ll bring you some.” His kiss was brief but passionate. Then he left the bedroom.

The coffee had nearly finished brewing when the back door burst open.

His first thought was that she looked very much like her mother, but there was an edginess to her that was almost visible.

“You’re just in time, Dina. Close the door, would you, please? Amy’s feeling a bit better but I don’t want her catching any draft.

Dina’s eyes widened as she looked at him leaning casually against the kitchen counter.  He saw the recognition take hold.

“You…you…”

“Yeah. Me Richard, you Dina. Hi.”

“But…but…you can’t be Richard Crandall!”

“I can’t? Why not?”

“Because you’re standing in my mother’s kitchen!”

Richard controlled the urge to laugh. Instead, he shrugged. Turning he brought down three coffee cups from the cupboard overhead. When he faced her again, he noted Dina’s narrow-eyed assessment. She was wondering, he knew, about his familiarity with his surroundings.

He poured the coffee while mentally flipping through his knowledge of Amy’s family. He supposed he ought to give thanks more often for his perfect recall.

“Do you still take your coffee with cream only?”

“I…I…”

“She does.”

Amy, wearing a terry robe and fuzzy slippers, her hair only hand brushed off her face, shuffled into the room. Awakening to the aroma of coffee, her mind had played back Richard’s statement of intent.

She wasn’t sure if she was there to witness, to support, to protect - and if so, whom - or just to watch the show.

“Sweetheart, you shouldn’t be out of bed.”

Richard’s softly spoken words decided everything. She kept walking until she had stepped into his arms, her face snuggled against his chest.

“Needed coffee. And you.”

To have her here in his arms was the answer to every prayer. The top of her tousled head tucked neatly beneath his chin.

“I won’t put you on the spot and ask you which of the two needs is the most pressing. You’re still not well,” he moved his hands up and down her back.

“Just what,” Dina demanded, arms akimbo, “is going on here?”

Richard only tilted his head slightly to consider the young woman, and her question.

“Well, now, I’ve poured three cups of coffee, so I guess we’re about to sit down, enjoy the joe, and get to know each other. You should keep your distance from your mother, by the way, because she still has the flu, and you don’t want your own family to get sick. Otherwise, I know you would have been over here caring for her yourself. There was something else I needed to tell you…ah, yes. I wanted to re-assure you that preferences of you and your siblings have been relayed to me, and I completely understand.” When Dina looked confused, he continued on, his tone sincere. “Your mother has informed me that you’ve told her that she may date, but there is to be no sex or marriage if she does. Let me be the first to reassure you we have never been on a date. We just cut straight to the sex, and are headed directly to marriage. I believe that covers all the pertinent points. Any questions?”

“I don’t feel well.” Dina did look a little green.

Richard relented, but only because Amy was shaking with silent laughter and Dina looked so very confused.

“Sit down, Little Bit. You’ll feel better soon.”

“No one’s called me ‘Little Bit’ since I was ten,” Dina said as she slid into a chair.

Richard led Amy to the table and held her chair for her. He brought over cups, cream and sugar before taking the seat next to his woman. Because she looked as if she was having trouble maintaining an upright position, he pulled her chair closer to his. After attending to both cups of coffee, he slipped his arm around her.

Amy leaned against him gratefully, accepting not only the physical support, but the emotional support as well. The little speech he’d just made declared him her champion. She had never, in all her life, had a champion. She had absolutely no idea what would happen next, nor did she need to. Man, this is great.

Dina’s eyes kept going from her mother to Richard Crandall, Hollywood Icon. She wanted to refer to him, in her mind, as that man, but just couldn’t. She took a sip from her cup, but was too restless, mentally, to do anything as mundane as drink coffee. Everything was fracturing before her very eyes, everything was…wrong. Finally, unable to contain herself, she focused on her mother.

You said you didn’t want to date! You said you didn’t need or want your kids to introduce you to men! Now I know why. You’ve been…been…canoodling with him!”

“Has your daughter always expressed herself in italics and exclamation marks?” Richard asked Amy casually.

“Pretty much. We never did determine if it was a birth defect, or not. We did consider therapy, but we couldn’t find a licensed specialist in our area who accepted OHIP.”

“Ha ha. Very funny. Well, we’ll just see if you’re still laughing after I call Daddy! Maybe he can get to the bottom of this!”

Richard’s hand, which had been stroking Amy’s shoulder, stilled. His voice was quiet when he responded.

“Good idea. Give him a call. Oh, and invite Denise over, as well. We should get her opinion as to whether or not your mother is entitled to a life of her own.”

Denise? Why should this concern her? She’s just…”

“Your father’s wife. Formerly his lover, and the reason he divorced me. Dina, what is going on with you? Why is the idea that I could be in love with someone, make love with someone and be happy about it such a threat to you? Why is it okay for your father to move on, but not for me?”

“You’re my mother! You’re not supposed to change!”

Tomb-like silence followed Dina’s shouted words. Richard reached across the table and took her hand in his.

“Honey, she’s always going to be your mother, no matter what. Nothing, and no one, not even me, will ever change that. But she hasn’t truthfully been your mommy for a long time.”

Richard looked over and noted Amy’s confused gaze. He could see she was trying to work this through, but knew exhaustion and illness had taken their toll on her mental acuity.

Dina’s shoulders had slumped, and her head was bowed. Her voice was the voice of a hurting child.

“A part of me thought that he’d get tired of her and then you’d be together again.”

“The men you wanted to ‘set me up with’ – they didn’t compare favourably, in your mind, with your father. Did they?”

Dina shook her head ‘no’. When she looked up, tears filled her eyes.

“You were supposed to go out with them and think you’d have had a better time with daddy. Then you were supposed to get back together with him.”

“What were you going to do about Denise? Your father married her. His choice, by the way.”

“I figured if Daddy saw us together a lot, saw how much we have in common – and we do, I really do like her, - well, anyway, if he really looked at us then he’d realize that she was my age, and…”

“Begin to think of her as a daughter, dump her, and come home to your mother. Then Daddy and Mommy could be here for Dina, together forever.”

A moment of silence followed Richard’s assessment.

“That sounds pretty childish, doesn’t it?” Dina whispered at last.

“Maybe ‘childish’ is too harsh a word,” Richard replied softly.

“No, ‘childish’ is pretty good. Along with ‘arrogant’, ‘controlling’, ‘selfish’ and ‘damn near Machiavellian’.” Amy’s voice sounded as tired as she looked.

She leaned against the table and took her daughter’s other hand. “Baby, nothing is ever going to change my love for you. But you have to come to grips with the fact that time doesn’t stand still, no matter how much you wish it was so. Your father divorced me and married his lover. That isn’t going to change. It happened. People make their own choices  in life. When you met, and then began to date Patrick, how would you have felt if I had told you, ‘No, you may not fall in love with this man, nor plan a life with him. You have to stay here and remain my little girl forever.”

“We would have fought, big time,” Dina responded instantly.

“You bet we would have. Because even though I had brought you into the world, and raised you and sacrificed for you and slaved for you…”

Dina began to chuckle.

“Even citing all that, you are an individual, entitled to live your own life and make your own choices, And Dina? So am I.”

The back door opened. With a nod to Richard and Amy, a tall man with the jet-black hair and striking green eyes fixed his attention on Dina, moving to wrap an arm comfortingly across her shoulders. Eyes watery, she leaned her head against him and sighed. He stroked her hair away from her face and then flashed Amy an apologetic smile.

“I’d have been here sooner, but I had to wait for Maggie to come and stay with the kids.” He offered Richard a hand. “Patrick Burton. I’m Dina’s husband.”

“Richard Crandall. Even if I am in Amy’s kitchen.”

“She told you that you couldn’t be you because you were standing in her mom’s kitchen?” Patrick laughed as he took the seat next to his wife, keeping his arm around her. “That is a classic Dina-ism.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say things like that,” Dina said softly. “It makes me feel like a child.”

“I love you, Dina, with all my heart. But where your mom is concerned, you have been acting like a child, lately.”

Dina looked into her husband’s eyes for a long moment then turned to face Amy and Richard.

“Yeah, I guess I have been.”

“You weren’t acting childish, Dina. You were acting scared. My daughter, Jenna, went through the same thing when her mother re-married. Vicky and I had been divorced for four years when she met, and then married, Keith. Jenna’s reaction threw us all for a loop. The truth is, no matter how old or mature we are, it is hard for us to accept change when it comes to our parents, - especially our mothers. That’s just normal human nature.”

“Now you’re trying to make me feel better.”

“Yeah, I am. I love your mother, Dina. I will never do anything to hurt her, nor come between her and her family.”

Dina couldn’t withhold her own smile in response to his. Then she shot her mother an indignant look.

“How come you never told any of us that you even knew Richard Crandall?”

Before Amy could answer, Richard shook his head. His woman had wilted considerably in the last couple of minutes.

“Not now, honey. Why don’t all of you come to dinner the day after tomorrow? We can get to know each other better then. Right now, I need to get Amy back to bed. She really isn’t feeling that well yet.”

Dina opened her mouth to protest but her husband kissed her, effectively silencing her.

“You want me to invite Maggie and Craig and all the munchkins?” he asked.

“Yeah, the whole family. I can whip up dinner for a dozen people. Around three. Okay with you, sweetheart?”

“Sounds perfect,” Amy replied around a yawn.

She could barely remain standing as Richard slipped the robe off her and tucked her back into bed. In moments he’d shed his own clothes and got in next to her. He gathered her into his arms and stroked her back.

“You are going to marry me, aren’t you?”

“Even after all that?”

“That was just love and families, sweetheart. Our kids remain our kids forever in some respects. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Would you, really?”

“No, I wouldn’t. You realize, of course, that was the first time I’ve ever faced a kid-crisis without having to do it alone. I liked having you in my corner. I liked it a lot. I love you. I am going to love being married to you.”

“Good. Now go to sleep before my good intentions are shot all to hell.”

“I’m not as tired as I was just a few moments ago, and I have absolutely no good intentions whatsoever.” Her words were whispered as she placed tiny butterfly kisses on his naked chest and her hands began to wander.

“Thank God,” he declared fervently.

The End

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